home | archives

Philosophy Blog

Life at the thought-face.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Meaning and Objectivity

A distinctive belief of ‘analytic’ philosophers is that if our utterances and the thoughts they express do not have determinate truth-conditions, then we are in an even worse position than the Cartesian sceptic: not only can we know nothing about the world, but also we are unable even to think that there is a world.

This is why Kripke’s little book on Wittgenstein has been so influential. Wittgenstein as Kripke reads him, who we can call Kripkenstein to distinguish him from the real Wittgenstein, poses a problem for this view. First we need to make explicit some commitments. What we mean by our words must be fixed by some actual facts about us, that is if two people mean different things, then there must be some difference between them we can point to, some difference in what they do or say (or even some difference in how their brains are functioning). But meaning something determinate entails a potentially infinite number of facts, for if I mean something determinate by, say ‘round’, then it must be that for every object that ever has or will exist anywhere in the universe, either my word ‘round’ applies to it or it does not. This is how Kripke interprets Wittgenstein’s claim that meaning is like ‘rails stretching to infinity’.

Kripkenstein argues that these two commitments are incompatible, because all the actual facts about us do not distinguish between our meaning round by ‘round’ and our meaning something slightly different which would apply differently to objects so distant in space that we will never encounter them. The basic point is that the actual facts about any one of us are always finite, in that they are always subject to more than one interpretation about how the use of our words should be extended.

There seem to be only three possible responses to Kripkenstein:

1. Deny that meaning is determinate, or at least that it is determinate as it extends beyond our actual usage. I attempted to defend this in the academic adolescence of my Ph.D. thesis.
2. Deny that the actual facts about us can be specified independently of what we mean. This is McDowell’s naturalized Platonism.
3. Deny that the actual facts about us, even when specified independently of what we mean, fail to determine a potentially infinite number of facts about how our words apply.

The basic idea behind the third option is that natural laws entail an infinite number of counterfactual conditionals, but can truly describe finite systems. Thus a law like Newton’s F=ma, if true, applies to all forces applied to all masses everywhere at any time. But it also applies to the balls on the billiard table. Given that we are natural objects, all the actual facts about us include the natural laws which apply to us, so if our currently meaning what we do is a law-like property, then Kripkenstein’s problem is avoided.


The problem with option 3 is alleged to be the normativity of meaning. Notice how, when describing the argument, I talked about how the use of our words ‘should be extended’. Laws tell us how natural systems will behave in various non-actual circumstances, but they do not tell us how they should behave. But part of meaning what we do by, say ‘round’ involves the possibility that we might come across objects to which our word does apply, but which we do not apply it. That is, we make a mistake in the application of our word. The charge is that adherents of option 3 cannot make this distinction, that they have to say about our language use that whatever does happen should happen.

Before we can assess this charge, we need to distinguish different things that could be meant by the normativity of meaning:

A. There is a distinction between correct and incorrect applications of a word.
B. Unless there are over-riding considerations, we ought to use a word in accordance with its correct use.
C. In virtue of understanding a word, we know how we ought to use it.

It seems that A follows directly from the claim that our utterances and the thoughts they express have determinate truth-conditions. And it would seem that anyone who wants to defend B ought to defend C. Much ingenious work has been done in an attempt to show how a law-based account could secure A. So anyone sceptical of normativity, or at least of the claim that this imposes constraints upon meaning which require us to take option 1 or 2 above, must either attack the inference from A to B directly, or attack the consequence C.

Personally I don’t see how one could get from A to B except via some sort of desire or goal to aim at the truth. But then the problem remains that many of us do sometimes have that goal, so we would still need C to be true (in at least some cases).

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 11:51 AM

Sunday, November 10, 2002


I have just watched the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. I always find this poignant, but my education trashed my ability to handle emotions by the time I was 15. Anyway, that aside, I find it a good moment to reflect on war.

It is worth getting to the philsophical root of the disagreement between hawks and doves in international relations. Doves will go to almost any length to avoid war, where hawks believe that there are certain disagreements which can only be resolved on the battlefield. Put like that, it is very easy to portray the hawks as having a 'cowboy' or 'playground' mentality, but they consistently and fairly respond that diplomacy and negotiation presupposes a trust which has to be earned and can easily be lost. When dealing with a country where that framework of mutual trust and esteem is missing, diplomacy will fail. The doves now look to have a childish tendency to trust others even though there is good reason not to.

