Subjective and Objective Ideas
We are likely to think that all ideas are things that occur within our mind and are thus subjective. It may be difficult to imagine that there are objective ideas. But there are objective ideas, and it can be understood by examining the meaning of the word “idea.”
The first meaning of “idea” is the content we have in our minds when we are thinking. It includes the sensations and perceptions we have, the images we form, the memories we summon up, and the conceptions or notions that we employ in our thinking.
When the word “idea” is used in this way, all the various items referred to are subjective. My sensations or perceptions are not yours; the images that occur in my dreams or the memories I dwell upon when I reminisce are mine alone; so too are the concepts or notions I have formed as I study a difficult topic.
To call them “subjective” is simply to say that they are private, not public. When I speak of them as mine – my perception, my memory, or my concept – I am saying that the perception, memory, or concept in question belongs to me alone. You can have no access to it, just as you cannot have access to the toothache I am suffering.
In its other meaning, the word “idea” refers to an object that two or more persons can have access to, can focus on, can think about, can discuss.
If we disagree about a decision just handed down by the Supreme Court, we may find ourselves challenging each other’s views about justice. It I ask you for your view of justice, I am asking you to tell me what you think about it, and I am also prepared to tell you what I think about it. The “it” here is justice as an object of thought, both your thought and mine, not justice as a concept in your mind, but not mine.
We each have concepts in our minds – concepts we think with when we think about justice. Furthermore, your concepts and mine are distinct. But that does not prevent both of us from thinking about one and the same object – an object of thought we call “justice”, and sometimes we refer to as “the idea of justice.”
Source: rogercostello.wordpress.com Six Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler
WHAT IS AN IDEA?
In the vocabulary of daily speech, the word “idea” is generally used to name the subjective contents of our own minds--things that each of us has in his or her own mind. This use of the word predominates in a large portion of modern psychology, concerned as it is with something called “the association of ideas” or “the stream of consciousness”--with the images we experience in dreams or in acts of imagination. It is a kind of omnibus term that covers all the contents of our minds when we have any conscious experience--our sensations and perceptions, our images and memories, and the concepts we form.
But that, obviously, is not the way the word “idea” is being used when we engage one another in the discussion of ideas. In order for a discussion between two or more persons to occur, they must be engaged in talking to one another about something that is a common object of their conjoined apprehension. They do not have a common object to discuss if each of them is speaking only of his own ideas in the subjective sense of the term.
Consider, for example, a number of individuals arguing with one another about liberty and justice, about war and peace, or about government and democracy. They probably differ in the way they subjectively think about these matters. Otherwise, they would not find themselves arguing about them. But it must also be true that they could not be arguing with one another if they did not have a common object to which they were all referring. That common object is an idea in the objective sense of the term.
These two uses of the one word “idea”--the subjective use of it to signify the contents of an individual’s conscious mind and the objective use of it to signify something that is a common object being considered and discussed by two or more individuals--may be a source of confusion to many. We might try to eliminate the source of confusion by restricting the use of the word “idea” to its subjective sense and substituting another mode of speech for “idea” in its objective sense. We might always use the phrase “object of thought” instead. Thus, freedom and justice, war and peace, government and democracy might be called objects of thought.
One other example may help to reinforce what has just been said. Let us turn from our thinking to our sense-experience of the world in which we live. We are in a room sitting at a table. On the table is a glass of wine. You are facing the light and I am sitting with my back to it. We have, therefore, different subjective impressions or perceptions of the color of the table and of the wine in the glass. But in spite of our divergent subjective perceptual experiences, we know that we are sitting at one and the same table and looking at one and the same glass of wine. We can put our hands on the table and move it. We can each take sips out of the same glass of wine. Thus we know that the table and the glass of wine are one and the same perceptual object for both of us. It is that common object that we can talk about as well as move and use.
If this is clear, then I recommend that we use the word “idea” in its objective sense as a common object of thought that two or more individuals can discuss and either agree or disagree about. To eliminate the word “idea” in its objective sense and always use instead the phrase “object of thought.”
We live in two worlds: (1) the sensible world of the common perceptual objects that we move around and use in various ways and (2) the intelligible world of ideas, the common objects of thought that we cannot touch with our bodies or perceive with our senses, but that, as thinking individuals, we can discuss with one another.
