Archive for the ‘Philosophical literature’ Category

The problems that arise for Saussure’s contemporary version of communication processes do not seem to arise for Wittgenstein. Saussure divided communication into three categories, the signifier, signified and combination of the two, the sign. The signifiers and the signified can be defined by what they are not. The sign is  what is because it is not anything else, that is, all the possible other signs our language could ascribe to it.

Problems of Saussure’s include the account for the constant change in language and understanding how we combine words into sentences. The process of sentence formation seems like a great mystery to him. Norman N. Holland commented that Saussure Built his linguistics on the unit of the word. One part of Chumsky’s 1957 revolution in linguistics was to change that unit of analysis to the sentence. He made a demand that grammar should be able generate all and only the well-formed sentences of a language. Saussure does not come close to this[1]. Saussure’s idea of a sentence is left without an explanation.

For Wittgenstein there is no difficulty whether the subject understands the meaning of the word. Communication does not refer to mental events and individual conceptions of words is not a question. Locke uses the term ‘idea’ quite liberally throughout his works. He argues that words come to be made use of by men, as the signs of their ideas….a word is made arbitrarily that mark of such an idea. It is unclear what Locke’s discussion of language is actually about. The traditional view is that Locke’s theory of signification is a theory of linguistic meaning. He discusses the signification of words. An idea is a sign or representation. E.J. Ashworth challenged this on the grounds that Locke uses ‘signify’ in the same way as late 16th and early 17th century scholastics used ‘significare’ and that ‘significare’ strictly speaking are not about linguistic meaning. Ashworth goes on to say that signification is a species of representation and that, on Locke’s view, words can represent objects, not just ideas. Locke was pessimistic of human capacity to communicate which accounts for his imperfect view of language[2]. Locke reflects the view that how human beings classify objects rests solely on a natural and objective classification that is independent of the minds activity. For Locke, human language plays a central role in our thinking about classes or kinds. This view still uses internal constructs to explain communication. Wittgenstein protests that so long as the subject hears the word and understands to what it refers to, communication has been successful. The Lockean argument is solved and concluded, and nothing further can be demanded on human understanding in simple linguistic instances.

Regarding sensations and their privacy, it seems that only the subject in pain can know if it is truly pain that they experience, and another person deduces that it is pain that is being observed. Then the problem arises that one might hide feelings of pain. Os tensive definition can be completely disregarded. The only thing that seems to be certain is that pain can be perceived. The communication of this must not be mystified. Language misleads us. We can not know we are in pain. We are in pain. “It makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself”[3]. Wittgenstein thought that using ordinary language with accurate descriptors was the best way to communicate effectively. Locke rejects the view that how human being classify objects rests solely on a natural and objective classification that is independent of the mind’s activity. Although language is not structured the way Saussure proposed, he remains one of the most influential and significant contributors to the study of semiotics.

Philosophy affects the communicative methods; different philosophical approaches provide different ways of examining the conditions for and consequences of the complex processes of human communication. Regardless of personal preferences of different theories, we cannot deny that each of the theorists discussed have made an important contribution to the analytic description of human communication and language.

[1] Norman N. Holland, 1998. The trouble(s) with Lacan. Retrieved 04/04/08 from http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/nnh/lacan.htm

[2] Losonsky, Michael, 2007. Language, Meaning and Mind in Locke’s Essay. Chapter 10. Retrieved 05/04/08. http://lamar.colostate.edu/~losonsky/CCLE_Chap-10_Losonsky.pdf

[3] Kenny, A. 1994. The Wittgenstein Reader. Pp 142.


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So this is part two of the discussion on communication and the mind… might as well just jump into it as I couldn’t be bothered writing a second introduction (this is part two, refer to part one for general introduction to the topic). It’s probably worth noting that I’m quite busy writing my thesis at the moment so it may be a while before I finish writing up on this topic. I may just bite the bullet and finish it tomorrow morning though – I just need to articulate my notes but words seem to be failing me! So on that note:

The Cartesian heritage of the nature of communication goes that one can not know other minds as well as their own thoughts and ability to understand. For Descartes, communication started with access to one’s own cogito. This view is egocentric. It is comparable with Locke’s ‘Privacy of the Mental’ from which most hostility of Locke’s arises. He states in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that ‘words in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing, but the ideas of the mind of him that uses them.’ This view that there is an internal entity to which communication is developed from was popular pre-Wittgenstein’s work on language and the mind.

