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pathways (letters)

27 November 1996

Dear Daniel,

Many thanks for your letter of 18 November, with your responses to unit 7 — 9 essay questions 1, 3 and 6. The prospectus for the Philosophical Society which I sent you is only in a draft, skeleton form. Sections will be added to give it more substance — possibly by other members of the Council, including the Editor of The Philosopher. (You don't need to be a member of the Society in order to submit material, by the way! Articles should be short, not exceeding 3,000 words, with a minimum of footnotes; preferably none.)

You did, however, succeed in identifying one of the most sensitive issues, which caused a considerable amount of debate at October's Council meeting. My predecessor set the standard for the Associate Diploma at 'a second-year undergraduate 2/1'. While I very much hope that many of the submitted portfolios will be close to this standard, it seemed to me way too high for a distance-learning qualification supposedly within the grasp of someone starting out in philosophy from scratch. But I agree on reflection that comparison with A- level might give the wrong impression. I shall have to think about that some more.

I shall deal with your responses to the essay questions in the order in which you placed them. So let's start with Qu 6:

'According to Descartes all facts are facts about me...'. This is wrong, at least as it stands. It is true that Descartes' project of systematic doubt yields a set of data, on the basis which the question of the scope and limits of human knowledge is to be addressed. This data consists in my subjective states, concerning which (he thinks) I am incapable of being deceived, even by an evil demon. Then, famously, he discovers amongst his ideas and perceptions the 'idea of God'. What is important to realise, however, is that even while he is still in the grip of doubt, Descartes never questions that there is some objective causal explanation for the existence of his subjective states: either God or an evil demon or something capable of bringing them — and him, or his 'I' — into existence. That is precisely what the true solipsist denies. I am my world.

Now I would say that Mead's project as you describe it (I have not studied his work) remains formally within the framework of solipsism. The same could be said of the Husserl of the Cartesian Meditations. The project is to uncover the phenomenology of my experience of social interaction, which is an essential component of my own developing self- awareness. All perfectly acceptable to the sophisticated solipsist, for whom this supposedly 'dynamic' psychology merely fills out the picture of 'the world of my possible experience'. But this is not Kant. Behind Kant's response to Descartes, couched in the solipsist language of phenomenology, lies the metaphysical dualism of phenomena and noumena.

What you term the 'life of the dialogue between man and man', on the other hand, lies in the relation between I and thou (in Buber's terms), where the 'thou' is no mere concept describing the world of my experience, nor a noumenal entity beyond the range of my possible experience, but an existence that I make direct contact with, in some sense 'on a level' with my own being (that's the problematic part).

These are prelimiaries. The question is whether an account of the functioning of proper names is capable of breaking free from the 'Kantian-solipsist' phenomenological framework laid out in the 'Refutation of Idealism':

Someone uses a name, intending to refer to some individual. Say, as in your story, they write a letter and put the name on the envelope. What is it that links a mark on paper to a individual in the world, in this case, the intended recipient? According to one theory — the theory compatible with, though not necessarily entailing solipsism — the 'meaning' of a proper name is descriptive. It may be a cluster of descriptions, not just one (with the referent identified as whatever satisfies a 'majority' of the descriptions). And you can use a name without knowing its descriptive meaning (say, as a human answering machine: 'Mr Asquith phoned').

First, the question of 'triangulation'. I think I can see why you say this, but if you follow the line of thought through you will see that no amount of descriptions can ever logically guarantee a unique reference. Say, Andrew Brown is 'the Art Museum director'. But there may be more than one art museum run by an 'Andrew Brown'. Say, then, 'the Bath Art Museum director. But it's still possible that there is an art museum in Bath Pennsylvania USA. Say, 'Bath, England.' Still won't do. You need a principle like Leibniz's Identity of Indiscernibles to rule out the logical possibility that there are two parallel universes, with twin Earths, twin Baths, twin Andrew Browns.

'I can live with that,' says the description theorist. 'You are talking about far-fetched logical possibilities, I am only interested in the real world.' Fair enough. Still, the point has been conceded that descriptions cannot in principle do what a name claims to do, viz. get you to that object, and not simply one 'like' it in ever so many respects.

Call that the 'metaphysical' problem. The epistemological version of the problem is simply that we succeed in referring to individuals using proper names even when our knowledge falls short of a uniquely identifying description, or even when many, or perhaps even the majority of our beliefs concerning the referent are false. What fixes reference may simply be the fact that one individual — rather than another ever so much 'like' it — has actually made, directly or indirectly, the causal impact upon you that led you to refer to that individual in the first place.

