Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why Aristotle distinguishes four causes

To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why Aristotle distinguishes four causes
Date: 29th October 2009 12:38

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 22 October, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Aristotle module, in response to the question, 'How do Aristotle's four causes relate to each other? Does he need all four of them?

This is in many ways a model essay on Aristotle's four causes, which gives an accurate and full answer to both parts of the question. Your device of asking 'how we would explain a bed to an extraterrestrial, ET' is a good way of making the case for the plausibility of Aristotle's claim that there are exactly four kinds of way in which one would 'explain' a bed.

My only quibble with the way you do this concerns what you say about the formal cause, 'In the case of our bed we can, for present purposes, identify this with its shape.' Later, you speak of the formal cause stating 'what it essentially is'.

Explained in this way, to modern ears it seems rather redundant to cite the formal cause of something. What exactly is it for something to 'have' a formal cause?

A more convincing way to explain this is to imagine, not ET, but someone who thinks they know a bed when they see one. I show my guest his bedroom, and he (ungratefully) complains, 'That's not a bed! That's a circular hole in the floor!' 'If you climb down the ladder and lie down, you'll find that it's quite comfortable. The floor is padded. Something you can lie down on and sleep comfortably is JUST WHAT A BED IS.'

My reply to the ungrateful guest clearly illustrates Aristotle's point about the connection between the final and formal causes in the case of artefacts. The fact that the bed is below floor level rather than raised, and circular rather than rectangular is inessential so far as the purpose or function of a bed is concerned. The artefact in question fully satisfies that purpose, as it was designed to do, and that is why it *is* a bed.

Of course, you can sleep on anything. If I sleep on the roof of my car, that doesn't make a car roof a 'bed', because it wasn't designed for that purpose. 'Things are designed and constructed, for a purpose,' is a fundamental observation about human life.

Or to take a more philosophically substantial question, let's say we are arguing over Helen's beauty. You don't find Helen beautiful. I reply, 'If you don't think Helen is beautiful then you don't know what beauty is.' However, to a modern ear, this is also more contentious. The idea that something like beauty, or justice 'has an essence' that in principle anyone who is prepared to think about it can agree on, is problematic. Aristotle doesn't see this as problematic in the same way as we do, because he has a less modest view of the role of philosophy, which he inherited from Plato.

This takes us to the main issue raised by Aristotle's account of the four causes, for the modern reader. Although it is true that we can agree on the logical structure of Aristotle's classification, it remains the case that Aristotle had a very different notion of the roles of the four causes in explanation, and in particular the respective roles of efficient and formal causes.

It is true that the theory of evolution has to a large extent vindicated the idea we can understand organisms has having as their end to flourish and propagate. Explanations in biology typically take the form, 'Entity x has attribute y because y enables x to...'. By contrast, modern physics takes a very different view from Aristotle of why physical things interact as they do.

That's why it would be relevant to mention that, although we can agree on some suitably selected examples of formal causation, it is also true that Aristotle saw a vastly greater role for formal causation. For Aristotle, physical things interact in the way that they do, for no other reason than 'That is just what it is to be an X'. The explanation of why ice melts when heated is that it's ice, and that's just what ice does.

Aristotle was aware of the possibility of a different form of explanation, where the notion of efficient/ moving cause is extended to cover the microstructural properties of objects, in the theories of his predecessors Democritus and Leucippus. But he rejected it (for reasons which go outside the scope of the present essay).

The point is simply that although we can legitimately use Aristotle's four-fold distinction, as you have demonstrated in your example of ET, in order to fully explain 'how the four causes relate to each other' one needs to say something about how Aristotle conceived of explanation of physical processes and changes, and in particular his very different conception of the role of efficient causation from the one that is held today.

All the best,


Does anti-realism violate the reality principle?

To: Christodoulos P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does anti-realism violate the reality principle?
Date: 28th October 2009 13:12

Dear Christos,

Thank you for your email of 21 October, with your third essay for the Pathways Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Does anti-realism violate the reality principle in denying the existence of a verification independent 'target for our thoughts to aim at'?'

This is a well written essay which covers the main moves made by the anti-realist in attempting to 'construct' a view of truth which is consistent with anti-realist scruples. What this means, in practice, is that the anti-realist looks for a way to distil the notion of truth out of our activity of verifying and falsifying judgements.

As you successfully argue, each of these attempts fails. Let's consider the last move, which (although you don't mention this) is associated with the later philosophy of Wittgenstein: the idea that there are 'indefeasible verifications' (which Wittgenstein called 'criteria'). If a judgement passes the test of indefeasible verification, if it satisfies the criteria, then that's just what it *is* for that judgement to be true. Any would-be sceptic who attempts to imagine a scenario where the judgement in question 'might turn out to be false' is just spinning nonsense.

One philosopher who argues for this view is Crispin Wright, in his book, 'Truth and Objectivity'.

G.E. Moore, in his 'Refutation of Idealism' made a similar point when he told his audience, 'Here is a hand, and here is another hand.'

Let's leave aside the question whether Wittgenstein would accept Wright's 'gloss' on his notion of criteria. It is true -- and this is something which Wittgenstein argued -- that to raise sceptical questions of the kind that philosophers love to consider is not, in itself, sufficient to create doubts about our most basic kinds of knowledge. In his last book, 'On Certainty' which was partly inspired by Moore's lecture, Wittgenstein shows how the human concept of knowledge 'works', how we accept things as 'facts' or as 'certain' despite the fact that one could *imagine* ways in which we might turn out to be wrong.

There's a famous line in the Investigations. Wittgenstein imagines a sceptic who complains, 'Aren't you shutting your eyes to doubt?' And he replies, simply, 'They are shut.'

But I remain unhappy with this, as a way of defending the anti-realist's 'definition' of truth. Why do we need a definition? Why do we need to say what truth *is* in anti-realist terms?

Why can't an anti-realist agree with the realist that 'truth transcends verification', only not because truth consists in 'correspondence with facts' but rather because whatever definition we offer of truth is capable, in principle, of being defeated. We will, of course, continue to say (just as the realist says) that a particular judgement is 'true' or that some other judgement is 'not true', but in saying this we are not making any additional claim: we are merely stating, or denying the judgement in question.

This is, in effect, the view of truth taken by the 'redundancy theory.' According to the redundancy theory, the predicate 'is true' functions as a device of 'disquotation'. Saying 'P' is true, is the same as saying, P. If you make a long speech, and I agree with everything you say, I can save myself the trouble of repeating it by saying simply, 'What Christos said is true.'

On this view, the anti-realist who refuses to define truth doesn't need a 'picture' of 'how things are in reality', or 'how human judgements relate to the world'. The whole content of anti-realism is negative and dialectical, consisting in the rejection of the realist's claims.

Is that an acceptable view? This kind of anti-realist hasn't said anything which obviously contradicts the reality principle. But he has done this, only by refusing to make any positive statement about what anti-realism means.

Suppose the realist says, 'I don't believe in 'correspondence with facts' or any other metaphysical view of truth. I hold the common sense view that a judgement can be true regardless of whether we are able to verify it or not.' The anti-realist says, 'I hold that too, but I don't *mean* it in the way that you mean it. What you mean, or think you mean, has no meaningful content.' The realist replies, 'How do you know what I mean, or think I mean?'

This is a stand-off. The question is, who wins? Both the realist and anti-realist have a certain 'picture' of what they mean, or of what they reject about the opposing position, but the two positions are so tightly bound together that there seems no way in from the outside.

In later units, will argue that the very fact that this dispute can arise shows something wrong about our concept of truth, and that the correct account is neither 'realism about truth' nor 'anti-realism about truth'.

All the best,


Aristotle on primary and secondary substances

To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on primary and secondary substances
Date: 22nd October 2009 11:38

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 14 October with your essay for the University of London BA module, Greek Philosophy: Aristotle, in response to the question, 'What according to the Categories is the relation between primary and secondary substances?'

Regarding a short book on Rawls: my recommendation would be to avoid introductions for students, and look at the original book reviews of his 'Theory of Justice', and also book reviews of longer studies of Rawls. That way, you will get a much better insight into the 'state of the art' regarding discussions of Rawls' work, and also gain extra ammunition with which to impress an examiner. Obviously, this advice applies more generally: as a rule my best students spend time researching JSTOR, or the articles available at Questia.

You have written a very good essay. With a question like this, you need to ask subsidiary questions which raise possible criticisms, and this you have done. However, bearing in mind the point I made above, some indication that you have looked at contemporary/ scholarly discussions of the topic in question will get those extra marks. (E.g. in an exam, you would say, 'Irwin makes the point that...'.)

One contemporary philosopher whose work is especially relevant to this topic is David Wiggins. In his monograph, 'Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity', and also in his later expanded work, 'Sameness and Substance' he provides compelling arguments based on the logic of identity statements for making the kinds of distinction that Aristotle makes: Primary substances are spatio-temporal particulars, whose identity over time depends on tracking the object in question under a sortal concept (Aristotelian secondary substance).

The background to Wiggins is Strawson's essay 'Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics' which makes the case for spatio-temporal particulars as being 'basic' in our 'conceptual scheme'. (Indeed, Strawson describes Aristotle as one of the forerunners of descriptive metaphysics, by contrast with 'revisionary metaphysicians' such as Berkeley or Leibniz.) Since Wiggins, and also the important work of Putnam and Kripke, the idea that there are 'natural kinds' and that we can draw a meaningful, coherent distinction between 'accidental' properties made a comeback, after a long period where the very idea of 'essential' properties was frowned upon -- a legacy from the hostility to Scholasticism which goes back to the empiricists (Ayer is an example of a philosopher who has expressed scepticism on this point.)

Yet it is also important to remember that Aristotle intended his distinctions to do more than merely logical/ conceptual work: they link in to his account of explanation, as a radical alternative to the notion that objects (like primary substances) have a deep structure, an idea Aristotle was perfectly familiar with from the theories of the Greek atomists -- which he roundly rejected.

You make two substantial points that I would like to comment on. The first concerns the statement 'Socrates is a biped'. I agree with you that 'Socrates is a biped animal' is a perfectly acceptable reading (and indeed the reading that one would normally intend). However, there is an obvious problem in that if we remove one or both of Socrates' legs, he is still a 'biped animal'. Being a biped animal is essential to Socrates, yet not in the sense that Socrates is unable to survive the removal of his legs. On the other hand, 'Socrates is a cordate' or 'Socrates is a renate' describe attributes which cannot be removed without causing the death of Socrates.

(There is also a possible reading which would apply in a universe where human beings have varieties of numbers of legs -- like differing amounts of hair -- and no particular number is more characteristic of a human being than another number. In the actual universe, if I remarked, 'Socrates is biped', there is a context in which this would be construed as a remark about the actual number of legs which Socrates has.)

The second point, which is perhaps more important, concerns the ontological status of primary and secondary substances. Secondary substances, for Aristotle, have if anything a far greater importance than they would for a contemporary 'essentialist' because of their connection with Formal explanation, as indicated above. Natural kinds are real, not just classifications in our head, and moreover they are what ultimately explain the powers of primary substances. Also, if we apply the test of whether X can exist without Y, or Y without X, we get the result that primary substances like Socrates and secondary substances like Man are 'equal' from an ontological standpoint. Neither can be without the other.

Yet, is that the only criterion? Isn't it also true that our mode of access to natural kinds such as Man is necessarily via primary substances. In Aristotelian science, we are 'given' the primary substances, an individual man or plant, and discover the natural kinds, their species and genera.

What this shows, however, is that in order to make the case for the primacy of primary substances, Aristotle would need to introduce an epistemological element; as you show, drawing the logical distinctions which he does is not sufficient.

All the best,


Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities
Date: 20th October 2009 11:51

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Descartes et. al. module, in response to the question, 'Why did Locke think it important to distinguish between primary and secondary qualities? Is his way of explaining the distinction a satisfactory one?

This is in many ways an excellent essay, but I disagree with your conclusion; which is just as well, otherwise we wouldn't have much to talk about!

At one point, your discussion of counterfactual or dispositional properties reminded me of an infuriating argument I once had as an undergraduate at Birkbeck, with a student from my year, whose daytime job was a Tax Inspector, and was also a very proficient lutenist (not that this is exactly relevant, but he was a bit of an oddball). The argument was over the very idea of a 'dispositional' property. All properties, he claimed, were dispositional. 'What about being round?' I asked. Surely being round is definable independently of an object's dispositional properties. 'No,' he said, 'An object is round if you can roll it!' and to prove the point, he took a glass (we were sitting in the refectory at the time) and rolled it on the table. 'See!'

Who was right? Obviously, the question is more general than (and indeed prior to) the question of the validity of the primary/ secondary quality distinction. Intelligent beings whose only perceptual sense was proprioceptive feedback (as in Helen Keller) could distinguish between the capacity of an object, e.g. to bear a given weight without being crushed, and it's size, shape, weight (mass) etc. There are infinitely many dispositional properties (with sufficient ingenuity, one could keep adding properties to the list) but, intuitively, the non-dispositional properties depend upon -- and are therefore limited to -- what would be a complete description of that object (e.g. sufficient to enable us to make an exact copy).

We're both agreed that Locke was wrong about what he took to be the 'primary qualities' of an object. As you remark, science has moved on. What our senses report as being solid, physics tells us is 'mostly empty space', and that very description is itself fatally contaminated by our pre-scientific understanding of the world. String theory takes us even further way from that pre-scientific view.

But so what? Wouldn't that just mean that the primary qualities of objects are different from what Locke thought them to be, and not that there are no primary qualities, only secondary ones?

We need to take a step back: why is the distinction important?

You list a number of reasons why Locke thought it important to distinguish primary and secondary qualities. However, there is an unclarity here about how relative this distinction, and Locke's drawing of it, is to the context in which he was writing. Obviously, Boyle's corpuscularian theory (derived originally from the metaphysical speculations of Leucippus and Democritus) was an important influence. However, as the example of the Greek philosophers shows, the idea wasn't new.

Locke's antipathy to the scholastics is relevant, because Scholastic philosophy developed from Aristotelian doctrine: Aristotle was implacably opposed to the atomist view and the very idea of microstructural explanation, on the grounds that human reason and our powers of perception ought to be sufficient to discover all that there is to discover about the natural world.

If you want to do science in a non-scholastic way, discover the hidden structure of things, how can you avoid a primary/ secondary quality distinction?

There are serious questions about the tenability of Locke's theory of perception and knowledge, in particular the way it generates a 'veil of perception' problem. However, that is just the context in which Locke argued for the distinction, which survives the rejection of Lockean empiricism.

I take on board the point that the 'positive resemblance thesis' cannot be salvaged, at least in the form that Locke intended it. As you argue, 'resemblance' is far too flexible a notion anyway (Nelson Goodman in 'Languages of Art' offers a powerful argument against the view that a representational painting 'resembles' its object more or less closely). However, something survives: namely, the fact that an explanation of why we perceive the world in the way we do will be couched in terms which ultimately refer to whatever physics posits as the 'ultimate' physical structure of things.

Or maybe not: we are assuming that in principle there is a route from physical theory to the explanation of the phenomenal quality of experience; there are many philosophers who would disagree. From the assumed truth that facts about experience supervene on physical facts, it does not follow that there is, in principle, a reductivist explanation available of experience in terms of those facts. However, I take it that the basic (negative) point of the primary/ secondary quality distinction would still apply.

All the best,


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Kant's explanation of why it is wrong to tell a lie

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's explanation of why it is wrong to tell a lie
Date: 16th October 2009 11:48

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London 'Ethics Historical Perspectives' module, in response to the question, 'Is Kant right in thinking that appeal to the categorical imperative is enough to show lying to be morally wrong?'

I'm impressed that you managed to write 1825 words in an hour. You do use up a fair amount of words on the general topic of the Categorical Imperative before you address the question of lying (in your seventh paragraph!).

The question of lying is especially interesting because in some ways it looks like the 'best case scenario' for the Categorical Imperative. We feel, intuitively, that there is something wrong with the admission, 'I am willing to lie, if I find myself in a tight spot.' If I told you this, and you found me in a tight spot, then why should you believe anything I say?

The Categorical Imperative (in its first formulation) effectively uses this thought. Just as I am extremely reluctant to tell you that I am a liar, so the general acceptance that lies were OK is almost unthinkable.

Almost -- and yet, as you point out, there is a case for saying that human discourse could survive, 'Maybe humans adapt in a way that they continue to have trust and communication is still possible by figuring out patterns or betting on what people say in certain ways.'

There was a notorious article published in 1968 in the Harvard Business Review, by Albert Carr, 'Is Business Bluffing Ethical?' which made the case that in business (as contrasted with life outside the business arena) lies were acceptable as 'part of the game' in the same way that bluffing is part of the game of poker. I don't think Carr is right about this, but the idea that language could survive what would effectively be the destruction of an 'ethics of discourse' has some plausibility.

One only has to think of the various fictional representations of the gangster world, in novels and films, to grasp the idea of a form of discourse where no-one 'trusts' anyone, but rather makes 'bets' on whether a person will do what he says, given the sanctions available against those who are caught breaking their word.

If this scenario is conceivable, then surely it is not such a great step to imagine a world which the gangster style of discourse is the only discourse.

One possibility, in response to the original question, might be that the categorical imperative is not strictly 'enough to show lying to be morally wrong' yet it does offer a powerful explanation of why we reject lying. In other words, what the CI offers is 'interpretation' rather than 'proof'.

In his essay, 'On the supposed right to lie from philanthropic motives' Kant makes the point, in response to examples like that of the Nazi and the persecuted innocent which you cite, that if I lie to the Nazi, and if by chance the Nazi successfully captures the man as a result of following my lying directions (e.g. because I was mistaken about exactly where the man was hiding), then I effectively take on the moral responsibility for the man's fate. If it hadn't been for my lies, the man would have lived.

We don't *see* this as a valid valid argument because we embrace consequentialist thinking where any person is a potential means to some 'better' end. When I lied to the Nazi, I must have realized that there was a chance that this would happen, but I did a quick 'cost benefit' analysis and discounted it. Once you give up the *principle*, 'do not tell a lie', then you are effectively giving up the idea that certain actions are beyond our ethical reach, Kant would say. This is what he means by, 'Do not use another person as a mere means'.

You suggest that there could be a 'trade off in moral dilemmas'. However, the way Kant would see this, we are not dealing with a case of a 'clash of principles' (which would indeed threaten the very coherence of the CI) but rather a conflict between principles and consequences.

Again, as Kant would be quick to point out, any attempt to state when and where it is acceptable to lie is self-defeating. Suppose we had this rule, carefully formulated with every exception we can think of: cases will inevitably arise which we hadn't foreseen, which force us to break our carefully worded rule.

I think there is a deep paradox here, regarding the very idea that some things are just wrong, period, yet there will always arise circumstances when you have to do something which is wrong. You might find my discussion in Tentative Answers relevant:

In this post, I look at Peter Geach's argument that the only coherent defence of moral principles is to see them as the expression of God's Law.

All the best,


Is Descartes guilty of circular reasoning?

To: Christine W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Descartes guilty of circular reasoning?
Date: 16th October 2009 10:35

Dear Christine,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy Descartes et. al. module, entitled, 'Is Descartes Guilty of Circular Reasoning?'

I am responding somewhat quicker than I would normally, as I am expecting a surge of essays as my new students start sending their work.

This is in many ways a model essay. I liked the way you analysed Descartes' argument from 'I exist' to 'The C&D (clear and distinct) rule is guaranteed', via his proof of God from the idea of perfection. This is something I try to get my students to do when the are faced with an argument like this. As a rule, if you can find extra premisses or steps (even if these are not explicit in the text) this can often greatly increase one's understanding of the argument in question, as well as helping to identify its weak points.

The first point I would make, which applies to all the work you send me, is that I would like you to respond to a specific examination question. 'The Cartesian Circle' is a topic which appears regularly in examinations, which means that it is a great temptation to write your 'model essay' then reproduce it in an examination when the question comes up. However, you will find that examination questions often have a twist or a dink; if you can address the specific question, exactly as it is worded, rather than just write on the topic this will impress examiners, who are looking for students who can show that they are 'quick on their feet'. The examiners want to you work in the examination, not just reproduce stuff from memory.

Another point which is a potential criticism of your answer is that there is no evidence that you have looked at discussions in the literature on Descartes dealing with the Cartesian Circle. Again, this is a general point, this time about the Modern Philosophy paper and other papers relating to the history of philosophy. You are required to show a thorough knowledge of the primary texts, but you are also expected to do your own research on the contemporary discussions relating to the philosopher in question.

As you admit, at around 1500 words this is rather shorter than the target length I would like you to aim at, 2000-2500 words. Yes, your answer is concise, and there is very little I would disagree with. However, if you find that you are running out of things to say then you need to dig deeper, do more research.

To get to specifics, one thing that your answer strongly suggests is that Descartes recognizes two 'tiers' of subjectively necessary truth: Truths which appear 'clear and distinct' but require God's guarantee in order for him to be able to conclude that they are true, and truths whose clarity and distinctness is such that they could not be false, regardless of whether God exists or not. In the latter category is the Cogito. Even if he is being deceived by an evil demon, Descartes knows that he exists.

You also put the case for the plausibility of the idea (one cannot say more than that) that the steps in the argument for God's existence have the kind of clarity and distinctness which the Cogito has; or, to put this more explicitly, an evil demon could not trick Descartes into thinking he has an idea of God when he hasn't.

It is worth remembering at this point that in Meditation 1 Descartes has already discarded a possibility which would threaten the entire foundational enterprise, namely, the thought that 'maybe I am mad'. If I cannot rely on my own sanity, my capacity to reason, then there is no point in going further. Similarly, when one considers the evil demon hypothesis in the light of the idea of God, to persist with doubt is simply mad, it is not something that a rational person can think. Descartes is asking the reader to *see* this for themselves.

I am not claiming that this line of reasoning is valid; only that it suggests a possible interpretation which avoids the Cartesian Circle objection, in a way which does not seem merely arbitrary.

You claim to have identified another case of circular reasoning, in the Cogito itself. One of the criticisms made of the Cogito is that Descartes is not justified in moving from the observation, 'I think, I exist is true whenever the thought presents it to my mind' to 'I exist as a temporally extended substance'. It would be perfectly possible for an evil demon to have created my consciousness ten second ago, along with all my apparent memories, and possible also that I will cease to exist in ten seconds time.

However, if we just consider the argument from the idea of perfection, does Descartes need the stronger claim? Why can't he say that 'I exist as a temporally extended thinking substance' is a justified inference, given that there exists a God who would not deceive me?

All the best,


Direct realism as a theory of perception

To: Manuel R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Direct realism as a theory of perception
Date: 15th October 2009 11:06

Dear Manuel,

Thank you for your email of 5 October with your fifth essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'On the soundness of Direct Realism.'

This is a very well written essay. From a stylistic point of view, I especially liked the first two sections where you introduce the topic and discuss Locke's contribution. A beginner in philosopher would find this very clear and illuminating.

The essay is too long. I wasn't able to do a word count of the PDF file but I estimate the length to be between 5000 and 6000 words. The target length for Associate essays is 2000-2500 words with an upper limit of 4000! However, I would ask you to do any edits with extreme care. You have already done a lot of work on this (and it shows) and I would not like the essay butchered. (However, more on this below.)

You talk about different philosophers and writers on philosophy: here I really missed footnotes which would enable the reader to identify who you were alluding to, and which would greatly increase the authority of your argument. I hope that you are able to rectify this, although (from my own experience) I know that sometimes when you are reading a lot one loses track of where you first came across a particular point. So I will just say, do the best you can.

Incidentally, in contemporary discussions of perception in analytic philosophy (which provide much of the material, e.g. for my students taking the University of London BA in Philosophy) the question of sense data or 'qualia' and their role in perception is very much alive.

Your case for direct realism boils down to saying that in this case Occam's precept, 'do not multiply identities beyond necessity' trumps considerations about simplicity (i.e. the more difficult and roundabout explanations of illusions, hallucinations offered by the direct realist). My own preference would be for an all-out attack on the notion of sense data/ qualia along the lines of Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, but it's a debatable point.

(As you did not have a very happy experience with Wittgenstein's Blue and Brown books, I would not recommend that you explore this avenue!)

One thing that Wittgenstein in his earlier work did say which is relevant to you was, 'If a sign is useless, then it is meaningless'. In other words, the appeal to Occam's razor doesn't have the same *force* in philosophy and in science. In science, we are happy to trade off simplicity and ontological economy, whereas in philosophy the very fact that an explanation can be given (however difficult) without positing entities of a particular kind shows that these entities are 'a wheel which turns, although it is not connected to the mechanism' (Wittgenstein's phrase). In other words, talk of the 'entities' in question is just so much hocus pocus.

The section I found most difficult was the one on 'Inferential and non-inferential Indirect Realism'. I kind of get the point here, but I gained the impression that you weren't too clear yourself on various possible moves and counter-moves. If you were looking for a way to shorten the essay, I would recommend simply removing the section, and maybe adding a paragraph or two to the previous or following sections (with footnotes!) showing that you are aware that there is more than one possible view here, although ultimately, since you reject sense data in favour of direct realism, it is a side issue.

All the best,


David Hume's account of causation

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: David Hume's account of causation
Date: 15th October 2009 10:10

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 7 October, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What was Hume trying to do in his account of causation? How successful was he in attaining his objectives?'

This is a gripping question for me, as I am currently involved in a dialogue with an ISFP Fellowship student over Hume's analysis of causation. I am Humean about causation (but prepared to be proved wrong) while my student is anti-Humean. The most difficult thing, however, is trying to determine just what the Humean view essentially is.

You make a stab at characterizing Hume's position dialectically, by identifying his view of causation as an 'empiricist' response to 'rationalist' views of causation. The problem with this is that you don't say what these views are. 'From a rationalist viewpoint we are asked to accept cause and effect as innate knowledge' tells me nothing.

You go on to talk about Hume's rejection of the view that the cause exercises a 'power' over the effect, or that cause and effect are linked by a 'necessary connection'. But what does this amount to?

If I put a saucepan of water on the stove and switch on the gas, is it false to say that the flame has the power to boil the water? Is it not necessary that the flame will heat the water? Hume denies neither of these things. On his objective account of causation (the first of your his two definitions which you quote on p.3) to say that heating water causes it to boil is to assert the truth of a universal generalization. From the proposition, 'The water in the saucepan was heated' and the universal generalization, it follows as a matter of logical necessity that the water boils. (This is essentially Carl Hempel's 'deductive-nomological' analysis of causation.)

Similarly, we can define the 'power' of the heat to cause water to boil in terms of this generalization. So what we are looking for, as the target of Hume's critique, is a false or illusory (from Hume's perspective) philosophical notion of 'power'. The question is, how does one give expression to this?

Pre-philosophically, we undoubtedly do have the notion that the process of cause and effect involves some invisible connection between the actual cause and the actual effect themselves. It may well be true that the instance in question may be derived from a generalization, but somehow this doesn't capture the 'actual-doingness' of the cause. All the generalization states is that one thing happens, then the other, and this sequence is lawlike (exceptionless, supporting counterfactual statements etc.).

Attempts have been made to construct thought experiments where an example of 'A followed by B' is lawlike and supports counterfactuals, but where, intuitively, A is not the cause of B. This might be one way to go. Unfortunately, putative examples tend to boil down to A being caused by C and B being caused by D, where C and D do fulfil this intuitive requirement.

Hume's second definition, his psychological account of the 'necessity' of the causal relation is, in effect, a diagnosis of our pre-philosophical intuitions about causation which seeks to account for them in a way which is consistent with the 'deductive-nomological' view.

What I would have liked to have seen in your essay is some appreciation that the problem of causation is difficult, 'gripping', in a way which makes this more than a historical exercise. I get the impression that you see Hume as successfully putting the case for a 'scientific' approach, clearing away the rationalist rubbish so that we can see the world more clearly. The problem is that this doesn't engage with the intuition that there is something more to causation than 'constant conjunction'.

Another question which is completely left hanging is the role of Hume's very strict empiricism in all of this. You start off alluding to Hume's theory of impressions and ideas, his analytical tool for understanding causation and other notions. Yet this same approach notoriously led Hume ('in the section 'Scepticism with regard to the senses') to doubt the meaning of the claim that ordinary spatio-temporal objects have 'distinct and continued' existence during periods where they are not perceived!

This leads to the suspicion that, maybe, the analysis of causation which Hume offers is similarly the product of a false methodology, an overly restrictive analytical tool. If not, why not? I don't think so, I think that the analysis of causation survives the rejection of Hume's 'radical' empiricism. But that's something that has to be shown.

Generally, I found this essay rather short on arguments and analysis. I get the impression that you have relied on your reading of the Treatise rather than exploring debates in the literature on Hume. These would have given you a useful perspective.

All the best,


Monday, March 25, 2013

Locke's attack on innate ideas and knowledge

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's attack on innate ideas and knowledge
Date: 24th September 2009 11:28

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 16 September, with your essay in response to the University of London Modern Philosophy question, 'Locke's attack on innate ideas and innate knowledge does not seriously damage any theory that a competent philosopher would wish to maintain.' Do you Agree?

I have received several essays in response to this question, and yours is by far the most thoroughgoing analysis of Locke's arguments and possible nativist responses. As you so clearly demonstrate, the problem with the question is that Locke's arguments appear to be directed against a version of nativism that no-one would wish to defend today. Locke is of course severely restricted in the range of nativist positions that he is able to consider, given the importance for contemporary nativism of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

So the real question becomes, beyond stating the obvious, where is the philosophical meat of the question of Locke and nativism to be found?

I am going to focus on the law of non-contradiction, because you make some remarks on this which seem to jar. So let's consider nativism about the law of non-contradiction.

The first Pentium chip, or one of the early Pentium chips, as I recall, had a bug which resulted in its giving an incorrect result for certain relatively simple mathematical calculations. How did this come about? There is no mystery about how one could construct a 'calculating' machine which gave wrong results. In effect, through the designers' negligence, that's what the Pentium chip was.

Animal brains have evolved over millions of years to produce appropriate behaviour to given stimulus. As you point out, there is no bar in principle to the evolution of a disposition to inappropriate behaviour in certain situations, provided that the selective process insufficiently tuned to weed it out. You remark that one of the strengths of contemporary nativism is that there is no presupposition that innate beliefs are necessarily true.

So along similar lines could we conceive of the possibility of a human genetic defect, say, which resulted in failure to apply the law of non-contradiction in specific situations?

You say:

'Applying Locke's own example of the principle of non-contradiction, it can be asserted that young children do seem to implicitly manifest their knowledge of this principle by their actions. For example, they do so by not trying to both push and pull a door simultaneously and by searching elsewhere for their toy if it is not where they first expected it to be.'

I have difficulty with this. If I saw a young child pulling hard at a doorknob while pushing the door with his feet, I would interpret this behaviour, not as 'trying to open (pull) and close (push) a door simultaneously' but rather as trying to forcibly remove the doorknob. This reflects one of the basic principles of the interpretation of behaviour, namely that in order to identify bodily movements as 'actions' we need to presuppose that the agent is rational. (This is a point repeatedly made by Donald Davidson in his writings on the problem of 'radical interpretation'.)

It is indeed remarkable to what extent human beings are capable of holding contradictory beliefs. But that's a different story. You can be fully aware of the law of non-contradiction yet fail to appreciate that two of your beliefs violate it.

Nor is it ruled out by Davidson's methodology that one might come to the conclusion that a given agent is behaving 'irrationally' (one example Davidson considers is the problem of weakness of will). Irrationality, when it occurs, is localized and selective, and its attribution presupposes that much of the agent's behaviour is rational. Otherwise, we are simply not dealing with a suitable subject for interpretation.

So I don't buy the idea that young children 'manifest their knowledge' of the law of non-contradiction in their actions, for the reason that nothing would count as failing to manifest it. No conceivable genetic defect could produce an inability to recognize when desires, or intended courses of action, contradict one another which did not also render the subject incapable of meaningful behaviour as such, i.e. behaviour which can be interpreted in terms of folk psychology, explained by the attribution of beliefs and desires.

If the law of non-contradiction is not an 'innate principle' provided by evolution, nor 'learned', then this would suggest that there must be something wrong, or at least over-simplified in the 'innate-learned' dichotomy. Might there be other concepts or principles which also failed to fall into this neat categorization?

Consider that Locke is fully prepared to allow (as he must) that the mind, albeit a 'blank tablet' is furnished with powers to process ideas and form beliefs. Could such a mind conceivably by like the first Pentium chip, fatally flawed? Or maybe all human brains are constructed to a flawed 'design'. (Colin McGinn is prepared to argue the case that the human brain is through some innate defect incapable of solving the mind-body problem!)

My suspicion is that the harder you press the distinction between 'innate' and 'learned' the fuzzier it becomes. It is human language and culture that forms the mind, yet the evidence points to the human brain having evolved partly as a consequence of the development of primitive social structures.

Briefly, I was also going to say something about your remark that Locke anticipates 'externalism about mental content'. I just could not see his at all. He does, according to J.L. Mackie 'anticipate Kripke' in his account of substance and real essence. Crucial here, however, is the recognition that only a restricted class of entities -- the 'natural kinds' recognized by the physicist, chemist or biologist -- have a 'real essence' from which their manifest properties flow.

All the best,


Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?
Date: 23rd September 2009 11:01

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 13 September with your one hour timed essay in response to the question taken from the 2008 the University of London 'Ethics Historical Perspectives' paper, 'Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?'

I like the way you have structured this essay, representing Ayer's and Stevenson's emotivism as a response to G.E. Moore's 'naturalistic fallacy'. As Moore presents the problem, in response to any factual statement, we can always raise the question, but is that good? So in the example you give, to say that action A leads to the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' still leaves open the question whether we think that is a good thing or not.

We can recast Moore's argument in the following way: moral statements have motivational force. From the acceptance of a moral statement, action follows. The problem is explaining the link between the two. Any given belief entails action only on the assumption of a desire. Two people can have the same belief, e.g. 'War involves wanton killing' but different desires. One hates killing, the other enjoys it.

With emotivism, however, a third aspect emerges, besides belief and (first-order) desire, namely *attitude*. Not only do we do things that we desire, and avoid things that we don't desire; we also express our approval or disapproval of the desires and actions of others. Human beings are influenced by expressions of attitude. By expressing my attitude about war, e.g. that wanton killing is wrong, I (hope to) bring it about that others change their desires in relation to the subject of war.

According to emotivism, the motivational force of moral judgements is entirely accounted for by the expression of attitude/ emotion. This is subjectivist (because my moral judgements are contingent on my attitudes), but with an extra component. If I say, 'War is bad', I am not merely stating that I have a negative attitude towards war; I am trying to influence you. Hence, 'I don't like war' is not a moral judgement but 'war is bad' is a moral judgement.

So far, so good. You mention in your essay that there appears to be a problem with explaining how there can be 'rational discourse and analysis' in relation to moral judgements. You express agreement with Ayer and Stevenson's reply to this point, namely that the substance of the argument concerns the facts, in other words getting a clearer picture of the situation which calls for approval/ disapproval.

Here you could have gone further, and mentioned the objection raised by Peter Geach, based on Fregean semantics, namely that moral statements can occur as the antecedent of conditionals. If 'War is wrong' is merely an expression of emotion, then how do you account for the conditional statement, 'If war is wrong then it is wrong to threaten a country with war if they fail to agree to your demands'?

There has been much discussion of this point, which relates to another point which you do make regarding different conceptions of 'truth'. Arguably, the emotivist can help themself to a sufficiently 'minimalist' conception of truth as mere agreement without conceding that the statement, 'War is wrong' does, after all, have a 'factual' (= correspondence truth) component.

You also raise an objection regarding 'the excess of freedom that the basic expressivism implies: if morality is about expressing emotions -- how can we then reject e.g. Nazis? The Nazis probably do not feel bad about what they do.' However, this is not an objection to emotivism as such, but rather to any moral subjectivist theory. There is no final 'court of appeal' apart from subjective human attitudes.

To someone who is sceptical about the possibility of any 'objective' account, however, this objection falls on deaf ears. When I condemn the Nazis, I'm not interested in what they think about what they do. This isn't something on which one takes a vote. My attitude is my attitude. The fact is that human beings agree to a remarkable extent on the kinds of behaviour which are approved or disapproved of. That's all there is.

In citing Jackson and Petitt and also Horgan and Timmons, the point here seems to connect with another important line of argument which you could have mentioned, the idea of 'thick concepts'. Many supposedly 'descriptive' words contain an emotive or valuational component. To accept the use of the word, is to agree to the emotion which that use normally expresses. You are 'buying in' to the language game with that word. If you disagree with that particular evaluation, you need to find alternative language, which makes it clear that you don't accept the word in question.

You also offer an idea of your own, that a possible world type of semantics could be used to account for the 'minimal truth' of moral judgements, on the emotivist theory. 'It seems we could take a subset of possible worlds and call them 'moral model world for a subject S'. This would contain all actions that the subject is morally engaged with... The moral agent... wants the 'is-world' to overlap with its 'ought-world'.'

From your description, I'm not sure exactly how this is supposed to work. Recall what I said earlier about the difference between desires and attitudes. Emotivism is about the expression of attitude -- the attempt to influence the desires of others. It is not just that I have a picture of the world or worlds I would ideally 'desire' the actual world to 'overlap with'. I want others to share my view.

I can see how one might use imaginary worlds in this sense to account for second-order desires; I can approve or disapprove of my own first-order desires as well as the desires of others. For example, after reading Aristotle's 'Ethics' I decide I want to live the 'good life'. I can't do this so long as my desires are the way they are. So I form the second-order intention to bring it about that my desires change.

What I don't understand is how the possible world idea solves a 'semantic' problem in relation to the nature of ethical 'truth'. Maybe I'm just missing something obvious here -- by all means run the idea by me again.

All the best,


Does epistemological justification come to an end?

To: Stephen B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does epistemological justification come to an end?
Date: 14th September 2009 10:31

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 6 September, with your first essay, for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Justification must come to an end. Therefore, some of our beliefs are either self-justifying or unjustified.' Discuss.

As an undergraduate, I was a voracious reader but also very uneconomic with my time -- I would think nothing of spending two months (on one occasion three months) on one essay. I would emphasize that this is not an example to follow!

I would say, though, that the research you do must be driven by your interest in a problem or question. Don't read stuff just because you feel you 'ought' to have read it. Some books deserved to be plundered rather than read (consider Bacon's advice on reading).

I don't give reading lists because I don't want all my UoL students to end up reading the same things. Trust your judgement, but don't rely too heavily on easy summaries (such as encyclopaedia articles). If a book interests you, find reviews of the book on JSTOR. Books reviews can be a very valuable concentrated source of philosophical debate.

Some of my students have accounts with Questia, which seems to offer good value for a relatively modest outlay.

These days, because so much is available on the internet, it is not necessary to buy as many books as it might have been in the past. However, some of the most important books that I've read I discovered by accident in second-hand book shops.

From your essay (which I will discuss in a minute) it is clear that you would have no difficulty gaining marks in the 2/i bracket. If you have the ambition to do more then you should be prepared to read more widely and deeply -- and put in a lot more hours of study.


This is a very good, well structured answer to the question. You have correctly identified the logical structure of the claim and examined the most obvious options in response to that claim: foundationalism, coherentism and infinitism. Your summary of the debate under each heading is reasonably accurate.

You could do better than this, however. The essay as a whole comes over as rather pat. I would blame the question to some extent, because it positively invites an answer which surveys the various options and sums up the pros and cons. However, you would get higher marks for pushing deeper. Your aporetic conclusion is bought too cheaply. You suggest that maybe 'the fault lies in the question' but what have you done to actually show this? Who says that foundationalism, coherentism and infinitism are the only options?

What is justification? I would have thought that more needs to be said here, especially in the light of Gettier. Although you throw in a quick reference to Gettier's challenge, you don't offer any explanation of how the traditional concept of justification which Gettier challenged connects with the idea of a belief's 'not being formed as a result of epistemic luck' which covers the various lines which have been taken in response to Gettier.

I agree with your statement that 'knowledge implies certainty'. You might like to look at an answer which I recently gave to the question from Demetrius on the relation between knowledge and certainty: See

What I say there in relation to the 'contextual' view of knowledge (David Lewis) challenges the idea of 'justification' in a different way from Gettier. The argument, 'justification must come to end. Therefore...' assumes a notion of justification which does not depend in any way on the circumstances in which a question has been raised. But is that correct?

Let's look at your example: Your mother believes that the sky is blue. So do I. But you do not. The considerations which you offer are ones that hadn't occurred to me prior to reading your essay. I was well aware that the blue colour of the sky is the result of differential scattering of the blue and yellow ends of the visible spectrum. I didn't believe (as perhaps a young child might believe) that the sky is a solid coloured dome or ceiling. However, now that it occurs to me (as a result of reading your essay) there is a question being begged: how can a blue ceiling and a blue sky both BE blue? Isn't there an equivocation here?

Previously, I thought that it sufficed for the truth, 'X is blue' that X appears blue to normal perceivers in normal light under normal circumstances. By this criterion, the sky is blue. However, your objection suggests that we need to refine the definition of ' blue' in order to give due recognition to the difference between an object X's 'having a blue surface', and X's merely 'appearing as if it has a blue surface.' (Then maybe we have to consider the difference between objects which reflect blue light, and objects like blue light bulbs which transmit blue light, and so on.)

The relevance to justification is this: I WAS justified in holding that the sky is blue. After you raised your objection, my justification -- which was fine up to that point -- ceased to be adequate. It became necessary to add something extra to justify/ defend my belief which was not needed before. (Compare this with my example in my response to Demetrius, 'Sue knows that Bob is cheating on her,' and how this knowledge claim might be challenged by raising a question about Bob's possible twin brother from Australia.)

As I hint in my Ask a Philosopher answer, this suggests a radical shake-up in our notions of knowledge and justification. The fact that we are able to defend our beliefs when challenged demonstrates our 'justification' for holding those beliefs. But challenges can come from various directions, more or less expected, and some totally unexpected.

Possibly, one might look again at infinitism: to say that a chain of justification extends 'to infinity' is a rather inflated way of saying that chains of justification do not have a definite end point. As the challenges increase, the chain gets longer, but there is no absolute limit.

These are just some thoughts on possible ways of taking the discussion further.

One other thing that I should mention is that you will get credit for referring to specific philosophers, and crediting them with lines of argument that you discuss. You don't have to overdo this. However, one or two, or a few judiciously selected names will give added authority and will make a difference to the overall impression.

All the best,


Husserl's account of intentional experience

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Husserl's account of intentional experience
Date: 9th September 2009 10:17

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 30 August, with your essay towards the Associate Award, in response to the question, ''Each intentional experience is either a presentation or based on a presentation.' How does Husserl deal with this statement in his Logical Investigations?'

It is obvious that a lot of work has gone into writing this essay, and that you have made a determined effort to grapple with Husserl's arguments in his 'Logical Investigations'.

My main problem with the essay in its present form is that in the attempt to condense Husserl's extended discussion into a 2000 word essay, you have produced something more like a precis rather than an exposition and critique, with the result that the text is dry to the point of being inpenetrable.

One of the criteria for essays submitted for the Associate Award is that they should be accessible to the non-expert reader (provided, of course, that the reader prepared to make sufficient effort). As you know, successful essay portfolios are archived on the Pathways web site. Students or people interested in philosophy should be able to browse through the web pages and not feel that they are totally out of their depth.

That is not the only reason: from my experience, the challenge to explain the problems and issues in an accessible way results in better work. You will be asking yourself harder questions, because you will need to stand back from the debate and ask yourself what it all amounts to, why is it important, what are the wider consequences of taking a particular view.

If you look at the essay portfolios archived at you will see that it is possible to do this without sacrificing academic rigour.

You may be interested to know that I also have a number of external students studying towards the University of London BA. This year three of my students gained results in the 70's (a 'First') for their end of year exams (BA modules). The essays my BA students write for me are responses to questions from past examination papers, as with the Associate around 2000-2500 words in length. None of my BA students has ever sent me an essay as dense as the one you have written. So I am not just talking about an idiosyncratic feature of the Associate Award.

So far, I have talked about exposition. In your essay, I do not detect even the slightest hint of critical evaluation of Husserl's arguments. Are you fully in agreement with what Husserl says? If not, where do you part company? How fair is Husserl's assessment of Brentano's position? Are they, in fact, seeking to answer exactly the same question(s) or is Husserl proposing a shift in the terms of the debate?

In order to take a critical stance, you have to do more than simply write a paragraph precising Husserl (in the style which you have used here) and then giving your response. Explaining the point of a particular philosopher's approach to a problem is an essential part of developing a critical evaluation of that philosopher's views.

In BA examination questions, even when the question takes the form, 'Explain what so-and-so thinks of such-and-such', candidates are expected to offer critical analysis as well as simply expounding on what so-and-so thinks of such-and-such.

To give an example: As a reader, the first thing I want to know is WHY does Brentano claim that each intentional experience is either a presentation or based on a presentation? Why is that claim intuitively appealing, or why does it seem to follow from Brentano's starting point of regarding psychical phenomena as possessing a unique quality ('intentional inexistence') which sets them apart from other phenomena?

Having hooked the reader on this initially plausible idea, you can then go on to explain why Husserl finds Brentano's claim problematic: what exactly has Husserl seen that Brentano missed? How does Husserl's treatment of intentional acts improve on that of Brentano?

You said that you only 'managed to write' 2000 words. You could easily spend another 500-1000 words explaining what is going on, identifying the key questions in play, giving some sense of why Husserl thinks that his conceptual distinctions hang together in the form of a much more powerful and comprehensive theory than the one which Brentano offers.

The upper limit, by the way, stretches to 3500 words, although 2500 is still the preferred target length.

All the best,


Monday, March 11, 2013

Significance of the paradox of the heap

To: Lishan C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Significance of the paradox of the heap
Date: 25th August 2009 14:14

Dear Lishan,

Thank you for your email of 17 August with your first essay for the Pathways Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'How would you explain to a non-philosopher the philosophical significance of the paradox of the heap?'

As you have probably discovered, it is no easy matter to explain to one's non-philosophical friends why a particular philosophical problem is regarded as significant or important. None more so than with the paradox of the heap. The usual response is sheer exasperation: 'Of course some men are bald, some men are not bald and some are in between!'

What the non-philosopher misses is that here we have an example of an argument with impeccable credentials leading to a contradictory conclusion. You can't do mathematics without the principle of mathematical induction. Yet here it leads to what seems an impossible result.

Your statement of the argument is not quite correct, from a mathematical standpoint. The argument goes:

1. A man with 0 hairs is bald.
2. IF a man with n hairs is bald THEN a man with n+1 hairs is bald.
3. Conclusion: A man with 100000 hairs is bald.

What the non-philosopher probably doesn't realize is that you can run exactly the same argument for 'bald' and 'partially bald' (='in between'). Make as many distinctions as you like, if they are ultimately vague distinctions then the paradox applies, as before.

You say that this argument 'is caused by an informal fallacy', but what exactly is the fallacy? If the premisses 1. and 2. are true, then 3. follows. To question the validity of the argument you would have to question the validity of the principle of mathematical induction.

But IS 2. true? Obviously, we have little difficulty in imagining that if you add one hair to a bald man, he remains bald. Yet, if one were to do this in real life (imagine painstakingly transplanting hairs on to the head of a bald man, one follicle at a time) we WOULD say at some point, 'Hey, you're no longer bald!'

The weird thing is that there is no fixed cut-off point. One observer would say this at, say 900 hairs, another at 1100 hairs.

There are two possible reactions to this. The first is to state that you can't use mathematical induction because 'bald' is a vague concept. The principle of mathematical induction is only valid for precisely defined concepts. That saves mathematics. However, it still leaves us with the problem of explaining what claim is made when we make a statement which employs a vague concept. Worse, it leaves us with the conclusion that the principles of reasoning and logic don't apply universally, but only to neatly defined areas of discourse.

The second alternative is to accept that vague statements have a precise content -- precise truth conditions -- only we are ignorant of what exactly these truth conditions are. In that case, the reason why mathematical induction fails is very simple: there IS a point where adding one hair makes a bald man not-bald. However, competent speakers do not know where this point is (and cannot know -- that's what gives vague concepts their utility). This solution, which seems at first extremely counter-intuitive was proposed by a British philosopher Timothy Williamson a few years ago. It is a very elegant solution which saves logic and demolishes the paradox.

My problem with this is that no explanation has been given of how it is *possible* for vague statements to have truth conditions in this way. What kinds of *facts* about our use of language do these truth-conditions capture? How is it that speakers are largely able to agree (within, say, plus or minus 10%) on how a concept like 'bald' is applied without knowing what these truth conditions are?

In the program, it is suggested that the facts captured by these truth conditions might be statistical facts (like the observation about the 900 or 1100 hairs). Question enough people, and a reliable pattern will emerge, enabling us to define precisely the cut-off point for baldness. My objection is that there is a false assumption here that everyone has equal authority to make these kinds of judgement. But do they? If not, then the attempt to distil truth conditions from the statistics breaks down.

I realize that at this point we have left our non-philosophical friend far behind. What I would say to them is that what the paradox shows is that there is a necessary gap between the world as described by science and the world of human perception. There are truths of ordinary experience which cannot be scientifically or mathematically defined, yet they are part of reality nonetheless.

All the best,


Locke's arguments against innate ideas

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's arguments against innate ideas
Date: 25th August 2009 10:33

Dear Alistair,

Than you for your email of 15 August, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What is Locke's strongest argument against innate ideas and principles? Is it strong enough?'

This is a good essay, which successfully gets to grips with the nitty gritty of Locke's arguments.

Reading this question carefully, one implication that I pick up is that the view that some ideas and/ or principles are innate poses a serious challenge to contemporary philosophy of mind/ epistemology, the issue being whether there is any real benefit to be gained from enlisting Locke. This contrasts with the strong impression that one might get reading the Essay that the view Locke is merely attacking is a straw man.

Consider the saying, 'East, West, home is best.' One can point to empirical evidence to support this belief. However, considering that it is such a useful belief to hold (it keeps human beings grounded and connected to their roots, protects the institution of the family etc. etc.) that once upon a time some might have thought it not unreasonable to hold that a Wise Creator instilled this belief in His creatures, for their benefit. We can laugh at this today, but in Locke's time a priest or preacher could say this with a perfectly straight face.

On the other hand, when one considers moral principles like the prohibition against incest or cannibalism the case looks a lot stronger -- not for a Wise Creator admittedly, but for some not implausible story about evolution and the selective pressures bearing on creatures who form social groups. (Peter Carruthers in 'Human Knowledge and Human Nature' argues that the theory of evolution gives scope for empiricists to accept the possibility of certain kinds of innate idea, although his interest focuses on such things as our conception of 'best explanation'.)

As much as one would like to find reasoned arguments (in Lockean mode) against incest or cannibalism, it is certainly tempting to fall back on the view that the widespread and cross-cultural (though admittedly not universal) dread of these practices is somehow a product of our evolutionary heritage.

Does Locke have a strong enough argument here? It looks to me that we have a problem of where to place the onus of proof. Given that we may not be sufficiently resourceful to produce the necessary arguments, what prevents us from falling back on the innatist view? In other words, is the onus on the innatist to prove their case (with particular examples), or on us to disprove it?

I liked your example of facial recognition which I am sure would surprise Locke and (arguably) give the lie to the 'blank tablet' metaphor. Human beings are highly geared up to recognize certain very sophisticated kinds of pattern. However, what is significant here is that the 'idea' in question is not the kind that supports any corresponding principle with a propositional content. It is much closer to the idea of 'innate quality spaces' which Locke could accept as part of the apparatus which the mind brings to bear on experiences (a point which you allude to when you talk about the brain's pattern matching ability).

In extolling the remarkable capacity of the mind to recognize similarities and dissimilarities, however, there is a danger that we might be conceding too much to Locke. This is brought out in a brilliant little book by the philosopher Peter Geach 'Mental Acts' (Routledge 1957) where Geach argues against the the theory which he calls 'abstractionism' according to which human beings acquire ideas by noticing similarities and dissimilarities amongst given objects. Geach contrasts this with the view that it is the acquisition of language and linguistic concepts that makes it possible to detect and respond to the *relevant* similarities.

For example, consider a child learning the meaning of 'red'. You show the child a red balloon, a red building brick, a red flower. How is the child supposed to know that the colour is the relevant quality to look for, if they do not already have a concept of colour? And how can one have a concept of colour without having a network of concepts in which colour concepts are embedded?

The background to Geach's arguments is Wittgenstein's considerations on 'following a rule' in the 'Philosophical Investigations'. Whereas Locke focuses on the individual, the rule following view sees individuals as necessarily placed in a social context.

Obviously, this raises the question whether Locke's proposed alternative to the innatist view can be formulated in a way which does not lay him open to this charge: in other words, whether we can restate Locke's main argument against innatism in terms of language rather than 'ideas'. (You do say something about this, when you talk about the difference the 'high level' of ideas expressed in language, and the 'lower level' which underlies our higher level capacities.)

All the best,


What is Plato's concept of knowledge?

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is Plato's concept of knowledge?
Date: 24th August 2009 11:17

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 14 August, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'What is Plato's concept of knowledge?'

You may be interested to look at my answer to a question about Plato's and Descartes' concepts of knowledge on the current Ask a Philosopher Q&A page (first question)

I make the point there that, contrary to a 'lazy' tendency in epistemology, to state that P is to imply that you know that P, and to know that P implies that you are certain that P. The idea that Plato or Descartes were 'wrong' to think that knowledge implies certainty fails to grasp where Plato or Descartes were coming from in their views on the nature of knowledge.

As my answer suggests, the topic of knowledge leads to some difficult paradoxes. I could have also suggested that there is a link between Gettier counterexamples, and the defeating examples Lewis cites in arguing for a contextualist theory of knowledge.

For the purposes of this essay, the primary source texts are Meno, Republic and Theaetetus. The other texts you mention are relevant (Socratic dialogues such as Euthyphro, and the later dialogues Parmenides and Sophist). However, it is in the three primary texts that Plato explicitly states views about the nature of knowledge and belief; the question being (as you remark) whether Plato held a largely unitary view throughout the early, middle and late dialogues or whether his views changed substantially.

You missed a very important passage from the Meno. This is where Plato talks about the road to Larissa. What is it to 'know' the road to Larissa? Is it enough to demonstrate one's 'knowledge' by successfully reaching Larissa? No, because true beliefs which lack an 'account' have a tendency to 'run away'. I might find my way to Larissa if I don't think about it too much. However, there are all sorts of ways in which I could fall victim to doubt, if I don't have a strong enough account at my disposal. (My gloss on beliefs 'running away'.)

Thus, the slave boy who 'solves' the geometric problem has a true belief but lacks knowledge because he lacks the account. He would need to learn a lot more geometry before one could say that he 'knows' the solution to the problem.

You are right that Plato's concept of knowledge appears to be modelled on perception, but I would suggest that commentators have somewhat overstated this point. It is not that Plato thinks knowledge *is* perception, but rather that you can't have isolated 'bits' of knowledge. You can't 'just' know the road to Larissa or the solution to the geometric problem. You have to know a lot of other stuff as well, and this knowledge has to hang together. So it is very much like perception, in that in 'knowing' an object you know lots of things about it.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I doubt whether Plato states anywhere that to 'know' an object is to know *everything* about it. You have to be proficient in dialectic, as demonstrated e.g. in the Sophist, but there is no claim to the effect that knowledge of the Forms is in principle only attainable in toto.

Given what Plato says in the Republic, one can of course question whether it is possible to 'know' the road to anywhere in particular. However, it seems plausible to argue that Plato accepts that analogous considerations apply to doxa of the empirical world, and episteme of the intelligible world. In both cases, an account is needed. In both cases, knowledge doesn't come in bits but in clusters.

Again, in both cases, the empirical and the intelligible, Plato says that there is an analogous 'paradox' regarding the process of coming to know (Meno's paradox). If the theory of recollection is the solution to the latter problem (we are able to discover the correct definition of 'virtue' because in some sense we 'knew' it all along) what is the analogous solution in the case of empirical 'knowledge'? Does the analogy even hold at this point? Although you mention Meno's paradox, you could have said more here.

The big question is why we can't have episteme of the empirical world, but only doxa. This obviously relates to Heraclitus and Plato's adoption of the model of flux to describe the objects of sense perception. Arguably, what is wrong here is not Plato's concept of knowledge as such but rather his metaphysics.

There were one or two places in your essay where it looked like you were answering a different question (on Plato's conception of dialectic, or his conception of the Forms). As I've stressed before, in an exam question you must keep on topic and not allow the discussion to wander.

All the best,


Private language argument and the objective standpoint

To: Chris E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Private language argument and the objective standpoint
Date: 14th August 2009 10:53

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 6 August, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'The Objective Standpoint', looking at the argument for the reality of the objective standpoint in Naive Metaphysics.

As you may have gathered, the argument for the reality of the objective standpoint is, in effect, my 'take' on Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. The existence of the objective standpoint depends on the logical 'gap' between what is established in Kant's Refutation of Idealism (Critique of Pure Reason 2nd Edn) and the Private Language Argument.

Armed with the Refutation of Idealism, we are able to construct the world of the transcendental egocentrist, a world based on just two elements: the 'given' of intuition, and the concepts which the transcendental ego applies to that given.

The question we have to ask is, What does this Kantian 'my world' lack? Judgements are made, and corrected. Different points of view are occupied at different times. Other persons appear in 'my world', and I defer to their judgement when, in my judgement, they are better qualified or in a better position to judge on a particular matter than I am.

This entire world is constructed from a capacity for judgement applied to a given; so in this sense I (the transcendental ego) am (as you observe) a 'passive observer'. However, this is fully consistent with my experience of being an agent who moves around under my own power.

I wonder whether you have fully appreciated these two points: that the 'Kantian egocentrist' can defer to the judgements of others, and is an agent capable of moving around the world and thus coming to occupy different points of view at different times.

If all THIS is not sufficient for the existence of an objective standpoint, or, equivalently, for the possibility of a genuine distinction between true and false judgement, then what more is needed? Is there anything one can add to this picture? It seems to be complete. It is against this background that I raise the question of what it would be for an object to have 'any sides or aspects different from the aspect it presents to me'.

I think you are right to question whether there is any meaningful distinction between the 'existence of a point of view' and 'the existence of an aspect'. Why stress the primacy of the existence of an aspect? Surely the two are symmetrical notions, neither being 'prior'. Frankly, I am not sure what I was thinking here. One possible thought is that aspects are the more abstract notion, whereas point of view is tied to the perception of objects in space. For example, imagine a world where people are able to perceive one another's thoughts by telepathy. Then in this world thoughts would be non-physical 'objects' capable of being perceived by different subjects, but there would be no role for the idea of point of view. (I'm glad I didn't try to pursue this line in the book!)

For the Kantian egocentrist, spatio-temporal objects are mere constructs of a theory. What is ultimately real, is the given of intuition. No-one apart from myself is in a position to make judgements about this given, because logically there can only be one transcendental ego. Other persons are constructs, in the same way as objects are. I can correct my own judgements, I can discover inconsistencies, and (as we have seen) I can allow another person's judgement to override mine. In the book, I refer to this as 'using another person as a measuring instrument'. In principle, it is no different from using a thermometer to measure the temperature. It is always my decision, my judgement whether to accept or reject the thermometer reading.

The reality of the objective world is logically equivalent to the claim that there IS no Kantian 'intuition' or 'given'. The starting point, the foundation for the existence of a world is persons interacting with spatio-temporal objects. One of these persons happens to be myself.

But if these worlds are experientially indistinguishable, if living in the Kantian egocentrist world is experientially 'just like' living in an objective world, how can we so much as form the idea of a distinction? What is the difference between talking of 'deferring' to the judgements of others (using others as measuring instruments) and recognizing their 'authority' to override my judgements?

The difference can be encapsulated in the following thought: It is possible that I have totally lost my grip on reality, that what I term 'the world' is just my own paranoid delusion. This isn't about empirical psychology but rather a point of logic. I have the concept of a 'truth' which does not simply reduce to 'what I can discover in the sufficiently long run', for I may be constitutionally incapable of ever making such a discovery. And supposing I did 'discover' it, there's no guarantee that this would not in turn prove to be another paranoid delusion.

Recognition that others occupy a position which I can never occupy is what underlies what I term their 'authority' to correct my judgements. Truth is not my truth but our truth. The unimpeachable authority of the transcendental ego is demolished.

This idea is incredibly difficult. It's like having the rug pulled from under one's feet. In the book, I try in various ways to express this difficulty, sharpen it, with the aim of arguing for the incoherence of a a 'nonegocentrist' metaphysic, where all that exists is the objective world, where I am just another person to persons who are other than me.

As you can see from this, your essay is more or less OK up to the point where you ask (p.3) 'What happens if we look at this situation from the subjective standpoint?' Your example of the bean frame shows that it is possible for the Kantian egocentrist to correct his judgments. Some vantage points are better than others, and the rational thing to do is go with the judgement based on the best vantage point. (Just as, some conditions for making judgements are better than others, e.g. it is not a good idea to set up your bean frame if you've had a bit too much to drink.) The egocentrist has no problem with saying this.

