Logical Positivism

“Logical Positivism”


That’s an odd label for the view it purports to describe. The most conspicuous feature of the doctrine in question is its negative attitude toward traditional metaphysics: it is a form of philosophical “negativism” i.e. metaphysics is meaningless and should be abandoned. And what is with the adjective “logical” here? Doesn’t every philosophical doctrine regard itself as “logical”? Who would call their view “Illogical Idealism” or “Poorly Reasoned Relativism”? Doesn’t every proponent of a philosophical position take it to be both “logical” and “positive” (i.e. on the side of the good)? A better description of the doctrine would surely be “Methodological Negativism”, since it subscribes to the view that correct methodology excludes metaphysics. Or it might be called “Semantic Nihilism”, since it declares so much philosophical discourse to be devoid of meaning. But these labels don’t carry the same uplift. Doctrines often catch on because of catchy labels.

I think the phrase “logical positivism” well describes the pro-metaphysical metaphilosophy I favor: that all of philosophy is really logic (the a priori analysis of concepts), but that this conception is maximally inclusive, i.e. “positive”. Even the most non-empirical branches of metaphysics are respectable, because grounded in logic. There is nothing “negative” here! But to avoid confusion I might call this doctrine “Positive Logicism”.


The Origin of Ideas

The Origin of Ideas

Where do our ideas come from? What gives ideas their content? There is an old and natural story about this: call it the “exemplar theory”. Consider the idea of blue (the concept blue, the meaning of “blue”): it arises in the mind by virtue of perceptual contact with exemplary blue things—this contact with exemplars gives it the intentional content it has. We have an idea of a particular sensible quality, which objects can instantiate, and the idea has that content because of its origin in instances of the quality that are perceived by the subject. To be more explicit: the idea refers to a specific universal, viz. the color blue, and it does so as the product of two other relations—instantiation and perception. Particular objects instantiate the universal and then perceiving subjects encounter those instances and derive the concept from them. In some versions the derivation works by simple causation, as the perceived quality causes sensory experiences with the corresponding content; in other versions it is deemed necessary for the subject to perform an operation of abstraction on the perceived instance—the universal is abstracted from the encountered particular.[1] The essential point, however, is that the mind apprehends the universal by way of responding to instances of it in the perceived environment: this process is what mediates the referential link between mind and universal. We come to form an idea of a sensible quality like blue because we interact through our senses with the extension of that quality—with external objects that exemplify it. The exemplar establishes the idea in our mind.

We can think of the exemplar theory as an account of emergence that offers a kind of reduction. Intentionality emerges from a basis in perception of instances: the mind grasps the universal by encountering instances of it—the grasping supervenes on the encountering. Alternatively, the apprehension of universals reduces to the Read more

[1] Locke introduces the notion of abstraction in chapter XI, section 9, of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Penguin Books, 1997), ed. Roger Woolhouse (followed by the charmingly named section “Brutes Abstract Not”). Earlier he states his basic thesis thus: “First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, doconvey into the mind, several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways, wherein those objects do affect them: and thus we come by those ideas, we have ofyellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities, which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions.” 109-10. Notice here the emphasis on external objects: the senses convey the qualities of objects outside of us into the mind—they don’t just present subjective impressions quite distinct from such objects. Just as I think about external objects by perceiving them, so I think about their qualities by perceiving them. I venture to suggest that this is not just a broad philosophical tradition, associated with empiricism, but also the view of common sense: it just seemsobvious that we derive our ideas of the qualities of things by perceiving those qualities inthings. So if this view proves false, a chunk of common sense collapses.


Hitch 22



I’ve just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch 22, a sad but stimulating experience. Among many sage observations, he tells us how much he values a sense of the absurd and an ironic mind, as well as linguistic playfulness. Despotisms always seem to be literal-minded, pedestrian, humorless, and linguistically repressive—as well as fanatical and violent. Hitchens always stood for reason and jocularity (he is hilarious on the erstwhile American male fashion of wearing pants that are several inches too short, the better to display the spindly male ankle in all its pale and hairy glory). He also believes deeply in friendship—real friendship, not associations-of-convenience. In friendship there must be honesty and the trust that goes with it. We must always be on the lookout for the inwardly frothing maniac with the calm exterior, the cold-eyed fanatic. Ideologues are always with us, in new guises and with new agendas. Whenever someone is willing to do great harm to others in the service of some alleged “cause” be alert for a new brand of fascism. Hitchens represents intelligence and humor, as against the unsmiling stupidity of the totalitarian mind.


Knowing and Necessity



I hope that some people see no connection between the two topics in the title.[1] In any case, the absence of any connection will be developed in the course of the paper—a complete and clean separation. The way I think about these matters is, in some ways, quite different from what people take for granted these days, and is certainly very different from the orthodox position during most of the twentieth century. Some of my views may strike people at first sight as obviously mistaken, indeed as scarcely intelligible. Among my more surprising claims, to be defended subsequently, are the following: All necessity is uniformly de re; there is simply no such thing as de dictonecessity. The customary distinction between de re and de dicto necessity is an untenable dualism. There is, however, no such thing as empirical essence or “a posteriori necessity”. But nor is there such a thing as a priori essence. Neither are there any empirical facts, still less a priori facts. In addition, there is no separate category of epistemic modality—no epistemic necessities or contingencies. There is no intrinsic or conceptual relation between types of knowledge and types of modality at any point. What is called “conceptual necessity” is not to be understood in terms of knowledge of concepts or a priori truth. In fact, every truth is both empirical and a priori. So my views are somewhat surprising: but I intend to establish all these strange views in what follows.


Where We Stand Today

In the glory days of positivism, all necessity was understood as uniformly the same: a necessary truth was always an a prioritruth, while contingent truths were always

[1]  I here parody the first sentence of Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980): “I hope that some people see some connection between the two topics in the title.” In fact, I think this is a misleading statement on Kripke’s part, because the ensuing text never does establish any close connection between the two topics, and the spirit of the book is actually opposed to such an idea. First, Kripke’s notion of metaphysical necessity has nothing essentially to do with naming, being inherently non-linguistic; certainly, such necessity does not arise from names. Metaphysical necessities would exist even if names did not. Second, necessary identitystatements can readily be formed using rigid descriptions, as in “the successor of 2 is the predecessor of 4”, just as they can by using names, yet I doubt Kripke would want to say that there a special connection between describing and necessity. The same is true of demonstratives, which are also rigid designators; so there is nothing distinctive aboutnames here.  It is also odd to use the word “naming” in the title instead of “names”, since the text is hardly about the act of naming at all, though there is a lot about names.

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A Paper

The Science of Philosophy

What is the nature of philosophy? Two views have been influential. One view is that philosophy is “continuous with science”–a kind of proto science or a commentary on the sciences or a synthesis of them.According to this view, philosophy is an empirical discipline, though more removed from the data than typical science: it is not different in kind from physics, chemistry and biology. Thus the subject of philosophy comes under the general heading of “science” because of its methodological similarity to the regular sciences. Historically, it once contained the sciences, which eventually broke off from it, and it is still a kind of science-in- waiting–pupal science, we might say. The second view is that philosophy is quite unlike empirical science, both in methodology and subject matter: it is an a priori discipline, removed from observation and experiment. According to this view, philosophy is to be contrasted with empirical science, and is often regarded as properly one of the “humanities”. In its purest form, the second view takes philosophy to consist of conceptual analysis aimed at establishing a priori necessary truths—the antithesis of empirical science. Thus philosophy is held not to be a branch of science, having its own distinctive nature as a field of enquiry.2

I hew to the second view: philosophy is conceptual analysis. I won’t be defending this view here; I will presuppose it.My question is whether it is correct to withhold the designation “science” from philosophy so conceived: is it consistent to hold that philosophy consists of conceptual analysis and that it is a science? I shall argue that these are compatible propositions; and I shall further contend that philosophy is a science—indeed, that it can be rightly described as an empirical experimental natural science. These may seem like surprising claims, but actually they spring from obvious linguistic facts. Thus philosophy, for me, consists of the a priori analysis of concepts and it is also an empirical experimental natural science— with no tension between these traits. Moreover, all this is trivially true.


We associate this type of view with Quine, but Russell espoused it also. Perhaps we should add that both philosophers were prepared to jettison such parts of traditional philosophy as could not be so subsumed: what was discontinuous with science in the inherited corpus of philosophy should be consigned to the flames. In this they shared the predilections of the pruning positivists.

These are not the only conceivable metaphilosophies: one might hold that some philosophy consists of synthetic a priori propositions, in which case conceptual analysisdoes not exhaust the field; or one might favor a purely therapeutic view of philosophy in the style of the later Wittgenstein. But the two metaphilosophies I have mentioned are the most popular.

For a defense of this position see my Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(Oxford University Press: New York, 2011). The position is nowhere near as narrow as we have been taught to think, once we have a properly inclusive conception of analysis.

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The Middle Finger

This digit is a fine upstanding member of the manual community, with many beneficial uses, though it must be admitted that some dubious employment has been made of it. The Order has attempted to discourage such employment, and certainly we do not allow it among our membership. In any case, no prospective member of the Cult should be put off by any regrettable misuses of the fingers indulged in by those with little respect for our manual heritage. Devotees of the hand I salute you!



People say travel broadens the mind. But this is not quite accurate: theexperiences one has while traveling do the broadening, not the mere displacement of one’s body through space. But then it is the mental aspect that constitutes the benefit. And presumably this has to do with the richness and novelty of the experiences and thoughts that physical travel occasions. But couldn’t one have just such beneficial experiences and thoughts without physically moving? Couldn’t the mental adventure of travel be duplicated by staying put and adventuring mentally. It is said Kant never traveled from his home time of Konigsberg, but in fact he traveled very widely–in his own mind. Kant was a world traveler! Intellectual stimulation, or aesthetic experience, or moral refelction (and living), are all forms of mental travel. The dull-minded traveler learns little from hurtling through space, but the stationary thinker whose mind is free can learn an enormous amount. What broadens the mind is mind travel.