Sophia Volume VI  - 2003

From Nothingness to Authenticity:

A Treatment of Sartre’s Philosophy

Robert Tarantino

McGill University


"Consciousness is a being the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being."[1]

The fundamental project of this paper is to make clear the above statement; it will be an attempt at understanding the nothingness of being and the role that this plays in Sartre’s philosophy. The structure of this project is three-fold: (i) to explain the above statement in relation to both freedom and bad faith, (ii) to analyze the role of bad faith in Sartre’s philosophy by coming to an understanding of how and why bad faith is an essential structure of consciousness, and (iii) to evaluate Sartre’s position by examining the question of whether or not one can ever escape bad faith. This evaluation will, in turn, lend itself to a critical analysis of bad faith whereupon I will discuss the role of authenticity. I hope to show that while it is possible to escape bad faith, the essential structure of consciousness, as stated in the initial passage, limits one’s ability to live an authentic life in the traditional sense. It will become clear that authenticity is possible, within Sartre’s work, only by redefining what it means to live an authentic life.


I. Consciousness is

Sartre’s passage, used as a starting point for this investigation, purports to define the nature of consciousness. A preliminary analysis of this statement yields a rather simple, yet profound, explanation of this nature. By breaking down the initial passage into its logical components we first retrieve a simple identity claim: consciousness is a being. The second part of the passage qualifies the first by giving a property to the identity claim: a being that is aware of its own nothingness. We can now understand the initial claim as stating that consciousness is both being and nothingness. This much seems clear.


The initial statement, thus deconstructed, sets up the structure of one’s consciousness as being and nothingness. We can see a reciprocal relationship between consciousness and being where consciousness is a being and being is, simply put, just consciousness. It is this structure of consciousness, set up as such, that allows for both freedom and bad faith to follow. The part of this structure that needs elucidation now is the concept of nothingness.


II. Nothingness, freedom, anguish, and bad faith

Nothingness is first understood as a lacking in consciousness, i.e., that consciousness is empty, that it is not a thing, and therefore we say it is nothingness. Since consciousness is empty it is always consciousness of something and, in this sense, it is intentional. Intentionality describes the way in which consciousness seeks to become something by filling itself up with things outside of itself, by tending toward these things. The emptiness of consciousness is important because it means that consciousness cannot be its own motive since it is empty of all content. It is this property of consciousness that allows room for freedom in our lives but freedom understood as having nihilating consequences.

Freedom is a concept that is well understood in relation to anguish. Anguish is fear of my own possibilities and my own freedom in a given situation. Anguish reveals to me my consciousness as freedom by presenting before me the full range of my possibilities. Furthermore, these are all presented as equally possible paths to take and I fear myself in light of this truth. This becomes the basis for freedom as having a nihilating structure, as Sartre says, "freedom gnaws away at my possibles."[2]

In his example of the future, Sartre talks about anguish as experienced by a man who walks along a precipice and confronts his freedom by acknowledging all of the possibilities he has before him (i.e. to continue on walking, to throw himself over the edge, and so on). A decision must be reached and when it is, all of the unchosen possibilities fade away as no longer possible. Thus freedom nihilates my possibilities since I must choose one course of action over the others. Anguish is this moment of fear when you realize your consciousness as freedom, which allows you to grasp the nature of your being as having a nihilating structure: for every choice you make you necessarily nihilate the alternatives.

The structure of consciousness as both being and nothingness is what allows for this anguish. Nothingness, seen as empty consciousness, means that motivation comes from without. On the edge of the precipice my consciousness is filled with my present situation and my future possibilities. Anguish is knowing that I can choose to throw myself over the edge, and this is what presents to me my consciousness as freedom. Nothingness, seen as nihilation, is clear from this example of anguish. When I choose to walk away from the edge I nihilate that alternate possibility of having thrown myself over.


Moreover, freedom has a nihilating structure because it necessitates that a person exist always in the mode of not-being, which Sartre calls a "nihilating structure of temporality."[3] In regard to the future it is clear that I am not the self that I will eventually be. The self that I will eventually be is dependent upon the choices that I make presently. With regard to the past I am no longer the person that I was and I am now a self that I was not a moment ago. Thus, since I can only live in the present, I must by necessity always be a self in the mode of not-being–in the mode of not being what I was and not being what I will become. Thus freedom is seen as being nihilating since it always recreates the person that I am and continually keeps me in a state of not-being. This freedom, revealed to me through anguish, is possible as a consequence of my consciousness, which is both being and nothingness.

Nothingness in the mode of not-being can also be understood in relation to bad faith. Bad faith is described as a sort of self-deception, as anguish-in-order-to-flee-anguish, as an escape from myself. Similar to lying, I hide a truth from myself in an attempt to flee or escape the being that I am and in this sense bad faith is negation turned inward. I am saying "No" to myself in an attempt not to be the being that I am. Sartre calls this "being-in-order-not-to-be"[4]and "a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is."[5]


Bad faith is an essential structure of consciousness because the properties of a person in bad faith are like those of consciousness in general. Moreover, bad faith is essential because it puts the nothingness of consciousness into action. Consciousness has been described as an awareness of its own nothingness and bad faith as an attempt to flee oneself in order not to be. In both cases there is a negation: consciousness in the mode of not-being and bad faith as acting this out in the world. Bad faith is an essential structure of consciousness since it takes the nothingness of consciousness as a starting place for its own escape from itself.


Thus far, Sartre’s definition of the nature of consciousness has been deconstructed into both being and nothingness. The structure of consciousness, as such, is what allows for our freedom and our susceptibility of falling into bad faith. Being is to be understood as consciousness, which holds the property of being aware of its own nothingness. Nothingness has been shown to take on several forms. First, nothingness refers to consciousness itself as being not-a-thing, as being empty of all content. Consciousness is nothing in that it is wholly made up of things outside of itself–a property which is termed ‘intentionality.’ Second, nothingness refers to our being (or consciousness) as (i) having a nihilating structure as revealed through the freedom of anguish, and (ii) being in the mode of not-being, viewed through a temporal lens. Bad faith is our response to situations that arise in which we attempt to flee our very being as a way of coping with the world thus presented. Bad faith implies a unified consciousness since I am attempting to lie to myself–it is negation turned inward. Bad faith is essential to the structure of consciousness since it is the acting out of the nothingness inherent within consciousness itself. If we are concerned at all with finding a way to live an authentic life, it is imperative now that we find a way to escape bad faith.


III. Escaping Bad Faith

Knowing that bad faith is a sort of self-deception and a negation in the mode of not-being, it is imperative to consider whether or not one can escape bad faith itself. It seems that if one can escape bad faith they will be authentic because authenticity implies a certain honesty towards oneself and bad faith is quite the opposite. This might, however, imply a contradiction between authenticity and consciousness itself. Since bad faith has been said to be an essential structure of consciousness it implies that consciousness would not be what it is if it were not to have bad faith and it, therefore, seems that authenticity is opposed to consciousness in its most basic form since it is the antithesis of bad faith.


By defining bad faith as an escape from oneself, the question of whether or not we can ever escape bad faith is really a question asking if we can escape ourselves. Since we know that we can indeed escape ourselves through bad faith, it seems as though we can only escape bad faith by being in bad faith. This vicious circle seems highly problematic and certainly destructive, however there is a solution.

The way to escape bad faith is to live in good faith, or to live authentically. It is not clear, however, exactly what is meant by authenticity nor if it is possible to achieve an authentic life within Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. It is critical, now, to define what is meant by ‘authenticity’ and to distinguish it from Sartre’s use of ‘sincerity’. It will be shown that while authenticity and sincerity are traditionally seen as meaning the same thing, sincerity, according to Sartre, is more closely related to bad faith. This causes problems for our understanding of authenticity.


Authenticity is said to be the antithesis of bad faith. To be authentic implies that it is possible not to be in bad faith, in other words, to escape bad faith. Authenticity is traditionally understood as one living genuinely, being honest to themselves, and so on. Sincerity is conventionally understood as being synonymous with authenticity, as Sartre puts it, "To be sincere is to be what one is."[6] The problem is whether or not ‘being what one is’ is authenticity or bad faith.

We know that the structure of consciousness is both being and nothingness, a nihilating structure like the nihilating structure of bad faith. Since bad faith is an essential structure of consciousness, since fleeing oneself in bad faith is a necessary consequence of consciousness, it seems as though acting in bad faith is simply being what one is. If this is the case then sincerity is bad faith. If being sincere is simply being in bad faith then sincerity can no longer be synonymous with authenticity if authenticity is the antithesis of bad faith. The most effective example of sincerity that Sartre describes is that of shame and this will be used to better understand how one can escape from bad faith.


Shame is a recognition that I am as the Other sees me with respect to some act of my own volition. (Sartre uses the example of a person looking into a room through a key hole and being spotted by someone else in the hallway).[7] Shame is pre-reflective and it seems to be in the mode of being rather than not-being. In light of the Other I lose my freedom in that I cannot help being seen as an object. Freedom has been said to be nihilating and, in shame, since I lose my freedom, it seems as though a part of the nihilating structure of my being is temporarily lost. I have now become a something in the eyes of the Other, I am now filling up the nothingness of another’s consciousness. I am something inasmuch as I am being that which I am–I am authentic, for I am no longer in the mode of not-being (bad faith) but rather in the mode of being. I can escape shame by falling into bad faith but since I am attempting here to find an escape from bad faith I will hesitate in falling back and rather stay for a moment in this authentic state. In this case I have now found an escape from bad faith in that I have freely chosen an action that, in light of the Other, constitutes me in such a way that I am authentically being.

Prima facie it seems as though I have escaped bad faith by being caught in an act that renders me an object of another’s consciousness: a something in the mode of being. My nihilating ability is temporarily lost through a loss of my freedom in capture. I have escaped bad faith, only momentarily, by being caught as what I am. But this method of escape is a faŤade. Being what I am has already been defined as sincerity and sincerity, as we know, is nothing more than bad faith itself. The authenticity that is achieved through the look of the Other is really just sincerity–for I don’t choose my shame, rather it is thrust upon me. If sincerity is simply being what I am and this occurs primarily through shame (though sincerity is also possible through pride), then my relief from bad faith is momentarily achieved, but it is not authenticity unless authenticity is actually sincerity. It is clear that bad faith can be momentarily suspended in an apparent bout of authenticity (i.e. good faith), but in this case authenticity fulfills Sartre’s definition of sincerity (being what one is), which is really just bad faith.

The first attempt at escaping from bad faith proved circular and quite problematic. Escaping bad faith was shown to be an attempt at escaping oneself, which is achieved through bad faith. Moving onto an examination of shame and sincerity, it was hoped that an escape would be possible but it seems as though, once again, we are reduced to finding escape only through bad faith itself. These conclusions have disastrous consequences for authenticity. The project now is to figure out whether or not authenticity is a real possibility for human beings and, if so, how we go about achieving it.


IV. Making Room for Authenticity

I would like to believe that the structure of my very being allows me to live authentically, yet I fear that by necessity of the nothingness of my being I am limited to living a life primarily in bad faith and that, save moments of clarity, I generally live my life as a lie. It seems that Sartre’s philosophy leaves little room for authenticity and this is both problematic and disheartening.


According to Sartre, consciousness is being and nothingness, it is a being that is aware of its own inherent nothingness. Bad faith is an essential structure of my consciousness, meaning that bad faith is inseparable from my consciousness. This implies that my consciousness embodies the properties of bad faith, or in other words, that my consciousness is essentially fleeing from its own being, that it continually tries to escape itself and if it cannot it merely resolves to live itself out as self-deception. The only chance I have to be authentic, within this framework, is to be caught in action by the look of the Other, whereby I lose a part of my freedom and am changed into an object of someone else’s consciousness. It has been shown, however, that these moments of authenticity, of good faith, are really just moments of sincerity, which in turn is really just bad faith. I am faced with an unrelenting sense of dread, which whispers quietly into my ear that bad faith is inescapable. But do not let this sense of dread take over your sense of being, for it is possible not to be in bad faith.


First, it is clear from the writings of Sartre that one is not always in bad faith. There are moments of good faith, of cynicism, of anguish, and so on. If one is not in bad faith then there is no need to escape it. During moments of anguish and moments of shame, bad faith is suspended. In anguish the true nature of your consciousness as freedom is a moment of utter truth, a moment of purity and clarity, that is undoubtedly not self-deception nor inward negation. In moments of shame (or pride) I am no longer existing in the mode of not-being, but rather I am existing in the mode of being. I can escape shame by attempting to fall into bad faith, but for that brief moment I am as the Other wishes to see me, in his or her world, like a deer caught in headlights. So it is possible not to be in bad faith, but what this has to say about authenticity is still unclear.


I want to define authenticity as one being true to him or herself, as being honest with others and with oneself, in a sense, being genuine to the true nature of one’s being. Bad faith is opposed to this since it is self-deception. Sartre has defined sincerity as ‘being what one is’ and this seems to be exactly what I want to call authenticity, but there is a problem since Sartre likens sincerity to bad faith and opposes bad faith with authenticity. While sincerity is compatible with bad faith, authenticity seems not to be.


Bad faith has been shown to be an essential structure of consciousness for consciousness is simply a being that is nothingness–nothingness that is either nihilating or in the mode of not-being. If consciousness and bad faith are both in the mode of not-being, then it would seem that to live contrary to the structure of one’s own consciousness (that which entails bad faith), would be inauthentic. Perhaps, then, bad faith is a more authentic way to live since it holds more strictly to the structure of one’s consciousness.


Bad faith is, in a sense, living authentically because being in bad faith is adhering to a critical structure of your being. Self-deception seems inauthentic but if you are aware of the nature of your being on a grander scale (i.e. being conscious of and reflective upon the structure of your being, which causes bad faith; a sort of meta apprehension of your being), then it would seem as though you have gained some sort of authenticity–some sort of perspective about yourself that allows you to live genuinely whether in bad faith or not. Being aware of and accountable to your own being as a consciousness that is empty and nihilating, and that can and does resort to bad faith, is a genuine grasp of your nature and can be seen as an authentic way to live.


Good faith is not self-deception, but if naVve, is inauthentic in its own right. Living a life of ignorant good faith seems just to be a masked form of bad faith. In some sense a life of authenticity must be chosen or else everyone would be either authentic or inauthentic regardless of their choice to be one or the other. If everyone just was, if everyone just existed without ever questioning authenticity or its opposite, and if this was just the way humans were to live, then undoubtedly everyone would be authentically living: everyone would bewhat they are. In some sense authenticity must be a choice. I can choose to use bad faith as an escape from my world and from myself, surely I should be able to choose not bad faith, or in other words, choose authenticity.


