Happy Birthday, Santiago Ramón y Cajal!

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, estudiante de medicina en Zaragoza 1876: self portrait, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I discovered the fascinating scientist and thinker Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852 – Oct. 17, 1934) last year among the always excellent writings of Maria Popova:

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Popova’s essay explores Cajal’s observations about the ways in which we can so easily defeat ourselves in the pursuit of excellence. I, for one, find that his observations and advice offer very wise guidance, a series of signposts marking pitfalls that can entrap our egos all too easily. Cajal clearly lived by his own advice, and his achievements were marked by hard work and dogged perseverance as well as brilliant insights.

Learn more about Cajal’s life and scientific achievements:

Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramón y Cajal – by Marina Bentivoglio for Nobelprize.org

Santiago Ramón y Cajal – by Abdellatif Nemri for Scholarpedia

Santiago Ramón y Cajal – Biographical – from Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, at Nobelprize.org

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Spanish Histologist – by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!


Following in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Footsteps in London

Portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

In honor of the great philosopher and founding mother of modern feminism Mary Wollstonecraft‘s birthday April 27, 1759, let me share the story of two 2018 visits to London in which I visited places associated with her life and legacy.

On January 11, 2018, I visited my friend Steven in London, who was studying history at King’s College after retiring from a successful law career. He kindly toured the city with me, showing me many of his favorite spots and accompanying me to others of my choosing, the latter mostly having to do with great thinkers and doers I admire and write about. It was great fun to run around London with a fellow energetic and restlessly curious traveler!

Among the sites I chose, the first stop was at the National Portrait Gallery to see the original 1797 portrait of Wollstonecraft by John Opie. It was painted when Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter Mary, who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s portrait is hung among those of other British radicals, including that of her husband, eventual biographer, and father of her daughter Mary, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Below Wollstonecraft’s, I find a 1791 portrait by Laurent Dabos of her friend and ideological ally Thomas Paine. Both Wollstonecraft and Paine wrote in favor of using reason to design more just social structures and, contrary to Edmund Burke, in favor of the French Revolution. However, over time, Wollstonecraft and Paine found many reasons to become disillusioned with it. From an understandable and perhaps even laudable revolt against a massively unequal and unjust social system, the French Revolution developed into a wholesale bloodbath of the aristocracy and of real and perceived intellectual and political foes. For more connections between Paine and Wollstonecraft’s lives and ideas, please see my series ‘To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson.’)

Oakshott Court, London, at the site of 29 The Polyglon, where Mary Wollstonecraft died. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Portrait of William Godwin by James Northcote, 1802, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

A few months later, on May 5th, my sweetheart Laurence accompanied me as I sought out two more sites, the day after we went on a fascinating tour of the Tower of London. Both are within easy walking distance of King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations. Our first destination was Oakshott Court, which stands at what used to be 29 The Polyglon, or Polyglon Square. Here, Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin settled in April of 1797 to enjoy a happy, if sometimes tumultuous, love. Wollstonecraft and Godwin had met many years before at a 1791 dinner held in honor of Paine, but had disliked each other at first. Both were passionate, opinionated people prone to speaking their minds, and they spent much of that first meeting arguing about religion. Godwin was also described by people who knew him as awkward with women. But the two had mutual friends and met again occasionally over the years, slowly warming to one another. In January of 1796, Godwin read Wollstonecraft’s travel book A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. As Godwin wrote in his biography of Wollstonecraft, the book increased his respect and admiration of her, and after she called on him in the spring of that year, they became real friends, then lovers.

