Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection, edited by Donata Schoeller and Vera Saller, is a collection of essays that reflect on the very process of reflection. The topics revolve around the activity and the experience of thinking. As such, the nine authors address questions related to language-use, the body as source of meaning, and subjective experience. They offer a broad picture of contemporary discussions and debates in phenomenology, philosophy of language, and psychotherapy.
In a way, each essay points toward theoretical constructions and attempts to define their epistemological blind spots. The phenomenological postulate stating that what is described is tightly linked to the way it is given and to the experience of the subject for whom it is given lies at the root of every contribution. The “logical, syntactical and semantic structures of propositions (11)” are insufficient to account for the complexity of thought-in-process. Furthermore, it is the contributors’ conviction that these habitual conditions of thinking leave aside the vitality of the process. This implies that we should consider the embodied processes and the preconscious dimension accompanying thinking.
Claire Petitmengin’s chapter invites us to take account the corporeal experience of the scientist at work. The author collected a series of scientists’ descriptions of their ideational processes to clarify a source of pre-reflective meaning. In so doing, she provides interesting epistemological considerations regarding the relation between lived experience and the genesis of new ideas. In this perspective, “non-rational” tasks such as walking and drawing prove to be decisive in many researchers’ methods of investigation. Albeit underexamined, this “shifting of the center of attention from the head to the body (34)” should be considered. By turning away from discursive modes of thinking, the scientist can open to a “‘felt’ dimension of experience which seems to be…the very dimension of meaning (37).” The skeptic is tempted to question the probity of a so-called felt meaning. But we should keep in mind that such questioning weakens the moment we give up rigid distinctions between body and mind.
In her chapter, Susan A. J. Stuart similarly situates bodily experience at the center of her investigation, this time in explicit relation to language. Discussing Thomas Reid’s theses on artificial language and natural language, she argues for a priority of kinaesthetic, perceptual, and especially “enkinaesthetic” (i.e., the affects we have of our neuro-muscular processes) determinants at the origin of language and considers them as “artificial.”
Eugene Gendlin also approaches an implicit dimension of cognition. He argues that this “background” is not as vague as we might suppose. From the outset, it has a certain “precision” and is decisive, for example, in the formation of concepts. The author suggests various analytic possibilities for this “thinking with the implicit.” Referring to a similar notion of “background,” the prime concern of Donata Schoeller’s chapter is the “thoughtful process of articulation.” She argues that “what is said clarifies aspects of a background that functions in the meaning of what is said (112).” In other words, she examines the cultural and biographical ‘contexts’ that come into play when we formulate and articulate any experience through language. The essay is particularly interesting for its discussion of new possibilities in the methodology of scientific inquiries. These possibilities extend to the theory and practice of psychotherapies.
Both Terrence W. Deacon and Vincent Colapietro’s chapters examine the role of language in relation to the process of thinking. The former offers a neurologically-oriented account of language as “a variation on the emergent dynamics of mental processes in general (157).” He argues that this best fits with our experience of language (i.e., not as a construction and analysis following rules). As for Colapietro, he discusses Peirce’s fallibilism and the experience of ignorance and error as constituent of self-knowledge.
Language is also central in the last chapter, that of Steven C. Hayes’. He examines the relation between knowing and its verbal-symbolic correlate. His thesis is that “human language and cognition…fundamentally alters and shapes our subjective experience and the perspective from which we view it (209).” However, despite the ostensible simplicity of this statement, the author shows clearly that this commonplace appearance arises from our failing to question the meaning of the very terms and concepts used in its formulation. The concern of Hayes’ contribution is the specific meaning of language, cognition, symbols, and perspective-taking, as well as our use of them. This is especially relevant if we are to manipulate them in theoretical investigations concerning their role in our subjective life.
Vera Saller’s contribution addresses the notion of abduction, understood as the “creativity within the framework of rational thinking (182).” Peirce argued that abduction was the “only logical operation which introduces [a] new idea (183),” and should be distinguished from hypothesis. The author also points out that Peirce compared abduction and perception (201). As to the possibility of new ideas, Saller stresses the importance of everyday thinking in their formation: “it is in the problem solving of everyday life, that new thoughts arise (186).”
Remember the story of a Buddhist monk whose disciple urgently asks him about a serious spiritual issue. The master answers with a question: “Have you finished eating?” “Yes,” answers the impatient disciple. The master then replies: “Then go wash your bowl!” In short, there is no better way of solving a preoccupying reflective problem than going about our everyday tasks hoping for the “momentary but significant flash (190),” i.e., the abductive moment. This moment of understanding is clearly not of an exclusively cognitive nature, the more so that it “comes along with a pleasant bodily emotion (202).”
But Saller’s contribution is also interesting as she compares this process with the detective metaphor in psychoanalysis. The literature examining the detective leitmotif in psychoanalysis sometimes commits a crucial error: neglecting the patient’s own work. This is often in favor of a misguided image of the analyst as the sole investigating instance in the cure. The analyst is thus constantly chasing the truth of the subject lying on the couch. Moreover, in this conception of the analyst, he or she attributes to the patient a knowledge that can only come from him/herself. The author points out this mistake and brings forth the “abductive inferences” that the method of free association is supposed to facilitate.
Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection serves multiple purposes, including theoretical inquiry (scientific and philosophical), as well as practical concerns (psychotherapy and other social practices). Combining numerous perspectives, notably phenomenology and the philosophy of language, it is relevant to a broad range of researchers and practitioners.
There is something slightly mysterious about reading this book, like finding a notebook in a desk in the attic in a drawer full of cobwebs. Or searching the archives for something you only have an inkling of what you might find (see below for a further description of the Patočka archives in Prague). Even though everything in this book besides the Translator’s Note has previously been published before in other languages, this collection of texts provides in English an insight into a thinker’s life hitherto inaccessible, or at least forgotten. Hence, the mystery. Erazim Kohák’s work in the 1980s brought forth a life story and a philosopher, but focused on the phenomenological and Czech thinker. The dates of the texts from The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem are fascinating in themselves. The main text is Patočka’s habilitation from 1936, Přirozený svét jako filosofický problém, first translated into French forty years later in 1976 (a year before he died), Le monde naturel comme problème philosophique, and then in German in 1990 as Die natürliche Welt als philosophisches Problem. Now the English in 2016, some eighty years after the original publication and forty years after his death. I mention these three translations because the nature of the natural world, for Patočka, is at issue: why is this a philosophical problem, and not an historical or scientific one? What has become of this problem in the intervening eighty years since he wrote the text? Normally, one does not review a book published eighty years earlier, but besides the main text, there is a “remeditated” supplement to it written 33 years later (1970), and then an afterword to the first French translation (1976). But that still leaves a mystery: what can be recalled anew about such texts?
The mystery begins with the foreword, written by a close friend of over forty years, who speaks to the life of the man himself and not just his thought: “our conversations were never purely philosophical,” and that these took place “for nights on end in my Prague years between 1933 and 1939”, Ludwig Landgrebe writes. These years seem to haunt this book, and perhaps the life and country if not all of Europe itself. Experiencing these years in “a kind of exile” in Prague, Landgrebe says, “Talk of personal life, family, comments on the alarming political situation in Europe, common concern for the future of Germany…For me, the development of Patočka’s philosophy is inseparably linked with the history of a friendship.” (ix) This is not a normal foreword. In fact, it was written as memories right after Patočka’s death in 1977. In being guided through the homeland and Prague in particular, “History came alive on these occasions in its interwovenness with art and literature” (x). The foreword is a document in history concerning a time “near and far, familiar and alien,” (xv) and according to Landgrebe, it was the first book on the problem of the life-world (Lebenswelt) (xiv). And yet, the title of the work is not the lifeworld as a philosophical problem, but the natural world. Is this only a problem of translation? Should this 1936 book be interpreted as truly a book about the problem of the lifeworld, or rather as one regarding the natural world, which is a broader problem in philosophy and science than the “well-nigh uncatalogable” literature on the life-world problem. (See the recent review on this site by Philipp Berghofer of The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World).
The introduction to the main text begins thus: “Modern man has no unified worldview. He lives in a double world, at once in his own naturally given environment and in a world created for him by modern natural science, based on the principle of mathematical laws governing nature. The disunion that has thus pervaded the whole of human life is the true source of our present spiritual crisis.” (3) The one philosopher mentioned in this introduction is Descartes—but isn’t Descartes himself a kind of founder of phenomenology as well as science? In a certain sense, then, this book is about “the history of the development of modern science” (113) for which he points to “Leonardo the engineer, Bacon the insatiable political practitioner and visionary, Descartes the mechanistic physician, and even Galileo himself” in the conclusion. Instead of calling it a disenchantment of the world, it is a “dehumanization of the world.”
