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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Festival della Scienza. Edge Panel on Third Culture

John Brockman: Just as science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—has encroached on areas formerly considered to belong to the humanities (such as psychology), science is also encroaching on the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. Science is the most accurate way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it is the human spirit, the role of great men and women in history, or the structure of DNA. Humanities scholars and historians who spurn it condemn themselves to second-rate status and produce unreliable results.

GLORIA ORIGGI: "No matter what your attitude is towards science, no one in the humanities can ignore that something has changed in the way we think about a number of key oppositions such as: nature-nurture, rational-irrational, conscious-unconscious, individual-social, mind-body, digital-analogical, masculine-feminine, etc. To discuss such matters today, we have to overcome the Freudian-Lacanian-Foucaultian vulgata and take a look at what science has to tell us."

SETH LLOYD: "I argue that the coincidence in time of these two historical processes--the breakdown between communication between the two cultures, and the rise of the information processing revolution--is in fact no coincidence: the very nature of the information processing revolution drives a wedge between the cultures of science and humanities. But at the same time that this revolution of bits, bytes, and iPods divides those two traditional cultures, it necessarily gives rise to a third, non-traditional culture, which possesses both the potential to unite humanities and sciences, and the means to do so. To join this third culture, the traditional humanities and sciences will have to shed some of their precious preconceptions; but what they stand to gain is of infinitely greater value."

ROBERT TRIVERS: "The particular sub-area that I'm interested in developing myself has to do with the structure of the mind in terms of biased information flow between the conscious and the unconscious, and the very peculiar and counter-intuitive fact that humans in a variety of situations misrepresent reality to the conscious mind while keeping in the unconscious either a fully accurate, or in any case more accurate, view of that which they misrepresent to the conscious mind. That seems so counter-intuitive that it begs explanation. You would have thought that after natural selection ground away for four billion years and produced these eyeballs capable of such subtlety—color, motion-detection, the details of granularity that we see—you would have perfected the organs for interpretation of reality such that they wouldn't systematically distort the information once it reaches you. That seems like a strange way to design a railroad."

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Comments on Ruth Millikan: Language: A Biological Model

Ruth Millikan: Language: A Biological Model Oxford University Press, 2005.

Draft do not quote. This is a draft of a comment to be published in the SWIF Philosophy Review in a book symposium on Millikan's last book edited by Marco Mazzone

Ruth Millikan’s writings have brought a breath of fresh air in the last 20 years of philosophy. One of her central claim is that linguistic conventions should not be modelled on the form of social norms, that is, rules that can be an object of evaluation in a social group. Rather, the normativity of language is of the same kind as the normativity that is found in the biological realm: biological items have each an effect that accounts for their proliferation, and that effect is their function, which they perform more or less effectively. Linguistic items have functions in this biological, nondeontic sense, that is, they have effects that account for their proliferation. Language conventions are stabilized by these repeated effects. Millikan’s “natural conventionality”, as opposed for example to David Lewis’ highly normative model of conventionality, has two simple ingredients: natural conventions are patterns that are (1) reproduced, and these patterns are reproduced because of the (2) weight of the precedent and not because of their superior capacity to perform a certain function in a given situation, which partly explains the arbitrariness of conventions (LBM, p.2). Explaining the conventionality of language in such terms is indeed a major step toward a naturalistic account of meaning and understanding .
The evolutionary framework that Millikan has been proposing since 1984 is also a powerful conceptual tool to articulate biological and cultural evolution in an innovative way, as Dan Sperber and I have argued in a previous paper (Origgi-Sperber 2000). Instead of a memetic view of replication of cultural units through a process that merely parallels that of genetic replication, Millikan’s theory allows for clearer explanation of how a cultural and biological evolution may interact, and how items (linguistic or other) may have simultaneously biological and cultural functions.

Millikan’s notion of reproduction is independent from specific mechanisms, either genic replication or social imitation and is thus suitably general. A linguistic pattern that in particular, such as a word, a verbal mode or an intonation, may be directly copied from an individual to another, inferred on the basis of received instructions (as in education) or reproduced by counterpart reproduction, that is, by fitting in with the pattern another person has initiated. Conventional greetings for example are, she argues, reproduced in this third possible way.
Millikan has introduced a fruitful distinction between two kinds of proper functions, that is, functions whose effects account for the reproduction of an item, direct and derived proper functions. , This distinction, we argued, helps to explain how culture and biology intertwine in the case of language. The direct proper function of an item is the effect that is historically responsible for its reproduction. Sometimes a device, in order to perform its direct proper function, produces items that are adapted to particular contextual circumstances. These contextually adapted items have a derived proper function, that is an effect that contributes not to their own reproduction but to the reproduction of the device that produced them. For instance, language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon whose evolution is to be understood at a double scale: the biological evolution of our “language faculty” -that is, the ensemble of organs and cognitive dispositions that made language possible as an adaptation- and the cultural/historical evolution of languages. Although Millikan doesn’t develop this point, her distinction can be used in order to understand how a linguistic item may have a direct proper function of a cultural kind, (for example, the function to stabilize a pattern of information exchange between two people) and, at the same time, a derived proper function of a biological kind to contribute to the proliferation of the biological devices that makes linguistic communication possible (Origgi & Sperber 2000).

Although Millikan’s account is a source of inspiration to rethink the articulation of biological and cultural phenomena within a unified framework, she couples her view with an account of linguistic meaning and intentionality that Sperber and I criticized in our paper.
I will call her view here: “extreme externalism”: according to Millikan, language is a way of stabilizing “patterns in truth and satisfaction conditions” (cf. Précis, p. 1) no matter how these patterns are realized by our cognitive processes. Basically, if a linguistic item proliferates it is because the effects of its production are often enough advantageous to the hearer and the speaker. These advangtageous effects consist in coordinating speakers and hearer’s behaviour. This coordinating function corresponds to the conventional meaning of these items. It is thus of little use for Millikan to investigate what happens in people’s mind when they speak or understand insofar as linguistic patterns succeed in stabilizing conformity to use. In particular, it is of no use to the interlocutor themselves. Speaker and hearer may succeed in performing this coordination function through different cognitive processes, As Millikan says in her précis: “The specific psychological processes, ways of recognizing, evidence relied on for application, that support our uses of proper names, of words for kinds, properties and so forth, need not be uniform from person to person for satisfaction conditions to remain uniform”. Positing a number of filters that constrain which linguistic forms will be replicated (such as the anatomy of our auditory system and some Chomskyan grammatical constraints on what aspects of language will be perceived by a child as functionally relevant) is all that is needed at the psychological level to explain how language proliferates and serves its communicative, coordinative, and informational purposes.
Since Grice, the fact that the interpretation of utterances is highly context dependent has been taken as evidence that comprehension consists in inferring the speaker’s meaning (a mental state) and not just in decoding the linguistic meaning. Millikan agrees that interpretation is never just a matter of decoding: the hearer is able to coordinate with the speaker and respond in the conventional way because the context in which the linguistic pattern has been initiated by the speaker allows, in a critical number of cases, the hearer to respond appropriately. However, the hearer doesn’t have to reconstruct what the speaker had in mind, unlike the Gricean pragmatic approach suggests: the environmental conditions in which the communication takes place are usually enough for the hearer to recognise from which reproductive family a particular linguistic token comes from (eg. If a token of “bank” reproduces the word referring to financial institutions, or that referring to the side of rivers) and thus figure out its meaning. For this, in most circumstances, the hearer need not pay any attention to the intentions of the speaker. That is because, for Millikan, linguistic meaning is not in the head: interpreting utterances is just another way of perceiving the world: “interpreting the meaning of what you hear through the medium of speech sounds that impinge on your ears is much like interpreting the meaning of what you see through the medium of light patterns that impinges on your eyes”. So, when communication proceeds normally, the hearer directly perceives the world through the words, and not the speaker’s thoughts and intentions. Roughly, a linguistic stimulus, if it succeeds in performing its function, attunes us directly with a piece of the world, and what happens in the speaker’s mind is of little relevance.
This is indeed a very special view of language. As Millikan acknowledges, that is how most animal codes work (p. 96). A bee dance succeeds in attuning other bees to the location of nectar, as id they had experienced the trajectory themselves. But human languages seem very different from animal codes. They have evolved in social contexts, for a great variety of communicative purposes and not just for transmit information in the narrow sense of the term. Their complex relation with our social cognition is one of the central tenets of the contemporary debate on evolution of language. It is hard to imagine how such a fine-grained social ability would have developed independently of any awareness of the thoughts and intentions of others.
Millikan says that our ability to effortlessly disambiguate most linguistic forms is not due to our capacity of reading other people’s intentions, but to the fact that language attunes us to an external context in which it is immediately perceivable what the linguistic forms refer to. Here is one the examples Millikan discusses in the book, if someone says “Hit-me” while playing blackjack, the environmental context of playing cards is rich enough to allow the hearer to interpret the speaker in the appropriate way, and cause her to give another card to the player instead of beating him, without having to attend to his mental states. I find this example quite puzzling: this is typically an example in which the use of the expression “hit-me” depends on the existence of an explicit, normative convention, of the kind Millikan sees as untypical of conventions in general (cf. LBM, ch.1): the hearer responds to “hit-me” in this circumstance by following a rule of the game that would have not survived without the existence of a social, normative context. But most of the contexts in which we interpret language don’t provide uniquely appropriate responses of this kind.
Nevertheless, given her view of language as a form of direct perception of the world, Millikan insists that, as bees, we are immediately attuned to the environmental cues that it is the purpose of that piece of language to direct our attention to. One of her key arguments on this point is some psychological evidence she refers to in the last part of the book according to which children learn language in that way, that is, by direct perceiving what a word is about without inferring what their parents or instructors have in mind (LBM, 213 and ff). I found this was particularly surprising. My first surprise comes from my own experience with my child Leo, a 5 years old bilingual boy: The only word I can concede he could have learned in a “Millikanian” way, that is, by a sort of behaviouristic training for responding in the appropriate way in the appropriate conditions, is the word “STOP” used to cause him to stop moving forwards in the street . I trained him from the onset to respond to my utterance of the word “STOP” by stopping immediately, and I can use this “command” when I want him to stop while he’s biking or rolling. His reactions to other similar but different stimuli, such as “HALT” or “Arrête-toi” in French would not be as immediate. With “STOP” he doesn’t need to think about what I mean: he reacts to this just by stopping, even in absence of any clear reason to stop (i.e. even if there are no crossroads or traffic-lights). But this is far from being paradigmatic of his way of learning language. It is an interesting curiosity that people may be trained to respond to a few linguistic items as animals might. But it seems to me very odd to define such circumstances as the Normal conditions in which a linguistic item performs its function. But let’s put aside this anecdotical evidence and have a closer look to the psychological evidence Millikan refers to in the book. It is surprising to find Paul Bloom’s work on language learning (cf. Bloom 2000) mentioned at p. 213 among the references in support to her view of language. Bloom is quite explicit in his book (cf. p. 78 and ff) about the role of mindreading abilities in language learning (see also Tomasello 2000). Children don’t grasp what adults say just because they are equipped “with a neuronal organisation that is easily tuned to interpret the kinds of informational patterns that language presents” (LBM, p. 214) and they don’t see through their parents’ words as they would see through binoculars. According to Bloom, children understand words as signs of a communicative intention: without this understanding of the communicative act, language learning would be quite limited.
Also, I am not aware of any evidence that would show that the first experiences of language learning have to do with a sort of perception of the world by proxy of the kind Millikan describes, that is, in which children are told how the world is and experience it through a new medium. Children come to the world within a linguistic community, they listen to language even in their mothers’ wombs and seem very competent in distinguishing between a perceptual stimulus and a linguistic one. They don’t “follow the mental focus of another person” as they would “follow the focus of binoculars or of a camera” (LBM, p. 217). It seems quite plausible, from a psychological and developmental point of view, that they follow the mental focus of that person because it’s a person, whose mind and emotions may be more relevant for their little lives than the world around.

