Attaining Objectivity: Phenomenological Reduction and the Private Language Argument

From Topics in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence, edited by Liliana Albertazzi and Roberto Poli, (Bozen:Istituto Mitteleuropeo di Cultura, Bozen, 1991), pp. 15-21.



Twentieth Century philosophical thought has expressed itself for the most part through two great Movements: the phenomenological and the analytical. Each movement originated in reaction against idealistic—or at least anti-realistic—views of "the world". And each has collapsed back into an idealism not different in effect from that which it initially rejected. Both movements began with an appeal to meanings or concepts, regarded as objective realities capable of entering the flow of experience without loss of their objective status or of their power to reveal to us an objective world as it would be if there were no subjective apprehensions of it. Both movements ended with a surrender of the objectivity of meanings and concepts in this strong sense, coming to treat them as at most more-or-less shareable components of a somehow communalized experience, but in any case incapable of revealing how things are irrespective of actual human experience. For the old Egocentric Predicament, with its "ideas" etc., is substituted a Lingocentric or Histrocentric Predicament of "language" and its elements. Hilary Putnam speaks for the current consensus: 'Internal realism says that we don't know what we are talking about when we talk about "things in themselves"'(The Many Faces of Realism, p. 36).

Was this collapse back into anti-realism the result of some new discovery, perhaps about the relationship of consciousness to language—as might be suggested by the emergence of "language" in this century as the focal point for philosophical discussion? Or is it merely the result of finding that, after all, the replacement of sensations and ideas by language and its elements, in the effort to understand our consciousness of the world, does not deal with fundamental questions about how objects are present to us in consciousness? Statements from Putnam and others (Derrida) suggests that it is the latter. In particular, it does not deal with the question of what the "inside" and "outside" of consciousness amounts to, and with the prior question of what the mind or language does to things in the process of cognizing them. History shows that the problem of attaining objectivity is created mainly by the assumption that consciousness—whether linguistically interpreted or not—in taking something as object is "creative" of a boundary which cannot be crossed by consciousness (reference, concepts, etc.).

Efforts to cross this uncrossable boundary result in the insertion of magical elements—"ideas" or "terms" or "rules"—into the act without regard to how the act as a whole fits together. The magical element achieves tie up with the "world", variously interpreted by a Locke or Berkeley, a Quine or Wittgenstein, without regard to its coherent integration into the structure of the individual mind and act of thought. (Of course abstract patterns of integration are always suggested). What I call "the ontological principle of determinancy" is thus violated. This principle holds that everything that exists, including events, of which an act of consciousness is one type, is bounded and internally structured and externally related in specific ways, with no "gaps." Most significantly, for every entity, there are entities which are and entities which are not parts of it, and qualities which are and are not properties of it or of its parts. This determines an ontological "inside" for the entity, a determinate wholeness, which in turn through its specific type makes the entity "accessible" in various appropriate ways—including the "intentional"—to others and others to it.

With respect to the present century, analytic philosophers failed the test of determinancy from the beginning. Consider G. E. Moore's abortive attempt to introduce the "act" of consciousness to refute idealism. Or the recourse to "ideal" languages in philosophical analysis—which were not languages at all, not even ideal ones. The turn to "natural" languages has not really fared much better with reference to the issue of determinancy of structure in the linguistic or conscious act. Examination of analyses from Wittgenstein and Putnam will perhaps show this to be the case.

However, phenomenological philosophy in the form Husserl gave it looks much more promising. The development of his philosophical problematic, guided by Brentano's teachings about method, led him to attempt "description" (which unfortunately suggests discourse)—or, better, direct intuitive analysis—of conscious acts as the specific types of wholes which they are. Unlike Wittgenstein, he accepted the directive, "Don't think, look", or "To the things themselves", without a physicalistic bias as to what could be seen. The "spiritual" was not necessarily, for him, a bogus category of analysis, to be replaced at all costs by talk of "practices" and "behavior". He was free to articulate the structure of the various intentionalities and the corresponding acts and objects without intimidation by "the physicalistic imperative, and to subject that imperative itself to eidetic analysis to determine the scope and grounds of its legitimacy—as distinct from its historical force.

