Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Jose Saramago, Small Memories (2009)

Memory is fragile.  (See September 20, 2011 post).  Jose Saramago's honest account of his memories of some events in his life when he was small in Small Memories concedes as much.  "Sometimes I wonder," he writes, "if certain memories are really mine or if they're just someone else's memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else."  He refers to memory's "reconstructive powers," and the capacity for memory to be refreshed:  "Thanks to some documents I had assumed lost, bet which providentially turned up when I was searching for something else entirely, my disoriented memory has finally been able to fit together various disparate pieces of the puzzle and replace what was uncertain and doubtful with what was right and true."

"We often forget what we would like to remember, and yet certain images, words, flashes, illuminations repeatedly, obsessively return to us from the past at the slightst stimulus, and there's no explanation for that' we don't summon them up, they are simply there.  And it is for those memories that tell me that although, at the time, I was basing myself more on intuition than, of course, on any real knowledge of these facts. . ." 

This is not the first time that a post in this blog has connected Saramago's work with the subject of memory.  In The Notebook (September 28, 2010 post), the Nobelist created a memory bank in blog form.  In the posting on his final novel, Cain (December 20, 2011 post) I remarked, "I also believe storytelling evolved in part to preserve our memories of things past. (See August 15, 2011 post). And storytelling, whether historical or fictional or both, enables the construction of both personal and social/group identity."  And Saramago is a master at clutching collective memory --- history we call it --- and creating stories --- fiction we call it --- as in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reiss (June 28, 2011 post) and Baltasar and Blimunda (January 1, 2013 post).

A series of postings in September 2010 revolved around the subject of memory (September 9, 2010 post) but more recently a posting observed: "Personal identity is a matter of autobiographical memory. This is our autobiographical self (see April 8, 2011 post). But our autobiographical memories are shared, and this facilitates social bonding and the building of relationships. It also influences our story-telling and the stories we tell each other, whether represented as fact or fiction. Cultures are built on the sharing of autobiographical memory, yet at the same time personal identity is strongly influenced by the culture that one personally experiences. While at the outset I said that personal identity owes its existence to cultural or group identity, the reverse is true as well.  Cultural identity ultimately owes its existence to the sharing of many personal identities. Autobiographical memories are merged and revised into a collective memory. But as we have seen in prior posts, memory is fluid, constantly changing and redeveloping in incremental ways. (See November 6, 2011 post)."

It is collective or shared memory that I believe is one subject that is missing from John Searle's accounting of the creation of a social world (see February 24, 2013 post).  Memory, observes Searle, is important for intentionality, and therefore collective memory should be just as important for collective intentionality.  That evokes the importance of culture in the creation of the human social world.  That is not lost on Saramago.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

John Searle, Making The Social World (2010)

The substance of John Searle's most recent book, Making the Social World, is largely covered by the last chapter of his 2008 selection of essays, Philosophy in a New Century entitled "Social Ontology: Some Basic Principles" (see January 21, 2011 post).  I refer the reader back to this earlier post for Searle's discussion of status functions, deontic powers, and desire-independent reasons for action.  This is a discussion of the language-enabled creation of obligations, permissions, rights, responsibilities, duties, obligations and the like (what Searle calls deontic powers) that Searle tells us are the glue of the human social world and collective action.  I wish to cover two topics in this posting:  first, the importance of language in making a social world, and second, the significance of human imagination in Searle's model of the social world. 

Language is the foundation of all social institutions, says Searle. "We will not understand an essential feature of language if we do not see that it necessarily involves social commitments, and that the necessity of these social commitments derives from the social character of the communication situation, the conventional character of the devices, used, and the intentionality of speaker meaning.  It is this feature that enables language to form the foundation of human society in general."  Language, adds Searle, introduces deontology into social relations and how it creates an institutional reality with a deontic power.  The foundation of Searle's thesis is this:  "If a speaker intentionally conveys information to a hearer using socially accepted conventions for the purpose of producing belief in the hearer about a state of affairs in the world, then the speaker is committed to the truth of his utterance."  There is no way, Searle comments, that if I say to someone publicly, intentionally, explicitly, "There is an animal coming toward us," without being committed to the truth of the propositional content that there is an animal coming toward us.  Both the belief and the statement involve commitments, but the commitment of the statement is much stronger, for if the commitment of the privately held belief turns out to be false, I am free to revise it.  In the case of the statement, however, I am committed to not only to revision in the case of falsehood, but I am also committed to providing reasons for the original statement, I am committed to sincerity in making it, and I am publicly responsible if it turns out to be false.  A speech act is more than just an expression of belief; a speech act is a public performance.

