Theories of Pretense

February 12, 2010

Ori Friedman and Alan Leslie, in their Cognition article “The conceptual underpinnings of pretense: Pretending is not ‘behaving-as-if’” (2007), argue against what they call behaviorist theories of pretense. As they characterize the debate, theories of pretense fall into the following two families:

Metarepresentational Theories: What is central to pretense is mentalistic: treating pretense as such through the possession and deployment of the concept PRETEND. (Leslie is the primary proponent of this view.)

Behaviorist Theories: What is central to pretense is behavioral: behaving “as-if” a scenario obtains–or rather, behaving in a way that would be appropriate if that scenario obtains. (On Friedman and Leslie’s characterization, pretty much everyone else–such as Perner, Lillard, Nichols and Stich, Harris, and Rakoczy–defends some kind of behaviorist theory.)

One central point in they make the paper is this: without making room for the concept PRETEND in their theories, behaviorists cannot adequately explain how children are able to recognize pretense as such. Here is how they put this central point on page 115:

But more importantly, the above makes clear what game the Behavioral theory perforce finds itself playing: namely, trying to get the child to think that someone is pretending without actually thinking pretend as such. If the Behavioral theory is to measure up to the phenomena of early human pretending, its success will depend on finding an exact conceptual paraphrase of PRETEND without using that concept. Moreover, the paraphrase must be strictly behavioral. … Propositional attitude concepts are the heart and soul of ‘theory of mind’ and utterly foreign to and rejected by behaviorism (Fodor, 1981; Ryle, 1949). ‘Pretend’ is just the name of a specific attitude.

In response, I have two small worries and a major one:

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What does consistency have to do with reasons?

December 11, 2009

I asked Allan Gibbard this post’s titular question earlier this year, and he patiently noted that many people value consistency because if one has inconsistent beliefs, one or more of one’s beliefs must be false. I responded that since he and I believe that all normative beliefs are, in some sense, false, this sort of consideration wouldn’t give us — or other anti-realists about value — any reason to want our “ethical beliefs,” whatever form they might take, to be consistent. I can’t remember where the conversation went from there, but I don’t think that he was particularly moved by my response.

But I was moved by it, and I still am. Sure, if I believe P and not-P, I must have a false belief. But if there aren’t any normative truths, then if I believe P and not-P with respect to some normative matter, I should probably just stop having beliefs of that sort, but if I’m unable to stop (as some anti-realists seem to hold), what harm could follow if I have inconsistent beliefs about such matters?

I recognize that only certain varieties of “anti-realism” about ethics hold that there are no normative truths. Perhaps Allan’s “quasi-realism” isn’t one of them — I can never keep track of what he does or doesn’t think can be true — which might explain his not being impressed with this line of thought. But if one doesn’t think that there are any truths of the form “X is good,” “X is right,” “X is reasonable,” etc., then it seems one doesn’t have any truth-related reasons to value consistency among one’s normative commitments, beliefs, statements, etc.

Leaving that aside, here’s another little pseudo-problem: Suppose, like Sharon Street, you hold that “to make a normative judgment is to ‘give laws to oneself.’ As soon as one takes anything whatsoever to be a reason, one thereby ‘legislates’ standards according to which, by one’s own lights as a valuing agent, one is making a mistake, … if one endorses certain other normative judgments.” (This is from Street’s “Constructivism About Reasons,” pp. 229-30.)

I take Street’s account of reasons and normativity to depend largely on an appeal to internal consistency of some sort. According to Street, one’s judgments about reasons can be judged as “correct” or “incorrect” from the standpoint of all one’s other judgments about reasons. Of course, since Street also holds that there are “ultimately” no normative truths or truths about reasons, I’m inclined to ask why we should continue to make “judgments about reasons” or take ourselves to have reasons if we agree with Street that there are ultimately no truths about these matters. She has an answer to this, of course: We can’t help but occupy the “practical standpoint,” and occupying this standpoint necessarily involves making normative judgments and taking oneself to have reasons. I’m not convinced that she’s right about that, but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument.

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Teaching Early Modern

December 3, 2009

There has been some very interesting discussions on how to teach an introductory early modern class. My own undergrad experience has been the standard “rationalist vs. empiricist” story line, and some of the improvements suggested sound very interesting. I’m especially pleased to learn that there is an anthology of women philosophers from that period, and wish I had read some of that in my limited exposure to history. Anyway, I thought these links would be of general interest.

[HT: The Ethical Werewolf]


Prescriptive Metaethics

October 4, 2009

By and large, metaethicists have focused on descriptive questions about the nature of our moral discourse. For instance, is it in the business of stating facts, or of expressing affective states? If the former, are there such facts? If the latter, how is this reconciled with the role that moral language plays in reasoning?…

There is one clear exception. Some who are interested in error theory have shifted their attention from the descriptive question to a prescriptive/ practical one–namely, “Are we to retain moral language? And if so, how are we to treat it?” (I give the practical variant since it might be thought problematic for an error theorist to ask a question framed in terms of “should.”) The reason for this shift is that the prescriptive/practical question seems quite pressing in the case of error theory. Error theory seems to force the question. The two most prominent answers discussed by error theorists, to my (limited) knowledge, are eliminativism and moral fictionalism (of the prescriptive variety).
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Bleg: Mental Activities?

September 23, 2009

I want to make a distinction between mental activities and mental states.

As I only have some vague ideas, it is easier to point to some examples. Some examples of mental activities: counterfactual reasoning, doxastic deliberation, planning, daydreaming, dreaming, playing a pretend game. Some examples of mental states: beliefs, desires, imaginings, emotions, perceptions. My sense is that there really is something different about the former cluster compared to the latter. Any suggestions on how that distinction might be made more precise?


Normative Because False!?#

September 18, 2009

In what is meant to be  “a contribution of major importance to a unified theory of probability and utility” Jeffrey (The Logic of Decision) says about Bayesian decision theory that

Indeed, it is because logic and decision theory are woefully inadequate as descriptions that they are of interest as norms. (p.167)

Now,  here’s a worry I presented yesterday in the seminar and that I’d like to present again, so that other people may consider it and that the ones that heard it can see why it’s worrisome. There are, at least, two questions the claim above prompts:

1) If theory T is woefully inadequate as a description of phenomena F, and yet it is meant to be a normative theory of F, couldn’t it be that it makes absurd demands about F?

2) If it is in virtue of theory T’s woeful descriptive inadequacy towards F that T is an interesting normative theory of F, wouldn’t it be the case that false descriptive theories turn out to be interesting normative theories?

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Diagnosis precedes prescription

August 26, 2009

The title principle seems obvious enough. Which makes it all the more puzzling that most normative political theorists ignore it in practice. Why is this? What are the implications?

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