Saturday, November 25, 2017

Three quotes from Peter Geach's The Virtues

For medieval thought the gulf that could be bridged only by Divine intervention came not between life and the inanimate, nor between consciousness and lack of consciousness, but between rational and irrational creatures. I think there is no reason now to think otherwise -- only fashion.

"Life must originate, we are told, wherever the physical conditions for life are favourable: and there must be so many planets on which life has originated that on millions of them rational beings will have evolved by natural selection. But rational beings cannot so come to be: the coming to be of a rational creature is strictly miraculous -- it exceeds all the powers of sub-rational nature. 

When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning or language or choice naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle or proved the square root of 2 to be rational: only the mildest curiosity is in order-how well has the fallacy been concealed?

You gotta wonder what the Mrs thought of these arguments. I understand she was rather critical when some guy in the Medieval and Renaissance Lit department tried to argue for the same conclusion.


Victor Reppert said...

So is Geach arguing ni a better way?

StardustyPsyche said...

OP Life must originate, we are told, wherever the physical conditions for life are favourable
--Who says that? Life might be plentiful in the universe, or we might be alone, or anything in between. Nobody knows. So this is just a strawman.

OP But rational beings cannot so come to be: the coming to be of a rational creature is strictly miraculous -- it exceeds all the powers of sub-rational nature
--Why? This is just a short sighted assertion.

OP When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning or language or choice naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle or proved the square root of 2 to be rational
--Why? This is just more short sighted assertion. Animals reason and communicate and choose, how is that hard to explain naturalistically?

Atno said...

I think Anscombe probably agreed with Geach in some way or another. She was an orthodox Catholic and so very probably believed that the human soul was a special creation of God. Maybe she just had a problem with Lewis's specific formulations of the argument from reason, perhaps thinking it seemed too much like an endorsement of substance dualism. In her final assessment of the argument, she seemed to grant that Lewis was indeed asking important questions, and even that we don't seem to have an answer about how the ground-consequent relation can be used for thought in materialism. Many philosophers who had been influenced by Wittgenstein were anti-dualist but at the same time held that thinking wasn't something that could be accomplished by any material organs and that would not make any sense in naturalism. Herbert McCabe argued that our use of language could not be carried out by any material organs. Braine takes a similar conclusion.

In any case, it is worth noting that Peter Geach did go beyond assertions. He wrote an article called "What do we think with?", which can be found in his book "God and the Soul". There, he argues that thinking cannot be carried out by any material organ. The way he does this seems rather unique to me, different from most other arguments from reason I've read.

He first argues that thinking is an activity, but actually a "basic activity" in a sense similar to Anscombe's discussion of brute facts. To illustrate, (1) uttering articulate noises is more basic than (2) ordering goods from the grocer, which is more basic than (3) running into dent with the grocer. Geach argues thinking is a basic activity and that it cannot be assigned a position in the physical time series. This entails that materialism is false -- that thinking cannot be an activity of the brain or any bodily organ, "for the bodily activities of any organ must be clockable in a way that thinking is not. No physiological discoveries could establish that thoughts occurred precisely when certain brain processes occurred; and a fortiori the suggestion that the brain-processes might be identical with the thoughts does not even deserve discussion". Geach doesn't take it that what he calls "immaterialism" is proved by the argument, but that materialism is refuted.

I'm not explaining or defending the argument here, just pointing out it exists. It's an interesting argument which I hope will be rediscovered one day, and studied more carefully.

Victor Reppert said...

I think Anscombe has a weak conception of naturalism, and because of this her discussions of Lewis often lose the thread of what Lewis is really arguing about.

Atno said...

"It is the human being who thinks"

Right. But when we conclude that thinking cannot be the activity of any material part, and indeed not even the mereological sum of the human body -- thus denying materialism -- we also necessarily reach a positive thesis, which is that human beings have a power that absolutely transcends matter and is intrinsically independent of any material part or whole. It does not commit us to a Cartesian or Platonic dualism, but at the very least it seems to take us to the aristotelian-thomistic conception of the soul. Thinking transcends matter and is intrinsically independent of it. This opens up the possibility of disembodied thinking, that thought should occur "independently, not as the activity of a living organism", as Geach argues at the end of his paper.

In fact it seems to take us to Aquinas's argument for immortality. The human form has an operation that is completely independent of matter; it must also be capable of subsisting.

The very existence of this human form -- the soul -- is, because of this power, something that cannot be explained by natural processes. To my mind, theism is another conclusion that follows from all of this.

Victor Reppert said...

But I think views like Braine's, even though they deny a Cartesian type of dualism, violate the canons of metaphysical naturalism, and involve presuppositions that would lead ultimately to a successful theistic argument.

grodrigues said...


"That fact does not entail that she would have to agree with the arguments he was making. After all, if he was a dualist and conceived of the mind as interacting with the body then he was just as mistaken as the materialist who conceives of the brain as interacting with the body."

It is a (serious) misconception of the family of arguments from reason to suppose they all need some form of substance dualism to go through.

I have not read Braine's book, but seeing he had at least one foot planted in the Thomistic tradition, I can already guess where he is going in the remainder of the book...

Victor Reppert said...

But I really don't think Wittgensteinianism is consistent with metaphysical naturalism. A little background: I took Wittgenstein form Peter Winch, and my doctoral advisor was Hugh Chandler, who did his dissertation under Norman Malcolm. Winch argued that the Creation story and Darwin didn't conflict because they are playing different language games, and famously argued that it was a mistake to say that Azande witchcraft practices are mistaken because they conflict with science.

Dennett's idea of what naturalism requires is pretty mainstream. The people who started the supervenience theory ,like Terence Horgan have a problem with the idea since it admits people like the British Emergentists.

Is the universe, at its foundation, rational or not? When you push explanations as far as you can push them, do you stop with reasons, or stop with blind matter? Cranes, or skyhooks? You can instead say that skyhooks work on some language games, while in others you have to look for cranes and only cranes. Fine, but then you have an anti-realist philosophy which is neither naturalist nor supernaturalist.

grodrigues said...


"I readily concede that there are versions of the argument from reason that I am unaware of."

I may have been a little too timid in what I said: I know of *no* version of the AfR that either presupposes substance dualism (like any Aristotelean-Thomist I also reject it) or even that establishes it -- at least without further substantial argumentation. All it establishes is that the intellect is not reducible to the purely physical (and thus physicalism and its versions are false).

- even though substance dualism has a bad rep and I reject it, one ought to remember that it has had formidable defenders down to our own day.

St. Thomas, after taking up what is essential Aristotle's argument for the physical irreducibility of the intellect, goes to great lengths to establish (due to its Christian allegiances) that even though death is the separation of form and matter, and that being an Aristotelean moderate realist, there are no forms separate from matter, that the form of a rational animal is not subject to natural corruption and subsists the separation from the body, although in an "unnatural", "incomplete" state -- thus the need of the ressurrection of the body, etc. But this is not only completely different from substance dualist views, it has little to no bearing on the AfR.

Atno said...


I'm glad you are enjoying David Braine's book. I'll just write some observations about my post.

I said that thinking is *intrinsically* independent from matter, not that it is full-stop independent. As I understand it (and as Aquinas did), thought is extrinsically dependent on matter, in the sense that the intellect always requires sensible data in order to grasp universal and determinate concepts; thinking is always accompanied by phantasms; as living organisms we can only think if our interior senses (which are material) are operating properly. In this regard I agree with a psychophysical view. However, by itself, thinking is not, and could never be, something that is carried out by any body qua body or material being, because thinking absolutely transcends matter. Thinking is universal and determinate. Or, as Geach argues, thinking is a basic activity that cannot be clocked in physical time. There is nothing material about thinking qua thinking, and the human form therefore has a power that is, in itself, independent from matter, even if extrinsically dependent on matter for its actual operation.

"I don't share Geach's assumption that thinking is an activity"

What else could it be? Thinking is something that can absorb us, that "we could throw ourselves into whole-heartedly", that can distract us from other things or that we can get distracted from; as Geach argues, these ways of describing thinking fits it as well as they fit any sort of physical activity, like playing billiards or football, and in this aspect the verb "think" is very different from other psychological verbs such as "understand" and "mean". A man's bona fide report is decisive as regards what he thought, but not what he understood; and we cannot be absorbed in, or distracted by or from, meaning things as we can with thinking. Geach gives numerous arguments.

In fact, Geach even takes all of this to actually follow not from him, but from Wittgenstein himself. I'll quote the whole passage:

"This part of my paper is all taken from Wittgenstein, because I think he was right, and I'd sooner be right than original; also, because I think i may serve to correct a misunderstanding of what he was about. He is supposed to have had a long-term programme of eliminating all acts or activities of the mind, a programme that he thought he'd pretty well completed as regards meaning and understanding; thinking, though, was a tougher problem. On the contrary: it was clear that he wanted to contrast psychological words that did relate to actual experiences and activities with those which did not; this was the whole point of such 'grammatical investigations' as I have been summarizing. And it brings out the point of saying that thinking *is* an activity if we contrast the verb 'think' with other psychological verbs that do not relate to activities."


So, I stand by my original comments. When we conclude that thinking cannot be the activity of any material part or even mereological sum of a human body in those arguments, we don't just deny materialism, we also reach the positive thesis that human beings have a power that completely transcends matter and is intrinsically independent of any bodily parts for its operation. Man is also spirit. And I don't think this fact can be squared with any type of naturalism, and I think we need something like theism to explain it.

Victor Reppert said...

