Selves and Social Ontology

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The ongoing philosophical (and to a good extent, the scientific) discussion of selves is in very poor shape, much like the discussion concerning minds and for much the same reason.

We talk as if selves are things, and of course, they are, but the sense of ‘thing’ that most seem to have in mind is the wrong one.  They hypostatize selves (and minds) in the manner of physical objects, which is why they search for them in a way that suggests they expect to find them somewhere, typically “in the brain.”  During a recent conversation on the self, in which I was insisting that there is one while my interlocutor was denying it, he asked me where the self was, as if my being unable to locate it in the manner that I might locate my pancreas proved something.

Brains are not boxes and selves are not items inside of them.  Or outside, hanging over them.  Or anywhere for that matter.  They are not that kind of thing.  Nonetheless, they exist and are as real as anything else.

The discussion, such that it is, remains stuck within the orbit of the reductive and eliminative materialisms that have had us in their grip since the Second World War, and it has been an unmitigated failure.  To see this, all that one has to do is consider the fact that David Chalmers and Panpsychism are actually taken seriously.  I mean, how can anyone think that we’ve learned anything useful about selves or minds or consciousness, over the last seven decades, if we are considering ascribing them to bits of dirt or mountains or “fundamental particles”?  (Hilariously, Chalmers seems to think that this last one is the most plausible – i.e. that it’s more likely that a muon has consciousness than El Capitan – as if anything could be more or less likely within the confines of a lunatic view like Panpsychism. (p. 1))

To keep this relatively brief, let me recall a few things that are foundational to my main point:

  • In a recent piece, I talked about social reality and said that it and the things in it are as real as anything else and that there is no plausible physicalist/materialist account of it or them. I also said that this entails no “queer metaphysics,” a la Mackie, but only the recognition that there are people, reasons, actions, and other social  and “institutional” entities and facts.
  • In my essay on free will, I suggested that agency is a property of persons, not of human organisms and that acting for one’s own reasons – which is what agency consists of – should not be taken as causal, in the sense of ‘cause’ understood in classical mechanics (or in contemporary physics). The idea was that ‘person’, ‘action’, ‘reason’, and ‘agent’ make up a family of concepts from which one or the other cannot be removed or replaced.
  • In “Self Made,” I denied that we – our selves –are our own creations, in anything deeper than the relatively superficial senses associated with the expression “He’s a self-made man.”
  • On numerous occasions, I’ve referenced Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and in particular, his argument that certain things must “stand fast” in every inquiry and practice, meaning that they are taken as given and not subject to skeptical examination or revision.

I’ve written and talked quite a bit about Sellars’ distinction between the Manifest and Scientific Images, the former being defined by Sellars as the one in which “the primary objects are persons.” (p. 9)  Towards the end of the essay, he wrote:

Thus, the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. (p. 40)

Developing this idea, what I want to say is that selves, how they represent other people and the world, their reasons for acting, and their actions, are ontologically basic with respect to social reality, insofar as they provide the ground from which social and institutional things and facts – including all manner of norms – spring.  If we are going to speak of currencies or countries or citizenship or laws or politics or morals, that there are selves and representations and reasons and agents and actors (and thus, actions) has to “stand fast” for any such discourse to even get started.  As Elizabeth Anscombe would put it, facts about selves, representations, reasons, and actions are “brute” relative to economic, legal, political, and other related types of facts. (p. 3)

Notice that I said that they are ontologically basic features of social reality, not a private mental one.  Who and what I am –the self, the person – is a function of myriad social factors.  It is a matter not just of how I represent myself, but how I am represented by other individuals and institutions: by my family; my people; my friends and acquaintances; my fellow residents and citizens; my city, county, state, and national governments; the law; even businesses and corporations, large and small.  And there are dimensions of personhood that social entities other than individual human beings can possess: companies can be held responsible for things they’ve done, for example, and political entities can act, as they do when nations declare war on one another or states secede from nations to which they once belonged.

In this sense, selves are to the Manifest Image what atoms or elementary particles are to the Scientific.  Selves and their distinctive activities – representing, intending, and acting – are what create and operate the social universe, out of which, in turn, they themselves are created.  They create but are also of the social world, for as Wittgenstein showed, to represent – to identify things from a point of view, which is at the heart of all action – is itself an inherently and irreducibly social activity.

The confusions and conflations that underlie the wrong turn we’ve taken with regard to selves and their distinctive modes goes back at least as far as the Enlightenment and especially, Descartes, but the current version stems roughly from the late 1960’s, when the dispute between neo-Wittgensteinians and scientific materialists as to the nature and status of the social sciences was decided in favor of the latter.  At the heart of this decision was the view that so-called “folk psychological explanations” – i.e. the accounts we give of peoples’ actions in terms of their reasons – should be deemed a variety of scientific explanation.  Selves, therefore, had to be identified with things and activities in the brain, representations and reasons with more things and activities in the brain, and actions with the various motor movements that those brain-things and brain-activities make happen.  This is true whether one’s outlook is that of the orthodox “Representational Theory of the Mind” associated with people like Jerry Fodor or that of the radical “Eliminative Materialist Theory of the Mind” peddled by the Churchlands, for the only real disagreement between the two is as to whether folk psychology is good science or bad.

What these folks have done is precisely what Sellars warned could not and should not be done: namely, they have attempted to replace parts of the Manifest Image piecemeal with parts of the Scientific Image.  Indeed, this is one of the things that Sellars, who can be obscure, was clearest about.  Writing at a time when the neo-Wittgensteinian view still enjoyed substantial respect within academic philosophy, he wrote:

The so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in recent British and American philosophy, particularly under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, has done increasing justice to the manifest image, and has increasingly succeeded in isolating it in something like its pure form, and has made clear the folly of attempting to replace it piecemeal by fragments of the scientific image. (p. 15)

In the Scientific Image, both substrate and discrete physical identities are particularly salient features of ontology, but even the most casual consideration of social reality must reveal that this is obviously untrue of the Manifest Image.  Substrate and discrete physical identities are not salient features of institutions and other social entities, whether currencies, countries, or criminal laws.  Any building can be the “Capitol.”  Any geographical location can be the “United States.”  Any substance can be used as “currency.”  It is only by way of myriad objects, representations, and social activities, scattered across space and time, that there are selves.  And in none of these cases is it really apt to say that the thing in question is the relevant motley collection of heterogeneous elements.  At that level of description the thing just isn’t there at all.