All the best,


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Naive Metaphysics and point of view

To: Chris E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Naive Metaphysics and point of view
Date: 29th July 2009 12:21

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 19 July with your essay towards the Associate Award, entitled 'Naive Metaphysics and Point of View'.

I approach this with some trepidation, as you are one of remarkably few students who have actually made an attempt to grapple with my book Naive Metaphysics. The first version of that work was written over 20 years ago, and I can honestly say that the 'theory' of subjective and objective worlds has not subsequently led me to a single new philosophical insight, nor does it seem to me any less paradoxical than it did to me then.

That is not necessarily a criticism of the theory: I tried to state 'the truth' about reality, give an account that includes *everything* in a way that previous accounts have failed to do. But it seems that having stated it, there is nothing more to say. I haven't given up; I am still looking, still feeling the puzzlement that I felt then. On the other hand, it might be a fatal criticism: theories are supposed to lead somewhere, not to dead ends. Or is that only true in science? Have I stumbled on something peculiar about the nature of metaphysics?

In your essay, you have offered a possible way of viewing the distinction between the subjective and objective worlds, in terms of the notion of intentionality. I don't say anything about intentionality in the book (so far as I can recall) so this could be a promising avenue to explore.

What is intentionality and how is it related to point of view? The first point to make is that intentional states have intentional objects, objects which in Brentano's pregnant phrase possess 'intentional inexistence'. Alice may believe that there is an alligator in the bath (your example) but it doesn't logically follow that there is any object in the world corresponding to the intentional object 'alligator'. (There might be, of course. It is possible that Alice's belief is true.)

While any proposition is potentially the content of an intentional state, in that a given proposition can be believed or not believed, the proposition also has properties in its own right. It is true, or false. If it is true, then the objects referred to by the terms of the proposition exist.

Right away, we see a distinction between intentionality and point of view, as I have characterized it. A point of view is defined in relation to actually existing objects. You can look at the Eiffel Tower or Mount Everest from different points of view. The point of view of GK or CE includes the objects in the immediate vicinity of GK, or CE; it also includes everything else in the universe.

One of the properties which belong to the subjective standpoint is that objects are 'absolutely' near or far. The Eiffel Tower is nearer to a subject located in Sheffield than Mount Everest, but further away to a subject located in Kathmandu. That is because 'near' and 'far' are relative terms. Whereas, the Eiffel tower is absolutely nearer, in my subjective world.

However, it might still possible to regard intentionality as providing a useful *analogy* with the structure of my subjective world. Consider what it is to 'have a belief'. When I consider Alice's beliefs, I am representing a possible world in which those beliefs are true; this involves a mental 'bracketing' which allows, e.g. for the 'inexistence' of, e.g. the feared alligator. Whereas, when I consider my beliefs, no such bracketing is involved (assuming that we are talking about my present beliefs, rather than the beliefs held by a former self).

This looks to me like another way of characterizing the subjective standpoint. You mention action; in later chapters of Naive Metaphysics this becomes a crucial aspect of the contrast between the subjective and objective worlds. In my subjective world, my actions are 'absolute doings', whereas from the point of view of the objective world they are just things that happen, alongside other events and the actions of other people.

In a similar way, it might be argued, from the point of view of the objective world my beliefs are 'things believed', whereas from the point of view of my subjective world my beliefs are *the truth*. That's just what believing is.

(Of course, we don't always 'believe' in this absolute yes/no sense. What exactly it means to 'speculate' or 'theorize' or 'hesitantly believe' would require further discussion.)

You say one thing about action earlier on in your essay which might potentially cause confusion. When we use Kant's Refutation of Idealism to construct a position which I call 'transcendental egocentrism' (as I emphasize, this is not a view Kant held) 'objects' become, in effect, part of a theory. The table is not in my mind, it is 'out there'. My spatio-temporal theory of the world places all the objects of my perception at spatio-temporal locations. The given (Kantian 'intuition') can only be described in terms of concepts which apply to the spatio-temporal world. That is how transcendental egocentrism is able to reject the metaphor of the mind as a container.

Kant certainly did believe that the 'construction' of this world involves activity of the mind; and he goes to some lengths (some, e.g. Strawson, would argue too great a length) in describing for the 'transcendental psychology of the faculties'.

When action makes its appearance in my account, however, it is crucially *physical* action. Merely mental action won't do. That is the point of claiming that the self is essentially an agent, and not a passive observer performing merely mental 'actions' on the given data. The idea is that, if agency is primary, then somehow this forces us to see the subjective and objective worlds as 'welded together' insofar as every 'absolute doing' is necessarily also a 'thing that happens'. Whereas if perception is primary, then we seem to be saddled with a 'metaphysical double vision', insofar as every object has two aspects which seem to bear no essential relation to one another.

Does that work? Or is the 'welding' just sleight of hand? I can't be sure. I still feel that there is something missing, but what?

However, I did enjoy reading your essay, and felt that you had understood the arguments pretty well. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to mull over the questions again.

All the best,


The third man argument in Plato's 'Parmenides'

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The third man argument in Plato's 'Parmenides'
Date: 29th July 2009 12:18

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 19 July, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'The Third man Argument does not undermine Plato's theory of Forms because it relies on assumptions that are themselves contradictory.' Discuss.

Your answer is very much on the right track: the question is whether the theory that Parmenides 'refutes' contains essence of any interesting or worthwhile version of Plato's theory of Forms, or whether, on the contrary, the theory which Parmenides attacks is a straw man which Plato would have no difficulty in giving up, assuming that he ever held it.

Within this question, is the issue of how we should regard the key assumption in Parmenides' attack, which Vlastos calls, 'self-predication'.

In a previous email I expressed the view that Plato never held self-predication, or at least a literal version of that doctrine according to which every Form F is F, and indeed that the doctrine is prima facie absurd. The form of Large (your example) is not large because Forms don't have a particular size. There are not larger or smaller forms, nor does it make any sense to compare the size of a Form with the size of something that is not a Form.

You cite Meinwald as an example of an interpretation which offers an alternative to self-predication, taken in the 'normal' way. Largeness, or The Large, just is what it is to be large. This looks like a good solution (all the more so, because her interpretation helps make sense of the baffling part II of Plato's dialogue 'Parmenides'). However, I have problems with this as a solution to the challenge of the Third Man argument.

There is no doubt that *knowledge* of the Form of Largeness, is knowledge of what it is to be large, just as knowledge of the Form of Justice is knowledge of what it is to be just. There is a difference between these two examples: Knowledge of what it is to be just is knowledge that the philosopher seeks; I don't think any plausible case could be made that the philosopher seeks knowledge of what it is to be large, or a table, or a horse.

However, it is logically invalid to infer from, 'knowledge of the Form of Largeness is knowledge of what it is to be large' to 'the Form of Largeness is what it is to be large'. Knowledge of the London A-Z is knowledge of how to find your way around London; it doesn't follow (in fact, it doesn't make any sense to say) that the London A-Z *is* how to find your way around London. The London A-Z is a map of all the London streets, and you can use this map to find your way around London.

Knowing the form of Justice (whatever that is) is knowledge we can apply to the world, in deciding whether a particular act is just or unjust. The deep question, which the Third Man argument raises, is what kind of thing a Form (or this particular Form) can be in order to perform this role.

You suggest at one point that 'Plato's Forms have certainly the function to provide causal explanation (why the beautiful things are beautiful etc.)'. If we put aside the interpretation of Plato's cosmology (Timaeus) I don't think there is any evidence in the dialogues for this view. Alice is beautiful because she had plastic surgery for her cross eyes and crooked nose. That's a causal explanation. If you don't agree that Alice is beautiful as a result of her surgery then you don't know what beauty is. That's a *formal* explanation.

However, the example of beauty leads to the second problem which I have with the idea that we can discard self-predication (as understood 'pros ta alla' according to Meinwald's distinction) as one of the characteristics of Forms. Mathematicians will sometimes talk of a particular mathematical proof being 'beautiful'. The philosopher who joyously contemplates the Forms, might find them beautiful too. The form of Justice is beautiful; so is the form of Temperance; so is the form of Beauty.

You can see where this is leading: if Forms have ANY properties at all, then a situation will inevitably arise where we want to say that the form of F is F ('pros ta alla'), and moreover shares the property of F-ness with forms G, H and I.

So it looks as though all Parmenides has to do in order to sharpen his argument is to particularize it. Instead of making the general claim that the Form of F-ness is always F, it suffices that, for some F, it is true that the Form of F-ness is F.

Overall, you have written a very good, knowledgeable essay. You are right to cite scholarly debate. However, I think that an examiner might be a little disappointed that apart from offering a clear exposition, you haven't really contributed anything of your own. Why is this issue gripping? What ARE the Forms? Do you have a view on this?

All the best,