Most people, for very good reason, place themselves at the center of their universe. I’m not saying they place themselves at the center of the universe, which would be a greedy and ignorant thing to do. They place themselves at the center of their own universe, which means that they place at the center of their field of attention their own lives – their own circumstances, their own ambitions, what they need to do today, their friends, what they care about, and so on. And it makes very good sense to do this – it would be kind of stupid not to.

Thus, an intellectual is sort of stupid. For an intellectual places at the center of their universe – at least, for big chunks of time – abstract questions, problems, ideas, and tensions. During those times, the personal circumstances and the individuality of the intellectual recede far into the background, or to the peripheries of one’s field of attention. If you balk at this claim, and you feel like objecting that we can never do this, that our worries and passions and desires are always the center of our universe, no matter how much we pretend to ignore them – if you say this, then you probably are an intellectual. You’ve arrived at this perfectly general conclusion not by focusing on your own life, but by thinking this through on behalf of human beings generally. If you then go on to test whether it is true in your own life, through some intensively introspective psychoanalysis, then you are not only an intellectual, but a self-aware intellectual, which is a rare bird indeed.

Intellectuals suspect that our own lives are just not that interesting, and they are right. Biographies written about a great many of us would either be absolutely unremarkable wastes of effort, or they would be hailed as ironic attempts to mock the genre of biography by providing overly trivial instances of the type. Most humans beings just aren’t all that interesting, even if they happen to be you. Intellectuals recognize this early on, and so they move their field of attention over to more interesting things. They soon begin to resent having to swivel their heads back onto their own lives and deal with day-to-day boring crap, and they try to focus on the not-me as much as they can. This leads often to comical results.

They also find it irritating to run into “intellectuals” who spend so much time trying to advance their own careers as “intellectuals.” These people are not intellectuals, not really. They have simply taken up pseudo-intellectualism as their day job, and they have placed themselves at the center of their universe – just like normal, smart people. Real intellectuals find these pseudo-intellectuals exasperating, partly because they are fakers (after all, who likes fakers?), but also because the fakers end up getting all the creaturely comforts that real intellectuals wish they had, at least when they take a moment to swivel their heads back onto their own lives. The fakers get to be at ritzy universities, and get paid lecturing gigs, and interviews in magazines, and so on. Getting these things requires smart ends-means strategizing, and real intellectuals don’t take the time to do this. So they very often end up as seemingly other-worldly people at low-paying jobs without much prestige. “If yer so smart, why aintcha rich?” is not a question they have a very good answer to. They can only say “Because I don’t think much about what I’m doing with my life.”

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Brains and typewriters

Aristotle was not aware of any mind/body problem. He understood that all (well, almost all) of the things we do with our minds are capacities of the human body. “Thinking is something a human does” – what is especially problematic about that claim? It only became problematic when Descartes stripped matter of any capacities that went beyond what clay can do: to wit, keep its shape and get shoved around. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine clay thinking, so Descartes was compelled to postulate a non-clay substance – a mind – which is, by definition, a non-clay thing with the capacity to think. The resulting problem was to try to put the special non-clay thing into causal interaction with the clay. Thus the mind/body problem, or the non-clay/clay problem.


A view from the CRIHS.

But capacities are a better way to go. We ordinarily attribute capacities to all kinds of things without generating philosophical problems. A typewriter, for example, has the capacity to produce typewritten documents, from scrolls of gibberish to existential plays (or, at times, both at once). In order to actualize that capacity, there has to be paper in the platen, a well-inked ribbon in place, and some sort of fingered being at the helm. But more than that: in order for any of this to come about, there has to be a culture with a language in place (even for the gibberish to count as “gibberish”); there has to have been a level of technology to permit the production of both paper and typewriters; there then has to have been all the things required for such culture and technology. The point is that “capacity” does not name some magical feature that is inherent to a thing; it is a kind of abbreviation for a complicated network of items, forces, and active beings, past and present. Because a typewriter is located in that network, it has that capacity. If, through some quantum mechanical accident, a typewriter were to suddenly appear in the empty stretches of the universe, it would then lose the capacity to produce typewritten documents, except in a counterfactual sense that restores the required network: “If the typewriter were to drift to a planet populated by trees and monkeys and paper, it would have the capacity to ….”

Similarly, there is no magic feature inherent in the brain endowing it with the capacity to think. The brain, like the typewriter, resides within a vast social and historical network, and that complicated network – together with the brain’s own structural features (for they are not nothing!) – results in the brain’s capacity to think. Admittedly, it’s much harder to see what goes on here than it is in the case of the typewriter, but the point is essentially the same: capacities are not localized features, but – well – capacities to interact with other items and forces in complex environments. If the appeal to capacities is thought to embroil us in some sort of intolerable dualism, then we are similarly embroiled when it comes to our philosophical understanding of typewriters, tractors, pencil sharpeners, and gramophones: items which do not typically engender metaphysical wonder.

If this is right, then the AI people need to expand the scope of their inquiry to include a lot more social science and interpersonal psychology and communication studies, if they want to explore a machine’s capacity to think. Or, if they care more about establishing the actual fact of it than about understanding the fact, they can just do what Google, Apple, and Microsoft are already doing, and continue to integrate machine-type intelligences into our complex social network in ever-interesting ways, and wait for the capacity to emerge on its own. This is the central conceit of the character Nathan in the film Ex Machina: he grasps that the data compiled from people using search engines from all over the world itself presents the best model of human intelligence. The insight is only sketched of course, but he’s on target in thinking of intelligence as arising from broader relationships rather than as residing within some special lobe.

The one place where Aristotle did have some trouble in connecting the mind to the human body was in our grasp of the most abstract truths. We have the capacity, he believed, to engage in speculative inquiry whose objects are far more precise and universal than anything we meet on a daily basis. When we engage in the purest philosophy, we are in communication with a different sort of network – the network of the ideas of God, more or less – and our capacity is no longer limited by our earthly ties. This is where some sort of dualism needs to make an appearance it seems, if not between body and spirit then at least between the temporal and the eternal. In this respect, according to Aristotle, we might be qualitatively different from typewriters.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Metaphysical musings | Leave a comment

Brave New World

Reading Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (Viking, 2016).

Kelly is one of the founding editors of Wired, and this book is about the promise of emerging technologies to, well, shape our future. A paragraph early in the book exhibits its general vibe:

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh, to have been alive and well back then!”

I know: sort of exhausting, all that wide-eyed enthusiasm. Kelly’s book is big on new technological opportunities, and short on any informed historical consciousness, let alone any awareness of the ever-widening gap between the rich people poking at their jeejahs and the poor people hunting for potable water. It is full-on with bubble cars, jet packs, and machines that go “ping.”

But, for all that, it is an insightful book, and he makes a compelling case for some bright potential. The future he imagines is relentlessly Heraclitean, with endless opportunities for becoming, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning, and beginning (these, in fact, are the chapter titles). If all goes to plan, we won’t be able to step anywhere twice, since by then it will have been uploaded into some cloud or other. (Speaking of which, where is our Aristophanes, with all this talk of clouds?) It’s hard for me not to play the part of the cynic, but at the same time Kelly is surely right that – at least with regard to interconnectedness and information – our time is unprecedented, and some tremendously cool things should be happening in the near future.

And, along with them, some pretty ghastly things. At one point Kelly describes computers that will gaze back upon us, watching our eyes and faces, and making adjustments for what we’re feeling – speed up boring movies, divert us to more entertaining images, etc. I can only hope there will be big “DISABLE” buttons. But even then, one wonders about the impact of such paternalist techs on broader populations, and one shudders. Is it too old-fogey of me to believe that some of the most rewarding lessons come along with being bored, uncomfortable, offended, incredulous? The problem with having super-smart machines tailoring our realities according to our wishes is that we, for the most part, wish like idiots.

Technology changes; human problems respond in Darwinian fashion, mutating and morphing into new ones, adapted to the new environment. Tech utopias are just as “nowhere” as old-fashioned utopias. But technology does bring real changes, and many of them are quite good – consider mortality rates, medicine, policy planning, and so on. The living conditions among the non-poor are better than they’ve ever been, by any objective measure, and the percentage of those of us who are poor is the lowest it’s been in at least two centuries – and probably much longer. For all this, we have technology to thank, in large part. Once our human problems advance beyond the stage of “trying to reach adulthood without dying from disease, starvation, or butchery,” we’re in a pretty good spot, despite the cavils of the philosophers. Trying to deal with the spiritual impact of the advances of technology is, by definition, a first-world problem.

I’ll grant, though, that calling the advance of technology a “first-world problem” doesn’t turn it into nothing. Some advances in technology bring rather sizable problems in their wake – consider the enormous human cost of the industrial revolution. That cost was eventually reduced, but only through the resistance of unions and both violent and political action. In this way, technological advance has to be shaped by human needs, desires, and preferences. A small-scale and more recent example of this was the failed introduction of Google Glass.

"Once I'm connected, we should be able to see each other."

By Matt Percival, from

Kelly mentions this failure in passing, and optimistically thinks the public hatred of the thing was only a matter of clunky design. But I don’t think that was the problem; if anything, it was the opposite. The problem was that using the thing violated a social space: people hated the idea of other people looking as if they were in a public space – standing in line, looking out a window – while in fact immersed in web activity. When you are staring at a glowing screen, I know what you’re doing; when you’re google-glassing, I’m liable to make a mistake, and that’s just irritating. You’re not following public conventions, and I feel like ripping that stupid thing off your stupid face. (Sorry; got a little out of hand there.) Maybe conventions about the social space will change, but maybe they won’t, and the idea of Google Glass will just go to the grave as a seemingly great idea that for whatever reason just didn’t take.

This is the largest consideration missing from Kelly’s book – the friction of tech rubbing against human needs. He seems to think technology is an obedient genie, granting our every wish. Of course, the relationship is much trickier than that, and it’s not always a happy one. The wisdom in tech advance is never greater than our own wisdom, which is never all that great. Technology, we might say, is a genie with a drunken master.

Posted in Books, Machines / gadgets / technology / games | 3 Comments

Reality of ideas, again: the navel-gazing perspective

What is an idea? On the one hand, it is tempting to say that there can be no explanation without appeal to a special intensional dimension, a protected pocket of our existence that holds meanings. After all, we think ideas; we cannot see them, weigh them, or bat them over the fence. Ideas are intrinsically inward, like any element of consciousness.

But on the other hand, ideas are bound up with what we would do or say under their influence. Anything that makes no difference isn’t anything. An idea, when entertained, might be seen as a policy proposal: from here on out, let’s talk and act as if X were true. And, especially when it comes to philosophical ideas, how we talk is the principal way in which ideas change us: “Now that I embrace materialism, I shall say this about religion, and that about free will,” and so on. It may not make any difference as to where I buy my gas or how often I exercise. Perhaps that is what makes an idea metaphysical – it only affects how I talk.

I know this is thoroughly behaviorist, understanding ideas only as the ways in which they are evidenced in observable behavior. But I’m drawn to it – meaning I am continually brought back to make more words about it (that is, about behaviorism, or Marx-ish pragmatism). But why should I be making these words as opposed to others? Why am I not compelled to make other words, words associated with idealism, for example (in fact, wasn’t I compelled to make those words only a couple of months ago?)? Most of the words I make are made here in the Canyon Road Institute for Humanistic Studies, and they don’t travel far beyond its walls, and a few blog readers, at most. It’s hard to believe that I’m making sets of words (idealism, behaviorism) for any social reasons. I could just as well be making words about centaurs or pirate ships. (And sometimes I do!)

The obvious answer is that I’m making these words because they matter to me. I’m interested in them, and they are meaningful and important to me. And these are all internal metrics: once again, pockets of meaningfulness. But I can ask again: why are they meaningful? What difference do they really make in my life, beyond how I type?

Perhaps they matter for social reasons after all. For I have several larger projects and larger ambitions – books and such – and these projects have broader social impact, and affect how people behave toward me and what they say about me. (Or this is one of my lifestyle-sustaining delusions, at any rate.) These ideas of idealism and behaviorism end up being proposals for what words I will make in these larger projects. So, in short, I’m trying to make myself into a certain sort of publically-known intellectual, and stewing over what words to make affects my success in this project. It’s difficult to make this more concrete without advertising the utter silliness of it all. “If I latch onto the behaviorist proposal, I shall be invited to swanky materialist parties on the east and west coasts; if I embrace the idealist proposal, I’ll get to travel to Europe and give talks at old, stony universities.” I know, this isn’t at all right, and it isn’t even remotely plausible, but something like it captures the absurd motivational structure leading to my making of words. These policy decisions about word production affect which groups I get to hang with, or at least how I am placed in other people’s minds. If this isn’t what drives me, what is?

Well, here’s a crazy idea. What if I simply want to understand what is true? Or, short of that, what I think? What if I’m not as ridiculous as the last paragraph suggests, and I just want to try to assemble my knowledge and experience and feelings into a vaguely coherent perspective? I write and post because I’ve found that this is a good way of exploring what I think; more details, problems, and questions emerge from this quasi-public process than if I were to just stare off into space and think.

Is there some behaviorist account of why I should want to “understand what is true”? I’m sure there is; but I suspect it will take me back to the swanky-party/stony-castle aspirations of two paragraphs ago, and they still seem to me ill-fitting and silly. Maybe there isn’t any actual goal that motivates me, and I’m only habituated (through decades of conditioning) to act as if I care about philosophical truth? My schooling brainwashed me into thinking that typing words in a lonely shed is a meaningful activity? Well, that’s possible, I suppose, though (again) ill-fitting and silly. It seems to me more plausible to take this “concern for truth” just as it appears. If behaviorism has difficulty making sense of it, then perhaps I am learning of the shortcomings of behaviorism. Perhaps there really are ideas, and they really are meaningful, in ways other than how they cash out in observable behavior. How about that as a proposal?

Posted in Items of the academy / learning, Metaphysical musings, This & that in the life of CH, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Under the right conditions, ideas matter; but far less than we commonly suppose

In the big picture, ideas don’t matter as much as people like me try to pretend. Obviously, in some broad sense, some ideas matter very much to some people, sometimes. But even in those cases where ideas matter in big ways, the practical, material circumstances have to be just right, and it is what’s done with the idea that ends up mattering. Had Martin Luther come up with his idea (Protestantism) in a century earlier, it probably wouldn’t have mattered; had the theses he nailed to the door become only a topic of discussion among reading clubs, it wouldn’t have mattered. As it was, the idea came at the right time – people with political and economic power needed an excuse to drive out the authority of the church – and it was taken up as a rallying cry in a social movement. His idea was like a key – but the lock mechanism had to be set, and there had to be a motive to open the door.

The reason we think ideas matter is that they sure seem to bring about change in our daily lives. Lately I’ve had the idea that I need a new laptop, and (regrettably) that idea has been directing my focus and my actions with all the power of a giant magnet. I can’t resist its attractive pull; I shop and shop and read reviews and assess and re-assess and on and on. If I had to diagnose what has been determining the actions of my life over the last few days, I would have to say it’s the idea that I need a new laptop. Then, when I try to distract myself by reflecting philosophically on what determines the course of history, I end up asking what big idea was determining the lives of those who lived long ago, as if entire populations are driven by ideas in the way I’m driven by the idea that I need a laptop. (Did I mention I think I need a laptop? See! It’s irresistible!)

But societies aren’t great big individuals, and they are not driven, as a whole, by ideas. They are usually pushed around by forces they have no idea of, like changes in climate, economic conditions, population pressures, etc. (It’s only in recent times that we’ve had any kind of measured records and knowledge of such forces.) That’s true for individuals as well, of course. I think I’m driven by my idea that I need a new laptop, but that idea is probably just some disguise for some other thing that’s pushing me along: desire for change, subliminal advertising, some nagging bur of self-loathing that I think will be removed with a new gadget, etc. In our societies and in ourselves, we usually don’t know what is doing the pushing and pulling.

