Theory of Philosophy as a Science of the Symbolic

First publication in Argumentation 4 : 363-373, 1990.
1990 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands. Modified version:August 2000


ABSTRACT: This study tries to put the foundations of a theory of reasoning on the ground of philosophy as philosophy : what are the presupposed terms of the philosophical research, and what they are meaning. It intends to separate words from their "evident" meaning and to receive them as "symbolical items". Symbolisation is the most important way of proceeding in philosophy. Philosophers are usually not aware of this symbolical process. Thus, the structure of "knowing" in philosophy is presented as a way of symbolising. This perspective is open with referring to the traditional problems.

KEY WORDS: Reasoning, meaning, symbolisation, knowledge, metaphilosophy.

As a science of the Symbolic, theory of philosophy would be the answer to the search of backgrounds and would be aware of what could be said the origins of all representations (what could be considered as such) - that is to say what could be the ground of any idea of anything. In that perspective, we do refer to a way opened by Kant in the study of structures of human knowledge laid under the logical appearances.

If we want to give a positive issue to the philosophical analysis, it would be good to prevail upon the philosophers to contest and to request about the various ways through which we have "symbolised" in whatever matter it was : science, art, religion, politics, ethics. Various and even heterogeneous though they may appear, these fields are as topoi which are not so separate as they seem to be at first sight. A deeper examination should demonstrate that there is indeed no separate topos in respect of the problem concerning the ways of symbolisation. This problem might be another and a modern form taken by the ancient problem of the question about the origin, but is absolutely not a revival of the question about the metaphysical being. What the matter is, is simply the question of what is the "being" which leads (and hitherto led) us to now whatever looks like, as some say, 'postmodernity' that is, at least, a state beyond 'modernity' : really or fictitiously. A general problem lying in the background of modernity is coming forward, and that is the problem of our epistemological origin which we could formulate : how do we know what we claim to know? And that question is to be put in every field : as much in physical sciences as in social sciences, as much in art as in politics. Asking in that way, we would ask not only about speaking and knowing, but also about generally "being".

How do we know what we claim to know? That question refers to the question of rationality today. A theory of rationality is difficult to establish. C.G. Hempel proved precisely how far we are to succeed being explicit about the foundation of a theory of rationality even in the most exact sciences (1). The social sciences are tending towards a rationality of action. Instead of that, we have to recognise rather an intentional rationality of speech acts at work  on the background of intentional states, since intentional states and speech acts are connected (2). Whatever we are doing in whatever special field, we are meaning something for somebody who understands us. This general point of view is a common point of view of all sciences : natural and social.

Ethics seem to be, among all the fields, a privileged sphere for intentionality. But it presents a network of conflicts between all the senses of the term 'reason': according to the family of words about the term itself of 'reason', and according to the set of locutions deriving from this term. For the first ones, we have 'reasonable' and 'rational'; for the second ones, we have 'theoretical reason' and 'practical reason'. And since we are on Kant's ground, we must say that Kant connected best the topoi of necessity and liberty. But our problem remains to find a foundation for both these different kinds of rationality : the ethical one and the scientific one.

Husserl's problem in the Krisis (3) raised the fundamental question of the "world of life" (Lebenswelt) from which the occidental culture departed. And so did Heidegger looking for the native country of Being. We must say, however, that neither Husserl nor Heidegger succeeded in restoring the fundamental topos of rationality, and the original ground of being, thinking and acting. We must accept that being is fictitious in the philosophical way it has been considered. And what is obvious, generally speaking, is, on the contrary, the necessity of thinking of an eminently imaginary "being" and which is meant to be "time".

What is time in itself? Is it a reality, as Bergson said against Kant ? We have tempted to prove that Bergson took a false option (4).  Kant was right to think that time is nothing, an ens imaginarium but, notwithstanding, that it is determining really and necessarv all what it determines. For, putting "being" as much as letting speak of being, time is a ground of being. What is unthought about time is what is to be inferred from, for instance, the Transcendental Aesthetics in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Indeed, as an ens imaginarium, time founds both positions of knowing being and known as being. Very clearly, in the reflections which he wrote on his copy of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant may affirm: "What is determined in time is real"; (5) and "What is itself determined by the concept of time is (exists) necessarily" (6). As a matter of fact, what is time ? Unless it be nothing without intentionality. That is to say that thinking and acting are unavoidably claiming intentionality. In this respect, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind are together participating in a new philosophy of action, a pragmatics in which we could discern our history as being originated from a common imaginarv being of time. As I hoped to have it sufficiently demonstrate in La Symbolicité,(7), we have to turn once more to Kant. Perhaps, towards a Kant that we should have read once more in a new light, and in whom we might have found the three unavoidable elements of our epistemological origin, understood either in the transcendental horizon or in a transcendental game of language, and which could be:

I. what is the unknown ground upon which language, action and knowledge can begin: the "noumenon" ;

2. the imaginary being of time, including happenings or intentional aims ;

3. the legitimacy (Max Weber) or the symbolicity (as I call it) of all that we are speaking of, acting and knowing.

Sensible life constitutes our sensible consciousness. It was what Freud showed about himself as a scholar, when he told his own dreams which proved how much intellectual consciousness and sensible consciousness were mixed together and intermingled, although intellectual and sensible consciousness were each one specific. Against the numerous forms of philosophical a priori, the philosopher Ferdinand Alquié had more recently very well studied the ground of the affective consciousness as constituting a knowledge by itself (8). There may be a knowledge concerning sensible consciousness. Instead of concepts and schemes, there may be images and symbols : they all belong to consciousness which is now to be scientifically studied (see the ASSC).

Already, Kant had suggested the necessity of thinking and recognising two unscientific kinds of Ideas : "aesthetic Ideas" and "rational Ideas". In his terminology, the first ones are inadequate to pure concepts, the last ones are inadequate to empiric intuitions. We can say that we need a bridge to represent either aesthetic or rational Ideas. I mean that aesthetic imagination can give, to the first ones, nondetermining concepts, and, to the last ones, artistic intuitions. For aesthetic imagination represents without determining concepts - but they may be said 'reflecting' - and it may create artistic intuitions for the pure reason and its intuitionless concepts. And because there are not adequate intuitions, we need art and its works which are creating images and symbols of what has no sensible appearance into an artistic sensible appearance which, in a way, imitates natural appearance : that does not mean "making a copy", but giving something which does not exist at all ! Hence we may admit that there are symbolic forms. We may hint that "aesthetic Ideas" and "rational Ideas" together are made to meet themselves in the field of art, and especially in the field of music (9).

By the Freudian terms of 'frustration' (the fact of an unsatisfied instinct), of 'interdiction' (the way by which this frustration is imposed), and of 'privation' (the state of mind produced by the interdiction) are designated aggressions against the sensibility which are precisely inflicted by a formal law which is ruling us through the  expressed norms of a real culture and civilisation. We can affirm that each society imposes, with its culture and civilisation, its own kinds of frustrations, interdictions and privations to each of its members. These latter feel sufferings through their living with social partners, through the fact itself that they are submitted to the formal law which they obey in themselves. The ability of receiving an external law coming from society is necessarily set upon this formal law which is a "rational fact" (Kant), the fact of possessing an internal (void) form of law, even if we do not know what is the content of this formal law. And, whatever the content could be, it is essential for a human being to be sensible to that formal law inasmuch as it is formal. This is why men are impelled to find comfort, not only because of other men, but also because of the natural evil ; and this comfort, they mean it as a supernatural one, of the kind : "nothing is in vain, or everything has its price", as if there were a Providence which were watching over them, looking severe but being also deeply benevolent.

We can suppose that moral law has been demonstrated in the clinical studies of Lacanian (10) psychoanalysis. The confirmed "Law" inside of human mind uncovers itself to us as the dynamics of a supra-sensible teleology. This supra-sensible teleology finds out in the category of beautiful the very symbol of moral good. Teleology is then a priori and our knowledge of God is then purely symbolical, yet as symbolical it may be deciding about what might be the idea of any object for our reflecting judgement, which could be a teleological one or an aesthetic one. However, this knowledge cannot be taken for a determining knowledge in respect of the laws of natural phenomena, which are like schemes and concepts of our scientific understanding. We must say that "pure reason', as Kant says, is mostly in its own field into ethics than into science, because ethics is the field of liberty, while science is the field of necessity. Object in itself does not bother neither understanding nor pure reason ; but understanding is able to determine object as it appears to us, whereas reason reflects how our inside human world is. And Kant insists in order to distinguish well what he calls a "scheme for the concept", from "a symbol for the reflection" (Critique of Judgement, §. 59).

In my book La Symbolicité, I have explained that the whole building of the Critique of Pure Reason supposes its own foundation and particularly the foundation of the transcendental subject, which is framing, as being put in the further assertions of the Critique of Practical Reason, which is finding out what, above all, is effectively at first at the level of sensibilia and of knowledge. That is to say expressly : what is the Factum of moral law. And here we have in that first Factum of practical reason the starting-point of the whole process really originator of sensibilia, supposed destined for the scientific knowledge or, as Kant says, the "determining" knowledge (not "reflecting"). Then it is the way and the place where the function of knowledge starts at a "reflecting" level. It is also the ground of the famous a priori intuitions of space and time at the determining level of theoretical reason and understanding bound together. The fact is that when we read carefully Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, what we can catch is that Kant uses very much an explanation referring to what he calls 'equivalences' with which the theoretical reason proceeds, and we can remark that the practical reason proceeds with similar "equivalences" in Critique of Practical Reason, since Kant establishes that "liberty" is 'equivalent" to what he calls the "consciousness of the unconditional practical" and also the "consciousness of a pure practical reason". Beside this real analogical character which is appearing in the process of reason, I have in La Symbolicité underlined the non temporal character (I mean not only "immaterial" but also "timeless" character) of the pure theoretical and practical reason. Anyway, when it is necessary to remind it, this pure reason can remind us time : past time or future time of our good or bad deeds.

Time is an imaginary notion speaking to our senses and to our emotions : in Les Racines philosophiques de la science moderne (11), I go further with this imaginary time, as I find it even at the bottom of modern science. Ignoring time, reason is able to make us aware, for instance, of having broken an interdiction which causes us, as Freud said, privation and frustration.  One can see how much our practical reason and our feelings are connected in the way of consciousness towards the formal law, which is also the proper consciousness of practical reason working in us. And what we intend to let know is that, without this consciousness of moral law as a formal one - even if we do not know its content, and even it we do not obey it - we could not have a consciousness of scientific laws. By the moral law which is impelling us through its formal character we are sensitising and becoming responsible to go in quest of scientific truth. In one part, remorse and repentance are, in our sensibility, time effects of the practical reason which is nevertheless timeless. In one another part, it is the same pure reason (which is both practical and theoretical) which authorises in its theoretical effects the a priori time determinations into the transcendental synthesis with the support of the a priori intuitions of space and time, and with the understanding' schematism, of which the real condition is time (see the Analytic of Principles in Critique of Pure Reason).

As we may conclude, there is an ontological privilege which goes to the a priori intuition of time. Therefore I think that we may insist on the privilege of the imaginary statute of time in the original process of knowledge departing, as I believe, from the symbolical statute of moral (formal) law.

