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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as

Manifestations of Intelligence?
University Press Scholarship Online

Oxford Scholarship Online


Tool Use and Causal Cognition
Teresa McCormack, Christoph Hoerl, and Stephen Butterfill

Print publication date: 2011


Print ISBN-13: 9780199571154
Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012
DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199571154.001.0001

Why Do Language Use and Tool Use


Both Count as Manifestations of
Intelligence?
John Campbell

DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199571154.003.0009

Abstract and Keywords


Language and tool use seem to be equally fundamental as
manifestations of intelligence, but neither depends on the
other. This chapter proposes that there are structural parallels
between characterization of the meaning of a word and
characterization of the significance of a tool. In both cases
the case of a word and the case of a tool we need some
notion of the use that is characteristically or normatively
made of the thing. And we also need some characterization of
the aspect of the thing in virtue of which it has that use. In the
case of a word, in some cases we'd talk about the reference of
the term. In the case of a tool, in some cases we'd talk about
the causal significance of the tool: the intrinsic properties in
virtue of which it can be used for its purpose. In both cases,

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
we can contrast someone who merely has grasped the use
someone who only knows how to make the correct moves with
the thing, that is, with the word or the tool from someone
who is making intelligent use of the thing, who knows why it is
that this is the right thing to use in that way, either because
they know the reference of the word or because they know the
intrinsic causal properties of the tool that matter for its
purpose.

Keywords: language, tool use, word, causal significance, characterization

1. The parallels between language and tool use


People often comment on the parallels between language and
tool use as manifestations of intelligence. Suppose that a
spacecraft lands and an alien creature trundles out. It whips
out a box, takes out a saw, and chops down half a dozen trees,
lashing them together to form a bridge over a river. It crosses
the river, pulls together the trees and affixes wheels to make a
simple cart. Here we seem to have intelligence. Of course, you
might want to reserve judgment pending further observation,
and I will spend the bulk of this paper considering just what
you might be looking for in your further observations.
Do we have language here? So far, there isnt any evidence
whatever of use of language. And your further observations
might, I will suggest, confirm the hypothesis of intelligence
without doing anything to establish that theres language
here. Of course, it could happen round the other way. If our
alien trundles out and issues requests or commands in
idiomatic English we would provisionally assume intelligence,
pending further observation of course, but that further
observation need not involve tool use.
Language and tool use seem to be equally fundamental as
manifestations of intelligence, but neither depends on the
other.
If language and tool use are, in the most basic cases at any
rate, independent of one another, why should we describe
them as both manifestations of a single thing, intelligence? Is
intelligence simply not univocal, a word that bundles

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
together phenomena that are intrinsically unrelated? Are
there structural parallels between language and tool use that
explain why we should link them together? Or is it rather that
they are both effects of a single underlying cause, the
cognitive capacity that is key to language also being key to
tool use? On the one hand, it is difficult to accept that
language and tool use are simply unrelated phenomena; on the
other hand, it is not obvious where to begin in sketching out
what the structural parallels between them might be or what
kind of cognitive capacity might be a common cause of both.
I will propose that there are structural parallels between
characterization of the meaning of a word and
characterization of the significance of a tool. In both cases
the case of a word and the case of a toolwe need some
notion of the use that is characteristically

(p.170)

or

normatively made of the thing. And we also need some


characterization of the aspect of the thing in virtue of which it
has that use. In the case of a word, in some cases at any rate
wed talk about the reference of the term. In the case of a tool,
in some cases at any rate wed talk about the causal
significance of the tool: the intrinsic properties in virtue of
which it can be used for its purpose. In both cases, we can
contrast someone who merely has grasped the usesomeone
who only knows how to make the correct moves with the
thing, that is, with the word or the toolfrom someone who is
making intelligent use of the thing, who knows why it is that
this is the right thing to use in that way, either because they
know the reference of the word or because they know the
intrinsic causal properties of the tool that matter for its
purpose.

2. Types of awareness in tool use


I will propose that we have a notion of the intelligent use of
language that is structurally parallel to a notion of the
intelligent use of a tool, and try to bring out the parallel. I will
spend most time on the characterization of intelligent tool use.
The theoretical options for characterizing tool use seem to me
to be much less well-mapped than the analysis of the
intelligent use of language.

