Tuesday, June 17, 2008

a little phenomenology and ontology today...

A little phenomenology and ontology today...

A condition of thinking is the ability to have thoughts that represent. That’s a trivial enough insight.

A not so trivial question: how are thoughts representative of kinds or properties? This isn’t asking about how thoughts represent particulars (though that too is a philosophical question that is tough as nails). It’s about how they represent generals.

How does my thought (or mental image) of horse represent horses-as-such versus merely a particular horse?

This is different than asking about how words represent. Whatever story is told about the way that words represent must acknowledge the conventionality of linguistic reference/representation. That’s not quite the same with thoughts or images. These seem to have something like an intrinsic representational character to them. [heading off one hasty answer at the pass: It’s NOT about similarity or any vulgar speech about x “looks like” y.]

One can ask a question about thoughts/images that does not make sense if applied to words, whose representational character is conventional. Here’s the question: “What is it about a thought/perception/image/idea/fill-in-the-blank that makes it suitable to be bear its representational character?”

This is one of the deepest and oldest questions in the history of philosophy, and it still exercises the minds of some great contemporary philosophers (e.g., Putnam and McDowell are two noteworthy examples among many).

[Philosophical aside: The very fact that there are those who think that Kripke “solved” this problem just shows that the ones who believe this do not yet understand what the problem is.]

On the assumption that an idea’s representational character is something intrinsic about it, what explains this?

Here’s one proposal concerning some kind K: An idea of an of-a-K-kind is itself K. This entails that the idea itself exemplifies the property that it represents. In short, it represents a property by actually having it. The critical weakness of this view is that it does not seem adequate to explain the representational character of many types of ideas, such as ideas of geometrical or mathematical properties (e.g., triangularity, even-ness, etc.).

Here’s another proposal: An idea of an of-a-K-kind represents K-ness by being an instance of K-ness. The difference between this and the one above is that this one does not entail that the representing idea is itself K. Rather, it is an instance of K-ness. An alert reader will recognize that this entails the existence of an unowned property... which is... weird. I think something like this was the (broadly) medieval view of the transmission of species in the mental act of perception. [another philosophical aside: The medieval views on the mental act of perception were impossibly complex, disparate, and puckered relative to each other. So really, it’s not great to say anything about “the” medieval view, but there are some family resemblances between them and this notion of an unowned property.]

I guess there’s another way of going that asserts something like an intrinsic, natural affinity between concept and quality that is supposed to explain the representational character of ideas/thoughts/etc. The trouble that some have seen with this is that “natural affinity” is called pejoratively the “magical theory of intentionality” and something also disparagingly referred to as “noetic rays.” In short, it’s an occult, baroque ontological maneuver (but it might be true!).

I don’t know what to say about all this. I certainly do not have any way of answering the question, and I don’t think that the so-called causal theories of perception (though they get a ton of stuff right) actually do anything to answer this age-old, perennial question about the (allegedly intrinsic) representational character of thought.

Think of it this way to simplify: the converse of a causal relation is not thereby a relation (or property) of representation. That has to be explained, and simply calling perception causal and pretending that it assimilates thereby does not do that.

But I’m at a loss to say much more...
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