Fiona and Me




Fiona and Me



I was watching the impeachment hearings on Thursday waiting for Dr. Fiona Hill to begin her testimony, expecting to hear an American woman speak. When she started speaking I immediately knew she was English by origin and a few seconds later recognized her accent as characteristic of the north east of England. This piqued my interest as I too was born in that part of the country. She went on to explain that in England her accent would have acted as an impediment to her professional success, which I don’t doubt, but that in America it had not counted against her—and indeed she had done little to smooth its edges (to her credit). She was, and is, what is called a Geordie in England. I remarked to George Stephanopoulos, who was covering the hearings live for ABC news, that people from that part of England are as tough as nails and very blunt (she is a coalminer’s daughter and my own father worked “down the pit” for a while as a teenager). He replied “Clearly” and indeed she went on to demonstrate the correctness of my description. It took an immigrant Geordie woman to teach a bunch of American senators a lesson in intelligence and integrity, and I hope the lesson wasn’t lost on them.

Anyway it prompted in me a series of reflections on language acquisition. I must have spoken with a strong Geordie accent as a young boy, even after we moved to Kent when I was three. This will have continued till I went to school at age five as my parents naturally carried their accent with them to the south of England. Of course, I have no recollection of any of this. At that point I must have gradually made the transition to the accent characteristic of that part of England—an accent close to the London accent, exemplified well by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It is completely different from the Geordie accent. When my family moved back north to Blackpool when I was twelve I was taken to have a Cockney accent by my schoolfellows, while my parents continued with their original accent. How did I do it? I went from Geordie to Cockney without apparent effort or consciousness. How long did it take? What did I work on first? Was it at all difficult for me to pronounce the words so differently? I can’t even do a Geordie accent today. Evidently I still had enough brain plasticity at age five to move smoothly from one accent to another, and there is no reason to suppose that I was deficient in either accent at the time I spoke them. A few years later and I would probably have had the Geordie accent for life, but my brain enabled me to pick up the brand new accent with remarkable facility. I wonder what my parents made of it. So, Fiona, you evoked strong memories and deep reflections in me. Thanks for everything, hinny.




The Problem of Relations

Are relations real? There are reasons to think not, even though properties are agreed to be real. That would yield a metaphysics in which relations are regarded as mental constructions projected onto the world, while properties (or most of them) are treated as objective constituents of reality. That is, we embrace idealism about relations and realism about properties contrary to a standing tradition that treats them identically. Relations are reified fictions, while properties are found realities. What reasons might justify such a divided position?[1]

Here is one argument. Consider the relations expressed by “father of” and “son of”, and suppose that a is the father of b: is the fact stated by “a is the father of b” the same fact as that stated by “b is the son of a”? Apparently it is: the state of affairs that makes both propositions true is identical. But the relations in question are different, so the complex consisting of a, b, and these relations are different. Therefore relations are not constituents of facts. It is, intuitively, the same state of the world that corresponds to both propositions, but the relations expressed are not the same relations, so the relations are not objective features of the world. We have different relational concepts, but they don’t denote different objective traits of reality.

Here is another argument: we don’t have impressions of relations in the way we have impressions of properties. I see the properties of being red and square—they form distinct constituents of my visual field—but I don’t see the relation of being next-to or on. I see objects standing in these relations, but I don’t see the relations themselves. I have no sense datum of these relations, no phenomenal element corresponding to them. Rather, I infer their presence from what I see of the properties of things. Hume famously argued that we don’t see the causal relation; well, we don’t actually see any relation, even simple spatial relations. That is why relations strike us as abstract and curiously attenuated: they don’t produce sensory effects comparable to those produced by properties. And a fortiori for such relations as fatherhood or being-brighter-than or identity: these correspond to no distinguishable sensory content.

We can imagine someone who is “relation-blind” but not someone who is “property-blind”.  This individual has no sense of relations between things but sees shapes and colors: she never describes anything as next to something or related in any way, sticking to monadic predications. There is no perceptual awareness of relations and no cognitive competence in relation concepts. But it is not possible to be aware solely of relations without any awareness of properties: for that would preclude awareness of objects altogether. Relations are added to perception of objects, but properties are constitutive of it. You can be color-blind and still see, and you can be relation-blind and still see; but you can’t be property-blind and still see.

Relations never constitute the nature of an object (they are always “external”), but properties do. Objects can have natures without relations existing, but not so for properties. Relations are extrinsic to the nature of an object. Thought about objects can thus dispense with relations. Describing the nature of a thing never involves specifying its relations.[2]

It is notable that no one ever cites relations as paradigms of universals: they don’t strike us as ontologically robust in the way properties do. Plato never talks about the form of left-ness, say. It is easier to be a nominalist about relations than about properties because relations seem wispy and word-like.[3] What causal powers do they possess? Can we form mental images of them? If you ask me to form an image of red, I can do so; but if you ask me to form an image of adjacency, the best I can do is picture a pair of adjacent objects. This is why it seems intuitively natural to conceive of relations as sets of ordered pairs (or triples in some cases): we have no solid conception of them as existing over and above their extensions. Relations have domains and ranges, and these seem to exhaust their nature; but we don’t likewise fall in with the idea that properties are identical with their extensions—that there is nothing more to redness, say, than a set of objects falling under the predicate “red”. We are natural realists about properties, but not about relations.[4]

Relations provide principles of grouping—they bring separate objects together. This is made vivid by Gestalt figures in which it is clear that perceived relations act to create visual totalities. This suggests a functional basis for the perception of relations: we perceive (or impute) relations because it is useful to do so. Thus relational cognition is an interest-relative phenomenon: it is useful to know that the computer is on the table when you are looking for the computer, or that this person is the father of that person. We would traffic in relations even if the world objectively contained none. A social species needs to be sensitive to family relations, say, regardless of the metaphysics of relations.[5] Reifying relations is biologically advantageous. Relational cognition is a useful heuristic whether or not relations are objectively real. It operates like a grid we place over things in order to aid action. Its origin is our needs not pre-existing reality.

And here we reach the nub: there is something like a relation of supervenience between monadic facts and relational propositions. Relations are not part of the ultimate fabric of reality; they depend upon more basic features. For example, we say that the computer is on the table—that these objects stand in the relation so expressed—but the hard facts are that the computer is at a certain place and the table at another place. We could specify the spatial coordinates of these objects and never mention the relation in question. That relation indeed follows from these more basic facts, but they can be specified without invoking the relation. Or consider the parenting relation: the hard facts are that certain copulation activity takes place, a process of gestation occurs, and offspring are born. These facts are sufficient to ensure that the relation expressed by “parent of” holds, but they can be specified without employing that relational notion. This is something we add to the basic facts—a useful heuristic, a convenient fiction. The hard-line anti-relational metaphysician will insist that objective reality consists of nothing but non-relational facts that we dress up as relations to serve our own purposes. This austere theorist countenances only monadic propositions at the basic level, with relational propositions allowed only as supervenient on these. The picture is that the world consists of objects with monadic properties, each endowed with an intrinsic nature, and that any talk of relations between them is imposed by us. It is not false to say that objects stand in relations, but they do so only in the sense that objects have colors—both are essentially mind-dependent aspects of things. Neither colors nor relations belong in the “absolute conception”. They are phenomenal not noumenal, subjective not objective. This is why philosophers don’t traditionally list relations as among the primary qualities of things: they don’t carry the same weight of objectivity. They are not constitutive of the substance of things.

We operate with the idea of natural kinds according to which we discover real essences not expressed in our ordinary words for the kind. These are cases in which properties possess hidden depths. But relations never seem to qualify for this status: we don’t pick out a relation by ostensive pointing (“that relation”) and then discover its hidden essence. There is no illuminating empirical theory of what constitutes (say) being-on-top-of or being-the-father-of comparable to the theory that water is H2O or heat is molecular motion. This suggests that we are not dealing with objective kinds found in nature but with classifications manufactured by the mind for its own ends. Not every part of our conceptual scheme is geared to reflecting antecedent facts of nature, and it looks as if relational concepts have another raison d’etre more akin to our ideas of secondary qualities. It is true that the relational scheme is closely tied to the underlying monadic facts, but it is something superadded, imposed from without.