In his Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett recommends a method he calls heterophenomenology when it comes to handling people’s introspective reports of their own experience. Dennett’s idea is that we can’t really trust what people say about the character of their own experience; but we can trust them to report what they believe they are experiencing. ldvVs8FSo, if I am looking at one of those clever pictures that make it seem as if parts are moving, I will declare that I see motion. Now it would be wrong-headed to try to find the part of the brain that introduces motion to the visual stimuli, in order to put on a moving “show” for my inner observer. What we should do instead is explain why I end up with the belief that parts in the picture are moving, and we can do this without ever adding motion to nonmoving elements of our visual experience. I don’t really see the motion; I only believe that I do. What we end up saying and believing about our experience, and what we actually experience, are different things.

I mention this because I think a similar kind of heterophenomenology should be employed in the history and philosophy of ideas.  Suppose we are studying 16th-century German events, and as we read records and pamphlets from the time we can’t help but notice there’s a lot of talk about the relation between a believer and God, about the eucharist, about the nature of the priesthood, etc. “My goodness!” we’ll say. “Ideas sure were important to these people!” And, yes, these people did believe that these ideas were important, and the causes behind their efforts. But – as certified historio-heterophenomenologists – we should ask what is really going on, and explain why these people end up saying so much about these ideas. What social institutions and practices were tagged by these ideas? How would lives change if certain ideas were rejected or adopted, and how would these changes affect the material well-being of the people involved? What is the reality behind all this talk of ideas? What actual conditions caused these folks to believe everything hinged on a set of ideas?

This approach may be known generally as Marxism, but it really is simply pragmatism (which is Marxism, shorn of prophecy). The real meaning behind any idea is what effect it has on action and material well-being – the “cash value” of a belief, as William James called it. People may say blah-blah, or blabby-blah; we won’t know what either means until we see how those sounds are connected with changes in behavior. It’s an exaggeration, but an illuminating one, to go so far as to say that all this babble about ideas is pure epiphenomenon: chatter that bubbles up out of real processes but does not contribute causally to the proceedings. I have to call it an exaggeration, since I do believe that, from time to time, ideas do matter. It’s just that they matter far less than we commonly suppose. And the material conditions have to be right.

(P.S. – I bought a new laptop.)

Posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Metaphysical musings | 5 Comments

Energy, culture, and Civilization

I only recently came across the ideas of Leslie White (1900-1975). White was an American anthropologist who developed a mathematical model for civilization. Civilization, or Culture, according to White, is a product of Energy and Technology (C = E x T). His thought was that every human culture begins with a certain amount of energy at its disposal – primarily, food, which gets transformed by humans into work. Technology – like farming, irrigation, animal husbandry, etc – can be thought of as something like an accelerant, making more energy available or making its employment more efficient. At some point, there is surplus energy, which allows for a class of people who can do something other than meet the needs of survival – so we get priests, politicians, administrators, artists, philosophers, scientists, and so on. Culture then stagnates unless more energy becomes available. In his words (on Wikipedia), “‘the basic law of cultural evolution’ was ‘culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased’.” He was, needless to say, a socialist.

In one of White’s earlier essays, he goes so far as to claim that civilization in the west stayed pretty much at the same level from about 2000 BCE (farming) until the 18th or 19th century CE, or roughly the time of the industrial revolution. That’s when a distinctly new form of energy developed (steam), which allowed for a giant step forward. (One can see from this that White was a very big-picture guy; the Renaissance does not appears even as a tiny blip on his map of cultural evolution.) He didn’t see another step coming until nuclear energy or solar energy provided a new burst of available energy.

In his own day, White was at odds with the bulk of historians and anthropologists, especially the followers of Franz Boas, who looked at culture in more qualitative, idealistic ways. His work, then and now, is regarded as overly reductive – which is surely right, but then again, it’s not nothing, either. I came across his work while reading a more recent book in the same vein, The Measure of Civilization (Princeton UP, 2013), by Ian Morris. Morris’s work is more qualified and plausible, to be sure, but it is keyed to White’s essential insight. Instead of “Culture” or “Civilization”, Morris writes of “social development,” which he defines as “a measure of communities’ abilities to get things done in the world” (p. 5). He develops this measurement by starting with the UN’s Human Development Index, which takes into account life expectancy, education, and standards of living (GDP per capita). For his own purposes, he modifies the HDI formula and instead bases his “scores” on four traits: energy capture per person, social organization, information technology, and war-making capacity. He posits “1000” as the highest possible score by 2000 CE, and traces the advances of the east and the west century by century. By the end, “the west” has a score of 906.37 and “the east” has a score of 564.83.

