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Monday, January 18, 2016

The Ladder of Language:

A Thought on Objectivity in Husserl

Says Quentin Lauer, “Suppose… that the tree I see when I look out my window is a subjectively constituted tree. If I close my eyes several times and, each time I reopen them, see the same tree; if in addition I leave the house approach the tree and touch it, go around it and see it from every side; and if the result of all this is the identical unity of sense which I call this tree; then, says Husserl, not only has the tree been constituted in consciousness, but I am sure that it has been constituted a perceptive experience, and hence that the object is truly a tree—it cannot be anything else. Mutatis mutandis the same sort of subjective constancy in constitution will always be objectively valid: that is, will always have an object known to be true;  I can be sure that anyone who sees the object other than as I see it is in error” (Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect 86-87).

To make this claim we have to ignore the possibility that what I am looking at is not a tree but a representation of a tree. The only other thing this tree could be is an imitation tree. True, it would have to be a good enough imitation to fool the viewer, but that is not outside the realm of possibility. Does this matter? Yes. The first thing it brings up is the question of whether or when an imitation of a tree is a tree. How do I imitate a tree so well that I can fool an observer? I might make it of wood. What if I make the bark out of paper—a kind of paper-mache sprayed or painted with something to improve its bark-like appearance. Or what if I glued actual tree bark to my wood core? I could have made the whole thing out of metal, but I chose to make it essentially out of trees. My tree is dead, but dead trees are still trees. Is my imitation tree an actual tree? Is it more actually a tree than my metal tree would have been? When is an imitation tree a tree and when is it just an imitation of a tree?

The question doesn’t have to set anyone’s head spinning. The answer is of course in my definition of tree. “Tree” doesn’t exist in being. It’s a concept; like all concepts it has to be defined, and is defined by its actual use, in moments of actual usage. What a tree is depends less on trees than on what I need a tree to be when I need it. It’s my definition of “tree” and my understanding of “is” that matter here.

But, of course, there “is” something out there that limits my notion of tree, which is to say my ability to define something as a tree. There is, to use one of Husserl’s favorite words, an essence of tree. A treeness that is not just a concept, subjectively or situationally constituted. Trees exist—undisputed trees that would be trees even if people and language did not exist. Noumenal trees. Noumenal trees phenomenologically known. I’d like to think so. My experience tells me that it is true. But there is no way to transition those trees into language or into consciousness as such. There is no way to purify the concept. The attempt to do so will always cut off part of its essence. The border becomes blurry as soon as you draw it, like a water-color line or a line infinitely magnified.

Knowledge then is finally silence. Philosophy uses language as a hand to squeeze being into form. Being always escapes. Language is the ladder that leads to silence.

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