Friday, July 29, 2011

'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white

To: Steve B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white
Date: 3 February 2004 12:25

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your e-mail of 25 January, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''Snow is white' is true, if, and only if, snow is white'. Discuss.

I don't know what it is about this question, but seems to have been an upsurge in its popularity recently. Yours is the third or fourth essay I've had on this topic in the last month!

Although this was not the intention of the question, you have found a way to use the formula to contrast the realist and anti-realist conceptions of truth, showing the danger of adopting 'extreme' versions of either theory.

Extreme anti-realism, on your account, makes 'the mind-dependent that fact and proposition come into existence as one - the two are really just two aspects of the same element of reality' the result being that the sentence 'becomes effectively empty'.

Extreme realism, by contrast, makes 'the fact...utterly independent of the proposition' in which case 'it is hard to see the basis for a relationship between fact and proposition' so 'the sentence as a whole becomes meaningless'.

I read your critique of extreme anti-realism as an application of the Reality principle. The extreme anti-realist makes facts so mind-dependent that there is no longer any room for the possibility of false judgement, and all objectivity is lost.

Your critique of extreme realism might be read as a refutation of a version of the correspondence theory of truth, according to which any proposition which we regard as 'true' might turn out to be false because it fails to correspond with the facts. In other words, what we have is an extreme scepticism, where human minds lose all prospect of making contact with the facts 'out there'.

In terms of the image of the arrow and its target, the extreme anti-realist attaches the arrow to the target, while the extreme realist puts the target so far away that we can never know whether the arrow has hit the target or not.

The strange thing is that the formula, 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white appears to be neutral between these, or any other positions on the spectrum between realism and anti-realism.

What the formula does is identify the predicate, ' true' as the ONLY predicate which removes the quotation marks from ANY indicative sentence which we might substitute for 'Snow is white'. That is indeed a remarkable property if you think about it.

There is indeed scope, as you want to say, for 'realist' and 'anti-realist' accounts of how concepts get their meaning. Take snow, for example. Does the concept snow refer to something out there (realist) or to an idea in our minds (anti-realist)? Although that is not the primary sense in which I am using these terms in the program, there is undoubtedly an issue here. Following a seminal paper by Saul Kripke 'Naming and Necessity' (later published in book form by Blackwell) attention has been drawn to the semantics of terms for natural kinds, like snow, or gold, or tiger. Kripke argued that gold could conceivable turn out to be white, not yellow (in fact, I seem to recall his remarking that this is in fact true, that the yellowness of gold is due to tiny amounts of impurities). Natural kind terms function like names, picking out aspects of the world: 'I call anything like that, gold.' As science progresses, we learn more and more about what it really means for X to be 'like' Y. Fool's gold may look more like our subjective idea of 'gold' than real gold, but fools gold is not gold because its chemical constitution is different from the thing which we originally named 'gold'.

Again, although the issue is well worth discussing, it was not what I had in mind when I set the question!

This is what I did have in mind:

We seem to be able to identify two 'positions', realism and anti-realism, which differ in striking ways. Is there any way of using the snow is white formula to argue for one theory and against another?

When the logician Alfred Tarski first proposed the formula as a condition for any acceptable definition of truth, he claimed that this vindicated the correspondence theory of truth. But is this so? Only if 'correspondence' is understood in so weak a sense as to fail to distinguish the realist from the anti-realist.

In fact, I would argue that what we have here is a definition of truth which succeeds in logically identifying the truth predicate, while leaving completely open the metaphysical issue of realism versus anti-realism. In other words, two very different books could be written on the question, 'What is truth?', one which gave the logical answer, and one which delved into the metaphysics.

All the best,


Two essays on truth

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Two essays on Truth
Date: 30 January 2004 11:03

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 23 January with your (corrected) University of London BA essay, 'What is Falsity and Why Does it Exist?', and your e-mail of 29 January with your essay, 'Does it Mean Anything to Say that a Statement is True?'

I have just read the first essay, and am responding to it before I look at the second essay, while the thoughts which it has provoked are fresh in my mind.

Essay on Falsity

This is an excellent piece of work. Reading this I had a powerful sense of deja vu. I made a similar 'discovery' about falsity while I was writing my B.Phil (later to become my D.Phil) thesis 'The Metaphysics of Meaning'.

I began my thesis with the question, 'How is false belief possible?' There are two questions we have to answer here: how can there be such a thing as a false proposition? and how can there be such a thing as a false judgement?

As Wittgenstein argues in the Tractatus, the primitive T/F polarity is the essence of a proposition. The capacity for truth-or-falsity is what distinguishes a proposition from a name which either refers to an object or is meaningless. In the first chapter of my thesis I imagined two omniscient Gods conversing with one another. Just like the prisoners who have heard every joke many times over, the Gods have a number for each proposition and just say, 'number 349210!... wow!... number 2091!... yeah!...'

As you remark (following Wittgenstein), what a proposition has over a name is the possibility of making a new thought out of elements which we are familiar with. So the possibility of conveying new thoughts and the possibility of a false proposition are intimately connected.

But there is a further question - illustrated by your caterpillar example. There cannot be such a thing as a belief/ judgement which is incapable of falsity - contrary to the assumption made by sense datum theorists (including Russell). Of course, caterpillars do not make judgements. The sense datum theorist's thought is that, if my mind is in direct contact with its object (e.g. my private impression of what the colour of this tomato looks like to me at this moment) then I can't be wrong. My judgement must be true. But this is like 'shooting' an arrow at a target which is already attached to it. Because the judgement can't be false, it can't be true either. Objects in the genuine sense - targets to shoot our judgements at - only appear when there is a possibility of falsity as well as truth.

Your observation that false beliefs, but not true beliefs are revealed in behaviour to a 'third person' observer raises the question whether it would not be logically possible that no-one has ever had a false belief. Suppose a molly-coddling deity decided to set things up so that things never went wrong in the belief-forming process. Would that mean that we could never understand one another's behaviour? On the face of it, people would still do different things because they have different desires. The only use for a concept of belief would be to contrast knowledge with ignorance.

Or perhaps the problem of ignorance could be fixed up too - with each person being given a mental almanac answering any question about the world they might ever think of asking.

However, the idea that 'false beliefs show up in behaviour' is important precisely because it emphasizes the 'third person' aspect. This is the upshot of Wittgenstein's private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. Kant, in the 'Refutation of Idealism' argued that the recognition of 'objects' requires space as well as time in order to make the right kind of 'gap' for judgement to aim at something. But this is all couched in terms of the first person. A more sophisticated idealist could still hold that all that ultimately exists is a world of 'objects' seen from my point of view. That is why the *possibility* of a 'third person' perspective is crucial.

Essay on Truth

Another excellent essay. However, by contrast with the first essay, I have a few criticisms here relating to some of your arguments. I am also not persuaded that your statement, 'To say that a statement is true is the same as saying that it ought to be believed' is in fact, as you claim, a theory of truth.

Let's deal with this first. Belief/ judgement and desire show a profound asymmetry. Roughly speaking, an unsatisfied desire means that there is something wrong with the world; a false belief means that there is something wrong with you.

I want an apple from the fridge, but there is no apple there. That is not my fault, but the world's. I believe that there is an apple in the fridge, but there is no apple there. That is my fault, not the world's.

Arguably (cf. my comments on the first essay) explanation of behaviour necessarily requires attributions of belief and desire in tandem, assuming norms of rationality such as the ones you describe. (This is familiar Donald Davidson territory.)

Now, of course, you are free to say that my example of the apple just shows the distinctive nature of *truth*. However, as the deflationary account shows, there is another way to describe this. It is precisely because the concept of truth allows us to generalize over propositions that it figures in your 'theory' of truth. To say that snow is white is to say that one ought to believe that snow is white. To say that grass is red is to say that one ought to believe that grass is red. What is different between the two cases? Snow *is* white but grass *is not* red. So what one ought to believe is only that snow is white and not the second proposition.

'True' figures here simply as a device for generalizing over propositions, just as the deflationary theorist claimed. Your theory, in other words, is not a theory of truth but a theory of judgement, one version of which is the claim I made about the asymmetry of belief and desire.

Just for the record, I share Dummett's view that there is a substantial *issue* about truth, and this shows that there is more to say than the deflationary theory. What this 'more to say' is, is whether we should be realists or anti-realists about truth (although I do not accept Dummett's formulation of this dispute - but that's another story).

Some of your arguments left me thinking, 'Yes, but...'.

The difference between the infinite axioms and a table giving the positions of stars at all times is that you need to see the whole table to know where Betelgeuse will appear on 30 January at 9.44 am. However, I don't need to have the infinite set of axioms to know that 'Betelgeuse is visible in the Northern Hemisphere on 30 January at 9.44 am' is true if and only if Betelgeuse is visible in the Northern Hemisphere on 30 January at 9.44 am. I just apply the schema. So the schema does tell me something. It tells me that 'is true' behaves unlike any other predicate which can be applied to a proposition/sentence.

