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Category Archives: Epistemology

The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part III of IV

A Spinoza Advisement to Reconcile Davidson to Wittgenstein

Part III of IV, following part I, and part II




At this point I would like to leave off from Davidson’s theory, in its particulars, and take it up at another level, for Wittgenstein’s idea of a governing commonality of behavior sheds light back upon our original question that is of the interpretability of others under an Augustinian panpsychic conception of the world [cited at the end of part I]. For if truly it is similarity of behavior that facilitates translatability, then the similarities could cross species lines, and perhaps even substances, insofar as adequate descriptions of others could be grounded to some degree upon sameness. The question of whether a dog can hold a pretense raises its head again. And Davidson, focused on the normativity of true and false belief, is very strict here in denying the capacities of “belief” to things other than people:

Having a belief demands…appreciating the contrast between true belief and false, between appearance and reality, mere seeming and being. We can of course say that a sunflower has made a mistake if it turns towards an artificial light as if it were the sun, but we do not attribute belief to the sunflower (“Three Varieties of Knowledge” 209).

While we might quibble about what we do and do not say about sunflowers, in actual instances, I would like to use Wittgenstein’s thought about the sameness of behavior to open this question to a larger order. If you recall, indeed it was upon the very causal interrelationships between organisms and their world, that Davidson founds his conception of triangulabilty and belief attribution. The ability to recognize consistent patterns of behavior in response to consistent features of the world is of the kind that my cat may very well “know”, in any practical sense of the term, that I am responding to the same features of the world, (a visitor, or a can of food), that he is. In fact it would not go too wrong to say that Davidson holds linguistic triangulation to be a subspecies of a larger process of triangulation that goes on in lower animals (though how far down, we can question). We can ask: Is there a fundamental experience or process that we undergo, which is more primary, which is beneath our attributions of belief, giving them their ultimate facility? I believe there is. Below Wittgenstein’s concepts of rule-following, and below Davidson’s argument for a normative holism of beliefs, I believe that there are two fundamental questions (or attributional stances) which govern our interpretation of the world, and these are put forth in the concept of triangulation itself, (and only made more systematized by the rationality of our discourse). These two questions are:

1.What must the world be like for this creature to be acting in this way? (α)

2. And what must this creature be like so as to be acting in this way? (β)

Diagram of two spaces:


These two imaginations of the world, I suggest, help govern all our interpretations and intercourses, a somatic understanding of both the causally effective objective world, and the experientially affected testifying aspects of that world which inform us about it.

To better understand how such questions or stances may be elucidated, I would like to draw upon Spinoza’s conception of the affective imagination. Like Wittgenstein’s intuition that a sameness grounds the interpretation of things that are different than us, so too Spinoza sees an affective imagination of others, the bodily experience of others as the same as ourselves, as central to our ability to make sense of the world. In the Ethics his thesis is put forward plainly, in concise style:

“If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect (EIIIp27)” (γ).

For Spinoza, our very perception of the world is governed, filtered through our understanding that other things are like us, and in imagining them to be like us, when they are affected in some causal way, that very shared, affective quality allows us to make determinations about the world. Our experience of ourselves and the world is not only between us and the world-as-it-is, but rather is part of an entire fabric of affective imaginations, which hold people (and other things) together in a meaningful and revelatory process.

Diagram of sameness, causally affected, following Spinoza’s EIIIp27:


Seen in this way, the two hermeneutical, primary questions which govern an understanding of the world and others, may be seen as instances of affective imagination, in terms of “same”. To take an example, when an animal, perhaps a squirrel, reacts to an event in the world, perhaps a gunshot to which it darts up tree, the first assumption is that the squirrel is like us. Question 1: How must the world be for the creature to be acting in this way? Answer: There is a gunshot, which caused me to startle as well. The squirrel’s reaction grounds our sense of the objective, and this confirmation is reestablished with an affective affinity to the squirrel.

