Volume 24, No.1 - Spring 1978
Editor of this issue: Kęstutis Girnius
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1978 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



The issues and positions dominating contemporary epistemology in Soviet Lithuania can be seen as constituting a systematic attempt to reply to a Humean skepticism, especially in the form in which it is found in the positivist literature. The dialectical materialists see themselves as having succeeded in developing the synthesis of empiricist and rationalist insights that Kant had sought in his own reply to Hume, a synthesis which is, however, unencumbered by what they take to be Kant's rationalist-inspired transcendental logic. Yet whatever Kant had failed or had not failed to see, surely he was on the right track in arguing that, to show the possibility of empirical knowledge, one must first explicate what it is to know the world in which we live. We shall see that, insofar as the dialectical materialists do not develop a coherent account of the logical, as opposed to the empirical, nature of thought, they deprive themselves of the very conceptual tools which would enable them to transcend both the empiricist and the rationalist theories of knowledge.

The thrust of the dialectical materialist argument can be seen as aimed against the empiricist view, what the dialectical materialists call the "observationist" view, of perception which generates the Humean skepticism. On the empiricist view, our judgments concerning physical objects are based solely on a non-conceptual, non-linguistic consciousness of observable properties such as colors and sounds. This account of perception is mistaken, on the dialectical materialist view, for it fails to see that perception is but a moment in a larger activity, that of implementing natural materials in order to create and perfect a humanly livable environment. It is this activity, and not isolated observations, which has provided humanity with the language of causality with which the physical world as such can be known. And it is not non-linguistic observations, but the causal laws which are an aspect of our language, that justify our judgments concerning physical objects as such.

Thus, the dialectical materialists believe that they have found the key to a solution of Hume's problem in the concept of empirical knowledge as an activity directed to the well-being of society. Now, it seems to me that the concept of empirical knowledge as an aspect of praxis, understood correctly, has some philosophical merit. And the dialectical materialists are not the first philosophers to have realized that the summum bonum can be achieved only by a society that has knowledge of the world in which it lives. But it seems equally obvious that an account of the logical structure of our theoretical conceptual framework, as well as an account of the logical structure of our practical conceptual framework, is needed in order to arrive at an account of how the two mesh together when we reason about what we ought to do. It would seem, therefore, that, in defining knowledge in terms of praxis at this point, the dialectical materialists have, so to speak, put the cart before the horse. Just how unilluminating the resulting epistemological theory is becomes apparent when it is confronted with puzzles concerning concept-formation and meaning that have plagued empiricists and rationalists alike, puzzles that constitute the deep-seated motivations for the Humean skepticism.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I shall first outline the kind of reasoning about concept-formation that leads to the empiricist view of perception. Let us fist consider the acquisition of basic concepts, i.e., concepts of observable properties such as color, shape, sound, etc. The general empiricist consensus is that these basic concepts are formed through perceptual contact with particular observable properties. Thus, a distinction is made between the linguistic awareness of observable properties and the awareness of these properties independently of language. After all, it is remarked, a child who is learning to speak must be aware of the properties that confront him if he is later to recognize that they are the ones which have a certain label. But since the corresponding observational predicate is not yet in the child's linguistic repertoire, this must be a pre-linguistic awareness of the properties confronting him. Constantly associated with these observable properties in the experience of the child are the appropriate words uttered by loving parents. After repeatedly experiencing observable properties together with the appropriate word, the child finally comes to realize that the properties and the word belong together and to connect the word with the property it names. He has learned the meaning of the observational predicate and has formed the corresponding basic concept.

Like the empiricists, the dialectical materialists see no other way to account for concept-formation but to posit a pre-conceptual, pre-linguistic consciousness coupled with an abstracting mechanism which allows the child to move from consciousness of particular observable properties to basic general concepts. Even at this very basic level, however, one can imagine a rationalist of the transformational grammar variety objecting that a child can be said to have the concept 'red' only if he is able to connect it with other concepts in judgments. But the latter ability, involving as it does the ability to connect this judgment with any one of a number of semantically related judgments, entails that the child can form the concept 'red' only because he already has the category of color, i.e., only if the generic concept 'color' is innate. In reply to innatist objections of this general kind, R. Pavilionis1 argues that to point out that a child has the innate ability to make certain connections does not really explain how he comes to make these connections, but merely points to a problem without addressing it. In order to provide this explanation, Pavilionis posits, in addition to the abstracting mechanism mentioned above, a "continuum of verbal and non-verbal meanings" in which the various experiential images retained in the memory of the child give meaning to each other as well as to incoming experiential images. (One is reminded of Hartshorne's view that all sensory experiences and feelings constitute a system of natural, rather than learned, associations, so that, for example, the organism itself, prior to learning any language, connects yellow colors with sharp tactual sensations and the feeling of joy, and orders all sensory experiences in terms of degrees of brightness, etc. Pavilionis, however, does not make use of the powerful Whiteheadian notion of affective tone.) It is because the pre-linguistic experiences of a child constitute a system of observable properties that is ordered by the organism in ways paralleling the logic of basic concepts, as Pavilionis sees it, that the child can finally acquire the map of this system and connect these experiences in various judgments involving observational predicates. It is the rationalist adherence to the Humean view of sensory experience as constituted by isolated sensations, he argues, that leads them to posit innate ideas to explain the child's complex associational abilities.