The attempt to find scientific counterparts for this or that bit of social reality was thus doomed from the start.  Just as you are never going to find the physical thing that is the United States or the law requiring you to have registration tags on your car, you are never going to find the physical thing that is the self.  Countries and laws and selves are not that kind of thing and their individuation does not cut in that sort of way.  Likewise, the attempt to view the activities of social entities in the manner that one views the activities of physical substances was also destined to end badly, exhibit A for which is the ever regrettable free will debate.  For it is only if one thought selves were things like pancreases or rocks or molecules that one could think that they are the sorts of things that cause and are caused, in the manner in which pancreases and rocks and molecules cause and are caused.  And it is only in the grip of such a picture that the fact that the activities of pancreases and rocks and molecules are determined by the causal laws under which they fall could lead one to think that the activities of selves – the actions of agents, which are defined in part, by their moral, legal, and other normative valences – are determined in the same way.  But in the absence of any such picture and all the confusions and conflations that come with it?  The issue doesn’t even arise.

To an extent, Sellars confused matters himself, by suggesting that it is the job of philosophy to make some sense of the relationship between the Manifest and Scientific Images; between the world as understood via physics and chemistry and biology and the world that includes selves and representations and reasons and actions and the normative systems and practices for which they are the building blocks.   This has been widely misinterpreted, I think, as suggesting that there is some conflict between the two images that must be resolved.  But Sellars himself indicates what the relationship is, at the end of the essay:

The conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living. (p. 40)

Our view of the world, then, a world that includes selves and the things selves have made, must include both the Scientific and Manifest images, combined in what Sellars describes as a kind of “stereoscopic” vision; one in which  the overall impression is of one world, but whose actual constituents, when taken even at the most fundamental ontological level, are heterogeneous.

57 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Dan.

    A pretty good essay, I think. But I’ll disagree a little.

    As I see it, the Scientific Image is built on the Manifest Image, and somewhat refines that image, while also ignoring much of the Manifest Image (such as social entities). So the mistake that leads to the problems you mention (such as Chalmer’s “hard problem”), is in assuming that the Scientific Image is free standing and independent of the manifest image. It isn’t, and it couldn’t be.

    So there’s the difficult of the “hard problem”. It, in effect, plans to explain the Manifest Image in terms of the Scientific Image. But if the Scientific Image, in turn, is dependent on the Manifest Image, then this cannot work.

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  2. Each new essay seems to surpass the previous one. Sometimes this is a function as much of whether they create yet more questions as it is with the high quality of your prose style. In the instance I do have a question. If I read you correctly are you saying that so-called panpsychism like that of Galen Stawson is a different side to the same mistaken move or problem as it’s apparent opposite on the philosophical spectrum: scientific materialism? And if this is the case, do you conceive of that fateful move (bearing in mind that fateful might be too strong an adjective) as the playing out of a specifically Cartesian “tradition” or do you think it has roots further back in time than this, or perhaps is exacerbated by some contemporary events in philosophic history such as you mention in this piece?

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  3. Excellent article as usual, and a favorite topic of mine.

    I find myself broadly in agreement with Sellars on this. But as some of his critics have pointed out (I am thinking here of McDowell’s recent writings on Sellars, and some of Rorty’s comments), Sellars is too Kantian for his own good. I’m not so much bothered by the distinction between the two images as by two ramifications of it.

    The first thing is this talk of *the* manifest image. The definite article indicates that there is just one such thing, a common “logical space of reasons” which all human agents are embedded in virtue of their cognitive (or linguistic, I’m never quite sure with him) capacities. This is a conspicuous and so far as I’ve ever read him self-conscious “naturalizing” of the Kantian subject. But, as Rorty pointed out, for all Sellars is rightly credited for moving analytic philosophy from its “Humean” to its “Kantian” phase, he ignores Hegel’s _geist_ standing over there my the door with a baseball bat. Sellars does not seem entirely unaware of this, and IIRC PSIM makes some moves in this direction, but he’s still fairly happy to take “person” as a basic and more or less static concept of human social action *tout court*. In one way this isn’t objectionable; something like reflexive self-talk has likely been fairly ubiquitous in human social arrangements. But there’s another sense in which the Wittgensteinian line can run in a different direction by acknowledging that the person, as we’ve used the term since the enlightenment, is a more historical feature than it appears. Here I’m thinking of the sort of thing we see in Iris Murdoch’s writings (e.g. “Vision and Choice in Morality”) and in Charles Taylor’s continuation of those thoughts in his in-depth exploration of the historical genesis of The Self in the Western world.

    The second thing, building on this and as McDowell has argued in a few essays, is that this emphasis on the ahistorical person springs more from Sellars’s insistence on upholding the scientific realism part of the story along with keeping normativity in view. But this is just what gets Sellars into trouble: by making personhood *basic* to social ontology, he’s still posing this problem of accounting for normativity in a way that cannot but conflict with the ontology of the scientific image. To be clear, McDowell isn’t challenging the idea of a conceptually distinct space of reasons in which persons become intelligible features of the world. That has been a feature of his own work since at least Mind and World. His worry is that normativity is being “hived off” from the natural causal order and so, even within Sellars’s own naturalistic framework, set into a full-blown norm-fact dualism. McDowell doesn’t want any part of what he sees as extra layers of normative explanation over above the descriptions we can bring to bear on the unfolding patterns and regularities which make up human activity.