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
Practically everyone who writes about tool use at some point
remarks that the tool is an extension of the body. The remark
is not as immediately helpful as you might hope, because the
notion of the body is itself so complex. However, one way of
developing the idea is in terms of the kinds of awareness you
have of the tool and the object you are operating on. In
Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi says that the distinction
is between the focal awareness you have of the object on
which you are operating and the subsidiary awareness you
have of the tool itself. Here is his account:
When we use a hammer to drive in a nail, we attend to
both nail and hammer, but in a different way. We watch
the effect of our strokes on the nail and try to wield the
hammer so as to hit the nail most effectively. When we
bring down the hammer we do not feel that its handle
has struck our palm but that its head has struck the nail.
Yet in a sense we are certainly alert to the feelings in our
palm and the fingers that hold the hammer. They guide
us in handling it effectively, and the degree of attention
that we give to the nail is given to the same extent but in
a different way to these feelings. The difference may be
stated by saying that the latter are not, like the nail,
objects of our attention, but instruments of it. They are
not watched in themselves; we watch something else
while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a
subsidiary awareness of the feeling in the palm of my
hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my
driving in the nail. (Polanyi, 1962, p. 55)
The problem that interests me in this paper is to characterize
the difference between what Ill call intelligent tool use, on the
one hand, and mere tool use behaviors, on the other. Suppose
you are working deftly with a chisel to make it possible to slot
two pieces of wood together. Here its possible to display a lot
of intelligence in your working, as you vary your angle of
attack and so on to deal with the grain and density of the
wood. In contrast, suppose you are in a strange house and
wondering how to open the curtains in the room youre in. You
tug at them and they dont seem to yield much. As youre
looking around you see a little gadget with an inviting button

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
that you press, and the curtains part. It is perhaps a bit
misleading to call this kind of tool use unintelligent, for it may
actually

(p.171)

involve a considerable exercise of intelligence.

Consider someone using a programmable remote control to


operate a home theater. Operating the thing may demand
considerable intellectual ability, but it will ordinarily still not
be intelligent in the sense I have in mind. The point is that
when you are using the chisel, there is some sense in which
you understand why it works as it does. You have some insight
into just how its mechanical properties allow you to
manipulate the wood as you do. That informs the way you use
the tool. In contrast, you may have very little or no insight into
the underlying mechanics of the curtain opener or remote
control. It is in that sense that your use of them is not
intelligent. There may well be an exercise of intellect here, but
when we observe animal tool use, it very often looks
startlingly like the intelligent use of a chisel. What is so
disappointing here is that the animal very often fails to follow
through. Its not obvious what the key distinctions are here.
The question that comes to mind is whether the animals use
of the tool is intelligent. In this paper I want to explain that
notion of intelligent tool use.
I think that Polanyis distinction between focal awareness of,
for example, the nail and the subsidiary awareness of the
hammer provides a helpful framework for discussion here. I
think we can proceed by:
(a) Giving a richer characterization of the content of
focal awareness;
(b) Giving a richer characterization of the content of
subsidiary awareness; and
(c) Explaining the relation between focal and subsidiary
awareness.
I think that we can in these terms say what it is that is
distinctive of intelligent tool use. In fact, I can sketch the
whole account briefly now. Suppose we distinguish between
the target, that is, the object you are using the tool to act on,
such as a nail, and the tool itself, such as the hammer. We will
characterize the content of focal awareness in terms of the

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
properties that you currently perceive the object to have, and
here we can distinguish between:
Variable properties of the target. These are the properties
of the target that you can change by means of the use of the
tool (for example, whether and how far the nail is driven
into the wood, whether the wood has a V cut into it, and
so on);
and
Standing properties of the target. These are the properties
of the target because of which the use of the tool can
change the targets variable properties (so the targets
standing properties include the rigidity of the nail and its
tapering shape, the softness and grain of the wood you are
chiseling, and so on).
We will characterize the content of subsidiary awareness in
terms of the properties you currently perceive the tool to
have. And here there is a distinction between:
Variable properties of the tool. These are the properties of
the tool that can be changed, and whose variation is under
your direct control (the direction and force with which the
hammer is moved, the place to which the chisel is applied,
the force with which it is struck, and so on);
and
Standing properties of the tool. These are the properties of
the tool because of which changing the tools variable
properties can bring about the changes you want in

(p.172)

your target object (standing properties of the tool include


the solidity and mass of the hammer, its size and shape, the
sharpness and rigidity of the blade of the chisel, and so on).
These are typically not aspects of the tool that can be
varied under your direct control. However, it is only
because the tool has these fixed characteristics that you
can use it to make the changes you want.
These classifications are of course context-dependent; what
counts as a standing property of a thing in one context may
count as a variable property of the thing in another context.
At this point, if you look back at the quote from Polanyi, it
looks as though he is describing a contrast between the focal