If both the empiricist and the dialectical materialist views of the acquisition of basic concepts can be called an abstractive view, the empiricist view of the acquisition of non-basic concepts, such as 'cup,' 'comes,' etc., is seen by dialectical materialists to be a reductivist view, and in this respect unacceptable. Roughly, the empiricists see a child as being caused by his environment to conjoin certain complexes of observable properties together with the appropriate words, until finally he comes to realize that the complex of observable properties is named by the word. Thus, on the Russellian view, concepts of physical objects are seen to be logical conjunctions of the concepts of their observable properties. Not only is this view open to rationalist objections of the kind sketched above, but also, as Pavilionis sees it, the view has the result, objectionable to any materialist, that physical objects are mere clusters of observable properties.

On the dialectical materialist view, both empiricist and rationalist theories of concept-formation fail because they abstract from the complex physical and societal context in which language-learning occurs and view the child as a passive receptor of stimuli rather than as an active agent. To illustrate this point, let us consider the example of a child who learns the meaning of the word "cup." In the process of learning this. word, the dialectical materialist argues, the child is constantly confronted (often as a result of his own initiative, as when he drops a cup to see what will happen to it, or to see his parents' reaction) not only with the complex of observable properties of the cup, for example, arm-colored, arm-shapes moving in the peculiar manner we might call, to simplify matters, a pouring-motion (this is an aspect of the societal dimension), as well as with the complex of observable properties of all the things involved in physical interactions with the cup, for example, a large flat stationary shape toward which the cup-shape sometimes moves very quickly and, suddenly, upon, contact, alters into what we might call fragment-shapes (this is an aspect of the physical dimension).

Pavilionis would argue that the child is capable of connecting all these complexes of properties, and in so doing forms judgments using the concept 'cup,' because of two reasons. First, these complexes do not enter his system of meanings as entirely new. After all, the observable properties involved, the colors, motions, shapes, etc., with their varied shades, speeds, permutations, sizes, etc., are already elements in his continuum of meanings. Second, just as the non-verbal meaning of "red" is interpreted by the continuum of colors, the verbal meaning of "cup" is also interpreted by the continuum constituted by permutations of the pouring-motion, the falling-and-shattering sequence, etc. Pavilionis would argue that a child can learn the semantic connections involved in using the physical concept 'cup' because these connections have already been experienced by the child (although not in all their possible specific variety).

Thus, it is argued that once the conception of the observer as a passive agent is replaced by the dialectical materialist conception of him as creating situations in which to study the object, the focus is shifted from the static observable properties to the observable properties of alteration and motion, which are the very properties on the basis of which a child can form concepts of physical objects. Yet, although this involved account of the systematic nature of a child's pre-linguistic experiences seems to explain how a child acquires non-basic general concepts of physical objects, a critical scrutiny reveals a fundamental problem.

As I understand it, the dialectical materialists are right to emphasize that without motion and alteration no complex of observable properties can provide a child with the meaning of a physical concept. At the same time, however, it seems clear to me that motion and alteration are not observable properties and do not, therefore, enter into the child's system of nonverbal meanings as it is understood by the dialectical materialists. To believe otherwise is to conflate the specious present, which can involve succession, with simultaneity, which cannot involve succession. Consider the motion of the falling of a cup. If a child's pre-linguistic experiences consist of experiential images (however complicated they are seen to be), then this motion must be seen as entering and being retained in his memory as a number of discrete images of the cup in spatial locations that are progressively closer to the floor (it would help to think of this complex as not unlike the contiguous frames of a films trip). But this complex, as retained in the memory, does not constitute a motion because it is not successive, but simultaneous. Similarly, if the child's pre-linguistic experiences are seen as consisting of experiential images, then an alteration such as the shattering of a cup must be seen as entering and being retained in the child's continuum of meanings as a cup-image and a pile-of-fragments-image. But discreet images, which, as co-present in the child's memory, are simultaneous, cannot be successive. Therefore, they cannot constitute alteration. It follows from this that the acquisition of these concepts remains as mysterious as the acquisition of the concept of a physical object.