To appreciate the significance that Searle attaches to language in humans, it is important to understand what Searle believes language added to our prelinguistic capabilities and therefore ask:  what are the features that prelinguistic human mentality and language have in common (and therefore what did language contribute over and above our prelinguistic mentality)?  The common features, according to Searle, are these:
  • Perception.  These are our sensory capabilities.  Perception and the object perceived are causally self-referential, says Searle:  we experience an object only if the presence of the object caused our sensory experience of the object.
  • Beliefs, desires, intending, and emotions such as hopes, fears and the like. These are the capabilities of the mind by which it is directed at or about objects and states of affairs in the world.  This is referred to as intentionality (a concept not limited to "intending"). Beliefs, etc. are not causally self-referential.
  • Intentional action. This capacity is embraces a causal sequence (intention and action are causally self-referential), assuming that action actually occurs.  There can be a prior intent to act; it can be an intention that is coincident to acting.  All actions require intentions-in-acting, but not all actions require prior intent.
  • (At least) short-term memory.  Like intentional action, memory is causally self-referential: we recall something only if we experienced the thing that triggers our present memory of that thing.
Thus, in the cases of perception, memory, and intentional action, there is a match between the mind and the world.  Beliefs, desires, and the like are not necessarily tethered to the world, although they are derivative of perception, memory and intentional action, which are.  Because they are not tethered to the world in the same way, beliefs, desires etc are much more "flexible" in relating to reality.

While denying that he is engaging in speculative evolutionary biology, Searle asks us to imagine hominids with the full range of prelinguistic capabilities just noted, but not having language.  Evolutionary biology has, in fact, established that this scenario likely existed more than 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.  (See January 31, 2013 post) depending on when we determine that language emerged in humans.  What we are capable of achieving with language, says Searle, that we cannot achieve with our prelinguistic consciousness is the ability to manipulate the syntactical elements.  Language consists of sentences composed of syntactical elements that can be manipulated; prelinguistic intentional states are not:  "the dog might think that someone is approaching the door but the dog cannot think the false thought that door is approaching someone."  [This may or may not be true for a dog, but I am skeptical that it is necessarily true for the prelinguistic human --- to be discussed below when I touch on imagination.]  Importantly, speech acts come in five categories:  (i) assertives (representing how things are); (ii) directives (orders, commands); (iii) commissives (promises, pledges); (iv) expressives (apologies, thanks); and (v) declarations.  The first four speech acts have their analogs in intentional states (corresponding to beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions such as fear, hope and the like) and are not causally self-referential.  Declarations are different.  In the case of a declaration, "we make something the fact by declaring it to be the case."   Declarations, on the other hand, have no prelinguistic analog and they are causally self-referential:  the prelinguistic intentional states "cannot create facts in the world by representing those facts as already existing.  This remarkable feat requires language."  This has enormous significance for the construction of a social reality (derived from perception, intentional action, and/or memory).  But through a declaration we have the ability to declare things to be the case that were not necessarily the case prior to the declaration: that I am the shaman of this tribe, I am the leader of this tribe, these five persons comprise our governing council, this piece of paper shall be legal tender for all debts and obligations public or private.  Equally, if not more important for Searle, language creates speaker meaning for those prelinguistic intentional states, and, as noted in the opening paragraph of this post, with respect to those causally self-referential intentional states, language necessarily involves social commitments by declaring what we perceive, intend, or recall to the be the case. And so once we have language, we have a deontology --- the ability to establish duties, obligations, rights and the like that are desire-independent.  With collective acceptance of these duties, obligations, rights and the like, we can have collective intentionality. 

