Horkheimer, pragmatism, and cognitive ecology

by Sebastian Benthall

In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer rips into the American pragmatists Peirce, James, and Dewey like nobody I’ve ever read. Normally seen as reasonable and benign, Horkheimer paints these figures as ignorant and undermining of the whole social order.

The reason is that he believes that they reduce epistemology to a kind a instrumentalism. But that’s selling their position a bit short. Dewey’s moral epistemology is pragmatist in that it is driven by particular, situated interests and concerns, but these are ingredients to moral inquiry and not conclusions in themselves.

So to the extent that Horkheimer is looking to dialectic reason as the grounds to uncovering objective truths, Dewey’s emphasis on the establishing institutions that allow for meaningful moral inquiry seems consistent with Horkheimer’s view. The difference is in whether the dialectics are transcendental (as for Kant) or immanent (as for Hegel?).

The tension around objectivity in epistemology that comes up in the present academic environment is that all claims to objectivity are necessarily situated and this situatedness is raised as a challenge to their objective status. If the claims or their justification depend on conditions that exclude some subjects (as they no doubt do; whether or not dialectical reason is transcendental or immanent is requires opportunities for reflection that are rare–privileged), can these conclusions be said to be true for all subjects?

The Friendly AI research program more or less assumes that yes, this is the case. Yudkowsky’s notion of Coherent Extrapolated Volition–the position arrived at by simulated, idealized reasoners, is a 21st century remake of Peirce’s limiting consensus of the rational. And yet the cry from standpoint theorists and certain anthropologically inspired disciplines is a recognition of the validity of partial perspectives. Haraway, for example, calls for an alliance of partial perspectives. Critical and adversarial design folks appear to have picked up this baton. Their vision is of a future of constantly vying (“agonistic”) partiality, with no perspective presuming to be settled, objective or complete.

If we make cognitivist assumptions about the computationality of all epistemic agents, then we are forced to acknowledge the finiteness of all actually existing reasoning. Finite capacity and situatedness become two sides of the same coin. Partiality, then, becomes a function of both ones place in the network (eccentricity vs. centrality) as well as capacity to integrate information from the periphery. Those locations in the network most able to valuably integrate information, whether they be Google’s data centers or the conversational hubs of research universities, are more impartial, more objective. But they can never be the complete system. Because of their finite capacity, their representations can at best be lossy compressions of the whole.

A Hegelian might dream of an objective truth obtainable by a single subject through transcendental dialectic. Perhaps this is unattainable. But if there’s any hope at all in this direction, it seems to me it must come from one of two possibilities:

  • The fortuitously fractal structure of the sociotechnical world such that an adequate representation of it can be maintained in its epistemic hubs through quining, or
  • A generative grammar or modeling language of cognitive ecology such that we can get insights into the larger interactive system from toy models, and apply these simplified models pragmatically in specific cases. For this to work and not suffer the same failures as theoretical economics, these models need to have empirical content. Something like Wolpert, Lee, and Bono’s Predictive Game Theory (for which I just discovered they’ve released a Python package…cool!) may be critical here.