Saturday, January 27, 2007

Pragmatism and Behaviorism

Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that lots of small interactions down at the level of individuals combined to self-organize market economies: satisfactory transactions are repeated, the reverse are extinguished. At the same time David Hume tried to make an empiricist psychology based on the idea of habituation from regularities of experience. There is nothing "in the mind," Hume claimed, other than the impressions that experience has fixed there. A century later Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species used the same principle (the "law of effect," as famously discussed by Daniel Dennett) to develop a picture of the mechanism of selection, while J. S. Mill sought to develop a science of ethics along consequentialist lines. One of the most important incarnations of this empiricist strain is behaviorism, with its basic picture that a simple learning mechanism, self-organizing through positive and negative reinforcement, was a model that could do the work that a model of psychology needed to do. What's still interesting about that is the possibility that "mind," "meaning," and related intentional/semantic properties could turn out to be some sort of public, relational properties. (I don't know what I think about this, which is why I'm studying Wittgenstein at this point.) Pragmatism is squarely in this tradition, to the point where my student Omar Ferrer asked, "How is pragmatism any different from plain old empiricism?" How indeed? It looks to me that there are two interpretations of pragmatist theories of truth: one interpretation is that pragmatism claims that decision-making (about what to believe) is driven by utility calculations rather than by probability calculations (as in, how likely is this belief to be an accurate representation of the world?). But is seems to me that pragmatism may be committed to a more radical view of truth. It must be, a la Darwin, that my "belief system" is the cumulative product of a lot of trial-and-error (mine and my ancestors). On this view, one can't really be said to elect beliefs; to accept some and reject others. Rather, like physical traits, beliefs are outputs of an essentially mindless process (Groucho Marx told a biographer that he had simply repeated things that had got laughs in vaudeville over thirty years to develop his schtick. He had never, he claimed, thought to ask why something was funny). That phrase "essentially mindless" is the key of course: success is explaining how mind comes from non-mind. On this view, validation is completely a posteriori, as beliefs are (automatically) selected by "what works." Does Hume anticipate what is most radical in pragmatism: the suggestion that a rational mind trying to establish the most accurate representation of reality isn't a necessary part of a model of cognition at all? I think yes. Does James appreciate how radical the theory is? I don't know. But I don't see how it really differs from the rest of empiricism/behaviorism at all. It is a variety of empiricist philosophy.

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