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
awareness of the targets variable properties, how far the nail
is driven into the wood and so on, and the subsidiary or
instrumental awareness of the tools variable properties.
Someone using a hammer typically will be aware of such
standing properties as the rigidity of the nail and the solidity
of the hammer, but it does not seem quite right to describe
this as either focal awareness or instrumental awareness. It
does not seem right to describe this as focal awareness,
because the focus of ones attention is on the variable
characteristics of the object that one is trying to change by
using the tool, rather than on the unchanging characteristics
that make this process possible. And it does not seem right to
describe it as instrumental awareness, because what matters
here will be factors such as the force with which one is using
the hammer, that one can vary at will, rather than the
unchanging characteristics of the tool itself.
Nonetheless, someone using a tool will typically be aware of
such factors as the rigidity of the nail or the solidity of the
hammer. In fact this seems central to the intelligent use of the
tool. There is, of course, a contrast between the way in which
this awareness of standing properties is involved in tool use
and the monitoring one does of the variable aspects of the nail
(how far in has it gone?) and the tool (am I swinging the
hammer hard enough?). So we might describe the subject as
having a recessive awareness of those factors, the standing
properties of object and tool. So we have a focal awareness of
the variable properties of the target, an instrumental
awareness of the variable aspects of the tool, and a recessive
awareness of the standing properties of the target and the
tool.
In choosing what tool to use, the standing factors will of
course be critical. You want to choose a tool that is the right
size and shape, is rigid, has the right heft and weight, and so
on. And if you want to make a tool in order to affect some
variable properties of your target object, reflection on the
standing properties of the target in order to affect your
construction of a tool with a particular set of standing
properties will of course be critical. When you are actually
using the tool, these characteristics of it are not at the
forefront of your mind; as Polanyi says, the focus of your

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
attention is typically the nail, not the hammer. In intelligent
tool use, your recessive awareness of the standing properties
of the tool is nonetheless playing a role in your action. It is not
like your subsidiary awareness of the tools variable
properties, as you vary the swing of the hammer to drive the
nail in. Your subsidiary awareness of the force and direction
with which you swing the hammer, for example, is monitoring
the changes you make to those variable properties. Your
recessive awareness of the standing properties of the tool
plays a different role. It regulates the way in which your
awareness of the position of the nail affects your modulation of
the variable properties of the tooljust how hard you swing
when you see that the nail is nearly in,

(p.173)

for example. If

your recessive awareness was of the wood as being extremely


hard and the hammer as small and light, you may swing
harder than you would if your recessive awareness of the
wood was of it as soft and the hammer as large and heavy.
That recessive awareness of standing properties is constant
across many different uses you might make of the tool, unlike
your subsidiary awareness of its constantly changing variable
properties.
When you are using a tool, such as a hammer, intelligently,
your use of the hammer will of course be affected by your
perception of the targets variable properties, and your
objectives in the taskjust how far you want the nail to go in,
and so on. You will operate on the basis of a systematic
covariation between the variable properties of the target and
those of the tool; to drive the nail further in, you will hit it
more often, and harder, for example. What is distinctive of the
intelligent use of a tool is that your use of the tool does not
merely exploit knowledge of the covariation between the
variable properties of the target and those of the tool. You
could have that already, in the case of your use of the remote
to open the curtains. In the intelligent use of the tool, your
assumption of this covariation between the variable properties
of the target and those of the tool will be grounded in your
knowledge of the standing properties of the target and of the
tool.
In what sense is your use of the tool, with its assumption of
covariation, grounded in your knowledge of the standing

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
properties of the target and the tool? There are counterfactual
connections between the pattern of use that you make of the
tool (what use you make of it to achieve what outcomes) and
your knowledge of the standing properties of the target and
the tool. That is, if you think the nail is made of rubber, or the
hammer is made of glass, then you wont proceed in the same
way. You will not operate on the same assumption of
systematic covariation between the variable properties of the
target and those of the tool.
That is not the only counterfactual connection between the
pattern of use that you make of the tool and your knowledge of
the standing properties of the target and tool. In the absence
of any radical changes in the context, you would keep the
same pattern of use for the tool, through many different
circumstances, so long as your knowledge of standing
properties stayed the same. That is, so long as you still think
the nail is rigid and tapering to a point, and the hammer solid
and robust, you will still hit the nail in the same way, even if
there are different people present, even if clouds pass over the
sun, so long as you still have the same objectives.
Finally, in intelligent tool use, your knowledge of the standing
properties of the tool actually justifies the pattern of use that
you make of the tool. Your recessive awareness of the standing
properties is an awareness of the properties that causally
explain why this pattern of use is correct; why you will be able
to change the variable properties of the target by changing the
variable properties of the tool. In contrast, in the case of the
remote, you do not have any knowledge of why the pattern of
covariation you depend on holds. You are aware of the
whiteness and plasticity of the remote, but they do not explain
why and how far the curtains part depends on whether and for
how long you depress the button. In the case of the nail and
the hammer, it is the rigidity and tapering character of the
nail, together with the solidity and robustness of the hammer,
that causally explain why the nail will go in further the more
often and the harder the hammer is swung.
I could put the key point here by saying that there is a sense in
which, in intelligent tool use, you do know why the patterns of
covariation hold between variable properties

(p.174)

of the

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
tool and those of the object. But this is not a matter of your
having an explicit grasp of some explanatory theory. It is a
matter merely of your being guided in the right kind of way by
the standing properties to exploit the right kind of pattern of
covariation.
I can illustrate the point by reference to Melissa Greif and
Amy Needhams contrast, in their contribution to this volume,
between rigid and flexible tool use. Rigid tool use is a matter
of mastering a canonical use for the tool, as when one learns
to grasp a spoon by the handle and use it to transport food to
the mouth. Flexible tool use involves being able to use the
spoon in non-canonical ways for non-canonical purposes, as
when one grasps the spoon by its bowl and uses the handle to
open a letter. Now flexible tool use could be a relatively
superficial matter of learning different techniques by trial and
error. In that case it need not reflect any grasp at all of the
connection between the standing properties of the tool and its
potential to achieve various objectives. Or, alternatively,
flexible tool use might reflect a grasp of the way in which the
standing properties of the tool make it possible to use the
thing to achieve various objectives. This need not be a matter
of conceptual or reflective understanding of the significance of
the standing properties of the tool. It may rather be that your
knowledge of the standing properties of the tool causally
affects the sensorimotor routines you use in connection with
the tool, to achieve various objectives, without this being
mediated by any conceptual grasp of theory.
There is one more remark I want to make about intelligent tool
use, before going on to the parallel with language, but it is
perhaps the most important. If your knowledge of the standing
properties of the target and tool is to have the explanatory
role I just indicated, then we would expect there to be
something systematic here, and some generality. That is, we
would expect variation in the standing properties of target or
tool to be correlated systematically with variation in the use
that was made of the target or tool, and we would expect that
knowledge of the standing properties of the target and tool
could be exploited for any of a number of different purposes.
The blunter the nail, the harder or more often you will expect
to have to swing the hammer; the softer the wood, the easier it

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
will be to chisel, whereas chiseling hard wood may take great
force. And if you want to bend the nail, rather than simply
hammering it in, you ought to be able to do that. Finally,
someone who can make use of a hammer and a chisel ought
not to have much trouble learning to use a screwdriver, if their
use of the tools is intelligent, if it is grounded in recessive
awareness of the standing properties of target and tool, and a
systematic general implicit grasp of the causal significance of
those standing properties.
Suppose we focus for a moment on someone who has
mastered the intelligent use of a word or a tool. In both cases,
there is going to be a certain systematicity in their mastery. If
you know what a word stands for, then you know how to use it
in a wide range of contexts. Suppose in contrast that you have
only a phrasebook understanding of a word, in that you have
simply read a phrasebook that gives translations of some
whole sentences involving the word, without explaining what
differences each of the individual words are making. Then you
may know how to use the word only in some quite restricted
range of contexts, and your use of it will not be intelligent in
the ordinary sense; your use will not reflect any insight into
why this is the correct use of the term.
Similarly, if you understand how a tool works, there will be a
certain systematicity in your understanding of it. You will
know how to use this tool in a wide variety of contexts,
(p.175)

under various permutations of its intrinsic

characteristics. Suppose in contrast that you have only what I


will call a phrasebook understanding of a tool. Suppose, for
example, that you are at the bedside of someone in hospital,
wired up to an array to tubes. The doctor is called away.
Before he goes, the doctor hands you a gadget with a plunger
on it, and says, If he calls out in pain, depress the plunger,
and do that once every couple of minutes till he seems
comfortable. Here you certainly have some grasp of the use
of the tool, but it is only a phrasebook understanding. Move
you out of that context an inch and you have no idea what to
do. Suppose you hit the plunger and an alarm sounds, what
now? Suppose the patient seems delirious rather than in pain,
should you use the plunger, or is that the one thing you should
not do? Or would it be a better idea to rewire the plunger to

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
hook it up to a different set of tubes? If you did have insight
into how the plunger works, of course, you would have this
kind of systematic capacity to respond in any of a variety of
contexts.
It is sometimes suggested that what language use and tool use
have in common is their dependence on a capacity for
planning structured sequences of behavior. On the line of
analysis I am suggesting, that is quite correct. I am saying,
though, that we can go further than that. The sequences of
behavior planned in using language and in tool use will reflect
a systemic capacity for sequential planning with an underlying
repertoire of abilities. And what matters is really the systemic
capacity, rather than the sequential nature of the behavior as
such. It is, as it were, only an accident that the behaviors are
temporally sequential, because language is produced serially
and tool use generally is executed in stages. If we could
produce and understand language in complex simultaneous
displays, it would still be a display of intelligence, and
similarly for tool use. What matters is the complexity and
systematicity of the behaviors, not their temporally sequential
character.

