The socially extended mind

Spot on Shaun!!! This is exactly what I’ve been banging on about over the past six years – very nice validation from a top-notch theorist. The fruits of my labour will be available in its full form next year as a book entitled Stigmergic Cognition.


Consciousness and the social mind

Here is the intro to Phil’s piece.

Emotion is a hot topic, getting hotter all the time. The reasons for this enthusiasm are various, but the growth of neuroscientific interest in the area surely ranks high among them. The same goes for another hot topic: social cognition. Within the last two decades, two subfields of neuroscience have emerged: affective neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying emotion and emotional feeling; and social neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition. The parallel development of these new brain sciences is no accident. As Damasio (1994) makes clear, emotional and social functioning are deeply intertwined, since practical rationality is scaffolded by the ability to feel one’s way through the world, the social world included. This is now a familiar theme in cognitive science. Less familiar is the idea that the link between emotional and social functioning identified by Damasio forms part of a constellation of connections between consciousness (in the phenomenal, ‘what it’s like’ sense; see Nagel, 1974) and social cognition. In this paper, I try to identify some of these other connections, and to explore their implications for how we think about the conscious mind in general.

The plan of the paper goes like this. In the first part, I argue that a wide swath of consciousness is a product of the social mind, as it arises from cognitive operations dedicated to processing information about the domain of persons. I begin by describing two phenomena that have attracted considerable attention in the empirical literature. The first is social pain: the affect associated with the perception of actual or potential damage to one’s interpersonal relations. The second phenomenon of interest is affective contagion: the tendency for emotions, moods, and other affective states to spread from person to person as a consequence of social perception. Neuroscientific investigation of these phenomena suggests that affective consciousness depends on perception of the social world in much the same way that it depends on perception of the body. It appears, in short, that consciousness is a ‘socially embodied’ capacity, in two senses of the term (articulated below). In the second part of the paper I look at the flip side of this thematic coin. Here I argue that the distinctive sociality of our species, especially its moral dimension, rests heavily on our ability to represent the conscious states of others. In closing, I try to connect the two main claims of the paper – the claim that consciousness is essentially social, and the claim that thinking about consciousness is socially essential – by showing how they jointly point to a kind of circular causal-mechanistic nexus between consciousness and social mindedness.


Oakeshott on the Character of Religious Experience: Need There be a Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Here is the intro from Tim Fuller’s essay from Zygon.

Michael Oakeshott rarely acknowledged specific intellectual debts. In Experience and Its Modes (1933), however, he cited as major influences on his thinking G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893). Oakeshott was invoking the tradition of Hegelian/British idealism, knowing that he was swimming against the tide of philosophic fashion. What did he get from this philosophic tradition? Human experience is our world: “Experiencing and what is experienced are, taken separately, meaningless abstractions. . . . The character of what is experienced is, in the strictest sense, correlative to the manner in which it is experienced. These two abstractions stand to one another in the most complete interdependence; they compose a single whole” (Oakeshott 1933, 9). For Oakeshott “there is nothing whatever which is not experience,” and “there can be no experience which does not involve thought or judgment” (1933, 251).

A number of things follow, for Oakeshott. He sought to understand arguments by uncovering the assumptions or postulates on the basis of which each party to an argument seeks a coherent understanding of experience, thereby clarifying how each makes sense of its experience. He pursued not refutation or advocacy but rather descriptions that show the assumptions at work to support conclusions reached on each side; he preferred to turn debate toward conversation and to treat arguments as conversational gambits. Talk is interminable so long as there are human beings. The aim of the philosophic inquirer is to understand better the voices offering accounts of what is already given in experience. The philosopher does not resolve disputes but gives an account of why they are the way they are, and also why from the perspective of each participant the alternatives may seem mistaken or irrelevant. He did not think that victories inevitably deepen insight or that defeats reveal lack of insight. The philosophic quest is for experience as a whole “unmodified.” “Thinking,” he said, “is not a professional matter. . . . It is something we may engage in without putting ourselves in competition; it is something independent of the futile effort to convince or persuade” (1933, 7).

