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Jean Nicod Prize & Lectures 2010


Thresholds of Reason

Biographical note:

Tyler Burge was educated at Wesleyan University, BA summa cum laude 1967; and Princeton University, Ph.D. 1971. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at UCLA, where he has taught since 1971. He has been a visiting professor at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, University of Munich, University of Baytreuth, and University of Bologna. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, the Institut International de Philosophie, and the American Philosophical Society. He has made contributions in Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Psychology, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Logic, and History of Philosophy (Frege and Kant). He is well-known for his work in philosophy of mind, showing that the natures of many psychological states depend on relations to a wider environment. He has argued for the primitivity of reference to the physical world in perception, and for a specific distinction between sensory registration and perception. He has made influential contributions on the nature of self-knowledge, conceptual understanding, interlocution, and non-intellectual levels of empirical warrant. He lives with his wife and two cats in Los Angeles, and has two sons. He enjoys fine wine (especially Burgundy), travel, and classical music.


Brochure ǀ Poster




Monday June 14th, 4pm to 6pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
Salle Dussane
Origins of Perception

The lecture uses perceptual psychology to delineate sense perception as a basic psychological kind, distinct from other sensory capacities. Perception is the most primitive form of representational mind. Here representation is understood in a non-deflated way–a way that is distinctive of psychological explanation. Informational states that merely statistically correlate with environmental states, and that function to do so, are not representational in this sense. Representational psychological states are those that have veridicality conditions as an aspect of their natures—as an aspect of the explanatorily relevant kinds that they instantiate.
A sign of representational psychological states is science’s appealing to states with veridicality conditions. Such appeals are to be understood not as afterthoughts or easy commentaries on a science’s basic explanatory kinds, but as an integral part of its explanations. Perceptual psychology, as developed since the time of Helmholtz, appeals to representational states, understood in this way. Much other talk of “representation” in philosophy and in the biological and psychological sciences does not. Although paramecia register information that correlates with environmental states and function to do so, they do not represent anything, in this psychologically distinctive sense of ‘representation’.
What gives traction to scientific postulation of states with veridicality conditions is, I think, certain capacities for objectification. Objectification is carried out in perceptual systems’ overcoming the underdetermination problem–the problem of forming a perception as of a specific environmental condition, on the basis of proximal stimulation that is physically compatible with more than one (typically, numerous) environmental conditions. Objectification is paradigmatically illustrated in exercises of perceptual constancies. Perceptual constancies are capacities to form a state specific to a specific environmental attribute, or environmental particular, under a wide variety of proximal stimulus conditions.
Perceptual representation is contrasted with several other types of complex sensory processing which do not involve objectification or perceptual constancies. In particular, the navigational systems of several animals are discussed as either constituting or failing to constitute representational systems.
The basic structure of perceptual content is argued to involve singular, context-bound, occurrent applications of demonstrative/indexical-like elements and of general attributive elements. This structure (roughly that F), which is analogous to the structure of a certain type of noun phrase, is distinguished from propositional structure.

Background Reading:
Burge, “Perceptual Objectivity”, The Philosophical Review 2009; Burge, Origins of Objectivity (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2010), chapters 9 and 10.

Tyler Burge will be awarded the Jean-Nicod Prize after the lecture.

Tuesday, June 15th, 3pm to 5pm
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 105, bd Raspail 75006 Paris. Amphithéâtre
Steps Toward Origins of Propositional Attitudes