That is, we bodily can imagine the state that the squirrel is in, and we do so at a sub-linguistic level, starting from the humoral and neural systems on up (δ). If we experience the immediate tension of being full of alarm, our triangulation with the world allow us to “know” that the squirrel feels the same. (Even in the instance of a filmed event, perhaps one where we are not startled by a gunshot at all, we still participate in the triangulation, and we can affectively, and imaginatively feel what the squirrel feels.) In this way, the second question has been answered: 2. And what must this creature be like so to be acting in this way? Answer: It is (feels) like us. So fundamental is this causal and affectively gnostic capacity of interpretation, a product of sure, evolutionary needs, it must ground nearly all of our interpretative strategies of others and the world, no matter how abstract.

Diagram of sameness, causally affected:


One can see the power of these two questions, though, when the world doesn’t seem to present an immediate cause for the behavior being interpreted. If our hypothetical squirrel started running around madly, darting to and fro, as if reacting to gunshots that we could not hear, we would instinctively strain for the outside circumstance which would causally explain such behavior. (Just as, perhaps, the squirrel would do if we started darting around). If not able to find such a cause, we would be forced to answer the second question, differently (ε). There is something about the squirrel which is not like us. Either that he is imagining something that is not there, or prospectively holding beliefs (by the lights of our description), which are untenable to the way that the world is. In any case, we also would imagine the squirrel to be enough like us that we could affectively imagine what it would be like to be like him, despite the world offering up no causal explanation for the behavior. The causes sought are either those of the world or those “within,” such that we imagine through affective sameness what it is like to be the reporting other, that is the other which cues us to states of the world. In this way, the entire world can be seen to be acting as both a causally affecting set of circumstances, here called mimetic space, and also a deictic, informing set of circumstances, such that we affectively bind with that which reports on the world, at one level of intersubjectivity, somatic or conceptual, or another. And one can see why Davidson’s appeal to the causal nature of beliefs and reasons is so integral to this process, for as caused, and causing, they join the weave of reality together.

It is this affective imagination, a living process of causal interpretation through shared affect, which grounds the kind of distinction which Wittgenstein wants to make between attributing sensation to a stone and to a fly. There is something different, he wants to say, about the way that we respond to a stone, and how we respond to a fly:

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations.-One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing?…And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems to get a foothold here…(PI 284)

What I suggest Wittgenstein is missing here, because he has got his eye on behavior and justification alone, is that an affective and attributing imagination of the causal relationship of others (including other things such as stones) to the world upon which they “report,” deictically, is what is at the ground of “how could one so much as get the idea” of ascribing anything. And while I disagree with the idea that one could not ascribe sensation to a stone, on the very principal that affective imagination is the core of epistemic understanding, and that in instances an affective understanding of what a stone might be experiencing might play a key role in our understanding the world and ourselves, (picture Michaelangelo’s Pietà being struck by a hammer, or an honored flag burned, a grave defiled) (ζ), Wittgenstein is on the right track when identifying the nature of the attribution, that is it based on a sense of sameness (though not confined to a sameness of behavior, as he would like).

In this way our attributions of sense, even, or especially between fellow language users come into plainer view. When someone speaks about the world (or themselves), this double question of triangulation appears, one sponsored by an affective imagination of the state of the other person, a consequential pathos, in which I feel what state they must be in, in order for their words or behaviors to make sense. For this reason, when someone of a different race, or a different age, or culture is expressing themselves, we are prone to imagine ourselves like them, adopt a visceral understanding of their state, such that their causal relationship to the world makes sense. This imagined state, comprised not only of a pathos of sensations, but also of attributive thoughts and beliefs, is understood to be causal to that behavior. When their report confirms our notion of the world, for instance to take something fairly abstract, if they attest to the factuality of God, if we believe that there is a God, (or the impossibility of a God, if we believe that there is no God), we readily adopt a similarity of feeling, and affinity of bodily experience which affectively binds us together, in the name of an objective world which is seen to have caused bothof our shared beliefs. When the report is that the world is not how we view it, for instance when listening to a paranoid schizophrenic, or a political protestor too attuned to problems we do not see as significant, we again adopt, (perhaps after checking the world over to see if indeed the causes of their beliefs are missing, or checking our own state to see if we are impaired by belief or situation), an affective imagination of what it must be like to be the other, in order to make such a report. This may include not only bodily states which always accompany the process, but the imagination of certain beliefs which must be held, in order to make the most sense of a “wrong” conception of what is. These are understood to be unreasonable or false beliefs. In this way, we affectively, that is bodily, relate in our daily imaginations, to every single person (and thing) which participates in our triangulation of the world, even those with whom we disagree.

