Concepts, Existence and Social Reality

by Mark English

Different kinds of implicit or explicit claims about what exists are best understood, as I see it, in a piecemeal way, by looking at how words are used both in the context of specific disciplines and in ordinary communication. In various pieces published on this site, Daniel Kaufman has elaborated a somewhat different approach, drawing on a particular tradition of thought which is associated with a number of prominent 20th-century analytic philosophers. (1) I agree with much of what he says and see value in the general tradition of thought to which he is appealing. My reservations relate not so much to the core insights as to how some of these insights have been developed and deployed. But this piece is more an attempt to articulate and clarify my own point of view than to critique the views of others. I acknowledge that all sorts of approaches are possible. I’m just trying to set out mine.

Outside of philosophical contexts, people usually only talk about the existence of things the existence of which is contentious in some way. The very existence of these things is in dispute. They might be lost or undiscovered or perhaps they never existed at all. Mundane examples might be a will or a suicide note; more exotic examples might include the sunken city of Atlantis, alien visitors, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, Yetis and the Loch Ness Monster. In all these cases, empirical evidence could (in theory, at least) be brought to bear to decide the matter, though often interpretation is involved. (For example, a written document seeming to be a suicide note may not in fact be a suicide note.)

Generally, people don’t make claims concerning the existence of ordinary physical objects which everybody accepts are real. Nor do they make existence claims concerning abstract but widely accepted or taken-for-granted concepts which arise in the context of human social life. No reasonable person questions the existence (or force) of established customs or laws, for example. Or of persons, for that matter. But nor (unless they are philosophers, of course) do they go around saying that these things exist.

Do they exist? I am a bit uneasy with the question. It sounds a bit unnatural. But I am happy to say that social or cultural constructs are constituent of – and social or cultural concepts are descriptive of – the human world (i.e. socio-cultural reality). Within that context, these constructs have real meaning and force.

Questions concerning the fundamental nature of such constructs are worth exploring, and jurists, philosophically-minded social scientists and economists, etc. (as well as philosophers) often deal with these sorts of questions. It seems to me, however, that, once you understand a social or cultural concept or construct – money, for example – in a thorough and satisfactory way, you don’t need to ask further, specifically ontological, questions about it. To my mind, asking in this situation (i.e. after a long and thorough explanation has been given), “Yes, but what is money?” would only sound perverse.

Or take the concept of an agreement. If you and I commit (or agree) to some future action, then it seems reasonable to say we have made an agreement; that an agreement exists between us. But as I see it this is just a manner of speaking, a sort of shorthand. In fact, this is generally how abstract nouns work. They allow us to say certain things in a more concise way. Saying that an agreement exists between us is a way of emphasizing the ongoing nature of the arrangement. But it doesn’t add anything extra to a specification of the process of agreeing which has the ongoing time dimension built in. (For example, we might have agreed to meet at Christmas time every year.)

In general, abstract nouns make languages more powerful and efficient than they would be without them. They make it much easier to say certain things in a concise way.  We might talk about “mortality rates,” for example, instead of “the percentage of individuals dying within a certain time-frame.” But the word “mortality” or the expression “mortality rate” doesn’t add anything substantive to the meaning of the less abstract and clunkier way of saying it. “Mortality” is just a way of talking in a general sense about the unfortunate business of dying and doesn’t carry any extra semantic (or ontological) weight. We are talking about different possible ways of expressing something.

So ordinary talk about agreements and contracts is fine. But saying that “there is an agreement between us” is just a façon de parler, another way of saying that we agreed to take (or not take) some particular actions.

One of the concepts which Daniel Kaufman has been talking about is the concept of the self. I can’t come close to doing justice to this topic here, but it might be worth making a couple of points.

Kaufman argues that selves exist and that people who question this or conceptualize the self in a certain way are making some kind of fundamental category mistake. Selves are not the kinds of things that have a precise location, like bodily organs, but, he insists, “they exist and are as real as anything else.”

This last claim I find problematic on two levels. First of all, it seems to assume or implicitly suggest that different kinds of things exist all in the same way and even to the same extent. But leaving this general issue aside, I want to suggest that there are different ways of conceptualizing the self and also the relation between the concepts of self and person.

My view is that the way we think of ourselves and others as persons, making decisions and choices for which we are responsible and relating to others in various (public) ways is unproblematic, but that our natural introspective view of our conscious selves is very misleading. Certain philosophical and religious thinkers (the Buddha comes to mind) suggested that the self – at least as we typically envisage it – does not exist. Nietzsche talked about the way metaphysical notions are implicit in the grammar of ordinary language and saw our “selves” as largely a projection of the way language works. He was also one of the first thinkers to have an intuitive understanding of the extent to which unconscious processes feed into our thinking and behavior. Of course, in recent years there has been a huge amount learned – through ordinary experiments in fields like developmental and social psychology and brain imaging experiments and work in neuropsychology and neuroscience – about how our encultured brains operate. (2) If we take on board what neuroscience is telling us about how our brains generate the sense of a single self, and also about the extent to which the real motives behind our actions are hidden from the conscious brain, we develop, I think, a subtly different view of ourselves from that held by the majority of people. (3)

Does the individual self exist? The question is problematic. It all depends on what you mean by ‘self’. Certainly the sense of self exists. And persons exist in psychological, social and legal senses.  

Kaufman writes:

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.”

I get what is being said here, and I agree with it as it relates to persons. But I think it is confusing to conflate the notions of “self” and “person”. I would want to distinguish between the two: they are related, but the former puts the focus on subjective perceptions, the latter on a more public point of view. (4) This is not to deny that our perceptions of self are generated (like all our complex concepts) within a social and cultural matrix, upon which they remain dependent.

NOTES

  1. See for example: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/07/08/selves-and-social-ontology/
  2. When I used it in a comment, Dan objected to my use of the term “encultured brain”, saying that he had no idea what it meant and that he suspected there was no such thing. I was using the expression to emphasize the fact that our brains only operate satisfactorily if they have been exposed via the senses to certain kinds of cultural input during development. Language is an obvious example.
  3. In my view, the general results of scientific research slowly filter into popular thinking and (potentially) change the way we see both the wider world and ourselves. Sometimes – due to crude misunderstandings of the science – this can have deleterious effects, but on the whole I see the process as a healthy one.
  4. Think of the difference between the expressions ‘my self’ and ‘myself’. Only the latter aligns well with ‘person’, I think.

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49 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Mark.