    I find him more persuasive on this point (he dings Bob Brandom for trying to do much the same thing); and to this extent, I think he’s more in line with what you’re getting up in your writings on the topic.

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  4. Sellars [1977]:

    “…that when you take the Manifest Image as I describe it, you can see it approximated to in various ways by standard philosophies, you see. You can understand why Berkeley says what he says, you can understand why G.E. Moore says what he says, you can understand why Austin says what he says. It provides a way of summing up those philosophies which don’t take science seriously…
    Strawson, I think he is very close to the Manifest Image…

    “So that what you are asking is , ‘What are the essential features of the manifest image?’ Well, that objects have perceptible qualities, and that of color and shape and that they have causal properties and…I am not clear…where we would be likely to find one [feature] that couldn’t have a successor concept in the Scientific Image.”

    As I read Sellars, he does think there will be successor concepts for most of what is currently in the Manifest Image once neuroscience gets its act together, especially regarding functional MI terms. I take it that successor concepts are scientific concepts that have similar properties to the MI predecessor. There are many of these in psychology of course. One I am quite familiar with is the relationship between the four humours of temperament with the two main personality factors Extraversion and Neuroticism. The latter are orthogonal factors extracted (mathematically) by psychometric analysis of questionnaire (ie MI self-reports) that are supposed to parallel overall properties of the nervous system in humans and nonhumans (eg Pavlovian response strength). Behaviour geneticists find these to be quite heritable “constructs“, that have genes that cause them eg
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5278898/

    More in terms of promissory notes ;):

    http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/372/1727/20160245.long

    “In the field of social neuroscience essentially two different neural systems have been established as the fundamental neural correlates of all processes related to social information processing. These two systems comprise the so-called ‘mirror neuron system’ (MNS) and the ‘mentalizing’ system (MENT), also referred to as ‘social neural network’ or ‘theory of mind network’. Both systems are recruited during interaction or communication with other human beings in social encounters, thereby constituting intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity is defined as information processing performed by cognitive systems that serve interaction or communication between persons or interactants within and even between species.” I’m not sure if this kind of intersubjectivity is a successor concept for Sellar’s [1969]:

    “the weaker sense of ‘objectivity’ which I will call publicness or intersubjectivity. Obviously institutions are objective but of course they are not absolutely objective because if there were no persons there would be no institutions. The existence of institutions involves the existence of persons and of minds.”

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  5. Very thought-provoking, as others have said. I question, however, whether very many are divorced from agency in the world by their way of thinking of themselves, rather than by the material conditions created by those that objectify them. While perhaps philosophically incoherent, there is some benefit in a scientific approach that leads us to observe outcomes, rather than trusting in the pronouncements of “authorities.”

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  6. Interesting post. I work in the philosophy of psychiatry and issues where (it seems to me) issues concerning the manifest/scientific image loom very large.

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  7. Dan,
    I am more suspicious of the nature of agency and self-hood than you; and the reason I didn’t respond to your “Bits and Pieces” article is that I am more suspicious of what we mean with designates such as ‘reality’ than you, and didn’t feel a strong debate on the matter would help anyone’s reading of that essay.

    However, I think we can agree that proper discussion of differing positions on such matters are not possible unless we first accept that social experience is inevitable and that certain responses to it are, at least initially, necessary.

    For instance: The current hope of scientistic determinists is that, if we all accepted their basic claims, then we would not have a punitive theory of justice practiced. This is prima facie nonsense: punishment is a means of redirecting pre-determined behavior, and anyway, the state claims the right, and has the power, to deal with transgressors as it chooses.Also, punishment is popular; if our behavior has been determined, this has also been determined. What are we to do, give everyone medicine or some other electro-chemical ‘therapy’ so that they will not desire vengeance? But what is this desire for vengeance? Do we really think it is merely a set of electro-chemical events in the brain? The absurdities pile high once we begin dissecting the human as a ‘meat robot,’ as Jerry Coyne likes to call himself.

    Raskolnikov believes that the new philosophies critical of received morality sanctions all behavior; Dostoyevsky, in writing Crime and Punishment, clearly feared that this was the effect of modern philosophy. Both of them were wrong. Society is a greater determinant of morality than any god.

    So we will agree here that the social is every bit as real in its own way as the physical is in its. The precise meaning of ‘reality’ may be discussed another day. But if you mean ‘I bump into it’ in the same way ‘I stub my toe against this rock’ – absolutely.

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  8. Dan, I agree with much, but I have serious doubts about some aspects of this. Let me just go through a few paragraphs and try to see where problems arise (for me).

    “The ongoing philosophical (and to a good extent, the scientific) discussion of selves is in very poor shape, much like the discussion concerning minds and for much the same reason.”

    I’ll take your word for it on the philosophy side. I am not really following current philosophical discussions on these topics. But I would be surprised if scientific progress in understanding how our encultured brains produce the sense of self (and all our other thoughts) is being seriously held back or compromised.

    “We talk as if selves are things, and of course, they are, but the sense of ‘thing’ that most seem to have in mind is the wrong one. They hypostatize selves (and minds) in the manner of physical objects, which is why they search for them in a way that suggests they expect to find them somewhere, typically “in the brain.” During a recent conversation on the self, in which I was insisting that there is one while my interlocutor was denying it, he asked me where the self was, as if my being unable to locate it in the manner that I might locate my pancreas proved something.”

    Obviously there are different types of things that we discuss. Some can be identified entirely with physical objects, some can’t.

    Moreover, some things we talk about could be said to be real or exist (in some sense), whereas other things may be fictitious (like Sherlock Holmes or, more controversially, the God of the Bible). People also use ‘fiction’ and its cognates to suggest that certain things generally taken to be real are *not what they seem*. When people say the ‘self’ is a fiction, this is generally what they mean. They accept that we think of ourselves and others in a certain way but suggest that the picture we have is misleading in some important way or ways. You could base your critique on meditative introspection (like the Buddha), or on an analysis of how the grammar of language affects our thoughts (like Nietzsche) or on an understanding of how our brains actually work to produce our sense of self and agency.

