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Download Free PDF - Andrew Collier About Aboutness


									K F E AT U R E
                                                Andrew Collier
                                              About Aboutness
Berkeley’s idealism, in the form of discourse idealism, dominates social theory and the humanities, other than philosophy, in the
late twentieth century Western academy. Andrew Collier enlists Heidegger to the task of undermining this great modern dogma.

My aim in this essay is to refute, or at least to undermine            tal act – an emotion or desire or belief or image – always
the plausibility of, idealism. In the nineteenth and early             intends, is aimed at, something. A desire is a desire for
twentieth centuries lots of philosophers owned up to                   something, a belief is a belief in something, a sensation is a
being idealists. Today most of those whom I would call                 sensation of something. It is what a mental act or idea aims
idealists prefer the term ‘non-realist’. However, this term            at or is about that makes it the idea that it is: you cannot just
is inaccurate since, as Roy Bhaskar has said, all philoso-             believe, you can only believe something, you cannot just
phers are realists; the question is what is one a realist              love, you can only love someone. And it is an idea and not
about? Idealists are realists about ideas, hence their                 some other kind of entity just because of this aboutness.
name; they are non-realists or agnostics about what the                But this is not just like the fact that a tree-trunk cannot just
ideas are ideas of. To put it another way, they deny that              be lying, it must be lying on something. For an idea is
ideas are ideas of anything; they deny the aboutness of                defined by what it is about. If I want a glass of beer, that
ideas. This is equally true of Berkeley’s perception-based             want can only be described in terms of a glass of beer; if I
idealism and of modern (or ‘postmodern’) language-                     believe in God, my belief cannot be described without men-
based idealism.1 (Throughout this paper, I shall use the               tioning God. In this way an idea and what it is about are
word ‘idea’ to cover both linguistic entities like concepts            internally related. But an idea can exist even if what it is
and perceptual entities like images. What they have in                 about does not, and need not exist for its object to exist. My
common will be clear shortly.) Yet I shall argue that the              wanting a glass of beer would be just that even if there were
plausibility of idealist arguments comes entirely from the             no beer in the world, and conversely beer can quite well
fact that ideas, whether conceived as percepts or con-                 exist without my wanting it.2
cepts, are about things.
                                                                       Getting started
The aboutness of ideas                                                 Realism is openly committed to the aboutness of ideas,
The central argument of idealism is this: ‘we can’t know               but idealism, which denies it, cannot get started without
anything except by means of our own ideas; so we can’t                 tacitly assuming it. Firstly, because we could not under-
know anything but our own ideas’. This is obviously not                stand what sort of thing ideas are without understanding
valid without some supplementary argument. Who would                   that they are about things; but also because the plausi-
be convinced by the argument: ‘we can’t see except by                  bility of the idealist move set out at the beginning
means of our eyes, so we can’t see anything but our eyes’              depends on it. For since ideas have this property, they
(an argument which is actually quite close to the origins of           can be adequate or inadequate to what they are about. In
modern idealism in Locke’s rejection of direct perception              the case of cognitive ideas, this means that they can be
of the world)? Or what about ‘we can’t kiss anyone except              true or false. Realism consists at root in saying that the
with our lips, so we can’t really kiss anyone else at all, we          truth or falsehood of an idea depends on its relation to
can only kiss our own lips’?                                           what it is about, which is a reality independent of the
  Why then do people find the central argument of idealism             idea. But the question which sets up the idealist move is:
so plausible, and these parallel arguments so implausible?             how do we determine whether an idea is true or false?
The plausibility comes from a difference between ideas and             The obvious answer is: by comparing the idea to what it
eyes or lips – a difference which idealism relies on to float          is about. To use Heidegger’s example:
this argument, but ends by denying: that an idea is about
something, is defined as an idea by this aboutness, and is               Suppose that someone with his back turned to the wall
                                                                         makes the true assertion that ‘the picture on the wall is hang-
defined as the idea that it is by what it is about. This applies
                                                                         ing askew’. This assertion demonstrates itself when the man
whether the ideas concerned are images, concepts belong-                 who makes it turns round and perceives the picture hanging
ing to discourse, or conceptions implicit in practice. Several           askew on the wall. (1967, 260)
philosophers have theorized this aboutness in one way or
another. For Spinoza, every idea is of something, and in a             But the idealist will be unimpressed, saying with Berkeley
certain sense is what it is an idea of, under another attribute.       ‘to have an idea is all one as to perceive’ and ‘an idea can
Writing of Heidegger’s central concept of ‘concern’ (besor-            be like nothing but an idea’ (1910, 16). So all we are
gen) whereby Dasein is related to its world, Ryle (1978, 58)           doing when we turn and see the picture is comparing
made the suggestion that it should be translated ‘being-               another idea with the one we already had. I would like to
about’. But the philosopher of aboutness in modern times is            reply (in the spirit of Heidegger’s discussion, I think,
Brentano (the man whose work first inspired both Husserl               though still using the language of ideas): we are not com-
and Heidegger to become philosophers, and the only                     paring two ideas, we are comparing an idea with a picture
philosopher whose lectures Freud attended), who rescued                by means of another idea. But an argument is needed to
from medieval obscurity the idea of intentionality: a men-             show that this is how the matter stands. My argument has

two parts. First I want to show that the view that we are so         sometimes make mistakes. People can come to know less
to speak trapped inside the world of our own ideas can’t             rather than more about the world, if they succumb to
be right. Then I want to show how come we are not.                   amnesia or paranoia or the characteristic rightward drift of
                                                                     middle aged academics or politicians in office. But the
Reification of lit-upness                                            only way of changing our ideas for which there can be
A clue to the impossibility of our being trapped inside our          good reasons, is finding out more about the world.
own ideas is the point already made that the whole lan-                The reification of ideas that has made the idealist move
guage of ideas can only get going because ideas are about            described at the outset seem so inescapable has been
things, so that by denying aboutness, idealism deprives              effected by two turns in modern philosophy: the percep-
itself of its own medium of existence. We cannot make                tual turn of Descartes and Locke, which made a static or
sense of an idea, an experience or a proposition except in           snapshot (rather than practically situated) notion of per-
terms of what it is an idea of, what is experienced, what the        ception the paradigm of access to the ‘external world’;
proposition is about. Deprived of their aboutness, these             and the linguistic turn which took place in the UK in the
things are nothings. Once we know a fair bit about the               mid-1940s, and in continental Europe a generation later.
world and our own engagement in it, we can very well                 This latter turn has induced a complacency about the
come to understand what ideas are and distinguish them               assumption that language is not transparent; language as
analytically from what they are about; but neither an indi-          such is neither opaque nor transparent. If we focus, not
vidual nor a culture can do so until they have a backlog of          on language, but on what we can do with language, we
experience of the world and abstract reflection about it. So         can say, ‘Language is not transparent? That’s unfortu-
the world that ideas are about is in three ways prior to the         nate. Let’s work to make it more so’, for of course lan-
ideas: ontologically prior – there was a world before there          guage can be used either to open up the world to us or to
were ideas; epistemologically prior – we have to know                close it off, and those who do the latter – or worse, acqui-
about the world before we can know about our own ideas               esce in such closedness as a given – are doing bad phi-
about it; and logically prior – we can only define an idea           losophy; not just poor quality philosophy, but philosophy
in terms of what it is about.                                        which serves obscurantism and oppression.
   The world of ideas, far from being an autonomous world
in which we live and in which we could be trapped, is a              Opening up the world
reification of an aspect of the real world: its accessibility,       Here I would like to defend two discussions of finding out
its lit-upness. All would perhaps have been well had the             more about the world which have often been treated as
nouns ‘idea’, ‘experience’, ‘concept’ never existed, and we          naïve. Firstly, Engels (1968):
had had to use the transitive verbs ‘to experience (some-
                                                                       If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a
thing)’, ‘to ideate (something)’, ‘to conceive of (some-               natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being
thing).’ But because we have come to think of experienc-               out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes
ing or ideating something as ‘having an experience’ or                 into the bargain, then there is an end to the Kantian ungras-
‘having an idea’, we interpose a third level between our-              pable ‘thing-in-itself’. The chemical substances produced in
                                                                       the bodies of plants and animals remained just such ‘things-
selves and the world that we know. We think that to com-
                                                                       in-themselves’ until organic chemistry began to produce
pare an idea with what it is about, we have to ‘have’ anoth-           them one after another, whereupon the ‘thing-in-itself’
er idea, and hey presto! we are only comparing ideas.                  became a thing for us, as, for instance, alizarin, the colouring
   That this is merely a ‘bewitchment of the intelligence              matter of the madder, which we no longer trouble to grow in
by language’ and no real trap can be illustrated by this               the madder roots in the field, but produce much more cheap-
                                                                       ly and simply from coal tar.
comparison. Here I am, sitting in the library of
Southampton Town Hall, overlooking Watts Park.                       The point is not, I think, simply whether we can produce
Someone says they can prove to me that I can’t move                  alizarin, but that in order to do so we must know its chem-
from here. I say, ‘Yes I can. In a few minutes I’m going to          ical structure, not just its properties as a colouring agent.
go to Fountains Café to get a pot of tea.’ They reply, ‘Ah,          In the light of modern knowledge about the limits of fos-
but when you’re in Fountains Café, Fountains Café will               sil fuel and the need for replaceable sources of raw mate-
be “here” – so you can never get out of “here”.’ It is no            rials, it may well be rational to start growing madder in
real impossibility, but a verbal trick, like the sign one            the fields again, but that is not the point. The point is that
sometimes sees in pubs, saying ‘free beer tomorrow’. You             when we discover the chemical structure of alizarin, we
are not trapped inside your ideas, because you can always            know something about it that was always part of it as a
get new ideas; that they are still ideas is just a tautology,        thing-in-itself, but was not previously a thing for us. Of
like the fact that wherever you are is always here, and              course Kant (or Lukács on his behalf) will reply that the
whatever day it is, tomorrow is always another day. The              chemical structure of alizarin is still only a ‘phenome-
idealist replies, ‘But because they are ideas, they are just         non’, a thing for us. But what does this mean? It is now a
as far from any world that exists independently of ideas as          thing for us, but what is the force of the ‘only’? If it just
were the ones they replaced.’ This I deny. The point is that         means that there are doubtless still more properties of
‘getting new ideas [about the world]’ is just a clumsy, rei-         alizarin that we don’t know, and may yet discover, or
fied way of saying ‘finding out more about the world’.               indeed may never know, that is quite true. But what we do
When we change our ideas, we are either finding out more             know about it is new knowledge about what has always
about the world, or making a mistake. Of course, we do               been true of alizarin in itself. To claim that, just because

our new knowledge of alizarin (that is, of its chemical                     Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the
structure) is our knowledge, it can’t be true of alizarin in                whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and
itself, is to prescribe by definition that we can’t know                    (above all) no beam. Instead, I saw, framed in the irregular
things in themselves, not to argue for this view.                           cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the
                                                                            branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million
   The second discussion is Heidegger’s, following the
                                                                            miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at
example of the picture hanging askew that I have already
                                                                            the beam are very different experiences. (50)
quoted. I do not want to go to the length of a sentence-by-
sentence commentary on this dense passage (the long para-                 Lewis extends this contrast between ‘looking along’ and
graph spanning pages 260–261 of Being and Time). But                      ‘looking at’ to other cases: the way a lover sees his beloved
the essential point is, that in asserting that the picture on             and the way a psychologist sees the love; the way a math-
the wall behind one is askew, then turning round and con-                 ematician understands his calculations and the way a
firming this, one is neither comparing two ideas                          brain-physiologist accounts for them; the way a participant
(Vorstellungen, ‘representations’ in the English of Being                 in a fertility dance sees the ritual and the way an anthro-
and Time, but this is a word commonly translated ‘ideas’),                pologist does. In each case the participant, ‘looking along
nor comparing an idea with a real thing. Both the asserting               the beam’, sees something different from what the observ-
and the confirming are about the real picture, not about                  er, ‘looking at the beam’, does.
ideas of it. The seeing merely shows that the assertion also                 The question arises, which is truer? Lewis’s claims
uncovered the picture, that is, ‘told it like it is’, was true of         (roughly paraphrased) are (1) That twentieth century
it. Now it would be very easy for an idealist to see this, as             thought assumes that looking at is always truer, and even
Sartre did of another argument of Heidegger’s, as cutting a               debunks looking along. (2) That this can’t be so for two
Gordian knot rather than untying it; maybe the assertion                  reasons. (a) Every looking at is also a looking along. The
and the seeing are about and of the picture, but they are                 psychologist studying love is thinking differently from
ideas, and they are compared. I think that this is not false,             the physiologist studying the psychologist’s brain-
but it is misleading in a way that Heidegger’s account isn’t.             processes as she does so; the psychologist is looking at
In Heidegger’s account, there are, I think, three relations:              love, but looking along psychology; if a looking along is
two relations of person to picture (one asserting and one                 debunked as soon as it is looked at, the psychologist’s
seeing); and a relation of confirmation between the two.                  view is as much debunked by the brain-physiologist’s as
On the second account there are four relations even before                the lover’s is by the psychologist’s. (b) When what we
the confirmation starts; of person to verbal idea (asserting)             look at is itself a case of looking along – when it is about
of the picture, of verbal idea to the picture, of person to               something – it is only as interesting as what it is about. A
perceptual idea of the picture, and of perceptual idea to                 psychological account of love or a physiological account
picture. In place of the relation of confirmation, we get a               of pain or an anthropological account of a fertility rite
relation of comparison between the two ideas, so the total                interests us because love and pain and rituals interest us.
