Seeming to Know

We have the word “see” but also the phrase “seeming to see”. The former implies veridicality, but the latter does not. You can seem to see what isn’t there. The locution is useful in stating certain philosophical doctrines about perception, to the effect that seeing is a composite of an inner sense impression and an outer fact suitably related to that impression. The inner impression is described as a “seeming to see”, which cancels the entailment to veridicality. Similarly, we have “remember” and “seem to remember”: the former implies the fact in question, but the latter does not. The idea is that we can be, as we say, under the impression that we see or remember without actually seeing or remembering, because we might be suffering from an illusion or misremembering. The brain in a vat seems to see but doesn’t really see, and the man born five minutes ago seems to remember his life thirty years earlier but doesn’t really remember it. It is subjectively as if these subjects see or remember but in fact they don’t—it only seems to them to be so. This seeming is not the same as belief: it is not that they believe they see and remember but don’t really, since they may not have this belief—they may be well aware of their odd situation. They may actively deny that they believe they see and remember, citing the fact that they are a brain in a vat or were born five minutes ago. But it still seems to them that they see and remember: their experience gives them the impression that this is so—they simply reject that impression. The brain in a vat will say, “It seems to me that I am seeing things, but I don’t believe that I really am”; and similarly for the man born five minutes ago, mutatis mutandis. What they mean, roughly, is that they have an experience internally indistinguishable from seeing or remembering but which isn’t genuine seeing or remembering. Philosophers have invented names for this experience—“sense-datum”, “sensory impression”, “idea”—but ordinary language already contains a phrase capturing the intended meaning. Thus genuine seeing and genuine remembering consist of seeming to see and seeming to remember plus something else—such as a causal relation to an external fact.

But the case of knowledge is different: here we don’t have the locution “seem to know”. We don’t contrast really knowing with merely seeming to know; indeed, the phrase strikes us as strange—and is never used in ordinary contexts. What would it even be to seem to know something? The concept is empty, possibly nonsensical. It is not that a person who lacks knowledge has seeming knowledge, as a person who fails to see can have seeming seeing: there is no such thing as seeming to know. There is no experience internally indistinguishable from knowing which is the impression of knowing. There is no “knowledge-datum”. It might be thought that belief is this missing element: to have a belief is to seem to know something. But this is wrong: a belief is a commitment to the truth of a proposition, but seeming to know would not be such a commitment. A person who merely seems to know would be able to say, “It seems to me that I know, but I don’t because the proposition I seem to know is one that I believe to be false”. This is the analogue of seeming to see but not believing that one sees. The impression of knowledge should be able to exist even when the subject disavows it; but that is not possible with belief—here the mental state is a commitment to truth. In belief one takes oneself to know, but seeming knowledge would not be like that; so we can’t identify seeming knowledge with belief. Thus the belief component of knowledge is not analogous to the sensory component of perception: the latter is a seeming perception but the former is not a seeming knowing. A belief is not an impression of knowledge in the way a sense experience is an impression of sensing. The proper conclusion is that the phrase “seeming to know” is empty and devoid of sense, which is why it does not occur in ordinary language (or in philosophical language).

I take it this point is obvious, but it has an interesting consequence, namely that it is wrong to model knowledge on perception. In particular, it is wrong to model knowledge on seeing: to know a fact is not to see it in some way (with the eyes or intellectually). For that would imply that there is such a thing as an impression of knowing—a type of seeming that falls short of the fact. It would imply that someone could be in that state of seeming and yet not know; but there is no such type of state, no state of seeming to know. So knowledge is not something that can be analyzed as an inner impression of knowing combined with some outer facts. To know that p is not to see that p, since such seeing would have to allow for mere seeming to see, which would be tantamount to seeming to know. Just as belief can’t be analyzed as seeming to know, so knowledge can’t be analyzed as any kind of seeing. Even perceptual knowledge is not a type of seeing (or otherwise sensing) because no one can seem to know about observable things. Nor can moral or mathematical intuition be modeled in this way, on pain of the mythology of seeming to know. It is true enough that one can know things by seeing them, but knowing itself isn’t a type of seeing: for if it were, one could fail to know by merely being in a state of seeming to know—but there is no such state to be in. Knowing is not a combination of a fact and an impression of a fact, as perception is (also memory). Knowing doesn’t have this kind of structure.[1]


[1] It has the structure of an internal state (belief) that is combined with other facts, but this internal state is not a type of inner seeming. In belief the world is not presented in a certain way.


Life and Language: Strange Singularities

It is difficult to explain the origin of life on earth. Presumably, inorganic molecules at some point made the transition to organic molecules, allowing for self-replication. The state of the earth at some time and place must have been conducive to this event, while it wasn’t before and elsewhere. Even if life on earth was seeded by organic materials arriving on meteors, these seeds must themselves have had an inorganic origin somewhere else in the universe. This is admitted to be a difficult problem. But there is another problem in this neighborhood that is equally difficult: why did life on earth arise only once? Evidently, conditions on earth made life possible at a certain time, but why didn’t those same conditions lead to life at other times? We are told that life arose at a particular place and time, so that everything now living traces back to this singular origin, but why is this so—why didn’t it arise many times once the appropriate conditions obtained? Why the singularity? It is as if the switch went on once but then the earth forgot how to switch it on again. The events of the universe are mainly repetition, but in this case we have a one-off event—a completely unique occurrence. Once life arose from non-life, why didn’t it keep on so arising? The conditions were conducive, so why didn’t they conduce more often?

Suppose you travel to a distant planet and find life there. You investigate this life and determine that it arose n billion years ago: but it arose not just once but multiple times. It has kept on arising, perhaps millions of times, since the conditions for life persisted after the initial rising; there are thus a great many chains of living things that trace back to these many points of origin. There is nothing physically impossible about this; indeed, it is what you would expect given the conditions on this planet. So why isn’t earth more like that? Why the stinginess? Life on earth is all about repetition–organisms duplicate, cells divide into copies of themselves, the same kinds of biological events occur over and over—so why is the origin of life on earth a singularity? This fact cries out for explanation, but no explanation is forthcoming. Something special must have happened–but what? And how could anything that happened at life’s inception be so special? The singularity seems inexplicable, strange, mysterious. Imagine if life on earth had evolved three times, or seventeen times, but then stopped evolving: wouldn’t that be peculiar, calling for explanation? One time seems no less arbitrary, no less improbable. It might be more explicable if life had evolved by a huge cosmic accident—say, a fully formed pair of tigers, male and female, are created from inorganic materials by chance: that is not likely to happen again! But this isn’t how life on earth began: the process was incremental, with only bacteria at the early stages, preceded by organisms yet more simple. There is nothing intrinsically chancy about the earliest forms of life; yet they arose only once. It’s like a mountain arising only once or rain falling only once.[1]

I rehearse these points in order to draw an analogy I have not seen drawn: between life and language. The origins of language are notoriously problematic and subject to much controversy, but less often noted is the problem of singularity: why did language evolve only once? That is, why did language with the properties possessed by human language arise only once? I don’t mean communication systems in general, such as are possessed by whales, dolphins, bees, and ants; I mean the kind of grammatically complex systems possessed by humans. Clearly, the human language faculty has a tremendous adaptive advantage—some say it is the key to our dominance—so it must be a question why it has not evolved several times.[2] Other highly adaptive traits have evolved many times, as in so-called convergent evolution, but in the case of language this is not the case; we don’t find a plethora of species speaking a language like ours. In particular, we are the only hominid species with a language faculty: it is as if we were the only such species with eyes or ears. According to modern conceptions, the language faculty is an autonomous organ grounded in the genes, analogous to other organs; but it is an organ that appears only in our species.[3] Why? Its existence is a singularity, like life, but this is puzzling. One might expect that such a useful organ should have evolved many times, especially in our nearest relatives, but evidently not: we are its sole proud possessor. It arose at a certain late point of human evolution and only in us, but it has proven its worth a hundredfold, so why isn’t it more common. Like life, it is a strange singularity. You might suggest it is like the Mona Lisa—a sublime work of art, understandably rare—but that is very unconvincing: the Mona Lisa is not that unique among works of art, and is anyway a human product of creative genius. The language faculty, by contrast, is a biological organ evolving by mutation and natural selection just like other biological organs; so its occurrence should be governed by the same laws—hence its uniqueness is perplexing. On other planets there may be many speaking species—it may be the norm—but on our planet language is confined to a single species and arising at a specific time. If its origin is a mystery, so is its uniqueness. And if the mystery of origin is resolved, that will only intensify the mystery of uniqueness, since it will explain how natural processes of a non-mysterious sort account for the origin of language. An explanation of the origin of infinite recursive productivity, for example, will accentuate the question of why this property is not found elsewhere. It is as if no eyes ever evolved for billions of years, despite favorable conditions, and then a single species suddenly evolved them, never to appear again. Maybe language will evolve again in the distant future—as life may conceivably evolve again on planet earth—but heretofore we have a marked absence of both recurrences. Why is nature behaving so sparingly, so miserly? Life and language are now everywhere on the planet, but they refuse to evolve afresh as they once did. They seem determined to belong to an elite club of one. Why the exclusiveness?

It might be replied that appearances are misleading: life and language have come into existence many times, by chemical concatenation or genetic mutation, but they have not been selected for, and hence do not exist in full form in multiple cases. But there is no evidence for this, and anyway it just raises the original question in a revised form–namely, why has there been no natural selection for these common uprisings? Obviously there was selection in the case of the life and language we see around us, so why not for these other alleged fledging cases? Nor, of course, would it be remotely plausible to suggest that life and language have arisen many times and been selected for but we have just not noticed it: where might these elusive realities be hiding—at the center of the earth maybe?  No, both have arisen only once, puzzlingly so. We have here two “mysteries of singularity”: not why did they arise at all but why did they arise so sparsely. It almost seems as if there is some force preventing them from arising more than once. I have no idea how to answer this question and I doubt that anyone else does either, but the question is clearly worth asking. It reveals a serious limitation in our understanding of natural history.


[1] We might compare the origin of life with the origin of the universe. The big bang was a singularity too—a major event that has not been repeated. We haven’t had a series of big bangs (in our universe) since that initial one. Why? What explains the uniqueness? If there is a multiverse each with its own big bang, then we have a plurality of cosmic origins; but that doesn’t account for why our universe has only experienced one big bang. Is it because the nature of the universe was so changed by the big bang that the laws of nature ruled out a recurrence thereafter? That kind of explanation would clearly not apply to the origin of life—or of language (see below).

[2] I would speculate that consciousness (sentience, awareness) has arisen independently many times: it does not all trace back to a single evolutionary origin. Consciousness in humans and consciousness in the octopus are cases of convergent evolution. This is because consciousness is very widespread, unlike language. If consciousness were confined to a single species, that would be very surprising and cry out for explanation. Language is the outlier, not the conscious mind in general.

[3] It has struck many people as strange that more animals don’t speak—hence those fantasies about speaking animals. It is as if they lack an obvious ability, unaccountably granted to us. Speaking seems natural, only to be expected. What if language had evolved in monkeys instead of us? We might still have high general intelligence, while theirs might be inferior to ours (compare young children who can speak well but aren’t all that bright). That would seem very strange: if they have it, why don’t we? Isn’t it just anthropocentrism that makes us think that we alone are sophisticated enough to speak? What is really surprising is that monkeys don’t speak, given that there was nothing preventing them from evolving the capacity. Why should we be the chosen ones?


On Denoting and Describing

According to Russell’s theory of descriptions, the word “the” contains two conceptual elements: existence and uniqueness. It implies that there is a certain something, and that there is only one such thing. The indefinite article “a” contains only the first element; the definite article contributes the second. So the short word “the” is conceptually quite rich; it carries demanding implications. Through error these implications can fail, as when someone says, “The unicorn ate the grass” or “The teacher thinks he’s funny”: for there are no unicorns and there are many teachers. It is easy to make false statements (or neither true nor false statements) using definite descriptions because we can make errors of existence and also fail to specify a uniquely identifying predicate. You have to be on your toes with “the”. This insight of Russell’s is a point about the meaning of “the”, its semantics not its pragmatics. We can put it by saying that “the” is analyzable into “exists” and “unique”: “the F is G” means “an existent and uniquely F thing is G”. Strictly speaking, this claim about the meaning of “the” is limited to its conceptual composition and does not entail the standard conjunctive analysis deriving from Russell. You could agree with Russell about the meaning of “the” but dissent from his analysis of the logical form of sentences containing this word as comprising a threefold conjunction in first-order predicate logic. That analysis makes the definite description, apparently a referring expression, dissolve into quantifiers, and detects a hidden repeated occurrence of “and”. You might find that objectionable without disagreeing about the essential meaning of “the”: you might prefer not to express the semantic point in such conjunctive terms (you might favor a part-whole conception of semantic complexity). Similarly, you might be sympathetic to the idea that the meaning of “know” includes truth, belief, and justification without accepting that the logical form of sentences containing “know” is literally a conjunction—though that is certainly one way to express the semantic point. Thus we can divide Russell’s theory into two separate ideas, usually run together: the idea that the meaning of “the” involves existence and uniqueness, and the idea that the logical form of sentences containing “the” is a conjunction of quantified propositions. In either case, however, the word carries quite demanding and specific conditions as a matter of semantic analysis. It is certainly not redundant or dispensable.

The reason I am emphasizing what should be obvious is that Russell’s theory has a bearing on the question of the semantics of names and demonstratives. Suppose we conjoin Russell’s analysis with the description theory of names (or demonstratives)—and how could we not, given the cogency of that analysis? Then we have it that the meaning of a name is equivalent to a description having the analysis in question. Thus a name logically implies the existence and uniqueness of something satisfying a certain condition: for example, “London” implies that England has a capital and that it has only one capital, given that “London” means “the capital of England.” A speaker who uses the name “London” is asserting these two things, just as a speaker who explicitly uses the phrase “the capital of England” is asserting these two things. If he doesn’t think England has a capital, or thinks that it has more than one, then he has no business using the name “London”—for he doesn’t accept its logical implications. If you use the phrase “the capital of England”, you are committed to two propositions: that there exists something that is a capital of England, and that there is only one such. Your speech act fails if either condition fails to be met. But then, if this phrase gives the meaning of “London”, you make exactly the same commitments when you use “London”. There is, admittedly, no use of “the” in the employment of the name—no overt use, that is—but the theory is that this word lurks in the underlying meaning. The meaning of a name is a combination of the meaning of “the” and the meaning of a predicate attached to it. The question then is whether this is true: is that what names mean?

Critics of the description theory make much of the point that the speaker might be wrong about the predicates she ascribes to the bearer of a name she uses. You might, for example, be wrong to suppose that Godel proved the incompleteness of arithmetic, but you would still refer to Godel with “Godel”.[1] But you might also be wrong about existence and uniqueness: you might think a certain something exists when it doesn’t, or that there is only one thing of a certain kind and there isn’t. Suppose you believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real detective and bandy his name about under that misguided impression: you don’t hesitate to speak of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, living at 10 Baker Street. However, other members of your speech community correctly believe the description “the fictional detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle” to be true of Holmes. Don’t you still refer to the fictional character despite your false existence belief? The speech community’s reference carries the day. You might also be wrong about uniqueness in the case of Godel (maybe several people proved the incompleteness theorem, including him), but it wouldn’t affect your ability to refer using the name “Godel”. These beliefs are extraneous to your use of the name to refer to a certain individual. But they are not extraneous to the use of the associated description: you can’t use a description to successfully refer if its existence and uniqueness conditions fail. You can’t use “the aristocrat of France” to refer if there are no aristocrats in France or if there are many—you won’t succeed in referring to anything. This suggests the following thesis: names do not have the semantic implications of descriptions with respect to existence and uniqueness, and hence they cannot be analyzed by means of descriptions. We are accustomed to the idea that names lack connotation, i.e. they carry no descriptive or predicative content; the thesis to be considered is that they also lack the semantic content carried by “the”, as that word is analyzed by Russell.

It will help if I introduce some terminology: I will call a designator loaded if it expresses the kind of content attributed by Russell to definite descriptions; and I will call a designator desiccated if it does not express such content. Then my thesis is that only definite descriptions are loaded; names and demonstratives are not–they are desiccated. The intuitive point is that descriptions carry a rich and demanding semantic content—the existence and uniqueness of something of a certain kind—while names and demonstratives carry no such commitments (we could also call them “non-committal designators”). Consider uniqueness first. Suppose I point to a dog at the park and say, “that dog is lively”: I make no claims of uniqueness at all with respect to the predicate I use—and indeed there are many dogs milling around in front of me. I simply single out a particular dog by using the apparatus of demonstrative reference, in which context plays a vital role. I make no attempt to describe the dog in question uniquely. It is no objection to my speech act to say, “But there are lots of dogs in the park!” It is otherwise with “the dog whose owner is Bill Smith”—here we take on the burden of supplying individuating conditions. Similarly with names: if I say, “Bill Smith has a lively dog”, I don’t purport to provide individuating descriptive conditions for the bearer of the name I use—I may have no idea of such conditions. It is quite otherwise with “the inventor of bifocals” where I do purport to provide a uniquely identifying description (if more than one person, or no one at all, invented bifocals, I have misspoken). This designator is loaded, fully committed—while demonstratives and names are desiccated, non-committal about the properties of the designated object.

The question of existence is trickier because we normally do assume existence for the things we refer to in a desiccated manner. But it is noteworthy that there are many contexts in which this assumption is suspended. If I am under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, I might remark, “That pink elephant is looking thoughtful”, knowing quite well that I am hallucinating said elephant. But I can’t say, “The pink elephant is looking thoughtful” without implying that it exists: for, according to Russell’s analysis, that would entail “There exists a pink elephant”. A brain in a vat could use demonstratives to refer to non-existent objects, but if it were to switch to definite descriptions it would incur the charge of making false statements (or neither true nor false). This is simply because demonstratives don’t literally say that they refer to existing entities, so semantically there is no contradiction between them and statements of non-existence. But descriptions do literally say that their reference exists, so there is a contradiction if we add, “However, there is no such thing as a pink elephant”.[2] Therefore it is not possible to analyze demonstratives by means of descriptions, as construed by Russell. They are too desiccated for that, too neutral, too non-committal. They don’t logically imply existence or uniqueness—not as a matter of their semantic content. But descriptions do, as is revealed in their explicitly containing the word “the”. That word is a quantifier, according to Russell, but there is no trace of it in names and demonstratives. This is why we are happy to use proper names for fictional characters—there is no logical implication of existence deriving from the semantics of the name. There is nothing that needs to be canceled in order not to be accused of error. But using descriptions for fictional entities invites criticism because it carries an implication of existence: you can’t just say “the detective who lives at 10 Baker Street” and expect to be taken to refer to a fictional entity. The word “the” actively quantifies, and so needs to have this implication canceled in some way, whereas the name “Sherlock Holmes” tells us nothing about the existential status of its bearer. Thus names can’t be analyzed by means of descriptions.

