Monday, December 31, 2012

The validity of philosophy as a science

To: Manuel R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Validity of philosophy as a science
Date: 6th February 2009 13:26

Dear Manuel,

Thank you for your email of 27 January, with your third essay towards the Associate award, 'On the Validity of Philosophy as True Science'.

I admire the passion with which you defend philosophy. However, there is not a lot of philosophy as such in your essay. It is much more a piece of rhetoric (in a good sense) directed against thoughtless critics of philosophy.

There is a place for such rhetoric, and I have indulged in it on more than one occasion (if you scan through the various Pathways web sites). However, there is a substantial question, concerning the nature of philosophy and its relationship to what we now term 'science' or 'the sciences', as well as the question of what is the proper method for philosophy, and the question of the objectivity and truth of philosophical theories.

Beyond this, there is a further question about metaphysics and its relationship to philosophy.

As it happens, your first paragraph is strongly reminiscent of a quote from the Preface to the first edition of Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' (substituting 'metaphysics' for 'philosophy'):

'Time was when metaphysics was entitled the Queen of all the sciences; and if the will be taken for the deed, the pre-eminent importance of her accepted tasks gives her every right to this title of honour. Now, however, the changed fashion of the time brings her only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken, she mourns like Hecuba...'.

In academic philosophy today, metaphysics is viewed merely as a branch of philosophical analysis, and the great metaphysical systems of the past -- such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradley -- are regarded merely as being of historical interest. My own book, 'Naive Metaphysics' was written against this trend. Few academic philosophers would be impressed by a defence of metaphysics, offered as a defence of philosophy, and they would agree with Kant (to a large extent) that the pretensions of metaphysics need to be harshly limited, for the sake of the advancement of human knowledge.

Is philosophy a science? Although you tell the story of the rise of science in the 19th century, you fail to mention explicitly the doctrine of Positivism, according to which philosophical theories are merely anticipations of science. When a science develops, it replaces the speculations of the philosopher with the rigorous, experimentally founded theories of science. This is a challenge which you don't meet successfully.

Claiming philosophy as a 'science' isn't enough. You need to examine the methods of philosophy: for example, with the rise of mathematical philosophy in the 20th century, a 'new' conception of philosophical analysis as the proper method of philosophy developed which became the dominant paradigm in English-speaking (but not continental) philosophy.

Continental philosophers, on the other hand, seeking to defend the 'scientific' status of philosophy would look to Husserl, who claimed to have provided a new basis for philosophy in the
so-called 'science' of phenomenology. Yet, by the time one gets to Heidegger and Sartre, there is a very strong antipathy to the scientific model of philosophy, particularly in Heidegger's critique of Technology.

As you can see, this is, or has the potential to be a rather complex question. Most serious philosophers wouldn't even bother to argue with your sceptical acquaintances or your father. Much of the popular 'criticisms' of philosophy are based on mere ignorance, and not worthy of rebuttal.

What does it mean to say that philosophy is 'true science'? There are at least two different things that one might wish to argue for. The first is that philosophical inquiry yields objective truths, not opinions or expressions of an individual's world view. As such, they are contributions to human knowledge.

The second claim, which is more controversial, is that philosophy is a science, alongside physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics. Philosophers in the USA such as W.V.O. Quine have argued that philosophy is not 'a' science but rather continuous with the sciences. That is to say, there is no precise borderline between 'doing philosophy' and 'doing science'. This involves the controversial claim that, in Quine's words, 'There is no first philosophy.' ('First philosophy' was the term which Aristotle used to refer to what is now known as 'metaphysics'.)

What this means, for Quine, is that the traditional problems of scepticism (for example) are solved by considering knowledge and its acquisition, not as a philosophical problem (the need to respond to the Cartesian sceptic) but rather as a matter of scientific inquiry -- how, in fact, do human beings acquire knowledge and how is this explained in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution. The philosopher, in Quine's vision, is basically a logician offering rigorous definitions (re-definitions) of familiar concepts like 'cause' or 'meaning' which are sufficiently robust to meet the needs of empirical science.

Reading your essay, I have very little idea of which model of philosophy you would want to defend, or why. It is difficult to defend philosophy in the broad way that you have attempted to do without taking a stand, which involves agreeing with one (or more) tradition(s) of philosophical inquiry and disagreeing with others. The different traditions claim that philosophy contributes to knowledge -- our store of objective truths -- but disagree significantly in their conception of how philosophical knowledge is acquired.

There is another line you could take, which would probably be more effective against your sceptical friends etc. And that would be to take their arguments and respond ad hominem, using the method of reductio ad absurdum. 'If the argument you are using is valid, then it would also be valid to say... but... '.This is not the same as a defence of philosophy (because it is merely ad hominem) but it is instructive, and could make an acceptable essay for the Associate, if the result yields insight into the nature of and methods of philosophy.

All the best,


Hume on the notion of cause, and essays on logic

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the notion of cause, and essays on logic
Date: 6th February 2009 12:12

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 22 January, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy paper, in response to the question, 'In both the Treatise and the first Enquiry, Hume provides two definitions of 'cause'. What does the second definition add to the first, and why did Hume think it necessary to introduce it?', and your email of 31 January, with your essays for the UoL Logic paper, in response to the questions, 'How can we best understand the notion of necessity?', 'How can one justifiably distinguish true counterfactual conditionals from false ones, given that all such conditionals have false antecedents?' and ''Truth entails coherence, not vice versa.' Does this refute coherence theories of truth?'

Hume on causation

I puzzled over why you thought that Hume's two definitions are both definitions of 'cause(b)' in your sense ('the belief formed by some conscious mind about the necessary association of some event A and some event B'), rather than definitions of 'cause(a)' ('the actual material, physical, scientific connection etc.') and cause(b) respectively.

Lawlike connection is what we (ought to) mean when we assert that A caused B, according to Hume. This cannot be verified conclusively. The grounds for asserting this lawlike connection are the observation of regular connection between A and B instances. According to Hume, the mind is naturally (i.e. psychologically) disposed to form causal beliefs. Given his ideological view that all the things we call 'reasons' are ultimately founded in the principles of psychological association, we can interpret the definition as offering verification conditions (i.e. defeasable 'reasons' for forming judgements about causes).

Possibly, you have been motivated by the observation (which has been thought to be problematic) that Hume talks of the mind being 'caused' (the one place where you use the term 'caused(a)') to form the belief in causal connections.

A further complicating factor is that as you state Hume recognizes that there are 'secret, concealed' causes that owing to limitations of observation we can know nothing about. Arguably, Hume was wrong about the latter, failing to appreciate the possibilities for scientific advance. What he was not wrong about was that it is impossible to verify conclusively that a lawlike connection holds between A and B, since this covers infinitely many instances.

Notion of necessity

I'm not altogether happy with what you say about Quine. You state, 'In order to support his conclusion that synonymy is not possible, Quine must maintain that while there is a fact of the matter about what each sentence means, no two sentences can ever possibly mean the same thing.'

Why? Why does there have to be a definitive 'fact of the matter' about what a sentence means? It is not necessary to embrace full-blown 'meaning holism' in order to believe that we don't know ourselves exactly what we mean.

This is consistent with the belief that we know roughly what our words mean (contra what seems to be suggested by the 'gavagai' example). We know roughly what we mean by 'cause' for example. The main impetus for analytic philosophy is the desire to sharpen our understanding. Here, Quine has an attractive alternative to the traditional view of the philosopher 'analysing' a given concept, and the problems raised by Meno's paradox (Moore's 'paradox of analysis'). We are replacing concepts from everyday usage with concepts we have artificially devised (and therefore whose meaning is determinate because we explicitly defined them) -- a process which Quine calls 'regimentation'.

You can be a modified meaning holist without accepting the whole package: this is the point of Dummett's criticisms of Quine in his first book on Frege. To maintain the notion of a difference between statements on the 'periphery' and statements which are 'embedded' in the network of beliefs we need to maintain a degree of rigidity with regard to what beliefs can be modified, i.e. preserve the laws of logic.

I'm not persuaded that necessity can ultimately be defined in terms of analyticity. It doesn't follow that we have to embrace possible world semantics as a definition of necessity. Why not just bite the bullet and state that 'necessity' and 'possibility' are sui generis, not definable in any other terms?

Counterfactual conditionals

Not all subjunctive conditionals are counterfactual, because subjunctive conditionals can have true antecedents. It is important to make this clear.

Contrary to what you appear to state, Lewis does not give a 'rigorous treatment' of the notion of similarity of possible worlds. The rigorous treatment of counterfactuals which he offers assumes an unanalysed and unanalysable notion of similarity. As you point out, this is open to objections (people's intuitions differ). However, Lewis would reply that he is merely offering a truth conditional analysis of an admittedly vague locution, relocating the source of vagueness in the notion of similarity so that it is plain for all to see.

Thus if you and I differ over the 'truth' of a given counterfactual, the reason is that we differ in our intuitive judgements of similarity with respect to the worlds in question.

You miss the crucial criticism which Lewis gives of Mackie's account (see 71, the Kennedy-Oswald example).

I am tempted to agree with your account in terms of our intuitions about causation. However, the first criticism would be that these intuitions, like intuitions about similarity are vague. How can counterfactuals be useful in science if they rely on vague intuitions?

Compared with Lewis, you don't offer any rigorous format in which the truth conditions of counterfactuals can be explained, in terms of your chosen (admittedly vague) concept whereas Lewis does. (It has been tried: I remember Dorothy Edgington telling me about a book by a philosopher defending a rigorous causal account. Published by Reidel, the book was so expensive that she feared that no-one would read it. I don't have the reference unfortunately.)

The best that one can say is that (in terms of our account, or, for that matter, Lewises) we can distinguish some true counterfactual statements from some false counterfactual statements, while there remain a huge amount of counterfactuals whose truth or falsity interests us -- yet we have no means to discover that truth value, nor any illuminating way to grasp the nature of the unknown or unknowable reality by virtue of which those unanswered questions would have answers.

Truth and coherence

I agree with your criticism of the question. My main difficulty here is that I couldn't see any rationale for the coherence theory. You mention the 'frame problem', 'We cannot 'get outside' our set of beliefs and compare propositions to objective facts,' but this looks more like (or, failing that, equally) an argument for minimalism rather than for a coherence theory.

It is rather important that coherence theories have been put forward in the context of metaphysical definitions of reality which reject the Russellian picture of discrete terms and relations, i.e., the kind of objective idealism one finds in F.H. Bradley, or the Hegelian/ Spinozistic view of thought in Brand Blanshard's 'The Nature of Thought'.

In other words, a coherence theory of truth would be appropriate in the context of a particular metaphysical view about the nature of reality, and it is this rather than epistemological considerations or worries about the limits of language which primarily motivates the theory.

All the best,


Truth as a property of a statement

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Truth as a property of a statement
Date: 29th January 2009 11:17

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, in response to the question, ''When we say that some statement is true, we are attributing the property of truth to that statement.' Critically discuss this claim.'

This is a knowledgeable answer which shows that you have grasped the main issues around the question of whether or not truth is a property of true statements. You expressed reservations regarding whether you had covered all the relevant issues. However, I think that the problem is that although you discuss the central question -- which concerns the challenge of deflationist theories of truth -- you don't give this question sufficient priority.

Having said that, one might criticize the question for not making this sufficiently clear. In an exam, you can say this whenever you are genuinely in doubt about what you are being asked to do, then state your version of the question. If you are wrong about the examiner's intentions, at least they can see that this was partly their fault!

If I was answering this question, I would certainly mention the question what kind of property truth is, if it is a property (correspondence vs coherence etc.) As you explain, it is difficulties with the various substantial theories which have been offered of truth that motivates the various versions of deflationism. However, the question didn't ask you to survey all the possible theories of truth. (You don't mention pragmatism, or Field's physicalist theory of truth, or Collingwood's theory that truth is an always an answer to a question or etc. etc.) This is something you would never be asked to do in an exam. (Don't worry, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever be asked about Collingwood -- you can look at his 'Metaphysics' and 'Autobiography' if you're interested to know more.)

Or to put the matter more succinctly: it is relevant that deflationism is motivated by certain difficulties, and it is appropriate to refer to these difficulties. However, the argument for deflationism is not, 'All other theories of truth have failed therefore deflationism is the only option.' If it was, then deflationism would always be vulnerable to an overlooked possibility. Deflationists are confident that the very idea of truth being a substantive property is wrong, and any theory which assumes this is doomed to fail. The question is asking you to assess this claim.

Because so much space is given to the various theories of truth, your coverage of the deflationist question is rather brief. You mention the main issues -- like the difference between Ramsay's redundancy theory and Horwich's minimalism, or the question of the kinds of entity that are quantified over if the statement, 'Harry said something true' is to be interpreted in terms of quantification over propositions -- but this was a chance to go into these issues more deeply.

For example, if objectival quantification is ruled out, then a substitutional interpretation of the propositional quantifier implies that such statements are short for infinite conjunctions or disjunctions of propositions/statements, which in turn implies that truth, construed 'minimalistically' is still a very powerful concept/ notational device which in effect conveys a content which could only otherwise be conveyed by means of an infinitely long statement.

Another line of argument which would be relevant is the deflationist's view of what we are doing when we assert a statement. There seem to be very deep metaphysical questions about the way language or thought relate to reality, which the various traditional theories of truth are trying to answer. Has deflationism given up on these questions, or does the deflationist have something to say here?

For example, Michael Dummett claims that the redundancy theorist is committed to an 'anti-realist' view of truth, according to which there is nothing in reality which 'makes' e.g. a statement about the past true or false. Statements are Wittgensteinian moves in the language game, judged as 'true' or 'false' according to the rules of that game -- and that's all there is to say. The task for the philosopher of language is to devise a theory of meaning explaining these rules. That theory, in effect, explains what truth is indirectly, by showing what role it plays in the theory.

It would take some argument to connect the issue of anti-realism (for or against) to deflationism, but in principle it would be relevant to the question; which doesn't mean that you have to mention it. There is no 'model answer' to this question. You have leeway to discuss the issues around deflationism that you find gripping. But you need to show the examiner that your focus is firmly on that question.

All the best,


Kant's categorical imperative as a test for maxims

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's categorical imperative as a test for maxims
Date: 27th January 2009 12:44

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 17 January, with your essay for the University of London paper, Ethics: Historical Perspectives, in response to the question, 'Does Kant's categorical imperative succeed as a test of the acceptability of practical maxims?'

It is important to keep in mind that the question is about Kant's categorical imperative as a test of maxims, not the question of 'categorical' vs 'hypothetical' imperatives generally (Foot vs McDowell). McDowell rejects the view that moral imperatives are hypothetical but this is not in any way intended as a defence of Kant's use of the categorical imperative as a means of sorting necessary/ acceptable/ unacceptable actions.

You say, 'Although Kant argues carefully for the logic of his CI formulations, they are still only based on his intuition. The CI is based on Kant's intuition that there exists something absolutely and necessarily valuable, not because it is desired by humans, but because it is an end-in-itself and so objectively valuable. Since it is present in all rational beings it must be universalised.'

This is something Kant believed, but he would reject this gloss on the rationale of the original formulation. His argument is that if there is ANY constraint on action which is not hypothetical, then the ONLY law can be the one he states. In the light of McDowell's theory this claim might well be questioned.

In response to the charge that he is relying on 'intuition', Kant might concede that it may well be 'intuition' which guides the application of this law, especially when reformulated in terms of increasingly teleological notions. However, this is just an indication of the depth of the categorical imperative -- that human beings strain to grasp its essential meaning, and human reason being fallible we don't always come to the correct conclusions.

You might reply that this is a very convenient let-out. Whenever someone comes up with an apparent counterexample, Kant replies that they haven't thought it through. In fact, in your essay you give some good examples of how carelessness in formulating a maxim leads to the wrong result.

For example, you give the correct response to the objection, 'What if everyone wanted to be a farmer?' However, the reformulation, 'For personal satisfaction, I shall become a farmer, if there is a need for more farmers,' still leaves the question unresolved. What if there is a need for only a few more farmers? Unfortunately, farming has become a very popular occupation and everyone wants to be one. Pursuing my satisfaction would be OK in other circumstances but not here. So we need something like, 'For personal satisfaction I shall pursue my exceptional talent for farming, if there is a need for a few more farmers.'

Of course, my belief in my exceptional talent can be factually false, but that is irrelevant so far as assessing the application of the categorical imperative is concerned.

This suggests a powerful defence of the categorical imperative against apparent counterexamples: where the principle does not give a clear result, and where the initial attempt to formulate our maxim 'precisely and honestly' doesn't solve the problem, we use the categorical imperative together with our knowledge of the relevant facts (e.g. the demand and supply of farmers) to formulate a maxim which is consistent with it.

The problem now is where the categorical imperative apparently gives a 'clear result' but it is the wrong result. How do we know? E.g. the example of the Nazis. This is harder than you make it look, as was demonstrated (notoriously) by R.M. Hare when in defence of his preference utilitarianism (based, as he argues, on the only logically acceptable formulation of the criterion of universalizability -- the principle of 'non-fanaticism') Hare claims that in a society of Nazis sufficiently 'heroic' in their hatred of Jews, the former might under certain circumstances be morally justified in exterminating the latter ('Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism', in 'Contemporary British Philosophy' H.D Lewis Ed. Unwin 1976, cf. pp. 121-2).

This leads into a major question of whether, or to what extent, Kant's categorical imperative can be formulated in terms of a criterion of 'universalizability': the problem is that in pursuing my moral principles, I am ignoring the fact that other people have different goals and ideals (this seems to bear on the point that Millgram is making.) To insist that moral questions should be judged by my lights is 'fanaticism'. I want to do X, and I believe everyone should want to do X. Moreover, a society were everyone wanted to do X would get along just fine. The problem is, in the actual world, a lot of people have the same view about Y which is inconsistent with X.

It seems clear that Kant would never accept Hare's consequentialist reformulation. The only solution in the case of the Nazis seems to me to reject the idea that desires are a 'given' (I've made this point before). Love and trust, for example, are things that can be 'commanded' in Kant's sense. 'I can't help how I feel' is not a defence. We are morally responsible for the way we feel. In other words, not only actions but feelings should be put to the test of the categorical imperative. This would rule out many practical maxims from even being tested, because they refer to feelings which are themselves unacceptable according to the categorical imperative.

Stated baldly, there are all sorts of difficulties and dangers with that view. I am playing devil's advocate to some extent (although I agree with McDowell -- for different reasons -- that moral judgements are not hypothetical imperatives). But I will leave the discussion at that point.

All the best,


P.S. I missed not having a bibliography with this essay. In an exam, it is not inconceivable that you might refer to an article which the examiner is not familiar with. The assertion, 'As Black says...', will have more authority if you can cite a reference ('As Black says (Phil Rev 07)...'), so it's worth memorising these. Whereas if you are referring to someone like Foot or McDowell, a reference is less important.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

What is Plato's concept of knowledge?

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is Plato's concept of knowledge?
Date: 23rd January 2009 11:22

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, in response to the question, 'What is Plato's Concept of Knowledge?'

I can see that a lot of work has gone into this essay, particularly with your reading of Plato's difficult dialogue, Theaetetus. However, what you have offered is a detailed summary of the dialogue, covering all the main arguments, followed by a rather hasty reference to Plato's views in the Meno and Republic which appear to have been added as an afterthought.

There are a number of essay topics which you might tackle in relation to the Theaetetus:

1. Plato's critique of Protagorean relativism. How fair a depiction does Plato give of Protagoras' theory? How effective are his arguments as an attack on a relativist view of truth?

2. What exactly is the problem that Plato sees with the notion of false belief in the Theaetetus? Are any of his explanations effective? How do they shed light on Plato's concept of knowledge?

3. 'Knowledge is true belief plus an account.' Discuss Plato's views of the definition of knowledge in relation to the Meno, Republic and the Theaetetus. How do these views lead to the claim that the only subject matter concerning which knowledge is possible is the world of Forms?

4. What exactly is the point of 'Socrates' dream' in the Theaetetus? How does it relate to Russell's theory of logical atomism? How is this used to explain the nature of the 'logos' which is required for genuine knowledge?

The simple (seeming) question, 'What is Plato's Concept of Knowledge?' is asking for your analysis of Plato's theory of knowledge, as a contribution to epistemology; a contribution that one might evaluate alongside the views of contemporary philosophers. In other words, how different essentially is Plato's concept of knowledge from contemporary views of knowledge?

Obviously, one big difference is that Plato did not think it was possible to have 'knowledge' of the world of appearances. However, arguably, this might be a consequence not of his concept of knowledge as such, but rather of his metaphysical views concerning the nature of the world of forms and the world of appearances.

A central issue in contemporary epistemology is the alleged insufficiency of the definition of knowledge as 'justified true belief', as argued in Edmund Gettier's paper, 'Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?' There is potentially scope to mention Gettier's arguments in a discussion of Plato's concept of knowledge, insofar as Plato's definition in the Theaetetus provides the model for a view of knowledge which up until relatively recently was taken to be uncontroversial.

What would Plato have said about Gettier? One not implausible possibility is that he would have used this as further evidence that knowledge of the world of appearances is impossible. The 'Gettier counterexamples' to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief arguably only work in relation to empirical knowledge, where a belief can be true and justified, but its truth is still a 'lucky accident'. There is no room for lucky accidents (or is there?) with regard to knowledge of a priori/ necessary truths.

The Meno and Republic are equally important to the Theaetetus in a discussion of Plato's concept of knowledge.

In the Meno, Plato in addition to his slave boy experiment, (which as you argue illustrates how a priori knowledge is possible) offers a persuasive argument why we should not be satisfied with having true beliefs. A belief without an account is 'untethered' and tends to run away. This gives a strong clue to how Plato understood the notion of a 'logos' which he refers to in the Theaetetus.

In the Republic, Plato expounds on the metaphysical basis for his scepticism regarding the world of appearances, as well as giving an account of knowledge which leans strongly on the model of perception -- i.e. knowledge of objects (the forms) rather than of the truth of propositions.

Obviously, the question gives you a considerable amount of leeway to discuss the issues that you think are most relevant to Plato's concept of knowledge. Is there a detectable change in Plato's views? How consistent are the statements which he makes in the three dialogues concerning the nature of knowledge? And so on.

I hope I have provided some useful pointers. In an exam, you would be given credit for your knowledge of the Theaetetus, but you would also lose marks for giving too much detail of Plato's arguments, and not enough analysis of Plato's concept of knowledge as expounded in the Meno, Republic and Theaetetus.

All the best,


Milesians as philosophers and Xenophanes on knowledge

To: Cornell J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesians as philosophers and Xenophanes on knowledge
Date: 22nd January 2009 11:28

Dear Cornell,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Milesians as Philosophers', your email of 16 January with your additional comment regarding Thales' assertion, 'all things are full of gods', and your email of 22 January with your query regarding Jonathan Barnes' discussion of Xenophanes views on knowledge and true belief.

Your essay is a very readable and competent survey of the main views of the Milesians. Considering the amount of material, the essay is remarkably concise, and successfully identifies the major themes. Apart from commenting that Anaximenes differed from his predecessor Anaximander in considering the 'how' rather than the 'why', you do not say anything which is liable to raise controversy.

What exactly is the difference between 'how' and 'why'? Consider the questions, 'How does a cigarette lighter work?' and 'Why does a cigarette lighter produce a flame when you flick the button?' The question, 'how' looks for a mechanism or series of steps which elucidate the process in question. When you flick the button, the flint wheel turns and scrapes against the flint. At the same time gas is released, etc. etc. This is the same answer you would give to 'Why'.

Maybe one way to explain the difference between Anaximenes and Anaximander would be to say that both philosophers are concerned to explain a number of 'whys': why is there a 'cosmos' (and not chaos), why do things change in predictable ways, etc. Anaximenes, however, supplies something additional, a mechanism of change (condensation/rarefaction).

That is correct so far as it goes but it misses the point that I think you wanted to make, that there is a 'why' question which Anaximander tries to answer but Anaximenes ignores. Why are there 'elements' or 'opposites' at all? It is tempting to see this as evidence of a deeper metaphysical insight -- the realization that there is more to 'explaining the world' than mere physics (although Barnes scoffs at this in his treatment of Anaximander's 'apeiron' referring to it as a mystical 'tohu bohu', in other words a regressive step rather than a progression). Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the earth is notable, however, for being a priori and therefore, as I comment in the unit, recognizable as a philosophical rather than a merely physical explanation.

In your note, you do introduce a question which is highly controversial. Not only that, the question is absolutely central to the way we understand the thinking of the Milesian philosophers.

You say that,

'it is only necessary to look at the vast majority of the world's peoples today who readily accept revelation as their authority even with the vast font of now 'accessible knowledge'. With so much less "scientific" information available to the ancients one would have to assume at least some reliance on the supernatural for unexplainable events. I therefore think that the fragment regarding 'little gods' could just as readily be taken at its face value.'

Although the Milesians are credited with inventing 'physics', their science was very different from the scientific materialism that rules today (and which claims its roots in the atomism of Democritus). The very existence of a cosmos was considered evidence that in addition to matter and its changes there exists a 'nous' or mental agency which has a purposive aspect (i.e. it is not merely a product of physical processes). For Anaximander, this takes the form of 'cosmic justice' maintaining the balance of opposites. It is harder to see this in Anaximenes, yet he too regarded his arche has having mental as well as physical properties.

When Thales describes things as being 'full of gods', one explanation is, as you say, that he literally believed that there were little demons at work, which e.g. make the magnet attract iron filings. One problem with this view is the regularity and predictability of magnetism, as with other phenomena. It looks as if these little demons have no choice but to act in exactly the way they do, time and again.

My view of this in the unit is that what Thales is really implying is that human action isn't fundamentally any different. Our purposive movements are a species of natural purposiveness of which magnetism is just another example. This turns the primitive view on its head, putting man firmly in the natural world, as just another phenomenon which is ruled by the laws of nature.

Of course, I can't be certain of this view. All we have is a short enigmatic remark. However, one has to consider that this remark comes down to us because it was thought to be worth preserving, which in turn implies that Thales was saying something challenging, not merely echoing traditional views.

Finally, regarding the discussion of 'true belief' in Barnes pp. 140-1. This is not difficult to unravel, although Barnes makes a bit of a meal of it because he is concerned to challenge the interpretation offered by Sextus.

You can believe something, and your belief can be true, even though it would not be correct to say that you know. Many of the things that we believe, we are not sure of; our beliefs are merely hopeful guesses, or are based on faulty evidence or reasoning. Despite this, by lucky chance, a significant number of these beliefs (even if it is only 50 per cent) are in fact true. You wouldn't call that 'knowledge'.

The traditional view is that what makes a true belief count as knowledge is the possession of adequate justification. When you have adequate justification your belief can be relied upon to be true. When your belief is true, it is not merely an accident that it is true.

According to Xenophanes, even when philosophers 'get lucky' and hit on the correct explanation this isn't knowledge because they don't have a god's eye view. Their justification falls short of what is required for knowledge because it is merely hypothetical (what would now be termed 'inference to the best explanation'). Today we would regard this as too strict -- it would rule out most scientific knowledge.

According to Barnes, Sextus gets this wrong. He seems to think that all Xenophanes is saying is that we need to know what it is that we believe. I find that rather odd. Obviously, you can know that you believe, and your belief can be true, but it is not knowledge, for the reasons given above.