Bloom, P. (2000) How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, MIT Press.
Origgi, G.; Sperber, D. (2000) Evolution, Communication and the Proper Function of Language, in P. Carruthers & A. Chamberlain (eds.) Evolution and the Human Mind, Cambridge UP, pp. 140-169.
Tomasello, M. (2000) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Harvard University Press.

Monday, July 03, 2006

La réputation

Projet de séminaire Fondazione Olivetti, Rome, printemps 2007. Organisé par: Pasquale Pasquino et Gloria Origgi

La réputation joue un rôle fondamental dans nos relations sociales, morales, économiques et épistémiques. En quoi consiste la réputation ? Pourquoi semble-t-il si important de l’acquérir et de la préserver ? C’est loin d’être évident. En économie, la réputation est la crédibilité qu’on reconnaît à un individu ou à une institution sur la base de ses actions passées et qui influence notre décision de nous engager dans une relation de confiance. En ce sens, chercher à acquérir et préserver une réputation est rationnel car c’est une façon d’augmenter ses possibilités d’interactions fructueuses avec autrui. Vouloir une bonne réputation est donc en ce sens une passion de l’utile.

Mais on peut parler de réputation dans un sens très différent. Par exemple, selon Boltanski et Thévenot (1991) dans une « société de l’opinion » comme la notre, la gloire ou la réputation sont un fin en soi. En ce deuxième sens, la réputation est liée à la recherche de reconnaissance comme forme de réalisation de soi, une passion de la gloire opposée à un passion de l’utile. La recherche de reconnaissance n’est pas réductible à la recherche d’autres bénéfices.

Dans un troisième sens, la réputation est une vertu morale: c’est l’identité qu’un individu présente aux autres en se conformant à un ensemble hétérogène de normes de conduite, critères de moralité et de décence qu’il peut avoir hérité de son milieu ou qu’il considère comme essentiels pour sa réalisation morale. La déférence à un modèle de vie exemplaire peut être quelque chose que l’on s’impose à soi-même ou qui est imposé par l’extérieur. Acquérir ou perdre une réputation en ce sens ne dépend pas toujours de nos actions. Dans La lettre écarlate de Hawthorne, Hester Prynne perd sa réputation à cause d’un adultère et subit une série de rituels de dégradation sociale même si elle n’intériorise pas la norme morale en question. Dans The remains of the day de Kazuo Ishiguro, l’impeccable majordome Stevens a le sentiment de perdre sa réputation lors que le nouveau propriétaire du manoir où il a travaillé toute sa vie lui demande de s’adapter à un code de comportement plus « moderne » et démocratique. Et, dans La Traviata, la jeune sœur d’Alfredo Gerson risque de perdre sa réputation si son frère n’interrompt pas sa relation avec Violetta Valéry, sans avoir rien fait elle-même.

Enfin, dans le domaine du savoir, la réputation est un signal de status qui oriente nos choix dans des situations d’incertitude. Nous faisons confiance plus facilement en un médecin qui a une bonne réputation même si nous n’avons pas d’accès aux critères sur lesquels celle-ci se fonde. La réputation dans un domaine de connaissances est un critère indirect fondamental pour structurer nos connaissances et nous orienter nos choix dans ce domaine.

Le séminaire abordera la question de la réputation à partir de ces perspectives différentes en essayant d’ouvrir un débat atour de quelques questions centrales:

1.A-t-on besoin d’une réputation et pourquoi? La réputation est-elle un fin en soi ou un moyen pour atteindre d’autres fins?
2.Quels sont les mécanismes de « contagion sociale » qui font ainsi que la réputation se transmet d’un individu à ses proches?
3.Quel est le rôle de la réputation dans la connaissance? Comment l’acquisition d’information s’appuie-t-elle sur la réputation et, inversement, comment la réputation s’appuie-t-elle sur l’information?


M. Bacharach, D. Gambetta (2001) “Trust in Signs” in. K. S. Cook (ed) Trust in Society, Russell Sage Foundation.
L. Boltanski, L. Thévenot (1991) De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur, Gallimard.
B. Carnevali (2006) “Potere e riconoscimento: il modello hobbesiano”
H. Garfinkel (1961) “Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies”, Journal of Sociology, 420-423.
J. Henrich, F. Gil-White (2001) “The evolution of prestige. Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission”, Evolution and Human Behaviour, 165-196.
A. Pizzorno (2006) “Capitale sociale, reputazione, visibiltà”

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Stance of Trust

Alex Katz

Paper submitted for the volume Language and Theory of Mind edited by Tomoko Matsui. Draft. Do not quote

A Stance of Trust

In a famous novel written by Jerry Kosinski, Being There - upon which a movie with Peter Sellers was based- Chauncey Gardiner is a mentally retarded gardener who, through a series of fortuitous accidents, becomes a heir of the throne of a Wall Street tycoon, a presidential policy adviser and a media icon. His simple words on how to conduct a garden have great impact on the President of United States, whom Chauncey meets in the house of Mr. Rand, the Wall Street Tycoon he happens to live with.
In a conversation with Rand and Chauncey, the President asks: “And you, Mr. Gardiner? What do you think about the bad season on the Street?”. Chauncey replies: “In a garden, growth has its season. There a spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then, spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well”.
“I must admit”, the President says “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in very, very long time […] Many of us forget that nature and society are one! Yes, though we have tried to cut ourselves off from nature, we are still part of it. Like nature, our economic system remains, in the long run, stable and rational, and that’s why we must not fear to be at its mercy […] We welcome the inevitable seasons of nature and yet we are upset by the seasons of our economy! How foolish of us!”
It may seem just one among the millions of examples of misunderstanding in interpretation, but let’s have a closer look of what is happening here. The simple fact that Chauncey is in Mr. Rand’s house gives the President enough background information about his reliability as a source of knowledge. The President’s epistemic assessment of Chauncey’s words is based on his reputation, established by the social network they are sharing: a friend of a reliable person - Mr. Rand- is also reliable. This background assumption, together with the standard inferential processes of interpretation, explain the President’s extra-effort in order to work out a relevant interpretation of what Chauncey said. We may also add a “confirmation bias” in the President’s interpretation, that is, he tends to reconstruct what Chauncey said in a way that confirms what he already thinks and hopes of the economic conjuncture in United States. Of course, he doesn’t simply accepts Chauncey’s words under authority: he interprets them in the context of his own thoughts about US economy. What Chauncey said is just further “food” for his thoughts and helps him in coming out with a positive interpretation of the bad season in Wall Street, a message he will repeat immediately after the dialogue on television.
In a sense, this is a case of epistemic luck: A gross misunderstanding about the background conditions resolves in an insightful and optimistic interpretation of the vagaries of American economy. Although he lives in Mr. Rand’s house, Chance is not a reliable source of information on US economy: worse, he is not reliable at all. Also, he is not sharing any mutual background with the President: his reply is simply misplaced. Nevertheless, the way in which the President adjusts his interpretation under the assumption that Chauncey is reliable is a much more general interpretive bias than it is usually acknowledged.
This example illustrates the complex interplay between the epistemic dimension of communication, that is, how we come to believe what other people say, and its pragmatic dimension, that is, how we interpret what our interlocutors say. Two areas of research, epistemology and pragmatics, inquire these two different dimensions with very little overlap. I think that a better understanding of the mutual influence of trust and interpretation would help to throw some light on how we acquire new beliefs through the words of others.
Epistemic trust is an ingredient of communication. It influences our interpretations and is influenced by them. Here I would like to argue that the “stance of trust” that is displayed in conversations has interesting epistemic consequences . My aim is to highlight the epistemological significance of the psychological and pragmatic analysis of trust in communication by arguing that a stance of trust is a fundamental ingredient of our interpretive practices.

