Experience of objects and objects of experience

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  THE EXPERIENCE OF OBJECTS AND THEOBJECTS OF EXPERIENCE Christopher D. Green Department of Psychology York Universitychristo@yorku.caJohn Vervaeke Department of Philosophy University of Toronto jvervaek@chass.utoronto.ca(1997).  Metaphor and Symbol, 12 , 3-17. Abstract Lakoff (1987) has been a major force in the recent effort to redefine the study of concept formation,semantics, metaphor, and ultimately all of scientific psychology. In place of the traditional objectivist account of these domains, Lakoff offers experientialism, a position that has become increasinglypopular in a wide array of psychological subspecialties over the last several years. We believe thatLakoff's account of the relation between experientialism and objectivism is fundamentally flawed. Theprimary sources of the problem are an equivocation in his account of objectivism, and a misunderstandingof the relation between classification schemes and truth. Moreover, we argue that a suitably sophisticatedform of objectivism can subsume experience under its aegis (and that psychology might be impossibleotherwise). In any case, we try to show that the alternative account of semantics he provides fails becauseit falls prey to precisely the same criticism he considers crucial to the refutation of traditional semantics. Introduction George Lakoff's book Women, fire, and dangerous things  (1987) has been a major force in the recenteffort to redefine the study of concept formation, semantics, metaphor, and ultimately all of scientificpsychology. Starting with the celebrated work of psychological and anthropological researchers such asBerlin and Kay (1969), Kay and McDaniel (1978), Brown (1958), Ekman (1971), and Rosch (1973, 1975,1978), Lakoff strives to show that traditional accounts of cognition, semantics, metaphor, and evenmetaphysics are fundamentally misguided. The book ranges through a stunning array of disciplines andfindings, and to critique it fully, point by point, would require a document at least as long as Lakoff's--some 600 pages. Instead, we choose to concentrate our attention on only those of Lakoff's arguments thatwe believe are crucial to his overall position, that lend themselves to a succinct formulation, and thatcannot be maintained given the current state of available evidence.In place of traditional objectivist views of cognition, semantics, and metaphysics, Lakoff offers experientialism , a position that has become increasingly popular in a wide array of psychological,philosophical, and linguistic subspecialties over the last several years. This position holds, inter alia , that:(1) thought is embodied  ; the structures used to put together our conceptual systems grow outof bodily experience,(2) thought is imaginative  in that those concepts that are not directly grounded in experienceemploy metaphor, metonomy, and mental imagery,(3) thought has gestalt properties , and is thus not atomistic; concepts have an overallstructure that goes beyond merely putting together conceptual building blocks by generalrules,  (4) thought has an ecological structure ; it is more than just the mechanical manipulation of abstract symbols. (Lakoff, 1987, pp.  xiv -  xv )Principally, Lakoff opposes this position to what he calls objectivism . Objectivism is said to hold that:(1) thought is the mechanical manipulation of abstract symbols,(2) the mind is an abstract machine manipulating symbols essentially in the way a computerdoes,(3) symbols get their meaning via correspondences to things in the external world,(4) thought is therefore abstract and disembodied,(5) thought is atomistic,(6) thought is logical in the narrow technical sense.(Lakoff, 1987, pp.  xii -  xiii )It is only fair to note at the outset that Lakoff does not believe that experientialism and objectivism shareno features in common at all. According to Lakoff, they both recognize:(1) a commitment to the existence of the real world, (2) a recognition that reality placesconstraints on concepts,(3) a conception of truth that goes beyond mere internal coherence,(4) a commitment to the existence of stable knowledge of the world. (p.  xv )We believe that Lakoff's account of the relation between experientialism and objectivism is fundamentallyflawed. The primary sources of the error are (1) a crucial equivocation in his account of objectivism, and(2) a misunderstanding of the relation between classification schemes and truth. Moreover, we believe (3)that a suitably sophisticated form of objectivism can subsume experience under its aegis (and thatpsychology might be impossible otherwise), and (4) that, in any case, the alternative account of semanticshe provides fails because it falls prey to precisely the same criticism he considers crucial to the refutationof traditional semantics. It is our primary objective in this paper to demonstrate these claims. 1. Objectivism According to Lakoff, one of the fundamental tenets of objectivism is what he calls the IndependenceAssumption . This amounts to the claim that,existence and fact are independent of belief, knowledge, perception, modes of understanding,and every other aspect of human cognitive capacities. No true fact can depend upon people'sbelieving it, on their knowledge of it, on their conceptualization of it, or on any other aspectof cognition.  