William James’s Speculative Audacity: The Notion of Pure Experience


by Jack Flynn

William James is a uniquely American philosopher with a uniquely American philosophy usually labeled “Pragmatism.” This is also the title of one of his major books.   He shares this title with his compatriots, Pierce and Dewey, with some qualifications.  He presented himself  as an empiricist, a scientist, and a philosopher,  but he had profound differences with the English empiricist tradition.  Hence his radical empiricism.  James also found himself at odds with idealism, both of the historical variety, Hegel, and with that of his contemporary, Bradley, among others of the home grown variety, Royce. Rationalism, of whatever nationality, was always subject to his strong criticism; but in all theses instances his criticism was  not necessarily for the same reasons a traditional empiricist might have been critical.

James’s Essays In Radical Empiricism is a late work in which he attempts to pull together and define his own brand of Empiricism in  detailed argument and vivid language;  and, where we find many of his arguments against other empiricists and idealists. It is in these essays that he introduces the startling idea of “pure experience”  and gives a provocative title to the lead  essay, Does Consciousness Exist?  James’s postulate of “pure experience” enabled him to eliminate all the dualisms that had been haunting philosophy since Decartes and positively to provide new acount of consciousness, knowledge, activity, emotions and aesthetic objects.   However, these essays do not represent the systematic philosophy that he had hoped to have completed before he died.  They were assembled and published after his death and represent articles he had written in the last decade or so of his life. This article is analytic and expository rather than critical, attempting first to pull together aspects of a cetral but difficult concept.

James’s radical empiricism can be fairly represented by three principles found neatly articulated  in the opening pages of his  “The Meaning of Truth”; where he states that “Radical empiricism consists first of a postulate, next of a statement of fact, and finally of a generalized conclusion.

(1)      [The postulate] The only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience

(2)      [The statement of fact] The relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves

(3)      [The generalized conclusion]  Therefore the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience.” (MT, Author’s Preface)

Number one is easily recognizable as a common  empiricist position.  However, number two marks a radical departure because James is asserting his rejection of the foundational atomism of traditional empiricism.  He here recognizes the fact that we have cognitive access not only to disjunctive relations (atomism) but also to conjunctive relations.  Traditional empiricism flatly denies this.  In number three he not only makes the factual assertion that conjunctive relations are directly experienced, but also asserts the general principle that relations account for all the continuity we experience and are in fact every bit as important as things in the makeup of experience and reality.  (For example, the traditional difficulty that empiricist like Hume had with the “self” is no longer there for James since continuity is directly experienced and binds past to the present and projects future activity or goals.) James also distinguishes his empiricism in oppositions to rationalism when he asserts  the importance of parts, of individuals in experience, while rationalists tend to focus on wholes that typically evolve into abstractions:  “Empiricism, on the contrary, lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, or the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the universal as an abstraction. (ERE p 41).”

Having these principles neatly summarized will help in the task of understanding the difficult but key notion in his radical empiricism, namely, “pure experience,” but they can in no way contain the complexity and breadth of his philosophy.  Perhaps the most difficult task in understanding this idea is that of reconciling all the various characterizations James gives to the notion of  pure experience.  One of the main philosophical tasks James undertook was to ride the landscape of distorting dualisms: body/mind, thought/feeling, subject/ object, consciousness/content among the major ones.  He saw his principle of pure experience as abolishing these dualities by a functional analysis of experience.  However, he also sought to build an empiricist ontology on the basis of pure experience and sometimes these two goals allowed confusion.  The following are various ways in which James characterized “pure experience”:

(1)      No event is simply mental or physical but only functionally one or the other as it is related to a prior or later event in a specific way; (ERE p 123)

(2)      All sensible events are made up of the same neutral stuff – pure experience (ERE p 123-4) and

(3)      For every sensible event there are sequences of events such that it qualifies as mental in some of them and physical in others.  (ERE p 124)

The main thrust of the first postulate is epistemological because it undercuts Cartesian dualism by reducing so called mental and physical substances to functions of an epistemological subject who simply takes an experience as having certain properties in relation to a certain context to function a certain way – mental like or physical like according to the specific end in view.

The second postulate is the core ontological principle describing the absolute primal constituent of reality, i.e., a “neutral stuff” called  “pure experience.”  It is not possible to speak of an event as either mental or physical in itself but only functionally in relation to other events of a certain description.  Pure experience is neutral.  This poses a problem for James in his attempt to explain pure experience, since any statement about it cannot, by this account, take a mental or material predicate.  This is where other less circumspect statements he makes help us fill in our understanding, while at the same time raising new difficulties.  He uses a variety of colorful language to help bridge the gap between this pure experience and our common everyday experience.