In viewing change and alteration as observable properties, the dialectical materialists (and this confusion is not peculiar to their position) fail to distinguish between the simultaneous complex of representations in the memory of a child and the representation of a complex in a specious present. They project the logical characteristics of a representation of a complex into the complex of representations. However, it is not logical, but rather empirical relations, such as simultaneity, that obtain among the representings in a complex. To use Kant's example in the Second Analogy, a representation of a house can involve a succession of representations, thus, the representation of the door, the representation of the roof, etc., without being a representation of a succession. What makes the representation of motion a representation of a succession is that it has the logical-epistemic powers of a representation of a succession. Thus, for example, the judgment

The cup is falling.

entails, among other things, that the cup is changing its spatial location. But the judgment

The house has a door and a roof.

does not entail that the house is changing its location.

Once the logical characteristics of mental acts are distinguished from their empirical characteristics, however, it follows that the abstractive theory of concept-formation cannot even get off the ground. The process of language-learning is seen to involve, on the abstractive view, a focusing of attention on observable properties. Yet if this is to be distinguished from a mere focusing of the eyes on something in space and time, it must be seen as a picking out, i.e., a movement of thought, and, as such, it must be seen as involving the conceptual or logical powers of a 'this'-representing. But a 'this'-representing entails a 'here'-representing and a 'now'-representing. It follows that the focusing of attention presupposes spatio-temporal concepts. Note that this line of reasoning leads to the result that a child in his pre-conceptual stage of development cannot focus his attention on anything, not even on colors and shapes. We might say, to remove the air of paradox surrounding this suggestion, that the child is like a sleep-walker, for a sleepwalker has sensations of color, sound, etc., and feelings of pleasure or pain, but he cannot focus his attention on anything, not even on his pains. Once a strict distinction is drawn in this way between sensations, which are blind, and concepts, which have logical-epistemic powers, it becomes clear that no abstractive theory of concept-formation, even if it is coupled with an innatist position regarding abstract ideas, can explain the acquisition of concepts.2

The abstractive view of concept-formation is closely connected to what might be termed the relational theory of meaning, i.e., the view that for a descriptive predicate to have a meaning is for it to be related to an extra-linguistic entity. For Platonists this entity is an abstract entity, for Carnapians a class of properties, and for dialectical materialists a complex of experiential images in a system of experiential images interpreting each other. The connection I find between the abstractive view of concept-formation and the relational theory of meaning is that meaning is located, in both cases, outside the logical order. Thus, on the dialectical materialist view, a child is seen as realizing that a word and a property belong together, not in virtue of realizing the logical consequences that follow from the concept he has formed, but in virtue of seeing the connection between the word and the complexes of experiential images interpreting each other.

Note, however, that seeing that a word and a complex of properties belong together is not equivalent to seeing that they occur together, just as a child's knowing the meaning of a word is not equivalent to a child's mimicking the sounds made by his parents. The added dimension involved in the former is interpreted by Descartes to be an acquiescence or affirmation, therefore to involve an act of will. One can see what Descartes was driving at: realizing that a word and a property belong together is not a passive reception of connections to be found in one's experiences. What Descartes failed to see is that the spontaneity involved is the acquired ability of the child to evaluate connections he experiences, i.e., to be critical of his own and others' use of words. The additional dimension in knowing the meaning of a word is, therefore, a normative dimension, the normative dimension of the logical order.

Any relational theory of meaning, which distinguishes between the syntax, as governing intra-Unguistic connections, and the semantic component, as governing the connection between linguistic and extra-linguistic items, is, therefore, a theory which projects the normative dimension of the logical order into the extra-logical order. To understand this point, one need only realize that the force of entailment-statements, for example, the entailment-statement

That the triangle is red and the circle is red entails that the triangle is red.

is that of authorizing inferences. Thus, the above entailment-statement has the force of the judgment

It is correct to infer the judgment that a triangle is red from the judgment that a triangle is red and a circle is red.

In this example, the meaning of the logical concept 'and' is seen to lie in the above syntactical rule authorizing inferences involving this concept. However, when the meaning of descriptive predicates is taken to be extra-logical, for example, a continuum of experiential images, it is these extra-logical connections, as constituting the meaning of the predicates, that are seen to authorize material inferences, such as the inference

The triangle is red.

So, the triangle is between yellow and orange. 

In this way, the normative force of the entailment-statement

That the triangle is red entails that the triangle is between yellow and orange.

is projected into the extra-logical order.

Now, it is possible to find other, seemingly conflicting, views of meaning expressed in the dialectical materialist literature. However, I believe that in most cases, a closer inspection will reveal that the differences complement, rather than contradict, each other. As an example, consider the following passage by J. Skersytė:

"Judgments which express newly-gained knowledge have a meaning for the individual only insofar as he grasps their logical connection to knowledge that he already has . . . judgments about facts have meaning only as the logical conclusions of some premise or other. In other words, they, too, are deductive constructions."3

Thus, Skersytė's claim that the meaning of observational judgments lies in their function as conclusions of arguments seems to directly contradict Pavilionis's view that the meaning of observational judgments lies in their connection with a continuum of experiential images interpreting each other. However, if a distinction is made between the syntactic and the semantic meaning of descriptive predicates, this apparent conflict vanishes. Thus, Pavilionis can be seen as attempting to account for the fact that descriptive predicates "picture" or "reflect" the world, without having anything to say about the nature of these semantically meaningful predicates as words in a language. On the other hand, Skersytė can be seen as making a point about the syntactic function of linguistic expressions, without having anything to say about how it is that they "picture" the world. To put it briefly, one can imagine the dialectical materialists to argue that descriptive predicates would have no meaning without a continuum of meanings, but they would not be words without occurring in judgments that are conclusions of arguments.

With these rough-and-ready remarks serving as a basis for discussion, we can now attempt to evaluate the dialectical materialist argument against the Humean skepticism to be found in positivist epistemology. This skepticism is seen by the dialectical materialists to arise in the following way: Hume saw that perception cannot justify universal judgments of the form 'All A is B' because we cannot observe all instances of the properties connected in the judgment, nor can we observe any necessary relation between them. And he saw that perception cannot justify causal laws such as

Lightning causes thunder.

because, although we can observe the sequence of events consisting of the lightning and the thunder, we do not observe any necessary connection between the two events. From this Hume concluded that universal judgments and causal judgments cannot be known.

The positivist attempts to reply to this skepticism have been aimed at reinterpreting universal and causal judgments as rules of inference, i.e., as rneta-linguistic, rather than object-language statements, and their truth as a matter of fruitfulness in predicting observations. The dialectical materialists object to this watered-down sense of the truth of universal and causal judgments. They claim to have a reply to Hume in which these judgments are seen as knowable while still retaining their character as object-language statements. It is possible to find the following argument in the dialectical materialist literature: Universal and causal judgments, understood as object-language statements, are justified in virtue of having successfully functioned as premises of inferences over a long period of time. This argument is rejected by J. Skersytė in another article,4 on the grounds that it fails to see what Hume saw—that no amount of observations can justify these judgments. The correct reply to Hume, on her view, is that laws of nature need no justification and can be known even though they cannot be justified. She writes:

"The attempt to find the ultimate logical foundation of these premises is methodologically unsound—it contradicts the materially conditioned functional dependence of judgments . . . Insofar as the data of knowledge are always dependent and, given a certain stage (of scientific development, M.G.), logically consistent judgments, logical deductive theory can be viewed as an instrument of the logical construction and evaluation of all scientific assertions within the limits of their functions, i.e., operating on the basis of knowledge that is already available."5

The ultimate premises of all correct inferences, on this view, are not justified through observations, nor, given scientific change, can they be seen as innate; they are knowable, nevertheless, in virtue of their syntactic function as premises of arguments in which observational judgments are the conclusions. We might say that, on her view, asking for the justification of laws of nature is as pointless as asking for a justification of language in general.

Note that it is crucial for this view that observational judgments be seen as conclusions of inferences. The motivations for this position are obvious. The dialectical materialists wish to argue that observational judgments have no syntactic meaning apart from laws of nature, and in this way show that the latter cannot be discarded, in Humean or neo-Humean fashion, from the language. Because laws cannot be the conclusions of arguments in which observational judgments are premises, observational premises must be seen as related to laws of nature as conclusions are related to premises. However, the claim that observational judgments function as conclusions must be taken with a grain of salt, for it is simply a mistake to hold that observational judgments, as such, can function as conclusions. This is not to say that one cannot conclude that a perceivable state of affairs obtains, for example,

I just saw a flash of light in the sky.
So, lightning must have just occurred.

but to conclude that lightning just occurred is not to perceive that lightning occurred, as in

Hey! That was lightning!