Some conceptions of epistemic trust

The epistemology of testimony inquiries on what conditions we are justified in acquiring information from others. There are various attempts in past and present philosophy to justify our reliance on others, which prima facie contradicts the intellectual autonomy that is required for acquiring justified beliefs. Reductionist, say, “humean” approaches reduce the assessment of the reliability of testimonial reports to that of any other kind of evidence, that is, an inductive inference on the probability of its truth. Antireductionist approaches see trust in testimony as a basic channel for acquiring information, not reducible to more fundamental mechanisms such as perception or inference, and ground it in some innate psychological bias (as Reid’s principle of credulity) or structural properties of language: for example, Tyler Burge argues that language is a purely preservative process - as memory - that preserves meanings through communication, and it is this structural feature of language that entitles us to believe what we are told. Reliance on testimonial reports is thus for Burge a priori warranted by the preservative nature of the linguistic channel. Anthony Coady invokes a “davidsonian” charity principle as a warrant for testimonial reports: we cannot interpret others without presuming that much of what they say is true. Hence, a presumption of truth is automatically elicited, according to Coady, by any act of linguistic communication, otherwise language could not have ever stabilized among humans as a mean of communication. Language and trust thus come together and the very fact that we are language users warrants our default trust in other people’s reports. Other contemporary approaches base the coherence of granting intellectual authority to others on the acknowledgment that our own cognition is continuously and thoroughly shaped by others in everyday life and in our development, so it would be unreasonable not to grant others intellectual authority if we grant it to ourselves, given that the way in which we think is determined in a fundamental way by our interactions with others. [1]
Antireductionist approaches are appealing because our cognitive dependence on information that comes through language and that we are not able to check on our own is such a permanent condition of our mental life that there must be at least a prima facie justification in accepting what other people say without further inquiry. In most cases we simply do not have enough non-testimonial information to make an inductive inference about the reliability of our informants. Still, although the contrast between reductionist and antireductionist approaches has dominated the epistemology of testimonial knowledge for a while, one can acknowledge that there is no way out to our epistemic dependence -because testimonial access to knowledge is too ubiquitous- without granting any a priori justification to testimony. For example, Elisabeth Fricker [2] has recently argued that, even if cognitive autonomy is an ill-founded epistemological ideal, we can always check our epistemic dependence out of principles of epistemic propriety that warrant our deference to others. Even when we lack any evidential access, we are able to check - thanks to our folk-psychological competences - various cues of sincerity and competence, hence to reduce our deference to others to a set of warranted inferences about the reliability of our informants.
Surprisingly, most of these approaches don’t take into account the complex interplay between understanding and coming to believe that characterizes the rich inferential process of communication [3] . Understanding is considered either a precondition of trusting our interlocutors (see Fricker, cit., p. 28), or an outcome of linguistic communication ruled by language conventions (cf. Burge and Coady).

I would like to illustrate an alternative view on epistemic trust, that grounds it within the inferential process of communication. Knowledge from the words of others is not a two step process in which we first decode what other people say and then decide whether to accept or to reject what they say. Our trust in others influences what we come to believe from their words and, conversely, is influenced by what we understand.
I think that this approach is also an alternative way out from the opposition between reductionist and antireductionist approaches in epistemology of testimony, because it stresses the role of inferential processes in acquiring beliefs through others while invoking an autonomous notion of epistemic trust that is not reducible to the standard inductive inferences we make to confirm hypotheses about the world.

Trust, truthfulness and interpretation

A platitude that epistemology seems to ignore is that each social contagion of beliefs goes through a process of communication that varies from street-level conversation to more institutionalized settings of information exchange. People don’t just pack their ideas and then transfer them through language into other people’s heads. People talk, exchange opinions and mutually influence each other’s thoughts and convictions.
Philip Pettit and Michael Smith characterize the dynamic dimension of conversation conducted to epistemic effect in this way:

People do not set out just to form their own intellectual beliefs and then inform others of them. They listen to one another in the course of belief formation and they invest one another’s responses with potential importance. They are prepared often to change their own minds in the light of what they hear from others and, if they are not, then they usually feel obliged to make clear why they are not and why indeed the others should alter their views instead [4]

Epistemic standards and norms of discourse vary enormously: for example what is practically at stake in acquiring information influences what we come to know. We can accept from a friend in a dinner party a loose way of speaking about the alleged presence of a nuclear plan in Iran, while we would require a much greater commitment to the exactness of that information if what is at stake is a governmental decision to declare war to Iran. Nevertheless, it is interesting to notice how good we are in dealing with these “epistemic shifts” during conversation and adjust our interpretation and our demands of trustworthiness towards our interlocutors as the context varies. Here I would like to define a notion of stance of trust as the minimal reciprocal trust that participants into a communicative exchange must concede each other in order to understand and to be understood. How to define this form of trust in a way that allows for the continuous mutual adjustments through the dynamics of conversation?

Various attempts exist in philosophy to elucidate the nature of the presumption of trust that underlies all communicative interactions. Most of these attempts discuss the presumption of trust as a transcendental condition of linguistic communication, either by imposing as a constraint on linguistic interpretation a default attitude of holding true or accepting as true [5] what a speaker says, or by imposing constraints on the authority the subject’s commitment to the norms of conversation, which place the participants in a common space of reasons.
To give some examples, in his essay on Radical Interpretation Donald Davidson argues that a theory of interpretation must maximize agreement by making the interlocutors right as often as possible, thus generating a massive attribution of true beliefs [6] to them. But this doesn’t explain how this massive amount of true beliefs play a role in the real process of interpretation: most of the beliefs that will be automatically attributed to optimize interpretation are inert: they don’t play any active role in the interpretation of a particular sentence. Also, most of them are trivial, like the belief that rabbits are animals and that men are mortal, hence not immediately relevant to constraint our interpretation of what is being said. What such a normative principle doesn’t explain is the mechanisms that underlie a particular attribution of belief in a particular case.
Another possible candidate to explain the presumption of trust is David Lewis’ convention of truthfulness [7] as a way of achieving coordination among users of a language L. But it fails to explain on what bases in any particular context of communication we discriminate what our interlocutors say and don’t systematically come to believe all that they say. Lewis’ convention of truthfulness is, on one hand, too strong: it suffices that someone “wants to get the others to share some of his beliefs” and “he can accomplish his purpose by uttering sentences he takes to be true in L” [8] thanks to the existence of a regularity of truthful uses of L in the past that has shaped his interlocutors’ present expectations. But nobody comes to believe what others say just under the presumption of a truthful use of the language shared. The context of communication influence how we filter information and what we come to know. On the other hand, the principle is also too general for our purposes: it fails to explain what are the mechanisms that filter information in a given context of communication.

Paul Grice’s solution is a step forward to the understanding of the underlying mechanism of real interpretations. He describes the presumption of trust in terms of a maxim of truthfulness that we assume people intentionally conform to in conversational contexts. Any violation of this maxim biases the comprehension process towards a predictable interpretation of what the speaker meant. It is the recognition of a violation of a maxim, together with the assumption that the speaker intended to be cooperative, that makes the hearer adjust her interpretation of what the speaker meant. Of course Grice is not claiming that interlocutors are always genuinely cooperative: They can participate in a conversation in bad faith and try to deceive their audience, or be too incompetent to provide a truthful contribution to the conversation. What he is claiming is that the hearers interprets as if the speaker is speaking the truth, and that acts as a bias on his interpretation. Still, one may object that adopting a stance of trust in the truthfulness of what others say may seem a too rigid epistemic stance for comprehension. Each departure from the literal meaning of a sentence is, in his perspective, a violation of the maxim of truthfulness, and each recognition of a violation automatically biases the interpretation in search of the pragmatic implicatures that are required to justify the departure from truth. But epistemic standards may vary and even change during a single conversation: our epistemic tolerance seems higher than what Grice is willing to concede. Also, Grice’s maxims seem to play a role in interpretation ex post facto, that is, once that a sentence has been uttered the speaker reasons about it by following the maxims. But the stance of trust that guides interpretation seems to be there at the beginning of conversation: the very fact that someone intentionally addresses us his word to us is enough to making us adopt a stance of trust towards what he’s saying.
Other attempts [9] stress the role of the subject’s commitment to social norms in order to explain the presumption of trust that his speech acts elicits. The very fact that people endorse their assertions, thus take responsibilities on what they say, entitles us to be trustful. It is this normative commitment that explains, for some authors, the default trust we grant in conversation. Still, this requirement seems too strong and too limited to face to face conversation conducted to epistemic ends. As the example of Mr. Chance shows, a subject’s commitment to shared norms of linguistic conduct can be quite vague and underspecified by the context. Also, as I have stressed, the strength of these commitments vary in the dynamics of the conversation and hearers are able to adjust their trust accordingly.

