Tag Archives: early modern philosophy

The Basic Conflict Between Phenomenology and Empiricism and Why it Matters


Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

Perhaps someone can explain exactly how phenomenology is actually different from phenomenalism when it comes to the question of objectivity. I think that the only difference might be Huserl’s idea about intersubjectivity-but that is consistent with phenomenalism. At the core of each is the idea that perception is the only foundation for objectivity. The move that empiricists would want to make is to say that there must be some grounding for our subjectivity that must ground our perception of the world whether we perceive it or not.
The existence of things in the world, in other words, can’t just depend on our perception of them. Is this a trap that phenomenalism and phenomenology fall into? It does seem that intersubjectivity involves the presumption that someone must perceive an object in order for it to be considered a reality. I don’t think it manages to avoid Hume’s more objectionable skepticism about unperceived objects, in other words.
Intersubjectivity seems about as good as it gets if you want to take phenomena as the basis for reality, however, since it is basically consistent with science. And yet it does seem to fall into the trap of Cartesian skepticism that perception makes the world rather than the other way around, or that it is our perception that validates the existence of things rather than that it is the existence of things that validates our perception. The trap being simply that no actual world apart from my perception needs to exist at all for the phenomenological viewpoint to follow. In other words my reality is consistent with a dream if the phenomenologist is right.

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Filed under Continental philosophy, Early modern philosophy corner

Descartes’ Cogito and Hintikka



It may be surprising for general readers to hear that Descartes’ famous “cogito” argument, which runs, “I think, therefore I am”, has been the subject of controversy among academics for the past few decades.  “What is there to dispute?”, one might wonder.  “Certainly”, it might be said, “Descartes must be right in saying that, if I am thinking, I must exist.  The one seems to be sufficient evidence for the other”.

Against this line of thought has arisen the following joke which seems to have proliferated in intro philosophy courses, and runs something like this:

Descartes walks into a bar.  The waiter asks, “Would you like a glass of Burgundy?”  Descartes answers, “I think not”, and vanishes in a puff of logical dust.

The line of thinking here is that if “Cogito, ergo sum” entails that whenever Descartes is thinking he should exist, it should also entail that if Descartes is not thinking, he does not exist.

The latter inference conceals a fallacy.  To see this clearly, consider what happens when the same type of reasoning is applied to the example red–>color.  Suppose the argument is that whenever I have red I can infer that I have a color. According to the argument pattern in the joke, it should also be the case that whenever I do not have red I do not have a color.  But this is obviously a mistake.  Moreover, it is an example of an invalid argument form (P->Q, ~P/~Q) which is an involves the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

Here are the steps, for convenience:

Consider this-

(1) Red –> Color

(2) ~Red

(3) ~Color  [Fallacy of denying the antecedent]

And now compare the same pattern to the one found in the Descartes joke-

(1) I think –> I exist

(2) I am not thinking

(3) Therefore, I do not exist [again, clearly a fallacy]

By contrast, note that when the argument is put into the form of modus tollens so that it runs, “I think -> I exist, I do not exist/I am not thinking” it comes out as a perfectly reasonable inference.  However, the inference, “if I am not thinking, then I do not exist” cannot be logically derived from  “I think, therefore I am”, except by introducing a fallacy.



We have an example above of an argument in which the cogito is treated as an inference.  At first glance it seems obvious that it should be.  This assumption has been challenged, however.  In a 1962 article titled, “Cogito, ergo sum: Inference or performance?” Jaakko Hintikka argued that the argument at least need not be considered as an inference and may be interpreted as a performance.  For example, Hintikka proposed the following reformulations of the cogito to bring out its performative aspect:

  1. “I am in that I think.”
  2.  “By thinking I perceive my existence.”

By claiming that the cogito can be treated as a performance, Hintikka is aligning it with a category of other statements like “I pronounce you man and wife” or “Let there be light”.  In each case, the sentence announces the action being performed.  In the case of the cogito, or so Hintikka would have it, in the performance of the action announced in 1 & 2, one will become aware that one exists.

When viewed as a performance, the argument should not be seen (so Austin stated) as having a truth value (i.e. being true or false) but should be evaluated in term of whether it is successful or not successful.  In other words, the success of 1 or 2 depends simply upon whether Descartes (or anyone else) is actually thinking.

