I am planning to put my unpublished papers on this blog so as to have a publicly available record of them. So expect to see quite a lot of stuff appear in the forthcoming weeks.


Two Concepts of Freedom



Two Concepts of Freedom


It is hard not to feel the pull of both of the standard positions on free will. On the one hand, it seems right to say that a free action is one that is in accordance with the agent’s desires, as opposed to one that is forced on the agent in some way (the OED defines “free” as simply “not under the control or in the power of another”). This is quite compatible with determinism–physical, psychological, or divine. On the other hand, it seems right to insist that freedom requires the ability to do otherwise, which is ruled out by determinism. If an agent has no alternative to acting as he did, how can his act be free? But surely the future course of nature is always necessitated by antecedent conditions, so there are no alternative actions the agent could have performed. Thus the will is both free and not free, a contradiction. Depending upon what conception of freedom we choose to adopt, we get different answers to the question of whether free will exists. But it is assumed that there is a single thing (denoted by “free will”) over which the combatants are contending.

            I want to suggest that this debate is afflicted by a methodological problem, and once this problem is fixed the solution drops out quite naturally. The problem consists in extracting the word “free” from its normal linguistic context and trying to analyze it in isolation. In fact, there are two very different notions expressed by standard locutions, which generate different answers to the question whether free will exists. Both answers are correct, so that one type of locution has application while the other does not. The locutions are “free from” and “free to”. We say that an agent is free from constraints or influences that potentially limit his range of actions: illnesses, obligations, engagements, coercion, upbringing, genes, or divine interference. In this vein we can sensibly ask if the agent is free from his desires and free from his physical condition (including his brain states): here the answer appears to be universally in the negative. I am not free from my own psychology or my own physiology—though I may be free from external coercion or prior obligations or God’s dominion. The determinist adds up all the antecedent states of the world and declares that we are not free from this totality. Again, this seems logically permissible: we simply ask whether my freedom-from extends to all of the factors bearing down on me, specifically my mental and physical states. And the answer is clear: I am not free from all of that. I don’t have that kind of freedom. In the relevant sense, I could not have acted otherwise (though there are perhaps other senses in which I could have acted otherwise, e.g. I could logically have had a different psychology). Put simply, we don’t have freedom from the past—the locution “free from” does not apply to the totality of past facts (though it applies to various subsets of these facts). It is quite true that we are free from X for many values of X, so we are free relative to these values, but we are not free from all values of X. We don’t have complete freedom-from. So we can forget having that kind of freedom. Determinism rules out freedom-from.

            But it doesn’t follow that we don’t have freedom-to. I have freedom to do Y if I can act on my desire to do Y. The locution “free to” allows application in conditions in which I do as I please, as opposed to acting against my desires because of external (or internal) coercion. That is what “free to” means (as the OED records): I have a set of desires (wishes, inclinations, commitments, etc.) and I can either act in accordance with them or against them, thus acting freely or not.  [1] This has nothing to do with being free from all prevailing conditions: indeed I am not free from my desires (which may causally determine me to act as I do), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t act in accordance with them! I am free to follow my desires, because not prevented from doing so, even though I am not free from them. I may sometimes not be free to follow my desires, if I am imprisoned or shackled or subject to physiological upsurges that prevent me from acting as I wish; but much of the time I am free to do pretty much as I please (but see below). Quite often I am free to do exactly as I please, with no impediment at all to my freedom to do as I please. This is in no way compromised by my lack of freedom from antecedent conditions. Freedom-to is just a different concept from freedom-from; the locutions have quite different meanings and conditions of application. The compatibilist is thus right to insist that freedom-to is consistent with determinism, while the incompatibilist is right to maintain that freedom-from is inconsistent with the facts of historical determination. But the two theorists are not disagreeing with each other, once we distinguish between the two sorts of locution with their different meanings. The reason we feel the pull of each position is that both positions are perfectly correct so far as they go; we only get confused because we conflate the two concepts. And the reason we do that is that we yank the word “free” from its normal linguistic context and ask questions like “Does free will exist?” or “Is free will compatible with determinism?” Strictly speaking, these questions are ill formed, because they try to sever the concept of freedom from its surrounding grammatical context, which alone gives the word sense. We violate Frege’s context principle, or we fail to heed Wittgenstein’s warning about the perils of taking language on holiday. We are like someone who perplexes herself about freedom by trying to integrate the meaning of the locution “free with” (“John is rather free with his money”) with “free from” and “free to”. Is it that a free agent is one who is free with his actions? Can we be free with our past? Are our desires free with us? None of these sentences makes sense and can only generate pseudo-problems. Likewise, we should not try to shuttle between “free from” and “free to”, as if asking whether we are free to change our past or free from the future. In fact “free from” is a backwards-looking locution while “free to” is a forwards-looking locution: one connotes independence from the past; the other connotes dependence on desire in relation to the future. Am I free to act as my desires prompt me to? That is the question of freedom-to. Am I free from everything that has led up to this moment? That is the question of absolute freedom-from. And the answers are respectively: yes, I am free to act on my desires as opposed to being made to go against them; but no, I am not free from the conditions leading up to and surrounding my action, including my desires. I have freedom-to but I don’t have freedom-from. That is all that needs to be said, or can be said; there is no further question expressible as “Am I free?” or “Do I have free will?” It is not that I both have free will and don’t have it, or that I have to reject the plausible things said by the compatibilist and the incompatibilist; rather, I just have to return the word “free” to its natural environment tightly coupled with the prepositions “from” and “to”. Then (and only then) I will understand the import of our talk of freedom. The correct assessment of the philosophical upshot of this examination is thus twofold: (a) we are not free from our past, since our actions are determined by it; but (b) this does not rule out a robust sense in which we are free to act on our desires (the only kind of freedom-to there is). As a matter of fact, if we were free from our past, that would not provide an acceptable notion of freedom, since it would amount merely to randomness; and if we had the ability to act otherwise than our desires indicate (including our moral and prudential desires), that would not be a form of freedom-to. No occurrence in nature is free from the past, including human action; and nothing but acting on desire can add up to freedom-to. Nor is there any notion of freedom that is purer or better than freely acting on one’s desires—as if we are only really free when discarding our desires and acting in a vacuum.  [2] For instance, a person who acts on his desire to save the world (perhaps putting aside his other selfish desires) is the paradigm of a free agent—and it is no impediment to this that his desire follows strictly from his genes and his upbringing. He couldn’t have acted otherwise, but so what—he was free to act on his most cherished desire. He was free to act on his altruistic desire despite attempts by others to thwart him, though his action wasn’t miraculously free from his mind and nervous system. The former freedom is not undermined by lack of the latter freedom.  [3]

            The difference between the two concepts is illustrated by a difference in their logic. An action is either free from a factor X or not; in particular, either actions are determined by antecedent conditions or they are not. It is an all-or-nothing matter. But forward-looking freedom-to is not so simple: a good case can be made that we are partially free in this way but not completely free. Am I really free to do exactly what I please, even in the most favorable conditions? Don’t I have all sorts of unrealistic desires that I can never act on? I would dearly love to fly like a bird, but I am not free to do so—the laws of nature prevent me from so acting. Don’t I also have a lot of conflicting desires that keep me from fulfilling all of them? Realistically, we can’t always do exactly what we please—we are not completely free. We are pretty free most of the time (if we are lucky), or more free than our neighbor, but we are not totally free. Freedom-to is not an all-or-nothing matter, unlike freedom-from. It operates in different conceptual terrain. It doesn’t breathe the same air. The logical behavior of “free to” is not the same as that of “free from”. This is why the compatibilist and the incompatibilist often seem like they are talking past each other: for they are talking about different things. The word “free” crops up in their discourse about these things but not because they have an identical subject matter—any more than its occurrence in “free with” discourse (compare also “tax-free”, “free as a bird”, “free society”, “free radicals”, “degrees of freedom”, “stimulus-free”, etc.) We mustn’t mix language games; we mustn’t tear “free” free of its linguistic auxiliaries. We mustn’t confuse one concept with another. Then we can accept that we have plenty of “free to” freedom but zero “free from” freedom—though remaining wary of that dangling use of “freedom”. Both are legitimate uses of the word “free”, but the constructions in which they occur have quite different import.

