The Empiricists Were Right

Locke, Berkely – hiding behind the globe – and Hume.  More and more, I think they were dead on correct.  Thought and ideas are all based on sensation, experience.  How could it be otherwise?  We deceive ourselves into thinking differently because we have developed language to such a high level of abstraction that it appears to have lost its moorings in lived experience.  Have you ever seen the King of France? asks the modern analytic philosopher.  No, there is no king of France anyway.  So how could you even have the idea of it..?  And so it goes on.

Still, language is manipulating bits of thought, idea-objects, modules, whatever, that all go back to experience.  Our thinking is permeated with experiential imagery, reflections of the direct empirical nature of even the most abstract thinking:

I see what you mean.
Do you follow me?
Where are you with this problem now?
I feel I am close to a solution.
This concept is a perfect fit with that one.
I can’t find my way with his ideas.
That is approximately true.

Philosophers tend to dismiss this type of speaking as mere metaphor, but I would contend that all thinking is metaphorical.  Metaphor is the tool of abstract thought, the means by which concrete experiential thinking – figuring out how to get out of a tight fix without using any words at all in the real world – can be transformed into a lightening quick abstract tool of analysis.  It uses the same techniques, and we are only beginning to understand what they are and how they evolved.  Which brings me to Berkeley’s disguise.

The map, I have come to believe, is fundamental to human thought.  It is the simplest, most common, and most ignored thinking-tool we have.  To map something is to abstract it into thought, yet it seems completely natural and simple to use a few lines to convey the notion of real space and location.  Just so, we map everything from reality to thoughts about reality.  If we figure out how maps work, something that is not at all obvious once you examine it, we will learn a lot about how our minds think.  It’s a long way from cogito ergo sum – Descartes was NOT an empiricist!

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6 Responses to The Empiricists Were Right

  1. troutsky says:

    I agree for the most part but What Is This Thing Called Love? Somehow there is universal mythos in our genetic makeup, grand themes that play and replay through time and cultures.

  2. lichanos says:

    “universal mythos,” please clarify…why is it genetic? Grand themes, certainly – what does that have to do with empiricism?

    Theories only explain what they claim to explain. The fact that they don’t explain everything doesn’t mean that they are wrong or that another theory is right. It just means our knowledge is limited.

  3. Ned Baker says:

    A while back I was reading the Situationist International, Guy Debord, also Baudrillard, etc — thinkers who critique our alienated life of signs vs. what is true reality. This line of thought disturbed me until I came to the same conclusion as yourself: That higher-level human thought is fundamentally the manipulation of signs/symbols. So in a sense it is alienating (and certainly I don’t want to spend my whole time behind a computer screen, for example), but this abstraction is the fabric of higher-level thought and can’t be rejected so easily!

    A very interesting read is Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (“Semiotics: The Basics” in book form), which got me seeing everything in my world as a “sign” for months.

  4. lichanos says:

    My deeper point is that signs/symbols are all, ultimately, based on experience. Not a popular philosophical position these days, I think.

    I like Debord – I find him entertaining. I have posted about him.

  5. Jonathan says:

    the map is not the territory, as it were.

    So it seems, we choose, rationalistically, what aspects of the empirical territory to put into our maps, and what others to filter out. These maps then determine and shape our functional understanding of reality, as we forget that the map is not the territory.

    Our experience of reality is met by our response to it in a construction of what reality is. That construction then goes on to be identified, falsely, yet functionally, with the original reality – which is too amorphous to be compassed directly. Acid trips give an inkling of such a reality met without maps.

    I agree that the experience of the reality comes first, but that we then process the data acording to our minds internal mechanics, to create the reality we actually then work with. Though the question to ask is why do our minds have the particular processing characteristics they have, which they first bring to empirical experience. How did they acquire their mapping characteristics? Which came first, the minds that process experience or the world that is experienced.

    Maybe it depends which reality one wants to talk about. And one could reasonably say that of what use is reality if it is not our reality, the one we can work with, the one we’ve turned into maps.

  6. 32 FL OZ says:

    May I contact you through email with regards to one of the pictures on your website?

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