The following are some of the various ways James attempts to describe pure experience while as much as admitting that it is futile since language inevitably misrepresents it:

First, “Experience in its immediacy seems perfectly fluent.  The active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us, is self-luminous and suggests no paradoxes….When the reflective intellect gets at work, however, it discovers incomprehensibilities in the flowing process.  Distinguishing its elements and parts, it gives them separate names, and what it thus disjoins it can not easily put together. ERE p 92”  A reader might legitimately wonder what exactly he refers to by that “active sense of living which we all enjoy….” before our reflective intellect gets busy and mucks everything up by giving names to things.   In a way it sounds like life might be in certain privileged nurseries, or possibly in a dream of Wordworthian tinged childhood.  Moreover, there is no “self” to enjoy anything here, but only a retroactive projection from the passing moment of experience to what it must have been like.  A bit later he is a little more specific.  ‘Pure experience’ is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. This formulation moves in the direction of an ontological category rather than the description of a psychological state.  James is struggling toward a metaphysical first principle, a simple “given” that is a foundation for all later determinations and psychological states, such as the “stream of consciousness” which he elaborated on in his Principles of Psychology.

Secondly,  James refers to special and/or unique states:  “Only new-born babes, or men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats; full of both oneness and manyness… Pure experience in this state is but another name for feeling or sensation. (ERE p 95)”      In fact what James is referring to here is a state in which there is no self-consciousness, only pure sensation.  There is no consciousness of something that would imply a split revealing a world for a subject.  The experience is one of unity, of no differentiation between self and other.  This is the ground zero state in which organism and environment are united.   The implication is that this must be either be a brief developmental stage of human growth or a state induced by accidental injury or by artificial means, drugs, hypnosis, etc.  As the development of this description continues there is a suggestion that the energetic flux itself has a dual reference; or, in fact, that it is that other pole that is the source of determinate sensations, e.g., red, hot, soft etc..  While it is mainly an attempt to capture in words that original experience of pure sensation, the words echo a complementary reality, an energetic other:

“The great continua of time [and] space…[that] envelope everything, betwixt them, and flow together without interfering.  The things that they envelope come as separate in some ways and as continuous in others.  Some sensations coalesce with some ideas, and others are irreconcilable.  Qualities compenetrate one space, or exclude each other form it.  They cling together persistently in groups that move as units, or else they separate.  Their changes are abrupt or discontinuous; and their kinds resemble or differ; and, as they do so, they fall into either even or irregular series  (ERE p.94-5).”

Thus, the reality that provides the “material” for the pure sensation (which we’ve learned is the “literal sense” of “pure experience” is “full both of oneness and manyness…changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity, can be caught.”  There is a problem here that James does not address directly but an answer can be teased out of the text and this is the question of how much of the determinations come to us as “kinds” or identities of one sort or another and how much of the determination is due to the “conceptual categories” reflecting human interest.  In what other way does James characterize this reality that stands as “other” to sensation, what sensation is of or what causes sensation?  This is an issue that must be addressed after all the various senses of “pure experience have been identified.

In a third sense of “pure experience” James focuses on the meaning of that present moment of sensation that is identified with it.  He recognizes that this present moment (pure sensation) is in a sense a construct (or reconstruction)  since it is past before consciousness can even take note of it, but it cannot be identified solely with the past either since then change, passing into the future would be a problem.  The only conclusion is that “pure experience” is an active process and that any “take” on it is an abstraction made for a specific purpose.  “Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges.  That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can not, I contend be denied.  Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected… we live prospectively as well as retrospectively.  It is ‘of’ the past, inasmuch as it comes expressly as the past’s continuation; it is ‘of’ the future in so far as the future, when it comes, will have continued it. (ERE p 87)”

What is missing here is the role that consciousness plays in the unfolding of pure experience.  For those in that special category (new born and those whose conscious states are altered by accident or drugs) James allows access to pure experience in the literal sense, although they are not self-consciousness during this “experience.” The rest of us have to rely on consciousness and verbalization for experience.  “But the flux no sooner comes than it tends to fill itself with emphases, and these salient parts become identified and fixed and abstracted: so experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and nouns, and prepositions and conjunctions.  Its purity is only a relative term, meaning the proportional amount of unverbalized sensation which it still embodies. (ERE p 94 )”  He discusses the tension between the state of pure sensation and the practical demands of life in this way:

“If now we ask why we must thus translate experience from a more

concrete or pure into a more intellectualized form, filling it with ever

more abounding conceptual distinctions…..The naturalist answer is

that the environment kills as well as sustains us, and the tendency of

raw experience [note the use of “raw” in place of “pure” here] to

extinguish the experient himself is lessened just in the degree in which

the elements in it that have a practical bearing upon life are analyzed

out of the continuum and verbally fixed and coupled together…Had

pure experience, the naturalist says, always been perfectly healthy,

there would never have arisen the necessity of isolating or verbalizing

any of its terms.  We should just have experienced inarticulately and

un-intellectually enjoyed.”

