Monday, April 12, 2010

The Problem of Unconceptualized Apples

Note: Argument updated!

Note 2: For the RCist, "concept" means "rational concept," throughout, in order to distinguish epistemic from "poetic" or "mystical" considerations.

Note 3: "concept" can without loss of meaning be replaced with "experience."

Traditional "metaphysical realist" theories of knowledge (MR) assume that truth is a correspondence relation: When a concept (C) corresponds to the way the world (W) is, it is true (and false otherwise).

C ---corresponds ---->W = true
C---fails to correspond--->W = false

In order for me to know whether any given concept corresponds to some aspect of the world, and assuming that I have a clear understanding of correspondence itself, it seems that I need independent access to two things: (1) the concept and (2) the relevant portion of the world. Only then will I be in a position to judge whether the two correspond. Obviously, I have access to my own concepts through simple reflection. Do I also have independent, nonconceptual access to the world? (It must be nonconceptual, otherwise I will be simply be comparing concepts -- an activity more in line with the coherence theory of truth). Here's my reconstruction of the antirealist's argument:

1. All concepts are in the mind
2. All concepts are conceptualized
3. All concepts are concepts-of-some-x
4. All concepts-of-some-x are in the mind (from 1)
5. There can be no unconceptualized concepts-of-some-x (from 2)
6. All concepts of apples are concepts-of-some-x (from 3)
7. There can be no unconceptualized concepts of apples (from 5 and 6)
8. There can be no concept of an apple that is not a concept (truism)
9. An “unconceptualized apple” is not a concept
10. There can be no concepts of unconceptualized apples (from 8 and 9) (Ernst von G.: “…we cannot possibly [rationally, non-poetically] conceive of an unexperienced world” p. 1, Introduction to RC)
11. Metaphysical realism (MR) involves concepts of unconceptualized apples (by definition)
12. MR is wrong (from 10 and 11)


  1. In addition to locating a clear notion of correspondence, it seems we need a better understanding of 'concept.' Your constructivist argument seems to assume that all experience, for example, comes to us in the form of concepts. I would have assumed, to the contrary, that we receive experience as incompletely conceptualized percept first, and then try to fit it to our pre-existing concepts, or make new concepts to accommodate it.

  2. True enough. Von G. has labored over the years to explain the individual formation of concepts from the flow of experience (invoking in each instance the realists Piaget and Vygotsky). At any rate, I could substitute the more inclusive "experience" for "concepts" in 1-9, and the antirealist logic is the same.

  3. i agree that experience is always going to be limited, but isn't that why we need poetry? poetry makes the connection between our experience of something with something that we have less of an understanding of. i agree with the rc's that we cannot obtain the true essence of anything (perhaps not even of ourselves) but poetry makes these things relevant to our experience. is it more important to identify what something is, or know the importance of something? because of rc's emphasis on rationality, they cannot evolve beyond what exists. i think rc has stretched rationality to its absurd end and when we unite our heart with rationality (and intuition and the senses as in jung) we derive the meaningfulness of existence.

    "most of us give our minds to so many things, that is why we live a fragmented life - thinking one thing and doing another; and we are torn, contradictory. to understand something, one must not only give ones mind, but one's heart to it" krishnamurti

  4. Might we strengthen von Glasersfeld’s argument with the addition of an unknowable independent reality? (I realize R.C.'s might think such a proposal to be nonsense, but I am not convinced that they have separated themselves completely from something external to their individual conceptualizations.) Acceptance of an unknowable and external raw material differentiates R.C.'s position with the M.R.’s claim that an independent reality (Or parts thereof) is indeed knowable. So, while R.C.’s cannot rationally “conceive of an unexperienced world” they (each independently) might very well conceive of the raw material that may or may not make a world. In other words, the world of raw material might be inseparable and indistinguishable from all the raw material that makes up everything, or what we know as the Universe. So, in this sense, all objects (such as apples) exist only as possibilities, or raw material, and are only realized or actualized with a conceptual observer. It seems the R.C.’s have to allow (And I think they do) for this possibility or collapse into solipsism. The agnosticism of the R.C.’s seems to inductively favor the existence of some raw material exterior to constructions and therefore unknowable. They repeatedly allude to something independently external with terms such as “nature”, “the world as it really is”, “environment, “raw material”, and most importantly, I think, is the notion that something (Possibly a world of raw material) imposes constraints on the “fit” of certain conceptualizations.

    This begs the question: If R.C.’s cede to what I think they insinuate-and accept as a possibility-that is, an unknowable independent reality-does this awareness amount to knowledge? Might the R.C. claim that an independent reality exists (knowable only through the constraints imposed on their conceptualizations) while rejecting knowledge of this independent reality? If they answer yes, then it would seem their argument survives as something knowable only through independent concepts or experience. But, if the acknowledgment of an unknowable independent reality translates to knowledge (whether infinitesimal or great) -then one thing exists outside of an R.C.’s construction, and that one thing is an unknowable independent reality.

  5. Could you clarify something for me?

    We can have a concept-of-x where x is not, itself a concept.

    So even if an 'unconceptualized' apple is not a concept itself, we can still have a concept of it.

    What am I missing?

  6. Keane: Von G. explicitly maintains that the independent world may at times be the source of constraints on his free constructive activity, but that his ontological agnosticism doesn't allow him to know that (for certain, non-poetically). It is a mere hypothesis, never confirmable (to the satisfaction of the skeptic, at least). Von G. would side with those who claim that induction is irrational.

    Jacob: you may not be missing anything. Can you give an example? Can you imagine a von Glasersfeldian response?

  7. So is correspondance always going to be a flase form of truth, or will we be able to believe it in the sense that it is all we have to reference reality?

  8. Mary: according to the RCist, correspondence will remain an "impossible" theory of truth, given that it references -- that is, claims to know -- an unknowable reality. The essential point of my book, Bridges to the World, is to reclaim correspondence truth (along with reality).

  9. It seems to me that a solipsist makes an ontological claim of existence. To know that you are the only one is to know that you exist-to exist is to be. The R.C. must make a similar claim about the existence of the self. There can be no concepts absent a thinking brain, and a R.C. knows he/she has a thinking brain; in fact, a subjective thinking brain possessing a capacity to form concepts is all the R.C. will claim to know. This is an ontological claim of existence.

    Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore I am, is to say that I, the one who is thinking exists-a radical constructivist cannot deny this ontological fact. But might a R.C. say, “Ego sum fui futurus cogito” I exist, therefore I think? Either way the ontological claim of existence seems hard to deny or escape. And, if R.C’s might accept this ontological fact, it seems absurd to claim that other beings who are forming concepts of their own (Some of these concepts are noted by R.C’s to be disagreeable and constraining on the epistemological claims of R.C.) might not indeed make a similar ontological claim. How does the R.C. maneuver around this seemingly obvious fact about being?

  10. Concerning premise 11-in precisely what way does MR involve concepts of unconceptualized apples? Does MR claim to know with certainty some attributes of an experienced apple that then may be applied to all unexperienced apples in an objective sense?

  11. I predict a M.R. guffaw when I claim that premise 10 is sound-BUT-its validity is restricted and subject to the limited scope in its current embodiment. True to form, Von Glasersfeld employs an ontological agnosticism and does not make any truth claims about the existence of an objective world. So, the instant we conceive of something unexperienced it is no longer unexperienced, this is a truistic conceptualization. But it doesn’t follow from this self-evident logic that the unexperienced apple does not exist. I think V.G. is careful in this distinction; adopting a hypothetical reality to avoid making objective truth claims. But, is he invoking the empiricism of Hume and Locke when he suggests that thinking is as much a part of empirical reasoning as perception?

    What does V.G. (the experiential world traveler) think about the air we breathe? When he travels is he equipped with his own air supply just in case his conceptual destination is sans oxygen? I think we can say with all certainty that V.G. believes (knows) in all certainty that air exists outside his mental framework of “schemes” (Piaget) and “concepts”. So, in this sense, we intuitively know that unexperienced air exists; it is only when we incorporate our rational brain that it ceases to exist (conceptually). But air might be a hypothetical reality as well; with a RCist, you never know.

  12. Nice motto for any species of radical skeptic:
    "You Never Know."

  13. Great comments, Keane. I have paper in the works I hope you will review.

    No one would remain viable for long on hypothetical air!