Reference, Representation

The simplest notion of reference is a kind of literal or metaphorical pointing at things. This serves as a kind of indispensable shorthand in ordinary life, but the simplicity of metaphorical pointing is illusory. It tends to tacitly presuppose that we already know what it is that is being pointed at.

More complex kinds of reference involve the idea of representation. This is another notion that is indispensable in ordinary life.

Plato and Aristotle used notions of representation informally, but gave them no privileged status or special role with respect to knowledge. They were much more inclined to view knowledge, truth, and wisdom in terms of what is reasonable. Plato tended to view representation negatively as an inferior copy of something. (See Platonic Truth; Aristotelian Dialectic; Aristotelian Semantics.)

It was the Stoics who first gave representation a key role in the theory of knowledge. The Stoics coupled a physical account of the transmission of images — bridging optics and physiology — with very strong claims of realism, certain knowledge both sensory and rational, and completeness of their system of knowledge. In my view, the Stoic theory of representation is the classic version of the “correspondence” theory of truth. The correspondence theory treats truth as a simple “correspondence” to some reality that is supposed to be known beyond question. (Such a view is sometimes misattributed to Plato and Aristotle, but was actually quite alien to their way of thinking.)

In the Latin middle ages, Aquinas developed a notion of “perfect” representation, and Duns Scotus claimed that the most general criterion of being was representability. In the 17th century, Descartes and Locke built foundationalist theories of certain knowledge in which explicitly mental representations played the central role. Descartes also explicitly treated representation in terms of mathematical isomorphism, representing geometry with algebra.

Taking putatively realistic representational reference for granted is a prime example of what Kant called dogmatism. Kant suggested that rather than claiming certainty, we should take responsibility for our claims. From the time of Kant and Hegel, a multitude of philosophers have sharply criticized claims for certain foundations of representational truth.

In the 20th century, the sophisticated relational mathematics of model theory gave representation renewed prestige. Model-theoretic semantics, which explains meaning in terms of representation understood as relational reference, continues to dominate work in semantics today, though other approaches are also used, especially in the theory of programming languages. Model-theoretic semantics is said to be an extensional rather than intensional theory of meaning. (An extensional, enumerative emphasis tends to accompany an emphasis on representation. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel on the other hand approached meaning in a mainly intensional way, in terms of concepts and reasons.)

Philosophical criticism of representationalist theories of knowledge also continued in the 20th century. Husserl’s phenomenological method involved suspending assumptions about reference. Wittgenstein criticized the notion of meaning as a picture. All the existentialists, structuralists, and their heirs rejected Cartesian/Lockean representationalism.

Near the end of the 20th century, Robert Brandom showed that it is possible to account very comprehensively for the various dimensions of reference and representation in terms of intensionally grounded, discursive material inference and normative doing, later wrapping this in an interpretation of Hegel’s ethical and genealogical theory of mutual recognition. This is not just yet another critique of representationalism, but an actual constructive account of an alternative, meticulously developed, that can explain how effects of reference and representation are constituted through engagement in normative discursive practices — how reference and representation have the kind of grip on us that they do, while actually being results of complex normative synthesis rather than simple primitives. (See also Normative Force.)

Asian Scholasticism

After a lengthy prehistory of cross-cultural ferment, philosophy — as something that went beyond traditional wisdom and poetic insight to encompass significant rational development — emerged first in Greece. In the pre-Classical period, Greece’s strong involvement in long-distance trade already promoted the emergence of more cosmopolitan attitudes, leading to the kind of social environment in which philosophy could emerge. The period that is called Hellenistic for the Eastern Mediterranean world brought even more interaction between cultures as a result of Alexander’s empire. There was broad cross-pollination between East and West, so that in many instances it is difficult to say who influenced whom.

From Roman times, Greece was traditionally considered part of the East, in contrast to the Latin West. Greek philosophy in its last period came to be largely centered in Egypt and Syria. This fed directly into the amazing fluorescence of learning in Arabic during the 10th to 12th centuries CE.

But even before the Islamic golden age, various sorts of broadly scholastic philosophy flourished further East in southern, central, and eastern Asia, within Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, and even Taoist traditions. Although Arabic-language philosophy began to be eclipsed by the 13th century CE due to an ascendency of religious conservatism, intellectual culture in Asia was essentially continuous until the early modern period.

