Open and closed systems in social science

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Open and Closed Systems

Ludwig Bertalanffy describes two types of systems: open systems and closed systems. The open systems are systems that allow interactions between its internal elements and the environment. An open system is defined as a “system in exchange of matter with its environment, presenting import and export, building-up and breaking-down of its material components.”[1] For example, living organism. Closed systems, on the other hand, are considered to be isolated from their environment. For instance, thermodynamics applies to closed systems. The idea of open systems was further developed in systems theory. For instance, open systems in systems theory encourage a non-representational and non-referential posthumanist approach that actualize complexity of reality in a non-deterministic framework.



Social Science

In social sciences, schematically, if there is an interaction or feedback loop between ideal and material or subjective and objective then the system is an open system otherwise it is a closed system. A closed system offers a deterministic relationship. René Descartes’ view of a Cartesian subject as a determining agent, detached from nature, is a closed system. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s view of the world that the Idea determines the being is another example of a closed system. Raymond Williams’ open-ended approach and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice suggest non-deterministic relationships and are thus open systems. Schematically, closed systems are the sphere of being, identity, theory, molar, information, normal, and past. Open systems offer becoming, difference, practice, molecular, noise, pathological, and present. In short, systems theory in social sciences is basically closing the gap between phenomenology and structuralism and instead searching for embedded hermeneutics in which the subject is not cut off from a society but weaved in a social context. Once the Cartesian subject, who imposed mental concepts on reality, is flattened out then the task is how to actualize materiality.

One possible way of describing the non-subject centered view of the world is through the organization. According to Gregory Bateson, "Relationship could be used as basis for definition."[2] That is instead of signifying things under the blanket terms, the things should be described the way it is organized in a complex relationship. In other words, materiality should not be represented by us but through us. In social science, the network approach has been increasingly becoming popular to undertake such kind of non-representational framework. What it does is that it flattens out the representational systems that have become deterministic. The interconnection automatically reveals spaces that are left unconnected or silenced under the abstract machine of signifiers. The study produced with this connection is a mere description of a complexity that is characteristic of a society. There is no politics involved in this. Interestingly, politics implies categories and naming, which according to Bateson, is always classifying and thus reducing complexity of organization. "The organization of living things depends upon circular and more complex chains of determination."[3] The interconnection of things thus becomes a new way of understanding the reality. Walter Benjamin's montage, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's assemblage, Humberto Maturana's autopoiesis suggest that things should not be seen in terms of their functionality or physical properties but rather the relationship, circularity, or networks serve as a general criteria for the knowledge. The essay surveys various disciplines to demonstrate the ways in which the idea of difference or becoming have posed challenges against given conceptual categories within their respective fields.


Although anthropology has been somewhat successful in displacing the modern subject from the center by observing various other institutions such as gift exchange and kinship, it continues to struggle with developing the open systems. In anthropology, the question around open system is usually raised that how to represent a native point of view. The idea behind the ethnographic writing is to understand a complexity of an everyday life of the people without undermining or reducing the native account. Historically, ethnographers insert raw data, collected in the fieldwork, into the writing "machine." The output is usually the neat categories of ethnicity, identity, classes, kinship, genealogy, religion, culture, violence, and numerous other. The systems theory, however, challenges, among other fields, the ethnographic writing that is usually focused on representing the Other.

Anthropologist, Gregory Bateson is the most influential and earliest founder of the system theory in social sciences. Bateson describes system as “any unit containing feedback structure and therefore competent to process information.”[4] Thus an open system allows interaction between concepts and materiality or subject and the environment or abstract and real. In natural science, systems theory has been widely used approach. Bateson's work influenced major poststructuralist scholars especially Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In fact, the very word 'plateau' in Deleuze and Guattari's magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus, came from Bateson's work on Balinese culture. They wrote: "Gregory Bateson uses the word plateau to designate something very special: a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.”[5] Bateson pioneered an interdisciplinary approach in anthropology. He coined the term “ecology of mind” to demonstrate that what "goes on in one's head and in one's behavior" is interlocked and constitutes a network. Guattari wrote: Gregory Bateson has clearly shown that what he calls the “ecology of ideas” cannot be contained within the domain of the psychology of the individual, but organizes itself into systems or “minds”, the boundaries of which no longer coincide with the participant individuals.

