Other thinkers, other rooms

by Joseph Shieber

In a few more months I’ll be teaching my course in the history of 20th century analytic philosophy. In that course we begin with Frege and Russell and end with topics covered in the 1980s and ’90s that interest the students. This means that the course covers a wide range of subject areas in philosophy. We begin with philosophy of language, but we can conclude the semester with political philosophy or analytic feminism or the metaphysics of race.

Because of the richness of analytic philosophy in the 20th century, there is of course no way that a one-semester undergraduate course could cover its entire scope comprehensively. This is particularly true if the instructor has the goal of not just doing intellectual history, but actually doing philosophy: formulating the arguments that philosophers gave for their positions and evaluating those arguments.

So one of the challenges of teaching a course like this is striking a balance between covering of some of the major discussions and movements in 20th century analytic philosophy and providing opportunities for students actually to engage with the arguments that make 20th century analytic philosophy so rich.

Another challenge with which I’ve wrestled is what to do about some of the flawed people who create beautiful philosophical arguments. With the rise of the #metoo movement, this challenge is one that has assumed a new urgency. But the challenge is actually not a new one. Consider, for example, the case of Frege, one of the giants of late-19th century philosophy who is now widely regarded as one of the forefathers of 20th century analytic philosophy.

The great English philosopher Michael Dummett devoted much of his life to studying Frege. Two of Dummett’s most well-known monographs, Frege: Philosophy of Language and Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, grapple with the richness of Frege’s philosophy over the course of hundreds of pages.

When Dummett traveled to Germany to investigate Frege’s unpublished writings, he was devastated to discover that the philosopher he admired as a paragon of rationality and rigorous argument was also a virulent anti-democrat and anti-semite. Dummett remarks in his Introduction to Frege: Philosophy of Language:

[Frege’s] diary shows [him] to have been a man of extreme right-wing opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany. When I read that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man, if, perhaps, not a particularly likeable one.

(For more on this, see Ray Monk’s excellent article, “Gottlob Frege: The machine in the ghost”.)

This challenge of how to deal with the flawed individuals who achieved fame as philosophers recently became pressing to me — and not just because I’m beginning to revise my syllabus for the coming semester. It became salient to me because of the news — well-covered in the philosophy community, but not widely reported beyond it — that John Searle was being stripped of his emeritus status at the University of California at Berkeley, effective June 19, 2019, as a consequence of sexual harrassment charges.

Searle is certainly not unknown outside of philosophy, having been a go-to philosopher at The New York Review of Books for many years. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that students in a course on the history of 20th century analytic philosophy — to say nothing of introductory philosophy courses — would encounter Searle, who came up with the “Chinese Room”, one of the most famous thought experiments in 20th century analytic philosophy of mind. The background behind that thought experiment is this.

With the rise of the computer in the second half of the 20th century, many theorists thought that computers would not only be able to model human mental states, but actually to achieve genuine mental states themselves. This was the program that was known as “strong artificial intelligence” (or strong AI).

If the program of strong AI is workable, so the idea went, then it should be possible for a computer to achieve mental states by instantiating a system of rules that it would, in principle, be possible to formulate.

It’s this idea that was the target of the thought experiment of the “Chinese Room”. Here’s how the thought experiment works.

Imagine a person who does not understand Chinese, sitting in a room. The only way that the person can communicate to the world outside the room is by means of a mail slot, through which the person can both receive written messages and can send out written messages.

Now, the person in the room faces a further constraint. The only messages that they are allowed to send out of the room are those that are prescribed for them in a massive book of rules. The rule book contains a virtually infinite number of Chinese symbol sequence inputs, with corresponding sequence outputs.

The person in the room, when they receive a message with a certain sequence of Chinese symbols, is supposed to find that sequence of symbols in the rule book and then write the corresponding output sequence of Chinese symbols on a slip of paper and return that response paper through the mail slot.

We’re supposed to imagine that the system of rules encoded in the rule book is such that, if a fluent speaker of Chinese were to “converse” with the occupant of the room (by sending messages into the room through the mail slot and receiving messages out of the mail slot in response), they would be convinced that whoever is in the room is also a fluent speaker of Chinese. And we’re supposed to imagine this, despite the fact that the sole person in the room knows NO Chinese at all!

