:: Article

on cognitive artifacts

Catarina Dutilh Novaes interviewed by Richard Marshall.

[Photo Jeroen Bruggeman]

Catarina Dutilh Novaes is the Neymar of the logicians who philosophises about these cognitive artifacts all the time and has Buridan and Aristotle as team-mates. She thinks that logic can be as sophisticated in informal as in formal languages, that they have transformed human’s reasoning processes, that formal languages developed alongside mathematical notation, that the usual justifications for formal languages aren’t the whole story, that there’s a story to tell about the relationship between the historical and the evolutionary process of the development of formal language, about why writing is important to them, about human cognition being embodied, about links between medieval logic and contemporary game theory, about ‘math infatuation’, and about the problems besetting contemporary academic philosophy regarding sexual harassment. Philosophy just became O Joga Bonito…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Catarina Dutilh Novaes: I was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, but spent two of my high-school years in Paris, France (my parents, both medicine professors, were on an extended research leave). Those two years studying at a French lycée were probably the most decisive ones of my life, intellectually speaking. The level of education was incredibly high, and I had to work incredibly hard to overcome the academic gap with the education I had had in Brazil until then. My favorite subjects were literature (which covered a fair amount of philosophical material, broadly speaking: Pascal, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Rousseau etc.) and mathematics, but people kept telling me that I couldn’t be good at both: I had to choose between one of the two. I then went back to Brazil, graduated from high school, and enrolled in the philosophy program at the University of São Paulo. I wasn’t aware of this when I enrolled, but I quickly discovered that philosophy was perfect for me precisely because I could combine my mathematical penchant with my literary interests in a very natural way: I didn’t have to choose after all.

As I said, both my parents were (my mother still is) academics, so the choice of an academic career was a fairly natural one for me. Still, as an undergrad, I contemplated going on to do an MBA, starting my own business, among other money-related things (what on earth was I thinking!). I only realized I really wanted to be an academic while writing my Master’s thesis at the University of Amsterdam, back in 2000: I simply loved the routine of getting up, going to the office, sitting in front of the computer to read, write and think about philosophy, with a coffee mug. I figured, I’m lucky if I can do this for money… And I have indeed been lucky in my career; with the exception of having to wait for 1 year for my PhD position after finishing my Master’s, the flow has been constant. I’ve been able to secure a number of research grants, and then eventually get a permanent position at a wonderful department in Groningen. But the whole phenomenon of ‘adjunctification’, which is very widespread (not only in the US), worries me a great deal. Working conditions for academics have deteriorated significantly over the last decades, with the rise of the ‘administration cast’.

This being said, it’s been 20 years since I started studying philosophy at university, and I never, ever regretted my choice: it’s been great fun all along. Among other things, philosophy allows me to pursue my interests in pretty much every area, ranging from biology to psychology, anthropology to physics. I like to say that philosophy is the place where all disciplines meet, and that’s perfect for someone like me who is interested in many different things.

3:AM: You’re a logic expert. Logic tends to be thought of as a formal language akin to math but you think that logic in informal language can be just as sophisticated as the formal stuff. Can you say something about what evidence you have for this claim and why this is important to your philosophical work looking at cognitive analysis?

CDN: I’ll give you two pieces of evidence: Aristotle’s Prior Analytics and Buridan’s Treatise on Consequences (of which a new English translation by Stephen Read is forthcoming – much recommended!). Both texts display a level of rigor and precision that leaves nothing to be desired when compared to modern logic. True enough, the logical systems in question, in particular Aristotle’s syllogistic, are rather simple when compared to some modern systems, but the way in which the investigations proceed in these two books is fully rigorous. And yet, they are both written in regimented forms of what could be described as ‘ordinary languages’. (I don’t like the term ‘natural languages’, and in both cases we are talking about highly theoretical, regimented languages — not the kind of thing one encounters when e.g. shopping for groceries or such like.)