Here is another point, intuitively suggestive though hard to convert into an actual argument. There are just too many relations in the universe; they come too cheaply. Every single grain of sand has endless spatial relations to other physical objects in the universe, some millions of light-years away—not to speak of such odd relations as “being part of a beach I am particularly fond of”. Why would nature create such pointless plenty? What purpose do these multitudes of relations serve? They seem gratuitous, de trop. If God created the world, why did he so stuff it with reams of redundant and tedious relations? But if relations are essentially fictional, we avoid this supernumerary abundance—as we avoid populating the world with the endless armies and mythical beasts of fiction. When we are first told of the profligacy of relations we react with surprise—“I never thought of that, but I suppose it must be so”—but in fact our initial instincts are sound: it is all projection and fancy. We pick out (or invent) the relations that matter to us; the rest we ignore—there is no point in imposing them. They are like a mist into which we decline to gaze: that is, their endless plurality is an indication of insubstantiality. The grain of sand has its hard inner nature, but its limitless penumbra of relations is so much airy nothingness.

We can conceptualize the anti-realist position about relations by using the familiar apparatus of skeptical problems and skeptical solutions in the manner of Hume.[6] Relations are not perceptible facts like properties—they are not part of the primitive data of experience. Nor are they reducible to anything else more palpable. All we ever see of the world is objects having monadic properties; we never see relations naked, so to speak (cf. causal necessity). They are neither physical nor mental. They are not things. Yet we talk about them, and this talk seems useful. Why do we do this if relations don’t objectively exist? Because they serve a biological purpose: they allow us to group things, finding collections in addition to individuals. We then project them onto the world—we reify them. We treat them as more real than they are. In this we are encouraged by language, since there are relational predicates as well as monadic ones. We have relational concepts, but they don’t correspond to objective traits of the universe—they don’t refer to anything that exists independently of the human standpoint. Or more cautiously, the way we tend to conceive of relations has no objective counterpart—though they do supervene on the genuinely objective. We thus misconstrue our relational concepts, treating them as if they are just like our property concepts, which do mirror an antecedent reality. This is the skeptical solution to the skeptical problem. We could even put it as the thesis that relation words have assertion conditions but not truth conditions—criteria of use but not correspondence to fact. We have an “intuition of impalpability” with regard to relations and this reflects their lack of objective existence, but relation talk has its own interest-relative rationale. Accordingly, strict ontology forbids their inclusion in the basic furniture of the world, but we need not dispense with them altogether. We must recognize their true status and not succumb to the perils of reification. Only philosophical confusion can come from regarding our talk of relations as a reflection of objectively real facts, as if further knowledge of their nature could vouchsafe important information about reality. Realism about relations is to be shunned, difficult as that may be given our mental make-up.

I now want to switch gears and consider the bearing of the foregoing on a seemingly unrelated question, namely the nature and origin of philosophical problems. And at this point we are about to get even more radical, not to say shocking: for the question is whether a false view of relations is at the heart of many, if not all, philosophical problems. Be warned, then: things are going to get gnarly. The first and paramount point to note is that a great many philosophical problems are overtly concerned with understanding certain allegedly problematic relations. Here is a list: the relation of mind to body (or brain); the relation between knowledge and reality; the relation of intentionality; the relation of reference; the relation between an object and its properties; the relation of personal identity; the relation between desire and free action; the relation between perceptual experience and external objects; the relation between God and the world; the causal relation; the relation between psychology and physics; the relation between ethical principles and human motivation; the relation between subjective states and aesthetic value; the relation between language and necessity; the relation of numerical identity. We think there is a relation between the paired items listed, but we find it hard to determine the nature of this relation; the relation seems inscrutable, open to different theories, essentially contestable. We try to peer into the relation, as if into a murky pool. We assume that there is a relation and that it has a determinate constitution; we don’t think the idea of such relations is a fiction, a mere useful cognitive heuristic. Philosophy is understood as the investigation of these real relations—for example, it investigates the nature of the emergence relation between brain and mind, or how desire relates to action in cases of free will, or how acts of reference relate to objects in the world. On the one hand, there is this; on the other hand, there is that; the question is how exactly the two are related. Is the relation in question causal (but what is that relation?) or a kind of isomorphism or identity or supervenience or analytic reduction or part-whole composition or complete independence? If we could just see more clearly into the relation, it would solve our philosophical problems! But the relation remains elusive.

But all this presupposes that relations are real—that they have an objective nature, discoverable or not. It all reifies relations, treating them as analogous to properties with an objective essence. What if relations are unreal, merely useful fictions for grouping things? What if relations simply don’t exist? Then there is no such thing as the relation of emergence or the reference relation or the relation between knowledge and reality or the relation of reduction or any of the other relations listed. So there is nothing that the philosophy of these relations is trying to discover the nature of. Philosophy reifies relations, just as we are prone to more generally, thus generating problems that don’t exist but for this reification. It attempts to do the impossible: reveal the nature of relations that have no nature because there are no such relations, just relational words and concepts—classificatory heuristics that have no corresponding real essence. If we could stop reifying the relational concepts that philosophy thrives upon, we could rid ourselves of its problems. In short, philosophical problems arise from the false reification of relations; there simply are no such relations to get philosophically perplexed about. For instance, there are mental states and there are brain states, and they co-evolve in certain ways; but there is no relation between them—specifically, no generative relation. Why? Because there is no relation between anything—not really, not objectively. We can study properties, either scientifically or philosophically, because properties are real and have a nature; but we can’t study relations in this way—and philosophy is up to its ears in relations. The form of a philosophical problem is, “How is x related to y?”: but then it is engaged on an impossible enterprise, destined for frustration and failure. We can ask how we relate one thing to another, as a cognitive act, but there is no such thing as how things are objectively related—not in the sense that philosophy presupposes and requires. Talk of relations has its roots in our practices of grouping, not in mind-independent reality, so we cannot set out to analyze relations as if they had a basis in the objective world. Given that there are no relations in reality sub specie aeternitatus, philosophy has to be wrong in trying to ascertain the objective nature of relations; at best it can enquire into our relational concepts, which are thin and interest-relative. Philosophy reifies relations and then finds that it can say nothing clear and convincing about their putative nature. So, at least, it may be maintained.

As promised, this is surprising and shocking. The shape of the position resembles Wittgenstein’s equally surprising and shocking contention that philosophy arises from reifying the forms of language (as I would loosely paraphrase his position)—also a type of misunderstanding. Both positions detect misconceptions of the real: taking relations to be like properties, and taking the forms of language to mirror reality. The question for Wittgenstein is whether philosophical problems really do arise in the way he suggests, and the question for the proponent of the anti-relational conception of philosophical problems is whether they really arise from the fallacious assimilation in question. Let us accept that relations are unreal and that philosophy is characteristically concerned with problematic-seeming relations; the question is whether it must take that form. Is it possible to formulate the standard philosophical problems without assuming that they concern the nature of real relations? Maybe this will work for some problems (e.g., the free will problem) but not for others (e.g., the mind-body problem); in any case, the question is not trivial. I really don’t know the answer to this question and will not pursue it here; what is clear is that traditionally that is the way philosophical problems have presented themselves—as puzzles about relations of certain kinds. For instance, we have the practice of predication, so we ask how what is predicated (a property) relates to the thing we predicate the property of (an object). Thus we conjure up the relation of instantiation and picture it as linking one kind of entity to another, perhaps as a kind of gripping relation. The question then becomes whether the instantiated entities are platonic universals or expressions of language or ideas in the mind; and whether the object is nothing but the properties it instantiates or somehow stands apart from them. It is difficult to see how we could formulate the problems that arise here without invoking the notion of an objective relation: that is the matrix through which we view the problem. We find it hard to imagine what it would be to think without this matrix and its reifying tendencies; our minds are suffused with relational concepts. But if we take seriously the anti-realist arguments against relations, we have to admit that the old way doing things has to be wrong. To a being not in the grip of relational thought, seeing reality for the totality of monadic facts that it is, these philosophical problems would seem artificial and misguided. Once the monadic facts have been listed and explained there is nothing more to say, no more questions to ask. There simply are no meaningful philosophical puzzles of the form “How is x related to y?” We can sensibly ask how we relate x to y, and for what purpose, but there is no sense in asking how the things are related, if that means asking after the real nature of the objective relations our grouping practices reflect. Relations, to repeat, are not constituents of facts (see the first argument above): facts are not made of pairs of objects and a further entity that links them, viz. the relation. When x loves y there isn’t x, y, and the loving relation, as an extra ingredient of reality, forming a complex entity of which the relation is one component; rather, x has various emotions and beliefs with a certain content, these being monadic properties of x. There is nothing more to the fact than these properties; speaking of a relation of loving between x and y is derivative talk, capable of misleading us into false reification. Relations resolve into a congeries of properties, or else are mental projections or mere words. Our language and thought play a trick on us: we perceive objects with properties laid out in a certain way and we proceed to group them according to predilection—but then we project the patterns of grouping and invest reality with objective relations. This is how we come to conceive of family relations when really the hard facts are just copulations and births arranged in time. Even spatial relations are just objects having properties at specific locations, objectively speaking; anything extra is human imposition. Thus anti-relational metaphysics cuts at the heart of traditional philosophy. Reality doesn’t have the relational form that philosophical questions presuppose. Maybe we can’t stop thinking in these terms, so that philosophical problems will always grip us; but that doesn’t mean that these problems have any basis in the objective nature of the world. They arise from our self-produced concepts not from reality as such.[7]


[1] I wish I could cite an obscure philosopher (Hegel maybe) whose writings suggested the position developed in this paper: not as an interpretation of that philosopher, and not as my own view, but as what occurred to me upon reading said obscure philosopher. I certainly find the view extraordinary and literally incredible, but I also think a case can be made for it (as well as against it). Let me say that the ideas occurred to me in a dream, on which I drowsily made notes in the middle of the night, and in the morning tried to decipher those notes, coming up with what follows. So this is an essay in philosophical dream interpretation directed at myself.

