There happen to be gaps

Thinking about what we mean by our words for kinds of things (“lions”, “gold”, “trees”, etc…), it seems clear to me that what we have in mind are not some essences. (This is of course separate issue from the issue if in fact the individuals which we see as belonging to the certain kind in fact share some essential characteristic.)

It can’t be that we have the essence in mind, because we aren’t aware of this essence. We can for sure think of “the essence which is shared by all those things” without knowing it, but even before that we need to have “those things” in mind in first place. Some kind of grouping of things into a kind needs to be done even before common essential characteristic is assumed.

So, given that it is not some essential (or defining) characteristic that is base of seeing individuals as belonging to one kind, what is it?

Last year, I was saying that it is some similarity on base of which we see individuals belonging to some kind – that is… we become aware of group (multitude) of individuals sharing some similarity, and it is that what we have in mind (the multitude of individuals [actual or possible] sharing some similarity) and that we baptize that when we introduce common nouns. So, to say – there happens to exist this multitude of things which are similar in some way, and we think of them when we use those common nouns. Be it the case where we talk about lions, trees, water etc…

As part of this kind of stance, in other posts I said I’m suspecting that there aren’t such things as concepts – e.g. LION, WATER, TREE, which would be what is meant by our common nouns. That is because, first I think the basis of using common nouns is in thinking of multiplicity and not of one single thing which has some properties; and second because that what we refer to are groups of things which happen to exist (that is what we have in mind) – we don’t have in mind some abstract criteria.

I think there is another part for this my story to make sense – and those are the gaps in the “similarity space”. If we put attention on the things that happen to exist, even if we can’t specify some defining characteristics of them, it so happens that there are gaps in their similarity. That is, it so happens that we have lions which are similar to each other, and then we have a gap of similarity to some other species. It is this fact, I think, that even in the absence of defining features, enables us to think of kinds of things – so it happens that there are not individuals which would fall in the similarity space between lions and e.g. tigers.

Of course, there might happen to be one individual (something between a tiger and a lion) but that wouldn’t really mean that there are no two groups of individuals which are separated by a gap. It would be two groups and one individual between them. But if instead of this individual, there happened to be lot of individuals which would fill the similarity gap between tigers and lions, it is hard to imagine that we would be able to discuss two kinds of things as we are today. What we could do is maybe paying attention on some feature, and do arbitrary setting of some border, but that would be quite different I think.

Because our thinking of lions and tigers as two different kinds today IS based on the fact that there is a real gap, not of our making, and that we have in fact group of things which are similar among each other. It is this actual phenomenon that we are thinking of. So, while there are no defining features, and even no defined borders of when does a lion stop being lion (and becoming something else),  there is a real phenomenon. While in the case where we would arbitrarily define what would be counted as lion, we are moving in thinking about quite another thing. We are not thinking of things which happen to exist, but we are defining kinds based on features – and this kind of definition is unrelated to the issue if individuals exist which satisfy this feature or not.

12 thoughts on “There happen to be gaps

  1. You need to read Heidegger and Derrida. This is a major point for them.

    The most interesting thing is that similarity entails difference. Since to be similar there must still be something keeping it from being identical. So gaps of difference as you put it are quite important.

  2. Hello, this comment is not related to this particular article but to one that you posted in 2006 about extracting music from youtube videos. I want to thank you so much because I have been trying to find a particular song from 1985 and no one had it. It was posted on youtube recently and I searched for a way to get it. When I found your article and downloaded the software, I was in tears because after almost 20 years of searching, I have found the one song that means so much to me. The name of it is “Til I See You Again by Gladys Knight & The Pips”. You have no idea how much you have changed my entire day. Thank you so much.

  3. Clark, thanks, I’m kind of scared to go into Heidegger and Derrida, as I have this feeling that they will require lot of work to go through. But if I did, what do you think would be good starting point in reading them (given my background)? Maybe some secondary literature?

  4. Well, as you say it’s an investment of time and if it’s not worth it I wouldn’t do it. I’d start with Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology which covers the whole field rather well. It doesn’t get into that particular question of difference but it’s a very well written introduction that covers all the major thinkers. From there I wouldn’t bother with anything but the earliest Derrida. That’s where he establishes his philosophy. Pretty much everything after On Grammatology is applications or “playful.” His early stuff is where he makes his main argument. With Heidegger it’s really hard to go wrong with Being and Time. It’s somewhat difficult but really is a great way to think through what is going on. And it’s no where near as hard to read as some make out. Most of the books “by” Heidegger are actually class notes that people have compiled. So it’s a bit more difficult to make out what is Heidegger and what is the figure being discussed.

  5. Just to add, Moran is a great way to decide if it’s even of interest to read any of the phenomenologists or post-phenomenologists. I’ve recommended the book to a lot of people and some return saying it was a great book but now they are sure they have no interest in phenomenology. So it works both ways.

    It’s just from your comments over the years I suspect you’d find a lot of interest.

  6. I think you’re fairly sound, Tanasije. But why is a bonzai tree not a twiggy bush? Why is a tall bush not a tree? Why is alcohol not a fiery kind of water? It seems to me that we are always looking for essences, and if we don’t see any evidence for them then we stop thinking of the similar things as of a kind. As though the initial resemblance was initial evidence for an essence. (I was also wondering about the place in this of our knowledge of ourselves as people, which might be extended to disembodied souls, or sapient aliens, but not to dolls or robots.)

  7. Enigman, I don’t agree that we expect that there are essences or else we will stop thinking of something as a kind of things. Because, as I see it, if that is the case, we might as well stop talking about most of kinds of things – be it books, furniture, lions, bachelors, trees etc… BTW, when discussing gaps and similarities, I’m not thinking merely of the perceptual similarities. The way things behave in different circumstances, how they affect other things (e.g. ourselves when eaten, maybe helping our health or making us sick), and so on… all this might become a reason for thinking of a group of things as falling into one kind.

    Also I don’t want to say that this is all there is to our awareness of kinds of things – for most of the things given more knowledge we gain through history we are able to point, if not to some essential characteristic, then to a kind of a reason of the origin of this kinds of things, in the sense how they come to have those certain characteristic properties that they came to have, be it evolution as explanation of species, explaining the characteristic properties of chair by pointing to the characteristics of human bodies, etc.. (in some cases that being a base for thinking of things in different way – grouping them on the base of how they come to be).

    BTW I think you point rightly that there are kinds of things, which might be not straightforwardly empirical (natural kinds), but closer to ‘clear notions’ – like the idea of conscious subjects, where one can approach those things not as incidental group of things that happen to exist, and share certain similarity, but on more abstract level… In one previous post, I proposed the brain in a vat kind of experiment as a base for differentiating between those two kinds of “kinds” (here)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s