WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 25, 2021
...his thoughts turned to "sense data:" When our late neighbor Thoreau ventured into the woods, the whole woods seemed to respond.
We've posted the passage in question before. The fifth chapter of Walden—it's called Solitude—starts exactly like this:
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath...
All the elements were unusually congenial to Thoreau of a delicious evening. That included the way the bullfrogs trumped to usher in the night.
"Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me," our Concord neighbor went on to report, later in that same chapter.
Walden is one of the best-known American books of the 19th century. It wasn't a work of academic philosophy, though its author is often referred to as a philosopher in a less restrictive sense.
According to its author, on delicious evenings of the type described, the whole body "[was] one sense." Indeed, its author was inclined to sing the wonders and joys of his senses, or of his one unified sense.
His fourth chapter was simply called Sounds. But in that next chapter, Solitude, he came close to singing the body electric.
"I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object," he wrote in that same chapter. "There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still."
Indeed, these experiences, borne to him by his senses, had brought him up from the dead. "Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places. The place where that may occur is always the same, and indescribably pleasant to all our senses."
Walden isn't and wasn't a book of academic philosophy. It may be unfair to ask an academic philosopher to compete with its allures.
That said, the author of Walden, a major American book, took meaning and pleasure from his senses as he lived in the woods. More than a hundred years later, Professor Quine published the sixth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. Its title was Word and Object.
As Word and Object opens, Quine sits at his "familiar desk," presumably in his study. In Quine's account, the familiar desk "manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes."
At this point, Quine turns to a different critter. In paragraphs 2 and 3, he's speaking, less about his senses, more about "sense data." This is the way his book starts:
This familiar desk manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes. Physical things generally, however remote, become known to us only through the effects which they help to induce at our sensory surfaces. Yet our common-sense talk of physical things goes forward without benefit of explanations in more intimately sensory terms. Entification begins at arm's length; the points of condensation in the primordial conceptual scheme are things glimpsed, not glimpses...
Talk of subjective sense qualities comes mainly as a derivative idiom. When one tries to describe a particular sensory quality, he typically resorts to reference to public things—describing a color as orange or heliotrope, a smell as like that of rotten eggs. Just as one sees his nose best in a mirror, removed to half the optimum focal distance, so also he best identifies his sense data by reflecting them in external objects.
Impressed with the fact that we know external things only mediately through our senses, philosophers from Berkeley onward have undertaken to strip away the physicalistic conjectures and bare the sense data. Yet even as we try to recapture the data, in all their innocence of interpretation, we find ourselves depending upon sidelong glances into natural science. We may hold, with Berkeley, that the momentary data of vision consist of colors disposed in a spatial manifold of two dimensions; but we come to this conclusion by reasoning from the bidimensionality of the ocular surface, or by noting the illusions which can be engendered by two-dimensional artifacts such as paintings and mirrors, or, more abstractly, simply by noting that the interception of light in space must necessarily take place along a surface...
This third paragraph of the sixth most important book continues along from there. But just consider the mouthful upon which we've decided to quit—the mouthful in which we're asked to ponder this possibility:
"We may hold, with Berkeley, that the momentary data of vision consist of colors disposed in a spatial manifold of two dimensions; but we come to this conclusion by reasoning from the bidimensionality of the ocular surface, or by noting the illusions which can be engendered by two-dimensional artifacts such as paintings and mirrors, or, more abstractly, simply by noting that the interception of light in space must necessarily take place along a surface."
At this point, we're in the third paragraph of the sixth book, with miles of tough sledding ahead.
Word and Object was not intended for general readers. To cite one example, it instantly assumes familiarity with the technical term, "sense data." It was a professional work of academic philosophy—and the sixth most important work of the entire century.
Walden is one of the most famous of all American books. Word and Object was the sixth most important philosophy book of the 20th century.
The author of the more famous book was indebted to his senses. The author of the technical book instantly turned to "sense data."
Does anyone know what "sense data" are? Should anyone actually care?
