Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is Platonic love essentially self-centered?

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Platonic love essentially self-centered?
Date: 3rd December 2008 12:51

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 21 November, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, in response to the question, 'Is love, as Plato conceives of it, always essentially self-centered?'

This is a well written essay, which concentrates on the exegesis of Plato's arguments in Symposium, although you also include a reference to the critique of Plato's view on love by Gregory Vlastos.

In case I did not mention this before, I would appreciate a bibliography, showing at least the works referred to in your essay plus (optionally) works you have consulted in writing the essay.

I can see that you really got into this, from the essay as well as from your comment in your email, 'I found this very interesting and realise that there is an awful lot to learn about Plato.' There certainly is!

I don't have any criticisms of the exegesis, which is more thorough than I have received from other students writing on this topic. However, the essay would have made a stronger case if you had taken the time to analyse the question.

What exactly is it for love to be 'self-centered'? Is self-centered love the same as self-love or love of self, or are there forms of love which might be described as self-centered which are not simply self-love?

As I have stressed previously, you should always assume that the question has been worded with care. Leaving aside the question of the meaning of 'self-centered', there are at least two questions here: Are there forms of love, for Plato, which are 'essentially' self-centered, and is love 'always' thus?

Do we have a different model of love from the one that Plato offers? In other words, what is love? The modern notion of romantic love implies a willingness on the part of the lover to sacrifice everything for one's beloved, including one's own live. Whatever selfish or self-centered aspects there may be to love, these are considered subsidiary and dispensable. The same applies to self-sacrifice for the sake of love of one's country, or for the sake of love of freedom or liberty, or humanity etc.

Plato's question in relation to this would be: What exactly is it that the lover desires, in sacrificing themself, and why is it desirable? His answer, in the broadest terms, is that there is a process of identification between the lover the thing loved. (You indeed suggest this in your essay.) The interests of my beloved are my interests. My country, the cause of philosophy, humanity are all things I can 'identify' with. In promoting the interests of that which I love, even if my physical existence ceases, the thing I have identified with continues, therefore (in a sense) 'I' continue.

We learn from the Phaedo that the self is 'akin' to the forms, and its ultimate destiny is to return to the company of the Forms after the physical body has been destroyed. This already suggests that love of the physical self is based on an illusion -- our failure to grasp what we essentially are.

As you note in your essay, we 'live on' in our children, and in the succeeding generations. The writer or philosopher lives on in their works. Once again, we have a view of the self as something we identify with, as contrasted with the physical being who lives for a brief while and then is gone.

This is one reason for questioning the claim that Plato's conception of love is 'always essentially self-centered'. The claim becomes successively more meaningless as we widen our view of the nature of the self and distinguish it from the mortal subject.

However, another point that you note in your essay is that love is concerned with the interests of the beloved, even though this is seen as part of a progression towards knowledge of the Forms. My love is the vehicle which conducts me to knowledge of the Form of Beauty, but, in doing so, it is also a vehicle which conducts my beloved to this knowledge. We are in this together. My beloved is no more the means to my end, than I am the means to my beloved's end.

Quite apart from what we have said before about Plato's notion of identification, this would surely indicate that the description, 'always essentially self-centered' is not appropriate.

We could try a different tack: are there grounds for criticism of Plato's conception of love, along the lines of its reflexivity or self-centered aspect, even though this is not in any way selfishness or self-centeredness in the narrow sense?

There is a different model of love. Everything in Plato's account moves towards the idea of identification and enlarging the self so that it in a sense includes the object of its love. So long as the self does not achieve this enlargement, it feels itself to be 'lacking'. However, it could be argued that what is essential to love -- or indeed generally with regard to the relation between the self and others -- is the aspect of the other which cannot be assimilated by knowledge: the essential 'otherness' of the other.

Two philosophers who have written about this are Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Emmanuel Levinas in particular has offered an insightful critique of the Platonic conception of love. Arguably, this is a more subtle version of the charge levelled at Plato, that his conception of love is 'essentially self-centered'. If you look up "Emmanuel Levinas", Plato, and love in Google you will find plenty of references.

All the best,


Plato's slave boy experiment in the Meno

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's slave boy experiment in the Meno
Date: 28th November 2008 14:32

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper entitled, 'What exactly is Socrates examination of the slave boy in the Meno meant to show? Does it succeed?'

The lucid way in which you have set out the problem and analysed all the alternatives would easily earn you a mark in the Ist bracket if you were answering this question in an exam. You show an impressive command of the issues around the slave boy experiment in the Meno.

I suppose that the examiner might be a tinge disappointed that you don't go in to the question of the difference between 'K' and 'D' interpretations discussed by Dominic Scott. However, you still gain credit for mentioning Scott's paper. One can't have everything.

One question that could be raised is, How important is the Theory of Recollection to Plato, really? (I mean in its literal sense -- assuming we can even make sense of that). As you explain, the problem addressed in the dialogue is Meno's unwillingness to continue the dialectic on the a priori grounds that the investigation cannot succeed because of the paradox of inquiry.

Whenever in philosophy one is faced with a paradox, the first question is whether this is, as it appears, a genuine paradox or merely a fallacy.

All Plato has to do, assuming that the paradox of inquiry is a fallacious paradox, is to point out the false assumption. On the face of it, the alleged problem is patently absurd. When you look for 'an X' you obviously don't know in advance everything about the X you are looking for (say, you are looking for 'a wife who can cook'). How do you look? You pick likely candidates and test them. How do you know when you've found what you are looking for? When they pass the test. Problem solved.

That is a fairly accurate account of how Socrates actually proceeds in the elenchus -- except for the slightly worrying fact that every candidate (putative definition) he and his interlocutor come up with fails the test.

So why go into all this palaver with the slave boy, when there is a much simpler answer: 'If at first you don't succeed, try try again'?

However, there seems to be a mixup here between epistemological and metaphysical questions. Meno has posed his paradox as an epistemological problem. But it isn't. All Socrates has to say is 'this is hard knowledge to get'. The real problem is metaphysical: what is the nature of the 'fact' or 'reality' in virtue of which a correct answer to a Socratic definitional question would be TRUE?

Consider the diagram in the sand. The theorem which Socrates proves is not true in virtue of the relationships between the roughly drawn lines. It is in fact false because the area of the square on the hypotenuse is not exactly double but only approximately double.

The fact in virtue of which the theorem is true is a fact about the 'the square' (i.e. the ideal square'). This is what the diagram portrays.

By parity of reasoning, the fact by virtue of which a Socratic definition is true is not fact about how this or that person uses a term like 'virtue', or about the things we normally call 'virtuous' but rather a fact about the 'the virtuous' as such.

If this is what the slave boy experiment was designed to show, then it succeeds. The slave boy hasn't demonstrated knowledge, as Socrates claims (and as you demonstrate with considerable precision). But we weren't talking about knowledge. What the experiment shows is that the truths we seek in the elenchus are about things unseen.

You can't point to the virtuous even though you know it's there. You can only make 'diagrams' in words which point beyond virtuous acts and virtuous people to that which those items exemplify, as the square in the sand exemplifies 'the square'.

Rather that state the metaphysical theory in question -- which we may assume was only half-formed at this stage -- Socrates describes a myth. The myth correctly characterizes the nature of the metaphysical facts by virtue of which a Socratic definition is true, in formal terms, as objects of some other kind of perception than sense perception, super-objects which require a super-subject to super-perceive them.

I am not denying that this raises a deep epistemological problem. But that problem is not posed by Meno. It is a problem created by Plato's metaphysical answer to his metaphysical take on a paradox which, on the face of it, is not a genuine paradox at all.

All the best,


Russell, Strawson and Donnellan on reference

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Russell, Strawson and Donnellan on reference
Date: 25th November 2008 12:47

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 14 November, with your essay towards the University of London Logic BA examination, entitled, 'Reference'.

This is a useful summary of some of the main issues around the topic of reference, which takes in Strawson's criticisms of Russell in 'On Referring' and Keith Donnellan's distinction between the 'referential' and 'attributive' use of descriptions.

However, I do think it is very important to pick examination questions and attempt to answer them. Even if the attempt goes awry, the result will be more useful to you than merely an essay around a general topic like reference.

What you have written here is as good so far as it goes but it gives me very little to comment on because you are just summarising what someone might find in an introductory book or encyclopaedia article, for example.

There are two or three inaccuracies:

1. It is Russell who asserted (in his 1906 article 'On Denoting') that his theory of descriptions makes Frege's distinction between sense and reference redundant. The majority of philosophers who broadly accept Russell's analysis of descriptions would not agree with this claim.

To take just one example, Michael Dummett in his seminal paper, 'Truth' (reprinted in the collection 'Truth and Other Enigmas') offers (among a number of other things) a persuasive argument for regarding Strawsonian reference failure as a species of falsity (hence validating Russell's analysis), yet Dummett is a staunch supporter of Frege's sense/ reference distinction and its importance in the philosophy of language. (See Dummett's brilliant book, 'Frege Philosophy of Language' (1973) probably one of the top ten books by analytic philosophers in the latter half of the 20th century -- and also the book which got me through my BA exams!)

2. In your discussion of Russell's notion of 'logically proper name', the essential point is not that a logically proper name 'uniquely identifi[es] something now and for all time' but rather that it is impossible to doubt the existence of an entity referred to by such a name because it is given in immediate experience. It follows that I cannot know the meaning of logically proper name 'A' and logically proper name 'B' and not know whether or not A=B.

Gareth Evans in his book 'Varieties of Reference' offers a powerful argument for extending (in effect) the concept of a 'proper name' beyond the immediate experiential referents of 'this' and 'that'. Russell's view of the 'certainty' of direct subjective reference -- which leads to the sense datum theory of perception -- was attacked by the later Wittgenstein in his 'Philosophical Investigations' in series of paragraphs which have come to be known as the 'private language argument'.

3. The example of 'The present King of France' is Russell's and not Strawson's, although you seem to imply (although you don't actually say) that it is Strawson's own example. This would suggest to an examiner that you had not actually read Russell's 'On Denoting'. As 'On Denoting' is one of the most important philosophy articles written in the 20th century -- as well as being remarkably short -- I think that you should. You can access the article through JSTOR.

In general, I would say that there are some very gripping problems that can be raised relating to the issue of reference. For example, the question which you mention about the causal theory of reference. What is the theory, and can it be defended against criticisms? Evans defended a version of the theory but then later rejected his view in 'Varieties of Reference. Kripke in 'Naming and Necessity' is regarded as the main author of the causal theory. Does the notion of 'sense' play a valuable/ necessary role in a theory of meaning? What is the correct analysis of statements which refer to a non-existent entity? and so on.

To repeat what I said earlier: the best way to go about this is to pick an examination question from a past paper. You can write notes 'for your own eyes only' if this helps. What you should send me, however, are answers to focused essay questions which make a case -- whatever that case may be. I will then be able to tell you whether (in my opinion) you have made a good case, or how the essay might have been improved to make your case stronger.

Despite what I've said, this is a good start because at least you have covered a lot of ground. The next step is to get stuck in to a particular problem.

All the best,


Essays on Descartes and Locke

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Descartes and Locke
Date: 25th November 2008 12:05

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for:

- your email of 21 October, with your University of London Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Does Descartes reason in a circle when he argues that everything we clearly and distinctly perceive is true because God exists and is not a deceiver?'

- your email of 13 November, responding to the question, ''That with which the consciousness of this present thinking thing can join itself, makes the same person, and is one self with it, and with nothing else' (Locke). What are the strengths and weaknesses of this account of self?'

- your second email of 13 November responding to the question, 'Locke claims that ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities themselves, while ideas of secondary qualities do not. What does he mean by this? Does he succeed in establishing it?'

- your email of 21 November, responding to the question, 'Different Men... have different Essences of Gold, which must therefore be of their own, and not of Nature's making' (Essay III.vi.31) What did Locke mean by this? Does it imply that the classifications that we make of things in the world are arbitrary?'

Cartesian Circle

In an examination, you wouldn't have time to go into such detail over the argument from formal reality/ objective reality etc. etc. Nor do I think that a discussion of the (alleged) Cartesian circle requires this.

The main issue here is your contention that Descartes distinguishes between 'clear and distinct ideas' as such, and truths arrived at by the 'natural light' or the 'light of reason'. It is somewhat puzzling, therefore, that you do not give a single example of a proposition which arises from a 'clear and distinct idea' which is not validated by the 'light of reason'.

I don't think Descartes intends to draw the distinction which you allege here. If he did, he would have said much more than he actually says. However, there is a semantic distinction that one might draw between conceiving of an idea and assenting to a proposition, although for Descartes this line is somewhat blurred. My idea of substance as such is a clear and distinct idea, from which a number of propositions follow. For example, the proposition that a mode cannot exist in the absence of a substance in which it inheres. This proposition is validated by the 'light of reason'. In short, 'clear and distinct' relates (more) to perception while 'light of reason' relates (more) to judgement.

There is another question which you point to about rational judgements of probability. These are possible because God is not a deceiver. We can base reasonable judgements on the evidence of our senses, even though our senses do sometimes deceive us (Descartes goes to considerable lengths in Meditation 6 to explain how this happens). In other words, there is a distinction between judgements which we know to be true by reason, and judgements which we know to be true because they are rationally inferred from strong evidence as the 'best explanation' of our experience.

What, then, about the Cartesian circle? In Meditation 1, we have seen that Descartes dismisses without argument the possibility that he is a 'madman'. In other words, it is axiomatic that he has the capacity to reason. Even so, one can be deceived about things which are based on rational argument. The longer the chain of reasoning, the easier it is to slip up. The evil demon has the power to make me get my sums wrong even if he can't make me think that 2+3=6. Here is a good example of how 'clear and distinct' ideas trump 'truths by the light of reason'. You can just *see* that 2+3=5. You can't just 'see' that 123456 to the power of 3 is (whatever it is), even though each step in the calculation is show to be valid by the light of reason.

Descartes can't go wrong, he thinks, provided that he takes very short steps in his reasoning. 'I exist' is a given. Each further step must meet the standard set by the cogito. Once God's existence is established, then he can trust longer chains of reasoning, as well as the evidence of his senses and his sense of 'best explanation'.

Locke's account of self

I don't think you meant to say that, literally, an object A is one and the same as object B if and only if there is 'no addition or subtraction from the collection' of atoms. This clashes with what you say in a previous paragraph, that it is our idea of the kind object in question that determines how we regard its identity. For example a 'house' is the same house even if it gets repaired over time and has rooms added on.

This view is consistent with David Wiggins' account of identity as 'spatio-temporal continuity' under a 'covering sortal concept' (see his book 'Sameness and Substance' Blackwell).

Once again, in an exam, you only have limited time to discuss Locke's account of the identity of inorganic objects or organisms.

One surprising omission, however, is the thought experiment of the prince and the pauper soul swap, designed to prove that personal identity has nothing to do with 'identity of substance' (i.e. Cartesian soul substance). This is crucial to Locke's 'forensic' criterion of sameness of consciousness. (Locke indeed stresses that personal identity is a forensic notion.)

You have missed two vital criticisms. The first criticism arises from the questionable status of memory claims. In Locke's account, the continuity of consciousness is an entirely separate matter from the continuity of the biological organism in which the consciousness 'resides'. The result is that Locke has no means of distinguishing 'veridical' from 'false' memories. Whereas, in an account which recognizes that memory necessarily is embodied, involving physical causation, we have the means to distinguish a memory which arises from the 'right kind' of causal chain and one that does not. (You will find this in Wiggins.)

The second criticism relates either to consciousness with memory, or to the account you offer at the end, which attempts to avoid memory altogether by focusing on the immediate continuity of consciousness from one moment to the next. Let's say an evil scientist (or evil angel) puts me in a duplicating machine which instantaneously creates two GKs. Each GK copy has a consciousness which connects to the consciousness of the GK who entered the machine. In other words, there is no way that by focusing on the subjective quality of consciousness one can establish identity over rival claims. (Sydney Shoemaker in his book 'Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity' was the first philosopher to consider this kind of case, in his thought experiment of brain splitting and transplantation.)

This is of course not just a problem for Locke but for accounts of personal identity generally, although arguably it is worse for Locke because body has no essential part to play.

Locke on primary and secondary qualities

This is a good essay so far as it goes. You have given a good explanation of what Locke means by his claim that primary qualities 'resemble' the qualities themselves while secondary do not. The second question, however, is whether he 'succeeds in establishing' this claim.

It won't do to say merely that Locke was concerned to 'provide a sound philosophical foundation for the corpuscular hypothesis', even though, this is most likely true. The distinction in question, and the claims based upon it, is intended to be a priori, based purely on reasoning on the basis of the nature of primary and secondary qualities as defined. It cannot be acceptable (I'm not saying you think it is) that the 'correct' philosophical theory is contingent on whether a given physical hypothesis, such as corpuscularianism, is true.

We know that corpuscularianism is false. There are atoms, to be sure, but they are not the bedrock of physical theory. On the contrary, the basic concepts of particle physics are theoretical constructs which bear only a tangential relation to human experience.

This makes a difference. However, the question is how much of a difference. Can't we still say, that the snowball appears round because it 'is' round? How do you define 'round'? by Euclidean geometry? But what if space is not Euclidean?

It could be said that Locke's picture of the nature of physical hypothesizing is fundamentally flawed because he sees it as merely a substitute for direct perception (at one point he imagines that angels could 'see' the atomic structure of matter). In other words, he hasn't fully grasped the nature and implications of hypothetico-deductive explanation.

I think you need to say something about modern physics and its contrast with Newtonian physics and corpuscularianism in order to adequately respond to the second part of the question.

Also, perhaps even more relevantly, an examiner would want to know how you would defend Locke against Berkeley's criticisms of the primary/ secondary quality distinction. Here, Locke is on stronger ground, but you will get marks for saying so.

Locke on nominal and real essence

I find it curious that although you recognize that Locke identifies real essences with the micro-structural properties of objects, you still want to say that 'a 'natural kind' like gold is dependent on our conventional ideas of what 'gold' is, and not on any underlying 'natural' nature of the stuff we choose to classify as gold.'

The crucial issue here, as you recognize, is what are our 'intentions' in using a term like gold to classify things that we see. Consider an argument between a chemist someone who claims that pure gold is white, and someone who insists that any metal that isn't yellow isn't gold.

The 'intention' here isn't to pick out Aristotelian natural kinds. Rather, we are seeking (to be somewhat anachronistic) a 'maximally explanatory description' of the world around us. Calling iron pyrites and gold, 'gold', and refusing that label to white gold, leads to a less explanatory classification than one which identifies gold as the element which has the atomic number 79.

Locke, as a philosopher 'clearing away the rubbish that lies in the path' of good science, would surely assent to this. Or so Mackie argues in his book 'Problems from Locke'.

Whether we can say that 'Locke anticipated Kripke' (or Putnam) is moot. You are right to lay emphasis on Locke's repudiation of scholasticism, yet in recent times (with Wiggins, as well as with Putnam and Kripke) Aristotelian essentialism has had something of a comeback. The main difference (and it is a huge difference) is that Aristotle was implacably opposed to atomistic explanations, whereas the new Aristotelianism locates 'essence' firmly within the context of the hypothetico-deductive explanations of science.

All the best,


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Possible worlds and the definition of necessity

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Possible Worlds and the definition of necessity
Date: 20th November 2008 12:23

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 11 November, with your University of London BA Logic essay ,written under examination conditions, in response to the question, ''A statement is necessary if it is true in every possible world, and possible if it's true in some possible world.' Discuss.'

This is a competent answer. The part I liked best -- although I would have liked to have seen this developed further -- is your suggestion that 'evolution and natural selection provided us with a capacity to calculate possible courses of actions, to plan. So to develop and deal with scenario is something very elemental, maybe primitive of our nature.' But more of that in a minute.

What is the question asking for? Is it asking for any comment you can think of relating to the quoted statement? what is the angle?

There are two main approaches I can think of, which would help to highlight this as a philosophical question requiring a response.

First, we already have a notion of contingent and necessary truth defined by logic. A statement is necessary if it is logically valid: in predicate calculus, if it is true in all 'models', or assignments of names to objects, predicates to value ranges/ sets etc; or, in propositional calculus, true for all truth value assignments. Any true statement which is not logically valid is contingent. Why ask for more?

One response is that there are statements we regard as necessarily true which are not logically true: for example, 'No surface can be red and green all over.' This of course raises the huge question whether, in fact, there are such non-logical 'necessary truths'.

Second, the question says, 'A statement is necessary' or 'a statement... is possible'. You interpret this as the claim that there are truths of the form, 'It is possible that P' or 'It is necessary that P'. In other words, statements about necessity or possibility have truth conditions.

To accept that statements of modality have truth conditions is to accept the initial premise of David Lewises argument for modal realism. The argument, in effect, is by elimination: no other hypothesis will adequately account for the truth conditions of modal statements, or, in particular, the truth conditions of counterfactual statements.

One philosopher who rejects the view that counterfactuals have truth conditions is J.L. Mackie, whose article, 'Counterfactuals and Causal Laws' Lewis criticises in his book, 'Counterfactuals', pp. 65-70.

Mention of counterfactuals gives another, very good reason why we should 'ask for more'. If counterfactual statements can have truth conditions, then the definition of contingent truth as 'true but not logically valid' is not much help in explaining what these conditions are, or how we determine whether they have been satisfied (two different questions, of course).

A major criticism (which you don't mention) of David Lewises theory is that it doesn't, in fact, explain possibility at all. There are no possible but non-actual worlds in Lewises metaphysics because all so-called possible worlds are actual (the term used is 'actualism'). The truth conditions of counterfactuals may have been accounted for, but what remains behind is our raw intuition that there is such a thing as 'the possible'.

How is this intuition to be explained? Your speculation regarding evolution goes some of the way. No statement about what 'is' the case can substitute for a statement about what is not the case but might (metaphysically rather than epistemically) be the case were things different from the way they actually are. The actual world we inhabit is hemmed in on all sides by possibilities, the things that might have been or might have happened. For example, the cyclist who narrowly missed me as I carelessly ran across the road, the successful career as a photojournalist which I might have enjoyed had not turned my interest towards philosophy (an unlikely claim, as anyone who knew me would attest).

The cup on my desk is fragile. It could possibly break if dropped on the floor. The possible breakage exists as a fact, yet it is not reducible merely to atomic structure. 'The broken cup non-exists alongside the existing non-broken cup,' is a nonsensical way of putting it. The possibility is real even though non-actual.

This points to something. Accounting for truth conditions is not necessarily the only thing we require of a theory of modality. If the price of giving truth conditions is reducing talk of Fs to talk of Gs which are not F (as in modal actualism) then maybe we are better off embracing the reality of Fs but rejecting the demand for an account of truth conditions.

As you can see, there are a number of directions in which this question could be pursued: what is non-logical necessity, why do we need truth conditions for modal statements, what does it mean to claim that possibility is a 'sui generis' notion. And so on.

In Chapter 18 of my 'Naive Metaphysics' I speculate that the question about the relation of possible worlds to the actual world is analogous to the question the relation of subjects of experience to I (the person speaking), and also to the relation between different times to now (the time at which this statement is made). In other words, the real problem concerns the metaphysics of indexical expressions -- another possible line to pursue.

All the best,


Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?

To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?
Date: 20th November 2008 11:26

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 10 November, with your University of London BA Epistemology essay, in response to the question, 'Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?'

This is a very good essay which raises a number of points which have the potential to at least cause consternation in the philosophical sceptic. However, as an answer to this question (supposing that the question came up in an exam) it would lose some marks because, having recognized that the discussion of the 'brain in a vat' hypothesis originates with Putnam, you haven't made any attempt to reckon with Putnam's arguments: which in my judgement was the main intention of the question.

I won't rehearse Putnam's argument in detail. Putnam seeks to exploit the idea that the meanings of concepts -- like 'brain' and 'vat' -- themselves presuppose an external reference. So that if you WERE a brain in a vat, it would be impossible (semantically speaking) to assert the true statement, 'I am a brain in a vat.' The interesting question, apart from the question whether Putnam is right to make this claim, is whether it follows, purely from semantic considerations, that I know that I am not a brain in a vat.

I don't think it does: but that takes some showing.

The argument of your essay doesn't require a sceptic who goes to the extreme of hypothesizing brains in vats, or a 'conscious cell in the foot of a unicorn' (lovely example). Descartes was raising the question, not merely of scepticism about the things we believe about the world, but the deeper question how we know that there is a 'world' out there ('scepticism about an external world'). Examples like brains in vats, or Neo in the Matrix, by contrast assume a world and merely offer an alterative explanation of the experiences you are having now.

There is no need to go in for science fiction. How do I know that there is such a country as the USA? I've never been there. If I am prepared to go sufficiently down the path of paranoia I can conceive of possible conspiracies (involving, admittedly, thousands or hundreds thousands of of people) designed to get make the inhabitants of the UK believe that there is a country called the USA. Or maybe just me.

Highly improbable, you would say. But that is the nub of the question. The sceptic who goes down this route -- just like the brain in a vat sceptic -- won't accept that you are in a position to make well-founded judgements of probability. Probability is relative to evidence. If the sceptic can construct a sceptical scenario to undermine any particular piece of evidence that is offered, then he is home.

Suppose I say, 'I don't know that it is more probable than not that there is a rabid dog down that alleyway (to take your example) but I believe that it is,' then the question arises of the probability that I would give to my initial judgement of probability. Hume in his 'Treatise of Human Nature' uses this form of argument by vicious regress, against the idea that there can be rationally founded judgements of probability. For Hume, of course, no beliefs are founded in reason. (Like the school of Pyrrho, Hume's ultimate solution to sceptical worry is to 'follow nature'. What Hume adds to ancient scepticism is a 'science' -- the science of human nature -- which purports to explain the psychological processes of belief formation.)

OK, so how is this sceptical challenge to be met?

I don't accept your initial point that the sceptic assumes wrongly from the start that anything that counts as 'knowledge' must be infallible, or come from an infallible source. We have just been talking about probability. The sceptic's case comes down to the observation that judgements of probability are relative to evidence, and any evidence you put forward is up for grabs.

Nor will the sceptic be satisfied, if you agree to remove the term 'know' and its cognates from the vocabulary. (You make this point.) According to the sceptic, no belief is justified, there are no reasons for believing P rather than not-P. What we believe, we believe without reason or justification (and the sceptic accepts that we must have some beliefs; Pyrrhonic suspension of judgement can only go so far).

Now to the major point of our agreement: I fully concur with Pierce's point that the statement or expression of doubt is without content if it does not link, in some manner, with action.

Wittgenstein makes what amounts to the same point in the 'Philosophical Investigations'. To imagine a possible doubt is not the same time as actually doubting (para 84). In another paragraph, in response to the question, 'Are you not shutting your eyes to doubt?' he replies, simply, 'My eyes are shut.' Doubt is fact, or it is nothing.

We can use this as a lever to dismantle the sceptic's case, by showing that the denial of knowledge -- the denial that we have reasons or justification for our beliefs -- is in fact empty. The sceptic is not saying anything we don't already 'know'. However, this only goes part of the way to an answer. What we want to know is why we have a term like 'knowledge'. What use is it?

You ask me when the next bus is coming and I tell you that the buses here are very regular and the next one will be along in ten minutes. Do I know this? I'm pretty sure that I do. Then you ask whether I know that the bus drivers union hasn't called a strike today. I don't know this. In that case, it follows logically that I don't know that the next bus will be along in around ten minutes. How can a knowledge claim be so easily defeated? What's the point of using the term 'know'? (You will come across this issue if you look at the topic of 'contextualism' in epistemology.)

In other words, the defeat of the sceptic is purchased at a price: we owe an account of knowledge which is sufficiently flexible to allow, say, that reliable belief can suffice for 'knowledge' -- or something similar depending on your favourite flavour of epistemological theory. In that case, the sceptic's efforts have not been altogether wasted.

All the best,


Epistemology and Descartes' methodological doubt

To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Epistemology and Descartes' methodological doubt
Date: 19th November 2008 12:43

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 10 November, with your essay for the University of London Diploma entitled, 'Descartes' Methodological Doubt'.

This is an excellent essay, which offers an insightful reading of Descartes' strategy in his First Meditation, together with hints and pointers towards Descartes' use of 'methodological doubt' in his overall strategy of constructing a foundationalist epistemology.

I have no real criticisms of your exposition. It is for the most part accurate and fair.

However, as to why Descartes starts off relatively easily by considering reasons for doubting one's perceptions because sometimes our perceptions are false, I do think that more can be said than that this is merely a heuristic or rhetorical device, or even a strategy for softening up the reader.

One might think: why not just cut to the chase and start off with the dreaming or evil demon hypotheses? why waste time considering reasons for doubt which are less than persuasive? Admittedly, this is what philosophers often do. You give an argument to the effect, 'You might think that...' and then you counter it, before going on to give an argument which stands up to objections.

I take it that the main issue here -- a point which you make, although the point might have been made even more strongly -- is the idea of the existence of the subjective world of the mind, as a fully autonomous realm. We need this idea in order to raise Descartes' question about the existence of an external world. But why should we believe in it in the first place?

Before he gets to the cogito, Descartes has to convince the reader that a 'perception' is *never* what it seems, a direct link to the object perceived. Objects and 'perceptions' belong to two distinct realities. What shows this, initially, is the argument from illusion. If 'seeing' a tree involved somehow a direct relation between myself and the tree, then how could misperception occur? The very same experience, Descartes argues, obtains when I see a 'round tower' which is round, and when I see a 'round tower' which is square. By the logical law of identity, the object of 'I see...' cannot be the tower itself. It must be the perception, on the basis of which I form the judgement, 'There is a round tower over there,' a judgement which is true or false depending on objective fact.

A critic would argue that that is the 'decisive move in the conjuring trick', after which everything else is easy. We have fully bought the idea that we 'see' our own perceptions, not the things themselves. Dreams are a vivid example of how perceptions and things can mismatch. And so on.

Thus, once the reader reaches the 'cogito', they are already three quarters convinced. Descartes doesn't simply come out and say, 'I seem to see an 'I' therefore there is an I.' He says, when I seem to feel F, there is necessarily an F feeling, when I seem to judge, there is a judging; in general, every mental act is given incorrigibly as an item of direct inner awareness. Finally, what could these items belong to, but an 'I'?

There is one point where you link the evil demon with contemporary hypotheses like the brain in a vat. This is inaccurate, as applied to Descartes, because the point here is that we haven't got space. A brain in a vat, or a computer running the Descartes program, is an object in space. The evil demon hypothesis is the hypothesis of a reality of experiences caused by an entity which is not spatial, a world where space as such does not exist in any form other than as a subjective 'perception'.

There are other issues one could discuss: You are right about the profound effect of the idea that Descartes' thinking processes are themselves 'controlled' by an outside entity. Here, one could go into the difference between interacting with a virtual reality as an autonomous agent (e.g. Neo in his pod in the Matrix) and only 'thinking' you are autonomous when in reality your mental actions are themselves controlled. In the latter case, it would be like watching a movie of one's own life rather than living it. But is that hypothesis so much as conceivable? What would it mean to exist merely as a 'puppet' controlled from outside, so that every mental act is not 'mine' but that of another? In that case, is there anything left to serve the function of an 'I'?

Another issue, which relates to the question of God's 'benevolence' is the wider one of our faith in our capacity to reason to the 'best explanation'. Why should reality match up to our standards of best explanation? This is perhaps one example of a question which transcends the Cartesian foundationalist assumption of a world of incorrigible 'givens', and still has relevance today. One answer given is that of 'naturalized epistemology' (cf. Quine) and the idea that there is an empirical explanation -- e.g. based on the theory of evolution -- of why we are so good at constructing explanations. At this point, epistemology leaves behind the Cartesian world of 'first philosophy' and becomes continuous with science.

All the best,


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Parmenides' case against plurality

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' case against plurality
Date: 17th October 2008

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 8 October, with your University of London essay taken from the Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato paper, in response to the question, 'Critically assess Parmenides' denial of plurality.'

Parmenides case against plurality is important because the atomists Leucippus and Democritus put forward a view of reality which ostensibly respects Parmenides' strictures concerning what it is to 'be'. Each indestructible 'atom' is an instantiation of Parmenidean being, a Parmenidean 'one'.

The exam question is quite specific: what it asks you to do is look at the argument which Parmenides targets at the hypothesis of plurality. However, what you have done is attempt a complete exposition of Parmenides' arguments. Although you mention his argument against the possibility of a vacuum, the only time the rejection of plurality as such gets mentioned is in your penultimate sentence, 'He also denied the idea of plurality and the common sense belief that there are many things.'

In an examination, you will lose marks for this. I can't stress enough the importance of answering the question, and organizing the structure of your essay for this purpose alone. So far as the content of your essay is concerned, you give a reasonably good account of Parmenides' arguments. (I am glad to see that you have found my notes on Parmenides useful!)

What does Parmenides say about plurality? Here is the relevant fragment authored by Simplicius, quoted in Kirk, Raven and Schofield 'The Presocratic Philosophers' p. 250:

'Nor is it divided, since it all exists alike; nor is it more here and less there, which would prevent it from holding together, but it is all full of being. So it is all continuous: for what is draws near to what is.' (Fr. 8, 22-5).

Some of the fragments are less than clear, but this is a precise, carefully formulated attack on plurality which attempts to demolish all the possible ways in which plurality might be constituted.

First, 'all exists alike', so reality cannot be 'divided'. So you can't have a volume of quality F next to a volume of quality G, because there can't be different qualities.

Next, 'nor is there more here and less there.' You might think, OK, I accept that there is only one quality F, but maybe (as in Anaximenes' air) the quality F-ness can be more or less dense, in which case this would suffice for drawing distinctions between different parts of reality and thus give rise to plurality.

Finally, there can be nothing to prevent reality from 'holding together'. Arguably, there is room for different interpretations of Anaximenes' view of condensation and rarefaction. Putting aside our modern knowledge of physics, the notion of differences in density does not logically entail the idea of a vacuum, in which component parts would be more or less widely dispersed. This only follows if we accept the hypothesis of separated parts as an explanation for differences in density.

However, it is reasonable to speculate that the evidence from this fragment is that Parmenides does hold that differences of density can only be explained by a vacuum. The point to note, however, is that his argument does not depend on this. Differences of density alone would be cases of 'what is not' because the area where the quality of F-ness is less dense, is 'not as dense' as the area where the quality of F-ness is more dense, whether this entails a vacuum or not.

How would one go about attacking this argument? That's what the examiner is interested in. Obviously, you have to say something about the background assumptions working here, the case which Parmenides makes for 'it is'. However, the meat of the essay is in the investigation of the particular conclusions concerning plurality which Parmenides draws from the assertion 'it is'.

Is reality spatially extended? It seems it must be, if one can talk of it being 'like a ball well-rounded on every side'. However, it follows logically from the hypothesis that A is spatially extended that there are different locations within A. The fact that we can't identify different parts doesn't entail that we cannot even speak of parts. At least, there is room for debate here over what constitutes a 'part'. Parmenides would argue that we have no coherent notion of a part of reality in the absence of an actual distinguishing feature.

Or perhaps Parmenides' talk of 'well-rounded' reality is merely intended as metaphorical. To say that reality is an object of thought, and indeed the only possible object of thought, is not to claim that reality is thought. So reality is neither, as such, 'spatial' or 'mental'. Like all the other terms Parmenides casts away, these are just concepts which we use in differentiating our 'reality'.

This suggests a different tack: that, actually, Parmenides does have a strong case for the view that *There is only one reality.* This view is implied by the idea that truth is objective rather than subjective, absolute rather than relative. Every statement we make is measured against 'reality'. If there could be more than one reality then nothing would be 'true' or 'false' as such, but only relative to one of several possible 'realities'.

I'm not saying that this relatively anodyne reading of Parmenides is necessarily correct. Parmenides is uncompromising in his rejection of the beliefs of 'two-headed mortals'. This seems hard to square with the idea that you can have your everyday mundane plurality and yet also claim that 'reality is one'.

I hope that you will get a better idea from this of the kind of essay you need to write in order to satisfy the examiner. A major part of learning to philosophize consists in learning to identify arguments and assess their validity. The Presocratics present a superb subject matter to develop and practice your skills on.

All the best,


Feagin vs. Hume on why we are moved by tragedy

To: Paul B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Feagin vs. Hume on why we are moved by tragedy
Date: 15th October 2008

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 7 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'What puzzle does tragedy present? Does either Hume or Feagin provide a satisfactory solution to the puzzle?'

I believe (without checking) that you have added, 'Introduce my own suggestion' to the original question. In terms of that original question -- supposing this were to occur in an examination -- it would be perfectly OK to venture your own explanation. However, this has to be subsidiary to explaining what puzzle tragedy presents, and critiquing Hume's and Feagin's views. The examiner is looking to see how well you grasp the issues, and how competent you are in identifying weaknesses in a theory. You can use your own theory as a way of approaching this, provided that it is illuminating in this regard.

I like the example of a rollercoaster, because it raises a valid question about our enjoyment of strong stimulus generally. Would it be possible to raise a philosophical question, 'What puzzle do rollercoasters present?' -- Do they? If you were an alien from a planet where no-one ever conceived of amusement parks, would you have a philosophical question about our enjoyment of rollercoasters, or would you try and see for yourself? Then, when you had tried for yourself, would there be any question remaining or anything to puzzle over?

Basically, your strategy is to attempt to subsume tragedy to the rollercoaster case. I strongly suspect that there is no philosophical question about rollercoasters, although perhaps there is a question about human psychology and the pleasure given generally by 'thrilling' experiences.

But isn't there a question behind the question about tragedy, which we haven't yet asked? You say, 'the ability to derive positive emotions from tragedy can be experienced when no significant artistry or imagination is involved.' I think this is the key, although you spoil the point by the example you give of being told a 'rushed story' about actual tragic events. We don't enjoy this, in any sense. We may indeed feel sufficiently insulated by our distance, to take pleasure in satisfying our curiosity but that is about all.

A much better illustration of your point would be TV soap operas. Everyone agrees that they have little artistic merit. Yet one gets drawn in all the same. You feel for the characters, share their joys and sorrows. Surely there is something very problematic about this. We know that these are actors, that they are speaking lines written by a scriptwriter and that none of the events depicted actually happened. And yet we care, nonetheless.

What Hume and Feagin both miss is the prior question of why human beings are able to take *any* interest in fiction as such. I think this is a philosophical, and not merely a psychological question because it calls for an illuminating description, or re-description, of what is going on when we enter into a fictional world.

One philosopher who has investigated this question is Colin Radford, in his article, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?', which has been incorporated in his book, 'Driving to California: an unconventional introduction to philosophy'.

In terms of the way you have criticized Hume's and Feagin's views, I don't have any substantial criticisms. You have gone about this the right way, i.e. by considering whether the explanation offered is realistic (accords with our experiences), covers all the cases etc. Your point against Feagin, 'in the case of tragedy, the whole response seems instantaneous and one' might be countered by the observation that feelings, generally, can be analysed. Even if the feeling as such 'feels as one', there is always the possibility of an illuminating description which identifies different elements which together create the feeling. That is, after all, what psychotherapists do. The patient or client learns to *see* the different elements for themself by responding to suitably targeted questions. However, in that case, Feagin still has work to do in establishing her view in the face of scepticism.

Of course, there *is* an additional question to ask about what makes great works of tragedy great, or what constitutes their aesthetic value, in contrast to the question I have asked about why human beings are capable of being moved by the fate of characters in fiction. What are the dimensions of aesthetic assessment here? Does it all boil down to artistry in creating a fictional world, or is there something more (for example, to do with reflecting universal issues about the human condition etc.).

Yes, why can't there be 'great' (or, 'as great') works of comedy? I'm not sure about this. You can be moved by a tragedy or by a painting or by a piece of music. If a picture or a tune makes you laugh, that is a response which in some way blocks off the possibility of deeper aesthetic engagement. Perhaps the possibility of 'breaking off' or disengagement shows something about the nature of humour and the comedic as such ('I tried to do X, but I couldn't help laughing') but that is a topic for another essay.

All the best,


Plato's Republic and the tripartite theory of the soul

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's Republic and the tripartite theory of the soul
Date: 14th October 2008

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 6 October, with your essay in response to the University of London Greek Philosophy: Pre-Socratics and Plato question, 'Does Plato, in the Republic, offer a good logical ground for thinking that the soul has three parts?'

Right at the start, you declare what you understand by a 'good logical ground' for making a conceptual distinction. This is coloured to a considerable extent by the model of Linnaean classification which you cite. On this view, classifying a phenomenon is a matter of 'carving at the natural joints' (a phrase from Plato's 'Phaedrus') which is what the dialectician aims to do.

However, your example from Kant's 'Jasche Logic', that 'to be logically grounded an argument must (a) have grounds and (b) not have false consequences is not altogether helpful. It is true that if one can ever find a counterexample (true premisses, false conclusion) to an *argument*, then we know without examining the structure of the argument that it must be invalid. A valid argument always leads from true premisses to a true conclusion. We also know that a valid argument is sound (i.e. a reason for believing the truth of the conclusion) if its premisses are true.

The difficulty I have is that there seems to be a gap between the idea of a logically consistent classification which can be used for this or that purpose, and an attempt to dialectically determine the ultimate reality of the phenomenon or entity in question. I take it that Plato in Republic is seeking to determine the 'deep logical structure' of the psyche (leaving on one side, as you note, the question discussed in the Phaedo concerning the relation of the psyche to the physical world). His use of the 'Principle of Contraries' is intended to reveal the conceptually necessary cuts.

In terms of this project, the attempt to reduce the number of parts to two, or increase the parts to more than three, is not just less useful or illuminating but incoherent. Each of the three parts can be further divided as in Linnaean classification (as you observe) but any increase in parts is necessarily subordinate logically and conceptually to the primary cut.

The question, therefore, is whether Plato has proved his case for the necessity of a tripartite classification. If he hasn't then his scheme is not 'logically grounded'.

Consider the contemporary arguments over mind-body dualism. A 'dualist' is not someone who merely observes that it is sometimes useful and valid to talk about a distinction between an individual's mental and physical qualities, but rather one who insists that a material account of the mental is ultimately not possible -- for example, on the grounds that there cannot be an explanation couched in purely materialist terms of the phenomenon of 'qualia'.

Thus, the disagreement between Plato and a proponent of a dual view of psyche as governed by 'reason and passion', or between Plato and a Humean who claims that the passions are the only thing with the power to move an agent to action, is one that needs to be resolved. Only one can be right. Ultimately, only one can be 'logically consistent'.

Much of what you say is consistent with this approach: for example, your criticism of Hume's argument, 'Reason alone can never produce any action...'. An additional point to make is that we can't always expect these issues to be resolved. Rival conceptual analyses can remain in play so long as we haven't found a knockdown argument which reveals one or more of the analyses as embodying inconsistency. But it is one thing to say that a conceptual distinction appears consistent, or that one cannot find any logical objection, and another to claim that it is in fact *correct and true*.

I think that the question equates the notion of being 'logically grounded' with correctness or truth, rather than merely with being defensible or consistent so far as one is able to tell. In that case, one possible answer to the question would be, 'None of the arguments I have considered succeed in showing that Plato's tripartite classification is not logically grounded.'

For what it's worth, my answer to the question would be, No. G.E.M. Anscombe in her seminal monograph 'Intention' (Blackwell 2nd ed. 1963) gives a powerful argument against the idea that we can be motivated or moved to action by appetites, defined merely as mental pushes or pulls. A desire is necessarily a reason for action. As such it already embodies a rational component. (So reason/ passion dualism and Hume are both wrong.)

Anscombe gives an example of someone who desires a saucer of mud. What would that mean? If desires are just mental pushes and pulls, then there is no reason in principle why a person can't desire a saucer of mud. You give them the saucer and they don't do anything with it. They have no explanation to give of why they want it or what it does for them. What we expect is an answer along the lines, e.g. 'I wanted to smell the rich river smell' (Anscombe's example), or 'I wanted to cover my face with mud as a camouflage'.

Human beings have natural appetites, which we recognize in language as things worthy of being desired -- thirst, hunger, etc. However, there are reasons for other things too -- like taking the desires of other persons into consideration, and conflicts naturally arise. But these conflicts are within the arena of reason, not a conflict between a separate faculty named 'reason' and something else.

A complicating factor here is that we know that we are members of the animal kingdom and that a dog or a bird can be 'hungry' or 'thirsty' just as we are. For Plato, this is evidence of our 'animal nature' and the idea that hunger qua hunger is the same, whether it is in a man, or a dog or a bird. The alternative view would be that in man, the 'rational animal' these phenomena are transformed acquiring an additional layer of meaning, precisely because we are able to cite them as 'reasons for action'.

All the best,


Descartes' argument for doubt in the First Meditation

To: James V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' argument for doubt in the First Meditation
Date: 3rd October 2008

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 25 September, with your Introduction to Philosophy Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'By what means does Descartes attempt to show that there is reason to doubt everything one believes?'

I enjoyed reading this essay. You have not only shown that you grasp the logical structure of Descartes' arguments in the First Meditation, but you also succeed in conveying a real sense of their urgency. Hard bitten examiners tend to ignore 'good writing' as such in philosophy. It is the arguments that matter. I agree with this to a large extent, but still something extra is conveyed by the way one puts across an argument apart from the bare logical structure.

Your use of 'she' as the default third person pronoun is quite rare amongst my students, although almost universal amongst philosophy lecturers these days.

The question does not invite you directly to criticize Descartes' argument, but obviously there is room to question the logic of the case he is putting forward, in order to arrive at the best interpretation, on the basis of the 'principle of charity' (an interpretation which makes a philosopher's argument look stronger rather than weaker is more likely to be correct).

In what follows, I will offer suggestions where you might have said more, or where questions arise which it would be useful to think about.

Descartes responds to the worry about false perceptual judgments by saying that it is indeed via our senses that we are able to correct incorrect judgements arrived at through sense perception. How, then, does the point about the possibility of false perceptual judgement advance his case? You say, 'So we are faced with the greater question, that, if our senses lie to us sometimes how can we trust them at all?'

Consider what one would say about a person who lies to you. 'I'm never going to believe anything you say, ever again.' Grown ups don't do this. We are prepared to forgive a lie and will trust someone who offers a sincere apology. But anyone can tell a lie. So why doesn't it follow, that 'if people sometimes lie to us how can we trust them at all?' Yet we do. You might reply that, whereas we totally rely on our senses for our empirical knowledge, knowledge by testimony is not the source of all our knowledge because we can investigate things directly for ourselves. Even so, it does seem a bit abrupt to conclude that we should mistrust our senses just because they sometimes deceive us.

An alternative reading would be that this first step is simply intended to convey the principle that it can seem to me, on the basis of sense perception, that P when in fact it is not the case that P. This is not yet sufficient grounds for doubt or scepticism. However, it is that principle which Descartes later relies on when he launches his dreaming and evil demon arguments. You can't logically deduce how things are in reality merely from how things seem. Inductive reasoning is involved. And that gives the sceptic all the room they need to launch their case.

I liked the fact that you focused on the question which Descartes dismisses fairly abruptly, concerning whether he might be insane. As you point out, one of the main symptoms of schizophrenia is visual and auditory illusions. The film 'A Beautiful Mind' (2001) based on the true story of mathematician John Forbes Nash conveys a vivid sense of a man battling with persistent illusions. The problem is that the conflict with reality does not stop there. A person who suffers from paranoia draws the 'wrong' conclusions from the evidence, creating a distorted reality which seems immune from empirical refutation, whether illusions are present or not. But if this is Descartes' worry, then his enterprise is scuppered before it can even start. If you can't trust the processes of your own reasoning, then there is no point attempting to go further. Harry Frankfurt, in his book 'Dreamers, Demons and Madmen' explores these issues.

One step that you appear to have overlooked is where Descartes considers that he is here 'by accident' rather than as a result of being created by God. What he says about this is very interesting: in that case there would be all the more reason for scepticism. If we just happened to be here, why should our knowledge be reliable? One answer would be that we have evolved to be creatures who rely on what they can discover about the world around them, so to this extent there is at least an empirical explanation of why there can be such a thing as 'knowledge'. In the absence of such an explanation, however, the atheist in Descartes' time was in a bit of a fix. That is because the possibility of knowledge implies a teleological dimension. Our cognitive apparatus has a purpose, and we need some explanation of how it comes about that it is sufficiently 'well designed' to fulfil that purpose.

I like the fact that you clearly distinguish the 'now dreaming' and the 'always dreaming' arguments. There is a point to be made here about the Matrix hypothesis. In the Matrix, there is such a thing as space. The dreamers are in pods which are located somewhere in the bowels of the earth. Whereas, on the evil demon hypothesis, 'space' is merely a concept which describes the experiences fed directly to us by the evil demon. In Berkeley's philosophy of idealism (or 'immaterialism'), this 'evil demon' is none other than God himself. From the point of view of idealism, there is nothing God can do to bring about the existence of 'matter' or 'space' in the Cartesian sense, no coherent concept which these words signify.

All the best,


Descartes' proof of God in the Third Meditation

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' proof of God in the Third Meditation
Date: 3rd October 2008

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 25 September with your University of London Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Descartes' attempt to prove the existence of God in Meditation III is not merely a failure, it is a philosophically uninteresting failure.' Discuss.'

By pure coincidence, I have just sent off a reply to the first essay submitted by one of my new UoL Diploma students, in response to the Introduction to Philosophy question, 'By what means does Descartes attempt to show that there is reason to doubt everything one believes?' Most of the students who have attempted this question miss a vital step in Descartes' argument and this was no exception. Descartes considers that he is made by a God, and the terrifying prospect that God is deliberately deceiving him. Then he considers the alternative: that he is just the product of adventitious causes, that he came into existence for no reason at all. In that case, Descartes remarks, there is all the more reason for doubt.

I mention this because the Theory of Evolution by natural selection plays a major part in your response to the question about Descartes' proof of the existence of God in Meditation III. The answer to the question raised in Meditation I, which of course Descartes is not in a position to give, is that there can be a naturalistic explanation of how our cognitive apparatus comes to be 'designed' to be fit for acquiring knowledge. The concept of knowledge has an ineliminably teleological component. That teleology must come from somewhere, there must be some explanation of how it is that the normal functioning of our cognitive apparatus leads to reliable knowledge, otherwise scepticism is the only reasonable conclusion.

I find it a bit strange, therefore, that you (following Dennett) focus on the point about Evolution in your explanation of where Descartes goes wrong in Meditation III.

What is this idea of 'God' which Descartes has? It isn't just the idea of 'supreme intelligence' or 'great intricacy'. To think that this is all Descartes is impressed by is to miss the point entirely. Suppose Douglas Adams is right and we were created by intelligent mice. Or at least assume that being a somewhat misguided reader of Adams, I have come to believe this. That is a pretty amazing hypothesis, all the more so when one attempts to fill in the details of how this would be done in practice, the technology that this would involve. Where on earth does this idea come from?

Well, we're here, aren't we? In the absence of a theory of evolution, we can still do science. We can still investigate and wonder at the amazingly intricate beings that we are. But 'the fact that such an idea was to be found in the mind would be something aching for explanation' is no more aching for explanation than the plain fact that we are here. We are sufficiently intricate, and the world around is sufficiently intricate, to provide us with more than enough materials to dream up supremely intelligent mice -- or whatever.

This argument would not impress Descartes. He isn't interested in anything as mundane as mice or supermen or anything which is merely 'bigger and better' than we are. He is struck dumb by the realization that he has, within himself, a concept of infinity. God is not just a lot bigger than us, he is infinitely bigger. He is not just more perfect, he is infinitely perfect.

It is indeed a good question to ask whether, finite beings as we are, we are capable of forming a concept of infinity. I'm not talking merely of the mathematical formula, but rather the idea that there might exist, in actual reality, something of infinite extent. At least, it is a proper subject for philosophical debate. (See the excellent book by A.W. Moore 'The Infinite' RKP.)

A radical take on this move by Descartes can be found in the work of the (admittedly difficult and obscure) philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who links Descartes' argument over the idea of infinity with his own philosophy of the 'otherness of the Other', the idea that the very conception of there being 'someone else besides me' takes us beyond merely empirical knowledge into the realms of the metaphysical (which leads Levinas to argue that ethics -- recognition of the Other and what that entails -- is the basis for metaphysics rather than the other way round.)

Be that as it may, I think that Dennett (for once) has completely missed the point here (at least, on the basis of your report of Dennett's argument as I haven't seen the original). I would argue that Descartes' failure is a philosophically interesting failure because the problem of infinity is one that we are still grappling with today, even if we are more inclined these days to drop the 'God' connection.

All the best,


Monday, November 12, 2012

Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming opposites are one?

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming opposites are one?
Date: 30th September 2008

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 19 September, with your University of London Greek Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'How do we understand Heraclitus's claim that opposites are one? Does this claim commit him to inconsistency?'

This is a good essay, which shows that you have made a concerted effort to get to grips with the philosophy of Heraclitus. However, it reads a bit like an answer to a different question, e.g. 'Explain the role of the doctrine of the unity of opposites in the philosophy of Heraclitus, and its relation to Heraclitus' notion of the Logos.' (This isn't an actual UoL question, I just made it up, but you get the general idea.)

Although in various parts you do say most of what is needed to answer the question you have chosen as the topic for your essay, you need to focus more on the question itself.

The first thing you need to do is explain what it WOULD take to show that Heraclitus is committed to an inconsistency. What is inconsistency? how is it defined? can you give an example of what would be an inconsistent statement, in relation to the kinds of things that Heraclitus says?

Suppose Heraclitus had said, 'Athens is Sparta.' That's a pretty daft thing to say. But on the assumption that 'Athens' refers to Athens, and 'Sparta' refers to Sparta -- in other words, that the names of the city states are being used in their normal sense -- then this is inconsistent. Two different entities can't be the same entity. Or suppose Heraclitus had said, 'A horse is a cow.' A horse can't be a cow without ceasing to be a horse. So that too would be inconsistent (It is a different question whether it is possible for a horse to transform into a cow.)

The general principle we are using would be something like this: In order to convict Heraclitus of inconsistency, we need to find at least one example where Heraclitus asserts, of some x, that it has property F and property not-F, at the same time, in the same respect, from the same point of view etc.

Armed with this principle, you can then examine the different assertions that Heraclitus makes about opposites. You will gain marks if you are able to sort these into types, e.g. change over time, things appearing different from different points of view and so on. You have done this to a significant extent.

The examples of Athens/ Sparta and horse/ cow aren't very interesting because they don't even look like possible candidates for being 'opposites'. The problem is, anything which does look like a candidate for being an 'opposite', has a Heraclitus-style explanation of why the assertion of identity is not inconsistent. There is something to think about there. What IS an 'opposite'? how is that term used? What would be an example of an inconsistent statement about the identity of opposites?

Another angle which you could consider is whether Heraclitus goes *too far* in asserting identity. The examples themselves look acceptable enough; the question is whether, in generalizing from those examples, Heraclitus is perhaps tempted into making an assertion which is inconsistent. We are told that everything is 'fire', and you offer the helpful suggestion that Heraclitus could be understood, from a contemporary perspective, as asserting that everything is a form of energy. The problem with that is that it fails to differentiate Heraclitus sufficiently from his predecessors, a point which you go to some lengths to explain at the beginning of your essay.

Anaximenes held that hot, cold, wet, dry, heavy, light etc. etc. are all properties on a continuous scale, which are accounted for by the single process of condensation-rarefaction. If we are looking for the first Presocratic philosopher to assert the 'unity of opposites' then it would be Anaximenes not Heraclitus. So what exactly does Heraclitus add or change in this picture of a continuum in order to reach his conclusion? and is this perhaps a step too far?

A possible key lies in issue which you mention in your essay but don't go into, the question of the Platonic/ Aristotelian reading of Heraclitus. One view which might plausibly be attributed to Heraclitus is that according to which everything in the universe is in the process of undergoing change -- slowly or quickly. A house on fire undergoes a process of rapid change, whereas a stone changes relatively slowly over time. However, on the alternative Platonic reading, everything in the universe, everything that we call an 'object' is in fact like a river. Contrary to what Anaximenes believed, a stone has no 'substance', it is not 'made' of anything as such. Rather it is merely the stable image of a constant process of flux.

I don't think this is off topic. It is fairly easy to defend Heraclitus against the charge of inconsistency, as long as one stays at the level of common-or-garden examples. The question is, or ought to be, whether he held a view which many philosophers (though by no means all, A.N. Whitehead in Process and Reality would be an important exception) regard as inconsistent, the idea that nothing in the universe 'is' -- there is no 'substance' -- but rather everything 'becomes'.

All the best,


Reference: between subjectivity and objectivity

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Reference: between subjectivity and objectivity
Date: 25th September 2008

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 16 September with your University of London Logic essay entitled, 'Reference - between subjectivity and objectivity'.

There are some good things in this essay, and I like the idea that there is room for compromise between a Kripkean and Fregean account of reference, and also the implication that we should not be looking for a cut-and-dried 'theory of reference' but rather be aware of the somewhat messy way that reference to objects actually works in natural language, a point which Donnellan's article first brought to prominence.

However, there is a confusion in your use of the terms 'internalism' and 'externalism' which undermines your case to some extent.

First of all, what are internalism and externalism? Both the internalist and the externalist are prepared to embrace a realist view of the external world, as adumbrated in Frege's essay, 'The Thought: a logical inquiry' where Frege goes to some lengths to explain what he means when he says that our thoughts refer to things outside is in the world, rather than to ideas in our own minds. (It must be remembered that Frege was writing at a time when idealism was a the dominant philosophy.)

Given a realist view of reference, however, the question is still wide open which of our terms -- or whether any of our terms -- function as rigid designators in Kripke's sense.

It is important to recognize that internalism is not just the common sense idea that what we refer to or talk about depends on our knowledge. It is ideological. The internalist believes, for principled reasons, that there is no way in which we can secure (realist) reference to things out there in the world except via our knowledge. In Putnam's much quoted formula, 'Meaning is in the head'. Rorty, in his excellent book 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' characterizes this view as the belief that knowledge is a process of 'mirroring' reality, and that your language serves as the mirror, a view which Rorty vehemently attacks.

Kripke, and other writers in a similar vein such as Putnam, Evans and McDowell, also attack principled internalism. It could be argued, however, that Kripke goes too far in the opposite direction, creating a genuine problem about how our thoughts can reach thousands of years back into the past, along the slender thread of his 'chain of communication'.

Rorty is an anti-realist about truth, which has consequences for any view of reference. That alone should suffice to show that we can't equate externalism with realism. If anything, externalism naturally invites (although it does not entail) an anti-realist view of meaning and truth, as any reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations makes apparent.

Michael Dummett, in his Appendix to the chapter on Sense and Reference in 'Frege Philosophy of Language' (Duckworth 1973) attacks Kripke, or, rather defends Frege against Kripke's arguments, although Dummett also argues for an anti-realist view of meaning and truth, claiming support for his views from the later Wittgenstein. On the other side, McDowell (see his seminal paper 'The Sense and Reference of a Proper Name', Mind 1977) defends a realist view of meaning and truth and externalism, along broadly Davidsonian (Donald Davidson 'Truth and Meaning') lines.

I don't normally go to such great length in sketching the background when I review an essay, however, in your case because you raise such fundamental issues you need to 'go to the source' in order to form an adequate picture.

Let's ask, how good are Kripke's arguments? Viewed as an attack on ideological or principled internalism, I think they are successful. The only question then is what exactly is the alternative to principled internalism, what an adequate theory of proper names should be.

Dummett made the point in his Appendix that Kripke's criticisms of the cluster of descriptions theory can be easily met by making a Russellian 'scope distinction'. It is possible that the teacher of Alexander did not teach Alexander. No problem with that, so long as you get the scope of the description operator right.

The only real bone of contention concerns existence. If none of the things we believe about Aristotle turned out to be true, would that mean that it would be true to say that 'Aristotle did not exist'? As philosophical conundrums go, this is about as gripping as the Medieval question, 'How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?' -- Say what you like, as long as you understand what it is that you are saying.

Is Dummett right? Yes, in his continued insistence on the importance of the distinction between 'full understanding' and 'acting like a tape recorder'. This pushes aside a lot of the irrelevant discussion provoked by Putnam's notion of the 'division of linguistic labour'. The real issue is how one can formulate a theory of what it is to 'fully understand', to know what one means, without embracing an internalist description theory. Gareth Evans attempts this in 'Varieties of Reference' (OUP).

You raise the question of twins. This is actually a very good way of provoking our intuitions on the question of internalism vs externalism. Suppose you go to a party and meet a corporate tax lawyer who is interested in philosophy, but you don't catch his name. Later, you tell another friend who is thinking of doing the UoL BA about the man you met. Unknown to you, the tax lawyer (let's call him Francois) has a twin brother Jean who is also a tax lawyer interested in philosophy and was also at the party. What makes your thought, a thought about Francois rather than a thought about Jean? In the hubbub, no-one else noticed the two of you discussing Kripke in the corner of the room. An internalist would say that there is no determinate object of your thought: your definite description, 'The man I talked to about philosophy at the party' fails to refer. An externalist would say that the twin you refer to, the one *you mean* is the twin you actually *met*. Anyone who remains mystified about how this consequence could follow is a principled internalist.

On the question of existence, a natural move by an externalist would be to deny that a thought is expressed, in cases where there is no object out there in the world. 'No object, no thought.' An internalist will always insist that a thought was expressed, and look for a suitable definite description in order to give a content to the thought. If you think you are thinking about something, and your thoughts are not logically incoherent, then you must be thinking about something says the principled internalist.

All the best,


P.S. I should have made clear: All the philosophers I am discussing are 'realist' about the existence of objects outside us. This goes equally for the 'realist about truth and meaning' and the 'anti-realist about truth and meaning'.

What does Descartes' Cogito establish exactly?

To: Neil G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What does Descartes' Cogito establish exactly?
Date: 24th September 2008

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your email of 16 September, with your essay in response to the University of London Modern Philosophy question, 'What exactly did Descartes suppose that the Cogito established? Does it succeed?'

This is another very good essay. I like the clear and articulate way in which you detail the different claims involved in the Cogito, and also succeed in highlighting the subtle difference between the formulations of the Cogito in the Discourse and in the Meditations.

The question whether Descartes is essentially a thinking thing and only contingently a physical thing is one that Descartes returns to in the sixth Meditation. I agree with you that the argument as it stands looks like a non-sequitur. And in fact not much is added in the sixth Meditation. However, Descartes does insist there that whatever can be conceived as separate can be created separately by God, which a non-theist can interpret as the claim that what can be conceived as separate can exist separately in reality.

This suggests that it might be a worth while exercise to look for an additional premiss or premisses which would make the three line argument you have given more convincing.

Let's look at the argument again:

1. It is possible to doubt the existence of my body.

2. The Cogito has demonstrated that I exist for certain, whenever I think.


3. I am essentially a thinking thing and do not depend on the body for my existence.

Let's try interpolating the following step between 1. and 2:

1a. There exists (therefore) a possible world in which I do not have a body.

This does not follow logically from 1. Descartes still needs to show that my doubt that I have a body is a propositional attitude directed towards a consistent, coherent content, a state of affairs which can be realized in some possible world.

However, let's assume for the sake of argument that Descartes has done enough to show this. It seems that a critic could still argue that the fact that, *in some possible world* I do not have a body still does not entail non-identity of my self and my body. In this world, my self and my body are one and the same.

This is the thesis notoriously held by the Australian materialists, Armstrong and Smart and attacked by Saul Kripke in his 1972 paper 'Naming and Necessity' (Blackwell 1980). Kripke is defending a theorem in modal logic according to which from A=B we can infer that necessarily (A=B), i.e. A=B in all possible worlds. Armstrong and Smart argued, on the other hand, that materialism is simply a consequence of Occam's Razor. It is conceivable that mind and body are not identical, but that hypothesis multiplies entities unnecessarily.

My own view (for what it's worth) is that Kripke was right about this, in which case all our efforts have to be focused on attacking 1a.

Let's move on to the question whether Descartes has succeeded in proving that he is a 'being that thinks'.

I agree with your conclusions here, which have been echoed by many philosophers. Perhaps the most interesting angle comes from Kant, in the 'Paralogisms of Transcendental Psychology' from the second part of his 'Critique of Pure Reason', where Kant accuses Descartes of mistaking the 'perception of unity' for the transcendental 'unity of apperception'. Kant considers a scenario where 'my' thoughts are shared by a succession of momentary selves, each of which transmits its states to the next like a line of colliding billiard balls.

What this argument shows, or claims to show, is that contra Descartes the self or I does not denote a substance. However, Kant accepts and endorses the idea of the 'I think' which accompanies all perceptions. We cannot even talk of perceptions or mental contents without referring them to a notional subject, the 'transcendental ego'.

This agrees with your conclusion that, 'the Cogito stated in the Second Meditation is more resistant to Russell's criticisms.' Thoughts are not entities that can exist except as 'I-thinks'. What still needs to be said, however, is how the reference to a subject is even possible, a task which for Kant involves proving the very thing that Descartes held in doubt: the existence of a world outside my subjective experiences.

All the best,


Refutation of solipsism as a basis for ethics

To: David M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Refutation of solipsism as a basis for ethics
Date: 23rd September 2008

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 15 September, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What are the consequences of the refutation of solipsism for an account of the basis of moral conduct?'

It might seem to go without saying that solipsism can only furnish a 'subjective' account of the basis of moral conduct while the rejection of solipsism entails an 'objective' account. However, that inference might yet be questioned.

