Extruding Intentionality from the Metaphysical Flux
On the Origin of Objects is, at heart, an extended search for a non-circular and nonreductive characterization of two key notions: intentionality (the content or "aboutness" distinctive of mental states) and computation (the familiar but elusive tool of much cognitive scientific explanation). Only a non-circular and non-reductive account of these key notions can, Smith believes, provide a secure platform for a proper understanding of the mind. The project has both a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively, Smith rejects views that attempt to identify the key notions with lower-level physical properties, arguing instead for a more abstract and systemic understanding. This negative effort occupies Part I of the book (Analysis). In Part II (Construction), we encounter the positive side of Smith's proposal: an attempt to develop a non-reductive analysis of computation and meaning able to meet the (rather severe) requirements laid out in Part I. One purpose of this critical review is to lay out this project in fairly simple terms. This is necessary since Smith's own treatment and prose sometimes obscures the flow of the argument. I suggest that, properly understood, Smith's proposal bears a clear affinity to ideas emerging from the dynamical systems movement within Cognitive Science, and that this tie-in can help put flesh on several of the more metaphorical characterizations in the book. My main criticism is that the book ultimately fails to provide an account able to meet Smith's own requirements for a truly non-reductive account of intentionality. This is especially the case regarding Smith's commitment to licensing a partition of the world based on no a priori assumptions whatsoever. The exercise is a valuable one, however, since it forces us to look harder at some foundational assumptions and at least hints at a new and refreshing perspective: one in which the key explanatory relations are grounded in facts about human practice and pragmatically established social norms.