What it Means to be Human

I was reading a recent report related to research initiatives throughout the European Union related to ‘Getting to the source of what makes us human’ (ISBN 92-79-03833-8), and I wanted to bring it to the attention of all rationalists. The full report can be found here.

What has surprised me is how many European institutions are getting left behind in leading-edge research. Certainly, the initiative has had advantages in terms of collaboration between various centers of excellence throughout Europe, and the commission money has been forthcoming on many research topics. My argument has always been to build on leading edge research – wherever it is based. I am surprised that many universities are researching subjects where many of the conclusions are already available.

…So What Makes us Human?

How and why are humans different? What features make our cognitive facilities unique and what are the origins of these features? The focal questions behind the NEST Pathfinder initiative, What it Means to Be Human, foster cross-disciplinary research projects that bring to bear the latest insights from fields including genetics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics and anthropology to help generate answers for one of science’s most elusive subjects.

The questions are scientifically precise and limited, but can be addressed from a number of disciplinary angles. In particular, What it Means to Be Human aims to address:

  • the evolutionary dimension of individual development as regards to human cognitive faculties, taking account of the range of relevant factors from genetics to cultural context;
  • the influence of change of life circumstances on the development of cognitive functions, such as the development of language and non-verbal communication;
  • executive functions, reasoning and decision-making, including cooperative behaviour, which might also take account of relationships between conscious and unconscious aspects of behaviour.

With its common values, varied cultures, and strong research tradition in many of the relevant fields, Europe has a vital interest in this area and real potential for fostering scientific progress. This progress would have considerable future benefits. By understanding the specific nature and limits of human conceptual reasoning, for example, it would be possible to devise more powerful artificial learning technologies. Improved education strategies could be developed as a result of further knowledge of specifically human capabilities to perceive and encode information and experience. Furthermore, greater insight into the origins of human motivation, social behaviour and cooperation would assist the design of social and cultural institutions to accommodate human needs in better ways.

This global understanding of the human mind is clearly a very long way off. However, in order to move forward, there is a crucial need for interdisciplinary work to generate concepts that make sense not only at a particular level of analysis, but also within a broader ‘system of understanding’ that encompasses these different levels. For example, if the links between genetics and mental faculties are to be understood, there will be a need to find categories for defining behavioural phenomena which allow them to be linked to genetic factors, and vice versa.

This need for interdisciplinary work is all the more pressing because of the very rapid pace of developments in the various relevant fields, in particular biology and genomics. The ‘What it Means to Be Human’ initiative offers the ideal, productive arena for this interdisciplinary research.

Exploring the Origins of the Human Mind

Our advanced ability to think, to express emotions and to influence the behaviour of those around us is part of what makes the human mind unique. These higher cognitive functions have evolved through major changes in the structure, functional complexity and size of the brain at different points along the evolutionary tree that links us to monkeys and apes. Identifying the molecular basis for these changes is key to understanding which cognitive abilities, and their corresponding genes, are unique to humans.

The NEST PKB140404 project, part of the PATHFINDER initiative to investigate ‘What it means to be human’, will use an integrated approach, bridging cognitive neuroscience and molecular evolution, to probe the differences between the brains of humans and their closest relatives, the apes. The consortium’s multidisciplinary research teams, combining skills in molecular and evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, clinical psychiatry and neuroscience, aim to reconstruct the history of the evolutionary changes that led to the emergence of the human mind as it is today. In a three-pronged approach, each team will look for turning points in the development of the human mind by studying different stages in the molecular process.

Pinpointing molecular change The Swiss group will search for recently evolved genes that have arisen through retroposition – a type of gene duplication – and that are associated with cognitive abilities. A burst of retroposition started around the time when the group comprising humans, apes and Old World monkeys branched off on the evolutionary tree. Some of the new genes created by this evolutionary process enabled new neurological functions and resulted, through positive selection, in the development of higher cognitive abilities. The German group will use advanced micro-array technology to scan genes shared by humans and apes to look for those expressed differently in each species’ brain. As some differences in expression can lead to changes in gene function, the project’s challenge is to identify which of these differences are associated with changes in cognitive ability and whether they could be responsible for the human brain’s uniqueness.

 A third approach, by the British group, will identify which genes dysfunction in human diseases like schizophrenia, by comparing post-mortem brain samples taken from schizophrenia patients with those from a healthy control group, and with those from the corresponding region of the ape brain. Schizophrenia is characterised by a reduced ability to understand and manipulate the mental representations of others. As this and other cognitive abilities affected by the disease are less developed or not present in apes, it is likely that the human genes associated with schizophrenia play a pivotal role in human cognition.

Setting us apart

This project has the potential to unravel several of the mysteries surrounding the birth of the human mind, by revealing and dating some of the genetic changes that have contributed to our shared heritage and set us apart from other species. An important step in validating the project’s findings will be confirming the function of the candidate human cognition genes identified by the three complementary approaches. To do this, the consortium will carry out in vivo studies using transgenic mice carrying the human gene and compare their resulting phenotypes with mice carrying an equivalent gene from the ape genome.

In the long term, they hope to show that replacing a sufficiently large number of mouse genes with their human counterparts will lead to altered behaviour in the mice and provide further insights into genetically regulated human cognitive faculties. This ambitious reconstruction of the evolutionary history of human cognitive abilities will set the standards for new work in the area. The consortium will explore new horizons in cognitive science and should make an important contribution to solving the enigma of human nature.

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Religion and Neurobiology

Religion is a societal entity that has subsisted since the earliest record of man’s existence. There are a multitude of religions as well as varying degrees of faith. Many religious convictions are based on spiritual knowledge or simple belief. However, science often searches for physical and mechanical understanding of knowledge. There are many issues in which science and religion clash. These issues range from the beginning of life, evolution versus creationism, to the idea of existence after death. As the advancement of science continues, physical explanations for life’s occurrences are presented. Do these explanations disprove religious accounts? Will science eventually disprove religion and render it useless? This question is analyzed in the occurrences of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s).

An NDE is defined as “a lucid experience associated with perceived consciousness apart from the body occurring at the time of actual or threatened imminent death (1).” Death is the final, irreversible end (2). It is the permanent termination of all vital functions. The occurrence of an NDE is not a rarity. Throughout time and from across the globe NDE’s have been described by many, and in these accounts there are several similarities among them. The commonalities of an NDE include a feeling of peace and connection with the universe, a sense of release from the body (often called an Out of Body Experience or OBE), a movement down a dark tunnel, the vision of a bright light, and the vision of deities or other people from their lives (2). Not every NDE contains each of these events, these are merely the most common similar events described. An NDE can range in magnitude from having all of these events occur to having none of them occur (2). There are two theories explaining the similarities among NDE’s. The scientific explanation describes a situation in which a mixture of effects due to expectation, administered drugs, endorphins, anoxia, hypercarbia, and temporal lobe stimulation create a unified core experience (3). The religious explanation claims that they are a glimpse of existence after death. The unified core experience is due to there being a destination after the body dies with a similar path for all. These two theories debate whether an NDE is simply the neural activity preparing the body for death or a preview of the beyond. To further understand the occurrences of an NDE neurobiological research has believed to have mapped the neural activity of an NDE.

The most common similarity of NDE’s is the feeling of peace, tranquility, spirituality, and oneness with all (3). This occurrence has been discovered to be associated with the release of endorphins as well as reactions between the right and left superior parietal lobe (4) (5). The right portion of this area of the brain is known to be responsible for the sense of physical space and body awareness. It is responsible for orienting the body. The left portion of the parietal lobe is responsible for the awareness of the self. During an NDE neural activity in these areas shuts down. The result of this is an inability for the mind to have distinction between the self and non-self. All of space, time, and self becomes one (4) (5). Essentially one feels as being the infinite, rather than part of the infinite because there is no realization of self. However, other aspects of the brain are still functioning and thoughts are occurring. These other thoughts are believed to be associated with the visions perceived (4). If a persons thoughts are focused on a deity or personal relation, without the ability to comprehend self, time, and space, the person may in fact see an image of that focused thought because visual neurons are still intact. It is the relation of neural inactivity in the parietal lobe combined with other activities within the human brain that are responsible for most aspects of an NDE (2) (3) (4).

The understanding of neural relationships during NDE’s has culminated in the ability to reproduce each phenomena in a controlled setting. It has been found that the intravenous administration of 50-100 mg of ketamine can safely reproduce all features of an NDE (2) and electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus portion of the brain can safely reproduce an out of body experience (6). Scientific research has even explained why religion is emphasized during an NDE. Activation in the temporal lobe region, known as the “God Spot (7)” during an NDE is reported to stimulate religious themed thoughts (8). This research has major implications in the battle of science versus religion. It provides evidence that specific brain activity can create the perception of religion and divinity. If this is true than this brain activity can be turned off and in effect remove religion from our lives. Many wars would be stopped, borders would open up, life as we know it would change completely. However, there are many faults to this theory. The major error in the idea that understanding the mechanical brain activity of NDE’s and religion makes them useless is the assumption that the experience only exists within the brain. Begley (5) uses an example of apple pie to illustrate this point. Upon the site of a pie, the neural activity linking site, smell, memory, and emotion can all be mapped quite clearly. However, this mapping of activity does not disprove the existence of the pie. This is the precise reason the existence of God or any other religious deity or beliefs cannot be disproved. It is just as simple to believe that viewing the mechanics of the brain during an NDE or religious experience is like getting a glimpse of the tool or hardware used to experience religion (9). However, this does not prove the existence of a God, or any other belief, either. It is the principle that understanding the neurobiological mechanics of religion cannot disprove or prove the existence of God, religion, or spirituality that makes it improbable that science will eliminate religion.

Believing that science will eventually do away with religion wrongly assumes that knowledge of the mechanics of the brain and universe are capable of eradicating the importance of religion to humankind. Religion is present in society for a plethora of reasons branching far beyond the mere belief in an existence of a God. The multitude of religions, deities, and even atheism is evidence of this. Among many, the reasons for religion include fear, comfort, stability, and tradition. The NDE provides an excellent example of one of the importance’s of religion, the existence of life after death. Existence after death refutes the idea that we are simply organic material organized in a certain fashion with a certain time span of functionality. The religious belief than an DNE is a glimpse of our existence beyond life is valuable for peoples behavior in life, not just as evidence of a theory. In very few NDE’s do negative feelings occur. People often describe a “heavenly” light rather than a hell (1) (10) . This may be because of the power of suggestion (3) in that it is a common societal belief that when a person dies they are supposed to see a tunnel, a light, an angel, and heaven. So when an NDE occurs, this is what the person sees because it follows their thought process. Not many people believe that when they die they are going to go to hell. The idea of existence of a better place after death comforts and eases the pain of many who suffer in life. It can provide them with hope through troubling time whether they believe in Jesus, Buddha, Elijah, or no God at all. Religion is a tool of mankind to sustain a belief. The reasons for that belief vary among people and religions but the importance is in believing. Having a belief can instill a sense of pride, confidence, comfort, strength, and much more in a person. A single belief can provide a purpose for life. The actual beliefs of each religion are only important to the individual. However, the idea of belief itself is important to the foundations of religion. The importance of religion to mankind makes it improbable society will ever allow scientific understanding to overrule religion. Science may disprove religious stories such as Moses’ parting of the red sea, but the importance of religion goes beyond the stories. Religion is indispensable because it is a belief. For this reason science is incapable of eliminating religion.

1)Near-Death Experience, Religion, and Spirituality, a religion and spirituality article related to NDE’s
2)Ketamine Model of the NDE, Drug induced replication of the NDE
3) Blackmore, Susan. “Near Death Experiences,” Royal society of Medicine. Vol. 89. February 1996, pp. 73-76.
4)Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Excerpts from the author
5) Begley, Sharon. Religion and the Brain. Newsweek, May 7, 2001, p. 50.
6) Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., Seeck, M. Stimulating Illusory Own-Body Perceptions,” Nature. Vol. 419. September 19, 2002. pp. 269-270.
7)God on the Brain, An article on the cross between neurobiology and faith
8)Meridian Institute, Transformational experiences
9)Tracing the Synapses of our Spirituality, Examination of brain and religion
10)Susan Blackmore Home Page, Experiences of Anoxia


Can Science Replace Religion? Analyzing the Neurobiology and Neurotheology of the Near Death Experience, Bradley Corr

Real Self-Deception

Self-deception poses tantalizing conceptual conundrums and provides fertile ground for empirical research. Recent interdisciplinary volumes on the topic feature essays by biologists, philosophers, psychiatrists, and psychologists (Lockard & Paulhus 1988, Martin 1985). Self-deception’s location at the intersection of these disciplines is explained by its significance for questions of abiding interdisciplinary interest. To what extent is our mental life present–or even accessible–to consciousness? How rational are we? How is motivated irrationality to be explained? To what extent are our beliefs subject to our control? What are the determinants of belief, and how does motivation bear upon belief? In what measure are widely shared psychological propensities products of evolution?<1>


A proper grasp of the dynamics of self-deception may yield substantial practical gains. Plato wrote, “there is nothing worse than self-deception–when the deceiver is at home and always with you” (Cratylus 428d). Others argue that self-deception sometimes is beneficial; and whether we would be better or worse off, on the whole, if we never deceived ourselves is an open question.<2> In any case, ideally, a detailed understanding of the etiology of self-deception would help reduce the frequency of harmful self-deception. This hope is boldly voiced by Jonathan Baron in a book on rational thinking and associated obstacles: “If people know that their thinking is poor, they will not believe its results. One of the purposes of a book like this is to make recognition of poor thinking more widespread, so that it will no longer be such a handy means of self-deception” (1988, p. 39). A lively debate in social psychology about the extent to which sources of biased belief are subject to personal control has generated evidence that some prominent sources of bias are to some degree controllable.<3> This provides grounds for hope that a better understanding of self-deception would enhance our ability to do something about it.
My aim in this article is to clarify the nature and (relatively proximate) etiology of self-deception. Theorists have tended to construe self-deception as largely isomorphic with paradigmatic interpersonal deception. Such construals, which have generated some much-discussed puzzles or “paradoxes,” guide influential work on self-deception in each of the four disciplines mentioned (e.g., Davidson 1985, Gur & Sackheim 1979, Haight 1980, Pears 1984, Quattrone & Tversky 1984, Trivers 1985).<4> In the course of resolving the major puzzles, I will argue that the attempt to understand self-deception on the model of paradigmatic interpersonal deception is fundamentally misguided. Section 1 provides background, including sketches of two familiar puzzles: one about the mental state of a self-deceived person at a given time, the other about the dynamics of self-deception. Section 2, drawing upon empirical studies of biased belief, resolves the first puzzle and articulates sufficient conditions for self-deception. Section 3 challenges some attempted empirical demonstrations of the reality of self-deception, construed as requiring the simultaneous possession of beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory. Section 4 resolves the dynamic puzzle. Section 5 examines intentional self-deception.
Readers should be forewarned that the position defended here is deflationary. If I am right, self-deception is neither irresolvably paradoxical nor mysterious and it is explicable without the assistance of mental exotica. Although a theorist whose interest in self-deception is restricted to the outer limits of logical or conceptual possibility might view this as draining the topic of conceptual fun, the main source of broader, enduring interest in self-deception is a concern to understand and explain the behavior of real human beings.
1. Three Approaches to Characterizing Self-Deception and a Pair of Puzzles
Defining ‘self-deception’ is no mean feat. Three common approaches may be distinguished. One is lexical: a theorist starts with a definition of ‘deceive’ or ‘deception’, using the dictionary or common usage as a guide, and then employs it as a model for defining self-deception. Another is example-based: one scrutinizes representative examples of self-deception and attempts to identify their essential common features. The third is theory-guided: the search for a definition is guided by common-sense theory about the etiology and nature of self-deception. Hybrids of these approaches are also common.

The lexical approach may seem safest. Practitioners of the example-based approach run the risk of considering too narrow a range of cases. The theory-guided approach (in its typical manifestations) relies on common-sense explanatory hypotheses that may be misguided: ordinary folks may be good at identifying hypothetical cases of self-deception but quite unreliable at diagnosing what transpires in them. In its most pristine versions, the lexical approach relies primarily on a dictionary definition of ‘deceive’. And what could be a better source of definitions than the dictionary?
Matters are not so simple, however. There are weaker and stronger senses of ‘deceive’ both in the dictionary and in common parlance, as I will explain. Lexicalists need a sense of ‘deceive’ that is appropriate to self-deception. On what basis are they to identify that sense? Must they eventually turn to representative examples of self-deception or to common-sense theories about what transpires in instances of self-deception?

The lexical approach is favored by theorists who deny that self-deception is possible (e.g., Gergen 1985, Haight 1980, Kipp 1980). A pair of lexical assumptions are common:

1. By definition, person A deceives person B (where B may or may not be the same person as A) into believing that p only if A knows, or at least believes truly, that ~p (i.e., that p is false) and causes B to believe that p.

2. By definition, deceiving is an intentional activity: nonintentional deceiving is conceptually impossible.

Each assumption is associated with a familiar puzzle about self-deception.

If assumption 1 is true, then deceiving oneself into believing that p requires that one know, or at least believe truly, that ~p and cause oneself to believe that p. At the very least, one starts out believing that ~p and then somehow gets oneself to believe that p. Some theorists take this to entail that, at some time, self-deceivers both believe that p and believe that ~p (e.g., Kipp 1980, p. 309). And, it is claimed, this is not a possible state of mind: the very nature of belief precludes one’s simultaneously believing that p is true and believing that p is false. Thus we have a static puzzle about self-deception: self-deception, according to the view at issue, requires being in an impossible state of mind.
Assumption 2 generates a dynamic puzzle, a puzzle about the dynamics of self-deception. It is often held that doing something intentionally entails doing it knowingly. If that is so, and if deceiving is by definition an intentional activity, then one who deceives oneself does so knowingly. But knowingly deceiving oneself into believing that p would require knowing that what one is getting oneself to believe is false. How can that knowledge fail to undermine the very project of deceiving oneself? It is hard to imagine how one person can deceive another into believing that p if the latter person knows exactly what the former is up to. And it is difficult to see how the trick can be any easier when the intending deceiver and the intended victim are the same person.<5> Further, deception normally is facilitated by the deceiver’s having and intentionally executing a deceptive strategy. If, to avoid thwarting one’s own efforts at self-deception, one must not intentionally execute any strategy for deceiving oneself, how can one succeed?
In sketching these puzzles, I conjoined the numbered assumptions with subsidiary ones. One way for a proponent of the reality of self-deception to attempt to solve the puzzles is to attack the subsidiary assumptions while leaving the main assumptions unchallenged. A more daring tack is to undermine the main assumptions, 1 and 2. That is the line I will pursue.
Stereotypical instances of deceiving someone else into believing that p are instances of intentional deceiving in which the deceiver knows or believes truly that ~p. Recast as claims specifically about stereotypical interpersonal deceiving, assumptions 1 and 2 would be acceptable. But in their present formulations the assumptions are false. In a standard use of ‘deceived’ in the passive voice, we properly say such things as “Unless I am deceived, I left my keys in my car.” Here ‘deceived’ means ‘mistaken’. There is a corresponding use of ‘deceive’ in the active voice. In this use, to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false” (my authority is the Oxford English Dictionary). Obviously, one can intentionally or unintentionally cause someone to believe what is false; and one can cause someone to acquire the false belief that p even though one does not oneself believe that ~p. Yesterday, mistakenly believing that my son’s keys were on my desk, I told him they were there. In so doing, I caused him to believe a falsehood. I deceived him, in the sense identified; but I did not do so intentionally, nor did I cause him to believe something I disbelieved.
The point just made has little significance for self-deception, if paradigmatic instances of self-deception have the structure of stereotypical instances of interpersonal deception. But do they? Stock examples of self-deception, both in popular thought and in the literature, feature people who falsely believe–in the face of strong evidence to the contrary–that their spouses are not having affairs, or that their children are not using illicit drugs, or that they themselves are not seriously ill. Is it a plausible diagnosis of what transpires in such cases that these people start by knowing or believing the truth, p, and intentionally cause themselves to believe that ~p? If, in our search for a definition of self-deception, we are guided partly by these stock examples, we may deem it an open question whether self-deception requires intentionally deceiving oneself, getting oneself to believe something one earlier knew or believed to be false, simultaneously possessing conflicting beliefs, and the like. If, instead, our search is driven by a presumption that nothing counts as self-deception unless it has the same structure as stereotypical interpersonal deception, the question is closed at the outset.
Compare the question whether self-deception is properly understood on the model of stereotypical interpersonal deception with the question whether addiction is properly understood on the model of disease. Perhaps the current folk-conception of addiction treats addictions as being, by definition, diseases. However, the disease model of addiction has been forcefully attacked (e.g., Peele 1989). The issue is essentially about explanation, not semantics. How is the characteristic behavior of people typically counted as addicts best explained? Is the disease model of addiction explanatorily more fruitful than its competitors? Self-deception, like addiction, is an explanatory concept. We postulate self-deception in particular cases to explain behavioral data. And we should ask how self-deception is likely to be constituted–what it is likely to be–if it does help to explain the relevant data. Should we discover that the behavioral data explained by self-deception are not explained by a phenomenon involving the simultaneous possession of beliefs whose contents are mutually contradictory or intentional acts of deception directed at oneself, self-deception would not disappear from our conceptual map–any more than addiction would disappear should we learn that addictions are not diseases.
A caveat is in order before I move forward. In the literature on self-deception, “belief,” rather than “degree of belief,” usually is the operative notion. Here, I follow suit, primarily to avoid unnecessary complexities. Those who prefer to think in terms of degree of belief should read such expressions as “S believes that p” as shorthand for “S believes that p to a degree greater than 0.5 (on a scale from 0 to 1).”
2. Motivated Belief and the Static Puzzle
In stock examples of self-deception, people typically believe something they want to be true–that their spouses are not involved in extramarital flings, that their children are not using drugs, and so on. It is a commonplace that self-deception, in garden-variety cases, is motivated by wants such as these.<6> Should it turn out that the motivated nature of self-deception entails that self-deceivers intentionally deceive themselves and requires that those who deceive themselves into believing that p start by believing that ~p, theorists who seek a tight fit between self-deception and stereotypical interpersonal deception would be vindicated. Whether self-deception can be motivated without being intentional–and without the self-deceiver’s starting with the relevant true belief–remains to be seen.
A host of studies have produced results that are utterly unsurprising on the hypothesis that motivation sometimes biases beliefs. Thomas Gilovich reports:

