Tag Archives: Mead

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.

A Contrast between Individualistic and Social Theories of the Self

“The difference between the social and individual theories of the development of mind, self, and the social process of experience or behavior is analogous to the difference between the evolutionary and contract theories of the state as held in the past by both rationalists and empiricists. The latter theory takes individuals and individual experiencing – individual minds and selves – as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of that social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behavior as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains their existence in terms of that social process. But the latter type of theory cannot explain that which is taken as logically prior at all, cannot explain the existence of minds and selves; whereas the former type of theory can explain that which it takes as logically prior, namely, the existence of the social process of behavior, in terms of such fundamental biological or physiological relations and interactions as reproduction, co-operation of individuals for mutual protection or for the securing of food.”
George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 242.

I wanted to edit and shorten this but I didn’t. In fact, I needed to battle the urge to go on quoting the next page. It is what it needs to be: the sober discovery of an inescapable truth we could not but evolve to discover. Nevertheless, evolution works in mysterious ways; after half a century the fact is that the traditional (and false) position still prevails. Whatever.

But if the mind is not born with the body and the social not the deliverance of the individual, then death of body and cessation of individuality is not co-extensive, at least not necessarily so, with the termination of mind, socially speaking. Yes, I am talking here about the commonplace notion that one lives on in one’s works – albeit without the usual understanding of ‘one’, ‘living’ and ‘works’.

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