Philosophy of language

Olivia asked:

Hello. I see that the natural and constructed world around us offers us meaning. I find myself constructing a grid of meaning that uses abstract nouns e.g. peace, hope, love, excitement, beauty, belonging, freedom, creativity. All things offer up the possibility of ‘meaning’ which will vary according to the situation, the person and the particularities (social, religious, etc) of that person. Is there a philosopher, or philosophical understanding that can articulate this ‘grid of meaning’ that I’m speaking of?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would propose that such a philosopher could be Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In his earlier works such as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) Wittgenstein offered a Logical atomist view of the ‘grid of meaning’. A word had meaning if it could correspond or be reducible to an object: Logical statements could be verified by reference to facts or ‘atoms’. So far so good. Unfortunately, this excluded words such as ‘peace’, ‘hope’, ‘beauty’ etc which could not be reduced to observed objects. Wittgenstein himself became dissatisfied with this position which, he had once believed had solved the problems of Philosophy.

Enter the Philosophical Investigations (1953).In this work, the meaning of Language is its use. How it is used is constituted by rules – in the same way a card game is constituted and operable by rules. Knowledge of the rules allows knowledge of how the language, in all its guises, operates and is used. The rules have to be mastered by Language users. So the ‘grid of meaning’ exists as knowledge of all the various ‘language games’ of a language such as for instance, the language game of Religion. However, the ‘grid’ is not immutable and fixed, it changes as it interacts with life and as life interacts with it.
Words such as ‘peace’ etc are understood and used in the context of the language games in which they are used.

Wittgenstein’s views on Language have been employed and developed by contemporary Thinkers such as Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (The Differend).

Dialectics of Nature or not?

Mia asked:

Hello, I am a student in middle school, and due to my unfortunate intellectual immaturity, I’m have trouble understanding dialectical materialism. I have two questions on the subject:

If you ever to look at, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution, through a dialectical materialism thought process, how would your opinion on the subject change?

Why was dialectical materialism created? Did it support a certain political perspective?

Hope to hear from you soon.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The term ‘Dialectical Materialism’ was first coined by Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov in his essay For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death (1891). Developing upon the materialist inversion of GWF Hegel’s Idealist Dialectic, Dialectical Materialism (a term never used by Karl Marx) was proffered as providing an Ontology – an explanation of the processes of Nature. Applied to the history and movements of human society, Dialectical Materialism underpins Historical Materialism (or the ‘Materialist Conception of History as Marx called it).

Whereas for Hegel, the Dialectic was the movement of Reason/ God overcoming and incorporating its otherness in a cumulative, progressive teleology (see Encyclopedia Logic #79 for Hegel’s account of the Dialectic as the three moments of Understanding — Dialectic/ Negative Reason — Speculative/ Positive Reason), for Dialectical Materialism, nature actually and objectively changes Dialectically through contradictions and the overcoming of said contradictions. Marx himself never applied dialectics to nature but after his death, many Marxists did. To this day, such a move remains controversial.
Marx’s lifelong collaborator and friend Friedrich Engels composed an unfinished book Dialectics of Nature which was only published long after his death in the 1930’s. Here, he prescribed three ‘Laws’ of materialist dialectics which he extracted from Hegel.

1. Quantity into Quality. Where for example, an increase in temperature can cause a change in state (heated water boils and changes into steam)
2 Interpenetration of Opposites. Where the two sides of a contradiction mutually reinforce each other (e.g. the external and internal process of a plant seed both need and impede each other)
3. Negation of the Negation. Where what is impeding a process (the Negation) is itself negated (e.g. the seed is negated to become a root, the root is negated to become a flower, the flower is negated by the seeds it has produced. This is the site of Contradiction and it’s outcome although the above two ‘laws’ are involved in the dialectical process.

The so-called ‘three laws’ became sacrosanct and official philosophy in the Soviet Union, especially after Joseph Stalin published Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). An official if extremely crude Philosophy which gave intellectual support and legitimacy to the state which described itself as Marxist.

The veracity of Dialectical Materialism remains contentious among thinking Marxists. Western or Hegelian Marxists tend be be sceptical of any dialectics of Nature. Problems arise when, for instance, Scientific Laws which apply to Nature, are applied to Human beings. Natural Scientific Laws claim to account for phenomena which are mechanistic, blind, deterministic whereas, human beings are conscious, thinking beings capable of so-called free will: so can the former be applied to the latter?

Mia, if you haven’t already, you might want to read The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man by Engels. Engels employs Darwinian evolution to account for human development.