A survey of one million high school seniors found that 70% thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2% thought they were below average. In terms of ability to get along with others, all students thought they were above average, 60% thought they were in the top 10%, and 25% thought they were in the top 1%! . . . A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than their average colleague. (1991, p. 77)

Apparently, we have a tendency to believe propositions we want to be true even when an impartial investigation of readily available data would indicate that they probably are false. A plausible hypothesis about that tendency is that our wanting something to be true sometimes exerts a biasing influence on what we believe.
Ziva Kunda, in a recent review essay, ably defends the view that motivation can influence “the generation and evaluation of hypotheses, of inference rules, and of evidence,” and that motivationally “biased memory search will result in the formation of additional biased beliefs and theories that are constructed so as to justify desired conclusions” (1990, p. 483). In an especially persuasive study, undergraduate subjects (75 women and 86 men) read an article alleging that “women were endangered by caffeine and were strongly advised to avoid caffeine in any form”; that the major danger was fibrocystic disease, “associated in its advanced stages with breast cancer”; and that “caffeine induced the disease by increasing the concentration of a substance called cAMP in the breast” (Kunda 1987, p. 642). (Since the article did not personally threaten men, they were used as a control group.) Subjects were then asked to indicate, among other things, “how convinced they were of the connection between caffeine and fibrocystic disease and of the connection between caffeine and . . . cAMP on a 6-point scale” (pp. 643-44). In the female group, “heavy consumers” of caffeine were significantly less convinced of the connections than were “low consumers.” The males were considerably more convinced than the female “heavy consumers”; and there was a much smaller difference in conviction between “heavy” and “low” male caffeine consumers (the heavy consumers were slightly more convinced of the connections).
Given that all subjects were exposed to the same information and assuming that only the female “heavy consumers” were personally threatened by it, a plausible hypothesis is that their lower level of conviction is due to “motivational processes designed to preserve optimism about their future health” (Kunda 1987, p. 644). Indeed, in a study in which the reported hazards of caffeine use were relatively modest, “female heavy consumers were no less convinced by the evidence than were female low consumers” (p. 644). Along with the lesser threat, there is less motivation for skepticism about the evidence.
How do the female heavy consumers come to be less convinced than the others? One testable possibility is that because they find the “connections” at issue personally threatening, these women (or some of them) are motivated to take a hyper-critical stance toward the article, looking much harder than other subjects for reasons to be skeptical about its merits (cf. Kunda 1990, p. 495). Another is that, owing to the threatening nature of the article, they (or some of them) read it less carefully than the others do, thereby enabling themselves to be less impressed by it.<7> In either case, however, there is no need to suppose that the women intend to deceive themselves, or intend to bring it about that they hold certain beliefs, or start by finding the article convincing and then get themselves to find it less convincing. Motivation can prompt cognitive behavior protective of favored beliefs without the person’s intending to protect those beliefs. Many instances of self-deception, as I will argue, are explicable along similar lines.
Beliefs that we are self-deceived in acquiring or retaining are a species of biased belief. In self-deception, on a widely held view, the biasing is motivated. Even so, attention to some sources of unmotivated or “cold” biased belief will prove salutary. A number of such sources have been identified in psychological literature. Here are four.<8>

1. Vividness of information. A datum’s vividness for an individual often is a function of individual interests, the concreteness of the datum, its “imagery-provoking” power, or its sensory, temporal, or spatial proximity (Nisbett & Ross 1980, p. 45). Vivid data are more likely to be recognized, attended to, and recalled than pallid data. Consequently, vivid data tend to have a disproportional influence on the formation and retention of beliefs.<9>

2. The availability heuristic. When we form beliefs about the frequency, likelihood, or causes of an event, we “often may be influenced by the relative availability of the objects or events, that is, their accessibility in the processes of perception, memory, or construction from imagination” (Nisbett & Ross, p. 18). For example, we may mistakenly believe that the number of English words beginning with ‘r’ greatly outstrips the number having ‘r’ in the third position, because we find it much easier to produce words on the basis of a search for their first letter (Tversky & Kahnemann 1973). Similarly, attempts to locate the cause(s) of an event are significantly influenced by manipulations that focus one’s attention on a potential cause (Nisbett & Ross, p. 22; Taylor & Fiske 1975, 1978).

3. The confirmation bias. People testing a hypothesis tend to search (in memory and the world) more often for confirming than for disconfirming instances and to recognize the former more readily (Baron 1988, pp. 259-65; Nisbett & Ross, pp. 181-82). This is true even when the hypothesis is only a tentative one (as opposed, e.g., to a belief one has). The implications of this tendency for the retention and formation of beliefs are obvious.

4. Tendency to search for causal explanations. We tend to search for causal explanations of events (Nisbett & Ross, pp. 183-86). On a plausible view of the macroscopic world, this is as it should be. But given 1 and 2 above, the causal explanations upon which we so easily hit in ordinary life may often be ill-founded; and given 3, one is likely to endorse and retain one’s first hypothesis much more often than one ought. Further, ill-founded causal explanations can influence future inferences.
Obviously, the most vivid or available data sometimes have the greatest evidential value; the influence of such data is not always a biasing influence. The main point to be made is that although sources of biased belief can function independently of motivation, they may also be primed by motivation in the production of particular motivationally biased beliefs.<10> For example, motivation can enhance the vividness or salience of certain data. Data that count in favor of the truth of a hypothesis that one would like to be true might be rendered more vivid or salient given one’s recognition that they so count; and vivid or salient data, given that they are more likely to be recalled, tend to be more “available” than pallid counterparts. Similarly, motivation can influence which hypotheses occur to one (including causal hypotheses) and affect the salience of available hypotheses, thereby setting the stage for the confirmation bias.<11> When this happens, motivation issues in cognitive behavior that epistemologists shun. False beliefs produced or sustained by such motivated cognitive behavior in the face of weightier evidence to the contrary are, I will argue, beliefs that one is self-deceived in holding. And the self-deception in no way requires that the agents intend to deceive themselves, or intend to produce or sustain certain beliefs in themselves, or start by believing something they end up disbelieving. Cold biasing is not intentional; and mechanisms of the sort described may be primed by motivation independently of any intention to deceive.
There are a variety of ways in which our desiring that p can contribute to our believing that p in instances of self-deception. Here are some examples.<12>

1. Negative Misinterpretation. Our desiring that p may lead us to misinterpret as not counting (or not counting strongly) against p data that we would easily recognize to count (or count strongly) against p in the desire’s absence. For example, Don just received a rejection notice on a journal submission. He hopes that his article was wrongly rejected, and he reads through the comments offered. Don decides that the referees misunderstood a certain crucial but complex point and that their objections consequently do not justify the rejection. However, as it turns out, the referees’ criticisms were entirely justified; and when, a few weeks later, Don rereads his paper and the comments in a more impartial frame of mind, it is clear to him that the rejection was warranted.

2. Positive Misinterpretation. Our desiring that p may lead us to interpret as supporting p data that we would easily recognize to count against p in the desire’s absence. For example, Sid is very fond of Roz, a college classmate with whom he often studies. Wanting it to be true that Roz loves him, he may interpret her refusing to date him and her reminding him that she has a steady boyfriend as an effort on her part to “play hard to get” in order to encourage Sid to continue to pursue her and prove that his love for her approximates hers for him. As Sid interprets Roz’s behavior, not only does it fail to count against the hypothesis that she loves him, it is evidence for the truth of that hypothesis.

3. Selective Focusing/Attending. Our desiring that p may lead us both to fail to focus attention on evidence that counts against p and to focus instead on evidence suggestive of p. Attentional behavior may be either intentional or unintentional. Ann may tell herself that it is a waste of time to consider her evidence that her husband is having an affair, since he loves her too much to do such a thing; and she may intentionally act accordingly. Or, because of the unpleasantness of such thoughts, Ann may find her attention shifting whenever the issue suggests itself.

4. Selective Evidence-Gathering. Our desiring that p may lead us both to overlook easily obtained evidence for ~p and to find evidence for p that is much less accessible. A historian of philosophy who holds a certain philosophical position hopes that her favorite philosopher (Plato) did so too; consequently, she scours the texts for evidence of this while consulting commentaries that she thinks will provide support for the favored interpretation. Our historian may easily miss rather obvious evidence to the contrary, even though she succeeds in finding obscure evidence for her favored interpretation. Selective evidence-gathering may be analyzed as a combination of ‘hyper-sensitivity’ to evidence (and sources of evidence) for the desired state of affairs and ‘blindness’–of which there are, of course, degrees–to contrary evidence (and sources thereof).<13>
In none of the examples offered does the person hold the true belief that ~p and then intentionally bring it about that he or she believes that p. Yet, assuming that my hypothetical agents acquire relevant false beliefs in the ways described, these are garden-variety instances of self-deception. Don is self-deceived in believing that his article was wrongly rejected, Sid is self-deceived in believing certain things about Roz, and so on.
It sometimes is claimed that while we are deceiving ourselves into believing that p we must be aware that our evidence favors ~p, on the grounds that this awareness is part of what explains our motivationally biased treatment of data (Davidson 1985, p. 146). The thought is that without this awareness we would have no reason to treat data in a biased way, since the data would not be viewed as threatening, and consequently we would not engage in motivationally biased cognition. In this view, self-deception is understood on the model of intentional action: the agent has a goal, sees how to promote it, and seeks to promote it in that way. However, the model places excessive demands on self-deceivers.<14> Cold or unmotivated biased cognition is not explained on the model of intentional action; and motivation can prime mechanisms for the cold biasing of data in us without our being aware, or believing, that our evidence favors a certain proposition. Desire-influenced biasing may result both in our not being aware that our evidence favors ~p over p and in our acquiring the belief that p. This is a natural interpretation of the illustrations I offered of misinterpretation and of selective focusing/attending. In each case, the person’s evidence may favor the undesirable proposition; but there is no need to suppose the person is aware of this in order to explain the person’s biased cognition.<15> Evidence that one’s spouse is having an affair (or that a scholarly paper one painstakingly produced is seriously flawed, or that someone one loves lacks reciprocal feelings) may be threatening even if one lacks the belief, or the awareness, that that evidence is stronger than one’s contrary evidence.
Analyzing self-deception is a difficult task; providing a plausible set of sufficient conditions for self-deception is less demanding. Not all cases of self-deception need involve the acquisition of a new belief. Sometimes we may be self-deceived in retaining a belief that we were not self-deceived in acquiring. Still, the primary focus in the literature has been on self-deceptive belief-acquisition, and I will follow suit.

I suggest that the following conditions are jointly sufficient for entering self-deception in acquiring a belief that p.

1. The belief that p which S acquires is false.

2. S treats data relevant, or at least seemingly relevant, to the truth value of p in a motivationally biased way.

3. This biased treatment is a nondeviant cause of S’s acquiring the belief that p.

4. The body of data possessed by S at the time provides greater warrant for ~p than for p.<16>

Each condition requires brief attention. Condition 1 captures a purely lexical point. A person is, by definition, deceived in believing that p only if p is false; the same is true of being self-deceived in believing that p. The condition in no way implies that the falsity of p has special importance for the dynamics of self-deception. Motivationally biased treatment of data may sometimes result in someone’s believing an improbable proposition, p, that, as it happens, is true. There may be self-deception in such a case; but the person is not self-deceived in believing that p, nor in acquiring the belief that p.<17>
My brief discussion of various ways of entering self-deception serves well enough as an introduction to condition 2. My list of motivationally biased routes to self-deception is not intended as exhaustive; but my discussion of these routes does provide a gloss on the notion of motivationally biased treatment of data.
My inclusion of the term ‘nondeviant’ in condition 3 is motivated by a familiar problem for causal characterizations of phenomena in any sphere (see, e.g., Mele 1992a, ch. 11). Specifying the precise nature of nondeviant causation of a belief by motivationally biased treatment of data is a difficult technical task better reserved for another occasion. However, much of this article provides guidance on the issue.
The thrust of condition 4 is that self-deceivers believe against the weight of the evidence they possess. For reasons offered elsewhere, I do not view 4 as a necessary condition of self-deception (Mele 1987a, pp. 134-35). In some instances of motivationally biased evidence-gathering, e.g., people may bring it about that they believe a falsehood, p, when ~p is much better supported by evidence readily available to them, even though, owing to the selectivity of the evidence-gathering process, the evidence that they themselves actually possess at the time favors p over ~p. As I see it, such people are naturally deemed self-deceived, other things being equal. Other writers on the topic do require that a condition like 4 be satisfied, however (e.g., Davidson 1985, McLaughlin 1988, Szabados 1985); and I have no objection to including 4 in a list of jointly sufficient conditions. Naturally, in some cases, whether the weight of a person’s evidence lies on the side of p or of ~p (or equally supports each) is subject to legitimate disagreement.<18>
Return to the static puzzle. The primary assumption, again, is this: “By definition, person A deceives person B (where B may or may not be the same person as A) into believing that p only if A knows, or at least believes truly, that ~p and causes B to believe that p.” I have already argued that the assumption is false and I have attacked two related conceptual claims about self-deception: that all self-deceivers know or believe truly that ~p while (or before) causing themselves to believe that p, and that they simultaneously believe that ~p and believe that p. In many garden-variety instances of self-deception, the false belief that p is not preceded by the true belief that ~p, nor are the two beliefs held simultaneously. Rather, a desire-influenced treatment of data has the result both that the person does not acquire the true belief and that he or she does acquire (or retain) the false belief. One might worry that the puzzle emerges at some other level; but I have addressed that worry elsewhere and I set it aside here (Mele 1987a, pp. 129-30).
The conditions for self-deception that I have offered are conditions specifically for entering self-deception in acquiring a belief. However, as I mentioned, ordinary conceptions of the phenomenon allow people to enter self-deception in retaining a belief. Here is an illustration from Mele 1987a (pp. 131-32):

Sam has believed for many years that his wife, Sally, would never have an affair. In the past, his evidence for this belief was quite good. Sally obviously adored him; she never displayed a sexual interest in another man . . .; she condemned extramarital sexual activity; she was secure, and happy with her family life; and so on. However, things recently began to change significantly. Sally is now arriving home late from work on the average of two nights a week; she frequently finds excuses to leave the house alone after dinner; and Sam has been informed by a close friend that Sally has been seen in the company of a certain Mr. Jones at a theater and a local lounge. Nevertheless, Sam continues to believe that Sally would never have an affair. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Her relationship with Jones is by no means platonic.

In general, the stronger the perceived evidence one has against a proposition that one believes (or “against the belief,” for short), the harder it is to retain the belief. Suppose Sam’s evidence against his favored belief–that Sally is not having an affair–is not so strong as to render self-deception psychologically impossible and not so weak as to make an attribution of self-deception implausible. Each of the four types of data-manipulation I mentioned may occur in a case of this kind. Sam may positively misinterpret data, reasoning that if Sally were having an affair she would want to hide it and that her public meetings with Jones consequently indicate that she is not sexually involved with him. He may negatively misinterpret the data, and even (nonintentionally) recruit Sally in so doing by asking her for an “explanation” of the data or by suggesting for her approval some acceptable hypothesis about her conduct. Selective focusing may play an obvious role. And even selective evidence-gathering has a potential place in Sam’s self-deception. He may set out to conduct an impartial investigation, but, owing to his desire that Sally not be having an affair, locate less accessible evidence for the desired state of affairs while overlooking some more readily attainable support for the contrary judgment.
Here again, garden-variety self-deception is explicable independently of the assumption that self-deceivers manipulate data with the intention of deceiving themselves, or with the intention of protecting a favored belief. Nor is there an explanatory need to suppose that at some point Sam both believes that p and believes that ~p.
3. Conflicting Beliefs and Alleged Empirical Demonstrations of Self-Deception
I have argued that in various garden-variety examples, self-deceivers do not simultaneously possess beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory (“conflicting beliefs,” for short). This leaves it open, of course, that some self-deceivers do possess such beliefs. A familiar defense of the claim that the self-deceived simultaneously possess conflicting beliefs proceeds from the contention that they behave in conflicting ways. For example, it is alleged that although self-deceivers like Sam sincerely assure their friends that their spouses are faithful, they normally treat their spouses in ways manifesting distrust. This is an empirical matter on which I cannot pronounce. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the empirical claim is true. Even then, we would lack sufficient grounds for holding that, in addition to believing that their spouses are not having affairs, these self-deceivers also believe, simultaneously, that their spouses are so engaged. After all, the supposed empirical fact can be accounted for on the alternative hypothesis that, while believing that their spouses are faithful, these self-deceivers also believe that there is a significant chance they are wrong about this. The mere suspicion that one’s spouse is having an affair does not amount to a belief that he or she is so involved. And one may entertain suspicions that p while believing that ~p.<19>
That said, it should be noted that some psychologists have offered alleged empirical demonstrations of self-deception, on a conception of the phenomenon requiring that self-deceivers (at some point) simultaneously believe that p and believe that ~p.<20> A brief look at some of this work will prove instructive.

Ruben Gur and Harold Sackheim propose the following statement of “necessary and sufficient” conditions for self-deception:

1. The individual holds two contradictory beliefs (p and not-p).

2. These two contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously.

3. The individual is not aware of holding one of the beliefs (p or not-p).

4. The act that determines which belief is and which belief is not subject to awareness is a motivated act. (Sackheim & Gur 1978, p. 150; cf. Gur & Sackheim 1979; Sackheim & Gur 1985)