It is for this reason, that is the primacy of an affective imagination, that Augustine’s conception of a panpsychic world whereby each thing is in communication with all that is around it is at the very least the epistemic condition of our knowing. And, I suggest, our attribution of “sensation” or “belief” upon the inanimate, or the lower animals, is not simply a categorical slippage, a fanciful and generous distribution of what more properly belongs among language users. Rather, it is the reverse. The very conditions of language use, those upon which beliefs are attributed, are established in a deeper affective imagination of what it must be like to be another, whether it be an animal or a stone. Instead of seeing the ascription of belief to non-humans as parasitic upon a closed domain of language use, mental predicates could best be seen as particulars of a larger process, and their attribution equal and necessary to the occasions that support them, no matter how brief.

In the name of such a thought, I would like in culmination to present a brief aesthetic theory, one that would find itself thoroughly rooted in affective triangulation in the widest of senses. The purpose of this thought is to not only expose the triangulating nature of artistic production and enjoyment, but also to show how our very perceptions and communications of the world consist, and share in a creative, revealing process. So in this sense of aesthetics I would suggest that our primary understanding and experience of art, whether it be of a painting, or of reading a novel, or of listening to a symphony, is that of answering, toggling back and forth between these same two fundamental questions: How must the world be for this to be the case? How must he/she/it to be showing this?

If we consider, for instance, when we read the narration of a narrator in a novel, telling about his fictive world, we are learning not only something about that fictive world, but about the fictive narrator herself. Our two spaces, the mimetic and the deictic present themselves in tension. We triangulate, given the clues in the text about two kinds of “what must be so” and in so doing are reoriented, by experience, to ourselves, the third leg of the triangle. The narrator for instance might reveal a world that causes us to see and feel it with particular vividness, such that her presence is nearly eclipsed (but never completely so), or might prove herself a faulty narrator (distorted by a bias of perception), such that the mimetic world falls back (but never completely so), and we are pulled into the intersubjective world of her deictic space. We might even draw back at times from the text, when struck by a particularly beautiful passage, and say to ourselves, how must the actual world be, in order for this writer to have been able to write such a line? Or, how must the writer to have been, what must they have been feeling, to have been able to write such a line? In this way, the world itself is reconstructed, not only through our projections, but by the very foundations of our knowing anything, a fluid shifting between must-bes which reflect back upon each other, and upon us. This is the key to understanding why art is indispensable, and also to seeing why understanding others, things and people, is always an art.



α. There is also, of course, a reflective third: How must I really be such as to make sense that this creature would be acting like this?

β. For question 2, the Greek derived word deictic, “to show, to indicate”, is used to describe this relation.

γ. Spinoza develops an entire theory of perception and socialization which stems from this thesis, which need not be gone into here, but suggests a further study into how it might give light to both Wittgenstein and Davidson’s conception of the social. It is no small matter that Wittgenstein and Davidson were both at times influenced by Spinoza: Wittgenstein supposedly naming his Tractatus after a work of Spinoza’s own, and Davidson drawing on Spinoza’s parallelism for his Anomalous Monism, to name only two connections.

δ. For the full consequences of Spinoza’s thought that all ideas are only ideas of the body, and the level at which the body registers affective meanings, see neurologist Antonio Damasio’s book Looking For Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

ε. There is a third option, the “third” question, which would fall into asking how we really are, so as to make sense of this behavior, for instance we might imagine for a moment that we may be deaf, that indeed there was a gunshot which we did not hear. This suggests that in the failing of the first two questions, there is always a third, the questioning of our own state, a fact that points to the nature of triangulation in the first place, that there are always three legs to the triangle, and that we, our own self-monitoring is always sewn into the nature of how we perceive others and the world.

