Rule #1. Every Sentence is First Person

We want to understand GSOT, the Grand Scheme Of Things. Philosophy is not the same as GSOT, because GSOT may be best encountered by quietly walking through the woods or visiting some other sacred place. Philosophy is rather the way we talk about GSOT and make it known to ourselves and to each other.

In philosophy we should start from where we are. By remembering that, we shall be better able to avoid colossal errors of thought prevalent in the 20th century.

Merely to start from where we are, however, is too vague, too diverse to provide a foundation for clear thinking. It is an admonition, and a good one, but it needs extension and sharpening in the form of rules, which can cut away the tangled vines to open a path for our common thoughts and the language we use to express them.

So I shall propose 5 rules upon which my philosophy (my understanding of GSOT) is built. With modifications from you and others, perhaps these rules can help in the building of our philosophy.

The first rule comes from recognizing that too little attention in the past 150 years has been paid to the short words “I” and “we.” Here is the first rule:

Every sentence is first-person in its origin.

Every sentence comes from a person or a group of people. Is this a demonstrable truth? Consider that to any sentence whatsoever, one can always add an appropriate prefix, for example,

                                             “I/we judge that…”          to any declaration,

                                             “I/we ask whether…”      to any question,

                                             “I/we exclaim…”            to any exclamation,

and so forth, and the meaning of the sentence need not change at all. It is only necessary to ascribe “I/we” and a verb more or less accurately.

One way that the meaning of a sentence can change upon the addition of “I/we,” a verb, and appropriate qualifiers is that the sentence was intentionally vague at its inception and the prefixed words make the sentence more definite than intended.

This intentional vagueness is the condition under which so-called objective declarations or hypotheses are presented. The presenter urges the receiver of such an objective message to consider the bare statement or question in isolation, removed from the merging tributaries of consciousness that conceived it. But this stance is itself the product of a particular community of like-minded objective thinkers who repeatedly declare

“We pose the statement (or hypothesis) in isolation that….”

“We pose…” makes the declaration first-person. The false modifier “in isolation” pretends to separate the statement or hypothesis from its presenter and so introduces vagueness.

“I/we pose/declare/ask/exclaim…” flickers in the parting of lips, pulses with the touch of fingers on the keyboard, so quick it’s missed unless close attention is paid. This implicit introduction, if we only recognize it, precedes every utterance, and it means that no declaration, question, exclamation, or hypothesis can ever be presented objectively.

Every sentence is first-person, regardless of whether the content is distant and abstract, or close and personal. It makes no difference how many hands have copied and passed the sentence along, how many eyes have seen it, or how many minds have modified it. The sentence remains first-person.

When small bands of humans competed with other animals for food and security, the calls of individuals and the lessons of the tribe were manifestly first-person. I need you to help. We do it this way. As agricultural efficiency and social organization evolved over many generations, communication became more hierarchical. The voice of the leader, the king, became authoritative. Religion emerged and developed, and diverse minor gods fell subject to or merged into one supreme God. In the great monotheistic and universal religions, God’s word, as in the secular realm the word of the king, became recognized as truth. Emergent civilization found a standard of authority to which all people must adhere. God’s omniscient viewpoint defined objective truth.

According to Auguste Comte, the historical advance of philosophy moved from religious to metaphysical and finally to scientific apprehension. In the transition, God disappeared, but the notion of truth defined by an omniscient viewpoint persisted. The venerable idea of truth remained “What would I know if I knew all things?”

Albert Einstein in the mid-20th century spoke of having a “humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man.” This attitude, which Einstein himself termed “religious,” comes close to theophany, an experiential encounter with God. However, Einstein described God solely in terms of rationality and intelligence, like Spinoza’s God, and he cautioned against the notion of a personal God accessible to human beings through prayer and miracle. How does this square with the idea of truth as what-I-would-know-if-I-knew-all-things? Einstein reached for it, but described it as “inaccessible to man.”[1]

Today, therefore, if a person does not believe in God, he or she should discard the omniscient/objective viewpoint. As humans, we do not have the warrant to establish objective truth using that viewpoint. Until recently, science was thought to provide the means to approach objective truth asymptotically. Thomas Kuhn’s classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in 1962 disputed that notion.[2] Here is a key passage:

We are all deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. But need there be any such goal? Can we not account for both science’s existence and its success in terms of evolution from the community’s state of knowledge at any given time? Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal? If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process.

Periodically, Kuhn tells us, the entire worldview of science is overthrown, including the lens through which objective truth is projected.

Many people today including myself continue to believe in omniscient God. For us, undeniably God’s viewpoint defines truth. Yet even in this case, human discussion of divine concepts should be acknowledged as first-person human presentation and response.

Some say that Allah or God has authored sacred writings. Others deny it. Arguments from both sides spring from inner emotional and spiritual sources, and philosophy in my view favors neither. But it really doesn’t matter with regard to our rule that every sentence is first-person. If the sentences of sacred writings are from Allah or God, then assuredly they are first-person. One might capitalize the words and say they are First-Person, but that does not change the rule.

Jumping up from the sofa with a new thought in my head, I hit my shin on the coffee table. Confirmed, there are real objective things in the world. Let’s have some common sense displayed! Real objective things and their behavior over time are the actual models for our sentences.

On reflection I think, as I always have, that there are real objective things in the world. These things and their behavior indeed serve as models for our sentences. No problem with that. But what we say about these things and their behavior still comes from us, and not from the things.

A common-sense approach is fine. We the community of common-sense people surely can develop a philosophy that fits whatever standards we agree make sense to us in common. Even so, every sentence in that philosophy will be first-person, arising as it does in our community.

Does it really make any difference how the sentences of our speech and writing are viewed? Does it affect any practical decisions that we make? Here we are asking if Rule #1 – every sentence is first person – fits with pragmatism (to be considered in detail later in this series).

After all, technical and scientific progress, as well as history which describes progress, are built upon objectively tested hypotheses. As beneficiaries of progress, we all gain. Can we not, then, just as well drop “we” and simply call it benefit?

But who decides what constitutes progress? By whose judgment is benefit validated? Objective thinking either gives no answer or begs an appeal to a council of dispassionate experts.

The worst conclusion of objective thinking is that which discards human will as meaningless, on the ground that it cannot be examined in a purely objective manner (see this article, previously cited, in which 4 out of 6 contemporary philosophers conclude that free will is an illusion). Instead, let us adhere to Rule #1 and insist that purely objective thinking is meaningless.

Rule #1 for philosophy – every sentence is first person – keeps us planted firmly in the familiar world of daily activities. The implied “I” and “we” prefixes for the sentences of common speech are so routine, so readily understood by speaker and hearer alike that there is no need to voice them. The same applies to writing, art, and every form of presentation. Commerce, romance, mathematics, religion, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, comedy, government, sports, law, and every other realm of human interaction can go on just as they have for millennia.

With one exception: Philosophy must retreat from the notion that declarations, questions, hypotheses, exclamations, and so forth can be objective. Will this make any difference for GSOT? We shall see. The next blog will look further at the challenge from objective thinkers to the rule of first-person speech as it applies to the question of free will.

Next post: Choosing to Deny Free Will

Previous post: Everyday Life

Searching for GSOT outline: Home

[1] Einstein, A. Ideas and Opinions. Bonanza, New York, pp. 46-49.

[2] Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd edition. Vol. 2, No. 2 in Neurath, O. International Encyclopedia of Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962 and 1970, see especially pp.170-171.


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