Thursday, 24 March 2011

Thoughts on the Priority of Description (Part 1)

(note: you can find an updated version of this paper in the Journal of Leeds University Philosophical Society, ISSN 2047-1173)


Recently I’ve been greatly interested in studying analytic style metaphysics and have seen (and experienced) how difficult it can be to provide rudimentary analyses of all types of beings, from persons to space itself. I’ve seen how approaching beings from a limited horizon makes it very difficult to account for many aspects of those beings. In this paper I will consider the idea that description rather than conceptual explanation is the proper founding stone in the investigation of any being. This prerogative will lead us in the direction of some developments from the school of phenomenology in how we come to understand things in the first place. We will especially have to take a good look at how the cognitive could arise from the non-cognitive if we are hoping to secure our solution to the problem of intelligibility which we’ll encounter in due course.

The Priority of Description

In the process of carrying out ontology it has become the orthodox to posit things either as mind-independent substances (which range over organic compounds, buildings, metals, atoms) or as something wholly contrasted with it, posited as abstract objects (numbers, concepts, logical truths) or some sort of immaterial substance (minds, souls). In this things are understood in terms of how well they coincide with the being of substances (King, 2001). Could you in principle encounter it? If not then we have to wonder about the mode of access we have to these things, or in the case of error theories, if we’re not altogether mistaken in our thought and talk about them.

There are a whole range of positions one can take towards the ontological categorisation of the beings we meet in our lives. I’ve never seen a number before, but I know how to make use of them and routinely and effortlessly use mathematics to anticipate and make use of the things in my life. Can it be said that I have encountered these numbers? In one sense it seems perfectly obvious that I have. Whenever I calculate the amount of money I am able to spend am I not encountering numbers then? But in another way this perhaps dubious, maybe even vacuous, and certainly in need of elucidation. What is one encountering, and how?

Platonism, Logicism, Naturalism, Fictionalism, and Formalism (roughly a kind of error theory) are a few of the ideas in commerce with one another in the contemporary discussion (Brock & Mares, 2010). Platonism, briefly, is the view that numbers are a special kind of abstract object which exist in a mysterious domain. Simple statements like “2 + 2 = 4” are true by virtue of their correspondence with an abstract object of this sort. If the semantic value of a name expression is taken as the object to which it refers, it’s natural for philosophers to think that what makes a mathematical proposition true is its correspondence to a sort of object. Of course the biggest problem is epistemological: how does one come to have knowledge of such abstracta if they are acausal and non-spatiotemporal? If we say “by encountering them with the intuitions through which we access numbers” we’re just begging the question.

Holes are also a very strange kind of phenomenon which receive much attention in analytic philosophy. David and Stephanie Lewis offer a very light-hearted investigation into the difficulties of a strictly nominalist explanation of holes. The basic idea is that when we say that the holes are simply the physical boundary surrounding the holes, we open up a large expanse of further conceptual difficulties. So we’re left in the lurch. Not only numbers and logical truths but even things we can go and encounter like holes are hard to define in their being, owing to the inadequacy of our concepts.

Early last century Edmund Husserl’s newly born school of phenomenology organised itself around the mantra “to the things themselves!” There was no doctrine, just a method of “phenomenological seeing” which involved putting off attempts to explain the phenomena and simply to describe it in its manner of approach (Moran, 2006). Husserlian phenomenology later blossomed into hermeneutic phenomenology under Martin Heidegger, and then into a widely diversified phenomenological discourse embracing fields as diverse as neuroscience and artificial intelligence to biology and philosophy (Dreyfus & Wrathall, 2006).

Perhaps it would be advisable, then, to go back to the things themselves – things such as holes and numbers – and reclassify them in terms of how they are when we let them meet us, instead of already meeting them with explanations and a conceptual taxonomy. Instead of trying to get holes, numbers, and modal truths to fit into an already existent schema, we should instead return to where we find them and describe them as and how they show up. In lieu of a sufficiently rich conceptual tapestry it is perhaps a mistake to attempt to fit a range of phenomena into an explanatory nexus based upon it (especially if the nexus cannot seem to explain what it’s trying to assimilate). But there may be a problem in answering how we could ever come to understand the phenomena originally in order to find ourselves able to describe them? Are such descriptions not themselves couched in concepts which must therefore already be understood?

Broadly, the phenomenological solution has been to point out that there is a sort of a priori meaning-giving “horizon” against which the things we encounter can make sense. To make this clear I will have to borrow an example from Magda King. King points out that in coming to have an understanding of something, we must already grasp it on the basis of its being-for something. A meaning-giving horizon is something like this: say someone points to a theatre and asks you what it is, how are you going to explain it to them? You will have to explain it by reference to how it fits into the human world you both understand. But being able to communicate what it does is only possible on the basis of an a priori understanding of this equipmental nexus of which it is a part (King, 2001). Man understands itself as being-in-the-world, which (stated as crudely as possible for considerations of space) entails understanding how the things in the world fit together in terms of their being for-the-sake-of some end, or their being something with-which you are able to meet some goal. The ultimate for-the-sake-of is your own existence (Heidegger, 2010).

The world is primarily encountered against this background or horizon. Things make sense in terms of how they fit into it. Coffee mugs refer to coffee machines, drinking coffee, people who harvest the coffee, etc. It comes to have meaning by virtue of fitting into this purposive and inter-referential world and can accordingly only be understood by someone who shares that world (imagine explaining eating to a species who needed no nutriment). This awareness of the meaning-giving significance of context penetrates into fields like anthropology (through Geertz’s “thick” and “thin” descriptions) as much as it does in language (through pragmatics) and epistemology (through contextualism).

Yet this is not the only horizon which we can use to get a hold on something. When physicists are being physicists they see things in terms of their substantiality, and so against this horizon the human world of significance evaporates and we’re left with straightforward matter in motion. Things like moods and purposes are not disclosed by this horizon. If this was how we primarily understood things, there would be nothing like a significant human world for us to discover (King, 2001).

But now we’re left with a problem. What is this background on which we understand things? This question tends towards a problem raised originally by Martin Heidegger who was the first to refute the “metaphysical assumption” handed down by the rationalist tradition (Andler, 2006). This inheritance had for a time landed on the lap of Leibniz during an important phase of the initial formation of what is now known as cognitive science. Leibniz felt that all intelligence was information processing, and that the background understanding on which we come to grasp things was simply more information processing (Todes, 2001). If this background is simply further cognitive understanding, then the background on which we derive our concepts are further concepts. Yet this has its own difficulties, as we must ask how it is we arrive at these concepts in the first place without some foregoing intelligible experience. How are these experiences intelligible (and thus describable) to us at all?

Primitive Signification

What I call a “primitive signification” could shed at least a little light upon what this background is through which we understand things and render ourselves able to describe them (and ultimately form concepts out of them). Explanation must stop somewhere. There must be a bedrock on which we can base our understanding. It is evident that basing this understanding on cognitive beliefs, as with epistemic foundationalism, creates difficulties (Bonjour, 2008) and so in line with the century of phenomenology following Heidegger, it may be advisable to look into the possibility of a non-cognitive (and non-empirical) foundation. The idea is related intimately to the notion of an “existential”, a term coined by Heidegger in Being and Time to denote a particular feature of our (holistic) existential structure.

An example of an existential is our “spatiality”, an aspect of our being which discloses space. However, a thoroughgoing elucidation of the role of the body is otherwise missing in Being and Time, and so the stage is set for Merleau-Ponty to expand upon Heidegger’s project in founding our understanding of space more explicitly in embodiment. The thrust behind this later phenomenology was that the body is a “here” from which directional co-ordinates “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “over there”, “near the bin”, and so on, are intelligible. In order to make this explicit, imagine having directions given to you to find a nearby river (or whatever you like). The un-explicit (and, as he suggests, non-conceptual) understanding through which you are able to grasp the directions is by reference to your own body. In order to get to a place one must first of all know where it is that they in fact are – which is, trivially, wherever their body is. Merleau-Ponty says that in fact: “far from my body’s being for me no more than a fragment of space, there would be no space at all for me if I had no body” (Merleau-Ponty, 1970).

The important thing to recognise is that this in no way leads inexorably towards a representationalist or any sort of mind-dependent conception of space. Space can still be there whether or not we’re around to grasp it. The idea is simply that the having of a body is a precondition of understanding space, which is not at all a claim as to the ontic nature of space. So existentials “disclose” things to our understanding, enable us to grasp things, or in Heidegger’s more elegant prose, they open up a clearing or horizon from which beings can show themselves in their being.

This, then, is how we will access the idea of a primitive signification. When describing something one must use words in order to formulate cognitively graspable statements regarding it. But this is no evidence for the claim that the understanding we have on the basis of this existential structure must also be of a cognitive nature (Andler, 2006). Consider a simple linguistic expression. Something is “hard” when it is unyielding, like the hardness of steel or marble. Yet we also say that the content of a book can be “hard”. What do we ever mean by this? Do I mean that the paper or the cover is unyielding? Not at all. I mean that it is difficult to read. Both senses of the word “hard” originate in this idea of something’s being unyielding, but they’re not unyielding in the same way. How do we come to understand these utterances? On the basis of primitive significations.

Primitive significations, then, are things like this notion of hardness. We come to understand them by having an attitude towards something, and thus an aim to accomplish. Something can only be unyielding if we are intending upon it. We can only understand the notion of something’s being unyielding by being so constituted as to intend upon things. So where does this primitive signification originate? In our own existential structure, which is always already intending upon things – is always inextricably bound with the things in the world and cannot choose to be free from them (Heidegger, 2010). Our most fundamental ways of understanding things are grounded in this non-cognitive activity which is known as “coping”. Coping is often conspicuously lacking in explicit representational content (I have only just noticed my fingers typing). One doesn’t have to work through or even know the complex of differential equations involved in correcting the course of a bicycle (Andler, 2006) any more than a one year old child needs to learn the rules of syntax before they can begin constructing sentences.

The Inadequacy of Substance

In borrowing that helpful example from Magda King earlier it may have been noticed that perhaps the difficulty with ontology rests in the interpretation of being as substance. We noted right at the very start how ontology typically tries to categorise beings in terms of how well they accord with the being of substance. We also briefly indicated that this horizon was insufficient for getting towards the meaning of the human way of being. Could it be that this “substantial” horizon is also insufficient for understanding the being of numbers and modal truths, etc.?

It’s helpful to note that this view does not lead one to positing some sort of dualism in order to explain how the substantial facts cannot account for all of the phenomena. Indeed, positing some sort of immaterial substance is to commit the error of assessing the being in question in its accordance with substance. It’s plainly obvious that human beings are made of matter, but are societies, intentions, and goals also made of matter? In one sense they are, but if you were to compile a list of every material thing of which a society is composed you would not penetrate to the real meaning of what it is for a society to be. A society cannot be grasped in terms of an objective list of material facts, but must be understood from within. Consider how no material difference comes into being when two people get married - yet husbands and wives are still meaningful roles in our world.

With some idea as to how things in the world become intelligible we can see at least a little bit as to what this a priori understanding consists in. We do not necessarily have to set up anchor next to Kant in holding that ontological categories are simply categories of the understanding. Our way of being discloses primitive significations which themselves give rise to words we can use to throw light upon those very significations and thereby enjoy communication. Only by virtue of sharing a world and an existential structure can we come to have this understanding and be able to communicate it too. What we have in common enables us to know what each other are talking about when we say “this work is hard” or “this lecture is boring”. We have the promise of avoiding an infinite regress, and may avoid traditional epistemological charges of fudging, as with epistemic foundationalism, by having to secure knowledge on further cognitive beliefs.

The problems which remain for the other parts of this essay are to give an account of how primitive significations support concept formation. The idea of non-primitive significations will have to be figured out and related to its ontological foundation.

Jordan Adshead, March 2011


Andler, D. (2006). Phenomenology in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. In H. Dreyfus, & M. Wrathall, A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism (p. 390). Blackwell.

Bonjour, L. (2008). Can Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation? In E. Sosa, J. Kim, J. Fantl, & M. McGrath, Epistemology: An Anthology (pp. 109-123). Blackwell.

Brock, S., & Mares, E. (2010). Realism and Antirealism. Acumen.

Dreyfus, H., & Wrathall, M. (2006). A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism. Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. SUNY.

King, M. (2001). A Guide to Heidegger's Being and Time. SUNY.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1970). Spatiality and Motility. In S. Spicker, The Philosophy of the Body. Quadrangle Books.

Moran, D. (2006). Introduction to Phenomenology. Routledge.

Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. MIT Press.

[1] I use “being” in the broadest possible (Heideggerian) sense: anything which is not nothing counts as a being in this very wide application of the term - not just concreta like dogs and cats, and tables and chairs.