I would say that my argument establishes an explanatory dualism, that at the base level, even if you have nonintentional explanations, there have to be at least some intentional explanations in the explanations that are base-level. If you accept that, then you aren't really a target for the AFR. If you are an atheist still I of course disagree with you, but not on the basis of the AFR. But there are, I think, mainstream forms of naturalism that are AFR targets. As a matter of history, Lewis was persuaded by Owen Barfield to accept the AFR, and as a result became, not a theist, but an Absolute Idealist.

I don't think you can define naturalism by defining the supernatural, and then bringing up God, and then saying, "well, not that." I could then say that so far as I can tell God is a natural being, and put the onus on you to explain what it is about God that makes God supernatural.

Atno said...

Well, I was not discussing Lewis's argument specifically, but rather Aquinas's and Geach's arguments. Although even considerig Lewis's argument, I think it's fair to say that it establishes that human beings have a power that transcends matter. And if we flesh out the argumeng with more metaphysics, such as hylomorphism, the conclusion quite naturally becomes that human beings have what Aristotle called a rational soul or form.

When it comes to absolute idealism, I don't think it really is something that could stand on its legs without any sort of theism or at least some sort of panentheism. I understand there have been some atheistic idealists in the past, but I don't think the position is a very coherent one. Maybe that's what pushed Lewis in the direction of theism? I don't know. In any case, I would argue that the human soul must have been created ex nihilo, and that requires what we call God.

Atno said...

It is my understanding, anyway, that the human spirit will always be the scandal of naturalism. Not only from AFRs as we know.

The "philosophers of the spirit" knew it. Louis Lavelle, Michele Federico Sciacca, René Le Senne, etc. Unfortunately they are not very well known in the anglophone world.

StardustyPsyche said...

Hal said...

" But I think that is like the atheist who insists that there is only one legitimate form of Christianity..."
--Right. The only reasonable position is that there are zero legitimate forms of Christianity.

" When new things emerge, new properties emerge with them. "
--That is magical thinking. Hart is correct at least in that respect.

New things emerge? Somehow the whole is more than the sum of the parts? Legion was right about that as well, that is clearly illogical.

"I'm not a reductionist, and I agree that the mental cannot be reduced to the physical"
--More magical thinking.

World of Facts said...

Miguel said... among other things...
"...thinking is a basic activity that cannot be clocked in physical time. There is nothing material about thinking qua thinking, and the human form therefore has a power that is, in itself, independent from matter, even if extrinsically dependent on matter for its actual operation
When we conclude that thinking cannot be the activity of any material part or even mereological sum of a human body
human beings have a power that completely transcends matter and is intrinsically independent of any bodily parts for its operation"

How can you claim so confidently that thinking is independent of matter, more than what a human body can do, and completely transcend of the physicial?

It's so obviously false to me, but I would not state it with such confidence, in the sense that it would always be possible for thinking to be more than just physical. The problem is that I see no reason, no explanation to think otherwise. The moment I try to figure out what it would mean, to think the way you claim we think, I find contradictions and limitations.

In other words, our thinking is about physical things, at least in part, and because we are physical things ourselves, again at least in part. I think we would all agree here. Buy I see nothing else, so I conclude that it's likely there is indeed nothing more.

What I always see are just assertions that certain mental things are purely not material, but still have never sern a good reason to agree with that.

World of Facts said...

Also, related to my comment I wonder what you think Hal, as we have touched that topic vefore but I don't get what you believe and why...

You said:
"Myself: "I don't share Geach's assumption that thinking is an activity"

Miguel: What else could it be?

Why assume it is anything else? It is simply thinking."

What is thinking if not the product of a brain's acticity, and thus clearly an activity indeed? What does it mean to say that thinking is just that, thinking, on its own?

Atno said...


"Why assume it is anything else? It is simply thinking. Certainly one can engage in activities while one is thinking: one can doodle on some paper, scratch their head in perplexity, hum an inspiring tune, etc. "

So? One can play the piano while simultaneously doodling; one can prepare food while humming a tune; one can drive a car while scratching their heads, and so on. Being an activity does not preclude it from being carried out simultaneously with other activities. And this doesn't answer any of Geach's points. We can be absorbed in thinking. We can be distracted from, or by, thinking. How could this ever be possible if thinking were not an activity? "Thinking" is very different from other psychological verbs, as pointed out; we cannot be distracted from meaning things; a man's bona fide report is decisive in regards what he thought, not that he understood, etc. Thinking is an activity, and there is in fact nothing else it could be. And to say "it just is thinking" simply begs the question.

I suggest you to rethink the issue.

I'll respond to the other posts later on.

Atno said...

"What do you gain by characterizing those different aspects of thinking as an activity? "

Thinking, as Geach argued, is a *basic* activity. In the same sense that "making articulate sounds with your mouth" is more basic than "ordering goods at the grocery store" in Anscombe's paper on brute facts.

StardustyPsyche said...

Blogger Hal said..
November 28, 2017 6:45 AM.
" The point of difference appears to be that Miguel wants to identify this activity with a mental thing while Hugo wants to identify it with a physical thing."
--Thinking simply is a process of a physical thing, or more accurately many physical things, irrespective of what anybody wants it to be.

The brain is a massively parallel, distributed, network of networks, signal processing system composed of billions of tiny little robots connected in trillions of ways.

Ancient ideas about trying to deduce the nature of human thought simply by thinking very carefully about it are hopelessly inadequate. A multidisciplinary scientific effort is required to correlate psychology, pharmacology, anatomy, brain scanning, injury assessment, double blind cognitive study, neuroscience, neurosurgery, experimental study, artificial intelligence, and neural network simulation.

Reading an ancient philosopher or any theologian on the subject is worthless by comparison.

Atno said...


That is already quite a claim about what an activity is, and it would seem to beg the question against Geach's argument that thinking is a *basic* activity. Geach's whole point is that we cannot a thought into "parts", and they are discrete units (and along goes his argument that thinking cannot be clocked in physical time). Indeed we are all thinking when we're trying to solve a certain problem or what we should say in response to a blog post, but Geach's point is that thinking is a basic activity, so it is perfectly coherent with that. And indeed, for the life of me I can't see how we cannot take thinking to be an activity based on how you had just described it.

Moreover, what are we to do with Geach's arguments? You haven't answered them. How can thinking not be an activity if we can get absorbed by it, distracted by or from it, and so on; it is glaringly obvious to me that just the way we use the verb points to how it *is* indeed an activity, quite differently from other psychological verbs. Geach did not take this to be contrary to Wittgenstein, he took it to follow from Wittgenstein, and he knew the man himself. And Geach certainly did not take this to entail any sort of Cartesian inner realm. But there are mental acts indeed, and thinking is an activity, one in which we engage constantly, and into which we can throw ourselves whole-heartedly and passionately, which also perfectly coheres with the fact that we can and do say "I was thinking", but not "I was understanding" or "I was meaning".

It is not an assumption; it is supported by the arguments I just provided here right now. If you do not deny that people do think, but you still, against all of that, still deny that thinking is an activity, then you'd need to say what thinking is, if it's not an activity, and what sort of non-activity is going on when we are thinking. To say "it just is thinking" begs the question, and I'm afraid it makes your idea of "thinking" to be meaningless (and I don't mean that as insulting, just pointing out what I'm seeing).

And I don't think Wittgenstein would object, either (or Braine); I am in agreement with Peter Geach when he says that W was trying to contrast psychological words that did not relate to any experiendes and activities form those that actually do; thinking is an activity, and a basic one at that.

Atno said...

"Miguel wants to identify this activity with a mental thing while Hugo wants to identify it with a physical thing."

The problem with terms such as "mental thing" is that in our current milieu they tend to evoke ideas of a sharp dualistic divide or Cartesianism. Certainly, however, there is a difference between form and matter, and there can be no matter without form. Thinking qua thinking is universal and determinate; no physical being can be universal and determinate. It simply follows that thinking absolutely transcends the material body. This is just following the argument to where it leads. This operation of the human being is thus intrinsically independent of the body -- and I want to stress again the "intrinsically", as I hold that it is strongly and extrinsically dependent on the operations of the inner senses. The existence of this human form cannot be explained naturalistically; it is a special creation by the Supreme Being.

Braine himself, If I remember, agrees with something similar to this in relation to the human use of language, and even admits that it leaves one under strong pressure to believe that linguistic thinking is the operation of some non-bodily part of the human being. He solves the issue by turning to the aristotelian-fhomistic view of the soul as form of the body, which he then modifies to an extent. He ultimately holds that we prove that the existence of the human being does not depend on the body for its continuance, and that to say that we now see and touch is "a body" is to abstract only restricted aspects of reality.

bmiller said...

Hal, Miguel,

What are your respective definitions of activity?
The dictionary lists several possibilities. I wonder if you have the same sense in mind.

David Brightly said...

Does anybody have a link where we can all read what Geach says? Google Books fails us this time.

Atno said...

Hal, I did not remember those passages. Are you sure that he's denying thinking is an activity in them? In the last one it seems to me that there need not be a disagreement; Braine for instance takes thinking to be an operation of the human being, not the "mind" taken as a separate subject. I would guess Geach would also take Wittgenstein's denials to be denials of the Cartesian dualist view of the soul.

If not, however, then I would simply side with Geach over Wittgenstein. I cannot see how we can deny that.

I don't have Braine's book. And the last time I read any of Braine's writings was a long time ago. Perhaps he would disagree with me on some points, but as far as I have mentioned him, I don't think I misrepresented his views in my posts here. Perhaps he would disagree with me on some points. But I am not interested in exegesis but in philosophical argument; what I have been discussing here thus far is how arguments from reason which I defended actually establish a positive thesis that thinking qua thinking completely transcends the body. I take it that Braine would agree with that, in the manner I have expoused in my last post: he would take it to be an operation of the human being, but the human being as a result transcending the body and not depending on it for its existence; Braine's particular understanding of the human form. On pain of misrepresenting his views or of engaging in a discussion about exegesis, however, I'd stop it here. And to quote Anscombe as you did, I'm not interested in what is said in any book, Braine's or Wittgenstein's, as the content of a book; we're trying to get to the truth of the matter. And the truth of the matter is, I insist, that the human person has an operation that completely transcends the body and is intrisically independent from matter, although not extrinsically so. If Geach's argument follows through, for instance, then this would follow. If you are seeing some arguments by Braine that would contradict any of that, share them and we can discuss them.

And once again, I do not see how we can deny that thinking is an activity. 1) I take it as supported by our experience, it *is* an activity ans you are probably engaged in it right now; 2) it has a very significant difference from other paychological verbs, as Geach pointed out, we can be absorbed in thinking, we can throw ourselves into it, we can be distracted by it or from it, and so on, everything points to its bei an activity as much as playing football is an activity, drawing is an activity, whistling is an activiy; 3) your argument to the effect that it can involve different things such as "responding to an argument" or "making plans for a vacation" and so on does not imply that thinking cannot be an activity, and in fact seems to support Geach's assertion that thinking is a basic activity; 4) if thinking is not an activity, then what could it be? To say it just is "thinking" would beg the question; there would have to be an alternative account of what thinking is that would also make sense of both our grammar and of what people are doing, or what is going on, when people are thinking. I don't think this can be achieved, but I'd be interested to hear what you have to say.

Atno said...

And since we are discussing arguments from reason, language and naturalism, I'd also like to mention another argument against naturalism that follows from a Wittgensteinian view of language. I have talked about it in this blog before, but at the time I was more reticent in regards to it, and not quite sure of what to conclude. However, since then I am becoming more and more convinced that it is a serious problem for the naturalist. Ironically enough, it was first mentioned by Anthony Kenny, who is well known for his agnosticism:

"If we reflect on the social and conventional nature of language, we see something odd in the idea that language may have evolved because of the advantages possessed by language-users over non-language-users. It seems almost as odd as the idea that golf may have evolved because golf-players had an advantage over non-golf-players in the struggle for life, or that banks evolved because those born with a cheque-writing ability were better off than those born without it.
Of course, in fact, games like golf and institutions like banks were not evolved by natural selection: they were invented or developed through the voluntary choices of human beings. One could not explain the origin of language in the same way. In order to be able to invent an instrument for a particular purpose you need to be able to conceive the purpose in advance and devise the invention as a means of achieving the purpose. It is not possible that someone who did not have a language could first of all conceive a purpose that language could serve and then devise language as a means to serve it. Nor could language be hit upon by accident, as some human procedures were---as in the legend that pork was first roasted when somebody's house was burnt down with his pig inside. One cannot conceive of somebody's being the first person accidentally to follow a set of linguistic rules, as one can conceive of him being the first accidentally to set fire to his house.'"

John Haldane has adapted it somewhat into what he called a "First Thinker" argment in his book "Atheism and Theism".

Basically, the existence of language takes us into an infinite regress. Its origins cannot be explained naturalistically; it cannot have been hit upon by accident, without linguistic understanding, and it also cannot have been devised without circularity. Maybe Braine touches upon it in his book on Language, which I have yet to read (all copies seemed to be crazy expensive last time I had checked...). More and more, I am convinced that it's not just language as it works that is a problem for the naturalist, but that the origin of language also poses a serious problem; it is not one of mere ignorance, but actually a positive reason to hold that under naturalism there could not be any non-circular explanation of the origin of human language.

Atno said...

I plan on writing some fuller responses when I have the time, but I'll just take this opportunity to point out that it seems like you didn't understand the problem posed by Kenny. I don't think explanations can come to an end unless we are talking about something necessary or self-explanatory, but that is not the crux of the matter. I could concede that we only need a rule in order to explain or dictate a certain grammatical use. I can also concede that we are always free to add new grammatical rules. The problem is not our current use of language (though that would indeed be a problem for the naturalist, but keep reading Braine for that); the problem is that as an explanation for the origin of language, this is all just viciously circular.

What you said actually supports Kenny's observation: the problem is that in order to create a rule, you already need a linguistic conception and capacity. Rules would be sufficient to explain our language as it is now; however, we know that we did not always exist, and human language is not something that has always been there or with any animals. But precisely because of what language is, what following a rule is, and the societal and conventional nature of language, it would be impossible for it to be created by a linguistic animal that didn't already have a language. We cannot conceive of a use for language unless we already have language. And we cannot create it "by accident" either, we can't just accidentally end up following linguistic rules. We know human language has not always been around, so it must've had some kind of origin. But its origin cannot be explained naturalistically; we'd have a vicious regress here.

I think Kenny's observation is a serious problem for naturalism that deserves serious consideration. My use and understanding of language depends on the linguistic community that existed before I did. We can create new rules now, but only because we already have language.

Atno said...

The quote is from The Metaphysics of Mind, pp 155-156.

I do agree that humans needed some anatomical changes in order to be able to use language. I don't agree that language is just a "sophisticated form of behavior", but regardless of that, the issue is that the origin of language itself cannot be explained in the same sense that biological changes are explained.

Assume I grant that a language-using species will have an evolutionary advantage over a similar species that is non-language using. This does not get us any closer to solving the problem, which is, as Kenny says in the full quote, "this is not because it is difficult to see how spontaneous mutation could produce a language-using individual; it is because it is difficult to see how anyone could be a language-user at all before there was a community of language-users".

"If it came from anywhere it would have been built upon the expressive behavioral patterns of our prelinguistic ancestors", what would this even mean? Either someone can understand or use language, or can't. We cannot say that language was created and spread as a tool because if someone can conceive of a purpose for language as a tool (and then devise language to play this function), that someone already has language. It is viciously circular. We already need language in order to conceive of a purpose for language and to devise it. And we cannot create it accidentally either. *This* is the problem Kenny is pointing out. It seems like the origin of language will resist any naturalistic explanation.

Atno said...

John Haldane makes a similar point which can be helpful to illustrate. The quote is from "Atheism and Theism":

"For Wittgenstein we learn to think as we learn to speak. The ability to structure experience is acquired through the learning of general terms. Alice is enabled to think cat by being taught the word ‘cat’ (or an equivalent). On this account, therefore, the concept is not innate, the child had to be taught it; and nor is it abstracted, she was not able to attend to cats as cats prior to being instructed in the use of the concept.

Bringing Aquinas into the picture enables one to see how something of this sort may not just be an alternative to innateness and abstractionism but a via media. In order for something like the Wittgensteinian explanation to work it has to be the case that the child has a prior predisposition or potentiality to form concepts under appropriate influences; and it also has to be the case that among these is one that is itself already possessed of the concept. Alice will not pick up the meaning of the term ‘cat’ unless she has a relevant potentiality, unless the structure of her receptivity is of the right sort. By the same token, that potentiality will not be actualized except by an intellect that is already active in using the concept, her older brother James, for example. This vocabulary of ‘actuality’ and ‘potentiality’ is drawn from the Aristotelian– Thomistic tradition, as is the less familiar terminology of the mind’s ‘recept- ivity’ and ‘activity’. Aquinas himself speaks of the active and passive intellects as powers of one and the same thinker, which raises a question as to whether he is over-individualistic in his conception of the mind. In any event, here I am forging a link with Wittgenstein’s linguistic-communitarian account of the origins of thinking in the individual, and that suggests dividing these aspects of the intellect, at least in the first instance, between the teacher and the taught. In these terms one may say that Alice’s intellect is receptive to, or potentially informed by, the concept cat, while the mind or intellect of James who has already mastered the use of the term is active with, or actually informed by this concept. In teaching Alice the word, James imparts the concept and thereby actualizes her potentiality. This picture grants something both to innatism and to abstractionism. On the one hand, in order to explain possession of concepts a native power has to be postulated; but on the other it is allowed that, in a sense, concepts are acquired through experience."


Atno said...


"Notice two features of this explanation. First it seems to give rise to a regress, and second and relatedly it instantiates the structure of Aquinas’s primary proof of the existence of God.


Alice possesses a power that parrots lack, for while a bird may pick up a sound and repeat it – quicker and more accurately than the child – no amount of ‘instruction’ will teach the parrot the meaning of a term. Alice’s innate power is in fact a second-order one; it is a power to acquire a (conceptual) power. Another human being – James already has the first-order power; he uses the term meaningfully and thinks thoughts with the same conceptual content. Through instruction, Alice’s hitherto unrealized potentiality is made actual through the activity of James. But as Aquinas says, this cannot go on for ever. James’s conceptual ability calls for explanation, and the same consid- erations as before lead to the idea of his instruction by an already active thinker/language user, Kirsty, say, whose ability is itself the product of an innate potentiality and an external actualizing cause. The Wittgensteinian proposal that concepts are inculcated through membership of a linguistic community suggests an interesting escape from the dilemma posed by the innatist/abstractionist dispute, but it is not itself ultimately explanatory because for any natural language user it requires us to postulate a prior one. This regress will be halted if there is an actualizing source whose own conceptual power is intrinsic; and that, of course, is precisely what God is traditionally taken to be."

World of Facts said...

After reading "It seems like the origin of language will resist any naturalistic explanation." I was thinking that this implies the assumption that language, or more broadly speaking, concepts and meaning, exist prior to the material things they refer to. And the following two comments you used confirmed that, especially under these 2 sentences:
"Through instruction, Alice’s hitherto unrealized potentiality is made actual through the activity of James. Butt as Aquinas says, this cannot go on for ever."

This implies that the concepts, and their meaning, that Alice learns from James, and that he learned from others before him, somehow existed and were discovered by the first speakers. But it dismisses what most likely actually happened: humans gave meaning to the things around them, humans were able to conceptualize that material world and share the fact that they have similar experiences. This slowly becane conventions, useful tools, that we still use today. But the starting point is not language, it's not meaning, it's the material world we experience. That's what existed first and why our language is based entirely on our experiences as material beings.

Atno said...

That is not at all what the argument assumes. The problem is that in order for humans to give meaning to the things around them, to conceptualize them, they already need to have such a capacity; for someone to create a language, they already need a language. It has nothing to do with the fact that language is based on our experience of the world, the argument doesn't deny that; the problem is that you can only learn a language if there is already a linguistic community in place that precedes you, to allow you to pick up on rules that will govern the use of concepts. Language cannot be created by sigle individuals who do not already have a language; there is no way you can come up with "language" as a tool if you can't first think of what purpose a language might serve, but to do so already requires language. And it cannot be created "accidentally", either, as if someone could accidentally follow a linguistic rule.

World of Facts said...

That all sounds right, but it is in fact a kind of "accident", though I would never used that word, in the sense that early communities of speakers did came up with conventions. They didn't learn it from external sources; they agreed on what means what, because it's useful to them. That's how languages evolved, and why languages are not universal.

Atno said...

That is just begging the question, Hugo. The problem is precisely how can any community come up with a language without first having a language in the first place. Kenny's argument points to how there can be no naturalistic explanation of language, and to say that "early communities did come up with conventions" is precisely what is at stake here and how, on naturalism, we would have a vicious circle. If they could agreed on what meant what, that means they already had a linguistic understanding, they were already following rules on the use of concepts that could even allow them to come up with new linguistic conventions. It is circular.

Atno said...

And it has nothing to do with whether there was a "universal" language; in principle languages could radically differ from each other and could have originated in different regions and whatnot. But the ultimate origin of any language itself, which must've happened (since languages are not eternal) -- that is something that cannot be explained naturalistically, because to create language as a tool, you already need language to understand its purposes. Neither could someone "accidentally" follow linguistic rules. We only use language because we were born into a preexisting linguistic community; the rules governing language were already set before we arrived on the scene, and this is how we were able to learn them, and how we were (and are) able to create new rules.

World of Facts said...

This implies that language is necessarily something irreducible to smaller parts. Why should we accept that?

It also sounds like an argument from ignorance: Kenny doesn't see how languages could arise naturallly, hence they did not.

But they certainly can, and did actually, start from just conventions on what sound to use to refer to things around the speaker, who were arguably not even speakers yet. The ability to convey complex abstract thoughts must have come a lot later for instance.

It's not circular at all. Languages was built upon simple building blocks.

World of Facts said...

The comment about universals is only an indication that there is no such thing as "linguistic rules" that must exist prior to humans using these linguistic rules. Humans invented them to suit their needs.

Some ultimate origin is neither needed nor explanatory. That explanations is actually demonstrably false, and the lack of universals is one of these hints that disprove that theory of an ultimate origin.

Atno said...

You seem to be pushing the problem of the origins of language into an even bigger problem for naturalism, which is our creative powers. I do not for a moment underestimate the creative powers of the human mind, that is why I am not a naturalist. The creative powers of the human mind, the capacity to take up something into language, is something unique to us and that transcends all and any material operations.

"He did not think it impossible for a person to create their own language"

With or without previous (1) capacity or power for that, and (2) acquaintance with preexisting languages or linguistic use from any community of speakers?

"When a human points at something..."

Right, because we can understand pointing as "pointing", as a sign governed by rules. Of course there is a huge importance in coming to know what others are thinking and sharing it with others, I am not denying that, I am asking how they could possibly create a real language, with grammar, with rules governing what we can and cannot say, without already being in possession of language or linguistic understanding. How can you come up with a rule for communication of this sort without already understanding what it implies?

There is no such thing as protolanguage just as there is no such thing as proto-consciousness. Either someone has a capacity for language and can speak a language, or cannot. If we are using a language, we had a capacity for it, but it has to have been taught to us by someone who could already speak the language, or other forms of communication which already involved the language as meaningful and understood.

Atno said...

It is not an arument from ignorance. It is an argument to the impossibility of a natural explanation of the origin of language. It is not just "it's a mystery", and Kenny is not that thick.

