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.
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.
- See for example: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/07/08/selves-and-social-ontology/
- 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.
- 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.
- Think of the difference between the expressions ‘my self’ and ‘myself’. Only the latter aligns well with ‘person’, I think.