[2] Hegel’s idea that all relations are really “internal” might be seen as a tacit recognition that only properties are real, i.e. only what contributes to the nature of an object can be true of it. This naturally gives rise to a general monism. The alternative is to deny that relations are real; then objects can have natures constituted only by their monadic properties. The essence of reality is to be unrelated: it is we who imbue reality with relations; in itself reality consists of self-standing objects mutually ignoring each other.

[3] Here is a passage from Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy that expresses the kind of position I am articulating (not endorsing): “Suppose, for instance, that I am in my room. I exist, and my room exists; but does ‘in’ exist? Yet obviously the word ‘in’ has a meaning; it denotes a relation between me and my room. This relation is something, although we cannot say that it exists in the same sense in which I and my room exist. The relation ‘in’ is something which we can think about and understand, for, if we could not understand it, we could not understand the sentence ‘I am in my room’. Many philosophers, following Kant, have maintained that relations are the work of the mind, that things in themselves have no relations, but that the mind brings them together in one act of thought and thus produces the relations which it judges them to have.”

[4] Relations are typically expressed by verbs and prepositions (e.g. “at”), but it is a stretch to take these as referring to objective traits of the world—as if they are names of a certain kind of entity. In the case of nouns, this is far more natural (“red”, “man”). The idea that “at” denotes something seems fanciful, though it certainly has a meaning. Thus relation words are more like connectives such as “and” and “or”.

[5] We have a strong tendency to insist on social groupings of one kind or another, plausibly driven by genetic considerations, but for the anti-relational metaphysician this is just a matter of biological necessity not objective existence. Thus the reification of relational concepts is only to be expected: the concept of a family is likely to be elevated above what the objective facts warrant, as if written deep into the nature of things. But the only hard facts here are certain patterns of genetic transmission.

[6] See also Kripke’s development of this apparatus in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982).

[7] Let me emphasize that I am not advocating this position as true; I am rather articulating a line of argument that strikes me as worth pondering. It is certainly startling in its originality and sweep. I am in the grip of relational thinking as much as anyone, and not naturally inclined to suppose that philosophical problems are really pseudo-problems. On the other hand, the position has a certain grim appeal.



Consider a possible world in which the fundamental constituents of reality are mental in nature. Suppose a kind of mental atomism holds: there are basic elements that combine to form less basic elements. We thus have simple and complex mental entities. But suppose further that there is a special kind of emergence in this world whereby entities we would describe as physical emerge from mental elements. That is, ordinary physical objects, solid and extended in space, emerge from mental entities. This would pose a problem for the philosophers in this world: how is such a thing possible? Some may deny emergence, insisting that the physical entities have another origin altogether—maybe created by a deity enamored of all things physical. Others may declare the physical things to be illusory and offer to eliminate all talk of them. And there may be those who defend a reductionist view of the physical entities: they reduce to mental entities and their properties. Certainly the apparent emergence poses a theoretical challenge, because it seems impossible to understand how the physical could emerge from the mental. A few philosophers respond with a startling hypothesis: the emergence is possible because the underlying mental entities possess a hidden physical aspect, and this is what enables observable physical entities to come into being. They call this doctrine “pan-physicalism”—the doctrine that the mental entities of this world harbor a physical dimension. Evidently, it is a doctrine with the same general shape as pan-psychism, except inverted, and motivated in much the same way. Pan-psychism explains the emergence of mind from matter by crediting matter with mental properties, while pan-physicalism explains the emergence of matter from mind (in the possible world described) by crediting mind with physical properties.[1]

In the actual world there is no such emergence: physical things don’t emerge from combinations of mental things. There is no way to combine thoughts and sensations in such a way as to produce a table—you have to use atoms and molecules. So there is no argument for pan-physicalism based on the emergence of the physical from the mental in our world. But that doesn’t mean there might not be other arguments to the same conclusion, and indeed such arguments have been given. For instance, it has been held that the causal powers of mental states and events require that they have a physical aspect: the only way mental things can cause physical things is by the mental things having a physical nature. Thus we get different varieties of identity theory. The general thought is that the mind can only influence the body if it is not disconnected from the body—that is, if it has a physical nature too. That is the only way to capture the proximity required by causation: mental events can only exist in a causal sequence in space if they have a physical nature. Without this embedding in the physical world mental events would be deprived of causal efficacy. Such arguments lead to a pan-physicalist position: all mental events partake of the physical in some way—they have a physical aspect. It is not that they exist in a realm removed from that of the physical—that would preclude psychophysical interaction.

It is possible to combine pan-physicalism with pan-psychism. Everything mental has a physical aspect and everything physical has a mental aspect. Pan-physicalism explains mental causation and pan-psychism explains mental emergence. The two are logically compatible and each offers explanatory benefits. To be sure, neither doctrine is observably true—they are speculative hypotheses—but perhaps in some possible world they are part of perception-based common sense. In this world ordinary perception of physical reality reveals its mental aspect, while introspection reveals the physical dimension of the mind. Here the metaphysics will look very different to the inhabitants: there is no radical separation of the mental and the physical, though a division of aspects is accepted as common sense. The mind is experienced as partly physical and the world is experienced as partly mental. Mental causation is not a mystery and neither is the emergence of mind from matter. Everything is seen to have a dual nature; nothing is homogeneous through and through. Physics deals in mental properties as well as physical properties, and psychology is thoroughly psychophysical. No one is a materialist and no one is an idealist. Reality is regarded as always and inherently a mixture.

My purpose in describing this world is to make the metaphysical position in question visible. We are familiar with pan-psychist metaphysics and with pan-physicalist metaphysics, reflecting the old dualisms and monisms; but no one (that I know of[2]) ever talks about a view that combines both, and which has no established label. This is the idea that reality is an inextricable combination of two strands with neither having priority. It may not seem to us that this is so, given our epistemic predicament, but it could be the objective truth. Everything is mental and physical. If we like, we can relax the doctrine a bit by speaking of proto-mental and proto-physical properties, so as to avoid the assumption that the physical nature of the mind is captured in our current physical paradigms and that the mental nature of matter reflects the way existing minds are formed. Maybe the underlying properties are at some remove from current conceptions of the mental and the physical, though still recognizably distinct from each other. There is a fundamental dualism of aspects but the aspects are ubiquitous and intertwined: no mind without matter and no matter without mind—though the words “mind” and “matter” are freed from their current limitations. What we know is that there is something about physical things that allows minds to arise from them, and something about minds that allows them to interact with matter, but we are hazy about the details. We know there are two types of property at work, but we are only partially cognizant of the difference. The basic metaphysical picture is unaffected by this ignorance, namely that everything is partly physical and partly mental. As I say, my purpose is to make this position visible, not to endorse it[3]—though I think it has an attractive shape. It is simply the conjunction of pan-psychism and pan-physicalism (we might call it “pan-double aspect-ism”, or simply “pan-ism”). Nothing is either one thing or the other; everything is a bit of both.


[1] I will make free use of the words “mental” and “physical” here, fully aware of their lack of proper definition. To fix ideas, we can understand the physical as what is spatially extended and the mental as consciousness (however that is to be understood). I won’t discuss this difficult subject further.

[2] Spinoza maybe.

[3] Is it ever possible fully to endorse a metaphysical position on this scale? Doesn’t intellectual honesty require extreme caution? Of course, one can like a certain position very much.