At first, they lived apart. But when it became clear that Mary was pregnant, they decided to marry, though they both considered marriage an outmoded, superstitious, and even ridiculous institution. Wollstonecraft and Godwin decided that they didn’t want to subject their child to the social difficulties of growing up with unmarried parents. Godwin was also acutely aware of the struggles Wollstonecraft had faced raising her first daughter Fanny as a single mother, and wanted to spare her a repeat of that experience. Besides, Wollstonecraft gloried in the domestic lifestyle she and Godwin had settled into, so marriage didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice on her part. According to Godwin, they ‘declared’ their marriage in April 1797 though they had already married a short while before. They moved to the Polyglon house on April 6th, but their newfound joy was not to last long. The delivery of little Mary went well at first, but Wollstonecraft died 11 days later, on September 10, 1797, of an infection following the surgical removal of her undelivered placenta.

Old St. Pancras and churchyard, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Mary Wollstonecraft’s original sarcophagus at St. Pancras Old Church burial ground, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Laurence and I then headed a few blocks northeast to St. Pancras Old Church, just past the north end of St. Pancras International station and on the west side of the tracks. We were in search of the gravesite where Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Godwin’s second wife Mary Jane (Clairmont) Godwin were buried. I had read a description of the site but when we arrived, we found there was no map of the graveyard. It took some searching to identify it from the weathered inscriptions. Laurence spotted it first: a simple, tall, rectangular sarcophagus with a flared lid. Wollstonecraft and Godwin are no longer buried here: after Mary Shelley died in 1851, her parents’ remains were moved to join hers at the Shelley family burial ground at St. Peter’s in Bournemouth.

St. Pancras was a lovely place to be on such a lovely day; the leaves and grass were lush and green and lavishly sprinkled with flowers. I was happy to see that Wollstonecraft’s memory was still being honored, with flowers and other little tributes placed on the top. I suspect that it was Godwin who chose this elegant coffin and specially for Wollstonecraft, since she lived so independently of her family and was the first to be buried here. Its clean lines emphasize the carved text on the front: ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of Vindication of the rights of Woman, Born 27th April 1759, Died 10th September 1797.’ This inscription also reflects Godwin’s intellectual love of Wollstonecraft. In the title of her biography, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he repeated this emphasis on her immortal ideas contained in her most memorable work.

The churchyard at Old St. Pancras, London, with Wollstonecraft’s sarcophagus second from the right. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018.

Wollstonecraft’s life was short, only 38 years, but oh, how fully she lived it! For my take on her fascinating life, please see my essay ‘Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love.

For more about the indefatigable Wollstonecraft, please see:

Articles and essays:

Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Sylvana Tomaselli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mary Wollstonecraft: English Author ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797) ~ by Barbara Taylor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

and various excellent essays about Mary Wollstonecraft~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings


The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Claire Tomalin

Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman ~ by William Godwin

Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Lyndall Gordon

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Why Spinoza, Why Now?

A Series of Six Essays for Ordinary Philosophy – A Condensed Version of the Ethics – Examined in Detail

Part 1: Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a respected scholar of Jewish ancestry who eventually became known for his philosophy and political writings. For his philosophy, he selected what he hoped would be a straightforward system: the geometrical method. Rather than lengthy and technically oriented arguments and rhetorical mechanisms, he wrote in somewhat simple Latin and in short, clear, concise statements. He assigns unique connotations to his lexicon which present additional challenges to those who attempt to study his writings. But these are not insurmountable.

In order to make his views on metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, and psychology clear and to present them as logically and as unadorned as possible, he selected a method which mimics that used by Euclid in his geometry. He was not seeking any type of mathematical certainty to support his hypotheses. But what he did hope would come through was the logical interconnection in descending inductive order within the axioms, definitions, propositions, explanations, demonstrations, and scholia (explanatory notes added to the margins) which make up the body of the text.

Unfortunately, what Spinoza thought would come across as a self-evidently true and accurately phrased demonstration has been and continues to be viewed as one of the most difficult documents to comprehend in the history of ideas. In order to begin the process of unraveling his Gordian knot of text, this essay presents a type of abstract from Letters to No One in Particular: a Discussion and Illustration of Spinoza’s Fragment or On the Improvement of the Understanding. That means, that to understand clearly and to grasp Spinoza’s intended meaning the study must begin outside the bounds of the Ethics itself.

