Mr. Rogers’ Metaphysics

Day 105: Friday

Dear Zak,

I’m given to understand that one of the reasons young children tend to enjoy the game of peek-a-boo is that they lack a theory of “object permanence,” the notion that objects in the world (such as a person’s face) continue to exist even in moments when we do not directly perceive them. Perhaps a better way of putting this is to say our failure to appreciate the game as adults stems from our presumptive belief in such a theory. I’m also given to understand that many modern physicists take the children’s side in this, not the adult’s. Their math requires particles to pass in and out of existence and to be determined in some way by our observation of them.

One of the key lessons that every child learns along their way to moral maturity is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.  A parent’s face exists as an object independently of a child’s subjective perception of it. Something is objective if it doesn’t depend on us, but in some way transcends human experience.

Mr. Rogers, whether he knew it or not, used to teach objectivity to children through his proper use of language.  Whenever Mr. McFeely used to come knocking at his door, Mr. Rogers would exclaim, “Ah, it is he!” Why not, “It’s him”? Because Mr. McFeely is the subject of the sentence, not the object.

What is a grammatical subject? Is it the person performing the action of the sentence?  That would mean that in the sentence, “Cereal gets eaten by me every morning,”  the subject is “me.” Micheal Haliday contends that a “subject” is actually the person or thing on which the truth of a sentence depends. The truth of the sentence, “The duke gave me this teapot,” depends on the duke. If the duke didn’t exist, the sentence could neither be true nor false; we probably wouldn’t utter it at all. It is true if and only if the predicate “gave me this teapot” is something applicable to the duke, who must in some sense exist, if any predicates are to be applicable to him whatsoever.

If a young boy sees a dog in the window of a pet store, he might turn to his Dad and say, “I need a dog.” For the sake of discussion, let us stipulate that in English, the verb to need (in contrast with the verb to want) implies an objective phenomenon—that is, necessity doesn’t depend on a human subject, but in some way transcends our experience of it. You can need something without knowing it. You can think you need something but be mistaken. This means the objective statement, “I need a dog,” is only true if the sense of it can accurately be expressed without depending on me as the subject.

If I fell down a well in the middle of the night with no one but Lassie around to see, I might accurately exclaim, “Only a dog can save me now!”  Here the truth of the sentence depends on the dog, who is the subject.  Indeed it does depend on the dog—her inherent qualities, strengths, and weaknesses—whether she can actually save me or not. In contextual terms, making the dog the grammatical subject implies that we are conceiving of the situation from her perspective; the state of affairs transcends human experience—in this case passing over into dog experience. Parents, teach your children that this is the only sort of context in which it is appropriate to say, “I need a dog.”

The sentence, “Your Dad loves you” may be objectively true of “you,” the object, regardless of whether “You feel loved.” The second sentence depends on you for its truth, while the first depends only on your Dad. Parents, teach your children this as well.

But if true objectivity, pure and simple, transcends all human experience, how could we have any evidence of an objective truth? Isn’t evidence, by very definition, something we experience? This is what makes the metaphysics of objectivity so elusive. Perhaps we don’t have evidence either for or against the Objective. What we do have is language. Language itself constitutes a theory of metaphysics that can be recovered to our consciousness by maieutic analysis. Our grammar relies on a series of metaphysical assumptions in order to function. From a pragmatic perspective, we could potentially lend some credibility to these assumptions based on the success of the analyzed language when used to communicate.  In other words, the fact that you can successfully understand what I’m writing here might implies there is such a thing as objective truth, since the English language, according to our analysis above, relies on that assumption.

In the context of the metaphysics of objectivity, perhaps many readers would feel that this method is not very helpful. Of course it is pragmatic to believe in objects that exist independently of subjective experience! We didn’t need to analyze grammar to figure that out!  I will concede the point.  Still, one thing our analysis does add to mere common sense is the suggestion that objectivity and subjectivity constitute a binary opposition. English has no place for either vagueness or ambiguity when it comes to assigning the roles of subject and object to constituents of a sentence. The pronouns even have a closed paradigm (he vs. him, I vs. me) that, along with other systemic choices, compels the speaker to commit to one and only one function for each element.

Let me also submit that, in this particular case study, the analysis may actually be more useful the other way around: the intuitive appeal of subject/object beliefs might justify some degree of grammatical prescriptivism. Mr. Rogers said, “It is he!” not only because his English teachers told him to, but also because this way of speaking is somehow pragmatically right.

So we can derive from language moral truth—such as the truth that most boys do not need dogs. We can also derive from morals grammatical truth—such as the truth that “It is he” at the door, not “him.”  This might seem to suggest either that these morals are objective or that language is, but the pragmatic method of doing metaphysics I have described should not be understood this way. It cannot not justify grammatical prescriptivism on the basis of morals any more than it can moral categoricalism on the basis of grammar. All we really accomplish is to reframe questions about metaphysics as questions about language—or vise versa. You might ask, does moral obligation exist independently of our subjective intuitions of it? It depends—does language exist independently of our speaking and writing? If we believe that “In the beginning was the Word,” then I suppose the answer to both questions would be “yes.” If not, the method isn’t pertinent to either question.

Mr. Rogers was teaching children all these things simply by saying, “It is he,” whenever the delivery man knocked on his door.

Until next time,