Their evidence for the occurrence of self-deception, thus defined, is provided by voice-recognition studies. In one type of experiment, subjects who wrongly state that a tape-recorded voice is not their own, nevertheless show physiological responses (e.g., galvanic skin responses) that are correlated with voice recognition. “The self-report of the subject is used to determine that one particular belief is held,” while “behavioral indices, measured while the self-report is made, are used to indicate whether a contradictory belief is also held” (Sackheim & Gur 1978, p. 173).
It is unclear, however, that the physiological responses are demonstrative of belief (Mele 1987b, p. 6).<21> In addition to believing that the voice is not their own (assuming the reports are sincere), do the subjects also believe that it is their own, or do they merely exhibit physiological responses that often accompany the belief that one is hearing one’s own voice? Perhaps there is only a sub-doxastic (from ‘doxa’: belief) sensitivity in these cases. The threshold for physiological reaction to one’s own voice may be lower than that for cognition (including unconscious belief) that the voice is one’s own. Further, another team of psychologists (Douglas & Gibbins 1983; cf. Gibbins & Douglas 1985) obtained similar results for subjects’ reactions to voices of acquaintances. Thus, even if the physiological responses were indicative of belief, they would not establish that subjects hold conflicting beliefs. Perhaps subjects believe that the voice is not their own while also “believing” that it is a familiar voice.
George Quattrone and Amos Tversky, in an elegant study (1984), argue for the reality of self-deception satisfying Sackheim and Gur’s conditions. The study offers considerable evidence that subjects required on two different occasions “to submerge their forearm into a chest of circulating cold water until they could no longer tolerate it” tried to shift their tolerance on the second trial, after being informed that increased tolerance of pain (or decreased tolerance, in another sub-group) indicated a healthy heart.<22> Most subjects denied having tried to do this; and Quattrone and Tversky argue that many of their subjects believed that they did not try to shift their tolerance while also believing that they did try to shift it. They argue, as well, that these subjects were unaware of holding the latter belief, the “lack of awareness” being explained by their “desire to accept the diagnosis implied by their behavior” (p. 239).
Grant that many of the subjects tried to shift their tolerance in the second trial and that their attempts were motivated. Grant, as well, that most of the “deniers” sincerely denied having tried to do this. Even on the supposition that the deniers were aware of their motivation to shift their tolerance, does it follow that, in addition to believing that they did not “purposefully engage in the behavior to make a favorable diagnosis,” these subjects also believed that they did do this, as Quattrone and Tversky claim? Does anything block the supposition that the deniers were effectively motivated to shift their tolerance without believing, at any level, that this is what they were doing? (My use of “without believing, at any level, that [p]” is elliptical for “without believing that p while being aware of holding the belief and without believing that p while not being aware of holding the belief.”)
The study does not offer any direct evidence that the sincere deniers believed themselves to be trying to shift their tolerance. Nor is the assumption that they believed this required to explain their behavior. (The required belief for the purpose of behavior-explanation is a belief to the effect that a suitable change in one’s tolerance on the second trial would constitute evidence of a healthy heart.) From the assumptions (1) that some motivation M that agents have for doing something A results in their doing A and (2) that they are aware that they have this motivation for doing A, it does not follow that they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are doing A (in this case, purposely shifting their tolerance).<23> Nor, a fortiori, does it follow that they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are doing A for reasons having to do with M. They may falsely believe that M has no influence whatever on their behavior, while not possessing the contrary belief.
The following case illustrates the latter point. Ann, who consciously desires her parents’ love, believes they would love her if she were a successful lawyer. Consequently, she enrolls in law school. But Ann does not believe, at any level, that her desire for her parents’ love is in any way responsible for her decision to enroll. She believes she is enrolling solely because of an independent desire to become a lawyer. Of course, I have simply stipulated that Ann lacks the belief in question. But my point is that this stipulation does not render the scenario incoherent. My claim about the sincere deniers in Quattrone and Tversky’s study is that, similarly, there is no explanatory need to suppose they believe, at any level, that they are trying to shift their tolerance for diagnostic purposes, or even believe that they are trying to shift their tolerance at all. These subjects are motivated to generate favorable diagnostic evidence and they believe (to some degree) that a suitable change in their tolerance on the second trial would constitute such evidence. But the motivation and belief can result in purposeful action independently of their believing, consciously or otherwise, that they are “purposefully engaged in the behavior,” or purposefully engaged in it “to make a favorable diagnosis.”<24>
As Quattrone and Tversky’s study indicates, people sometimes do not consciously recognize why they are doing what they are doing (e.g., why they are now reporting a certain pain-rating). Given that an unconscious recognition or belief that they are “purposefully engaged in the behavior,” or purposefully engaged in it “to make a favorable diagnosis,” in no way helps to account for what transpires in the case of the sincere deniers, why suppose that such recognition or belief is present? If one thought that normal adult human beings always recognize–at least at some level–what is motivating them to act as they are, one would opt for Quattrone and Tversky’s dual belief hypothesis about the sincere deniers. But Quattrone and Tversky offer no defense of the general thesis just mentioned. In light of their results, a convincing defense of that thesis would demonstrate that whenever such adults do not consciously recognize what they are up to, they nevertheless correctly believe that they are up to x, albeit without being aware that they believe this. That is a tall order.
Quattrone and Tversky suspect that (many of) the sincere deniers are self-deceived in believing that they did not try to shift their tolerance. They adopt Sackheim and Gur’s analysis of self-deception (1984, p. 239) and interpret their results accordingly. However, an interpretation of their data that avoids the dual belief assumption just criticized allows for self-deception on a less demanding conception. One can hold (a) that sincere deniers, due to a desire to live a long, healthy life, were motivated to believe that they had a healthy heart; (b) that this motivation (in conjunction with a belief that an upward/downward shift in tolerance would constitute evidence for the favored proposition) led them to try to shift their tolerance; and (c) that this motivation also led them to believe that they were not purposely shifting their tolerance (and not to believe the opposite). Their motivated false beliefs that they were not trying to alter their displayed tolerance can count as beliefs that they are self-deceived in holding without their also believing that they were attempting to do this.<25>
How did the subjects’ motivation lead them to hold the false belief at issue? Quattrone and Tversky offer a plausible suggestion (p. 243): “The physiological mechanism of pain may have facilitated self-deception in this experiment. Most people believe that heart responses and pain thresholds are ordinarily not under an individual’s voluntary control. This widespread belief would protect the assertion that the shift could not have been on purpose, for how does one ‘pull the strings’?” And notice that a belief that one did not try to alter the amount of time one left one’s hand in the water before reporting a pain-rating of “intolerable,” one based (in part) upon a belief about ordinary uncontrollability of “heart responses and pain thresholds,” need not be completely cold or unmotivated. Some subjects’ motivation might render the “uncontrollability” belief very salient, e.g., while also drawing attention away from internal cues that they were trying to shift their tolerance, including the intensity of the pain.
Like Quattrone and Tversky, biologist Robert Trivers (1985, pp. 416-17) endorses Gur and Sackheim’s definition of self-deception. Trivers maintains that self-deception has “evolved … because natural selection favors ever subtler ways of deceiving others” (p. 282, cf. pp. 415-20). We recognize that “shifty eyes, sweaty palms, and croaky voices may indicate the stress that accompanies conscious knowledge of attempted deception. By becoming unconscious of its deception, the deceiver hides these signs from the observer. He or she can lie without the nervousness that accompanies deception” (pp. 415-16). Trivers’s thesis cannot adequately be assessed here; but the point should be made that the thesis in no way depends for its plausibility upon self-deception’s requiring the presence of conflicting beliefs. Self-deception that satisfies the set of sufficient conditions I offered without satisfying the “dual belief” requirement is no less effective a tool for deceiving others. Trivers’s proposal hinges on the idea that agents who do not consciously believe the truth (p) have an advantage over agents who do in getting others to believe the pertinent falsehood (~p): consciousness of the truth tends to manifest itself in ways that tip one’s hand. But notice that an unconscious belief that p provides no help in this connection. Indeed, such a belief might generate tell-tale physiological signs of deception (recall the physiological manifestations of the alleged unconscious beliefs in Gur and Sackheim’s studies). If unconscious true beliefs would make self-deceivers less subtle interpersonal deceivers than they would be without these beliefs, and if self-deception evolved because natural selection favors subtlety in the deception of others, better that it evolve on my model than on the “dual belief” model Trivers accepts.
In criticizing attempted empirical demonstrations of the existence of self-deception on Sackheim & Gur’s model without producing empirical evidence that the subjects do not have “two contradictory beliefs,” have I been unfair to the researchers? Recall the dialectical situation. The researchers claim that they have demonstrated the existence of self-deception on the model at issue. I have shown that they have not demonstrated this. The tests they employ for the existence of “two contradictory beliefs” in their subjects are, for the reasons offered, inadequate. I have no wish to claim that it is impossible for an agent to believe that p while also believing that ~p.<26> My claim, to be substantiated further, is that there is no explanatory need to postulate such beliefs either in familiar cases of self-deception or in the alleged cases cited by these researchers and that plausible alternative explanations of the data may be generated by appealing to mechanisms and processes that are relatively well understood.
4. The Dynamic Puzzle
The central challenge posed by the dynamic puzzle sketched in Section 1 calls for an explanation of the alleged occurrence of garden-variety instances of self-deception. If a prospective self-deceiver, S, has no strategy, how can S succeed? And if S does have a strategy, how can S’s attempt to carry it out fail to be self-undermining in garden-variety cases?
It may be granted that self-deception typically is strategic at least in the following sense: when people deceive themselves they at least normally do so by engaging in potentially self-deceptive behavior, including cognitive behavior of the kinds catalogued in Section 2. Behavior of these kinds can be counted, in a broad sense of the term, as strategic, and the behavioral types may be viewed as strategies of self-deception. Such strategies divide broadly into two kinds, depending on their locus of operation. Internal-biasing strategies feature the manipulation of data that one already has. Input-control strategies feature one’s controlling (to some degree) which data one acquires.<27> There are also mixed strategies, involving both internal biasing and input control.
Another set of distinctions will prove useful. Regarding cognitive activities that contribute to motivationally biased belief, there are significant differences among (1) unintentional activities (e.g., unintentionally focusing on data of a certain kind), (2) intentional activities (e.g., intentionally focusing on data of a certain kind), and (3) intentional activities engaged in with the intention of deceiving oneself (e.g., intentionally focusing on data of a certain kind with the intention of deceiving oneself into believing that p). Many skeptical worries about the reality of self-deception are motivated partly by the assumption that 3 is characteristic of self-deception.
An important difference between 2 and 3 merits emphasis. Imagine a twelve-year-old, Beth, whose father died some months ago. Beth may find it comforting to reflect on pleasant memories of playing happily with her father, to look at family photographs of such scenes, and the like. Similarly, she may find it unpleasant to reflect on memories of her father leaving her behind to play ball with her brothers, as he frequently did. From time to time, she may intentionally focus her attention on the pleasant memories, intentionally linger over the pictures, and intentionally turn her attention away from memories of being left behind. As a consequence of such intentional activities, she may acquire a false, unwarranted belief that her father cared more deeply for her than for anyone else. Although her intentional cognitive activities may be explained, in part, by the motivational attractiveness of the hypothesis that he loved her most, those activities need not also be explained by a desire–much less an intention–to deceive herself into believing this hypothesis, or to cause herself to believe this. Intentional cognitive activities that contribute even in a relatively straightforward way to self-deception need not be guided by an intention to deceive oneself.<28>
For the record, I have defended a detailed account of intentions elsewhere (Mele 1992a, chs. 7-13). Intentions, as I view them, are executive attitudes toward plans, in a technical sense of “plan” that, in the limiting case, treats an agent’s mental representation of a prospective “basic” action like raising his arm as the plan-component of an intention to raise his arm. However, readers need not accept my view of intention to be persuaded by the arguments advanced here. It is enough that they understand intentions as belonging no less to the category “mental state” than beliefs and desires do and that they view intending to do something, A, as involving being settled (not necessarily irrevocably) upon A-ing, or upon trying to A.<29> Notice that one can have a desire (or motivation) to A without being at all settled upon A-ing. Desiring to take my daughter to the midnight dance while also desiring to take my son to the midnight movie, I need to make up my mind about what to do. But intending to take my daughter to the dance (and to make it up to my son later), my mind is made up. The “settledness” aspect of intentions is central to their “executive” nature, an issue examined in Mele 1992a.<30>
My resolution of the dynamic puzzle about self-deception is implicit in earlier sections. Such strategies of self-deception as positive and negative misinterpretation, selective attending, and selective evidence-gathering do not depend for their effectiveness upon agents’ employing them with the intention of deceiving themselves. Even the operation of cold mechanisms whose functioning one does not direct can bias one’s beliefs. When, under the right conditions, such mechanisms are primed by motivation and issue in motivated false beliefs, we have self-deception. Again, motivation can affect, among other things, the hypotheses that occur to one and the salience of those hypotheses and of data. For example, Don’s motivational condition favors the hypothesis that his paper was wrongly rejected; and Sid’s favors hypotheses about Roz’s behavior that are consistent with her being as fond of him as he is of her. In “testing” these hypotheses, these agents may accentuate supporting evidence and downplay, or even positively misinterpret, contrary data without intending to do that, and without intending to deceive themselves. Strategies of self-deception, in garden-variety cases of this kind, need not be rendered ineffective by agents’ intentionally exercising them with the knowledge of what they are up to; for, in garden-variety cases, self-deceivers need not intend to deceive themselves, strategically or otherwise. Since we can understand how causal processes that issue in garden-variety instances of self-deception succeed without the agent’s intentionally orchestrating the process, we avoid the other horn of the puzzle, as well.
5. Intentionally Deceiving Oneself
I have criticized the assumptions that self-deception entails intentionally deceiving oneself and that it requires simultaneously possessing beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory; and I have tried to show how occurrences of garden-variety self-deception may be explained. I have not claimed that believing that p while also believing that ~p is conceptually or psychologically impossible. But I have not encountered a compelling illustration of that phenomenon in a case of self-deception. Some might suggest that illustrations may be found in the literature on multiple personality. However, that phenomenon, if it is a genuine one, raises thorny questions about the self in self-deception. In such alleged cases, do individuals deceive themselves, with the result that they believe that p while also believing that ~p? Or do we rather have interpersonal deception–or at any rate something more closely resembling that than self-deception?<31> These are questions for another occasion. They take us far from garden-variety self-deception.
Intentionally deceiving oneself, in contrast, is unproblematically possible. Hypothetical illustrations are easily constructed. It is worth noting, however, that the unproblematic cases are remote from garden-variety self-deception.
Here is an illustration. Ike, a forgetful prankster skilled at imitating others’ handwriting, has intentionally deceived friends by secretly making false entries in their diaries. Ike has just decided to deceive himself by making a false entry in his own diary. Cognizant of his forgetfulness, he writes under today’s date, “I was particularly brilliant in class today,” and counts on eventually forgetting that what he wrote is false. Weeks later, when reviewing his diary, Ike reads this sentence and acquires the belief that he was brilliant in class on the specified day. If Ike intentionally deceived others by making false entries in their diaries, what is to prevent us from justifiably holding that he intentionally deceived himself in the imagined case? He intended to bring it about that he would believe that p, which he knew at the time to be false; and he executed that intention without a hitch, causing himself to believe, eventually, that p. Again, to deceive, on one standard definition, is to cause to believe what is false; and Ike’s causing himself to believe the relevant falsehood is no less intentional than his causing his friends to believe falsehoods (by doctoring their diaries).<32>

Ike’s case undoubtedly strikes readers as markedly dissimilar to garden-variety examples of self-deception–for instance, the case of the woman who falsely believes that her husband is not having an affair (or that she is not seriously ill, or that her child is not using drugs), in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. Why is that? Readers convinced that self-deception does not require the simultaneous presence of beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory will not seek an answer in the absence of such beliefs in Ike. The most obvious difference between Ike’s case and garden-variety examples of self-deception lies in the straightforwardly intentional nature of Ike’s project. Ike consciously sets out to deceive himself and intentionally and consciously executes his plan for so doing; ordinary self-deceivers behave quite differently.<33>

This indicates that in attempting to construct hypothetical cases that are, at once, paradigmatic cases of self-deception and cases of agents intentionally deceiving themselves, one must imagine that the agents’ intentions to deceive themselves are somehow hidden from them. I do not wish to claim that “hidden-intentions” are impossible. Our ordinary concept of intention leaves room, e.g., for “Freudian” intentions, hidden in some mental partition. And if there is conceptual space for hidden intentions that play a role in the etiology of behavior, there is conceptual space for hidden intentions to deceive ourselves, intentions that may influence our treatment of data.

As I see it, the claim is unwarranted, not incoherent, that intentions to deceive ourselves, or intentions to produce or sustain certain beliefs in ourselves–normally, intentions hidden from us–are at work in ordinary self-deception.<34> Without denying that “hidden-intention” cases of self-deception are possible, a theorist should ask what evidence there may be (in the real world) that an intention to deceive oneself is at work in a paradigmatic case of self-deception. Are there data that can only–or best–be explained on the hypothesis that such an intention is operative?

Evidence that agents desirous of its being the case that p eventually come to believe that p owing to a biased treatment of data is sometimes regarded as supporting the claim that these agents intended to deceive themselves. The biasing apparently is sometimes relatively sophisticated purposeful behavior, and one may assume that such behavior must be guided by an intention. However, as I have argued, the sophisticated behavior in garden-variety examples of self-deception (e.g., Sam’s case in Sec. 2) may be accounted for on a less demanding hypothesis that does not require the agents to possess relevant intentions: e.g., intentions to deceive themselves into believing that p, or to cause themselves to believe that p, or to promote their peace of mind by producing in themselves the belief that p. Once again, motivational states can prompt biased cognition of the sorts common in self-deception without the assistance of such intentions. In Sam’s case, a powerful motivational attraction to the hypothesis that Sally is not having an affair–in the absence both of a strong desire to ascertain the truth of the matter and of conclusive evidence of Sally’s infidelity–may prompt the line of reasoning described earlier and the other belief-protecting behavior. An explicit, or consciously held, intention to deceive himself in these ways into holding on to his belief in Sally’s fidelity would undermine the project; and a hidden intention to deceive is not required to produce these activities.

Even if this is granted, it may be held that the supposition that such intentions always or typically are at work in cases of self-deception is required to explain why a motivated biasing of data occurs in some situations but not in other very similar situations (Talbott 1995). Return to Don, who is self-deceived in believing that his article was wrongly rejected. At some point, while revising his article, Don may have wanted it to be true that the paper was ready for publication, that no further work was necessary. Given the backlog of work on his desk, he may have wanted that just as strongly as he later wanted it to be true that the paper was wrongly rejected. Further, Don’s evidential situation at these two times may have been very similar: e.g., his evidence that the paper was ready may have been no weaker than his later evidence that the paper was wrongly rejected, and his evidence that the paper was not ready may have been no stronger than his later evidence that the paper was rightly rejected. Still, we may suppose, although Don deceived himself into believing that the article was wrongly rejected, he did not deceive himself into believing that the article was ready for publication: he kept working on it–searching for new objections to rebut, clarifying his prose, and so on–for another week. To account for the difference in the two situations, it may be claimed, we must suppose that in one situation Don decided to deceive himself (without being aware of this) whereas in the other he did not so decide; and in deciding to do something, A, one forms an intention to A. If the execution of self-deceptive biasing strategies were a nonintended consequence of being in a motivational/evidential condition of a certain kind, the argument continues, then Don would either have engaged in such strategies on both occasions or on neither: again, to account for the difference in his cognitive behavior on the earlier and later occasions, we need to suppose that an intention to deceive himself was at work in one case and not in the other.

This argument is flawed. If on one of the two occasions Don decides (hence, intends) to deceive himself whereas on the other he does not, then, presumably, there is some difference in the two situations that accounts for this difference. But if there is a difference, D, in the two situations aside From the intention-difference that the argument alleges, an argument is needed for the claim that D itself cannot account for Don’s self-deceptively biasing data in one situation and his not so doing in the other. Given that a difference in intention across situations (presence in one vs. absence in the other) requires some additional difference in the situations that would account for this difference, why should we suppose that there is no difference in the situations that can account for Don’s biasing data in one and not in the other in a way that does not depend on his intending to deceive himself in one but not in the other? Why should we think that intention is involved in the explanation of the primary difference to be explained? Why cannot the primary difference be explained instead, e.g., by Don’s having a strong desire to avoid mistakenly believing the paper to be ready (or to avoid submitting a paper that is not yet ready) and his having at most a weak desire later to avoid mistakenly believing that the paper was wrongly rejected? Such a desire, in the former case, may block any tendency to bias data in a way supporting the hypothesis that the paper is ready for publication.<35>

At this point, proponents of the thesis that self-deception is intentional deception apparently need to rely on claims about the explanatory place of intention in self-deception itself, as opposed to its place in explaining differences across situations. Claims of that sort have already been evaluated here; and they have been found wanting.

Advocates of the view that self-deception is essentially (or normally) intentional may seek support in a distinction between self-deception and wishful thinking. They may claim that although wishful thinking does not require an intention to deceive oneself, self-deception differs from it precisely in being intentional. This may be interpreted either as stipulative linguistic legislation or as a substantive claim. On the former reading, a theorist is simply expressing a decision to reserve the expression ‘self-deception’ for an actual or hypothetical phenomenon that requires an intention to deceive oneself or an intention to produce in oneself a certain belief. Such a theorist may proceed to inquire about the possibility of the phenomenon and about how occurrences of self-deception, in the stipulated sense, may be explained. On the latter reading, a theorist is advancing a substantive conceptual thesis: the thesis that the concepts (or our ordinary concepts) of wishful thinking and of self-deception differ along the lines mentioned.

I have already criticized the conceptual thesis about self-deception. A comment on wishful thinking is in order. If wishful thinking is not wishful believing, one difference between wishfully thinking that p and being self-deceived in believing that p is obvious. If, however, wishful thinking is wishful believing–in particular, motivationally biased, false believing–then, assuming that it does not overlap with self-deception (an assumption challenged in Mele 1987a, p. 135), the difference may lie in the relative strength of relevant evidence against the believed proposition: wishful thinkers may encounter weaker counter-evidence than self-deceivers (Szabados 1985, pp. 148-49). This difference requires a difference in intention only if the relative strength of the evidence against the propositions that self-deceivers believe is such as to require that their acquiring or retaining those beliefs depends upon their intending to do so, or upon their intending to deceive themselves. And this thesis about relative evidential strength, I have argued, is false.

Consciously executing an intention to deceive oneself is possible, as in Ike’s case; but such cases are remote from paradigmatic examples of self-deception. Executing a “hidden” intention to deceive oneself is possible, too; but, as I have argued, there is no good reason to maintain that such intentions are at work in paradigmatic self-deception. Part of what I have argued, in effect, is that some theorists–philosophers and psychologists alike–have made self-deception more theoretically perplexing than it actually is by imposing upon the phenomena a problematic conception of self-deception.
6. Conclusion
Philosophers’ conclusions tend to be terse; psychologists favor detailed summaries. Here I seek a mean. My aim in this paper has been to clarify the nature and relatively proximate etiology of self-deception. In sections 1-4, I resolved a pair of much-discussed puzzles about self-deception, advanced a plausible set of sufficient conditions for self-deception, and criticized empirical studies that allegedly demonstrate the existence of self-deception on a strict interpersonal model. In section 5, I argued that intentionally deceiving oneself is unproblematically possible (as in Ike’s case), but that representative unproblematic cases are remote from garden-variety instances of self-deception. Conceptual work on self-deception guided by the thought that the phenomenon must be largely isomorphic with stereotypical interpersonal deception has generated interesting conceptual puzzles. But, I have argued, it also has led us away from a proper understanding of self-deception. Stereotypical interpersonal deception is intentional deception; normal self-deception, I have argued, probably is not. If it were intentional, “hidden” intentions would be at work; and we lack good grounds for holding that such intentions are operative in self-deception. Further, in stereotypical interpersonal deception, there is some time at which the deceiver believes that ~p and the deceived believes that p; but there is no good reason to hold, I have argued, that self-deceivers simultaneously believe that ~p and believe that p. Recognizing these points, we profitably seek an explanatory model for self-deception that diverges from models for the explanation of intentional conduct. I have not produced a full-blown model for this; but, unless I am deceived, I have pointed the way toward such a model–a model informed by empirical work on motivationally biased belief and by a proper appreciation of the point that motivated behavior is not coextensive with intended behavior.