For this first installment in the six essays which will comprise this ‘condensed’ study of the Ethics, it is critically important to begin with the brief treatise written prior to the it, On the Improvement of the Understanding (or, as it is also called, the Fragment), because it is the only place where Spinoza explicitly details his completely unique concept of ‘idea.’

The intended meaning of his ‘idea’ has effectively eluded and flummoxed even the finest minds that have commented on the Ethics. That is for two reasons: 1- Without an adequate grasp of the details in the Fragment which efficiently serves as the linchpin for the Ethics, Spinoza’s revolutionary grasp of human epistemology and the existence and operating functions of the active mind, will remain out of reach. And 2- Most if not all of the commentators on the subject, pre-supposed that by ‘idea’ Spinoza intended either: a judgment, a mental image, a propositional statement, or an abstraction formed from impressions from the sensible world. But he meant none of these things, and that is precisely why we are here today. An important reminder – In the Fragment [TIE] Spinoza emphasized that the ‘idea’ does not, in any way, involve words. With this firmly in mind, let us continue.

In this essay, an outline and explanation of the main message of the Fragment will be presented which will be accompanied by quotations from one of the true scholars of Spinozan explication, Professor Errol E Harris. The quotes are taken from his Salvation from Despair, A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), pp 87-88.

In the Proemium to the Fragment, Spinoza announces his intention to make known and accessible to the reader the nature of the human character which comprises the innate and organic operation and functioning of the mind. He describes it thusly: ‘What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (TIE). What we need to ferret out is exactly what constitutes this ‘union’.

From that axiomatic starting point, he sets out to discover if there is any possibility that the human mind has any built-in capacity or potential to obtain to any type of knowledge which can be affirmed to be absolutely certain, that is, true. To do this, Spinoza begins by detailing the four kinds of knowledge (perception) which taken together, constitute the spectrum of inputs which every person absorbs from the extended world.

The first three, he discovers, each serves its own limited purpose and can, up to a point, prove useful in everyday living (imagination), in gathering unverifiable information (sensation), and in solving problems and thinking rationally (reasoning). None of these three involves certainty because they are involved with ‘images’, and ultimately Spinoza realized that only with the fourth kind, intuitive understanding, could certainty be achieved. By ‘intuitive,’ he means a type of knowing which includes encapsulating the efficient or proximate cause of the object being considered.

Spinoza discovered that this certainty was only made possible due to the activity and presence in every human mind of the adequate idea. This idea is innate, within the mind, and serves as a tool or agency-in-act, which organically connects and effectively anchors the mind in its union existing between it and the whole of nature. This means that the extended world and the mind are virtually inter-operationally connected. A most startling and revolutionary claim, to say the least.

Let us pause here for a moment to dwell on the enormity of what has just been stated. What Spinoza discovered in the idea runs counter to virtually every depiction of any possibility for human knowledge ever discussed or imagined possible. Every philosopher before or after him and virtually all of contemporary science posit humans as passive receptors of impressions from the sensible world. These impressions then formulate, by various descriptions, mental images which serve as unverifiable judgments or mental entities, usually depicted as some distillation of the empirical paradigm or materialism.

Now along comes Spinoza and says, no way, my friends, you’ve got it all wrong.

Since the time and space available makes demands on us to be brief, elaboration on this revolutionary discovery by Spinoza will not be possible, for now. It is incumbent on us, to move along and to offer a bit more of detail on this process before signing off. At this point, Harris will assist us to flesh out Spinoza’s revolutionary assertion.

In order to expand on this organic aspect of the mind, its role as agency-in-act along with its element of the ‘idea,’ and its role of potency-in-act, we will lay a bit of groundwork for Harris’ compressed and succinct demonstration of the idea. The role of the idea, both in its role as conduit for the absorption of data cum knowledge, as well as performing as the active ingredient, so to speak, in its function of melding with the world of extension, represents Spinoza’s breakthrough in his discovery of the primary functioning operations in the assimilation and accumulation of an individual human’s knowledge base. One currently ascribed to misapprehension about human experience, which caused Leibniz to posit windowless monads, must be addressed.

