What We Saw

In passing in the last post I argued that “because I saw it” is not a reason, but a mere reiteration of an assertion. I claimed that we ought always to be able to say something more about why we believe what we do, and suggested that in the current example, this would typically take the form of more detailed claims about what we saw. (See What and Why.)

Previously, I argued against John McDowell’s claim that the space of reasons includes cases in which empirical claims may be non-inferentially justified by reference to other empirical observations. In the current analogy, what McDowell counts as justification in such cases amounts to saying “because I saw something else”. In effect, it is an appeal to another completely indeterminate “seeing”.

By contrast, when we make more detailed claims about what we saw, even though these supplementary claims are not themselves inferences, because they analyze the initial “what”, they may provide the basis for subsequent inference to the original “what”. The axis of justification shifts from other immediate observations to articulated claims about the original observation.

Because the justification now appeals to articulated content rather than to other seeings that are as completely indeterminate as the first, it can now be inferential. Such inferential justification is weaker than deductive proof; unlike a mathematical proof, for instance, it is potentially refutable. But now we have truly entered the space of rational dialogue.

In the situation of “he saw X, she saw Y“, no dialogue is possible. “He saw, she saw” is just as vacuous as “he said, she said”. In both these latter cases, one mere assertion is merely counterposed to another mere assertion, and we can say categorically that no insight could ever be gained from the exchange.

By contrast, as soon as the discussion shifts from a contest of assertions to the articulation of content, something can potentially be learned from it, whether or not we end up endorsing what is said.

An empirical observation may still provide a useful heuristic basis for belief about the world. Additional observations may add to the heuristic “weight” of that basis. But contrary to McDowell, I would not count that heuristic basis as part of the space of reasons. I call something a “reason” if and only if it provides a basis for some reasoning, which is to say some inference or inferences. To call something a non-inferential “reason” makes no sense.

And contrary to both McDowell and Brandom, I do not recognize the existence of non-inferential “knowledge” at all. Every observational report is just a claiming about appearance, and no mere claiming about appearance should count as knowledge.

What we have in the putative case of “observational knowledge” is observational belief. An observational belief may turn out to be well-founded, but any such well-foundedness depends on factors that go beyond the brute fact of the existence of observations.

We can have dialogue about claims about other claims. We cannot have true dialogue about claims about raw appearances — or indeed, properly speaking, about first-order claims at all.

This, I think, is part of the upshot of Hegel’s “logic of being”. Any first-order claim “A is Bconsidered in isolation fares no better than Parmenides’ saying of Being. It is logically vacuous, just because it is isolated. Isolation would mean, for instance, that we have no definition for A or B.

(The way I am using “first order” here for claims is different from the way it is used in predicate logic. In standard mathematical logic, what I am calling an “isolated first-order claim” corresponds to a proposition, rather than any construct in predicate logic. According to Frege, a proposition can only mean either “true” or “false”, so we have a similar lack of information.)

In Aristotelian terms, the claim then reduces to a mere saying, which is actually charitable, because for Aristotle, in the absence of meanings for A and B, we would have failed to express a proposition at all. Mere saying in this sense actually fails to properly say anything at all. If we don’t know what A and B are, “A is B” is the logical equivalent of arbitrary noise.

Conversely, when we do take a first-order claim as meaningful — as we indeed do all the time — we must always already have some higher-order perspective on it that makes it meaningful. All meaningful saying is saying something at a higher-order level.