I dreamed a dream…

10 March 2011


Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

Last Saturday night I had a stomach ache when I went to bed. As a result, I tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully, and when I did sleep I dreamed vividly. This is unusual for me. I rarely remember my dreams. This is more or less a choice. I find the irrationality of dreams irritating, so I have made no attempt to remember or cultivate them in my life. As a result, my dream life has withered. (Everyone knows that the more time you spend trying to remember your dreams, or even cultivating them by keeping a dream journal, the more likely you are to recall them. The opposite is also true.) When I sleep, I usually disappear into oblivion until I wake; my rupture with the world is complete and absolute. It therefore takes a relatively powerful dream to break through my benign neglect of the dream world.

For me, even more rare than a dream is a dream that is philosophically significant. I have had a few philosophically interesting dreams in my life, but only a handful in total. Nevertheless, I know it from my limited experience to be a fascinating experience. There is a famous story that English philosopher G. E. Moore (a friend and contemporary of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) had a dream in which he was unable to distinguish tables from propositions. Since G. E. Moore is known for his “common sense” philosophy, one can understand how disturbing such a dream might have been.

My philosophical dream that occurred sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning did, in a way, concern itself with propositions, but only indirectly — it didn’t involve mistaking propositions (abstract objects) for anything else or mistaking tables (concrete objects) for anything else (much less each other). What I did experience in my dream was a kind of experience — experience without language, as though I were living in the world of our pre-linguistic ancestors.

In my dream I can recall encountering objects in all of the ordinary ways that we encounter objects in our experience, but primarily seeing them. I moved through a world of objects, and in my dream I had no words whatsoever to describe these objects, but I knew what they were, and I had definite feelings toward them (for example, feelings of desire or avoidance), and perhaps it could even be said that I had ideas of these ordinary objects, but the world of this particular dream was most definitely a pre-linguistic or non-linguistic world. Within the dream my experience of the world was utterly unmediated by language or the concepts institutionalized in language. For me this was a unique experience, and quite different from anything I have experienced previously either in dreams or in waking life. Perhaps dreams of non-linguistic experience are common, but I am unaware of this since I have made no study of dreams.

I began thinking of this dream as soon as I woke up — the power of the dreamed experience stayed with me for some time, and though I took no notes at the time I can still recall it several days later –and I immediately realized that there is an established terminology in phenomenology for such experience: prepredicative experience. So I dreamed prepredicatively.

The term “prepredicative” is introduced in Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. This was actually a manuscript assembled by Ludwig Landgrebe from Husserl’s manuscripts, though under Husserl’s direction while the latter was still alive. In his Introduction Landgrebe called the book, “a collaboration of a wholly unique kind” (p. 7).

Throughout his philosophical career, Husserl bent every effort to try to get to the experience itself without any mediation. An obvious corollary of this philosophical project was to get at experience, including the fundamental and constitutive experiences of logic, without recourse to language or even to the concepts employed in language. One can see this quest for unmediated experience as Quixotic yet doomed, or as simply foolish. There are few in the Anglo-American tradition today that even believe anything like this is possible. Most philosophers today believe that they have “seen through” any and all attempts to get at “pure experience” (which was what William James called it).

It is actually quite difficult to pluck out a good quote from Husserl that perfectly expresses his position in a pithy aphorism. Husserl does have some pithy aphorisms — like to the things themselves — but these are few and far between. For the most part, reading Husserl is a lot like reading medieval logicians like Ockham and Buridan: you have to put in several years of study before you can even understand what he is getting at, and why it is so difficult for him to express what he is getting at in clear and concise language. Anyway, for a flavor of Husserl’s ruminations on the prepredicative, consider the following:

“An object, as the possible substrate of a judgment, can be self-evidently given without having to be judged about in a predicative judgment. On the other hand, a self-evident predicative judgment concerning this object is not possible unless the object itself is given with self-evidence. For judgments of experience, this is, to begin with, nothing astonishing; indeed, in this case we seem only to be expressing a truism with the allusion to the founding of predicative self-evidence on the prepredicative. But the return to objective, prepredicative self-evidence obtains its proper emphasis and full significance only with the stipulation that this relation of founding concerns not only judgments grounded in experience but every self-evident predicative judgment in general, and therewith also the judgments of the logician himself, with their apodictic self-evidence, which, after all, make the claim of being valid ‘in themselves,’ i.e., regardless of their possible application to a determinate range of substrates.”

Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic, revised and edited by Ludwig Landgrebe, translated by James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p. 20, emphasis in original

Now that this definitive quote from Husserl has cleared matters up, we can move on.

I consider my dream to be a sufficient thought experiment to prove to me for my own purposes that prepredicative experience is in fact possible. This is definitely an odd claim for me to make. Most if not all thought experiments are based on conscious intentions to think in a certain way about certain things. I cannot tell anyone except a lucid dreamer (and I have never myself experienced lucid dreams) to try this thought experiment, so it is not that kind of experiment that admits of repetition and independent confirmation. Nevertheless, I have experienced it myself and now “feel it in my bones.” While dream evidence (which sounds frighteningly like “spectral evidence” ) is not science, it is philosophy, at least in so far as I understand the openness of philosophical inquiry to any method whatsoever.