I conclude with a challenge for readers inclined to think that there are cases of self-deception that fit the strict interpersonal model–in particular, cases in which the self-deceiver simultaneously believes that p and believes that ~p. The challenge is simply stated: Provide convincing evidence of the existence of such self-deception. The most influential empirical work on the topic has not met the challenge, as I have shown. Perhaps some readers can do better. However, if I am right, such cases will be exceptional instances of self-deception–not the norm.<36>
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1. I have addressed many of these questions elsewhere. Mele 1987a argues that proper explanations of self-deception and of irrational behavior manifesting akrasia or “weakness of will” are importantly similar and generate serious problems for a standard philosophical approach to explaining purposive behavior. Mele 1992a develops an account of the psychological springs of intentional action that illuminates the etiology of motivated rational and irrational behavior alike. Mele 1995 defends a view of self-control and its opposite that applies not only to overt action and to belief but also to such things as higher-order reflection on personal values and principles; this book also displays the place of self-control in individual autonomy. Several referees noted connections between ideas explored in this article and these issues; some expressed a desire that I explicitly address them here. Although I take some steps in that direction, my primary concern is a proper understanding of self-deception itself. Given space constraints, I set aside questions about the utility of self-deception; but if my arguments succeed, they illuminate the phenomenon whose utility is at issue. I also lack space to examine particular philosophical works on self-deception. On ground-breaking work by Audi (e.g., 1985), Bach (1981), Fingarette (1969), Rorty (e.g., 1980), and others, see Mele 1987b; on important work by Davidson (1982) and Pears (1984), see Mele 1987a, ch. 10.

2. On the occasional rationality of self-deception, see Audi 1985, 1989, and Baron 1988, p. 40. On the question whether self-deception is an adaptive mechanism, see Taylor 1989 and essays in Lockard & Paulhus 1988.

3. For example, subjects instructed to conduct “symmetrical memory searches” are less likely than others to fall prey to the confirmation bias (see Sec. 2), and subjects’ confidence in their responses to “knowledge questions” is reduced when they are invited to provide grounds for doubting the correctness of those responses (Kunda 1990, pp. 494-95). Presumably, people aware of the confirmation bias may reduce biased thinking in themselves by giving themselves the former instruction; and, fortunately, we do sometimes remind ourselves to consider both the pros and the cons before making up our minds about the truth of important propositions–even when we are tempted to do otherwise. For a review of the debate, see Kunda 1990. For a revolutionary view of the place of motivation in the etiology of beliefs, see Ainslie 1992.

4. Literature on the “paradoxes” of self-deception is reviewed in Mele 1987b.

5. One response is mental partitioning: the deceived part of the mind is unaware of what the deceiving part is up to. See Pears 1984 (cf. 1991) for a detailed response of this kind and Davidson 1985 (cf. 1982) for a more modest partitioning view. For criticism of some partitioning views of self-deception, see Johnston 1988 and Mele 1987a, ch. 10, 1987b, pp. 3-6.

6. This is not to say that self-deception is always “self-serving” in this way. See Mele 1987a, pp. 116-18; Pears 1984, pp. 42-44. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into believing that p is true even though we would like p to be false.

7. Regarding the effects of motivation on time spent reading threatening information, see Baumeister & Cairns 1992.

8. The following descriptions derive from Mele 1987a, pp. 144-45.

9. For a challenge to studies of the vividness effect, see Taylor & Thompson 1982. They contend that research on the issue has been flawed in various ways, but that studies conducted in “situations that reflect the informational competition found in everyday life” might “show the existence of a strong vividness effect” (pp. 178-79).

10. This theme is developed in Mele 1987a, ch. 10 in explaining the occurrence of self-deception. Kunda 1990 develops the same theme, paying particular attention to evidence that motivation sometimes primes the confirmation bias. Cf. Silver et al. 1989, p. 222.

11. For a motivational interpretation of the confirmation bias, see Frey 1986, pp. 70-74.

12. Cf. Mele 1987a, pp. 125-26. Also cf. Bach 1981, pp. 358-61 on “rationalization” and “evasion,” Baron 1988, pp. 258 and 275-76 on positive and negative misinterpretation and “selective exposure,” and Greenwald 1988 on various kinds of “avoidance.” Again, I am not suggesting that, in all cases, agents who are self-deceived in believing that p desire that p (see n. 6). For other routes to self-deception, including what is sometimes called “immersion,” see Mele 1987a, pp. 149-51, 157-58. On self-handicapping, another potential route to self-deception, see Higgins et al. 1990.

13. Literature on “selective exposure” is reviewed in Frey 1986. Frey defends the reality of motivated selective evidence-gathering, arguing that a host of data are best accommodated by a variant of Festinger’s (1957, 1964) cognitive dissonance theory.

14. For references to work defending the view that self-deception typically is not intentional, see Mele 1987b, p. 11; also see Johnston 1988.

15. This is not to deny that self-deceivers sometimes believe that p while being aware that their evidence favors ~p. On such cases, see Mele 1987a, ch. 8 and pp. 135-36.

16. Condition 4 does not assert that the self-deceiver is aware of this.

17. On a relevant difference between being deceived in believing that p and being deceived into believing that p, see Mele 1987a, pp. 127-28.

18. Notice that not all instances of motivationally biased belief satisfy my set of sufficient conditions for self-deception. In some cases of such belief, what we believe happens to be true. Further, since we are imperfect assessors of data, we might fail to notice that our data provide greater warrant for p than for ~p and end up believing that p as a result of a motivationally biased treatment of data.

19. This is true, of course, on “degree-of-belief” conceptions of belief, as well.

20. Notice that simultaneously believing that p and believing that ~p–i.e., Bp & B~p–is distinguishable from believing the conjunction of the two propositions: B(p & ~p). We do not always put two and two together.

21. In a later paper, Sackheim grants this (1988, pp. 161-62).

22. The study is described and criticized in greater detail in Mele 1987a, pp. 152-58. Parts of this section are based on that discussion.

23. For supporting argumentation, see Mele 1987a, pp. 153-56.

24. As this implies, in challenging the claim that the sincere deniers have the belief at issue, I am not challenging the popular idea that attempts are explained at least partly in terms of pertinent beliefs and desires.

25. Obviously, whether the subjects satisfy the conditions offered in Section 2 as sufficient for self-deception depends on the relative strength of their evidence for the pertinent pair of propositions.

26. Locating such cases is not as easy as some might think. One reader appealed to blindsight. There is evidence that some people who believe themselves to be blind can see (e.g., Weiskrantz 1986). They perform much better (and in some cases, much worse) on certain tasks than they would if they were simply guessing, and steps are taken to ensure that they are not benefitting from any other sense. Suppose some sighted people in fact believe themselves to be blind. Do they also believe that they are not blind, or, e.g., that they see x? If it were true that all sighted people (even those who believe themselves to be blind) believe themselves to be sighted, the answer would be yes. But precisely the evidence for blindsight is evidence against the truth of this universal proposition. The evidence indicates that, under certain conditions, people may see without believing that they are seeing. The same reader appealed to a more mundane case of the following sort. Ann set her watch a few minutes ahead to promote punctuality. Weeks later, when we ask her for the time, Ann looks at her watch and reports what she sees, “11:10.” We then ask whether her watch is accurate. If she recalls having set it ahead, she might sincerely reply, “No, it’s fast; it’s actually a little earlier than 11:10.” Now, at time t, when Ann says “11:10,” does she both believe that it is 11:10 and believe that it is not 11:10? There are various alternative possibilities. Perhaps, e.g., although she has not forgotten setting her watch ahead, her memory of so doing is not salient for her at t and she does not infer at t that it is not 11:10; or perhaps she has adopted the strategy of acting as if her watch is accurate and does not actually believe any of its readings. (Defending a promising answer to the following question is left as an exercise for the reader: What would constitute convincing evidence that, at t, Ann believes that it is 11:10 and believes that it is not 11:10?)

27. Pears identifies what I have called internal biasing and input-control strategies and treats “acting as if something were so in order to generate the belief that it is so” as a third strategy (1984, p. 61). I examine “acting as if” in Mele 1987a, pp. 149-51, 157-58.

28. For further discussion of the difference between 2 and 3 and of cases of self-deception in which agents intentionally selectively focus on data supportive of a preferred hypothesis (e.g.) without intending to deceive themselves, see Mele 1987a, pp. 146, 149-51.

29. Readers who hold that intending is a matter of degree should note that the same may be said about being settled upon doing something.

30. For criticism of opposing conceptions of intention in the psychological literature, see Mele 1992a, ch. 7. On connections between intention and intentional action, see Mele 1992a, 1992b, and Mele & Moser 1994.

31. Similar questions have been raised about partitioning hypotheses that fall short of postulating multiple personalities. For references, see Mele 1987b, p. 4; cf. Johnston 1988.

32. On “time-lag” scenarios of this general kind, see Davidson 1985, p. 145; McLaughlin 1988, pp. 31-33; Mele 1983, pp. 374-75, 1987a, pp. 132-34; Sackheim 1988, p. 156; Sorensen 1985.

33. Some readers may be attracted to the view that although Ike deceives himself, this is not self-deception at all (cf. Davidson 1985, p. 145; McLaughlin 1988). Imagine that Ike had been embarrassed by his performance in class that day and consciously viewed the remark as ironic when he wrote it. Imagine also that Ike strongly desires to see himself as exceptionally intelligent and that this desire helps to explain, in a way psychotherapy might reveal to Ike, his writing the sentence. If, in this scenario, Ike later came to believe that he was brilliant in class that day on the basis of a subsequent reading of his diary, would such readers be more inclined to view the case as one of self-deception?

34. Pears 1991 reacts to the charge of incoherence, responding to Johnston 1988.

35. Talbott suggests that there are different preference rankings in the two kinds of case. (The preferences need not be objects of awareness, of course.) In cases of self-deception, the agents’ highest relevant preference is that they believe “that p is true, if p is true”; and their second-highest preference is that they believe “that p is true, if p is false”: self-deceiving agents want to believe that p is true whether or not it is true. In the contrasting cases, agents have the same highest preference, but the self-deceiver’s second-highest preference is the lowest preference of these agents: these agents have a higher-ranking preference “not to believe that p, if p is false.” Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this diagnosis of the difference between the two kinds of case is correct. Why should we hold that in order to account for the target difference–namely, that in one case there is a motivated biasing of data and in the other there is not–we must suppose that an intention to deceive oneself (or to get oneself to believe that p) is at work in one case but not in the other? Given our understanding of various ways in which motivation can bias cognition in the absence of such an intention, we can understand how one preference ranking can do this while another does not. An agent with the second preference ranking may be strongly motivated to ascertain whether p is true or false; and that may block any tendency toward motivated biasing of relevant data. This would not be true of an agent with the first preference ranking.

36. Parts of this article derive from my “Two Paradoxes of Self-Deception” (presented at a 1993 conference on self-deception at Stanford). Drafts were presented at the University of Alabama, McGill University, and Mount Holyoke College, where I received useful feedback. Initial work on this article occurred during my tenure of a 1992/93 NEH Fellowship for College Teachers, a 1992/93 Fellowship at the National Humanities Center, and an NEH grant for participation in a 1993 Summer Seminar, “Intention,” at Stanford (Michael Bratman, director). For helpful written comments, I am grateful to George Ainslie, Kent Bach, David Bersoff, John Furedy, Stevan Harnad, Harold Sackheim, and BBS’s anonymous referees.

REAL SELF-DECEPTION, Alfred R. Mele, almele@davidson.edu


Knowing Your Own Mind

What is it to “know your own mind”? In ordinary English, this phrase connotes clear headed decisiveness and a firm resolve but in the language of contemporary philosophy, the indecisive and the susceptible can know their own minds just as well as anybody else. In the philosopher’s usage, “knowing your own mind” is just a matter of being able to produce a knowledgeable description of your mental state, whether it be a state of indecision, susceptibility or even confusion. What exercises philosophers is the fact that people seem to produce these descriptions of their own mental lives without any pretence of considering evidence or reasons of any kind and yet these descriptions are treated by the rest of us as authoritative, at least in a wide range of cases. How can this be?

Most of the philosophers exercised by this problem would regard the English phrase “knows his own mind” and its connotations as a mere distraction, as the product of a theoretically unhelpful ambiguity. But to some, the English phrase suggests a fruitful approach to the philosophical problem of self-knowledge. In the twentieth century, Wittgenstein, Sartre and Austin all explored the idea that such mental phenomena as thinking, reasoning, deliberating are, in an important sense, activities which culminate in deeds, in the making of cognitive commitments. Moran sets out to refurbish this tradition, to revive the notion that self-knowledge is special because it is a matter of actively making up your own mind, rather than of passively apprehending it.  

Moran’s approach looks most promising when applied to the cognitive parts of our mental lives: our beliefs, judgements, the more intellectual of our desires and emotions. Yet the contemporary discussion of self-knowledge focuses at least as much on experiential states like pain and visual sensations. Moran says at the outset that he thinks these questions about experience require a quite different treatment (p. xxxiii) and focuses his attention on the cognitive. Some of his opponents might regard this as an admission of defeat but the range of phenomena Moran does cover is sufficiently impressive to make his view worthy of very serious consideration. In this article, I shan’t try to discuss Moran’s account of belief, desire and emotion. Instead I will concentrate on his view of our knowledge of our own intentions and of what are doing (or shall do) to execute them.

The Epistemology of Agency

People in a normal frame of mind usually know what they are doing and they know this without having to observe their own behaviour. In Anscombe’s example, which Moran adopts, someone pumping water may know that they are operating a pump without observation but not know that they are creating a clicking noise except by hearing the noise (pp. 124-7). In Anscombe’s view, this is because making a noise is no part of what they are trying to do. Anscombe acknowledges that one can be wrong in thinking that one is operating a pump (the pump one means to operate might be an hallucination); her point is that our knowledge of our own actions is groundless, not that it is infallible. We can (and often do) know what we are doing without the evidential backing needed for knowledge of someone else’s pumping.

As both Anscombe and Moran observe, this epistemic authority extends to our own future agency (p. 88). A person in a normal frame of mind can come to know that they will go to London tomorrow simply by deciding to go to London tomorrow. Again this way of knowing the future is hardly foolproof: an unexpected rail strike or weakness of will may intervene, and empirical evidence as to the reliability of the railways  etc. is needed before the decision can be taken. Anscombe’s point is that a normal person can know that they will go to London in this way without amassing inductive evidence of their own resoluteness, of their propensity to stick to and execute their own decisions, whereas if they were asked whether someone else who has decided to go to London will actually go, they would need evidence not only about the state of the railways but also about how resolute the person in question is. For Anscombe, the fact that we (directly) create this action gives us a special, evidence-independent way of knowing of it. We lack groundless knowledge of what other people are doing or will do precisely because we don’t (directly) create their actions, rather we apprehend them as objects in the empirical world.

In expounding these points, I confined my attention to “people in a normal frame of mind”. An example devised by David Velleman shows why this qualification is needed.[2] I have agreed to meet an old friend in order to patch up a quarrel. As the meeting unfolds, I start to become petulant, raise my voice, provoke my friend into saying some unconscionable things and we part in anger. I later infer that I must have decided, before the meeting, to end the friendship, an objective which I skilfully attained. But at no stage either prior to or during the meeting would I have announced such an intention and even afterwards I unearth it only in an effort to explain what happened. I may end up convinced that this was my intention but only qua observer of myself.

I take it Moran has this sort of case in mind when he says that:

Even within a psychoanalytic explanation, it will normally be the case that the contrary thoughts and attitudes which explain the subject’s blocked awareness of the intention will themselves be reasons for ambivalence in his overall intention; that is the intention itself will not be a wholehearted one. Ignorance in such a case will not be mere ignorance, not only because it will be irresistible to look for a motivation of sorts to explain it, but because the motivation we then impute to the person must qualify the ascription of the original intention (as conflicted or partial). (p. 57) 

Applying this to Velleman’s example, I don’t fully intend to end the friendship because I can’t, to use Moran’s favoured expression, avow this intention and I can’t avow this intention because I am aware of good reasons for not ending the friendship. In general, Moran thinks that a subject is an epistemic authority about the content of his intentions and intentional actions only where the subject’s intentions seem well grounded to the subject himself. To the extent that an intention seems to him misguided, the subject’s privileged epistemic access to it will be compromised, as will his sense of being in control of behaviour guided by this intention. To put it another way, he will start to wonder whether this intention is, in the full sense, his.[3]

Moran’s epistemology of agency takes off from the fact that we create our actions, we don’t just observe them. But why, someone may ask, does the mere fact that we create our actions make us an authority about them? I am unsure whether Moran offers to answer to this question. He might regard it as a brute fact that everyone is an authority about the character of their own creations (including their actions). Alternatively, he might be offering us an explanation for this fact, an explanation which goes as follows: when we act, we act for a reason and the character of our action is determined by the character of our reasons. Subjects (in a normal frame of mind) know the character of their reasons – they know what practical considerations they find convincing and persuasive – and so they know the character of their action. A subject is an authority about what they are doing just in so far as they are an authority about their reasons.

If Moran is telling us the latter story then he must be operating with a highly rationalistic notion of agency. A moderate rationalist would require that truly intentional action be motivated by a reason, by the agent’s awareness of some respect in which the outcome intended would be desirable, without requiring that the agent act on (what he would think of as) his strongest or most powerful reasons. But this moderate rationalism does not suggest a substantial epistemology of agency: we can hardly explain how an agent knows what they are doing by supposing that they know what reasons they are acting on. To avoid this difficulty we are pushed towards a more extreme rationalism which insists that truly intentional agency is agency determined by the strongest reasons which the agent knows they have. Since knowing what reasons you have is not synonymous with knowing what you are doing, there is a substantial epistemology of agency on offer here. Yet such hyper-rationalism runs up against the fact that people intentionally do things they know they have sufficient reason not to do.

A hyper-rationalist can acknowledge that various forms of behaviour approximate to fully intentional and responsible agency but, for him, agency occurs in its pure form only when it accurately reflects the subject’s reasons.  I am unsure whether Moran is invoking this rationalist notion of agency because I am unsure whether he means to offer us a substantial epistemology of agency. This uncertainty is connected with another interpretative issue: how should we understand Moran’s discussion of practical irrationality and, in particular, his notion of akrasia?

Practical Irrationality

On the usual understanding of these terms, akratic or incontinent action is action which is performed even though the agent judges that it would be better for him to be doing something else. Akrasia is a very familiar phenomenon. If I eat more biscuits than I know I’ll be able to digest comfortably or remain slumped in front of the TV when I realise I ought to be making lunch, my eating and my lounging are things I do, things which I do deliberately, freely and intentionally, things for which I am fully responsible. In these respects, akratic action is no different from fully continent agency: it is agency par excellence.

Understanding akrasia in this way, I find some of the things Moran says about it rather puzzling. For example

when I know that I am akratic with respect to the question before me, that compromises the extent to which I can think of my behaviour as intentional action … Nor does a person speak with first-person authority about such conditions. (pp. 127-8)

Moran also says that the akratic does not “identify” with their action and that his knowledge of it is empirical and not “ordinary self-knowledge” (p. 67).[4] The implication is that while the akratic may be able to predict that he is likely to behave akratically and then exercise a sort of self-control by putting obstacles in the way of akratic behaviour (e.g. placing a time-lock on the drinks cabinet), he will lack that first-person knowledge of and control over his behaviour which the continent possess.[5]

Moran’s description fits Velleman’s psychoanalytic example very well but as a commentary on everyday akrasia, it is a bit overstated. My partiality to lunch time TV hardly qualifies as an obsession or a compulsion even though it tempts me to do what I know I should not do. I am not overwhelmed by the desire to watch, I choose to indulge it. If I am honest, I won’t deny that it is me who decides to remain on the sofa. Furthermore, I know perfectly well why I take this decision: the lunchtime soap opera is genuinely entertaining and diverting (though, even in my own eyes, other considerations are more pressing). There is no failure of first-person access either to the motivation for my akratic behaviour or to what it gets me to do.

Reflection on such everyday cases of akrasia puts pressure on Moran’s notion of an avowal. Moran says that there are two elements to avowal: first, an authoritative awareness of the state of mind avowed and secondly an endorsement of it (pp. 91-2). Consider a Catholic woman, described by Jackson, who has become pregnant after rape.[6] She judges that she ought not to have an abortion but akratically decides to have an abortion nevertheless and makes plans to attend the abortion clinic next week. Can she avow this intention? She can do more than report this intention in the way she might report a third parties’ intention but she can’t go as far as to endorse this intention. What she can do is to affirm that she is set on having an abortion, that she has resolved to have an abortion, that she is committed to having an abortion. Moran’s notion of an avowal seems to include the idea of endorsement (p. 67) so perhaps he would maintain that the woman can’t avow her intention. But if that is how the notion of an avowal is to be understood, it looks as if what manifests a distinctive knowledge of (and control over) intention is not our ability to avow these intentions but rather our ability to affirm them.

Until now I have been assuming that Moran is using “akrasia” in its standard sense but this may be a misreading. In several places, he is at pains to draw a distinction between what might be called pure evaluation on the one hand and decision-making on the other (where the notion of “deliberation” applies only to the latter)

the mere appraisal of one’s attitudes, however normative, would apply equally well to past as well as to current attitudes, and indeed may have just the same application to another person as to oneself. In itself such an assessment is not an essentially first-personal affair. Rather “deliberative” reflection as intended here is of the same family of thought as practical reflection, which does not conclude with a normative judgement about what would be best to do but with the formation of an actual intention to do something. (p. 59)

The implication of this paragraph is that Moran is not really interested in the relationship between someone’s judgement of their reasons and their action;  such judgement interests him only in so far as it involves the formation of an intention so to act. What really concerns Moran is the relationship between intention and action. If that is right we should focus our discussion of practical irrationality not on akrasia but rather on what I shall call irresolution.