In the 60's a short paper by Edmund Gettier, 'Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?' upset the apple cart, arguing that there are occasions when even fully justified true belief can fail to be knowledge. A large proportion of recent debate in Epistemology revolves around 'Gettier counterexamples' and the various theories of knowledge put forward in the attempt to get round them. Look up 'Gettier' in Google.

All the best,


Descartes on perceiving beeswax and the case for doubt

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes on perceiving beeswax and the case for doubt
Date: 21st January 2009 11:54

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 11 January with your essay in response to the University of London Modern Philosophy question, ''I must... admit that the nature of this piece of wax is in now way revealed by my imagination, but is perceived by the mind alone' (Descartes Second Meditation). What led Descartes to this view? What is its significance?', and your email of 16 January, with your essay in response to the Modern Philosophy question, ''There is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised' (Descartes). Does Descartes succeed in showing this in the First Meditation?'

The beeswax passage

This is a difficult topic. You take a clear line that Descartes' conclusions regarding the beeswax essentially involve his philosophy of mind-body dualism. Your reasoning is plausible. But is that the only way to read this passage?

As you remark, Descartes uses 'perceptions' in two senses, the perception made by the mind and the 'perceptions' of the senses. Let's use a terminology which Descartes could hardly have objected to, calling the perceptions of the senses, 'sensations'. We can leave it an open question whether it would be correct to label Descartes as a 'sense datum theorist'. The distinction between sensation and perception does not require belief in 'sense data' as such (See D.W. Hamlyn 'Sensation and Perception' RKP).

One thing we need to do is determine what it is that Descartes puts forward as the alternative to 'perceiving with the mind'. If that is the answer, what was the question? what is the alternative?

Here is one widely accepted view (which you will find e.g. in David Wiggins 'Sameness and Substance' Blackwell). 'Wax' is a sortal concept. Identity over time is spatio-temporal continuity under a covering sortal concept. Part of grasping the concept 'wax' is understanding the various possible changes that a piece of wax can undergo, and not be destroyed.

Of course, there is a huge question here about the underlying explanation for changes of this sort: in effect, the clash between the Aristotelian hylomorphic view and the atomism of Democritus. Descartes is reasoning like a good Aristotelian. It is the mind that comprehends the 'form' of wax, that which determines the changes that wax can undergo while remaining wax.

In these terms, the 'alternative' would be some kind of phenomenalist theory which defined the piece of wax in terms of sequences of sensations or possible sensations. Descartes' point would seem to be that such a definition cannot be given. Consulting my concept of wax -- or my more general concept of organic substance -- any change which is not irreversible is allowed. Empirical investigation later tells us what some of these changes are (e.g. we discover that wax can be vaporised and condensed, provided care is taken to prevent it catching fire).

If this interpretation is correct, then Descartes is wrong in thinking that his experiment with the beeswax supplies support for mind-body dualism as such. What it does do, is illustrate Descartes' concept of substance, and indirectly legitimise the view that the mind or the body can both be a 'substance', that is say, an entity with an identity whose conditions are determined by a covering sortal concept.

Descartes' argument for doubt

This is a bit of a mess. First, I don't think that it is a valid approach to introduce Descartes' theory of mind-body dualism into his reasoning concerning the 'things that may be doubted'. The whole point of this exercise is that the reader is expected to assent, prior to knowing anything about Descartes' theory. The success or failure of Descartes' argument in the first meditation depends on this.

Your introduction of the beeswax example looks clearly wrong here. As I remarked above, we can learn from our sense perceptions that, e.g. it is possible for wax to vaporise and condense.

There is no objection in principle to mentioning Descartes' arguments over the indubitability of 'I' and then his argument for God. However, the quote relates to 'my former beliefs' which implies that we are addressing a reader who has not yet considered these things.

The meat of the question is therefore in Descartes' use of the argument from illusion, dreaming and the evil demon hypothesis. Descartes himself makes clear that the argument over misperception is merely intended to sharpen the question -- we learn by sense experience that our sense perceptions are sometimes mistaken. However, it also enables him to distinguish between the given in perception and the external object perceived, a distinction which he needs in order to proceed to the next stage of the argument.

The argument from dreaming and the evil demon raise substantial philosophical issues (with which you are very familiar). You are expected to air this knowledge in your answer, demonstrating to the examiner that (possibly) you can see a way in which Descartes has overstated his case, or, alternatively, agreeing with Descartes' conclusions.

All the best,


Hume and Feagin on the tragic response

To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on the tragic response
Date: 20th January 2009 12:47

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your essay entitled 'The Tragic Response' for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, on Ch 3 of 'Reading Philosophy' looking at David Hume 'Of Tragedy' and Susan Feagin 'The Pleasures of Tragedy'.

You have stirred a lot of things up here, without reaching any definite conclusion. Both Hume's and Feagin's arguments seem to fall short of an adequate explanation. You don't offer any alternative theory, but rather suggest not implausibly that both authors have failed to grapple with the complexity of the human response.

If you answered a question on this in the exam, I doubt whether there would be time for an excursion into Hume's theory of ideas and impressions, although it was worth making the attempt. The idea of 'conversion' fits some of the things that Hume says about the process of the association of ideas -- although one suspects that just about any theory could be made to fit.

I have received quite a number of essays on this subject and one thing that strikes me is that no-one has seriously raised the question -- which I think is at the heart of the paradox of tragedy -- concerning why human beings are moved at all by works of fiction.

Feagin, in her contribution tries to blur this point by considering the pleasure which we allegedly derive from news stories of disasters, atrocities etc. which also confirm the humanity of our responses. I think that this is just false. There is nothing to enjoy about bad news, if you care at all about those who are suffering. If, like the enthusiastic audience at an execution, you get a thrill out of seeing people suffer and die, that is of course different.

Then we have to consider the additional pleasure derived from 'seeing justice done'; it is at least arguable whether we ought to feel guilty about the latter. In the US where families and friends of a murder victim are invited to witness the execution, the assumption is that they have not come merely to 'enjoy' the spectacle, even though they are glad to see the murderer get his or her just deserts.

In the case of watching the news, it could also be argued that a sense of satisfaction can be derived from the fact that one 'knows the news'. It is painful to be ignorant, and even bad news eases this pain. If things are bad, one ought to know just how bad they are.

You spend much time on Hume's claims about the art of the tragic writer, and the general question of the relevance of the artist's or writer's intentions. In the case of Pasolini's 'Salo' (which I haven't seen) there is room for arguing over exactly what the artist was trying to achieve. But why can't the intention just be to thrill? Why does a work have to be 'Art' with a capital 'A'? The storytelling, characterization etc. has to be 'well done' otherwise we are not gripped. But a cheap paperback thriller, or a TV soap opera, can do this too.

The paradox remains: the hero or the heroine dies and we enjoy a good cry. Hume is right that at least some of the enjoyment comes from our appreciation of the art itself. Unfortunately, this also confuses the issue. It is axiomatic that we enjoy good art, insofar as we recognize its artistic merit. But in the case of tragedy -- or fiction generally -- this enjoyment is predicated upon something else, namely the capacity of human beings to interest themselves in fiction as such.

It could be said that the tragic writer uses their knowledge of the power of a well-told story to engage with the emotions of the reader or spectator. This is where the art lies (which in itself of course explains nothing). The real philosophical question concerns that very power, the power that fiction has to move us, to draw us into the world created by the writer, to identify with the characters and care about what happens to them.

Many years ago, as then President of the Birkbeck Philosophical Society, I invited Colin Radford to give a talk on, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?'. It was a memorable occasion, and there was an enthusiastic discussion afterwards. A version of that paper is included in Radford's book 'Driving to California'. It contains the best treatment I have seen of this question.

All the best,


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Personal identity and body duplication

To: Sue B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Personal identity and body duplication
Date: 19th January 2009 12:33

Dear Sue,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your second essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'What thought experiments concerning body duplication show is that the concept of personal identity is ultimately dispensable.'

I can see that you have worked really hard at this, coming at the question of body duplication from every possible angle.

I won't argue with your assertion that 'we do have 7 bodies - 7 levels of existence through to the most enlightened'. That is a factual claim, whose basis we do not need to go into.

One response to thought experiments of body duplication which I can see you are very strongly tempted to (and which is consistent with the '7 bodies' theory) is to say that the self or person -- that is to say, GK or SB, is a physical body PLUS something else. Call this something else a 'soul'. On this view, a soul is an entity with an identity. The soul is 'the same' at different times. It persists, has an identity, through time. When I wake up in the morning, am aware of an 'I' which is the same 'I' that I was aware of before I went to sleep the night before.

One problem with this view, which relates to the 'Buddhist approach of momentariness' which you mention in your essay, is that there is no difference between saying that the soul which you had when you went to sleep is 'the same' or 'not the same' as the soul which you have when you wake up. You have the same memories (e.g. your first day at school) but having the same memories is not sufficient for being the same soul.

The philosopher Kant (in the 'Paralogisms of Transcendental Psychology' in the second part of the 'Critique of Pure Reason') put forward the counter-argument that souls are like colliding billiard balls, each momentary soul passing its states on to the next. Kant's point was not scepticism but rather that there simply is no logical difference between the two hypotheses. In other words the term 'soul' has not yet been given a coherent definition, nor does it seem likely that such a definition can be given if we assume from the start that a soul is an entity which is separable from body (whether this be a human body or some physical entity perhaps lodged inside the human body as Scientologists apparently believe).

Thus, anything physical can in principle be duplicated. Physical things are by definition located in space. The only way a soul can escape the possibility of duplication is by not being physical. However, the absence of physicality renders the soul susceptible to Kant's argument: for a non-physical soul, non-identity would logically be the same as identity.

You mention Leibniz's thesis of the 'identity of indiscernibles', correctly pointing out that the thesis only applies if we do not count spatial position as an identifying property. Kant's argument against the soul works because we assume from the start a spatial as well as a temporal dimension.

Another thought which you consider is that there might be multiple 'I's provided that each 'I' existed in a different world. This is actually very close to a hypothesis which Nietzsche put forward, which he originally derived from the Greek Stoics, the 'theory of eternal recurrence'. According to this theory, there is only a finite amount of matter in the universe, and therefore only a finite number of possible ways in which material particles can be combined. Given the assumption of determinism, if at any time a combination of all the particles in the universe is reached which is identical to a previous combination, then from that moment on history necessarily plays out the very same sequence as it played out the previous time. It follows that you will live the identical life (and have lived the identical life) an infinite number of times.

The burning question, however, is whether all the SB's are YOU. Nietzsche assumes that they are. At any rate you have to believe this in order to feel the full force of the doctrine of eternal recurrence (Kundera's novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' vividly describes the difference between the two possible views of existence -- my life as evanescent and gone forever when it's gone, and my life infinitely repeated).

My view would be that this alternative could only appear 'real' if you believe in the identity of 'the soul' over time. On the hypothesis of momentariness, there is no recurrence, not even from one day, or one moment to the next.

What is there left? Just the physical person. The essay asked whether the concept of personal identity is dispensable. I would argue that it is not. In the society in which we live, the identity of the physical person is considered of utmost importance. (Consider what 'marriage' would be if personal identity was not considered important.) We do not, as it happens, have the power to duplicate physical persons. But if we did, then admittedly the concept would come under considerable strain. However, that is not sufficient reason in itself for throwing the concept overboard. (However, for a radically different view see Derek Parfit's book 'Reasons and Persons'.)

All the best,


Locke's attack on the theory of innate ideas

To: Graham C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's attack on the theory of innate ideas
Date: 19th january 2009 11:53

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 23 December, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy Descartes et. al. paper, in response to the question, ''Locke's attack on innate ideas and innate knowledge does not seriously damage any theory that a competent philosopher would wish to maintain.' Do you agree?'

I have taken you at your word and postponed my reply until this week. I hope you had an enjoyable time in Indonesia.

This is a knowledgeable and well-argued essay, which makes the case for a stronger conclusion from that stated in the examination question, namely, that there is no interesting or coherent thesis of innatism worth taking the trouble to argue for, or against. Your contemporary example of Chomsky's claims regarding innate knowledge of depth grammar, and your observation that the question 'how much' different human languages have in common is analogous to the question, 'How long is a piece of string?' leads to the strongly sceptical conclusion that philosophers who have argued the toss over innateness have basically been wasting their time.

Is that true? It wouldn't be the first time that an issue which seemed highly contentious dissolved under analysis in this way.

One thing that makes me pause before reaching this conclusion is the very strong empirical (though admittedly at present difficult to test) claim entailed by Chomsky's theory, that intelligent alien creatures who do not share our evolutionary heritage would not be capable of learning a human language (unless, by happy cosmic accident, they evolved the very same deep grammar on their home planet).

I have actually had the chance to argue with philosophers who have 'gone over' to Chomsky; their standard line is that *if you look at the empirical evidence* of the speed at which infants learn linguistic structures, no other explanation is possible. On the other side of the argument is the Davidsonian view that the only interesting 'structure' within human language is first-order predicate logic. The problem is, you can't engage with the argument at a general level: you have to go down into the details, something which the majority of philosophers working in the philosophy of logic and language have been loathe to do (I include myself).

One issue, then, is whether it is conceivable that there could be such alien creatures. I don't know of any argument that it is not conceivable (it is difficult to rule out a priori every possible way in which intelligent creatures might be prevented from learning a human language). On the other hand, suppose that it is conceivable: what does that show?

As you argue, the question of whether or not the 'disposition to form a concept' counts as 'having' that concept is no less obscure or fuzzy than the question to what extent all human languages have a common structure.

One thing that doesn't help (a point you could have made) is that Leibniz's analogy of Hercules 'in' the block of marble is seriously misleading in at least one respect: it treats concepts as analogous to pictures or representations. One starts of thinking that 'you either have the picture in your mind or you don't.' If you have the picture then you are able to recognize objects in the world which correspond to it. If you don't, then you have to look at the objects first and then form the concept. Then a third alternative is suggested: if you have the mere 'disposition' to form a picture, looking at corresponding objects 'triggers' the concept and makes it active. -- This makes it all sound utterly trivial.

Apart from the fact that concepts are not pictures, another relevant observation is that concepts are not employed or acquired individually, but in complex structures. This is a point made by Peter Geach in his attack on abstractionism (in 'Mental Acts' Routledge Library of Philosophy and Psychology). You can't have the concept of red unless you have the concepts of colour, reflective surface, light etc. An infant who has merely learned to say 'red' in more or less appropriate circumstances does not thereby prove that they possess the concept of red.

Yet another angle would be Kant's argument in the transcendental deduction regarding the a priori necessity for the concepts of substance and cause. This is a good an example as any of a concept which cannot be regarded as analogous to a picture (although, Kant confusingly talks of 'schemata' of the imagination in an attempt to explain something which doesn't really need explanation). Objective thought is impossible without causal thinking and the identification of spatiotemporal continuants: that's all Kant has to say.

One issue where, possibly, more argument is needed concerns Descartes' claim that he has an innate idea of God (from which he ingeniously derives an argument for the existence of an actual God who caused him to have the idea). Descartes is here appealing to anyone who thinks that they comprehend what is meant by, e.g. the 'infinity' of God's attributes. Descartes' argument does not make any claim about what human beings universally assent to: it is in a sense ad hominem, addressed to the reader alone. The continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has argued that my concept of 'the other' is, in a sense, analogous to this insofar as an information gained from experience could not be sufficient on its own to justify belief in the 'reality' of other minds.

This would be innateness with a vengeance. We cannot help but believe (apart from those unfortunate human beings who are classed as 'psychopaths') that other persons are real. Yet arguably there is no empirical evidence that one could point to which would justify that claim, rather than the lesser claim that the world is inhabited by creatures whose behaviour can be predicted and manipulated using a tool called 'language'.

All the best,


Parmenides as monist, nature of logical constants

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides as monist, nature of logical constants
Date: 16th January 2009 12:52

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 3 January, with your unseen timed essay in response to the University of London Plato and the Presocratics question, 'In what sense was Parmenides a monist?', and your email of 11. January, with your unseen timed essay in response to the UoL Logic question, 'What does it mean to say that an expression is a logical constant?'


This is an excellent essay, which covers just about every angle that I can think of.

Your distinction at the beginning -- between the sense of the question, 'Was Parmenides a monist, and if so what kind?' and 'Assuming Parmenides was a monist, what kind of monist was he?' -- looks a bit hair-splitting to me. Whenever you come across a question which asks, 'In what sense was philosopher A an XYZ-ist?' you can always read this as saying, 'In what sense, if any, was philosopher A an XYZ-ist?'

However, there is an important distinction to be made which does affect the way one answers this question. What do we mean when we talk about 'monism' or 'dualism' or 'pluralism' in the context of metaphysics? This would be a good way to start, because it lays the foundations for the things you say afterwards, including your assessment of the views of Curd and Palmer.

Monism is often taken to refer to a view in ontology: that there ultimately exists only one kind of entity. Another term for materialism -- the view held very widely today -- is material monism. However, another metaphysical view which cuts across the distinctions between material monism, dualism etc. would be the objective idealist theory that the real is the Absolute -- in other words, the denial of the reality of relations, a view which you find in Hegel or Bradley. The first form of monism holds that every thing is ultimately the same kind of substance, while he second form of monism holds that ultimately there are no separate 'things'.

In these terms Anaximenes might be described as a material monist who was also a pluralist. Parmenides can be plausibly interpreted (as you note) as offering a kind of radical critique of the project undertaken by his predecessors. So it would not be stretching a point too far to ask how, from an ontological point of view, Parmenides view of the connection between the Way of Truth and the Way of Appearances differs from Milesian philosophy.

Here, you seem to make the interesting suggestion that Parmenides, in effect, takes the whole structure of Milesian physics and adds a third level. The Way of Appearance comprehends both the physical arche (light and night) and the phenomena which are explained in terms of that arche. The Way of Truth offers a metaphysical arche, undifferentiated Being, which in a sense 'trumps' the physical explanation.

You also suggest that Plato's theory of the world of forms and the world of appearances represents a possible realization of what Parmenides might have been struggling to express. The problem with this view is, first, that Plato is clearly not a monist but a two-world dualist. Secondly, the world of forms is not 'one' in any meaningful sense. It is true that the form of the Good occupies a unique position at the top of the hierarchy of forms. But there are still many forms, not one form, and there is no suggestion that this plurality is itself ultimately 'unreal'.

We are left with the remaining puzzle of finding a meaningful place for appearances, if, as Parmenides explicitly says, nothing that can be said about them is true. Taken at face value, this is a 'radical ontological monism' which completely disconnects from the beliefs of 'mortals' offering no foundation, no explanation, just an unresolved paradox.

Logical constants

In this excellent essay, after looking at the existing alternatives you offer an explanation of your own which I find intriguing.

We are to 'imagine a being that has a superior capacity to think and process information'. An example you could have quoted is the Dustin Hoffman film, 'Rain Man' (1988) where the autist-savant played by Hoffman is able to instantly 'count' the matches dropped on the floor, numbering over a hundred. In fact, I have read reports of experiments with normal infants who have been taught to subitize surprisingly large numbers of objects.

This suggestion deserves to be investigated further. The first question one needs to ask is the question posed by Michael Dummett in his British Academy lecture, 'The Justification of Deduction'. Why do we need logic at all? Dummett gives the example of a 'proof' that it is possible to walk across every bridge over a river, crossing each bridge once only. Looking at a map of the city with the bridges marked in, you might say, a person of superior intellectual ability (an autist-savant or perhaps one of the infants who has been put through the requisite training) would simply 'see' what others would need to laboriously work out.

What does that mean, exactly? The knowledge of the layout of the city, represented by the map is, and is not, exhausted by what one can say about the structure of the map itself. It also includes all the things one can deduce such as whether or not it is necessary to cross a bridge in order to get from A to B, or the minimum number of left turns that you need to take. To say that an autist-savant would simply 'see' this still leaves the question how one represents this knowledge.

I have chosen the example of a map, in order to avoid the question of the relativity of different forms of language. A map is a map. In Wittgenstein's sense, the pictorial form of a physical map is not 'logical form'. It's pictorial form is peculiar to maps (different, e.g. from a drawing or painting from nature) in that it ignores perspective. Some maps -- like the London Tube map -- are not drawn to scale. Aliens who had vastly superior intellectual powers, and whose language (logical form) reflected this ability would still have a use for physical maps. Even if an alien could instantly 'see' the answer to our questions about the bridges or left turns, there still needs to be a way, in principle, to represent this implicit knowledge.

You can probably see what I am working up to: even if superior beings don't need logic, because they instantly see the conclusion of logical inferences which we would make laboriously by following logical rules, nevertheless *what* they see is something that it must be possible, in principle, to express. The logical structure of inferences is there, even if they do not consciously run though it, even if their language contains concepts which imply a recognitional capacity that human beings could never possess.

You can run the same argument over the simple arithmetical sum, two plus two equals four. It is a thing of wonder to beginning students of mathematics that one can 'prove' that two plus two equals four by applying Peano's axioms. The claim is that the arithmetical truth in question is more perspicuously represented by the laborious proof because it includes an explanation of what 'number' is -- the repeated application of the successor function.

A similar claim could be made concerning the logical constants. They are required for a 'perspicuous' representation of human knowledge, even in cases where in fact (pragmatically) their use can be dispensed with.

Which brings us back to the question of how one identifies the logical constants. Perhaps it does not take us right back to the beginning, because the theory-laden term 'perspicuous representation' has been introduced. But that just begs a larger question.

All the best,


Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'It is not'

To: Shan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'It is not'
Date: 16th January 2009 11:33

Dear Shan,

Thank you for your email of 2 January, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, in response to the question, 'Why does Parmenides hold that it is impossible to follow the path of 'it is not'?'

In many ways, this is a model answer to the question. You have given plausible reasons for interpreting the 'is' in 'It is' as the 'is' of existence, and then offered an interpretation of Parmenides' argument which diagnoses a modal fallacy: 'if x can exist then x must exist,' which entails the proposition, 'If x does not exist, then x cannot exist.'

This is the view held by my old professor for Greek Philosophy, D.W. Hamlyn and also by Jonathan Barnes: two notable authorities.

It is hardly necessary to have studied logic or philosophy to see that the fallacy is blatant. Nobody believes this in real life. How could Parmenides have believed it?

We are concerned here with an interpretative principle known as the 'principle of charity': other things being equal, we should favour an interpretation which makes a philosophers argument looks most convincing. Or in other words, don't attribute crudely fallacious reasoning unless there is absolutely no alternative.

Now, in favour of the Hamlyn/ Barnes view it can be said that in the time of Parmenides logic was in its infancy. But that hardly justifies attributing the view, e.g. that if a house doesn't exist then it cannot exist (you cannot build a house) or if because of my wife's miscarriage my 20 year old son doesn't exist, then it was impossible for my wife to have avoided a miscarriage.

Here, I would argue, is one exception to the general rule that when answering an exam question you should stick to the terms of the question and not add anything. Surely, in order to understand what argument Parmenides thinks he is giving, you need to refer to the deductions from 'It is'. According to Parmenides, one cannot make any statement which implies, 'It is not'; which entails that all the things human beings believe about their world are, in reality, false. There are no people, houses, colours, nothing that implies any kind of differentiation.

One way to reconcile this paradox consistently with the Hamlyn/ Barnes view would be to say that Parmenides regards ordinary factual discourse -- the way of seeming or the way of appearances -- as not touching the question of existence or non-existence. Our ordinary ways of talking don't even scratch the surface of what is, or is not 'real'. When Parmenides talks about 'ways of inquiry' he means something radically different from factual inquiry: inquiry into the real.

But now this begins to look suspiciously circular: how would Parmenides have even formed the idea of a 'real' which is different from appearances?

Here is one suggestion: Parmenides is looking at the inquiries of his predecessors and passing judgement on the coherence of their logic.

For example: Anaximenes says that what is real, is air. Because air is the real, and all appearances are explained as different states of air, air must exist. The 'modal fallacy' is not a fallacy (or, at least, not so obviously a fallacy) when we are describing the 'arche'. But now the problem arises how the arche, air, have any particular quality. The changes in the world of appearances are explained by air, but now we are told that air itself changes (e.g. from being more dense to less dense). How can that be, unless there is a reality underlying air which is constant and not subject to change?

I'm not claiming this argument is watertight: just gesturing in the direction of the kind of thing one would be looking for.

My view (for what it's worth -- have a look at the units on Parmenides in the Pathways Presocratics program) is that Parmenides is deliberately conflating the 'is' of existence and the 'is' of predication. It makes no difference to his argument which way you read 'is'. What he has seen is a genuine problem concerning the nature of negation, and not a crude modal fallacy. Which of course is not to say that Parmenides hasn't made an error. Clearly, something has gone wrong with his argument. I just think that whatever has gone wrong is more interesting, and more challenging, than the Hamlyn/ Barnes view implies.

As I said, I think you have given a model answer, which would score well in an exam. However, I think examiners will be impressed if you try to do more -- whether or not you ultimately succeed.

All the best,


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Locke on abstraction and the nature of ideas

To: Manuel R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke on abstraction and the nature of ideas
Date: 15th January 2009 12:04

Dear Manuel,

Thank you for your email of 12 January with your second essay towards the Associate Award entitled, 'Abstraction' and also for your email of 3 December with your first essay, 'On Locke's Treatment of Ideas'. Once again, please accept my apologies for overlooking your first essay in the Christmas rush.

This is good work, which shows evidence that you have really tried to get to grips with Locke. As you remark in your first essay, the most difficult think is grasping how Locke can use the term 'idea' for such disparate things as (what we would now term) a sense datum or perception, or a concept. I say 'sense datum or perception': that distinction in itself raises a huge issue which I shall explain in a minute.

Locke's stated aim, in writing his Essay, is to explain where our ideas come from, how they are formed, and in so doing draw a map of the limits of intelligible discourse. Whenever one cannot say what are the ingredients of an idea -- define it, or explain how it is derived from other ideas -- then we are simply not making sense. He calls his procedure the 'historical plain method'. This genetic view of the formation of ideas would later be criticized by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant argues that certain fundamental ideas or 'categories' are presupposed a priori in forming the very notion of 'objects' of perception.

The main target of Locke's critique are the metaphysical views of notions like 'substance' deriving from the scholastic tradition. (Having just spent the last month working on profiles of the Medieval philosophers for the PhiloSophos 'Philosophical Connections' pages, I would say you are a bit harsh on the scholastics, although it is undoubtedly the case that the 'new wave' of philosophers were less interested in the positive achievements of the scholastics.)

Mackie has some interesting things to say about Locke's 'anticipation' of Kripke's ideas on the nature of natural kind terms. Although it is true that Locke is very harsh about the concept of 'substance' as an 'I know not what' underlying the qualities of an object, he does allow a role for the idea of 'real essence' from which the observable properties of an object flow, on the model of Newton's corpuscular theory. Although our understanding of the term 'gold' is given by a 'nominal essence' we recognize that our 'nominal' classifications are not purely arbitrary but rather follow empirical investigation. In that sense, a 'better' nominal idea of gold would be one, e.g. which recognized that a metal can be white yet still be an example of gold.

As you indicate, the main consequence of Locke's use of the term 'idea' for what is given in perception is to 'push the world back' beyond the 'veil of perception'. This is an accusation made generally against all 'sense datum' theories of perception, and implies that for Locke, simple ideas are indeed thought of as sense data.

