An Illusory Ideal of Philosophy



Against Causal Epistemology



It has been suggested that knowledge of the natural world enjoys a causal foundation not enjoyed elsewhere. Thus such knowledge is deemed intelligible while other kinds are not. Accordingly, we can accept a notion of robust truth in relation to propositions about the natural world while other kinds of proposition must remain under suspicion of non-truth. Empirical science emerges as both true and knowable while mathematics and morals make dubious claims to truth and knowledge.[1]It would be mysterious how we can have knowledge in the latter two cases, given that their subject matter doesn’t causally interact with our cognitive faculties. We must therefore seek some sort of non-cognitive account of those areas, accepting that knowledge is impossible as far as they are concerned.

I propose to question this bifurcation at its root: causal epistemology is a misguided idea, applicable nowhere; it therefore provides no standard whereby we can judge other domains of thought and discourse. It isn’t just that causal epistemology isn’t generally required for respectability and intelligibility though it delivers those virtues in the case of some domains. Rather, there is really no such thing anywhere—it is a chimerical ideal. These are subversive claims given a longstanding orthodoxy, but they serve to undermine subversion in areas that matter to us.

The idea of causal epistemology includes a picture and a promise. No one supposes that we currently possess a complete causal account (explanation, science) of human knowledge acquisition in the case of our knowledge of the natural world, but the idea of such an account is supposed to make us feel safe about human knowledge in the areas to which it applies (though not in others)—it provides a reassuring picture of what is going on. The promise is that this picture will be converted into a full-blown causal theory of how knowledge is acquired, which will vindicate such knowledge. The world makes a causal impact on our sense organs via physical stimuli (light, sound, pressure, chemical diffusion) and as a result we form beliefs about the world outside our skin. Empirical knowledge is an effectof physical stimuli; the causal relation puts us in “contact” with the world beyond, mediating between mind and reality. For example, I know that there is a cup on my desk because the cup on my desk is causing me to believe it is there: it is operating causally on my senses and my nervous system transmits this operation to my belief centers. Thus the connection between belief and fact is rendered intelligible; thanks to causation we canknow such things. Moreover, this causal connection can be investigated by the empirical sciences, thus “naturalizing” such knowledge. By contrast, nothing like this is possible with respect to putative knowledge of mathematics and morals: numbers, sets, and moral values don’t causally impinge on us, generating the kind of “contact” required for knowledge. Such knowledge would be altogether mysterious and unintelligible; and so the truth status of mathematical and moral claims is brought into question.

But the picture and the promise are precisely that—they are programmatic. Moreover, they are deeply mistaken about how empirical knowledge works. First we must make an important distinction—between the existenceof a causal relation between belief and fact, on the one hand, and our having knowledgeof such a relation, on the other. There is all the difference in the world between the cup’s causing me to believe in its presence and my thinkingthat this is so. This bears on the question of what my reasonfor belief is: is it that I seem to see a cup or is that I think that a cup is causing me to seem to see it? The latter suggestion is problematic: I don’t normally have such thoughts (I may even reject them); they presuppose the very item of knowledge they are supposed to ground (that there is a cup on my desk); and it is obscure how they can be explained in the favored causal terms—for how can the existence of a causal connection between a part of the world and my mind itself be a cause of a belief of mine? How does causation produce knowledge of causation, and how does the mind register psychophysical causation? No: the reason I have for forming my belief about the cup is simply that I have an experience as of a cup—not that I have an experience as of a cup causing me to believe in it (whatever that might mean). I have various sensory experiences as of the world being a certain way, and they function as my reasons for forming beliefs about how the world is. The concept of causation does not enter my deliberations or the reasons that figure in them. If there are such causal relations, they are not part of my reasoning process. My belief is justified to the extent that I have good reasons of this sort, but these reasons don’t advert to causal relations between mind and world.

This raises a natural question: does it matterwhether such relations exist so far as knowledge is concerned? Granted they do, but what is the relevance of that to epistemology as a normative enterprise? Here is a quick way to see the problem: suppose we abrogate the normal causal relations that (we believe) obtain between natural facts and our beliefs about them, replacing them with some other sort of relation—does that abolish knowledge? Suppose we postulate a pre-established harmony between belief and fact, superintended by God or Nature, with no causal interaction between mind and world, but exhibiting reliable counterfactual-supporting connections. By hypothesis there is no causal epistemology applicable to beliefs formed in this world, yet it is hard to deny that knowledge can exist in it: people have reasons based on their experience and there is a reliable link to truth. What if our world islike this (as Leibniz thought): does that mean no empirical knowledge is possible? Hardly. The ingredients necessary and sufficient for knowledge are present; it is just that there is no causal dependence between world and mind. The existence of causal dependence is thus extraneous to knowledge. What if physics abandons the notion of causality (as some have claimed it should): does that mean knowledge also undergoes defenestration? Rational reasons for belief would still exist in the shape of sensory evidence, despite the absence of causal relations.

We should also note that causation by itself is never sufficient for knowledge and has nothing intrinsically to do with knowledge. The world is constantly impinging on our bodies, but it doesn’t generally produce knowledge thereby. Most of the time we don’t even notice it. And certainly causal interaction between inanimate objects has no tendency to produce knowledge in them. Epistemology is normative, but causality is not. Reasons are not merely effects. Nor is it true that a belief is simply triggered by an outside stimulus; belief acquisition operates against a background of other beliefs that are normatively relevant (“holism”)–it is not just stimulus-response psychology. Then there is the old problem of deviant causal chains. Suppose there exists an opaque barrier interposed between me and the cup preventing any light from it reaching my eyes, but by some strange quirk of nature the cup releases a chemical that enters my skin and causes me to hallucinate a cup (I know nothing about this). We have here a causal dependence between my belief and the cup—but do I knowthere is a cup in front of me? I don’t seethe cup despite the causal connection, and it is doubtful that I have perceptual knowledge in this situation (why, is an interesting question). It can’t be just any old causal connection that leads to the kind of cognitive “contact” deemed essential to knowledge. Then too there is the question, bequeathed to us by Hume, of whether causation itself is intelligible: do we really know what causation is? Causation involves necessary connection, but isn’t that epistemologically problematic? Is knowledge of causation a secure foundation for epistemology? What if we can’t really know causation as it exists in objects? What if causation is itself a mystery? The causal theorist is remarkably sanguine about the epistemology of causation. Maybe all we are entitled to is the notion of contingent correlation, so that any attempt to invoke full-blooded causation is a mistake. It is certainly not a notion free of puzzlement.

And there are the notorious difficulties concerning inferential knowledge. Not all of empirical knowledge is of singular facts that we can observe by means of the senses; some things we must infer. But these things are not the causes of our beliefs, so the causal theorist must resort to an indirect way of extending the causal theory in their direction (consider knowledge of the future). Knowledge of generalizations is particularly problematic, since general facts don’t impinge on our senses (e.g., laws of nature). Really the causal theory applies at best to a small subclass of knowledge claims—those that concern directly perceptible particulars. The rest get consigned to hand waving. The case of introspective knowledge is instructive: we don’t sense our own mental states yet we know about them. So we can’t apply our (rudimentary) causal understanding of sense perception to introspective knowledge: my pain doesn’t transmit physical signals to a special sense organ that enables me to perceive it. Whether the causal account of knowledge can be extended to introspective knowledge is a moot question; yet it is hard to deny that the mind makes “contact” with its own inner states. Knowledge of what I am now thinking hardly fits the supposed paradigm of perceptual knowledge: isn’t it just a straight counterexample to such a theory of knowledge in general?

The upshot of these considerations is that a causal theory of knowledge hardly sets the standard for respectable epistemology. It is really just a vague picture of the mind linking itself to reality. This is not how knowledge works generally, and even in the cases most favorable to it there are serious problems. So it can’t be a point of criticism of some putative area of knowledge that it fails to live up to the high standards demanded by causal epistemology. So what if mathematics and morals fail to conform to the causal model? That model is defective even in the areas it is designed to cover. It is just massively tendentious to demand that other kinds of knowledge imitate this supposedly perspicuous model. Knowledge comes in many forms, covering many subject matters, and each form obeys its own distinctive principles and methods—perceptual, introspective, inferential, general, innate, logical, mathematical, modal, moral, aesthetic, political, historical, psychological, etc.[2]Reference is much the same, and it would be equally misguided to insist that all reference conform to the case of reference to a perceptible particular. Maybe it is hard to devise a theory of reference suitable for all types of reference—and similarly for all types of knowledge—but that is no reason to deny that reference and knowledge have wide (and univocal) application. Equally, it may be that these concepts give rise to genuine mysteries, but again that is no reason to deny that they apply to the real world. We should not seek to deform (or reform) our ordinary understanding of a region of thought or discourse in an effort to squeeze that region into the causal model, given the problems inherent in that model (“theory” is too grand a word). We shouldn’t try to revise the semantics of a piece of discourse just because we can’t see how to subsume it under a causal model derived from another piece of discourse. Knowledge varies with the subject matter and is as heterogeneous as it is.


Colin McGinn

[1]This issue is raised by Paul Benacerraf in “Mathematical Truth” (1972).

[2]This pluralist position is advocated by T.M. Scanlon in Being Realistic About Reasons(2014).


The Good Place

The Good Place continues to delight and instruct with its philosophical allusions and witty dialogue (good acting too)–at last philosophy finds its place in the sun! But let me put in a good word for the show that precedes it on a Thursday evening: Superstore. This show is genuinely subversive, very funny, and marvelously acted. Last night had the funniest and most outrageous comment about female masturbation that I have ever seen on network TV.


For Queerness


Being Queer


In section 196 of Philosophical InvestigationsWittgenstein writes: “In our failure to understand the use of a word we take it as the expression of a queer process. (As we think of time as a queer medium, of the mind as a queer kind of being.)” Earlier (section 93) he remarks: “One person might say ‘A proposition is the most ordinary thing in the world’ and another ‘A proposition—that’s something very queer!’… Why do we say a proposition is something remarkable? On the one hand, because of the enormous importance attaching to it. (And that is correct). On the other hand this, together with a misunderstanding of the logic of language, seduces us into thinking that something extraordinary, something unique, must be achieved by propositions.—A misunderstandingmakes it look to us as if a proposition didsomething queer.” In Part II of the Investigations(p.215) he tells us of an experience of wrongly imagining a city to be on the right and comments: “’But what is this queer experience?’—Of course it is not queerer than any other; it simply differs in kind from those experiences which we regard as the most fundamental ones, our sense impressions for instance.” And there are other places in which he speaks of a “queer fact” (p.200) and a “queer reaction” (section 288) and says the following (section 428): “’This queer thing, thought’—but it does not strike us as queer when we are thinking. Thought does not strike us as mysterious while we are thinking, but only when we say, as it were retrospectively: ‘How was that possible?’ How was it possible for thought to deal with the very object itself? We feel as if by means of it we had caught reality in our net.” From these scattered remarks we must glean what we can about how Wittgenstein understands the concept of queerness in philosophy. Two ingredients immediately stand out: (i) the queer is unusual and (ii) the queer is not something we should accept at face value. When we speak in this way something has gone wrong in our thought. Wittgenstein thus contrasts the queer with the ordinary; he regards it as unique and remarkable (as we conceive it); he thinks it goes with thinking of something as mysterious; and he takes it to be distinctly dubious and ultimately illusory. Still, we have more work to do in order to elucidate the concept of the queer fully.

The OEDprovides a wonderfully succinct definition: “queer: strange; odd”, noting its old sense of “slightly ill” and adding a second meaning of “a homosexual man” described as derogatory. We can see ingredients (i) and (ii) at work in this definition: first, there is the statisticalnotion in which to be queer is to be infrequent or rare or contrary to the norm; second, there is the pejorativeconnotation of “strange” and “odd”, as in “oddball” or “strange brew” (though the negativity is not pronounced). Something is queer if it is uncommon and vaguely discreditable (though it can also be seen as remarkable or possibly supernatural). The term “queer” for a homosexual man certainly carries (or did carry) a negative evaluation, no doubt deriving from attitudes towards its designation. The word itself appears in the English language in the sixteenth century and began to be applied to homosexual men only in the nineteenth century, reaching its pejorative height in the twentieth century. Perhaps it was initially used to express rarity (statistical sense) and only later gained a pejorative tone. I suppose Wittgenstein was familiar with this use of the word, though whether its connotations featured in his philosophical use of it I hesitate to say (he was reputed to be an instance of the category himself). Other uses of the term, especially earlier, are not pejorative, but merely descriptive, as in Mr. Rochester’s comment to Jane Eyre: “I sometimes have a queer feeling in regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it’s as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame”. Here the queer feeling is not understood as disagreeable, perhaps the contrary—though rareness is implied (tenderness too). Then we have expressions like” A queer expression came across her face”, where the meaning appears close to “curious”. So the meaning is not irredeemably negative (this will be important in what follows). We must also not forget the old Yorkshire saying, “There’s nowt so queer as folk”, where the meaning is not that homosexuality is universal, but rather that people can be unpredictable and inscrutable (“a rum lot”).