So long as it is 'descriptive knowledge' rather than 'impact' that fixes reference to an individual, then sceptical worries about whether that individual really exists/ever existed do not affect the content of the thought itself. It is just that when the description(s) fail to be satisfied the thought is false. On the more radical view that presupposes the rejection of solipsism, when I use a name for an individual — say, my drinking companion 'Harvey' — I cannot be certain whether such thoughts have any real content, or only seem to have content: 'No object, no thought.' I am no longer the ultimate authority on whether my thoughts have content or not. This is how an acount of the functioning of proper names comes to be intimately involved with the rejection of the solipsist metaphysic.

On question 1:

First, this question is not concerned with Chomsky. Chomsky relies on our semantic intuitions to judge whether a given series of words does or does not count as a 'meaningful thought'. He is concerned to work out the grammatical rules that accurately match these intuitions for a significant proportion of speakers and any given combination of words (of, say, English). His quarrel with the logicians centres around his view that that no system of logic — say, first-order predicate calculus — is adequate to account for all the complexities of what we can, or cannot say, the thoughts we can or cannot entertain. Hence the claim that there exist species-relative internalised grammatical rules.

I agree with you that it is important to attack the atomistic metaphysics of the picture theory of language, where the meaning of words is ultimately anchored in extra-linguistic, 'objects' outside society and outside history. However, it is not enough to point to the actual phenomenology of language use. The logical atomist will simply retort that our actual language is built up from ever more complex heirarchies of concepts, distancing our thoughts further and further from what ultimately determines their truth-conditional meaning. As Wittgenstein claimed, our thoughts are perfectly in order as they stand: however vague or indeterminate they may be to us, or on the surface, the ultimate semantic reality is as sharp as lines etched on the surface of a mirror. — Later, famously, he came to see such a view for what it was: mere metaphysical fantasy.

One interesting line of thought, however, is your claim that 'each person is an island surrounded by a sea of communication which constantly brushes its edges and only occasionally engulfs the whole...'. I would argue that it is possible to combine a due recognition that each person's experience is unique with the claim that the meanings of the words in our language are not the result of an overlapping of individual idiolects, but on the contrary are essentially social. (Perhaps you would agree with this.) The most intensely felt personal experience becomes, in the hands of a poet, a communication that has the potential to reach out to many others. His/her words may well be words that no-one else in the world would have thought to choose to convey just that experience or that emotion, yet they say something to all of us. (Though, of course, not everyone is equipped to hear.)

On the other hand, words become a 'private language' for someone suffering a mental breakdown. At the extreme, the sufferer cannot speak to us at all, but can only express symptoms.

On question 3:

'Realities are many — so there is no such one thing.' — That is the basis of an answer to the question set. The next question would seem to be, are realities uncountably many, or is there some constraint or set of constraints that determines when we are dealing with a genuine 'reality'?

But wait a minute: is there no special problem about recognising 'alternative realities'? — as if one could say, 'I live in many worlds, there is my family life, the time I spend at work or with my various groups of friends...'. — There is a principled reason why examples cannot be given of genuine linguistic relativism. By definition, a 'genuine' example is a case where a concept has a meaning but we are incapable of ascertaining its meaning. But how can one, in principle, distinguish that case from (a) one where the concept only seems to have a meaning to a certain group of persons, while we remain incapable of determining whether it really has a meaning or not, or (b) one where we could discover the meaning if only we were sufficiently ingenious or thought along certain lines but unfortunately we never shall (perhaps we are too self-obsessed to embrace such a radically different world view)?

You can understand the beliefs shared by a certain group without sharing the beliefs. It may seem harder to share their 'experience', but, then again, such 'alternative realities' can be conveyed in words and images to some extent. You can do anthropology without necessarily 'going native'. (We have een here before.) This is not what I undertand by an 'alternative reality'. I have in mind something more radical: a world view that is simply impervious to 'our' concepts or understandings.

I do not 'understand' someone who has certain beliefs or who has enjoyed/suffered certain experiences. Perhaps we are condemned forever to talk past one another. I agree with you that this is one of the crucial (and tragic) acts about human life. Sympathy or empathy will only stretch so far. Still, some of us are at least sufficiently wise to recognise that this is a failing on our part, however excusable in the circumstances. But the philosophy of language raises an altogether more threatening spectre: that there may be 'ways of understanding' that we simply do not possess the equipment to grasp. This thought subverts the original idea of each of us having more or less limited access to the same broad canvas — the canvas of human experience — suggesting an alternative idea of multiple frames with empty, untraversible space in between.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner