Is Reference Real?




Is Reference Real?


“Sitting next to her, talking with her about the simplest and most insignificant subjects, Prince Andre admired the joyful shining of her eyes and smile, which referred not to what they were saying, but to her inner happiness”: Tolstoy, War and Peace, Volume II, Part Three, chapter XVII.


The standard position is that the concept of reference applies to some expressions but not to all. Which expressions refer is controversial: doubt has been cast on predicates, definite descriptions, “I”, quantifiers, connectives, adverbs, numerals, feature-placing sentences, and fictional names. The paradigms of referential expressions are taken to be names of persons or things and demonstrative pronouns: there are entities for these words to refer to and they succeed in referring to them. Reference is taken to be a real relation that can hold between words and things, but it may not hold in some cases. Not just any old expression can stand in this relation; the expression must contain a special power of referring, not conferred on every expression. Perhaps the power is derivative on a speaker’s performing a referential act, so that word reference is not an intrinsic property of the word, but it is still supposed that reference is not granted to any and every meaningful word. It is an elite property, marking a word out for ontological distinction: the word reaches majestically out to reality, sword-like, while non-referential words are semantically limited to language itself, trapped inside it. The referential words provide the hooks linking language to the world. They are lines thrown out to reality.

But this position is not the only one: Frege’s position stands in stark contrast. According to Frege, every expression refers: not just names and demonstratives but predicates, connectives, quantifiers, sentences, and that-clauses. A menagerie of entities is wheeled in to provide the reference for these expressions: first- and second-level concepts, truth functions, truth-values, and indirect senses. If each word refers, there must be something to which it refers; the relation needs relata. Reference thus comes cheap and is thoroughly democratic, making no distinctions. It is not a privilege possessed by names and other singular terms but a property of every meaningful expression. Language has hooks to the world at every point. Many philosophers have felt that this is excessive, that it empties the concept of reference of all significance; they evidently have a sufficient grasp on the notion of reference to feel this in in their bones. Another position, seldom if ever occupied, is that no word refers–not even the supposed paradigms of reference. True, traditional empiricist theories of meaning, which equate meanings with “ideas” or mental images, make no mention of a reference relation to the non-mental world; but even these theories don’t explicitly deny that reference applies to language. The neglected position does just that: it asserts that reference is a pseudo-concept, applicable to nothing. Frege took language to be semantically uniform with respect to reference and so does this third position, but in the opposite direction; only the standard position adopts a mixed perspective—partly referential, partly not. The uniformly non-referential position holds that there is no such relation as reference, not even for names—though it is not denied that every expression has meaning (determinately so). Reference is a myth, a philosopher’s invention, a trick of the imagination. Words don’t refer, period (and neither do speakers).

It must be admitted that the two pure positions enjoy a theoretical advantage: they don’t divide words into two groups characterized by different semantic concepts. The standard position posits an awkward theoretical disunity: on the one hand, the robustly referential expressions (or speech acts); on the other, the etiolated non-referential expressions locked up in themselves. At least Frege’s universal referential realism makes no such division and accordingly affords a generalized conception of meaning—all meanings are designed to generate acts of reference. The mixed position, by contrast, supposes that some meanings have the job of generating reference and some do not—and that seems like an unattractive lack of unity in the concept.[1] Also, there is intractable controversy about which expressions are referentially endowed, which casts doubt on the clarity of the concept of reference, as philosophers are wont to understand it. Some people have no doubt that definite descriptions refer while others stoutly deny it, and intuitions seem hazy on the question. Some people insist that predicates refer to properties while others vehemently deny it, and the issue is difficult to resolve. In certain moods Frege’s system can strike one as theoretically compelling, but then one snaps out of it and reverts complacently to the mixed position. We may find ourselves accepting that reference has its varieties, but we stubbornly maintain that expressions either have it or they don’t—even as we lack clear criteria to make the distinction. A more uniform position would seem desirable, but Frege’s position is too extravagant to contemplate; and the third anti-referential position just seems manifestly untrue, since surely some words refer!

The view I am going to defend is the anti-referential view, but this will require some subtlety and alertness to philosophical illusions. The basic idea is that the philosopher’s concept of reference is a misplaced reification of a common sense notion: it invests more in that notion that it can really bear. I will begin by consulting the dictionary, always a solid starting point. The OED has this for “refer”: “to mention or allude to” and then “(of a word or phrase) describe or denote”, followed by secondary meanings such as “send someone to a medical specialist”. Under “mention” we find “refer to briefly” and “refer to (someone) as being noteworthy”. So we have a speaker’s use of “refer” that includes mentioning and alluding, and then a linguistic use of “refer” that includes describing and denoting. Clearly “mention” is not a synonym of “refer”, so we can’t trade on its familiarity to validate the philosopher’s use of “refer” (we often mention that such and such but we can’t refer that such and such). The closest we get to the philosopher’s use is “describe or denote,” but “describe” doesn’t cut it since not all referring expressions are descriptive—and don’t predicates describe? So we are forced to fall back on “denote”. Here is the entry for “denote”: “be a sign of; indicate” and “stand as a name or symbol for”. The first thing that strikes one here is the generality of the notion as so defined. The notion of being a sign of or indicating is not even restricted to linguistic contexts: it is the analogue for denotation of Grice’s notion of natural meaning. Clouds can denote rain under this definition, since they can be a sign of rain or indicate it. So this cannot be the definition we are seeking if we want to capture the philosopher’s notion. We turn then to the second definition: here the generality is at least confined to language, since it concerns symbols. But isn’t “red” a name or symbol for redness? Isn’t “and” a symbol for conjunction? Isn’t “all” a symbol for universal quantification? Isn’t every word a symbol for something? Then everything in language denotes something, according to this definition. We are in Frege territory, with the notion shorn of all exclusive implications: denoting is just the property of being a symbol for. Isn’t a symbol precisely something that is a symbol for something—that’s what it is to be a symbol. Calling a symbol denotative doesn’t go beyond calling it a symbol. Clearly Frege and other philosophers intend something stronger than that—but what? That is all that the dictionary tells us and it does nothing to vindicate the philosopher’s use of the term. The notion of reference so understood is trivial not substantive: no concept of a special relation possessed only by special words can be gleaned from the dictionary definition.