Hintikka’s strategy becomes evident here: by recasting the cogito as a performance, the question of its cogency becomes less a matter of searching out the linkage between thinking and existing and more a question of simply performing a certain activity.


 Hintikka’s distinction between treating the cogito as either an inference or a performance generates a false dilemma.  I would like to argue that there is a way in which, by treating “I think, therefore I am” as an entailment the cogito can be viewed as both an inference and a performance without inconsistency.

[section explaining Hintikka’s motivation to be inserted here]

But how is this possible?  It was stated above that inferences have truth conditions while performatives are either successful or unsuccessful.  How then can they wind up in the same category?  The answer is that the cogito ought to be viewed as a statement that is true or false when it is uttered by someone.  This brings in both the performative and inferential aspects as follows: the statement as an inference is either true or false, but it is such that its truth or falsity depends upon whether the act of uttering it is actually (successfully) carried out.  Whenever this is done, whenever someone utters “I think, therefore I am”, the statement automatically becomes true if the person uttering it is using the statement in a self-referential way.  The fact that no one can deny the cogito, when uttered self referentially, makes it appear as though it were a statement (or proposition) and has independent standing as a true sentence; but, in fact, it is true whenever someone utters it.  The fact that the Latin word “cogito” may also be translated as “I am thinking” may be brought in as further support for this view.

This is not a trivial point in the context of assessing Hintikka’s argument.  First and foremost, it absolves scholars of the need to debate the relative merits of a performative vs. inferential view of the cogito, since they may be viewed, as explained above as working together synchonically.  I would argue that the cogito is an example of a case where the two mutually exclusive categories may overlap and actually reinforce one another.  By viewing the statement as an utterance we do not cancel out it inferential aspect.  Indeed, it is difficult to see how that might be possible with the word “ergo” present in the very formulation of the cogito.  Hintikka can only call the cogito a performance by eliminating the word; but arguably it is present even in his reformulations (see 1 and 2 above).  Certainly, one can reason, however banal it might now seem, that if one is thinking, one, in fact, must exist; but, moreover, it seems that Descartes must have had the discovery of the linkage between the two concepts in mind when he made the cogito the starting point of his attempt at constructing a purely deductive philosophical system.




Filed under Early modern philosophy corner

A Dialogue on Lockean Substratum

The following link is to a dialogue I wrote up on Lockean substratum.  You have to click on the link to see the PdF file.  I wrote it out long hand in a cafe since I have been experiencing technical difficulties with my laptop.

Dialogue on Lockean Substratum


Opinion on the notion of Substratum

Opinion: better alternatives than Aristotelian substratum may be found to ground the existence of the attributes of substances. One such is presented here, which is put forward as logically consistent and one that satisfies both the demands of Aristotelians and their Empiricist opponents.

The Issue~

Before Tina Turner sang, “We don’t need another Hero” Locke wrote in a similar way about the non-necessity of Aristotelian substratum. Why did people think that everyday objects needed a substratum to be sufficiently groundedontologically? Well, the reasoning can be taken as proceeding like this:

When we look at everyday objects, we can see that they have certain attributes, such as a certain height or color or weight.
These attributes can be said to have a certain order of dependence one upon another: for example, an object has a color only if it first has extension in space. Only if an object is extended in space, having at least two dimensions, it might be said, can it thereby have a color. This is true even in one’s imagination. Necessarily, if an object has a color it has a height and width, if not a depth and weight at a certain time.
But, the advocate of substrata would claim, extension is not enough to establish an object as a real entity by itself. Being a mere attribute of an object it cannot exist on its own.
The justification for #3 is related to #2 in the sense that it involves ontological dependence. This time the dependence is spoken of in terms of “inherence”. The argument goes as follows: (a) the qualities of an object such as its colors, which are a type of accident (see #1) cannot exist on their own without belonging to or inhering in a substance; (b) in the same way, the quantitative accidental attributes of a substance, such as its height or weight or length cannot exist apart from an object. Moreover, (c) the qualities and quantitative attributes of an object make up the sum total of an object’s internal attributes (i.e. those that are not relative and depend upon its internal attributes). But (d) all such attributes must inhere in something since they cannot exist on their own (see a-c). Hence (e) all such attributes must depend upon a further something that might ground their existence. That further something is what the Aristotelian would call a substratum.
The claim that this argument can be taken as a synopsis of the Aristotelian view on “Substance” perhaps needs some defense. This can be presented briefly, but I think conclusively, as follows.

