Friday, April 19, 2024

Flexible Pluralism about Others' Interpretation of Your Philosophical Work

Daniel Dennett has died, and the world has lost possibly its most important living philosopher.
[Image: Dennett in 2012]

My most vivid memory of Dennett is from a long face-to-face meeting I had with him in 2007 at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC).  Dennett was at that time among the world's most eminent philosophers, and I was a recently-tenured UC Riverside professor of no particular note.  It was apparently typical of Dennett's generosity toward junior scholars to set aside plenty of time for me.  At this meeting and in subsequent interactions (as I later came to believe), he also exhibited another, less-discussed type of philosophical generosity: flexible pluralism about others' interpretation of one's work.

Some context: Dennett can be read as saying two apparently contradictory things about introspection in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained (and elsewhere).  First, he seems to say that people are sometimes radically mistaken about their own conscious experiences (e.g., about the richness and clarity of the visual field).  Second, he seems to say that introspective reports are "fictions" and that as fictions, they can no more be mistaken than can Doyle's description of the color of Sherlock Holmes's easy chair.  In a 2007 paper I presented textual evidence of his apparent inconsistency on this issue and challenged Dennett to explain himself.  His published reply left me unsatisfied: He said that what people have fiction-writer-like "dictatorial authority" over is only "the (unwitting) metaphors in which that account [of their experiences] is ineluctably composed" (Dennett 2007, p. 254).

To me, this seemed far too weak, given the role of the relevant passages in Consciousness Explained: There's little point, and much that would be misleading, in all Dennett's talk about people as authoritative about conscious experiences if the "authority" amounts to nothing but the choice of metaphor.  I can choose to metaphorically describe the Sun as an all-penetrating eye -- but nothing of interest follows about my relationship to or knowledge of the Sun.

In our chat at the 2007 ASSC I pressed him on this, and developed an interpretation of his view which I later expressed to him in email and a subsequent blog post:
The key idea is that there are two sorts of "seemings" in introspective reports about experience, which Dennett doesn't clearly distinguish in his work. The first sense corresponds to our judgments about our experience, and the second to what's in stream of experience behind those judgments. Over the first sort of "seeming" we have almost unchallengeable authority; over the second sort of seeming we have no special authority at all. Interpretations of Dennett that ascribe him the view that there are no facts about experience beyond what we're inclined to judge about our experience emphasize the first sense and disregard the second. Interpretations that treat Dennett as a simple skeptic about introspective reports emphasize the second sense and ignore the first. Both miss something important in his view.
In both conversation and email, Dennett expressed enthusiasm about this interpretation of his work, seeming to accept it as the correct interpretation -- though maybe what he really meant (or should have meant) is that the above was a correct interpretation.

I add this caveat because in the aftermath of that post I encountered some other relatively junior scholars who had discussed these same issues with Dennett, and who had arrived at different interpretations than mine, and who reported having the experience of feeling like Dennett had affirmed that their interpretation was correct.

In general, how fussy should a philosopher be about others' interpretation of their work?  Can one reasonably not object to, or even praise and celebrate, more than one conflicting interpretation?

I've argued that great historical philosophers generally admit of multiple reasonable interpretations, no one of which need be the uniquely correct interpretation.  Maybe Dennett is also a great philosopher; but regardless, we all generate philosophy with indeterminate content.  No one could think through all of the consequences of their views.  It's reasonable to expect a vague boundary between consequences that are explicitly thought but left implicit in the text vs those that are not explicitly intended by the author but are still implicitly part of the overall picture vs those that are broadly in keeping with the overall picture but require a few plausible steps vs those that require a few more steps or a somewhat more controversial additional commitment vs those are are clearly extensions beyond the original view.  If we consider an author's view over time, the noise and indeterminacy increase: The author's opinions might fluctuate; they might lose track of their commitments; they might even contradict themselves.

Also, our words are public entities over which we don't have total control.  As Tyler Burge has emphasized, if someone says "I have arthritis in my thigh" (thinking of arthritis not just as a disease of the joints) or "there's an orangutan in the fridge" (thinking of "orangutan" as the name of a fruit drink), they've said something very different than they may have intended.  Even assuming that such flat misuse or malapropism is rare in philosophy, in a smaller way, words like "democracy", "belief", "freedom" are not entirely at each philosopher's behest.  These words are neither exact in meaning nor complete putty in our hands.  What we say is not precisely fixed by our intentions.

