• Updated
26 May 2021

Meeting with the philosopher of the mind, Christopher Peacocke, visiting professor at the Institut Jean Nicod

Christopher Peacocke is currently the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study in the University of London. Since the 1970s he has made seminal contributions in many areas of philosophy. Some of the work he is best known for is on logical constants, deviant causal chains, action, concepts, externalism, proper names, demonstratives, the first person, the self, self-knowledge, non-conceptual content, analog content, implicit conceptions, entitlement, rationalism, depiction, and the philosophy of music. He is an invited visiting professor at the Institut Jean Nicod this May. His visit is an opportunity for the scientific community to benefit from the expertise and experience of the eminent professor through a series of lectures given at the DEC.

Junior professor at the ENS and member of the Institut Jean Nicod, Denis Buehler 's research interests are in philosophy of mind, action, epistemology and philosophy of cognitive science. He also has a keen interest in the history of philosophy, especially Kant and Frege. Denis Buehler introduces us to the British philosopher through an interview questioning his inspirations, his work and the contribution to research and teaching offered by meetings and exchanges between institutions and between members of the scientific community.

PeacockeD.B: What are the questions, puzzles, or issues that most drive your thinking, if any?

Almost all the topics on which I’ve worked have been attempts to answer questions of the form “What makes something a so-and-so?”, or more technically, “What is constitutive of being a so-and-so?”. So: what makes something a logical constant? a genuine action? a conceptual content? a case of grasping a certain kind of content, such as the first person? an experience of hearing a certain mental state in the music? These are all questions that fit that form. I guess this is the characteristic form of one general kind of philosophical question. Not all philosophical questions have this form. But a huge, central range do, and I think good answers to them can be philosophically explanatory.explicatives.

D.B: You have made contributions to many areas of philosophy. Could you briefly describe the ones that you consider the most representative of your thinking? Which do you think are the most important ones? Which are those that you’re most proud of?

C.P: A thinker is not the best person to answer the question of what, if anything, is most important in their work. I’m definitely no Frege*, but if you had asked Frege, prior to his receipt of the devastating letter from Bertrand Russellpointing out a contradiction in the Grundgesetze, what the most important feature of his work was, I suspect he’d say “The reduction of arithmetic and analysis to logic”. That’s not what we’d say today (nor probably what Frege would have said later in life) – we’d say what’s important is the formulation of first order logic, the sense/reference distinction and his conception of sense, and the emphasis on the mind-independence of logical laws. The same goes for Kant**, who would very likely say that transcendental idealism was the most important aspect of his writing. Yet if that were the only aspect of his thought, I doubt we would think so much about the issues he raised. So I have to leave these judgements to others. But if pressed, I’d say I hope the work on the Integration Challenge – the general challenge of reconciling the metaphysics and epistemology of a domain - and the attempt to meet it for such cases as that of necessity and the self are worth considering.

* Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) are German and Welsh mathematicians and philosophers respectively, founders of contemporary logic.
In 1893, Frege published the Fundamental Laws of Arithmetic (Die Grundgesetze der Arithmetik, Volume I), the most important work of his life, in which he formalised the natural integers. Nine years later, he received a letter from Russel questioning the basis of Frege's work in this work and highlighting what is now called Russel's Paradox.
Imagine this: A male barber has to shave all the male inhabitants of his village who do not shave themselves, and only these: Should he shave himself? If he does, he is at fault, for he must shave only those men who do not shave themselves; if he does not, he is also at fault, for he must shave all the men who do not shave themselves... This is the Barber's Paradox, a didactic and simplified illustration of Russell's Paradox.

** Transcendental idealism is one of Emmanuel Kant's most famous doctrines that will have a great impact on the way the nature of knowledge is thought of in philosophical reflections. In Critique of Pure Reason, he describes this doctrine as follows: "I mean by transcendental idealism of all phenomena the doctrine according to which we regard them as a whole as mere representations and not as things in themselves, a theory which makes time and space only sensible forms of our intuition and not self-given determinations or conditions of objects regarded as things in themselves".