Philosophers sometimes apply the labels “weakness of will” and “incontinence” to both akrasia and irresolution but they are not the same thing.[7] Akrasia is a matter of failing to intend and act in accordance with your practical judgement, your judgements about what you should (i.e. have most reason) to do. Irresolution is a matter of not sticking to intentions once formed, of giving in to the very ‘inclinations’ which the intention was formed (however akratically) to resist. As Jackson develops his example, his Catholic woman is by turns akratic and irresolute. She is akratic when she forms the intention to attend the abortion clinic but later on her scruples get the better of her and she irresolutely refuses to leave the house on the day of her appointment. We need not take a stand on the issue of whether this woman’s akrasia or her irresolution are symptomatic of irrationality. The present point is simply that they are not the same thing.   

I suspect that Moran tends to equate akrasia with irresolution (p. 81) and that this goes some way to explaining his view of akrasia. Moran argues convincingly that a person who knows they are irresolute will, as a matter of conceptual necessity, find it very difficult to form intentions (pp. 77-83, pp. 94-8). If past experience of her own behaviour convinces Jackson’s woman that she won’t attend the abortion clinic even if she decides to do so, it is hard to see how she can even decide to attend the clinic.  Saying “I intend to have an abortion but predict that I won’t” is rather like saying “I believe that it will rain but it won’t”. Both sentences express a state of mind that is more than irrational, it is paradoxical.[8]

Of course, an analyst might convince someone that they had a belief which they wished to disavow and the subject might express this by saying “I believe that my brother drove my parents to an early grave even though he didn’t”. But here the subject seems entitled to enter a qualification: this is not his belief in the full sense, he knows about it only via the analyst and he cannot assume full responsibility for it. It is plausible to say the same of intentions that the agent believes they won’t execute. The analyst may convince me that I still intend to proposition my childhood sweetheart someday even if I know perfectly well that I’ll never bring myself to do it. But, I can plausibly insist, this intention is mine only in an qualified sense. Fully self-conscious irresolution is indeed paradoxical. None of this applies to everyday cases of akrasia. There is nothing paradoxical about the statement “I know I ought not to have an abortion but I shall”. And there is little pressure to say that such a statement evinces a division of the person, or a diminishment of the person’s control over or responsibility for the intention.

Reading Moran’s discussion of practical irrationality as concerned with irresolution, he maintains that a person is an authority about what they are doing because they are an authority about the intention with which they act and they are an authority about the intention with which they act because this is something they have created, something which is itself an expression of their agency. Here it is the subject’s ability to affirm their intention, rather than their ability to endorse it, which ensures that they have knowledge of (and control over) what they are doing. But, read in this way, Moran is not offering the substantial epistemology of agency I suggested he might. Rather he is assuming that an agent has direct knowledge of both of what he is doing and of what he intends to do simply because he is choosing to do it.

To sum up, Moran thinks that there is close tie between what he calls the standpoint of practical deliberation and the possession of first-person epistemic authority: one is an authority about what one is doing and why just in so far as one is occupying this standpoint (p. 127). To occupy this standpoint is, by definition, to both make judgements about what you have reason to do and to implement those judgements in decision and action (pp. 63-4, pp. 94-5, p. 131, pp. 145-6).[9] Now it is clear that these two things can come apart: one can make practical judgements which one does not implement and one can take decisions or perform actions which do not reflect one’s practical judgements. The question for Moran is this: when that happens, is first-person authority necessarily compromised? Is a subject who fails to do what he thinks he ought to do ipso facto less well placed to know what he is doing and why? My discussion suggests a negative answer.


I have focused on what I take to be a central theme of Moran’s book but my treatment has been far from comprehensive. For example, I have had to ignore his interesting discussion of belief, desire and emotion and I have failed to mention his illuminating criticisms of superficially similar positions (like Shoemaker’s). Two other features of the book are particularly worthy of mention. First, Moran offers us an interpretation of the work the early Sartre which enabled the present writer to read parts of Being and Nothingness with great profit. Secondly, I strongly recommend the fascinating final chapter in which Moran explores some virgin territory: the moral psychology of the first person.

Reading a work of academic philosophy, one often finds oneself slogging through chapter after chapter of critical commentary on the work of others, to be rewarded with only the vaguest sketch of an alternative view. Yet (to paraphrase Feyerabend) no sensible person abandons a theory because of a counterexample, only for a better theory. Moran has taken Feyerabend’s maxim to heart. His prose is elegant and engaging. He lays out his view in enough detail to expose its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Occasionally, I would have wished to know more about why he thinks his position should be preferred to alternatives. Nevertheless Moran has said enough to encourage others to build up the theory’s defences and highlight its advantages over more familiar approaches to the problem of self-knowledge.


 [1] Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangement (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), xc + 201 pp. Page references are to this work.

[2] D. Velleman – The Possibility of Practical Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) pp. 126-7.

[3] See also Moran discussing of emotions which one can’t avow on p. 93.

[4] On p. 131 Moran connects claims about alienation to claims about control and responsibility, saying that (certain forms of) the latter are compromised by such alienation (see also pp. 117-8).

[5] Moran says similar things about the desires which motivate action (pp. 116-20).

[6] This example occurs on p. 4. of F. Jackson – ‘Weakness of Will’ Mind (1984) 93, pp. 1-18

[7] R. Holton – ‘Intention and Weakness of Will’ Journal of Philosophy (1999) 96: pp. 241-62.

[8] This reading makes good sense of the parallels Moran draws between akrasia and self-deception (p. 67, p. 87)

[9] This may be too strong. Perhaps Moran intends only that the deliberative standpoint be one in which it is believed that one’s decision will reflect one’s practical judgement. I don’t think this will help. Someone who does not believe but merely hopes that they will take what they regard as the right decision in a difficult situation may still know, in the usual first-person way, what they end up doing (or deciding to do).


KNOWING YOUR OWN MIND[1], David Owens  University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Rationality & Education

There is currently a consensus among the educational theorists that one of the main aims of education is to develop the student’s critical thinking, and that, by exercising their rationality, they gradually become autonomous, responsible and caring citizens. This same aim is also proposed by the programmatic statements that precede the laws in which the educational regulation is ruled in many countries. It could be argued then, that the educative communities – recalling that education is a relational process in which the “educator” is educated as well – should be more like a rationality lab.

On the other hand, frequently any kind of educative practice or model presumes in an implicit way, a specific conception of rationality. If one aims to educate reasonable human beings, there must be awareness of what this “reason” , which its development is to be helped, consists of. In order to educate people to develop their critical thinking, this same dominant concept for rationality must be examined, since this concept could be understood as knowledge, beliefs and action system due to reproduce a specific social organization that responds to the interests of a minor group and that forbids people’s utter development.

In the West, Reason has been traditionally understood as a superstructure with an universal and utter legality, that intends to impose itself as a force, ruling our way of thinking, appreciating and acting. This latter strength has been frequently presented as independent of our body and of our sentimental and passional dimensions (bodiless reason), and sometimes opposite to it. This Reason rules the order that exists in the universe and at the same time, inhabits the human beings, in other words, the rational part of the human’s soul (Plato), having as its very function the rational knowledge and the control and dominance of the human’s irrational “horses”.

It is the possession of rationality that differs men from all kinds of animals, and allows the first ones to be similar to the Gods, since rationality will be considered divine nature, God’s wills expression, therefore demanding rational beings obedience.

This latter Reason has been presented as universal and absolute, in other words, built up independently of others historical and local contingencies (reason out of context), and has to impose itself as force – “the strength of reason” –on all men from all times and cultures. Several times, the interests of oppression, as well as the domain of groups, nations and cultures, has been ideologically justified under the veil of rationality. Even so, it’s also true that there is a belief, that culminates in the Enlightenment, that considers the cultivation of reason – common to all men and one of the fundamentals for their universal equality, dignity and freedom – as the responsible for the individual’s and nation’s progress and emancipation.

After this introduction, the question we ask ourselves is: What concept of rationality should be used by an education, -that intends to transform both the reality and the conditions that hinder men and women from releasing themselves from the chains that forbid their utter realization as human beings ? What kind of rationality should be cultivated, that when practiced allows the emancipation of those powers which holds back the possibility of men being autonomous and owners of their own history? How can we articulate a criticism of a worldwide dominant reason, that generates and reproduces excluded ones, and what kind of rationality should be stimulated that permits the victims’ liberation? (E.DUSSEL).

The reason that intends to be an instrument for manipulation and domination of nature and social relation, should be rejected. (M. HORKHEIMER AND T. ADORNO). This reason, related to the bourgeois’ interests, reduces reality into number and measure, besides considering itself as the only possible world view, of a world that is in front of the subjects – owner of the means of production – to be transformed, manufactured and sold. From this kind of reason, arises a language that intends to be the only possibly valid objectively adjusted to reality. It’s a monological language or discourse that, disguising and perpetuating the dominant groups’ interests, presents itself as the universaly valid language, in other words, valid to dominate all over the whole world.

This rationality concept (instrumental reason) doesn’t consider the fact that our reason has a dialogical nature. Thinking consists of creating, interpreting and processing meanings. Nevertheless, these meanings are given in the language we receive, or in the various languages, discourses and stories we receive, and that in some way, constitute ourselves. We aren’t isolated consciousness facing the world in a direct and unidirectional relation- the subject and the world. When each of us look inside ourselves we find out that we see with somebody else’s eyes and that we are connected to a world that has been previously defined by language, or better said, by the different languages that constitute ourselves, even though one of them intends to be the only valid one. After all, men find themselves and establish relations with the world not as an isolated conscience, but from a speaking community. All knowledge is therefore, a go-through-languages, in other words, a dialogue. Thinking consists of dialogue: with our own cultural tradition, with different traditions, with our contemporaries and with ourselves. If the subject of knowledge is the community that dialogues, the educative communities, in general, and the school in particular, must be more like a community of enquiry, where cooperative thinking is learnt through the practice of dialogue, and where the other one is seen not as a threaten to one’s personal success, but as a condition for the exercising of one’s own reasonableness. I’m not using “Rationality” in order to avoid the strong monological and excluding meaning under which this concept has been sometimes presented. For a reasonable person I understand, at present, as one who is aware of the reality’s complexity, hence practices complex thinking (M.LIPMAN), not dogmatic, provisional, that’s learnt to be fallible, being open minded, hence listening to other’s criticism and allowing to be questioned by the different voices and discourses which is capable of listening to. The complex thinking is at the same time critical and creative, aware of its own assumption and implication, as well as of the reasons and evidences in which its conclusions are based on, and capable of imagining new ways of seeing and connecting the experience’s elements. If our rationality consists of a narrative nature, the education thinking about complexity must focus on the development of an imaginative rationality, capable of creating new narrative frames that make up new meaning’s connection in order to help men and women in their freeing practice.

If the school or any other educative institution aim to be a critical thinking lab., they have to be configured as a dialogue community, in which the different opinions and beliefs of each community member are plausible of being questioned by the others and oneself. People that participate in a dialogue process usually start from some prejudices – previous judgements – and from some assumptions, not always explicit, that determine the interpretation of the linguistic emission. This kind of knowledge has been inculcated by the human being since childhood, along with the conceptions, beliefs, values, aims and purposes of the social group they belong to. The critical thinking in a strong meaning (R. PAUL) is the one that is opened to listening to other words and other people’s words, who can question the validity of these assumptions, of these valuecritera and of those objectives that we usually accept in an acritical way, and which probably, are the ones that some groups want to have in order to satisfy their own proposes. The educative community must bring the others voices present, the outsider’s voices, the excluded voices, the ones that are voiceless because no one has ever listened to them, the victim’s voices… , the children’s voices, because only these voices or this silence can help to question and to find out the untruth of the very prejudice and point out who is the real beneficiary of them.

The present production system and the dominant international interchange, based on relative liberation and on market globalization, that generates decision and imposition centers which scape the citizen’s democratic control, and even of governments, is presented as the only possible rational (unique thinking), capable of resolving the humanity’s problems. Communication tends to have a global character once the market presents a world dimension. The dominant groups control broad sectors of the communication net, through which the market’s products are valorized and distributed. Consequently there is an unitarian, compact, monological communication (A.PONZIO), one that silences others perspectives that criticizes present production system for being the cause of the exploitation and indignity in which a large number of people live in; poverty, illiteracy, illness and violence.

If the educative community really wants to be a liberator, it must turn into a resistance nucleus against the pretensions of the unique discourse. It must allow the heteroglossia (M. BAJTIN), making the discourse of other social classes, other ethnic groups, the opposite gender present, voices that don’t silence themselves mutually, but as in the polyphone, they keep themselves intercrossed in the dialogue. In this dialogue the agreements are pursued only by the strength of the reasons presented. Nevertheless it’s a dialogue that doesn’t cancel out the conflict, a dialogue where the dissident voice isn’t canceled out or diminished. The educative community must stimulate the development of a dialogical rationality, opposed to a monological rationality, that imposes rules, authority, the discourse of power. The dialogical reason permits the polyglossia , in other words, it’s the reason that challenges the single authoritarian language that silences the others and appreciates only one point of view.

Nevertheless it’s impossible that there could be such a privileged point of view that could be constituted as the only point of view possible, as the dominant perspective, as ” the divine eye”.

Reality is complex and polymorphic and, because of that, each perspective corroborates, complements or denies the one revealed by a different perspective. Most of the problems humans deal with, can’t be, therefore, resolved by an algorithmic reason, that like a computer, deduces conclusions just by applying some syntactic rules. That’s why the formal logic, being abstract, is insufficient to attend the exercising of the dialogical reason. This logic seems to be more familiar to writing, where reason has the pretension to be demonstrative. The informal logic emerges from the interest in the pragmatic issues of the language, issues that relate to the oral expression, to the conversation. This logic, will pursue the rules to be followed by concrete arguments, performed in a concrete context of dialogue, in order to be considered reasonable. (T.MIRANDA). The dialogue will be the center of attention in this logic, since only through dialogue the main human’s problems can be solved, problems that present a multilogical (R. PAUL) or multidirectional nature.

Descartes’ error was to conceive the human mind as a different reality from the body and that the previous one could work without the latter. However , recent neurologist studies have demonstrated that the mind emerges from the neuronal circuit activity, circuits which contain the organism’s basic representation, essential for any cognitive activity (A.DAMASIO). So, the idea of a cold reason, that thinks and reasons without considering the subject’s feelings and passions, that is independent of one’s body, of one’s gender, of one’s society, of one’s culture…, cannot be sustained nowadays. Our mental activity is produced by a body – embodied reason – (G.LAKOFF & M. JOHNSON), that we can’t relinquish if we want to understand it. Our body, on the other hand, is an organism that is related to an environment , that has an experience, but one which is mediated by culture. Pure reason, cold, algorithmic and bodiless has to be replaced by sentimental, passionate reason, one that doesn’t relinquish emotion, a reason made of flesh and flesh, a reason with body. It refers to a reason, that due to language, makes it possible for human beings to be bodies that transcend themselves. It allows us to open ourselves to other human beings and we to make up meanings and search for the reasons of events and offer reasons for our elections.

Due to all that, the school and the educative communities in general, must give up an objectivist conception of knowledge and meaning, which postulates that reality has a rational structure, independent of the cognizant subject, presenting language as the one that describes reality as it is. The discourse that justifies a rationality that generates victims shouldn’t be accepted as the owner of the objective truth, common to all men. The objectivist theories of knowledge and language focus their attention on the “literal meaning”, differing it from the non- literal or figurative meaning. Nevertheless these theories do not consider that we understand the world through our corporal frames, which permit us to project the knowledge from one part of the reality to understand others -metaphoric projections. If our utter corporeality, configured by its biological constitution and by the experience that accumulates in its relation with the world, is the source of meanings that human beings construct to explain reality to himself, so it could be said that the idea of an objective knowledge, independently of the subject, has a clear ideological function, in the pejorative sense, since things are according to the pain that inhabits the body of who watches them. It can’t be useful for the slaves the same metaphors that masters make to explain and justify the reality (“their” reality).

Most part of our daily, scientific and literary reasoning, is based on the use of metaphoric systems; so it doesn’t make any sense the objectivist differentiation between literal meaning and figurative meaning (M JOHNSON). All language is figuration, all appreciation is interpretation, and all experience, a perspective, making no sense at all the idea of literalness as a direct correspondence between the world of names and the world of things (E.LYNCH). If education should favor the development of a complex thinking in the dialogical communities, we find out that this reasoning besides being critical, has to be creative, as the two tails of the same coin. The educative communities have to generate critical and creative people, that open themselves to dialogue, searching for beauty, truths – not “the” truth – and justice. I don’t mean truth neither in the objectivism sense nor in the subjectivism sense, but as intersubjective agreements contrasted by the creative action itself, that is a reality transformer, agreement achieved from different points of views, based on an integration that doesn’t eliminate the conflict and that is ceaselessly revised



There is no single and definitive answer for the question what kind of rationality is to be developed by an education that aims to be a transformer and liberator. But I do think that an educative community that presents such a vocation – and if it does not have it I wonder how it can be called “educative”- must be committed to the cultivation of reasonableness. It has to be the place where the dialogical, polyphonic reason is possible, where a critical thinking emerges, that questions the pretensions of universality and unicity truth of the monological discourses. It must be a community where the participants, through dialogue, construct interpretations of reality and experiment them creating places where there is room for plurality and the justice is possible.

In a time when “rationality” is abused from different places, we defend an education that makes it possible, since we still believe on its liberating potentiality. But we are talking about a reason which processes and products are always provisional, as it has to do with the vagueness, with the feelings, with the communicative contexts, that have an historical character, and are mediated by biographic and cultural circumstances. We’re talking about an experimenting reasonableness that pads blinded, which achievements can always be revised. However this revision can only be performed from the dialogue by the same shared reason.

I am who I am once I establish dialogues with the others, as I recognize the others and at the same time I am recognized by the other one as someone worth, independently of any circumstances which makes us different, considering the differences not as a threat but as an opportunity to enrich and complement.

The school should be a laboratory of a respectful rationality, one that enables an integral human development and, at the same time, respectful of ecological equilibrium. One that does not consider itself as the absolut owner of nature, but part of it.




BAJTIN, M: Estética de la creación verbal. Siglo XXI, México, 1995 (6ª ed.).

DAMASIO, A: Descartes´ Error. G. P. Putnams Sons. New Yiork. 1994.

DUSSEL, E.: Ética de la liberación. Trotta, Madrid, 1998.

HORKHEIMER, M. & ADORNO, T.: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente. S. Fischer Verlag GmbH. Frankfurt am Main, 1969.

JOHNSON, M.: The body in the mind. The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

LAKOFF, G. & JOHNSON, M.: Philosophy in the Flesh. Basic Books, New York,1999.

LIPMAN, M.: Thinking in Education. Cambridhe Univ. Press. 1991.

LYNCH, E.: Dionisio dormido sobre un tigre. Destino, Barcelona, 1993.

MIRANDA, T.: El juego de la argumentación. Ed. De la Torre. Madrid, 1995.

PAUL, R.: Critical Thinking. Sonoma State Univ. California, 1990.

PONZIO, A.: El juego del comunicar. Ed. Episteme, Valencia, 1995.

ZAVALA, I.: La posmodernidad y Mijail Bajtin. Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1991.

Rationality and Critical Education, Tomás Miranda, Univ. Castilla-La Mancha (Spain), Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education, June 2000

Ecomonics & Ethics

Business ethics, it seems, has finally caught the attention of economists. Businesses, in some parts of the world, have become integral participants in such causes as protecting the environment and alleviating poverty from economically depressed localities. This investment in ethics, however, is confronted with the problem that economists have no other way to approach reality without concentrating on questions of utility. A similar phenomenon is occurring within the economics profession, where economists such as James Buchanan1 and Amartya Sen2 have become outspoken advocates for social and ethical investing through work, savings, and company loyalty.

For these values, altruistic behavior can be analyzed as a positive external effect of consumption, where the individual makes a voluntary contribution. Buchanan and Sen both rely upon utilitarianism for their analysis of voluntary contributions, although they acknowledge that society would be aided if these values were more independently established. From the vantage point of society, however, it would be beneficial for the values of social and ethical investing to be more firmly grounded in a consistent rationale. Utilitarianism provides a poor basis for such analysis and can be manipulated easily for less than admirable purposes. For these values to be widely accepted, they should not be related to any order of values that exceeds the simple test of social well-being. Sen states this principle thus:

The nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the distance that has grown between economics and ethics … [economics] can be more productive by paying greater and more explicit attention to the ethical considerations that shape human behaviour and judgement. It is not my purpose to write off what has been or is being achieved, but definitely to demand more.3

In the last twenty years, economists and moral philosophers have renewed a conversation that was interrupted during the heyday of positivist methodology in both disciplines.4 While considerable gaps remain between the modes of expression and habits of thought in these disciplines, there is today considerable room for productive interdisciplinary dialogue between economists and moral philosophers.

This change in the validity of using ethical-moral values in economic analysis has little to do with the criticism of nineteenth-century authors such as Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin, who attributed the destruction of social ties to the influence of capitalism. According to them, moral values functioned as the backbone of society during the late Victorian era. The destruction of social ties can be attributed more to the Weberian work ethic than to the structure of a market economy.

We are, perhaps, in the final stage of the process that economic science began in the eighteenth century, namely, its search for disciplinary boundaries and foundations. The first phase of this process sought to separate morals and politics. It was sometime later, however, that Adam Smith and David Ricardo began to establish economics as a respectable science. Since the late-eighteenth century, economics has developed independent disciplinary foundations and, in successive stages, has subjected more and more domains of human life to economic analysis. This phenomenon has come to be known in the literature as the “imperialism of economics.”5

Nowadays, economics is viewed as the social subsystem with the greatest capacity to integrate the other social sciences. Yet, surprisingly and for good reason, in recent years the relationship between ethics and economics has become much less hostile. In order to illustrate this change, it may be useful to compare the relationship between ethics and economics at the dawning of the modern age (where the economic aspect played a relatively insignificant role in moral science) and in our time (where the growing interest of economists is to analyze the economic implications of ethical conduct). That Alfred Marshall knew how to extract the essence of this process can be seen in his now-famous quip: “The servant has turned into the housewife.” From this point forward the ethical aspect would be placed in a similar trajectory with economics–although in quite different circumstances.