What is, or would be an 'objective' account of moral conduct? What we require of such an account is that it provides a compelling reason why I must take others into account when I act. This reference to 'others' is rather general and vague. However, we can state as a minimum requirement that it is capable of generating reasons for action which do not depend on my prior desires. Whereas, on a subjective theory of moral conduct, any reason that I have for taking another person into account when I act depends on the contingent fact that I care about that person or what happens to them.

For example, suppose that I see that you are hungry. I have food, and I am a moral person. According to the subjective account, what makes me a moral person is that I have certain desires, such as the desire not to see another human being suffering hunger. That is what motivates me to act, and share my food with you. If I didn't have the desire, then there would be no reason to do anything.

The objectivist doesn't like that account because it makes moral or immoral behaviour depend on a contingency. Subjectivism accepts, in Hume's words, that 'reason is the slave to the passions'. Any reasoning we do according to the subjectivist is merely about means and ends, or the best way of satisfying our desires whatever those desires might be. It is contingent whether I happen to have moral desires or not.

A transcendental solipsist might believe that they have an objective account (as I explain in the program: the general formula is that other persons are the means to my self-realization). With the benefit of greater insight, we can say that the solipsist is wrong to believe this. The point is that this is something that needs to be shown, and can't just be assumed.

Nor does it go without saying that the rejection of solipsism entails an objective account. There are plenty of subjectivists about morality (a good example would be J.L. Mackie in his Pelican book 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong) who would vehemently reject any accusation that they are closet solipsists.

What this essay question is inviting you to do is sketch an argument for an objective account of morality on the basis of the rejection of solipsism, and say something about the form of the resulting theory.

You state the main point: 'In an anti-solipsist world, as a conscious subject I stand on equal footing to anyone else.'

What moral theories are suggested by that claim? Two theories considered in the program are Kant's Categorical Imperative, and Mill's Utilitarianism.

The Categorical Imperative may be 'glossed' in these terms as stating that the term 'I', in any reason for action which is compelling for me, can in principle be replaced by a term referring to another person in a similar situation, without lessoning the force of that reason. For example, if I am hungry that is a reason which is no stronger than my recognition that you are hungry, assuming I have a choice between giving the food to you or taking it for myself. You and I are 'on an equal footing' in that respect. The consequence is not that I should sacrifice myself for your sake, but only that I should give equal weight to your needs and mine.

You can see from this why Mill believed, in his essay 'Utilitarianism', that his principle of the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' was merely articulating the consequences of Kant's Categorical Imperative. He was wrong about this, because the idea of 'maximizing utility' adds a feature which Kant never intended, and which is inconsistent with Kant's idea that there are principled reasons for each moral decision, regardless of the consequences. However, the same idea of 'being on an equal footing' is crucial to Mill's theory. If everyone in the world is on an equal footing to me, then any action I do must aim at the 'best' (however defined) for all.

Are these the only possibilities? I don't think so. I find something deeply unsatisfactory about an objective theory of morality based on the disinterested view, or the idea that each of us is on an equal footing with everyone. A philosopher who shares my views is Bernard Williams. See for example his contribution to Smart and Williams 'Utilitarianism For and Against' (Routledge).

A continental philosopher who has developed a similar line of argument is Emmanuel Levinas, in his theory of the 'otherness of the other' and the idea that the self and other are not 'two of the same' but rather related in a fundamentally unequal way, which in a sense places the other higher than me rather than on the same level.

The idea of a 'rejection of anti-solipsism' is my take on this; my contribution to the debate. The most I can claim is that it puts me in the same 'ball park' area as Williams and Levinas. Neither of those philosophers, however, would put the case in terms of a 'three-part dialectic' of solipsism, anti-solipsism and the rejection of anti-solipsism.

All the best,


Friday, November 9, 2012

Locke's derivation of the idea of private property

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's derivation of the idea of private property
Date: 19th November 2008 11:51

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 10 November, with your University of London BA Politics essay, in response to the question, 'Are Locke's appeals to 'labour mixing', 'value adding', and 'the leaving of enough and as good for others' elements of a single, coherent account under which one may come to own property in a state of nature?'

This is a sharply focused question, which tells you exactly what the examiner wants: an exposition of Locke's theory of property, with reference to the three key elements, followed by critique which pays particular attention the the coherence of the three elements with one another. In these terms, you have done very well. You have given a clear exposition of Locke's view, and offered persuasive arguments (with appropriate references) for challenging the internal coherence of each of these elements, as well as their coherence with one another.

I can't help feeling, however, that the upshot of the criticisms is somewhat harsh to Locke, and that his theory has more going for it.

First, we have to deal with the question of the 'state of nature'. It is crucial to Locke's account, as you point out, that he starts from a prior assumption about 'God's purpose for man' analogous to the contemporary view which Locke was challenging, 'the divine right of kings'. We are on earth for a purpose, and God has provided us with the necessities of life, expecting us to behave responsibly and 'reasonably' with this gift.

Here's a homely example to illustrate the point: When a visitor brings a box of chocolates, all the family members take their fair share, because that is what the visitor intended. That was the aim of the gift: that everyone would benefit equally. If one greedy family member takes more than the rest, then the visitor has grounds for complaint.

Here, the idea of 'leaving enough' and not taking 'more than you need' relate to the gift-giver's prior intentions. A mischievous giver might have had the very opposite intention: e.g. someone who causes chaos in a shopping mall by throwing handfuls of money in the air.

However, it is perfectly reasonable -- given our contemporary interest in the question of how private property might be 'defended' -- to ask whether Locke's account survives 'secularization', i.e. the removal of the God hypothesis. In that case, the 'state of nature' is just human beings as they are prior to any social conventions: the question being how conventions allowing for private property might arise. I don't agree with Russell that the hypothetical notion of a 'state of nature' requires God. It does, however, make a difference to how one reads Locke.

Here are two examples from my 'Ethical Dilemmas' program:

I am walking through the woods with a party of hikers and come across a broken bare tree branch which is perfect for a walking stick. After we have stopped a while for a rest, one of the members of the party, too lazy to find a walking stick of his own, cheekily picks up the walking stick intending to use it. When I protest that it's 'mine', the lazy hiker replies that the stick was lying there on the path, anyone could have picked it up. 'But I was the one who picked it up not you!'

What mistake is the lazy hiker making? It seems clear from this example that at least in some cases, finding an object that doesn't belong to anyone is sufficient to make it yours. 'Finders keepers.' I didn't have to 'work' to find the stick or make it usable (as in Locke's paradigm of private property as an object with which I have 'mixed my labour'). It was just lying there, no-one's, ready to be used. Now the stick is mine, to keep or to give away as I see fit.

To nudge one's intuitions the other way, let's say I make a living selling coloured stones and sea shells which I find in a secluded cove. One day, I find another swimmer scuba diving in 'my' cove. Do I have any valid basis for protest? 'Go find your own cove!'? But suppose there was just one, and I was the one lucky to find it. That doesn't make it mine. It ceased to be mine the moment my secret was discovered.

On reflection, I think I was wrong to say that the walking stick example is not one of Lockean 'mixing my labour with an object'. I was rewarded for being sharp eyed and attentive in noticing the stick, for my prudence in realizing that the stick would be useful, even if the 'labour' of stooping down to pick it up was minimal. In any case, as you point out, the legitimacy of helping yourself to the earth's bounty is part of the initial assumption. It follows that luck, or 'finders keepers' has to be part of the equation. I don't have to 'pay' for my ownership by adding labour, if the item is simply there to take. It is only when a question arises of who is prepared to make the greater effort to gain a particular object -- say, a stone that would be ideal for my front lawn, which requires considerable effort to lift and carry away -- that the 'right' of ownership links to Locke's notion of labour mixing.

I do find this very intuitive. Nor does the idea seem to depend essentially on the God assumption.

Nozick's example of pouring tomato juice in the ocean seems trite, deliberately missing the point by taking the 'mixing' idea literally, rather than in the spirit which Locke intended. The same applies to Thomas' absurd idea of 'shedding a tear on the sod'. The reasonable reaction should be to seek to clarify the 'mixing labour' metaphor.

I accept that his is not an easy thing to do. Consulting intuition, it seems that at least part of the idea of being prepared to 'make the effort' is the assumption that the greater effort is proof of greater need or desire. If I am very hungry, and you are not, then I will make the effort to climb the tree to retrieve the coconut while you stand and watch.

This exhibits a clear linkage with the idea of 'taking what you need'. Left to our natural resources, and taking sheer irrational greed out of the equation, human labour, human need, and the distribution of goods should, ideally, all match up.

Or consider the saying, 'Faint heart never won a fair lady.' The would-be suitor should be prepared to make greater efforts than the competition. It doesn't follow from this that wives are 'property'. One is merely pointing out how our intuitions veer towards the idea of a linkage between effort and desert.

You can't hold Locke accountable for all the evils of capitalism, because his theory of property, as an account of how private property could be a coherent, defensible idea, comes before any attempt to defend capitalism as such, or the notion that there are no limits to what you may legitimately do with your property as a saleable item in the market place. That would make a valid essay question, but it is not the one you are answering.

I don't see why according to Locke's account, 'if you always stick to only appropriating enough resources, then the poor will perish.' Sufficiency is relative to availability. If resources are slender, we all have to pull in our belts.

Yes, Locke is assuming 'reasonableness'. I think Hobbes does too, only in his picture self-interest forces us to act in a much more selfish manner than we would were it not for the fear that others will do the same (the prisoners' dilemma problem). What Locke does assume, is a prior interest in ethics. You don't need God for ethics, but you do need that prior interest -- otherwise everything is up for grabs.

All the best,