Friday, August 10, 2007

A Definition Of Philosophy - The Study Of Understanding

Recently I was contacted in my capacity as Club President with a request by one Philip Atkinson who expressed a wish to meet with the group and speak about his views on Philosophy. Before deciding whether or not it's wise for such a meeting to occur, I thought it would be educational (for all parties) if various contributing members could take a look at his work on his website and present their reactions in a series of posts. Mr Atkinson seems keen to have people try to refute his arguments, and I hope that other members will be happy to oblige him. I know I am.

So I'd like to open with my thoughts on A Definition Of Philosophy - The Study Of Understanding
(Please go and read it, this won't make much sense otherwise).

Atkinson's opening remark sets the tone for the whole piece, and isn't without it's problems. While I agree that Philosophy is viewed with some suspicion and trepidation by much of the populace, I'd hardly take this as a sign that it is an "unhelpful discipline". A large group of people thinking that something was true never made it so (well maybe, more of that later) for example the earth being flat and so forth. A quick tour of Mr Atkinson's site reveals that he doesn't believe that the belief of the masses constitutes truth or even reasonable evidence. The difficulty in discovering the achievements of philosophy, if I may be so direct, arises from a lack of serious study of the subject.

The assertion that it can be made into a "useful science" presents a few issues as well. MH has suggested that the move should be in the other direction - that Science should regognise its philosophical beginnings. I'll leave that argument to him for the moment. What I will ask is that we take the time to think about what is meant by 'useful' in this context, and who exactly reaps the benefit.

So on to the "self evident" truths, which I have italicised for the sake of clarity. In examining these, each of which constitutes a premise in Mr Atkinson's argument, I'll look at if they are actually true or at least plausible and if they are indeed self-evident. The validity (or lack thereof) of the argument will become apparent along the way.

1. Philosophy is the study of understanding.

Perhaps. We could get into it being the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge, but it is unnecessary, and soon you'll see why.

2. Understanding is the bestowing of meaning upon observations.

Once again, I’d say maybe. But be aware that there are two ways that this definition can be taken at this point. If an event occurs I can understand how it happened (the car fell into the river because the bridge collapsed) without understanding why it happened (was there a divine purpose to the tragedy?). This definition talks about meaning as if it were the same as belief, which isn’t consistent with what follows.

3. Meaning is the realisation obtained by applying beliefs to the observations of an understanding —the use of reason. These beliefs are the understanding .

Now the problem becomes apparent: ‘Understanding’ is defined in terms of ‘Meaning’ and vice-versa. Unless this circularity is dealt with the whole argument is a house built on sand. “Meaning is the realisation obtained by applying beliefs to observations.” would have made more sense. If we take ‘realisation’ to be a process of coming to or gaining a belief (which seems plausible), then Meaning is the process of gaining beliefs through the application of other beliefs to the observations of an understanding. But if we apply this definition to point 2, Understanding becomes ‘the bestowing of a process of gaining beliefs upon observations’, which does not really make sense and makes point 3 somewhat ungainly. It also highlights how inconsistent the final assertion in point 3 is.

The entirety of follows is already problematic as Atkinson hasn’t yet produced an adequate non-circular definition of ‘understanding’, so there is no real reason to accept any of it till that problem is resolved. However in the interest of being through I’ve made brief responses to what remains.

4. Two Kinds Of Beliefs:

i. Control the Understanding —those bestowed by nature and modified by infancy in the creation of an understanding so are unchangeable: that is, the instincts and infantile experiences, which dictate what the creature should, or should not, do — survive, eat, sleep, multiply, etc.— thus allowing the recognition of right from wrong, and are the morality of the understanding.

That the factors that dictate our behaviour might dictate or influence what we then take to be moral or immoral behaviour. This is controversial enough, but to take the further step that these factors for what is actually morally right or wrong, which seems to be implied here, is much longer bow to draw. Following the ‘morality’ link provides further expansions of what Mr Atkinson thinks constitutes morality, how it should be taught and its importance.

ii. Tools of the Understanding — those revealed by the understanding's experience of cause and effect. That is, if you step off a cliff you fall, and these axioms, which are collected and refined throughout the life of the understanding, allow the recognition of true or false and are the knowledge of the understanding.

