Prehension Prehended

Did I mention that my book Prehension recently came out? I have held it in my hands. It’s a funny book. It’s not really a philosophy book, but a science book. But it’s more like nineteenth century science, informal and personal, as well as “scientific”. The title alludes both to gripping with the hands and grasping with the mind (any reference to Whitehead is quite accidental). I adopt a very biological view of the mind, though without the usual reductionism. I intend it to be “meaningful” in the sense of summing up the human condition. We are very odd creatures when you look at it closely; my book is odd too.

Quine and Groucho

I was watching the Marx brothers film Horse Feathers and noticed a reference to the distinction between de reand de dicto readings of vernacular sentences. Groucho says to Chico, “You have the brain of a four year old…and I bet he was glad to get rid of it”. The joke depends upon switching from a narrow scope reading of the quantifier to a wide scope reading–as if Chico had stolen the brain of an actual four year old. I wonder if Quine ever saw the film and had his attention drawn to the ambiguity of the original sentence. The unexpected reading is: “There is a four year old whose brain you have”.


My book on the hand finally comes out next week (August 14). I just got copies: nice cover, good paper. Oh what trouble that book has caused me! It is pretty academic stuff actually. I’m curious to know what people make of it. It’s really a science book, laced with philosophy. People might object that it is more than conceptual analysis, and don’t I say that philosophy is conceptual analysis? But philosophers can do things other than philosophy, and might even be helped by their strictly philosophical expertise. I am all in favor of cross-disciplinary work, though it is harder to do than people think.


I’ve just been teaching Kantian ethics. The idea is that a right action is one the guiding maxim of which can be universalized without contradiction, and a wrong action is one that cannot be so universalized. So it is wrong to break your promises because if everyone did so there would be no institution of promising. It is contradictory to will universal promise-breaking, since there can be promises only when there is trust in them–which requires that they generally be kept. It’s a very clever idea, but one that only a rationalist philosopher could approve–that it’s actually contradictory to act immorally. The fault of the bad person is thus purely intellectual: he can’t see that his actions are guided by contradictory principles. Immorality is a form of incoherence. If only!

Alien Matter

How alien is objective physical reality compared (a) to its perceptual appearance and (b) to our own consciousness? As to (a), it seems to lack secondary qualities like color; in which case, what makes it capabable of occupying space? As to (b), unless we go in for panpsychism it seems very remote from the nature of experience. So it must be quite alien to the things we know about most directly. Is it SO alien that we couldn’t represent it in our experience in principle? We’re accustomed to the strangeness of matter from contemporary physics, but is it so far removed from what we are familiar with that we have no hope of adequately representing it? Is it as remote from our understanding as a bat’s experience? Or is it remoter, because at least a bat has experience, which we also do–while matter sits at an opposite ontological extreme? Is the entire universe an alien form of life–though completely dead?

U and I

The odd thing about utilitarianism is that what makes it most attractive is also what makes it most implausible. It seems good to require impartiality, so that no one is treated as privileged in making a moral decision–hence U doesn’t discriminate with respect to whose happiness is maximized. But this very feature of the theory is what leads to its hyperbolic demandingness–as when it obliges us to give away all our money to charity and neglect our own children in order to benefit remote individuals. The altruistic aspect of U comports well with the intuitive content of morality, but the slide into excessive altruism is immediate. To prevent this, we have to insist on partiality, but then we are back discriminating against certain people. Stressing special relationships quickly leads to favoring our own tribe at the expense of others. It’s either demandingness or discrimination.


For the last couple of classes we’ve been discussing utilitarianism (U). U is a consequentialist doctrine, like ethical egoism, though it evaluates actions by the general good, not merely that of the agent. An action is right if and only if it leads to more happiness and less suffering than any other action that could be performed in the circumstances, with respect to everyone affected by the action. That is, we are obliged to do what leads to the most happiness for the most people (and animals, on some versions). Clearly, then, U is altruistic in form, since it requires us to sacrifice some of our own happiness if that will lead to greater happiness all round. The view is universalist, egalitarian, secular, monistic–and obviously onto something. Surely the goal of morality, at least in part, is to promote the general welfare, it might be thought, and that’s what U prescribes. It comes as a surprise then that the theory encounters serious and principled problems, mainly revolving around questions of justice–but also concerning whether it is too morally demanding. Such criticisms are the topics for next week’s class.