Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bad faith: Sartre vs Freud

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bad faith: Sartre vs Freud
Date: 23rd July 2010 12:29

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 13 July with your essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'Bad faith: A Sartrean alternative to Freud and the Unconscious.'

This is a great topic and one which gives you the opportunity to home in on what is perhaps the most significant aspect of Sartre's philosophy, which has given rise to a prominent school of psychotherapy: existential psychoanalysis.

One thing which I immediately missed was any account of Freud's theory of the unconscious. You merely mention the theory to contrast it with Sartre's view of Bad Faith; but what is the theory which Sartre's view is being contrasted with? This question is, or should be, crucial to your argument because the structure of Freud's account reflects the problem which he is grappling with: how there can be aspects of the self which the self chooses to keep hidden from itself.

What I have just stated involves two ideas: first, the idea of choice, which implies freedom and, possibly, deliberation; secondly, the idea of something in the mind which is 'hidden', i.e. not accessible, or at any rate not immediately accessible to consciousness.

According to a Cartesian model of the mind, this would be impossible. There can't be active parts to the mind, defined as 'thinking substance' which are inaccessible to that very same mind. (Descartes was prepared to allow that the self somehow continues in existence inactively during sleep. But what he can't allow is that any kind of thinking or deliberation goes on of which we are not consciously aware.)

Freud's solution is to split the self into different units, which have a considerable degree of autonomy. Much philosophical discussion has been expended on the question whether Freud's solution is, in fact, coherent.

For the purposes of your essay, you need to say enough about Freud to give the reader a sense of the problem to which Sartre is offering his own unique solution.

But what is problem, exactly?

As I read your account of Sartre and his distinction between pre-reflective, reflective and self-reflective consciousness, I thought things were going pretty well until we reached the point where you actually mention the topic of Bad Faith. This is the heart of your essay, your account of Sartre's solution to a challenging philosophical problem, or as some would say, a baffling paradox. How can we ever be self-deceived? How can that notion make any sense?

We can be forgetful or inattentive. We can even make the decision to forget, and consciously pursue strategies to bring that about (for example, if you have been through a terrible ordeal and want to put it behind you). Or we can deliberately ignore something that is bothering us, such as the men drilling the road outside. But how can we be responsible for forgetfulness, or inattention which we have not consciously sought to bring about?

I was looking forward to your answer. But what I got was just two lines, on the last page where you reference Detmer. Apparently something involving 'omission and emphasis' and 'vagueness and ambiguity' is implicated. How these processes are meant to work is left completely unexplained.

What you need to do is present the problem, or paradox of self-deception in a way which is sufficiently compelling to motivate a reader's interest in its solution. Having presented Freud's theory and pointed out its weaknesses, you can then offer Sartre's alternative account. In expounding Sartre, you should anticipate possible objections and meet them.

At the risk of repeating myself: you are not merely reporting on what some philosopher has said but making a case. In order to do that you have to describe the problem in a way which is gripping, then argue for a particular solution -- either your solution, or a solution offered by the philosopher whose theories you are expounding. What I am saying applies to philosophy essays generally. There is a way in which this is done, and it is all about 'making a case'. You are doing philosophy, you are making your contribution to the subject by constructing logically persuasive arguments.

There is a book which I can recommend to you, which is on just about every reading university list for the topic of self-deception. The book is 'Self-Deception' by Herbert Fingarette (RKP 1969). If you can't get hold of the book, then I would suggest doing a Google search for the title and author in order to find material, or possibly other reading, on the topic of self-deception. There's plenty out there.

All the best,


Why be moral?

To: Willem V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 22nd July 2010 12:25

Dear Willem,

Thank you for your email of 13 July, with your first essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

As a piece of writing, this is well structured and you express yourself articulately.

However, my concern is not primarily with the quality of writing but rather the quality of thinking. How strong a case have you made? How successfully have you unpacked the implications of the question? Does your analysis cut the topic under discussion 'at the joints' so that a clearer understanding can be obtained?

In my experience, it is difficult to write badly if the thought is clear. On the other hand, it is possible to produce work which has the appearance of being 'well written', where the thought is muddied.

The question, 'Why be moral?' is intentionally ambiguous, allowing different possible interpretations. For the purposes of a short essay, it is not necessary to explain them all, provided that you state clearly how you interpret the question.

You start off by making a distinction between two readings of, 'Why be....?'. On the first reading, one is looking for something that compels: 'What is it that forces us to be moral from which there is no escape?' On the second, alternate reading, one is looking for reasons why one might prefer being moral to not being moral, in a less compelling sense which you illustrate with the example of loving music.

I have two problems with this. First, it is not clear from what you say what the idea of being 'forced' means. If I construct a logically valid argument from premisses A, B, C to conclusion D, then one can say that anyone who accepts A, B, C is rationally forced to accept D. It doesn't follow that they will accept D because they may not be very good at following a logical argument. On the other hand, there are things which we feel psychologically compelled to do, because it is in our nature. I cannot help but feel sympathy for another human being in distress -- a point which David Hume emphasized. There is no logically compelling argument why I 'ought' to feel sympathy, I just do.

But this takes us to the second issue. As a music lover, can you imagine *choosing* whether to love music or not? You can choose to switch the radio on or off, or whether or not to go to the concert, but the things we love, the things that move us are experienced as 'compelling' in Hume's sense.

When do we feel free to choose one way or another? When you order a meal in a restaurant you don't feel compelled to choose your favourite dish every time. You can choose whether you want to listen to Radio 3 or Classic FM. We enjoy the sense of freedom in being able to choose one way or another on different occasions. Then there are cases where we conduct a cost-benefit analysis prior to making a choice. The final decision is not experienced as compelling because there are too many variables involved. It is our best judgement, all things considered.

Let's apply this now to the original question, 'Why be Moral?'

Hume (in the 'Treatise of Human Nature') says that our sense of morality is part of our human nature, and in that sense 'compelling'. But no reasons can be given for being moral. ('Reason', he famously said, 'is, or ought to be, the slave of the passions.') This firmly places Hume in the subjectivist camp. Your point that being moral is part of what it is to be human, would be fully acceptable to Hume.

A very different view of this was taken by Immanuel Kant: it is an essential element of rationality, that one makes judgements according to the categorical imperative, 'Always act on that maxim which you would wish to be a universal law.' This is diametrically opposed to Hume's account of 'natural sympathy'. What is given to us as part of our 'nature' is merely contingent. But ethical commands are necessary. It is irrational to ignore them.

The question didn't ask for a historical analysis: I'm merely using the examples of Hume and Kant to illustrate the difference between a 'subjective' and an 'objective' approach to the question 'Why be moral?'

I don't know whether you've seen the 'Alien' films (with Sigourney Weaver). Aliens, we may suppose, have no Humean 'natural sympathy'. Imagine a group of Aliens discussing moral philosophy. 'Why be moral?' What an absurd idea! The argument, 'It is human to be moral' is obviously not going to cut any ice. Why be 'human'? I am asking this in a sense which you intend, where it would not be a logical contradiction to say, of an Alien, that they act like a 'human being'. Or a better way of putting this would be to say that a moral Alien would be a *person*, would be 'one of us'. What you are talking about is what it is to be a person.

I agree broadly with what you say about 'being human', when this is interpreted in the sense of 'being a person'.

We are not merely, as natural scientists, looking for an explanation of the phenomenon of morality. The question isn't just, 'Why are human beings moral?' but why should *I* be moral? Plato in the 'Republic' fully grasped the import of this question. Suppose you were given a magic ring of invisibility (the 'Ring of Gyges'), so that you could do whatever you liked, and still be thought of as a fine, upstanding member of the community. Why not take advantage of the opportunity? Plato's answer, briefly, is that amassing riches and power is no substitute for having a 'disordered soul'.

From this perspective, the argument that everyone in society benefits from mutual moral respect is a non-starter. I think you've seen this point, because you home in on the question, 'Why shouldn't I make an exception of myself and rely on the moral behaviour of others?' But then you lose the thread again because you immediately go on to say that if everyone did this, society would fall apart. That may be true, but that isn't the question. The question is what compelling argument, if any, can be given to the individual who doesn't care two figs for society.

I apologize for going on at greater length than I intended. Your essay is not at all bad, all things considered. But I hope that these comments have enabled you to see more deeply into the question.

All the best,


An alternative to conceptual platonism and psychologism

To: Rachel S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: An alternative to conceptual platonism and psychologism
Date: 21st July 12:29

Dear Rachel,

Thank you for your email of 13 July, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, ''Concepts are not in a Platonic heaven, nor are they in the head. They are out there in the world.' Discuss.'

This is a very good piece of work, which accurately identifies the main challenge behind the question -- how one distinguishes Wittgenstein's doctrine of meaning is use from old-fashioned Nominalism.

The quote at the beginning of unit 5 is a clue: Wittgenstein's charge against the Nominalists is that they merely 'issue a paper draft' on a description of how words are used.

Your point, which is a valid one, is that no criteria for the application of general terms can be derived simply by looking at 'things' in themselves. You say, 'nominalism does not explain how a concept word can be correctly applied to particulars which are not physically identical: how they can be of the same type.' But what is the meaning of 'physically identical'? Don't we need criteria for the identity of physical 'things'? (e.g. criteria for identity over time, what it is that enables us to pick out spatio-temporal particulars).