Not everyone concurs with Professor Searle's view on the importance of language.  Frank Hindriks, for example, surmises that collective acceptance and collective intentionality can arise through gesture (including sanctions):

"Consider  Searle’s example of a wall that decays and turns from a physical structure into an institutional boundary (94--‐96).  It is not obvious that any linguistic communication is required in the process.  People can observe each other’s behavior including sanctioning behavior such as frowning when someone crosses the boundary.  At some point it is true that the stones that are left form a boundary, and this fact involves the obligation not to cross it.  The stones form a boundary because the relevant people recognize it as such.  These people believe that it is a boundary, and recognize the deontic powers that come with being a boundary.  In light of this, it seems fair to say that the collective intentional states  that are involved in the constitution of the boundary have the double direction of fit.  Language needs not enter, neither to account for the double direction of fit [causal self-reference] nor to explain the normative nature of this institutional fact.  I am not sure what Searle has in mind when he mentions conventionally encoded commitments, but see no reason to believe that I have left anything out of the picture that essentially involves linguistic conventions.  So it seems that Searle overestimates the role language plays in institutions when he claims language is constitutive of institutions."

As a matter of anthropology and evolutionary biology, Hindriks may be closer to the mark as Chris Boehm's Moral Origins indicates. (See November 21, 2012 post).  Searle admits that cooperation among hominids is a characteristic of pre-linguistic humans.  But Boehm's thesis is that forms of human organization (egalitarian in nature) emerged as early as 150,000 to 200,000 years ago (if not earlier in other homo species), primarily through sanctioning behavior (subtle or lethal), well before language emerged 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.  It may very well be true that the kind of social institutions created by humans for the first time 10,000-35,000 years ago could not have occurred without language, but if Hindriks is correct, as some evidence suggests, then it means that humans were capable of non-linguistic declarations and that "hearer meaning" and collective acceptance in the pre-linguistic world was secured through a punch in the face.  And perhaps by virtue of mirror neurons.  (See October 25, 2011 and September 18, 2009 posts). 

This brings me to the more disappointing accounting in Searle's account of the creation of a social reality, although admittedly he does not ignore the subject.  Professor Searle is certainly correct when he says that what typically gets communicated in speech acts  are intentional states representing the world.  A previous post noted the research that truth telling is the default position of the human brain (see February 4, 2012 post) and this seems to make common sense as well.  But the human capacity to engage in both deception and self-deception cannot be overlooked.  (See February 4, 2012 and June 12, 2011 and May 22, 2011 posts).  This is missing from Searle's analysis, although he expressly acknowledges that the "one faculty that is left out of [his listing of intentional states], because it does not have a direction of fit, is imagination. . . unlike belief, which has the downward direction of fit, or desire, which has the upward direction of fit, my imagining something commits me neither to believing that what I imagine is the case, nor to the wanting it to be the case.  Sometimes one fantasizes what one would like to occur, but it is not an essential feature of fantasy or imagination that they are forms of desire.  One can fantasize what one fears or hates, as well as what one believes might happen, and indeed what one believes could not possibly happen.  There is no responsibility for fitting with imagination.  Another feature peculiar to imaging is that it is, or can be, free voluntary action. . . Imagination will have a role in our account of social ontology, because the creation of a reality that exists only because we think it exists requires a certain level of imagination."  The mistake here, it seems to me, is  a virtual assumption that the truth-telling default position of the human brain is the only position.  We know that is not the case.  We lie and deceive more frequently than we care to admit, and, importantly for this discussion, we do occasionally engage in acts of deception and make our imagination fit the world by declaring it to be the case even though that is inconsistent with the objective facts.  The Catholic Church's denial of the Copernican System is an obvious example.  (See  December 17, 2012 and December 5, 2012 post). 

This is why, in discussing Searle's example of the dog who "cannot think the false thought that door is approaching someone" I questioned whether this was necessarily true for prelinguistic humans.  If a prelinguistic human believed that the earth circles the sun, it is equally possible that the prelinguistic human could have held the false thought that the sun circles the earth.  There is no apparent reason why prelinguistic human mental states are not capable of manipulation on account of imagination. Human social reality can be constructed on the basis of false beliefs and by declaring that to be the case, and Searle admits that this can be the case as when "a community believes that someone has divine powers," where the belief goes beyond the fact.  He admits that "a whole system of status functions may be based on false beliefs," but he says that from the perspective of institutional analysis, it does not matter whether the beliefs are true or false; it only matters whether the people do in fact collectively recognize or accept the system of status functions.  OK.  So we create a "social" reality that is not made of the same the brute physical facts made of "mindless, meaningless, physical particles."  I can accept that, but it seems to contradict the purpose of this book which is "not to allow ourselves to postulate two worlds or three worlds or anything of the sort.  Our task is to give an account of how we live in exactly one world, and how all these different phenomena, from quarks and gravitational attraction to cocktail parties and governments are part of that one world."