Thursday 1 December 2005

REVIEW: The Three in the Morning Advice (2005)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIII No. 2 Winter 2005


Review by Martin Cohen

The Essential Chuang Tzu,
translated by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, pub. 1998 by Shambhala Publications. Boston and London ISBN 1-57062-336-8. Hb, pp 170

‘How should I know? Although that's how it is, I shall nevertheless try to explain. If I say I understand, how can I know whether I don't know what I say I understand? If I say I don't understand, by what measure may I know that what I say I don't know I actually know?’

Chinese philosophy, like the people themselves, has a reputation for being inscrutable. There have been many attempts to covey its rich wealth of meanings to the West, and many of the ideas in 'Greek' philosophy seem to have originated in China . But today Chinese philosophy rates barely a mention in most encylopedias of philosophy and philosophical treatises. Of course, it is partly ethnocentrism, not to say racism, but then again, Chinese philosophy is rather obscure. Why does it matter if the grass is pulled up by its roots - or not? What does the fox getting its tail muddy signify, exactly?

So here is one of the great books of Chinese philosophy, traditionally attributed, like those 'Socratic' dialogues, to a single author, Chuang Tzu (369-286 BCE) or Chuang Chou. Or Chusi - 'Choosy' - for short. Or indeed Zuangzi these days.

One of the three great sages of Ancient China, Chusi stressed the unity of all things, and the dynamic interplay of opposites. 'Good' and 'bad', he pointed out, are like everything else, interrelated and interchangeable. What is 'good' for the rabbit is 'bad' for the farmer (to offer a rather limp example of my own). The book 'Chuang Tzu', of which about a quarter is considered to be directly attributable to 'Master Chuang' is lively and playful, a mixture of stories and poetry as well as philosophical arguments, and has always been highly popular in China.

The same is not true in the West, despite many attempts to translate it into English. The best known being those at the end of the nineteenth century by Herbert Giles (in 1889) and by James Legge (in 1891). Fifty or so years later, a more poetic version appeared by Lin Yutang (in 1948) and at the end of the century, the Chuang Tzu was graced by no less than three retranslations - those of Angus Graham (in 1981), Victor Mair (in 1994) and finally two US writers, Sam Hamill, who as well as being a translator writes poetry, and J.P. Seaton, Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina, who returned to the classic in 1998.

In this latest version, the Essential Chuang Tzu, the poet and the professor try to offer a freer and they claim more 'authentic' rendition of the style of the original. Although they deny being too free. Instead they claim to respect the three aims of translations: being faithful, being expressive and being elegant.

And the introduction to the book, by Irving Yucheng Lo, gives some interesting ideas of how NOT to translate Chuang Tzu. One effort, originally published in 1931 (and reprinted in 1989) by Fung Yu-lan, for example, explains: 'The universe is a finger; all things are a horse. The possible is possible. The impossible is impossible.' The point is, Fung Yu-lan goes on ineffectually: 'The Tao makes things and they are what they are. What are they? They are what they are. What are they not? They are not what they are not.'

Victor Mair's 1994 translation punningly rebranded as 'Wandering on the Way' takes this same passage and offers:
'Heaven and Earth are the same as a finger; the myriad things are the same as a horse. Affirmation lies in affirming; denial lies in our denying. A way comes into being through our walking upon it; a thing is so because people say it is so. Why are things so? They are so because we declare them to be so. Why are things not so? They are not so because we declare them to be not so'. 
This is better, but also not better enough. And here is the latest Hamill and Seaton version, offered proudly by Irving Yucheng Lo for comparison in the foreword for their book: 'Heaven-and-earth- is one finger. All the ten thousand things are one horse. Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay. Walk in he Tao. Accomplish it all. Say words, and they're so. How so? Is so? How not so? Not so so?'

Not so so or not so-so? At this point one might decide after all to stick to Victor Mair's version were one to have a sufficiently wide library. Or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. The one with the 'antimonies'. Or the Tao of Pooh. the one with Eeyore. Or just anything really.

