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Harvey Sarles
Meaning, Being, and Identity: The Question of the Knower
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Andreas Rosenberg
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Meaning, Being, and Identity:

The Question of the Knower

Harvey Sarles

In a recent series of presentations at the University of Minnesota, prominent analytic philosopher Donald Davidson took up the question of how we know and understand what is truth. He was reacting to recent beratings from postmodernists who would deny objectivity and truth. Responding particularly within the context of the skeptical work of Wittgenstein, [1] he moved from associationist and correspondence theories of truth, to what he calls triangulation: knowing an object presumes that others certify an object to be what it is. This remains hopeful, but clearly not yet complete or satisfying. The concept of truth remains at some philosophical risk. Davidson directed us back to a developing Pragmatism, especially the work of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead.


Issues of science, knowledge, truth, and rationality have a good deal to do, implicitly at least, with the nature of the observer. A (scientific) observer must be thoughtful, careful, consistent, and logical in order to see what is there, to ask probing questions, to rethink one's thinking when that is necessary or useful. And there has to be an abiding sense that the external world is independent from that which we humans might impose upon it.

However, the consideration of the observer is often backgrounded in discussions of science. Issues concerning the observer are seemingly covered by referring to the observer's objectivity. But it is usually the case that questions about the nature of objectivity and of the observer remain unasked. [2]

I have little doubt that we humans can be and/or become objective, thoughtful, consistent, logical; at least in many circumstances or contexts. What this essay wishes to explore are some of the assumptions, which have been taken to be the case without much critical exploration, concerning the nature and idea of the individual, that one who is claimed to be objective.

On the way we will note that this endeavor is often not quite as clean as we might wish; that the idea of the individual objective thinker-observer is enmeshed within and occasionally overlaps with ideas derived from particular philosophical thinking and positionings which undermine or even deny the possibility of the objective individual (as well as undercutting the idea of external reality).

This essay will attempt to review thinking about the individual, and show how the ideas of G.H. Mead and his pragmatism help provide an understanding of the individual which is both comprehensive in its humanness and understanding of the idea of the individual in its complexity. It does not merely defend the prevailing views of the individual, but attempts a more comprehensive examination of the individual within the human condition; especially extending the Meadian idea of the emergence of the self.

The prevailing idea of the individual (I will attempt to show) has implicitly carried with it an uncritical metaphysics, a complicated (often gendered [3] ) politics, an historical view of the human condition and of so-called natural law, all of which bear critical rethinking. These implicit aspects of the objective observer have created a context of reaction in which a plethora of accusations against scientific method and thinking have been included within more general cultural attacks which rest principally upon issues of politics and culture. [4]

These attacks generally operate by a situating of knowledge, truth, and authority within (usually historical) texts, narrativity, and subjectivity rather than in any reality external to the human: call this the postmodern reaction. (Call the parallel religious textual response—millennarian or millennial). [5]

This historical idea of the (objective) individual is incomplete and usually inaccurate, especially considering the observational reality that we are, like all of our nearest relatives, social by-our-nature. We emerge as selves, as individuals. [6] As the concept of truth rests on the objective individual, this essay will attempt to undergird that idea as consistent with human nature, and attempt to clear individuality from its usual political and metaphysical accompaniments.

Responding to these polemics by continually restating a Western story of our being simply hardens lines of difference. It creates a sense that reality is at some risk, and rests on opposing forces of rationality vs. anti-reason, rather than recasting and rethinking the human condition to adhere more closely to the human experience.

The Attack on Science (on Truth)

The question of who we are, what it means to be some one, arises implicitly in the context of any critical Humanism. These issues arise specifically in the context of what it means to be able to know the world intelligently, rationally, objectively. They are, perhaps, prior to the question of the (external) world, of science and knowledge.

Put succinctly, what is the nature of the knower, the thinker, the one who can be objective about her/his observations of the world?

Putting aside, even, the various objections now arising to the issues of external reality—the critiques of Kuhn [7] and Feyerabend [8] and others tracing themselves to a reinterest in cosmology and to the complicating issues which have arisen within the context of chaos theory—the question of the knower must be made apparent rather than hovering in the backwaters of truth-telling.

There are various reasons for this, only some primarily defensive. These range from skepticisms about the very nature of knowledge and of reality, to a current interest in the subjective and its derivatives: critical theoretical returns of knowledge from the world to texts and narrativity; questions of the very possibility of authority in the human condition; various perspectival arguments about cultural or other competitions for truth.