If it is the collection of axioms through experience that allow us to judge truth from falsity, then how do we make this judgement in a new case where there are no axioms applicable to it? Are all tools of the understanding revealed through experience? If they are then how do we even recognise cause and effect? Kant (I think) suggests that this is an innate ability.

— this Morality and Knowledge together form the beliefs, or truths, of the understanding. Hence:

Beliefs and Truths are not always interchangeable, see below.

5. Truth is the beliefs, or realisations, of an understanding, and is used to create the reality of an understanding.

Most philosophers, myself included, would assert that there is more to Truth than just beliefs or realisations. Some beliefs and the like can be wrong. A person can believe P when not-P is the actual real state of the world. Even if you ascribe to an ‘assertability’ rather than truth value type of view, then you would still have a test of community or expert acceptance that would have to be passed before something could be called a ‘truth’. Both of the categories of ‘belief’ above can fall prey to either of these objections. You need good reasons for moving something from the category of ‘belief’ to that of ‘truth’ and they are simply not supplied in this case.

6. Reality is the creation of an understanding as it is the remembered meanings, or experience, of an understanding and consists of:

i. The nature of the understanding—its senses


The position of the understanding—what it can observe


The experience of the understanding—the meaning it realises.

This sounds like the claim is that reality is somehow constructed in your head, which is a view popular with some philosophers, but not with others. At the risk of being labelled a realist, could we not just say that ‘reality is’?

To take another tack, if reality is created from experience, then with no experience there is either no reality at all, or you have no grip on it, depending on what level of ontological commitment you feel like taking on. Regardless, either situation leaves no room for an account of how we go about creating/making sense of reality if only experience can give us the tools to do so.

7. Wisdom is the habits (traditions) adopted by an understanding to achieve the greatest benefit from its reality.

Even if wisdom was the habits or traditions of a community or individual, what the ‘greatest benefit’ is, is not self-evident. Achieving the greatest benefit is (arguably) not always the most morally right course of action for an individual or even for a community. The ends might not justify the means. And knowing how to do the morally or ethically wrong thing for one's own benefit is not what everyone would consider 'wise', though some would.

To sum up:

It is arguable that all of the “Self-evident truths” presented here are not true, and most certainly not self-evident. For something to be self-evident, it needs to be either true by definition, or so obvious as to require no explanation. ‘A triangle has 3 sides’ is self-evident, and some philosophers might consider the notion that one can now that know that one is conscious is self-evident. None of Atkinson's propositions presented above are analytically true, nor is it implausible to deny their truth. His declarations therefore are not self-evident and I dare anyone to adequately explain to me how I’m wrong on that score.

It is worth noting that it can't be claimed that I have misunderstood these self-evident statements. If a proposition is claimed to be self-evident, it is an argumentative fallacy to assert that disagreement with the proposition indicates a misunderstanding of it.

On a more serious note, the argument simply does not fit together in a logical structure. In fact the whole thing would have worked better if the assertions were presented in the opposite order as the definitions run in the totally wrong direction, when they go anywhere at all. Declaring something to be true does not make it so. I would encourage readers to read, and respond to Mr Atkinson’s work including that regarding Recognising Good And Evil and The End Of Western Civilization.

Sam Douglas.


Philip Atkinson said...

This 'criticism' of my claims is merely a series of vague and suggestive remarks.

For example the statement

“MH has suggested that the move should be in the other direction - that Science should regognise its philosophical beginnings.”

This is a meaningless claim. Why would any suggestion have any bearing on the truth or falsity of any claim?

A claim is either true of false regardless of any suggestion by anyone about anything.

What do the words ‘philosophical beginnings’ mean? Indeed, what does the term 'philosophical' mean?

