Saturday, August 26, 2006


To the Vienna Station and beyond

Following the latest round of debate over on Leiter Reports on whether there is a distinction really to be made between analytic and continental philosophy, and if so, how it is to be drawn, I've been rereading Leiter's introduction to his interesting The Future for Philosophy volume and reflecting on my own attitudes.

It's been tough for me to get the hang of the debate. In St Andrews things seemed fairly straightforward. My teachers there who most influenced me, Peter Clark, Stephen Read, Stewart Shapiro and Crispin Wright, all seemed to me to more or less locate themselves in the tradition described in Alberto Coffa's wonderful The Semantic Tradition from Kant to Carnap: To the Vienna Station. This was a tradition that was characterised by its struggle to offer rival accounts of a priori knowledge and of natural science to Kant's, thought flawed because of his appeal to the mysterious notion of pure intuition. The linguistic turn in philosophy becomes, not the thesis that all philosophical problems reduced to problems in the philosophy of language, or would be solved there (though of course there are plenty of philosophers of that period who did advocate these views), but rather the thought that improving on Kant's undernourished and underdeveloped picture of semantics would enable one to avoid appeal to pure intuition in accounting for central parts of human knowledge. (I personally think that it's much harder than Coffa made out to fit Frege into this tradition so characterised, as excellent recent work by Burge, Demopolous and Dummett has shown. But I'll leave that aside for now).

Now, the tradition Coffa describes starts with Bolzano, and really gains momentum with Frege. It's traced from Jena through Cambridge, and ends, as the title suggests, in Vienna. (I'm skipping out all sorts of details; the place of Tarksi for example. But nevermind). Or rather that's where the story ends in the book. In an earlier little paper in J. Phil., 'Kant, Bolzano, and the Emergence of Logicism', Coffa reaches about the same point in the story. But the final four words of the paper are (1982: 689):

'And then came Quine.'

Leiter (2) also flags the influence of Quine's work, along side the work of the later Wittgenstein, as hastening the demise of anything truly worth singling out to be called analytic philosophy. But I'm pretty sure few of my old professors would agree to this account. I'm wondering how much which side of the Atlantic one was on makes a difference to how one is likely to perceive this debate. The influence of the later Wittgenstein is, of course, a notoriously tricky thing to describe. That said, there's an important trend in British philosophy starting with Dummett's work, and running through Wright, which thinks that the Investigations says something important and true, but tries to preserve those insights within a more Fregean picture of philosophical method and of the philosophy of language. As Bernhard Weiss puts it in Michael Dummett (4),

'Wittgenstein for Dummett is a brilliant thinker who provided a corrective to many Fregean misconceptions. Whereas Frege provided an account of meaning that is essentially Platonistic, (since his only way of securing objectivity of meaning was via reification), Wittgenstein emphasizes the intersubjective realm and the role of language in communication and in human life in general. But Frege provided the basic framework for conceptualizing how language functions. Wittgenstein (intentionally) provided no framework and cannot be seen as a model for how to practise philosophy.'

So for those in this tradition, Wittgenstein provided several insights which we're still struggling to accomodate, but didn't really offer a serious threat to so-called analytic philosophy. Quine, at least as I learnt this period of history, didn't ever really threaten to erode the deep influence of Carnap on British philosophy.

That basically sums up contemporary philosophy as I inherited it, and I've for a number of years viewed myself as practising (or at least attempting to practise) philosophy in this tradition. That's deeply shaped my view of what topics in philosophy are fundamental; the nature and scope of a priori knowledge, the realism/anti-realism debate, the rule-following considerations, the semantics of natural language, etc. It's not that I fail to recognise that there are plenty of other fascinating and important issues in philosophy worth pursuing, and historical traditions in philosophy worth studying and learning from. But I do tend even now to want to locate myself in this tradition, broadly conceived, and much of what's typically labelled continential philosophy I perceive as somewhat alien to my concerns. That's to take a somewhat narrow view of contemporary philosophy, I know, but I don't have time to read everything I would like to read even with these blinkers on.

