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Commentaries and Replies on Rorty

      JOHN BICKLE writes:

      I don't have too much of interest to say about the bulk of your last CQ. One has to decide who one wants to spend their time talking to and about, and I long ago gave up on Rorty, his supporters, and his explicit critics. I also don't think that it pays to do "scientific epistemology" separately from just doing science. Why bother laying out the principles inherent in current scientific reasoning about the mind/brain? Whose work are you contributing to?

      Scientists do just fine doing their "epistemology" by the seat of their pants, as part of their theoretical activity. In fact, I think that the "hard" scientists in psychology--thirty years ago, the animal associative learning theorists--did exactly this with regard to methodological behaviorism, well before "cognitive scientists" were paying attention to Chomsky's criticism of Skinner's Verbal Behavior, or any of the other developments hailed nowadays as parade cases by philosophers of psychology and theoretically interested cognitive psychologists--who, by the way, are not read by the "bench scientists" that still make up the bulk of practicing scientific psychologists. The real "revolutionaries" of the "cognitivist revolution" among work-a-day scientists in academic psychology were people like Leon Kamin, Robert Rescorla, Alan Wagner--people that philosophers and cognitive scientists that do most of the interacting in groups like the SPP don't read. These people, back in the late 1960s, uncovered experimentally the weaknesses of methodological behaviorism right in its explanatory forte: animal associative learning theory. They didn't pay any attention to linguistics and conceptual problem solving. They were too busy doing real science. By the early 1970s, Rescorla and Wagner had worked out precise mathematical models of "cognitive" foundations for associative learning, all the way down to the level of Pavlovian conditioning. It is results like this that caught the attention of work-a-day psychological scientists--not the high-faluting, "philosophical" ventings of linguists and cognition theorists. Thus the understanding of the cognitivist revolution" in psychology among the SPP folk is seriously myopic. It slants the emphasis toward the "philosophical," "theoretical" focus of a few vocal people in what were at the time peripheral disciplines in real scientific psychology.

      I make this point in some detail in my Phil Psych paper from 1995, Psychoneural reduction of the genuinely cognitive," although it is somewhat tangential to the main point of that paper. I go into a bit more detail in Chapter Five of my book, Psychoneural Reduction: The New Wave--which apparently just came out from MIT, because I got my complimentary copies last week. Missing it, which virtually all philosophers and cognitive psychologists do, leads to mistaken views about the importance of "scientific epistemology" projects independent of just doing science, and also mistaken conclusions the possibility of reduction of the genuinely cognitive to neuroscience.


      Reply by WTR:

      Those of you who are not familiar with John's work might assume from the above post that he is an dataphilic experimentalist with no interest in philosophy. In fact, he is one of the most perceptive philosophers I know, whose recent book, "Psychoneural Reduction" is best describable, in my opinion, as scientific epistemology that lays out principles inherent in current scientific reasoning about the mind/brain. Why then does he claim that this is a subject not worth bothering with? I am told that Aquinas had an epiphany when he was very old, which prompted him to conclude that his lifelong goal of justifying faith with reasons was a waste of time. Perhaps John has had a similar epiphany about scientific epistemology, and is now a born-again experimentalist. If so, I intend to try to talk him back into the philosophical fold, because I want to study his book in future CQ posts, and would not expect him to enjoy answering my questions if he sees his epistemology as the impulsive meanderings of a misspent youth.{ comment by Gary Schouberg: The quote I've always heard was that he said his life's work was like straw. However, my understanding was this was a mystical, not an intellectual, epiphany. In that case, it was more like a gynecologist discovering actual sex, which is more enjoyable but does not render gynecology a waste of time. Gary}

      If my fanciful description of John's intellectual progress has any truth to it at all, then despite his criticisms of Rorty, he actually not only agrees with Rorty about what philosophers ought to do in this day and age, but backs up that agreement with actions. Rorty believes that there are two possible alternatives for modern philosophers 1) to abandon philosophy as a separate discipline and become scientists and 2) to abandon science and become a kind of dilettante literary critic. Judging from John's CQ post, and the recent experimental work he is involved with, John seems to have chosen alternative 1). (So, to some degree, have the Churchlands, Pat more obviously so than Paul.) I think that one of the reason that John views Rorty with disdain is that Rorty has chosen alternative 2), which prompts him to use methods and styles that are antithetical to the science that John sees as his primary exemplar of excellence.

      My own view about philosophy's place in the knowledge enterprise is different from either of these alternatives, and is most similar, I think, to Dennett's. I am most interested in philosophy that maintains at least a vague sense of being different from science, but is still involved in the scientific enterprise. I think it is important for scientists to recognize that the scientific specialties, for all of their many virtues, cannot ever be the whole story, and that philosophers are needed to show how the sciences fit together and with the rest of human experience. Someone needs to consider the question of just how scientific we can be about each of the subject matters that concern us, and to walk the line between what is scientific and what isn't as carefully as possible. This may involves questioning science's presuppositions, or speculating about it's future, but it will almost always involve keeping one's eye on the whole, and reinterpreting the context in which specialized knowledge is usually seen. For this reason I am strongly committed to denying John's claim that "Scientists do just fine doing their 'epistemology' by the seat of their pants, as part of their theoretical activity." (This strongly parallels Rorty's claim that "truth is not the sort of thing that one should expect to have an interesting theory about" (1982 p. xiii)). I think that scientists can do epistemology by the seat of their pants most of the time i.e. under those Kuhnian normal conditions where the tools of science are experienced as being ready-to-hand. But whenever there is a pre revolutionary crisis of some sort, something very much like philosophizing needs to be done to figure out some way to get things back to normal again.

      I do agree with you, John, that there is no compelling necessity for scientists to rely on philosophers to do this kind of work. There is, as Sellars says, no difference between the philosopher and the persistently reflective specialist. Anything that philosophers could do for science the scientists could do for themselves, at least in principle. But I think this is merely a reflection of the fact that knowledge does not divide up into separate specialties that correspond to carvable joints in reality, and therefore divisions of labor in science are more a matter of social convenience than anything else. I don't think this is that much truer for philosophers than for any other specialists. For some scientific research, it is helpful to know both physics and chemistry, and the physicist involved in that research can either read up on chemistry, or collaborate with a chemist. A scientist who gets stuck with conceptual problems can either reason them out herself, or she can collaborate with a philosopher.

      The one significant difference for philosophers in this analogy is that other specialties have a domain of facts they can call their own, even if the borders of that domain are blurry. But one of the main things that define the borders of a domain are its conceptual presuppositions, and these are what get questioned during a scientific revolution. The idea that philosophers can actively collaborate with scientists in this process of redefining presuppositions is a relatively new one, so it is not surprising that philosophers haven't done much so far. But it seems a natural job for philosophers to do, and I think some of us have done some good work since it occurred to us to try. ( We also shouldn't forget philosophers who also did important work in science, such as Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, James, Dewey, etc. The idea that philosophy could be separated from other specialties and/or tossed aside is a relatively new one. )

      Your claim that "Scientists do just fine doing their 'epistemology' by the seat of their pants" is both broad and empirical, so it can be weakened, but not destroyed by a single factual error. Consequently, I don't want to make too much of your mistaken claim that animal associative learning theorists overthrew methodological behaviorism "well before 'cognitive scientists' were paying attention to Chomsky's criticism of Skinner's 'Verbal Behavior'". The first animal association article that you cite in your 1995 paper was Leon Kamin's, written in 1968. The Chomsky review of "Verbal Behavior" was written in 1959. Nine years is a long time for an idea to be around in a relatively small community, linked by modern communications and frequent reshuffling of professorships. And the theoretical paper you cite at greatest length (Rescorla 1988) was written well after cognitive psychology had become the dominant paradigm.