But there are little gems to be gleaned if one perseveres with the strange Chinese texts. For example, here is how Chaung Chou attempts to show the relativity of moral judgements:
If, as some sages said, killing was wrong, was it wrong to kill a hare when it was the only way to save yourself from starving? Surely not. Perhaps then it was always wrong to kill another human being? But what if that human being is a robber intent on killing and robbing a family? Surely it is then not wrong to kill him, if that is the only way to stop him? 
All moral knowledge depends in this way on context and situations -- it is relative. Chuang goes on to prove that in fact all knowledge -- not just moral or aesthetic judgements -- is equally rooted in context, and equally 'relative'. ' I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming it was Chou.' The lesson is that we should strive to transcend the world of distinctions.
'Looking at it from the Tao, there is no noble and no mean. From the point of view of things, each take itself for noble and all others for mean. ... They are mere products of opinion. From the point of view of difference, if we take something for big because it is big in some way, then there's not one among the ten thousand things that is not big. If we take something for small, then there is not one among the ten thousand things that is not small. When you know heaven and earth as seeds of grain and grass, when you know that the tip of a hair is a mound or a mountain, then you know something about difference and measurement...' 
Another of the themes of the Chuang Tzu, is the desirability of non-action even to the extent of eschewing government. Take the story of the man who crossed the river in an outrigger, when a boat smashes into him.
If the boat is empty, even if you are a hot-tempered person, you wont be angry. But if someone else is on the boat 'you'll yell at him to get out your way'. If he doesn't hear you, you'll yell again. And if he still pays no heed you'll yell a third time and follow that with really ugly sounds. The point is, You weren't angry the first time, with the empty boat, but you are the second time. Better to 'empty yourself' and be angry neither time.
A companion theme is the futility of it all anyway. How do we know that life is not merely a delusion? the text asks.
How am I to know that to despise death is not merely to be like one exiled in his youth and who now cannot find now his way home?... Now maybe there's a Great Big Awakening, after which we know that his has all been a Great Big Dream. Fools think they are awake now, having ferreted out the knowledge for themeless, ... the name for this is the Pitiful Deception. 
 It is here that perhaps the most famous passage of the Chuang Tzu comes, the 'butterfly dream'.
Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming it was Chou. 
The one thing turns into the other. And the key to Taoist philosophy is the concept of 'changing'. Naturally, for human beings the great change opportunity is death. 'The Great Clod loaded me down with this form', recalls Tzu Lai, 'and burdened me with life. It eased me with age and will realise my own heart and mind in death. Thus, if I make life a good, I must make death a good as well.'

But what if we like our present life? What if we think our life is 'important' - at least to us? And there follows a warning against human conceit and folly. ' If a master swordsmith were smelting today and the metal leaped up and said, 'I must be make into the famous Mo-ye sword', the smith would take it for metal of bad omen.'

Instead, modesty is a repeated theme. When Lieh Tzu discovered eventually that 'he hadn't yet begun to learn anything' he set us a good example:
He went home remaining inside for three long years. He did all the chores for his wife and fed the pigs as if they were people. He showed no affection for the affairs of the world, giving up the ostentatious for the plain. He stood alone inside himself like a clod of earth. And amid the flutter of confusion and division, he was at one to the end of his string of days. 
For, as Master Chuang says wisely (and here we return to our opening enigmatic statement):
To use a horse to prove that a horse in not a horse is not as good as to use non-horse to prove that a horse is not a horse'. Is that clear? No? Well, 'Heaven-and-Earth is one finger. All the thousand things are one horse. Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay. 
And even if it is still not okay, the text continues nonetheless, now even more emphatically:
Walk in the Tao. Accomplish it all. Say words, and they're so. How-so? Is so? How not so? Not so so? There is no thing that is not acceptable. Sprouts rise up, and mighty pillars, lepers and lovely women, strange and extraordinary things - in Tao they are one. To divide one is to 'accomplish', and whatever is accomplished is destruction, whatever is unaccomplished cannot be destroyed: it is eternally beginning again at the beginning... 
And here comes a useful little piece of advice for those who have exhausted 'the spirit and the mind' trying to make things one 'never realising that they are all the same' - the tip is called the 'Three in the Morning' advice. It recalls that there once was a monkey keeper who fed his monkeys nuts. One day when he said, 'I'll feed you three in the morning, and four in the afternoon', the monkeys became furious. So he offered instead to feed them four in the morning and three in the afternoon and the monkeys were delighted.

That's human nature certainly. But a higher way to live, with Buddhist or monkish tones, is described in a conversation between Kuang Ch'eng-tzu and the Yellow Emperor.

In passing it should be explained that, as in Plato's dialogues, the 'characters' need to be divided into different categories to follow the text. There are the historical figures, which in the Chuang Tzu include logicians like Hui Tzu (circa 370-310 BCE) and Confucius himself. Then there are the mythological or legendary figures like the Yellow Emperor. The words of these kinds of figures, as in Plato, are defined by what either they actually did say, or what they were generally agreed to have believed. The third group, however, is made up of entirely imaginary characters who can be given by Chuang Chou and the other authors of the Chuang Tzu any role they please. So, the character 'Cloud General' is said to roam the universe in search of an answer for good governance, before changing upon a creature who explains the value of 'transcending' such questions through non-action. But back to the Yellow Emperor's lesson.
Come. I'll speak to you of the true Tao. The essence of the true Tao is the chaste deep secrecy of mysterious darkness. The poles of true Tao are obscured in dark silence. No looking, no listening. Wrap your spirit in silence. Then your form will straighten of its own accord. You must silence your heart and mind to the point of clarity... Shut your doors to the external. A lot of knowing is a loss. I'll take you on to the Great Brightness and get you to the source of perfect yang. I'll lead you through the gate of Secret Darkness to the source of perfect yin. Heaven and earth have a manager already. Yin and yang are experts... Things can never be exhausted, and yet humankind insists there is an end to the string. There is no measure to things, yet humankind claims they have poles.... All the doctrines of the hundred schools that prate of illumination are born of dust and will return to dust.And the conclusion is then put: 'the destruction of the Tao and its Power for the sake of benevolence and righteousness is the error of the sage.' 
 Okay? In that case, back to the horses again.
Now horses, living on the land, eat grass and drink water. When happy, they twine their necks and rub together. When angry, they turn their backs to one another and kick. This is what horses know. But add a yoke and a moon-shaped plate on the forehead and horses know boundaries and limits, they know they are enslaved. Then, slyly, they look sidelong and arch their necks to bite. They thrash about, trying to expel the bit and shake free of the rings. They have learned now, from their capable hearts, how to be outlaws. This is the crime of Po Lo.
And similarly, people: 'with food in the mouths', used to be happy, 'drumming their bellies as they wandered'. After all, this was all people were able to do. But then along came some sage, twisting and bending to rites and music ! And 'the people began to prance on tiptoe, addicted to 'knowing', and struggling to go home to bed with profit'. There was no stopping them. This also is the crime of the sage. And so, Lao Tan (after a brief reprise of the executions and the forced amputations typical of rulers) sums up the remedy: 'So I say, cut down the sage. Reject his kind of knowing, and All Under Heaven will be ruled'.

Yet Chusi himself is a sage with his own great teachings. There's the ( Buddhist) one that suffering is mainly a result of refusing to accept 'what is', and the other one that is a message of nonconformity and freedom, itself a vital antidote to the effects of over-rigid Confucianism. That's ironic. But then the other legacy of Chusi is his use of paradoxes - or 'koans' as they would become in Zen philosophy. Already, that's three schools of philosophy drawing on the one book. So, obscure or not, Hamill and Seaton's version is well worth a look.

The Philosopher's verdict: at best, it is mystical

Poetry and the Science of Mind (2005)

From The Philosopher, LXXXXIII No. 2 Winter 2005

With acknowledgements to the The Association of Teachers of Mathematics


By James Aitchison

Science has long been the dominant intellectual force in Western societies. Some fields of empirical enquiry, from the cosmos to the neurone, are necessarily scientific. In other fields, though, for example, concerned with the nature of our humanity and our relationship with the natural world, scientists also seem to have achieved more than have poets or philosophers or the social scientists who practise psychology and sociology. Perhaps, one reason for the dominance of science has been the willing submission to its ascendancy by academic disciplines that were once regarded as subject areas in the arts and humanities.

I. A. Richards, whose Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism influenced a generation of critics and students of poetry, put it:
... the theory of literary analysis is at an extremely interesting point in its development, on the point of making, through experiment, those contacts with actuality that would transform it into a science, and a science from which very important practical utilities may be expected to result. 
 Scientific experiment usually leads to empirical observations and measurable results, and scientists consider their findings verified when repetitions of the experiment lead to the same results. One could argue that the meaning of a poem and the truth of that meaning are verified when critics and other readers recognize the experience in the poem, but that kind of recognition varies from one reader to another. And the practical utility that could emerge from the close reading of a poem, a greater precision in the readers' use of language, perhaps, or in their ability to understand other writings, or an enhanced memory cannot be predicted like the outcome of a scientific experiment and cannot have the practical usefulness of applied science.

A striking instance of philosophy's surrender to science was the influential paper, 'Psychology In The Language Of Physics', published in 1931 by Rudolf Carnap, the German-American logical positivist. Carnap's thesis is that every sentence in psychology can be formulated in the language of physics. He states:
Once the language of physics, due to its nature as a universal language, has become the system language of science, all science will become physics. Metaphysics will be eliminated as meaningless.
If metaphysics is taken to be the study of the human condition in terms of being and selfhood, substance and essence and orders of reality (including mind, time and eternity, knowing and not knowing), then it is impossible that these things will ever be rendered meaningless. Even if they ceased to be taught in universities they would still be the subjects of thought and of poetry because the poet is drawn irresistibly to consider these things; indeed, the poet's mind is designed to consider them. Carnap continues:
If our thesis is correct, even the general laws of psychology, i.e., the psychological laws, can be translated into the language of physics. They are, therefore, physical laws. 
Carnap writes as if the disciplines of psychology and philosophy were sciences of mind, but the fact that a subject can be explored rigorously and meticulously does not make that subject a science. Even if all metaphysical concerns were ignored, psychology and philosophy could not fully meet the criteria of the physical sciences; for example, the criterion of independence from the phenomenon under investigation and the criterion of causality cannot be met if the phenomenon is the working of the human brain or the mind. There are many theories of mind: behaviourism, centralism, connectionism, determinism, dualism in its various forms, functionalism, functional isomorphism, identity theory, interactionism, materialism, monism, anomalous monism, peripheralism, physicalism, pragmatism, reductionism and others. Some of these are contradictory, and if scholars disagree about the very nature of their subject, they cannot claim that the subject is a science.

Carnap influenced A. J. Ayer, whose book, Language, Truth And Logic makes several favourable references to Carnap. The title of Ayer's first chapter, 'The Elimination Of Metaphysics', is similar to Carnap's claim that metaphysics will be eliminated as meaningless. And, in the second chapter, Ayer again echoes Carnap:
There is no field of experience which cannot, in principle, be brought under some form of scientific law, and no type of speculative knowledge about the world which it is, in principle, beyond the power of science to give. 
 This kind of reductive argument is at least as old as Plato, who states in the Republic:
... the part [of the mind] which relies on measurement and calculation must be the best part of us, and the part which contradicts them an inferior one. 
Plato is discussing the mind of the poet and other creative artists, who do not rely on measurement and calculation. Some proponents of behaviourism and determinism, however, such as the American psychologist, B. F. Skinner, have argued that mind does not exist and that the brain is essentially an 'input-output device'. Gilbert Ryle, in The Concept Of Mind, even writes:
The phrase 'in the mind' can and should always be dispensed with. Its use habituates its employers to the view that minds are queer 'places', the occupants of which are special-status phantasms. 
 Ryle uses the words, 'queer' and 'phantasms', as ridicule to reinforce his argument. His little case study in the chapter, 'The Intellect', illustrates the extent to which reductive philosophy has been overtaken by neuroscience. Ryle dismisses the life of the mind as the impenetrable shadow-life and as the ghost in the machine; readers of poetry know that their enjoyment and understanding of the poem involve their imaginative penetration of the poet's mind, and the poet's penetration of theirs.

Nowadays psychologists and philosophers are unlikely to be so dismissive of mind. They may regard it as an emergent system from its neurophysiological substrate, the brain, and they accept that their subject areas cannot meet all the criteria of the physical sciences. Psychologists, philosophers and other social scientists now accept that, even if their findings can be formulated as laws, these laws cannot have the status of the laws of physics. But what is a law of physics?

The law is not an integral part of the physical phenomenon under investigation; the law is formulated by the physicist. The law is expressed in words or symbols, or expressed iconically in diagrams and models; but the written law is an abstract, arbitrary representation of physical phenomena, and the iconicities of diagrams and models, some of which are said to represent invisible phenomena, are as much expressions of physicists' modes of thought and feeling, and their conformity to the conventions of physics, as they are expressions of physical reality. In Physics And The Mind, Roger Penrose writes:
Why is it that the physical world seems to obey mathematical laws in such an extremely precise way? Not only that, but the mathematics which seems to be in control of our physical world is exceptionally fruitful and powerful, simply as mathematics. 
The mathematician invented mathematics as the poet invented poetry, in response not only to features of the natural world but also to the workings of the mind. For centuries poets claimed that their responses, poems, were imitations of the natural world, but few poets made the mistake of projecting what they claimed to be imitations onto the world and then claiming that the world writes poetry.
Mathematics and physics, like poetry, derive from innate functions of mind that are expressed in abstract, symbolic, conventionalized codes. The natural world engages the imagination of the mathematician and the physicist as it does the imagination of the poet, but that world does not write poems or laws of mathematics and physics. 
When Penrose adds that one has the feeling that the mathematics needed to describe these things [natural phenomena] is out there, there is no doubting the sincerity of his feeling. Instead, one suggests that when Penrose finds exceptionally fruitful and powerful mathematics out there, it is because his mind put it there. Laws of mathematics are mathematicians' conceptual representations of physical phenomena; the laws are also mathematicians' representation of abstractions that they themselves create. Whatever truth there might be in the laws is conceptual truth, which is not the same as the physical realities the laws claim to represent.

If the laws of mathematics and science are seen in these terms, then the truth of mathematics and science is no more valid than the truth of poetry. Today, as in the past, scientists proceed by experimentation and investigation; poets, too, investigate experience and experiment with language, testing the value of every word in every poem they write. And scientists today as in the past also proceed like poets: by speculation, intuition, flashes of insight, dreams, and chance. The poet and the scientist have these means of discovery in common because they share the same functions of mind. And the mind, some scientists claim, functions like a computer.

Scientists are drawn to propose theories and models of brain and mind, and it seems inevitable that, in innocent hubris, scientists should choose one of their own inventions, the computer, as the current model. Earlier models were the clock, the railway network, and the fixed-line telephone exchange; a more recent model, discussed with no sense of its absurdity by Stephen Mithen in The Prehistory Of Mind is the Swiss Army Knife. Whatever single or composite model is eventually agreed, the evidence already available shows that the brain and its emergent system, the mind, are designed to process large volumes of different kinds of information, sometimes instantaneously, sometimes sequentially and sometimes retrospectively. The evidence also shows that, at different stages in life and in different states of mind at any of these stages, an individual will process the same kind of information in different ways; that is, brain and mind are designed to collate and interpret masses of information every day, but the methods of collating and interpreting can vary.