Perhaps the broadest and strongest question which arises in questions about meaning and identity has to do with our nature as individuals. In the usual Western context, the individual is taken to be coterminous with his (sic!) physical presence: as a material mechanical model, most recently centered in/as the brain. Some attacks on the nature of the individual—Marxist, for example—would claim that we are all derivative of social roles, are victims of ideology, or have reduced possibilities of knowing via psychoanalysis—have also arisen, and deserve discussion and rebuttal. [9]

More important for our purpose is a discussion of the human condition, especially the nature of our sociality: we are clearly evolved from/as social species, thus are social by our nature. In developing the ideas in this essay, I will follow the pragmatist George Herbert Mead, who savors the idea that we are all individuals, but asserts that we have emerged from sociality, rather than our being individuals by our (physical) nature. [10]

Our knowledge, rationality, objectivity are not givens by our nature, but develop within the contexts of our social interactions. This is to say that we are individuals as we grow, but that issues of rationality, logic, knowledge are interdependent with our sociality, and that the idea/experience of objectivity remains complicated and fragile within our being and thinking.

Objections to the so-called objective-rational individual and to the direct sense that the external world is reality in some sense per se have gained adherents during this period when competing philosophies come together in this global moment: Western thought vs. Confucian vs. Buddhistic vs. Amerindian—all floating somehow in our awareness with little critical comparative thinking (whatever works); each of us has a legitimate handle on the truth of truth in our inner thoughts. One could go on…!

Other objections hover within those who have felt betrayed by a politics they think is necessarily implicit in the directions of  a scientific inquiry and technological development backed by and providing benefit principally to corporate and governmental entities which are not responsive to the greatest numbers of persons/citizens. And this politics has led to wars and devastation of people and of the earth; a deep sense that objectivity has betrayed us. [11]

Lastly (for now), the endeavors which are scientific (and the associated or derivative technological fields) have been fairly exclusive: primarily benefiting and employing white guys. These concerns raise old questions about exclusion, sexism, and racism—undermining the claims of objectivity and rationality because they have been used as claims to restrict such endeavors to the powerful and (already) privileged; an unacknowledged Social Darwinism. [12]

The Place of the Human

Questions surrounding the nature of objectivity have two principal foci:

1. Are we inside or outside of nature, aspects of the natural world—or are we (implicitly or not) removed/remote from nature, occupying a special place in existence; as it were, a priori? Due to language, to logic, to some sense that our mental capacities are unique within life? Are logic and language aspects of our being more generally, or those aspects of our being which set us off from other creatures, thus locating humans outside of nature? If science is based on ideas of the individual already presumed to be outside of nature, unique in our intellectual capacities, then the very idea of the objective individual comes wrapped in assumptions about our being which remain unexaminable. Reasserting human uniqueness as being outside of nature, no matter how often or loudly, simply extends the polemic and leaves truth in some uneasy muddles.

2. Are we or can we securely become individuals sufficiently independent from others so we are clear and coherent thinkers and observers? Science, objectivity, truth, even the notion of reality external to our being, rest on the nature of the individual.

In this section, I will explore the ways in which we have (and continue) to locate human nature. Much of the current difficulty, the susceptibility of responding only in kind to postmodernist critiques, resides in (ancient) presumptions about the human condition, and questions about the nature of the study of the human.

My observation (of both sides in this polemic) is that we are ambivalent about exploring the human. The most general attitude is that the study of human nature can usually be disregarded, covered apparently by some presumptions about our ability/capability of merely being objective, removed, rational, logical, symbolic; simply able to see and sense what there is—clearly and correctly. This is taken as a given even by most scientists, deriving apparently from earlier notions of authority which rested on metaphysics and/or religion to tell us how we are and how the world is; i.e., derived from texts rather than from experience.

Often we infer from other species to humans without much querying of the human, rather claiming some purpose [13] or aspects of non-humans which determine our nature to a large extent. [14] These usually include some aspects of our being which seem well within either theology [15] or politics. [16]

Perhaps, as some seem to think, this question of objectivity can be bypassed by noting whether we can come to some essential and consistent agreements in the reading of our instruments. [17]

But the (seemingly) contrary position—that we are essentially removed from nature—is the position of much of religious thinking, and is derived from certain lines of philosophy/theology. The general position is that we humans are somehow, in some essential ways, removed from or above nature.

