Archive for April, 2008


Popper’s third world

In my last post, I raised the following question in the context of TOCA:

(DFN-EXP-EMBODY-KNOWLEDGE-?) What does it mean for an expression to embody knowledge?

I didn’t find a lot to help me in the opening chapter I’ve been writing about here for some time. But thankfully, I’ve been reading faster than I’ve been blogging, and recently hit a section that should help me out.

It turns out, to my surprise, that this notion of embodiment is largely Popperian. In the third section of TOCA, Habermas introduces the Popperian notion of a “third world” of objective semantic contents.

We may first distinguish the following three worlds or universes: first the world of physical objects or physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness, or of mental states, or perhaps of behavioral dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thought, especially the scientific and poetic thoughts and of works of art. (Popper, “Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject,” in TOCA, 76)

According to Habermas, Popper sees these three worlds as ontologically distinct. Apparently, the objective existence of the third world is intended to provide a way for objective science to proceed without dependency on a subject–which would, I suppose in Popper’s opinion, pollute the project. To this end, it is necessary for there to be both “embodied” and “unembodied” semantic contents:

Popper distinguishes between explicit semantic contents that are already embodied in phonemes and written signs … and those implicit semantic contents that are not yet “discovered,” not yet objectivated in carrier objects of the first world, but are simply inherent in already embodied meanings.
These “unembodied world 3 objects” are an important indicator of the independence of the world of the objective mind. Symbolic formations are, it is true, generated by the productive human mind; but though they are themselves products, they confront the subjective mind with the objectivity of a problematic, uncomprehended complex of meaning that can be opened up only through intellectual labor.

Habermas goes on to correct Popper’s story and especially its application to sociology. But I suspect that he finds the metaphysical commitments here OK. Unfortunately, those commitments spook the hell out of me. To put my cards on the table: I’m currently a physicalist as far as the mind/body debate goes, for reasons that I think are best elucidated in Papineau’s Thinking about Consciousness, so I already disagree with the the distinction between Popper’s first and second worlds. And the third world? Well, I think it can be reduced back down to causal relations as well.

None of this is to say that I think Habermas’ project is fundamentally misguided. But I do think it would be easier to work with it if I could work out some adjustment to a more plausible metaphysical story.


Knowledge embodied in expressions?

Habermas’ theory of rationality is broad in scope and he appears to develop it throughout TOCA, but be begins with a preliminary account grounded in some conceptual analysis.

What does it mean to say that persons behave “rationally” in a certain situation or that their expressions count as “rational”? Knowledge can be criticized as unreliable. The close relation between knowledge and rationality suggests that the rationality of an expression depends on the reliability of the knowledge embodied in it. (TOCA, 8 )

This is Habermas’ first stab: to tie the definition of rationality to the idea of knowledge “embodied” in an expression.

Consider two paradigmatic cases: an assertion with which A in a communicative attitude expresses a belief and a goal-directed intervention in the world with which B pursues a specific end. Both embody fallible knowledge; both are attempts that can go wrong. (TOCA, 8, emphasis mine)

I am initially skeptical of the free use of “embody”–it appears to be doing a lot of work for Habermas, and he refrains from defining it explicitly, and instead builds it by example only. My fear is that such an explanatory tool built out of ad hoc examples without an overarching principle will be this theory’s weakest link. But despite my reservations, let’s open up the term to the possibility of definition within our system.

(DFN-EXP-EMBODY-KNOWLEDGE-?) What does it mean for an expression to embody knowledge?

Moving on:

In both cases, the critic refers to the claims that the subjects necessarily attach to their expressions insofar as the latter are intended as assertions or goal-directed actions. This necessity is of a conceptual nature. For A does not make an assertion unless he makes a truth claim for the asserted proposition p and therewith indicates his conviction that his statement can, if necessary, be defended. And B does not perform a goal-directed action, that is, he does not want to accomplish an end by it unless he regards the action planned as promising and therewith indicates his conviction that, in the given circumstances, his choice of means can if necessary be explained.” (TOCA, 9)

There are a number of presuppositions in the passage that I would rather not take for granted, but there is one in particular which we have already explored reasons for doubting. It appears, at least on a first reading, that Habermas believes that all goal-directed actions are tied to linguistic claims and explanations. But we have already discussed here and here that the connection between know-how and language is a weak one. It might be possible, then, for there to be goal-directed action that is not tied to language at all.