I would never say to anyone, on any occasion that 'Whatever JP says is true.' That is rather a big commitment. But it is perfectly possible to say, 'Everything that JP says on page 2 of his essay is true.'

Your criticism of Horwich's statement that ''Snow is white' is true because snow is white' wrongly assumes that the place holders in a 'because' statement must be transparent, not opaque contexts. Substituting snow is white for 'snow is white' is true shows that this is not the case. That is what Horwich would say.

Here is another example:

1. There are eight planets, because the ninth planet suffered a cataclysmic explosion.

2. I had eight chocolate fingers with my tea yesterday.


3. The number of planets is the same as the number of chocolate fingers I had with my tea yesterday because the ninth planet suffered a cataclysmic explosion.

(The second premis is not true, of course, I would never be that greedy. Five's my limit.)

All the best,


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Socrates: 'no-one ever does wrong knowingly'

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates: 'no-one ever does wrong knowingly'
Date: 28 January 2004 10:51

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 January, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''No-one ever does wrong knowingly.' - why is this a paradox? Explain the philosophical problem of weakness of will.'

There is much here that I agree with. The clash, or 'paradox' arises when we try to apply our ordinary, folk psychological notion of ethical 'knowledge' to the Socratic doctrine of the identity of knowledge and virtue. Yet the sheer inconclusiveness of many of the Socratic dialogues leads us to the conclusion that, maybe, true ethical *knowledge* is very difficult, if not impossible to obtain. If you *really* knew, then action would necessarily follow. But most of the time, we simply do not know - we merely believe with more or less conviction.

That shows a way to get Socrates off the hook. However, we face this problem too. Indeed, to the extent that ethical knowledge is made easier, more accessible, the Socratic paradox bites all the harder. This is a surprising upshot of the rejection of the 'absolutist', 'holy grail' picture.

The point needs to be made that we have not simply adopted the Socratic view out of choice. That right action follows from knowledge is logically implied in the rejection of subjectivism. Knowing what I morally ought to do, I do not require a further (subjective) motive to do 'what I know is right'. If I did require a further motive, then the claim that ethical knowledge was 'objective' would be empty.

One needs to look more closely at cases (like that of McNaughton which you cite) where one would say that the defendant 'did not know right from wrong'. I don't know the details of this particular case. Let's suppose I went to 10 Downing Street to kill Tony Blair. Here are some 'reasons' why I might do this:

(a) I hate Tony Blair and I do not see any reason why I should not kill people I hate.

(b) Michael Howard ordered me to kill Blair, and Howard must be obeyed.

(c) Tony Blair is already dead (killed by aliens) and has been replaced by a Tony Blair simulacrum which is plotting the destruction of the world.

(d) Tony Blair deserves to be killed because he sent my boy to Iraq where my boy died.

Only (a) looks like a clear case where the agent 'does not know right from wrong'. Case (b) also involves delusional thinking, which need not involve entirely losing one's sense of right and wrong. 'I know it's wrong' (as Lieutenant Calley said about murdering the Vietnamese villagers) 'but I have been ordered to do it, so I'm not the one responsible'. Case (c) might make a good plot for a science fiction film. We can conceive of circumstances - admittedly far fetched - which would lead a perfectly sane person to do such an act in order to save the world. Case (d) could - just conceivably - be the action of a sane person, driven to an extremity by grief.

You make a good point when you say, 'Perhaps, there is some risk in portraying ourselves as reasoning machines that clank and sputter, sometimes working well and sometimes not...' We are not reasoning machines because reasoning is something we *do*, a human action, rather than a process that happens. It is not necessary to embrace a Kantian metaphysical split between the material world of cause and effect and the noumenal realm of freedom, in order to hold onto the idea that there exists an essential difference between the personal and sub-personal perspectives. The human world is the world where we engage in interpersonal dialogue. The material world is the world where we do things, in order to make other things happen. (As when, for example, the clinician decides whether talk, or giving drugs, is the best way to 'deal' with a patient.)

This gives the clue to how emotion (as displayed in Socrates speech before the judges) might be involved in reasoning. You can reason responsibly, or irresponsibly. Reasoning can be courageous or cowardly. This is not knowledge processing but responsible action. We are responsible for the way we think just as much as the way we act.

I don't want to push this too far. Of course, belief is fundamentally different from choice or action precisely because it is not voluntary. When the facts impress themselves on us in the particular way which leads to belief, we 'have no choice' but to believe. The mother who refuses to believe that her son is dead in the face of all the evidence is responding in a way which we would describe as 'irrational' - a response which we can perfectly well *understand* nonetheless. It remains the case that it is a matter of responsible human action how we strive to put ourselves in a position to acquire beliefs about the world.

All the best,


'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white

To: Joanne B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white
Date: 23 January 2004 14:20

Dear Joanne,

Thank you for your essay of 13 January, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, ''Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white.'

I took the liberty of adding the missing quotation marks and 'is true'. Without these additions, there would not be much to write about!

By purest coincidence, my previous email - to Marcus, an US English professor from Tennessee who is taking the Possible World Machine program - concluded:

If asked to define truth, I would avoid a metaphysical answer. 'Is true' is the only predicate that can be substituted for X, without loss of truth value in all instances of the following formula:

'Snow is white' is X if and only if snow is white.

Put any sentence you can think of in place of 'snow is white', the result is always the same just in the one case where X=true. (Think of all the other things you can say about a sentence, that it is grammatical, poetic, has three words etc. etc. None of these can be substituted for X and still give the result we want.)

Marcus had offered his only definition of truth, based on the idea that 'the truth sets you free'. Well, we're not discussing that, but the point about metaphysics is that there are really two issues to consider. One issue is how we *identify* truth. The other issue is whether there is anything enlightening that the philosopher can *say about* truth besides simply identifying it.

I am going do to something I didn't do with Marcus, which is explain in as much detail as possible how the above formula works.

First, 'if and only if'. The statement 'P if and only if Q' asserts that P and Q have the same truth value. Either they are both true or they are both false. E.g. 'Paul is a bachelor if and only if Paul is unmarried', 'Geoffrey Klempner has three heads if and only if the number of Geoffrey Klempner's heads is between two and four.' Both those statements are true.

Second, why is the first occurrence of snow is white in quotes while the second isn't?

When we put a sentence in quotes we are not asserting it, but rather referring to it. If I say, 'Joanne wrote, 'Everyone sees snow as white even though under a microscope it is in fact red', I have said something true, regardless of whether this alleged 'fact' is true or not (it is certainly new to me!). I have not asserted that snow looks red under a microscope, but merely stated that you wrote this.

Putting these ideas together, if I say:

'Snow looks red under a microscope' is true if and only if snow looks red under a microscope,.

then I have said something true, according to the meaning of the phrase, 'if and only if'.

The statement is true if snow *does* look red under a microscope, and it is still true if snow *doesn't* look red under a microscope. Either the statements on the left hand side and the right hand side of 'if and only if' are both true or they are both false.

So what does this show?

If you asked me, 'What is truth?' then one possible answer would be to say, 'I can give you a formula which identifies truth, and only truth.' This is where the quote from my letter to Marcus comes in.

Imagine all the sentences anyone could ever composed arranged in a list. All the false sentences along with all the true ones. Then substitute each sentence, one by one, for 'Snow is white'.

In each case the resulting 'if and only if' statement is guaranteed true ONLY IN THE CASE WHEN the term 'is X' is understood as 'is true'. That is something to marvel at. How could it be? Why is that so?

Well, there are some complications. One question which you raise is who is using the terms 'snow' and 'white'? Alfred Tarski, the logician who first proposed the 'snow is white' formula talked about two 'languages', an object language and a meta-language. The object language is the language we are *talking about*. For example, suppose that we were talking about German instead of English. Then we would say,

'Schnee ist weiss' if and only if snow is white.

The meta-language, on the other hand, is the language we are using to talk about the object language, plus all the other things in the world. We are using the terms 'snow' and 'white' in the above formula to talk about snow and white, according to our understanding of what snow is and what white is.

There is a problem which you have identified, when the terms are vague. There are some sentences where we just don't want to talk about 'truth' or 'false'. For example, when we are describing a case which is right bang in the middle - e.g. a man gradually losing his hair. In the mid point of this process, we don't want to say that 'Fred is bald' is true but nor do we want to say that 'Fred is bald' is false.

What is the philosophical significance of this? I don't agree with you that the snow is white formula makes any philosophical claim about truth and perception. It is too general for that. But it does beg some important questions. It runs into the problem of vagueness. And it has nothing to say about the deep metaphysical issues surrounding the nature of truth.

All the best,


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is truth?

To: Marcus S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is truth?
Date: 23 January 2004 13:38

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your e-mail of 11 January, with your third Pathways essay, 'What is Truth?'

You offer 'Truth is an idea which is necessary for freedom' as a definition of truth.

