22 February 2010

The Representation of Stereotypes

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post up at An und für sich about what stereotypes "are". Kotsko argues that we run into difficulties if we try to treat beliefs about stereotypes as being "in the head", and so we should instead treat them as being in the environmental conditions which give rise to their instances (or something along those lines -- his post is clearer than my one-sentence summary of it). I think that this moves a bit fast; a more "traditional" way of accounting for racist beliefs seems to me to work perfectly well: they are (often unconscious) beliefs about what blacks or asians (etc.) are like, and are not different qua belief from beliefs about whether milk builds strong bones or dogs return to their own vomit.

"Indeed, when pressed even people who seem to be hardened racists will most often admit that of course not all black people are like that, etc. — calling into question whether racists, as stereotype-believers par excellence, really “believe” in stereotypes in some straightforward way."

Here I think the problem isn't with the idea that racists believe racist things, but with how those racist contents are conceived. I think this is best handled by treating statements about stereotypical Xs as what Michael Thompson calls "Aristotelian Categoricals" in "The Representation of Life". (Paper available at his webspace.)

Aristotelian Categoricals are not universally quantified statements ("If anything is an X, then it is like this"), so the fact that any given racist will admit that not all Xs ɸ (for some given class X and some stereotypical behavior ɸ) does not mean that the racist doesn't really believe the stereotypical claim "Xs ɸ" is true. They don't even have to believe that (as a statistical matter) if you took a pole of all currently existing Xs, it would turn out that a majority of them ɸ. They just have to believe that the Xs which ɸ are more typical of Xs generally (albeit maybe not at the moment), or are more authentically X-ish, or something like that. The stereotype has normative force for how (stereotypically) black a given racist thinks a given black person is.

Aristotelian Categoricals strike me as very useful for thinking about this sort of thing. Nothing else seems to get the logical contours of the stereotype-claims quite right, as Thompson argues in the parallel case of claims like "Bobcats mate for life". Some bobcats never mate, or are impotent etc., but that doesn't contradict the Aristotelian Categorical claim (think of it as something you hear in a National Geographic documentary). Healthy bobcats in bobcat-friendly environments mate for life. (Thompson has further arguments for why we can't treat this as a disguised universally quantified statement about "healthy bobcats in bobcat-friendly environments", namely that making sense of things like "health" and "bobcat-friendliness" is dependent on making sense of the Aristotelian Categoricals, and not vice-versa.)

I also don't think that the fact that stereotypes can be incoherent (Kotsko's example being that Mexicans are lazy and yet desperate to work) is problematic; it just shows that racists have weird beliefs about Mexicans. They think that both sloth and being a hard worker make one a "really Mexican" Mexican. There's not even an incoherence in this example, if you treat the beliefs as Aristotelian categoricals rather than universally quantified statements. The two extremes could both be typical of Mexicans, whereas the middle-ground would not be. There's no commitment on the part of the racists to thinking that there are some Mexicans who are both lazy and desperate to work. (Compare to "Pecans grow into pecan trees" and "Pecans are baked into pecan pies", and contrast to "Pecans grow into pecan trees" and "Pecans grow into rose bushes").

Given this, I don't see any problem with treating stereotypical beliefs as being "in the head" (which of course doesn't conflict with their showing themselves in our practices, or with being unconscious some of the time; those are both normal for things "in the head" -- the outer is inner as inner, as Hegel said).

"[This] points toward the idea that black people just naturally enjoy cheaper food (not beef, but chicken; not fruit juice, but Kool-Aid) and therefore that the dominance of fast food outlets and convenience stores (rather than good restaurants and grocery stores) in black neighborhoods simply reflects the way black people are and is therefore “okay” — and so you don’t see the mayor of Chicago trying to get more grocery stores into black neighborhoods, for instance."

This strikes me as a paradigm case of unconscious stereotypical beliefs at work. The mayor of Chicago would surely deny that black people liked cheap food as such, if you asked him; he does not consciously believe that. But he probably does (at least unconsciously) believe that black people are poorer than non-blacks. And he probably believes (likely consciously) that poor people have less money to spend on food, and so prefer purchasing cheaper food. So it seems appropriate to the mayor that black neighborhoods mostly have cheap places to buy food, since black[/poor] people prefer shopping at those sorts of places. So it's easy to explain the mayor's behavior as issuing from a combination of conscious and unconscious beliefs on his part; there's no need to posit beliefs in city blocks or anything like that. Surely the fact that many black people are poor helps to reinforce the unconscious belief, but the belief isn't anywhere special.

06 February 2010

A Very Bad Argument for Skepticism

This post irritated me. Ignore the following if you don't think Jon Cogburn's thoughts are worth your time; continue reading if you do think they're worthwhile. (There is no big payoff at the end.)

The bit in the post that I think is most egregiously confused is what Cogburgn labels "2b", which is supposed to be one horn of a constructive dilemma.