This has been an important starting point for my cognitive approach to formal languages. It is often said (e.g. Frege in the preface of the Begriffsschrift) that ordinary languages are hopelessly imprecise and thus expressively inadequate for the purposes of, for example, logical and mathematical inquiry. But these examples (Aristotle and Buridan) suggested to me that the real ‘asset’ of formal languages and formalisms would pertain to something other than expressiveness, and this is what led me to consider the idea of a cognitive gain afforded by formalisms over (regimented versions of) ordinary languages.

3:AM: In your book you look at formal languages as used by logicians as ‘cognitive artifacts’. What do you mean?

CDN: As I was saying, the main idea of the book is to look at formal languages as devices having a cognitive impact for reasoning processes, in the sense that reasoning with formal languages and formalisms would not only expand, but even transform the reasoning capacities of humans. In particular, I argue in the book that formalisms can compensate for some of our cognitive biases, which are reliable reasoning mechanisms in most circumstances, but may pose a problem in contests of scientific inquiry. Formal languages would be tools to reason with, and as any good tool, they should somehow facilitate those processes – which does not exclude the possibility of malfunctioning or mis-applied tools!

3:AM: Can you say something about the history that produced the formal languages we now have? Does it dovetail with the development of mathematical notation?

CDN: It does indeed. As I describe in some detail in chapter 3 of the book, the historical events behind the emergence of formal languages in the 19th century (with some earlier proto-cases as well) pertain to the development of mathematical notation, starting with the development of numerical systems such as place-value systems facilitating calculation by means of handy algorithms. This culminated in the emergence of algebraic notation in the 16th, 17th centuries, which then inspired logicians such as Leibniz, and later Boole and Frege, to import some of these general ideas into logical analysis.

Until the 17th century, logic and mathematics developed by and large independently from each other. On the purely logical side of things, the most significant notational innovation was the introduction of schematic letters by Aristotle in the Analytics some 2500 years ago. Nothing much else happened all the way into the 17th century, when logic and mathematics became more closely related (as spelled out in this excellent article by M. Mugnai . It took me some time to realize this: as a historian of logic, in particular of medieval logic, nothing that I could find in the purely logical tradition was sufficient to explain the emergence of formal languages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

3:AM: What are the reasons that have been given for having them and have people paid enough attention to the downsides of using them?

CDN: The existence of formal languages and formalisms is usually justified in terms of greater precision and rigor. Now, as I was suggesting above, I don’t think this really captures what is so special about formalisms, and this is what led me to adopt a cognitive perspective rather than emphasizing concerns of expressivity and precision.

This being said, I think you are right that people have not paid enough attention to the downsides and pitfalls (and I have a whole section of the book on those). The debate tends to be highly polarized: on the one side the heirs of Russell, Carnap etc. who seem to have unbounded optimism regarding what can be accomplished with formal approaches; on the other side the heirs of the ordinary language philosophy school, who tend to think that the formal approach is misguided from the get-going. In the book, I tried to paint a more nuanced picture of the possibilities but also limitations and risks afforded by formal approaches (in philosophy and elsewhere).

3:AM: By placing the development of these ‘cognitive technologies’ in a historical context, do you think that what we take for granted as essential to human reasoning is actually dependent on the development of these technologies?

CDN: Two of the main characteristics of human cognition are the ability for tool using (though that’s not something that is unique to humans), and processes of cultural accumulation of knowledge (also not unique to humans strictly speaking, but much less pronounced in non-human animals). So in a sense, when it comes to cognition (and other matters), the nature vs. nurture dichotomy is deeply mistaken: our biological nature is precisely that of being cultural animals! But you are right that one of the purposes of adopting a historic, diachronic perspective (which is something that characterizes all of my work) is to question some assumptions that we take for granted, for example that doing logic and mathematics with formal languages is the ‘obvious’ thing to do. It is not in any way obvious, and along the way lots of decisive, non-trivial steps had to be taken for us to be where we are now.