The intuition behind non-descriptive theories of names is that names are simply labels or tags with no internal semantic structure. Once we take on board Russell’s analysis of descriptions we see more clearly the kind of semantic structure that descriptions possess; in particular, we see that descriptions are not themselves name-like, i.e. labels or tags. They are loaded not desiccated. Descriptions contain a predicate, a quantifier, and a uniqueness operator. They are semantically intricate and referentially demanding. Names are not like this, which is why they can be used in the absence of an existence claim and without providing any individuating concept (ditto demonstratives). The description theory overstates their semantic commitments (or ambitions). It would be different if descriptions were simply denoting devices without significant internal semantic structure, but Russell’s theory shows us just how complex they really are—the word “the” packs a semantic punch. Thus it is not possible to analyze names and demonstratives by means of descriptions. This is an ironic result given that Russell himself held both a description theory of (ordinary) proper names and his three-clause analysis of descriptions, not seeing that the latter rules out the former. A natural alternative theory would anchor names in demonstratives not descriptions and reject a description theory of demonstratives (which looks pretty hopeless anyway). It is certainly very clear that a demonstrative doesn’t embed a uniquely identifying descriptive condition, relying instead on context to select a unique reference. We might indeed say that the whole point of demonstratives is to circumvent the need for individuating descriptions—instead we just point and say “that” (coupled with a suitable noun). And the reason a description must be loaded is that it can’t rely on context in this way: it needs to contain within itself the means and mechanism of reference.

The point I am making is distinct from the kind of point made by Kripke against the description theory: it is not a point about the rigidity of names or about the fallibility of our beliefs concerning the properties of the things we name. It is a point that only emerges once Russell’s theory of descriptions is properly absorbed: names would have to be equivalent to descriptions as so understood. According to that theory, a name would have to imply existence and uniqueness under a concept, but it is doubtful that this is the case with names—they make no such ambitious claims. The word “the”, as explicated by Russell, does not appear in their analysis. It is not just that names are not descriptive, i.e. predicative; they are also not in the business of asserting existence and uniqueness.[3]


[1] The example is from Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, the locus classicus of anti-descriptivism about names.

[2] Quine’s doctrine of ontological commitment can be stated as the principle that only what you say there is do you say there is. Applied to the present question, this tells us that descriptions say that something exists (according to Russell) but names and demonstratives don’t say any such thing—though their use may conversationally imply or otherwise assume it. Descriptions are quantifiers, but names and demonstratives are not: hence the description theory is false.

[3] This is, of course, true of nearly all expressions: hardly any words contain an assertion of existence and uniqueness—predicates, connectives, prepositions, adverbs, etc. In fact, it looks as if only definite descriptions work this way. So it is not surprising that names and demonstratives (as well as indexical expressions generally) also fail to have this kind of semantic content. Descriptions are special.


Analysis of Analysis

The concept of analysis crops up in a variety of disciplines: we have chemical analysis, spectral analysis, psychoanalysis, linguistic analysis, anatomical analysis, analysis of political systems, market analysis, literary analysis, dream analysis, conceptual analysis, and so on. We can ask what all these types of analysis have in common, i.e. what the correct analysis of analysis is. The OED gives two definitions: “a detailed examination of something in order to interpret or explain it”, and “the process of separating something into its constituent elements”. Both definitions are evidently correct, the latter being more restrictive than the former. I would combine them into this: “a detailed examination of the constituent elements of something in order to interpret or explain it”. Such an examination is necessary because the constituent elements of something are not always (or often) evident or manifest: we need to work to reveal what they are. There is the surface appearance of the thing and there is its underlying constituent structure—analysis takes us from the former to the latter. It advances our knowledge by excavating what was hidden. It is informative. The paradigm is the analysis of light: light appears uniformly white under normal conditions but a prism can reveal it as consisting of a variety of different hues (as in a rainbow). We now know that this spectrum consists of varying wavelengths. There is not just a single unitary phenomenon here but a combination of distinguishable elements. Light may look simple but spectral analysis reveals it to be complex—a composite, a congeries. It consists of separable components. The same is true of a great many phenomena, which is why analysis is informative: things tend to be composed of more basic elements that combine in certain ways. Perhaps there are ultimate things that are simple and permit no analysis, but many things are susceptible to analysis. Accordingly, the different disciplines engage in analysis as part of their standard methodology. It would be odd if they didn’t. Isn’t this what the world expects of us? Certainly there is nothing suspect or illegitimate about the method of analysis.

It is worth bearing all this in mind when considering what is called conceptual analysis. For some reason, many philosophers have decided that conceptual analysis is not part of philosophical method.[1] They feel there is something misguided about it, perhaps unscientific. That would be very strange, given that analysis is part of virtually every other discipline, especially the sciences. Surely philosophy should expect that its subject matter is open to some sort of analysis—that the things it deals with exhibit constituent elements. For example, it is highly likely that knowledge consists of parts or aspects or properties in combination. The alternative is that it is a simple attribute or fact that admits of no analysis; and while that is not to be ruled out as a matter of logic, it seems pretty unlikely. We should at least attempt to provide an analysis of knowledge—as the physicist tries to provide an analysis of light or the chemist an analysis of water. It would be dogmatic to suppose that these things have no analysis, and they palpably do. Notice that I speak here of knowledge itself not of the concept of knowledge: it is the thing that has constituent structure (unless it is irreducibly simple) not the concept of it.[2] Of course, the concept too might have such structure, being made up of more elemental concepts, such as the concepts of belief and truth; but that is another question, given that we are interested in knowledge itself. You could believe in the analysis of knowledge but not believe in the analysis of the concept of knowledge, possibly because you don’t believe in concepts at all or believe that all concepts are simple. There is no contradiction in holding that knowledge is complex and analyzable while the concept of knowledge is simple and unanalyzable. Water is complex and analyzable even though the meaning of “water” may not be. There is the world on the one hand and our concepts of it on the other; and the twain might not meet, structurally speaking. In any case, it is entirely in line with other disciplines to expect that philosophy will include a substantial amount of analysis, either of things or concepts of things.

Sometimes people assume that the phrase “conceptual analysis” implies insulation from the world beyond concepts—that one who engages in conceptual analysis is concerned only with how we think of things not with things themselves, or worse with how we talk about things. They point out that chemistry and physics aren’t just concerned (or concerned at all) with concepts of chemical and physical things but with chemical and physical things themselves—that would make these subjects parts of psychology! Why then should philosophy concern itself only with our concepts? But that protest is confused—though the phrase “conceptual analysis” can certainly invite the confusion (which may be shared by those who applaud the activity of conceptual analysis). For the phrase is ambiguous: does it mean a method of analysis or does it mean an object of analysis? The former corresponds to the idea that we can analyze something X conceptually, i.e. by reference to our concepts of X—or as we might as well say, by a priori reflection. The latter is the idea that we can analyze concepts as such, whether a priori or a posteriori. So we might seek to analyze knowledge (the thing) by reflecting on our concept of knowledge, or we might analyze the concept of knowledge itself by whatever means we please (psychologically, neurologically). These are quite different ideas, one being a method, the other a subject matter. Thus there is no redundancy in the phrase “conceptual analysis of concepts”: this just means the a priori (conceptually based) analysis of concepts (a certain sort of mental entity). Likewise, there is no contradiction in the phrase “conceptual analysis of X”, where X is not a concept. And there is also “non-conceptual analysis of concepts”—the empirical investigation of concepts, such as might be undertaken by a cognitive psychologist. These would each be types of analysis, but employing different methods. One might naturally suppose that philosophers would focus on a priori analysis, given their interest in definition, though they might also take into account a posteriori types of analysis. In any case, they would be engaged on analysis, i.e. the discovery of constituent structure by means of detailed examination.

The only real alternative to this conception would be the view that nothing of interest to philosophers admits of analysis because everything of philosophical interest is simple. Not just concepts, but things—knowledge as well as the concept of knowledge. That seems highly implausible: why should philosophy alone concern itself with the logically simple? All the other disciplines deal in complex things that can be broken down into parts, so why should philosophy be any different? You might reply that philosophy is only interested in concepts, but (a) that is not true and (b) why should concepts alone be simple? Obviously there are complex concepts, typically expressed by complex phrases; and why shouldn’t simple words correspond to complex concepts, e.g. “knowledge”? Concepts don’t have to mirror words in their internal structure (especially words of the public language). So there is really no escaping analysis in philosophy: the goal of philosophical analysis is mandatory. Similarly, philosophy must be, in some departments at least, analytic philosophy—as chemistry must be analytic chemistry, literary studies analytic literary studies, etc. This simply reflects the fact that all disciplines deal in complex entities that can be broken into parts. Whether all philosophical analysis, properly so-called, is a priori analysis is another question, which I have not addressed (though I believe it is); what can’t be seriously denied is that philosophy is at least in part an analytical enterprise. There is room for something called “synthetic philosophy”, but there must also be a place for analytic philosophy, because philosophy discusses complex things with constituent structure. It may also identify unanalyzable elements as part of its analytical purpose, but it can’t avoid wholes and parts, because that is just how reality is constituted.[3]

