Thomistic-Wittgensteinian Concept Formation and a Problem For Naturalism

I’m reading Haldane’s and Smart’s debate, ‘Atheism and Theism’, and Haldane makes an interesting point regarding what he takes to be a problem for a materialist/naturalistic metaphysic – that of our formation of abstract and universal concepts – such as square or triangularity. He gives a quick look at the two more traditional options – innatism, where concepts are just, as the name suggests, innate. We’re just born with them.The other option is abstraction – where, again as the name suggests, we abstract our concepts from our experience with objects. He notes problems for each: on innatism, how many concepts are we born with, and why that many? How did they get there? Are we born with the concept of both square and rectangle? Why or why not? On abstraction-ism, he cites Geach’s argument:

‘In the late 1950s Peter Geach produced a powerful argument against this latter thesis [abstraction-ism]. The suggestion that the concept square, say, is acquired by experiencing a variety of square objects and attending to their squarenss, while bracketing their other aspects, is absurd because in order to attend selectively to the squareness of square objects you must already have the concept square: attending to an instance of a feature F as such, is to exercise the concept f.’ (p. 102)

Haldane proceeds to give an answer along Wittgensteinian lines – basically, our concepts are neither innate nor abstracted but taught. The later Wittgenstein more or else held that our language and understanding (and one may reasonably assume concepts to fall under those two headings) are developed, taught and shaped by our actually participating in life and non-linguistic activities – against, say Augustine, Wittgenstein holds that the public is prior to the private in language. As we become part of a community, we learn and acquire language from the community – so our concepts aren’t innate, since we have to be participating in the life of the community, and they aren’t abstracted, since by the same token the concept wasn’t available until it was taught.

Haldane then ties Aquinas in thus:

‘In order for something like the Wittgensteinian explanation to work it has to be the case that the child has a prior disposition or potentiality to form concepts under appropriate influences; it also has to be the case that there is one that is itself already possessed of the concept. Alice will not pick up the meaning of the term ‘cat’ unless she has a relevant potentiality, unless the structure of her receptivity is of the right sort. By the same token, that potentiality will not be actualized except by an intellect that is already active in using the concept, her older brother James, for example…here I am forging a link with Wittgenstein’s linguistic communitarian account of the origins of thinking in the individual, and that suggests diving these aspects of the intellect, at least in the first instance, between the teacher and the taught. In these terms one may say that Alice’s intellect is receptive to, or potentially informed by, the concept cat, while the mind or intellect of James who has already mastered the use of the term is active with, or actually informed by this concept. In teaching Alice the word, James imparts the concept and thereby actualizes her potentiality. This picture grants something both to innatism and abstractionsim. One the one hand, in order to explain possession of concepts a native power has to be postulated; but on the other it is allowed that, in a sense, concepts are acquired through experience.’ (p. 103)

The dilemma that Haldane sees for naturalism can be roughly stated as follows: given that neither innatism or abstractionism provide an adequate account of our grasp and use of concepts, something like the Wittgensteinian picture must be the case so as to avoid the horns of the dilemma. But if the Wittgensteinian picture is the case, then we have a problem of infinite regress: if the explanation of Alice’s conceptual ability is explained by James’ ability, then James’ conceptual ability calls for an explanation, and then that explanation calls for an explanation, and so on and so on. While the Wittgensteinian picture escapes the innatism/abstractionism dilemma, it opens itself up to the charge of infinite regress unless it can be shown coherently how concept-formation may have arisen.

Haldane forsees a possible way out by arguing for a kind of ‘fading conceptuality’ history of language:

‘…no history of thought or language can be philosophically adequate if it tries to meet the genesis problem by postulating ‘fading conceptuality’. Though it is not put in there terms, or indeed very often discussed at all, something of this sort is presumably part of a naturalistic versiuon of Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory. On this account the history of concept-formation and use is the history of language; a history that leads us back to pre-lingustic activities, back further to pre-mental life, to pre-replicating life and ultimately to pre-animate matter…what needs to be accounted for is a natural transition from the non-conceptual to the conceptual and that is not the same distinction as one between degrees of conceptual complexity. Doubtless Stone Age cave dwellers made fewer and less abstract discriminations than a contemporary physicist, but that is irrelevant; the point is that the ability to make any general classifications is a conceptual power.’ (p. 106)

While this line of argument isn’t a bullet-proof argument against a naturalistic theory of concept-formation, there do seem to be some genuine difficulties here.

It Wasn’t Intentional

Intentionality is an interesting thing. Me personally, I find it fascinating how you just can’t get rid of it. If you try and eliminate it or reduce it, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Now to me, this makes quite a bit of sense since, if you read my blog many moons ago, I spent a little bit of time trying to develop a linguistic and semantic conception of reality (here, for example) which I still pretty much hold to. You could probably get away with calling my view tagmemics, or at least noting that it’s in the same neighbourhood.