Why should this meaningless suggestion be considered an argument?

The claim “If an event occurs I can understand how it happened” is an incorrect interpretation of my claim that

“Understanding is the bestowing of meaning upon observations”.

The only way a man can understand what he sees is by applying his beliefs. He can only recognise a car if he has the belief of what a car is. The only way he can recognise a bridge is if he has the belief of what a bridge is.
The only way he can recognise that there is something to be explained is if he has the beliefs that allow him to recognise there is something to be explained.

Meaning is an abstraction so only exists in an understanding. And as understanding is the use of reason, and as reason is a tool – a set of beliefs - for manipulating beliefs, then all understandings must be a set of beliefs. Hence all meaning is created by application of beliefs to the observations of an understanding.

To refute my claim that understanding is the bestowing of meaning upon observations you must reveal how meaning is supplied outside of an understanding, or how reasoning can occur without beliefs, both of which are impossible.

To claim my argument is circular is to misunderstand my argument.

I suggest that you now start again by confirming that either all meaning comes from understanding, which must be a set of beliefs, or reveal another source of meaning.

Samuel said...

Its not very clear to me how it all works. Perhaps I haven't read Atkinson's position through clearly enough. But there are a few points which I'd appreciate clarification on before I risked forming on an opinion on the ideas presented. So
-is the process presented what should happen or what does happen?
-are observations defined as sense-data, written accounts, dream experiences, emotional responses, a collection of some of the above or something else?
-what species of understanding is referred to? are misunderstandings of any species included in this account?
-how is meaning defined? is meaning the same for every person? is an emotional response to an event part of what the event means? how can we be certain of what words mean?
-are only correct beliefs involved in this account?
-what are Atkinson's views on the subject of circular arguments? What meaning do they have? Are they an example of correct argumentative form or incorrect argumentative form? What are some other examples of correct and incorrect argumentative forms? What do they mean? How was Atkinson's understanding of these argumentative forms arrived at? How was this understanding observed? What beliefs were applied to these observations? How was meaning bestowed on these observations?
-What is a meaningful life?
-How does philosophy relate to science? How does knowledge in science develop?

I am sorry for having to ask all these questions but I'm not quick to understand things at all and I like to be perfectly clear about what is being discussed. Please answer each question individually, in full and in the order I asked them in order to ensure complete understanding. Thank-you in advance for your patience.

Samuel Barnes

MH said...

I'm sorry, I did not realise that I would have to defend my position before I've had a chance to actually articulate it.

I believe that Mr Douglas' 'vague and suggestive' comment was a point to a brief discussion about one criticism I have of your method, which is your assertion that philosophy should be made into a 'useful science'. I also believe that he deferred to me on this point.

If I may have leave to take a couple of days - I'm a little busy at the moment due to mid-term assessments - I would like time to articulate my position in this regard and in regard to 'philosophical beginnings' to a couple of other matters.

Samuel Douglas said...

Philip: My remarks about science were an aside referring to an position suggested by a colleague that I agree with, but that I didn't have the time or room to articulate, nothing more. So there was no need for you to attempt to refute it.

My apologies to MH. I had no intention of dropping you in it, so to speak, I simply didn't want to take credit for your idea. I will know better next time.

Part of my confusion as I see it is that you are using the words 'understanding' & 'understand' in multiple different ways.

Consider: "And as understanding is the use of reason..." 'Understanding' is a process in this sentence, is it not?

But here: "Hence all meaning is created by application of beliefs to the observations of an understanding." The word seems to be describing an object or thing that can have properties, such as the power to observe. If it is the process of attributing meaning to observations then could it be the observer? With your reference to tools it strikes me that you are equating beliefs (reason) with the process of their application (understanding). The distinction might be clear to you, but it won't be clear to your readers. If you could separate the two better I might not misinterpret what you are trying to say. I am almost certainly misunderstanding what you intend to convey with your argument, but I would remind you that it isn't deliberate.