How should the results of philosophical analysis be formulated? We have become accustomed to providing necessary and sufficient conditions, but that is not strictly entailed by the notion of analysis; and the former might carry commitments not integral to the latter. Thus we have become obsessed with the bogeyman of circularity. But a chemist doesn’t typically report his findings by saying things like, “x is water if and only if x contains hydrogen and x contains oxygen and there are two parts of hydrogen for every one part of oxygen”, and then anxiously waiting for any counterexamples to be produced. Rather, he says things like, “water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio of two to one”. The epistemologist could mimic this mereological style by saying, “knowledge is composed of truth, belief, and justification”. Maybe it contains further ingredients (see Gettier) but at least it contains those ingredients. This is an interesting and informative statement, showing that philosophical analysis (of the a priori kind) can produce substantial results—and many other examples could be provided of informative philosophical analyses.[4] And it deemphasizes questions of circularity: it puts things in a way that is true to the spirit of the enterprise—the discovery of constituent elements. Non-circular definition becomes less central than illuminating constituent analysis. A literary scholar might analyze poems into stanzas, lines, phrases, and words, commenting on how the poem works, without undertaking to define the concept of a poem. Similarly for the atomic physicist, who might be hard-pressed to define the concept of matter. The philosopher can tell us how things are composed by the method of conceptual analysis without undertaking the arduous task of definition (though that is no doubt a worthy object). To change the example, we learn a lot about perception by discovering that perception has three constituent elements–a sense experience, a matching physical object, and a causal relation between the two—without troubling ourselves over whether this can be converted into a strict definition (which is difficult to do). Thus we could drop the habit of parading putative necessary and sufficient conditions and speak instead in mereological terms—the terms appropriate to the enterprise of analysis.

It is a question whether philosophy can do more than analyze, granted that it must at least analyze. I don’t propose to discuss this question here, except to observe that a broader conception of philosophy would inevitably call upon the results of analysis. Suppose we thought that philosophy also interprets and explains: it gives the meaning or significance of things and it produces explanatory theories. It doesn’t just analyze individual things but relates them together and elucidates their human importance. Thus it resembles other disciplines that also go beyond analysis—as chemistry and physics do in producing laws and theories, or as literary studies does. Philosophy can be theoretical and hermeneutic as well as analytic. Well and good: but these other dimensions are not unconnected to analysis—indeed, they feed off it. Analysis tells us what something is, its nature, its essence. There is no theoretical chemistry without analytical chemistry, and likewise there is no theoretical philosophy without analytic philosophy. An explanatory theory of knowledge, or an account of its human significance, needs an analysis of what knowledge consists in—of what constitutes it. Analysis is thus methodologically primary. So even if philosophy is not limited to analysis, it still depends upon it. Without conceptual analysis it is groping in the dark. Analytical philosophy must be the foundation of philosophy.


[1] I discuss this in detail in Truth by Analysis (2012); I won’t repeat that discussion now.

[2] Russell wrote two books entitled The Analysis of Mind and The Analysis of Matter, speaking of the things not the concepts. It was Ryle who introduced the analytic conceptual turn in The Concept of Mind. I self-consciously reversed the trend in The Character of Mind.

[3] A generalized primitivism might motivate resistance to analysis, but so might a generalized holism. This would be the idea that reality never divides into constituent parts but consists of “organic wholes” that go beyond their so-called constituents. Everything is an interconnected web that can never be constructed from more primitive constituents; the totality is the primary unit of reality. To break wholes into parts is always to falsify them—metaphysical holism rules. In fact, this type of metaphysics was what prompted by reaction the type of analytic philosophy favored by Russell and Moore. I take it that the opposition to analysis today is not motivated by this kind of metaphysics.

[4] Bernard Suits’ analysis of games is a noteworthy example: see The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978). I would also mention Grice’s work on meaning.


Explaining Mental Privacy

The privacy of the mind is generally treated as a platitude, but it is seldom (if ever) asked what explains this platitude. Privacy here is best understood perceptually: states of mind are not perceptible by means of the senses. It is not denied that they may be subjects of legitimate inference, or even of interpretative seeing, but they are not objects of perception in the way the body is. I can see your facial features in a way I can’t see your thoughts or feelings or sensations.[1] These are hidden from me, directly accessible only to you. If consciousness is a stream, it is an invisible stream. The senses are defeated by the mind; the two do not work well together. But why is this the case? What accounts for the invisibility of the mind?

First, let us develop a more articulate sense of the problem of privacy. Is the privacy of the mental a necessary truth? It is not an epistemic necessity: it could have turned out that the mind is not private. Picture the child’s inchoate understanding of the mind: it is by no means self-evident to her that the experiences she enjoys are perceptually inaccessible to others. She might be brainwashed into believing that others can see her thoughts (as we are brainwashed into believing that God can see them), and nothing in her understanding would enable her to rule out the truth of this proposition. It is not analytic or a priori that mental states are private. Nothing about how they appear to the child can logically exclude the possibility of perceptibility by others. This is something she must empirically discover. And likewise we adults cannot be certain that our minds are private—the claim is subject to Cartesian skepticism. I believe my mind is hidden from others, but perhaps I am wrong—perhaps I am surrounded by demigods that can literally see into my thoughts. I can’t be wrong that I have thoughts (the Cogito), but I may be wrong about their privacy: “I think, therefore something about me is invisible” is not a logical certainty.

So is the privacy point a contingent truth? It might not be, since epistemic contingency doesn’t entail metaphysical contingency, but for all we have said it might be. It might be that our senses, as they are actually constituted, don’t reveal other minds but that they could be altered in such a way as to overcome that limitation—or the senses of other beings might not be so limited. Or it may be that minds are necessarily inaccessible to our type of senses: nothing like vision, say, could ever reveal the mind of another—though some hard-to-imagine sense might not be so limited. The question is difficult, and it is compounded by an obvious fact: the mind is perceptible to its owner. I am aware of what I think and feel, though you are not. But then there is nothing about the mind itself that logically precludes perception of it; and if so, what obstacle is there to another subject having a similar kind of access? Couldn’t someone else have quasi-introspective access to my mind? It would be wrong to dismiss this point by insisting that introspection isn’t strictly a sense, so that its existence cannot be a reason to allow for a similar sense in others; for that would be equivalent to arguing that we can rule out the inner sense theory of introspection simply by observing that mental states are private. That would be an unconvincing argument, since privacy and the inner sense theory seem perfectly compatible—and indeed that theory has a lot to be said for it. So it is not at all obvious that privacy is a metaphysical necessity: there might well be possible worlds in which minds are perceptually accessible to others. Couldn’t there be reliable causal connections between states of mind and states of observers’ perceptual systems of such a kind that perceptions of the former by the latter were commonplace? Couldn’t there be possible beings that can see into the minds of others? At any rate, I will remain agnostic on the question here, since my question concerns the explanation of the privacy to which we are actually subject. Evidently this is an epistemic contingency, so it should be possible to explain why it holds. What, then, makes it the case that, in our world, minds are invisible?

It is important to appreciate how surprising this privacy really is, despite its familiarity. Not only is it not an a priori certainty; it runs counter to everything we know about the empirical world. It is hugely anomalous, quite bizarre, and very difficult to square with our general scientific picture of reality. Consider the matter biologically. Organisms have evolved a variety of traits useful to their survival. The visible body is the locus of those traits—a collection of functional organs than can be scrutinized with the naked eye (as well as under a microscope). Everything is open to view, public and perceptible. Well, almost everything, because among these evolved traits we have traits of mind—and these are private and imperceptible. This is true for us humans as well as for relatively simple organisms (it is not that the mental traits of reptiles are visible while mammals have evolved private mental traits). Why is this, and how is it possible? What is the point of evolving private mental traits—what does the privacy do for an organism in the way of survival? And how do the genes manufacture such traits? How is invisibility genetically coded? How does the nervous system, itself public and perceptible, generate inner mental states that resist observation? How does the private emerge from the public, both in phylogenesis and in ontogenesis? One would think that all the biological traits of organisms would be alike—all publicly visible—but some are the exact opposite. This cries out for explanation. What is the biological function of privacy, if any? What is it about the mind and the senses that renders the latter unsuitable for perceiving the former? What is the natural ground of privacy?

A first thought would be that it is in the very nature of the mind to be private: that is, we can derive privacy from other constitutive characteristics of mind. Thus we might consider whether intentionality or subjectivity or rationality lies behind privacy—is it because of the former that the latter holds? But this project is quickly dashed: privacy is a logically independent characteristic of mind. Nothing about those other properties of mind entails that mental states should be invisible. So there is no recognized intrinsic aspect of the mind that explains its privacy—nothing in our ordinary conception of it. In particular, nothing about consciousness as such (that we know of) leads inexorably to privacy; the mind could have been public and still had those other characteristics, so far as we can see.[2] Privacy is an add-on, a further trait of mind—as they are add-ons to each other. It begins to seem gratuitous that the mind should insist on invisibility—it lacks a clear rationale. Can we do better?

