Every now and then you find something that is, on the one hand, unexpected. The thought of it hadn't occurred to you, neither as a fact found through the memes of popular culture nor as an extrapolation from your current knowledge. On the other hand, the discovery isn't so much a surprise as simply new information that really just fits in with all the rest. My most recent such moment happened at a local used book store, The Frugal Muse, while I was looking for a decent translation of Neitzsche's "On Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense" for an upcoming podcast. Browsing the spines of philosophy tomes that had fallen from other people's shelves, and having truth and meaning on my mind, I picked up a volume of essays titled Meaning and Mental Representations and edited by, among others, Umberto Eco. My limited knowledge of him stems solely from his best-selling work of fiction The Name of the Rosewhich includes a murder that turns on the hunt for the sole copy of the second portion Aristotle's book on poetics concerning comedy. It turns out (likely as no surprise to most PEL listeners) that Eco is also an academic specializing in semiotics. This new-found fact (for me) fit in just fine with my memories of the novel.
In addition to co-editing the collection I stumbled upon, Eco also contributes an essay called "On Truth. A Fiction." which is a wry, delightful story/dialogue in which a Terrestrial comes in contact with an alien civilization called Antipodeans who only speak in terms of the "state of their nerves". The prologue lays out an example conversation with an Antipodean:
Instead of saying It looked like and elephant, but then it struck me that elephants don't occur on this continent, so I realized that it must be a mastodon, they used to say: I had G-412 together with F-11, but then I had S-147.
Following the prologue which sets up the problems of interacting with the brain-state driven Antipodeans, a Terrestrial, Dr. Smith of the Department of Cognitive Sciences of Svalbards University, has a conversation with Charles Sanders Personal, the Antipodean Computer (whose name is abbreviated CSP) since the Antipodean need a place where they actually store propositions, inferences and such. The subsequent conversation begins:
Smith -- Do you understand the sentence every Antipodean has two legs?
CSP -- I can interpret it. I can provide you with analytical paraphrases of it, translations in other languages, equivalent expressions in other sign-systems (I also have a graphics program), examples of other discourses that start from the background assumptions that Antipodeans are two-legged, et cetera. I call all these alternative expressions interpretants. A machine able to furnish inpretants for every expression it receives is an intelligent machine, that is, a machine able to understand expressions.
And so on. I found the whole piece quite delightful, along with the new, if not surprising, discovery that a novelist that I've enjoyed is also a philosopher.
As a complement (fictional or not), you might also enjoy Stanford Encyclopedia's article on mental representation in computational theory of mind.
I like the fact you are getting into the question of mental representations.
There’s interesting stuff done on cultures that deny that we can have knowledge of other people’s mental representations and thus reject the question altogether. It follows that intentions are not relevant to assessing speech or actions in these cultures.
According to Joel Robbins “there are in Urapmin [of Papua New Guinea] none of the speech acts common in cultures that assume mindreading is part of language comprehension: no promising, thanking, apologizing, or lying, for example.[…]Urapmin never speculate about the thoughts or feelings of others, and they regard attempts to do so not only doomed to failure, but as serious moral breaches of what we might call each person’s ‘psychic privacy.'”
The big question is to what extent such a theory of the mind actually effects the mental experience of people who hold such views.
If you have’t already read it I’d also recommend Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.
Foucault’s Pendulum is a great book on the tragic quests for a deep/all-encompassing meaning in, and or theory of, Life, and Rorty’s review essay (and Eco’s response) are well worth the reading for philo minded folks:
I remember thinking that it was a satire of postmodern or post-structuralist uncertainty, the never-ending deferral of meaning that is coupled with the feverish compulsion to interpret. It’s been over ten years since I read it though. Look forward to reading what Rorty says about it.
Nice find. Eco is one of my favourites. I have enjoyed several of his novels and his essay’s are a joy.
Bruce Adam says
I loved “Foucault’s Pendulum” the book and became intrigued by the device. To find out more I ordered a biography of Foucault from my local library. Imagine my disappointment when I received a life of Michel Foucault. I still think of him as the wrong Foucault.
I believe there’s a Foucault Pendulum in the foyer of the UN building but I’m told it doesn’t work very well.