pattern of relations at this point forms an A-shaped struc-               This is not a subjective question about what happens to
ture. But then, since all that is related in the ‘confirmation’           interest us. The point is that unless a case of looking
is two ideas, it loses its character of confirmation and                  along interests us by virtue of what it sees, there can be
becomes a mere comparison; and since the legs of the A                    nothing interesting about looking at it. So if looking at a
are outside this process, they become superfluous. This is                case of looking along really explains it away, it loses its
precisely the idealist account which I have claimed is both               own interest too. (3) That both looking along and looking
false and, since it needs the legs of the A to get going but              at can be genuine forms of knowledge. We cannot know
then treats them as superfluous, self-undermining.                        in advance which will be truer in any given case. But
                                                                          from Lewis’s examples he seems to be suggesting – and
Looking at and along                                                      I think that this is correct – that it is when looking along
Finally, as a signpost away from the mindset that has made                involves some error that looking at becomes more impor-
idealism seem so inescapable to twentieth century                         tant. Suppose someone, reading Kingsley Amis’ state-
thinkers, I would like to draw attention to a short text by               ment that Margaret Thatcher was beautiful, were to say
C.S.Lewis called ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’ (published in                 ‘that tells you a lot about Kingsley Amis, but nothing
his collection of essays First and Second Things).                        about Margaret Thatcher’. If we accept this judgement, it
Admittedly, this article from the Coventry Evening                        is not because ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. If it
Telegraph, 28th May 1945, offers only a striking metaphor                 were, then no one’s judgements about beauty would be of
for a number of rather different oppositions; but they have               any interest. It is because the judgement seems so wide of
enough in common to show up the line of least resistance                  the mark that it needs some ‘looking at’, to find a
for modern (and especially postmodern) thought, and to                    debunking explanation. We immediately recall the facts
suggest how we might resist that line. The essay opens:                   that Kingsley Amis was a right-wing Tory and a misogy-
  I was standing today in a dark toolshed. The sun was shining            nist, who thought that Mozart was rubbish, and hence
  outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came         that his judgement was politically, feminologically and
  a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the              aesthetically suspect. But it would never occur to us to
  specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the       search for such facts about someone who said that Joan
  place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the         Baez was beautiful, for this judgement does tell you
  beam, not seeing things by it.                                          something true about Joan Baez.

Loss of aboutness                                                     find themselves on the same side in this controversy. But
It is now possible to understand how recent forms of ideal-           Lenin was surely right to recognize that, if the materialist
ism can sometimes quite plausibly claim materialist cre-              debunking of ideas were generalized, it would cut off the
dentials. Materialism in the Marxist sense has always at              reference of those ideas to reality, and with it the possibili-
least included realism, if it has not been simply identified          ty of showing certain ideas to be false.
with it. But it has also often included a bent for debunking
ideas by explaining them under some aspect other than their           Notes
status as ideas about something, for instance explaining an           1. Perhaps I should make it clear here exactly which forms of idealism this
ideology not in terms of what it is about, but of class inter-        paper is directed against: in the first place, Berkeley, since his defence of
                                                                      idealism is exemplary in its clarity as to what the issues at stake are; but
est. This is precisely a case of ‘looking at’ taking prece-           the transcendental idealism of Kant and Schopenhauer has enough in com-
dence over ‘looking along’; and of course it is an integral           mon with Berkeley’s subjective idealism to be undermined by this argu-
part of Marxian social science, as well as of the work of             ment too. However, what I am most concerned with, and what gives this
those other two ‘masters of suspicion’, Nietzsche and                 paper its topicality, is the discourse-idealism that currently dominates
Freud. But this procedure does lead to losing sight (if only          almost all departments of sociology and of arts subjects other than philos-
                                                                      ophy in British universities. I think this is identical in form to Berkeley’s
temporarily as a methodological ‘bracketing off’) of what             idealism, the substitution of discursive ideas for perceptual ones in no way
the ideas are about. So if this procedure is generalized to all       affecting the validity of the arguments against it. While it is arguable
ideas, it leads to a general referencelessness or loss of             (though also debatable) that the leading representatives of postmodernist
aboutness in ideas – and that is just what idealism is.               discourse theory are not idealist in this sense, it is certain that the trickled
                                                                      down postmodernism that one encounters daily in the academy is.
