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Thursday, 15 September 2016

Kenan Malik's Extended Mind

This is a commentary on Kenan Malik's 'Extended Mind' chapter of his book, Man, Beast and Zombie (2000).

Malik offers us a syllogistic argument (which is simplified):

i) The “human mind is structured by language”.
ii) “Language is public.”
iii) Therefore: “The mind is itself is public."

Kenan Malik characterises “computational theory” as one that 

“suggests that everything that is necessary for the use of language is stored in each individual mind” (327).

Here we must make a distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions “for the use of language”. It may indeed be the case that “everything that is necessary for the use of language is stored in each individual mind”. Yet it may also be the case that such things aren't sufficient for the use of a language. In other words, the mechanics for language-use are individualistic; though what follows from that may not be. And what follows from the mechanics of language is, of course, language-use itself.

Thus Malik's quote from Putnam (that “'no actual language works like that [because] language is a form of cooperative activity, not an essentially individualistic activity'”) may not be to the point here. Indeed I find it hard to see what an non-cooperative and individualistic language would be like – even in principle. That must surely imply that Malik (if not Putnam) has mischaracterised Jerry Fodor's position. Another way to put this is to say that Fodor is as much an anti-Cartesian and Wittgensteinian as anyone else. The Language of Thought and “computational theory” generally aren't entirely individualistic when we take them beyond their physical and non-conscious reality. How could they be?

There's an analogy here between this and the relation between DNA and phenotypes. Clearly DNA is required for phenotypes. However, DNA and phenotypes aren't the same thing. In addition, environments (not only DNA) also determine the nature of the phenotype.

As I hinted at earlier, Malik's position hints at a debate which has involved Fodor, Putnam and Chomsky.

Malik rejects Fodor's internalism (or individualism); as has been said. It was said that Fodor believes that something must predate language-use. So let Fodor explain his own position. Thus: 

“My view is that you can't learn a language unless you already know one.”

Fodor means something very specific by the clause “unless you already know one”. As he puts it:

“It isn't that you can't learn a language unless you've already learned one. The latter claim leads to infinite regress, but the former doesn't.” 

In other words, the Language of Thought isn't learned. It's genetically passed on from previous generations. It's built into the brains of new-born Homo sapien babies.

Putnam gives a more technical exposition of Fodor's position. He writes:

“[Fodor] contends that such a computer, if it 'learns' at all, must have an innate 'programme' for making generalisations in its built-in computer language.”

Secondly, Putnam tackles Fodor's rationalist - or even platonic - position which argues for innate concepts. Putnam continues:

“[Fodor] concludes that every predicate that a brain could learn to use must have a translation into the computer language of that brain. So no 'new' concepts can be acquired: all concepts are innate.”

Meaning Ain't in the Head

Because Malik argues that reference to natural phenomena is an externalist affair (as well as sometimes scientific), it may follow that non-scientific individuals may not know the full meanings of the words, meanings or concepts within their heads. As Putnam famously put it: “Meaning just ain't in the head.”

Malik gives the example of the words (or mental representations?) 'ash' and 'elm'. Ash and elm trees are natural phenomena. In addition, their nature is determined - -- and perhaps defined - by their scientific nature. In other words, the reference-relation isn't determined by the appearances of elm and ash tress. This results in a seemingly counterintuitive conclusion. Malik writes:

Many Westerners have a distinct representation of 'ash' and 'elm' in their heads, but they have no idea how to distinguish ash and elm in the real world.”

I said earlier that references to ash and elm trees can't be fully determined by appearances. However, they can be fully distinguished solely by appearances. But that distinction wouldn't be enough to determine a reference-relation. The scientific nature of ash and elm trees must also be taken into account. Thus when it comes to the reference-relation to what philosophers call "natural kinds" and other natural phenomena, the

knowledge of gardeners, botanists, of molecular biologists, and so on, all play a crucial role in helping me refer to [in this instance] a rose, even though I do not possess their knowledge” (333).

Malik backs up his anti-individualistic theory of language and mind by offering an account of reference which owes much to Kripke and Putnam – certainly to Putnam.

Prima facie it may seem that reference is individualistic (or internalist). That is, what determines our words is some kind of relation between it (as it is the mind), and that which it refers to or represents. This means that reference isn't only a matter of the individual mind and the object-of-reference.

Malik, instead, offers what can be seen as a scientific account of reference.

Take his example of the “mental representation” of (as he puts it) 'DNA'. (Does Malik mean word here?) The reference-relation between 'DNA' and DNA isn't only a question of what goes on in a mind (or in minds). Indeed 

“your mental representation of DNA (or mine) is insufficient to 'hook on to' DNA as an object in the world” (328). 

There's not enough meat (as it were) to make a sufficient reference-relation between 'DNA' and DNA in individual minds alone. Instead the scientific nature of DNA determines reference for all of us – even if we don't know the science.

Malik quotes Putnam again here. Reference for 'DNA' is "socially fixed and not determined simply by conditions of the brain of an individual” (329). Of course something that's scientifically fixed is also “socially fixed”. DNA may be a natural phenomenon; though the fixing of reference for 'DNA' to DNA is a social and scientific matter.


Fodor, Jerry. (1975) 'How There Could Be a Private Language and What It Must Be Like', in (1992) The Philosophy of Mind: Classical Problems, Contemporary Issues.
Putnam, Hilary. (1980) ' What Is Innate and Why: Comments on the Debate', in (1992) The Philosophy of Mind: Classical Problems, Contemporary Issues

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