Philosophy and the Modern Mind

Philosophy and the Modern Mind (Full-Text PDF)

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Philosophy and the Modern Mind:  A Philosophical Critique of Modern Western Civilization, by E. M. Adams (Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1975); reprinted by University Press of America, Lanham, MD, 1985), 232 pages.

from pp.7-13, 15, and 17-19:

     "The culture of a society, then, as I am using the term, consists most fundamentally of its ways and means of semantically relating to and appropriating the world and secondarily the world as semantically appropriated in the shared experiences and aspirations of the people and their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. Thus a culture consists of the language, symbols, myths, rituals, pageants, religion, art, skills, ethics, history, science, mathematics, theology, and philosophy a society has developed or learned from others and is prepared to transmit to the new generation.

      It is clear that the culture of a society is most intimately related to the structure of the consciousness of the people. It has developed out of the long semantic commerce of the people with reality. It began in the dim past with beings not yet people who became human beings only at a certain stage of cultural development. Indeed one cannot be a human being, in the full sense of the term, merely by being biologically generated by human parents and physically maturing. A rabbit biologically generated and physically nurtured for a short time can go on to become a mature rabbit without ever contacting another rabbit after birth, and he will live the life of a rabbit. But a human being has to be culturally generated and nurtured. Under his own development, if he could physically survive, a man would, no doubt, come to have rudimentary experiences, memory, and imagination, and perhaps in a more advanced form than other animals because of a greater native intelligence. He would perhaps develop some rudimentary semantic tools, but not enough to extend his semantic powers to the point he would have distinctly human modes of consciousness. Without language and symbols to deepen and to structure his subjectivity, without beliefs, myths, and theories to organize his consciousness into a unity and to form an image of the self and the world, one would not be an 'I,' a person, capable of moral, religious, and artistic experiences and intellectual thought. Man's center of gravity is not in his biological being, but in his selfhood. This is the truth in the claim that man is not an animal among other animals, but a spiritual being. And as a spiritual being he is culturally dependent…

      A culture as a complex structure of meaning may seem to be a very diffused thing, difficult to grasp and to understand in its workings. Different ways of studying it yield quite different findings, for each method of study can find only what it by its nature can locate. An empirical scientific approach in a behavioral mode, which is prominent in the social sciences, would reduce all that I am calling the structure of consciousness to dispositions to behave in publicly observable ways and all that I am calling culture to behavioral dispositions which manifest themselves in  social structures and institutions, or, according to this view, observable patterns of behavior. And for the more positivistically inclined who reject contrary-to-fact conditionals, even the dispositions drop out and we have only patterns of behavior. This, I think, fails to delineate the subject matter in its own indigenous categories and, therefore, social science, in this mode, is condemned to systematic misrepresentation and falsification. It tells a lot of little truths from within its perspective in the interest of a big falsehood. This is but an aspect of the difficulty in modern culture which we have already intimated and are to probe more deeply. Only a humanistic approach, the proper approach of the humanities, can grasp a culture in terms of its own structure and thus not be distorting. This is to relate to and to try to understand the contents, structure, and workings of a culture in much the same way as we try to understand a person from within the perspective of a human, a person to person, encounter with him. This involves being open to him, that is, having all our channels open through which we can acquire knowledge of him and gain insight into and understanding of him. Unless we come to understand the world in general and the particular situations of his life as they are semantically present to him, and the presuppositions, assumptions, and aspirations from which he reasons and deliberates, we will have missed him entirely. Much the same can be said in our study of a culture.

      As indicated earlier, the most fundamental and the most important aspect of a culture is its accepted ways and means of semantically relating to and appropriating the world. These, whether ever articulated or not, constitute the basic philosophical assumptions of the culture about the semantic and knowledge-yielding powers of the human mind.

