Philosophers should be interested in ‘common currency’ claims in the cognitive and behavioural sciences

South African Journal of Philosophy 33 (2):211-221 (2014)
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A recurring claim in a number of behavioural, cognitive and neuro-scientific literatures is that there is, or must be, a unidimensional ‘common currency’ in which the values of different available options are represented. There is striking variety in the quantities or properties that have been proposed as determinants of the ordering in motivational strength. Among those seriously suggested are pain and pleasure, biological fitness, reward and reinforcement, and utility among economists, who have regimented the notion of utility in a variety of ways, some of them incompatible. This topic deserves philosophical attention for at least the following reasons. Repeated invocation of the ‘common currency’ idiom isn’t merely terminological coincidence because most of the claims are competing explanations either of manifest pattern in choices, or of order in the processes producing choice. We can’t suppose that the different currency claims within each area are compatible, because there are significant obstacles to identifying pairs of members of either the ‘pattern’ or ‘process’ group. There are, finally, seriously opposed positions about the relationships between the pattern facts and the process facts. There are philosophical positions both favouring and opposing a common currency. But direct consideration of the abstract relationships between claims about common currencies across scientific settings, and the arguments for and against these claims, is relatively rare. There is, though, much of philosophical interest to be found here

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David Spurrett
University of KwaZulu-Natal


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