The preceding raises two related questions, which this article will address separately: (1) What are the historical factors that led to the progressive emancipation of economics from moral science, and, ultimately, to its status as an independent discipline? (2) As a result of this emancipation, has the relationship between ethics and economics been fundamentally altered? Or, has this fundamental shift provoked a renewed interest in ethics on the part of economists?

How Economic Science Discovered Its Limits

Economics was, in its origin, integrally related to ethics. Sen reminds us of the contrast between the “non-ethical” feature of modern economics and its genesis as an offshoot of ethics.6 At the time of its inception, then, the language of economics was comprised of normative elements. Nevertheless, over time, economics came to be considered an autonomous science, and its language and value judgments become increasingly more “positive.”

This dissociation of economics from ethics is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it is regarded by some as beneficial, enabling economists to develop analytic techniques and make rational predictions of future human behavior, whereas others view these “benefits” as fatal flaws leading to the imperialism of economic analysis over ethics. As analyzed, the transformation with respect to the traditional order of medieval times was finally complete.

In traditional societies, there is a multiplicity of small communities, including kinship networks and dispersed ethnic groups.7 Between these communities market interchange is often restricted, and economic life is regulated by local conventions. Markets may exist within such communities, but they are embedded in wider systems of non-market relationships, and the behavior of transactors is governed by complex moral codes and informal sanctions.

The first indication of emancipation with respect to moral norms became visible during the resultant secularization of the Renaissance. Consequently, morals were siphoned off from other public domains such as politics and economics. The process of separation that began during the Renaissance fostered a gradual substitution of morals for a “worldly providence”: the belief in a charitable role for the market. The rise of the market order changed this situation dramatically. It broke down the old ties of community by integrating them into an extensive division of labor governed by the abstract logic of commodity exchange.8 Personal ties between producers were replaced by the anonymous process of commercial transactions. Furthermore, this transformation required a change in the nature of morality itself. It is difficult to see how any kind of general morality can arise spontaneously from an entirely anonymous process of exchange.

Furthermore, the birth of national states during the sixteenth century had the effect of accelerating a tendency that is now termed the politicizing of wealth. The growing necessities of the new states forced economists, merchants, and bureaucrats to search for more stable sources of wealth. There was a mutual relation of interdependency between consumers and producers, but wealth was now subordinated to political power. Mercantilism, as it came to be called, made no sense because it did not allow for the possibility of distinguishing political from economic history. Thus, politics predominated, and the relation with the economy was hierarchically ordered.

The new argument was that moral categories were applicable to small societies but not to the powerful new nation states. In mercantilist doctrine, wealth (economics) and power (politics) appear to be mixed, which means that economic policies are decided upon through political mechanisms. In the end, the prosperity and the power of the state are what is sought after. The term political economy (Montchretien) appears now in order to designate the study of “economic” media to surmise “political” ends, which entails that the acquisition of wealth is at the service of political power. Thus, economic boundaries begin to offer the first steps under the vigilant protection of its older sibling–politics.

Adam Smith functions not as a link to this process but rather as a purveyor of a series of ideas. However, on the level of principle, Smith completes the rupture between economics and politics, although the transition takes place in successive stages. The decisive innovation here is that economics was liberated from making normative claims, which freed it to move naturally in the direction of positivism. Smith’s originality was not rooted in the newness of his ideas as much as in the way he reassembled them to create something new. Through his innovation Smith severed the mercantilist unity between politics and economics; economics was now free to develop its own disciplinary foundations. To recap for a moment, then, the progression of Smith’s ideas follows the pattern of first eradicating moral boundaries, then constructing political boundaries, and finally developing economics into a respectable science. In order to analyze economics, Smith’s focus needed to shift away from the social arena. The nineteenth century witnessed the development of specialized social sciences such as economics that were not ostensibly interested in providing a grand framework or spectrum by which to analyze social behavior.

This was the time when economics first demonstrated “colonizing tendencies” by neglecting its earlier mission to function as the integrating center for the other social sciences.

The Colonizing Tendency of Economics

All social sciences are subject to the law of decreasing marginal returns, and economics is no exception to this rule. The specific themes of analysis and the profound level that may be reached tend to decrease over time. In the early development of economics, economists explored new territories by using models based on axioms such as the egoism of the agent and rationality in economic decision-making. The maturity of the paradigm was accompanied by a reduction in the fields still undiscovered by science. Since this time, economists have been working on almost the same themes that Adam Smith announced in The Wealth of Nations. By force, the results each time had to be poorer, decreasing the possible areas of exploration.

These pioneers directed their attention in diverse directions. The tendencies are obvious in authors such as Augustin A. Cournot, with respect to mathematics, and are particularly intense in the work of Edwin Chadwick, a pioneer in the economic analysis of law and of public goods (e.g., railway systems and water suppliers). But the field of sociology is where the most interesting developments have been made, particularly following J. S. Mill’s attempt to elaborate an economically based sociology.

Nevertheless, it was the intense development of economics in Victorian England that sparked controversy over the range and applicability of its method. As one of the newest eighteenth-century social sciences, economics enjoyed a privileged position in the university because of its rigor and practicality. The debate within the newly emerging social sciences over which social science discipline was greater was especially intense among sociologists and economists. These discussions raged among the intellectual disciples of Adam Smith, but it was J. S. Mill, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes who gradually won the battle for the autonomy of economic science.

This separation or initial demarcation of fields produced a notable change in the direction of economic science, which can be characterized as a gradual turn from “interdisciplinary” positions (e.g., Smith analyzing the sources of the wealth of nations) to more specialized and inclusive projects from the relation of economics to the rest of the social sciences (e.g., the formation of prices). It follows logically from the development of economics as an independent science that it would refine its analytical techniques and clarify its disciplinary objectives.

The interrelation and overlapping of scientific disciplines–a soft imperialism–is a phenomenon common to all social sciences, but economics has an advantage that is added to its pioneering character, namely, to go forward in relation to the other social sciences. The advantage that economics has over the other social sciences is its simplicity. The theoretical economists are, by definition, creators of descriptive models of reality. The key for a successful construction of systems or models has to do with the model’s simplicity and demand for instrumental order: Simpler phenomena are easier to understand than complex phenomena. The question of a model’s simplicity is not exhausted by the logical consistency of mathematical rigor. There is something more important: Economic science has known how to maintain a firm nucleus (core assumptions) of axioms that are the base of any analysis. I am referring to the hypothesis of optimization, equilibrium, and rationality in decision-making, which implies a stability of preferences.

One of the essential differences that economics maintains from other sciences is the standardization of the previously mentioned basic axioms, guaranteeing the internal coherence of economic models used to reach a reasonable level of generalization. The combination of these axioms influencing any economic prediction means that the falsification of a prediction does not directly address a model’s core assumptions; it simply suggests refining the model.9 This distinction is shared by many sciences attempting to immunize the science’s fundamental principles against specific critiques. Thus, a model’s basic hypotheses, assumptions, or axioms are never the objects of falsification.

Mathematics is a powerful symbol of the internal logical consistency that economics has developed during this century. Nevertheless, it has been accused of making a non-critical use of mathematical methods and of converting these methods into a weapon of economic imperialism. One should be cautious when referring to the mathematizing of economics. To support its position within the category of sciences, economics has been forced to accept the onslaught of mathematical methods. Perhaps it has gone too far in this direction, but the way to critique this would have to be based on principles such as: to conduct “good” economics without unnecessary mathematics; or possibly to show the vacuity in the mathematical foci under certain circumstances. The problem is shown to be non-existent when the true dimensions are reduced: to make good/bad use of mathematical normalization.

In all, the critique of positive economics often adopts other forms–for example, that the science of economics had finished in a steep canyon without exit where political economy had been replaced by econometrics; that the areas of economics have been converted into annexes of the exact sciences; and that the recruitment of personnel in large financial engineering and stock market trading firms is composed of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians. A correction of the totality is not valid, but it should be asked whether the use of this technique adds anything that we did not already know. The idea of economic imperialism appears to disregard the followers of certain currents at the margin of neoclassic orthodoxy such as the movement known as socio-economics. This disposition is motivated by the neoclassic tendency to apply the criteria of economic rationality to non-economic behavior such as maternity or religion. The neoclassical quest for exactness has gone from simplification to the loss of contextual references. The conclusion is straightforward: The neoclassical attempt to understand non-economic behavior in an exclusively rationalist way is unacceptable.

To avoid confusion, it may be helpful to clarify that the idea of economic imperialism is really nothing more than a descriptive label. The idea is an outgrowth of the concept of homo economicus (together with the marginal analysis), that has permitted economics to invade the boundaries of other social sciences. But this–in itself–is neither good nor bad; it simply is.10 This fact–taken by itself–is no more fearful than the roundness of the earth. However, the expansion of our field of analysis is indeed relevant, thereby gaining something in terms of knowledge, which enables us to come that much closer to the truth.

If we measure the success of a science by its capacity to explain a more or less wide range of phenomena, economics is the science that has had the most success among all the social sciences. Likewise, this success is closely connected to the idea of homo economicus (HE). Of course, this idea is nothing more than a methodological artifice–a useful supposition. It would serve as a motive for happiness if economic definitions (based on the HE hypothesis) were better, from the empirical point of view, than the alternatives. A critique of such imperialism would have to demonstrate that the new economic foci have not advanced–that they are logically inconsistent–inconsistent with the facts or something of the sort. If, in fact, they aspire to make any sense, they would have to be empirical critiques, performed on a case by case basis.

There are two cases that illustrate what might qualify as being scientific–one of which was more successful than the other. The successful example is taken from the theory of public election. James Buchanan examined the logic of the democratic process and its relation to the action of large social groups.11 Perhaps less promising have been the results obtained by Gary Becker in the area of the economics of the family, which demonstrate how the seemingly unrelated aspects of economics impact the family.

The Perplexity of the Economist with Respect to Moral Behavior

Given the imperialistic tendency of economics, it makes sense that the concept of homo economicus has been applied explicitly to the area of ethics. One could consider, perhaps, that the discipline is returning once again to its origins and that it will find itself resembling the moral science from whose womb it was born.

In pre-capitalist societies, society was viewed holistically, with religion and morality acting as the glue that held individuals and institutions together. Later, due largely to secularization, politics replaced religion and morality as the principal factor in social cohesion. Economics grew progressively, reinforced by its method until it became an autonomous science. Today, after the long road of three centuries, it seems that we have found a new pact; the difference now is that economics has forced the issue of its hegemony upon the other social sciences. The current preponderance of economic analysis of social phenomena does not seem to be excessive; the process was motivated by the status of respectability that the discipline began to acquire along with its rising status.

The reunion between ethics and morals is apparent in the benevolent nature of the man for whom life has gone well, with the old friend from infancy coming less to his aid. Finally, ethics–separated from political and economic boundaries–is allowed to enter the economics department through the back door without drawing attention to itself in order to perform its necessary tasks. Like the clandestine immigrant, the contract is temporary, and at some point it will have to be considered whether its services are still required.

This invasion into the area of ethics by economics has taken place at distinct levels. In the first place, the ethical dimensions of economic behavior must be seriously considered: If we suppose that all persons are egoists–i.e., they act for personal ends–what sense does it make to speak of ethics? From this point derives the idea that ethical norms are principally mutually beneficial accords whose final intent has to do with maximizing individual well-being in situations characterized by interdependence.

The search here is not to discover the rules for the good life; it is, rather, to understand why individuals from diverse cultures typically adhere to certain self-imposed ethical rules that are constant (inter-culturally) with universal ethical behavior. This raises a question, however: From where does ethical behavior derive? Moral codes are not static entities that remain fixed for all time but evolve with changing economic and social conditions. In fact, even the most homogeneous society normally encounters social conflict concerning ethical beliefs and practices.

Recently, a number of economists have considered how moral codes evolve.12 The central idea is that economic life requires cooperation between agents, and that both encourage morality and are facilitated by it. Moreover, cooperation, initially, is based on self-interest, sanctions, and mutual policing, but in the course of time, as social conventions arise, it acquires a moral dimension. This focus, which can be called the positive theory of ethics–does not always appear to be descriptive. Often it is nothing more than an implicit argument that underlies an explicitly normative framework.13 Ethics maintains a role within positive economics because ethical commitments affect individual choices and, therefore, also economic outcomes because economic institutions and policies affect ethical commitments.14 Economists do not deny that individuals live under a societal moral code, but they tend to believe that this implicit moral framework can be excised from economic analysis–whether pure or applied–with little analytical loss.

On the other hand, the concept of homo economicus has been used with an openly normative connotation. This would entail constructing an ethics for human beings inspired by the concept of HE, and by delineating rules to be followed in particular situations, which would mean constructing a system of moral norms from the reference point of HE disregarding (more or less) traditional moral and religious precepts.

Normative judgments and ethical premises are often presented in economic analysis, but this is rarely the result of a conscious commitment to a particular ethical stance. As a community of scholars, economists speak in this way not so much out of a shared ethical commitment, but rather because of the manner in which their shared theoretical framework views the world.15 Economists do not need to understand the concepts and criteria that guide the evaluation of economic outcomes and processes, but this does not mean that ethics does not play an important role with respect to economics. In fact, it is impossible to be a good economist without doing some ethical analysis.

In any case, from the perspective of economics, traditional morals might be preserved only if they make sense within the utilitarian-contractual scheme. An example of this focus could be the work of D. P. Gauthier and, in part, the work of James Buchanan (although this has more to do with a positive than normative theory of ethics). Gauthier affirms that “the well-functioning of a market economic order does apparently not need any specific moral behavior. Even a minimal moral would not be necessary.”16

The utilitarian-contractual tradition conceives moral behavior to be the result of rational bargaining among well-informed and self-interested actors. If we suppose that such agents lack the means to make interpersonal utility comparisons, then they would agree to distribute the gains from cooperation in accordance with a principle of “minimax relative concession.”17 This principle would distribute fairly the gains from social interaction relative to the situation that would prevail in the absence of agreement. Buchanan’s basic idea is that economic participants are better off when they share in a portion of the firm’s work; thus, the ethical aspect arises from people working more and saving more as a means of improving their individual and collective well-being.18 Because of their anonymous character, market transactions cannot be governed by moral responsibilities of a personalized nature. What is required, then, is a set of general ethical principles such as universal honesty and respect for laws and conventions governing exchange. The foregoing demonstrates the difficulty of developing an ethical framework for conducting economic exchange in a publicly credible fashion, while also maintaining some degree of moral transcendence. Therefore, it may be asked why such ethical conduct spontaneously surfaces between individuals.

A number of recent studies have found that economists behave in a more self-interested fashion than non-economists: First-year graduate students in economics were much more likely than other graduate students to free-ride in experiments that called for private contributions to public goods.19 In my opinion, here rests the essence of the problem we are describing. It is well-known that among economists there is a growing interest in ethics. But the characteristic feature of this economic and ethical analysis is its diverse interdisciplinary character, particularly with respect to sociology20 and philosophy.21

What seems to prevail among the ranks of “pure economists” is an attitude of perplexity toward moral or ethical behavior. The lack of accurate and suitable tools for understanding ethical behavior does not encompass the entirety of the problem. Some economists suffer from a deeper inability to understand what ethical behavior is, which, perhaps, explains why economists have begun to focus increased attention upon the relationship between ethics and economics. The most problematic aspect of delineating an ethical approach to economics has to do with determining ethical starting points and with the formation of beliefs; existing economic models of ethical behavior have not dealt adequately with the subject of belief formation.


Economists are becoming increasingly interested in the analysis of moral behavior because of the difficulty in successfully applying the concept of homo economicus in ethical situations. Some research explains a formal representation of this behavior in terms of maximizing the utility function subject to restriction. However, in general, a bearing of curiosity and perplexity dominates in such conduct.

Ethics and morality figure prominently in economic life, but that influence has been largely ignored until recently. Despite major advances in game theory, contracts, and organizations, the subject of economics is still dominated by the traditional assumption that agents are entirely self-interested and unconstrained by moral considerations.

In this article we have analyzed how one can interpret this renewed interest in ethics within the field of economics as the natural end of a process of mutual relationships that was severed when economics became an autonomous science. We saw that the distinct phases of this process of emancipation culminated in the work of Adam Smith, which, in turn, enabled the discipline of economics to invade the boundaries of other social sciences. This phenomenon was called the imperialism of economics. In the last twenty years economists have increasingly applied their analytical techniques to the resolution of social ethical problems. It is within this nexus that the apparent re-unification of the two sciences can be observed; however, the circle is again closed.

Nevertheless, the conclusion of this article is that it is impossible to speak in these terms for two reasons: First, the character and content of the old ethics has little to do these days with moral behavior. Furthermore, the roles have changed: Economics is now the social science with the greatest academic and cultural prestige, while it was ethics that once had priority during the first stage of the process. Ethics exercised its control with a holistic view of society, whereas the focus has now changed to analyze why individuals from different cultural backgrounds adopt similar ethical and cultural norms with respect to moral behavior. It is also possible to develop a normative vision connected with the structure of homo economicus. In any case, it seems that this should not be considered more than a mild colonization of economics over ethics.


  1. James M. Buchanan, Ethics and Economic Progress (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).
  2. Amartya Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977): 317—433.
  3. Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 7, 9.
  4. Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. McPherson, “Taking Ethics Seriously: Economics and Contemporary Moral Philosophy,” Journal of Economic Literature XXXI (June 1993): 723.
  5. L. Udéhn, “The Limits of Economic Imperialism,” in Interfaces in Economic and Social Analysis, ed. U. Himmelfarb (London: Routledge, 1992).
  6. Sen, On Ethics and Economics, 2.
  7. R. Rowthorn, “An Economist’s View,” in Economics and Ethics?, ed. P. Groenewegen (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 28.
  8. Ibid.
  9. This claim is contested by Sen: “The wide use of the extremely narrow assumption of self-interested behaviour has seriously limited the scope of predictive economics and made it difficult to pursue a number of important economic relationships that operate through behavioural versatility.” On Ethics and Economics, 79.
  10. The reason is that “even the oddly narrow characterization of human motivation, with ethical considerations eschewed, may nevertheless serve a useful purpose in understanding the nature of many social relations of importance in economics.” Ibid., 9.
  11. Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965).
  12. See Friedrich von Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, 3 vols. (London: Routledge, 1973); R. Sugden, The Economics of Rights, Co-operation and Welfare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); and R. Rowthorn, An Economist’s View, 28.
  13. The proper question is: “Does the so-called ‘economic man’, pursuing his own interests, provide the best approximation to the behavior of human beings, at least in economic matters.” Sen, On Ethics & Economics, 16.
  14. Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. McPherson, Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 214.
  15. F. Gill, “Comment: On Ethics and Economic Science,” in Economics and Ethics?, ed. P. Groenewegen (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 153—54.
  16. D. P. Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 83.
  17. Hausman and McPherson, “Taking Ethics Seriously,” 710.
  18. Buchanan, Ethics and Economic Progress.
  19. G. Marwell and R. Ames, “Economists Free Ride, Does Anyone Else?: Experiments on the Provision of Public Goods, IV,” Journal of Public Economics 15, 3 (1981): 295-310.
  20. Amitai Etzioni, The Moral Dimension: Towards a New Economics (London: Macmillan, 1988).
  21. See Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, The Quality of Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

Jesus M. Zaratiegui
Professor of Economics
University of Navarra, Spain

Cognition and Power

There’s an ironic twist to the title of this piece: “Cognition and Power.” I’m going to defend the study of universal cognition in the face of social theorists’ contemporary aversion to species-wide generalizations, yet I venture to point out that in the social sciences today, “power” is about the only interesting human universal that’s agreed on. Power is everywhere; not only in Foucault’s sense as a permeating force that seeps into the “capillaries” of social interactions, and not only as an apparent universal that recurs across societies and history, but as an academic mantra for our times–one that is wielded to designate injustices but also, sometimes, as a unit of symbolic capital in itself. The popularity of power studies is evident in the ubiquity of such terms as ideology, hegemony, domination, and oppression; and the complementary notions of resistance, agency, and subversion. For at least the last decade in the social sciences and humanities the “hows” of power (the means by which social asymmetries configure shared structures of meaning and individual dispositions) have been widely examined in texts and cultures across the globe. I admire much of the work that’s been done in this vein, and it seems clear that a close examination of oppression and its mechanisms has been long overdue. But I do have a critique to register. In many discussions among social theorists, power is implicitly treated as the primary explanation for the operations of human minds, and often the only explanation on offer. In this essay, I examine some ways that the concept of power has been developed, in particular how the notion of “hegemony” has been applied, and then suggest that many social theorists operate with a naive one-way causal story about the relationship between power and mental formations. I’ll then try to push the causal story in the other direction by discussing some hypotheses by cognitive scientists and cognitive anthropologists on concept formation. This piece is a call for social theorists to take seriously the possibility that humans as a species are innately susceptible to thinking in particular ways, and that these susceptibilities may be parasitized by local power formations and used in their service.

Let me begin with an outline of the way some social thinkers have conceptualized “power”. First I should point out that the ontological status of “power” as social theorists use the term is sketchy at best. The term rarely adduces a singular, simple referent; instead, it functions indexically, to draw the reader’s attention to asymmetrical distributions of privileges, resources, status, knowledge production, and other desirables–with the suggestion that there are social forces of some kind or kinds, e.g. interactions, material conditions, practices, beliefs, etc., that sustain these asymmetries. Furthermore, after Foucault (1980) and Gramsci (1971), it is no longer quite viable to speak about an individual or group “having the power” as if it is a count noun that can be possessed like a gun. Instead, the development of “hegemony” theories suggest that all parties, dominators and dominated, are implicated in the force fields that make up a given power formation.