Leave aside the question of whether such a rule book is in fact imaginable. The point that Searle is after with the “Chinese room” is that, even if there were such a rule book, there is still no person in the set-up that understands Chinese! And, if you see the thought experiment as Searle does, then you’re supposed to think it impossible that the program of strong AI is workable, since no mere system of rules could ever create the phenomenon of genuinely understanding a language.

As with many enduring feats of imagination, Searle’s thought experiment owes a debt to many other recognizable influences from the history of ideas. Two that seem glaringly obvious are the “Turing test”, named for the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, and Leibniz’s “Mill Argument”. But I don’t want to discuss the originality of the “Chinese room” — nor do I even want to argue about whether it’s actually any good as an argument (I have my doubts).

I bring up the “Chinese room” because it calls into question the widely held view about the problem that philosophy has with taking women seriously. According to that view, the problem with analytic philosophy is that it is too indebted to computational approaches to the mind, like strong AI. For example, in her thought-provoking and wide-ranging recent essay for Aeon, “Women’s minds matter”, Sally Davies suggests that rejecting such computational approaches might hold out the promise of “get[ting] us feminists … closer to a recipe for women’s emancipation”.

Searle himself offers an illustration of the reason I’m skeptical of attempts to link philosophy’s sexism problem to any particular philosophical views about the nature of mind. Searle rejects computationalism, as the “Chinese room” thought experiment demonstrates. Searle’s own view, in fact, is that understanding the biology of thinking creatures is esssential to understanding mind. In other words, Searle, whose inability to take women seriously as his philosophical colleagues has now been documented sufficiently to have his privileges stripped by the University of California Berkeley, is himself no friend of computationalism as a theory of mind!

I don’t think that philosophy’s problem in taking women seriously stems from a problematic philosophy of mind that has infected analytic philosophy. On the contrary, it seems to me that the problem is a different one.

In his essay on Frege’s troubling political views, Ray Monk quotes Heidegger as having begun his lectures on Aristotle by noting that, “Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died.”

Suppose we grant that philosophers — perhaps particularly analytic philosophers — approach philosophical arguments as if the attitude exemplified by Heidegger’s quote is an apt one. The difficulty with philosophy isn’t that they’re wrong to do so! It’s not, in other words, a problem that philosophy involves a commitment to the idea that the way to take arguments seriously is to divorce them from the historically- or socially-determined idiosyncrasies of the thinkers who formulated those arguments. (Although, of course, we might well need to know a great deal about the social and historical contexts of those thinkers in order to understand how to characterize their arguments accurately in the first place!)

The difficulty for philosophy, rather, is a different one. It is that only some privileged arguments are taken seriously enough in the first place to qualify for this treatment. Only certain voices are deemed worthy enough that the flaws or even mere idiosyncrasies of the speakers play no role in our consideration of their arguments.

Monk, in his discussion of Frege’s noxious political views, notes that those views were the antithesis of his reasoned philosophical positions, the result of

Frege’s endorsement of patriotism as an unreasoning prejudice. … [Frege] acknowledges that patriotism involves prejudice rather than impartial thought, but he thinks that is a good thing: “Only Feeling participates, not Reason, and it speaks freely, without having spoken to Reason beforehand for counsel. And yet, at times, it appears that such a participation of Feeling is needed to be able to make sound, rational judgments in political matters.” These are surely surprising views for “an absolutely rational man” to express. The man who wanted to set mathematics on surer logical foundations, was content for politics to be based on emotional spasms.

In other words, Frege’s failings weren’t a result of a too-thoroughgoing application of analytical rigor. On the contrary, Frege’s failings were the result of, as Monk so nicely puts it, a willingness to settle for a “politics … based on emotional spasms”.

The lesson I take from this is not that analytic philosophy should be less concerned with logical rigor and the quality of arguments. Rather, it’s that analytic philosophy should be more concerned with making sure that everyone is accorded the same right to have their arguments taken seriously.

To return to the pedagogical quandary with which I began, my own answer to the questions of what to do about the often flawed people who made significant contributions to philosophy is to discuss the contributions — without remaining silent about their flaws.

It is undeniable that, in 20th century philosophy, the voices of women were often drowned out by the louder chorus of male philosophers. Searle’s case provides one reason why that occurred. While some philosophers’ arguments reached the attention of a wider public, to be addressed on their merits, other thinkers — equally deserving our consideration — were left abandoned in hermetically sealed rooms, their arguments unheard.