D.B: Despite the wide range of issues that your work covers, it gives the impression of being systematic. Is that so, and if so, how do the different pieces hang together?

C.P: I think the impression of systematicity in my work has two causes. First, I tend to get drawn into a new area because of questions arising out of some area in which I was already working. More than four decades ago (I can scarcely believe that figure) like so many other graduate students both sides of the Atlantic, I was working on issues generated by Donald Davidson*’s research programme. Pursuing those leads one further into the question ‘What is the nature of linguistic understanding?’, which then takes one to ‘What is it to grasp a concept’, which leads in turn to the question ‘Are there multiple kinds of content, of which concepts form just a proper subclass?’, ‘How should we conceive of the relation between a concept and the metaphysics of the entity – individual or property – do which it refers?’. I simply walked the path leading from one question to the next. The other cause of the impression of systematicity is that I likely bring a certain cast of mind to answering the question, no doubt others both would and in fact do answer the questions differently. If I’ve ended up looking as if I have some kind of system, it’s generated by these forces, rather than anything I’ve applied in advance. In short: it just comes out this way.

* Donald Davidson is an American philosopher, whose work had a great influence, in all fields of thought, from the 1960s onwards, and particularly in philosophy of action, philosophy of mind and philosophy of language.

D.B: What areas do you think would/do most benefit from collaboration between philosophers and cognitive scientists, and how?

C.P: There is a huge area of possible fruitful collaborations between philosophy and cognitive science.  Here are three that immediately come to mind, very much a nonexhaustive list, influenced of course by topics on which I work.

(a) If I am right about some aspects of music perception, it involves hearing certain features of music metaphorically as something else. Metaphor involves an isomorphism, specifiable by a mapping. How is the mapping realized in the mind-brain? What are the options for such representation?

(b) I argue, in the material for some of my talks here in Paris, that there is a distinctive way that emotions and other mental states are given when they are heard in music, a way that involves knowledge on the part of the perceiver of what it is like to be in those states. The different states of imagination and episodic memory also involve these distinctive ways of representing mental states. So how is this possible in the mind-brain?

(c) I think we need to draw distinctions between those psychological explanations that are genuinely computational, and those that may look as if they are computational, but actually involve noncomputational operations on underlying magnitudes in the mind-brain that accomplish certain tasks. The speed at which one compares the relative size of two numbers, given in Arabic notation, as explained by a thinker’s possession of an analogue magnitude number-line representing numerical size, is a familiar example of the latter case. I think the phenomenon potentially applies more widely, and its application has philosophical and psychological significance. I will discuss this further in one of my talks.

D.B: What are you currently working on, especially during your visit at DEC?

C.P: I am working on all the topics of my talks at the DEC and IJN this May: the nature of deductive inference, different kinds of explanation in psychology, and the relations between philosophical and empirical issues in the perception of music. I’m also working on the topics of my lectures, in the same month, at the Collège de France: the perception of music and the perception of agency; the existence, nature, and significance of factive norms; and – something completely different – the bearing of good accounts of the relation between metaphysics and the theory of concepts on the defensibility of a form of moral realism.



Selection of works by Christopher Peacocke:

  • The Primacy of Metaphysics (Oxford, 2019). 
  • The Mirror of the World : Subjects, Consciousness, and Self-Consciousness (Oxford, 2014) 
  • Truly Understood (Oxford, 2008) 
  • The Realm of Reason (Oxford, 2003) 
  • Being Known (Oxford, 1999) 
  • A Study of Concepts (MIT, 1992)
  • Thoughts : An Essay on Content (Blackwell, 1986)
  • Sense and Content (Oxford, 1983)

Lecture series at the IJN (May 14, 25, 28, 2021)

Lecture series at the Collège de France (May 5, 12, 26 and June 2, 2021)