Behavior

Behavior

We are familiar with the doctrine of behaviorism and with the phrase “behavioral science”, but we are left in the dark about what exactly behavior is. What does it mean to say that the mind is reducible to behavior or that psychology is the study of behavior? One possible answer is that behavior is motion of the body: the body moves like other physical objects and behavior is simply that motion. But this is clearly wrong: the body moves with the earth’s rotation but that isn’t behavior, and a body can be knocked over without that counting as behavior. In addition, psychology could hardly be the study of the body’s motions, since that is already covered by physics—the laws of motion apply to human and animal bodies too. If behavior has anything to do with motion, it must be a more restricted type of motion than that. The natural next thought is that behavior is purposive motion: behavior belongs with action and conduct, both of which imply purpose. The OED defines “action” as “the process of doing something to achieve an aim”, and “behave” as “act or conduct oneself in a specified way”. So action and behavior are goal-directed (“conduct” gets defined as “the manner in which a person behaves”). This accords with ordinary conceptions: we speak of a person behaving loyally, ethically, selfishly, gracefully, greedily, etc. These adverbs all connote purpose, generally motive. They are psychologically tinged, not purely “physical”. All behavior is mind involving: action as it springs from psychological traits or states or processes. This already tells us that behaviorism cannot be a variety of reductive materialism, since the very concept of behavior includes psychological factors. But it still leaves us ignorant of what behavior actually is: is it perhaps something mental expressing itself in the body’s movement? What exactly is the relationship between behavior and movement?

            This is actually an obscure matter, which is perhaps why it is seldom explored. If a person generally behaves thoughtfully, is this always correlated with a certain type of bodily movement? Apparently not, since many types of movement can be deemed thoughtful. It seems reasonable to understand the relation as like what is called “multiple realization”: each episode of movement “realizes” the behavioral type behaving thoughtfully. We can think of the agent as selecting a given type of bodily movement in order to achieve his or her thoughtful aims (likewise, greedy, ethical, loyal, etc.). There is no one type of movement that corresponds to the behavioral type in question. So clearly no reduction of the latter to the former is going to be possible. But still, what then is the behavioral type? It appears to be a higher-order type involving quantification over movement types: behavior is that property of agents that involves a specific aim and which is such that some movement type realizes it. If I behave greedily, I am such that my greedy aim is realized in a specific (though variable) type of bodily movement. The behavior type is thus more abstract than the particular type of movement that realizes it, more tied to its guiding motive. It is like an action plan rather than a specific occurrence, a schema not a concrete event. A well-behaved person is someone whose actions conform to a certain abstract schema—not someone whose body moves in specific ways. If I behave loyally, I conform my movements to a certain principle or ideal or recipe—but what those movements are physically is as may be. I could behave loyally while lying paralyzed in bed so long as I fulfilled certain aims; I might not even be able to blink, but I could still make the right decisions (perhaps conveyed by a brain scanner). You can behave well without even moving your body (thus omissions count as behavior). A person might get out of jail from “good behavior” without ever moving his body in a helpful manner. But generally, there is bodily movement—though not of a fixed type. Movement is more like the means for behaving, whether well or badly; it is not identical to behavior. The very same movements might be performed by an insentient robot and no behavior would have thereby been evinced. So behavior is both mentally tinged and more abstract than movements of the body. This is why we say that someone behaved generously but not that his body moved generously. It is also why we tell someone to behave herself but not to move her body thus and so (a category mistake). This fits with an interesting feature of the dictionary definition: to behave is to “conduct oneself in a specified way”. It is not for one’s body to jerk or twitch or flow or fall—but for one to conduct oneself in a certain way. Behaving is self-conducting—the affinity with a musical conductor is apt. The conductor conducts an orchestra; the agent conducts himself using his own limbs etc. This is the idea of orchestration, control, and purposive order: behaving is conducting oneself so as to achieve a certain aim. And it has a lot to do with social setting: one typically behaves in a certain social context and this requires suiting one’s other-directed movements to one’s aims (like the conductor’s baton). Perhaps the origin of the concept of behavior lies in such social contexts; certainly ideas of comportment, grace, charm, and so on, belong there (behavior towards). This is now a far cry from the project of setting psychology on the road to materialist reduction, but it is what the ordinary concept of behavior actually involves. Behavior as commonly conceived is bound up with good behavior and bad behavior, where this is socially determined; so the concept is normative as well as psychological.[1] It is no accident that the word “conduct” is the preferred term in legal contexts. Action, conduct, and behavior: all three notions are linked to psychological and normative considerations—and all are ontologically more rarefied than concepts for concrete bodily motions (“his arm went up”, “his lips curled”).

            Is it at all reasonable to suppose that the mind is reducible to behavior as so construed, or that psychology is the science of behavior as so construed? At least such claims are not vulnerable to anti-reductive sentiment: we can’t accuse the behaviorist in this sense of omitting the mind altogether, or of being a type of materialist. That would not be much consolation to the behaviorist motivated by a desire to reduce psychology to the physical sciences, but it might give behaviorism a new lease on life—now it can be claimed that behaviorism is non-reductive and psychologically informed. (Wittgenstein’s flirtations with behaviorism might be understood in this way.) Might the mind be explicable by means of this much richer notion of behavior–the kind of behavior we refer to by such locutions as “behave loyally” or “jolly decent behavior, old chap”? Maybe there was always an element of truth in behaviorism; it’s just that actual behaviorists misunderstood their own most central concept (not the first time that has happened). What if performance actually contains competence? What if courageous behavior logically implies the character trait of courage? What if the whole inner-outer dichotomy is misguided? Maybe the mind really is behavior once we allow behavior to extend beyond the realm of mere movement. However, attractive as that may sound, I think it is a forlorn hope. The reason is that behavior must always contrast with something non-behavioral. The deed may be the beginning, but it needs something else to co-exist with; it can’t be behavior all the way down, or from every angle. Compare biology: within biology we have the field of ethology (“the science of animal behavior”), but that is just one department of the subject. There is also biological history (evolution and ontogenesis), anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and genetics—all separate from the study of the behavior of organisms. In particular, animal behavior must be linked to animal anatomy and physiology: behavior comes along with composition and structure, as well as fine-grained functioning. Similarly, in psychology we must consider psychological history (evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology), the structure and fine-grained functioning of the mind, its basic constituents, and its genetic roots. Psychology would simply be missing out on all this if it confined itself to human ethology. From a philosophical point of view, behavior needs an underlying substrate and structure that serves its functional ends: it cannot be free-floating and self-standing. For example, pain behavior needs to be backed by actual sensations of pain, as assent behavior needs to be backed by actual beliefs. It cannot be that pain and belief are nothing more than the behavior associated with them, even when that behavior is characterized in psychological terms. Even if behavior is thoroughly mentally imbued, it is not the same thing as the mental states that give rise to it. Maybe the mental states intrinsically involve behavior, but still they are not just behavior. It is the same with animal behavior: feeding behavior, for example, is functional and even normative (an animal ought to eat), but feelings of hunger are not the same thing as feeding behavior. Behavior is the mind projected outwards, but the mind is not behavior injected inwards. The right thing to say is that behavior and the mind are part of a complete package; specifically, behavior should not be regarded as mentally neutral. In fact, the whole dichotomy of “mental” and “physical” systematically precludes us from grasping what behavior really is. It is really quite an elusive concept, which we vainly try to squeeze into two categories corresponding to the labels “mental” and “physical”.

            Much the same can be said about another concept favored by the self-styled behaviorists, viz. stimulus. Behavior is said to be elicited by a stimulus, but what is a stimulus exactly? It can’t be a physical impingement considered independently of the psychological subject—a stimulus is only a stimulus for a certain type of organism. The organism must be capable of responding to it in a certain way. The ordinary notion of a stimulus is psychologically imbued (OED, “something that promotes activity, interest, or enthusiasm”)—that is, what we find stimulating. This meaning is what makes us respond intuitively to the technical use of “stimulus”—we know quite well what it is to be stimulated by something outside us. But it turns out that this is not really what is intended (though it is traded upon); instead, the notion hovers uneasily between a purely physical meaning and the ordinary psychologically loaded meaning. In the ordinary and proper sense, a stimulus is something that evokes a psychological reaction—so it is defined by reference to the mind. It cannot, then, figure as part of a reductive definition, or as a plank in the materialist edifice. But it would also be wrong to suppose that its psychological meaning enables it to play a reductive role within the realm of the psychological: for stimuli need minds to stimulate—as behavior needs minds to express. What we have here is a tightly knit package of concepts: stimulus-mind-behavior. The concepts of stimulus and behavioral response are mentally imbued not mentally neutral; they are not physically definable. What counts as a stimulus? Answer: that which elicits a mental response.[2] What counts as behavior? Answer: that which contributes to achieving an aim. There is no comfort for materialism in any of this. Both concepts have a role to play in psychology, but neither of them is suitable to act as foundational concepts in a science. It is not that behaviorism would have been good materialist science if it were true; the very concept of behavior is unsuited to play the reductive role assigned to it. It is not that it is clear but inadequate; it is unclear and inadequate (except as part of ethology). The concept of behavior, as behaviorists employed it, is an ill-defined concept, a mish-mash of inconsistent elements.[3]


[1] Of course it is possible to behave in solitude, even perpetual solitude (Robinson Crusoe), but that is consistent with allowing that the concept of behavior is tied to social relations: we extend it to the solitary case, possibly imagining a potential audience. We don’t call reflex movements or involuntary tics “behavior” precisely because they are not subject to social evaluation (they are not cases of behaving badly).  

