Saturday, August 31, 2013

How idealist is Kant's transcendental idealism?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How idealist is Kant's transcendental idealism?
Date: 19th October 2010 13:30

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, ''Transcendental idealism is not really a form of idealism.' Discuss.'

I agree that this essay is rather long, and you would have difficulty reproducing the content in an examination answer. Leaving aside the consideration that this is also intended as a revision aid, I think that possibly the focus could be narrowed somewhat, although I would find it difficult to dismiss anything that you write here as 'irrelevant' to the question.

The topic is also -- as it happens -- one that I find very gripping. In the Pathways Metaphysics program I describe Kant's TI as committing the 'sin' described by Rorty in his 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' (although I don't offer an exposition of Rorty's arguments). Kant is wedded to the 'epistemology of the passive observer', and hence a correspondence view of truth and knowledge which leaves him very little room for manoeuvre.

I was pleased to see that you included a discussion of the unfavourable review of the 1st edition of the Critique of PUre Reason and Kant's response to it. This is an important reference point. You could have mentioned the changes that Kant made to the Transcendental Dialectic -- specifically the Fourth Paralogism which constituted the 'original' refutation of idealism.

As I had the privilege to have been tutored by Strawson for my Kant B.Phil paper, I have reliable first-hand evidence (if any doubts remain after reading Bounds of Sense) that Strawson regarded Kant's account of phenomena and noumena as an aberration, easily excised, which leaves a perfectly consistent, realist account of our knowledge of the external world. If that were so, then I think it would be wrong to describe Kant as an 'idealist'. He is an aberrant or inconsistent realist -- a view which I strongly disagreed with at the time. I was convinced, as Strawson was not, that Wittgenstein's argument against a private language (PLA) added something essential which is missing in the 2nd edition Refutation of Idealism, that indeed, Kant without noumena is a form of idealism -- call it transcendental phenomenalism to distinguish it from the likes of Carnap and the early Ayer -- whose essential error is diagnosed in the PLA.

I also took some encouragement from John Macmurray's 'The Self as Agent' (first part of his Gifford lectures, the second part being 'Persons in Relation'). Macmurray proposes a 'metaphysic of action' in opposition to a 'metaphysic of experience'. 'Public language' in Wittgenstein's sense is inconceivable in the absence of physical agency and 'forms of life'.

You probably make a bit too much of the Transcendental Aesthetic. Although Kant talks about it as if he has 'established' results there, the whole section really depends on the following Transcendental Analytic. The former has a similar relation to the latter as the first part of the Grundlegung (analysing what is meant by the 'good will') has to the rest of that work. First, you analyse; then you justify the analysis by means of a deeper argument. The aim in the Transcendental Analytic is to offer a consistent account of space and time, which includes destructive critique of alternative accounts. But merely to leave things there is clearly not sufficient because a consistent theory can still be false.

In any case, it doesn't resolve the major issue which you raise, concerning the 'causality' versus the 'identity' account of the relation between appearances and things in themselves. I'm very sceptical of both. You say that Kant has no right to apply the concept of a 'cause' beyond its range of application -- to the world of our possible experience as he has demonstrated in the Transcendental Analytic. But, surely, the very same objection applies to the concept of identity.

Think of the clash between mind-body dualism and the (old style) identity thesis, which Kripke attacks in Naming and Necessity. There *is* no meaningful difference between asserting that A is causally 'correlated' with B and asserting that A 'equals' B. The equals sign isn't any use here. In empirical reality, identity is always spatio-temporal continuity under a covering sortal. What on earth can it be if we are dealing with appearances and things in themselves? It's meaningless. The identity claim would be justly described as a 'paralogism'. And indeed Kant never makes it explicitly. He always talks of 'aspects' or treating things 'as' something.

I am not arguing for the 'humility' thesis. Schopenhauer was clear enough that there cannot be 'noumena' in the plural, there can only be the 'thing in itself'. The very notion of number has no application beyond the world of appearances. This does point to an inconsistency: if Kant really believed that you can use the plural, isn't that sufficient evidence for the identity interpretation? I don't think so.

My proposal would be that Kant, in a very non-humble way, is asserting the necessary existence of an aspect of the real with which we can never make cognitive contact. Anything said about 'it', whether we talk about causality or identity or some other notion is words wasted. Insofar as every empirical thing has its 'noumenal aspect' we may speak loosely of 'noumena' in the plural, but this is just a manner of speaking, nothing more.

In this unknowable realm exists God, the afterlife, all the things we believe or hope for -- at least we are permitted to have 'faith' where there is no foothold for knowledge.

All the best,


How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of freedom?

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of freedom?
Date: 18th October 12:45

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 11 October, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of freedom?

In your email you said, 'I have enjoyed trying to understand this particular part of Spinoza' s system and also in trying to grasp his overall ideas.' This is clearly evident in your essay, which offers a vivid and persuasive account of Spinoza's vision of the place of human beings in relation to the universe, the nature of freedom, the nature of ethics and the ultimate ends of action.

This was more than the question asked for, of course, but I accept that on this occasion you used the question as a jumping off point to explore the meaning of Spinoza's philosophy.

But what is the examiner asking for here? To raise the question whether Spinoza's account of freedom is satisfactory implies that there are more or less plausible reasons for thinking that it might be unsatisfactory in some way. In an examination, this should be your primary focus. In other words, what you are asked to do is raise issues and challenges which create problems for Spinoza's account of freedom, and then either respond to those challenges on Spinoza's behalf and/ or argue that his account is either partially or wholly unsatisfactory.

What are the challenges?

The first challenge is one you mention right at the beginning of your essay: Spinoza is a throughgoing determinist. Not only does determinism hold of the actual world, but also no other world is even possible. That is to say, the initial conditions -- whatever they were -- had to be what they were because they followed from God's essence.

However, we can leave aside the second aspect of determinism (necessitarianism) and concentrate on the challenge that universal determinism poses to freedom. In contemporary philosophy, the view that freedom is consistent with determinism, and indeed requires that every action as a physical event has a prior determining cause, is known as compatibilism. Human freedom, in this view, consists in doing what you want, where you are not under any external constraint (no-one is forcing you) and not obstructed by internal issues (such as psychological compulsions).

Is Spinoza a compatibilist? He holds that freedom requires determinism, but he would strongly reject any suggestion that I am 'free' so long as I do what I want (etc. etc.). That isn't sufficient for freedom because, in addition, we need to consider the source of my 'wants'.

This is where you need to plug in Spinoza's account of reason and the passions, in order to explain the higher standard that he requires for free action. To the extent that I give in to my passions, I am not free.

This in turn requires you to say something about Spinoza's account of a thing's individual nature ('For Spinoza, the very essence of an individual thing is its endeavour to preserve its own individual nature.')

You go into some detail in explaining why Spinoza is not advocating selfishness, but on the contrary, argues that acting according to reason leads to the 'virtuous life'. 'Human beings are rational creatures, therefore our own being is best preserved through the development of our intellectual capabilities.'

What is the point of being virtuous or ethical? We don't only favour ourselves but consider the needs and interests of others. However, this is in itself a rather negative view -- it tells us all about things we should not do, but says nothing about the ends of human action as such.

This leads to a second, and perhaps more difficult challenge for Spinoza: the entire system leaves no room for any end of human action other than knowledge. Our nature is to be rational, to be creatures capable of acquiring knowledge. Any activity which is not directed towards this cognitive aim is therefore to a greater or lesser extent deprecated. Either I am pursuing knowledge, or facilitating another person's pursuit of knowledge. Those are ultimately the only possibilities for genuinely 'free' action. Everything else that we do, all the things that belong to our nature in a wider sense, merely restrict us, imprison us, make us 'slaves'.

Is this a valid criticism, or is it a caricature of Spinoza's philosophy? How do you account for all the *other* things that human beings do, which seem no less part of our nature, no less 'free', the arts, competitive sports, sex and love. Your essay hints at a way to do this -- we have to see all these activities as not separate aims but rather as integrated into a whole, where our rational nature doesn't mean that we simply spend all our time thinking and reasoning, but rather that what we do is somehow within the bounds of reason, or perhaps in some manner facilitates the realization our true nature.

Spinoza's excessive intellectualism is inherited from the philosophical tradition. But arguably acquires a greater grip precisely because of his view that the order of reasons and the order causes are one and the same. Perhaps this ultimately limits what he can say in response to this second challenge.

All the best,


Does Heraclitus deny the principle of non-contradiction?

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does Heraclitus deny the principle of non-contradiction?
Date: 11th October 2010 13:42

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 30 September, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Does Heraclitus deny the Principle of Non-Contradiction?'

This is a good essay, so far as it goes, which largely succeeds in its aim of defending Heraclitus from the charge of denying the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC).

I also think, however, that the doubts which you express in your email, specifically your question about the link between Heraclitus' 'theory of opposites and his theory of change', suggest that maybe your deflationary interpretation of Heraclitus' views of PNC doesn't give the whole story.

In order to be convicted of violating PNC, Heraclitus must show the same thing has contradictory properties at the same time, in the same respect, from the same point of view etc. When analysed closely, none of the examples he gives casts the least doubt on PNC. On the contrary, the very process of analysing them requires us to apply PNC in order not to end up talking nonsense.

