Against Cartesianism

The present paper, for all its talk of acts, is not an exercise in Husserlian phenomenology, i.e. in the description of those parts or moments of acts that are transparent to their subjects. Our use of ‘act’ differs essentially from the favoured use of the later Husserl, who

excludes from the notion of an act any ‘extra-experiential’ or ‘non-phenomenological’ elements that may be connected with them. By an act Husserl means just that component of an intentional event of consciousness that the subject himself can discern by ‘reflecting’ on his experience, excluding empirical facts about the intended object and its de facto relation to the subject. Hence, an act is just what we might call the ‘experiential’ component of an intentional event, ‘purified’ (as Husserl says) of presumptions concerning its ‘interlacing with nature’ (Woodruff Smith and McIntyre 1982:3).

One principal thesis of this paper – which finds support both in the realist critique of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology (as expressed, e.g., in the writings of Roman Ingarden) and also in more recent work by analytic philosophers on singular reference, indexicality, de re belief, de re perception and the like (see e.g. Evans 1982 and Woodfield 1982) – is that this Cartesian approach to the structures of acts is radically misconceived. Acts are simply one further variety of individual entity, existing in the real world along with substances, processes, states and events of other kinds. (See Mulligan and Smith 1986, for a more detailed elaboration of this thesis.) Acts differ from most other real entities in the fact that we can have some privileged or ‘inner’ access to them. But, this access is (almost always?) partial. And the fact that it is available should not blind us to the fact that, as real events in the spatio-temporal world, acts are susceptible also to various sorts of objective or public access – including access via our linguistic expressions – making possible a description of their ontological structure in a way which is no different, in principle, from that which can be provided for entities of other sorts.

Cartesian assumptions remain powerful in contemporary philosophy however, for example in the form in which they have been revived by J.A. Fodor (1981) as the doctrine of ‘methodological solipsism’. It will thus be useful to underline why it is that they lead their proponents astray. Such assumptions may be summarised in the two-fold thesis to the effect that

(i) each individual human consciousness has a privileged access to his own mental phenomena;

(ii) the mental phenomena of each individual subject constitute a self-contained domain, somehow effectively isolable from the order of nature in such a way that our mental experience in its entirety would be exactly as it is even though the external world did not exist.

The idea that each consciousness has a privileged access to his own acts can be challenged on a number of fronts. It corresponds linguistically to the idea that mental verbs should be glossed as opaque in all occurrences of use. (Cf. Husserl 1984, § § 4f; Simons 1983.) Yet the normal or unmarked sense of such verbs is transparent, the opaque sense requiring a special setting, such as the report of a psychiatric patient or dream- teller or vision-seer, this report and its evaluation being independent of the existence or otherwise of a corresponding referent. (One such special setting is provided by the philosophical activity known as descriptive phenomenology.) Further, the opaque reading of a mental verb must be parasitic on the transparent reading: for when such a verb is interpreted in the opaque sense, the associated object-clause is read as giving an account of what the subject is aware of in the relevant experience indirectly: by seeming to give a description of an object, the transparent experience of which by a normal subject would involve him in having experiences relevantly similar to the subject in question.

The second component in the assumption of Cartesianism has been challenged above all by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that there is a discriminable totality of all of that to which the subject has ‘inner’ access on the grounds that our ability to find our way around the parts of such a totality would of necessity depend upon capacities acquired whilst moving in the domain of what is publicly accessible. There is no way, he insists, in which a self-contained stratum of ‘consciousness’ could be carved out from the plethora of forms of interaction, both active and passive, overt and covert, of a human being with its animate and inanimate environment. And from this it follows that any putative classifications of private objects must obscure at least some important structural traits of the phenomena to be described.

Both our mental life and our overt actions rest on expressed and unexpressed habits and traditions, acquired above all through education and upbringing and through our experiences of the actions of others (including actions of correction and constraint provoked by our own overt behaviour). It is this background of shared traditions which makes our mental life, and our own understanding of our mental life, possible. By shaping and determining our overt utterances it thereby indirectly shapes and determines the repertoire of types of act which we have at our disposal, and at the same time ensures that the deployment of this repertoire is to a large extent a matter of ingrained reflex – or at least a matter over which we have only very fragmentary conscious control. Thus even the mental acts which occur are not such that they admit of any transparent access.

It will be clear, again, that such Wittgensteinian arguments should not be seen as implying that there are no mental acts. Wittgenstein has shown only that a totality of mental acts cannot be separated out from its surroundings, and above all that such a totality cannot be separated out from the public domain constituted by the actions, and especially the speech actions, in which we engage. But what cannot be separated out, what does not exist independently of its surroundings, does not thereby lose its claim to exist. One of the presuppositions of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is precisely that there is no such thing as a dependent or non-separable existent. For if it made sense to distinguish between independent and dependent existents then it would make sense to talk of things having an a priori order, and this is something that Wittgenstein denies again and again throughout his work.15

Barry Smith, Husserl, Language, and the Ontology of the Act


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