1 Philosophy’s role vis-à-vis theoretical and everyday concepts

In his book From Metaphysics to Ethics, Frank Jackson argues that an important part of doing “serious metaphysics” is the conceptual analysis of “when it is right to describe matters in the terms of … various vocabularies” and, more specifically, to ascertain whether the terms used in theoretical expositions refer to what “we folk suppose is up for discussion” or whether the theories have “changed the subject” by stipulating new uses of the words (Jackson, 1998, pp. 38-42). The point of such conceptual analysis – at least as I understand Jackson – is not to legislate against the introduction of new, theoretical meanings to terms, but rather to avoid the confusion which results when new meanings go unnoticed. In particular, it is significant to make it clear, both when the theoretical expositions show the everyday meanings “we folk use” to be in need of clarification or adjustment and, conversely, when the theoretical ones have moved so far away from the everyday ones that they no longer contribute to an understanding of the phenomena which were the intended reference of the latter. As I argue in Article 1, this type of conceptual analysis need not be the only contribution which philosophizing with may give to the investigation of issues within other disciplines. I do think, however, that it is an important one. Not just because it helps ensure that we stick to the subject when we want to and are aware of changing it when we do. But quite as much for meta-conceptual reasons concerning the relationship between terms and the phenomena they refer to – between Sinn and Bedeutung, as it were, or between the meaning/intension and the reference/extension of linguistic expressions – and the role our everyday understanding and everyday language use play in determining this relationship.

A standard textbook definition of the intension and extension of a linguistic expression is straightforward and seemingly sound (cf. e.g. Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet, 2000): The intension is the meaning of the expression; the extension is the thing or phenomenon one refers to with it. With Frege’s classical example, the meaning of the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” differ markedly; the thing referred to, however, is the same, namely the planet Venus (Frege, 1892). Similarly, the extension of a concept is the class of objects which it denotes, whereas the intension of the concept is what it means. The classical illustration of the difference is given with the two concepts “creature with a heart” and “creature with a kidney”. The meaning of these two concepts is obviously different; as it happens, all creatures with a heart also have a kidney and vice versa, so the extension of the two concepts is the same.

Straightforward and sound as the definition may seem, matters are complicated by the fact that we as language speakers ‘get at’ the reference of an expression through its meaning. Sometimes we realize that a certain expression has no reference (the standard example, introduced by Russell, being “The present King of France”, cf. Russell, 1905). Quite often such a realization will influence the meaning of the concept. A “unicorn” is thus not just “a horse with a horn in its forehead” which happens not to exist; it is a fairytale creature. Throughout the history of science, a multitude of concepts have been shown to have no reference and the meaning they were thought to have at the time of their introduction have been declared confused, misguided or even incoherent. Examples include “phlogiston” (“a combustion element contained within combustible bodies”), “miasma” (“bad air transmitting illness”) and “luminiferous aether (“the medium light propagates in”). Some concepts have been declared incoherent at a certain stage, only to be reintroduced as necessary theoretical constructs at a later one. “Action at a distance”, i.e. instantaneous impact of an object upon another object far away, is one case in question. Other terms appear to stay in use across major changes in scientific theories, but upon a closer look may be found to have altered so much that not only their intensions have transformed, but what they are meant to refer to as well. Within the natural sciences, examples include the concepts of force, mass, time, and energy, not to mention a term such as “atom”, originally used to refer to entities not even remotely similar in any of their more significant qualities to the entities to which it refers today. Within the human sciences, terms like mind, self, and culture arguably have undergone similar transformations of meaning and reference.

The point to be made is firstly the holistic one that the meaning of our terms is influenced by our theoretical understanding of the domain in question and that therefore – because meaning delimits reference – so are the phenomena we attend to in the world. Our theoretical understanding is crucial, not only for which phenomena we find significant, but for what is to count as a phenomenon in the first place. Secondly, as implied by the preceding considerations, meanings aren’t static and – contrary to what Frege claimed – they do not belong to an objective ‘third realm’, unaffected by our human ‘take’ on them. Though intensions aren’t just individualist, solipsistic construals – which would rule out as a matter of principle the possibility of misunderstanding what the meaning of a word is – they are human construals, bound up with and negotiated in and through human practice.

