Thursday, October 30, 2014
What Wiki Doesn’t Know About Me
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show". This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Although I have great respect for what Wikipedia has achieved, I am disappointed that the description of my views in the article about me is one that could well have been written in 1999, when I published The Threefold Cord; Mind, Body and World. Here is “wiki’s” current description:
‘In metaphysics, he originally espoused a position called metaphysical realism, but eventually became one of its most outspoken critics, first adopting a view he called "internal realism”, which he later abandoned in favor of a pragmatist-inspired direct realism. Putnam's "direct realism" aims to return the study of metaphysics to the way people actually experience the world, rejecting the idea of mental representations, sense data, and other intermediaries between mind and world. In his later work, Putnam has become increasingly interested in American pragmatism, Jewish philosophy, and ethics, thus engaging with a wider array of philosophical traditions. He has also displayed an interest in metaphilosophy, seeking to "renew philosophy" from what he identifies as narrow and inflated concerns.’
More detail is given in the body of the wiki article, but the sections titled Metaphysics and Ontology and Pragmatism and Wittgenstein are very similar to the foregoing. This would have been pretty good if published in 2000 (although the suggestion that “direct realism” was my whole metaphysical position, and not simply my view in the philosophy of perception is very strange). but what it obviously misses is the many papers I published in the next decade and a half. Since 2012, when 36 of those papers were published by Harvard under the title Philosophy in an Age of Science, there does not seem to be any excuse for not doing a substantial revision. Here are some things I would like to see recognized in a revised and improved version of my entry:
“Direct realism” and “commonsense realism”
In The Threefold Cord, I defended “direct realism” with respect to perception (although I always put that term in “raised-eyebrow quotes” to indicate it was an old-fashioned term; I mostly spoke of “natural realism” and “commonsense realism” without the raised-eyebrow quotes). But the last of these terms, “commonsense realism” comprised much more than direct realism with respect to perception: it also comprised commonsense realism with respect to conception, by which I meant the “naïve realist” view that when we think of something we do not observe (e.g. deer on a meadow when no human is present, or even subatomic particles) our thought genuinely relates to the deer or the particles, and not to mental representations. (The Threefold Cord, pp. 43-64)
More recently, however, in the final chapter of Philosophy in an Age of Science (as well as in “Reply to Ned Block.” Reading Putnam, ed. M. Baghramian (London: Routledge, 2013): 319-321), I make it clear that the rejection of qualia-talk in The Threefold Cord is something I no longer agree with, and I credit my change of mind here to Block. The argument in The Threefold Cord went as follows: (1) I saddled the defender of qualia (aka “sense data”) with the view that there is no difference between qualia being identical and their seeming identical. (esse est percipi, in the case of qualia.) From this it follows that identity and indistinguishability must be the same relation. But identity is a transitive relation, and indistinguishability is not. Conclusion: talk of qualia (or “sense data”) doesn’t make sense (with a bow to Wittgenstein).
This was all a mistake. In chapter 28, “Wittgenstein a Reappraisal”, of Philosophy in an Age of Science, I parted ways completely—something I came to gradually over a period of about six years—with the Wittgensteinian idea that most philosophical positions and questions don’t make sense. Today, I think that identity and non-identity of qualia is a question to which brain-science can give answers. We do not have to rely only on verbal reports. (And if there is some vagueness even in the best scientific criteria, there is some vagueness in the identity criteria for just about all entities in the natural world!).
Furthermore, this does not mean that we should return to thinking of qualia as an interface between ourselves and the “external world”. Full perception does not begin with qualia, as traditional empiricism maintained, but with world-involving transactions. (Chapter 3 of Philosophy in an Age of Science, “Corresponding With Reality”. On this I agree with Tyler Burge’s Origins of Objectivity.) The defense of a modified naïve-realist account of perception does not require the denial of the existence of qualia. (At present, Hilla Jacobson and I are writing a book defending this “transactional” view of perception.)
As for mental representations, here too, it is true that representing external things is not merely having mental pictures or “sentences in Mentalese” that are caused by those things: it is exercising psychological capacities that enable one represent things and features of things; but just as qualia do have a role to play in perception, even if it is not the role that traditional empiricism assigned to them, so mental representations do have a role to play in conception, even if, here too, traditional empiricism led us astray for several centuries. I regret the “Wittgensteinian” tone with which I sneered at talk of “mental representations”.
In Corresponding With Reality” I described my present position as “liberal functionalist”, and I explained the term thus:
What I have in mind in speaking of a “liberal functionalist” is someone who, like me (or like me today), accepts the basic functionalist idea that what matters for consciousness and for mental properties generally is the right sort of functional capacities and not the particular matter that subserves those capacities, but (1) does not insist that those functions be “internal”, that is, completely describable without going outside the organism’s “brain” [thus Gibsonian “affordances” and Millikan’s “normal biological functioning” in an environment can all be involved in the description of the “functional organization” of an organism]; (2) does not insist that those capacities be described as capacities to compute (although she is naturally happy when computer science sheds light on some part of our functioning); and (3) does not even eschew intentional idioms, if they are needed, in describing our functioning, although she naturally wants an account of how intentional capacities grow out of proto-intentional capacities in our evolutionary history.
The first of these three characteristics of my liberalized functionalism implies that the capacities to function that are relevant to mentality have “long arms”; they reach out to the environment, as it were, instead of being just the programs of a computer in the skull. The second characteristic implies that the psychological, biological and neurological vocabulary needed to describe those functions and capacities to function need not be described in a vocabulary drawn from one science (e.g., computer science) or in any way fixed in advance; and the third characteristic implies that, in particular, intentional idioms (e.g., “refers to”) are not taboo. It shouldn’t surprise you that I see the details as largely something to be worked out by scientists in a number of different fields, but with philosophers playing the necessary if often unappreciated role of critics and “gadflies”.
I hope WIKI will one day catch up with all this!