Antonio Calonego

The metaphysical myth of everyday language as "immaturity of Thought"

In the forthcoming paragraphs I’ll try to sketch what I’ve called the metaphysical myth of everyday language as "immaturity of Thought", showing what difficulty gives rise to it and what is the historical source of it. But, since from the same source I’m speaking of (i.e. Descartes) also comes the more traditional problem of "the limits of Thought", which, under many respects, could be mistaken with the former, my first step will be to outline the latter, in order to distinguish the two and prevent us from giving the one what belongs to the other.
From a historical point of view, both the problems deepen their roots into the same context, which is the context of the beginning of modern age and the born of science. Making use of its peculiar procedures of abstraction, the science yielded a new picture of the world, which, on one hand, was quite different from the one that could be attained by language and thinking resources of everyday man, and on the other hand, could not leave the traditional conceptions concerning the powers of human intelligence and the place of God, as they were before.

[1] A mysterious cause from outside ?

Given a series like, for instance: 1, -1/3, +1/5, -1/7, +1/9, -1/11, +1/13, -1/15 … , when we understand what term comes after the last one written (+1/17), we grasp which step brings from n to n+1 and so we understand the law of it as if we could now take in at one sight the infinite numbers which belong to it. Mental processes, we need of to get hold of what seemed but a set of different elements, may easily find their way or require a more difficult working; in both cases, once the target is hit, their output reveals a new texture of the datum, which appears now to be an interwoven complex made up out of form – its concealed order - and matter – its appearance of a dispersed plurality of individual atoms.
We have three choices to account for all that: (a) we can treat form and matter as they were two separate entities and conclude that the first one doesn't depend on us, while the second one consists but in "filters" or "codes" we make use of to elaborate on it (different codes would give forth to different results); (b) we can treat form and matter as two separate entities and imagine that neither the first one nor the second one depend on us; (c) we can conclude that it is within the same "mental act" by which we apprehend the object, as an object of knowledge (having that special value of stability it actually has), that the distinction between a form and a matter can be generated as a product of human intelligence in its efforts to represent the world.
The options (a) and (b) give rise to the questions: what is the origin of those entities ? Where do they come from? Does matter consist in unknown messages coming from a mysterious source outside? Is the form, whose notion always involves the infinity, the footprint of the superior mind of God ?
According to Cassirer, both the interpretations (b) and (c) can be detected in Descartes, who, at the end, brings back to an augustinian and medieval frame of thoughts (matter and form are separate entities created by God) the whole novelty of his conception. To face these problems and investigate the same meaningfulness of the questions above, was, as it is known, one of the major jobs of the Philosophy which came afterwards.

[2] Are there two suns?

The same Descartes’ writings, which delivered the "thing in itself" problem to the history of modern Philosophy, give rise to another question, which is there clearly formulated, though under two distinct versions.
First version
. Of the sun, we have two different ideas, Descartes’ says (Meditation III, § 11): "I find in my mind two wholly diverse ideas of the sun; the one, by which it appears to me extremely small draws its origin from the senses, and should be placed in the class of adventitious ideas; the other, by which it seems to be many times larger than the whole earth, is taken up on astronomical grounds, that is, elicited from certain notions born with me, or is framed by myself in some other manner. These two ideas cannot certainly both resemble the same sun; and reason teaches me that the one which seems to have immediately emanated from it is the most unlike". First, Descartes stresses the problem, pushed into prominence by the new science, which concerns the difference between the world as we commonly apprehend it and the one portrayed by the rationally (and mathematically) based thought; secondly, he puts forward his argument: since the "two ideas cannot certainly both resemble the same sun", "reason teaches me that" the one drawing its origin from what immediately appears, has to be included into the category of what is "the most unlike".
Answering the Gassendi’s objections - reflecting on the same problem, Gassendi had tried to show that, when we assume that all we know always comes from what experience teaches, the alleged difference becomes much less dramatic and can be reduced but to a difference of grades within a unique process of elaboration of the same material – Descartes is much more explicit: the difference between the two ideas is the difference between the true and the false .
Second version
. In the famous piece of wax example (Meditation II. § 11), the above difference (between the two ways of portraying the same object) is explained as a difference between two species of mental resources which are within the sphere of our powers: the ones belonging to everyday thinking - not only senses, but also a kind of "imagination" which allows us to represent a certain limited numbers of changes of the matter - and the ones belonging to rational thought, whose superiority consists in its being able of going beyond those limits and encompassing an infinity of those changes. What the wax is, Descartes says, can be only established by an "intuition of the mind (mentis inspectio)", as soon as we avert our attention from all the aspects of the thing which make the representation of it "imperfect and confused". Here, Descartes makes use of the pair "imperfect and confused"/"clear and distinct": the intervening of a mens freed of any interference coming from senses and imagination, allows it to shed light on what seems to be already present within our mind, though still faintly visible trough the vapors of everyday thinking.