But that leaves a huge question unanswered: what on earth was Heraclitus driving at? What is he trying to get us to see, by means of all these examples?

One possibility, the least attractive in my view, would be to say that Heraclitus was genuinely confused, that he really thought he was giving valid counterexamples to PNC, which puts him on a par with second- or third-rate sophists of the 'This is your dog, this dog is a father, therefore this dog is your father' variety.

There are two other possibilities.

The second possibility is that Heraclitus is arguing against a logical/ metaphysical view about the nature of 'the opposites' as they were so-called, a view which we have considerable difficulty in even conceiving, but which in his time was the prevailing philosophy. That view was that there are such things as 'the hot', 'the cold', 'the dense', 'the rare', 'the wet', 'the dry' etc. It is part of common sense now that heat and cold, density and rarity, degrees of wetness are on a scale (you could argue that in the case of water, there is this difference: that either there is water present, or there isn't). But it wasn't common sense when Anaximander put forward his theory of 'the opposites'.

The problem with this interpretation is that Anaximenes was there before Heraclitus: in his theory of condensation-rarefaction as the basic principle accounting for degrees of heat or cold, as well as the differentiation of substances, he had already made the decisive move which rejects the naive view of 'the opposites'. -- Well, maybe, Heraclitus is merely generalizing on Anaximenes, taking his philosophy one step further.

But then we still have to reckon with the fact that Heraclitus saw his philosophy as a radical alternative to a universe made of substance or substances, in the manner of Thales, Anaximander or Anaximenes. Fire is not a substance, it is a process, the very process of war, tension between opposites, simultaneous creation-destruction that he talks so much about in his aphorisms.

The third possibility, then, relates to the very nature of 'substance' of what it is to 'exist'. Here, your intuition is correct, that Heraclitus has something to tell us about existence. It isn't exactly that the same thing can 'exist and not exist' (at the same time, in the same respect, from the same point of view etc.). It is arguably more radical even than that. Nothing exists, that is to say, no 'things'. There is good evidence that this is how Plato and Aristotle understand Heraclitus (an interpretation of Heraclitus which seems to be out of favour amongst contemporary scholars). You say the river 'exists', but you forget that it isn't 'the same' from one moment to the next. Something can't 'exist' and not be 'the same' not even in two successive moments of time.

On the Platonic interpretation of Heraclitus, the things we call 'objects' are like rivers. There's no substance in them. They are merely the stable images created by incessant change. The only constant, in Heraclitus' view, is the law of change, the Logos. Plato was so impressed that he took Heraclitus description and applied it to the 'world of phenomena' (while the logos becomes the template for the 'world of forms').

What better way to say that nothing 'exists' as a substance than to assert that 'to be' and 'not to be' are one and the same? Is that a contradiction? If you tell me that there are witches, then one way to deny your claim is to state that every object (or every person) both is a witch and isn't a witch. That is to say, the concept of 'witch' is self-contradictory. If you tell me that something exists, that there are 'things' or 'substances' which make up the world of our experience, then one way to contradict your claim is to state that every alleged 'object of experience' both exists and doesn't exist.

All the best,


Kant on synthetic a priori principles

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on synthetic a priori principles
Date: 11th October 2010 13:00

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 30 September, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz Kant module, in response to the question, 'Describe and assess Kant' s reasons for holding that mathematical (arithmetical and geometrical) knowledge, and some principles of natural philosophy (physics), are synthetic and a priori' (Q9 2006, Q11 2009 combined).

You have understood the question in a different sense from the way I think it was intended. In the sense in which you have understood it, you have made a case for denying Kant's claim about synthetic a priori judgements which appears to be based purely on a critique of Kant's use of these two terms. Although his definitions of 'synthetic' and 'a priori' are largely defensible (with a nod to Quine etc.) he has failed to overcome the dilemma expressed eloquently by Einstein (a quotation which I haven't come across before): 'In so far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and in so far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.'

Despite the fact that Einstein said it, and despite also the reasonable assumption that Einstein was not unaware of Kant's philosophy, this is little better than a statement of the very thing that Kant spends pages and pages of the Transcendental Analytic arguing against. This is the challenge, which Kant is very much aware of. Indeed, you could see this concise statement as pinpointing the very problem which Kant has identified.

Kant doesn't accept (and neither do I) the possibility that arithmetic could be empirical, in Einstein's implied sense. Come to think of it, nor did Frege in his brilliant destructive critique of Mill's views in the Grundlagen ('Foundations of Arithmetic' translated by J.L. Austin). Geometry is a very different case. Whereas for arithmetic we have the challenge of Godel's theorem, which though fundamental merely rejects the belief that arithmetic is finitely axiomatizable, in Geometry we have proofs of the consistency of non-Euclidean geometries, not to mention the evidence from Relativistic physics that it is non-Euclidean geometry which correctly describes the actual world.

So, what exactly did Kant set out to prove? He employs a novel form of argument, 'transcendental argument' which appeals to the 'conditions for the possibility of experience'. As you quote Hanna, the apriority/ necessity which he is seeking could be described as 'a necessary truth with a human face'. I would only add that it is not specifically human beings for whom these propositions are necessary, but rather any beings who enjoy our 'forms of perception', viz. space and time.

You mention P.F. Strawson at one point: in his excellent commentary on Kant, 'The Bounds of Sense' (1966) Strawson seeks to defend Kant's transcendental arguments, by means of a certain amount of horn retraction. If it really was the world which told us that Quantum Mechanics is at least possibly true, then before we even look at Kant's argument for the necessity of determinism we more or less know that there must be a fallacy somewhere. And yet, there is something right about what Kant says.

Imagine a subject theorising about a possible world, on the basis of a stream of experience. If that experience is not ordered spatially as well as temporally, if the existence of space is not brought in from the start as a necessary a priori assumption, then the process can never get going at all. Strawson gives a nice account of how, in the absence of a spatial world, the self disappears, leaving only a momentary vanishing awareness. (This more or less what Kant seeks to show in the 'Refutation of Idealism' from the 2nd Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.) The identity of the self presupposes, as the a priori condition for its possibility, that experience is interpreted as perception of an external world of objects in space, the self (the empirical self that is) being one of those objects.

But Kant realized that this wasn't enough. We need additional assumptions if this task of constructing a spatial world on the basis of experience is to get off the ground. The world changes, and yet, somehow, based on limited experience, we are able to track these changes. To do that, we need the concepts of 'substance' and 'cause'. On the assumption that there can be no truth value gaps, of any kind, not even in principle, Kant argues that whatever is identified as 'substance' must be necessarily indestructible (e.g. Newtonian corpuscles). There can be no exceptions to deterministic causation. This is where Strawson demurs: all Kant has shown is that for experience to be possible there must be 'sufficient' permanence and 'sufficient' lawlike regularity (whatever that means).

If you have read all the way through the Transcendental Analytic, you will know just how mind-bogglingly obtuse Kant can be. But there's really no substitute, so far as this essay topic (or topics) is concerned, to giving an exposition of Kant's transcendental arguments and an evaluation of their cogency.

All the best,


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What would be a genuine moral dilemma?

Dear Nicola,

Thank you for your email of 27 September, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What would be a genuine moral dilemma? Assess the impact of the recognition of the existence of moral dilemmas on a philosophical account of the nature of moral judgement.'

In your essay you offer three cases which potentially could be viewed as kinds of moral dilemma: concerning the separating of Siamese twins, the limits of the duty of parental care when children are about and about, and the justification for the death penalty.

You mention the possibility of coin flipping at one point, as one mark of a moral challenge which is not a genuine moral dilemma. In the unit on moral dilemmas, I give the example of a life raft, where you can save the passenger swimming on the left or the one on the right. The reason for going left or right are clearly the same, so the only reasonable and fair course is to let chance decide.

What makes a dilemma 'genuine', I would argue, is some kind of imbalance in the reasons for or against doing a particular action. We have no yardstick for measuring one kind of reason for action against another, because they are incommensurable.

How does this apply in the case of the Siamese twins? One twin wants to take the risk of an operation while the other doesn't. This is not like the life raft case in at least one respect, the reasons aren't parallel. One twin values freedom more, the other puts a higher value on not risking death.

The problem here is that doing nothing is itself a decision, in favour of the second twin against the first. We have to decide. In theory, flipping a coin would be the only fair thing to do. We are not dealing with a single person confronting a dilemma, but rather a dilemma caused by different people wanting different things. In other words, the 'dilemma' is one facing the surgeon. However, although what I just said about what would be 'fair' seems to be correct, there is absolutely no way, in practice, that such an operation could go ahead without the consent of both twins. It is a basic principle of medical ethics that you cannot operate without a patient's consent (the only exception being when the patient is judged too young to make this decision). This does seem unfair to the twin who wants to be 'freed', but we have to also consider the wider consequences if we were to allow an exception to the basic principle in this case.

I was horrified to hear the news story about the father reprimanded by social services. This does seem a case where a general principle, justified though it may be, has been pushed beyond the bounds of what is reasonable. Social services would argue along the lines of the previous example, that you can't allow exceptions. But surely a line has to be drawn. It must be possible to make decisions on an ad hoc basis which are consistent with common sense.

The death penalty is a question which has caused huge debate. However, not every hotly debated ethical question is a moral dilemma. There is no agreement about what to do in a particular case, not because there are unbalanced ethical considerations for or against doing a particular action, but because there is failure to agree what counts as an 'ethical consideration' in the first place. Abolitionists simply will not allow any case where the death penalty is justified, no matter how extreme, because they believe that it is wrong in principle.

To some extent, it is less important whether or not your examples count as 'genuine moral dilemmas' (a classification which one might argue is being construed rather narrowly) but rather what conclusions we should draw from the fact that there are many unresolved and unresolvable moral questions. (On my view, all moral dilemmas are unresolvable, but not all unresolvable moral questions are dilemmas.) Your view is that we are forced to take a step back and allow that at least some moral questions are simply 'a matter of opinion'. In some ways, I agree with this. People will come down heavily in favour of one view or the other, and we simply have to recognize that fact.

I think there is something else here, however. Matters of opinion can simply be matters of personal taste, which you don't argue over. I just bought myself a car on eBay (the first I've driven for 10 years). It's a Scimitar GTE and I love it. Not everyone likes Scimitars, however, and I can fully appreciate that whether or not you do is a 'matter of opinion'. However 'good' your reasons for hating Scimitars, they are still only your reasons, and make no impression on me whatsoever. Whereas, in the case of the twins, even if it is not a 'genuine' moral dilemma in the strict sense, you can't simply say, 'I vote for the one who wants to be freed' or 'I vote for the one who doesn't want to risk the operation'. You feel for both, even though if the choice were up to you alone, you would come down firmly on one side rather than the other.

All the best,


Hume and Anscombe on causation

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 26 September, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, ''Hume holds that causal claims are always general claims, whereas Anscombe denies this.' Explain and discuss.'

As you stated in your email, you have ranged quite widely in attempting to answer this question. However, I don't feel that you have really succeeded in hitting the nail on the head.

The main problem with your approach arises from a confusion between what is stated when we make a causal claim -- in modern terminology, the truth conditions of a causal claim -- and the evidence that we may have on a particular occasion for making a causal claim, or the conditions for its verification.

'Hume holds that causal claims are always general claims.' What this means is that, according to Hume, when we make a causal claim we *always* commit ourselves to a general claim, even when this claim is not explicitly stated. What we commit ourselves to, when making any statement, is what follows if that statement is true. Of course, it may not be true. We don't know for certain. And indeed in any case of a general claim, we can never know because we are talking about *any* time and *any* place, not just our immediate environment.

So, for example, if I assert that throwing the stone at the window caused it to break, then according to Hume there is a statement, couched in purely general terms, whose truth follows from my assertion, assuming that my assertion is true (i.e. not only was the stone thrown and the window broken, but the former event caused the latter).

Anscombe (following Russell) sees a major difficulty here, in the very idea that such a general statement can be formulated, even in principle. The stone must be heavy enough (not a piece of gravel) must be thrown hard enough, the window must be sufficiently fragile etc. etc. This is not Anscombe's only objection. You mention some others. The point, however, is that this is precisely what she denies. According to her, it is not *always* the case that a causal claim commits one to the truth of a universal generalization. There are at least some causal claims which do not involve such a commitment.

That's one way in which generality is involved in Hume's account of causation. The other way, which you emphasize, arises in the context of our grounds for making causal statements. We witness a 'constant conjunction' between events of type A and events of type B and form the expectation that, when next presented with an event of type A there will be an event of type B. But Hume surely would not deny that there are all sorts of occasions when we make a causal claim in the absence of such prior evidence. That's because the instance in question falls under more general cases of things we have observed in the past. You can categorize causes into knocks, pushes, breakages, switches etc. When presented with a novel example of causation our minds readily find a suitable classification.

Hume has ample resources for explaining why his theory does not commit him to the truth of the statement, 'night causes day.' To state that a causal statement implies the truth of some generalization, which it would be possible to state in principle, does not entail that every generalization implies the truth of the corresponding causal statement. That's all Hume has to say in principle. After that, one gets down to cases (using Hume's 'rules for judging causes and effects' in the 'Treatise').

Insofar as Anscombe's argument seems to hinge on the fact that we are able to make causal claims without observing constant conjunctions, then the response should be that she is missing the point. 'You gave me the flu', I complain, based on no evidence other than that you had the flu two days ago and now I've got it. However, our world is not the world of primitive man, we know that the flu is a virus and that viruses can be transmitted in various ways. You don't have to probe very deeply to find a general law about infectious transmission. This is more or less the point you make.

However, I don't think that Anscombe is saying this, at least not exactly. One way to reformulate her argument against the claim that causation logically implies generality would be to imagine a possible world which is not too unlike our actual world, except for the fact that there are no scientific 'laws' as such. Imagine a meddlesome deity who is never content with just leaving things alone. You can 'do' science up to a point, but the efforts of scientific researchers are always thwarted in the end by inexplicable failures to reproduce experiments.

In this imaginary world, there are no general laws as such, that is to say, no possibility of making a true lawlike statement of the form, 'All As are B'. So, on Hume's account, there would be no causation. And yet in such an 'a-nomic' world, we get on perfectly well with our everyday, and ultimately unanalysable, notion of a cause.

What Anscombe is after, in other words is the *concept* of a cause. Russell thinks that this is ultimately dispensable, because science has found a better way, using the notion of a law. This arguably ignores the fact that our human world is in some sense prior to the world of science. Our social relationships, our ability to explain our actions to others or call others to account presupposes an understanding of causation which is prior to science.

All the best,


Scientist, priest and philosopher discuss the soul

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 24 September, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Write an imaginary dialogue between a scientist, a priest and a philosopher concerning the nature and existence of the soul, illustrating what is characteristic about the approach of philosophy.'

The first thing I note about your dialogue is that the Priest equates the religious attitude with dogmatic belief in a non-physical soul which survives the body after death. There are a number of arguments which one could put forward for why one would want this, but perhaps the strongest (as you indicate) is that it satisfies our sense of justice, as in the story of Lazarus. However, one might question whether the religious attitude as such, or the sense of the numinous or of the holy which religious thinking seeks really requires this.

The way you characterize the attitude of the Scientist suggests to me, on the other hand, that further scientific inquiry could discover that Christian doctrine is correct, and there indeed is such a thing as a non-material soul. Or could it? There are two alternatives here:

The first alternative is that the very nature of scientific necessarily inquiry defines all existing objects as 'physical'. Gravitational fields are not visible in the same way as stones or stars are, but the behaviour of stones and stars under the influence of gravity is observable and measurable. So, by a similar line of reasoning, anything whose influence can be observed is necessarily part of the physical world. If investigation of the brain yields the result that the brain does not have the capacity (as advocates of AI once mistakenly thought) to produce thoughts and perceptions but rather acts as a mere relay mechanism or amplifier, as Descartes believed, then the unobservable entity acting upon it becomes a part of the physical universe (and hence questions can be asked regarding cause and effect, the conservation of energy etc.)

The second alternative is that on the discovery that 'the brain does not have the capacity... to produce thoughts and perceptions', science would come to a sudden halt. It seems to me perfectly conceivable that one could discover, through scientific inquiry, that the universe as we know it is not ultimately amenable to scientific inquiry. Of course, we are nowhere near that yet. Nor would it constitute a 'proof' of the existence of a non-physical soul.

So what is characteristic about the way that philosophy approaches the problem? What does philosophy have to offer?

I don't think that the question does resolve on the possibility or otherwise of discovering how the brain works. That is to say, the argument in this program is that the question can be resolved by pure philosophical inquiry. (Not all academic philosophers are agreed on this point: many would now argue, following the work of W.V.O. Quine, that there is a continuity between philosophy and science. My own view is that this connection has been somewhat overstated.) Arguably, a negative conclusion regarding the traditional doctrine of the soul does not entail the rejection of religion but only a particular, narrow construal of what it is to be religious, or have the religious attitude.

You have Phil state that, 'Philosophy voluntarily restricts itself to the search for truth through the disciplined use of reason and logic... It... works its way through the question using reason to examine relevant ideas, assumptions and experiences.' This doesn't tell me very much. Later, you say that 'the philosopher will begin with the physical world and the human experience of it.' How does this differ from the method of the scientist? The physicist or neurologist investigate the physical world; the psychologist investigates human thought and experience.

In a couple of places Phil says, 'Dr Klempner suggests...'. What is the point of these suggestions? Are they just hypotheses that one might consider as part of an empirical inquiry? (in the spirit of considering every angle, every possible interpretation of the data).

If there is anything characteristic about the approach of philosophy it is in the fact that the philosopher starts further back. The philosopher refuses to accept, e.g., the psychologist's assumption that we know what we mean by 'thoughts', 'experiences', 'feelings' so let's go and investigate them. We don't have ready-made 'data'. What we have, at the start of the inquiry, is rather the things we are 'tempted to say', the images, metaphors, inchoate beliefs which cluster around the idea of an 'inner' life. The very idea of a distinction between 'inner' and 'outer' is in question. We can't assume that all there is to the problem is discovering how these 'two' items are related.