   An example from the history of pre-revolutionary
                                                                         ‘Objective idealism’ – the view that reality is itself conceptually struc-
Russian Marxism illustrates this materialist route to ideal-          tured – is a more complex case. It seems to me to be an ambiguous posi-
ism. During their exile in the far north of Russia for their          tion: either the conceptual structure is imposed by us, in which case we
illegal socialist agitation, Nicolas Berdyaev (who at that            are back with Kant; or it is independent of us and contingently discover-
time was a sort of Kantian humanist, though he later                  able by us insofar as our concepts ‘cut reality at the joints’ (Plato). This
                                                                      last position is precisely what was meant by ‘realism’ in the middle ages,
became a Christian existentialist) used to engage in fierce           and is quite compatible with my view.
philosophical arguments with Anatoli Lunacharsky (who                    I hope it is clear that I do not regard the Heidegger of Being and Time
was later to be the first People’s Commissar for Education            as an idealist, but unambiguously as an ally.
in Lenin’s government), and with the empirio-criticist
                                                                      2. Because intentional objects need not be real objects, it is possible to com-
Bolshevik philosopher Bogdanov. The issue was that                    bine the notion of intentionality with a version of idealism, and Husserl
Berdyaev defended the autonomy of truth, while                        does so. But this will be avoided if one recognizes with Heidegger (i) that
Lunacharsky and Bogdanov thought there was no truth but               when the object before one’s mind is real, it is not represented by but is also
‘class-truth’. But all three agreed that Berdyaev’s position          the intentional object (see the discussion of the picture on the wall), and (ii)
                                                                      that intentionality only makes sense as an aspect of Being-in-the-World,
was ‘idealist’ whereas Bogdanov and Lunacharsky’s was                 and the world in which one is is the real world, not a representation of it
‘materialist’. The curious irony is that Lenin was to attack          (see the discussion of idealism in Being and Time, 246–252).
Bogdanov and Lunacharsky (in his Materialism and
Empirio-Criticism) as ‘idealists’ for just this sociologically        References
reductionist view of knowledge, and later for a similar view          Berdyaev, Nicholas (1950) Dream and Reality. London, G. Bles.
about art (Lunacharsky was one of the patrons of ‘proletar-           Berkeley, George (1910) A New Theory of Vision and Other
ian culture’, about which Lenin, like Trotsky, was quite                Writings. London, Dent.
                                                                      Engels, Frederick (1968) ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of
scathing). Of course this does not mean that Lenin was
                                                                        Classical German Philosophy’ in Marx and Engels, Selected Works
opposed to the sociological debunking of ideas – he did
                                                                        in One Volume. London, Lawrence & Wishart.
quite a lot of it himself. Nor for that matter was Berdyaev,          Heidegger, Martin (1967) Being and Time. Oxford, Blackwell.
who said that while ‘class-truth’ was a meaningless expres-           Lewis, C.S. (1985) ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’, in First and
sion, there could be ‘“class-untruth”, such as the untruth              Second Things. Fount.
which informs the bourgeois classes, implicated as they are           Ryle, Gilbert (1978) ‘Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit’, in Michael
in the evil of exploiting their fellow-men’ (1950 123).                 Murray, ed., Heidegger and Modern Thought. Yale,
Lenin and Berdyaev would have been equally surprised to                 Newhaven.

                       T h e O n t o l o g i c a l Tu r n i n E c o n o m i c s
 As reported in our first issue, the Cambridge Workshop on Realism and Economics meets in Room E2, Kings College,
 Cambridge Mondays at 8 p.m. during term. Everyone is welcome, just turn up. Papers have recently been presented by Geoff
 Hodgson, Structures and institutions: reflections on institutions and critical realism; Paul Lewis and Jochen Runde, A critical
 realist perspective on Paul Davidson’s methodological writings on, and rhetorical strategy for, post Keynesian economics;
 Wendy Olsen, Credit markets and critical realism; Sheila Dow, Post Keynesianism and critical realism; and Ingrid Robeynes,
 Methodological issues in feminist economics. (Lewis and Runde speak of an ‘ontological turn’ in economics: ‘terms such as
 “reality”, “ontology” and “metaphysics” have ... become quite common in recent years, not only in the specialist literature on the
 philosophy and methodology of economics, but also in heterodox economics.’)
 Forthcoming papers include: 26 April Geoff Hodgson, The supposed theoretical and policy implications of critical realism: a cri-
 tique; 10 May Mark Setterfield, Critical realism and formal modelling: incompatible bedfellows?
                     To update this information:


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