3. The parallel with language


I have talked about a recessive awareness of the standing
properties of target and tool as being constitutive of intelligent
tool use. It is, however, often suggested that we should not
think of tool use in terms of the intentions, beliefs, and desires
of the tool user. Before setting out the issues more fully for the
case of tool use, however, it might be helpful to look at a
parallel issue about our use of language, where the
philosophical questions have been more extensively discussed.
Suppose we begin with a point about the parallel between
focal and instrumental awareness in tool use, and focal and
instrumental awareness in language. Polanyi writes:
Our attention can hold only one focus at a time and it
would hence be self-contradictory to be both subsidiarily
and focally aware of the same particulars at the same
time. (Polanyi, 1962, p. 57)
And further he writes;

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
It is interesting to recall that when we use words in
speech or writing we are aware of them only in a
subsidiary manner. This fact, which is usually described
as the transparency of language, may be illustrated by a
homely episode from my own experience. My
correspondence arrives at my breakfast table in various
languages, but my son understands only English. Having
just finished

(p.176)

reading a letter I may wish to pass it

on to him, but must check myself and look again to see in


what language it was written. I am vividly aware of the
meaning conveyed by the letter, yet I know nothing
whatever of its words. I have attended to them closely
but only for what they mean and not for what they are as
objects. If my understanding of the text were halting, or
its expressions or its spelling were faulty, its words
would arrest my attention. They would become slightly
opaque and prevent my thought from passing through
them unhindered to the things they signify. (Polanyi,
1962, p. 57)
This last remark echoes a point familiar from Wittgensteins
Investigations: we cant, in general, take it that we ordinarily
get it right or wrong in our use of language as a consequence
of our explicitly consulting some manual for the use of the
words we employ (Wittgenstein, 1967). That would require the
words themselves become a focus of attention that would, as
Polanyi says, obstruct our understanding of them. Similarly,
we can reject the idea that we ordinarily get it right or wrong
in our intelligent use of tools by explicitly consulting some
manual for the use of the tool. That would require the tool to
become a focus of attention in a way that would obstruct its
skilful use.
The conclusion Wittgenstein drew for the use of language was
that we should not think of intelligent language use as driven
by an underlying level of cognition at all. If we ask what makes
the use of language intelligent, we should not look to some
internal complex of beliefs or intentions as being what makes
the difference. Rather, we must look outward, at the context in
which the individual is using language. Someone wants to get
to Dublin and looks at a signpost; what makes their use of the

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
signpost intelligent is not that there was some inner event
when they looked at the sign, but the existence of a general
practice, or custom, or using signs in their community. More
generally, some kind of externalism about language use has
been highly popular. If you ask, for example, what
differentiates the intelligent use of language from something
produced by a computer, many philosophers today would point
not to something missing in the internal structure of the
computer, but to the need for the right kind of causal
embedding in the environment, and in a social context.
I have so far been suggesting that what makes tool use
intelligent is its being driven by a particular kind of recessive
awareness of the standing properties of the objects involved,
and the way in which the pattern of use that one makes of the
tool is responsive to ones intentions in the use of the tool and
this recessive awareness. But it would similarly be possible to
argue that this is looking inward for something to constitute
intelligence in the use of a tool, whereas in fact we ought to be
looking outward. Intelligence in tool use, like intelligence in
the use of language, is a matter of the way in which the
subject is embedded in a context, in particular a context in
which there is a custom or practice of using the tool in some
particular ways, or in which the tools are causally related in
suitable ways to the upshots of their use, to meet the needs of
their users, for example. Thus you might, for instance, argue
that it is the evolutionaryteleological context of tool use that
constitutes its intelligence, whether the tool is meeting some
need of the animal. If you know how to use the hammer to
drive the nail into the wood, does it matter whether you have
any knowledge of the standing properties of the nail or the
hammer?
The trouble with this kind of approach comes when you
consider that in the cases of both language and tool use, there
is a distinction between using the thing right and using
(p.177) it wrong. You can use a word right, applying it
correctly to an object, and you can use it wrong, applying it to
an object that it doesnt apply to. You can use a tool right, as
when you skillfully drive the nail in, and you can use a tool
wrong, as when you grip the hammer by its head and try to
use the handle to drive a screw into the wood. What is the

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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source of these standards of right and wrong? lf we say, there
is only the use, can we explain how it is that there are
standards of right and wrong? I would suggest that in the case
of language, we must begin with the idea that the words we
use typically have references: each of them makes a distinctive
contribution to the truth conditions of the sentences in which
they appear. The intelligent use of words is not a matter
merely of using words in ways that pass muster, in the right
kind of context. The intelligent use of words must be grounded
in knowledge of what the words stand for. It is because your
use of the sentences depends on knowledge of what the words
stand for, and that your assertions aim at truth, that there can
be such a thing as going right or wrong in your use of words.
Similarly, the intelligent use of tools is not a matter merely of
using tools in ways that pass muster, in the right kind of
context. The intelligent use of tools must be grounded in a
recessive awareness of their standing properties. It is because
your use of the tool depends on knowledge of its standing
properties that you can be using the tool correctly or not. Of
course, there are cases, such as the remote, where you are not
using the tool intelligently, and your use of the tool can be said
to be right or wrong as assessed by the standard set by the
manual. But the manual itself can be said to be right or wrong
only because it reflects the use made of the remote by a
technician who does have a recessive awareness of the
relevant standing properties of the remote, and who is making
intelligent use of the remote.
It is, of course, possible to reject this line of thought, for both
language and tool use. You might, for example, take a
pragmatist approach to the issue of normativity, the question
how there are standards of right and wrong. You might say
that all that matters, in your use of language, is that you
ultimately get the effects you want, or those that benefit you
somehow. Talk is just talk, good if it has good results, and that
is all the normativity there is. Similarly, you might take a
pragmatist approach to tool use, arguing that all that matters
is the upshot of the tool use. All that matters is that, one way
or another, you get the results you want, or those that benefit
you somehow.