The third part of the point to be made is the converse one that though large transformations in meaning and reference may take place across changes in worldview (scientific or not), nonetheless, there will be some kind of continuity in meaning – or at least a continuous path of meaning change. If this were not so, there would be no reason why the same words were kept across the changes. After all, if no meaning is retained, the words might just be deemed without reference and given up, like phlogiston and miasma were given up with the arrival of the incompatible theories of oxygen’s role in combustion and germs’ role in spreading disease, respectively. The meaning we accord a word is not only determined through the explicit theories we adhere to; our words are ‘filled up’ or resonate with meaning from our immediate, pre-reflective experiences of living and acting in the world. Or better put – because the first formulation might be thought to indicate that pre-reflective experience is cut off from and unrelated to the theoretical understanding – the sense we make of theories is mediated through the experiences we have as living, acting beings in the world; and vice versa, the experiences themselves are made sense of through our theoretical understanding. Our words are imbued with this interrelated experience-rich, theoretically informed meaning. The important thing to note here is that even though our immediate experiences are theoretically framed and ‘loaded’, they are not constituted by theory. Everyday experiences of pushing and pulling e.g. contribute a basis understanding of force (Johnson, 1987) which may be nuanced and transformed by theoretical understandings hereof, but will certainly not be nullified by it. Quite the contrary, it supplies experiential meaning to the theoretical understanding. When theories change, the interpretation of the experiential basis will most likely change, too, and therefore, in many cases, so will to some extent the concrete way the phenomenon is experienced. However, that there is an experiential basis to be theory-informed will not change, nor will what constitutes the basis (e.g. experiences of pulling and pushing as part of the basis of force). And this is the reason why words are kept across theory change: Because there is a continuity in the experiential basis (even if it may be transformed somewhat) which from the point of view of this basis makes new theoretical conceptions still conceptions of the same phenomenon – makes them answers to the same experiential questions, as it were.

My position on this matter is very much inspired by the integration of a Wittgensteinian understanding of the embeddedness of language in practice with the Merleau-Pontian phenomenological thesis that we as living, bodily beings are always already in the world in a prereflective non-thematized correspondence of body and world. Thus, a central claim for Wittgenstein to which I adhere is that the meaning of a word is its use in the ‘language games’ of our everyday lives. Importantly, I understand the concept of language game along the lines of Wittgenstein’s Scandinavian reception which emphasizes the role of practice, of understanding as doing and of ‘tacit knowledge’ in the interpretation of the term (Göranzon, 1987; Johannessen, 1988, 1992; Johannessen & Rolf, 1989; Josefson, 1998; Molander, 1992, 1996; Nordenstam, 1983). The point is, as Wittgenstein himself puts it: “Unsre Rede erhält durch unsre übrigen Handlungen ihren Sinn”1  (Wittgenstein, 1984b, § 229). The ‘language game’ is not just ‘a game of words’ where the meaning of one term is given by its relation to others, as some English interpreters seem to think (e.g. Ayer & Rhees, 1954; Kenny, 1973; Kripke, 1982; Strawson, 1954; P. Winch, 1990). It is an actual practice – ‘a game of doings’ – where what we say gets its meaning from its pragmatic interrelations with the holistic meaningfulness of the practice. And this holistic meaningfulness we always already have a pre-reflective understanding of through our very living it – that is the phenomenological insight of Merleau-Ponty and of Heidegger before him. We are, as Heidegger stressed, thrown into a world of meaning which matters to us, with which we attune and which forms the background of the “projections” we make concerning who we aim to be and what we aim to do. Attunement to it is incorporated in our bodily ‘take’ on the world – “[m]y body has its world, or understands its world, without having to make use of my ‘symbolic’ or ‘objectifying function’”, to quote Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, pp. 140-141)2.

In the present context, this Wittgensteinian-cum-phenomenological view on the one hand highlights the significance of our everyday understanding as the outset for any scientific, theoretical and/or reflective exposition of a topic. Everyday understandings are not just a starting point – a contingent one – they are the starting point; i.e. our necessary point of reference whether we are aware of it or not. They form and frame our approach to such expositions, both positively and negatively. Positively, by supplying (appropriate, useful or inappropriate, confusing) meaning to terms; negatively by demarcating some scientific renderings (such as some claims within quantum mechanics) as strange and incomprehensible. On the other hand, the everyday understanding is not a bedrock upon which scientific theories are to be tested – of course our everyday understanding of terms, and therefore of the phenomena they refer to, may be misguided, spurious or just plain wrong. Neither is our immediate experience purer, more innocent or uncorrupted by epistemological and ontological presuppositions than scientific explanations. The world of meaning into which we are always already thrown need not be articulated – indeed, given its status as primary outset for sense-making, it can only ever be partially and secondarily expressed – but its prereflective character just means the presuppositions easily go unnoticed in virtue of their very obviousness; not that they are non-existent or uncontestable.

Moreover, the presuppositions are not of a totally different kind than scientific understandings, nor are they necessarily unrelated to them. With Kuhn’s and Polanyi’s examples: The immediate experience of the scientist in viewing a bubble chamber photograph is that of a record of familiar subnuclear events, not of a picture of broken lines which is what the student sees (Kuhn, 1970, p. 111)3. And the immediate experience of the radiologist looking at X-ray depictions of the lungs is that of the presence or absence of signs of illness, not a picture of the ribs – which is all that ‘meets the eye’ of the layman or novice student ( Polanyi, 1962, p. 101). Thus, the scientist’s everyday practice of doing science will supply him with an ‘everyday understanding’ and with ‘immediate experiences’ loaded with the theories of these practices. Actually, to some extent this goes for lay people in present day society, too: Given the degree to which the dissemination of scientific results has been promoted over the past several hundred years, quite a lot of (popularized) scientific knowledge has also been incorporated into the background understanding with which non-scientists meet the world. That said, it should be noted, that theories do not totally determine what we perceive, as some philosophers have claimed (e.g. Churchland, 1979). This is witnessed for instance by the fact that we all – scientists and lay people alike – see the sun rise despite centuries of knowing that the Earth orbits the Sun. Similarly, optical illusions trick us irrespective of our knowing them to be illusions. ‘Immediate experience’ may be framed and loaded by theory; it inherently holds epistemological and ontological presuppositions, but it is not determined by theory and sometimes the presuppositions contradict the theory one believes to be true.

