Anscombe Comments on Identity
January 30, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Frege, G. E. M. Anscombe, Identity, Leibniz, Stuart Mirsky, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, essences, logic, reference

In the third essay of the book, Human Life, Action and Ethics, titled Human Essence, Anscombe takes up the question of the relation between grammar and essence in light of Wittgenstein's remark that grammar expresses essence. Beginning with an explanation and brief analysis of Frege on numerical functions and shifting to Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, she explores how we use words to express ideas and the nature/status of concepts as a lead-in to her attempt to answer the question implied by the title of this essay (what is meant by "human essence"?). Along the way she has occasion to speak of the concept of identity, which I thought interesting because of the pivotal role that concept has played in our many arguments about ways to explain consciousness on this and earlier lists.

It's often argued by some here that one has to grant that either the mental is identical to the brain processes we discover in conscious, thinking entities' brains via instruments like the fMRI or it is not and, if it is not, then it is something else and therefore irreducibly different and distinct from the brain and its goings on. We have argued a great deal here and earlier about the appropriate use of "identity" in our debates, with some here insisting that only one notion of identity matters, i.e., the so-called logical identity which Leibniz characterized as a thing being the same as itself. I've mentioned in the past that Wittgenstein had indicated, in the PI, that that sort of identity generally says very little in most cases and also that there are a great many other ways to think of "identity" and that it is easy to confuse our uses in discussions such as the one we've had about minds and brains.

My own view has been that we can assert an identity between mind and brain, experience and brain events if you will, without supposing that we mean they are one and the same thing in every way by this. For to be that, using "identity" in the logical way where the meaning is that a thing is the same as itself, all we are really doing is recognizing that we have more than one referring term for a given referent. Indeed, what could be more basic and more obvious (indeed, more trivial) than to say that everything is the same as itself? How can "same" have a meaning in that case and does "same" even mean that when it's used in ordinary discourse? Well a quick exploration of how we use "same" shows that is not the case. But then, if we don't mean "identity" in the case of that kind of sameness, what do we mean?

Here is Anscombe on the subject:

The grammar of terms for natural kinds of stuff is tied up with that of a 'pure sample'. Locke believed the early chemists in Oxford were wasting their time trying to get pure samples.Luckily they took no notice of him. You need 'pure samples' to get knowledge of the properties of the kind of stuff you are examining: that gives the grammatical connexion which makes the particular grammar express the essence of the particular kind.
The identity of a lump of stuff is tied up in a vaguish way with the notion of 'nothing added and nothing taken away'. I say 'vaguish' because the loss of a very little would seldom count and whether loss or even replacement of a bit counts against identity depends on our interest.
When we come to plants and animals the identity of an individual is of a different kind. 'The persistence of a certain pattern in a flow of matter' is how we should explain identity, but the notion of the pattern, as of a shape too, is here special and peculiar. We readily speak of the shape of a horse or of a human being. But we don't say that someone's shape, as we ordinarily mean it, is something that alters when he sits down, for example. Also the term 'pattern' extends to covering patterns of development over a period of life involving considerable changes, even like those from caterpillar to larva to butterfly.
These observations are contributions to the general grammar of 'pieces of stuff' and 'same animal'. The latter phrase has two senses, in one of which two fleas are the same animal, while in the other they are two different ones. This, too, belongs to the grammar of such terms, and it is not obscure to say that essence -- various levels of essence, we may say -- gets expressed in grammar.

Here, Anscombe explores some different ways in which we may use "identity," which should remind us that the meaning of the sort we call "logical identity" is very specialized and which, therefore, adds very little to ordinary discourse. The notion of logical identity certainly has an application, as when we want to understand the way in which two or more referring terms relate to a single referent. But this means we should also pay attention to the context of use for it can make no sense, because it adds nothing to the discourse, to say of a person that he or she is the same as him or herself or that mankind is the same as itself. How about asking whether experiences are the same as some underlying brain event we can scientifically establish is necessary to the occurrence in the entity of the experience?

But here we have two obviously distinct referents, whatever the factual (and thus empirically ascertained) relation between them. In the case of Frege's morning star/evening star example we have a single entity discovered to be the bearer of two different names which users may unknowingly take to name different entities. Modern astronomy enables us to see, however, that the different names pick out the same item and so the morning star is the evening star and we can collapse the reference by acknowledging the common application of the two referring terms in question.

On the other hand, however, confronted with two very different phenomena, the brain event(s) and the experience that occurs in an entity when the event(s) transpire(s) in its brain, we don't have a parallel case because the referents are constitutionally distinct. Whatever the empirical relation between them (and science gives us every reason to take this as causal in one very important sense), they are not the same thing. Unlike the planet Venus, which can be tracked astronomically with instruments, and ascertained, thereby, to be the cause of the two appearances in the sky which bear distinct names (conferred on them by those without access to the instruments in question), the brain events and the experiences we can empirically relate them to are not a single phenomenon because they are experienced in different ways. They have, as some here might want to put it, different ontologies. They exist in different ways or, as Anscombe might put it, they have different essences. In the Wittgensteinian mode we would expect them, therefore, to be expressed via different grammars.

Venus is Venus (the same as itself) and the discovery that it bears two names in certain quarters merely serves to remind us that there is one and only one referent. But brain events and experiences are not a single referent like Venus because they are known in quite different ways. We never speak of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and such as this or that brain event we happen to be having because, of course, we don't know first-hand about any of that -- and, if we did, could not refer to those events in place of our experiences since referring requires experiencing to occur first. The condition of experiencing is the precondition for being able to refer and so one could only understand brain events as such in relation to the language of experience, i.e., to refer to them we must have an experience based grammar.

So the notion of identity can be seen to apply to the issue of brain events and experience but it cannot be the same notion that applies in the matter of Venus and its names. Here we want to look at the essence via its grammar and what we find is a case of levels of observation/operation such as Searle presents when he describes water's wetness as caused by the behaviors of its atomic level constituents under certain conditions. There is what happens at one very deep level and what we encounter at a higher level. We never see the molecular activity of water (and it takes a certain way of explaining physical things to give us that picture) but we do see its fluidity in the world, its liquidity, its wetness. We say these features are caused by the way water's molecules behave, that, in an important sense, this is all these features are. But that doesn't mean that we mean by this that molecules of water are wet. That can make no sense because to get that feature you have to function at the human level of day-to-day interaction with the stuff we call "water." You have to be able to feel it, observe its effects, etc. Long before mankind had a picture of water at the atomic level, we recognized and utilized its wetness and characterized water in this way.

The issue then isn't logical identity but another kind, the sort suited to the uses we put our language to, e.g., alerting others to the effects of water under certain conditions, in which case we can offer the scientific account that equates wetness with certain atomic level behaviors and with the larger picture of atomic operations in the universe. So how are our experiences identical to brain events? Only in the sense in which the former are a manifestation, at another level, of the latter. Two sides of a common coin, as it were. It depends on the vantage point you have from where you're "standing."

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