1. The Problem

Carrie Figdor, Pieces of Mind: The Proper Domain of Psychological Predicates (OUP, 2018)

I first want to thank John for this opportunity to present and discuss my book with the Brains readership, and for his artful shepherding of the blog in general. I don’t know how he does it, but I’m grateful that he does.

So, on to the book.

Pieces of Mind is about a problem that is not quite on the philosophical radar yet, so one hoped-for outcome of publication is to put it on the radar. Some readers here may have come across my Synthese paper, “On the proper domain of psychological predicates”, which is (nearly) the subtitle of the book. That paper is devoted to showing that “activity-referring” terms (roughly, verbs) are apt for extension to new domains in ways that “object-referring” terms (roughly, nouns) are not. (Nota bene: I’m interested in the relation between terms/predicates/concepts/verbs that are used to refer to activities/capacities/doings/operations/functions – e.g. “jump”/JUMP and jumps, rather than “cat”/CAT and cats. I will vary among these ways of referring to the symbolic relatum and its reference to avoid tedium.) I care about this issue because psychological predicates are among the verbs in their root forms. And I care about that issue because psychological verbs are being extended in the peer-reviewed scientific literature all over creation – fruit flies and plants make decisions, slime moulds and neurons have preferences, earthworms learn, bacteria converse, and so on. The uses go far beyond the belated (and to some extent still controversial) recognition of the intelligence of (say) birds and octopi. The fact of these new uses, in contexts of serious scientific discourse, yields the problem that the book raises and addresses: how should we interpret the uses across all these contexts?

The Literalist (me) holds that the new uses are literal with the same reference across human and non-human domains; the alternatives deny this. A Literal interpretation makes sense if psychology is undergoing fundamental conceptual change, a change analogous to the shifts in our concepts of physical stuff during and after the scientific innovation of the periodic table. As a way of organizing matter, the periodic table provided objective criteria for determining extensions of matter-referring predicates and instances of stuffs. It is my contention that this type of scientifically-grounded conceptual change is now happening with psychological concepts. We have begun a period of transition where traditional anthropocentric criteria for determining what counts as a real instance of a psychological capacity (and a literal use of a psychological verb) are ceding priority to objective criteria in which human capacities are special cases rather than criterial or standard for that capacity in all domains.

You can deny this by denying (implausibly) that psychological conceptual change is possible or denying (plausibly) that the concepts are in fact undergoing such change. Thus is the debate set up. The view that there is conceptual change that underwrites a difference of reference between human and non-human ascriptions is the strongest competitor to Literalism; on that view, the new uses are literal but not Literal. The other anti-Literalist positions – that ascriptions to non-humans are nonsensical or metaphorical – are considered in depth in the book and found inadequate, and will be set aside here. However, all three anti-Literalist views cleave to traditional anthropocentric psychology at least for ascriptions to humans, whereas on the Literalist view we are in the process of separating those aspects of psychological capacities that are necessary (in some non-logical sense) for having that capacity and those aspects which constitute the bells and whistles specific to their realization by human organisms. That is what the conceptual change is all about.

The Literalist position has important implications for what it means to naturalize the mind and for understanding the grounds of moral status. I discuss these implications in the book (and in work-in-progress) but will not have room to do so here. In the next blog post I will present the basic means of conceptual extension, focusing on extensions that go by way of extending mathematical models to new domains. In the third blog post I will defend the Literalist account in its basics. And in the final blog post I will consider the strongest alternative to Literalism, described briefly above, which I call the Technical-Behaviorist view.


  1. I recommend Mark Johnson’s book, The Body in the Mind, as a good guide to how these kinds of *metaphors* work and allow us to extend familiar actions such as “grasping an object” (verb) into a new domain (substantive or literal). An example might be, “grasping an idea”, creating a new way of talking about something. by taking an idea to be an object allows us to perform all kinds of operations on it that literally pertain to an object. If ideas are objects, then I can juggle them, throw them out, kick them around, grasp them, and so on.

    If we are saying, for example, that “plants make decisions” then we are establishing the new metaphor that plants are agents. This would never have occurred to Darwin, but there is a lot of recent evidence to suggest that plants are capable of behaviour previously only associated with agents. Science establishes the simile. Philosophers turn the simile into a metaphor. Once we have established the metaphor “plants are agents” then anything an agent can do is open to plants qua agents. They can, for example, battle for space; ward of grazers or pests; inform each other via a network of symbiotic fungi. And so on.

    One might argue that in the case of plants there are repeated attempts to reify the metaphor. Plants have feelings, respond to talking, etc. But the science doesn’t support this reification. No plant biologist, so far as I know, thinks about these functions of plants as literally agentive. There is no agent and none is needed to explain tropisms.

    You are effectively arguing that if I were to *grasp* your idea I’d have to reach inside your head with my hand and try to literally catch it. Which doesn’t seem to me to have any advantages as a method, apart from its role in creating humorous images. If plants do really weigh up and chose between available options (i.e. make decisions) then you would seem to be down the road of animism.

    To say that issue isn’t on the philosophical radar ignores Mary Midgley’s protracted argument with Richard Dawkins about the applicability of “selfishness” to genes. Dawkins and his supporters always complained that “selfish” was “just a metaphor”. In this case the metaphor is an adjective, but derives from and points to motivation behind agents acting of *acting* in self-interest (something not even humans actually do in practice). Midgley’s complaint was that she knew damn well it was a metaphor, but that it was a *bad* metaphor. Lynn Margulis also lambasted Dawkins for bad philosophy and misrepresenting evolution. FWIW, my own take on Dawkins is that he straight-forwardly applied Neoliberal ideology to genetics. The popularity of his version of biological Neoliberalism, with Randian genes eschewing altruism, is correlated with the rise of Neoliberalism and the popularity cult of Ayn Rand in America. His latter-day utterances and demeanour have only reinforced this impression.

    The issue of how to understand Dawkins’ (in my view pernicious) assertion that genes are “selfish” is of the same kind as your given examples. It, they, only make sense as metaphors. Just as “grasping an idea” only makes sense as a metaphor and plants aren’t really agents.

  2. Carrie Figdor

    Thank you for your comment. I think it is a bit too soon in the blogpost series to say why it is not sufficient to assert that the relevant uses are metaphorical. Keeping in mind that metaphors are used by scientists, of course — but I also draw an important distinction between popular science (e.g. Dawkins and selfish genes) and the peer-reviewed literature that isn’t written for popular consumption at all. My interest is in the latter only. There are further problems with taking for granted that the uses in the relevant context are metaphorical, but I suppose the main one is that it begs the question of what the meaning of the term is such that it cannot be used literally for the non-humans.

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