What about the power of deception? Organisms don’t always want their inner thoughts and intentions to be transparent, so there is survival value in keeping them hidden. Is this the reason the genes ensure that minds remain imperceptible? Hardly: the deception motive would only apply to a limited class of mental states; it wouldn’t apply to many organisms whose mental states are as private as those of professional deceivers; and there are also advantages to possessing public mental states, particularly where ease of communication is concerned.[3] So adaptive deception is not the ground of mental privacy. Nor are the usual physical explanations for invisibility applicable to the mind: optical transparency, camouflage, occlusion, size, speed, and glare. These factors can all result in a physical object being invisible, but they don’t apply to the mind. The mind is not a piece of glass or blends in with the environment or sits behind something or is too tiny or moves too quickly or gives off too much light.[4] And it is not as if it wears a magical cloak of invisibility that it can throw off to reveal its fleshly attributes. Its invisibility is more principled, more inherent. Or perhaps we should say that the limitations of perception with respect to the mind are more inherent to it. But this is puzzling for two reasons: first, mental states are inwardly perceptible, so it is not in their nature to resist all perceptual incursions; second, they have causal powers and exist in the natural world (unlike numbers), so there is no reason why they should preclude the evolution of a sense that can resonate to them.[5] In any case, we have not yet found a convincing explanation for such invisibility as we actually find.

An extravagant thought suggests itself: the reason the mind is invisible is that it is immaterial. We can only perceive material things in space, not immaterial things outside of space. So privacy entails dualism. We can deduce from the invisibility of the mind that the mind is not the body and is not dependent on it. There are a host of problems with this line of thought, which I won’t enumerate; let me make two quick points. The first is that it is not clear that immateriality entails invisibility (even assuming we know what “immateriality” means)—are angels and ghosts logically impossible? Is it our belief in immateriality that explains our commitment to privacy? Second, minds are not imperceptible tout court, since they are objects of introspection; and presumably this is compatible with dualism. Immateriality doesn’t preclude this kind of perception—so why the other kinds? Minds may be imperceptible in their very nature, but it is not because their nature is to be immaterial (whatever that might mean). Nor, to my knowledge, has any dualist attempted to prove that doctrine from the fact of privacy (Descartes was much too astute for that).

A more promising line of thought is that we are formulating the problem wrongly: we are presupposing that visibility is the norm and then fretting over why the mind doesn’t conform to the norm, but in fact, it is the other way about. Actually things are naturally invisible and what needs an explanation is why anything should be detectable by the senses. The question should be why the body is perceptually accessible. There is nothing surprising about the mind not being perceptible, since that is the default condition of the universe; what is surprising is local pockets of perceptibility—and even there the perceptibility may be glancing and superficial.[6] We can imagine a version of Kantian idealism behind this view, or reflections on current physics and “dark matter”. The thought is that reality is inherently removed from our senses and what we say we see is just our own mode of representing it—sense data, mental constructions, subjective phantasms. Then it is simply par for the course that minds are not perceptible—since nothing is! Reality is inherently not set up for the senses, or the senses are not set up for it.

This is a gratifyingly extreme position, but it won’t help us in the present connection, whatever may be said for it generally. For again, the fact is that mental states are perceptually available—to introspection. They are not naturally cut off from our epistemic faculties, like the most hidden of invisible particles or the constituents of dark matter—or even fields and forces. They are very proximate to us from an epistemic point of view. This is what is so puzzling about their third-person privacy: it is not that they are necessarily hidden to others as such that creates the puzzle but that they are selectively hidden. Why is that things that are so transparent from one point of view are so opaque from another?[7] This approaches the status of paradox, unlike generally hidden facets of the universe: so known and yet so unknown. It is as if God gave us one faculty with which to survey mental reality but refused to give us any more—introspection but not vision or hearing or touch or smell or taste. Mental states exist for the apprehension thereof, but the apprehension must only be from a single standpoint. Why not make the mind either universally unperceived or universally perceived? Why make us so acute in one way but so blind in another—and with respect to the very same objects?[8] Those who contend that reality at large eludes perception generally accept that the mind itself is open to immediate inspection—though they are insufficiently puzzled about its selective openness. We make no progress with our question by asserting that reality is generally cut off from our cognitive faculties, because that is signally not the case with the mind. Our explanandum is not that the mind is invisible tout court but that it is invisible to others while visible to oneself; or, as we might say, the fact that something as familiar as the mind is so removed from the world of the senses. One would think that it ought to be perfectly open to perception by others. Everything seems to point in that direction—introspection, biology, the general nature of reality—but for some reason, the mind refuses to yield itself up to the senses.[9]

Is it that the raw materials of mind are themselves imperceptible, so that evolution has no choice but to render the mind imperceptible? A panpsychist might contend that the proto-mental aspects of reality that form the basis of the mind are by nature imperceptible entities, more so than atoms and the like. So there is really no alternative to invisible minds—the properties of the parts transmit themselves to the whole. But this proposal also faces fatal objections. First, it can’t explain introspection: those primitive parts have to be capable of composing inwardly perceptible mental states–but how? Second, they raise the same question: why are they so radically imperceptible? Why does reality consist of both public and private objects? Could there be a sense that brought the proto-mental within its sights? The entities exist in nature, possess causal powers, and are aspects of public objects—and yet they are not perceptible, perhaps necessarily so. It is a puzzle; even a paradox, once we acknowledge introspection. Maybe there is an answer to the puzzle, but we have not yet found it.

What if the respiratory processes of the body were visible while the digestive processes were not? That would seem very odd. But why are the processes we designate as “mental” invisible while the rest are visible? Both are evolved biological traits arising from the same mechanisms and basic materials, so why the dramatic distinction? Suppose we were visited by aliens equipped with minds and senses that enable them to perceive each other’s mental states (perhaps ours too); to them, the idea of mental privacy would seem bizarre. They are surprised to learn that we are mentally blind (as they unkindly put it) and their philosopher-scientists get to work to explain this oddity in our makeup. To them there is nothing natural or inevitable about it, theoretically or practically; they read minds as they read texts. They have perceptual experiences of others being in pain and they think nothing of it. They think we are biological anomalies—they have seen nothing like us despite their extensive inter-galactic travels. Do we have some strange genetic defect? They refer to Earth as “the planet of the blind”, meaning mentally blind. They offer to engineer our deficit away, and are prepared to accept reasonable trading terms for this service (dancing lessons, massages). We accept their offer and wake up after the operation with vivid perceptions of other people’s states of mind—the phenomenology is extraordinary! You don’t feel other people’s pain exactly, but boy do you get a strong sense of it—nothing like that old insipid behavior-based belief that someone else is hurting. Your empathy really shoots up. You find yourself living in a whole new world. I am trying with this story to make strange the predicament in which we actually find ourselves: powerfully conscious of our own mind but only dimly aware of the minds of others. We stare at others and find nothing mental to look at, yet we know that behind the veil lies a mental life as rich as our own. How frustrating it is that we can’t penetrate the veil and observe other minds as they really are! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could literally see the mental life of a bat? So near and yet so far! And we have no clear idea about why we are thus confined—no explanation of the fact of privacy. Why isn’t the opposite the case—the body is invisible but the mind is visible? Is that beyond God or nature to contrive?

There must be an explanation for privacy, despite its elusiveness, and whatever it is would surely shed considerable light on the nature of consciousness and the mind, as well as on the nature of our knowledge. But we haven’t been able to come up with one, not even an incomplete explanation. It is hard even to get one’s mind around the problem (what would it even be to see into the mind of another?): we have yet another mystery to add to the pile. We don’t know why our minds can’t be seen or heard or touched or smelled or tasted.


[1] I should say a word about those who believe that the mind is perceptible, as when we see a man’s suffering in his face. I don’t accept that type of description at face (!) value, but even if I did it would not affect the point of this paper, since it would be agreed that other minds are not perceivable except by virtue of expressive behavior. No one supposes that you can see the mind of another when there is no behavior to go on, say when the person is asleep and dreaming. The question then would be what explains this fact.

[2] The question is difficult but it doesn’t seem that consciousness itself is the root of privacy, its sine qua non, since the same point applies to the unconscious—it too is invisible.

[3] Would there be any need for speech if the mind were interpersonally transparent? Apparently not, so why isn’t there some selective pressure to evolve transparent minds, thus dispensing with the need for speech? Speech just seems like a rather cumbersome way to get your thoughts across.

[4] Note too that we cannot see the mind under ultraviolet light or take an X-ray of it (this inaccessibility applies equally to brain scanning machines).

[5] We could add that the close involvement of mind and brain also makes it surprising that the mind is invisible, since the brain is not. One would think that the mind would be as perceptible as the brain given their intimate connection. (To those who claim that the mind is perceptible because the mind is the brain, I make the obvious reply: even if it were true that there is de re perception of mental states in those states of the brain with which mental states are identical, it would not follow that the brain states are perceived as mental. That is, brain states do not appear to us as mental states.)

[6] We can easily envisage a form of materialism that accommodates the invisibility of the mental: just identify mental states with states of dark matter!

[7] Even if physical objects are not perceptually accessible, they are at least represented in perception—it seems to us as if we are seeing them. But that is not true of mental states—it does not seem to us that we see them. So there would still be an asymmetry between imperceptible physical objects and imperceptible mental states.

[8] Note that I can be experiencing a pain in my foot while being unable to perceive that very pain in myself: I introspect the pain in all its glory but no matter how hard I stare at my foot or my brain I can see nothing of its throbbing existence. I am perceptually cut off from a fact about myself that I know vividly from the inside. So the problem concerns not just my knowledge of other people’s sensations but also my knowledge of my own sensations.

[9] There is an analogous problem about introspection and the physical world: introspection is limited to the mental world, not extending to physical states of the organism. But why is this—why can’t we introspect our brain states, say? It doesn’t seem logically impossible and yet it never happens. I won’t discuss this problem here, limiting myself to the problem of why perception doesn’t extend to the mind.


Are There Subjective Concepts?