            The intuitive idea of determinism is that the future is bound by the past, not able to escape its clutches, its shackles. This conflicts with the idea that we are free from the past and hence have alternative courses of action open to us. Thus we don’t have this kind of freedom. The intuitive idea of voluntary action is that we are often able to act without constraint or interference from sources external to our own desires, wishes, inclinations, preferences, values, and so on. This in no way precludes our actions from being genuinely free: to do what you want because of what you want is the very essence of freedom. Not indeed freedom-from, since we are not in so acting free from our desires (values etc.), but freedom to follow these desires without external impediment. Both lines of thought are perfectly sound: but, contrary to traditional thinking, they are not in conflict with each other. The plain fact is that we are free (to) but we are not free (from). I would recommend never using the word “free” in philosophical discourse without its attached preposition. That will make us free from confusion and free to stop worrying about the problem of freedom.  [4]


  [1] The fundamental idea of free action is surely freedom from other people: it is doing what you want irrespective of the wishes and actions of others. Internal factors can operate like other people, but the basic idea is that of interpersonal constraint or restraint. This has nothing to do with determinism; it is purely a matter of being free to act on one’s desires independently of others. So the notion of freedom is a social notion at root: if there are no other people, the question of freedom cannot arise. It is other people who put one’s freedom in jeopardy, not the past or one’s internal physiology or the laws of nature or one’s own desires. Have philosophers and others succumbed to a kind of anthropomorphism about such factors, modeling them on interfering human agents? That would explain a lot. 

  [2] It is sometimes said, quite correctly, that we are not compelled to act on our desires—we can resist their urgings and refuse to act on them. However, this is so only because we have other mental states that countermand these desires, typically commitments to values that conflict with the desire in question. These may take the form of second-order desires to the effect that the first-order desire ought to be resisted. The fact that a certain desire may incline us to action without compelling us should not be converted into an argument against psychological determinism, let alone physical determinism; for the reason for resistance will itself be another desire, possibly a value judgment, or some other psychological factor.  

  [3] It is instructive to consider free animal action. We recognize the difference between a caged or bound animal and a free-ranging one: the difference is the difference between the animal acting as it desires and being prevented from so acting. To be sure, its actions are determined by its genes, upbringing, and impinging stimuli, but that has nothing to do with the distinction between being caged and being free-ranging. Animals can be free to act on their desires or not so free, but they are certainly not free from the antecedent state of the world—they must act as they do. Still, there is all the difference in the world between being free to act on their desires and being coerced in various ways. The case is precisely analogous in the case of humans.

  [4] I have been fretting about freedom for over fifty years and have wavered between different positions, most recently favoring the compatibilist position. This is my attempt to lay the subject to rest, at least so far as I am concerned.


Freedom As Determination

                                                Freedom As Determination



John goes into a café for lunch. He looks over the menu, carefully considering each option (John is a fastidious eater): he reviews the possible alternatives and weighs up which will please him the most, the price of each, what is most healthy, and what sort of figure he will cutting eating it. After assiduous deliberation he makes his selection, feeling happy that he has made the best choice in the circumstances. He places his order, waits in anticipation, and then proceeds to consume the dish he ordered. He is pleased with the outcome.

            This would appear to be a paradigm case of a free decision: John has considered a range of possible alternatives, reviewed them for desirability, and then selected according to his deepest culinary wishes. It was entirely up to him what he chose; there was no compulsion or coercion from without or within. And yet it has seemed to many philosophers that there is a deep problem here: John’s action was not free, contrary to appearances. For his action was determined—by the laws of physics and the initial conditions and by his overall psychological state. Given this determination John could not have acted otherwise—he would have done the same thing in identical circumstances. Thus human action is not free, and paradigm cases of freedom are no more genuinely free than any other occurrence of nature.

            Some respond by denying determinism, hoping thereby to make room for freedom: either there is indeterminism in physical nature or in the mind. Others contend that on closer examination freedom and determinism are not incompatible, once we understand what freedom actually involves (lack of constraint from outside or inside). But it is agreed on all hands that freedom and determinism are prima facie at odds with each other; it takes work to reconcile them, often ingenious work. The compatibilist is under suspicion of changing the subject in order to save the phenomenon. What I intend argue is that freedom actually entails determinism—that free will makes no sense without determinism. The two are not just compatible but deeply connected: it is a conceptual truth that freedom requires determinism of the most robust kind. Only in a deterministic world is freedom possible. To put it differently, freedom of choice logically requires causal and nomological necessitation by antecedent states of the universe. Specifically, freedom requires strong psychological necessitation: we can be free only if we are bound in our choices by our prior psychological states. In Hume’s terminology, liberty logically depends upon necessity.  [1] This is not merely compatibilism but what I will call determinationism—the “determinationist theory” of free will (it could equally be called necessitationism).  [2]

            Before I lay out this theory I want to consider how freedom might be abrogated in a case like John’s. It is certainly abrogated if someone puts a gun to John’s head and orders him to choose (sic) the salami sandwich: that would be a clear case of external constraint, preventing him from ordering what he most desires (fish and chips). But there are other ways in which his ability to act freely might be thwarted: for instance, he might suffer from a brain complaint that prevents him from envisaging the range of alternatives—he suffers a kind of modal blindness. Whenever he tries to review the available alternatives he finds that nothing comes to mind; he cannot mentally scan through the possibilities, finding himself stuck on a single option. He has lost his sense of alternative futures. Or it may be that he can envisage a range of alternatives but has lost the ability to select one—he suffers from selection impotence. Whenever he tries to select a particular option his mind goes haywire, either selecting none or weirdly skipping to another option than the one he deems best. Or he can select among envisaged alternatives but his action is wildly out of sync with his selection: whenever he tries to order the fish and chips the words “Can I have a salami sandwich?” pop out of his mouth. In all these cases he has lost his ability to act freely, or it has been drastically depleted. We might think of these aberrations as internal constraints interfering with the normal deliberative process; they are freedom-destroyers. They destroy John’s ability to choose and obtain what he most desires from an array of alternatives.

            Let me now state my thesis as baldly as possible. Freedom entails that the agent falls under the law: “People act in accordance with their wishes, unless prevented from doing so”. I intend this law to be analogous to the law of inertia: “Bodies maintain their state of motion, unless imposed upon by an outside force”. That is, it is a law of nature—deterministic and nomologically necessary–that governs how choices are made. I will call this law the “Law of Strongest Desire”, or “LSD”.  [3] The thesis, then, is that free will entails LSD: it is not possible to be free unless you fall under LSD– that is, unless your actions are necessitated by your wishes (desires, inclinations, likes, whims, practical judgments, pro-attitudes, or whatever motivates). That is what freedom is—determination by what motivates. Choice is “wish-fulfillment”. This kind of determinism is not just compatible with freedom; it is what freedom requires and consists in. Free choice just is selecting from among a range of alternatives in accordance with natural law. It is a law of nature that people act according to their strongest desire, and free will depends on the obtaining of that law.

            There are two questions about this thesis: is LSD necessary for freedom, and is it sufficient for freedom? The reason it is necessary is that in cases where it breaks down the agent is not free. Suppose John plumps for his fish and chips after prolonged and careful reflection, coming to the conclusion that this would be the best possible lunch in the circumstances; but then a sudden brain spasm leads him to choose the salami sandwich, which ranks low on his preference list. He may or may not notice the switch, depending on the nature of the brain spasm; but in any case he chooses what he does not most desire. Surely this is not a case of free choice: it is like the gun to the head scenario. He most wants fish and chips but he doesn’t choose in accordance with that wish; he has been subjected to a freedom-destroyer, pushing him in the direction of the unwanted salami sandwich. Or suppose he suffers from a strange psychological quirk whereby his judgments of desirability are regularly subverted according to the rule, “Choose your third-ranked option every time”. He always chooses the third item on his list of desirables without changing his evaluations. He thus acts against his wishes in a predictable way, violating LSD. Again, he is not acting freely: he lacks what an ordinary free agent possesses, viz. the ability to act in accordance with what one most strongly desires. Imagine if his pathology consists in choosing the opposite of what he most desires—choosing, say, discomfort over comfort, and suffering the consequences. We would rightly regard this as a strange compulsion, inimical to freedom, and suggest that John consult a freedom doctor. Therefore falling under LSD is a necessary condition for freedom.

            Is it sufficient? Intuitively, it is—any normal person would agree that this is what freedom comes down to. But the fretting philosopher is apt to sense difficulty: he will ask how LSD is compatible with the principle that a free agent could always have acted otherwise. And it is true that on this view the agent cannot act otherwise given that she is subject to the law of strongest desire—she will always of necessity act in the way that fits what is most strongly desired. She has no alternative given her motivational structure: her desires (etc) determine (uniquely so) her actions. But does the ability to act otherwise really contradict that kind of determinism? No, because it can simply mean, “She could have acted differently had she had different desires (or a different ranking of desires)”. Of course she could have acted otherwise—just as John went into the café the day before and in fact ordered a salami sandwich, because that’s what he felt like having then. There is no logical requirement that agents can act otherwise given their total psychological state—whoever said that that is what freedom involves? It is a bizarre scenario that is being imagined: an agent has exactly the same psychological makeup at two different times but acts differently, intentionally so. What reason could there be for acting thus differently? What went through the agent’s mind that justified the difference of action (and choice)? How would the agent explain herself?

