The theory of understanding is an investigation of the relation between thought and perception, concept and proposition, meaning and referent, but finally and especially between consciousness and the unconscious. The function of the theory of understanding for the theory of consciousness is to show that much of what is effective and functional in consciousness is not actually present to consciousness. In this the vagueness and elusiveness of thoughts and concepts as introspective objects, in paradoxical contrast to their clarity and precision as instruments of knowledge, is explained by their actual removal from the field of consciousness. This move will prohibit the ontological dualism of this treatise from being construed as a traditional dualism, as in Kant, between the "higher" powers of thought and concept and the "lower" powers of sensation and perception. This is the major benefit. Next, in removing the stuff of thought to the hidden side of the mind, we should be less inclined to see the unconscious as essentially bestial--the remorseless, violent, incoherent, dangerous source of desire that we might expect from reading Schopenhauer or Freud. Instead, it becomes possible to expect something better, and in the theories of will and purpose, there will be something better.
One of the fundamental distinctions for the theory of consciousness is that between perception and thought. In the philosophic tradition such a distinction has always been a source of much trouble and controversy. The approaches to it have either been reductionistic, making perception a kind of thought (Leibniz) or thought a kind of perception (Hume), or have inflated the division into an opposition between spirit and matter, soul and body, or the like. The rarefied, abstract, insubstantial, and non-spatial nature of thought has even at times been taken as proof of the immateriality and immortality of the soul.
Basic to the unity of the relation between perception and thought is the function of understanding. Once the nature of understanding is clear, not only are thought and perception united but consciousness itself as a whole is first brought into a substantive relation with what does not belong to consciousness, the contents of the unconscious. Since the transcendent is essentially equivalent to the unconscious, as the immanent is to the conscious, the theory of understanding carries the functions of intellect into the sphere where, as we will see, the cognitive source of value is to be found.
The traditional technical uses of the term "understanding" must be seriously reconsidered. Schopenhauer castigates Kant for unnecessarily using the term in an unusual sense, and certainly by the time Hegel comes on the scene, Verstand bears little enough resemblance to any ordinary meaning of the word. While such new usages may be considered necessary or convenient, it is also possible that the philosophers thus avoid the need to explain aspects of the original meaning that may not fit particularly well into their theories. That may have been done consciously, since for many words philosophers explicitly reject some ordinary connotations because they hold them to be false or meaningless. It is worth remembering, however, that persistent usages in ordinary speech may provide the best critique for philosophic redefinitions-daily usage makes its own rules and is not, in the long run, well disciplined or well instructed. With the term "understanding" this circumstance is especially striking, for the word in ordinary speech does not seem to mean, for instance after the manner of Kant's analysis, "to judge" or "to make a judgment." It is true that understanding can be expressed in judgments, but we tend to speak as though understanding is something that precedes judgments and makes them possible. William James, with his notion of "feelings of tendency," comes very close to this.
The problem with this ordinary meaning of understanding is that while judgments are at least something tangible, something with physical expression in speech and writing, whatever must precede them is not. Kant has considerably simplified things by ignoring this, but anyone would be greatly mistaken to think that he somehow proves that it should be ignored. But Kant was on the right track in one respect. In traditional Aristotelian logic, there is a function of thought that precedes judgment, and that is the "simple apprehension" of concepts. It is tempting to call that an understanding of the meaning of concepts; but while that is true so far as it goes, it is too narrow and is not what is often, or even generally, meant by "understanding."
Understanding does have an essential connection with judgment. When someone says that they understand a remark or an explanation, they express an apprehension or feeling that the meaning of the matter has been somehow taken up or grasped. In gaining such a feeling of understanding, it is not necessary that a person run through any internal statements elucidating the meaning. On the other hand, a "feeling" is essentially something vague and inarticulate; and if someone is called upon to demonstrate their understanding or should they wish to do so simply out of an uncertainty over the adequacy of their understanding, they will then make explicit statements and judgments to set out the contents of the understanding. After the demonstration, anyone else who understands the matter, if they have understood the statements, will be able to pronounce whether an understanding was or was not demonstrated.
One of the hallmarks of explicit demonstrations of understanding, whether in a classroom situation or in less formal circumstances, is that the judgments used to effect the demonstration should not be the same judgments as those found in an original remark or explanation the understanding of which may be in question. If a demonstration of understanding is not considered sufficient, then even more judgments are called for. The only time when we look for a verbatim reproduction is simply when the question is whether the original statements have been correctly heard-naturally many misunderstandings are resolved on this level. What all this reveals, then, is that whatever underlies and precedes judgment is far from being identical with any particular judgmental expression. If someone is unable to express a thought in different terms, we usually strongly suspect that they have only a poor, if any, understanding of what they are attempting to say.
