On Saying “That”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that the form of psychological sentences in English apparently evolved in much the way these ruminations suggest. According to the Oxford English Dictionary

The use of that is generally held to have arisen out of the demonstrative pronoun pointing to the clause which it introduces.

(..)” D. Davidson, “On Saying That” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 106.

Charles Taylor is right, the question ‘Why?’ is humanly unavoidable. My question is why this is so. If we know why we cannot but ask ‘Why?’, we have resolved that part of the mystery of life which tends to separate people. I agree with Charles Taylor as well that naturalistic reduction – scientism is the more appropriate label – is a moral hazard but I think science, under the lead of the human sciences, must address why this is so. The strategy for doing so is the most basic strategy of all science: to trace to the origins of the phenomenon, just like Charles Darwin did.

Well, I think the origin of the word ‘why’ lies in the word ‘that’. The latter word has been the object of intense scrutiny for instance by Donald Davidson. Its non-verbal equivalent, finger pointing, is a  necessary gateway between the realm of things and that of thought. The word ‘that’ presupposes a lot. It presupposes a lot of things of which at least two need to be complex enough to point to some third thing. These things qua things are the subject matter studied by so called hard science. Kant called this pure reason. Most have forgotten his critique of it though. Basically: that this hard science presupposes subjects that do the pointing and have mastered a language consisting of a lot more words than ‘that’.

Indeed, on the other side of the word ‘that’ lies our language and therefore also lie we qua humanity as studied by human science. These are sciences that do not merely use words but are, strictly speaking, about words. The division between the hard and human sciences cuts across scientific fields, in particular across psychology, which explains why they are internally so divided. It has become a vulgar truth of scientism that individuals become objective if they just follow the insight of the hard sciences; that the question ‘Why?’ Is just a phenomenon, that there is no basic reason why this is so, that the word is the mental equivalent of an appendix that just needs to be removed when it is inflamed. This runs counter to the origins of hard science in multiple ways. Just take “that”: it’s no small matter that before it can be uttered there need to be at least two beings complex enough to point to some third thing and identify it as the same. The work of George Herbert Mead is a work of hard science and already explains that it takes a community to create anything that can be properly called an individual.

Tracing our origin to the word ‘that’ establishes a before and an after but only what comes after is capable of examining what came before. People may have little patience nowadays to appreciate  a difficult point: still, the hard sciences presuppose human sciences and not vice versa. They will be as incapable of overtaking them as the tortoise the hare. Scientism is a dangerous, and harshly metaphysical, fallacy that subjects subjects to matter. It’s to be fought with the type of science so characteristic of a Ludwig Wittgenstein. That’s a fight we will fight insight by insight for the patient who know solutions don’t come cut and dried and overnight. Everything I ever wrote is dedicated to this fight.

Another fallacy is the Augustinian one of spiritualism in which the before and the after of the word ‘that’ are impermeable. The word then stands alone without its body, without grounding and (speaking as an as of yet unconfirmed autist) leads to the kind of mysticism and skepticism that throws a tantrum every time its selfmade why it is so gets challenged and changed. It ignores that desire, vital energy in the sense of Bergson, was there long before the word ‘that’ – and that this desire is as fully permeating the creation of anything in language as it permeates any living thing. It ignores the fact that human science is science as wel: a human activity of reason (and therefore of mathematics) that can explain why a tantrum is thrown. Philosophical hermeneutics as proposed by Gadamer is nothing else as tracing what is after ‘that’; it is the origin of humanity in the survival of ideas that fit the environment of reason.

Before the word ‘that’ there was only desire and its dynamics of energy shaping matter against entropy; all a mere matter of pure probability whether physical, thermodynamical or evolutionary. After the word ‘that’ there’s a new force of energy in the development of reason that shapes thought, basically around the mathematics of probability. We’re still discovering how this is all linked but one link is a priori necessary (even if it is real hard to synthesize): that we are creatures driven by desire in developing reason and creatures of reason in driving our desires. Neither reason nor desire can rule (in) us – this is why asking ‘Why?’ is so basic, so universal and so common to all of us. What rules in us is judgment (it is Deleuze who explained me why Kant wrote 3 critiques). If we realize we all ask the same question for a same reason we can transcend the specific comprehensive answers that we individually need at any given time. This does not discredit any of these answers as such but opens the playground to develop understanding – to develop our common language, to discover the Rawlsian overlapping consensus we all share. We may be just (im)probable creatures, but as creatures we are necessarily driven to adaptation to a common judgment sharing as we do a common desire and a common reason.