    You explain well why I am skeptical of ontology.

    It seems to me that when people ask “Does X exist”, they are assuming that “exist” has some meaning other than that from ordinary usage, and they want an answer with respect to this other meaning of “exist”.

    To me, it looks as if they are really asking “Does X exist in a god’s eye view of the world?” And yet the person asking the question might deny that there is a god.

    Take an ordinary sentence, say “The cat is on the mat”. I can change that by changing a word or two — say changing “on” to “off”. But I can also change that by keeping the exact same words and changing their meanings, so that it now means “the cherry is on the tree” (to use a Putnam argument as an example).

    Dan sees psychology as being a very different kind of thing than physics. I agree with that. But here’s what I see as the main difference: physics is very much engaged in conceptual change, introducing new concepts and changing meanings. There’s far less of that in psychology. My issue with philosophy and ontology, is that philosophers mainly want to see concepts as rigidly fixed. And that does not fit with how science works.

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  2. Mark, a few things:

    1. You — and Neil in the comments — ascribe some special, overloaded sense of ontology to philosophers. That may be true of some, but it certainly isn’t true of me or of what I’ve written. Every time you use an existential quantifier in a sentence, you are committing to the existence of something. And that’s all it comes down to really.

    2. Try to explain to someone who lost half of their retirement in the 2008 crash that the bundled mortgages in their retirement accounts — i.e. agreements — were just “facons de parler.” Sorry, but that view just isn’t serious. If you want to engage with a serious point, you have to at least make a serious argument, not just gesture with a French expression. Or engage in a grade school lesson on abstract nouns.

    3. There is somewhat of a maddening tendency here to set out as if you were going to oppose something, but then hedge and hem and haw so much in the delivery that it’s hard to tell whether you’ve actually said anything at all. Here is an example:

    “Do they exist? I am a bit uneasy with the question. It sounds a bit unnatural. But I am happy to say that social or cultural constructs are constituent of – and social or cultural concepts are descriptive of – the human world (i.e. socio-cultural reality). Within that context, these constructs have real meaning and force.”

    In several pieces, now, I have talked seriously about social reality its status and the status of the things in it. I’ve offered substantial arguments and made numerous observations. I’ve also gone into detail with respect to my motives and their connection to what has been an overbearing reductive and eliminative materialism in analytic philosophy since the second world war. In that context, I’m afraid that statements like this do nothing to move the ball forwards or backwards or in any particular direction.

    4. In fn. 3, you write:

    “In my view, the general results of scientific research slowly filter into popular thinking and (potentially) change the way we see both the wider world and ourselves. Sometimes – due to crude misunderstandings of the science – this can have deleterious effects, but on the whole I see the process as a healthy one.”

    The trouble, of course, is that I was not speaking of “popular thinking.” The Manifest Image is *not* the popular or commonsense view of the world, something I have indicated now, on several occasions, in talking about Sellars. So, with respect to what I am talking about, this comment simply does not apply. But taking it more impressionistically, it completely fails to engage with *any* of the substantive arguments I gave as to why natural sciences *cannot* advance our understanding of things and practices that are defined in terms of intentionality. Indeed, a whole section of my most recent essay is devoted to the inherently teleological nature of what we are seeking to understand with respect to social reality, none of which is addressed at all here.

    This is not the first time it seems like you’ve engaged in what I would call “drive by critiques.” The trouble with them is that they are ultimately shallow, insofar as they fail to engage with any of the substantive arguments of their targets. I would be very happy to engage in a serious debate over the ideas contained in my last several pieces, to which I devoted some effort in writing, but there isn’t much I can do about a guy who just chucks some stuff at me out of his car window, as he drives by. And if the aim, instead, is simply to offer a window onto your own views, you will need to say a lot more about them, in terms of substantive arguments, given that an ongoing conversation on the subject already exists. People might be interested in the flat-out, argument-free pronouncements of celebrities, but ours? Not so much.

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  3. Try to explain to someone who lost half of their retirement in the 2008 crash that the bundled mortgages in their retirement accounts — i.e. agreements — were just “facons de parler.”

    I’ll take that as an example.

    It seems to me that whether, and to what extent, people are willing to act on that agreement is what matters. Whether or not the agreement can be said to exist seems unimportant in comparison.

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  4. Dan

    Every time you use an existential quantifier in a sentence, you are committing to the existence of something. And that’s all it comes down to really.

    But this is also the sense in which numbers exist.

    Try to explain to someone who lost half of their retirement in the 2008 crash that the bundled mortgages in their retirement accounts — i.e. agreements — were just “facons de parler.” Sorry, but that view just isn’t serious

    I can’t imagine that it would be any comfort to them to be told that those mortgage backed securities existed.

    But if someone had explained to them beforehand that they were lending their money to people to buy houses they could only just afford and that a default in a falling property market would involve massive losses and that the whole process was being overseen by oeople too greedy to take a proper hedge position, then they might have invested elsewhere and still have their money. But they were told they had things called securities and this hid the reality of what they were doing.

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  5. Re reality of “bundled mortgages”, we can compare this to those offered by Bernie Madoff. We can say either the CDOs truly existed, and most people were mistaken regarding their properties, or they were fictions. Even in 2010 there were late night TV advertisements for CDOs here in Australia – perhaps by then they had already been transmuted into completely imaginary objects, and the ads into amusing fantasies for me to watch.

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  6. Dan

    “You — and Neil in the comments — ascribe some special, overloaded sense of ontology to philosophers. That may be true of some, but it certainly isn’t true of me or of what I’ve written. Every time you use an existential quantifier in a sentence, you are committing to the existence of something. And that’s all it comes down to really.”

    Well, I agree that if you make a statement like “The present king of France is bald” you are making an implicit claim to the effect that *there is* a king of France. “Our cat is in the garden” likewise implies a belief that there is a cat which belongs to us and also that there is a garden. Also that there is an “us”! All sorts of things are assumed (to be, and to be certain ways or have certain qualities etc.) in ordinary linguistic communication. Sure. Just about everyone would agree with this, I suspect. You, however, seem to want to use this (I would say, trivial) fact as a crucial step in an argument regarding the nature and status of the humanities and social sciences and their radical separateness from the ‘hard’ sciences.

    But the OP is not an attempt at a rebuttal of your entire argument. Its aims are clearly stated and quite circumscribed.

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  7. Dan

    “There is somewhat of a maddening tendency here to set out as if you were going to oppose something, but then hedge and hem and haw so much in the delivery that it’s hard to tell whether you’ve actually said anything at all. Here is an example: “Do they exist? I am a bit uneasy with the question. It sounds a bit unnatural. But I am happy to say that social or cultural constructs are constituent of – and social or cultural concepts are descriptive of – the human world (i.e. socio-cultural reality). Within that context, these constructs have real meaning and force.””

    Like I said, I find your way of insisting on the existence of certain things a bit unnatural and a slightly weird use of (ordinary) language. It seems as if you are backing-and-forthing between ordinary ways of speaking and philosophical ways of speaking (about “existence” etc.).

    So I tried to present my take on the reality of these things in my own words. What’s wrong with that?

    And if it seems like my claims are trivial (as you put it, “… it’s hard to tell whether you’ve actually said anything at all…”), fine. That’s how I see them too.

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  8. Interesting debate. I’ve been sort of hanging back on this discussion. I think Mark makes some good points here. However, Dan clearly has a larger, more fully developed argument. I’ve also been reading Sellars, and am quite impressed; and it is clear that Sellars is not just a casual referral or talking point for Dan, but is ground for Dan’s argument. (Dan hasn’t hidden that, but I think some familiarity with Sellars helps recognize it.)

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  9. The response you quote is to the critical portion of your essay. With respect to your other question, there is nothing wrong with presenting your take on reality, but as I indicated, the arguments are rather scant, so it comes down to little more than a series of unsupported assertions.

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  10. Mark,
    I am stepping in here because, while I think you make important points concerning the ambiguous relationship between “self” and “person”, I do think you slip up in this assumption, clarified in your comment concerning the existential quantifier:
    “You, however, seem to want to use this (I would say, trivial) fact as a crucial step” – I don’t think there is anything trivial about this at all. I know that it has been a legacy of logical positivism to assert this, but I also know you’ve read Heidegger, and his reading of the copula is – for me – decisive (especially as it has important backing from Peirce, with whom I believe you are familiar). The unfortunate thing about the copula is that its metaphysical claims will just not go away, however analyzed. Either there *is* a law requiring me to stop at a red traffic signal, or there *is not*. Either there *is* a unicorn or there *is not*. Either there *is* a tree in my front yard, or there *is not*. This *is not*” is of course the foundation of Heidegger’s anxiety over the ‘Nothing that nothings,’ but that would involve a protracted discussion which would require surfacing the Medieval “categories of Being.” I only mention this because the notion of the metaphysical status of the copula has been a concern for quite a long time. There is an ontological claim in every grammatically correct usage of the copula.

    For one aware there are languages lacking a copula, this should indeed be trivial; but on the contrary, the fact that one can speak without a copula itself indicates the metaphysical problems with living in a language requiring it. It could be otherwise; it is not,

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  11. (Heidegger claimed the copula necessarily makes an ontological claim, which is in keeping with Classical and Medieval logic. Peirce actually goes further and argues that it makes a claim on the very nature of reality: The copula generates an entire world in which beings exist. To say ‘that is a tree’ is also to say that the universe is such that trees exist within it. To say that ‘there is a law requiring vehicles stop at a red light’ is to assert a social reality wherein laws are passed requiring behaviors in response to traffic lights. Thus, although Peircean semiotics inevitably leads to some form of Nominalism – the sign is ultimately always arbitrarily determined – Peirce also considered himself a Realist.)

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  12. Dan

    “The response you quote is to the critical portion of your essay. With respect to your other question, there is nothing wrong with presenting your take on reality, but as I indicated, the arguments are rather scant, so it comes down to little more than a series of unsupported assertions.”

    *Nowhere* did I claim that I was presenting in this piece my “take on reality”!

    I said in the piece itself that it was largely “an attempt to articulate and clarify my own point of view” on these particular issues.*

    And in the comment I was saying that the paragraph you quoted was an attempt to explain and express my take on the reality *of the sorts of things which you were taking about*; in other words, to express in my own words the sort of claim that I would be happy to defend regarding the existence of the constituent elements (for want of a better phrase) of social reality.

    A crucial point here is that I (and you also apparently) see these claims as obvious and trivial. If so, why are complex arguments needed to support them?

    In fact, I *was* making arguments in the OP. I made an argument about agreements, and the way the abstract noun adds nothing substantive to the meaning of an alternative statement which doesn’t use the abstract term. If so, doesn’t this fact have some bearing on the ontological question of whether (or in what sense) agreements can be said to exist?

    Your response was not to engage with the argument at all but to merely to scoff (“a grade school lesson on abstract nouns”).

    And I also made a case for distinguishing between persons and selves for a particular sense of “selves” (i.e. my self vs. myself).

    *Bear in mind, also, that I have written other essays here on ontological questions, drawing particularly on Carnap. Carnap’s views on ontology are very unpopular in certain quarters today (for obvious reasons), but they are philosophically respectable and I personally find them quite compelling.

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  13. ejwinner

    “I am stepping in here because, while I think you make important points concerning the ambiguous relationship between “self” and “person”, I do think you slip up in this assumption, clarified in your comment concerning the existential quantifier: “You, however, seem to want to use this (I would say, trivial) fact as a crucial step” – I don’t think there is anything trivial about this at all. I know that it has been a legacy of logical positivism to assert this, but I also know you’ve read Heidegger, and his reading of the copula is – for me – decisive (especially as it has important backing from Peirce, with whom I believe you are familiar). The unfortunate thing about the copula is that its metaphysical claims will just not go away, however analyzed. Either there *is* a law requiring me to stop at a red traffic signal, or there *is not*. Either there *is* a unicorn or there *is not*. Either there *is* a tree in my front yard, or there *is not*. This *is not*” is of course the foundation of Heidegger’s anxiety over the ‘Nothing that nothings,’ but that would involve a protracted discussion which would require surfacing the Medieval “categories of Being.” I only mention this because the notion of the metaphysical status of the copula has been a concern for quite a long time.”

    We could cite competing authorities until the cows come home. (Louis Rougier wrote a lot on this too, but nobody ever reads him. Perhaps they should.) My basic view is that Nietzsche and those who follow in that tradition are correct: the grammar of a language misleads us in various ways, and much metaphysics involves just extrapolating on peculiarities of grammar rather than engaging (as metaphysicians traditionally see themselves as doing) with (non-linguistic) reality.

    Nietzsche always knew this. Rougier always knew it. Wittgenstein came to (more or less) the same view.