It is not clear as to how authenticity is accommodated for in Sartre’s work. He acknowledges that authenticity is opposed to bad faith, but keeping within this schema makes it hard to find room for authenticity in one’s everyday life. It can be said that authenticity is only achievable through the look of (or presence of) the Other or in moments of anguish, but these options seem either too infrequent or too out-of-our-hands to be considered a justifiable way to include authenticity into a life.


But perhaps this is the way. Perhaps authenticity is not really what we traditionally believe it to be. If being authentic is simply being honest with oneself or being true to one’s own nature, then bad faith might not be an inauthentic way to live given that it too is a natural and derivative aspect of consciousness. Perhaps, then, authenticity is nothing more than an interrelation with Others and a close acceptance of and adherence to the make-up of one’s very being, which is simply being and nothingness. It seems as though denying the very structure of your being and its consequences–awareness, nothingness, anguish, freedom, responsibility, bad faith, and good faith–is a far more inauthentic way to live even if it be in bad faith; self-denial is a deception that penetrates far deeper than bad faith ever could.


Room for authenticity, then, is made in two ways. First, a form of authenticity is achieved in times of anguish, shame, and other non bad faith ways. But the problems with this form of authenticity have already been exhausted. The second and more promising way of living authentically is to live in full acknowledgement of the nature of your being. This approach might conflict with Sartre’s position, but it seems justified given the defense above. Denial of your own nature seems far more inauthentic, far more self-deceiving, than bad faith itself. Being honest about your being and living in such a way as to account for this, whether you sometimes fall into bad faith or not, is a level of authenticity that can be lived consistently and can be accommodated for in the philosophy of Sartre.


V. Concluding

Regardless of the possibility of authenticity within Sartre’s philosophy, it has been shown that the structure of consciousness is indeed both being and nothingness. Furthermore, by examining the concepts of freedom and bad faith we can understand this nothingness as having both a nihilating structure and being a negation in the form of not-being. Bad faith is an essential structure of consciousness as it seeks to be that which it is not by attempting to flee that which it is. It is a negation turned upon its very being. It is possible to escape bad faith in light of the Other by being caught in a pre-reflective act whereupon my freedom is temporarily withheld insofar as I am given as an object to the Other. As well, there are times of anguish and good faith that relieve bad faith. Authenticity is possible but the room for a truly authentic life seems limited and confused in Sartre’s philosophy. It just might be that we need to accept bad faith as an authentic way to live.

Works Cited

Cummin, Robert Denoon (Ed.). The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Vintage Books. 1972

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Skepticism and the Empiricists

Jason Taylor

Okanagan University College


George: John, we spoke briefly yesterday about our respective views on skepticism, but I don’t think I truly understood what you were saying. Do you think you could elaborate a little more?

John: Sure. But, since yesterday’s discussion was unsuccessful, I think my view on skepticism would be better understood if I stated the extent of human knowledge. First, I think that there are three ways that you can come to know things, viz. Intuition, Reason (or demonstration) and Sensation...

David: Hang on John; can I ask if you still assert the ‘idea’ idea?

J: Yes. I still think that all that we are immediately aware of are ideas and that we get these certain mental items (phantasms, notions, or species) form my senses.

D: Ok.

G: I agree, at least to the first part anyway.

J: If I have mental items, i.e. ideas, then all that I can know has to be concerning these items. That is to say that I can have no knowledge which supercedes my ideas, and the relations of agreement and disagreement between them.

D: Wait John. I understand you, but it seems like what you are doing is equating certainty and knowledge. Am I correct in saying that you think that the only things you can know are those things which you can be certain about?

J: Dave, that’s exactly what I intend.

G: Okay, so we both understand you now. But if knowledge is certainty and it concerns only our ideas, what can we know?

J: We can know, I think, only four things (each obtained by one of the three faculties I mentioned earlier). They are, the existence of God, the existence of matter, the existence of ideas, and the existence of the mind. Of all things, it is only these that we can be certain.

G: I would like to hear how we come to be certain of the existence of matter.

J: This knowledge we gain by examining the agreement and disagreement of our ideas concerning bodies. That is, we notice a certain co-existence between the qualities of objects, and take them to be existent in something, and we call it body. Then, if we consider partially, our ideas of bodies, we gain an abstract idea of a general substance that we call matter, which contains only the most basic and commonly possessed qualities.

D: What do you mean by qualities John?

J: By qualities I mean things of two types, viz., primary and secondary. Primary qualities are the actual qualities of the minute parts of the mind independent objects; while secondary are the powers that these minute parts have to cause in us ideas. Primary qualities are the motion, figure, extension, and solidity of an object; and secondary qualities are those gained only by sense - color, smell, bitterness, and so on.

G: I have something to say about this, but before I do, pray do tell how we come to know of minds and of God.

J: Referring to the three types of knowledge (intuition, demonstration and sensation) it is obvious that we come to know of minds by way of intuition. We can know, through no mediation — only introspection — that we have minds, because a faculty of the mind is to perform operations on the ideas had. That is we can know we have a mind because, the mind can compare, combine, and abstract these simple ideas to form complex ideas. And while we know of minds by intuition, we come to know of God by demonstration.

D: How is it that we come to know of God?

J: Certainly it is the case that everything has a cause? And if this is the case, then there must be a prime mover, and that’s God. What I’m saying is that God must exist because if there were no first cause then we would have infinite chain of causes and this is absurd. George, you seem as though you want to say something, so I’ll let you speak, but just let me point out how all this relates to skepticism. For me, to be a skeptic means to be someone that doubts that we can be certain of our knowledge. And you can see where my doubt enters in: anything that is not included in these four things, viz. God, matter, mind, and ideas is purely faith and opinion for it does not concern the identity or diversity of our ideas, the co-existence of ideas, or the relation between ideas.

D: Let me clear one thing up, George, before you cut in. Do you claim that what we can know is limited by our ideas?

J: Yes. In fact, want of ideas, want of the examination of our ideas, and want of relevant relations between ideas are all causes for lack of knowledge.

G: Okay. That all seems clear, but I don’t think you are correct in a number of things. Firstly, let me say I think we can only have ‘notion’ of the mind. We cannot directly know of a thing that is performing certain operations on ideas, for if we introspect, that is not what we perceive. What we perceive instead are the operations performed, and never the thing performing.

D: I agree.

G: Do not take me to be denying the existence of the mind; I’m simply saying that we cannot have an idea of it. However, what is more pertinent is this talk of mind independent bodies. I fear it is a skeptical position that you are in John. What reason do you have to believe in the external world? Rather, let me ask if you accept the dogma that all we are immediately aware of are ideas?

J: Yes, that is what we all agreed to.

G: And that we are only mediately aware of the external world?

J: Of Course.

G: Well then how can we know that the way the world is, resembles the way our ideas are? It is possible that our ideas could totally mis-resemble the external objects, don’t you agree?

J: It is possible, yes. But I think that you missed the point George, for I am merely claiming that my ideas merely represent the world; and as you’ll accept it is possible for anything to represent another thing.

G: What do you mean?

J: If we come on to a murder scene, and you asked me how the victim was laying, I could position my self as a representative of the victim. Or, more to the point I could use something completely unlike a body — a sack of potatoes or a chalk outline — to represent the victim.

G: Ok, I’ll concede this point because I feel I have a stronger objection to raise with respect to your distinction on the qualities. Dave, did he not say that secondary qualities are in the mind, while primary ones are in the object?

D: I believe he did.

G: Well then because we never perceive primary qualities independent of secondary ones, and we are not able with all the faculties of the mind to separate them, how is it that primary qualities are not mind dependent also? If this is so, doesn’t is follow that what one is the other is also; and that thus, both qualities are mind dependent?

J: There are at least two things I can reply with. First even if it is the case that we can never distinguish the two types of qualities, it simply does not follow that the objects don’t have any qualities. All that we can truly say is that we can’t know which ones the object has. But what’s even more damning is that I think you have missed the point again, for what I said was that secondary qualities were the power in objects to produce certain ideas. Thus, while you took me to be purporting secondary qualities to be mind dependent, I said they were powers in the object.

Even still George, if I grant this argument, are you not just thrusting yourself into the greatest of all skepticism?

G: What do you mean?

J: By reducing all the qualities of objects to a standard of mind dependency you are removing the existence of the world!

D: John is right, George.

G: I know that, but what else is there except ideas? And is it not the greatest of all skepticism to deny the reality and truth of things? By asserting the existence of matter, as you do John, you invite skeptical arguments because you cannot be sure of the existence of matter. But worse still, you deny the truth of things: that all exists are ideas. But do not think these ideas exist independent of the mind — or independent of a cause. That is, the world consists of ideas, given to us, through God.

J: Your view on skepticism has caused the collapse of the whole world into the mind.

G: You speak harshly John. What have I taken from you? I accept that God exists; I accept that there are minds and ideas; I merely reject a view that is bound to invite skepticism, while it embraces skepticism itself.

D: Do you hear what you are saying George? You are claiming first that John’s view is skeptical because it denies the reality and truth of things, when your view does as well. I shall show you: What reason do we have to believe that our ideas are given to us by God?

G: That is simple. I can cause in my mind certain ideas — like one of a three legged dog for instance — and here ideas are certainly active. But when I walk outside, I am constantly receiving ideas, and these must be caused by another spirit other than my own, so it must be God that causes them — because ideas can not exist in anything material, and thus only in the spirit.

D: But this is nonsense. If it were God who caused our ideas that we passively receive then do tell me how we are able to have imperfections in our ideas? An oar in water appears bent, but we know it is not actually bent. And this is but one instance of many illusions of sight; surely you cannot believe that God, a benevolent being is capable of deceiving?

And yet there is more trouble with your view, for this attack is purely off of your definition of skepticism. If we return to the original view of skepticism you will see that, as John said, you are the most extreme of skeptics, because for you, there is no world.

G: There is another reason why I deny the existence of the world, specifically matter. I do not think it is possible to have abstract general ideas (as you have claimed John). Tell me how it is that you can abstract you idea of triangle. This idea is supposed to contain nothing but the essentials of the concept; thus, abstracting triangles would give you three-sidedness. But when I have my idea of abstract idea of triangle I can conceive of no other but one which is isosceles, scalene, right angled, etc.

D: I must agree with you here George; there is no way that we can have abstract ideas without running into absurdities.


J: Surely you are making the mistake of taking abstract ideas as being pictorial. It is true that so long as ideas are picture in the mind, I cannot conceive of a abstract triangle; but, if my idea is not pictorial but composed of sentences, then you can see that my abstract idea of triangle could consist of just that: "an object with three-sides" — but it may contain more, such as "an object with three angles, the sum, of which is equal to two right angles."

D: Lets leave that point for a while John, I need some time to think on it. Let me ask you about God. Is it true that you say John that we can know of Him demonstratively?

J: Yes.

D: I do believe that you have no grounds for this claim, but in order to be understood you must know the way that things are. There are two types of knowledge in this world, relations of ideas, which are concerned with demonstration and intuition, and matters of fact and existence. Relations of ideas are necessary truths, in the form of analytic sentences that can be known a priori. All things that belong to this category are matters of number and form, viz., mathematics.

The later type, matters of fact and existence are contingently true, synthetic sentences that can only be known a posteriori. These are all known with respect to three things, contiguity in space and time, resemblance, and cause and effect relations.

It is certainly an error to attribute anything but mathematics to the first group, as math is the only thing that delivers certainty by demonstration and intuition. Thus it is to the second half of the ‘fork’, matters of fact and existence, that the existence of God falls under. If this is so, because the denial of any matter of fact or existence never gives a contradiction (because they are only contingent truths), denying the existence of God doesn’t give a contradiction. Indeed, it is of no contradiction to deny, as I do, the proposition that in order for something to come into existence it must have a cause.

G: You have then drawn doubt on God’s existence...

D: Yes, but when things come down to it, if a skeptic so wishes, he may draw doubt on our idea of the external world, because you are right George, in supposing that the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is an empty distinction.

G: Thank you Dave. What’s the result of your skepticism, then? Where do you go, with no God or matter?

D: I am not so severe as to deny the existence of the world though. I merely claim that, by accepting the idea ‘idea’ (as we all do), a skeptic may run rampant on our views.

J: How do you explain your belief in the world?

D: All our ideas of matters of fact and existence, we have because of the Custom or Habit.

G: Wait. If cause and effect are matters of fact and existence then you are saying that we have no reason to our belief in cause and effect (one of the venues of matters of fact)?

D: Precisely! Certainly neither of you hold that you can know of cause and effect through demonstration or reason?

J: Why not?

D: If we take a man, who has never experienced the world, but who has the highest faculty of reason, he will be unable to decern from his perception of the warmpth and light of fire that it will consume him; nor from the trasparencey and fluidity of water that it will drown him. It is only by a constant conjunction of fire and pain that he will realize this.

J: You mean to say that there is nothing in the objects that will tell this man of the effect that the certain object will cause.


D: Precisely.

G: We can know it by a matter of fact though can’t we? We know certain effects of causes, because we know that nature is uniform — because we know that certain things happened in the past and have always happened in the past?

D: It is only possible to know that nature is uniform though, through past experience; and this makes our argument circular, for we justify our inference of cause and effect on experience; and we justify our experience by the uniformity of nature; and we justify the uniformity of nature by experience; that’s how it has always been. We have no reason then to accept the cause and effect relation except custom and habit.

J: Where does morality lie then Dave? By dividing all knowledge into two types, and denying that only things concerning mathematics belong in the a priori, analytic, necessary relation of ideas side, don’t you demolish morality?

D: Certainly not. It properly belongs to reason concerning matters of fact and existence. For, it is obvious to see that we would not be obligated to follow contracts if we were not in a social position to be under contracts. I certainly hold that the virtues of instinct are generosity and compassion, while all other virtues are artificial. But this is not to say that a society of men could exist without either of these virtues natural or artificial.

G: You have yet to answer my question Dave, and it now seriously demands an answer: what is the result of your skepticism? We have no solid reason to accept the relation of cause and effect; there is no God; matter, if not destroyed totally is reduced to something unfathomable and use-less; and morals are now dependent upon society; what do we get from this?

D: Let me just say that we are, in being made aware of our limitations of knowledge, made humble and modest about what we can know. We should not proclaim with certainty any of these things which I have drawn doubt to. But this is not a bad thing.

Indeed it is not a bad thing to be skeptical, unless one is extreme. If we deny our own existence, and the veracity of our senses, then we are surely in an incurable state. But, if we adopt a more moderate form of this skepticism, then we will properly question things that we may have taken for granted otherwise. Indeed it is necessary for the successful study of philosophy to adopt this moderate view.

J: Despite all that you say on your behalf Dave, and I think you would agree, what best fits my experience, is not that all there is, is our ideas, but rather that there is an external world that causes our ideas.

D: Yes, certainly. But we are being dogmatic to say that it really exists.

G: We should call it a night. I’m sure there’s a response about you qualities distinction that I can make to you John, I just need time to think it over.

J: I look forward to our next talk George.

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Phenomenality and the Reality of Mind in Descartes’ Meditations

Jonathan Tomm

University of Victoria


In this essay, I will examine the role of phenomenality in Descartes’ view that the mind and its thoughts are real in a way distinct from matter. Phenomenality arises in Descartes’ formulation of the difference between bodies as they appears to our senses, and bodies as they really are. Phenomenality is also a defining characteristic of "thought" as Descartes see it. By its very logic, this phenomenality implies the reality of both thought and thinker, and establishes that these are of a different substance from matter.

First, a word about phenomenality itself. "Phenomenality" is related to the idea of "appearance": something has phenomenality if it has the property ofappearing to or seeming to a subject. The idea of appearance, however, only makes sense as part of a distinction between appearance and reality. It is this dichotomy that gives the word "appearance" its meaning. If we did not have the appearance/reality distinction, all would simply be "reality" to us. Indeed, for the Aristotelian philosophy of Descartes’ predecessors, many of the things we would now call mere appearances, such as colours or sounds in objects, were considered to be realities. It is only when we begin to sense that "things are not as they seem" that the word "appearance" has meaning.

The appearance/reality distinction is an old idea in philosophy, going back at least as far as Plato. It arises whenever we come to doubt that our immediate perceptions are correct. When we have such doubts, we give the name "appearance" to our immediate perceptions, and "reality" to our more reflective understanding. Very often this doubt arises when our perceptions are found to be contradictory. This dynamic can be found throughout Descartes’ work, perhaps most famously in the example of the wax (111). As wax is brought near the fire, its appearance changes in contradictory ways: before it seemed hard, now it seems soft; before it seemed cold, now it seems hot; etc. Upon reflection, we come to understand that in reality the wax must be different from these appearances–the wax as it really is does not have these changing sense qualities in itself. In this way, Descartes separates the appearance of corporeal things, i.e. their sensible qualities, from the reality of these things as extension.

Most likely, Descartes’ immediate motivation for establishing this appearance/reality distinction between sense qualities and bodies was to understand the nature of matter better, in order to pave the way for a mathematical science. However, this appearance/reality distinction also has ontological ramifications: it establishes the reality of both the thinking thing and thought.


Phenomenality is a defining characteristic of thought. Descartes lists the activities that he counts as thought: "But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses" (110). Clearly, the quality that unites all these activities is that they are all experiences; they are all meanings for a subject; they are all phenomenal.

The phenomenality of thought is exactly what guarantees its reality. Descartes’ method in the Meditations is to subject every belief to doubt. By hypothesizing an "evil genius" that tries to deceive him, Descartes find that he can doubt nearly everything he once believed (107). But he finds that he cannot doubt that he is thinking: "What is there in all of this [i.e. thought] that is not every bit as true as the fact that I exist–even if I am always asleep or even if my creator makes every effort to mislead me?" (110). The indubitability of thought that he discovers is, in fact, an implication of thought’s phenomenality. As I described above, to doubt a belief is to admit the possibility of a difference between appearance and reality–but in doing so, we discover that there is an inherent limit to doubt. For everything that seems to be true to us, that is presented to us as being a certain way, we can imagine the possibility that the appearance is different from the reality. There is, however, one exception: experience, or appearance itself, cannot be different from reality. This follows necessarily from the appearance/reality distinction whence the concept of "appearance" arises. For if we conceive of the world in terms of appearance and reality, there must be something we take to be the appearance; and this appearance cannot itself be "merely an appearance," or else the appearance/reality would dissolve into the absurdity of an infinite regression. If everything is merely an appearance and not reality, then nothing exists at all. For the appearance/reality distinction to make sense, there must be things that are simply appearances, things for which their appearance is their reality, things of which we cannot say "that is merely the appearance." Thus, the very logic of doubt implies that the experiences we are doubting must themselves be real as phenomena. In this way, the phenomenality of thought is the very thing that makes its reality indubitable.

Descartes’ distinction between the appearance and reality of bodies also establishes the reality of the thinking thing, i.e. the self. For to say that sense qualities are phenomenal is to say that they exist as an appearance to a subject. Appearances need to be appearances to someone–this in inherent to the meaning of the word "appearance." Descartes makes this point in Meditation II in reference to the faculties of sensing and imagining (which he calls "modes of thinking"): "I can clearly and distinctly understand myself in my entirety without these faculties, but not vice versa: I cannot understand them clearly and distinctly without me, that is, without a substance endowed with understanding in which they inhere, for they include an act of understanding in their formal concept" (135). Descartes is saying here that the very concept of sense perception implies the existence of a self, a "substance endowed with understanding." In this way, the phenomenality of thought implies the existence of the thinking thing.

Furthermore, the appearance/reality distinction implies that the mind is a different substance from matter. Just as phenomenality is essential to mind, being non-phenomenal is essential to matter. Matter is not the "appearance," but the "reality." It does not exist as an appearance; it exists apart from being an appearance. Therefore, mind and matter exist in different ways. The Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, or more exactly its converse, the Indiscernibility of the Identical, states that for two things to be identical, they must share all the same properties. Therefore, since mind and matter differ in the property of phenomenality, they cannot be the same substance.

One might make the objection here that the above principle is being misapplied. For couldn’t we argue that since candy canes are sweet and lemons are not, candy canes must be a different substance, i.e. a separate reality, from lemons? And so there are four substances in the universe: mind, matter, candy canes, and lemons! Hume makes an objection similar to this, using perceptions instead of candy canes: "since all our perceptions are different from each other, and from every thing else in the universe, they are also distinct and separable, and may be consider’d as separately existent, and may exist separately, and have no need of any thing else to support their existence. They are, therefore, substances, as far as this definition explains a substance" (233). Hume shows that if difference between things, as between our various perceptions, implies a different substance, we are lead to the false conclusion that every thing is a different substance.

Hume is right to point out the absurdity that results if all differences are taken to imply different substances. However, if the property wherein two things differ is a property not merely of the thing, as sweet is of candy canes, but of the thing’s existence, then the difference does imply different substances. This is the case with the difference between mind and matter. The phenomenality of mind and the non-phenomenality of matter are properties of the existence of mind and matter. Phenomenality is a property that explains the manner in which thought exists: thought exists as an appearance. For this reason, it needs to be seen as a different kind of substance from matter, not just a different type of the same substance. "Substance" means simply "that which is real," so having different types of "realness" implies having different types of substance.

In this essay, I have examined the role of phenomenality in Descartes’ view that the mind and its thoughts are real in a way distinct from matter. Descartes’ claim that the reality of matter is different from its appearance reiterates the distinction between appearance and reality that arises whenever our perceptions are called into doubt. I found that the phenomenality of our perceptions entails the reality of both thought itself and the thinking thing. Furthermore, by the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, the phenomenality of thought implies that mind is of a different substance than matter, which is essentially non-phenomenal. Since the property of phenomenality describes the manner of a thing’s existence, the difference between matter and mind in this property implies a difference in the way in which these two things are real.

Works Cited

Descartes, RenŽ. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Philosophical Essays and Correspondence. Ed. Roger Ariew. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. 2000.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, 2nded. P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1978.

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Gulliver and Us

Ofar Shidmehr

University of British Columbia

The future for us

is the day that comes tomorrow

or at most 40 years later

when we’re exhausted

with the same questions


The past is moving the same route

back for us,

15,000 days or so,

to where we were walking down a street

talking vehemently about the subject

that presses on us, even today.

Far is behind this bush,

past that tree,

or at furthest, beyond revolution[8]

beyond our backyard

where we used to play hide and seek

where our elders took us

by way of a roundabout answer.

Now again, you’re talking to me

about eternity, infinity, ultimate, meaning?

Let Gulliver go home

believe me

there is no place for him

in Lilliputians minds.

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On Simulating Dialects of Thought

Tim O’Connor

University of Victoria


This paper will explore Jerry Fodor’s claim that there has to be a Language of Thought. It will be argued that, although this mentalese may have universal properties, each of us thinks in our own dialect of this common mental language. The syntactic structure of this language of thought is both inter-subjective and creatively diverse. Languages used for the public expression of thought are thus similar to formalized, institutionalized, or ‘proper’ dialects (such as Queen’s English) that facilitate a stable common ground for communication. The relative nature of this syntax or grammar of thought will then be fed into the simulation theory heuristic. The simulation theory will be briefly discussed and it will be argued that the imaginative projection or mind-reading that the theory postulates is instead aimed at understanding the idiosyncratic mental grammar of others. This paper will conclude that we use simulation to understand novel syntax in mentalese.

The Language of Thought

Fodor’s argument for what he calls a "Language of Thought" (LOT) presents an explanation of the form and nature of thinking itself. This theory, being both computational and representational, confounds connectionist and behaviourist theories of mind. The main thrust of Fodor’s argument is to evaluate thought in the context of language and to demonstrate that, much like language, thought is made up of constituent parts, which exhibit syntactic structure, as well as semantic content. This syntactic structure allows the parts to combine in a way as to preserve the semantic content of the thought (being analogous to a mental sentence) itself. Thought then, is composed of lexicons (such as words in a language), which can be combined using general rules (such as grammar in a language) to express semantic content (or meaning).

Fodor frames his discussion around the concept of intention boxes[9], which exist in the mind of the beholder. Token symbols with semantic content are placed inside the box, computed, and an appropriate behaviour is consequently produced. This is the process of translating simple thought (containing one token symbol) into action or behaviour. However, when thought becomes more complex, it must display a syntactic structure in order to preserve the meaning of each token symbol to be imputed. Hence, to raise my left hand and hop on my right foot, the operator "and" is used to preserve and create semantic content. We can also see how the thought is complex and can be broken down into constituent parts, whose parts can in fact, be broken down even further. This operation is similar to the way a complex sentence, which expresses a more abstract meaning, can be reduced to atomic meanings of the individual words. When broken down to the bare ingredients, we see the combinatorial nature of each element (or pan) in that it can be used in any number of thoughts to represent the same thing without losing its semantic content. These complex syntactic rules, which are used to manipulate the representations of the mind, can easily be described metaphorically as our mental grammar.

The strength of the LOT theory is that it accounts for the productivity[10]of human thought, which is for the most part unexplained by other models. That is, it shows how we can develop an infinite set of ideas with a finite set of input, or in other words, how we can create an unlimited amount of possible collages with a limited amount of pictures. The theory also explains the systematicity of thought[11]in the way that it’s syntactical structure provides a semantic content that is preserved in any number of appropriate combinations (i.e. pans). Hence any native speaker of English can understand the sentence "John loves Mary" as well as the sentence "Mary loves John" simultaneously by understanding the structural rules, which govern both expressions.


As language developed from a need to communicate or otherwise express thought, it would make sense that the architecture of these languages would somehow mirror the organizational patterns of human thinking. Even the root languages of human thought such as mathematics and logic display similar characteristics and structure[12]. It is important however, to note that mentalese, the origin of all prior languages, should operate in an ultimately more advanced and complex manner than that of languages used to express these ideas. It would be all too obvious to state the inadequacies inherent to any mode of inter-subjective communication or expression of thought. Conceptual content is conveyed to others through these often clumsy and rough approximations of LOT. Here, we should resist mistaking the map of language for the terrain of mentalese[13].

Novel Syntax in Mentalese

Lexicons of thought manifest themselves through experience, whereas mental grammar, according to Fodor, is innate. Every mind, being numerically and spatio-temporily distinct, represents or senses any object differently as every mind experiences the world from a unique position. If we take into consideration the problem of the inverted spectrum, we can neither say with certainty that any two minds represent any one colour in the same way. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that to some degree, lexicons of thought (or what we think about) contain subjective semantic content.

Although mental grammar is innate and inherent in all minds of the species[14], it is neither objective nor identical in all minds necessarily. If it were, it would follow that minds that have been exposed to identical experiences (albeit impossible) would generate identical ideas. The aforementioned gap in the semantic content of the lexicons between subjects is too weak to account for the diversity of thoughts in minds of similar experience. How, too, can a universal mental grammar explain the wealth of meaningful concepts produced in a mind of severely limited experience; especially in comparison to the deficit of meaningful concepts found in a mind of wide and varied experience? It would appear plausible that the syntactical structure or grammar of mentalese differs from mind to mind either in configuration and/or intensity. As we further explore this argument, it is important to observe in what ways our mental grammar display certain common traits.

There must be comparable or similar operations of our syntactic structure of thought. If we had entirely contrasting mental grammar, language itself would not be possible. Language, we are told, developed by referencing similar objects or circumstances with commonly identifiable physical signals by pointing and grunting. As language grows more complex, more abstract concepts evolve. Similar ideas are cross-referenced against similar experiences and are expressed using the mechanisms of the language that have been made available. This is the way we present our ideas to each other. For example, this essay is an attempt to communicate an idea (or series thereof). Its form and the way it is written are meant to demonstrate meaning to a particular audience or set of minds. I phrase my language for practical purposes (such as efficiency) and guide my train of thought down a pre-modeled path of academic prose. The way in which I think to myself about this topic could perhaps be more accurately worded using a more idiosyncratic language, yet the process of expression itself somehow confounds the trulyfelt semantic content of my thoughts. Perhaps this is a result of the private semantic content of my mentalese being expressed through an inter-subjective or publicsyntactic form. If this is true, then the exact translation of any mental concept (ranging from concrete to abstract) into the public sphere may not possible to accurately decipher[15]. We have no other tools than those of signs and signals, language and behaviour, for which to represent subjective semantic content to each other.

We have chosen commonly conferred upon icons to which assign a range of subjectively experienced meanings. An example would be that of wine tasting. I have never experienced a wine that has had any flavour identifiable with nuts. However, I learned what a ‘nutty’ wine was by identifying a particular taste, which was present every time I was told the wine is ‘nutty’. Now, I merely associate the qualia previously experienced, with the word ‘nutty’, which allows me to avoid such wines. So then, for practical purposes we get by with these rough but extremely useful metaphors[16]that approximate subjective meaning accurately enough for our purposes.

This still leaves us with the question of how this structureof languages we use for the transmission of our thoughts (from Swahili to mathematics) came about. Clearly there are some structures of thought we share. It would be safe to say that logic is inherent in all systems, by definition. We use systems that work on the same or similar modes of logic because it is how we rationally make sense out of the world. This common trait of thought would seem likely to be innate, as well as a requisite for human thought. The intensity of this universal trait, which must mirror the structure of logic somehow, might also vary form mind to mind. For example, minds that are considered to be insane, in varying degrees, demonstrate statistical deviancies in their abilities to express logical thought patterns. As a result, they cannot be easily understood. To the insane mind, ideas may follow from others with some sort of pattern of organization and coherence of meaning. However, it could be conceived that these minds are labeled insane because of the statistical deviancyof their unique pattern of thought in comparison to minds with a more common pattern. It could be said that the insane mind lacks in intensity, this universal and structural trait.

So far, arguments for the subjective nature of syntactic rules in mentalese have been discussed along with arguments for their commonalities. To illustrate the argument as a whole, an analogy with genetic evolution may be appropriate. Let us suppose that within a gene there are necessarycodes, that is, codes that determine the physical structure necessary for the organism to be human. These codes define our species. Within the same gene, there are contingent codes, that is, codes that provide the diversity within the species required for creative adaptation. These codes define the individual. The boundaries between what defines the species and what defines the individual blur into each other; the species defines the individual as the individual defines the species. Although this analogy may not be entirely accurate with regards to actual genetic theory, it is a helpful illustration in order to view the purposed relationship between our common and subjective syntactic structure of thought.

The aforementioned analogy is not intended to imply the inhumanity of the mentally insane. To make this assumption would be again to mistake the map for the terrain. The point is merely, that hyper-subjective and publicly obscure thought patterns could be seen in this context as thought structure mutations, like physical mutations, which may or may not be beneficial in the long run. This might make evolutionary sense since, if we all acted according to the same principles of thought and our behaviour is determined by our thoughts, then we might be too predictable for our own good.


It is not the purpose of this essay, however, to discuss the extent to which this grammar of thought is innate. Only, to present a firm argument, which suggests that the syntactic structure or grammar of mentalese is inter-subjective and creatively diverse. In short, we all think in our own dialect of a common mental language.

Simulation Theory

The Simulation Theory (ST) attempts to explain how we attribute beliefs and desires to other minds. Gordon claims that we perform a kind of mind-reading or imaginative projection when developing a hypothesis about or perceiving the mental states of others.[17] In our own minds, we occupy certain beliefs and desires, which are then in turn, processed by decision-making mechanisms. The result of this process usually determines our behaviour. When predicting the behaviour of another mind, however, this process runs off-line. Simulations of foreign beliefs and desires involve a hypothetical, counterfactual, off-line accounting where one inserts what one believes are the mental states of the other person into one’s own system as if they were one’s own. These hypothetical mental states are then processed by the thinker’s decision-making mechanisms, again off-line. The result is a simulation of how the other mind will behave given these hypothetical conditions. The outputs become images of the thinker’s mind.[18] These images are of a structure presented to the mind as some kind of shape, or it could be argued, as a feeling of some particular mixture. Hence, the imagination, according to simulation theorists, allows us to switch spatio-temporal situations and is requisite for the human ability to recognize and interact with each other.

A good way to illustrate this argument is presented by Goldman in his tennis player thought-experiment[19]. Upon beginning a match, the tennis player asks himself where his opponent will aim his next shot. In order to answer this question, the tennis player must imagine where he himself would aim the next shot if he were in his opponent’s position on the court with his opponent’s mental state (including beliefs about tennis skills and strategies). The tennis player then simulates having these mental states, which allows his own reasoning mechanisms to operate on this input. The off-line process allows the tennis player to adopt a feign choice in order to predict the choice of his opponent. The tennis player’s accuracy in the prediction of his opponent’s behaviour will clearly improve with more accurate simulation of the initial conditions in the way that we can better predict the actions of familiar people than those of strangers.

ST, as presented, seems to have more plausibility when seen running backwards from behaviour to mental states.[20] The only information available to the mind is the behaviour of others and the contextual background in which that behaviour is exhibited. From this input, a simulation of the beliefs and desires of the other individual is created using the same hypothetical reasoning. This reversal of the simulation arrow seems to conform more to experience since the behaviour of the other individual is more readily available and the goal of simulation is often to attain a prediction of another’s beliefs and desires. Once this can be achieved, the prediction of future behaviour can be deduced from the simulation of what it is like to occupy the mental states of the opponent. In other words, from what one imagines it is like to be the other person, one can derive how that person is likely to behave.

There is a minor but noteworthy variation in the opinions of Gordon and Goldman relevant to this point. Gordon insists that the simulation is based on how an individual would behave if they were in the other’s situation. Goldman, on the other hand, insists that the simulation is based on how the individual would behave as if the other person. The difficulty comes in describing what one is actually imagining. The problem is analogous to what Nagel calls an "explanatory gap" in his article entitled "What it is Like to be a Bat".[21] Imagining another person’s mental processes is much akin to understanding their brain processes in the way that neither of these conceptual frameworks will accurately (if they are able at all) explain another person’s qualitative conscious experience.[22] The problem is also analogous to the aforementioned indeterminacy of translation[23]between mentalese and expressive language.

The reason for this explanatory gap between actual thought processes and imaginative representations thereof, I will argue, is the same as the reason for the explanatory gap between mentalese and language. This problem of certainty is brought on because of the subjective and relative nature of our own contingent syntactic structures of thought. ST claims that the decision-making mechanism that mediates beliefs and behaviour is cross-cultural. Hence, by simulating the beliefs and desires of others, one can predict the behaviour of others — the accuracy of the prediction directly resulting form the accuracy of the simulation. ST also claims this is why we are more likely to understand the behaviour of those from a similar culture versus those from a foreign culture. It is, according to ST, merely a matter of juxtaposing beliefs.

Synthesis of Reverse Simulation and Novel Syntax Arguments

Let us now consider the relevant adjustments that ST proposes are required for accurate simulation. If we accept the previous argument that there exists novel syntax in mentalese, the relevant adjustments required for accurate simulation of another mind’s mental states include not simply the positing of different beliefs, but the positing of different objects of belief and computing them through a posited syntactical architecture that differs in degree from our own. In other words, it is not only necessary to imagine what another person believes, but it is also necessary to imagine how they think about these beliefs and how these beliefs and desires fit into the other thinker’s conceptual framework. The accuracy of such a simulation would also improve with familiarity but it would not be hindered by the other mind’s exposure to different experiences. Thus it can be explained why we can sometimes better predict the behaviour of a person from a foreign culture better than the behaviour of a person from our own neigbourhood. Thus it can also explain the wide discrepancy in predicted and actual behaviour. The person one imagines then, is not one’s self thinking in the same way with different beliefs and desires, nor is it the case that one is imagining themselves as if they were the other person. Instead, it is one’s self thinking differently about different things.

According to Fodor, the cause of behaviour is found in the intentional content of mental states and not in their intentional objects. In other words, behaviour is causally connected to the representational computation of constituent formulas of thought and not in the raw intentional objects themselves. Thought as mediated by the language of folk psychology results in physiological output. Again, it is not what we think about which determines our behaviour but how we think about it.

This hybrid version of the LOT and ST models conforms nicely to the evolutionary paradigm. The capacity for imaginative projection would appear not only useful in predicting what another mind believes and desires, but also how the other mind believes and desires those objects or ideas. To accurately simulate how and what another mind is thinking would be extremely practical in, not only predicting, but also in manipulating the behaviour of others. Knowing what others desire and believe, and in what way they believe and desire these things, is to know what actions they are willing to perform in order to achieve their ends. To estimate how another mind’s beliefs or desires are structured, is to calculate what another mind will believe or desire. I trust the preceding argument has been successful in demonstrating the truth of the claim that we use simulation to understand novel syntax in mentalese.

Works Cited

Chomski, Noam. New Horizons and the Study of Language and Mind. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 2000.

Davies, Martin., and Tony Stone. "Introduction" Mental Simulation. Malden, Mass: Blackwell. 1996.

Fodor, J. "Why There Has to be a Language of Thought." Mind and Cognition. Ed. William G. Lycan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing. 1986.


Goldman, A. Alvin. "In Defense of Simulation Theory." Mental Simulation. Malden, Mass: Blackwell. 1996.


Gordon, M. Robert. "Folk Psychology as Simulation." Mind and Cognition. Ed. William G. Lycan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing. 1986.


Jackson, Frank. "What Mary Didn’t Know." The Nature of Mind. Ed. David M. Rosenthal. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1991.

Nagel, Thomas. "What it is Like to be a Bat." The Philosophical Review. Oct. 1974.

Quine, W.V.O. Word and Object. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 1960.

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Article removed 30 October 2006 at request of author.

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A Response to a Response:

A Critique of Narveson’s Proposal of How to Answer Terrorism

Andrew Copeland

University of Victoria


In his essay Terrorism and Morality,[39]Jan Narveson argues that terrorism is in almost all circumstances never morally justified, although it is perhaps occasionally forgivable. He founds this conclusion on the ethical theory of contractarianism, which leads him to the subsequent conclusion that because the terrorist has broken the social contract, he has returned to the state of nature and can be treated in a similar manner to that in which he has treated his victims. In this essay, I will first outline Narveson’s criteria regarding the unjustifiability of terrorism. Second, I will outline his proposed response to terrorism. Third, I will then use Narveson’s own criteria to demonstrate that his response to terrorism is itself unjustifiable and that it essentially condones state terrorism. Lastly, I will briefly examine a fundamental difficulty with the contractarian response to terrorism that Narveson proposes.

Narveson argues that even if there is just cause on the side of the terrorist, the violent means that he uses are almost never acceptable. Narveson gives us three criteria to determine if the methodology of terrorism is ever justified even when there is just cause on the side of the terrorist. These criteria are: necessity, efficacy and permissibility. Necessity is to ask whether there are other means available (besides the drastic measure of violence) that have not yet been explored. Efficacy is to ask whether the proposed means will result in the desired ends: will terrorism achieve the results that the terrorists want in an effective manner. Finally, permissibility is to ask even if the first two criteria have been met, whether or not terrorism should be used as an option. Is it morally permissible?


Narveson dismisses the necessity and efficacy of terrorism in the context of democratic and non-democratic states, which I will explain in order. First, the democratic state gives the majority the power of decision over issues that have been fairly presented and heard. In this context, the criterion of necessity is not fulfilled, for the terrorist has other means to be heard by the society besides the killing of innocent people. If the terrorist has been heard and his claim has been rejected by the majority, then he has no recourse but to accept this opinion. If he does not accept this rejection and responds to it with violence, this then would lead to the deplorable state in which anyone could use violence to enforce a minority opinion. As Narveson states, this is "surely an intolerable state of things for persons concerned to pursue their chosen ways of life."[40] Hence, the criterion of necessity is not fulfilled in a democratic state.


In the case of the non-democratic state, the avenue of a fair hearing is not available and so violent actions could be justified as being necessary. However, they are unlikely to be effective in obtaining the desired results, as the killing of innocent people will not create support for the movement and this support is necessary if they are to hold onto any gains that they make (Narveson is basing this argument on a small group of terrorist involved in insurrection[41]). Consequently, any violent action taken will be taken in vain (for it will not succeed due to the alienation of the citizens) and any lost life will be simply wasted. Hence, an act of terrorism would be ineffective and should not be condoned.

However, what if it were both necessary and efficient to undertake an act of terrorism? Would it even then be morally permissible? Here Narveson appears to say that in some extreme cases, terrorism would have to be granted the logical status of being morally permissible. He bases this on a utilitarian calculation of numbers. If, for example, the killing of 10 innocent people led to the liberation of 10,000 people from slavery, the proper course of action would appear to be to kill the 10 people. However, Narveson states, "terrorism may still be a moral non-starter,"[42]for these situations are merely logically possible, and that "we need not grant that any of the actual terrorists we know anything about have such a case."[43]In other words, on a practical level, even though this possibility exists, no such case presently exists or, in all likelihood, will never exist. [44] With these three criteria, Narveson has given what he believes to be a condemnation of terrorism, as it cannot meet all three or in all likelihood, never will.

With this explanation of the unjustifiability of terrorism done, Narveson then provides a brief answer to how we ought to respond to terrorism, and this is the heart of my essay. A terrorist does not fit into the moral world, "for one who uses unlimited violence, all bets are off, [and] we are in the unlimited Hobbesian condition, and in principle there is nothing we may not do to him."[45] Narveson means that when a terrorist uses methods that are outside the convention that has been agreed upon by a society, he has broken this contract and is no longer under its protection. We have every right to treat him as he has treated us, although Narveson does add the caveat we must restrict ourselves from harming innocent people.

However, Narveson’s version of innocent people is not as inclusive as others might take it to be. He claims that we may threaten to kill any terrorists that another terrorist is trying to rescue by threatening innocent people himself. If this terrorist kills some of these innocent people, then we ought to kill his fellow terrorists. When we are threatened, then we threaten those who are not innocent. If some are killed, then we respond in kind, with the goal of deterring further attacks. Narveson does not shy away from extending this to the families, friends, and close associates of a terrorist. If there is a loss of life in a terrorist attack, then we may in return threaten and kill those that have (apparently) aided and abetted the terrorist in order to make him desist from his actions (Narveson does not explicitly state it like this, but the implication is clear). Narveson argues that this does not descend to the level of professing that there are no innocents, as the terrorist affirms. He gives what he calls a "partial answer"[46]to defend this position. These people have "harboured and shielded him [the terrorist], not only tolerated and exonerated but perhaps also actively supported his nefarious activities."[47] They are not innocent in virtue of the fact that they have connections of support to the terrorist (or perhaps just connections of family). As the terrorist classifies the world as ‘us vs. them’, so too may we "make His People fair game as well, or at least fairer then we have hitherto been inclined to regard them."[48] To help us digest this morally unpalatable claim, he asserts that this position would ultimately boil down to a deterring effect like nuclear weapons. Using these policies of threatening a terrorist’s loved ones is not "any worse, morally, that those larger-scale deterrence policies."[49]

With Narveson’s position laid out, I will now proceed to use his own criteria of necessity, efficacy and permissibility to determine if his proposed response to terrorism can be justified. First, is it necessary? Have all other options been explored? Narveson claims that because the terrorist has violated the contract a society has agreed to, he is then outside the protection of that contract and, in principle, we have the right to treat him in the same manner. If a member of the society slaps me in the face for no apparent reason (or at least not for any reason that I see as being apparent) then he has broken the contract and stepped outside of our mutual arrangement not to hit each other. The slapper is not assumed to have abandoned all of morality, but only this small segment of it and as such, according to Narveson, I have a right to respond in kind within the limits of this infraction. Because he has initiated the act, he has no right to complain about my treatment of him. However, just because I have the right to do so under Narveson’s form of morality, it does not follow that I must necessarily do so (necessary in the sense that I have no other options). There are many things I may do, such as asking him why he hit me and finding perhaps that he did have what he considered a justified reason for doing so. Perhaps he had a just cause. Perhaps I am at fault in the matter after all and see my error. Even so, to hit me (even for a good reason) does seem to be an extreme act in nature and regardless, it does violate the contract. But is it necessary for me to hit him return? It might fulfill a certain sense of vengeance or just desserts, but there are other options. I can condemn him for hitting me while still acknowledging my complicity in what caused him to hit me. I can demand that he not do so again and only then will I consider his reasons. What I am suggesting is an attempt to understand the complexity of the situation, and not merely responding with a knee jerk reaction. The right of response does not lead to the necessity of initiating said response. However, Narveson seems to be appealing more to a sense of deterrence than necessity. The implied threat that I will strike the person in return is hoped to deter him from initiating the act in the first place. I will now examine whether or not this form of response is efficient in achieving the cessation of violent behaviour towards innocents.

