Utility and Knowledge



A Difficulty With Utilitarianism



Utilitarianism maintains that the value of a state of affairs depends solely on its level of utility. For a state of affairs to be good (desirable, valuable) it is necessary and sufficient that it contains the best possible level of wellbeing (pleasure, happiness, preference satisfaction). So if two situations contain the same level of utility they must be indistinguishable morally: value supervenes on good feelings (roughly). But consider the following possible states of affairs: (a) people enjoy a level lof happiness and know that lis their level of happiness; (b) people enjoy level lof happiness butdon’tknow that lis their level. In condition (b) they have false beliefs about how happy they are, either underestimating it or overestimating it; while in condition (a) their beliefs are just right. The level of utility is the same in both cases but the epistemic facts are quite different. Are these situations indistinguishable from the point of view of value? It might well be supposed that they are not: (a) is a better situation than (b). If so, utilitarianism cannot be a complete account of value. Knowledge of utility adds value to utility itself. The utilitarian typically assumes that knowledge of utility tracks utility, so there is no gap of the kind exploited by cases (a) and (b); but we can pull these apart in conceivable cases, and then the insufficiency of utility reveals itself.

A number of responses may be made to this simple argument. One response is that the case I described is not logically possible: people can’t be wrong about their level of happiness, since happiness is a mental state and people can’t be wrong about their mental states. However, whatever may be true about mental states in general, it is clearly possible to wrongly estimate one’s state of happiness. A change for the worse may make you realize how happy you used to be (“I didn’t know how lucky I was”), and you might think yourself happier than you really are because you have been so deprived for so long. People are not infallible about their level of wellbeing, though they may be generally reliable. What if you have been brainwashed into believing yourself brimming with joy when in fact you are only moderately content? Don’t people habitually underestimate their level of wellbeing until things turn nasty for them? Happiness is more elusive to knowledge than sensations of pain or experiences of red. If someone asks how happy you are, you might have to pause and reflect before giving an answer.

Second, it may be claimed that the cases don’t actually differ in value: if the utility level is the same, the value is the same. But this is so much biting of the bullet: surely it is better to know than not to know, especially when it comes to one’s own happiness. Isn’t this a rather vital piece of knowledge? A person who went through life believing himself a miserable wretch when in fact he was quite happy would not be living as good a life as one who gets it right; and similarly for someone who regards himself as unusually happy but in fact has a rotten time of it. There is positive value in knowing where you stand happiness-wise.

Third, it might be maintained that the knowledge in question contributes to the level of happiness, and that’s why we judge (a) and (b) differently. That is, knowing your correct level of happiness isa form of happiness: the person who gets it right will therefore be a happier person. If so, we can subsume the value of knowledge under the heading of utility. But this is not plausible: judging your degree of utility correctly does not add to your utility count, any more than other knowledge does. These are two separate things: utility on the one hand, knowledge of utility on the other. Belief isn’t a feeling, so it can’t contribute to the good feelings a person has. Knowledge isn’t a form of pleasure.[1]Whether someone’s beliefs about their own happiness are true or false doesn’t affect how happy they are.

So we are compelled to accept that happiness plus true belief about happiness is better than happiness alone, which means that happiness is not the only valuable thing. Of course, it has been held that knowledge is a value separate from utility, but what the cases of (a) and (b) show is that knowledge of happinesshas intrinsic value. The utilitarian failed to see this because of the assumption of transparency—that happiness will necessarily communicate itself to belief. But once we recognize that that is false we have to accept that knowledge carries its own value, even when (especially when) it is knowledge concerning happiness.[2]Nor can we suppose that such knowledge has merely instrumental value in producing further happiness, because we can stipulate a case in which no such variation in happiness is present—the two people converge exactly and for all time in their utilities while differing in their utility knowledge. Not only is happiness a good thing, but knowledge of happiness is also a good thing—though a good thing of a different type. In a sense, then, utilitarianism is self-refuting, because it presupposes a value it refuses to acknowledge. It assumes that knowledge tracks happiness, thus avoiding acceptance of the separate value of knowledge, but pulling the two apart shows that utility is not enough. The good life is not just the happy life; it is a life in which one is also properly apprised of one’s happiness.


Colin McGinn




[1]We don’t analyze knowledge by saying: “xknows that pif and only if xbelieves that p, xfeels good about believing that p, etc.”.

[2]Once it is accepted that utility and knowledge constitute separate values, the question of priority arises: which value is more important? Granted limited resources, we have to assign them to promoting our accepted values, so we have to decide how much to allocate to utility and how much to knowledge of utility. This means that we will have to allocate less to utility than we would under the pure utilitarian doctrine, since we have to allocate resources for the production of knowledge of utility too. So the extended utilitarian doctrine will contradict the recommendations of the simple utilitarian doctrine. And there will always be difficult questions about which value to promote in a given situation. The dent in utilitarianism is therefore not trivial.


For Metaphysics



Metaphysics and Philosophy




In the Epilogue to my book The Character of Mind(1982), entitled “The Place of the Philosophy of Mind”, I wrote: “It would be misguided to infer from the points we have been making that the philosophy of mind is the most basic area of philosophy: probably no part of philosophy can claim that title (except, though trivially, metaphysics).” I will reflect on that parenthesis: Why did I say that metaphysics is trivially (obviously, undeniably) the most basic area of philosophy?

The word “metaphysics” can mean several things, but the meaning that best captures its use in mainstream academic philosophy is “the study of the main kinds of things that there are, and of their interrelations”. If the world is the totality of facts, then metaphysics aims to provide an inventory of these facts, or of the main types of these facts, and to describe or explain how they are related to each other. Thus “metaphysics” is more or less synonymous with “ontology”—the study of being. Slightly more ambitiously, we could say that metaphysics attempts to analyzethe various types of facts—to delve into their essential nature—and to provide a theoryof how the facts are related. It is thus very broad and all encompassing, unlike special branches of philosophy like philosophy of language or ethics. It covers not just this or that part of reality but the whole of it.

It is difficult to see how there could be any objection to metaphysics as so characterized. The various branches of knowledge all seek to identify what exists and to describe its nature (atoms, molecules, organisms, persons, societies, etc); metaphysics just proceeds at a more general and abstract level. Don’t facts come in different types with systematic interrelations between them? If so, can’t we try to say what these are? Of course, there may be bad metaphysics, but how can there not be metaphysics of somesort? The correct metaphysics might be irreducibly pluralist and non-explanatory—there are hugely many kinds of fact and there are no general principles linking them—but that is still metaphysics (to be contrasted with various kinds of monism or dualism). If there is such a thing as what there is (and how could there not be?), there must be truths about what there is, and these truths might be knowable.

Yet metaphysics has been questioned, and is often regarded as an optional part of philosophy—as if we could stop doing it and leave most of the subject intact. On the contrary, metaphysics is indispensable and pervasive—it is the air that philosophy breathes. It isphilosophy. Even the most vehemently anti-metaphysical philosophy is really metaphysics, though just of a different type from other kinds of metaphysics. Consider logical positivism: it declares itself to be against metaphysics—but is it? It subscribes to two central metaphysical theses: (a) that necessity is the same as analyticity, and (b) that meaningfulness consists in verifiability. These are metaphysical theses about the natureof necessity and meaning: they are not pieces of empirical science, verifiable by experiment and experience, and they are rivals to other metaphysical theses about necessity and meaning (truth in all possible worlds, truth conditional theories of meaning). Similarly with such positivist doctrines as emotivism in ethics or instrumentalism in the sciences: these are ontological doctrines, on a par with other ontological doctrines. In the same way a general scientism is a species of metaphysics: the only kinds of facts there are, and the only acceptable theories of those facts, are those discoverable by the empirical sciences. Such a doctrine is not the result of scientific investigation, to be justified by observation and experiment; it is a metaphysical claim about the general content and structure of reality. It is as much a metaphysical doctrine as theistic idealism (though it may be a superior metaphysical doctrine—or not, as the case may be). Positivism and scientism purport to be against alltypes of metaphysics, but in fact they are opposing one type to others (rightly or wrongly). They thus contradict themselves, revealing the unavoidability of metaphysics. Even to say that reality is not susceptible to a metaphysical theory is to say something metaphysical—though of a negative nature.