With the posthumanist turn, however, the art of ethnographic writing has suffered serious challenges. Anthropologists are now thinking of experimenting with new style of writing. For instance, writing with natives or multiple authorship. It also undermines the discipline of identity politics and postcolonialism. Postcolonial scholars’ claims of subaltern identity or indigeneity and their demand of liberal rights from a state is actually falling back into the same signifying Western myth of Oedipal complex of ego and the Id. Instead of looking for a non-unitary subject in multiplicities organized into assemblage and montage; postcolonial studies limit flows into the same Western category of identity thus undermining the networks that sustain people’s everyday lives. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic and Benjamin’s montage dismantle the top-down and hierarchical social reality and bring into attention the micropolitics of mapping multiplicities of networks and assemblages.


One can also trace open and closed systems in linguistics. The two most obvious examples are of Saussure and Volosinov. Saussure, in search of discovering universal laws of language, formulated a general science of linguistic by bifurcating language into langue, abstract system of language, and parole, utterance or speech. The phonemes, fundamental unit of sound, are the basic structure of a language. The linguistic community gives a social dimension to a language. Moreover, linguistic signs are arbitrary and change only comes with time and not by individual will. The distinction of language between langue and parole without any feedback loop demonstrates that a language is a closed system. Volosinov rejects abstract objectivism perpetuated by the language distinction between langue and parole. He also rejected the Cartesian notion of language as a mere manifestation of pure subjectivity. In fact, he dissolved the dichotomy of objectivity, language as external and independent of human consciousness, and subjectivity, language as a cognitive activity. The dissolution was to put the becoming of language in a practice of utterance. In other words, the language only comes to existence when uttered not intentionally but in a practice of everyday life. The meaning of language also comes into being in a particular context thus putting language in its ideological milieu. This is Volosinov most important theoretical intervention by rendering language as an ideological laden mechanism. Since, human are social therefore, the utterance also means that it embodies power relations. Volosinov further excurses on philology as a “finished monologic utterance-the ancient written monument” illustrates how ideology has been conceal in text such as dictionary that list words free from its particular context. Thus moving away from Saussure static being to the idea of becoming.


In the discipline of history, there have also been critical debates of how to represent past in its complexity without undermining the differences. That is what are the ways in which history writing could be written as an open system. Walter Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History perhaps could be referred as one of the earliest radical explorations in the idea of the past and representation. Benjamin differentiates between historicism as a discipline that views past and present as separate from each other and temporality as a homogenous empty time moving in a linear fashion in search for an objective truth. This detached view of the history makes historian a master signifier who imposes concepts onto the materiality of the process. Historicism is thus a history of silences. Historical materialism, on the other hand, is the history of the present that is past and present are not detached from each other but constitutes a single interrupting and non-linear temporality. “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit].”[6] Writing history of present that is now-here releases differences and multiplicities from the clutches of historical categories that impose silence. The now-time serves as a new temporality for the representation of the present. With the postmodernist turn, history writing has been suffering challenges of how to recover those silences marginalized under the systems of representation or historicism. To put simply, what are the ways in the history of differences could be written that would rupture the official history. German historian, Reinhart Koselleck, developed the argument around social and conceptual history. The social history belongs to a history of the present whereas conceptual history is the history of ideas or representations. Subaltern Studies historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty name the conceptual and social history as History 1 and History 2. Anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, referred them as historicity 1 and historicity 2 and urges for a history of the present. Hayden White's idea of emplotment as narrative form demonstrates a new radical move towards history writing that collapses the traditional historical tropes.