Seeming to Know

We have the word “see” but also the phrase “seeming to see”. The former implies veridicality, but the latter does not. You can seem to see what isn’t there. The locution is useful in stating certain philosophical doctrines about perception, to the effect that seeing is a composite of an inner sense impression and an outer fact suitably related to that impression. The inner impression is described as a “seeming to see”, which cancels the entailment to veridicality. Similarly, we have “remember” and “seem to remember”: the former implies the fact in question, but the latter does not. The idea is that we can be, as we say, under the impression that we see or remember without actually seeing or remembering, because we might be suffering from an illusion or misremembering. The brain in a vat seems to see but doesn’t really see, and the man born five minutes ago seems to remember his life thirty years earlier but doesn’t really remember it. It is subjectively as if these subjects see or remember but in fact they don’t—it only seems to them to be so. This seeming is not the same as belief: it is not that they believe they see and remember but don’t really, since they may not have this belief—they may be well aware of their odd situation. They may actively deny that they believe they see and remember, citing the fact that they are a brain in a vat or were born five minutes ago. But it still seems to them that they see and remember: their experience gives them the impression that this is so—they simply reject that impression. The brain in a vat will say, “It seems to me that I am seeing things, but I don’t believe that I really am”; and similarly for the man born five minutes ago, mutatis mutandis. What they mean, roughly, is that they have an experience internally indistinguishable from seeing or remembering but which isn’t genuine seeing or remembering. Philosophers have invented names for this experience—“sense-datum”, “sensory impression”, “idea”—but ordinary language already contains a phrase capturing the intended meaning. Thus genuine seeing and genuine remembering consist of seeming to see and seeming to remember plus something else—such as a causal relation to an external fact.

But the case of knowledge is different: here we don’t have the locution “seem to know”. We don’t contrast really knowing with merely seeming to know; indeed, the phrase strikes us as strange—and is never used in ordinary contexts. What would it even be to seem to know something? The concept is empty, possibly nonsensical. It is not that a person who lacks knowledge has seeming knowledge, as a person who fails to see can have seeming seeing: there is no such thing as seeming to know. There is no experience internally indistinguishable from knowing which is the impression of knowing. There is no “knowledge-datum”. It might be thought that belief is this missing element: to have a belief is to seem to know something. But this is wrong: a belief is a commitment to the truth of a proposition, but seeming to know would not be such a commitment. A person who merely seems to know would be able to say, “It seems to me that I know, but I don’t because the proposition I seem to know is one that I believe to be false”. This is the analogue of seeming to see but not believing that one sees. The impression of knowledge should be able to exist even when the subject disavows it; but that is not possible with belief—here the mental state is a commitment to truth. In belief one takes oneself to know, but seeming knowledge would not be like that; so we can’t identify seeming knowledge with belief. Thus the belief component of knowledge is not analogous to the sensory component of perception: the latter is a seeming perception but the former is not a seeming knowing. A belief is not an impression of knowledge in the way a sense experience is an impression of sensing. The proper conclusion is that the phrase “seeming to know” is empty and devoid of sense, which is why it does not occur in ordinary language (or in philosophical language).

I take it this point is obvious, but it has an interesting consequence, namely that it is wrong to model knowledge on perception. In particular, it is wrong to model knowledge on seeing: to know a fact is not to see it in some way (with the eyes or intellectually). For that would imply that there is such a thing as an impression of knowing—a type of seeming that falls short of the fact. It would imply that someone could be in that state of seeming and yet not know; but there is no such type of state, no state of seeming to know. So knowledge is not something that can be analyzed as an inner impression of knowing combined with some outer facts. To know that p is not to see that p, since such seeing would have to allow for mere seeming to see, which would be tantamount to seeming to know. Just as belief can’t be analyzed as seeming to know, so knowledge can’t be analyzed as any kind of seeing. Even perceptual knowledge is not a type of seeing (or otherwise sensing) because no one can seem to know about observable things. Nor can moral or mathematical intuition be modeled in this way, on pain of the mythology of seeming to know. It is true enough that one can know things by seeing them, but knowing itself isn’t a type of seeing: for if it were, one could fail to know by merely being in a state of seeming to know—but there is no such state to be in. Knowing is not a combination of a fact and an impression of a fact, as perception is (also memory). Knowing doesn’t have this kind of structure.[1]


[1] It has the structure of an internal state (belief) that is combined with other facts, but this internal state is not a type of inner seeming. In belief the world is not presented in a certain way.


Understanding the Duck-Rabbit

It was Wittgenstein who sparked philosophical interest in what psychologists call ambiguous figures.[1] The phrase “seeing as” became a staple of philosophical vocabulary and various uses were made of it. I want to revisit the topic in the hope of gaining some clarity on the matter. There are many instances of so-called ambiguous figures: Rubin’s vase, the Necker cube, Schroeder’s stairs, old woman/young woman, etc. What they all have in common is well illustrated by the duck-rabbit drawing, so I will focus on it. A single physical stimulus—lines drawn on paper—can appear to be a picture of a duck as well as a picture of a rabbit. I will begin by simply describing the case compendiously so that we have it as clearly in our mind as possible (I recommend having another look at it).

First, the two aspects alternate over time, now a duck, now a rabbit; they never appear at the same time—it is impossible to see both simultaneously.  Second, the physical stimulus remains unchanged and is perceived to remain unchanged; we don’t perceive it to alter in any way as aspect succeeds aspect. This is a perceptual object as much as the aspects it affords—a certain fixed pattern of lines that we see as such. It is a phenomenological invariant. Third, the aspects presented are not themselves ambiguous: they are clearly either duck or rabbit, as clear as simply seeing a duck picture or a rabbit picture. Fourth, the alternation is only partially a matter the subject’s will: it typically happens automatically, though the process can be accelerated by an effort of will. The shift of perception does not emanate from any change in the stimulus and it is also not a matter of simple choice; it seems natural to say that the brain does it, an agency unto itself. Fifth, there is no reason to suppose that the stimulus is incapable of being seen in only one way: it is perfectly conceivable that some perceivers will see it only as a duck and some only as a rabbit—say, if they had knowledge of only one kind of animal. The very same stimulus array would be, for these perceivers, simply a picture of a duck or a picture of a rabbit—while for us it is a picture of both. Sixth, it is noteworthy that the ambiguity is invariably binary: there are just two possible aspects associated with the stimulus in question. This seems entirely contingent: why not three aspects or even seventeen? Some possible perceivers might increase the cardinality considerably. Seventh, there is both what Wittgenstein called the dawning of an aspect, often experienced as wondrous or surprising, and then there is the steady perception of the aspect for some extended period of time, typically a few seconds. Eighth, specific parts of the stimulus are experienced as different parts of the animal depicted—the same lines are seen now as ears and now as a beak. There is part seeing-as and whole seeing-as, the latter dependent on the former. Ninth, it is not possible to produce an imaginary array that admits of this kind of ambiguity: a mental image will either be a duck picture or a rabbit picture, with no alternation between them. So the ambiguity (but see below) is a feature of the visual sense not of the visual imagination. Tenth, the effect is not confined to pictures: we can contrive cases of a stimulus in the wild that can be seen in either way. I am not aware of any experimentalist actually doing this, but it seems easy enough to envisage presenting a three-dimensional stimulus at a suitable distance from the perceiver that similarly underdetermines the type of animal seen yonder—it might elicit the same kind of alternation that a drawn picture does. Is that a duck or a rabbit in the bushes? Now it looks like a duck, now like a rabbit.

Those, I take it, are the main phenomenological facts. Now there is the question of how to interpret them, classify them, and fit them into a theory. Are they a special case of some more general phenomenon? Do they show that there is more than one type of seeing? What concepts best characterize such perception? I think most of what philosophers have had to say about these cases is wrong, ironically because of a need to overgeneralize (Wittgenstein’s bête noir). First, there is the persistent tendency to describe them in terms of ambiguity, as if this is just like linguistic ambiguity—as with the use of the phrase “ambiguous figures”. Words can be ambiguous, and visual arrays can be too: thus they belong together conceptually. But this is wrong for a number of reasons. The ambiguity of language stems from the conventional character of the relation between sound and meaning: the word “bank” can conventionally mean either money bank or riverbank. But the visual array that gives rise to the duck-rabbit effect is not conventionally related to the type of animal seen—that is really what ducks and rabbits look like. What we have here is under-determination not ambiguity: there is nothing arbitrary about the relation between the array and the animals depicted—it is simply consistent with both. Also, there is no phenomenon of meaning alternation with ambiguous words: it is not that if you stare at the word “bank” or hear it uttered many times your perception of its meaning changes, now meaning money bank and now meaning riverbank. Nor is it true that the shift of aspect is a shift of meaning: we don’t perceive the array as a symbol that can mean one thing or another—we perceive it as a picture of one thing or another. Nor, further, is there any question of intended meaning, since the stimulus is not a linguistic act. At best it is a metaphor to speak of ambiguity here, and a misleading metaphor at that. This is a point specifically about visual perception not about language or symbolism generally. It is thus quite wrong to assimilate the duck-rabbit case to that of “bank” and the like.