To see this, one can simply reflect on the absurdity of the following sequence:

Lightning causes thunder.
Lightning just occurred.
So, Hey! That was thunder!

Clearly, this confusion is related to the tendency to view observational judgments as mediated by a non-conceptual, non-linguistic consciousness of properties. As we saw, observational judgments become, on this view, quasi-conclusions in a quasi-inference in which the quasi-premise is a sensation, or experiential image. Once this confusion is pointed out, the dialectical materialists must either grant that observational judgments do have a function as premises of inferences, or be committed to the unacceptable view that empirical knowledge is knowledge of a world that is not observed.

The argument that laws of nature, functioning as the ultimate premises of arguments, require no justification if understood correctly, is, as I see it, the proper reply against a Humean skepticism. The crux of the issue lies in how the function of judgments is to be understood. On the one hand, a function can be an empirical process understood in ideological or evolutionary terms, such as the function of the heart. On the other hand, a function can be a rule-governed and, therefore, not an empirical process, such as the rule-governed moves of chess-pieces in games of chess. Consider the judgment

The triangle is red.

It would be possible to argue that the function of this judgment is governed by the material rule of inference.6

That the triangle is red entails that it is between yellow and orange.

However, as we have seen, the dialectical materialists consider the meaning of descriptive predicates to lie not in their logical-epistemic powers, but, projecting the logical order into the empirical order, in their relation to the continuum of meanings. Therefore, they are committed to understanding judgmental functions as mere empirical processes.

The significance of this point becomes clear when we keep in mind that empirical relations do not have a normative dimension, i.e., can be seen neither as correct nor as incorrect. Thus, for example, the inference

Lightning causes thunder.
Lightning just occurred.
So, thunder will occur in a moment.

as a sequence of judgments with a merely empirical function is neither correct nor incorrect. We might call it, viewed in this way, a natural, as opposed to a logical inference. Although I believe that given their view of meaning the dialectical materialists are committed to this result, I do not think that they would find it palatable. After all, it is identical with the Humean position. Thus, Hume can be seen as distinguishing between a correct and an incorrect interpretation of laws of nature. He saw that, understood traditionally, 'All A is B' means 'All A is necessarily B'; therefore, that the inference

All A is B
This a is A.
So, this a is B.

is one in which the premises authorize the conclusion. But if there are none but natural inferences (and this is the crux of the Humean position), either 'All A is B' must be discarded, or else reinterpreted to mean 'We (as a matter of fact) associate A's with B's.' The latter is the correct interpretation, on his 

On the other hand, if the meaning of a descriptive predicate is taken to lie in its logical powers, i.e., in the logical inferences that can be drawn from the sentences in which it appears, then its occurrence in these inferences can be said to be rule-governed, and, therefore, correct. To see this, however, is also to see that the problem of concept-formation is not a subject-matter solely of empirical psychology, nor the problem of meaning a subject-matter solely of empirical linguistics. Revealing the transcendental nature of man, which is a fitting subject-matter for philosophical reflection, the logical-epistemic character of thought provides a new perspective from which to view Hume's problem. If his skepticism is to be proven misguided, man must be seen not only as an active agent in the world, but also as a being who, though in the world, is not of the world.


1 R. Pavilionis, "Sistemingumo problema kalbos filosofijoje," Problemos, No, 14(1975): 03-70 and "Kalba kaip filosofinės analizės objektas," Problemos, No. 6(1970): 30-48.
2 Walking the line between abstractivism and innatism is difficult, indeed, but not impossible. As proof of this I would mention Prof. Wilfrid Sellars' theory of concept-formation to be found in his numerous works, including Science and Metaphysics, Ch. 1, Science, Perception, and Reality, Chs. 2,5, and 10, and Philosophical Perspectives, Chs. 8 and 9.
3 J. Skersytė, "Gnoseologinė dedukcijos teorijos interpretacija," Problemos, No. 4(1969): 19-20.
4 J. Skersytė, "Indukcinis samprotavimas kaip kontrolinė pažinimo pažangos priemonė," Problemos, No. 15(1975): 17-18.
5 J. Skersytė, "Gnoseologinė dedukcijos teorijos interpretacija," p. 19.
6 This is not the positivist position, despite their talk of rules of inference. After all, on their view, observational judgements have meaning independently of other judgments view, and it is the only correct interpretation given the dialectical materialist view of meaning.