As an integral part of the whole of nature, people are not segregated off from the world. We are as interconnected as any other integrated element in nature which comprises the universal system.

We have no problem dealing with animals being able to sense objects outside their visual range and to sense immanent unforeseen dangers in the form of severe storms and wildfire. Why should we believe that humans are walled off inside their bodies like kingdoms within a kingdom?

Once the significance of this comes clear, it becomes possible to begin to accept our active participation in the gathering of knowledge which has effectively allowed for civilization to grow and for science to advance. Now we must ask; How does this work? Enter Harris. Under the sub-title ‘Idea Ideae,’ in Salvation from Despair (p. 87). we find:

‘As the idea of the body is the mind, so the idea of that idea is the idea of the mind. In “de Intellectus Emendatione” [in TIE], Spinoza explains that every idea is the “objective essence” of its ideatum, of which the actuality is the “formal essence.” But the idea is a different entity (or mode) from its object (although they are identical in substance), if only because they exist in different attributes. The idea of a circle has no center or circumference [no properties]. So, he says, the idea has a formal essence of its own, of which the objective essence is the idea of the idea (idea ideae). This is further explained in the Ethics (II, xxi, S) as “nothing else than the form of the idea so far as it is considered as a mode of thought and apart from its relation to its object.” Its relation to its object, we already know, is substantial identity (or, as Spinoza says in some context of adequate ideas, exact correspondence).’

Simply stated, an idea has a real-time life of its own. For example: someone sees a movie, really enjoys it, and relates the entire experience to a friend. When that friend later views the same film, they report back that the experience of seeing the film was exactly the same as the ‘picture’ that formed in their mind when it had been described. That idea of the film was contained within the memory of one mind and conveyed, in its entirety, to the friend.

Thus the formal essence and the objective reality made a perfect match. The ‘idea’ is real. We use them every day; we just remain unaware of their presence and potency. That is, until now!

One final thought from Harris and we will sign off. When Spinoza titled his Fragment [TIE] On the Improvement of the Understanding, what follows is what he had in mind. Harris continues:

‘The inherent self-reflectiveness of consciousness is what enables us to purify the intellect and progress from confused and inadequate ideas [the first three kinds of knowledge mentioned above] to clear and true knowledge [the fourth kind of knowledge, intuitive understanding]. It is because we can reflect upon what we think, and know that we know, that we can criticize and improve our thinking. Idea Ideatum, therefore, is nothing but the consciousness of one’s own thinking, or the idea of one’s own mind. Spinoza speaks of a series of ideae idearum (ideas of ideas) ad infinitum, strictly no regress is involved, only an unlimited capacity for reflection or self-knowledge. The object of an idea and the idea of the object are substantially identical. Both are the same essence, one formal and the other objective. Thus the idea of an idea is strictly the same object or entity merely conscious (or more fully conscious) of itself.’ (Salvation from Despair)

Because it is so vital to see Spinoza’s idea at work in our own minds, let’s consider one more example:

Each morning when a person gets into the driver seat of their car and starts the engine or motor, they have no need to ask themselves if they know how to drive. They know that they know how to drive. Beyond that, if called upon to do so, anyone who drives could teach someone else to do so. This would involve dictating to the learner, from memory, the steps involved, such as: open the door, seat yourself, and attach your seatbelt. Before starting the car, check the mirrors, make sure your field of vision is unobstructed, etc, etc. In fact, many people could prepare a written outline of the entire process which would then serve as a training manual. Once the trainee obtains their operator’s license, it can be said that the instructor captured the idea encapsulated in their mind and transferred that adequate idea of how to drive to another person who successfully absorbed the contents of the idea, made it their own, and re-converted it into the reality of driving an automobile. This transfer of the idea from one mind to another demonstrates that the idea is a quantifiable, measurable entity and fulfills any empirical stricture placed upon it.