At this point the philosopher is apt to fall back on something called “the name-bearer relation”: surely this is a case of genuine substantive reference. Here is the name and there is its bearer, clearly distinct things, and the former designates the latter—denotes it, refers to it. But what does this alleged relation come to?  Isn’t it just that the former is a name of the latter? It is the word (symbol) that we use for a certain individual. But nothing in that locution implies some special relation of reference that holds uniquely between name and object. Notice that the alleged relation is not perceptible and has no causal powers: it is not like a bridge or a light ray or a line drawn in space. It is curiously impalpable, strangely elusive. We might imagine it as analogous to a kind of pointing: pointing fingers are perceptible things, and some reference is indeed aided by pointing. So we imagine the name as pointing to its bearer (or the speaker doing so, physically or mentally): that is what reference looks like! But this is so much mythology: there is no such pointing going on. The idea is just an imaginative crutch designed to confer substance on the supposed special relation of reference. Someone might protest: “Surely sentences containing names are about something—isn’t that what reference is?” I would make two points. First, sentences are also “about” other things such as colors and conjunction—this is part of what they mean—but the idea is supposed to be that these expressions don’t refer. Second, the relevant notion of “about” is connected to truth, as follows: a name contributes to truth conditions in virtue of the fact that a certain object is relevant to the truth of sentences containing it and not other objects. The name “Aristotle” is such that sentences containing it are true just if Aristotle is a certain way. The name “Aristotle” is a name for Aristotle in this sense: but on the face of it this truism says nothing about any supposed relation of reference.[2] The mistake is to think that the very thin notion of reference that is captured by the truism is actually a thick substantive relation that it makes sense to investigate like other relations in nature. It is not, for instance, like the relation of perception (with which reference is often compared). It is quite true that we mention things and allude to them and even make reference to them, but these commonsense notions don’t add up to the philosopher’s special notion of reference—that privileged restrictive notion that invites such philosophical perplexity. We have taken an ordinary notion, fine in its place, and run away with it, postulating metaphysical facts that exceed anything common sense can ground. We have, in a word, reified the notion. This is why it sounds so strange to say in this sense that a predicate denotes a property or that “and” denotes conjunction or that sentences denote truth-values. We have stretched and mangled the notion beyond recognition. We have conjured a semantic reality from thin air and based our whole account of language around it. We are guilty of philosophical hyperbole.[3]

Notice that abandoning the notion of reference, as a heavy-duty theoretical tool, does not mean we have to abandon key insights. We can still distinguish names and demonstratives from descriptions, predicates, and quantifiers; and we can still say (if we like) that the meaning of a name is its bearer. What we must not do is invoke a special relation of reference that supposedly links names to their bearers, or demonstratives to objects in the environment, or “I” to a certain self. We might wish to speak this way for convenience, expressing only the thin deflationary notion I specified; but we can’t suppose we are speaking of a primitive relation, analogous to pointing, that links words with things. Seeking a causal theory of reference, say, or a functional theory, is folly, since reference is not the kind thing that could consist in such facts; it’s just a device we use for talking about words, sentences, and truth. Or again, it is a potentially misleading way to express the idea that symbols symbolize—that symbols are symbols for something. When someone learns that “and” is the word for conjunction in English we can express that fact by saying “He now knows that ‘and’ refers to conjunction in English”, but nothing can be read into that way of talking of the kind assumed in standard philosophical parlance. There is no such thing as reference in that sense—it isn’t real. The right thing to say is that in the ordinary dictionary sense every meaningful word refers (shades of Frege, suitably deflated) but in the philosopher’s sense no word refers, not even names. And that seems like a welcome result given that a mixed position is theoretically infelicitous: better to have a nice uniform account of meaning. Wouldn’t it be odd if one part of language—the part occupied by names and demonstratives—had the remarkable property of reference while the rest of language hobbled along without it? Imagine lines drawn vertically below every allegedly referential word and a blank below every non-referential word: that would suggest totally different functioning as between the two kinds of word. Yet syntactically and pragmatically (as well as sense-wise) all expressions are alike–why the anomaly?

How did the notion of reference find its way into the philosophy of language? We all remember Frege’s argument for why we need sense in addition to reference, but the same argument can be construed as a defense of reference (and may subliminally operate in this way). Suppose we start by assuming that “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” have different senses: we then observe that they nevertheless have something in common, i.e. the same planet is relevant to the truth of sentences containing either name. Let’s introduce a name for this common feature: we say that both names refer to the same planet. Then we announce that two names can have the same reference—an interesting discovery about language. We invert Frege’s argument so as to move from diversity of sense to unity of reference, in the process inventing a new concept, viz. reference. And now we are off and running, applying this notion all over the place. But the data that led to this conceptual profusion merely concerned the fact that the same object figures in the truth conditions of sentences with different senses—it has no more content than that. Then too, we are influenced by the pointing gesture and by the relational nature of perception. We thus end up with a thick (yet elusive) concept of reference whose correct application proceeds to perplex us. We need to develop a healthy skepticism regarding the notion of reference that has grown from these dubious roots. There is nothing wrong with saying that names name people and things, but we shouldn’t convert this into the fanciful idea that there is some peculiar relation that links names to their bearers—an invisible string, a mental pointing, a magical arrow.[4] Alternatively, we could view talk of reference and denotation purely mathematically, as in mathematical model theory, and give up the idea of real empirical concrete relations between words and things. There should be no metaphysics (or science) of reference.

