Saturday, 2 August 2014

Two Concepts of Metaphysical Modality

Here I want to distinguish two concepts of metaphysical modality and then give two reasons for thinking that this is an important distinction.

One concept, which I will call the concept of metaphysical modality in the narrow sense, crucially involves the subjunctive/indicative contrast, or the contrast between considering a scenario as counterfactual versus considering it as actual, and focuses on the subjunctive/counterfactual side. (This is why Chalmers is able, in 'The Foundations of Two-Dimensional Semantics' and other papers, to choose 'subjunctive necessity' as his preferred term for metaphysical necessity in the narrow sense.) It concerns how things could have been in a very broad sense. And so we can help fix the concept with familiar Kripkean talk like 'To be sure, we don't know a priori that Hesperus is Phosphorus. Given far-out enough empirical revelations, that could turn out to be wrong. But given that we're not mistaken about this - given that Hesperus is Phosphorus - then it could not have been otherwise. It is a necessary truth that Hesperus is Phosphorus'.

The other concept, which I will call the concept of metaphysical modality in the broad sense, doesn't involve this contrast. It may be roughly characterized as modality which is neither epistemic nor somehow conventional. Modal facts which are the way they are irrespective of anything to do with our knowledge, and irrespective of any conventions we might have, are metaphysical modal facts. And we might want to throw in something about the modality not being restricted as well.

To illustrate the difference, consider a proposition like 'This typewriter cannot have two of its keys depressed simultaneously' - or, to avoid the idea that this may be a case of some tacitly restricted modality, 'This typewriter cannot in the course of its proper functioning have two of its keys depressed simultaneously'. This proposition clearly has a modal element. Also, this modal element appears to have little to do with knowledge or some convention we have set up. If the proposition is true, then the typewriter in question has this modal property - that of not being able to have two of its keys depressed simulteneously in the course of its proper functioning - in virtue of the way it is, not in virtue of our state of knowledge or any convention we have set up. And so we might want to say that the modality in question is metaphysical in the broad sense. But it seems not to be an instance of metaphysical modality in the narrow sense. The subjunctive, or the consideration of scenarios as counterfactual, doesn't come into the matter; it is, we might say, about what the typewriter can actually do, not what it might have done had things gone differently (even if, in this case, there is a one-to-one correspondence between actual and counterfactual possibilities).

Another example of a proposition involving a modality which we should say is metaphysical in the broad sense but not in the narrow, is 'It is possible to win a game of chess in five moves'. Here the object of interest is something abstract (the game of chess), whereas in the first example the object of interest was a concrete mechanical thing.

Why is it important to realize that there are these two different concepts of metaphysical modality? One reason is that it seems very likely to be relevant to solving problems about the varieties of modality, a topic whose difficulty has become steadily more apparent in the decades following Naming and Necessity.

Another reason, which has been even closer to my concerns, is its relevance for the project of trying to analyze or give an account of metaphysical modality in the narrower sense. For instance, the account of this which I have been developing involves a notion which clearly has a modal component.

The account, which I will post on soon, says that a proposition is necessary iff it is, or is implied by, a proposition which is both inherently counterfactually invariant and true. And the notion of inherent counterfactual invariance is cashed out in terms of the counterfactual scenario descriptions producible by the language system to which the proposition in question belongs. Not those which it actually does produce in its career, but those which it can. (A proposition is inherently counterfactually invariant iff its negation does not appear in any of these producible counterfactual scenario descriptions.)

The question now arises: does the presence of this modal element - which should be a good sign to anyone who, like me, is suspicious that there could be any such thing as a reduction of a modal notion to non-modal notions - make the account circular? 'Circular' in this context seems like a dirty word, but note that if the answer is Yes, that wouldn't mean that the account is no good at all; it would still be far from obvious or trivial. It could then perhaps be seen as a recursive definition, presupposing some cases as a base, and explaining the rest in terms of it. But still, Yes might seem like the wrong answer. I suspect it is. Separating metaphysical modality in the broad sense from metaphysical modality in the narrow sense opens up a promising way of supporting a No; the account deals with metaphysical necessity in the narrow sense - subjunctive necessity, necessity when considering-as-counterfactual - and appeals, on the right hand side of the 'iff', to a distinct species of metaphysical modality in the broad sense. On this understanding, there is no circularity - or to put it more politely, recursiveness - in the account at all. Of course, it doesn't supply us with a key for analyzing modality away altogether, as some attempts at analyzing metaphysical necessity in the narrow sense (without perhaps isolating that sense sufficiently clearly) have tried to do, but that should probably be seen as one of its more important virtues.


Chalmers, David J. (2006). The foundations of two-dimensional semantics. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Josep Macia (eds.), Two-Dimensional Semantics: Foundations and Applications. Oxford University Press. 55-140.

