When I read written text, I am using the representations in the text for their content. Could this content be original, as opposed to derived?
Different writers have made the distinction between original and derived content in different ways. For our purposes, it will serve to make the following two points about the distinction.
- In general, a representation's content is supposed to be derived if it has that content by virtue of intentional agents' handling of the representation. In general, a representation's content is supposed to be original if it's not derived.
- Whatever the distinction between original and derived content is, that which marks the distinction can be cast in terms of the present causal powers and dispositions of representations, and not just in terms of the histories of representations.
1), or something near enough, is true, I think, of all the original/derived distinctions that people have made over the years.
What about 2)? At least in the discussion over Extended Cognition, the original/derived distinction seems to be treated as what I'll call a technological distinction. Many people think that not all distinctions in Science need to be castable in terms only of present causal powers. (So, for example, many philosophers think that the distsinction between biologically functional and nonfunctional objects rests not on their present causal powers, but on their [for example, natural-selectional] histories. Two things could be causally identical, in causally identical environments, yet one be a heart, and the other fail to be a heart.) But if we are concerned to know what we can do now, what we can build, what we can do with this or that tool, then we are going to be concerned centrally about technological distinctions and not (directly) with scientific ones. I hope I've gestured sufficiently in the direction of "technological distinction" to give you an idea of what I mean by it. For a definition, I think it will do in a pinch to say that a technological distinction just is a distinction between kinds that can't be cast except in terms of present causal powers and dispositions.
As I said, in the discussion over Ex-Cog, it seems to me that the original/derived distinction is a technological one. On this very blog, for example, Adams began his response to my first orig/deriv post by making a claim about the significance of original intentionality for the project of building (my emphasis) a mind out of a machine.
But why have written texts been supposed to be paradigmatically derived in their intentionality and not original? One idea is that they have derived content because they have had their meanings assigned to them by a community of readers. But that is to mark a distinction based on history, not based on present causal powers or dispositions.
Another idea might be to claim that when we read, as we are reading, we are assigning meanings to symbols. But is this so? Possibly not. For though we must obviously represent words as symbols and choose which meanings to apply to them as we are learning to read, once we know how to read, it's not so clear that we are applying meanings to the text anymore. Rather, it may be that by learning how to read, we've made ourselves such that texts now simply trigger meanings, rather than our in any sense assigning those meanings as we read. The assignment happened in the past, as we were learning—but that in itself doesn't make the text's meaning "derived" in the sense relevant to the Ex-Cog discussion, relying as it does only on a consideration of the history of the habit of assigning that meaning to that symbol.
If a representation has meaning for an agent without that agent representing the representation as a representation and explicitly applying a meaning to that representation, then, I suspect, that representation has its meaning for that agent originally. And I also suspect that when we read texts in our native language with facility, the symbols in those texts have meaning for us without our representing those representations as representations or our explicitly applying meanings to those representations. I suspect these texts have their meaning for us "automatically" in a way which makes them, for us, original rather than derived meanings.
These posts always turn out longer than I expect. I want to invite discussion of what I've said so far, and in a few days, I'll follow up with reasons that I suspect that when we read written texts, they have their meaning for us without our representing them as representations and applying meanings to them.
Questions that could be discussed about the present post are the following. Am I right to insist that in the discussion about Ex-Cog, the original/derived distinction must be understood in terms of present causal powers? Am I right to suggest that what it means for something to have derived content for an agent in this sense is for the agent to be representing the representation as a representation to which it might apply any of a number of possible meanings? Can my use of terms like "trigger" and "assign" be sharpened in some way in order to make it clear whether I'm onto something or off my rocker? I've set up a dichotomy between representations having their meaning via representation as representation on the one hand, and on the other hand representations having their meaning "automatically" or by a simple "triggering" for an agent. Is this dichotomy valid? Or could there be other ways for representation to have their meaning, and which count as constituting a representation as having its content derivedly?