The Beyond of Philosophy 3

By Josef Mitterer

7. According to Quine, “we talk so inveterately of objects that to say we do so seems almost to say nothing at all … It is hard to say how else there is to talk … because we are bound to adapt any alien pattern to our own in the very process of understanding or translating the alien sentences.” [1]

Although Quine does not defend the view that the “objectifying pattern is an invariable trait of human nature,”[2]he nevertheless assumes that it is an invariable trait of the German, English, and other languages in which contemporary philosophers of language and knowledge conduct of their discussions. Even an alien way of speaking is to be understood in such a way that it presupposes a reality ‘distinct from language’ (whereby the possibility of a Non-dualizing Speech is not even considered); thus, in the language of an exotic tribe, the speakers may not have spoken about rabbits—certainly about, though—but about rabbithood, rabbit stages, or rabbit states. In every case, “the same scattered portion of the world” is at stake. “The only difference is how you slice it.”[3]

His insight that the linguist “reads our ontological point of view into the native language”[4] is limited to the concession that the linguist arbitrarily stipulates which expressions (of the native language) are supposed to speak about which objects. What is conceded to the natives in the extreme case—when a system of correlations between native and researcher language cannot be found—is that their outlook on reality is very different from ours. But what does this mean? Nothing more than that one and the same reality exists on which we can at most develop different outlooks.

In this way, not only is our ontology foisted on the natives (as Quine admits) but a lot more as well: the epistemological principle of a reality ‘distinct from language’—a ‘language-distinct’ reality—is made a presupposition of the native language. The native language is then related to the conception of reality that it is forced to share with us by such an approach.

For Quine, therefore ;we slice reality, how it is understood, depends on the language used in each case; what we regard as objects is determined by the respective language. But that we dissect a reality by means of our language, that we regard something as an object and something else as not an object we use our language to talk about it, in turn, shows this) … not only does Quine not regard this as a problem but he thinks that it is too obvious to be even worth mentioning.

This is not at all intended to create the impression that Quine was not instrumental in softening up the classical realist position. He showed that, even when the language-reality dichotomy is assumed as a basis for philosophizing, questions of reference and ontology can be decided only relative to a framework language; when posed in absolute terms, these questions become meaningless. The dichotomy itself is preserved: Matter as such is inscrutable, but it exists; the identity of things which can be distinguished only through their properties must be preserved vis-à-vis the language in which they are spoken about. An  (object-)ontology can be abandoned, but only in favor of  another one that provides us with “some clearer or simpler and no less adequate overall account of what goes on in the world.”[5]

9. For Peter Winch, too, the activity of the philosopher begins only after the discourse-determining decision for a ‘language-distinct’ reality about which we (then) make assertions and claim to assert something. For him the main task of philosophy consists in making reality knowable, that is, in demonstrating and clarifying the relationship between language and reality.

It is not possible to make a clear distinction between language and reality, however, because the form of our experience of the world is governed by our concepts and when they change our concept of the world also changes, and our concept of the world, like all others is defined by how it is actually used in language.[6] Thus different kinds of language use enable different conceptions of reality (scientific, religious, etc.) even within a single linguistic and cultural community. The resulting cultural relativism is overcome by so-called limit conceptions, extralinguistic features of social life that are valid for all cultural communities. Besides, Winch argues, we should “not lose sight of the fact that the idea that men's ideas and beliefs must be checkable by reference to something independent—some reality—is an important one. To abandon it is to plunge straight into an extreme Protagorean relativism, with all the paradoxes that involves.” [7]

10. Even more so than in the case of Peter Winch, the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf rest on the presupposition of a language-independent reality. His central idea was that human cognition is essentially determined by the languages in which it is conducted. The best-known expression of this idea is the ‘linguistic relativity principle’: “users of the markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations … and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.”[8]

The relativity thesis does not affect nature, the world, or reality ‘itself,’ therefore, but only governs how we comprehend the world, reality, or nature, and in this respect determines the worldviews at which we arrive. The different languages do not constitute different realities. A  reality world is interpreted in different ways; in particular, how it is interpreted depends on the structural schemes that have evolved in the various languages over the course of their history. All that is determined by language is how  we divide up nature and dissect reality but not that  a nature or a reality exists. Language imposes an order on reality but does not create it;[9] the objects and relations that we think we find in nature were first introduced into nature by the languages we use.[10] For Whorf, the process of language learning and language creation is an ordering process that we cannot escape, whereby it is beyond doubt that a “given” (as “kaleidoscopic flux of impressions,”[11] as “flowing face of nature in its motion, color, and changing forms,”[12]  as “a continuous spread and flow of existence,”[13]  etc.) already exists prior to its being ordered by the linguistic mind.