For Locke, the speaker produces an external word representing his or her idea to which the word refers to. The listener, on hearingthe word, derives understanding. It is the private experiences of the communicators that allow communication and meaning to arise. Although this solipsistic view tries to explain the complexity of communication, it mystifies the entire subject further. The nomenclatural nature of this view has given was to intense debate. As Roy Harris discusses, the ‘nomenclaturist’ assumes that words have something to which it refers to, and this ‘something’ is its meaning. This system works for words such as ‘red’ or ‘table’, where identification of the objects fit the case. Wittgenstein would argue here that this fits the case as it relates to a communication situation which does not place complex demands on language.

In part 3 I discuss Saussure’s contemporary version of communication processes which does not seem to arise for Wittgenstein. I also conclude on some of the issues for communication and the mind and put this piece to rest! It’s been a long day and I’m glad I’m still able to get around to writing for myself!

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“A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.”  *


The argument of communication and the mind centers on the use of language; the development of human understanding; and the derivation of meaning (especially in philosophical literature). Wittgenstein says that language in itself creates philosophical arguments. Many theorists have debated the complex problem of human language and communication, but none have come close to Wittgenstein and his ability to untangle the complexities that have arisen. Descartes and Locke have also written about language and more contemporary theories have come into fashion, such as semiology, which is concerned with signs. The greatest contribution to the study of signs is Saussure. One of the great troubles of communication and language is the interpretation of sensations and dispersal of ideas throughout subjects such as intellectual writings, philosophical problems and ideas.

Cartesians mystify human understanding, while semiology over-simplifies it.

In the next few blog posts I am going to discuss the philosophy of human communication and meaning, through an examination primarily of Locke, Saussure and Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s argument of Private Language in the Philosophical Investigations has had a profound impact on theories and theorists alike. He argues that language understood by its user can not exist objectively, as a necessary confusion arises. This idea is commonly misunderstood which accounts for the controversy surrounding Wittgenstein’s writings.[1] The confusions that are supposedly integrated in human language also underlie and are subjected to philosophical language, notions, theories and method. This accounts for the lack of substantial movement from Platonic and Aristotelian thought. We cannot move forward because our language is deceiving us.


Wittgenstein moves away from the previous Cartesian thought that it is internal processes that guides the interpreter to understand the message confronted to them. The message cannot be private, Wittgenstein argues. The processes of meaning and understanding are thought to be immaterial and taking place in a ‘spiritual’ recess of the brain. Wittgenstein argues that meaning and understanding are not processes at all. The language surrounding the description of mental processes needs clarification. Wittgenstein goes on to say that mental processes are processes in so far as they have a beginning, middle and an end, can be interrupted and described, but what is important is that they are not perceptible by others.[2] Articulating sensations and experiences are what make the whole process possible. Mental images in our minds do not give rise to language or words to describe these images, but the words in our vocabulary give rise to the meanings we prescribe objects. As Wittgenstein argues “Language is itself the vehicle of thought”.  It may be the case that we have no natural descriptors or expressions for all of the sensation that are perceivable by human consciousness, but Wittgenstein is saying that our language restricts us from accurately describing them. The problem is that one may not know if what an individual describes as a sensation is an accurate descriptor of it. While we describe sensations, we merely ascribe names to the sensation. However, the Private Language argument has been highly contested by commentators. Some believe it is supposed to prove something about language, others think it is supposed to prove something about  the following of rules, and some think it is supposed to prove something about sensations. Some think he was not trying to prove anything at all.[3]

[1] The Private Language Argument, First published Fri Jul 26, 1996; substantive revision Fri Nov 30, 2007. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 04/04/08. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/private-language/

[2] Kenny, Anthony John Patrick. 1931 – Wittgenstein. Pp 140-141.

[3] Teichman, J, 1988. Philosophy and the Mind. Pp. 50.


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For the empirical sciences, the world consists of clearly identifiable objects with different sets of determinants such as size, shape, and colour, described independently of each other. This exists in its own right or somehow constituted by a transcendental status. The denial of the possibility of transcendental reduction of the life-world sets Merleau-Ponty apart from Husserl and goes beyond that, as it centres the body as not merely an object in the world. Perception for the empiricist tries to provide causal explanations for what is perceived. On the other hand, intellectualists try to reconstruct what is perceived by reference to the subject’s exercise of its cognitive powers. Merleau-Ponty sees this taking for granted of how humans perceive the world a fundamental error. This is not simply an ‘objective’ world, but a world consisting of objects whose determinants are not fully explainable.

Merleau-Ponty was accused of a kind of relativism in his emphasis of the body in perception. This comes from his claim that it is impossible to transcend history, we can never grasp the world in its totality but we grasp it according to the mode in which we inhabit it. Humans can only understand the world as it is revealed and uncovered to humans with our specific forms of being-in-the-world. There is a denial of any absolute truth about the world in this relativism; there is always only what is ‘absolutely for us’.[1] Merleau-Ponty shows that the body is not an ‘object ‘in the sense given to this term by objective thought. Its properties are not determinate; its activities defy the empiricist attempt to provide causal explanations which depend upon scientifically testable claims about external relationships; and its spatiality is that of situation, rather than location.

For Merleau-Ponty, perceptual objects have an impact on our consciousness that refers to actual things in the external world. This allows the individual to differentiate objects in the external world relative to time and space. The human body is a Being-in-the-world which attributes distinctness to the objects in the world and is characterized by individual actions. The “lived-body” is a medium for perceptual interpretation of the world. This goes against Heidegger in that ‘I do not have a body, I am my body’ and against Descartes Cartesian dualism in which he claims ‘I think therefore I am’ and conceives the body as nothing more than a machine. Through his examination of the phantom limb and brain damage, Merleau-Ponty shows that the empiricist and intellectualists are fundamentally wrong in their approach to the body in the objective sense and that this does not accurately represent a perceptual body. He also shows what is wrong with the intellectualist’s conception of the subject as a disembodied consciousness. Taking the case of Schneider, he notes that the empirical approach would be to provide a causal explanation of Schneider’s defective motility. The intellectualists, he notes, will regard Schneider as having effectively lost the basic powers of a human subject. He has lost the ability to perform spatially awareness tasks.

Merleau-Ponty overcomes this through his existential-phenomenological and psychological enquiry. Taking an example of a bird singing, we do not independently perceive the auditory stimuli and visual stimuli separately; it happens simultaneously and involves experienced consciousness through the participatory action of ‘Being-in-the-world’. There is a marginalisation between objective thought and the lived body for him which I have discussed in the last four blog posts. It is Merleau-Ponty’s essential contribution to the philosophical enquiry of perception. He remains one of the most important and profound phenomenological thinkers in modern philosophy.

Final Bibliography

– M. Hammond; J. Howarth; R. Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1991

– R. Kearney. Modern movements in European philosophy, Manchester University Press, 1984

– R. Kearney, Twentieth-century continental philosophy, Routledge, New York, 2003

– M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception. Humanities Press, 1962

– M. Merleau-Ponty, Primacy of Perception, Northern University Press, Translated by James M. Edie p. 12-42, 1964

– D. Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, Routledge, London, 2000

– J. Reynolds, Merleau-Ponty andDerrida: intertwining embodiment and alterity, Ohio University Press, 2004

[1] Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, p. 430

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The lived body or “lived flesh” describes the role of sensation in perception. Our perceptual awareness is of real objects in the world. We are not altogether aware of our consciousness of our perceptions, for example visual stimuli. We see the object as a representation of the world through “lived flesh”.  This cannot be reduced completely as a rationalist approach attempts to, there are no pure sensations for Merleau-Ponty. The closest thing we get to a pure sensation is imagining the world around us, imagining the things in our world being around us. As Merleau-Ponty puts it:

“the greyness which, when I close my eyes, surrounds me, leaving no distance between me and it”.[1]

Photo by froodmat

Merleau-Ponty differs considerably from Husserl in this sense, whereby Husserl takes an approach of pragmatic representational accounts of perception. Sensations for Merleau-Ponty are the ‘unit of experience’. He wants to explore the ‘pre-objective realm’ of our lived experience. We cannot understand the ‘objective world’ without lived experience of the world. The senses in perceiving the objects in the world are not separate, but overlap and ‘transgress’ each other’s boundaries.[2] The lived body has an essential structure of its own which cannot be captured by the language and concepts used to explain inanimate objects in the world, that is the lived body is directed toward an experiencing world. The world of everyday experience is described as the “lived-through-world”.[3]

This is contrasts from Descartes idea of the body. Our lived and objective body allows us to perceive the world as one entity; Merleau-Ponty claims that the unity of experienced objects is not accomplished through the application of mental rules and categories, but through pre-conscious power of bodily synthesis. One does not separate the senses individually, such as auditory and visual experiences, the synthesis of the senses of the body allow us to perceive a unified world. This extends beyond the sense organs in that we move spatially in the world, extending sensation into perception. One can perceive objects in the world relative to their purpose and significance to the lived body’s needs and capacities. The objects in the world display themselves, in other words to look at an object is to inhabit it.[4]

In The Primacy of Perception, Merleau-Ponty speaks of the cogito in terms of grasping myself in terms of reflection outside of perception. This is achieved through the experience of being a living body in the world. When I say “I think” I do so immediately and without the possibility of being able to doubt it. Doubting it puts all possible objects of my experience into question.

“This act grasps itself in its own operation and thus cannot doubt itself.”[5]

The fact that I have a perceptual body means that I am engaging with the objects of the world. Through engaging with the objects I am certain of my existence. The primacy of perception attempts to get closer to living reality, which can be applied to language, knowledge, society and religion on man’s relation to perceptual experience. It places perception at the heart of human understanding.

[1] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 9

[2] Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Routledge, 2000) p. 422

[3] Merleay-Ponty, PP, p. 71

[4] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 68

[5] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, (Northern University Press, 1964) p. 22

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The world which is given perception according to Merleau-Ponty is the concrete, inter-subjectively constituted life-world of immediate experience. He claims that there are “many ways to be conscious”. We never completely escape from the realm of perceptual reality and even the seemingly independent structures of categorical thought are ultimately grounded in perception. We are always immersed in the world and perceptually present to it. Merleau-Ponty is similar to Heidegger in that he agrees on the unitary character of ‘human reality’ as a world-directed active intentionality in whose experience in the world is constituted as the human-life world. They differ however in the primacy of perception and his recognition of the perceived world as the primary reality as giving us the first and truest sense of ‘real’. For Heidegger, it is not this world but the being of Beings which is the primary reality and any analysis of human experience, perceptual or otherwise is only a means to pose the more fundamental question of this Being.

In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty concentrates on the formation of the human awareness of the world. He tries to re-establish the roots of the mind in its body and in its world, going against doctrines which treat perception as a simple result of the action of external things on our body as well as against those which insist on the autonomy of consciousness. Our interpretation of the world is manifested in our corporeal nature; our bodies and specific formation of the sense organs reveal the world for us in an extraordinary way. This pre-reflected awareness cannot be caught in transcendental reflection as Husserl had thought. Examining the body brings to light the hidden procedures that are assumed in our conscious state.[1] Objective thought fails to recognise the active, purposeful nature of one’s own body, its practical orientation toward something. To provide an adequate phenomenological description of one’s own body, one must attend to this.[2]