(PI Para 215: 'But isn't THE SAME at least the same? We seem to have an infallible paradigm of identity in the identity of a thing with itself. I feel like saying: 'Here at any rate there can't be a variety of interpretations. If you are seeing a thing you are seeing identity too.' )

Wittgenstein's analogy of the different levers in the cab of a locomotive (PI para 12) is relevant to the criticism that words 'are not just names'. Some words are names ('Geoffrey', for example). The point, however, is that having said that 'the meaning is the use', the next step is to investigate how words are used, at the ground level, so that we can get a better picture of how concepts terms do their work.

Given the target length of the essay this isn't really a criticism, but what you say about Plato's Forms is a bit rushed, and is worth untangling.

First, there is the epistemological objection: 'there is no... evidence or argument for the realm of Forms'. Surely, it can't be sufficient evidence that positing Forms seems to explain our linguistic ability, in the complete absence of any corroborating data. (Plato attempts, unsuccessfully in the view of most commentators, to provide just such an argument in his 'experiment' with the slave boy in the Meno.)

Secondly, there is the issue of the 'causal relation' between Forms and empirical objects. How does the Form of Horse succeed in impressing itself on a class of particulars, so that they are correctly termed, 'horses'? Plato calls this relation 'participation', but this is just a label for something which remains unaccounted for.

Thirdly (this is where I am not sure what you wanted to say but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt) suppose, for the sake of argument, objections 1 and 2 were met. We know Forms exist, and we also know that they causally make things the kinds of thing that they are, how does this explain our knowledge of the meanings of the words in our language? On a literal reading of the theory of recollection, the soul 'perceives' the Forms before birth. How was the soul able to recognize which Form is which? How, indeed, is this situation any different from the one we find ourselves in, down here on Earth?!

These are not idle questions, and not merely questions of historical interest: contemporary innatism seeks explanations of our capacity to group objects into kinds (and much else besides) in evolutionary terms. What would Wittgenstein have thought of this? 'We are not investigating a phenomenon...'. Are we not? Are we really stuck with merely describing 'forms of life' without any access to a lower level of explanation?

For Wittgenstein, you say, 'concepts ARE therefore concept words'. To grasp a concept, therefore, is to grasp its 'rules of usage'. Who says what these are? We do. The training succeeds when the learner applies the word in the same way as us. Is that it? One problem with this is that 'we' don't always agree on everything to do with linguistic usage. How is the correct view decided? Do we simply take a majority vote? Does every language user's vote count for the same, or do some language users have more authority than others? Can't a concept whose use has been agreed ever be wrong? What about 'phlogiston'? or 'witch'? -- These are questions which you will be looking at later in the program.

All the best,


Aristotle on virtue and four types of moral character

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on virtue and four types of moral character
Date: 14th July 2010 13:17

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 5 July with your two essays for the University of London BA module Ethics: Historical Perspectives in response to the questions,

'Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with excellence' (Nicomachean Ethics, 17, 1098a16-17). Can Aristotle show that excellence includes moral virtue?

Aristotle thinks that virtue depends upon the right relations between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul. How do the possible relations among the two parts of the soul give rise to the four main kinds of moral character?

Excellence and moral virtue

A point which you emphasize here is that Aristotle makes no attempt to prove that 'excellence includes moral virtue'. Rather, 'he stipulates that the moral virtues are those excellences of the activities of the soul that are in accordance with the *telos* (purpose, function) of Man (qua Man) within the *polis*.'

That is a valid point to make and stands as a necessary corrective to readings of Aristotle which see him trying, and inevitably failing, to provide a compelling argument for the identification of his 'arete' with what we understand by 'moral virtue'. Aristotle didn't have our conception of 'moral virtue'.

It is also arguable that, as you say, 'Aristotle's analysis is based on an examination of how his fellow Athenian speakers of Greek, people with whom he is familiar, actually employ the concept of a 'good man'. He is not attempting to provide an *a priori* analysis, or an *ex cathedra* declaration of how we *ought* to employ the label of a 'good man'.'

That is to say, Aristotle sees his aim as providing a philosophical analysis of a term with which Greeks of the time were all familiar, in somewhat the same way as Kant in the opening part of the Grundlegung, offers an analysis of the notion of 'good will' underlying the accepted moral views of his day. In both cases, penetrating insight is offered which illuminates a familiar notion in a philosophical way. However, Kant sees his effort as merely offering a preliminary 'analysis', prior to the main argument which will *prove* that morality rests on the Categorical Imperative (etc. etc.).

There is no parallel development in Aristotle. All he offers is the analysis. So it is tempting to think that he has simply no interest in offering arguments which would persuade the amoralist, or justify a life of moral virtue in the face of sceptical doubt.

But hang on a minute. Could that really be true? Aristotle, Plato's student, had read the Republic, and in the Republic Socrates battles heroically to establish his definition of Justice, using what to modern readers is the very familiar thought experiment of the Ring of Gyges. Why wouldn't you be leading a great life if you had the ability to *appear* just and moral, with all the benefits that that brings, while at the same time engaging in all sorts of nefarious activity protected by your cloak of invisibility?

Aristotle has an answer to this. He *can* (in the words of the question) show that human flourishing is impossible without the full complement of excellences, including the excellences required to function as a good citizen (and not merely 'appear' so in the eyes of others). His answer is not so different from Plato's. Only a man with a 'disordered' (Plato) soul would wish to take advantage of Gyges' Ring.

I think an examiner would conclude that you had missed an opportunity here. There is work to do, in order to fully answer the question. What you offer, as it stands, is a well written essay which shows good knowledge of the text, and which makes a valid point about the question but in so doing overstates the case.

Aristotle's four kinds of moral character

I always dislike this kind of question because on the face of it all you are asked to do is offer an exposition of the text showing that you've read it and understood it. But of course you are expected to do more: the examiner wants you to find problems -- objections to meet, unclarities to resolve -- without indicating where these problems might lie. So it's all up to you.

I think that a valid strategy is one that you have pursued to some extent: you have chosen a particular issue to focus on -- Aristotle's 'solution' to the problem of akrasia -- when you could have chosen a different issue. (For example, you could have chosen the question of whether we would judge that it is really 'better' from a moral standpoint to be 'temperate' rather than 'continent'. Kant would say that there is absolutely no difference so far as the only relevant question is the 'good will'. Either man can have a 'good will', but each presents a different challenge to an observer attempting to discern whether their motivation derives from the good will -- i.e. from the Categorical Imperative -- or not.)

Given that you have chosen to focus on akrasia, you should tell the examiner this. Show that you are aware that there is more than one issue that could be discussed but state that you have chosen to discuss akrasia. (Sorry if this seems to be labouring the point.)

As you have chosen to expand on the akratic theme, my feeling is that you could have said more. This is one point where Aristotle can be put under a lot of pressure. Does his solution ultimately stand up?

I would distinguish between two cases that Aristotle would appear to lump together:

In the first case, you give in to the temptation (e.g.) to drink the glass of wine offered by your glamourous hostess even though you *know* (because your doctor has told you, and you fully respect her judgement) that you must not have any alcohol. (It is easier to see the 'mechanics' of incontinence in a case which we would term 'prudential' rather than specifically 'moral'.)

In the second case, as a trainee Marine on an endurance exercise, you drop out when the stress gets too high (the cold, pain or exhaustion or whatever) even though you *know* that the consequence (failing to pass training) is the opposite of everything that you want, and will lead to a lifetime of regret.

The second case is more amenable to Aristotle's analysis. What is missing here is the very thing that the training is designed to instill: physical resistance to adverse conditions. The training doesn't work for everyone -- it is not designed to. There will always be failures. If there weren't, the training would be judged not tough enough.

The first case is not 'drunk' knowledge, because you can hear the doctor's words in your ears. And yet, at the very moment when the wine glass is proffered, you somehow no longer believe what you know. Can sense be made of that idea in Aristotelian terms?

As it stands, I don't have any real criticisms of the essay, other than that you could maybe have said more about the problem you chose to discuss, and flagged it as such.

All the best,


Monday, July 29, 2013

Kierkegaard on suffering and guilt

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kierkegaard on suffering and guilt
Date: 2nd July 2010 13:57

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 21 June, with your essay for the Associate Award, entitled, ''Suffering and Guilt are essential to Religious existence'. Discuss.'

You have evidently made a valiant effort to grapple with Kierkegaard, and from the evidence of what you have written, to a considerable extent you have succeeded in getting 'inside' his philosophy and seen the phenomenon of religion in the way that Kierkegaard sees it.

However, although I can read this and see it as making sense in terms of Kierkegaard's three stages of the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious, I don't feel the least bit persuaded. Making a persuasive case is the minimum you would have to do, whether you ultimately agree with Kierkegaard or not. (If you are critiquing or attacking an argument or a theory, you still need to make it *appear* persuasive, otherwise you simply lose the interest of the reader.)

In fact, I can't actually tell from your essay whether agree with Kierkegaard or not. It is OK to have an essay which is mostly expository. However, you at least need to flag the places where objections might be made, and indicate how the writer would respond to those objections.