Returning to philosophy, we also have John Mackie’s use of the phrase “the argument from queerness” summed up as follows: “If there were objective moral values, then there would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Here we observe the use of “strange” as a synonym for “queer”, and also the claim that such objective values would be different from everything else—hence rare, out of the ordinary. I suppose Mackie got the word from Wittgenstein, though he doesn’t cite Wittgenstein in this connection, and his meaning is clearly close to Wittgenstein’s, especially in its pejorative overtones. I think it is fair to report that in this usage the word combines the following elements:  unusual, puzzling, queasy-making, mysterious, discreditable, and dubiously applicable to anything real. The queer is what gives us a queer feeling or sensation; it’s how something strikesus not how it is objectively.[1]Wittgenstein lists time and mind along with meaning in 196—his point being that these two things elicit impressions of queerness from us, though there is nothing objectively queer about time and mind (or meaning). Let’s make a fuller list of the queer and not-queer as these categories are apt to occupy the philosophical intelligence: queer—mind, time, values, meaning, numbers, universals, necessity; not-queer—matter, space, facts, symbols, objects numbered, particulars, actuality. An enormous amount of philosophy has been generated around these contrasts, spurring many a reduction or rejection. The queer is generally frowned upon, maligned, and shown the door. Hence Mackie’s appeal to the concept in arguing against the objective reality of value—“Get away values, you’re queer!”

Now I am not concerned to adjudicate these issues here; my concern is with the concepts involved and how they shape debate (this is meta-philosophy). The word “queer”, like the word “stupid”, is apt to invite the intensifier “fucking”, as in “That’s fucking queer!” It is built for strong disapprobation (consider that intensifier used in conjunction with “queer” for a homosexual man). But such terms often provoke a backlash, an attempt to reclaim them from the lowlands of insult and prejudice. Thus we have the use of “queer” to describe certain kinds of men bythose very men—gay men proudly proclaiming themselves queer. We even have “queer studies” and “queer rights” and “queer eye for the straight guy”. And these uses are not etymologically wide of the mark, since “queer” does have a non-pejorative meaning, suggesting uniqueness, interestingness, nonconformity, specialness, exceptionality. Isn’t geniuspretty queer? The word becamepejorative because of prevailing attitudes, but it is not beyond redemption, so maybe it can be worn as a badge of honor (a bit like “cockney” or “scouser” or ethnic labels generally). Who wants to be commonplace, ordinary, easily understood, and humdrum? Better to be queer! This suggests a comparable move in philosophy: embrace the word “queer” if it describes a view you agree with. Thus one might say in response to Mackie: “Yes, objective values are queer (strange), but that is no objection to them—some things arevery different from everything else!”  There is no need to tremble in shame as the dreaded label is thrown in your direction—own it, accept it, revel in it. The model here is the use of “mystery” and cognates as labels for certain philosophical positions: maybe the first use of “mysterian” was intended pejoratively, but semantically it is quite apt, so why not embrace it? Just as there is a problem-mystery distinction, so there is a commonplace-queer distinction—and some philosophers might wish to occupy that last niche.  If so, they can adopt the label and wear it proudly. Thus we can christen certain philosophers “queerians”, in some instances “new queerians”, while others can be called “anti-queerians” (compare realists and anti-realists). The general doctrine could be labeled “queerianism”, and it can come in different varieties (say, epistemological and metaphysical). Who in particular might be so labeled? Opinions may differ on this but Plato, Frege, and Meinong are good candidates for the label, being generally unconcerned about affronting common sense; I suppose some dualists might accept the label too (“Cartesian queerianism”). There are some things that give us a queer sensation when we contemplate them, but that is perfectly reasonable given their special nature (e.g., abstract unchanging universals, truth-values conceived as objects, non-existent but nevertheless real entities). Moral realists might welcome the label as a way to accentuate their position, better than the bloodless “non-natural” they have been saddled with. Is God queer? Why not—he is certainly not commonplace. Some may even point out, timorously, that matter has got pretty queer in the last three hundred years—queer physics! The word well expresses our feelings when we contemplate certain subject matters, and those feelings are real and appropriate. (Gravity is soqueer.) Philosophy has been in flight from the queer given the fearful connotations of that word, but maybe it is time to resist this kind of name-calling by adopting it proudly (assuming it describes your actual position). At least the issues should be debated in these terms and not prejudiced by blatantly derogatory language. What other labels do we have, after all, except those formed by negation from the opposite term (“non-natural”, “nonsensical”, “unintelligible”)? Wittgenstein was onto a genuine and useful philosophical category, despite his disapproval of it; so we should keep it, suitably refurbished. It colorfully adds to our theoretical vocabulary. I would even say it forms a vital part of philosophical consciousness—how our minds work when they are engaged with philosophical problems. It captures the phenomenology.

Once the concept of the queer has been properly absorbed we can ask questions employing it. Is all queerness epistemic or is some found in reality (metaphysical queerness)? Is the queer ever reducible to the non-queer? How are queerness and mystery related? What exactly is the phenomenology of feelings of queerness? Are there different types of queerness (e.g., fact queerness, value queerness)? Are some queer things queerer than other queer things? What is the queerist thing of all? Might everything turn out to be queer? Is non-queerness ultimately an illusion?[2]


[1]It might thus be taken as a secondary quality–as something conferred on the world by our sensibility not found in it already present. To be queer is to be disposed to produce queer feelings.

[2]It would be queer indeed if everything we think we know about turned out to be queer. Empiricists took sense impressions to be clearly not queer, but now we recognize that they have a queerness of their own (they stand in a queer relation to the brain). Classical materialists of the mechanistic variety took matter be devoid of queerness, but physics has proved otherwise. Everything can come to seem queer if you think hard enough about it. What isa particular? Isn’t instantiation itself a queer relation (recall Plato’s view of it)? What about causal necessity? How queer is truth? Maybe that old Yorkshire saying needs to be generalized.


No Answer

I’ve noticed a disturbing new trend in the philosophy profession: not answering letters. You write to someone to make a critical point about something they have said and they simply don’t bother to reply, thus avoiding the task of responding rationally to the criticism. In the old days if someone wrote to you, however critically, you felt it was your duty to respond, this being part of the scholarly ethic; but now it is thought acceptable simply to say nothing. This is both discourteous and unscholarly. It is symptomatic of the state that academic philosophy in the USA has got itself into–a way to gain immunity to criticism on the cheap. It is alarming to witness such a steep decline in professional ethics.


Philosophical Science



If philosophy consists of conceptual analysis, is it thereby debarred from being a science? I argue that it is not and that philosophy so conceived is a science. The argument takes the form of careful attention to the meaning of “science,” “experiment,” “empirical,” and related words. Philosophy is a formal science. This does not mean it is not part of the humanities. The role of observation in other kinds of science is investigated. There is more methodological homogeneity in the various sciences, including philosophy, than has been recognized, despite some clear differences. Seeing this helps restore philosophy to its rightful place in the academic firmament.


Keywords: metaphilosophy, science, experiment, intuition, observation, concepts





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.[1]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 received sciences. Historically, “philosophy” once contained the sciences, which eventually broke off from it, and it is still a kind of science-in-waiting–pupal science, as it were. The second view is that philosophy is quite unlike empirical science, both in methodology and subject matter: it is an a prioridiscipline, 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 priorinecessary 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 (in a suitably broad sense). I won’t be defending that view here; I will presuppose it.[3]My question is whether it is correct to withhold the designation “science” from philosophy as so conceived: is it consistent to hold that philosophy consists of conceptual analysis andthat 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, in my view, consists of the a priorianalysis of concepts and it is alsoan empirical experimental natural science—with no tension between these two traits. Moreover, all this is trivially true, once we attend to the linguistic facts.

What is a science? Better: what does the word “science” mean? Here we naturally reach for the dictionary. Consulting the Concise Oxford English Dictionary(Eleventh Edition), we find two definitions: 1, “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”; 2, “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject”. The word comes from the Latin scientia“knowledge”, from scire“know”. For “scientific” we find: 1, “relating to or based on science”; 2, “systematic; methodical”. These definitions are worth careful study. The first definition of “science” would apply to the analysis of concepts, construed as constituents of the natural world, up till the phrase “through observation and experiment” (but see below where I point out that even this last word can apply to conceptual analysis). Presumably this definition is deemed by the dictionary editors to cover only part of the accepted meaning of the term, because it excludes what are traditionally called the “formal sciences”—arithmetic, geometry, mathematical logic, abstract computer science, game theory, information theory, general systems theory, and the like. These sciences are not empirical in the usual sense—they are not based on observation and experiment—but they are sufficiently rigorous, organized, and systematic to qualify as sciences. So it is not the status of a discipline as empiricalthat makes it a science—that adjective applies also to history and geography—but whether the subject achieves the right level of internal rigor and systematic organization.[4]We can say right away, then, that philosophy will not be disqualified from falling into the category “science” simply because it is not empirical: “a prioriscience” is not a contradiction in terms, as “formal science” is not. Philosophy properly belongs with the formal sciences, not the empirical sciences, but it is no less a science for that (nor is it any less “scientific”).[5]

But the dictionary will only take us so far here. We need to identify the marks of genuine science and see whether philosophy shares these marks—and we must not bias our discussion by favoring such sciences as physics and chemistry. I take it that what distinguishes a discourse as scientific are such traits as these: rigor, clarity, literalness, organization, generality (laws or general principles), technicality, explicitness, public criteria of evaluation, refutability, hypothesis testing, expansion of common sense (with the possibility of undermining common sense), inaccessibility to the layman, theory construction, symbolic articulation, axiomatic formulation, learned journals, rigorous and lengthy education, professional societies, and a sense of apartness from naïve opinion.[6]Thus mathematics, as much as physics, is inherently difficult to understand, arduous to learn, rigorous, technical, jargon-filled, highly general and abstract, based on objective epistemic procedures (proof not experiment), specialized, professionalized, and so on. Given all this, it would be arbitrary to deny that mathematics is a science, and historically it has been so classified (as in Gauss’s famous remark “mathematics is the queen of the sciences”). Only misplaced ideology would insist that physics is a science but mathematics is not–being non-empirical is not to the point.[7]Thus the attribute of being “based on observation” is not a necessary condition for being a science (nor is it a sufficient condition, or else random remarks about what’s going on around you would be science).

Now it seems to me clear that contemporary academic philosophy, as it is practiced in typical university philosophy departments, has exactly the marks I have just recited: it is technical, rigorous, jargon-filled, difficult to master, expansive of common sense (or at variance with it), explicitly articulated, and so on. Someone might balk at the attribution of refutability and theory construction, holding that nothing like the physicist’s experimental testing and empirical theory construction applies to philosophical claims. But again, we must not bias the discussion by presupposing dubious paradigms of the scientific. The obvious fact is that philosophers revel in the construction and refutation of arguments of highly explicit and articulated kinds, often symbolically formulated; and when they propose a conceptual analysis they offer necessary and sufficient conditions that may easily be refuted by ingenious counterexample. We philosophers are often wrong, and demonstrably so. We propose theories of concepts (for example, the causal theory of perception) and our theories may be falsified. Also, the presence within philosophy of formal logic, philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of psychology, and even abstract “theories of justice”, all testify to the affinity of philosophy with science—even if the philosopher is just in the business of analyzing concepts (both scientific and lay). My own view is that philosophy can be aptly described as “the logic of concepts”, and I take it that logic is a formal science in good standing—so philosophy is logical science, as I conceive of philosophy.[8]

Not only is contemporary analytical philosophy a science, we can also fairly claim that philosophy was the firstscience—long before the formation of physics, chemistry and so on as special sciences. Philosophy attained the status of science well before physics ever did. To see this, just compare the “physics” of the pre-Socratics with the metaphysics of Aristotle: the former is oracular, poetic, and unsystematic, as much myth as fact, while the latter is carefully worked out, rigorous, and systematic—scientific. Geometry has some claim to be the original science (a formal science), but Aristotle’s syllogistic logic can reasonably claim to be one of the earliest forms of scientific study—when physics and chemistry were just glints in the eye of ancient thinkers. The sciences later split off from philosophy, but philosophy was already a science—metaphysics was a science before physics was (and Aristotle’s metaphysics holds up better today than his physics). To the unprejudiced eye, physics owes its present scientific status to a combination of sound philosophy and advanced mathematics—that is, to the achievements of the formal sciences. Without a solid methodological philosophy (itself arrived at a priori), and without the achievements of mathematics, especially geometry and calculus (themselves also arrived at a priori), physics would not be the imposing scientific edifice it is today.[9]Empirical observation is only part of the story (see below for more on this). One might even say that philosophy, at its origins, was the consummatescience, especially symbolic logic—the model and ideal for other disciplines. It took physics and chemistry a long time to catch up.

Now I must deal with two objections to my classificatory picture. First, if we classify philosophy as a science, do we not deny that it belongs to the “humanities”, and isn’t philosophy largely concerned with the human? Here again the dictionary provides a useful starting point: for “humanities” the OEDgives “learning concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy”. The obvious reply to this natural objection is that science and the humanities, so defined, are not mutually exclusive: in principle, there can be a science of human culture. Aren’t anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and economics precisely sciences of human culture in a broad sense? Suppose we agree that the human conceptual scheme is a part of human culture (not part of human biology); then studying human concepts is by definition the province of the humanities. But why can’t this study itself be a science? Isn’t the study of concepts by cognitive science a science—and yet we are agreeing that human concepts are part of human culture? There is simply no logical opposition here. Some kinds of study of written texts attain the status of science (word frequency counts and so on), so language studies can qualify as science too. And isn’t linguistics a science—yet with language part of “human culture”? It isn’t the subject matter that counts but the style, methods, and results. But—and this is even more obvious—it is simply false that philosophy is (exclusively) about human culture, even if its method is agreed to be conceptual analysis. For large tracts of philosophy concern the non-human world: the essential nature of space, time and matter, causation, necessity, probability and laws, consciousness, choice, perception, knowledge, justification and truth. Some of these subject areas indeed concern the psychological, but that doesn’t make them an aspect of “human culture”: they may rather be aspects of the biological world, and may also apply to non-human animals.[10]But anyway many of these areas of study are not even about psychological matters, so philosophy isn’t one of the “humanities”, as the dictionary (quite reasonably) defines the term. It is about the whole world not the specifically human world. Some parts of philosophy do deal with aspects of human culture—aesthetics, philosophy of law, social theory, maybe some of ethics—but many do not. I would not myself want to describe human concepts as part of human culture (though they are part of human nature) despite their being psychological entities; so I don’t think that conceptual analysis is ipso factoa study of a component of human culture. At any rate, there is no good objection here to counting philosophy as a science in good standing.

The second objection I want to consider is more serious. You might agree that the distinctive method of philosophy does not preclude its being a science, but you might also fasten onto another aspect of the dictionary definition of “science”—that a science is an organized system of knowledge. And here the objection is apt to be that philosophy cannot boast an established set of results—a body of accepted knowledge, agreed upon by all, and neatly set out in the philosophy textbooks. For where are the philosophical factsto be set beside the facts of physics, chemistry and biology? Philosophy, it will be said, does not make the kind of progressmade in the sciences, including the formal sciences; it just isn’t as epistemically solid. The very idea of philosophical knowledgeis an oxymoron, a sheer fantasy.

Now there is much to be said about this kind of objection to the scientific standing of philosophy, but I shall try to be brief. First, we must not underestimate how much knowledge philosophy has actually acquired, of a quite straightforward sort, mainly in the way of establishing certain distinctions: that is, philosophers have clarified certain important distinctions that were previously blurred and unrecognized—and this is real cognitive progress (use and mention, type and token, particular and general, name and quantifier, necessary and contingent, fact and value, knowledge and belief, analytic and synthetic, sense and reference, character and content, implication and implicature, etc).[11]Second, philosophy has discovered and articulated the various theoretical optionsthat are available in any given problematic area, even if it has not actually settled which options are the true ones: it has mapped out the philosophical geography—and this too is genuine cognitive progress. Knowing what these options are, and appreciating their strengths and weaknesses, is a large part of what makes philosophy appealing to many of us—we hadn’t thought of them before we came to the subject, and they add to our store of knowledge (they also expand our imagination).[12]But still, it may be retorted, don’t the sciences do more than merely articulate the theoretical options–don’t they decidewhich are correct and which incorrect?

Well, that depends. The further from direct observation the science becomes the harder it is to produce consensus and conclusive verification. Contemporary quantum physics is an obvious case in point: many options and no agreed way to settle which is right. So is theoretical physics not a science? Biology cannot decide how life originated on earth, though some options have been sketched out; so is biology not a science? Psychology is notoriously beset by disagreements, sometimes fundamental, but it would be a stern linguistic policeman who denied the label “science” to psychology (ditto economics and sociology). No science is immune to controversy and polarized opinion, once you get beyond the lower reaches of the discipline. But there is a more telling point to be made, concerning difficult and easy science. Suppose I establish a new field of study called “mysteryonics” in which all the hardest questions of science are to be pursued—from physics, biology, psychology, etc. No easy questions are allowed in mysteryonics! Then, clearly, this subject will make little solid factual progress, compared (say) to botany or geography, precisely becauseit is about the most difficult questions of all. We might say that mysteryonics encompasses the “hard sciences”, with “hard” now connoting sheer intellectual difficulty. Should we say that this subject is not science at all? That seems to limit the word unduly to easy science (we might call this field “easyatrics”). Surely science can come in degrees of difficulty, and it is invidious to withhold the label from the tougher areas. But then isn’t the word “philosophy” really a name for a subject that deals with reallydifficult questions (though sometimes with easy ones)? So the degree of difficulty of philosophy shouldn’t be interpreted as an inherent lack of scientific status. Speculative problematic hard-to-do science is still science—and it may be necessary and unavoidable science (for any intellectually honest and adventurous enquirer). So long as the questions are real and the standards of investigation are rigorous, we can still claim the title “science”. If physics and chemistry had proved harder to do than has emerged historically, would they not then be sciences? And just because it is relatively easy to establish particular historical or geographical facts doesn’t make these studies into science (or the best science). Degree of difficulty is beside the point. We should certainly not let crude outdated positivism dictate how the term “science” is to be applied (“to be scientific is to be conclusively verifiable”).[13]

I am resisting the idea that certain sciences constitute paradigms for what a science must be—the sciences regularly deemed “empirical”. In particular, I am rejecting the notion that there is any necessary link between the concept of a science and the concept of observation: some sciences are observational and some are not (I will be returning to this). We must avoid the fallacy of the misplaced paradigm, here as elsewhere—which is often the science of physics. There is simply nothing in the meaning of the word “science” to entail that a science must be based on observation—that is, perception by means of the (outer) senses of objects and events in the scientist’s physical environment. So in saying that philosophy is a science I am certainly not saying that philosophy is based on observation, like physics. I am saying that despitenot being based on observation philosophy is a science—and has been for a long time. Nor is it my view that philosophy must be refashioned in order to become like a science: it is alreadya science. This is true even of the part called “ethics”, which could be called “axiological science” (the phrase “moral science” already exists). There can be a science of value, i.e. a systematic, rigorous study, involving generalizations and demonstrations.[14]If philosophy consists of conceptual analysis, then it is (in Kantian terminology) an “ampliative science” not an “augmentative science”, i.e. it produces analytic truths and not synthetic truths. But again, there is no good reason to insist that augmentation of knowledge is definitive of science, so long as the other features are present. If mathematics is likewise ampliative, not augmentative, that is no reason to deny that it is a (formal) science.[15]

It might now be conceded that there is no linguistic impropriety in applying the word “science” to the discipline of philosophy, but maintained that certain key distinctions still exist between philosophy and other sciences—distinctions that blunt the force of the application of that word. Thus it will be said that philosophy is neither an experimental science nor an empirical science nor a natural science. These characteristics are usually taken to connote epistemic virtues, in which case philosophy lacks the virtues that are typical of other sciences. It is a science in name only, it may be said, lacking the traits that constitute the distinctive virtues of sciences in general. Is this line of thinking justified? I shall now argue that it is not.

Is conceptual analysis experimental? The OEDdefines “experiment” as follows: “a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact”, from Latin experiri“try”. I take the primary sense here to be that of testing a hypothesis; so does the activity of conceptual analysis test hypotheses? I suggest that it does: for this procedure involves the production of a hypothesis about the analysis of a concept—specifically, a set of putative necessary and sufficient conditions—which is then tested by means of “thought experiments”. For example, we might propose the hypothesis that knowledge is simply true belief and test that hypothesis by imagining cases in which a subject has true beliefs and asking ourselves whether he has knowledge—and we might go on to produce a counterexample in the shape of a subject who has a true belief that is completely unjustified. We might then amend the hypothesis to maintain that knowledge is true justified belief and proceed as before—finding that these conditions are not sufficient either (we come across Gettier cases). We have conducted an “experiment” in our mind to test the analytic hypothesis we have conjectured to be true. It consists of conceiving possible cases in which the conditions are met and then asking ourselves whether our understanding of the concept indicates that the concept applies in these cases. True, we did not make any perceptual observations in performing such a thought experiment, but the dictionary does not specify that experiments must be conducted by deploying the senses perceptually. The heart of the definition is trying out a conjecture in an open-minded spirit and coming up with a confirmation or a refutation. We certainly did not presuppose an answer to our question before undertaking the procedure: we let the procedure decide the question only after it had been completed. The hypothesis makes certain predictions about our intuitions in possible cases and then we check to see if our intuitions confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis. The intuitions function as evidence for or against the hypothesis, and they are grounded in our actual grasp of the concept in question. So it is not wrong to describe the method of conceptual analysis as an “experimental” procedure: this is quite literally true, as the dictionary defines the word (and as we normally understand it). Maybe uttering the sentence “Conceptual analysis is experimental science” will typically have conversational implicatures that are false, conjuring up images of physical dissections of concepts and Bunsen burners of the mind; but in its literal content it is a perfectly true statement (it has no false logical implications). Thought experiments are indeed experiments, just as we would naively suppose from the phrase. We have here a procedure that arrives at truth in a non-question-begging way by consulting a body of data (“intuitions”) generated especially for the purpose.[16]

I can imagine an opponent sputtering that these so-called “experiments” are not conducted in a laboratory, like real scientific experiments, with suitable equipment: there is no such thing as a “philosophy lab”! But is that true? Here is how the dictionary defines the word “laboratory”: “a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research or teaching”, from the Latin laborare“to labour”. So the core notion refers to a space expressly set aside for performing scientific experiments, as opposed to a space set aside for day-to-day living or throwing parties or darts matches. But don’t philosophers have rooms especially set aside for research purposes—spaces in which they philosophically labor? We call them “studies” or “offices” or “seminar rooms”. I shuffle into my study in order to do philosophical research work and in that room I often carry out thought experiments to test analytic hypotheses; so am I not spending time in my “philosophy lab”? The implicatures of saying this in certain contexts will doubtless include suggestions of white coats and expensive equipment, but there is nothing literally false in the proposition itself: I am simply laboring to make philosophical discoveries in the space set aside for making such discoveries. There are many kinds of laboratory, varying in their contents according to the subject in question. If I am pressed to specify what equipment I use in my lab, I might reply that I require a chair and desk with suitable writing materials and some peace and quiet—these are the tools of research that I employ (physicists, more grandly, have their massive particle accelerators). I work in a lab performing thought experiments—and my most precious tool is my brain.

My interlocutor might at this point reluctantly agree that I am guilty of no outright linguistic solecism in describing conceptual analysis as “experimental” but insist that such experiments hardly qualify as “empirical”. Here the question becomes trickier, because “empirical” can mean several things. Let us again turn to the dictionary for some initial guidance: “empirical” is defined as “based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic”, from Greek empeiria“experience”. Now we can agree that conceptual analysis does not proceed by observation, but what about experience? During a thought experiment don’t we have certain experiences—what might be called “conceptual experiences”? Conscious cognition is one variety of experience in a suitably wide sense; not all experience is sense experience.[17]When I judge that I have imagined a case of true belief that is not knowledge do I not report a certain conscious experience that I had? The conscious episodes called “intuitions” are just a type of cognitive experience—part of my total phenomenology at that time. Similarly, we may have mathematical experiences, as when a proof is appreciated and accepted. In the case of conceptual analysis, the intuitions play an evidential role, so we can say that they constitute empirical (“experiential”) evidence in this broad sense. We certainly did not proceed from pure theory or logic without regard for any new cognitive input—we were open to new cognitive experiences. Thought experiments are thus rightly described as “empirical” in a perfectly good sense of the word. Indeed, we can even describe them as a posterioriin the sense that they establish their results only aftercertain experiences have been obtained; they are not dogmatically held quite independently of what experience may bring. It is only after the analytic investigation has been completed that a conceptual hypothesis is accepted; it is not presupposed at the start.

It now appears that philosophy and physics are alike in being experimental empirical sciences, cleaving strictly to what these words literally mean. So what distinguishes them? Here we might appeal to the notion of perception: physics relies on perception of things but philosophy (conceived as conceptual analysis) does not. Surely that distinction is rock solid! Not quite: the dictionary must again give us pause. Under “perceive” we find “become aware or conscious of”, from Latin percipere“seize, understand”. There is nothing here restricting perception to the five (or more) senses: intellectual perception is a type of perception too. Thus I can be said to “perceive” that true belief is not sufficient for knowledge by conducting an appropriate thought experiment. Here “perceive” is synonymous with “apprehend”, which has both sensory and intellectual forms. Thus philosophical investigation involves perception in this capacious sense: I often become aware or conscious of something while engaged in philosophical thought. I “see” that something is so.

But we can easily recast the thought behind this suggested differentiaby bringing in the senses explicitly: philosophy does not depend on perception by means of the senses. Even here we must tread carefully, since one traditional view is that we have an “inner sense” capable of sensing what lies within—in the place where concepts lurk. According to that view, I do sense the make-up of my concepts, because I use my inner sense to gain insight into them. The obvious amendment here is to qualify “sense” by “outer”: philosophy, unlike physics, is not based evidentially on the deliverances of outersense. The dictionary provides a useful gloss on this philosophical notion: “sense” is defined as “faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus; one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch”, from Latin sentire“feel”. And that notion of sense certainly excludes conceptual analysis, since I don’t use my bodily senses of sight, touch, smell, etc to excavate the content of my concepts. If we use “observation” to capture the use of the senses in this narrow sense, then we can correctly say (at last!) that physics is based on observation and philosophy is not. But notice that we can still claim that philosophy has the qualities (in both the descriptive and normative senses) of empirical experimental science: the methodological gap is therefore not as wide as we might initially have thought.[18]

Is philosophy a natural science? I think there are two senses in which it is. First, it is not a supernaturalscience (which looks like a contradiction): it doesn’t deal with the supernatural, unlike theology. In this sense the formal sciences are also natural sciences—because not supernatural. But philosophy differs from the formal sciences in that it can also be about objects that exist in nature, as numbers and the like do not. Metaphysics deals with the nature of material objects and causation, say, and philosophy of mind deals with consciousness and choice, and philosophy of language deals with human natural languages. The subject matter consists of things that exist in the natural world, not the “abstract world”. It is therefore entirely appropriate to say that philosophy is a natural science (concepts themselves are perfectly natural entities in both senses of the word).