I suspect the disagreement goes a little deeper, and like so many, is rooted in conceptions of human nature. The causes of war are almost invariably psychological: pride, greed, ideological belief ... The doves seem to think that we should be addressing these causes, and the way to address moral or cognitive failings is through discussion and persuasion. You do not cure someone of false belief or wrong judgement by fighting them. Hawks agree, but are rather more pessimistic about whetehr you can cure them in any other way either, or at least, whether you can cure all of them. So both sides agree that, say, Saddam Hussein is doing much that needs to be stopped, and that the reason he is doing this is some range of moral and psychological failings (caveat below). The doves think we should address the cause of his 'bad behaviour' through the means of diplomacy and sanctions. The hawks doubt that we can ever change him, so think we must prevent him having the effects he has, which means using force. I am a dove by nature and belief, but the hawks seem to have a point here: the enlightenment ideal of human nature as indefinitely susceptible to change through reason and persuasion looks pretty implausible.

Caveat: I am not discussing the depressingly large group of doves who have fallen into a mindless relativism, who think that we must not make moral judgements in international affairs. One of the many confusions of this position is between the epistemic and the metaphysical: I can be more certain that there is a right answer than that my answer is right, in moral matters just as much as in empirical matters. Consequently, I should be cautious in making moral judgements, I should make every effort to question my own assumptions and prejudices, but once I have gone through a proper process of decision, it is quite reasonable for me to think that I have made the right judgement, that opposing opinions are mistaken. Of course, if I really do believe that there is a moral fact of the matter, I should also expect that I will sometimes get it wrong and need to change my mind. The irony of relativism is that it breeds moral inflexibility and intolerance, since if no one can get it right, no one can get it wrong, so there can never be a reason to change your mind.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 11:43 AM

Thursday, November 07, 2002

The Brains Trust

Professor CEM Joad of Birkbeck College was not a really a professor. He was, if I remember right, a Reader in Philosophy. He will not be remembered for the many books he wrote (trust me on that one, unless you want to waste a day in the BL too), but for his appearances on The Brains Trust, a TV programme of the 1950s and 60s in which difficult questions were posed to a panel of allegedly brainy people. He quickly became infamous for beginning every answer with 'It depends what you mean by ...'.

Why do philosophers do that, and why do non-philosophers hate it so much?

If you ask an engineer whether it is possible to build a suspension bridge over a particular river at a particular point he will investigate the local rocks and do some calculations. His answer will be 'Yes' or 'No' or perhaps 'Yes, but not one which will carry cars'. This answer will be informed by his mathematical calculations but it will not involve thoise calculations. We can understand, appreciate and exploit his answer without having toi understand the maths.

When you ask a philosopher a question, for example, 'Has science shown there to be no colours?', the tools he will use for answering it are conceptual. He will aim to clarify various concepts so that we can see their relations better, he will draw out consequences of claim, and maybe even criticize aspects of a conceptual framework. The philosophers answered will not only be informed by these conceptual calculations, but will involve them. Someone who has not gone through the process will not fully understand or appreciate the answer.

Joad's method was right, but his presentation was terrible. For a start the phrase 'It depends upon what you mean by ...' suggests that either he is going to appeal to stipulative definitions, or that there is some sort of freedom of choice of meaning here. Presumably what he was often aiming to show was that the question or problem presupposed an entailment from F to G, but that neither concept necessitated that entailment. That is, philosophically speaking, doing the calculations. The real philosophy comes in when you argue that there is something misguided about modifying the concept F to F*, so that it does entail G. But when we go to philosophers for such arguments, they allude to their intuitions or speak of 'changing the subject'.

I suspect that conceptual analysis is to philosophy what maths is to engineering: a tool to stop you making errors. But judgement is still needed in both disciplines. Our engineer must judge whether the rocks around the river are strong enough to hold the anchors. Our philosopher must judge which conceptual changes or modifications are acceptable and which not. Engineering came of age when it stopped using trial and error at this crucial stage of the proceedings. Has philosophy come of age yet?

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 9:07 AM

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Normative Necessity

Kit Fine points out that there is a difference between claiming that all wars are as a matter of fact wrong, and that all war must, purely in virtue of being a war, be wrong. This distinction requires us to recognize a notion of normative necessity.

The example is instructive too, because it shows a confusion in the inference from 'Past wars were wrong' to 'This war is wrong'. Is that being offered as an induction? In which case it remains possible that this war not be wrong. Or are we being offered empirical (!) evidence for a modal claim?

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 3:41 PM