Thus, philosophical authors don't have complete control over, authority over, and understanding of their own work.  If two people approach Dennett with two different competing interpretations of what he has been saying, both might be equally right and good.  He could reasonably say to each, "Yes, that's a terrific interpretation of what I meant!"

Philosophers differ in their fussiness about others' interpretations.  Some -- like Dennett (at least when interacting with more junior scholars; he was sometimes ferocious toward peers) -- generously see the merit in diverse interpretations of their work.  Others are much more difficult to satisfy.  In the extreme, I've met philosophers who resist any kind of summary, distillation, or translation that they did not themselves produce and insist that you are getting them wrong unless you stick with their exact phrasing, and who seem to react to objections by insisting post hoc that their view contains elements, previously invisible to readers, to handle every new concern that might arise.  (A little interpretative charity is good, but excessive self-charity is trying to eat more than your share of the cookies.)

We should all realize that we don't have complete control over our work, or a complete understanding of what we meant, that our work has commitments and implications which we sometimes intend and sometimes forget -- and that, especially if it's long and rich enough, others might legitimately find diverse and contradictory things within it, including both things we like and things we dislike.  Of course, some interpretations will be baldly, factually incorrect.  I'm not saying that philosophers should fail to object to straightforward interpretative mistakes.  But a certain amount of looseness, tolerance, and pluralism about how people interpret us constitutes appropriate modesty about our relation to what we've said.


Teed Rockwell said...

I made almost exactly the same point in this paper, which was the first thing I ever wrote about Dennett. I said that his first person operationalism conflicted with the fact that there was a difference between awareness and the metal phenomena we are aware of. He was genuinely taken aback by this and said he had to rethink his position. I am still impressed by the open mindedness with which he heard my arguments, and his willingness to listen to a junior colleague who didn’t even have a position or school affiliation.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

Very sorry to hear of Dennett's death today.

Neither of those interpretations in the quote from your 2007 post strike me as correct. The first seems trivially true. The second gets closer to what I think his point is, but the phrase "in stream of experience behind those judgments" implies something I think he would have challenged, that there's conscious experience there without access.

On the other hand, I could see him seeing some understanding of the second as a win, one he might have been willing to settle for in that discussion. It's often not wise to try to fix every misunderstanding in a single discussion. Sometimes you have to settle for an improved understanding, even if imperfect one. I suspect that's why some philosophers are more lenient about interpretations of their views.

Of course, that's just my interpretation of their handling of interpretations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Teed: Neat! I wish I’d known about your paper on this in 2007!

SelfAware: I partly share your worry that I still might be missing the core of Dennett’s view. He did see and endorse my written version of this formulation, though — not just in conversation. I agree the first seems fairly weak; the second is close to my own view and what I want him to be saying — though I don’t think it implies “without access” (depending on what access amounts to).

Howie said...

Hi Eric

Dennett posits our introspections about the richness of the visual field is off kilter a bit.
Isn't it obviously because of language and not because of introspection?
Language and the visual field are not good matches.
I think Kurt Lewin might offer help on this, he of field theory.
I'm sure you and Dennett were aware of this.
All of my good ideas were previously taken by people much smarter than me
I hope this is one of them

Arnold said...

We discover ourselves anywhere, what we make of it...
...could be, my splinterness looking for it own place too...

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

As with many applications of our understanding, philosophy is flawed. Daniel Clement Dennett was and will remain iconic. A good friend of mine knew and liked him. That friend also got HIS toes chewed in the pirahna pool, when he wrote about consciousness. If there is no measurable something around something, there can be little agreement, thereon. Anyone, from So-crates to Hume to a dozen others can follow that.As philosophers, our stock-in-trade is doubt and uncertainty. Were there neither of those, there would be no place for philosophy. Idealists among us still hope to make a difference, "that makes a difference". I think that goal is time-worn. A rusted aphorism. Better goal? making a difference that MATTERS. We would not need nihilism!
Imagine that. Dennett was getting there with the pluralism remark.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

2.67 cheers for doubt and uncertainty!

Anonymous said...

"Measurable something around something"..... , nice description of the scientific method! 😊