There are cases where someone is simply unable to express an understanding that they actually have in a very adequate way. The classic example would be the bad classroom teacher. Even a good teacher may now and then fail to come up with a very clear explanation of what is quite familiar and transparent to him, while the bad teacher is somehow permanently unable to explain any subject very well. While these failings bear on judgments about teaching ability, and while they ordinarily would be prima facie evidence of lack of understanding, it is also true that understanding may all the same contrast with degrees of inability to convey it.
In various areas there may be ways of testing a person's or a teacher's understanding that are quite different from tests of an ability to convey understanding. This holds wherever understanding is of a technique or set of rules whose application is not necessarily verbal. For instance in mathematics, a teacher may be able to demonstrate a profound grasp of the strategies and rules of the subject by doing proofs and solving problems that would foil even some we might wish to admit are far better teachers. Where no such practical demonstration is possible, an inability to convey the contents of understanding can be an extraordinarily frustrating experience. Most people at one time or another have felt that for their part they possessed a quite clear understanding of a matter but found themselves totally at a loss to express that understanding in a way sufficient to convey it to others. At the same time, that subjective certainty may be completely, hopelessly, mistaken.
Simply distinguishing understanding from articulate judgment is not enough, for all parts of a statement or of a line of reasoning are not simultaneously present in explicit form in thought or in speech. "Explicit form" means the linguistic expression of a thought, the series of words that we generate in sequence either in actual speech or in silent thought. As a sentence is orally generated, it never exists all at once at the same time, yet the speaker at the beginning tends to have some grasp of what it is he is going to say and then knows at the end what he has said. A listener, of course, does not know, normally, what another is going to say; and so it is only in the silence that follows speech that the listener can evaluate the entire expression and derive an understanding of it. At the beginning of his thought a person need not in fact be at all clear just what it is that he is going to say in order to express what he has "in mind": struggling in mid-sentence to complete a thought and clarify a vague intention is a common experience. Likewise, we may discover at the end of a thought that the sentence generated wasn't quite what we wanted. In this the written expression of language has been misleading, for seeing a sentence displayed in writing seems to lead us to think that it somehow exists that way already before it is generated in speech. In the theories of generative and transformational grammar in linguistics there seems to be a similar impression or assumption that whole sentences are produced all at once and that certain rules only operate by taking sentences as wholes.
The illusion that we produce whole sentences at once is believable because of the quality that I will call the simultaneity of understanding. Also, in contrast to discursive understanding (which will mean understanding articulated in Judgments, and not, as in Kant, the opposite of intuitive understanding), understanding may also be characterized as "instantaneous." Although the two terms will be used interchangeably here, "simultaneous" places the emphasis on the different parts of a sentence occurring at the same time in understanding, while "instantaneous" emphasizes that the understanding itself occurs without extension in time. What these notions are meant to express is that while we may acquire understanding over time and can only display it verbally over time, once we have it we have it all at once and are aware all at once that we have it. It takes no time to understand something that we understand. Understanding is an achieved state of mind. Judgments or any explicit linguistic expressions are activities that may follow, and actually are made possible by, the original state of understanding.
Understanding must precede every linguistic expression, but the expressions it generates will be quite varied even for one speaker of one language (though there will be characteristic ways of putting things both for speakers and for languages). Indeed, as noted above, it is necessary for a proper demonstration of understanding, or for an attempt to convey novel insights, that different judgments be generated. It is never the judgment or the linguistic expression that is the main thing, and no single expression can adequately convey the understanding that underlies a great many possible, perhaps an infinitely possible, number of expressions. As a sentence is generated, then, in speech or in thought, it is the same understanding that is present all at once in each act, while the extended sentence is only present one part at a time. Thus, even as speech may only be forming one phoneme of one word, we retain in mind what that whole word will mean and what the whole sentence will mean--should we, by chance, decide to complete the thought as we originally intended.
Instantaneous understanding displays strong similarities to the phenomena of memory, and so we will approach the problem of the relation of understanding to consciousness by way of the somewhat more familiar and striking problem of memory.
Once a sentence has been completed in speech and we understand its meaning, we are still strongly aware of the explicit expression of that sentence, despite the fact that it is not then explicitly displayed either physically or in thought. The sentence at that point may be said to be stored in what Freud called the "preconscious." In short order our awareness moves on to other matters and that sentence is lost to our consciousness. Later it may occur to us to recall the explicit form of that sentence, and in fact we may find that we are unable to do so. The sentence, having become temporarily lost to consciousness, thus may become permanently lost. Our point in this, then, must be that the storage of memory, being outside of consciousness, may become lost, in varying degrees, to the reckoning of consciousness. The level of memory storage where a memory may, insensibly, pass beyond our powers of recall, deserves to be called the "subconscious," and it is especially telling to contrast the indifferent oblivion of so many of our memories with the inarticulate frustration we feel at an inability to produce a memory that we are sure we possessed at one time. That frustration seems to signify a conflict between a preconscious sense that the memory is available and an actual powerlessness to bring it to consciousness.
Remembering a sentence that I have spoken or heard is not the same as understanding that sentence, nor the same as understanding what the sentence was intended to express. Our awareness that we possess certain memories is similar to understanding in one extremely important respect, however, in that the awareness of the possession of memories is as little involved in the actual recall of them as the understanding of something actually is in spelling out that understanding in explicit judgments. If I believe that I am able to remember something and call to consciousness the general and vague awareness that gives me the confidence of that belief, which should mean that the contents are immediately accessible in the preconscious, some salient aspect of the memory may enter explicit consciousness, perhaps as an image; but my belief is clearly that I remember and can recall far more than that abstracted feature. I may be wrong, and in recounting the memory I may discover that some things have escaped me that I thought I remembered, or again that some things are clear that I might have expected to be long gone. Whether the link between my superficial awareness and the depths of my memory is strong or weak, it is clear that my abilities with respect to memory are subtle and obscure and that this aspect of my mind and mental life does not exist in Cartesian explicitness and clarity. The essentially conscious Cartesian soul should have a storage of memories as present and evident to it as the books on our library shelves are to our sight. But this is not so.
In terms of computers what is needed in order to recall some content from memory is the "address" of the location (or perhaps the complex of locations) in memory where the content is stored. Should the address be misplaced or lost, only an exhaustive search would eventually turn up the memory. As far as we can tell introspectively, we have no actual techniques for an exhaustive search. Similarly, we have no explicit awareness of the "address" for individual memory contents. We try to remember things all the time, but the mechanisms of such searches are entirely hidden from us, as they still are to neurophysiology and psychology. The best we can do, if difficulties are encountered, is to try to recall an associated memory that may spark the desired recall. Sometimes this results in an infuriating regress of failures. Once we realize that we have found some complex memory, however, our feelings are much as though an "address" has been found, since the memory itself often takes some considerable time to unpack in detail. For some memories recovered with difficulty, we may have no idea how much of the memory is recallable until we actually set about doing so.
Whether memories are localized in certain parts of the brain or not, or any similar problem, is superfluous here: for while consciousness may visualize space and locate objects in it, even to visualize the brain and locate regions in it, consciousness cannot visualize itself, let alone its functions with respect to the subconscious, in the same way. If a memory is lost, it is not because the ego has carelessly left it in an obscure part of the brain, even though, in fact, the brain's operating system may have done just that. This distinction should speak volumes about the difference between an internal and introspective viewpoint, which is based on the limits of consciousness, and an external perspective, which is free to treat both contents of consciousness and the contents of the subconscious as equally epiphenomena of brain activity. To the internal perspective, with the problems of the dual nature of representation and the principle of ontological undecidability, it is not self-evident that the meaning and reality of the subconscious aspects of the mind are exhausted by a reference to neurophysiology. Thus, we set aside too much consideration of the latter and continue with what we can glean introspectively. Indeed, it is a paradoxical philosophy of mind that sets aside the internal perspective and relies on an external viewpoint that inevitably reduces mind to brain and limits the ontology of our existence to little more than what can be studied by scientific method.
So far the significant introspective lesson is how little our inner awareness reveals to us the fundamental workings and formative mechanisms of our conscious existence. We are like players at a video game of consciousness, to whom not only is the basic mechanical hard wiring of the machine a total mystery but even the step by step program software of the game is absolutely alien and unfathomed. This kind of realization may easily be taken as exposing the poverty of introspective knowledge; but that is a rather pointless conclusion, since consciousness is going to continue operating in the same way regardless-the video game is going to play pretty much the same whether we understand how the machine works or not. Thus, while the significance of what ultimately may be learned should not be carelessly underestimated, for most of the purposes of this discussion, a simple working analogy for memory, e.g. motion picture film running through a projector and displayed in the theater of consciousness, should be more than sufficient. What is really relevant here is simply that there is some structure which belongs to the subconscious, preserves memory, and enables us to reproduce in imagination or speech some analogue of our previous experience.