Initially much weaker in the Roman and European West, philosophy and general intellectual culture declined further after the fall of the Roman empire. In comparative terms, Europe only ceased to be a cultural backwater with the advent of the high middle ages.

“Secondary” Literature

One of my favorite Hegelian aphorisms is that philosophy is inseparable from the history of philosophy. Presentations ordered in the form of “my system of the world” or “the Truth according to me” rather quickly become tedious, and contribute to the misapprehension that there is no possibility of a cumulative development. Far better is a reflexive turn that interrogates the best that has been said before.

Socrates — at least, the Socrates of Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues — inaugurated a related approach, treating serious pursuit of questions as more valuable than supposed answers. Aristotle especially deserves credit for initially showing how such questioning can lead to a truly cumulative development, with many tentative answers along the way. Many later figures approached philosophy primarily as a sort of dialogue with Aristotle or Plato, or meditation or commentary on their works. In the later European middle ages, very extensive catalogs of nuanced alternative views, interpretations, and arguments were recorded by individual authors. This tradition rather suddenly died in the 17th century. In the midst of many scientific and technical advances, philosophy largely regressed from hermeneutic engagement to competing “systems of the world” that mostly talked past each other.

Hegel himself largely initiated serious interest in the history of philosophy. His historical view enabled him to recover the possibility of a cumulative development. Nowadays, philosophers again spend much of their time writing about other philosophers. Very important philosophical work takes place in what is nominally “secondary” literature, and “primary” works are full of secondary references. Without extensive secondary literature, the works of great later philosophers like Kant and Hegel would remain largely closed books. High-quality secondary literature on historical philosophers has especially flourished since the later 20th century, so it is really quite a recent development.

After 20 years of engagement, I have come to include Brandom on the short list of the very greatest philosophers that I can count on one hand. He is the first analytic philosopher to rise nearly so high in my estimation. His Woodbridge lectures revived my interest in Hegel, and overcame my previous deep reservations about Kant. Now, for the first time, in Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust we have a true Great Book by a true great philosopher that is nominally a “secondary” work about another philosopher. Needless to say, it is also a work of great originality. I still look to others for closer textual engagement and a more historical view, but Brandom’s Hegel requires less in the way of apologetics than I ever would have expected from reading Hegel himself.

History of Philosophy

Philosophy is best conceived as a dialogue with the best insights of our fellow rational animals over the centuries. It is something far more valuable than just views or opinions — a sustained rational development aimed at progressive improvement in distinguishing the better from the worse.

Hegel wrote that the history of philosophy is inseparable from philosophy itself, and I find that to be very true. He was actually the first major philosopher to write explicitly about the history of philosophy. Medieval scholasticism had treated the history of philosophy as a valuable repository of possible opinions and arguments, but was little concerned with issues of historical interpretation. Early modernity largely ignored the history of philosophy and wanted to start over, every man for himself. Anti-scholastic prejudice ran so high that apart from Leibniz, no major modern philosopher until Hegel treated Aristotle as anything more than a straw man. But since the 19th century and especially since the later 20th century, innumerable rich and sophisticated contributions to the historically informed interpretation of individual philosophers have been made, along with many excellent analyses of periods and trends.

I find it useful to alternate between consideration of a small number of essential reference points among the greatest of the great, and a much broader scope including many “minor” figures. (See History of Philosophy and Historiography sections.)

Western Philosophy

I used to regard claims about the uniqueness of Western philosophy as ethnocentric. Some undoubtedly are. But there is something special about the Greek legacy — particularly Plato and Aristotle — that does set it apart from anything that came before. Greece gave the human race the idea of reason, which led not only to modern mathematics and natural science but also to ethics based on reason rather than authority.

On the other hand, there is no simple continuity from Greece to the modern West. During what corresponded to the early middle ages in Europe, the Islamic world and South and East Asia were much more sophisticated. There was also much more continuity of Greek learning of all sorts in the East. The bourgeoisie of the Italian Renaissance invented for themselves a much more direct descent from classical Greece than history actually supports.

Jonathan Israel’s trilogy on the Enlightenment and Frederick Beiser’s The Fate of Reason show that mainstream thinkers of the Enlightenment still put many limits on the application of reason in touchy areas like religion and politics. Plato and Aristotle did not.