Saturday, July 1, 2017


322. Reference and constitution

In this blog a leading principle is that of philosophical pragmatism. It can be summarized as follows: the human being perceives, senses, feels and thinks according to mental processes that guide actions but are also formed by them, in interaction with its environment, especially other people.

As a result, the human being is socially constituted. However, every individual is also unique in its mental construction along its individual life path.

In other words, to connect with the preceding items in this blog, the individual is emergent, in its mental construction. Its parts constitute an identity, as a coherent subject, which is not present in its parts. And while its path of development is constrained by genetic potential, its outcome cannot be predicted. It is uncertain as a result of interaction between self and other. Hence relationships also are emergent.

This presents a major challenge to economic science, as will be argued in later items.

Here I want to add to previous discussions of meaning (items 32, 168 in this blog). There I used the distinction between reference and sense (derived from the work of Frege), but with a twist. Reference is what an expression refers to. The word ‘cat’ refers to the collection of all cats. Sense was defined by Frege as ‘The way in which something is given’, the way it presents itself. I turned that into ‘the way in which we identify’, i.e. how we identify something as something. How we identify some animal as a cat.

I argued that the latter, sense, is idiosyncratic, with largely personal connotations attached to the concept, collected along one’s path of life. We have all had a variety of experiences with different cats. This connects with the distinction that de Saussure made between ‘langue’, the given shared understanding of meaning, at any moment, and ‘parole’, idiosyncratic language use that varies between people and over time.

Here I want to add to that discussion, using an insight from Jerome Bruner[i], a philosopher who has been an important source of inspiration in several aspects of my work. The idea I want to pick up from him here is that in much of our thought and talk we ‘do not refer to the world but constitute it’. That captures well the idea, originating with Kant, that we cannot observe the world as it is in itself, but construe a virtual reality, a rendering of the world and our position in it. That is how we make sense of the world.

Much of that is not conscious, not a matter of rational reflection, let alone a testing of hypotheses.

Let’s face it: this constitution of our view of the world entails prejudice. Among other things, that yields a problem concerning claims of objective scientific knowledge. That claim lies not in individual objectivity but in debate between scientists, and is imperfect also there.    

It also fits with the idea that the knowing and sensemaking subject is not an objective, outside onlooker of the world, but part of it, constituting itself in it. That is found, for example, in Heidegger’s notion of ‘being in the world’.

So, there is constitution in a double sense. The individual is constituted by action and interaction in the world, and in the process it constitutes a representation, a virtual reality of that world. Since it is done in interaction with others there is some commonality, some shared sense and understanding, shaped in part by shared language (langue) and other forms of culture, as well as idiosyncrasy (parole), which yields the variety that feeds renewal of sense and purpose, both private and public. This is a crucial thing about humanity and society.           


[i] Jerome Bruner, The narrative construction of reality, Critical Enquiry, 18/1 (1991), 1-21.