Universals exist and they are necessary for reason, but I have no idea why you mentioned them as the argument I just gave doesn't actually deal with universals qua universals. The argument I'm giving presupposes language is conventional. Please tell me how one can come up with a conventional language with the purpose of talking about something, without first being able to conceive of that purpose, and how this doesn't already presuppose a linguistic understanding and is not circular.

Atno said...


"They needed no concepts such as meaning or rules"

They needed no *definitions* of "meaning" and "rules" or words for them, properly speaking, but they needed a capacity to understand meaning and rules, or are you proposing that they could make the transition to using language without the capacity to understand what words meant or that they could not use signs in any situation in absolutely any circumstance? Seems meaningless to me.

Of course children can learn to use language or even do quite a bit of thinking without language. Humans are able to grasp universal and determinate concepts, it is my view that this is more basic than language, but I don't think this helps the naturalist one bit. And doesn't solve the problem at hand.

Atno said...

I don't see how this answers Kenny's question. It's not that they need to "consciously" create a language as in "hey! Let's create language now!". Again, I can't see how it would not be circular to say that someone could devise a language without first being able to have some form of linguistic understanding. There is no such thing as a protolanguage, nothing that could be in between "non-language" and "language" with regards to linguistic understanding.

No one can create a concept without first having a concept of its purpose or use. To create a concept is already to make use of conceptual thinking. And no one can do so "accidentally", much less do so accidentally and then fortuitously realize "ah-ha! Look what I have created by chance" without already understanding concepts.

And if language learning is to help us get any closer to an explanation of the origin of concepts, without resorting either to innatism or abstractionism, then it is open to the regress Haldane has shown.

World of Facts said...

Miguel, I would like to specify something first, as I realized that you quote, or refer to, other people's writings and opinion quite a lot. This is of course a fantastic way to forge your own opinions & beliefs, and it makes it easier to understand what you believe, as you can refer to writings you agree with, but it's just the latter that I am interested in. In other words, I don't care what Kenny or others think, for the purpose of our discussion, as I can just read their writings directly if I want to find out.

Basically, I see value in conversing on a blog like this one because I get to talk to people, like yourself, and understand what they believe and why, so that I can in turn refine what I believe. I felt the need to specify this because you said, among other things, that "Kenny is not that thick", but that is just not relevant, to me at least, as I am talking to you Miguel, and Hal and others, but not to Kenny...

Anyway, you said...
"Please tell me how one can come up with a conventional language with the purpose of talking about something, without first being able to conceive of that purpose, and how this doesn't already presuppose a linguistic understanding and is not circular."

In short: it has not been established that we first need to be able to 'conceive of that purpose' before we can come up with linguistics conventions. This is reversing the order of what we know, or at least think we know, about how languages came to be.

Humans did not need to understand that language would eventually be a useful & purposeful tool before they could start to use some proto-languages. Because yes, they has to start with proto-language; I find the idea that this is impossible to be bizarre. It is not only possible, but also almost certain that this is exactly what happened. Humans had a minimalist vocabulary, just sounds basically, before they got to complex languages that can convey abstract thoughts on top of just references to the world around them.

We know for instance that there was a couple of millions of years between the first homo sapiens, who were physically able to utter some useful sound, and the first human societies who started to put these sounds down on paper. That late addition is what triggered an insanely fast pace of language evolution, compared to the millennia before that. Almost overnight, at the scale we're talking about, it was now easier to build upon the learned language of ancestors because of the ability to record knowledge and pass it along, using these conventions that had been agreed upon over centuries.

In other words, there is, for sure, such a thing as a protolanguage, something in between "non-language" and "language" with regards to linguistic understanding. There is no problem in explaining today's complex languages when starting from protolanguages. Humans were first just using words to describe things around them, they then went on to form more complex sentences to express what they were thinking about, not just experiencing. They may have followed with verb tense, gender, conditional, etc... The order does not matter much, and I have no idea what it actually was, but it makes no sense to say that it's impossible when we still see these differences across languages today!

World of Facts said...


It was not really a critique or complain, and certainly not a charge of argument from authority. I said in the following paragraph that "I felt the need to specify this because [Miguel] said, among other things, that "Kenny is not that thick", but that is just not relevant, to me at least, as I am talking to you Miguel, and Hal and others, but not to Kenny..."

David Brightly said...

I'd just like to say that despite the poverty of argument in its beginnings this thread has produced an interesting discussion. However, it might have been better informed if more of us had access to Geach's actual words. The paper by Haldane to which Hal referred us makes a reference (p18) to just one argument Geach gives in The Virtues (p26-27). The Google Books preview of The Virtues available in the UK doesn’t include these pages :-(. But the preview available in the US---I have access to a US corporate intranet----does :-). However, Geach largely hands us off to Quine’s Word and Object with no specific reference :-(. Likewise, Miguel has drawn on material from God and the Soul for which the Google Books snippets are unhelpful :-(. I guess this comment is a plea for larger extracts from the originals, or failing that, longer summaries, that we can get our teeth into.