In order to be able to demonstrate a form of  linguistic  relativism, one must make such extralinguistic presuppositions with reference to which the different worldviews or the elements are (able to be) relativized. Such a supposedly extralinguistic reference base must not be left so unclear that it (and a reference to it) is devoid of informational value. If relativity is to be taken beyond extremely general formulations (such as that our reflections on the given, whatever this may be, depend on the languages in which they are made), the extralinguistic given, as well as reflections about it, must be differentiated.

However, such differentiation leads to the failure of the relativity principle. For if we proceed from nature, reality, the world, etc., to a specified element of the world, to a ‘part’ of nature, etc., then the supposedly extralinguistic presupposition turns out to be an element of that worldview which is necessarily accorded preference in the course of the discussion because it is more adequate to the so-called extralinguistic basis of interpretation or corresponds ‘better’ to it. But this greater adequacy and better correspondence rests on a point of reference for the worldviews which stems from (or is at least consistent with) the worldview which is thus singled out. If Whorf often favors a specific description of reality (a specific rendition of reality), therefore, this is not because, as he thinks, it is closer to reality but because it is closer to that description of reality which he posits prior to the different linguistic descriptions and to which he then relates these descriptions. Thus he uses the ‘fact’ that “actually a wave cannot exist by itself” in an example as a ‘neutral’ basis of interpretation.[14] Whereas we can very well say “See that wave!” and hence “project the linguistic relationships of a particular language upon the universe,” the Hopis say “walalata,” ‘plural waving occurs’ – “they cannot say ‘a wave’.” The Hopis and speakers of other languages for which this holds, therefore, are “closer to reality in this respect.” 

The same approach can already be found in the ‘more formal’ versions of the principle of relativity: “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.”[15] Here the “same physical evidence” assumes the role of the ‘extralinguistic’ basis of interpretation. But now Whorf himself shows that there is no such thing as same physical evidence or the same physical world for the speakers of SAE languages and for the speakers of Hopi.[16]Thus, what is presupposed is not an extralinguistic, neutral reference base. This function is served instead by elements of one or the other worldview, which, like the other worldview in each case, must first be created. 

11. Whorf showed that ethnically diverse languages determine the worldviews of their users. The relativism of Thomas S. Kuhn, by contrast, is limited by the theories or paradigms that are accepted withina particular community of researchers. Hence, the principle of linguistic relativity in a Kuhnian version might read: Different observers are led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe only if their theoretical backgrounds are similar, or can be made similar. Although Kuhn describes revolutions in the title of Chapter X of his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as “changes of worldview,” the text deals with the extent to which a paradigm shift changes the world or, to be more precise, the world of the scientist. The concept of a worldview is only of limited use when it comes to clarifying the radical changes that a paradigm shift produces in the conceptual-theoretical apparatus, and subsequently also in the practice, of the scientist. Hence, Kuhn often speaks of another “world” in which the scientists live after a paradigm shift. This forces him, in contrast to Whorf, to include the world at least in part in his relativism, although he by no means abandons the distinction ‘language – nonlinguistic given.’ Instead of speaking of a “different world,” he would serve his own intentions better by speaking “only” of a new perceptual world, work world, or lifeworld in which scientists work after a revolution.[18] Thus, for example, he explicitly describes his observation that “after Copernicus, astronomers lived in a different world” as a “metaphor.”Nevertheless, after a revolution, scientists “are responding to a different world” “in so far as their only recourse to that world [i.e. the world of their field of study] is through what they see and do.” [19]

All that changes, however, is the perceptual and working world of the scientist, for “whatever he may then see, the scientist after a revolution is still looking at the same world.”[20]Thus we can distinguish in Kuhn’s argument between a world-1 and a world-2. World-1 is the perceptual and working world or lifeworld of the scientist. It is included in the relativism and changes together with the paradigm. 

World-2 is a (supposedly) extralinguistically presupposed, objective world and is outside the scope of the relativism, beyond the influence of the paradigms. While there is only one world-2, every paradigm gives rise to another world-1 in which perception and interpretation are inextricably intertwined. Each world-1 divides up world-2 differently in perceptual and theoretical terms. All observations which assert that the members of different scientific communities live in different worlds concern world-1.[21] But the scientist also has contact with world-2, though to a far lesser extent. In order to ensure this contact, Kuhn employs the  trick of ‘double perception’ . This trick is chiefly used when the effects of a paradigm shift on the scientists and their working world are to be demonstrated using concrete examples from scientific practice, from the history of science, or with the aid of experiments from the field of visual gestalt-switches.

Two examples:

“LOOKING at a contour map, the student SEES lines on paper, the cartographer a picture of a terrain.” [22]

“When Aristotle and Galileo OBSERVED swinging stones, the first SAW constrained fall, the second a pendulum.” [23]

What is initially “looked at” and “observed” in the ‘objective’ world-2 (“view” is another perceptual expression reserved for this purpose), the observers then “see” in different ways in the individual perceptual worlds. The same object, the same situation in the objective world, corresponds to divergent parts and “things” in the perceptual worlds. The stimuli belong to world-2, the reactions to them, the data into which they are processed, constitute the correspondingly different worlds-1. [24]For example, the contour map constitutes the shared stimulus that is processed into different data by the cartographer and the student. 

Thus, the traditional epistemological paradogma that there is a distinction and separation between the object of description and the description of the object is upheld in a modified form: the world which is described is the (objective) world-2 and the description of the world constitutes the (perceptual) world-1. The facts and observations that belonged to the ‘objective’ world in the view criticized by Kuhn have now been transferred to the perceptual or lifeworld.[25]

This entails that the extralinguistically presupposed world can no longer be used as a reference base for the various perceptual worlds. The differences between the perceptual worlds can no longer be explained by appealing to world-2 because what differentiates them is not an element or component of world-2. “The given world, whether everyday or scientific is not a world of stimuli."[26] On closer examination the ‘objective’ world-2 proves to be part of Kuhn's perceptual world which he presupposes and ‘puts underneath’ the other perceptual worlds: In the examples cited, the ‘stimuli’ that are processed differently by the observers (contour map, swinging stones, etc.) are nothing more than (observational) data that Kuhn posits as prior to the student and the cartographer, Aristotle, and Galileo.[27]

However, we should not underestimate Kuhn’s achievement in constructing this so-called world-2—thus ultimately hisown presuppositions—in such a way that it cannot function as a decision-making authority for the findings that are made in the various perceptual worlds. This entails in particular that it no longer makes sense to strive for an ‘approximation to the truth,’ an ‘objective explanation of nature,’ or ‘agreement with reality.’[28] Preserving the traditional reference base as a point of departure enables Kuhn to explain the perceptual worlds that ‘grow’ out of it, and hence progress in science and its historical development, in accordance with his intentions. 

It was pointed out above that Kuhn’s relativism is not limited by the diversity of ethnic languages but instead by theories. His relativism is in this respect more inclusive than that of Whorf, for instance. But within the theories he continues to advocate the old foundationalist-realist position. The application of the concept of “truth” to entire theories no longer seems to be tenable but “its intra-theoretic uses seem to me unproblematic.”[29] “If I am right, then ‘truth’ may, like ‘proof,’ be a term with only intra-theoretic applications.” [30]

Kuhn criticized the view that theories refer beyond themselves to the world and are true or false in virtue of how the world (really) is. This view is maintained in a modified form for the intra-theoretic domain. Theory-internal theses can be referred to the underlying theoretical reality which serves as a reference base and in this sense they can be refuted by this reality.[31] However, the problem of how a transition can be found from a (theoretical) reality-construction to a (theoretical) reality-interpretation, which must, after all, be accomplished by the same means,[32] can scarcely be solved; on the other hand, the (relative) truth-falsity claim for theory-internal theses cannot be upheld for the precise reason that no theory-neutral authority can be found that could decide on whether the theses that have been shown to be theory-internally false should be regarded as internal to the theory or as external to the theory. 

This can be shown for ‘true’ theses only by means of a circle. Moreover, when it is merely a matter of repetitions of theses already ‘recognized’ as theory-internal, the bestowal of the truth-predicate does not depend on a reference base different from the theory, but on the agreement with just these previously made theory-internal theses.

There is a way out of the difficulties—relativism regarding entire theories and foundationalism within theories—in which Kuhn’s split approach lands us: namely, the assumption that the construction of theories and the associated realities-worlds (and their supersession) is an open process that also continues during periods of Kuhnian normal science. In that case, every thesis, however insignificant, that is added to an already present theoretical domain is an enlargement or restriction of the associated theory-reality(-world).

