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Tallis in Wonderland

Naming Airy Nothings

Raymond Tallis maps the gaps between language and reality.

“the poet’s pen… gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1)

Daniel Dennett is one of those thinkers who make you glad to be alive and philosophising. He writes beautifully, using language in a rich and inventive way, and he sets out his positions lucidly and wittily. Added to which, he is – or so I believe – exhilaratingly wrong about some very important matters.

For instance, he subscribes to a version of the mind-brain identity theory which sees the mind-brain in computational terms. This requires him to deny the existence of some basic constituents of consciousness such as qualia [subjective experiences as inner mental states], and to reduce the self to a mere construct analogous to a ‘centre of gravity’. He also espouses a form of what I have called ‘Darwinitis’ – the belief that Darwin’s mighty theory explains not only the genesis of the organism H. sapiens (which of course it does) but is also the key to understanding the nature of human persons. He fills the yawning gap between our biological roots and our cultural leaves with memes, units of cultural transmission that are dodgily supposed to be analogous to the genes that are the units of biological transmission.

There are other areas of disagreement between us. For example, he seems to believe that language is necessary for consciousness – although it seems to me more likely that we need to be conscious in order to produce the meant meanings that characterise human language. Another of his beliefs is that propositional attitudes such as my beliefs exist only insofar as they are ascribed by others endeavouring to make sense of my behaviour – although this leaves the status of his own belief about beliefs rather dubious.

I could go on, but to summarise Dennett’s thinking – elaborated over several decades – in this way is to do an injustice to a subtly argued, coherent body of work. Indeed, he has accused me and others who do not share his views about the conscious mind, the human person, and other key concepts, of caricaturing his thought rather than addressing it. So I would strongly advise you to immerse yourself in his classic Consciousness Explained (1992) and more recent works such as Freedom Evolves (2003). After that you should read his bruising exchange with John Searle in The New York Review of Books (1995, collected in The Mystery of Consciousness, 1997) to see why he leaves consciousness unexplained. If you are a glutton for punishment, Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011) will enable you to discover why (in different ways) both Dennett and Searle are wrong.

The Things That Are

All of which is by way of introduction to something close to my heart, and on which I think Dennett and I are in agreement. In a wonderful essay ‘Sakes and Dints’ (Commentary, Times Literary Supplement, 2nd March 2012), Dennett reflects on the task of philosophy. In part, he argues, it should mediate between the scientific image of the world and what the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars called ‘the manifest image’ – how things appear to us, how we seem to experience them, when we are untutored by physics. In the world according to the manifest image, the sun moves across the sky; the differences between up and down, between movement and being at rest, and between the past and future, are absolute; objects such as chairs are solid throughout; and everything there is exists in a definite state and at a defined location. Five hundred years of science has taught us that this is not necessarily how things are, although it is difficult to see directly that it is so.

For Dennett, philosophy should, of course, be on the side of science, and help to cure us of folk psychology – the unreformed common sense that is difficult to shake off when we address problems such as the nature of the conscious mind and its relationship to the brain. I don’t think philosophy should be subservient to science, but I do share Dennett’s ambition to find a way of mediating between the manifest and scientific images of the world, and, like him, believe this should include capturing the ontology (the study of what kinds of things there are) of everyday life.

Dennett argues persuasively that we should pay attention to “the riotous assembly of candidate things we find in the manifest image.” In doing so, he is consciously going against a tendency to reduce the world to a handful of types of entities described in the most general terms. In some respects, the ambitions of this reductive philosophy parallel that of science, which prepares “the dishevelled cornucopia for scientific accounting, with everything put ultimately in terms of atoms and the void, space-time points, or (by somewhat different reductive trajectories) substances and universals, events and properties and relations.”

Philosophy that aims to simplify the world in this reductive way always runs into problems, because some of these fundamental categories prove difficult to define in an illuminating manner and relate rather awkwardly to each other, and also because their claim to inclusiveness looks somewhat shaky. As W.V.O. Quine pointed out, the ontology of everyday life contains items, such as ‘sakes’ and ‘miles’, which frustrate the minimalist endeavours of the metaphysicians eager to rise above their cognitive niche (defined by individual cultures, eras, languages, disciplines, and so on) to a synoptic view that renders the universe, or at least everything they know of it, mind-portable. Cahoots, smithereens, and haircuts, to take three of Dennett’s examples, may seem unworthy of ontological attention, and perhaps they can be ignored; but some awkward items, such as ‘holes’, prove impossible to dispense with. Despite being abstract objects, holes have a surprising tendency to turn up in actual, local places, and present careless walkers with real and present dangers. Nobody fell down a mere concept, or the shadow of a word.

