The Empiricists Were Right

June 12, 2008

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!