Writing poems is not part of that design, because a writing system is not an innate, natural faculty but an invention. For some poets the process of composition is one of inspiration; electrochemical activity in the brain is transduced as if spontaneously into language in the mind. But most poets can use the brain's language-processing systems only serially and slowly, and they feel frustration on those occasions when they form images, ideas, and words so much faster than they can write them down, that some words do not have time to enter the short-term or working memory but are forgotten between the writing of one word or phrase and another.

Writers might also feel frustrated when they find that their finished poems fail to express the multiplicity and intensity of sensations experienced during the process of writing. Most poets would agree that the finished poem is a compromise. Would a poetry-writing computer also agree? Such a computer, or any computer, would have a more efficient memory than the poet, whose memory is designed not only for accurate recall but also for misremembering, forgetting and confabulating when designated neural networks decay or evolve or combine. A computer cannot be programmed to work in these ways because no one knows enough about the functioning of mind and memory.

Poets know that it is possible to design a computer than can produce and interpret language in ways that are faster, more consistent, and extend across more semantic fields than they can. They know that a computer can be programmed to convert speech into writing or writing into speech, and to use its artificial language systems in order to translate one natural human language into another. Poets know that a computer could be programmed to operate with the kinds of randomness and unpredictability that are similar to those of the mind, and that it might be programmed to simulate fantasy and dreams, intuition and insight, and perhaps to write poems. But the poet cannot believe that a computer can create linguistic subtleties such as irony, satire, paradox and metaphor, or elliptical patterns of syntax and thought, or the kinds of creative ambiguity one finds in the dialogues and monologues of Shakespeare. And if a computer programmer has a concealed reason for compiling a particular programme, for example, to identify a colleague engaged in industrial or political espionage, would the computer be able to identify the programmer's ulterior motive? 
Poets note that the computer is a recent human invention, whereas the mind has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years; they note that the mind is as old as consciousness and the brain is older by far than the mind, and they feel that it is impossible to devise a computer program that takes full account of these evolutionary time-spans.

The computer imitates the brain to some extent and the mind to a lesser extent; but the computer can never be a human brain or mind and thus can never replace humans, unless some day the brain and the mind are fully understood and the understanding fully encodable in the computer. Such total understanding, the poet believes, is impossible to achieve. Computer scientists will never devise a program that takes account of all the faculties and functions of mind, because we shall never fully understand the nature of mind. We shall never discover when and how and why consciousness and language evolved, because they emerged from non-consciousness; equally, we cannot know the relationship between consciousness and non-consciousness, or the extent of the mind's non-consciousness. (Whatever discoveries neuroscientists make in the future, we shall never fully understand the mind unless there are future discoveries, along with a more highly developed faculty of meta-consciousness, that is, our awareness of being aware.) But at present we know of no mental power that can take account of all faculties of mind, including itself, the accounting and observing power.

Poets do not wish - and do not believe that scientists wish - their minds and brains to be the same as a computers, except in the strictly limited sense in which people learning how to operate a new computer program will have to change some of their neuronal networks in order to meet the requirements of the new program; but every learning process requires us to change our neuronal networks in some way in order to accommodate the new information. The poet might feel that a great moral dilemma underlies the analogy of computer and mind: if there were an equivalence of human and machine, would the humans be treated as machines or the machines as humans? In fact, the acceptance by some scientists of the analogy of computer and mind is a measure of the dominance of science in our culture. 

One of the most effective philosophical rejections of the analogy comes in the book What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique Of Artificial Reason, by Hubert Dreyfus:
To have a complete theory of what speakers are able to do, one must not only have grammatical and semantic rules but further rules which would enable a person or a machine to recognize the context in which the rules must be applied. Thus there must be rules for recognizing the situation, the intention of the speakers, and so forth. There are grammatical and semantic rules governing written standard English, and there are sets of rules, sometimes implicit rather than explicit, for recognizing the context and situation in which language is used; for example, courts of law, morning assemblies in schools, television chat shows, parliamentary debates. There can also be sub-sets of language rules; in one and the same newspaper there are different rules for the use of language in news reports, obituaries, book reviews and crossword puzzles. Few members of a language community give conscious thought to these rules or even know of their existence, but most members of a language community have some level of understanding of them.
Dreyfus states that a complete theory requires rules governing the intentions of speakers, but he knows that there can be no rules for such infinitely variable and unpredictable factors. He concludes:
But if the theory then requires further rules in order to explain how these rules are applied, as the pure intellectualist viewpoint would suggest, we are in an infinite regress. 
A person can break the normal rules of language and yet be understood by listeners or readers, who do not need a fixed set of rules in order to understand abnormal uses of language - indeed, no such rules exist. If computers are to do all that humans can do, then computers must be able to understand abnormal uses of language; but they can understand only what their designers have told them about.