Let's look at the question again. 'Suffering and guilt are essential to religious existence.' Are they? Is that what you think?

As it happens, this week I have been involved in launching a new project from the International Society for Philosophers, called ISFP Publishing. One of the books on our list (of four) is provocatively entitled, 'The Divine Inspiration of Porn and the Beginning of Sexual Metaphysics.' The author's thesis is that porn would not be porn without a sense of guilt and sin, and that the existence of guilt and sin prove the existence of God.

The Christian idea of 'Original Sin' and the notion that, whatever one does in this life, one cannot overcome the fact that we are all sinners, seems hardly to be a mere historical accident. As if, in another possible world, if the Bible had not included the story of Adam and Eve, religion would have developed in an entirely different way.

Why does the thought of the 'alternative Bible' sound so preposterous? Or does it? Maybe not. Maybe, one is just so used to the association of guilt and sin with religion that it is difficult to imagine this connection severed.

And yet, one certainly could imagine as explorers finding a hidden kingdom whose inhabitants worship their deity in an attitude of unrestricted joy. Their 'morals', such as they are, are lax by our standards but they still behave in an ethically respectful way to one another. They don't feel guilt, period. The Polynesian islanders, which Captain Cook came upon, appear to have been like this, although maybe that appearance was deceptive.

Why do these islanders appear to us as mere children? What do we see that they have missed? That's a question for Kierkegaard. The question isn't whether you can have 'some' conception of a 'deity' in the absence of suffering and guilt, but rather whether a human being who lacks this is fully 'grown up', from a religious perspective.

I think that to make your essay work effectively, you need to consider these kinds of questions, naive though they may seem to be from an existentialist/ Kierkegaardian perspective.

In other words, what I'm saying is that -- without writing tens or hundreds of thousands of words -- you need to find some way to make the transition from the Aesthetic to the Ethical and from the Ethical to the Religious compelling. Kierkegaard, as you note, is giving a kind of 'phenomenology' of human existence. But, in so doing, he is trying to construct a compelling argument. How does that argument work? How can he think that, by attending to his observations concerning these three forms of spheres of existence, we will be *compelled* to see the necessity of suffering and guilt for 'religion' that truly merits that name?

One of the things that you can do which would make Kierkegaard's case look stronger is to look at alternative ideas of what 'religion' is. One view which Kierkegaard argues against is the idea that what religion is essentially about is a 'belief' about something that happened in the past, a view which the Christianity of his day (and still in ours) seems to hold paramount importance.

Consider the idea that God has provided us with lots of great benefits, and has instructed us on how we should live. Therefore, we should show gratitude. That's what religious 'worship' is. Many people, possibly the majority of persons who call themselves 'religious', believe this. But according to Kierkegaard, they are all mistaken. Take a typical Church goer happily singing hymns on a Sunday morning. How would Kierkegaard show them that they'd got it all wrong?

All the best,


Existentialism and the human condition revisited

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Existentialism and the human condition revisited
Date: 3rd June 2010 11:45

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 24 May, with the revised version of your first essay for the Associate Award, with the revised title, 'Philosophical Therapy: The Human Condition viewed through an Existential lens.'

This is looking promising, although there are a lot of issues which I feel you will only be able to resolve after you have completed your investigations in this area. I will try to give some pointers, as well as suggesting possible essay topics which naturally follow on from this essay. What I suggest you do next is get onto the next topic. You can return to this piece when the time comes to revise your four essays for your portfolio. Unfortunately, I can't help you with that last stage.

Following my critical remarks last time, I can see that you have made a more thoroughgoing attempt to describe the different aspects of 'the human condition'. However, I feel that there is still a lot more to do.

In paragraph two, you say that the human condition 'per se' is basically one of the need/ struggle for survival, 'as a consequence it follows that an individual prioritises threat with an instinct for self preservation, hence human beings develop a basic need for security and order in life to operate'.

Considering that this is an essay located within the broad sphere of therapy, or psychotherapy, that sounds rather strange to my ear. What about sex? Isn't it a rather important fact about the human condition that evolution has provided us with an instinct and need to procreate, and that this comes about through sexual reproduction? What about the fact that human beings go through a very long period of infancy and childhood (compared with other members of the animal kingdom) where they are dependent on a mother's or parent's care? What about the fact that human beings throughout history have exhibited a capacity for aggression and warlike behaviour which far outstrips the mere need for survival?

(To these fundamental aspects of human life Freud controversially connected very basic biological traits such as the fact that we urinate and defecate, and that these biological functions are designed by evolution to be pleasurable -- although arguably this is straying into the area of empirical theorising.)

You go on to develop a case that the fundamental challenge is to confront the 'sense of meaninglessness and alienation' in the face of a world where religion is no longer seen as providing a satisfactory answer (Nietzsche's 'God is dead'). Equally important, I would argue, is the challenge of relationship. It isn't just about 'me and the universe' but about 'I and thou', or 'the self and others'. In Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness' this becomes a major theme. However, Sartre is merely building on work which began with Hegel's famous account of the 'master-slave' relationship in his 'Phenomenology of Mind'.

Then comes the crucial step where you describe how 'They respond by leading a life which is consumed with varying forms of public and private deception... reducing their potential for agency and responsibility...'. In other words, Bad Faith. You immediately go on to connect this with the Cartesian view of the self as a 'fixed and single entity'. This theme returns later in the essay. Exactly how does it come about that taking 'control of one's situation and transcending 'the notion of a fixed self' leads to our living a 'more authentic, autonomous, meaningful and responsible life'?

I can see a connection, if one views the 'fixed self' as a purely material or biological entity obeying laws of cause and effect. But how does Cartesian dualism impact on this? Or, what does Sartre see (in his 'transcendence of the ego') that Descartes missed?

I found the stuff about the Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Uberwelt confusing. This just sounds like more terminological gobbledygook. Possibly, the problem is that you are trying to cram too much in to your essay. If you are reviewing existential thinkers, then stick to the famous names, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger and try to identify what is most significant about their differing views (e.g. 'theist' versus 'atheist' versions of existentialism, Sartre's pessimism about human relationships, Heidegger's emphasis on the crucial importance of 'being towards death', and so on).

All in all, this is good work which will hopefully serve as a stepping stone to the next topic. I would like to see you tackle head on the question 'What is bad faith?' How is bad faith related to self-deception? What is the difference (or connection) between bad faith and 'inauthenticity'? is the former a variety of the latter? if so, what are the other varieties of inauthenticity? And so on.

All the best,


Why does language matter to philosophy?

To: Dorothy G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why does language matter to philosophy?
Date: 26th May 2010 13:03

Dear Dorothy,

Thank you for your email of 18 May, with your first essay on the Philosophy of Language. Although you haven't given a title, from what you say in your concluding paragraph I gather that you are answering the question, 'Why does language matter to philosophy?'

You say a number of things about language, its role in human development and its use in communication, which no-one would take exception to. You also touch on a philosophical question, the interdependence on culture, language and perception, which could be developed at much greater length.

The vagueness and ambiguity of language, the differences between cultures and customs, all make the attempt to communicate a hazardous process, as you explain. However, in that observation we have not yet reached the philosophical point. It seems that you don't need any philosophical theory to tell you that words, being symbolic, can be interpreted in different ways, and that sometimes a hearer will interpret words differently from the way they were intended by a speaker.

How far is it possible for conceptual schemes or languages to differ? Can we imagine meeting a previously undiscovered tribe, or maybe aliens from Mars, whose language, thought processes and perceptions were so different from ours that it was impossible to understand them despite every effort? What would that be like?

That question does get us deep into philosophy. There is no simple or direct way to answer it. First, one needs to formulate a theory of how language works. This is necessarily different from a linguistic 'theory' or a theoretical account of the grammar of a particular language because it addresses the question, How is language possible? The theory applies to all possible languages, not just to English or Swahili.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain how language relates to experience and thought, starting in the 17h/18th centuries, although there is evidence that language was considered a philosophical question back in the times of Ancient Greece (e.g. in Plato's dialogue Cratylus).

Locke famously argued that words are labels for 'ideas'. You show me a rose and I form the idea of a rose in my mind. I associate this idea with the word 'rose'. On this model, language is like a conventional code which we use to communicate our ideas to one another. You can never see my private idea of a rose, or my idea of red, but we can agree on the public circumstances when it is appropriate to say, 'That is a rose' or 'That is red'.

Much of 20th century philosophy of language has been about the battle against that Lockean picture. In particular the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (early and late) plays a very significant role, as I describe in the Philosophy of Language program.

I know you are anxious for my judgement on your essay. Your writing is articulate and intelligent, and you are clearly interested in the question of language and its implications for communication between cultures. However, the problem isn't about writing or putting pen to paper. I am less interested in how well or badly you write, than I am in how deeply you are able to plunge into the waters of philosophy. Do you want to do this? Are you ready to?

Wittgenstein has a very apt observation on this point. Philosophy is hard, in the way that swimming under water is hard, because we are constantly battling against the body's natural tendency to float to the surface.

I raised the question above whether it was conceivable that there could exist intelligent aliens with whom we were permanently unable to communicate. Here is another philosophical challenge in a similar vein. The American philosopher W.V.O. Quine put forward a thesis which he termed the 'indeterminacy of translation'. According to this thesis, all the actual and possible data on the basis of which a linguist might construct a translation from one language A to another language B is, in principle, insufficient to decide between rival translations. Moreover, there is no 'fact' of the matter, or unreachable 'meaning' that we fail to capture in our translation. There are just the two languages, A and B, which can be aligned in different, possibly endlessly different, ways.

Many students (including myself) have struggled to get their minds around that idea. In your reading, you will come across Quine's indeterminacy thesis in relation to questions about interpreting different languages and cultures. Our tendency is to think that there must be some ultimately 'correct' way to understand another human being, even if we never achieve this in practice. But what if there is no 'correct' way? What if there is no ultimate answer to the question whether you have really 'understood' another person or not?

All the best,


A metaphysical basis for Aristotle's ethics

To: Matt T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: A metaphysical basis for Aristotle's ethics
Date: 26th May 2010 11:51

Dear Matt,

Thank you for your email of 20 May, with your first essay towards the ISFP Associate Award, addressing the question, 'What is the basis of Aristotle's Ethics? Is there a metaphysical basis to Aristotle's Ethics?'

This is a knowledgeable and judicious assessment of the question of a basis for Aristotle's ethics, which as you state has consequences for contemporary debates.

Your aim has been fairly modest, to find a middle ground between the view that Aristotle's ethics is independent of his metaphysics, and the view that it is derived from his metaphysics. My take on this, as you will see below, is that Aristotle's hylemorphism, this theory of matter and form as an account of how things act and change -- and indeed what makes anything a 'thing' or spatio-temporal particular -- is inseparable from what he says about the nature and ends of human life in the Ethics. However, the very fact that we are unique in the cosmos means that all the philosophical work is still there to do; metaphysical considerations take very much a back seat.

One view of the virtues which has been popular in Anglo-Saxon philosophy is that consideration of the nature of human virtues shows how ethics can have a basis in naturalism, in effect bridging the is-ought gap. You cannot understand, e.g., what courage is without realizing that courage is a good thing to have. But is courage a good thing, in every circumstance? I once heard a paper where a philosopher described a science fiction thought experiment of a future world where human beings were slaves of an alien race, and where the slightest nuance of resistance was ruthlessly crushed. In such circumstances, could there be courage? would it be more courageous to accept the lash without resistance, knowing the terrible consequences for one's comrades if one failed to keep one's head bowed at all times?

Through a glass darkly, you can see this as just a rehash of G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy. Whatever your natural description of courage, there still remains the question whether it is 'good' to have courage in this or that situation.

Aristotle would have brushed this off with amusement. It is plainly obvious to Aristotle that there are conditions for human flourishing, some of which we do not have control over. In the alien scenario, eudaimonia or the good life is not possible, period. This is not a view that all Greek thinkers shared: witness the very different conception of virtue held by the Stoics. A virtuous man can be 'happy' on the rack.

In his own terms, Aristotle is a naturalist. Human beings are part of nature, and consideration of the good for a human being is no different from a logical standpoint than consideration of the good for a tree or a horse. That said, possession of reason makes human beings unique amongst natural things: we do not merely grow and develop according to a given plan or teleology, but we formulate ends for ourselves and act, in so doing fulfilling our own unique teleology. The possibilities of this deep insight occupy much of the Ethics. The human capacity of pursuing an end, itself has an end which is determined by what human beings essentially are, their matter and form.

I have to confess that I didn't fully understand your account of Halper's argument. Where is the evidence that Aristotle 'considers the good as substance'? Surely, the very fact that the cosmos is conceived teleologically, with the telos of each constituent part contributing to the whole brings about the same effect as Plato's conception of a hierarchy of forms leading up to the form of the Good, but without Plato's ontological commitment.

However, this very fact clearly distinguishes Aristotle's conception of the universe from any modern 'naturalist' view, according to which all teleological explanation is necessarily reducible to non-teleological explanation (the paradigm is of course Darwinian evolution).

Following this line of thought, the answer to your question is that there is indeed a 'metaphysical' basis to Aristotle's Ethics, in the same sense as there is a metaphysical basis to Aristotle's physics and biology.

Within his teleological weltanschauung, Aristotle is free to be as empirical and pragmatic as the subject requires. This in now way belies the underlying metaphysical current which makes the whole inquiry meaningful. Indeed, this sets a challenge for modern 'Aristotelians', starting with Nietzsche. In the absence of God or an unmoved mover we have to discover our own virtues, as artist-authors of our own being.

There are, however, contemporary moral philosophers like John McDowell, who have learned one very important lesson from Aristotle, that the 'logical space of reasons' is different from the 'logical space of causes'. Within a broadly naturalist outlook, there is room for a non-reductionist view of human values and virtues, as comprising the logical scaffolding of our human world.

I hadn't intended to write so widely about this topic: all credit to you for prompting these reflections. I do agree with you that where we want to be is in some sense in a 'middle ground' where underlying (or, overarching?) metaphysical theory allows from for a generously empirical view of ethics, and a system which exhibits 'practical simplicity and flexibility'.

All the best,


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Essays on Nozick and the free market

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Nozick and the free market
Date: 21st May 2010 12:16

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your two essays for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, 'Does the Free Market advance or restrict freedom?' and 'Explain and assess the 'Lockean Proviso' in Nozick's entitlement theory and what, if anything, does Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain argument show?'

OK, two decent essays, although you don't seem to have a clue about Marx. I should start with that, especially in view of your mind-boggling question, 'Wouldn't Nozick's view that we own our labour and the product of it be very similar to Marx's view?'

No. Absolutely not. No way.

We're not interested in Marx the economist but Marx the philosopher, the author of the '1844 Manuscripts' which you have included in your bibliography. I assume you've read 'On the Power of Money in Bourgeois Society' as well as the essay on 'Alienated Labour', 'Private Property and Communism' and 'The Meaning of Human Requirements'. Marx's disagreements with other socialist/ communist philosophers are as revealing as his critique of capitalism.

I like the way you explain the free market in very simple, down-to-earth terms. So I will try to explain what Marx believed in a similar way.

Money is the evil. The product of my labour is mine, but the institution of money enables me to trade this for something else. In other words, in capitalist society labour or the capacity for labour is just one of my negotiable assets.

For Marx, work is a necessity. But it is also the means of our self-realisation. Your remark that 'in the absence of compulsion Marx says that labour would be shunned like the plague by humans' therefore gives completely the wrong impression.

For Marx, the paradigm of 'work' is the kind of thing he did, writing philosophy, studying late into the night. Or the work of the artist, or sculptor, or architect. Consider how one might remark about how some independent film director has 'sold himself out' as a result of a massive offer from Hollywood. Or the writer who would rather starve than 'prostitute his talent'.

Work is a necessity, not only in the sense of our human self-expression and self realization, but also in the much more humdrum sense that we need to eat, make tools, homes and all the paraphernalia required for humans to live a human life. Possibly the nearest example of the kind of thing Marx saw as the ideal form of society is the Kibbutzim in Israel. You can't just be a 'philosopher' or 'painter'. You have to make your contribution to the running of the Kibbutz, picking oranges in the harvest, or taking your turn to look after the kindergarten etc. etc. (The founders of the Kibbutz movement were of course influenced by Marx.)

Some human beings are more talented than others. In his essay on 'Money' Marx makes clear that natural endowments are a non-negotiable gift. Some are lucky to have good looks while others are ugly. (So the idea that we can make everyone 'the same' in a communist society is a non-starter.)

What Marx emphasizes, however, is the power of solidarity. Each contributes to society in his or her own way, not just by doing the necessary labour but by making themself the best that they can be. What I give to society is not just my 'labour', but my myself as an independent, free person. In return, what I receive is the wherewithal to achieve this. Only in a social context can we achieve humanity. (This is the real meaning of 'positive freedom'.)

In the context of the essay question about a free market, I think you're right that we want to respect property-rights and allow free exchange to the extent that this is compatible with important concepts such as a safety net for the worse off in society, or protecting occupations like farming where wholesale bankruptcy would be disastrous for the country as a whole. As you explain, the 'invisible hand' is a mechanism that works much of the time. But it doesn't work by magic. That's why, as you observe, every government takes steps to keep the economy on track whenever there is a danger that it might go off the rails.

I don't have much to add with regard to your essay on Nozick. The point I would make here is that Nozick wants to show that any attempt at redistribution is an unjust intervention in the process of just acquisition and transfer of goods. However, that ignores the evident fact that the rich do not necessarily begrudge the taxes they have to pay to help the poor, but on the contrary (as indeed voting trends show) are happy that there exists a state apparatus which enables them to continue their pursuit of profit with a clear conscience.

All the best,


Essay on John Rawls

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on John Rawls
Date: 19th May 2010 12:29

Dear Sachiko,

A lot of work has gone into writing your essay for the University of London Political Philosophy module and I think you will be well prepared to answer questions on Rawls in the exam.

I will just pick on passages where I scribbled wavy lines or question marks. I won't comment on the bits I liked.

My first question concern's Nagel's criticism, 'The suppression of knowledge required to achieve unanimity is not equally fair to all parties because the primary goods are not equally valuable in pursuit of all conceptions of the good.' A lot more can be said here.

Although you later go on to criticize Mill's utilitarianism, contrasting it with Rawls' maxi-min principle, it could be argued that Rawls and Mill are really very close in their liberal conception of justice, and that it wouldn't take much to persuade Mill to abandon his maximizing principle for a maxi-min principle. (After all, Mill concedes to our pre-philosophical intuitions that some pleasures are 'higher' or more worthy of being pursued by human beings than others.) For Mill, the crucial question is whether a derivation of the laws of ethics and principles of justice requires an illicit appeal to the theory of 'moral intuitionism'. The only argument worth listening to is one based purely on rational considerations concerning our natural desire to achieve pleasure/ happiness and avoid pain/ unhappiness.

So by insisting that parties in the original position are ignorant of any 'conception of the good' it can indeed be argued that Rawls has introduced a liberal bias from the start. Anyone with strong traditionalist religious convictions, for example, who believed that society should be run under the rule of God's law would feel marginalised. Well, you might argue, so much the worse for theocracy. But the point is that Rawls is merely articulating the consequences of a particular social/ political ideal, worthy though it may be. He cannot claim to have provided that view with an unassailable philosophical foundation, as the argument from the Original Position claims to do.

Your comment, 'I find it intriguing that Rawls says that we cannot decide the worth of the life choices of others but considers it expedient to decide on principles of justice for all to live by', in effect points a finger at the essential problem. For those who make certain 'live choices', based on personal conviction, it is intolerable that they should be subjected to some conception of justice as based purely on what is 'reasonable' in the absence of any particular ideals or beliefs about the good.

I didn't get what you said in the next paragraph, 'Another criticism we may make...'. What exactly is your point about the death penalty and the person suffering memory loss? I can see how following on from Nagel's point, a Rawlsian argument for or against the death penalty would be unacceptable to anyone who does not embrace his liberal presuppositions. Was that it?

In the same paragraph you go on to ask, 'how do we know that what we do really benefits the poor if we do not even have an understanding of what it is really is to be poor?'. This is different point. Arguably, Rawls has a response here which is that an understanding of what it is like to be poor can be derived from the parties' permitted general knowledge of items 1-5. Nagel, of course, famously argued in 'What is it like to be a bat?' that there are kinds of subjective knowledge which cannot be accessed if you have not enjoyed the experience in question. I'm not convinced, however, that this applies to poverty. If you fully know the circumstances of the poor, even if you have never been poor yourself, surely you have all that is necessary to 'put yourself in their shoes' and imagine what it would be like if this happened to you.

Continuing to the next paragraph, yes, obviously, it would be a very strong argument for Rawls' principles of justice that people would agree to them even if they had ALL information available. But this deliberately misses the point of Rawls' exercise. We are not relying on some other factor (like Humean sympathy). The Original Position must contain everything required for the derivation of principles of justice.

As to the point about 'Rawls' principles of justice closely, perhaps too closely, fit the conditions of justice imposed on the original position' Rawls would argue that this illustrates his important concept of 'reflective equilibrium'. Our starting intuitions, and our theory, ought to be both capable of undergoing change as a result of the attempt to render our thinking rational and consistent.

I would have liked to have seen Sidgwick's point expanded. 'A purer account of liberty might entail an absence of the right to private property.' Whew! Well, it is certainly worthy of investigation whether you could do a version of Rawls Original Position argument and derive Marxism (with suitable tweaks, bearing in mind the requirements of reflective equilibrium). That would be a pretty strong case against the whole enterprise, wouldn't it? One would conclude that you can justify any theory by that method.

I got a bit lost in the paragraph where you quote Nozick's point, 'Who gains at whose expense?' If we accept that redistribution is a necessity according to Rawls, then of course how this is carried out will still matter. That is an argument in favour of transparency, e.g. a tax system where it is absolutely clear 'where your money goes' and which can be seen to be fully justified by economic necessity and the requirements of justice. In that case, Rawls would say, there is no place for disillusion or resentment.

On p. 10 I have a long wavy line starting at the point where you say, 'John Harsanyi takes issue with the use of the maxi-min rule...'. The key point here is how we reason about probabilities. Rawls never 'seriously' considers that we should rule out worst outcomes which have a relatively minuscule probability of being realized. It is true that in the Original Position we don't know how 'risk averse' we are going to be. However, a reasonable assumption, Rawls would argue, is that the exact level of one's risk aversion falls within a range of 'normality', i.e. we are not considering principles of justice which people who were neurotic or had serious psychological problems would agree to.

Good luck with the exam!

All the best,


Existentialism and the human condition

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Existentialism and the human condition
Date: 18th May 2010 11:37

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 13 May, with your first essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'The Human Condition viewed through an Existential Lens.'

This is potentially an excellent topic -- especially given your interests -- but I don't think that you have done it full justice.

In an essay like this, which talks of 'existentialism' as a general movement rather than expounding on the views of particular existentialist thinkers, there is a great temptation to blur everything together in an attempt to describe 'the' existentialist view.

One of the things you have set out to do is write an introduction to existentialism. The problem with this is that one ends up merely repeating the formulae (like 'existence precedes essence' etc.). Someone who had not encountered existentialism before would find it difficult to work out what existentialist thinkers have contributed to the history of philosophy.

All the standard terms are there, 'being-in-the-world', 'bad faith', 'existential angst', 'authenticity' etc. You've tried to cover all the basic elements -- combining the theories of different thinkers -- but the end result is that it all reads like so much gobbledygook. Try to imagine someone who has never heard of existentialism before. What would they get from this?

However, as I think you have realized, there is a way to approach the challenge: and that is to start with something that we are more or less familiar with, something which poses a problem and a challenge -- the idea of 'the human condition'. What is the human condition? I don't mean, what is your philosophical theory of the human condition but what are the kinds of things that characterize the experience of being a human being in this world? What are the varieties of ways that human beings suffer, as a result of being the kinds of being that we are, in the kind of world we find ourselves?

The traditional Christian view is that man is in a 'fallen' state as a result of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden. 'Original sin' is a poignant metaphor for the human condition and bears not a little resemblance to concepts such as bad faith. Human beings squander their potential because they are 'human all-too human' (Nietzsche). We are our own worst enemy.

So what I would do would be to spend at least half the essay talking about the human condition, setting things up so that when you turn to the ideas of the existential thinkers, they will seem like a bright searchlight turned on what was confusing and obscure.

With this strategy, you will then be able to introduce existentialist concepts by motivating the reader to search for a solution (which is, e.g. different from, say, Christianity or Spinoza's stoic rationalism). Instead of attempting to describe the whole panoply of existentialist concepts you will be selecting those which bear directly on what you have described in part one.

Also, this will be an opportunity to avoid 'blurring' by distinguishing what different existentialist thinkers say about the same problems. Of course, you will need to be very selective -- the point is to introduce just enough of the history of existentialism to give the reader a sense that this is a movement which has undergone development and change, which is fluid and not a static dogma.

This requires a light touch. This is about conveying an impressionistic sense of how existentialist thinking approaches the human condition, giving the reader insights into why this movement is so important, without getting bogged down in too much nitty gritty.

Paradoxically, to write the kind of essay I am describing requires a deeper understanding of existentialism, because you have to know what to leave out. Less is more.

Another aspect which bears particularly on your own experience would be the role of existentialism in therapy. At the risk of making the essay even harder to write (at least, within the nominal 2500 word limit) I think that you need to give more than a nod in the direction of the practical use of existentialist ideas in a therapeutic context. By doing that you will have tied together the idea that there is such a thing as 'the human condition' and the idea that this is the primary motivation for doing philosophy.

As it stands, the essay would not be acceptable for the Associate. However, I can see that you have done a lot of good work in getting this far -- there is plenty of evidence that you have seriously grappled with the topic and as a result have a deeper grasp of it than when you set out. What I would like you to do now is some serious philosophical thinking about how you are going to write the first part of the essay, as I have described above.

All the best,


Xenophanes on human knowledge and its limits

To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes on human knowledge and its limits
Date: 13th May 2010 12:56

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 7 May, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled 'Reflections on the Question of Knowledge'.

Your essay is a useful and sensitive exploration of the limits of knowledge within a broadly scientific outlook.

We talk of what we 'know' in science, yet all the scientist can do is put forward the explanation which, at any given time, appears to be 'better' than any of the alternatives. As time goes on, explanations which were the 'best' available at the time are superseded as our capacity to put questions to nature develops and expands. 150 years ago, it could hardly have been predicted that what we term 'matter' would turn out to be mostly 'empty space'.

A point that needs to be stressed is that what I said in the unit about knowledge is an extrapolation from what Xenophanes actually said, with a strong emphasis (which you've noted) on the practical aspects of knowledge. This is what Plato does, e.g. in the Theaetetus and Meno when he discusses the question what it is that needs to be 'added' to belief to make it 'knowledge'. You go to an expert because you want reliable information, not guesses.

One thing that needs to be 'added' to make a belief knowledge is truth. Of course, whenever we make statements about what this or that person 'knows' we are assuming the truth of the knowledge claim in question. No-one has direct, infallible access to the truth. So a claim that 'A knows that P' can be defeated, either by evidence that A's belief that P does not meet the standard for knowledge, or by evidence that P is false.

This is no big deal. The fact that we don't have direct, infallible access to the truth doesn't make knowledge 'relative' or 'contextual'. Nor is it difficult to state what we mean by 'truth'. Aristotle's formula is still fully acceptable today: If I say X when X obtains then what I say is true. If I say X when X does not obtain then what I say is false.

Suppose I say, 'The last thought Aristotle had before he died was how much he loved his mother.' No human being can ever know this. But if I do make that statement, and IN FACT (unknown to us) the last thought Aristotle had before he died WAS how much he loved his mother, then my statement is true, and false otherwise.

In short, on this plausible view of truth, there are lots of truths which we do not and never will know, truths far removed from human perception or capacity for investigation, or evidence for which has been obliterated by the sands of time.

There are, of course, statements which we don't know how to evaluate because they are not simply 'factual' but depend on interpretation. If you are a Christian, does that mean you believe in the Virgin birth? Not according to the Bishop of Durham (who raised a storm of controversy a few years ago when he stated that the 'belief' in question should not be interpreted literally).

From the evidence of what he said, it seems that Xenophanes held a 'realist' view of truth, such as I have described. There is a truth about the earth and heavens and the ordering of the cosmos, but whatever that truth is, human beings cannot know. We can only theorise. In order to stress his point, Xenophanes resorted to a device which is still relied on today: God knows. We will never know Aristotle's last thought before he died but God does. We can never obtain a God's-eye view.

One philosopher (Michael Dummett) has gone so far as to suggest that the necessity for holding a realist view of truth is the best argument for the existence of God (he acknowledges his debt to Berkeley).

On a realist view, then, the truth is not as such 'contextual'. Our views may change over time, but the truth is whatever it is, regardless of what we believe.

On the other hand, it is quite plausible to argue that the very notion of 'knowledge' is a contextual notion. In order to understand the concept of knowledge, it is necessary to explore how this concept is used, what utility it has for us.

When do we say that someone knows something? One requirement, as explained, is truth. You have to agree with what they say. The other requirement concerns their right to say it. To state that someone 'knows' is to imply that, in some sense, that person may be regarded as a reliable source of information about the matter in question. We have a concept of knowledge because of our interest in testimony, as a source of information. The person in question has to be, in some sense, an 'authority' or 'expert' and not a mere guesser.

A humdrum example would be if I ask the other people standing in the bus queue when the next bus is coming. I'm not interested in guesses or estimates. I can do that. What I want to know is whether someone has, e.g. seen bus timetable, or has phoned the bus company information line on their mobile.

For the same reason, to be an eyewitness to an event gives one a special status. Much of what I 'know' about the world depends on the eyes and ears of other people.

The problem is that 'authority' is a difficult thing to pin down. There are many cases where we would normally say we 'know' something, but all it takes is a question and we realize that we don't know. 'Yes, I know. The next bus is at 9.25 am.' 'Do you know whether the bus drivers have not called a strike today?' 'I hadn't considered that.' 'Then you don't KNOW when the next bus is coming!'

If you take that to its logical conclusion, then no-one knows anything, because you can always find a defeating question. This looks like a paradox, or an argument for scepticism. But I think it is better seen as emphasizing the contextuality of knowledge claims.

All the best,


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Berkeley's immaterialism and the reality principle

To: Christodoulos P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's immaterialism and the reality principle
Date: 10th May 2010 12:33

Dear Christos,

Thank you for your email of 30 April, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'In the light of the reality principle, does Berkeley's immaterialism represent a viable solution to the problem of constructing a universe without recourse to the notion of matter?'

I recently returned to thinking about this problem, and made a post in my blog 'Tentative Answers', with the title, 'Realism, idealism, solipsism':

You might like to look at this, as it gives a fresh angle to the issues which you have been grappling with in the Metaphysics program.

The crucial point in your argument comes where you say, 'In order to satisfy the reality principle we must find the 'reality' of those objects [sc. the objects we make judgements about] and generally the reality of the entire universe. First we must find the source of these experiences. But finding a source is still not enough. Consider Descartes' Evil Demon is the source, or... a lazy deity... There is no Master Plan.'

You suggest the possibility that an advanced civilization 'has the whole universe on a 'hard drive'.' This is an interesting hypothesis to speculate about, but it is one which Berkeley would have considered inadequate for his purposes because the advanced civilization and their 'hard drive' presumably are in the same position as we are, viz. that all they have is their experiences just as all we have is our experiences.

But why must there be a 'Master Plan'? The real question here is the logical status of this 'must'. There 'must' be a Master Plan, i.e. a non-deceiving, infinite deity, because otherwise there would be no difference between true and false judgement, no such thing as 'reality'.

However, let us consider how Descartes answered this question. He considers it necessary to prove the existence of a benevolent Deity by means of a logically compelling argument (in fact, two arguments, the argument from my infinite 'idea' of God, and also his version of Anselm's ontological argument).

Even with this proof, however, one runs into a difficulty which I considered way back at the beginning of the program, when I considered a 'Sophie's World' type scenario. God has written the story (the story of the universe, the 'master plan') and I am a character in that story. So far, so good. But when it comes to asking myself how it is that my judgements about the world (my judgements about the story) can be 'true' or 'false', the only answer is that they are 'true' of God says they are true, and 'false' if God says they are false. God isn't in a position to 'correct' my judgement, in the way that another human being might be. I can't argue with God. I can only accept, or reject.

Consider what you say right at the end of your essay: 'If I was God, it would make no difference to me if I created the universe in my mind or created the universe entirely out of matter and now sits besides me in a 'Universe Ball'. That way it will also look good, and more independent.'

That very last sentence is puzzling: in the Bible it says (something to the effect) that after seven days, God gazed at his Creation and was satisfied with it. He 'found it to be good'. If God was all-powerful why did he need to make the experiment in the first place? What difference does it make if the universe is in God's mind or in an externally existing 'universe ball'? The answer lies in the idea of 'independence'.

If the universe is 'out there', then even God can't make what is true false, or what is false true. The facts are the facts, regardless of how even God thinks of them. But if you'd said this to Berkeley he would have just laughed. You've simply assumed the very thing that Berkeley is criticized, without offering a shred of defence. Berkeley's point against Descartes (in effect) is that God can't do the logically impossible. He can't create 'matter' because the very notion of the material is incoherent.

In my Tentative Answers post, I consider this from a new angle. It is not that Berkeley thinks that the universe has 'less' in it than the materialist or dualist. On that view, the materialist says there are experiences and material objects, while the idealist says that there are just experiences and nothing else. But this is too narrow a way of looking at it. Berkeley's theory later transposed into Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena: Kant's criticism of Berkeley is, in effect, that the 'experiences' that 'exist' in God's mind are something we can have no concept of, they are noumenal entities beyond the range of our possible experience.

So, in effect, what the idealist is claiming is that the universe is more than the universe of the materialist, not less. The materialist's universe is the universe that we perceive with our senses, and which science seeks to describe. But what science fails to account for is the 'that' which appears and which science theorizes about -- the ultimate nature of things -- which the metaphysically minded materialist erroneously equates with 'bare matter'.

As you will gather, I reject the idealist view. However, as you argue in your essay, this rejection requires more than just an appeal to the reality principle.

All the best,


Descartes' case for doubt in Meditation 1

To: Andy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' case for doubt in Meditation 1
Date: 30th April 2010 12:13

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your email of 21 April, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What reasons does Descartes give us for doubting all our beliefs? Are they good reasons?

In your answer, you show a good knowledge of the first Meditation, giving a brisk but fairly accurate account of the way Descartes develops his argument -- first considering the possibility of illusion, then considering the possibility that he is dreaming and finally the evil demon hypothesis.

You will get credit for this. However, what the examiner is looking for is your judgement regarding 'how good' Descartes' reasons are, backed up by as convincing a case as you are able to make for coming to that judgement.

In the first stage of the argument, where Descartes shows that some of our perceptions are illusory, but then considers the obvious reply that we rely on perception to correct our illusory perceptions, you notice the possibility of a sceptical move which many of my students have missed: 'Even if Descartes believed that some things were true and others false, at this stage of the argument, he does not know for certain, which are true or false.'

This is good. Indeed, it raises the question why Descartes needs the dreaming or evil demon hypotheses. Take anything you think you 'know'. There are circumstances under which you could be wrong (but not dreaming or being deceived by an evil demon). This is a pretty good argument for scepticism in itself (see my answer to Demetreus at

It is not so easy to defeat this argument. Indeed, this is one reason why some philosophers (e.g. David Lewis) have proposed that knowledge is a contextual notion. What we 'know' can depend on what questions we have asked ourselves, or others have raised, which on the face of it seems rather paradoxical, doesn't it?

However, it can be said that even if the argument from the possibility of ordinary deception or illusion undermines a lot of what we believe, it doesn't give reason for doubting all our beliefs. Descartes was just as concerned with beliefs in mathematics, or indeed our knowledge of philosophical principles.