Behind Dennett’s amusing exploration of everyday ontology is the deep philosophical question of how far we should ascribe thinghood, picked out by count nouns, to items other than those that the philosopher J.L. Austin wryly referred to as ‘medium-sized dry goods’ [i.e. everyday physical objects]; or how far we should extend ‘stuffhood’, picked out by mass nouns, beyond materials such as ‘earth’, ‘water’, or ‘air’. There are many entities that do not fit comfortably into our standard ontologies. Sensations and thoughts, as Wittgenstein pointed out, are not things, but they are not nothing either. And time is neither a thing nor a stuff, although attempts to describe our world without it have – notwithstanding the wilder claims of advanced physics – proved unsatisfactory (to put it mildly).

Luxuriant Ontologies of Everyday Life

This should not inhibit us from contemplating – and rejoicing in – the luxuriant ontologies of everyday life. Of course, like Shakespeare’s poets, some philosophers are very partial to adding to them – giving airy nothings a name, and then finding a habitation for them. I am particularly fond of ‘Ness monsters’: items that seem to be thickened into something like real existence by the addition of ‘ness’. My favourite is ‘Nothingness’, one of the eponymous pair in Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterpiece Being and Nothingness (1943). Without Nothingness, Being would apparently not be for-itself (as conscious beings are) or – by contrast – in-itself, as in the case of the material objects encountered by conscious beings. For Sartre, Nothingness opens up distances in the plenum of Being that enable conscious beings like you and me to act within Being, in a world that is our world.

If that seems a lot of work for Nothing to take on, think of the quantum vacuum, whose instabilities, we are told, tipped the world over from Nothing into Something. Analytical philosophers were appalled by the existentialists treating Nothing as a thing. Rudolf Carnap assembled some of the things said about Nothing in Martin Heidegger’s 1929 work What is Metaphysics? (culminating in the insight ‘The Nothing itself nothings’) and mocked them. The Nothing endorsed by advanced physics, however, gets a more respectful hearing. Double standards or what?

There are some terms – some nouns and noun phrases – that clearly have no pretence to correspond to things. They are what we might call ‘linguistic crannyware’, designed to fill in the cracks between the territories carved out by expressions. Among these are placeholders which seem to hold open a space half way between language and the extra-linguistic world. The inventory of the contents of my house would never include ‘thingumabobs’, and it would be difficult to sell ‘gubbins’ or ‘bits’ (with or without ‘bobs’) on eBay, but we couldn’t do without them. And where would we be without ‘this’ and ‘that’?

Western philosophy has been preoccupied by universals that designate qualities that do seem to be in the outside world but are nevertheless incapable of entirely independent existence. Consider, for example, equality, goodness, or beauty. We may see universals as being ontologically deficient, or regard them with fond Platonic eyes as being too good – perhaps too ethereal as a result of being close to our eternal unchanging intellect – to live in the bog-standard reality of the world of stand-alone bump-into-ables. Other items clearly exist only within language, incapable of life outside of sentences; for example, the referents of noun phrases such as ‘economic trends’ and ‘the evolving concept of charity in Western thought’. Many words, like lexical cut-outs carving up bits of a multi-dimensional semantic space, seem in danger of turning into breath-filled nothings, even when they are set down in relatively stable threads unpacked from drops of ink. ‘Ghosts’, for example – I hope.

The Not-Things

Philosophers are haunted by the spectre of ‘reification’, the mistake of thinking that words always stand for things; that even abstractions have a smidgeon of the thinginess, the ontological heft, of the kind of items we can sit down on, or throw out of the window. Reification has caused many to frown, but nowhere have the furrows been deeper than in the forehead of the Polish engineer, mathematician and philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), for whom this was an obsession.

Korzybski argued that our knowledge of the world is limited not only by our nervous systems (a truism that is not the whole truth, otherwise we would be unable to transcend our nervous systems to see the limitations they impose on us) but also by the structure of language. The world seen through the lens of language is a mosaic of abstractions. Our tendency to confuse these abstractions with reality itself – a failure to recognise that ‘the map is not the territory’ – was the cause of ‘endemic un-sanity’. The educational movement he initiated, General Semantics, was devoted to combating this modern scourge.

Korzybski saw the power of Airy Nothings to shape the way we think about the world, and consequently how we interact with each other. Abstract concepts are the agents of those social forces that the sociologist Emile Durkheim identified as being as potent in human lives as physical forces are in the natural world. The ability to classify the contents of the world enables us to look further, but at the price of over looking, forcing upon singular realities general categories that lift them above the material world whilst imprisoning them in a socio-linguistic one. In speaking about the world we inevitably simplify it – not least by calling it ‘the world’ and referring to it as something that can be spoken of.

I have strayed a long way from Dennett, but my point is that there is only one pleasure greater than disagreeing with a philosopher one admires. It is to discover an area of agreement. In our different ways we are both in love with the richness and complexity of the world and value the noble effort to ascend to a summarising vision without simplifying it. And perhaps that agreement goes deeper than our many disagreements.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2013

Raymond Tallis’s most recent books are Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur (Acumen), and (edited with Jacky Davis), NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It (One World).

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