This has something in common with a strong American tradition, known as pragmatism (principal exponents C.S. Pierce, John Dewey, William James). The fundamental idea is that belief is something we act on, and we have a strong prima facie reason to prefer beliefs the acting on which leads to success, over beliefs the acting on which leads to failure. Truth is a property of beliefs the acting on which leads to success.

This definition therefore implies that there is something that we *want*. It is only because we want things that we do things in the world, choose this over that, perform this action rather than that action. That does not go without saying. An intelligent machine might be thought of as an entity which has beliefs but no desires (I would argue that such an idea is in fact incoherent cf. the discussion of 'skyscrapers with arms and legs' in unit 5).

One obvious problem with your definition is that it is not, in fact, a definition. If you asked me for a definition of 'automobile' and I said 'an automobile is something which runs on wheels', you would then be entitled to ask me, 'Is anything which runs on wheels an automobile?' to which the answer is, No. Wheelbarrows run on wheels, bicycles run on wheels etc.

If truth is the *only* idea which is necessary for freedom, then you need to make the case for this. If truth is only one of the ideas which are necessary for freedom then you need to explain which one.

There is a case (as I have explained above) for saying that truth is somehow the most *fundamental* idea necessary for freedom. Without the possibility of truth of truth we could not act at all. Every action has a goal and presupposes the world being a certain way. If the world is a different way from the way we suppose, the action will fail.

However, there is an objection to the 'the truth is what makes you free'. Is it really true that the truth and only the truth makes you free? Suppose I believe that a particular class of human beings have no real feelings. I can do with them whatever I will. This makes me free to do things that I couldn't do before. The truth, that these individuals have real feelings and suffer like the rest of us, makes me less free.

Putting aside the formulation in terms of freedom, is it true, as the pragmatists seem to argue, that the success of an action 'proves' the truth of the belief which it depends on? Can't some false beliefs - like the belief 'My mother loved me', voiced by a son whose mother, in fact, hated and despised him - lead to success of one's projects, while the contrary belief leads to failure?

James appears to have thought that the truth of the belief in God could be justified on pragmatic grounds. That should raise alarm bells.

In response to my objection, the pragmatist might point out that false beliefs can succeed in the short run, but eventually if we continue to act on them the world will prove us wrong. The problem is that not all beliefs are capable of being 'proved wrong by the world' in this way, for example, the belief in God. Does that make the belief true, or does it show on the contrary that the truth or falsity of the belief cannot be assessed?

As you will have gathered, 'What is truth?' is not a matter for dictionary definition. It is a question which raises the deepest metaphysical issues. One way to consider the pragmatic view (I trust that you will accept my pigeonholing of your 'truth makes you free' formula) is by contrast with the views that it opposes. James rigorously opposed what he termed the 'intellectualist' view of truth, the idea that the truth is the truth whether we can ever know it or not, or whether or not it makes any possible difference to human life.

The correspondence theory of truth - a statement or belief is true if and only if it corresponds with the facts - is guilty of just such an intellectualist abstraction in James view because of the necessary assumption that facts are what they are whether we can ever know them or not.

You might recognize this as the issue of realism versus anti-realism discussed in unit 8. Pragmatism is an example of an 'anti-realist' theory of truth.

If asked to define truth, I would avoid a metaphysical answer. 'Is true' is the only predicate that can be substituted for X, without loss of truth value in all instances of the following formula:

'Snow is white' is X if and only if snow is white.

Put any sentence you can think of in place of 'snow is white', the result is always the same just in the one case where X=true. (Think of all the other things you can say about a sentence, that it is grammatical, poetic, has three words etc. etc. None of these can be substituted for X and still give the result we want.)

Of course, that does not dispense with the need to consider the metaphysics of truth - but that is another story!

All the best,


Hume on tragedy

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on Tragedy
Date: 23 January 2004 12:44

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your e-mail of 13 January, with your third University of London Diploma essay, in response to the question, 'How, according to Hume, do audiences react to tragedy? Is his solution to the puzzle plausible?'

My problem, in dealing with this topic is that I disagree both with Hume's account, and with the alternative account given by Susan Feagin, which you do not discuss.

But I like less the 'It wakes me up' or 'It's not happening to me' theories.

In her article, Susan Feagin makes the point that our response to tragedy has something important to do with morality. Hume, on the other hand, takes the view that it is a matter of aesthetics - the artistry with which the piece is constructed. - I think both morality and aesthetics have a part to play, but neither of the two psychological theories offered - Hume's 'conversion' or Feagin's 'meta-responses' - convince me.

The 'ground rules' for this kind of investigation require that we look for cases which don't fit an initially plausible theory, and use these as a clue to fashioning a better theory.

Your polls of your friends and family would be acceptable as providing *raw material* for such investigation. A word of warning though: an examiner might react very negatively to suggestion that you might be using your poll as *evidence* to support a theory. This is not how the truth or falsity of a philosophical theory is decided. It is true that, without knowing it, everyone philosophizes in some way or other; but a lot of unreflective 'philosophy' is bad philosophy.

Here are my thoughts:

It is true that we can settle down to the ten o'clock news and feed our curiosity or desire for information with reports of death and destruction. Even when the reported events are close to home, 'they are not happening to me'. There is little paradox here. Of course, we are interested in finding out what happened. We want to know.

By contrast, a portrayal of death and destruction that *didn't happen* should sicken us. But when the context is a drama it doesn't - and that is the problem Hume is grappling with.

Suppose that in order to entertain his party guests a host gets two actors to enact a scene where one tortures the other. Only someone who was very sick would consider this entertainment, irrespective of whether the guests know beforehand or not. Yet when the same scene occurs in Braveheart we are moved in a positive way (apologies for the example). We are moved by the spectacle of a fictional 'courage in the face of suffering'. But to make this 'courage' and 'suffering' real the author or screenwriter's art is required to tell a story which grips us.

The fact that the events are 'enacted' and not 'real' is part of the problem, not the solution.

One thing you don't mention is that Hume thinks that his account applies to a painting as well as a drama. In both case, the pleasure is aroused by the artistry with which a scene is portrayed. I think this is very significant because the comparison supports Hume's aesthetic approach. But is this correct? In what does the 'aesthetic value' of a drama consist?

Unlike a painting, a drama or novel is not judged simply by the quality of its depiction of a scene or series of scenes. It is the story, the narrative that is crucially important. It is because the torture scene occurs when it does that it moves us in the way that it does. But why?

I think this does have a great deal to do with our sense of what is morally praiseworthy or despicable. Not in the way Feagin thinks - that we somehow morally approve of ourselves for feeling the way we do - but rather because in witnessing the drama we gain a vision of the good. We are reinforced in our belief that good and bad are something real.

Why do comedies, tragedies, thrillers grip us? The answer seems to be different in each of the three cases. Comedies and thrillers are easier to explain - provided that one gets over the hurdle of explaining how we are able to be moved by fiction at all (which deserves an essay to itself). What is special about tragedy, I am arguing, is the moral aspect. - But that is after all just a theory. You might consider how that theory might be put to the test.

Getting back to your essay, you do a competent job of explaining Hume's theory, but I didn't get the sense that you had really got to the root of it. (Perhaps you might have done, if you had considered what Hume says about painting.) You were too swift to react by citing your poll.

In responding to the question whether a philosopher's theory is plausible, it is tempting to reply, 'mm, yes, quite plausible...', 'I liked it when he says...', 'I didn't like it when he says...'. But that is emphatically NOT what the question is asking. You are not being asked for your opinion (or the opinion of your friends) but rather whether the theory is a good theory or not. Either way, this is a matter of arguing your case.

In your essay you do offer some arguments. But the opinions seem to predominate.

It would have been within the bounds of the question - though not obligatory - to contrast Hume's theory with Feagin's. Then there would have been the opportunity to ask, e.g. whether Hume's theory is more or less 'plausible' than Feagin's.

Of course, it is harder to say why you agree with something than to say why you disagree with something. One way to do this is to consider possible objections which the theory you like is able to refute. Another is to compare the theory with a rival theory and show why the theory you like is better.

All the best,


Monday, July 25, 2011

Rejecting egocentric subjectivism

To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rejecting egocentric subjectivism
Date: 19 January 2004 12:11

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 January, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Imagine you are a former defender of egocentric subjectivism who has been persuaded to reject that theory. Apart from being convinced that the theory you once believed in is false what is it that you now believe?'

One area of discourse which raises the question of subjectivity and objectivity is that of taste. In setting up the theory of egocentric subjectivism, and then criticizing the theory, I had not thought of this aspect of our experience - which is undoubtedly very important in our everyday lives.

So, let's see how this goes:

What can we say about taste? Although we tend to agree that 'each person has their own taste', we also talk of people having 'good taste' and 'bad taste' - in cooking as well as in art.

