Maarja Siiner and Jesper Hermann (2002) An Unravelling of Principles we all Have to use. Psycoloquy: 13(019) Cognition Action (5)

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Psycoloquy 13(019): An Unravelling of Principles we all Have to use

Book Review of Praetorius on Cognition-Action

Maarja Siiner and Jesper Hermann
Psychology of Language Section
Department of General and Applied Linguistics
University of Copenhagen


There is an urgent need in psychology for an epistemology which can deal consistently with the properties of persons that uniquely characterize human beings, i.e. our cognition and use of language, and which determine our action and possibilities of action, i.e. the conditions for being and functioning as persons. An epistemology which - in contrast to the naturalist epistemology - does not want to get rid of human cognition in order to become scientific. The final outcome of Nini Praetorius' book about the principles of cognition, language and action is a new, scientifically underpinned way of using the proper logic of language itself as an opening for investigating the psychological events of real persons in real time. In this way, the book furnishes us with a new, comprehensive starting point for any study in psychology, in the psychology of language, and in psycholinguistics.


Psychology of Language; Mind and Matter; Language Use; Relations between Language, Knowledge, Concepts and Reality; Inter-Subjectivity of Knowledge and Language; Identity and Identification; Psycholinguistics.


1. The book (Praetorius, 2000) is exceptional in combining thoroughgoing critiques of existing theoretical works with a daring new formulation of principles that applies to all of us language-users. It is so also in its way of elucidating the subject matter of psychology. For what would you say about a book that presents the foundations of a science of psychology as relying on some specific and un-arguable logical relations between the concepts of language, knowledge, action and reality? The relations that are necessary in the same sense as are the principles of formal logic, and thus are not analysable but have to be taken for granted.

2. The four principles that rely on these relations form a new starting point for a different science of psychology. Nini Praetorius' book on principles of cognition, language and action is in fact a book about the conditions for persons to have knowledge and talk consistently about such psychological phenomena like feeling, thinking and cognising.

3. Because of the extraordinary epistemological character of the basic conditions for our cognising and use of language about our experiences, it is in a way not possible to review this work in the ordinary way by taking stance for some good items, and against some bad ones. We have chosen to pass on to our readers what we find the most challenging insights of the book.

4. We concentrate on some of the salient features of the book, i.e. its uncovering of the principles for cognising and speaking about knowledge and action, the consequences of the interdependency between our notions of 'truth' and of 'other persons', and of 'inter-subjectivity' as well. Finally, we give a tiny example showing some of the consequences for a study of language use, which are brought forward by the suggested new 'epistemological matrix of being persons and language users' of this book.


5. One might argue that philosophy and psychology are dealing with different realms of 'reality' and should be kept apart. It is surprising, then, that a lot of theorizing and research made in psychology still concentrates on solving Mind-Matter "problems", i.e. the claimed differences in status of our knowledge and description of physical things versus our experiences and expressions of internal states resting on a false Cartesian bifurcation between "mental" (Mind) and "physical" (Matter). As the author so convincingly shows, by adopting these traditional philosophical positions - and the problems to which they give rise - in psychology, they indeed become problems and flaws within the foundations of academic psychology itself (chapters 1, 18).

6. The real matter with these 'problems' is that they violate the very conditions for use of language. It is not possible to talk about what we perceive or cognise, without at the same time referring to that which we perceive or cognise. Using language to put forward propositions - that may be true or false - about reality presupposes that there is a reality that we can have knowledge about and refer to. Otherwise we would quite simply not know what we are talking about.

7. To any piece of language in which we try to determine the correctness of some particular proposition, the Principle of the General Correctness of Language and Knowledge applies (p. 40). This means that to be a person and a language user necessarily implies that we may have knowledge about reality and ourselves, and that we can talk consistently about what we know. The phenomenon of language use is a central property of persons and thus an important part of the area of psychological inquiry as we use language to reflect and communicate about what we think, feel and cognise.