Karl Kautsky wrote quite a bit about Marxism and Darwinism in, for example Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (Ch3. The Ethic of Darwinism). Finally, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) who was a Paleontologist and Biologist, maintained that processes in Nature echoed the Laws of the Dialectic.

Transcendental wake-up call

Charles asked:

Why did Kant say Hume woke him up from his dogmatic slumber? How did he address the challenge Hume posed in respect of the problem of causality? In what sense does this response constitute a basis for Kant’s metaphysics?

Answer by Martin Jenkins


After his reading of David Hume, the problems raised by the latter’s Empiricism found a resonance in Kant.

Issues such as causality, necessary connection, personal identity were explored by Hume. In his ‘Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, Hume had concluded that Causality is not a definite, determinate event observed by the senses, it was the constant conjunction of two events enforced by custom and habit. The latter was found to be the basis of so called necessary connection. That a thrown stone may break glass, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that in the morning, the world will appear the same way it was on the previous night do not demonstrate any necessity. As such it is perfectly reasonable that what has always been in the past, may not be so in the future…

Regarding personal identity or the self, this too cannot be perceived. There are at most an association of ideas. Mustn’t there be some thing which associates the ideas, a ‘self’. Hume contends that the ‘self’ is itself, never encountered.

Transcendental Idealism

For Kant, the epistemological issues raised by Hume posed the question of the certainty of human knowledge. It seemed that Empiricism could not provide any certainty and left matters open to scepticism.

Kant’s response was to examine human experience and deduce that there were indeed, structures common to and which mediated human experience. As you mention, causality is one such structure. We do indeed perceive objects displaying succession in Time and in Space. The structures themselves are not experienced but are the very conditions of the possibility of human knowledge.

The structures or Transcendental Categories are a-priori inherent to the human intellect. They synthesise with intuitions gained through the senses to create synthetic a-priori judgements and consequently, knowledge. Accompanying this process is the Ego with its Synthetic Unity of Transcendental Apperception. Kant expounds how this happens in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/7). The Transcendental Categories furnish apodeictic certainty thereby giving human understanding an indubitable grounding.; this contrary to the fortuitous nature of empirical contingency.

So, for human beings, neither a-posterior empiricism nor the pure, a-priori reasoning characteristic of Metaphysics can provide knowledge nor, what this knowledge precisely is. Transcendental Idealism can – according to Kant.

Starting and ending with Hegel

Luka asked:

What is or where is the best place to start with Hegel?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would start with Hegel’s ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’ — especially the Introduction. This gives a general overview of Hegel’s Philosophy as Human History being the progress of the consciousness of Freedom, culminating in Reason realising itself in the Rationally ordered state.

I also think that the three books constituting the ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences’ (Logic, Nature and Geist (Mind)) are much easier (though by no means without problem) to understand than the larger works such as the ‘Science of Logic’, ‘Philosophy of Law’ and ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

The first book of the Encyclopedia ‘Logic’ contains a shorter version of the ‘Science of Logic’.

In it, Hegel explains how the Mind of the Universe/ Nous/ God realises its thinking self from the immediacy of Being to a full, substantive understanding of itself and how it got there, in the Absolute Idea. Thus the foundational, epistemic and ontological certainty craved by Idealists, is arrived at. In ‘Encyclopedia Nature’, the Absolute Idea externalises itself in nature, making the processes of Nature intelligible. Finally, the externalised Absolute Idea, dialectically recovers itself in the ‘Encyclopedia Mind’. Here, Reason realises itself through human beings becoming conscious of themselves (in Geist or Thinking Thought/ Collective human consciousness) and in the construction of a Rational social order. The latter book can be described as a much briefer (and in my opinion, easier) account of themes contained in ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

Hegel described his Absolute Idealism as a ‘circle of circles’, so that when the end is reached, (i.e. a reading and understanding of his Philosophy of course!), the mundane beginning presents itself — whether everyday Being-now rationally understood and operating or, as living by Laws expressing Freedom in the good society as constituted by and arrived at in Mind Absolute.

Good luck Luka.

Life is not a dream

Carla asks:

To what extent does Descartes dream argument threaten our knowledge of the external world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In the first Meditation of his Meditations on the First Philosophy, (1641), Descartes is seeking for a secure, indubitable foundation on which to base human knowledge. He begins by exploring what he perceives by means of his senses.

The senses have been and are deceptive so cannot be afforded uncritical accuracy. Yet surely they cannot be excluded from providing perception tout court? Descartes writes that he is aware of him sitting by a fire, attired in a dressing gown with a paper in his hand. To doubt the truth of this would be an act of madness — on a par with people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations.

