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Reviewed by:
  • Ideas, Concepts, and Reality by John W. Burbidge
  • Ardis B. Collins
John W. Burbidge. Ideas, Concepts, and Reality. McGill-Queen’s University Press. x, 170. $37.09

John W. Burbidge introduces the book Ideas, Concepts, and Reality by examining the way Gottlob Frege analyses the fallacy of psychologism. According to Frege, Vorstellungen (translated as “ideas”) belong to the subjectivity of the persons whose experience they represent, whereas truth stands firm on its own, whether or not it is acknowledged by thinking subjects. Laws governing the mental activity of the thinker therefore cannot determine what truth is. Burbidge challenges Frege’s analysis by developing an astute and creative account of the way language, communication, and thought-directed engagements in a shared world transform the subjective processes of the knower into objective knowledge

Chapter two exposes the unjustified assumptions and implausible claims implicit in the way empiricism reduces ideas to the subjectivity of one individual’s sense experience. Chapter three uses Hegel’s psychology to show how sense experience organizes its ideas. Sense intuition focuses attention, and its sensed images are subconsciously stored away. Reproductive imagination recalls these stored images and selects particular images to represent general patterns. Productive imagination associates images with their context and produces a single idea to represent complex connections. Fantasy creates images and associations not given in sense experience. Sign-making imagination produces words and gives them specific assignments for representing and recalling the images and connections of sense experience.

Chapter four uses Hegel’s analysis of recognition to examine the way the individual’s sign-making becomes involved in the give-and-take of communication. Different subjectivities use words to express their different experiences, which forces each to take the other’s experience and meaning into account. This produces a shared meaning expressed in a shared language. Chapter five uses Hegel’s account of mechanical memory to show how individual subjectivity sets aside the way words have been associated with the individual’s personal experience and concentrates in a disinterested way on the independent, objective content derived from communal discourse. This development dissociates individual subjectivity from its individual bias and allows it to focus on the dynamics of objective thinking.

In chapters six through nine, Burbidge uses Descartes’s four rules of thinking to interpret the way universal objectivity can be derived from the subjectivity of experience. The first rule detaches one’s thinking from its subjective bias. The second and third rules develop what Burbidge calls “tendrils of thought.” Definitions organize the independent items of sense experience into the differentiated sameness of genus and species. Synthesis transforms the temporal sequence of sense consciousness into the necessary connections of causal dependence and mutual interaction. [End Page 419] The fourth rule uses these processes to predict future outcomes in the natural world or to anticipate the consequences of the subject’s own actions, and refines the subject’s thoughts by examining how nature and other persons react to its thought-governed engagement in their world. The whole of human history becomes involved in this learning process. As a result, thoughts become refined so that they reflect more or less accurately the universal connections that operate in the real world. Chapter ten explains how the narrative developed in the preceding chapters reveals the flaws in Frege’s rigid separation of ideas from the domain of concepts and objective truth.

In Part Two Burbidge develops a fuller account of the “tendrils of thought.” Chapter eleven uses an example from Hegel’s Logic to show how general, imprecise concepts contain implications that transform them into more complex meanings and that expose connections to other terms. Chapters twelve and thirteen examine tendrils of thought in traditional forms of inference. Chapter fourteen introduces a new, fascinating avenue of discussion by calling attention to the way arguments from analogy allow thought to move beyond the formal relations of logic to discover the connections and shades of meaning revealed in verbs with specific content. Chapter fifteen examines tendrils of thought involved in the syntax of various languages.

In the conclusion Burbidge acknowledges that we can never finally and infallibly claim that our concepts are completely free of cultural bias. He insists, however...


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pp. 419-420
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