If that is a mistake, then what would be the correct view? Kant argued that perception is necessarily perception of spatio-temporal particulars. That is to say, it is a priori necessary that our experience has a particular form which makes it possible to apply spatio-temporal concepts to it. 'Intuition' as such (Lockean 'simple ideas') is indescribable except in terms of spatio-temporal concepts. It would be impossible, Kant argues, for a subject to recognize repeatable features -- such as colour, or sound -- in a purely subjective stream of experiences.

For Kant, something is subjectively 'given' but is indescribable as such. Locke's error is in thinking that in using concepts like 'red' we are describing it -- whereas in fact colour concepts like all other concepts only have meaning in relation to a world of spatio-temporal objects. Red, for example, is the colour of tomatoes or blood. Indeed, when Locke gives his theory of 'primary and secondary qualities' much of what he says there is fully consistent with Kant.

Much later, with the philosophy of Wittgenstein, the notion of a 'private object' (Lockean sense datum) would be subjected to even more radical critique, in Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language.

Which brings us to your second essay, on Abstraction. A good book to read on this issue is 'Mental Acts' by Peter Geach, in the Routledge Library of Philosophy and Psychology. (It is a small, red volume.)

It is in fact the very same error -- the idea that we somehow learn to 'name' the qualities of our subjective experiences or 'private objects' -- which gives rise to the abstractionist theory. Geach argues (on lines not that far removed from the Aristotelian view of concepts which you contrast with Locke) that a subject needs concepts in order to recognize patterns in experience. You can't teach a child the meaning of 'red' and 'round' by showing various red objects and round objects and expect the child to somehow 'intuit' the difference. Before one can form the idea of specific colours or shapes one must have the idea of colour or shape as such: in other words, a complex scheme of concepts is developed through learning to follow the rules for the use of concept words. To take the example of colour, it is impossible to know what red is if you don't know that colours are (e.g.) properties of surfaces, or that colours depend on the quality of reflected or transmitted light. Of course a child does not learn all this at once. The infant who has learned to say 'red' when it sees a red toy has not yet 'got' the concept of red.

I did find both of your essays a little bit unfocused. This is partly the fault of the very general titles (Locke on ideas, Locke on abstraction). What you need to think about are particular issues or arguments. Although it is admirable that you have tried to write a 'friendly' introduction to Locke's philosophy which a beginner could understand, you need also to have a case to make, a particular view that you are arguing for. For example, in the first essay, that view might be related to the critique of Locke's 'veil of perception'. In the second essay, that view might be related to the critique of Locke's account of abstraction. A good way to do this is compose more specific titles which announce to the reader what view of Locke you are arguing for, the case you are trying to make.

Overall, I am very pleased with this effort. Well done!

All the best,


Do Rawls' two principles of justice contradict one another?

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Do Rawls' two principles of justice contradict one another?
Date: 8th January 2009 13:28

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 December with your essay for the University of London Politics paper, in response to the question, ''Rawls's two principles of justice contradict each other.' Discuss.'

Why does Rawls put forward principles which have such obvious potential to come into conflict? You say a bit about this, but it could be argued that this is the key to answering this question.

Rawls asks which system we would choose, if we did not know what our station in life was to be. The answer is (in effect) that you hedge your bets. You ensure that adequate provision is made of the worse-off, at the cost of putting restrictions on the freedom of those who are better off to choose what they do with the resources at their disposal.

There are two ways to reject this conclusion: Accept Rawls's starting point but argue that it does not lead to the consequences which Rawls claims; or to reject the starting point. From your essay, it wasn't clear to me which of these alternative strategies you would choose.

Another connected question relates to the alleged 'contradiction'. Suppose that we accept that there is a contradiction, or potential to conflict, between the first and second principle. Why is that an objection? Why would it be any different from a situation where values conflict and we find ourselves in a moral dilemma? Undoubtedly, there is a dilemma for anyone who values freedom for its own sake, yet also holds a view of justice according to which rectifying inequalities of distribution can be part of 'justice', when these inequalities become too great, in particular when those at the lowest end are suffering real hardship.

The difficulty in this area is identifying the relevant philosophical arguments. To argue from examples -- e.g. the highly praiseworthy efforts of Bill Gates -- doesn't cut any ice. Let's say that I am very rich and share Gates' sense of social responsibility. When it comes to an election, I still have to base my decision on which party to vote for on reasoned arguments. 'Everyone should be like me, then we wouldn't need taxes,' is not an argument because everyone is not like me. The facts speak for themselves. There are massive amounts of wealth that could be used to a charitable purpose, which the owners of that wealth -- with perfect justice and right -- choose not to do so.

Nozick dazzles the reader with arguments. But most of those arguments merely show that it is impossible to put forward any consistent principle, once one abandons the axiom that the consequences of any exchange cannot be wrong, if both parties freely entered into the agreement.

One substantial point that you make concerns the potential for conflict within Rawls's first principle: 'It is politically necessary for me to tolerate other persons' engagement in homosexual lifestyles, but my own comprehensive religion might dictate that homosexuals... engage in opprobrious acts that will eventually destroy the moral fabric of society.'

This is a problem which goes to the heart of J.S. Mill's Liberty Principle. People should be free to pursue their own plan for life and happiness. However, amongst these people are group A who believe that group B should not be permitted this freedom because it contradicts a basic religious or ethical principle held by group A. Enforcing the Liberty principle in effect involves imposing restrictions on the activities of group A. Mill himself was very clear that in his vision of the 'freedom of thought and discussion', the only moral system that would prevail in the end was his own belief that the single basis for making ethical judgements is the utility principle. The moral philosopher R.M. Hare echoes this view in his description of any moral system that is not based on preference utilitarianism as a form of 'fanaticism', that is to say, illicitly imposing one's own moral views on others.

How are we to avoid this conclusion? There is no 'consistent' formula. Once you accept that people have the 'right' to their own moral or religious views, the logical consequence is that you have to tolerate the empirical consequences of allowing these people the freedom to express their beliefs, which includes restrictions on the freedom of others. You can remove, e.g. the law against homosexuality from the statute books. You can't stop a church from refusing to employ a homosexual priest, if you value the freedom of the members of that church to express their beliefs, homophobic thought they may be.

I take this, not as further evidence of the incoherence of Rawls's views but rather the contrary: that once we see how deep the inconsistency or incoherence goes, we will not object to a view simply on the grounds of its inconsistency. A better approach is one that recognizes, pragmatically, that there will always be tension. The problem, and the challenge, is to hold on to all the things we consider important, not letting anything go, even at the cost of making life more complicated than we would ideally like it to be.

All the best for 2009,


Kant on treating persons as ends in themselves

To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on treating persons as ends in themselves
Date: 8th January 2009 12:13

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 21 December, with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives paper, in response to the question, 'What does Kant mean when he says people should be treated as ends and not means? Are his arguments for this position sound?'

There are two main questions raised in your carefully written paper. The first concerns the role of the emotions, which Kant sees as contingent, and therefore outside the scope of what morality demands. We are required to do our duty -- what the categorical imperative entails -- we cannot be required to 'emote' because this capacity is distributed unevenly amongst human beings. It would not be fair to criticise someone for being cold and unfeeling, if this is that person's given nature. They can be criticized, however, for failing to act in accordance with reason as embodied in the categorical imperative.

The consequence of this downgrading of the emotions, as you note, is that the quality which justifies regarding a human being as an 'end' is restricted in a way which we find counterintuitive. A person is valuable, in themselves, only on account of his or her rationality. Consequently, emotions, like any other features of the world can only have at best instrumental value.

You say, 'I would argue that rationality and emotion interact with each other as feedback loops.' To my ear, this doesn't go far enough because it implies that emotions merely provide aid and stimulation to rational thought. A clear example would be the scientist, whose curiosity, courage and resoluteness all depend ultimately on the scientist's emotional makeup. The greatest intelligence is no use, if you lack the requisite motivation.

However, this is still to regard emotion as having a value as a means. We still have not given an adequate response to Kant's argument that the emotions cannot be commanded, because they are contingently given. However, I think Kant is wrong. Human beings are to a considerable extent responsible for their emotions. A racist who says, 'I can't help feeling disgust when I see...' is lying. This is something that can be 'helped'. We are not passive victims of our emotions. One recent example of the growing awareness of this is the burgeoning literature on 'emotional intelligence'. An essential -- or possibly the essential -- part of becoming a mature person is acquiring emotional maturity.

How would this change Kant's view of what it is that makes a human being an end in themself? Not a lot, actually. The crucial point -- which you could perhaps have emphasized more -- concerns the way we use language to interact with others. A psychiatrist dealing with a difficult patient might say things with the intention of brining about that the patient does X, as one presses certain levers aiming for a particular result. This is discourse which abandons the 'logical space of reasons' (to use McDowell's phrase). P.F. Strawson in his British Academy lecture 'Freedom and Resentment' describes the difference between discourse which recognizes someone as a 'person' and discourse which is merely used as a means to achieving a particular effect, in other words, treating a person as a thing.

This is not wrong, so long as the doctor is prepared to engage the patient in the logical space of reasons whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In this picture, the expression of emotions can be fully part of what is involved in engaging someone in the logical space of reasons. Emotions have 'formal objects', in the sense that you can't simply feel an emotion, for example, pride, about just anything. If I tell you that I am proud of the Seychelles, you are perfectly justified in asking me what connection I have to the Seychelles which justifies that feeling.