[3] Two interpretations and one paradox.

From the two Descartes’ versions of the problem, we have above outlined, two corresponding interpretations have also derived: 1) everyday thinking is mostly a chaotic place where errors and prejudices easily lurk and are often masters; reason is so committed to shape it, illuminate it and reform it; 2) everyday thinking is not to be judged or condemned, but comprehended because of the truth which is bore by it, though still in embryo, and which must be "brought to light" and "elicited" by labour of Philosophy. All immersed within the sphere of the empirical facts her determinate existence is made of, the "common conscience" can’t see what they presuppose, the same way a child can’t see the general conditions of his family life, he gives for granted. It is, to go on employing an organic metaphor, a still immature phase of the philosophical conscience.

The point of view we intend to uphold, here, is as follows: though the second interpretation (mostly belonging to hegelian and marxist tradition) claims it can definitively put an end to that pedagogical attitude toward everyday thinking and language, which is so peculiar to the first interpretation, it isn’t really a shift from it and the paradox, this second interpretation can’t avoid to meet with and in which it remains entangled, clearly reveals what an ambiguity lies concealed in it.. The paradox is this: once the philosophical truth has been "brought to light", it can be "immediately recognizable" as such (as the true meaning of our determinate existence) or not. If it is "immediately recognizable" (i.e. recognizable to the "common conscience" presupposing but those "spiritual resources" immediately available to her), it must completely coincide with what the "common conscience" takes up for ultimate evidence. It is very difficult that such a truth could go beyond the "dominant ideology" (in marxian sense) and be something more than an empiricist theory of the kind criticized by philosophers of rationalist tradition. If, on the contrary, it is not "immediately recognizable", it will be recognizable only by those who have already taken in the fundamental steps of the theory. In this case, when those who have already taken in the fundamental steps of the theory claim that their theory has "brought to light" etc. etc., that will amount to just a way to express no more than the obvious fact that they accept the theory and, therefore, what the theory says about everyday language.
To escape the paradox, as far as I can see, there is no other route to go than that one which consists in turning away from both the two interpretations, when they purport to be able to fix what everyday language is, and admitting that everyday language has, if I am allowed to use once again the organic metaphor, an its own personality.


[4] A final question.

In his "How I see Philosophy" (Macmillan, London; see cap. V. § 5), F. Waismann widely argues against those thinkers who believe that "ordinary usage" can be fixed and taken as paradigm of correctness: they can’t see how changeable ordinary language is and how much it often owes to the work of Philosophy, Science or Literature (what Waismann says describing the creativity of the artist, who elaborating new terms find out and make us know new aspects of our life, calls to mind some pages of Bergson’s Le rire).
But speaking of everyday language as having an its own personality, we didn’t mean to endorse the thesis Waismann attacks. This thesis was not even at issue. We were not concerned with what everyday language is, but with what philosophers claim it is.
Shall we draw the conclusion that everyday language is without the reach of our reason or, as Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigation suggests, and as I think, in need of a quite different kind of rational research ?