Let us grant that it is necessary for me to respond in kind to a terrorist. This might be the only language that he understands and anything less will be ignored. Will this kind of response achieve the desired result? Will it be efficient? If I kill the terrorist then one would think so, for he will no longer be able to threaten me. However, there will certainly be others who will come along and attempt the same things. My goal is to stop unwanted violence and deter future violence from taking place. Killing a terrorist who is currently threatening me does not necessarily deter others from initiating similar activities, for their conditions are often that they are willing to be killed for their cause.


In so saying, let me first define a kind of terrorist. There are terrorists who are in positions of destitution, despair, and anger such that they see no other choice but to take drastic measures in an attempt to rectify their situation. The situation in Chechnya is an example of this. Here is an independent people that has been subjugated to the will of the Russians since 1783. The Russians have persistently and often brutally maintained some amount of control in the region since that time. Although the Chechens have not helped themselves through some intransigent politics, they have been killed by the tens of thousands through sloppy warfare by the Russians and hundreds of thousands have been deported forcefully during WWII.[50] For a Chechen terrorist, such as we have seen recently in the theatre in Moscow, one may honestly ask if the threatening of his family and friends would deter him. Perhaps many of them have already been killed or threatened. Perhaps others have told him that they are willing to face such a threat. Perhaps this will in fact strengthen resolve of the organization and validate their claims of the oppression that they face under the state. When the Russians invaded Chechnya on Dec 11th1994, many who were indifferent about the Russian leadership took up arms against them.


Nevertheless, Narveson claims that a threat to kill fellow terrorists who are presently in custody or a threat to kill family members would strike home with the terrorist, as "this would be a ‘bargaining chip’ of a kind he doesn’t currently expect, because it is of his own kind."[51] It therefore runs a fair likelihood of being effective. This seems utterly naVve. Granted, Narveson could be right that the first time this tactic is used, some terrorists would desist from their actions. However, as Narveson has himself stated, it is only because the terrorist does not currently expect it. When he does, that is to say, when the terrorist understands that these are the sorts of responses that will be undertaken, he will plan for them and be prepared to accept the consequences of being captured or even be willing to sacrifice his family. After all, terrorists of the nature that I have described above have already reached the limits of possible responses and are willing to give up their lives and the lives of others for what they see as a just cause.[52] Therefore, this hardly seems to be an effective method to deter terrorism. Nevertheless, one might say that the Russian policy is one of state terrorism and that the Chechens are implementing their right to treat them as being outside of the contract. I answer this by asking whether the Chechen "reprisals" have been effective. Given the state of affairs…no. Neither has the violent response that the Russians have delivered to the Chechen rebels, who they consider to be terrorists. The same could be said of the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Both sides feel they have the right of response due to the terrorist attacks of the other. As the death toll mounts, it is hard to see this policy as being effective in deterring either terrorism, or even violent reprisals.


But let us grant these conditions. Let us make the situation such that the nature of the reprisals is both necessary and efficient. Are they still permissible? Is this way of acting morally justified? Narveson claims that he is not descending to the level of the terrorist, as a terrorist’s friends and family and associates have aided, abetted, harboured, and exonerated the terrorist of his activities. But let us extend this logic further. Cannot a terrorist claim the same thing about a taxpaying citizen in a regime who has acted unjustly towards him? This citizen might have voted for the present government, but even if he has not, he pays his taxes regularly and consequently funds the activities against which the terrorist might be fighting. Any individual working for the government (on any level) is also in a manner of speaking, involved in the policies of the government. Certainly, there are some individuals who are more directly involved than others, but is this not the case with the family members as well? Perhaps a terrorist’s younger sister only knows that her brother or sister is involved in some activity that seems questionable but has no more knowledge about it than that. She might feed him dinner twice a week and provide him a bed from time to time. Is she just as guilty as the terrorist? What of the father who stands by his son when he commits a crime? He would be guilty by association and not by acting. We might claim that the family members should have known, and therefore are liable to some form of punishment. Although a family member is more likely to be in a position to have this kind of knowledge, the same could be claimed of the taxpayer. They are directly contributing to actions taken by the government and should therefore be aware of the uses of these monies.


Here we run into the major problem of determining the guilt and innocence of the people involved in any activity. At what level are we to proclaim someone guilty? What level of involvement or knowledge must they have of the situation in order to be targeted? This is a very slippery slope that Narveson has launched us onto, even though he claims that he is not descending to the level of the terrorist. However, he has already stated that we are now outside of the moral contract that has been agreed to. If that is the case, then anything should go. Why should we limit ourselves to just the terrorist? We have the right, in principle, to do whatever is necessary to ensure our safety. Of course, this sends shivers down the spine of any individual with an intuitive sense of morality. Narveson has essentially taken the same path of the terrorist in his response to terrorism through his attempt to diminish the definition of the innocent. He is, in essence, condoning state terrorism, for this is the same procedure used by these states: expand the definition of "innocent" so one feels justified in maintaining order through force, coercion and fear. This is a very dangerous form of "justice" and "deterrence" that Narveson is proselytising.

I believe that I have sufficiently demonstrated that Narveson’s own criterion for denouncing terrorism can also be used to denounce his proposed response to terrorism. There is, however, one last item of a fundamental nature that I must broach.


For Narveson, a terrorist is someone who has violated the contract agreed upon by the society, is therefore in the state of nature and can be treated as he has treated us. I see two variations of a fundamental problem with this position. First, the terrorist might be disputing the contract from the outside. That is, he might accept neither the contract that another nation has agreed upon nor the conditions that arise from the breaking of the contract (i.e. being placed in the state of nature). How then can a nation claim that a terrorist is subject to its standard of morality if it is this very standard that the terrorist rejects? This is the very issue that a terrorist can dispute. Second, even if they were a part of the contract originally, they can validly claim that the model is no longer in their best interest and now step outside of the contract until it can be resolved. Even if the entire world agrees to the rules of the contract, those that belong to the contract have the right to opt out if it is no longer in their interest to remain bound by said contract. It is therefore not possible for us to claim that those who are out of the contract must abide by the punishments doled out by breaking the same contract. This leads to the tyranny of the majority, as it will be those that have the power to enforce their contract who will dominate. Narveson has essentially claimed that those who have the contract and the force to back it up, have the right to take those measures that they feel necessary in order to preserve said contract. This seems like the very mandate of state dictatorship.


To conclude, Narveson has launched us on a slippery slope of retributive justice that is seemingly outside of any intuitive understanding of guilt. We can all now become guilty by association and are liable to be punished (or even killed) for this association. By expanding the definition of the innocent, we are in a never-ending cycle of retributive violence that strikes those that are somehow connected to the perpetrator of the initial violence, which leaves us in a ‘state of terror’ (or state terrorism). The contract itself is often in dispute, and although violence is not a method to change a contract, neither is the proposed method by Narveson a proper response to this violence. As the saying goes, an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.


Works Cited

Narveson, Jan. "Terrorism and Morality." Violence, Terrorism and Justice. Eds. R.G. Frey and Christopher W. Morris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1991.

Panico, Christopher. Conflicts in the Causcasus: Russia’s War in Chechnya. London: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism. 1995.


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The Paradigm of Unity:

Self, Substance, and Synthesis in Leibnizian Metaphysics

Matt Maclean

University of Victoria


The question of substance has always been of fundamental concern. What is being? What is reality? The question about substance is the perennial question of the underlying nature of things, of the reality behind appearances. In the philosophy of Leibniz, one encounters a philosopher for whom the question is of paramount concern. Leibniz’s attempt to provide an answer is in no way without its complexities, but is perhaps best brought into view when approached through a guiding idea. For Leibniz, as for many before him, the concept of substance is inseparable from the concept of unity. Where there is substance there is unity and where there is unity there is substance. But where is there unity? It is with this question in mind that I propose we look to the account of substance that Leibniz gives. It is my view that Leibniz comes to his position on substance through confrontation with that which is intrinsically unified and unifying — the self. It is here that Leibniz can establish the roots for his ontology which will encompass the entirety of things. To provide a further interpretation in support of this view, I will also introduce the problem of the one and the many into the discussion.

In order to understand Leibniz’s conception of individual substance, it is worth looking briefly at (the traditional account of substance found in) its genesis in the works of Aristotle. Leibniz’s account, differing though it does, is nonetheless informed by his ancient predecessor. For Aristotle, only the fully determinate existing particular can be said to be a substance in its fullest sense, that is, as something ontologically primordial. In the Categories, Aristotle defines substance as that which "is neither said of any subject, nor in any subject — for instance, an individual man or horse."[53] Primary substances cannot be predicated of any subject, nor can they be contained in any subject. Rather they are the fundamental subjects of all predication. Anything that one predicates of man or horse as a species — what Aristotle calls secondary substance — is ultimately predicated of the individual man or horse. It is the individual man or horse that gives reality to the more universal notion of man or horse as a species. Aristotle’s nominalism, his contention that the particular is what is ultimately real, is the foundation of his ontology and represents his rejection of the Platonic thesis that the forms constitute genuine being. Thus, Aristotle can say, when speaking of the primacy of individual substances, that if "the primary substances didn’t exist, neither could any of the other things exist."[54] What is noticeable about Aristotle’s account of substance is its implication that logic, particularly that of the proposition, is not here a purely tautological endeavour, but that it corresponds to the nature of things. The Categories is essentially a logical-metaphysical treatise. This correspondence between logic and metaphysics also finds expression in the philosophy of Leibniz. For now, it will be enough to consider the extent to which Leibniz works with the Aristotelian conception of substance.

Where Leibniz and Aristotle can be said to share common ground in their approach to substance is through their consideration of the logic of proposition or statement. We have already seen that for Aristotle, substance cannot be predicated of or inhere in any subject; it is the ultimate subject of predication. Further, it can be said that for Aristotle the properties of the subject are intrinsic to it, in the sense that substance as a genuine and actual entity has its ‘potentialities’ within it. Socrates can succumb to illness, get depressed, lose a limb, etc. — these are all inherent potentialities. For Leibniz, the properties of a substance are also intrinsic to it, but with a difference. The Leibnizian substance does not contain its properties as ‘potentialities’ in the Aristotelian sense. The properties of the Leibnizian substance are included within it in a completely determinate way. For instance, everything that will happen to Alexander the Great is contained in his ‘complete notion’. All he will be subjected to, his every action, even the manner of his death are written into his nature. Leibniz makes it explicit that substance includes all of its predicates, as its nature is "to have a notion so complete that it is sufficient to include…all the predicates of the subject to which that notion is attributed."[55] These predicates cannot be said to be included in the (Aristotelian) sense of being mere unrestricted possibilities; rather, they are included in the sense of being determinate ‘potentialities’, all of which will of necessity be actualized at some point in time, and in a manner specified from all eternity. Thus, Leibniz is not as concerned to draw the distinction Aristotle does between what is said of a subject and what is in a subject. From the definition that Leibniz gives it would seem the distinction can be conflated. Everything that can be truly predicated of an individual substance inheres in its complete notion.


This concept of in-esse, of substance having its predicates included in it, is a crucial aspect of Leibniz’s definition of substance. It is in fact that which constitutes its identity. Further, it is the basis of Leibniz’s theory of judgement in which all truths stem from identity. Every true proposition, according to Leibniz, is in its essence a statement of identity; its predicate is either expressly or virtually contained in its subject. For example in propositions such as ‘A is A’ or ‘the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church’ the predicate it expressly contained in its subject, the identity is clearly manifest. However, the identity is not manifest (at least to us) in many statements which are true. Propositions like ‘I went travelling last year’ or ‘the Pope addresses the public with occasional speeches’ would seem to express anything but identity. The ‘I’ in the first statement does not appear to be identical with ‘went travelling last year’. Nevertheless, these statements, if true, conform to the theory of inclusion and can be reduced to identity. Their identity is not manifest but latent and known to that being capable of perfect wisdom. From this it follows that, aside from our perspective, all truths are a priori truths and one could say of God that he sees all truths as analytic truths. Leibniz goes on to distinguish between necessary and contingent truths.[56] Necessary truths or truths of reason are true independently of God’s will, can be reduced to identity, and their opposite is impossible as they comply solely with the principle of non-contradiction. Contingent truths or truths of fact are based on the will of God, are infinitely reducible (to identities by God), and their opposite is possible since they arise from God’s volition. What is of central importance though, is that all true statements are in essence statements of identity. That which pertains to truth pertains to identity, to unity.

Having considered Leibniz’s views on the nature of truth with respect to the logic of statements, one can see that his interests take him beyond the self-contained realm of logic. More than a superb logician, Leibniz is deeply concerned with the reality of the world around him. Leibniz expresses this himself when he states, in consideration of substance and its relation to predication, that "it is obvious that all true predication has some foundation in the nature of things…"[57] In his consideration of the ‘complete notion’ which is so named as its predicates are all contained within it, Leibniz attributes this to "the nature of an individual substance or a complete being"[58] and in effect suggests their identity. It would seem that for Leibniz the logical concept of the subject refers to the ontological-metaphysical subject — the individual substance. The subject of true statements corresponds with the completely real individual being. An assumption is undoubtedly being made here, namely that reality is ultimately structured according to some kind of logic. A thoroughgoing rationalist, Leibniz is a realist with respect to reason and rationality in the universe.