None of this is meant as an argument to convince someone that there's a distinction worth drawing here between continental and analytic; rather I'm trying to explain (and get clear on myself) the particular perspective I've brought to these discussions. And I have to admit, I'm being forced to reconsider things frequently. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a continuing interest in McDowell's work, and though I recognise the questions he's trying to answer as deep, significant ones, it's hard to view much of his recent stuff as of a piece with the tradition I described above. Tom Hurka points out in his comments on one of the recent Leiter Reports threads, and has argued at length in his excellent paper 'Moore in the Middle', that we distort the history of metaethics if we think of it as taking a significant turn around the turn of the last century, when the key figures of early analytic philosophy were doing their thang. Leiter has argued in his contribution to the volume mentioned above that anyone interested in the naturalistic turn in recent philosophy can't fail to take seriously and learn from the works of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud; three figures I can't honestly say it would otherwise have occured to me to study with any particular enthusiasm.

Obviously a black and white picture of philosophy is going to become increasingly untenable as philosophers continue to show how much damage we do to our understanding of certain issues if we ignore the insights of some particular philosopher or philosophical movement because we perceive them as coming from a tradition which we assume has nothing to offer. But that said, I still find it very useful, for my own still very much developing sense of where I fit into the world of philosophy, and where others fit into it, to locate myself within broadly the tradition described above; although it's ridiculous to suggest that all those philosophers shared exactly the same conception of the goals of philosophy and how they might be reached, I recognise common ground with those thinkers that I found completely absent when I tried to read, for example, Being and Time. So I'm not yet persuaded there's no intelligible or useful distinction to be made.

Update. I've realised I make St Andrews sound a little like a place where non-analytic philosophy meets with the response 'there be dragons'. I don't mean to give that impression, and my reflections above are based on my own interests and course of study while I was there; they aren't reflective of the attitudes of the department).

Further update. Much of the preceding post was me thinking out loud. Having had a couple of days since to consider the issue further, I've just written up some further thoughts in response to a post by Brit Brogaard over at Lemmings.



Thought and Reality

I've only just discovered there's a new book by Michael Dummett about to come out in the OUP Lines of Thought series (that published, for example, Jason's Knowledge and Practical Interests).

Just 4-5 months to wait......................


Friday, August 25, 2006


The Taming of the True....

I'm very pleased to have made it through my first summer of blogging without, like so many of the blogs I read, going on hiatus or anything like that - posting has been a little sporadic, but I feel I've managed to keep the momentum going ok. Given this, you may be wondering (and let's face it, who isn't?) what's happened to posting since I got back to Austin.

The truth is I'm starting to read quite seriously on the topic of Dummett's critique of the realist's picture of what understanding a declarative sentence consists in. It's always been one of the philosophical flames I get drawn moth-like towards, but there's big gaps in my knowledge of the literature that I'm trying to fill just now. In particular, I'm currently reading Crispin Wright's Realism, Meaning and Truth. It's kind of simultaneously thrilling and depressing. It's thrilling because so many philosophers today take this to be a dead issue, whereas Crispin's sense that these are live, fascinating, central issues is tangible. On the other hand, it's also evident that the kind of command of these issues required to really make anything of a contribution will be very hard-won; it's hard not to be impressed with the altitude this debate has been conducted at over the last 40-50 years, and not just a little daunting. Hence the lack of posts - I really have a lot to learn about this stuff before I have anything of my own to say that might potentially be of interest to others.

Enough biography though. Real content as soon as I'm feeling up to it.

Ps. Apologies to Neil Tennant for stealing his great title for this post - my copy of the book just arrived yesterday, and it seemed too fitting to resist.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Much worse than last time...