The usual way this subject has been pursued is to assume that there are certain paradigm cases of reference (the name-bearer relation, demonstrative reference to sense-data) and then ask whether other cases approximate to the paradigm. Then we debate how far the concept of reference can be extended from the paradigm cases. The more radical position is that there are no paradigm cases, because nothing refers. We can speak of meaning and sense as real properties of language, but it is pointless to debate how extensively the notion of reference applies. It has no serious application, not as a matter of linguistic theory (though a doctor can still refer a patient to a specialist). Articles with titles like “On Denoting” or “On Referring” are about nothing (this one might be called “Against Denoting”). Questions like whether the reference relation is rigid or non-rigid with respect to a particular class of expressions are also misguided, since there is no reference relation to be one or the other (though we can reconstruct the underlying issues without assuming realism about the reference relation). We must either purge the philosophy of language of the myth of reference or show that it can get by without going beyond the minimalist view of “refers”. The standard division between the referential and the non-referential is an untenable dualism.


[1] If the sense of names involves a mode of presentation of a reference, what does the sense of other expressions involve if there is no reference to be presented? The mixed position gives us a radically divided theory of what senses are, thus undermining the idea of a general notion of sense.

[2] It is commonly stated that predicates denote their extensions, thus conjuring up a special semantic relation between predicates and sets; but this is no more than a fancy way to talk about the things a predicate is true of. There is no more content to the idea of extension-denotation than the idea of what a predicate is true of. The same should be said of names: talk of their denotation is just a fancy way to talk about their contribution to truth.

[3] I am conscious of echoes from Wittgenstein in these remarks.

[4] Notice that other non-theoretical uses of “refer” and cognates do not suggest any such “queer” facts (Wittgenstein’s term): letters of reference, references as citations, works of reference. Nor does the comical use of “I don’t know to what you are referring” by the socially aspiring lady in the train station tearoom in the film Brief Encounter (she actually knows quite well to what the station master is referring).


The Meta-Linguistic Turn



The Meta-Linguistic Turn



Suppose you are interested in the nature of numbers or causation or necessity or the mind or values. Your interests are traditionally metaphysical or ontological. You propose to think about these things and try to come up with answers. But someone tells you that you are going about it the wrong way: you should really focus on sentences or statements about these things—you should think about linguistic entities instead. You should analyze these sentences, give their logical form, and specify how they are used, engaging in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Then you will shed light on numbers, causation, necessity, mind, and value. You should take the “linguistic turn”, which will provide a methodology and a concrete focus: statements not facts, words not objects. You will be studying the world as it is represented in language.

But how should you study language in order to pursue your metaphysical interests? Not as a linguist might or a psychologist or a neurologist: you are not interested in these kinds of empirical questions qua philosopher. You are interested in the meaning of the sentences in question, the better to understand what they refer to (numbers, causal relations, etc.). So your methods are not those of the linguist or psychologist or neurologist (you don’t, for example, examine the brain of the user of these sentences). No, what you investigate is the way we ordinarily understand the sentences in question: you analyze their meaning, dissect their structure, and describe their standard use. We might say that you engage in conceptual analysis, understood broadly. You do this by talking about sentences, i.e. you employ a meta-language. This will involve you in using semantic concepts (as well as syntactic and pragmatic concepts): you will use the concepts of meaning, reference, entailment, truth, assertion, criterion of application, etc. In the case of statements of number, for example, you will note that numerals look like singular terms with reference, that some numerical expressions operate as quantifiers with domains of quantification, that “2+2=4” is true if and only if 2+2=4, and that arithmetical statements are grammatical and meaningful. This will bring you to consider the significance of such meta-linguistic sentences: what does it mean to say that a sentence is meaningful, or that it has this or that specific meaning, or that a word refers to an object, or that a sentence is true? You will unavoidably be drawn to consider meta-linguistic language, specifically the analysis of semantic expressions. You will be considering the theory of meaning and reference. For example, you will wonder how the causal theory of reference relates to statements of number, or whether it is possible to refer to a private sensation, or whether names are descriptions, or whether meaning consists in truth conditions. In other words, you can’t do philosophy of language without examining meta-linguistic sentences: you must not only use them in talking about words and sentences, you must understand them—they must become a direct focus of interest (mentioned not used). In understanding language you must understand language about language—and understand it philosophically. Most centrally, you will be concerned to understand sentences of the form, “s means that p”. Put simply, you will want to analyze the word “means”. And, of course, much philosophy of language is precisely concerned with such locutions and sentences—it is interested in meta-linguistic sentences. This is because it is interested in semantic concepts. So the philosophy of language is concerned with sentences and with sentences about sentences: with both the object language and the meta-language. How could it not be concerned with the meta-language?

Thus the linguistic turn involves a meta-linguistic turn: when we turn from the world to language we also turn from language to language about language. And this second-order language is part of our normal conceptual repertoire: everyone who speaks a human language also speaks a meta-language about that language. We all have the concept of meaning and associated concepts; these are not novel theoretical terms introduced by a groundbreaking scientist, like “quark” or “gene”. We recognize the central terms of art of the philosopher of language as our own; indeed, these terms are as natural and innate as the object language itself. Not only do we acquire a language (an object language) with great ease and speed; we also acquire a meta-language with comparable ease and speed. Language about language is part of our natural endowment as human beings. This means that our competence in such language can be used to develop theories of language: our intuitions about the concept of meaning, say, can be used to test theories of meaning. So the meta-linguistic turn is entirely natural to us: it embodies knowledge that we have as a matter of course. We understand our first-order sentences but we also understand our second-order sentences; it is not that we start struggling when language turns back on itself–as if the word “means” throws us into disarray, as “quark” might. So the meta-linguistic turn is methodologically sound so far as our linguistic knowledge is concerned, and it seems essential to the linguistic turn as a whole. The linguistic turn necessarily brings with it the meta-linguistic turn. Accordingly, when we turn from causation itself, say, and look at causal statements, we inevitably look at statements about causal statements, especially statements invoking the concept of meaning. The general theory of meaning thus becomes relevant to the theory of causation once the linguistic turn has been made. You can’t understand what a cause is without knowing what meaning is! Whether this counts as a welcome result or a reductio of the entire approach is another question; the point is that the linguistic turn leads us in that direction. Metaphysics and semantics become inextricably intermingled: facts can only be understood if meaning can be, i.e. meta-linguistic statements concerning meaning. This makes metaphysics quite different from physics, say, because no one thinks that we can’t do physics without a theory of meaning to guide us.