    “There is an ontological claim in every grammatically correct usage of the copula. For one aware there are languages lacking a copula, this should indeed be trivial; but on the contrary, the fact that one can speak without a copula itself indicates the metaphysical problems with living in a language requiring it. It could be otherwise; it is not.”

    The so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is quite discredited, I think. And the fact that only certain languages have a copula undermines a lot of old metaphysical speculation. Many thinkers have discussed the way the peculiarities of the Greek language shaped Greek metaphysics, just as the structure of modern European languages has shaped modern European metaphysics to a large extent.

    I suspect that we have *fundamentally* different views on the relations between language and thought.

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  14. Nietzsche always knew this. Rougier always knew it. Wittgenstein came to (more or less) the same view.
    = = =
    Wittgenstein abandoned traditional mentalistic and platonic accounts in favor of social ones. He is the last person you should point to in the context of denying that the elements of social reality exist.

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  15. Mark English wrote:

    *Nowhere* did I claim that I was presenting in this piece my “take on reality”!

    = = =

    Mark English wrote: “So I tried to present my take on the reality of these things in my own words. What’s wrong with that?”

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  16. In regard to Mark and Daniel on Daniel’s point no. 2 in response to Mark’s OP:

    With Mark, I think the English clauses (i) ‘we agreed’ and (ii) ‘there is (or was) an agreement’ (or ‘we have (or had) an agreement’) are different ways of representing one and the same something.

    We can see Mark as saying: “The existence of whatever both (i) and (ii) represent is represented in (ii) as a rather thingly or objectual sort of existence, but let’s not get too caught up with the thingliness, since (i) represents the same something, but as less thingly or objectual — maybe as processual. But whatever (i) and (ii) represent certainly exists — as you would say if you ever find yourself in the rare situation where this is actually disputed.”

    So using the abstract noun in (ii) is a façon de parler. But, with Daniel, we should agree it’s not “merely” a façon de parler: it’s getting at the same existing something-or-other that (i) is getting at. So, from another point of view, the verb in (i) is a façon de parler too.

    This would mean that all the mundane but profoundly important things Daniel correctly cites as evidence for the existence of an agreement are just as much evidence for the existence of our agreeing, and vice versa. There’s the further question about which way of speaking is better, and for what reasons, or whether one way is better than the other. But, like I said, that’s a further question.

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  17. Mark,
    well, what I should have said is that the problematic involved in the usage of the copula is not trivial. I am not thinking Whorf-Sapir here, but rather why it is classical Indian philosophy is riddled with what we recognize as metaphysics, while Chinese philosophy (lacking a copula) shows a decided lack of interest in it (leading many in the West to project metaphysics into it in bootleg style as mysticism). (I’m thinking especially of the bastardized reading many Western readers give to the Tao Te Ching.)

    “Nietzsche always knew this.” Yes; but if one reads Nietzsche through Peirce (or for that matter through James or even Whitman) one may get a sense that grammar engages in a poeisis of possible knowledge. Grammar may mislead us and yet utter a truth about the world even when doing so.

    Early is Sellars’ Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, he drops a remark I noted as a little odd in the context:

    “The notion of a purely correlational scientific view of things is both an historical and a methodological fiction. It involves abstracting correlational fruits from the conditions of their discovery, and the theories in terms of which they are explained. Yet it is a useful fiction (and hence no *mere* fiction), for it will enable us to define a way of looking at the world which, though disciplined and in a limited sense, scientific, contrasts sharply with an image of man-in-the-world which is implicit in and can be constructed from the postulational aspects of contemporary scientific theory.”

    Now, I’m only half way through the essay (my time has been limited lately), so I don’t know where this particular passage precisely fits in the larger picture Sellars’ is painting. I remark it here because it reminds us that the fictive can also build into the true.

    Human beings do not simply wish to know the world, they wish to own it (otherwise there might be a science, but no technology). When Picasso unveiled his portrait of Gertrude Stein to the public, a critic remarked that it didn’t look like Gertrude Stein, to which Picasso replied “don’t worry, it will.”

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  18. Picasso was right of course. Picasso’s Gertrude Stein became iconic of the woman and for that time, and for a certain literary and artistic culture.

    Only infants encounter reality directly; but I don’t remember what that was like. And even if I did, I could only communicate that in verbal and other signs that would redefine it and make of it a reality it wasn’t at the time, yet could not be otherwise in the present.

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  19. Dan

    “Mark English wrote:

    *Nowhere* did I claim that I was presenting in this piece my “take on reality”!

    = = =

    Mark English wrote: “So I tried to present my take on the reality of these things in my own words. What’s wrong with that?””

    Yes, and there is a big difference between saying “my take on reality” and saying “my take on the reality of these things” (i.e. of the things you were talking about).

    “[Quoting me] “Nietzsche always knew this. Rougier always knew it. Wittgenstein came to (more or less) the same view.” Wittgenstein abandoned traditional mentalistic and platonic accounts in favor of social ones. He is the last person you should point to in the context of denying that the elements of social reality exist.”

    Here is the context which explains what the “it” is which I am claiming Nietzsche, Rougier and (to a large extent) Wittgenstein accepted:

    “My basic view is that Nietzsche and those who follow in that tradition are correct: the grammar of a language misleads us in various ways, and much metaphysics involves just extrapolating on peculiarities of grammar rather than engaging (as metaphysicians traditionally see themselves as doing) with (non-linguistic) reality. Nietzsche always knew this. Rougier always knew it. Wittgenstein came to (more or less) the same view.”

    Wittgenstein talked a lot about the way language bewitches us and leads us into philosophical confusions, didn’t he?

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  20. Neil Rickert wrote:

    “Dan sees psychology as being a very different kind of thing than physics. I agree with that. But here’s what I see as the main difference: physics is very much engaged in conceptual change, introducing new concepts and changing meanings. There’s far less of that in psychology. My issue with philosophy and ontology, is that philosophers mainly want to see concepts as rigidly fixed. And that does not fit with how science works.”

    Interesting point. There is, I think, a problem with the way (some) philosophers deal with language – as if concepts were more rigid or stable or precise or self-contained than they are. Paul Horwich has talked about this. Your comment also reminds me of some things Popper said.

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  21. animal symbolicum

    Thanks for your contribution. It makes sense to me, though I might have a couple of quibbles.

    “With Mark, I think the English clauses (i) ‘we agreed’ and (ii) ‘there is (or was) an agreement’ (or ‘we have (or had) an agreement’) are different ways of representing one and the same something.”

    I would prefer to say they are “different ways of saying the same thing.” In other words, I like to stick to natural-sounding (idiomatic) language wherever possible.

    “We can see Mark as saying: “The existence of whatever both (i) and (ii) represent is represented in (ii) as a rather thingly or objectual sort of existence, but let’s not get too caught up with the thingliness, since (i) represents the same something, but as less thingly or objectual — maybe as processual. But whatever (i) and (ii) represent certainly exists — as you would say if you ever find yourself in the rare situation where this is actually disputed.”

    I am a little uncomfortable with: “whatever (i) and (ii) represent certainly exists…” I would choose to put it slightly differently. And maybe say “is real” instead of “exists”? The “whatever” bothers me a bit. (Like the “something” above.) But I could almost go along with this.

    “So using the abstract noun in (ii) is a façon de parler. But, with Daniel, we should agree it’s not “merely” a façon de parler: it’s getting at the same existing something-or-other that (i) is getting at. So, from another point of view, the verb in (i) is a façon de parler too.

    This would mean that all the mundane but profoundly important things Daniel correctly cites as evidence for the existence of an agreement are just as much evidence for the existence of our agreeing, and vice versa. There’s the further question about which way of speaking is better, and for what reasons, or whether one way is better than the other. But, like I said, that’s a further question.”

    Nicely argued. I think my view would be that neither way of talking is better, but that the abstract noun form is less basic or fundamental than (and derives from) the other. Many languages and varieties of language do not have the range of abstract nouns that we have and yet their social reality is not compromised and is as rich as ours.

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  22. Mark: I am speaking of ordinary commitments, not philosophical ones. That there is money in my bank account is obvious. It’s not a philosophical thesis. That there is a law requiring you to have up to date registration tags on your car is obvious. It’s not a philosophical thesis. Etc.

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  23. Dan

    But haven’t you also been making philosophical and even specifically ontological claims? And implicit claims about the scope and nature of philosophy and its subdisciplines (specifically, metaphysics/ontology, aesthetics and ethics) as academic disciplines? Sometimes you seem to be doing (a certain kind of) philosophy, and the claims seem distinctly philosophical.

    I had thought until recently that you were criticizing science and scientists. But then you claimed that your criticisms were largely directed *at philosophers*.

    In the previous thread, a commenter asked: “Does there really exist an honest, viable attempt to reduce “the social sciences” to physics, biology, evolution theory etc.? My personal (and very anecdotic) experience suggests that it’s a fringe activity in the “what if?” mode…”

    You replied: “I suspect they [psychologists, etc.] don’t for the most part, although people like Skinner certainly did. It’s primarily a philosophers’ fixation.”

    But if your criticisms are not really about the way science is done or how it is understood in a general sense, they lose much of their interest – to a general audience at least. It becomes an internal debate within philosophy which most people outside of philosophy will feel they can safely ignore. Is this how you see it?

    Perhaps the main problem I have is with your apparent attempt to draw a clear divide between social reality and the realities with which the ‘hard’ sciences deal. Certainly there are different *perspectives* we can bring to bear.

    Of course you can’t reduce the human world to brain science or particle physics. There are various levels of explanation and areas of interest. But, as I see it, there is no clearcut divide between the physical and social worlds such that brain science, for example, can’t teach us anything about how we think and behave. If we want to understand (for example) ordinary social life, we normally do so without drawing on specifically scientific knowledge, relying instead on ordinary observation and intuitions. But if you know a bit about our evolutionary history, for example, you might start to see human interactions in a slightly different light. Likewise a knowledge of neuroscience changes in subtle ways our view of ourselves (or our selves). But you *seem* to be wanting to argue that scientific results are totally irrelevant to these things.

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  24. Science will tell us a lot about motor movement. It will tell us nothing about action. That is the essence of what I’m saying.

    As for the rest, I can’t speak to what is of “interest” for others, but only for myself. If people are uninterested in philosophical questions pertaining to the social and natural worlds or the Manifest and Scientific images, that’s fine. There’s no need for them to read my work.

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  25. ejwinner

    “[Quoting me] “Nietzsche always knew this*.” Yes; but if one reads Nietzsche through Peirce (or for that matter through James or even Whitman) one may get a sense that grammar engages in a poeisis of possible knowledge. Grammar may mislead us and yet utter a truth about the world even when doing so.”

    In literary contexts, I might agree with you. But not in philosophical contexts. (I have an interest in poetics, but take a different approach from yours. My approach is more closely tied to linguistics. Do you know anything of the Prague School? Roman Jakobson, for instance? I am not doctrinaire on this general topic, however. It’s just that I was exposed to the Prague School during my education and I was respectful of their work and interested in their general orientation.)

    “Only infants encounter reality directly; but I don’t remember what that was like. And even if I did, I could only communicate that in verbal and other signs that would redefine it and make of it a reality it wasn’t at the time, yet could not be otherwise in the present.”

    I would say that infants encounter the world *differently* than we do in the sense that they don’t yet have language. Or you could say that the world they encounter is a different one from ours, one without (comprehensible) language and other complex cultural elements.

    * The “this” here relates to the claim that the grammar of natural languages often misleads us into futile metaphysical theorizing and speculation.

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  26. Certain philosophical and religious thinkers (the Buddha comes to mind) suggested that the self – at least as we typically envisage it – does not exist.

    The self is the most self-evident[!] aspect of reality that there is. Claims that it does not exist are just so much Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. Only a p-zombie could seriously and sincerely maintain that there is no self. Fortunately p-zombies are only found in certain temples and philosophy departments so we can happily disregard them.

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  27. Mind you, I always respect people’s self-knowledge. Thus when someone claims he has no self and lacks free will I will accept his claims and feel very sorry for him. After all, he knows himself best. I will feel sorry for him because he has such an impoverished experience of life. Though I do wonder if that is any kind of experience at all. By the same token, if I accept his claims about himself, on the grounds that he knows himself best, he should accept my claims about myself for the same reason. Now here’s the strange thing, these non-selves feel obliged to subject others to the same belief they hold. At first this surprised me but on reflection, that is eminently logical. A non-self is by definition incapable of grasping the concept of selfhood since it is entirely outside their realm of experience(if they can experience!). Thus they must deny its existence.

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  28. Therefore I have just proven that non-selves exist, since some claim to be non-selves and wish to compel my belief in non-selves. How should we react to the existence of non-selves? Are they a danger to society? Should we proscribe them(in the Roman sense of the word) or confine them in mental hospitals? Or are they instead a harmless oddity?

    To do any of these thing we need to identify them. I propose a simple test. Look for any signs of selfish behaviour since a non-self, lacking any concept of self, cannot behave selfishly.

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  29. Mark,

    Does the individual self exist? The question is problematic. It all depends on what you mean by ‘self’. Certainly the sense of self exists. And persons exist in psychological, social and legal senses.

    Kaufman writes:

    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.”

    I get what is being said here, and I agree with it as it relates to persons. But I think it is confusing to conflate the notions of “self” and “person”.

    I am trying to understand your reasoning. You ask if the ‘self’ exists and then say the question is problematic. Yes, it depends of course on what we mean by ‘self’ but I think, in the absence of further clarification, the common-or-garden understanding will do quite well. You then concede that a sense of self exists. I must then ask, what else it could possibly be, other than a ‘sense’. It seems to me you have conceded the whole matter.

    You then claim that Dan-K has conflated ‘self’ and ‘person’, as if that somehow invalidates Dan-K’s argument. Not so. Dan-K is talking about the complete entity and this is apparent when we examine his phrase “Who and what I am – the self, the person,“. The ‘self’ and the ‘person’ are like two sides to the same coin. The ‘self’ is the internal view of the entity and the ‘person’ is the external view of the entity.

    You seem to wish to cast doubt on the existence of the individual self but you cannot mount any arguments against it. Perhaps this means you genuinely lack clarity about the matter and thus you are casting the matter on the waters of the discussion, to provoke stimulating discussion.

    I think that is a good motive, but, given the overwhelming consensus that the ‘self’ does indeed exist, both embodied and encultured, you need to produce stronger arguments. I don’t think it is enough to claim that it is problematic.

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  30. Mark,
    while the two words appear to be related, I did not write “poetics” but “poiesis” – “bringing into being.” When a carpenter builds a chair, he or she is engaged in poiesis; the US Constitution was an act of poiesis. I don’t think one can analyze this properly in any of the hard sciences, because I believe the term’s usage presumes an agent. (The correlate in the natural sciences would be physis – emergence, a coming into being.)

    And yes, I’m familiar withe Prague School, although given other differences on language between us, I suspect I read them differently than (although, I assure you, with no less respect).

    labnut,
    Having some familiarity with Christian mysticism, and thus knowing that loss of the sense of self in union with Christ is a prized experience in that tradition, I think it’s possible in the Christian tradition to distinguish between a self-in-the-world epiphenomenal to the indivual soul, rather than identical to it. “Whereas we [modern readers] believe that we should unreservedly affirm the self, the Theologia Germanica argues that we should radically deny it. ‘A man should stand and be so free from himself, that is, from selfhood, I-hood, Me, Mine and the like, that in all things he should no more seek and regard himself and his own than if he did not exist, and should take as little account of himself as if he were not and another had done all his works.’ For ‘I-hood, selfhood, Mine, Me and the like, all belong to the Devil, and therefore it is, that he is an evil Spirit.'” From an article by by Miroslav Volf, Christian Century. The Theologia Germanica was written in the 14th century and published – with hearty approval – by Martin Luther in the 16th. Not a mainstream view, and condemned by Calvinists and Catholics, the TG continued to be read among Catholic mystics, and influenced Protestant movements like the Pietists.

    The problem of self-hood might indeed disappear if it were only a matter of experience; but there are a myriad of facets to the origins, usefulness, and difficulties of selfhood that reflection on it necessitates considerable nuance in analysis however directed.

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  31. It’s my understanding that when asked outright whether “self” exists Siddhārtha Gautama refused to answer. Buddhists schools of thought are not monolithic. Some accept an empiric notion of self, others don’t. The Buddhist notion of anatta/anatman is one of the major distinctions between Buddhist and Hindu doctrine. EJ as a practicing Buddhist could probably weigh in on this topic, but I don’t find it particularly helpful in what Mark and Dan are discussing.

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  32. ejwinner

    “While the two words appear to be related, I did not write “poetics” but “poiesis” – “bringing into being.” ”

    The words *are* related (etymologically). And here is the main Oxford definition of poiesis (as used in English): “Creative production, especially of a work of art…” Also, you had just mentioned Whitman. So my – parenthetical – reference to poetics was not *totally* out of place, I would have thought!

    The nub of the issue was my claim that the grammar of natural languages often misleads us into futile metaphysical theorizing and speculation. I think it does.

    You, by contrast, prefer to emphasize the way “the fictive can also build into the true.” Maybe so. But it seems to me that you are switching into a different kind of discourse from the one I am engaged in. (You gave the example of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.)

    I realize that my approach to matters concerning language, thought and communication are not congenial to you. My mention of the Prague School and Jakobson was, I guess, an attempt to bridge that gap. They took a scientific approach to language but were not *narrowly* scientific.

    In my response to your main claim (that “grammar may mislead us and yet utter a truth about the world even when doing so”) I was merely suggesting that this (paradoxical) way of talking does make sense to me, but mainly in the context of a different kind of discussion from the one I have been trying to pursue here.

    “When a carpenter builds a chair, he or she is engaged in poiesis; the US Constitution was an act of poiesis. I don’t think one can analyze this properly in any of the hard sciences, because I believe the term’s usage presumes an agent.”

    But who is denying that we act in purposeful (and creative) ways? Certainly not me.

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  33. Mark,
    I’m really something of an observer of your discussion with Dan here, as it is motivating me to mull over some issues. The issue of poiesis is tangential to the discussion, but not wholly independent of the issues being discussed. A chair is a chair is a chair; but while I think we can agree that the US Constitution brought the United States into being, what that means precisely, in ontological terms, is clearly a matter interest and possible contention here.

    Purely as a side-bar comment, the Prague school is worthy of admiration for their precision, their research, and their passion. (And the genius of Jacobson cannot be denied). However, in their poetics (not poietics) they presumed a conservative aesthetics; and, like many Structuralists, tended to assume that non-verbal semiosis was fundamentally linguistic in structure. I think there’s a broader way to interpret the non-verbal, as indicated in my final remark on Picasso’s Stein. You may already be familiar with Mikhail Bakhtin, whose early work inspired a similar linguistics research group in Russia; but if not, I recommend him. He shares the aesthetics of the Prague school, but understood that it needed to be interrogated and opened up to include the unexpected. Also, his text on Rabelais is among the very few truly *entertaining* texts of (rigorous) scholarship I’ve ever read.

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  34. Hi EJ,

    Having some familiarity with Christian mysticism, and thus knowing that loss of the sense of self in union with Christ is a prized experience in that tradition

    Yes, I agree that some religious traditions strive to achieve a loss of the sense of self and their experience shows that this is difficult, requiring long training.

    What this goes to show is that the self is a very real and powerful phenomenon.

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  35. EJ,

    The problem of self-hood might indeed disappear if it were only a matter of experience; but there are a myriad of facets to the origins, usefulness, and difficulties of selfhood that reflection on it necessitates considerable nuance in analysis however directed.

    The problem of self-hood is really nothing more than the problem of consciousness. Self-hood is not possible without consciousness and consciousness without self-hood is inconceivable. Consciousness is of course one of the two great mysteries of the universe. It is so ubiquitous that we accept it as something entirely obvious. But that is only conditioning. Look under the hood and we find it is unexplainable and defies replication.

    Selfhood is the experience of consciousness that has the properties of unique identity and unique agency.

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  36. labnut

    “I am trying to understand your reasoning. You ask if the ‘self’ exists and then say the question is problematic. Yes, it depends of course on what we mean by ‘self’ but I think, in the absence of further clarification, the common-or-garden understanding will do quite well. You then concede that a sense of self exists. I must then ask, what else it could possibly be, other than a ‘sense’. It seems to me you have conceded the whole matter.”

    I am happy to accept that we have a sense of self, but I am saying that how we envisage this is up for grabs.

    “You then claim that Dan-K has conflated ‘self’ and ‘person’, as if that somehow invalidates Dan-K’s argument.”

    I am not saying that this invalidates his argument. I am saying that I see a distinction between the person and the self-as-subjective-sense-of-self.

    “Dan-K is talking about the complete entity and this is apparent when we examine his phrase “Who and what I am – the self, the person,“. The ‘self’ and the ‘person’ are like two sides to the same coin. The ‘self’ is the internal view of the entity and the ‘person’ is the external view of the entity.”

    But these concepts are not precise or rigid and I am saying that you can see the self in various ways, e.g. as in “myself” (common-or-garden, fits in well with “person”), or as in “my self” (more subjective and introspective).

    “You seem to wish to cast doubt on the existence of the individual self but you cannot mount any arguments against it.”

    I’m really just making a semantic point. I am not concerned here to mount a metaphysical argument about the existence of the self in any particular sense of the term. But I am happy to agree with Dan that, understood in a public or social sense – understood as persons – selves are real enough. They are constituent elements of social and cultural reality.

    “The problem of self-hood is really nothing more than the problem of consciousness…”

    I know this comment is addressed to ejwinner and not me, but let me be clear that I see myself as simply doing a bit of linguistic and semantic analysis in the OP. No conclusions should be drawn concerning my take on consciousness (and “point of view”) which I think is indeed a very deep and puzzling phenomenon.

    The trouble is, it is extremely difficult to say anything much about it which takes us forward.

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  37. Mark.

    But I am happy to agree with Dan that, understood in a public or social sense – understood as persons – selves are real enough.

    But what about in the private, individual sense? You keep making this distinction, ‘in a public or social sense’ as if there is no private sense of self-hood. And yet, to me. that is the most self-evident of all.

    My sense of self-hood is delineated by my sensory boundaries, which are unique to me. I do not share them with anyone else and this is where my sense of unique identity and self-hood starts. This is reinforced by my membership of a social environment. It is precisely because I am in a social environment that I can be aware of my unique and self-owned boundaries and know that this makes me different, giving me a special sense of self-hood. This is further enhanced by the fact that I have private thoughts and experiences. Once again, I can only know they are private because I am a member of a social group, allowing me to observe that others do not share my private thoughts and experiences.

    What I am trying to say is that I always have self-hood, by virtue of my unique identity, conveyed by my senses, and my unique agency. But I cannot be aware of a sense of self-hood unless I am a member of a social group because that membership reveals that I have unique identity, agency and private thoughts.

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  38. labnut

    “But what about in the private, individual sense? You keep making this distinction, ‘in a public or social sense’ as if there is no private sense of self-hood. And yet, to me, that is the most self-evident of all.”

    You seemed here to be heading in a Cartesian direction. But then you said:

    “My sense of self-hood is delineated by my sensory boundaries, which are unique to me. I do not share them with anyone else and this is where my sense of unique identity and self-hood starts.”

    I agree. We are (living) bodies, separate from one another and from other objects – as babies gradually learn (as they slowly develop their sense of having a separate identity).

    “This is reinforced by my membership of a social environment. It is precisely because I am in a social environment that I can be aware of my unique and self-owned boundaries and know that this makes me different, giving me a special sense of self-hood.”

    Or personhood?

    “… What I am trying to say is that I always have self-hood, by virtue of my unique identity, conveyed by my senses, and my unique agency. But I cannot be aware of a sense of self-hood unless I am a member of a social group because that membership reveals that I have unique identity, agency and private thoughts.”

    This seems not incompatible with what I am saying. I am happy to talk about my subjective sense of self and the (related) idea of myself as a person amongst other people. As I said in the OP: “… our perceptions of self are generated (like all our complex concepts) within a social and cultural matrix, upon which they remain dependent.”

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  39. Mark,

    You seemed here to be heading in a Cartesian direction. But then you said:

    What do you mean by that?

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  40. labnut

    I meant only that you said that the private sense of selfhood was for you the most self-evident of all, which sounded a bit like Descartes who found certainty only in introspection. But then you broadened your perspective and talked about the senses and, by implication, the body. So I take it that your views are not Cartesian.

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  41. Hi Mark,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts here and I hope I’ll be reading more from you on these topics in the future. There are a few points where I’m interested in more detail/clarification.
    I’m curious about your examples and ideas behind “contentious” existence. Specifically, how might one dispute the existence of something like your “mundane” examples? Since, as I see it, such things seem to more obviously either exist or not. Of course, we often ultimately have to rely on abstract things like laws or common sense to be able to say anything exists definitively. But I think that hinges more on one’s definition of existence, so while I’m content to say that a suicide note exists if it seems reasonable that the person who has undoubtedly committed suicide had written the note, I’m not sure from your example or what I take to be your definition of existence that you would agree without tangible proof of the events (i.e. watching them write the note and commit suicide).
    I’m especially curious about your ideas on existence because you say you are “uneasy with the question” of the existence of social constructs, but then state that they “have real meaning and force”, which for me is a satisfactory requisite for something’s existence.