I can imagine four types of position on this question: (i) there are only subjective concepts (none are objective); (ii) there are only objective concepts (none are subjective); (iii) there are both subjective concepts and objective concepts; (iv) all concepts are both subjective and objective (in some respects). I am inclined to accept (iv), with (ii) as my second favorite, so I reject some standard views on this subject. Obviously the question turns on what is meant by “subjective” and “objective” in this connection. If we mean, “contributed by the mind and not by the world” by “subjective”, and “contributed by the world and not the mind” by “objective”, then the position I favor is that all concepts are partly a function of the mind and partly a function of the world. That is, our cognitive makeup partly fixes the nature of our concepts, but part is also fixed by reality, as it exists outside the mind. But I am not primarily interested in arguing for this position here; I want to discuss a more limited question–namely, is it possible for there to be both a subjective and an objective concept of the same state of affairs? Can we view (represent, describe, cognize) a single fact in two different conceptual ways, subjectively and objectively? To adopt a well-known locution, is it possible to conceive of a single property both from a particular “point of view” and also from no point of view (from “nowhere”)? Could we start by conceiving a property (fact, state of affairs) subjectively and then develop an objective way of conceiving it? Could we (do we ever) “transcend” a subjective concept and replace it with an objective concept, or simply retain both concepts? Granted, it is perfectly possible to conceive of the same property (object, kind) using two different concepts, but is it ever the case that one of these concepts is subjective and the other objective?[1]

We can accept that there are subjective and objective states or properties or facts, if by that we mean states of subjects and states of objects. Pain is a subjective state because it is a state of conscious subjects, but electric charge is a state of an object that is not a conscious subject (generally). But what about the concepts of such subjective states—are they too subjective? It is not immediately clear what this might mean, but the most obvious interpretation is that the concept of pain can be possessed only by someone who feels pain—you can only know what pain is if you have experienced it. So the concept is subject-relative: there are preconditions for possessing it that require a certain psychological makeup. There are two points to be made about this. The first is that it is not clear why this condition justifies the term “subjective”: isn’t it just a claim about the necessary conditions for possessing the concept? Why should the condition imply that the concept of pain embodies a subjective view of pain? Why not say that the concept is completely objective about pain, even though it can be acquired only by experiencing pain? Why should it imply that pain could be more objectively viewed in some other way? If the concept reveals the nature of pain as it is in itself, why is it described as “subjective”? Isn’t it entirely objective–certainly not limited or defective or biased in some way? Second, isn’t an analogous proposition true of any concept? Any concept, no matter how objective, can only be grasped by beings psychologically equipped to grasp it—isn’t that a tautology? You can only grasp the concept of electric charge if you have a certain cognitive makeup, perhaps involving language with its specific architecture (animals don’t grasp it). So that concept is also subjective-relative: it requires a certain kind of mind, a certain cognitive “point of view”. No concept can be possessed by a vacuum! The notion of an objective concept had better not require that there is no kind of mind-dependence. There are sensory “points of view” and cognitive “points of view”, and concepts can be possessed only by beings that bring those points of view to the table. So far we have found no meaningful distinction between so-called subjective concepts and objective concepts. True, the concept of electric charge doesn’t require any specific sensory apparatus to be possessed; but it is equally true that the concept of pain doesn’t require any specific cognitive apparatus to be possessed, such as that required for the understanding of physics.

Consider color: we can agree that color is a subjective phenomenon since it depends on the existence of sensory appearances, but why say that our ordinary concept of color is subjective? That certainly doesn’t follow from the subjectivity of color itself—the concept might be entirely objective. Indeed, I would defend the view that our ordinary concept of color represents color just as it intrinsically is—just as it objectively is—and that it cannot be improved upon by moving in a more objective direction. There is no such thing as an objective conception of color that is distinct from the conception we have by virtue of our experience of color (given that color is a subjective phenomenon). Thinking of color under physical concepts such as wavelength is not a more objective (more accurate) conception of color but rather a mode of thinking appropriate to the physical basis of color (compare pain and C-fiber stimulation). Our concept of red, say, is not one perspective on redness that might be supplemented or superseded by some more objective concept; it tells us what redness actually (objectively) is. So it isn’t that we have a subjective view of color that can be compared with an objective view; we simply have an objective concept of a subjective phenomenon. The fact that we can have this concept only by seeing color ourselves doesn’t entail that the concept itself fails of objectivity or is somehow “subjective”. A concept is a mode of presentation of a property and our ordinary concept of red presents it as it really is, objectively; we don’t render our concepts of color any more objectively penetrating by couching them in physical terms—on the contrary. I would say, then, that our color concepts are not subjective but objective—or better, that they are objective and also subjective in the trivial sense that you can only possess them if you have a certain type of psychological makeup. The nature of color is fully captured in our ordinary concept of color (in our ordinary knowledge of it), and that is what an objective concept is supposed to do (compare the concept of pain). A subjective concept of red might be expressed by “what reminds me of my true love”—since other people don’t share my romantic associations—but that is a far cry from our ordinary concept of red. I therefore think there is no good sense in which our color concepts are subjective. They are concepts of something subjective, but that doesn’t prove that they themselves are subjective—any more than that the objectivity of a fact implies the objectivity of any conception of it. Indeed, I would venture to assert that anyone who has an adequate concept of red has precisely the concept of red that I have, i.e. the concept that is derived from inner acquaintance with sensations of red. There is no more objective concept of red, and this concept is not subjective in any interesting sense. In fact, the whole idea that concepts contain “perspectives” on their reference is misguided (based on a false perceptual model); certainly our color concepts and concepts of sensations are not to be understood in that way.[2]

It might be thought that theoretical identification affords an illustration of subjective and objective concepts of the same thing. We have discovered that water is H2O and heat is molecular motion: aren’t these cases in which a subjective concept is coupled with an objective concept? The ordinary concepts embed our modes of sensibility while the scientific concepts don’t; the former can only be grasped by beings that share our “point of view”. But these cases repeat what we have already seen: the concepts are really objective concepts of a subjective fact. The subjective fact is the way water and heat appear to us in sensation, and this is incorporated into the concept (“the thing that appears thus and so”). We have a concept of this appearance—a sensory concept—and the appearance is a subjective fact, i.e. a fact about conscious beings: but the concept itself is not a subjective view of an appearance. It is an objective representation of something itself subjective. Anyone who shares the concept accurately and completely grasps the appearance in question; and the appearance can’t be grasped properly unless that concept is possessed. It is not that the scientific concept is another way to grasp that appearance, which is somehow more objective; it is a concept of a physical thing not of a mind-dependent mode of appearance.[3] Maybe it is true that you can only grasp the concept of that appearance by being subject to it, but why should this imply that the concept inherently involves a subjective way of apprehending what it represents? The concept denotes the appearance “directly”, just it is objectively is; it is not a subject-dependent “perspective” on its referent. It is not that in these cases we have two types of conceptualization of the very same fact or property, subjective and objective; rather, we have concepts of water and heat, the physical things, coupled with concepts of other facts, facts of appearance. The latter concepts are just as objective as the former, since they capture the objective nature of the appearance (which is a subjective fact). To repeat, concepts of the subjective are not thereby subjective concepts—just as concepts of the objective are not thereby objective concepts (“the metal I love best”). There is no coherent sense in which one’s concepts of one’s subjective states embed a subjective perspective on one’s subjective states—a “point of view” on them that might reveal more about the subject than about them.  Of course, any concept embeds something about the constitution of the conceiver, since it must be conditioned by a given cognitive structure; but that just gives us the trivial truth that all concepts have a “subjective” dimension as well as an objective one. The paradigm of a subjective way of thinking is one in which a person lets emotion interfere with reason (“Do try to be more objective and not let your emotions run away with you!”), but our ordinary concepts of subjective states are nothing like that—they don’t let emotion affect how they represent the mind.

The correct conclusion, then, is that all concepts are objective: they represent things as they objectively are (except when they don’t, as when we pick something out by reference to our personal idiosyncrasies, e.g. “my favorite metal”, “the color I most dislike”). The ordinary concepts of color or sensation or emotion are objective concepts because they pick out what they do in virtue of actual intrinsic properties of the things in question, not by virtue of accidental relations to the conceiver’s peculiarities. It isn’t that philosophical reflection has discovered that concepts we thought were objective turn out to be merely subjective. Common sense concepts are not subjective in some way that contrasts with the concepts of science. True, we perceive the world in ways conditioned by our given modes of sensibility, which are not necessarily shared by all sentient beings, but from this it doesn’t follow that any of our concepts are themselves subjective.


[1] The obvious reference here is to Thomas Nagel’s discussion of subjective and objective conceptions in The View From Nowhere (1986), particularly the first two chapters. However, inspection of Nagel’s text reveals (to me) no outright contradiction between what I maintain and what he says—though there certainly seems to be a difference of attitude and terminology. Much the same can be said about my book The Subjective View (1983).

[2] It is possible to have a subjective view of reality, as when one projects one’s subjective states onto reality, perhaps not realizing that this is what one is doing. This is plausibly what happens with color. Thus one arrives at a view of reality that has subjective elements. But none of this implies that concepts of color are subjective concepts, only that one’s perceptual view of reality involves projected subjective states. One’s entire picture of reality could be constructed from such projected subjective states without any concept being itself subjective (except in the sense of being a concept of a subjective state). There is the conceptual analogue of a use-mention confusion lurking here.

[3] None of this is to deny the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image: it is just that both “images” are objective.