The debate in philosophy is grounded in terms such as abstract and real. To put simply, the question in philosophy could be written as how to get to reality without deploying the given abstract concepts. In contemporary philosophy, Deleuze philosophy of becoming is currently a popular version. According to Deleuze and Guattari, "becoming is a verb with a consistency all it own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, "appearing," "being," "equalizing," or "producing.""[7] The becoming disrupts the imagination of the Western thought, organized in an arboreal, into a rhizomatic nature of haecceities. A Rhizome may be "broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one its old lines or new lines."

In The Normal and the Pathological, Georges Canguilhem demonstrates the ways in which the concept of norm emerged as a reference point for organizing, or more precisely, normalizing differences into a normal order necessary for a general functioning of a liberal society. “A norm offers itself as a possible mode of unifying diversity, resolving a difference, settling a disagreement.”[8] The norm thus became the abstract universal signifier and the normal as a signified and what "escapes" the normal is considered pathological. In fact, the existence of pathological becomes the necessary condition for the normal. By interconnecting the idea of norm with institutions of technology, economic, and juridical, Canguilhem grounds the concept of norm into the materiality of social and shows that normal is not a natural given but rather it is the product of normation.

Drawing on Canguilhem's work, Foucault develops the notion of biopolitics as an open system that is a process free of deterministic relationship. Biopolitics can be described as when the “basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy of a general strategy of power.”[9] The biopolitics becomes the governmental reason of modern society which Foucault referred as security society. The individualizing technique of the care of the self in the disciplinary society and the totalizing technique of the management of the population through apparatuses of security is called governmentality. The governmental apparatuses of security produce optimum risk or danger, which subjectivize individuals in terms of the care of the self and at the same time manage the population. Insurance technologies, as an apparatus of security for instance, use a calculus of probabilities that transform everything into risk, but most importantly, it “keep a type of criminality, theft for instance, within socially and economically acceptable limits and around an average that will be considered as optimal for a given social functioning.”[10] Thus, there are two streams of thought in Foucault’s work. The earlier work relates to disciplining or individualizing of the body through the police state.8 The later thought develops around the notion of biopolitics, as a totalizing technique, that targets the biological given of the population through the apparatus of security. These two techniques, individualizing-totalizing, microphysics-macrophysics, care of the self-management of the population, are the two modalities of power that function in a non-deterministic relationship. It is a model different from Louis Althusser's idea of Ideological State Apparatuses as structure of dominance and hegemony functioning in a top-down manner. In Foucault's work, there is no top-down and bottom-up approach.

In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault developed the idea of milieu as a system consist of natural- river, water, earth, and artificial given-institutes, norms, discourses. The milieu is an idea similar to Vernadsky's biosphere as a realm of living.[11] The biosphere or milieu has also been going through the process of social engineering. Foucault particularly focuses on space and demonstrates the ways in which urban forms have been subjected to discipline and regulation to enhance circulation. It seems that Foucault was moving towards the direction of bridging the gap between the nature and culture by proposing the idea of a milieu. This collapsing of given spaces also signifies that merely unpacking or de-centering the Cartesian subject will not be enough; in fact the milieu or biosphere requires careful collapsing into multiplicities. In general each discipline needs networking with materiality.


German theorist, Niklas Luhmann, develops a systems theory approach to society and demonstrates the ways in which systems work only in relation with their environment. Drawing on Humberto Maturana and Francis Varela’s idea of autopoiesis and Hegelian dialectics, Luhmann argues that systems are self-referential autopoietic systems, that is they produce and reproduce their organization without getting input from a Cartesian subject and systems maintain their distinction from the environment by the unity of the difference. By doing that, he displaces the modern subject as a point of reference and instead places communication as the index. Schematically, a system represents a conceptual realm, a meaningful world, a place of identity, past, and actuality. Whereas environment signifies noise, meaninglessness, difference, future, and possibilities. Luhmann's social systems are closed systems except when the system needs information from the environment.[12] Thus, it is up to the system to select the meaninglessness or noise from the environment and encode it into a meaningful complex in the system. Although Luhmann maintains the unity of the difference of the system and environment, the closing of the system does not allow innovation or rupture in the order. In fact, the encoding of information in the system reduces complexity of the environment.

French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu challenges the same duality of phenomenology (subjective) and structuralism (objective) through his Theory of Practice. This idea precisely challenges the reductive approach of economism that places symbolic interest in opposition to economic interests. Similarly, it also rejects subjected-centered view of the world. Bourdieu attempts to close this gap by developing the concept of habitus, "a system of durable, transposable dispositions."[13] In this system, agent is not a conscious subject but the "the schemes of thought and expression he has acquired are the basis for the intentionless invention of regulated improvisation." Symbolic capital, for instance, a prestige, as readily convertible back into economic capital and hence, is ‘the most valuable form of accumulation.’ Therefore, economic and symbolic both work together and should be studied as a general science of the economy of practices.[14] Unlike Pierre Bourdieu, who provides a general theory of practice that regulates subjective (phenomenology) and objective (structuralism), or in Luhmann’s terms systems and environment, together in an open system, Luhmann develops a closed system only letting the systems select its information from the environment. The more radical approach of Deleuze and Guattari completely collapses Hegelian dialectics by actualizing the materiality of the deterritoralized environment over on the territorialized systems.

Bruno Latour develops the open system by flattening out the discipline of sociology, ingrained in phenomenological tradition, into multiplicities embedded in the society. The de-centering of a Cartesian subject from the center of the universe open new spaces that were left unconnected by classical sociological tradition. Latour thus suggest an Actor-Network-Theory to bridge the gap between the nature and culture. He rejects theoretical or conceptual models; in fact he dislike the fact that the description of anything has to fit in some kind of a framework. Theory, for Latour, is a mental projection of a modern subject which reduced the materiality of things into neat categories of groups and identities which, more precisely, violates the polymorphous nature of society. The network thus emerges as a new transcendental ego or what Humberto Maturana called a network theology.

Jurgen Habermas, brings the intersubjective centered view of the world. He develops a communicative theory as a closed system. That is there exist a consensus which could only be validated by the communication among individuals. It gives primacy to a certain group of people who have access to a public space and who could communicate in a dominant language of a given context. There is no interaction between the speech act and the consensus. Thus, Habermas communication theory is a consensus driven closed system. It is the attempt to rescue the Enlightenment project embedded in logocentrism.

Idealistic Materialistic Discipline
Sausure Langue Parole Linguistics
Volosinov Language system Speech act Linguistics
Koselleck Conceptual Social History
Chakrabarty History 1 History 2 History
White Form Content History
Benjamin Historicism Historical materialism Philosophy
Spinoza Mind Body Philosophy
Deleuze Molar Molecular Philosophy
Canguilhem Normal Pathological History of Science
Vernadsky Noosphere Biosphere Natural Science
Bateson Culture Nature Anthropology
Trouillot Historicity 1 Historicity 2 Anthropology
Habermas Consensus Communication Sociology
Weber Ideal-types Reality Sociology
Luhmann System Environment Sociology
Bourdieu Theory Practice Sociology

See also


Jerry Fodor on mental architecture

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Jerry Fodor is notable for his important and influential ideas on a hypothesized "structure" of the mind or, what has often been called mental architecture.



Fodor and Chomsky

Fodor maintains that Noam Chomsky’s criticism of language learning must be extended to cover all of the essential aspects of thought. In his The Language of Thought of 1975, Fodor presented his famous "impossibility thesis" with regard to the gradual acquisition of concepts. Suppose that you are a child in the first stage of such a process of acquisition and you must try to learn the concept X, a concept of the second stage. If something is a second-stage concept, then it cannot be coextensive with any first-stage concept, otherwise there would be no distinction in expressive power between the first and the second stages and no basis at all for such a hierarchy of learning stages. But if you are a child who cannot represent the extension of a second-stage concept in terms of the extension of some first-stage concept with which you are already familiar, then you cannot represent the extension of that second-stage concept X at all because the first-stage concepts are all that you have at your disposal. And if you cannot represent the extension of the concept, then you cannot learn the concept because the learning of a concept implies the projection and confirmation of the biconditionals which determine that the extension of the concept has been learned. The conclusion is that either higher-stage concepts are indeed representable in terms of (reducible to) lower-stage concepts (in which case there is no basis for the distinctions between stages and the hierarchy crumbles with no actual learning taking place) or there are concepts in the higher-level stages which cannot be represented in the lower-stages, in which case the child cannot learn them. Fodor’s conclusion is that an "extreme innatism" concerning concepts is necessary to explain learning. He will accept, for example, that the complex concept AIRPLANE may be composed out of simpler concepts such as FLYING and MACHINE. But he insists that the human mind is "richly endowed" with many fairly complex concepts such as Machine from birth. This view has been strongly contested.[1]

In The Modularity of Mind, Fodor makes another crucial distinction between his approach to the mental and that of Chomsky. He attributes to Chomsky (and other so-called neo-Cartesians) the view that what are actually innate are (only) the intentional objects of propositional attitudes: the content expressed by the sentences of the language of thought. This, however, flies in the face of Chomsky’s own writings which have always tended to emphasize the existence of organs of the mind similar in structure and function to the modules talked about by Fodor. In any case, Fodor suggests, in this work, that his approach, unlike the others, attempts to explain what is required, other than content, to give rise to behaviour:

"If you say '19' when I say '7 plus 12, please', your reply could undoubtedly be explained in part in reference to your knowledge of numbers. But this is not enough, given that, after all, knowledge does not translate into behaviour in virtue of only the content of propositions. It seems evident that mechanisms are needed which put into action that which is known, mechanisms which have the function of making the organization of behaviour conform to the propositional structures which are known."[2]

The connection between functional architecture and content is therefore required in order to explain one of the most relevant questions of the program of naturalization of the mental and the explanation of behaviour in causal terms.

Why modularity matters

The Müller-Lyer optical illusion with arrows. All three arrows at the top, though they appear to be different, have the exact same lengths. The bottom part of the diagram demonstrates their equality

Fodor thinks that a (moderately) modular view of the structure of the mind is necessary to explain the strong degree of autonomy from the central system that certain properties of perception demonstrate. He cites the case of experiments which demonstrate the specificity of domain of the mechanisms which act during the analysis of phonetic information. These experiments apparently demonstrate that the mechanisms of phonetic analysis are exclusively sensible to acoustic sequences of spoken language. But, according to Fodor, what really distinguishes modules from central processes is what he calls informational encapsulation. This is roughly the thesis that modules are much less open and permeable to background knowledge and beliefs on the part of the individual. Fodor uses the persistence of perceptual illusions to illustrate his thesis. Illusions, such as Müller-Lyer tend to persist long after a subject has been exposed to them and has learned that the two lines are, in fact, equal in length. The knowledge that the two lines are equal is cognitively available and constitutes part of his background knowledge which he can access consciously at any time. Nevertheless, when looking at the rods, one still effectively sees them as uneven and the illusion persists. This suggests to Fodor that basic perceptual modules are partly closed off from the cognitive background knowledge of the subject: modules are informationally encapsulated. The study of perception is of fundamental importance for illustrating the connection between functional architecture and the theory of mental content. The fact that perception exhibits characteristics of autonomy and independence from central processes (and that it is relatively impenetrable to background knowledge) can be posted at the base of a theoretical conception able to mediate between internalist conceptions (hence preserving representational realism) and externalist conceptions (hence allowing for a causal-informational conception) of mental content.

Fodor’s proposal is characterized by the attempt to converge the causal conception with the inferential thesis of perception. His goal is to break the bond between the inferential thesis and the thesis of the dependence of perception on the system of beliefs/desires of individuals. Basing itself on the importance of background knowledge in perceptual processes, the inferential conception has been utilized in favour of the epistemic hypothesis of perception. This hypothesis fits perfectly with the inferential thesis because it explains the derivation of the hypotheses that the perceptual system projects on the proximal stimulus. The result is a notion of the cognitive permeability of perception: seeing is an interpretive act which depends on the background knowledge of the subject. According to Fodor, however, it is possible to adhere to the inferential thesis without having to subscribe to the idea of cognitive permeability. From the fact that perceptual processes are inferential it does not follow that they must have access to the background knowledge of subjects. But, in order for all of this to work, perceptual systems must be "specialized" and "encapsulated." Our best theory of perception, therefore, seems to require a modular organization of the mind.