The Kantian line—from the Critique of Pure Reason—is the seat of the developing postmodern position: namely that the representation of the world is somehow built into our being (it must be!). [18] The world matches our knowing (brain); or our knowing truly is the world. Nature and its study fade from questions of knowledge; objectivity yields to subjectivity. All we (really) do is talk; all is narrativity. The world is really our representation of it. The world-as-text becomes the text-as-world. (Flirting  with solipsism!)

The rub is that many philosophers of language take a similar position, as if it were somehow obvious or irrefutable on its face (including the aforementioned Davidson). We humans possess language, thus knowledge, which is obviously(?) high above the capabilities of any other creature. The necessary skepticisms of the philosophic position yield to romanticism when they involve issues of knowing and all that entails. [19]

That is, the very definition of human and language are taken to be completely different in some deep qualitative respects from the abilities, propensities, and capabilities of any other species. No observation or study of others or of ourselves is necessary (or very useful) to arrive at any understanding. Aspects of the human considered to be essential properties are taken as given in the understanding of the human: outside of nature. [20]

As I have already pointed out, this smacks of metaphysics and politics [21] —not very different from the religious point of view [22] —in our understanding and unwillingness to explore the human condition more seriously and in depth: particularly the social dimensions of our being which even allow us to survive. [23]

If we are in or aspects of nature, not very different, parts of some continuum, presumably we have to examine our nature in order to find out who and how we are. Are the social sciences (or aspects of biology) doing this task in a thoughtful and systematic manner? My answer is largely negative: much of what they are doing is politics and history in various forms, with hints of new-found teleologies.

Haven't the philosophical and/or theological proponents of humans being removed from nature (either as a given or as some aspect of our humanly unique evolution) simply repeated ancient claims of the grounds of our uniqueness (mostly mentalistic: words, thoughts: Genesis 1, John 1, Plato, Aristotle).

How do we examine the human condition more broadly or thoroughly without presupposing our being on grounds, say, of ancient Platonic dualisms: mind or body or some holisms compromising these? Have we taken a very limited visioning of the human and extrapolated this to a complete explaining of our being—all this to justify or proclaim our objectivity, as an aspect of our freedom from religious and other textual authority?

The current problem is that postmodernism (as well as various forms of fundamentalism) is increasing, returning us to textual authority, questioning seriously whether we are truly individuals who can be or become objective. We are, according to these lines, creatures dominated by our beliefs, created within inescapable histories; or more simply, roles derived from societal dynamics.

Another way to phrase this: can we do real science on human nature without presuming what we wish to find? [24] Is this due to methodology or to the implicit acceptance that humans are unique and thus effectively removed from nature?

I hold that the concept of the emergent individual provides the potential understanding of the human condition which will undergird the concept of truth.

The Problem of the Individual

The (Western) story: The idea of objectivity is usually embedded within the physical being of the individual. The individual is the locus of knowledge and perception, and moves within his(!) development from an irrational infant to a rational adult.

Importantly, the physical being is taken to be the primary locus of knowing and of being. In this context, sociality is taken to be an aspect of development. [25]

But this flies in the face of our relatively recent insights into the notion that we have evolved—along with all our closest biological relatives—as social species. We are social: by our nature. Individuality must be derived: better, individuality is emergent, as G. H. Mead stated it: "Mentality…simply comes in when the organism is able to point out meanings to others and to himself. This is the point at which mind appears, or if you like, emerges." [26]

Thinkers like Davidson (but not Wittgenstein at least in his prefatory note to Philosophical Investigations [27] ) also take the presence/existence of the individual for granted: a primary, a given, a sine qua non. Thus the question of truth has to do with the nature of the (given) individual and how he(!) gets to know the external world: association of object with word, the correspondence between what one thinks and the world, are the usual methods. Chomsky, following Descartes, focuses on a presumed given ability (imputing a genetic predisposition) for thinking as sentences which are equivalent to ideas in these schemata. [28]

The difficulties with these lines of thinking reside particularly with the idea of the individual as a given. [29] Mead characterizes the individual self as emergent, reminding us to question the givenness of the individual in our theories, and suggesting the necessity of exploring deeply what happens to that (physical) individual before she is able to make statements or to concoct propositional phrases.

This points to the critique of those like Davidson; that they do not consider observation of and experience of the early interactions of the infant to be very useful in determining what and who we are, and how we come to be. The primary individual of consideration already has emerged somehow, or is uncritically taken to be the locus of knowing. That is, the problem of the knowing individual obscures the question of how we get to be some one.

Pragmatism rests on the observation (and assumption?) that experience and doing are the basis of the human condition. [30] As Peirce put it, in attempting to declare the foundations of any pragmatism, we do not merely know the triangle, we necessarily extend or otherwise abduct it, transform it, experience it even as we have the ideal form in our image and imaginations: being and doing.

We humans are not removed from nature, but aspects of it. Our knowledge is not embedded within some mental or brain function, which is somehow given to the organism by virtue of its very being, but emerges from sociality. Our ability to be objective is not a given by virtue of our being, but is an aspect of the emergent self, as Mead portrayed it.

Individuality is not a given of our existence, but develops within our experience with others.

As Davidson's presentation on truth proceeded, it was clear that he presumes the physical individual as the seat and locus of our being. The problem of knowledge, of logic, rationality (language, mind...) appears, in this line of thought, to account for how a physical body can come to know the world, independently of the world (and of others). Not only to know the world, but also to know about (his!) own knowing. [31]

There is an accompanying presumption: that humans alone develop language and conceptual/critical thought. All claims to the contrary notwithstanding, we really don't understand much of what it would mean for any other species to have language, rationality, conceptual thought. We recognize humans and distinguish us from other species by bodies/appearance, and have done little work or thinking about how the [human] body is or possesses knowledge: knowledge has been taken to be an aspect of the brain or mind, depending primarily on which side of the dualism and/or politics one finds oneself. The knowing human body remains a residual concept.

The error—compounded in my estimation by the unwillingness to observe the human condition as it is, social by-its-nature—presumes that the physical organism is the precise locus of individuality. I—the individual—reside in myself perceiving the world external to my (physical) being, and come to know the world. That is, individuality is taken as a given, and resides somehow within the organism: the mind, the brain, the cells, the tissues, the organs. Yes! And this view certainly seems to offer enough of an obvious and appealing truth, that it tends to remain presumptive. [32]

Mead's direction for solution: the individual which exists (you/I) is the individual which survives, not that which is conceived, embryonic, born. The individual human (or any social species) is simply not survivable; not an independent individual by its (presumptive) physical nature. Mead's notation of emergence is a (physically) transformative experience.

Early development, particularly, depends very powerfully on tender loving care, way beyond mere nurturing. It is largely definitional of who we will be. Our eventual and emergent individuality is infused, inspired, even defined into continuity, by our m/others. It is, to a large extent in their terms, who we are; who is the individual which I turn out to be.

You and I, those who survive and have survived to become the icon of the objective observer will simply not continue to breathe unless the breath of those who see us into being is imbibed as we travel the path of becoming who we are. [33]

Davidson's individual is an (largely Aristotelian) invention; that physics is prior to knowledge, to metaphysics. This is not the human condition. The individual is emergent. The human condition: we are social creatures. The physical individual which is born and breathes on its own, is not the social individual which survives. The physical individual is not survivable! The (socially) emergent individual—who you and I are—is not coextensive with the physical individual.

Therefore the physical individual which enters the world has little or no continuity with the emergent individual which is primarily who we are. Our parents (m/others) see, read character into our facial being primarily. When they look at the/their infant, they see not only flesh and physical being, they see some one. They read into us and interpret who we are and what we want and need, as if we are the characters whom they see and respond to; not only in this moment, but into the futurity of our being. This is the individual who survives; who becomes some one.

Indeed, as the emergent individuals we are (primarily), [34] we do not come to know the world. We come to know the world as our parents hold it to be. Most of the structure of language is given to us—and demanded that we learn and possess it—essentially as our parents have and use it. That is, parents possess a viewing and knowing of the world and demand that we come to see and express the world as they know it.

Language acquisition, at least in its early stages including the sounds, the structure, and meaning of what I have called the Question-Response System, is not directly of the world, but mediated and directed toward knowing the world as the parents know it and hold it to be. [35]

Davidson's idea of triangulation—that we take as some confirming authority another's name for an object—is correct in its consideration that we rely on the authority of others to confirm the reality of the world and its objects. [36] But the triangulation begins much earlier in the development of language: in the way in which parents direct questions and demand responses from their children. [37]

Davidson is quite correct in his move toward triangulation; that we use others' authority to certify our own knowing. But he does not note that our primary study—a deep aspect of the emergence of the individual—is of our parents (especially of their facies: face, change, expression—visuality; noise, language, expression). This is to say that the development of self-authorization emerges from the authority we give or yield to our parents: a large part of what we mean by the individual and objectivity.

The basis of our knowledge—on the way to becoming individuals—is not of the world as some externality—but of our parents' essential descriptions of it. A horse, a table, a ball...are what they are because our parents act as if—treat objects as if—they are what they say.

This is to say that knowledge is not primarily of the world in its embryonics, but of one's parents' knowing. Initially (and continuing) we are students of our parents: of their faces, and all of the stuff which it does—blink, talk, smile, smirk—the stuff of high contrast. [38] Davidson's primary individual has emerged from an experience which is already profound in its formulation of our being.

Just look at infants' looking (and m/others' looking)—primarily at faces! (Of course, in the notion of individuality and objectivity which we have inherited, we do not have to observe, because the idea of the body is taken to be some guaranty of individuality and objectivity....).

The emergent self—the sine qua non of Davidson's individual—has a great deal to do with the parents' necessity and demand for the infant to develop a conscience: in their view, the ability to act as the parents would, in taking care of itself. (Social) life cannot abide a toddler who is unaware of the dangers inherent in rapid movement and in everyday being.

The emergent child has to become within narrow limits the kind of person, the some one whom they imagine her to be, and read-into his being. And that is who we are, having become the now (sometimes) independent toddler whom Davidson presumes is perceiving the world.

This awareness, the precursor of the conceptualizing individual of Davidson's accounting, develops concurrently with the idea that the toddler is an individual in the more usual philosophical sense: a propositional creature who can say what she wants, develops a will of some extension (the terrible two's!), and an increasing sense of responsibility for self—adapting and playing with the parental idea of what it is to be...some one: the ontology of the individual.

The child becomes, internally as it were, increasingly an individual in Davidson's sense, prompted by the parental demand that she act as if she were a person. Whether the physical infant has any notion of an idea that she/he is an individual, the idea which emerges is impressed on the developing toddler: m/others read-into the infant, the idea of being some-one. The toddler who survives, who emerges, takes that notion into his own being, and acts as if he is some one: a propositional, self-willed individual; able to be objective but also remaining interdependent.

We tend to overlook the fact that the (physical) individual beyond the embryonic is a rapidly changing, developing (conceptual) being. We background the physical and act as if the individual is moving toward knowledge and the mentality that metaphysics prescribes. Just look at m/others and infants in interaction: ask mothers about their babies, and who they will be. [39]

The I of who I am is nowhere obvious in the human condition: it is an emergent concept!

The Conceptual Self

The rehabilitation of truth depends, Davidson asserted continually, on the individual's ability to perceive, to cognit (my term), to know and think about the world, and to think about her or his own knowing and thinking.

Much of the prior discussion of our knowing focuses on how we are that we can and do perceive the world—objects particularly, but also ideas which describe and manipulate the world and our concepts about it.

The individual's physical being tends, in this accounting, to be usually passive, without much active presence, without expressions, being continually read and responded to by and with others. The body is conceived of principally as the locus for the end organs of perception which take these sensations into the brain, where they are processed...somehow.

The I sees a horse and associates the sounds/word with horse, and the concept somehow takes root in our brain and being. Or we have some inner conceptualization which somehow begins to correspond with the visualized object.

Later, we begin to spin these perceptions into larger and more encompassing ideas—and gradually begin to be able to think critically about our seeing and thinking. We resist the observations of the sun rising and setting, and are able to think about the earth turning on its axis. We learn(!?) to conceptualize our being in the world, and to see our own seeing, to rethink our thinking—all this on the way to objectivity.

A reasonable story. Davidson's reiteration. But something's missing: the triangulation; the authority needed to proclaim truth and objectivity over myth and deauthorization of one's individual being. The paradox of change conceptualized: how do we hold our observations steady even as we are continually changing?

 No doubt Davidson was fishing for a way to deal with a skepticism about truth, just now turning into a deepening cynicism, laced with increasing dosages of nihilism, of the de(con)struction of the history of being. Something is omitted from this story, and he directed us toward the pragmatists. He remains positive that there is truth, that there is an accounting for how we are individual and objective. But the sort of story that we have bought—perhaps inherited is more accurate—does not suffice.

Mead's solution derives from a kind of evolutionary stabbing for how we are that we must somehow be emerging from a gestural state to an emergence of self. This may lead to various inversions of the human story from the physical infant to the social self. We are certainly individuals; but also always interdependent.

