A rebuttal of mediational epistemology PART I

How dependent on mental representation are our actions?

How dependent on mental representation are our actions?

Due in part to the work of the later Wittgenstein, the legacy of mediational epistemology has cast a long shadow over Western philosophy. This has attributed a central place to consciousness in the human understanding of the world, leading us to conclude that our only knowledge of reality comes through the representations we have formed of it within ourselves. As I have noted already, we are still seduced by the Cartesian certainty that ‘I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me’. On such an understanding it is through the inner filter of the mind that the world outside is obtained.

Long after Descartes’ dualism and rationalism had been abandoned, various forms of this frame of reference continued to be posited. Kant for example, revisited and transformed the mediational element, Descartes ‘ideas’ construed as copies of external reality comprising units of information. Kant proposed instead that the mediational element should be regarded as the categorial form which necessarily organises all data, claiming that only through the conceptual forms imposed by the mind does intuition ‘acquire sight’. Descartes’ legacy, whatever its mutation, committed Western thinking to the paradigm that knowledge of things outside the mind is indebted to representational activity within it.

Vital to the mediational paradigm is this assumed reliance upon internal representations, or beliefs, which lend themselves to the manipulation of human reason. This coherence theory of the world, which Husserl rejected as psychologism, contends that ‘nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief’.[1] Alternatively expressed, nothing counts as a justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and there is no way to get outside our beliefs or our language so as to find some test other than coherence.

Any alternative to this representationalist view must overcome these limits and the implication is that this cannot occur. Far from experience being as Husserl insisted ‘the final court of appeal’, our inability to interrogate the world beyond the confines of our own physicality, means that experiences cannot reveal what is causing the ‘internal happenings of which we are aware’.[2] Imprisoned within my own representations of reality I cannot stand at any distance from them to certify them.

The mediational framework is finally dismantled however, in the notion of ‘embedded knowing’ espoused by Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. When I look out of the blinds to check whether it is the full moon or a neighbour’s security light casting a shadow against the wall of the landing, I do not really doubt the value of looking. I take for granted that I am competent enough to form a reliable view of what is going on in the world. I can stand at the right distance and in the right orientation to attain that optimum tension I have described above, what Merleau-Ponty calls a ‘maximum grip’ on the relevant objects in the world.

This ability to seek out the significance I want is an aspect of my ability to ‘cope’ or to ‘engage’ with the world; my practised engagement with the world in turn provides the confidence underpinning judgements I make about the world outside my window. This unthematised confidence applies to those things I have acquired a working competence to engage with. If, on informing my wife that it is the moon, she were to ask me, ‘Is it a waxing or waning crescent moon?’ I would find I that this goes beyond my competence. Nevertheless, in this everyday and graduated sense, I am able to measure my beliefs against the facts because I engage with them.

Merleau-Ponty clarifies his alternative to the mediational paradigm by addressing Kant’s observation about the unity of experience; this urges us to notice that we cannot isolate elements we wish to establish from the fabric of experience itself. The validity of any given element is determined by its ‘meaning’ which must be defined by placing it in a larger whole, a larger whole which transcends a mere ‘aggregation of such elements’. [3]As I have intimated already, the explicit segments of my experience such as ‘street-light’, ‘landing wall’ and ‘moon’, acquire the sense they have from an intersubjectively negotiated ‘world’ whose status is organized by social practice. That I am able to situate myself within this meaning-giving whole at all, is due to my practised embodied engagement with the human world and its cultural specifics.

How then do I engage with or cope in this world? The perception I have of my embodied presence in the world combines both explicit and tacit intentionality.

My beliefs about the world intertwine with my habituated engagement with things from day to day, and therefore, just as I can sublimate the skills I learn, so too I can articulate my actions that have been habitual. In this sense then, the background of the world, taken up as the Lifeworld foreground and rendered meaningful, can sink again into the background.

In the first instance skills have to be learned

In the first instance skills have to be learned

My holistic and often seamless engagement with the world, which incorporates both explicit and tacit intentionality, stands in opposition to the mediational inference that all my understanding of the world is ultimately consciously mediated knowledge. It contests the notion that separates an ‘inner’ grasp of the world from an ‘external’ reality it purports to be a grasp of. As scholars have pointed out, explicit beliefs about the moon can be held, even actualized, in my thinking, even if the moon is no longer visible, or does not in fact exist.[4]  The grasp of things, in which my everyday embodied engagement with the world’s objects is enabled, resists such segregation however, because unlike moon-beliefs, this ability cannot be harnessed ‘in the absence of the objects it operates on’. The ability I have for navigating the various rooms and stairs of my house at night, lit only by the light of the moon, cannot be exercised in the absence of moonlight.

One might argue however, that this practical engagement with the world does not occur in my mind as my theoretical beliefs do; it is instead apparent in my whole body. But this objection overlooks the worldly embeddedness of the one who seeks to know about the world, for our knowledge of the world is located therein precisely as a purposive capacity within this environment. It does not reside for example merely in my body, but in my body-climbing-the-stairs. Indeed, my domestic discussion about the moon , exists not in my body and voice, but intersubjectively in my embodied-voice-in-conversation-with-my-wife.[5]

Whilst one might assume moreover that there is a strong neurophysiological case to be made for the situation of these capabilities within the body alone, nevertheless living with things involves a certain kind of understanding, which one might call ‘pre-understanding’.[6] Even at a pre-thetic level, things around us resonate with significance or purposive relevance to the unfolding projects of our lives. I know my way around the things that comprise my environment, and though I can articulate this relevance now, language and concept need not play any direct role in order for me to begin to engage. Indeed as I consider my daughter at nineteen months of age I am intrigued by the way that she manipulates her environment and expresses various states of mind such as humour regarding an unexpected sighting of the family cat curled up in her crayon box. She is engaging with the world in a way that is not essentially conceptual. 

Merleau-Ponty has noted how when we are speaking we form sentences as we utter them,[7] we live in them and do not take time to ‘try them on for size’ before utilising them; how few sentences we utter knowing precisely where they will lead. Similarly when I play the drums I am engaging with the rhythm and pace of the music; I do not, though I am able, conceptualise the weight of the sticks and the distance of the snare from the hi-hat. When the music moves to a new phrase I do not necessarily know the fills I will employ to embellish the basic beat.

Habitual engagement with the world

Habitual engagement with the world

If I pause and reflect on my engagement with the world, I find that in a sense I am never totally ignorant of the tacit skills and meanings I employ. Engaging with the world harnesses a  kind of intermediate status between known and quite unknown, it draws elements from the background of the world as if some kind of proto-knowledge resonates with their potentiality for-me that is not as yet explicit.

It is this tacit embodied interaction with the world which underpins the conceptual focus in our lives. It forms the fabric of the Lifeworld, and is foundational to our conscious definition and discernment  of significance in it. Though we are tethered to the world’s specifics, our grasp of the world is holistic, or what Merleau-Ponty has referred to as a Gestalt. Indeed, no worldly thing has the status of a single independent percept, for it stands inevitably in the context of an already given world which constitutes an indeterminate whole.

Because our ongoing engagement with the world is founded upon  the sensing of and response to relevance, any notion of ‘an inner zone with an external boundary’ is negated; the world’s relevance for me is necessarily sited in interaction with the world itself.[8] Rather than being problematically dependent upon a tenuous representational construal of the world, my grasp of things lies in the manner of my contact with the world.Things are taken to exist significantly at this prior and pre-thetic level of experience; once the extent of this is recognised epistemological scepticism becomes untenable. Doubts about my objectivity, given my tethered and concerned involvement with the world as a Subject,are only articulable against the backdrop of the pregiven world.

Not all skillful coping is carefully considered. Maria Spelterini at Suspension Bridge

Not all skillful coping is carefully considered.
Maria Spelterini at Suspension Bridge

The representationalist view I have been considering, provokes a variety of epistemic stances, such as for example, skepticism, relativism, and various forms of nonrealism. When it becomes clear that one cannot build up a picture of reality from discrete percepts, the foundationalist approach prompts an assumption  of the self-enclosed subject, alienated from the transcendent world. A small step leads to ideas about a transcendent unknowable world and a mental life which is privileged. Not far off is the cul-de-sac of relativism wherein each mind is locked into a perspectival grasp of the world comprised of its own percepts, or its own constitution, and thus shut off from any rational arbitration of disputes about reality. If epistemic questions  cannot be rationally arbitrated then one must in the end resort to antirealism which assumes that no consensus is possible.

I have argued that the Lifeworld is an intersubjective reality, a reality we are embedded in. Engagement, despite the concernful tetheredness of our conscious moments, is the worldly contact with an intersubjective reality that grounds our negotiated claims about reality. Instead of an irremediable skepticism about our knowledge of the real world, this leaves us with a collaborative capacity to fine-tune our comprehension of this world we are necessarily engaged with.

Recognition that our grasp of things is primordially one of bodily engagement reveals that this contact with the background reality surrounding us underpins all description or significance-attribution we afford it. Though these may sometimes be in error, yet the world remains within which the questions about them emerged, the world I cannot escape from because I am embedded therein. My first understanding of reality is not a representation, but the significance given to an ongoing ’transaction with it’.[1]


[1] Taylor, C. Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture, in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, CUP, 2005, 47


[1] Davidson, Donald. 1986. A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge. In Truth and

Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, (Ed). E. LePore. Oxford:

Blackwell. 310

[2]Davidson, “A Coherence Theory,” 312, in Charles Taylor, Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture, in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, CUP, 2005, 29

[3] Taylor, ibid, 2005, 31

[4] Taylor, ibid, 2005, 33

[5] Ibid, 34

[6] Ibid

[7] ‘Thus speech, in the speaker, does not translate ready-made thought, but accomplishes it.’ Merleau-Ponty, M. PP, London, Routledge, 2006, 207

[8] Taylor, C. Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture, in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, CUP, 2005, 38


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