The last time I took New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen to task, it was for her distorted (“blue-sky technocentric evangelism) framing of an otherwise acceptable account of quantitative reasoning based on statistical analysis. This time, however, her account yesterday of recent research into the nature of rationality seems to have induced so many misconceptions (many of which run rampant in the 278 comments accumulated as I write this) that one of the researchers, Hugo Mercier, felt it necessary to use the Times’ ArtsBeat blog to state his position with greater clarity. I am glad he did so, because the results of his research with Dan Sperber throw a fascinating light on that domain of “mind, self, and society,” to invoke the title given to the first volume of the works of George Herbert Mead collected by Charles W. Morris that addresses his concept of “social behaviorism.”
Mead may not have been the first to recognize that we live in three “worlds” (objective, subjective, and social); but he was certainly one of the first to undertake a methodologically serious reversal of the Enlightenment premise that all could be reduced to the “pure reason” of objectivity. (Those quote marks are not for “scare” purposes but to acknowledge that this tripartite division can be traced back at least as far as the three Critiques of Immanuel Kant.) At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, Mercier and Sperber have brought Mead’s thinking into the 21st century by pursuing the hypothesis that our very capacity of reasoning is not rooted in either the objective world of systematic analysis or the subjective world of making sense out of the stimuli that bombard us. Rather, it is a product of the social world through which our capacity for making sense is enhanced by our ability to exchange worldviews with those of others. That exchange is through argumentation, which means that Mercier and Sperber also propose that argumentation has more to do with communicating effectively with others than with the rigid consistencies of formal logic.
This is strong stuff, but it should not be unfamiliar to those who follow the literature of social theory. Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action devoted considerable attention to the objective foundations of argumentation; but this served as a first step towards his eventual proposal that communicative behavior is only effective when all three of those “worlds” are actively involved. What is fascinating about the Mercier-Sperber results is that they now have a fascinating proposal to reflect the philosophical speculations of Kant, Mead, and Habermas back onto the mechanisms of evolution itself, introducing a bold advance in what Jean Piaget (another of Habermas’ sources) called “genetic epistemology.” I just hope that these results can be better appreciated now that Mercier himself has provided his own account in the wake of Cohen’s less satisfactory effort.