Reason and logic are central because the philosopher seeks proofs. At one time, it was thought (by Descartes) that one could prove, logically, the existence of the soul. Kant demolished Descartes' argument, and, in so doing, emphasized the importance of negative critique (in this case, grandly called the 'Paralogisms of Pure Reason'). This idea is further developed in Wittgenstein's later work, where he talks of the philosopher seeking to 'show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle'. In short, what the philosopher questions is whether we even understand what we are saying when we make statements about the 'inner' or 'mind' or 'soul'.

All the best,


Spinoza on human freedom

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 18 September, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, ''That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone' (Ethics, 1d7). What led Spinoza to define freedom in this way? Does his definition allow for a satisfactory account of human freedom?'

I apologize for taking a little bit longer than usual to respond. Last week, two days were taken up with editing and sending out the two Pathways e-journals. This Monday, I took the day off to collect a car (1975 Scimitar GTE) which I'd won in an auction on eBay. I have found the whole process very distracting, especially as I haven't driven for nearly 10 years (since crashing my last Ford Capri).

This is a good example, though, which we can use to test Spinoza's account of human freedom.

The car is strictly for fun and pleasure. The 3 litre Ford Essex V6 engine is a petrol guzzler (by modern standards - it averages 20-22 mpg). I don't need it for travel as I'm quite used to walking or travelling by train or bus. Walking keeps me reasonably fit, and taking public transport reduces my environmental footprint.

The cost of the car (1,020 Pounds) was not a significant consideration, although servicing costs are unknown. It could prove to be a money-pit, only time will tell. What would Spinoza have said?

Your essay gives a very clear and accurate exposition of Spinoza's account of freedom. You do note the fact that human beings only satisfy the second part of Spinoza's definition, although this could have done with being highlighted just a bit more. God is absolutely free, and everything that happens (everything God 'does') has a deeply rationalist explanation. As in Leibniz, everything that happens is necessary, not just given antecedent conditions but unconditionally and couldn't have happened in any other way.

This poses a problem for human freedom. You note that one of the positive aspects of Spinoza's account is his more subtle view of the relation between reason and emotion: 'Spinoza avoids the usual rationalist ploy of locking reason and the emotions in an epic struggle of good versus evil.' But shortly after you make this remark, the essay comes to an end rather abruptly. Having met the objection that Spinoza 'devalues' emotion you quit just when things were getting interesting.

Back to my Scimitar. In buying something I didn't need, which I didn't even get the chance to inspect prior to making my bid, I took a calculated risk in order to satisfy a desire. I need more fun in my life, a reason to get out of the house at weekends, something different to do. I can rationalize this endlessly. I didn't travel 60 miles to inspect the vehicle because I wouldn't know how to judge anything that wasn't superficial (and included in the very believable description and photos). I'm a better judge of persons, and I phoned the guy up first. He was either honest, or else an incredibly good actor. When I met him in person, my judgement was confirmed. He was even playing a Doors tape ('The End')!

This is not the kind of reasoning you would do when making a diagnosis of a patient. You pursue the proper scientific method, you don't take risks, because someone else's life might be at stake (not to mention your reputation). OK, I wouldn't trust someone just because they liked The Doors, but it was part of the whole picture. I trust my intuitions, in life as well as when I'm doing philosophy.

The thing that totally puzzles me about Spinoza is that he has no plausible account of why human beings are capable of freely choosing to do things which are not either functional (as in taking medicine prescribed by a doctor) or pursuing a higher purpose (such as engaging in philosophical inquiry). I'm talking about the ends of human action, where do they come from? For Spinoza, it's all about knowledge. That's all his metaphysical system can allow. The need for fun or enjoyment which isn't simply the enjoyment of exercising and developing our powers (powers for what? surely not improving one's performance in shoot-em-up computer games) is merely a reflection of our bondage, our incapacity, due to lack of knowledge, to rise above our passions.

But is that right? Modern defenders of Spinoza could surely give him a bit more of a run for his money. OK, at the end of the day he's a dour Stoic, but even Stoics can allow themselves the joy of driving a Scimitar.

Sorry, if this sounds a bit like a rant. Your defence of Spinoza is good as far as it goes, but I think that there really is an issue here which you haven't addressed concerning the ends of human action and what it is to be human. Of course, there's a relatively lax version of Spinoza's account which is perfectly acceptable to any compatibilist. Freedom is doing what you want, and not being impeded by internal or external obstacles. But Spinoza can't say that. All wants are suspect. Desires are guilty until proven innocent -- until we can be satisfied that they come from our true essence, whatever that is, and are not merely passive affections, which we must strive to overcome through self-knowledge.

All the best,


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Spinoza on the relation between mind and body

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza on the relation between mind and body
Date: 23rd September 2010 12:36

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 14 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant module, in response to the question, ''The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists' (Spinoza). Can we make sense of this view of Spinoza?'

This essay shows good knowledge of Spinoza. Your response to the question largely consists in your explaining how, in terms of Spinoza's theory of God as the one substance, it follows that he is committed to stating that 'the object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body'.

There is a problem, however, with this approach. Someone who knew nothing about Spinoza's theory would find it utterly fantastic that anyone should claim that the mind is just an 'idea' and that this idea has an object, which is the human body, and nothing but the human body.

To be fair, you don't just expound Spinoza's theory. You also show some awareness of the prima facie objections which might be raised against the claim in question. For example, it seems to me that I perceive the trees outside my window. The object of my perception ('idea') is outside me, or at least appears to be. Spinoza's response to this objection, as you state, is to define all ideas which we would describe as external perceptions, as having their true 'object' in states of the body, in particular the sense organs such as the eye.

In other words, our pre-philosophical way of understanding perception is an error, according to Spinoza (subsequent philosophers such as Russell refer to this as the theory of 'naive realism'). You also state the crucial claim which Spinoza relies upon in order to bridge the gap between his theory of how mind and body are related, and the appearances: 'This idea however, by its nature, can never be fully adequate or entirely clear and distinct. In order for the idea to be clear and distinct, the ideas of the human body would need to be understood in relation to other ideas that make up the world coming from Gods attribute of thought.'

'Saving' the appearances, in this sense, is a necessary requirement for any theory which seeks to overturn our naive or pre-philosophical beliefs.

Like Leibniz, Spinoza relies upon a general notion of clarity-confusion (originally a distinction made by Descartes) in order to account for the mismatch between what his theory states and how things appear to us.

What other appearances need to be 'saved'? Consider sensations, like pain or pleasure. What is their apparent object and what is their true object, according to Spinoza? What about emotions like love or anger? I think that it is very relevant to the question being asked to consider these cases, because they appear as significant obstacles in 'making sense' of his view.

Another aspect to consider is the fact that thought is not merely a process of passive 'representation' but appears to us as something active. Thoughts are intentional mental actions, just as intentional movements of the body are physical actions. If the idea constituting the human mind is just a set of ideas which constitute a 'subset' of ideas which constitute God's mind, in what sense can we be agents rather than just passive participants in God's thoughts?

It could be argued that recent philosophy -- in particular developments in cognitive science and AI -- lend strong support to Spinoza's view, in the sense that we can now confidently assert an 'identity' of mental events with physical events in the brain and nervous system. Would Spinoza have considered this a vindication of his theory? There is a very obvious problem with this. My left toenail is part of my body, but it is extremely implausible to claim that the 'idea' corresponding to my left toenail is part of my mind. Of course, I have an idea *of* my left toenail, but its immediate object is a state of my brain. Then we must consider all the physical parts of my body of which I have no 'idea' at all.

Of course, Spinoza always has the let out that my ideas (as 'mine') are more or less confused, so I don't see things as God sees them. But, then, in what sense is the 'true' way of seeing things part of *my* mind, as opposed to merely being part of God's mind?

Responding to a similar question on Spinoza a week or so ago, it occurred to me that Spinoza's account of ideas has remarkable similarities to Berkeley's theory of immaterialism. The world and all the things in it just *is* ideas in God's mind. When the human soul perceives, the immediate object of its perceptions is an 'ectype' or copy of 'archetypes' or originals existing in God's mind. You could almost say that Berkeley is Spinoza minus matter. Indeed for Spinoza, as for Berkeley, ideas do so much work that one wonders why he needs 'matter' at all.

There is a crucial difference, however, between Berkeley's and Spinoza's accounts of the ideas which constitute the human mind. For Berkeley, the human mind is a 'finite soul' which exists in addition to, and in some sense apart from the 'infinite mind' of God. Whereas for Spinoza, there is merely identity. The archetype/ ectype distinction dissolves to be replaced by a distinction between clarity and confusion.

All the best,


Bernard Williams on political equality

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bernard Williams on political equality
Date: 22nd September 2010 13:16

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 12 September, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What, according to Williams, are the significant respects in which human beings can be counted as all alike? Does a consideration of the respects in which human beings can be counted as all alike provide a basis for the ideal of political equality?'

This is a well-argued essay, although I wonder whether you have given more than what the examiner was looking for. What you offer is a stringent critique of Williams' views, with references to criticisms of Nozick and Dworkin, and you have gone some way to making your case. What the examiner wanted (I suspect) was more in the way of exposition, explaining how according to Williams a tension arises between the idea of equality of respect and the idea of equality of opportunity, and how these to some extent conflicting ideals arise out of our philosophical notion of what it 'is to be human'.