Yet when sleeping, Descartes remarks that he dreams of equally improbable things — such as being seated by the fire ‘whilst all the time I was lying undressed in bed!’. So, he concludes that there are no certain marks distinguishing waking from sleeping. Surely the images experienced in dreams are copies and compositions of perceptions experienced when awake as they do display a certain regularity. More, such copies and compositions are based on the corporeal nature of objects in the world experienced when awake. Objects of a corporeal nature display extension, shape, quantity and magnitude and endure through time and in space. Disciplines which deal with such objects such as arithmetic, geometry employ content that is ‘certain and indubitable’.

“For whether I am awake or dreaming, 2 and 3 are 5, a square has no more than four sides; and it does not seem possible that truths so evident can ever be suspected of falsity.”

So there are certain truths which, whether sleeping or awake, are beyond doubt. These deal with a real, independently existing world that continues to exist when we are sleeping. Objects are real and sleeping with dreams is precisely that. Unfortunately, such ‘a priori’ truths can be doubted as, contends Descartes towards the end of Meditation One, a malevolent demon can be deceiving him into thinking they are correct.

The ‘Dream Argument’ begins Descartes dialectic of questioning what can be construed as providing Truth and certainty. In itself, I don’t think it threatens our knowledge of an external world. Firstly, the distinction between dreaming and not dreaming is employed which betrays an already existing epistemological understanding between the two. This distinction is pace G.E. Moore, part of our everyday, natural living. Secondly, the distinction between dreaming and waking can be upheld on the grounds that regularity and order are experienced when awake; whereas dreaming is qualitatively different. Thirdly, the questions can only be asked by means of Language. Language is arguably socially acquired and used. This presupposes the existence of other human beings existing in a social world. So the very use of language refutes the sceptical doubts Descartes is pondering.

Solipsistic Egoism?

Aleksander asked:

Can Max Stirner be considered a defender of “metaphysical solipsism” and “immaterialism”? Is there some relation between Stirner’s philosophy and George Berkeley’s philosophy? Is there some philosopher in history who defended “metaphysical solipsism”?

Answer By Martin Jenkins

To the first and second question — I don’t think so. To my knowledge, Stirner never writes that the world is immaterial or, advocates a variant of solipsism. He is understood as advocating a form of Egoism although this orthodox conclusion could be due to the translation of Eigen to ‘Ego’ when Stirner wanted to convey a wholly new philosophy.

His text might give the impression of solipsism as he does emphasise and write in ‘the first person’ — citing ‘I’, the Ego, me. The impression is misleading.

When Stirner writes about ‘Spooks’, he not saying the world is a ‘Spook’ and therefore immaterial, this is his description of Philosophies such as Christianity, Humanism, Communism which haunt the minds of people, which are wrongly posited as primary from which predicates or definitions of what is is to be human are derived. In this respect, he is following his contemporary Ludwig Feuerbach.

In criticising German Idealism and Hegel in particular, Ludwig Feuerbach observed that it practices the inversion of Subject and Object. Namely, instead of Thought being the predicate or object of the Human subject, the human becomes a predicate or object of Thought, where Thought is taken to be God, Reason, the Concept, Geist and so on.

Stirner continues this approach to Christianity etc, only what follows the inversion is not any universal human nature but only the ‘creative nothing’, a ‘Unique’. The ‘Unique’ is not a solipsist as s/he can associate with others for common aims in a ‘Union of Egos’. So ipso facto, solipsism is ruled out.


Any relation between George Berkeley and immaterialism? Berkeley’s philosophy can be described as a variant of Idealism. Stirner’s philosophy is regarded by some as the furthest development of Hegel’s Absolute Idealism. Indeed, in the early 1840’s Stirner frequented meetings of Young/Left Hegelians held at the Tippels Hostelry in Berlin, along with, amongst others, Frederick Engels.

Hegel’s held that historically and politically, Reason would dialectically supersede (Aufgehoben) its previous instantiations which had become unreason. Instrumental in achieving this was the Geist or collective consciousness of a people. That is, the Geist of a people would achieve self–consciousness of the unreason in society and act so as to reform it as instructed by Reason.

Not only does Stirner provide an account of History in the first part of The Ego and Its Ownness echoing Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but arguably, the collective Geist is transformed in the Ego of individuals; any vestige of Idealism is replaced by materialism and right becomes essentially, material might. So even here, Idealism has been negated by materialism.

So Aleksander, I don’t think there is any relation between Stirner and Solipsism, Berkeley and Immaterialism.