ζ. Indeed, one need not even appeal to symbolically endowed inanimate objects, but rather in the Augustinian sense understand that even our perception of the inanimate, as it may bear traces of causal effects in the world, a stone perhaps that has a mark or cracking, in the deictic sense of showing, involves an affective imagination of that thing, as similar to us, however dimly. In this manner we must to some degree know what it is like to be “stone” in our ability to read the causal traces upon stone. So it might be said that a regularity of affective states foregrounds our thoughts and intuitions about any thing that reports the world to us.


Part IV posted here

The “Glassy Essence” and a Rorty Reflection

Richard Rorty, in his very influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, argues that since the time of the Greeks, Western philosophy has been dominated by one over-riding metaphor, that the mind forms a mirror which reflects with more or less accuracy that which Real. This is a superb critique of philosophy, partly because it subsumes many otherwise diverse arguments and positions within a much wider scope, allowing us to see their own relations to each other. The Picture of Reality notion of truth is a significant one, one that pervades some of the most sophisticated of theories of the Mind and Knowing, and I am in favor of much that follows from Rorty’s critique.

But I was at the lake today, sitting with my wife, staring across that water plane, and I was thinking heartily, if absently, about the nature of reflection. The sun was showing itself on the dark, muddy green surface, in patches. There would be halos of it, which my wife pointed out, where the water seemed to ripple out, as if for no reason. And the rest would remain dark. I said, that must be where the lake has grown shallow, and the breeze stirs it up, just so to catch the light. I think she agreed. So the lake as bespotted with light lay there, shimmer in this kind of expressive way.

We sat for a while, eating our sandwiches, watching the light show, and suddenly the breeze kicked up. Across this perfect skin spread a wave of glittering light, just near the shore, spreading out in an incredible patten, like a harp stroke. At the same time one could read the “shape of the wind” and also the hidden topography of the unseen bottom of the lake. The two unvisibles meet in an ephemeral sheen.

Now it occurred to me that if indeed the metaphor of reflection has dominated philosophical thinking for more than two thousand years, it is not just the kind of reflection we think of with the perfectly clean mirrors of our machined age (and our “mirrors” are very good now). It had also to be the reflection of natural phenomena, in particular the kind of which we saw today.


Different from the now long abhorred “transcendental” aims of using the mirror to see beyond itself, the mirror trope tells us things about our relation to things other than some conceived Real (or Divine). When the breeze passed over the lake, I was as much fascinated with what was revealed “below” as the print of the wind itself. And the sun’s reflection was not the point. What was revealed was much more local, much more contingent and unexpectant. I came in contact with the lake’s bottom and the breeze, through this reflection.

We see this trope of reflection all the time, as we watch the world being reflected across the faces (and bodies, and we could even say words), of those we interact with. I say “reflected” (but not necessarily represented). For just like the sheen of a passing gust on the surface of a lake, so too an effect, perhaps a cry-out in a room, passes across the surface of others. Through this we come to learn and coordinate ourselves to what others are experiencing, and we can “see” the invisibles of breeze. There is nothing transcendental about this, but there is something revealing.

It is this substantial knowing of what is hidden and effects otherwise unseen that is captured in the notion of reflection. Reflection is something that we in a kind of mother’s milk understand and experience as causal and triangulating, bringing our world into coherence. So a forest of downed trees reflects the storm that passed.

If we see the world through others, it is not because those that are very still and seemingly clear have transcended our contingent place, but rather because our community with them, as a materiality, is experienced as being connected to both us and it. Even the most cloudy of us concretize the reality of what is near, and carnate our most dense human affective possibilities. If we are mirrors, we are affective mirrors, and it is the material sheen of our felt textures (even our thoughts have textures and speeds) which communicate our states to each other, such that “image” and “representation” is no longer a sufficient trope.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he ‘s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.



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