This idea exists as a real entity. It is measurable; remember the training manual. The idea (in mind) and the object (driving) are the same things expressed as micro-sets in modality of the two infinite attributes of thought and extension. Finally, the driver’s manual serves as the idea, of the idea (in the mind) of the idea (driving lesson). The manual, which could be used by virtually anyone to teach themselves how to drive, demonstrates the existence of an idea independent of the mind!

Exhausted yet? Have no fear, this is extraordinarily difficult to track and to take in whole.

Take all the time necessary to reflect on this information, it is admittedly difficult to absorb and perhaps even challenging to accept. Find ways to see it operating in your own life. Once you have successfully accomplished this task you will stand ready to join those of us who understand that a human being is much more than a passive receptor. We are full-fledged and engaged participants in one of the universe’s most unique and ever-evolving possibilities, the creata!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always dare to know!)

Charles M. Saunders

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Averroes (Ibn Rushd)! By Eric Gerlach

Averroes by Giorgione893 years ago today, on April 14th, 1126, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist, and scientist Ibn Rushd, or as he is known by the Latinate version of his name in Europe, Averroes, was born.

Among his many achievements, Averroes is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics.  Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought. To the left is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice. Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus.

Aquinas Averroes and Scholastics

Thomas Aquinas

Averroes’ grandfather and father both served as chief judge of Cordoba, the place where Averroes was born, which later became part of Spain. Averroes wrote prolifically, twenty-eight works of philosophy as well as important treatises on law and medicine.  As a rationalist, Averroes argued that philosophy and religion teach the same truth and thus are not in conflict, such that intellectuals pursue the same matters that common people comprehend through religion and rhetoric.  He also argued that analytic thinking was important for the proper interpretation of the Quran, as Christian Scholastics would argue later about the Bible in Europe.  Averroes’ works were banned and burned in Islamic and Christian lands at different times, but they were revered enough to survive in both places.

Averroes was opposed to the work of Al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic and author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers.  Ghazali argued that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi and Avicenna contradict each other, and are thus incoherent as a set, and also contradict the teachings of Islam.  Ghazali also argued that Aristotle and those who follow him are wrong to assert that nature proceeds according to established laws, as all things proceed directly through the will of God.  Averroes wrote his most famous work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Ghazali. Averroes defended Aristotle and argued that philosophy does lead to coherent truth, which is not in conflict with Islam, and that nature proceeds indirectly from God via the laws of nature, which God established during creation.

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Averroes is also famous for his idea of monopsychism, that we all share the same divine soul, mind, and awareness, with each taking a part such that the lower soul is individual and mortal but the higher soul is universal and immortal, the source of true inspiration and reason.  Spinoza, who said that each of us is like a wave on the great sea of being, was a pantheist, inspired in part by Averroes.  Much later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he said, in the spirit of Averroes, “I believe in Spinoza’s god”.

In these and countless other instances, we can discern the influence of Averroes throughout both Eastern and Western thought. Thank you for your wisdom and insight, Averroes!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, let me share anew my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas from over the years:

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I followed in the footsteps of Jefferson!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Damasio, Spinoza and our Current Confusion about Cause and Effect, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

In this article, Charles M. Saunders considers Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, N.Y., 2003)

In 2003, one of our most capable and respected neuroscientists went searching for Spinoza. What Antonio Damasio found is both enlightening and alarming. It is laudable that an empirical scientist had the interest, care, and capability to analyze the sequencing and behaviors associated with what Spinoza terms ‘the Emotions.’ This is clearly a positive development. When our neuroscientist friend recognized that something about emotional response is measurable, he made strides for the entire scientific community. But by focusing his analysis only on chapters 3 and 4 of “The Ethics”, Damasio sidetracks Spinoza’s metaphysics, chapters 1 and 2 while presenting Spinoza as some sort of intuitive materialist. The alarming part in all of this is that chapters 3 and 4 are linked inexorably to 1 and 2 wherein Spinoza insists that our thoughts are as real as our experience. As notable as Damasio’s respect for Spinoza’s psychology may be there is a tremendous distance from his awakening to the import and physical reality of the emotions to an adequate understanding of the full impact of Spinoza’s discovery, that the human mind has the ability to form replications of objects so accurate that these ideas are essentially the same thing as the objects they represent.