Oakeshott was of a stoic disposition, disinclined to engage in quixotic ventures to change the world or set it right, whatever that might mean. He once remarked to me that Don Quixote was the prototype of the modern rationalist, that Cervantes’ great work was both the anticipation and the critique of modern rationalism. Oakeshott did not always attain detachment, but his disposition was to do so. He saluted Montaigne, who had seen that reasoning is the faculty that makes us human but also produces the ordeal of consciousness that makes us problematic for ourselves. We self-conscious beings impose snares and traps on ourselves and then have to figure out how to deal with them. We continually interpret—well or ill—the world. Our reason leads into difficulties and then to contrivances to escape them. There is no reliable definition of progress. Thus Oakeshott identified himself as a skeptic: one who would “do better if he only knew how” ([1951] 1991, 44).

He recognized as unending the task of comprehending the whole of experience. Given that, grasping the order of reality would ever elude us. We usually settle for abridgements—interpretations of experience through which visions of order from various perspectives may be attained. Some of these interpretations (arrests in thought) get sufficiently elaborated—even equipped with a method of inquiry that may be taught and learned—to turn into modes of experience. A mode is a powerful human invention (although its emergence may take a long time) for making sense of the world to its adherents, binding together individuals in associations that explore the world from their chosen modal perspectives. Each of these modes makes sense in its own terms but can at most achieve the appearance of universality by marginalizing experiences that threaten the coherence (and thus the satisfaction) of the understanding its adherents have come to defend. The coherence of each is abstract—that is, abstracted from the whole it seeks to understand. Imperial tendencies lurk among the adherents of each of these modes, tempting claims of methodological competence to assess critically the alternative modes and experience as a whole; each mode will tend to explain all of experience in terms of its own assumptions.

In Experience and Its Modes (1933) Oakeshott discussed the “historical,” “scientific,” and “practical” modes of experience. He thought they currently “represent the main arrests or modifications in experience,” coexisting as abstractions from the whole of experience, attempting, each in its own way, to abate the mystery of human self-understanding (p. 84). The historical mode knows experience as past experience; the scientific mode knows it as stable, quantitative relationships; the practical mode lives by the tension between what is and what ought to be.

As long as a mode remains content within itself it remains coherent to itself. When it steps out into other realms it begins to confront its own abstractness:

It belongs to the nature of an abstract world of experience to be self-contained, sovereign and to lie beyond the interference of any other world of experience, so long as it confines itself within the limits which constitute its character. Of course, if it oversteps itself, an abstract world of experience immediately becomes vulnerable, and of course, in the end, it must overstep itself, demand to be judged as embodying a complete assertion of reality: but so long as it remains faithful to its own explicit character, even the concrete totality of experience itself cannot compete with it on its own ground. History, Science, and Practice, as such, and each within its own world, are beyond the relevant interference of philosophic thought. (p. 332)

In short, as long as a mode enters no dialectical engagement with other modes, or with a philosophic inquirer, it is protected from subversion by excluding what it wants to consider extraneous.



Born on this day in 1899. It’s to analytical (social) epistemology’s (and philosophy of mind’s) impoverishment and shame that Hayek is not that well-known beyond the tiresome caricatures. For all my Hayekana see here. The featured image was very generously given to me by the highly exceptional Walt Weimer.


Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith

It is unlikely that the Adam Smith “problem” in all its manifestations could be definitively resolved and this is certainly not the line this book is promoting. What’s on offer here is a fresh critical take on the two works looked at from recent developments within philosophy – philosophy of social science, philosophy of mind, social epistemology, moral philosophy – with a view to bringing Smith to a mainstream philosophy audience while simultaneously informing Smith’s traditional constituency (political economy) with philosophically finessed interpretations. The title of the book (due 2014, Palgrave MacMillan) is significant in that “Propriety” connotes Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and “Prosperity” connotes The Wealth of Nations.

The line-up for the volume as follows:

Geoffrey Thomas (Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London)

Joshua Rust (Philosophy, Stetson University)

Gloria Zúñiga y Postigo (Philosophy, University of Texas, Arlington)

Brian Glenney (Philosophy, Gordon College, Wenham)

Byron Kaldis (Philosophy, Hellenic Open University)

Gordon Graham (Philosophy, Princeton Theological Seminary)

Gavin Kennedy (Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University)

Eugene Heath (Philosophy, State University of New York, New Paltz)

Jonathan Wight (Robins School of Business, University of Richmond)

David Hardwick (Medicine, University of British Columbia)

Leslie Marsh (Medicine, University of British Columbia)

Lauren Hall (Political Science, Rochester Institute of Technology)

Laurent Dobuzinskis (Political Science, Simon Fraser University)

Spiros Tegos (Philosophy, University of Crete)

Jack Weinstein (Philosophy, University of North Dakota)

Roger Frantz (Economics, San Diego State University)

Craig Smith (Social and Political Sciences, Glasgow University)

David Brat (Economics & Business, Randolph Macon College)


Beyond Complexity: Can the Sensory Order Defend the Liberal Self?

Here are a couple of extracts from Chor-yung’s paper:

Friedrich Hayek’s social philosophy is one of the most systematic and sophisticated among the contributions made by 20th-century liberal thinkers. His defense of the free market and individual freedom and his critique of collectivism of various kinds are mainly based on his epistemological theses, which in turn are derived from his social philosophy. Hayek once famously said, ‘‘the differences between socialists and nonsocialists ultimately rest on purely intellectual issues capable of a scientific resolution and not on different judgments of value,’’ and he believes that the doctrines advocated by the socialists ‘‘can be shown to be based on factually false assumptions,’’ and the whole family of socialist thought can be ‘‘proved erroneous’’ (1973, p. 6). One important area contributing to the development of Hayek’s epistemological theses is his works on theoretical psychology, and his book The Sensory Order: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Theoretical Psychology (1952a) plays a crucial role in this since it helped Hayek spell out the logical character of his social philosophy (1952a, p. v). It can be said that The Sensory Order enables Hayek to develop a conception of mind (which is essentially a classificatory and rule constituting complex order of a mental kind) that, on its own, enhances our understanding of cognitive psychology, and, when linked with Hayek’s social and political thought, helps strengthen Hayek’s epistemological defense of the free market and limited government. Although The Sensory Order did not attract the kind of  scholarly attention it deserves for decades after its first publication in 1952, the path-breaking quality of the book and the integral part it plays in Hayek’s social philosophy are now widely recognized (see, e.g., Butos & Koppl, 2006; Caldwell, 2004; Feser, 2006; Gaus, 2006; Horwitz, 2000; Marsh, 2010; Rizzello, 1999; Smith, 1997; Weimer, 1982). Admittedly, The Sensory Order is a difficult book since it deals with questions of the most fundamental kind (such as the nature of mind and the limits of explanation). When one tries to relate The Sensory Order to Hayek’s broader defense of liberalism, the task becomes doubly difficult, and different interpretations of Hayek’s position in The Sensory Order may lead to diametrically opposite assessment of his contribution. Scholars who are unsympathetic to Hayek’s social philosophy tend to characterize his explanation of the mental order in The Sensory Order as ‘‘materialistic and naturalistic’’ and wonder how his brand of materialism with its implied physicalist notion of human agency can sit well with the defense of individual liberty. Contrariwise, defenders of Hayek like to stress his idea that the inherent nature of the mind as a classification apparatus sets limits to its capacity for self-explanation. They argue that social interaction in any developed society must involve so great a degree of complexity that no single mind or central planning unit can fully take into account all the respective preferences of, or the dispersed information possessed by, individual actors, making synoptic planning untenable. This chapter is an attempt to offer an interpretation of The Sensory Order in line with Hayek’s supporters. But it would like to go a step further by arguing that a liberal conception of human agency, in which the individual is characterized as distinct, free, evolutionary, creative yet culturally embedded, can be derived from Hayek’s theoretical psychology. In what follows, I outline my interpretation of The Sensory Order and defend Hayek against some major criticisms, including the criticism that his psychological works express or imply a physicalist conception of the mind. Furthermore, I identify some problems with Hayek’s conception of the self: in particular its ‘‘instrumental’’ tendency and corresponding lack of appreciation of the unique value of individual style and imagination.