Made it back to Austin from Glasgow today, against all the odds:

(Cartoon from xkcd again)


Sunday, August 13, 2006


McDowell on experience

This started life as a paper, but since I don't seem to have much inclination to work on it anymore, and since it's about the same length as most of my long posts, I've decided that it should at least have the fate of being a post here. Thanks to Briggs Wright and Mark Sainsbury for making some helpful suggestions, none of which I ever got around to implementing, to Duncan Pritchard, and to an audience at the Arche reading party a couple of years ago.

We must conceive of sensory experience as carrying conceptual content if we are to halt, at a stable point, a fruitless oscillation between conceiving of experience as a nonconceptual Given that cannot play the justificatory role for which it was intended, and a Davidsonian coherentism that simply and unacceptably abandons recognition that sensory experience plays any real role in rationally justifying our beliefs and judgements about the world; such is the central thesis of John McDowell’s widely discussed John Locke lectures Mind and World. Much of the second lecture is devoted to preempting and responding to the charge that this central thesis commits McDowell to an unacceptable form of idealism, that is, to holding that seemingly objective features of the world are, in some suitably worrying sense, dependent on our thought and talk about it.

How does McDowell’s central contention, that sensory experience cannot be considered nonconceptual, threaten to collapse into idealism so characterised? The key thought is that for sensory experience to carry conceptual content, as it must if we are to learn from the failure of experience conceived as a nonconceptual Given to supply justification for our beliefs and judgements about the world, we must recognise that such experiences have the same kind of content as the judgements we can make based on those experiences:

'In a particular experience in which one is not misled, what one takes in is that things are thus and so. That things are thus and so is the content of the experience, and it can also be the content of a judgement: it becomes the content of a judgement if the subject decided to take the experience at face value. So it is conceptual content.' (26)

But if we to avoid raising the spectre of a nonconceptual Given, we cannot conceive of the point at which the world impinges on the perceiving subject as a boundary between the conceptual and the nonconceptual; that is, the reality which one experiences when one is not misled must also have the same kind of content as the judgements we can make about it, if we are to avoid conceiving of experience too as nonconceptual. Perceptible reality itself possesses conceptual structure. Thus the passage above immediately continues:

'But that things are thus and so is also, if one is not misled, an aspect of the layout of the world: it is how things are.' (26)

‘Conceptual content, in McDowell’s metaphysics’, as Wright (1996:147) has memorably put the point, ‘belongs to the very fabric of the world’. It is this aspect of McDowell’s position that he thinks will seem to commit him to idealism; the perceptible world is not located on the far side of a boundary between the conceptual and the nonconceptual, and it possesses the same sort of content and structure as the judgements a thinking subject can make about it. What is there left of the thesis that the world is independent of such subjects? To paraphrase Peter Sullivan (2005: 44), McDowell’s world may not be made by the mind of any subject, but it does seem to have been made for a subject to experience—and to think and judge about.

McDowell responds by stressing that there is a metaphysically innocuous sense in which we can understand the thought that the world possess the same sort of content and structure as possible judgements and thoughts about it. He quotes the following passage from the Investigations:

'When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: thisisso. But this paradox (which has also the form of a truism) can be expressed in this way: Thought can be of what is not the case.' (§95)

In what sense is there a paradox here, and in what sense a truism? The paradox arises from two influential but conflicting ideas. Firstly, that if I am to mean that things are thus and so, nothing short of the fact that things are thus and so will do as the content of my thought or utterance. Put another way that might make things more plausible (or at least intelligible), if that things are thus and so is not the content of my thought, then I am not thinking that things are thus and so. This idea is familiar not from debates about empirical content so much as from attempts, taking inspiration from Frege’s Der Gedanke, to motivate identity theories of truth,. On the other hand, there is a well-known argument going back to Plato’s Theateaetus that, suitably modified for the current context, runs as follows. If true judgements are identified with facts, then it seems that each false judgement should be identified with an absence of fact. But that’s just for our judgements to lack content, and hence to not really be judgements at all. The argument in its original form has become familiar, again not in debates about content, but in the debate about the identity theory of truth, this time as an objection.

