The Just Balance, Chapter Three

This chapter, titled “The Sensations of the Present Moment,” sees Winch reconstructing Weil’s rejection of the ‘myth of the given’ in Lectures on Philosophy. Winch provides an excellent interpretation of some of both Weil’s and Wittgenstein’s arguments against what might be called sense-data empiricism, according to which “the formation of concepts involves a certain passively given material (sensations) the inherent characteristics of and relations between which are then discerned through an activity of mind” (SW:TJB 20). The argument is in effect that sensations come always already conceptually sorted, so they cannot provide some sort of neutral pre-conceptual or non-conceptualized content from which such a sorting could be derived. Weil concludes that

Sensations tell us nothing about the world: they contain neither matter, space, time and they give us nothing outside of themselves, and in a way they are nothing.

Nevertheless we perceive the world; so what is given us is not simply sensations. Far from sensation being the only thing that is immediately given to us, it is, as such, only given us by an effort of abstraction, and a great effort at that.

I think the discussion in this chapter is very clear and might be useful to students who are tempted by classical empiricist views of concept formation. (How these observations, if correct, might be sorted according to current debates in the philosophy of mind is a trickier question, which I will pass over.) The discussion of color from the Lectures is particularly good:

It is impossible to give a name to the colors one sees. Every colored point has its own peculiar color which is not like any other color. Are there greater or lesser differences, for sight, between colors? The degrees of difference imply series which we have to construct and which we construct in our imaginations by making use of series which we can make from some material or other. Wherever there is series there is an activity of the mind. One could make series (blue to red through violet) in such a way that it would be difficult to distinguish each term from those immediately next to it. So one cannot speak of series, nor of greater or lesser differences, by reference to sight alone. So long as two colors appear different, they are so absolutely. One does not lay down a series between the two, because one cannot order colors in a series except by relating them to quantities (an increasing proportion of blue). But as far as sight alone goes, there is no quantity. There is, properly speaking, no quantitative difference between qualities. The differences between qualities are differences of kind, not of degree.

Whether the existence of series always requires activity of mind I doubt, but perception of series as series does, and I do think Weil was right that insofar as we think about our perceiving in the highly abstracted way one associates with ‘momentary perception of color,’ there is nothing in those momentary perceptions conceived that way that connects them to any other momentary perception; one can’t even note the qualitative sameness of two sensations except by relating the sensation of the present moment to something else which is not present. Winch presents Weil as here offering a kind of reductio of the view that comparing colors in terms of, say, a proportion of blue could ever arise out of momentary sensations of color alone; as Winch puts it, one has to also learn “certain ways of speaking and thinking, certain principles of arrangement.”

I want to add: some arrangements may be more natural or correct for certain purposes, or be more generally comprehensive or explanatory; nonetheless we still don’t find that out from our bare color-perceptions; we find it out by comparing different ways of organizing and thinking about colors. It’s not that we compare two different ways of systematizing the same system-independent entities, but that we compare two different systematizations of the same entities.

In any case there are actually two different complementary arguments here: one which says ‘bare sensations’ or ‘sense-data ‘ by themselves can’t teach us what they would need to for an empiricist theory of our concepts to be right, and another which says we actually don’t have such ‘bare sensations’ or ‘sense-data’ at all except as highly abstracted states of mind constructed out of experiences which are much fuller in terms of their relations and associations to other experiences and to our concepts.

One then wants to know – but where do our ways of conceptually organizing sensation and experience come from? Not from the sensations themselves, we find argued in chapter three, but in chapter two it was in a sense already argued that they also don’t come from rational methods prior to or independent from the ‘contents’ being thought about themselves. Winch suggests that Weil is pushing towards a view where human activities provide the (various and diverse) ordering principles of our experience. “It is only in the temporal context of human action,” Winch writes, “that anything (and a fortiori sensations) can be seen as systematically interrelated” (SW:TJB 31; cf. also 29).