[2] Again, there can be stimuli that elicit non-mental responses, but this is arguably an extension of the ordinary notion of stimulation, which is tied to the mind.

[3] We can keep on employing the concept of behavior in scientific and vernacular contexts, but we should acknowledge that it is not the concept of something materialistically acceptable. When we speak of economic behavior, say, we are committed to a psychologically loaded concept—and not one that wears its meaning on its face. It is not at all clear what behavior is. Like other psychology concepts an aura of mystery surrounds it.  

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American Idiot

Don’t wanna be an American Idiot

Don’t want a nation under the new mania

Hey can you hear the sound of hysteria

The subliminal mind-fuck America

(Green Day)

If you think this doesn’t apply to American universities, you are not paying attention.

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An Argument for Nothing

An Argument for Nothing

The philosopher with no name maintains, fittingly, that nothing is real. In pre-Socratic style, he proclaims, “All is nothing”. He is a total eliminativist (going by the code name TE). We could call him a “nothingist”: everything is nothing, according to the nothingist.[1] Not for him Being and Nothingness, but Nothing and Nothingness. TE contends that everything we talk and think about is fiction, pure make-believe; none of it is real. Science deals in fictions all the way down: its quantifiers range over only non-existent intentional objects (like Sherlock Holmes). Attributions of existence made by the unenlightened are simply false. TE notes that many more things don’t exist than do, and that we often make mistakes of existence, and that we have no clear idea what existence is anyway—so why not go the whole hog and abandon the idea altogether? Isn’t everything a bit fictional, a bit made up, even under our current conceptions, so why hang on to anything non-fictional? The OED defines “exists” as “have objective reality or being”, but many attributes of objects are projected or imagined or subjective in some way (color, beauty, solidity, etc.). Objects don’t objectively have these attributes. Maybe all of it—the manifest image, the phenomenal world—is so much projection and fancy, so that objective reality is not part of our actual worldview. Occam’s razor thus recommends ditching the idea of existence in favor of the fictional posit, the useful construct. The world is all appearance without reality. TE is a global anti-realist: all so-called reality is just so much unwarranted reification. We have heated disputes about what really exists—numbers, universals, values, colors, patterns, gods, and other universes; TE proposes that we simply abolish everything, cleanly and decisively. This, he points out, will solve many problems, since if nothing exists nothing is problematic. We won’t need to acknowledge mysterious realities, because nothing is real to start with. “Exists” is a strong word, a committal word, going beyond what we have any warrant for claiming—how can existence ever be verified?—so we do well to dispense with such assertions. What does it even mean to say that something exists? From what impression does the concept derive? Isn’t the ordinary concept essentially pragmatic, signifying something like “what we have reason to care about”? You needn’t worry about unicorns eating your grass, because unicorns don’t exist; but be watchful of tigers, because they assuredly do exist and can do you serious harm. “Exists” means attention-worthy; “doesn’t exist” means not worth bothering about. Why glorify this pragmatic concept as denoting a special kind of objective property and then rack our brains wondering what things really have it and what it comes to metaphysically? For TE the whole idea of existence, as the philosopher understands it, is a crock, a myth–so much philosophical nonsense. Away with existence! We can carry on talking without it, and still do science, and still make useful distinctions according to pragmatic criteria. Nothingism is a liberating doctrine, a way to let the fly out of the fly bottle; it allows us to view the world through a healthier and less discriminatory lens. We got rid of absolute space and time, we got rid of vital spirits, we got rid of gods and fairies, we even got rid of solid lumps of matter—now is the time to get rid of existent things altogether. As a bonus, we will at last have an answer to skepticism: we don’t need to worry that the external world might not exist, contrary to commonsense belief, since we know that it doesn’t exist—we have eliminated this idea from our conceptual scheme. We can still distinguish the serious from the unserious—“reality” from “fantasy”—using pragmatic criteria, but there is no deep question about whether what we believe in really exists. Tables and chairs don’t exist, because nothing does, so there is nothing whose existence skepticism can threaten to undermine. There is no reality whose nature we might not know, there being no reality at all. You can’t fail to know what isn’t there. All in all, the nothingist presents an attractive picture from a problem-solving point of view; we just need to get our minds around it and relax (he says). Admittedly, it takes some getting used to, but isn’t that true of most intellectual breakthroughs? Paradigm shifts and all that. The philosopher with no name has shown up in town with guns cocked, ready to drive out the undesirable elements. He has no time for the Existent Being Boys, those self-important intellectual troublemakers.

            No doubt TE cuts a striking figure (a high plains drifter[2]), but we may wonder whether, despite his self-advertisements, he has any real argument for his startling position. Can he prove that there is nothing? Maybe it would be nice if nothing exists—it would take away our intellectual headaches—but can it be demonstrated that nothing exists? I can imagine a line of argument that might qualify, which I propose to outline. It might seem suspiciously clever, but when has that ever been an objection to a philosophical argument? It goes as follows. We start with a basic principle about knowledge and reality, namely that nothing unknowable exists. Things must be of such a nature that they can be known. If anything exists, it knowably exists–for example material objects must be knowable in order to exist. This leads by a familiar route to the idea that material objects must be somehow reducible to, or essentially involve, sense data (we leave open precisely what sense data are). When we say that a table exists we mean that certain sense data are obtainable—not that there is some noumenal entity whose existence we must blindly postulate. So let us accept that metaphysical position for the sake of argument: nothing yet follows about the non-existence of tables; on the contrary, they exist as robustly as sense data. But now we notice that sense data have an odd epistemology: while they are indubitably known from the first-person perspective, they are apparently unknown from the third-person perspective. And that perspective is as essential to them as the first-person perspective: sense data exist in the shared objective world, as well as being introspectively apparent to their subject. They have both first-person subjective reality and third-person objective reality (they have a basis in the brain and can cause things). But they are epistemologically problematic from the latter perspective, so we need to render them knowable from that perspective. To achieve that objective we reduce them to observable behavior. So far, so good: we have reduced material objects to sense data and sense data to behavior—nothing eliminative yet. We have simply respected our basic principle linking existence to knowledge (if there is no such link, why postulate existence at all?). True, we are being reductionist, but that begs no questions in favor of eliminativism: sense data exist and so does behavior. It is the next step that puts the cat among the pigeons: for we can’t help observing that behavior is an affair of the body, which is a material object. That means that we need an account of it that respects our principle, and reduction to sense data seems the only way to go (or something similar). So we reduce behavior to sense data as of behavior. But now of course we need to explain how these sense data are accessible from a third-person point of view, which we do by reducing them to suitable behavior; and thus the cycle begins again. An infinite regress of reductions ensues. By insisting on our principle–by no means question-begging—we are led to adopt reductionism about the material and the mental; but that leads us into an infinite regress as behavior gives way to sense data of behavior and these sense data in turn need their behavioral expression. We are thus faced with a dilemma: either we reject our principle or we give up on existence. The former option is unattractive, because it severs the connection between existence and knowledge; so we are left with the latter, which abandons the idea that material objects and sense data exist. Since they don’t exist, there is no need to link them to knowledge, so no need to offer reductions of them, so no regress of reduction. Reduction (or anything similar such as “criteria”) is simply not required under the assumption of non-existence. The choice, then, is between nothingness and mystery: for if the objects that allegedly exist are not knowable, they are mysterious—not objects of knowledge. The objects become noumenal in so far as they are declared unknowable. We can try to avoid this result by constitutively linking the objects with sense data (however construed), but that leads to regress once the existence of sense data is considered. In other words, a familiar predicament concerning reality and knowledge turns into an argument for the position that resolves the problem, viz. total eliminativism. TE thus has a colorable argument for the doctrine he recommends on broadly methodological grounds—he can prove what he says would be nice. The doctrine is not only advantageous from a problem-solving perspective; it is also capable of direct demonstration (given some reasonable assumptions). Only a type of mysterianism[3] stands in the way, but nothingism will have no truck with that—it offers us a way of avoiding that epistemological disaster. If the choice is between total mystery and total non-existence, TE urges us to accept the latter. Only rigid adherence to the concept of existence stands in the way of intellectual liberation. We need to cut this concept loose.