The structure of perceptual content contains singular, context-bound, occurrent applications of demonstrative-like elements and general attributive elements. Relatively simple propositional representational contents also contain such singular and attributive elements. The key difference between the structure of perceptual content and the structure of propositional content is that the latter contains a dominant predicate (the analog of the main verb phrase) that does not function to guide singular reference. In perception, attributives always function to guide singular applications and to be applied by them. I call the role of a dominant predicate in a propositional structure ‘pure attribution’. An attributive is conceptual, as opposed to perceptual, if and only if it can take on the role of pure attribution.
I believe that pure attribution is a basic mark of propositional structure. But in identifying propositional structures empirically, in actual psychologies, identification of propositional inference is equally important. I argue for this connection in Lecture III. Here I assume it. In this lecture, I explore conditions under which propositional states can be identified empirically. I am especially interested in whether propositional states can be identified in pre-linguistic, non-human animals.
I begin by sketching five points that make the search more difficult. First, there are various psychological states that are more “abstract” than perceptual states–and that can reasonably be counted cognitive, in a broad sense of the term–but that are not propositional. Second, complex quantitative processing of representational states occurs at all levels of representational structure, and hence is not distinctive of propositional states. Third, both perceptual and propositional states contain both singular context-bound elements and general attributive elements. Fourth, the distinction between pre-propositional and propositional states does not coincide with the distinction between modular and non-modular psychological states. Fifth, several non-perceptual but non-propositional states contain attributives that do not actually guide singular, context-bound applications, but that also do not function attributively. Distinguishing such attributives from conceptual attributives is delicate.
I then discuss three points that make the prospect of finding propositional states in the psychologies of non-linguistic animals less forbidding than many philosophers and scientists have assumed that it is. First, a state’s having propositional structure is not to be apriori identified with its being a linguistic state. Second, traditional philosophical arguments that reference requires mastery of linguistic devices (such as quantification and pronouns) or cognitive capacities (such as belief in a general criterion of identity) that non-human animals are not likely to have are unsound. Third, philosophical arguments that propositional thought—in particular, propositional inference—requires meta-cognitive capacities that non-human animals cannot be expected to have are unsound.
As a test case, for finding propositional states and processes in the psychology of pre-linguistic animals, I discuss experiments that elicit, in a variety of apes, what has been called ‘exclusion reasoning’. Relevant behavior suggests processing that takes the form A or B; not A; so B. I consider alternative explanations that attribute to the apes representational processes that are not propositional and do not involve representational contents that contain logical constants. I argue that the apparent domain generality and other aspects of the competence may count against these alternative explanations, and may count in favor of taking the apes to engage in deductive inference.
The lecture concludes by sketching relations between relevant deductive inferences and pure attribution. The former provide clear instances of the latter.

Background Reading:

Burge, Origins of Objectivity, chapters 1, 4-7, chapter 11, pp. 537-547.
Josep Call, ‘Descartes’ Two Errors: Reasoning and Reflection from a Comparative Perspective’, in S. Hurley and M. Nudds eds. Rational Animals? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Friday, June 18th, 3pm to 5pm
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 105, bd Raspail 75006 Paris. Amphithéâtre
Propositional Capacities and Logical Inference

Pure attribution is a mark of propositional structure. I argue that a constitutive necessary- and-sufficient condition for having a capacity for pure attribution–hence for being in psychological states with propositional structure—is having a capacity to engage in deductive propositional inference. The conclusion of this argument is not perfectly obvious. The simplest propositional structures cited in logic textbooks have the form Fa. The most primitive psychological states with propositional structure–perceptual beliefs–have roughly the form F(that G). Neither form contains logical constants. A capacity to engage in deductive propositional inference requires a capacity to think representational contents that contain logical constants. So the argument attempts to show that to have any propositional capacities at all, an individual must have capacities to engage in propositional inference that hinges on propositional contents that contain logical constants.
The rough shape of the argument is as follows. The structure of the representational content of a psychological state constitutively depends on the representational functions of certain psychological states marked by that structure. The representational function of a psychological state constitutively depends on individuals’ having competencies to fulfill the function under appropriate conditions. A psychological state’s having a propositional structure with a purely attributive element depends on individuals’ attributing an attribute without the attribution’s guiding singular reference, and without the attribution’s being applied by singular elements. Having a capacity to engage in pure attribution requires having a capacity to make attributions that are not attributions to contextually identified particulars. (So having a capacity to engage in pure attribution requires being able to use F in ways other than the way it is used in F(that G). I call this premise the abstraction requirement. I discuss it in some detail. The argument proceeds by considering a number of ways of meeting the requirement, and explaining why many of them cannot be fundamental ways of meeting it. Other ways of meeting it are derivative from meeting it through having a competence to apply attributives in propositional structures that contain certain logical constants. I argue that the key fundamental competencies are those with negation, conditionalization, disjunction, and quantification, most primitively existential quantification. Relations between the propositional connectives and the quantifiers in meeting the abstraction requirement are discussed. The sense in which the competencies must be logical competencies is discussed. Finally, the connection between having psychological states marked by propositional structures containing logical constants, and having capacities for propositional inference is developed.