Towards a pragmatics of trust

Instead of looking at trust just as a condition of possibility of interpretation, I think that the interplay between trust and interpretation that I want to highlight here is better understood by taking into account the pragmatic dimension of communication. It is within the rich inferential process of communication that we come to believe what other people say. Our almost permanent immersion in talks and direct or indirect conversations is the major source of cognitive vulnerability to other people beliefs and reports, even when the exchange is not particularly focused on knowledge acquisition [10] . Communication is a voluntary act. Each time we speak we are intentionally seeking the attention of our interlocutors and thus presenting what we have to say as potentially relevant for them. Each time we listen, we intentionally engage in an interpretation of what has been said, and expand our cognitive effort in order to make sense of what our interlocutor had in mind. It is remarkable how effortless and natural this process is: we don’t seem to make a series of heavy assumptions on the rationality of speakers, their commitments to shared norms of truth etc., rather we infer what they say in the context of our own thoughts and sometime we gain new insights about reality and may update or revise our beliefs. Contemporary pragmatics (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2002) makes the hypothesis that each act of communication elicits a presumption of relevance that guides interpretation. The search of relevant information is a general trait of our cognitive life. Communication is a special cognitive activity in which the search of relevant information is guided by our interlocutor. The simple fact that someone intentionally tries to attract our attention towards his words elicits a presumption of trust in the relevance of what he says. We adjust our interpretation in order to satisfy this presumption, and this adjustment takes into account the credibility and benevolence of our interlocutors. An act of communication thus not only elicits a series of social reciprocal expectations (as in Goffman) but a mutual cognitive environment of shared thoughts and hypothesis that is sustained by the stance of trust we adopt towards our interlocutors in providing us relevant information.
So, to adopt a stance of trust in our interlocutors means to accept a degree of cognitive vulnerability to share with them a number of assumptions, representations and hypothesis that are elicited “for the sake of the conversation”. We do not trust our interlocutosr to provide us with knowledge. This seems an irrealistic epistemic aim and implies a too restrictive view of linguistic communication as a matter of information transfer. We happen to acquire knowledge through communication by reworking what we’re been told in the context of our own thoughts and epistemic objectives, as in the example I have discussed above.
Thus trust in conversation is in a sense a sort of “virtual trust” that doesn’t commit us to accept as true what is said in conversation. We may take the risk to trust the speakers willingness to be relevant and yet check her trustfulness and reliability through the process of interpretation. But without previous virtual trust, that acts as a sort of “presumption of innocence” we won’t be able to share enough resources with our interlocutors in order to succeed in communication.
A stance of trust is both fundamental and fragile: it is fundamental in the sense that it is elicited by any act of communication; but it is fragile because we can revise it at any time if new evidence becomes available. To adopt a stance of trust is thus compatible with the cognitive autonomy necessary to our thought. To be trustful doesn’t mean to be gullible, but only to accept the cognitive vulnerability that each commitment to a verbal exchange implies, that is, the vulnerability of sharing a world of thoughts with others.


1 See for example R. Foley (2001), chapter 4.
2 See E. Fricker (forthcoming).
3 An exception is Richard Moran (2005) who argues in the line of Angus Ross (1986) that the speech act of telling has a special epistemic function, that is, it has not the function to provide the hearer with a piece of evidence about the world, rather to bind speaker and hearer in a normative relationship of mutual expectations of responsibility.
4 Cf. P. Pettit & M. Smith (1996), p. 430.
5 For this formulation, see Davidson (1975), p. 161.
6 Cf. Donald Davidson (1973) p. 136.
7 Cf. D. Lewis (1969), p.177-195 and Lewis (1983) « Langage and Languages », in Philosophical Papers, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, pp. 160-
8 Cf. Lewis (1969) p. 177 passim.
9 I am thinking of Robert Brandom’s normative pragmatics in Making it Explicit, and Richard Moran’s discussion of the role of the speaker’s explicit assumption of responsibility for his statement as a key ingredient of our interpretation (cf. Moran 2005).
10 On the fortuitous character of lot of our knowledge, cf. R. Hardin: “If it Rained Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 33, pp. 3-24; and [2004] “Why Know?’ manuscript. Cf. also Jennifer Lackey: “Knowledge is not necessarily transmitted via testimony, but testimony can itself generate knowledge” [Jennifer Lackey (1999) “Testimonial Knowledge and Transmission”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 199, p. 490, vol. 49 n. 197]


F. Clément, M. Koenig, P. Harris (2004) “The Ontogenesis of Trust”, Mind & Language, 19, pp. 360-379.

A. Coady (1992) Testimony, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

R. Foley (2001) Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others, Cambridge University Press.

E. Fricker (forthcoming) “Testimony and Epistemic Autonomy” in J. Lackey and E. Sosa (eds.) The Epistemology of Testimony, Oxford University Press.

A. Gopnik, P. Graf (1988) “Knowing how you know: Young Children’s Ability to Identify and Remember the Sources of Their Beliefs”, Child Development, 59, n. 5, pp. 1366-1371.

R. Holton (1994) “Deciding to Trust, Coming to Believe”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 72, pp. 63-76.

R. Moran (2005) “Getting Told and Being Believed”, in Philosophers’ Imprints, vol. 5, n. 5, pp. 1-29.

Origgi, G. (2004) “Is Trust an Epistemological Notion?” Episteme, 1, 1, pp. 61-72.

P. Pettit, M. Smith (1996) “Freedom in Belief and Desire”, The Journal of Philosophy, XCIII, 9, pp. 429-449.

A. Ross (1986) Why Do We Believe What We Are Told?” Ratio, 28, 1986, pp. 69-88

T. Ruffmann, L. Slade, E. Crowe (2002) The Relation between Children’s and Mothers’ Mental State Language and Theory of Mind Understanding”, Child Development, 73, pp. 734-751.

M. A. Sabbagh, D. Baldwin (2001) “Learning Words from Knowledgeable vs. Ignorant Speakers: Links between preschooler’s Theory of Mind and Semantic Development”, Child Development, 72, 1054-1070.

Sperber, D., Wilson, D. (2002) “Truthfulness and Relevance”, Mind, ???

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Who's Afraid of the Third Culture?

Originally published in Il Sole 24 Ore, it is now featured on EDGE

(GLORIA ORIGGI:) It is remarkable that the discovery of a class of premotor neurons in the brain of macaque monkeys should seem to have important repercussions on our understanding the nature of human sociality. What does, after all, the activation of a cell of the nervous system of a monkey have to do with the intricacies of our social relations?

Beyond the fascinating arguments provoked by this discovery, this illustrates the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years in the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities, that is “the two cultures,” defined by C.P. Snow in his famous 1969 essay. Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.

So, is a third culture possible, as defined by John Brockman, in which the natural sciences take part in making sense of ourselves and our actions?

The investigation of the biological bases of moral sentiments, aesthetic judgment, interpretation of others, or religious beliefs still provokes frontal intellectual resistance in the name of an exception of human experience, which is historically situated and irreducible to natural constraints. More generally, a naturalistic approach is seen as deeply distorting the mission of the human and social sciences, which should aim at understanding how social-historical structures, power relationships, and cultural domination manifest themselves in human beings and shape their individual expressions. Therefore, there seems to exist an irresolvable tension between incompatible explanatory models. But is it really so?

Two main criticisms are addressed to the idea of a naturalistic research program in the human sciences. The first is the risk of reductionism, that is, the idea that complex social and personal experiences can be reduced to neurophysiological mechanisms. The second is that it suffers from anti-historicism, in the sense that it fails to provide historical contextualization or genealogical investigation, as though the forms of thought and the patterns of action that we seek to explain were immutable “natural types.” And indeed, in some cases, the reductionist and universalist speculations presented as grand claims of some of the exponents of the new naturalism can be irritating.

Consider for instance the project of neuroaesthetics: Vilayanur Ramachandran identifies ten universal “laws” of aesthetic experience, one of which says that neurological responses to “exaggerated” stimuli (such as an eye twice the size of a normal eye) are at the base of our aesthetic preferences (a neurological effect present also in mice called “peak shift”). The claim of having replaced the “vague speculations of historians” by scientific principles of aesthetic evaluation seems rather grand. The study of the psychological response to works of art has, however, been undertaken by expert art historians such as David Freedberg, who, in his seminal work The Power of Images sought to understand the universal psychological and anthropological constraints on human responses to images. There is nothing reductionist or anti-historical in Freedberg’s approach; he is just attempting to improve our understanding by drawing on the resources of the natural sciences.

Incidentally, regarding anti-historicism, one could point out that most naturalistic approaches are also of a historical nature: evolutionary arguments, for instance, seek to explain a behavior or a present forma mentis in terms of the brain’s history of adaptation to ancestral conditions or of mechanisms of cultural evolution.

This is how the philosopher Daniel Dennett undertakes in his new book Breaking the Spell to outline a naturalistic explanation of religious beliefs in Darwinian terms. Dennett isolates the “germs” of religious belief in cognitive predispositions, such as that of interpreting phenomena in intentional terms and of seeking therefore agents responsible for notable events, or in the greater memorability of counterintuitive information of a kind abundant in religion.

Dennett brings together speculations on the idea of group selection, on the evolution of religious institutions, and on the selection over time of sets of beliefs based on authority and immune to proof. Here too, Dennett’s total confidence in a Darwinian approach to religion may be seen as irritatingly premature. However, even if Dennett’s all-encompassing evolutionistic teleology may look like a form of religious creed, this does not mean that looking at religion with the help of natural sciences is a misguided project.

One need only turn directly to the anthropological works from which Dennett draws partial inspiration to find studies, like that of Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust. Atran balances evolutionary arguments, ecological and anthropological observations, and psychological experiments in order to reconstruct the “ecological landscape” in which a system of beliefs evolves and persists. He explains the difference between animistic, pantheistic, and monotheistic religions in terms of the psychological “distance” between the images that different human groups have of their biological environment and of society: where representations of nature and of society tend to merge (as in totemic societies), we find animistic religions. The greater the distance between these representations, the more people tend towards monotheistic systems. Atran’s work provides an example of a perspective that, without being reductionist or anti-historicist, draws on the natural sciences in its explanation of a religious phenomenon.

Thus, the third culture can be seen as a multidimensional culture, where explanations originating in different disciplines combine together without cancelling one another. As yet another example, one might think of Jon Elster’s work on emotions in his book The Alchemies of the Mind, in which neurobiology, literature, and rational choice theory come together as vectors of a causative and conceptual explanation of what is involved in feeling emotion.

Is then a third culture possible? There is a strong temptation to see in these smoothly combined approaches a new path to knowledge, a pluralistic culture that weaves together a dense plot of facts and interpretations without the ideological burden of having to reduce the ones to the others or vice versa.

(* For a comprehensive view on mirror neurons, visit the virtual conference:

(translated from Italian by Carrie Keesling-Getz)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Wine epistemology

To appear in B. Smith (ed.) Philosophy and Wine, London. Draft. Do not quote

Wine epistemology: The role of reputational and rating systems in the world of wine

Ever since Pliny the Elder, talk about wine and its aesthetic appraisal oscillates between giving allegiance to the subjectivity of taste and appealing to systems of ranking and reputation. Book XIV of his Historia Naturalis is dedicated to wine, its cultivation and its benefits. In chapter 8 of the book, Pliny acknowledges the subjective dimension of wine tasting: “quam ob rem de principatu se quisque iudicem statuet” (His. Nat, XIV, 8), while presenting, a few lines above, a long and structured ranking list of the best wines, based on the reputation they had for emperors and other distinguished people. Famous proverbs such as De gustibus non est disputandum or chacun à son goût are often mentioned alongside remarks on the need of some “standards” or rules of taste to help our sense of discrimination.
Even Robert Parker, the internationally acclaimed “taste-pundit” in the world of wine, whose 100 points-based system of wine rating has revolutionized the wine market, entitles subjective taste as the ultimate judge. He writes in his subscribers-only website of wine rating : “There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.” Or take this declaration in one of the most authoritative books on wine ever published, Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine: “The best judge of the right styles of wine for your palate is you. There are no absolutes of right and wrong in wine appreciation” (p. 49, 5th edition). Yet, the book is a monument to the reputation and the rating systems of the various regions in which wine is produced all over the world.
Wine taste is the paradigmatic case of subjective experience: it is highly variable, not only from one person to another, but also within the same individual from one particular occasion to another; it is highly incommunicable and depends upon a unique combination of external and internal conditions. Yet, the world of wine is a domain in which experts have a major role in defining the very experience of taste. This is of course no surprise: Wine is an aesthetic experience, and as such, needs evaluative criteria.
Hume’s famous essay Of the Standard of Taste is an attempt to argue for the need of a principle, a rule that allows us to discriminate between good and bad taste, and which he finds in the “joint verdict of true judges”:

Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.

For Hume, a true judge is thus a connoisseur, that is, a person well acquainted with an aesthetic domain, and competent to transmit his or her judgement on the matter.
Connoisseurship is an elusive concept which vaguely refers to a special kind of expertise. If most of us are able to recognize a connoisseur in an aesthetic domain, like fine arts or interior decoration, it would be hard to precisely say what defines him or her as such. Is a connoisseur just someone who has good taste or does she or he have an objective expertise in a domain? The tension between subjective experience and objective expertise is especially vivid in the world of wine because, on the one hand, taste, like smell, is considered a lower sense, whose relation to aesthetic judgement is less clear-cut than that of sight and hearing (see Scruton, this volume), and, on the other hand, knowledge of wine is not a well defined epistemic field, so connoisseurs in the world of wine are often considered as no more than snobs that bluff their way by pretending an expertise that doesn’t have any serious objective grounds.
What is wine connoisseurship about? In trying to define it, the Italian gastronomist Carlo Petrini , founder of the Slow Food movement, plays with the common etymology of the two Italian words sapore (taste) and sapere (knowledge), both coming from the Latin word sàpere which means at the same time “having taste” and “knowing”. Taste requires knowledge to become good taste, that is, to belong to the licit sensory pleasures that a particular society considers as legitimate. Yet, the word gastronomy entered the European lexicon quite recently, through the 1801 poem by Joseph Berchoux, La gastronomie ou l’homme des champs à table, nearly as a joke, an oxymoron in which two markedly contradictory terms are put together to convey the idea of an impossible “science of the stomach” alluding hilariously to the word astronomy.
Sensory pleasures such as food and wine have been quite recently admitted among the proper pleasures in our society. Alcohol consumption is still forbidden by some religions and in many countries, and food restrictions and proscriptions are found in every culture. The way in which talking about wine and food has become so cultivated may perhaps depend on the need to detach it from the lower origins of the pleasures of palate. But I don’t want here to provide a sociological account of wine talk and its place in the mechanisms of social recognition and social distinction. This is an interesting topic that has been explored at length in sociology, especially in Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal work on the social critique of taste .
Rather, I would like to approach the question from the point of view of social epistemology, trying to understand how sets of knowledge structures, such as classifications, ranking systems, reputational systems, guide us in acquiring a capacity for discrimination in a particular epistemic domain. Taste, as Kant says, is an acquired disposition to discriminate and appraise. I shall consider wine taste in this sense as an interesting example of a more general epistemic process of appraisal that underlies our acquisition of expertise in so many different fields of knowledge and practice.
Wine seems of a special epistemological interest because it is an epistemic domain that we enter as adults and sometimes with relatively little cultural background to bias our taste and our judgement (we don’t undergo any obligatory institutional education in wine taste even in those areas of the world, like Southern Europe, where one is very likely to be exposed to wine talk and appraisal from childhood on). We deliberatively decide to learn about wine, defer to experts and acquire their manners and expertise. Thus, trying to elucidate what sorts of epistemic strategies are at stake in the case of acquiring wine taste seems at a first glance easier than in the case of other domains whose acquisition can be affected by age, school education and coercive teaching.
My general point will be that acquiring a wine expertise is not so radically different as it may seem at a first glace from acquiring epistemic competence in any domain of knowledge. Acquiring taste as a discriminative ability, a “sense of quality” that allows us to sort items of cultural knowledge, is a process that is not very well investigated in epistemology and cognitive science, but that plays a crucial role in knowledge acquisition. We need experts, tags, labels and rating systems in order to acquire a capacity for discrimination, to understand the style of thought that is proper to a particular body of knowledge. Without the mastery of some credible procedures for sorting information and enabling us to navigate through bodies of knowledge we would face the impossible task of Bouvard et Pécuchet, the two heroes of Flaubert who decided to retire and to go through every known discipline without, in the end, being able to learn anything.
Let me state my point in this way: Coming to know a body of knowledge involves, at least at the beginning, the ability to identify whom to trust for that knowledge. Assessing an expert’s or a label’s reputation is a way of orientating our trust in a new domain of knowledge so as to appropriately defer to other people’s expertise (the expert or the labelling institution) in the early learning phase in which a totally autonomous judgement is not possible. This is a controversial epistemological point and I would like to explain it better. On the classical view, a crucial requirement of any epistemology - whose aim is to tell us how we ought to arrive at our beliefs - is to ensure the autonomy of our process of knowledge acquisition. Various criteria, rules and principles on how to conduct our mind have been put forward along the history of philosophy as a guarantee to preserve the autonomy and freedom of thought necessary to the acquisition of knowledge. Recent approaches in epistemology have challenged this view and tried to account for the epistemic reliability of the inevitable trust and deference that permeate our cognitive life. Following this latter line, in my work I try to understand the place of deference, trust and reputation in our acquisition of knowledge . I defend the idea that deferring to indirect criteria to evaluate information - like reputation or trustworthiness of our interlocutors- is a fundamental epistemic strategy that has to be taken into account in any serious investigation of the processes of knowledge acquisition. Roughly, we do not acquire information in order to assess other people’s reputation: rather, we assess their reputation in order to acquire information.
By adopting this approach, a number of epistemological questions arise:

  1. What are the processes of construction of systems of reputations and ranking in a given domain of knowledge?

  2. How are different processes used to obtain information about that domain ?

  3. How do people use these systems to orient their discrimination ?

  4. What is the role of experts’ trustworthiness in maintaining or challenging these systems?

In order to elucidate these questions I will analyze three examples that will illustrate the complex relations between the institutional systems of classifications, the trustworthiness of experts and the acquisition of wine taste: The French appellation systems, the Californian systems, and the rise of the credibility of the taste-pundit Robert Parker and his influence on the wine market.

Classification and reputation. The French vs. the Californian appellation system.

In her book, How Institutions Think, the famous anthropologist Mary Douglas compared two systems of wine classification, the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux’s wines in France and the more recent classification system of Californian wines, as an example of the institutional/public pressure on our ways of acquiring categories in a domain of knowledge. After a detailed description of the two different labelling systems - the Bordeaux’s regional-based system vs. the Californian grape-based - she concluded that the Californian labelling system marked a transition in our thinking about wine from the old and complex French regional-based system, whose way of condensing information “can only be unpacked by a connoisseur”, to the new, more pragmatic and market-oriented grape-based system. In her words: “This is how the names get changed and how the people and the things are rejigged to fit the new categories […] They make new kinds of institutions, and the institutions make new labels, and the new labels make new kinds of people” (p. 108). According to Douglas, this difference between the two classificatory styles expresses a conceptual shift in our way of thinking about wine. Yet, her prediction of a transition from the French classification system to the Californian one has not been fulfilled: the Johnson’s World’s Atlas of Wine, which she mentions as irrelevant to understanding the contemporary wine market, has attained its 6th edition and is still the number one best-selling book in the world of wine. It is true that the two systems are very different, and it is worth exploring in more detail how these differences have an impact on our discernment . But the resilience of the regional-based French classifications systems suggests that the distinct role of these labelling systems is not just to provide us with the categories that enable us to classify reality: these labelling systems are resilient as long as they are also reputational systems, that is, as long as the way in which they label the items gives us information on how to appraise the value of the items. In this perspective, the Californian Appellation system is not a rationalization of the French system towards a more pragmatic or market-oriented wine categorization. It just establishes a different network of deferential relations that consumers use in order to orient their choices. But let us have a closer look at these systems of classification.

