Monthly Archives: August 2013

The normativity of human knowledge

I am now reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. There he makes the case that human knowledge in general, and scientific knowledge in particular, involves a normative dimension that is often overlooked by naturalistic approaches to knowledge.

Let me explain this topic in my own words. Naturalized Epistemology is right in considering human knowledge as a fact of the world. Human beings are real, corporeal, natural entities. Human beings have (are) bodies; they have a physical existence. Any explanation of human knowledge must recognize that humans can know their world only insofar as they are equipped with wet computers (aka brains) that receive information from the world, process it, and respond to the world in a certain manner. There’s input, information processing and output. If your computer gets broken (in a serious car accident, for example), you might lose your ability to know the world.

Although I am already using a highly metaphorical language here (because the brain is different from a digital computer in many significant ways), I can buy the previous description up to this point. Human knowledge is a natural phenomenon and therefore it can be studied by using the methods of the natural sciences (for example, the neurosciences).

Yet when we look at actual human beings engaged in knowledge-related practices (human beings investigating, thinking, theorizing, teaching, learning and discussing about different issues) an important aspect of human knowledge comes to light. Not only do people know about certain things, they also know that what they know is true. For instance, they know that the sentence “dogs are mammals” is true; and they can defend the truth of such a claim through arguments. People can (and frequently do) justify most of their knowledge claims. They offer reasons why things are in a certain (and not in another) way. They argue for specific positions. They follow rules and shared criteria for adjudicating between rival hypotheses. They claim that some assertions are true and they also claim to know why they are true. In certain cases (two plus two equals four) most human beings would argue that the truth of this claim is universal and necessary. That is, they would say that they know not only that things are in a certain way, but also why they must be that way and couldn’t possibly be in any other way.

To put it differently: people care not only about the efficacy of their knowledge (whether what they know allows them to adapt effectively to the external reality) but also about the legitimacy of their knowledge. Any observation of actual human beings involved in knowledge-related practices makes this point self-evident. Any observation of naturalistic epistemologists giving talks in conferences or workshops or making arguments to convince others makes this point self-evident. They are not just blind mechanisms sputtering output; they try to be rational, sensible, persuasive.

There is a normative dimension to human knowledge. The problem with the naturalistic approach to human knowledge is that it cannot bridge the gap between the mechanistic – naturalistic level of explanation and the normative phenomena. What humans know is not just the result of some material mechanism (involving the interaction between the world and the wet computer) but is also the result of a complex socio-cultural normative process that requires to be addressed on a different level. The natural sciences by themselves cannot account for this normative component; norms and institutions must be included.

Epistemology, therefore (and this is Castorina’s point) should deal with the fundamental problem of how people and societies give themselves norms. Any relevant epistemology must start by recognizing the normativity of human knowledge.

 

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“Let’s trade” and “my turn”

My son L. is 3y 1m old. He’s started recently to use the expression “let’s trade” (“te cambio”). That is: he produces speech acts aimed at swapping objects with another person. For instance, he gives away his glass of milk in order to obtain a yoghurt cup I have. We exchange goods. He seems to understand that the proto- contract we thus celebrate involves the mutual surrender and handing over of possessions. The rules of reciprocity are no doubt regulating this interaction. Which doesn’t mean that the child can understand conceptually, let alone articulate, such rules.

In addition, when playing with other children, L. knows how to claim his turn to use a toy (shouts “¡Turno mío!”). He also uses this expression in other contexts; for instance, to demand his turn to drink mate (in a mate round shared with adults). Again: his understanding of the reciprocity rules involved is perhaps incipient. But L. is clearly starting to master the rhetorical forms that allow efficient access to the desired objects.

My hypothesis: the child first masters the rhetorical forms, and only later the conceptual content. Piaget’s prise de conscience (the conceptual, explicit insight) is the final product of a process that starts with immediate, un-reflected action. The process goes from the periphery of action to the center of explicit, conceptual thinking. Differently from Piaget, however, in the periphery I do not see the actions of an organism but the utterances of a retor.