All in all, it seems fair to say that there is a danger in Hayek’s liberalism to accord only an instrumental value to individual liberty. This is so because his idea of true individualism is derived from his social theory, and given the fact that there are inherent limitations in human rationality, the individual is valuable and his freedom should be protected precisely because it is only under such conditions that we can find out which individual gift, preference, and skill will eventually prevail through the process of free competition for the benefit of whole group. Perhaps, A. E. Galeotti is correct to say that to Hayek, liberty in the end is only ‘‘a procedural, methodological value’’ and ‘‘being a procedure, one appreciates it [i.e. liberty] on the ground of its positive results’’ (1991, pp. 284–285). If freedom is to be justified primarily on the grounds of beneficial results, does that mean that the autonomous and self-determining self has little value in itself or in other aspects that are important to humanity? The uniqueness of the human individual is valuable, according to Stuart Hampshire, because among living things as we know them, only the human individual displays the salient capacity ‘‘to develop idiosyncrasies of style and imagination, and to form specific conceptions of the good.’’ In addition, Hampshire points out that individual style and imagination, like works of art or the emotion attached to sexual love, is mostly unrepeatable, as ‘‘the leaps and swerves of a person’s imagination do not follow any standardized routes’’ and defy the prediction of rational and general rules and is therefore irreplaceable (1989, p. 118, 126). ‘‘If this individual essence is destroyed when the individual is destroyed,’’ says Hampshire, ‘‘the world is to that degree impoverished’’ (Hayek, 1952a, p. 117). One does not have to agree with Hampshire’s idea of individuality and the values he attaches to it here to see that something important is missing in Hayek’s liberal self. While this chapter shows that a distinct and creative self may be reconstructed from Hayek’s complex and impressive account of the mind, nowhere in Hayek’s voluminous works can we find any in-depth discussion of the value of individuality. If the self is unique and irreplaceable, its value as an individual not only should go beyond the requirements to struggle for better group survival, important though better survival for the human race is, the individual’s unique style, imagination, and personality should also feature large in any defense of liberalism. Although Hayek’s defense of liberalism is unique and theoretically sophisticated, his epistemological theses by and large have overlooked the need to explain those essential virtues that make the self uniquely valuable. Thinkers who are sympathetic to Hayek’s theory should have a lot of food for thought in moving forward the defense of liberalism beyond his contributions, which nevertheless are among the most thought-provoking in the 20th century.


Human Stigmergy: Theoretical Developments and New Applications

Stay tuned for details about this project to be co-edited with Ted Lewis and released under Springer’s series Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics.


The Complex Mind

This book features a chapter by Andy Clark entitled: How to Qualify for a Cognitive Upgrade: Executive Control, Glass Ceilings, and the Limits of Simian Success. Here is the intro to the chapter:

10.1 Introduction

It is sometimes suggested that words and language form a kind of ‘cognitive niche’ (Clark, 1998, 2005, 2006, 2008; Chapter 4): an animal-built structure that productively transforms our cognitive capacities. But even if language cognitively empowers us in many deep and unobvious ways, it would be quite wrong to assume that such empowerment occurs in either a neural or an evolutionary vacuum. In evolutionary terms, we need to recognise the various precursors of our own prodigious skills at species-level selfscaffolding. In neural terms, we need to uncover the specific innovations that allow certain kinds of agents to benefit (humans massively, simians somewhat, hamsters not at all) from the empowering effects of exposure to a public linguistic edifice. What we need to understand is thus a delicate balancing act between extra-neural and neural innovation, such that the public material structures of language are enabled (in some beings and not in others) to play significant cognitive roles. In the present chapter, I first lay out a few of the ways in which language may indeed act as a potent form of cognitive scaffolding. I then briefly rehearse the results of a series of elegant comparative and developmental studies (summarised in McGonigle and Chalmers [2006]) that suggest a surprising amount of evolutionary continuity between human and simian (squirrel monkey) subjects in respect of some of the key ‘building block’ skills that enable this potent ‘mind-tool’ (Dennett, 2000) to emerge. I end by asking, ‘What then limits simian success?’