McDowell suggests that the truism is apparent once one recognizes that there is a trivial sense in which the world can have the same sort of content as thought and judgement about it. He writes:

'…there is no ontological gap between the sort of thing one can mean, or generally the sort of thing one can think, and the sort of thing that can be the case. When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case. […]
But to say that there is no gap between thought, as such, and the world is just to dress up a truism in high-flown language. All the point comes to is that one can think, for instance, that spring has begun, and that very same thing, that spring has begun, can be the case.' (27)

But there is room for a worry that McDowell is so keen to explain the truistic reading of Wittgenstein’s remark that he fails to address the paradoxical reading, and such a reading raises a problem for his position, a problem closely related to that posed to identity theories of truth by negative existentials. I can think and judge truly that there are no full-sized pyramids in St Andrews, and that thought certainly seems world-directed and thus up for a verdict from the ‘tribunal of experience’, to borrow Quine’s well-worn phrase. But it strains credibility that that there are no pyramids in St Andrews is an aspect of perceptible reality—that there is a conceptually structured item with that very content out there in the world which I glimpse when I am not misled—because it is not clear what it means for the world itself to be so structured as to possess the content that there are no pyramids in St Andrews rather than that there are no 1000 foot tall statues of McDowell in St Andrews. The world would seem to be identical in the relevant respects in both cases; it is just that what we take to be the salient absence will depend on our interests, purposes, etc.

Now, this objection rests on taking McDowell to be committed to a very strong thesis regarding how fine-grained the conceptual structure of the world must be on his picture, but I do not think I have overcommitted McDowell on the basis of the argument I have offered here. For example, that there are no pyramids in St Andrews and that there are no 1000 foot tall statues of McDowell in St Andrews could presumably both readily be known non-inferentially, and so the objection does not rest on dubiously saddling McDowell with a commitment to a conceptually structured item in the world corresponding to each true thought we could reach inferentially. My suggestion, then, is that the very strong thesis I have objected to is recognizably McDowell’s own. If, as McDowell has argued in lecture two of Mind and World, this thesis is consequence of any version of his conception of sensory experience that avoids an unacceptable form of idealism, I think we should regard that conception of experience with deep suspicion.


McDowell, J. 1994. Mind and World. Harvard: Harvard.
Smith, N., ed. 2002. Reading McDowell: On Mind and World. London: Routledge.
Sullivan, P. 2005. ‘Identity Theories of Truth and the Tractatus’, Philosophical Investigations 28: 43-62.
Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wright, C. 1996. ‘Human Nature?’, European Journal of Philosophy 4: 235-54. Reprinted in Smith (2002): 140-159. References are to reprint.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006



I've been rereading Kaplan's 'Demonstatives' this week, and so I thought in celebration that I would share 'Canyon' from the wonderful comic xkcd (which I discovered via Elias). Enjoy.

(Click image to enlarge)



Inconsistent beliefs and paraconsistency

I'm currently engaged in what I think is a very interesting discussion with Colin Caret and others over at What is it like to be a Blog? The discussion started out concerning what the grounds might be to hold that someone who doesn't practice what they preach lacks moral authority, but we've spilled over into a new thread discussing issues that come up when an agent has inconsistent beliefs, but doesn't recognise that this is so. Does this familiar kind of situation motivate a move to paraconsistent logic, or even full blown rational dialetheism, or can the classicist (or less radical logical revisionist) maintain that such a move is unmotivated here? I'm trying to argue for the latter position.

See Colin's posts 'Hypocrisy and Moral Authority' and 'Paraconsistency and Dialetheism'.

(I get rightly criticised here sometimes for not explaining terminology. So here I'm taking paraconsistent logics to be those that lack the explosion rule, A, ~A |- B, and rational dialetheism to be the view that some contradictions are true and that it can be rational to believe some contradictions. The rational dialetheist will adopt a paraconsistent logic, since it clearly isn't rational to have trivial beliefs, but one can adopt a paraconsistent logic without being a dialetheist.)