On that note, the fact that you admit that I'm misunderstanding your argument makes the claim to it being "self-evident" seem a little weak. If you want my advice leave that claim out. If your argument works then it does not need it.

As for Meaning: Once again you need to find more words to replace your over use of 'understanding'! Why not say that Meaning is an abstraction that exists in the mind? That would make more sense.

In any case, I think there is more ( or less) to meaning than just beliefs. For the statement "By 'Car' I mean that thing(pointing at Car)" to be true requires more than a belief that the thing in question is a car. If a person points at a rock and makes the same statement then we would want to say that they their attribution of meaning is wrong, even if they have the sincere belief to the contrary. Meaning has a normative aspect, there are right and wrong ways to apply words, and it takes more than thinking that one is using a word in the right way to actually be using it in the right way. I think that your account neglects this problem.

Philip Atkinson said...

Whenever a claim is misunderstood
it may be because the claim is unclear, or the audience is incompetent, or a mixture of both.

My claims are written in short simple terms, your response is long-winded and obscure.

In response to my simple claim that meaning is a creation of an understanding, it is inane to merely say you think there is more to meaning than beliefs.

Please either acknowledge or refute:

1/ All meaning is created by an understanding.

2/ All understandings are sets of beliefs.

Samuel said...


Your central statements involve unconventional grammar, word use and argumentative form. You are also refusing to elucidate your use of words which commonly have a great variety of uses. People are being patient with you, and you are refusing to explain your position, and instead repeat statements which can appear as either trivial, false or obscure. This suggests that you are unable to explain your position and are not worth listening to.

Samuel Douglas said...

Sam B,that last bit was a little strong, show some restraint, Mr Atkinson is our guest.

Since the claims are self-evident then the only way we could misunderstand them is if we were incompetent. And if I am then surely this conversation is unfairly biased in your favor.

I'm sorry for the long responses and will try to work on that.

A young child who believes they are adding (but cannot) does not mean addition by their use of the '+' sign. You could respond by saying that the don't have the right beliefs. But the 'right' beliefs are the ones that allow us to give the answer that is in accordance with what we meant. If the right beliefs are the ones we have when we give the right answer and the right answer is the one we give when we have the right beliefs, the the argument is circular and can't respond to someone who questions the correctness of a speakers meaning.

Therefore meaning is not just a set of beliefs and it follows from this that meaning is not created by an understanding as you have defined it.

MH said...

Mr Atkinson and Mr Douglas, please take a breath.

Mr Atkinson, there is a convention in academic philosophy of avoiding ad hominem statements. They tend to up-set otherwise composed individuals. Further, our practice is not as simple as ‘acknowledge or refute x’. While this is an aim, it may take a little time to get there. That time generally involves consideration of the proposition under consideration. And, while brevity may be a virtue, there are occasions when it may be a source of problems.

Mr Douglas, perhaps I should confiscate your tolerance award until this is over? We haven’t even gone one round and you are getting jumpy. Perhaps we can assist Mr Atkinson in developing his propositions in an attempt to discuss them, ala the Socratic method.

For my part I would like to see someone actually respond to the other Samuel’s post.

MH said...

Sorry for repeating Sam B's sentiments. Like Kant and Mendelsson, I hadn't read his comment before posting.

Samuel said...

I apologise if I crossed the line at the end of my last comment. I was struck by a resemblance this discussion bore to some other mutually unhelpful discussions I have seen.

Philip Atkinson said...

In response to my simple challenge,
1/ All meaning is created by an understanding.

2/ All understandings are sets of beliefs.

you fail to answer,but pretend that my claims are difficult to understand. There is no defence against this claim for it is an attack upon the meaning of words.

If you cannot understand my claims, then you cannot, or are refusing to, understand plain English.

The suspicion must be that not only can you not refute these simple observations, but you refuse to confess your inadequacy.

MH said...

Okay Mr Atkinson. I’ll confess my inadequacy.