Mistaken view of Idea
Of all the little errors in the beginning that have plagued modern philosophy since its start, the most serious is the one that was made in the psychology of cognition. The most compact expression of it is to be found in the Introduction to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The error originated with Descartes, not with Locke, but it was the influence of Locke’s psychology on Berkeley and Hume, and through Hume on Kant, that led to all the many times multiplied errors that, as Aristotle and Aquinas warned, spring from a little error in the beginning.
It is evident that Locke uses the word “idea” to stand for something private: the ideas in one man’s mind are not identical with the ideas in another man’s mind. Each man has his own. Each of us is conscious of his own, and can directly apprehend only his own ideas. Each of us must infer from their speech and actions that other men have ideas in their minds too.
What each of us directly apprehends — the objects of our apprehension, says Locke — are always and only our own ideas. But Locke also implies that these ideas come into our minds from without. As Book II of the Essay makes amply clear, the ideas in our minds, the objects we directly apprehend, are caused by things outside our mind — real existences of one sort or another that we cannot directly apprehend. In fact, as many passages reveal, Locke believes in the real existence of Newton’s world of bodies in motion, ultimately composed of imperceptible atomic particles. It is the action of these on our corporeal organs that somehow produces the ideas that are the objects of our minds whenever we are engaged in thinking.
Locke makes no distinction between the sensitive powers and the intellectual powers, merging them into one cognitive faculty, which he calls “understanding” or “mind.” Though he uses the term “abstract idea” instead of “concept,” an abstract idea for Locke is a product of the same faculty that produces what others would call “sensations” and “perceptions”.
The points made above reveal the presence here of two little errors, not one. The first is the error of regarding ideas as the objects that we directly apprehend when we are conscious — thinking or dreaming. The second is the error of failing to distinguish between sense and intellect as cognitive powers which, while they are cooperative in the cognitive process, do not operate in the same way and do not contribute in the same way to whatever knowledge we are able to achieve. These two errors together led to the nominalism of Berkeley and Hume; to the idealism of Berkeley and the phenomenalism of Hume; to Kant’s efforts to extricate philosophy from these horrors, by trying to circumvent them with an ingeniously confected theory of mind instead of by correcting the little errors from which they arose; to all the riddles and perplexities of later empiricism concerning the subjective and the objective, concerning our knowledge of the external world, concerning the logical construction of “objects” that we cannot directly apprehend from the sense-data that we do directly apprehend, concerning the referential meaning of any words that do not have directly apprehended items, such as sense-data, for their referents; and so on.
I have said enough to indicate what is involved in making a fresh start by rigorously adhering to the distinction between that which is apprehended (objects) and that by which they are apprehended (ideas); the distinction between that which is apprehended and has intentional existence (objects) and that which is apprehensible and has real existence (things); the distinction between apprehension and knowledge (the first and second acts of the mind); and the distinction between sense and intellect (the apprehension of singular and universal objects). All of these distinctions were lost or obscured in the tradition of modern philosophy that began with Descartes and Locke, giving rise to the consequences to which I have called attention.
WHAT IS AN IDEA? - Consciousness And Its Objects
In his Treatise on Man in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas makes a point totally ignored by all of modern psychology, is that ideas are not that which we apprehend, but that by which we apprehend whatever it is that we do apprehend. Perceptions, imaginations, and memories (ideas in the sensible order) are wholly the means or instrumentalities by which we apprehend sensible objects. Concepts (ideas in the intelligible order) are wholly the means or instrumentalities by which we apprehend intelligible objects.
From this it also follows that we never experience our own ideas; we experience perceived objects but never the perceptions by which we perceive them; we understand intelligible objects but we have no awareness of the concepts by which we understand them, not even when the mind reflects upon its own operations. Ideas are completely self-effacing as the means by which objects are presented to the mind. They are, therefore, totally uninspectible, unexperienceable, unapprehensible.
Mistaken view of Idea: For Locke and his followers, all ideas in anyone’s mind are subjective and private and are that which we apprehend when we are conscious of anything. Adler maintains that our bodily feelings, including our emotions or passions, are private - something directly experienced by me alone; however, some ideas (our cognitive ideas) are that by which we apprehend whatever it is that we do apprehend. These perceptual experiences are public. We are perceptually apprehending the same objects. From this it also follows that we never experience our own ideas; we experience perceived objects but never the perceptions by which we perceive them.
When we are sleeping and not dreaming, we are unconscious. When we describe ourselves as unconscious, we are in effect saying that
-- we are aware of nothing; we are experiencing nothing,
-- we are perceiving nothing, remembering nothing, imagining nothing, thinking of nothing, sensing nothing and feeling nothing.
-- our minds are blank or empty.
When we are conscious, what is it that we are conscious of? What are we aware of? What are we experiencing or having experiences of?
The crucial word in all these questions is the little preparation “of”. Grammatically, it calls for an object.
Still one more question: When we are conscious, and therefore our minds are not blank and empty, what are they filled with? It has become customary to speak of the stream of consciousness or the flow of thought to describe what successively fills our conscious or makes up our experience from moment to moment. What does it consist of? In other words, what is the changing content of consciousness?
One answer to the question is given by using the word “idea” for all of the quite different sorts of things that fill our minds when we are conscious.
Locke's use the word “thinking” for all the acts of the mind, and uses the word “idea” for all the objects of the mind when it is thinking, or for all the contents of consciousness when we are conscious.
Locke also implies that each of us has ideas in his or her own mind, ideas of which he or she is conscious. The ideas in my mind are my ideas; the ideas in yours are yours; and the ideas in anyone’s mind are subjective: they belong to that one person and to no one else.
Every person has ideas of his own. Only one’s own ideas are, according to Locke, the objects of that person’s awareness when he or she is conscious. No one can be conscious of another person’s ideas. To concede that another individual also has ideas must always result from an act of inference, based on what others say and do.
In the vocabulary of daily speech, the word “idea” is generally used to name the subjective contents of our own minds. But that, obviously, is not the way the word “idea” is being used when we engage one another in the discussion of ideas. In order for a discussion between two or more persons to occur, they must be engaged in talking to one another about something that is a common object of their conjoined apprehension. They do not have a common object to discuss if each of them is speaking only of his own ideas in the subjective sense of the term. (What is an Idea?—Mortimer J. Adler)
An experience can be “public” or “private”. It is public if it is common to two or more individuals. It may not be actually common to all, but it must at least be potentially common to all. An experience is private if it belongs to one individual alone and cannot possibly be shared directly by anyone else.
Our bodily feelings, including our emotions or passions, are private. My toothache, heartburn, or anger is something directly experienced by me alone. Our perceptual experiences are public. When you and I are sitting in the same room with a table between us on which there are glasses and a bottle of wine, you and I are perceptually apprehending the same objects – not our own ideas, but the table between, the glasses, and the bottle of wine. If I move the table a little, or pour some wine from the bottle into your glass, you and I are sharing the same experience. It is a public experience, as the taste of the wine or the heartburn it causes in me is not.
Therefore, it is necessary to introduce a distinction between ideas of perceptual experience and bodily feelings, emotions, and sensations. Whatever can be properly called an idea has an object. The ideas of perceptual experience, memories, imaginations, and concepts or thoughts are ideas in this sense of the world, but bodily feelings, emotions, and sensations are not. We apprehend them directly. They do not serve as the means whereby we apprehend anything else. This applies also to sensations generated by he stimulation of our external sense-organs, such as the sudden gleam of light we see, the unexpected loud noise we hear, the strange odor we cannot identify. These sensations do not enter into our perception of anything. In contrast, when we are perceiving, we are directly conscious of something other than our percepts.
Locke fails to observe this distinction. He uses the word “idea” for all the contents of consciousness. For John Locke, the awareness we have of our own ideas is entirely a private experience, exclusively our own. He and all those who adopt his view are in effect saying that all the ideas that an individual has in his mind when he is conscious result in private experience for him, experiences no one else can share. To say this is the philosophical mistake that has such serious consequences in modern thought.
When we perceive, we are aware of existing things. We can talk to one another about them as things we are experiencing in common. The table, for example, that is the perceptual object that we are both apprehending at the same time is the table that you and I can lift together and move to another part of the room.
