NoR 2.6: Wrapping up section 2

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

We get to know a philosophical theory by considering what it predicts. We evaluate it by figuring out whether whether what it predicts is plausible and provides a good explanation. Radical interpretation, taken neat or with only uncontentious assumptions, appears not to predict all that much. It can do some things. For example, the bubble interpretations of agents, on which they’re agnostic about the nature of the world outside their bubble, were a major problem for structural radical interpretation. But substantive radical interpretation, given only the minimal gloss that maximizing substantive rationality involves, ceteris paribus, maximizing epistemic justification, predicts the bubble interpretation is correct. Even this result is not completely neutral: we need the first-order epistemological assumption that suspending judgement on the existence external world is (given our interpretee’s evidence) an unjustified attitude to adopt. But in comparison to what we’ve been looking at more recently, this is neutral on many issues of cognitive architecture and normative theory. But while ruling out one obviously incorrect interpretation is a predictive success, it’s not much to work with. A Godlike intelligence could perhaps look down at a creature’s pattern of actions and evidence and pick out the most substantively rational interpretation, and read off a list of predictions that could be subsequently checked for plausibility, etc. But that is no comfort for limited theorists like you and I. We need to do better.

In the last subsequence of posts, I’ve shown how–in conjunction with auxiliary assumptions–radical interpretation will predict a great deal. None of the auxiliary assumptions concerns the metaphysics of representation per se. Rather, they amount to particular claims in epistemology, practical normativity, or about how our psychological processing (“cognitive architecture”) works. But add them to radical interpretation as a metaphysics of representation, and the predications and explanations about representation start to flow. And of course, for every categorical prediction C derived on the basis of radical interpretation plus auxiliary assumptions A and N, radical interpretation on its own gives the following conditional prediction: if A and N, then C.

We are then in a position to evaluate radical interpretation on the grounds of whether these conditionals themselves are plausible or not. In principle, the result could have gone either way. It could have been, for example, that when you add together a plausible epistemology and cognitive architecture, you find radical interpretation undergenerating representational results. It could have been, for example, that within an inferentialist architecture, radical interpretation was unable to explain why a concept deployed like conjunction, denotes conjunction. It could have been that the cognitive structures plausibly associated with a perceptual demonstrative leaves their referent wildly determinate, unless we threw in more than just radical interpretation+plausible epistemology (e.g. it might really have been that *causal* or *naturalness* “saving constraints” in the theory of meaning would prove necessary). But in the test cases that I’ve been considering, this hasn’t happened. On the contrary, I’ve been able to reconstruct independently-motivated claims about patterns in what refers to what. This is promising, and allows radical interpretation to inherit predictions about concrete cases that advocates of the more local “theories of reference” built up in constructing their theories.

(Of course, it also inherits the vulnerabilities of such theories, though where the criticism is simply that the cognitive architecture is wrong, that simply shifts us to considering a different conditional prediction, and before taking radical interpretation to be refuted by a local counterexample, we might also consider whether it is faulty or incomplete normative assumptions that are really at fault).

The first moral I suggest we draw from this subsequence of posts is that the conditionals I have derived, in five different cases, constitute reasons to believe radical interpretation. Notice! The evidence I cite in its favour is that the targeted conditionals are correct. You could agree with me in this respect, even if you don’t endorse their antecedents. It’s natural for readers to want to consider whether the pattern of success is maintained for those conditionals whose antecedent assumptions about architecture and normativity they are prepared to endorse (or those they take more seriously). Having provided the model in the last few posts, I would be delighted to hear about the results of such further case studies.

In addition to the work done in providing reasons to believe radical interpretation, these case studies deliver further illumination in several respects.

A key theme in all our case studies is the relation between different literatures in the metaphysics of representation. On the one hand, there are (apparently) competing foundational theories of reference such as telosemantics, Fodor’s causally-driven psychosemantics, and radical interpretation. On the other, there are more local literatures where “causal” and “descriptive” theories of reference are in competition, or where authors are trying to work out what the connection is between the way we use logical concepts and their denotation. Often the first literature is explicitly reductive in motivation, whereas the latter may disclaim such ambitions. Contrast, for example, the spirit of Fodor’s asymmetric dependency “causal theory of reference” to Kripke’’s work that goes under that title. Kripke seeks to capture a pattern in the way reference works, but has no ambition thereby to contribute to a project that would reduce reference to something more naturalistically friendly.  But that reductive project is explicitly the motivation for Fodor’s account.

My story has the two approaches naturally meshing. The more Kripkean non-reductive project systematizes patterns in facts about what our concepts denote, connecting this to other features of us. There’s no reason to expect the most interesting such patterns can be stated in a way free of representational idioms. For example, Dickie’s story about perceptual demonstratives takes for granted throughout the interpretation of the observational concepts featuring in the bodies of belief associated with a given demonstrative concept. The pattern she articulates doesn’t require supplementation with a reduction of predicate-reference to be interesting. We might use them, for example, as the ingredients of an Evansian treatment of the sense of singular concepts—something I’ll be looking at later. And they may be explanatory valuable in other ways—for example, insofar as subjects are aware of the existence of these sort of patterns, they may use them in working out the likely content of another’s representations, and these facts may help explain how two subjects interact—e.g. I might infer that the subject to which you are perceptually linked is dangerous on the grounds of (1) hearing you express a perceptual demonstrative belief that that thing is dangerous, and (2) my knowledge of the patterns of reference involving perceptual demonstrative concepts.  (Stalnaker’s work putting “metasemantics” to work in explaining communicative phenomena is the inspiration for this kind of explanatory project).  But even once we see there’s a lot of reason to be interested in identifying patterns in the referents our concepts received, we can and should wonder why those patterns emerge—what unifies and explains them. Even if we detect a “common pattern” in theories of reference (“determination theories”) as Peacocke claims to have done, we might wonder why that meta-pattern emerges. Here, there is call for a more explicitly metaphysical, and reductively-constrained, theory that underwrites all the more local theories of reference. And it this lacuna that, I have argued, radical interpretation fills.

This perspective on the two kinds of project and their relation leads to two subsidiary benefits.

The first subsidiary benefit is to shape the way we articulate local patterns of reference. For example, my treatment of the way that “morally wrong” is fixed does not (unlike Wedgwood) appeal to a notion of validity applying to transition from moral judgement to preference. The centrality of validity in Wedgwood’s account is, I argued, an overgeneralization of a pattern Wedgwood takes from Peacocke, and there’s simply no need for this if it radical interpretation that gives the principled unification of local “determination theories”.

The second subsidiary benefit is to allow us to see better how to divide labour between foundational theory and pattern-articulation. For example, in the Lewisian tradition, “naturalness” of candidate referents has long been seen as an element in the foundational theory of representation. But we see on the present perspective how to locate it instead as an determinant of local patterns of reference for a broad class of “inductive” concepts—and we can also see how and why naturalness enters into the derivation of that pattern at a late stage (as part of a particular gloss on simplicity) so that it emerges as one of a whole family of possible patterns we get by varying epistemological factors.

Finally, one thing that we have gained through these case studies is the resources that will be needed to deal with a whole range of underdetermination/indeterminacy/inscrutability challenges. The bubble puzzle is one such challenge, particularly suited to radical interpretation in its most general form. Many others widely discussed in the literature (skolemite problems for quantification, permutation challenges for reference, Kripkesteinian and Quinean challenges to predicate-interpretation, the “problem of the many” and others) were developed with an eye to other theoretical settings, and need adapting to speak to the setting here. But ultimately, a good foundational theory needs to show where exactly the adapted versions of these famous puzzles go wrong. Quantification is a good example of the sort of satisfying resolution substantive radical interpretation promises. In my discussion of that case, I show how a plausible epistemology and plausible inferentialist architecture favour an unrestricted interpretation of our broadest quantificational concepts. While underdetermination theories remain excellent tools for testing our overall theory, already the discussion to this point gives us everything we will need to pass the examination.

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