You postulate (please forgive my lawyer’s fetish for accuracy, but I’m trying to get my head around the nature of dispositions of choses in equity at the moment, which requires a level of specificity that you would claim to be redundant) ‘All meaning is created by an understanding’.

I deny that there is such a thing as ‘understanding’. I can comprehend your definitional manoeuvre, but fail to be convinced that there is such a thing.

Either prove that it exists, or concede that there is no such thing as meaning and your argument is an empty sophisism.

By the way, since you are making the positive assertion (in explanation, the claim that it is possible to understand something) the onus is on you to provide the proof. There is no onus on us to provide anything but a negative critique, calling you to proof (to employ a legal analogy that you might understand – you (qua the prosecution) have to establish your argument beyond reasonable doubt, all we (qua the defence) have to do is suggest reasonable doubt).

Philip Atkinson said...

The denmand to clarify the meaning of the simple term 'understanding' is a challenge to replace a simple word with a series of other words, and is another attack upon meaning.
And of course the 'other words ' would be subject to the same demand.

This silly demand is made by the author of

"please forgive my lawyer’s fetish for accuracy, but I’m trying to get my head around the nature of dispositions of choses in equity at the moment, which requires a level of specificity that you would claim to be redundant"

which is gibberish.

Either admit my claims are true, or refute them, which requires finding another source of meaning other than understanding - the use of reason - or demonstrate that reason does not need beiefs.

Please spare me from more gibberish.

Philip Atkinson said...

Further please note the onus is not on me to prove anything to you. Such a claim is like the Inquisition demanding Galileo 'prove' to them, the truth of his claim. This would be impossible.

If you cannot refute my claim, you cannot say it is not true.

And this is all I demand.

MH said...

Okay, I'll speak plain.

I may not be able to refute your claim. BUT: if you cannot prove your claim, you cannot claim that it is true either.

MH said...

Now, I will try to expand upon my prior post (for those with an inclination towards actually thinking).

As I understand the argument being presented by Mr Atkinson, much rests on the existence of something he terms 'understanding'. [This being something that he appears to vaguely equate with ‘the use of reason’.] He asserts, as has been commented on in Mr Douglas' post, that 'understanding is the bestowing of meaning on upon observations’. This is a proposition (if it is a proposition, rather than an empty assertion) that I find problematic. One problem is the idealistic concept of ‘bestowing’, but I will let that one pass with an acknowledgement of the problems that have confronted the likes of Hegel, Hussurl, and Heidegger and the vagueness of ‘becoming’.

Then, there is an assertion that there is such a thing as ‘understanding’. Simply, I am not sure that there is such a thing as ‘understanding’. Mr Atkinson’s position implies that ‘understanding’ has the sort of ontological status that Kripke, Blackburn et al would like ‘meaning’ to possess. Mr Atkinson’s position also implies that understanding is a process. I’m not sure that either of these claims can be supported. Firstly, it is clearly dubious to claim that understanding exists in the same way as the computer I’m currently typing on exists, or the way that Hyde Park exists to the right of me currently. If there is such a thing as understanding then it may, and I emphasise may, be a mental state akin to meaning but that would bring with it the problems that Kripke discusses in relation to meaning. Secondly, if understanding is a mental state, then it cannot be a process.

If these criticisms have merit, then this is a serious problem for Mr Atkinson’s proposition. If ‘understanding’ falls by this sword, then there is Mr Atkinson’s question of finding another source of meaning. But, this rests on a need for meaning (a) to exist, and (b) for it to have some well-spring. As any of you who have spent a few hours with Mr Douglas and I in the past couple of years will be aware (and if you have not, I’m sure that Mr Douglas can fill you in on the details) I have long denied that there is such as thing as ‘meaning’ beyond the sense of ‘x means x by virtue of the definition contained in the Oxford English Dictionary’. So, I have no need for an account of meaning, and thus have no need to find some source.