Second, calling the phenomenon in question “noticing an aspect” (as Wittgenstein does) does not do it justice, since that phrase applies far more widely. We are always noticing aspects of things on the basis of perception, but we are not often subject to a duck-rabbit type of case. I may notice an aspect of your face, say the shape of your nose, but this is not an ambiguous (sic) figure case. What is crucial in such a case (as Wittgenstein himself stresses) is that we have a core of perception that does not change under a change of aspect, corresponding to the physical stimulus. But merely noticing an aspect does not involve anything like that; generally speaking, it involves noticing precisely an intrinsic feature of the stimulus (say, the way your nose physically curves). I would prefer to call duck-rabbit cases “alternating aspect” cases, not “noticing an aspect” cases (or “ambiguous figure” cases). The same goes for the phrase “seeing as”: that phrase applies to all seeing not just to what happens in a duck-rabbit case. I see you as tall, my cat as speckled, my car as shiny: that is, I see things as having properties. But that doesn’t capture what is distinctive about duck-rabbit cases, as I described them above—particularly, the constancy of the visual core and the unwilled alternation of the aspects. Granted, it is difficult to describe the phenomenon concisely in a single phrase, but these standard descriptions are positively misleading (and have misled). I think the phrases “imaginative seeing” or “interpretative seeing” invite similar objections, since they too apply more widely, but I won’t labor the point further.

A more interesting question is whether the apparatus of sense and reference applies here. On the face of it, it does: two modes of presentation associated with a common object. The same patch of lines can give rise to two ways of seeing it, as the same planet can be perceived in two ways corresponding to “the evening star” and “the morning star”. Why not say that the common object corresponds to two “senses”, a duck sense and a rabbit sense? Couldn’t someone see the patch as a duck in one context and a rabbit in another, and then come to realize that it is the same patch that is involved? Isn’t the structure much the same in alternating aspects cases and sense-reference cases? And didn’t Frege himself characterize modes of presentation as “aspects”? It turns out that his apparatus applies more widely than he thought: the duck-rabbit drawing is a special case of sense and reference. That is certainly a pleasant conjecture, but it is flawed at a crucial point, namely that the common element is actually perceived in the duck-rabbit case, i.e. it occurs as a phenomenological datum. We see the duck, the rabbit, and the lines; but in the case of sense and reference we don’t have a separate presentation of the reference aside from its two modes of presentation. We are not seeing the same physical stimulus, perceptually represented as such, giving rise to two aspects in the case of the evening star and the morning star, as we are in the duck-rabbit case. Nor, of course, do we oscillate from one sense to the other while gazing intently at Venus. So the structure isn’t the same in the two cases despite a superficial resemblance. The perceived unchanging core is not present in Frege-type cases, so the one is not a special case of the other.

It seems to me that alternating aspect cases are genuinely sui generis. There is really nothing like them, which is why a general label is elusive (like “ambiguous figure” or “noticing an aspect” or “seeing as”). But it doesn’t follow that they involve a special type of seeing, as opposed to a unique type of perceptual phenomenon. On the contrary, it seems to me that the same type of seeing is involved here as elsewhere. Suppose you see a picture of a duck but without any alternation with a picture of a rabbit. This could be exactly like the experience you have when looking at a duck-rabbit picture and see its duck aspect: the experience is not altered by being caused by an “ambiguous figure”. No new type of seeing is occasioned by such figures in addition to the experiences occasioned by unambiguous duck pictures. Similarly, if an experimenter could contrive a stimulus that could be perceived as a duck or as a rabbit (not as a picture of such), that would not cause any experiences additional to those caused by ducks and rabbits. The possibility of alternation doesn’t alter the nature of the experience had when seeing a single aspect. So the duck-rabbit case and others like it don’t require us to expand our phenomenological inventory beyond the seeing of ducks and rabbits (or pictures of them). Indeed, we might well claim that all seeing is seeing-as (an object as having a property) and that the duck-rabbit cases add nothing to this simple picture. They merely show that there can be alternations of aspect under conditions of stimulus identity.

It is sometimes supposed that the kind of seeing that goes on in duck-rabbit cases is relevant to pictorial perception: this kind of perception is supposed to differ from object perception and to be a special case of seeing-as, as that notion is illustrated by duck-rabbit cases. But this idea is confused: the seeing of an aspect is the same whether there is alternation or not, so these cases cannot provide a new type of seeing. Also, the essential feature of such cases is conspicuously missing in pictorial perception, namely the alternation of aspects.  Normally a painting depicts a single aspect; it isn’t “ambiguous”. Trivially, seeing a picture is a case of seeing-as because all seeing is seeing-as; but the kind of seeing-as that occurs in duck-rabbit cases is nothing special, so nothing new can be learned from it about pictorial perception. The concept of seeing-as, as philosophers have come to employ it, should really be retired or else explicitly extended to all types of seeing.

Duck-rabbit cases are highly unusual, indeed carefully contrived: they are not instances of something more general, and they shed no light on anything beyond themselves. It is surprising they exist at all, being an anomaly of the human visual system (I don’t know of any experiments that have shown other animals capable of such strange oscillations). They only occur under very special and manufactured conditions (the duck-rabbit drawing was first introduced in a German humor magazine in 1892). They appear to have no analogue in other sense modalities: there is no such case for smelling, tasting, touching or hearing. We would be in no way worse off without them; they appear to have no use except as entertainment. Contrary to Wittgenstein’s advocacy, they have no philosophical significance, except perhaps to illustrate how very peculiar things can be. Their significance is their insignificance, their sheer quirkiness.[2]


[1]See Philosophical Investigations, pp.193-208.

[2] It used to be suggested by psychologists that duck-rabbit cases are to be explained by invoking the idea of hypothesis formation: the visual system constructs a hypothesis on the basis of exiguous data and this hypothesis corresponds to a visual aspect. However, this doesn’t explain the oscillation characteristic of these cases: why does the visual system switch from one hypothesis to another for no apparent reason? That is not what scientists do when they propose a hypothesis. So this attempt to subsume the cases under the wider category of hypothesis formation also fails. As far as I know, the phenomenon has still not been satisfactorily explained.


Life and Language: Strange Singularities

It is difficult to explain the origin of life on earth. Presumably, inorganic molecules at some point made the transition to organic molecules, allowing for self-replication. The state of the earth at some time and place must have been conducive to this event, while it wasn’t before and elsewhere. Even if life on earth was seeded by organic materials arriving on meteors, these seeds must themselves have had an inorganic origin somewhere else in the universe. This is admitted to be a difficult problem. But there is another problem in this neighborhood that is equally difficult: why did life on earth arise only once? Evidently, conditions on earth made life possible at a certain time, but why didn’t those same conditions lead to life at other times? We are told that life arose at a particular place and time, so that everything now living traces back to this singular origin, but why is this so—why didn’t it arise many times once the appropriate conditions obtained? Why the singularity? It is as if the switch went on once but then the earth forgot how to switch it on again. The events of the universe are mainly repetition, but in this case we have a one-off event—a completely unique occurrence. Once life arose from non-life, why didn’t it keep on so arising? The conditions were conducive, so why didn’t they conduce more often?