This is an astounding claim that Spinoza makes and to this day, it has been overlooked or dismissed in light of the advances in contemporary science and its ability to “reduce” everything in its purview through observation and measurement. But cause and effect are not observable within the same time and space.

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the neuroscientist-researcher connects electrodes to a patient to monitor brainwaves there is no question that the observable patterns that emerge are exciting and are indicators of some brain activity related to behaviors that correspond to the patient’s emotional state and mood changes But to conclude from this that the patterns and their location in the brain somehow indicates the cause of the thinking process is a leap that indicates faulty reasoning and bad science. To draw a conclusion about the source of the thinking process from an electroencephalogram is akin to a person who while standing atop the tallest building in a large city before dawn observes the pattern of traffic lights below and concludes that the pattern of lights is the cause of the flow of traffic. No matter how many thousands of lights make up the discernable pattern of the flow of traffic, the actual cause of the traffic is not observable. The cause of the traffic resides elsewhere. It originates in the reasons that each individual driver leaves home and enters the flow: going to work, driving a friend to the hospital, making deliveries, police responding to emergencies and countless other actions are the actual cause of the traffic and they are entirely disconnected from one another. There is no common cause to be observed and reported on here.
This analogy demonstrates the confusion inherent in the empirical process. There is no argument about what the scientist sees during the study. But there is a strong argument against what he claims to have observed. If this mistaken insistence that causality must be observable resided solely in speculative neurobiology the harm might not be that negligible. Unfortunately for us, this curious misunderstanding of cause and effect permeates most of our scientific theory and practice, including applications in healthcare diagnosis and treatment.

Perhaps one of the most debilitating misapplications of the empirical process lies within the field of genetics and the supposed causal link observable in DNA. Crick and Watson never assigned any causal agency to their brilliant discovery. They clearly understood DNA for what it is; a marker not a cause. Assigning cause to DNA strands came later after arrogance and the same faulty reasoning process employed by Damasio came into play. Whether a person suffers from cancer or obesity or a predilection towards baldness, DNA is not the cause of the affliction it merely marks the presence of the condition. To carry the traffic lights/scientific research analogy a bit further, just as we can clearly understand that no matter how complicated or advanced the light pattern and system flow technology might be it cannot be said to be the cause of the traffic. That flow can only be understood by seeing the individual actions and behaviors that are the actual cause. So with DNA, it is a marker that notes the presence not the cause of disease.

The upshot of all this is that our current empirical/materialist science system that has brought about some of the most significant advances for humans in medicine and other sophisticated technologies contains a seriously flawed view of cause and effect. But by insisting on a research focus only on the world of external experience it ignores the rich world of experience’s counterpart and co-equivalent, the Human Mind. This now outmoded way of explaining our planet and our relationship to it must give way to a more sophisticated view. This view will credit the mind as the source and wellspring of any scientific achievement that we’ve ever accomplished and that it is the mind which provides us with the most magnificent tool at our disposal for unraveling Nature’s mysteries.

Charles M. Saunders

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, H.P. Grice!

In honor of this anniversary of H.P. Grice’s birth on March 13th, 1913, let me share an undergraduate paper I had an especially good time writing.

Heads up: this paper features a lot of colorful and crude language, examined philosophically of course, and comedians’ opinions.

To learn more about the brilliant Grice, I recommend Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner’s excellent bio and exploration of the ideas of this philosopher of language, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Enjoy!

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.

Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

*A version of this post was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.