The structural dimensions of the act and act-stream marked out by Husserl—hyletic (sensate), noematic; ideal, reelle, irreelle; parts, non-independent moments and independent ones; synthetic structures of various levels; aspects linguistic and non-linguistic, historical and non-historical; etc.—provide, or make an excellent effort toward, an account of consciousness that satisfies the ontological principle of determinancy, and yields a coherent account of how the ontological "insides" of the act not only do not constitute or create an epistemological "insides" that cannot be transcended, but, in a manner to be descriptively determined, make precisely such a transcendence possible in given cases.

The phenomenological reduction involves neither the doubt, the denial, nor the loss of anything. It doesn't require that the phenomenological worker stop being a person or pretend he is disembodied. Neither historically nor systematically was it a "starting point" for Husserl, though it clearly served as a starting point in exposition on occasion. Its role is simply to help one avoid introducing extraneous factors into the description of an act of consciousness, leading to distortion of what the act is about and how it is about it. The reduction is not a surrender of objectivity, but a device which was supposed to help prevent the misdescriptions that have drawn the objective grasp of consciousness into question. It, however, is not sufficient to prevent all misdescriptions: most importantly, the taking of appearances (noemata) as the objects of consciousness and the "world" as a human construction. Here the most careful descriptive work is required, and it may not be possible to reach agreement on the nature and relations of noemata.

On the Analytical side, toward the middle of the Twentieth Century the work of philosophy increasingly becomes the analysis of language generally, not the analysis of concepts as initially understood by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore. Without being clearly argued, the dominant assumption becomes the essentially linguistic nature of consciousness. Intentionality is studied primarily, if not only, in the form of linguistic meaning, and any meanings present in consciousness are regarded as derivative from if not reducible to linguistic meanings. And the dominant assumption about meaning is, to begin with, that meaning finds its fundamental form in naming. The union between name and object was often expressed by saying that the object is the meaning of the name—a view associated, rightly or wrongly, with Mill's doctrine of non-connotative names and Russell's "logically proper names", and revived in an essentially altered form in the "rigid designation" of later years.

The doctrine of names (and language, and therewith consciousness) present at the outset of Analytical philosophy suggested that the foundation of all naming and language lay in the individual's consciousness of objects contained in his own mind and open to direct acquaintance by himself alone. If names link to their objects only by our direct acquaintance with those objects, and if we can be directly acquainted only with "private" objects in "private" space, then it seems plausible to say that we cannot name what is not in our private space. And that, to say the least, raises serious questions about how we can even be conscious of, much less claim to know anything about, what lies outside of our own conscious or linguistic acts or states. Language and consciousness must surely be incapable of transcending the "private" and attaining objectivity.

It is this situation against which Wittgenstein directed his famous "private language argument" (more properly, anti-private language argument). Basically, what he does is give an eideticor essence analysis of situations of linguistic use: such as naming or obeying a rule. Except he describes it as expositing the grammar of "naming" or "obeying a rule" or "game", and so forth. (e. g., Investigations, subsection 199, etc.). Most importantly, it turns out that naming (or any other element of language) cannot be private, because it is something that can be done rightly or can be done wrongly. That is, it is the application of a rule. And the essentially normative element in a rule would not work if all that were involved were the individual's direct consciousness of his "private objects" in "applying" the name. There is nothing in that private nexus which can serve as a criterion of right or wrong application. Criteria (rules) can exist only in a public world of repeatable and corrigible actions that make up a practice or institution. The existence of the practice or institution as part of a "form of life" is something beyond which one cannot go in explaining what one is doing in operating with language (thinking) and why it is "right" or "wrong". Here "my spade is turned" (subsection 217).