    Are you suggesting that your interlocutor actually believed that the only real things are things which have a location and can be observed by the senses? If so, he/she is very unusual. A ‘self’ is certainly *not* the sort of thing which any reasonable person would claim to be able to see or touch, etc.. It is clearly an abstraction (more abstract than ‘soul’). Body/brain, of course, you can see and touch. Soul? Well, it might have a *location*…

    As I suggested, I think that many who claim that the self is a fiction (or ‘not real’) are making the point that the way we naturally perceive and think of our selves is a product of our encultured brains and that the self *as we typically and naturally envisage it* (at this point in history, in more or less Cartesian fashion) does not exist. No doubt there are cultural and individual variations, as well as historical ones [see Anonymous Poster’s comment].

    “[Selves] are not that kind of thing. Nonetheless, they exist and are as real as anything else.”

    You said similar things in your previous piece on this topic. You seem to be assuming or implicitly suggesting that different kinds of things exist all in the same way and even to the same extent. This sort of claim just doesn’t make sense to me.

    What I would do is to look at what people mean when they insist in ordinary life that something exists. Often it is about some physical thing which is lost (a will, a suicide note, the sunken city of Atlantis…). Obviously it gets more complicated when claims are made about the existence of abstract objects, cultural constructs and so on, but I think you can usually work out on a case-by-case basis what people are trying to say.

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    • Mark English wrote:

      As I suggested, I think that many who claim that the self is a fiction (or ‘not real’) are making the point that the way we naturally perceive and think of our selves is a product of our encultured brains and that the self *as we typically and naturally envisage it* (at this point in history, in more or less Cartesian fashion) does not exist.

      = = =

      Of course that’s what they say. And it’s probably the silliest thing in their arsenal (which includes *many* silly things.)

      Also, I have no idea what an “encultured brain” is. I suspect there’s no such thing.

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    • One other thing. Natural science has made no progress whatsoever in giving us a better understanding of the self. Sociology and psychology were more promising in this regard, at least until they tried to turn themselves into natural sciences, after which, frankly, they became rubbish.

      We learned more about the self from Max Weber than from our our entire klatch of cognitive scientists.

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    • What I would do is to look at what people mean when they insist in ordinary life that something exists. Often it is about some physical thing which is lost (a will, a suicide note, the sunken city of Atlantis…). Obviously it gets more complicated when claims are made about the existence of abstract objects, cultural constructs and so on, but I think you can usually work out on a case-by-case basis what people are trying to say.

      = = =

      It only is “complicated” if you come to it with physicalistic and/or reductionist preconceptions, none of which are well-founded. Drop those and clarity ensues, as it becomes quite obvious just how silly it is to say that the law which just sent you up the river is a “fiction” or “doesn’t exist” in *any* sense.

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  9. Dear EJ. Re punishment, we do have counterexamples eg treatment of Anders Breivik; South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Rwandan courts post-massacre (2000000 trials).

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  10. This may be going out on a limb, but something occurred to me recently after rereading that short Isaiah Berlin piece on The Hedgehog and the Fox. Much of what we are discussing seems to be the adequacy (or lack thereof) of how things look to ‘hedgehogs’. Berlin spells it out like this:

    “For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”

    So when I read the Sellars piece I got the sense that he had the ideas of a fox, but that his instincts were those of a hedgehog. His vision for the role of philosophy, and the idea it was somehow important to “complete the scientific image” (as you put it “in which the overall impression is of one world,”) just seems like an attempt to forcefully navigate between the poles Berlin identifies. It starts out with the evidence foxes accept, but desires to fit them in a hedgehog-like fashion. If it is a pressing concern, it seems to matter most to the hedgehog.

    My question, then, is whether we *need* to introduce things like “stereoscopic vision”. Wittgenstein started out a hedgehog, and then came to the conclusion that the fox was actually right. Which is why it became important not to seek explanations as much as better descriptions, not to theorize but to show differences. For hedgehogs the need is that things all hang together, and make sense in some sort of consistent way, at least as parts of a greater whole. For the fox, *if* things hang together, they hang interdependently to greater and lesser extents, and as with family resemblance type coordination, there is no necessary essence that unites them. But for foxes there is no ultimate requirement that they *do* hang together. That difference seems important.

    The sense I get is that when we talk about issues of ontology, rationality, etc, we often do so not quite understanding the demands we are placing on ourselves and on the evidence. It seems rare, especially among philosophers, that we are *not* tempted to make sense in a comprehensive way. Which is part of why Wittgenstein is so terribly difficult to digest. We expect his insights to hang together, like it would for a hedgehog, but the only hedgehog type truth he acknowledges is that there IS something important in what foxes have to say.

    Wittgenstein wanted us to turn the investigation around and look at ourselves and the variety of things we do. Abstraction gives us the illusion that things make *more* sense viewed from above, more comprehensively, more objectively. It is this temptation to climb outside and above the messiness of our lives that voices our dissatisfaction with plurality. Unfortunately this often says more about us, about our own character, than it does the world we hope to explain.

    If we need to ‘complete the scientific image’, etc,-> Hedgehog
    If we can abide the inconsistency and potential schizophrenias-> Fox

    That was probably TOO far out on a limb, but maybe it adds something interesting to the discussion.

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  11. Excellent posting and insightful, critical comments. I tend to agree with most points offered here, esp. that a social ontology of the social world (including Husserlian-Habermasian lifeworlds, Wittgensteinian life forms, Weberian-Schützian institutions, and Heideggerian-like takes on worldhood) ultimately refers to a semantic-ontological correlation of “selves and the things selves have made,” so as to include “both the Scientific and Manifest images,” in Sellars’s ambiguous terminology. Moreover, the so-called “logical space of reasons” is supposedly shared by an intersubjective community of speakers and agents (which ultimately refer to their cognitive, linguistic, moral, and communicative capabilities –meaning, how they function in their social existence, striving to survive and endure, but also thriving in organization and sustainable ethos. Both Axel Honneth and Rainer Forst have recently offered interesting insights into a social ontology that avoids normativism and allows for a naturalist recasting of sociality, conjugating reification and subjectivation beyond traditional readings of Lukács, Heidegger, and Foucault. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1558/ccp.v4i1.35

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  12. Once again, a terrific essay which clarifies the issues beautifully.
    Your final conclusion seems to be that social reality(something I prefer to call cognitive reality) is what it is, a given, that need not be explained in the sense of being derived from physical reality.

    You quote Sellars approvingly”
    The conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it.

    But for many of us it is not that simple. For more than 13 billion years all that was, was the physical. And then, seemingly, cognitive reality was born. And that is something quite astonishing, something that demands explanation. Somehow, it would seem, cognitive reality must be a derivative of physical reality. But how is that possible? The closer we look the harder it is to see that cognitive reality is derived from physical reality.

    This may be a given for you, not needing explanation, but for me it is a profound mystery that goes to the very heart of what we are. You dismiss David Chalmers with a wave of the hand and I agree that some of his ideas do seem to be far out. And yet, that might just be what we need, a willingness to think far outside the box(the skull??).

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  13. What I am pondering is the idea of the self as ontologically basic, as that which stands fast, and serves as the pivot point from which our view of the world manifests. It seems a bit paradoxical as that which must stand fast must also be in continual flux, taking things in as it looks out, putting them together, holding some aspect of itself firm but allowing others to mingle and settle into novel formulations that may or may not have some enduring quality. One aspect of the self can ponder another and perhaps show up slightly differently the next time it is temporarily held firm.

    I don’t believe there is some pure motive free introspection faculty capable of looking down at the self in action. Some part of the self I think is engaged in the conscious looking, yet the more effective, the more skilled the action, the smaller it seems is the proportion of self consciousness that fixated upon.

    I would be curious to hear EJ elaborate a bit more his issues with this conception.

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  14. I am not a physicalist. I don’t assume that there is a Moon when no one is observing it.

    But I still have trouble with the idea that, for example, when I and a friend stand on the jetty and I say “I will count to three and then we will jump” and he says “OK” that something an “agreement” began to exist because I couldn’t say what kind of thing began to exist.

    Rather I would say that we each had an expectation of what the other would do on the basis that we agreed that we would. I don’t see why I should feel differently about any other more complicated kinds of agreements.

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    • Go ahead and break an agreement you made with a creditor. Then try to explain in court that the case should be thrown out, because the agreement doesn’t exist. See what happens.

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  15. I would have still more trouble with the idea that the agreement is something that exists, but a Chaitin constant is something that doesn’t exist. If I define a particular Turing Machine then there is a Chaitin constant for that machine, even though it is not possible even in principle to calculate that number, there is is definite number with a definite value that is the Chaitin constant for that machine.

    If someone says that the Chaitin constant is a fiction, well I don’t mind, but it is not a fiction that could ever be written, nor a fiction that could ever be altered. Of all the things that are said to exist, a Chaitin constant seems to have a better claim than that agreement to jump in the river, a better claim even than the Moon.

    But I don’t claim that a Chaitin constant exists, as I don’t claim that the Moon exists or that agreement existed, other than as a useful linguistic convention.

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  16. The law does not specify, as far as I know, that the agreement has any specific ontological status, the key point would be that I did in fact agree and that there would be certain consequences that followed my failure to do what I agreed to do.

    Similarly if someone fails to pay you what they owe you and you go into court with an argument based around the ontological status of the agreement then you probably wouldn’t get very far.

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    • Ontological commitment does not need to be explicitly specified, and of course the existence of a legal, binding agreement is sufficient for making a legal claim against someone who refuses to honor it.

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  17. Good to know what you don’t claim.

    From long experience if I don’t clarify something like this then it is highly likely someone will respond as though I had claimed that Chaitin constants have some specific ontological status. So it normally saves time to clarify straight away. Normally.

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  18. Robin: But I don’t claim that a Chaitin constant exists, as I don’t claim that the Moon exists or that agreement existed, other than as a useful linguistic convention.

    I also take “exist” to be a matter of convention. However, the conventions that I follow when doing mathematics can be different from the conventions of ordinary life.

    Of all the things that are said to exist, a Chaitin constant seems to have a better claim than that agreement to jump in the river, a better claim even than the Moon.

    I have said that I am a fictionalist about mathematics. However, when I am actually doing mathematics, I talk of mathematical objects as existing. I can discuss an existence theorem for a solution of a particular problem. It is only outside of mathematics (i.e. in ordinary life), that I take mathematical objects to be fictions.

    The reason is simple enough. If numbers exist, then mathematical theorems should be about those existent objects. So it becomes a complete mystery that we can use those theorems in ordinary life. If, however, numbers are fictions, then we can take them to be stand-ins for the counts and measurements from ordinary life, and it is no longer a mystery why we can use the theorems.

    This all gets back to my skepticism over ontology. If “exists” is a matter of pragmatic convention, then what is the value of ontology as a discipline? Should I say that God does not exist? Or should I say that God exists as a social entity similar to the way that an agreement can be said to exist? Aren’t we just talking about angels dancing on heads of pins?

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    • Not thinking there is anything to ontology other than “pragmatic convention” is your prerogative, of course, but that’s not what the essay is about. The essay presumes that ontology is a valid discipline and explains what is wrong with materialist and other metaphysical monisms.

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  19. I fear we may have developed a mild confusion here.

    Whether our conceptions of reality are fictive or not is an epistemological question. Whether there is a reality that exists in some way is an ontological question.

    Insistence on the answer to one of these questions does *not* resolve to an answer to the other question. Denial or description of reality would not cancel epistemological questions about how this is knowable. Insistence on certitude – or lack of it – does not say anything about any reality we might need to admit.

    The appearance that the two questions seem to overlap – when they might not – seems to lead to unnecessary contention.

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  20. Hi ej

    But I am not doubting or expressing skepticism about anything.

    I don’t doubt that my friend and I agreed to jump into the river, I just don’t know what it means to say that something came into existence when we did.

    If I were to say that a Chaitin constant actually exists, rather than there just being a mathematical convention to say it does then I don’t know what that means.

    Finally, the question of the Moon’s existence when not being observed seems to be a scientific question and I lack the expertise to know what that would mean.

    There appears to be some difference of opinion.

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  21. I just want to express my basic agreement with what both Robin Herbert and Neil Rickert have been saying. Robin’s example of the agreement to jump off the jetty together is a good one. Exactly when does this thing start ‘existing’? Or stop existing? It reminds me of the medieval notion of transubstantiation (which occurs presumably at a precise moment in time). I’m not saying that Dan is making hocus-pocus claims. He is not. Nonetheless, there are strong parallels between medieval theology and sort of ontology which had a revival (I was going to say “suffered a revival”) in certain philosophical circles in the latter part of the 20th century.

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    • I would say that asking things like “exactly when does this thing start ‘existing’? Or stop existing?” is about as apt as the interlocutor i mentioned asking me where the self is, as if it should be locatable like my pancreas.

      I also don’t believe for a second that you or Robin or anyone else really doesn’t believe these things exist. I think you are just being contrarian for its own sake. Otherwise, you would be exceedingly strange people.

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  22. Hi Dan:

    Thanks for keeping this discussion going and for bringing it into sharper focus. Here’s my view. Basically I think that instantiation has to be physical.

    You seem to make the following inference. Selves or persons are social entities, therefore “you are never going to find the physical thing that is the self”. I agree with the premise, but the conclusion looks dubious and so too does the inference.

    The conclusion has apparent contrary evidence. I know my weight, height, shape and location pretty exactly. I and my body are broadly co-extensive in time and space. Yes, these are imprecise claims, but is that a knockdown objection? Straightforwardly physical objects — mountains and molehills — also lack precise physical attributes.

    The inference rests on the generalisation that if X is a social entity then it has no physical attributes. The inference would work if “X” referred to a type of social entity — there is no location for statehood or personhood. But does it work if we are talking about instances of social entity types, picked out by a proper name?

    You say: “Any building can be the ‘Capitol.’ Any geographical location can be the ‘United States.’ Any substance can be used as ‘currency.'”

    This shifts from tokens (the Capitol building, the United States) to types (currency) of social entity. Yes, any sort of stuff could be used as currency. But there is and can be only one Capitol building, and it has an address and various other physical attributes. True, the building could be moved to some other location, and such a move would change all of its physical attributes (unless it were a replica). But the new Capitol building would then be the only Capitol building, and it would have a new set of physical attributes. (There might remain an old Capitol building, but it would not be the Capitol building.) So a building with an institutional function is not an ordinary physical object, but such entities seem to me to be still physical objects. And so it looks wrong to say “you are never going to find the physical thing that is the Capitol building”. Buildings are physical entities.

    As for selves and bodies, I think that particular persons have and can have only one body — but, strangely, many cultures seem to think otherwise.

    Alan

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  23. Dan, what is your opinion of Searle’s work on the construction of social reality? Does it fit in with your view of things? Would you recommend it?

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  24. I think you are just being contrarian for its own sake. Otherwise, you would be exceedingly strange people.

    I greatly admire contrarian-ness(querdenkers), so please keep it up. All sorts of useful insights are inspired by this. We never think useful things when we nod in docile agreement. But when someone cleverly says something we sharply disagree with, we are forced to engage our thinking mind, understand why we disagree, and, improbably, we always learn from that disagreement.

    vive la différence

    And I admire exceedingly strange people. Wittgenstein comes to mind.

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    • I would argue that the sort of contrarianism involved in denying the existence of things that you engage with on a daily basis and which have significant, tangible effects on you is actually a much safer position today and much more “dociley accepted,” because of a foolish scientism that has pervaded the public consciousness, and that it is the claim that all of these perfectly ordinary, obvious things do exist that’s the radical, dangerous move nowadays.

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  25. … the sort of contrarianism involved in denying the existence of things …

    It seems to me that the way we use “thing” does not align with the way that we use “exist”.

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  26. In this new AEON essay:
    https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-self-if-not-that-which-pays-attention

    Carolyn Dicey Jennings disavows a micro-physical deterministic basis for a ‘substantive self’ and instead provides this definition:

    ‘Specifically, a collection of interests becomes a substantive self at the moment it exerts control over its component interests. The need for such control comes from constraints faced by the collection that are not faced by its components – the competition for resources that are shared across the components. The resolution of this competition is attention. So, in my view, the self comes into being with the first act of attention, or the first time attention favours one interest over another. This will occur when we have multiple interests, two or more of which are in conflict. At the very moment attention resolves such a conflict, the self is born.’

    For Dicey Jennings this is an emergent phenomenon and she still wants to describe the phenomenon with science ( complexity science – patterns of synchronisation ), but she does try do away with talk of epiphenomena and illusion.

    ‘It might be an illusion that our attention in such matters is (at least in part) up to us, but we have another, I think better, option: it’s not an illusion, because attention is controlled (at least in part) by a substantive self.’

    This all seems very close to me to Zhuangzi metaphors used to describe a ‘genuine person’, such as ‘walking two paths’, positioning oneself at the ‘center of the natural potters wheel’, ‘ the pivot of the dao’, and allowing oneself to guided ‘by the radiance of drift and doubt’.

    This also seems in some ways similar to Dan’s account at least in placing the self in an ontologically basic position with respect to the manifest image. She also describes the emergent account as having some independence from the micro-physical account.

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  27. Dan

    “I would say that asking things like “exactly when does this thing start ‘existing’? Or stop existing?” is about as apt as the interlocutor I mentioned asking me where the self is, as if it should be locatable like my pancreas.”