I find this a very difficult question. Not mentioned in his paper, in the background to Williams' discussion is a famous essay by F.H. Bradley, 'My Station and Its Duties' (in his 'Ethical Studies') where Bradley argues passionately for the view of society which Williams alludes to when he says (p.80) 'On could, I think, accept this [sc. regarding men from the 'human point of view'] as an ideal, and yet favour, for instance, some kind of hierarchical society, so long as the hierarchy maintained itself without compulsion, and there was human understanding between the orders.'

In the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' -- 'The rich man in the castle, The poor man at the gate, God made them high or lowly, And ordered their estate' -- there is an appeal to God's plan for man, with which we should just acquiesce. On Bradley's view, you don't need God to justify inequality (although Bradley was a theist). The 'social organism' requires it, just as a human body requires different organs to each perform the role allotted to them in order to function successfully. Man only attains his 'self-realization' in the social organism.

What is wrong with Bradley's vision of necessary inequality? (He himself later questions the vision in a later essay in the same book.) We also need to consider Nietzsche's resurrection of the Aristotelian notion of 'virtue' which has nothing in common with egalitarianism (and also appeals to an implicitly 'organic' view of society).

Williams doesn't even begin to address these challenges, but starts at an assumed point where we are broadly in agreement that equality is something worth aiming for. I agree that it is a fully legitimate question to ask, Why? However, Williams' aim IS more modest (otherwise he would have to engage with Bradley and Nietzsche). His task in this paper is to look for difficulties/ tensions in the idea of equality, and to some extent I think he succeeds in that aim.

In paragraph one of your essay you jump straight in and accuse Williams of smuggling in an illicit appeal to the 'political right' to equality (of need satisfaction). Talk of 'rights' is Nozick territory. Williams couches his discussion in terms of reasons, or what is 'rational' or 'irrational'. It is important to note the difference. Rights (by definition) are overriding considerations. Whereas citing something as a reason for action (as your pain is a reason for my action of offering you an aspirin) doesn't imply any right. It's my aspirin, and I can choose to dispose of it as I wish.

Some reasons may be more compelling than others -- 'It's mine' is a very compelling reason -- but in any country where there is taxation no-one has a right to keep all he/she owns for themself.

My main difficulty with Williams is understanding what he means by 'respect'. He accepts that it is a complex and difficult to analyse notion. But is it even coherent, in the way that he formulates it? We've thrown Kant's 'transcendental equality' out the window. When I respect you as an 'end' and not 'merely as a means' what exactly does this entail? I would argue that what I am required to do is (as Williams states) consider how you see things, but more than this, to be prepared to justify, or at least attempt to justify, my actions in terms which you can understand: in short, to be prepared to engage you in moral dialogue.

It follows that the redistribution of resources required for equality of opportunity (or, more modestly, in order to increase equality of opportunity) is one that has to be negotiated. It involves the giving and accepting of reasons, of the kind that Williams describes. To seek to impose it without negotiation is indeed one of the characteristic marks of authoritarian regimes.

You quote Dworkin as stating that 'it might be better to abandon the idea [of equality] altogether and focus more sharply on practical measures to reform society'. The way I read this, the notion of 'equality' plays less of a role in the discussion -- we don't have a clear 'measure of equality' to appeal to in making political choices -- but the very fact that we are prepared to go about this through the democratic process shows that equality is an ultimate presupposition, as indeed it is, on a personal level, in the very process of conducting a moral dialogue.

All the best,


Abstract vs concrete, possible vs actual objects

To: Andrew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Abstract vs concrete, possible vs actual objects
Date: 17th September 2010 12:03

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your email of 9 September, with your first essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Give everyday examples illustrating the difference between 'abstract' and 'concrete' objects, and also between 'possible' objects and 'actual' objects. What philosophical questions arise from this four-fold classification?'

This is a very competent essay, which shows that you have grasped important lessons from both the Philosophy of Language and Metaphysics programs. (On a historical note, a significant amount of material from both programs derives from my Oxford D.Phil thesis - in particular the stuff about the Realist/ Anti-Realist debate.)

Is 'Roy of the Rovers' an abstract object? That's a good question because the answer doesn't occur to me immediately. There are, of course, 'impure' as well as 'pure' abstract objects. Pure abstract objects would, as you put it, 'exist in a void' (a perfect example being the null set, the set containing the null set, the set containing the set containing the null set, and so on).

So Roy of the Rovers would be an impure abstract object. But he is not a set. (If he was a set, what would he be a set of, all the comic stories in which Roy of the Rover appears? Without doubt Roy of the Rovers exists if and only if the set of all the stories in which he appears exists, but that doesn't *make* that set the same 'object' as Roy of the Rovers - not least because there are other characters who appear in those same stories. Or maybe you can think of a better candidate for the requisite set?)

Roy of the Rovers is a possible object, if you allow that there is a possible world - or, rather, a set of possible worlds - where all the Roy of the Rover stories describe the historical truth. As a possible object, he is a possible *concrete* object. (The non-empty set of all my snooker trophies is a possible, but not an actual impure abstract object, dependent for its existence on the existence of possible concrete objects, viz. my snooker trophies.)

I am tempted to say that Roy of the Rovers is a counterexample to the claim that concrete/ abstract actual/ possible exhaust all the possible ways of being an 'object'. In other words, the persons or objects which occur in fiction - or myths, legends etc. - are from an ontological standpoint sui generis. They are more than just (impurely) abstract or possible objects. They have a 'life' of their own, given to them by the human penchant for storytelling, by their influence and importance in human culture. Maybe 'cultural artefact' would do, but then one would have to distinguish them from things like novels, musical compositions, images etc.

The point about 'ontological relativity' is inspired by the Philosophy of Language program, where there is some discussion of W.V.O. Quine's views (e.g. in 'Ontological Relativity and Other Essays'). I always feel queasy about this. If we take Quine's point as the literal truth, then there are no concrete objects, as such. 'Socrates is wise' is no different, in its empirical content, from 'Wisdom Socratizes'. Yet we *know* that there is a story to tell in terms of causes and effects (a point you make earlier in relation to abstract objects) which accounts for our being justified in attributing wisdom Socrates. How does that story go, if instead one is attempting to explain how we are justified in attributing the property of 'Socratizing' to Wisdom?

It is not enough to re-interpret the symbolism for identity and individuation: one also needs to re-interpret the symbolism for describing the relation between cause and effect. Provided one carries through the re-interpretation consistently, then ontological relativity holds. But that still leaves me feeling queasy.

A lot of students taking the Possible World Machine (the most popular of the 6 Pathways programs) baulk at the idea that possible worlds are 'real', each existing in 'its own' space and time, so that the difference between possible and actual worlds is, as you describe, merely a consequence of perspective. We cannot 'leave' the perspective of our actual world in order to attain a God's-eye view. In Ch.18 of 'Naive Metaphysics' I describe a way to habilitate (or rehabilitate) possible worlds, along the lines of the 'clash' between the 'subjective' and 'objective' worlds. There is an 'irresolvable contradiction', which arises in the first place because of our (my) inability to get outside our (my) own perspective.

But does that seriously mean that there is a sense in which Roy of the Rovers is 'real', somewhere 'out there', as the foremost defender of realism about possible worlds David Lewis claims? Another thing to feel rather queasy about.

All the best,


Dialogue on the nature of the soul

To: Giulio O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialogue on the soul
Date: 16th September 2010 14:15

Dear Giulio,

Thank you for your email of 8 September, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Write an imaginary dialogue between a scientist, a priest and a philosopher concerning the nature and existence of the soul, illustrating what is characteristic about the approach of philosophy.'

In your email, you said that you 'didn't have much to say about the third unit apart from the fact that I really can't imagine how the experience in paragraph 55 can ever happen.'

As indicated in the text, this thought experiment is based on something which has been investigated empirically, the so-called phenomenon of 'blind sight'. There has been quite a lot of discussion of this in the literature (sorry, I don't have the references to hand but you can look this up in Google). If even the simplest perceptual knowledge can occur when a patient reports that the 'see' nothing (say, the investigator has held up a ball rather than a cube) then we have to stretch our imagination to fit the facts. It does occur, so we have to adapt our theories to take account of it. How far this can be extended hypothetically is of course an entirely different question.

With regards to your essay, I am tempted to agree with you that 'Staging a proper dialogue between a scientist, priest and philosopher is then impossible because, after a while, the priest and the scientist would end up embracing philosophy or avoiding carrying on the conversation altogether.'

So what is there left to discuss? I think a valid question to ask, with regard to science, is *how far* the results of scientific research bear on philosophical debate. Contemporary analytic philosophers - admittedly, under the influence of Quine's famous rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' - would tend to say that philosophical debate on the mind-problem cannot be conducted in the absence of some fairly deep knowledge gained from scientific inquiry.

To take one obvious example, the possibility of artificial intelligence is something that could have been barely conceived at the time of Hobbes and Descartes. In advocating materialism, Hobbes could be accused of relying on blind faith, given that the only model for 'self-moving' bodies was the technology of clock making (Descartes claimed that non-human animals are just complex examples of clockwork).

Computer science and neuroscience are enormously fruitful sources of philosophical inquiry, which could not have existed in their absence. This interplay between science and philosophy is not a new phenomenon, of course. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was inspired by Newton's great discoveries, and can be read as a philosophical commentary on Newton.

It is true, however, that in this program I have tried as much as possible to stick to core arguments which are not greatly affected by scientific results. But I'm not claiming to offer a complete theory of the mind. Perhaps it could be better seen as a 'prolegomena' to philosophical/ scientific inquiry into the nature of the mind.

What about religion? Let's forget about traditional religion and the dogma that there exists something called a 'soul' which somehow 'survives' the death of the body. You don't have to have 'beliefs' in order to be religious, not even belief in God as a metaphysical entity worthy of worship.

An alternative way to approach religion arises in relation to the problem of other minds, and the problem of the basis of moral judgements. Martin Buber's 'I and Thou' is an attempt to respond to the challenge of explaining, or rather expressing, how our relation to other persons differs from our relations to things. Another continental philosopher who has investigated what he terms the 'ethical' basis for metaphysics from a religious perspective is Emmanuel Levinas (e.g. in 'Totality and Infinity').

A simple (possibly over-simple) way of stating the challenge is to say that proving the existence of other minds is as hard as proving the existence of God. For Buber, God is 'the Eternal Thou', although it is not easy to see what beliefs this entails, other than that our respect for others (other 'thous') requires the language of religion (though not its dogmas) for its adequate expression. What I'm basically saying is that a philosopher and a priest could conceivably have a lot more to discuss than the question whether the 'soul' exists or not.

One legacy of the materialist view is, or appears to be, that persons are after all nothing but very complex kinds of 'thing' obeying the laws of cause and effect. But in that case, how can one account for our belief that we have a moral obligation to regard others as (in Kantian terms) 'ends in themselves'? Where does this idea come from, if not from the discredited mind-body dualist theory?

Just as not all science is unphilosophical, so not all religion is dogmatic. The boundaries are blurred.

All the best,


Monday, August 12, 2013

Spinoza on the relation between mind and body

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza on the relation between mind and body
Date: 15th September 2010 13:35

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 5 September, with your essay for the University of London Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'What account did Spinoza give of the relation of a human mind to a human body? Is it coherent, or even intelligible?'

This is a long, and painstakingly thorough examination of Spinoza's views on the relation between the modes of thought and extension, with which I could find very little to disagree. I was glad that I didn't have to wrestle with footnotes (although I wondered whether maybe the footnotes disappeared in the process of converting your file to a format readable in Mac OS 9?).

However, my main problem with Spinoza's account is that it is so fantastical (regardless of the claim that he anticipates 'contemporary non-reductive monism', which is true, in a sense, but also anachronistic: Spinoza would hardly wish to claim the credit) that I can barely get my mind around it. By comparison, Leibniz's theory of monads is transparently easy and straightforward.

It was only when I reached the last part of your essay, where you discuss three 'allegations of inadequacy' against Spinoza's theory, that I found myself beginning to formulate an objection which you don't consider, but which is strongly suggested by your account of how the universe under the mode of ideas is complete in God, but at the same time partial and incomplete in an individual human being: your nice analogy of network, server and terminals.

Let me see if I've got this right: There is a true story of the universe, which is told in the computations made by the God-server. The human-terminals, and their error-proneness are part of this story. That's OK because although the God-server has no 'eyes' or 'ears' besides those of the human-terminals, it doesn't need the information anyway. It is what it is, the whole truth, which includes false perception and belief in much the same way as the course of nature includes injury, suffering, destruction and death.

Yet this way of defending Spinoza suggests (to me) that far from being inadequate, Spinoza's theory of thought and extension is redundant.

Let's start with the 'naive' or pre-philosophical view of the universe according to which there are material things, some of which are conscious or capable of experience while others are not. In other words, the view for which Locke attempts to provide a philosophical justification.

In claiming identity, Spinoza has no thought of mental properties emerging or being produced by sufficiently complex physical systems. Every material thing has it's corresponding idea in God's mind. In other words, this is an 'identity theory' which requires no explanation, no 'work' for an investigator to do in demonstrating the physical basis for thought or consciousness.

Included in the universe as thought or idea, are ideas we call 'perceptions' or 'representations of objects in space'. Everything we know and experience, everything we do as 'agents', is fully accounted for. But in that case, why does one need the mode of extension?

The picture I have just alluded to is Berkeley's theory of a universe as 'ideas in the mind of God'. No doubt, Berkeley has his work cut out explaining how finite spirits are 'separate' from the mind of God, and the mechanism (if that's the right word) of perception involving a relation between archetypes of perceptual objects in God's mind and ectypes in human minds. But Spinoza has to do all this too. There are no short cuts. So why carry the extra baggage? What are material/ extended things for? What work do they do in the theory?

If there is an answer to this question, it seems to lie in Spinoza's Stoic legacy, his thoroughgoing physical determinism. Instead of God (conceived as a quasi-person) pulling strings, spinning a tale about ideas, which is sufficiently consistent to make the world which we experience, in Spinoza every change is necessarily ground out on the physical level. The world under the aspect of material things obeys immutable physical laws, and whatever the world under the aspect of ideas does must mirror the physical. This puts 'reason' under strenuous discipline. On this picture, these are not two equal aspects or modes: the physical is indispensable only because the direction of explanation is (as indeed in modern reductive material monism) physical to mental.

Yet it also occurs to me (although this too is perhaps anachronistic) that recent speculations about 'experimental metaphysics' - the idea that it might be possible in principle to formulate a Theory of Everything that includes a logical/ rational explanation for the necessity of the Big Bang - is thoroughly Spinozist in inspiration. Then, perhaps, we could say that there is no privileged 'direction of explanation' and the two modes are indeed equal in every way.

All the best,


Plato on the relation between objects and forms

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on the relation between objects and forms
Date: 14th September 2010 13:53

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 2 September, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics BA module, in response to the question, 'Does Plato have an intelligible and consistent account of what it is for something to participate in a Form?'

This is a very good essay, which sticks close to the claims (sometimes inconsistent) that Plato makes about the Forms, in various places in his dialogues, leading up to the destructive critique in 'Parmenides'. If you were answering this question in an exam, you would get credit for mentioning specific dialogues, such as 'Phaedo' where Socrates talks about 'the equals themselves' etc. or 'Meno' where Socrates introduces the theory of recollection, implying that Forms are something that the soul is able to 'see' with its capacity for intellectual vision.

The One-over-many doctrine appears at the beginning of your essay, where you make a disparaging comment to the effect that any set of objects conforming to a given description/ predicate such as 'non-tables' ought to have a corresponding Form. Then at the end of your essay you suggest that the best response to the 'Third Man Argument' in Parmenides is to give up the one-over-many doctrine in order to maintain the two important properties of non-identity and self-predication.

Yet it is interesting to observe Parmenides' ironic comment to Socrates, who when asked denies that things like hair or mud or dirt could have Forms - 'You are still young, one day you will not despise these things.' To me, this is a very strong hint that we can't just keep Forms for 'inspiring' things like Beauty and Justice. What about boring old tables and horses - are we still going to let these have Forms?

The way I would approach this - without deviating too far from the requirement that one keep to the evidence of the dialogues - would be to generalize about the kind of problem, which we would recognize today, to which the theory of Forms is put forward as the solution. One problem concerns our ability to apply any general term. What is it to know the meaning of a general term X? What kind of knowledge is this, and how is it acquired? Take a homely thing like a table. How on earth are we able to decide that a flat surface balanced precariously on one leg is not a table, unless the leg is sufficiently short and/or fat, that a mile-high object resembling a table isn't a table, and so on? Or take horses. What is a horse, how does it differ from a pony or an ass or a donkey or a zebra?

Yet, I find it utterly fantastical to suppose that the Form of a table is a TABLE or that the Form of a horse is a HORSE. Are we really supposed to take self-predication this literally? And, if not literally, then how?

One dialogue which you don't mention is the 'Sophist' where Plato for the first time puts forward his theory of the 'blending' of Forms. If Forms can blend, then this provides a possible way of reducing the number of basic Forms, as potential constituents of more complex ideas. So we can have one-over-many, but in a modified form. The 'one' needn't be a pure Form, it can be a blend of more basic forms. As, perhaps, 'injustice' is a blend of Justice and Negation. You don't need a Form of Injustice to explain the existence of unjust actions, you only need a Form of Justice.

In other words, many kinds of objects are what they are because they participate in several Forms, not just one. This has the advantage of considerable ontological economy, as well as justifying the young Socrates' reluctance to posit a Form for every single thing.

The other requirement concerns objective standards for evaluative statements, concerning the ethical, the just, the beautiful etc. It is still not clear to me, however, that in order for Forms to do this work, self-predication must be literally true. Plato goes to great lengths in 'Republic' to describe his vision of Justice, in terms of the 'ordering' of the soul and of the city. Justice exists, not just as a notion in our minds but as a metaphysical reality. But that reality is something which one can only metaphorically describe as a 'perfect example of justice'.

I don't know how serious a 'problem' Plato regarded the Third Man Argument. It is true that Aristotle uses it, which implies that the argument has real force. But it is quite possible that Plato didn't see this as an insuperable obstacle, but rather a valid training exercise for his students - on a par with the mind-boggling logical acrobatics of the second part of Parmenides. But that's just my impression.