What is Wrong with the Second Person? (2005)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIII No. 2 Winter 2005

What is Wrong with the Second Person?

By Mike Bavidge

We are social animals all the way down. We are social animals not just because we like parties, nor because without other people to care for us we would not survive infancy. Our identities, inner lives and cognitive capacities depend on others. Ernest Becker wrote in his book The Birth and Death of Meaning, 'The child's early training period is one in which his very existence is mediated to him in a condition of entanglement with his mother'. When he wrote that back in 1962, he was repeating accepted wisdom. However the philosophical tradition seems, in many respects, to be in denial of this obvious fact. More recently analytic philosophers have been largely silent on the topic. Some Continental thinkers - Levinas is the outstanding example - have made 'the Other' the primary theme of their work. But if by 'the Other' we mean an indeterminate other person, gender or type talked about in Third Person terms, choosing the Other as a topic will not be enough to reshape the inquiry. Philosophy talks in the Third Person, but sometimes it needs to get inside direct exchanges between one person and another - exchanges which, in so far as they are 'enlanguaged', use the Vocative Case.
Some key moments in philosophical history illustrate the neglect or denial of the importance of the Second Person to philosophical thought with a resulting distortion of problem and available answers.

Here are some examples.

(1) The Meno

In the Meno Plato produces one of the best known and least plausible of his arguments. He purports to show that 'we do not learn, and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection'. He demonstrates his point by eliciting geometric theorems from an uneducated slave boy by pure questioning. He invites Meno 'Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.' For good measure he uses the 'knowledge is remembrance' thesis to prove the immortality of the soul: 'And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?.. And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal.'

The questioning of the slave-boy provides an early example of the denial of the Second Person. The interpersonal process of questioning, directing, prompting and encouraging is regarded as merely the route to intellectual insight. Plato is convinced that knowledge could not have come from the interaction between Socrates and the boy (after all, Socrates told him nothing - gave him no information). The direct influence of Socrates on the boy, calling his attention to a particular problem, making him aware of his ignorance, raising questions in a particular, progressive pattern, approving some moves, discouraging others, endorsing his conclusions, - all of that - Plato treats as marginal to knowledge itself and even to its acquisition.

(2) Cartesian Doubt

Descartes gives us a curious example of the displacement of the Second Person. What does the Doubting Self ultimately need to turn itself into a Knowing Self? The Cogito, arrived at through a strenuously achieved physical and intellectual isolation, gives certainty, but only one that is momentary and internal. Descartes realises that knowledge, which is stable and public, cannot rely solely on private intuitions and the isolated memory of an individual. The Ego Cogitans has to be assured that it is not on the receiving end of the malicious intervention of another. That is why Descartes takes his 'unexpected circuit' (as Hume called it): certainty can only be guaranteed by a beneficent Other, by God.

But why does Descartes need God, an infinitely good Other? Because he needs an argument not merely a personal intervention. Only an infinitely good Other gives a guarantee that can be formulated as a premise of an argument with which to confront scepticism. But if we can bring ourselves to do without an argument but retain the idea that only a personal intervention will do, then perhaps the intervention of a halfway good person will do, an ordinary person, someone like you or me.

(3) Solipsism

A third example. For whom are the problems of Solipsism meant to be problems? That is an issue whether we are talking about zany Solipsism (what reason have I to believe that there are persons other than myself?) or sensible epistemic problems about our knowledge of other people's thoughts and feelings. The zany problem assumes that first I find myself, a competent, self-sufficient individual, faced by a sensible question about the very possibility of the existence of others. Contemporary discussions of the more realistic problems about our knowledge of others' mental lives also assume that a well-set-up person is looking for reasons to prove a thesis. The discussion centres on whether we need a theory or whether the gap between ourselves and others can be bridged less rationalistically by empathy. But in real life communication, neither adults nor infants whose personal identities are being established, are theorists, and only on occasion are we called on to be empathetic. Both the extreme and the modest problems are framed in a way that suggests that the constant interpersonal communication that makes up the fabric of life plays no part in the formulation of the problems of other minds or our responses to them.

(4) The Mind-Body problem

A final example. The Mind-Body problem is often put in terms of the contrast between First and Third Person accounts. The resilience of the problem is frequently presented as an irresolvable tension between our immediate experience expressed in First Person terms and our knowledge of ourselves and others described in Third Person, objective terms. How can we reconcile ideas of ourselves based on our personal experience and ideas of ourselves based on objective accounts? First Person accounts feed into our metaphysical picture of the subject. It is on the basis of the First Person perspective that we attribute to ourselves the special powers of being, unique, self-conscious, rational and responsible. From the Third Person perspective we derive a naturalistic view of ourselves as constructed of the same sort of stuff as the rest of the natural world and explicable in terms of it. As metaphysicians, we then worry about how the two accounts can be reconciled. We oversimplify the problem by representing it as a dichotomy between First and Third Person. Why is the Second Person left out of the picture? And why is it not allowed to feed into our picture of the Self?


The Second Person has its own case, the Vocative, which marks the fundamental difference in speech act between addressing someone and description. In Charles Taylor's words, language involves 'being a conversational partner with somebody; let's call this an "interlocutor". Standing to someone as an interlocutor is fundamentally different from standing to him/her as an object of observation or manipulative interaction. Language marks this most fundamental distinction in the difference of persons. I address someone as "you", speak of them as "him" or "her"'.

There are numerous ways in which we affect each other as self-conscious subjects - warning, promising, inviting, consoling, reprimanding. These are different types of communication but they all involve addressing another person directly. They are different ways of reaching out to others and of directly shaping their experience, feelings and thoughts. They all involve acknowledging another, giving a person the status of a partner in a social interaction. We call out even to new-born babies, attempting to evoke a response even before they are capable of being conversational partners. We home in on each other. The word 'address', as a noun, can mean where you live, as well saying something to someone.

It may seem that communication is constituted by the transmission of information which need not involve messy personal interactions. But our first encounter with information is in the context of our attention being drawn to things, of being warned, encouraged, amused by this or that. Communication is dynamic and interpersonal; 'information' is what is left when you take the personal out of communication.

I now want to sketch three examples of ways in which our inquiries might be reoriented if we gave greater weight to the direct personal?

(1) The Second Person and Language

Wittgenstein begins the Philosophical Investigations with an attack on the idea that naming i.e. attaching a word to an object, is the inaugural act which initiates language. He particularly wants to undermine the theory that words get their meaning from being the names of ideas in the mind - the sort of theory proposed by John Locke. Locke claims that words stand for ideas in the mind of the person who uses the words. The connection of a sign with the thing signified is totally arbitrary. The ideas that give meaning to language are private to each language-user*. However involved in social communication language eventually becomes, all meaning has to be rooted in this connection of public word with private thought. Language may be 'the great common tie of Society' but prior to its communicative role, language enables the individual to record and remember thoughts. The fleeting thought is fixed in language. So language is required for individuals to have usable knowledge even for themselves and they have that prior to any interaction with others.

Against this Wittgenstein argues that language is publicly and socially based. The meaning of words depends on their use in the language which is seen as a social, convention-based institution. The picture we get is that while Locke thought that meaning required only individual thinkers and their ideas, Wittgenstein thought that meaning required not only individual thinkers and ideas but also the institution of language. For example, for the sentence 'Pawn to King 4' to make sense, you need not only a player but the game of chess with its rules and conventions.

This is fine as far as it goes. But it leaves out the distinctive interpersonal engagement of language-users that language requires to fix meaning. Rules and conventions are an important element in Wittgenstein's account of language. But so is the claim that rules do not apply themselves. In Philosophical Investigations he asks 'how can a rule show me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule'. (This is the thought that leads to Kripke's celebrated discussion of Wittgenstein's alleged scepticism.) In response to it he continues:
'That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.'
'Obeying a rule is a practice'. At the end of the day we come down to the fact that 'that is the way we go on'. Wittgenstein imagines his opponents saying '"So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?"' and he replies 'It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.' This may sound like a rejection of Coherence Theory in favour of Pragmatism.

Coherence and Pragmatism have this much in common: they attempt to provide a guarantee of meaning on a Third Person basis. Coherence theory points to the fact that other people agree with me; Pragmatism points to the fact that this is the way people go on. But no evidence in the form of a report of the opinions or the behaviour of others is going to seem compelling to the sceptic; a brute fact cannot explain normativity.

The only assurance we have that what we say makes sense is the actual endorsement of other people- the actual endorsements that are expressed in shared responses, the ordinary approvals, encouragements, the everyday rubbing along together that constitutes the social lives of intelligent animals like us. This assurance cannot be transposed into the premise of an anti-sceptical argument. It is a lived confidence that is as secure, but no more secure, than the viability of our social lives. Others do not, like Descartes' benign demon, have epistemic authority. They accompany us; they join us - that's enough.

Interpretations 'hang in the air' until my way of going on is endorsed by you. It is not enough that meanings are fixed by public rules or sets of criteria; you need to be endorsed by me, and I by you. The infant's attempts at language have to be responded to and accepted. These are not external encouragements designed to ease us into language; they are internal parts of it.

(2) The Second Person and Truth

Heidegger's reflections on Truth provide another moment where it would pay us to think more about the Second Person. He argues for a notion of truth which is more primitive than the propositional notion which is captured in the Correspondence Theory of Truth. He blames Plato for opening up a fatal fissure in Western philosophy: truth as a property of things and truth as a property of representations. He attacks the Correspondence Theory of Truth on the grounds that a representation (a sentence, a belief, an opinion) can be true only if it conforms to something already unconcealed; so there must be a more fundamental notion of truth than propositional truth - world disclosure; truth as unconcealment. We come to realise that truth is applied properly both at the propositional and pre-propositional levels by experiencing the unveiling of Being. And we experience the unveiling of Being when we appreciate the significance of genuinely creative language.