This approach concerns our epistemological origin about which I am searching after the "truth" of our knowledge process. The possibility of knowledge does not come simply from the existence of some sense data. In agreement with Quine, I do not see why there would be any mistake in the fact itself of "seeking an implicit sub-basement of our conceptualisation or of language" as Quine writes (12).  On the contrary, how could be a certain way of philosophising without seeking the sub-basement of our conceptualisation ? And when Barry Stroud writes: "Quine himself is more concerned with recommending and sketching the outlines of a naturalised epistemology than with carrying it out in details" (13). I am noting the confirmation about naturalised epistemology. It was also Auguste Comte's standpoint : for, even if Comte did not admit any a priori, he thought that there is a "human nature" which historically develops his specific features. Subject and object are involved in a whole made of solidary elements which constitutes it. Natural history and human history are combining each other in order to let human thought apprehend the real world how it is. The symbolisation process must be more precise : this is the aim of Cognitive science, it is anywhere not enough precise : by Comte less than by Kant, by Kant less than Quine, and by Quine less than Cognitive science could do. As Stroud explains it : "a naturalised epistemology . . . would study the ways in which events at our sensory surfaces causes those events which are coming-to-believe-something about the world around us" (14). This kind of study is worth doing, but it would not bring us the answer to the question about the background of our epistemological origin.

A step further in philosophical analysis could be made by answering that question. Epistemology is now generally treated as if it were only a question raised inside the scientific fields where scientific progress is done : Yes, maybe it is or would be better so. But it is also a question overflowing the field of natural phenomena, and concerning the level of "transcendentality", either in the sense given by Kant in the opposition to "empiricity", or in the sense given by Husserl in the opposition to "rationality". Let us take this term together in both senses : in regard to empiricity and to rationality. We must then consider the "how" of our knowledge, which implies that we cannot start from our knowledge in order to examine it as if it were its own reference! We must implicitly recognise that the choice itself of what we finally believe is not the evidence of a "cogito", but really an effect of an universal agreement between scientists, therefore something which is bound to a historical state of science, and to a social accomplishment of sciences with their accepted methods and contents. And the reasoning of an individual person founding the scientific process above his individual reconstruction of the whole historical development of a science is often mere didactical, and does not bring anything about the scientific creativity, and above all about the numerous choices which are implicated in the scientific work.

If the major problem of a philosophy conceived as a science of the symbolic is simply to examine, here, the conditions of possibility or of validity of the knowledge, proper to an epistemological subject building the physical world as it works really for him (Kant), and, there, to establish our epistemological origin amid a transcendental "co-subjectivity" (Husserl), then the solution of our epistemological problem, which is the problem of symbolisation, and therefore the central problem of a philosophy without thesis, may present itself to us as it presented itself to Suzanne K. Langer, who put the accent above "facts that are symbols and laws that are their meaning" <15>. And I agree totally with her because she was in front of the problem of symbolisation when she wrote: "In the fundamental notion of symbolisation - mystical, practical, or mathematical, it makes no difference - we have the keynote of all humanistic problems"(16). I am less interested to see a "need of symbolization" (17) than to analyse the very circumstances of this essential act of thought (18) which is symbolisation. In Langer's book we find a fundamental statement: "Symbolisation is preratiocinative, but not pre-rational" (19). Rightfully Langer distinguishes symbolisation from combination.

Sense data are seen by Langer as being constantly wrought into symbols which are, as she writes, "our elementary ideas". And among these ideas, some are used for reasoning, others for dreaming : but all of them constitute the human mind including religion. Langer sees our brain like a transformer that sucks the current of experience in a stream of symbols. Symbolic transformation begets the influence of social organisation on which depend symbolic functions as an instrument developing through successful use

Langer has the right insight by writing "Human life is shot through and through with ritual" <20> and nevertheless she indicates reference as being a "naturalised epistemology" that is to say a positivist one, when she compares human practices with animal practices. It seems that we must not forget that animal practices are not symbols of liberty, but rather signs of necessity. In the case of symbolisation, we must not take the posit at the lowest level - even if there could be a transition between zoosemiotics and anthroposemiotics - but rather consider an important difference between man and animal, not simply biologically, but too symbolically. We are exactly only superior or reasonable animals as long as we do not think of the formal moral law which is ruling us inside of us. As Langer has seen, what is symbolic does not exclude rational, only ratiocinative. But we put the following question : without any formal Law inside of us could there be any symbolicity ?