    But my point was that certain ontological claims lead to the asking of silly questions.

    To say that we made an agreement (to help one another in times of trouble, say) is simply to say that we agreed to help one another…

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  28. I didn’t say that ordinary talk about agreements and contracts is silly. I’m saying that “there is an agreement between us” is just another way of saying that we agreed to something.

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    • Mark, that isn’t going to fly. There are agreements like loans that can be sold.

      I would also maintain that your inclination to “explain away” social facts is informed by precisely the scientistic frame of mind that the essay in good part is concerned with criticizing.

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  29. @sethleon2015

    “For Dicey Jennings this is an emergent phenomenon and she still wants to describe the phenomenon with science ( complexity science – patterns of synchronisation ), but she does try do away with talk of epiphenomena and illusion.

    ‘It might be an illusion that our attention in such matters is (at least in part) up to us, but we have another, I think better, option: it’s not an illusion, because attention is controlled (at least in part) by a substantive self.’”

    I have some sympathy for projects like this. There’s something right in at least trying to move away from bare-bones mind-body identity theories, which typify the sort of reductionist thinking that predominates in psychological and social sciences.

    What worries me is that this kind of emergentism isn’t as anti-reductionist as it seems. So we’ve rejected micro-physicalism; good. Now we’re going to reintroduce reductionism at a different part of the argument, allowing a different sort of physical system to stand in for the explanans, yes — but we’ll be keeping the thought that there *is* a self, possessed of self-properties, and that this self requires explanations in terms of non-self entities and properties. Complex systems theory substitutes in for bog-standard materialism, which is well enough, but it does us no good to keep switching out different terms within the same effective structure mind-world dualism.

    I have similar qualms about a parallel trend in embodied and enactive theories of cognition. It all looks like a step in the right direction until you see that it’s just another recapitulation of Cartesian internalism in its Nth guise. This problem requires a re-thinking of self-hood and “consciousness” from the first move, not endless attempts to theorize about some ghostly explanandum that has no plausible identity conditions.

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    • I think things like “emergence” and “supervenience” are essentially promissory notes on some future reduction. Otherwise, they really don’t tell you anything beyond the metaphor.

      It’s partially for this reason that I’ve gone the route I have. I want to push the view that “the world” must include both the Manifest and Scientific Images and therefore, must be understood as metaphysically/ontologically heterogeneous.

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  30. My original point was that we should look at things on a case-by-case basis. Ordinary agreements can’t be bought or sold. Of course you can bundle formal agreements like loans into CDOs or whatever and sell them on.

    I am not trying to explain anything away. I am saying that *some* of what you are saying doesn’t make sense to me.

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    • So long as one admits that social objects/entities/institutions exist, my point is made. What one thinks of particular cases doesn’t really affect the thesis in that case.

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  31. What do you think are the prospects for a science of mind?

    Another question (if I may) concerning reasons and causes.

    As is boringly familiar by now, Davidson long ago noted that reason-giving explanations are a species of causal explanation and that this view – that reasons can be causes of action – is “common sense.” Or to put it in Sellars’ idiom, the view is part of the manifest image. I understand the (various) arguments that reason-giving explanations are logically distinct from causal explanations. But anti-causalism about action does seem to cut against a crucial piece of the manifest image. I assume you would disagree, so I was wondering how you might respond to Davidson’s assertion that reasons-as-causes is part of our common sense understanding of ourselves?

    Thanks.

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    • If by a science of mind you mean “hard” science, I think the prospects are the same as for a science of self, i.e. none. A science of the brain, of course, is an entirely different matter.

      I actually was referring somewhat to the shift that occurred with Davidson’s influential papers in this area, when I talked about the discipline having taken a very wrong turn. I don’t think reasons are causes or else, they are causes in a sense that is very different from what is meant in classical mechanics or contemporary physics. And I think this mistake/conflation is the source of *many* of the current most intractable problems in philosophy, including the free will problem. If you want to see how I apply this sort of critique in a specific area, a good place to look is in my essay “Why the Free Will Problem Isn’t One.” https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/11/why-the-free-will-problem-isnt-one/

      Liked by 2 people

    • I should add one more thing. It is a mistake to conceive of the Manifest Image as the world as it is depicted in common sense. Sellars is very careful to warn against such a mistaken interpretation. What distinguishes the Manifest Image from the Scientific one, for Sellars, are two primary things:(1) The capacity to ontologically commit to entities on the basis of theoretical postulate is unique to the Scientific Image; (2) Persons and intentionality are unique to the Manifest Image.

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  32. I don’t know why anyone would think that I was being contrarian. I really can’t understand what it would mean to say that something came into existence when my friend and I agreed to jumped into the river, and went out of existence when we had jumped.

    Rather, to me, it seems contrarian to insist that something really did come into existence at that moment, not just as a manner of speaking.

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  33. Buying and selling doesn’t imply any sort of metaphysical existence. If I buy a contract then I pay some money so that I can perform the service and receive the money instead of the original party.

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  34. Sometimes we should think past the “thing” metaphor. If you buy a low value mortgage based security then it seems you have purchased a thing that has the properties of increasing in value and giving you an income stream.

    But, really, you have loaned some of your money to some poor people to buy properties that they can only just afford. If they can pay back then you get a share of the interest you have paid, and if they can’t then – even better – they are kicked out of their houses to survive as best they can and the houses are sold and you get a share of the increased value of the property.

    Except that the housing market doesn’t always rise and when it falls there are more foreclosures and the sale garners less money than it was bought for and you have lost that money you loaned out. Then some big companies go bust and have to be baled out by the government and we get a worldwide financial crisis.

    Until it actually happens, it becomes hard to see that when you have all that encapsulated in a neat little “thing” called a security.

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  35. Robin:

    How do you view the existence of software items then? Do you think The Electric Agora exists, or whatever word processor you prefer? Does it matter if we distribute all the functionality in the cloud?