Nearly all of traditional philosophy is overtly metaphysical in one way or another: from Plato and Aristotle onwards (Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, the German idealists and materialists, Hegel, Moore, Russell, early Wittgenstein, Ryle, Quine, Kripke, Strawson, Lewis, Husserl, Sartre, et al). It might be thought there is one clear exception: ordinary language philosophy and the later Wittgenstein—surely theywereboth against metaphysics and also not guilty of engaging in it covertly. But this is wrong: they were doing metaphysics too, though in their own style. They were doing it by paying special attention to ordinary language, not by logic or science or pure metaphysical intuition. They had views about persons, knowledge, intention, sensation, causation, truth, free will, mathematics, ethics, and so on. It is just that they derived these views (or purported to) from an examination of ordinary language. Moreover, they held metaphysical views about meaning: that meaning is use; that not all speech acts are assertions; that the meaning of an utterance can be split into an illocutionary force and a locutionary meaning. None of this is empirical science or history or art criticism: it is theorizing about what is at a very general level. They also held various negative metaphysical opinions: that logical atomism is erroneous, that perception does not involve sense-data, that physical objects are not constructions from experience, that necessity is not in the world, and so on. They didn’t reject metaphysics as such; they just rejected older metaphysical views they didn’t like. Their overall metaphysical position, broadly speaking, was to endorse common sense (not merely describe it, as with “descriptive metaphysics”), and they tended towards ontological pluralism. They distrusted grand unifying systems such as materialism and idealism; their metaphysics emphasized distinctions and variety. Perhaps we could say that they preferred metaphysical modesty–but a modest metaphysician is still a metaphysician. Indeed, their overarching metaphysical position—itself quite ambitious–was that reality does not conform to simple categories and dichotomies. Theirs was a metaphysics of the Many not the One (or even the Two): they held to “multiplicity metaphysics”.

So metaphysics is pervasive, even when officially repudiated, but is it basic? Is it triviallybasic? What about the idea that metaphysics is, or should be, based on philosophy of language? Doesn’t that make the study of language basic? Actually, no, it doesn’t. First, we have to know that language exists, and one can imagine metaphysical views according to which it does not (it’s all an illusion that we ever say anything). Even granting that ontological doctrine, we have to assume that language is meaningful: but according to some metaphysical views meaning is indeterminate, or a creature of darkness, or simply unreal. How could we base metaphysics on language if the whole idea of meaning is shot through with confusion and error? So we would need to combat the eliminative metaphysics of meaning with a metaphysics that finds meaning to be in good order. But now, even once we have got meaning off the ground, there are different metaphysical views about the nature of meaning: Platonism (Frege), psychologism (Grice), behaviorism (Quine), and others. We also need to have some sort of theory of meaning in place, say a truth conditions theory or a verification conditions theory: but these are substantive (and controversial) metaphysical claims about the nature of meaning. We need a metaphysics of meaning before we can use meaning to deliver metaphysical results beyond language. We can’t deduce a metaphysics of time or material reality or mind from considerations about meaning without having some prior view about the nature of meaning. We need to know what kind of thing meaning is.

It is the same with philosophy of mind: we need a metaphysics of mind before we can hope to use considerations from philosophy of mind to adjudicate metaphysical questions, say about ethics or modality. We need to know that minds exist to begin with, what their contents are, and how these contents should be analyzed: specifically, we need a theory of concepts. But this will involve us in the metaphysics of mind: what it contains, the nature of what it contains, the relations between these contents and other things (notably objects outside the mind). We can’t make a given branch of philosophy, either philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, anterior to metaphysics because that branch is itself a type of metaphysics, or essentially includes metaphysics. How could an analysis of concepts be the basisof metaphysics in general, given that there are different metaphysical theories about concepts? If someone tried to make ethics into the basis of metaphysics, they would face the question of what theory of ethics they subscribed to—which would require some sort of meta-ethics. But meta-ethics just is the metaphysics of morality, so we cannot hope to find in ethics a standpoint outside of metaphysics for pursuing metaphysics. Similarly for language and mind.

Metaphysics has always been with us, it has never gone away, and it will always be with us as long as philosophy exists. Even when officially shunned it operates in the background—indeed, it powers its own supposed repudiation. Different kinds of metaphysics wax and wane, and different methods are proposed (science, conceptual analysis, ordinary language, formal logic), but metaphysics is inescapable. Some views may seem more extravagant than others, metaphysically, but even the least extravagant views are still recognizably metaphysical (e.g., there are only sense data, there are only electromagnetic fields, there are only texts). Even someone who believes in nothing but his own current experience is a metaphysician, just a very abstemious one. And for such a thinker his negative metaphysical views are apt to be quite wide-ranging. So, yes, metaphysics is the most basic area of philosophy, trivially so.


Colin McGinn


Types of Metaphysics

Is Descriptive Metaphysics Possible?



Strawson draws his famous distinction between two types of metaphysics in these words: “Descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world, revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure”. This formulation raises puzzling questions. One might have thought that descriptive metaphysics (hereafter DM) aims to describe the actual structure of the world, since that is generally the aim of metaphysics (or ontology); but Strawson inserts the words “our thought about”—so that DM is describing the “structure of our thought”. Thought is an attribute of persons, a psychological attribute. So DM is concerned to describe an aspect of human psychology, notthe world outside of human psychology. Our thought is about the world (what else could it be about?), but DM focuses on thought itself, not the world it purports to be about.

Two questions now arise: (a) why is DM construed to be about human psychology? and (b) what is meant by the “structure of thought”? With respect to (a), the natural objection will be that DM, so characterized, is not a type of metaphysics (a general philosophical theory of reality) but a type of psychology (a description of human thought). DM would therefore be wrongly so called: it is not a general description of the world (a metaphysics) but a general description of the human mind. Maybe answering question (b) can help with this objection, depending on what is meant by the “structure” of thought. It is hard to know what Strawson intends by this word, given that “structure” is usually opposed to “content”. Presumably he does not mean the logical form or grammatical structure of thoughts, since that will not bear on what the subject matter of thought is. Nor can he mean some sort of psychological theory of thought—such as an imagistic theory, or a language of thought theory, or a division into conscious and unconscious thought. If he had written “language” and not “thought” into his definition of DM, we might have naturally taken his talk of “structure” that way—as grammatical or logical structure—but that is hardly the right basis for metaphysics. No, Strawson must mean by “structure” content—what it is that we think. He uses “structure” to mean something like “general” or “basic”, not “local” or “particular”. DM is not about our thoughts concerning weasels and warblers but about our thoughts concerning material bodies in general, as well as space, time, persons, events, causation, and such other typical metaphysical topics. So his idea is that DM describes what we think—the content of it—in very general or basic terms. It will tell us, for example, that people think there are material bodies in space and time, and also persons, with events occurring, and causal relations between the events. It will not tell us that there aresuch things, just that people thinkthere are. As Strawson modestly says, DM is “content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world”—content to say what we in fact think, without trying to discover what is objectively the case (he could have written “content merelyto describe the actual structure of our thought”).

But that project is not, properly speaking, metaphysics, which should endeavor to tell us what isthe case, not merely what we habitually taketo be the case. What Strawson calls “descriptive metaphysics” is simply not a type of metaphysics—it is a type of psychology or anthropology. It might be pursued using standard psychological or anthropological methods: surveys, experiments, even brain science. It would try to discover what it is that people universally think about reality at a basic level. That task has no logical bearing on what is really the case—it is just the attempt to find out what humans in fact believe. Psychologists do investigate this kind of question: they seek the genetically fixed basic concepts and beliefs that humans share; and they find that concepts like material body, person, space, time, causation, andanimalshow up everywhere. But they don’t take themselves to be doing metaphysics (that’s a job for philosophers), just empirical psychology. To be doing metaphysics one would need to claim (at least) that such beliefs are true: but that is to go beyond merely describing what beliefs people have, and hence beyond what DM, as defined by Strawson, is intended to achieve. His aim, as he clearly states, is the modest one of merely describing human thought.

The problem with this formulation can be brought out by considering other areas in which the Strawsonian distinction might be applied: what about the idea of descriptive ethics, or descriptive philosophy of mind, or descriptive logic? In those cases the project would be to describe the “actual structure of our thought” about value, mind, and logical validity: what do we in fact think about these various areas? No doubt such a subject could be pursued, and it might turn up something of value, but it would not be a type of ethics, or philosophy of mind, or logic. It would tell us what people think in these areas, but not what is true in them; and surely, as philosophers, we want to know what is true about value, mind, and logic—not merely what people thinkis true. For they might be quite wrong, and anyway that is not our proper subject matter—we are interested in the thing itself not in people’s beliefs about it. What would we think if someone proposed a new type of physics called “descriptive physics”, the job of which is to describe what people think about the physical world? We might regard this as an interesting venture in anthropology, but we would not suppose that they had identified a new type ofphysics—which concerns what is true of the physical world, not what people think is true. What they think is often false or incomplete, and anyway physical belief is not our proper subject matter—the physical world is.

The upshot is that the concept of “descriptive metaphysics”, as defined by Strawson, is a confused and misbegotten concept: it seems to denote a type of metaphysics, but it does not, being really a misleading label for a type of psychology or anthropology. Maybe this type of psychology would be of interest to philosophers if it engaged in some substantial conceptual analysis, but it would still be psychology unless it claimed that our conceptual scheme (another phrase of Strawson’s) actually reflects the way reality objectively is. Only then would we ascend to the level of metaphysics: but then we would be doing much more than modestly and contentedly describing “the structure of our thought”. And some reason would have to be given for supposing that what we think istrue, as opposed to other metaphysical views that might be proposed. Actively endorsing our conceptual scheme carries much greater intellectual commitment than merely describing what it contains. After all, people often believe a load of rubbish.

This brings us to “revisionary metaphysics”: does that concept fare any better upon close examination? Of course, all metaphysical systems are revisionary in one sense—they are rivals of each other and aim to supplant the opposing system. But Strawson obviously means revisionary with respect to the metaphysics of common sense—that system of belief that he thinks will be revealed by “descriptive metaphysics”. That is, he supposes that some metaphysical systems contradict the metaphysical beliefs held, explicitly or implicitly, by ordinary people; and if so, these systems are to be called “revisionary metaphysics”. Strawson cites Aristotle and Kant as examples of non-revisionary metaphysicians, and Leibniz and Berkeley as revisionary metaphysicians. So some philosophers endorse the metaphysics of the ordinary person and some reject it, according to Strawson.

All this is highly problematic. First, it is exceedingly unclear whether a given philosopher’s metaphysical system really contradicts common sense: Berkeley notoriously insists that he is at one with common sense, merely differing from its materialist interpreters; and Leibniz might say the same of his system—that nothing in what we actually believe in common sense is really inconsistent with the Monadology. Where does Plato fall? Didn’t he think he was in conformity with common sense, since the existence of universals is taken to be implicit in our ordinary language and thought? Universals are not taken to be alien imports from outside, but to be woven into our ordinary practices. What about David Lewis’s modal realism? What about Hume’s view of causation and the self? Is Descartes’ dualism inconsistent with common sense? I can’t think of a single clear case of a metaphysical system that flatly contradicts ordinary belief, and is taken by its proponents so to do. Indeed, such systems often derive their support from evidence drawn from withinour ordinary beliefs and commitments: they are offered as interpretationsof common sense, and hence are sensitive to how we spontaneously speak and think. Surely metaphysicians characteristically oppose othermetaphysicians, while hoping not to violate basic assumptions of common sense. If they preserve nothingof ordinary belief, they have no leg to stand on, and hence have no claim on our credence. They might jettison a part of common sense, but they cannot realistically reject the whole thing—and in practice they never do. So it is difficult to see who might count as a hard-core revisionary metaphysician in Strawson’s sense.

Strawson makes a fundamental error in the way he sets up the contrast he is aiming to capture: he supposes that our ordinary thought actually contains substantial metaphysical commitments or theories. But it doesn’t: it merely commits us to various kinds of entities, properties, and relations. Thus, as he says, we believe in bodies, space, time, persons, events, causal relations, colors, shapes, and so on. But those are not metaphysicalcommitments; they are merely the commonsense things that metaphysics tries to provide theories of. We ordinarily believe in tables, chairs, and other bodies, but the metaphysician tries to tell us what the natureof these things is, which is clearly a further question. Are they mind-independent entities or are they possibilities of perception? Are they reducible to their atomic components? What is their precise relation to space and to events? We ordinarily believe in persons, but what exactly isa person—a body, a brain, a soul, a connected sequence of mental states, or an ontological primitive? We ordinarily believe in space and time, but are space and time absolute or relative, finite or infinite, continuous or granular? We ordinarily believe in events, but are they a separate ontological category or can they be reduced to objects, properties, and times? We ordinarily believe in causation, but how is causation to be analyzed–by means of necessity, counterfactuals, or constant conjunction? We ordinarily believe that objects have colors and shapes, but are these qualities objective or subjective? In all these cases the metaphysician is discussing something accepted by common sense; he is not arguing withcommon sense—not usually anyway. He is explaining common sense not seeking to revise it.

The mistake is to suppose that our ordinary thought contains actual metaphysical theses—as that everything is mental, or everything is material, or abstract objects exist, or causation can be defined counterfactually, or objects are mind-independently colored. Then a metaphysical system could be genuinely revisionary of what we ordinarily believe about the world. But what we have are ordinary beliefs about ordinary things that are up for metaphysical interpretation and theory. Strawson appears to suppose that a commitment to ordinary things is already a type of metaphysics, but it isn’t—it is just the subject matter of metaphysics. That is precisely why metaphysicians can plausibly claim to be in conformity with common sense, because common sense is not committed with respect to the usual range of metaphysical positions (say, materialism versus idealism). Common sense underdeterminesmetaphysics, in the sense that it is not committed to any specific metaphysical system—merely to the entities such systems seek to explain or analyze.  Strawson may well be right that bodies, persons, space, time, and so on, are indispensable commitments of our conceptual scheme: but such things are the topicsof metaphysics not the resultsof metaphysics. If someone were to assert outright that there are no bodies, persons, space or time, etc, but only lumps of floating ectoplasm, then he would certainly be revising common sense. But no actual metaphysical system in the history of philosophy ever maintains such crazy things—for what conceivable ground could one have for asserting such a proposition? Such systems claim, rather, to say what these generally acknowledged things are (what their nature is), without trying to deny their existence or replace them with a brand new set of objects and properties.

The idea of revisionary metaphysics, as Strawson understands the concept, is therefore entirely toothless and quite irrelevant to the metaphysical disputes that have occupied the history of philosophy. It is simply not a useful or well-defined notion. Nor, as we have seen, is the notion of descriptive metaphysics useful or well defined. So what isthe right conception of metaphysics? The answer is easy: it is the attempt to describe the general structure of the world. This is not the same as the attempt to describe the general structure of our thoughtabout the world; nor is it committed to supposing that metaphysics, so conceived, might contradict common sense. It might, wisely, be completely neutral as to whether it is consistent with common sense, holding that common sense is simply not metaphysically opinionated; or it might strive to demonstrate consonance with common sense. But what it actually aims to do is just to discover what is true of reality, without particularly caring one way or the other about its relation to common sense belief. It certainly will not see itself as being “content to describe the actual structure of our thought”, but will seek instead to assert truths about reality outside of thought—claiming, say, that the world is completely material. We might call this, just to have a label, “veridical metaphysics”—truth-seeking metaphysics. It fits neither of Strawson’s categories, and is really the only kind of metaphysics there is. This subject is the analogue of ethics or epistemology or philosophy of mind or physics or geography. None of these disciplines could call themselves “descriptive X” or “revisionary X” in Strawson’s sense: they are neither descriptive of what people think nor intentionally revisionary of what people think—they simply seek to discover the truth about their domain of interest. Whether that truth contradicts common sense, or supports it, is of no interest to them, since their aim is simply to describe (and possibly explain) reality as it is.