In this way we renounce theory- and ‘language-distinct’ bases of interpretation and reference, and hence of referential relations as such. The distinction between theory/language and reality/world loses its meaning.

12. An alternative to ways of speaking and thinking that presuppose such distinctions will not present itself in the guise of new proposals for solving problems posed by these ways of thinking – for instance, by trying to show how language and world are really related to each other. On the contrary such an alternative will largely ignore them in order to arrive at a mode of argumentation which no longer takes its orientation from those basic principles, but which for this very reason can explain the emergence of these principles and criticize their persistence.


 1 W. V. Quine, “Speaking of Objects,” in Quine,  Ontological Relativity, and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 1 —a first, crude formulation of the well-known thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. (“Radical Translation begins at home”—and it is even more valid far from home.) What is here affirmed about the translation of a non-objectifying way of speaking into an objectifying way of speaking should also hold for translation, for example, from German into English. The assertion would then go as follows: One can hardly say;in English how one could speak in German;, because, in understanding and translating German sentences (i.e. into  English, we already have to adapt the German way of speaking to the English  language. The statement “It is hard to say how else there is to talk …” now turns out to make the pretty trivial assertion that, if we “continue” to speak English, we do not (cannot) speak German, or that we can speak differently only if we no longer speak in this way (the way we have spoken up to now). We can, of course, also understand a way of speaking that is different from our current one without adapting it to our own, that is, to our current way of speaking. However, this requires that we abandon or discontinue our present way of speaking for the duration of the use of the other way of speaking, a not unusual procedure that we must also employ when trying, for example, to understand or to learn or become proficient in other philosophical opinions or ways of thinking.)

2 ibid 1

3 Quine, “Speaking of Objects,” in ibid., 32.

4 Quine, “Speaking of Objects,” 3. A similar passage on (not only) this can be found in B. L. Whorf: “And if we take a very dissimilar language, this language becomes a part of nature, and we even do to it what we have already done to nature. We tend to think in our own language in order to examine the exotic language” (Benjamin Lee Whorf,  Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956), 138).

5 Quine, “Speaking of Objects,” 16.

6 Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1958), 25.

7 Winch, “Understanding a Primitive Society,” in R. G. Grinker et al. (eds), Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and Representation (Malden, MA, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 258.

8 Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality, 221.

9 See ibid., 214.

10 See ibid., 240

11 Ibid., p. 213.

12 Ibid., p. 241.

13 Ibid., 253.

14 See ibid., 262

15 Ibid., 214.

16 See ibid., 57-9.

17 The expressions “perceptual world” ( Wahrnehmungswelt, “work world” ( Arbeitswelt ), and “lifeworld” ( Lebenswelt ) are not commonly used or do not even exist in the English language; this explains (only) in part the striking inconsistencies in Kuhn’s epistemological remarks. 

18 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 117

19 Ibid., 111.

20 Ibid., 129.

21 See Kuhn,The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 321.

22 Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 111 (capitalization and emphasis added).

23 Ibid., 121 (capitalization and emphasis added).

24 See ibid., 191ff., and Kuhn, The Essential Tension, 309ff.

25 See Kuhn,The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 111.

26 Kuhn, The Essential Tension, 309.

27 Of course, one cannot arbitrarily attribute data as presuppositions to the proponents of the various paradigms but only such as support both worlds equally—as their shared point of departure. An attempted reference to this lowest common denominator, for instance, must remain epistemologically irrelevant: although it is a neutralistic point of departure, it is not a neutral reference base.

28 Kuhn emphasized (see Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 170-1) that the expression “truth” does not occur in his work, with the exception of passages in which he criticizes the views of Popper in particular. However, he continues to use a range of expressions that achieve a similar propagandistic effect to the expression “truth”: “in reality,” “nature of things,” “in fact,” etc. These expressions have the task in the context of the argument of setting one’s own theory apart from other theories. But this occurs (to the extent that it does) by appealing to just such circumstances as were recognized as being dependent on this very theory. The other authors dealt with here—with the exception of Wittgenstein—follow a similar procedure.

29 Kuhn, “Reflections on my critics,” in Lakatos and Musgrave (eds), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 264.

30 ibid

31 See ibid., 263ff., and Kuhn, The Essential Tension, 263ff.

32 —at least also in part when the separation between fact and theory that is elsewhere rejected as “artificial” is reintroduced.

NEXT: The Beyond of Philosophy 4

About the Author

Josef Mitterer is an Austrian philosopher.


Preface here

Introduction to the serialization here

The Beyond of Philosophy 2 here