Antonio Gramsci was the first to revivify the notion of “hegemony”, construing it as a system of meanings and values that expresses the interests of the dominant class, but permeates all class groups, infusing the entire culture by organizing it around such meanings and values. According to Raymond Williams, hegemony saturates “the whole process of living”, and includes the “lived domination and subordination of particular classes” (1977: 110). In this construal hegemony is mundane in its guises, for the machinations of power are to be found in “life-as-lived” rather than overtly marked coercive domination. Furthermore, hegemony includes material relations, practices of all kinds, and ideas, thus conflating “base” and “superstructure” as Marx imagined them and offering an alternative to vulgar materialism. John and Jean Comaroff have emphasized the internalized and naturalized qualities of hegemony; it “goes without saying”, for it consists of the signs and practices that serve the interests of the dominant group and come to be “take-for-granted [by all social groups] as the natural and received shape of the world and everything that inhabits it” (1991: 23).

Hegemony theories thus offer the insight that “power” leaves its traces in even the most minute experiences and practices of the oppressed, who inadvertently collude in their own oppression as a result. Now, with the focus on the “received shape of the world” (to use the Comaroff’s words) as it is experienced by the oppressed, we might have expected to see a surge of interest in psychology among hegemony theorists. Yet many social theorists have chosen to focus instead on publicly accessible discourse, or on the body rather than the mind (please permit me the split, at least heuristically.) This stems in part from a Bourdieu-inspired concern with “habitus” (that is: recurrent “embodied” practices [Bourdieu 1972(1977)]), and certainly from an abiding prejudice against psychology, vilified as “psychologism” and “scientism” by some who are wary of the histories of arrogant universalism in such disciplines (Stoler 1997). For some, the notion that an isolable mind brings something to bear on its social context is an epistemological mistake, as implied by Michael de Certeau’s claim that “a [social] relation…determines its terms, and not the reverse” (1984: xi). The mind, then, has been left unexplored by social theorists, and is assumed to receive hegemonic ideas through a process of unmediated diffusion from the cultural surrounds. Despite the connection hegemony theory draws between “power” and the mental, mentation remains a “site” for the top-down influence of “power” rather than a bottom-up locus of influence itself.

Let me be absolutely redundant here and say that I find the study of oppression and its minute workings laudable, much-needed, and humbling. But there are number of problems with the way we’ve given “power” so much power over the human condition. First of all, the top-down approach to human behavior is underwritten by a problematic utopianism. As Barbara Ehrenreich and I suggested in an article in the Nation several months ago (1997), much talk abut social construction nurtures the hope that if a social formation is entirely culturally constructed it is malleable, whereas if it’s influenced by innate cognitive predispositions it’s immutable and inevitable. Neither side of this equation seems right. The assumption that biology is destiny stems from a crude and outdated estimation of what kinds of tendencies may be innate and what it means to be innate in the first place. And the notion that wholehearted social constructivism implies a brighter political outlook (some kind of immanent “reconstruction,” perhaps) should be equally suspect–particularly if power formations reach into the most minute, individual and apparently mundane spaces to sustain themselves.

The second problem with the fetishization of “power” as the shaping force of culture and the mind is that in this formulation, power takes on an explanatory burden that’s unreasonably heavy, becoming a mysterious agent in a general conspiracy theory about why the social world is the way it is. Let me use an example from Marx to underscore this problem. Like hegemony theorists after him, Marx noted that oppression is often not experienced as such; it’s more insidious, largely because patterns of mind tend to become isomorphic with the values of society. The subject mystifies underlying social relations, so that oppressive social orders–in particular the material arrangements of a capitalist base–are sustained by misinterpretations of social life, what he termed “false consciousness”. So, for example, wages come to seem a fair reward for labor rather than an exploitative fraction of what is due from one’s efforts, while commodities are imputed with inherent value when in fact their “value” stems from complicated relations between people and (other) semiotic objects. Marx’s subterranean psychology, insightful as it is, begs a number of questions. To say that psychological distortions of the subaltern function in the interest of the ruling class is not an explanation for the distortions themselves, nor for their inception. Why should such distortions recur time after time in capitalist formations, as Marx himself suggested they would? How might capitalist “power”, whatever that is, manage this hat trick?

Marx’s own work pointed at the possibility that the psyche sustains these forms of oppression because human minds are better at representing some things than others. It seems as if, for example, the single link between value and labor may be easier for the mind to grasp than the complex relations between wages, money, value, commodities, etc. that Marx felt objectively underlay our category mistakes. But a model of mind painted with the broad brush strokes of the hegemony theorist won’t capture this. We need a finer-grained understanding of cognitive processes, and we need to be open to the likelihood that the mind finds some types of concepts easier to think than others.

This leads me to my final complaint about the way that power is treated in social theory today; namely, that it’s utterly isolated from the insights of cognitive psychology and is hence predicated on a misleading construal of how the mind works. The implicit model of mind espoused by most theorists of hegemony (cf. Bloch 1989) is what I’ll call the “sponge theory”. In the sponge theory, which many if not most cognitive scientists have abandoned since Chomsky challenged Skinner in the 1950s (Chomsky 1957) and debated Piaget in the 70s (Piatelli-Palmarini 1980), the mind is undifferentiated and porous, and soaks up the representations given by the sociocultural context. Mental representations, in this account, automatically serve the interests of the ruling class through a top-down process of social construction. But as Chomsky so powerfully demonstrated in the domain of language, children’s’ rapid grasp of linguistic behavior is underdetermined by their cultural environment and cannot be easily explained by learning alone. Similar arguments have been made in other cognitive domains, with the suggestion that innate cognitive structures play a key role in, for example, the ways people understand their biological and physical worlds and project and process the contents of other minds (Boyer 1994; Hirschfeld and Gelman 1994). The cumulative lesson is that the mind is not simply a sponge that absorbs ambient beliefs and practices, but rather is equipped with architectures that attend to, parse, and organize incoming information in particular ways.

Alert to the significance of these findings, anthropologist Dan Sperber (1996) has suggested that we conceptualize culture in terms of an “epidemiology of representations”: a formation made up by the distribution, survival and spread of some types of cultural meanings. The representations that survive and spread sufficiently to count as cultural are sustained in part by public and material structures, in part by learned mental habits, and–crucially–in part by innate cognitive predispositions. Under Sperber’s epidemiological model, the perniciousness of hegemony cannot be taken for granted as a mere effect of “power”- for properties of the mind may actually facilitate the uptake of certain ideas.

So, I’ll move on to suggest one such interaction between mind and power. I should offer the caveat that work on innate mental structures is young, and the jury is still out on the accuracy of today’s dominant models. Nevertheless, there has been some suggestive work in the area of what I’ll call “conceptual structure”, of which I offer this brief outline. For several decades, psychologists studied concepts in terms of classification, with the assumption that people form and manipulate categories on the basis of perceptual similarity. So, for example, what makes a skunk a skunk for us is the way it looks (and probably the way it smells.) But in recent years, researchers have suggested that the cognitive use of many categories involves something deeper than perceptual information: something theory-like that facilitates inferences, explanations, and predictions, and something that, in Doug Medin’s words, “[gives] concepts life, coherence, and meaning” (1989: 1474).

When concepts aren’t perceptually or similarity based, what then might be their structure or organizing p rinciple? In recent years, a number of cognitive scientists and cognitive anthropologists such as Gelman and Wellman (1991), Medin (1989), and Hirschfeld (1996) have suggested that some concepts, particularly our concepts of things found in the natural world, are structured by what they term an essentialistic mode of thinking. According to Medin, essentialism takes the following form: “People act as if things (e.g. objects) have essences or underlying natures that make them the thing that they are. Furthermore…[the essence] provides causal linkages from deeper properties to more superficial or surface properties.” (1476) Essentialist modes of thinking have a profound influence on the structure of concepts: among other things, they link surface features together by virtue of a hidden essence; they offer a story about the inherent potential of category members; and allow the maintenance of category identity over surface transformations–as an example, experimentation by Gelman and colleagues has revealed that young kids tend to label a creature a skunk even if it looks like a fox, as long as it has skunk insides (Medin 1989). In essentialist thinking, appearance is not the most important aspect of a concept; instead something presumed to be internal and nonobvious organizes our understanding of what category members share.

There is some debate among these researchers about whether essentialism is a promiscuous, domain-general strategy or whether we are cognitively predisposed to apply essentialist thinking in some domains more than others. Larry Hirschfeld (1996) draws on cross-cultural research on children’s development to suggest that humans have an innate, domain-specific tendency to classify human kinds in essentialist ways. We are predisposed, he argues, to take a special epistemological stance towards other human groups, one that links visible properties to non-visible, deeper, supposedly inherent qualities, and in so doing homogenizes and naturalizes differences between groups. This propensity does not determine particular concepts of race (or gender, or any other essentialized human kind category) in any straightforward way, but it does facilitate racial or gendered thinking, and helps to explain why the political construction of such social taxonomies has proven so effective and “catchy” in so many cultural contexts. Hirschfeld is not arguing that race is a biological category; instead, he says, the way we think about race might be due to a biological predisposition.

The latter point is an important one, for it allows for cognitive contributions to hegemonic formations without making a straightforward deterministic claim about what the content of those formations will look like. The tendency to essentialize human kinds, if Hirschfeld is right, does not tell us how the pie will be cut in any particular social context or why certain groups will be valued or devalued–that will depend on the socioeconomic histories of different groups and how they’ve jostled for control over resources, ideas, and values. Nevertheless, according to Hirschfeld these local, contingent political systems recruit what is already available as a universal, innate mental architecture. This possibility is reiterated by colonial historian Ann Stoler, who argues in a recent article in Ethos that “certain categories of power [may] acquire the weight … they do … because of the ways in which they feed off and build upon categories of the mind.” (1997: 102)

Essentialist thinking may facilitate other hegemonic social orders in less obvious ways. Let me present you with a brief example from my own fieldwork on the coast of Kenya (prefaced by one of the thinnest ethnographic accounts you’ll ever see from an anthropologist.) In the vaguest possible terms, there are several groups living on the coast of Kenya, including the Swahili and the Giriama, who place high status on the Arabic language, which is associated with a centuries-old Arab hegemony on the coast. The populations living in coastal towns are mixed in their knowledge of the language; some people, particularly high-status men, are schooled at madarasa (Quranic school), whereas many others know the language only inasmuch as they see it on the exterior walls of local mosques and hear it inside the mosque or in prayer calls. A number of spirit specialists working on the coast sometimes claim to be possessed by an Arab spirit and commence to read, write, and speak Arabic–thus enabling them to participate in high-prestige, lucrative practices such as “reading” and “writing” prayers out of the Quran for use in amulets. Although the actual “speech” and “writing” under these circumstances is recognizably different from standard Arabic and sometimes hardly resembles it at all, I was startled to find that a number of the people who are schooled in standard Arabic seem to accept these productions as “Arabic”. The more I explored this phenomenon the more it seemed that the Arabic language is so deeply associated with unseen powers and properties that the very criteria that confer identity on the language seem in some contexts to be invisible ones. This is a pattern redolent of the essentialist thinking about natural and social kinds that I’ve just sketched. It seems that the status distinctions that arise from manipulations of “Arabic” are facilitated by the fact that people don’t seem to be assessing whether or not something is Arabic on the basis of careful similarity judgments. Instead, they may be conceptualizing the language using an essentialist heuristic that shifts the playing field, so that culturally designated “experts”, with access to the sacred essence of Arabic, can make judgments about what counts as Arabic and what does not. The mystique of Arabic, and the enduring hegemony that this supports, survives in part because the very structure of the concept of “Arabic” confers it with what Stoler would call combined elements of fixity and fluidity–fixity in its imagined sacred essence, and fluidity in its perceptible guises and social uses.

Essentialist reasoning may give some concepts the “richness” Medin called for. However, there are other contributions to the study of conceptual structure that suggest the opposite: some of our most important concepts may be impoverished. Dan Sperber (1985) has suggested that some of the categories humans think with are structurally “empty”, inasmuch as they are not fully defined. Sperber suggests that beliefs in concepts like “dragons” or “God” can be culturally widespread without being clearly grasped because people are capable of mentally manipulating “semi-propositional relations”; conceptual representations that are not fully understood or representable in propositional form but that reserve a place-holder for the absent facts. According to Sperber, such semi-propositional beliefs are possible because of the human meta-representational faculty, which enables us to entertain or believe something without having a grasp of its content or definition. The architecture of such concepts is different from essentialized ones; rather than possessing an imagined and immutable essence, the house is empty.

Essentialist reasoning and semi-propositional beliefs, if they prove durable as psychology proceeds, indicate one general fact about human conceptual structure: people think with rickety concepts. We impute essences and let surface features slide around over them; or we believe in notions that we barely grasp. Importantly, both cases open the door to culturally designated experts to control some aspect of such concepts. The philosopher Hilary Putnam makes a similar point about natural kind terms in his celebrated essay “The meaning of ‘meaning'” (1975). According to Putnam, when people use a natural kind term like “gold” or “elm tree” or “quark”, they have a vague, culturally current notion of how to conceive the term, but they may have no clear idea how to recognize the set of things in the world picked out by that term. Yet they assume that there is some obscure essence, generally detectable only by experts such as scientists, that confers identity on such things. Sperber has similarly argued that semi-propositional concepts are often believed in because we’ve received the notions from “the ancestors” or some other group (religious elite, for example) who are presumed to have the full understanding that we lack. So despite the ricketiness of our concepts, they survive; they are poorly interrogated, yet deeply held and presumed to be metaphysically fixed. Their ill-defined conceptual structure may be preyed on by authorities who can redefine the surface features or definitions in subtle ways to suit the exigencies of their power. By virtue of our cognitive structures we may not notice the shifts or contradictions in the uses of such terms.

I’ve offered one example of how cognitive analysis might enrich our understanding of what social theorists term “power”. There are numerous other underexplored possibilities–and as the cognitive revolution continues to bear fruit and developmental psychology continues to develop the possibility of domain-specific reasoning strategies there will be a flourescence of others. I’ll just offer one tantalizing possibility as I close. Psychologists Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin (1994) suggest that the concepts of contagion and contamination may emerge from evolved, universal patterns of human thought that assume the presence of unseen contaminative forces. As anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) and many others after her have noted, contamination is a culturally wide-spread notion that reinforces social boundaries and power structures; one can think of innumerable examples, such as colonial notions of the “dirty native”. If Nemeroff and Rozin are right, social boundaries may be more easily scored when this psychological predisposition toward revulsion is cued and harnessed. So disgust towards particular other groups is a learned aspect of hegemony, but the shape of our disgust, and the rapidity and viscerality of our reactions, may not be. Understanding the cognitive architecture that may undergird social attitudes could help us to recognize and, if it should ever be possible, thwart what can otherwise be a mutually reinforcing link between innate predisposition and local hegemony.

To conclude: Despite de Certeau’s claim that “a [social] relation always determines its terms, and not the reverse”, the amassing evidence from cognitive psychology suggests that the individual human does indeed bring something influential to the table. Understanding these psychological predispositions might greatly enrich our understanding of social “power” by helping us to understand how and why certain hegemonies catch and stick. I should add that incorporating the cognitive into the study of the social is not a mere “biologization” of the human condition. Most of what I’ve said does little or nothing to threaten the deep, broad, saturating effects of cultural surrounds. Furthermore, nothing I’ve said suggests that cognitive tendencies beget inevitable social formations. Rather, they facilitate some social formations over others. If social theorists are to give a complete account of human impressionability and of the mechanisms of power, conflict, and peace they must register both our innate tendencies and the local systems of meaning and power that give added potency to particular representations. This two-way causal story may complicate our models of the human condition, but whatever else happens, we can be guaranteed there will be no dead ends.

Copyright © Janet S. McIntosh
Department of Anthropology
1020 LSA Building
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109



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Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. London: Mouton.

Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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Marx, Karl. 1976-81. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Medin, Douglas L. 1989. Concepts and conceptual structure. The American Psychologist. Dec. 1 1989, vol. 44 no. 12. p. 1469.

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Language, Meaning and Cognition

Linguists agree on one thing – that language is diabolically hard to study. They do not always agree, however, on the how’s, the why’s, and the what for’s: how one should go about studying it and how speakers manage to do what they do; why it is so hard and why exactly we bother to study it; what language is for, and what linguistics is for. A mainstream view that has been popular in the last thirty years (but not necessarily before that) offers the following answers.

How linguists do it: they collect grammaticality judgments from natives and concurrently build and check hypotheses about the formal structure of particular languages and languages in general. How humans do it: they come equipped biologically with innate language-specific universals, that require only minimal fine-tuning when exposed to a particular specimen. Why it’s hard: easy for the child who has the innate universals already set up, hard for the linguist lost in a forest of idiosyncrasies that hide the deeper principles. Why bother? So that we can discover such principles.

What is language for? The story here is that this question is not a priority for the scientist. We can worry later about function, communication, and meaning generally. And what is linguistics for? Well, there is the platonic reward of discovering structure for the sake of structure itself. And then there is biology: Since the universals are in the brain, they must also be in the genes; linguistics is theoretical biology; geneticists and neuroscientists will fill in the messy details of its implementation in our bodies.

This strange and simple story contains its own methods and generalizations. The appropriate methods are in the ‘how to do it’ – collecting grammaticality judgments and so on. What counts as generalizations are the formal principles that apply to wider ranges of phenomena and/or languages.

In contrast to this sharply autonomous view of language structure, cognitive linguistics has resurrected an older tradition. In that tradition, language is in the service of constructing and communicating meaning, and it is for the linguist and cognitive scientist a window into the mind. Seeing through that window, however, is not obvious. Deep features of our thinking, cognitive processes, and social communication need to be brought in, correlated, and associated with their linguistic manifestations.

The cognitive linguistics enterprise, we believe, has already been remarkably successful. It is not far-fetched to say that perhaps for the first time a genuine science of meaning construction and its dynamics has been launched. This has been achieved by intensively studying and modeling the cognition that lies behind language and goes far beyond it, but which language reflects in certain ways, and which in turn supports the dynamics of language use, language change, and language organization. Echoing Erving Goffman, I have called this backstage cognition. Language is only the tip of a spectacular cognitive iceberg, and when we engage in any language activity, be it mundane or artistically creative, we draw unconsciously on vast cognitive resources, call up innumerable models and frames, set up multiple connections, coordinate large arrays of information, and engage in creative mappings, transfers, and elaborations. This is what language is about and what language is for. Backstage cognition includes viewpoints and reference points, figure-ground / profile-base / landmark-trajector organization, metaphorical, analogical, and other mappings, idealized models, framing, construal, mental spaces, counterpart connections, roles, prototypes, metonymy, polysemy, conceptual blending, fictive motion, force dynamics.

Well, where does all this come from? Did it all just spring up in the fertile mind of cognitive linguists, giving them an unlimited supply of new notions to draw from in order to explain some linguistic facts that they wish to talk about? And if so, isn’t all this a considerable weakening of linguistic theory, letting in so many flaky new gimmicks that virtually anything at all becomes easily but vacuously explainable?

Mais pas du tout. Rather remarkably, all the aspects of backstage cognition just alluded to receive ample justification on non-linguistic grounds from a variety of sources. Some have been extensively studied in psychology (e.g. prototypes, figure- ground, analogy), others in artificial intelligence and/or sociology (frames, roles, cultural models), literature and philosophy (metaphor). Metonymy, mental spaces, force dynamics, conceptual blending, initially studied primarily by linguists have been shown to apply to cognition generally. The notion of viewpoint and reference point is presumably even more general, given the nature of our visual systems and orientation. Needless to say, all these features of backstage cognition deserve to be studied and understood in their own right, not just as a means of explaining linguistic distributions. To cognitive scientists who are not linguists, the linguistic distributions matter very little. And for cognitive linguists, there has been a major shift of interest. The cognitive constructs, operations, and dynamics, and the understanding of conceptual systems have become a central focus of analysis. The linguistic distributions are just one of many sources of relevant data.

This shift bears on the methods employed and the generalizations obtained. Methods must extend to contextual aspects of language use and to non-linguistic cognition. This means studying full discourse, language in context, inferences actually drawn by participants in an exchange, applicable frames, implicit assumptions and construal, to name just a few. It means being on the look-out for manifestations of conceptual thought in everyday life, movies, literature, and science. This is because introspection and intuition are woefully insufficient to tell us about general operations of meaning construction. When we volunteer a meaning for an isolated sentence, we do it typically on the basis of defaults and prototypes. It is only in rich contexts that we see the full force of creative on-line meaning construction.

As for generalizations, the most powerful ones are those which transcend specific cognitive domains. In our work on conceptual blending, we see as a strong generalization the discovery that the same principles apply to framing, metaphor, action and design, and grammatical constructions. This is not an internal generalization about language, it is an external one relating linguistic phenomena to non-linguistic ones. Such generalizations seem primordial to the understanding of how language relates to general cognition, but they are precluded in principle by the autonomous approach evoked above. It is no surprise, then, if that approach finds no connection between language and the rest of cognition, for that autonomy is built into the very method that serves to build up the field of inquiry and the theories that are its by-products.

Although cognitive linguistics espouses the age-old view that language is in the service of meaning, its methods and results have been quite novel. The results in fact have been somewhat surprising. At the most general level, here are three that I find striking. I will call them respectively Economy, Operational Uniformity, Cognitive Generalization.