All these ideas of perceptual experience can be characterized as cognitive – as instruments of cognition. Instead of being themselves objects of apprehension, they are the means by which we apprehend objects that are not ideas. These two little words “by which” hold the clue to the difference between Locke’s view and opposing view. For Locke, all ideas are that which we apprehend when we are conscious of anything. For the opposing view, as expressed by Thomas Aquinas in the Treatise of Man of his Summa Theologica, some ideas (our cognitive ideas) are that by which we apprehend the objects of which we are conscious. It means that we experience perceived things, but never the percepts whereby we perceive them. We remember past events or happenings, but we are never aware of the memories by which we remember them. We can be aware of imagined or imaginary objects, but never the images by which we imagine them. We apprehend objects of thought, but never the concepts by which we think of them.
The apprehended objects that are present to our minds through the agency of our cognitive ideas are public or communal objects. They are objects for two or more persons, objects that they can talk about with one another.
Those who hold the mistaken view of ideas as that which each individual directly apprehends – the immediate objects of which each individual is conscious – lock each of us up in the private world of his or her own subjective experience. Since I have no direct acquaintance with or immediate awareness of anything that is not an idea in my own mind, it is difficult to see how any attempt to argue for or prove the existence of an external reality can be carried out successfully.
The ultimate consequences are drastic. From Locke’s little error in the beginning, we are led to Hume’s conclusions so extreme that common sense would prevent anyone from adopting them.
One of these extreme positions goes by the name of total skepticism concerning the possibility of our having any knowledge of a reality outside or external to our own minds. The other is called solipsism – the assertion that everything of which I am aware or conscious is a figment of my own mind.
Instead of rejecting the premise, Locke further compounds the error by saying that the ideas in our minds, in addition to being the objects of which we are directly and immediately conscious, are also representations of things that really exit in the external, physical world.
When does one thing deserve to be called the representation of another? Only when we observe some resemblance between what is called a representation and the thing it is supposed to represent, as when we say that a portrait is a good likeness or representation of the person portrayed.
On this understanding of what a representation is, how can our ideas (the only objects with which we have direct acquaintance) be regarded as representations of really existing things (od which we cannot have any direct awareness at all)?
There is no satisfactory answer to this question. On the face of it, it is impossible to hold that ideas are the only objects that we do directly apprehend and yet are also representations of realities that are never objects that we directly apprehend, for one can be said to represent the other only if both can be directly apprehended and compared.
Modern thought would have been better off if it had adopted the opposite view. The opposite view not only saves us easily from skepticism and solipsism; it also saves us from futile efforts to prove the existence of an external, physical reality.
In our perceptual experiences, we are directly acquainted with the existence of other bodies as well as our own. In addition, all the other objects about which we engage in conversation with one another – the events or happenings we remember, the fictions we can imaging, the objects of conceptual thought as well as the objects of our perceptual experience – all these are public, common, or communal objects that we can communicate with one another about. However, we are conscious only of the objects apprehended, not of the ideas by which we apprehend them.
When we correct the initial error, we will find ourselves living together in the world of physical reality, a world with which we have direct acquaintance in our perceptual experiences. We not only have bodily contact with one another in this world; we also communicate with one another about it when we discuss perceptual objects we can handle together.
The philosophical mistake, when seen in all its consequences, is both repugnant to reason and to common sense. The correction of that mistake produces the opposite result – a coherent view of consciousness and its objects that involves no inexplicable beliefs and that accords with common sense and common experience.
The Intellect and the Senses
Mistaken view of Mind: Plato and Descartes, and also later Kant and Hagel, go too far in their separation of the two realms – the sensible and the intelligible. The view of monism by Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume, on the other hand, is wrong by saying that the mind is entirely a sensitive faculty, without any trace of intellectually about it.
Definition: In the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the objects we apprehend are divided into those that are sensible and those that are intelligible. All the objects we apprehend by sense-perception belong to the first group. It also includes the sensible particulars we can remember and imagine. To the second group belong all purely intelligible objects, such as the objects of mathematical though, or such metaphysical objects as souls, angels, and God. It also includes such objects of thought as liberty, justice, virtue, knowledge, the infinite, and even mind itself. None of these can ever be perceived by the senses. None is a sensible particular.
Sense includes a variety of powers, such as the power of perceiving, of remembering, and of imagining. Intellect also includes a variety of powers, such as the power of understanding, of judging, and of reasoning.