Here we are assuming that the kind of sense dependency Brandom describes (between mind and world) holds. And, by the law of excluded middle, either the relevant reference dependency claim is true, or it is false.
A preliminary clarification: Sense-dependency is a relation between concepts; mind and world cannot be sense-dependent on one another, though MIND and WORLD can (to adopt the convention of using capslock to indicate concepts). Brandom is clear on this in the quote Cogburn cites before his argument:"The determinateness of the objective world and the structured process of grasping it are reciprocally sense dependent concepts, each intelligible only in terms of the other"; Brandom regularly underlines terms for concepts in "Tales of the Mighty Dead", and I will follow him in quotation). Cogburn on the other hand does nothing to distinguish mind and MIND. Also, I'm assuming that the sense-dependency Cogburn mentions is the one he just cited, between "the determinateness of the objective world" and "the structured process of grasping it".

I don't think the disjunction has any problems; I don't think McDowell would hesitate to endorse the sense-dependency claim Brandom makes, or to assert one of the disjuncts Cogburn mentions: The "determinateness of the objective world" is not referentially dependent on "the structured process of grasping it". The world could have a determinate structure even if there were no structured processes capable of grasping it. For instance, this was the case before the dawn of life (if not before the dawn of sentience or sapience), McDowell would surely say. (And probably does say somewhere or other; he's been asked some silly questions about "idealism" before -- I would check "Reading McDowell" and "Experience, Norm, and Nature" if I felt like hunting for a reference. Dinosaurs may've been mentioned in this context.)

If the world is not reference dependent upon the mind, then the determinateness of the objective world could exist without the structured process of grasping it existing. And remember (crucially) that this denial is a denial of pantheism! The world could exist without possessing the mental properties that we are forced (by sense dependency, which we are assuming to be true) to attribute to it. But this is just to say that we have no idea what the world is really like, because we are forced to understand it in such a way that we have no idea if it really is. This is skepticism.

Cogburn's argument seems to be this:
Assume (A) The world could have a determinate structure without a mind which grasps that structure -- i.e., the world could exist without anything bearing mental properties.
(B) Given the sense-dependency of MIND and WORLD, we are forced to attribute mental properties to the world.
Assume (C) MIND and WORLD are mutually sense-dependent.
ergo (D) We are forced to attribute mental properties to the world. (from B and C)
(E) The world could exist without anything bearing mental properties, but we are forced to attribute mental properties to it (from A and D).
(F) Skepticism (supposed to somehow follow from E, I suppose because E shows there is a possibility we can't rule out. This step strikes me as a non sequitur, confusing epistemic and metaphysical possibilities, but I don't need to touch it to dissolve this argument so I'll just ignore it.)

Let's substitute in for some variables to see what the dependencies in question here amount to. Brandom defines "reference dependence" thusly:
Concept P is reference dependent on concept Q just in case P cannot apply to something unless Q applies to something
So the claim that Cogburn says leads to skepticism is "It is not the case that "determinateness of the objective world" cannot apply to something unless "the structured process of grasping it" applies to something".

Brandom defines "sense-dependency" thus:
Concept P is sense dependent on concept Q just in case one cannot count as having grasped P unless one counts as grasping Q
Substituting in, we get "One cannot count as having grasped "determinateness of the objective world" unless one counts as grasping "the structured process of grasping it", which gives (C) with trivial steps.

Where does (B) come from? Brandom's claim is that we cannot think thoughts involving MIND or WORLD unless we can think thoughts involving both. This doesn't mean we have to be able to think true thoughts involving both -- that would be to confuse sense and reference at the level of sentences (thoughts vs. truth-values). Nor does it entail that we have to endorse thoughts involving both concepts; one of the reasons Frege introduced the sense-reference distinction in the first place was to handle cases where a thought was entertained without being endorsed (in quotational contexts), and this is a central case in his later papers "Thought" and "Negation". Nothing about the mutual sense-dependence of MIND and WORLD commits Brandom to the existence of minds or worlds. (B) is simply false, and so the rest of the argument falls apart. Cogburn's argument "2" fails; the reciprocal sense-dependence of MIND and WORLD entails none of the weird consequences Cogburn thinks we need to choose between.

And now for a short bit about "quietism". Cogburn:
This is precisely where McDowell backs into Wittgensteinian quietism (according to my somewhat impoverished understanding of Mind and World). His denial of "bald naturalism" seems to return us to a kind of enchanted/pantheistic world, but it's not clear if it really does.
It is apparently quite an impoverished understanding indeed; McDowell wouldn't think that the sense-dependence of MIND and WORLD entails anything bizarre, so there's nothing to "back away from". This is genuine quietism: The supposed philosophical problem is seen to be nothing, so there's nothing to say about it.

Also, McDowell's "partial re-enchantment of the world" has nothing to do with pantheism; the only things McDowell ever considers as minded are humans. (Non-human animals are minded in a derivative sense. Non-animals are never said to be minded in any sense at all.) This is what makes it "partial": the only things in nature that are "special" are humans, not stars or rivers or clouds. Humans can do things meaningfully; stars just do whatever they do with no significance (contra the "enchanted world" where the movement of the stars mean something, i.e. astrology is supposed to not be a load of hokum). McDowell never gives any comfort to astrology or shamanism or any such superstition, and his "Hegelianism" does not include anything about a Weltgeist or Hegel's "Lectures on World History". (Incidentally, the best thing I've read on McDowell and "bald naturalism" is this paper.)