More generally, this holds of a number of other cognitive technologies that have emerged in human history. Perhaps the most fundamental of them is the emergence of writing, again a rather spectacular, singular event in human history. Writing only emerged independently at three different points/places (in Mesopotamia, China and Mexico), so it is in no way an ‘obvious’ feature of human cognition thus understood. And yet, it has thoroughly transformed human life on earth (though of course there are still many societies and cultures where writing does not play a key role). Formal languages and formalisms as a form of writing is but a tiny chapter in the long history of the development of cognitive technologies by humans, where writing figures prominently.

3:AM: Doesn’t placing the development of formal languages in historical context make them contingent? And doesn’t that threaten any claim to their being irreplaceable and placing them in a cognitive context also suggest that the human, biological constraints are important and necessary constraints – not contingent at all? And so haven’t you got a tension between the contingency of the historical perspective and the necessity of the biological, evolutionary one? How do you solve this?

CDN: Yes, you are right in identifying this tension, and as I was saying before, I believe this tension to be at the very heart of human cognition. The point is precisely the complex and constant interplay between the biological, evolutionary endowment of humans as animals, and the fact that this endowment allows for multiple developmental paths, both in an individual’s lifetime and throughout human history. This is known as the interplay between biological constraints and plasticity. So these cognitive technologies I was talking about on the one hand latch on to biological possibilities that are there all along, but on the other hand they only get actualized through contingent series of events.

Writing, for example, emerged as a tool for bookkeeping, which became necessary only in farming societies where surplus and the existence of goods such as domesticated animals made effective bookkeeping necessary. So it’s true that some theorists might complain that I place too much emphasis on these contingent elements, but they are wrong! ☺ I am just as interested in the necessary, biological features of humans that make these developments possible. Pretty much everybody agrees on the need to balance these two poles in theories of human cognition, but naturally there are still differences in emphasis and focus among the different theorists.

In fact, in a forthcoming piece in Mind & Language, the cognitive scientists S. Dehaene says the following (responding to R. Menary’s remarks on his work on reading):

“We are compelled to conclude that the brain is both highly plastic and highly constrained – simultaneously capable of creating an enormous variety of cultural systems, and yet acquiring them within tightly defined circuits. Even beyond the reading domain, I agree with Menary that there is a remarkably tension between behavioral observations of seemingly domain-general plasticity and brain-imaging observations of constrained circuitry. Resolving this tension is perhaps one of the most significant riddles facing contemporary cognitive neuroscience.”

I think this passage illustrates very clearly the tension you allude to in your question, and rightly describes it as one of the most significant topics for cognitive (neuro)science.

3:AM: Why is it important to note that formal languages are written?

CDN: One of the important theoretical commitments in my thinking about human cognition in general is that it must be a thoroughly embodied/embedded story. Rather than viewing cognitive processes as abstract, disembodied processes, I believe we should think of them as processes crucially involving the agent’s body and interaction with the environment (in the spirit of the extended cognition approach championed by Clark, Menary, Sutton, among others). From this point of view, the perceptual, physical features of the tools involved become highly relevant, and once formal languages are viewed as cognitive tools, it becomes important to note for example that they are tools that appeal in particular to vision. Indeed, one of the questions I’ve addressed is what it’s like to be a blind mathematician, one who will not make use of notations and formalisms in the way that sighted mathematicians do.

In my book, I argue in particular that the best way to think about the contribution of formal languages and notations to reasoning processes is in terms of sensorimotor processes, following the work of cognitive scientist David Landy. What one does when reasoning with notations is literally moving bits and pieces of the notation around, thinking on the paper as it were (or whatever other surface is being used for writing!).

3:AM: You find a surprising link between medieval logicians discussion of obligations and modern day game-theory don’t you? What’s the link and how does this example help us understand your point about the nature of logic?