For example, if one of your friends says that she likes chile con carne and another says that she hates it, this isn't an argument, but merely a matter of different people having different culinary 'tastes'. On the other hand, if you invited someone to dine on nice hot chile con carne, and they proceeded to pour on dollops of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup in equal proportions, most cooking experts would agree (I assume!) that this is pretty disgusting taste. The argument, 'Well, I like it!' is not enough to counter what would be the agreed judgement of persons of 'good taste', i.e. people with educated palates.

However, as a way of getting to the crux of egocentric subjectivism, this approach also has some disadvantages.

On my account of 'sophisticated' as opposed to 'crude' egocentric subjectivism, the egocentric subjectivist could agree to all the things I have said about taste in the above paragraph. Indeed, there are no *empirical* consequences of holding egocentric subjectivism - that is the point about it being a metaphysical theory.

The egocentric subjectivist can 'compare, discriminate, measure, divide and categorise' (your words) just as well as the objectivist. As an egocentric subjectivist, - just as much as an objectivist - you can discover that your friend went shopping and forgot about the dinner date. You can discover that you mistakenly put paprika in the simmering mixture instead of chile powder. And so on.

Whether you are a subjectivist or an objectivist, experience proves that wishing does not make things so.

In short, the egocentric subjectivist's world is a world just like yours or mine, where one makes judgements, finds out sometimes that those judgements are wrong, and corrects the judgements that one previously made.

The egocentric subjectivist's world contains 'people' who use 'language' to 'communicate', indeed, whose 'judgements' one sometimes defers to (your doctor, business adviser, cooking instructor, philosophy teacher etc.) Everything *looks* the same. So what *is* different?

If I try to imagine myself occupying the standpoint of the egocentric subjectivist, reality or existence just is 'my world and everything in it'. Everything there is, exists ultimately for me and me alone. But this includes things I have never seen, aspects of the world I have never considered, like the centre of the earth or distant stars and galaxies. However, the subjectivist views this as ultimately *just* a story, a play laid on for my benefit. Without me there would be nothing.

Even this statement is still too metaphorical. As you have half-grasped, the crucial point concerns what it is that makes my judgements true or false. As an egocentric subjectivist, my judgements are true or false in relation not just to my present limited experience, but any possible additional experience I might enjoy, now or forever more. The objectivist, on the contrary, says, 'No, there is something else, something which can never be captured from any *one* point of view, which is how the subject, the possessor of that unique point of view, appears as an *object* from other points of view.'

'To see ourselves as others see us.' Of course, you can look in a mirror. You can ask a friend how they see you. But all these things are just more information which you have to take in. There is no way out of the subjectivist predicament by merely accumulating facts and information. That is because the problem is a problem of metaphysics.

There are a few poor souls who live as if other persons were only 'characters in the story of my world', psychopaths who see other persons as merely objects - tools to use or obstacles to overcome. The solution is not philosophical argument but treatment.

But the egocentric subjectivist is not a psychopath - merely a philosopher who holds a rather strange philosophical theory. That is why the solution has to be a philosophical solution: in other words, a logical argument demonstrating the 'warped logic' in the egocentric subjectivist's theory.

All the best,


Descartes' argument for mind-body dualism

To: Paul M

From: Geoffrey Klempner

Subject: Descartes' argument for mind-body dualism Date: 16 January 2004 10:07

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your e-mail of 4 January, with your first University of London timed essay, in response to the exam question, 'How does Descartes argue in the sixth meditation that mind and body are distinct substances? Does he succeed in establishing this conclusion?'

As an exam paper this is very well organized, clearly written and persuasive. Frankly, I never wrote an exam answer like this. Because of the quality of the writing, an examiner *might* assume that you were reproducing a previously memorized answer rather than thinking 'on your feet' - this would depend on the quality of your other answers. (There is no rule prohibiting this - but you need to be very lucky with your question.) Of course you had the opportunity to type it out, which would have involved some tidying. For example, I do not see any sentences or paragraphs crossed out!

You said in your afterthoughts that you were 'essentially concerned with the logical consistency of D's argument itself...'. However, my reading of the question is that there is scope - and indeed the necessity - of considering the truth of the premisses of D's argument, and not just whether the conclusion follows from the premisses. The crucial premiss concerns self-knowledge: that knowledge of my own subjective states is independent of my knowledge of the external world. Along with many contemporary philosophers I would regard Wittgenstein's private language argument as a fatal objection to that view. So I think that despite the quality of the essay, this omission would lose marks.

I fully agree with you that God is not required in order to account for the possibility separating mind and body. What is in question is simply whether they can be logically conceived as existing apart. (I did initially get the contrary impression from your statement 'This can only be done after the proof of God's existence...' in paragraph 1. When you go on to say, '...and that everything we clearly and distinctly understand is true...' this *reads* as a second point whereas what you mean is that according toDescartes God's existence is *required* in order for us to be fully confident that everything we clearly and distinctly understand etc. etc.)

AlthoughDescartes does not actually say this in so many words, the argument in Meditation 6 does depend on the claim, made back in Meditation 1, that my knowledge of my subjective states is such as could obtain even in a world where no physical objects existed. This is crucial for understanding Arnaud's objection. For what Descartes seems to be arguing is:

I can know that I exist even if I don't know that my body exists. Therefore, my mind can exist even if my body does not exist.

A better counter-example than Pythagoras would have been:

I can know that George Orwell exists even if I don't know that Eric Blair exists. Therefore, George Orwell can exist even if Eric Blair does not exist.

That is false because George Orwell *is* Eric Blair.

What this shows is that D's argument does not depend on non-substituitivity in opaque contexts, such as 'knows that'.

So, yes, for this reason it is relevant to mention Arnaud, although it would be fully acceptable to consider the point about opaque contexts without mentioning Arnaud as the source of the objection.

All the best,


Friday, July 22, 2011

Wittgenstein: 'The world is MY world'

To: Chris H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein: 'The world is MY world'
Date: 15 January 2004 15:12

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your e-mail of 3 January, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'The world is MY world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of LANGUAGE (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of MY world' ('Tractatus' 5.62). - Do you agree with that statement?

A lot of thought and reading has clearly gone into this essay. On this extremely difficult topic, I am always on the look-out for the possibility that I have missed something. If, in what follows, it seems to you that I have failed to grasp the point that you were making, then all I can ask is that you 'run it by me again'!

As I don't speak German, I am not in a position to comment on the perversity or otherwise of 'the only language which I understand' as opposed to 'the language which only I understand'. However, it is a simple matter to analyze what hangs on this.

Let's suppose that,

A. There is a language L which is such that L is a language which only I understand.

But it is not the case that,

B. There is a language L* which is such that L* is the only language which I understand.

Clearly, A is consistent, while B is inconsistent with the proposition,

C. There is a language L** which you and I understand.

From A and C it follows that I understand two languages, the language which is private to me and the language which you and I share.

One issue is whether that is an accurate representation of what W. held in the Tractatus. My objection to this interpretation is that it makes a nonsense of W's 'demolition of solipsism', as you call it, 'The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension' (5.64). On the contrary, with two languages at my disposal, the private and the public, we can quite happily converse about things like Iraq or Wittgenstein or my Macintosh G3, while I am able to cordon off an area to which you are permanently denied access, my private states. Reflecting on the fact that this is true for you too, I am drawn irresistibly to the conclusion that I can form no conception of your private states, nor even speculate whether such states exist or not. Let's call this 'crude solipsism'.

An example of this two-language view might be the use of colour words. You and I can agree that snow is white and the sky is blue, but only I know the private 'colour' of my impression of white or of my impression of blue, call these 'white[gk]' and 'blue[gk]'.

This idea is demolished by W's private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. Given that one of the main aims of PI was to reconsider W's former views, it is tempting to think that the private language argument is indeed aimed at the two-language doctrine.

The trouble is, that this still does not account for W's claim in 5.64.

That is why I think W. did hold a more radical view in the Tractatus. There is only one language, my language, which I use to describe the world as I find it, including you and all the other 'objects' that I encounter.

In this radical version of solipsism, there is no way to express the thought, 'I don't know how things are for you, nor even whether there is such a thing as 'the way things are for you''. But there remains something which can be 'shown' but not 'said', which deeper reflection on the private language argument brings to light. There will be more discussion of this later in the program.

I did try to see how your account of 'language' and 'meta-language' might yield a third alternative to the two alternatives considered here.

Let's say, that instead of two languages for two distinct realms, the private and the public, there my private 'meta-language' and the 'languages' which I describe, in talking about the world as I find it; for example your language. So, in my meta-language, I can say, ''GK' refers to GK', where the quoted occurrence of 'GK' refers to the word which you use to refer to GK, while the second occurrence of GK represents my use of the term 'GK' in my language. However, this is fully consistent with radical solipsism.

My language is a 'meta-language' only insofar as it is used to describe an 'object language'. That is how the term is used. The world itself is not a 'language'.

Possibly, you are trying to say something else, something which I agree with, which is that both versions of solipsism, 'crude' and 'radical', are false. There is the world, and there are the things that can be said about the world in language, a language which you and I share.

All the best,


Essay on space

To: Colin A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on space
Date: 15 January 2004 13:45

Dear Colin,

Thank you for your e-mail of 31 December, with your final essay for the Pathways Introduction to Philosophy program.

Although we will not be corresponding as mentor and mentee in future, I do hope that you will continue to keep in touch. And I am always happy to receive submissions for the Pathways newsletters.

Good to hear that you have made contact with Anthony Ross. I hope that you can be a good friend to him.

As you have taken the liberty of commenting on all manner of subjects, so will I.

I agree that there may be a clue to the nature of space in the metaphoric uses that we make of that word. The 'space' on my computer hard drive, and the space on this rectangular screen overcrowded with icons, windows, messages and even electronic post-it notes within which so many things happen, each is defined as that which can, in its own metaphoric way, be 'empty' or 'occupied', shrinking or growing as more or less of it is 'used up'.

So with physical space - the possibility of getting from location A to location B, or the empty space left by the removal of object C giving rise to the possibility of its occupation by object D.

I don't recall your telling me that you read Tarot cards. Maybe it did come up in a previous essay and I've forgotten.

You believe that coincidences are more than just coincidences. I believe in serendipity. Things happen which were never part of the game plan which take you into a better, more exciting game. From my early days as a student, I based my reading list on chance discoveries in second-hand book shops, ignoring my teachers' carefully prepared lecture note handouts.

Pathways came about as a result of my reading 'Dice Man'.

Ask me why I'm doing this and I couldn't tell you. There's the official line. But that's just PR. I like to meet minds similar to my own, puzzled in the way that I am puzzled - afraid too, as I am afraid whenever I catch a glimpse of the bigger picture.

This term, I have allowed one of my students, Brian, to take over my WEA Wednesday evening philosophy class, which I have been running since 1988. It was time to let go.

Brian has an MA from Sheffield so is well qualified. He first enrolled in the same evening class only a few years ago. So it's my turn to the 'student'.

Brian did take over the class on one previous occasion when I was ill with sarcoidosis. He gave a series of talks on 'Death as an introduction to philosophy'. This term, the topic is 'the philosophy of the body'.

Pathways will go on, because it now has a momentum of its own. I couldn't stop it even if I wanted to. It would take at least two years just to complete my on-going dialogues with my current Pathways students. Now the ISFP has a Board whose members are fully capable of making decisions without me. So I am no longer in full control of what happens.

I have enjoyed reading your letters. You mentioned once that it was a kind of therapy to revisit your past 'lives'. That's the sort of thing I tried to do in 'Glass House Philosopher'. I thought I could fit the pieces of the puzzle together but I gave up. Maybe I'll try again some time, it's never too late.

- Before I forget: your essay submissions satisfy the requirements for issuing a Pathways Certificate. This I will send you soon, along with a summary report.

All the best,


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Implications of the private language argument

To: Alan L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Implications of the private language argument
Date: 12 January 2004 13:01

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 31 December, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Discuss the implications of the private language argument'.

You have actually answered a slightly different question, concerning the interpretation and validity of the private language argument. The question of its implications would arise only if one were clear about what it means and that it is valid.

But that's OK, because your essay raises some interesting and important issues. It is good to see that you have read through the relevant sections, and have not just concentrated on 258.

The first thing to be clear about is that Jo is not a philosopher. Jo says she has had an indescribable mystical experience and I think we should take her seriously. One natural response is to inquire what prompted it, what other feelings it arouses and so on - in other words there are things to say about it. Another possible response would be sceptical and dismissive. The basic point is that Jo is at a loss to say 'what it is like' because it is not 'like' anything she has previously experienced. And we should accept that that is the way things *seem* to her.

Mo's mistake is to identify Jo with the character, call him Wiggy, in Philosophical Investigations who *imagines* (258) that he might have a sensation (we need not get hung up about it's being a recurring 'sensation' - it can be any subjective state) which he decides to call 'S'. Now comes the important bit: 'I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated'. It's not clear at first exactly what this means, but as we see later from the manometer example (270), Wiggy's idea is that there is no connection between occurrences of S and events in the objective world.

People do occasionally get strange recurring sensations. It turns out that there is a physical cause. We generally *assume* this to be the case. So, for example, in the manometer case, I might discover after seeing a doctor that the occurrences that I note in my diary correspond with bouts of dangerously high blood pressure. Only a deluded philosopher like Wiggy would dismiss this as a merely accidental and contingent feature of S - as if what 'S' refers to, the object in my mental world, exists independently of anything outside my mental world.

In Jo's case, she is convinced that the explanation is not physical but metaphysical. It is a 'mystical' experience, an insight into a higher reality. Knowing Jo, we might be confident that she is wrong. (Strangely, Imex occurs only after Jo has drunk half a dozen dry martinis.) Either way, however, occurrences of Imex are assumed to track events in an objective (physical *or* metaphysical) reality.

So what is *essential* to the idea of a private language, as characterized in the Philosophical Investigations, is that the 'object' whose recognition I call attention to exists only in my consciousness, or from my perspective (the philosophical term is 'Cartesian mental event' - although there is room for argument whether this idea can really be pinned on Descartes).

It is concerning these objects, and these alone, that Wittgenstein claims 'one cannot talk about 'right'.'

A complicating factor, however, is Wittgenstein's 'anti-realism'. Apart from the attack on 'logically private objects' or Cartesian mental events, Wittgenstein does have a concern with the idea of unknowable states of affairs in the objective world. Suppose that Jo's Imexes have a direct mystical connection with an alien in the Andromeda galaxy called Oj. Whenever Oj is injured, Jo 'feels' this, although neither she, nor anyone else can ever know about the connection. This would be a case where the correctness or otherwise of Jo's use of 'imex' can never be *checked*. I think Wittgenstein would object to this, but not on the grounds that 'imex' is a term in a private language. He would simply ask what is the point of this completely idle speculation.

The anti-realist connection has led some philosophers to accuse the private language of making an unwarranted 'verificationist' assumption. It is very tempting to do this given things Wittgenstein says about the possibility of 'checking' that one has had an occurrence of 'S'. However, the argument is not simply that one can 'never conclusively check' whether one has had S, but rather that there is no coherent notion of the *requirements* for being S, no 'criterion of identity' for occurrences of S.

However, in the present case it seems that Jo and Flo are in the right and Mo is the one who is speaking out of turn.

All the best,


Indispensability of proper names

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Indispensability of proper names
Date: 23 December 2003 10:41

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 14 December with your second University of London essay, 'On the Indispensability of Proper Names'.

I did not find your argument psychologistic, nor did I think the style too personal. This is clear, well organized and easy to read.

The Julian

If we construe 'Julian' strictly as a proper name, then 'the Julian' makes no sense. (It makes as little sense as 'the this'.) However, there does seem to be a way to construe 'the Julian' as a description, namely, 'the person called "Julian"'. What's wrong with this? (Assume that we can add surnames etc. if necessary.)

Imagine that I am a philosopher of language who believes he has worked out the definitive theory of proper names. So, when I say, 'The Julian', meaning, 'the person called "Julian"' I am able to give necessary and sufficient conditions for any object to be 'the person called "Julian"' and moreover I am confident that these conditions do indeed apply to just one object. This would be a case where proper names are used by the populace while the philosopher kings (such as myself) translate proper name discourse into non-proper name discourse.

This would be a way for proper names to be useful, but ultimately dispensable. But it assumes the possibility of a 'definitive theory of proper names' as used by the populace, which is one of the points at issue.

Knowing about Bonnie

You have uniquely identifying knowledge of Bonnie but are unable to convey this knowledge to anyone else. Anyone who picks up knowledge about Bonnie from you relies on you for the 'route to reference', e.g. 'the woman Julian calls "Bonnie" who gave him helpful hints'. In a world where people did not have names we would say, 'the woman with blonde hair and a red sweater who gave Julian helpful hints'.

Even if you know Bonnie's full name, that's not going to help others distinguish her from other women with the same name. You will still need to add descriptive knowledge. This descriptive knowledge will either rely on you for the route to reference (as above), or it will be sufficient for anyone to identify Bonnie without relying on you to make the identification.


The description, 'the xth person born' clearly won't work, for the reasons you give. There are two issues here. The first concerns the nature of descriptions of the form, 'the xth...'. E.g. 'the first person to drown in the sea'. We assume that someone must have been the first person to drown in the sea, or the 223455th person born, but these kinds of description are parasitic on descriptions which enable us to locate particulars in space and time. It would be impossible for all descriptions to be like the parasitic case.

The second concerns Donnellan's point about referential and attributive descriptions. Even if philosopher kings succeeded getting a law passed banning proper names, people would naturally use definite descriptions in just the way we now use proper names. Proper names are just so useful, that it seems impossible to imagine that a race of beings could develop a language which lacked anything that functioned like a proper name. However, even if we accept this point, it falls short of a demonstration that proper names are logically indispensable.

Telly Tubbies

The difference between using a language and communicating through pictures is that pictures cannot communicate thoughts about other times, or about generality - unless you turn them into a language (i.e. a system of signs whose 'pictorial form' is 'logical form', in the sense of the 'Tractatus'). You are right that in the Telly Tubbies pictorial communication there is nothing that functions like a proper name. But nothing follows from that with regard to our actual language. (Hence your admission, 'that is not where I expected to end up!'?)

A Theory of Recognition

Here is the most important bit. I read it as point about Frege, that sense cannot be reduced to descriptions. Our knowledge of objects essentially involves a capacity to encounter things and become acquainted with them. (I would argue - some might disagree - that this encounter necessarily involves not just perception but physical agency. So there could not be a race of intelligent trees who, unlike the Ents, merely looked around and talked to one another but did not act or move in any other way.) There has to be a level at which we know objects which is below that of descriptions, however one construes this 'knowledge'.

This is really just Russell's point, but I am stretching 'acquaintance' to objects in the physical world.

However, this does not establish the necessity for proper names. What it does is make a place for proper names which can also be filled in by demonstratives or by the referential use of descriptions.

You say, 'any trigger that activates the web of connections associated with a referent object is equivalent to a proper name of that referent'. I don't think you meant this literally. A smell is just a smell, surely? What is true that we physically relate to the world in a way that involves non-descriptive encounter with objects.

Happy holidays!

All the best,


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What is metaphysics?

To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is Metaphysics?
Date: 18 December 2003 13:37

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your essay, which I received on 8th December in response to Question 1 of the Metaphysics program units 1-3, 'What is metaphysics? Is there anything special about the methods of metaphysics, or about its subject matter? Illustrate your answer with one example of a metaphysical problem or controversy.'

Your essay raises some basic questions about the nature of metaphysics and the point in studying it.

First, let's get clear about the point of the reality principle. It is not, as you seem to suggest, a principle governing the way we investigate this or that claim. Yes, we should always consider the objective evidence, as best we can. Sometimes, this does involve a consensus of opinions. Consider, for example, trial by jury. Or a commons committee. In fact, we have to ask *who* is 'considering the objective evidence'. Evidence has to be weighed and interpreted.

The reality principle is meant to work at a more fundamental level. Whatever your metaphysical theory about the nature of reality, it must have the consequence that judgements can be false. You might think it is just obvious that judgements can be false. Consider, however, naive idealism which says that the only thing that exists is my present experience. The reality principle says that naive idealism is false, because it rules out the possibility that I can ever make a false judgement. - It will be a question to consider later on in the program just how 'idealist' or 'anti-realist' you can be without violating the reality principle.

You ask, 'How do I know that which is beyond my experience? by intuition? Here is a simple, mundane example. I know, not from experience but by mathematical calculation that if I attempt to store any more computer files on this floppy disc I will get a 'disc full' message. I would know this by experience if I didn't bother to calculate, but just tried anyway.

Mathematics is one example of a branch of human knowledge which does not rely on observations of the world around us. Hume's famous challenge to metaphysics (Essay Question 2) is whether the philosopher is able through reasoning alone to discover truths about reality, or whether philosophy is merely an activity of logical analysis. On the first view, the philosopher is able to discover 'metaphysical truths', while on the second view, the philosopher merely helps us clarify our concepts.

I won't say much here about idealism and anti-realism as you will encounter these issues soon enough. The thought that the world is merely 'a figment of my imagination' is the thought that leads to the theory I termed 'naive idealism' above.

Good question about 'where Arthur Conan Doyle is now'. We have to distinguish between the empirical or mundane question of *how we know* that Conan Doyle really existed, which can be investigated by looking at historical records etc. and the metaphysical question of how we are to *understand* statements about objects which 'no longer exist'. This broadens out into the question of the nature of time itself, and the reality of the past. You can be a 'realist' or an 'anti-realist' about the past, and this will have consequences for your view of what it means to say that 'there was' an author called Arthur Conan Doyle.

A more general question can be raised about what we mean by the term 'exists'. Is 'exists' a property which you and I have and Arthur Conan Doyle once had but now lacks? If so, does that mean that there is an entity which you and I refer to as 'Arthur Conan Doyle' which has certain properties (is an author, is British, is the son of Mr and Mrs Doyle (or Mr and Mrs Conan Doyle?)) but lacks the property of existence? That makes it sound as if when we die and 'go out of existence' we are replaced by a shadowy entity which people refer to when they talk about us.

This isn't anything to do with belief in souls. Exactly the same point could be made about my Lancia Thema which was sent to the scrap yard after a drunk motorist pursued by the police crashed into the back of it at three o'clock in the morning. When I now refer to 'my Lancia', am I referring to? Whatever the answer you give to that question will be the same answer that you give to the question about Arthur Conan Doyle.

All the best,


Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes on the primary substance

To: John B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes on the primary substance
Date: 10 December 2003 15:14

Dear John,

Thank you for your e-mail of 2 December, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, on the theories of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes regarding the primary substance.

Unusually, I am home today, rather than in my office, writing this on my tiny Psion computer. It's a welcome break from routine.

I liked your essay. I am also pleased to see that you have made a very careful reading of the first three units.

Like many students of the Presocratics, you show a strong leaning towards Anaximander. Though many are over-awed by his concept of the Apeiron - which seems far more exciting than the mundane stuffs of water or air, you make the point that this theory 'holds more weight logically' than the alternatives.

At the beginning of your essay, you express your admiration for the 'purity of their thought...they theorized without the chains of modern science to hold them back'. However, it is in fact empirical grounds that you appeal to in criticizing the theories of Thales and Anaximenes.

Although our interest is in the philosophical worth of these theories - the extent to which they conform to reason and logic - I agree with you that it is impossible to ignore the question whether these theories are consistent with our everyday experience. However, we must take care when considering these ideas to rid ourselves of assumptions based on what we know, from our relatively privileged viewpoint, appealing only to what was, or ought to have been incontrovertible fact that anyone could observe.

For example, is it an incontrovertible fact of experience that things in general do not freeze and boil in the way that water does? In one sense, yes. When we heat the pan of water, the water boils but the pan does not melt. However, this was an occurrence which we must assume was as familiar to Thales as it is to us. So he must have conceived of some *explanation* of why this is so.

No doubt, any explanation which succeeds in defending the water theory will be inconsistent with what we now know from science. But as we are only concerned with the logic of Thales' theory, we have to discard that knowledge.

What would Thales have said? I imagine that he would have pointed to familiar observations from such everyday things as cooking. If you replace water in the pan with a few eggs, heating causes the eggs to solidify. That shows that the underlying processes are more complex than we thought. In one of its forms, 'water' boils when you heat it, in another of its forms it solidifies. Theory saved.

Of course, from a scientific point of view this defence is much too easy. There is very little empirical content in a theory which can always say in its defence, 'The result of the experiment was different from what we predicted, but that just shows that we don't understand the underlying processes.' But then, as we have been insisting, that would be far too narrow a way to assess Thales' brilliant conjecture.

A similar point applies to Anaximenes, although Anaximenes does give an account of the 'underlying process'. Why do things 'condense' and 'rarefy' so inconsistently? Anaximenes could say that is merely a reflection of our lack of knowledge of the full picture.

It is worth noting one important difference between Thales and Anaximenes: there is only tenuous evidence that Thales held that everything 'really is' water, as you assume. A more modest interpretation would be that everything merely 'originates from' water. This is relevant to your essay, because it implies that the three theories are not necessarily competing on the same ground. In other words, on the textual evidence it is not clear that all three philosophers were giving a theory of the form, 'Everything that exists is made of X.'

We readily understand the three theories in this simple way because of what we know. On the scientific view Anaximander's Apeiron would be 'energy'. somehow, that doesn't seem very plausible, does it?

Our three philosophers were looking for the ultimate reason why there is order rather than chaos, and all three found that reason in an intelligent or mind-like principle embodied in the primary stuff. This is another reason to be careful in comparing their theories with what we understand by 'science'.

All the best,


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Realism, anti-realism and immaterialism

To: Max T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Realism, anti-realism and immaterialism
Date: 17 December 2003 14:15

Dear Max,

Thank you for your e-mail of 6 December, with your fifth and final essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''The debate between realism and anti-realism has the same structure as the debate between Kantian and Berkeleian versions of Immaterialism.' - Assess the strength of that claim.'

Well done for completing this program, which is easily the most difficult of the six Pathways programs. A certificate and my report will be on their way to you shortly.

Your essay brings out the fact that there are different aspects of the 'structure' of realism vs. anti-realism and Kant vs. Berkeley that can be emphasized. The question is which aspect or aspects are the most important.

Since the realism/ anti-realism debate concerns the truth of propositions and the Kant/ Berkeley debate concerns the existence of objects, this is one obvious difference.

The fundamental link, I would argue, concerns a notion which one might describe, neutrally, as 'mind dependence'.