The nature of an individual substance receives perhaps its most complete and systematic treatment in Leibniz’s treatise The Monadology. It is here that we find Leibniz engaged in metaphysics in its broadest sense. The nature of all that exists, including everything that has been and all that ever will, is sought in the basic building blocks of reality, in the monad. All things for Leibniz are in a sense ‘made up’ of a plethora of individual monads. However, the way in which monads constitute the nature of things cannot be understood properly by means of spatial metaphor. For Leibniz, monads are completely simple beings, in the sense that they have no parts and admit of no division. Thus, they are unextended, shapeless, and ultimately unapproachable by means of spatial conception. That they "are the true atoms of nature" or "the elements of things" must be understood in a manner such that one does not succumb to thinking spatially, something Leibniz himself struggles with.

If substances are completely without parts it follows that they must begin or end all at once, for something entirely indivisible cannot be susceptible to gradual composition or disintegration. Such becoming or ceasing to be presupposes even more basic elements, which are precisely what Leibniz has ruled out. However, though they cannot be composed of different parts, monads certainly can form composites through aggregation. In fact, there is a sense in which it is because of the existence of composites that Leibniz has been led to the existence of monads, for it is his belief that "where there are only entities though aggregation, there will not even be real entities."[59] It is not possible for there to be composites without basic units of which they are composed, composites being "nothing but a collection, or aggregatum, of simples."[60] Here we can see the need for basic units arrived at due to logical considerations. An entity through aggregation receives its reality from its constituents, but if its constituents are based on aggregation themselves, the entity will have no reality and reduction will continue ad infinitum. Leibniz also holds to the view that ‘being’ and ‘unity’ are convertible terms: "that what is not truly one entity is not truly oneentity either."[61] Reality as such must be determinate and lack of unity implies lack of determinacy. That which is fully determinate is the individual substance and not the being through aggregation. The latter is unified only in our minds, not in reality.

Continuing in his exposition of substance, Leibniz maintains that monads are causal and epistemological isolates as they cannot interact in the ordinary sense of the word; they admit of no extension or parts. Interaction would also violate the in-esseprinciple considered earlier. In addition to this, it is impossible for anything to penetrate a monad from the outside and all its accidents remain within. There is a sense in which talk about ‘outside’ or ‘within’ a monad can be misleading for they are not spatial entities. Nonetheless, the gist of the matter would seem to lie in their being subject only to strictly intrinsic, self-initiated change. Leibniz expresses this by saying that they "have no windows through which anything could come in or go out."[62] Their relationship with one another is due to the pre-established harmony that God has pre-ordained in his act of creation. However, for us this harmony amongst all monads is experienced under the guise of efficient causation or constant conjunction among bodies. At a more fundamental level, nothing of the sort takes place, but rather the states of all monads are so perfectly harmonized by God that we experience things in a certain orderly fashion. What can be seen to follow from this is that for change to take place — which it does as we can’t help but detect it — its stimulus must arise from within the individual monad itself. All change, based as it is on the change in each monad, comes "from an internal principle, since no external causes could ever have an influence into its interior."[63] With respect to its internal modifications, the monad must be causally self-sufficient. Now, change is by nature one of degree, in the sense that though something must change there must also be something that remains the same. Pure flux, without anything remaining constant throughout, would render change unintelligible. Thus, this principle of change must be sufficiently complex to allow for a "multiplicity within a unity."[64] Though the monad has no parts, it must be capable of some complexity in order for change to be possible. It is with this in mind that Leibniz seems to look to the human experience to clarify his position.

With the intention of explaining how monads can be entirely simple while at the same time admitting of a multifarious variety and a constantly changing nature, Leibniz presents us with two essential qualities of the monad. Each monad can be said to have an infinite number of states or relationships, and it these that are constantly in flux. These states that are constantly in flux are what Leibniz terms perceptions, each one of which in itself expresses a certain multiplicity within the unity that is the individual substance. But these perceptions are constantly changing, as has been noted already, due to an internal principle of change. Leibniz calls this internal principle, or to be more specific, the activity of this principle, which initiates the transition from one state to another, appetition. This is a crucial element of Leibniz’s metaphysics. It is this internal and vital impulse enduring through change that accounts for a substance’s identity, its unity. With these two characteristics, perception and appetition, Leibniz essentially exhausts the entire nature of the monad. This is the extent of that which "we can find within a simple substance, namely perceptions and their changes; and that is all that the internal actions of simple substances can consist in."[65]

Further exploration of the connection between substance and unity is in order. Equal consideration must also be given to the active nature or spontaneity which is characterized as essential to the monad. It is these three notions — substance, unity, and activity — which would seem to lurk at the heart of Leibniz’s metaphysics. As Leibniz informs us:

But as for substances which possess in themselves a genuine, real, substantial unity, and which are capable of actions which can properly be called ‘vital’…one can rightly say that they remain perfectly ‘the same individual’…[66]

That which remains primordial and ultimately real through all change is in itself ‘one’ and it is ‘one’ in its being alive, in its being capable of activity.

Something also needs to be said here about the logic of identity which is found in Leibniz’s philosophy. For anything to be ‘one’ in the fullest sense of the word, it must be distinct and thus distinguishable from everything else. >From the account that I have given so far, substances or monads would seem to be very much similar to one another. Each one is simple, active, and involved in the constant expression of its states. However, regardless of this resemblance, substances cannot share a perfect likeness with one another. If this were to be the case "there would be no principle of individuation."[67] There would be nothing to tell them apart. For Leibniz, this would lead to the fact "that in such a case there would be no individual distinctness, no separate individuals."[68] This is what is known as ‘the identity of indiscernibles’. If two entities are perfectly alike in all their modifications, then it will no longer make sense to speak of them as ‘two’, because they will be in essence the same individual. Thus, for Leibniz each monad will differ from every other and this will be due to an internal difference, the only kind possible.


It has been said that it is the internal principle of a substance that accounts for its identity. It is not clear, however, precisely what this amounts to. In what sense does this principle confer identity? To answer this question — or at least to clarify his position — Leibniz turns to the one thing that seems to capture the phenomenon he is after, the human experience of selfhood. The ego is indeed the paradigm of a unity that allows for complexity, an active entity which is continually striving and representing. Since it is Leibniz’s contention that it is the "continuity and interconnection of perceptions which makes someone really the same individual"[69], the same can be said of all monads as the soul is but a monad accompanied by apperception or self-conciousness. (The soul is the ‘dominant’ monad in an intersection of monads constituting our body and accounts for our capacity to have knowledge of eternal truths. Such knowledge, in turn raises us to self-awareness. All monads participate in a continuum of consciousness in the sense that though they are not all strictly speaking like our minds they are qualitatively the same — simple substances with perception and appetition. Differences emerge with respect to their capacity for clarity and distinctness in their expressions. Hence, a graduated series of monads arises. Bare monads, which are confused in their perceptions occupy the lower end of the series while animal souls and then rational souls form the ascension towards God, the pinnacle of consciousness.) Leibniz goes on to stress the intelligibility of monads, especially their indivisible and yet complex nature through reference to the self:

We ourselves experience multiplicity in a simple substance when we find that the smallest perception we can apperceive incorporates some variety in its object. Thus everyone who accepts that the soul is a simple substance should accept this multiplicity in the monad…[70]

Leibniz’s reference to the ego or self leaves us to consider the persuasiveness of his position, and it does so by suggesting the contemplation of our own being, our own existence. Leibniz, however, is in no need of persuasion:

I, on the contrary, presuppose everywhere only that which all of us have to admit happens frequently enough in our soul, that is, intrinsic self-activated changes, and with this single presupposition of thought I exhaust the entire sum of things.[71]

Here we face a statement massive in its import. What this amounts to is a clear admission that the fundamental grounding of Leibniz’s metaphysics, the first principle which is in need of no further justification, is the notion of substance found through analogy to the self. Leibniz, much like his fellow rationalist Descartes, is working from an essentially subject-based metaphysic. Of course, Leibniz is ultimately led in a very different direction than Descartes, particularly in his view that reality is in its entirety fundamentally mental. Regardless, it is clear that Leibniz makes extensive reference to the self in order to explain what it is to be a substance. What is self-evidently true in the Cogito becomes a basis on which to characterize the nature of all things. Both perception and appetition find their analogue in the ‘I’ of consciousness, something with which one is confronted at every moment. Thus, when we think of ourselves, "we think of being, of substance, of simples and composites, of the immaterial"[72]and in short of all those things which concern the metaphysician. What is also important about the statement quoted above is Leibniz’s admission that "with this single presupposition I exhaust the entire sum of things." This makes it clear that everything in the universe can be understood to be active and alive in the same sense that we are. However, it must be noted that it is not our self-awareness or apperception which is attributed to all of reality, but rather our perceiving and willing. The capacity for apperception is unique to those monads called souls, and is not shared by all substances. Thus, one must be careful in interpreting the construal of Leibniz’s philosophy as ‘panpsychism’, in the sense that ‘panpsychism’ should not be understood to mean that reality is made up of an infinite number of minds that possess the sort of intelligence we as rational beings do. It is only certain structures of our being, what Leibniz calls perception and appetition, which are shared by all things. This, however, does not detract from the uniformity of reality that Leibniz seems to be after.

Leibniz then, looks to the self to explain being, and as a result one is left with an understanding of substance that would seem to be self-evident. But to what extent can this be said to be true? Has Leibniz succeeded in transcending all critical scrutiny with his account of substance? It would seem that, in using the self as the paradigm of all reality, Leibniz explains the obscure by means of something equally obscure. At least this would seem to be so with respect to the ontological status of what is considered. For precisely what the ‘I’ is of which we are constantly aware remains an ambiguous notion. We are aware of perceiving things and our experience is continually changing from moment to moment, however, we can hardly pretend to understand our own nature with apodeictic certainty.

On the other hand, to ask for this kind of knowledge, especially where our own nature is concerned, would seem to be asking for too much. Perhaps it is to seek understanding of a sort all together incompatible with what we are investigating. However, though we cannot expect to have objective scientific knowledge of our inner experiences, there is a real sense in which we do lay claim to a direct and privileged access to our own minds, and as Descartes would have it, that we can know more of our own conscious being than we can of the external world. This is essentially the understanding with which Leibniz is also working. Concerning this kind of knowledge, we "can always say that the propositionI exist is evident in the highest degree, since it cannot be proved by anyone else — indeed that is an ‘immediate truth’."[73] This sort of truth is unassailable, the simple fact of our thinking it rules out all possibility for doubt. It is not a necessary truth however, but a primitive truth of fact known by immediate inner experience, which is "immediate with the immediacy of feeling." The scope of this kind of truth is not confined to the thought of our thinking:

…not only is it immediately evident to me that I think, but it is just as evident that I think various thoughts…Thus the Cartesian principle is sound, but it is not the only one of its kind. [74]

The self certainty of our immediate presence to ourselves does not only apply to the thought that we think, but to all of our thoughts. That I exist is evident beyond doubt, but I am further aware of my existence as a unity. This awareness of unity within the self is articulated by McRae:

…since perception is the expression of a multiplicity in the unity of the perceiving subject, the awareness of the perception of something would include the awareness of the unity of the expression in the percipient.[75]

Consideration of the foregoing leads us to the conclusion that we experience ourselves as an existing unity and that this is known with the same certainty as matters of fact. From this we receive the general notion of substance as a unity. In light of this, it is not surprising that Leibniz elucidates his ontology through reference to the self. The experience of the self expresses those properties which he is looking for and which cannot be explained by extension, shape, and motion. What he could not find in the ‘labyrinth of the continuum’ is found in the ‘I’ of experience. There is a sense in which the extended world of matter, when conceived apart from active, formative principles, becomes essentially static and monistic. Experience, however, informs us otherwise.

One way of interpreting the Leibnizian conception of substance, and one which I think is helpful for understanding the overall scheme of his metaphysics, is through consideration of the one and the many. It is the reconciliation of this perennial problem that seems to inform many of the views Leibniz arrives at. Specifically, it is the notion of multiplicity within a unitythat represents such a harmony between the two. It is not my intention to provide an interpretation of this ancient problem but to show how it can be seen to find expression in Leibniz’s philosophy. I will give attention to three aspects of his metaphysics — perceptions, monads, and the universe (reality as a whole) — with the intention of showing how the one and the many can be seen as a fundamental concern for Leibniz.

We have already seen that perception is a state representing a great variety within the unity that is the individual substance. It is a single transitory state which amounts to a representation of "the composite, or of what is external, in the simple."[76] In the case of perception it is something material, divisible and instantiated in many different things which is captured through representation in something completely indivisible and by its nature a genuine unity. Both the one and the many, the composite and the simple, are brought together in this state of expression.

Something similar to what can be seen in the case of perception is also characteristic of the monad itself. Not only does the monad allow for the expression of a multitude in each one of its perceptions, but it is also infinitely complex in its continual process of unfolding, in its passage from one perception to another, while itself remaining a substantial unity. For each monad contains everything that has happened and will happen to it, that is to say, it possesses an infinite number of immanent modifications.

If the monad represents the microcosm, then the universe as macrocosm will express the same general scheme. Indeed, it is evident that for Leibniz, reality as a whole can be construed as both uniform and infinitely diverse. The universe is ‘one’ qua qualitative and harmonious totality and ‘many’ in its (ontological) variety. Though all substances differ infinitesimally in their perspectives, the difference is essentially one of degree and not of kind. All monads share perception and appetition and where they differ is in the degree of distinctness of their states. Even in death, the soul does not lose these qualities, but rather sinks into a sort of fog, it perceptions becoming confused and unclear.[77] In another sense the universe is also homogenous in its pre-established harmony. Everything is arranged by God in such a manner that however we as finite creatures may see things, no discordance or imperfection can come about. What we experience as unjust and imperfect is due to our limited perspective and lack of appreciation for the infinite fullness of things. This harmony of all monads amounts to a unification of reality by means of which we experience a sensible order in the world. However, ontologically speaking, reality is the totality of an infinite number of discreet individual substances which are ontologically and causally entirely isolated from one another. Again, as was seen in the case of perception and in that of the monad, the one and the many are harmonized in the notion of a unity compensated by multiplicity.

This interpretation of Leibniz’s metaphysics is also very much in agreement with his construal of substance as founded on the phenomena of self-experience. It is through introspection of his own nature that Leibniz has been able to find a foundation for a form of reconciliation between the one and the many. What he found there, which was not discoverable anywhere else, was a unity expressing a multiplicity. Thus, if my interpretation is correct, that the Leibnizian metaphysics has to some extent a spirit of reconciliation behind it, this would further substantiate the view that Leibniz found his conception of substance in the self.

