Is Philosophy Ethically Limited?



The Alleged Limits of Moral Philosophy



Bernard Williams wrote a book entitled Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.[1]This title invites interrogation. What kind of limitation might be meant? We can all agree that philosophy is limited in someway: it cannot do what science does, for example, or history or geography or literature or painting. In that sense everything is limited: there is no point in using one’s philosophical faculties in order to answer non-philosophical problems. Someone could write a book called Ethics and the Limits of Scienceand we could be persuaded that science is not the answer to ethical questions, since it is not the answer to many questions, especially normative ones. But isn’t ethics precisely moral philosophy—so how could philosophy be limited in doing the philosophy of right and wrong? What if Williams had called his book Moral Philosophy and the Limits of Philosophy? Of course, real ethical questions involve factual matters, and hence are not properly part of philosophy, but what could be meant by saying that philosophy is limited in dealing with the philosophical aspects of ethics? And is philosophy limited in other areas traditionally designated philosophical too? As it turns out Williams doesn’t really mean that philosophy is limited with respect to ethics (or moral philosophy): he means a certain kindof philosophy is so limited. He doesn’t mean that a more historically rooted and humanistic philosophy is limited when it comes to ethics; he means the kind of philosophy exemplified by Kant and Bentham along with their successors. He means something theoretical, abstract, systematic, monistic, context-independent, non-psychological, ahistorical, absolute, and scientific-sounding. So his title is misleading: he thinks that a certain dominant strandof Western philosophy is limited when it comes to ethics. Not that this strand might not contain important truths and be valuable in its way, but that it has limits—it doesn’t cover the full territory of ethics. This is a less resounding thesis than that suggested by the title of his book. He might more accurately have called it Ethics and the Limits of a Certain Kind of Philosophy. The book would then have gone on to argue that the kind of philosophy in question omits certain important considerations, to be remedied by adopting a different kind of philosophical approach or style or method.

The question I want to raise is whether Williams would wish to extend his thesis to other parts of philosophy. Is it just ethics in which a certain kind of philosophy has inherent limits? Let us call this kind theoreticalphilosophy, meaning thereby to sum up the list of features I cited in the last paragraph. Would he complain that epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on, are not sufficiently historical or humanistic or contextualized? Is his critique of theoretical philosophy as too limited itself limited to ethics? Is it that the other areas traditionally covered by philosophy are perfectly well suited to the theoretical style, but that right and wrong are not? If so, what is it about this domain that makes it stand out so? It can’t be merely that it is a normative domain, because so are aesthetics and epistemology (which concerns what we oughtto believe and is shot through with normative notions), not to mention logic. And why exactly would the normative preclude theoretical treatment while everything else invites it? I don’t recall Williams ever addressing this question—though he certainly contrasted the “absolute conception” of science with philosophical investigations. My question is whether he would be prepared to extend his critique to all of philosophy or whether he intended it as restricted to the case of ethics.

It seems to me this is an uncomfortable dilemma for him. For it is hard to see on what grounds he could restrict it, and yet extending it surely proves too much. It proves too much because clearly theoretical philosophy is not limited in any non-trivial way when it comes to these other areas. How could it be argued that logic and philosophy of language are objectionably limited in their methods and results? Of course, they can be supplemented by other disciplines, but in what way are they just the wrong way to approach the subject? Similarly for epistemology and philosophy of mind: why do they fail to provide an adequate way to approach the questions that constitute their domain of interest? Would Williams be prepared to write a book entitled Knowledge and the Limits of Philosophyor The Mind-Body Problem and the Limits of Philosophy? What other approach to these questions would he favor over the one traditionally practiced by philosophers? Does he think logic should be more historically situated and psychologically realistic? What about the analysis of knowledge or the nature of intention? I myself see no reason to distinguish ethics from other branches of philosophy methodologically, and I also believe that there is no real alternative to the usual way of doing things. So I would see no point in a book paradoxically entitled Philosophy and the Limits of Philosophy, even when that last phrase is understood to mean “limits of a certain kind of philosophy”.

In fact, Williams’ chief targets were Kantian ethics and utilitarianism. He found them too abstract and oversimplified as well as psychologically unrealistic. I can see a point to that critique, but it is an unwarranted leap to suppose that ethics in general has been blighted by the same failings. What about the work of W.D. Ross? What about Aristotle? These are theoretical thinkers in the sense intended—they purport to offer a systematic treatment of ethics valid for all times and places—but they are more pluralistic and realistic than the abstract monistic formulae of Kant or Bentham. True, philosophers are prone to defend oversimplified monistic theories, but it is no abnegation of theory as such to move in a more complex pluralistic direction. Is that all Williams is asking for? Evidently not, but I fail to see why ethics should be held to a different standard than other philosophical topics. In epistemology we can distinguish a rule-based from a consequentialist view of justification: either you follow the rules of induction, deduction and abduction, or justification is defined as simply what makes the best predictions (or has the best results for humans if you are a pragmatist). This is analogous to the distinction between deontology and consequentialism in ethics. We can certainly oppose either view as being partial or limited, but combining them is hardly a move away from the theoretical to something more historically grounded or humanistic. Similarly, we can oppose the monolithic systems of Kant and Bentham without thereby abandoning a broadly theoretical approach to ethics. Pluralism is not inherently anti-philosophical or an indication that philosophy has reached its limits. To reject bad theories, or theories that oversimplify, is not to reject theory altogether.

And is it that Williams finds nothing of value in the theories he criticizes? No: for they crystalize important aspects of morality—moral rules and good consequences, respectively. They are idealizations intended to bring out what matters, much as other philosophical theories are idealizations. There is nothing wrong with that so long as we realize what we are doing. Maybe they aretooidealized, but again that is not a point against theoretical philosophy as such. Nor do I see any real alternative to theoretical philosophy if we are going to keep on doing philosophy at all. Certainly, merely describing the moral attitudes and practices of societies present and past is not a kind of moral philosophy worthy of the name. So I don’t really see what Williams is getting at by accusing moral philosophy of failing to recognize its limits.[2]


Colin McGinn


[1]Harvard University Press: 1986.

[2]I considered Bernard Williams a friend. I admired him as a philosopher. I enjoyed talking to him. We once appeared together on television discussing animals and ethics. I taught a seminar with Malcolm Budd on Ethics and the Limits of Philosophywhen it came out. But I never felt I really understood his position in ethics—either what he objected to or what he favored. I got the flavor of it, if course, but the actual content of his views eluded me.


The Water Paradox





The Water Paradox



It has been a while since we had a new paradox to cudgel our brains over. For your edification (and frustration) I will present what I call “the water paradox”. Like all paradoxes it aims to derive an absurdity from self-evident premises, thus demonstrating the auto-destructive powers of reason. We are not meant to accept the paradox as true (that’s why it’s a paradox), but to marvel at its existence. So consider the following principle: “Every object wholly composed of solid parts is solid”. That sounds right and examples confirm it: a rock is composed of solid parts and is solid, and similarly for a block of ice. Some things are not solid, such as molten metal, but they have non-solid parts: liquid things have liquid parts. If a substance has some solid parts, it is not wholly liquid; it is partly solid. If a sea is partly frozen, it is not liquid tout court; it is only partly liquid. It would be false to say of it, without qualification, that it is liquid. Someone could rightly reply that itisn’t liquid, though many of its partsare. To be liquid requires that allof it be liquid.

But is it true that what we routinely call liquid water is liquid with respect to its parts? What about its constituent molecules? The OEDdefines “solid” as “firm and stable in shape”, so that “liquid” means “not firm and stable in shape”. Drinking water is not firm and stable in shape, but its constituent molecules are—theyare not liquid. They slide over each other in so-called liquid water, but they are individually as solid as any solid object. So the molecular parts of water are themselves solid in both its solid and liquid state. But according to our principle, if all the parts of an object are solid, then so is the object: therefore there is no such thing as liquid water! That is paradoxical, since there is certainly a distinction between two states of water, which we mark with the terms “solid” and “liquid”.

Suppose that we were quite unperceptive about water and simply never notice that the water we drink and swim in has lots of little chunks of ice in it. If we were giants, these might be quite big chunks that are beneath our notice. Then we discover, to our surprise, the facts about this water: shouldn’t we conclude that we were wrong to suppose that our water is liquid? Shouldn’t we conclude instead that it is only partly liquid? It seemed liquid to us, but actually it isn’t. Well, science has discovered that room-temperature water is composed of unobservable solid parts, and so is not liquid after all. Imagine if you were a creature that could drink sand and swim in sand, so that sand seemed like a liquid to you: you would be within your rights to compare it to a liquid from a practical point of view, but it would be false to say of sand that it is a liquid. What if you could crunch up ice in your mouth and swallow it without melting? It would be solid, though drinkable. Isn’t that the way it is with water and us as things stand? Water seemsliquid to us, but on closer inspection it turns out not to be, since it is made of non-liquid parts. From a molecule’s-eye point of view, water is like so much sand—solid particles jostling around each other. Is a galaxy to be declared liquid because its parts move in relation to each other? Is the universe one big liquid? No, the universe is a solid object made of solid moveable parts. Isn’t that precisely what we have discovered water to be? Its liquidity is entirely superficial once you get down to the chemistry.

