Thursday, December 29, 2011

What did Berkeley prove by kicking the stone?

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What did Berkeley prove by kicking the stone?
Date: 16 September 2006 11:02

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 6 September, with your fifth and final essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'I refute it thus' - When he kicked the stone in the church courtyard what was Dr Johnson hoping to prove? Was the demonstration a success?

First of all, congratulations on being (I think I'm right in saying this) the first Pathways student to successfully complete four of the six programs. My report and certificate will be on their way shortly to the Secretary of the ISFP who will forward them to you.

If you still have an appetite for more, there are just two choices, 'The Possible World Machine' and the program on the Presocratic philosophers of Ancient Greece!

You consider three possible interpretations of Dr Johnson's demonstration. 'One possibility is that Johnson regarded religion as a matter of revelation rather than demonstration...'. This would explain his opposition to Berkeley, but not the manner of expressing it. On this view, Johnson aligns himself with the view later argued by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, that we must limit the claims of reason 'in order to make room for faith'.

Although Kant does not consider Berkeley's argument for the existence of God when looking at the main proofs offered (Cosmological, Ontological and Teleological), one can reconstruct the argument he would have given from what he says about Leibniz in the 'Amphiboly of the Concepts of Pure Reflection' (one of the more obscure sections of the Critique of Pure Reason). Berkeley's error is in attempting to use empirical concepts to describe the nature of 'things in themselves' - the ultimate reality which accounts for the given facts of perception. We can't meaningfully talk of a 'God' or of objectively existing 'perceptions' in God's 'mind' because once we leave behind the concepts which apply to the world of our experience, there is no way to describe 'noumena' or 'things in themselves'.

The second interpretation is the idea that God is not 'there to fine tune the universe'. There is some justice in the complaint that in holding the 'ideas' of all existing objects in his mind, or presenting perceptions to us at the appropriate time, God has too much work to do. However, in this respect Berkeley's theory is not so distant from Descartes' non-idealist view that in order to 'exist', material objects must be maintained in existence by God's continuous creative power.

The third interpretation is the one which I would give. However, one need to distinguish this carefully from a view which has often been erroneously attributed to Dr Johnson, that somehow kicking a stone proves that the stone is not just an experience. Generations of philosophy students have learned to rebut that argument: If my perception of the stone is just an idea in my mind, then so are my perceptions of my contact with the stone, the sound it makes when it hits my boot, the sharp pain in my toe and so on.

The correct view, as you say, is that the act of kicking the stone emphasises a fundamental feature of our relation to reality - that we are in the world as agents rather than as passive observers. On this view, the error made by idealists (and also by many who claim to be non-idealists) is in viewing visual perception as the paradigm of perception. This sets up the fatal subject-object dichotomy which leads inevitably to idealism in one form or other.

Vision is a 'distance sense'. By making visual perception the paradigm of perception, the subject is placed metaphysically at a 'distance' from the world. By some means or other, the subject is required to find its way back to the world from the 'given' in perception. The argument for idealism is based on the impossibility of achieving this. Instead, the only 'world' that there can be for us is one constructed in some way out of the materials of perception.

The alternative is to view physical action as the paradigm of perception. If one thinks of cases like that of Helen Keller, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a subject with no distance senses at all, whose only connection to the world is through physical agency.

All the best,


Descartes on the incorrigibility of mental events

To: Tony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes on the incorrigibility of mental events
Date: 15 September 2006 10:22

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 6 September, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy program in response to the question, ''I am now seeing light, hearing a noise, feeling heat. But I am asleep so all this is false. Yet I certainly seem to see, hear, be warmed. This cannot be false' (Descartes). Discuss.'

This is a very thorough examination of the claim, or rather claims which Descartes makes in the above quote. As you observe, there are two main questions: one concerning the 'I' and the other concerning the occurrence of mental events. Let's look at each of these in turn.

As many critics of Descartes have argued, the use of 'I' in the statement, 'I certainly seem to see...' is questionable, insofar as it presupposes an entity with an identity over time. If Descartes is seriously in the business of doubting everything that can be doubted, then it should be perfectly conceivable that the evil demon created him five seconds ago, along with set of false memories concerning 'his' past experiences.

However, we have to distinguish this from the more radical, Humean criticism which rejects the idea that one needs an 'I' as a container or subject of experiences in addition to the experiences themselves. You raise the worry of how one can assign a given experience to one bundle or another. In fact, it seems that the Humean has ample resources to do this. Just define 'co-presence' as a symmetrical, reflexive and transitive relation which can hold between any two perceptions at a given time. It follows that experiences will be neatly partitioned into non-overlapping bundles. Experiences belong to the GK bundle (at a given time) so long as they are co-present with, say, 'this coffee taste' (as I take a sip). So, on this view, one does not need 'I' at all.

Of course, if you were then to ask WHY co-presence must be symmetrical, reflexive and transitive that is a question which Hume does not address - but Kant does (in his notion of the formal 'I think' which 'accompanies all perceptions').

You are not expected to be able to quote from Hume and Kant. However, Strawson in the other reading has something relevant to say. We have seen that it is possible to doubt one's identity over time. In, fact, as Strawson would argue, there is NO DIFFERENCE in the Cartesian picture between identity and non-identity. Imagine that 'I' die at every moment and am replaced by a duplicate 'I'. This is not intended as a sceptical claim, but rather as attacking the very idea of 'identity' as applied to the Cartesian 'I'. (The original source of this criticism is Kant's 'Paralogisms of Transcendental Psychology' from the Critique of Pure Reason'.)

Even worse, there is no coherent meaning, Strawson claims, in the idea that there is one 'I' enjoying these momentary perceptions rather than a thousand 'I's. Take away body, and you take away the only thing that is capable of conferring identity on a subject of experience, either at a time or over time.

What about the perceptions themselves?

As you argue, Descartes draws a contrast between thoughts that can be false, where there is a gap between seeming and reality, and thoughts that can't be false because there is no gap. The question is, Is that a way of being necessarily true?

You cast doubt on this claim, on the ground that even if the experience as such cannot be doubted, as soon as I try to express the experience in words there arises the possibility of making an error, using the wrong words.

However, this still seems to give the Cartesian a last-ditch position which rejects discursive knowledge - there are no indubitable thoughts I can express in words which capture the 'this' of my present experience - yet manages to hold onto the thing that matters most, the hard nugget of metaphysical fact that there is 'this, now'.

Your comment on this position is that it is too slender a foundation on which to build a system of knowledge. Whether that is the case or not, however, the question is whether Descartes is ultimately right, there is a 'something that cannot be doubted'. If there is, then it looks like mind-body dualism (which is advertised in the full title of the Meditations as Descartes' goal) must be true in some form. If there is a 'something' that can exist in the absence of matter, then materialism must be false.

You might like to think about ways of attacking this final defence position of Cartesian philosophy.

I have written something relevant to this. See my paper, 'Truth and subjective knowledge' at

All the best,


Essay on scepticism and intuition

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on scepticism and intuition
Date: 11 September 2006 10:44

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 4 September, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'An Intuitive Response to Philosophical Skepticism'.

This is an excellent piece of work which clearly lays out the options from someone seeking a response to the challenge of scepticism (or skepticism - either is acceptable so long as you are consistent!). These are:

1. rejection of the sceptical hypothesis
2. denial of the principle of closure
3. acceptance of the sceptical paradox

However, you have gone further than many students would, and sought to provide a fourth option which is distinct from these three common moves. All credit to you for that. This is the way to get a First.

I have nothing to comment on your analysis of the three options, which is clear and succinct.

I will concentrate on your proposal which on a first look I find very appealing, but at the same time can't help wondering whether this is too easy a 'way out'. But let us see.

Why do we have the word 'know' in our language? what use is it? What am you or G.E. Moore telling me, for example, when you say that you know that you have two hands?

This isn't a question about the analysis of 'know' in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather looks to the context which gives the concept of knowledge its point.

When I say I am 'certain' that X, I am telling you about my state of belief. It is legitimate, for example, to say I am certain that I am going to win the lottery this Saturday. I had a dream when the lottery angel came to me and told me. Or I feel it in my bones. You can't argue with my state of belief. But if I say I 'know' then you can reasonably ask me what right I have to make this claim. To say that I know is to say, in effect, that 'you can take it from me', i.e. I am an authority so far as the question whether X is concerned. But no-one can have this knowledge about the lottery unless the lottery is fixed and they are in on the scam.

Third-person analyses of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge miss this point, because all you can see from a third-person perspective is that if A 'knows' that X, then X is true. However, our interest in knowledge isn't confined to cases where we are already given the truth of X, and our only interest is deciding whether A satisfies the conditions for knowing that X or not. The central case - so far as the point of a concept of 'knowledge' is concerned - is where we don't know whether X but A claims that he knows. If we accept A's authority to pronounce on this particular question, then we will accept that X is indeed the case.

I know that you have two hands because you told me, and I accept your authority on this point. It is possible (though I haven't checked this) that not all Pathways students have two hands.

From this perspective one can kind of see how one could both hold on to a legitimate concept of 'knowledge' in daily life, while admitting at the same time that from a metaphysical perspective no knowledge claims are justified, no-one has the 'right' to make any statement about anything.

So far so good. However, I am not so sure how much space there is here - despite what you say about making the assumption that we have knowledge 'axiomatic in a theory of knowledge' - between your view and that of Lewis. As it happens, David Lewis gave a paper at the Philosophy Dept at Sheffield a few years ago, where he argued the case for context sensitivity. However, rather than use grand sceptical hypotheses of the 'brain in a vat' variety, he pointed out very ordinary assumptions which we do not think to question when we make knowledge claims.

I have no idea about the level of technical development required to maintain a genuine brain in a vat (Dennett somewhere casts considerable scorn on this idea). However, there are any number scenarios which might indeed be the case, which could be used to undermine many, or most of the knowledge claims that I make.

'I have two hands' is an exception - one of the minority of knowledge claims - in that there is no undermining scenario that one can think of short of the brain in a vat variety. However, I think it would be perfectly proper for me to say that I know that I have a student 'James Smith' who is taking the BA via the University of London External Programme; or that George W. Bush is President of the United States; or that my beige G3 Powermac is worth less than a hundred Pounds.

If you asked me, Do I know that Bush has not been assassinated during the last half hour, obviously I would have to say I don't know. However, by the principle of closure that means I don't know that he IS the President of the United States. Or you could ask me, Do I know that the person who sold me my beige G3 on eBay was not the unwitting girlfriend of an international jewel thief who hid his cache of diamonds underneath the hard drive? In that case I don't know that my G3 is not worth a million Pounds.

What these cases seem to show is that there are things we DO know, on the condition that we are not asked certain awkward questions. This looks like a generalization of your case, but there seems far less - if any - justification for an 'axiomatic' solution.

All the best,


Free will and the justification for punishment

To: Christopher W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will and the justification for punishment
Date: 11 September 2006 09:00

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 4 September with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'In the light of the critique of 'free will', can blame and punishment ever be rationally justified? Consider hard cases, such as brainwashing, crimes of passion, the influence of drugs, medical or psychological conditions etc.'

The second dialogue in unit 2 is inspired by P.F. Strawson's British Academy lecture 'Freedom and Resentment' (in Strawson 'Freedom and Resentment and other Essays' and also reprinted elsewhere).

Strawson develops his argument from a broadly 'compatibilist' view according to which there can still be workable notions of freedom and responsibility on the assumption that determinism is true. The simplest version of compatibilism holds that punishment is necessary in order to change an individual's behaviour, and also functions as an effective deterrent. In choosing which persons to punish, we select those who are capable of changing their behaviour in response to punishment. So you would not, e.g. punish the bank clerk for handing over the money at the point of a gun.

Strawson argued that it is essential to being persons in relation that we adopt certain 'reactive' attitudes to one another, such as blame and resentment. It would be impossible to take on board a determinist theory of punishment - where 'punishment' is merely a matter of setting an example or altering a person's 'controls' - without losing that which makes us persons.

In the dialogue, Maggie tries to go one step further than Strawson, in trying to account for the 'rationale' of what appears, despite all that Strawson says, completely irrational: namely, arguing against what a person has done, given that it is impossible, given the prior conditions which in fact obtained, that the person might have done otherwise than he or she in fact did.

To say we 'have no choice' in the matter isn't good enough. 'It's irrational but we can't help doing it' looks a very weak defence of the 'belief' in free will.

This is the big issue surrounding free will which presents the stark choice between a view of ourselves as responsible and rational, and a view of ourselves as mere robots or puppets.

However, the question asks for more than this. Whatever our philosophical view of free will - or even if we have never heard of the philosophical arguments which put free will into question - we find ourselves confronted by cases which make us think twice about criticism and blame and the institution of punishment.

Consider, for example, the famous Patty Hearst case. Patty was the daughter of the famous reclusive millionaire Randolph Hearst. She was kidnapped and later took part in a bank robbery carried out by her captors, the 'Symbionnese Liberation Army'. There appeared to be ample evidence from the CCTV cameras that she was participating enthusiastically in the robbery. The defence argued that she had been 'brainwashed' by her captors and was therefore not responsible for her actions. The prosecution rejected this argument, on the grounds that they had to judge Patty Hearst as she is now, a fully fledged criminal. How she became a criminal was just water under the bridge.

Take any criminal, and undoubtedly there is a story you could tell about how they became a criminal, admittedly not just in terms of things that happened or were done to them but also choices that they made. Yet these choices themselves can be understood. Where do you draw the line?

These cases create greater difficulties for someone who seeks to defend the 'necessity' or 'importance' of belief in free will. The closer you look, the harder it is to see the special character or mark which distinguishes 'genuine' cases of freedom. Who really 'deserves' punishment? does anyone?

On a determinist view of punishment, on the other hand, things are much simpler. F.H. Bradley gives the example of the master of hounds who gives his dogs a good thrashing before they go out, 'just to show who's boss'. Undoubtedly, pre-emptive 'punishment' can be very effective. Bradley was concerned to show the absurdity of a determinist view of punishment, but the argument can be easily turned round. Why only punish the 'guilty'? Isn't the only question what course of action will be most effective in inducing good behaviour?

The response is that there is no way of avoiding the problem of freedom by pretending that we are not persons. In that sense, Isaac Bashevis Singer is right. However, if some despot was determined to create a world where 'persons' no longer existed - a world of 1984 - they might yet succeed.

All the best,


Is it rational to fear death?

To: Katherine A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 6 September 2006 12:02

Dear Katherine,

Thank you for your email of 31 August with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?'

In January 1991 my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was given six months to live. She died in November that year. I vividly remember her birthday party in August, when there was a sense of celebration that she had managed to hang on past the six month mark. But there was no doubt that she was going to die soon.

My paper, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' originally given to the University of Warwick Philosophy Society in 1993 was largely a response to that experience. For the first time, the prospect of my own death became 'real'.

Your thoughts are very much along the main lines that people who are more reflective think about death. We recognize that there is a difference between our death and the manner of our dying. Even if the manner of our dying was painless - e.g. passing away peacefully in one's sleep - the prospect of death as such still has the capacity to cause feelings of dread. Why is this?

I can only speak from my personal experience. I do feel this dread. At the same time, I can see that this feeling is somehow inappropriate or irrational. As Epicurus said, 'Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.'

As you point out, death robs us of pleasant things we might have experienced had we been alive. I missed the party because I had a paper to write. This was a matter of regret, especially when I learned afterwards what a great time everyone had. Now imagine one is dying and the party is tomorrow. I'm sorry I'll miss the party, but that is nothing to inspire feelings of dread or fear.

Unit 6 on personal identity gives a clue to the particular 'strangeness' about the idea of looking forward to a time when I will not exist. As I park my rare classic car, I worry that it might be stolen during the night. When I look out of the window the next morning I am relieved to see it is still there. Do I feel a similar kind of feeling when I wake up to realize I am still here? Does it make any sense to consider that I might be wrong? (e.g. GK was killed during the night and a simulacrum programmed with GK's memories).

Recently, the thought occurred to me that the very notion of 'death' is problematic. If I die, then I lose consciousness and never regain it. What is 'never'? I could lose consciousness for a thousand years but still like Rip Van Winkle or Methuselah regain it. To be dead logically implies non-existence for an infinite length of time. But do we grasp what is meant by 'infinite time'?

At the end of your essay, you ask the question, 'Will we be remembered?' This raises the question why we care how things will be when we are not here, not just in a general way but specifically in the way that these things relate to us. I can worry, for example, whether global warming will bring on a new ice age in 100 years time, but this is not a worry which relates to me, except insofar as it might affect my unborn grandchildren. On the other hand, worrying whether - or more pointedly, how - I will be remembered is about me, and yet not something that can affect me in any way. Can a man (as Aristotle asked) be 'harmed' after his death?

Lots of questions, but not many answers!

All the best,


Hume's challenge to moral statements

To: Roger W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's challenge to moral statements
Date: 28 August 2006 12:47

Dear Roger,

Thank you for your email of 20 August, with your 'positioning essay' for your ISFP Fellowship dissertation, 'Hume's Challenge to Moral Statements'.

As you present it, Hume's challenge raises the spectre of the 'rational psychopath'. The first question to ask is why this is seen as such a threat.

You allude to an argument which occurs early on in the Moral Philosophy program to the effect that when the stakes are raised high enough any defence of morality based on rational self-interest is liable to fail. As I would put it, there will always be an 'offer I cannot rationally refuse'.

On this view, nothing less than a demonstration that a psychopath would necessarily be 'irrational' will do. This is not the same, of course as an argument that would, in practice succeed in persuading the psychopath. Each of us is arguing against the 'psychopath in me'.

If Kant is right about the categorical imperative, then this defines what it is to be rational, and therefore meets full on the rational psychopath challenge. But is there a contingent assumption lurking here? You suggest that it is the claim that 'we experience ourselves as free rational agents'. But maybe we're not free after all, then what?

If we are not free rational agents, Kant would argue, then there is no such thing as rationality. There is no such thing as logical inference, or any reasoned judgement of any kind. We are merely natural creatures tossed about by the laws of cause and effect.

However, as you will be aware, there are other ways of digging at the categorical imperative.

I accept the challenge as stated, in broadly Kant's terms although my own 'solution' would be different. But does the challenge have to be understood in that way?

What if it could be shown that the situation of the rational psychopath - or the 'amoralist' to use a less loaded term - would in fact be intolerable, or practically impossible? Then the response, in effect is, 'You imagine that you could be an amoralist but that is only because you have failed to think things through'. This isn't the same as appealing to some hypothetical imperative, 'If you want X then you should not be an amoralist', but rather, 'You couldn't be an amoralist even if you tried.' I seem to recall Bernard Williams using this kind of argument in his short book 'Morality'.

Alternatively, one can reject the challenge.

This is arguably what the early Wittgenstein does in putting the very question of justification out of bounds. (I like the idea of including a section on the early Wittgenstein.) This is a 'rational' response insofar as it throws into question the challenger's terms of reference.

Another alternative is to reject the challenge by simply ducking it. This is what the various 'conventional' solutions that you canvas seem to do. Like Hume, the other philosophers like Searle and Kovesi are basically saying, 'You can't have that but we can give you this.' There is no rationally based system of ethics but there is a pretty solid 'institutional' foundation for ethics.

For me, the most intersting challenges come from Nietzsche and Marx.

Nietzsche simply doesn't have a 'problem' with the amoralist. The idea that we have moral obligations to everyone he rejects out of hand. There is no 'categorical imperative'. His problem is not with the challenge to moral statements but rather with the challenge to value judgements, and the main opponent is the nihilist. There is no question of an analogous move to Kant in arguing that nihilism is somehow 'irrational'. Nihilism is a real, historical threat and also a practical challenge for anyone who does not want to be driven to the conclusion that life is meaningless.

Marx, from your account seems out of this game altogether. The very idea of a 'challenge' that has to be met by 'argument' ignores the fact that ideas are mere products of relations of production. The 'problem' of moral judgements will be solved when the relations of production themselves change.

This is putting the point rather superficially. What I would like to see is a philosophical challenge, in a Marxian spirit, to the traditional philosopher's 'let's see how we can defeat the rational psychopath' game.

There is lots here to work on. The main question is whether you are going to use the Humean challenge or challenge of the amoralist merely as a framework to explore the various approaches to founding a system of ethics that have been proposed, or whether on the contrary you want to focus on the challenge itself and the different ways of dialectically responding to it.

All the best,


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

G.E.M. Anscombe on singular causation

To: Tony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: G.E.M. Anscombe on singular causation
Date: 28 August 2006 10:22

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 21 August, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Anscombe takes singular causation seriously, whereas Hume does not.' Explain and discuss.

You start off by defining 'singular causation':
We mean that this specific pair of events, A and B, has in itself some property or properties in virtue of which we can say that A caused B without knowing whether A-type events are always (or often, or indeed ever, apart from this one instance) followed by B-type events.

However, there is an ambiguity in this definition, which also appears in your account of what Hume means by 'necessity:
He takes it that what “necessity” really amounts to here is the firm mental conviction that we form, after observing repeated instances of A-type events being followed by B-type events, that A-type events will always in future be followed by B-type events. That is, we expect what he calls “constant conjunction” of cause and effect.

The ambiguity comes to light when one considers the two components in Hume's account of causation:

1. Hume is concerned to explain the psychological process by which we form beliefs about causes and effects. The mechanism is explained in terms of the theory of ideas and impressions.

2. 'A caused B' is true only if a type B event always and everywhere follows from a type A event (the 'univeral generalization' requirement).

Whatever 'necessity' or compulsion we feel in believing that A caused B, the necessity that characterizes causation is the necessity of a universal generalization, nothing more or less. B always follows from A, at every time and every place. This is in itself a very powerful claim to make, and one which can never be conclusively verified in actual cases, but it is one which is fully consistent with - indeed necessitated by - Hume's rejection of any 'metaphysical' component in causation.

Now consider this claim in relation to the idea of singular causation, and in particular in learning situations where one grasps the meaning of 'cause'. Anscombe would say that no-one in an everyday situation where causes and effects are identified is thinking of making such a huge claim. That is what her examples are meant to show. We know that Fred caught measles from Violet, without needing any concept of the Humean covering law that accounts for the causal connection.

The question of what causation is, is distinct from the question of how we know that a particular case is one of causation. Hume is prepared to allow 'clear experiments' which lead to a strong and justified conviction that A caused B. What this means, however, is universal generalization. Anscombe, on the other hand, believes that given that we grasp the meaning of 'cause' through such clear experiments, the question whether a causal claim logically entails a universal generalization remains open. Regularity and generalization may play a role in our grasp of causation but there is no reason why this role should be held to be constitutive of the very notion of a 'cause' in the way that Hume claims.

In principle, Hume indeed has no problem at all with the idea of a type A event which is so unique that it only ever occurs once in the history of the universe.

You say:
Hume would surely insist that you couldn’t say, in such a case, that A caused B. You would have to say that the “cocktail” caused B. That’s because, for Hume, causality implies constant conjunction, so it would be simply wrong to use the term even for patchy conjunction (where A-type events are quite often, but not always, followed by B-type events), let alone for a single isolated instance such as we’ve envisaged.

But this isn't necessary. Assume that the 'history of the universe' is some finite length of time. Then Hume can say that if at any time the history of the universe is repeated up to the time when A occurs, then B follows.

We have seen that Hume can allow single cases where we form the reasonable conviction that A caused B, and he can also allow cases where A causes B only on one occasion in the history of the universe. Both of these, I have argued, are fully consistent with a 'universal generalization' component in the analysis of causation.

This looks like a defence of Hume against Anscombe, to the effect that Hume DOES 'take singular causation seriously'. However, as I have indicated, Anscombe is making a stronger claim, to the effect that the universal generalization component is not part of the meaning of a 'cause'. The examples she cites (such as the case of catching a contagious disease) are not sufficient to show this. On the other hand, all she has to do is raise a legitimate doubt about Hume's claim about universal generalization.

The discussion does not stop there, of course. The whole point of the universal generalization component is to find a substitute for the naive notion of 'coming from' that seems to be part of our understanding of causation. If one rejects the Humean 'solution', then we are right back where we started!

All the best,


Truth conditions and metaphysics

To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Truth conditions and metaphysics
Date: 3 August 2006 14:51

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 24 July, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'When you grasp the meaning of a proposition, you know the conditions under which it would be true.' -- Is this statement correct? What light does it shed on the notion of truth?

How does this question relate to the realist/ anti-realist debate?

One question - which we can come to in a moment, is in what way the realist or anti-realist is entitled to talk about 'truth', or, what each 'understands' by that notion.

However, as I have argued in the program, there are reasons why one would want to reject the identification of an account of the meaning of a proposition in terms of truth conditions with 'realism'. You can be an anti-realist and yet still agree that 'When you grasp the meaning of a proposition, you know the conditions under which it would be true.'

The first point to make is that a Tarski-style 'theory of truth' - which derives 'theorems' like 'Snow is white' is true iff snow is white from 'axioms', 'Snow' refers to snow, 'white' applies to x iff x is white - is the basis for a compositional theory of meaning which explains how a speaker is able to understand potentially infinitely many sentences on the basis of a knowledge of the meanings of a finite number of words. This is argued in Donald Davidson's famous paper 'Meaning and Truth'.

This is something we ideally want. In order to achieve the goal of a Davidsonian theory of meaning it would first be necessary to reduce ALL English idioms to first-order predicate logic - something which to date has not yet been fully achieved.

Anti-realists like Dummett, however, would argue that the entire project is misconceived because a truth conditions theory can never be sufficient to explain understanding. The best case, for Dummett's point, as I argue in the program, is the that of unrestricted infinite generalisations which you quote.

The best way to defend a truth conditions theory, on the other hand, is by resisting the temptation to construct imaginary scenarios, or talk about beings with increased perceptual or physical powers. We understand the proposition, 'Every planetary atmosphere contains nitrogen' because we understand the meanings of the words and the import of putting them together in a sentence. If you ask what it is that my understanding 'consists in' there is nothing informative to say.

So what has this got to do with realism and anti-realism?

The realist does not have to give a 'correspondence theory of truth'. Although Tarski called his account of the T-predicate a 'correspondence theory' this is so only in a weak sense which does not involve any heavy metaphysical commitment to 'facts' or suchlike. Once you have explained how the truth-predicate works, you have said all there is to say on the subject of truth. Or, in other words, truth is indefinable.

The anti-realist does not have to give an account of truth which equates truth with verification, however construed. It is possible to make the points which the anti-realist makes without going against the basic truism that 'truth transcends verification' - however sure you may be that you have 'verified' a proposition, there remains the logical possibility that you are wrong. Or, in other words, truth is indefinable.

So either way, you have a truth conditions theory of meaning. either way, truth is indefinable. Yet a huge metaphysical gulf separates the realist and the anti-realist.

All the best,


Materialism vs immaterialism and the role of physics

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Materialism vs immaterialism and the role of physics
Date: 3 August 2006 14:51

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 25 July, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What is matter? Does the physicist's account of the nature of matter have a significant role to play in the philosophical dispute between the materialist and the immaterialist?'

I liked the way you expressed this point: 'Why is Stephen Hawking not a great metaphysician? Because his work is neither the subject matter or the method of metaphysics. In metaphysics, we look for general truths about any possible world that were being given long before modern physics was even heard of. As brilliant and thrilling as Hawking's work is, it doesn't try to break loose from the mundane.'

For shorthand, let's call Hawkings' theory the 'super-string theory'. Why can't super-strings be part of the 'subject matter' of metaphysics? The argument would go something like this. Super-strings (whatever they are) are part of a model of the cosmos put forward to explain observations and experimental results, or reconcile theories which themselves have been put forward to explain observations and experiments. The observations are the same, whether you are a materialist, or an immaterialist. The explanation or the theory - in some sense - must be the same also. Of course, something is different too - the framework within which you view both the observations and the theory.

Metaphysics seeks to understand - to 'define' - the framework, the notion of 'reality', or the concepts of existence and truth. Its methods are necessarily different because the appeal to observation or the results of experiment doesn't work.

What you said about Ying and Yang suggests that maybe metaphysicians are too stuck on defending this theory or that, rather than on seeing how reality can have different aspects or be seen in different ways. There is something in this that I want to agree with - that often in metaphysics we come across false dichotomies, where one is asked, or commanded, to either 'believe this' or 'believe that', when in fact both alternatives turn out to be false, and the truth lies in an overlooked alternative that one hadn't even considered. This is argued at the end of the program where I look at the 'antinomy' between transcendental and non-transcendental idealism.

However, there is another sense in which I would resist the 'Ying and Yang' view, in its implication that materialism and immaterialism could both be *right*. The alternative to the view of the metaphysician as rejecting false dichotomies and finding overlooked alternatives, is the view of the metaphysician rejecting false dichotomies by finding a synthesis between the two views. There is less about this in the program because I don't have any good examples. The 'dialectic' is negative, because it proceeds backwards, by rejecting rather than forward by 'accepting' or synthesising.

- Maybe there is room here for psychological reflection on the mind set of different kinds of metaphysician?

There has been a development in physics recently, where some physicists have begun to call themselves 'experimental metaphysicians'. The story as I heard it goes something like this: The theory of relativity is not just an empirically better supported theory than Newtonian mechanics. It also possesses the additional virtue of according better with certain very general principles of 'symmetry'. The perfect or ultimate physical theory would be one which was derived purely from consideration of symmetry principles.

If this could be done - and if this means explaining, among other things why the big bang banged - then we would have a theory which had been derived purely a priori, a 'science of metaphysics' in Kant's sense. Would this be metaphysics in our sense? I would rather say, that this showed that physics ultimately reduced, without remainder, to mathematics.

All the best,


Essays on concepts and truth conditions

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on concepts and truth conditions
Date: 20 July 2006 13:57

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 11 July, with your essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'What are concepts? How does analysing the concept of a 'concept' help to illuminate the way language works?', and your email of 20 July, with your essay in response to the question, 'Assess the philosophical significance of the claim that to understand a proposition is to know its truth conditions'.


Concepts classify, and apply to domains. An object x may be said to fall, or not fall under a concept F. Either way, to state that this is so is to convey information, either that x is F, or that x is not F.

So what is there to explain? What role is there for philosophy?

The question concerns, not so much the 'what' of concepts - that they classify, apply to domains etc. - but the 'how'. How do they do this? How is it possible to grasp a concept, and what is it that one grasps in grasping a concept? How is it possible for two or more persons to agree on a concept, on its 'meaning' or 'use'?

In your essay, you have given a very full description of the 'what', but not said too much about the 'how'. You do say, however, that concepts are associated with 'following rules', and this is the key move that takes us from the what to the how.

Consider the statement, 'A concept has an extension.' The extension of the concept 'dog' is all dogs, past, present and future, anywhere in the universe. No-one 'knows' this set, in the sense of being able to identify it as such (except for God, if God exists). Isn't it a bit extravagant to claim that, despite this, the concept 'dog' HAS an extension? And what is it, to us, if it has?

What this shows is that in any philosophical account of the nature of concepts, there has to be something which relates concepts to us, to language users. There is such a thing as 'grasping' a concept, 'using' it correctly or incorrectly. It is concepts 'in use' that are of interest to a philosopher.

Our best lead on this is that it has something to do with 'rules'. The question, now, is how these rules work and what they achieve.

One view, argued by Michael Dummett, is that the task for a 'theory of meaning' is to explain these rules, to make them explicit, in non-circular terms. It is not clear, how this can be achieved, since the only language we have to formulate our theory of meaning is the very same language that our theory of meaning is for. You might try to make a start by reducing 'dog' to some set of characteristics, but then each of these characteristics ('barks', 'has four legs' etc.) is a concept with rules that need to be articulated in a non-circular way.

An alternative approach would be to explain in general what the rules do without giving an explicit 'theory of meaning' in this sense. For example, some concepts are associated with a recognitional capacity. Arguably, there could not be a language where none of the concepts had this feature. Yet, equally, any language which was restricted to concepts which were associated with a recognitional capacity would be stuck at the ground level of experience, its users unable to formulate theories or explanations.

Hence the idea, expressed in Quine's image of the network which comes into contact with experience at the edges, of concepts performing a role which is not restricted to the description of the immediate contents of experience. Arguably, the role of concepts in embodying a 'theory' about the world is their most interesting aspect. And so on.

The question is - the point of the essay question - is how interesting is this? what is there of philosophical substance in the inquiry into the concept of a 'concept'? That is what the Language program is, in large part, about.

Truth conditions

You have chosen a good example for raising the question about truth conditions, both in the explicit example of Gertrude Stein's pigeons, and more generally in the question of the 'meaning' of a work of art.

The statement, 'Pigeons are on the grass, alas' involves more than just the statement that pigeons are on the grass. It is the expression of a propositional attitude. More explicitly, one might say, e.g. 'Gertrude regrets that pigeons are on the grass'.

As discussed in unit 7, Davidson, in his paper, 'On Saying That', offers an analysis of indirect discourse which avoids the 'Frege problem' arising when one construes terms within the context of indirect discourse (a 'that' clause) as referring to their normal sense rather than to their reference. One question that one might consider is how this analysis might be extended from 'X says that P' to 'X regrets that P.'

Why it important to do this? Language users know how to formulate indefinitely many sentences in indirect discourse, on the basis of their grasp of the individual words, or concepts. It follows that there must be rules which enable them to do this, rules which cover statements like, 'Gertrude regrets that pigeons are on the grass' or 'Gertrude said that pigeons are on the grass'. The lesson from Frege and Davidson is that this is not quite so easy as it looks.

But what about the more general question, the 'meaning' a statement like Gertrude Stein's statement about the pigeons, in the context of a work of art?

Frege based his account of language on a fundamental distinction between 'sense' and 'tone'. The first task is to explain how information is conveyed by using words with a sense. After that, comes consideration of the 'tone' of the statement, what further things are conveyed to a hearer or reader beyond what is strictly said.

Here is a more homely example. David Bowie, in one of his songs, laments that he is 'always crashing in the same car.' The proper Fregean or Davidsonian, truth-conditional way of understanding this is that Bowie owns a car, which he has crashed several times. However, Bowie may well have intended to mean something quite different, for example, 'I never learn from my mistakes'. There is no 'theory' which explains how we are able to understand the original statement in these terms.

Does that disprove the truth-conditions theory? On the face of it, no. That theory was intended to explain the basic phenomenon of factual meaning, not the other things that can be done with language. However, there is a counter-argument that far more of language than the Fregean or Davidsonian is ready to admit is 'metaphorical' in character, and that a far more fruitful area of inquiry would be into how 'metaphor' operates, what its 'rules' are.

All the best,


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Williams' body-swap thought experiment

To: Tony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Williams' body-swap thought experiment
Date: 20 July 2006 10:04

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 8 July, with your essay for the University of London Diploma in Philosophy Introductory module, in response to the question, 'Is Williams's thought experiment best described as two persons swapping bodies? If not, why not?'

This is a very good piece of work, which on the whole gives an accurate representation of Williams's argument. You have not followed Williams's treatment of the thought experiment slavishly but contribute views of your own, which is also good.

The 'punch line' of Williams's article occurs in the paragraph which begins on p. 165 and continues to p. 166. William's main objective in this article is to question the assumption that so called 'first personal' and 'third personal' views of personal identity problem cases coincide with 'mentalistic' considerations, and considerations of bodily continuity respectively.

It is not quite accurate, therefore, to say that the 'purpose of the experiment is to clarify what constitutes personal identity'. It would be closer to say that it's purpose is to bring out our philosophically pre-reflective beliefs about personal identity. It turns out - and this is the core of Williams's case - that different descriptions of the very same experiment elicit contradictory beliefs. This poses a worrying challenge for any philosopher attempting to analyse the notion of personal identity in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

However, the essay title is squarely focused on the question of personal identity. Regardless of the variations in how we may be tempted to describe the situation, what IS the best description of the case from a philosophical point of view?

A point to make, however, is that the philosophical answer must respect our pre-reflective intuitions, or, when it clashes with them, it must be possible to offer a suitable explanation of why our intuitions are 'wrong'.

If you agree with the swapping bodies description, then you need to explain why we get confused when the experiment is described in the second way. If you disagree, then you need to explain why we get confused when the experiment is described in the first way.

You have chosen neither option, preferring to leave the matter unresolved, which is OK. As you point out, Williams has himself given some support to this by suggesting that the experiment has been made deliberately 'neat' in order to make the question easier to answer.

I think that you may have been a little unfair (unless I am misreading you) to Williams in your discussion of the second way. The question, as Williams poses it, 'Will I be tortured?' is a question A is answering now. Whatever the A-body-person will say when he has no memories, or has B's memories, is irrelevant. This will happen to ME, one is tempted to say, pointing to one's own body. That's Williams's gut feeling, and he expects it to be our gut feeling too.

This contrasts with the first way of describing the thought experiment, which focused on outcomes, and what the resulting A-body-person and B-body-person say after the experiment has actually been performed.

Is Williams right about this gut feeling? There are other cases, which Williams does not discuss in this extract which put greater pressure on the 'gut feeling' - for example, bodily fission, where I discover that I am not human but a Martian who is about to undergo his yearly fission (one half will get 10000 galactic credits and the other half will be tortured).

Your characterization of the 'conventionalist' approach is inaccurate. The point of the conventional answer is not that we 'wait until the case arises and see how we feel', but rather that we chose the best, or least worst candidate in a similar way to a decision that one might make about a legal inheritance in a court of law. It is not about feeling but making a decision because a decision has to be made. I can't decide about my feelings on the conceptually questionable prospect of torture on that basis.

As I implied above, I don't think Williams is trying to push a particular view of the 'necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity' in this extract. But the examiner is, effectively, asking for this. While refusing to decide is a defensible option - at the end of the essay you give your own description of the situation in terms which avoid answering the question - I would prefer a straight answer.

My straight answer would be that it is. The memory criterion, suitably reinforced with the 'right kind' of causal continuity, has to be respected. Your examples of ASBOs and disability allowances backs this up. A disability allowance is given for cases of need, and this is the basis on which 'desert' is decided. Whoever ends up with the disabled body deserves the allowance. By contrast, an ASBO is a punishment meted out to an individual who is guilty of antisocial behaviour, a matter decided just as Locke said it should be, in terms of a person's character and consciousness.

However, I would qualify this answer in the light of possibilities - like fission - which Williams has not considered in this extract. Elsewhere in 'Problems of the self' Williams uses these kinds of case to discuss the worrying prospect of that the notion of a person could become a 'universal' rather than an 'individual' concept.

All the best,


Objects, objectivity and ethics

To: Matthew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Objects, objectivity and ethics
Date: 14 July 2006 10:40

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 30 June, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'How does the distinction between the question of objectivity and the evidence of objects apply in the field of ethics?'

You start your essay with an admirably clear exposition of the problem with a Platonic view of moral values as 'objects', citing Mackie's 'queerness' argument. You go on to suggest that an alternative to this view is an 'ideal spectator' approach. However, you say that there are problems with this too: 'The ideal spectator approach is only able to account for the objectivity of moral values without the existence of moral objects by emptying those moral values of human concerns.'

The idea we are pursuing is that moral values arise from the 'disinterested viewpoint'. The correct action, from a moral point of view, can be deduced through logic alone - e.g. the logic of universalizability - without any reference to desires or goals which have the special metaphysical label 'objectively moral'.

You then go on to argue that there is an alternative to this 'ideal spectator' theory, in embracing 'the scientific method as one that provides an account of the nature of a world that exists 'out there' independently of the peculiarity of the human perspective.'

Obviously, this is not even going to look like an 'alternative' if it turns out that moral values are on the 'subjectivist or irrealist side of the division'. However, there is a theory (which I have argued at length over with another of my moral philosophy students) which offers a thoroughly 'naturalized' account of moral values, in the context of evolutionary biology. I wonder whether you were considering this possibility.

According to the evolutionary theory (as I shall call it) all 'moral' values are explained as instrumental in promoting human survival. In other words, I act morally because in the long term to do so is in my best interests. The evolutionary theorist hopes in this way to reconstruct morality in a thoroughly 'scientific' spirit, as objective 'laws' of human behaviour. This is fully 'objective', and doesn't require 'moral objects'. The problem is that it loses sight of the question by reducing 'moral' motivation to pure self-interest.

Another possibility is suggested by the theory of moral values as 'secondary qualities'. The theory was actually put forward by my former graduate supervisor at Oxford, John McDowell.

My objection to this theory (as explained in unit 8) is that there is a crucial disanalogy between the cases of, e.g. colour perception and the case of 'value perception'. In the case of colour perception, we have a perfectly good idea of what it is to be a 'normal perceiver'. There are tests for 'colour blindness' which can be used to sort out those subjects whose natural constitution is such as to allow the full range of colour judgements, and those whose judgement is impaired. As a matter of fact (which could have been otherwise, had we evolved differently) there is one, and only one 'norm' for colour perception, which underlies differences in the colour vocabularies of different human languages. The existence of this norm is an empirical discovery. Because of this 'common nature', we are able to offer a definition of, e.g. 'red' along the lines of, 'An object is red if and only if it appears red to normal perceivers in normal circumstances.'

This formula won't work for moral perception, however. First, we have discounted the 'evolutionary' view of morals according to which there is one and only one 'natural' set of moral values, viz. those that promote human survival. Secondly, we want to allow for the possibility that the minority view, perhaps the one voice who dissents, can turn out to be correct (e.g. consider societies where slavery was considered the acceptable 'norm').

Your last suggestion is not clear to me. 'Another possibility, however, is that moral qualities are not secondary but primary qualities of the objects in the world.' We have already discounted the theory that moral qualities are 'objects', so what is the difference in calling them 'primary qualities'? How is this going to evade Mackie's argument from queerness? It is precisely because moral objects would have to have 'queer' qualities that Mackie rejects them. But maybe I'm missing something here.

All the best,


Wittgenstein on sensation 'S'

To: Robert H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein on sensation 'S'
Date: 14 July 2006 09:36

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your email of 3 July, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, on the subject of Wittgenstein's sensation 'S'.

Wittgenstein's point is that we SEEM to understand the idea of writing 'S' in a diary, but further questioning reveals that the idea is in fact nonsense. Hence, objections that 'Wittgenstein has failed to give an adequate definition of a private language' miss the point. Wittgenstein is arguing that cannot be such a language. 'S' cannot have the meaning ascribed to it in the thought experiment.

Wittgenstein is not talking about the 'feelings and resonances assigned to a symbol' but strictly about 'the association of a symbol or word with an object'. Associating words with objects is something we do all the time. So what has gone wrong in the 'S' case?

It has been claimed by some critics of Wittgenstein that the argument against the possibility of a private language depends crucially on a 'verificationist assumption'. You say something that suggests this: 'If language depends on rules, and these rules have to be verifiable then Wittgenstein's thought experiment suggests that the private naming of sensations cannot occur.'

It would be far too strict a requirement to say that the application of linguistic rules should always be verifiable. Suppose I doubted whether I am using a certain colour word consistently. I can look at colour charts, ask other people's opinions and so on. But there is no way to remove the doubt entirely. In practice, however, we do not usually entertain such doubts. We take it for granted that we are using words correctly, even when there is no opportunity to check that this is so.

Wittgenstein makes a far less exacting requirement. The correct or incorrect use of a word must be capable of having some consequences, but it needn't always have consequences in practice (e.g. when you use a word incorrectly and no-one corrects you). The problem with the way 'S' is defined, however, is that there is no way that a 'mistake' in using 'S' could ever have any consequences. I can say what I like and never be 'wrong'.

The crucial sentence in the quote is, 'I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated.'

Wittgenstein is using 'definition' in a much broader sense that the usual one. For example (quoting from the program), 'giddy' is what you feel when you go on a roundabout, 'pain' is a feeling sometimes caused by injury which makes you cry out and rub the effected part.

In a later paragraph, Wittgenstein gives the example of the discovery that a certain feeling is associated with a rise in blood pressure. You go to a doctor and he confirms that 'S' usually occurs when your blood pressure is too high. So now it is NOT the case that 'a definition of the sign cannot be formulated'. This is like your story of the 'computer physician'.

The philosopher who wants to say that 'a definition of the sign cannot be formulated' is in the grip of the idea that my subjective impression of 'S' has a reality which is completely independent of the physical world. Even if no changes in my body corresponded to the occurrence of S, there would still be such a thing as 'following my own rule for the use of S'. But this is an illusion according to Wittgenstein. There is no 'rule' because I am free to say what I like. 'Right' and 'wrong' are defined purely in terms of what I say, in which case there is no such thing as 'right' or 'wrong'.

Does God use a private language? That's a very interesting question. Would it be enough if God 'created the world and humans to ensure that she (?) had something to talk to'? The problem is that God is supposedly omniscient and therefore not in the position of a language speaker who stands to be corrected by others. God can never be wrong about what he/she means by a word.

Similar things have been said about bees and dolphins. It appears from ample evidence that bees through their 'bee dance' are able to transmit information which is used by other bees. Similarly, dolphins emit underwater sounds which other dolphins interpret as a description of objects in the vicinity.

However, the transmission of information is not the same as language use. The bee does not have a choice about 'how' to dance. It does what it does by instinct, and the other bees similarly 'interpret' what it does by instinct. In principle, all we are dealing with here is a chain of causes and effects which produces information in the recipient.

Voice recognition programs could get very sophisticated. At some point, a computer armed with voice recognition would be a suitable candidate for the Turing Test. If you could keep up a conversation with it indefinitely, then no further question arises as to whether it is 'really' intelligent'. In that case, we would be treating the computer as a member of the linguistic community, correcting it's mistakes and allowing it to correct ours.

In other words, the point where we are dealing with language, rather than mere transmission of information is the point where 'right' and 'wrong' come in, the point where 'mistakes' are possible.

All the best,


Gorgias 'On What Is Not'

To: Marcus S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Gorgias 'On What Is Not'
Date: 13 July 2006 11:17

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your email of 29 June, with your fifth and final essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Select an argument from Gorgias' On What is Not and discuss its interpretation and validity.'

You have chosen this passage:
[If what-is] does not have a beginning, it is unlimited, and if it is unlimited it is nowhere. For if it is anywhere, that in which it is is different from it, and so what-is will no longer be unlimited, since it is enclosed in something. For what encloses is larger than what is enclosed, but nothing is larger than what is unlimited, and so what is unlimited is not anywhere. Further, it is not enclosed in itself, either. For "that in which" and "that in it" will be the same, and what-is will become two, place and body (for "that in which is place, and "that in it" is body). But this is absurd, so what-is is not in itself, either. And so, if what-is is eternal, it is unlimited, but if it is unlimited it is nowhere, and if it is nowhere it is not.

You have chosen a particularly interesting argument, which has continued relevance today in the philosophy of space and time, and also to the notion of a universal set or the concept of 'everything'.

Your claim that 'all subjects are really assertions' applies in a Russellian sense, that a proposition containing a singular term like, 'The President of the USA' would be analysed by Russell as a conjunction of two claims, e.g. 'The President of the USA is ill' becomes, 'There is one and only one president of the USA, and that person is ill'.

However, in 'This is a birch tree', the term 'this' arguably does not make an existence claim. 'This' is functioning as a 'logically proper name' in Russell's sense. (A complication is that Russell would only allow names of sense data to be 'logically proper' but we can ignore this for the sake of the present example.)

We know that, for Gorgias, 'there is something which is' is NOT meant in the sense that, e.g. if there is a pen on my desk then it follows that there is something which is. The meaning is clearly intended to apply to a special case of 'what is', namely, 'everything', or 'the whole'. Gorgias is taking as the assumption for reductio, that there is such a thing as 'everything that is', or the 'whole of existence'.

The statement, 'There is something which is, and that thing is not' is a contradiction. However, the statement, 'If there is something which is, then that thing is not' is not a contradiction but is logically equivalent to, 'It is not the case that there is something which is.' We have seen that this is not intended to rule out the existence of my pen, but rather the existence of a thing which we call, 'the whole' or 'everything that exists'. There is no such thing, Gorgias argues, 'as everything'.

In a similar way, in formal logic the statement, while, 'P and not-P' is a contradiction, the statement, 'If P, then not-P' is not a contradiction, but is logically equivalent to, 'not-P'.

In order to grasp the force of the argument it is not necessary to take this in a strictly Parmenidean sense. The argument applies to anyone who believes that it makes sense to talk of 'everything that is'.

If there is such a thing as 'what is', in Gorgiases sense, then where is it? Gorgias argues that to be somewhere is to be in relation to something else. For example, the pen is on my desk. But 'what is' already includes everything, so there is nothing for it to be spatially (or temporally) related to.

Therefore it is 'nowhere'. Therefore, 'it is not'.

Let's take each of these two claims. You offer the suggestion that what is, is over here on my desk, and over there outside my window, and so on. In other words, it is not 'nowhere'. This implies a relational view of space and time, as advocated by Leibniz in his famous dispute with the Newtonian, Samuel Clarke. According to Leibniz, space is not something, 'in itself', it is merely a construct of spatial relations. According to Newton, by contrast, space is something in itself, he calls it the 'sensorium of God'. In which case, the whole of infinite space 'is' somewhere, namely 'in' God (presumably in a non-spatial sense). So we might be tempted to accuse Gorgias of assuming a non-relational (non-Leibnizian) notion of what (spatially or temporally) is. Leibniz would reply, as you do, that it simply does not make sense to ask where 'everything' is, the parts of 'what is' are where they are in relation to other parts of what is.

On second thoughts, isn't this exactly what Gorgias is saying? 'What is' is nowhere, because it doesn't make sense to ask 'where' it is.

I don't agree that we can make anything of the difference between 'nowhere' and 'nowhere in particular'. 'He is going nowhere' and 'he is going nowhere in particular' mean different things, but there is no such thing as being 'nowhere in particular' unless we are talking e.g. about quantum mechanics where (allegedly) an electron exists in a region (as a 'cloud') but nowhere in particular within that region.

What is, is nowhere. Does it follow that what is, is not? No. We have seen that attributing existence to the totality of 'what is' has a special meaning which cannot be explained in terms of what it is for a member of that totality to exist.

However, Gorgias can legitimately point out that the onus is on the defender of a notion of 'everything that is' to explain this unique sense of 'existence'.

It was none other than Russell himself who produced the most powerful argument against the idea of 'everything that is'. It is known as Russell's paradox. Gorgias would have felt vindicated.

The assumption which necessarily underlies the notion of 'everything that is', is the idea that we can form a SET corresponding to any condition. 'Everything that is' is the set which contains everything which exists.

But if that assumption is true, then we should be able to form the following set: 'X belongs in set S if and only if X is not a member of itself'.

First, we may remark that some of the things that exist are objects, and some are sets. Some sets are members of themselves, e.g. the set of abstract objects is itself an abstract object, and some are not, e.g. the set of pens is not a pen.

If X is a set, then X belongs in S only if X is not a member of X. Then we ask the question, what about the case of X=S? Is S a member of itself or not?

If it is, it isn't and if it isn't it is.

Therefore, it logically follows that there is no such set as S.

Therefore we have to reject the assumption that we can form a set corresponding to any condition.


All the best,


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Anti-realism and the idea of truth as a 'target'

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and the idea of truth as a 'target'
Date: 13 July 2006 08:25

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 25 June, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, Does anti-realism violate the reality principle in denying the existence of a verification independent 'target for our thoughts to aim at'?

The proponents of the 'verification principle' led by Rudolph Carnap in the USA and A.J. Ayer in Britain were looking for a criterion of meaningfulness which could be used, in Tractarian fashion, to separate genuine questions from meaningless speculation. As Ayer explains in the second edition of 'Language, Truth and Logic', it is not necessary that we should possess the means to verify, e.g. (my example) that there is life in other solar systems in order to understand how the statement, 'There is life in other solar systems' might, in principle, be verified. Understanding how an observer ideally placed could verify the proposition is sufficient for grasping its meaning.

On the other hand, 'There are empty times' (periods of time where no events happen) cannot be directly verified, although we 'seem' to understand what that proposition means. So is it meaningful or not?

By contrast, the anti-realist, as I have characterized this position, is not presenting a criterion of meaningfulness but rather raising a question about our grasp of the concept of truth. What role does the notion truth play in understanding a proposition? What does it mean to say that a proposition is, or might be, true?

While I accept that there is a wider sense in which 'realism and anti-realism are directions rather than positions' - so that, for example, you can be realist or anti-realist about specific areas of discourse, e.g. discourse about theoretical entities - we have been focusing on global realism and anti-realism, a general view about the nature of truth itself, rather than a view about any particular area of discourse.

The distinction between anti-realism as applied to a particular area of discourse and global anti-realism is Michael Dummett's, although I do not follow Dummett's characterization of the realist/ anti-realist debate.

Going back to Freud, we all engage in pleasurable fantasies with the knowledge that they are fantasies. This is in itself a remarkable fact about human nature. Yet most of us - most of the time - avoid the temptation to relapse into a way of thinking where one forgets the difference between reality and fantasy and 'acts out' one's fantasies.

My accusation against a certain kind of 'anti-realist' is of performing a kind of 'double think'. The anti-realist, in seeking to define a notion of 'truth' in contrast with the realist's conception of truth, only succeeds in undermining the very idea of an independent 'target for our thoughts to aim at'.

For this kind of anti-realist, a proposition becomes 'true' because we believe it - because we have performed the 'correct' verification procedures and satisfied ourselves that we may legitimately assert the proposition as 'true' - a complete reversal of the point of the reality principle, that belief should reflect how things are in the world. I want to say that it is not necessary to perform this double think in order to defend an anti-realist position. There is an alternative, namely, to refuse the invitation to 'define' truth in opposition to the realist's notion of 'correspondence with reality. In other words, the anti-realist avoids the clash with the reality principle by refusing to define truth.

The more reflective realist, meanwhile, sees that 'correspondence with reality' is an empty phrase, thus agreeing with the anti-realist about the indefinability of truth. This is the point where the dialectic moves forward, and we are able to get to the crux of the dispute between the realist and anti-realist.

My aim in these units has been to narrow the focus down to the precise point on which the realist/ anti-realist dialectic turns. It is not about 'definitions of truth', it is not about 'theories of meaning'. it is about that mysterious, uncanny feeling one has when one says, about some alleged fact which cannot ever be verified, 'That might have happened,' or, 'That might be true'.

What is going on here? What conception of the 'world' or 'reality' is implied by that statement?

The problem, ultimately, is about the fact that as subjects we are irretrievably situated at a place and a time - a perspective - yet the very form of the words that we use implies that thought itself is free from perspective. The question is how this tension is ultimately to be resolved.

All the best,


The nature of concepts and conceptual schemes

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The nature of concpts and conceptual schemes
Date: 30 June 2006 12:54

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your emails of 24 and 27 June with your essays for the Philosophy of Language program, on the topics, 'If different conceptual schemes can divide the world up in different ways, then there is no such thing as 'the world'.' - Discuss, and, 'Concepts are not in a Platonic heaven, nor are they in the head. They are out there in the world.' - Discuss.

Concepts are not in the head

There seems something paradoxical about the claim that concepts are not in the head, given that in order to 'follow a rule' (in Wittgenstein's sense) there must be something 'about me' which gives me this ability, or in which the ability resides. If you teach me the rule for 'times 2' then there is a fact, true of me, to the effect that I have the ability to calculate the function times 2 for any given numerical input - or at least for a suitably circumscribed range of inputs.

Why not just say that my 'understanding', the thing that I have 'learned' is 'something in me'?

Or let's say I learn what a dog is. Now I know how to recognize a dog when I see one. Doesn't that mean that I must have something 'in me' which I apply to an object of my experience in deciding whether or not it is an example of a dog?

There is nothing wrong with speculating that 'something changes in the brain' when I learn times 2 or what a dog is. We haven't yet identified it, maybe one day we will. One day, maybe, you will be able to point to the exact spot where my times 2 ability is stored. Or maybe not. Either way, the only way I have access to my own brain is through using it to think and speak. In the process of thinking, calculating, recognizing I do various things in the world, I make noises, pick things out, write things down.

The question is whether in between my (unknown, possibly unknowable) brain state and my verbal and non-verbal behaviour (as seen by an observer) or dogs and arithmetical calculations (as seen by me) we need to posit 'private' knowledge, to which by definition only I have access, of the rules I am following in deciding the value of times 2 or recognizing a dog.

We use all sorts of 'rules' in calculating and recognizing, rules which we can explain to others. A private 'rule' by contrast is meant to capture the idea of my idiosyncratic grasp of these public rules, 'what it is like' from the subjective standpoint to understand a given public rule. I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that there is something that 'it is like' to be a given subject (hence my book Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds). What I do not accept is that this 'something it is like' plays any part in explaining the nature of concepts.

Conceptual schemes

The idea of 'different conceptual schemes dividing the world up in different ways' is meant to be more radical than the observation that different sciences deal with different worlds, e.g. the world of physics and the world of biology. The point about physics and biology is that there is no way to translate the laws of biology into the laws of physics, even though the ultimate constituents of biological entities are purely physical. In other words, there is one world - the physical world - which can be seen from various perspectives determined by the theoretical framework within which one is working.

Your example of fundamental physics is not like this, because we find ourselves in the predicament of not knowing which is the correct theory. Is the world made of superstrings or not? If it is a case of an open verdict, then that is perfectly consistent with the notion that there is one physical world - we just don't know which is the correct physical theory to describe it at the present time. On the other hand, we may be dealing with a case like wave-partical duality where both descriptions are accepted as being 'partially true'. Again, this does not undermine the idea that there is one physical world whose nature is such that no single form of description can capture it.

The idea of 'different conceptual schemes' is meant to be more radical than this. The idea is that there would be a deep and irreconcilable split between languages or systems of description, each of which was fully justifiable in its own terms, but incapable of being related to or compared with the other system.

Davidson's point against this (in 'On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme') is semantic. There is no situation, describable from the point of view of semantic theory, in which we could ever recognize that this was the case. The only way you can 'recognize' that another conceptual scheme really is 'other' is by not understanding it - which precludes any such recognition. If Martians have a different conceptual scheme to ours, we could never know.

Many find this unsatisfactory because we feel the idea of other possible conceptual schemes as a challenge to the validity of our own conceptual scheme. I argue in the program that the 'challenge' is real, but badly expressed in terms of conceptual schemes. It really is possible, not just to have false beliefs or false theories, but false concepts. The fact that we are able to 'define' a term to our own satisfaction is no proof that it has a meaning. The fact that speakers 'agree' on the use of a term could simply be a reflection of their sharing a common illusion that it has a meaning - like the witch hunters of salem or art critics who think they know when a painting has 'dynamic symmetry'.

How useful is it to talk of 'the world'? Your examples tend to show that in practice we do inhabit many different 'worlds' reflecting our different interests or purposes. Why insist that all these different worlds all belong in one big world?

My answer would be that the concept of 'the world' is as justified, no more or less, than the use of the term, 'is true'. To say, of any statement, 'That's true' is to make the claim, that is how things ARE, or what IS the case. The world, as Wittgenstein said, is 'all that is the case'. If there is such a thing as logic, then there is such a thing as 'the world'.

All the best,


Monday, December 19, 2011

Michael Dummett on anti-realist theory of meaning

To: Lisa H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Michael Dummett on anti-realist theory of meaning
Date: 30 June 2006 11:00

Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your email of 24 June, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What do you understand by Michael Dummett's idea of an anti-realist theory of meaning? Give an example illustrating how such a theory of meaning would be applied to one particular class of statement.'

The first thing to be clear about is that we are talking about a theory of meaning rather than a theory of knowledge. The question that a philosopher like Michael Dummett is asking is, 'What is involved in understanding a statement - regardless of our knowledge of the truth or falsity of that statement?'

Clearly, it must be possible to understand a statement prior to knowing whether it is true or false, otherwise language would be completely useless.

For example, Susie says to me, 'I have toothache'. This gives me information, leading to knowledge. I can see that Susie is holding her jaw, but there could be various explanations. I know that she has made an appointment at the dentist, but again there is more than one explanation. I don't know whether Susie has a toothache or not unless she tells me.

This seems to pose a problem for an anti-realist theory of meaning, according to which the conditions for the application of a term must always be such as to enable the meaning of that term to be conveyed from teacher to learner. E.g. 'This is what is called a "tree".'

The anti-realist, however, will say that it is part of the 'criterion' for the application of a term like 'toothache' that the sufferer not only behaves in characteristic ways but also vocalises, verbally or non-verbally. The concept of 'toothache' involves a total package which includes pain behaviour, characteristic cries and verbal behaviour.

A realist (at least by my definition) doesn't have to object to this, however. This is because we are dealing here at the level of applying concepts, like 'tree' or 'toothache'. The clash between realism and anti-realism arises when we make statements about the past or future, or about generality.

Where realism and anti-realism split apart is over statements, e.g. like, 'There was a tree standing here one hundred thousand years ago.' Knowing what a 'year' is and what a 'tree' is doesn't give the 'rules' which a teacher can convey to a learner for correctly using that statement. You can be right or wrong about using the term 'tree' but there will never be an occasion when you recognize that you are 'right' or 'wrong' in making the statement about the tree that existed so long ago.

Or consider your concept, 'mermaid'. Provided a suitable definition can be found for 'mermaid', both realist and anti-realist would agree that if you found a woman stranded on the beach with a fish tail instead of legs that this would be an example of a 'mermaid'. However, the realist will be happy to say, 'Either there existed mermaids a hundred thousand years ago or not,' while the anti-realist (of Dummett's persuasion) will refuse to 'understand' this assertion of the law of excluded middle, on the grounds that there are no circumstances which we can recognize whenever they obtain, which would verify or falsify the claim about mermaids existing so long ago. Yes, you might find a hundred thousand year old mermaid skeleton, but this is a matter of chance. Understanding the statment implies knowledge of circumstances which can be recognized *whenever* they obtain.

You raise the question of the 'truth' of statements about fiction (e.g. the film Splash. Here, I don't see any particular problem for realism or anti-realism). The thing about a book or a film is that, unlike the universe, or all times past and future, it is fully surveyable. You can go through each frame of the film to decide whether a Ford Mustang appears in it, or whether Tom Hanks says, 'XYZ' somewhere in the script. There is, however, an issue about how we understand the 'truth' of such statements. One easy way to explain this is simply to add the qualification, 'In the film Splash...'. In the film splash Tom Hanks falls in love with a mermaid. That's true. But it is not true that Tom Hanks ever fell in love with a mermaid. It is only true in the film.

All the best,


Determinism, indeterminism and free will

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Determinism, indeterminism and free will
Date: 13 June 2006 11:45

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 9 June, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that Freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

You have had a good go at the question, and raised some interesting points.

Before I start, you asked about books to complement your Pathways units. I take it that you have seen the Pathways Book List, at .

As a basic library, you need a good philosophical encyclopaedia (as mentioned in the introductory letter) an introduction to philosophy (which will have suggested readings) as well as one or two classic texts. One of the features of this course is that the units do not have associated reading lists. How you read them will depend very much on the direction of your interests and what questions grab you.

However, if you decide on an essay topic and would like me to suggest possible readings I would be happy to do so.

Mary Warnock on Sartre was a very good reading for your essay on free will. Sartre has an original 'take' on free will which is not easy to grasp. I, for one, struggle with the idea of what it means to say that man's 'existence precedes his essence'.

However, I would to concentrate on the idea that 'a subject who is self-aware chooses himself'.

What is the difference between 'choosing myself' in a genuine sense and merely watching my life go by, like a spectator at a horse race?

Suppose someone suggested that the very acts of 'consciously choosing yourself' are themselves merely events that 'you' witness, as a passive observer of your own life?

Sartre would argue that the incoherence of this idea arises in the notion of what it is to 'observe' something. When I am observing a horse race, I can concentrate my attention on the leading horse, or horse in second place, or on the varying patterns as the horses catch and overtake one another. This 'concentrating my attention' is itself a free mental action, something I freely decide to do, either consciously or without thinking about it.

However, suppose it occurred to me that my turning my attention this way or that is itself merely an objective event that I can observe. What happens then is that I take a mental 'step up' and become aware of my deciding to turn my attention this way or that. And now we can say the very same thing again. I can think of myself as taking a mental step up as an 'objective event' only by taking a further step up.

In other words, however reflective I become, however many step ups I take, I have to view the 'I' at the top of this hierarchy as 'free'. It is impossible to view oneself wholly objectively. The 'I' always escapes.

Does that prove free will? Not exactly. What it proves is that there is an inherent impossibility of seeing ourselves objectively. The standpoint of the agent is necessarily one which involves the 'assumption' of free will.

Thomas Nagel in 'The View From Nowhere' (one book that I would recommend, although it is quite hard in places) offers an argument which relates to this conclusion. We can become aware of some of the causes which have led to our making the decisions that we make. We remember how we were brought up, and the formative experiences of our lives. But could we, in principle, become aware of all the causes of our actions? Nagel argues that, in order to occupy the standpoint of the agent there must necessarily be a 'penumbra of ignorance' concerning the causes of our actions.

Sartre's argument concerning the 'transcendence of the ego' plugs in to Nagel's argument, ruling out the escape route of saying that there might still be an 'I' which does not occupy the standpoint of an agent. Mental agency is still agency. Self-consciousness cannot be divorced from mental agency.

In my view, this is not so much an argument for 'free will' (as Sartre takes it) but rather an argument for the necessity of viewing ourselves 'as' free, which is not necessarily the same thing. I might turn out, as opponents of free will claim, that free will is merely a 'necessary illusion'.

In your essay, you also offer an argument against materialism. 'Surely my thoughts don't have the same existence as my body. For one thing you can't "see" thoughts, you can't "hear" thoughts, you can't "touch" thoughts, you can't "smell" thoughts.'

A materialist might reply that there are lots of things that 'exist' in the material world which can't be seen, heard, touched or tasted yet we are not tempted to posit their existence as 'immaterial' stuff. There are three books on my desk. But you can't see, hear, touch or taste the number three as such. (Or, at least, I can't.) At school I learned about Isaac Newton and his concept of gravity. Gravity is another thing one can't see, hear, touch or taste.

One view in the materialist camp compares the mind to a program. When you open up a computer to examine its electronic components, you can't 'see' the programs running on it. A good book to read on this is Daniel Dennett 'Consciousness Explained' which is available as a Pelican paperback.

All the best,


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quine's ontological relativity and the nature of concepts

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Quine's ontological relativity and the nature of concepts
Date: 12 June 2006 08:47

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 31 May, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, inspired by the question, 'What is the significance of Quine's doctrine of 'Ontological Relativity'? How does it contrast with 'linguistic relativism'?'

I won't criticize you for not 'answering the question' as your essay is merely 'inspired' by it rather than being intended as a response.

I would not be at all surprised if there was, or could be interesting science to do on the way the brain is organized in relation to concept possession. Nor would I be surprised if there were interesting and theoretically useful correlations between what one could say about human beings and what one could say about, e.g. dogs. (Incidentally, in relation to your remark about the fox, it is extremely important for animals to be able to recognize members of their 'kind' - dogs rarely, if ever, attempt to mate with foxes.)

This would not lead me to conclude that dogs have 'concepts'. What may be two examples of a 'kind' from the point of view of neuroscience (neural templates) may be very different when viewed from the point of view of the philosophy of language. There is nothing surprising or remarkable about this. Each science, including philosophy, seeks to carve its subject 'at the joints' to use Plato's pregnant metaphor, but the very same things may have different 'joints' depending on which science is dealing with them.

However, we are not primarily concerned with the question whether animals have concepts, or whether, or to what extent language is necessary for concept possession.

Although neuroscience and the philosophy of language are two different disciplines, one would of course expect illuminating connections or even explanations. A priori, I don't know whether this will be the case or not. What is a mistake - and I think this may be a mistake you may have fallen into - is to assume that there must be a 1-1 mapping from one science onto the other.

One of the most important lessons from the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, and also a view widely shared by philosophers who would not describe themselves as 'Wittgensteinian' is the doctrine of *externalism* about meaning. On this view, concepts are not 'in the head', as Hilary Putnam bluntly puts it.

Consider the example of identical twins (unit 9). You know 'that nice man' as the helpful neighbour who recently moved in to the large white house at the end of the street. However, unknown to you, the man lives with his identical twin brother. In terms of your neural template, either of the twins would satisfy the conditions for being, 'that nice man' although you would of course revise the template if you discovered your false assumption.

On an externalist view, prior to discovering your false assumption, when you subsequently think or talk about 'that nice man', you *succeed* in referring to the man you met even though your neural template would have been exactly the same had you met the other twin instead. Your 'concept' of 'that nice man' is not just something in your head, it is complex pattern that includes your past behaviour and causal interactions with the world.

Again, I don't want to go too far with this because this is not the topic of the essay. The point is that it is wrong to assume that because it is the structure of our brains that enables us to 'refer' to things or 'mean' something, it follows that 'reference', 'meaning' can be explained purely at the level of the individual subject, without any reference to what is outside.

However, if the assumption is discarded, then the theory of neural templates could never be a substitute for, or successor to a theory of meaning.

A concept is much more than a mere recognitional capacity. Let's level the 'externalist' issue aside and consider how concepts work. Your description at the beginning of your essay gave the impression that a neural template is a kind of mental image, a picture which we compare with things we find in the world. However, there are many concepts which are not associated directly with a recognitional capacity. Concepts are embedded in a framework where each concept not only has 'criteria' for its application but also 'consequences' in terms of the other things that it might be part of a criterion for. This is fully consistent with the findings of neuroscience, and also with Quine's observation in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' about the way our conceptual scheme interacts with the world or experience as a whole, rather than individual bits being associated with individual bits of experience or parts of the world.

What externalism adds to this picture is that a conceptual scheme cannot be considered solipsistically. We share a conceptual scheme as users of a common language, irrespective of the fact that we do not all share the same knowledge or beliefs.

Quine is responsible for putting forward a sceptical challenge about meaning, which in 'Word and Object' he called 'indeterminacy of translation'. There is no way, even in principle, that we can rule out alternative translations from one language to another. Later, in response to Donald Davidson's contribution to the debate, he distinguished between two levels of 'indeterminacy', the level of individual concepts (indeterminacy of meaning) and the level of the basic apparatus for individuation and identity (indeterminacy of reference).

Ontological relativity is about the indeterminacy of reference. The only way to speak of the 'ontology' of an individual speaker or group of speakers is from the point of view of another language. We imagine that when we say 'rabbit' and look at a rabbit we have achieved a successful 'hook up' between a linguistic item and a physical piece of the world. On Quine's view, 'the world' and the 'pieces' that compose it is whatever our language says. In my example of a rabbit, I used the term 'rabbit' twice, once in quotes and once out of quotes. If I had picked the rabbit up in my hands and shaken it, I still would not have succeeded in fixing on the 'thing' independently of language.

What would the theory of neural templates say about this? Let's assume that there is a neural template for the word 'rabbit'. The very same physical structure, Quine would argue, would work just as well for 'collection of rabbit parts' provided that correlative adjustments were made in 'interpreting' the neural templates for the terms 'is similar to', 'is part of', 'is identical with'. Neural templates only work in a structure where they are connected with other templates. They 'interact with the world or experience as a whole'.

All the best,