The word Aristotle uses that is usually translated as “substrate” in the Categories is to hypokeimenon, or literally, “the underlying (something)”, which is often translated as “subject” (as in the grammatical subject of predicates). It should be seen at the outset that the term does double duty in the Categories as a term for a grammatical subject (as a subject for predicates) and for a subject in the sense of substance: e.g. Aristotle writes in Chapter 2 of the Categories, “By being ‘present in a subject’ I do not mean present as parts are present in a whole, but being incapable of existence apart from the said subject.” By introducing the notion of accidents as existing in a substance (the Greek word here is hypokeimenon as above) Aristotle is in effect shifting the ontological ground of his discussion from the consideration of the role of a subject as a bit of grammar to subject as a countable entity.

The effect is such that the discussion of the hypokeimenon-subject of the second chapter of the Categories naturally bridges over into Aristotle’s further discussion of ousia-subject in the fifth chapter. It is significant that Aristotle has an entitative sense of “subject” in mind in the second chapter because it lays the foundation for a dualism between substance and accident that follows from his claim (quoted above) that accidents cannot exist on their own (chapter 2), although a substance can (implicit in chapter 2 where he identifies subjects as unitary things such as individual horses and men in contrast to things that are present in a subject, and explicit in chapter 5 where Aristotle says that the ability to subsist is one of the primary differentiating characteristics of a substance).

The non-reducibility of accident to substance follows from this duality: one subsists while the other merely “exists in” (see 4 a and b above). But this in turn yields the further result that no collection of accidents can yield a substance. This reasoning is, quite arguably, implicit in Aristotle’s distinction between accidental and substantial change in the first Chapter of his lectures on Physics. It is this non-reducibility that provides the basis for the Lockean critique of Aristotle’s notion of substance.

It is, of course, fairly well established that Locke, in the end, decides to keep substrata in his inventory of “the things that are”. But he does so only after presenting a very compelling empiricist counterargument that has left many wondering whether he could actually be serious about maintaining that there are such things as substrata in the universe. His counterargument can be related to the dualism between substance and accident mentioned above.

Essentially, Locke’s argument works on the irreducibility of accident to substance that underlies that dualism. In Book II, ch. xxiii of his “Essay” Locke points out that if it were asked wherein qualities (secondary qualities) inhere in a substance one could answer that they inhere in the quantitative features of an object (in Locke’s terminology, their primary qualities). But if one were to press further and ask wherein the primary qualities of an object inhere, one could only answer that it must be an unknown something-something the senses do not perceive. It can be seen here that Locke is attempting to be a consistent empiricist in claiming that the notion of substratum is unfounded: since it cannot be sensed, it violates the basic criterion for what any good empiricist would accept into his or her ontology.  This type of argument might be called the “Indian argument” for short, since it has been referred to as such in the secondary literature.

Thus, the issue substratum theory poses comes to this: one can either say with Aristotle that a substratum is necessary as a ground or support for things that cannot exist on their own, or one can side with Locke’s empiricist argument against substrata (the indian argument) in saying that no such entity can be admitted into one’s ontology on empiricist grounds. Moreover, to admit substrata into one’s ontology is implicitly to move from a monistic position (materialism or phenomenalism) to a dualistic one (materialism plus an immaterial entity): since only “qualities” in Locke’s terminology, or “accidents” in Aristotle’s can by their very nature, be perceived, substrata, or substances without attributes must be taken to be imperceptible by their very nature. Hence it follows that for the substratum theorist, there must be at least two basic kinds of things: those that are perceptible and those that are imperceptible by their very nature. In admitting substrata into his ontology, Locke basically affirmed his commitment to a kind of dualism that in many respects mirrored Cartesian dualism, and for similar reasons (e.g. non-reducibility), has engendered dissatisfaction ever since.


The argument I would like to advance in response to this issue is that it is unnecessary to suppose substrata as a ground for accidents/qualities. This position prompts two lines of inquiry: firstly, can the quantitative features of an object exist on their own or do they require something wherein they may exist? I.e., how does one overcome the common sense view that says things like a particular height or weight must inhere in an object in order to have any reality? Does this not inescapably prompt the need to suppose the existence of a substrate wherein their existence may be grounded? Secondly, if the quantitative features of an object can somehow be taken to be the fundamental ground of being of an object and this in turn implies either a materialistic or phenomenalistic monism, can such a monism do all the metaphysical work the alternative dualism with its supposed substratum was able to do? An affirmative answer to the latter question can be justified through resolving the problems posed by the first line of inquiry: basically, a satisfactory monism will be able to do all the metaphysical work that the alternative dualism was able to do without supposing a fundamentally imperceptible substratum. Since substrata have this characteristic, they would seem to deserve the title of “occult entity” as much as any others of the same ilk and their elimination would seem to be desirable from both an epistemic and an empirical point of view if one happens to be committed to empirical principles in drawing up the inventory of one’s ontology. Let’s proceed then to see what can be done to eliminate substrata.

Supporting arguments~

Simply put, the key to eliminating substrata is to let the term “substance” indicate an entity that essentially includes all its attributes (or qualities or accidents) in its concept. This might be taken to be a Leibnizian view of substance. The next move is to see that, taking on the idea of the attributes of a substance as fundamentally dependent beings, they imply a substance. Thus, we are left with the following set of logical relationships between substances and their attributes: necessarily, if there is an attribute, then there is a substance; but, moreover, only if there is a substance can there be an attribute. If one wants to know wherein an attribute exists, it may be answered that it exists in or belongs to a substance; but only if there is a substance may there be an attribute at all. The latter justifies the idea that substance can function as the ground of existence for attributes, while the former affirms the basic desire to say that attributes must exist in something other than themselves.

This view of things fits perfectly well with any empiricist/phenomenalist view of perception that begins with particular percepts as a basic epistemic starting point. Consider an object; let’s say, a book, for example: the book may be considered a substance, while its color or height may be considered as belonging to it as a substance. The substance in this case is an independent entity but not one that is devoid of attributes. Indeed, as above, the existence of substance can be taken to pre-suppose the existence of attributes in a non-circular manner. Here again, the perceptible phenomenal attributes belong to the book as to a substance that grounds their existence; but that substance in turn sufficiently implies the existence of at least one attribute.

This may seem rough and ready given the long standing persistence of this metaphysical issue. But it should be enough merely to ask the reader to consider the logic that prompts the series of moves presented above. Consider that in posing the definition of substance presented here (seemingly out of thin air?) as an alternative to substratum theory, what has been shown is the non-necessity of substratum theory, provided that the version of the relationship between substances and their attributes is not self contradictory and can be said to be basically sound. The two paragraphs immediately above can be taken as answering to both of those requirements.

The desire to reify substance, to make it into a separate entity apart from its attributes, seems to follow from a mistake in thinking that whatever substance is, it must be something independent not only from other substances but also from its own attributes. It might be thought, for example, that since a substance may undergo a change in its attributes (for example changing from short to tall) it must be independent from its attributes. But this assumption is non-necessary from a logical standpoint: it may be said, alternatively, that substance sufficiently implies the existence of at least one attribute while the existence of an attribute necessarily implies a substance. Moreover, the irreducibility arguments above for an independent substance need only lead to the conclusion that a substance should be distinguished from its attributes from a conceptual standpoint: clearly, attributes must be fundamentally different from substances in some way, but that need not imply a total independence in re from one another. The above way of construing their inter-relationship allows for conceptual dependence on a logical basis with greater fidelity to the epistemological basis for that dependence than substratum theory offers.

In conclusion, the definition of substance presented above allows for a way to conceive of substance that satisfies the demand for both irreducibility required by Aristotelians and other substance dualists and the epistemological grounding in perception sought by phenomenalists or materialists. It makes the two compatible by simply distinguishing conceptual independence from interdependence in re in a way that is logically valid and, arguably, sound. As a viable alternative, it argues against the need to construe substances as substrata.

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