            At this point Buridan’s ass is likely to make an entrance: suspended between two piles of equally delicious hay, it nevertheless picks one pile over the other. But surely that could happen only if the animal had a sudden, if subtle, hankering after (say) the pile on the left—the way it reflected the light at that moment, a general tendency to favor the left, etc. If the two alternatives really were exactly psychologically equivalent, the animal would not be able to make a choice: it would have to manufacture a distinction in order to be triggered into action. But this is not the kind of situation in which we find ourselves when deliberating; we generally find it easy to appreciate distinctions among the options before us, even if it is just a matter of momentarily fancying one thing over another.

            So it is not required for freedom that one be free of one’s own mind, i.e. free to act independently of what is desired (valued, judged best all things considered). Freedom is freedom to act dependently on one’s desires. Thus LSD is sufficient for freedom: there is not some further ingredient to the concept that requires a free action to be one that transcends desire. Suppose an agent regularly flouted his own strongest desires: does that make him or her freer than an agent who always acts in accordance with his desires? Hardly. Freedom does not involve the ability to act against what one desires—except in the trivial and irrelevant sense that freedom often involves the ability to resist certain of one’s desires. If a person judges it morally best to do such and such, contrary to what he desires prudentially, he is not violating LSD, since in this case his moral wishes outweigh his prudential wishes. People do indeed sometimes act from their moral wishes, but that is just one more example of the desire-choice hook-up. What doesn’t happen is that people act from no wish at all, or quite contrary to their wishes–to do so would be to cease to act freely, as in cases of brain spasm. There is no merit in that, and little sense: what would it be, from the inside, knowingly to choose according to what one does not most desire? Does one say to oneself, “I know that I don’t really want to do A all things considered, but would much rather do B, and yet I will deliberately and self-consciously do A”? Even supposing such a state of mind to be possible, why would having it make one freer than someone who simply acted in accordance with what he most desired (or judged best)? Why should ignoring one’s deepest desires enhance one’s freedom, even if it were possible?

            We can all agree that freedom requires the ability to ignore or suppress or regulate some desires, so that we are not pressed into action by our appetitive promptings or baser inclinations; but that is a far cry from the idea that freedom requires total liberation from all desire, even the most elevated, rational, and refined. Does God’s freedom require him to act independently of what he judges best, as if to prove that he is really free? No, God always acts according to LSD: he makes his actions conform to his divine wishes; he doesn’t disconnect the two. Could God have acted otherwise? Well, he could have had different plans for the universe and hence different wishes, but it is absurd to suppose that he could have done differently given his plans and wishes (despite his omnipotence). Are we to think that his actions sometimes mysteriously detach themselves from his omnisciently considered judgments about what he most wishes for his creation?  Could it be, for example, that what he wants from us is virtue but that he sometimes acts so as to promote vice, even though he has no desire that we be vicious?

            Thus LSD is necessary and sufficient for freedom, which means that freedom entails determinism (psychological determinism). It doesn’t entail determinism all the way down—it would be odd if freedom proved that the quantum world is deterministic. What it entails is that desire necessitates choice—to act freely is to act in accordance with one’s desires (considered judgments of desirability). And there is a further point: we know that this is so when we act. That is, we rely on an assumption of determinism when we deliberate—we rely on lawful psychological connections. Most obviously, we are aware of the lawful connection between desires, choices, and actions: we know that desires produce choices that produce actions. If these causal connections were to break down, we would lose the ability to act freely, because there would be no point in deliberating if we could not depend on such lawful causal connections. What point is there in deciding what to do if your decisions are powerless to lead to action of the desired type? What point would there be in deliberating if a review of alternatives could not lead to a mental act of selection? No, we assume that there is a lawful causal web here that justifies predicting what will happen when we deliberate; if that web became fragmented and dissolved, we would be bereft of the ability to act freely, i.e. in accordance with our wishes. There would be no point in John deliberating about his precious lunch if nothing he did mentally reliably led to certain outcomes, ultimately eating what he wants most. Reading the menu has to lead reliably to having an array of options in mind, which has to lead reliably to a considered survey of these options and their pros and cons, which has to lead reliably to a justified selection, which has to lead reliably to placing the right order, which has to lead reliably to getting the lunch he most desires. All this is lawful and causal, so deliberation presupposes determinism at this level; introducing a random and unpredictable element into the process would only destroy or diminish freedom, not generate it.

            This is what I meant by saying that freedom and determinism are not only compatible but conceptually connected. The concept of freedom analytically entails determinism of the kind enshrined in LSD, which is no less deterministic than other laws of nature, such as the law of inertia–hence the determinationist theory of freedom. Our free actions are governed by a law of nature that is as rigid as any law. It is the same with animals: they too obey the law of strongest desire—they act in accordance with what they desire most at the moment of action. They do not demonstrate their freedom by mysteriously flouting their desires, detaching their actions from what they want; they simply follow nature in acting according to their wishes. They could not act otherwise given their wishes, though they could act otherwise with different wishes; but that in no whit detracts from their freedom. Their will is entirely free, as is our will and the will of God—free to enact what they most desire (unless interfered with). Determination by desire does not rob us of free will; it constitutes free will. We should count ourselves lucky that our actions are determined by our desires, or else we would flail in a sea of randomness, or languish in a prison of external constraint. Our desires don’t confine us in determining our actions; they allow us to be free agents constrained by nothing alien and undesired.

            There may be a residual anxiety: if desires necessitate and cause actions, don’t they compel us to act, and isn’t that contrary to the sense we have of our freedom? We don’t feel compulsion from desire, but shouldn’t we if determinism holds? First, we should not model the causality here on clinical cases of compulsion, such as drug addiction or OCD, which are (to some degree) freedom-destroyers. Second, we could follow Hume in claiming that this kind of causation, like all causation, is not perceptible by the mind, so the fact that we don’t feel it doesn’t show it isn’t there. Third, we don’t feel compulsion in other cases of mental causation either, though it is assuredly present, such as the causation of belief by perception, or imagination by recollection, or emotion by thought. These causal connections are lawful and involve causal power, and hence are “compelled”, but we don’t feel this compulsion, as we may feel the compulsion of drug addiction. Our desires necessitate our choices in virtue of LSD, but we don’t need to experience that necessitation—and such an experience is not possible if we follow Hume on causation. Perhaps the lack of an experience of necessity gives us an illusion of causal independence, but we must actually be subject to causality in the recesses of the mind. We are subject to necessitating psychological law even if it doesn’t strike us that we are—and we have to be if we are to function in such a way as to permit freedom. And clearly people are subject to all sorts of psychological laws that they may not suspect subsume them—as that they act from ambition or self-interest or vanity (this is a point of Hume’s). Being subject to LSD is not the same as consciously realizing that it necessarily governs one’s actions at all moments (again consider animals).

            Here is a further point (also made by Hume): we don’t tend to think our freedom is compromised by psychological laws that only hold generally and for the most part, so why should we be disturbed by laws that hold without exception? Being subject to psychological law is not ipso facto an abrogation or diminution of freedom: we don’t feel less than fully free because we are generally motivated by ambition or self-interest or vanity (or indeed by good will and public spiritedness). It is not that we would have our freedom increased by having no lawful tendencies at all, by being (unlike the rest of nature) entirely anomalous. So why should being very lawful imperil our freedom? Freedom has nothing to do with escaping natural law; but it has everything to do with obeying the right kind of law to enable freedom, i.e. the law of strongest desire. This law is what is constitutive of free will, so it can hardly be such as to undermine free will. If I rigidly obeyed the law of always acting rationally and morally, that would have no tendency to show that I was not as free as someone less unwavering. Similarly, if I rigidly obeyed LSD that would have no tendency to show that I was less free than someone who suffered intermittent breakdowns of that law (by brain spasms, etc)–quite the contrary. As Hume says, liberty is not opposed to natural necessity but to external constraint (or internal constraint). To lack freedom is to have our desires imprisoned, not for our desires to imprison us—for how could that conceivably be? Desires are not like external agents (or internal agents) dictating that we should act contrary to them. Freedom is determination by our desires (considered judgments of desirability).

            To defend free will is not to defend moral responsibility. For us to be praiseworthy or blameworthy would involve our desires arising from a process involving the exercise of our free will; but this is seldom if ever the case. Someone subject to a vicious and corrupting childhood, who forms corresponding bad desires, will naturally act in accordance with them, thus acting freely; but we cannot blame such an individual for those desires (she had no say in their formation), and hence we cannot blame her for her actions. When this person performs an immoral act she is acting freely from her own desires—she is not externally (or internally) constrained—but she is not responsible for the action in the moral sense, since she cannot be blamed for the formation of her bad desires (the same goes for good desires, of course). Freedom of action does not imply freedom of desire. Thus the person may not be free though her actions are (since they follow from her desires). The actions of a criminal may be free but not blameworthy.

            I have not said that freedom entails physical determinism, only psychological determinism. So psychological determinism is not incompatible with freedom: but what about physical determinism? There is some feeling that physical determinism is in tension with freedom, because all the movements of the body are uniquely predetermined by antecedent physical conditions, and freedom requires the ability to do otherwise. But this is confused: it doesn’t matter that all my movements are physically predetermined, so that my will has no power to change them to other types of movement; all that matters is that I have the power to move differently in the presence of different desires—which will require that the antecedent physical facts be different. Freedom does not require that someone just like me physically must be able to act differently from me—for that would imply that his action is disconnected from his desires (since he must have the same desires as me in virtue of the supervenience of the mental on the physical). The physical body is not like an outside agent interfering with my autonomy; it is simply the place where my desires naturally nestle. The fact that my body can no more depart from its causal history than a tree can is irrelevant to whether I am free: the question is whether I can act in accordance with my desires. There is an intuitive feeling that physical determinism conflicts with freedom, but there is no demonstration that the two are incompatible; and it is farfetched to suppose that our ordinary concept of freedom requires that physically identical agents should be able to act differently—that the future is not fixed by the past. That is a philosopher’s fancy not part of what our ordinary concept of freedom involves. The onus is on the philosopher to show us why there is any such entailment; and it would be strange if our ordinary concept implied such a surprising theoretical possibility. Rather, what our concept implies is something we know very well, namely that we act in accordance with our wishes; but that has nothing to do with breaches in physical determinism.

            I have argued that freedom entails necessitation and that necessitation does not undermine freedom. We thus cannot rule out freedom by establishing necessitation. Whether we are actually free is a further question, but I can see no reason why not and every reason to think we are. Freedom is acting in accordance with one’s strongest desire (all things considered), and this we do all the time; ergo we are free. My actions are free because I act as I wish to act. To be free is to be subject to law—the law of freedom.  [4]


Colin McGinn

  [1] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, “Of Liberty and Necessity”. It was reading Hume that led me to the proposals of this paper.

  [2] Ken Levy drew my attention to an excellent article by R. E. Hobart, published in Mind in 1934, entitled, “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It”. This article is very much in the spirit of what I argue here (and others have said similar things over the years); if I add anything, it is perhaps a new way of formulating the same basic points.

  [3] There are all sorts of complexities about the notion of “strongest desire” that I don’t want to engage here. All I need for my purposes is the idea that all actions are preceded by some sort of motivational state that causes them to occur (or causes the agent to perform them) and which involves law and necessity. I am claiming that freedom implies determination by motivational states of some sort as opposed to lack of determination by anything in the agent. So, roughly: people do what they desire to do because of their desires—where these operative desires cause and determine. These desires can range from a simple desire for food to the most sophisticated moral evaluations. One’s strongest desire might fall into the latter category: one wants above all to act rightly, so one acts on that desire, thus acting freely. This is quite compatible with having strong appetitive desires that the moral desire overrides. The law of strongest desire is intended to include cases in which moral motivations outweigh other kinds. The question I am concerned with is whether necessitation by one’s motives (prudential, moral, appetitive) undermines one’s freedom.

  [4] Everything in nature is subject to law, even free decisions. So free decisions must fall under laws, and there is no reason the corresponding law should not take the form of LSD. The law of freedom is not something that detractsfrom freedom.


Desire and Understanding



Desire and Understanding


In the course of a perceptive description of a cat James Joyce writes: “She understands all she wants to” (Ulysses, p.48). The cat doesn’t try to understand what she has no wish to understand, let alone what she cannot understand; she doesn’t try to acquire knowledge that doesn’t interest her. Her desire and her understanding are in perfect harmony. Nor does anyone try to force knowledge and understanding on her. She has what might be called desire-dependent understanding. Presumably other animals are the same way: they understand what they want to understand—what they need to understand to survive, what fits their natural life-style. We could even state a law of zoology: animals understand only what they desire to understand, neither more nor less. There is synchrony, a coordination of the mental faculties. They don’t know things they are not interested in knowing, and they do know what they want to know. That seems only right and proper.

            But humans are the exception to this rule: they understand a lot they have no desire to understand. I am not thinking so much of knowledge of unwelcome facts, though this is real enough; I am thinking of the process of formal education. We are a species that sends our kids to school for many years in order to learn things they are generally resistant to learning; no other species does this. We haven’t always done it: there was a time when human children were not forced to acquire knowledge they had no desire to acquire. But for centuries we have been forcing our children to learn what they desire not to learn—what they have no wish to learn. We have been filling them with desire-denying knowledge. Imagine if the same were true of (say) lions: instead of training their cubs in hunting skills in the usual way, they pack them off to boarding school to force them into endless lessons on correct predatory behavior, keeping them stuck indoors, giving them mountains of homework, forcing them to take stressful written examinations in how to bring down an antelope. We can suppose that the cubs don’t take kindly to this, suffering from maternal deprivation, jungle homesickness, performance anxiety, insomnia, and lifelong neurosis. We can even suppose that this education, so contrary to their natural inclinations, produces serious trauma with the inevitable PTSD. As it is, however, they are not subjected to this desire-denying regimen, but simply play with their mothers and siblings and gradually acquire the necessary skills. So far as I am aware there are no instances of lion cubs refusing to be taught hunting, feigning illness to avoid it, playing truant, and resenting the whole educational process. But human cubs experience the exact opposite: they really don’t like to do what they are coerced into doing on a daily basis for years on end. Their natural desires and their imposed educational program are completely out of sync. Their inclinations are violently flouted (sometimes literally).

            You would think this state of affairs might occasion serious reflection on the part of educators. Generally speaking, to thwart an organism’s natural psychological make-up is considered unwise: this degree of desire suppression might be thought to have some untoward psychological consequences. Isn’t school really a type of prison, psychologically speaking (it has often been experienced this way)? Isn’t it possible that education is inflicting massive trauma on its victims, causing neurosis, anxiety, low self-esteem, and general emotional sickness? And this is happening at a particularly vulnerable time in a human being’s life, when he or she has little in the way of emotional defenses. Could it be that deep-seated and widespread unhappiness results from this systematic violation of human desire? Isn’t it obvious that this is mental cruelty analogous to forcing cats to learn mazes all day? The standard response to this kind of concern is that they will thank us in the long run. There will be misery now, yes, but when they grow up they will feel the benefit. Granted no one would put children through this agony just for the sake of it—they are clearly not happy with the prevailing state of affairs—but the end justifies the means.    [1] We should always be wary of this type of argument (“spare the rod spoil the child” etc.) but there is this special consideration too: the reason for adopting this painful means to eventual happiness is the economic structure of the society that we now live in. So the defense of the oppressive nature of education is that it is necessary to survive in the economic world we have created—not that it is psychologically healthy for children and the adults they will become, or even tolerable. You might as well say, “Yes, I know it’s extremely damaging psychologically, but it’s the only way to prevent people from becoming destitute given the society we have created”. The fundamental point is that we are flouting a zoological law that ensures psychological harmony throughout the animal kingdom. Of course, people do like to learn things, even at school, some people more than others, but the form this has taken under relentless economic pressure is undeniably oppressive, going completely against the grain for almost everybody. (I am no exception: I recall the dread that ”Double Maths” used to instill in me, and I was pretty good at maths.) You would think the system might try to mitigate these deleterious effects, or at least openly acknowledge them; but it is has grown up with a naïve and outdated developmental psychology that pays little attention to the possibly traumatic effects of subjugation to a deeply disliked educational regime. James Joyce’s cat would not tolerate it for a moment–there would be all manner of biting, scratching, and screeching. Really, education should be against the law! And corporal punishment for failing at your lessons or “talking in class”—a class 1 felony.    [2]