      You also mention that the animal associationists do not hold up the big names in cognitive science as heroes (although you admit that they do cite them occasionally). I think this is an important thing for historians of science to know, but I don't think that proves there was no influence, merely that the influence was more subliminal than explicit. The idea that there is something wrong with using words like "intention" and "representation" was a strongly held conviction that permeated psychology throughout the fifties, and it seems likely that if it weren't for the influence of outsiders like Chomsky, the "meme" of representationalism would simply not have been available and/or acceptable in Kamin's and Rescorla's conceptual space. Tolman's Cognitive Behaviorism was considered to be fringey and eccentric during his lifetime, and he left relatively few disciples. (He died, ironically, the year Chomsky's review of 'Verbal Behavior' was published). And George Miller says about American psychology in the 50's "those of us who wanted to be scientific psychologists couldn't really oppose {behaviorism}. You just wouldn't get a job." (Baars 1988 p.202).

      In an atmosphere like that, the work-a-day "bench psychologists" of whom you speak would (and did) spend most of their time trying to squeeze evidence into behaviorist molds (see Baars 1988 pp. 237-253), and Rescorla would have risked his job if he had used the word "representation". But once he saw some of the numerous post-Chomsky psychology papers that used words like "information" and "representation" without fear or apology, he would be much more likely to consider using that concept in his own work . And he wouldn't have needed to know that Chomsky and others were responsible for these new concepts in order to take advantage of them. This kind of ripple effect is the main way that anyone's work contributes to the scientific enterprise, whether it's a single experiment done with a gerbil hippocampus or an analysis of the different kinds of scientific reduction. Footnotes are a way of attempting to tag those ripples, but they can't measure everything.

      As for your claim that the SPP ignores the important work that was done by the animal associationists: My reply to that may sound a bit silly, but I think there is a great deal of truth to it. Your paper on this subject was presented to both the SPP and the Southern SPP, and was very well attended. ( I was there myself). And it would be hard to describe you as a fringe member of SPP, seeing as you are the organization's treasurer. I'm also a member of SPP and thanks to you have actively discussed the philosophical significance of the animal associationists in the above paragraphs. (And I intend to think about them some more. I think their work has even more signicance than you have discovered so far, although I'm not sure what yet.) So your claim that the SPP ignores these issues is a little bit like that of the customer of the Monty Python argument parlor who is arguing over whether or not he is having an argument.

      The serious point here is that you and I have disagreed about the philosophical significance of these facts, and about what sort of maxims these imply for good scientific method. You have cited certain facts from the history of science, I have cited others, and in the process I think some clarity has been achieved that could contribute to a better understanding of the nature of good science. Perhaps you can marshal other facts which show that laboratory scientists don't need people who specialize in theorizing. But the fact that there is genuine controversy between us on this issue shows that the facts do not speak for themselves, and therefore there is a need for separate effort to understand their philosophical significance. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that there should be people who specialize in understanding that significance, just as there are people in physics who never do experiments of their own, and specialize in understanding the significance of other people's experiments.


Baars, B. (1988) the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology Cambridge University Press

Bickle, J. (1995) "Psychoneural Reductions of the Genuinely Cognitive: some accomplished facts" in Philosphical Psychology

Rorty, R. (1982) Consequences of Pragmatism Unniversity of Minnesota Press

** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** *

MARKATE DALY underlined certain passages of my Rorty post and commented on them. Here is what she underlined, her comments, and my replies. Shifts between her statements and mine are marked by (***). My replies to her, written for this post, are in brackets { }.

      MD: Reading this took me back to the early 80's when Rorty and all of his ideas were being given a sound thrashing. The only thing that interested me during all of that was the discomfort of the epistemologists. How I loved to see them squirm. I though Rorty was right in general - that analytic epistemology should be buried. Remember justified true belief and all of the drivel that was written after Gettier to save the theory - causal theories, representational theories, etc. I have considered epistemolgy to be a dead field for the present, because no new theories have been allowed for consideration. Perhaps as a prelude to advancing a new epistemology you really do need to take on that tired old tiger - Rorty. But I think you should acknowldege that Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in our present cog sci culture, an historical work. (***)

