Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Theory of subjective and objective worlds

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Theory of subjective and objective worlds
Date: 2 March 2006 11:19

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 20 February, with your fifth and final essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'How successful in your view is the theory of subjective and objective worlds in accounting for 'my' unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world?'

Congratulations on completing your program. I will be forwarding your Certificate and my summary report.

This is a nice little essay. The Genie in the bottle image seems very appropriate for Descartes' 'discovery' of the soul, and its repercussions for the history of philosophy.

You asked, 'Shouldn't [Descartes] have been alarmed to perceive his mind separate from his body and able to do without it?'

This is an interesting question. Did Descartes in fact believe that the soul or mind is able to 'do without the body'?

Ostensibly, the evil demon argument of the First Meditation establishes that I could exist in a world where no physical objects exist. My body is a physical object. Ergo, my soul can exist without my body.

However, the thought experiment which Descartes considers is not the possible experience of 'disembodiment' - whatever that would mean - but rather the discovery that my experience of being embodied does not have the significance that I previously attributed to it.

In the Sixth Meditation Descartes observes that I am not lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship. The pilot can get out of the ship and walk on dry land. Whereas I am intimately connected with my body, my very sense of self involves my powers and capacities which can only be realized and expressed through my body.

This is a far cry from crude 'spiritualist' beliefs or stories of ghosts, where souls wander free. You only have to ask some basic questions to see how difficult such views are. When a soul 'wanders' how does it move? How does it 'do' any action? How does it see, and from what perspective?

(See the story 'Walkabout' from the Pathways program A. Possible World Machine

And yet we do seem to imagine the possibility of one arm dematerializing, then the other arm, then our legs, then our trunk until all that is left staring at the mirror is a single eye - until that disappears to leave everything else unaltered. The question is what such speculations show (cf unit 3).

What we imagine is being like the 'invisible man'. I could still 'look' right and left, 'walk' away from the mirror and so on. In other words, my body has not dissolved away but merely become invisible. Ghosts are able to walk through doors, yet they still managed to find a way to throw a vase across a room or tap a table. In other words, we are selectively getting rid of the body, but always keeping hold of one bit of it.

To my knowledge, this is not a thought experiment which Descartes ever considered. He does cast scorn on the spiritualist idea that the soul is 'a breath of wind, a vapour' in the First Meditation. Lacking any of the essential attributes of body, the Cartesian soul is not located in space, but merely acts locally via the medium of the body.

The full title of the Meditations promises a proof of the 'immortality of the soul'. When Thomas Hobbes called Descartes' attention to the fact that he had said nothing about the immortality of the soul (in the Objections and Replies) Descartes admitted that no definite conclusions could be drawn regarding the immortality of the soul based on his theory of mind-body dualism.

In heaven, so far as I understand Christian teaching, we do not exist 'without bodies' but rather have different bodies, incorruptible rather than corruptible. In unit 1, I observed that there is nothing in the idea of a soul which is separate from body which entails immortality. Death - in the form of an end to experience - can come to a soul just as it can come to the body.

I really liked your comment on the subjective/ objective world theory:
In answer to the question, how successful is the S/O worlds theory, I would say that it is quite successful or maybe as Churchill said about democracy, 'it is the worst one except for all the others.'

At this point in time, a new theory has to account for that little bit of subjectivity that is left over after the largely successful refutations of Descartes. This little bit though is like a little bit of plutonium and it shows no signs of ever being analysed away.

That's my theory nailed for sure.

All the best,


Visual experience and the argument from illusion

To: David U.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Visual experience and the argument from illusion
Date: 1 March 2006 13:39

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 18 February, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'What is the argument from illusion? What if anything does it imply about visual experience?'

For the most part I agreed with what you wrote. Most of the necessary ingredients for an answer to the question are there. However, I found your exposition a little bit difficult to follow. You need to make the reader more aware of the structure of your argument. In an examination, a good answer can lose marks simply because the structure of the argument is unclear. One thing that can help improve this aspect is writing a plan. Even when you have only one hour to write, it is worth taking a few minute to work out what you are going to say first.

One point that needs to be stressed is that the argument from illusion does not depend on any sceptical assumptions. My impression from your opening paragraph is that the argument from illusion is a part of, or a consequence of scepticism regarding the external world. In fact, things are the other way round. The argument from illusion, when used to justify a representative theory of perception, leads to scepticism.

(I raised my eyebrows at your statement, 'In many instances we see what is simply not there.' I think 'some' would be more appropriate in the context.)

The main issue is the clash between the sense datum account and the disjunctivist account, and whether, as some philosophers have claimed (see Scott Sturgeon, Matters of Mind. Consciousness, Reason and Nature, Routledge, London and New York, 2000) there is room for a third view in between the sense datum theory and disjunctivism, which does not draw such a sharp distinction between the account of veridical and non-veridical experience.

Consider the statement, 'I see a elephant' as an example of veridical perception, and also as an example of a hallucination.

On the sense data theory, in both cases it is true that 'I see X' for some X. In both cases, I see a elephant-shaped sense datum. But in the first case the sense datum is caused by, and also more or less correctly 'represents' the elephant, while in the second case the sense datum is caused by something entirely different, say, the state of my intoxicated brain.

On the disjunctivist theory, it is simply false that in both cases I see X for some X. If my perception is veridical, then I see an elephant. If I am undergoing a hallucination, on the other hand, then I only *seem to see* an elephant. End of story.

On the disjunctivist view, 'It seems to A that A sees X' does not contain a component, 'A sees Y, for some Y'. That is how the disjunctivist avoids the argument from illusion.

You say, 'The disjunctivist's argument doesn't seem to have that much solidity, because it doesn't really do much but simply deny the mental veil.' Then you go on to observe that this is not as 'weak' as the sense datum theorist's assumption. So how is this argument going to be resolved? We have a choice between a not very solid theory and a weaker theory? Can you see a third alternative? Surely, this is the crucial issue.

The stuff about Berkeley, idealism and quantum physics is not really relevant to this essay because it concerns the consequences of first accepting the sense datum view, then retreating to an idealist position which attempts to replace the external world altogether by means of something constructed out of mental materials.

I am sceptical about claims that there is a third possibility in between disjunctivism and sense data. I would argue that the point of disjunctivism is not simply to 'deny the mental veil' but rather in its positive claim, which invokes the use of Occam's Razor, that extra 'objects' are not *needed* in order to give a complete and satisfactory account of illusions and hallucinations.

Consider the statement, 'I seem to see a pink elephant.' This would be analysed as a propositional attitude, 'It seems to me that I see a pink elephant.' Another example of a proposition attitude would be, 'I believe that there is a pink elephant at London Zoo.' It turns out that my belief is false. There are plenty of grey elephants at London Zoo but no pink ones. Perhaps I glanced at something in a newspaper and got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The latest show at London Circus, just a few miles down the road, includes some elephants which were painted pink.

The philosophical question is what the terms 'pink elephant' and 'London Zoo' are doing in the statement of my belief. One plausible account is that the terms are not functioning as names which refer to 'objects' but rather as general descriptions. I believe that there is something which satisfies the description, 'pink elephant' and a location that satisfies the description, 'London Zoo' and that the thing can be found at that location. But my belief is false. There is a location which satisfies the description, 'London Zoo' but there is nothing which satisfies the description, 'pink elephant' located there.

No additional mental object called a 'mental representation of a pink elephant' is needed in order to describe my state of belief. If you think that there is a pink elephant in my mind, ask me how big the elephant is, whether it is an African elephant or an Indian elephant. The fact is, it never occurred to me to consider that question. Does that mean that my mental pink elephant is indistinct or fuzzy? how does that explain the lack of determinate size?

In explaining, 'It seems to me that I see a pink elephant,' there is no need to posit an elephant shaped sense datum, in addition to the disposition to form false beliefs concerning a pink elephant.

All the best,


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Locke's argument against innate speculative principles

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's argument against innate speculative principles
Date: 1 March 2006 11:55

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your email of 20 February, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Does Locke's Argument Destroy any Possibility of Innate Speculative Principles?'

I have attached the two papers which I gave at Prague College. These will be appearing in a future issue/ issues of Philosophy for Business. The College want to set up a Centre for Business Practice with the backing of the British Chamber of Commerce Czech Republic which would offer seminars as well as publishing materials on business ethics/ corporate responsibility.

I find the innateness debate very difficult. The problem is seeing what is at stake, once one moves beyond the critique of naive innatism.

One reason for thinking that Locke's argument fails to show conclusively that there cannot be innate speculative principles is Peter Carruthers' idea (in 'Human Knowledge and Human Nature') that a modified form of innatism can be reconciled with empiricism, by bringing in a version of Quinian naturalized epistemology. Evolution, not God, has provided us with a certain degree of 'hard wiring', whose status as 'knowledge' is 'non-accidental' in the sense required.

In order to cast doubt on Locke's argument, it is not necessary to prove that the evolutionary theory of knowledge true. It is sufficient that it is not vulnerable to same objections as the God theory. We can't expect evolution to provide us with houses (although it does provide snails with a shell). What one could or could not acquire through natural selection is a matter for empirical investigation, seeking as always the 'best explanation'. Chomsky's theory of innate grammatical rules would be a case in point. It is a matter for empirical investigation and philosophical debate whether or not transformational grammar provides the best explanation for human language learning capacities, or whether, on the contrary, the Davidsonian program of constructing a theory of meaning in first-order predicate logic is sufficient for this purpose.

The Chomsky-Davidson debate over linguistic knowledge seems not dissimilar to the Leibniz-Locke debate. In these terms, Leibniz is arguing that God needs to give us more than the bare capacity to reason logically, in order to have the basic tool set needed to acquire empirical knowledge. But what exactly is this extra element and how does it work?

Your excellent question about an intelligent computer raises a deep issue, which relates to the laws of logic. The original Pentium chip - or it might have been Pentium II - was famously discovered to have a fatal defect which led to the wrong result for certain arithmetical computations. Macs, which I know better, use 'Math Libraries' in order to speed up calculations. A few years ago researchers at Motorola produced their own Math Library extension, MathLibMoto (there is also another version called LibMotoSh) which cuts corners in order to gain increased speed, at the cost of small errors in some calculations. In other words, whatever rules we build in, computers will apply accordingly. The correct rules will produce correct calculations and incorrect rules will produce incorrect calculations.

But we are talking about *intelligent* computers. We may define an intelligent computer as one which would be amenable to psychological explanation which posits beliefs and desires. Beliefs and desires are connected logically via something like the following formula:

It is a priori that for all A, p and x there are conditions C such that if x desires that p and believes that if he A's then p, and condition C obtains, then x A's.

(Taken from C. Peacocke 'Holistic Explanation' OUP 1978, p.11)

What this shows is that the grasp of principles of logic is built into the very concept of a psychological state, i.e. a state which can be accounted for by psychological explanation.

You say, 'We have to write the truth of the proposition [All F-things are F] into the program as a rule. But then we are just like God engraving innate speculative principles on the mind of the computer.' But the point is that, however such beings are 'produced', whether by God or evolution, they cannot fail to have what is required to recognize the laws of logic. Even God could not make an illogical intelligent being. Of course, human beings can appear 'illogical' at times, but this arises only against a background of adherence to the laws of logic.

In some way, the shift to considering the possibility of a priori knowledge misses the point of the innateness debate. Locke allows a priori knowledge but regards it as 'analytic'. But what is that? As you argue, there are obvious analytic truths and very far from obvious analytic truths. When does the ability to calculate become knowledge of the result of possible calculations which one has not actually performed? And what hangs on that question, anyway?

Like you, I suspect, I feel a residual sense of confusion regarding the innateness debate. What does the difference between Locke's final position and Leibniz amount to? Locke says we have what it takes to reason out innate speculative principles for ourselves. How does Leibniz's position differ? You say, 'If all necessary truths which we can grasp are analytical... Locke has won.' In order to establish a distinct position from Locke's, does Leibniz have to claim that (some) innate speculative principles are synthetic? I don't see this.

However, examples of putative 'synthetic' innate speculative principles would help.

All the best,


Essay on Plato's theory of forms

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on Plato's theory of forms
Date: 28 February 2006 12:35

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 11 February, with your Essay for the University of London Ancient Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'In what manner may the form F explain what it is for things to be F?'

The key question to ask here is what does it mean to assert that Forms 'give an explanation of things having the characteristics they have'?

For example, I have the characteristic of frizzy hair. One kind of explanation of my having frizzy hair would be in terms of the genetic makeup which I inherited from my parents. This explanation is in terms of cause and effect.

I also have the characteristic of having two eyes and two ears. If you believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, the explanation for this is also in terms of cause and effect. However, if you believe in the doctrine of Creationism, the explanation is in terms of God's design, i.e. 'final' rather than 'efficient' causes.

Finally, you can ask about my characteristic of being a philosopher. This could be understood in the sense of efficient causes, or final causes. However, there is another question one can ask about this and the previous cases, namely, with reference to the concept 'philosopher' what is it that makes me an example of a philosopher? (or similarly, with reference to the concept 'frizzy', 'two', 'eye', 'ear', ....).

We know that the answer must have something to do with the concept, 'philosopher'. I have what it takes (or fail to have what it takes) to meet the conditions for being a particular example of the kind, 'philosopher', whatever those conditions may be.

This is the kind of explanation which invokes, in Aristotle's terms, 'formal causation'.

The question is, why does Plato hold that in order to give this kind of explanation it is necessary to posit the Form of a Philosopher which 'ceaselessly exists' (better, would be 'timelessly' as 'ceaselessly' implies that Forms exist in time), 'independent of human conceptions' etc. etc.?

This leads immediately to the question, *how* do non-physical objects which exist timelessly accomplish this? What must Forms be in order to fulfil their function of providing explanation in terms of 'formal causation'?

In the terms laid out here, it is not so easy to see why there are, as you claim, 'two types of relations between Forms and objects that partake in Forms'. If I derive the property of being a philosopher from the Form of Philosopher, then surely, how well I measure up to the ideal of the philosopher will be explained in the same way. To give a complete explanation of what it is, formally, to be F involves saying what it is to be a good or a not so good example of an F. From the Form of F we are able to derive a paradigm of F-ness.

The answer seems to like in how Plato conceived of a 'paradigm'. The form of the Philosopher gives us a picture or blueprint of the ideal Philosopher, to which existing philosophers measure up more or less imperfectly. So far so good. However, it seems to be implied that the Form of Philosopher *is a philosopher.* But this is absurd. If the Form of Philosopher is a philosopher, then it philosophizes. But Forms do not exist in time. You can't ask the question, 'What is the Form of Philosopher thinking about today?' There is no bibliography of the works written by the Form of the Philosopher.

Your example of the form of Large and Small leads to the same conclusion. It does seem bizarre to say that the form of Small is small. How small is small? What on earth could it mean to say that an object is 'perfectly small'?

The Third Man argument, which you explain very clearly, does require that forms are self-predicating in the literal sense which would require that the Form of Philosopher is a philosopher. I find it difficult to believe that Socrates or Plato ever literally held this. What seems more plausible is that Plato was tempted by the idea that there is something we 'see' when we contemplate the Form of Philosopher which is akin to perception of an object - the perfect philosopher. However, this merely describes the subjective aspect. What the Form of Philosopher is objectively in itself cannot be explained in such literal terms. It is beyond words, to be sure. The inconclusiveness of Plato's dialogues seems to show that whatever we say is never enough. But what 'more' Forms are is difficult to fathom.

In answering this question, you would gain marks by pointing out the distinction between efficient, final causation even though this is an essay about Plato and not Aristotle.

The examiner would also gain the impression (correct me if I'm wrong) that you have not done a lot of reading of Plato's dialogues - like the Phaedo, Parmenides, Sophist. Hopefully, you will get the time to do this.

All the best,


Monday, November 28, 2011

Hempel's paradox of the ravens

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hempel's paradox of the ravens
Date: 14 February 2006 11:18

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 5 February, with your essay for the University of London Methodology paper, in response to the question, 'What is the paradox of the Ravens? What is the most effective way of dealing with it?'

I probably don't have to tell you that this is the best essay you have done for me. An excellent piece of work. Well done.

What made the difference this time is that you have really thrown yourself into searching out sources and following up your own questions.

I'm embarrassed this time in finding so little to comment on. If I were looking for ways to make things difficult for you, I would challenge your claim that a single instance does not confirm a generalization, to any degree. I agree with your argument. But just suppose (as is not unlikely) that in the exam you found the question, 'A single instance does not confirm a generalization to any degree.' Discuss.

If you think about it, there are many intuitively plausible counterexamples to this claim. You would have to explain why the general claim can still be maintained, in the face of these counterexamples.

If you stick your hand in a fire, it will get burned. Kiwi fruits are delicious. If you press the blue button, the computer instantly shuts down. And so on.

Generally the colours of things we find in nature do not in general support very interesting generalizations. There is no logical reason why ravens should be black rather than white. No doubt one could concoct a more or less plausible explanation in evolutionary terms, but this is only ad hoc.

However, there is a loose generalization which one can make about birds in general, that on the whole, a given species is one colour rather than a range of colours. I see a bright green bird and someone tells me that it's a tata bird from New Guinea. It would not be rash of me to form the expectation that all tata birds are green. The background assumption supporting this inductive inference is that significantly more species of bird are unicoloured (all members of the species have the same colouring) than non-unicoloured.

As I said, I think your argument is a good one, so the task would be to explain why these alleged counterexamples do not undermine the general point.

When something poses a danger or a threat, like fire, we are much more likely to err on the side of caution. Even if you've never tasted a Kiwi before, you know that fruits have characteristic tastes. Computers are generally designed for ease and predictability of use, so if pressing the blue button does action A on one occasion, its a pretty good bet that it will do the same on another occasion.

I don't have to tell you this, I'm sure you could have worked it out for yourself. Your general point still stands, that considerations of vagueness create a 'threshold' condition in virtue of which a vaguely defined number of instances is required before the process of confirmation can get off the ground.

There is only one point that I put a question mark against. This is where you discuss McMillan's example of the white handkerchief 'confirming' that all ravens are black. There is some controversy whether the first order predicate calculus rendering of 'All ravens are black' (For all x, if x is a raven then x is black') is faithful to how speakers normally understand this statement.

But let's suppose we agree that the first order predicate calculus rendering is not correct. Then 'All ravens are black' becomes,

A. For some x, x is a raven and for all y, if y is a raven then y is black.

While, 'All non-black things are non-ravens' becomes,

B. For some x, x is not black and for all y, if y is not black then y is not a raven.

In other words, the two formulations are no longer logically equivalent. What would be equivalent to A is,

C. For some x, x is a raven and for all y, if y is non-black then y is not a raven.

Thus Macmillan's extra condition, that for a generalization about Ps to be confirmed, Ps must exist, is sufficient to rule out C, even though C is equivalent to A. Being a generalization about non-black things, in order to be confirmed C requires the existence of a non-black thing, but does not require the existence of a raven.

All the best,


Hume and Feagin on tragedy

To: James L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on tragedy
Date: 13 February 2006 12:17

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 4 February, with your essay for the University of London Diploma, in response to the question, ''Pleasures from tragedy are meta-responses.' What does Feagin mean by this? Do you think it's true?'

This is a well written essay. It is clear what you are arguing for and why. Your account of Feagin's argument is also very clear.

You disagree with Feagin's theory, arguing instead for a simplified version of Hume's theory, according to which the pleasure gained from tragedy, as with comedy or drama in general is a direct response to the 'brilliance of the work'.

The question Hume implicitly raises, however, is whether the pleasure is greater, in proportion to the 'vileness' of the material. You do not attempt to address this. However, your essay is about Feagin and not Hume, so you don't have to.

There are two kinds of reasons for thinking that Feagin's theory is not true. First, that the argument she presents is implausible in itself. Secondly, because you think that you have a better, simpler, more plausible theory.

Apart from expressing your scepticism about Feagin's theory, the one positive argument I could find was that Feagin's theory distinguishes our response to tragedy from our responses to comedy or drama. I agree that this seems an odd thing to do, raising suspicion about her theory. But that is all it does.

You also make the point that there are other meta-responses besides those which Feagin associates with tragedy. Here is an example which raises a question mark against Feagin's approach. You might get pleasure from a play which has lots of obscure literary or historical references, through the realization how clever or knowledgeable you are. The play could be terrible, but the pleasure would be the same.

However, you rely mainly on the second line of argument. There is a better, simpler account of our response to tragedy, in terms of our appreciation of its aesthetic quality, the brilliance of the writing or whatever.

The problem with this is that we are seeking a theory which explains the nature of our response to tragedy as such. Your account only explains our response to the quality of a tragedic work. What about works of tragedy that are poorly written? Consider the latest episode of a TV soap opera, where a favourite character learns he has AIDS, which he caught from a one night stand with a tart he met at the disco following an argument with his girl friend. The ratings soar. Viewers are gripped. But why?

You can say the viewers have bad taste, which may be true but that seems implausible as a complete explanation. Suppose on my days off from being a theatre critic I like to dumb down with my favourite soap. I know the script and the acting are terrible, but the storyline grips me nonetheless. When Fred tells his girlfriend the bad news, tears come to my eyes. What a great episode.

Why are we like this? Why do we enjoy a good cry? What is the explanation? I don't think that Hume or Feagin come close. Neither, I have to say, do you.

Pursuing the connection with comedy and drama, it seems plausible that the explanation will be the same, or analogous to the explanation why we enjoy a good laugh, or enjoy losing ourselves in a good thriller. I am not going to attempt to do this. Part of the problem here seems to be understanding how it is that we find fiction gripping at all. Imagine a puzzled Martian, whose only response to a brilliantly woven storyline would be, 'Why are you telling me this if it isn't true?' This is not exactly the same problem as the one you have been looking at, but it is closely connected with it.

So far as your essay is concerned, an examiner would look for more discussion of the detail of Feagin's argument for the meta-response theory. My feeling is that you have missed an opportunity for criticism of the logic of her account, opting instead for the alternative approach (which is legitimate) of proposing a better theory. The problem with that approach, as we have seen, is that this only works if the alternative theory is good enough. And I don't think it is.

All the best,


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Objection to the coherentist account of knowledge

To: David U.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Objection to the coherentist account of knowledge
Date: 9 February 2006 11:22

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 30 January with your essay in response to the University of London Epistemology question, 'My beliefs could form a coherent set even if none of them is true, so the coherent account for knowledge must be wrong.'

This is not a bad essay, although there are a number of points on which you could be clearer.

The first thing I would do in answering this question is distinguish between a coherence theory of truth and a coherence theory of knowledge. You can be a 'coherentist' about knowledge without being a coherentist about truth, i.e. if you believe that beliefs are justified through belonging to a coherent set, while also holding a correspondence view of truth.

It would also be possible to hold the reverse view. You can be a foundationalist about knowledge, believing that there needs to be a special class of privileged propositions whose truth is in some sense self-evident or not requiring justification, while also holding that this 'truth' ultimately consists in coherence.

You can make quite a bit of headway in answering this question by exploring the difference between coherentism about truth and coherentism about knowledge and the way that the objection impacts on these two different positions.

'My beliefs could form a coherent set even if none of them is true' looks like a very serious argument against a coherence theory of truth. If truth just *is* coherence, then it is logically impossible for a coherent set of beliefs to be false. The only line of defence for the coherentist about truth would be to argue that a 'set of beliefs' must include everything about which one might form a belief. A belief is true if and only if it coheres with a set of coherent beliefs which is in some sense 'maximal', including everything about which one might form a belief. It would still be possible for a person to have a coherent set of beliefs which were all false, because that person simply didn't ask questions which they should have asked. If they had asked those questions, they would have discovered that the answer which they found could not be made coherent with their other beliefs.

The objection to a coherence theory of justification, by contrast, is that coherence of beliefs is not necessarily a reliable guide to truth, or adequate grounds for truth. Construed in this way, the objection looks weaker than before because it would also apply to a foundationalist account of justification. You can have excellent justification for a belief which nevertheless turns out to be false. Yet we would not conclude that 'justification' of the appropriate kind is not a reliable guide to, or adequate grounds for truth.

Your example of your car getting bumped is a good one. However, it does not seem right to say that a coherentist 'would pass the paint color because it would raise more questions than anything, and instead take a witness testimony.' What you should have said is that the 'simple explanation' is not always the correct one. Suppose the pain that comes off your neighbour's car does match the bump on your car. What we have is seemingly overwhelming evidence that your neighbour was to blame. It is a much more 'simple' explanation than any alternative that might be put forward. Yet it might still turn out to be the case that your neighbour is innocent.

Foundationalists accept that what seems to us to be the 'best explanation' does not always turn out to be the true one. So why is this point more of a problem for the coherentist? It looks as though the coherentist is committed to the view that the 'best explanation' must ultimately be the true one. But this only holds if our explanation takes everything into account. In the real world, explanations are never like that, because there is always a limited amount of evidence or data available.

One remaining problem to deal with, however, is the issue of 'rationality', where a person reasons in a way which is different from the 'normal' way. It doesn't have to be just one individual. Imagine a society where everyone 'agrees' to methods of reasoning and standards of evidence which seem to us totally absurd and arbitrary. (This problem has actually been explored in relation to anthropology, see P. Winch 'The Idea of a Social Science', Routledge, and Hollis, Ed. 'Rationality' Blackwell.)

In this case it looks as though the coherentist about knowledge is committed to saying that, in this society, it is a 'known fact' that the earth is flat. The response would be to say that in this case the justification condition is met but the truth condition is not met. The earth is not flat, therefore what these people believe can't be knowledge. However, the example still leaves us wondering whether the response given above to the worry about whether coherence is an adequate guide to, or grounds for truth is sufficient.

A general observation. Although you are not required to quote specific books or philosophers, I would like to see some evidence of reading you have done on the topics which you write essays for. For example, you could add a bibliography (obviously there is no time to do this in an exam). As a rough guide, aim to do some serious reading of philosophical texts - say 50 pages - for each essay that you write. I can't tell you what would be best to read. This is work you have to do for yourself. But I will be very interested in what you find in your research.

All the best,


Heraclitus on the unity of opposites

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus on the unity of opposites
Date: 9 February 2006 09:37

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 29 January, with your essay for the University of London program in response to the question, 'In what sense or senses does Heraclitus believe in 'the unity of opposites'.'

First, you asked about my other ancient philosophy units. All the units are from the Pathways program on the First philosophers, covering all the Presocratic philosophers plus the sophists Protagoras and Gorgias. I would have loved to have written a program on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle but never got round to it.

As an incentive for sending me more essays, I am happy to let you have the unit or units for any of the Presocratics you happen to be working on.


It was a pleasure to read this. It is a carefully researched and well thought out piece of work. If you produced something of this quality in the examination, you would easily get a first.

I have looked hard for points which are obscure or objectionable. The only criticism I have of what you actually say concerns a point which is itself debatable. This is your exposition of the fourth or your categories of 'unity of opposites, illustrated by the examples of night and day, life and death, sleeping and waking.

You take it to be an 'unremarkable' observation that night is followed by day which is followed by night and so on. As evidence that it is possible to find this simple observation not at all unremarkable but in fact a baffling paradox, I would cite Parmenides' arguments concerning that which 'is'. In the 20th century, McTaggart produced a 'proof' of the unreality of time which starts from the simple observation that something can be F at one time and not-F at another time and proceeds to demonstrate that the very notion of things being different at different times is 'contradictory'.

Heraclitus was obsessed with time. You could go so far as to say that he was the philosopher who discovered time as a deep metaphysical problem. That is why I think that the observation that night follows day, though unremarkable to us, was extremely remarkable to Heraclitus.

Apart from the fact of change, the other thing that the day and night example brings out is the cyclical nature of many physical processes. This distinguishes night and day or sleeping and waking from the example of life and death; the same thing is not alive, then dead, then alive again. Life only comes from death indirectly through a process of living things feeding off dead things (i.e. there is a lack of symmetry compared with the other two cases). It is the cyclical aspect which is itself spectacular proof of the 'unity' of all things. We can imagine a world where there were no such constant cyclic processes serving as a constant backdrop to all that happens.

But let's look at your interpretation. At dusk, it is not possible to say where day ends and night begins. This is an example of the problem of vagueness, illustrated by the ancient paradox of the heap. There seems to me very little evidence of any interest taken by Heraclitus in the problem of vagueness. I also think it would be wrong to characterize vagueness as a case where judgement can only be subjective and not objective. In cases of vagueness people disagree, just as they disagree about judgements of taste. But the underlying reason for the disagreement is fundamentally different. There is a sense in which in making vague judgements we aim to 'get it right', e.g. to use the term 'heap' in accordance with its correct meaning and not our own personal understanding. ('It may not be a heap for you but it's a heap for me' would be a very odd thing to say.)

As you may have gathered from my unit on Heraclitus, I think that it is important to emphasise the historical point that the early philosophers had a very strange notion of 'the opposites'. We read Heraclitus with a relatively sophisticated understanding of relations and relational properties. The early philosophers really believed that 'the hot' was something different from 'the cold'. As I have argued, Anaximenes was there before Heraclitus with a workable theory. But Heraclitus offered the more radical solution.

Your mention of Nietzsche raises fascinating possibilities. I can see how this relates to your treatment of the night and day example. In Nietzsche's metaphysics, 'reality' is understood in a radically 'perspectival' way. There is no objective view, no 'sub specie aeternitatis'. But how close is this to Heraclitus? Heraclitus talks about subjectivity, but always in the context of contrasting men's 'different understandings' with the philosopher's grasp of the one 'truth'. So I would be very cautious about putting a Nietzschean gloss on the 'unity of opposites'.

All the best,


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Plato on the soul, and Hume on tragedy

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on the soul, and Hume on tragedy
Date: 2 February 2006 11:47

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Does Plato offer good logical ground for dividing the soul into three parts?' and your email of 28 January with your essay in response to the question, 'Why do we feel pleasure in response to tragic works according to Hume and Feagin?'


The question is asking something quite specific: Plato bases his tri-partite theory on a 'logical' argument, and your task is to say whether the argument is any good or not.

In addition to the logical argument for the tri-partite theory Plato also offers the analogical argument in terms of the model city. It is OK to mention this as a way of providing a context for Plato's logical argument. However, remember that every word you use here is strictly speaking not an answer to the question set, so you should be as brief as possible.

The logical argument depends on the 'principle of non-contrariety' which your translation states as, 'the same thing clearly can not act or be acted upon in the same part or in relation to the same thing at the same time, in contrary ways; and therefore whenever this contradiction occurs in things apparently the same, we know that they really are not the same but different'.

Understanding exactly what this entails, is the key to assessing the validity of Plato's logical argument.

You offer basically two counter-arguments. The first is in terms of 'second-order desires'. I can desire that P and also have the second-order desire that I should not desire that P. The second argument is essentially ad hominem. If Plato's argument is accepted, then the same argument can be used to justify a four-fold division or even more divisions, without limit.

This is the meat of the essay, the place where you gain or lose marks. So you really need to do more here, use more words, explain more.

Let's look at your first argument. What is a second-order desire? You don't explain. Can there be third-order desires, fourth-order desires? An example of a third-order desire might be: Fred has the desire for sex, but this conflicts with his second-order desire not to have sexual desires, and this conflicts with his third-order desire not to have negative attitudes towards his sexual desires. If this solution is so obvious (as it seems to be) why didn't Plato think of it?

The question we have to ask is how this stratification of desires could happen in the first place. The second-order desire not to have sexual desires isn't simply the desire not to have sex, for in that case we would be dealing with a simple conflict of desires. (E.g. I like pickled cucumbers but they give me indigestion.) An explanation might be in terms of Fred's strict religious upbringing. What Fred has the second-order desire for is not to be the kind of person who has the first-order desire in question. The third-order desire might arise as a result of Fred's going into psychotherapy. What Fred has the third-order desire for is not to be the kind of person who has the second-order desire not to be the kind of person who has the first-order desire in question.

Plato would say that this confirms his view that there are different sources of first-order desires and higher-order desires. First-order desires are part of our physical nature, while higher-order desires arise from our beliefs about the kinds of desires that are desirable or not. Beliefs are sensitive to reason while desires are not. Ergo, reason and desire are two distinguishable parts of our nature.

Your second argument isn't helped by the reference back to the city analogy, because you are not criticizing the analogical argument but only the logical argument. So your argument rests on the food versus drink scenario. I want a coke and a hamburger but can only afford one or the other. This doesn't look to me like a valid counter-example. I do want the coke and I do want the hamburger. The conflict arises only because the world won't allow me to have them. A better argument might be one which relied on the hierarchy of n-order desires, taking Plato's possible response to the first argument as a starting point.

What will get you marks here isn't necessarily coming up with the definitive 'refutation' of Plato (it's always risky to make such a big claim) but showing the examiner that you have really thought hard about the issues raised.


The question asks you to give an exposition of Hume's and Feagin's arguments. Your main task is to present each argument in as compelling way as possible.

It is not always easy to judge how far one should go in criticizing the argument that you have been asked to present. I think the amount of criticism you offer is OK, especially in the present case where part of Feagin's case is that Hume's explanation is inadequate.

Your Romeo example illustrates the crucial difference between the kind of 'distress' experienced while watching the play and the kind of 'distress' we feel in a real live situation. You could have made the point more strongly by giving an impersonal example, e.g. watching a TV news report about an earthquake disaster. The point is not about whether the distress relates personally to you, but rather the difference between fiction and real life. In real life, someone really suffers.

Your second argument against Hume is effectively that he gives the wrong explanation of the source of pleasure. One way to generalize from your personal experience might be to say that you can be gripped by, say, a TV soap opera which you know is complete rubbish on an aesthetic level. Hume's explanation of the 'pleasure' in this case seems implausible. The main character dies and you have a good cry. A thoroughly enjoyable episode. Why?

Feagin seems better here. We enjoy the discovery of our own humanity. I'm so glad I'm capable of being moved by the plight of a one-legged bus driver who finally loses his fight with alcoholism. The problem here, as you point out, is that it is difficult to see how responses to fiction and real life differ. Feagin's argument rests on an essential asymmetry between the fictional and real life cases.

What would Feagin say in response? The key difference is that the real life case matters while the fictional case does not. In real life, someone really died. In the play they did not. This is stating the obvious. But it explains why responses which are appropriate in the case of fiction are not appropriate in real life. This is what Feagin is driving at with her examples of the selfish sentimentalist and the unimaginative moralist.

The problem that I find with this is that I still don't understand, and Feagin has not explained, why the fictional case moves me at all. If you know it didn't happen or isn't happening, why are you gripped in the first place? The answer has got to have something to do with the nature of what it is to be human, with our very ability to enjoy fiction. Maybe Martians have just as good an imagination as we do, but find our appetite for fiction totally perplexing.

It would be nice if we could identify the problem as the problem of how or why human beings are gripped by fiction. However, that doesn't seem to be correct either. I can thoroughly enjoy a historical account, e.g. a film about the earthquake of Pompeii while the same events on the TV news would give rise to a predominance of feelings of distress.

I'm pleased with both these essays. The one on Plato could have done with more argument over the key points. With the one on tragedy I struggled a bit to follow some of your arguments (you will excuse me if I don't offer a line by line commentary) but at least you were really getting stuck in to the topic which is good.

All the best,


Scepticism: self-refuting or a contribution to knowledge?

To: Kenny S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Scepticism: self-refuting or a contribution to knowledge?
Date: 2 February 2006 10:05

Dear Kenny,

Thank you for your email of 24 January, with your timed essay in response to the University of London Epistemology questions,

'In what sense, if any, might philosophical scepticism be considered a contribution to human knowledge?'

''Scepticism is self-refuting because the sceptic cannot, without contradicting himself, assert that he knows that scepticism is true.' Discuss.'

Before reading your essay (I got as far as the first sentence, 'These two questions are related') I have a general point about answering essay questions.

The questions you will be asked in the examination are specific, not general. They pose a problem in a particular way, sometimes with a particular nuance, and you will lose marks if you not respond to the question, as posed. This is one of the main disadvantages of preparing essays in advance to memorise, which some students do. Always take your time to study the question closely. Ask yourself what the examiner is getting at. Why is the question phrased in that way? Do you agree with the question, as posed? There's nothing wrong with questioning the question, telling the examiner that the question is badly formulated, or makes false assumptions, provided that this is a fair comment on the question AS posed.

You say that the questions are 'related'. Obviously, they are both about scepticism. But on the face of it they are asking quite different things. Anyway, let's see how you have got on.


Despite my reservations, you have made a good case for combining the two questions. The connecting idea here is the notion of a modest scepticism, which does not go so far as to cast doubt on our reliance on our powers of reasoning, but merely points out that the empirical justification for believing things which we previously took to be 'certain' is less than compelling.

Looking at the detail of the argument, this seems OK for things like 'knowledge that there is a table in front of me' or even 'knowledge that I am sitting in the Zephyr Cafe in San Francisco' (I wish). The Matrix scenario makes a pretty convincing argument that you cannot prove that information gained from sense perception is veridical, based only on information gained from sense perception.

So far so good. But then you consider the far more radical idea (as you acknowledge) that memory itself cannot be trusted. If that is the case, then the question is how far does that go. In the previous sentence I used the words 'case', 'question', 'go'. How confident am I that the meanings I now attach to those terms are the meanings I attached to them a moment ago? If that question can be raised, then the very ability to construct arguments and reason are impugned. I no longer 'know' what I am saying or why. A pretty desperate situation I think you'll agree.

That's the thing about scepticism. Once you start on the sceptical path it's difficult to find a sufficient reason to stop. What this thought suggests is that, whereas a detached 'healthy scepticism' might well contribute to human knowledge, determined scepticism is a different case altogether.

But there is another possible take on this. Suppose one could find a dialectical argument refuting 'determined' or strong scepticism. Then that would be a contribution to human knowledge, because it would become a valuable part of philosophical theory.

So the next question is, Does the 'self-refuting' argument do this? You have already argued that the self-refuting argument does not work against modest scepticism. But what about strong scepticism? I don't think it works here either, because (as explained in the Pathways unit which I sent you) the strong sceptic can say: 'Either nothing is knowable or I know just one thing: that the argument for strong scepticism is valid.' The strong sceptic does not have to make a claim. He just gives his argument then shuts up. If you try to say anything, he wags his finger.

Final question: what would be an argument which successfully refuted strong scepticism? I am not going to answer that because that is not what the question asked for. There are clues in the Pathways unit.

I like the clear way you write. There is good evidence here that you are thinking hard about the issues.

One work which I would strongly recommend is 'On Certainty' by Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is the last piece of philosophy he ever wrote and one of his best. Wittgenstein is not hugely popular amongst contemporary analytic philosophers, but if you can get into this it will give you an edge. Barry Stroud's 'The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism' is still probably the best mainstream work on the problem of scepticism. You could also look at Peter Unger's provocatively titled book, 'Ignorance'.

A couple of years ago, I visited my old school in Hampstead, London and gave a talk on philosophical scepticism. There is a brief account of my talk in my first Glass House Philosopher notebook:

You should definitely buy Robert Nozick 'Philosophical Explanations' which contains a seminal treatment of the problem of knowledge. The concept of 'tracking the truth' which you will come across in various writings on this topic is Nozick's. Another book to buy is Thomas Nagel 'The View From Nowhere'.

Why not do some more reading - more challenging this time - and write something on the connection between the problem of scepticism, and the question, 'What is knowledge?' (or, 'Is knowledge justified true belief?'). If you have received your study pack then you can pick an exam question. If not, let me know and I will give you a selection of questions to choose from. Tackle ONE question this time.

All the best,


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ethics of dialogue: consciousness vs linguistic ability

To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ethics of dialogue: consciousness vs linguistic ability
Date: 1 February 2006 12:04

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 18 January, with your fifth and final essay for the Moral Philosophy program, entitled 'Language and Morality', responding to the question: ''In the ethics of dialogue, it is the capacity for language rather than the presence of consciousness that marks the crucial moral difference between those who are, or are not moral subjects.' - Comment on this claim.'

You develop the case against the ethics of dialogue very skilfully. The only point at which I felt that you had not fully responded to my argument in unit 13 is where you say, 'If cruelty is wrong by itself and it is our character or 'the person who we are' that defines cruelty as wrong then the concept of dialogue does not seem to come into play. There must be more to morality or ethics than an ethic of dialogue.'

What I actually say, right at the end of the unit, is 'What counts is the continued practice of virtue irrespective of who or what is on the receiving end, to maintain the resonance of virtuous individuals in a moral community.'

One way of taking this paragraph would be the thought that the ethics of dialogue somehow needs to be supplemented by a virtue ethics. However, this would be a disaster from a methodological standpoint. If the ethics of dialogue is not sufficient as an account of the basis for moral conduct, then some other basis needs to be found. If virtue ethics was there all the time, we could have saved ourselves all the trouble of trying to establish an objective basis for moral conduct through a priori philosophical considerations alone.

The point of virtue ethics is not just the affirmation that virtues and vices are an important consideration in moral philosophy. The idea is far more radical. The virtue ethicist claims that this is what moral philosophy is really about. One thus refuses to be drawn into the debate whether ethical considerations are ultimately subjective or objective. To which I would respond that you can 'refuse' all you like, but the problem as I have outlined it is still there whether you are prepared to acknowledge it or not.

From the vantage point of an ethics of dialogue, virtues and vices are merely 'something important', a factor which needs to be taken into consideration. But how, exactly? The idea of 'resonance', which needs much more space to develop adequately, is that my obligation to develop a virtuous character and avoid vices arises from my obligations to other members of the moral community through the ethics of dialogue. In addition to my direct obligations to consider the needs and desires of other members of the moral community, there arises a more general obligation to the moral community as a whole, to perform actions which strengthen the bonds which hold the community together and avoid actions which weaken those bonds.

Examples of other actions which (allegedly) strengthen the bonds of community would be respecting traditions, singing the national anthem when the occasion demands, showing good manners, dressing in an appropriate manner. You can smile at some of these examples. It is not 'morally wrong' to smirk with your hands in your pockets while everyone around you is singing. And there may indeed be all sorts of reasons for objecting to national anthems anyway. But that is not the point. The point is that wherever we find a moral community, in whatever form that takes, there are customs, structures, understandings which underpin the sense of 'belonging together'.

More basic then any of the admittedly questionable examples I have given, is the 'practice of virtue'.

The argument is not that I should care for animals because other members of the community care for animals. It is rather based on the empirical consideration that to deliberately torture an animal as a matter of fact requires a psychological disposition towards cruelty. Exhibiting these dispositions is harmful to the moral community, even when no member of the moral community is harmed.

I have merely given a sketch here of how the argument might go. Other things to think about might be, e.g. why we show respect for the dead. How can you have moral obligations to a dead person? Or consider the environment. Trees are not conscious so why should we care about them? Again, the reason is based on empirical considerations about what human beings are 'like'. Martians might be different. In which case their ethics of dialogue would lead to very different behaviour.

All the best,


Kant's refutation of idealism

To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's refutation of idealism
Date: 26 January 2006 12:42

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 15 January, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Give a careful account of Kant's second 'Refutation of Idealism'.'

You have given an accurate, concise account which closely follows the text of Kant's argument, but also expands on the crucial points.

At the end of your essay, you recognize that there is an issue concerning - as I would put it - whether Kant has in fact proved the existence of something independently 'real' existing outside me, or merely described the parameters to which any possible experiences must conform.

Any possible experiences must be experiences 'as of' a world of objects existing outside of me. What this means, as you explain in your essay, is that the objects I perceive have a certain 'permanency', or 'the ability to move about so providing different perceptions'. In effect, what the argument shows to be necessary for 'the... empirically determined consciousness of my own existence' is my belief in a theory which describes an arrangement of moving or stationary objects in space, a theory which I am able to continually test against my perceptions.

There is no way to talk about experiences except as houses, trees, the sky etc. Unlike, say, a scientific theory, the 'theory' of space and time is located at the root level of perception, there is no theory-free way to describe the data upon which the theory is based.

Perhaps you can see why some commentators, notably P.F. Strawson, have taken the view that noumena are completely dispensable, in fact, otiose. The notion that when I look out of my window, all I see is a 'merely phenomenal reality' only has weight so long as I am contrasting 'phenomenal' with something that exists beyond the phenomena. In the absence of such a contrast, there is simply empirical reality, just as Kant claims.

In that case it really would be the case that the conclusion of Kant's Refutation of idealism is that my mere consciousness of my own existence proves the 'real existence' of objects outside of me, in the only sense of 'real' that I am able to understand. Hence, Wittgenstein's observation that 'a nothing would serve as well as a something about nothing can be said,' which Strawson fully endorses, far from showing that 'we seem not to have left the idealist far behind' demonstrates (in Strawson's view) quite the opposite.