Our awareness that we are able to generate sentences to reflect our understanding is profoundly dependent on memory, not just because in the past we have generated sentences but because for the future every word and structure we use is a matter of recollection. The understanding that underlies all the sentences, however, may or may not be a matter of recollection, for by using the same words and the same structures that have appeared in countless sentences, we are able to formulate new expressions that may embody a totally novel and unfamiliar understanding. Naturally such sentences are the most difficult for others to understand, and a novel understanding must therefore be embodied in as many clear and expressive sentences as possible. Even then it may take time for others to hit upon the understanding that enables them to generate the same sentences with some confidence, which is the first evidence that they have grasped the original thought.
Our interest in memory, finally, is just that moment of inarticulate certainty when we feel the presence of those contents in what I have called the preconscious, for this is completely analogous with the similar confident feeling we have in our moments of understanding.
It would be unfair to Kant to belabor him very harshly for avoiding an explanation of ordinary understanding, as though he did so intentionally or maliciously. In fact Kant represents an advance over the traditional views; for his doctrine of the understanding as the "faculty of judgment" is closer to the truth than the traditional view of the priority of conception and "simple apprehension" over judgment. We must note the truth in each perspective: in a sense the traditional simple apprehension of the meaning of a concept is prior to judgment because it is an act of instantaneous understanding. On the other hand, Kant has clearly grasped that understanding is only adequately articulated in judgments. Isolated concepts do not express complete thoughts, apart from common conventions of ellipsis. The propositional display of thought may thus be called discursive understanding to highlight its correspondence to the simple inner state of consciousness. We even expect that the meaning of a concept is something that can be properly displayed only through discourse--hence the equivalence of a definition to a simple concept.
In all this Kant simply shares in the error of grasping onto and following too closely the tangible expression of thought in the forms of language. The secret of the mystery is the intangible presence of understanding, which we may, for convenience, locate in something we have chosen to call the "preconscious." But the preconscious is a paradoxical compromise; for it combines the vagueness, the inarticulateness, the elusiveness, and the quality of obscure feeling that accompanies contents rising from the subconscious that are not yet explicitly part of consciousness, with the precision, the clarity, the definiteness and concreteness that accompanies perceptions and images in consciousness. The connection between these profoundly opposed impressions is that the feeling of awareness that we have when we know that we understand something or are able to remember something concerns potential contents of consciousness. As Aristotle originally explored for us, power or potential doesn't seem to be anything in itself in separation from actual contents or material; and in precisely this way the preconscious doesn't seem to be anything in itself apart from consciousness. The proof of the feeling of understanding or memory is that conscious contents can indeed be produced at will; and so the vague feeling of power stands for very many tangible contents that can be explicitly generated. The proof of the potential is always in the act.
We have a certain feeling about familiar surroundings because we have the power to recall having seen them before. This feeling is what makes ordinary circumstances ordinary, and it only really becomes noticeable when we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings: the lack is felt most acutely. Understanding or recognizing any unfamiliar object means that we become aware of an ability to generate an explicit account of it, while even familiar objects in unfamiliar settings produce an uneasiness that understanding alone cannot overcome. Only experience, like a shallow sea laying down strata of sediment, can establish the sense of stability and security that comes from a store of memory recognition.
Recognition is an occurrence of instantaneous understanding. Recognition can mean that we identify an object as being something we've experienced before or that in an unfamiliar object we understand what kind of thing it is or what kind of function it has. Each such kind of recognition is still simply a power, still only a potential for an elaboration of discursive understanding in judgments. We come to have "something to say" about the object, A recognition can come in a "flash" and may leave us a little awestruck even before we are able to think out or say what it is we have understood (like a memory which, having defeated our efforts at recall, suddenly and spontaneously comes to a blank mind). As often happens in life, adding to the rich variety of comic situations, we may discover by actually thinking or discussing the matter through that we actually didn't understand or recognize what we thought we did.
Understanding and recognition are subject to the same tests of truth as their explicit discursive elaborations. The meaning of the implicit understanding is, or at least should be in adequate discourse, the same as that of the external expression. The difference is the difference between power and act; and it is perfectly natural for us to pass immediately from the power to an expression, "What I mean is that...." while then perhaps encountering some trouble formulating the explicit expression of our understanding. The moment worth noting in every case is that between the mental state of implicit understanding and the state that preceded it, equally implicit, but without the power, the feeling, and the subjective awareness, even certainty, of understanding. As the proof of understanding is in the discourse, the proof of non-understanding is in the silence, the confusion, the perplexity, the frustration, and the inability of discourse.