Monday June, 21st, 3pm - 5pm
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 105, bd Raspail 75006 Paris. Amphithéâtre
Propositional Attitudes and Reason

The lecture opens with a discussion of a classical conception of reason shared by Leibniz and Kant. This classical conception holds that reason is constitutively propositional, constitutively associated with demonstrative inference, including deductive inference, and constitutively explanatory as well as justificatory. I accept these claims about reason. The classical conception also holds that reason can recognize its own principles, that reasons must be true (valenced) propositions—or true propositional attitudes–, and that animals are incapable of propositional attitudes. I reject the first two of these claims and think that the last of these claims is at least open to empirical question. I do not develop these last doubts about the classical conception in this lecture. Rather I develop the points of agreement. In particular, I elaborate on the constitutively propositional and constitutively explanatory aspects of reason.
A central and obvious feature of reasons is that they provide answers to why questions. I believe that the central relevant questions concern why certain committal attitudes should be maintained. The questions need not be posed, or poseable, by individuals who have reasons, much less individuals to whom the reasons apply. Thus animals or young children can have reasons that support further attitudes and answer why those further attitudes should be maintained even if the individuals who have those reasons cannot answer the meta-questions about attitudes that the reasons answer.
Views that take aspects of the world that make truths true as reasons, and views that take non-propositional representational contents (or states) as reasons, are criticized. Structural aspects of reason are canvassed.
Then the nature of starting points for reason is explored. The Euclidean model of taking basic self-evident or relatively certain truths to be starting points for reason is given a much smaller place than it had in the classical conception. That model’s influence on accounts of empirical reasoning is shown to be large but largely unfortunate. My account of epistemic support for attitudes that does not derive from reason–support that yields what I call ‘entitlement’—is elaborated. The account situates entitlement within a larger account of natural norms for conduciveness to meeting certain representational functions (practical as well as epistemic representational functions). The starting points for empirical reasoning, and certain other types of reasoning, do not get their support from reasons. Reasons are steps in potential warranted argument–argument whose starting points are epistemically and practically good (warranted), but that themselves may not be supported by reason.
Entitlement to perceptual belief is a type of fulfillment of a natural norm on the conduciveness of perceptual belief to being true. The entitlement is externalist in the sense that no element of the warrant need be conceivable by the individual, and no element of the warrant need be accessible to the individual’s consciousness. What makes the individual entitled to perceptual beliefs is that the individual has epistemically relevant psychological competencies (perception and formation of beliefs from perception) that meet natural norms for warrant.
Treating perceptions and pains as reasons regresses toward the mistaken ideal of a closed rational system, of the sort that Euclidean geometry seemed to exemplify. Similarly, taking physical conditions or facts in the world to be reasons recreates the mistake of regarding the physical world as held together by reason. A modern version of this mistake, rampant in the meta-patter of the biological sciences, is to impute implicit rationality to the efficiencies of evolved nature. Though a small part of the world, even a small part of our psychologies, reason is significant in that it underlies our most distinctive pursuits as human beings: such as science and non-manipulative persuasion.

Short bibliography:



Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
(Institut National des Sciences Humaines et Sociales)

Ecole Normale Supérieure
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales