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On p173 of Section "Subjective Truth and the Problem of Relativism" of The Big Questions by Solomon:

Rationality is tying our knowledge and our lives together in the most coherent and effective way. But if we focus on the coherence of our knowledge and not on the way the world really is, this raises questions about how secure our knowledge really is. This has been a problem facing Western philosophy since Kant, with his denial that we have any grasp of the way the world is independent of the way our minds construct our experience.

How should the part after "with" in the last sentence be parsed according to English grammar?

Is my following understanding correct?

his denial (that we have any grasp of the way (the world is independent of the way (our minds construct our experience))).

There are three adjective clauses, which I delineate with parentheses, modifying the nouns right before them: "denial", "way", and "way".

Or should it be parsed as follows:

his denial that we have any grasp (of the way the world is) (independent of the way our minds construct our experience)

where the two parts inside parentheses complement/modify the same "grasp" in parallel? If this is the one intended by the author:

(1) First of all, and most importantly, how do you know "independent of the way our minds construct our experience" also modifies "grasp", which is far apart?

(2) Is it grammatically correct?

(3) Can it be rewritten to be more grammatically correct? For example, how about "his denial that we have any grasp of the way the world is and independent of the way our minds construct our experience"?

Thanks!

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  • 3
    Philosophy in general and Kant in particular present some of the densest prose you'll find anywhere.
    – Robusto
    Sep 12, 2023 at 3:21
  • I am asking about how to parse the part of the sentence.
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2023 at 3:22
  • Didn't you ask this same question a few days ago on ELL ell.stackexchange.com/questions/341142/…
    – TimR
    Sep 12, 2023 at 10:12
  • @TimR not the same. Can't I ask an expanded version which hasn't been addressed thoroughly there?
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2023 at 10:29
  • You parsing "where the two parts inside parentheses complement/modify the same "grasp" in parallel" is wrong. Your understanding of how the constituents fit together is not correct. Compare "A fistful of cash sufficient to buy a car". "Fistful" does not have two things in parallel modifying it, "of cash" and "sufficient to buy a car". Rather, "fistful of cash" is a noun phrase, and sufficient is an adjectival predicate with an non-finite complement "to buy a car", so you end up with noun phrase "fistful of cash" and "sufficient to buy a car" predicated of that noun phrase.
    – TimR
    Sep 12, 2023 at 14:48

4 Answers 4

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He denies that we have any grasp … that is not based on our minds’ construction of our experiences. Grasp of what? Of the way the world is. In other words, he asserts that any grasp of the way the world is must reflect the experiences that our minds create.

To answer your three questions…

(1) After a brief flirtation with “the world is independent,” it becomes clear that independent must modify something else, and returning further upstream in the sentence we hit on grasp.

(2) Grammatically correct? Yes. Clear to interpret? No. Begging for a rewrite and simplification? Yes.

(3) Your proposed rewrite doesn’t work. But one could rewrite it as …denial that we can grasp how the world is without being influenced by the experiences constructed by our minds.

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  • Thanks. Could you elaborate according to my questions?
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2023 at 2:55
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Syntactically, both readings are possible and correct. But semantics only allow the second reading.

Your first reading would give the following meaning, in paraphrase:

the world is independent of how our minds construct our experience: we have no grasp of the exact way in which it is independent.

So that would be about the following question: in what way is [the world] independent of [how our minds construct our experience]?

This sounds like the Postmodernism Generator, or Chat GPT. In short, it makes less sense and is hard to wrap one's heads around. The world may be independent of our mind's experience, OK. But in what way is it independent?: that doesn't sound like a question you'd expect here. It would have to be about something extremely subtle, but the text is very basic, so it doesn't fit.

The second reading makes much more sense, in paraphrase:

we have no grasp of the way the world is, aside from how our minds construct our experience

Note that the occurrence of the way twice but not in parallel is part of what makes the sentence confusing.

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  • Yes, aside or apart from…but I think my mind is fully capable of realizing when it's not capable of fully grasping something…or something like that. Sep 12, 2023 at 10:22
  • @HippoSawrUs: Maybe, but now my mind hurts! Sep 12, 2023 at 15:09
  • I realized that while watching an NG series on N. Korea recently. IDK why they're crying, not really. Maybe it's like seeing the ocean or a baby born or their savior, IDK; but it looked like all the Beatles got back together (that would be my construct, if I had to choose one). Sep 14, 2023 at 9:04
  • @HippoSawrUs: Now I'm really confused. Sep 14, 2023 at 16:02
  • I give horrible examples, but good answer. Sep 15, 2023 at 4:30
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You asked this same question a few days ago on ELL. You were wanting to have the phrase that begins with the word "independent" modify only the single noun "grasp". In a comment there you asked:

(4) Can it be rewritten to be more grammatically correct, with minimum change? For example, how about "his denial that we have any grasp of the way the world is and independent of the way our minds construct our experience"

To which I replied that that was not grammatical, and I added these comments:

Consider:

...with his denial that we have any way of knowing what pie tastes like independent of the way our taste buds send messages to the brain.

That cannot be rewritten:

...with his denial that we have any way of knowing what pie tastes like AND independent of the way our taste buds send messages to the brain. –

because:

"any way of knowing what pie tastes like" in its entirety is that which is denied to be independent of the way our taste buds send messages to the brain.

It is not only the noun "way" (or in the original the noun "grasp") but that noun as modified by the prepositional phrase "of knowing ....". that is denied to be independent.

You want it to be like this:

grasp
      --of the way the world is
     AND
     --independent of the way our minds construct our experience 

where "grasp" has two phrases characterizing it, but it is not like that, it is like this:

 (grasp of the way the world is)
      [that is]
        (independent of the way our minds construct our experience)
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  • Thanks. As I replied to your comment, the one here is an expanded version of the one there, which hasn't been addressed thoroughly
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2023 at 10:33
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I wanted to give a bit more detail on the syntactic structure here.

"Independent" is modifying way, not grasp. In other words: "the way the world is independent of the way our minds construct our experience" is a single noun phrase.

There are two ways of reading this noun phrase.

On the first reading, "way" is modified, first by the reduced relative clause "the world is," and then, separately, by the adjective phrase "independent of the way our minds construct our experience." This adjective phrase consists of "independent," followed by the preposition "of" and its complement, the noun phrase "the way our minds construct our experience." In this noun phrase, the complement of the noun "way" is the (non-relative) clause "our minds construct our appearance." On this reading, the structure of the noun phrase is:

the way (the world is) (independent of the way (our minds construct our experience))

On the second reading, "way" is followed by its complement, the (non-relative) clause "the world is independent of the way our minds construct our experience." "Is" here is followed by its predicative complement (or subject complement, depending on your preferred terminology). This complement is the adjective phrase "independent of the way our minds construct our experience," which is parsed as above. On this reading, the structure of the noun phrase is:

the way (the world is (independent of the way (our minds construct our experience)))

Based on my knowledge of Kant, I think that the first reading is the most plausible. This sentence is grammatically correct, but it sounds almost as complex as one by Kant himself (at least in translation).

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