In his recent post on The World and the Real, Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics summarizes certain key themes which he elaborates in greater detail in his “Essay on Transcendental Realism” (PDF link embedded in Pete’s post). He begins by asserting that only sapient beings can achieve a progressively more accurate understanding of reality. A sapient being is self-aware: it recognizes that it makes mistakes in its perceptions or beliefs about the world, and consequently that the world might be something other than the sapient being’s subjective experience of it. A sapient being is also self-corrective: it can take deliberate steps to compensate for its perceptual limitations or interpretive mistakes in understanding the world, thereby incrementally closing the gap between subjective understanding and objective reality. Guided by mutually honored norms of objectivity and rationality, we self-aware and self-correcting beings can work together toward achieving a progressively more accurate understanding of the world. This normative, rational pursuit of objectivity takes the form of an ever-growing set of propositions or truth claims about reality. These propositions are continually subjected to a work of purification that replaces misperceived and erroneous truth claims with more and more accurate ones.
Pete says that, in doing ontology, grasping the epistemological basis for how we come to know the world is more foundational than the structure and content of the world itself:
“The important point is that Brandom is right to claim that our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence. Our understanding of true claims (or ‘facts’) is more primitive than our understanding of things (objects or entities).”
A truth claim is a proposition that makes reference to purported facts about the world, which in turn make reference to things in the world. The sequence by which we understand any proposition is: semantic meaning of the proposition → understanding of how the nouns and verbs and adjectives in the proposition are interconnected → understanding of the proposition’s truth claims about the interconnections among objects and properties and forces in the world. Or as Pete says:
“Just as there is the pointing, the direction pointed in, and the thing pointed at, in representation there is the act of representing (assertion), the content of representation (proposition), and the object represented (things within the world, and in the limit, the world itself).
So if you tell me “The cat is on the mat,” I have to understand how this sentence hangs together as a meaningful bit of language, then how “cat” and “mat” and “on” fit together syntactically in this sentence, then I follow the trajectory of the linguistic “pointing” out to how the actual cat and mat in the world are positioned relative to each other. Okay, I can see the sequence here in linguistic processing. But why would Brandom — and Pete — assert that, for humans, understanding semantics is “more primitive” than understanding the world? Pete further claims this:
“Our representation of the world as a whole is just the totality of propositions that we take to be true.”
According to this (debatable) formulation, presumably we have a large and interconnected set of propositions about the world stored in memory, which we then retrieve as needed. It’s obvious that the world itself isn’t made up of propositions; rather, says Pete, our representation consists of a set of linguistic pointers to things in the world. Our access to the world, both individually and in conversation, is mediated by propositions about the world. Presumably, then, we can’t make sense of the things in the world without first retrieving from our mental representations those propositions that point to the things in the world.
What makes Pete a realist is his assertion that propositions and the words from which they’re composed really do point to corresponding things in the world, rather than just pointing to other words and propositions inside the representational-linguistic matrix. So when people talk about the world they really are talking about the world. From my standpoint Pete’s interpretation of the relationship between language and reality is a big improvement over Saussurian structuralism, where words point only to other words inside the representational-linguistic matrix, and over Lacanian post-structuralism, where language cuts us off from direct access to the real. On the other hand, in Pete’s formulation language still precedes and mediates our access to the real.
Pete’s theory is embedded in and responsive to the philosophical traditions in ontology and epistemology. I’m more familiar with the empirical psychological literature. The main issue I’d like to address is Brandom’s assertion that “our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence,” that propositions about reality precede and mediate our engagement with reality. Briefly, I’d like to point to some empirical evidence to the contrary.
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All non-human primates and many other mammal species make use of non-linguistic representation of the world. For example, they remember where the best sources of food are found, they can take detours and shortcuts navigating through their territories, they follow the movements of objects even when completely occluded behind other objects (“object permanence” in Piagetian parlance), they categorize objects based on perceptual similarities, they predict the behavior of conspecifics based on emotional state or direction of locomotion, they use strategies to compete with groupmates for resources. Non-human primates in their natural habitats invent tools, learn important behaviors from their mothers, and understand kinship and dominance relationships among conspecifics that don’t involve themselves. They can be taught by humans to make same-different categorizations of objects; e.g., to distinguish between pairs of objects that are identical to each other from those that are different from each other. However, it takes many repeated trials for mature chimpanzees to learn this skill. By contrast, even very young children can make these object categorizations with ease. Similarly, two-year-old children can infer cause-effect relations between objects in the world; e.g., they understand immediately that an object being pushed through a horizontal tube with a hole in the bottom of it will fall through the hole. Adult chimpanzees, by contrast, don’t get it and must learn through extensive trial and error.
It seems then, based on a wide variety of evidence, that direct representation of the world is more “primitive” than, as well as a likely precondition for, propositional representation of the world. Similarly, non-representational direct responses to the world — e.g., sunflower blossoms that follow the sun’s arc across the sky — are more primitive stepping-stones toward representation. Representation allows the organism to respond to features of the world that aren’t immediately present to the organism; language further extends representational non-immediacy to greater levels of abstraction. And, without going into empirical evidence on the nature of cognitive representation in the human brain, I think that there are distinct advantages of retaining the direct representational content and structures on which linguistic representations are developmentally predicated. Understanding what things in the world are like, what sorts of features they might exhibit, how they can interconnect, how they might work together in cause-effect chains: this sort of general knowledge about the world can be of invaluable aid in coming to grips with new experiences and in formulating propositions for describing our discoveries to others.
Empirical studies of infant language development also cast doubt on Brandom’s assertion of the primacy of propositional truths about reality. The body of evidence strongly supports a developmental sequence that goes like this: (1) following someone else’s pointing at an object in the world; (2) pointing in order to attract another’s attention to something; (3) understanding that someone else’s spoken word corresponds to the object being pointed at; (4) understanding the spoken word and looking toward the object corresponding to that word; (5) speaking the word corresponding to the object being pointed at; (6) speaking the word referring to the object without pointing at it. Empirical evidence thus supports the inference that, in infant humans, achieving joint intersubjective attention toward specific objects in the world precedes the ability to understand or to use linguistic representations for thinking about and pointing to objects.
In sum, I don’t believe that the empirical evidence support’s Brandom’s — or at least my understanding of Brandom’s — assertion that, for humans, truth propositions about the world precede direct understanding of the world. The sequence by which an adult human understands a proposition — verbal representation, words “pointing” into the world, object pointed to — doesn’t correspond to the developmental sequence, either in individuals or in the species, of acquiring the requisite knowledge for understanding propositions. Experiential encounters with the real precede and give shape to propositional descriptions of the real.
I think I’ll stop here, and follow up with a separate post addressing Pete’s insistence on the importance of sapience and the norm of objectivity in moving toward a more accurate understanding of the world. UPDATE: I think we handled it in the discussion on this post.