Know how

Jason Stanley and John Krakauer in the NYT

We argue that skilled human activity generally requires the acquisition and manipulation of knowledge, as well as implicit processes that do not depend on propositional knowledge (for example, increased dexterity). It is hard, and perhaps not possible, to forge a theoretically significant distinction between working with one’s hands and working with one’s mind.

100- George Best scores six v Northampton (1970)-675941

The Avuncular David Hume

Hume is on my mind especially in regard to my current work on Adam Smith. To this end, I’ve been re-watching Bryan Magee’s series The Great Philosophers from ’87. I’ve especially enjoyed the Hume discussion with John Passmore. Magee is an expositor second to none despite the fact that his expert guests are more intimate with- and have produced more distinguished work on- any of the target thinkers. In this Passmore interview (see below) one has the distinct sense that Magee is getting a great deal of pleasure by letting Passmore rattle on and then with utmost clarity and brevity restating the issue. This is not to put Passmore down – it is more to highlight Magee’s very special talent. I think Tony Quinton had that expository talent in writing but even he got flustered in his chat with Magee on Spinoza and Leibniz. Hume has a special place amongst my intellectual furniture. He speaks to me as the first modern: his discussion of personal identity, political philosophy, epistemology and ethics seem so germane to me as a so-called situated theorist. In any event, anyone who considers themselves a well-read person and who has not read Hume, is really quite impoverished, stylistically and substantively.

Moreover, what I particularly like about Hume is his even temperament and good nature along with his cutting wit. I’d have him by my side at my imaginary dinner party which wouldn’t be comprised by self-ascribed “intellectuals”: only people who love food, wine, conversation and laughter would be there.

He built a house in Edinburgh’s New Town, and spent his autumnal years quietly and comfortably, dining and conversing with friends, not all of whom were “studious and literary,” for Hume also found that his “company was not unacceptable to the young and careless.” One young person who found his company particularly “acceptable” was an attractive, vivacious, and highly intelligent woman in her twenties — Nancy Orde, the daughter of Chief Baron Orde of the Scottish Exchequer. One of Hume’s friends described her as “one of the most agreeable and accomplished women I ever knew.” Also noted for her impish sense of humor, she chalked “St. David’s Street” on the side of Hume’s house one night; the street still bears that name today. The two were close enough that she advised Hume in choosing wallpaper for his new home, and rumors that they were engaged even reached the ears of the salonnières in Paris. Just before his death, Hume added a codicil to his will, which included a gift to her of “ten Guineas to buy a Ring, as a Memorial of my Friendship and Attachment to so amiable and accomplished a Person.”

He also become the rage of the Parisian salons, enjoying the conversation and company of Diderot, D’Alembert, and d’Holbach, as well as the attentions and affections of the salonnières, especially the Comtesse de Boufflers. (“As I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”)

From The Hume Society

Hume himself:

With regard to politics and the character of princes and great men, I think I am very moderate. My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representation of persons to Tory prejudices. Nothing can so much prove that men commonly regard more persons than things, as to find that I am commonly numbered among the Tories.

Cited in Ernest Mossner classic biography The Life of David Hume (Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 311.

Let’s give the final word to his dear friend:

Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

Adam Smith


Understanding the Tacit

My chum Steve Turner has a new book out. It has much Oakeshott interest and as many will know Steve has been a longstanding Oakeshott commentator. For me, one of his key articles is “Tradition and Cognitive Science: Oakeshott’s Undoing of the Kantian Mind”, a piece that I reference quite regularly. OK, so the book is ridiculously expensive – just put in a request to your library. Here is an excerpt: Tacitness in Practice Theory Practices Then and Now.



Review of Franco-Marsh Companion

Review essay of A Companion to Michael Oakeshott


by Suvi Soininen

Redescriptions: yearbook of political thought, conceptual history and feminist theory. 2012/2013, vol. 16, pp. 172-187 (in downloadable pdf)




See here.

GETTIERIZED KNOBE EFFECTS James R. Beebe and Joseph Shea








Stigmergic epistemology, stigmergic cognition

Here is the intro and conclusion to Chris and my paper:

To know is to cognize, to cognize is to be a culturally bounded, rationality-bounded and environmentally located agent. Knowledge and cognition are thus dual aspects of human sociality. If social epistemology has the formation, acquisition, mediation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge in complex communities of knowers as its subject matter, then its third party character is essentially stigmergic. In its most generic formulation, stigmergy is the phenomenon of indirect communication mediated by modifications of the environment. Extending this notion one might conceive of stigmergy as the extra-cranial analog of artificial neural networks or the extended mind. With its emphasis on coordination, it acts as the binding agent for the epistemic and the cognitive. Coordination is, as David Kirsh (2006, p. 250) puts it, “the glue of distributed cognition”. This paper, therefore, recommends a stigmergic framework for social epistemology to account for the supposed tension between individual action, wants and beliefs and the social corpora: paradoxes associated with complexity and unintended consequences. A corollary to stigmergic epistemology is stigmergic cognition, again running on the idea that modifiable environmental considerations need to be factored into cognitive abilities. In this sense, we take the extended mind thesis to be essentially stigmergic in character.

This paper proceeds as follows. In Section 2, we set out the formal specifications of stigmergy. In Section 3, we illustrate the essentially stigmergic characteristics of social epistemology. In Section 4, we examine extended mind externalism as the preeminent species of stigmergic cognition. In Section 5 we illustrate how the particle swarm optimization (PSO) algorithm for the optimization of a function could be understood as a useful tool for different processes of social cognition, ranging from the learning of publicly available knowledge by an individual knower, to the evolution of scientific knowledge. In Section 6, we offer some concluding remarks.


A great deal of ground has been covered in the course of which we have made a case for two central claims:

1. Social epistemology has the formation, acquisition, mediation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge in complex communities of knowers as its subject matter. Such knowledge is, for the most part, third party and as such it is knowledge that is conditioned and modified. Understood thus, social epistemology is essentially stigmergic.

2. One might conceive of social connectionism as the extra-cranial analog of an artificial neural network providing epistemic structure. The extended mind thesis (at least the Clarkean variant) runs on the idea that modifiable environmental considerations need to be factored into cognitive abilities. This notion of cognition is thus essentially stigmergic.

With 1 and 2 in mind, two disclaimers are in order. First, a stigmergical socio-cognitive view of knowledge and mind should not be construed as (a) the claim that mental states are somewhere other than in the head or, (b) the corollary, that as individualists, we do not think that what is outside the head has nothing to do with what ends up in the head. A stigmergic approach, necessarily dual aspect, does not require one to dispense with one or the other. There is no methodological profit whatsoever to throwing out the Cartesian baby along with the bath water. Second, a socio-cognitive view of mind and knowledge be not be mistaken as a thesis for strong social constructivism, the idea all facts are socially constructed (a denial that reality in some way impinges upon mind) – again, it would be inconsistent with the environmental emphasis entailed by stigmergy.

For Clark, “[M]uch of what goes on in the complex world of humans, may thus, somewhat surprisingly, be understood in terms of so-called stigmergic algorithms.” (Clark, 1996, p. 279). Traditional cases of stigmergic systems include stock markets, economies, traffic patterns, supply logistics and resource allocation (Hadeli, Valckenaers, Kollingbaum, & Van Brussel, 2004), urban sprawl, and cultural memes. New forms of stigmergy have been exponentially expanded through the affordances of digital technology: we’ve expounded upon Google’s RP and Amazon’s CF but of course include wiki, open source software, weblogs, and a whole range of “social media” that comprise the World Wide Web. These particular examples serve to make the wider stigmergical point that the Janus-like aspect of knowledge and cognition must be set against a background fabric of cultural possibility: individuals draw their self-understanding from what is conceptually to hand in historically specific societies or civilizations, a preexisting complex web of linguistic, technological, social, political and institutional constraints.

It is no surprise then that it has been claimed that stigmergic systems are so ubiquitous a feature of human sociality, it would be more difficult to find institutions that are not stigmergic ( Parunak, 2005 and Tummolini and Castelfrananchi, 2007). If stigmergy were merely coextensive with “the use of external structures to control, prompt, and coordinate individual actions” (Clark, 1997, p. 186), then the concept would amount to a claim about situated cognition in all its dimensionality Solomon, 2006b. While stigmergy includes these aspects, it distinctively emphasizes the cybernetic loop of agent → environment → agent → enviro nment through an ongoing and mutual process of modification and conditioning, appearing to dissolve the supposed tension between the self-serving individual and the social corpora at large through indirect interaction. Though this process of behavior modification has long since been identified by both PSE and SSE theorists, only recently has there begun a concerted effort ( Turner, 2001 and Turner, 2003) to, as Ron Sun puts it (Sun, 2006) “cognitivize” human sociality. Social theory and cognitive science must now recognize the virtues of a “cognitivized” approach to all things social.