An instantaneous feeling of understanding or recollection does not exist in isolation but is to be found associated with a perceptual or imaginative content of consciousness. The tangible perceptual content of thought or conception is ordinarily found in words. The concept, whatever it may be in itself, exists in the preconscious. As such the concept is, for consciousness, the power to generate conscious contents, either images characteristic of the concept or a verbal account giving further conceptual articulations. The word, generated in speech or passing through the auditory imagination, is accompanied by the awareness of that power to generate various representations of the content of the concept.
That in an important sense the stuff of thought itself should be hidden from the spotlight of consciousness, and not just, so far, from the hard apparatus of the laboratory, seems astonishing when from Plato to Descartes and from the beginning of philosophy to the beginning of science the very first principle of inquiry is that thought and concepts are illuminating, revealing, unhidden, etc. The ethereal and indefinite nature of thought as an introspective object, however, repeatedly drove Mediaeval Aristotelian and later Cartesian and other Rationalist philosophers into the dead end of the immaterial "simple substance" of the soul, where the morally edifying implications easily made up for the failure of anything to be explained thereby. Kant really advanced beyond this when he realized that concepts should not be thought of as things, material, spiritual, or otherwise. Instead he described them as rules.
The way to Kant lay through Empiricists to whom a concept, or an "idea," was a dim and less lively reproduction of a perceptual image. To them this certainly represented a common sense and down-to-earth evaluation of what is actually to be found in consciousness; and as far as that goes their exposure of the emptiness of the Rationalist conceptions may be well taken. Kant reintroduces the proper generality of conception without returning to the old notions with his analysis of concepts as rules. An image, then, while a characteristic concrete expression of a concept, is only one possible image and one possible kind of product of the generative rule of the concept. Even this helpful retrenchment, however, gives too much to consciousness, for Kant's theory does not address the fact that we do not seem to use such rules in thought the way we would use the rules of baseball in playing baseball. The rule of a concept is more like the rule of a computer program hidden from us as we play the video game of consciousness.
Constructing the image of a person does not mean that first of all in some conscious explicit way we consult the rule for making the image and then apply it--using the image material ready at hand for such tasks. The image comes up to consciousness spontaneously. The same thing occurs with the generation of grammatical sentences in a language or even of phonetically acceptable words in a language. The phonetic rules of word formation may be discovered, after some thought and investigation, but this does not mean that any individual speaker of the language is liable to know just what the rules are, even though he is able to effortlessly generate phonetically acceptable words--and in fact is likely to be unable to generate words of other languages that violate the rules of his own.
Being able to speak a language, we discover the rules according to which sentences in that language can be generated only by examining the product. Our own introspective research can only focus on what we say, never on the generative process or the formative rules themselves. The generative process is hidden in the "black box" of the preconscious, and we are even left guessing about whether the rules we are able to formulate even have any relation to the actual processes in the "black box." In considering concepts as rules the situation is even more difficult, for it is not just the linguistic rules of words that we must consider but the typical images that we easily generate in association with words--or understandings or sentences for that matter--necessarily drawing in processes of the subconscious that are entirely outside our reckoning.
To our introspection, images and most of the rule-directed products of thought and conception are produced spontaneously. What appears as spontaneous certainly should not be taken to be so just because the true mechanisms must be hidden from consciousness. Introspectively we may make inferences about such mechanisms: some of those will be important and relevant; others may be isolated and unproductive speculation. The rule for usefulness is whether the inferred structures or processes are absolutely outside of consciousness and have no counterparts within it or whether we infer or describe processes and rules that manifestly operate within consciousness also. We are free to speculate, for instance, about the operation of the rules of language in the preconscious as linguistic expressions are generated, but the rules we formulate are important in themselves since we can, to an extent, assume generative functions consciously and even attempt to program computers to duplicate acts of language usage. The study of the rules is therefore useful even without the speculative aspect. Thus the Kantian notion of concepts as rules, even though necessarily speculative when transferred to the preconscious, retains explanatory power with respect to consciousness. It is also clear that consciously formulated rules can be assimilated by the preconscious to produce novel activities carried out with facility and spontaneity. This whole aspect of the matter is of great significance here when we consider that moral rules and moral spontaneity of act and belief are conformable to this treatment and raise many of the same questions.
In dealing with concepts it is often very confusing that, on the one hand, we must treat them as functions or objects in their own right inside the head, or the mind, while, on the other hand, they are useful and meaningful to us only in so far as they refer to things outside of the mind and independent of any particular individual consciousness. In many traditional divisions of the meaning of concepts, into denotation and connotation, extension and intension, reference and sense, etc., it is natural to think of the one aspect as involving external things while the other is thought of as something, a psychological entity, in the subject. The difficulties with this often involve the problem that what is assigned to the subject often possesses qualities that seem to be objective and important, making it odd to construe it as merely subjective. In Frege's theory of senses or in the general requirements of a positivistic extensional logic, the traditional sounding dualism is construed as objective on both sides; but the result is also very odd in that the subjective side is paradoxically eliminated and some very peculiar metaphysical entities may seem to be posited.