In the earlier work (e.g. in the passage on color quoted above) Weil often writes of thought as giving order to reality. In the next chapter Winch will argue that the lines of thinking traced here move her towards giving up that principle in favor of the idea that thoughts are birthed into a world that is already ordered: “though order is indeed a product of the activity of human beings, that activity itself does not, in the first instance, involve thought” (SW:TJB 33). This in turn suggests of some affinities between Weil and the later Wittgenstein: we act in the world in various ways which disclose that world to us as a subject for thought, but the organization of that world emerges in the first instance from our forms of life. Our forms of activity locate our sensations and experiences in time and in relation to other sensations and experiences and thus render them material for thought.

I do think it is important to recognize the relations between thought and action, and that the emphasis on what is variously called “embodied thought,” “particularism,” “pragmatism,”etc. – on thoughts as they get expressed through and organize our practical activities – is an important one to grasp. But I wonder if talking about forms of activity as prior to thought pushes the point too far. The idea that action, will, capability are prior to thought is useful as a counter to the false picture of ourselves as practically unconstrained representers of reality, beings who are first and foremost something like disembodied minds who might or might not employ their representations as bases for subsequent actions. But there is a relatedness of activity to thought that does seem somewhat inescapable to me. Giving orders and training people behaviorally in procedures is not like wielding a hammer or writing a computer program; it makes a difference to the ordering of all our activities that we are thinking creatures.

So I wonder if it’s really right to break the circle in this way. Maybe thought both orders the world for us and is ordered by the world. Human beings act as thinking beings and in so doing disclose the world in various different ways for the activity of thinking. Nothing is being explained by anything else if thinking orders the world for us while thoughts are at the same time birthed into a world that is already ordered; but then at this general level of philosophizing maybe it shouldn’t be.

The argument sketched above does require us to take self-consciousness, awareness of one’s own activity, as a form of thinking. If by ‘thought’ we mean only systematic representations consciously articulated to oneself prior to undertaking a course of action, on the other hand, then it seems right to say that we don’t do that all the time, and such thinking seems not to be at the basis of all our activity. But I’m not sure it’s correct to restrict the general idea of thinking to this particular type. There’s is a sense in which a carpenter or bricklayer, say, thinks as she works: the bricks are to go in a certain pattern, with even spacing between them, but even if the pattern and the spacing have been entirely determined beforehand by someone else, still one is constantly eyeballing and adjusting the bricks to make sure they meet it, and this is a thinking process, with perception and judgment integrated into action and response. Training a person to do this is not like constructing a robot which can do something similar.

We do learn about things by being trained in techniques we might or might not understand, mastering bits and pieces of a language that is already in place for us on birth, following orders, and so on. Our experiences of the world are shaped at a very deep level by our ways of acting and living in it. And I suppose that we can live and act thoughtlessly. But even thoughtless human action is generally intentional, and therefore at some level not thoughtless.

I want to say that thought weaves in and out of the fabric of our lives at every level. The important thing about connecting thought to action isn’t to ground it philosophically, but practically. In Waiting for God Simone Weil wrote: “It is not surprising that a man who has bread should give a piece to someone who is starving. What is surprising is that he should be capable of doing so with so different a gesture from that with which we buy an object. Almsgiving when it is not supernatural is like a sort of purchase. It buys the sufferer.” Talking about charity in this sort of way connects it to the ways we treat our fellows. It makes the discussion ‘real’ in terms of the thoughts, emotions, and attitudes we express towards the people around us, in the way that philosophical deliberations about perfect and imperfect duties (say) generally don’t.

I could understand, and may even hold, the view that our forms of activity shape our perception and thought just as our perception and thought shape our forms of activity, so that no one or two of the three is the philosophical support on which the other one or two rest. I have more trouble taking literally the notion that forms of activity or life conceived as blind patterns or bare rules can be thought of as instantiated prior to thoughtful engagement with reality. Learning to apply a rule to reality, even in the situation of a wage laborer doing a simple task, is a form of thinking; and so is understanding what the supervisor is yelling at you.

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