sunnuntai 11. tammikuuta 2015

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac: Traité des sensations (1754)

When I last spoke ofCondillac, I mentioned that he was interested of the phenomenon of feral children, that is, children that grew up in savage conditions, without any contact to humans, and therefore did not have any possibility to learn language – he especially mentions a case of a child being raised by bears in Lithuania. Obviously such a child cannot have all the mental capacities of a child raised in civilised surroundings, but Condillac emphasises more what the child can do – e.g. distinguish herself from her surroundings, make generalisations and simple logical deductions etc.

A natural problematic is then how much of conceptual infrastructure a conscious being would have, if its mental capacities were diminished from those of an average human being. Condillac proposes an interesting thought experiment to this effect: let us consider a living statue that would otherwise resemble a human being, but would have only one sense, say, smell, and see what concepts this person could have.

It seems rather arbitrary why Condillac would have picked up smell as the starting point, but apparently Buffon considered it to be actually a sort of primary sense with animals. Indeed, we could well imagine an organism (probably living in water) that would only react to the presence of some harmful chemical by running away and to the presence of beneficial chemical by moving towards the supposed source of the chemical.

Condillac supposes that even an entity with such meager sensory input would have all sorts of ideas. He would notice that odours change, he could recognise some odours as resembling previous odours and he might classify odours into e.g pleasant, neutral and disagreeable. Furthermore, he could think of himself as the subject of the changing pattern of odours and he could associate pleasantness of the odours with his own well-being. Of course, in all of this Condillac supposes, just like in his first work, that no new mental capacities are required for passing from mere sensation to memory, intellect etc.

What is more interesting is the set of ideas that the odour-limited human being would not have. Clearly with mere smells there is no sense of space, but Condillac notes that temporal consciousness would also be deficient, because one couldn't make realiabe measurements of the passing of odours. Furthermore, the Condillacian statue would not have any notion of things separate from himself, as she would have no idea that odours were something else than just ever changing part of her own mental life.

Condillac then considers what would happen if the sense of smell would be changed to taste or hearing – nothing much is the expected conclusion. Even a combination of two or all of these three senses would not change the situation much. At most, the statue could make comparisons between the sensations of different sense and would then note that e.g. odours are somehow different from sounds. We might then also in a sense measure the progress of sensations of one sense by comparing it with the progress of sensations on another sense, thus making the notion of time more concrete.

Rather unexpectedly, the case of vision is not that different, says Condillac. True, a statue with nothing but vision would have an idea of two-dimensional space, but it could not have any notion of three-dimensional space nor of any bodies independent of the statue. One might object to Condillac that while a field of vision truly is two-dimensional, movement and ensuing changes in visual images would make the statue able to conceive three-dimensionality. Indeed, this is what philosophers like Descartes had assumed – we could geometrically count e.g. the distance of ourselves from an object just from its shape and apparent size, when looked at different angles.

Condillac is here following Berkeleyan criticism of the traditional Cartesian theory of vision: without the help of other senses, constantly changing visual images would appear incomprehensible. It is only by associating different groups of variable visual images to different tactile sensations that we can truly see e.g. a rose as an object independent of ourselves. The addition of touch thus perfects the human statue at least to a level of a feral child.

One might wonder, which side of the debate is more correct. Certainly the theory of Cartesians cannot be true in the sense that we would consciously make difficult calculations in order to make sense of our visual field. Still, we might suppose human beings have an automatic and instinctual ”program” that would calculate the results without any need of actual calculation. A more convincing argument against Cartesians would be that movement in a computer-generated virtual space does feel a bit weird, possibly because the tactual sensations do not correspond with what we see.

So much for Condillac, next time I shall turn my attention to an English philosopher.

torstai 8. tammikuuta 2015

Samuel Johnson: Elementa philosophica: containing chiefly, Noetica, or things relating to the mind or understanding: and Ethica, or things relating to the moral behavior (1752)

Samuel Johnson (1696 -1772)

Returning from the Old to the New World we meet the reverend Samuel Johnson and his Noetics and Ethics. The title page of the work reveals a connection to an earlier figure I've spoken about: the book was printed by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

What is more interesting is Johnson's connection with bishop Berkeley. It should be best to point out first that Samuel Johnson I am speaking of is not the Samuel Johnson who wrote the first dictionary of English and famously argued against Berkeley by kicking a stone – that man lived in London. This Johnson was in fact quite appreciative of Berkeley's philosophy and had even met the reverend, when Berkeley was visiting Rhode Island.

While Berkeley's most famous philosophical works are quite focused on few central topics – e.g. that existence can be defined through capacities of being perceived and perceiving, that matter as neither perceptible nor perceiving does not exist and God causing our perceptions directly – in Johnson's book these topics are barely mentioned. The first part, Noetics, focuses on questions that in continental Europe were addressed in books on logic: how does human mind work and how it is to be properly educated and used. Berkeley's theses work as a sort of ontological underpinning of this methodological framework – a novel attempt, at least.

Johnson's take on Berkeley's philosophy seems rather peculiar. He appears to think that the essential message of esse est percipi is that everything we see is as it is – there is no reality behind perceptions, which can then be directly identified with things themselves. So, we do know that there are horses, because we definitely see them running about. This is, of course, what Berkeley himself professed – he thought he was upholding the common sense against sceptical attacks inherent in Locke's philosophy.

More peculiar is that Johnson at once assumes many ontological notions Berkeley had suggested were quite unnecessary and meant really nothing. Thus, while Berkeley thought there was no reason to speak of any substance or substrate behind perceived properties, Johnson notes there is a perfectly valid sense of substance – certain combinations of simple perceptions just are substances. Furthermore, Johnson also find a use for the concept of matter, which Berkeley had discarded as leading to skepticism – material things just are those that are defined by being perceived. All of this is a symptom of Johnson taking universalisation and abstraction far more seriously – an understandable view in a study leading all the way to scientific generalities.

After the Berkeleyan underpinnings Johnson's Noetics seems a rather traditional work – once he gets to the level of concepts, he can just follow in the footsteps of traditional syllogistics. He also presents a rather traditional metaphysical account of world – being perceived (being acted upon) and perceiving (acting) define two kinds of beings, material things and spirits. Clearly spirits as the more active component are somehow more robust and more essential. Behind all the material things and spirits lies the perfect spirit or God.

Johnson's Ethics feels even more traditional. The aim of the second part is to secure human happiness, which is one purpose of God and which results not through excessive pleasure, but through moderation. Indeed, Johnson can point out to a result from Noetics that spirits are somehow more important than material things, which are nothing more than mere perceptions – one cannot find true happiness with mere passive perceptions, but it must be found in spiritual matters.

So much for Samuel Johnson, I'll now return to Condillac.