So in this Charles Taylor is most probably wrong: there is a universal moral claim of reason – there is a “basic reason” of morality. We should not seek it in what specifically comes after the ‘that’, in what we point to (we should not seek it in the specific answer we give at a certain point to the question ‘Why?’). We should see it in the fact that we all use ‘that’ in the same way to point to what we believe (this is the universal ‘Why it is so’ we all ask that same question ‘Why?’). This may seem opaque but it really isn’t. It’s something we know in everyday life and everyday speech. There is nothing ultimately arbitrary or relative or perspectivist in what we point to with ‘that’. A bird is a bird even if it may be difficult to be sure we are pointing to the same thing. The same is true for beliefs in a ‘that’-clause, they are not magically lifted out of the realm of logic to do with as we please (not even Humpty Dumpty can do that). We can hold many false beliefs but once somebody points us out that the earth is round we simply can no longer also believe it is flat. You cannot hide stupidity in personal opinion even if it has become the most popular political opinion. There always is a fact in the moral, however difficult and endless it may be to uncover all the facts.

12 responses to “On Saying “That”

  1. ” I agree with Charles Taylor as well that naturalistic reduction – scientism is the more appropriate label – is a moral hazard”

    Why do you think that scientism is a moral hazard? Can you spell it out?

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I don’t know whether I can spell it out to your satisfaction but I’ll try. Scientism puts exact science before human understanding and that’s ass backwards. In doing so it will (and it has) sacrificed humanity because it is “logical” to do so. Logic here is misunderstood as something inhuman which it’s not. Science is not the problem by the way – just its misapplication as primarily exact instead of primarily human.

    The current outgrowth of scientism as the moral hazard is economism where economy as a science is completey misunderstood: see


    Other than that I recommend the book of Charles Taylor.

  3. Hi JoB, Thanks for your answer. I think that honest exploration in to any question is conducive to good philosophy and that truth springs from arguments among friends. The aim of my questions is not to win an argument but to provoke thinking. If somebody questions me, I do not take it as an act of hostility but a way to improve my thinking.

    You wrote, “Scientism puts exact science before human understanding”

    Can you give an example of this?

  4. Hello ontorealist,

    I totally agree with your take on arguments. I took no offense to your question but obviously it is so that writing is being vulnerable (which is why you need it to be done between friends) and vulnerability comes with some anxiety.

    To your question: I tried to give examples, but of course there is no definition of scientism so it’s probably difficult to give something sufficiently clear. What I believe is that, specifically in the current popular account of exact science, it is believed to be able to answer everything. Some believe it can detect some level of religious feeling on an MRI-scan. I think this is obviously wrong on a scientific level but also that it flies in the face of the fact that humans do have an understanding – as friends who can argue – that comes before any such a scientific explanation.

    Well, it at least is a try ;-).

    Thanks for reaching out.

  5. O.K. good.

    You wrote, “What I believe is that, specifically in the current popular account of exact science, it is believed to be able to answer everything.”

    I also think that this is what is generally believed. I agree that science(physics) does not and cannot know everything about what actually exists and what is actually happening. The reason for my thinking so is that physics cannot not know the actual reality but only humanly perceivable existence. But actual reality is not limited to that which can be perceived and understood by human mind, it is much more than that.
    Do you understand this? Do you understand Kant’s Transcendental Idealism? Or Nietzsche’s ontological perspectivism?

  6. I won’t claim I understand anything but I have read and thought about it all.

    Time for me to ask a question, you say “But actual reality is not limited to that which can be perceived and understood by human mind”.

    Here I am maybe too scientific – for me the human sciences come before the exact sciences and for me also there is something ontological in how human understanding can come about, still I really don’t know how to make sense of an actual reality that can be humanly neither perceived nor understood. This would be a mystery and mysteries are neither here nor there. Mysticism is in my view worse than scientism because it negates critical thinking.

  7. You wrote, “Time for me to ask a question——”

    What is your question to me?

  8. What actual reality do yo think exists beyond that which can be perceived & understoood by the human mind?

  9. 1. I had said that actual reality is not limited to that which can be perceived and understood by human mind.
    2. I have a human mind.
    So, how can I tell you what actual reality exists beyond that which can be perceived & understood by the human mind?

    Do you understand?

  10. I understand that you believe neither you nor I can understand. So I won’t try the impossible.

  11. Pingback: Being of Two Minds: Anomalous Monism | Quoughts

  12. Pingback: Proud to be Aut | Quoughts

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