Ordinary and Scientific Views of the World and the Nature of Language

by Mark English

I have been engaged in some private and public discussions recently about the extent to which a scientific worldview relates to our ordinary non-scientific view of the world, and I want to pull together some provisional thoughts on the matter, especially as it relates to language.

Science and ordinary thinking

As I see it, there is no clear borderline between science and ordinary thinking. Some kinds of thinking are clearly non-scientific; some kinds of thinking are clearly scientific and a long way from ordinary thinking. But we often do bits of science-like thinking in the course of ordinary life; and scientists even in the course of their work utilize ordinary day-to-day thinking as well as more rigorous forms.

Historically, science arose out of ordinary thinking. You could see this in terms of the development of various kinds of technology. Descriptive and experimental science in the modern sense came later.

Our perceptions are very much a reflection of our sensory capacities. What we perceive is inevitably limited and “slanted” from a scientific point of view. Nonetheless, one of the first steps in the process of scientific thinking could be seen to involve making the most of our perceptions, by making as complete and dispassionate a description as possible of whatever it is we are interested in. As an initial exercise, an old high school chemistry text required students to describe a burning candle. Just observe the candle and describe what you see. A very interesting and challenging exercise.

As any science develops, we get a fuller picture which is often somewhat at odds with an intuitive view. Color is a simple example. The physics and psychology of color take us a long way from our immediate perceptions.

Research in social psychology and other branches of cognitive science has thrown up many counterintuitive results, and being exposed to this material has changed the way I experience the world in significant ways. The split brain/confabulation material is especially notable, I think. But even knowing simple facts about how our eyes and visual processing systems work (filling in gaps in the “picture” and so on) changes one’s experience, at least in subtle ways. (We become less trusting of what we “see” when we realize that our visual systems are generating a picture rather than operating as a camera does.)

When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

Wilfrid Sellars talked about this in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”:

I [might] seem … to be saying that man’s conception of himself in the world does not easily accommodate the scientific image; that there is a genuine tension between them; that man is not the sort of thing he conceives himself to be; that his existence is in some measure built around error. If this were what I wished to say, I would be in distinguished company. One thinks, for example, of Spinoza, who contrasted man as he falsely conceives himself to be with man as he discovers himself to be in the scientific enterprise. It might well be said that Spinoza drew a distinction between a ‘manifest’ and a ‘scientific’ image of man, rejecting the former as false and accepting the latter as true. But if in Spinoza’s account, the scientific image, as he interprets it dominates the stereoscopic view (the manifest image appearing as a tracery of explainable error), the very fact that I use the analogy of stereoscopic vision implies that as I see it the manifest image is not overwhelmed in the synthesis.

And nor may it be. There is a sense in which our experience of ordinary life stands as it is, not needing scientific validation. Ordinary pleasures, for example. And if you want to know what it is or was like to live in a particular place or time, science cannot really help you. But a writer of fiction might.

On the other hand, there is often, I would say, a lack of congruence between a naïve or intuitive view of certain things and a scientifically informed view. Sellars seems to concede this when he talks about the manifest image competing with and not being overwhelmed by the scientific image in the stereoscopic synthesis of which he speaks.

I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of stereoscopic vision. Implicit in the analogy is the assumption that some kind of real synthesis (leading to a better or deeper view) is possible. In the above quote, Sellars concedes that the analogy carries implicit claims. And in some cases, such a synthesis may be possible. But I see no a priori or other reason to believe that a “stereoscopic” vision is always or even often possible. (Take the case of the examples cited above: experiencing pleasures, or what it is like to live in a certain time and place. Science, social or otherwise, doesn’t really help us much.)

Without going as far as Spinoza, I would say however that there often is a tension between a ‘natural’ (for us) and a scientific (decidedly unnatural for most of us) way of seeing the world. There is no reason to think that a perfect balance is possible – or even that this way of putting things (“perfect balance” etc.) makes sense. It is a metaphor, not unlike that of stereoscopic vision. I would say that some people lean towards a scientific way of seeing things (where that is appropriate, and sometimes where it is inappropriate); others have no time for science or science-like thinking. Most of us, I would suggest, alternate between completely unscientific modes and more scientific ways of thinking, depending on what it is we are dealing with at the time.

Temperamental factors inevitably play a role here. This, I suspect, is unavoidable. For example, I confess to having a certain sympathy with and affinity for Spinoza’s way of seeing things. But I would certainly not go as far as rejecting as false the manifest image (as Sellars represents him as doing). This would be an extreme – and untenable – view.

Language

Very rarely do you come across a set of ideas that is truly exciting. One such set of ideas – which altered my younger self’s view of the world, and which continues to affect the way I see things today – concerns the way that language relates to thought and to the world. There is also the question, which has only relatively recently become amenable to scientific investigation, of how language is generated in and processed by the brain. The common theme here is that the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities.

It is a feature of intellectual history that developments in scientific disciplines allow us to see certain general ideas in a new light. Not only that: in so doing, they winnow the theoretical wheat from the chaff.

Not all ideas are equal. Ideas which have a bearing on science need to be tested against the science of the time (unlike moral notions, say, which are tested in other ways). Some ideas will survive this process, some will not. Sometimes, of course, discarded ideas will be rehabilitated as the science in question develops.

The idea I am discussing here concerns the nature and role of natural language and its capacity to help us see and articulate important general truths. There is no doubt about the importance of language as a social and cognitive tool. Language clearly enables many forms of social interaction which are impossible for non-linguistic creatures. The effectiveness of linguistic communication in practical terms is not in question, when it comes to facilitating various forms of social interaction, for example, or making simple assertions about the physical world.

Language also modifies and enhances our cognitive capacities in ways that are yet to be fully explicated. But what it does not do is provide a window into reality. We may use it to help us discover truths about the world but language per se does not reflect or embody these truths.

Religious and philosophical writers with a mystical disposition have long understood that their attempts to capture their total vision, their view of the world, in strings of words were doomed to failure. The best that could be hoped for was a certain amount of ‘brush-clearing’ (clearing up of misunderstandings, etc.) coupled with very provisional assertions. The proposed metaphors and models, claims and doctrines necessarily fall short. The reader/listener always has to take the last step and see for himself or herself. Unless one is dealing with simple and limited and ultimately practical statements about how things stand, what is seen or understood – the Gestalt, if you like – can never be put into words.

At least since the 19th century, certain thinkers have had a sophisticated understanding of how we can be misled in our thinking by natural language. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose academic training was in philology, believed that an implicit – and inevitably misleading – metaphysics may be discerned the pattern of the grammar of any given language.

Questions about the nature and limitations of language can be approached in many different ways, some intuitive, some more intellectual and scientifically informed. In the 1980’s, Paul Churchland and others put forward a radical position on this and other matters which attracted a lot of attention. Arguably his views were/are extreme, and they have been savagely criticized by philosophers in the Sellarsian tradition. (Ironically, Churchland himself was influenced by Sellars who was his dissertation advisor.) But, as William Ramsey points out in his account of Eliminative Materialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Churchland’s approach takes on a different aspect if it is seen in the light of the research program with which it has always been closely associated. It may be justified in pragmatic terms.

One virtue of eliminative materialism is that it liberates our theorizing from [a] restrictive perspective. Thus, the relationship between Eliminative Materialism and science may be more reciprocal than many have assumed. While it is true that eliminative materialism depends upon the development of a radical scientific theory of the mind, radical theorizing about the mind may itself rest upon our taking seriously the possibility that our common sense perspective may be profoundly mistaken.

I certainly don’t want to defend a particular metaphysical position here, but any conceptual framework which removes unnecessary constraints or limits from the scientific enterprise seems to serve a useful function. I know from experience that harmony between our pre-theoretical intuitions and perceptions and scientific findings does not always prevail, and so we always need to remain open to the possibility that at certain points our perspectives may need to be revised, even perhaps radically.

I have some problems with eliminative materialism, as it happens (even apart from the fact that the word “materialism” has a very 19th-century feel to it). But my focus here is language, not metaphysics. And my intention is simply to articulate what I believe is a very important insight about language, an insight which came to fruition in a particular strand of 20th-century thought and was shared, in slightly different forms, by a surprisingly wide range of thinkers. As I see it, the insight has two aspects and involves two main claims.

One claim is that language, given the central role that it plays in our lives, misleads us into thinking there is something in our brains which reflects or mirrors the forms of language (those strings of sounds or characters, sentences and so on). Sure, the processes of the encultured brain (that is, the properly-functioning brain of a person who has grown up in a particular linguistic community) generate the linguistic forms which manifest themselves in spoken and written language, and the brain can process and interpret these forms. But these forms are not ‘in the brain’ as such. They are social. They are cultural. They are practical, a kind of technology. They do what they do. (Basically, they facilitate social and cultural life, and modify our thinking.)

Secondly, not only do these linguistic structures not reflect brain structures (as a naïve view might imagine they do), they do not reflect the structure of most other aspects of the world either.

These are (in my view) important truths and their implications are potentially quite profound for how we see ourselves and the world. But spelling things out in anything like a satisfactory way – and I’m not sure that you can ever be completely lucid and explicit in this area – would have to include a certain amount of science (e.g. basic neurophysiology).

For early (philosophical and psychological) behaviorists the brain was – necessarily – a ‘black box’. But in the latter part of the last century we began to get an understanding of how the brain actually operates. This new knowledge had a profound effect on many areas of research, one of which was linguistics where connectionist – and specifically neural network – models were developed to replace (or at least supplement) the rule-based models which had been dominant until the 1980’s. The crucial point here is that it was realized that, though language operates in what appears to be a rule-based way, the actual processing which produces these linguistic forms is not linear or based in any way on high-level rules. The forms (and “rules”) of language emerge from more basic processes.

This leads us, I think, to see language in a new way. And it lends support to those who argued (for other reasons) that we should not assume that linguistic structures reflect – or can articulate in a satisfactory way – the underlying structures of reality.


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75 responses to “Ordinary and Scientific Views of the World and the Nature of Language”

  1. Too many issues here to address in any kind of systematic fashion, without writing an essay of my own, but here are some of the more significant ones.

    1. The Manifest Image is not the naive or common sense view of the world. That’s just a flat-out misreading of Sellars who is quite explicit about it. From Sellars’ paper:

    “I have characterized the manifest image of man-in-the-world as the framework in terms of which man encountered himself. And this, I believe, isa useful way of characterizing it. But it is also misleading, for it suggests that the contrast I am drawing between the manifest and the scientific images, is that between a pre-scientific, uncritical, naive conception of man-in-the-world, and a reflected, disciplined, critical—in short a scientific—conception. This is not at all what I have in mind.”

    Sellars is very specific as to what differentiates the scientific image and it has nothing to do with rigor or even with the employment of formal apparatuses. It has to do with the scientific practice of positing theoretical entities and the model of explanation that goes with that.

    Unfortunately, this fundamental misreading of Sellars infects your entire essay, insofar as so much of it is focused on the supposed conflict between the Scientific and Manifest Images.

    The Manifest Image is the picture of the world that includes persons, representations, reasons and everything that is dependent on them. Once this is understood, one should quickly realize that the “stereoscopic vision” Sellars recommends is unavoidable, unless one is intent on simply ignoring the phenomena or misrepresenting it. This is part of what I’ve been trying to communicate in all my essays on social ontology/reality.

    2. Mark wrote:

    “As I see it, there is no clear borderline between science and ordinary thinking. Some kinds of thinking are clearly non-scientific; some kinds of thinking are clearly scientific and a long way from ordinary thinking. But we often do bits of science-like thinking in the course of ordinary life; and scientists even in the course of their work utilize ordinary day-to-day thinking as well as more rigorous forms.”

    One of the things Sellars also explicitly warns against is any attempt to “piecemeal” replace bits of the Manifest Image with bits of the Scientific Image, as one finds, for example, in the majority of what today passes for “the philosophy of mind.” Sellars’ essay appeared at a time when the later Wittengstein was a powerful force in the analytic tradition and before philosophical philistines like the Churchlands came along, so what he says here speaks to a bygone era. Were he talking about today, he’d make the opposite judgment about the analytic tradition:

    “I think it correct to say that 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.”

    As for the rest of the quotation from Mark’s essay, Quine recognized a quite clear borderline. Intensionality/Intentionality is fundamentally unscientific, because it depends upon persons and their points of view, by way of representations. The intensional is not substitutable across contexts. It is for this reason that Quine eschews modality and insists on a purely extensional language for the purpose of science.

    3. Mark wrote:

    “As any science develops, we get a fuller picture which is often somewhat at odds with an intuitive view. Color is a simple example. The physics and psychology of color take us a long way from our immediate perceptions.”

    Again, this simply conflates the Scientific and Manifest images. Nothing about the physics and psychology of color “takes us away from” the fact that red suggests passion or that blue connotes coolness or that redness or blueness seem a certain way to us. This also demonstrates the necessity of the stereoscopic vision. One has not given a complete account of the phenomenon unless one has done both. And one account cannot be translated or otherwise reduced to the other. It literally is the case that both are true and both are required for a complete picture. (This is also why they don’t really conflict — and here, I don’t think Sellars went quite far enough.)

    4. The Stanford Encyclopedia is a wonderful resource, but one cannot simply cite it as one does a primary source. The essay Mark links to on Eliminative Materialism is particularly terrible, and the excerpt he quotes egregiously so. Eliminative Materialism is the definition of a limiting vision, in that it explicitly advocates simply abandoning the Manifest Image altogether, in favor of the Scientific. Not only is it philistine in all the worst ways described in my last essay, it even violates the most fundamental principle of science which is to save the phenomena. The Churchlands have been the single worst influence on the analytic tradition in recent memory and in my view are an embarrassment to philosophy as a discipline. So while in a way they “excite” me as much as they do Mark, it is in an entirely negative fashion.

    5. Mark wrote: “Secondly, not only do these linguistic structures not reflect brain structures (as a naïve view might imagine they do), they do not reflect the structure of most other aspects of the world either.”

    We’ve known this since Wittgenstein rejected the account of language that he gave in the Tractatus. The idea that this is some great new thing we learned from the Churchlands (or anyone else as recent) is just wrong.

    = = =

    There’s a lot more to say here, but that’s enough for now. I may comment more later, once I see what others have to say.

  2. I was introduced to science at around the age of 11. I have never thought that there was a conflict between the scientific image and the manifest image. The two are very different, but I think it a mistake to take them as in conflict. I am more inclined to see them as complementing one another. So I guess I am embracing what you reject in terms of a “stereoscopic vision” metaphor.

    I’m never sure what to make of eliminative materialism. If the idea is to get rid of the manifest image, then I am unwilling to go there. However, if it is just a matter of some skepticism on how notions of “belief” and “desire” are used, then count me as such a skeptic.

    On language — I do not doubt the importance of human language. However, if language is that which the Chomsky school studies, then I seriously doubt that human language qualifies as a language. In particular, I see human language as driven by semantics rather than by syntax. And I’m inclined to say that words do not get meanings — rather, it is meanings that get words so as to enable us to communicate those meanings.

  3. Dan,

    Aren’t you a bit harsh here? As a physicist, “coming from the other side” so to speak, it’s not obvious there is clear borderline between science and ordinary thinking. I personally feel the distinction between manifest and scientific images is very useful, but I also feel there is a gray area.
    If we assume, as we often do, that a particular person has a certain “psychology” and understand his or her actions in terms of this psychology, are we doing (proto-)scientific thinking or are we thinking in terms of the manifest image? It’s not clear to me. The psychology of this person is an entirely theoretical entity (we may not feel it’s theoretical – but it is).

  4. Harsh? What’s harsh about it? I made very specific criticisms of very specific points.

  5. couvent: Also, the Manifest Image is not “ordinary thinking,” as I explained in my comment and as Sellars explains in the portion I quoted from his paper.

  6. couvent: that’s not what is meant by a theoretical entity. Speaking of someone’s personality or psychology is not like speaking of subatomic particles.

  7. Dan

    You claim that a fundamental misreading of Sellars infects [my] entire essay “insofar as so much of it is focused on the supposed conflict between the Scientific and Manifest Images.”

    But I think it is quite clear that I am not discussing Sellars’ “Manifest Image”. I did not even use the term.

    If my essay were an account or critique of Sellars’ views, you would be correct. I did read the lecture(s) from which I quoted and I am aware of Sellars’ views. Some of what he says I like. But, as I made clear in the essay, I am decidedly *not* adopting – nor am I attempting to critique – the full Sellarsian framework here.

    The quote from Sellars is there to put my remarks about the tension between a scientific and other views into an historical context and, in particular, to bring in Spinoza as a kind of litmus test. Predictably Sellars rejects Spinoza’s approach, but he was at least respectful of him. I indicated that I sided more with Spinoza (though with some reservations).

    “It might well be said,” I quoted Sellars as saying, “that Spinoza drew a distinction between a ‘manifest’ and a ‘scientific’ image of man, rejecting the former as false and accepting the latter as true.”

    Note that he is writing very hypothetically here using a modal auxiliary (“might well …”) and putting the terms – *his* terms – in quotes as he applies them to Spinoza. Earlier he had characterized Spinoza (in more straightforward terms) as contrasting “man as he falsely conceives himself to be with man as he discovers himself to be in the scientific enterprise.”

  8. “Mark wrote: “Secondly, not only do these linguistic structures not reflect brain structures (as a naïve view might imagine they do), they do not reflect the structure of most other aspects of the world either.”

    We’ve known this since Wittgenstein rejected the account of language that he gave in the Tractatus. The idea that this is some great new thing we learned from the Churchlands (or anyone else as recent) is just wrong.”

    I emphasized in the essay the long history of this general idea. I mentioned Nietzsche, for example.

  9. Mark wrote:

    “I have been engaged in some private and public discussions recently about the extent to which a scientific worldview relates to our ordinary non-scientific view of the world,”

    and

    “As I see it, there is no clear borderline between science and ordinary thinking.”

    and

    “When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

    Wilfrid Sellars talked about this in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”

    = = =

    The Sellars essay is about the distinction between the Scientific and the Manifest Images.

    So, perhaps I misread you, but you pretty much asked to be misread.

  10. Neil

    “I have never thought that there was a conflict between the scientific image and the manifest image. The two are very different, but I think it a mistake to take them as in conflict. I am more inclined to see them as complementing one another. So I guess I am embracing what you reject in terms of a “stereoscopic vision” metaphor.”

    As I indicated in my response to Dan, I deliberately did not talk about a “manifest image” (which would imply an at least provisional or implicit acceptance of a Sellarsian framework). But, speaking in general terms, I must say that I do often feel that a scientifically-informed view does often sit uneasily with what we might intuitively believe or feel. Don’t you often hear scientific results being described as “counterintuitive”? This implies (a degree of) tension or conflict, surely. But using the words “tension” or “conflict” here involves metaphorical thinking – like Sellars’ stereoscopic vision. With metaphors and analogies, one’s claims can’t really be categorical and involve clear-cut answers, I would say. Is there a tension? Is there conflict? *In a sense.* Are scientific findings compatible with our experience? They had better be!! Complementary? Your word. Just a nice way of saying compatible? 🙂

  11. As I indicated in my response to Dan, I deliberately did not talk about a “manifest image”

    Yet both Dan and I thought that you were implicitly talking about it.

    Don’t you often hear scientific results being described as “counterintuitive”?