We can even describe both philosophical and physical knowledge in causal terms. As the physicist causally interacts with his subject matter of physical objects to gain knowledge of their properties, so the philosopher causally interacts with his subject matter of concepts to gain knowledge of theirproperties. That is, concepts are psychological entities that we investigate in conceptual analysis, and these entities play a causal role in producing knowledge about themselves.[19]When I come to know that knowledge is true justified belief, say, it is my concept of knowledge that causally controls the process of analytic belief formation; I arrive at this analysis becauseof the concept of knowledge that I possess. So, again, at a deeper level we find an affinity between the knowledge systems of physics and philosophy, not stark difference. The acknowledged difference, relating to the use of the (outer) senses, comes to seem relatively minor, not a mark of clear superiority on the part of physics. We can see a clear methodological parity.

Still, it may be retorted, there is that clear distinction, and observation is clearly an epistemic virtue; so isn’t physics a better(empirical experimental natural) science than philosophy? And given the honorific force of the word “science” we can see why someone might want to apply it preferentially to sciences like physics, as opposed to sciences like philosophy (the formal sciences). In reply to this, I propose to make a more radical suggestion: physics is notinherently an observation-based science, and conceptual analysis is notinherently observation-independent. We can, in fact, invert the epistemic basis of the two types of science. This is actually not so very difficult, on reflection. Consider first a brain in a vat, observing nothing: all its sensory experiences are hallucinatory. This individual might, however, be an aspiring physicist. Let us stipulate that this physicist-in-a-vat has experiences as ofbeing in a physics lab and performing experiments, but never is really so situated: the vat supervisors feed in these hallucinations, making sure to provide her with data that are in fact correct. They simulate the course of experience of an actual perceiving human physicist conducting actual experiments, but no real observationsare ever made.[20]On the basis of these hallucinatory experiences, our aspiring physicist-in-a-vat might well come to entertain some physical theories; and since the data don’t mislead her, and she is a scientific genius, she comes up with true physical theories—first following in the path of Newton and somewhat later Einstein. I suggest that she is engaged in the science of physics, even though she never makes any actual observations (only apparent observations). In other words, veridical perception of experimental results is not a necessary condition of doing physical science. Human physics is based on observation (so long as we are not actually brains in a vat!), but this is a contingent not a necessary truth. All the procedures of inference and theory construction are the same for the physicist-in-a-vat as for the physicist-in-a-lab, so it would be quite unwarranted to declare the latter a genuine physical scientist and the former not.

If you are worried that the vat physicist case at least still involves sensory experience, then consider a further case: all the evidential knowledge possessed by the typical physicist is fed into the genetic make-up of a hypothetical physicist, so that she knows all the physical data innately. There are no sensory experiences (even hallucinatory ones) as of a meter reading such and such, but just basic beliefs about what meters read in such and such conditions.[21]But we can suppose that there is no innate knowledge of the correct theory that explains all this innately known data; that will require scientific intelligence of a high order. So the would-be physicist here needs to construct theories to explain the data written into her genes; and if she succeeds in doing that then I submit that she is engaging in physical science. Yet she never makes any observations. After all, doesn’t God have scientific knowledge of the physical universe, and yet he makes no sensory observations, not having any bodily senses. That’s just the way wedo it, given the limits of what we know before interacting with the world through our sense organs; it is not essential to the very existence of scientific knowledge of physical reality. Science and sense experience are not inextricably linked.

The same point can be made in a different way. As things are, we learn about the brain by observing it: we open up the head and take a look, applying various observational techniques. But is this essential to knowledge of the brain? What if an aspiring brain scientist, perhaps more ingenious than we humans are, undertook to learn about the brain by means purely of introspection? He introspects his states of mind, recording their laws and ways, and tries to infer what is going on in the underlying reality of the body (we can suppose that he has never seen a brain). Why should he not be able to come up with hypotheses about what the organ is like? He might conjecture that it has a cellular structure (other organs in the body have been observed to be cellular), and that it exhibits localization of function, and even that mental processes are powered by electricity (many other biological processes are and it fits the introspective data nicely, what with the rapidity of mental processes and the like). He might with sufficient ingenuity come up with a theory very much like our observation-based theory, yet he never observes brains at all, proceeding entirely from introspective data plus some ancillary knowledge of the natural world. I submit that he is doing neuroscience, despite the absence of an observational foundation. Thus there can be science without observation (though not without evidence—but philosophy has evidence too, i.e. conceptual intuitions).[22]

Now my interlocutor is itching to make his final devastating objection, viz. intuitions are not evidence at all but just subjective hunches and prejudices! I won’t attempt here to reply fully to this kind of objection, having done so elsewhere,[23]but I will make one point that completely undermines this entire line of objection to the enterprise of conceptual analysis per se: namely, there is really no reason that conceptual analysis mustproceed in a non-observational first-person style (though I see nothing wrong with such a procedure); we can, instead, opt for third-person observational conceptual analysis. There are at least two ways of doing this. One is simply to investigate the concepts of others by eliciting their judgments about possible cases (“Would you describe the following case as an example of knowledge?”). This is the survey method much employed by the social sciences: questionnaires, statistical analysis, and so on. It is a method well suited to discovering the content of other people’s concepts when that is your main interest—as with anthropological investigation. But it is still conceptual analysis, i.e. discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a concept. And it is straightforwardly observational, as much as any other survey of opinion. But a second, less orthodox, method might involve delving into the brain mechanisms underlying concepts: by discovering the neural correlates of a concept it might be possible to find out what other concepts the given concept embeds. Thus the concept of knowledge might have a neural correlate that contains as a part the neural correlate of the concept of belief or justification; this would be evidence, of a sort, that one concept contains another. It would be difficult research to carry out, and rather indirect, but it would surely be observational—and it would result in information about conceptual constituency. So there is nothing inherently non-observational about conceptual analysis. Such brain information could certainly supplement ordinary first-person inquiry into concepts. If our first-person conceptual judgments were highly unreliable for some reason, this might be a sounder way to proceed. At any rate, it is not logically ruled out. Such an inquiry would proceed from sensory observational knowledge, by contrast with the hypothetical methods of doing physics and neuroscience sketched above. To those who champion observation as the defining mark of the scientific, I ask whether they would agree that conceptual analysis would be methodologically superior to theoretical physics in the scenarios here imagined. Somehow I doubt it—which shows that the presence of observation is not so critical to solid science as some people seem to suppose.  We don’t derive intellectual prestige inversion as a straightforward corollary of observational inversion. I myself think it is highly invidious and implausible to place so much emphasis on observation as determining what is sound respectable science. This is a legacy of positivism we can well do without.

This brings us to the amorphous but unavoidable question of science and epistemic virtue. The positivists made testability the central epistemic virtue of any theory, and any field of inquiry. And by testability they meant testability by means of sensory observation. The more observationally testable a proposition is the better it is. If a proposition or theory is not testable, or very hard to test, that is a demerit of the proposition or theory. Testability is regarded as theepistemic virtue. This produces a highly distorted picture of epistemic virtue. There are certainly many other epistemic virtues–such as generality, depth, interest, importance, profundity, objectivity, impartiality. Not only is testability not clearly correlated with these virtues, it also seems inverselycorrelated with them. The more testable a theory is the less general and profound it is apt to be. The reason is that human knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, aspires to transcend the human viewpoint and human limitations—to describe the world as it exists independently of the human perspective[24]—but testability directly reflects the nature and limits of human faculties. To be testable is to be testable by humans. This means a maximally testable theory is one that must cling to how the world appearsto us—the world as accessible to human faculties. If the faculties are the human senses, then testability is restricted to aspects of the world to which those senses are sensitive. The more a theory can be tested by the use of the senses the more it will be limited to appearances and the less to reality beyond appearances. A maximally testable theory is therefore apt to be trivial, as with a “theory” that lists the colors of objects in one’s immediate environment or gives the weight of every person in a particular town. Once a theory attempts to penetrate the local appearances, as with microphysics or cosmology, the harder to test it becomes. The most interesting theory is likely to be the one that is leasttestable. It might not even be (humanly) testable at all—yet very interesting nonetheless, and even true. We see this situation played out in contemporary theoretical physics, where the main theoretical options seem virtually incapable of experimental or observational demonstration (string theory, the many-worlds hypothesis, and so on). Big philosophical theories are notoriously difficult to establish and test, but they can be extremely interesting—such as Plato’s theory of forms or possible worlds metaphysics or panpsychism. Philosophy is more like difficult science than easy science—more like theoretical physics than taxonomic botany. We don’t think of botany as the queen of the sciences simply because its propositions (some of them) can be easily tested; we understand that testability is just one epistemic virtue among many. Criticizing philosophy because of its relative lack of observational testability therefore reveals a mistaken picture of what epistemic virtue consist in. And, of course, testability is a discipline-relative concept, with the formal sciences differing from the natural sciences in respect of how they are tested. Nor should it be forgotten that philosophical propositions are often quite straightforwardly refuted.[25]

Are there viable conceptions of philosophy according to which it is clearly not a science? Don’t say that normative studies fail to be a science because science deals only in facts not values: that fails to envisage the possibility of “moral science”, i.e. a scientific value theory. Such an axiological science is so by virtue of its rigor, system and organization, as compared with naïve common sense, and certainly many practitioners have sought to develop a science of morals (for example, Bentham’s quantitative utilitarianism and Kant’s deductive deontology). To be sure, some parts of philosophy, as it exists today, might well not meet high standards of rigor and hence fail to qualify—perhaps “the philosophy of sex and love” would be an example. Nor need we assert that nothing can be of intellectual value that is not properly scientific: thus the humanities of literary studies and cultural history, or even marriage counseling and horse whispering (whatever exactly that is). My position is certainly not that science is the only form of worthwhile cognitive activity.[26]It is just that philosophy as it exists today, and has existed for quite some time, is aptly described as a science, with all the virtues that attach to that particular form of inquiry. I suppose this may be contested by people characterizing themselves as “Wittgensteinians”: they may see a sharp contrast between the activity of philosophy and anything deserving to be called a “science”. But three points may be made about this. First, philosophy as I conceive it is a sui generisscience, not to be assimilated to the so-called “natural sciences” of physics, chemistry and biology (and these differ among themselves too). I am emphatically not taking physics as my scientific paradigm (I might even take philosophy as my paradigm of the scientific). Second, Wittgenstein’s later “therapeutic” conception of philosophy is really an extreme and minority position, fitting ill with vast tracts of the subject, early and late (which Wittgenstein seemed willing to dismiss completely). Third, it is not so clear that no trace of the scientific, in my capacious sense, survives in Wittgenstein’s work. The Tractatusis certainly a scientific treatise in my sense (as is Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica,on which the Tractatusis modeled); and even the Investigationscan be construed as a kind of treatise in linguistic science, with its naturalistic surveys of the different forms of language and inquiry into natural language “grammar”. The Investigationsis quite rigorous and systematic in its way; it is certainly not just a collection of vague poetic pronouncements and gnomic exhortations, or unrelated apercus. It is a piece of analytical philosophy, after all, possessing the kind of rigor and organization characteristic of such philosophy (it is nothing like the writings of, say, Henry David Thoreau or the utterances of Eastern mystics). And Wittgenstein was himself originally a scientist. We might reasonably construe him as resisting the emblematic pull of the natural sciences, interpreted narrowly, not as repudiating the word “science” altogether as properly applicable to philosophy.[27]

It seems to me, then, that the standard conceptions of philosophy—continuous with (empirical) science, a prioriconceptual analysis (concerned with de reessence), and even Wittgenstein’s later philosophy—are all compatible with the idea that philosophy is aptly described as a science. And if you look at what is actually done professionally today in university philosophy departments the impression is overwhelming, no matter what meta-philosophy you may favor. Nor is there any cogent reason that I can see to resist the label. Then why is it not so regarded? The reasons are no doubt many: misplaced paradigms of the scientific, traditional university classifications, mistaken ideas of value as something inherently “subjective” and hence “unscientific”, a lingering association with religion and the “spiritual”. But surely part of the reason is the word“philosophy”: its etymology, history, and popular connotations. For how can a general “love of wisdom” count as a particular science with its own specific subject matter and methods? The name of the subject accordingly blinds people as to its real nature. This is why I have suggested elsewhere that we would do better to re-name the subject in order to reflect its true status as a science.[28]Just as the other sciences have shed their earlier label as species of “philosophy”, so we philosophers should shed our traditional (and misleading) name. Unfortunately, there is no convenient alternative name already in existence, so we need to invent a new one or adapt a word already in use. The best I can come up with is “ontics”, which for various reasons strikes me as preferable to other possible choices (“ontology” is already in established use as a name for a partof philosophy). It sounds a bit like “physics” and a bit like “ethics”, and is intended to express the concern of our subject with general questions of being. I won’t try to defend this linguistic choice here. My point is that if you sympathize with my thesis that philosophy is really best viewed as a science, then you might well want to have a name for the subject that reflects that position—as “philosophy” plainly does not. Of course, we could keep both names in use, at least for a hundred years or so, in order to acknowledge the past and avoid bafflement. But having the name “ontics” to hand would dispel a lot of misunderstanding about what kind of subject philosophy is and also do justice to its status as a branch of scientific learning. The title of this paper might then be recast as “The Science of Ontics”, which carries no whiff of oxymoron. Psychologists once decided to rename their subject “behavioral science” because they felt this label better reflected the nature of the discipline they practiced, and the newfangled “cognitive science” has much the same point (is academic psychology really the study of the “psyche”?). I am making a similar proposal: “ontical science” is simply more accurate and descriptive, less misleading. Using this term in conjunction with the traditional label will foster a better understanding of the field so named, and eventually the label “philosophy” may fall out of common use. No doubt there was a period in which the study of matter and energy was called both “natural philosophy” and “physics”, as the transition from one term to the other was made; I advocate such a transitional period for the field now called “philosophy”—with “ontics” the term that will eventually be preferred.[29]If philosophy is indeed a science, to be set beside other scientific subjects, then it needs a name that fits its real nature.


Colin McGinn

[1]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.

[2]These are not the only conceivable metaphilosophies: one might hold that some philosophy consists of synthetic a prioripropositions, 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.

[3]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.

[4]Note that the dictionary editors require that a body of knowledge should be “systematically organized” before it qualifies as a science, so that episodic history or disconnected geography will not count. Of course, it is necessary to say more about what this systematic organization amounts to in order to have a more precise definition—which I supply in the text. What is crucial in the dictionary definition is that “science” can refer to knowledge “on any subject”—so long as the knowledge is of the right systematic kind.

[5]Someone might say that “empirical science” is pleonastic, since all science is by definition “empirical”. But this is semantically implausible, because “mathematical science” is surely not contradictory. If someone were to insist that as theyuse the word “science” all science is by definition empirical, I would respond as follows. Let us introduce the word “schmience” to refer to any discipline that has all the marks of science except being empirical: then mathematics and logic will count as schmience, as will philosophy in my estimation. Now since “schmience” is not so easy to pronounce, let us modify it to “science”: then we can say mathematics and philosophy are science in the sense defined. The point of any classificatory scheme is to capture salient similarities, even where differences exist, and I am suggesting that mathematics and philosophy share important traits with disciplines already described as “science”. As instances in which the word is naturally employed by philosophers to characterize their discipline, let me cite Galen Strawson and Edmund Husserl (neither of whom shares the “naturalistic” view of philosophy). Strawson writes: “Philosophy is one of the great sciences of reality” and goes on to list its similarities with the so-called natural sciences, despite being a priori: Real Materialism and Other Essays(Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008), p. 1. Husserl published a famous essay in 1911 entitled “Philosophy as Rigorous Science”, extolling the virtues of his phenomenology and contrasting it with the prevailing naturalism of the day; and his own metaphilosophy was scrupulously a priori. Neither of these philosophers takes the word “science” to apply only to empirical disciplines like physics and chemistry, and they are guilty of no semantic solecism.

[6]I am not here trying to provide a definition of science, still less specify a clear-cut “demarcation criterion” in the manner of Popper and others; I am simply listing the salient marks of science as we ordinarily understand the term. This is enough to recognize that astrology, say, will not qualify as a science, mainly through lack of truth and justification, and neither will simple geography, through lack of laws and generality (among other things). If I were pressed to settle on the core notion here, I would suggest the presence of highly general laws or principles—of which philosophy can boast many. But it is probably best not to insist on a rigorous definition of “science” in terms of noncircular necessary and sufficient conditions.

[7]The case of geometry is instructive: it was traditionally regarded as both a prioriand as giving the truth about real space—does the former imply that it cannot count as science? But then isn’t it also a rigorous description of one piece of physical reality, viz. space? Some propositions of physics itself have an a prioricharacter, as with Newton’s laws of motion or Descartes’ definition of matter. The only kind of view of mathematics that could disqualify it from being a type of science is that it is merely a game with symbols to which the notions of truth and falsity do not apply—that is, that we cannot knowmathematical propositions (since strictly there are none). Science presumably requires at a minimum that some actual propositions be actually known (but notice that on some instrumentalist views of physics we don’t have real truth and falsity either).

[8]See my Truth By Analysis(cited in note 3), esp. chap. 7. Philosophy can thus be described as “the science of entailment”. If you feel that some of philosophy is too impressionistic and inchoate to count as science, then by all means amend my claim to read that a great dealof philosophy qualifies as science (and is everythingtalked about in physics and biology departments properly “scientific”?).

[9]This needs more discussion, but I think my point is clear enough: it is not the mere presence of observation in physics that makes it so impressive and successful, but rather its mathematical articulation and abstract generality—which have a quite different source. Also, the very emphasis on observation is not the resultof observation but instead reflects a distinctive epistemological position—that knowledge of reality is best gained that way rather than by means of revelation or inherited authority.

[10]Obviously, I am rejecting a “pan-cultural” view of reality—that it is all “social construction” or some such. I am supposing that philosophy deals with reality as such—the real, objective article. I take this to be compatible with the thesis that methodologically philosophy proceeds by conceptual analysis: in philosophy we analyze reality conceptually (see the book cited in note 3).

[11]Even if some people see fit to reject some of these distinctions for one reason or another, it cannot be denied that they have clarified previously murky ideas and paved the way for superior ways of thinking.

[12]One type of knowledge delivered by philosophy is knowledge of knowledge—and of ignorance. We learn the scope and limits of knowledge—what is doubtful or unproven or merely groundlessly accepted. This is real knowledge, not available to those who refuse to study the subject; according to Socrates, it is knowledge of a particularly valuable kind. What philosophy does not provide is knowledge of particular empirical matters of fact—but why is that so marvelous? Philosophy produces its own kindof knowledge.

[13]The whole positivist emphasis on verification distorts our view of the essential character of science—especially if we try to reduce theoretical propositions to something called “empirical content”. But this is by now an old story.

[14]There is not just moral value to be considered but also norms from non-moral domains, e.g. logic and epistemology. In logic we are certainly concerned with the normative question of how to reason, but that doesn’t disqualify logic from being a science. And does the use of logical norms in reasoning within physics mean that physics is not a science either? A logical system simply isa science of (logical) norms. Normative science takes its place as one type of science among others.

[15]The old distinction between the inductive and deductive sciences is useful here. Mathematics and philosophy are deductive sciences, being concerned essentially with entailment, and hence proceeding by proof and argument; while physics, chemistry and biology are inductive sciences, being concerned with deriving laws of nature from particular observations (perhaps using inference to the best explanation). The genus is science and the species are the inductive and deductive sciences.

[16]Compare conceptual analysis with chemical analysis. A chemist might conjecture that water is composed of H2O and tests this hypothesis by contriving suitable chemical combinations (she already knows that oxygen or hydrogen by themselves are not sufficient to produce water). Just so, a philosopher might conjecture that knowledge is true justified belief (he already knows that belief and truth separately are not sufficient to produce knowledge). The questions in both cases are fundamentally mereological. The chemist uses empirical observation, the philosopher uses intuitions about possible cases—but the type of question is the same, i.e. what constitutes what. There are factsabout what constitutes our concepts and it is possible to ascertain what these facts are, just as there are ascertainable facts about what constitutes water (see Truth By Analysis, cited in note 3).

[17]We have emotional and conative experiences, as well as sense experiences, and the exercise of our rational faculty also involves distinctive modes of experience. If we refuse to apply the word “experience” here, then what word shall we use instead? Clearly there are conscious goings-on of some sort.

[18]We can truly say that we acquire informationabout concepts by interactingwith them in the course of conceptual analysis—as we acquire information about material things by interacting with them in the course of empirical observation. Concepts are real mental entities that we can gain knowledge about by directing our attention to them in the process of conceptual analysis, thus deriving necessary and sufficient conditions for their application. The mode of interaction here is admittedly not by means of the outer senses, but so what?

[19]The case is not essentially different from gaining knowledge of our feelings, sensations and thoughts by means of introspection; conceptual analysis just digs a little deeper into the structure of our thoughts and other propositional attitudes.

[20]One might wonder whether the vat supervisors make actual observations as a basis for the information they feed into the non-observing brain-in-a-vat, so that there is an ultimate observational basis for the knowledge acquired by the latter individual. The case would then be just like a testimony case. But we can get around this objection by stipulating that the supervisors do not acquire their knowledge of physics by perceptual observation: they might have their physical knowledge innately or have non-sensory godlike faculties or be equipped with a kind of super blindsight (i.e. they have no perceptual experiences at all, though they do gain information about the world by interacting with objects in their environment). All we need to do is eliminate the role of ordinary veridical sense experience from the epistemic picture, and this seems easily done. After all, some philosophers believe that perceptual experiences play no evidential role anyway.

[21]I am here relying on a basic principle about beliefs, viz. no belief is necessarilycaused by a perceptual experience. Any belief actually based on a sense experience couldhave arisen from some other cause—either by inference from another belief or as a basic innate belief. It is only contingently true that beliefs are caused by sense experiences, though in the human case this mode of causation is very common. The truth of this principle already refutes empiricism, since no belief has any intrinsic“empirical content”, i.e. a set of sense experiences that are entailed by having that belief. A conceivable believing subject could have the same beliefs as us and yet have no sense experiences at all, according to the principle.

[22]Let me be clear: I am not saying that observation cannot be evidence, only that not all evidence is observational, i.e. based on experience generated by outer sense. Of course, we could stipulate a new sense of “observational” to mean just “whatever is evidentially basic”, whether this is sense experience or something else; but then we are affirming only that science is necessarily based on evidence. The conceptual analyst believes in evidence too, in the shape of conceptual intuitions, so no epistemic distinction has yet been identified. Once “observation” is detached from sense experience no deep epistemic distinction between physics and philosophy exists, because both are evidence-based enterprises. We can all agree that rational belief requires the existence of reasonsfor belief, trivially so, where these reasons might or might not be (or involve) sense experiences.

[23]See Truth By Analysis(cited in note 3), chap. 9. Others have also defended the role of intuitions against intuition skepticism.

[24]This is what Bernard Williams called “the absolute conception” in Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry(Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1978). See also Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere(Oxford University Press, New York: 1989). How human beings test a theory, say by directing their eyes at a measuring instrument, is actually at variance with what the content of the theory aspires to be, i.e. independent of the human viewpoint.

[25]This point is really quite obvious, but it is often ignored: it is not that philosophical claims are somehow too wishy-washy to be falsifiable. I think myself that philosophy can boast an epistemic superiority compared to physics, because of its extreme generality, depth, and transparency. I discuss the epistemic limitations of physics by contrast with both philosophy and psychology in “Two Types of Science”, in my Basic Structures of Reality: Essays in Meta-Physics(Oxford University Press, New York: 2011).

[26]I want to make room for poetry and literature as valuable sources of knowledge, but they are clearly not science. I might even be prepared to uphold the cognitive value of music and dance. I even think “life tips” can be worth listening to. It is just that some areas of human discourse are aptly described as “science” and some are not—with philosophy falling into the former category and poetry not. This is purely a question of descriptive accuracy, not some kind of misplaced “science worship”.

[27]If it is countered that Wittgenstein opposed explanations in philosophy and the search for causal laws and generalizations, then we can note that not all science is explanatory and causal: some science is modestly descriptive and taxonomic, as with much of biology (and mathematics is hardly explanatory and causal). Nor does the emphasis on intellectual therapy preclude a scientific foundation, since such therapy may well proceed from a scientific basis—such was the claim made on behalf of psychoanalytic therapy. Wittgenstein’s therapeutic efforts proceed from a naturalistic description of the many forms of language and from a quite specific conception of the nature of meaning. I see no reason to withhold the label “science” from his brand of linguistic investigation, any more than from other forms of linguistic study (Austin, Chomsky, Grice et al).

[28]See my article “Philosophy By Another Name” in The Stone, published online by the New York Times, March 2012.

[29]The professional name “scientist” was introduced as recently as 1833, by William Whewell; before that we had “natural philosopher” or “man of science”. In a similar spirit we philosophers could rename ourselves “onticists”, if we are persuaded that “philosopher” is not an apt name for what we do. Apparently there was a good deal of discussion in the Royal Society regarding the merits of the name “scientist”; we can envisage just such debates about the proper labeling of the people now called “philosophers”. I think “onticist” has quite a nice ring once you get used to it.


Set Theory and Psychology





Set-Theoretic Psychology



Set theory as a branch of mathematics is a comparatively recent invention, but the concepts it uses are surely planted deep in the mind. The idea of membership in a collection is primordial: things do not just exist separately; they exist as elements of something more inclusive. They make up totalities. Set theory formalizes these intuitive notions, bringing out hidden aspects of them. Perhaps the most important is the idea of subset: sets not only have members, they have other sets as subsets. This allows for recursion: we can form a set from a pair of elements and then form another set containing this set, and so on.  It is easy to produce infinitely many sets this way, starting with finitely many basic elements (even one or zero). We also have notions like the unit set and the null set. A rich structure can be erected on a simple basis by iteration. Evidently set formation is a prodigious operation. But it all proceeds from intuitively accessible foundations—from elementary facts about the human conceptual system.

It is doubtful that other animals share this set-theoretic competence. No doubt they grasp the nature of collections and what it is to be part of a collection, but it is unlikely that they grasp the idea of recursive set formation, let alone the concept of the unit set or the null set. They don’t grasp the general theory of collections, just certain kinds of collection (pack, hive, herd, etc). Set theory seems distinctively human. Perhaps Neanderthals understood set theory, or were capable of understanding it, but today we alone on earth understand it. Other intelligences on other planets no doubt understand it, perhaps more easily than we do. In any case, I hazard that set theory is universal among humans: not explicitly, of course, but implicitly. We all grasp the basic notion of set formation and its recursive power (not so for calculus and topology, say). Why we do is a difficult question: How and why did this understanding evolve? Was there a specific mutation that led to it? Do we have dedicated genes for set theory? How modular is it? We can think of it as a cognitive schema, an organ of thought, with its own inner principles, existing alongside vision, language, theory of mind, and so on. It is a schema we can apply to the world, imposing a certain kind of order—the logic of collectives (it is close to logic conceptually).

Some of its applications are familiar, even famous. The use of set theory in the foundations of mathematics is the most obvious, but we also have the idea of the extension of a predicate, model theory, the ordered pair along with the generalized notion of a sequence, sets of possible worlds, and so on. But there are also less technical applications such as social cognition: we can think of groups of individuals, and groups of groups of individuals. There is membership in a club and clubs can be members of further social collectives (the league of all tennis clubs, say). Think of the concept of a family as a function from individuals to families: the arguments are individual people and the value is the family unit. This is an important function for us: it unites separate people into a larger unit—a set of family members (note the term). But this set can in turn be a member of a larger set—a tribe, a village, a province, a nation, or a whole world population. There are functions from sets to sets as larger social groupings are formed. Do chimps understand that there is a set of chimps in Africa and a bigger set of sets of chimps drawn from other places? We grasp this quite easily and it is just an application of the basic property of sets: set formation and set recursion, which delivers sets as subsets. This provides unlimited powers of combination, so that we can form the idea of arbitrary collections of people, and collections of collections, up to the set of all sets of people. Social cognition is thus set-theoretic in character: that is, social cognition exploits our general implicit competence in set theory. This makes it generative and unbounded—infinitely many groupings from finitely many basic elements (people).

We can also detect the workings of set theory in other areas of human cognition. Elsewhere I have outlined a general theory of human psychology emphasizing discrete segmented units combined according to recursive rules, including not just social cognition but also geometry, logic, and language.[1]Now I wish to add the principles of set theory to this general theory in the obvious way. In geometry we have geometrical figures that can be arranged to form patterns: concentric circles, recurring leaf shapes, snowflakes, bubbles, and so on. We apprehend these patterns as groupings, and they may have groups as their members (patterns within patterns). Architecture is set formation—from bricks to buildings. Elements are seen as members of a larger collective—as contributing to a totality not merely as isolated individuals. And we can also understand the constituent figures themselves as collectives—as made up of collections of lines, suitably arranged. A triangle is a collection of three straight lines, and so on for the other polygons. Further, lines themselves can be seen as sets of points. The concept of a set is extremely flexible, as well as topic-neutral. We can reduce arithmetic to pure set theory, but we can also conceptualize geometry set-theoretically. Again, we have a set of discrete elements, more or less fine-grained, and a recursive procedure that generates infinitely many geometrical forms. Similarly in logic: we collect propositions into the premises of an argument, forming a set of related propositions, and then we deduce a conclusion form this set. The premises are grouped together set-wise and the whole set leads to a certain conclusion. Just so a scientific theory is a set of propositions that leads to certain predictions. The web of belief is a precisely a collection of related beliefs—a belief set. Such a set can be a subset of a wider set—the beliefs of an entire community. Arguments are infinite in number, seeing that they consist of propositions that are infinite in number. There are only finitely many rules of inference, but these rules can operate on infinitely many propositions (themselves derived from finitely many elements): they can produce an infinite number of premise-conclusion sets. Conjunction elimination by itself can yield infinitely many arguments simply by adding conjuncts to the set of premises. So we can see logic (deductive and inductive) as constructed against a background of set-theoretic thinking, specifically the idea of an assembly of premises. If the premises were not seen as members of a logically significant set, we would not understand them as part of an argument (“From thisset of premises you can derive thatconclusion”). Set theory allows us to apprehend elements as elements ofsomething—as members of a totality, as belonging together. The world is thus not the totality of objects but the totality of totalitiesof objects. That is the human way of conceiving things, thanks to the set theory embedded in our genes and shaping our minds.

What about language? An obvious first thought is that a sentence is a set of words: it is a unity made up of elements, with words constituting its membership; and speakers understand it asa set. But it is a special kind of set, for it has sets as its members, i.e. phrases, clauses, and sub-sentences. A noun phrase is a set of words, as is a verb phrase; they are word groupings. And spoken words are groupings of phonemes—sets of sounds. Thus we can break down a sentence into subsets at various levels of analysis: the sentence results from set formation beginning at the most elementary linguistic level. First a function takes phonemes into words; then a function takes words and forms them into phrases; finally a function takes the phrases into a sentence—all united by the subset relation. This set-theoretic structure readily generates an infinite array of sentences from a finite basis, simply from set recursion. Here we make contact with Chomsky’s work on Mergeand the minimalist program.[2]As Chomsky explains the Mergeoperation, it is simply set formation: from two syntactic objects, xand y, we can form the set {x, y}, and then this new syntactic object can Mergewith another syntactic object zto obtain {{x, y}, z}—and so on indefinitely. For example, from “reads” and “books” we can derive the set {“reads”, “books”}, and then this set can Mergewith “John” to get {{“reads”, “books”}, “John”}. Intuitively, this is a representation of “John reads books”, where “John” is a noun phrase and “reads books” is a verb phrase. The nested sets provide groupings of words arranged hierarchically. What is interesting from the present perspective is that a mental process is construed in set-theoretic terms—operations on sets basically. The mental structureis set-theoretic. This means that what Chomsky calls the Basic Property of language is being explained in terms of set theory: we are deriving infinitely many sentences from a finite number of elements by means of an operation that iterates. In fact, the same schema that applies elsewhere also applies to the case of language: set theory in all its generative splendor. The language faculty operates by set-theoretic principles (at least in part), given that Mergeis the fundamental principle. The elements are different from other elements—being words not people or geometrical figures or propositions—but the abstract schema is much the same. We are always thinking in terms of recursive set formation, forming sets and then making them members of other sets.  Just as societies, geometrical arrays, and logical arguments are set-theoretic entities, as we conceive of them, so sentences are conceived as set-theoretic entities (and at several levels).

As Chomsky notes, the more minimal the machinery is, the easier is the evolution of that machinery. But it is also true that the more minimal the machinery, the more likely it is to be shared, because it won’t be as specific as richer machinery (such as transformational grammar). If Mergeis the basic principle of linguistic construction, it is likely that it will be shared by other cognitive systems, being so general and abstract. The set-theoretic characterization of Mergethus invites the hypothesis that set theory might be operative in other areas too, which is precisely what we find. For example, we can apply Mergeto several individuals to form a family, and then we can applyMergeto that family along with other families so as to produce a society. At some point the human mind acquired the abstract concept of a set, probably because of a chance mutation, and this concept, along with associated principles, began to shape human cognition in diverse ways. We became set-minded, generating sets all over the place. The different domains imposed their own content on the abstract principles, but the structure remained the same. A possible hypothesis is that social cognition came first, with set-theoretic thinking at an adaptive advantage, and only later did the cognitive machinery become co-opted by language; certainly we were an intensely social species long before we developed human language as it exists today (there might have been only simple signaling systems prior to that). We don’t know how individual words and concepts evolved, but grammar itself might have evolved from social forms—that is, social cognition might have been the precursor to grammatical cognition. If both are fundamentally set-theoretic, that is at least a possible evolutionary path. Once the elements exist it doesn’t take much to generate a rich structure built around sets of elements. Set theory has enough structure to generate arithmetic, so surely it has enough structure to generate language (or geometry, social reality, and logical deduction). The grammatical structure depicted by tree diagrams or by bracketing can equally be depicted by the nesting of sets. And when it comes to psychological processing, the notion of a set is entirely natural: we naturally think in terms of collections and membership. Phrases are thus conceived as collections that are subsets of larger collections—sentences, obviously, but also sequences of sentences such as conversations, arguments, articles, speeches, books, libraries, and world literature. The set-theoretic template provides a pleasing theoretical unification, as well paving the way for realistic evolutionary explanations. It’s set theory across the board. What is surprising is that set theory, as a branch of mathematics, was not developed until quite recently (early twentieth century), given its evident psychological ubiquity.[3]



[1]See my “Sketch for a General Theory of Human Psychology”. The present paper is designed to enrich the apparatus of this paper by adding the resources of set theory.

[2]See Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution(MIT Press, 2016). By the way, the word “merge” seems the wrong word to capture the intended notion, since the members of a set do not merge—they remain separate and distinct. The elements join and assemble, but there is no merging.

[3]It is an interesting fact that we have many synonyms for “set” in common usage, signaling the saliency of the notion: class, group, assortment, assemblage, batch, body, bunch, bundle, cluster, clan, company, collection, coterie, crew, gaggle, gang, lot, multitude, plurality, totality. Our language is set up for set theory.



Sketch for a General Theory of Human Psychology




Is it possible to come up with high-level organizational principles of human psychology? The task has been attempted before–as in associationist psychology, classical conditioning theory, and computationalism. The hope is to discover general principles that cover a wide variety of psychological phenomena, thus unifying what appears disparate. In this paper I make another attempt at this project, by integrating what we have learned since Chomsky introduced his theoretical framework, also adding some emphases that may be less familiar. I will be operating at a high level of abstraction.

I shall consider four types of competence: linguistic, logical, geometrical, and social. By linguistic competence I mean the ability to produce and comprehend grammatical sentences of one’s native language (or the cognitive structure that underlies this ability). By logical competence I mean the ability to reason logically, i.e. according to valid rules of inference—to follow trains of reasoning produced by others and to produce such trains oneself. By geometrical competence I mean the ability to classify and manipulate geometrical forms—to tell triangles from squares, to grasp geometrical relations, to master school geometry upon suitable instruction. By social competence I mean the ability to grasp social relationships and dynamics, to read the minds of others, to understand social groupings (family, village, nation). No doubt these competences break down into sub-competences, with a good deal of inner complexity. Thus we have phonetic, syntactic, and semantic competence; we have competence in deductive and inductive logic, in modal or deontic logic, and so on; geometric competence can include basic sensori-motor tasks such as sorting objects according to shape, as well as theoretical grasp of abstract geometry; social competence will involve a whole host of abilities employed in social interactions, predicting the behavior of others, and moral evaluation (e.g. knowing what a promise is and that breaking promises is blameworthy). In these four competences we see huge areas of the human mind at work, with enormous sophistication and complexity; so if we can discern general features of the operative systems we will have discovered something very general about the mind. My question is whether we can unify these four competences by articulating general organizational principles, thus providing a synoptic picture of what is distinctive to the human mind. More broadly, I want to know what the mind must be such that it is capable of the competences in question—its most general properties.

A number of questions can be asked about these four competences, as follows. What are the universal features of each competence, i.e. what features do all humans share that possess such competences? What are the linguistic universals, the logical universals, the geometrical universals, and the social universals? What are the specific principles involved in each competence? What do they have in common, if anything? How are the competences expressed in action (performance)? To what extent are the underlying principles innate? What does the schedule of acquisition look like? How did the competences evolve? Are any of them more basic than the others? Might any derive from the antecedent presence of others? How do they interact with each other? How are they realized in the brain? What are their characteristic pathologies? To what extent are the operative principles conscious? We think of each competence as psychologically real and we ask questions about their internal structure, their origins, their interactions, their physical realization, their overt expression in behavior, how basic each is, and so on. We try to do justice to their distinctive properties, so that our model of each competence is not impoverished or distorted. We take them for what they are, instead of trying to shoehorn them into a preconceived theoretical box.

What I now propose to do is list the most general features the four competences have in common. Many of these will be quite familiar, though my interpretation of them may not be. I am looking for universals acrossthese domains, not within them. The mind will then be characterized as the system that has these inter-competence universals: that is, there are abstract principles that are given specialized form in each specific competence. There is an abstract operational schematism that gets exemplified in linguistic, logical, geometrical, and social competence. Let me emphasize that I am offering only a sketch here, with little detail or empirical confirmation.


(i) The first feature goes by several names: generative, recursive, combinatorial, compositional, creative, infinite. The point is usually applied to linguistic competence—in language we can produce a potential infinity of sentences based on combinations of primitive parts. Sentences have structure and our mastery of language reflects that structure. But the same basic point applies to the other three competences. Logical arguments also have structure and our grasp of them is a projection from mastery of primitive modes of inference. A complex chain of reasoning is a composite of smaller bits of reasoning. Also, we grasp abstract rules of inference that apply to infinitely many potential cases. Grammatical rules generate well-formed sentences; logical rules generate valid arguments. In geometry we have figures composed of primitive parts—lines, planes, solids. Infinitely many figures can be produced by iteration of basic geometric components. We demonstrate a grasp of these principles of combination in our ability to build complex objects using simpler objects of certain shapes—as with basic building-block operations (architecture is a more sophisticated expression of our geometrical competence). In social cognition we grasp social units as combinations of simpler elements (people and other animals): thus we grasp the concepts of family, friend, village, pack, herd, marriage, nation, and so on. We understand how individuals combine with others to form certain kinds of social unit. We also understand social relations, such as promising, contracting, befriending, lying, cheating, and so on. Our grasp of morality is part of this competence, which is about right and wrong in social relations. We function as we do socially only because we have this kind of social cognition.

It is customary to express the point by saying that we can analyzecomplex structures into parts—the wholes are not taken as primitive. I would add that we are also capable of synthesis, as we fuse the elements into wholes. In reception we analyze; in production we synthesize. We grasp the basic units as elements of a potential synthesis—words, propositions, shapes, and individuals. So we see the parts in relation to each other and to constructed wholes. We see the elements according to their roles—what they do in relation to other elements (“if xwere combined with y, we would get z”). Words combine into sentences, propositions combine into arguments, shapes combine into geometrical structures, and people combine into social formations. In each case the competence involves grasp of part-whole structures, where wholes can in turn become parts, and so on indefinitely (“recursion”). This abstract principle is therefore universal to the four competences: it is the general idea of a generative system.