            All this combines with a curious inconsistency: children are denied knowledge of what they want to know while being force-fed what they don’t want to know. I am speaking of sexual knowledge. True, things have improved somewhat, but even now there is a reluctance to teach sex with the rigor and determination with which (say) calculus is taught. And sex is a pretty important subject about which people have a lot of natural curiosity (I am here including love, family, friendship, human decency etc.). Shouldn’t children be given a full and deep education in such matters, possibly including examinations, advanced courses, and remedial classes? You can be sure it would be well received: it fits nicely with the human desire to know what it wants to know. And subjects that appeal less naturally to young people (for that is what they are) should be framed in such a way that their epistemic desires are properly respected. Otherwise we run the risk of producing a race of psychologically damaged, thwarted, depressed, warped, anxious victims. We can all now see how awful earlier pedagogical practice was, as we can see the same with respect to earlier child labor practices; but the fundamental problem hasn’t been solved, namely that education, as we have it today, is radically contrary to people’s natural desires. It is against human nature, to put it briefly. If children could learn mathematics in the way they learn their language—quickly, naturally, painlessly—things would be different, but sadly that is not the case given the way the human mind is structured. As things stand, we simply do not desire to learn things the way they are taught to us, or even at all in some cases. Does anyone believe it would be wise to teach every child Sanskrit or metallurgy or medieval manuscript writing on pain of serious punishment—for hours a day, year after year? Does anyone think that the fact that children would hate doing this is no reason not to impose it? We should always respect innate human psychology and not assume it can be violated with impunity. The element of coercion in current educational methods is a source of real concern (or should be), as are the psychological effects of the kind of education now taken for granted. The successful boy or girl is the one who survives this regime with the least psychological damage. I recall the day when I took my very last examination (I was 24) and the intense feeling of liberation I felt after the oppression of my earlier years. The system is frankly inhuman and despotic. It took me several years before the trauma began to wear off and I could live without the nightmare of a typical English education haunting me. And I don’t mean kids shouldn’t have to work so hard (I still work hard); I mean that their wishes in the matter of learning should not be routinely disregarded. They should be treated more like James Joyce’s cat, or as the lioness treats her cubs, or as the gorilla treats its aspiring little gorillas. It works for them; it should work for us (also primates). We should take a more biologically informed view of education. It’s a good idea in education to take a close look at the mind you are trying to educate and not suppose it is like a piece of putty you can mold at will, or as consisting just of a faculty of knowing that is independent of the rest of the human psyche. Children have desires about what they know and how they come to know it, which should be taken into account. So I advocate what might be called desire-sensitive education. 

    [1] Presumably we would all agree that other things being equal it would be preferable simply to download all this stuff into children’s brains so as to avoid the years of toil and heartache associated with traditional education. But of course this is not technically feasible, so we must resort to standard techniques of arduous instruction. Let it be noted that technological efforts to ease the process of education have long been sought, most recently in the form of the computer.

    [2] What would we think if the side effects of a formal education were even more severe than they are today? What if reading, writing and arithmetic caused actual physical pain and actual mental disorder? Would we still try to justify them by the instrumental value of a sound education in the 3 R’s? What if education made people go blind on a regular basis? I hope no one would argue that this would be good for children from a character-building point of view!


Lolita and Quilty




Lolita and Quilty


It is hard to fault Lolita artistically and morally, but there is one aspect of it that troubles me artistically, and possibly also morally: Lolita’s relationship with Quilty. Dare I suggest that it is a weakness in the novel? It has not always seemed so to me, but lately I have found myself baffled and bothered by it. I will try to express my concerns, confessing that they are difficult to pin down.

            Quilty is inscrutable for most of the book, a distant hovering presence. There are no scenes in which Lolita and Quilty appear together, though Humbert and Quilty are occasionally conjoined (notably when Humbert murders him). We learn most about him from Lolita’s stray remarks, which are mainly gathered in chapter 29, that most unbearable of chapters, in which Humbert reunites with a visibly pregnant Lolita accompanied by her new husband, Richard F. Schiller, following her flight from him three years earlier. Humbert wants to know the identity of the man who (as he sees it) abducted her, but Lolita is reluctant to tell him. Eventually he understands that Quilty is the man he seeks. We read: “She was, as I say, talking. It now came in a relaxed flow. He was the only man she had ever been crazy about. What about Dick? Oh, Dick was a lamb, they were quite happy together, but she meant something different. And I had never counted, of course?”

Dolores Haze was crazy about Clare Quilty (Clear Guilty?): that is a hard fact to absorb. He was an old friend of the family and had once pulled her “onto his lap in front of everybody, and kissed her face, she was ten and furious with him”. She confides to Humbert that Quilty “liked little girls, had been almost jailed once”. He also “saw…through everything and everybody, because he was not like me and her but a genius. A great guy. Full of fun. Had rocked with laughter when she confessed about me and her, and said he had thought so.” But that’s not all: “He was a great guy in many respects. But it was all drink and drugs. And, of course, he was a complete freak in sex matters, and his friends were his slaves. I just could not imagine (I, Humbert, could not imagine!) what they all did at Duk Duk Ranch. She refused to take part because she loved him, and he threw her out.” Pressed for details about the things that happened at the ranch, she continues: “Oh, weird, filthy, fancy things. I mean, he had two girls and two boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude while an old woman took movie pictures.” She intimates that when she refused to perform oral sex on the boys, because she only wanted Quilty, “he kicked me out”.

            So this is the man that Lolita loved and was “crazy about”: not her husband and certainly not her stepfather-lover. The question that troubles me is why. She seems only too aware of his depravity, his absolute lack of decency, and his vile exploitations. He callously threw her out into the street for not obeying his pornographic instructions–and yet she loved him (maybe still does). He is clearly an exceptionally bad man, a villain of the first order, and she knows it. His only redeeming feature, apparently, is that he is a “genius”: but there is no evidence that he is a genius; he is just a second-rate provincial playwright. Why does Lolita think he is a genius? And even if he is, how does that excuse his beastly behavior—toward her and in general? When we meet Quilty in person, in the scene in which Humbert shoots him to death, he appears as a deranged drug addict, a rambling psychopath, and a clownish figure of fun. How can Lolita be so blind? She flees Humbert to join this odious man—not to escape the panting pedophile but to embrace a new one. Why would she do that? Humbert treated her more kindly and was less outrageous in his demands. It could not be Quilty’s confessed semi-impotence that attracted her, because she seemed more than willing to become his lover. His general awfulness was no impediment to her affections.

            This then is the puzzle: why does Lolita love the odious Quilty? We can understand why she might want to escape the clutches of a pedophile by running to an old family friend, but why must she love this despicable creep? She hates Humbert for his exploitation of her, but she seems remarkably forgiving when it comes to Quilty’s even more egregious exploitation. He is praised as “a great guy” and “full of fun”. Is this intended as ironic? It seems not to be, but if it is then the puzzle becomes even sharper: he is certainly not a great guy and full of fun, but a coldhearted manipulative pervert (for more on this theme see his interview with Humbert in chapter 35). He kicks her out on her own, a bereaved motherless teenage girl, with zero resources, totally vulnerable, simply because she refuses to participate in his filmed orgies. She evidently means nothing to him save as a pornographic prop (he expresses no affection for her when confronted by Humbert, nor the slightest concern for her welfare). You would think that Dolores Haze—generally an intelligent and perceptive girl—would hate the bastard’s guts. Yet she scarcely makes any judgment against him, noting only that he “broke my heart” (while Humbert “broke my life”). Moreover, she seems to have been infatuated with Quilty for quite some time, dating from before her ill-starred association with Humbert. Indeed, it would appear that she was in love with him during her “affair” with her stepfather (this is why she arranged for him to follow them across the country).

 What I don’t understand is why she loves him and why Nabokov chose to make her love him. Is it just to pile on the tragedy? Is it because otherwise we can’t see why she would run to him? Is it because of the pain this gives Humbert (who deserves much pain)? To me it seems gratuitous, perverse, and unintelligible—an absurdity. The other romantic relationships in the book make sense, including Charlotte’s devotion to Humbert: but not this one. It is not humanly plausible and not artistically required. Quilty could have been a villain like Humbert, his double in depravity, but he didn’t have to be a loved villain. Why did Lolita not turn from him in revulsion? I therefore find that I cannot reconcile myself to this aspect of the novel. It strikes me as an artistic misjudgment (painful as it is to say this) and it lowers my moral opinion of Lolita (also painful). Some readers may be tempted to resort to psychoanalytic explanations—the long-dead father, the overbearing mother, a masochistic personality. But none of this sort of funny business is apparent in Nabokov’s text, and he was notoriously opposed to such explanations (Freud the “Viennese quack”). Thus I remain puzzled and disturbed.