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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One route to this kind of pragmatism is to be stuck by the
diversity of use. ln the case of a word such as morning, for
example, it can be used in greetings such as Good morning!,
in sage remarks about the morning of ones life, or in
planning the day ahead. Is there really a core referential
semantics to be given for the term that explains its use in all
these cases? Similarly, you might consider the variety of
things you can do with a stick, for example: you can point with
it, use it to take the pressure off your knees, or defend
yourself against stray dogs. Or in the case of a hammer, you
can use it to pound nails, but you can also wrap a cloth round
it and use it to reset a door properly on its hinges. Is there
really an underlying grasp of the standing properties of the
hammer that explains your uses of it in all these different
ways?
In the case of morning, however, it is compelling that there
is a core referential semantics for the termit refers to the
period between dawn and noon, and that does underpin its
uses in all these different ways. The stick can indeed be used
in endlessly many ways, with no clear standard for
correctness; for that reason, it is perhaps not

(p.178)

properly

described as a tool, though it can function as one in


particular contexts, in each of which there is a right way and a
wrong way to use it. The linguist analogy would be a sound
such as bah!, which, though certainly a part of language, has
no canonical use, though it can be imparted one in particular
contexts. In the case of the hammer, though, there is plainly a
canonical grip and a canonical way of applying it to the target,
grounded in its standing properties of size, shape, and heft. In
the cases of both language and tool use, a radical pragmatist
throws out our ordinary conceptions of right and wrong and
does not provide a convincing replacement for them.
Incidentally, resistance to pragmatism sometimes stems from
a resolute internalism about the mind: the idea that there
must be standards of right and wrong set up by an internalized
manual somewhere in the brain. That is not what drives my
own resistance to pragmatism here. For all I have said to the
contrary, knowledge of reference might be a matter of being
conscious of the thing referred to, a state one could not be in
unless the thing existed. Similarly, a recessive awareness of

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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the standing properties of the target and tool might be a
matter of standing in an experiential relation to the target and
tool, a state one could not be in unless the target and tool
existed. The reason for resisting pragmatism here is not
internalism but a desire to give a credible account of the
standards of right and wrong that there actually are for
language and tool use.

4. Systematicity
I mentioned the distinction between focal awareness of the
variable properties of the target and subsidiary or
instrumental awareness of the variable properties of the tool,
and saw that it seems like a good idea also to recognize
recessive awareness of the standing properties of the target
and tool. I talked about the pattern of use that one makes of
the tool. Let me be more fully explicit about what I mean by
this than I have been so far. Suppose someone is using a tool
to achieve some outcome: she wants to get the nail firmly into
the wood, for example. The relevant variable properties of the
nail will include things like just how far into the wood it
currently is, if at all, and the angle at which it sticks into the
wood. The relevant variable properties of the hammer will
include things like the angle at which it hits the head of the
nail, the force with which it is swung, and how often it is
swung. Once we have specified the intended outcome of the
task, the agent monitors the variable properties of the target,
and her actions affect the variable properties of the tool. Once
the intended outcome is fixed, the current variable properties
of the target affect what the agent does. That relation between
the variable properties of the target and what the agent does
with the tool, relative to an intended outcome, is what I mean
by the pattern of use of the tool. It would be possible to
generalize the basic idea here in various ways, but lets for the
moment work with this setup.
I said that the pattern of use that you make of the tool is
grounded in your recessive awareness of the standing
properties of the target and of the tool itself. So there are
characteristics like the rigidity of the nail and its pointedness,
and the weight, robustness, and heft of the hammer. And I
said that intelligent use of the tool demands that there be a

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
certain systematicity and generality in the way in which
pattern of use is grounded in this recessive awareness. In this
section I want to make more explicit what I mean by
systematicity and generality, and to bring out something
further about the parallels between tool use and language.
(p.179)