By Economy, I mean the following: any language form in context has the potential to trigger massive cognitive constructions, including analogical mappings, mental space connections, reference point organization, blends, and simulation of complex scenes. When we try to spell out backstage cognition in detail, we are struck by the contrast between the extreme brevity of the linguistic form and the spectacular wealth of the corresponding meaning construction. Very sparse grammar guides us along the same rich mental paths, by prompting us to perform complex cognitive operations. What is remarkable is that by and large subjects engage in quite similar constructions on the basis of similar grammatical prompts, and thereby achieve a high degree of effective communication. The reason seems to be that the cultural, contextual, and cognitive substrate on which the language forms operate is sufficiently uniform across interlocutors to allow for a reasonable degree of consistency in the unfolding of the prompted meaning constructions. How this works remains in many ways mysterious. What is clear is that language is radically different from an information carrying and information preserving system, such as a code or telecommunications. Language forms carry very little information per se, but can latch on to rich preexistent networks in the subjects’ brains and trigger massive sequential and parallel activations. Those activated networks are of course themselves in the appropriate state by virtue of general organization due to cognition and culture, and local organization due to physical and mental context. Crucially, we have no awareness of this amazing chain of cognitive events that takes place as we talk and listen, except for the external manifestation of language (sounds, words, sentences) and the internal manifestation of meaning: with lightning speed, we experience meaning. This is very similar to perception, which is also instantaneous and immediate with no awareness of the extraordinarily complex intervening neural events.

What we are conscious of determines our folk-theories of what is going on. In the case of perception, the folk theory, an extremely useful one for us as living organisms, is that everything we perceive is indeed directly the very essence of the object perceived, out there in the world and independent of us. The effect is contained entirely in the cause. In the same way, our folk theory of language is that the meanings are contained directly in the words and their combinations, since that is all that we are ever consciously aware of. The effect (meaning) is attributed essentially to the visible cause (language). And again, this folk-theory is extremely useful to us as human organisms in everyday life. It makes sense. At another level, the level of scientific inquiry, this folk-theory, like other folk-theories, is wrong, and the information processing model of language breaks down. This reveals that, as humans experiencing language, we are fooled by an interesting variant of the Eliza effect. The famous computer program Eliza produced what looked like a sensible interaction between a psychiatrist and a subject operating the program, but the rich meaning that seemed to emanate from the machine was in fact read in (constructed) by the subject. And strikingly, just like a perceptual illusion, this effect cannot easily be suspended by rational denial. In the case of Eliza, the illusion may be hard to block, but it is easy to see. The more general illusion that meaning is in the language forms is both hard to repress and hard to acknowledge. And for that reason, it has made its way into many scientific accounts of language. In such accounts, the notion that forms have meaning is unproblematic, and the “only” problem becomes to give a formal characterization of such meanings associated with forms. Clearly, if the presupposition that there are such meanings is in error, the very foundations of such accounts are in jeopardy. It has been, I believe, a major contribution of cognitive linguistics to dispel this very strong unquestioned assumption.


It is commonly thought that very different operations apply to the various levels of linguistic analysis. For example, syntax governs the sentence, and semantics provides it compositionally with a meaning. At a higher level, other quite different operations apply to produce implicatures, derived meaning, indirect speech acts. Then rhetorical and figurative devices may kick in, such as metaphor and metonymy. Our findings suggest a very different picture. Backstage cognition operates in many ways uniformly at all levels. Figure- ground and viewpoint organization pervades the sentence (Talmy (1978).; Langacker (19987/1991), the Tense system (Cutrer (1994)., Narrative structure (Sanders and Redeker (1996)., in signed and spoken languages, and of course many aspects of non- linguistic cognition. Metaphor builds up meaning all the way from the most basic levels to the most sophisticated and creative ones (Lakoff and Turner (1989); Grady (1997)). And the same goes for metonymic pragmatic functions (Nunberg (1978)) and mental space connections (Sweetser and Fauconnier (1996), Van Hoek (1996), Liddell (1996), which are governed by the same general Access principle. Frames, schemas and prototypes account for word level and sentence level syntactic/semantic properties in cognitive and construction grammar (Lakoff (1987), Fillmore (1985), Goldberg (1997), Langacker (1987/91)), and of course they guide thought and action more generally (Bateson (1972), Goffman (1974), Rosch;). Conceptual blending and analogy play a key role in syntax and morphology (Mandelblit (1997)), in word and sentence level semantics (Sweetser), and at higher levels of reasoning and rhetoric (Robert (1998), Coulson (1997), Turner (1996) ). Similarly, we find force dynamics and fictive motion (Talmy (1985, 1998) operating at all levels (single words, entire systems, like the modals, and general framing).

This operational uniformity is unexpected, remarkable, and counter-intuitive. It has taken cognitive linguists a lot of hard work and theoretical conceptual rethinking to uncover this series of powerful generalizations. There are quite a few interesting reasons for the difficulty of thinking in this new way. One is that language does not come with its backstage cognition neatly displayed ‘on its sleeve’. Everything that counts is deeply hidden from our consciousness, and masked by the ‘folk theory’ effects mentioned earlier. Another difficulty has to do with the long tradition of apprehending limited aspects of language in a self- contained, language-specific, descriptive apparatus. The resulting specialized technical vocabulary has been immensely helpful in launching a coherent linguistic science, but regrettably it has also shielded linguistics from a more comprehensive cognitive framework in which the right questions could be asked.


Operational uniformity, as outlined in the previous section, pertains essentially to language and reasoning. The uniformity is across linguistic levels, the word, the sentence, the sentence and its context, the whole discourse, and ultimately general reasoning. And yet, there are broader and even more interesting generalizations, those that transcend specific cognitive domains. Cognitive linguists have been especially attentive to this dimension of the new research, and they have argued persuasively for the cognitive generality of the mappings, correspondences, bindings, integration, perspectival organization, windows of attention, pragmatic functions, framing, force dynamics, prototype structures, and dynamic simulations that underlie the construction of meaning as reflected by language use. As a result, linguistics is no longer a self- contained account of the internal properties of languages; it is in its own right a powerful means of revealing and explaining general aspects of human cognition.

Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Coulson, Seana. 1997. Semantic Leaps: Frame-Shifting and Conceptual Blending. UCSD Ph. D. dissertation.

Cutrer, Michelle. 1994. Time and Tense in Narratives and Everyday Language. Doctoral dissertation, University of Calfornia at San Diego.

Dinsmore, J. 1991. Partitioned Representations. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Fauconnier, G. 1994. Mental Spaces. New York: Cambridge University Press. [Originally published (1985) Cambridge: MIT Press.]

Fauconnier, G. 1997. Mappings in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fauconnier, G. & E. Sweetser. 1996. Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fauconnier, G. & Turner, M. 1996. Blending as a central process of grammar. In Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language, Ed. Adele Goldberg. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information [distributed by Cambridge University Press].

Fauconnier, G. & Turner, M. 1998. Conceptual Integration Networks. Cognitive Science.

Fauconnier, G. & Turner, M. (in preparation). Making Sense.

Fillmore, C. 1985. Frames and the Semantics of Understanding. Quaderni di Semantica VI.2. 222-253.

Freeman, Margaret. 1997. Grounded spaces: Deictic -self anaphors in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Language and Literature 6:1, 7-28.

Goffman, E. 1974. Frame Analysis. New York: Harper and Row.

Goldberg, A. 1994. Constructions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hofstadter, D. 1995a. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. New York: Basic Books.

Koestler, Arthur. 1964. The Act of Creation . NY: Macmillan.

Kunda, Z., D. T. Miller, and T. Clare. Combining social concepts: the role of causal reasoning. Cognitive Science 14. 551-577.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), case study 1, pages 380-415.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books.

Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. 1989. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Langacker, R. 1987/1991 . Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol.I. ,II, Stanford University Press.

Liddell, Scott K. 1996. Spatial representations in discourse: Comparing spoken and signed language. Lingua 98:145-167.

Mandelblit, Nili 1997. Grammatical Blending: Creative and Schematic Aspects in Sentence Processing and Translation. Ph.D. dissertation, UC San Diego.

Moser, D. and D. Hofstadter. (undated ms.) Errors: A Royal Road to the Mind. Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition. Indiana University.

Nunberg, G. 1978. The Pragmatics of Reference. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Oakley, Todd. 1995. Presence: the conceptual basis of rhetorical effect. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Maryland.

Robert, Adrian. 1998. Blending in the interpretation of mathematical proofs. In: Discourse and Cognition: Bridging the Gap. Edited by Jean-Pierre Koenig. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI) [distributed by Cambridge University Press].

Sanders, J. and G. Redeker. 1996. Perspective and the Representation of Speech and Thought in Narrative Discourse. In Fauconnier, G. & E. Sweetser, eds. Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sweetser, E. 1990. From etymology to pragmatics: the mind-as-body metaphor in semantic structure and semantic change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sweetser, Eve. Mental Spaces and Cognitive Linguistics: A Cognitively Realistic Approach to Compositionality. this volume.

Talmy, L. 1977. Rubber-sheet Cognition in Language. Proceedings of the 13th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.

Talmy, L. 1978. Figure and Ground in Complex Sentences. In: Universals of Human Language: Syntax .(vol. 4). Edited by Joseph Greenberg. Stanford University Press.

Talmy, L. 1985. Force Dynamics in Language and Thought. Papers from the Parasession on Causatives and Agentivity. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Talmy, L. 1998. Fictive Motion in Language and “ception.” In Paul Bloom, Mary Peterson, Lynn Nadel, and Merrill Garrett, eds., Language and Space. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Turner, Mark. 1991. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Turner, Mark. 1996. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Zbikowski, Lawrence. 1997. Conceptual blending and song. Manuscript, University of Chicago.

Thought and technology

The cultural historian Lewis Mumford once remarked that the most authoritarian, efficient and socially repressive invention man had ever created was neither the steam engine nor the cannon, but the clock. What he had in mind were the social dimensions of the clock: It synchronises, standardises and integrates people wherever clocks exist and are respected. Right or wrong, Mumford’s observation indicates the potential of technology in shaping and directing human thought and action, given the right social and cultural context. (Clocks may, naturally, be regarded as fancy jewellery in societies where there is no perceived need for synchronisation.)

Let us take a closer look at the clock. It is sometimes said that clocks were initially introduced in Europe as an aid for medieval monks who found it difficult to keep prayer times when they worked in the fields. This version of clock history is half-way between a certain degree of credibility and invention. Different kinds of timepieces had existed well before medieval monasteries, and the abbey clocks did not just regulate prayer times, but also working hours – not unlike contemporary clocks, in other words. However, it is easy to see that the clocks quickly had interesting, unintended side-effects when they became common in European towns. They were instrumental in making punctuality a virtue. They encouraged efficiency since activities now could be planned and synchronised in ways formerly unthinkable. Eventually, the clocks became indispensable for town-dwellers; they needed to ‘keep time’ to get to the concert house or theatre in time, to keep appointments and, increasingly, in working life. Something which has in recent years received wide attention thanks to Dava Sobel’s bestselling book Longitude, is the fact that the accurate partitioning of the globe according to longitude was made possible only after the invention of a mechanical clock with minimal error margins. Combined with the Western calendar, the clock served to dissect time into abstract entities and to establish a linear perception of time. This refers to a kind of time which can be conceptualised as a line where any segment of the same kind (a year, a month, an hour etc.) is identical to any other segment, no matter when it unfolds. Clock and calendar time may be called abstract time since they contrast with the concrete time dominating most societies which are not subjected to clocks and calendars. In a temporal regime based on concrete time, time is measured as a combination of experienced, personal time, external events and societal rhythms such as day/night, harvest times and so on. A time segment such as an hour may accordingly vary in length.

Clock time is an externalised kind of time; it exists independently of events taking place in it, about in the same way as the thermometer measures temperature irrespective of the subjective experience of heat or coldness, and quantified distance measures distance without taking subjective experience of distance into account. A kilometer is a kilometer (and about 0.62 mile) anywhere, any time. Even if everybody knows that five minutes may be both a mere instant and a lenghty period (say, in the dentist’s office), and that twenty degrees Celsius may be warm if one enters the house on a winter day, but cold if one sits naked in a chair after taking a shower, it is generally accepted in our kind of society that the quantitative measurements of such phenomena are ‘truer’ than the subjective experience. Such standardising ideas are alien to traditional societies, and are part and parcel of modernity, which is also built around institutions such as social planning, beliefs in progress, population statistics and a zealous drive to control nature. Typically time, which in traditional societies may not be something one possesses but rather something one lives in, is a scarce resource in contemporary, modern societies. It has been reified to such a degree that a historical preoccupation of the labour movement has been the struggle for shorter working hours, and in the late 1990s, social movements appeared which promote both ‘slow cities’, ‘slow food’ and, simply, ‘slow time’.

The technological change which has been most intensively studied with a view to its relation to thought, is nonetheless the introduction of writing. Lévi-Strauss hardly mentions it explicitly, but an underlying idea in his contrast between the bricoleur and the ingenieur is quite clearly that of writing versus non-writing. Later, Jack Goody has, especially in his The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), argued that if one wants to come to grips with the kind of cognitive contrast Lévi-Strauss talks about, one must study transitions to literacy and differences between literate and non-literate societies. Among other things, Goody claims that scientific analysis and systematic, critical thought are impossible without writing. His theory about the transition to literacy as a gigantic watershed in cultural history is contested, and Goody has modified it several times himself. What everybody seems to agree about is that writing is indispensable for the cumulative growth of knowledge, and that it makes it possible to separate the utterance from the context of uttering.

It may be said that some of the criticisms of Goody have been exaggerated. Although there are many exceptions and many interesting ‘intermediate forms’ (societies with limited literacy in one way or another), and although local realities vary much more than a general theory is able to predict, writing does by and large make a considerable difference regarding thought styles. The Greek miracle, that is the transition from mythical to philosophical thinking in the eastern part of the Mediterranean (incidentally paralleled by similar developments in India and China), must have been linked with the development of alphabetic writing, although it was hardly the sole cause. Although the ancient philosophers were deeply interested in rhetoric, that is oral eloquence, they criticised each other’s writings and revealed logical faults in each other’s arguments, often with a time lag of a generation or more. Writing does not necessarily make people more ‘intelligent’ (a difficult concept): it is a crutch for thought which makes the continuous exercise of memory unnecessary; it externalises thoughts, and thus makes it easier to place them outside the brain. When one writes, moreover, one is likely to think along other patterns than when communicating orally, a tendency explored by the philosopher Jacques Derrida and many others. Although there are many similarities between written history based on archives and myths, there are also differences to do with falsifiability, dating and imposition of causal sequences.

Literacy is often accompanied by numeracy. The Phoenicians, this famous people of maritime merchants from the Ancient world, were famous book-keepers. The implications of accurate book-keeping for trade, business and forms of reciprocity in general, should not be underestimated. Technology has both social and cognitive implications here as well, even if it is – naturally – necessary to explore local conditions and variations to get a full picture. Modern computers enable us to make calculations of dizzying complexity at astonishing speed: Some of the readers may think they have a reasonable notion of a billion (1,000,000,000); but consider the fact that each well-nourished, fairly healthy life lasts on average for 2.2 billion seconds altogether!

At the same time, calculators and computers may well make us incapable of carrying out even simple calculations without their aid. The calculator has doubtless affected the ability of schoolchildren to learn double digit multiplication by rote, and digitalised pricing means that cashiers in supermarkets no longer know the prices of all the items in the shop by heart. Thermometers, books, calculators and similar devices create abstract standards and lead to both externalisation and standardisation of certain forms of knowledge.

Now, in practice there is no question of an either-or. It is often said that humans are incapable of counting further than four without the aid of devices such as written numbers, pebbles or the like. However, we are familiar with a great number of traditional peoples, for example in Melanesia, who can count quite accurately and quite far by counting not only their toes and fingers, but other bodily parts as well. Some might get to seventy and further without using a single aid external to the body. There is, in a word, no sharp distinction between the peoples who have only their own memory at their disposal and those who are able to externalise their thoughts on paper; there are many kinds of mnemotechnical aids, and although letters and numbers may be the most consequential ones, they are not the only ones.

This brings me to a related but much less theorised field, namely music. The enormous complexity characterising Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies would have been impossible, had the composers not lived in a society which for centuries had developed an accurate system of writing music, that is notation. Harmony is much rarer in societies without notes than in societies with them. And if one is able to read music, one can play music never heard. The parallel to writing and numbers is obvious: The statement is externalised and frozen, separated from the person who originated it. It can be appreciated in an unchanged manner (externally – interpretations always change) anywhere and any time.

Let me finally mention a phenomenon which will be discussed from a different point of view in the next chapter: Nationalism would have been impossible without writing. In one of the most widely quoted books about the growth of national identities, Benedict Anderson (1983) shows that printing was a crucial condition for the emergence of nationalist thought and national identification. Before the advent of printing, books were expensive and rarely seen in private homes. In Europe, besides, most books were written in Latin. When books gradually became cheaper in the second half of the 15th century, new markets for books which were aimed at new audiences, quickly materialised: Travel writing became popular, likewise novels, essays and popular science. Since profits were important to the printers (who often were also publishers), the books were increasingly published in vernacular languages. Thereby the national languages were standardised, and people living in Hamburg could read, verbatim, the same texts as people in Munich. The broad standardisation of culture represented in nationalism would not have been possible without a modern mass medium such as the printed book (and, later, the newspaper). Thus it may be said that writing has not only influenced thought about the world, but also thought about who we are. It has made it technologically possible to imagine that one belongs to the same people as millions of other persons whom one will never meet.

Further reading

Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger…. London
Goody, Jack (1977) The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1977.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966 [1962]) The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Savage Mind

…continued from yesterday

The other indispensable book about classification and society is Lévi-Strauss’s masterpiece La pensée sauvage (1962, The Savage Mind, 1966). Like Douglas, Lévi-Strauss is inspired by Durkheim and Mauss, but he also wishes to disprove Lévy-Bruhl’s ideas about ‘pre-logical thought’ once and for all. However, already in the first chapter, it becomes apparent that Lévi-Strauss is closer to his predecessor than one might have expected.

The main topic of The Savage Mind is totemism. This enigmatic phenomenon has been the subject of much anthropological theory and speculation for more than a hundred years. Totemism may be defined as a form of classification whereby individuals or groups (which may be clans) have a special, often mythically based relationship to certain aspects of nature – usually animals or plants, but it could also be, for example, mountain formations or events like thunderstorms. Groups or persons have certain commitments towards their totem; it may be forbidden to eat it, the totem may give protection, in many cases the groups are named after their totem, and sometimes they identify with it (members of the eagle clan are brave and have a lofty character). In traditional societies, totemism is especially widespread in the Americas, in Oceania and Africa. A great number of competing interpretations of totemism had been proposed before Lévi-Strauss: The Scottish lawyer MacLennan, the first to develop a theory of totemism (in 1869), saw it simply as a form of primitive religion, but it later became more common to see it in a more utilitarian light: Totemic animals and plants were respected because they were economically useful. This was Malinowski’s view.

Departing radically from such views, Lévi-Strauss developed a theory of totemism seeing it as a form of classification encompassing both natural and social dimensions, thereby defining it as part of the knowledge system of a society, and as far from being a functional result of some economic adaptation. Lévi-Strauss claims indebtedness to Radcliffe-Brown, but in fact, his theory was entirely original. Totemic animals are respected not because they are good to eat, but because they are good to think (bons à penser). The natural series of totems at the disposal of a tribe is related to the social series of clans or other internal groupings in such a way that the relationships between the totems correspond metaphorically to the relationships between the social groups. Totemism thereby bridges the gap between nature and culture, deepening the knowledge about both in the process.

‘The savage mind’, or undomesticated thinking (which might have been a better English title), is thus not there in order to be useful or functional (or even aesthetically pleasing), but in order to be thought. In the chapter ‘The science of the concrete’, which introduces the topic of the book, this is made clear. Here, Lévi-Strauss develops his famous distinction between le bricoleur and l’ingenieur, between bricolage (associational, nonlinear thought) and ‘engineering’ (logical thinking) as two styles of thought which he links with traditional and modern societies, respectively. Unlike what many had argued before, including Lévy-Bruhl, there was no qualitative difference between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ thought. The difference consisted in the raw material they had at their disposal. While the modern ‘engineer’ builds abstractions upon abstractions (writing, numbers, geometrical drawings), the traditional ‘bricoleur’ creates abstractions with the aid of physical objects he is able to observe directly (animals, plants, rocks, rivers…). Whereas the modern person has become dependent on writing as a ‘crutch for thought’, his opposite number in a traditional society uses whatever is at hand for cognitive assistance. The French word bricoleur can be translated as a jack-of-all-trades, an imaginative improviser who creates new objects by combining old ones which happen to be close at hand.

In order to illustrate the contrast between the two thought styles, Lévi-Strauss speaks of music and poetry as modern cultural phenomena where ‘the undomesticated’ property of the mind can still be glimpsed.

Although the book is introduced with an apparently sharp contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and although cultural difference is discussed in every subsequent chapter, the aim of The Savage Mind is to show that humans think alike everywhere, even if their thoughts are expressed differently. Science, which, unlike ‘the science of the concrete’, distinguishes sharply between the perceptible (le sensible) and that which can be understood in abstract terms (l’intelligible), thus becomes a special case of something much more general, namely undomesticated thought. But it then also becomes clear that the distance between Lévi-Strauss and Lévy-Bruhl is much less than usually assumed. Like his famous successor, Lévy-Bruhl also sees pre-logical thought as the most fundamental style of thought, and logical thought as an embellishment or a special case.