This structure between the experiencing self and the world is completely natural. As a common sense or direct realist, James is committed to the existence of the material world.  Yet the question arises:  Do our “intellectual forms” and “conceptual distinctions” and our “verbalizations” merely grab onto already determined things separating out those that are most important to human survival and well-being or do we in some fashion (idealistic?) also constitute things with these intellectual  forms?  There is no doubt that for James all concepts are functional constructs based on sensation or, more specifically, on perception.  Reality is flux and our concepts freeze its movement according to some interest or end in view.

In addition, there is an important question about whether James has confused  or run together the ordinary sense of material reality with a metaphysical concept of matter as an individuating principle and/or a principle of pure potentiality in the Aristotelian sense.  At one point in the Essays James emphasizes that in his first Essay (Does Consciousness Exist) he tried to show that thought and things “are absolutely homogeneous” with regard to their “material.”  He goes on to state that:   “There is no thought-stuff different from thing-stuff…but the same identical piece of ‘pure experience’ (which was the name I gave to the materia prima of everything) can stand alternately for a ‘fact of consciousness’ or for physical reality, according as it is taken in one context or another. (ERE p 138) “   This emphasizes his anti-dualist position that the difference between thought and material things is not substantial but only functional, while seeming to assert the independence of an ontological principle of matter.  On the other hand, at several points he indicates that experience or, rather, “pure experience” reveals a reality that is fundamentally chaotic.  This would give more weight to the “constituting” function of concepts in ordering experience for the survival and betterment of the human being.  In considering a static view of the universe James retorts that…”the universe we live in is more chaotic than this… (ERE p 141)”  Moreover, he continues:

“…the popular notion that these experiences [affectional] are intuitively given as purely inner facts is hasty and erroneous; and …their ambiguity illustrates beautifully my central thesis that subjectivity and objectivity are affairs not of what an experience is aboriginally made of, but of its classification.  Classifications depend on our temporary purposes.  For certain purposes it is convenient to take things in one set of relations, for other purposes in another set. (ERE p 141)”

Although this statement appears to favor a constructivist role for cognition vis-à-vis the world of pure experience, “taking things in one set of relations” is not identical with constituting these things, James’s realism on this issue needs further clarification.  In another statement we find:  “Taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic.  No one single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it. (ERE p 46)”

In another context, however, James gives an account suggesting a cosmological evolution, in contrast to the epistemological frame of the former example. Here “chaos’ is the metaphysical starting point of a story of speculative anthropology:

“If one were to make an evolutionary construction of how a lot of originally chaotic pure experience (my emphasis) became gradually differentiated into an orderly inner and outer world, the whole theory would turn upon one’s success in explaining how or why the quality of an experience, once active, could become less so, and, from being an energetic attribute in some cases, elsewhere lapse into the status of an inert or merely internal ‘nature.’  This would be ‘evolution’ of the psychical from the bosom of the physical, in which the aesthetic, moral and otherwise emotional experiences would represent a half-way stage. (ERE p38)”

It becomes increasingly clear though that epistemology and ontological are intertwined in the account of pure experience and need to be separated at least for the sake of explanation.  The whole question of James’s epistemology, the nature of percepts, concepts, knowledge, belief, truth, science etc., is something to take up in the second part of this essay.

Book by James consulted for this article:   Essays In Radical Empiricism; The Meaning of Truth; A Pluralistic Universe; Pragmatism.

Secondary Sources: The Divided Self of William James by Richard M. Gale

The Intentional Perspective


Harland Hauger, 2011

This paper considers the contemporary philosophical problem referred to in the philosophy of mind literature as “naturalizing the intentional”, in other words: finding a way to provide an account of contentful mental states in terms of a scientifically respectable ontology.  I argue that the extreme positions of eliminativism [this project is impossible, hence contentful mental states do not exist] and mysterianism [this project is impossible, hence scientific naturalism is inherently incomplete] both rest upon mistaken pictures of science and of intentional states.  I claim that the widely held opinion that this unification is either difficult or impossible is an artifact of antiquated attitudes about both science and intentionality, and provide a deflationary, “therapeutic” resolution; if one alters one’s attitude toward science and intentionality this apparent problem smoothly dissolves.  I argue that, if we accept a perspectival philosophy of science [herein exemplified by Ronald Giere] and an instrumentalist conception of intentionality [herein exemplified by Daniel Dennett] that this kind of intentionality and this kind of naturalism unify without difficulty

“…if it isn’t literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching, and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching, and my believing is causally responsible for my saying…if none of that is literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.”  (Fodor, 1990)

“…our commonsense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced…by completed neuroscience.” (Churchland, 1981)