8. The author thus shows us that the Mind-Matter problem that psychology has adopted from Naturalism and Constructivism simply are the products of "misuse of language". (cp. Wittgenstein, 1922/61). The only way to "solve" the problem is that the foundations of the science of psychology, i.e. the principles, models and concepts by which cognition, perception, language and action may be adequately described, should be based on the so-called 'proper logic' of language itself.


9. By saying so the author does not mean the precedence and priority of language. On the contrary, she attacks the dominating view in traditional linguistics on language as a self-contained system that can and should be studied independently of its use. All theories based on this view have in common the idea that language structures and categories somehow "structure" and "organise" our world of things and their properties. However, language is not an entity that can be observed or discovered; what can be found are people who communicate and texts being produced in language (p. 124). To claim that the meaning or 'value' of an expression is given within the language system itself is to get the ontological priority wrong.

10. Natural languages cannot exist without people who speak them and a world of things they speak about and of which they themselves are part. Languages presuppose the ability to communicate and the existence of some basic notions - if only rudimentary - about things and other people in the 'reality' (as we know, pre-linguistic children show an ability to engage themselves in communicative acts and are able to identify persons and things before they acquire use of language) (Harris 1996: chapter 2).

11. It is quite clear that the traditional view on language has prevented psychologists from becoming engaged in the discussion about the models, principles and theories for describing language. The book is also exceptional because Praetorius argues for some radical, and hitherto unarticulated (apart from Zinkernagel 1962), assumptions about the relations between language, action, reality and our concepts of it. Those relations - that can neither be proved nor doubted, but are, as a matter of principle, to be taken for granted - form a necessary epistemological basis that makes any use of language possible (chapter 6).

12. It is a main feat of the book under review that it draws our attention to some unarguable - because undeniable - facts about or conditions for our existence as human beings who are different from each other, may determine those differences and communicate them linguistically to other human beings. These facts are NOT possible to argue about in the usual way we argue in science and in daily life. They are necessary in the same sense as are the principles of formal logic; they form the necessary conditions for our having the very possibility of discussing anything whatsoever.


13. The interesting feature about 'knowledge' that is developed through this book is that we in every normal situation know a lot of epistemological conditions about the relations between what we know and the language we use to express our knowledge with. This is a knowledge that we share with other people and it deals with the very conditions which provide us with the possibility for existing as persons and language users. The common ground and vast amount of knowledge that makes us so similar, is at the same time something that ensures us that we may be different from each other. The shared knowledge makes it possible to determine our personal differences, i.e. to be persons. No knowledge is or can be personal that cannot, in principle, be made accessible to others. Indeed, the possibility to have knowledge about and describe our personal differences presupposes that there are some similarities between our cognition and that of others!

14. For the same reasons we are not able to determine differences between animals and us. Being able to determine any concrete differences between our cognition and the cognition of animals, presupposes that some similarities exist between our and their cognition, i.e. we should be able to put ourselves in the position of animals and look at the world from their vantage points (p. 475-6). This is quite simply not possible because animals have no language that they may use to communicate with us about their cognition.

15. We have no access to animals' cognition and thus are able to determine neither similarities nor any further differences between humans and other living creatures. Present research in the area gives no evidence that teaching animals to "speak in human language", e.g. by training some apes to say 'banana' when they are hungry, means that there are some similarities between humans' and animals' basic notions about reality (p. 477ff).

16. The very existence of the science of psychology is built on the assumption that human beings (in contrast to animals) are individuals, each of us living in our private world of personal feelings, thoughts and experiences. This assumption makes it necessary to understand that we can only be persons who may realise that we are different from one another and determine how we differ, because we share with other persons knowledge about correct descriptions about ourselves, other persons and many other things that we experience and observe in everyday situations.

17. No human being can become a subject on his own independently of other persons from whom he may differ (chapter 21). If there was only one individual in the universe, that individual could not have a language, nor would it be aware of its existence, since to be aware of oneself is to "look" at oneself from the standpoint of another (Mead 1934). To be a person and a language user, then, presupposes that we share with others a notion of 'truth' which is interpersonal and implies the notion of 'others'. Praetorius formulates this assumption as 'The principle of the logical relation between the notion of 'truth' and the notion of 'other people' (p 41ff).

18. The inter-subjectivity of the notion of 'truth' means that human beings share a conceptual structure of cognition and knowledge that makes it possible for us to communicate with each other what we know. By doing so we presuppose that what is true for oneself may also be true for others. The inter-subjectivity of the notion of 'truth' is the very condition for, as Praetorius puts it, the epistemological matrix of being persons and language users (p 478ff). It logically guarantees that in knowing what we do and talking about what we know, we are in principle and from the outset understood by other people. Furthermore, it necessarily requires a commitment and an intention to understand others and make ourselves understood to others in any of the concrete situations in which we find ourselves (p. 479ff).

19. What makes the book both exceptional and necessary is that Nini Praetorius manages to spell out several of the logical implications that are given to all of us in every normal situation. These implications are stated as a set of principles in the beginning of the book (p. 40ff.), and the principle about the logical relation between concepts of language, knowledge, action and reality is tantamount to any dealing with any one of these concepts. For the crucial thing that the author points out is that none of them may be used meaningfully and independently of any of the others! They are un-separable from each other. And, furthermore, none of them may be derived from or reduced to any of the others. However, the cognition, language and use of language of persons cannot be explained in terms of what persons may have knowledge of (p. 293).


20. The problem we all meet when talking in our usual ways about knowledge is that we think that each and every little detail that we know about the world and about ourselves, must be an item that we deal with anew as for the first time, every time we think of anything. According to the author this is erroneous. So it is, because we cannot talk about something in the world independently of implying that we and other persons are situated in the world as well, and that we dispose of a language that we may use correctly to state facts about the conditions in our situation. In this way, we do already possess an enormous amount of knowledge that we simply take for granted and never make into an item for consideration.

21. However, this is indeed what the book urges us to do. This is in no way to claim that we know everything already, far from it. But it is a philosophically based way of telling that some conditions exist that must be recognized when we try to expand our knowledge. Neither is it a claim that we may always and only be telling the truth when we utter a statement. Rather, it should be understood as a way of drawing our attention to the fact that the very possibility of fraud etc., presupposes that the principle of the general correctness of language use (p. 40, 106) is valid.

22. There is an inbuilt interdependency between our notions of persons, situations, and objects. They are on a par in that they cannot be described independently of each other. But indeed they are not reducible to each other, i.e. we may neither say that a situation is identical with a particular person in it, nor may we reduce the person to a situation. However, neither may we use or describe any of these basic concepts in a well-defined way, independently and without each of the other. This is one of the demanding features of the book, that we have to learn to think in a more comprehensive and interdependent way about several concepts we thought that we knew already.

23. It is only possible for us to designate ourselves relative to other things in reality. Our knowledge and description of ourselves are dependent upon other parts of reality. Indeed, an essential part of our knowledge about persons and things in reality is the knowledge about the possibilities of action with regard to those things and persons. Any action can therefore only be understood or described with respect to the present possibilities of action of the person who acts, i.e. the present state of reality or 'situation'.

24. Actions are dependent upon being ascribed to persons and states of reality (i.e. situations). This situational aspect about action has to be stressed because in different situations people's possibilities of action and observation of the same things may be different. To be a person, then, is to be aware of situations, i.e. to know that in new and different situations more and different things than are already known in the present situation, may be known about things as well as about oneself. Identification of a thing as a particular thing, i.e. as this thing or as the same thing as before, then presupposes that in other situations I may have different opportunities of action, observation and description towards the very same thing (chapter 16).