Suppose you travel to a distant planet and find life there. You investigate this life and determine that it arose n billion years ago: but it arose not just once but multiple times. It has kept on arising, perhaps millions of times, since the conditions for life persisted after the initial rising; there are thus a great many chains of living things that trace back to these many points of origin. There is nothing physically impossible about this; indeed, it is what you would expect given the conditions on this planet. So why isn’t earth more like that? Why the stinginess? Life on earth is all about repetition–organisms duplicate, cells divide into copies of themselves, the same kinds of biological events occur over and over—so why is the origin of life on earth a singularity? This fact cries out for explanation, but no explanation is forthcoming. Something special must have happened–but what? And how could anything that happened at life’s inception be so special? The singularity seems inexplicable, strange, mysterious. Imagine if life on earth had evolved three times, or seventeen times, but then stopped evolving: wouldn’t that be peculiar, calling for explanation? One time seems no less arbitrary, no less improbable. It might be more explicable if life had evolved by a huge cosmic accident—say, a fully formed pair of tigers, male and female, are created from inorganic materials by chance: that is not likely to happen again! But this isn’t how life on earth began: the process was incremental, with only bacteria at the early stages, preceded by organisms yet more simple. There is nothing intrinsically chancy about the earliest forms of life; yet they arose only once. It’s like a mountain arising only once or rain falling only once.[1]

I rehearse these points in order to draw an analogy I have not seen drawn: between life and language. The origins of language are notoriously problematic and subject to much controversy, but less often noted is the problem of singularity: why did language evolve only once? That is, why did language with the properties possessed by human language arise only once? I don’t mean communication systems in general, such as are possessed by whales, dolphins, bees, and ants; I mean the kind of grammatically complex systems possessed by humans. Clearly, the human language faculty has a tremendous adaptive advantage—some say it is the key to our dominance—so it must be a question why it has not evolved several times.[2] Other highly adaptive traits have evolved many times, as in so-called convergent evolution, but in the case of language this is not the case; we don’t find a plethora of species speaking a language like ours. In particular, we are the only hominid species with a language faculty: it is as if we were the only such species with eyes or ears. According to modern conceptions, the language faculty is an autonomous organ grounded in the genes, analogous to other organs; but it is an organ that appears only in our species.[3] Why? Its existence is a singularity, like life, but this is puzzling. One might expect that such a useful organ should have evolved many times, especially in our nearest relatives, but evidently not: we are its sole proud possessor. It arose at a certain late point of human evolution and only in us, but it has proven its worth a hundredfold, so why isn’t it more common. Like life, it is a strange singularity. You might suggest it is like the Mona Lisa—a sublime work of art, understandably rare—but that is very unconvincing: the Mona Lisa is not that unique among works of art, and is anyway a human product of creative genius. The language faculty, by contrast, is a biological organ evolving by mutation and natural selection just like other biological organs; so its occurrence should be governed by the same laws—hence its uniqueness is perplexing. On other planets there may be many speaking species—it may be the norm—but on our planet language is confined to a single species and arising at a specific time. If its origin is a mystery, so is its uniqueness. And if the mystery of origin is resolved, that will only intensify the mystery of uniqueness, since it will explain how natural processes of a non-mysterious sort account for the origin of language. An explanation of the origin of infinite recursive productivity, for example, will accentuate the question of why this property is not found elsewhere. It is as if no eyes ever evolved for billions of years, despite favorable conditions, and then a single species suddenly evolved them, never to appear again. Maybe language will evolve again in the distant future—as life may conceivably evolve again on planet earth—but heretofore we have a marked absence of both recurrences. Why is nature behaving so sparingly, so miserly? Life and language are now everywhere on the planet, but they refuse to evolve afresh as they once did. They seem determined to belong to an elite club of one. Why the exclusiveness?

It might be replied that appearances are misleading: life and language have come into existence many times, by chemical concatenation or genetic mutation, but they have not been selected for, and hence do not exist in full form in multiple cases. But there is no evidence for this, and anyway it just raises the original question in a revised form–namely, why has there been no natural selection for these common uprisings? Obviously there was selection in the case of the life and language we see around us, so why not for these other alleged fledging cases? Nor, of course, would it be remotely plausible to suggest that life and language have arisen many times and been selected for but we have just not noticed it: where might these elusive realities be hiding—at the center of the earth maybe?  No, both have arisen only once, puzzlingly so. We have here two “mysteries of singularity”: not why did they arise at all but why did they arise so sparsely. It almost seems as if there is some force preventing them from arising more than once. I have no idea how to answer this question and I doubt that anyone else does either, but the question is clearly worth asking. It reveals a serious limitation in our understanding of natural history.


[1] We might compare the origin of life with the origin of the universe. The big bang was a singularity too—a major event that has not been repeated. We haven’t had a series of big bangs (in our universe) since that initial one. Why? What explains the uniqueness? If there is a multiverse each with its own big bang, then we have a plurality of cosmic origins; but that doesn’t account for why our universe has only experienced one big bang. Is it because the nature of the universe was so changed by the big bang that the laws of nature ruled out a recurrence thereafter? That kind of explanation would clearly not apply to the origin of life—or of language (see below).

[2] I would speculate that consciousness (sentience, awareness) has arisen independently many times: it does not all trace back to a single evolutionary origin. Consciousness in humans and consciousness in the octopus are cases of convergent evolution. This is because consciousness is very widespread, unlike language. If consciousness were confined to a single species, that would be very surprising and cry out for explanation. Language is the outlier, not the conscious mind in general.

[3] It has struck many people as strange that more animals don’t speak—hence those fantasies about speaking animals. It is as if they lack an obvious ability, unaccountably granted to us. Speaking seems natural, only to be expected. What if language had evolved in monkeys instead of us? We might still have high general intelligence, while theirs might be inferior to ours (compare young children who can speak well but aren’t all that bright). That would seem very strange: if they have it, why don’t we? Isn’t it just anthropocentrism that makes us think that we alone are sophisticated enough to speak? What is really surprising is that monkeys don’t speak, given that there was nothing preventing them from evolving the capacity. Why should we be the chosen ones?


On Denoting and Describing

According to Russell’s theory of descriptions, the word “the” contains two conceptual elements: existence and uniqueness. It implies that there is a certain something, and that there is only one such thing. The indefinite article “a” contains only the first element; the definite article contributes the second. So the short word “the” is conceptually quite rich; it carries demanding implications. Through error these implications can fail, as when someone says, “The unicorn ate the grass” or “The teacher thinks he’s funny”: for there are no unicorns and there are many teachers. It is easy to make false statements (or neither true nor false statements) using definite descriptions because we can make errors of existence and also fail to specify a uniquely identifying predicate. You have to be on your toes with “the”. This insight of Russell’s is a point about the meaning of “the”, its semantics not its pragmatics. We can put it by saying that “the” is analyzable into “exists” and “unique”: “the F is G” means “an existent and uniquely F thing is G”. Strictly speaking, this claim about the meaning of “the” is limited to its conceptual composition and does not entail the standard conjunctive analysis deriving from Russell. You could agree with Russell about the meaning of “the” but dissent from his analysis of the logical form of sentences containing this word as comprising a threefold conjunction in first-order predicate logic. That analysis makes the definite description, apparently a referring expression, dissolve into quantifiers, and detects a hidden repeated occurrence of “and”. You might find that objectionable without disagreeing about the essential meaning of “the”: you might prefer not to express the semantic point in such conjunctive terms (you might favor a part-whole conception of semantic complexity). Similarly, you might be sympathetic to the idea that the meaning of “know” includes truth, belief, and justification without accepting that the logical form of sentences containing “know” is literally a conjunction—though that is certainly one way to express the semantic point. Thus we can divide Russell’s theory into two separate ideas, usually run together: the idea that the meaning of “the” involves existence and uniqueness, and the idea that the logical form of sentences containing “the” is a conjunction of quantified propositions. In either case, however, the word carries quite demanding and specific conditions as a matter of semantic analysis. It is certainly not redundant or dispensable.

The reason I am emphasizing what should be obvious is that Russell’s theory has a bearing on the question of the semantics of names and demonstratives. Suppose we conjoin Russell’s analysis with the description theory of names (or demonstratives)—and how could we not, given the cogency of that analysis? Then we have it that the meaning of a name is equivalent to a description having the analysis in question. Thus a name logically implies the existence and uniqueness of something satisfying a certain condition: for example, “London” implies that England has a capital and that it has only one capital, given that “London” means “the capital of England.” A speaker who uses the name “London” is asserting these two things, just as a speaker who explicitly uses the phrase “the capital of England” is asserting these two things. If he doesn’t think England has a capital, or thinks that it has more than one, then he has no business using the name “London”—for he doesn’t accept its logical implications. If you use the phrase “the capital of England”, you are committed to two propositions: that there exists something that is a capital of England, and that there is only one such. Your speech act fails if either condition fails to be met. But then, if this phrase gives the meaning of “London”, you make exactly the same commitments when you use “London”. There is, admittedly, no use of “the” in the employment of the name—no overt use, that is—but the theory is that this word lurks in the underlying meaning. The meaning of a name is a combination of the meaning of “the” and the meaning of a predicate attached to it. The question then is whether this is true: is that what names mean?

