Nini Praetorius (2002) Epistemological and Ontological Issues in Cognitive Theory. Psycoloquy: 13(017) Cognition Action (4)

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Psycoloquy 13(017): Epistemological and Ontological Issues in Cognitive Theory

Reply to Manzotti and Shanon on Praetorius on Cognition-Action

Nini Praetorius
Department of Psychology
University of Copenhagen
Njalsgade 88
DK - 2300 Copenhagen S


In their reviews both Manzotti and Shanon stress the importance for Cognitive Science of addressing the epistemological and ontological issues implicit in cognitive processes. In my reply to their views and suggestions I attempt to clarify the position presented in my book concerning these issues.


Cognition, Language, Mind-Matter problems, Mind- Reality problems, ontology, epistemology, intentionality, truth.


1. In his review, Manzotti (2002) seems to think that not only are there epistemological but even ontological consequences to be drawn from the principles argued for in my book concerning the necessary relation between cognition, language and reality - and he asks me why "we should not dare to go further and see what it entails" (Manzotti, abstract). Well, in order to make clear why I am not ready to go further, not at least along the lines proposed by Manzotti, I have to recapitulate the background and some of the arguments leading up to the formulation of "the principle about the necessary relation" and to point out the EPISTEMOLOGICAL gains and advantages of the assumption of this principle. Gains and advantages, so I shall argue, which would be completely lost if confused with ontological entailments.

2. Cartesian dualism, according to which reality divides into fundamentally different and independently determinable "parts" or "realms", i.e. the Mental and the Material, led to two problems. The first, THE MIND-REALITY PROBLEM, is the EPISTEMOLOGICAL problem of how we can be certain about the truth of our cognition and description of material reality outside our minds, when all we have direct access to is something going on in our minds, and thus to something mental? The second, THE MIND- BODY PROBLEM, is the ONTOLOGICAL problem of how it comes about that conscious awareness or knowledge of the world can arise out of biological and physical processes in our brains and their causal interaction with things or stimuli in physical reality. As to the first, epistemological problem, I have argued (cf. Precis, paragraph 9) that rather than assuming that cognition and description of material reality, and the reality that this cognition and description concern, are INDEPENDENTLY DETERMINABLE, we shall have to assume that an inter-dependency or NECESSARY RELATION exists between cognition and description of reality and reality "itself". Indeed, no meaningful question can be asked as to the nature and status of the relation between our cognition and description of reality, and the reality that our cognition and description concern, without presupposing this necessary relation. Nor can this necessary relation be proved or denied without being conceded.

3. Following the criteria used within both logic and mathematics for assumptions to acquire the status of principles, I call the assumption of this inter-dependency THE PRINCIPLE OF THE NECESSARY RELATION BETWEEN COGNITION, LANGUAGE AND REALITY. The reason why this necessary relation is unanalyzable, as rightly noted by Manzotti (Manzotti, paragraph 6), is that any attempt to explain how it comes about that we may have knowledge about and may use language to put forward true or false propositions about reality (and thus explain that a correspondence or "match" exist between cognition, language and reality), would have to presuppose the principle. Therefore such attempts and explanations would be circular or redundant. Conversely, since any attempt to deny or doubt the principle would similarly have to presuppose that we do indeed have knowledge of and may put forward true - or false - propositions about reality and that which we talk and cognise, then such attempts to doubt or deny it would be contradictory or nonsensical. In other words, this principle CANNOT be explained, but on the contrary, it has to be taken for granted.

4. Now, please note, the principle concerns assumptions about the conditions for talking CONSISTENTLY about cognition and description of reality. They are not conditions for the existence of WHAT we cognise and describe, i.e. reality, nor conditions for the nature or properties of that which we may cognise or describe. Rather, the assumptions form the basic for any meaningful EMPIRICAL investigations - be it in everyday or in scientific situations - of reality and things existing in reality (whatever their nature or properties), and hence conditions why it makes sense to say that we may come to know about reality, what reality is or is not, by carrying out such investigations.

5. Furthermore, the existence of a necessary relation between cognition, language and reality, does not mean that no differences exist or that we cannot DISTINGUISH between having knowledge about and describing things in reality and the reality and things being cognised and described. Nor does it mean that cognition and description of reality is IDENTICAL with reality, (PACE Manzotti, paragraph 6). Thus, KNOWLEDGE about or a DESCRIPTION of a bread roll is not a bread roll, nor is a BREAD ROLL knowledge about or a description of a bread roll. But there are other differences as well. Cognition and description of things in reality may be ABOUT or REFER TO, indeed may even be TRUE or FALSE about reality and these things. This intentionality and truth functionality are logical properties of knowledge and linguistic propositions, but not of things existing in physical, material reality. Physical things may or may not exist, and it may be true or false that they exist or that they do not. However, physical things existing in material reality cannot be ABOUT anything, nor be TRUE or FALSE in the sense that knowledge and propositions about them may be. To these ontological differences must be added that whilst cognition and descriptions of material reality do not exist without or independently of persons and language users having knowledge of and being able to put forward true or false descriptions of it, we shall have to assume that material reality exists INDEPENDENTLY of the knowledge and description of persons. Indeed, it would seem just as necessary to assume that physical things in material reality that we may perceive, describe and on which we may carry out physical acts, exist just as independently of our perception, descriptions and acts, as our bodies and sense organs exist independently of the things on which we may carry out physical acts. So, the interdependency or necessary relation between cognition, language and reality notwithstanding, we shall have to assume that a crucial ASYMMETRY exists as well in the relation between knowledge, language and reality.

6. The assumptions about these ontological differences and this asymmetry are vital conditions for distinguishing between and having well defined notions of things or facts existing in material reality, in CONTRADISTINCTION to having knowledge about and describing those things and facts - and thus conditions for notions such as 'reality', 'things or facts in reality', 'cognition', 'description', 'reference' and 'truth' to have well defined meanings. In the book I have argued why attempts by various Naturalist and Constructivist positions to solve the Mind-Matter problems (cf. paragraph 2), i.e. by either reducing Mind to Matter la Naturalism, or conversely to conceive of Matter as a product of Mind la Constructivism, ignore these conditions. With the inevitable result that in theories which are based on the assumption of these positions and their solution of the Mind-Matter problems, the notions of 'reality', 'cognition and descriptions of reality' as well as 'truth' and 'referentiality' cease to be well defined.

7. In his review, Manzotti suggests that a third possibility exists by which to overcome traditional dualism, and the ontological and epistemological problems to which this dualism gives rise. If I understand him right, what he suggests (alongside Whitehead and Bohm, cf. Manzotti paragraph 6), is that this dualism and these problems may be side-stepped by assuming the existence of properties of things in material reality, akin to the properties of the cognition and description of "subjects" (i.e. conscious agents), among them the properties of intentionality and of being representational. According to this assumption, neither subjects nor objects in material reality exist independently, but only come into being, so to speak, in some kind of "shared intentional" and "mutually representational realm". Understood in this sense, according to Manzotti, the principle of the necessary relation between cognition, language and reality would have "an ontological as well as an epistemological role", (Manzotti, paragraph 6). Hence, there would not longer be any ontological dualism to overcome, nor any incompatibilities between, on the one hand, our cognition and description of things in material reality and, on the other, those things and reality, and, therefore, no "gaps which needed to be bridged".

8. Now, to answer Manzotti's question as to the reason why I will not take the "principle of the necessary relation" that far (cf. Manzotti's abstract and paragraph 5) is first, that there is not a shred of evidence for the sort of "panpsychism" he advocates. More importantly, though, nothing is gained by confusing the epistemological assumptions of "the principle of the necessary relation" with such ontological entailments. On the contrary. Granted the arguments in paragraph 6 above, the conditions would quite simply vanish for distinguishing between cognition and description of material reality, and things in reality existing independently of being cognized and described. And, as a result, so would any well defined notions of 'reality', 'cognition and description of reality', and of 'reference' and 'truth'. That is, the consequences of the solution suggested by Manzotti would be exactly the same as those encountered in traditional dualist positions and their nonsensical solution of the Mind-Matter problems. Conversely, the clarity and consistency of the solution of the epistemological Mind- Reality problem proposed in my book would be lost - and hence the foundation on which to develop consistent psychological theories about human cognition, language and action.


9. I appreciate Shanon's (2002) positive remarks about the intentions of my book to clarify epistemological and ontological issues of importance to psychological theorizing. His review is an outline of several "non- unorthodox", i.e. non-representational "minority views", which he takes to be distinguished precursors of his own views and the views argued in my book. Admittedly, all the views presented by Shanon could be said to stress the importance of understanding fundamental epistemological and ontological issues of concern to psychological theorising on cognition. That said, there is little common ground between them (i.e. between the views of, say, a Gibson, a Wittgenstein, a Vygotsky, a Merleau-Ponty, a Grof, a Chalmers, a Whitehead, a Maturana or a Varela) as to what this understanding amounts to, and little if any agreement as to the fundamental assumptions on which such understanding must build. The primary aim of my book is precisely to delineate such a common ground of assumptions. Not only assumptions which are intuitively reasonable, but which can be shown to be logically compelling. Assumptions, furthermore, by which to escape the confines of "the pendulum defining the history of ideas", and to enable a fresh start.


Manzotti, R. (2002). Why Physicalism and Constructivism will never be able to understand the Mind. Book review of Nini Praetorius on Cognition-Action. Psycologuy 13. (006)

Praetorius, N. (2000). Principles of Cognition, Language and Action. Essays on the Foundations of a Science of Psychology. Dordrecht/London/New York: Kluwer Academic Press.

Praetorius, N. (2001). Precis of "Principle of Cognition, Language and Action. Psycoloquy 12 (027).

Shanon, B. (2002). Cognition, Epistemology, Ontology. Book review of Nini Praetorius on Cognition-Action. Psycoloquy 13 (007).

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