Existence cannot depend in any way on human cognition . (p. 164, italics added)For Lakoff, the crucial importance of this claim is clear: if objectivism sanctions only facts that are in noway  dependent on human cognition, then it can never sanction what Lakoff dubs institutional facts. These are facts that depend upon the way a person or culture conceptualizes the world, such as facts aboutmarriage, business, school, or art. In Lakoff's words,Since institutions are products of human cognition, institutional facts must depend on humancognition, which violates the Independence Assumption, which states that no fact can bedependent on human cognition. (p. 170)  Lakoff has conflated several distinct senses of the term dependence in this argument. We will outlinefour such senses which we call logical, cultural, idiosyncratic, and radical dependence, respectively.The first form of dependence is the trivial one that cognition has on itself. One cannot study cognitionunless cognition exists to be studied. This kind of dependence, far from undercutting the objective studyof cognition, however, is one of the conditions of possibility of such study. In this sense, the facts of cognition are dependent upon cognition in exactly the same way that the facts of physics are dependentupon the physical. This would be so trivially true as to be hardly worth mentioning, except for the factthat it shows Lakoff to have gone too far when he says, as cited above, that existence cannot depend inany way  on human cognition. The existence of thought, for instance, depends on there being cognition  per se , for there could not be one without the other. This form of dependence is purely syntactic--onemight call it logical dependence --but it is a kind of dependence nevertheless.Another sense of dependence--one that Lakoff makes use of--is the kind of dependence that culturalinstitutions have on cognition. If there were no cognitive agents, then institutions such as universities,marriage, and art could not exist. This might be called cultural independence. Lakoff argues thatbecause such institutions are created by the interpersonal agreements of people, such institutions are not objective and are therefore beyond the boundaries of objective study. This simply does not follow. It is aperfectly objective fact, for instance, that in the West there are institutions called universities that areorganizations dedicated to the development of knowledge. Anyone who said there were no universitieswould simply be uttering a falsehood. The same is true of marriage. It is simply true that our marriagerites consists of certain things being said and believed by certain people. As before, anyone who deniedthese facts would simply be wrong.Lakoff, we think, has confused objectivity with a particular construal of what it means to have a science. Because institutions such as the university and marriage are of human invention, it is difficultto envisions a successful science of them aimed at the discovery of laws  of such institutions, in the sensethat one discovers laws of physics. Any empirical generalizations put forward by scientists of suchinstitutions could be falsified not simply by the discovery  of counterexamples, as is usually the case innatural science, but by the intentional invention  of such counterexamples. For instance if it were claimed,as a law of universities, that they all have buildings, a contrary-minded groups of radicals could establishan open-air university in which all classes and administrative functions were carried out in a local park,all for no other reason than to disprove the theory. This does not happen in natural science. Suchpossibilities perhaps exclude institutional facts from being captured by scientific laws, but they do notrender the facts themselves somehow inherently subjective. It is important not to confuse two independent meanings of subjective here, as we are afraid that Lakoff has. On the one hand, there is the sense in which something is subjective because it implies theoperation of a mental subject, purely in the Cartesian sense. In this sense, all  thoughts are subjective inthat they presume the existence of a thinker. Such subjects are related to the objects of their thoughts(though Descartes used the terms in almost the opposite manner, much to the chagrin of many first-yearphilosophy students), but none of this has any bearing on the issue of the objectivity of subjectivity of knowledge in the epistemological sense that Lakoff seems to be discussing. It is purely an ontologicalmatter with respect to thoughts  per se . The existence of thought requires the existence of a thinker; amental subject.Lakoff's epistemological claims are strictly a matter of the other meaning of subjective; viz. , pertainingto the universality, or at least the generality, of the claim being made. That one thinks Manet to have beena good painter, for instance, is a subjective opinion, in this sense, unless one gives