    Yes, but those results might not be counter-intuitive to me. Intuition varies from person to person.

    Is there a tension? Is there conflict?

    Some people see a tension and even a conflict. For example, Jerry Coyne often argues (on his blog) for determinism and against free will. So I suppose that’s a conflict for Coyne. I never had that conflict. For me, the kind of world that we experience seems incompatible with determism, so I instead looked for ways of understanding Newton’s laws that did not imply determinism.

  12. Mark,
    Treating language with suspicion goes back far before Nietzsche. As far back as the Ion, Plato has Socrates effectively argue that the language of poetry cannot teach us anything about the world, that there is by implication something about the language that gives itself over to inevitable misunderstandings. So neither Homer nor his exegete can teach a person, say, how to be a good general. But this is really to misunderstand the situation in two ways: first, people very well knew that Homer wasn’t teaching strategy and tactics or chains of command, etc., that’s not why anyone enjoyed listening to his epics. Secondly, reading Homer may yet edify the character of one who is a general, helping to develop courage, how to face adversity in conflict, etc. Platonic puritanism regarding language continues to this day, and was one motivation behind Logical Positivism, which held back the Analytic tradition, and remains unhealthy in some of its remaining influence.

    Notably, the difference between Plato and Nietzsche would seem to be that Plato believed there was a reality which language could state positively once clarified rationally – Nietzsche did not. The man who writes of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors of which it has been forgotten they are metaphors,” is not interested in how language misleads us – he is interested in how we use language to ‘mislead’ ourselves – reality is a construct, and recognizing this gives us power to reconstruct it.

    As one trained in literary theory during the ‘Theory Wars’ of the Eighties, suspicion concerning language came as part of the professional package with which I was equipped. (And I point out that the Phenomenological tradition that influenced literary theory back then was just as suspicious of language as the Analytic, albeit for different reasons and in different ways.) But this is why I eventually studied semiotics. The sign may be signifying something other than what is (re)presented, but while it can be used to deceive – it never lies. The play between semiotics and rhetoric lies precisely in the fact that the sign may signify different things to different people, and the rhetor – whether lawyer, politician, or teacher – must keep firm command over the differing significations in differing contexts. The art of rhetorical criticism thus lies in untangling the possible interpretations and their larger significance as motivational within the given context.

    Which does have to do with your remarks on language which indicate that you assume a strictly communicative ground for language – and I reject that. The ground I assume is performative and motivational. Like Nietzsche, I have less interest in how we communicate with language, more in how we *use* language – to communicate, to motivate, to entertain and edify, to perform the social graces, to win lawsuits and elections.

    I was also going to address the Wilfred Sellars issue at length here, for different but somewhat intersectional reasons than Dan’s; but I read your response to Dan, wherein you claim your article not really to be about Sellars (at least not in depth), I’ll only remark two points. First, I also find a bit of misreading here, as indicated in a remark Dan quotes from you in his reply to your reply:
    “When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.”
    I have re-read Sellars’ essay carefully, and, although he does use the words “ordinary” and “everyday,” I see not a single indication that he thinks the Manifest Image results from any intuition or intuitive processes. Instead, it is the result of a sophisticated refinement using much the same degree of reasoning as used to develop the Scientific Image. So I have no idea why you would frame your quotation from Sellars in this manner.

    Secondly: Although elsewhere Sellars seems to have developed a distinct understanding of the relationship between his understanding of conceptualization (for which “Image” stands in), and language (and which I’ve only glimpsed in a partial lecture I was able to listen to on Youtube), in the essay in question, Sellars is quite clearly engaged in ontology. So I was left somewhat confused by the ‘linguistic turn’ in your own article. It does seem that you may be suggesting that science will ultimately clarify our common language. Specifically, given the trajectory of your article, you seem to suggest that scientific research on the brain will somehow dispel at least some illusions we might have about the Manifest Image. I don’t really see that happening. Because some of these ‘illusions’ are simply not illusions. They are what is.

  13. EJ: This is really excellent and informative. 2 questions:

    1. Your point in which you reject the purely communicative function of language in favor of a broader performative approach sounds a lot like Austin and the later Wittgenstein, is that what you had in mind?

    2. I think I remember reading that Sellars was quite influenced by the phenomenological tradition a la Husserl. Do you see that in his work?

  14. Dan,
    Austin and Wittgenstein certainly influenced me. I took a course in Wittgenstein’s P.I. and saw some important resonance in it with Pierce, whom I was also studying at the time.

    I think Sellars was careful to avoid the arcane intricacies that clutter Husserl, and he’s not a Phenomenologist, but yes, I do see the influence there.

  15. You took an entire course on the Investigations? I was thinking of teaching such a course myself. Do you still have your notes? Would you be interested in collaborating?

  16. Dan,
    I studied the Investigations with John Taber at the University of New Mexico – that was 25 years ago, so finding some left over course notes would be difficult.

    I went to UNM because I was there to study with some Tibetan Buddhist monks at a monastery near-by. But attending a debate between one of the monks and a Theravadan teaching at UNM at the time led me to realize that my interest in Pragmatism made me more receptive of the Theravada outlook, so I took classes a class from him; and also a course in Chinese Philosophy and another in Pierce (both taught by the marvelous Fred Gillete Sturm, who was the only true ‘eclectic’ on the permanent faculty of the time).

    I mention all this, because before responding, I thought I’d check up on Taber (who was Chair during the decade the department was going full-blown eclectic – Feminism, Environmentalism, Phenomenology, what have you) – and discovered to my surprise that he has long specialized in the philosophies of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions!

    What goes around comes around, eh?

    A collaboration sounds very interesting; let me re-read the PI again and I’ll see if I can’t float some ideas your way….

  17. Dan,
    One more note on that class on the PI, relevant here: In the class, Taber seemed to be searching for some deeper insight from Wittgenstein. I on the other hand, was discovering that the ‘surface’ of language, which philosophers all too often take for granted, is itself profoundly insightful if we just learn to ‘let it be.’ This led to some interesting conversations with Taber, as you might guess (although I don’t remember them in any detail, although I remember them as meaningful and useful). But I also remember the real friction came from a student committed to the Positivist Analytic strain, who insisted that the PI needed to be brought to heal with the Positivist interpretation of the Tractatus. I remember mentioning this to Sturm, who remarked, “Don’t bother, they never listen.” I suppose that sealed the deal for my attitude concerning the Analytic tradition, although I had problems with it at SUNY Albany, where the Philosophy faculty was giving itself heart and soul to the then big fad, Cognitive Science. As a student of literary theory and rhetoric, I expected something more, something useful. I was told not to waste my time; so I didn’t. I got my English doctorate and went elsewhere.

  18. Mark,
    One last note… I probably shouldn’t. as I’m heading off to bed, and write my most acerbic posts at this time… so please understand that this partially tongue in cheek. But this occurred to me reading your comments on a previous article and seems re-enforced here.

    The “tension” between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘scientific’ views as you describe is of course a dialectic, It is essentially a passage through The Dialectic pursuing Absolute Knowledge.

    This is Hegel of course; Oh, you closet Hegelian, you!

    (This is the most Hegelian article yet posted here, including my own article on Hegel.)

  19. davidlduffy

    Amaral or Suchi in their introduction to Sellars’ Notre Dame Lectures recommend Chrucky’s discussion of the differences between the “Common Sense Image”, what I might call the “Intentional Image”, and the “Manifest Image”. His remarks make sense to me, in that I see Sellars is trying to split off something usefully different from common sense, but that I feel that it doesn’t quite work. As Chrucky points out, Sellar’s MI is quite Western philosophical culture bound [he agrees with Kant on many points, he says] viz outre anthropological examples of unusual views of time (eg Hopi). Another example is thoughts about personality – the Eysenckian big 4 (E,P,Q,IQ) are all very recognizable in Greek thought re temperament and the elements, but I haven’t seen much evidence of equivalent Chinese concepts (there are a few recent papers on a Korean yin-yang based personality typology). I strongly suggest that descriptions of temperament are MI, and not proto-SI, or non-MI non-SI, which is a big category according to Chuckry, at least. A typology/partitioning of natural philosophy that splits off personality psychology from cognitive neuroscience doesn’t work for me.

    Two other threads of thought along that line I (and others) have are that the “Original Image” contains theological reasoning about the world, where sophisticated theology often combines absolute processes with persons, and the OI often contains ideas such as mind-body dualism, as per Odysseus’s men when transformed into animals obviously retaining human understanding of their status – an observation of Popper’s that this is much older than the Golden Ass example. We similarly accept that shamanistic practices also represent antique dualisms. The second thought was regarding common sense pre-scientific chemistry – the dissolved salt can be tasted, and we know how to boil off the water. Again, this part of the “Common Sense Image” feels like part of MI type thinking

    http://www.ditext.com/chrucky/chru-0.html

    Another of Chrucky’s arguments is:

    “Consider the following inconsistent triad:

    (1) All theoretical terms in the Scientific Image are introduced by models from the Manifest Image.
    (2) The Manifest Image does not include a concept of absolute processes.
    (3) The Scientific Image is grounded in the theoretical positing of absolute processes. ”

    Chrucky “distinguish[es] a Common Sense Image from the Manifest Image, and hold[s] that the Common Sense Image recognizes the existence of absolute processes which also act as models for the theoretical posits of the Scientific Image.” I don’t think there are nice joints here.

  20. “Such considerations point to the conclusion that the ultimate ground of the quest for cognitive certainty is the need for security in the results of action. Men readily persuade themselves that they are devoted to intellectual certainty for its own sake. Actually they want it because of its bearing on safeguarding what they desire and esteem. The need for protection and prosperity in action created the need for warranting the validity of intellectual beliefs.” John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, Chapter Two.

  21. labnut

    Mark,
    this is a very interesting essay for the reason that it so much reflects the spirit of the times. Moreover you are interesting because you are a cultured, well read person, but with strong scientistic tendencies. And so in your essays I see a conflict playing out which is still unresolved. This is quite fascinating to watch and for this reason I am not a critic but an admirer.

    But even knowing simple facts about how our eyes and visual processing systems work (filling in gaps in the “picture” and so on) changes one’s experience, at least in subtle ways. (We become less trusting of what we “see” when we realize that our visual systems are generating a picture rather than operating as a camera does.)

    Counter-intuitively I suggest we should be trusting of what we see.

    As we stalk through the savannas, that fleeting shadow might be a flickering branch in the breeze or a leopard poised to spring. We better know the difference and so we have advanced machinery that quickly processes fleeting and incomplete signals to present to the mind as immediate and compelling motivation. Our life depends on it.

    As I drive down the highway at speed I am also processing fleeting and incomplete signals that will guide my mind to make safe decisions. My life depends on it.

    As I sit in the corporate boardroom I also quickly assess the fleeting signals contained in bearing, articulation, nuance and expression. I had better get it right since my corporate life depended on it.

    We are heuristic machines that quickly integrate transient and incomplete signals, attempting to gain a most likely picture of what is about to happen. This is the nature of life. It is dynamic and fast paced. We do not have the luxury to pause, reflect and obtain a true picture(whatever that might be). We are designed to arrive at most probable outcomes and act on them. We are not designed to arrive at true outcomes since you may only know the truth once the leopard sinks his fangs in your throat.

    I am saying that we should trust our intuitions, but with an important proviso. Our store of intuitions must be deepened and broadened by an active, curiosity driven encounter with the world. This encounter with the world is both personal(not through social media, heaven forbid) and it is cultural. The cultural world(broadly defined) is our primary source of intuitions and we test them, confirm them and reinforce them in our personal encounters. The end result of these encounters is the deep store of intuitions that we call wisdom.

    These intuitions are augmented by our encounters with science but it does not replace them or invalidate them, except perhaps in some of the details.

  22. Neil

    “On language…”

    Yes please!

    “… I do not doubt the importance of human language. However, if language is that which the Chomsky school studies, then I seriously doubt that human language qualifies as a language. In particular, I see human language as driven by semantics rather than by syntax. And I’m inclined to say that words do not get meanings — rather, it is meanings that get words so as to enable us to communicate those meanings.”

    I think I see where you are coming from here. I agree that semantics is primary in certain ways, and Chomsky’s main focus was syntax (and phonology). But that does not render his contributions to linguistics null and void.

    Your mention of Chomsky is particularly germane because one of the things that lies behind this article is my experience in the late 1980s of a savage intellectual battle within a linguistics department where I was a student. I began a course in generative grammar taught for one or two semesters by a former student (and friend, I think) of Chomsky’s. The next year a new department head appeared who was strongly opposed to the generative approach. Faculty who were sympathetic to Chomsky were ‘purged’, and my small cohort were taught by people brought in from other institutions, one of whom, psycholinguist Laurie Stowe, impressed me as a deeper thinker and more serious researcher than most others I have encountered in this or related fields. I vividly remember the new department head interrupting one of her classes for some reason and gratuitously mocking the Chomskyan “rules” she was in the midst of outlining on the whiteboard.

    This was at the height of the battle between generativists and connectionists. This is the real background to my interest in the area. At the time, Sellars was not much more than a name to me and I had yet to encounter Paul Churchland.

    Back then, I took sides. Maybe the wrong side. But there was real intellectual excitement in the air, I can tell you.

  23. labnut

    Someone is sure to reply by pointing out there are authors who make a good living writing books that describe the defects in our intuitions. That is a little like claiming that morality, as such, is defective because there are people with defective morals.

    But nevertheless even well developed intuitions can go wrong. Our intuitions strive to arrive at most likely outcomes. It is an instinctive assessment of probability that works well in small societies but can work poorly poorly in large, modern societies. It is for this reason that HG Wells claimed that one day proficiency in statistics would be necessary for good citizenship. I believe him and not just because I love statistics. A training in statistics would make our natural tendency to arrive at probabilistic decisions more reliable.

  24. I recall the Churchlands introducing EM as meaning that folk psychology will prove radically false and will be replaced by completed neuroscience.

    This statement appears to me to be the kind of category mistake that Dan is always talking about.

    In any case, folk psychology is proving to have been remarkably shrewd in many ways in light of modern formal psychology.

  25. ejwinner

    “Treating language with suspicion goes back far before Nietzsche. As far back as the Ion, Plato has Socrates effectively argue that the language of poetry cannot teach us anything about the world, that there is by implication something about the language that gives itself over to inevitable misunderstandings.”

    I did not claim that treating language with suspicion goes back only as far as Nietzsche. I talked about past “philosophical and religious writers with a mystical disposition”, for example.

    “The man who writes of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors of which it has been forgotten they are metaphors,” is not interested in how language misleads us – he is interested in how we use language to ‘mislead’ ourselves – reality is a construct, and recognizing this gives us power to reconstruct it.”

    I do not accept this kind of modern reinterpretation of Nietzsche. I’ve heard it many times (from Rorty for example). Too big a topic to deal with, but I would fight hard on this one. I’m very attached to Nietzsche and hate to see him being appropriated by those whose views on science etc. differ profoundly from my own (and, I would argue, from Nietzsche’s).

    “… you assume a strictly communicative ground for language…”

    Not so!

    “The ground I assume is performative and motivational…”

    There is no (single) “ground”. Language does/is used for various things.

    “… I also find a bit of misreading here, as indicated in a remark Dan quotes from you in his reply to your reply: “When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.”

    I don’t see the problem. I thought I explained quite clearly what I was talking about in the preceding paragraphs.

    “I have re-read Sellars’ essay carefully, and, although he does use the words “ordinary” and “everyday,” I see not a single indication that he thinks the Manifest Image results from any intuition or intuitive processes. Instead, it is the result of a sophisticated refinement using much the same degree of reasoning as used to develop the Scientific Image. So I have no idea why you would frame your quotation from Sellars in this manner.”

    Because he was talking *in the quotation* about a tension which is often felt. Sure, he doesn’t see it as a *real* tension. But he admits that someone like Spinoza did.

    “Secondly … in the essay in question, Sellars is quite clearly engaged in ontology. So I was left somewhat confused by the ‘linguistic turn’ in your own article. It does seem that you may be suggesting that science will ultimately clarify our common language.”

    I don’t know what you mean here. What exactly needs to be clarified?

    “Specifically, given the trajectory of your article, you seem to suggest that scientific research on the brain will somehow dispel at least some illusions we might have about the Manifest Image. I don’t really see that happening. Because some of these ‘illusions’ are simply not illusions. They are what is.”

    I understand this. I understand your view and Dan’s view. But I am not talking about Sellars’ manifest image.

  26. Science is a method by which we develop languages that model objective reality – that is to say phenomena that others can experience for themselves. What is characteristic of such phenomena is that they do not involve choice – the participants will not change their behavior arbitrarily. They lack choice; they lack “personality.” Electrons, metals and baseballs are examples of such participants.

    As a consequence, science has eschewed the deeper questions about the nature of human experience because they involve personality. People, faced with exactly the same experience, will change their behavior if in one case they know that they are part of an experiment. Even more, when categorized and subjected to systematic control, people will choose self-destructive behaviors rather than submit.

    In some sense, to do so is an “unscientific” act. It is to act in opposition to the facts. But science itself acts in opposition to profound facts, for reasons related to the nature of language Mark raises above. As Kuhn discussed in his treatise on Scientific Revolutions, languages are a means of maintaining consensus in the service of political organization. In many cases, pleas that people be “scientific” or “objective” can be reduced to an act of political will: we don’t want to have to concern ourselves with the formation of their personality – we just want them to conform to our expectations.

    From my reading, the most interesting, focused and humane analysis of the conundrums that arise from these tensions is Santayana’s “Three Philosophical Poets.” In Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, Santayana illuminates the limitations of Reason, Faith and Will as methods for organizing our lives. He closes with the hope that some day a poet will arise to unite them.

  27. Sometimes I think that people make too much of the limitations of language.

    A good analogy here is from communications technology. If you have an unreliable communications channel, you can still set up a reliable communications channel over it. Although it sounds paradoxical it is true. It is more or less true of language too.

    If I have an idea I wish to convey to someone and they understand the idea I meant to convey then I have used language successfully, whether or not they agree with what I said.

    Also, if they did not understand the idea I meant to convey and I am able to establish, by further conversation, that they did not understand what I meant to convey then, again, I have used language successfully. Either I can try again in a different way, or perhaps there was something wrong with my own understanding of the idea. Or perhaps they aren’t interested enough to engage.

    In all these cases language has done its job, for all of its imperfections. Even if I want to convey and idea and I don’t know whether or not they have understood, then language has still done its job. Where it goes wrong is where I want to convey an idea and I am under the impression that they have understood, but really they have not. We can’t expect perfection but these cases can be kept to a minimum if the subject is important enough.

  28. Indeed, I am of the view that language is more likely to mislead when used in technical and formal contexts.

  29. Mark English:I agree that semantics is primary in certain ways, and Chomsky’s main focus was syntax (and phonology). But that does not render his contributions to linguistics null and void.

    I don’t have much background in linguistics, so it is not up to me to judge the value of Chomsky’s work there. I’m a mathematician and computer scientist. Chomsky’s work is much valued in computer science. His ideas on syntax work far better for computer languages than they do for natural languages.

    Yes, I’m aware that there were battles within linguistics, with Chomsky’s ideas winning in some departments and being strongly resisted in others. I’ve only watched this from a safe distance.

  30. labnut

    I am of the view that language is more likely to mislead when used in technical and formal contexts.

    Possibly the most successful, exact use of language has been the use of programming languages to develop large scale information systems.

  31. labnut

    The most successful programming project of all time has been the development of Linux. It was the result of voluntary collaborative work by tens of thousand programmers world-wide. Their main language of communication was C and C++, with other languages such as Python and Java thrown in for good measure and augmented by English. This communication was so powerful and so effective that the most powerful, adaptable and robust operating system in the world was developed. But here is the astonishing thing. This was not the highly structured product of huge, monolithic companies such as Microsoft or IBM. It was instead the product of a loose coalition of thousands of programmers from many nations. In such an environment communications is everything. It was the ultimate test of the effectiveness of communication. Programming languages such as C, C++ and python made this possible. So no, I don’t agree that “language is more likely to mislead when used in technical and formal contexts.“.

  32. labnut

    Robin,
    If you have an unreliable communications channel, you can still set up a reliable communications channel over it. Although it sounds paradoxical it is true. It is more or less true of language too.

    You are talking about the presence of an error correcting channel, common in physical communications systems. But in the messy world of human interaction this is uncommon where we are plagued not only by corruption of the channel but by gaps in the channel, chief of which are contextual and background assumptions that speaker assumes, for reasons of economy, need not be spelled out.

    Then try reading the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon, as I am wont to do. If you have not been touched by the desperate ravages of armed conflict it is unlikely you will feel the emotional force of his poetry. You will not weep at his portrayal of the desolate landscape of terror because that experience is beyond your comprehension.

    Language can only wave in the direction of these experiences but it cannot invoke them. The only way we can come close to this is through the use of poetry. Poetry somehow touches deep wells of authentic feeling in us.

  33. Mark,
    “Because he was talking *in the quotation* about a tension which is often felt.”

    But he has nothing to say about an “intuitive view,” so he’s not at all talking about the same tension you are.

    If I’ve misread you on language, I’ll reconsider.

    I know that Nietzsche, like most intellectuals of the era, was enamored of then contemporary advancements in science and technology; But I hold to the interpretation of his position I have given. However, that’s far afield.

    My comment on The Dialectic was tongue in cheek; however, you are presenting us with *a* dialectic. This might be why you are uncomfortable with the “stereoscopic view” Sellars argues for, since it doesn’t admit of either a true synthesis, nor of the complete triumph of one view over the other..

    Finally, Sellars is talking about the composition and existence of objects in conceptual frameworks – ontology. So why bring ontology into a discussion about language? I can imagine connective links, but as a reader I expect you to provide these in a stronger manner than you have here.

    labnut,
    I don’t think anyone doubts the power of formal languages deployed technologically, or when 8used in communications in communities developing such deployment. The problems develop when we come to believe our formal languages can tell us something about the world, to such an extent that they might displace other languages, such as that we use in conversations such as this.

    … so, if someone walks into a room and says ‘x-neuron conjunction in a brain directs this collection of atoms, of which at least one such exists, to rest upon that “heterogeneous, hygroscopic, cellular and anisotropic material, (consisting) of cells, the walls (of which) are composed of micro-fibrils of cellulose (40% – 50%) and hemicellulose (15% – 25%) impregnated with lignin (15% – 30%),”‘ (from the Wikipedia article on wood), is this a more useful description of the event than “I’d like to sit in that chair.” I don’t think so. In fact, the event doesn’t even need a description, and can be explained without recondite technicalities: ‘Gosh, I’m tired’ would suffice. Yet that’s the problem with Eliminativism and strict reductionism: I don’t remember whether it was Churchland or Alex Rosenberg making the remark, but I do remember the suggestion that the former “x-neuron conjunction (etc.)” statement would eventually develop as an enlightened and scientifically clarified common language.

    Sorry, I don’t see it.

  34. labnut

    EJ,
    I don’t think anyone doubts the power of formal languages deployed technologically

    the original statement in dispute was this:-

    I am of the view that language is more likely to mislead when used in technical and formal contexts

    and I replied to that, stating that programming languages deployed in “ technical and formal contexts” were singularly successful.

    The astonishing success of Linux is a truly remarkable example of this since it involves communication between a loose collaboration of thousands of programmers.

    Your extreme example of jargon only goes to prove that one can construct extreme examples of jargon. So what?

  35. labnut

    Sorry, I don’t see it.

    You should specify what you don’t see. It avoids all kinds of misunderstandings.

  36. labnut,
    you seem to have read my remark rather hastily. First although the components of the “x-neuron conjunction” statement are drawn from different fields of science and logic, they are not jargon.

    “Sorry, I don’t see it” clearly follows the remark: ” I don’t remember whether it was Churchland or Alex Rosenberg making the remark, but I do remember the suggestion that the former “x-neuron conjunction (etc.)” statement would eventually develop as an enlightened and scientifically clarified common language.”, so its reference I would think rather obvious.

    The question of context is decisive; because I think here the contexts are getting confused. I thought I could clarify the differences of contextual reference.

  37. labnut

    For a mountain hiker who uses contour maps all the time, the stereoscopic view of the manifest and scientific images makes a lot of sense.

    On the one hand the contour map accurately depicts the essential features of the topography. I can see how severe the slope is and I can calculate the height gained or lost on the route. This is important stuff since it determines energy expenditure and speed. It provides an accurate model of the terrain but not one easily recognised by those unfamiliar with contour maps.

    On the other hand the Google satellite images show me different kinds of information that cannot be conveyed on a contour map, such as ruggedness of the terrain, types and thickness of vegetation or the presence of water. Most importantly though, the nature of the terrain is more readily understood when viewing the satellite images.

    I need both views to form a complete and useful understanding of the territory. My smartphone app allows me to quickly switch between these views or to superimpose the views, overlaying the contours, roads and names over the satellite images. In this way I can achieve a pseudo-stereoscopic view of the manifest and scientific images. It allows me to properly plan my route and navigate the terrain.

    This mapping example serves, I think, as a good metaphor for the necessity of the stereoscopic view of the manifest and scientific images. It preserves the distinction between the map and the territory and adds to it a further distinction, the contour map as model of the territory(science) while the satellite images represent the territory, without modelling it(the manifest image).

  38. ainsophistry

    A central issue in this question of whether Churchlandian eliminativism constitutes some sort of betrayal of the Sellarsian project is that the canonical targets of that eliminativism–the propositional attitudes–sit right at the nexus of the descriptive and the normative. Beliefs, desires, and the like are objects of evaluation (epistemological, logical, pragmatic, moral, etc.), but they are also traditionally tools for predicting behavior. If Alice desires that x and believes that y-ing will bring it about that x, then, ceteris paribus, we expect Alice to y.

    The Churchlands contend that propositional attitudes really aren’t very good tools for predicting behavior and advocate for their replacement by a more neuroscientifically informed ontology. Is this an illicit encroachment of Science into the domain of the Manifest (note, we could just as well ask whether the traditional descriptive/predictive uses of the propositional attitudes constituted an illicit encroachment of the Manifest into the domain of Science)? Only if we assume the replacement ontology can’t itself furnish any suitable targets of normative evaluation.

    Paul Churchland pretty clearly doesn’t think this is the case. He’s argued at length against anti-representationalists within the connectionist/dst paradigm and has a whole book, Plato’s Camera, devoted to describing how the brain constructs “pictures” (or, more accurately, analogue dynamical models) of the world. Now, a model of this sort is unlike a belief in certain ways. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t have a binary truth value; rather, its success condition (in an epistemic context) is something like global isomorphism with its worldly domain. The important bit, though, is that it does have success conditions. Models can be more or less accurate, and they can be accurate in distinct respects (a nuance not available to propositions with binary truth values).

    Now, truth/accuracy is fairly easy to recover in a Churchlandian Image of Man. A harder problem, one might think, is something like justification, which traditionally concerns itself not just with beliefs, but desires, intentions, actions, inferences, etc. Broadly speaking, to be justified in believing, desiring, doing, etc., is to have reasons of sufficient number or strength to believe, desire, or do. Now, a reason is a strange beast, even within the Manifest image. It, like the propositional attitudes, has traditionally had both normative and descriptive uses.

    Let’s say Bob desires to lose weight and accordingly has a reason to refrain from buying fattening foods at the grocery store. If we know that Bob has a basic awareness of the relevant connections between his desired weight loss, his food intake, and his purchasing habits, we might expect to see Bob consistently purchasing fewer fattening foods. So, in this case, we appear to be using a reason as a predictive tool (i.e., as a cause). Yet if Bob, subject to temptation as we all are, fails to consistently refrain from buying fattening foods, we would not simply conclude we were in error about Bob having a reason to refrain from those purchases.

    Consider as a more extreme example Carl, who has no desire at all to lose weight—even though he would be more satisfied with his life if he did. On the basis of this counterfactual, we could well say Carl too has a reason to refrain from buying fattening foods. We would certainly not, though, try to predict Carl’s behavior on the basis of this reason, for Carl appears to be either wholly ignorant or insufficiently appreciative of it.

    There’s an ambiguity in our use of the term “reason” that I think is needlessly complicating this broader debate. Sometimes, by “reason” we mean something like a set of facts-in-the-world that justify x-ing. In the case of Bob, these might be, inter alia, facts about Bob’s psychology (what he desires, what would make him most satisfied), facts about his metabolism, facts about the contents of the various foods available to his purchase, etc. And sometimes, by “reason” we meaning something like a subject’s representation of such facts. It is this latter sort of reason that we give and ask for in the “game of giving and asking for reasons.”

    Now, the Bob and Carl examples suggest, I think, that there’s a pretty tidy division of labor here. It is the first sort of reason that does the justificatory work and the second sort, reason-as-represented, that does the predictive and explanatory work (for the sake of convenience, I’m going to henceforth refer to these as j-reasons and r-reasons, respectively). Granted, this is easiest to see when the facts grounding a given j-reason are represented very poorly or not at all by the subject to which the j-reason applies. Things get a little murkier when the j-reason is represented well (i.e., when the representing subject is apt to behave rationally). Here, the j-reason starts to look a lot more indispensable to prediction and the r-reason a lot more indispensable to justification. But as long as the representation falls short of perfect isomorphism (as it always will in the real world), the r-reason will always have more predictive utility than the j-reason, and one will always be more justified in acting in accordance with a j-reason than an r-reason.

    Churchlandian eliminativism certainly could threaten to revise our understanding of r-reasons. But if r-reasons are properly tools of prediction rather than sources of justification, then they already belong to the Scientific Image, and their revision should pose no threat to normativity. What might be more concerning, at least at first blush, is that some of the facts constitutive of a j-reason are facts about the mental states of the subject to whom the j-reason applies (his desires, values, etc.), and eliminativism might contend that we have these facts all wrong.

    The question, then—again—is whether whatever brain states would replace desires and the like in an eliminativist program could ground j-reasons. I don’t see why they couldn’t. What seems to me most crucial for the normative functions of the propositional attitudes is their (defeasible) connection to motivation and action, and I see no reason to suspect this connection would be severed simply by replacing the traditional representational vehicle—the proposition—with something like the high dimensional models of the neurocomputational program. Let’s say a desire turns out to be something like a high-dimensional representation of some possible world state + a state of activation in, say, premotor cortex that primes the body to work toward realizing this world state under certain perceived circumstances. Such a brain state would seem to afford all the same sort of “rational purchase” on the individual’s behavior as a traditional desire. We’d still have j-reasons—in this case constituted by facts about these brain states, facts about the circumstances on which certain actions are conditioned, facts about the probable outcomes of those actions, etc.—and we’d still seek normative influence over others by giving r-reasons, which will succeed just to the extent that they put their targets in epistemic contact with the facts constitutive of the j-reasons.

    If this all just sounds too descriptive to undergird any sort of real normativity, it may be worth remembering that even on the traditional picture, descriptions can serve clearly normative functions. If we’re camping and I suddenly announce “There’s a bear behind you!” you need don’t me to add “and you should run or you’ll be mauled!” in order to take the appropriate action. I have trusted that you were already acquainted with a certain set of facts—facts about your aversion to bodily harm, facts about a bear’s ability to inflict bodily harm, facts about how to avoid bodily harm in the presence of a bear—and judged that I needed only to make you aware of one additional fact (viz., that you are currently in the presence of a bear) in order to put you in sufficient epistemic contact with the relevant j-reason.

    The lesson here, I think, is that normativity is not, except perhaps in a derivative sense, a property of certain languages or conceptual schemes. It is first and foremost a property of intelligent systems: those capable of modeling the world and regulating their behavior so as to bring the world and their models into congruence (whether by changing the model or by changing the world). This general picture seems unaltered by Churchlandian eliminativism, and so I don’t see the assault on the Manifest Image that others apparently see in that program.

  39. A number of thoughts are forming as I read the discussion. Let me try to note down one of them as best I can.

    It is on the issue of what language is/does well. There have been quite a few comments by various people on this. It is an interesting question which deserves an essay of its own. But clearly one’s view on the evolutionary context, on how language is generated in the brain and on how the structures of language relate to the structures of other elements of reality, as well as simple observation and experience, will affect how one answers. The line I am taking here (based on a number of these things) is that ordinary language does a number of things excellently but that it typically does not do very well the sort of thing many of us see ourselves to be engaged in here (or at least aspiring to). EJ emphasizes the “performative and motivational” over the communicational aspects. He mentions amongst other things winning court cases. This is how I see it too. But, rather than celebrating this side of things, I see dangers. Rhetoric (which often involves a degree of deception and manipulation) is what ordinary language “is made for”, it seems.

    And the trouble is, when you are writing general essays for The Electric Agora, discussing them in comment threads, or even crafting a subtle philosophical defense of philosophy (such as the two lectures by Sellars which were published as Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man), the rhetorical aspects are still very much in play, and are in tension with (I can hear groans from various quarters) other aspects of the communication process. Put differently, various functions (of which we are not necessarily conscious) are in play all at the same time. And certain functions are at odds with other functions.

  40. Very thorough and well argued though obviously, I disagree with it. I will reply at greater length when I am at a computer and not on my phone.

  41. Mark,
    I’m sorry, but absolutely *no* study in ‘Cognitive Sc8ence’ or ‘neurosciences’ or post-behavioral psychology will ever get purchase over common language or the experiences that inform it.

    You should really pay more attention to Sellers and less to the Churchlands.

    You know we originated as – and continue as – a certain form of animal life; yet you also seem to want us to transcend that and become ‘reasoning machines,’ ala Descartes.

    No; sorry. Don’t want it; not going there – which is true, I suspect of the majority of humans living on this planet.

    So we’re doomed? Then we’re doomed. I keep a passport to hell ready. just in case.

  42. Mark,
    “But, rather than celebrating this side of things, I see dangers. Rhetoric (which often involves a degree of deception and manipulation) is what ordinary language “is made for”, it seems.”

    It is dangerous, and morally ambiguous, and fraught with misinterpretations and disagreements. But that’s the best we get in common language – the language by which we live with others in a social reality.

    Do we have any control over that reality? Yes; it’s called rhetoric.

    The world *is* a dangerous place. No amount of logic or science or social science, no governmental policy, will change that. The best we can we get is a close community with which we can communicate honestly (as Dan oft describes); or abstraction into separation from any community as I have had to experience.

    This harsh reality has led me into the latter. I hope your own reality has led you into the former.

    In any event, have a very good New Year.

  43. Well, Mark, if you say that you are not writing about science and the manifest image, then I take your word for it. Unfortunately, in doing so, much of what I thought interesting about the piece ceases to be so. That common sense and the naive view of the world are often in conflict with science is not particularly surprising, nor is it very interesting.

  44. labnut

    EJ,
    You know we originated as – and continue as – a certain form of animal life; yet you also seem to want us to transcend that and become ‘reasoning machines,’ ala Descartes.

    No; sorry. Don’t want it; not going there

    I don’t share your dark view. Quite the opposite, I see all sorts of reasons for hope.

    Yes, we have inherited our old brain from a long train of biological ancestors, and yes, that shows in our reasoning and behaviour. But something remarkable happened and is happening. A mind was born in our brains. This mind is developing. We are in part, reasoning machines. Read Linux source code and this is clearly on display. Read court judgements and you see the best examples of practical reasoning one can find. But we are more than reasoning machines. We are creative machines with an extraordinary capacity for love. We are intentional machines that can conceive of noble goals and work towards them.

    We are also a fractured species, capable of great wrongs, disturbed behaviour, despair, despondency and dependency. We compete frenetically for advantage and tread on those below us. We are a species with huge variations in behaviour(despite our remarkable genetic homogeneity) as each person contends, in different ways, with the tension between his old brain and his nascent, developing mind. And so you can always see reasons for hope and reasons for despair, depending on where you choose to look. But when I look at the larger picture I see a clear trajectory that gives me great hope. We are becoming a better species and that is happening because we will it, we wish it. It is happening because we have a mind, despite being shackled to an old brain, imposing its ancient demands.

  45. labnut

    The last sentence should read:

    It is happening because we have a reasoning mind, despite being shackled to an old brain, imposing its ancient demands.

  46. Dan

    I am not writing specifically about Sellars’ concept, but nor am I talking just about a naive view.

    Understanding how various forms of common understanding might or might not be “in conflict with science” (as you put it) – especially as science (and neuroscience in particular) progresses – is challenge enough for me.

    And I happen to have a particular fascination with language and what it can do (and not do) and how it is best conceptualized.

  47. Well, then I find the essay quite confusing. You talk about conflict/tension/etc between science and *something*, but it isn’t with the Manifest Image or with common sense or the naive view. The essay’s purpose is now *less* clear to me, *after* all this discussion, than it was before.

    Ah, well.

  48. I’m in agreement with EJ that we are not reasoning machines, and that reasoning is a process from which our motivations/desires are never fully absent. So language has rhetorical, performative, and communicative components, but it also has an evaluative component and I’m thinking of language as we speak to ourselves as well as to others. The motivation behind the evaluative component would be to understand things as they are which has pretty obvious survival benefits. It is a motivation in part to understand our own motivations. Science can add to it’s part to the evaluative component but I think the process is always a mix of components, and if we want to come back to the world we share and experience in human terms we do better if we don’t reify it in scientific language.

    I’m not sure the rhetorical and performative aspects must dominate the evaluative capacities if that is EJ position although they do seem to have the upper hand. I am just mind leaking here, and I’m not sure how this exactly fits in with Sellers distinctions (how do we apply stereoscopic vision if no perspective is pure) or Marks position.

  49. It is hard to imagine that rhetoric could be effective or useful if we did not first reason about how best to employ it to achieve whatever purpose we want to achieve by it.

    So it seems that reason, for all its admitted limitations, is still there playing a key role.

  50. Also, it seems that neuroscience and behaviourism are more relevant to rhetoric than they are to reasoning. In rhetoric we wish to get the audience to assent to certain propositions or to be in a certain frame of mind, without necessarily caring that they understand why they are true or even if they are true.

    So if neuroscience tells us that certain words, combination of words, repetitions, or rhythms will deliver certain chemicals to certain receptors and that this will increase the probability that the audience will find themselves in agreement with the speaker or writer, then the rhetorician would certainly use this information to his advantage.

    After all rhetoricians have been doing the same thing by trial and error for millennia.

    But reasoning, in its purest form, must provide reasons to believe the proposition that are independent of any underlying mechanism by which they are believed.