Meaning, Use, and Time


Meaning, Use, and Time



I propose to do a Kripke: I will describe an argument that was prompted by reading Wittgenstein—which I neither attribute to Wittgenstein nor endorse myself.  [1] I think it fits many of the things he says, and I also think it is interesting and compelling; but I don’t want to defend it as an interpretation by engaging in elaborate exegesis, and neither do I wish to give it a full defense as an independent argument. (In fact, just between us, I believe it isWittgenstein’s argument, and I also think it is basically sound, but it is not my intention here to establish these propositions; so let’s keep my real opinion hush-hush for the moment.)  The argument has to do with the relation between meaning and use, and centers on how both relate to time. Put very simply, it says that use is spread out over time while meaning exists at a time, so that meaning cannot be use; and yet meaning must be use, there being nothing else it could be. So we have a puzzle, a paradox: meaning must be what it cannot be; in its very nature it cannot be what it intrinsically is. This is a situation calling for philosophical treatment, possibly quite radical treatment; some major surgery is going to be required. I take it the paradoxical element is clear: it is paradoxical to claim that meaning is extended use over time and also that words mean what they do at particular times irrespective of what might be true earlier or later. That does not require elaborate argument; what is less obvious is the truth of the two propositions that lead to the paradox. I will venture to quote a section from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that expresses the paradox I am interested in (strictly the reader should interpret “expresses” weakly in this sentence given my official position): “But can’t the meaning of a word that I understand fit the sense of a sentence I understand? Or the meaning of one word fit the meaning of another?—Of course, if the meaning is the use we make of the word, it makes no sense to speak of such ‘fitting.’ But we understand the meaning of a word when we hear or say it; we grasp it in a flash, and what we grasp in this way is surely something different from the ‘use’ which is extended in time!” (138) Other sections that return to, and elaborate on, this initial formulation include 139, 141, 184, 187, 188, 191, 193, 194, 196, 197, 198, 199, and 204. Here we see stated the apparent conflict between the use conception of meaning and the fact that we understand a word at a given time—entirely not just partially. We don’t have to wait to know the future use in order to know what the word means now as the meaning unfurls over time; yet the temporally extended use is the meaning. How can both of these things be true?

            It is very important to see that use is extended over time; this is not disputed by Wittgenstein but simply accepted as obvious by him. We find him being quite explicit about this in sections 198 and 199 (which I won’t quote in full): use is always extended use, repeated use, recurrent use. This is because rules cannot be followed just once: “a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom.” (198) In section 199 we read: “It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on.—To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order,  to play a game of chess, are customs(uses, institutions).” We should really speak of the extended use theory (conception, picture) of meaning; a single isolated use just won’t cut it, according to Wittgenstein. Of course this is quite correct empirically: linguistic use isspread out over time, often a very long time. Notice that Wittgenstein is not saying that meaning and rule-following consist in abilities to use or dispositions to use; he is saying that that meaning consists in repeated use itself (compare the locution “Is he still using?” asked of a drug addict). To understand a word is not to have an ability or disposition to use a word in a certain way over time—that might be possessed at or time or be manifested only once—it is actually to use it regularly over time. That is, meaning is matter of actions performed repeatedly over time: how many such actions must be performed is hard to specify, but a decent number is required. Meaning is something temporally distributed, like a habit or a fitness regimen or a custom. Some facts (things, properties) exist at a time in temporal isolation, while others are essentially spread out in time; meaning is of the latter type. As examples of the former type we might list: shape, size, color, mass, modal status, spatial occupancy, function, geometric relations (such as isomorphism), and picturing. The last item is of special significance because in the Tractatus Wittgenstein compared meaning to picturing, construed geometrically (lines of projection etc.); and picturing is an at-a-time type of fact. Most properties are like this: temporally isolated, punctate, of the moment. They don’t go on through time indefinitely; they can be instantiated just once, requiring no other times for their existence. But meaning, according to Wittgenstein, is different, belonging as it does to the more rare category of the temporally extended. It isn’t the only such property—we also have rule following in general as well as some non-rule-following facts (habits etc.)—but it is an instance of the rarer type.  [2]

            What else can we say of meaning if it consists of extended use? Well, what is a use? Wittgenstein gives us little guidance, but I think the following must be uncontroversial: uses are actions, and these actions are utterances. They are acts of speech, which are utterances (generally vocal but sometimes gestural). The acts occur in certain contexts and circumstances, and they have a history as well as future consequences: meaning consists in such situated utterances, according to Wittgenstein. We may then deduce that meanings are given by specific concrete acts of utterance—generally sounds made by mouths. To say that meaning is use is to say that meaning is, or includes, sound (or possibly hand movements in the case of deaf speakers). What else could linguistic use be? Intentional purposive sound, to be sure, situated-in-a-form-of-life sound, community sound if you like—but still sound. What is sound? We might construe it subjectively as auditory impressions, or we might construe it objectively as physical waves in the atmosphere—in either case meaning is being explained in terms of sounds (along with their “surroundings”). We might then reasonably wonder whether meaning itself has anything to do with sounds, as opposed to the expression of meaning: do meanings sound like anything, can they be measured by a speech spectrograph, what has meaning got to do with the sounds coming out of people’s mouths? But Wittgenstein does not raise such concerns; they suggest the possibility of a category mistake. What he does bring up is the question of at-a-time meaning: how can it be true that I understand a word when I hear or say it? The meaning seems to be right there then not to be in the process of unfolding itself over time: it seems to be present in the instant, hermetically cut off from anything past or future. Some theories of meaning acknowledge this fact: the image theory, Frege’s sense and reference theory, dispositional theories, Gricean intention-based theories, the picture theory, and others. But a use theory cannot acknowledge it in any straightforward way, or so it seems: it apparently has to deny an apparently obvious fact. Hence the paradox, since this fact is not seriously deniable. Something therefore has to go: either meaning is not use after all, or common sense is in error in supposing that meaning can exist whole and entire at a given time. Wittgenstein tries to remove the paradox having first presented it (shades of Kripke’s Wittgenstein): it is a kind of skeptical paradox and it receives a skeptical solution. What that solution is supposed to be I have not ventured to explain, and I think Wittgenstein’s remarks on the subject are obscure, as well as fleeting. The closest he comes to anything you can get your teeth into is section 187, which concludes with these enigmatic words: “When you said “I already knew at the time…..” that meant something like: “If I had then been asked what number should be written after 1000, I should have replied ‘1002’.” And that I don’t doubt. This assumption is rather of the same kind as: “If he had fallen into the water then, I should have jumped in after him”.—Now, what was wrong with your idea?” But I won’t attempt to penetrate this fog here; my concern is with the apparent paradox that leads up to it. For it certainly does seem as if we have a real puzzle before us: there is a definite clash between the use theory of meaning and the temporal facts of meaning. How can meaning exist ata time and yet only exist over time?  [3]

            It might be thought that there is a way out: simply claim that meaning determines use, and is determined by it, without being use. That is, something obtains at a given time that fixes future use but it isn’t identical with future use. We thus modify the original formulation of the use theory to read as follows: meaning consists in an at-a-time fact that determines future use. This seems like our commonsense view: there is something about me now that fixes, anticipates, entails how I will subsequently use my words—and this is what meaning is. The use is contained in the meaning, inherent in it, uncoiling as I make my linguistic journey through time. But famously this is what Wittgenstein contests (at least in the form in which we are tempted to think of it) and which Kripke’s exposition emphasizes: there is no current fact capable of this kind of determination. Or if there is it is not of the kind that philosophers have supposed and common sense seems to assume. Thus the paradox has no evident solution: the inescapably correct extended use theory is inconsistent with the obvious fact of at-a-time meaning. We are stuck with two apparent truths that are inconsistent with each other. This was Wittgenstein’s worry, what he struggled with in the relevant sections of the Investigations (at least this is the interpretation that might naturally occur to one upon reading these difficult pages). Not that there is no fact of meaning at all (as in Kripke’s interpretation) but that there is no present fact: extended use is a type of fact and it suffices to capture meaning (Wittgenstein assumes), but it won’t help us understand how meaning can exist during short intervals of time. It can’t be the fact of meaning if meaning can occur in its absence, i.e. ahead of all those repeated uses. Meaning can’t be extended andcompacted, spread out over time and yet squeezed into a moment. It can’t relate to time in both these ways. It seems to be both like shape or color or picturing and like a habit or a custom or a practice: but that is not possible. It must be one thing or the other. This is what makes meaning paradoxical and philosophically challenging. This is why we need a new meta-philosophy to handle the problem. This is why the Tractatus was barking up the wrong tree: it didn’t just propose a false theory of meaning; it failed to grasp the underlying problem.