Quality and reputation: The French Bourgogne and Bordeaux classification systems

French appellation systems are very idiosyncratic and vary from a region to another. The two most famous areas of wine production, Bourgogne and Bordeaux, have completely separate classification systems: the Bourgogne is based on a complex system of quality classification of the lands, whereas the Bordeaux is based on the châteaux system. The Bourgogne classification system was systematized and unified in 1906 by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), by appealing to previous local classification systems. It divides, according to their position and their soil composition, the lands into small vineyards that form the various appellations: Chablis, Mersault, Beaune, Nuits, etc. It further sorts the vineyards into four quality classes: Grands Crus (a rank that is deserved only by 32 small vineyards or climats, whose name represents the best wines in Bourgogne: Musigny, Chambertin, Montrachet, Chambertin Clos de Bèze, Romanée-Conti, etc.), Premiers Crus (about 600 vineyards which are usually indicated on the wine by the name of the village plus the name of the vineyards (like Gevrey-Chambertin Close St Jacques or Chambolles-Musigny Les Amoureuses), the appellation communale, which allows a wine to be called by the name of the village in which the vineyard is situated (like Mersault or Pommard, but also Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Puligny-Montrachet – all village wines unless from a specific climat), and finally, a generic appellation Bourgogne reserved to less well situated vineyards, or to grapes taken from many, sometimes quite good, vineyards, in the case of good producers. This classification is a reputational system that establishes in a fairly robust way quality standards on a double level: first, by fragmenting the whole region into small portions of land and attributing appellations to them; second, by imposing on this fragmentation a four-level ranking system of vineyard quality. A connoisseur’s eye will thus read in a bottle’s label detailed information about the wine’s reputation according to the quality of the vineyard in which it is produced.
Bordeaux’s wines are classified according to a variety of local ranking systems, whose most well known is that of the châteaux in the Médoc region (with the exception of Château Haut-Brion in Graves) that was established in 1855, in response to Napoleon’s III request to rank Médoc wines for the Parisian Exposition Universelle, a very selective showcase of the French élite culture. The ranking was established by wine industry brokers according to the château reputation and its trading prices over the previous 100 years. The grand crus were already produced differently from ordinary Bordeaux wines, typically from older wine stocks, that often reached more than 50 years of age , thus raising the reputation of those château proprietors who could afford to keep large stocks for so long. The château reputation, calculated in terms of prices, was the key-ingredient in establishing the 1855 ranking system, a very different criterion than that of the land quality used in the Bourgogne system. A château is a controlled vineyard which has winemaking and storage facilities on the property. Its reputation depends thus not only on the vineyard’s position and soil quality, but also on the savoir-faire and past performances of the proprietors. As Hugh Johnson explains in his World’s Atlas, a maître de chai is a central figure of the château, one whose craft is supposed to be inherited from father and grand-father (cf. 5th edition, p. 82). The 1855 classification included 60 châteaux from Médoc and one from Graves, ranked as first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths (crus). Only four châteaux were ranked among the Premiers Crus: Lafite, Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion (a fifth premier cru, Mouton-Rotchild, was added almost 100 years later).
By giving a primary role to the châteaux reputation, the Bordeaux’s reputational system provides different cues to the consumers. Winemakers’ mastery and their credibility over the years are the relevant cues for assessing whom to trust among the producers in this highly fragmented market. An experimental study in economics on quality expectations, reputation and prices in the Bordeaux wine market shows that the price premium associated with a better reputation exceeds twenty times the price associated with current quality. In a highly fragmented market, where information gathering about individual producers is very costly, the epistemic role of a château’s reputation is crucial to orient one’s taste.

Deference relations. The Californian 1978 Appellation system.

The Californian appellation system was established in 1978 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), with the aim of improving the reputation of American wines (California produces more than 90% of the wine made in United States), by allowing a wine to be named after a “politically designated” region. In 1980, were created “American viticultural areas” (AVA), that is, delimited wine-growing regions that have distinctive geographical features, such as Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, or Anderson Valley. A wine maker who uses one of these legal appellations doesn’t need to produce wine inside the designated areas: it suffices that at least 85% of the grapes present in the wine should come from it. The AVA system doesn’t fix which variety of grape or yield should grow in a particular area and in which percentage. A wine produced with 85% Napa Valley Chardonnay grape will deserve to be a Chardonnay with the Napa Valley appellation. A Californian winery has much more freedom than a French one in choosing its appellations. Many producers still ignore the AVA classifications, and prefer to stick to the simpler labelling used before 1980, that is, naming the winery plus the grape variant. Others are not only committed to the AVA systems, but have also started to put on their labels the name of locally renowned vineyards now associated to a grape variety, such as Zinfandel in Dry-Creek Valley and Pinot Noir in the cooler hills of Carneros. Differentiation of areas and vineyards is still ongoing: indeed a very different picture from that drawn by Mary Douglas, who predicted an inevitable simplification of the classification systems towards a grape-based labelling. In fact, the more the reputation of Californian wines grows, the more fine-grained and stratified the classification system becomes, thus incorporating information that can be unpacked only by the expert’s eye.
The relative freedom of labelling of Californian winemakers doesn’t simplify the classification system. It leads rather to the establishment of a complex network of deferential relations among appellations and wineries, as has been shown by the economist J. M. Podolny. If a winery in one region puts the name of another region on its labels in order to indicate a better quality of grapes coming from that region, this is interpreted as an act of deference towards that region, and will contribute to its overall reputation and to the impact of the appellation on the price of wines. As Podolny shows, half of the bottles which bear the name “Napa Valley” on their labels are not produced within Napa Valley, as a clear act of deference and acknowledgment of the superiority of the grapes coming from this particular AVA. An example of a strategy used to influence status perception through affiliation to an appellation is the recent association of the Gallo winery, the largest producer of wine in US whose reputation is associated with cheap and mediocre wines, with the appellation Sonoma Valley, as an attempt to change its reputation and improve the perception of its wine (cf. Podolny p. 113). The use of the label “Gallo of Sonoma” is an act of deference of the Gallo vineyards towards the Sonoma region, thus signalling a more careful selection of the provenance of the grapes. This act of deference has a double effect: on the one hand, it makes transparent to the consumers the relationship between the two entities, that is, the fact that Gallo buys grapes from Sonoma Valley. One the other hand, it contributes to stabilizing a distinct identity of the label “Gallo of Sonoma”, that will orient consumers’ choice.
Podolny’s case study of the reputational network created by Californian wineries’ affiliations shows that this network has an influence on past evaluations of quality, an important parameter for fixing prices in a market. That is, the reputation that a particular winery gains through affiliations not only isn’t determined by its past, but influences how its past is evaluated.
So, here we have a third kind of reputational system, in which people rely on “who is associated with whom” in order to get information about a particular wine, given that it would be too costly and cumbersome to obtain this information from direct inspection of the quality.

These three examples show how different reputational systems provide consumers’ evaluation heuristics with different cues: the Bourgogne system provides cues about the quality of the vineyards, the Bordeaux’s about the mastery of the Châteaux, and the Californian about the social network of status relations. These different types of cues incorporate evaluations that are used by the consumers to get information that would be very costly to obtain otherwise. The “normative landscape” encoded in this ranking systems orients the novice in his or her first steps within the new domain of knowledge of wine.

Credibility, trust and moral qualities: The rise of Robert Parker’s trustworthiness

As Steven Shapin pointed out in a recent article, it is remarkable that the most famous taste pundit over the last decades, Robert Parker, comes from the United States. A former lawyer, born in Baltimore in 1947, Parker began writing wine reports around 1975 and has become since then the most respected critic throughout the world. His publication, The Wine Advocate, has more than 40,000 subscribers. His rise coincides with the rise of American wine and its now worldwide reputation. Parker’s best known revolution is his rating system based on a 100 point scale, a much more flexible system than the usual 20 point scales: 96-100 points correspond to an extraordinary wine, 90-95 to an outstanding wine, 80-89 to a barely above average to very good wine, 70-79 an average wine, etc. Almost every wine shop in the United States displays the Parker points below the prices of wines to orient the customers.
How did Robert Parker succeed in imposing himself as the most authoritative connoisseur in the domain of wine expertise? Why do people overall the world trust his judgments? His fame is related to his judgement on the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux, whose “British experts” have judged as overripe and not worth buying for the long term. His positive evaluation was eventually endorsed by the rest of the world. Actually, his rise wasn’t without conflicts. As the story tells, in 2004 he was heavily criticized by one of the leading wine critics, the British Jancis Robinson, for having rated a 2003 vintage Château Pavie 95-100, a “ridiculous wine” according to Robinson, whose appreciators deserved a “brain and palate transplant”. Still, despite a few attempts to discredit the reputation of his palate, Robert Parker is internationally considered a man of exquisite and precise taste, a “true judge”, in Hume’s words, whose infallible buds dictate the laws of oenological excellence. Wine experts in the wine industry play a key-role in balancing the effects of reputation that we have seen in the previous section of the paper: blind-tasting is a way of ensuring a criterion of quality independent of the classifications described above. When different blind evaluations converge, one may consider to possess an objective measure of the “perceived” quality of a wine (as opposed to its “expected quality”, that is, its reputation). Professional blind evaluations are performed under controlled conditions by panels of experts. But Parker has never accepted to be part of these panels. He presents himself as an independent critic and has not been formally trained in wine. He started his bimonthly publication as a vocation, abandoning his attorney career against the advice of friends and relatives. So, again, why is Parker trusted? Given that he doesn’t appeal to any professional expertise or rigorous standard of evaluation, should we admit the thesis of the superiority of his taste apparatus: exceptional palate, buds and memory that are never mistaken? Against this superhuman view of a “million dollar nose”, that can be used as a litmus test to determine the quality of a wine, I would rather explore an alternative view: Parker is identified as a modern version of a gentleman, a man of honour, and for this reason he is considered trustworthy, a friend of the ordinary consumer, not siding with the experts and the elite. The socio-epistemological role of the moral qualities of gentlemanry and honour in the evaluation truthfulness has been superbly addressed by Steven Shapin in his work on truth and credibility in the emergence of modern science. He explores “the connections between the identity of individuals making claims and the credibility of what they claim” (p. 126) and the way in which judgements of the truth or falsity of knowledge-claims incorporated assessments of the knowledge source during the emergence of experimental science in the XVII century. A similar connection between the acceptance of normative standards and the display of moral qualities, such as integrity and freedom of action, can be traced also in the case of the assessment of the credibility of a taste expert such as Robert Parker. Parker is supposedly incorruptible: The Wine Advocate’s subtitle is: “The Independent Consumer’s Bimonthly Guide to Fine Wine”. He sees himself as a self appointed consumer’s advocate, a crusader whose mission is to free the world of wine from hypocrisy and bad faith. His publication doesn’t accept advertising. He doesn’t accept gifts from wine producers or invitations to the vineyards, doesn’t speculate on the wine market, and prefers to taste alone at home, without the pressure of social occasions. His detachment is a guarantee of trustworthiness. He shows also a total disregard of the lore of hierarchies of wine. He’s not a snob as he claims are his British competitors, too sensitive to the lineage of wine. As his admirers claim, he brings a democratic breeze into the wine industry, by detaching the evaluation of wines from the reputation of their location and history. His simple and synthetic reports lack the verbosity of those by other critics and are easy to understand. Integrity, democracy, intelligibility are constituents of Parker’s self-professed identity and it is through the appraisal of his identity that consumers decide to trust him. While usually convergence of content and other indirect epistemic criteria play a role in assessing the credibility of reports, the case of Parker is somewhat different: it is the display of his moral qualities that reinforces his authority.
The relation between experts’ trustworthiness and historically determined reputational systems is thus quite complex: experts are not simply tools or instruments, as Smith claims (see Smith, this volume) that allow the consumer to assess the real quality of the wine by proxy, or to unpack unintelligible information out of a wine label. Experts participate in the maintenance and the transformations of the reputational systems by counterbalancing their role, challenging their hierarchies or reinforcing them.
A novice who approaches a complex and traditional corpus of knowledge such as wine expertise is confronted with a normative landscape, rich of cues he uses to orient his sense of discrimination. The lore of tradition is structured by the classifications, ranks and reputational systems that teach us what is canonical for that corpus of knowledge, that is, what defines the threshold of identity below which that corpus ceases to exist. We learn these maps fast, by using heuristics that allow us to rapidly associate values to items. But we are not blindly deferential to this lore. To the extent that we acquire an autonomous capacity of discrimination, we challenge and revise it, by relying on our own experience and on those experts whom we consider trustworthy in that domain. A socio-epistemological investigation of the different heuristics we construct and use to structure a body of knowledge is a worthy project, even in those cultural domains whose underlying facts of the matter are difficult to pinpoint. I don’t think there exists a “science of wine”. But this doesn’t imply that our acquisition of a discrimination is deprived of any objective value. Although a science of wine is still out of our reach, the sketch of an epistemology of wine that I’ve presented here is an attempt to describe how people structure their knowledge, which heuristics they employ, which experts they trust in trying to navigate an historically embedded and epistemologically entangled corpus of knowledge such as wine expertise.
Gaston Bachelard used to say that science has not the philosophy it deserves. In the case of wine, it would be perhaps more appropriate to say that philosophy has not the science it deserves.


J. P. Albert (1989) “La nouvelle culture du vin”, Terrain, n. 13 (October) : Boire. On line at:

Bourdieu, P. (1979) La distinction, Paris, Editions Minuit. English translation (1986) : Distinction. A social critique of the judgement of taste, Routledge, London.

M. Foucault (1966) Les mots et les choses, Paris, Gallimard. Eng. Trans. (1970) The Order of Things, Tavistock, London.

A. L. Hughson, R.A. Boakes (2002): “The knowing nose: The role of knowledge in wine expertise” Food Quality and Preference, 13, 7-8, 463-372.

Origgi, G. (2004) “Is Trust an Epistemological Notion?” Episteme, vol. 1, n. 1, 61-72.

Origgi, G. (2005) “What Does it Mean to Trust in Epistemic Authority?” in P. Pasquino (ed.) The Concept of Authority, Fondazione Olivetti, Rome.
Podolny, J.M. (2005) Status Signals, Princeton University Press.
Solomon, G. (1990), Psychology of novice and expert wine talk. American Journal of Psychology 105 pp. 495–517.
Solomon, G. (1997), Conceptual change and wine expertise. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 6 pp. 41–60
Shapin, S. (1994) The Social History of Truth, Chicago University Press.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Abtract accepted for the conference Art and Science the will be held in London, 22-23 June 2006.

Much of the recent debate about the role of representations in science and argumentation focuses on the role of visual representations in scientific reasoning. How do scientists use visual representations and what do these images mean? Can images be part of a scientific argument? And, if they can, how do they contribute to the overall meaning of a scientific argument? Visual representations are thus viewed as non-linguistic objects that can exploit the fine-grainedness of visual perception as opposed to verbal description for a variety of purposes such as conveying data, exemplifying an argument, or acting as cognitive facilitators in order to visualise information.
In this paper I will argue that illustrations, that is, cognitive facilitators that make things clearer to the mind, play a central role both in language and in other representational systems. In my view, illustrations (linguistic and pictorial) are a subset of exemplifications, and play a distinctive role in argumentation: Instead of providing evidence for an hypothesis (as exemplifications do in inductive reasoning) they facilitate the construction of a visual representation of that hypothesis. Both kinds of illustrations, linguistic and non-linguistic elicit semantically dense representations of a property or a concept presented in an argument. I will take some linguistic examples of illustration coming from the philosophical literature, in order to show that their role in the overall meaning of an argument is very similar to the role of images when used as illustrations.
Take the example of a relatively recent philosophical book, Margaret Gilbert’s book on Social Facts (Routledge, 1989). She introduces the technical philosophical notion of “we-intentions” and the illustrates it with various examples, such as for example the “restaurant case” (p.175) in which: “A group of people are eating together, two of them, Tony and Celia, are engaged and the other two barely know each other. Tony asks Celia: “Shall we share a pastry?” Celia agrees. The one of the other man, Bernard, turns to Sylvia, who is sitting on his right and whom she hardly knows and asks “Shall we share a pastry?”. She finds his use of “we” inappropriate”. These stories are neither presented as pieces of evidence that may prove the hypothesis at stake, nor are they standard exemplifications (as defined in Goodman, 1976) because the don’t possess the properties they are supposed to exemplify. They illustrate these properties by eliciting a visual representation.
Or take the more classical case of J.P. Sartre’s famous illustrations of what “bad faith” means. He introduces the description of a scene, in which he pictures a girl sitting with a man who she knows very well would like to seduce her. But when he takes her hand, she tries to avoid the painful necessity of a decision to accept or reject him, by pretending not to notice, leaving her hand in his as if she were not aware of it. The second illustration of “bad faith” describes a café waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously 'acting the part'. These descriptions play an obvious role in his argument by contributing to making the notion of “bad faith” more vivid.
These descriptive sketches require a narrative ability and may fail to elicit the appropriate visualisation of the concept because of lack of some aesthetic properties.
My idea is that illustration as a rhetoric device bears interesting relations with visual representations both in the case of linguistic illustrations and graphic illustrations. A better investigation of the notion of illustration could provide an insight on the role of visual representations in argumentation.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Text-e. The Book

My new book on the future of text in Internet is now out. It results from the online conference I have organized with the Bibliothèque Publique d'Information in Paris and the start up GiantChair in 2001 on the website

It is a collection of essays on the impact of new technologies on writing. It includes contributions by: Stefana Broadbent, Francesco Cara, Roberto Casati, Roger Chartier, Umberto Eco, Jason Epstein, Stevan Harnad, Bruno Patino, Dan Sperber, Theodore Zeldin.

With a forward and a conclusion written by myself and a selection of the discussion which took place on the website.

You can buy it and may be look inside at Amazon

Friday, March 03, 2006

Comments on Steven Davies: Social/Political/Psychological Identity

Presented at the Workshop on Social Cognition, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 3-4 March 2006

In W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, when the thirteen years old Dafydd Elias is told by his teacher that he has to put the name « Jacques Austerlitz » on his examination papers, because that is his real name, something changes in his identity. He grew up in the little town of Bala in Wales, son of the Calvinist preacher Emyr Elias and now he discovers that the preacher is not his real father, but just took him into his house at the beginning of the Second World War. The first reaction he has to this news is that the new name doesn’t evoke anything to him: he cannot connect it to any reality. All his world until that moment is Wales, and if “Jacques” evokes to him a French song he heard once, “Austerlitz” is completely opaque and mute. Still, his identity won’t ever be the same and the rest of the book is a long journey of memory in order to reconstruct his past identity of Czech Jewish child.
Does something change in Austerlitz’s identity when he acquires this information? From an objective point of view, he was already Jacques Austerlitz, before coming to know that this is his name. What’s special in this name that has the power to change his identity once that he comes to know it?
According to Steven, for someone’s to have an identity, the following conditions should be met:

•she possesses one or more properties;
•she reflectively and self-consciously thinks of herself as having these properties
•she poses to herself questions about who or what she is for which her possessing the properties is an answer; and
•she believes that the possession of the properties plays important roles in her life.