That Leibniz arrives at his understanding of substance through self-examination is both implicitly and explicitly expressed in many passages. In drawing attention to our experience of ourselves, Leibniz provides us with more than mere clarification concerning the nature of substance. The brute fact that we are substantial unities makes possible the notion of substance in the first place. For Leibniz cannot conceive "how we could have the idea of being if we did not, as beings ourselves, find being within us."[78] Thus, having found the essence of substance, Leibniz, as was mentioned earlier, exhausts ‘the entire sum of things’. There is no doubt that in Leibniz’s mind the core of all things is uniform: "The foundations are everywhere the same; this is a fundamental maxim for me, which governs my whole philosophy."[79]

This is but one interpretation of many possible concerning Leibniz’s account of substance, but there is evidence enough in the texts to suffice for its legitimacy. But just as the investigation into what substance is can be characterised as necessary in large part for the explanatory value of that which is found, so too is it this same value that I seek in the interpretation given.


Works Cited

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilheim. Philosophical Text. Ed & trans., R.S. Woolhouse & Richard Franks. Oxford University Press: New York. 1998.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilheim. New Essays on Human Understanding. Ed. & trans., Peter Remnant & Jonathan Bennett. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

McRae, Robert. Leibniz: Perception, Apperception, and Thought. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1976.

Heidegger, Martin. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Trans. Michael Heim. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1984.

Aristotle. Selections. Trans. Terence Irwin & Gail Fine. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. 1995.


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An Inquiry Into Phenomenalism

Ryan Vetter

University of Victoria


The purpose of this paper is to expound the doctrine of phenomenalism. In the first section of this paper, I will introduce the two main competing theories to phenomenalism, viz. naVve realism and representational realism. In the next section of this paper, I will provide a detailed account of the doctrine of phenomenalism. Finally, in the last section of this paper, I will provide some objections to the theory of phenomenalism.

Phenomenalism was developed in response to the inherent difficulties found in the other theories of perception that were alive at the time of its formulation. In what follows, I will sketch what phenomenalism is and show that although it perhaps eradicates some of the difficulties found in the other major competing perceptual theories, the difficulties it faces may make it as untenable as the theories it purports to correct. Before investigating the doctrine of phenomenalism, the reader must be acquainted with the two competing theories of which its aim was to improve upon, beginning with representational realism.

Representational realism is a theory of perception based on the existence of external physical objects, which are the cause of our corresponding sensations of them. The term "sensation" is synonymous with experiences, percepts, sense-data, qualia, sensums and representations[80]. These terms, in essence, equate to the various subjective mental experiences in the minds of perceivers (i.e. sounds, tastes, visual experiences, etc.), which constitutes the immediate objects of awareness in sensory experience.


Those theories that support sense-data as being the immediate objects of awareness in sensory experience, like representational realism, justify the existence of these conscious entities by what is commonly referred to as the argument from illusion and hallucination. The argument form hallucination is supposed to show the way we can have the same kind of experience of, say, a coin, without there actually being a coin present, causing our experience of it. When we hallucinate a coin for instance, we experience some mental image (i.e., sense-datum) in our minds, which resembles a real coin (similar shape, color, etc.), which we might take for the real coin.


Since subjective experiences like the latter can be indistinguishable from what we commonly refer to as normal perceptions of things (i.e. coins), one can infer, as the representational realist argues, that in cases of normal perception, in respect to experiencing a coin, for instance, one is immediately aware of a coin-like image in the mind. In the case of hallucinations compared to normal perceptual experiences, what differs is not the immediate object of our perception (sense-data), but the cause of this perception. In the former case, drugs may be the cause of the sensation of the coin, in the latter case, the actual coin is the cause of the perception. Thus, the immediate object of awareness is not necessarily the direct object (if there even is in fact an object causing the perception), but some mind-dependent entity (sense-data).

The argument from illusion aims to show that our experience of an object changes even when the object that we perceive (or think we perceive) remains unchanged (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 656). Though the coin, for instance, remains the same color, size and shape, what we experience, according to the argument, differs in color, size and shape as the conditions of the room change (i.e. lighting), the angle at which it is perceived changes and the distance at which it is perceived changes. Therefore, the conclusion is that what we experience is not the physical object itself. "Since it varies with changes in both object and viewing conditions, what we experience must be a causal result, an effect, of both the object we commonly say we see (the coin) and the conditions in which we view it. This internal effect, it is concluded, is a sense-datum " (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 656).

As a result of sense-data being the immediate objects of sensation, physical objects are indirectly perceived; with the "burden" of sense-data as intermediary mind dependent entities, in part, obstructing our view of them. Accordingly, representational realists hold that the causes of our perceptions are inaccessible to experience. However, to account for the order or law-like pattern of "involuntary" experience — waking experience — the representational realist holds that we are justified [81]in believing in external causes or "dry goods"[82]that are responsible for such experiences.


Representational realists differ as to how accurately, if at all, our private, sensory experiences resemble the objects that cause them. For example, John Locke (1632-1704), in his work titled An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, thought that sensory experiences or ideas — as he referred to them — of number, motion, extension, bulk and figure accurately resemble the objects being perceived. Locke classified these ideas as ideas of primary qualities, which are qualities actually in the objects causing the corresponding sensations of them.


Alternatively, ideas such as color, taste, sounds, etc., which are classified as ideas belonging to the class secondary qualities, do not accurately resemble the objects causing those ideas, that is, these sensations are not of things that are actually in the objects that are causing the ideas of them.

Thus, representational realism entertains that there are "minds" with mental properties or substances (sense-data, sensums, etc.) as well as material objects or "dry goods" which cause these properties to come to be in the minds of those perceiving them.


However, representational realism is open to various skeptical hypotheses in respect to what exactly are the causes of our experiences. This then allows for the far-fetched skeptical hypothesis that we are a brain in a vat, being fed experiences from a computer — the cause of our immediate sensory awareness — or that we are engaged in, at all times, something equivalent to a dream, whatever it is that we are.

Another competing theory to both phenomenalism and representational realism is called naVve or direct realism. Direct realism shares with representational realism the belief in the existence of physical material objects — external to perceivers — that exist independently of being perceived. While direct realists agree with representational realists that we have private, subjective experiences of physical objects, they deny that our awareness of, say, a naked woman, is of a mental intermediary (sense-data).


Defenders of this view hold that when a physical object is being perceived, there are no "obstructions" like sense-data dividing the object being perceived: the cause, from the awareness of it: the effect. Thus, the direct realist "side steps" the problem faced by representational realists having to justify their inference from sense-data experiences — immediate objects of awareness — to the existence of physical material objects which cause these experiences.

However, with further investigation, direct realism seems to collapse into representational realism. In cases of perceptual error, like hallucinations or illusions, the immediate awareness of, say, a coin, is not a direct experience of a coin, because while hallucinating, there is no coin present. It would then seem that the experience of hallucinating a coin is a sensory representation of the coin. However, if the immediate sensory awareness of the coin in a hallucination is indistinguishable from the perception of an actual coin, why not say that in both cases, the immediate object of awareness is a sensory representation? (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 238).


Moreover, the skeptic suggests to the direct realist that their statements about the external world grounded on experience, as the hallucinatory case shows, is prone to error. Thus, the direct realist does not seem to be justified in saying that our immediate experiences necessarily entail the existence of a world exactly like it is presented to us.


As a result, the direct realist would seem to be forced to posit something like sense-data to explain the varying experiences of, for example, a coin. But, this view would collapse into representational realism and be exposed to the same hypothetical challenges, such as the brain-in-a-vat dilemma. Thus, the skeptic seems to have put both views into check-mate.

In summary, the direct realist wants to say that a perceiver experiences the world through a clear window. But, it might be more accurate that, like the representational realist, perceivers experience the world, in part, perched behind a "veil of ignorance."


Phenomenalism purports to answer the difficulties of the these two theories, advertising an empirical, non-skeptical theory of perception — that we are justified in believing in the existence of trees and houses and so forth. It grew in response to the skeptical arguments against representational and naVve realism as well as the philosophical movement known as logical positivism. The essence of logical positivism houses the principle known as verificationism, which is a criteria of meaning used by logical positivists.


Based on this principle, a statement or proposition has meaning if there is a way to adequately justify it. If a statement cannot be justified, then it is meaningless, according to strong verificationism. Weak verificationism holds that a statement or proposition has meaning if it is possible to find evidence or justification that bears on the likelihood of the proposition’s being true (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 515). Most phenomenalists, particularly of antiquity[83], entertain the former form of verificationism.

The origins of the doctrine, and the exercise of the principle of verificationism, can be found as early as the mid 1600’s, in George Berkeley’s[84]work titled Principles of Human Knowledge. In it, Berkeley entertained the thesis that one is limited to his own subjective private experiences (sense-data) of the world and that there is nothing more that one can know besides his immediate experiences. To postulate something beyond ones own immediate experiences, like the representational realists do (e.g. Locke) — unperceivable causes of experience — is to assert the existence of something that cannot possibly be known by experience.


As a result, there is no way to confirm (verify) or disconfirm the postulate that something exists beyond ones immediate sensory experiences. Therefore, the notion of "I know not what" — something over and above immediate experience — as Locke refers to the causes of our experience, is an unintelligible notion, according to Berkeley, and, among others, phenomenalists.

In keeping with Berkeley’s philosophy, phenonemalism has two main premises. First, that there is no knowledge other than that of phenomena (sense-data). Second, the phenomenalist denies the thing-in-itself or the existence of substance in the metaphysical sense[85]. (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 333).

The phenomenalists’ main task is to "save" common sense from the skeptical implications of representative realism. In order to avoid the sceptic’s attempt to divide sensations from their so called material causes, the phenomenalist seeks to establish a conceptual link between the existence of physical objects and the presence of sensations. The notion of a conceptual link between physical objects and the presence of sensations will be developed in what follows.

As discussed earlier, the phenomenalist does not posit the existence of anything beyond his perceptual experiences. However, the phenomenalist must do so without making the existence of material objects depend on the actual existence of sensations (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 333). If the concept of a physical object is the concept of something that can exist unperceived, then the phenomenalist must not associate physical objects with actual sensations. If the phenomenalist were to entertain such a thesis, similar to George Berkeley[86], he would have to confront the issue of objects not existing while not being perceived.


Berkeley "saved" the persistence of physical objects existing unperceived by introducing the concept of an infinite spiritual substance — God — whom Berkeley asserted was always perceiving physical objects (physical objects are, according to Berkeley, collections of ideas or immediate objects of sensations). Thus, physical objects always existed in this sense because God was always perceiving them — that is, they were always in the mind of God as ideas or sensations. Of course, positing an entity like God is not something the phenomenalist is entitled to do based on his strict adherence to the principle of verificationism, which eliminates all metaphysical objects as something to "fall back on."

Factual phenomenalism attempts to fill the gaps between instances of actual sensations. Supporters of this view defined material objects as groups of actual and possible sensa (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 131). An early proponent of this concept, British Philosopher J. S. Mill (1806-73), stated that matter consists of "groups of permanent possibilities of sensation." (The Encyclopedia of



What Mill means by asserting that matter are groups of permanent possibilities of sensations is that the actual sensations that we normally associate, with, say, an apple, are assumed or expected to exist while the apple is not being perceived. So, the actual sensations associated with the apple, for example, while the apple is not being perceived, turn into possible sensations, dubbed conditional certainties. These conditional certainties or possible sensations are verified when one actually proceeds to sense an apple, and finds that indeed he is actually having the sensations that were, as of before being experienced, merely possible sensations associated with an apple.

Permanent possibilities of sensation, or unperceived sense-data, are what later philosophers such as the British Philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) would refer to as "un-sensed sensibilia." (BonJour, Epistemological Problems of Perception). However, it still is not clear, as opposed to actual sensations, what the possible sensations of matter are. What evidence can be formed regarding the existence and nature of such possible sensations? One cannot perceive that in fact such entities fill gaps in between actual sensations, making it somewhat impossible to acquire evidence in order to verify their existence and nature.


Thus, on a strict interpretation, it seems that nothing actually fills the spaces in between instances of sensations. Accordingly, the factual phenomenalist has the same problem as the representational realist (unobserved causes), that is to say, the problem of holding the obscure claim that there are un-sensed sensibilia or matter that are permanent possibilities of sensation. So, by associating sensations with matter, as the factual phenomenalists do, perceptual sensations are just series of sensations that exist in a law-like fashion, with no apparent way of explaining why they exist like this.

Linguisticphenomenalism attempts to eradicate the problems faced by factual phenomenalism. Supporters of this doctrine, are, most notably, the 20thcentury English philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910-89) and American Philosopher C. I. Lewis (1883-1964). "Each theorized that the content of a physical-object statement involves appeal to nothing more than sense-contents or sense-data" (BonJour, Epistemological Problems of Perception). Ayer describes what in fact we are entitled to say with respect to our knowledge of the physical world:

What Berkeley discovered was that material things must be definable in terms of sense-contents … We know that it must be possible to define material things in terms of sense-contents, because it is only by the occurrence of certain sense-contents that the existence of any material thing can ever be in the least degree verified. (Language, Truth and Logic, p. 71).

As a linguistic phenomenalist, Ayer held the thesis that material objects are logical constructions out of sense-data. What this means is that when we make reference to material physical objects, we are only making reference to actual and possible sensations (sense-data) that we can have of them. Any reference to material objects can be spoken of in terms of sense-data; that is to say, the language of material objects is reducible to — has a one-to-one correspondence with — the language of sense-data without a loss of meaning. Thus, everything that can be said in terms of material object language can be said in terms of sense-datum language. As Ayer says:

Every empirical statement about a physical object, whether it seems to refer to a scientific entity or to an object of the more familiar kind that we normally claim to perceive, is reducible to a statement, or set of statements, which refer exclusively to sense-data (Problems of Knowledge, 118).

So, Ayer, and company, completely translate material object language into sense-datum language which purportedly preserves meaning in our statements directed toward the existence of things in the physical world. For example, the belief in the existence of a material physical object, from the phenomenalists perspective[87], can be defined as the following: "that sense-data of various sorts have been experienced, are being experienced, will be experienced, and/or would be experienced under certain specifiable conditions" (BonJour, Epistemological Problems of Perception).

For example, the belief that there is a painting of Elvis Presley in the next room is to believe that sense-data associated with seeing an Elvis Presley painting, under normal conditions, which reflect the presence of such an entity, either have been, are presently, or will be, in the future, experienced in the context of other sensations associated with the location and surroundings of the painting.