The capacity to identify properties like rigidity and

robustness is not, for most people, something that is exercised


only in the context of using one particular type of tool. It can
be exercised in the context of the use of any type of tool. It is a
skill you could exercise in the context of tool use even though
you were not very good at verbal classification. A carpenter
choosing her tools might have firm and well-informed bases
for choosing one tool over another whether or not she could
articulate a convincingly detailed verbal explanation of her
reasoning. But even if we stay in the domain of action in
general and tool use in particular, the capacity to identify
properties like rigidity and robustness has, in the case of most
people, a certain generality. It could be exercised in
connection with endlessly many different types of tool.
In intelligent tool use, the pattern of use that you make of the
tool will depend systematically on the standing properties you
perceive the target and tool to have. If you perceive the nail to
be made of a somewhat malleable metal, you will exercise
greater care to hit it head-on, for fear of bending it out of
shape, than you would if you thought it was completely
inflexible. If you perceive the head of your hammer to be
asymmetrical, you will take more care over its orientation than
you would do otherwise. These points are often a matter of
degree: your pattern of use will vary systematically with the
standing properties that you perceive the object to have.
There is an element of brute causation here. Your perception
of the standing properties of the target and tool will, in the
most basic cases, cause your pattern of use without being
mediated by any process of reflection on your part. Of course
it can happen that you say to yourself, this nail isnt all that
strong, better not whack it too freely, but there are more
basic cases in which you simply size up the hammer and nail
and act. Your perception of the standing properties of the
hammer and nail will modulate the way you use them, but not

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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because you have engaged in any reflection on the point. In
these basic cases of intelligent tool use, you size them up and
then simply act.
Intelligent tool use, then, does not demand that you somehow
have an internalized manual for the correct use of the tool
guiding your actions. Rather, what is demanded is that you
have directly wired connections between your apprehension of
the standing properties of the target and tool, and your use of
the tool. These connections mean that the standing properties
of the target and tool modulate the pattern of use that you
make of the tool. Direct wiring here just means that there
may be no mediation by further reasoning or reflection. The
modulation of the pattern of use is systematic, in that the
pattern of use covaries with variation in the standing
properties of target and tool. And the modulation of the
pattern of use is general, in that the same underlying sets of
connections can be exercised in connection with endlessly
many different tools.
Someone who can use a hammer to hit a nail can use many of
the skills exercised there when it comes to using a hammer to
hit a chisel. Moreover, your pattern of use of the hammer will
be modulated by your perception of the standing properties of
the nail and hammer for any of a wide variety of tasks you
might set out to perform, whether you want to drive the nail
in, extract it, bend it, or straighten it, for example. Summing
up:
Intelligent tool use is when there is a systematic, general
causal dependency of your pattern of use of the tool on your
recessive awareness of the standing properties of the target
and tool.
(p.180)

This gives us a framework for thinking about whether

animal tool use is intelligent. You might put it by saying that at


one end of the spectrum we have the fully general dependence
of pattern of use on awareness of standing properties; at the
other end we have cases such as your use of the remote to
open the curtains, where there is only a pattern of use, and no
dependence at all on awareness of standing properties. You
might say then that the question is whether the animals use of
a tool is more properly assimilated to your intelligent use of a

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
hammer or to your unintelligent use of the remote. Isnt that
what happens? We see the animal making a hook or using a
rake and take it to be like your use of a hammer; subsequent
observations suggest, however, that the animals tool use does
not have anything like the systematic, general grounding that
your use of a hammer does, so we think that, well, maybe it is
more like your use of the remote.
This is exactly what happens in Povinellis illuminating series
of experiments in which chimpanzees were shown not to be
sensitive to the relevant standing properties of the tools they
were using in the actions they attempted with them (Povinelli,
2000). For example, chimpanzees using a rake to retrieve food
were shown to be insensitive to the need for the rake to be
made of a rigid material. However, I think that one
consequence of setting things up in the kind of framework I
am suggesting is that we do not have to think in terms of a
linear spectrum. We may find animal species where there is
indeed only a pattern of use, and no grounding whatever in
awareness of the standing properties of target and tool.
However, there may be many species in which there is such a
dependence of pattern of use on standing properties, but a
proliferating array of different types of systematicity and
generality in different species, and the work will be in
characterizing those varieties of systematicity and generality,
without any preconception of a linear or hierarchical ordering.
There may be more than one variety of intelligent tool use.
Let me give an example by considering, as a thought
experiment, different findings that could in principle be had
with the trap tube test. In the trap task, capuchins were
presented with food inside a clear tube with a trap in the base
of the tube. If the food was pushed over the trap, it would fall
in and become inaccessible. Capuchins could use sticks to
retrieve the food (cf., e.g., Visalberghi et al., 1994).
Now we can imagine many different dimensions along which
we could test for systematicity and generality in an animals
grasp of the bearing of the standing properties of the tube,
food, and tool on the pattern of use of the tool. Suppose that
the animal can use a stick to retrieve the food, regularly