Physically, a concept can be said to have three aspects, the spoken or written word, the objects in the world that are denoted, and the brain and other subjective perceptual apparatus that serve to process the linguistic statements. To deny the subjective aspect and analyze all of meaning and language in terms of objects and words must tend to subvert the meaning in ordinary language of the word "meaning," which I take to commonly signify what is understood on the subjective side apart from both the things referred to in the world and the words used. Indeed, what is understood is not something opaquely subjective but itself concerns the objective qualities of things, just as with the problem of non-existent objects we must consider things that to common sense must be said to depend entirely on the imagination of the subject yet seem to possess a cognitive independence that conflicts with dependence on a subject. Frege's move was to hold that just as a subject or singular term referred to an individual in the world, a predicate or general term referred to a concept: making "concept" sound like some sort of substantial form or independently existing Platonic entity. The way around that would be to say that predicates refer to sets of individuals. The only problem with such a remedy is that all empty sets are identical, leaving us still with the need for concepts having meaning over and above what individuals may be denoted by them. The most straightforward solution should be simply to return both "meaning" and "concept" to the subjective side of the relation of intentionality, making meaning and conceptual content independent of whatever denoted entities may or may not exist in the world.
The representations of knowledge exist as such by virtue of the existence of the subject. What is understood in meaning and concept is part of such representations of knowledge. We may say, however, that the form of intentionality always posits an imaginary reference to any conceptual representations that we may have, whether or not individuals exist in the world to be subsumed under such concepts. Similarly, any real object in effect posits an imaginary subject: for whichever side of the relationship is imaginary or real, the principle of the dual nature of representation is inescapable; so that the mere existence of an object not only implies, in general, a corresponding, even if non-existent, subject, it also implies its own imaginary objective counterpart in the representation of the implied subject. Thus to say that there is a problem with non-existent objects is already a distortion, for the problem must be equally one of non-existent subjects; and recognizing that is itself the key to the solution.
For convenience a distinction could be made between the denotation of a concept and the extension of the concept: where the denotation consists of individuals in the world and thus is ontologically independent and separable from the subject of knowledge. The extension, on the other hand, is a property of the concept and of the subject; and in this usage the traditional maxim that intension varies inversely with extension," may be well taken. Similarly, the traditional notion that logical quantification involves no existential implications may also be admitted as holding for extension.
Denotation and extension do not touch, however, on the main feature of what is understood in conception. The intension, connotation, or comprehension of a concept is distinguished by its abstractness, which means that in reference to its denoted objects only certain attributes or characteristics of the objects are relevant. Denoted or imagined objects of a concept are characteristically concrete, meaning that no set of abstract attributes is sufficient to specify the object. The essential feature of a concrete object is its substantial and separable individuality, in comparison to which even an indefinitely large specification of attributes is inadequate. We might say that concreteness is a feature of existence and so is different in kind from qualitative attributes. No real or imagined object conveys quite the same thing as the abstractly apprehended meaning of a concept--and vice versa. Indeed, after the manner of Plato or Frege or Realist Aristotelianism the objective referent of a concept is a special constellation of abstract qualities.
A state of abstract apprehension, like any state of understanding, is subjectively the awareness of a power to speak or act in ways that reflect the distinction in the object. A concept in its simplest form is the memory of an act of abstract apprehension. The concept is created with the first awareness that one feature in an object may be distinguished from another. Something of the sort must be what Kant had in mind when he spoke of the spontaneity of the mind in the creation of concepts (although he may have been mistakenly reiterating the traditional Aristotelian notion that a complex conventional concept is spontaneously created by the abstraction of the substantial form of an object). But a concept in this sense is a very mundane sort of thing, simply a kind of memory. That certain features tend to be associated in certain objects becomes a matter of recollection, recognition, and expectation also; and in time the patterns of expectation become regularized and conventionalized into the public vocabulary of a language.
The Platonic Form (eîdos) is largely a mystical and metaphorical object: and all the metaphors are of seeing (as the term eîdos itself, and idéa, are from the Indo-European root *wid-, "see"). Abstract meaning, however, cannot be seen or imagined, only thought and understood. Aristotle demysticized the Forms but continued with the seeing metaphor by putting the eîdos (subsequently species in Latin) into the object of perception. What is essential in the concept thus becomes what is substantial in the object.
