Saturday, 9 November 2013

At the Philosophy at 40 at Anglia Ruskin conference

Having only taught a single module (on Wittgenstein) for a couple of years here, I am something of an interloper at the conference celebrating 40 years of philosophy at Anglia. But it is interesting to arrive to see a hugely developed campus and to sit in The Lord Ashcroft building in rather a pessimistic round table discussion of the future of universities (and the future of philosophy). There is a shared agreement that there has been a collapse in the idea of a common good and hence the ground rules for financing higher education (and for that matter, energy supply, the railways, the postal service etc).

In that context, one particular paper from the morning stood out. Mike Wilby gave a paper on natural  inter-subjectivity which took as a starting point the contrast between chimps and small children taking part in cooperative activity. Whilst chimps have a sensitivity of fellow chimps' perceptions in competitive behaviour (subordinate chimps only taking food when they see that the dominant chimp cannot see it) they do not in cooperative behaviour. By contrast, small children are able to play cooperatively from the age of nine months or so.

Wilby took his challenge to be to give an account of essentially shared or mutual mental states in the face of incredulity from the likes of John Searle or Peter Strawson. Considering a case in which two people must cooperate to catch a rabbit, he suggested that, like an individual case, there would need to be some account of a development from a general prior intention (to catch some rabbit or other) to an particular or object-dependent intention-in-action to catch that! rabbit. In the individual case, the obvious intermediate is a perception of a particular rabbit.

Wilby's argument was that none of the three states in the cooperative activity could plausibly be reduced to an individual account. An individualistic version of the prior intention would have to be something like: I intend that we catch a rabbit. But I can only intend my own actions. At most I can intend to make it come about that we catch a rabbit. But such individual intending to make a joint action come about might not be cooperative (Bratman's 'mafia objection') and hence does not capture the cooperative example at hand.

There are also problems also with modelling joint attention in individualistic terms. Wilby suggested a kind of never ending escalation from:
I perceive the rabbit.
I perceive the rabbit and I perceive that you perceive the rabbit.
I perceive the rabbit and I perceive that you perceive the rabbit and I perceive that you perceive that I perceive the rabbit etc etc
But none of these closes off what mutual attention seems to achieve. And there are similar problems with the intention-in-action. Given additionally the complex individualistic model would have to be grasped by the nine month old children who play cooperatively this is surely all better accounted for by the idea of genuinely mutual mental states such as prior intentions, joint attention and mutual intentions-in-action.

I rather liked all this, not least because it provides a further argument against the reductionism of representational theories of mind.