Tuesday, March 10, 2009

book review - anti-individualism

Good news from analytic philosophy! A review of

Anti-Individualism: Mind and Language, Knowledge and Justification by Sanford C. Goldberg, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 280pp., $90.00 (hbk).

Reviewed by
Matthew J. Brown

To most readers of Mind, Culture, and Activity, the thesis of Sanford Goldberg's Anti-Individualism will seem familiar and uncontroversial. He defends the view that the content of language and the mind, the nature of knowledge and the justification of belief depend not merely upon the properties of an isolated, individual speaker, thinker, or knower, but these things also essentially depend on the physical and social environment or context in which they are embedded. Goldberg's style of presentation and method of argument, on the other hand, will seem highly unfamiliar, abstruse, and daunting to most readers of this journal. On the other hand, from the point of view of the intended audience of the book, analytic philosophers, the thesis will seem somewhat radical and extreme (though it is, I think, becoming an increasingly common position), but the style and method of presentation will seem quite common and familiar.1 In mainstream experimental psychology and cognitive science, I suspect that both the claims and the methods of the book would seem quite radical and implausible.

Anti-Individualism does not proceed primarily through examination of experimental data nor detailed individual case studies.2 The vast majority of the citations are to work in anglophone philosophy from the last thirty years. The main arguments in the book proceed by the elaboration of complex thought experiments, mostly about the nature of testimony, i.e., the communication of knowledge through language, and marshalling the intuitive judgments "we" make about such cases. Considering the following example of the type of argument Goldberg relies on:
Imagine a distant planet, which I will refer to as "Twin Earth," which is exactly like our own Earth in all but one respect: on Twin Earth, the liquid English speakers refer to as "water" is not H2O, but a liquid with a complicated chemical formula that we will conveniently abbreviate XYZ. At large scales, at standard temperature and pressure, XYZ is qualitatively identical to H2O, such that travelers on a spaceship from Earth would originally assume that "water" has the same meaning on Twin Earth as it does back home. Only consulting with Twin-Earthling chemists or doing complex laboratory experiments would convince them that "water" means XYZ on Twin Earth. Nevertheless, prior to the advent of chemistry, "water" still means H2O on Earth and XYZ on Twin Earth (because these are the substances that the word refers to).3
Goldberg vastly extends this line of argumentation, covering a wide variety of situations of thought, language use, and the communication of beliefs, with complex tales of the difference between speakers of English and Twin English, reliable witnesses amongst roomfuls of liars, and so on. This type of argument is much more controversial amongst philosophers than it was even a decade ago, with challenges from "experimental philosophers" who have put such claims about "intuitions" to empirical test (with surprising though likewise controversial results),4 neurophilosophers who suggest we should begin not with naive intuitions but the results of neuroscience and cognitive science,5 philosophers who draw on empirical research more generally,6 and pragmatists who argue that all intuitions are historically conditioned, fallible, and revisable.7 Nevertheless, this is still a common and often-defended method of philosophical theorizing.

One interesting and important departure is the reliance in the final chapter (Chapter 8) on the literature in developmental psychology on the role of testimony in the acquisition of beliefs by children. Even here, Goldberg does not depend on the details of the processes of learning and development. What Goldberg does appeal to is empirical data that suggests that very young children, those Goldberg calls "cognitively immature," do little to monitor the credibility of testimony; they are quick to trust what others say, especially adults. Whatever the exact texture of the growth of critical or skeptical capacities, there is a clear difference between three-year-olds and four-year-olds (p. 203), and a variety of empirical studies that point in this direction. Goldberg argues that what guarantees the successful transmission of knowledge in these cases (which is potentially threatened by uncritical acceptance) is that the reliability of testimony is monitored for the child by others (p. 200) and further, that this is a general phenomenon displayed most clearly in the case of children because they are not also extensively
monitoring credibility themselves. Thus, the acquisition of knowledge via testimony is actively anti-individualist, since it depends not only on social (linguistic and epistemic) norms and an individual's ability to discriminate on the basis of those norms, but also on social processes of monitoring and checking the testimony of others to others. This argument is significant for those interested in learning and development not because it sheds particular light on the psychological
processes at work (it doesn't), but because it makes clear that there is a normative social structure at work in such processes. In teaching/learning we care not only about the transmission of beliefs, but about the reliable transmission of accurate beliefs for the right

Whatever the judgment of philosophers of mind, language, and epistemology about this book, the majority of the readers of this journal would likely find Goldberg's book a difficult read with little ultimate pay-off due to mere differences in interests.8 Those tempted to give the book a go are encouraged to read the introduction and skip straight to the final chapter before deciding what other parts of the book to tackle. Those not so tempted are encouraged to take comfort from the fact that scholars in very different disciplines, using radically different methods and beginning from almost opposed principles and presuppositions, can come to very complementary conclusions.


Adler, J. (2009) "Review: Sanford C. Goldberg, Anti-Individualism: Mind and Language, Knowledge and Justification," Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Churchland, P.M. (1979). Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Churchland, P. S. (1986) Neurophilosophy: Toward a unified science of the mind/brain. MIT Press.

Churchland, P.S. (1994) "Can Neurobiology Teach Us Anything about Consciousness?" Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 67, No. 4, pp. 23-40.

Doris, J.M. and Stich, S. (2005) "As a Matter of Fact: Empirical Perspectives on Ethics," in F. Jackson and M. Smith, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 114-152

Margolis, J. (2002). Reinventing Pragmatism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Putnam, H. (1975) "The Meaning of 'Meaning'." In K. Gunderson (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge (Minneapolis, Univ. of Minnesota Press).

Rorty, R. (1979) Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rorty, R. (1982). Consequences of pragmatism (Essays 1972-1980). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weinberg, J., Nichols, S. and Stich, S. (2001) "Normativity and Epistemic Intuitions." Philosophical Topics, 29, 429-460.

  1. Those familiar with, interested in, or patient enough to
    struggle through dense work in analytic philosophy of mind,
    language, and epistemology might consult Jonathan Adler's review
    (Adler 2009).

  2. Though there are occasional footnotes to work in experimental
    psychology consonant with the claims of the book, they are not the
    crux of the arguments, with some exception in Chapter 8.

  3. This example is a summary of one originally due to Hilary Putnam
    (1975). I pick Putnam's example because it is famous in the field,
    and relatively simply statable as compared to Goldberg's examples.

  4. See Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich (2001).

  5. See Paul Churchland (1979); Patricia Smith Churchland (1986;

  6. See Doris and Stich (2005).

  7. See Rorty (1979; 1982) and Margolis (2002).

  8. Myself included, I am sorry to say.

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