Chapter 1, “Stating the Problem,” expands upon this fundamental “disanthropomorphization” (6), speaking to how one can philosophise again not just “through mere wonder (thaumazein), but rather on account of the inner difficulties of his spiritual life.” (7) The problem is simply that humans who have experienced modern science “no longer live simply in the naïve natural world; the habitus of his overall relationship to reality is not the natural worldview.” (8) If this book is considered a debate with the founders of modern philosophy, then after stating the problem, Patočka poses some answers: a return to the feeling of life (9-11), an historical typology of possible solutions (11-19), and Patočka’s own proposed solution (19-22). To put it as simply as possible, “to state what we expect from this philosophical anamnesis and why we look upon the subjective orientation as a way to reestablish the world’s unity, the breaking of which threatens modern man in that which, according to Dostoyevsky, is most precious to him: his own self.” (19) There are thus three parts to his solution: subjectivity, the natural world (through history), and language. All of these are meant to unify the self from its fractured nature.
Chapter 2, “The Question of the Essence of Subjectivity and Its Methodical Exploitation,” begins from Descartes, and follows a trajectory of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and finally the method of phenomenology as recapturing subjectivity. Several guiding clues are given as to this method, reduction and time consciousness being two of the most important. Regarding the first,
“the reductive procedure applies, of course, to each and every particular thesis, but above all to the so to say general theses, which are already presupposed in singular judgments, and so on, e.g., the thesis that the world exists with its specific real structures. The reduction applies thus not only to propositions about what is but also to propositions about the structure of what is: not only to ontic but also to ontological propositions. Reduction should not be regarded, as is sometimes the case, as a method for acquiring a priori knowledge.” (38)
By means of this guiding clue, both subjectivity and knowledge are saved through “abstaining” (Epoche), and thus purifying experience of sedimentation in order to achieve some singularity in “pure givenness” or “pure consciousness” as “lived-experience.” (41) It is worth pointing out here that occasionally an endnote by the editors mentions the “recently discovered personal copy of his habilitation thesis” in which there is a penciled note. (201n52) Part of Patočka’s thesis of this chapter is thus to show similarities between phenomenology and the “Platonic-Aristotelian noesis.” (203n71) Due to ideation’s relationship to time-consciousness, the human is intersubjectively constituted. Differentiating this view from Fichte, Schelling, Kant, and Descartes, to go in reverse historical order, nevertheless allows a “passage through phenomenological reflection.” (51)
Chapter 3, “The Natural World,” the heart of the book, entails that subjectivity is not enough, but rather that man is in relation to a world. Erazim Kohák has already written of this work in his 1989 collection of Patočka’s writings, touching upon the difference between přirozený svét and English or German or French: “the world of nature, the entire realm of animate being, including humans in their mundane dimension, with its vital order and natural teleology…the world—now in the sense of the coherent, intelligible context of our being rather than as a sum of existents—which comes ‘naturally’ to us, the prereflective, prepredicative coherence of our context which we take so much for granted.” (Kohák 1989: 23) The point, going back to Patočka’s text, is a conscious co-living with others, with regard to them, and common to all. Criticisms of his 1936 conception, even mentioned 33 years later in his French afterword, is that it was too human-centric. The references are to “home”, “refuge”, “alien”, but he is still aware of the human and the extrahuman dimension. While animals are mentioned within “living nature,” as well as “generations,” “traditions,” and even “myth,” there seems to be no references to fossils. minerals, or flora as part of this natural world. The historical development of the problem accentuates this absence in which something of German idealism is still too stuck in human sensibility, despite mentions of biologists like von Baer and Uexküll or philosophers like Bergson.
Chapter 4, “A Sketch of a Philosophy of Language and Speech,” takes up the third aspect of his proposal, basing language in sensibility, history, and acoustics. While using insights from the Czech school of linguistics, as Landgrebe says in his foreword, “the whole chapter can be read as echo of the discussions that took place in the 1930s in the Prague Linguistic Circle. Many issues of fundamental philosophical import discussed at that time have disappeared from current linguistics under the influence of the nominalist tradition.” (xvii)
When Patočka added a supplement to this main text 33 years later (115-180), he later wrote about that supplement, “Written in haste, under the pressure of circumstances, the added text falls short to this aim, i.e. to clarify and update our view of the problem.” (182) The main problem is thus whether to listen to him or not. If we did, we would only read the afterword, some nine pages long (181-190) Most Patočka scholars ignore this, as did the German edition as well as the editors and translator of this book “despite his openly stated criticism of the first of the two and its omission from the 1976 French edition.” (191) Now, in reviewing this whole text from the perspective of eighty-years later, the sense of mystery returns. The translator’s note, then, should really be read first, or at least at the same time, as Landgrebe’s foreword, since she concludes that “the two afterwords are mutually complementary.” (192) Remembering that for most of Patočka’s life he was under great scrutiny, Kohák points out: “Altogether, of the forty-six years of his active life as a philosopher, Jan Patočka lived only eight years free of censorship.” (Kohák, 1989: 27) This is not an arbitrary point of history. “Man is not only thrown into the world but also accepted. Acceptance is an integral part of throwness, so much so that being-at-home in the world is made possible only through the warmth of acceptance by others,” Landgrebe writes (xvii). It is not without irony and a sense of sadness that Patočka died, having been arrested and interrogated for over eleven hours, forty years ago this year and that we can now read his earliest book for the first time in English.
My own experience, having spent a few days this year in the Patočka archive, was remarkable. Upon discovering a 200+ page manuscript on Ficino with pages and pages of drawings, astrological and artistic, hidden in the 1940s in the Strahov Library in Prague, the content of the archive can truly astonish and surprise one. A few pages of this ms. have been translated into German in Andere Wege in die Moderne: Studien zur europäischen Ideengeschichte von der Renaissance bis zur Romantik by Ludger Hagedorn. The amount of time Patočka spent studying and researching this period from the Renaissance to Romanticism is incredible. Any good phenomenologist or historian wanting to understand the richness of Patočka should visit the archive. The mystery of the text mentioned at the beginning of this review concerns the prophetic style of the philosopher, and how such a text brings out a renewal of thought. Once the cobwebs are blown off, and the archive uncovered, thought and even resistance can begin anew.
 Philipp Berghofer. Review of The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World by Ľubica Učník, Ivan Chvatík, Anita Williams (Eds.), Springer, 2015.
The main title of this book suggests that it is a defense of phenomenology. An interesting and alluring idea. In fact the book is not a general defense of phenomenology, but is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and thus of his particular brand of phenomenology – in the course of this it is also a defense of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, since the author holds that it has been misunderstood, or at least in certain crucial aspects fundamentally misrepresented. The particular villain of misunderstanding is Vincent Descombes in his venerable, but still quite widely read, introductory book Modern French Philosophy first published in French in 1979 and in English in 1980. It is unclear how influential Descombes book still is however, leaving one to wonder whether his view of Merleau-Ponty is still the prevailing one that might justify the effort involved here of showing up its flaws. Still, if the view presented by Descombes is mistaken, that gives some grounds for thinking such a misunderstanding as his needs countering, as it might turn up anywhere. It is also worth noting that one would be unlikely now to recommend Descombes book as a first introduction to phenomenology when there are more recent books, quite possibly better ones that do not take Descombes’ view of Merleau-Ponty, such as David E. Cooper, Existentialism, (second edition, Blackwell, 1999) and Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth, Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology (Blackwell, 1991). Descombes’ book is conspicuously absent from Cooper’s bibliography.
Still, the first main section of Douglas Low’s book is a systematic and detailed refutation of the view of Merleau-Ponty as presented by Descombes. It is this that I shall concentrate on in this review. There are three other chapters in the book: ‘One Merleau-Ponty, Not Two’, ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Criticism and Embrace of Hegel and Marx’, and ‘Marx, Baudrillard, and Merleau-Ponty on Alienation’. As can be seen from this, the book is a set of essays, rather than an integrated work, but one linked all the time by the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.
So let us look at the issue of Merleau-Ponty’s basic philosophy, and how it might be misunderstood. Low’s principal objection to Descombes is that he portrays Merleau-Ponty as a subjectivist, albeit of an absolute idealist sort, derived from misunderstanding Merleau-Ponty’s view that the self is involved in every understanding of the world. Whereas the truth of the matter is that Merleau-Ponty wishes to find new categories to overcome the dichotomies of subject and object, and mind and body. What eliminates the putative gap is the human body which looks both ways: it constitutes, and is essential to being, a subjective self, while at the same time it is the way we encounter the world and is an object in the world.
Before looking at what Merleau-Ponty might or might not have said about the problem of our understanding the world and our place in it, let us consider the problem itself. The traditional problem is essentially of Cartesian manufacture. The way it is set up by Descartes opens, as it turns out, an unbridgeable gap between our ideas of the world and how the world really is, or at least our being able to know how the world really is. The approach of phenomenology as it developed from Husserl’s initial version of it, the new version, a version common in certain basic respects to that of Heidegger and Sartre (just to pick out the major players) is to undercut the ideas-representation/world dichotomy. The attempts to go from idea-representation to the world by various means has tormented philosophy ever since Descartes. The approach of the new phenomenology is a variation of the old joke that if I wanted to get to there I would not start from here, as well as showing that the proposed starting place is in fact, as described, not a place from where one could start.
Descartes not only thought he had to set aside all that he could not be certain he knew to be true in order to build up a picture of how things are uninfected with falsehoods, he thought that such a picture should strip away all that makes the view dependent on contingent features of a perspective, all the things that make it my view, for with these in place we would not have a view of how things are in themselves, but rather a subjectively corrupted view of how they appear to creatures such as ourselves. What he was aiming for was an objective-conception, God’s-eye, view of reality that could then with justification be taken as showing how reality is, one not polluted with the trappings of a perspective. But once he retreats to the idea-representations of the world in his mind he finds it impossible to get out again so that he might be sure that any of them may be known to correspond to how the world actually is. The desperate nature of his plight is shown by the desperate measures he takes in drawing on a dubious medieval argument for the existence of God so that God may act as the guarantor of the truth of things he clear and distinctly perceives, for it is inconceivable that God would allow him to be deceived when he has made his best and most honest effort to grasp the truth.
From then on much of the history of philosophy becomes an attempt to solve the conundrum set up by Descartes, but, and this is crucial, still in Descartes’ terms and with his assumptions. One of the most obvious lines taken is various forms and degrees of idealism. If we cannot epistemically bridge the gap between our ideas of the world and the world in itself, one approach is to bring the world back into the realm of ideas. Obviously some distinction needs to be maintained between how things are in a merely subjective sense, thus how they are objectively; but this is done by epistemic devices and identifying features within the realm of ideas. Thus we have Kant’s transcendental idealism where objectivity is derived from those conditions that are necessary for the very possibility of experience, ‘the world’ being the sum total of such possible experiences. But because Kant was unable to give up completely on the idea of things as they might be, independently of any of the modes of acquaintance by which we may access them, he posits thing-in-themselves or noumena. To stop having something like noumena left hanging we move onto absolute idealism where ultimately the fully developed mode of knowing the world and the world itself are one. If you cannot get from ideas to the world, bring the world into the fold of ideas, thus making it in principle completely knowable. But this leads to one huge problem for many: plausibility. And it is not just nineteenth-century European philosophy that wrestles with bridging the Cartesian gap, one can see it running through the writings on epistemology and perception in twentieth-century analytical philosophy, at least until the later Wittgenstein and with him the first signs that a new radical approach was needed.
That approach on the continent is the new phenomenology. What is crucial to understanding it, and in particular the way that Merleau-Ponty presents it, is to show how Descartes is simply not entitled to use all the concepts, or ideas, that he has about the world, given where he starts from as a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness. Descartes simply helps himself to these concepts – through which he might articulate a view of reality, and then wonders whether such articulations are true – and does so unquestioningly and without entitlement. He is not entitled to the meanings that these concepts provide, without which no truth (or falsehood) may be articulated about the world, because from the point of view of a God’s-eye objective disembodied pure consciousness, no sense of the meaning of being would arise at all that might be captured in any concepts whatsoever. Now when we look as to why he is not entitled to the articulating concepts that present to us a world that has determinate being, we see that such concepts, and such a world, only arise at all because we are not a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, but are rather creatures that are a interested, embodied, impure consciousness. By this is meant that what gives any sense and meaning to the world, such that it may be thought of at all, is our being contingently-configured, engaged, embodied, creatures, and the particular senses and meanings that emerge reflect the particular form of our contingently-configured embodiment and engagement. It’s hard for us to notice this, as it was difficult for Descartes, because such modes of thinking are so pervasive, habitual and taken for granted. It’s only when we step back that we see that our very modes of thinking about the world depend on something that means that the ideas-representation/world gap is not merely bridged, but also eliminated because it could not have existed. For Merleau-Ponty, as Low clearly explains, that eliminator of the ideas-representation/world is the body. Crucially – and this needs emphasising – the body does not bridge the gap – it is not another solution to the traditional Cartesian problem – rather, if it is understood properly, it is the entity that is both a realm of ideas and the realm of the world. Dual featured, it is both, taking the first two together, the mode by which any understanding of our understanding of the world is possible, and the mode by which any understanding of the world is possible, while also being an entity in the world understood. Our bodies are, as Low puts it, that little bit of the world by which the world understands itself. And the crucial feature of the body is that it allows us to be engaged with the world. It is of us and of the world. It is only by being engaged with the world that the being of the world may be something to us (and to any understanding creature, although they may have different contingent-configurations). To put it crudely, only by bumping into things in the world do things come into being for us, have significance, as articulated in concepts that go on to have normative interconnections – thus, say, solid and liquid become opposed terms. The bumping into may be more or less literal of course – let us perhaps call it a matter of resistance and limits – so that things become such that they cannot be passed through, or are out of reach, or are unliftable, or have a beginning and have an ending. And such resistance and limits may only arise from being embodied, and embodied in a manner that must necessarily be determinate in some way or other. Thus all the meanings that Descartes used to speculate as to whether things could be known to be true or how things really are are meanings that could only arise by there being a world to which the meanings apply for us. Without being embodied and engaged in the world, it would be an undifferentiated homogeneous ineffability – this of course Kant understood when he posited noumena, even if he did not see the full significance of why such a world would be, or should be, strictly speaking inarticulable – and that only by a contingent mode of engagement with the world provided by a body does the world become something ‘bumpy’ so to speak, with peaks and troughs of significance and degrees of interest which concepts can mean. For a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, (it is questionable indeed if such a thing is possible for it may be argued that it could have no thoughts) there would be no guiding motivation to develop any concepts which might express an understanding of the world at all, nor one might add an understanding of ourselves, a self. Why would there be? Without an other there can be no self and without a self there can be no understanding of the other. A view from nowhere is no possible view at all.
Merleau-Ponty’s is quite possibly the clearest account of this position – far more so than the later Husserl, or Heidegger or Sartre. Indeed Merleau-Ponty thinks that Sartre in his distinction of the for-itself (conscious self-awareness) the in-itself (non-human things) perpetuates too much the traditional mind/world distinction, and again leaves himself with a gap to be bridged. For Merleau-Ponty the body is both mind and world, and the understanding of the mind without the world and the world without the mind is impossible –each entails otherness. This also denies materialism as well as idealism. He shares however the primary thought that because of the, as it were, assumptions of the body, how we think about the world because of the contingently-configured body means that we are thrown into the world-ready-made. And we are thrown in as human beings qua human beings. It presents itself to us already there as being – it is not something we construct from the impressions on a mental tabula rasa. This may be modified by personal and cultural variations, but as Low explains quoting Merleau-Ponty, because of the durable commonality of the flesh, my world is essentially the same world as that of Plato and Aristotle. (cf p.12). Nothing is reached as it is in itself for it is necessarily encountered through the human body, but what is reached is always perceived gestalt as something that goes beyond the perception and with an awareness of its being something other.
Low’s is an excellent book, and he makes his case convincingly. It does something not only towards giving a better understanding of Merleau-Ponty, but also to clear up a possibly misunderstanding of him that may detract from our realising his importance. If anyone should lead the new phenomenological approach and show up the mistaken assumptions of much of previous philosophy, then Merleau-Ponty is an excellent candidate, and it is clear that he deserves more attention than he gets in philosophical academia. As hinted earlier, his approach has much in common with the later Wittgenstein when it is closely examined. The common approach, with noted differences, between Heidegger and Wittgenstein has recently been well explored in Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (The MIT Press, 2012). It would be fascinating and fruitful for someone to do the same with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. Your next project, Professor Douglas Low!?
In the preface of this sprawling work, Taylor informs us that “an important part of [his] task in this book has been to refute the remaining fragments of the legacy of the HLC, by developing insights out of the HHH” (p. ix). The letters refer to two broadly different understandings of the “human linguistic capacity,” namely the understanding more or less common to Hobbes/Locke/Condillac (HLC) on the one hand, and the understanding purportedly common to Hamann/Herder/Humboldt (HHH) on the other. The later names are artfully chosen, as it turns out. Though a good deal of the argumentation in favor of HHH can be found in Wittgenstein and Heidegger and in hermeneutical philosophy more generally, the links between HHH and the significance of Herder for romantic poetics are important to Taylor’s larger project, which includes a forthcoming companion volume on “post-romantic” poetics.