Steven distinguishes also between a person’s identity and her self-conception. A person’s identity is what or who she is; a person’s self-conception concerns her beliefs about what or who she is.
People may be mistaken about their identities (believing of having a property that actually they don’t have) or mistaken about their self-conceptions (I can believe that I am the most beautiful woman in Paris while being sadly mistaken about this).
Steven opts for a “externalist” notion of identity: My believing of having certain properties is not sufficient for having those properties as part of my identity: I have to objectively possess these properties. On the other hand, if these properties are inert in my mental life (as the fact of being a Czech Jewish for Austerlitz), they don’t count either as part of my identity. So, according to Steven, we cannot completely “make up” an identity and cannot be imposed an identity from “outside” (as in the famous British novel by Nigel Dennis Cards of Identity in which a bunch of psychologists who are members of an identity club, meet once a year in a country house to “create” some psychological profiles, and then impose them to some people in the village) if we do not represent what is imposed to us as relevant for our self-understanding.
Still, Steven contrasts a first-person perspective and a third-person perspective on identity: As the Christian Mary of Steven’s example, I never thought of myself as an Italian when I was in Italy. I had to emigrate to understand that being Italian was part of my identity. I acquired the self-consciousness of this trait because other people started to look at me and making sense of my behaviour by using this characteristic.
My question is thus: Is it really possible to separate a first-person perspective and a third person perspective on cultural identity? Isn’t it precisely the contact between our own perspective on ourselves and that of the others the endroit charnière in which our cultural identity becomes an intresting notion? This may sound a bit Sartrian, and lead us to conclude that “Hell is other people”. But the way in which “I see myself seen” seems to be irreducible to a first-person perspective only or a third-person perspective only. The notion of cultural identity seems to me so central in thinking about social cognition because it is neither just a trait of our folk-psychology, nor just a social, legal or cultural notion. It’s my awareness of the gaze of the others on me as an Italian, a woman, or a French resident that makes these traits play a role in the way in which they contribute to my making sense of who I am.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chi ha paura della terza cultura?

Published on Il Sole 24 Ore (26 February 2006). All rights reserved.Copyright Il Sole 24 Ore. Do not reproduce without permission.
Pubblicato sul Domenicale de Il Sole 24 Ore. Tutti i diritti riservati.

Che la scoperta di una classe di neuroni premotori nel cervello dei macachi possa avere importanti ripercussioni filosofiche sulla natura della socialità umana ha qualcosa di sorprendente: dopotutto, cosa c’entra l’attivazione di una cellula del sistema nervoso di una scimmia con il complesso intrigo delle nostre relazioni sociali? Al di là delle appassionanti discussioni suscitate da questa scoperta (per una visione d’insieme del dibattito recente si veda il convegno: ), essa ci dice qualcosa su come sono cambiati negli ultimi vent’anni i rapporti tra le “due culture”, come le aveva definite C.P. Snow nel suo famoso saggio del 1959 The Two Cultures, ossia tra scienze naturali e scienze umane. Antropologia, linguistica, sociologia, tutte discipline che stabilirono la loro autonomia affermando l’indipendenza del piano delle manifestazioni sociali e culturali umane dal loro sostrato biologico, lasciano spazio oggi a programmi di ricerca naturalistici, in continuità con i metodi delle scienze naturali (proprio questa settimana, a Parigi, l’antropologo Maurice Bloch ha svolto la sua lezione inaugurale al Collège de France sul tema: L’antropologia cognitiva alla prova della sperimentazione empirica: il caso della teoria della mente). E’ possibile allora una terza cultura, come l’ha definita l’agente letterario John Brockman, in cui le scienze empiriche partecipano a renderci un’immagine di senso di noi stessi e del nostro agire?
Indagare le basi biologiche dei sentimenti morali, dei giudizi estetici, dell’interpretazione degli altri o delle credenze religiose provoca ancora un’immediata resistenza intellettuale, in nome di un’eccezione dell’esperienza umana situata storicamente e irriducibile ai suoi vincoli naturali. Una simile direzione di ricerca sembra stravolgere profondamente la missione stessa delle scienze umane e sociali, volte a comprendere come le strutture storico-sociali, i rapporti di potere e di dominazione culturale si incarnano negli esseri umani fino a determinarne le espressioni individuali. Una tensione quindi apparentemente irrisolvibile tra modelli esplicativi incociliabili. Ma è proprio così?
Due critiche principali sono rivolte ai programmi di ricerca naturalistici nelle scienze umane. La prima è il riduzionismo, ossia ridurre esperienze sociali e personali complesse a meccanismi neurofisiologici. La seconda è l’anti-storicismo, ossia la mancanza di contestualizzazione storica, di indagine genealogica sugli oggetti stessi della ricerca, come se le forme di pensiero e gli schemi di azione che cerchiamo di spiegare siano “tipi naturali” immutabili. E bisogna riconoscere che spesso alcuni esponenti del nuovo naturalismo irritano proprio per le pretese riduzioniste e universaliste. Prendiamo il progetto della neuro-estetica:. Vilanayur Ramachandran sostiene che alcune risposte neurologiche a stimoli “esagerati” (come un occhio grande il doppio di un occhio normale) sono alla base della nostra esperienza estetica (un effetto neurologico presente anche nei topi che si chiama: Peak Shift). L’idea di aver sostituito alle “vaghe speculazioni degli storici” un principio scientifico di attribuzione di valore estetico suona piuttosto immodesta. Ma lo studio delle risposte psicologiche alle opere d’arte è stato intrapreso anche da valenti storici dell’arte, come per esempio David Freedberg, che nel suo lavoro seminale Il potere delle immagini (Einaudi, 1993), cercava di comprendere i vincoli psicologici e antropologici universali delle risposte umane alle immagini. Niente di riduzionista né di anti-storicista nell’approccio di Freedberg, solo un tentativo di guadagnare intelligibilità senza privarsi delle risorse delle scienze empiriche.
Sull’anti-storicismo si potrebbe argomentare che le spiegazioni che vanno per la maggiore oggi negli approcci naturalistici sono anch’esse di natura storica: gli argomenti evoluzionisti cercano di spiegare un comportamento o una forma mentis attuale in termini di una storia di adattamento del nostro cervello a condizioni ancestrali.
Così per esempio il filosofo Daniel Dennett, nel suo nuovo libro Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006) si cimenta in un tentativo di spiegazione naturalistica delle nostre credenze religiose in termini darwiniani. Dennett isola in alcune predisposizioni cognitive i “germi” delle credenze religiose, come la capacità di leggere i fenomeni intorno a noi in termini intenzionali, e la conseguente predisposizione a cercare agenti responsabili di ciò che accade, o la maggiore memorabilità dell’informazione contro-intuitiva, di cui le religioni abbondano. A queste tendenze cognitive individuali, Dennett unisce numerose speculazioni sui principi della selezione dei gruppi, sull’evoluzione della struttura corporativa della religione e sulla selezione nel tempo, basata sull’autorità, di insiemi di credenze invulnerabili alla prova. Anche in questo caso però, l’ortodossia darwinista di Dennett può infastidire il lettore. Ma se l’eccessivo finalismo evoluzionista di Dennett sembra a sua volta una forma di credo religioso, non significa che il tentativo di guardare la religione con gli occhi delle scienze naturali sia un progetto privo di senso. Basta leggere direttamente i lavori antropologici a cui Dennett in parte si ispira, per trovare studi, come quello di Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust, (Oxford, 2002) che affiancano ad argomenti evoluzionisti osservazioni ecologiche e antropologiche ed esperimenti psicologici per ricostruire il “paesaggio ecologico” in cui un sistema di credenze evolve e si mantiene. Atran spiega le differenze tra religioni animiste, panteiste e monoteiste in termini di “distanza” psicologica nelle rappresentazioni che i diversi gruppi umani hanno del loro mondo biologico circostante e della società in cui vivono: laddove le rappresentazioni della natura e della società tendono a confondersi (come nelle società totemiche) avremo religioni animiste. Più le rappresentazioni tendono a distanzarsi, più si tenderà verso sistemi monoteisti. Ecco un esempio di una prospettiva non riduzionista né anti-storicista, ma che si appoggia sulle scienze empiriche nella spiegazione di un fenomeno religioso.
La terza cultura va vista allora come una cultura vettoriale, in cui spiegazioni provenienti da discipline differenti interagiscono senza ridursi una all’altra. Basti pensare ancora, come ultimo esempio, ai lavori sulle emozioni di Jon Elster, in cui neurobiologia, letteratura e teoria della scelta razionale entrano come vettori di una spiegazione insieme causale e concettuale di cosa significa sentire (Cf. J. Elster The Alchemies of the Mind, 1999). E’ possibile allora una terza cultura? La tentazione è forte di vedere in questi assemblaggi leggeri di saperi una nuova via della conoscenza, una cultura pluralista che tesse trame fitte tra fatti e interpretazioni senza l’onere ideologico di ridurre gli uni alle altre o viceversa.