By reducing or translating material object language to sense-data language, the sets of sensum statements used by linguistic phenomenalists take on two main forms. Insofar as an object is actually being perceived, the statements are categorical (material object concepts), but when referring to unperceived objects, the statements are hypothetical (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 132). For example, "I see a coin" equates to "I have sensations of ABC, etc.," where ABC could stand for "of a round, silver, solid-like shape." Alternatively, to say "there is a coin in the next room" would equate to something like "If you were to go into the next room, you would have sensations of ABC, etc."

The hypothetical statements used to assert the existence of something while it is not being perceived are in strict accord with the principle of verificationism. These statements supposedly set up necessary and sufficient links between sets of sensations, establishing a sound conceptual or corresponding link between a set of sensations and other sets of sensations (material object concepts). Thus, the assertion that trees and chairs and houses exists are perfectly meaningful statements, verified on the condition that by having certain sensations (e.g. the sensations of green; of leaves; of wood, etc.), certain other sensations will accompany them (e.g. the sensation of experiencing a tree).

Thus, linguistic phenomenalism gains ground over factual phenomenalism insofar as the hypothetical statements used to refer to possible sensations do not suggest that possible sensations are actually components of actual objects (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 132).


As stated earlier, all one can have is actual and possible sensations of the world, and linguistic phenomenalism has, taking this as its main tenet, redefined what we mean when we refer to material objects. There is no need to refer to anything beyond these actual and possible sense-data, like Platonic Forms or unknown causes, as representational realists do.


Thus, instead of the troublesome dichotomy that realists, both direct and representational, create for themselves, the phenomenalist avoids this relationship between mind and physical material objects by holding that a certain set of sensations are conceptually linked to what is referred to as physical object concepts; sequences of patterns of particular sense-data. So, the meaning of our statements asserting the existence of physical objects is verifiable — has meaning — by the presence of a set of sensations which are normally associated with other sensations.

Objections to Phenomenalism

First, phenomenalism presupposes that our direct awareness of the world is entirely of private sensa. Modern Science, Philosophy and the like are still not clear on what exactly mental conscious properties are, if there even are such things. Moreover, the phenomenalist does not seem to adequately define these entities themselves. The argument from illusion or hallucination seems dubious. In the case of the bent stick in water (illusion), it does not immediately follow that the part of the stick that is bent is actually "in the head", distinct from something out in physical space. It would seem that a better explanation would be that the water distorts the straight stick insofar as the light and the water refract the stick in a certain way, casting a shadow like image in the water, that can be seen to ripple with the oncoming waves.


Once the stick is taken out of the water, the stick is straight again (well, hopefully). There seems to be no reason to believe that the stick is actuallybent while it is in the water. To be sure, one can, based on inductive experiments, hold the stick with one hand while at the same time look at it in the water. The stick should feel straight to the hand and look bent to the eyes. Common sense, coupled with both a physiological explanation as well as a physical explanation of the conditions of which the stick is being viewed in, will yield a perfectly cogent explanation of why the stick appearsbent, but in fact is not actually bent.


Thus, these so-called illusion arguments can be counteracted by the fact that although one sense gets "deceived", other senses, at the same time one is experiencing, say, a stick, do not. What this example shows is that there is no reason to think that the stick is actually bent while immersed in water, nor any reason to suppose that the illusion is "in the head", and thus no reason to think that one is being "deceived" by suffering mere non-representational effects of physical objects, like the stick. A reasonable conclusion is that there is an objective, unchanging stick, as the representational realists hold, but gets somewhat mis-represented under certain physical conditions, easily discovered to be so with further investigation.

In response to the hallucination argument, it is not necessarily clear that hallucinations (after images, mirages, dreaming, imagining, etc.) are as similar to "ordinary" waking experiences as the supporters of the argument seem to profess. Moreover, the mirage example is fundamentally flawed insofar as mirages, as modern science explains, are in fact caused by some complex process of light passing through two air layers of different temperatures if the light hits at an oblique angle (Halladay, Mirages are Real!).


A mirage, if the latter explanation is accepted, is not a hallucination at all, but an experience of something that would seem to inescapably have an "external" cause.

Therefore, there seems to be solid ground for selecting certain sensory experiences over others in regards to deciphering which in fact are most likely the veridical ones, if one accepts the fact that hallucinatory experiences are fundamentally different from normal waking experiences. Thus, it does not follow, that the immediate object of sensory experience is in fact a sense-data in all cases, or that the effect of the cause of a particular experience is all that different from its cause. A more commonsensical conclusion would be to classify those sensations belonging to hallucinations and illusions as fundamentally distinct sensory experiences than the experiences of normal waking reality.


Another concern is that linguistic phenomenalistic statements seem, in practice, problematic. Such statements do not seem to be equivalent to material object statements and thus are not as complete translations as Ayer and company held them to be. The translation of material object statements into sense-datum statements as a series of hypothetical statements — even when the apodoses of these describe experiences — seems to avoid asserting the actual existence or occurrence of physical objects or portray something quite different, like a promise or a warning. For instance, "If you touch that, you will get burned." "If you go to the next room, you will see a book on the table" which may function as a request or suggestion that the person go there (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 663).

Another facet of the translation problem comes in the form of "tainting" the phenomenalistic analysis with having to include in sense-data statements, in order to preserve meaning, references to material physical objects. For example, consider a coin. The statement "sensa of a round, shiny-like, solid seeming shape would not differentiate the coin from say, a piece of round metal.

The urge in the latter case is to include something more accurate, so the statement about the coin does not entail a round piece of metal. The translation would probably have to be something like, "a shiny-like, round, non-coin, metal-like sensa." However the analysis is now tainted with material-object language and thus is not a completed translation. So, the conclusion associated with this argument is that there is no need to reduce material object statements into a language that does not preserve its meaning, viz. sense-data language.

Another manifest problem with linguistic phenomenalism, as Roderick Chisholm (1916-1999) pointed out, is that the necessary and sufficient connections that were supposed to be part of the hypothetical statements linguistic phenomenalists use to verify the existence of material objects break down. For example, there might be some illusion or hallucination in which the sensum statements would be true and the material-object statement false. For instance, all the white computer mouse-like sensa might be present, and yet the object might be something that looks and feels like a computer mouse, but is not.


Moreover, the material-object statement might be true and the sensory ones false. There might be a mouse on the table, and yet one might not get the sensa of it (i.e. the light might fail, one might be inattentive or ignorant, it may be hidden, and so forth). Thus, there are cases where statements referring to sets of sensations that are supposed to entail statements about other sets of sensations, do not. Chisholm argues that what sensations one would have if one were to have certain others always depends upon, in part, the conditions of both the perceiver (neurological characteristics) and the physical conditions in which the perceiver is in. Therefore, concludes Chisholm, trying to assert the existence of physical objects in terms of hypothetical statements — necessary and sufficient connections between sensations — like the phenomenalists do, without appeal to both the neurological state of the perceiver and the physical conditions under which the perception is taking place is "doomed" (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 664).

Lastly[88], if one is not "allowed" to explain the existence of sensations by appealing to any external cause, what then, is the explanation for the law-like sensations — which constitute the existence of material objects — that perceivers experience of the world? The phenomenalist might respond by saying that it is not further explainable, based on the principle of verificationism — that it is just a fact of experience that sensations occur in the law-like patterns that they do. It seems incredible that there is no explanation or further reason regarding our experience of the world and the physical things in it. Perhaps, as the phenomenalist asserts, we can never know any explanation that involves reference to things beyond experiences, but this is a skeptical argument about the material world. Phenomenalism is not supposed to be a skeptical view, however.


In conclusion, phenomenalism seems to be an awkward work around to other competing theories that, in light of a pragmatic, commonsensical approach to making claims about the material world, is simply not needed to explain our experiences of the material world. There is no reason to believe that physical objects disappear when not being perceived and thus the phenomenalists "worry" about the persistence of substances or material things distinct from experience is not needed. The arguments in respect to our immediate awareness of things while experiencing the world, which are taken to be sense-data, do not seem completely cogent. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that we are brains in a vat — no evidence. Thus, the skeptical arguments against direct or representational realism, on the face of it, are harmless.

Consequently, because of the obscurity of sense-data, and the fact that the skeptic’s assertions against the existence of the physical material world are based on sand; postulating the existence of material physical objects, each being afforded a distinct, ontological status, which we are directly aware of in experience, would, in my opinion, be the best explanation of sensory experience. I conclude that the most plausible theory of perception out of the three outlined in this paper, is direct realism, in where illusions and hallucinations can easily be categorized as perceptions of things, just different from ordinary ones, explained by appeal to science.

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Works Cited

Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. NewYork: Cambridge University Press. 2001.

Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover. 1946.

Ayer, A. J. Problem of Knowledge. London: Macmillan. 1965.

Berkley, George. Principles of Human Understanding. (1710): No. pg. Online.


BonJour, Laurence. "Epistemological Problems of Perception." Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (July 12, 2001): No. pg. Online. Internet. 2002. Available:

Craig, Edward, ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.


Edwards, Paul, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan. 1967.

Halladay, April. "Mirages are Real." USA Today 5, Oct. 2001.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, England:

Penguin Books Ltd. 1997.


[1] Robert Denoon Cumming (Ed.), The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, (Vintage Books: New York, 1972), 137


[2] Ibid., 197


[3] Ibid., 123


[4] Ibid., 136


[5] Ibid., 150


[6] Ibid., 156


[7] Ibid., 196-204


[8] Revolution refers to Iranian revolution at 1979


[9] Fodor, J. p. 200.


[10] Fodor, J. p. 205


[11] Fodor, J. p. 207


[12] Fodor, J. p. 203


[13] Idea inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Foss, Department of Philosophy, University of Victoria


[14] I take it that Fodor’s views are derived from his studies with Chomski. I have presupposed innate grammar. For a discussion see "New Horizons and the Study of Language and Mind".


[15] Quine, 72-79.


[16] Quine, 72-79.


[17]Gordon, 407.


[18] Idea inspired by Dr. Alison Barnes, Department of Philosophy, University of Victoria.


[19]Goldman, 139.


[20] Idea inspired by Dr. Alison Barnes, Department of Philosophy, University of Victoria.


[21] Nagel, 447.


[22]Jackson, 392-394.


[23] Quine, 72-79.


[24] Arthur C. Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 38.


[25] Danto, p. 39.


[26]Perhaps, one day, the art world will deem Danto's books to be art, too.


[27] Danto, p. 90.


[28] See, for example, his comments on "arrogant Kantians," p. 174.


[29] See Danto, pp. 36-40.


[30] Danto, p. 95.


[31] Danto, p. 95.


[32] In fact, a neophyte philosopher might be well advised to demonstrate such epistemic modesty when confronted with the essentialist question.


[33] I borrow this term–"noseeum"–to describe the inference from (1*) to (2) from Daniel Howard-Snyder. He uses the term in the context of considering an evidential form of the problem of evil. See Howard-Snyder's chapter, "God, Evil, and Suffering," in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. by M.J. Murray (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 76-115.


[34] See Howard-Snyder, p. 105.


[35] G.K. Chesterton, Club of Queer Trades, IV.


[36]William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, lines 166-167.


[37]Jeremiah 17:9


[38] It may sound surprising, but Danto, indirectly, suggests this idea to me. In describing Herbert Marcuse's theory of art he writes: "I...was never able to grasp how aesthetic beauty was going to transform society into the political utopia in which [Marcuse] believed. For one thing, I knew too many aesthetes who were moral monsters–how much good did beauty do them?" See p. 141. I suggest that if it is the case that art has an essence that can serve as a criterion by which one can determine what is art and what is not art, moral monster-hood makes a person unable to know what that essence is.


[39] Jan Narveson, "Terrorism and Morality," in Violence, Terrorism and Justice, eds. R.G. Frey and Christopher W. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 116-169.


[40] Narveson, "Terrorism and Morality", 146.


[41] This does not answer the very efficient means that a large group with the materials needed to enforce their rule might have at their disposal (such as a government).


[42] Narveson, "Terrorism and Morality", 156.


[43] Ibid, 156.


[44] The terrorist, of course, claims the opposite viz. that there are utility calculations that give him the moral right to use terrorist acts.


[45] Ibid, 130.


[46] Ibid, 164.


[47] Ibid, 164


[48] Ibid, 163.


[49] Ibid, 164.


[50]Panico, Christopher. Conflicts in the Causcasus: Russia’s War in Chechnya. London: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism. 1995.


[51] Ibid, 163.


[52] There is an even stronger case for those involved in radical, religious and/or fundamentalist organizations. Often, death is not something to be feared, but is seen as being a reward. How violence can deter these types of terrorist organizations is unclear. Again, eradication will not solve future acts of violence, as it is often these acts an organization fights against and those hurt indirectly by such a policy will likely take up arms.


[53] Categories. 2a15.


[54] Cat. 2b5.


[55] Discourse on Metaphysics. 8.


[56] Monadology. 33.


[57] Discourse. 8.


[58] Ibid. 8 (italics mine).


[59] Letter to Arnauld, April 30 1687, Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence, pg. 120.


[60] Mon. 2.


[61] Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence, pg. 121.


[62] Mon. 8.


[63] Ibid. 11.


[64] Ibid. 13.


[65] Mon. 17.


[66] New Essays on Human Understanding. 2, 27, 4 (pg. 232).


[67] New Essays. 2, 27, 3.


[68] Ibid.


[69] Ibid. 2, 27, 14.


[70] Mon. 16.


[71] Letter to deVolder, 1705. See M. Heidegger’s, The metaphysical Foundations of Logic (pg. 86).


[72] Mon. 30.


[73] New Essays. 4, 7, 7. (pg. 411).


[74] New Essays. 4, 2, 1.


[75] McRae, Robert. Leibniz: Perception, Apperception, and Thought. (pg. 24).


[76] Principles of Nature and Grace. 2.


[77] See Mon. 14.


[78] New Essays. 1, 1, 23 (pg. 86).


[79] Ibid. 4, 17, 16 (pg. 490).


[80]Throughout the rest of this essay, I will use these terms interchangeably due to their varying linguistic uses.


[81] The technique used by the representational realist to justify the belief that our experiences are caused by external physical objects is called abduction or inference to the best explanation.


[82]Austin, J. L. Sense and Sensibilia, p. 102.


[83] Dare I say Berkeley.




[85]Substance means the "support" of the "accidents" of some particular thing. For example, the substance of a man supports the color that he is. Substance, as defined by Locke, means that part of an individual thing in which its properties (primary and secondary qualities) inhere (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 887).


[86] See Berkley, George. Principles of Human Knowledge. (1710).


[87] Based on the grounds of adhering to the principle of verificationism.


[88] There are many more arguments against phenomenalism, but there is not room in this paper to cover them all.


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