Critics of the description theory make much of the point that the speaker might be wrong about the predicates she ascribes to the bearer of a name she uses. You might, for example, be wrong to suppose that Godel proved the incompleteness of arithmetic, but you would still refer to Godel with “Godel”.[1] But you might also be wrong about existence and uniqueness: you might think a certain something exists when it doesn’t, or that there is only one thing of a certain kind and there isn’t. Suppose you believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real detective and bandy his name about under that misguided impression: you don’t hesitate to speak of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, living at 10 Baker Street. However, other members of your speech community correctly believe the description “the fictional detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle” to be true of Holmes. Don’t you still refer to the fictional character despite your false existence belief? The speech community’s reference carries the day. You might also be wrong about uniqueness in the case of Godel (maybe several people proved the incompleteness theorem, including him), but it wouldn’t affect your ability to refer using the name “Godel”. These beliefs are extraneous to your use of the name to refer to a certain individual. But they are not extraneous to the use of the associated description: you can’t use a description to successfully refer if its existence and uniqueness conditions fail. You can’t use “the aristocrat of France” to refer if there are no aristocrats in France or if there are many—you won’t succeed in referring to anything. This suggests the following thesis: names do not have the semantic implications of descriptions with respect to existence and uniqueness, and hence they cannot be analyzed by means of descriptions. We are accustomed to the idea that names lack connotation, i.e. they carry no descriptive or predicative content; the thesis to be considered is that they also lack the semantic content carried by “the”, as that word is analyzed by Russell.

It will help if I introduce some terminology: I will call a designator loaded if it expresses the kind of content attributed by Russell to definite descriptions; and I will call a designator desiccated if it does not express such content. Then my thesis is that only definite descriptions are loaded; names and demonstratives are not–they are desiccated. The intuitive point is that descriptions carry a rich and demanding semantic content—the existence and uniqueness of something of a certain kind—while names and demonstratives carry no such commitments (we could also call them “non-committal designators”). Consider uniqueness first. Suppose I point to a dog at the park and say, “that dog is lively”: I make no claims of uniqueness at all with respect to the predicate I use—and indeed there are many dogs milling around in front of me. I simply single out a particular dog by using the apparatus of demonstrative reference, in which context plays a vital role. I make no attempt to describe the dog in question uniquely. It is no objection to my speech act to say, “But there are lots of dogs in the park!” It is otherwise with “the dog whose owner is Bill Smith”—here we take on the burden of supplying individuating conditions. Similarly with names: if I say, “Bill Smith has a lively dog”, I don’t purport to provide individuating descriptive conditions for the bearer of the name I use—I may have no idea of such conditions. It is quite otherwise with “the inventor of bifocals” where I do purport to provide a uniquely identifying description (if more than one person, or no one at all, invented bifocals, I have misspoken). This designator is loaded, fully committed—while demonstratives and names are desiccated, non-committal about the properties of the designated object.

The question of existence is trickier because we normally do assume existence for the things we refer to in a desiccated manner. But it is noteworthy that there are many contexts in which this assumption is suspended. If I am under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, I might remark, “That pink elephant is looking thoughtful”, knowing quite well that I am hallucinating said elephant. But I can’t say, “The pink elephant is looking thoughtful” without implying that it exists: for, according to Russell’s analysis, that would entail “There exists a pink elephant”. A brain in a vat could use demonstratives to refer to non-existent objects, but if it were to switch to definite descriptions it would incur the charge of making false statements (or neither true nor false). This is simply because demonstratives don’t literally say that they refer to existing entities, so semantically there is no contradiction between them and statements of non-existence. But descriptions do literally say that their reference exists, so there is a contradiction if we add, “However, there is no such thing as a pink elephant”.[2] Therefore it is not possible to analyze demonstratives by means of descriptions, as construed by Russell. They are too desiccated for that, too neutral, too non-committal. They don’t logically imply existence or uniqueness—not as a matter of their semantic content. But descriptions do, as is revealed in their explicitly containing the word “the”. That word is a quantifier, according to Russell, but there is no trace of it in names and demonstratives. This is why we are happy to use proper names for fictional characters—there is no logical implication of existence deriving from the semantics of the name. There is nothing that needs to be canceled in order not to be accused of error. But using descriptions for fictional entities invites criticism because it carries an implication of existence: you can’t just say “the detective who lives at 10 Baker Street” and expect to be taken to refer to a fictional entity. The word “the” actively quantifies, and so needs to have this implication canceled in some way, whereas the name “Sherlock Holmes” tells us nothing about the existential status of its bearer. Thus names can’t be analyzed by means of descriptions.

The intuition behind non-descriptive theories of names is that names are simply labels or tags with no internal semantic structure. Once we take on board Russell’s analysis of descriptions we see more clearly the kind of semantic structure that descriptions possess; in particular, we see that descriptions are not themselves name-like, i.e. labels or tags. They are loaded not desiccated. Descriptions contain a predicate, a quantifier, and a uniqueness operator. They are semantically intricate and referentially demanding. Names are not like this, which is why they can be used in the absence of an existence claim and without providing any individuating concept (ditto demonstratives). The description theory overstates their semantic commitments (or ambitions). It would be different if descriptions were simply denoting devices without significant internal semantic structure, but Russell’s theory shows us just how complex they really are—the word “the” packs a semantic punch. Thus it is not possible to analyze names and demonstratives by means of descriptions. This is an ironic result given that Russell himself held both a description theory of (ordinary) proper names and his three-clause analysis of descriptions, not seeing that the latter rules out the former. A natural alternative theory would anchor names in demonstratives not descriptions and reject a description theory of demonstratives (which looks pretty hopeless anyway). It is certainly very clear that a demonstrative doesn’t embed a uniquely identifying descriptive condition, relying instead on context to select a unique reference. We might indeed say that the whole point of demonstratives is to circumvent the need for individuating descriptions—instead we just point and say “that” (coupled with a suitable noun). And the reason a description must be loaded is that it can’t rely on context in this way: it needs to contain within itself the means and mechanism of reference.

The point I am making is distinct from the kind of point made by Kripke against the description theory: it is not a point about the rigidity of names or about the fallibility of our beliefs concerning the properties of the things we name. It is a point that only emerges once Russell’s theory of descriptions is properly absorbed: names would have to be equivalent to descriptions as so understood. According to that theory, a name would have to imply existence and uniqueness under a concept, but it is doubtful that this is the case with names—they make no such ambitious claims. The word “the”, as explicated by Russell, does not appear in their analysis. It is not just that names are not descriptive, i.e. predicative; they are also not in the business of asserting existence and uniqueness.[3]


[1] The example is from Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, the locus classicus of anti-descriptivism about names.

[2] Quine’s doctrine of ontological commitment can be stated as the principle that only what you say there is do you say there is. Applied to the present question, this tells us that descriptions say that something exists (according to Russell) but names and demonstratives don’t say any such thing—though their use may conversationally imply or otherwise assume it. Descriptions are quantifiers, but names and demonstratives are not: hence the description theory is false.

[3] This is, of course, true of nearly all expressions: hardly any words contain an assertion of existence and uniqueness—predicates, connectives, prepositions, adverbs, etc. In fact, it looks as if only definite descriptions work this way. So it is not surprising that names and demonstratives (as well as indexical expressions generally) also fail to have this kind of semantic content. Descriptions are special.


Analysis of Analysis

The concept of analysis crops up in a variety of disciplines: we have chemical analysis, spectral analysis, psychoanalysis, linguistic analysis, anatomical analysis, analysis of political systems, market analysis, literary analysis, dream analysis, conceptual analysis, and so on. We can ask what all these types of analysis have in common, i.e. what the correct analysis of analysis is. The OED gives two definitions: “a detailed examination of something in order to interpret or explain it”, and “the process of separating something into its constituent elements”. Both definitions are evidently correct, the latter being more restrictive than the former. I would combine them into this: “a detailed examination of the constituent elements of something in order to interpret or explain it”. Such an examination is necessary because the constituent elements of something are not always (or often) evident or manifest: we need to work to reveal what they are. There is the surface appearance of the thing and there is its underlying constituent structure—analysis takes us from the former to the latter. It advances our knowledge by excavating what was hidden. It is informative. The paradigm is the analysis of light: light appears uniformly white under normal conditions but a prism can reveal it as consisting of a variety of different hues (as in a rainbow). We now know that this spectrum consists of varying wavelengths. There is not just a single unitary phenomenon here but a combination of distinguishable elements. Light may look simple but spectral analysis reveals it to be complex—a composite, a congeries. It consists of separable components. The same is true of a great many phenomena, which is why analysis is informative: things tend to be composed of more basic elements that combine in certain ways. Perhaps there are ultimate things that are simple and permit no analysis, but many things are susceptible to analysis. Accordingly, the different disciplines engage in analysis as part of their standard methodology. It would be odd if they didn’t. Isn’t this what the world expects of us? Certainly there is nothing suspect or illegitimate about the method of analysis.