Two vivid statements encapsulate extremes on a continuum which has preoccupied philosophers of mind for the better part of a century.  Many contemporary philosophers feel a tension so acute between two fundamental sectors of their intellect that otherwise sober responsible authors find themselves prone to attacks of alternately apocalyptic and transcendental rhetoric.   In the one hand we have what appears to be a powerful, progressive, consistent, elegant, and fruitful worldview accepted by most contemporary philosophers referred to as metaphysical or ontological naturalism: “reality is exhausted by nature…and the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality.” (SEP: “naturalism”, 2009)  And in the other we find that paragon of ubiquity, idiomatically entitled “folk psychology”: that language game which includes, chiefly, the propositional attitudes belief and desire, “a framework of concepts roughly adequate to the demands of everyday life, with which the humble adept comprehends, explains, predicts and manipulates [social interactions].”  (Churchland, 1989)

Many philosophers find it as difficult to deny the justification and efficacy of the naturalistic position and its scientific methods as to conceive of a situation where the whole of our belief-desire psychology must be abandoned.  Hence the profligate spillage of sweat, ink, and tears upon the project of reconciling folk psychology and science patented “naturalizing the intentional”.

Fodor and the strong intentional realists are looking for

“…at a minimum, the framing of naturalistic conditions for representation…something of the form ‘R represents S’ is true iff C where the vocabulary in which conditions C is couched contains neither intentional nor semantic expressions.” (Fodor, 1990)

If this requirement could be met, it seems we would indeed have integrated intentionality into the scientific order.  However, (as Fodor would admit) no such account is yet within our grasp despite the honest toil of many titanic intellects.  It is beginning to look more and more as though, if satisfaction of this sort of formula is necessary to successfully naturalize the intentional, Churchland and the eliminativists will win the day and it will be the end of the realists’ world.

Nevertheless, it is not the aim of this paper to rehash the debate between the realists and the eliminativists, but rather to provide a different sort of solution, or perhaps better yet: a deflation of the problem.  I would like to argue that, given the views of philosophy of mind and science that we ought to hold anyway (for other reasons, beyond the scope of this essay), there need be no tension between naturalism and folk psychology.  Herein I will present a case that a “perspectival” account of the philosophy of science as expounded by Ronald Giere, and an instrumentalistic account of intentionality as presented by Daniel Dennett’s “intentional stance” can be united in such a way as to provide a position which is both thoroughly naturalistic and maintains a robust intentional vocabulary, capable of both as successful predictions and as satisfying explanations as found in non-contentious cases of science.   I will follow tradition and discuss primarily “belief” as the paradigm case of an intentional object.
Daniel Dennett is soon to enter his fourth decade expounding, refining, and supporting a dual theory of “content and consciousness” the content half of which is based upon what he calls “The Intentional Stance”.  Through the years Dennett has rhetorically vacillated between more realist (“Real Patterns”, 1991) and more instrumental (“Three Kinds…” 1981) conceptions of intentionality, though the spirit of his strategy has remained strong throughout his career.  For the purposes of this paper, I will be employing a more explicitly instrumental conception than Professor Dennett would likely feel comfortable espousing, but I think (with Rorty, 1982) that this is the best reading.

For Dennett, there are no, nor could there be, any genuine “semantic engines” in the world.  The closest we have found is the human brain, which appears to “discover what its multifarious inputs mean, to discriminate their significance and act accordingly.”  However, physiology and cognitive science have shown us that the brain is “just a syntactic engine; all it can do is discriminate its inputs by their structural, temporal, and physical features.”  Dennett is a strong proponent of evolutionary explanations, and often reminds us that the brain is an artifact, designed by natural selection to “figure out what to do next”.  Dennett gives us a way out of this apparent disconnect between bio-neural teleology and physiological performance-capacity by claiming that the brain “could be designed to approximate the impossible task…by capitalizing on close fortuitous correspondences between structural regularities and semantic types.”  (Dennett, 1981)

This move, away from Fodor and Searle’s cry for scientific discovery of genuine semantic engines in nature, does not go so far as to eliminate all talk of semantics from science but seeks to carve out a “mild realist” niche from which we may capitalize on what, from our perspective, are “real patterns” in the behavior of a certain subset of complex adaptive systems in our environments, without forcing us into any specious ontological commitments.

In simple and direct language, the intentional stance is:

“the strategy of treating [an] object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental stages exhibiting intentionality…Any system whose behavior is well predicted by this strategy is, in the fullest sense of the word, a believer.” (Dennett, 1981)

Dennett makes much of the indispensability of the intentional stance.  His favorite example is that of playing chess against a computer running a sophisticated program; an object that everyone agrees is (merely) a syntactic engine.  He argues that the only way to win the game of chess is to treat the computer as an intelligent agent with beliefs and desires in a full and real sense.  To assume that it “knows” the rules of chess, and the position of the pieces, it “desires” to win the game, etc. and act accordingly.  Though, in theory, one could take a “physical stance” and examine every aspect of the computer at the finest grained description of which our current available science is capable of providing and use this information to predict the precise position of the king’s rook on the 12th turn, due to technological limitations, combinatorial explosion and other unfortunate epistemic limitations, this sort of calculation Is impossible.  Instead, one could attempt to move to a “design stance” wherein one would attempt to discover the tendencies of the particular chess program, reverse engineering the software to such an extent that predicting its tendencies would be second nature.  But of course this would not work at all for a single game, and with chess programs advanced as they were even in the late 90’s, it too would be an impossible task.  From a practical standpoint, if your goal is to win a particular one-off game of chess, one can only treat the computer as an agent with beliefs and desires: an intentional system.

The instrumental conception of intentionality begins to come into focus: What it is to be a believer is to be an intentional system, what it is to be an intentional system is to be reliably predicted by the attribution of intentional states to that system, and the decision to adopt the intentional stance is a pragmatic choice, which is, in many situations, the only practical option.

We can be comfortable with the entailment that there may be no fact of the matter as to what some system “really does believe”, for under this conception, a system does not have a belief in virtue of its possessing some corporeal object.  Rather, the belief is an abstract object, an “instrument” if you will.  The instrumentalist claims that “beliefs” do not need to exist, in the sense of being instantiated in the physical world, for even in a world so lacking; what do exist are certain dynamical systems which manifest complex behavioral patterns which really are successfully predicted by attributing intentionality to them.

“I suggest that folk psychology might best be viewed as a rationalistic calculus of interpretation and prediction”an idealizing abstract, instrumentalistic interpretation method that has evolved because it works and works because we have evolved. “ (Dennett, 1981b)

So what, then, is this idealized abstract calculus within which reside our treasured intentional objects?  If we are to put all our beliefs in one basket, we will need some assurances. This is where Giere’s program of “scientific perspectivalism” comes in.

We begin by acknowledging that scientific claims are linguistic, and that language is a cultural artifact.  Giere therefore urges us, “our focus should be on representation…” and summarizes the scientific use of language with the following formula:

(I)                 S uses X to represent W for purposes P.

S can be an individual scientist, a specific scientific group, or even a community.  W is meant to be an “aspect of the real world”.   But the pressing question then becomes, of course, “What are the values of the variable X?”  (Giere, 2004)  Whatever further criteria we apply as constraints on XX will be linguistic.  This much is clear, but the interesting question is, what sort of linguistic representation ought it be?  The conclusion of many philosophers of science is that, when applying (I) to scientific vocabularies, what takes the place of X is “theories” or “models”, within which terms of art are combined with an ontology and a set of theoretical axioms to construct some “lawlike empirical generalization”.

For example: Newton’s gravitational model is often interpreted to include a linguistic object such as “All bodies attract…”  Maintaining our concentration on the language we might then wonder, “To what does this term ‘body’ refer?”  The standard picture has it referring to realobjects in the real world.   Under this interpretation, laws make direct empirical claims about the world, and the job of empirical science is to go forth, find “bodies” and test them for “attractiveness” (so to speak).  But here Giere brings our attention to the common occurrence, exemplified by Newton, that the scientific vocabulary can’t be making claims about the world, because the entities invoked in the ontology of the theory are admitted by its own adherents tonot really exist.  In the Newtonian case, “bodies” means “mass points” yet within Newtonian physics “No real object can be a mass at a point”.

So to what does the vocabulary of our scientific models refer, if not to objects in the world?  Giere’s answer is “idealized abstract objects”.  This view of representation has been nicknamed by Paul Teller the “Giere Triangle”, according to which:

“…language connects not directly with the world, but rather with a model, whose characteristics may be precisely defined.  The connection with the world is then by way of similarity between a model and designated parts of the world.”  (Giere, 2000)

If we read Newtonian theory as “defining abstract objects” rather than “describing real objects”, the job of empirical science is to “test the fit” of this particular model to the world (Giere, 2000).   Science, on this picture is an extremely pragmatic endeavor, a sort of “social conversation” (Rorty, 1981) where the ultimate judge of an apt fit is determined by the available technology, accepted values, and current data-set of the scientific community.

Testing this “representational” understanding of models to a clear case, Giere asks us to apply it to a simple applied mathematical model of,

“an auto moving away in a straight line from an intersection at velocity v having started at time zero a distance away:  d(t) = vt + d0.  One may say that, in the model, this equation is true.  What one cannot say is that the equation is true of the position of a real auto…The question, as always, is how similar the real situation is to the model…” (Giere, 2000)

Returning to (I), we can now complete our interpretation of X as: a representational model which defines an idealized, abstract object which can be empirically tested for fit with some designated object in the world.

Having presented both prongs of my proposed perspective, witness how smoothly they conjugate to provide my proposal for a version of naturalized intentionality.

We treat the intentional stance as a representational model.  Again filling in the variables of (I) we would have something like this:

(II)               Folk Psychologists use the intentional stance to represent sufficiently complex systems in their environments for the purposes of predicting and explaining the behavior of said systems.

The linguistic entities created by folk psychology, for example, are then construed not as making a truth functional claim about existent entities in the world, but rather as defining a set of abstract objects including: a rational agent, that agent’s beliefs and desires, behavior caused by the conjunction of these intentional objects, etc.  It is then the task of a pragmatic empiricism to see how well we think this model fits the natural world.

It is the province of the social conversation of science to determine the axioms of this theory, though Dennett does provide us some candidates such as: (1) Always attribute the beliefs a system ought to have, and (2) Begin by attributing perfect rationality and then revise downward as further evidence comes in.

For example, we see a woman in an expensive dress standing outside at a bus stop as it begins to rain.  Our task is to predict her behavior.  Clearly neither physics nor any other special science will be of any use to us in this position, but the intentional perspective is tailor-made.  We note that she exhibits a facial expression and body language which we have, through prior observation of the species, previously correlated with displeasure which leads us to attribute to her a dislike of her present circumstances which we find understandable as it is both physically uncomfortable and potentially detrimental to the integrity of her garment to get wet.  We note that she glances at the sky and her immediate surroundings, and attribute to her many beliefs, selecting some as relevant such as “It is now-here raining” and “Transit shelter there”.  We attribute to her the ability to reason “Current relocation under shelter=rain-protection”.   Based upon this and other “obvious” determinations of our intentional systems model, we predict that she will move into the shelter.

The question of whether any scientist, under even the best possible circumstances, even in this simple case could by any means whatever discover something about the natural world such that it satisfied a Fodor-style requirement is an interesting and valuable question.  However, in lieu of such a satisfaction and in the face of powerful philosophical arguments that one may not be forthcoming (Stich, 1985) we still have a model which fits what we observe to a striking degree of exactitude: the intentional stance.

So, to the charge of having constructed a “behavoristic calculus” we plead an unabashed guilty.    A behavoristic calculus it is, but one could argue, what more is any other science?  Cannot physics be described, among other things, as the systematic, empirical study of the behavior of subatomic particles?  It has its methods, its tools, its models through which advocates perceive the results of their investigations and construct their theories.  It has a particular ontology consisting of quarks and leptons and a revolving door of other playful monikers.  Physics is a perspective that we can choose to adopt to address a certain subset of questions it is well equipped to answer.

The intentional stance parallels this perfectly, simply with the substitution of a shifting subset of complex adaptive systems as the domain of study.  Chief among the ontological posits of this perspective are those items with which philosophers of mind have been so concerned: agents, beliefs, desires, etc.  which turn out to be defined as that which fill the proper roles in our currently accepted model of intentional systems, nothing more, nothing less.  If cognitive science happens to find a neural correlate which satisfies a substantial enough portion of the requirements so as to convince us that we ought to make some sort of quasi-reductive convergence of intentional stance theory with some more primitive branch of “hard” science, so much the better. We are already beginning to benefit from this sort of consilience in the biology-chemistry-physics unification.  However, even should such a convergence not be in the offing, this is not to say that intentional systems theory is somehow lacking, or unscientific.  If, from the perspective of another science, the ontology of intentional systems theory turns out to be “non-existent”, we say that’s fine!  Nevertheless, the predictions gleaned from the application of, and the epistemic comfort provided by the explanations in terms of intentional language will still be successful.   And in this case, we have all that we need for a naturalized intentionality.

What is Science?


George Orwell (1945)

In last week’s Tribune, there was an interesting letter from Mr. J. Stewart Cook, in which he suggested that the best way of avoiding the danger of a ‘scientific hierarchy’ would be to see to it that every member of the general public was, as far as possible, scientifically educated. At the same time, scientists should be brought out of their isolation and encouraged to take a greater part in politics and administration.

As a general statement, I think most of us would agree with this, but I notice that, as usual, Mr. Cook does not define science, and merely implies in passing that it means certain exact sciences whose experiments can be made under laboratory conditions. Thus, adult education tends ‘to neglect scientific studies in favour of literary, economic and social subjects’, economics and sociology not being regarded as branches of science. Apparently. This point is of great importance. For the word science is at present used in at least two meanings, and the whole question of scientific education is obscured by the current tendency to dodge from one meaning to the other.

Science is generally taken as meaning either (a) the exact sciences, such as chemistry, physics, etc., or (b) a method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact.