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  36. For the record, I didn’t post the AEON essay due to it’s complexity science angle. I was trying to follow up on ideas exploring the basis of the self. I thought Dicey Jennings emphasis on how we utilize attention under conditions of uncertainty as a creative and developmental source of self was interesting.

    How to integrate that idea with the knowledge that much of our cumulative dispositional leanings and capacities for action are acquired unconsciously was not addressed in the article. I think the Dicey Jennings definition decently captures the aspect of the self that could be said to genuine or authentic in the sense being the source of will or of having authorship over our own actions.

    Reading another AEON essay this Hannah Arendt quote seems to capture the alternative.

    ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’

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  37. A long one….

    Hi Dan,

    I spent the morning rereading this essay and the preceding ‘Truth and Ontology’. Both, I think, are very important contributions to the discussion. On this reading of the essays I was left with a slight qualm, however, and if I can point to its source I would lay the blame at Anscombe’s feet. At least, my meager knowledge of what she has to say from what you included I find a bit troubling.

    I am struggling with the notion of ‘brute’ facts as somehow standing at the bottom of how we make sense of things. I don’t think it is wholly wrong, but I feel it perhaps makes its case from only one side of the coin, and worry that this somehow amounts to a misdirection in the way that magicians will draw your attention to one hand while the real work is being done by the other….

    I think you did the right thing in pointing out the disanalogy of social ‘things’ to physical ‘things’. I would be tempted to go one step further and question the analogy of social ‘facts’ to physical ‘facts’.

    Let me explain: One of the things nagging me is how to make sense of Wittgenstein’s peculiar way of presenting his ideas, his admonition to himself to *show* how things stand rather than to ‘say’ them. Why was this so important?

    As far as I can tell, it has to do with the difference between what one can do *within* the language game and the language game *itself*. Whatever ‘brute facts’ there are are either a part of what the language game does or of the language game itself. They are either moves in the game or (part of) the game itself….

    The thing I am hung up on, I suppose, is that the objects of social ontology you have brought to light seem to be connected with or have the status of ‘social facts’. That is, things for which it makes sense to grant evidence in favor of or against. We can measure them, in some sense. That seemed to be the way it was being discussed in the comments, at least…..

    Again, I am plagued by the idea that Wittgenstein wanted to warn us off from ‘explaining’ certain things, as if making them out as ‘facts’ was somehow the wrong thing to do. In particular I am haunted by these passages in On Certainty written barely seven weeks before his passing:

    318. ‘The question doesn’t arise at all.’ Its answer would characterize a method. But there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

    319. But wouldn’t one have to say then, that there is no sharp boundary between propositions of logic and empirical propositions? The lack of sharpness is that of the boundary between rule and empirical proposition.

    He answers a month later:

    501. Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it.

    On a whim I decided to look at all the places in OC where he mentions ‘logic’. These are from the three dozen or so entries where it appears (I rearranged their order in some cases to speak directly to a point), and I tend to think they collectively form a picture of where the idea of ‘brute’ facts gets hairy, especially, perhaps, with social facts.

    See what you think:

    36. “A is a physical object” is a piece of instruction which we give only to someone who doesn’t yet understand either what “A” means, or what “physical object” means. Thus it is instruction about the use of words, and “physical object” is a logical concept. (Like colour, quantity,…) And that is why no such proposition as: “There are physical objects” can be formulated.
    Yet we encounter such unsuccessful shots at every turn.

    98. But if someone were to say “So logic too is an empirical science” he would be wrong. Yet this is right: the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.

    109. “An empirical proposition can be tested” (we say). But how? and through what?

    82. What counts as an adequate test of a statement belongs to logic. It belongs to the description of the language-game.

    56. And everything descriptive of a language-game is part of logic.

    110. What counts as its test? – “But is this an adequate test? And, if so, must it not be recognizable as such in logic?” – As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting.

    318. ‘The question doesn’t arise at all.’ Its answer would characterize a method. But there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

    319. But wouldn’t one have to say then, that there is no sharp boundary between propositions of logic and empirical propositions? The lack of sharpness is that of the boundary between rule and empirical proposition.

    375. Here one must realize that complete absence of doubt at some point, even where we would say that ‘legitimate’ doubt can exist, need not falsify a language-game. For there is also something like another arithmetic.
    I believe that this admission must underlie any understanding of logic.

    401. I want to say: propositions of the form of empirical propositions, and not only propositions of logic, form the foundation of all operating with thoughts (with language). – This observation is not of the form “I know…”. “I know…” states what I know, and that is not of logical interest.

    474. This games proves its worth. That may be the cause of its being played, but it is not the ground.

    475. I want to regard man here as an animal; as a primitive being to which one grants instinct but not ratiocination. As a creature in a primitive state. Any logic good enough for a primitive means of communication needs no apology from us. Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination [Raisonnement].

    501. Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it.

    628. When we say “Certain propositions must be excluded from doubt”, it sounds as if I ought to put these propositions – for example, that I am called L.W. – into a logic-book. For if it belongs to the description of a language-game, it belongs to logic. But that I am called L.W. does not belong to any such description. The language-game that operates with people’s names can certainly exist even if I am mistaken about my name, – but it does presuppose that it is nonsensical to say that the majority of people are mistaken about their names.

    I would be inclined to view the ‘things’ of social ontology as more often counting as “logical concepts” than anything empirical. In other words, we need to see them as part of “the description of the language game”. All the ‘doubts’ you encountered in the comments displayed the same confusion we (philosophers) so often make in misapplying the analogy of physical things to social things: We go looking for a way to test what we are talking about as if our doubts were appropriate, not understanding the difference between the logic of the game and specific moves in the game. We mistake our measures for things that should be measured…… We go looking for ‘proof’ of the game’s rules. We are unclear when we are describing the language game and when we are acting within it.

    This is what it seems to me, at least…..

    Thanks for all you do! All the best,

    Carter

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