Background: Much of philosophy since Kant has taken for granted that our basic experience of reality is structured by our cognitive apparatus, including notably our background conceptual frameworks. However, realists also want to say that when we succeed in knowing things through our mental apparatus, what we know is real in spite of its essential dependence on structures of cognition. There is for me an unresolved tension here.

In addition there is the problem of whether concepts themselves are discovered or engineered. If they are discovered does that commit us to extra Platonic entities? If they are engineered, what are the success criteria for a well engineered concept? If we take the pragmatist path of saying concepts are useful or the realist idea that concepts should "carve the world at its joints" we are back to trying to account for some sort of reality that either grounds usefulness or joint-carving, and this reality presumably also needs to be expressed via concepts, so I don't see how either pragmatism or joint-carving accounts can solve the problem of what makes concepts successful qua concepts.

Where I'm at: Recently I've been seriously considering the view that the thing we need to place at the foundation of both metaphysics and epistemology is pattern/meaning. Not meaning as in the meaning of a word; linguistic meaning is derived from the primary meaningfulness of that which the language is about. The view I'm considering is that we do not impose pattern/meaning on perception through our cognitive apparatus, but discover it directly in the world. When we perceive such a pattern/meaning, we might call the combination of the pattern and our perception of it a gestalt. Concepts are formed by noticing patterns in our gestalts (i.e., forming gestalts of gestalts). Once we've formed concepts they may operate to direct our attention selectively towards those patterns that fall under them. This creates the illusion that our concepts gives us the pattern, when in fact, we are only selectively noticing patterns which exist independently of the concepts that point us towards them.

We can consider Wittgenstein's famous example of the duck-rabbit. Suppose here there are two patterns, which correspond to two gestalts, the duck and the rabbit. If we approach the image with the conceptual lens of rabbit (suppose we've never seen a duck) then we'll only see the rabbit gestalt, and vice versa. But this doesn't mean the rabbit gestalt is constructed by the rabbit concept. In fact, the dependency flows in the other direction. We could only form a rabbit concept but first appreciating many rabbit gestalts.

There are two accounts in the academic literature I've come across that seem to be saying something similar, but both are outside the mainstream of analytic philosophy. The first is Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, where he argues for the primary reality of a realm of a cross-modal "significance," which I think can be reasonably interpreted along the lines I've set out above. The second is the mature view of the cognitive scientists Douglas Hofstadter as set out in his book Surfaces and Essences. Here, he accounts for cognition in terms of analogies, but in my reading, this view depends essentially on us having direct pre-conceptual perception of similarities/patterns in the world.

My question is whether any contemporary analytic philosophers defend (or attack) this sort of view, and if so what it is called, and what articles/books I should look to?

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    What you described fits perceptual direct realism: Among contemporary analytic philosophers who defended direct realism one might refer to, for example, Hilary Putnam, John McDowell, Galen Strawson, John R. Searle, and John L. Pollock...Simon Blackburn has argued that whatever positions they may take in books, articles or lectures, naive realism is the view of "philosophers when they are off-duty." You may also find schema of psychology more fits your basic ideas of a pattern of thought.. Feb 19, 2022 at 2:44
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    Nevid lauds the contribution from philosophy such as Kant's to contemporary cognitive psychotherapy in his 2007 paper: it is argued that the rigid use of certain judgments represented in Kant's conceptual scheme underlies patterns of distorted thinking associated with emotional disorders. Schopenhauer also had his dissatisfaction of Kant for similar reason as yours, how is it possible to comprehend subjective sensations as the objective perception of things that lie "outside"? His conclusion is not via discovery but a priori recollect causality... Feb 19, 2022 at 3:04
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    @Hypnosifl Yes, I do believe there is a connection with structural realism in philosophy of science / philosophy of mathematics. The notion of "structure" is usually understood as a mathematical structure, but if you generalized this idea to a pattern that might or might not be capable of mathematical characterization then I think it would be close to what I have in mind. I'm looking for a view that applies this sort of "patternism" not only to the physical world as described by science but to all aspects of reality (e.g., art, religion, love, etc).
    – Avi C
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:48
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    Later philosophers (largely continental) such as Heidegger's dasein and ready-to-hand concepts are similar in spirit to your conceived pattern/meaning gestalt emphasizing holism as fundamental to philosophy of perception, inline with those as emphasized in the modern scientific Gestalt psychology: a perceptual whole is different from what one would predict based on only its individual parts...Köhler writes...we have wholes...give their parts specific functions or properties that can only be defined in relation to the whole in question. Feb 20, 2022 at 22:44
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    Perhaps you are a member of the Yogacara school of thought. “A thing is a think” (Watts). Jul 15 at 1:52

2 Answers 2


However, realists want to say that when we succeed in knowing things through our mental apparatus, what we know as real inspite of its essential dependence on structures of cognition. To me, there is an unresolved tension here.

What would it mean for an actually existing being to to know something without 'structures of cognition'? Would he even be an actual being itself?

Kant stated we have an apparatus that structures our basic categories of experience. I don't see how this can be got away from. Any other being would be the same though the details may differ. In the same way that Plato was a Naturalist about language, Kant is a Naturalist about the way we experience space and time. The schema of geometry of space, the successiveness and duration of time and of causality is imposed, structuring our experience and is presupposed by any kind of experience. And this, in a sense, comes from the world. We do not make some kind of arbitrary mapping as say we could do with an AI, at least for space. That would be Conventionalism. It's much more difficult to see how this could be the case for time and causality. I don't see it being possible.

Thus, I would say Kant is a realist. And his notorious 'thing-in-itself' is merely to say the idea animates the man and not the things of the world, which become merely things. Kant is definitely not an idealist and his Copernican turn was a turn away from idealism to realism.

Whilst we discover patterns in the world much of this is unconcious and not under conscious control. And the most basic modalities under which we do this lies well below even the subconscience. We simply don't have access to it. This is again, Kant's thesis. Here, we cannot say concepts are either 'engineered' or 'discovered' as this implies conscious thought.

Merleau-Ponty agrees with this assessment:

primary perception is a non-thetic, pre-objective, pre-conscious experience.

Of course, we do think up new concepts, but these are actually rather rare. Often, what is thought up is an admixture of the already well known or understand.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by 'cross-modality' and it's 'primary significance' . Merleau-Ponty gives two examples in his Phenomenology: one common and the other rare. The common one is how we associate different modalities of qualia with each other. Like warm for red or passionate or cold for blue or dispassionate. The rare one is synesthesia where people, for example, hear colours or see colour in numbers. Both are significant. But the common one I would argue is a secondary, derived phenomena and not at all primary, whilst the rare one is primary but it is rare and so not useful in discussing ordinary, garden-variety consciousness.

Certainly, the rare cross-modal form doesn't fit the structure you've outlined.  Whereas for the other, common cross-modal form, I think it's debatable whether it fits your structure. I'd say given the frequency of such associations, that they're preconscious but there's likely to be some forms that are consciously made.

I also think that Wittgenstein's rabbit-duck is something of a red-herring. Perception is already multi-modal. If I pick up a large block of wood, I can see it's both painted red and heavy at the same time. Perception already divides up the world for us whilst Wittgenstein's rabbit-duck is merely designed to show that what our perceptual apparatus does effortlessly actually requires effort.

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    Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective. It doesn't answer my question though.
    – Avi C
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:39
  • To address your questions: "What would it mean for an actually existing being to to know something without 'structures of cognition'?" Knowledge requires structures of cognition, but that does not rule out that possibility that reality itself may shape our structures of cognition by imprinting it's patterns directly upon our cognitive apparatus. That is the view I have in mind.
    – Avi C
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:53
  • As for Merleau-Ponty's notion of primary significance as cross-modal, it is articulated throughout PofP. His main idea is that a phenomenal field is something like a densely interconnected domain of meaning (e.g., visual meaning, tactile meaning, linguistic meaning). It is a apparent that there is no absolute individuation criteria for where one phenomenal field ends and another begins. He argues constantly for the claim that all phenomenal fields "interpenetrate" one another, and his accounts of art and language are based on the inter-expressibility of meanings across phenomenal fields.
    – Avi C
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:56
  • @Avi C: "That reality may shape our structure of cognition" is Naturalism. It was Plato's point of view, and in a way Kant. Feb 20, 2022 at 22:29

Merleau-Ponty and Hofstadter are mainstream.

I don't like that you seek to merge and elide the differences between meaning and pattern. A chess board has a pattern; is the pattern, itself, meaningful? It's meaning is contextual, in relation to the practices of game playing, and the rules of chess. The board could be any two colours, or distorted in various ways. The specifics of the usual pattern aren't even significant, but a convenience for rapidly identifying the options of pieces.

Are there contemporary analytic defenders of the view that pattern/meaning is metaphysically fundamental and directly knowable?

Dennett describes Real patterns (PDF of full article here). But, I don't think he'd accept them as being fundamental like atoms, because he uses them towards describing beliefs, so I'd say emergent from fundamental physics. And 'directly knowable', what would that mean? Our whole conceptual structuring of abstract thought is shaped by language, we can't just escape that or turn it off (although possibly meditative practices can have some impacts, though even then our experiences structure perceptions, see Anil Seth's work).

I don't think Hofstadter would accept 'metaphysically fundamental', he is a Coherentist, not a Foundationalist. I see the great strength of his approach as avoiding the problems for Foundationalists summarised by Munchausen's Trilemma.

our background conceptual frameworks. However, realists also want to say that when we succeed in knowing things through our mental apparatus, what we know is real in spite of its essential dependence on structures of cognition. There is for me an unresolved tension here.

Why? You imply that there is a duck-truth and a rabbit-truth in the duck rabbit. Consider the wider case of pareidolia, like seeing faces in clouds. We can interpret, without there being a truth to the matter. We can emvellish, elaborate, and just make up interpretive frameworks. But note, that's not the same as just imagining whatever you want on the paper, or appearing in the cloud.

By demanding that the regularities we see in the world reveal 'metaphysically fundamental truths', you are just saying the Problem of Induction isn't a real problem. But it is, you need to consider it, and pick an answer.

I see the core problem you have, as being about the status of mathematics. How can we get to what appear to be universal truths, from subjective experiences? I suggest there is a better answer than saying the truth of the duck-rabbit is in the 'gestalts', whatever that means. The bettee answer is intersubjectivity: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics in most sciences

Following Hume's Is-Ought distinction, I would describe meaning as belong to the Ought domain, as providing impetus and motive to act. Whereas patterns necessarily belong to the Is domain.

Meaning is about arranging information, and situating ourselves to it. It has a deep connection to what kind of lives we think are worth living, and what kind of beings we want to be. We cannot understand ourselves as disembodied brains, we are social beings who can only develop into functioning adults capable of abstract thought in communion with others, and that is not an accident. This is the Private Language Argument. Discussed in relation to the origin of meaning and intersubjectivity here: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?

Another way if talking about it, is to say we have private access to experiments, but only public access to theories, which can direct our experiments towards distinguish effective conceptual frameworks.

Consider how long 'now' is. The present moment. This deeply relates to our reflex speed, or working memory, the speed of our mental processing, and our faculties as humans have arisen in relation to activities we tyically do. Animals with very fast activities, or long slow lives, experience the nature of 'now' differently. But all humans have the same faculties, and it is easy to implicitly assume that the nature of 'now' is objective. But, it's intersubjective, it is both structured by perception, and real in that it is functional and has observable consequences.

You might like this answer which goes into more depth about how causality is a way of structuring experience, which we project on top of patterns: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?

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