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Tuesday 29 March 2011

The Ontological Cut

The Ontological Cut
McGinn’s Version
For Marie McGinn the ontological cut that is made manifest in our language-games reveals that the important distinction is not between the philosophical myth of the inner and outer realm (something the private language argument is meant to dissipate) but, instead, between bodies whose form of life makes them accessible to psychological description and objects that are out of play to psychological concepts. She continues:
One important aspect of this fundamental division between categories of phenomena that make up our world is the qualitative difference in how we experience them: the words and cries, the gestures, movements and facial expressions of other living things have a significance for us that enters into our experience of them and figures essentially in our descriptions of what we see and hear. (McGinn, 1997, pp. 177-8)
My Version
Zettel §225. "We see emotion."--As opposed to what?--We do not see facial contortions and make inferences from them (like a doctor framing a diagnosis) to joy, grief, boredom. We describe a face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even when we are unable to give any other description of the features.--Grief, one would like to say, is personified the face.
This belongs to the concept of emotion.

There is no great difference between mine and McGinn’s position, but perhaps my ‘cut’ is less deep. There are distinctions but not final divisions. I consider my cut to be the dotted chalk line (on the tailor’s pattern) marking the space between what is to be kept and what is to be discarded, which could also be thought of as a marking out of what is valued. At any rate this is merely an analogy, if it is not successful then I can offer perhaps another.

What I want to draw attention to here is the experiential quality, a distinction between qualitative and quantitative experience. Here’s a quote from Cussins:
Experience presents the world as coloured but a physicist’s atoms have no colour.  We perceive the world as beautiful or ugly, sweet or salty, happy or sad, brave or cowardly, intelligent or stupid; yet none of these properties figure in the world of the physical sciences.  In the scientific world-view, the universe is an arrangement of atoms in a four-dimensional void, where the properties of sentience have no place.  (Cussins, ‘The Limitations of Pluralism’)

What then are these properties? Ways of describing? At any rate there does seem to be a divide, which becomes apparent when a neuroscientist attempts to explain happiness by reference to particular brain states. There appears to be a ‘leap’ involved in their description, which highlights the difference in description and hence in the language-game to use the McGinn/Wittgenstein phrase. Describing one in terms of the other seems destined to failure or, at best, require the kind of logical ‘leap of faith’ previously suggested. I doubt that this is something we would want to accept. Neither of these ‘worlds’ are totally distinct, but neither can one be reduced one into the other without falling into error.


Wittgenstein, L., Zettel, (Basil Blackwell, 1967)

McGinn, M., Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, (Routledge, 1997)
Cussins, A., 'The Limitations of Pluralism'