Gibson and the inferential thesis

So why is the inferential thesis necessary for Fodor and how does he justify it? In an article called How Direct is Visual Perception: Some Reflections on Gibson’s "Ecological Approach", Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn criticize the conception of perception proposed by James Jerome Gibson in 1979.[3] The so-called ecological approach is in sharp contrast with the Establishment Theory maintained by cognitivists. The cognitivist thesis considers perception precisely to be a form of inference (seeing IS making hypotheses about the world). Three factors are necessary in order to sustain this thesis: memory, representation and a mechanism of elaboration able to transform—according to certain rules—some representations (premises) into other representations (conclusions). The reference to representations renders perception a mediated process which is highly indirect. Against this, Gibson proposes an hypothesis of perception capable, in his view, of doing without these three factors (and which is therefore qualified as direct . To perceive, in his hypothesis, is to directly gather, without any representational intermediation, the invariant properties of the environment. But what are these properties?

Fodor points out that in order to avoid a "trivialization problem" (that is, the possibility that anything can be counted as an invariant property), Gibson must offer some criterion capable of tying together the gathering of information and the environmental invariants:

Suppose that under certain circumstances people can correctly perceive that certain things in their environment are of the type P. Since it is not possible to correctly perceive something of the type P unless it really is P, it is always trivially true that the things that can be perceived as P share an invariant property: their being P. Now, since, according to Gibson, that which people do when they perceive is to directly gather an appropriate invariant, for every perceptual result the following pseudo-explanation will always be valid: to perceive that something is P is to gather the invariant property P that the things of this type have.[4]

An illuminating example of the argumentative circularity which underlies the attempt to tie "direct grasping" to the invariant properties of objects can be seen in one of the key points of Gibson’s theory, according to Fodor. This is the thesis according to which the privileged invariants of objects are a sort of "affordances", or dispositional properties (being eaten, being grasped, being launched, etc.) which the objects offer to the organisms with which they come into ecological contact. Against this hypothesis, Fodor shows that such "affordances" presuppose direct perception and cannot be used to explain it.

The impossibility of direct perception of distal objects makes it necessary, according to Fodor, to adopt an inferential theory (necessarily mediated and indirect) of perception. The computational mechanism at the base of inferential processes is represented by the transducers. These are the mechanisms capable of providing a representation (in atomic structures of the LOT) of the dispositions of distal objects on the basis of the properties of the proximal stimulus. Given the huge gap which exists between proximal stimulus and distal object, it isn’t possible to propose a direct conception of perception (every perception is mediated by the representations which bridge the gap between distal object and proximal stimulus). Fodor’s conception remains within the context of the representational theory of the mind. Gibson, in his view, fails to clear the field of this theory because it is basically ineliminable, given that all of the semantic questions of perception seem to necessarily refer to it.

Fodor also addresses the problem of intentionality, one of the central aspects of the question of perceptual content which seems to be insoluble from the point of view of Gibson’s theory. The key point of Fodor’s criticism of the thesis of direct perception is that, given the same identical stimulus, we are able to form many different representations of the same object (seeing it as the morning star or as the evening star) and this in turn will tend to give rise to different behaviours. Even though there is a sense in which we see merely extensionally, therefore, seeing is substantially intentional. And the intentional aspects are, in fact, those which have causal relevance in any explanation of human behaviour. Inference, representation and intentionality seem to be, Fodor believes, intimately related. Gibson’s problems arise from not having comprehended this fact.

The limits of interpretation

Jastrow's duck-rabbit illusion

If the question of intentionality is the critical notion in Fodor’s criticism of Gibson, in Observation Reconsidered the same notion plays a specular role: the limitation of the interpretationalist conception of perception.[5] The question regards the fixation of beliefs. Traditionally, the theories in this area tend to concentrate on two hypotheses: those which privilege the perceptual aspects and consider the fixation of beliefs to be dependent on perception and, therefore, on the relation with the external world; and those that, privileging instead the inferential relation between old and new beliefs, consider the fixation of beliefs to be substantially a process internal to the organism. While Fodor admits that the internal relation between beliefs has an enormous value, he maintains that this aspect has been overemphasized in recent philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. Fodor’s intent is to try to re-establish a just equilibrium between interpretation and observation.

The interpretationalist theories have a strong and consolidated tradition behind them. Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) distinguished between seeing that and seeing as using the well known experiment of ambiguous figures (Jastrow's duck-rabbit).[6] Ambiguous figures force us to confront the fact that perception cannot be determined exclusively by sensory stimuli: given the same stimuli, it is possible to give two (or more) different interpretations of the same retinal configuration. Processes of interpretation are necessary in order to give sense to mere sensory stimulation. One author who has strongly insisted on this point is Jerome Bruner (1957), one of the founders of the New Look in the psychology of vision.[7] The most radical thesis in this regard, however, is that which, above all in linguistics and anthropology, has taken on the name of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis . This hypothesis asserts that every perceptual act is determined and constituted by the entire web of beliefs of the individual (in fact, by his whole culture). This is a strongly holistic position which Fodor vehemently opposes and criticises. The tight relation between the interpretationalist hypothesis and holistic conceptions of belief is at the base of the idea of the dependence of perception on theory. This idea has profound repercussions also in epistemology. Thomas Kuhn (1962), Norwood Russell Hanson (1958) and Nelson Goodman (1968), for example, maintain that the perception of the world depends on how the percipient conceives the world: two individuals (two scientists) who witness the same phenomenon and are steeped in two radically different theories will see two radically different things. It is our interpretation of the world, in this view, which determines that which we see.

Fodor attempts to establish that this theoretical paradigm is fallacious and misleading by demonstrating the impenetrability of perception to the background knowledge of subjects. The strongest case can be based on the evidence from experimental cognitive psychology itself: the persistence of perceptual illusions. Just knowing that the two horizontal lines in the Muller-Lyer illusion are equal does not prevent one from continuing to see them as one being longer than the other. It is this impenetrability of the information elaborated by the mental modules (informationally encapsulated) which limits the extent of interpretationalism.

The criticism of the interpretationalist hypothesis accounts for the common sense intuition (at the base of naïve physics) of the independence of reality from the conceptual categories of the epistemic subject. If the processes of elaboration of the mental modules are independent of the background theories, in fact, then it is possible to maintain the realist view that two scientists who embrace two radically diverse theories see the world exactly in the same manner even if they interpret it differently. The point is that is necessary to distinguish between observations and the perceptual fixation of beliefs. While it is beyond doubt that the second process involves the holistic relation between beliefs, the first is largely independent of the background beliefs of individuals.

Clearing the way for realism

Maintaining that scientists see the same world but interpret it differently does not explain, according to some critics, scientific dispute. According to Fodor, however, the true point in discussion is not the question of understanding what distinguishes various theories from each other, but what it is that permits scientific consensus. His answer to this problem is that scientific consensus is indissolubly linked to the thesis of the independence of observation from theories. Despite the interpretative differences, that which scientists share is that which depends on their belonging to a species endowed with certain common cognitive-perceptual structures. The question is also important because it has repercussions on the plane of semantics and mental content.


  1. ^ Fodor, Jerry A. (1988). The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. The MIT Press. 
  2. ^ Fodor, Jerry A. (1975). The Language of Thought. Thomas Cromwell. 
  3. ^ Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin. 
  4. ^ Fodor, Jerry A. and Pylyshyn, Zenon. "How Direct Is Visual Perception? Some Reflections on Gibson's Ecological Approach". Cognition (9): 139–196.  on-line preprint
  5. ^ Fodor, Jerry A. (1990). A Theory of Content and Other Essays. The MIT Press. 
  6. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Basil Blackwell. 
  7. ^ Bruner, J. (1957). "On Perceptual Readiness". Psychological Review (65): 14–21.