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Whewell’s Hylomorphism as a Metaphorical Explanation for How Mind and World Merge

Abstract

William Whewell’s nineteenth century philosophy of science is sometimes glossed over as a footnote to Kant. There is however a key feature of Whewell’s account worth noting. This is his appeal to Aristotle’s form/matter hylomorphism as a metaphor to explain how mind and world merge in successful scientific inquiry. Whewell’s hylomorphism suggests a middle way between rationalism and empiricism reminiscent of experience pragmatists like Steven Levine’s view that mind and world are entwined in experience. I argue however that Levine does not adequately explain exactly how mind and world entwine. He could nonetheless do so if he appealed to Whewell’s hylomorphic metaphor. We may prefer a reductive metaphysical explanation, but I suggest that pragmatists only have recourse to metaphor in this case. Both reductive and metaphorical explanations can enjoy great explanatory power if they exhibit a suitable measure of what I will call semantic distance. Semantic distance measures how close or how far apart explanandum and explanans are from each other in meaning. Metaphorical explanation, as evident in Whewell’s hylomorphism and as detailed via the notion of semantic distance, presents a valuable new explanatory tool to those who hold that mind and world are entwined sans recourse to metaphysics.

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Notes

  1. Arbib and Hesse argue that “all language is metaphorical”; “linguistic reference always depends on perceived similarities and differences” (1986, 153; see also Lakoff and Johnson 1980; cf. Pylyshyn 2007 and Camp 2020).

  2. Bacon therefore serves as a genealogical link between Aristotle and Kant (see Floridi 2018). Wolff’s (1963) experimental philosophy, as influenced by Suarez, made a similar impression on Kant (see Heider 2015; Hettche and Dyck 2019). See Langton (1998) for comparisons between Kant and Leibniz and Locke.

  3. Whewell often uses the terms ‘subject’, ‘structure’, ‘theory’, ‘thought’ and ‘form’ interchangeably, all of which approximately denote our putative inner mental realm. The same goes for ‘object’, ‘substance’, ‘fact’, ‘sensation’ and ‘matter’, all of which approximately denote the putative outer worldly realm.

  4. It should be noted that hylomorphism was not Whewell’s primary way of reasoning about experience and knowledge. Much of his epistemology focused on inductive knowledge, which led to his famous consilience of inductions thesis. In science, once the mind has grouped together some facts (as in hylomorphism), we extend the conception so-formed to unknown testable cases. This “special process in the mind”, says Whewell, is the process of induction; “[w]e infer more than we see” (1858, I: 46). Further, when several empirically confirmed lines of induction converge on the same conclusion, we can take such a conclusion to be true; this is the consilience of inductions (see Laudan 1971; Butts 1987; Snyder 1994; 2021 for more on Whewell and induction).

  5. We are ignoring mathematical and purely logical structures since Whewell is interested in scientific knowledge about the so-called physical world.

  6. See Butts (1987) and Cowles (2016) for discussion on the link between Whewell and early pragmatism.

  7. See Fischer (2014) for an informative discussion on the role of metaphor in philosophical intuitions.

  8. Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for stressing this point.

  9. As Simon notes, “an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist” (1962, 468; see also Wimsatt 2007 ch. 12). Kim (2008) argues that we can utilise reductive explanations without embracing metaphysical reductionism.

  10. Wilsch (2015) also equates explanation with metaphysical grounding. See Dasgupta (2017) for criticism of such a view.

  11. See Montuschi (2001) for more on different conceptions of metaphor in the philosophy of science. See Sullivan-Clarke (2019) for an overview of how analogical reasoning can both aid and at times hamper the progress of science.

  12. Note the further metaphors—“pools” and “space”—at the lower explanatory level. The project to explain these metaphors by reference to some even lower level expanans is ongoing. See Levy (2011) for an account of metaphor in cellular and molecular biology.

  13. Although analogical argument is a form of ampliative reasoning, it is permissible for the pragmatist because it does not necessarily invoke metaphysics.

  14. It is not quite clear which aspects of MWmerger are contributed by the mind and which are contributed by the world. For Kant and Whewell, the mind contributes space and time. There is however ongoing debate in contemporary philosophy of physics over the nature of space and time and to what degree they are constructed versus represented (see Maudlin 2012 for an overview). It appears nonetheless that the mind does contribute something (colour seems a fairly non-controversial example). In any case, I leave it open as to what precisely mind versus world contribute to MWmerger given that we are concerned here with how mind and world contribute to MWmerger and not what they contribute.

  15. Excluding mathematical and purely logical things (recall fn. 5).

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John Templeton Foundation Project ID: 61408, Increasing Complexity: The First Rule of Evolution? (Funder has not been involved in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the text; and in the decision to submit).

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van der Merwe, R. Whewell’s Hylomorphism as a Metaphorical Explanation for How Mind and World Merge. J Gen Philos Sci (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-021-09595-x

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Keywords

  • William Whewell
  • Hylomorphism
  • Metaphorical explanation
  • Explanatory power
  • Experience pragmatism
  • Steven Levine