It is worth bearing all this in mind when considering what is called conceptual analysis. For some reason, many philosophers have decided that conceptual analysis is not part of philosophical method.[1] They feel there is something misguided about it, perhaps unscientific. That would be very strange, given that analysis is part of virtually every other discipline, especially the sciences. Surely philosophy should expect that its subject matter is open to some sort of analysis—that the things it deals with exhibit constituent elements. For example, it is highly likely that knowledge consists of parts or aspects or properties in combination. The alternative is that it is a simple attribute or fact that admits of no analysis; and while that is not to be ruled out as a matter of logic, it seems pretty unlikely. We should at least attempt to provide an analysis of knowledge—as the physicist tries to provide an analysis of light or the chemist an analysis of water. It would be dogmatic to suppose that these things have no analysis, and they palpably do. Notice that I speak here of knowledge itself not of the concept of knowledge: it is the thing that has constituent structure (unless it is irreducibly simple) not the concept of it.[2] Of course, the concept too might have such structure, being made up of more elemental concepts, such as the concepts of belief and truth; but that is another question, given that we are interested in knowledge itself. You could believe in the analysis of knowledge but not believe in the analysis of the concept of knowledge, possibly because you don’t believe in concepts at all or believe that all concepts are simple. There is no contradiction in holding that knowledge is complex and analyzable while the concept of knowledge is simple and unanalyzable. Water is complex and analyzable even though the meaning of “water” may not be. There is the world on the one hand and our concepts of it on the other; and the twain might not meet, structurally speaking. In any case, it is entirely in line with other disciplines to expect that philosophy will include a substantial amount of analysis, either of things or concepts of things.

Sometimes people assume that the phrase “conceptual analysis” implies insulation from the world beyond concepts—that one who engages in conceptual analysis is concerned only with how we think of things not with things themselves, or worse with how we talk about things. They point out that chemistry and physics aren’t just concerned (or concerned at all) with concepts of chemical and physical things but with chemical and physical things themselves—that would make these subjects parts of psychology! Why then should philosophy concern itself only with our concepts? But that protest is confused—though the phrase “conceptual analysis” can certainly invite the confusion (which may be shared by those who applaud the activity of conceptual analysis). For the phrase is ambiguous: does it mean a method of analysis or does it mean an object of analysis? The former corresponds to the idea that we can analyze something X conceptually, i.e. by reference to our concepts of X—or as we might as well say, by a priori reflection. The latter is the idea that we can analyze concepts as such, whether a priori or a posteriori. So we might seek to analyze knowledge (the thing) by reflecting on our concept of knowledge, or we might analyze the concept of knowledge itself by whatever means we please (psychologically, neurologically). These are quite different ideas, one being a method, the other a subject matter. Thus there is no redundancy in the phrase “conceptual analysis of concepts”: this just means the a priori (conceptually based) analysis of concepts (a certain sort of mental entity). Likewise, there is no contradiction in the phrase “conceptual analysis of X”, where X is not a concept. And there is also “non-conceptual analysis of concepts”—the empirical investigation of concepts, such as might be undertaken by a cognitive psychologist. These would each be types of analysis, but employing different methods. One might naturally suppose that philosophers would focus on a priori analysis, given their interest in definition, though they might also take into account a posteriori types of analysis. In any case, they would be engaged on analysis, i.e. the discovery of constituent structure by means of detailed examination.

The only real alternative to this conception would be the view that nothing of interest to philosophers admits of analysis because everything of philosophical interest is simple. Not just concepts, but things—knowledge as well as the concept of knowledge. That seems highly implausible: why should philosophy alone concern itself with the logically simple? All the other disciplines deal in complex things that can be broken down into parts, so why should philosophy be any different? You might reply that philosophy is only interested in concepts, but (a) that is not true and (b) why should concepts alone be simple? Obviously there are complex concepts, typically expressed by complex phrases; and why shouldn’t simple words correspond to complex concepts, e.g. “knowledge”? Concepts don’t have to mirror words in their internal structure (especially words of the public language). So there is really no escaping analysis in philosophy: the goal of philosophical analysis is mandatory. Similarly, philosophy must be, in some departments at least, analytic philosophy—as chemistry must be analytic chemistry, literary studies analytic literary studies, etc. This simply reflects the fact that all disciplines deal in complex entities that can be broken into parts. Whether all philosophical analysis, properly so-called, is a priori analysis is another question, which I have not addressed (though I believe it is); what can’t be seriously denied is that philosophy is at least in part an analytical enterprise. There is room for something called “synthetic philosophy”, but there must also be a place for analytic philosophy, because philosophy discusses complex things with constituent structure. It may also identify unanalyzable elements as part of its analytical purpose, but it can’t avoid wholes and parts, because that is just how reality is constituted.[3]

How should the results of philosophical analysis be formulated? We have become accustomed to providing necessary and sufficient conditions, but that is not strictly entailed by the notion of analysis; and the former might carry commitments not integral to the latter. Thus we have become obsessed with the bogeyman of circularity. But a chemist doesn’t typically report his findings by saying things like, “x is water if and only if x contains hydrogen and x contains oxygen and there are two parts of hydrogen for every one part of oxygen”, and then anxiously waiting for any counterexamples to be produced. Rather, he says things like, “water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio of two to one”. The epistemologist could mimic this mereological style by saying, “knowledge is composed of truth, belief, and justification”. Maybe it contains further ingredients (see Gettier) but at least it contains those ingredients. This is an interesting and informative statement, showing that philosophical analysis (of the a priori kind) can produce substantial results—and many other examples could be provided of informative philosophical analyses.[4] And it deemphasizes questions of circularity: it puts things in a way that is true to the spirit of the enterprise—the discovery of constituent elements. Non-circular definition becomes less central than illuminating constituent analysis. A literary scholar might analyze poems into stanzas, lines, phrases, and words, commenting on how the poem works, without undertaking to define the concept of a poem. Similarly for the atomic physicist, who might be hard-pressed to define the concept of matter. The philosopher can tell us how things are composed by the method of conceptual analysis without undertaking the arduous task of definition (though that is no doubt a worthy object). To change the example, we learn a lot about perception by discovering that perception has three constituent elements–a sense experience, a matching physical object, and a causal relation between the two—without troubling ourselves over whether this can be converted into a strict definition (which is difficult to do). Thus we could drop the habit of parading putative necessary and sufficient conditions and speak instead in mereological terms—the terms appropriate to the enterprise of analysis.

It is a question whether philosophy can do more than analyze, granted that it must at least analyze. I don’t propose to discuss this question here, except to observe that a broader conception of philosophy would inevitably call upon the results of analysis. Suppose we thought that philosophy also interprets and explains: it gives the meaning or significance of things and it produces explanatory theories. It doesn’t just analyze individual things but relates them together and elucidates their human importance. Thus it resembles other disciplines that also go beyond analysis—as chemistry and physics do in producing laws and theories, or as literary studies does. Philosophy can be theoretical and hermeneutic as well as analytic. Well and good: but these other dimensions are not unconnected to analysis—indeed, they feed off it. Analysis tells us what something is, its nature, its essence. There is no theoretical chemistry without analytical chemistry, and likewise there is no theoretical philosophy without analytic philosophy. An explanatory theory of knowledge, or an account of its human significance, needs an analysis of what knowledge consists in—of what constitutes it. Analysis is thus methodologically primary. So even if philosophy is not limited to analysis, it still depends upon it. Without conceptual analysis it is groping in the dark. Analytical philosophy must be the foundation of philosophy.


[1] I discuss this in detail in Truth by Analysis (2012); I won’t repeat that discussion now.

[2] Russell wrote two books entitled The Analysis of Mind and The Analysis of Matter, speaking of the things not the concepts. It was Ryle who introduced the analytic conceptual turn in The Concept of Mind. I self-consciously reversed the trend in The Character of Mind.

[3] A generalized primitivism might motivate resistance to analysis, but so might a generalized holism. This would be the idea that reality never divides into constituent parts but consists of “organic wholes” that go beyond their so-called constituents. Everything is an interconnected web that can never be constructed from more primitive constituents; the totality is the primary unit of reality. To break wholes into parts is always to falsify them—metaphysical holism rules. In fact, this type of metaphysics was what prompted by reaction the type of analytic philosophy favored by Russell and Moore. I take it that the opposition to analysis today is not motivated by this kind of metaphysics.

[4] Bernard Suits’ analysis of games is a noteworthy example: see The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978). I would also mention Grice’s work on meaning.