When it comes to intentionality, meaning, etc, I generally take a semiotic view (not that I’m any great expert in semiotics). The classic Stoic example is a flushed face, which is a sign for a fever. The flush means fever. But this isn’t the whole story – how does a flush, which at bottom is just a biological phenomenon, mean anything? Well, it depends on how we define ‘mean’. If we see enough flushes in close connection with enough fevers, we start to realize, hey, there’s some connection here. If there is a flush, then he has a fever. Or think of smoke and fire. Smoke doesn’t ‘mean’ fire – smoke is just a collection of particles floating around. The meaning comes from us – when we see enough columns of smoke coming from enough fires, we can confidently say, ‘smoke means fire’. These are what John Searle would call ‘derived’ intentionality – the intentionality is derived from us. It’s not an intrinsic feature of smoke, or flushes. Smoke isn’t ‘about’ fire and flushes aren’t ‘about’ fevers.

Most things in the world have derived intentionality. Words on paper don’t have intrinsic intentionality or meaning – there’s no intrinsic connection between c-a-t and the furry four-legged creature that meows at at my bedside 3AM to be let out. It could just as well be m-a-t, if enough folks went with that.

As-if intentionality is another of Searle’s classification – when we say, ‘boy, that computer just doesn’t want to run that program’, that’s as-if intentionality. The computer doesn’t want or not want to do anything – it has no desires or goals or any kind of conscious life. Another classic example is that of a river – the river appears to want to flow downstream, but the river has no conscious intention or desire to flow. It’s just a river.

The last of Searle’s three types of intentionality is ‘intrinsic’ – intentionality intrinsic to a thing. This is generally associated with the mind – Brentano called intentionality ‘the mark of the mental’. This refers to the ability of the mind to direct itself in thought towards things – to have thoughts ‘about’ things. There are lots of different ways of thinking about intentionality – naturalist, reductionist, eliminativist (of these, eliminativism is perhaps the least coherent) – but for my money, I’m not convinced by any of them for the rather simple fact that no matter what’s done to eliminate it, it always seems to be a very necessary part of how it’s eliminated. Other accounts of intentionality, say the conceptual role theory, do a decent enough job explaining a possible mechanism of intentionality but don’t really offer any actual account of how there is such a thing in the first place.

A basic theme in intentionality is that if it’s physical, it has no fixed meaning:

‘One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation of its physical constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that mind represents it as having.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God’, p. 195-196)

Meaning, being the mark of the mental, is also the gift of the mental. I’ve expounded (the two links above) a conception of reality in which it’s semantic in nature – call it a field of semantics, out of which meaning can be made (this is different from, say a more general account of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ in the universe that one often hears about). We exist as meaning-making agents because we exist in a reality that is a semantic field.

Soundbytes and Culture

The idea that the immediate is better than the delayed is probably one of the most distinctive marks of our spirit of the age. This can be seen to be true in nearly every aspect of modern life – meals are microwaved in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. Technology allows one to view their favourite television programs immediately. Communication has not been immune – indeed, one could argue that no realm of life has been influenced by the culture of immediacy than communication.

Consider a simple conversation in which one is asked a question of some importance. If one has to pause to think, to gather thoughts, to formulate an answer, this is seen as negative – for example, it can be and is seen as a sign of something to hide, or a sign of unprepared-ness. To give a delayed answer is to give the wrong answer – to refrain from answering on the grounds that one would prefer to think over the answer is nearly unthinkable in the our culture today. In almost every case, the answer must be had now

There is another result, though. This second result is that all communication is essentially being reduced to soundbytes. More often than not, a conversation consists not in an actual interchange of thought-out viewpoints, or topics of interest around which a meaningful conversation can be had, but rather as an occasion to exchange soundbytes designed to (a) make clear each persons viewpoint and (b) prove the superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Conversations have become occasions to simply wait for one person to finish speaking so a rebuttal soundbyte can be given with nearly no regard for the content of the other persons speech. Give-and-take conversation, or conversation in which one really listens with the intent of learning are almost rendered obsolete (listen for five minutes to nearly any political discussion for a demonstration of this).

Of course, some communication must be brief. Obviously to take certain forms of communication, such as police radio communications, and insist that the length of conversations be increased would be absurd (one could add nearly any branch of civil service – hospitals, firefighting, the military, etc). If I call my stock broker to know when to sell, I need to know exactly when to sell what and for how much, and I need to know this now. These forms of communication, however, are not what I would define as actual discourse – an extended period of verbal communication between two parties. Even here, though, there are exceptions – legal defences often take the form of prolonged conversations and lengthy, well-crafted thoughts.

Discourse between two people for the sake of intellectual interchange of ideas requires, more than anything, leisure. It takes, obviously enough, time to have an extended conversation which does not consist of soundbytes. However, as I said above, it is increasingly the case that something that takes long is viewed less as a good and more of a negative.

The irony here, then, is that that which thrives only in a culture of leisure is seeing its death in a culture where immediacy is king. Immediacy is something that purports to be a way of maximizing the amount of usable time available – DVR’s, microwave meals, etc – all exist so as to eliminate wasted time so as to allow us more leisure time with which to enjoy any given thing. So maybe the irony isn’t so much that something which requires leisure is dying as a result of immediacy – it’s that, as a result of immediacy, leisure is dying.

On Meaning, Words, Games, and Problems

I recently read a conversation on Facebook about the conscience – this conversation went on for a good many posts, but it was ultimately an exercise in time-wasting. Why? Because terms were not defined. Not once in the lengthy thread were the terms under consideration defined or even really discussed. This means that the conversation was basically about nothing. It may as well have not have happened.

Sure, that’s a bit extreme of me to say, but I say it to illustrate what I believe to be the most important thing you can do in life: define your terms. What does X really mean? So much of what is said has no meaning simply because meaning is assumed. Don’t assume that the word has some innate meaning, because it doesn’t. But, the objection goes, then everything just becomes (as I typed the word ‘becomes’ I saw that I had typed ‘because’ instead and had to erase it) word games. Yes! Exactly!

It should be no secret to readers of this blog that Wittgenstein is my favourite philosopher, not because he was ‘right’ or whatever, but because of his method – letting the fly out of the bottle by kneading and working through the fogs and mists of our language to show us that the problems of philosophy really aren’t problems at all. I’m convinced that most problems, and not just in philosophy, are problems of language and meaning. By this I don’t mean I’m a logical atomist. I mean that our words and language games do more to hinder us than help us when we try and get to the root of a problem and that if we work through the game, we can often get to the real nub of the issue – maybe even to a solution. Maybe not, though – I don’t believe that philosophy is necessarily about trying to get to a set of certain doctrines. But if we can simply clear away or clear up the conceptual ground, perhaps we can discover that there isn’t really a problem after all – maybe we’ll even find an answer.

Whence Meaning

Words don’t have any ‘innate meaning’, all meaning is given to words by us.

Hm, maybe. When we use a word, it’s not so much the word, the utterance, itself that we’re concerned with but with that to which the word refers, right? To paraphrase Russell, when I say that the sun is shining, I don’t mean that this sentence is logically tight or has no contradictions, but I mean that there is a thing, called the sun, which is shining.

Well, yeah. The actual word doesn’t matter, it’s just a sound we’ve attached meaning to. It stands for something else.

Right, so could we then say that a word has meaning because it refers to something beyond itself?


Okay. So the actual sound, the actual utterance itself, is more or less beside the point. So a word has meaning if it refers to something – this seems to necessarily be the case. So a necessary condition for meaning is something beyond the word, right?


Okay, so then meaning isn’t given to a word by us, but by that to which it refers?

Hold on. Words aren’t eternal and changeless, they evolve – there isn’t a one-to-one language in existence. The words are arbitrary. Cat could have been anything – spaghetti, had the population at large so agreed on it. So no, meaning comes from us – we assign a word to stand for a thing.

Hm. It seems that this isn’t an either-or issue. Words have to refer to something, and we have to assign a word to stand for a thing.

Exactly. So we’re both right.

God’s Revelation as Speech-act

I’ve argued before here that reality is fundamentally linguistic – God spoke the universe into existence. What never occurred to me, for some unknown reason (beyond my own thick-headedness) is that this is a speech-act, or rather, THE speech-act. Duh. Then I thought a bit farther – if Jesus is God’s self-revelation, the Word (or the ‘conversation’, my personal favourite translation of ‘logos’), made flesh, then in a sense, wouldn’t that make Jesus a speech-act as well? This was an odd thought, but a speech-act is an utterance which does what it says – it performs the action it proclaims. Discourse becomes concrete – and is there a better example of (divine) discourse becoming concrete reality?

So then I thought about when we talk about Jesus, or preach, or proclaim the gospel – would that then also fall under the speech-act category? Here it wasn’t so clear cut, at least at first. If the gospel is ‘God’s power to save’, then it would seem that the gospel, by which people are saved and God’s kingdom brought about on earth, is also speech-act. The spoken word becomes the concrete reality.

None of this has been thought through very far by me or systematized- it was something that occurred to me on my lunch break. But it seems to me to be plausible.

Linguistic Musings

I’ve tried to write a post on language several times now – but each time I end up simply staring at the screen, unable to formulate my thoughts. One reason for this, I think, is because in a way we are kind of trapped in language – that is, we can’t step outside of it to get an ‘objective’ look at it. It’s different than say, working on a car – you can always step outside the car to get a good look at the whole thing -you’re working on. This isn’t to say that constructive things can’t be said about language, because they obviously can. But, at least for me, anyways, there’s some interesting built-in limits to the study.

In his ‘Tractatus’, Wittgenstein thought he had nailed down language in about 70 pages and a few propositions. He later came to realize that language goes far, far beyond simply picturing the world – one simply has to read the ‘Blue’ and ‘Brown’ books and the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ to see that Wittgenstein came to see language as being a vast, rich, puzzling tapestry – things like context, analogy, language games, culture, syntax all come into play with language.

Heidegger said that language is the house of being – this is one reason why I’m wary of attempts to dissect and analyze language with purely logical tools. To be sure language can be analyzed in this way, often with great results, but language can’t be conceived along purely logical lines.