Tuesday, January 14, 2014


a concept and a term we badly need

D. R. Khashaba


Lewis Mumford in The Condition of Man (1944) uses the term 'idolum'. In the short Glossary appended to the book he defines it thus:

"IDOLUM. This term was first used in The Story of Utopias (1922) at about the same time Mr. Walter Lippmann coined the expression 'pseudo-environment' for a similar fact. By idolum I do not mean either an idea or an idol: neither a concept nor a fetich nor an ideology. By idolum I indicate the existence of an ideological 'field,' which unites and polarizes, as it were, a number of related images, symbol, ideas, and even artifacts. Idolum is close to the German term Weltbild when taken in its literal sense: a picture of the world, that is, the world experienced in and through culture, that people carry in their minds. I prefer it to the term pseudo-environment because as such an idolum is neithr fictitious nor false: it is simply the dominant mental environment of a particular culture, containing both permanently verifiable experiences and temporarily acceptable illusions." (Lewis Mumford, The Condition of Man, 1944, Glossary.)

This is similar to a key concept that I have – in complete unawareness of either Mumford's or Lippman's term – been emphasizing in my writings under the term "universe of discourse". Let me try to explain what I mean by this vital notion, and I hope the verbosity of this explanation may be excused because I feel it is necessary to make the idea as clear as possible.

From the start I insisted that for Socrates what characterizes human beings as such is that they live in a world of ideas and ideals that arise in the mind and that have no being except in the mind: desires, expectations, fears, anticipated pleasures and pains, socially or communally sanctioned values. A brute is moved by present pleasure, present pain, present desire, present dread, but only a human being is moved by ambition or vengeance or anticipated danger. A human being kills and dies for honour or for loyalty, things which have no being outside the human mind. A dog will fight another dog for a bone, but having its own bone it will not envy a neighbouring dog its bigger bone. Human beings have these 'ideal' motives because they alone live in that intelligible realm that Socrates clearly and radically distinguished from the perceptible realm. Living in an intelligible realm that has no being outside the human mind is what characterizes human beings as such. That is the keystone of Socrates' and Plato's philosophy and of my version of Platonism. A person's or a community's particular intelligible realm is what I call that particular person's or community's universe of discourse.

Permit me to reproduce here a few excerpts from some of my writings illustrating my usage of this expression:

"Our language is our fate. Language shapes reality, the only reality we are capable of apprehending. In language we form our universe of discourse, and that universe defines the limits of intelligibility for us. We can discard our language and adopt another – mathematical, physical, mythical, what you will –, our understanding would still be drawing breath and getting its lifeblood from an ideal universe of discourse." (Let Us Philosophize, second ed., 2008, Ch. VII, "Knowledge of the World".)

"… a philosophy creates a universe of discourse which brings into being a domain of intelligibility in which the mind can have its proper life as active, creative intelligence." (Plato: An Interpretation. 2005, Introduction.)

"A word has meaning for each mind only in the particular universe of discourse which is the life of that mind." (Plato: An Interpretation ,2005, Ch. VII, "The Argument of the Republic".)

"Our ideas constitute the intelligible world we live in. Any system of ideas constitutes a particular universe of discourse. When Socrates says, 'I would rather suffer wrong than do wrong', this statement is neither analytic nor verifiable. It is creative; it gives us a meaningful world in which we live on a new plane of being. ("Philosophy as Prophecy", The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009.)

Mumford's phrase "the world experienced in and through culture, that people carry in their minds" sums the notion succinctly. Mumford prefers 'idolum' to Lippmann's 'psudo-emvironment'. I do not find 'idolum' satisfactory. Lippmann's 'pseudo-enironment' would be closer to what is needed if altered to 'virtual environment'. But I still prefer my 'universe of discourse'.

The culture "that people carry in their minds" is a person's or a people's private reality; it determines what reality the outer things have for that person or that people. And that, in Plato's philosophy and in my philosophy, is all the reality there is. All else is either dumb sensation – Kant's blind intuitions without concepts – or it is a mental construct that Whitehead castigated in his treatment of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.

A universe of discourse is the world in which we live our characteristically hunan life. It is the only world with which philosophy proper is concerned. Science and the methods of objective science are designed for dealing with the outer world, the phenomenal world; they have no applicability in the intelligible world, which is the proper donmain of philosophy. The confounding of science and philosophy, harmful to both, is an error that I have been combating in all my writings.

Cairo, Egypt, 14 January 2014.


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