Are Quine's concerns in any way ours? For better or worse, the leading authority on "sense data" describes such "objects" in the following way:
The theory of sense data is a view in the philosophy of perception, popularly held in the early 20th century by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, C. D. Broad, H. H. Price, A. J. Ayer, and G. E. Moore. Sense data are taken to be mind-dependent objects whose existence and properties are known directly to us in perception. These objects are unanalyzed experiences inside the mind, which appear to subsequent, more advanced mental operations exactly as they are.
According to the theory of sense data, sense data are objects of a certain kind. Sense data are mind-dependent objects, or at least so we're told.
On the other hand, these "objects" are actually experiences of a certain kind. They're unanalyzed experiences inside the mind, according to the theory.
This theory took wing in the early 20th century, with Russell fingered for blame. As of 1960, these mind-dependent objects were starring in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the sixth most important philosophy book, but the leading authority seems to suggest that they've fallen on difficult times:
Talk of sense-data has since been largely replaced by talk of the closely related qualia. The formulation the given is also closely related. None of these terms has a single coherent and widely agreed-upon definition, so their exact relationships are unclear. One of the greatest troubling aspects to 20th century theories of sense data is its unclear rubric nature.
Whitman once sang the body electric. Sitting at a familiar desk, Quine turned to the forerunners of qualia, though the formulation "the general" is also closely related.
"One of the greatest troubling aspects to 20th century theories of sense data is its unclear rubric nature," the leading authority convincingly says in a somewhat unclear formulation. For those who may be inclined to question the standing of that particular source, the more august Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy clears thing up as shown below, in a very recent report:
“Sense data," or “sense datum” in the singular, is a technical term in philosophy that means “what is given to sense." Sense data constitute what we, as perceiving subjects, are directly aware of in perceptual experience, prior to cognitive acts such as inferring, judging, or affirming that such-and-such objects or properties are present. In vision, sense data are typically described as patches exhibiting colors and shapes. For the other senses, they would manifest sounds, tastes, odors, and tactile qualities. Suppose that you are looking at a brown table with a white coaster on it; your sense data would be a patch of brown corresponding to the brown expanse in your field of view, along with a roundish-shaped white patch. Based on such data, you might come to affirm that a brown thing and a white thing, or a table and a coaster, are present before you.
After you become aware of your sense data, you might come to affirm that "a table" is present before you. Or perhaps a familiar desk.
Was something "wrong" with "the theory of sense data," a theory which is said to date to such figures as Russell? Have theories of "qualia" tended to clear things up?
Is it possible that the successors to Russell and Quine have clarified this matter? On the other hand, is it possible that this sort of rumination never made any real sense at all?
At least for today, we aren't going to try to answer those valuable questions. But this is the world Wittgenstein entered when he arrived at Cambridge in 1911, presenting himself to Russell, unannounced, at the age of 22 years.
Wittgenstein was just 22 when he arrived on the scene. Russell soon concluded that he was a genius. Eventually, Wittgenstein turned against this somewhat peculiar world.
Next week, we plan to make the later Wittgenstein easy. For today, we offer you this:
In a major survey of philosophy professors, Russell was said to be have co-written the fifth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. Quine's most influential book was rated the sixth most important.
Were their concerns our concerns? Were their concerns anyone's concerns? Did their alleged concerns even make sense?
Eventually, Wittgenstein seemed to say that they didn't. He seemed to say that in Philosophical Investigations (1953), the posthumous book which was judged to be the last century's most important.
Today, none of these books ever get discussed. They're part of no public discussion.
Except for Wittgenstein's book, it isn't clear that they should be discussed. In our view, Wittgenstein's book is in principle highly instructive, though it's also absurdly opaque.
In our view, the history we're reciting involves abdication of duty. In our view, we're describing the flight of the logicians—the refusal of a certain elite to serve, even perhaps to make clear sense, as they sit in familiar chairs in familiar clubs and conduct opaque discussions.
We badly need help with our daily logic. Have our logicians refused to serve? Would they even know how to serve? We're just asking questions!
According to the survey in question, Wittgenstein wrote the most important philosophy book of the 20th century. But none of those books ever get discussed, and there may be a reason for that.
Tomorrow: We return to our own freshman year