Ideas: Blindness and Illusion

7 January 2010


On several occasions in this forum (for example, in Seeing the World for What It Is and Parsimonious Formulations) I have touched on a central imperative of contemporary thought, without making it fully explicit. The imperative is this: to see the world for exactly what it is, neither more nor less. The conceptual minimalism that I have discussed in relation to philosophical naturalism (A Formulation of Naturalism, Two Thoughts on Naturalism, and Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation) is part of this parsimonious imperative of contemporary thought.

One contemporary philosopher (I can’t recall who it was) quoted the famous lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet — “There are more things in Heauen and Earth, Horatio, Then are dream’t of in our Philosophy.” — and went on to comment that while one’s ontology ought to be sufficiently rich to account for the things of this world, it certainly shouldn’t posit anything more than is necessary to account for the things of this world, and that a philosophy that falls short of adequacy, as in the Hamlet quote, is to be preferred to a philosophy that indulges in ontological excesses.

I wrote above, “to see the world for exactly what it is, neither more nor less” and I am confident that the gentle reader understands that in this context, as in many contexts, to see means to know or to understand. In the present instance, both senses of see are relevant. We want to actually see only what is there, neither more nor less, and we want to understand the world as it is, neither more nor less.

When we see things that aren’t there, and consequently make irrelevant additions to the world’s ontological inventory, we call this an illusion. When we fail to see something that is there, and consequently posit an impoverished ontological inventory, we call this blindness. Both are true of both the perceptual act of seeing and the intellectual act of understanding. The principle of parsimony enjoins us not to allow ourselves to be drawn in by illusions. Though I know of no one who has formulated it, there ought to be a contrary principle, the principle of adequacy, that enjoins us to overcome our blindness.

One formulation of the principle of parsimony, due to the namesake of Ockham’s razor, is that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). The complementary formulation for the principle of adequacy is that entities ought not to be reduced beyond necessity (perhaps, Entia non sunt miniata praeter necessitatem). Rigorous observance of both the principle of parsimony and the principle of adequacy would ensure that we see the world for what it is, countenancing only an ontological inventory that has been pared down to the bare bones by Ockham’s razor, while also with the necessary flesh on the bones provided by the principle of adequacy.

I have been of this mind for some time, but it occurred to me recently that the same ontological rigor should be brought to our ideas, which, properly, ought to be counted in any thorough ontological inventory of the world, but which also can be separated off into their own category of abstract objects, just as we can separately judge the adequacy of an ontology exclusively in respect to its inventory of corporeal bodies (or even categories of corporeal bodies). While this only seems like philosophical common sense, few people, even those who routinely make use of ideas, really feel the imperative behind this.

Few, yes, but there are examples of those who have considered the adequacy of our inventory of ideas. Kant, for one. There is a little known section of the Critique of Pure Reason titled (in one translation or another) transcendental illusory appearance. In the big picture of Kant’s thought, this is a central theme. Pure reason leads us into paralogisms when it exceeds its area of competence, and therefore we must rigorously limit pure reason and not allow it to speculate on matters that are outside its competence.

Immanuel Kant cautioned us not be be taken in by illusory ideas.

For our present purposes, Kant is the representative of conceptual parsimony; he is concerned that we not allow ourselves to be drawn in by the illusions of ideas. Kant wrote:

“It is not at present our business to treat of empirical illusory appearance (for example, optical illusion), which occurs in the empirical application of otherwise correct rules of the understanding, and in which the judgement is misled by the influence of imagination. Our purpose is to speak of transcendental illusory appearance, which influences principles — that are not even applied to experience, for in this case we should possess a sure test of their correctness — but which leads us, in disregard of all the warnings of criticism, completely beyond the empirical employment of the categories and deludes us with the chimera of an extension of the sphere of the pure understanding. We shall term those principles the application of which is confined entirely within the limits of possible experience, immanent; those, on the other hand, which transgress these limits, we shall call transcendent principles.” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, “Of Transcendental Illusory Appearance”)

I think there is a certain appreciation of the Kantian warning against transcendental illusion, even when it has not been recognized in these terms. The project of logicism as developed by Frege, Russell, Whitehead, et al. — the systematic reduction of mathematics to logic — is essentially of a piece with this approach, seeing mathematical ideas as gratuitous illusions that can be eliminated in favor of the logical ideas in terms of which they can be defined.

Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica is the locus classicus of logicism, and it was during his work on logicism that Russell formulated several parsimonious doctrines like the theory of descriptions and the 'no classes' theory of classes.

But, as we have seen, this is but half of the task of seeing the world of ideas for what it is.

Husserl can be our representative of conceptual adequacy, concerned as he is that we not allow ourselves to be blinded to ideas. There is a section of Husserl’s Ideas I (section 22, to be precise), in which Husserl warns us about the possibility of being blinded to ideas. Husserl wrote:

“Blindness to ideas is a kind of psychic blindness, which through prejudices renders us incapable of bringing into the field of judgment what we have already in our field of intuition.” (Ideas I, section 22)

I believe this concern with blindness to ideas to be of equal important with Kant’s warning about transcendental illusory appearance, i.e., being deceived by illusory ideas, but (as with the case of the familiarity of the principle of parsimony and the absence of a corollary principle of adequacy) Husserl’s position seems rather less appreciated. I can’t, at the present moment, think of much of a tradition of calling our attention to ideas to which we have been blinded (though I am sure there must be such a tradition, and it just happens to escape me as I write this).

Edmund Hussel warned us not to be blind to ideas.

When Husserl warned against blindness to ideas, I believe that he had the prevalent empiricism of his day in mind. We could just as well accuse naturalism on this point. At very least, the recognition of ideas is the point at which naturalism must declare as a point of demarcation between simple materialism or mechanism and a more sophisticated naturalism that can overcome the intrinsic limitations of the former. The first step toward mitigating a conceptual weakness is recognizing it, and if we can recognize the importance of not being blinded by ideas, we are then prepared to take the next step and rehabilitate ideas that have been relegated to obscurity.

. . . . .

. . . . .


. . . . .

2 Responses to “Ideas: Blindness and Illusion”

  1. Marina said

    Hi, Nick!
    Here are my two cents on this subject.
    It is impossible “to see the world for exactly what it is”. Every living creature sees the world trough the prism of his interests and needs, previous experience and available hardware for perception.
    The world “as is”, without an observer, does not exist in the sense that shapes and qualities are properties of the way a subject organizes the input of his senses. You, I and a frog create the world every day — as God did.
    Your blog is interesting because the world you create is unique and charming. This is how I see it.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Marina,

      Thanks for your stimulating comment! I agree with you that, “You, I and a frog create the world every day,” but I don’t think that we have complete freedom to create whatever world we please, however we would like to create it. Marx famously said (and I have many times quoted) that, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Similarly, men make their own ontology, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make their ontology under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already and transmitted from the world.

      The world “as it is” is what constrains us in the creation of the world that we accomplish daily. The very fact that you could identify the perceptual apparatus (what you call the “hardware for perception”) of a human being or a frog as giving a particular perspective on the world implies a world in common in which perceptual machinery can be identified as similar within members of the same species and distinct for members of distinct species.

      You seem to be advocating a species of perspectivalism. I do not want to deny that which is valid within perspectivalism, but the perspective of perspectivalism has its limitations, as does any perspective. It seems to me that there can be both perspectives that are valid as far as they go as well as a shared world irreducible to either to any one perspective or even to the sum of all perspectives. Thus it is a mistake, from my perspective, to treat the world “as it is” and individual perspectives as mutually exclusive.

      Best wishes,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: