Notes On Peter Frederick Strawson and the Question of Substance(s) as Inert Substrate(s) of Empirical (in)Substantiality
Position statement: The fundamental fallacy of a "mind-body dualism" project is the basal assumption that an introspecting self can observe its own thought processes. According to my thesis, what we conventionally regard to be the "nucleus of self" is actually itself nothing but "thought." I furthermore advance two axiomatic statements: (i) thought is incapable of self-observation, and (ii) no two thoughts can be thought simultaneously. Therefore the use of 'thought' (and 'idea') in the following notes is merely that of a philosophical metaphor – 'an extenuated allegory,' in other words a myth.
3. Now Strawson, following Kant, takes up a belief in the necessity for substances to account for a coherent empirical, "spatio-temporal" world. Substance is for Strawson a formal concept with a central role in the structure of his conceptual scheme (Robinson 2004).
4. Substance(s) are defined as those enduring particulars that give (i) unity to our time-space framework, and (ii) the 'individuation' and 'individuational reidentification' that allows (or enables) us to locate ourselves within this spatio-temporal framework (ibid).
5. Now, when I say that Strawson 'followed Kant' in positing the need for a 'substrate [ontology]' [vis-à-vis his substance], we can also say that he was following Aristotle in attempting to conceive both knower and known (both "contents of inner and outer sense") as alike structured – as alike structured in and/or by "form" and/or "substance." In doing so, Strawson therefore conceives the 'substrate' of his scheme as that to which various properties infix or inhere. These 'properties' include the "contents of consciousness."
6. But here arises a fundamental problem. If all we can know of 'things' – i.e. phenomenal existence, matter in motion – if all we can know of 'items' are the properties that infix or inhere in the substrates or substances of substantiation, then how are we to know – i.e. how are we to posit the existence of that which is most basic to them, vis-à-vis the substrates or substances themselves?
7. 'If we are Cartesians we can appeal to a sort of 'intellecutal intuition,' as does Descartes in his Second Meditation. But if we are empiricists, well the discourse takes an interesting turn' (Strawson). Why? I will answer that. Because it opens the gate to scepticism. According to this account, then, British empiricism, knowingly or not, exposes (or discloses) the basis of its ontology as a "substance ontology" that is founded on a 'lifeless substrate' – yes, a substrate or substance (they're essentially the same) that is 'intrinsically inert, oppressive, boring and unknowable' (McCumber 2004). Shall we take a quick look at this?
8. John Locke at one point (1690, II. 23) characterizes the substrate as "somehow underlying the properties we actually perceive," while at the same time being a mere social convention, a "custom" or "supposition." This seems to suggest that the notion of "substance(s)" was more or less optional to John Locke's view, and could for that matter just as well been dispensed with. When challenged by the Bishop of Worcester Edward Stillingfleet on this point (1696-99), Locke responded rather enigmatically stating that 'any other explanation for the subsistence of concatenated ideas was inconceivable.'
9. But it was Berkeley who went the other way with this and 'definitively' established that the notion of an unknown material substratum or 'substance holder' of perceived ideas was totally untenable; thus the central thesis of his "subjective idealism." The position appears radical, but only at face value. Why? Because after denying that the contents of consciousness, which includes "sense data," could be caused or supported by external (inert) substances, the Anglican Bishop explained it all away by declaring God to be the immanent cause of the qualities of human sense perception.
Descartes, René. 1641. Second Meditation, from Meditations on First Philosophy.
Locke, John 1690. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding http://www.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Philosophy/Locke/echu/.
McCumber, John. 2004. Philosophy vs. Theory: Reshaping the Debate, pdf.
Robinson, Howard. 2004. Substance Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/substance/.
Stillingfleet, Edward. 1696. Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in The Philosophy of Edward Stillingfleet; including his Replies to John Locke. Ed. by G. A. J. Rogers, University of Keele 6 Volumes, 1999.
Strawson, Sir Peter F. 2001. Philosophy and Commitment: Left, Right and Center, a presentation by at the University of Hawaii 10/18/01 & 10/20/01 http://www.infinityfoundation.com/strawsonscript.htm.