HLC provide us with an “enframing” theory, a way of thinking about language in which the “language animal” has no advantage in principle over animals that lack language (i.e. non-human animals, on Taylor’s view). Language may provide additional control over life, so that fearful events can be discussed and an orientation to them achieved apart from such events. It may also enable dealings with whole classes of objects, whereas the primary possibility was previously one-on-one dealings. Without language human animals might, as Hobbes averred, have “neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace…” In a sense these are “something new” that appear with language in human life. But such advantages are distinct, Taylor argues, from the genuinely new human possibilities accounted for by the views of HHH, which he dubs “constitutive.”
Before looking more closely at this basic claim, Taylor tries to show that the view that some non-human animals are also “linguistic” is mistaken. The claims made for the linguistic capacities of various species (chimps, birds, and the like) depend upon a failure to note the essential significance of correctness to genuine linguistic behaviour. The rat who learns to identify triangles painted on a door that leads to food may indeed distinguish triangles from, say, circles. However, the correctness of his identifications is task-relative, that is, what makes them correct is that they enable getting the food. The rat is responsive to features of the figure (bounded, three-sided), but the presence of those features is not what makes his response correct. In contrast, in genuine language use it is precisely the presence of those features that make the application of “triangle” correct. Correctness of this non-task-relative type is a normative notion, a kind of notion that plays no role in the life of non-linguistic (in fact non-human) animals, however impressive their various performances may be.
This normative character of linguistic performances is effectively not recognized by the HLC views. Moreover, those views tend to assume a kind of semantic atomism. The idea has often been that words could be learned one at a time by attaching them to objects (or ideas), thereby enabling descriptions of the world. But to know how to use the word “triangle” correctly is to grasp that a triangle is not a circle or that colour or size are irrelevant to triangularity, and thus it includes the ability to grasp its use in the larger “whole” of related sentences. Frege’s insistence on the sentence as semantically basic, Wittgenstein’s attack on ostensive definition, and his emphasis on the following of rules (the normative) make similar points. However, Taylor wants to stress something he finds in Humboldt and Herder—namely a strong departure from the notion that the main purpose of language is for describing (also clearly rejected by Wittgenstein). A continuing belief in the centrality of description tends to persist in much of the contemporary philosophy that has been influenced by Frege, thereby missing how language brings us to something qualitatively new.
The language for emotions illustrates how finding words for feelings, such as “indignation,” does not merely amount to finding a label for a previously existing and demarcated item. Recognizing that “indignation” is the right word for what I feel brings with it a new emotional capacity, an “articulateness” that adds focus and clarity to life where before there was darkness and confusion. Here, “rightness” is more than semantic. The continual emphasis on description as basic, or on some base level of linguistic practice from which other levels can be derived like theorems from axioms (the notion of ‘autonomous discursive practices’), entails a failure to recognize this creative and expressive role of language. It also constitutes the main “remaining fragment” of the HLC view in much contemporary philosophy of language that Taylor wants to excise. There is a qualification however; contemporary descendants of the HLC views are able to account for the descriptive aims of scientific discourse. Taylor admits that, but there is much that the “linguistic animal” does that cannot be accounted for in terms of expansions of descriptive resources for dealing with a value-neutral nature.
Indeed, the limitations of HLC show up already in the historical and social sciences, where, in order to:
…understand these [social] phenomena, we have to understand the meaning they have for the agents concerned, the signiﬁcance the footings, ethical values, and other human meanings have for them. But these are only understandable against the background of the practices from which they arise, and the words and images by which they interpret these. To treat their action as we do other parts of self-standing nature is to gravely misunderstand them (p. 287).
Taylor is focusing here on the naturwissenschaft/geisteswissenschaft contrast that has shaped debates in the social sciences and figured prominently in philosophy for quite some time. For example, the idea of constitutive rules has been used to critique the fact/value distinction (cf. Searle, Winch, etc.) and to inform hermeneutical types of anthropological inquiry. Taylor’s distinction between a “designative semantic logic” and a “constitutive semantic logic” thus continues a well established critique of covering law conceptions and related conceptions in the social sciences.
However the heart of this book is in the further development of HHH that carries the reader beyond linguistic practice, in a narrow sense, to a consideration of representational powers in poetry and other literature, and in the visual arts and music. “Representation” may in fact be misleading. Better to think in terms of “enactments” and “portrayals.” A new meaning can be “enacted” in a style of behavior (Taylor’s example is the swagger of a biker) without achieving verbal articulation. The biker’s swagger does not mean something that can be independently indicated, although the swagger itself “means something.” One might think here of ballet, which Taylor never mentions, though it would be apt for his purposes. In literature and the visual arts the meanings that become available are more than what might be “represented” (and that is true for “representational art” also). Rather they become available through portrayals. In Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf Taylor does not just observe represented dancing figures. Rather what comes to expression in the painting, and what cannot be rendered in other terms, is the foolishness of their idolatry.
The irreplaceability of artistic expressions can be understood as an extension of the search for the right word mentioned above. It is a feature of a broader “Cratylism,” i.e. the idea that certain expressions are right, not replaceable by any other expression. The Platonic Cratylus rejected the idea that the connection between a word and what it stood for was arbitrary. By way of contrast the arbitrariness of the word-object relation is an essential postulate of HLC accounts of language. We can see what this Cratylism of the HHH views comes to by reflecting on meaning in the arts, and music might provide the clearest case. The notion that all of the arts aspire to the condition of music may be understood in this way; in music it is quite obvious that nothing can replace the music itself. Written commentaries, gestures, (ballet again), formal analysis, may all aid a listener in trying to grasp “what the music is saying”, but the notion that they might replace the music itself is patently absurd:
…in one dimension of their being, portrayals offer another example, along with enactment, of meaning creation which can’t be understood simply on the model of sign and signified. A novel, a traditional painting, does represent something, but the full meaning of the work can’t be accounted for in this way. Of course, this nonrepresentational “excess” is often most obvious in music (p. 249).
In the various endeavors that could be described as “trying to get at the meaning,” questions about rightness are bound to arise. It is clear that they cannot all be answered in the straightforward way that we might answer the question whether a given use of “triangle” was right. The expansion of a discussion of linguistic capacity in the directions indicated here naturally raises the question of rightness and objectivity. Was it really indignation that I felt? Clearly it is not the case that whatever I feel is what I feel and is beyond challenge. I may come to understand what I felt as merely a kind of angry defensiveness. I can be wrong about what I feel. Similarly, I can be wrong about what was meant in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music. These possibilities of self-or-other correction imply a degree of objective rightness.
Such a fact is of particular importance where morality is concerned, where the sense that there is something beyond myself that can challenge my self-understanding seems to be essential. Sentimentalists (Hume) and rationalists seem to misconstrue what actually takes place in the struggle for moral clarity. There is no simple “approval” of benevolence, ala Hume for example. Nor is there some simple motivation called “sympathy.” Rather there is a struggle which is a response to the sense that a better life is possible, but the “emotional economy” of that struggle is complex, not reducible either to mere “surds” however strongly felt, nor to whatever motivation can arise from or be associated with an abstract principle, perhaps of a Kantian sort.
What then does motivate that struggle? Here, and elsewhere in this work, Taylor reprises some of his Sources of the Self (1989). We respond to the draw of the Platonic Good, or to the god of some religion, to a sense of a cosmic order (e.g. Stoicism), some high principle (universal respect) or to nature (Wordsworth) or to moral exemplars (Taylor mentions Nelson Mandela). These are our “moral sources.” But what provides strength for this struggle? Do these sources really impart strength, or are our “pro-attitudes” towards one or another sufficient to explain how we live and strive? Clearly, with respect to religious sources the former is believed to be the case. But even with nature some might sense, as did Wordsworth, “a motion and a spirit that . . .rolls through all things.” But what could justify such beliefs? Here, Taylor’s transcendental strategies come into play; what justifies them is the fact that without them we cannot make sense of ourselves. The more highly articulated sources (the religious ones for example) serve that purpose best. On the other hand the labors of the poet may involve a kind of struggle to make articulate, and thus more “objective,” those sources that seem on the surface to merely play on idiosyncratic sensitivities.
As in Taylor’s earlier works, there is a wealth of historical detail here that is passed over swiftly (some may think too swiftly). And some may think that the threat of historicism, or of some other kind of relativism or anti-realism is not averted by the transcendental moves. But whatever the misgivings, few will find a tour through this book unrewarding, and many will look forward to the greater specification of some of its themes in the forthcoming companion volume.