Piaget and the logic of action

I’m reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. They’re quite good.

One of the points he explains very clearly is that, for Jean Piaget, logic emerges out of the individual’s coordination of actions (or action schemata). Piaget considers that one of the basic features of all living forms is their tendency to self-organize. He thought that this principle or “functional invariant” applied to all levels of development, from basic organic forms to complex human behavior. It is an essential part of self-preservation that organisms produce complex and organized structures and that they maintain such organization actively throughout time in order to survive. Successful self-organization is thus the counter-part of successful adaptation; they are parallel processes, two sides of the same coin.

I buy it up to that point. But Piaget extends this biological framework further: intelligent life is manifestation of life as such; the same laws that apply to living forms also apply to intelligence and to cognitive development. Logic derives from action, and action is understood in biological terms. Logic reflects the inner organization of action. For example, the organized actions of babies that move, order and categorize objects are at the root of the (developmentally later) mental operations of classification, seriation, number, etc. The very logical principle of “conservation,” so central to Piaget’s theory, derives from the organism’s tendency to self-organize and self-preserve.

It is as if a logical instinct were inherent to human action. For Piaget, there’s a continuum that goes from biology, through action, up to logic and scientific knowledge.

In my opinion, Piaget underestimates the discontinuities between animal cognition and human knowledge. I consider the latter as an institutional phenomenon (I try to explain in other places). As I see it, the deontological nature of human knowledge is not reducible to biological action.

 

Ritualized exchanges at three years of age

My son L. is taking a bath. He’s 3 years – 1 month. After playing around in the water for a while, he says “I’m a fish”. Then looks at me and says: “I am a penguin.” I reply: “Hello, penguin”. He: “Nice to meet you”. Then he adds: “I pay” (extends his hand as if giving me money). I extend my hand and say: “Here is your change.” Then he says: “Here’s a gift” (and again extends his hand). So I say, “Oh, what is it?” He answers: “A perfume”. He then gives me several more presents, sometimes saying that the gift is “a perfume”, and at other times saying it’s “a surprise”.

I find this sequence very interesting. Our interaction comprises a continuous series of conventional behaviors that are typically used to start social exchanges and to keep them alive. So we go from “greetings” to “payment,” and then to “gift-giving”. Children, of course, do not understand payments as a way to deliver a certain amount of monetary value in the context of a sale or some other economic contract. Rather, they ​see payment as a ritualized exchange, in that sense similar to gift-giving or greeting rituals (as we know from the research in the area of children’s economic notions, such as Berti and Bombi’s, Delval’s, Jahoda’s and Danziger’s among many others). All the actions performed by Leon are instances of ritual exchanges, realized with a purely associative purpose, that is: he interacts in order to keep me engaged in interaction.

Misunderstanding Piaget

Re-reading Piaget and García’s Psychogenesis and the History of Science (Piaget & Garcia, 1988). I like the way they explain the Piagetian project in the introduction.

It is clear to me that many of Piaget’s critics misunderstand the object of study of genetic psychology (either purposely or by ignorance).They criticize Piaget as if he was talking about the child as a concrete, integral individual (involving emotional, biological, socio-cultural and cognitive aspects); that is, as if Piaget were talking about the same child that is studied by developmental psychology.

Yet Piaget makes it very clear that it is not such a concrete child he’s studying but, rather, he’s concerned with an abstraction: the epistemic subject, i.e., the child as embarked on the construction of justifiable, i.e., normative knowledge; the “child as scientist.” Thus in section 2 of the Introduction Piaget and García make it clear that they are not concerned with the psychophysiology of human behavior (actions as material events, consciousness, memory, mental images, etc.) Rather they’re only interested in the child’s construction of cognitive instruments insofar as they are (or become) normative, that is, insofar as they come to be organized according to norms that the individual either gives herself or accepts from others during the processes of knowledge acquisition. If A. Gopnik (to give just one example, among many possible others, of an author that puts forward a distorted version of Piaget’s theory, and keeps defeating the strawman over and over again) understood this distinction, half of her criticisms of Piaget would instantly become pointless.

Piaget, J., & Garcia, R. (1988). Psychogenesis and the History of Science. New York: Columbia University Press.

The persuasive power of likes and up-votes

There’s a recent article in the New York Times about how “likes” and “up-votes” are contagious. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/science/internet-study-finds-the-persuasive-power-of-like.html

“Likes” and other user feedback systems are at the core of what is called the “Web 2.0”, a transformation of Internet culture (which is like saying, culture) that started around 2006.

A couple of years ago I wrote a book on argumentation (still unpublished) in which I claimed that likes, user feedback, and user ratings are the new form of argumentation. That is, the argument that if many people find something good then that must be good is the main topos of the current era; a purely quantitative form of argumentation. I quote from the article:

“Hype can work,” said one of the researchers, Sinan K. Aral, a professor of information technology and marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “and feed on itself as well.”

Later:

The first person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score. There was no change in the likelihood of subsequent negative votes. Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group.

“That is a significant change,” Dr. Aral said. “We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding.”

Interesting.

Corinne Iten on Anscombre and Ducrot’s Radical Argumentativism

I’ve just read a neat article that summarizes and discusses one of my favorite argumentation theories, namely Anscombre and Ducrot’s (Iten, 2000). The article recounts the historical evolution of A. & D.’s Argumentation Theory (AT).

Let’s start with an example of my own: “August inflation was barely 2%” vs. “August inflation was as high as 2%.” As A. & D. remark in their first publications, both utterances have the same informational (i.e. truth-conditional) content, yet they cannot be used as arguments in favor of the same set of conclusions. Another example: “there’s a little wine left” vs. “there’s little wine left” (conclusions: “we don’t need to buy more wine” in the former case, “let’s go buy a new bottle” in the latter). Same information, opposite argumentative orientations. To explain such phenomena, in their early works A. & D. postulated an integrated pragmatics (pragmatique intégrée). “They call it a ‘pragmatics’ because it is concerned with the sort of meaning that can’t be captured in terms of traditional truth-conditional semantics,” says Iten.

She reviews several of A. & D.’s most famous analyses, such as their treatment of “but” as an “argumentative operator” that connects two utterances with opposite argumentative orientation. My example: “I am enjoying your visit very much, but it’s late and I have to work tomorrow”. Not only do both clauses have opposite orientations; it can also be claimed that the second argument has greater argumentative strength than the first. Or you can take the utterance: “Peter is quite helpful. He didn’t do the dishes but he cleared the table.” According to A & D (1983: 107, as explained by Iten), the but in this sentence “is scalar in nature”, i.e. it not only indicates that the two clauses support contradictory conclusions (or have opposite argumentative orientations) but it also indicates that “Peter has cleared the table” is a stronger argument for “Peter is quite helpful” than “Peter didn’t do the dishes” is for “Peter isn’t helpful”.

Another example Iten brings up is the argumentative operator “nearly”: An utterance containing “nearly” usually has the same argumentative orientation as a corresponding utterance without “nearly”. (“He nearly hit that fence” or “He hit that fence” both warrant the conclusion “he’s a bad driver”). Iten says: “This could be a banal observation if it wasn’t for the fact that, from the point of view of informational content, ‘nearly X’ is equivalent to ‘not X’. This is made even more interesting by the fact that the argumentative orientation of an utterance containing barely (…) is the opposite of that of the same utterance without barely (…), in spite of the fact that ‘barely X’ is informationally equivalent to ‘X’.”

As part of their 1983 formulation, A. & D. also claim that “an act of arguing… is an illocutionary act, which is part of the meaning of every utterance”, a claim that blurs the distinction between the pragmatic and semantic domains.