I observe the radical idea that the emergent self is the one who I am, the one who survives within the social definition of who I am. The physical individual, the inheritance from the physis of Aristotle, is a non-starter, because she is seen and breathed continually into being as her m/others define her into being. S/He is gendered (for example) because s/his mother reads gender into her now and future being, and he responds principally in kind—or does not survive (as a normal human). Self and personhood overwhelm any clean division into a dualism of mind and body.

A great deal of what happens to the infant (you/I) is about knowledge early on: call it context. [40] Opening Mead's emergence window leads us to a number of avenues which have remained virtual intellectual ghettos, walled-off from any need to enter them; invoke context whenever an explanation or accounting seems not to satisfy; simply banish rather foundational areas of our knowing—orientation and navigation, other persons—as residua. Many of them remain fruitful areas of postmodern rejection of our knowing of externality, especially as they remain unconsidered and unstudied outposts of knowledge and our being.

I observe, suspect, worry...that prior questions still color the kinds of questions about truth which seem to make sense to the mind of the philosopher. These include questions about the human condition and human nature, especially when they invoke continual but implicit comparisons with other species. Whenever we claim to be talking human, that is, we are more truly talking about what we claim to be humanly unique and different from other species.

A most important issue in this discussion derives principally from Parmenides: what it means to be human is to have a human imagination. A human imagination is that which permits us to know beyond the present here and now: to have an infinite knowledge; to be symbolic. And we have gathered most of these definitions of the human under the rubric, language.

Here, Mead's emergentism will prove very fruitful: we do not learn the world directly, but study our m/others' noting and structuring of the world. We (come to) see and study the world as they do.

Our language is quite tightly structured (but always involves talk to/with others). Its infinity and indefiniteness is located in the responses children (must) make to their parents' questions. This is not difficult territory for the two-year old, the emergent individual just prior to Davidson's notion of the self. That is, an apparently huge paradox is solved by each surviving person (you/I) quite early in its experiencing. As I say, I observe that this question of our symbolic functioning has been a usually unexpressed but sustaining metaphor for our being unique. But it has taken away from our study and understanding of the (emergent) human self.

Truth be Told

The emergent individual is a very good candidate for the objective observer of the reality which we contend to lie outside of the human. It is who we are/I am.

This is not to say that objectivity and observation are always obvious in the human condition, but that we have the ability as emergent individuals to become and sustain the objective observer which would underlie and underscore the idea of truth.

This is also not to say that we are not subjective, as well. We are selves, persons, who have or construct and sustain our being, our meaning from the insides of our being. We are, we grow, we think and know, and know our own knowing.

In the Meadian pragmatist accounting, subjectivity and objectivity are not enemies in life experience, but aspects of who we are. It is as if we have been caught in a paradox whose necessity to be resolved overwhelmed the facts of our existence. If the concepts of culture and relativity have seemed opponents of absolute knowledge, the truth to be told is that we do pretty well in life. Many of the obstacles to knowing are due to the contexts of accounting for the human within very limited and circumscribed depictions.

The clearest mistake in the history of thinking about the human is that we have simply declared and asserted that the physical organism is continuous with the knowing individual. In fact, we are social animals—by our nature—and emerge transformed as individuals from sociality. In order to study and probe individuality and the conceptual order of truth which rests on the idea of the individual, we have to study (particularly) our early sociality.

The emergent individual which survives is the socially interactive individual: you, I, they. This notion of the individual underlies the ideas and abilities of objectivity which allow us to become knowing selves. Obviously, we are more than merely objective, logical, truth seekers, and the paths to truth are fraught with partialities: the (cultural) influence of others upon our thinking and being; the positive and destructive virtues whose yearnings often overwhelm.

We do not have to transcend or surpass our animal nature to become the uniquely gifted human whose continuing search for the (concept of) truth has inspired the sciences. We do not have to deny subjectivity in order to praise and defend objectivity. We must explore more carefully and deeply the human condition to understand ourselves and the world.


The study of our development has usually been cast within the history of the idea of the rise of the human from primitive to civilized, from animal to human. This both underestimates other related species, but also the human as we have concentrated on presumed uniquenesses of the human only as superior to other species. They and we are more complicated than this approach has outlined.

Peter Wilson's wonderment if we aren't domesticated: that our geometric minds depend on the insides and outsides of our domestic lives; now melting with television. [41]

Much of early being is about learning context: including navigation and orientation, situation, who we are in reference to.… The discussion, analysis, and elaboration of context(s) remains a largely empty category, which we use or invoke when it seems useful or necessary as analytic. However, all children (all of us) are highly dependent for the formulation of conceptual thought on the sorts and kinds of implicit knowledge which we usually defer to as context.

Who are we, then? How are we? Are we (inevitably) constricted to being members of groups, children of our parents? Are we bound to our textual/philosophical histories? Can we overcome them, become and remain objective in the sense of seeing what there is, not being overtaken necessarily by the controlling paradigms of any moment or tied to  disciplinary necessities which are restrictive and determining?

I observe (to begin) that most of us do pretty well with the (complex) technologies which have entered our lives at the level of backgrounding themselves within the past century or so: I live on the twentieth floor and do not spend too much time worrying that the construction engineers did not know what they were doing. I enter the freeway accelerating to the speed of the prevailing traffic, not overly concerned that I will not respond well to the situations I find there: don't fret about everyone's IQ racing at 70+ mph, and quickly find my comfort zone within some implicit knowing of my car's qualities; note much bigger differences between commuter traffic and weekend malingerers.

This is to say that the question of objectivity and rationality, our ability to see what there is in whatever reality is meaning to us, is not at all difficult at the level of what we take and have taken to be the ordinary of our everyday functioning. (The usefulness of rethinking human history as the inventions which pervade our lives: from clothing to fire to domiciles, to DPTP shots we get as infants, to the entire infrastructure we don't much think about which has gotten us and sustains us...implicitly. Without this continuing awareness and appreciation of the human condition—within nature, as they say—we seem to be easily swayed to think that all is subjective, or perspectival, or...politics, or economics.

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969).

[2] Hans Reichenbach, ThePphilosophy of Space and Time (New York: Dover, 1958).

[3] Helen Longino, "Toward a feminist epistemology" (University of Minnesota, Nov. 24, 1997).

[4] Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1979).

[5] Henry M. Morris, ed., Scientific Creationism (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974).

[6] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).

[7] Thomas S. Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions. 3rd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[8] Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge (New York: Humanities Press, 1975).

[9] Terry Eagleton reviews these ideas thoughtfully in his book on literary theory. Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).

[10] Aristotle asserts the primacy of the physical individual: physics is prior to meta physics. The difficulty with the historical thinking which still seems to bind our thinking, is that we have fallen into a very narrow story of the human condition, which relies on an ancient, Parmenidean, idea of being. This idea of being (vs. not-being) was cast within the idea of the human being unique due to language and rationality (metaphysics), and most of the idea of human history has been seen in terms of how we are presumed to be unique among species: a fanciful Hobbesian story of so-called natural law which has the human individual as a totally competitive solitary wandering in the forests primevil. (Women and children are not present in this accounting.) We develop language, thence objective knowledge, then some sense of past and futurity: foresee our deaths and develop sociality and political structures. Thus this idea of the individual is awash in political theory, does not account for the existence or presence of women, and is false to the actual human condition. The individual most of us, including philosophers depict, is the toddler of age three or so, facing the world: a great deal has happened by the time an infant gets to be a toddler.

[11] M. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947).

[12] Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press 1992). In this book, Hofstadter (chap. 7) discusses the emergence of pragmatism in the context of reaction to the widespread acceptance of Herbert Spencer's notion that the best and brightest had the genetic-predetermined intelligence to run the world of business. Pragmatism, beginning with Chauncy Wright and Charles S. Peirce and leading to Dewey and G.H. Mead, was the attempt to return our lives to experience, to devise modes of education and ways of thinking which include human experience in our being and doing. We again seem to be moving through a similar period, and the re-emergence of pragmatism once again is in reaction to the idea that the essential, at least most important aspects of being human, have already been set before we are born. Indeed, Social Darwinism also led to the anti-immigration law of 1924, and seems poised for a similar reaction to the level of new immigrants who have entered America in the recent past.

[13] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press 1976).

[14] Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).

[15] In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins reinserts the notion of purpose into human evolution by declaring that the gene (itself) wants to reproduce itself, and uses our being and experience essentially as artifacts. I take this notion to be the idea of God-as-gene. Though this idea of being seems to reside within nature, it is very similar to any other religious movement: but now in the name of apparent nature.

[16] In reading writers such as Lorenz or Wilson, we need to remind ourselves how politics can pervade thought even for biologists and other scientists. It is important to be thoughtful about politic—to educate ourselves to its history and current workings—in order to have some sense when we are observing and interpreting what there is, and how we impute purpose and/or politics to what we observe; e.g., most of the discussions even on television of other species, refer to their apparent sociality primarily in political terms: such as alpha males, territoriality, dominance.