    And I see your point about not having a “need to ask further … questions” concerning the fundamental nature of these constructs, as they serve their purpose without such questions, but I also don’t see the harm in it. Maybe even if we ask the right questions, (like from where do these constructs arise in the brain and are they represented in the same way between individual brains?) we could find a practical use from the resulting answers.

    The last thought your essay left me with was that it seems your argument against the amalgamation of “self” and “person” is contradictory with a statement you made earlier in the piece about abstract nouns. Namely, that they “make languages more powerful and efficient than they would be without them … [they don’t] add anything substantive to the meaning of the less abstract and clunkier way of saying it.” I’m not entirely confident in any particular ideas about “the self” at this point, but I don’t see why it can’t simply be considered a more abstract expression of the idea of a person. In the same way, I see the word “person” as merely an abstraction of the more concise word “human”, but I know of people who would consider, say, animals to be people, so I realize how unfortunately convoluted the discussion inherently is.

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  42. EJ(and Thomas),
    I have always been troubled by Buddhist concepts of self and emptiness. Their precepts are dressed in slippery aphorisms that are inimical to Western analytical thinking. This is my attempt to make sense of it, from a Western perspective.

    First a simple model for thought that will serve as the foundation for my understanding. The mind is a stage and on it is a single player, an Actor, the conscious mind, the self. There are three stage hands that bring information to the Actor and this is all the Actor knows of the play. The one stage hand is a guide, whispering advice in the ears of the actor. This stage hand is call Intuition. The second stage hand carries a prod. He provokes reaction and is called Emotion. The third stage hand is the Prompter(reality) and he reads the lines of the play to the Actor.

    A good Actor must listen to the three competing voices of Emotion, Intuition and the Prompter, making sense of them and performing the play. If their voices are too loud, are distorted or compete with one another he is left confused, acts wrongly and the performance suffers.

    The wise Actor knows how to silence the voices of the stage hands, Emotion and Intuition so that he can hear and interpret the voice of the third stage hand, the Prompter(reality). This is the state of becoming empty, the silencing of the voices of emotion and intuition. He must silence even his own voice so that he can hear the voice of the Prompter(reality brought to him by immediate experience). Thus reality is perceived free from the distortions of the emotions, the intuitions(including memories) and his own voice, giving a truthful perception.

    Once the wise Actor has gained a truthful perception of reality, he opens his mind again, he listens to the voice of Intuition, testing it for relevance and useful guidance, and finally listens to the voice of Emotion, testing it for appropriateness. The result is a wise, relevant and appropriate performance by the Actor.

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  43. Hi Lillie. Thanks for your comment. (I think it was delayed in the system for a couple of days.)

    “I’m curious about your examples and ideas behind “contentious” existence. Specifically, how might one dispute the existence of something like your “mundane” examples? Since, as I see it, such things seem to more obviously either exist or not.”

    Well I am saying that we don’t (normally) dispute (or affirm) the existence of mundane things. Only in special cases (e.g. lost will) do we discuss their existence explicitly.

    “… so while I’m content to say that a suicide note exists if it seems reasonable that the person who has undoubtedly committed suicide had written the note, I’m not sure from your example or what I take to be your definition of existence that you would agree without tangible proof of the events (i.e. watching them write the note and commit suicide).”

    My point about the suicide note was that it is not just a physical thing but something that needs to be interpreted both as document *and* as a document of a certain kind.

    “I’m especially curious about your ideas on existence because you say you are “uneasy with the question” of the existence of social constructs, but then state that they “have real meaning and force”, which for me is a satisfactory requisite for something’s existence.”

    What I’m uneasy about are certain philosophical claims. I was just looking at how we normally talk about things, and we don’t normally talk about, i.e. *explicitly* affirm or deny, the existence of most things which make up our world. And when we do so (say, question whether that chair you are sitting on really exists) we are moving into a different – and strange – sort of discourse. It’s often as though we are making unnecessary problems for ourselves. I agree that we make *implicit* existence claims all the time. I’m comfortable with this. Rudolf Carnap rejected the kind of metaphysics many philosophers do as futile. (His word.) He talked about numbers being assumed to exist within mathematical discourse, but it’s a trivial kind of existence, no big deal. *Of course* they exist (within that context). *Of course* laws and customs exist (in our society).

    As I said, in ordinary life we only talk about existence if the thing is in dispute. Mundane examples I gave were a will and suicide note. Often there is doubt about whether a will exists (and people use that word). Another mundane example is the “third man” apparently seen by one witness to an accident in the old movie. Was there a third man or wasn’t there? But usually such a question is simply about whether there was (or not) a third man present. Explicit claims about his existence *could* be made however. I forget what happened in the film but a man could appear and say: “The third man you are talking about exists – and I am he!”

    “And I see your point about not having a “need to ask further … questions” concerning the fundamental nature of these constructs, as they serve their purpose without such questions, but I also don’t see the harm in it. Maybe even if we ask the right questions (like from where do these constructs arise in the brain and are they represented in the same way between individual brains?) we could find a practical use from the resulting answers.”

    Maybe so. In some cases. Would have to hear a bit more about what you have in mind.

    “The last thought your essay left me with was that it seems your argument against the amalgamation of “self” and “person” is contradictory with a statement you made earlier in the piece about abstract nouns. Namely, that they “make languages more powerful and efficient than they would be without them … [they don’t] add anything substantive to the meaning of the less abstract and clunkier way of saying it.” I’m not entirely confident in any particular ideas about “the self” at this point, but I don’t see why it can’t simply be considered a more abstract expression of the idea of a person.”

    It can, but this can lead to confusion. My earlier comparison was between a verb-based way of saying something and an abstract noun-based way. (People dying, mortality; or, agreeing to do such and such, and an agreement.)

    “In the same way, I see the word “person” as merely an abstraction of the more concise word “human” …”

    You are comparing nominals (nouns) with other nominals. So it’s a different kind of comparison from the one I was making. I don’t see these nouns (person, human) as semantic equivalents, at least in the way “mortality rates” is semantically equivalent to “percentage of individuals dying”. Or the way “agreeing to …” is semantically equivalent to an agreement of a certain kind.

    “… but I know of people who would consider, say, animals to be people, so I realize how unfortunately convoluted the discussion inherently is.”

    I remember seeing a poster: “Cats are people too.” But not human, eh?

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