(ii) The second feature I shall call segmentation. By this I mean that the mind conceives the elements of a combination as discrete entities sharply distinguished from other entities. Thus we conceive of words as clearly individuated, as genuine units with their own identity; and similarly for propositions, shapes, and individuals. We do not regard these elements as intrinsically fuzzy or continuous with other elements. It is a well known fact that the acoustic signals of speech are physically far less well defined than what we hear, far more continuous than heard speech (as revealed by a speech spectrograph); we experience these signals as discrete units (“phonetic segmentation”). We actively segment the stimulus. Much the same is true of the visual stimulus: we segment the ambient array into sharply defined objects. Thus we impose segmental structure onto the world—we insist on sharply demarcated units. No doubt this aids the mind-brain’s combinatorial proclivities, for now we have nicely defined units with which to work. It isn’t the world that foists the segments on us; rather, we foist segments onto the world, in order to facilitate our psychological operations. In any case, in each of our four domains the mind works with a basic “vocabulary” of discrete elements—things than can function as manageable segments of a larger whole.


(iii) Thirdly, we have the notion of rule-governed principles of combination. Not just anything goes; you have to play by the rules. Words must be combined according to grammatical rules if the output is to be successful. Here we encounter modal notions: you mustcombine words thus and so and not just higgledy-piggledy. Similarly, you mustinfer conclusions from premises according to valid logical rules, and not just anyway you feel like. And there are geometrical rules too: you can only construct a triangle by combining lines in a certain way; you can only build a house by setting bricks of certain shapes one upon another. Breaking such rules produces monsters like Escher drawings or round squares. Thus we have the notion of geometrical necessity. It is much the same for social arrangements: there are rules about what social formations are permissible, as with marriage or employment arrangements. Thus we employ the idea of social obligations and social freedoms—what is required by social rules and what is not. Deontological ethics is precisely a theory of social rules. To be sure, the rules are of different kinds in our four cases, but in each case we have the idea of rule-governed combinations—those that obey the rules and those that do not. Putting this together with the first two features, we can assert the following: the abstract schematism involves combining discretely segmented units into synthetic wholes according to precise rules of combination. We operate with rules in each of the four areas and we recognize what constitutes obedience to a rule and what does not.


(iv) The next feature is a corollary of the previous one: each of our four domains incorporates a prescriptive or normative dimension. That is, notions of right and wrong can be correctly applied to the domain. There is a right way and a wrong way to combine words, determined by the grammatical rules; nonsensical combinations are deemed undesirable; and you can be criticized for flouting the rules of grammar. I don’t mean what is called “prescriptivism” about usage; I just mean basic rules of sentence formation. Split infinitives and dangling participles are fine, but it is bad to produce a string like “Barking it’s sing John car very”. You are expected to meansomething by what you say. It is goodto speak meaningfully. In the case of logic, prescriptivism is clearly right: you oughtto reason logically, and illogical reasoning opens you up to warranted criticism. We use logic precisely in order to evaluatearguments. In geometry too there is a right and wrong way to draw an equilateral triangle and, as Plato observed, we have the idea of the perfect triangle, which no drawn triangle ever quite attains. Indeed, Plato’s entire conception of geometry sees it as a repository of value—those perfect unchanging Forms that elevate us in their very contemplation. In the case of social competence we need look no further than ordinary morality, with its many prescriptions about conduct in relation to others (“stealing is wrong”). Obviously morality is the domain of right and wrong. In each area there is heavy infusion of value judgment—of a sense of rightness and wrongness, perfection and imperfection. It is not all value-neutral description but is shot through with approval and disapproval, praise and blame. And we act as we do becauseof these normative judgments—clearly in the case of morality but no less so in the other cases. We try to draw the perfect triangle, we make an effort to reason logically, and we are ashamed to make grammatical blunders (not that we often do, save in pathological cases such as aphasia). We are guided by the governing norms of the competence, respectful of their demands. We see things under normative conceptions. Here the human mind is saturated with notions of value and it proceeds accordingly. Thus the rules are not experienced as arbitrary but as conducive to genuine values: it is a good thing to speak grammatically, commendable to reason logically, admirable to draw triangles as close to the ideal as possible, and right to act morally. Human psychology is steeped in evaluations of many kinds (though this is not something you would guess from typical behaviorist psychology or even computational psychology: I will come back this point).


(v) The four competences, as so far characterized, are quite abstract in their general mode of operation: they must be described in highly abstract language in order to bring out their commonalities. We are accustomed to the abstractness of grammatical rules (a point often made by Chomsky), and the abstract nature of logic is also well attested, as are the abstractness of geometry and moral rules. But now we perceive a higher level of abstractness, as we discern what these competences have in common: the idea of a process that is generative, segmental, rule-governed, and norm-guided. In principle, this very abstract structure could be implemented in many ways, as it is in the four competences considered here; it is neutral with respect to more specific expressions. Maybe in Martians the creation of art is subsumed by a system with this abstract character, which appears not to be the case for humans; maybe in other terrestrial species so-called “language” does not fall under the general schematism I am sketching (dolphins, bees). We might think of the schematism as a kind of “super-competence”—an abstract structure that lies behind and makes possible the specific competences we have discussed. Where this super-competence came from, and how it was specialized into the four specific competences, we don’t know; but it is conceivable that it pre-dates them and has some entirely alien origin (as it might be, our ability to negotiate trees in our dim arboreal past[1]). In any case, the deep architectural principles of the human mind are extremely abstract—multiply adaptable schemas, not specific interpreted contents. Specific contents get slotted into the abstract schema, but it has a nature and psychological reality that transcends its particular exemplifications. Just as universal human grammar is abstract relative to particular human languages, so the general schematism is abstract relative to universal grammar. Thus the schematism can show up as the basis of various types of competence: that is the picture that is emerging. The four competences are no doubt quite modular, but it may be that they stem from something universal—something with a higher level of abstractness. We can try to investigate the nature of this abstract schematism as such, formulating as best we can its general properties.


(vi) The competences are all cognitive. That may seem like a triviality, but it is not. The word “cognition” refers specifically to knowledge, not mere belief or other mental representations. In each area we knowthings to be so: we know that a given sentence is grammatical because we know the rules of grammar; we know that a certain inference is logically valid (we don’t just conjecture that this is so); we know what a triangle is and that no perfect triangle has ever been drawn; we know that stealing is wrong (we don’t merely have a tentative opinion about it). So in our sketch for a general human psychology we need to make it explicit that we are dealing with states of knowledge—the concept of knowledge becomes a central concept for psychology. We are characterizing systems of knowledge, properly so-called—not just “internal representations”. The study of our mere conjectures about remote history or deep space may not be a study of systems of knowledge, given our ignorance in these areas; but we are not similarly ignorant about what is grammatical or logical or triangular or morally right. The output of the abstract rule-governed generative schematism is knowledge in the most straightforward sense in these cases.


(vii) It will be useful to have a short label for the schematism I am describing, so let us call it the “forms and norms” schematism. Then we can express the next feature by saying that the forms and norms schematism is doubly universal: first, it is universal across human beings—everyone is equipped with it, short of devastating brain pathology; second, it is universal across a variety of human competences, being shared by (at least) the four competences I am describing. It is doubtful that it is possessed by other species, except perhaps in a very rudimentary form; and it may not be shared by all human psychological capacities, especially those inherited during evolution from earlier types mind (such as the ancestral fish that led ultimately to us). Basic sensori-motor skills and innate reflexes don’t have this kind of abstract structure. It is an interesting question whether our musical ability is a forms and norms system (music theory makes it seem so, but mere receptivity to beat and melody seems too primitive). It does seem that what is most distinctive of the human mind centrally involves a full-blown forms and norms structure: generative, segmental, rule-governed, evaluative, abstract, cognitive.


(viii) Our language faculty appears to incorporate both a conscious and an unconscious component: we are conscious of sentences as grammatical and we can articulate a good deal about the rules of grammar, but it is also true that the competence includes an unconscious level—which is why we find it hard to formulate universal human grammar. Much the same seems to hold of the other three competences: we reason logically not by consciously formulating the laws of logic but by having an implicit grasp of them (it took Aristotle and Frege to bring these implicitly grasped laws to explicit awareness); our understanding of geometry is largely implicit until we start studying the subject in school (recall Socrates and the slave boy in the Meno); and much of morality is not consciously formulated but instinctively acted upon. So we can say that the forms and norms schematism has both a conscious and an unconscious representation in the mind. Perhaps the underlying abstract structure once had a purely unconscious representation, but once it became exploited by more specific competences its character became more conscious to us—though it still remains largely unconscious. It is certainly true that we do not, in the ordinary course of life, experience ourselves asengaging in abstract operations with the character I have tried to describe; instead the schematism just whirs away inside us, quietly going about its work.


(ix) Chomsky has long urged that the structures of universal human grammar are innate. What about the other three? Without going into the matter in detail, it seems safe to assume that much the same is true of them: our logical faculty is an innate component of the human mind, as is our geometrical faculty, and evidence is accumulating that moral psychology has an innate basis. If the underlying forms and norms structure is itself innate, which seems overwhelmingly likely, then it will not be surprising if the faculties it grounds are also innate. These areas of knowledge are not like our knowledge of history or geography or what is fashionable this season—all these being clearly acquired. But the four competences have a strong claim to innateness, for reasons that are now well appreciated. This dovetails with the previous point, since what is innate is likely to be unconscious: the schematism is specified in our DNA and grows in the brain during the course of maturation, only becoming conscious along the edges, so to speak. Again, we see a commonality that confirms the idea that we are here dealing with a psychologically real internal structure, hard-wired and universal.


I have now enumerated, briefly and dogmatically, the common features that I see as holding over the four competences I am considering. I now want to articulate further what the internal character of the forms and norms schematism is, as well as point to how adopting this perspective alters the way one sees human psychology. The general character of the schematism will be familiar from work done by philosophers, psychologists, and linguists over the last several decades, variously formulated and with varying emphases. I have merely brought these ideas together, while imparting my own spin. A useful metaphor is that of a network: the elements of a network exist in relation to other elements of the network, united by linking relations. Thus we have the conception of language as consisting of a vast network of signs that link with each other in various way, coming into proximity with each other to form phrases and sentences, according to fixed rules. In logic we think of propositions as laid out in logical space, linked by logical relations such as entailment or inconsistency, with rules about what propositions can be inferred from what. Our psychological structure as logicians has to mirror the objective logical structure in some way, so that we can move around it cognitively. In geometry the metaphor of a space become literal, since geometrical forms are conceived as regions of space, carved out in a particular way. Figures can be conjoined with other figures, or laid over them, fitting or not fitting. The spatial world looks like a huge mosaic of geometrical figures, regular and irregular (hence Plato’s doctrine that the essence of the material world is geometry). And social groupings are another kind of network: patterns of connection between people, linkages, aggregations, hierarchies, and collectivities. Each person has a place in this “social mosaic”, and what we are partly depends on our social role (cf. “semantic role” for words). It is all a matter of systems of discrete elements that combine and recombine according to rules, generating endless new wholes, with a heavy dose of the normative (this one good, that one bad). Accordingly, we need in the mind representations for the basic units, representations for rules of permissible combination, and a device to evaluate the outcomes. The mind needs to be able to segment and amalgamate, and it needs a grasp of the point of this mental work. The basic form of a mental operation is thus: segment-amalgamate-evaluate (SAE). The human mind is (among other things) an SAE device.

The first two parts of SAE have been well recognized: the mind must be able to analyze and synthesize, to break down and build up. It cannot build up unless it has first broken down—for it needs segmented elements as the building blocks of constructive operations. If there were no words in sentences, we would have to invent them. Given that we want to have sentences, and given that we are finite creatures, we had better find a way to analyze sentences into finitely many constituent and re-combinable parts. Similarly with the visible world: we need a finite stock of visual primitives if we are to make sense of the huge variety of visual scenes the world can present. We also need something like fixed persons to make sense of social life: we need the idea of the same person being a member of many groups or moving from one group to another. That is, we need the idea of an atom if we are to have the idea of a molecule. And where would we be without the notion of determinate shapes and sizes and combinations thereof? But once we have the elements, neatly segmented, we also need rules to combine them—we must be able to synthesize according to rules. Thus we arrive at the idea of the mind as a machine for analysis and synthesis that incorporates rules. This is all pretty orthodox today, even if it sounded revolutionary fifty years ago.

But where is evaluation in all this? It tends not to get mentioned. So I want to carve out the rightful place of evaluation in the SAE model; I want to give it its due. And my first point is simply that the mind is also a normative machine: it evaluates things. Sometimes this is acknowledged but then scanted: the normative dimension is regarded as essentially epiphenomenal. Yes, we engage in evaluations—of sentences, arguments, shapes, and social actions—but none of that makes any difference to anything. For how can values influence facts? How can the grammatical rightnessof a sentence play any real role in what we do with it? This is no more possible than moral values playing a causal role in the world. And here we reach the nub: mental causation cannot be influenced by values. So if the mind is indeed steeped in values, as I suggested, then these must be epiphenomenal, and hence hardly worth mentioning. The causation must be ordinary mechanical causation, of the same kind that we find in the purely physical world; but then there cannot be any such thing as evaluative causation.