            Compare the pragmatist theory of truth. Suppose we say that truth consists in usefulness. Then we add that usefulness is a matter of how things turn out in the future (“in the long run”). It will follow that truth is spread out over time. Truth is a matter of ongoing success not a matter of current correspondence or momentary coherence. Pragmatism is a future-looking doctrine, because it stresses human action, which is distributed in time. And it is not the doctrine that truth determines success, as if it is another property merely correlated with success; it issuccess—usefulness, desire-satisfaction. Truth looks ahead, and it depends on what happens in the future. The result is that nothing can be said to be true (or false) at a time before the proposition in question has had a chance to demonstrate its usefulness. There can’t be at-a-time truth. This looks like a problem for the pragmatist theory, though the bullet-biting pragmatist may opt to declare that the consequence is acceptable—truth can never really exist before usefulness has been exemplified. Given that the use theory of meaning is a type of pragmatist theory, we can see how such theories tend to produce these kinds of problems and puzzles: use and usefulness are cross-temporal facts, because actions are spread out in time. If I were to say that perception is a matter of actions, we would have the same result: nobody could ever perceive anything in a temporally isolated way. If to see something red now consists in what the perceiver goes on to do in the future, then obviously no one could see something red now unless such a future exists. This kind of theory seems obviously false given the facts of perception, but in the case of meaning things are not so clear, because meaning is not so phenomenologically striking. If a property holds in virtue of future facts, then clearly there have to be such facts for it to hold (this is obvious for the utilitarian view of the good, for example). We might try going dispositional in these cases, but that will raise problems of its own (explored by Kripke). The recent popularity (and obscurity) of this kind of approach is testament to the severity of the underlying problem.  We really do need to appeal to actual use, but then we are saddled with the time problem (we could call it the “time-meaning problem”). How is meaning related to use-in-time? Are they identical, or are they distinct and contingently correlated? Is there a determination relation between them (supervenience)? Is the link real but mysterious, or is meaning perhaps illusory? This is a characteristic philosophical problem with the usual range of options. In a way Wittgenstein is doing traditional philosophy in raising it, however unconventional his own response may be.

            Kripke compares Wittgenstein’s skeptical paradox to Hume’s treatment of causation. I see a similarity too, but a different one. If causation were a necessary relation, it could intelligibly hold at a specific time, since modal properties are at-a-time properties. But if we despair of finding such causal necessitation, plumping instead for constant conjunction, then again we get a problem with time. For constant conjunction occurs over time; and then we have to suppose that causation can’t be an at-a-time property. For one event to cause another at time t is for other similar events to cause similar events in the past and future: so there can’t be one-off causation and causation must be temporally dispersed. We try to find something observable for causation to be, but all we can find is future constant conjunctions; so causation turns out to be extraneous to what is happening at a given moment of causal interaction. Meaning, too, turns out to reside in uses that lie in the future relative to the present act of meaning, thus rendering problematic the very notion of meaning-at-time. Regular uses are like constant conjunctions—at some distance from the fact they are supposed to encompass (as judged by what is known at the time). There is obviously a general problem here with certain philosophical tendencies or theses, with meaning just one (striking) example.

            I actually think there are several distinct strands in Wittgenstein’s discussion of meaning in these sections of the Investigations, intertwined in complex ways; the theme I have extracted is just of them, though a central one. The problem doesn’t have to do with facts versus non-facts, or the individual versus the community, or the inner versus the outer; it has to do with the conflict between meaning-as-use and meaning-as-known. Linguistic use is spread out over time, but linguistic knowledge is of the moment: how can those two truths be reconciled? I have not tried to delve into Wittgenstein’s attempted resolution (a daunting task), being content to have articulated the problem he raised.

  [1] See Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1984)

  [2] It is noteworthy that Wittgenstein makes very little play with the notion of a disposition in these sections of the Investigations, not even considering it as a possible resolution of his puzzle (in this he contrasts sharply with Kripke’s interpretation of him). I think this is because he simply didn’t take it seriously as an account of what meaning and understanding might be. There are many reasons why he might have taken this view, but surely it sacrifices a great deal of what he finds attractive in the actual-extended-use theory. Also, it is just plain obscure: how can my knowledge of what I mean now consist in knowledge of what I am disposed to do in the future, even assuming there is such a thing? Why is what I do in the future determined by my current dispositions? We have become far too sanguine about the notion of a disposition in the period following Wittgenstein’s Investigations. The positivists would have regarded the notion as positively mystical, and certainly not usable as a basic philosophical tool. What (the hell) is a disposition?  

  [3] The puzzle would affect analyticity: how can a sentence be analytic at a certain time, given that its meaning is fixed by what happens later? Wouldn’t we have to wait to see how the words are used in the future? And nothing presently available can fix this. So analytic truth starts to look problematic—a central plank of positivist philosophy (and not only that). And how can analyticity consist in conventions if conventions are human practices that are spread out in time?


Consciousness and Punctuation



Consciousness and Punctuation


Molly Bloom’s famous stream-of-consciousness monologue in James Joyce’s Ulysses goes on for over forty pages without any punctuation. Here is a brief extract: “I dont see anything so terrible about it Ill tell him about that some day not now and surprise him ay and Ill take him there and show him the very place too we did it so now there you are like it or lump it he thinks nothing can happen without him knowing he hadnt an idea about my mother till we were engaged otherwise hed never have got me so cheap as he did…” (648) The idea is that consciousness in its primordial form is punctuation-free, punctuation being a conventional device of straitjacketed civilization. That is no doubt true of non-verbal forms of consciousness, since they are not even instances of language, but is it true of interior speech? Certainly such speech does not contain anything like articulated symbols for the comma, full stop, semi-colon, colon, dash, parenthesis, etc. But it doesn’t follow that punctuation has no psychological reality in the stream of verbal consciousness. And surely it does: for one thing, the boundaries of a sentence must be marked somehow, since thoughts have natural unity. A thought begins and ends, and a sentence expressing a thought must do the same; there must be natural breaks in the flow of inner speech. Punctuation is an adjunct of grammar, corresponding to grammatical categories: it helps resolve ambiguities and enters into phrase structure. Conventional punctuation marks are simply expressions for these structural boundaries. That’s why it’s hard to read Molly’s ramblings: we keep having to impose grammatical structure, mentally inserting full stops and the like. We don’t need fancy distinctions, as between the dash, semi-colon and colon, but we do need something like the full stop, or else we don’t know when one thought ends and another begins. Verbal inner consciousness is segregated into thought-like units—that is what it is. So Joyce was not being faithful to the real structure of consciousness; it isn’t a stream in the sense of a continuously flowing non-digitized manifold. Why didn’t he let words flow into each other as well as sentences? Because words are discrete units not merging fluidities—this is why we have a space between them in written format. Such spacing is actually a form of punctuation—it indicates lexical separation. Similarly for word order: this too is a type of punctuation, a way to indicate the orderly sequence of words. Molly doesn’t just string words together any old way, as if that were the real way thought operates. Written punctuation is indeed not part of conscious verbal thought, but it corresponds to real divisions in interior monologue. It is the same for spoken language: we don’t say “comma”, “full stop”, etc. as we speak, but our speech has ways of indicating linguistic structure, mainly temporal (pauses, intonation patterns, etc.). In short, verbal consciousness is punctuated consciousness, even the loose and earthy Molly Bloom’s.  [1]

            This raises an interesting question: is punctuation part of language? Is there a viable semantics of punctuation marks? It’s hard to see how denotational semantics could apply, since such marks don’t refer to anything (and nor do the speakers who rely on them). We don’t find Frege claiming that the comma has a sense and reference (denoting perhaps The Pause), or Tarski-Davidson offering a recursion clause for the dash. But it doesn’t seem wrong to suppose that such elements contribute to meaning somehow. What if we came across a group of speakers who pedantically enunciate every device of punctuation–wouldn’t these punctuational utterances strike as just bits of language? And isn’t it just obviously true that punctuation marks are part of written language? They have meaning; they contribute to sense. They don’t refer to anything or possess a mode of presentation or even express “tone” or “coloring”, but they have significance of some sort. In virtue of what do they have this significance? The answer is obvious: they have a use. They are mainly used to express grammatical structure, notably the boundaries of thoughts. That is their function—their job, their rationale. They are thus prime candidates for a use theory of meaning. The meaning of a name may not be its use (that is a matter of its reference and perhaps associated descriptions), but the meaning of a full stop is its use in indicating the end of a sentence. We can even say exactly what the use or function is by stating the role of the punctuation mark in discourse—which is how we characteristically teach people to use punctuation marks. We don’t say what they refer to or what concepts they express; we say how they are employed in order to fulfill the aims of written language. Children pick up the use of the pause in speech without any instruction, and they do this by learning a skill; it is part of general linguistic mastery. So punctuation is meaningful in virtue of having a use in speech. But this is just one type of meaning and should not be generalized to other parts of language: it is not true that all words are meaningful in the way that punctuation marks are. We shouldn’t go all in for “punctuation semantics”: we shouldn’t think that punctuation has the kind of theoretical primacy often associated with the proper name, for instance. Wittgenstein could have cited punctuation in support of his thesis of the irreducible multiplicity of language, but no one would suppose that punctuation is the very essence of all language.  [2]

            Does punctuation have computational reality? Is it part of the mechanics of the language of thought? Are there elements of Mentalese that correspond to the conventional punctuation marks? This is an empirical question, but I think there are reasons to suppose that it must be so. For the processing rules of the language of thought must incorporate markers for sentence, clause, word order, and word separation (among other things): and this is in effect a system of punctuation. In particular, sentence boundaries must be identified and respected: it’s no good proceeding in the manner of Molly Bloom if you want a coherent generator of linguistic strings. The category of Sentence requires a method of marking a particular sequencing of lexical elements—a division between sentences and non-sentences. This is just what the full stop is designed to do, and there must be a psychological equivalent in the language of thought. Even more nuanced devices such as the colon, semi-colon and dash must exist in the language of thought, simply because they correspond to real distinctions in how sentences are put together; these devices don’t come from nowhere but reflect real psycholinguistic distinctions. Inner speech is equipped with devices performing these more nuanced functions, which is why it maps so neatly onto outer speech (including writing). At some level the neurons know what a semi-colon is, or they act as if they do. Conventional punctuation is the externalization of internal computational punctuation—at any rate, that is a plausible hypothesis. It isn’t that punctuation has a purely behavioral reality: the mind is a punctuated mind, consciously and unconsciously. Grammar is psychologically real, and so is the punctuation that goes with it.

            Let me end on a personal note: I am myself a punctuation freak. I am extremely fond of punctuation marks—I see them as my little friends– and I want them to be understood and prized by every schoolchild and responsible citizen. It pleases me to conclude that punctuation is written deep into the brain, into the marrow of the soul. I don’t think it is a pointless dispensable frippery, rightly thrown overboard by primordial Molly. I notice how careful James Joyce is with his own punctuation and I venture to suggest that punctuation is God’s own handiwork (so to speak). It is an adornment of nature. We have a proud punctuation gene lodged in our innate linguistic endowment.  [3]


  [1] I don’t see any italics in Molly’s monologue either, which is strange given her emphatic nature; here too Joyce is impoverishing her linguistic resources while ostensibly celebrating them. He really should have put more in not less if he wanted to capture the full richness of interior speech.

  [2] We can imagine a kind of anti-Tractatus penned by some Mittgenstein or other claiming that the punctuation mark is the key to all language (and thought). Perhaps the full stop is the very essence of the symbolic: not the picture theory of meaning but the period theory. We just need a lot of periods and we can generate all conceivable symbolism…

  [3] Let me not be misunderstood: we don’t have the conventional written symbols for punctuation encoded in our genes; we have their psychological equivalents or antecedents in our DNA. What these look like exactly we don’t know. But then we don’t know what the lexicon looks like either at the most basic level. Punctuation is not without mystery.


Personality Theory



Personality Theory


Personal identity has an established place in the philosophical universe but personality is not so sedulously studied. People have personalities (some animals too) but not much is said about them by philosophers (by psychologists, yes, where personality theory is part of the curriculum). Why not? There are some good philosophical issues here, and the subject is certainly of considerable intrinsic interest (and not just to philosophers). There is first the question of the ontological status of personality traits: what are these exactly? A psychologist will tell you about the Big Five personality traits–openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—and you will have some idea of what she is talking about; but it is not so easy to say what having these traits consists in. The philosopher might lazily announce that such traits are dispositions to behavior without inquiring too closely into what precisely such a disposition might be, both with respect to its intrinsic nature and the range of behavior held to characterize the disposition. Is there any more reason to be a behaviorist about personality than any other psychological fact? The problem, evidently, is that personality traits are clearly not reducible to experiences or beliefs or speech or episodes of behavior, and yet they are perfectly real things. There may well be associated qualia and conduct, but these are not what such a trait is. The trait itself seems curiously elusive, being neither observable from the outside nor introspectable from the inside. It is perhaps the basis of a set of dispositions, which may be very various, but it is not simply identical to such a set—any more than molecular structure is identical with its associated dispositions. So there is first of all a fundamental question of ontology, with the usual threats of reduction, elimination, and mystery. We don’t have any clear idea of what a personality trait is.

            Other questions quickly crowd in. Is there something it’s like to have a certain personality trait, say extroversion, or is personality phenomenologically blank? Is personality a causal factor in the production of behavior, in addition to belief and desire and other recognized factors? Is it part of the explanation of intentional action? Does it cause action? How does personality relate to the brain? Could it be identical to a brain state? If not, why not (it has neither semantic content nor qualitative character)? Are traits of personality analyzable in any way: do they have compositionality or hidden structure? Are they definable? How are they related to desires? Certain desires seem characteristic of a given trait, but is there any necessary relation? Do extroverts always and necessarily desire to hang out with other people? What causes such traits to exist in an individual—genes, social interactions, education, reading habits? And what causes them to change and possibly disappear? How plastic are they? Can there be a complete alteration of personality? Traits don’t come and go like sensations or beliefs, but they do seem to be in a constant state of flux; they are not just passive elements of one’s psychological anatomy. They grow with age and can become atrophied. Are they supervenient on other parts of the psyche, particularly desires; or are desires supervenient on them? How exactly do personality traits interact with desires? Do they sometimes fix beliefs? These are all good questions, but we don’t find philosophers addressing them. It’s as if personality doesn’t exist so far as the philosophy of mind is concerned.    [1]

            Personalities notoriously vary, but are there any personality universals? Are there personality traits that all humans share? Is there a species personality? This question is like the corresponding question about languages; indeed, there is quite an exact parallel. Despite many local variations there is a substantial core of common traits—a human type. The same is true for other species, as any pet owner knows. Humans are apt to be acquisitive, competitive, social, family-oriented, hospitable, nervous, and afraid of death (among other things)—though there is much scope for variations of expression and different triggering conditions. No doubt this phenotypic coincidence has a genetic basis: we humans are born with a specific type of personality different from the personality of big cats and tortoises (say). Do humans always have a personality? There may be pathological cases, such as brain damage, and we have all heard the phrase “he has no personality”, but any normal human has one—though it may not be scintillating or agreeable. A personality is your birthright, for good or ill; you have no choice in the matter. You have one as surely as you have a body or brain. You might be able to have it removed, but then you will end up like the proverbial vegetable. You exist; therefore you have a personality. Indeed, you exist as a personality: that is what you essentially are. What makes me me is my personality more than anything else: take that from me and you rob me of my essence. You can take my memories, all of them, and leave me intact as long as my personality survives. If I have many personalities, you might be able to take some of them and leave me still on the premises; but if I am rendered a personality vacuum, I am effectively extinguished.

            How limiting is personality? Is it like having a limit to memory? Does your personality prevent you from achieving certain things? Is it possible to transcend one’s personality? We are certainly not free of our personalities (single or multiple), but is it possible to bracket them, to break free of them? The question is not easy: don’t we need another personality in order to break free of this one, or can we step into a personality void and proceed from there? Is there such a thing as personality-independent action? Some have thought that God can confer such an ability (think of Saul on the road to Damascus), but doesn’t there need to be some personality germ in there that makes such a thing possible? How can I just lever a brand new personality into being? Don’t I need a personality to do that, and mustn’t this personality somehow carry the new one within it? I can’t make myself be a patient person, say, simply by willing it (though I might be able to moderate my impatient actions). Aren’t we really imprisoned by our personalities? Don’t our personality traits form the bars of our existential cage? Don’t they sharply limit our freedom? At best you can use one trait to do battle with another (Agreeableness versus Impatience), but you can’t set yourself against your entire personality. Personality is fate. What personality is exactly is not so clear, but it is clear that it has a powerful grip on us. We do well to develop a sound philosophy of it.

    [1] I will refrain from cliched comment about the personalities of philosophers: is this why the subject is so neglected?