      WTR:{The fact that something less than twenty years old can be considered an historical work may be one of the few things that Rock and Roll and Analytic Philosophy have in common. But my critique is mainly aimed at the idea that because there are certain answers to epistemological questions that are bad, we should therefore throw out the questions. Also at the closely related idea that because a subject's questions are badly phrased, we should stop thinking about the subject, I think those are both bad inferences.} (***) (Snip)

      MD: Is there anyone who really believes that they can conduct an information discovery program and not have an epistemology? Do you really need to beat that horse so hard? (***)

      WTR:{If I interpret him correctly, Rorty still believes this, and it appears that John Bickle might, too. More importantly, thanks to Rorty, a lot of people are beginning to think Dewey and James believed this. Susan Haack has done a lot of very good scholarship on the difference between Rorty's pragmatism and Classical American pragmatism. I've also discovered another important difference. The Pragmatists did not believe that metaphysics and epistemology should be abandoned, Only that it should be evaluated by it's pragmatic effects. Some metaphysical claims make no difference pragmatically, others have a tremendous impact. We should ignore the former, and think carefully about the possible pragmatic effects of the latter. I think I can find quotes from all of the big three to back that up}. (***)

      WTR: I will try to not only show contradictions in Rorty's ideas, but also give specific examples from the history of science and my own experience which show how those flaws are creating real problems for specific human activities. (***)

      MD: Do you mean real activities or descriptions of them? (***)

      WTR: {I mean real activities, including the real activity of describing other activities} (***)

      WTR: Analytical Philosophers in the cognitive science community seem to have a sense that . . . the kind of analysis that had been applied to ordinary language could be done every bit as effectively on scientific language. (***)

      MD: This is an accurate picture of what analytic philosophers do. But later on, you have them doing speculative theorizing and then high level scientific theorizing, not just clarifying concepts. If they're doing this, they aren't analytic philosophers anymore. This may be your own aim, but it seem a far cry from analytic philosophy. I think you are collapsing a couple of decades. By the way, this statement might irk some of your more adventurous scientists. (***)

      WTR: {Here's a question that sounds like a joke with no punch line: What do you call an analytic philosopher who doesn't believe in the analytic-synthetic distinction? Once you throw that distinction out, it doesn't seem possible to distinguish conceptual analysis from speculative theorizing. Hopefully my reply to Bickle above makes it clear that I am not marking off speculative turf for philosophers that adventurous scientists are not allowed to enter.}


      MD: What contrasts with neutral observation language is an analysis of concepts to show that they can't be operationalized without remainder and to discuss foundational concepts that can't be operationalized at all. Instead of "philosophical speculations - perhaps a philosophical discussion of the ambiguities inherent in all concepts. (***)

      WTR:{That is pretty much what I'm getting at in my third paragraph of my Bickle comments above. }

      PAUL ZISMAN writes

      Your conclusion surely identifies an element of Dewey's thought, the holism or reflective equilibrium, that always seems to transcend" the dualities at a perspective once-removed from them, and to see them in some sort of holistic interplay. It is not a holism that is organically neat--it embraces tension which gives it its capacity for growth and change. Rorty seems to do the reverse--in his attempt to strip things of their metaphysics he reduces them to situational problems. I'm thinking of his call to eliminate philosophy from public debates--his ironic poet. So wouldn't Rorty have the opposite problem to what he accuses Dewey of? They (Dewey and James) cannot escape idealism (isn't this is ultimate objection to their epistemological fixation)--at some refined level; but he cannot escape a kind of naive realism--things are simply givens, or can be treated as such, without regard for their cognitive situatedness, Rorty seems to claim. Rorty, then, naively hold that one can escape the constrains of one's cognitions. This is another way of saying what you say about Rorty's claim to have stopped theorizing.