I am aware that this discussion will be to verbose for Mr Atkinson’s tastes. I have not intended it to be that way, but I feel that we are working in a realm where a certain level of nuance and exposition is required. I hope that those readers who value discussion will call me to task for any little points worth grappling over.

Finally. Yes I have spent the weekend grappling with the technicalities of the disposition of choses in equity and choses in action, both of which are rather important if you have money in your pocket or ever want to give something to someone. I apologise if my decision to study law means that I, occasionally, make reference to matters that are ‘gibberish’, but this ‘gibberish’ is sort of important if you ever decide to draw up a will (and even more so if you decide not to).

Philip Atkinson said...

Having established that the source of all meaning is understanding , and that an understanding is a set of beliefs

it becomes possible to define

TRUTH as the realisations of an understanding


PHILOSOPHY as the study of understanding

Samuel Douglas said...

Sorry to backtrack, I've had a busy week and have fallen behind.

Here is the alternative source of meaning.

I don't think that meaning exists in any way that we can find what it is that makes sentences like "By X I mean Y" true. (The logical proof for this is long, so I'll leave it to one side for the moment.)

Rather I think that there are conditions under which we can assert "I mean X by Y". No declaration of meaning is either true nor false, but it is assertable or not. Being able to assert a declaration of meaning is dependent on the linguistic community one is in, and whether or not you are following the rules of the language game that they are participating in. The rules of this game, I believe, are largely determined by power relations in that community.

So the source of all meaning is not understanding, the source of all meaning is the community admitting that you understand.

Now it is possible to cast doubt onto Mr Atkinson's idea, but you can't doubt the existence of conditions of assertability for meaning.

But even if you admitted Mr Atkinson's point about Meaning, to get from there to his declaration regarding Truth is no better.

Beliefs and realisations can sometimes be false. The account being discussed gives us no way of separating them. How do you know a belief is Knowledge? You can't say 'because it's true', because then you can't establish Truth in terms of Knowledge.

There are many competing theories about truth ranging from "Truth is what actually Is" to "Truth is what we say or agree that it is". But Truth being the realisations of an Understanding just does not cut it.

MH said...

Sorry, but you have not 'established' anything.

You have made a series of assertions, the truth of which you seem to be taking on faith and which I doubt. And I will remain doubtful, like St Thomas, until you can demonstrate that there is such a thing as understanding in the sense that you need (more than the claim to a priori truth that you appear to be making in your most recent comment).

So, returning to an earlier thread, the onus is on you to show that your argument is more than sophistry, as it was on Galilei to prove that his physics was correct.

Philip Atkinson said...

Having thus clarified Truth and Philosophy,
it becomes possible to
study the mechanism of understanding, see:

and apply these notions to understand what a civilization is

Samuel Douglas said...

MH: Be specific about who you think has not established anything please!

Having thus clarified...?

Mr Atkinson:

I can't speak for the world at large, but you have not clarified anything for me.

Part of Philosophy is to able to convince your opponents of your position in terms they understand and accept. From a teaching standpoint, the inability to state a theory or idea in more than one way indicates a lack of understanding in the student.

I know that you are critical certain scientific theories. You have to take to your own work with that same spirit of critique if you ever want it to have any traction. Have you really sat down and looked at it and actually tried to find things wrong with it? Have you tried to second guess what your opponents will say and then out-smart them ? I doubt that you have, and you really need to if you are ever going to do anything other than preach to the converted.

MH said...

Mr Douglas

I should have clarified this earlier. Your comment had not been published when I drafted mine, though had been when I published. My request (and, in response to earlier suggestions to the contrary, I have not ‘demanded’ anything in this dialogue) was of Mr Atkinson who claimed to have 'established that the source of all meaning is understanding '.

Mr Atkinson

All I can say of your position beyond the matter here under discussion is that the Tower of Pisa was built on sandy foundations. (If you can’t comprehend the analogy, then, bluntly, until you have this part of your position correct anything you build on it is bound to fall down.)

Anonymous said...

Where is Mr Atkinson's response?

Samuel Douglas said...

Where indeed.