[17] Reichenbach, op. cit.

[18] I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. by N. K. Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1929).

[19] Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

[20] How strange and contradictory this is within the realms of science can be seen within the work of Davidson deriving largely from insights of Wittgenstein (based apparently on his long term conversations with the anthropologist Malinowski), that language does not stand on its own: it is largely about usage and communication with others. This, in combination with the insight that we humans are social species by-our-nature, leads us directly back to the work of G. H. Mead.

[21] Harvey Sarles, "On the origin of language," in Language and Human Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), chap. 1.

[22] Once we remove authority from our (possible) experience—whether based on historical or religious texts—including the authority to examine the human condition free from earlier presumptions, then truth becomes an interpretive game.

[23] Harvey Sarles, 1999ms. From G.H. Mead's ideas of the social emergence of the self, I am presently developing the notion that the physical organism is not continuous with the emergent self: it does not survive except within the experience of the emergent transformation with m/others.

[24] Responding to a comment made by Andreas Rosenberg (Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, U. of Minnesota) at a meeting of the Humanist Institute in 1997, that the Social Sciences are not sciences.

[25] Much of the story of the human is embedded in Western thinking of the primacy of the individual, where we gradually developed-evolved into social species after the development of language enabled us to become objective, thence social: cf. Hobbes' Leviathan.

[26] George Herbert Mead, op. cit., p. 132.

[27] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953).

[28] Noam Chomsky, Cartesian Linguistics (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

[29] An interesting and most literal metaphor for this position is found in the concept of the Speechless Statue developed by Condillac. An alabaster (of course!) statue was taken as the primary of the human: What, Condillac asked, would the stone statue need to become fully human?

[30] Harry Redner, In the Beginning was the Deed: Reflections on the Passage of Faust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). Contrast Redner's accounting with the Biblical notion that in the beginning was the word. Davidson et al are attempting to account almost exclusively for the individual human who extrapolates words into being.

[31] This line of accounting for reason also has carried with it a presumption that the human was ungendered, but implicity male—the basis of Hobbes natural-law development, the speechless statue of Condillac, etc.

[32] As we shall see, Davidson following Wittgenstein makes a bow and a move toward sociality and language usage, but presume still that the individual is a given in the human condition.

[33] The survival of the individual requires a great deal of love, talk, touch or the physical individual literally dies, or becomes variously abnormal, autistic, or retarded: terms which I take to signal critical categories of being who are not emergent in the senses that we demand. I take parenting to be a very subtle art, and am very impressed how good most humans are in its practice. In harsher terms, without avid parenting, we are dead in the water. See: M. F. Ashley Montagu. The Direction of Human Development (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955).

[34] To begin a new line of speculation, I have wondered if the stroke victim who seems no longer to know the world, has lost especially their emergent being, and reverted to a more clearly continuous physical self or being—continuous, that is, with the Aristotelian body. (Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (New York: Perennial Library, 1987).

[35] Harvey Sarles, "The question-response system in language," in Language and Human Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1085) chaps. 9-11.

[36] Correct —in the sense that it accurately describes the human condition; not tied into traditions of presumption. Correct—in the sense of it requiring observation of the mother/infant relationship in terms of what happens, but also in terms of what the mother reads-into and interprets in her child's being. In this sense, too, there is a cross-species comparative position about (other) animal mothers and infants.

[37] Harvey Sarles, op. cit.

[38] Davidson, as others in his line of development, tend to downgrade the early months of development as too quick for much of import to happen. I think that we have to consider the infants' sense of time and spaciality in terms much different from ours. They have no contrastive experience. I suggest that time in the pre-emergent state is experientially extremely long; that space, especially of facial movements, is extremely large. This condenses as we grow. But consider how a very small bit of food stuck in our teeth, concentrates our attention on the mouth. See my essay Around the Cartesian Impasse for more elaborations of these ideas. Sarles, 1985, chap. 14.

[39] Harvey Sarles, "Pragmatism: Archeology of the Body; Emergent Transformation, etc.," ms

[40] Context has been largely neglected in this discussion (think, the contexts of context). A great deal of early development is about knowing: orientation, navigation, who one and anyone is, the definition of situation, how one knows, how to address others and the world, how one responds and knows the great questions and their responses: how, when, where, because, who, how many, . (See: Harvey Sarles, "Context," ms.).

[41] Peter J. Wilson, On the Domestication of the Human Species (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

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