      In the case of governments, and of organizations in general, we have constitutions. They are sets of normative principles which define the structure, powers, and ways of acting of their respective organizations. In the area of language, we have a normative structure, which may be formulated as grammatical and semantical rules, that determines the structure of sentences and what makes linguistic sense. In a somewhat parallel way, we may speak of the constitutional principles or logical grammar of the human mind by virtue of which we have the powers to experience, to think, to reason, to talk, and to act in the various ways in which we do. We may also speak of them as categorial principles, for philosophers have long spoken of whatever can be known about the objects of knowledge and of the world in general from the constitutional structure of experience and thought as the categorial structure of reality. For example, it seems that we can determine that there are facts and something about their structure from the logical grammar of statements, i.e., that some at least involve the exemplification of properties by particulars (e.g., this pencil is blue). These terms ('facts,' 'particulars,' 'properties,' 'exemplification') are taken to be categorial concepts and thus to indicate categorial features of reality. They have quite a different status in our conceptual system than empirical concepts, such as 'buildings,' 'boards,' 'nails,' and 'paint.'

     The assumptions of a culture about these principles of the mind may be spoken of as a cultural mind, for they constitute the perspective of the culture on the world and define the forms and limits of the structure of meaning which they generate. They determine what is possible, impossible, and necessary from within the cultural view, leaving only what is actual among the possible to be determined by encounters with the world in the accepted ways. Of course a cultural mind may be affected in subtle and indirect ways by the people's commerce with the world from within the cultural perspective, but the assumptions which constitute the cultural mind have considerable staying power, for they legislate what the results of such encounters can and cannot be and therefore are not responsible to nor subject to control by such findings, at least not in any direct way.

      Consider the existential question, 'Are there ghosts?' It looks very much like 'Are there tigers in Africa?' or 'Are there flying saucers?' If it were like these questions, empirical investigations would be the way to seek an answer. But for two people in disagreement about whether there are ghosts, assuming their disagreement to be typical for believers and disbelievers in such matters, empirical investigations would not lead to agreement. What seemed or appeared to them to be the case in a given situation might be identical. Yet one might say that he saw a ghost, whereas the other would not. Both might agree that their perceptual experiences were such that they were not veridical experiences of a person with a physical body. For the disbeliever, this would mean that their experiences simply were not veridical. The believer, however, might take them to be veridical experiences of a real but nonphysical object. This would not be regarded as a possibility by the disbeliever, for his assumptions about the principles of veridical experience and thus about the marks of real objects of perception would rule it out. Thus if they should try to settle their disagreement in an intelligent, responsible manner, they would not resort to empirical investigations but to a critical examination of their assumptions about the constitutional principles of veridical perceptions and the categorial marks of the real.

       Our categorial assumptions show themselves in the way in which we define and attempt to solve problems. Some years ago strange happenings in a house on Long Island attracted national attention. A housewife was disturbed by dishes jumping off tables, bottles unscrewing their caps and jumping off shelves, furniture moving around in the house, and the like. When she first told her husband about some of these occurrences, he thought she needed a vacation. But then some of them happened in his presence. In the end a number of people were involved in investigating the situation. The local police department put a special investigator on the case. Bell Laboratories sent a physicist. The Parapsychology Department of Duke University sent an investigator. The family's priest was involved. The priest entertained the possibility that the house was demon possessed and performed an ancient ceremony of exorcism. The parapsychologist talked seriously about the possibility of a poltergeist. The physicist concluded that the disturbances were caused by high frequency sound waves from subterranean machinery that happened to converge on the house from different directions on certain days because of the depth of the freezing of the earth. No such waves were detected nor their sources located. But this was the only uneliminated possibility open to the physicist. Neither the demon nor the poltergeist hypothesis was a possibility for him.

      In this case, we find the investigators operating with different philosophical assumptions about the constitutional principles of the mind and the categorial structure of the world. The physicist, and most of us in the modern world would agree with him, does not simply reject the hypothesis of the priest and the parapsychologist as false or improbable but as superstition. He does not regard them as formulating possibilities for the world as he conceives it. It is not that the "statements" are false but that the "concepts" in terms of which they are formulated have no place in his conceptual system. They are regarded as pseudo or meaningless. That whole way of thinking is rejected as groundless on the basis of certain assumptions or beliefs about the epistemic (knowledge-yielding) powers of the human mind.

       A culture with a distorted world view grounded in false assumptions about the constitutional principles of the human mind is deranged. Life lived from within it is like that of a mad man. One cannot through the exercise of his powers, structured by the internalized culture, know and cope with reality. All his efforts from within the culture suffer from the cultural defects, and, therefore, he cannot discover and correct these defects themselves without transcending the distorted world view and its underlying assumptions about the categorial structure of experience and thought.

        …Philosophy cannot offer divine grace, not even philosophical grace, as a cure for cultural derangement, but it does offer a kind of diagnosis and therapy. There are two symptoms of derangement to which we should be alert, namely (1) a general depression or spiritual malaise of a people whose lives are structured by the culture and (2) the philosophical perplexities the culture generates.

        …The spirit of a culture is the pervasive sense of the normative state of life lived from within the cultural perspective. It may be happy and optimistic or unhappy and despairing. The issue is whether the cultural mind, as a way of structuring the experience, thought, aspirations, and action of the people, makes possible knowledge of reality, competence and strength in coping with reality, and, in general, high life-morale and human well being. A systematic tendency toward general depression and wretchedness of the spirit of a people indicates derangement in the cultural mind that distorts our efforts to know and to cope with reality.

       Where the general spirit of a culture, or at least the persistent mood of the people, especially a good spirit and high morale in the face of particular adversities or general depression in the face of particular successes, may indicate something about the normative state of the culture in general, the philosophical perplexities a culture generates may be more specific. They are like localized pains. Examination of the trouble spots they locate may reveal specific perverting philosophical assumptions in the makeup of the cultural mind. But in order to be able to recognize a philosophical perplexity, we must be able to sort out philosophical problems from other kinds.

      …Ordinary logical incompatibilities call into question the veridicality of some experience, the legitimacy of some desire, the soundness of some decision, plan, or policy, or the truth of some belief. Matters can be set right by a reassignment of legitimacy or truth values, like, for example, rejecting the veridicality of some experience or the truth of some proposition. Apparent inconsistencies of this kind initiate ordinary inquiries and scientific investigation. Such problems are solved when we achieve a network of experiences, expectations, beliefs, attitudes, plans, and the like that are not only free from inconsistency but are coherent in the sense that they are mutually supporting. To replace any item in a coherent network with its negative would generate a logical incompatibility (which may be weaker than a full-blown inconsistency) within the system. Just as logical incompatibility is our chief symptom of trouble, coherence is our chief mark of correctness and truth.

       There are logical difficulties more vicious than ordinary logical incompatibilities. In the area of discourse, such difficulties not only call into question the truth of some statement, for example, but whether some apparent statement taken to be true is even a genuine statement at all. In other words, the difficulty calls into question the meaningfulness of some sentence or type of sentence rather than merely its truth-value.

     These difficulties often show themselves in brain-teasing paradoxes. One is the so-called liar's paradox. In its ancient form, it was stated this way: Epimenides, the Cretan, said, 'All Cretans are liars.' It needs more careful formulation. Something like this would be better: Epimenides, the Cretan, said, 'All Cretans, including myself, always lie.'

      …Consider another simple example, the so-called heterological paradox. A homological word is by definition one that is true of itself .For example, 'short' is a short word, containing only five letters. A heterological word is by definition one that is not homological. 'Long,' for example, is heterological, for it is not long, having only four letters. It seems obvious that every word must be either homological or heterological. But what about the word 'heterological'? If it is homological (true of itself), then it is heterological, for we are talking about the word 'heterological' itself. But also if it is homological, then it is not heterological, for 'homological' and 'heterological' are by definition negates of each other. Furthermore if 'heterological' is heterological, then it is homological by virtue of what the statement says. Thus if 'heterological' is true of itself, it is both true of itself and not true of itself; and if it is not true of itself, it is both not true of itself and true of itself. This is another logical difficulty that does not simply call into question the truth value of some statement, but the very meaningfulness of what appears to be an innocent sentence. These examples may seem trivial, for the particular sentences whose meaningfulness is brought into question are of no great moment. But they exemplify an important kind of perplexity, that generated not by ordinary inconsistencies or logical incompatibilities but by paradoxes, antinomies, paralogisms, and other logical oddities and incongruities which are symptoms of trouble in our ways of semantically appropriating reality and relating to the world, trouble in our ways of experiencing and thinking.

        …The question is whether the modern Western mind is deranged— whether the distinctively modern Western assumptions about the constitutional principles of the human mind are in error in such a way that they systematically thwart us in our efforts to know and to cope with reality and to live successfully."

front cover of Philosophy and the Modern Mind

PDF--Alternate Cover