For the realist, the truth of a proposition is independent of our ability to make a judgement concerning its truth. Not only are there propositions which we are not able to make a judgement about, but in addition, any proposition which we judge to be true can turn out to be false (as in Descartes 'evil demon' hypothesis). What is it, if not judgement, that *makes* a proposition true? The realist's answer is that it is 'the way the facts are', or just 'the facts'. The way things are for us, how we judge things to be is one thing. But there is also how things are in reality, and that alone is what gives propositions their truth value.

The link with the Kant/ Berkeley debate is between 'facts' realistically conceived and 'noumena'.

The interaction which ultimately gives rise to perceptual experience is explained by the Kantian as the product of things in themselves (noumena) and the subject in themself (the noumenal subject).

Just as the anti-realist can object that 'facts' don't explain anything about the way we are able to make 'judgements of truth' so the opponent of Kant can object that 'noumena' don't explain anything about the way we are able to perceive objects in the empirical world around us. To use Wittgenstein's phrase, positing facts, or noumena, is a 'wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it' (Philosophical Investigations, para 271).

So we have, on the one side, philosophers who think that they are emphasizing something very important when they point that there 'is something ultimately out there' which judgement, or perception reflects, and on the other side, philosophers who feel that this appeal to 'what is ultimately out there' is completely empty. Nothing of explanatory value, they complain, is added by introducing this ultimate dimension.

You say, 'the Berkeleian has created an empty class, namely the class of unperceived objects' while 'it is the realist who created an empty class (propositions with no definite truth-value)'. In this formal sense, it could be said that the Berkeleian and the realist 'agree in the existence of an empty class'. But what does this really mean?

The Berkeleian is saying that there is *no such thing* as an unperceived object. The Realist is saying that there is *no such thing* as a proposition without a truth value. That's all talk of an 'empty class' comes to. Would you want to say that the Berkeleian and the Realist agree in using the phrase 'no such thing'?

We could also describe the anti-realist as claiming that there is no such thing as a *truth which is independent of judgement*. Surely, there is a much stronger link here to the claim that there is no such thing as an *object which is independent of perception*.

Recall that at this point in the argument we have accepted Kant's criticisms of the historical Berkeley and Leibniz for their attempts to characterize things in themselves (Berkeley's archetypes in the mind of God, or Leibniz's monads) in terms which apply to things as they are for us. The 'Berkeleian' that we are considering, by contrast with the historical Berkeley, is one who is prepared to countenance a 'reality full of holes' (14/435) as the only alternative to Kantian noumena. The Berkeleian subject weaves a world of existing objects out of the materials of perception, just as the anti-realist weaves a world of truths out of the materials of judgement.

In each case, it looks as though we have a dispute that cannot be resolved. Either you believe that human perception and judgement constitute 'reality' or you believe that there is something 'ultimate', essentially beyond human perception and judgement.

My own view - I do not support either side because I believe that both are in the wrong. The overlooked alternative in the case of realism and anti-realism is 'judging as a physical action'. The overlooked alternative in the case of Kant vs. Berkeley is materialism.

All the best,


Descartes' case for doubt

To: Frank M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' case for doubt
Date: 26 November 2003 15:42

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 November, with your second University of London essay in response to the question, 'In his First Meditation, how does Descartes attempt to show that there is a reason to doubt everything one believes? How successful is this attempt?'

You have written a very good answer to the question. You have carefully explained the various stages of Descartes' argument in Meditation One and you have made sensible comments on each stage. There is not a hint of waffle anywhere in the essay - you get right to the point.

Why on earth should a philosopher should attempt to 'show that there is a reason to doubt everything one believes'? You do say something about this at the end of your essay, along the lines of, 'It's healthy to doubt' etc. However, Descartes clearly exceeds the bounds of healthy doubt. You wouldn't teach school children to remember that it's possible that they are being deceived by an evil demon. It wouldn't serve any purpose other than to make them very upset.

The point is that, given that 'there is a reason to doubt everything', a stronger reason will be needed for not doubting everything. The measurement of success in Descartes' strategy is whether he has achieved his goal of convincing the reader that this stronger reason will be needed. If Descartes is wrong and we are not sick after all - if his arguments for scepticism are bad arguments - then we won't need his medicine (proof of the existence of a non-deceiving God).

It is also true, of course, that in Meditation Two Descartes remembers that there is in fact one thing that cannot be doubted - that he exists, a fact which he conveniently forgot in Meditation One!

That's the only general point I have to make, the rest concerns the details of your responses to each of the four arguments which you identify.

Senses argument

The 'argument from illusion' as it is sometimes called has been used, e.g. by sense datum theorists to argue that whenever we look at any given object (e.g. a tomato) it is always possible that that object is different from the way it appears. So, even if one accepts that not all objects can be different from the way they appear, we would still arrive at the conclusion that the immediate objects of knowledge are not things in the world (as we previously thought) but our own sense impressions, from which a more or less shaky inference to what is 'out there' is required. The most famous example of this is Bertrand Russell in 'The Problems of Philosophy'.

Put in those terms, the argument from illusion seems pretty strong - but is it valid?

Insanity argument

Like you, I wish Descartes had said more about insanity. (I recall coming across a reference to a book by Harry Frankfurt, 'Demons, Dreamers and Madmen'.) Suppose I am suffering from a paranoid delusion. The FBI are after me. You write, 'Don't be so silly' and that's just further proof - you're with them too! From the first person standpoint, there are ultimate limits to what we can discover. Attempting to build my knowledge from the foundations up necessarily leaves out one vital possibility - that from the outside my actions show that I am imprisoned in a world of my own from which I can never escape. Descartes is right that I have to assume that I am sane. But even if it is a necessary assumption, that doesn't make it true. It doesn't amount to a proof that I sane.

Dreaming argument

Good point about the distinctness of dreams. Descartes does need to say more, to make his argument convincing. However, the bigger picture is that 'dreaming' illustrates a possibility that might be realized, not in a dream as we know it, but in something which logically has the same status of a dream - in experiences arising from some source other than perception of external objects. Sound familiar? It is the Matrix scenario.

Descartes' evil demon could be compared with the artificial intelligences that run the Matrix world - except for one not so small detail: Descartes is prepared to consider the possibility that space does not exist. For the Matrix story to make sense, there has to be space (the hero wakes up to find that he is lying in a pod surrounded by thousands of other pods).

If I believe that space exists, has Descartes given me sufficient reason to doubt that belief?

The Divine argument

Like you, I am puzzled by the argument, 'If God did not create me, then I am even more likely to be in error.' One argument Descartes could give might go something like this. In the absence of a Deity, there is no ultimate standard of rationality or logic. Anything goes. Therefore, when I think that X is a good reason for Y, that's just some process happening in the world. There is no reason to think that this process is capable of attaining truth. Imagine if an idiot who knew nothing of arithmetic was given the tools to make a calculating machine. You can press the keys and numbers come up on the screen - they just don't add up. That's the human brain in the absence of God.

All the best,


Monday, July 18, 2011

What's in a name?

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What's in a name?
Date: 12 December 2003 11:49

Dear Julian,

Here are my comments on your essay, ''What's in a Name?' An Essay on Proper Names and Logic', for the University of London BA Logic module, which you e-mailed on 28 November.

Apologies in advance for repeating some of the points I made in our telephone conversation last Friday!

I have thought more about the question of essay title. This is an important issue because it determines the focus of your essay. Whether you are responding to a set question or making up a title of your own, an essay is, or should be an answer to *some* question.

'What's in a Name?' is catchy, but doesn't obviously suggest any particular question. So the temptation is to write, 'All I know about proper names.' Actually, you have not done that. A far more appropriate title for your essay would be, 'A Theory of Proper Names'. This is what you have set out to do, and as I remarked in our conversation, you have done an excellent job.

However, *if* that is the question, then there are things that need to be said to motivate the search for a theory. What kind of thing is a theory of proper names? what is it for? You set out to answer these questions in the context of the requirements of a system of formal logic, citing the famous precedent of Frege's Begriffsschrift. However, if we were only concerned with the requirements for a formal system, then the issues which provoked theories such as Russell's would never have arisen.

The issues arise because our concern is with natural language, and not merely a formal language. This is a point that needs to be stressed. A theory of proper names is a contribution to a semantics for natural language (not so coincidentally, Kripke's paper, 'Naming and Necessity' first appeared in the collection 'Semantics of Natural Language' edited by Gilbert Harman and Donald Davidson).

A counter argument would be that it is not natural language as such that interests us, but rather the use of language to express thoughts about the world, a physical world in space and time in which we exist as physical beings. So the problems that arise in the context, e.g. of arithmetic do not exhaust the problems of understanding how proper names function.

In your discussion of the threat of scepticism which looms when the Theory of Descriptions is combined with Russell's requirements for a 'logically proper name' you make the point that a requirement for a theory of proper names is that objects in the world be *nameable*. If they are not, then we lose the one thing that is capable of anchoring general terms to reality.