What if this is all a dream? Would arithmetic, as Descartes seems to think, still be true? He is making an assumption here, that human beings have a 'power of judgement' which, as such, functions just as well when we are awake or dreaming. Indeed, it is interesting to note that when he touches on the possibility that he might be mad, he quickly draws back from the obvious conclusion: if there is a serious possibility that you are mad, then no amount of reasoning can prove otherwise. You can't trust your own judgement, period. In which case, the resulting scepticism would obliterate any possibility of taking the investigation further.

What Descartes considers instead is an evil demon, who not only causes me to have apparent perceptions, but is able to meddle with my powers of judgement -- at least to some extent. (It is unclear, at this point, exactly how far Descartes is prepared to go with this. If he went all the way, then the case would be no different from the hypothesis that he has lost the power of reasoning, i.e., is 'mad'.)

How good is the evil demon argument? A modern version would be the 'evil scientist' or 'brain in a vat' or Matrix scenario. It is notable, however, that the evil demon goes further, because if you are a brain in a vat being fed experiences by an evil scientist, or if 'the Matrix has you', then there still exists a physical world in space and time. Whereas, in the case of the evil demon, there are no material objects. There is only the evil demon and you.

I cannot stress strongly enough that in the exam you have to be prepared to work hard to look for problems to grapple with, as I've tried to show here. When a question says, 'Is this a good argument?' or 'Are these good reasons?' then you must make every attempt to raise objections. If objections haven't occurred to you before, then invent some. If you think that the objections can be met, then say so. If not, then you have the choice of saying that the objections are good objections, or saying that you feel the objections can be met but you are not confident in being able to show this. It is perfectly acceptable, in other words, to come to an 'aporetic' conclusion, i.e. one where the central issue remains unresolved.

All the best,


Belief that I have hands and Locke on simple ideas

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Belief that I have hands and Locke on simple ideas
Date: 30th April 2010 11:39

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 24 April with your one hour timed essays (hand written, scanned) for the University of London Epistemology BA Module, in response to the question, 'Must one have independent grounds for thinking that one has hands? If not, explain why not. If so, explain the consequences for one's belief that one has hands', and also for the Modern Philosophers: Descartes et. al. module, in response to the question, 'What kind of idea is a simple idea, according to Locke?"

I understand that you are under a lot of pressure at the moment. My advice with regard to the examination is that once you are in the examination room, you need to forget about how well or badly your revision has gone. There is everything to play for. Attack the question, be bloody minded, don't just rely on arguments you've memorised -- be prepared to think thoughts you haven't thought before. If things go wrong and the answer doesn't work out the way you'd hoped, say so, and explain why you think that it has gone wrong.


You discuss the 'brain in a vat' scenario and also mention G.E. Moore's famous 'proof' of our knowledge of an external world. However, you don't go into the critique of brain in a vat arguments -- such as Putnam's 'brain in a vat' article, or contemporary discussions of the 'principle of closure', i.e. whether knowledge is 'closed' under entailment. (Just to jog your memory: If I have hands then I am not a brain in a vat. So if I know I have hands I must know that I am not a brain in a vat. But I don't know this. Therefore, I don't know that I have hands.)

However, what you offer instead is a version of the brain in a vat scenario which raises a whole lot of new issues, which deserve to be discussed. Well done for that.

The scenario you describe seems to be a version of the Surrogates movie (2009) The difference, however, is that the surrogate 'you' (the robot facsimile which you control) exists and acts in a world exactly like the world that you inhabited before (without your knowledge) you were envatted. So that when you 'look' at your 'hands', your external robot body really is looking at its hands. Indeed, we can simplify things and make the two worlds the same world. Your friends don't know that they are interacting with the robot AL and not the 'real' AL. So to all intents and purposes, its hands are your hands.

The situation is no different in principle, you say, from the one which actually obtains, where you or I are 'brains' in 'vats' (brains in skulls) which interact with an external world through a reliable causal mechanism. That seems initially plausible.

You go on to say, 'There is a position taken in questions of this type suggest that the reality we exist in would be 'wrong' if it was in some way the product of agencies existing in some other reality. I find this position too narrowly focused on the 'reality' of one particular reality at the expense of others...'.

I would like to have seen this idea developed further. For example, imagine that a famous painter goes blind, and friendly aliens secretly pipe visual experiences directly into the artist's visual cortex, so that he is able to continue painting. The aliens take great care to ensure that the experiences are just what they would be if the artist's eyes were working, but (here comes the catch) it is totally a matter of their free choice whether to do this or not. When he sees a yellow flower, does he 'know' that he is seeing a yellow flower? Your position seems to be that there is knowledge, provided that the causal mechanism is reliable -- even if we have totally false beliefs about the nature of that mechanism.

The alternative view would be that the presence of false assumptions invalidate any claim to knowledge. The problem with this line is that it does rather quickly lead to scepticism. It is impossible to investigate *all* of one's assumptions.

Modern Philosophy

Questions like this are always difficult because the look on the surface to be questions merely about exposition. Once you have stated which kinds of 'idea' are 'simple' according to Locke, what more is there to say?

You do manage to say a bit more: you attempt to put Locke's project within the context of his empiricism and his rejection of 'innate ideas'.

As you remark, Locke's use of the term 'idea' is rather wider than current usage. In fact, not only does Locke talk of 'ideas of sensation', he also describes sensations as 'ideas'. However, we can make some headway by attempting to translate what Locke says into more modern terminology.

As an initial stab, one might say that there are, for Locke, two kinds of concept. Those whose meaning can be explained in terms of other concepts, and those whose meaning can only be grasped ostensively, by having the 'object' which falls under the concept present, and being told, 'That is an example of an F'.

For Locke, examples of these 'objects' are, as you say, very varied. Not only do they include colours, tastes, sounds, feels etc. but also actions of the mind such as 'perception, reasoning, knowing and willing'.

Apart from raising the question whether such things as perception and knowledge can, contra Locke, be defined, the only criticism that you make of Locke's theory is in the very last two sentences. Locke's theory is open to sceptical attack. To make this more explicit, the reason is that for Locke ideas form what has been termed a 'veil of perception' between the mind and the actual world. When I perceive a tree, what my mind actually perceives is a collection of ideas from which I infer the existence of a tree.

However, there is a puzzle here, because this doesn't follow simply from the thesis that there are 'two kinds of concept, those which are defined ostensively and those which are defined in terms of other concepts'. So there is an extra -- very important -- assumption or step here which is needed to get Locke's theory of ideas from the uncontroversial observation that not all concepts can be defined in terms of other concepts, but must be defined ostensively.

Homing in on this point is really the heart of the essay: For Locke, 'ostension' isn't, as one would normally construe it, a matter of persons interacting in an external world, pointing things out to one another, but rather something necessarily internal. We can't take 'the external world' for granted, but have to construct it out of 'ideas'. So ostension becomes a private 'ceremony' which one enacts within the confines of one's own mind. It is this assumption which Wittgenstein's argument against a private language was intended to defeat.

All the best,


Aristotle's account of substance in Metaphysics Z

To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle's account of substance in Metaphysics Z
Date: 29th April 2010 13:57

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 25 April, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Aristotle BA module, in response to the question, 'Does Aristotle achieve a coherent account of substance in Metaphysics Z?'

While noting the development of Aristotle's view of substance from the Categories and the Physics to his Metaphysics, your primary aim in your essay appears to be defending Aristotle against the charge of inconsistency. Having admitted that species forms are 'universals' -- in the sense that a plurality of particular instances, e.g. Socrates, Callicles etc. are so described because they are instances of something common or universal which they share, 'human soul' -- Aristotle seems to be involved in a patent contradiction because in Z.13 he refutes Plato's view that the forms are universals.

Your solution, to put it succinctly, is that 'Forms are universals but not all universals are forms'. Universals which are genera are not forms. In order to be a form a universal must be the form of a species. It is the particular species that make the genus what it is. In that respect, the genera are derivative whereas the species are primary. As you state:

'If we interpret Z along these lines then what emerges is that Species forms are substance. Species form passes all the tests to be a 'some this'. It is definite and it is ontologically independent in the sense that if one moves in the direction of particular specimens such as Socrates these are dependent on the species form to be what they are and if we move up the scale of differentia to say mammal or animal, these do not have independent existence for they are dependent on the species which fall under them since in the absence of any definite species there would be no genus.'

This is correct so far as it goes, but I can't help feeling that you have missed the opportunity to engage with Aristotle's mature theory of substance or ousia, as a metaphysical theory whose adequacy or coherence -- by contrast with available alternatives such as Plato's theory of forms, or at the other extreme Democritean atomism -- is in question.

The two big clues that Aristotle provides are his uncompromising rejection of explanation along Platonist lines, in combination with his account of generation which privileges biological forms such as plants and animals above other examples of ousia, indeed as perhaps the only really genuine examples of ousia.

The substantial form that makes Socrates essentially what he is, apart from his individual accidents is also the substantial form which makes Callicles essentially what he is, apart from his individual accidents. Yet this form is not a 'one' over 'many'. Forms, as it were, do not 'act at a distance' as they are required to do in Plato's theory. Generation provides the prime example of how the very same substantial form passes from one physical individual to another.