This Wittgensteinian line of argument has been explained, supported, and criticized in many ways. Certainly one must agree that naming etc. must have a general character which will determine whether it is wrongly or rightly done in a given case. But it is hard to agree that the analysis of language and the analysis of consciousness is the same thing. And it must be pointed out that Wittgenstein (and his adherents) have never made clear exactly how the linguistic sign, being what it is, can function as identical in both the public domain and within the individual linguistic or conscious act. He never explains how what happens to individual tokens of words transfers to other tokens in other acts, times and places, how rules are present as governing factors throughout a range of tokens of a given type. Finally, I think, one has to accept the fact that he is arguing in the manner of "transcendental arguments" generally, where one is told what must be the case, but no coherent account is given of how it is so. He hardly makes a beginning on the details of how all the parts of an act of language come together to form the whole, and doesn't seem to see the need of it. But then, if the principle of determinancy is to be taken seriously, this amounts to saying that he really has no account at all of the linguistic act or of how it accomplishes what it does. He simply relies upon the magical powers of certain alleged components. I strongly doubt that much more can be done from within the prejudgements under which he, and most other Analytical philosophers up to today, work. The vaguely empiricist/positivist/physicalist penumbra of assumptions about legitimate categories of analysis seem to me to make impossible any thorough analysis of the structure of linguistic acts, any complete understanding of their essential nature and possible relations, differences and similarities.

It is well-known that Husserl agrees. He held any purely "naturalistic" analysis of meaning and its involvements and effects to be hopelessly deficient. And his own analysis of the linguistic act is, accordingly , categorically richer than those on the Analytical side. In considering how he inserts the word into the totality of the act of thought or reference, it is crucial to recall that he does not make the act of consciousness as such linguistic. The basic structure of the act, for him, involves a hyletic component (sensum) and the apperceptive or "interpretive" grasp of that component, which grasp is not directed upon it, does not have it as its object, is not about it. By an "essential modification" the apperceptive grasp extends to signs—both as verbal images in "solitary discourse" and as public events or entities (sounds, marks). In this extension, the signs become themselves meaningful, as the sensum does in its "sense animation". This means that they are present as "together with," in a characteristic fashion, the objects of the "animating" act-character with which they are apperceptively involved. This is presented by Husserl as a phenomenologically present structure in sign usage of the relevant type.

Meaningful words are present in the public domain through the further function of "intimation" or "manifestation" (Kundgeben). My uttering "intimates" to you the mental acts and meanings which I intend to communicate to you. It makes those acts present to you in their peculiar aboutnesses, and with the aboutnesses the objects come to your mind in the unity of meaning with the words uttered. As Professor Rudolf Bernet points out, further structures will be needed to account for the "impersonal signifying" of language as we encounter it in our world. But I am inclined to think that this can be supplied by motivational structures that emerge in the development of language as a cultural form. And it will be important to do this in such a way that these forms do not make the attaining of objectivity impossible. Certainly Husserl was aware of how language draws thought away from the "things themselves". The Crisis is, I think, an effort to come to grips with this in a specific form. But because he does not regard consciousness as essentially linguistic, and especially holds regional essences to be knowable apart from linguistically formed consciousness, it remains possible to return to the (essential) "facts themselves" in spite of the very strong role of language in human culture. And the phenomenological reduction also remains possible, since the worldliness of language is not of the essence of consciousness—Derrida to the contrary.

Appeal to the phenomenologically given structures thus yields a much more determinate picture of the totality of the act of language use than we find in the Analytic tradition. This remains true if we bring in contemporary writers such as M. Dummett and H. Putnam. Putnam of course shares the linguistic interpretation of consciousness as such, and accepts the basic Wittgensteinian view of language as a public institution. But language and consciousness works for him, as we have already indicated, in such a way that we can never know how things are "apart from" language. The productive (creative, distortive) role of mind-action on the object or in "making" the object, shuts us into a world of history's making. He rejects what he calls the "magical" theory, or "noetic ray" theory, of reference, according to which there is some natural articulation of objects and selectivity by meanings (obviously Husserl's type of theory); and also rejects the "cookie cutter" theory, according to which language carves up a pre-existing dough (which obviously would have to already have a nature and disposition of its own for the conceptual "cutter" to approach). Instead, he adopts the slogan that the mind and the world together make the mind and the world. I say "slogan," for it is his theory, if any, that is "magical," due to the fact that he never provides the slightest information concerning what exactly happens in the "making" of the world. He depends on little more than observations about how what "facts" we can deal with depends upon how we choose to use our terms (or how that use is chosen for us). Once again, we are faced with a transcendental argument (or assumption) that it must be so—don't ask how!

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