Reality Conditions

Monday, May 01, 2006


First, I apologize for the lack of posting in the past few days. Attribute it to a combination of unusual blog laziness and the usual connection problems to login to Blogger from home.

In the time that pondering the response of particle detectors in de Sitter space leaves me, I have been reading several books which deserve a notice here:

1) Daniel Dennett, Content and Consciousness.

Writing last week's post on Chalmers and Dennett left me with a strange urge to read this book, Dennett's first published one and the only one I had not read before, excluding his latests Breaking the Spell and Sweet Dreams. So I got it from the university library. It is a less easy, smooth read than his later works –its origin out of a Ph.D. thesis is visible- and some parts of the discussion seem outdated. But it is interesting as foreshadowing the major themes in his future works, and the first chapter, on ontological commitments of mental discourse, makes his position on some fundamental questions more clear and understandable than any more recent statements, while at the same time highlighting both the similarities and the differences with the Rylean approach to philosophy of mind. Dennett compares talk of minds with talk of voices; sentences about voices like "Smith had a high-pitched voice which he has lost, but fortunately it is kept in tapes" cannot be translated into physicalistic language in a way that identifies any physical entity, process or set thereof as "the voice" -and yet we are happy with saying both that voices exist, and that they are not misterious entities which are "left out" of a physicalistic description like Cartesian souls would be. So far this is very much like Ryle on minds, and –I think- also like the most recent version of Putnam with its conceptual relativity + "natural realism". But Dennett adds a twist: in his opinion this peaceful coexistence of body-talk and mind-talk can only go on if we acknowledge that "strictly speaking" it is body talk which is fundamental, and mind-talk is "not referential"; otherwise we would be led inevitably to absurd (from a Rylean standpoint) sentences as "both the body and the mind exist". This is putting Quine on top of Ryle, so to say. It privileges the conceptual frame that integrates with the rest of science in a continuous web as the "true" one, while the other ones are left as being "true with a grain of salt" as Dennett puts it in The Intentional Stance. It is interesting that perhaps Dennett and (the present) Putnam may hold views substantially very similar in philosophy of mind, and seem to say very different things due to a metaphilosophical disgreement: Dennett assumes that the paradigm of true discourse is physical science, while Putnam does not want to privilege one kind of discourse in such a way. It is only this difference what makes Dennett a "materialist" and Putnam not one. The disagreement between Dennett and Chalmers, as we saw, is also ultimately metaphilosophical though in a different way. (I am using "metaphilosophical" as short for "meta-philosophy of mind")

2) Susan Haack, Manifiesto of a Passionate Moderate.

I saw this book on a shelf of the library while I was searching for Dennett’s and borrowed it seduced by the lovely title. It consists in essays against relativistic tendencies in philosophy –the main target being Richard Rorty. Haack describes herself as a pragmatist in Pierce’s tradition, and claims that Rorty's philosophy with its disregard for truth, "pure inquiry", and related concepts is a perversion of Pierce’s insights. There is a deliciously funny "dialogue" between Rorty and Pierce built up entirely with quotes from them, which shows how diametrically opposite are their views on most philosophical subjects. Some of Pierce's quotes, such as a refutation of Kuhnianism avant la lettre, are amazingly prescient, or else they show that there is nothing new under the sun. My favourite essay in the book apart from that one is "Reflections on Relativism: From Momentous Tautology to Seductive Contradiction", which explores the possibility and self-consistency of a middle groud between what Putnam calls "metaphysical realism" and "conceptual relativity" –the possibility of what Haack calls an "innocent realism". This is tangle of philosophical problems which fascinate me -see my old post on Social Constructivism- and on which I might write more shortly. The rest of the essays –attacking feminist epistemology, or cultural relativism, for example- are good, common sensical, and mostly not very deep.

3) Isaac Asimov, Foundation's Edge

A change of genre! Asimov's Foundation series was my favourite piece of literature at the age of 15, and this book was my favourite in the whole series. It was also the only one that I didn't buy, reading it from a library instead, and therefore the only one I hadn't reread since that age. Last week I saw it in a book sale for only £1 and I couldn't resist buying it, even knowing that I was going to be disappointed. And I was, of course. The clash between the First and Second Foundations that fascinated my younger self seems now too contrived. There are many loose threads, not only in intertextual references (mentions to robots, Eternals and other Asimovian creations that are not consistent with the rest of the series) but also within the book itself. The depiction of Second Foundationers as human beings with weaknesses and political rivalry is interesting, as is the alternative between three possible futures presented at the end of the book (although, as many have pointed out, the choice made at the end has disturbing political implications, I think that Asimov was innocent of political allegory and was just trying to write a thrilling story). But the two main characters Trevize and Pelorat are among the worst that Asimov ever created, as is the Gaian Bliss that joins them at the end. But at least this book is not just plain bad as its sequel Foundation and Earth, which keeps this three obnoxious characters, throws away all the interesting Galactic politics and Seldon Plan discussions that define a Foundation book, and gives the characters instead the boring task of finding the lost planet Earth. This book is not a sequel fully worthy of the classic Foundation trilogy, but at least it makes an interesting read for those that have read it and are anxious for more.

And now two brief notices also book-related.The first concerns a book I have not read and always have felt ashamed of not having read: Dante's Comedy. Even not having read it, I found this post and discussion about it at The Valve most interesting. The second concerns the first novel I read in my life (at age 6), Robinson Crusoe. The Little Professor has a collection of links about it.


  • My favorite book in the Foundation series was always Second Foundation; although I like the first two quite a bit, too.

    By Blogger Brandon, at 6:22 AM, May 03, 2006  

  • I tend to agree with you now. For some time I prefered some of the later books, not only Foundation's Edge but also Robots and Empire and Prelude to Foundation. This was because the classic trilogy seemed very naive and outdated in many respects. I realized later that the more recent books are also very much a product of their time, no less naive in many respects... and generally much less exciting.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 5:41 PM, May 03, 2006  

  • If you liked Haack's attacks on Rorty you might find David Hildebrand's Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the neoPragmatists. It's a history of realist and anti-realist attacks on Dewey in the early 20th century and then an argument that both Rorty and Putnam have fallen into exactly the same traps and misreadings of the pragmatists. It's not directly Peirce focused, although Peirce certainly has a strong presence in the book.

    By Blogger Clark Goble, at 5:47 PM, May 03, 2006  

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