Modal Metaphysics

In Naming and Necessity, Kripke gives a number of examples of essential properties in order to show that not all necessities are a priori or analytic. He is not concerned to develop a general metaphysics of modality, a systematic classification of necessities and possibilities. But that project is a worthwhile one, and relatively unexplored. I shall offer some remarks on it, hoping to show that there is some interesting structure here: there are patterns and generalizations. I won’t re-defend Kripke’s examples (most of which have sources elsewhere) but take them as given; my question is what general picture they promote. Thus I will accept that there are necessities of origin, kind, and composition: a given human being, say, essentially has the parental origin she has; she is essentially of the kind human; and she is essentially composed of certain biological materials (cells, carbon, etc.). No one could be this human being and not have those properties. These are metaphysical necessities concerning individual human beings. I couldn’t have been born to the British royal family or been a dog or be made of glass—though perhaps someone looking like me could have these properties. By contrast, certain properties of human beings are contingent and could easily be lacked without detriment to identity: I could have had a different occupation or lived in a different place or never pole-vaulted. It would still be me, just living a different life. My history is contingent, but my origin, kind, and composition are not.

Well and good: but is there any deeper story to tell? Do we just have a series of examples of essential and contingent properties with nothing to unify them, or might there be something in common to the examples? Is there a principled dualism or just a list of unrelated instances? With respect to essential properties, I think we can accept two important points. The first is that the list we have so far is complete: Kripke didn’t omit an important class of necessary truths. He never claimed completeness, but reflection suggests that he found it—there are no other de re necessities waiting to be recognized.[1] True, we can analyze the relation of origin and detect various necessities of origin (parents, sperm and egg, strands of DNA); and true, we can distinguish necessities of composition that relate to types as well as to tokens (this table is necessarily made of wood, the type, and also necessarily made of this particular piece of wood, a token)); true also, we can distinguish human beings from persons and accordingly raise two different questions about necessities of kind. But there doesn’t seem to be any additional category of de re individual essence that has not been mentioned; our list appears exhaustive (there is surely no necessity regarding bodily organs, for example, since one can be given someone else’s kidney and have an artificial heart implanted).

The second point is that the three categories extracted from Kripke’s text are logically independent of each other: none entails the others. Thus we can’t deduce origin from natural kind or composition from origin. We have three distinct types of necessity here, not reducible one to the other. This is true even if we extend essentialism beyond biological entities, claiming that individual atoms, say, have necessities of origin, kind, and composition: this very hydrogen atom couldn’t have come from anywhere but the big bang (that event) or been an iron atom or be made of anything but quarks.[2] We seem to have run the gamut—that’s about it as far as essence is concerned. Where an object came from, what it is made of, what kind of thing it is—that exhausts its essential nature; everything else is contingent. We might thus declare a triune theory of individual essence—a holy trinity of separable types of necessity. It would have been nice to find a deeper unity, but it turns out that 3 is the magic number—at least it wasn’t 7 or 29! The three essences do seem naturally connected, certainly not opposed to each other, but there is no apparent way to unify them into a single attribute. Hence we can announce the doctrine of Threefold Essence.

It might be supposed that contingency will yield a richer harvest of types. Aren’t there hugely many kinds of contingent property—occupation, location, hobbies, prejudices, talents, acts performed, things owned? Where is the unity here? The class of contingent truths appears to be hopelessly heterogeneous, a mere motley. But I think, perhaps surprisingly, that this is wrong: there is really only one kind of contingent truth! Or better, all kinds of contingent truth have the same unitary basis. Consider states of motion: being at rest or traveling through space. Suppose I am at rest now, sitting quite still: I could have been in motion, pacing around, playing tennis, driving my car. It is entirely contingent what my state of motion is at any given time. The same is true for any physical object: its state of motion is a contingent property of it—it could exist and yet be in a different state of motion. In fact, if you wanted to give a clear and convincing example of a contingent property, you couldn’t do better than to pick motion—motion is the paradigm of the contingent. An object’s motion is not part of its intrinsic nature, what makes it what it is. Intuitively speaking, motion belongs to the career of an object, not its constitution–its behavior not its being. Maybe an object’s potential for motion is written into it, but its actual state of motion is just so much adventitious history—alternative motion is easily imaginable. Even when motion follows strict laws of nature, as with elliptical planetary motion, we can easily conceive it being otherwise: the earth is not what it is in virtue of tracing ellipses around the sun instead of circles. Just as the earth is not necessarily inhabited, so it is not necessarily in elliptical orbit about the sun.[3]

But what about other types of contingent property, say being a philosopher? They are not types of motion. True enough, but notice that motion is involved in their coming to obtain: I became a philosopher by taking a particular path through space, acting in specific ways, moving my hand to write philosophy essays, etc. I came to have the property of being a philosopher by virtue of certain motions (some in my brain). The same thing is true of my more athletic attributes, as well as musical. So I think we can venture this generalization: every contingent property of an object supervenes on motion. Nothing happens but that motion makes it so. The property might not be a state of motion, but its instantiation depends on certain motion properties being instantiated. When I imagine myself not being a philosopher I imagine various motions not having occurred (e.g. moving from Manchester to Oxford in 1972). So what unifies the class of contingent properties is their dependence on motion—which is the paradigm of the contingent. Whenever we conceive of certain properties not holding we conceive of enabling motions not occurring. This is the basis of our sense of contingency. There is really only one kind of contingent truth—the kind that depends on episodes of motion. History is the history of movement, ultimately. Contingency is therefore monistic, tracing back to a fundamental kind of contingency. Necessity comes in three irreducible types, but contingency is always the same. The loose relation between objects and space is the ground of contingency.[4]

Immediately we notice that origin, kind, and composition have nothing to do with motion. They imply nothing about how things move. They are not part of a thing’s dynamic history—what happens to it or what it does. It is a necessary condition of a property being essential to a thing that it not be a motion-dependent property, but it also seems to be sufficient for essence that the property not involve motion. Any truth about an object that does not directly or indirectly relate to its motion is a necessary truth about it. Take color and shape: these are not essential properties, to be sure, and they seem static, but don’t they tacitly involve motion—motion of parts or particles? The shape of an object might be constant for a period of time, but apply appropriate forces and you get movement of parts—hence the shape is contingent, since it can be altered by motion. Color is contingent because it can be changed by the passage of light coming from the object and by the tiny motions of receptors responding to the incoming light. When we imagine shapes and colors being otherwise we imagine certain motions occurring or not occurring. But no change of motion in an object can change it from having the origin it has to having a different origin, and similarly for kind and composition. Properties are essential when and only when they don’t involve motion, and they are contingent when and only when they do.

This is a pleasing generalization, but can things really be that simple? Does the modal structure of the world divide up so neatly?  Consider numbers: motion is not involved in their having the properties they have and all their (intrinsic) properties are essential.[5] The number 2 is essentially a number, is essentially even, is essentially the predecessor of 3, is essentially a divisor of 16, etc. It has no history that could have been otherwise, no movement that we could imagine reversed—no location, job, hobby, or talent. Nothing happens to it and it does nothing. Movement is alien to its being. Thus it is all essence. It is the same with geometrical figures: they participate in no marches or street-crossings and possess no moveable parts. Contingency is accordingly not in their nature. Contingency enters the life of an object only when history comes to visit, but history consists of motions large and small. In other words, contingency feeds on events, and where there are no events there is no contingency. Then all is necessity. A purely platonic world would lack contingency because nothing would happen in it that could have been otherwise. Universals track no paths through space that they might not have tracked. No journey, no contingency.

There is a line of objection to our neat binary picture that one seldom hears urged today, though it is not without precedent, namely that there is no real contingency in the universe. Everything that happens happens by necessity. This is the opposite of the modal skeptic who denies that anything is really necessary (except maybe analytic truths). Suppose determinism is true, so that everything that happens follows from the laws of nature and hence is nomologically necessary. Suppose too that we regard nomological necessity as a form of metaphysical necessity.[6] Then we reach the conclusion that everything must have happened as it actually happened: there are no contingent facts. Granted, there are impressions of contingency, but these turn out to be illusory upon closer analysis—they confuse what is (allegedly) contingent for this object and what might be true of some counterpart object. We are familiar with the idea that what seems contingent for a natural kind is really what is possible for some other natural kind similar to the one in question (e.g. some liquid similar to water might not be H2O but not water itself). Well, according to the metaphysical view we are considering, when it seems to us that an object might have been otherwise in some respect we are really thinking of some other object that might be that way. In fact, all objects simply play out their essential nature in their actions and reactions (Leibniz held a view like this). If so, all facts are necessary facts–we are merely under an illusion of contingency. I don’t say this view is correct, only that it intelligibly has the consequence that necessity is ubiquitous. In effect, it takes motion to be the necessary unfolding of the intrinsic nature of the universe—though we may not be able to grasp the way this unfolding works. Indeed, it can be maintained that only a view like this can render the world intelligible, since pure contingency is unintelligible (it violates the principle of sufficient reason). If reason is built into the universe, it must work by rational principles, but these can only be necessary truths. Motion, in particular, cannot be arbitrary and spontaneous; it must be written into the nature of things. The world may appear to harbor a deep contingency but this is just an appearance—underneath it has a rational order. I had to become a philosopher; it wasn’t just an accident that could have been otherwise. States of motion are essential properties after all.

