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.

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