The case is similar with the epistemic turn: if we shift our focus from facts to knowledge of facts in the hope of getting a better handle on facts, we will inevitably be led to consider our knowledge of knowledge. We won’t bring in what a psychologist has to say about knowledge (as in the psychology of education) but will concern ourselves with our ordinary grasp of knowledge—for example, that knowledge involves truth and justification and that it is vulnerable to skepticism. This is meta-knowledge—knowledge about knowledge. We use this meta-knowledge in order to understand knowledge itself (first-order knowledge), but we will find ourselves examining meta-knowledge in its own right—we will take it as an object of investigation. Are we right to suppose knowledge involves truth and justification and that it is vulnerable to skepticism? Perhaps we don’t know enough about knowledge to be confident about such things.[1] Are we epistemically perfect with respect to our epistemic capacities? What is the nature of knowledge of knowledge? Is it caused by knowledge? Is it perceptual? How fallible is it? Thus we engage in an examination of meta-knowledge as part of the epistemic turn; we can’t just stop at first-order knowledge itself but must proceed up a step to consider our knowledge of knowledge. That is what philosophers do—investigate the questions that are raised by their methods. So the epistemic turn will involve us in questions about meta-knowledge: we can’t know what causation is, say, without understanding our knowledge of causal knowledge! We can examine how we come to know causal facts, but that will bring us to wonder about what we know of our knowledge of causal facts. Thus the epistemic turn involves a meta-epistemic turn. Again, whether this is a welcome result or a reductio is another question; the point is that the epistemic turn turns into a meta-epistemic turn. Combining the epistemic turn with the linguistic turn, we are not just interested in sentences like “A knows that x caused y” but also sentences like “A knows that B knows that x caused y”. Our knowledge of our causal knowledge might or might not be adequate, but we must assume that it has some veracity in order to invoke our understanding of such knowledge in the effort to understand causation. We end up scrutinizing our higher-order knowledge in the project of getting clearer about causation. We have some understanding of what knowledge is just by having the concept, which is why people can recognize the correctness of elementary truths about knowledge; but that is not to say that the theory of knowledge is all plain sailing. So the epistemic turn in metaphysics will find itself caught up in questions about our knowledge of knowledge. Whether that counts as philosophical progress is an interesting question; certainly it complicates the claim of the epistemic turn to constitute a royal road to metaphysical understanding. It isn’t as if everything becomes clear once we turn our attention to causal knowledge and away from causation as such (and similarly for the other topics listed).

The same is true for the conceptual turn: here too the shift from things to concepts of things will involve us in meta-questions about concepts, and it is not as if that subject is all goodness and light. Concepts about concepts, thoughts about thoughts, also require scrutiny. The conceptual turn becomes a meta-conceptual turn with all the questions that entails. A person might be forgiven for supposing that we had it easier when we were trying to focus on facts directly. Is it really easier to understand our concept of necessity (say) than necessity itself? Why turn from the frying pan to the fire when the fire is even hotter? In any case, meta-questions about concepts will accompany the conceptual turn. When we turn from things to concepts in order to understand the things better we will inevitably face the question of how to understand concepts: and the latter may be no more pellucid than the former.

Original proponents of the linguistic turn probably thought that language was a relatively problem-free zone compared to traditional metaphysics, so it could be reliably turned to in times of need. Aren’t statements about numbers more straightforward than numbers themselves? We can at least see and hear them, and write them down. Thus Frege’s advice to begin with the former and work back to the latter looks sensible enough. But one look at the theory of language espoused by Frege deflates that expectation, what with its apparatus of sense and reference, concept and object, function and argument, truth-values as objects, thoughts as objective platonic entities, saturated and unsaturated entities, infinite hierarchies of indirect sense, etc. Indeed, the ontology of the theory invites questions comparable to those raised by traditional metaphysics concerning numbers. The meta-language propositions of Frege’s theory of language are as puzzling as any in traditional metaphysics. So the meta-linguistic turn reveals the linguistic turn to be not on such solid ground as it might have hoped. In philosophy as in life, when you turn from one thing to another, be fully cognizant of what you are turning to.


[1] It may be said that second-order knowledge is more reliable than first-order knowledge and less vulnerable to skepticism: we can be more certain that first-order knowledge is vulnerable to skepticism than that we are not brains in a vat. But the determined skeptic might insist that this purported knowledge of the truth of skepticism is not as solid as we suppose: we might have made a slip in our reasoning or the concept of knowledge might not be as demanding as the skeptic supposes. At any rate, such questions would have to be posed once we examine second-order knowledge.


Women, Physics, and Disgust

I don’t usually like to comment on what is going on in the “the profession”, but the recent skirmish between Robin Dembroff and Alex Byrne over the definition of “woman” reminds me of two incidents in which I was involved: two young female professors wrote highly personal critical reviews of my books Basic Structures of Reality and The Meaning of Disgust which I thought overconfident and callow (I’m trying to be nice). I hope this is not a pattern. It is not good scholarship, to put it mildly.