CDN: My work on obligationes was my ‘break-though’ as a PhD student back in 2002, the first thing that made people pay attention to what I was doing more widely (and my first paper on obligationes is still my most cited paper ). My insight back then was to take seriously the dialogical component of obligationes as oral disputations, and thus to view them from the point of view of modern game-theoretical, dialogical approaches to logic. But at that point, I did not expand these dialogical insights into a more encompassing conception of logic as a whole.

After defending my dissertation in 2006, I did not think much about obligationes for a few years. Then, some years ago, when I had to come up with a new research project so as to be funded after my formal languages project (at the time, I did not have a permanent position, so it was a matter of survival in academia!), I figured I wanted to think more carefully about the very idea of deductive reasoning/deductive arguments. Under the inspiration of historical work on ancient Greek logic in particular by M. Marion and B. Castelnerac, I started to develop a general, dialogical conception of logic and deduction according to which the dialogical component is at the very heart of what logic is all about. (The funny thing is that they in turn had been inspired by my work on obligationes for their work on ancient logic.)

This is the research project I’ve been working on since 2011, and which will run until 2016: the ‘Roots of deduction’ project . The goal is, among other things, to produce a book similar to my book on formal languages, where I combine historical and cognitive analysis to discuss philosophical issues pertaining to logic and mathematics – in this case, the very concept of deduction. The focus this time is on the inherently social nature of (traditional) logic insofar as it represents a codification/regimentation of specific debating practices, roughly speaking the dialogical philosophical practices illustrated in Plato’s dialogues and regimented in Aristotle’s book Topics. So in this sense that there is a link between medieval obligationes and certain modern approaches to logic is not that surprising; it is only in virtue of our neglect of the dialogical origins and nature of logic that this may seem surprising.

With this dialogical approach to logic, I am emphasizing another crucial component of humans and human cognition, namely the fact that cognition is an inherently social phenomenon. This was already to some extent implicit in my work on formal languages and formalisms (with the emphasis on cultural developments), but is now made much more explicit. One of the guiding ideas is Vygotsky’s notion of ‘internalization’, which leads me to formulate the hypothesis that deductive reasoning, even when conducted by a lone thinker, is ultimately a dialogue with an internalized, ideal opponent – what I call the ‘built-in opponent’ hypothesis.

3:AM: Given your approach and findings, do we need a counterbalance in science, for example, where formal languages predominate? High cultures at the moment – certainly in the Anglophone University world- seem hell-bent on only funding the formal language side of thinking – is this a bias that limits exploration and intellectual endeavour?

CDN: Within philosophy, and in the US in particular, I think there is actually a tendency to downplay the importance of logic and formal methods. My friends doing work on formal philosophy in the US tell me that their work gets a lot more recognition in continental Europe, where the movement of ‘mathematical philosophy’ is stronger. This changed with respect to the time when American philosophy was dominated by people like Quine, Putnam etc., who were also excellent logicians.

But perhaps you mean that the so-called ‘exact sciences’ tend to get all the funding, at the expenses of more concept-oriented fields, such as many areas in the humanities. I don’t think my book has that much to offer to this debate, but if anything, it also stresses the importance of conceptual analysis even within these so-called ‘exact’ fields; obviously, we won’t solve all the scientific, intellectual issues that are important to us merely by doing calculations and proving theorems. So perhaps this suggests the importance of not going overboard with ‘math infatuation’.

3:AM: It’s clear that recent high profile cases have suggested that there’s a problem in academic philosophy regarding the behaviour of male, and often senior male philosophers towards women philosophers and students. As a leading philosopher how do you respond to this situation? Are these isolated incidents or is there a genuine widespread problem? And why does it seem to be specifically philosophers? Is there something about the culture of academic philosophy that helps explain the serious sexism?

CDN: Yes, it all seems to indicate that we have a very deep, systemic problem, with a culture that is much too tolerant of sexual harassment, mostly perpetrated by senior men and having more junior women as targets. I don’t know if this problem is specific to philosophy, in fact nobody knows for sure; it’s very hard to get reliable comparative data. This being said, when I talk about the issue with friends in other disciplines, many of them seem to think that the problem is not nearly as widespread in their own disciplines as it is in philosophy. Why is that, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s something inherent to philosophy as such, but I suppose ‘local’ cultures can emerge and then be perpetuated simply because a group of influential practitioners set the tone of what is ‘acceptable’. I can imagine that many of the men who seem to engage in such inappropriate behavior have seen their professors and role models do the same, and thus came to internalize an overly permissive view on these matters. And of course, disciplines with a strong gender imbalance such as philosophy seem to provide some of the conditions that favor this kind of behavior.

I’m not sure what it means to be a ‘leading philosopher’ ☺, but what can one do to try to improve the situation? Well, one can be vocal about it and remind others constantly that it is a serious problem, as Eric Schliesser for example has been doing at his new blog. At the same time, I am not sure being ‘vocal’ about specific cases without having fairly detailed knowledge is a good idea; there’s a lot of online speculation going on, as stories of sexual harassment make for good ‘gossip’. So it’s a fine line between bringing up the problem in productive ways and avoiding a ‘tabloid’ approach to the whole thing. (Again, I think Eric has been doing this well in his blog)

It has not yet happened to me in person, but obviously there is much that one can do when confronted with actual cases in one’s professional environment. For example, and while not knowing the exact details, it seems to me that the University of Miami handled quite well the case they had there last year, in particular by giving adequate support to the female student. In other words, one’s responses to actual cases in one’s immediate environment are of course going to be crucial. I know of a few places (departments) where there are serious problems, often related to the behavior of specific individuals, and the high-placed people (chairs etc.) fail to do enough to address them.

3:AM: Do the Universities take the issue seriously enough?

CDN: I’m sure there are still many institutions that don’t take the issue seriously enough, but I don’t think it’s only a matter of wanting to do the right thing. It seems to me that even well-meaning institutions and individuals are struggling to figure out how to handle the issue in the best possible way. Simply importing the general principles of the justice system may not be the way to go, as it is well known that the justice system is significantly biased towards protecting the accused (and for good reasons), such as with presumption of innocence. (This was pointed out to me by Rachel McKinnon, and she referred to the work of Larry Laudan on this topic.) So it may well be that different standards of evidence need to be applied (i.e. something less strong than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’), but this brings in a host of issues as well. The justice system is designed to minimize false positives (wrongful convictions) rather than false negatives (wrongful acquittals), and so lowering the standards of evidence will most likely mean an increased risk of false positives.

Here’s a concrete example: should a faculty member be barred of any contact with students as soon as an accusation is put forward? It might seem the prudential thing to do, but at the same time false accusations do exist, and whole careers can be destroyed once one’s reputation becomes associated with such accusations. Perhaps we should require some degree of substantiation of the accusation before e.g. suspending the faculty member in question, or else strong indication that there is imminent danger should he/she continue to interact with students.

This being said, given the current climate, it seems reasonable to me to ‘err’ on the side of protecting and supporting the (alleged) victims, in order to redress an imbalance that has been in place for a long, long time. But we should be prepared to accept that we are thereby increasing the chances of false positives, and that careers and lives of perfectly innocent people may well be negatively affected (just as careers and lives of victims of harassment are regularly affected; there is no contradiction in recognizing both possibilities).

3:AM: You have a lively blog where philosophy and these issues can be discussed – do you think such forums have an important part to play in changing behaviours and attitudes?

CDN: Definitely, I think the ongoing change of culture in the profession is to a great extent to be credited to the good work of the Feminist Philosophers blog. It is well known that the internet can have the beneficial effect of bringing together people who feel isolated, when they notice that there are others going through similar situations. I think a lot of what is going on here is that people muster the courage to come forward once they realize that there are many others in similar situations.

