Anti-Individualism: Mind and Language, Knowledge and Justification. By Sanford C. Goldberg


Pp. xiii, 265 , Cambridge , Cambridge University Press , 2007 , $90.00.

This book is not gracefully written, but it is worth penetrating its stylistic carapace if one values tough argument. When I first read the title, the naughty thought occurred to me, what a pleasure it would be to be relieved of one's individual epistemic responsibilities; of ever again having to assume the burden of finding anything out for oneself regarding matters either of fact or of value. But how could one bring off such a feat?

Part I, on semantic anti-individualism, begins with an account of the communication of knowledge, and makes a case for the existence of public linguistic norms from the occurrence of successful communication on the one hand, and the existence of misunderstandings on the other. Then he argues from the reality of public linguistic norms to anti-individualism with regard to the language of thought. Part II is concerned with epistemic anti-individualism, and starts applying it to the epistemic dimension of knowledge communication. Objections are mounted which take into account the phenomena of gullibility and rationality. A final chapter recommends what the author calls ‘an ‘active’ epistemic anti-individualism’; in which the reader is given instruction about ‘nearby possible worlds’ in which someone ‘forms the testimonial belief that there is milk in the fridge, under conditions in which there is no milk in the fridge’ (p. 214).

Goldberg has a good deal to say on what he calls ‘the consumption of testimony’ (a phrase I find curious, though he frequently uses it). On the acquisition by children of beliefs based on testimony, we seem to have intuitions of which the implications conflict with one another. It seems perverse to deny, on the grounds of her cognitive immaturity, that three-year-old Sally knows that her mother has just bought some ice-cream for dinner, on the basis of what she has been told by her uncle, when in fact her mother has done this. And yet we are also inclined to say that the cognitive immaturity of children of this age makes it impossible for them to have adequate grounds for believing that such testimony is credible, and therefore for knowing the fact in question. Goldberg displays an impressive mastery of the evidence amassed on these matters by empirical psychologists. One of these argues that, up to a certain age, one can indeed be properly said to know through what one is told by another person, even when one has not acquired the mental capacities necessary adequately to evaluate such information. (It appears to me that it is superstitious to believe that there is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question whether Sally knows about the ice-cream or not; in a sense she does, in a sense she doesn't.)

The truth on the central topic under consideration, I believe, may properly be summarized something like this. By attending to the testimony of others, we get the hang of a process which is essentially private to each one of us - using our minds to attend to phenomena of sensation or feeling, to hypothesize more or less intelligently, to judge more or less reasonably what is so, and to make more or less responsible decisions accordingly. Some would say that these activities were not essentially private in that, if we had devices for inspecting the interiors of others' brains, we could observe them directly; but I remain unconvinced. Wittgenstein and his followers have demonstrated, I would concede, that if there were not public criteria for the occurrence of private mental acts, we could not talk of them, or probably even undergo or engage in them. But there are such criteria; we know what it is for people to look and sound as though they had just made an observation, or were trying to puzzle something out, or had just come to a decision after moments or months of hesitation. Having once gained the use of our mental faculties via these criteria, we can use them for ourselves, as even the most insensitive or stupid do to some extent, and persons of genius do to an exceptional degree. Our mental performances are nonetheless essentially private acts, of which we are directly aware, and of which we can enhance our awareness by suitably directed attention. The moral is, that the acquisition and cultivation of our capacity to gain knowledge, whether by testimony or otherwise, is a matter of both ‘public’ social influence and ‘private’ individual practice.

We must apply this capacity to some extent for ourselves, as individuals, if we are to live reasonably and responsibly. It will not do to deny individualism so thoroughly as to imply the negation of this enormously important fact. There are times when it is proper to be Athanasius contra mundum. The balance of the public and private, the social and individual, contribution to knowledge, is of the essence. If you tip the balance too far in the direction of the public and social, as I think Goldberg's account might lead you to do, you bid fair to cut off at the root all original creativity in science, morality, or the arts.