Causation: Invisible Cement



Causation: Invisible Cement



I wish to make some inconclusive but perhaps suggestive remarks about a subject that has troubled me for 50 years. Hume’s imperishable contribution is well known: whatever the objective nature of causation may be, we can say with confidence that our knowledge of it is neither a priori nor observational. We don’t know how objects will causally influence each other by pure reason (causal statements are not analytic) and we don’t perceive causal relations (particularly causal necessity). When we ascribe a causal power to a thing we don’t do so because of a rational insight (as in mathematics) and we don’t do so because we can literally see the power (as we can see color and shape). So how do we know the causal powers of a thing—how, say, do we know the effects of a moving billiard ball on a collision course with another billiard ball? According to Hume, we know it by induction: we have seen other objects behave in certain ways and we can see that this object is similar to those. Of course such reasoning is inconclusive and fallible, as well as being annoyingly indirect, but it is the only method we have. I can know empirically that a billiard ball is red by looking at it and I can know a priori that it is extended because I know it is a physical thing, but I can’t know what it has the power to do by either method; I must resort to my recollection of how similar balls have behaved in the past and trust that it will follow suit, knowing that this reasoning is far from satisfactory. The causal power is curiously elusive, frustratingly hidden from view: it exists right there in the object just waiting to unleash itself, and yet I cannot get my mind around it. I can stare at the object all day from every angle and in every light, but the power will not reveal itself to me. If causation is the cement of the universe, it is invisible cement—I can get no impression of it. The primary and secondary qualities of the object display themselves without this coyness, but causal powers lurk unseen, refusing to show their face. Thus the epistemology of causation is subject to skepticism, to the point that causation itself comes into question.

The question I want to ask is why it is thus invisible: what is it about causation as it exists in objects that makes it closed to perception? What is it about the nature of causation that explains its imperceptibility? It can hardly be that it is too small or has the privacy of the mind or is a type of value or is abstract like numbers—none of these possible explanations applies in this case. It must somehow be intrinsically hidden from the senses, and thus only known (if at all) by the indirect method of induction, but what is its nature such that this is so? I suggest it is because causal powers relate essentially to the future; they determine how an object will behave. An object with a certain power is such that in certain conditions it will bring something about at a later date: the speeding billiard ball will have certain effects in the future as it collides with other balls. The power is future-oriented, future-involving. Yet it is possessed presently: it is now true that this object will do that. But I can only observe what is present—my senses don’t take in the future (as they don’t take in the past). It is as if a certain kind of “externalism” applies to the power: it is what it is now in virtue of what it will be later, i.e. something external to the present time. It has a trans-temporal quality, a foot in the present and a foot (many feet) in the future. It is temporally spread out. But then it will not be perceptible by the senses, since they take in only what is present (perceptions are themselves caused by present facts). If we possessed precognition as a type of sense, then we would be able to see the causal powers of objects and would not need to rely on extraneous (Hume’s word) induction; but as it is we are blind to causal powers, being forced to look outside the particular causal nexus before us and go by past similarities. If this is right, it is at least clear why causation is invisible: it is invisible because we can’t see the future. We can know the future by means of truths of reason—we know that in the future bachelors will always be unmarried—and we can know it by induction (putting aside skepticism)—we know that the sun will rise tomorrow based on its past performance—but we don’t know it by perceiving it directly. So causal powers elude our powers of perception, since they intrinsically include future happenings.

Powers are a bit like biological functions. The heart has the function of circulating the blood, but this involves future exterior events, so we can’t see its function by looking at it, as we can see its gross anatomy. We can’t look at it at a given time and simply observe that it has that function. It is possible for a heart to have this function and not have the power to carry it out (it is a defective heart) and vice versa, so these are not the same property; but they share the characteristic that they incorporate “external” events. We can see the heart but not see its function, as we can see a billiard ball but not see its causal powers—because in both cases the property in question “takes in” remote occurrences. In the case of powers this remoteness is temporal: the power is defined precisely as the power to change the future in a certain way. Powers are cross temporal not temporally confined—what it is to be a causal power is not constituted by what holds at a given instant (like color or shape).[1] Powers reach into the future, but perception is stuck in the present. That is why Hume is right bout the epistemology of causation. It is thus not mysterious that causal powers should be invisible; it stems from their very nature. It may be that this nature is itself mysterious, but given its reality imperceptibility can be predicted. As remarked, pre-cognition (pre-perception) would reveal it to the mind, but we don’t possess that—and it may be conceptually impossible. In any case our senses do not put us into epistemic contact with the future—only inductive reasoning can do that (or knowledge of analytic truths). Causal powers are something additional to the usual primary and secondary qualities, and different in nature: for they are not temporally confined. This implies that you can’t see causal powers, because you can’t see what an object will do.

It is arguable that all causes and effects involve motion so that causal powers are always powers to move things (strictly, accelerate things). If so, the future changes that are implicit in present powers are changes of motion, which means that what we can’t perceive are future motions when we fail to perceive powers. We have no perception of future motions; we can only perceive present motions. That is precluded by the fact that there is no backwards causation, so no present perception can be caused by a future event. Future motions can’t cause present perceptions of them because perceptions must be caused by what they are of and there is no backwards causation. Hence we cannot perceive powers to produce future motions. The temporal asymmetry of causation lies behind our inability to perceive causal powers. If backwards causation were possible, then we would be able to perceive future motions, and hence perceive powers; but we can’t do the latter because the former is not possible (not in the actual world anyway). So the unobservable character of causation has its roots in the (actual) impossibility of backwards causation. Hume’s critique springs from that fundamental fact. It is not that there is some (wholly) present fact about the cause that for some reason we can’t perceive; it is the involvement of future facts that stands in the way of such perception. In vain do we look for future motions in the perceived world. Therefore what we observe of causes does not include their being the causes they are. To put it another way, the universe unfurls towards the future as causal powers manifest themselves, but we have no perception of this future, so the powers remain invisible to us. Metaphorically speaking, the universe knows the future better than we do. If we lacked the ability to make inductions based on similarities, we would have no causal knowledge at all; we would not even have a conception of causation. For us history would be just one damn thing after another. It would not be apparent to us that causal powers exist, even though they do, since nothing in what we perceive can give us the idea of them. Perception and causation are just not cut out for each other, given what each of them intrinsically is. They relate quite differently to time. Perception is directed exclusively to the present while causation is inherently future-directed.[2]


[1] Thus causal powers cannot be reduced to their “categorical basis”, which is temporally confined and may be perceptible, even though such a basis may be necessary for the power to exist.