What should we say about this line of thought? First, there is confusion in it. The claim is not that values themselves figure in mental causation but rather that judgmentsof value do. It isn’t that we produce a grammatical sentence because of its havingthe objective value of being grammatically correct; we do so because we takeit to be grammatically correct. Compare: I refrain from stealing something not because it iswrong to steal but because I deemit wrong to steal. But these normative attitudes are not themselves values—they are psychological facts. So why can’t our attitudes towards values causally influence our actions and our mental operations? Why did I go into a particular restaurant? Because I believed they serve good food there and I wanted good food (not as a result of the goodness of the food considered independently of what I believe and desire). This is no more problematic than acting on any other kind of belief and desire. So there is nothing metaphysically to prevent us from crediting the mind with a host of evaluative attitudes that influence the way it works. We could even postulate an unconscious Grammar Evaluator that issues verdicts on strings of words put together by our grammar module, determining which strings will actually get uttered. It says things like “This one good” or “That one bad”. The judgments it makes could have causal powers in respect of what sentences get uttered. And the same could be said for our logical faculty: it issues normative verdicts on arguments in process and can facilitate or halt that process. At any rate, there is no argument derived from the metaphysics of causation to prevent such a hypothesis. Psychological causation by attitudes with evaluative contents seems no more problematic than other sorts of psychological causation. It is true that some theorists are allergic to the use evaluative notions in scientific theories, but their objection cannot stem from considerations about causation. And it is surely obvious that human beings are deeply evaluative creatures—they are always going on about right and wrong, perfection and imperfection, praise and blame.

This rejoinder is fine so far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. For I think that the objective rightness involved ispart of the overall psychological story: we can truly say that certain outcomes occurred becauseof an objective rightness in things. For example, it is perfectly true to say that I don’t produce verbal strings like “Barking it’s sing John car very” precisely because that sentence is grammatically defective (bad, wrong). It is also true to say that I don’t steal things precisely because it is wrong to steal: that is, the fact that it is wrong to steal is whyI don’t steal. There are true “because” statements linking values with psychological facts, as there are true “because” statements linking physical facts with psychological facts; and I think this is an important point about human psychology (it is doubtful that animals can be made subject to such value-mind explanation). So I want to bring values into psychology proper, as part of the SAE package. In order to explore this question fully I would need to go into the entire metaphysics of causation and explanation, which I do not propose to do here. I will say simply that the mechanical model of causation has long been obsolete even in physics (gravity is not a kind of mechanical contact causation). I would favor a more Aristotelian approach to causation, in which causation is made correlative with why-questions and is linked closely to explanation. So while it is true that values cannot literally make physical contact with minds (the two cannot touch) they may yet figure in answers to why-questions. If we ask why I don’t produce nonsense sentences, then the answer is that they are patently ungrammatical and nonsensical: it is becauseof that fact that I don’t utter them. It is an entirely verbal question whether we should speak of this as “causation”. What matters is that it tells us why things happen. We can have perfectly true and informative “because” statements of the kind in question. Indeed, there are true law-like general statements of the type, as in: “Normal speakers don’t utter ungrammatical sentences simply because they areungrammatical”. In the same way we can say “People don’t steal simply because stealing is wrong”. The wrongness of stealing explains why people believe it is wrong to steal, and that belief explains their non-stealing actions. Truth explains belief (which is not to deny that other factors can come into play). This strikes me as simple common sense; and it is important to acknowledge that what happens in people’s minds can have this kind of explanation. Thus a comprehensive psychology will include values as part of its explanatory framework. To put it differently, the human mind is sensitive to values, unlike other animal minds: we think in terms of values and values are part of the explanation of our actions and mental processes. To bleach value out of the study of mind is to miss this important fact, producing a misleading model of how things work (orthodox computationalism is guilty of this). In a slogan: the mind crunches values as well as symbols.

Let me emphasize how modest this claim really is. It says no more than that we are aware of values because of their existence and that this awareness affects what we do. Thus we are aware that it is good for sentences to be grammatical or for arguments to be valid, and that awareness affects our actions. This is whywe put together only grammatical strings and respect valid inferences and keep our promises. Psychology therefore needs to build values into its conceptual framework, simply because the human mind is a value-sensitive device (unlike the merely physical world or the botanical world or most of the animal world). It is also a generative, segmental, and rule-governed device: these are all just facts about the kind of thing it is. Each aspect of SAE must be fully and robustly acknowledged.

Further questions arise. If this is the essential nature of human cognition, how did it arise in evolution? What pre-adaptations made it possible? How does it develop in the child’s mind? Are there other mental faculties with the same general structure? If so, do they derive from any of the four we have considered, singly or in combination (physics, arithmetic, chess, etc)? How is the SAE schematism implemented in the brain’s neural hardware? The last question is especially difficult when it comes to value: for how do brains and values connect? But none of these questions is easy, once we take on board the full reality and abstractness of the forms and norms schematism and its place in the mind’s overall landscape. This is why what I have offered here is little more than a sketch, an aspiration. Perhaps we can be comforted by the reflection that these are at least (and at last) the right questions.



[1]This view is not as silly as it sounds, given the actual conditions under which the intelligence of our ancestors evolved. If the brains of our ancestors evolved to cope with life in the trees, they would need to develop mental representations of the branching structure of trees, which would be necessary to both sensory and motor competence. That would be the most important part of the environment to gain competence in negotiating. Once the geometric structure of trees was mastered it could be generalized and applied elsewhere, so that the tree schema might underlie other forms of competence: for example, social and family relations might be modeled on the structure of a tree. And of course we do speak of “branches” of a family and indeed of “family trees”. Could the tree-like structure of grammar itself be a transformed application of the early mental representation of trees? How could human cognition notbe shaped by the arboreal environment in which our ancestors evolved and lived for millions of years? The brain of the gibbon must above all be a tree-adapted brain with a finely tuned understanding of the properties of trees; and gibbons have evolved a sophisticated form of language. Intelligence is apt to be niche-specific. The genes are geared to the particular environment in which they exist, with respect to both body and mind. Thus tree genes must be part of our genetic inheritance.


Moral Responsibility




Is Moral Responsibility Logically Possible?



There is a well-known argument purporting to show that human beings are not morally responsible, i.e. appropriate recipients of praise and blame, which goes as follows.[1]What you do results from the way you are—your psychology. But the way you are is fixed by heredity and environment—nature and nurture. You act as you do because of the influences on your psychology. But you had, and have, no control over those influences: you are not responsible for your genes and upbringing. These are given to you independently of your will. But if that is so, how can you be held responsible for what you do, since it results from factors beyond your control? Your criminal tendencies are determined by what you were born with and the environmental influences brought to bear on you; they are not the upshot of your will (decision, intention). But they are what incline you to criminal acts—others may not be so inclined. It is just your bad luck that you are the way you are. You can’t be blamed for it, any more than a falling tree can be blamed for crushing you. You can’t help being the way you are. Thus you are not morally responsible for what you do.

There is much to be said about this argument, but I want to focus on a specific question: Does it show that human beings are not morally responsible or that nobeing couldbe morally responsible? Ourdesires are fixed by heredity and environment, and hence are not our responsibility, but is that a logical truth? Let me first note that the question generalizes to prudential responsibility: we also take ourselves to be proper objects of praise and blame according as we behave prudently or imprudently, but isn’t this determined by factors outside our control, namely our genes and upbringing. So how can we be held responsible for whether we behave prudently? Do we think animals are proper objects of prudential praise and blame? Do we say to the cat, “It was foolish of you to climb that tree—you have only your self to blame”? But why are humans different given that they too have their psychological nature fixed by causal factors beyond their control? It may be said that humans can resist the desires they are given, but how do they resist except by the psychological capacities also given to them by nature or nurture? Whether you have a strong will or a weak will is a matter of the constitution you are given by nature and nurture and is not “up to you”: it comes from having the right genes or the right upbringing. Some people are more prone to addiction than others, but this is not something they have chosen; it is just part of their given nature, and not subject to praise and blame. So we are not prudentially responsible and also not morally responsible. Responsibility presupposes the causa sui(self-causation, self-determination), but humans are not self-caused; they are caused by factors outside themselves. Even if we are partly self-created, we are not wholly so, and thus anything about us that is not self-created (most of it) is not a candidate for assessment of responsibility, moral or prudential.

This argument seems powerful in the case of human beings and other animals, but does it show that all possiblebeings lack responsibility? One might wonder about God: can God not be praised or blamed because he doesn’t choose his own nature (assuming that he doesn’t)? If God is just made the way he is, actions resulting from his nature are not up to him; they simply flow from his given nature (e.g. being all good). But this seems like a suspect result: is the notion of responsibility so flawed that not even God can count as responsible? If God performs a virtuous act and we want to praise him, should we refrain from doing so on the ground that God’s nature is not the result of his will? And how could God cause his own nature except by already having some sort of nature, in which case he is not responsible for that? Isn’t the argument proving too much? Consider a species of being with the following property: they decide what desire set to possess. They are like beings in the Original Position in that the desires they will have in life are not fixed by factors outside their control but by their own decisions: no heredity, no environment, just their own acts of will. Suppose some choose a virtuous set of desires, being attracted by the idea of sainthood and dazzled by the Form of the Good; while others choose less elevated desires, feeling the appeal of a life of wine, women and song, which they think will be a lot more fun than a life of bloodless virtue. They then set out on their lives and act according to the desires they have chosen: saints and sinners, respectively. Now when the question of praise and blame arises they can hardly reply by asserting that their desires were not up to them, since they were. They chose them: their desires were self-determined. These beings choose the personality type they possess. So they can’t dodge the question of responsibility by claiming non-self-determination of desires. So on the face of it moral responsibility is logically possible.

This doesn’t help humans, of course, since their desires are not self-determined (except perhaps marginally), but at least it shows that the concept of responsibility is not hopelessly confused and contradictory. We have discovered empirically that human desire has certain sorts of cause, which disqualify humans from responsibility for their actions, but the concept itself is viable and applicable to possible beings (maybe God, my imaginary species). But it may be objected that this is wrong because a decision about what desires to have must issue from otherdesires over which the agent has no control. I said that one group chooses virtuous desires while another group chooses more worldly desires that might well lead them into temptation: but on what basisdid they so decide? Mustn’t they have had certain second-order desires to go for one set of first-order desires rather than another? Here is where things get messy and murky, philosophically speaking. Is it really logically necessary that such second-order desires must exist in order for a decision about first-order desires to be possible? Couldn’t my beings simply opt for one set of desires and not the other at random or on a whim or because of a considered judgment about what sort of life they deemed more valuable? A philosophical theory of motivation is now driving the argument not the empirical facts of human nature. So my point is to make a firm distinction between thisargument and the argument that applies to human beings: that latter argument seems solid given the facts of human nature, but the other argument begs many conceptual questions about the nature of motivation. It threatens to turn into this argument: Every psychological being must have a nature that is not determined by the decisions of that being, since all decisions rest on prior psychological facts; sono psychological being can ever be responsible for its actions. Whether that argument is sound or not—or well-formulated enough to be debated—it is not the same as the argument that moral responsibility is not possible in a being whose (first-order) desires do not result from its will. Intuitively, the possible beings I described are responsible for their actions in a way that we are not, and it takes a fancy philosophical argument to undermine that conviction—the idea that it is an a prioriconceptual truth that all decisions rest on antecedent desires (in some sense of “desire”). The important point is that the possible beings can’t excuse themselves from blame for bad actions by insisting that their desires have causes beyond their control, since they chose them. Suppose they can at any moment revise their desire set simply by choosing to do so, but they refuse to make that choice—they choose to keep on having desires that lead them to bad acts. How can they defend themselves by claiming that they can’t alter their desires? They can; they just choose not to. They keep succumbing to an addictive desire that is causing havoc in their life while they could simply wish the desire away (as we cannot): they can’t plead that the desire is beyond their control. They are the exact opposite of us so far as will and desire are concerned; so it can’t be that we are on a par when it comes to responsibility. Intuitively, they areresponsible for their addictive behavior, while a human baby born with a stubborn addiction to heroin is not. In the sense in which humans are not responsible, they are responsible; so the concept has possible application. This explains why we have the concept, given that it doesn’t apply to us: we simply had mistaken ideas about the etiology of human desire (as opposed to a confused concept), and now we realize that human desire originates in facts outside of human will—we can’t in fact choose to revise our desires (or our proneness to give in to them). We have discovered the empirical psychological fact that human psychology is (largely) the result of heredity and environment, and not decision in vacuo.

What undermines responsibility is the recognition that our ability to refrain from acting on desire is not something that results from choice but from factors we don’t and can’t control (genes, upbringing), but this doesn’t apply in cases stipulated to involve freely chosen desires—here the existence and force of desireissubject to the agent’s will. So we can describe coherent cases in which agents are responsible for their actions, pending some proof that even in such cases there is an ultimate lack of responsibility. In other words, it takes an abstract and rather obscure philosophical argument to undermine responsibility even in these kinds of cases. Maybe that argument could be produced, but it would require premises that exceed what is necessary to undermine human moral responsibility.[2]


[1]In recent years Galen Strawson has defended this argument, but many others have too, including Nietzsche.

[2]This essay was prompted by a remark I heard from a woman commenting on the Bill Cosby case: she said that he clearly had a psychological problem that led to his sexual assaults but that he should have sought help to get over that problem, thus implying that he may not have been responsible for the assaults but he was responsible for not seeking help to remove the desires that led to them. The same might be said of someone with a drug addiction, especially if removing the desires in question is not that difficult.