What I think NewAPPS in particular contributed to these debates is that we started blogging on feminist activism under our own names (for excellent reasons, the Feminist Philosophers only blogged anonymously until recently). It was also important, I think, that some men started to speak up on gender-related issues, which conveyed the message that the situation of women in the profession is everybody’s problem, not only a problem for women. The lineup of contributors at NewAPPS changed a lot in recent times, so the general profile of the blog has been changing too; but it delivered a crucial contribution at a crucial moment, I think (while also having had its less-than-glorious moments in this respect as well).

However, and not wanting by any means to imply that the gender problem is solved within philosophy, I think it is high time that we focus more on other dimensions of exclusion, in particular race, class, and disability. But these different dimensions seem to require different strategies, and I must confess that right now I do not really know how to tackle these other issues effectively. For example, an approach similar to the Gendered Conference Campaign of the Feminist Philosophers seems much more difficult to implement in these other cases.

3:AM: And more generally, do you think blogs, podcasts and on-line magazines and the internet generally is having a positive impact on how philosophy gets done? Could we be entering a new phase in philosophy where more people can get involved and so perhaps its profile can change?

CDN: Yes, I am very positive about the effects of these internet phenomena for the quality of philosophy being done. My conception of philosophy is essentially based on the idea of philosophy as conversation, as an inherently multi-agent, performative activity, and the internet allows us to have conversations with a much larger group of people. This can only be a good thing — I’m a Feyerabendian: let all the voices be heard! I have lost count of the number of times that my thoughts on a particular topic changed substantially prompted by comments to my blog posts; I’m very grateful to all the people who take the time to engage in such ‘conversations’ with me. Moreover, the internet has at least the potential to make such conversations more inclusive and democratic.

This being said, I think there is also a lot of nastiness in the philosophical blogosphere, and that some blogs (which shall remain unnamed!) have a negative effect in the discipline. In particular, I’m not a fan of blogs where people typically comment anonymously (readers probably know which blogs I have in mind), as I think the veil of anonymity can bring out the worst in people. There are a lot of people in the profession who don’t have it easy (e.g. the phenomenon of adjunctification I referred to above), and I think some of these people distill some of their (understandable) bitterness at these online fora. Maybe it’s inevitable, but it reinforces a climate of hostility. However, I think that in the majority of philosophical blogs, people engage in debates in good faith, and this has been great for philosophy as a whole.

3:AM: And finally, for the intrigued readers here at 3:AM what other five books should we be reading to take us further into your philosophical world?

CDN: On the historical side of things, I’d say people should simply go back to the classics. The Prior Analytics remains absolutely fascinating (and people should read it all, not only the first chapters proving the perfection of syllogisms!). Plato’s dialogues are the perfect illustration of why I’m obsessed with the crucial but often neglected role of dialogue for philosophy (we just finished reading the Gorgias at my reading group in Groningen, what a delight!). Basically, I don’t know why we still bother, as these two guys (Plato and Aristotle) had it all pretty much figured out… Fast-forwarding a bit, I’d say that Buridan’s Summulae de Dialectica is the most complete presentation of all the good things coming from medieval logic (and it has been excellently translated into English by Gyula Klima).

On the systematic side of things, I’d recommend S. Read’s Thinking about Logic. It is almost 20 years old by now, but it still raises all the central questions in the philosophy of logic, and discusses them in an illuminating, rigorous way.

On the cognitive side of things, the book I enjoyed most in recent times is Louise Barrett’s Beyond the Brain, which is not only a well-argued defense of the embodied-embedded perspective, but has a million of other wonderful things to say about cognition (both in humans and in non-human animals).

By the way, I’m dying to read Kim Stereiny’s recent book The Evolved Apprentice, but haven’t been able to get hold of it yet. So, attention reviews editors: if someone is looking for a reviewer for the book, send it my way!


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 11th, 2014.