Esa Itkonen

‘Methodological monism’ (a. k. a. positivism) is a familiar notion. It is the idea that natural sciences, epitomized by classical mechanics, provide the only legitimate model for scientific data-collection and explanation. This line of thinking may have lost adherents in recent years and decades, but it is still alive, in spite of such shortcomings as have often been pointed out (recently e.g. in Itkonen 2019: Sect. 2 and 2020: Sect. 2).

In this talk I intend to argue for a different kind of monism, namely structural monism. Its point of departure is quite simply the notion of belief.  Every belief has two parts, which can roughly be characterized as ‘form’ (= A) and ‘content’ (= B). A is impersonal while B is personal; A is timeless while B occurs in time; A participates in logical/conceptual relations while B participates in associative relations; and so on. In sum: “Every belief must have both a history and a logic; for they are concerned with different elements of the belief” (Edgley 1978/1965: 24).

It is the thesis of structural monism that every science (apart from logic and mathematics) exemplifies the same bipartite structure, which is ultimately that of a belief. In the scientific context, A is the conceptual precondition for B in the sense of investigating the categorization which applies to phenomena investigated by B.

This thesis may not be surprising in itself, considering that all sciences can be regarded as belief-systems. But in this respect there are also interesting differences between sciences. In some sciences, their bipartite nature has been fully acknowledged or sanctioned in the form of (approximately) corresponding distinctions both between university departments and between professional journals. But in other sciences, their bipartite nature may either remain implicit or be acknowledged only by a minority. It is an intriguing task to explore the causes of these differences: Are they due to intrinsic differences among the subject matters of the respective sciences? Or are they just due to historical accidents?

In linguistics, it is reasonably well understood that A and B  address distinct questions, in such a way that asking the B-question presupposes at least a preliminary answer to the A-question. For instance: A = What is the relative clause in a language L? vs. B = How is it produced and understood, and how has it changed? A = ‘autonomous’ (non-causal) linguistics (cf. Itkonen 1978) vs. B = ‘non-autonomous’ (causal) linguistics (cf. Itkonen 1983). As long as the child is learning L, s/he endorses the B-attitude (= s/he accumulates observations and makes generalizations about the observations s/he has accumulated), but as soon as s/he masters L, s/he endorses the A-attitude (= s/he is competent to evaluate observations as either correct or incorrect): L, having first been a posteriori, becomes a priori (cf. Mäkilähde et al. 2019). It goes without saying that, at the level of data, the A vs. B distinction coincides with the langue vs. parole distinction.

In psychology, the A vs. B distinction is not generally acknowledged, with important exceptions, such as Brentano and Husserl. Brentano: A = ‘descriptive psychology’ vs. B = ‘genetic’ psychology. Husserl: A = ‘descriptive/empirical phenomenology’ (distinguished from ‘transcendental phenomenology’) vs. B = empirical psychology. Examples of A: (i) “An act of will is a want which we have arrived at by coming to a decision and which we think we are able to implement” (Brentano quoted by Chisholm 1967). (ii) The intentional (= ‘directed’) structure of conscious experiences is the starting point of Husserl-type phenomenology (cf. Vuorinen 1971, Juntunen 1986). (iii) Whatever is perceived is perceived as mediated by the ‘figure vs. ground’ contrast. (iv) Whatever is seen, is always seen as having some kind of extension in two or three dimensions. (v) (Addendum) Von Wright’s (1963: Chapter III) taxonomy of actions: ‘the doing of p’, ‘the destroying of p’, ‘the preserving of p’, ‘the suppression of p’, as well as the corresponding forbearances; cf. (i) above.

In 2022, YOUTUBE reveals that ‘phenomenological psychology’, blurring the A vs. B distinction (but with a strong A-emphasis), has become a popular discipline which overlaps with psychotherapy.

In classical physics, the A vs. B distinction has been fully acknowledged in Germany, but not so much elsewhere. A = protophysics vs. B = Newtonian mechanics. A is a general theory of measurement, divided into the increasingly complex subdomains of measuring space, time, and mass (= geometry, chronometry, and ‘hylometry’). Instead of investigating actual physical events, protophysics investigates the concept ‘possible physical event’, as defined by the threefold norms of measurement: “Die idealen Forderungen, durch die die vollkommenen Messungen bestimmt werden, sind Sätze die als Axiomen für die protophysicalische Theorien dienen können” (Lorenzen 1969: 150). There is a perfect analogy between linguistics and classical physics, as here defined: A = possible (sentence or physical event) vs. B = actual (sentence or physical event) (cf. Itkonen 1978: 45).

Quantum physics and Relativity Theory may in some sense have superseded Newtonian mechanics, which nevertheless remains able to account for its chosen realm of phenomena. Therefore protophysics, qua its aprioristic component, also retains its intrinsic value (cf. Janich 1976: 302-314).

The analogy between psychology and (classical) physics was clearly grasped by Husserl, which entails that he in fact envisioned the notion of protophysics avant la lettre: “That the knowledge of the possibilities always precedes that of the actual course of events is one motivating force in Husserl’s thinking. … Like in physics, the a priori statements of psychology are logically prior to any factual propositions, although one may proceed to their comprehension in the opposite direction, …” (Vuorinen 1971: 76-77).

The analogy between A- vs. B-type chemistry and A- vs. B-type linguistics was endorsed by Chomsky (1957: 48): “Perhaps the issue can be clarified by an analogy to a part of chemical theory concerned with the structurally possible compounds.” First, there is the analogy between A-type chemistry and A-type linguistics: “This [chemical] theory might be said to generate all structurally possible compounds just as a grammar generates all grammatically ‘possible’ utterances.” Second, there is in both cases the B-type study which applies this a priori A-framework to empirical data: “This theory would serve as a theoretical basis [= A] for techniques of  qualitative analysis and synthesis of specific compounds [= B], just as one might rely on a grammar [= A] in the investigation of such specific problems as analysis and synthesis of particular utterances [= B].” As always, A is the precondition for B.

In biology, there is the obvious distinction between DNA structure and actual DNAs.

In sociology, the situation is much the same as in psychology, insofar as the A vs. B distinction has remained largely implicit, with such notable exceptions as Winch (1958) and Schutz (1962). Winch: A = ‘aprioristic sociology’ (the study of institutions) vs. B = empirical sociology (the study of institutional behavior); Schutz: A = ‘phenomenological sociology’ (the study of the structure of social encounters, including ‘reciprocity of perspectives’) vs. B = empirical sociology (the study of social encounters). The A-type sociology is also known as ‘sociology of knowledge’ (cf. Itkonen 1978: Sect. 2.4).

Our last example, i.e. evolutionary theory, is unlike the others insofar as here A has been chosen so as to be prior to B: “Some authors look at the Natural System merely as a scheme for arranging together those living objects which are most alike and for separating those which are most unlike; or as an artificial means for enunciating, as briefly as possible, general propositions. … But I believe that something more is included and that the propinquity of descent ― the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings ― is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classification” (Darwin 1998/1859: 312-313; emphasis added). ― Compare: “la langue est un principe de classification” (de Saussure 1962/1916: 25).

Darwin’s remark can be illustrated by a rough-and-ready cross-scientific-cum-cross-historical analogy, justified by Lorenzen (1969: 144): “Die seit Galileo and Newton entstandene klassische Physik ist keine phänomenologische [nicht-kausale] Physik, wie die antike Physik weitgehend war, …”:

By now, it should have become clear that my talk is, among other things, meant to be a vindication of analogy as an investigative tool. In fact, the title of Itkonen (2005) ‒ Analogy as structure and process ‒ formulates the distinction between A- vs. B-type analogy. The full power of analogy, exemplified by its capacity to bring together the core of hermeneutic philosophy and the core of computer science, will be the topic of  my contribution (= ‘When does the description coincide with its object?) to the SALC workshop ‘Exploring normativity in language and linguistics’, 19 August 2022. ― Let us conclude with a few caveats:

(i) The object of A-type sciences is not ‘timeless’ in any absolute sense, but in the same sense as any structure (as opposed to function) can be regarded as such (cf. Itkonen 2021).

(ii) From the start, such ‘formal’ sciences as logic and mathematics were excluded from consideration. But it is perfectly feasible to envisage a more comprehensive ‘science of logic’, where A = formal logic vs. B = psychology of logic (cf. Itkonen 2003: Ch. XV = ‘Psychology of logic’, pp. 147-168). The reason for the original exclusion of logic is that, unlike the other A-type sciences, it is not descriptive but prescriptive: not content to describe existing norms, it strives to create new and better norms (namely, for inference).

(iii) The A vs. B distinction (or some equivalent distinction) is almost universally accepted, but not quite. Davidson and Quine disagree, or so it seems. The latter approvingly quotes (1981: 38-39) the former, who writes: “This dualism of scheme and content, of organizing system and something waiting to be organized, cannot be made intelligible and defensible.”

As far as I can see, this remark makes sense only if it is meant to express the self-evident truth that we have no direct access to the Kantian pre-conceptualized das Ding an sich. But importantly, we do have access to something almost analogous. When an adult person P learns to master a foreign language from a scratch, the situation is exactly the one captured by Davidson: P starts with “something waiting to be organized” and ends with an “organizing system”. Of course, the starting point is not fully analogous with das Ding an sich, because it has been conceptualized (and verbalized) as “something waiting to be organized”. Surprisingly, Quine accepts this semi-analogy: “Where I have spoken of a conceptual scheme I could have spoken of a language” (p. 41). And he tells us that Davidson too is happy to accept ‘scheme’ being replaced by ‘language’. In sum, the whole disagreement disappears. (Or does it? And if it does, what was it about, in the first place?)

(iv) La grandeur et la misère de l’analogie, as exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci: On the one hand, he was the master analogist, discovering ― among many other things ― the common ramifying structure of river deltas, tree branches, and blood vessels. On the other, his famous picture of the ‘Vitruvian Man’, enclosed both in a square (= X) and in a circle (= Y), contains two crucial mistakes. First, and contrary to the Renaissance view, there is no real-life analogy between ‘terrestrial man’ (= X) and ‘cosmic man’ (= Y). Second, and again contrary to the Renaissance view, there is no fundamental difference between ‘sublunary’ motion (= square), i.e. motion on the Earth, and ‘superlunary’ motion (= circle), i.e. motion in the Heavens (as Galileo and Newton were soon to prove). Still, Leonardo manages to create a brilliant synthesis of two wrong ideas.

Let us summarize the main topic. In all sciences, researchers make the A vs. B distinction but in human/social sciences it is made, at the level of data, also by research objects, as explained by Trubetzkoy (1969/1939): “The basis for this distinction is that the system of language [= langue] as a social institution constitutes a world of relations, functions, and values, the act of speech [= parole], on the other hand, a world of empirical phenomena. There is no parallel for this in the natural sciences such as botany and zoology. Therefore, these cannot be considered for comparison. But the same type of relation is found in all the social sciences insofar as they deal with the social evaluation of material things. In all such cases the social institution per se  must be strictly distinguished from the concrete acts in which it finds expression, so to speak, and which would not be possible without it” (p. 12; emphasis added).



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