Bounds of Sense

Bounds of Sense

Quine once described Strawson as applying his “limpid vernacular” to the technicalities of logic (in a review of Strawson’s Introduction to Logical Theory). One might hope that he would do the same in exegesis of Kant in The Bounds of Sense. However, in that work we are treated to such tortuous locutions as “necessary conditions of the possibility of any experience of objective reality such as we can render intelligible to ourselves” (119): why not simply “necessary conditions of experience” and “intelligible”? We seek the necessary conditions of experience (adding “the possibility of” is redundant) and we want to know what kinds of experience are intelligible (whether we can “render” them “intelligible to ourselves” is another question, depending on our powers of self-directed persuasion). Further, what is meant by “experience” here? Strawson regularly alternates this word with “empirical knowledge”, including scientific knowledge; but these are different things, one perceptual, the other conceptual-propositional-cognitive (as in knowledge of scientific theories). It seems clear that he is mainly thinking of visual experience as delivered by adult human eyes, but is generalizing beyond that domain. Does he wish to include emotional experience, or olfactory, or ethical, or imaginative, or experience of pain and pleasure? The doctrine of the necessity of spatiotemporal content is clearly more convincing for the visual sense than these other types of experience (especially the spatial component), so we shouldn’t be lulled into accepting a perfectly general thesis based on one instance of it. And what kind of spatial content is deemed essential to experience as such—extension, ordering, continuity, dimensionality, unity, objectivity, infinity? Some experience might be weakly spatial (smell and taste) while other experience is more strongly spatial (looking into the distance on a bright clear day). Imaginative experience prescinds from space considerably, dispensing with spatial relations to other objects. Emotions have little to do with space compared to normal binocular vision. And some forms of vision are more spatially rich than other forms—think of the etiolated visual experience of closed eyes in the dark. The question is a lot messier than Strawson allows, much less clearly defined. Could we ask the same question equally of sensation, perception, sentience, appearance, seeming, consciousness? Might we not get different answers depending on what term we choose? The term “experience” is vague and general, so we don’t know quite what Strawson (channeling Kant) is considering. Is memory included—and what kind of memory? Is mathematical reasoning included? What about logical “experience”? We need more limpid vernacular to tie the question down, more ordinary language philosophy.

About one thing Strawson is crystal clear: Kant thinks that reality itself is not spatiotemporal and Strawson himself rejects that claim. The phenomenal world is deemed spatiotemporal in its essence, but the noumenal world is non-spatiotemporal in its essence, according to Kant. This doctrine is hard to take seriously, as Strawson indicates. How could Kant know this given that (as he thinks) we have no access to the nature of the reality that exists outside our minds? How can we use our sense experience to navigate the objective world if their essences are so different—doesn’t there have to be at least some kind of correlation? Why would we be designed (by God or nature) to represent reality so faultily? What possible reason could be given for removing things in themselves from space and time? The idea that space and time are “in us” but only in us is unmotivated, bizarre, and preposterous; and certainly not required by the Kantian apparatus of phenomenal space and time (intuitions, sensibility, the understanding, the categories, etc.). It may be that phenomenal space and noumenal space are not the same (Euclidian and non-Euclidian, say), but there has to be someveridical relation between them; denying this is gratuitous and disastrous. I would say that concrete, causal, law-governed reality is clearly spatiotemporal, necessarily so—we can make nothing else “intelligible to ourselves”. That is indeed why sense experience is spatiotemporally imbued (to the extent that it is): this is just a scientific fact, a fact of biology and evolution, of the body and brain. Animals experience the world spatiotemporally because that is the real nature of the world in which they have to survive.

So, we can say, lamely but limpidly, that objective reality is necessarily spatiotemporal and that sense experience is variously and to some degree spatiotemporal. There is no simple binary opposition here: animal sentience is spatiotemporal in many ways and to different degrees (possibly going down to zero). But what about language—meaning, linguistic sense? Curiously, Strawson says little about this in The Bounds of Sense(despite the pre-existence of Individuals). The answer again is mixed and unsystematic, even more so than in the case of sentience. True, we often speak of extended objects in space standing in spatial relations within a unified and ordered spatial manifold (what we call Space). But we also speak of things that are ambiguously and problematically related to space: states of consciousness, numbers, values. Reference is not a purely spatial act. Nor is syntax or grammar best defined in spatial terms. Sounds are not, in themselves and essentially, extended things. Senses are not laid out in space. Language has one foot in space, so to speak, but it also dallies with the non-spatial. Spatial reductionism is a misguided metaphysics. The real is not co-terminus with the extended. It is certainly not a necessary conceptual truth. Language is not, then, subject to Kantian requirements regarding space, even phenomenally. The Kantian project, pushed to extremes, is really an exercise in hyperbole, in which Strawson colludes (as befits an interpreter) but to which he does not wholly succumb. The idea that space is the general form of all our representations is a philosophical exaggeration, like many philosophical theories.[1]

[1] As to time, from the fact that all mental acts occur in time it doesn’t follow that they are of time—that time is an aspect of their content. All events occur in time, but it would be strange to say that they all represent time. It is also misleading to employ the term “spatiotemporal” uncritically: time and space are really very different things, and what holds of time might well not hold of space. Roughly speaking, time is more all-embracing than space. Not everything is space-like and not all mental representation is as of space. Certainly, we cannot derive the necessity of spatial content from the mere existence of the particular-general distinction, as Kant hoped.

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