Only in the most authentic emergence of language does reality unveil itself. Only in its primordial, creative form is language the 'House of Being'. Heidegger has a highly individualist and romantic idea of primordial language; it is what comes out of the creative act of the solitary poet on the brink of meaninglessness.

There are parallels between Heidegger's idea that 'Being' reveals itself in language and John McDowell's thoughts in Mind and World where he distinguishes between brute animals that have an environment, i.e. a milieu to which they are perceptually sensitive and in which they are absorbed, and human beings who have a world i.e. a reality of which they can have glimpses. We can ignore the brute/human comparison here (he may be wrong about animals), the distinction is still worth thinking about. Knowledge requires an energetic involvement in the world. A restlessness. A curiosity. Sensation is not enough. We are not totally lost in a brutish absorption with the world. We open up distances between ourselves, our projects and activities, and things and their functions.

We can only understand this transformation of environments into worlds if we give full weight to our dependence on others for our sense of ourselves and the objectivity of the world we share. In language we demand understanding, we call on each other to see the world unveiled in a particular way and we make our very selves available. We must triangulate to create. You and Me and the World, and it is important to add 'in no particular order'; they come as a package deal.
Meaning can die, as well as be born. Both its birth and the death take place in the interactions between people. Cultures die. The death of God, for example, is the death of a culture. It isn't just a matter of individuals changing their beliefs or uncovering their mistakes. We lose the faith - a shared thing. We lose a particular way of experiencing and talking about the world together. Meaning has been compared to the value of a currency: it is maintained as long as people move it around with confidence. You can be left hoarding worthless banknotes or sheepishly try to negotiate them in a market that no longer recognises them. In our post-Christian culture many of us substitute a nostalgic aestheticism for the life of faith. We listen to the St Matthew Passion and enjoy the solitary pleasure of yearning over our loss.

(3) The Second Person and Mind

Even thinkers who explicitly set out to reinstate the Other can relapse into traditional individualistic ways of thinking. Søren Overgaard, for example, in his article in Inquiry, 'Rethinking Other Minds: Wittgenstein and Levinas on Expression', criticises Cartesian philosophers for ignoring 'a crucial distinction between degree of certainty, evidence etc. and kind of access' that we have to the mental lives of others. But his attempted correction of the position retains the Cartesian assumption that fundamentally we, as subjects, are thinkers or inquirers. He writes 'It is quite possible to achieve as high a degree of certainty concerning another's mental states as about anything else in life, but clearly the kind of access remains different. I could not possibly occupy the other's perspective on the world, for then it would be my perspective. What I can (often) do, however, is to see through her expressions, that she is feeling good, planning mischief, or whatever'.

This suggests that we are observers but with (broadly speaking) two modes of accessing the world: one that delivers up objects that lie 'passively open to view'; the other that enables us to see subjects as 'the dynamic source' of expressions. This seems an unsustainable position. It requires that something, perhaps expression or certain behaviour interpreted as criteria, be seen as the appearance of the subject in the world.

He says this because he is trying to avoid claiming either too much for our knowledge of each other or too little. He wants to exclude scepticism. But he also thinks that further strengthening the claim to know other minds must result in claiming to occupy the perspective of the other, i.e. to be the other, what he calls a 'higher form of solipsism'. That would outrage the 'strange inaccessibility' of the other.

Overgaard aims to defend our ability to know the thoughts and feelings of others and to provide a basis for it in terms of the personal nature of expression. But he still talks as if expression were a special sort of data, a sort of super-evidence which normally it makes no sense to challenge.
There is a similar worry about Wittgenstein's famous remark:
My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul'.
He is making a categorical difference between the way we relate to other people and how we relate to everything else. But it still seems to be mysterious. What is the difference between an attitude and an opinion? How do they relate? Pressing questions when you face a sceptic who suspects that an 'attitude' is an 'opinion' which you cannot justify. The real issue is whether there is an encounter between ourselves and others which cannot be captured in terms of observer and object - however wonderfully suffused with the personal.

We like to think of ourselves in terms of activity, autonomy, initiative. But this emphasis hides the fact that we are characterised by our passivities just as much as by our activities. Stones cannot form judgements nor make choices, but neither can they be insulted amused, encouraged, or distracted. We don't see others as 'the dynamic source' of expressions. Minds meet. We experience each other's dynamism. We are addressed by them, questioned, amused, challenged, resented, treated affectionately or cruelly. Being subject to these interactions is as important to personhood as activity and autonomy. We shape each other's minds. 

About the author: Mike Bavidge is Chair of the Philosophical Society of England