As you state right at the beginning of your essay, Aristotle's primary assumption or axiom is that of the intelligibility of the world. One can add that this intelligibility, for Aristotle, is accounted for by his own theory as that which is capable of being understood or rendered intelligible by the kind of thing that man (the philosopher, or investigator) is, namely a being essentially endowed with the capacity for perception and rational thought.

As inheritors of the Democritean view of the universe, it requires a massive effort to see the world in Aristotelian terms. His theory, if true, holds in all possible worlds phenomenologically like our actual world -- regardless of how they may be underneath, their amenability to microstructural explanation. If empirical knowledge as Aristotle understood it is indeed possible, then there is no 'underneath'. Substantial forms provide the ultimate principles of explanation.

The wording of the question allows you a considerable degree of discretion in formulating objections and defending Aristotle against those objections. That is why I said that I felt that you had construed the question too narrowly, as concerned merely with the consistency of certain statements that Aristotle makes in Metaphysics Z.

It is true that Aristotle is struggling to unite what seem to be incompatible aspects of his substantial forms -- on the one hand, the fact that they only exist 'in' individual instances, providing the necessary determinacy to the material substrate, while on the other hand, the fact that each substantial form can be considered as itself a kind of 'unity' apart from those instances. Like you, I don't see an incoherence here. However, more needs to be said. What the philosopher says about forms depends on the specific context. Forms are not, as such, 'universals'. However, from a certain perspective they appear so as a consequence of abstraction or focus on particular aspects of the theory. That would be my starting point, in developing an answer to this question.

All the best,


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Aristotle on man as a political animal

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on man as a political animal
Date: 22nd April 2010 11:38

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 17 April with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What did Aristotle mean when he said that humans are political animals? Was he right?'

As you effectively demonstrate in your essay, there is more to Aristotle's assertion that man is a political animal than merely a claim about nature or what is natural. If this really were all Aristotle was concerned with, then it would be reasonable to conduct an empirical investigation into the varieties of human life, with the aim of discovering whether human beings 'naturally' form a state or not.

The evidence from anthropology seems to be that human beings are perfectly capable of living at the 'village' level, in the absence of outside forces. Moreover, this is a perfectly satisfactory life, not the life of beasts but of men and women who have a culture and a language, who think about the meaning of life and death, who express their views about the universe in art, have developed a significant grasp of psychology and a respect for wisdom.

Whereas, to a Greek, such a life was the epitome of the barbarian -- so called, because when they spoke it sounded like, 'ba ba ba'.

Aristotle was hardly in a position to conduct such an investigation, nor did he perceive that it was necessary. Why?

The clue lies in the example which Aristotle gives and which you justly criticize: the idea that the relation between an individual man and the state is like that between a hand and the body. The obvious difficulty with this analogy is that the hand is not a substance, it cannot exist as a 'hand' while disconnected from the body, whereas a man is a substance. It follows, therefore, that the unity of the state is not the unity of a substance, as a genuine substance cannot be composed of other substances.

The unity of the state is organic. It is an essential part of the nature of man, according to Aristotle, to occupy a place in the social organism. You said in your email that you were originally hostile to Aristotle's view of man as a political animal but that you 'found ways in which his views are defensible'. The reason seems to be that Aristotle's view looks preferable to that of Hobbes. In my last email I expressed strong reservations about Hobbes' views about the 'state of nature'. However, I would not conclude that Aristotle is the only, or even the 'natural', alternative.

What is so wrong with the organic view? I could mention that phrases like 'the body politic' naturally trip of the tongues of extreme Right-wingers. But then a similar view is to be found in the various flavours of marxism. I recommend that you read (some time, I realize it's probably too late in view of the proximity of the exams) the famous essay by F.H. Bradley, 'My Station and Its Duties', from his book 'Ethical Studies'. Bradley is articulating an essentially Hegelian view, but he expresses it with greater clarity and persuasiveness than Hegel ever could. But he also realizes (in the same book!) that this view has serious shortcomings.

The issue also relates to 'positive liberty' vs 'negative liberty' which you have no doubt read about. Supporters of the organic/ Aristotelian/ Hegelian view would argue that man only becomes 'free' when he realizes his full potential, and to do this requires that he accepts the place assigned to him in the polis.

To live and flourish in a civilized society is to be more than just a component in the state organism or machine. It is to be a person. The concept of a 'person' is not a product of nature in any sense but a product of culture. From what I said about anthropology earlier you will gather that my view would be that human culture can exist, and exist fully, in the absence of a state -- which is not to say that human history would be as rich and as deep, or would even exist at all in the sense we would recognize, if external necessities had not given rise to the formation of states.

'Person' is also a moral concept. In his account of the virtues Aristotle says much that would be fully consistent with the view I am describing. This is perhaps the measure of the distance between contemporary 'virtue theory' and Aristotle's conception of the 'virtues' as that which makes men fit to occupy the station they have been assigned in the organic state.

One philosopher who doesn't get discussed much these days is John Macmurray. His Gifford Lectures, published as 'The Self as Agent' and 'Persons in Relation' make a powerful case for what he terms a 'personal' view of the state against the 'organic' view.

Going back over some of the other things you said, the Philoctetes objection looks far less convincing today than it would have done in Aristotle's time. It is perfectly possible, with the aid of modern technology, to live in solitude for long periods of time. The person who lives alone is a person by virtue of his or her culture. Enforced solitude can be very painful but it doesn't make you less of a person. Would it be possible to make the decision to discard civilized society, to give up one's 'personhood'? If it is possible, you wouldn't need solitude to realize that goal.

All the best,


Plato's arguments for immortality

To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's arguments for immortality
Date: 21st April 2010 11:05

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 14 April, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics BA module, in response to the question, 'Does either the affinity argument or the final argument in the Phaedo succeed in proving the immortality of the soul? If not, how does it fail?', and your email of 20 April with our query about knowledge and scepticism.


This is not such a bad essay. The best part is where you offer a sympathetic overview of Plato's Theory of Forms which, as you say, makes the immortality of the soul prima facie 'plausible'. The question, however, is, How good are Plato's arguments?

Regarding the first argument, you say, 'The body changes and never remains equal to itself', whereas 'the soul could be compared to what cannot be perceived, i.e. to the Forms that always remain the same to themselves.'

On the face of it there are at least two massive non-sequiturs, in the argument as you present it.

The first non-sequitur, however, is arguably the fault of your exposition rather than Plato. In response to the statement, 'The body changes and never remains equal to itself' surely one could say exactly the same thing about the soul. One day the body is hot, another day the body is cold. So one day the soul is thinking, 'It is very hot today' and another day the soul is thinking, 'The weather is so c-cold.'

So what makes the difference, if any? We say that the body remains 'the same body' despite accidental changes, just as we say that the soul (mind, self) remains the same soul (mind, self) despite accidental changes. The body changes physically, the soul changes mentally. However, what Plato is really trying to get at is that the soul as bearer of changing mental attributes itself has a substance or essence which remains unchanging. The same, of course, would now be asserted about material bodies (contrary to what Plato believed). We are 'stardust, billion year old carbon'. Whereas, for Plato, the Forms provide the unchanging 'substrate'.

However, Plato has something else to say: the activity of philosophy proves that in knowing the Forms, the soul relates to something to which it has an affinity. It could not know the Forms if it was not in some sense 'like' them.

But this takes us straight to the second non-sequitur. To say that the soul has an affinity with, or is 'like' the Forms begs the question in what respects is it 'like' and in what respects 'unlike'. Maybe, as Plato wants us to believe, the soul is 'like' the forms in being non-material. But maybe, also, it is unlike the forms in being capable of going out of existence, while the Forms are not capable of going out of existence.

The second argument also, arguably, is based on a non-sequitur. A body can be alive or dead. A dead body is still a body. Whereas a soul 'partakes essentially in the Form of life'. But what does this mean? It means that the soul is not the kind of thing that can be 'dead'. A dead soul would be contradiction in terms. Or, in other words, a soul is 'deathless'.

However, it doesn't follow from the premise that the soul is deathless, that the soul cannot be destroyed. It would be consistent to hold that the soul, unlike the body, is deathless so that at death, the body becomes dead, while the soul goes out of existence altogether.

Knowledge and scepticism

It is a very old argument, that the sceptic cannot assert, 'There is no knowledge' because we can ask the sceptic how he know this. I would accept that there is no way round this, so far as assertion is concerned. To assert that P implies that you know that P. Otherwise you are just Twittering.

The same holds for each premiss in the sceptic's argument, whatever that argument may be. E.g. as you state, 'there is an inexorable gap between experience and reality'.

So the only course for the sceptic would be to say, 'Either I know nothing. In which case I must shut up and not say anything. Or the only thing I know is that there is an inexorable gap between experience and reality. In which case, having made that one statement, I must shut up and not say anything.'

I don't think that this is the argument that Wittgenstein had in mind.

I do think that Lewis's claim that knowledge is a 'contextual notion' has something in common with Wittgenstein's approach. As you say, we worry about scepticism only when we take the familiar use of the term 'know' out of the context which gives it a use, a 'meaning'.

All the best,