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Thursday, February 23, 2017


The Function of Reason
A Conversation With Dan Sperber

Contrary to the standard view of reason as a capacity that enhances the individual in his or her cognitive capacities—the standard image is of Rodin’s "Thinker," thinking on his own and discovering new ideas—what we say now is that the basic functions of reason are social. They have to do with the fact that we interact with each other’s bodies and with each other’s minds. And to interact with other’s minds is to be able to represent a representation that others have, and to have them represent our representations, and also to act on the representation of others and, in some cases, let others act on our own representations.

The kind of achievements that are often cited as the proof that reason is so superior, like scientific achievements, are not achievements of individual minds, not achievements of individual reason, they are collective achievements—typically a product of social interaction over generations. They are social, cultural products, where many minds had to interact in complex ways and progressively explore a lot of directions on which they hit, not because some were more reasonable than others, but because some were luckier than others in what they hit. And then they used their reason to defend what they hit by luck. Reason is a remarkable cognitive capacity, as are so many cognitive capacities in human and animals, but it’s not a superpower.

DAN SPERBER is a Paris-based social and cognitive scientist. He holds an emeritus research professorship at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, and he is currently at Central European University, Budapest. He is the creator (with Deirdre Wilson) of "Relevance Theory," and coauthor (with Hugo Mercier) of The Enigma of ReasonDan Sperber's Edge Bio Page

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