None of this is to deny that the metaphysician may (or must) appeal to common sense in coming up with his theories: that is a question of methodology or evidence. What it does deny is that we can definemetaphysics as describing what people think (or “the structure of our thought”). That’s not what it is about—its subject matter, its domain of interest. Typically, a metaphysician will develop a theory of reality by appealing to the way we naturally think or talk about it–for example, theories about modality; but he does not suppose that his topicis human thought—his topic is the nature of necessity itself. If Strawson had said that the descriptive metaphysician aims to describe the general structure of the world by appeal to the structure of our thoughts about it, then he would have defined an intelligible and useful concept; his mistake was expressly to limit DM to what humans think, i.e. a psychological matter, without regard to the truth about the world. Perhaps at some level that is what he really meant, but it is certainly not what he said. And the point is not trivial, because the project I just defined is precisely the one that would draw the fire of positivists and other skeptics about metaphysics: for how, they would ask, can we ever verify such speculative claims about the general structure of reality, and how can common sense belief ever be evidence for what is true of the objective mind-independent world? Strawson’s project, by contrast, has the look of something not open to such objections, since it limits itself to verifiable matters concerning what humans believe: it is perfectly empirical, verifiable, and even scientific. We just have to find out what people in fact believe—we don’t have to engage in unverifiable abstract speculations about reality.

The trouble is that this innocuous project is simply not a kind of metaphysics; so Strawson has done nothingto rehabilitate traditional (or even non-traditional) metaphysics. He is talking about something else entirely. He is talking, in effect, about folk psychology, not about the fundamental nature of reality. It is ironic that he is often celebrated for bringing metaphysics back into philosophy, after its banishment by the positivists and ordinary language philosophers. If he did have such an influence, it was contrary to his official doctrines and words. It might be thought that he smuggled metaphysics (the veridical kind) back in under the guise of something else entirely: he described it as merely reporting what people think, but in fact he was talking about the genuine article—thus allowing philosophers to go back to what they enjoyed with a clear conscience. The idea of descriptive metaphysics made real metaphysics seem acceptable to people, but they misunderstood what Strawson actually said, and then proceeded to carry on where they had left off. Real metaphysics came back, but only by disguising itself as Strawson’s modest and empirically verifiable “descriptive metaphysics”.

Strawson makes two basic mistakes, which lead him into the misconceived distinction I have criticized. The first is to suppose that common sense (“our conceptual scheme,” “the structure of our thought”) contains a determinate metaphysics that might compete with standard metaphysical systems—such as the view that bodies are possibilities of sensation (phenomenalism), or that persons are a primitive ontological category (Strawson’s own metaphysical position), or that space and time are absolute and mind-independent, or that causation is a matter of constant conjunction, or that events are logical constructions from objects, properties, and times. If it did contain such a determinate metaphysics, it would be obviously inconsistent with a variety of metaphysical theories: but that appears not to be so. Common sense is just not that specific and metaphysically sophisticated. It accepts the existence of various things, but it ventures no opinion on their ultimate nature. The second mistake is to conflate describing our conceptual scheme with endorsing it; or rather, not to keep these as separate as they need to be kept. It is one thing to say what we think; it is quite another to declare what we think to be true. So even if common sense contained a determinate metaphysics, capable of clashing with typical metaphysical systems, that would not show that its metaphysics was correct. To reach the latter conclusion one would need substantial further argument, going well beyond the official business of DM. These assumptions are what would be needed to show that so-called descriptive metaphysics was really a kind of metaphysics (when supplemented with the veridicality claim), and to show that revisionary metaphysics had something to get its teeth into in attempting to revise common sense metaphysics. As it is, neither assumption holds up under examination. The conclusion, then, is that DM is not possible (as a type of metaphysics) and that RM is ill defined. All we have are different (veridical-type) metaphysical systems, proposed by theoretical philosophers, clashing with each other—just as things were before Strawson introduced his influential but misconceived distinction.

The right thing to say is that all metaphysics is descriptive (of reality) andrevisionary (of other metaphysics). No metaphysics is merely descriptive of our thought, that being part of psychology, anthropology, or possibly philosophy of mind. How much metaphysics can plausibly be read into common sense is at best moot. We are committed to various kinds of entities and properties, to be sure, but whether these commitments reach the level of metaphysics proper is dubious at best—substantial theory construction and interpretation is required before we can move from common sense commitments to real metaphysics. It is highly implausible to claim that common sense selects one metaphysical system over other competing metaphysical systems. What Strawson calls “the structure of our thought” (whatever exactly that might be) does not yield a unique and recognizable metaphysical system. Nor is it credible to suppose that common sense is fixed and impermeable to outside supplementation or even revision. Clearly, science has entered common sense at various points, changing it quite fundamentally: the theory of evolution, the extent of the universe, the nature of motion, gravity, electricity, etc. These additions have altered our common sense views of force and causation, of the nature of matter, of how animals came to exist, and so on. Our common sense views of animals and material bodies have changed substantially as a result of biology and physics. Our conceptual scheme is not as conservative and static as Strawson sometimes suggests, though at a very abstract level it has been stable for many thousands of years. His picture appears to be that our ordinary thoughts provide the last word on general questions about reality, but that is far too sanguine a view of what ordinary thought comprises. Also, defending such a view would require doing something quite different from the job Strawson assigns to descriptive metaphysics. It would require a systematic evaluation of ordinary thought, not merely recording what we do in point of fact think. I have said nothing about how such an evaluation might proceed or where it might lead; my point has been just to distinguish it sharply from the project Strawson labels “descriptive metaphysics”.  That project is entirely descriptive, not evaluative.

Let me make a final point about epistemology. If we try to generalize Strawson’ distinction to epistemology, the picture changes because of the role of skepticism. Skepticism can quite legitimately be described as “revisionary epistemology” because it clearly contradicts many of our ordinary beliefs about knowledge and justification: we think we know and can justify a great many things that the skeptic says we cannot know and justify. Our common sense epistemology is quite firmly committed, and so skepticism can easily be seen to fly in its face. So we should have no objection to calling skepticism “revisionary epistemology”. What about “descriptive epistemology”? It is a perfectly feasible enterprise: find out what we ordinarily believe about questions of knowledge and justification. This may be worthwhile and interesting, but again it would be a non sequitur to move from such information to claims about what really isknown or justified—and the skeptic would obviously contest such a move. All this is quite above board and sensible; in particular, we can read a clear epistemology into our ordinary beliefs, so that skepticism can be seen to clash with common sense. It isn’t that common sense is indeterminate with respect to whether we know ordinary facts about the external environment.

I suspect this model was influencing Strawson and his followers, with revisionary metaphysics playing the role of skepticism. That would explain why he set the issues up as he did. But the analogy is imperfect, because the alleged clash between common sense and specific metaphysical views is either unclear or non-existent. Metaphysical theories are offered as theories of the world that may or may not fit with common sense, and which are sometimes justified by appeal to common sense belief (or possibly by science, or direct metaphysical insight); but skepticism is offered expressly as a criticismof common sense, and hence as explicitly revisionary. If you are a philosopher who has little time for skepticism, you will be inclined to go with the epistemological opinions of common sense—as in fact Strawson was himself. This may then color your views about metaphysical theories, which you will see as skeptical with regard to common sense metaphysics. But the cases are crucially dissimilar, and the conceptual apparatus used to deal with one (epistemology) will not carry over smoothly to the other (metaphysics). If so, Strawson’s distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics owes its origin to a misplaced obsession with skepticism.[1]



[1]For the record, Peter Strawson was my teacher and friend, and I had (and have) great admiration for him as a philosopher. Individualsis a brilliant book.


Good Works, Bad People


Good Works, Bad People



What should we do about people who do bad things but produce good works of art? What about a child-molesting composer, say? Should his works be banned? The question is not simple and I shall work up to an answer by considering some thought experiments.

Suppose a man, call him Bill, has produced distinguished musical compositions but is guilty of unsavory and unethical conduct (theft, pedophilia, defamation, what have you). His nefarious deeds were unknown while his musical fame grew; he became extremely popular and admired. Then his bad behavior is revealed (we can suppose that there is no doubt about this). Boycotts are urged. There isn’t any question of rewarding him for his evil ways for the simple reason that he has been dead for ten years, but still some people feel that his work is now tainted and that it would be wrong to play his music, even in private. In fact there was always something funny about Bill, which is brought to light in the midst of the controversy: Bill had a split brain! He was born that way—separate non-communicating hemispheres. Indeed, inside Bill there lurked two distinct selves, one in the left-brain, and the other in the right. And, stranger still, it was the left-brain self that committed the crimes not the right brain self—that self was innocent of all wrongdoing. True, these two selves had the same name, the same birth certificate, and so on, but they were two different individuals sharing the same body. The person who composed that marvelous music was not identical to the person who committed those horrific crimes, despite appearances. Doesn’t that change the situation? We can’t hold the musical individual responsible for the misdeeds of the non-musical individual! So there is no ground for a boycott after all: the composer did none of the things his evil cohabiting self did. The works came from one source, the misdeeds from another.

Now consider a person, call him Jack, with multiple personality disorder: he contains several distinct selves. When one self is uppermost Jack paints beautiful pictures; when other selves emerge wicked actions result. Should Jack’s paintings be banned or destroyed? Wouldn’t that be blaming one self for the actions of another? Jack can do nothing about which self has control at any given time, and each self is a genuinely distinct individual—so it would be hard lines to punish one of these selves for the misbehavior of the others. Think Jekyll and Hyde: should we refuse to teach the medical findings of Dr. Jekyll just because of the terrible things Mr. Hyde got up to? Again, that presupposes an identity of source, which fails in the present instance. You can’t blame Xfor what Ydid. Given that Jack’s good self produced outstanding works of art, surely we don’t want to deprive ourselves of them just because of his unfortunate association with other unethical persons (over which he has no control). What if everybody was like this? We all go through a bad phase in which we do bad things, but then we get beyond it and turn into model citizens. Maybe a remnant of our earlier bad self survives in our mature good self, but we no longer act in those bad old ways. We each have some pretty nasty skeletons in the closet, but thankfully we grow out of all that to produce worthwhile work. Should we allbe banned and boycotted? Wouldn’t that be manifestly unjust and leave us with nothing good to do with our time, culturally speaking? That old self is ancient history, of no relevance to what we are now, so it has no role in creating our good works. The good works don’t come from the same place as the earlier bad actions (we shudder to think of them now).

Next we have Jill, a world-famous moral philosopher: not only are her works intellectually distinguished, she is also highly regarded morally. She lives a blameless life (outwardly) and dies a celebrated thinker and writer. However, unknown to everybody, Jill had a truly vile imagination: it was a cesspool in there—murder, torture, perversion, you name it. Her dreams were unspeakable and her daily imaginings disgusting. But she kept this secret fantasy life to herself—wise, because if her associates knew about it they wouldn’t want to go near her. Soon after her death, however, Jill’s dairies are discovered and they contain ample evidence of her deranged imagination, so skillfully kept under wraps during her lifetime (though people were sometimes disconcerted by a wicked look in her eye while daydreaming). Now we are made privy to her inner life and we find ourselves repelled. Should we ban Jill’s books and take down her plaque? We should certainly accept the modification in her image that the revelations indicate, but what about the work? Itbears no mark of her horrible imagination, stemming from a quite different place in her psyche—the place of reason not fantasy. So we are not endorsing her imaginative excesses by applauding her intellectual productions—these are separate spheres of Jill’s mind. Her atrociousness was localized to her imagination and didn’t spill over into other aspects of her life. If we want to get technical about it, we could say that her intellectual mental module was distinct from her imaginative mental module. Jill had different aspects to her mind that functioned separately, so we shouldn’t pin on one what properly belongs to the other. Intellectually, she was exemplary; imaginatively, she was a monster.  We should not conflate one part of her mind with another part.

Here is another kind of case: a popular singer, Paul, is secretly an active pedophile. He is an icon of popular culture, his music much loved. He dies and his pedophilia is exposed. Should we say that his music module was separate from his erotic module as a way to preserve his musical legacy? But suppose that, in the light of the new revelations, several songs once regarded as innocent can now be interpreted (correctly) as expressions of pedophilia—so that’s what he was talking about! Should thosesongs be banned? I think we are inclined to say yes, because those songs tap into his unsavory immoral side: they can no longer be listened to in the same spirit, and enjoying them endorses their repugnant content. Here the work comes from the same placeas the bad part of the person: the lyrics directly reflect the emotions and activities that characterized Paul’s secret life. Similarly, if Jill’s fantasy life incorporated anti-Semitic tropes, which found their way into her published works, thoseworks should be boycotted. That is, we are inclined to treat cases differently according as they separate or connect the good and the bad: if the work is insulated from the author’s bad character, we are okay with it; but if the bad character feeds into the work, we are far less tolerant. Call this the insulation principle: then we can say that works should be banned (boycotted, frowned upon) if and only if they are not insulatedfrom the badness of the person producing them. That principle is clearly reflected in cases of numerically distinct persons, as with Bill and Jack, but it also applies to single persons and their multiple faculties, as with Jill and her evil imagination. Paul is the test case because here we stipulated that the insulation principle is violated. The very trait that constitutes Paul’s badness contributes to the works in question. But when there isinsulation we have grounds for leniency. To put it differently: persons are not simple unitary entities but complex assemblies of traits and faculties; and a work can result from one of these and not the others. We can endorse someof a person’s traits without endorsing allof them. Since everyone has some bad traits, this allows us to preserve their meritorious works, because we are not thereby showing any toleration for what is bad in a person. If we are inclined to accept multiple selves as the correct account of so-called personal identity, this becomes a lot more straightforward—all the interesting cases then approximate to the cases of Bill and Jack. At any rate, there is always a question about who created what: the self that created the great work may be distinct from the other selves that constitute what I refer to as “me”. Thus ethics connects with metaphysics: you can only be blamed for things that youdo, not some prior self or simultaneous self existing alongside the self at issue. If Paul actually had two selves, an artistic self and an erotic self, then the productions of the former self would be insulated from the bad actions of the latter self. Hence we should not prohibit his works because of his dirty deeds, because they weren’t really his. But if Paul has one self that simultaneously writes songs covertly about child sex and indulges in it, then the right response is to let disapprobation fall on the songs as well as the person. Expressions of evil inherit the evil of what they express, and the same person is doing both.

In actual real-world cases there will no doubt be difficulties, empirical and conceptual, as to a person’s guilt and its implications for his or her work; but the general principle that we must keep in mind is that if the work is separable from the heinous aspects of the person whose work it is, then it is not in general a good idea to ban that work. By all means boycott work that is intrinsically unethical, or which springs directly from unethical traits, but don’t extend this principle to work that stems from some source other than the bad traits in question. A person may have good parts and bad parts, and his or her work may partake purely of the good parts. No one should have their work judged by their worst traits, but only by the traits that generated it.[1]



[1]I have not attempted to adjudicate the numerous actual cases in which the issue comes up; that would require considerable factual knowledge of the details of such cases. I have restricted myself to teasing out the general principles that should guide our judgment, by considering hypothetical cases in which the facts are clear.



I’ve just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma, which I first read while studying it for A-level in 1967. It’s a sparkling and thoroughly enjoyable novel, full of moral wisdom. But I was struck by something I have not heard commented on: Mr. Knightley confesses to Emma that he first fell in love with her when she was thirteen! Since he is quite a bit older than her (maybe fifteen years older) that makes the chronological situation similar to that of Dolores and Humbert: the latter would no doubt describe Emma as a nymphet at that age. And yet Mr. Knightley is depicted as the most moral of men. Austen herself appears to have no qualms about this early infatuation. How times have changed! The difference, of course, is that Knightley Knightley has no designs on the young Emma, while Humbert Humbert is all designs. But remember that sex before marriage was taboo in Austen’s time anyway: what if KK had proposed marriage when he first fell in love with Emma? The stab of queasiness is hard to dispell.





A Plea for Persuasion



Jane Austen’s sixth and final novel is entitled Persuasion. There is a reason it is so entitled—it deals with the role of persuasion in human life (as exemplified in Anne Eliot being persuaded against her better judgment not to marry Captain Wentworth). But we might see the whole sequence of her novels as occupied with the topic of persuasion in one way or another. In any case, she clearly believes that persuasion is central to human life, for good or ill. It is not hard to see why: persuasion is heavily implicated in personal relations (courtship, seduction), in politics and diplomacy, in business and finance, in law, in science, in philosophy, in scholarly discourse generally, and in any form of leadership. To the most persuasive go the spoils, we might say. Accordingly, psychology has studied the workings of persuasion, exploring the principles by which persuasion operates (the role of authority, conformity, reciprocity, commitment, liking, etc.).[1]But philosophy has not been much concerned with the topic: the philosophy of language has little to say about it, and epistemology has not found a place for persuasion as a source of both knowledge and error. Plato was certainly interested in it because of its place in the armory of the sophists (there is good persuasion and bad persuasion), but recent philosophy has been silent on the subject. Here I will make some remarks intended to bring persuasion into the conversation. Given its centrality to human life, it might be useful to get a bit clearer about it.

Consider speech act theory. We are told that there are several kinds of speech act, each irreducible to the others—assertion, command, question, performative, etc. Wittgenstein took this plurality to the extreme, contending that there are “countless” ways of using language with nothing significant in common. The idea that persuasion might be the common thread has not been mooted. But note that, while one can only assert thatand order to, one can both persuade that and persuade to. That is, persuasion can aim at both belief and action, while assertion aims only at belief and command only at action. The OEDhas two definitions for “persuade”: “cause to do something through reasoning or argument” and “cause to believe something”. So persuasion is a genus with two species, corresponding to assertion and command—inducing the other to believe or to act. Whether these can be unified is an interesting question: might belief formation be a type of action, or action a result of a specific type of belief (say, the belief that this action is best all things considered)?[2]Maybe all persuasion is persuasion-that, with practical belief the kind aimed at by command. In any case, persuasion covers both types of speech act; so we need not accept irreducible plurality. Questioning might then take its place as persuading the other to provide information (a special case of command perhaps)—“I wonder whether you would be so kind as to tell me the time”. This seems like an attractive all-encompassing conception: speech as persuasion. If it is objected that not all talk is talking-into (or out of), because speakers are not always offering arguments, we can reply that persuasion need not always be explicit—there is also implicit persuasion. All speech acts are implicitly (or explicitly) argument-like because they offer reasonsfor the hearer to respond in a certain way: assertion involves inviting the hearer to reason from the speaker’s making an utterance to the likelihood of its being true, and command involves getting the hearer to recognize that the speaker is in a position to enforce what he commands (or would be displeased if ignored).[3]The hearer is always reasoning from premises about what the speaker has said and responding accordingly. So even a simple speech act is tacitly argument-like: if I just shout, “Help!” I am trying to persuade you to come to my assistance by reasoning about why I would make that noise. In a benign sense, I am manipulating you—trying to get you to do (or think) what I want. Even when a cat meows to go out she is trying to persuade you to open the door for her. We have a strong interest in getting people to act so as to promote our desires; speech is a way of making this happen, and so persuasion is central to it. In talking we are always talking people intobelieving and doing (compare: all seeing is seeing-as). Thus persuasion is the general type of all speech acts.[4]

Conceptually, persuasion is necessarily intentional: when we persuade we do so intentionally. This means that we can never try to persuade someone of what we know he will not do or believe: we don’t set out to persuade the unpersuadable. You may try to entertain or embarrass someone by talking to him even if you know he won’t be convinced, but you won’t be trying to persuadehim of what you are saying. You only try to persuade people you regard as (minimally) rational. So the practice of persuasion presupposes an assumption of rationality; it takes place against a background of respect for the other as a rational agent. When this is lacking persuasion might be replaced by brute force—making the other to do what you want him to (rightly or wrongly). Thus you don’t try to persuade toddlers to do what you want them to; you simply impose your will on them. Persuasion occurs within what Kant would call the kingdom of ends—respect for others as autonomous rational agents. Crucially, persuasion calls upon consent(unlike the brute exercise of power): you are trying to get someone to agreewith what you are saying. And they may not: they may reject your arguments, refusing to shape their beliefs or actions as you suggest. The consent may be of many kinds, from sexual to political, scientific to economic. Advertising is trying to persuade people to buy things, but people may not consent to spending their money as you wish them to. It takes two to persuade successfully: the would-be persuader and the targeted consenter. The persuader is trying to secure the free assent of the consenter. There are many possible ways of doing this, ranging from outright psychological manipulation to the purest rational argument; but there is no skipping the obligation to secure assent if persuasion is the name of the game. Thus persuasion is always preferable to coercion and should not be regarded as a special case of coercion. Never coerce where you can persuade.

Persuasion may be a step up from coercion, but it is still inherently problematic: this is what so exercised Plato, as well as Jane Austen. For any good act of persuasion there are many bad acts. There is education, but also propaganda; there is logical reasoning, but also bullshit and manipulation. Moreover, it is not always easy to tell one from the other (they don’t come in different color ink). The credulity of human beings is as obvious as their educability. People can be persuaded of the most arrant nonsense if it suits them to be so persuaded.  The con man can be as convincing as the wisest sage. The trick is to be persuadable just when one oughtto be persuadable, but that is no easy task. Memes and fakery lurk around every corner. The Internet is a cesspool of toxic phony persuasion. It’s enough to make you want to give up on persuading anyone of anything—abandoning the very idea of persuasion! But no, we must persist in sorting out the wheat from the chaff. I am laboring the obvious, but we must always be aware of the potential evil inherent in persuasion, always on the lookout for its pernicious forms and manifestations. Just think of human history without pernicious persuasion!

Logically, persuasion is a four-place relation: xpersuades yof pby means of m. We can allow for reflexive persuasion, as when you persuade yourself of something, but persuasion is always directed at some object. The value of pmight be a proposition or an action, depending on whether the speech act is assertive or imperative. There must always be a means mthat may vary while keeping pconstant: you may try different mto secure the same p. This too is essential to persuasion: it is not like logical proof, but a matter of individual psychology (Euclid was more of a deducer than a persuader). Persuading is like teaching someone to dance: there are many ways to do it so long as you get them dancing (but please, no coercion!). What we must not do is persuade by lying (except in very special cases): in the general case, the recipient assumes that the means you are employing does not involve outright falsehood—that is part of the pact of persuasion. I am prepared to be persuaded by you, but only if you tell me the truth. Truthfulness and persuasion go together. So persuasion is quite a complex operation, not one available to organisms generally. Add this to the condition that persuasion is always intentional and we get the result that an agent can persuade only if she possesses reflective knowledge of the means and ends integral to a given persuasive act (this includes the meowing cat). And you can only be good at instantiating this relation if you are skilled in the arts of persuasion; indeed, you do well to learn those arts as you would any complex skill. You should take Persuasion 101 and possibly get an advanced degree in it (if you want to be a diplomat, say). Practice your persuasive skills daily (the good kind, of course).

We should not neglect the use of the concept of persuasion in “I am persuaded that p”: what kind of state of mind does this describe? This state could come about otherwise than by some other person persuading you; it could issue from the facts themselves (and we do sometimes speak of facts as persuasive, usually in relation to a theory). This locution appears to suggest something stronger, more potent, than mere belief: I don’t just believe that p; I’m prepared to act on it. Thus it edges towards the conative—it is motivational. If someone announces that she is persuaded that eating meat is wrong, we expect abstinence from meat eating (note the conceptual connection between persuasion and doing). Thus the concept appears to straddle belief and desire, i.e. it suggests motivating beliefs. This seems like the right notion to employ in moral psychology: we don’t merely believe certain moral principles; we find them persuasive. So the concept of persuasion seems to have a role in moral motivation: to be persuaded that eating meat is wrong you have to take yourself to have very good reasons for not eating meat. You don’t just thinkit’s wrong; you are persuadedit’s wrong. That is your persuasion, your conviction, and your commitment. When Anne Eliot was persuaded not to marry Captain Wentworth she acted on it; it wasn’t just a state of her cognitive apparatus. Jane Austen’s novel has a title that denotes both a verbal act and a state of mind: the act of persuading and the state of being of a certain persuasion. We could say that though Miss Eliot was persuaded at age 19 not to marry Captain Wentworth, it was never her persuasionthat she should not marry him—which is why she did marry him seven years later. It was not her deep conviction and she regretted her earlier decision. You can be persuaded to do something without it being your persuasion.

A cluster of concepts has captured the attention of philosophers: knowledge, belief, certainty, intention, assertion, reason, justification, testimony, and argument. I suggest we add the concept of persuasion to this list.[5]



[1]A classic text is Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion(1984).

[2]I discuss this in “Actions and Reasons” in Philosophical Provocations(2017).

[3]I discuss this view in “Meaning and Argument” in Philosophical Provocations.

[4]We have become accustomed to speaking of speech as communication, but that term is loaded, connoting the transfer of something from speaker to hearer (the OEDhas “share or exchange information or ideas”). But the persuasion conception suggests rather the idea of influence: speaking is causing the hearer to react in a certain way, not givinghim something. The speaker is exercising a certain power over the hearer not conveying something precious.

[5]Here is an interesting question for the new field of persuasion studies: how do performatives persuade? Not by stating language-independent facts but by the very issuing of them. I am persuaded that you have promised to meet me precisely because I just heard you utter the sentence “I promise to meet you”. This type of persuasion is very effective because the speaker doesn’t need to rely on the cooperation of outside facts—the speech act alone suffices to make it so. Hence performatives are uniquely persuasive (possible paper title, “Persuasive Performatives”).


The Non-Existence of Lolita

The Non-Existence of Lolita

The novel Lolitatakes for granted the existence of Lolita—or does it? Is she real? There is no doubt that Dolores Haze, a twelve-year-old American schoolgirl, is real: but isLolitareal? To answer this question we must first investigate the category of the nymphet: is there such a thing as a nymphet? Early in the novel Humbert expatiates as follows: “Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’”. The nymphet is thus a “maiden” who is not a human but a demon, recognizable only by someone bewitched. She sounds very much like a mythological creature not a flesh-and-blood human child. The nymphet is said to live on an “enchanted island” surrounded by a “vast misty sea”. “[A]re all girl-children nymphets?” Humbert asks. “Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane.” Is it just the pretty ones? “Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”

Clearly the nymphet is difficult to identify and indeed is close to indefinable (“certain mysterious characteristics”). “You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; shestands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” The true nymphet is a far cry from the pretty young girl who might attract the eye of a man of pedophilic disposition; she is much harder to pin down and analyze (“ineffable signs”), seeming to depend on the sensibilities of the “artist and madman” who sets out to detect her. To put it plainly: she is a projection of his fantasies not an objective human type. There is really no such thing as a nymphet—no human girl falls into the category as a matter of objective fact. This is why Humbert’s attempts at providing criteria are so vague and unhelpful: he simply can’t tell us what makes a girl a nymphet. A nymphet is, as he implies, a mythical creature, a creation of the (fevered) imagination, not a member of a subclass of actual human girls. Nymphets don’t exist in the real world but only in the world of imagination. It is impossible to pick one out of a crowd of human children for the simple reason that there arenone, except as projected by the bewitched observer. There are pretty girls and plain girls, thin girls and plump girls, shy girls and bold girls, but there are no girls that are nymphic demons—theyexist only in fairy tales. If a bewitched traveler discerns one in a group that is only because he projects his fantasies onto her: the object of his fantasy does not really exist—though its real-world counterpart does. We cannot existentially quantify over nymphets.

But Lolita is essentially and by definition a nymphet. Not so Dolores Haze, an actual American schoolgirl: she is no mysterious deadly demon equipped with magic powers. At the outset of the novel we memorably read: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” Here the theme of multiple identities is sounded loud and clear: the real girl Dolores is contrasted with the fantasy girl Lolita constructed in Humbert’s febrile mind. In his arms she was always Lolita; in his mind too. She was Lolita to him. Put this together with the passage about the idea of the nymphet: she was a nymphet to him, not in the real world. Her name is “Dolores Haze”; hecalls her “Lolita”. Thus, given that nymphets don’t exist, and that Lolita is a nymphet, we can deduce that Lolita doesn’t exist. She is a figment of Humbert’s imagination superimposed on the actual girl Dolores Haze (dolorous and hazy). The title of the book is therefore the name of a mythical creature not of a human girl. Lolita never existed. There was no such person.

If Lolita never existed, can she die? Did she die? We know that Dolores Haze dies because she is numerically identical with Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, who we are informed died in childbirth (by John Ray, Jr., PhD, in the Foreword). But Lolita is not identical to her, so didn’t die with her. Then did she outlive Dolores? No, because the lifespan of the nymphet is strictly limited, expiring at the age of fourteen. Lolita actually died a few years before Dolores—the latter being a tragedy, the former not so much. We do not weep for Lolita, because she is a mythical being who never existed to begin with. In the middle of the novel Humbert anticipates the death of his nymphet owing to advancing age, mainly viewing it as an inconvenience requiring him to get rid of Dolores and find another nymphet to take her place: nymphets come and go quickly (lifespan, five years at most). However, the non-identity of Lolita and Dolores does have implications for the course of Humbert’s love life (if we may so describe it), because when, at the end of the novel, he finds himself loving the woman about to bear another man’s child, it is not Lolita that he then loves. He used to love Lolita (or whatever passed for love in his nymphleptic days with her), but now she is gone and the individual before him is not a nymphet at all but a grown woman. It is not that he still loves Lolitain her post-nymphet incarnation, because there can be no such thing, but rather that he loves the person that corresponded to her in the real world. He now loves a real human being—Mrs. Dolores Schiller, notLolita. Shedoes not belong on an enchanted island but lives in a crappy house in the grim North West. He has thus made a stunning psychological breakthrough: not just loving a female beyond the age limit of the nymphet but also loving a real person. That is his fundamental transition—the move from fantasy to reality, not just from one age of female to another. Now he loves someone distinct from his fantasy objects—someone who can really die (and does die quite soon). He was a pedophile, to be sure, but he was also a fantasy-phile, cut off from reality. For the first time he lives in the real world. That is his redemption as well as his tragedy. We need feel no grief for Lolita, because she was a mere figment, a phantasm, an hallucination–though Dolores has our profound sympathy. What was done to Dolores was criminal. So there is no consolation for the reader in getting the ontology of Lolitastraight. Lolita doesn’t exist, never did, and so can’t be harmed; Dolores does exist, and certainly was harmed.

So here is a linguistic recommendation: stop referring to Dolores Haze as “Lolita”, because that buys into Humbert’s distorting prism of self-serving fantasy; instead call her by her proper name, “Dolores” (or “Dolly” or “Lo” if you like). She was never a nymphet, save in Humbert’s imagination, but always an ordinary human girl. The creature called “Lolita” is a non-existent entity conjured up by the sick mind of a “panting maniac” (as Dr. Ray aptly describes friend Humbert). Names matter. Dolores Haze was no Lolita.[1]



[1]Both films of Lolita(not to mention countless readers) treat our young heroine as objectively nymphet-like, completely missing the point that she is a fantasy object of Humbert’s, as the text makes clear (if studied carefully). It is now a commonplace to suppose that the world is populated with actual Lolita’s. In fact, there are none, because the nymphet is as mythical as the unicorn. No one has ever been a Lolita.


Brain Blank




Feeling the Brain



You can feel your heart. It beats perceptibly in your chest. Before you ever knew what a heart was you could feel it in there. When you learned about its anatomy and physiology you had no trouble recognizing the thing you knew about before: you didn’t doubt that they were one and the same. The identity was informative, given the different modes of presentation, but it wasn’t a matter of dispute. No one argues that the organ discovered in the chest is not the organ you feel thumping when you run hard—there are no heart dualists. No one thinks the heart he feels is an immaterial substance distinct from the heart described by anatomists. The anatomist simply informs us about the nature of what we feel inside. But none of this is true of the brain: you don’t feel your brain working and recognize that the organ described by the anatomist is what you feel. You don’t have sensations of your brain as it goes about its business: you don’t feel your brain transmitting nerve impulses and regulating your bodily functions, or perceiving, thinking, and feeling. That is, you don’t feel thatyour brain is doing these various things—this is not the content of any cognitive or sensory state of yours. You say “I can feel my heart beating” but not “I can feel my brain transmitting” or “I can feel my brain thinking”: your brain is not an intentional object so far as ordinary experience of the body is concerned—though it can become an intentional object by external perception of the body. You can feel your heart and also see it (in principle), but you can only see your brain not feel it. Your body awareness does not extend to your brain.

It is a question whether this is true only of the brain among bodily organs. Certainly we feel most of the organs of the body, particularly the muscles (of which the heart is one). Arguably we feel the bones, which are tightly interlocked with the muscles; also the stomach and intestines. But what about the liver, the kidneys, the spleen, and the pancreas—do we feel them? We can feel pain in these organs, but in the normal course of events we don’t feel their activities. Yet we sense the presence of a congeries of organs within the abdominal area, though indistinctly. I am prepared to allow that these are objects of awareness in an attenuated sense. But the brain is in a class of its own: no pain receptors and no afferent nerves leading from itself to the sensory centers. From a phenomenological point of view, it is as if it is not there at all. If you concentrate your attention on your head and face, you can make out your nose, ears, lips, eyes, forehead, back of head, cheeks—but you can’t get any sensation of your brain. It is simply not an object of awareness. The inside of your skull is a complete phenomenological blank, a sort of proprioceptive blind spot. If you turned out to have to have an empty cranium, nothing in your experience would be thereby refuted. You feel yourself to have a heart (etc.) but you don’t feel yourself to have a brain. It’s almost as if your brain is so much dead tissue so far as your self-awareness is concerned. You know your brain is in there—you have heard about it in school and maybe seen a brain or two—but you don’t have any basic proprioceptive sense of its existence, still less its nature. There is a gap in your proprioceptive field where your brain should be.

This doesn’t seem like a necessary truth. You couldhave been aware of your brain (maybe Martians have elaborate brain awareness). Suppose your brain contained pain receptors as well as afferent nerves connecting it to itself. Then you would feel pain in injured parts of it (“I have a dull pain in my hippocampus”) and you would have sensory experiences as of states of your brain, e.g. feeling that your occipital lobes are unusually active, or that the nerve impulses in your hypothalamus are sluggish. You might sense your brain’s gross anatomy, or the rate of cerebral blood flow. Just as you now say, “My heart is beating fast” you would say, “My brain is in a state of high excitation”. For some reason, evolution saw fit to keep us in proprioceptive ignorance of our brains—nearly all animals have no knowledge of their brain at all, though they sense their other bodily organs—but that seems like a contingent fact; we could have had basic first-person knowledge of our brains. Instead of coming up blank in the search for proprioceptive awareness of the brain, we might have had it at the forefront of our attention, a vivid pulsing presence in our phenomenal field. As it is, however, the contents of our cranium are hidden from self-awareness. Things would be different if the brain were a muscle. To be sure, we experience the effects of the brain, physical and mental, but the origin of these effects is omitted from awareness. We only sense the brain when we open the head and see it skulking in there, like a tortoise without its shell. It comes as a startling discovery, like discovering a new continent, not the ratification of what we earlier observed from the inside. We didn’t see thatcoming.

If we did sense our brain that would change the way we greet the discovery of it by external means. We would respond by saying, “Ah, so that’s what you look like, just as I pictured you (but I’m surprised at all the ridges)”. Our experience would have anticipated our discovery: we would be ready to accept that what we experienced before just is that thing now before our eyes. We knew about our brain’s existence from the inside and now we know about it from the outside—two modes of presentation of the same entity. As things stand, however, we greet the brain with something like incredulity: who would have thought thatwas lurking in there! We feel alienated from it, as if it is more like an intruder than an old friend. Hence our attitude to our brain differs markedly from our attitude to our other bodily organs (most if not all). And given the centrality of the brain to our own identity, this must seem like a remarkable discovery, and not a very welcome one. We had no idea what the organ of the self was like, nor even that there was such an organ sitting in our head, but now we see that it is thisunprepossessing thing. We are not disappointed by the heart, whose objective nature is close to how we anticipated it to be; but the brain strikes us as both unheralded and bathetic. If we had prior proprioceptive knowledge of it, we would have been prepared for the reality: an elevated (and erroneous) view of ourselves would have been preempted.

Someone might say that we areacquainted with our brain because we are acquainted with our mind, and the mind is just an aspect of the brain. As we feel our heart beating, so we feel our brain thinking. That is not a fatuous thought–indeed, it might even be true—but it doesn’t restore the analogy to the heart. For we don’t experience the fact thatour brain thinks: maybe it does, and maybe we experience the thinking, but it doesn’t follow—and it isn’t true—that we have experiences as ofour brain thinking. We don’t take our brain as an intentional object and attribute to it the property of thinking; it may havethat property, but we don’t experience it ashaving it (we don’t experience it at all). By contrast, the heart has the property of beating and we experience it as having that property—we attribute that property tothe organ in question. That is, we don’t, in thinking, attribute thinking to the brain that enables thinking. We just have the thoughts without predicating them ofthe brain. So our cognitive relation to the brain is quite different from our cognitive relation to the heart, even if thinking is a property of the brain that we are aware of. The thoughts are possible intentional objects, but the brain in which (allegedly) they exist is not (for us). So the brain maintains its peculiar status as a phenomenal blank: it never comes into view except as an object of external perception. It is not a felt reality of the body. It is the basis of all inner feeling, but it is not an object of inner feeling. We are aware of our nature as a muscular being, because of primitive self-awareness, but we are not similarly aware of our nature as a neural being; yet we are at least as much neural as muscular. We might never have known of the brain’s existence but that heads occasionally pop open to reveal it. And doesn’t that adventitious knowledge change our feelings about ourselves? It reveals something quite unexpected. What if we had never discovered it?[1]



[1]What branch of science does this essay belong to? Phenomenological physiology perhaps: the science of bodily awareness.