  51. davidlduffy

    “… “Chrucky distinguish[es] a Common Sense Image from the Manifest Image, and hold[s] that the Common Sense Image recognizes the existence of absolute processes which also act as models for the theoretical posits of the Scientific Image.” I don’t think there are nice joints here.”

    Thanks for your views and the references. If ever I attempt a proper analysis/critique of Sellars’ framework, I’ll have a close look at them.

  52. ejwinner

    “The world *is* a dangerous place. No amount of logic or science or social science, no governmental policy, will change that. The best we can we get is a close community with which we can communicate honestly […] or abstraction into separation from any community as I have had to experience… This harsh reality has led me into the latter. I hope your own reality has led you into the former… In any event, have a very good New Year.”

    That close community you refer to remains elusive but close connections here and there keep me hopeful.

    Happy New Year to you too – and all.

  53. labnut

    So it seems that reason, for all its admitted limitations, is still there playing a key role.

    That is amply confirmed by the fact that that there people trying to deny the importance of reason by employing reason. The very act of making the argument defeats their argument.

  54. I don’t think it matters that language doesn’t reflect the underlying structures of reality, whatever they turn out to be.

    It doesn’t matter that language is not linear and doesn’t operate according to high level rules. Most people never assumed that it did.

    If language cannot articulate the underlying structures of reality in a satisfactory way then we would just have to settle for articulating those structures in an unsatisfactory way because it is really the only game in town. Whatever framework we adopt, Eliminative Materialism or anything else, we will have to express it in language.

  55. labnut

    When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

    I see this tension every time my wife cooks. She will bring water to the boil and leave it boiling vigorously during the cooking. She rejects my claim that a gentle boil cooks just as fast since the temperature will not rise higher. She trusts her senses(the sight of vigorously boiling water) more than my theory laden explanation.

    And if I discuss it further she will produce her winning retort – so what? Scientists don’t know everything!

    I hesitate and stutter before replying and her slow smile of triumph ends the argument. She lives in a value laden world, suffused with meaning and purpose. Good, bad and suffering are real and ever present. Beauty is all around. Some things are worthy of awe and reverence. We have a duty to do good, feel compassion and help the suffering. She loves her family and friends deeply, intently and completely. She reads a great deal of fiction and this confirms her experience of life. Science seemingly has no bearing on the major part of her experience of life.

    My wife’s simple and intuitive reply – Scientists don’t know everything – is right on the mark. It has no explanation for those aspects of life that are most real and vital to her. Nor does she want the explanation since that would drain meaning from her experience of life. She understands that these aspects of life require no explanation because they are complete and sufficient in themselves. They are their own justification.

    The reductive mechanisms of science drain meaning from these concepts and they add nothing. I don’t say this to my wife because I am still trying to persuade her to use less energy while boiling eggs. I had better go easy on that score because she is likely to reply by advising me to boil the eggs.

  56. Robin and labnut

    Robin Herbert wrote: “Sometimes I think that people make too much of the limitations of language… A good analogy here is from communications technology. If you have an unreliable communications channel, you can still set up a reliable communications channel over it. Although it sounds paradoxical it is true. It is more or less true of language too… If I have an idea I wish to convey to someone and they understand the idea I meant to convey then I have used language successfully, whether or not they agree with what I said… Also, if they did not understand the idea I meant to convey and I am able to establish, by further conversation, that they did not understand what I meant to convey then, again, I have used language successfully. Either I can try again in a different way, or perhaps there was something wrong with my own understanding of the idea. Or perhaps they aren’t interested enough to engage… In all these cases language has done its job, for all of its imperfections. Even if I want to convey and idea and I don’t know whether or not they have understood, then language has still done its job. Where it goes wrong is where I want to convey an idea and I am under the impression that they have understood, but really they have not. We can’t expect perfection but these cases can be kept to a minimum if the subject is important enough.”

    There are a couple of possible responses here. Much of what you say seems to fit pretty well an instructional or teaching situation, but it may be problematic as an analysis of other types of context.

    I endorse what labnut said:

    “You are talking about the presence of an error correcting channel, common in physical communications systems. But in the messy world of human interaction this is uncommon where we are plagued not only by corruption of the channel but by gaps in the channel, chief of which are contextual and background assumptions that speaker assumes, for reasons of economy, need not be spelled out…”

    But I think I would want to go even further and critique the very idea of “conveying” an idea or a message.

  57. Robin Herbert

    “I don’t think it matters that language doesn’t reflect the underlying structures of reality, whatever they turn out to be… It doesn’t matter that language is not linear…”

    I may be being a bit pedantic here but, given how confusing and difficult it is to discuss these questions, I think we need to be. Language *is* linear; but it is generated by a non-linear process or set of processes.

    “… and doesn’t operate according to high level rules. Most people never assumed that it did.”

    Not so sure about that. I think it matters how we conceptualize language and syntax etc.. There is a natural tendency to hypostatize abstract concepts, for example, to believe there is necessarily some thing “behind the word” as it were. And we are often misled by the structures of language also (as Nietzsche believed).

    These issues are not clear-cut but my view of language and linguistic communication has changed over the years. I am more aware – partly through experience, partly through literary reading and partly through more scientific reading – of the complexities and pitfalls than I used to be. I have become aware of the way linguistic communication “papers over” huge discrepancies in how the interlocutors see things. So I see it as more of a “surface” phenomenon than I used to.

    There is a footnote in one of Aldous Huxley’s essays about a huge gulf suddenly seeming to open up between himself and someone he was chatting to by the fireside on a cold winter’s night. He was making a similar point to the one I am making. Huxley was a bit of a mystic, of course, but also very much engaged with science.

    “If language cannot articulate the underlying structures of reality in a satisfactory way then we would just have to settle for articulating those structures in an unsatisfactory way because it is really the only game in town.”

    Yes and no. There are non-linguistic modes of understanding and expression also.

  58. Dan

    “The essay’s purpose is now *less* clear to me, *after* all this discussion, than it was before… Ah, well.”

    You were referring to my explanations but I think you would agree that the general discussion has been excellent.

  59. Brian Balke

    “Science is a method by which we develop languages that model objective reality – that is to say phenomena that others can experience for themselves. What is characteristic of such phenomena is that they do not involve choice – the participants will not change their behavior arbitrarily. They lack choice; they lack “personality.” Electrons, metals and baseballs are examples of such participants… As a consequence, science has eschewed the deeper questions about the nature of human experience because they involve personality. People, faced with exactly the same experience, will change their behavior if in one case they know that they are part of an experiment. Even more, when categorized and subjected to systematic control, people will choose self-destructive behaviors rather than submit…”

    You seem to be talking about a strong form of “free will” here. I am agnostic on this question, tending to reject the concept. So, needless to say, this approach to delimiting science’s scope doesn’t work for me.

    “… [S]cience itself acts in opposition to profound facts, for reasons related to the nature of language Mark raises above. As Kuhn discussed in his treatise on Scientific Revolutions, languages are a means of maintaining consensus in the service of political organization.”

    Yes, language, with its persuasive and manipulative functions, operates in the scientific sphere as in other spheres of life.

    I haven’t really read Santayana and, from what I know, would probably not agree with him on much but he was, I grant you, an interesting thinker.

  60. labnut

    I have not responded to your descriptions of our intuitions and how they are reliable in some ways and not in others (with respect to statistics, for example – or boiling eggs!). Nothing jumps out that I disagree with. Note that in both of the examples mentioned we are dealing with maths (or at least numbers) as well as words. My views are more or less in line with yours on science I think.

  61. The discussion is great. My point is that I understand the *essay* less now than when I first read it.

  62. labnut

    Mark,
    You seem to be talking about a strong form of “free will” here. I am agnostic on this question, tending to reject the concept. So, needless to say, this approach to delimiting science’s scope doesn’t work for me.

    I think you dismiss his idea a little too easily. Brian, it seems to me, has hit on a rather profound distinction.

    Science is concerned with the behaviour of fields and particles in a strictly deterministic environment of cause and effect as delineated by the laws of nature. Given any initial condition(configuration of fields and particles) at time n, given the attendant laws of nature and a sufficiently powerful computer, one can compute the configuration at time n+m. Science, in the main, is concerned about forming hypotheses about laws of nature and testing these hypotheses through observation, so that we can calculate the configuration at n+m.

    Human behaviour just cannot be analysed in this way for the simple reason that humans posses agency independent of the laws of nature. There are no laws of nature that dictate human choices, thus human choices(and therefore behaviour) are not calculable, no matter how powerful the computer.

    Returning to your original claim:

    When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

    Missing from this statement is the object of “our ordinary, intuitive view“. A view of what?

    If it is a view of the objective, external world outside of us, whatever tensions may be found are the result of imperfect knowledge and biased perspectives. These tensions are always capable of resolution, in principle, through research and education.

    But if the object of that statement is ourselves and the internal working of our minds(not our brains), there is an irresolvable tension. It is an irresolvable tension because science cannot explain choices made by free agency. It cannot explain choices made by free agency because free agency acts outside the domain of the laws of nature.

    You say you are “agnostic on this question[free will], tending to reject the concept“, however tending to reject the concept is most definitely not being agnostic.

  63. I don’t think that language alone encompasses our understanding of any issue at all, even if language is necessary to that understanding.

    We understand what a circle is, but can you actually use language to describe one?

    You might say – easy, the set of points on a plane equidistant to another point on that plane.

    But what is a plane? A point? What does it mean to say that two things are equal? If you say “not larger and not smaller” then what do you mean by those terms?

    Yes, we all know what they mean, but those meanings are not reflected in language. Not even magnitude or precedence are reflected in language.

    We agreed on “larger” and “smaller” by saying “for example this is larger than that and that is smaller than this”.

    We did this with a sufficient number of examples so that we knew what concept was being picked out.

    So we can talk about points, planes, distance, equality, inequality, circles and so on with sufficient precision that we each know what the other is talking about. Moreover we can use language to reason about these things with some precision.

    So, supposing that we can have a satisfactory understanding of the underlying structures of reality at all, I don’t see why it would be a problem using language to reason and communicate about this using language, just because this reality is not reflected in language.

  64. That last paragraph went wrong, should be:

    *So, supposing that we can have a satisfactory understanding of the underlying structures of reality at all, I don’t see why it would be a problem using language to reason and communicate about it, just because this reality is not reflected in language.*

  65. If any scientists wanted to tell us that any beliefs we have about our own agency is refuted by science, they would have to first translate that belief into technical terms, while keeping it recognisable to us as the belief we hold, and then they would have to show us the technical reason that refutes the belief.

    I don’t think I have yet seen a scientist do this. Often (and I am thinking of Coyne and Carroll in particular here) they express a kind of intuition that some people hold beliefs that would involve a breaking of the laws of physics, or else they make kind of general statements that amount to “any kind of free will which contradicts the laws of physics, contradicts the laws of physics”.

  66. labnut

    The laws of nature are a most perplexing thing.
    1) they operate everywhere;
    2) they permit no exceptions;
    3) they do not change;
    4) they are can be described with great precision using mathematics;
    5) they are a unified system(unless you talk to MP);
    6) they are rational and orderly.

    Why should this be?
    Where do they come from?
    What sustains them?
    Why should a particle obey a law of nature?
    What gives the laws of nature their prescriptive power?
    Why should the laws of nature be exceptionless?

    We don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do we have any clues. To make the problem worse, we don’t know how to go about answering these questions. It a profound mystery that goes to the very heart of the nature of existence. In fact it is the most profound mystery of all.

    An equally profound mystery is the ability of the human mind to make choices, freely direct thoughts to any subject, to form future intentions and to create new ideas that are not predetermined by the laws of nature.

    What gives the human mind the ability to escape the prison of the strict determinism of the laws of nature? We don’t know and some dodge the question by claiming that we don’t really possess free agency. This flies in the face of the evidence, especially that of our vast and growing cultural output.

    Building on my earlier comment, I suggest this is the real source of the tension between ordinary and scientific views of the world. The ordinary view of the world is centred on human agency while the scientific view of the world is centred on strict determinism. These are genuine views of the world, but they contradict each other, hence the tension mentioned by Mark, resulting from our attempts to reconcile them..

  67. labnut

    Here is another kind of example of the tension:
    Germany starts enforcing hate speech lawhttp://www.bbc.com/news/technology-42510868

    A most valued expression of our free agency is free speech. Technology(a derivative of science), as evidenced by the Internet, promised to entrench our free speech rights but what is happening instead is that technology is becoming a more effective way of limiting our free speech. Our liberator is wearing the uniform of a prison guard. This is just one way that technology, and therefore science by implication, is increasingly seen as a threat. A good example of this is the so-called Great Firewall of China.

  68. Robin: If any scientists wanted to tell us that any beliefs we have about our own agency is refuted by science, they would have to first translate that belief into technical terms, while keeping it recognisable to us as the belief we hold, and then they would have to show us the technical reason that refutes the belief.

    Any such claim would invalidate science. The ability to do science depends on agency.

  69. labnut: The laws of nature are a most perplexing thing.

    I prefer to call them “scientific laws”. They do not come from nature. They come from scientists studying nature.

    The laws, themselves, are pragmatic human conventions. And that pretty much explains your 6 reasons for being perplexed.

    What gives the laws of nature their prescriptive power?

    They are prescriptive to scientists. They are not prescriptive to nature itself (if nature can be said to have a self).

    Why should a particle obey a law of nature?

    Among other things, the scientific laws prescribe to scientists, what they should take to be a particle.

  70. Robin

    “I don’t think that language alone encompasses our understanding of any issue at all, even if language is necessary to that understanding.”

    Or at least necessary for expressing it. I agree that language alone doesn’t encompass our understanding of anything.

    “We understand what a circle is… [C]an you actually use language to describe one? … [W]e can talk about points, planes, distance, equality, inequality, circles and so on with sufficient precision that we each know what the other is talking about. Moreover we can use language to reason about these things with some precision…”

    Yes, sure. But note how we are moving away from normal, everyday, or for that matter literary (which could be seen as a heightened form of the ordinary and everyday) ways of using language. We are in the process of developing a special form of a language (involving an accepted set of terms with clear and unambiguous meanings) for a special kind of language game such as is typically associated with empirical and/or formal disciplines. I talked before about educational and instructional contexts fitting in quite well with what you were saying, but other, less intellectual-discipline-oriented contexts do not fit so well with your (earlier) claims.

    “So, supposing that we can have a satisfactory understanding of the underlying structures of reality at all, I don’t see why it would be a problem using language to reason and communicate about it, just because this reality is not reflected in language.”

    As you say, we have no choice but to use language, but the language we use in scientific etc. contexts is often specialized language with its own specialized terms and conventions; and it is usually supplemented with symbol-systems and models and so on which are not associated with natural language at all.

    Medieval science was natural-language-bound and lacked this other dimension; it was vastly inferior to modern (and even ancient Greek) science. (The old Roman number system didn’t help either.)

  71. Don’t underestimate the power of the natural language science in medieval times to lead to conceptual breakthroughs.

    The three great thought experiments of the 14th century – “What would happen to a rock dropped into a hole bored through the centre of the earth?” “What would happen to a rock poised exactly between two worlds, would it fall to one, or the other, or remain poised directly between them” and “Imagine being in the cabin of a ship on a still sea, how could you work out from the behaviour of objects around you, such as dripping water, if the ship was or was not moving?”.

    These three pretty much led to the end of Aristotelian thought, to the extent it persisted and marked the beginning of a cosmology based on the “many centres” model. A century later Cusa, although not a scientist, added to the “ship” thought experiment by asking us to imagine we are an inhabitant of any star or world and that we would see ourselves as the centre of everything and each other body as moving around us. From this he concludes that, in an infinite universe, there is no centre, except relatively.

    Incidentally I wouldn’t say medieval science was “vastly” inferior to Greek science. In many ways it was superior, I would cite Buridan, Oresme, Albert of Saxony, as well as the Oxford Calculators. In other ways (embryology for example) the modern world had not caught up with the Ancient Greeks even by the 17th century.

  72. alandtapper1950

    I am puzzled why in this discussion the distinction between concepts and assertions seems to play no part. I would suppose we can’t get to first base without that distinction. Mark, you talk of “forms of language” and “linguistic structures”. I confess I don’t know what you mean.

    As I see it, concepts assert nothing; they make no claims; they entail no ontology. They are, as you seem to say, tools we use for various purposes, in the various practices we have created, including the practices of science. So if by “language” you mean our conceptual repertoires, then indeed “the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities”. I’d say they are quite independent of non-linguistic realities. Our “linguistic universe” in no way determines our ontology — it might contain all sorts of things (gremlins, quidditches, shadows, souls, etc) without ontological commitment to those things. I think this is your view too, but I’m not sure why you don’t say it in the way I would.

    Ontology, I assume, is a very different enterprise. It involves propositions, assertions, beliefs. The propositions we use to express our ontology do in some sense aim to reflect reality. And questions of truth and falsity apply to those “forms of language”, where they don’t apply to concepts. But they are very different forms of language from the forms that make up our conceptual repertoire, even though we need those concepts to form the propositions.

    Alan

  73. Alan

    “I am puzzled why in this discussion the distinction between concepts and assertions seems to play no part. I would suppose we can’t get to first base without that distinction. Mark, you talk of “forms of language” and “linguistic structures”. I confess I don’t know what you mean.”

    I thought that I made it clear that I was talking mainly about the grammar (syntax, etc.) of natural language.

    “As I see it, concepts assert nothing; they make no claims; they entail no ontology. They are, as you seem to say, tools we use for various purposes, in the various practices we have created, including the practices of science.”

    You could say that concepts are tools but, as I recall, I talked about *language* as a tool or set of tools.

    “So if by “language” you mean our conceptual repertoires…”

    I don’t. The *lexicon* is a key part of a language, however. (By the way, you seem to be conflating concepts and concept-words.)

    “… then indeed “the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities”. I’d say they are quite independent of non-linguistic realities. Our “linguistic universe” in no way determines our ontology — it might contain all sorts of things (gremlins, quidditches, shadows, souls, etc) without ontological commitment to those things. I think this is your view too, but I’m not sure why you don’t say it in the way I would.”

    Possibly because I am getting at something slightly different from what you are getting at. And, by the way, somewhere I mentioned our tendency to hypostasize abstract nouns, but only in passing.

    “Ontology … involves propositions, assertions, beliefs. The propositions we use to express our ontology do in some sense aim to reflect reality.”

    The propositions we use to express our ontology? Like explicit existence (or non-existence) claims or more ordinary sentences like “Nice day” or “The cat is in the garden”?

    Such (ordinary) sentences do indeed aim to reflect reality, and (within limits) they succeed. In the essay I wrote: “The effectiveness of linguistic communication in practical terms is not in question, when it comes to facilitating various forms of social interaction, for example, or making simple assertions about the physical world.”

    But then I go on to say that the Gestalt can never be put into words.

    This is where we seem to disagree. I am emphasizing that these sequences of sounds/characters are not necessarily what they seem; that natural language is very good for doing some things and not so good for other things.

    “… [Q]uestions of truth and falsity apply to those “forms of language” [propositions], where they don’t apply to concepts. But they are very different forms of language from the forms that make up our conceptual repertoire, even though we need those concepts to form the propositions.”

    Sure there is a distinction to be made between concept-words and propositions (or sentences). As I say, my focus was on the latter.

  74. alandtapper1950

    Thanks Mark. I am left with serious doubts about my ability to interpret these discussions.