Author Information: Dave Beisecker, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, firstname.lastname@example.org
Beisecker, Dave. 2012. “Normative Functionalism and its Pragmatist Roots.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 109-116.
In what follows, I shall characterize normative functionalism and contrast it with its causal counterpart. After tracing both stripes of functionalism to the work of the classical American pragmatists, I then argue that they are not exclusive alternatives. Instead, both might be required for an appropriately illuminating account of human rational activity.
When we attempt to unpack some notion or phenomenon functionally, we try to characterize it, not in terms of its intrinsic features, but rather in terms of its upstream “inputs” and its downstream “outputs.” However, there are different ways in which we may choose to characterize or specify such inputs and outputs, which thus give rise to different flavors of functional analysis. Thus when we subject some phenomena to a normative functionalist analysis, we conceive of the relevant inputs and outputs in broadly normative terms. That is, we attempt to understand the phenomenon in question in terms of how it is influenced by, and how it in turn influences patterns of proprieties, obligations, and permissions (or commitments and entitlements, to deploy Robert Brandom’s (1994) preferred idiom). So Wilfrid Sellars, one of the pioneers of normative functionalism, urged us to think of the meanings of words or concepts in terms of their role in a richly interconnected network of material inferential proprieties (Sellars 1953, 1956). To give the meaning of a word is (on the upstream side) to specify when one is obliged or permitted to infer sentences deploying that word, and also (on the downstream side) to make explicit what one is in turn obliged or permitted to infer from such sentences. Those who can properly be said to understand a concept are those who have, perhaps implicitly, mastered these inferential proprieties. More recently, Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance (2009) have similarly encouraged us to botanize various kinds of speech acts according to the interpersonal proprieties that govern when speakers may deploy them, as well as the licenses and obligations they confer upon their audiences. Kukla and Lance ambitiously argue that by doing so we can make substantial headway understanding how mind meets world in perception and action.
Thus those who advertise the virtues of normative functionalism will typically urge us to view their chosen phenomena (usually something like thought, rationality, or meaning) in a social setting. The thought is that such phenomena only become intelligible in an intersubjective context. Subjects to whom certain philosophically interesting concepts are appropriately applied must be understood in a context of many such subjects interacting with one another to produce a pattern of changing permissions and obligations. Normative functionalists are thus likely to be unabashed social externalists. And here we have one chief contrast in philosophical temperament between normative functionalists and their cousins who subscribe to more traditional, and possibly more familiar, causal functionalisms. Causal functionalists like to think of the relevant inputs as causal influences upon the states of a system exhibiting some target phenomenon, and the outputs as the various causal effects that stem from such a system being in those states. Famously, Hilary Putnam (1975) suggested that mental activity was amenable to such causal-functional analysis, in which individual mental state-types could profitably be identified as states of a system characterized in terms of intrasubjective causal inputs and outputs. Causal functionalists like Putnam typically construe the relevant systems of interest as a sort of stimulus-response machine: individual organisms receiving inputs from their environments and then making responses to those inputs, perhaps through the mediation of some internal “cognitive processing.” Causal functionalists are much more likely than their normative counterparts to be methodological individualists. Continue Reading…