Merleau-Ponty studied the psychological impact of brain damage and explored its philosophical consequences. Schneider, a war veteran who was studied by Geld and Goldstein was a case which had philosophical consequences that were explored by Merleau-Ponty. Schneider was brain damaged and unable to perform bodily movements in the normal manner, although his motor abilities were intact. He could see shapes and outlines, however he had to infer the nature of objects by a process of reasoning. He was unable to infer mentally actual bodily moment and explore movements virtually before actually performing it. In other words, he was able to perform everyday, concrete tasks but was unable to perform abstract movements, unable to detach himself from immediate practical tasks at hand.  Merleau-Ponty notes that we instinctively have a ‘virtual body’ where we can explore our hands in space before actually moving them. We see his account of the ‘phenomenal body’ and not the ‘objective body’ which is moved when we imagine moving our hands in space. He portrays the inadequacy of empiricism in accounting for human experience. It objectifies the body in a sense that separates it from its sense organs. His expression of the ‘objective body’ with his account of the phantom limb describes the ambiguity of the ‘objective’ world described by the empiricists. The phantom limb phenomenon describes the way the amputee refuses to accept amputation questioning and creation of and feeling in the phantom limb. The body is a way of stating that my body is ‘in-the-world’ in the objective sense. Merleau-Ponty claims we should seek out the reasons we do this and not the human behaviour. He attempted to show that one’s own body cannot be described in the categories of objective thought. We must see the body as:

“an irresolvable consciousness which is wholly present in every one of its manifestations”.[3]

Human reflexes do not arrive from objective stimuli, but “moves back towards them”, and invests them with meaning which they do not possess taken singly as psychological agents, but only when taken as a situation. Perception of the stimuli is an intention of our whole being, which is a modality of a pre-objective view which is what we call being-in-the-world. Prior to the stimuli we must recognise the determinants that our reflexes and perceptions are able to aim at in the world.[4]

Merleau-Ponty starts by developing the intellectualist’s point of view and within the empiricists framework that Schneider’s difficulty performing abstract movements were caused by damage to his visual senses. This is overcome by Merleau-Ponty in that normal people with intact visual senses can perform abstract spatial tasks with their eyes shut [5] Schneider’s disability cannot come from a visual impairment alone. The empiricist argues that it may not be a visual impairment causing Schneider’s deficiency but tactile sense impairment. This is overcome in that:

“the facts are ambiguous… no experiment is decisive, and no explanation final”.[6]

No such experiences are purely visual and not purely tactile i.e. resting upon the sense of touch. Merleau-Ponty triumphs the empiricists and intellectualists argument. Schneider has lost the ability of ‘projective’ power. Another type of thought is required to investigate this further, that of existential-phenomenological investigation.

[1] D. Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Routledge, 2000) p. 419

[2] M. Hammond, J. Howarth and R. Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, (Basil Blackwell, 1991) p. 165

[3] M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (Humanities Press, 1962)  p. 140

[4] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 79

[5] Hammond, Understanding Phenomenology, p. 169

[6] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 116


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Merleau-Ponty is a French philosopher who has rejected both realism and idealism stating his work as a purely phenomenological enquiry. He defines phenomenology as the study of essences and that it is a method of describing our perceptual contact with the world. He offers an alternative standpoint to both intellectualism and empiricism and is strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl.

Merleau-Ponty’s most notable work: The Phenomenology of Perception, discusses the main theme of his phenomenology, that is, man’s body and Being as the source of meaning and human existence. He saw meaning as arising from man’s ‘insertion to Being’.[1] His phenomenology recognises that the body is not an object amongst objects, but that through our bodies we perceive the world and are entities of intentionality. He argued that we chose our world and that our world chooses us.[2]

This introduces the concept of a “lived-body” to existential-phenomenological thought.  He deals with the relation between corporeal sensation and overall perception, how preconscious and conscious perception functions and how conscious existence has its base in the preconscious physical existence. His existential-phenomenological epistemology and ontology shows how both empiricism and rationalism fail to account for the perceptual awareness of the world around us.

“Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism (rationalism) fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching.”[3] He believes all consciousness to be perceptual. “The perceived world is the presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence.”[4] Merleau-Ponty makes the distinction between the intelligible body and the fleshed mind.

In the next three posts I will discuss the role of the body in perception through analysis of Objective thought in opposition to The Lived Body.

[1] R. Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, (Manchester University Press, 1986) p. 73

[2] Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, p. 74

[3] J. Reynolds, Merleau-Ponty andDerrida: intertwining embodiment and alterity, (Ohio University Press, 2004) p. 5

[4] R. Kearney, Twentieth-century continental philosophy, (Routledge, 1994) p. 109

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