A large number of the key terms in philosophy as well as within the learning field exist in everyday parlance. Therefore, we have a background understanding of them related to their role in our everyday practices, with the lived experiences we have there. To some extent this background understanding is informed by the philosophical, psychological, and educational theories developed over the last centuries. Cartesianism, in recent decades supported by cognitive science theories of the mind as a computer, has e.g. left its mark in the everyday view of the body as a mere container for the software of the mind (Dreyfus, 1979; Johnson, 1987; for critiques of this view, cf. e.g. Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; for a theoretical proponent of the view, cf. Simon, 1996). On the other hand, everyday understandings and experiences are not congruent or even fully compatible with theories within these fields – perhaps not so surprisingly, considering the divergence and disagreement between the theories themselves. This means, firstly, that misunderstandings and equivocations easily ensue between everyday understanding of terms and theoretical ones. Secondly, it means that when this happens, the onus is on the side of theory to clarify its relationship with our everyday experiences since they (as argued above) constitute the meaning-rich basis for the theoretical terms – a meaning-rich base which ensures that even when intensions change somewhat between theories we are still referring to the same (kind of) phenomena across the intension change. The claim, to reiterate, is not that the meaning-rich base made up by our everyday understandings and experiences is incorrigible – everyday intensions may be confused or wrong, even to the point of designating non-existent phenomena. Rather, the claim is that the very fact that there is an immediate experience – however misguided or obscure – warrants that there is something which is the cause of or reason for the experience. And if science declares the everyday intensions spurious and the reference they delimit imaginary, then at the very least it must provide an explanation of what brought the experience about and how the allegedly spurious intensions relate to the scientific ones.

Returning to Jackson’s concern with conceptual analysis, the preceding paragraphs show that the role for philosophy here is not just to keep score of vocabulary shifts and to sound the alarm when equivocations are made or scientific theories “change the subject” as compared to what “we folk” expect it to be. On realizing that equivocations are made, philosophy should hold science to its responsibility of clarifying the relationship with everyday experiences. On realizing that a “subject change” has come about, philosophy should require science to justify the change by explicating which of the phenomena designated by everyday usage of terms are neglected and why this is thought to be appropriate. On realizing that parts of everyday usage is being dismissed as spurious, philosophy should ensure that the necessary account is given of how the ‘immediate experience’ involved in this usage came about and what sparked the allegedly wrong understanding implied by the usage. Even better, philosophy can take part in the clarification, justification, and explanation by investigating how various data such as results of conceptual analyses, “armchair intuitions”, phenomenological and hermeneutical analyses, commonsense observations and ditto “warning bells against speculation” fit with empirical data and the corresponding scientific theories. This amounts to enacting the role of dialogue partner with a voice of its own in one’s philosophizing with, and thereby taking a stand in disagreements between scientific and everyday understandings. As per illustration, this is precisely what I do when in Article 2 I argue that some situated learning theorists (Lave, 1997; Lave & Packer, 2008; Nielsen & Kvale, 2006; Packer, 2001; Packer & Goicoechea, 2000; Tanggaard, 2006; Wenger, 1998) go too far when they claim that identity issues necessarily have priority over issues of knowledge for the people involved. Or as Packer and Goicoechea have put it, that “knowing is not an end in itself, but a means to the ends of recognition and identity.” (Packer & Goicoechea, 2000, p. 235) The problem with this claim is that it stipulates by way of fiat a relationship between knowing and being which – if the terms are taken in their everyday sense – should rightfully be left open for empirical investigation. And which – if the terms are not taken in their everyday sense, but in the special socio-cultural one implied in certain statements – is more or less a tautology. In other words, I argue that the seemingly novel and thought-provoking claims of some situated learning theorists are in actual fact neither in that they build to a large extent on an equivocation between everyday meanings of words and a very special theoretical one.

  1. ”Our talk gets its meaning from the rest of our proceedings”, (Wittgenstein, 1969/1979) []
  2. “Mon corps a son monde ou comprend son monde sans avoir à passer par des “representations”, sans se subordonner à une “function symbolique” ou “objectivante” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1993, p. 164). Note that the English translation has left out the point about representations. []
  3. Note that both the student and the scientist will see the photograph as a picture or record – in contradistinction to someone unfamiliar with the practice of taking pictures for whom the immediate experience would not have this character. The student’s experience is thus also mediated by the practices he partakes in and the theoretical knowledge appertaining to these practices – it is not innocent or ‘theory-free’. []