            The nothingist applauds our standard anti-Meinongian incredulity, but wonders why we stop there. He thinks we throw the concept of existence around far too freely, and don’t take seriously the problems inherent in it. His recommendation is to dispense with Being altogether: there is no subsistence and no existence. Meinong is wrong, but so is Russell. As the Beatles sang in “Strawberry Fields”: “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung up about”. We are apt to suppose that the king of France lacks existence and the queen of England has it—but why the distinction? Neither has the peculiar property of existence, though it is true that we have more to fear from the queen than from the king—and that is the only distinction worth drawing between the two. Talk of existence is just so much airy metaphysics, according to TE. Meinong thinks that everything mentionable has Being; we ordinary folks think (like Russell) that some mentionable things have Being and some don’t; TE thinks that nothing mentionable (or unmentionable) has Being–not really, not when you get right down to it. For TE we are closet Meinongians by another name.[4]Co


[1] We have the monist, the dualist, the pluralist–and the nothingist.

[2] See the film of that name starring Clint Eastwood, himself a non-existent being.

[3] Or as we might say “ignorancism”: in either case drastic epistemic limitation is posited. It’s either the unknowable thing-in-itself or nothing at all—two worlds or no world.

[4] I hope it is clear that I am not myself intending to subscribe to nothingism here; I am just trying to give the view a run for its money. I favor the despised mysterian position, but I think the nothingist position is worth thinking about. It is not without argumentative resources. And it is fun to think about.

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Philosophical Philosophy

Philosophical Philosophy

Philosophy takes place within a social, political, and intellectual context. There is a surrounding culture or environment. Religion, morality, the arts, the sciences, war, peace, a general optimism or pessimism—all these factors impinge on the way philosophy is practiced during a particular historical period. The factors can vary over time, causing philosophy to vary over time (also place). A given period may be preoccupied with rival political systems (ancient Greece in Plato’s time) or with the advent of natural science (seventeenth century Europe) or with the arts and architecture (Renaissance Italy) or with war and religion (early twentieth century Europe) or with populism and social media (today almost everywhere). Philosophy is apt to be shaped by these preoccupations, leading us to suppose that philosophy is historically constituted: it is the intellectual treatment of prevailing cultural formations. Philosophy is the philosophy of this or that (non-philosophical) area of human endeavor, an essentially second-order activity, so that its content is fixed by the prevailing cultural concerns. It is, in a broad sense, political, using that word widely to connote societal movements and developments: it is politically engaged, politically formed. This is not true of other intellectual domains: physics and mathematics, say, are socially detached, apolitical. They have their own separate identity that transcends passing cultural moments; they occur in history but they are not of history. But philosophy, it may be felt, is inherently historical, and hence political in the broad sense. It feeds off history, societal context, and the affairs of the moment. It was different in ancient times and it may be different in the future; it may even be unrecognizable in the distant future. Philosophy is changeable and fluid, without any solid constant core—like literature, or politics itself.

            I think this view is profoundly mistaken, though I understand its appeal. Philosophy consists of a fixed set of core problems that are invariant over time and social context. These problems have a specific identity that is quite independent of political factors. A typical philosophy curriculum gives a fair sense of them: problems of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, mind, language, logic, aesthetics, etc. I need not list these problems—we are familiar with them. They often take the form “What is X?” where X might be causality, time, space, knowledge, justification, the right, consciousness, reference, necessity, beauty, etc. It is notoriously difficult to say what unites these many problems under the heading “philosophy”, but we know it when we see it: the problems strike us as peculiarly intractable, debatable, puzzling, confusing, and fascinating. We call this quality philosophical, as in “That’s a philosophical question” or “Now you are getting philosophical”. The quality does not normally belong to other types of questions—questions that are factual or empirical or straightforwardly answerable. We are reduced to saying that philosophy is like jazz—you know it when you hear it. It is not easy to define the scope of other disciplines either, but at least we have short adjectives that give some sense of what the subject is all about. What is physics about? Well, there are many branches of physics, quite heterogeneous, but we can say (though not very illuminatingly) that they all concern the physical. In psychology, too, we find considerable heterogeneity and many branches, but at least we can say that they all concern the mental—even though that term covers a wide variety of phenomena. But in philosophy we seem stuck with the adjective philosophical, which is especially unhelpful. We know the quality when we see it, but we find it hard to articulate it with any clarity (it is that quality—whatever it is–that gives rise to a certain sort of intellectual cramp or perplexity or bafflement). I don’t think this difficulty undermines the legitimacy of the subject—after all, philosophy includes pretty much every area of human endeavor—but it makes the question of the nature of philosophy hard to answer. We can say that philosophy is concerned with concepts, but that risks misunderstanding and is surely too narrow as it stands—and isn’t psychology also concerned with concepts? In what way is philosophy concerned with concepts, and to what end? What is the nature of its questions, and what method does it use to answer them?[1] We can reply that it is concerned with concepts philosophically, or that it deals with philosophical questions about concepts, or that it uses the philosophical method to analyze concepts: but this leaves us where we started. It isn’t false to say that philosophy is concerned with concepts—in fact, it is perfectly correct—but it doesn’t give us much to go on. We do better to list the standard philosophical problems and say, “That is what philosophy is”. If you want to know what it is for a question to be philosophical, then acquaint yourself with some philosophical problems: then it will become manifest to you. These problems constitute the subject matter of what we call “philosophy”, and they are independent of time and context. They are self-standing, specific, and timeless. They transcend history.

            How do the problems of philosophy relate to science? I wish to say two things about this: (a) the problems of philosophy are not scientific problems, or pre-scientific problems, and (b) philosophy is itself a science, but of a special sort. With respect to (a) it has often been maintained that philosophy is “continuous with science”—that it does not essentially differ from the accepted sciences. Perhaps it integrates or summarizes the sciences, or perhaps it is just more general but in the same line of business. One often hears it said, particularly by scientists, but not only by them, that the history of philosophy is the history of parts of philosophy splitting off and becoming real sciences—as physics split off from “natural philosophy” to become the science it is, and as psychology is still in the process of doing. This is taken to be a good and necessary thing, as if the splitting off were a step towards intellectual respectability after a shady past. Thus it is assumed that all of philosophy will eventually metamorphose into science, and that what does not achieve this happy transition will be left to wither in peace. I think this view is completely wrong: philosophy is not continuous with science and its history is not a process of peeling off to become science. For philosophy consists of a distinctive set of peculiarly philosophical problems that are independent of cultural context, which includes science. The problem of skepticism, say, is not a scientific problem, and will never become one; nor is the mind-body problem a scientific problem; nor are the problems of ethics; and so on. Philosophy is just a different kind of subject—being concerned with problems of a philosophicalnature. It characteristically wants to know what something is (essentially is), or how a problematic phenomenon is possible (consciousness, free will, a priori knowledge), or how one thing is consistent with another (knowledge with fallibility, contingency with determinism, emergence with novelty). In a very broad sense, philosophy is concerned with logical questions—questions of definition, essence, entailment, and how things fit coherently together. It is about constructing a logically satisfying worldview. It aims to make things rationally intelligible (as opposed to discovering particular facts). It uses reason to make sense of things, and reason is an exercise of the logical faculties (not the sensory faculties). Philosophy is about the logical structure of reality.