25. Knowing what things are also implies knowing that the acts one carries out with oneself or the things in reality have some consequences. Furthermore, to act with things must imply anticipating such consequences. So, again, to be a person and have knowledge about oneself and the reality of which one is part, implies being someone who knows that one may initiate acts; that one is the agent of actions which consequences may change not only the present situation but also those in the future. The point made here about actions in relation to persons, their knowledge and the situations in which they find themselves, is that to act must be understood as to change one's future possibilities of action (p. 160-1).

26. It is very important to note that by knowledge the author means here both verbalized and un-verbalized knowledge. As she claims, there has to be an equivalence of the conceptual, categorical structuring entailed in our linguistic description of things and the non-linguistic identifications of the same things (p. 156ff). Our linguistic descriptions rely on our non-linguistic cognition. In an epistemological respect, then, to be a person and a language user necessarily implies that a person cannot talk about his body and other things being part of physical reality, without at the same time talking about or referring to his internal states.

27. This conceptual equality makes it possible to talk about and describe our inner states that are not publicly observable, in the same way as we may talk about and describe publicly observable things in the physical reality. Furthermore, as research seems to indicate, previously un-verbalized knowledge, after having been verbalized, may leave us with greater opportunities of action and problem solving in the given area, because our knowledge after having been formulated verbally becomes publicly accessible. It becomes a knowledge that can be both passed on to and received by others (ibid.). Using language, then, can in this sense be equal to act, as we, by doing so, anticipate some consequences that may change our possibilities of action both in this and in future situations.


28. It is through language and the possibility to use it to describe and communicate our ideas and feelings, that we may come to agree, develop social institutions, laws, political systems and cultures (p 123ff). In this way, language has a constitutive power and functions indispensably for our dealings with reality. It may be argued, then, that our descriptions of reality merely are descriptions of our concepts and ideas about it. But this is our way of being in the world. This is how we develop social reality, i.e. by mutually accepting conventions, rules and concepts that can be used to organise the physical reality. The existence of social reality depends upon its members reproducing it.

29. It seems impossible to step outside this reality. To do so would demand that we should be able to analyse critically and from the outside our own use of language, as most conventions of social reality are developed by and preserved in language. But as Praetorius points out, probably much more different descriptions of 'reality' can be put into words than are in fact being put (p. 156ff). According to the principle of identity formulated in the book p. 40, no description of a thing or phenomenon put forward in any particular situation can be identical with this very thing or phenomenon itself.

30. Indeed, as it has been argued above (5.5), knowledge is always situational and more and different things may be observed about 'the same thing' in different situations. Identifying a thing inevitably implies the notion of: 'different descriptions of the same', i.e. it is the same thing in virtue of the different descriptions of it (p. 341). Thus, we cannot say anything about anything without being able to say more about the same. To pretend that there is only one right way of describing a thing or phenomenon is in direct contrast to both the principle of identity and the principle of the logical relation between language, knowledge, action and reality. In fact it is just another example of misuse of language and has to be rejected as an ideological distortion of reality.

31. Although all our descriptions rely on other descriptions of the same things (vide 'the principle of identity'), the necessary relation between reality, language, concepts and knowledge makes it impossible to describe either of those entities as being a static, closed system. We cannot describe or define either thing in reality or ourselves as something final. This is made impossible by the proper logic of language and use of language. Our understanding, learning and experiencing is always situational, which means that more and different things can be known and observed about the same things in different situations.


32. Several far-reaching consequences of the book arise immediately, if we find its laborious argumentation cogent and convincing: many well-known, time-honoured dilemmas vanish and dissolve into the invisible. E.g. the relationship between 'body and mind' is no longer to be meaningfully articulated (p. 17,45f.); the same holds true for language and its relation to the rest of the world - also known as 'the problem of reference' (p. 104-09), and several others. The problems are dissolved by the very assumption about necessary relations between language, reality, knowledge and cognition. Those relations may neither be proved nor analysed, in fact, their existence does not depend on whether we feel obliged to believe that they are true or not. (vide supra, 3.3)

33. Trying to change the way people think of language is indeed an ambitious project. Language is involved in all human activities - the way we use language represents the way we have our world and our concepts of it (cp Mark Johnson, 1987). A new comprehensive theory about language and the use of language would therefore be just as much a theory about reality as it is about language (p. 147ff). Questions like: What does it mean to understand what an other person says? or: What is it for a person to refer to something or to mean something? may no longer be answered in terms of speech acts, nor of the structures of the linguistic systems which are underlying them, independently of the situational facts about language mentioned here, i.e. how language is used, by whom and about what.

34. This book on the foundations of a science of psychology is an inspiring starting point for any study of phenomena in the field of psychology of language. So far we have used this framework with encouraging results in dealing with e.g. headmaster consultations, job application interviews, official health promotion and second language teaching. We now leave the purely epistemological account and give an example of the consequences of the book for research and investigation done in any field where the subject area is the properties and features of human beings.

35. We may cast a glance upon an ongoing debate in the Danish Media (i.e. see Inf.) about cutting down on the expenditures for teaching sons and daughters of overseas immigrants their mother tongue. The main argument among right-wing politicians goes that only when they have gained good Danish language skills will any integration of the second generation of immigrants into the Danish society be possible. The argument goes that if those children are taught in both languages - as has been the case up to now - it will spoil their chances for good integration and success further on in their life. Consequently, teaching of their mother tongue should be abolished. However, as may be foreseen from the principles given in this book (p. 40 ff.), this view is fatally erroneous.

36. Learning the language of the natives in the new country certainly is an important part of the integration process, but it is in no way equal to it. As has been argued above (3.1, 7.2), language is not a separate 'entity' that can be studied or taught independently of its use. What language is about, is the way we have our world; it is through language that we develop our conventions and concepts about reality. Thus, it would make no sense to teach those children Danish unless they are also introduced to conventions and rules for how the life of persons is organised and carried out in the Danish society.

37. In the debate among the politicians there is no attention paid to the devastating effect upon the forming of the personalities of the young persons in question if they become deprived of their mother tongue. When depriving them of the opportunity to learn to formulate the conventions and concepts that form the basis of the Danish society in the language that was first used in making them into persons and that they still have in common with their relatives, the result will inevitably be incoherent and unsocial people.


38. This book contains some of the prerequisites for any scientific study of psychological matters. Then, next comes for us the hard task of implementing its principles. That is, how may they be transferred to our current situations as researchers, and used as a guideline for the new investigations it inspires?

39. One may here think of the new way in which Praetorius' book enables us to look upon the way any person expresses his personality in the way he is present in his use of language (cp. p. 476). Or how we may dissolve the traditional 'problem' of the relation between language and the matter it deals with: this problem may no longer be stated in a well-defined way as a problem about the relation between language and the world! Because, if put as such, it rests on the false assumption that it should be possible to discuss language and the world in which we find ourselves, separately from each other.

40. What it is only and always possible to compare, however, will be different descriptions purporting to deal with 'the same thing' - this latter concept being defined as "something we may know more about in a different way" (cp. above 30 and p.339-43). Are we not, then, contradicting ourselves by saying that, although our possibilities and conditions for description always depend on the situation in which they are put forward (as a consequence of the situational aspect about language) the conditions for use of language as they are formulated in this book, are not? Indeed, we may say that the present situation in the development of the humanities, especially linguistics, has made it possible to formulate the principles as they are stated in this book. Still, it is impossible to imagine, and contradictory to claim, that there might be any future situation where we are using language and where these conditions or principles of language use (p 40-1ff) are not true (cp. Zinkernagel 1992: 53).


Inf. = The Danish newspaper Information for the 8 of January, 2002, front page.

Roy Harris (1996). Signs, Language and Communication. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Mark Johnson (1987). The Mind in the Body. Chicago: Chicago University Press: 102.

George Herbert Mead (1934). Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: Chicago University Press

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).

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1922/61: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Peter Zinkernagel (1962). Conditions for Descriptions. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Peter Zinkernagel (1992). Virkelighed. KÝbenhavn: Munksgaard

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