If you ask any scientist, or indeed almost any educated person, ‘What is science?’ you are likely to get an answer approximating to (b). In everyday life, however, both in speaking and in writing, when people say ‘science’ they mean (a). Science means something that happens in a laboratory: the very word calls up a picture of graphs, test-tubes, balances, Bunsen burners, microscopes. A biologist, and astronomer, perhaps a psychologist or a mathematician is described as a ‘man of science’: no one would think of applying this term to a statesman, a poet, a journalist or even a philosopher. And those who tell us that the young must be scientifically educated mean, almost invariably, that they should be taught more about radioactivity, or the stars, or the physiology or their own bodies, rather than that they should be taught to think more exactly.

This confusion of meaning, which is partly deliberate, has in it a great danger. Implied in the demand for more scientific education is the claim that if one has been scientifically trained one’s approach to all subjects will be more intelligent than if one had had no such training. A scientist’s political opinions, it is assumed, his opinions on sociological questions, on morals, on philosophy, perhaps even on the arts, will be more valuable than those of a layman. The world, in other words, would be a better place if the scientists were in control of it. But a ‘scientist’, as we have just seen, means in practice a specialist in one of the exact sciences. It follows that a chemist or a physicist, as such, is politically more intelligent than a poet or a lawyer, as such. And, in fact, there are already millions of people who do believe this.

But is it really true that a ‘scientist’, in this narrower sense, is any likelier than other people to approach non-scientific problems in an objective way? There is not much reason for thinking so. Take one simple test — the ability to withstand nationalism. It is often loosely said that ‘Science is international’, but in practice the scientific workers of all countries line up behind their own governments with fewer scruples than are felt by the writers and the artists. The German scientific community, as a whole, made no resistance to Hitler. Hitler may have ruined the long-term prospects of German science, but there were still plenty of gifted men to do the necessary research on such things as synthetic oil, jet planes, rocket projectiles and the atomic bomb. Without them the German war machine could never have been built up.

On the other hand, what happened to German literature when the Nazis came to power? I believe no exhaustive lists have been published, but I imagine that the number of German scientists — Jews apart — who voluntarily exiled themselves or were persecuted by the règime was much smaller than the number of writers and journalists. More sinister than this, a number of German scientists swallowed the monstrosity of ‘racial science’. You can find some of the statements to which they set their names in Professor Brady’s The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism.

But, in slightly different forms, it is the same picture everywhere. In England, a large proportion of our leading scientists accept the structure of capitalist society, as can be seen from the comparative freedom with which they are given knighthoods, baronetcies and even peerages. Since Tennyson, no English writer worth reading — one might, perhaps, make an exception of Sir Max Beerbohm — has been given a title. And those English scientists who do not simply accept the status quo are frequently Communists, which means that, however intellectually scrupulous they may be in their own line of work, they are ready to be uncritical and even dishonest on certain subjects. The fact is that a mere training in one or more of the exact sciences, even combined with very high gifts, is no guarantee of a humane or sceptical outlook. The physicists of half a dozen great nations, all feverishly and secretly working away at the atomic bomb, are a demonstration of this.

But does all this mean that the general public should not be more scientifically educated? On the contrary! All it means is that scientific education for the masses will do little good, and probably a lot of harm, if it simply boils down to more physics, more chemistry, more biology, etc., to the detriment of literature and history. Its probable effect on the average human being would be to narrow the range of his thoughts and make him more than ever contemptuous of such knowledge as he did not possess: and his political reactions would probably be somewhat less intelligent than those of an illiterate peasant who retained a few historical memories and a fairly sound aesthetic sense.

Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method — a method that can be used on any problem that one meets — and not simply piling up a lot of facts. Put it in those words, and the apologist of scientific education will usually agree. Press him further, ask him to particularize, and somehow it always turns out that scientific education means more attention to the sciences, in other words — more facts. The idea that science means a way of looking at the world, and not simply a body of knowledge, is in practice strongly resisted. I think sheer professional jealousy is part of the reason for this. For if science is simply a method or an attitude, so that anyone whose thought-processes are sufficiently rational can in some sense be described as a scientist — what then becomes of the enormous prestige now enjoyed by the chemist, the physicist, etc. and his claim to be somehow wiser than the rest of us?

A hundred years ago, Charles Kingsley described science as ‘making nasty smell in a laboratory’. A year or two ago a young industrial chemist informed me, smugly, that he ‘could not see what was the use of poetry’. So the pendulum swings to and fro, but it does not seem to me that one attitude is any better than the other. At the moment, science is on the upgrade, and so we hear, quite rightly, the claim that the masses should be scientifically educated: we do not hear, as we ought, the counter-claim that the scientists themselves would benefit by a little education. Just before writing this, I saw in an American magazine the statement that a number of British and American physicists refused from the start to do research on the atomic bomb, well knowing what use would be made of it. Here you have a group of same men in the middle of a world of lunatics. And though no names were published, I think it would be a safe guess that all of them were people with some kind of general cultural background, some acquaintance with history or literature or the arts — in short, people whose interests were not, in the current sense of the word, purely scientific.