All the best,


Portraying the negative and painful

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Portraying the negative and painful
Date: 9th September 2010 13:48

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 29 August, with your essay for the University of London Diploma Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Is there a satisfactory account of how it is possible that we should take pleasure in the deliberate portrayal of what is negative and painful? Relate your answers to Hume or Feagin or both.'

I had to smile at this essay. It is an excellent piece of work, in which you conduct a very effective outflanking manoeuvre on both Hume and Feagin. This is how Russell portrays tragedy in his essay, 'A Free Man's Worship'. But I hate William Henley's poem with a vengeance, ever since my father once quoted it to me when I was in difficult circumstances. Melodramatic claptrap is the phrase that comes to mind.

You are the first of many students who have written me essays on this theme to distinguish general drama, in all its varied forms, from 'genuine' tragedy. In effect, by making this analytical 'cut', you pull the rug from under Hume's and Feagin's feet - although even when applied to general drama, their proposals could be questioned.

I wonder about this. 'Part of the explanation' [of why we enjoy 'extreme portrayals of agony and death'] 'may be pathological, or even an atavistic impulse, mysterious psychological remnants from a distant past when, for evolutionary reasons, violence needed to be fun.' I do suspect that this is selling general drama short. This explanation doesn't altogether work, even when combined with the 'overlaid parallel plot'.

There is surely a deeper question here, about how it is that a story, a piece of fiction, is able to grip us at all. (Colin Radford considers this question in his article, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina', reproduced in his introductory book 'Driving to California'.)

Why does any fiction move us? It wouldn't do so if we didn't 'care' for the fate of the characters. But how can we 'care' knowing that it's just fiction?

Imagine a genre of fiction where the characters never experience the slightest pain or negative emotion. Actually, one doesn't have to imagine, you can find this in children's stories. My favourite, from all the books my wife and I read to our three daughters is, 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea.' One day a little girl Sophie opens the door, and there's a tiger. He's very hungry and thirsty, can he possibly have something to eat? He proceeds to consume all the food in the house. He even 'drank all the water in the tap'. Then off he goes, and Sophie and her mum and dad go out for a meal. Next day, mum buys a tin of tiger food, 'but the tiger never came back'.

I think that it is a question worthy of philosophical consideration why and how this works as a story. There is tension here. A tiger is scary, by definition, but he's a friendly tiger. The food runs out, what are they going to do? And then, the sad ending. You care about Sophie, her parents, even the tiger.

My tentative explanation, which is neither Hume's nor Feagin's - nor the one which you give for the special case of tragedy - is that the 'portrayal of what is negative and painful' is necessary in order to make a story gripping. There is no explanation of why fiction grips us. It just does. This is merely a 'remark on the natural history of human beings', parallel to the observation that music (certain sequences of notes) or images please us. One can imagine alien visitors to Earth who despite every effort cannot understand why we like fiction, or art, or music.

However, I accept that tragedy does present a special challenge. What exactly is this challenge? Human beings are capable of being gripped by fiction. That's the given. You need stuff that's negative and painful in order to make fiction work. But the pleasure, or satisfaction, gained from a true piece of tragic drama goes beyond anything that can be explained in terms of our enjoyment of fiction as such. We feel (paradoxically) strengthened, uplifted in the face of unmitigated bleakness and misery. Not only is there no happy ending, but there couldn't be. The outcome was on the cards from the start.

Nietzsche's aphorism, 'What does not kill me makes me stronger' occurs to me at this point, but even that seems unsatisfactory. Genuine tragedy has, as I think you have successfully shown, a philosophical message and the payoff is a deepened philosophical understanding and acceptance of the human predicament.

All the best,


Why should others count in my deliberations?

To: Lalita K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why should others count in my deliberations?
Date: 7th September 2010 13:48

Dear Lalita,

Thank you for your email of 26 August, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why should others count in my deliberations?'

In your essay, you present an accurate summary of the position which I have argued for: the third alternative between solipsism and anti-solipsism.

The Humean moralist eschews the question, 'Why?' I just do allow others to count. That is my nature. To a Humean, the correct response to this essay question is to reject it. There is no ultimate reason, no 'why'.

There is another position, according to which all action is motivated by self-interest. This provides a kind of answer to the question why I should allow others to count in my deliberations. Narrow selfishness is ultimately self-defeating. By allowing others to come, I serve my true 'self-interest'.

What's wrong with that? For one thing, as Plato saw when he described his thought experiment of the Ring of Gyges, it is not at all clear that the only way for me to be happy is through living the ethical life. In the Republic he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the amoralist necessarily has a 'disordered soul'. But ultimately, this is just something you have to SEE. The kind of well-being which the soul seeks can only be achieved in harmony with others.

But we still want to know, 'Why?' The main argument of this program hinges on the fact that there is more to say. If I merely say, 'You just have to see,' then my opponent can simply retort, 'Sorry, I don't see.'

What can we use to turn the argument here? Any motivation that we appeal to is only contingent. This is the point Kant makes about hypothetical imperatives. If I say to the amoralist, 'If you want X, then you should allow others to count,' then the amoralist is free to respond, 'But I don't want X.'

It can't be something we just 'want'. There must be something more. Hence, 'solipsism does not provide a coherent metaphysic upon which I can interpret my world.' - This is where one needs more argument.

Why isn't the solipsist metaphysic coherent? Because what it describes is a world without truth. Truth isn't something you can just 'want' or 'not want'. Without truth - without a basis for the distinction between truth or falsity - the very activity of making a statement is pointless. The world of the solipsist isn't a world but only a 'mere dream'.

The source of truth comes from the other. To recognize the right of other persons to make statements which contradict mine, their authority to correct my judgements - as opposed to their mere utility as 'measuring instruments - is the minimal requirement for a concept of truth, the notion of a world.

Why must others count in my deliberations? The only language I have to express my needs and wants is a language I share with others. That is what we have proved. There is no 'truth for me', there is only truth. Words have basically the same meaning - or are at least capable of having the same meaning - in my mouth or in yours.

My reasons are reasons for me, but your reasons are also reasons for me - for example, 'I am hungry', 'I am in pain'. The only basis I have to discriminate between myself and others is that I am (usually) in a better position to look after my own interests, which is true. But that merely contingent fact does not excuse me from considering the needs and interests of others.

Two philosophers from very different traditions whose ideas seem to come together in laying out this argument are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Emmanuel Levinas. The argument against the solipsist, the idea that truth arises from a 'public language', is essentially Wittgenstein's argument against a 'private language' (see his 'Philosophical Investigations'). However, it was the continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (e.g. in 'Totality and Infinity') who saw that the relation between self and other is radically asymmetrical, rather than symmetrical. The other is, in a sense above me, not on the same level. We are not 'two of the same', because the distance between self and other is ultimately unsurpassable.

My Wittgensteinian gloss on this, is that what raises others to this level is the fact that they are the very pillars upon which my world rests, the necessary condition for there being such a thing as truth.

All the best,


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Descartes' proof of the existence of material objects

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' proof of the existence of material objects
Date: 26th August 2010 13:10

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 20 August, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Give a critical account of Descartes's argument for the existence of material things.'

There is a problem with how one should take this question. On one reading, you are being asked to give a critical evaluation of every stage of Descartes' argument in the Meditation up to the point where he claims to establish the existence of material things. So we have hyperbolic doubt -- the evil demon hypothesis -- the cogito, the proof (or rather proofs) of the existence of God (including discussion of the alleged Cartesian circle), then finally as the capstone to this chain of inferences, the claim that 'God would not deceive me' into thinking that material things exist in space, when in fact there is no space nor material things external to the mind.

Common sense tells me, however, that this is far too much to encompass in one essay (although you make a brave try). It's more like half a dozen essays.

As a rule, I never look at the examiners reports, so you will have to check what they say about this. If I was responding to this question in the exam, I would quickly run over the various links in the chain, and then home in on the crucial step: Material things exist because that is what we are ineluctably led to believe by the evidence of our senses, and God is not a deceiver. QED.

You mention Berkeley very briefly. I would have thought that the Berkeleian view of the objects of perception as mental ectypes of archetypes existing in the mind of God -- in effect, the theory of a benevolent demon -- is the proposition which is, or ought to be, the main target of Descartes' argument. He's already considered this (in effect). But this would be 'deception', wouldn't it? But what is deception? Why, for that matter, shouldn't God deceive (if it is for the best, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac -- good point)?

We are talking about material things in general, of course. We do make errors in our perceptual judgements, and Descartes in Meditation 6 works hard to fill this apparent lacuna in his account of 'God who is not a deceiver'. The laws of nature being what they are, it is inevitable that sometimes we will be led into error; although he fudges the question of what it would be to act 'responsibly' in one's perceptual judgements. (Surely, it can't be that we should *never* make a judgement whenever there is the slightest possibility of error.)

The crucial point, however, is that matter and space must exist, or we would be the subjects of a perpetual deception. Why?

You spend a lot of time on the question of God's alleged 'perfection'. The relevant point here has to do with his not being a deceiver. The question of how perfection figures in Descartes' two arguments for God's existence isn't relevant (at least on my reading of the question).

In that case, we can bracket the wider issue of just what perfection means when applied to God and focus on God's benevolence, and the implication that therefore he is not a deceiver. Why shouldn't it be 'for the best' that we believe in the existence of material objects in space, even though, in reality these things do not exist?

Incidentally (before I forget) we need to pause at this point to consider your claim that Descartes' proof of the existence of material things is 'lopsided'. This is an argument I haven't seen before. The objection, if I've got this right, is that half the human race (or however many don't believe in God) are 'condemned to perpetual doubt' about material things, because they have no basis on which to conduct the necessary proof. That's too bad. Who do we blame for that? Descartes would say that this isn't God's fault. He has provided ample evidence of his existence, and if half the human race fail to use their God-given capacity for judgement in the way they were designed to then it's their fault, not God's.

The best case I can make on behalf of Descartes (and against Berkeley) is that a 'responsible use of judgement' is precisely what leads us to believe in material objects. You don't need to be a philosopher to grasp the nature of reality, although you need to do philosophy in order to grasp the justifying arguments for our common sense metaphysic of minds and bodies. If material things didn't exist this would be deception, for no valid purpose.

There's more to say. I do think that the beeswax argument, which you cite, is relevant, because it is here that Descartes explains his concept of perceptual 'judgement', distinguishing it from the faculty of imagination. The concept of a material substance is a priori, even though we know about material substances a posteriori. You could say that judgement is intrinsically metaphysical, in that it operates with categories which cannot be merely derived from experience: a point which Kant was later to expand on.

All the best,


Putting the case for idealism

To: Bernard P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Putting the case for idealism
Date: 25th August 2010 12:50

Dear Bernard,

Thank you for your email of 18 August, with your untitled essay towards the Associate Award, putting the case for idealism.

In terms of structure, this is less an essay than a series of connected observations or points -- or notes towards an essay.

I am not going to attempt a critique of the many arguments, or allusions to arguments, that you put forward. The main thrust, although not your only line of attack, is the case from science and in particular recent developments in physics.

You quote from Joad, who quotes from Eddington, that the apparently 'solid' objects we perceive, like this desk, are nothing of the sort, the experience of impression of solidity arising from the interaction between the 'object' and our senses. Does this show that apparently solid objects are not solid? Or does it show precisely the opposite -- that what is, or is not solid is defined in relation to our capacity for perception and action? The ground is solid, but to a sufficiently powerful burrowing tool (as envisaged in popular comics) it presents a similar aspect to air or water. The burrowing machine can 'swim' or 'fly' through it.

Kant, following Leibniz's criticism of Descartes for failing to account for the property of 'inpenetrability', saw the basic point (also grasped apparently independently by Boscovitch) that the hardness or solidity of 'matter' is fully definable in terms of a resisting force.

It is not news that 'matter' isn't what it was once thought to be (e.g. by the atomists Democritus and Leucippus). It isn't the end point of explanation but rather something to be explained, a particular combination of properties for which we seek a unifying theory.

All contemporary physicists would accept this, but all physicists are not idealists.

What is idealism? Your answer is buried in the middle of the essay: you refer to Plato's theory of 'ideas' or forms, and also to the notion of an Absolute. Experience isn't the basic thing, any more than matter: what is basic is thought, as such.

I'm somewhat surprised that in taking this line, you don't have anything to say about Whitehead's Process Philosophy, which claims to be a 'mere footnote' to Plato's dualism of the world of forms and the world of appearances. Maybe you think (as with Hegel, and contra Bradley) that if you have the concept, or the form, you don't need the experiential 'filling'. But all this needs to be explained.

In discussions of the mind-body problem, philosophers who take the physical monist view are more likely to describe themselves as physicalists than materialists. Is your idealism consistent with physicalism? I can't tell from what you say. The crucial point is that, for the physicalist, what science discovers, or theorises about, is the ultimate reality. There is nothing beneath or beyond that accounts for the 'appearance' of a physical world. The world is all that is physically the case.

This is something Kant did not believe: he clearly commits himself to idealism by asserting the existence of 'things in themselves' or a 'noumenal' reality beyond the world which 'appears' in space and time. But this does not appear to be your view.

You can see that I am struggling. The main reason that I am struggling is that you have failed to state, at the outset, what is at stake in arguing for 'idealism', or against 'materialism'.

Here is an analogy which might be helpful: In the time of the Presocratic philosophers, one observation which was taken to be universally true is that 'things fall down'. No-one thought to ask what this means, why there is (apparently) only one direction in which falling happens, or indeed what falling is. Now we know that falling is just the effect of gravity. Things don't 'fall down', they move under the influence of a gravitational force.

In a similar way, it was once thought that solidity is just what makes a thing a 'thing'. It was the end point of explanation. Now, we know better.

In the Metaphysics program, I set out to challenge what appeared to be strong arguments for an idealist metaphysic. I conceded that the idealist has ample resources for defending idealism against the charge that it violates the 'reality principle'. By the end of the program, however, idealism is shown to entail insoluble antinomies, and that the only alternative is to accept that, as stated above, the world is all that is physically the case.

However, this isn't the rejection of metaphysics: on the contrary, what I take this to show is that from the point of view of metaphysics, agency is more fundamental than experience. Truth is merely a concept. Judging is a physical action. Again, I don't see any consistency between your rejection of 'materialism' and this view, which is not idealist in any sense that I would recognize.

In sum: I think that the case for idealism from science is a potentially valid topic. I don't think that you have successfully made that case, although you have included a lot of material which could be used to make that case.

Most importantly, you need to define idealism, or what would count as a successful defence of idealism. What does being an 'idealist' in your sense commit one to? What are its consequences? What view are you arguing against? Surely not the naive view of matter that people who have no knowledge of contemporary physics hold.

All the best,


Protagoras: Man is the measure of all things

To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Protagoras: Man is the measure of all things
Date: 24th August 14:26

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 16 August, with your fifth and final essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What do you think Protagoras meant by his statement, 'Man is the measure'? In the light of your interpretation, how fair is the account that Plato gives of Protagoras' doctrine in the 'Theaetetus'?'

Well done for completing your program.

You've given a very thorough and exhaustive account of Plato's objections to the doctrine which he attributes to Protagoras, that 'knowledge is perception'. The big puzzle for me, however, is why you think that Plato's response is 'fair', given the way you have explained Protagoras' statement, 'Man is the measure of all things'.

You offer two alternatives, which we can call the philosophical version and the sophistical version.

According to the sophistical version, what Protagoras is saying is simply 'the only things that matter, that are of any importance, any relevance to day to day life, are those things we can perceive.' This might have been plausible in Protagoras' day, but in the present time would be considered atavistic, ignorant nonsense. Germs can't be seen, nor can high activity ultra-violet rays penetrating holes in the ozone layer. We live in a world full of unseen wonders and dangers (the microchip that powers this computer is one of the wonders).

According to the philosophical version, 'human experience attained through the activation of the human senses is a trustworthy and reliable basis for human knowledge.' All scientific knowledge would be classed under this heading, including knowledge of germs and electrons.

What I have just quoted from your essay is the classic statement of empiricism. There is no such thing as 'metaphysical' knowledge. All knowledge is physical knowledge, based on observation and experiment. Hume gives the classic statement, which has come to be known as 'Hume's Fork', in Section 12 Part III of his 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding':

'If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.'

But Plato doesn't give this interpretation a second thought. He takes Protagoras to be saying, much more simply and brutally, that knowledge just *is* perception, in the sense that whatever seems to be X, is X so far as the perceiver is concerned. There is no distinction between appearance and reality. Everything is just as it appears.

Criticizing this theory is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's so easy. Yet Plato isn't simply setting out to reduce Protagoras' ideas to absurdity. He wants us to consider that they are in some sense *true* of the phenomenal world, the world of 'sights and sounds'. This is the cosmos as Heraclitus described it, where nothing 'is' but rather is in a process of 'becoming'.

How can there be any stability? There cannot, if *all* that exists is the phenomenal world. In other words, what Plato is working towards is the idea that in order for there to be such a thing as knowledge we need the Forms, in addition to the phenomenal world of 'appearances'.

The doctrine he attributes to Heraclitus omits one very important feature of the theory: the Logos: in other words, he is as unfair to Heraclitus as he is to Protagoras. Plato's Forms take the role which Heraclitus gives to the Logos. The 'world of Heraclitean flux' is the world that would exist, per impossibile, if there were no Forms (or, as Heraclitus would say, if there were no Logos).

So where do we stand? Remember that this is a dialogue. Socrates is seeking assent from his interlocutor to a series of propositions, and drawing the conclusions from those statements. We need not draw the conclusion that the skewed interpretations of Protagoras and Heraclitus were intended to be the final word. It is sufficient that an audience would readily understand where Plato was going with his critique of 'knowledge is perception'.

You observe the irony in the fact that Protagoras, who gives every impression of taking a 'realist' view, as any good empiricist would, is led towards idealism. This is the classic predicament in modern philosophy -- witness Hume's 'Scepticism with Regard to the Senses' and Berkeley's 'Immaterialism'. I don't think Protagoras did see this far ahead: his empiricism wasn't sufficiently worked out. -- That is, assuming that he was stating the doctrine of empiricism. As I explain in unit 14, there are other readings, though none of which justify Plato's reading according to which knowledge simply 'is' perception.

All the best,