But this brings us to the second point, which clearly sets Kant apart from other moral philosophers. Non-human animals are not ends in themselves. Consequently, they have value only insofar as we value them. (That is not to say that their value is merely 'instrumental'. You can love your pet.)

I don't think that Kant would find your argument that non-human animals have the capacity to value things persuasive. All that amounts to is that (in Dennett's terms) the intentional form of explanation is, or can be appropriate to non-human animals. The chimpanzee values fruit. It doesn't know that part of this value is accounted for by the Vitamin C which the fruit contains. However, the theory of evolution by natural selection accounts for the capacity to discriminate between potential foods according to their nutritional value.

Kant is concerned with values insofar as they belong to the logical space of reasons. Of course, things can have value even though we do not recognize this, just as we recognize that there are many facts that we do not know. It is true that an object possesses value X provided that it would be recognized as having that value, were the appropriate circumstances realized. The usefulness of this desk existed prior to my recognizing its usefulness, just as the desk existed prior to my entering the room.

If you set your sights as high as Kant sets them, if you are looking for a logical, rational basis for moral judgements, then it seems inevitable that the foundation must be in the capacity of human beings for reason, in which case Kant's admittedly counterintuitive view of animals and their derivative value follows. At the other extreme, if like Peter Singer you hold that the only relevant question is the objective 'quality of consciousness' then there might indeed, as Singer has argued, be circumstances where you would sacrifice the life of a human infant to save that of an adult chimpanzee.

Kant would say that consciousness as such is merely a natural phenomenon. Any ethics based on maximizing happiness or desire satisfaction has abandoned the idea of a rational basis for moral judgements.

All the best,


Heraclitus on the unity of opposites

To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus on the unity of opposites
Date: 7th January 2009 12:48

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 18 December, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, entitled, 'Heraclitus and the lessons of opposition'.

I am sorry that I was not able to respond to this sooner. I came back to my office on Monday, facing an avalanche of work. I hope that you had an enjoyable holiday.

This is an excellent piece of work. Your primary focus is the question whether or not Heraclitus 'violated' the principle of non-contradiction. However, the scope of the essay extends to an appreciation of what Heraclitus set out to achieve, -- against the background of Milesian theories of an Arche -- and whether, or to what extent, we can say that he succeeded in his aim, whatever that aim might have been.

Two observations stand out as aspects of Heraclitus' thought which I can say, in all honesty, I have not previously given much consideration. The first is your observation regarding the nature of fire: 'One important property of fire... is... motion of a perhaps very random sort'. In other words, war, play, fire are chaotic, in principle unpredictable processes. They break things down, so that they can be built up again. Presumably, it is the function of the logos to do the breaking down, as well as the building up.

One wonders, seriously, whether this is not too much to ask of a single principle. Ought there not to be two fundamental forces (like Empedocles 'love' and 'hate')? With our physical and mechanical understanding of the universe it is easy enough (well, not 'easy') to see how the very same laws of nature which break apart and destroy can also build (e.g. through crystallization, natural selection, etc.).

All Heraclitus had to say is, 'What do you expect, creation is destruction, and destruction is creation?' (or words to that effect). And now the suspicion is that he really is falling under the spell of his own rhetoric -- just as revolutionary Marxists are accused of doing, inspired by the Hegelian dialectic. (One wouldn't make this accusation of Hegel.)

I would have liked to have seen you draw more of the consequences of your observation. Too much of the focus in discussions of Heraclitus is on Logos as the 'law of process' but this one-sidedly ignores the chaotic aspect.

The second observation, which struck me with considerable force, is where you say, 'We have no cogent frame of reference into the nature of the Logos. This hidden Logos makes everything one and from the perspective of the gods where we see plurality they see unity.' What immediately came to mind is Thomas Nagel's 'View From Nowhere.' Walking up the road, we only see the road up. Our knowledge of the road is essentially perspectival, as is all human knowledge based on experience. Yet the objective facts are not perspectival. The clash between the subjective and objective standpoints becomes an important issue with Heraclitus, in a way which it is not for his predecessors.

Both the Milesians and Heraclitus accept the principle -- which is the basic premiss of any philosophical account of reality -- that things are not necessarily as they appear. However, it is only Heraclitus who sees beyond the merely superficial, 'This piece of wood is really water (or air, or whatever)' to a deeper truth which cannot be expressed in terms of 'what things are really made of'.

All though you mention Barnes' pouring cold water on Heraclitus' assertions about opposites, you manage somehow to avoid what is a significant point of debate: whether, in fact, Heraclitus held the views about process attributed to him by Plato -- in effect, that all objects, including stones and tables, 'flow' like rivers -- or whether he merely held (as Kirk, Raven and Schofield assert) that all physical things undergo a process of change, although some things change quickly while others slowly. If he didn't hold the more extreme view, what was he trying to say?

Maybe one of the reasons why so many philosophers and commentators find Heraclitus fascinating is not just that the fragments are open to different interpretations, but that he really did try to say too much. There are so many directions in which one can take his thought. Hegel's dialectic, Whitehead's process philosophy, the physical equation of matter and energy, the clash between the subjective and objective standpoints are all ways of continuing along the path which Heraclitus laid out.

Thank you for this essay which I found a fascinating read.

All the best,


Monday, December 10, 2012

Proper names and 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist'

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Proper names and 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist'
Date: 7th January 2009 11:49

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 17 December, with your essay for the University of London Logic paper, in response to the question, 'Can we give a defensible account of the proper name 'Sherlock Holmes' which allows it to be true that Sherlock Holmes does not exist?'

I am sorry that I was not able to respond to this sooner. I came back to my office on Monday, facing an avalanche of work. I hope that you had an enjoyable holiday.

This is an excellent piece of work, which fully justifies my belief that you have the ability to do very well in the BA.

Having said that, there is an issue about whether you have given an answer to the question, rather than to a different question, e.g. 'Can we give a defensible account of existence which allows it to be true that Sherlock Holmes does not exist?' In other words, to my ear what the question is intended to focus on is the analysis of proper names (cluster of descriptions theory vs Kripke vs ...).

Reading between the lines, you are clearly aware of the problem. You say at one point that treating 'Sherlock Holmes' as a Russellian proper name ('no object, no thought') has the consequence that 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist' cannot be true. The problem, as you state, is that in ordinary language we consider this a perfectly proper thing to say (e.g to the Japanese tourist looking for 221b Baker Street).

By contrast, according to the cluster of descriptions theory, when we say, 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist' there are a variety of things we could mean, depending on which descriptions are considered salient. (Consider the variety of contexts in which one might make the statement: a reply to the Japanese tourist, an expression of frustration of a London murder detective wishing that SH were on the case, an ignorant tax investigator who comes across a site dedicated to Sherlock Holmes on the internet etc.)

If we don't like the cluster of descriptions theory as a general account of proper names, and want to allow that it can be true to say that 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist' then we need to start thinking about the various alternatives that you canvass: Meinong's theory of objects as developed by Parsons/ Zalta; Gareth Evans' account of fictional discourse as part of a 'game of make believe'; as well as the idea of 'free logics' which do not make existential commitment (here, you gesture towards the idea but don't give the reader enough information to be able to assess it).

I liked your point about the difference between an existing individual, of whom a potentially infinite number of predications are true, and a fictional or mythical or hypothetical individual defined by a strictly finite set of properties/ relations, such as 'golden mountain' or 'Sherlock Holmes'. (Although, see below on my second thoughts regarding SH.)

I am sympathetic to a Meinongian approach. Although you refer to objections raised by Russell (e.g. the objection to the idea of a 'round square') you don't mention the most serious problem -- a problem which I believe can be resolved.

On a Meinongian approach, some objects have being and exist, while other objects have being but don't exist. This in effect treats 'existence' as a property which an entity either has or doesn't have. This makes it look as if an entity could acquire, or lose, the property of existence. This IS nonsensical. Consider what it would require to 'give' Sherlock Holmes, the non-existing character of fiction, the property of existence. If I chance my name by deed poll and set up a private detective agency at 221b Baker Street, you might say, as a joke, 'Now it is true that Sherlock Holmes exists!' But of course it isn't. Sherlock Holmes the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle and 'Sherlock Holmes' the former philosopher now offering services as a detective are two entirely different entities.

However, we can still treat 'exists' as a first-order predicate (the difference between 'exists' as a first-order and as a Fregean second-order predicate is one of the issues relevant to your essay) if we are prepared to accept the consequence that we can never truly state that 'X does not exist'. Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle's stories does exist. When we say, 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist' on this account we are saying something like, 'Sherlock Holmes refers to a a character in fiction' (as with the cluster of descriptions theory of proper names, we have to allow for a variety of responses, depending on the context).

It occurs to me also that it is actually not true that 'Sherlock Holmes' when treated as a fictional character only possesses a finite number of properties. All the things ever said by literary critics about the character of Sherlock Holmes belong to the properties of that fictional entity. In that sense, it could be argued that fictional entities have a 'real essence' from which their properties flow. Unlike cooked-up philosophical examples, fictional entities have a 'reality' which is inexhaustible, in a way similar, but also dissimilar to entities in the 'real' world. The difference is the difference between 'existing in fiction' and 'existing in the world', and of course that is a mighty big difference.

All the best,