The view of Dualism, taken by Plato and Descartes, and also later Kant and Hagel, go too far in their separation of the two realms – the sensible and the intelligible. This results from their attributing to the intellect an autonomy that makes its functioning independent of sense-experience.
The view of monism, taken without qualification by Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume, can be stated simply as follow: the mind, so far as it functions as a cognitive instrument, is entirely a sensitive faculty, without any trace of intellectually about it. All its “ideas” or “thoughts” are sensations, sense-perceptions, or images; and its images are either recalled sense-perceptions or they are constructed out of materials provided by sense-experience.
These two extreme views can be avoided by acknowledging first, that the intellect depends for all its primary apprehensions upon sense-experience; and second, that, while some objects of thought are purely intelligible, our sense-experience provides us with objects that, with rare exceptions, are never purely sensible.
The objects of our sense-experience are, for the most part, we not only perceive but also understand. Normally, the sensible objects we perceive, we perceive as particulars of one kind or another – a particular dog or cat, a particular hat or coat, a particular tree or flower. The particularized is an intelligible as well as a sensible object. We not only perceive it as this one individual thing. We also understand it to be a particular thing of a certain sort. Sense and intellect have cooperated in our apprehension of it.
In contrast, some objects of thought, such as liberty, infinity, and God are purely intelligible. They are unsensible and can only be understood by reasoning.
It is, therefore, necessary to correct Locke’s omni-comprehensive use if the word “idea” to cover both sensible and intelligible objects. Although, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke takes notice of certain activities of the human mind that are intellectual rather than sensitive, his all-purpose use of the word “idea” implies a single cognitive faculty or power, essentially sensitive in character, without distinction what Aquinas distinguished as sensible and intelligible species.
Within this mistaken view of mind, two errors are compounded: one is the error of regarding our perceptions and images, as the immediate objects of our conscious; the other is the error of reducing the human mind to a purely sensitive faculty, able to be aware of nothing but what can be perceived through the sense .
According to the opposing view of the human mind as constituted by intellect as well as by sense, it is only our intellectual power that is reflexive, not sense. The intellect has a self-awareness that the senses do not have.
When Locke deals with what he calls “abstract or general ideas”, he maintains that only man has such ideas; “brutes abstract not”. However, since Locke does not acknowledge the presence of a human intellect as quite distinct from all man’s sensitive powers, his attempt to account for abstract, general ideas fails. He affirms their existence, but cannot explain them.
The opposing view gives special significance of “abstract or general ideas”. For them, abstraction is an activity of the intellect, not of sense. The human mind has abstract ideas (i.e., concept) only because it is constituted not solely by sense, but by an intellect as well. On this point, Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume are most emphatically negative. They are more consistent than Locke in recognizing that, since the human mind is entirely a sensitive faculty, it cannot possibly have any abstract ideas.
What serious consequences flow from the mistaken view of mind that denies intellect and, with it, concepts or abstract, general ideas? The immediate consequence is an inherently untenable doctrine called nominalism. A more remote consequence is one that affects our understanding of man’s place in nature.
The nominalists deny that anything general exists either in reality or in the human mind. All our ideas are of particular individuals. We do not have any general or abstract ideas. However, since our language includes names that have general significance, such as “triangle”, “cow”, “tree”, and so on, we must have general ideas. Otherwise these names could have no significance, for there would be nothing to which they could refer.
To affirm that what is common to two or more things, or that what is the same about them, can be apprehended is to posit an object of apprehended which is quite distinct from the object apprehended when we perceive this or that singular particular as such. But this is precisely the position which opponents of nominalism regard as the correct solution of the problem; namely, that there are objects of apprehension other than perceived particulars. For them, abstraction is an activity of the intellect. Those who maintain that human mind is entirely a sensitive faculty are expectedly to deny intellect and, with it, all abstract concepts or general ideas.
In order to rejecting nominalism one need not go to the opposite extreme, the extreme to which Plato went. Attributing to ma an intellect independent of the senses, Plato also conferred an independent reality on its intelligible objects – the universal archetypes. In his view, it was these universal and eternal archetypes – of triangle and cow and everything else – that truly have being, and more reality than the ever-changing particulars of the sensible world.
It is not necessary to go to that extreme to correct the mistaken view of the human mind that regards it as a wholly sensitive faculty and that, denying intellect, is compelled to adopt an untenable nominalism, To say that the objects of conceptual thought are always universals is not to assert that these universals exist as such in reality, independent of the human mind that apprehend them.
Suffice it to say that the intelligible universals of conceptual thought are public in the same way that the sensible particulars of perception, memory, and imagination are public. Just as two or more persons can talk to one another about a perceptual object or a remembered event that is commonly apprehended by them, so too two or more persons can talk about liberty or justice as common objects of thought, or about triangularity and circularity, or about the difference between tree and scrub as distinct kinds of vegetation.
The most serious consequence of the mistaken view of the human mind as constituted by sense and imagination and devoid of intellect is the conclusion that men differ from other animals only in degree, not in kind. Experimentation with animals in psychological laboratories has turned up much additional evidence that has been regarded as reinforcing this conclusion. It has been interpreted as showing that other animals have concepts as well as percepts, even if they do not have intellects in the traditional sense of that term. Accompanying this attribution of conceptual intelligence to other animals has been the attribution to them of linguistic performances that are said to differ only in degree from the human use of language.
There is no evidence that concepts, if properly defined, are present in animal behavior. Their intelligence is entirely sensory. Its operations are limited to the world of perceptual objects and imaginable ones. What lies beyond perception and imagination is totally beyond the powers of the animal mind or intelligence. Only human beings have the conceptual powers that enable them to deal with the unperceived, the imperceptible, and the unimaginable.
It is necessary to correct the mistaken view of the human mind first advanced by Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume in order to defend the proposition that man differs radically in kind from all other animals.
The action of the brain is only a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the functioning of the human mind and for the operations of conceptual thought. We do not think with our brains, even though we cannot think without them.
Adler was a self-proclaimed “moderate dualist”, and viewed the positions of psychophysical dualism and materialistic monism to be opposite sides of two extremes. Regarding dualism, he dismissed the extreme form of dualism that stemmed from such philosophers as Plato (body and soul) and Descartes (mind and matter):
Strictly speaking, a human being (as defined by the dualistic theory) is not what common sense supposes that person to be: one indivisible thing. That person is actually divided into two individual things, as different and distinct as the rower and the rowboat in which he sits. If this dualistic theory were true, it would confront us with the most embarrassing, insoluble difficulties should we try to explain how these two utterly different substances could interact with one another, as they appear to do in human behavior. Brain injuries or defects produce mental disabilities or disorders. We also have the reports from neurological surgery that tell of electrical stimulation of the brain producing conscious experiences. How can this be so if mind and brain are as separate as the rower and the rowboat, a separation so complete that it permits the rowboat to be sunk while the rower swims away unharmed?
Adler also disagreed with the theory of extreme monism. He believed that while mind and brain may be existentially inseparable, and so regarded as one and the same thing, the mental and the physical may still be analytically distinct aspects of it. He put this theory to the test in the following manner:
Let a surgeon open up an individual's brain for inspection while the patient remains conscious. Let the surgeon dictate to a secretary his detailed observation of the visible area of the brain under scrutiny, and let that area of the brain be its center for vision. Let the patient dictate to another secretary a detailed description of the visible walls of the room in which the surgery is occurring. The language used by the surgeon and the language used by the patient will be irreducibly different: the one will contain words referring to physical phenomena occurring in the brain; the other, words referring to conscious experiences of the room. The extreme monism that asserts not only the existential unity of brain and mind, but also that there is no analytical distinction between them, thus becomes untenable.
Adler was also a harsh critic of the Mind-Brain Identity Theory:
One extremist theory about mind and brain asserts their identity. Used literally, the word "identity" must here mean that there is no distinction whatsoever between mind and brain. That, in turn, means that the two words – "mind" and "brain" – are strict synonyms. If that is the case, we cannot meaningfully ask about the relation of psychology to neurology because psychology is identical with neurology.