I do heartily recommend P.F. Strawson 'The Bounds of Sense' which is one of the best books ever written on Kant, even though ultimately I disagree with Strawson.

Why do I disagree? The short answer is that Kant's refutation of idealism is available to the 'transcendental subjectivist'. Kant was aware of the existence of a crucial gap in the argument, a gap which he plugged with the notion of noumena.

This is not apparent in the text of the Critique of Pure Reason. All that Kant offers in the way of argument for noumena is 'there cannot be appearances without something that appears'. In Kant's vision (one may surmise) transcendental subjectivism is not even considered as an option, despite the fact that it would be consistent with the Refutation of Idealism. He is thinking of a plurality of subjects, each of whose experiences meet the conditions described. But there is no coherent way to describe how this plurality can exist without leaving the phenomenal world and ascending to the noumenal level. Your experience, as such, does not appear in the world of my possible experience.

The alternative way of plugging the gap, as we know, is Wittgenstein's private language argument. This is the crucial possibility that Kant missed.

In writing your account of Kant's argument, you might have considered the other things that Kant's says in this section, before and after he gives the argument itself. For example, he says that his argument is directed against the 'problematic idealist' such as Descartes, directly answering Descartes' question about the 'cogito'. If I know that I exist, then I know that the world outside me exists also. Kant dismisses the 'dogmatic idealist' as not worthy of serious consideration.

My view is that is in fact not an accurate representation of what Kant's argument achieves. It does refute the 'dogmatic subjectivist' (naive subjectivist or egocentrist). It does not refute either the 'problematic idealist' or the 'dogmatic idealist'. You can't use the Refutation of Idealism to disprove the hypothesis that we live in a Matrix world, or even the evil demon hypothesis. (Kant admits as much when he discusses the question of dreams.) Nor can you use it to disprove Berkeley's idealism. It is worth thinking about what would be sufficient to refute either of these two 'theories'.

All the best,


Monday, November 21, 2011

Nozick vs Williams: the Wilt Chamberlain example

To: Randy W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nozick vs Williams: the Wilt Chamberlain example
Date: 18 January 2006 13:30

Dear Randy,

Thank you for your email of 11 January, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Explain how Nozick seeks to use his Wilt Chamberlain example to show that liberty upsets patterns. Does his argument create problems for Williams' defence of equality?'

As I would have expected, this is an excellent answer to the question. In what follows, my comments should not be taken necessarily as recommendations for ways in which the essay might have been improved, but merely thoughts triggered by what you have said which you are free to take or leave as you see fit.

Possibly as an exam strategy it would have been a good idea to at least mention the Wilt Chamberlain example straight off (if only to say, 'I will talk about the example in a minute, but first...'). An examiner with a pile of scripts to read will tend to form snap judgements. The judgement in your case might be that you have not sufficiently focused your attention on answering the question. I would not agree with this judgement, but the examiner might be sufficiently 'put off' by his first impressions to give your work a less than fair assessment.

If I was answering this question, I would explore further the clash between what Williams sees as a 'reason' for a certain action and what Nozick sees as a 'reason'. The implication of Nozick's argument is that we cannot give any weight to Williams-type reasons, because Nozick-type reasons trump them every time. If something is mine, I have a 'right' to it. It is up to me to freely decide how I am to dispose of it. No-one can have the 'right' to demand that I give up the thing that is mine for any 'reason' related to the other person's desires or needs, however seemingly compelling.

In other words, Nozick provides a very simple and powerful way of distinguishing between what we do because it is 'right' and what is merely a 'good thing' to do. Now, of course, one can argue as you do that purely in terms of his own theory of 'rights', Nozick is not justified in objecting to certain kinds of redistribution. The current state of affairs is not, in fact, one that arose according to Nozick's ideal scenario. Redistribution is therefore justified, to the extent that it is putting right a previous wrong. This point, however, is strictly speaking irrelevant to the question whether Nozick's argument makes problems for Williams.

Another issue that interests me is the difference of 'level' at which one can engage with the Nozick-Williams debate. One can raise the question whether or not, as moral individuals, we should see the needs of others as, in principle, capable of generating claims for things that they have a 'right' to, for example, someone who is starving. This is different from the question, which is the primary focus here, of what we may or may not demand of a just state.

My own inclination, on the level of individual morality, is to regard the notion of 'rights' as having no special force. There are only reasons for action. Some reasons have more force than others, some normally 'trump' other reasons, unless they are themselves trumped by even stronger reasons. Freedom is important, of course, but it is not the only thing that is important.

Transposed into the arena of political philosophy, I find this stance more difficult to defend. Rights have a special role to play in the political arena, which they do not have at the level of moral discourse. There is a case for declaring that henceforth certain goods, benefits or whatever should be available 'by right', as a way of setting inviolable, minimal standards of acceptable provision by the state for its citizens. Nozick can complain that these 'rights' are so in name only, but then the dispute becomes merely verbal. The considerations, relating to human freedom which Nozick emphasizes are very important, to be sure, but they are not the only thing that is important.

I am not unduly worried by your argument about how we are to determine 'which things are truly needed'. This is a matter for reasoned judgement, based on a consensus which admittedly can change over time. That's not a problem in principle. We are not making a hard and fast philosophical case for or against regarding a given need as a 'right' but rather consciously setting a bench mark, because a bench mark is needed. The case for doing so is not undermined by the realization that we have considerable latitude in deciding exactly where the bench mark should be placed.

All the best,


Moral dilemmas and utilitarianism

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dilemmas and utilitarianism
Date: 18 January 2006j 11:00

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'What is a moral dilemma and is utilitarianism an adequate solution?'

This is a model answer to the question. In an examination, you would get a good mark for this, possibly a very good mark.

However, as you may have begun to suspect, as your philosophy mentor I am never satisfied. So I am going to explore ways in which your essay could have been better still.

What will an examiner be thinking when he reads your essay? 'This candidate has studied the set texts and shows that she understands what she has read sufficiently well to be able to give a clear and persuasive answer to the question. The essay is well structured, and there is no material extraneous to the argument.'

I am assuming that you have chosen philosophy because it is a subject that you love, one that grips you, and that you want to become a good philosopher as well as a good student of philosophy. This is possible, if you want it.

Here are my own thoughts.

The issue of moral dilemmas divides ethical theories into those which, in effect, make moral dilemmas impossible (as you comment at the end of your essay with regard to utilitarianism) and those which allow for their possibility. Now, one way in which you could 'question the question' is to ask whether we really want a theory which makes moral dilemmas impossible. Is searching for an 'adequate solution' to every possible moral dilemma something that we want anyway? or would such a result be purchased at too high a price? What argument could be put forward for saying that we would prefer a theory which did not yield a solution to every moral dilemma?

Note here how I have pointed out one thing which is good to do: to 'question the question'. Instead of simply giving the examiner what he or she seems to be asking for, you can say, 'No, I don't agree with the implication of the question. I don't agree because...'. I have never yet encountered an examiner who penalised a student for criticizing the question. Of course, you have to exercise your judgement here. There are ways of criticizing an answer which would be regarded as 'missing the point'. But not here.

Your explanation of a 'moral dilemma' follows Lemmon closely. Is there anything else to say? For example, it might occur to you that a certain type of moral dilemma typically involves a clash of 'roles' (think of an example). Not every moral dilemma involves a decision between what is 'right' and what is 'good' (not that I fully accept this distinction, more on this below). For example, the young woman torn between her desire to pursue her vocation as a physician, and her duty as a daughter to look after her sick mother. (More examples of moral dilemmas can be found in the Pathways Moral Philosophy unit attached.)

You will earn more marks by giving an examples which you have thought out for yourself, especially if this helps to cast more light on the nature of the concept you are trying to define.

I don't accept Lemmon's assertion that the world good 'is not properly a word of moral appraisal at all'. Actually, I would not put the point that way. I don't accept that the word 'right' has a determinate meaning which includes some 'goods' but excludes others. For example, there are those who would say that if I have food and you take the food from me without asking, then what you have done is wrong, because the food is mine, I have the 'right' of ownership. Whereas, if you are hungry, you do not have the 'right' to be given food by me. It is my free choice whether to do an action which brings about a 'good' (the relief of your hunger) or not. Yet others would disagree with this and say that starving people do have a 'right' to be given necessary aid.

My objection to utilitarianism is that it attempts to reduce all moral considerations to a common coin. Consequences in terms of human happiness and misery are an important consideration but they are not the only consideration. However, pursuing this point takes us away from the essay question. We are not debating the rights and wrongs of utilitarianism as such, but only the question whether it is an adequate solution to 'a moral dilemma'.

Regarding your two examples of Hiroshima and kamikaze pilots, utilitarianism seems to have been behind with the first decision. But was it behind the second? The kamikaze pilots would have flown on their missions even if they had known (and many did know) that their action was futile, because the Allies could not be stopped. It was the sense of 'honour' which required fighting even when there was no hope of victory, rather than accepting ignominious surrender. This assessment, ironically, was the reason cited by the Americans which persuaded them to drop the A-bombs.

All the best,


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument
Date: 17 January 2006 10:46

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 9 January, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, '...But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right, and that only means that here we can't talk about 'right''(Philosophical Investigations Para 258). - How effective in your view, is Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument in attacking the notion of a 'quale'?

Wittgenstein never used the terms 'quale' or 'qualia'. His preferred term for the illusion which we was seeking to expose is 'private object'. He never says that pains or sensations or experiences are not 'real'. The illusion, according to Wittgenstein, is that our subjective experiences are 'private objects'.

'No game can go on for very long if the players are free to ad-lib the rules.' This is correct. Wittgenstein is fully prepared to allow that the rules for the game can be flexible in all sorts of ways, but at the end of the day there has to be something which counts as following the rules of the game or going against the rules. This is the essential aspect of the 'normativity' of meaning, that which gives rise to the possibility of talking about 'right' and 'wrong'. The crux of the private language argument is that there can be no language game with names for private objects, yet it is only in the context of a language game that notions of 'right' and 'wrong' can be defined.

Searle possibly, and Chalmers definitely would be examples of philosophers who want to say something about the inner which would not be acceptable from Wittgenstein's point of view. I am fully with Wittgenstein on this, but I also accept that there is something which is prior to language and judgement which I call 'subjective knowledge' (see my 2001 paper, 'Truth and Subjective Knowledge' ).

Richard Rorty once wrote an article on the private language argument where he put forward the science fiction idea of a 'cerebroscope', a piece of apparatus which can 'read' brain states. Suppose we had the technology, then it would no longer be possible to claim that, 'only I know my pain' or 'only I know my sensation of red' because we could check the reading on the cerebroscope and see for ourselves. (Rorty no longer holds this view, I'm glad to say.) My argument in the paper starts from the premiss that this assumption is wrong, and that there is a strong sense in which the states of my brain are, in principle, only accessible to me. However - and this is the crucial point - these are not 'qualia' in the sense defended by opponents of physicalism because the manner in which this 'subjective knowledge' is manifested is necessarily prior to judgement and language.

Whitehead is an interesting philosopher to bring into the discussion. If I understand the point correctly, 'creativity' gives rise to a special kind of uniqueness because language can only grip the product of past acts of creativity, what 'has been' in consciousness and not what 'is'. There does seem to be an intersection here with what I want to say (in 'Naive Metaphysics') about the uniqueness of the 'I-now'. Again, this is not, like qualia, an 'object' with a 'quality' which only I am in a position to judge, but rather something prior to 'objects', something unnameable, indescribable, the 'this...'.

Whitehead is an unashamed Platonist. In this respect, his ideas do not sit well with Wittgenstein's language games. For Whitehead, there are two essential 'ingredients' to reality, the process and events underlying the more or less stable 'objects' which we identify over time, and the timeless concepts which give rise to the possibility of describing the stable products of that process. It would be interesting, however, to see if any attempt has been made to reconcile the two philosophers.

I was very interested to read what you said about the 'pragmatics' of practitioner-patient communication. Could it be argued that medical students go through a process of 'unlearning' the language game which we use to describe our feelings or the things which we perceive to be happening to our bodies? This is a case where the 'spirit of science' in seeking certainty and rigour, only succeeds in coarsening, rather than refining our pre-reflective perception and understanding.

All the best,


Refutation of solipsism, and the nature of concepts

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Refutation of solipsism, and the nature of concepts
Date: Date 13 January 2006 17:21

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 7 January, with your answer to the question, 'Can the solipsist be refuted?' from the second selection of essay questions for the Philosophy of Language program, and your answer to the question, ''Concepts are not in a Platonic heaven, nor are they in the head. They are out in the world.' Discuss.'

Can solipsism be refuted?

I cottoned on pretty quickly that your 'solipsist' was in fact God, or, rather, someone who believes he is God.

This isn't solipsism, though it is an interesting question why. This is a point on which I have been guilty of a certain degree of carelessness, as you can see from this extract from unit 5 of the Metaphysics program:
161. Let us say, then, that the world is not my world. There is essentially more to the world than is to be met with in my experience, or could ever be, however indefinitely that experience were to be prolonged. That is a significant claim. Consider the following possible experience. Around my eightieth birthday I notice that my intellectual and physical powers, far from being in decline, are increasing rapidly day by day. By the age of one hundred and twenty it is clear to me that I am no ordinary human being, that I am indeed on the way to acquiring superhuman powers. By two hundred, I am ready for Mount Olympus. The universe looks a great deal smaller to me than it did when I was a mere human being. And now arises the undreamed of prospect of exploring every nook and cranny of my rapidly expanding or, rather, shrinking world in its entirety, as one might explore the objects in a room. Just a few years later I am, and know myself to be the super-mind that the mathematician Laplace hypothesised: having discovered the ultimate, deterministic physical theory, I know everything there is to know about the world, past, present and future. There are no more surprises. I am simply omniscient.

162. What we have just described is, arguably, a possible experience. Here is another. I am walking down a long white corridor, when I notice a door with a sign on it which reads, To be opened by authorised staff only. Overcome by curiosity, I open the latch. Inside is a frail old man in a dressing gown, sitting at a writing desk with his back to me. He turns round and stares at me for a few moments. 'I knew you'd come,' he says. 'Who are you?' I enquire. 'I am God. Pleased to meet you.'


I guess there are two questions: how you would prove to someone that he was not God, and what is the difference between believing you are God and being a solipsist.

As your dialogue shows, S is fully prepared to accept that even though you are a 'proper part' of S in one sense, you still have your own point of view. Whereas, the solipsist would hold that 'GF' is merely a name for a certain recurrent feature in the world of his possible experience.

How would you prove to someone that they are not God? Ask them a really difficult question and see if they know the answer? Obviously, that's not a logical proof in the sense which you discuss in the footnote to your dialogue.

Would my argument 'refuting' solipsism work against the God hypothesis? The argument against solipsism relies on the premiss that I occupy the only point of view, whereas the God hypothesis allows that there are other points of view. On the other hand, if you are God, then other persons do not have the 'authority' to correct your judgments, and this is the crucial point on which the argument against solipsism turns. In that case, it would seem that allowing the existence of other points of view isn't sufficient to defend the God hypothesis against the anti-solipsist argument.

'I know I am real, so you must be wrong!' when said to a solipsist is the equivalent of Dr Johnson kicking the stone in an attempt to refute Berkeleian idealism.


'Concepts are not in a Platonic heaven, nor are they in the head. They are out in the world.' Discuss.'

The point of the question was to consider the claim that there is a 'third alternative' in between Platonism and psychologism, which can be derived from Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations and the notion of 'forms of life'.

According to Wittgenstein, following a rule is a 'practice'. As a matter of ultimate, brute fact we go on in this way rather than that way. Although reasons for or against classifying a given entity as a 'cat' can be given and discussed, eventually reasons come to an end and we just do what we do.

Wittgenstein arrives at this view by considering the hypothesised role of the Platonist's 'forms' or psychologism's 'mental representations'. The form, or the mental representation, is meant to cover every possible case of cat or non-cat. It is a schema which we have in our possession, as a piece of knowledge 'in our heads', which we apply to experiences that we encounter.

The problem - and this is Wittgenstein's 'master argument' - is that whenever a schema is applied in a certain way, there is always the possibility that it could have been applied in a different way. The picture or the diagram or whatever it is that is in our heads does not, cannot, embody sufficient information to narrow down the range of possible interpretations to just one. Whatever the information, there is always the possibility of different 'interpretations'.

Hence, 'What this shows is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call 'obeying the rule' and 'going against it' in actual cases' (Philosophical Investigations 201).

This is the start of an answer to the question, 'What are concepts?' But it is not a question which Wittgenstein pursues. I would want to say that the concept of cat, for example, is 'out there in the world' because the classification has a 'point'. It is not just a set of characteristics which either match or do not match any given object in the world. The world has created us, and the other things we encounter in the world. Our sense of what belongs together or does not belong together is ultimately a brute fact, but it is not thereby 'arbitrary'. We are not 'free' to make up any concepts we like. This is one aspect of the givenness of 'forms of life'.

Your response to the question is to posit that concepts exist as 'brain states' which are common to different individuals. The language game with the word 'cat' is made possible by the fact that our brain states are sufficiently attuned with one another, and this physiological fact is, in a sense, 'in the world'.

This seems to skirt dangerously close to psychologism, but I can see how this could be made consistent with the 'forms of life' theory. Wittgenstein himself was very hostile to any attempt to talk of 'inner processes' like brain states, which he regarded as completely irrelevant to his purely logical inquiry into truth and meaning. However, as a matter of known fact, it is our brain states which give us the capacity to recognize cats and other things. It is OK to make this observation, provided that one does not fall into the trap of thinking that one has thereby found a way to 'bring the regress of interpretations to an end'.

All the best,


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

'Is knowledge justified true belief?' and brains in vats

To: David U.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'Is knowledge justified true belief?' and brains in vats
Date: 13 January 2006 16:04

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 9 January, with your essay in response to the University of London question for the Epistemology module, 'Is justified true belief knowledge?' and your email of 11 January with your preliminary thoughts about the question, 'Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?'

Is justified true belief knowledge?

You had the right idea of motivating this definition before launching in to the crucial objection (Gettier) and possible replies. However, I didn't quite see what you meant in your first paragraph by the 'more transcendental type of knowledge'. We are seeking to define, 'A knows that P'. For 'P' one may substitute any proposition, from 'I have five fingers' to 'men descended from apes'.

There are two other main uses for 'know': 'I know how to ride a horse' (practical knowledge) and, 'I know Sheila' (acquaintance) where it is not obvious how this would be analysed in terms of 'knowledge that'.

You can either say, 'I can ONLY know that my hand has five fingers IF it has five fingers,' or, 'I can know that my hand has five fingers ONLY IF it has five fingers'. In either case, you are saying that my hand having five fingers is a NECESSARY condition for knowledge.' What you actually said was, 'I can only know that my hand has five fingers if and only if it has five fingers,' which suggests that my hand having five fingers is also SUFFICIENT for knowledge, which is of course not the case. I might not believe that it has five fingers, or, I might believe this without the other conditions for knowledge being satisfied.

In discussing the requirement that what you know is true, you raise the question of scepticism. It is not clear how scepticism effects this part of the definition. Are you suggesting that there is a problem with requiring that knowledge be 'true', since truth is unattainable? Even the convinced sceptic would agree that 'My hand has five fingers' is true if and only if my hand has five fingers. The sceptic knows what truth is, he just doesn't believe we can ever get to it.

Is belief necessary for knowledge? You reply, 'How can I tell that there are five fingers when I don't accept that?' This seems to depend on the nuances of the term, 'to tell'. 'I can tell that there is snow on the road ahead', implies that I have made an observation and consciously exercised my judgement. It is very difficult to see how one would be in a position to be able to 'tell' something in this sense that one didn't believe. The classic case for knowledge without belief, however, is the 'nervous schoolboy' who knows the answer perfectly well, but as a result of examination fright doesn't believe it. I am making this point just so you are aware that the 'belief' component does need to be argued for.

Next, justification. Your argument here is that justification is what makes 'acceptance or belief worth something'. In other words, a belief without justification is worthless, or, at least, worth less than a belief with justification. However, the question is whether justification is required for knowledge. Let's say I am an expert in sorting male from female chicks (another classic example). I can't explain how I do this, but my success rate is 100 per cent. I have no justification for my belief, 'This is a female chick' yet, arguably, my belief is knowledge all the same.

These are all preliminaries.

I liked your example of the Zen flute. As a rule, you will always get some credit for using an example of your own rather than one from a text book. You give a good explanation of this.

Then we come to the meat of your essay: what to do about this shortcoming we have discovered in the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief:

'To this definition we would have to add at least one more premise then. That no knowledge can be achieved through false premises, and that I could not reach any kind of knowledge that comes to happen by chance.'

The 'no false premisses' condition and the 'not by chance' condition are two possible ways of plugging the gap. However, this is where you really ought to have done some more work in explaining how these two conditions meet Gettier's challenge. Do we, in fact, require both conditions or would either condition suffice on its own? What is the advantage of combining them? Are there any other conditions which might do the job? (You could also look at the notions of 'tracking truth' or a 'reliable process', which are the other main ideas which have been put forward in response to Gettier.)

Finally, your example of the Polaris star. As stated, 'I know the Polaris star' is not an example of the 'knowledge' we are defining because it is not 'knowledge that'. What would be the equivalent statement in terms of 'know that'?

'I know that the star I am pointing to is the Polaris star.'

'I know that there is a star currently at the location where I am pointing and it is called Polaris.'

Suppose that 310 years ago the Polaris star exploded. (Sorry, astronomy is not my strong point.) Then there is no star at the location where I am pointing. In that case, the second proposition is clearly false. I don't know this because the 'truth' condition is not satisfied. I am not so sure about the first proposition, however. It seems that there is a convention about identifying and pointing out stars whereby it is implicitly understood that we are looking at the light produced by the star rather than the star itself.

I am not convinced by this example that we need any further conditions in the definition of knowledge. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with trying to come up with original examples and objections.

Considering that you wrote this in 75 minutes, I think you did pretty well. My general advice in an exam situation is to 'cut to the chase' whenever possible. Concentrate on the 'meat' of the question. As I observed above, you only wrote three or four lines where there should have been a more extended discussion.

Your next essay question, 'Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?'

The question is NOT 'Can you know that your hand has five fingers if you don't know if you are not a brain in a vat?' although that would be a perfectly good question to ask.

However, I accept that it is possible that this question might be implied by the essay question.

For example, you could take as a premiss, 'I know that my hand has five fingers' and the premiss, 'If I don't know that I am not a brain in a vat then I don't know that my hand has five fingers' to derive the conclusion, 'I know that I am not a brain in a vat.' (This bears some resemblance to G.E. Moore's essay, 'Refutation of Idealism' which you could look up.)

However, you want to say that even if I AM a brain in a vat, I can still have vat-knowledge, so to speak, knowledge of my vat world, in which I do, indeed, 'have five fingers.' But that is not an answer to the essay question. You are saying, 'So what if I don't know?' and the question is asking, 'But DO you know?'

I don't know whether this helps or not. You should at least try to look up what some philosophers have said about the 'brain in a vat' problem, starting with Putnam. There are abundant references on the internet.

All the best,


Parmenides: following the path of 'It is not'

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides: following the path of 'It is not'
Date: 11 January 2006 11:51

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your essay on Parmenides, in response to the University of London Plato and the Presocratics question, 'Is it possible to follow the path of 'it is not'?'

This is not a bad effort. You have answered the question, and have not been afraid to express your own views. If I was marking this as an examiner, this might scrape through with a 2/i. So there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Don't get despondent. To help you think about the issues raised by this question I have attached two units from the Pathways Presocratics program which deal with Parmenides. You can use these as you would any other philosophy text, citing the reference in an essay or exam.

You can skip all the stuff about hexameter poem, and the charioteer's divine journey. Remember, you will have just one hour to write your answer. The convention is that you 'cut to the chase' and don't waste time with unnecessary preliminaries.

First question, then, 'What is this 'it is' and 'it is not' that Parmenides alludes to?' Good. That was the right question to ask. I agree that there are three interpretations of 'is'.

You go on to argue for one particular interpretation, rejecting the other two. My question would be, Is it necessary for there to be one, and only one interpretation? Why can't Parmenides say, 'Whatever meaning you give to 'is', my argument is still valid'?

Let's look at your arguments. If 'x' refers to a toothbrush, then it does not make much sense to ask whether a toothbrush is 'true' or 'false'. However, you are assuming here that 'it' refers to an object. If 'it' referred to a statement, e.g. 'The earth goes round the sun' then the argument would run: Either a given statement is necessarily true, or the statement is necessarily false. But a necessarily false statement cannot be thought. Therefore, every statement that can be made is necessarily true.

What would be your argument against that interpretation?

Then you reject the predicative reading, on the grounds that 'it would lead to an indefinite number of attributes since Parmenides had not proposed what x might be'. But why is that a problem? Why can't Parmenides say, 'Take any object x and any property F. Either x is F and cannot not be F, or x is not F. But the latter alternative is unthinkable, therefore x is necessarily F.'

This has some unwelcome consequences. Every object x has every property F, including patently incompatible properties like being red and blue, or square and circular.

So we are left with the existential reading. That which 'is not', i.e. does not exist, cannot be thought about, because to think about something implies that it 'is'. You reply, 'But why are we able to speak of unicorns, dragons, griffins and hydras...? although something cannot exist, it doesn't mean that it is 'nothing'.'

I wonder if it had occurred to you that in saying this you have fully accepted Parmenides' point. On this interpretation, when I say, 'St George killed the dragon', I am referring to an object which in some sense has 'being' even though it does not 'exist'. This would be the 'Meinongian' solution (look up the Austrian philosopher 'Meinong'). In effect, you are proposing different realms of 'being' - physical being, mythical being, imaginary being etc. So it is a matter of mere convention that physical being is called 'existence'.

There are severe problems with this 'solution'. The more widely accepted view is that 'existence is not a predicate'. When I say that 'Unicorns do not exist' I am not referring to non-physical 'objects' called unicorns. I am merely saying, 'It is not the case that there is an x such that x has the property of being a unicorn'. This analysis of 'existence' as a 'second-order predicate' (look this up) meets Parmenides' challenge by interpreting the occurrence of 'unicorn' as a predicate rather than as a singular term.

This analysis also explains how a 'zonkey' could come into existence for the first time. There is a certain property, that of being a zonkey, which is instantiated at t+1 but not at t ('t' refers to a given time).

In your concluding paragraph, you express the view that 'The path of 'it is' is still the better of the two' because testing 'our creative and speculative abilities... does nothing to aid us in the acquisition of knowledge.'

I would dispute the claim that testing our creative abilities does not aid in the acquisition of knowledge. But, in any case, in expressing the results of inquiry, we want to make negative existential claims, e.g. 'There is no eleventh planet', 'There are no witches' etc.

All the best,