To the Platonic-like question, "Where is the objective concept?" the best answer might really be "Nowhere." But the objective concept does belong, in a sense, in the external objects, after the manner of the Aristotelian species, as the objective reflex of a subjective content of representation. The difference is that just because we have recognized a constellation of features in the object, this does not mean that the features themselves in the object have the same kind of essential connection to each other, rendering all the other characteristics of the real object "inessential." Where the Aristotelian terminology of species and genera is now most familiar, in biology, it may be said on the basis of contemporary science that the association of specific characteristics really is determined from within the object by means of the genetic code in the DNA of the particular organism. The physical necessity of that connection, however, is entirely separate from the connection in the concept: the coincidence of the two unities is no accident, but the conceptual unity can easily contain an element of the physically arbitrary and accidental.
The external existence of the objective concept is an illusion, but it is an illusion that is an unavoidable ontological reflex upon which rests all thought and understanding. The reflex is not a deception, and in truth the illusion of objective thought is no more an illusion than is perception, which depends for its existence, like concepts, on the subject. But in perception is the phenomenal object itself, on the basis of ontological undecidability, and so the concept inhabits the same object in the same way. Mediaeval and ancient thought, lacking any intimation of the physical mechanisms of biology, could only attribute to the "substantial form" a physical efficacy in the object such as was felt to belong to the concept in the mind. The illusory coincidence of the objective concept and the physical object makes that conclusion natural enough, and in that case the illusion functions as a guide, if nothing more, to search out the physical functions of unity that we infer from, and that may be the reason for, the unity of our concepts. With human artifacts, the sole unifying factor is, of course, the concept itself.
Like non-existent objects, the objective concept is curiously dependent on the subject in that we tend to think that without a subject, there would be no such thing. But at the same time it too has an objective quality and a cognitive dignity that forbids us from reducing it to something that is "merely" subjective. Indeed, in both cases we become tangled in the paradox that subject and object are ontological reflexes of each other, so that no coherent theory of knowledge, thought, or conception can be construed without taking the relation, the connection, and the equality of both into account.
In linguistic theory instantaneous understanding corresponds to the ultimate or primitive "deep structure" of sentences. The deep structure is presumed to be free of the arbitrary grammatical rules of any particular language, reflecting nothing more than the genuine, pure objective meaning of the thought. Much effort in linguistics is put into formulating a "semantic representation," a form of sentence that can reflect the pure deep structure of meaning without introducing any grammatical prejudgments.
Such an enterprise is profoundly misconceived. The notion that has made it seem plausible is the longstanding belief in logic that natural languages are poor vehicles for the communication of knowledge: poorly structured, ambiguous, imprecise, etc. The logical Ideal, dating at last from Leibniz, is the "perfect" language. Latin having failed in that regard, we now have the mythos of symbolic logic as the native language of knowledge and science.
In linguistics this notion has been snapped up as making possible a pure semantic representation without the messy complications of the complex and not entirely understood grammatical rules that so muddle natural languages. In all good conscience, however, artificial languages must be regarded as just as arbitrary as natural languages. For instance, natural languages almost universally distinguish between nouns and verbs, and between these and adjectives and adverbs. But in Maori words that would be adjectives in English are actually verbs, while any noun or verb can be used in an attributive position as, functionally, an adjective or adverb. And while adjectives can be used as nouns in Greek or Arabic, they cannot be in English. There are natural languages, such as Navajo, with very peculiar grammars, but they are arguably derived from more familiar types. An attested case of that is Egyptian, in whose classical form the function of verbs was almost entirely replaced by the use of participles. In time, however, those very participles became the verb system of Coptic. In these natural languages it appears that the same distinctions, with different preferences of form and function, gave rise to very different systems of grammatical rules. In symbolic logic, however, perhaps to avoid the obvious arbitrariness of choosing a Maori, say, grammar over a Greek one, all these distinctions are swept away and replaced with the common concept of the predicate. This, however, is unlike any natural language; and the effect is that a great many decisions have to be made in order to create a functional equivalent of the natural languages. In many ways, including the use of placeholders (variables) and the system of quantification, symbolic logic then introduces forms that exist in no natural languages and which may even prevent many propositions in natural languages from being properly represented. These introductions are clearly not the only way that these things can be done; and although arguments exist for the use of certain forms, they are hardly matters of self-evidence. Arbitrary choices, indeed, are made. But while many of these can be weeded out, as linguists come to be more seriously concerned with the semantics of natural languages, the real problem is that a pure semantic representation is a contradiction in terms: the very notion of semantics is deeply prejudiced by persistent beliefs concerning the superiority of symbolic logic.