Basically, what White and Morris have worked to provide is a score system for the real-world game of Civilization. But it is one based on considerable research and insight. It certainly is overly reductionistic if one thinks it is the only measure worth taking interest in, but Morris wisely doesn’t recommend that. He’s just trying to develop an large-scale, quantitative picture of global human social development, and if that’s what you want, he provides a pretty decent measurement.

Of course, now that I’ve mentioned Civilization, I have to point out that it also provides a scoring system; after all, that’s the game. And this leads me to wonder how the real world stacks up in terms of Civilization’s own system of scoring. Unsurprisingly, one can find the answer to this on the internet. On a reddit thread for Civ 5 a couple of years ago, “onlydrinksliquids” generously provided the following assessment:

After some googling, I came up with the following components for score: Number of cities, population, land area, tech level, and wonders built. The straight number of each is multiplied by a modifier and then they are summed. The modifiers are as follows:

Number of cities: 8

Population: 4

Land Area: 1

Techs: 4

Wonders: 25

Future Tech: 10

My conversions for the above to real world metrics were as follows:

I used the cities present on this list [“Global Cities” list] as the cities each country controls in the present day.

I pegged the value of one population point to one million citizens. I’m pretty sure that the in-game demographics counter has a real value for this, but it isn’t linear and this is much easier to deal with.

For land area, assuming that we are using a huge map, I divided the circumference of the Earth, around 40.000 km, by 128 tiles, the width of a huge map. One can find the area of one tile, then to be around 75.000 sq km. From there I divided a country’s land area given on wikipedia by 75k to find that score component. This actually ended up not mattering as much as it should, giving ridiculously small values for the number of cities in question, so I ended up multiplying this value by 4 for every country to balance it (assuming my map is 4x huge size). I think this was my only deviation from the actual score formula.

Techs were pretty straight forward. There are 80 techs not counting Future Tech, and most countries I used were at about the same tech level, 78 techs researched (Nanotech and Fusion are not yet real life). I had India, Brazil and Indonesia at a little less than that, 77 for India and Brazil and 75 for Indonesia. No country has ‘Future Tech’ yet so nothing there.

Wonders are straightforward, just counting how many each country has within their borders today.

Since I was initially assuming a huge map, I stopped at 12 civs. The scoreboard is as follows.

China 6455

India 5438

USA 2621

Russia 1840

Brazil 1663

France 1488

Indonesia 1392

Canada 1066

Japan 888

Germany 824

UK 799

Italy 706

Obviously, China and India’s huge populations are a huge buff to their score, and the small land areas of European countries are a detriment even if they have more cities. I’d be interested to see how Bangladesh and Nigeria, etc compare. I was surprised military strength and culture didn’t figure in the formula at all; if they were I’m sure this list would be very different.

So there you have it. Of course, the idea of “scoring” civilization is silly and can lead to all manner of ill-formed judgments; but then again, societies do end up with disparate powers to get things done, and at the most fundamental levels human need caloric input to do work, and there should be some sort of explanation of how the two might be connected.

One last idea to throw into this mix. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Red Mars, some of the characters advocate “eco-economics,” or a social system in which people are rewarded or valued according to whether they are adding energy to the system or taking it. The key idea is that “It’s a matter of how many calories we create by our efforts, or send on to future generations, or something like that …. Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real [caloric] contribution to the human ecology.” It’s a fascinating proposal, though I’m pretty sure I’d land at the bottom of the heap. I’ll try to eat fewer potato chips from here on out.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 4 Comments

Brandom’s inferentialism

In many works over many years, Robert Brandom has advocated a view called “inferentialism.” It’s a view about linguistic meaning, and it asserts specifically that the meaning of a claim is fixed by what role it plays in the economy of giving reasons and asking for them. So the meaning of “The earth goes around the sun” can only be seen in the way the claim is used in explanations and arguments. It isn’t typically used in an explanation of how zebras behave, so it doesn’t have anything to do with zebras, really. But it is used in figuring out calendars and astronomy and so on, and as we get into those topics, we can begin to see what the claim really means. The strength of this view is that it avoids the well-documented disaster of connecting meanings with ghostly entities in the mind (see Wittgenstein), and pays greater attention to communities of knowledge. Brandom has written several brilliant books and essays giving further details of this view, and using it as a kind of lens for understanding several of the “great dead” philosophers – especially Kant and Hegel.