      {I prefer to call Rorty's position "idealism in denial". The fact that he thinks that all texts are really only about other texts, and that the world is "well lost" in his system (1982 p. 3), make it hard to call him a realist. Rorty is also very critical of the myth of the given, but Zisman is right to say his attempt to escape metaphysics does force him to see the world of objects as a kind of inexplicable given, no matter how much he claims otherwise. Zisman thus shows us another way that Rorty's so called pragmatism blurs into positivism.--WTR.}

      RUTH MILLIKAN said " I'm not a bit fond of Rorty myself, despite his supposed use of Sellars." But she did send me some selections from a paper she's working on for her Romanell Lecture, saying that what she had to say on holism might be relevant. In this paper, she appears to be trying to curb some of the excesses of holism by making a distinction between the epistemology of concepts with the epistemology of judgment. This strategy is somewhat out of sync with what I was trying to do in my Rorty post, where I was criticizing Rorty for subconsciously clinging to a distinction rather than ignoring one. But I think that her distinction may be useful for explaining the relationship between experience and concepts in my next CQ. I won't say anything more until I've read it more thoroughly.

      The following selections from GARY SCHOUBORG's post I present without comment, because I basically agree with them.

      If you were a psychotherapist, would you consider yourself to be on a sinking ship because you did not bring to clients clarity that broke new ground in the history of ideas, but merely clarity that met their needs? There's plenty of conceptual confusion in the world that philosophers can, like therapists, help alleviate.

      Seems to me what follows from Rorty is that philosophy is no longer acceptable as a discipline that tells other disciplines what to do. Rather, it is now a specialty within particular disciplines, a specialty of theory construction (here, philosophy can break new ground) and critique (conceptual therapy). The philosopher can no longer do useful work independently of other human specialties, but must get her feet wet at least as much as theoretical physicists do with experimental physics. In the JCS community{Journal of Consciousness Studies-TR}, philosophers work increasingly hand in hand with the various disciplines to sort out all the conceptual confusion surrounding consciousness. Like psychotherapists, the less skilled contribute more than they'd like to the confusion, but the overall net effect is hopefully positive.

      Baars' repy to Bickle:

      There is something to the idea that scientist manufacture their own epistemology on the spot, but John Bickle's claim that animal psychologists were solving scientific problems in the "cognitive revolution" while everyone else was dithering, is vastly overstated. I wrote a book with about a dozen interviews with such people as Skinner, Chomsky, GA Miller, HA Simon, etc., and the story is told by them in great detail (B. Baars, The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology, 1986). Psychologists worried endlessly about philosophy of science, probably much too much. But that was because they were in thrall initially to a philosophy of science that excluded most of the natural topics of psychology ! Even Skinner called behaviorism a philosophy of psychology, rather than "the science of human behavior itself." That makes Skinner a philosopher, by his own definition.

      The problem, in my view, is that psychology has an impoverished theoretical tradition, unlike the physical sciences or even biology. We are even now in the process of working out the first generation of reasonable theory. I consider my own work to be part of that emerging discipline. Rescorla and Wagner, Miller, Simon and Chomsky, Rumelhart and McClelland, have all made contributions to it.

      . Good theorists are as pragmatic as good experimentalists. It was Newton who said "non fingo hypothesi," in response to philosophical critiques of action at a distance. You have to say things like that to stay focused on empirical problems. But theory gives you a breadth of understanding that the typical experimentalist lacks. I've often thought that philosophers, with their skills, should consider becoming good psychological theorists, and I notice that some, like Chalmers and Bickle, are moving in that direction.

      We may have a poor example of the usefulness of philosophy in the case of psychology, because most philosophical debates come down to mind-body questions, which are rife with paradox and are simply never resolved. Thus philosophy of psychology provides no stable platform to think about the pragmatic theoretical questions of research. Under these circumstances it does indeed make sense for working scientists to ignore the snares and seductions of philosophy. But I'm hopeful that with the emerging scientific approach to consciousness (see my chapter in the new Block et al volume from MIT), scientists will have the bit in their teeth. We are getting a great handle on the phenomena by "treating consciousness as a variable." Philosophers will follow when they see the breakthroughs emerging from that, and perhaps in the process they will also release some of their unproductive death-grip on mind- body paradoxes. There are many more productive philosophical questions to work on in philosophy of mind. Many of them have an empirical aspect, a fact that would not have surprised Aristotle and Descartes, as you point out