            Regarding philosophy in this way, as a logical enterprise, opens the door for a salutary extension of the word “science”. Philosophy is a science—a logical science, a formal science. I like to call it “ontical science” by analogy with “physical science”: it is the general science of being. It is the science of what things essentially are, what their constitutive nature is; this is why definition looms so large in philosophy. What exactly is knowledge, free will, consciousness, moral goodness, necessity, causation, beauty, truth, the self, rationality, and so on? Philosophy approaches such questions in a scientific spirit, employing reason, careful reflection, logical deduction, and theory construction. It is not poetry or mysticism or propaganda or politics. Its results are checkable, rationally debatable, and intended to state the objective truth. One of its methods is the thought experiment—imagining possible states of affairs and asking how a given concept would apply in them. This is a genuine type of experiment—a procedure in which the outcome is not prejudged and which can be repeated by others. For example, imagine a situation in which someone has a true belief but no justification for that belief: does this person have knowledge? We can perform such experiments and obtain inter-subjectively verifiable results (which is not to say they are infallible—but what experiment is?). They can even be described as “empirical” in the sense that we can learn from the experience of performing them. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere and will not repeat what I have already said.[2] The key (and encouraging) point is that there is nothing to prevent us from describing philosophy as a science, though a science with its own distinctive character. It is a science in its own right and will not devolve into another type of science: it is a sui generis science. Just as the formal science of mathematics will never turn into physics or psychology, so the “ontical science” of philosophy will never turn into any other science. Its problems are what they are and not some other thing. Thus we can say that the ahistorical subject of philosophy—that core of timeless philosophical problems—is a science in its own right. It is not “continuous” with other sciences in the sense of being just like them, or parasitic on them; rather, it is a science that belongs alongside the other sciences, an equal member of the club. We have the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology—and philosophy. Philosophy is “being-in-general science” (an Aristotelian conception). 

            To describe philosophy as a science raises expectations of progress analogous to the progress obtained by the other sciences. But does philosophy make this kind of progress? Doesn’t its lack of comparable progress undermine its title to quality as a science? My reply is that these expectations are prompted more by conversational implicature than by logical (semantic) implication. Strictly speaking, the question of scientific status and the question of scientific progress are logically independent: the former does not entail the latter. Non-science can make progress and science can fail to make progress. You can make progress writing a novel or a biography without those things being forms of science, and some parts of science can be mired in controversy and resistant to progress  (quantum theory, the origin of life, the psychology of creativity). Some sciences are simply more difficult than others; it is really a complete fluke that astronomy has made the progress it has (fortunately light travels very fast and preserves information). The question is controversial but I would say that philosophy has made impressive progress over the last 2,000 years, though large parts of it have not made the kind of progress we see in the other sciences. The reasons for this are debatable, but I think we can agree that central philosophical problems have not yielded to solution in the way many scientific problems have. One possible view is that philosophy bumps up against the limits of human intelligence—that it consists of “mysteries” not “problems”.[3] In philosophy we are mapping the outer limits of our intellectual capacity, which must be finite and specific if we are evolved creatures with limited brains (like all other creatures on earth). We are using our science-forming capacities to do philosophy, as we do in the other sciences (empirical and formal), but these capacities have their necessary inbuilt limits—and philosophical problems tax these limits. This is no detriment to the idea that philosophy is a type of science; it is just an especially difficult type of science. If we imagine beings intellectually inferior to us trying to do physics, we can envisage that they are recognizably capable of scientific thought but their talents do not match our own—maybe they can get as far as Newtonian physics but then their brain engine runs out of gas. Just so there might be beings that can handle philosophical problems better than we can, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t really doing philosophy. Progress is a matter of contingent intellectual capacity; being a science is a matter of the intrinsic nature of the questions. Philosophy, considered as a set of questions, qualifies as a science, even though our capacities in doing it are less than stellar.  Or maybe every possible thinker would stumble over philosophical questions, given their intrinsic character; but that would just show that philosophy is a very difficult science. After all, Newton’s intellect was defeated by the nature of the gravitational force, as he admitted, but that doesn’t mean Newtonian physics isn’t really science. In fact, I would say that nearly all science is confronted by deep mysteries, some possibly terminal, but they can still describe themselves as science. Not all science is successful science.

            Philosophy is particularly concerned to get clear about things, so clarification is a central part of its mandate. It tries to make sense of things by clarifying them. It aims to render the world intelligible. The italicized words here are all redolent of language: words can be clarified, sentences can make sense (or not), and language is intelligible (though not always). This suggests that meaning is central to the philosophical enterprise: the philosopher is a student of meaning. We can understand this in two ways: the meaning of life, and the meaning of language. Both have been thought to come within the purview of philosophy, and properly so. It has even been maintained that philosophy is exclusively concerned with linguistic meaning–that its sole job is to clarify the meaning of words and sentences. “What does it all mean?” might be thought to encapsulate the philosophical quest.[4] The narrow interpretation of this is that philosophy asks what words mean. This is not as narrow as it doubtless sounds, since word meaning brings in extra-linguistic reality, but so formulated the question leaves a lot out. I want to suggest, however, that it captures the essence of the matter: for philosophy is certainly concerned with intelligibility—though not only of language. Philosophy is concerned with the intelligibility of the world. It tries to make intelligible sense of the world by clarifying it. We want, for example, to understand the nature of causation (the thing not the word), so we try to clarify what it involves; perhaps it appears unintelligible to us and we need to restore it to intelligibility (as some have thought regarding causal necessity). We want to clarify its logic (essence, nature) so that it can meet our standards of intelligibility. We can do this by analyzing the word, or we can focus on the thing itself and try to discern its intelligible nature. Either way we are trying to achieve clarity by demonstrating intelligibility. The human mind wants to make sense of things, and philosophy is the tool for achieving this. So philosophy is a sense-making science—a science that aims at clarification, at rendering things intelligible. Sometimes it fails—as with rendering the mind-brain nexus intelligible, or the nature of free action, or a prioriknowledge. Sometimes it delivers respectable results: the analysis of definite descriptions, modal logic, and the nature of the good (though all three areas are not without controversy). The science of philosophy makes progress in matters of clarification; it increases the intelligibility of things. But even when it doesn’t succeed that is its ideal—it is intelligibility-oriented. Language is one domain in which the project of clarification can be applied; our conceptual scheme is another; and the world in general is a third area of potential clarification. Total clarity is the aim of every philosopher (or should be). 

One particularly sharp way in which questions of intelligibility come up is in the shape of the logical paradoxes. These are peculiar to philosophy and vividly illustrate its essential character: philosophy generates them and then it tries to solve them. Philosophy is a paradox-obsessed subject. There are many such: Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, the Sorities paradox concerning vagueness, Russell’s class paradox, the semantic paradoxes, and others. In addition to these we have assorted “puzzles”—kinks in our thinking that resist easy resolution. Many papers begin “The Puzzle of…” Both paradoxes and puzzles threaten intelligibility: they make seemingly straightforward things into confusing and confounding things. To resolve them some clarification is required, but this is not always forthcoming—they can be infuriatingly persistent (puzzlingly so). When paradoxes spread (as with the Sorities paradox) they threaten to undermine the intelligibility of everything. They are the nightmare of reason, and they are particularly disturbing to philosophers: for they threaten to undermine reason from within. What this shows from a meta-philosophical perspective is that philosophy is in the business of securing intelligibility, which is a none too easy thing to do. We don’t even understand how paradoxes arise: is it from our language or our thought or the objective world? And the last thing a philosopher wants is to discover paradox at the heart of his favorite theory (as with Frege’s set-theoretic reconstruction of arithmetic). Paradox is the ultimate philosophical embarrassment.

Philosophy is also a subject of extreme contrasts, and this too is part of its identity. The disagreements within philosophy are vast: idealism versus materialism, Platonism versus nominalism, consequentialism versus deontology, dualism versus monism, realism versus anti-realism, reductionism versus anti-reductionism. These are not just disagreements of detail but of fundamentals. There are even disagreements about whether whole swathes of reality really exist: do minds really exist, do bodies really exist, do moral values really exist? If philosophy is a science, it is a remarkably contentious one. But again, though this certainly sets philosophy apart from other subjects, it is just part of the very nature of philosophical questions: for these questions precisely concern the most fundamental issues about the nature of reality. If a subject sets out to deal with such fundamental questions, we should expect large disagreements to show up—that is just what philosophy is. It isn’t that philosophers as a group are particularly argumentative or stubborn or dim-witted; it is just that the questions inevitably produce these kinds of extreme opposition. That is what philosophy is about—it is the science of deep disagreement. It thrives on lack of consensus. Scientists are sometimes critical of the lack of consensus in philosophy compared to their own fields, but really there is nothing at all surprising here—philosophy is designed to produce deep differences of opinion. This is part of what makes it alive and exciting. It would be terrible—the end of philosophy—if a dull uniformity were to set in. In any case, consensus is not the hallmark of anything deserving the name “science”. What matters are rational methods, objective criteria of cogency, clarity of formulation, and standards of quality.[5]