Moreover, I will make the further and perhaps even more tenuous claim that my dream of prepredicative experience is just about as close as someone from our age can come to experiencing the pre-linguistic world of our early ancestors, which would also have been innocent of those concepts that were built up with the use of language over the past fifty thousand years or so since anatomical modernity made speech possible and an ordinary part of human experience.

At this point in my exposition I am likely to lose even sympathetic phenomenologists, since there is a strong resistance among those who take up philosophical questions in this spirit with identifying ideas or experiences with particular historical instantiations. This resistance has a long, complex, and interesting history. Both Frege, the ancestor of analytical Anglo-American philosophy, and Husserl, and ancestor of continental philosophy, are part of this story.

Frege was dead-set against confusing the origins of things for the things themselves, and especially for confusing logic with any natural history of how logic came about in human experience. His writings frequently contain passages like the following:

“While the mathematician defines objects, concepts, and relations, the psychological logician is spying upon the origin and evolution of ideas, and to him at bottom the mathematician’s defining can only appear foolish because it does not reproduce the essence of ideation. ”

Gottlob Frege, The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System, p. 24

This position consistently rejected by Frege is sometimes called psychologism, or logical psychologism. The early Husserl had psychologistic tendencies, but Frege wrote a devastating review of Husserl’s book Philosophy of Arithmetic, and Husserl henceforth explicitly repudiated logical psychologism. J. N. Mohanty wrote an entire book, Husserl and Frege, to prove that Husserl was moving in this direction anyway and that Frege did not “convert” Husserl to anti-psychologism, but it seems clear to me that Frege, at least at this point, had a decisive influence on Husserl.

Frege also wrote the following in a posthumously published manuscript:

“‘2 times 2 is 4’ is true and will continue to be so even if, as a result of Darwinian evolution, human beings were to come to assert that 2 times 2 is 5. Every truth is eternal and independent of being thought by anyone and of the psychological make-up of anyone thinking it.”

Gottlob Frege, “17 Key Sentences on Logic” in Posthumous Writings, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 174

I do not disagree with Frege, and I am not suggesting a psychologistic approach to logic, or even a more vague psychologistic orientation of thought, but because of my dreamed experience I have come to think that it is possible to speak meaningfully of experience independent of language and the infrastructure of concepts made possible by language. It therefore also seems entirely reasonable to me that say that we might be able to speak meaningfully of the genesis of language and language-dependent concepts from a pre-linguistic stage of human experience. Moreover, I will assert that under certain (admittedly unusual) circumstances, it is possible for those of us living long after the introduction of language to experience something analogous to the experiences our ancestors prior to language.

None of this strikes me as particularly controversial, much less heretical, but I know the history of these ideas well enough to know why such claims — especially when interpreted unsympathetically — could be construed as controversial. That is why I have filled in a little more background of the intellectual history than I do in most posts. It would be easy to devote a weighty volume, indeed several volumes, to an exposition of this idea, why it is controversial, and how it is to be understood in a way that does not contradiction the clarifications of Frege and Husserl, with which I have no issue. Perhaps if I live long enough I may eventually write those volumes. In the meantime, I wanted to set down the idea before I forgot it.

. . . . .


. . . . .


3 Responses to “I dreamed a dream…”

  1. Kyle said

    J.N. Nielsen,

    I came across your post through a google search for the word ‘prepredicative.’ I find your thoughts here to be interesting and creative. Personally, I’ve only begun to read and understand phenomenology and Husserl but it seems to me that the idea of you experiencing prepredicative experience is self-contradicting.

    You recognize the experience as a “pre-linguistic or non-linguistic…world of objects.” In this recognition of your experience as such, you are using words (e.g. “world of objects”). Clearly, then, your experience was mediated by language and concepts such as “world of objects.” If it were not, then you would not be able to identify the dream as an experience of a non-linguistic world of objects. The mere fact that you apply the term ‘prepredicative’ to your experience means that the experience was not prepredicative.

    Again, I’ve only recently begun to study phenomenology and Husserl. So, I don’t regard my remarks as authoritative criticism but as critical thoughts and questions. I really would like to hear what you would think by way of reply.

    I also came across an interesting article in this book called “The Concept of Prepredicative Experience” by M. Harrison. He seems to have a different agenda but similar criticism.


    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Kyle,

      Thank you for your perceptive comments, which I found to be of the greatest interest. The dilemma that you identify is keenly felt, and not only in phenomenology. The report of any apparently ineffable experience is paradoxical; thus one wants to reject prepredicative experience for reasons parallel to the rejection of Kant’s thing-in-itself (Ding an Sich) as intrinsically contradictory.

      In reporting my dream experience I am in a dilemma precisely parallel to a mystic reporting a mystical experience after the fact — an experience which itself St. John of the Cross called the “Dark night of the soul,” which just goes to show you how poignantly paradoxical such reports are. But if the dilemma is keenly felt, it is no more keenly felt than the experience itself. There will be some who will privilege the experience over the dilemma; others will privilege the dilemma over the experience.

      You wrote that, “The mere fact that you apply the term ‘prepredicative’ to your experience means that the experience was not prepredicative.” This shows up the connection to the mystical experience especially clearly, since one can say of mystical experience later identified as ineffable that, “the mere fact that you apply the term ‘ineffable’ to your experience means that that the experience was not ineffable.”

      I have no immediate or definitive escape from this perennial philosophical dilemma, but I will think about it. In the meantime, in lieu of a definitive answer to your dilemma, I will observe that in my ex post facto expression of my experience I used words, as well as concepts inherent to our linguistic infrastructure that allows us to discuss experiences that are not themselves primarily or exclusively linguistic experiences. The dream experience remains what it is (or what it was) independently of any linguistic expression. Given the counter-factual situation in which I never attempted to express my dream in language, I might have retained the experience in memory and never formulated it in linguistic terms, which might have left the dream experience pristinely prepredicative. Tentatively, then, I would suggest that one’s experiences need not be mediated by language even if one’s expression of one’s experience are necessarily mediated by language.

      One way out of this dilemma — and I propose this in the same spirit in which you suggested that your remarks were not meant as, “authoritative criticism but as critical thoughts and questions” — would be to argue that the thesis that prepredicative experience is inherently contradictory implicitly involves the picture theory of language (cf. the early Wittgenstein), and that if the picture theory of language is denied, there need be no systematic correspondence between the elements of an experience and the elements of its linguistic expression.

      Another way out would be to adopt Brouwer’s attitude to mathematics (and the mathematical experience of intuitions that lie at the foundation of an essentially inexpressable mathematical reality personally constructed in the mind) to experience more generally, and to language more generally. There is a minor industry of philosophers who pursue the parallels between Brouwerian intuitionism and Husserlian phenomenology (one of them brought my attention to the fact that Husserl and Brouwer did meet on one occasion), suggesting that this might be a fruitful line of research.

      On the other hand, if one privileges the dilemma over the experience, then these proposed “ways out” of the dilemma come across as mere rationalizations, and not very convincing, just as one who has not had a mystical experience will not likely be sympathetic to an unrepeatable and unverifiable experience unless one has reasons to believe in it other than the testimony of the claims of the mystic.

      Very best wishes,


  2. jona said

    To say that reporting an event in language makes it impossible to be pre-linguistic is simply a false logic which lies on the presumption that language overlaps experience, indeed that it coincides with experience, which is contrary to basic phenomenological tenets. Any poetic use of language refers to something outside of the specific words used, in fact conjures up meaning that is unmappable by words, yet summoned by them, so to speak. And this is only one general example.

    That said, if we use a wider sense of language as a pattern structure that would include the sensible organization of conception-perceptions in the sense Merleau-Ponty talks about (and not merely as an object of linguistics) then the very identification of objects as precepts (without an assigned word, but with an assigned function or space-time parameters) is indeed a part of our (pre) linguistic orientation in the world, which is predicative, but not pre-predicative.

    I do experiment a lot with dreams, and those experiments are often informed by my phenomenological research. In most dreaming we have predicative experiences. However, I have managed on a few occasions to achieve total shut down of conceptual thought (through much exercise) and this is as close as I can report of coming to pre-predicative experience, if that’s what Husserl had in mind indeed. In that experience, I could see my room exactly as it was but it was entirely an unknown thing. I don’t know how to relate this experience precisely, but I could not identify anything, not even outlines or perspective, it was all a blob of shapes that could disintegrate any moment, and they had no respective distance to me, no near and far, e.g. So, if I were to move in that experience, I wouldn’t have been too good at orienting myself visually. As I was half-awake when this happened, I gently shifted to wakefulness and then the concepts of things emerged — I remember, the first thing I identified was the TV set in front of me. I suppose what I experienced was the state of a baby first thrown into the world.

    I must add that it was a terrifying experience that made me realize how deeply internalized our linguistic orientation in the world is, so deep that it feels like our very physical integrity depends on it. Of course, this is not verifiable scientifically, and it doesn’t need to be, in order to be valid. The scientific mapping of the world is only one somewhat shallow way of interpreting complex phenomena, especially those pertaining to subjective states (the subject of phenomenology).

    I think your line of questioning is phenomenologically valid, despite all the resistance and controversy it could stir. I have been pursuing this type of questioning in academic context, and yes it requires much more rigour and knowledge of different methods, schools, etc., and it is a solitary line of questioning as it does not align precisely with any one tradition, but it is worth looking into precisely because it is a huge part of our experience that has been conveniently overlooked for far too long and which, if studied more seriously, might easily resolve apparent contradictions and false paradoxes concerned with language and cognition.


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