You might try to deny the premises of this argument. You might deny that molecules are solid, perhaps on the ground that they are parts of a liquid. But that seems hopeless given the empirical facts of chemistry, molecules being firm and stable objects; and anyway we can push the argument down to the atomic parts that compose molecules—they certainly aren’t liquid. Second, you might attack the main premise of the argument: you might claim that it is just not true that objects wholly composed of solid objects are solid—liquid water being a counterexample to this principle. You might say that liquidity merely requires the free motion of solid parts relative to each other, not liquidity all the way down. We have already seen that this is not the correct analysis of the concept of liquidity, since sand and galaxies are not liquids. But there is a further consideration: for consider substances that areliquid all the way down, unlike water–how should we describe such substances? Suppose Sis a substance that is very like water in its superficial appearance but whose physical nature is not atomic-molecular but continuous and infinitely malleable.Sis physically the way we assumed water to be before we discovered atoms and molecules: we thought everythingabout solid water (ice) melted when it was heated, not realizing that it has hidden components that resist melting. We can say that Sis superliquid, meaning that it has no solid parts but is liquid through and through. Sis apparently moreliquid than water, as water with no bits of ice in it is more liquid than water with bits of ice in it. Sis wholly and completely liquid, pervasively liquid, right down to its fine structure, while water is liquid only superficially—when you look into it closely there is a lot of solidity there.

But do we really want to talk this way? What is this idea of one thing being more liquidthan another? Aren’t things either liquid or not? Isn’t it that Sis reallyliquid, but room-temperature water is not? On some planets the water is never liquid but always exists in a solid state (i.e. frozen): isn’t it the truth that water is never literally and objectively liquid, given its actual chemical nature? Eddington famously argued that matter is never really solid, given the amount of space present in atoms; his point was not merely that some things are more solid than others depending upon the amount of space they contain.[1]We have discovered these things and they contradict our normal linguistic practices—they even challenge our concepts. We thought that matter is solid (dense, continuous), but it is not; we thought that water is liquid (in one of its forms), but it is not. Our ordinary concepts simply don’t apply. Those concepts were formed before we understood the nature of the physical world; they reflect our naïve pre-scientific understanding of nature. We had no idea that the parts of so-called liquids were solid, as we had no idea that so-called solids were mostly made up of space. Have we discovered that everything is really a gas—tiny particles widely separated in space? The principle I started with sounds correct on first hearing, indeed trivially true, but it leads quickly to the conclusion that nothing is liquid—nothing in our actual universe anyway. That is certainly disturbing and counter-intuitive, but maybe it is the sober truth. We can accordingly either abandon the word “liquid” as factually erroneous or retain it as a mere manner of speaking (like saying the sun rises). Our commonsense views of the physical world have been wrong before, and this is another example of that. Zeno argued paradoxically against the reality of motion, concluding that motion is not real; the present argument is designed to show, paradoxically, that liquidity is not real (both arguments are based on considerations about parts). It is rather as if “animal” meant “creature created by God” and then we discover that the things we call “animals” were not created in that way; the proper conclusion would be that no animals in that sense exist. We can craft a new word without the divine implication, and we could also replace “liquid” with some substitute that better reflects the facts, say “squishy”. What we can’t do is keep on talking in the old discredited way.

But why is this a paradox? Haven’t we simply discovered that nothing is liquid, as we have discovered that nothing is solid, or as Darwin discovered that there no divinely created animals? Our commonsense beliefs are just false. The same might be said of Zeno’s argument: it isn’t a paradox, just a demonstration that motion is unreal. We should simply stop saying that objects move: we live in a stationary world. Similarly, we should stop saying that substances are liquid: we live in a solid world (or a gaseous world if we follow Eddington). The trouble, however, is that the displaced beliefs are not so easily expendable: we can readily agree that there are no unicorns–but no moving objects! Some things stay still and some don’t: isn’t that just a fact? Likewise, is there no distinction between drinking water and ice? There is a distinction between moving and not moving, so we can’t just abandon the whole idea of movement—hence Zeno’s argument is a paradoxnot merely a non-existence proof. In the same way, the water paradox is not merely a proof that liquids don’t exist; it’s a genuine paradox because we can’t just abandon that idea. Some bodies of water are clearly different from other bodies of water—bathwater is different from frozen water. What word best captures this difference? The word “liquid” obviously, or some synonym; we can’t just dispense with the concept of liquidity. Hence we are reluctant to accept the argument against liquidity; we don’t just cheerfully accept a conceptual clarification. We want to protest that water is(often) liquid, no matter what the argument says. We are thus tugged in two directions. We might even be willing to contemplate accepting that some bodies of water are bothliquid and non-liquid, distinguishing two senses of “liquid”, or simply accepting the contradiction as true (as with diatheleism). We can’t just nonchalantly accept that drinking water isn’t liquid, as we can’t just nonchalantly accept that trains don’t move. These are genuine paradoxes not straightforward refutations of falsehoods.

It is a striking fact about the classic paradoxes (Zeno’s, the Liar, the Sorites, Russell’s) that they have been around for a long time and yet very little progress has been made with them. People periodically announce purported solutions, but there is little consensus and the core of the problem seems to remain, stubborn and defiant. Reason seems to undermine itself. Unreason we could understand leading to paradox—but reason! What is going on? Will we keep discovering new paradoxes while never solving the old ones? Might everythingturn out to be paradoxical on close analysis? Is paradox the rule rather than the exception? And what would this tell us about human thought? The fact that it isn’t too difficult to generate a paradox about liquid water is worrying—what’s next?



[1]There is an ambiguity in the word “solid” in these discussions: it can either mean firm and stable in shape or dense in structure. In this essay I am using the first sense; Eddington was using the second sense (he didn’t deny that ordinary objects have a firm and stable shape).




Remarks on Metaphysics



What kind of statement expresses the results of metaphysical inquiry? Wittgenstein famously begins the Tractatusthus: “The world is all that is the case” (1), “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1.1.), “The world is determined by the facts, and by their being allthe facts” (1.11). The use of the phrase “the world” is conspicuous, intended to announce a thesis of metaphysical proportions, but what does it refer to? What does Wittgenstein mean by “the world”? Presumably he means the actual world, though he could certainly be taken to include other possible worlds—they too are constituted by facts (in that world). But what in the actual world is he referring to? Not ethics, because he denies that value is inthe world, and not philosophy since its results can only be shown. Not the self either: “The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world—not a part of it” (5.641). The facts are what can be stated by means of true propositions, but Wittgenstein doesn’t think that everything (real?) can be stated. He means to exclude some things (if the word “thing” may be permitted). We could take him to be distinguishing the world from our attitudes to the world, including our ethical attitudes. Thus he might say that while the world is the totality of facts the mind is the totality of attitudesto facts. This would be to oppose mind and world (as in the title of a well-known book: Mind and World); the mind is not intended to fall within the denotation of “the world”. This is the narrow interpretation of  “the world” to be contrasted with the wide interpretation that includes the mind within the world.

Two pieces of evidence may be cited for the narrow interpretation. The first is that in a later section Wittgenstein says the following: “Similarly the possibility of describing the world by means of Newtonian mechanics tells us nothing about the world: but what does tell us something about it is the precise wayit is possible to describe it by these means. We are also told something about the world by the fact that it can be described more simply with one system of mechanics than with another” (6.342). Assuming that he refers to the same thing in both places by “the world”, he must be referring to what might be called “the physical world”, since he is not supposing that the mind can be described by mechanics. This certainly fits the general tenor of the book. Second, he construes facts as “combinations of objects”, and there is no reason to believe that he understands the mind that way: how is being in pain or feeling angry a combination of objects? There is no developed philosophy of mind in the Tractatusand it would be merely speculative to suggest that he understands the mind as a totality of facts constituted by combinations of objects. It is true that at one point he speaks of a speck in the visual field, musical notes, and “objects of the sense of touch” (2.0131), but these are not mental phenomena; they are the objects ofmental phenomena (not sensing but thing sensed). It is also true that he may be committed by the picture theory to regarding thoughts as combinations of (symbolic) objects, since they have to be isomorphic to external facts; but there is no reason to suppose that he regards everything about the mind in this way. In any case, it seems clear that he intends the narrow interpretation in the passages cited, so that it includes neither ethics nor the mind nor the self nor philosophy: the world is contrasted with these other domains, not taken to include them. Perhaps we could paraphrase him by saying “the objective world”. That would make sense of his remark that “the world is independent of my will” (6.373), which would make no sense if the will were partof the world. He is quite happy to assert, “The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: init no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (6.41). So he has no trouble excluding things from the world that don’t belong there, in the realm of reportable fact. He is speaking always of what may be mentally represented, not the representing itself. And his point is that the world in this narrow sense consists of facts not things, states of affairs not merely the objects that occur in them. The structure of the world is the structure of facts not objects (particulars, universals).

But now, having settled on the denotation of “the world”, we have the question of the logical form of Wittgenstein’s pronouncements. We know what he is talking about, more or less, but what is he saying about it—and how is he saying it? On the face of it the sentence “The world is the totality of facts” has the form of an identity statement combining two definite descriptions: “The F= the G”. It is not an identity statement joining two proper names, as in “a= b”, though we might substitute a name for one or both of the descriptions, calling the world (say) “Winston”, so that we have “Winston is the totality of facts”. The question then would be how to analyze these descriptions: would Russell’s theory do the job? That gives the decidedly peculiar, “There is uniquely something xsuch that xis a world and xis identical to the totality of facts”, which might also yield its second description to Russell’s analysis. The truth is that the alleged description “the world” is by no means a term of ordinary language but a philosopher’s invention; semantically, it is hard to know what to make of it. In any case, the statement in question purports to identify one thing with another—the world with the totality of facts. Elsewhere we read: “The totality of existing states of affairs is the world” (2.04) and “The sum-total of reality is the world” (2.063)—again, apparently, identity propositions employing definite descriptions. Metaphysics thus characteristically issues in statements of the form, “The world is (identical to) X”, where “X” is to be replaced by some description that purports to tell us the general nature of things.

What is notable is that Wittgenstein’s own statement falls short of what most metaphysicians aim to supply, since he is neutral as to the kindof fact that constitutes the world. All he tells us is that facts make up the world, not what these facts might be (similarly for his talk of “objects” and “states of affairs”). So far as his statement is concerned, these facts might be physical or mental or abstract or divine or unknowable. His theory is merely structural (logical), not substantive: it gives the form of the world not its substance (as he no doubt intends). Still, his statement provides a canonical formulation of a metaphysical thesis—a thesis about the general nature of reality. If we add to it the claim that all facts are physical facts, then we get metaphysical materialism. If we say that all facts are mental facts, we get metaphysical idealism. If we say the world consists of two types of substance, material and immaterial, we get metaphysical dualism. Schopenhauer wrote a book entitled The World as Will and Representation, clearly aiming to make a metaphysical statement (the book was known by Wittgenstein). Plato’s metaphysics can be expressed as, “The world is the instantiation of universals by particulars”. Hegel maintains, “The world is spirit”. David Lewis might say, “The world is the totality of all worlds”. Quine could opine, “The world is what science tells us it is”. The positivists might assert, “The world is what is verifiable”. All these views make use of the general notion of “the world”, and all could agree with Wittgenstein’s structural thesis. The metaphysician is telling us what the world is—its nature, its manner of being. Hesperus is Phosphorous, and water is H2O, and the world is spirit or matter or both or neither. We are offered a very general identity statement purporting to enlighten us about something called “the world”.

It is reasonable to be suspicious about such metaphysical statements. This is not because they are unverifiable or that ordinary language has gone on holiday but because the conditions of reference may not be met. Does the term “the world” really refer to anything determinate as used by the would-be metaphysician? It isn’t much like a regular definite description with uniquely identifying descriptive content, or an embedded demonstrative; and “world” is hardly a regular sortal noun that carries criteria of identity and counting. What kind of entity is the world? What predicates does it satisfy? How is it to be picked from among other things? How can we speak about it as concrete particular with a specific nature? Is it an object? Can it be named? To what end? Sentences containing this pseudo-description, such as “The world is the totality of facts”, are semantically anomalous, though perfectly grammatical; certainly, we can’t just assume they are meaningful, possessed of determinate truth conditions and reference. They seem parasitic on other types of sentence in which the word “world” appears doing more humdrum things (“I’ve searched the world for her”), and thus derive apparent sense from their humble origins. But metaphysical sentences sonorously beginning, “The world is…” are up to something beyond the normal routines of the words they contain: for they purport to refer to the whole of reality—whatever that might mean. Hence the lack of clarity about Wittgenstein’s use of the phrase: does he include value in the world, or logical form, or the mind, or the fact that the world is the totality of facts? (Is this fact also a combination of objects, the world being one of them?) In fact Wittgenstein excludes various things from the reference of “the world”, so the phrase can’t just be a variant of “everything”: but then we need to be told exactly what he does intend to refer to. The phrase trips easily off the tongue, to be sure, but it may still fall flat—it may fail to single out a specific entity. Similarly for “the totality of facts” or “the sum-total of reality”: do we really know what these phrases mean? Presumably they are not intended to include the non-existent or merely fictional (but what about Meinong?), but there are true propositions about them too—isn’t it true that Sherlock Holmes is a detective or that unicorns don’t exist (hence all the problems about whether the world contains negative facts)? It is just not clear that we have hold of a well-defined concept here. What if a common sense type of chap were to protest, “I have no idea what you mean by ‘the world’, though I’m perfectly happy with phrases like ‘the cat in the corner’ or ‘the queen of England’—what is it exactly that you have in mind?” Grammatically, it looks as if we have an identity statement flanked by definite descriptions that pick out entities in good standing, but appearances can be misleading—in which case the standard products of metaphysical inquiry are lacking in sense. At the least we are owed some kind of account of how such sentences work. To put it bluntly, isn’t “the world” a meaningless abstraction, however sublime it may sound—just the kind of thing on which the later Wittgenstein would pour scorn? Isn’t it suspiciously like “the holy spirit” or “the ether” or “the force”—in fact, worse than these because they at least contain relatively well-defined words? Just because I can say, “You mean the world to me” doesn’t imply that I can talk meaningfully about what kind of the thing the worldmight be. Certainly we cannot begin a sentence with, “The world is…” and expect automatic semantic propriety; we need to say more about what precisely we have in mind.

Because the sense of such sentences is unclear, we are apt to interpret them by whatever means comes to hand. And here I think semantics gives way to mental imagery: we form various picturesof what might be meant. These pictures may vary from individual to individual, but they are introduced in order to pin down the import of the proposition we are struggling to grasp. Metaphysics thrives on emergency imagery, particularly spatial imagery. Thus when I hear the sentence, “The world is the totality of facts”? I picture a heapof facts—a mountain of them, what with the world being so large. Wittgenstein tells us at one point, “The world divides into facts” (1.2), and we duly picture a divisible something—something with spatial parts. The world is an assemblage of smaller entities (“facts”) that combine into a larger whole, as rocks may form a mountain. Wittgenstein’s use of “totality” is interesting: not “set”, which might prove not concrete enough, but the more tangible idea of a spatial grouping of some sort—a pile, a stack, a pyramid maybe. The world is an agglomeration of lesser things, where these things are themselves conceived as spatial particulars (like atoms or molecules—atomic and molecular facts).  Such imagery courses through our mind as we study Wittgenstein’s enigmatic text and gives us an illusion of understanding—I know what a heap is! I conjecture that metaphysical discourse is unusually prone to this kind of imagery, as a kind of substitute or crutch. It would be interesting to do some empirical work on such imagery: how frequent is it, are there any universals, what happens when it is absent? Wittgenstein had an engineer’s mind and was fond of the notion of picturing, so it is possible that he had unusually strong imagery when composing the Tractatus: this will have encouraged him to think he was talking sense. And partly he was—but was it complete sense?  Language can carry us away, as he recognized in the Investigations, but so can the mental imagery it provokes: it can provide dubious abstractions with concrete credentials. Isn’t the Tractatusa very visual work, reliant on the reader’s complicity in visualization?

The same is true of other metaphysical visions (!): they are apt to come with pictures attached. What do you think of when you think of dualism? I imagine two entities side by side, one extended and concrete, the other wispy and amorphous (compare the image of consciousness as steam emanating from a steam engine). When I think of materialism I imagine an accumulation of geological strata: at the base we have atoms in the void, with chemistry and biology and psychology laid on this base, like bricks laid on a foundation (and just think of the imagery associated with that word!). I don’t think of the facts of the world as separated in space, like islands, but as built one upon another—vertically not horizontally. Idealism puzzles my imagination because the mind is not so readily imagined spatially, but my imagery is something like a cloud of feathers or a ghostly gathering—a weightless assembly of formless nothings. Plato tried to give imaginative expression to his theory of forms by the parable of the cave, which is full of spatial imagery, but the theory taken neat suggests (to me) nothing so much as a colony of splendid birds of paradise. Frege likened his theory of sense and reference to the optical image in a telescope, in order to make the metaphysics palatable (intelligible), with space explicitly invoked; without this analogy we struggle with mental pictures of free-floating simulacra of things (those elusive “modes of presentation”). Much of the charm of metaphysics derives from these flights of imagination: we contrive to render elusive abstractions mentally manageable. Without this we might flounder in incomprehension, with only words to play with (“the world”, “totality”, “substance”, “immaterial”, “hierarchy”, “supervenience”, etc.). When Wittgenstein remarks, “Objects make up the substance of the world” (2.021) we reach for familiar ideas of substance and think we know what he means, as in “Flour makes up the substance of the cake”. Imagery abets metaphysics—maybe makes it humanly possible. What makes metaphysics meaningful to us is the imagery we bring to its pronouncements: but this is a suspicious gift, intoxicating though not necessarily illuminating. It may simply provide spurious protection from the verbal haze (or blaze). Or it may bias us in favor of views that interact better with our imagination—that provide us with more appealing pictures. Wittgenstein spoke of being held captive by a picture—well, in metaphysics there may be no alternative. In normal discourse we can rely on words to carry us along, but when discourse turns metaphysical words struggle to keep up, and then imagination takes up the slack, or tries to. We find ourselves dependent on pictures of many kinds: of heaps, webs, steam, railway tracks, shadows, lenses, ghosts, exotic animals, shimmering mirages, tools, chess games, light, magic tricks, building blocks, cement, blank slates, sentences—all the tricks of the philosophical trade. In this way we try to give sense to what we are inclined to say. When you read the words, “The world is…” your imagination is activated: you start to form pictures of what might be meant. You would be lost otherwise, or perhaps just not interested.[1]


Colin McGinn


[1]I don’t want to give the impression that I am against all metaphysics (on the contrary), but I think certain ways of proceeding are fraught with linguistic peril, particularly pronouncements of the general form “The world is X”.






A Causal Theory of Truth



We have been inundated with causal theories: of perception, knowledge, memory, and reference. But no one (to my knowledge) has proposed a causal theory of truth. On the face of it this is surprising, since truth is so closely bound up with reference. If reference to both objects and properties is subject to a causal theory, why isn’t truth? I will explore a causal theory of truth that seems rather natural, indeed a natural extension of the causal theory of reference. Put simply, the theory says that a belief or statement is true if and only if it is caused by the facts. Some beliefs or statements are caused by the facts and some are not, being caused instead by desires or errors or fictions or fantasies. That is the difference between a true belief and a false belief: its causal relation to the facts. Some beliefs are brought about by objective reality and some are otherwise brought about (say, by subjective factors): to be true is to be caused in the former kind of way. Where the correspondence theory says that truth is correspondence to the facts, the causal theory says that truth is causation by the facts.[1]

The theory assumes that the world consists of facts (objects having properties) and that these facts causally shape beliefs, making them true. If it is a fact that p, then it is true that p, so there can be no problem with the theory as far as sufficiency is concerned. But then couldn’t the theory dispense with the causal element and simply equate truth with fact? No: because truth is a property of representations (beliefs or statements or sentences or propositions), so we need something to connectfacts with truth. Traditionally that has been a correspondence relation; according to the causal theory, it is a causal relation. For a belief to be true is for it to be caused by a fact, not just for the fact to be a fact: the belief that snow is white is true in virtue of its being caused by the fact that snow is white—that is, the belief is caused by what it represents (what is believed to obtain). In the most straightforward case a person is in perceptual contact with a fact and he or she forms the belief that it is a fact, thus forming a true belief: you see that it’s raining and this fact causes you to believe that it’s raining—so you have a true belief. If you were to be hallucinating rain because of a drug, you might form the same belief but it would be false, since your belief would not be caused by the fact that it’s raining but by the drug. If you dream that pand form the belief that p, then your belief is not true, since it was not caused by the factthat p. If I tell you a lie, my statement is false because it was not caused by the fact I purport to state but by my desire to deceive you; while in the case of a truthful statement a fact causes my true belief and my statement transmits the causal relation to you—you have a true belief because your belief was (indirectly) caused by the fact that I stated to obtain.[2]When the facts shape belief we have truth, but when illusion, error, deception, and fantasy shape belief we have falsehood. Truth depends on the causal antecedents of belief: do they stem from objective reality or from other factors (often internal to the subject)? Is belief caused by the factual or the fictional?

That is the simple way to put the theory, but of course it needs to be refined and complicated. Still I wish to emphasize its intuitive starting point: true belief is the kind brought about by the facts; false belief is the kind brought about by things other than the facts. Compare: veridical perception is the kind brought about by external objects; illusory perception is the kind brought about by other factors, such as intoxication or defects of the perceptual system. You believe truly if the facts impress themselves on your belief system; you believe falsely if your beliefs arise from some source other than the facts, such as biases or blind spots. Of course, all factors that influence belief are trivially facts, but truth is having your belief caused by the fact represented by the belief in question. If the fact thatpcauses you to believe that p, then you have a true belief.

We can compare this account to causal theories of reference.  A speaker refers to an object xwith a name “a” if and only if there exists a (suitable) causal connection between xand “a”—say, a chain of causal links leading back to an initial baptism. A speaker refers to a property Pwith a predicate “F”if and only if instances of Pregularly elicit utterances of “F”(or some such). In the case of whole sentences we are dealing with fact-like entities (states of affairs, situations, ways things are) not objects and properties, so these are the appropriate entities to stand in causal relations to sentences.[3]We simply extend the causal theory from names and predicates to sentences: reference to an object is being caused by that object to utter its name, reference to a property is being regularly caused by instances of that property to utter a predicate, making a true statement is making an utterance caused by an appropriate fact. We thus use the word “true” to distinguish this kind of causation from other kinds—the kinds that produce false statements. To say that a belief or statement is true is to say that it is a consequenceof the facts; to say that a belief or statement is false is to say that it is nota consequence of the facts, but of fictions, fantasies, errors, etc. In its strongest form the theory says that the property of truth isthat property a belief has when it is caused by a fact (the fact represented). Instead of saying, “Your belief is true” we could equally say, “Your belief is factually caused”.

At this point a swarm of questions assails the causal theorist; they are for the most part quite familiar. Are the causal conditions necessary and sufficient for truth? How do we handle truths about non-causal facts? What about deviant causal chains? Do facts really cause anything? To spare the reader (and myself) tedium, I will be as speedy as possible with these well-worn issues. Are the conditions necessary? Couldn’t we have true beliefs and yet there be no causal links between belief and fact (pre-established harmony)? What about the truths of mathematics, modality, and morality? Here we can reply by amending the theory from its simple causal formulation: we can invoke the concepts of reasonor explanationor counterfactual dependence. Thus: the reason (but not the cause) for forming the belief that pis the fact that p; the explanation for believing that pis the fact that p(where this is not causal explanation); a person would not believe that pwere it not for the fact that p. We just weaken the causal relation to accommodate the awkward cases—just as we have to for causal theories of reference and knowledge. The causal theory of truth is thus no worse off than these causal theories (no better either). We can also remark, with a knowing wink, that this is actually a desirable result for the theory, since these non-causal cases are precisely those in which the concept of truth carries dubious credentials. Causal dependence is what truth basically consists in, so anything non-causal will struggle to qualify as true—except perhaps by extension or metaphorically or fictitiously. In the clearest cases truth amounts to causation by fact–we needn’t get too worked up about peripheral cases. Or we could simply stipulate that there are two kindsof truth requiring two kinds of theory: causal theory for one kind and correspondence theory for the other (or coherence or deflationary theory). It depends on the type of subject matter involved (and we already know there is a distinction between analytic truth and synthetic truth).

As to deviant causal chains: there are none–so long as a fact causes a belief in that fact we will have truth. As to facts as causes: we should be liberal with the notion of cause, but if we decline so to be, we can always choose another kind of cause (say, event causation), and let thatbe the cause of belief. If you don’t think beliefs have any causes at all, I invite you to substitute whatever else you think is responsible for beliefs; and if you think nothing is responsible, you are beyond help. We can thus make the standard dialectical moves in response to the standard objections. At worst we concede that no causal analysisof the concept of truth is possible but suggest instead that we are offering a better pictureof truth, one that sees truth as a passive effect of reality not as an active mapping onto reality (as with the correspondence theory). The world givesus truth by acting on us; we don’t achievetruth by contriving to depict it. This is a theory that works nicely for animal truth: animals have true beliefs because the world acts on them to install beliefs (or some more primitive representational state); they have no need to strive for truth. When facts cause beliefs they automatically produce truth, whether in mouse or man.

Here is a more difficult counterexample: the case of random truth. Suppose I am making random statements about the color of things in some unknown part of the world, most of which are false, but by chance I hit on a true statement about the color of a flower there—I have said something true but the fact in question was not the cause of my saying it. The case must be admitted: there is such a thing as an accidentally true statement (similarly for a case of wishful thinking that just happens to produce a true belief). But surely the case is exceptional: the vast majority of cases are those in which the belief’s truth results from the fact in question—where we can know the belief is true just by knowing the person’s causal history. In the random truth case we can’t infer truth from knowledge of the person’s causal history. It’s a bit like introducing by stipulation a name for an unknown soldier and succeeding thereby in referring to a certain individual long dead: you do name a person without there existing any causal link to that person, but the case is quite unlike standard cases of naming. Truth is rooted in causation by facts though it can break free of these confines in unusual circumstances; we shouldn’t give up the basic insight in order to accommodate exceptional cases.[4]Hard cases make bad law and all that. At a pinch we can retreat to a genealogical theory: this is how the concept of truth started out, but it might develop new forms alien to its origins. We must cling to the initial insight derived from perceptual beliefs: their truth consists in the fact that they are caused in a certain way, i.e. by the very fact they represent. The fact by itself will guarantee truth; we just need to add the relational conditions that enable beliefs to be true—that they exist and are externally caused. Once all this has been stated there is nothing further for talk of truth to add: the distinction between truth and falsity emerges from the distinction between fact-caused belief and fantasy-caused belief (to put it simply). What does an ascription of truth add to the assertion that a person’s belief that pwas caused by the fact that p? It is quite redundant.

The causal theory of truth, like other causal theories, can lay claim to the honorific label “naturalistic”: truth is primarily a property of empirical particulars (beliefs, statements) not abstract propositions, and it consists in a causal relation between agent and world. It is not conceived as a mysterious mapping or isomorphism or picturing; nor is it declared an irreducible primitive. It is a relation between the mind and the world that consists in a kind of causal connection, particularly via the senses. We observe that people’s beliefs are shaped by the world of fact and we call those beliefs true because of it; we also observe that sometimes people’s beliefs result from other factors (bias, illusion, wishful thinking) and these beliefs we call false (though they might in odd cases be true by chance). Truth reduces to w

[1]One version of the correspondence theory (there are many) equates truth with “designating an existing state of affairs”: the causal theory replaces the designation relation with a causal relation but retains the general form of the correspondence theory. We could view it as proposing a causal theory ofthe designation relation between beliefs (or statements) and states of affairs. It thus “naturalizes” such designation—as a causal theory of names “naturalizes” the naming relation.

[2]Note the analogy to causal theories of names: there is a social dimension to the causal relations involved, as well as experts and deference. Thus some beliefs are directly caused by facts while some are caused via chains of communication radiating out from an original encounter. Testimony exploits causality to transmit truth—as chains of communication can transmit reference.

[3]An attractive feature of the causal theory is that it explains the referential transparency of truth: if “Hesperus is a planet” is true, so is “Phosphorous is a planet”. This is explained by the fact that causal statements are themselves transparent. The transparency feature is not captured by disquotational theories, since the disquoted statement is just the original statement. But causation is indifferent to mode of presentation or verbal formulation.

[4]One thing we can say is that in standardcases true statements about color are caused by the facts. So the theory can be reformulated to assert that a given belief is true if and only if it is in standard cases caused by the facts


More on Color




Colored Surfaces: A Puzzle



Colors appear to be onthe surfaces of things. The surface seems saturated with color, as if the color has been painted on. Colors seem as much an intrinsic property of surfaces as textures. They are not experienced as properties of the perceiver’s body or of the intervening medium. They coincide with the object spatially.[1]Yet, according to tradition, they are projections of the mind, arising from the perceiver’s inner resources: they are transferred from inside to outside—from “in here” to “out there”. In the cinema we experience the film image as on the screen in front of us, though it emanates from somewhere behind us in the projection room. Similarly we see color as inhabiting the surface of objects while in fact it issues from somewhere in our minds (unlike shape or texture). According to some views, colors are dispositions to produce experiences; but dispositions are not perceived as if they are onthings, so there is a mismatch between appearance and reality. Colors are creatures of the mind and yet are perceived as distal features of objects.

The point I want to make is that they are unique in being thus outwardly perceived: among so-called secondary qualities they are the only ones experienced as being literally onthe object of perception. They are the only secondary qualities experienced as objective features of things (in one sense of “objective”). This is puzzling. Why aren’t they experienced as the subjective phenomena they really are, like other secondary qualities? Couldthey be so experienced? We don’t perceive smells and tastes as on things: smells are experienced as in our nose not in the remote object, and tastes only coincide with the object tasted because it is typically in our mouth (it would be different if we tasted things remotely). Likewise we don’t hear sounds as if they are on objects—we don’t project the sound out onto the source of the sound (the noise is loud not the object making it). We hear sounds as in the proximity of our ears (consider the flash of a distant cannon followed a few seconds later by the sound of the shot). Indeed, we hear sounds not objects, so we don’t experience sounds as remote qualities ofobjects. In the case of heat and cold we locate these qualities in our body not in the object. It is true that hot and cold objects are typically touching the body, so that the qualities are experienced as spatially coincident with the object, but again that is a contingent circumstance—and there are cases in which we have such sensations emanating from remote objects (e.g. the Sun). When I feel the heat of a remote object I don’t project the hotness onto the object; I feel the hotness in the region of my body. The object causes my body to feel this way, to be sure, but I don’t perceive it as having the sensory quality in question on its surface. Thus we are not so inclined to make an error about the status of such secondary qualities: we recognize that they are subjectively constituted (unless we are philosophically opinionated). There is no illusion of objectivity for these cases. Someone might be of the opinion that objects are intrinsically hot or cold, independently of perceivers, but it would be pushing it to claim that they experience these qualities to be onobjects, as they perceive colors to be on them. I perceive the Sun as yellow on its surface, but I don’t perceive it as hot on its surface.

It is an interesting question whether this is a contingent truth or a necessary truth. Could there be a perceiver that experienced color as he experienced other secondary qualities? Is the perception of color necessarily outward in the way it actually is? Here are two reasons to doubt that. First, we can ask whether all organisms that perceive color perceive it as intrinsically qualifying the surface of objects. Do insects see colors as intrinsic properties of surfaces? Might they not have sensations of color that are detached from sensations of surfaces, perhaps because they have deficient spatial perception? Color sensations are triggered in them by external objects, but they don’t engage in full-blooded projection onto distal surfaces, so that they perceive color rather as we perceive smells or sounds. This seems logically possible. Second, not all of human color experience involves distal projection onto physical surfaces—consider mental images, after-images, and those sensations you get when you press your eyeball or close your eyes. In these cases you don’t experience a remote surface as suffused with color, alongside shape and texture; the experience is felt as more internal, more subjective. If so, it would be possible for objects to elicit such color sensations without the perceiver painting their surfaces with color. So color couldbe perceived in the way other secondary qualities are perceived, not as it is now for us in ordinary color vision.

And herein lies the puzzle: why is color perceived as on surfaces, suffusing and saturating them, as if it were an objective property like texture, when it could be perceived as other subjective qualities are? Why is it accorded special treatment? Why is the projection so extreme? One possible answer is biological utility: it is more effective or convenient to experience color in this external objectifying way. But why is that—why does color differ from other secondary qualities? Why don’t they follow the model of color if it is so effective and convenient? And what does this biological utility consist in—what selective advantage does it incur? Another possible answer is that vision has a special kind of phenomenology that requires the qualities that are perceived to be perceived as distal. But why should that be, given that not all of visual experience involves projection onto remote surfaces? It is perplexing why we perceive color as a property of surfaces in the way we do—why we perceive colors as onobjects. Colors are not really on surfaces, objectively speaking, so why make an error in color perception when other secondary qualities involve no such error (or not one of the same magnitude)? Why paint the world with color it doesn’t have when you could stick to a mode of experience that involves no such effort and illusion? Why not see the world more as you feel it or smell it, without the projection of secondary qualities beyond their proper sphere? This is the puzzle presented by colored surfaces.


Colin McGinn




[1]If you place a colored filter in front of a white surface you will see the surface as having the color of the filter. The eye projects the color from the proximal filter onto the remote surface. Thus you see the surface as being (say) pink in virtue of an act of projection performed by the visual system. But projection operates even in cases where there is no such intervening medium.


Color Refigured



A New Theory of Color



I will first state the theory as simply and clearly as possible, and then I will consider what may be said in its favor. I call the theory “Double Object Dispositional Primitivism” (DODP) or just “the double object theory”.[1]Its tenets are as follows: When you see an ordinary object the color it is seen to have is a simple monadic property of the object’s surface (not a disposition). This property is generated from within the mind and is projected onto the seen object. The mind has a disposition (power) to project color qualities onto seen objects, and it is a necessary and sufficient condition for being (say) red that the object should elicit this disposition. The object is red in virtue of the fact that it triggers the mind’s disposition to project redness onto objects. Another type of mind might have a disposition to project blueness onto the same objects (say, Martians) and then the object would be blue for them. Color is relative. In addition to this object there is another object (intuitively, an object of physics) that is not itself red but which has a disposition to interact with the first disposition to give rise to experiences of red. This disposition is by no means identical to redness, but it is closely related to it: the object that has it triggers perceptions of the primitive property of redness. The physical object interacts with a mind to make that mind activate its disposition to see things as red; it is “red-inducing”. The object induces perceptions of red (in certain perceivers) in which the primitive property of redness is projected onto an object that is not identical with the inducing object. So there are two connected ontological levels: a perceptual object that has the primitive property of being red, and a physical object that lacks that property but which has a disposition to cause perceptions of red (in conjunction with the mind’s disposition to see certain objects as red). It is strictly false to describe this second object as red, though it is natural to do so given its actual role in producing experiences of red. In short: perceptual objects are primitively red while physical objects are dispositionally red (i.e. not really red). We see the primitive property of redness, but we never see the dispositional property associated with it. These two properties are possessed by two distinct objects (think the manifest image and the scientific image).

The mind has a disposition to see certain objects as red and this disposition can be triggered by physical objects. When this happens an object is seen as red, but that object is not the triggering object. The mental disposition can in principle be triggered in other ways too, as when a brain in a vat sees things as red because of stimulation of the visual centers. Here no physical object operates to trigger the disposition (i.e. an object in the perceiver’s environment acting on the eyes) and yet an object is seen. Hallucinated objects can be red too. This is hard to account for under the classical dispositional theory, since that theory supposes that only (existing) physical objects with certain dispositions can be red. But to be red is not just to be a physical object that is disposed to produce red experiences by normal perception, because hallucinated objects can also be red. The important factor is the mind’s disposition to generate such experiences, not the de factodispositions of the physical world. Generally the mental disposition is triggered by the usual environmental objects, but it can also be triggered in other ways, as with the brain in a vat scenario. Suppose I say, “That tomato is red”: this is true if I am referring to a perceptual object of a certain kind, whether real or hallucinated, but not if I am referring to the physical object associated with that object. The objects of physics have no color (they lack primitive color properties), though they do have dispositions to produce color experiences (in conjunction with suitable minds). Those objects had no color before perceivers came along and they have none now, though they do now possess a disposition they lacked earlier. They do not have secondary as well as primary qualities (or else physics would be required to mention them). The objects that have colors are different objects—perceptual objects. And colored objects can be perceived even by a brain in a vat. To use a familiar terminology, phenomenal objects are red but noumenal objects are not, despite being closely tied to phenomenal objects.[2]

What nice things can be said about the double object theory? First, we do justice to the phenomenal primitiveness of colors, their manifest simplicity, and to the fact that we can see them (as we could not if colors were identical to dispositions).  Second, we acknowledge the role of mental dispositions in grounding attributions of color, as well as the role of external objects in eliciting perceptions of color. We are not completely wide of the mark in calling physical objects colored—though it is a question how often we really do this, given that we are normally talking about perceptual objects not the objects of physics. The relationship between our ordinary ontology of tables, tomatoes, and tulips, on the one hand, and the objects described in physics, on the other, is obscure; and it is by no means obvious that we speak of the latter when referring to the former. In any case, according to DODP there are two objects at play here, one of which is red, and the other of which is not (though it has a disposition to cause experiences of objects of the first kind to look red). It is not one and the same entity that is both red and disposed to look red. Certainly, the color red is not the categorical basis of the disposition to appear red—that will be a matter of the physical properties of the object belonging to physics. There are three levels at work here: the physical properties of the physical object that ground its disposition to give rise to appearances; the disposition itself; and the primitive property that perceptual objects possess (and appear to possess). Only the last of these is perceptible. The crucial component is the disposition of the mind to see things a certain way: once that disposition is activated color comes into the world, projected by the mind.

What might be said against the theory? Perhaps some will find the doubling of objects objectionable—they will prefer to attribute color to the objects of physics. In fact the spirit of the theory would be largely preserved by this move, with the primitive color properties instantiated in the same object as the disposition to cause color experiences—we can still keep these properties distinct, as well as invoke projection to explain the presence of the primitive property in the object. I have formulated the theory in the double-object way because I favor this position on independent grounds (having to do with hallucinations, intentional objects, and brains in vats). I also think it undesirable to locate colors in the world studied by physics, since physics makes no mention of these properties (their relativity to perceivers disqualifies them to begin with). I think of perceptual objects as an ontological layer over and above the objects described by physics (compare Eddington on the “two tables”). Artifacts and organisms, in particular, should not be seen as individuated and constituted by the categories proper to physics, but as a distinct ontological layer (though no doubt dependent on the physical level in some way). Color properties attach to this common sense level not to the rarefied level occupied by physics (the “absolute conception”). Still, it would be possible to apply the apparatus of DODP to a single-level ontology, the essential idea being that colors are primitive properties bestowed on the world by dispositions of the mind (coupled with the action of physical objects).

That idea might itself provoke further dissent: for how can the mind generate these properties from within its own resources? Isn’t this mysterious and magical-seeming? I totally agree: how the mind (brain) manufactures color properties is indeed mysterious, like many things about the mind. But this is not a fatal objection to the theory, simply a fact about the mind that needs to be acknowledged, i.e. that there is much about it that we cannot explain. Other theories avoid such mysteries by advocating reductive accounts of color—as that colors are reducible to electromagnetic wavelengths or that they are logical constructions from subjective qualia conceived as inner sensations. But these attempts at reduction are implausible (for reasons I won’t go into), the primitive property theory emerging as superior—though it does indeed lead to problems of intelligibility. Where do these remarkable properties come from? Does the mind create them itself or find them elsewhere (in a Platonic world of color universals, say)? How exactly are they “projected” onto objects? The theory raises plenty of puzzles, to be sure, but it might yet be true, since the truth is sometimes mysterious.[3]What the theory does is arrange the facts into an intelligible structure, aiming to respect phenomenology and logical coherence. Instead of working just with physical objects and their dispositions, it invokes an extra layer of non-dispositional properties and places them within a mind possessing certain projective dispositions. Perceptual objects thus have exactly the properties they appear to have, while we avoid treating colors as mind-independent. Colors have no place in physics, but they are front and center in our ordinary experience of things, just as they seem to be.


Colin McGinn


[1]I first wrote about color in The Subjective View(1983), then in “Another Look at Color” (1996), and now in this paper (2018). At each point I have modified the position that came before, while retaining the basic outlook. The successive theories have become more complicated as time has gone by.

[2]This terminology is not strictly accurate because “noumenal” is generally taken to entail “unknowable”, but the objects of physics are not unknowable. Still, the terminology may be helpful in capturing the structure of the position.

[3]It is true that we should not multiply mysteries beyond necessity, but necessity sometimes requires that we face up to mysteries.


Mysterious Color




The Mystery of Color



How does color come into the world? Not color experience but color itself—the color properties of objects. How do things come to be red, say? Not by virtue of their intrinsic objective properties, since things are not intrinsically and objectively colored. Shape properties (among others) come into the world in virtue of the nature of physical objects, but color properties are not like that (they are “secondary” not “primary” properties). Let us say that colors don’t have a “worldly genesis”, unlike shape. Then the obvious suggestion is that they have a mental genesis: they come into the world in virtue of the mind that apprehends the world. The explanation of the fact that objects are colored is that we seethem as colored—that is how colors come to be, what they “emerge” from. They don’t come from objects themselves, or from nowhere, but from our peculiar mode of sensibility. Thus we resolve the mystery of the origin of color. As Hume famously put it, the mind spreadscolor on the world, paints it in qualities of its own devising; or as people nowadays say, we projectcolor onto the world. Colors emanate from inside us, but we project them outward, thus creating a world of colored objects. Mystery removed.

But we should scrutinize this idea of spreading or projecting more carefully: do we really understand what it means? The most obvious interpretation of it is that the mind has certain properties that it attributes to things outside it, as in primitive animism or anthropomorphism. It transfers properties from itself to things beyond, making external what is originally internal. Why it would do this is a question, since it appears to involve a rather grotesque error, but the suggestion is that the mind has a natural tendency to spread itself. Perception is an exercise in self-projection: we see the world according to our own mental nature. But this picture faces an obvious problem: the mind is not itself colored. Our perceptual experiences are not red or blue or purple; rather, they represent external things as red or blue or purple. We don’t experience our experiences as colored; we experience the external world as colored. Nor could they becolored because then they would have to have properties of extension such as size and shape. If I see a red sphere, I do not have an experience that itself red and spherical. So there is no property of my mind that could be the basis for the projection we are contemplating. Note that we don’t project the property of experiencingcolor onto objects—that would be a case of genuine projection; we are supposed to project color itself from the inside to the outside—yet we don’t instantiate color properties on the inside. It would be bizarre if we projected color experience onto objects; the error would be only too obvious. But we don’t do that when we see colors; so whatwe see is not a property of mind. True, the mind representscolor perceptually, but that is not the same as the mind’s beingcolored.

Why not say that the mind projects what it represents, as opposed to instantiates? The idea would be that objects are not objectively colored, but the mind has the capacity to depict the world as colored from within its own resources. The problem with this is that it presupposes that color properties already exist—as objects of representation, if not as prior properties of objects. But where did the property come from? Not from external objects and not from internal properties of experience; so it seems to come from nowhere. The property exists and we can get it in our mental sights, but it has its origin neither in the external realm nor the internal. Its existence is mysterious, unexplained, perplexing. Where did it come from? It seems like it belongs to a third realm, neither mental nor physical (nor abstract). We don’t find the property in external objects as an antecedent existence but nor do we sense it in ourselves (like pain or pleasure): it is a worldly property that comes neither from external reality nor from projection of our own nature as psychological beings. It is neither discovered out there nor projected from in here. So the two most natural theories of its origin don’t work. Nor is it remotely plausible to suggest that brain properties form the origin of color properties, since the brain does not have the colors possessed by external objects, being mainly grey: we don’t have red neurons whose properties we attribute to (intrinsically colorless) things outside! The color red appears to be instantiated neither by the mind (or brain) nor by external objects considered independently of the mind. Objects are colored but not in virtue of their intrinsic nature or the projective powers of the mind (if there are such powers). The whole idea of projection was contrived to explain how objects manage to be colored without being so in themselves, but it faces insuperable problems of intelligibility, given that the mind is not itself colored. So we are in the presence of a classic philosophical conundrum: there seems to be a fact (objects are colored) that has no explanation. We are confronted by a mystery, analogous to other mysteries (e.g. consciousness). Colors ought not to exist, but they do.

Various responses are conceivable, and they run the usual gamut. We could favor a reductionist theory that claims colors to be reducible to physical properties of objects, so that their origin is the same as other properties, i.e. the actual nature of things. Or we could declare colors to be pseudo-properties, so there is nothing to explain: when we see things as colored we don’t really see them to have properties, as we do for things like size and shape, but rather we reify in some way our subjective responses. We have visual sensations in response to objects but these sensations don’t involve any represented properties; we then mistakenly construe our responses as involving properties of objects. Third, we might claim that experiences do actually instantiate color properties but in a special way: they may be said to be “reddish” or to occur “redly”. There is thus enough red in them to provide an adequate basis for projection (plus modification). Fourth, we might opt for radical ontological inflation: color properties exist in a realm of their own, accessible by the mind, and don’t need to be explained in terms of anything else. They don’t exist in virtue of the inherent nature of objects nor by some kind of projective mental act; they exist in their own right, primitively and inexplicably. Fifth, we might be tempted by a supernatural explanation: God bestows these properties on objects for our use and entertainment, so their origin is divine. We gaze at objects and God intervenes to implant colors in those objects, thus obviating the need for human projection.[1]

I won’t discuss these different theories, merely noting the familiarity of the theoretical landscape; my point is that we are confronted by a mystery of a standard philosophical type. I will say that none of the proffered positions is terribly attractive, so we are left with a real mystery whose solution is elusive. It is genuinely puzzling how the world comes to contain colors: they weren’t there all along and the mind is incapable of conferring them; so their existence is problematic. What makes the world colored?[2]


Colin McGinn

[1]A determined theologian might see here an argument for the existence of God: the only way for objects to be colored is for God to be the author of their existence, since minds and objects can’t do the trick. Whenever we see a red object we are seeing God at work.

[2]Imagine if the objective world lacked shape properties and yet we perceived objects as having shapes. It would be hard to maintain that we project such properties from mind to world, given that the mind doesn’t have shape. This would present a real puzzle: how can there be shape properties attributed to objects if objects don’t have shape and shape cannot be derived from the mind? Where would these properties come from? They would seem to be invented from nothing.


Ancient Insights



The Nature of Things



Long ago there lived a pre-Socratic philosopher named Kryptos. Kryptos was interested in change and he had noticed an interesting fact about change: some changes leave an object in existence while other changes put an object out of existence. If you bend a stick or move it from one place to another, you effect a change in it, but it remains in existence, while if you cut it into pieces or burn it in a fire it goes out of existence. Kryptos named these types of change “preservative change” and “destructive change”, and was pleased to have hit upon such an important distinction. Further reflection led him to the idea that things have two sorts of properties: those that are required for the thing to exist and those that are not required for the thing to exist. He had no name for this distinction, but his vague thought was that some properties are more central to a thing’s identity than others. In line with this he made an observation that struck him as significant—a discovery about the nature of things: color is never central to a thing’s identity, but shape can be. Things can always change their color without going out of existence, no matter how extreme the change, but if you change a thing’s shape enough you will destroy it. That is what happens with fire: a burning leaf, for example, goes from its leaf shape to an amorphous pile of ash after undergoing a series of shape changes. Kryptos’ theory was that color change is always preservative but shape change can be destructive (yet it was puzzling to him that someshape change is preservative—what’s the difference?). He had discovered a general truth about things, change, properties, and existence. He felt he was onto something.

He struggled to find a verbal formulation for his discoveries; he needed a good label for the distinction he had unearthed. He decided to call the properties that were central to a thing’s existence “inherent attributes” and properties that were peripheral “extraneous attributes”. His crude thought was that the former are inthe object while the latter areoutsideof it (the Athens Greek Dictionarydefined “inherent” as “existing in something as a permanent or essential attribute”). The shape of a thing—its geometrical form–was inherent in it, while the spatial location of a thing was extraneous to it (as was its color). Clearly, not every aspect of shape was thus inherent, but it seemed to Kryptos that there is a sharp limit on how much change of shape a thing could undergo before ceasing to exist (a chariot, say, could not assume the shape of a quill pen and still exist). This was very obvious in the case of geometrical objects themselves: if you change the shape of a circle to that of a square, you put the circle out of existence. In geometry form is identity. He took to speaking of the “inherent-extraneous distinction” and explaining it to interested parties. He thought of it as an ontological distinction because it concerned the nature of being, i.e. what is involved in something’s existence. The attributes of things partitioned into those that were inherent and those that were extraneous, those that formed the core of an object and those that hung more loosely on the object. It would be possible to examine the object and determine which attributes fall where. He toyed with other labels for the distinction he had discovered: sometimes he spoke of “constitutive attributes” and “circumstantial attributes”, or of what was “intrinsic” and what was “extrinsic”, or of “internal properties” and “external properties”. These labels all had their merits and he was reluctant to be tied down. The distinction itself was what mattered.

A pupil of Kryptos suggested a simplification: call the cluster of attributes that form the core of a thing its “nature”, defined by the dictionary as “the basic or inherent features, qualities, or character of a person or thing”. True, everything about a thing is part of nature (more or less), but it seemed right to single some attributes out as constituting the specific natureof a thing; the others could be described as “accidental”. Kryptos adopted the suggestion and added something to it: he maintained that it is possible to analyzethe nature of a thing—break it down into its constituents. Things were generally complex and could be analyzed into simpler things. Thus some facts about a thing could be revealed by analyzing it, while others could not be arrived at in this way—those that were extraneous. We can analyze the nature of a thing and produce inherent truths about it, but we can also investigate it and discover extraneous truths about it. All this flowed from Kryptos’ initial insight about preservative and destructive change. He had identified a deep ontological distinction: the distinction between what is integral to a thing’s existence and what is peripheral to it—what is built into a thing and what is merely conjoined with it.

Before long Kryptos added to his basic theory: he noticed that what was inherent was (as he put it) “indispensable”, while what was extraneous was “dispensable”. He saw this as implicit in his original conception, though it now needed to be spelled out. We can say that some attributes couldnot be removed from a thing without destroying it, while others could be so removed: some are necessaryand some are not. He had no established terminology for this distinction, so he adopted the Greek word for mode; that enabled him to speak of a “modal” distinction. Thus he announced the “indispensable-dispensable distinction” and added it to the inherent-extraneous distinction. Then he made the following claim: the modal distinction mirrors the ontological distinction. What is inherent is indispensable and what is extraneous is dispensable. You couldn’t have a thing without its inherent properties, but you could have a thing without its extraneous properties. Another way to put the point was this: the properties that are discovered by analyzing the nature of a thing are indispensable, while those that are discovered by investigating the circumstances of a thing are dispensable. The two distinctions coincide; indeed, the modal distinction seems like a good way to articulate the ontological distinction. In any case, they were glued together. Things have an inherent nature that is essential to them (as Kryptos started saying), while also having extraneous properties that are merely accidental.

So far Kryptos had said nothing about knowledge of things, only about things themselves. But he eventually began to see the epistemological implications. If a thing’s nature could be discovered by analysis, while learning of its circumstances required going beyond analyzing it, then there were two types of knowledge we could have of a thing—analytic knowledge and circumstantial knowledge. Again, he struggled with terminology (he was a conceptual trailblazer after all), since nothing in colloquial Greek quite supplied what he needed. After intense thought he hit upon what he took to be another insight: some knowledge of things is more basic than other knowledge of things. That is, some knowledge of things presupposes other knowledge of things—and hence is conceptually dependent on such knowledge. Specifically, knowledge of whata thing is is more basic than knowledge of howit is: for we can’t have the latter without the former. We first have to identifythings before we can investigatethem; or refer to them before we can predicate things of them; or form an adequate conception of them before we try to find out what is true of them (their laws etc). Thus knowledge of a thing’s nature comes before knowledge of its circumstances—knowledge of its inherent attributes precedes knowledge of its extraneous attributes. Analytic knowledge of a thing is prior to other knowledge of it; we find out the latter after we already possess the former. You first form an inventory of the things in the world, in which inherent attributes are specified (nature, essence, conditions of existence), and then you set about discovering the laws and accidental facts about these things. You couldn’t do the reverse. Kryptos christened this epistemological distinction the “prior-subsequent distinction”, for lack of better words (the intuitive idea seemed clear enough). He then took the obvious next step and announced that this distinction coincides with the other two: we have prior knowledge of the inherent indispensable attributes of a thing, while having subsequent knowledge of the extraneous dispensable attributes. The three distinctions—ontological, modal, and epistemological–all line up. Moreover, the ontological distinction is basic, since the others follow from it quite naturally. We can say, in Kryptos’ terminology, that analytic facts about a thing are both indispensable to it and known prior to extraneous facts. For example, we can say that facts about the chemical analysis of a substance are both modally indispensable and epistemologically prior. Likewise, the analysis of a triangle as a three-sided closed figure involves modal indispensability and epistemological priority, in contrast to the fact that (say) triangles are popular in Vladivostok.

Having established all of this Kryptos composed a treatise entitled Fundamental Distinctions of Nature, only fragments of which survive. In it he made gnomic pronouncements like, “Nature divides into the what it is and the how it is”, and “Some attributes are guaranteed by the existence of a thing while others are left to chance”, and “Some knowledge results from labor while some is in the knowing”. One of his main propositions was what came to be called among his disciples the Convergence Thesis, namely that his three distinctions converge: the ontological, the modal, and the epistemological map onto each other. We should observe that he never said anything about sentences or meanings or propositions; he spoke only of things and facts, natures and attributes. His dualisms were resolutely de re: they concerned existence, things, change, attributes, natures, essences, and ways of knowing. How any of this might be expressed in language and thought was not his concern—Kryptos cared only about reality and its divisions. His achievement was to identify these distinctions in reality and demonstrate their interrelatedness. Ontology, modality, and epistemology form a tightly connected package, not to be sundered.

Later philosophers introduced other terminology, intended to capture other distinctions, though reminiscent of Kryptos’ groundbreaking work. Thus we have the analytic-synthetic distinction, the necessary-contingent distinction, and the a priori-a posteriori distinction. Each of these has been much contested and their interrelations subject to controversy. Interestingly enough, one recent group of philosophers agreed with the Convergence Thesis, even accepting that something like Kryptos’ ontological distinction is fundamental. The logical positivists took it that the analytic-synthetic distinction is fundamental, with the modal and epistemological distinctions emerging as consequences. Kant had referred to this distinction as the “explicative-ampliative” distinction, and there are echoes in this of Kryptos’ distinction between the intrinsic nature of a thing and what holds of it as a matter of extrinsic fact. The difference is that Kant was thinking of the explication or analysis of concepts or meanings whereas Kryptos was interested in the explication or analysis of things—geometric forms, substances, species, persons, etc. To him the interesting distinction is between water being H2O (this being its chemical analysis) and the fact that there is water in this glass (an extrinsic non-analytic fact about water). He had no interest in “truth in virtue of meaning”, only in what belongs to the nature of a thing: for him “water is H2O” is an analytic truth because it gives the (chemical) analysis of water.[1]

Nor did he link the concept of prior knowledge to the concept of experience: his notion of priority is not that of knowledge a person has independently of all sense experience, since we know the nature of substances by sense experience. We could say that his notion of subsequent knowledge coincides with another use of the word “experience”, as when we say that someone has had a lot of experience of the world. Here we are referring to the person’s observing and interacting with many things over a substantial period of time, not to the state of consciousness called “sense experience”—as in a doctor saying, “I’ve had a lot of experience with malaria”. In this sense we can say that subsequent knowledge involves experience while prior knowledge does not, since you can know what something is while having very little experience of how it behaves. I might know what an octopus is by once seeing one (or reading a zoology text) but have had very little experience of octopuses and know nothing of their ways.  The contemporary modal distinction between necessary and contingent truths bears an obvious relation to Kryptos’ distinction between indispensable and dispensable attributes, though it too concerns language not things, and carries other baggage. So there is no simple mapping of Kryptos’ distinctions onto these later distinctions; they are certainly not different ways of saying the same thing, despite some overlap.

What is interesting from Kryptos’ point of view is the recent contention that the Convergence Thesis is false (mainly due to Kripke). He would have no particular objection to the rejection of that thesis for the modern distinctions, but he would no doubt be anxious to point out that the kinds of examples produced by Kripke have no bearing on hisdistinctions. What are today called analytic truths contain no analysisat all by Kryptos’ standards: truth in virtue of meaning is not analytic truth in the literal sense, which requires breaking something down into constituents (consider “ais identical to a”).[2]Nor are his extraneous truths aptly described as “synthetic” in any meaningful sense: they don’t involve assembling parts into a whole (i.e. synthesis), as chemical parts can be combined to produce a composite substance. In his sense of “analytic truth” prior knowledge is of analytic truth and all necessity is analytic, since both concern the constitutive structure of a thing as opposed to what is extraneous to it and therefore known subsequently. Knowing what a hexagon is, for example, involves analyzing it into its essential components. Similarly, knowing what water is involves analyzing it into its chemical constituents (or grasping its superficial properties). So “water is H2O” is an analytic truth, a necessary truth, and a prior truth (in the sense that it can be known just by knowing what water is prior to any knowledge of further extraneous facts about water).  But Kryptos has no wish to argue over words: he wishes rather to insist that his distinctions are real, important, and convergent. In his opinion the later distinctions are distorted and misleading versions of his original ideas; but, be that as it may, his distinctions are solid, and they converge. There is no “necessary a posteriori” or “contingent a priori”, as hewould interpret these phrases. If an attribute is necessary it is part of a thing’s nature, in which case it is known prior to other facts about the thing; and if an attribute is contingent it is not part of a thing’s nature, in which case it must be known subsequently. Moreover, the necessary and the a priori, as he interprets these terms, coincide with the analytic, as he interprets that term—just as the contingent and the a posteriori coincide with the extraneous (“synthetic” if you must). Thus the three deep distinctions written into the nature of things line up according to the Convergence Thesis, whatever may be true of the newfangled notions. Those notions look like a mess to Kryptos, as he gazes down from his seat in Platonic heaven, while his notions have stood the test of time (none of the other philosophers up there with him have managed to make a dent in them in the last 3,000 years).  People should never have taken the linguistic turn to begin with, he thinks; that was never going to end well. Also, they became too obsessed with epistemology and what is certain (that was the fault of those later Greek skeptics, not to mention that parvenuDescartes). They liked their concept of a priori knowledge because it seemed to grant them certainty in at least one area, but the concept of prior knowledge in Kryptos’ sense affords nothing of the kind. We cannot be certain of the essence or nature of empirical things, but we can know these things well enough to be getting on with. Questions of doubt and certainty are beside the point when it comes to the nature of things. What matters is (a) that things have intrinsic natures and extraneous circumstances (ontological), (b) that some of their attributes are guaranteed by their nature while some are not (modal), and (c) that knowledge of their nature is more basic than, and prior to, knowledge of their other characteristics. We should not lose sight of these fundamental distinctions and their interrelatedness, whatever may be said of more recent distinctions.


Colin McGinn





[1]This is what might be called a “deep analysis” of water, but there is also the possibility of a “superficial analysis”, as when we determine the cluster of properties that belong to the appearance of water (transparent, tasteless, liquid, etc). Both may be said to constitute the nature of water. Neither concerns the meaning of the word “water”.

[2]It is an interesting question whether the modern notion of analytic truth can be assimilated to something like Kryptos’ notion. Consider “bachelors are unmarried men”: this can be interpreted as providing a de reanalysis of the attribute of being a bachelor, not as an analysis of meaning as such. Then a statement like “bachelors are happy” is not an analytic truth in this sense, but rather involves facts extraneous to the very nature of a bachelor. So Kryptos would agree that analytic truths in the modern sense coincide with analytic truths in his sense, at least in certain cases.