Iten then discusses the latest formulation of the theory, which relies on the Aristotelian concept of topos or “argumentative commonplace.” “A topos is an argumentative rule shared by a given community.” “This argumentative rule is used to license the move from an argument to a conclusion.” It is an important feature of topoi that they are scalar in nature. For instance, if a topos states that when it’s hot it’s pleasurable to go to the beach, then the hotter it is, the more pleasurable it is to go to the beach (or eat ice-cream, or turn on the air-conditioner, etc.) The general form of a topos is “The more/less object O possesses property P, the more/less object O’ possesses property P’.”

With the introduction of topoi, A. & D. will no longer try to analyze the meaning of utterances in terms of “presupposed contents” (as in the earlier versions of their theory). Rather, the meaning of linguistic predicates is defined by the topoi associated with them, and by the network of possible conclusions they enable. The meaning of a predicate like work, for example, is given by a bundle of topoi involving gradations of work. Some topoi that could be part of the meaning of work are:

  • The more work, the more success.
  • The less work, the more relaxation.
  • The more work, the more fatigue.
  • The less work, the more happiness.

“Gradations of work are linked, via different topoi, with a series of other gradations, e.g. of success, relaxation, fatigue and happiness. These gradations, in turn, are themselves linked to different gradations still. For instance, gradations of happiness could be linked with gradations of health, appetite, etc. This network of gradations, linked via an infinite number of topoi, is what A & D (1989: 81) mean by a topical field.”

With this emphasis on topical fields, Iten claims, we arrive at a completely non-truth-conditional semantic theory. “In their own words, A & D (1989: 77/79) move from a position of considering “argumentation as a component of meaning” to one of “radical argumentativism”. This is a position where “the argumentative function of language, and with it argumentative meaning, is primary and the informative function of language secondary. In that sort of an account, any informational (or truth-conditional) meaning would be derived from an underlying argumentative meaning.”

While in its earlier stages AT acknowledged (to some degree) the distinction between semantics and pragmatics, in its later formulations it abandoned this distinction completely. Iten is right in concluding that, in its current state, Anscombre and Ducrot’s theory non-cognitive, non-truth-conditional, and reduces all linguistic phenomena to a semantic-pragmatic level of analysis.

The latest version of D. & A. also includes their beautiful (in my opinion) concept of polyphony. “The idea is that the (usually unique) speaker (locuteur) doing the uttering stages a dialogue inside her own monologue between different points of view (énonciateurs).” The most obvious examples of polyphony in our speech and verbal thinking are: direct and indirect reported speech, ironical utterances, utterances containing but and negative utterances.

Finally, Iten dwells in the extreme consequences of radical argumentativism for linguistic theory, namely: all linguistic meaning can be captured in purely argumentative terms; the meaning of every utterance can be described in terms of a collection of topoi, which constitute different points of view; and there is nothing about language as such that is informative, i.e. language is not cut out to be used to describe states of affairs.

Although Iten might be French, her criticism of A. & D. is too American in my opinion, and also a little unfair. Iten favors a cognitive paradigm according to which the human brain is a computer that takes in information from the outer world (“input”), processes it by applying computational rules, and produces output. The information is encoded in the head of the speaker as representations that can be true or false, that is, that can match or not match the facts of the world. This cognitive paradigm provides Iten with a yardstick for assessing the virtues of A. & D.’s theory, which does not fare well when subjected to such standards: it doesn’t explain how language represents the world; it doesn’t connect input with output; and it doesn’t predict arguments’ conclusions based on their premises.

Yet the merits of A. & D.’s theory lie elsewhere. A. & D. teach us to look at language in a new way. They provide us with tools to understand utterances as actions. One takes positions, defends certain points of view, creates assumptions, and commits to certain conclusions. All these argumentative movements take place on a stage-like mental space, and are carried out by a plurality of characters or actors that A. & D. call enunciators. I like this approach very much, among other reasons because it fits my own emphasis on the sense of justice that animates all argumentation. That’s why A. & D. (unbeknownst to them) also appeal to quasi-legal terminology, such as saying that a certain topos “licenses” the speaker to derive a certain conclusion, etc. In other words: the movement from premises to conclusions cannot be understood in computational terms; it has to be appreciated on the level of free, human action.