After eliminating the extremes, Adler subscribed to a more moderate form of dualism. He believed that the brain is only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for conceptual thought; that an immaterial intellect is also requisite as a condition; and that the difference between human and animal behavior is a radical difference in kind. His reason for this is that their cognitive sensory powers do not and cannot apprehend universals. Their cognitive reach does not go beyond particulars. Hence, we would not be able to apprehend universals if we did not have another and quite distinct cognitive power – the power of intellect. Our concepts are universal in their signification of objects that are kinds or classes of things rather than individuals that are particular instances of these classes or kinds. Since they have universality, they cannot exist physically or be embodied in matter. But concepts do exist in our minds. They are there as acts of our intellectual power. Hence that power must be an immaterial power, not one embodied in a material organ such as the brain.
Adler argued that if such an immaterial power did not exist in human beings, our use of common nouns would not be possible. Particular instances are designated by proper names or definite descriptions. When we use the word "dog," we are referring to any dog, regardless of breed, size, shape, or color. To refer to a particular instance, we would use a canine name, such as "Fido," or a definite description, such as "that white poodle over there lying in front of the fire." Our concepts of dog and poodle not only enable us to think about two classes of animals, they also enable us to understand what it is like to be a dog or a poodle. According to Adler, The action of the brain, therefore, cannot be the sufficient condition of conceptual thought, though it may still be a necessary condition thereof, insofar as the exercise of our power of conceptual thought depends on the exercise of our powers of perception, memory, and imagination, which are corporeal powers embodied in our sense-organs and brain.
Only if the brain is not the sufficient condition for intellectual activity and conceptual thought (only if the intellect that is part of the human mind and is not found in other animals is the immaterial factor that must be added to the brain in order to provide conditions both necessary and sufficient) are we justified in concluding that the manifest difference in kind between human and animal minds, and between human and animal behavior, is radical, not superficial. It cannot be explained away by any difference in the physical constitution of human beings and other animals that is a difference in degree.
Adler defended this position against many challenges to dualistic theories. For example, David Hume believed that man is equipped with sensitive faculties only, and has no intellect. As a nominalist, Hume then faced the problem of how to explain the meaning of the general words in our everyday language; for example, the common nouns that signify classes or kinds. Hume attempted to solve this problem by arguing that when we use words that appear to have general significance, we are applying them to a number of perceived individuals indifferently; that is, without any difference in the meaning of the word thus applied.
Adler found this explanation to be a complete contradiction. To say that we can apply words to a number of individuals indifferently amounts to saying that there is a certain sameness in the individual thing that the speaker or writer recognizes. He argued that if human beings enjoy the powers of conceptual, as opposed to perceptual thought, there would be no difficulty in explaining how words signify universals or generalities. They would derive their significance from concepts that give us our understanding of classes or kinds.
As for the challenge that man’s understanding is derived only from sense, and to the denial of "abstract" or "general ideas, Adler cites the following quote:
Let any man try to conceive of a triangle in general, which is neither Isosceles, Saclenum, nor has any particular length or proportion of sides; and he will soon perceive the absurdity of all the scholastic notions with regard to abstraction and general ideas.
Adler responded to this challenge in his book "Ten Philosophical Mistakes":
There we have it in a nut shell. If all we have are sense-perceptions and images derived from sense, then we can never be aware of anything but a particular triangle, one that is either isosceles, scalene, or equilateral, one that has a certain size or area, one the lines of which are either black or some other color, and so on. What is here said of triangles can be said of everything else. We are never aware of anything except particular individuals-whether by perception or imagination-this cow or that, this tree or that, this chair or that, each with this one particular instance of a certain kind of thing. We may have a name for that certain kind, as we do when we use such words as “triangle”, “cow”, “tree”, and "chair", but we have no idea of that kind as such. We have no idea or understanding of triangularity as such, or of what any individual must be like to be a particular triangle, cow, tree, or chair. Only our words are general. Nothing in reality is general; everything there is particular. So, too, nothing in the mind is general; everything is particular. Generality exists only in the words of our language, the words that are common, not proper, names. Those who regard the human mind as having intellectual as well as sensitive powers have no difficulty in meeting Hume’s challenge head on. By means of an abstract concept, we understand what is common to all the particular cows, trees, and chairs that we can perceive or imagine.
—Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, p. 41-42
(Source: Project Gutenburg)
Is Intellect Immaterial?
I (Mortimer J. Adler) will try to summarize the argument that I think supports the view that the intellect is the immaterial factory needed, in addition to the brain, for the occurrence in the human mind of conceptual thought.
The argument hinges on two propositions. The first asserts that the concepts consist of meanings that are universal. The second proposition asserts that nothing that exists physically is ever actually universal. Anything that is embodied in matter exists as a particular individual.
From these two propositions, the conclusion follows that our concepts, having universality, cannot be embodied in matter. The power of conceptual thought must, therefore, be an immaterial power, one the acts of which are not acts of a bodily organ.
The reasoning that supports the first of the two foregoing propositions is as follows. The meaning of a common or general name is universal. It always signifies a class of objects, never any particular instance or member of the class. And, the universals derive the meanings they carry from the concepts we have.
Particular instances are designated by proper names or definite descriptions. When we use the word “dog,” we are referring to any dog, regardless of breed, size, shape, or color. To refer to a particular instance, we would use a canine name, such as “Fido,” or a definite description, such as “that white poodle over there lying in front of the fire.” Our concepts of dog and poodle not only enable us to think about two classes of animals, they also enable us to understand what it is like to be a dog or a poodle.
The second proposition about the individuality of all material or corporeal things is supported by the facts of common experience. The objects we perceive through our senses are all individual things — that is, this individual dog, that individual spoon. We have never seen a triangle in general, nor can we imagine one. Any triangle that we can draw on a piece of paper, any triangle we have seen or imagined, is a particular triangle of a certain shape and size. But we can understand what is involved in triangularity as such, without reference to the character of the angles or the area enclosed.
Whatever exists physically exists as an individual, and whatever has individuality exists materially. No one has ever experienced or produced anything that has physical or corporeal existence and also is universal in character rather than individual.
The argument then reaches its conclusion as follows.
Our concepts are universal in their signification of objects that are kinds or classes of things rather than particular individuals. Since they have universality, they cannot exist physically or be embodied in matter. But concepts do exist in our minds. They are there as acts of our intellectual power. Hence that power must be an immaterial power, not one embodied in a material organ such as the brain.
The action of the brain, therefore, cannot be the sufficient condition of conceptual thought. However, it is a necessary condition because our power of conceptual thought depends on the exercise of our powers of perception, memory, and imagination, which are corporeal powers embodied in our sense-organs and brain.
If it can be shown that any other animal, such as the dolphin, has the power of conceptual thought, the argument just stated would lead to the same conclusion about the dolphin: namely, that it has an immaterial power and that the action of the dolphin brain is only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of the occurrence of conceptual thought on the part of the dolphin.
I have just summarized the bare bones of the argument, but readers may wish to put its premises to the test.
First, attempt to explain the general significance of the common nouns in our vocabulary, the significance of which is so different from the designative reference of the proper names we use, without appealing to our conceptual understanding of classes or kinds to which perceived or imagined particulars belong. If you cannot do that, then our apprehension of universals — of classes or kinds — is indispensable to our understanding of the meaning of common nouns or names.
Our cognitive sensory powers do not and cannot apprehend universals. Their cognitive reach does not go beyond particulars. Hence, we would not be able to apprehend universals if we did not have another and quite distinct cognitive power — the power of intellect.
When you open your eyes and look out the window, what do you see? This or that individual tree; this or that automobile; this or that particular building. Whatever it is, it is always some physical thing, some material embodiment. When you close your eyes and let your imagination roam, what do you then apprehend? The same again: always some individual, physical thing; some material embodiment.
The fact that the world we perceive through our senses and all the things we can imagine and remember are individual physical things or material embodiments gives great credibility to the materialistic thesis that the world of real existences is entirely material, that nothing immaterial really exists.
At the same time, the individual physical things in the world of our sense-experience are also particular instances of certain kinds or classes of things — the kinds or classes to which the common names or general terms we use refer. We could not use those words with their general significance if we were not able to apprehend the objects of conceptual thought — the intelligible, universal objects that only our intellects can apprehend.
Readers are thus led to the conclusion that the power by which we apprehend those intelligible objects, those universal objects of conceptual thought, must be immaterial. For if the concepts by which we apprehend such objects were acts of bodily organs, their material embodiment would prevent them from being apprehensions of anything universal.
We must now acknowledge the theory that the brain is only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of conceptual thought, that an immaterial intellect is also required and must be posited in order to provide an adequate explanation of conceptual thought. .......
Read the article at themoralliberal.com