Can philosophy ever come to an end? What would its end state look like? I think other subjects can, in principle, come to an end, and probably will before humans do. The sciences can end in one of two ways: all the problems are eventually solved, or some are not solved but never will be (at least by humans). There are only so many facts to discover, laws to state, and theories to be confirmed. But I think this is less clear for philosophical science: here it is not clear what the end state would look like. Can we imagine everyone deciding that materialism is true, say, and simply abandoning all other metaphysical theories as so much outmoded philosophical detritus? What could possibly lead to that result? It is not as if any new observations might be made that would settle the matter in favor of materialism. Or could it be settled once and for all whether consequentialism or deontology is the correct moral theory? Such debates seem internal to philosophy, part of what philosophy is. By contrast, disagreements in physics are hardly internal to it: they typically arise from lack of data or failure of theoretical imagination (or are really philosophical in nature). Neither of those diagnoses would seem to apply to philosophical disagreement. If anything could put an end to philosophy, it seems to be beyond our imagination—a literally inconceivable intellectual revolution. We don’t know what it would be for philosophy to end. Neither can we imagine the problems of philosophy being replaced by other problems hitherto unknown to the philosophical tradition: it couldn’t be that all our current philosophical problems are solved but news ones arise to take their place. What could these be? We have a pretty solid grasp of what the problems of philosophy are; it is hard to see how we could have missed a whole range of new problems. So our current problems are the ones that will stay in existence as the centuries pass by, probably never to receive definitive solution (short of a superhuman stroke of genius or a cerebral upgrade of some remarkable sort). Progress will no doubt be made on these problems, as it has been made in the past, but the idea of an end to philosophy seems impossible to fathom. Philosophy is really a very peculiar subject, quite unlike other subjects; the last thing we should do is to try to squeeze it into some other box. And its problems are what make it what it is, these problems having a unique character (“philosophical”). It may be rightly classified as a science (why not so classify it?), but that is not to say much about its inherent nature. Philosophy is about as puzzling as the problems it deals with. Meta-philosophy is as difficult as philosophy, because it is just another department of philosophy.[6]


[1] I discuss philosophy as conceptual analysis in Truth by Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] See “The Science of Philosophy” in Metaphilosophy (Volume 45, Issue 1, January 2015).

[3] I discuss this in Problems in Philosophy (Basil Blackwell, 1993).

[4] This in in fact the title of a book by Thomas Nagel intended as an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1987).

[5] The OED gives two definitions of “science”: “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”, and “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject”. Philosophy clearly qualifies under the second definition, but it arguably qualifies under the first definition too, once we allow for thought experiments and are not too restrictive about “observation”. For “observe” the dictionary gives “notice; perceive” and “detect in the course of a scientific study”: at a pinch we can make philosophical method fall under these definitions, since it may involve noticing certain things about concepts (or words) and it detects truths in its own way (sometimes called, misleadingly, “intuition”). Thus the philosopher may be said to “observe” (notice, perceive), for example, that knowledge is not just true belief. The operative terms in the dictionary definition are “systematic study” and “systematically organized”: rigor and system are the hallmarks of science. Academic philosophy qualifies; barroom chat does not. 

[6] Discussions of the nature of philosophy are often tacitly normative: the author is recommending a particular approach to the subject rather than simply describing its actual content. I intend my remarks here to be descriptive: this is the nature of philosophy as it has actually been practiced—though I daresay many people will contest my conception of philosophy. I certainly don’t think it is an easy question to answer. 

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The Lure of Elimination

The Lure of Elimination

I don’t despise eliminative positions in philosophy. I think they show something important about philosophical problems—that they can drive us to eliminative extremes. The term “eliminativist” is usually applied in the philosophy of mind and in psychology: it is the idea that the mind does not exist, that mental phenomena do not exist, that consciousness does not exist. Not that the mind is reducible to the brain or to behavior, but that there is simply no such thing as the mind: belief in the mind is an error, an illusion, pure mythology. The Greek gods provide a useful reference point: there are no such entities. People used to believe in them, improbable as that sounds now, but that belief was long ago abandoned—it is just so much empty mythology. The mind is like that: mere empty talk. The brain exists, to be sure, but not the mind—neurons yes, beliefs no. Many reasons have been given for adopting this drastic view: the mind would have to be private and unobservable, but nothing in nature is private and unobservable; talk about the mind is a pre-scientific holdover with no place in contemporary neuroscience; the mind is inseparable from the notion of an inner theater, but that notion is incoherent (the infinitely regressive homunculus, etc.); various alleged attributes of the mind cannot be squared with a robust naturalism; there is radical indeterminacy about all things mental. Above all, it is felt that the mind’s existence presents us with serious problems that hamper the progress of science (as the existence of the Greek gods would if they existed); the solution is simply to deny that any such thing exists. If the mind existed, it would be mysterious, deeply so; to avoid the mystery we should deny its existence. Eliminativism is thus the antidote to mysterianism. The thought is that reductionism has failed, and assertions of outright irreducibility are equally unpalatable, so the choice is between irresoluble mystery and getting rid of the problematic subject matter: the eliminativist plumps for the latter position. We need to make a clean break with the past and stride disburdened into a brighter future. We simply dispense with what so troubles us.

            It is possible to extend this outlook into other areas. Thus we can rid the world of spooky moral values by adopting an “error theory” in ethics: there are no such things as moral values, only matters of fact about human (and animal) psychology. Such values would be very mysterious (“queer”) entities with no place in modern science, so we do well to consign them to the rubbish heap of history. In the case of mathematics the specter of Platonism haunts us, but we can avoid that specter by declaring numbers non-existent—we embrace fictionalism about numbers. The number 2 is like Sherlock Holmes: not a real thing. In the case of physics we have a similar option: we can simply deny the existence of what troubles us. For example, we can eliminate Newton’s mysterious (“occult”) action-at-distance gravitational force by appealing only to matter and space in our physical theories. We can also eliminate space and time, as construed by traditional physics, and replace them with physical objects and their relations: hence the relational view of space and the clock-based view of time. Strictly speaking, space and time don’t exist, but there are surrogates for them that can serve our theoretical purposes.[1] We can even get rid of matter if we are so inclined: we deny that there are any solid particulate substances, replacing such talk with talk of fields or energy or mathematical structure. It was always puzzling what this stuff called “matter” really is–why not just jettison it and restrict our theories to more knowable things? Berkeley had already taken this route (followed by Mach) for reasons of his own: he thought the concept of matter to be incoherent and redundant, and replaced it with ideas in the mind of God. Berkeley was an eliminative idealist (not a reductive one): he thought matter was an invention of misguided metaphysicians, so he proposed eliminating it from sound metaphysics. This had the bonus that we no longer needed to fret about the real nature of matter: he removed a mystery by eliminating the thing that gives rise to it. In general, the eliminativist can boast the removal of mysteries by cutting the Gordian knot: we just need to withhold the word “exists” from the problematic subject matter and all our troubles vanish. Russell’s treatment of Meinong provides a sharp paradigm: Meinong’s ontology offends our sense of the real, so we simply deny that such things are really real—translating the sentences that suggest these peculiar entities into sentences that make no reference to anything of the kind. The methodology seems sound and the payoff considerable, so why not let the eliminativist have his way? Isn’t that better than trafficking in the mysterious, the spooky, and the queer? The battle is really between the mysterians and the eliminativists (not the reductionists and anti-reductionists); and the eliminativists have something weighty on their side—the avoidance of ontological strangeness and potential limitations on human intellectual capacity. Nature is not a mystery after all, so long as you are choosy about what nature contains. Only eliminate!