[2] It should be noted that this applies to mental causation as well as physical causation: we don’t introspect mental causal powers, as we don’t perceive physical causal powers. Hume, of course, was well aware that his critique applies as much to mental causation as physical causation. I don’t believe he ever asked why causation is not revealed to the senses, being content to note that it isn’t.


The Humanistic Turn



The Humanistic Turn



A popular narrative has it that analytical philosophy replaced an emphasis on knowledge with an emphasis on language. It is said that Descartes brought epistemology to the center of philosophy and that Frege shifted the center to the philosophy of language (assisted by Wittgenstein, Austin, et al). Thus we have the “linguistic turn”. Some add to this the idea that the linguistic turn gave way to the conceptual turn, in which the study of thoughtbecame the central preoccupation of philosophy. From knowledge to meaning to thought, there has been a succession of intellectual revolutions during the last three centuries. Continental philosophers may wish to add the phenomenological turn, initiated by Husserl and taken up by Heidegger and Sartre, in which philosophy takes as its central concern the study of lived experience. Yet others may prefer the idea of the logical turn, in which formal logic became foundational. And there may be various sub-turns: the linguistic turn itself exhibited a number of smaller turns, from propositions to speech acts to language games to theoretical linguistics. In any case, philosophy has undergone various shifts of emphasis, beginning with Descartes: moves towards something and away from something else. There are then debates about whether these moves were good or bad, and how exactly they should be characterized.

But what was Descartes turning from? I think there are two answers that are not unconnected: religion and traditional metaphysics. He was turning away from reliance on Scripture and church authority, which lie outside of the human subject; and he was also turning away from the legacy of Platonic metaphysics and Aristotelian scholasticism, which emphasize impersonal ontology. Philosophy must focus not on a transcendent God and not on external Nature, both construed as non-human realities, but on the human capacity to know—on human reason, human experience. How do we know and what do we know—with the accent on “we” (or “I”). We must study the human ability to know things, not an extra-human God or Nature. Human knowledge (its scope and limits) is something we can get our teeth into, since it is an aspect of us, part of our nature. Philosophy must turn from the non-human to the human—to human nature, in a word. Descartes accordingly meditates on himself, alone and unaided, as a natural human creature, particularly as a knowing creature. The Cogito is one of his first discoveries: he finds that he is a thinking thing that indubitably exists. The question then is whether this thinking thing can know the things it thinks it knows, and more besides; thus the stage is set for the analysis of knowledge and the attempt to rebut skepticism—central concerns of post-Cartesian philosophy, up to and including the analytical kind.[1] The important point is that this epistemic turn was a humanistic turn: a turn towards the human and away from the non-human. The focus on knowledge was the form this humanistic turn took for Descartes and subsequent thinkers.

The successive turns away from knowledge–which came to include perception and reasoning, common sense and science–were also humanistic turns: language is a human attribute too, an aspect of human nature; and the same is true of concepts and thoughts. We humans have these attributes as aspects of our given nature, and philosophy is now construed as an investigation of human nature under this dispensation. Philosophy becomes the philosophy of the human, specifically our powers of linguistic and conceptual representation—a kind of rarified psychology. Thus we find Strawson’s project of “descriptive metaphysics”: the attempt to map our ordinary natural conception of reality—our “conceptual scheme”. This is to be contrasted with theology and with science, which both attempt to describe the non-human world. It also stands opposed to the Platonic style of metaphysics in which we attempt to describe reality as it exists independently of humans—the world outside the cave. The world of Forms has nothing intrinsically to do with human beings, but exists independently of us, and will go on existing whether we do or not. And before Strawson’s humanistic metaphysics we had such works as Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature—note the occurrence of the word “human” in both titles. These are avowedly books about the human animal, if I may put it so—about a certain type of creature with a specific nature. We know, we perceive, we think, we speak: that is what philosophy should concern itself with. If it is not about such things, we should turn away from it and towards its proper object. Thus, seen from a broader perspective, the epistemic, linguistic, and conceptual turns are all turns within a larger humanistic turn. The debate between empiricism and rationalism, for example, is a debate within the humanistic conception of philosophy, namely how human knowledge is arrived at and what its nature is. We today have become very accustomed to this turn and are scarcely aware of it, perhaps not even seeing anything turn-like about it. This is because it is a shift in intellectual history that goes back centuries and whose antecedents are barely comprehensible to us moderns—the time of religious domination and pre-modern metaphysics. At one time it was startling to maintain that philosophy should concern itself with the human being, whether as knower, thinker, or speaker. Aren’t we just too small and insignificant compared to God and the Platonic Forms to be awarded such a prominent place? What does the universe care about our ability to know, think, and talk (especially the last)? Isn’t the Form of the Good so much grander than our feeble human meanderings? Isn’t there something impious and vain about focusing philosophy on ourselves? Isn’t humanistic philosophy anthropocentric philosophy? And isn’t that culpably self-centered?

Not all modern philosophers have adopted the humanistic approach. Two giants stand out: Spinoza and Leibniz (we might add Schopenhauer and even Kant in some respects). Both developed traditional-sounding metaphysical systems without regard for human perspectives, and both are alien to modern sensibilities. Spinoza and Leibniz have struggled for curricular recognition and are often regarded as eccentric at best. That is not a false impression given that they don’t share the humanistic turn (proudly in the case of Spinoza, in view of his naturalism about the human creature). Both belong squarely in the tradition beginning with Plato and Aristotle (including the pre-Socratics) and pre-dating the Christianized doctrines of the middle ages; they are concerned to provide an intelligible general ontology without reliance on Scripture or the human viewpoint. They are certainly not interested in describing what the ordinary human animal thinks, or how he or she thinks it. We might call these non-humanistic philosophers: they resist the humanistic turn in whatever variety it presents itself. Kant is the odd case because of his duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal—the former decidedly human, the latter not human at all. Kant took a kind of half-turn, though historically he triggered a yet sharper turn towards the human: his view is that we can’t know anything about the non-human world, though there is such a thing, while the human world is open to our understanding. Berkeley is an interesting case: at first sight his idealism would appear to put him firmly in the humanist camp, but then we remember his placing of God at the center of all things and the non-human asserts itself. The infinite spirit is not a human spirit, and it is the foundation of the entire universe. Berkeley is a non-humanist wolf in humanist sheep’s clothing. Again, he is someone we moderns find it difficult to digest. We are more comfortable delving into our own nature accompanied by Locke and Hume. We like the humanistic turn, self-centered as we are. We prefer to think of ourselves as the measure of all things—whether by our knowledge or our meanings or our concepts. We think human nature is fantastic.

Where do more recent philosophers fall? Almost all twentieth century philosophers are humanists: Russell, Wittgenstein, the positivists, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Davidson, Quine, Strawson, Dummett, and many others.[2]The anti-humanists are harder to spot, not surprisingly given the humanistic turn, but a few exhibit anti-humanist leanings—I might mention Kripke and Nagel. Kripke opposes the humanistic interpretation of modality, stressing the existence of metaphysical necessity and distinguishing it from the epistemic kind—it stems from objective reality not from our own minds (as with analyticity). Nagel qualifies because of his realism and emphasis on human limitation—in no way is the bat’s mind a version of the human mind, and our concepts are not guaranteed to catch hold of everything real (the View From Nowhere is not a human view). Mysterians (such as Chomsky and myself) are sharply anti-humanist because we reject the idea that reality is designed so as to conform to human modes of thinking. We humans are just tiny specks in reality, not the measure of reality; neither human knowledge nor human language nor human thought are constitutive of the real—the objective world is. These human attributes are merely part of the world. Construed as a general meta-philosophy, the humanistic turn was a mistake, according to mysterians–though there is nothing untoward about studying human nature as such. We do better to revert to Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and whoever else shares their anti-humanist predilections. In any case the issue has been joined: to be a humanist or not to be a humanist.[3]


Colin McGinn


[1] A problem with the epistemic turn, as exemplified in Descartes, not mentioned in the standard narrative, is that knowledge turned out to be not as unproblematic as we might have hoped. Descartes recognized the problem of skepticism from the start and tried unsuccessfully to solve it, so knowledge can hardly be a solid foundation on which to erect a humanistic philosophy alternative to what had gone before; but further, it became clear that even defining knowledge is difficult, so we don’t even know what knowledge is. If our aim is to find a sound starting point in human nature, knowledge seems like the wrong concept to invoke. In this light we can see why a switch to language might seem appealing; however, the concept of meaning soon revealed itself to be anything but pellucid, so turning to it hardly leads to the Promised Land. And the same can be said of concepts and thoughts. Human nature turns out not to be as transparent as we might have hoped. If obscurity is a count against non-humanistic philosophy, then it applies also to humanistic philosophy.

[2] There is also the humanistic turn with respect to ethics (and politics and aesthetics): instead of finding moral value in the supernatural realm or in the natural order we find it in the human individual; it is imminent not transcendent, an aspect of human nature. Moral humanists would include Nietzsche and Hume as well as many twentieth century ethicists (e.g. Bernard Williams); moral anti-humanists would include Platonists, Kant, and early Moore. In the case of ethics the subject matter at least has a clear connection to human life, so the humanistic turn is more intuitive; but it is far from self-evident that values themselves are part of human nature. In any case, we should include ethics under the grand opposition I am describing.

[3] The same kind of dilemma can also confront the sciences, physics in particular. With positivism physics took a humanistic turn, given that verification is a human attribute; and instrumentalism invites the question “Instrumental for whom?” Einstein’s relativity theory comes perilously close to building the human subject (the “observer”) into physics, and so does quantum theory on some interpretations; at least part of the appeal of these theories is surely their humanistic aura. Newtonian physics, by contrast, was resolutely non-humanist. And isn’t post-modernism really just the final expression of humanism? Even truth is a human construction: the world is nothing but the human world (culture, custom, power relations).


The National Psyche

The combination of Covid19, Trump, and police brutality is producing a toxic mixture of fear, anger, impotence, and disgust that is afflicting the national psyche. Who knows where it will lead. Therapists stand to prosper. I myself am suffering from an acute case of America-phobia.


Is Natural Selection Physical?


Is Natural Selection Physical?