Every linguistic expression, in natural languages, or otherwise, is a representation of understood meaning: a pure semantic representation would somehow have to convey the meaning without conveying it. Any use of a linguistic expression to convey meaning automatically puts the matter on the same terms as natural linguistic expressions. Pure meaning, meaning in understanding, cannot be represented as such. Between understanding and communication comes language, and all languages function the same in their attempts to embody discursively the contents of understanding. As is the custom to say in logic, we make a translation from a natural language to symbolic representations, just as one natural language is translated to another. We are free to explore the forms of meaning and the ways that languages tend to convey the same thing in different ways; but it is only truth that is privileged, not some particular way that the same truth is represented.
In the following chapter perception will be one of the principal topics of concern. Here, however, it remains to remark on the ultimate connection between perception and thought. Where those two are in some ways absolutely sundered, as for instance if the content of thought is attributed to some immaterial substrate (the soul), perception really tends to be detached from what we might want to characterize as the most "human" in mental life. Even Kant seems to have believed that perception, through the forms of space and time, was inessential to rational beings as such. Instead, however, perception and thought, the concrete and the abstract, should be seen to overlap in the most profound way.
As the structure of instantaneous understanding coexists with perception, it is not unreasonable to expect that, apart from merely signifying the power to generate judgments or imaginative images, this structure may be reflected in the concurrent perception. Whatever the structures and contents of the preconscious may be, there is no reason or benefit in imagining the preconscious mind as some radically different realm of being from the conscious field. Consciousness may be seen as ebbing and flowing, covering more, then less, of the contents of the preconscious, regularly to withdraw altogether in deep sleep. In this way the structure of the preconscious may even be thought of as identical to the special structure or Gestalt that is present in perception. Since the preconscious as such is closed to consciousness and to our direct inquiry, it is important and helpful that we see as much as possible already present in the conscious field. There are limitations in that direction, but in this case it is especially illuminating to associate the preconscious powers of understanding with the immanent structures of perception.
The Gestalt of perception that involves recognition and understanding is very different from that which does not. Perception entirely without understanding would be in the very strongest sense unfamiliar and strange--appearances to a blank mind, if not actually blank in themselves. The Gestalt of understanding looms very large in our ordinary regard for perception; but the complication in that, the epistemological pitfall, follows from the fact that a state of understanding is cognitively equivalent to the proposition that discursively expresses it and so is just as much true or false as that proposition. It is thus possible for understanding in perception to actually contradict the cognitively immediate substrate of perception--a situation that would seem to require inattention, self-deception, or both, but which is not so uncommon. We know the difference between an attitude towards experience which seeks to discover what is really there and that which seeks merely to find something already familiar, even at the risk of truth.
What it is we think we are seeing in our perceptions profoundly affects the nature of our experience. Unfamiliar circumstances are liable to leave any of us very uncertain and confused about what we have seen; later we might discover that we failed to notice things that hardly seem capable of being missed. The difference between an unfamiliar and perplexing scene and one that is easily grasped, assimilated, and remembered is just that in the latter an understanding is present that is not with the former. The understanding is based on recognition of the objects present, and of course this in turn depends on the kinds of objects we are accustomed to deal with. Considered as bare intuition, a perception does not tell us what to make of it. On a foggy night we may really be able to make nothing of a perception: the vague shapes are unrecognizeable--except as vague shapes. In that case we are frustrated and disoriented that our ordinary projection of understanding is prevented. The perception--the intuition and the immediate knowledge--is still present, but the mediate supplement, the structured Gestalt of internal recognitions, is held back. In the clear and the light, without the mediation of what we would take to be thought or the production from memory of any word, a whole conceptual system is projected instantly into perception. The familiar world leaps out at us. But it still may be arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and false.
Thought and perception are unified at their common point of origin, and that unity is intimate indeed, despite the disparity of their subjective phenomenology in explicit consciousness. This relationship will be opened out further shortly as immediate knowledge and the intuitive aspect of perception are treated in the following chapter.
The lesson of the theory of understanding is principally that the real generative structures of understanding, conception, and thought belong to our existence, internal existence, but are largely hidden from consciousness. Within consciousness the objects of these things appear, informed with recognition and conceptual Gestalt; and while we have no trouble speaking of those objects, difficulties arise when we attempt to turn thought on its own internal operations. What we should begin to see in consciousness is a certain kind of output and display from the deeper level of mental functioning in the preconscious. As in Schopenhauer's idea of the small boat of representation on the great raging sea of the Will, we should begin to see consciousness as a fragment or a distillation of the great whole of the life of the self (confident, unlike Schopenhauer, in the principium individuationis) which continues within us and constitutes us all through waking and sleeping, awareness and insensibility.