More on my disagreement with analytic philosophy

by Neil Rickert

In a post earlier today at his new site, Massimo Pigliucci compares analytic philosophy with continental philosophy:

I found it an interesting post, and I suggest you read it.  Most of the philosophy that I have read has been in the analytic tradition, so I did learn something about continental philosophy.

The starting point

By way of distinguishing between the two traditions, Pigliucci describes analytic philosophy this way:

Analytic philosophy refers to a style of doing philosophy characteristic of the contemporary British empiricists, like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, with an emphasis on argument, logical analysis, and language, and it is what one finds practiced in many (though by no means all) philosophy departments in the United States and the UK. Michael Dummett [2] famously said that the “characteristic tenet [of analytic philosophy] is that the philosophy of language is the foundation for all the rest of philosophy … [that] the goal of philosophy is the analysis of the structure of thought [and that] the only proper method for analysing thought consists in the analysis of language.”

And, right there, you see where I disagree.  The analytic tradition starts with language, and wants to make that the foundation for all philosophy.  I want to start far earlier.

To illustrate, consider AI (artificial intelligence).  The AI folk want to build an human-like intelligence based on something like language.

It has long seemed to me that intelligence is at a more basic level; that we have to start with intuition and common sense, before we can get to language.

In my view, if we started with a non-linguistic animal, say a dog or a monkey, and could add AI style logic on top of that, we might well be successful.  It is when we try to start with the AI-logic, and nothing below it, that I don’t see how we can get anywhere.  So my interest in the human mind, and in human learning, has always been at that basic level that is below language.  I have long seen that basic level as a necessary foundation for the intelligent use of language.

By itself, linguistic expression is free floating.  We can say a lot about abstract relations.  We can have extensive mathematics.  But it is that more basic level that connects our language to reality.  And unless we can connect it to reality, our linguistic expression is about nothing at all.

Where I started

I started at a different place.  If we are to gain knowledge about the world, then we need to have ways of finding out what is in the world.  So I tried to work out how that could be done.

I imagined myself stranded on a strange planet.  Perhaps the atmosphere was toxic, but I was safely inside a protective capsule.  Perhaps there was no light, but the capsule had some sensory capabilities that I might be able to use for exploring.  I would have to devise ways of using that sensory apparatus to work out what the world was like.

That idea is really intended to model the situation for a newborn infant.  It seems inconceivable that the newborn could have innate knowledge about the things that exist in his world — about diapers, beds, houses, toys, automobiles, radios, etc.  So the infant must have a way of exploring that enables it to find out what there is.

This is why I reject metaphysics.  I’m told that the most important part of metaphysics is ontology, or what exists.  But we cannot start that way.  For either that newborn child, or for me as an imagined visitor to a strange planet, we must start with a  methodology that allows us to discover what exists in our world.  The core of any account of knowledge, it seemed to me, must be in this discovery methodology.

That is why traditional epistemology seems so foolish.  It starts by taking for granted everything that needs to be learned.  And then it spends its time on “just so” stories about justifying beliefs.  It seems to entirely miss the point.

Intentionality (aboutness)

The problem of intentionality is the problem of how we connect our beliefs with reality.  It is sometimes described as aboutness, or why our beliefs are about something.  Those engaging in traditional epistemology usually take it as an accepted assumption, that beliefs are intentional (about something).  They do not try to explain how that works, mostly because what is traditionally studied in epistemology does not seem capable of explaining intentionality.

It seems, then, that my own study of knowledge and learning began as an investigation into intentionality.

Stevan Harnad has preferred to call this the symbol grounding problem.  Harnad used this terminology in his discussion of AI and computationalism.  He thought that an AI system could not ground its symbols, while people could.

My way of looking at it is, in some sense, the reverse.  I don’t see that we start with symbols and have to ground them.  Rather, we start with the ground (or reality), and we have to come up with ways of symbolizing it.  So the problem, as I saw it, was one of symbolizing the ground.  Put in terms of language expression, the problem is not one of starting with language statements and trying to work out how they could be about something.  Rather, the problem is of having something in our lives (the “about” part), and wanting to invent ways of communicating that to others.  So we don’t start with language, then struggle with making it about the world.  We start with a world, and struggle with finding ways of expressing that.


If our aim is to find out what is there in our world, then we are really talking about the question of perception.  And, in a sense, that was my starting point.  There’s no reason to have language or knowledge unless there is something to express with language.  And that something comes from what we perceive.

I had to begin with possible mechanisms for perception.  The trouble with traditional epistemology, as I see it, is that it tends to take perception for granted.  But if we take the core of learning to consist of learning what there is in the world, then much of learning must amount to learning how to perceive.


My own investigations of knowledge, learning and cognition have mostly been about what traditional analytic philosophy takes for granted.  That has given me a very different perspective and, I think, one that is better suited to understanding consciousness.


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