Is Darwin’s theory of evolution a physical theory? Does anything mental enter into its explanatory apparatus? There are two main components to the theory: mutation and natural selection. It might well seem that these are both entirely physical phenomena, because mutation is just chance genetic change (change in the DNA) and natural selection is the physical impact of the environment on survival and reproduction. We can agree that mutation is a purely physical phenomenon (it results from such things as radiation striking the genome), though we should note that mutations cause mental changes as well as bodily changes; but it is an oversimplification to suppose that natural selection involves no mental elements. If we focus on such factors as climate change, the effects of gravity, lack of food, lightning, and meteors, then we might come to the conclusion that nature selects in virtue of physical facts and events; but these are not the only factors that influence survival and reproduction. Take predators: the bite of a lion certainly affects the survival prospects of its prey, and the bite is physical, but the bite was caused by a desire on the part of the lion—the desire for food. The lion’s psychological state leads it to act in the way it does, shaping the reproductive potential of prey animals. No account of such natural selection would be complete that failed to mention lion psychology. And the same is true of the psychology of the prey: this too affects the chances for survival of an animal hunted by lions. Predation is not just a body-to-body interaction; it is mind-to-mind interaction. The mind plays a causal role in shaping who survives such interactions. An eliminative materialist would deny this, but otherwise it is undeniable. Part of an animal’s environment is the psychological environment (including its own) not just the physical environment; so natural selection includes psychological factors. An animal is adapted to its physical environment and to its psychological environment. This is true even for plants: their selection is governed in part by the behavior of herbivorous animals, which typically results from the psychological state of such animals—does the animal like to eat this type of grass?

In the case of social animals this kind of selection by psychological environment is even more pronounced. Competition is a powerful driver of evolution, but competition involves the psychology of the competitors: aggressive conspecifics will decisively affect an animal’s opportunities for reproduction, and aggression involves emotional states. This is why many animals need a theory of mind to navigate their social life: you need to understand others’ psychology in order to survive and mate. If the psychological environment were to change, what was once adaptive could become less so. What is called artificial selection illustrates the point beautifully: this kind of selection is done by conscious agents with intentions, for example dog breeders. Here selection is governed by the aesthetic tastes of the breeders or by marker expectations; no account of this process could be correct that failed to recognize this selective force. Nor is it really outside the domain of natural selection, since there is nothing unnatural about the human desire to shape other species to their own ends (bees “artificially” select flower types too). If a species did this in order to provide a food source better suited to its needs, that would be perfectly within the natural domain—what Darwin called artificial selection is just another kind of natural selection (it isn’t super-natural selection). Once organisms get minds natural selection is influenced by these minds, so it is not always a purely physical matter. Of course, if we are materialists we will suppose that minds are really material, so that all natural selection comes down to physical selection; but that does not gainsay the point that mental phenomena are involved in the selection process—just not irreducibly mental phenomena. And the Darwinian theory itself is not committed to any such materialism: it simply speaks of whatever factors there are that can shape natural selection, physical or mental. In some possible worlds no doubt the only form of natural selection is psychologically driven—organisms are never selectively acted upon by purely physical phenomena.

Sexual selection is another case in point. Again, this should not be opposed to natural selection, since it is just a type of natural selection—the type in which mates select each other by considerations of fitness and attractiveness, as with the peacock’s tail. Here the selective force is an estimate of the fitness of the potential mate—that is, what the selector thinks is attractive in a mate. It is a matter of psychological response, and this response will determine whether the potential mate becomes an actual mate. In some species sexual selection is the main determinant of reproductive success—much more so that lightning strikes or falls from great heights or poisonous berries. If you are selected for your looks, then it is the aesthetic tastes of the selector that determine whether your genes get passed on. Sexual selection is psychologically driven and a powerful selective force. Of course, such psychological causation is physically mediated by actual behavior, in this case and in the others I have mentioned; but that is not to say that the selection is purely physical, since it stems from psychological factors. You would not want to say that selecting a wife or husband is a purely physical matter just because the outward acts that are involved are physical.

So Darwin’s theory is not in any way an elimination of the mental from the process of evolution: the mechanism of natural selection operates over psychological facts as much as physical facts. Nature selects both physically and mentally. It is not that Darwin’s theory replaces the mental with the physical in its account of evolution, by (say) removing God’s intentions from the picture. It is not a scientific theory that would gladden the heart of a metaphysical materialist. It is not a physical theory in the way chemistry is. It uses the mental; it doesn’t eschew it. Nor does it take a stand on the nature of the mental: it is neutral with respect to the metaphysics of mind.[1] This is simply because nature includes more than physical nature. Mind accordingly played a role in the origin of species.[2]


[1] You cannot read off from Darwin’s theory which theory of the nature of mind is correct: materialism, functionalism, anomalous monism, supervenience, panpsychism, computationalism, dualism, etc. This is not to say that theories don’t differ in how easy it is to explain the evolution of mind.

[2] I doubt that anyone would disagree with this once it is spelled out. Nevertheless, there seems to be a vague feeling out there that Darwin’s theory has materialist tendencies, or even that it claims to account for all of evolution without mentioning anything mental. Clearly minds play a role in determining what traits get selected and passed on, according to the theory.


Aesthetic and Moral Syllogisms

Aesthetic and Moral Syllogisms



Consider the proposition “x is aesthetically better than y”: does this entail the proposition “I should engage with xin preference to y”? One might suppose so, but in fact it doesn’t, unless we add something like “other things being equal”. If x is more intellectual demanding than y and I am tired from mental exertions, I am under no aesthetic obligation to engage with x; it might give me a headache. Or I might simply not be in the mood for x and would be happier engaging with y. Or I might have engaged a lot with things like x recently and would welcome something different in y. Thus there is no valid deduction here—though if we add “other things being equal” we get closer to that (but what things exactly?). Aesthetic value does not immediately translate into a categorical imperative.

Compare “x is morally better than y”: does this entail “I should do x in preference to y”? Can I decline the invitation to do x by pointing out that I am tired or not in the mood or am bored with doing x-like things? Certainly not: I must do x instead of y, no matter what my personal circumstances (though of course I must be able to do it). This is the familiar point that moral reasons entail categorical imperatives: if x is morally better than y, I am under a strict obligation to do x not y. I can’t plead tiredness, my mood, or boredom to avoid the obligation. There is thus a sharp distinction between the aesthetic ought and the moral ought, as exemplified in these syllogisms.