Analytic and A Priori



Analytic and A Priori


Take any ordinary analytic statement and prefix it with “It’s analytic that”: is the result analytic? Is “It’s analytic that bachelors are unmarried males” analytic? The answer would appear to be yes, since the meanings of the embedded sentence and the word “analytic” entail its truth. You don’t need to look outside the meanings of these words in order to know that the sentence is true. It’s not like saying that the sentence “Bachelors are unmarried males” was once uttered by W.V. Quine, which is a synthetic statement requiring knowledge of extra-semantic facts. What about synthetic sentences: if you prefix one of these with “It’s synthetic that”, do you get an analytic truth or a synthetic truth? You get something true, obviously, since the embedded sentence is synthetic (say, “Quine taught at Harvard”), but is the complex sentence itself synthetic? The answer would appear to be no, since the meaning of the embedded sentence requires that the world has to make a contribution to determining truth-value. It follows from what the sentence means that it is synthetic, so given the meaning of “synthetic” the complex sentence will be true in virtue of meaning, i.e. it will be analytic. More strictly, the sentence “It’s a synthetic truth that Quine taught at Harvard” will be analytically true, given that Quine actually taught at Harvard: that is, if Quine taught at Harvard, then it’s analytic that it’s synthetic that Quine taught at Harvard. It follows from the meaning of the embedded sentence that its conditional truth is synthetic, so this is an analytic proposition: the proposition is analytically synthetic. You can tell just from its meaning that its truth depends on the world, so it is analytically true that it is a synthetic proposition. We know just by philosophical reflection that synthetic propositions are synthetic, because this status depends on their meaning alone: the meaning of the corresponding sentence entails that it is synthetic, so it is analytic that this is a synthetic sentence. It is analytic that this is the type of sentence that is synthetic. So both analytic sentences and synthetic sentences are analytically of the type they are.  (Compare the fact that we can necessitate both necessity and possibility: “Necessarily p” implies “Necessarily necessarily p” but also “Possibly p” implies “Necessarily possibly p”).

            Now we get an interesting result: for every true proposition we can derive an analytically true proposition. That is clearly correct for analytically true propositions, since it is analytic that they are analytic; but it is also true for synthetically true propositions, since the statement that they are synthetically true is true analytically. Thus no one could claim that there are only synthetically true propositions: for every synthetic truth can provide the basis for a corresponding analytic truth, i.e. one saying that it is synthetic. It follows from the meaning of every synthetic truth that it is synthetic, i.e. requires the contribution of the world, so this fact is an analytic truth. It couldn’t be that every true sentence is synthetically true, since synthetic truths themselves generate analytic truths. If we announce that every sentence faces the tribunal of experience, we forget that this is not true for the sentence that says that it faces the tribunal of experience, because this is a fact about its meaning. Also, there are more analytic truths than synthetic truths, since every synthetic truth has a corresponding analytic truth, but not every analytic truth has such a corresponding synthetic truth. Someone might see in this asymmetry a reason for saying that analytic truth is more basic or primary, because all language requires the existence of analytic truths, even if they are limited to affirmations of syntheticity.

            Turning to the a priori, we get a parallel result (not surprisingly). If a proposition (or piece of knowledge) is a priori, is it a priori that it’s a priori? Evidently yes, since we know without empirical investigation that it’s a priori. Mathematical knowledge is a priori, but so is the knowledge that it is a priori. We don’t need to do an empirical investigation of mathematical knowledge; we know it by philosophical reflection. That is, if it is a priori, then our philosophical knowledge that it is so is also a priori. We don’t find this out from empirical psychologists. But now what about a posteriori knowledge: is it a priori or a posteriori that a given piece of knowledge is a posteriori? Clearly it is a priori: philosophers know that empirical propositions are empirical by a priori means. We know that “Quine taught at Harvard” is an empirical sentence just by understanding it, so we know this fact a priori. We can just see that it requires a posteriori investigation by knowing what the proposition is, so this knowledge is a priori. So every a posteriori proposition has a corresponding a priori proposition—the proposition that it is a posteriori. It would therefore we wrong to say that all propositions are (or could be) a posteriori: some have to be a priori. Someone might see in this a reason for thinking that a priori knowledge is more basic or primary than a posterioriknowledge. For every piece of a posteriori knowledge, there is a piece of a priori knowledge to the effect it is a posteriori. We can say the same about certainty and doubt: if it is certain that p, it is certain that it is certain that p(e.g. the Cogito); but also if it is doubtful that p, it is certain that it is doubtful that p. If the external world is doubtful, this fact is a certainty—it isn’t itself doubtful. I know for sure that the existence of the external world can be doubted. So again, certainty exists wherever there is doubt, even if it just concerns what is doubtful. Certainty thus has a claim to being more basic and primary than doubtfulness. We can therefore conclude that certainty, the a priori, and the analytic are everywhere, lurking in the background of the doubtful, the a posteriori, and the synthetic. We just need to go up a step and they loom into view.

            Once we have these points clear we can ask complicated questions about how the relevant concepts interact. Is it a priori that it’s analytic that it’s synthetic that p? Is it analytic that it’s necessary that p? Is it certain that it’s a posteriori and synthetic that p? I won’t go into these questions, but I think the answer is yes to each of them for suitable choices of p. People have tended to investigate the relevant concepts in isolation, but they interact in complex ways that tax comprehension. It is interesting to see how the semantic, epistemic, and modal line up, with the concepts that are often deemed secondary or dubious assuming a position of centrality. The certain, the analytic, the a priori, and the necessary all emerge as pervasive and tightly connected, as in hackneyed examples like “Bachelors are unmarried males”, which exhibits all four properties. This is actually a remarkable convergence once we take the measure of each concept (they are not at all identical or mutually entailing): it doesn’t seem necessary or analytic or certain or a priori that anything would exhibit all four properties together, and they can clearly come apart in certain cases. Yet here they all are crowded together into a single sentence! Finding them stuck together is the surprising thing, not finding them apart.[1]


[1] Kripke showed in Naming and Necessity that they come apart in certain cases; post-Kripke we may wonder how they ever manage to join together. This is certainly a non-trivial fact: why should a single proposition be analytic and a priori and necessary and certain? Yet here they nestle together like members of the same family. We can imagine philosophers for whom this is a momentous discovery—not the discovery that they can be instantiated separately (that is a truism).


Art and Morality



Art and Morality


Morality itself has nothing to do with art, but art is the primary means of expressing morality.[1] This conundrum doesn’t apply to other subjects: physics has nothing to do with art, but it doesn’t recruit art as its primary mode of expression. We don’t learn physics by studying or enjoying art, but we do learn morality by means of art: why? What is it about morality and art that brings them together? I mean “art” in a broad sense: literature, poetry, plays, film, pictorial art, music, anecdotal tales, and stories of personal drama. We are exposed to these forms from an early age and they saturate our moral sensibilities. It would be hard to preserve our moral attitudes if all these art forms were subtracted from our lives. Morality lends itself to artistic expression and communication even though it is not strictly an art form—any more than physics is (or any other science, or system of laws, or practical endeavor). Plato thought morality should steer clear of art, knowing full well that in fact art and morality are deeply enmeshed in our lives. Why should morality appropriate art as its chief weapon—why does this come so naturally to us? What is it about morality that invites artistic expression? If we came across people who made no such association, what would we think—are they missing a vital connection? Morality certainly can be expressed non-artistically, as in a system of laws or a work of philosophical ethics, so why does it rely so heavily on art? Just think of Western art and Christian ethics: where would the latter be without the former? And consider the contribution of the novel to morality as we have it today. The arts are clearly a powerful vehicle of moral education (despite what some aesthetes have maintained). Even the humble pop song is full of moral material.

            You might say that morality is all about emotion (unlike physics) and so is art. But (a) psychology is also about emotion but doesn’t seek out artistic expression, and (b) morality is not all about emotion (unless you are a diehard emotivist)—just consider Kantian ethics. Nor is all art dedicated to emotion. Is it because art is concerned with the specific and particular? Again, that is neither necessary nor sufficient (and is not really true): some moral knowledge concerns abstract universal principles, and being about the particular is not sufficient for being part of morality. Nor is art always about the particular. Is it that art is concerned with beauty and beauty leads the soul to the good (to put it Platonically)? This may sound on the right track, but the beauty of art is not confined to its moral dimension and not all of morality is aptly compared to the beautiful (what about boring everyday duties?). What about the idea that art and morality have the property of narrativity in common? But not all art with moral content is narrative in form (pictures, music), and morality is not really a narrative structure intrinsically, though it can be expressed in narrative form. Might it be that ethics is basically fiction and so is art? If you think there is no such thing as moral truth and that morality is a cultural construct, you might be tempted by this idea, but it is stretching the concept of fiction beyond reasonable limits and clearly depends on a contestable claim about morality. And in what sense are pictorial art and music “fictional”? Can we get anywhere with the concept of unity? Is it that art works have a unity that corresponds to the unity of the good? The trouble with this is that it is too vague: lots of things have unity without locking onto art as a main vehicle of expression (one might say embodiment). What kindof unity? Is the unity of the moral (“the Form of the Good”) anything like the unity of a poem or novel or painting? Does art make morality more concrete and imaginatively accessible? That sounds intuitively correct, but many things are abstract and hard to grasp without inviting art to express them—physics, mathematics, and philosophy. We are not finding any property of morality that particularly joins it with art—something that only art can do, and do well. How exactly does art aid our apprehension of the right and good? What does it add (or possibly take away: see below)? What makes it an appropriate means for representing the realm of good and evil?

            That last word provides a clue: when we think of morality we think about right and wrong—evil as well as good. This will involve us in contemplating the horrors of the world: suffering, cruelty, death, disease, misery, despair, etc. None of this is easy to bear; indeed, it might be said that we never contemplate these things in their complete reality—or if we do it is through half-closed eyes. The moral world is an unbearable world. Yet we live in it—we have to respond to it. Children dying of starvation in foreign lands, the unjustly imprisoned, the murder of innocents, animal cruelty—the stuff of the nightly news. We are aware of all this, dimly and reluctantly, and of our own complicity in it. But we shield ourselves from this awareness: we keep it at a safe distance. In addition, morality is a demanding mistress: she is constantly rebuking us for our weakness, cowardice, selfishness, and so on. We are highly ambivalent when it comes to morality; we don’t unequivocally love the good (it doesn’t love us as much as we would like). Morality is a problem for us not a soothing presence (as is God). So we avert our eyes from moral reality while being forced to confront it. This does not sit well with us: the human psyche (soul) is not cut out for morality—not up to its demands. The world is too horrible and we are too weak and selfish. We thus live in a state of cognitive dissonance when it comes to morality; there is a distinct lack of psychological harmony in our dealings with right and wrong, good and evil. Morally, we are a mess. We need protection from morality, some sort of filter or reducer. Plato said the good is like the sun in not being easy to stare at: we need to view it under suitable viewing conditions when its glare is not so overpowering. At full strength our faculties can’t cope with it, so we wait for clouds or sundown to mask its natural brilliance. By analogy, we need a way of apprehending morality that removes or masks its more disagreeable aspects—its resistance to unfiltered contemplation. What better way to do this than by clothing it in aesthetic robes? Then we can gaze at it in a form acceptable to us. We can gaze at picturesof the sun, and we can gaze at pictures of the good (i.e. the whole moral sphere). Art provides that picture: a way of seeing the world in all its horror without having to endure the full impact of that horror. Paintings can be beautiful (even of a crucifixion), novels amusing and gripping, music enlivening, poetry exquisite, movies entertaining—even when the subject matter is excruciating. The art form renders the unbearable bearable. It also deflects us from the grim task of doing what is right (where is the fun in that?). Art makes morality humanly acceptable: it embeds the moral in the aesthetic. It makes being a moral being a little bit easier. It is the equivalent of wearing dark glasses when you stare at an eclipse. True, it is a sign of weakness, of cowardice even, but at least you get to see the eclipse. Analogously, without the filter of art we would avert our gaze from morality altogether—because it is just too much to bear. As they say, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Art shields us from the reality of good and evil (the former too demanding, the latter too upsetting), but at least it allows us to open our minds to it. If you give a creature a moral sense, you had better give it a means of coping with that sense. Other animals have neither art nor morality, but we have both—and there is a reason we have both, viz. one allows us to live with the other. God gave us art so that we could face up to morality, at least fitfully. At the most primitive level storytelling is our way of dealing with the rigors of moral knowledge: at least we can creatively report the horror we just witnessed. Suppose a primitive man, recently endowed with a moral sense, witnesses the violent death of a beautiful animal: he feels the animal’s pain and fear and is suitably affected. He comes back to camp and makes a drawing of it or tells the story around the campfire: he has transposed the moral into the artistic, rendering it easier to bear. Looked at this way, art evolved from the need to soothe the moral sense—to render its deliverances bearable.[2] It’s either that or studiously avoid the horrors of the world, or develop a moral callousness that has its own difficulties. Art is the solution to the awful burden of moral consciousness, which has a dual nature: the reproachful character of morality, and the reality of suffering and death. It is the human mind trying to manage its awareness of right and wrong, good and evil. Sure, it’s a kind of cheat, but it beats the alternative, viz. a refusal to engage with morality at all. Art is better than callous nihilism. We don’t have this kind of problem with physics and other subjects: here we can gaze at the subject matter with nary a twinge of guilt or distress—we have no need of art to cope with knowledge of the physical world. But knowledge of the moral world is a very different proposition: in this case the knowledge carries inbuilt sources of disquiet and distress, requiring some coping mechanism. If we didn’t have art to fall back on, we would be faced with a choice between amoral indifference and moral despair—rejecting morality or being crushed by it. We could refuse to look at the sun or we could blind ourselves by looking too intently, or we can put on the dark glasses. Art gives us the kind of moral knowledge we can bear: not too intimate, not too searing, not too real. Could any human soul survive full awareness of the suffering that happens every day on planet earth? Instead we read Shakespeare or Tolstoy, or listen to music, or take in a movie. Art gives us a transformed awareness of morality, one that caters to our moral limitations. Sometimes it brings us uncomfortably close to moral reality as it really exists (as in King Lear) and artistic form only just renders it bearable; but mostly the reality is kept at a safe distance. In the case of bad sentimental art the blinders are fully on and nothing of moral reality seeps through, only an untruthful depiction of human (and animal) life. The best art lets moral truth shine through but with enough artifice to avoid total repugnance (War and Peace is a good example, or Madame Bovary): tremendous suffering but shaped by the devices of the artist.[3] Thus we can read a beautiful book about horrifying events; and the same can be said of other artistic forms (Guernica is the obvious example in the case of painting). Perhaps poetry is the purest form of this, because it deals with disturbing subjects in the most condensed and explicit artistic form—though music might claim to arouse the moral emotions from the most morally attenuated material (morality from sheer sound). If we include comedy as an art form, then too we can say that the joke presents morality in a form that makes us laugh: we laugh at what would otherwise make us cry.[4] All of this is immensely problematic and teetering on the brink of moral degradation, but if I am right this is the price we pay for engaging with morality at all. We really aren’t equipped to deal with morality (beyond its most elementary forms[5]), but we find in art a possible approach to it that we can tolerate. Compare a fine picture of the crucifixion with a detailed point-by-point description of crucifying a man (or seeing it actually done), or reading Flaubert’s account of Emma Bovary’s death with actually witnessing it. Morality has nothing intrinsically to do with art, but we can see how it might need art to become humanly feasible. The conundrum becomes intelligible. Moral consciousness is more easily borne when suffused with aesthetic consciousness.[6]


[1] This essay arose from reading Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). She talks a lot about the relation between morality and art. My own interest in the topic goes back to Ethics, Evil and Fiction (1997).

[2] This is not to say that art might not serve other functions too. Something as complex and multi-faceted as art might have evolved for several reasons. Perhaps it was repurposed at some point in order to help with the fallout from our moral sense, having first served some more mundane function (say, indicating the whereabouts of food or predators).

[3] Homer’s Iliad is an interesting case: the violence and bloodshed is so extreme and relentless that the real world of war seems to enter the artwork in naked form. Perhaps we have progressed morally beyond Homer’s world to such a degree that we need more art to cover the awful reality. The same might said of the Old Testament, which can only shock modern sensibilities. In the case of a work like Lolita a tremendous amount of artistic effort has to go into clothing and distancing the moral vileness on display: here art is called on to perform miracles.     

[4] Tragedy is the most difficult form to pull off because it comes perilously close to reality (no one would want to read a factual account of a murder like Othello’s murder of Desdemona). Perhaps this is why tragedies are often placed in an exotic context so that we don’t read them as reports of actual happenings: we can keep them safely at the level of fantasy. Perhaps too this explains the double use of “tragedy” to refer to a fictional work and a real-life event: the distinction becomes blurred.  

[5] Much of moral philosophy deals with such elementary cases (repaying debts, keeping promises, etc.). There is nothing wrong with dwelling on this mundane material, but we miss a lot in moral psychology unless we widen our vision to include more serious matters. Then we see how morality challenges and grieves us, and how we struggle with it. Being a moral being hurts (or ought to).

[6] The question of why humans evolved such a fraught faculty remains unanswered: why do we have a form of consciousness (cognition, emotion) that requires this kind of massaging? It seems like a kind of cosmic sadism (wonderful though it undoubtedly is). Animals are blissfully free of it. We have been colonized by the aesthetic-ethical complex.



Philosophical Philosophy by

Colin MCGinn

AbstrACt: I here set out my general conception of philosophy: it consists of a set of timeless problems that are not of the same nature as standard scientific problems, though we can rightly describe philosophy as a sci- ence. These problems are peculiarly difficult, which makes progress hard to achieve. Philosophy aims at clarification and intelligibility, and it is preoccupied with paradoxes and puzzles. We can describe philosophy as a logical science. It is unlikely ever to end.

Keywords: History, Science, Mystery, Clarification, Paradox

AbstrACt: In questo articolo espongo la mia concezione generale della filosofia, secondo cui la filosofia consiste di un insieme di problemi senza tempo che non sono della stessa natura dei problemi scientifici standard, sebbene sia possibile descrivere correttamente la filosofia come una scien- za. Tali problemi sono particolarmente difficili, il che rende difficile conse- guire dei progressi. La filosofia mira alla chiarificazione e all’intelligibilità, e si occupa di paradossi e rompicapi. È possibile descrivere la filosofia come una scienza logica. È improbabile che abbia fine.

Keywords: storia, scienza, mistero, chiarificazione, paradosso

Philosophy takes place within a social, political, and intellectual context. There is a surrounding culture or environment. Religion, morality, the arts, the sciences, war, peace, a general optimism or pes- simism – all these factors impinge on the way philosophy is practiced during a particular historical period. The factors can vary over time, causing philosophy to vary over time (also place). A given period may be preoccupied with rival political systems (ancient Greece in Plato’s time), or with the advent of natural science (seventeenth cen-

Syzetesis VIII (2021) 89-98 / ArtiColi ISSN 1974-5044 – DOI: 10.53242/syzetesis/5



Colin McGinn


tury Europe), or with the arts and architecture (Renaissance Italy), or with war and religion (early twentieth century Europe), or with populism and social media (today almost everywhere). Philosophy is apt to be shaped by these preoccupations, leading us to suppose that philosophy is historically constituted: it is the intellectual treatment of prevailing cultural formations. Philosophy is the philosophy of this or that (non-philosophical) area of human endeavor, an essentially second-order activity, so that its content is fixed by the prevailing cultural concerns. It is, in a broad sense, political, using that word widely to connote societal movements and developments: it is politi- cally engaged, politically formed. This is not true of other intellectual domains: physics and mathematics, say, are socially detached, apolit- ical. They have their own separate identity that transcends passing cultural moments; they occur in history but they are not of history. But philosophy, it may be felt, is inherently historical, and hence political in the broad sense. It feeds off history, societal context, and the affairs of the moment. It was different in ancient times and it may be different in the future; it may even be unrecognizable in the distant future. Philosophy is changeable and fluid, without any solid constant core – like literature, or politics itself.

I think this view is profoundly mistaken, though I understand its appeal. Philosophy consists of a fixed set of core problems that are invariant over time and social context. These problems have a spe- cific identity that is quite independent of political factors. A typical philosophy curriculum gives a fair sense of them: problems of meta- physics, epistemology, ethics, mind, language, logic, aesthetics, etc. I need not list these problems – we are familiar with them. They often take the form “What is X?” where X might be causality, time, space, knowledge, justification, the right, consciousness, reference, necessi- ty, beauty, etc. It is notoriously difficult to say what unites these many problems under the heading “philosophy”, but we know it when we see it: the problems strike us as peculiarly intractable, debatable, puz- zling, confusing, and fascinating. We call this quality philosophical, as in “That’s a philosophical question” or “Now you are getting philosoph- ical”. The quality does not normally belong to other types of ques- tions – questions that are factual or empirical or straightforwardly answerable. We are reduced to saying that philosophy is like jazz – you know it when you hear it. It is not easy to define the scope of other disciplines either, but at least we have short adjectives that give some sense of what the subject is all about. What is physics about?


Philosophical Philosophy


Well, there are many branches of physics, quite heterogeneous, but we can say (though not very illuminatingly) that they all concern the physical. In psychology, too, we find considerable heterogeneity and many branches, but at least we can say that they all concern the men- tal – even though that term covers a wide variety of phenomena. But in philosophy we seem stuck with the adjective philosophical, which is especially unhelpful. We know the quality when we see it, but we find it hard to articulate it with any clarity (it is that quality – whatever it is – that gives rise to a certain sort of intellectual cramp or perplexity or bafflement). I don’t think this difficulty undermines the legitimacy of the subject – after all, philosophy includes pretty much every area of human endeavor – but it makes the question of the nature of philos- ophy hard to answer. We can say that philosophy is concerned with concepts, but that risks misunderstanding and is surely too narrow as it stands – and isn’t psychology also concerned with concepts? In what way is philosophy concerned with concepts, and to what end? What is the nature of its questions, and what method does it use to answer them1? We can reply that it is concerned with concepts philo- sophically, or that it deals with philosophical questions about concepts, or that it uses the philosophical method to analyze concepts: but this leaves us where we started. It isn’t false to say that philosophy is con- cerned with concepts – in fact, it is perfectly correct – but it doesn’t give us much to go on. We do better to list the standard philosophical problems and say: “That is what philosophy is”. If you want to know what it is for a question to be philosophical, then acquaint yourself with some philosophical problems: then it will become manifest to you. These problems constitute the subject matter of what we call “philosophy”, and they are independent of time and context. They are self-standing, specific, and timeless. They transcend history.

How do the problems of philosophy relate to science? I wish to say two things about this: (a) the problems of philosophy are not scien- tific problems, or pre-scientific problems, and (b) philosophy is itself a science, but of a special sort. With respect to (a) it has often been maintained that philosophy is «continuous with science» – that it does not essentially differ from the accepted sciences. Perhaps it inte- grates or summarizes the sciences, or perhaps it is just more general but in the same line of business. One often hears it said, particularly

1 I discuss philosophy as conceptual analysis in C. McGinn, Truth by Analysis, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012.



Colin McGinn


by scientists, but not only by them, that the history of philosophy is the history of parts of philosophy splitting off and becoming real sciences – as physics split off from “natural philosophy” to become the science it is, and as psychology is still in the process of doing. This is taken to be a good and necessary thing, as if the splitting off were a step towards intellectual respectability after a shady past. Thus, it is assumed that all of philosophy will eventually metamorphose into science, and that what does not achieve this happy transition will be left to wither in peace. I think this view is completely wrong: philos- ophy is not continuous with science and its history is not a process of peeling off to become science. For philosophy consists of a distinc- tive set of peculiarly philosophical problems that are independent of cultural context, which includes science. The problem of skepticism, say, is not a scientific problem, and will never become one; nor is the mind-body problem a scientific problem; nor are the problems of ethics; and so on. Philosophy is just a different kind of subject – being concerned with problems of a philosophical nature. It charac- teristically wants to know what something is (essentially is), or how a problematic phenomenon is possible (consciousness, free will, a priori knowledge), or how one thing is consistent with another (knowledge with fallibility, contingency with determinism, emergence with nov- elty). In a very broad sense, philosophy is concerned with logical ques- tions – questions of definition, essence, entailment, and how things fit coherently together. It is about constructing a logically satisfying worldview. It aims to make things rationally intelligible (as opposed to discovering particular facts). It uses reason to make sense of things, and reason is an exercise of the logical faculties (not the sensory fac- ulties). Philosophy is about the logical structure of reality.

Regarding philosophy in this way, as a logical enterprise, opens the door for a salutary extension of the word “science”. Philosophy is a science – a logical science, a formal science. I like to call it “ontical science” by analogy with “physical science”: it is the general science of being. It is the science of what things essentially are, what their con- stitutive nature is; this is why definition looms so large in philosophy. What exactly is knowledge, free will, consciousness, moral goodness, necessity, causation, beauty, truth, the self, rationality, and so on? Philosophy approaches such questions in a scientific spirit, employing reason, careful reflection, logical deduction, and theory construction. It is not poetry, or mysticism, or propaganda, or politics. Its results are checkable, rationally debatable, and intended to state the objective


Philosophical Philosophy


truth. One of its methods is the thought experiment – imagining pos- sible states of affairs and asking how a given concept would apply in them. This is a genuine type of experiment – a procedure in which the outcome is not prejudged and which can be repeated by others. For example, imagine a situation in which someone has a true belief but no justification for that belief: does this person have knowledge? We can perform such experiments and obtain inter-subjectively verifiable results (which is not to say they are infallible – but what experiment is?). They can even be described as “empirical” in the sense that we can learn from the experience of performing them. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere and will not repeat what I have already said2. The key (and encouraging) point is that there is nothing to prevent us from describing philosophy as a science, though a science with its own distinctive character. It is a science in its own right and will not devolve into another type of science: it is a sui generis science. Just as the formal science of mathematics will never turn into physics or psychology, so the “ontical science” of philosophy will never turn into any other sci- ence. Its problems are what they are and not some other thing. Thus we can say that the historical subject of philosophy – that core of timeless philosophical problems – is a science in its own right. It is not “continuous” with other sciences in the sense of being just like them, or parasitic on them; rather, it is a science that belongs alongside the other sciences, an equal member of the club. We have the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology – and philosophy. Philosophy is “being-in-general science” (an Aristotelian conception).

To describe philosophy as a science raises expectations of progress analogous to the progress obtained by the other sciences. But does philosophy make this kind of progress? Doesn’t its lack of comparable progress undermine its title to qualify as a science? My reply is that these expectations are prompted more by conversational implicature than by logical (semantic) implication. Strictly speaking, the question of scientific status and the question of scientific progress are logically independent: the former does not entail the latter. Non-science can make progress and science can fail to make progress. You can make progress writing a novel or a biography without those things being forms of science, and some parts of science can be mired in contro- versy and resistant to progress (quantum theory, the origin of life, the psychology of creativity). Some sciences are simply more difficult than

2 Cf. C. McGinn, The Science of Philosophy, «Metaphilosophy» 46/1 (2015), pp. 84-103. 93


Colin McGinn


others; it is really a complete fluke that astronomy has made the pro- gress it has (fortunately light travels very fast and preserves informa- tion). The question is controversial but I would say that philosophy has made impressive progress over the last 2000 years, though large parts of it have not made the kind of progress we see in the other sciences. The reasons for this are debatable, but I think we can agree that central philosophical problems have not yielded to solution in the way many scientific problems have. One possible view is that philosophy bumps up against the limits of human intelligence – that it consists of “myster- ies”, not “problems”3. In philosophy we are mapping the outer limits of our intellectual capacity, which must be finite and specific if we are evolved creatures with limited brains (like all other creatures on earth). We are using our science-forming capacities to do philosophy, as we do in the other sciences (empirical and formal), but these capacities have their necessary inbuilt limits – and philosophical problems tax these limits. This is no detriment to the idea that philosophy is a type of science; it is just an especially difficult type of science. If we imagine beings intellectually inferior to us trying to do physics, we can envisage that they are recognizably capable of scientific thought but their tal- ents do not match our own – maybe they can get as far as Newtonian physics but then their brain engine runs out of gas. Just so there might be beings that can handle philosophical problems better than we can, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t really doing philosophy. Progress is a matter of contingent intellectual capacity; being a science is a matter of the intrinsic nature of the questions. Philosophy, considered as a set of questions, qualifies as a science, even though our capacities in doing it are less than stellar. Or maybe, every possible thinker would stumble over philosophical questions, given their intrinsic character; but that would just show that philosophy is a very difficult science. After all, Newton’s intellect was defeated by the nature of the gravitational force, as he admitted, but that doesn’t mean Newtonian physics isn’t really science. In fact, I would say that nearly all the sciences are confronted by deep mysteries, some possibly terminal, but they can still describe themselves as science. Not all science is successful science.

Philosophy is particularly concerned to get clear about things, so clarification is a central part of its mandate. It tries to make sense of things by clarifying them. It aims to render the world intelligible.

3 I discuss this in C. McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, Blackwell, Oxford 1993.



Philosophical Philosophy


The italicized words here are all redolent of language: words can be clarified, sentences can make sense (or not), and language is intelli- gible (though not always). This suggests that meaning is central to the philosophical enterprise: the philosopher is a student of meaning. We can understand this in two ways: the meaning of life, and the meaning of language. Both have been thought to come within the purview of philosophy, and properly so. It has even been maintained that philosophy is exclusively concerned with linguistic meaning – its sole job is to clarify the meaning of words and sentences. “What does it all mean?” might be thought to encapsulate the philosophical quest4. The narrow interpretation of this is that philosophy asks what words mean. This is not as narrow as it doubtless sounds, since word meaning brings in extra-linguistic reality, but so formulated the question leaves a lot out. I want to suggest, however, that it captures the essence of the matter: for philosophy is certainly concerned with intelligibility – though not only of language. Philosophy is concerned with the intelligibility of the world. It tries to make intelligible sense of the world by clarifying it. We want, for example, to understand the nature of causation (the thing, not the word), so we try to clarify what it involves; perhaps it appears unintelligible to us and we need to restore it to intelligibility (as some have thought regarding causal necessity). We want to clarify its logic (essence, nature) so that it can meet our standards of intelligibility. We can do this by analyzing the word, or we can focus on the thing itself and try to discern its intelligible nature. Either way we are trying to achieve clarity by demonstrating intelligibility. The human mind wants to make sense of things, and philosophy is the tool for achieving this. So philoso- phy is a sense-making science – a science that aims at clarification, at rendering things intelligible. Sometimes it fails – as with rendering the mind-brain nexus intelligible, or the nature of free action, or a priori knowledge. Sometimes it delivers respectable results: the anal- ysis of definite descriptions, modal logic, and the nature of the good (though all three areas are not without controversy). The science of philosophy makes progress in matters of clarification; it increases the intelligibility of things. But even when it doesn’t succeed that is its ideal – it is intelligibility-oriented. Language is one domain in which

4 This is in fact the title of a book by Thomas Nagel intended as an introduction to phi- losophy, cf. T. Nagel, What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, New York 1987.



Colin McGinn


the project of clarification can be applied; our conceptual scheme is another; and the world in general is a third area of potential clarifica- tion. Total clarity is the aim of every philosopher (or should be).

One particularly sharp way in which questions of intelligibility come up is in the shape of the logical paradoxes. These are peculiar to philosophy and vividly illustrate its essential character: philoso- phy generates them and then it tries to solve them. Philosophy is a paradox-obsessed subject. There are many such: Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, the sorites paradox concerning vagueness, Russell’s class paradox, the semantic paradoxes, and others. In addition to these we have assorted “puzzles” – kinks in our thinking that resist easy res- olution. Many papers begin “The Puzzle of…”. Both paradoxes and puzzles threaten intelligibility: they make seemingly straightforward things into confusing and confounding things. To resolve them some clarification is required, but this is not always forthcoming – they can be infuriatingly persistent (puzzlingly so). When paradoxes spread (as with the sorites paradox), they threaten to undermine the intelligibility of everything. They are the nightmare of reason, and they are particularly disturbing to philosophers: for they threaten to undermine reason from within. What this shows from a meta-philo- sophical perspective is that philosophy is in the business of securing intelligibility, which is a none too easy thing to do. We don’t even understand how paradoxes arise: is it from our language, or our thought, or the objective world? And the last thing a philosopher wants is to discover paradox at the heart of his favorite theory (as with Frege’s set-theoretic reconstruction of arithmetic). Paradox is the ultimate philosophical embarrassment.

Philosophy is also a subject of extreme contrasts, and this too is part of its identity. The disagreements within philosophy are vast: idealism versus materialism, Platonism versus nominalism, conse- quentialism versus deontology, dualism versus monism, realism ver- sus anti-realism, reductionism versus anti-reductionism. These are not just disagreements of detail but of fundamentals. There are even disagreements about whether whole swathes of reality really exist: do minds really exist, do bodies really exist, and do moral values really exist? If philosophy is a science, it is a remarkably contentious one. But again, though this certainly sets philosophy apart from other subjects, it is just part of the very nature of philosophical questions: for these questions precisely concern the most fundamental issues about the nature of reality. If a subject sets out to deal with such fundamental


Philosophical Philosophy


questions, we should expect large disagreements to show up – that is just what philosophy is. It isn’t that philosophers as a group are par- ticularly argumentative, or stubborn, or dim-witted; it is just that the questions inevitably produce these kinds of extreme opposition. That is what philosophy is about – it is the science of deep disagreement. It thrives on lack of consensus. Scientists are sometimes critical of the lack of consensus in philosophy compared to their own fields, but really there is nothing at all surprising here – philosophy is designed to produce deep differences of opinion. This is part of what makes it alive and exciting. It would be terrible – the end of philosophy – if a dull uniformity were to set in. In any case, consensus is not the hall- mark of anything deserving the name “science”. What matters are rational methods, objective criteria of cogency, clarity of formulation, and standards of quality5.

Can philosophy ever come to an end? What would its end state look like? I think other subjects can, in principle, come to an end, and probably will before humans do. The sciences can end in one of two ways: all the problems are eventually solved, or some are not solved but never will be (at least by humans). There are only so many facts to dis- cover, laws to state, and theories to be confirmed. But I think this is less clear for philosophical science: here it is not clear what the end state would look like. Can we imagine everyone deciding that materialism is true, say, and simply abandoning all other metaphysical theories as so much outmoded philosophical detritus? What could possibly lead to that result? It is not as if any new observations might be made that would settle the matter in favor of materialism. Or could it be settled

5 The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), gives two definitions of “science”: 1) «the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment», and 2) «a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject». Philosophy clearly qualifies under the second definition, but it arguably qualifies under the first definition too, once we allow for thought experiments and are not too restrictive about “observation”. For “observe”, the dictionary gives «notice; perceive» and «detect in the course of a scientific study»: at a pinch we can make philosophical method fall under these definitions, since it may involve notic- ing certain things about concepts (or words) and it detects truths in its own way (sometimes called, misleadingly, “intuition”). Thus the philosopher may be said to “observe” (notice, perceive), for example, that knowledge is not just true belief. The operative terms in the dictionary definition are «systematic study» and «sys- tematically organized»: rigor and system are the hallmarks of science. Academic philosophy qualifies; barroom chat does not.



Colin McGinn


once and for all whether consequentialism or deontology is the cor- rect moral theory? Such debates seem internal to philosophy, part of what philosophy is. By contrast, disagreements in physics are hardly internal to it: they typically arise from lack of data or failure of theo- retical imagination (or are really philosophical in nature). Neither of those diagnoses would seem to apply to philosophical disagreement. If anything could put an end to philosophy, it seems to be beyond our imagination – a literally inconceivable intellectual revolution. We don’t know what it would be for philosophy to end. Neither can we imagine the problems of philosophy being replaced by other problems hither- to unknown to the philosophical tradition: it couldn’t be that all our current philosophical problems are solved but news ones arise to take their place. What could these be? We have a pretty solid grasp of what the problems of philosophy are; it is hard to see how we could have missed a whole range of new problems. So our current problems are the ones that will stay in existence as the centuries pass by, probably never to receive definitive solution (short of a superhuman stroke of genius or a cerebral upgrade of some remarkable sort). Progress will no doubt be made on these problems, as it has been made in the past, but the idea of an end to philosophy seems impossible to fathom. Philosophy is really a very peculiar subject, quite unlike other sub- jects; the last thing we should do is to try to squeeze it into some other box. And its problems are what make it what it is, these problems hav- ing a unique character (“philosophical”). It may be rightly classified as a science (why not so classify it?), but that is not to say much about its inherent nature. Philosophy is about as puzzling as the problems it deals with. Meta-philosophy is as difficult as philosophy, because it is just another department of philosophy6.

6 Discussions of the nature of philosophy are often tacitly normative: the author is recommending a particular approach to the subject, rather than simply describing its actual content. I intend my remarks here to be descriptive: this is the nature of phi- losophy as it has actually been practiced – though I daresay many people will contest my conception of philosophy. I certainly don’t think it is an easy question to answer.



Morality and the Skeptical Paradox


Morality and the Skeptical Paradox


We follow moral rules; deontological ethics revolves around such rules. We make it a rule to keep our promises, not lie, not steal, etc. Even if we are consequentialists we follow the rule of utility maximization. What we call our conscience directs us to follow such rules. Virtue consists in adhering to the rules of morality. But if that is so, Kripke’s skeptical paradox should apply to morality.[1] I won’t rehearse all of this, but the point is straightforward enough. We can envisage someone who keeps his promises up to time t and then diverges (as we would say) from that rule; he insists that this is the rule he was following all along. How can we refute this claim? What can we cite about his past actions that rules out the deviant moral rule? No fact we can point to restricts the moral rule to the one we naturally assume. What does it consist in to follow the promising rule? It can’t be overt behavior up to time t; it can’t be a qualitative state of consciousness; and it can’t be a disposition to behave in certain ways. We might be tempted by that last suggestion, but then we recall that people can make mistakes about their promises without thereby following a deviant rule—they might just forget they have made the promise or lose track of time when the moment comes. If we phrase it in terms of virtues, we have no account of the fact that constitutes having a particular virtue: none of the facts about the virtuous person adds up to the virtue—behavior, states of consciousness, or dispositions to behave. Virtues are normative, telling us what we ought to do, but no facts that we can cite ground such normativity. None of this is surprising if Kripke’s rule-following considerations apply to the concept of rule in general—moral rules are just a special case. Platonic forms, inner voices, biblical commandments, pangs of conscience, urges and tingles—none of these can constitute following moral rules. For we can always envisage alternative moral rules that are logically consistent with them. So the moral skeptic contends.

            What about the skeptical solution? In Kripke’s telling this consists in finding assertibility conditions concerning agreement with the community: the individual speaker conforms to a community-wide pattern of use. There is no fact of following the promising rule, but there is a set of justifying conditions that guide our ascriptions of such rules. What is the analogue for moral rules? Easy: we can assert that someone is following a moral rule when his or her behavior matches that of the community to which he or she belongs. That is, we take a page out of the relativist’s playbook and say that a particular virtue can be ascribed to an individual if and only if that individual’s behavior matches the behavior of other members of society that are already agreed to exhibit the virtue. This skeptical solution has two components: an assertibility conditions theory and a social theory. Someone might want to reject the first component but endorse the second component, holding that the fact that constitutes virtue is of some second-class kind that questions the universality of virtue. The idea would be that moral rules have no validity outside of a social context, so that they may vary from one society to another. The moral skeptic denies the absoluteness of morality but accepts that we can usefully talk about morality as long as we recognize that it is relative to a particular society. He saves the talk while abandoning the robust existence of moral facts. The structure of his position matches that of Kripke’s semantic skeptic: no fact about the individual can constitute following a moral rule (or having a moral virtue), but we can still make sense of ascriptions of moral rule-following in terms of social relations.

            The interesting point here is that this is a familiar position about morality, unlike with the case of meaning and linguistic rules. Moral nihilism combined with moral relativism is an established view of morality (I don’t say that it’s true). Many people spontaneously believe that there is nothing to ground moral judgment in the individual case but only arises in the context of the social group. If I ask what I should do, I can find no fact about myself to give me the answer: no acquaintance with a Platonic form, no compelling inner voice, no external authority, no sacred text, no feeling of revelation, no reliable intuition, no irrepressible inclination, no past behavior—nothing that could force me to choose one way rather than another. All anyone has is the approval and censure of the social group; there is nothing to the existence of moral rules or virtues apart from that. So in the case of morality there is nothing surprising or shocking in the skeptical paradox: it isn’t a paradox at all, just a new way to articulate an old truism (as the nihilist supposes). It is just plain common sense. The existentialists were onto this long ago in their assertion that the free human will is the sole ground of moral discourse: nothing in perception or reason or science or religion can ground moral action—we must simply decide. Nothing compels us to act in certain ways deemed moral; morality is a matter of pure freedom in interaction with others. My being moral is not a given fact about me but a freely chosen construction (a fiction, we might say). My personality doesn’t contain various pre-existing virtues but simply expresses the results of my radical freedom. We might try to save our ordinary moral discourse by situating it in a social context, but the idea of the individual following moral rules is a chimera. If this can be established by means of Wittgenstein-inspired arguments, all well and good, but it is hardly earth-shattering news. The nihilist-existentialist might indeed be unimpressed by the original application of these arguments to the case of meaning, observing that he has already been there and done that in the area of morality. Kripke has merely generalized what is obviously the case for so-called moral rules.

            Alternatively, the confirmed moral realist might find himself discomfited: he thought there were moral facts that could guide behavior, but the skeptical paradox attacks that idea. Whatever we cite (e.g. Moore’s non-natural primitive property of the good) we find that deviant courses of action are possible consistently with the facts; nothing in our moral psychology can dictate a particular course of action. We thought there were robust virtues that people either had or lacked, but it turns out that this is a mare’s nest—no such thing can be detected in the mental landscape. If moral behavior is construed as following moral rules, then there is no such thing according to the skeptic; and even if virtues are not understood in a rule-based way, there is still a problem about saying what they are. Moral psychology turns out to look like semantic psychology, as the skeptic sees it—a kind of blank slate, an empty spontaneity. There are no meanings and there are no personality traits; at best there are communally accepted criteria for using the relevant vocabulary. I am not saying I accept this kind of conclusion—indeed I think there are convincing replies to it[2]—but I am saying that the issues are very similar and shed reciprocal light on each other. In particular, it is not clear what could constitute the kind of mental attribute required by semantic and moral rules. This has both an epistemological and a metaphysical aspect: we can’t find anything to justify our actions, and we can’t find anything to constitute the fact that we take to underlie them. We thus have no adequate psychology of meaning and morality, and for much the same reasons—the extreme elusiveness of the alleged psychological basis. This comes out in the question Wittgenstein pressed: how does the mind contain or anticipate future behavior (use or moral acts)? We want to say that it is already decided how someone will use words, or act in the future given his present mental state; but this leads to extraordinary ideas about what such containment would be—have I already thought of all the situations in which I have made a promise and kept it? My behavior, linguistic or moral, is spread out in time, and yet I mean something at a particular moment, or possess a virtue during a specific interval: how can we reconcile these two facts? We have an idea of potentiality here, but this idea is obscure and mysterious. My mind doesn’t run ahead to all future uses, or envisage all the future occasions on which moral action will be required of me. I just act as I do without consulting anything, and yet I feel fully justified: I act blindly, as Wittgenstein says. Again, it is not that I agree with all of this; I am simply pointing to the parallels. Moral and linguistic rules, virtues and meanings, present and future, inner and outer, facts and norms—all these concepts permeate both topics. The issues are remarkably similar. Each raises difficult questions in the philosophy of mind. What kind of fact is a virtue (or a personality trait in general), and how does it relate to temporally extended behavior? What is it grasp a moral rule and act on it? These are the very questions investigated by Kripke’s skeptic about meaning. He would have done well to bring in the moral case as precedent and prime example.[3]


[1] See Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982).

[2] One response is to insist that meanings and virtues are an irreducible kind of fact not to be explicated in terms of the kinds of facts to which Kripke limits himself. Another is to claim that the facts that constitute meaning and virtue (and rule-following generally) are not available to us, yet perfectly real, i.e. adopt a mysterian position.  

[3] I have always thought that Wittgenstein’s complete lack of interest in moral philosophy limited his philosophical perspective. Imagine if he had decided to focus on moral rules not mathematical rules in the Investigations. And what would he say about the right and the good in connection with his philosophical naturalism? He had a strong interest in philosophical psychology and philosophy of mathematics but was remarkably silent on the philosophy of value (in the Tractatus this was consigned to what could only be shown). 


Abortion and the Supreme Court

The trouble is that abortion is a philosophical issue and the Supreme Court is not made of philosophers–hence the naive comments from some of the Justices. It’s like asking them to make a ruling based on a standard philosophical problem, say free will or the mind-body problem. Do you think they even consulted philosophers on the question? We are probably going to get abortion banned based on shoddy philosophical reasoning. Not that the usual reasoning on the pro-abortion side is much better. 



Defining the Good


Defining the Good


It is not easy to define the good. It is not easy to say what such a definition would even look like—what form it should take. Plato talks about the form of the good: is this form composed of other forms or is it a simple form unrelated to other forms? It seems clear that the good is linked to other things; it has conceptual partners. But what is the exact relation between the good and these partners? Is the good simply the conjunction of these related things (or possibly the disjunction)? I propose that we borrow from chemistry: the good is a compound of elements each with a characteristic nature. What are the elements? This itself is controversial but I think something like the following would be on the right lines: (i) compassion, empathy, and love; (ii) justice or fairness; and (iii) reason, rationality, and knowledge. These are all good things—they fall into the extension of the concept good—and they are the elements that compose the good.  As we say that water is H2O, so we could say that good is CJR (compassion, justice, and reason). It doesn’t much matter for present purposes whether this list is complete or even necessary; my question concerns the form of the definition. The point is that the good is a combination of elements, as substances are combinations of elements. We don’t have to say the combination is reducible to the elements, just that these elements play a compositional role. This kind of view rejects two other ideas about the definition of the good: that the good is simple and indefinable, or that it is definable by reference to a single thing. The former view (Moore and possibly Plato) holds that the good has no compositional structure; it is not a compound of anything else. The latter view holds that the good is something like pleasure or knowledge or obedience to the will of God—a single attribute. No, the good is a compound of other things; it has internal compositional structure (more like a phrase than a word). No one could know what the good is without grasping this structure—without knowing the elements that enter into it. So the concept is complex, not the name of a simple quality or object. And the elements that compose it are themselves complex, bringing in concepts of emotion, action, and thought; we have a whole conceptual system here (“holism”). You can’t just be acquainted with the simple quality GOOD. You have to grasp the whole picture.

            Two questions are raised by this conception, neither of them easy. First, what do the composing elements have in common? Aren’t they all good? But then we are helping ourselves to the concept of the good not defining it. Agreed: no classic conceptual analysis is provided by the “definition” proposed. But the same is true of chemical analysis: the concept of water is not analyzed in terms of the molecules that compose water.[1] Second, what is the manner of combination? This is deeply obscure: it certainly isn’t just logical product. In fact, it is natural to assume that the combined elements are modified in the process of combination, since each singly is not necessarily good. Love and compassion need to be disciplined by reason and justice; justice needs to be informed by mercy and empathy; reason requires input from emotion and justice. The good results when and only when the elements combine in a good way—which brings the circularity back. But that is not fatal to the definition, since it was never proposed as a definition in that sense, only as a theory of the component structure of the good. What the good is remains mysterious, but at least we have some idea of what kind of structure it has—a tripartite structure involving compassion, justice, and reason. We are not speechless in the face of the question “What is the good?”

            Reverting to the simile of the sun, we can ask what elements compose the sun: the answer is hydrogen and helium with the former constituting most of the solar mass (and some 67 other elements in small quantities). We are not trying to define the sun by answering this question, but we are saying something informative about it. Similarly, we can say that the good is composed of the elements listed above without intending to define the good thereby. We can thus avoid the problems besetting other approaches to elucidating the nature of the good, which tend to be too reductive or not reductive enough.[2]


[1] Nor need the property of water be so analyzed: it could be emergent on the molecules that compose it. Compositional analysis is not the same as property reduction.

[2] The good has more structure than the true and the beautiful. Truth is uniformly a correspondence to reality (or some such) not an amalgam of disparate elements like the good. Beauty is (roughly) a way of appearing that pleases; it isn’t a tripartite thing comprising distinct species of appearing (as it might be, shape, color, and musical harmony). Thus the good is more conceptually demanding than the true and the beautiful; there is more packed into it. Accordingly, it is more trouble theoretically. By way of approximate analogy, the good is like meaning according to Frege: a combination of the three elements of sense, reference, and tone. As we have three-dimensional semantics, so we have three-dimensional ethics. One might also think of double-aspect theories of the mental (or even triple-aspect theories if we include functional role as well as phenomenal quality and brain state).