I mention this metaphysical position for the sake of completeness, not to endorse it. The position that seems right to me is the usual binary one: we have essences and we have accidents. The essences revolve around origin, kind, and composition, while the accidents owe their existence to the nature of motion. We can grant that motion is governed by natural laws that carry their own type of necessity, and hence strong determinism is true, but that doesn’t add up to full metaphysical necessity. We can conceive these laws being otherwise in a way we can’t conceive origin, kind, and composition being otherwise. There are metaphysically possible worlds in which I became a quantity surveyor and was born in Australia (my parents emigrated) but not worlds in which I am a tiger or made of glass or came from an acorn. The basic structure of modal reality is thus a triad of essential properties, on the one hand, and a unified class of motion-dependent contingent properties, on the other. There is nothing more and nothing less.[7]


Colin McGinn

[1] I don’t mean to assert dogmatically that no other necessities will ever be discovered, though that may be true; I mean only that I don’t know of any obvious ones that fail to show up in Kripke’s text.

[2] I won’t discuss whether all natural objects exhibit all three types of essence, animate and inanimate, but I am inclined to think it is true.

[3] As an exercise in astronomical essentialism we can ask what the necessary properties of the earth are. First its origin: it necessarily came from the stuff it actually came from (probably a bunch of celestial dust); second its kind: it is necessarily a planet; third its composition: it is necessarily made from a specific collection of assorted elements. The earth (that object) couldn’t have come from some other source; it couldn’t be an elephant; and it couldn’t be made of jelly. But there might be a planet that looked like earth but had a different origin and composition (and maybe was a living organism).

[4] Events and time are different: a given event couldn’t have occurred at a different time, e.g. WWI occurring in 1963 (though there could have been a similar war at that time). Whether objects can exist at other times is a difficult question: could I have been born in 1940 or 1066?

[5] Isn’t it a contingent property of the number 2 that it is the number of my cats? We can talk that way, but notice that the alleged property is relational not intrinsic; indeed, it is entirely extrinsic to the number. It is not part of the nature of 2 that it numbers my cats—not a truth of arithmetic.

[6] Kripke toys briefly with this idea in Naming and Necessity, p.99.

[7] Modality is more streamlined than we might have supposed, less variegated. God had relatively little to do in creating necessity and contingency compared to creating all the truths. When creating all the possible worlds he followed a few simple precepts. Reality is modally parsimonious.


An Obvious Theory of Truth

Truisms are welcome in the theory of truth. Here is one: the sentence “London is rainy” if true if and only if the entity referred to by “London” has the property expressed by “rainy”. Generalizing, a sentence (or proposition) is true just in case the reference of the subject expression instantiates the property expressed by the predicate expression. This formula combines two concepts: a semantic concept of reference (denotation, expression) and the concept of instantiation understood as a non-semantic relation between objects and properties. Truth results when the entities denoted (objects and properties) stand in the instantiation relation. So we can say that truth consists of a combination of a semantic relation and a non-semantic relation: it is the “logical product” of these two relations. The analysis of truth is given by a “vertical” relation to the world and a “horizontal” relation between worldly entities. Thus “true” expresses a complex property comprising representation and instantiation—that is what the concept amounts to. Both are necessary for truth and together they are sufficient. Moreover, the formula is the most banal of truisms: of course a sentence is true if the things it talks about have the properties the sentence attributes to them. The sentence “snow is white” is true just if the stuff it refers to (snow) has the property the sentence ascribes to it (being white). How could this fail to be correct?[1]

Some minor wrinkles can be quickly ironed out. Is the theory (let’s call it that) ontologically committed to properties in some objectionable platonic sense? I stated it that way, but this is not integral to the theory (though metaphysically unobjectionable, in my view): we could state it in terms of concepts or even just predicates—as in the notion of an object falling into the extension of a predicate. Nor is the theory committed to sentences as truth-bearers: we can run it on propositions, statements, beliefs, what have you, so long as we have a relation like denotation to work with.  It might be thought that the theory is restricted to subject-predicate sentences and won’t extend to quantified sentences, but this limitation is easily remedied by adding that the objects referred to or quantified over should instantiate whatever is predicated of them. Whatever objects are semantically relevant are the ones that need to do the instantiating if the sentence is to be true. What about moral truths? Well, if there are such truths the theory commits us to the idea that moral sentences can be true only if there are moral properties (or concepts or predicates) for objects to instantiate—but this will presumably be so if there are moral truths to start with. What we don’t get are nonsensical truths, because there will be no objects and properties to stand in the instantiation relation (e.g. borogroves and mimsiness). We just have the commonsense thought that whether a sentence is true depends on what objects have which properties. If you say that an object has a property and it does, your statement is true; but if you say that an object has a property and it doesn’t, your statement is false. Clear?

What is surprising is that this theory, if we can dignify it with that word, has not been mooted (at least to my knowledge), since it seems blindingly obvious.[2] Some theories in its vicinity have been mooted, but not this theory exactly. It certainly carries the whiff of the correspondence theory, but it invokes no relation between whole propositions and facts, speaking instead of objects and properties and associated sentence-parts. The world comes into the picture, but not by way of a correspondence relation between facts and propositions. Nor is it a redundancy theory, since it defines truth as a complex property constituted by substantive relations; still less is the theory deflationary. It is also not the same as Tarski’s theory: the schema employed does not repeat on the right the sentence mentioned on the left (so it doesn’t satisfy Convention T) but rather embeds semantic vocabulary and the notion of instantiation. It is possible to universally quantify an instance of the schema and produce a well-formed result, whereas that is not possible for Tarski’s schema. We can say, “For all propositions x, x is true if and only if the objects referred to in x instantiate the properties expressed in x”, but we can’t say, “For all propositions x, x is true if and only if x”, because that is not well-formed (“x” being an individual variable not a sentence letter). Also, the definition proposed by the obvious theory is explicit, not inductive, and applies to any sentence in any language (we are not defining “true-in-L”).[3] The theory is closer to a formulation championed by P.F. Strawson: a statement is true if and only if “things are as they are thereby stated to be”. The spirit looks the same, but what are these “things”, and where is the reference to properties and their instantiation? It sounds a lot like saying, “if and only if reality is as stated”: but that is not the same as the formulation in terms of objects and properties. Perhaps the obvious theory could be read as a more explicit version of this type of theory; and indeed it looks very much like what people were driving at all along. For surely we want to say that the truth of a statement turns on the instantiation of properties by objects combined with suitable semantic relations to those objects and properties. To say something true you have to refer to an object and then assign a property to it that it actually has—obviously.

Consider the locution “true of”: what is its analysis? Obviously this: a predicate is true of an object if and only if the object has the property expressed by the predicate. This is the core of the obvious theory: truth itself is defined by reference to “true of” (as Tarski defines truth in terms of “satisfies”). We might say that “true of” is the basic notion in the theory of truth. We reach truth of propositions by plugging in a singular term: from “F is true of x” we derive “F is true of a” where “a” is a closed singular term (say a proper name). Thus the sentence “Fa” is true just if the predicate “F” is true of the object referred to by “a”. The other theories of truth remain neutral on the analysis of “true of”, which is a limitation in any attempt to define the concept of truth generally; but the obvious theory puts it at the center. To say something true you have to apply a predicate to what it is true of. And that is a matter of picking a predicate that expresses a property that applies to the object.

The OED defines “true” as “in accordance with fact or reality”. Fair enough, but what is “in accordance with” and what is “fact or reality”? The correspondence theory suggests some sort of isomorphism between propositions and complexes called facts. The obvious theory says that truth is a matter of identified objects instantiating assigned properties; so accordance is simply objects having the properties they are said to have. A statement is in accordance with reality just on the condition that it assigns properties to objects as they are actually distributed, i.e. as they are. Fact and reality are just objects having properties. This is a substantive definition of truth meeting standard conditions of adequacy: it defines truth in terms of notions severally necessary and jointly sufficient; it is non-circular; and it permits a universally quantified formula that captures our intuitions about truth. To repeat it in a slightly different language, a proposition is true if and only if its subject matter (objects and properties) exemplifies suitable instantiation relations. Truth is a matter of objects instantiating properties in the way alleged by a proposition. To understand the concept of truth, then, we need to grasp this complex of concepts: reference, object and property, instantiation. It is not simply a device of semantic ascent or essentially redundant or logically simple or merely a means of abbreviation. It is a thick analytically deep concept with a definite nature. Yet its nature is entirely (indeed painfully) obvious—not in the least bit surprising. The truth about truth is a true truism.[4]


[1] The same form of analysis can be applied to the concept of justification, which I take to be confirmation of the theory: a proposition is justified if and only if there are good reasons to believe that the objects referred to instantiate the property expressed. Likewise, we can say that it is a fact that p if and only if a certain object instantiates a given property, e.g. London instantiates being rainy (notice that no semantic relation is involved here).

[2] Why this should be is not clear to me: perhaps it is thought too obvious, or perhaps less obvious theories are confounded with it (correspondence theories).

[3] Devotees of Tarski’s theory will want to know how to provide recursion clauses for logical connectives. This is easily done: for example, “p and q” is true if and only if the objects and properties referred to in “p” stand in the instantiation relation and the objects and properties referred to in “q” stand in the instantiation relation; and similarly for “or” and “not”.

[4] Why is the truth about truth a truism while the truth about (say) knowledge is not? Because there is nothing more to the truth of propositions than objects instantiating properties combined with the fact that propositions stand for things. There is nothing hidden here, nothing to be discovered. Other theories purport to say something interesting, but the obvious theory is content with mere accuracy.