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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avoiding the trap. There are various ways in which there might
be a failure of systematicity and generality here:
(a) The animal might not recognize that whether the
food is vulnerable to going into the trap depends on
many different standing properties of the trap: whether
it is big enough that the food can fall into it, whether it
is at the bottom or at the top of the tube, whether it has
a net suspended over the top of it, and so on. We might
put this by saying that even in the context in which the
task is to retrieve food from a clear plastic tube, the
animal may not be deriving its pattern of use of the tool
from a sufficiently broad grasp of the relevant standing
properties of the situation. We might call this a breadth
requirement on intelligent tool use.
(b) The animal may not transfer its successful use of a
tool in connection with one type of objective to use of
the tool in connection with another type of objective.
(p.181) So in one context, it may be that the animal has
a good broad grasp of what the relevant standing
properties are of the trap that bear on its use of the
tool, and varies its actions in that context
appropriately. But it may be that the standing
properties are being used appropriately only in
connection with one type of task. The moment the
animal is given the task of, for example, fetching one of
its helpless young from the tube with the help of the
stick, it is incapable of doing so. There is, as we might
say, insufficient spread in the range of behaviors
grounded by the animals knowledge of the standing
properties of the tool and target.
(c) We might find that there is a lack of systematic
understanding in the animals grasp of the bearing of a
particular property on the task. That is, we might find
an animal that is careful to select a stick with a length
in just the right range to let it get the food out of one
particular tube. However, suppose the animal is now
given the task of retrieving the food from another,
much longer tube. It may be that the animal does not
grasp that a much longer stick is now needed; that the
animal has grasped the significance of length for

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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success in the initial context, but not that there is a
systematic relation between length of the tube and
length of the stick needed. This is a systematicity
requirement on the animals understanding of the
significance of a particular standing property.
What we are looking for here, as constitutive of intelligent tool
use, is generality and systematicity in the ways in which the
animals tool-using behaviors are grounded in knowledge of
the standing properties of the situation and tool. And this
grounding may be directly wired, in that it is not mediated
by any explicit grasp of a theory about the causal significance
of these properties; knowledge of them impacts directly on the
animals pattern of use of the tool. I do not want to suggest
that the above is an exhaustive list of the various types of
generality and systematicity that might be constitutive of
intelligent tool use. Nor do I want to suggest that human tool
use will always be at ceiling by this measure of intelligence.
Of course, as Georg Goldenberg remarks in his contribution to
this volume, in technical devices such as a remote control,
there may be no straightforward grounding of the possibilities
of use of the thing in standing properties of it that are known
to the subject. But there are always going to be the standing
properties of the gadget that ground the possibility of its use;
there will always be such a thing as intelligent use of any
particular tool, as when an engineer takes charge of the
remote. If there is a possibility of using a tool successfully,
there is a possibility of making intelligent use of it, by a
subject who uses it as they do because it has the relevant
standing properties. There are, so far as we know, no tools for
which the pattern of use is not grounded in the standing
properties of the thing.
I said earlier that we think of tool use as normative: there are
right ways and wrong ways to use a tool. I think we can now
fill this out as follows. Suppose you are a theorist looking at a
particular person, who, in a variety of contexts, finds herself
with the same particular objective, and a tool with which she
plans to do the job. Suppose you have an extensive knowledge
of all the physical facts about the concrete situation before
her. You know all about the physical characteristics of the

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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


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wood and the nail and the hammer, for instance. It makes
perfect sense for you as a theorist to try to identify the
(p.182) optimal way in which this person could use the tool to
achieve her objective. There may be a number of different
solutions that would work equally well. But some will plainly
be sub-optimal: the objective will not be achieved at all, or it
will take inordinate time and energy to achieve if done that
way, or it predictably risks unwanted side effects. Some of
them may work only in some restricted contexts and not be
generally usable.
Just to make the point easier to state, suppose there is one
optimal solution: it is best to hold the hammer by the handle
and hit the nail on the head, for example. What makes this the
best solution will be facts about the standing properties of the
nail and hammer. Now the agent herself does not go through
the theoretical reasoning here. But the recessive awareness of
standing properties that controls her pattern of use will be an
awareness of the key facts that make her pattern of use
optimal. In that sense, she is using the tool in the way she
does because of the very points that validate that pattern of
use as correct. This brings out something of why it is critical
to this being intelligent tool use that it should be grounded
in awareness of the standing properties of target and tool. The
person herself is acting that way, as we might put it, for the
right reasons. The other reason it matters that this is
awareness of the standing properties of target and tool is that
this is a central-system process, rather than the operation of
some low-level module dedicated to the control of one or
another specific type of behavior. A module with that kind of
specificity could not have the kind of generality and
systematicity that, I have been suggesting, characterizes
intelligent tool use.
References
Bibliography references:
Goldenberg, G. (this volume). Effects of brain damage on
human tool use.
Greif, M. L., & Needham, A. (this volume). The development of
human tool use early in life.
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Why Do Language Use and Tool Use Both Count as


Manifestations of Intelligence?
Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal Knowledge: Towards a PostCritical Philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Povinelli, D. (2000). Folk Physics for Apes. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Visalberghi, E., & Limongelli, L, (1994). Lack of
comprehension of cause-effect relations in tool-using capuchin
monkeys (Cebus apella). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 1,
1522.
Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford:
Blackwell.

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