John Wilkins and heretical philosophy

by Neil Rickert

Wow!  Just Wow!

To be clear, I am not accusing Wilkins of heresy.  I’m the heretic.  However, John has new post where much of what he says is where I see philosophy as going wrong.

I’ll note that I haven’t posted much over the last few months.  That’s largely because I am frustrated at my difficulty in communicating my non-standard viewpoint.  Perhaps this will help me make a fresh start.

I’ll quote parts of John’s post where I disagree, then say a little about why I disagree.  I will probably say too little.  Filling in the details can come in future posts.

John uses “conceptual confusion” in the title.  I agree.  But I expect that where I see conceptual confusion is not where John sees it.

Sapir (a student of Boas’) and Whorf (Sapir’s student) proposed a thesis, known obviously as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that our categories determine how we experience the world.

Hmm, that’s not how I understand Sapir-Whorf.

Of course our categories determine how we experience the world.  It couldn’t be any other way.  In turn, we determine our categories.  And that, too, could not be any other way.

This is a kind of linguistic determinism, either of our cognition, or our ontology, of the world.

That, at least, is how I see Sapir-Whorf — as a thesis about linguistic determinism.

So why does John first describe it as “our categories determine how we experience the world?”  That’s just weird.  John seems to be assuming that language is a prerequisite to being able to categorize.  But that’s backwards.  Being able to categorize is prerequisite to acquiring a language.  Humans may be the only organisms with language, but we are not the only organisms that can categorize.

I’m skeptical of Sapir-Whorf, at least in its strong form, precisely because categorization is prior to language.  Sapir-Whorf claims that language determines categories.  I can agree with the weak form of Sapir-Whorf, that language influence categories.

A little later, we find John saying:

The empiricist view, which was widely held until the nineteenth century, despite Hume and Kant rejecting it, was that one merely has to observe the world in order to categorise it.

This, too, is completely backwards.  One has to categorize the world in order to observe it.  It is easy to understand the mistake.  If we must categorize the world in order to observe it, then it follows that we observe categories.  So it is easy to jump to the mistaken view that observing leads to categorization.

Take an example.  We normally cannot see individual molecules of air, nor can we observe the motions of individual molecules.  However, if we combine a suitable assemblage of such molecular motions into a category, then we can observe (hear) that assemblage as a phoneme.  And being able to observe phonemes is prior to being able to hear language.

If claims to know the reality of things depend on our prior knowledge in this way, by cross checking from other fields and theories, can we ever say that we do really know things?

I guess this is related to my complete disagreement with the idea that knowledge is justified true belief.  For me, knowledge is knowhow.  Knowledge is in knowing how to interact with the world.  And that makes knowledge unavoidably subjective.

Because of my attempts to understand human cognition, I now see that our knowledge is, primarily, in our abiliity to categorize.  And that ability, that knowledge, is prior to having beliefs about the world.  For beliefs about the world are, unavoidably, beliefs about categories.

Those who go full realist, though, want to anchor our categories in hard facts, universally accessible and confirmable.

There are no such “hard facts”.  All facts about the world are facts about categories.  Okay, perhaps mathematical facts are different, for they are facts about abstract entities.

If empiricism is false, and theory is absent, how did these categories come to be? Is it just accidental? Or are the phenomena ready-made in some non-trivial sense?

I’m not commenting on whether empiricism is false.  It depends on what one means by “empiricism”.

We form our categories individually and independently.  But we are driven by pragmatic considerations.  And since we have similar biology, it is not surprising that our pragmatic choices will appear to be similar, even if not identical.  As children, we pragmatically construct our categories.  And when we have sufficient ability to categorize, we are able to observe the world.  As a social species, it is to each individual’s benefit to align his or her categories with those of others around us.  This is why it seems as if our categories come from culture.  They don’t, but they are strongly influenced by culture and thus by language.

Scientific theories are really theories about how to categorize.  Philosophers of science do not seem to see that.  And if we use mathematical ways of categorizing, then our theories will be mathematical.  This is what explains Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness” problem.  The mathematics comes from us, not from the world.

In many ways, this is like the ways a traditional hunter hunts. A trained hunter sees the prey even when camouflaged or obscured. They know where to look and what to look for.

Notice that John uses “know” there.  This, rather than “justified true belief” is what I would consider to be knowledge.  The trained hunter has more refined categories than most of us have.

Incidentally, I have experienced something very similar to what John describes there.  Visiting relatives in my teenage years, I went on a kangaroo hunt in woods near Busselton (W. Australia).  And someone in the group pointed to a kangaroo.  I could not see it.  The trained kangaroo hunters could see it, but I could not.


This was a bit disjointed.  But it points to where I disagree with standard philosophy.

Traditionally, philosophers take the world to be full of logical objects.  The study what those objects are in Ontology, and they discuss the idea of true statements relating those objects in Epistemology.  For myself, I don’t thing there are any logical objects in the ordinary world.  For logical objects, we need to look to abstract entities such as used in mathematics.

I see us in a world of categories.  We observe categories.  And we run into paradoxes of logic when we attempt to treat those categories as logical objects.

Those who see us in a world of logical objects want to use logic.  So they tend to favor the idea that cognition is computation, and that we are biological computers.  That idea has not panned out in AI research, at least in my opinion.  I instead prefer Harnad’s idea, that cognition is categorization.


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