reason and evidencethat are likely to make others believe it too. Such reasons make the judgment more objective. Theimportant point is that the epistemological  subjectivity of my opinion about Manet is completelyindependent of the ontological  subjectivity of its being a product of a Cartesian subject.This leads us to two other species of dependence on cognition. The third is the kind of dependence  expressed by Kant's immortal phrase, de gustibus non est disputandum ; roughly, matters of taste arenot up for debate. If I like lima beans, it's as simple as that. You cannot argue me out of my liking. Thereare no facts you can bring to bear against it. This might be called idiosyncratic dependence. This is thekind of dependence on cognition that objectivism blocks. For all this, there is still a sense in which thevery fact of my liking lima beans is an objective fact. If you assert that Hortense likes lima beans, youmay be wrong.Finally, there is a fourth kind of dependence on cognition, and this is one that also runs contrary to whathas traditionally been called objectivism. It is the kind of dependence in which an individual predicatescetain properties to objects for which no criterion can be articulated. We call this radical dependence.The classic example is good. If one says that lima bean are good (rather than just that I like them), andcan give, in principle, no natural criterion for their goodness ( e.g. , it is not a matter of their tasting good,or being nutritious, or growing into giant stalks that lead to places of great wealth), then that opinion of lima beans is dependent on cognition. This is subjectivity in a very radical sense. It is not simply that nocriterion is given; it is, rather, that no adequate criterion is possible in principle.The reason this sort of dependence is seen as being opposed to objectivism is that it was claims such asthese that the most influential objectivists of this century--the logical positivists--were trying to eliminatewhen they declared in the 1930s that every contingent statement that is not empirically verifiable isnonsense. This criterion turned out to be untenable ( viz. , because no  propositions of the form All  x  are  y are, strictly speaking, verifiable), and the logical positivists rejected it themselves before 1940. Thecontinuing aim of the logical positivist project, however, was to exclude from consideration statementsthat are dependent in this radical sense. With this in mind, we can begin to see who Lakoff's theory isreally targeted at: the straw-man of 1930s logical positivism. Lakoff, we believe, would like to paint moremodern objectivists with the same brush, but no one still holds to the verificationist criterion, and so thepoint seems to be moot.To summarize the claim, Lakoff is mistaken in asserting that objective facts cannot be about   humancogntion itself. It is a perfectly objective fact, for example, adequately independent of the cognition of anyhuman observer, that we are now presenting a research paper in an academic journal. Under Lakoff'sformulation of the Independence Assumption, however, this is not an objective fact because notions suchas present, research paper, and academic journal only have meaning relative to our particularcultural institutions, which are, in turn, dependent upon the beliefs and desires of (some of) the membersof our culture. Put another way, Lakoff claims that science demands that facts be ontologicallyindependent   of human cognition; that they continue to be true even if there are no minds at all. Clearlycultural institutions cannot exist if there are no members of the culture to bring them into existence as partof their efforts to realize their values and desires. There can be no journals without editors, publishers, andsubscribers; no universities without professors, students, (and administrators, alas); no marriage withoutspouses; no conventions without conventioneers.This, however, is not   the demand of science. What science demands is only that facts only be epistemologically independent   of cognition; that they continue to be true in the absence of any particular observer. That is, facts cannot depend upon the whims and biases of a single person. For instance, sciencedoes not accept the fact that lima beans are good just because one person happens to believe it to betrue. Science requires objective criteria of justification for the claim of goodness; it does not require thatgoodness is itself independent of human cognition. That is, it would require an explication  of good (e.g.,nutritionally, gustatorily, ecologically) that could be scrutinized, criticized, and applied by any suitablyequipped apprehender. In this sense, institutional facts are fully independent and objective. For instance,we continue to be employed by the universities at which we teach regardless of who is, or is not, in thebusiness ascertaining that fact. The fact may be contingent on a cultural consensus about what universitiesare and what employment is, but certainly not on the beliefs of a particular apprehender of the fact.To put the matter very succinctly, Lakoff argues:
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