            Historically, eliminativists come in two main types, according as they favor the body or the mind. The materialist type eliminates whatever doesn’t fit into this box—anything mental. The idealist type gets rid of anything non-mental: Berkeley, some positivist philosophers of science, and eliminative phenomenalists. I have never, however, heard of an eliminativist who conjoins the two—someone who denies the existence of mind andmatter. Call this imaginary character TE (Total Eliminativist): TE maintains in his most extreme moments that nothing exists. There are no tables and chairs, no electrons and protons, no organisms, nor anything else of a material nature; but neither are there any experiences, selves, or beliefs, nor anything else of a mental nature. There is nothing mental and there is nothing physical. And there is nothing apart from these either. Everything is fictional—even fictional works (novels, films). Even illusions are fictional. That’s right, TE assures us with a straight face: there is NOTHING AT ALLWhen we ask him what his reasons are for this bold thesis he rehearses a litany of arguments drawn from the history of philosophy—citing Berkeley, Quine, Wittgenstein, Zeno, Sorities, et al. He is convinced that nothing is without taint: everything is mysterious, or worse, if you really open your mind and examine the matter closely. We have struggled to avoid this conclusion for lo these many years, but in TE’s mind it should be accepted at face value: everything is mysterious (or incoherent) so nothing is real. He isn’t worried about self-refutation counter-arguments because (a) these are weak in themselves and (b) he thinks he has arguments showing that everything harbors mystery or incoherence. He might concede at a pinch that there could be something other than mind and matter, so that the world is not completely null—maybe abstract structure, maybe supernatural stuff (neither mental nor material).[2] But his preferred position is the simplest one—complete and total elimination. Occam’s razor is applied across the board, leaving nothing. The big error of mankind has been to believe that anything exists—in reality it is all a complete blank. He points out that logicians have never been able to come up with a satisfactory analysis of “exists”, and that puzzles about the concept of existence are rife. We don’t really know what existence is—so why do we apply the term so liberally? And he has one central contention that he thinks settles the matter: only total elimination can solve the problems that bedevil philosophy and science. We have been trying for centuries to solve these problems, but they all stem from an unquestioned assumption, namely that the things that puzzle us actually exist. Once existence is denied the puzzles recede (“implode” is TE’s preferred word). Fictional worlds contain puzzles and mysteries, but nobody cares about that; well, our world is a fictional world, so it too presents no real problems.[3] For example, there is no problem about mind and body, since there is no mind and there is no body; it just seems like there is a problem because we make the assumption of existence. We are incorrigible “existence-ists”, TE maintains: we love to impute existence to things without thinking too hard about the consequences. In his worldview, nothing deserves that appellation, because there is nothing; and if there is nothing, there is nothing problematic. Nothing is real, so there is nothing to be mystified by. This is TE’s answer to the mysterian: the mysterian is an inveterate purveyor of false existence claims. That is his fundamental error: he is like someone who cudgels his brain over the nature of ghosts and goblins. As a final flourish, TE likes to make the following rhetorical observation: if you are going to take eliminativism seriously in one area, how can you justify not applying it more widely? Fair’s fair: if you are ready to deny mind, at least be open to denying matter; and if you want to get rid of matter, don’t cling so tightly to mind. Be a consistent eliminativist! Just look at the benefits, TE urges: an end to all deep perplexity, a life without intellectual angst. And what has existence done for you lately anyway? You can go on much as before from a practical perspective; you just drop the idea that anything exists. It’s like coming to see that you are a brain in a vat—except that there is no brain, no vat, and no experience.[4] The Greeks were better off without their gods, and we are better off without vital spirits, phlogiston, witches, and ghosts—why not go the whole hog? Can you prove that any of this stuff exists (even the Cogito limps)? Can you rebut the logical paradoxes? Do you have any convincing answer to the mysteries of nature? TE is here to tell you that he has a way out—it’s all a big load of nothing. The so-called real world is just a giant emptiness.

            Now it is not that I am a follower of TE, but I think his existence (!) needs to be recognized. He occupies a distinctive position in logical (metaphysical) space: he describes a possible metaphysical outlook. He deserves to be listened to, respected even. Why not conjoin the two types of eliminativism familiar to us from the tradition? Each of them has something to be said for them, rebarbative as they may at first appear; and there is no denying their power to resolve mystery. We don’t have to be merely partial eliminativists; we can go global. If nothing else, the position has a clear allure—if only for it bracing extremity. Philosophy thrives on the discovery and exploration of new and challenging positions (and weren’t they all at one time new and challenging?). Total eliminativism is just the next logical step once you have dipped your toe into eliminativist waters. For what is there that has notbeen conscientiously denied by one philosopher or another? So we can at least recognize the possibility of a philosopher who puts them all together. He doesn’t favor one kind of existence over another; he indiscriminately rejects all existence. He is the polar opposite of the philosopher who generously accepts all claims to existence, regarding even the fictional as somehow real. Our total eliminativist refuses to accept an intermediate position: he won’t award existence to anything. He doesn’t play favorites; he is a thoroughgoing rejectionist. He has seen the folly of reductionism; he can’t live with unexplained irreducibilities; and he can’t abide mysterianism: so he opts for universal rejection. To me (an old-school mysterian) TE is a congenial interlocutor—I can see where he is coming from. I can appreciate his motivation. I think he has a good grasp of the philosophical landscape, despite his rather drastic conclusion.[5]Col


[1] Of course, these views can be understood reductively, but they can also be proposed in an eliminative spirit. As has often been noted, the line between reduction and elimination is blurred. 

[2] We can define the following type of eliminativism: the natural world does not exist but the supernatural world does. This is the converse of the usual view that eliminates the supernatural in favor of the natural. I can’t cite a thinker who espouses the view in question, though Berkeley is not far off. 

[3] The positivists came perilously close to total eliminativism: in eliminating metaphysics (and with it its problems) they also ran the risk of eliminating science, ethics, and logic (as anything but empty tautology). Once the mental came under suspicion for its third-person unverifiability there wasn’t much left: matter had vanished into sense data, and mind was vanishing into behavior, which, being bodily, was a form of matter, only to emerge as sense data, which disappeared into behavior, and so on. The landscape was steadily denuded, leaving what exactly?

[4] Some may think that denying the existence of experiences is one step too far—surely that is impossible! But TE is not without resources even here: experiences produce the intractable mind-body problem; they will be problematically disembodied if there is no matter; their nature is quite inscrutable; we may be wrong about what they really are. And how can anything be such that nothing about its nature could generate existential worries? Just because we (as we think) infallibly introspect them, how does it follow that they cannot harbor inner incoherencies? How, too, can objective existence ever follow from the appearance of a thing? So even experiences might not exist, according to TE.  

[5] The last hundred years or so has seen a protracted battle between the reductionists and the anti-reductionists, but arguably the deeper battle is between the mysterians and the eliminativists. The mysterians accept the possibility of reductions transcending our cognitive faculties, while denying all existing attempts at reduction. The eliminativists reject mysterianism and all current reductions, holding that there is nothing there to reduce. The eliminativists see themselves as the only viable alternative to mysterianism; the mysterians see themselves as the only bulwark against eliminativism. Reductionism and anti-reductionism don’t work, so the only remaining options are mysterianism and eliminativism. That, at any rate, is my assessment of the situation. (In some moods I feel the theoretical lure of elimination quite strongly, but then I let my reality flood in and the mood passes. And I prefer to be mysterious rather than non-existent.) 

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Democracy and Autocracy

Democracy and Autocracy

I will have a go at a question bequeathed to us by Plato—the question of whether democracy has a tendency to devolve into autocracy. In democracy people have an equal say in political decisions—each person’s voice must be heard. This means that each person’s wishes are given equal weight. But there are inevitably conflicts between people’s wishes: some people want what others don’t want. Conflicts of interest arise. It follows that some people are sacrificing their own interests to the interests of others. For example, suppose a family is deciding where to have lunch: some of them want to have Italian, others Japanese, others Greek. Either a single member stipulates a given choice, or the matter is decided democratically; in the latter case (also in the former) some members of the family don’t get what they want. But they have no choice—they must follow the democratic decision. They would prefer it if they could rule autocratically, thus following their own wishes. As it is, several members are not happy with the outcome, especially if it happens on a regular basis (never having Japanese, say). Democracy entails a sacrifice of personal sovereignty—personal freedom. You don’t always get what you want.

            But suppose an autocrat comes along who promises to respect your wishes to the detriment of others, and suppose he has to power to bring this about. Perhaps he is able to impose the new order by force. Then you will always get what you want, though others will not get what they want. You have a reason to support this autocrat. You make a prudential calculation and put your weight behind this character. Thus autocracy replaces democracy: you no longer have to sacrifice yourself for the general interest by respecting the wishes of others. Democracy is inevitably a system in which many people feel discontented because other people get to decide their fate; but autocracy allows many people, perhaps a majority, to get exactly what they wish. This is why autocracies are always supported by one section of the population (the beneficiaries) but not by other sections. To put it bluntly, democracy conflicts with human greed.