George Orwell: ‘What is Science?’
First published: Tribune. — GB, London. — October 26, 1945.

— ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’. — 1968.

Machine-readable version: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2004-12-06

Test Your A-Morality


by Goran

TheTest Your Morality experiment is based the new “super-organism” moral theory. This “theory” happens to be just the latest among the disturbingly ubiquitous displays of profound ignorance as to what morality and ethics are about.

We are invited to take part in what Lab UK calls “groundbreaking science”:

“The new theory suggests that all moral actions are based on the fundamental need to ‘police’ society in order to keep the ‘superorganism’ functioning properly, and that everyone in human social groups inadvertently plays the role of ‘unofficial policeman’ by making judgments about how others behave.

Moral action, according to this theory, is driven by the expectation of punishment if we don’t properly carry out our roles within the ‘super-organism’ properly.

We each play a variety of roles in the large societies of which we are a part. These range from our professional roles at work, to being a good parent, to being captain of the local chess club.

If we shirk on the job, or let our kids run wild, or cheat at tournaments, we can expect to be punished by others in the relevant social group. This may be directly, through confrontation or sanctions, or indirectly, through shunning or exclusion.

So why do we have individual morality? Why isn’t everyone’s morality the same? Because the theory posits that our moral responses are ‘tuned’ to the roles we fulfil in our social groups. We each fulfil different roles in society, so we each develop our own personal morality.”

And the purpose?

 “Ultimately, we hope the findings from Test Your Morality will lead to an improved understanding of how morality works and could help us to organise our societies in more fruitful ways in future.”

To summarize:

1. Social groups are “organisms”. We, (you and I) are parts of an organism, much like ordinary cells are part of a body.

2. Social groups, like organisms, have mechanisms of self-defense which protect them from harm. We (you and I),  are much like anti-bodies, kicking into gear by firing up our moral judgments whenever a threat is on the horizon. We apparently do it both out of biological necessity and fear of punishment.

3. Now that we know what we do and why we do it, we will finally be able to organize our societies (organisms) in such a “fruitful” way that their well-being is better assured in the future.

This “theory” is based on several items of appalling intellectual recklessness:

– Poor analogy. I remember having similar thoughts at about the age of twelve. Then I read some books.

– The effortless transition from what we do and why we do it  to somehow knowing (usually in some future) what we (will) ought to do. (The incoherence of this sentence illustrates the incoherence of the thought behind it). No mechanism is ever given for this transition. We just need to trust that it will happen.  Never mind that, as far back as 1739,  David Hume demonstrated the impossibility of moving from “Is” to “Ought”.  But that’s just philosophy. No one takes it seriously any more.

– Like any moral theory, this one too pronounces “the good”:  “The good” is the “super-organism”, the society. The goal is to become better at protecting it. Inadvertently,  like a blind chicken, the “groundbreaking science” stumbles upon an “ought” – We ought to become better at protecting the society (organism) of which we are part. This, apparently, is the goal of morality.

The study of ethics is, it appears,  no more than observation of human behavior and formulation of theories that explain it. Then we have a Promise that in some future  sufficient amount of accumulated fact will make us “better”. This is based on an (accidental) assumption of what “the good” constitutes of.

On display here is the naturalistic approach to ethics. It seems to be all the rage in certain circles lately. It certainly sells a lot of books. As Richard Polt puts it in his excellent NYT article “Anything But Human”:

“Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.”

It is no accident that the “super-organism” theory completely ignores the individual. When a human being is explained away in terms of behavior, biology and, in this case, silly analogy, the individual is stripped of all value. That value is transferred to whatever accidental “good” happens to be given.  In this case it is Society, but the word is synonymous with “The People”, “Fatherland”, “Motherland”, or whatever other pet-name is given to the “Super-Organism”.

If this sounds sinister, that’s because it IS.  It is bad enough when these old, worn out, populist and ultimately evil-producing perversions of ethics are driven by political, clerical, nationalist and other agendas. This latest naturalistic fad is especially atrocious because it is based on agendas far lesser in scope. It sells books. It rides free on the enormous successes of our scientific endeavors. It appeals to common sense.

It is free of philosophy. It is a dry, empty husk, light as a feather, easy to lift. It is worthless.

It spreads ignorance.

The Morality Test is worth taking. If your results indicate that you are a danger to the “Super-Organism”, wear that badge with pride and walk away in full possession of your individual human dignity.

If your results indicate anything else, forget about it as quickly as you can. This has nothing to do with ethics.