It’s worth considering some implications of the view. One immediate consequence is: no community, no meaning. There cannot be an absolutely private language, one which captures meaning without there being even a small community around to share it. An utterance has meaning when it’s possible to say it at the right time as well as at the wrong time, and a community acts as a kind of police, disciplining its language learners into proper form by saying “Yes, that’s right” and “No, not quite.” Another consequence is that our entire world of meaning – all that we view to be true, or false, or possible, or impossible – has been shaped up over time by our communities telling us “Yes, that’s right” or “No, not quite” or, more commonly, a mix of both, coming from different sectors of our communities.

One might wonder if this is all there is to it. Imagine being introduced to a colony of noise-making entities and trying to learn their language. You tentatively try out this or that noise, and look expectantly at your new companions to see if you got it right. Little do you know that, in fact, these noise-making entities are randomly responding to you with affirmative and negative replies. It doesn’t really matter what you say, or when you say it. Could you ever get a sense of their language? No, of course not, because their language isn’t really a language: it’s just random noise, at least so far as you are concerned.

In order to turn this random noise into a brandom language (ha! couldn’t resist), there have to be some fixed patterns, some sort of system that determines when an affirmation is appropriate and when it isn’t. Once there is such a system, there’s linguistic meaning, according to inferentialism. A terrific example of this is the substance of Tom Stoppard’s play, Dogg’s Hamlet. Stoppard takes his cue from a scene familiar from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in which some builders are constructing something by issuing orders to one another. In Stoppard’s play, though, a speaker of normal English is dropped into a community of people who speak Dogg’s English, which has the same sounds as English, but the conditions of affirmation and negation are quite different. The character, and the audience, have to figure out the structure behind Dogg’s English, and the figuring out leads to great hilarity. Just when we get the hang of Dogg’s English, the players put on three versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a short version, a very short version, and a ridiculously short version), which makes about as much sense to the players as Dogg’s English did to us, at first. And now we can hear how crazy it sounds. Community is everything.

I’m left wondering, though, about the exact difference between randomness and brandomness. Obviously, it is a difference of structure. But structure of what? I guess it must be structures of behavior, tradition, practice. And surely it is impossible to think of these without thinking of meanings. But does this show that these practical structures are meanings? Or that they are made possible by meanings? If the first, Brandom is right; if the second, he’s described a symptom rather than the actual thing.

I would like to suppose that, at the very basis of a language, the world itself is helping to impart structure. That is to say, probably the first things said in any language have to do with immediate contacts with what’s going on in the world – what animals are present, where the pointy rock is, how far it is to the water, and so on. The world provides the most fundamental affirmations and negations. Once a basic language gets off the ground, so to speak, more complicated and abstract structures can develop. (This would also mean that the greater the distance between the ground and what’s being said, the greater likelihood that what’s being said may have no meaning – a skeptical result I rather appreciate!) This doesn’t seem to be far from what Quine claimed in Word and Object.

Yet, given Brandom’s abiding interest in Hegel, I wonder if he thinks there more to the structure than can be given by its grass roots. I’m thinking of reason, of course. The “structure of inference dynamics” that constitutes linguistic meaning perhaps is infused with logic, or reason, in some deep fashion, perhaps in the way that grammar gives shape to syntax. This would mark off a position distinct from Quine’s, more rationalistic in this respect than naturalistic. It would mean that what determines our saying “Yes, that’s right” and “No, not quite” is not merely what our collisions with the world have conditioned us to say, but also what our minds have contributed: specifically, our capacity to reason logically about grammar, truth values, concepts, and possibility. As skeptical as I like to be, I have to admit that this seems a bit more plausible. It ain’t all conditioning. There must be some ghostly entities somewhere.

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