            Does this mean that autocracy is stable? No, and for the obvious reason: many people are getting the short end of the stick. So autocracies are always rife with democratic rumblings: the disadvantaged want their voice heard, their wishes respected. Civil war is a likely outcome. So autocracy has a tendency to devolve into democracy. The result is the perpetual oscillation model of political history: from autocracy to democracy, from democracy to autocracy. For a very long time autocracy held sway in human groups, eventually to be replaced by democracy (in some cases at least); but democracy might be in turn be replaced by a resurgent autocracy, only to give way again to democracy. Neither system is stable; both tend to give way to the other. The reason is the inevitability of conflicts of interest, especially as regards the distribution of resources. People’s self-interested wishes don’t harmonize. Both democracy and autocracy struggle to deal with this fact, but in the end it is an insoluble problem. Thus there will never be political peace.Co

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Yes and No

Yes and No

The words “yes” and “no” are among the most familiar words of the English language, perpetually tripping off the tongue. But what do they mean—what kind of meaning do they have? They don’t have sense and reference: there is nothing they denote and there is no mode of presentation attached to them. They have no counterparts in established formal languages: no system of logic governs them. Theorists of language say nothing about them. They fall into no logical category: not singular terms, not predicates, not quantifiers, not connectives, not even brackets. No one talks about the logical form of yes-statements. Worse, they don’t appear to fall into any grammatical category: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition. Some linguists have classified them as sentences (“minor sentences”), because they get something linguistic done while standing alone; but even that must be wrong because they don’t compound as sentences do. You can’t negate them or conjoin them or insert them into a conditional.[1] You can’t say “Not no” in response to the question “Would you like to go bowling?” or affirm “Yes and snow is white”. Some languages do without them in replies to questions (Finnish, Welsh), preferring instead to reiterate the verb of the question (“Are you coming?” “We are coming”). They seem a bit like “true” and “false” in expressing affirmation and negation, but those words behave like normal words, combining happily with other words as parts of real sentences (you can say “That’s true” but not “That’s yes”). The OED offers this for “yes”: “Used to give an affirmative response”; for “no” we have “Used to give a negative response”. The dictionary doesn’t specify what these words mean in the usual definitional style but instead indicates their use. We are assumed to understand what an “affirmative response” is—some sort of assent or consent behavior (likewise for “no”). We don’t normally employ these words in our inner speech, because their function is to indicate something to others not to act as vehicles of thought; presumably they would not exist in a purely individual language not used for communication. One might hazard that they are “expressive”, but what emotion do they express? They are not like a whoop of joy or a groan of disappointment. They appear anomalous, sui generis, and mildly suspect—oddballs, rule-breakers. Yet they are with us always, among the most natural of utterances. What is going on with these two little words? 

            I would call “yes” an assentive and “no” a dissentive. They are not alone in this neglected category: in addition to “yes” we have “yeah”, “yup”, “yep”, and “yah” (and for “no” we have “nope” and “nah”); but we also have “sure”, “right”, “ok”, “no problem”, and “definitely”.[2] Moreover, we can dispense with the vocal organs altogether in registering our assent or dissent: we can nod or shake our head, smile or frown, or point our thumb up or down. There are lots of ways to show you feel favorably or unfavorably towards something. Couldn’t we just dispense with “yes” and “no” and get by with body language? These points all nudge us in the direction of the following conjecture: “yes” and “no” are not words at all (nor phrases or sentences). They simply don’t function like words: they have no grammar, no combinatorial power; they are not part of the computational system that other words participate in. They have a communicative use, to be sure, but that is not sufficient to make them part of language proper, defined as a certain formal structure—what Chomsky would call the human language faculty. Animal communication systems have their uses too, but they are not languages in this restricted sense—infinite recursive generative rule-governed grammatical systems. Strictly speaking, “yes” and “no” have no semantics and no syntax—they are not words in the proper sense. They obviously have their uses, but they are not semantic-syntactic particles (and hence neither nouns nor verbs nor adjectives nor adverbs nor prepositions). They signify but they don’t mean (except in the sense of speaker- meaning). Put differently, they have no conceptual interpretation and no representational function.

This suggestion may appear radical and counterintuitive, but actually there is considerable precedent for it: for speech is full of such “meaningless” elements. Consider “oh”, “ah”, “ooh”, “ha”, “hey”, “um”, “uh”, and “er”: these all occur frequently in speech but they are not words. Sometimes they occur in writing too, but only as a way to mimic speech: they look like words but they aren’t words. Indeed, they are not really elements of speech construed as the vocalization of words: they are speech helpers or auxiliaries or props. They are ersatz words. And they combine naturally with “yes” and “no” in informal speech: “Oh yes”, “Uh, no”. They can both also be repeated for emphasis: “yeah yeah yeah”, “Ha ha”.[3] This is like nodding vigorously or emphatically wagging one’s finger. We can modulate our response so as to indicate strong assent or firm dissent: the response can vary in magnitude (words proper don’t do that). Speaking loudly can also communicate state of mind, but nobody thinks that volume is a word. Linguists sometimes call these devices “paralinguistic”: “yes” and “no” evidently share several features with the paralinguistic. They are quasi words, borderline words, words by courtesy only.

            Here is a hypothesis: assent and dissent are important behaviors in a social species such as ourselves, predating the arrival of the human language faculty; the particles “yes” and “no” are just the latest way to get such attitudes across to conspecifics. We used to nod and wag, smile and grimace, but now we say “yes” and “no”: this is considered polite, civilized, well bred. We are communicating our attitudes of assent and dissent, consent or rejection, using the latest piece of human technology, viz. vocal speech. But we are harking back to more primitive times when we used other means to convey our attitudes. In animal mating behavior, assent and dissent clearly play an important role; the human “yes” and “no” are devices for getting these preferences across (among other devices). Presumably other species have their own methods for conveying assent and dissent, which are not verbalized; well, we are playing much the same game. Saying “yes” and “no” is just one way to indicate affirmative and negative response, but such responses are part of our pre-linguistic history; and the words (sic) carry this history within them. They represent the survival of an ancient signaling system within our newfangled capacity for articulate speech—along with assorted paralinguistic devices. What we loosely call “speech” is really an amalgam of evolutionary adaptations not a unified trait, and “yes” and “no” straddle these disparate systems. This is why we tolerate so much variation of pronunciation in these (putative) words: because we just need to convey assent or dissent not home in on a specific lexical item. If you mispronounce “house” you risk misunderstanding, but you can indicate assent in many verbal (and non-verbal) ways and not be criticized for it. This is also why the Beatles used “yeah” so often in their songs: it represents a more primordial state of mind than regular words. The “yeah” sound is joyful and optimistic, indicating harmony, consent, and agreement (no Beatles song has “Nah nah nah” in the chorus); it indicates a positive state of mind, extra-linguistically. Cavemen are often depicted as communicating by means of grunts: this has psychological truth to it in that non-linguistic communication goes to our more basic instincts. The grunt is universal and easily understood. “Yes” is the most beautiful word in the English language precisely because it isn’t really a word—it isn’t a component of that formal computational system that came into existence a mere 200,000 years ago.[4] Cooperation is the sine qua non of a social species, so expressions of affirmation are of the essence. Our word “yes” packs all of that into its short span (“no” is its unwelcome sidekick). It is a profoundly loaded word without really being a word at all (a combinatorial grammatical unit). We could do without it so long as we were adept at non-verbal communication (perhaps the Welsh and the Finns are). Say no to “yes”, but do so without saying “no”. “Yes” and “no” correspond to primitive acts, biologically based; the words are just recent tokens or tags.[5]

Colin McGinn         


[1] This shows that “yes” and “no” are not inter-definable using negation, unlike “true” and “false”: “yes” can’t mean “not no” and “no” can’t mean “not yes”—simply because these are not well formed. This is why we never use such locutions, though we can of course say, “I’m not saying yes” and “I’m not saying no”. These latter two sentences are curious in their own right, since they are using “yes” and “no” when they should be mentioning them. Any logically aware writer is uncomfortable with such sentences. Language is trying to squeeze “yes” and “no” into ordinary sentence frames. It’s like saying, “He said hello”, which is ambiguous at best.

[2] In the Geordie dialect we have “why aye” in which “why” does not have its usual meaning. Presumably it is the rhyme that makes this form attractive to speakers (“Are you going to see Sunderland play today?” “Why aye, man”).

[3] Shakespeare has King Lear utter the following “sentence” at the death of Cordelia: “O, O, O, O!” This is “language” reduced to the level of the grunt—but in context a sublime grunt. Compare “Yes!” uttered in jubilation.

[4] More accurately, that is when human speech entered human history, but the language faculty could have predated vocal speech by a long time, perhaps used for the purpose of enhancing thought. 

[5] Of course the same story could be told for “si” and oui” and the rest: all these phonetic units are surrogates for the act of affirmation.  