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Monday, August 07, 2006


If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we avoid snowclones?

I heard an advert a week or so ago, which featured a snowclone which I don't think has been discussed much (it doesn't even feature on Wikipedia's list of snowclones), but which strikes me as having some interesting features. It's:

If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we X?

There seem to be two basic uses, a serious one and a humourous one. It's the serious one that puzzles me. Now, X is always something wildly unfeasible, with no discernible link to the kind of technology needed to put a man on the moon, or the level of civilisation displayed by the ablility to put a man on the moon. Here's some examples from Google.

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we solve social problems in the ghetto?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we end poverty?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we provide good schools for everyone?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we create a computer program that can automatically distinguish between pornography and art?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we detect when someone is lying?'

One striking thing here is that most of these examples are cases where someone is patiently explaining why a particular claim quoted is stupid (that's the case for the first 4 of the above examples). The usual line of response is that getting a man to the moon was just a particular feat of engineering, and there's no reason at all to expect that managing to pull off such a feat shows we'll be able to tackle world poverty, etc.

But as is observed here, it's actually an essential feature of the snowclone that X has nothing to do with success in our space program, or some other related area of technological advance:

'Nobody said "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we design a reusable orbital entry vehicle?" It was always cure cancer or end racism or build a soup that eats like a meal. Noble causes, of course, but they don't necessarily follow from landing on the moon.'

So what's strange is that the snowclone seems to be a vehicle designed exclusively to say something false and daft. As soon as you make a reasonable claim of that form, it's no longer an instance of the snowclone. Most instances of really overused snowclones have something of an idiomatic feel, but I can't get anything like that from:

If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put one on Mars?

I'd be interested to know how common this is; usually snowclones are just seen as templates overused by lazy writers, but I wonder how many snowclones constrain what can get plugged into the template in such an odd manner. My suspicion is the template picture of snowclones is somewhat oversimplistic.

The most common use of this particular snowclone nowadays seems to be for humourous effect. The most popular seems to be:

"If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put them all there?" (for example, here and here),

and it's easy to find plenty of other examples. But what's weird about this snowclone is it does have a serious use, yet even when used seriously it doesn't look like one can use it to say anything sensible with it; making a sensible claim of that form seems sufficient to evaporate any idiomatic feel.

(See LanguageLog for more on snowclones.)

Update: Here's a post about the ad I saw, just in case you....well, I don't know. Just in case.


Friday, August 04, 2006


Charity case?

Earlier this evening, my younger brother was watching a documentary called 'Trawlermen' about fishermen from Peterhead in the north-east of Scotland, and I happened to catch the last 10 minutes of it. (For the record, I don't regularly read; I googled for something about the show). They showed the progress of some of the fish caught by the Scottish fishermen to restaurants and markets down in London and other parts of England.

One market scene showed a man trying to convince a woman to buy one of the fish. She asked him where it was caught, and he told her Scotland. Her reply was absolutely extraordinary. She said (this isn't word for word, but it's close enough): 'Scotland? But they don't have any seas in Scotland. Just mountains.'

What? I'm all for a principle of charity, but I'm at a bit of a loss to interpret this in any way that gives this woman a reasonable belief.



New Leeds Blog

I spent much of this summer writing a paper to be submitted this week to various graduate conferences. Dissappointingly, I spotted a technical mistake a couple of days ago which has turned out to vitiate the main point I was trying to make. Obviously I'm glad to have clocked it before all the submission dates passed, but it's meant trying to salvage something in time for the Rochester and Brown deadlines tomorrow. I'll try get back to regular blogging once that's off my plate.

In the meantime, I've just spotted that three young metaphysicians at Leeds have just started a new blog, Metaphysical Values. Robbie Williams and Ross Cameron were Arche PhD students during my undergrad and masters, and Andrew McGonigal (who I can only assume is the Andrew posting there) has always impressed me when he's visited St Andrews. It'll be interesting to see what the three (or two if your criterion of identity says that Robbie = Ross) of them have to say.


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