Signs are always possible, also for animals, but symbols have a process which uses intentions, feelings between law and impulse, and according to what we can define humanity. The "reasonable animal" must find out the ways taken by its "reason" : "why" and "how" is there a translation from the sense data into structured languages, sciences, institutions, arts, religions? If we need a complementary science as basement of this cognitive research, we may recognise that animal psychology or neurology, brain physiology might bring us some informations about particular sorts of processes. But what we are looking for and considering is more a human science than a properly natural science ; now, we must know that a human science is always a social science. Because symbolicity implies a community, and a human community. In her last book, Mind : an Essay on Human Feeling, Langer studies what she calls "the Specialisation of Man" and she precisely shows that "the phenomenon of mind (is) not explicable by any single evolutionary principle, not directly derivable from animal mentality" (21).

Symbol and scheme must be distinguished, at least to understand that, even if they are simply analogical, they do not play the same part in respect of the object representation. It may be done an adjunction of substitute representation and then it appears that "symbolical thought" may hold the enigma of the logical signs arrangements, as Husserl has seen in his essays about semiotics (22) : improper representations may accompany concepts ; and they can be used instead of concepts because substitute representations beget superior concepts without an intuition of their contents, without either an immediate or a definitive intuition. Signs can let conceive various symbolical representations, in which they can function as representative of the designed objects. And "symbolical thought" begins with improper representations accompanying effective concepts, and only then the substitute representations become first possible. Either improper representations are used instead of concepts, or other substitute representations may arise, but without content. We can imagine now all the architecture of "signs of signs" which constitutes the thought. Husserl has very well seen that we do not always think directly an object, and that our logical thought thinks always indirectly. Also a mathematical or a logical sign arranges itself into chains of signs of which process is purely "mechanical", using ante-logical signs' operations (vor-logische Zeichenoperationen) without a logical understanding. On the ground of a logical extrinsic signs thought, there is another kind of thought which is a condition of the possibility of the latter : an analogical intuition", or shortly a symbol.

The a priori time determinations change with the different schemes, according to an operation implying one of the possible schemes of understanding. The other case of the object' presentation is the symbol, which is fundamental. In the birth of thought and knowledge, there  is what Kant designs as an 'hidden art' and as being applied to the scheme. If, as it is, schemes of understanding need the possibility of symbol as condition, on the other hand, symbols are sufficient by themselves : they do not need anything else. We can compare symbol to aesthetic and rational Ideas together : in one case, intuition without a determining concept, in the other, a concept without an intuition. What is aesthetical (without determining concept) or what is rational (without empiric intuition) is the Symbolic itself which finds out in the Rational its own mode of presenting an object that is meant as a thought object. In the same way, the rational finds out in the Symbolic its own mode of presentation of a thought object, because what is purely rational needs always an analogical element to be communicated : and the symbolical way is eminently analogical. Where no intuition is possible - I mean a sensible or an empiric intuition - then, at least, an analogical intuition is always available through the Symbolic. Symbol can communicate a rational concept without an intuition, but also an intuition without a determining concept; therefore, the "aesthetic Ideas" find out in a symbolic way their means of communication, like the "rational ideas" find out in the same symbolic way their own way to communicate themselves. The analogical intuition can help to communicate either what is without an intuition or what is without a concept.

The equivalent terms, which are interfering to communicate either aesthetical or rational ideas, may be understood as if they were ambiguous terms. Indeed, as Michael Devitt explains it: "Often there is not merely one thing that tokens of a given physical type would commonly be taken to mean" (23). Devitt means that there are ambiguities of word, but also ambiguity of structure. Tokens of the same physical type have been used to express different things in a speaker's mind. Thoughts with different meanings were expressed by tokens of the same physical type ; not only in current expressions, but also in more complex ways of expressing - and also by other means than by simple words - we may say, after Dewitt, that the problems of ambiguities "are more widespread than might appear" (24). For ambiguity is not confusion. Ambiguity is a "property of types", confusion is a "property of tokens"(25). In order to be much more exact about the Symbolic, we must say that we have to do here not with a simple ambiguity of terms, but with something like some polyvalency of thought, which may be applied either for aesthetical or for rational Ideas. Anyway, for Ideas which are not easy to communicate, but that we can think nevertheless by means of tokens. We understand only what may perfectly suit and with certainty to our way of speaking. If the words are missing, we must find out other words or tokens that we may use to recognise a distinct thought in despite of any ambiguity or polyvalency.

For example, and to conclude, when we talk about "transcendentality", we use a word which does not design a determining concept that we could apply to the world in which we are daily living, at least not directly. And it gives neither an empiric  intuition nor a sensitive one. The idea of "transcendentality" is in a way like an aesthetical idea and also like a rational idea, because it does not imply either a determining concept or an empiric intuition: but it can effectively work yet in respect of a particular one-sided rationality to which Husserl opposed it. The word 'transcendentality' may be seen as ambiguous, but it does not mean nothing; and what it surely means is nevertheless not without an effect upon what is distinguishable. There is a law in this word, which imposes upon a strict empirical philosophy or upon a strict rational philosophy. Through this word as token, not simply a symbol is to be seen, but also a symbol of law : it is why we are in front of the Symbolic. Even if it lets us stand amid the philosophical fiction, this word and its timeless meaning may work on our life time ; it belongs to the Symbolic.



1) C. G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation, New York: The Free Press, 1965; and "Scientific Rationaity", in Rationality To-Day / La Rationalité aujourd'hui, edited by F. Geraets, Ottawa, The University of Ottawa Press, 1979 ; also, J. N. Kaufmann, "Visages de la rationalité", in Dialogue, Volume XXI, Number 1, 1981.

2) John R. Searle, Speech Acts. An Essav in the Philosophy of Language, London : Cambridge University Press, 1969 ; and also: Intentionality. An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle. Melbourne, Sydney : Cambridge University Press, 1983.

3) Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschafien und die transzendentale Phänomenologie, Den Haag : Martinus Nijhoff, 1954.

4) Angèle Kremer Marietti, La Symbolicité ou le problème de la symbolisation. Collection "Croisées", Paris : les Presses Universitaires de France, 1982, p. 98.

5) See "Selbstständige Reflexionen in Handexemplar der Kritik der reinen Vernunfi (A), in Kant's Gesammelte Schriften, herausgegeben von der Deutschen Akademie zu Berlin, Band XXIII, Dritter Abteilung, Handschriftlicher Nachlass, Zehnter Band, Berlin : Walter de Gruyter, 1955, p. 32 : Reflexion XCE36.

6) Reflexion XCE36, ibid.

7) La Symbolicité, Chapters IV, V, VI.

8) See Ferdinand Alquié, La Conscience affective, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1975.

9) Joseph-François Kremer, Les formes symboliques de la musique, Paris, Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1984.

10) Angèle Kremer Marietti, Lacan ou la rhétorique de l'inconscient, Paris : Aubier, 1978, p. 251.

11) Angèle Kremer Marietti, Les Racines philosophiques de la science moderne, Bruxelles: Mardaga, 1987.

12) Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object, Cambridge : The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (first printing 1960), twelfth printing, March 1981, p. 3.

13 Barry Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1984, p.219.

14) Op. cit., p. 250.

15) Suzanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art, Cambridge : Harvard University Press (first print 1942), 1979, p. 21.

16) Op. cit., p.25.

17) Op. cit., p.41.

18) Op. cit., p.41.

19) Op. cit., p.42.

20) Op. cit., p.45.

21) Suzann K. Langer, Mind : An Essay on Human Feeling, Volume II, Baltimore and London : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, p. 215.

22) See E. Husserl, Semiotik. Zur Logik der Zeichen, Husserliana XII, The Hague, 1970.

23) Michael Devitt, Designation, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981, p. 80.

24) Op. cit., p. 99.

25) Op.Cit., p. 79.