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Metaphysical Necessity

Metaphysical Necessity

We appear to have (at least) two concepts of necessity, usually known as epistemic necessity and metaphysical necessity. Epistemic necessity concerns what could turn out to be the case—what might be true “for all we know”; it correlates with certainty (the Cogito is an epistemic necessity). Metaphysical necessity concerns what could really be the case—how things could be in themselves; it has to do with objective essence. The word “metaphysical” isn’t doing much work here: we could as well speak of non-epistemic necessity, since metaphysical necessity is defined by contrast with epistemic necessity. We could add analytic and nomological necessity to the list: what is conceptually necessary and what is necessitated by natural law. Standard examples of metaphysical necessity belong to neither of these categories, being both synthetic and modally stronger than nomological necessity. What is striking is that we have no analysis of metaphysical necessity, as we have an analysis of epistemic necessity. We can say that epistemic necessity is certainty and epistemic possibility is uncertainty (or ignorance), or we can analyze the concept in terms of epistemic counterparts[1]; but we have nothing comparable to say about metaphysical necessity—here we have to take the concept as primitive. We have to take it as a brute fact that this table is necessarily made of wood or that a person necessarily has his or her actual parents. We have intuitions, but we have no account of these intuitions. This is quite puzzling: why should we have such intuitions, and where do they come from? Am I simply directly aware of the objective essence of things? Do I have a basic unanalyzable concept of non-epistemic metaphysical possibility? In the case of the other types of necessity we can see where they come from: from our state of knowledge, from concepts, or from the laws of nature. But metaphysical necessity appears ungrounded and unexplained: our concept of it appears primitive and inexplicable. This can fuel skepticism about the whole notion of metaphysical necessity (and possibility): is it perhaps just a trick of the imagination? What is its epistemology and what its conceptual underpinnings?

            There is one form of modality we have not mentioned: what I will call agent modality. This concerns what we (and other agents) can and cannot do. What we are free to do is what we can do and what it is possible for us to do. We are aware of this kind of necessity and possibility from our own case, and we recognize it in others. We are, in fact, painfully conscious of the limitations on our possible actions, yet also conscious of what lies within our power. We can make comparative judgments about this kind of thing. We have the idea of beings with superior agential powers—God, in the extreme case. Thus I am now aware of my possible courses of action today, and of my life decisions (I could have been a psychologist instead of a philosopher). But I have no power to change my height or my species or my parents, and I know it. There are agential necessities as well as agential possibilities. These are not epistemic: it isn’t that I might turn out to be a psychologist after all, or that I am certain of the identity of my parents. Rather, these are objective facts about my powers of action—about my abilities. So here is a category of objective non-epistemic necessity to set beside the usual category of metaphysical necessity. Of particular interest is the ability to change things: I can change my location, my clothes, my hairstyle, and even my occupation; but I can’t change my parents or my species or my identity. So there is a correspondence between agential and metaphysical modality, and an affinity of nature. Is this a coincidence?

            Consider Hesperus and Phosphorus: they (it) can change their location, but they can’t change their identity with each other. Planets have the ability to move, but they don’t have the ability to cease to be self-identical. Thus the concept of agential modality can be generalized to them: it isn’t a matter of free decision, to be sure, but it is a kind of power. Tables, too, can move, but they have no ability to change their material composition. Animals can walk around, choose a mate, and eat, but they can’t change their parental origin or species. Nor can other agents change the traits in question: it isn’t that we can change the identity of planets or the composition of tables or the origin of animals. No one can alter these things: they are agential necessities tout court. Not even God has the power to change these facts: he can’t make 3 even or water not H2O or Queen Elizabeth the daughter of Bertrand Russell and Gertrude Stein. God can do a lot—a lot is possible for God—but he can’t do just anything. Some actions are perfectly possible, within the agent’s powers, but some are impossible, even for the most powerful of agents. This is beginning to sound a lot like metaphysical modality, is it not? We might, then, venture a hypothesis: our concept of metaphysical necessity is an outgrowth of our concept of agential necessity (and similarly for possibility). We understand metaphysical modality on the model of agential modality—that’s where we get the idea from. We know what agential possibility is, originally from our own case, and then we generalize it to include metaphysical possibility. Accordingly, the examples of metaphysical necessity with which we are familiar are special cases of agential limitations, specifically limitations on God’s agency (or any conceivable agent). To be metaphysically necessary is to be such that no possible agent could change it. No possible agent could change this table from being made of wood to being made of ice—because that would make it a different table. You could replace each wood part with a similarly shaped chunk of ice, until the whole thing was changed to ice, but that would destroy the original wooden table, replacing it with a new ice table. Our intuition of necessity can thus be cashed out as an intuition of agential inalterability. That is what we are really thinking when we think that this table is necessarily made of ice: that no one could make it otherwise. This is not a conceptual reduction of the concept of metaphysical necessity (for one thing, it uses the concept of a possible agent); it is an attempt to link the unmoored concept of metaphysical necessity to something more familiar, more part of everyday life. It is a conceptual domestication—an elucidation or genealogy. It tells us from where the metaphysical concept derives. It tells us what family of concepts it belongs to, what its conceptual relatives are. It is true that the metaphysical concept transcends these practical origins, but it doesn’t entirely leave them behind: it builds on them, feeds off them, and exploits them. We might even offer that without them the concept of metaphysical necessity would not be available to us: we would draw a blank on questions of metaphysical modality if we had no prior notion of agential modality. The latter concept is a necessary precondition of possessing the former concept. It gives us the leg up we need. This is a case of conceptual leapfrogging or ladder climbing. Like many philosophical concepts, it takes its rise from something homelier.

            We can test the hypothesis by asking how changeability correlates with necessity: are the least changeable things the things with the most metaphysical necessity? Numbers are notoriously changeless, but they are also heavily endowed with necessity: everything about them (almost) is charged with necessity. If we ask what can be changed about the number 3, the answer is hardly anything. By contrast, the self admits of a great many changes—of place, activity, psychology, perhaps even physical composition—and it is also highly contingent. Almost everything about the self is changeable and contingent: you can even in principle put the self in another body by brain transfer, and selves are not necessarily tied to a given body. The more a thing can be changed by a suitable agent the more imbued with contingency it is. Organisms and physical objects are intermediate between numbers and selves: quite a bit can be changed, but quite a bit can’t be. You can easily change the location of a cat, but not its body type (if you put a cat’s brain into a dog’s body, you don’t get a cat—though you may get the cat’s self). Tables will accept changes of location and color, but they resist being converted into TVs or repaired by being recast in a different material.[2] This is all to say that our thoughts about what is metaphysically necessary or contingent are shot through with thoughts of what it is possible for agents to do. Two seemingly extraneous concepts thus intrude on these metaphysical matters: concepts of agents and actions. We are thinking of agents and we are thinking of their actions when we think about metaphysical modality. We aren’t just thinking of objects and their properties: we are thinking of what agents can and cannot do in relation to those objects and properties. When I think that I could have a had a different career I am thinking that I could have acted differently; when I think that a table could have been in a different place I am thinking of its powers of movement and of possible external causes of its movement (say, someone picking it up). When I think that I could not have had different parents I am thinking that, while I could have left my parents’ house earlier, it was not within my power to sever myself from them biologically. I am thinking, that is, of agency and action. My thought is not just about my possible properties, barely considered. Similarly, my modal thoughts about the table are not confined to the table and its properties; I am taking in other objects and other properties, specifically agents acting on the table. I am placing the table in a wider and richer conceptual context. So the concept of metaphysical necessity is not as bare and ungrounded as it may appear; it has its roots in a rather practical and useful set of concepts having to do with action. Epistemic necessity has its roots in concepts of knowledge, justification, and certainty; metaphysical necessity has its roots in concepts of agency, power, and action. Neither is self-standing and primitive.[3]

Colin McGinn


[1] This is Kripke’s notion of epistemic modality in Naming and Necessity (1972): roughly, a situation is epistemically possible if we could be in an epistemic situation qualitatively identical to the actual situation and yet the facts are otherwise. It is notable that Kripke says virtually nothing to articulate the concept of metaphysical necessity, beyond noting (correctly) that it has a strong intuitive content. My aim here is to remedy that lacuna—so I am seeking to save metaphysical necessity not bury it. I want it to seem less strange. Less exotic.

[2] We can allow for grades of metaphysical necessity, according to how easy it is to change a given property. It is very easy to change one’s location, but not so easy to change one’s career or color or personality, so one is morepossible than the other. And that is intuitively correct: it does seem more possible to move to a different place than to acquire a different personality—since one condition is easier to achieve than the other. The binary opposition of metaphysical necessity and metaphysical contingency is too simple, too black and white. Similarly, epistemic necessity also admits of grades: some things are less epistemically possible than others—we can be more certain that the sun will rise tomorrow than that the stock market will rise tomorrow. Both types of modality come in degrees.

[3] Here is another point: the logical analogy between modal concepts and deontic concepts is well known, and deontic concepts concern agents and actions. Obligation maps onto necessity and permissibility maps onto possibility. Locating the source of modal concepts in agential concepts therefore comports with the general tenor of the concepts in question; certainly deontic modalities are explicitly agential. 

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