However, as I suggested in our conversation, a different question to ask would be whether proper names are necessary (given that we have accepted that they must be possible). You seemed to think that there is an incoherence in the idea of a natural language which, as a matter of empirical fact, lacks any proper names. I was not convinced of this, however. Either way, this issue would seem to have an important bearing on the question of a 'theory of proper names'.

I also remarked that a weak link in your argument is your discussion of Kripke. Dummett, in 'Frege Philosophy of Language' correctly sees Kripke's chain of communication theory as a fundamental challenge to Frege, because it denies the Fregean assumption that speaker's knowledge that determines reference. However, the theory you give is in fact the later version of Evan's account (in 'Varieties of Reference') , which repudiated his earlier 'Causal Theory of Names' along with Kripke's chain of communication theory.

Evans builds his later theory on a theory of demonstrative reference, directly challenging Russell's account of a logically proper name. For Evans, the situation where A points out an object to B is the paradigm of reference, the ideal case. When objects are far removed from us in space and time, then on Evans' account successful reference to those objects (by a speaker who fully understands what he/she is saying) can only be explained in terms of descriptions. This is the theory which you in fact describe, although as I remarked you are hazy about the question how far is 'far removed'.

All the best,


Berkeley's arguments against the existence of material objects

To: Max T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's arguments against the existence of material objects
Date: 3 December 2003 16:33

Dear Max,

Thank you for your-mail of 16 November, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Critically discuss Bishop Berkeley's arguments against the existence of material objects.'

I have great respect for Anthony Grayling, although I have not seen his book 'Berkeley The Central Arguments'. So I don't know how heavily your account relies on Grayling's exposition. My immediate impression is that the two arguments which you select do not do Berkeley full justice. However, it is very easy to succumb to the temptation to put arguments into Berkeley's mouth which he did not succeed in putting down on paper. It is possible that I have done this in my account of Berkeley's immaterialism. In my defence, I believe that Berkeley did have very good reasons for attacking the idea of 'matter', even though I do not agree with his conclusions.

You don't attempt to say what you think is wrong with the two arguments you have given (call them 'argument A' and 'argument B') other than to comment at the end of the essay that 'One could just as easily accept the truth of proposition 0 and reject at least one of propositions 1-5'. But how easy is this, actually?

One possible target for attack in argument A is step 2. 'Perceived objects are ideas or sensations.' The obvious objection is that there is a world of difference between a sensation, like a sensation of pain, or a red after-image, or ringing in the ears, and an object like this table. But we know what Berkeley's response to this objection is going to be. Point out any part or aspect of the table. What you are pointing to is just something you experience, your impression. Add these up and all you have is a collection of 'ideas'

Berkeley is relying here on Descartes' argument in Meditation 1, that nothing in our experience tells us that there are such things as space-occupying objects. According to Descartes, nothing is in fact taken away from our actual experience when we remove physical space and matter. But then how, on the basis of our experience, can we so much as formulate the concept (the 'idea') of physical space or matter?

I notice that in argument B you inadvertently miss out the word 'like' in the sentence, 'an idea can be *like* nothing but another idea' (Principles, section 9). Here, Berkeley casts scorn on one attempt to formulate the concept of matter, based on the thought that our concept of matter is a 'pattern or image' of matter in itself. That's nonsense, he says, because 'an idea can be [a pattern or image of] nothing but another idea'.

Apart from arguments A and B, you give two apparently very different ways in which Berkeley attempts to explain how objects can exist unperceived. On the first view, my statement about a physical object which I do not currently perceive is just a conditional statement about possible sense impressions. On the second view, my statement is not a conditional statement but a categorical statement about an object which exists in God's mind.

But how are these two views connected? Berkeley evidently felt that there had to be a non-conditional fact which made these conditional statements true, just as the statement 'If this match is struck it will light' is made true by non-conditional facts about the matches chemical constitution.

I'm not sure I got the point of your question, 'Can the idea of warmth exist in a plant, animal or robot?' Possibly, you were unconsciously thinking of Leibniz, whose 'monads' are subjects of their own more or less 'confused' perceptions, and only in virtue of that are they capable of being objects of perception.

You are quite right that Berkeley's strong empiricism is on the face of it inconsistent with Platonism/ realism about numbers. One might think that, since ultimately all things exist in the mind of God, there is surely space in God's mind for numbers too. That is not a satisfactory answer for Berkeley, because he still has to account for human *knowledge* of arithmetic.

All the best,


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zeno's paradox of the arrow

To: Peter B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Zeno's paradox of the arrow
Date: 22 November 2003 11:47

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your e-mail of 11 November, with your second essay for the Associate award, 'Zeno's Arrow'.

The essay starts well, with the quotes from Plato's 'Parmenides' and Simplicius. I also fully agree with the statement that 'In any attempt to solve the apparent paradox, one must also consider the validity of the method used to find a solution.'

There seemed to be a hint at Henri Bergson's view that time is essentially continuous and not composed of instants (Bergson calls the idea that time is composed of infinitesimal instants the 'cinematographic' view of time.) This is probably the most tangible lead to follow. However, the paragraphs where you discuss the continuity of time were just not clear. If time is regarded as more that the sum of instants of zero duration, why does that not show that Zeno is wrong?

Mathematically, there is no problem with the idea of a magnitude composed of points. From my studies of set theory, I recall that according to Cantor, the set of points on a line is the same size (a 'transfinite number') as the set of infinite sets of integers.

The idea that photography provides a 'real world proof' of the existence of temporal instants looks like a non-starter. However, the example of a camera does seem to be pertinent in view of Bergson's 'cinematographic' criticism. The philosopher who believes that time is a set of instants of zero duration seems to be relying on an *analogy* with the way photography breaks up motion into immobile 'frames'. No physically constructed camera could capture a zero instant of time. However, the philosopher who holds the cinematographic view can say that all there is to time is what *would* be captured by such a physically, but not logically impossible camera.

Quantum mechanics seems a rather heavy weapon to beat Zeno with, yet it is worth remembering that, as he shows in his paradox about the 'Large and Small', Zeno was fully aware of the alternatives, 'Either there exists a smallest size or not'. Applying this dilemma to the Arrow paradox gives just the result that Zeno wants, on *either* alternative:

1. If there is a smallest size with respect to temporal instants, then there is no such thing as motion, because the apparent 'movement' of the arrow is merely the occupation of successive instants by a static arrow. The arrow appears in one position, disappears then reappears in a new position an instant later.

2. If there is no smallest size with respect to temporal instants, then apparent 'movement' is still an illusion. The only difference from case 1. is that the disappearance and reappearance occurs seamlessly.

I didn't follow your argument that 'the Planck scale will not provide the required scenario to prove that Zeno's arrow never moves'. The 'capacity for movement in time' referred to in defining Planck units can be thought of as 'Zeno movement', i.e. the kind of apparent 'movement' that you get in scenario 1. or 2. The Planck/ QM case looks like a confirmation of scenario 1.

Again, I didn't understand your account of Aristotle's criticism or what follows from it. You say, 'If it is assumed that an instant has any period of duration, then Zeno's statements lose their coherency'. But this is just case 1, which clearly vindicates Zeno.

Why is it important (as Bergson and Aristotle thought) to defeat Zeno's conclusion that motion does not occur? Unlike, say, the paradox of the hare and the tortoise, we are not faced here with a situation where we *know* that the conclusion must be false. The hare does catch up with the tortoise in the real world. Here, by contrast, it is no use saying to Zeno, 'But an arrow that you fire from your bow does move' because Zeno's response will be, 'It only looks like movement, but in reality it isn't because what you think of as 'movement' is impossible, for the reasons I have given.'

So, one possible conclusion (unless we follow Bergson or Aristotle) is that the arrow isn't a paradox at all because it describes a situation which we can all agree is in fact the case, without giving up our beliefs about the familiar world around us. (Jonathan Barnes in 'The Presocratic Philosophers' after exhaustively analysing the argument concludes that 'Zeno is vindicated: the moving arrow does not move', p. 279.)

I do feel a residual worry that Zeno might not have intended the 'paradox' in this way, that he really did mean to say, 'Look, if you follow my reasoning you will see that the arrow cannot even leave the bow.' However, I am not aware of any textual evidence to support this extreme interpretation.

Barnes expresses a view which would probably be shared by many philosophers. However, as noted above, Bergson is one example of a dissenting view so it might be worth while to follow this up. (You don't need mention Bergson to in order to make this essay acceptable, this is just a suggestion.) What you do need to do is make your argument clearer. I suspect that in writing this essay you have been handicapped by your assumption that the paradox is a challenge which needs to be met in one way or another.

I need some help in order to make recommendations for your next essay. Has your research on Zeno unearthed topics that you find gripping? Would you like to do something more on the philosophy of time, for example? If so, you might look at Richard Gale Ed. 'The Philosophy of Time' which is the standard collection of readings by historical and contemporary philosophers on various aspects of the philosophy of time.

Let me know and we can discuss this further.

All the best,