Kripke, Saul A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Names and the Publicity of Meaning

One sort of consideration which may seem to augur for Millianism, and against both descriptivism and my view of names, comes from the idea that meanings must be public items, shared by communicators. If the subject matter of semantics is supposed to be the public meanings of linguistic expressions - where this might be conceived as the stuff we must have implicit knowledge of in order to be competent speakers - then it is hard to see what, in any given case, could be essential to using a name correctly, except for using it to denote the right bearer. On the other hand, there does seem to be a technique of using certain empty names like 'Santa Claus' which is more specific than: using it such that it has no bearer. But perhaps we want a minimal conception of semantics on which such specific techniques are regarded as extra-semantic.

Given such a minimal conception of semantics, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that belief-contents, proposition-meanings and propositions and have more to their identity than their structures and the semantics of their components. (That is, unless we are prepared to bite bullets like: '”Hesperus is Hesperus” means the same as “Hesperus is Phosphorus”'.) And if we accept this, then we must deny that the identity of a proposition can always be reckoned as being determined by its structure plus the meanings of its parts, in the relevant minimal sense of 'meaning'.

We can reinstate compositionality either by moving to a very coarse-grained notion of belief-contents or propositions (and so biting the bullet on 'Hesperus is Hesperus' and 'Hesperus is Phosphorus'), or by moving to a finer-grained conception of the meanings of parts such as names, a conception which will include things beyond public meanings and minimal competence conditions. This latter is, in effect, what I advocate in my view of names as having uses, or being tied to individual concepts, which can differ even though the names do not differ as regards extension.

'Hesperus and Phosphorus' seems to be a different proposition – seems to mean something different from – 'Hesperus is Hesperus'. And, quite apart from any general thesis about meaning-determination, this difference seems like it has to be laid at the door of the names 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus'. And that is what my view of names enables us to do, while remaining invulnerable to Kripkean anti-descriptivist arguments.

Why can't we all go home, then? Well, this kind of solution seems to worry people. It seems like they can see what its virtues would be, but don't feel they can help themselves to it. I suspect that one of the major causes of this reluctance is some kind of conceptual intuition to the effect that meanings – anything worth calling 'a meaning' – have, by definition, to be public and shared by competent communicators. I suspect that another major cause, perhaps even more active, is that people have sensed that on this way of going, there won't be any general story to tell about how to count meanings – i.e. about how to determine whether to say that two expressions, or instances thereof, are synonymous or not.

We can appease the first worry to some degree, I think, by allowing that there is a natural conception, which it is not improper to use the word 'meaning' in connection with, according to which meanings, in order to be meanings, must be public and shared. But we can also have a richer, more idiolectic conception, and maintain that this is what we're talking about in connection with names, and the semantic difference between 'Hesperus and Hesperus' and 'Hesperus is Phosphorus'.

Furthermore, these two sorts of conceptions need not be seen as two utterly different things, but as continuous. Both deal with systematic use-patterns of signs, or roles of signs in systems. Taking the 'public and shared' conception as our starting point, we may yet ask: how public and how shared must these use-patterns or system-roles be to count as meanings? We could have a conception on which the patterns or roles must be shared by all who competently speak the language. But how do we individuate languages?
Peter Ludlow's recent work on 'the dynamic lexicon' can help prepare the ground for what I am saying here, being consonant with it in important ways.

This appearance of continuity and fluidity is not some nasty imprecision in our philosophy, but a faithful capturing of the facts. People differ from each other – and from themselves over time – in their use of symbols and the way their understandings work, and in most cases, the question whether two symbol-instances align in meaning can be given different answers for different purposes. When we're talking about something we're both familiar with, and our ideas of that thing are similar enough, our talk can be said to align in meaning. But notice that, in speaking just then of ideas being similar enough, I have already hinted that there might be a finer granularity at which our ideas are not type-identical – a finer granularity at which it may be said that we don't mean exactly the same thing. This seems realistic.

Regarding the second worry, my answer is already implicit in the above; I think the most fruitful response is not to try to explain it away, but to embrace it. There is no single way of counting meanings, since we can individuate them and count them differently at different granularities. We are already pushed toward this by considering Kripke's puzzle, and its character as a solution there is only strengthened when we see it has further applications, such as here to this worry about the very idea that names have internal meanings, to questions about the individuation of facts, and elsewhere.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Names, Meaning and the Articulation Assumption

Here I want to suggest one reason why people have had trouble seeing a middle way between descriptivism and Millianism about names - that is, why my sort of view of names has not already prevailed or at least become a prominent option. (It is far from the only reason, and I will consider others in future posts.) This may also afford us some insight into why both descriptivists and Millians endorse their respective views.

The articulation assumption is that, if you say that names have meanings beyond their referents, you have to be able, at least in principle, to specify what they are, and in some way which articulates or unpacks these meanings. The assumption is at work in B's role in this short dialogue:

A: Names have meanings over and above their bearers.

B: What's the meaning of 'John Nash', then?

I am envisaging B's reply here as a Millian-leaning attempt to embarrass A out of their assertion.

And what I want to say here is that A need not have anything to reply here, in order to have respectably made their assertion.

To see this, it helps to reflect that, in saying 'what the meaning of' an expression is, what we are doing is giving, or at least referring to, an expression which has the same meaning as the one whose meaning is in question. And there is no reason why a name like 'John Nash' needs to be synonymous with any other expression, let alone one with more structure (so that it could be said to articulate or unpack the meaning of 'John Nash').

One of the functions of semantic notions is to bundle and separate instances of expressions. We bundle by ascribing the same meaning, we separate by ascribing different meanings.

Frege, who notoriously says precious little about his senses, at one point says that the sense of 'Aristotle' might be: the teacher of Alexander. (I reproduce his style of formulation, using a colon and no quote marks, but I don't mean to say this is clear and unambiguous.) But we don't need to do any such thing.

Making the articulation assumption could be one of the forces pushing thinkers who are impressed by anti-descriptivist arguments, such as Kripke's, toward Millianism. Likewise, it could be one of the forces pushing thinkers who are impressed by anti-Millian considerations, such as the apparent difference in meaning between 'Hesperus is Hesperus' and 'Hesperus is Phosphorus' and the apparent meaningfulness true singular negative existentials like 'Santa doesn't exist', toward (perhaps sophisticated) forms of descriptivism.

Once you reflect that the articulation assumption is false, it becomes clear that there is a middle way, quite immune to both sets of problems.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Worrying about Facts

This is the last in a series of posts on facts (the four links are to the earlier members).

There is an inchoate kind of worry about facts which, while closely related to projection-based skepticism (discussed in the last post), is not automatically discredited once we discredit projection-based skepticism. One way of expressing it would be to say that facts – or certain classes of facts, perhaps – seem like shadowy or queer entities. I will try to say something about what is going on here, but it is a large and profound theme which affects a lot of philosophy, so what I say here can do little more than scratch the surface and indicate a broad sort of viewpoint. The line I take on this is broadly Wittgensteinian.

Such an inchoate worry seems to animate the following remarks of Russell's in the Atomism lectures:

I do not suppose there is in the world a single disjunctive fact corresponding to “p or q”. It does not look plausible that in the actual objective world there are facts going about which you could describe as “p or q”, but I would not lay too much stress on what strikes one as plausible: it is not a thing you can rely on altogether. For the present I do not think any difficulties will arise from the supposition that the truth or falsehood of this proposition “p or q” does not depend upon a single objective fact which is disjunctive but depends on the two facts one of which corresponds to p and the other to q: p will have a fact corresponding to it and q will have a fact corresponding to it.

And a bit later:

One has a certain repugnance to negative facts, the same sort of feeling that makes you wish not to have a fact “p or q” going about the world. You have a feeling that there are only positive facts, and that negative propositions have somehow or other got to be expressions of positive facts. When I was lecturing on this subject at Harvard4 I argued that there were negative facts, and it nearly produced a riot: the class would not hear of there being negative facts at all. I am still inclined to think that there are. However, one of the men to whom I was lecturing at Harvard, Mr. Demos, subsequently wrote an article in Mind to explain why there are no negative facts. It is in Mind for April 1917. I think he makes as good a case as can be made for the view that there are no negative facts. It is a difficult question. I really only ask that you should not dogmatize. I do not say positively that there are, but there may be.

There is obviously something weird about this way of talking. It has a certain charm, even, for some – I confess even I find it charming and not just strange. The same holds for much of the Atomism lectures. Nevertheless, I think we need to get beyond this sort of talk, and submit it to philosophical scrutiny. Wittgenstein has done more toward this than anyone else I know of.

It was certain sorts of facts Russell was worried about above – negative and disjunctive facts. But other considerations, such as our considerations above about concepts or modes of presentations getting into the individuation of facts, and granularity considerations' applying to facts, may give rise to similar worries about positive, atomic facts. Others, like Quine, Strawson, and perhaps William James, have been more generally worried about facts.

Also, similar shadowiness and queerness worries come up in other areas: thoughts, meanings, sensations, and mathematical objects. And then there are cases where the very things which worry these worriers are seized upon and embraced, e.g. mystical Pythagoreanism and Platonism.

One of the fundamental things going wrong in these worries, I believe, is that the worriers are making the mistake of passing over the question of sense, and going straight for the question of truth. A similar thing occurs when writers opposed to Platonism about mathematical objects go all autobiographical and tell us that they find the view 'wildly implausible' or the like.

In both sorts of cases – incredulity about facts, or particular sorts of facts, and incredulity about the mind-independent existence of mathematical objects – the worriers are onto something, some problem in their way of looking at things, and perhaps that of others (such as quasi-mysterian metaphysicians embracing facts and numbers with a lot of hocus pocus). But they mistakenly read it into the forms of expression which gave rise to their misunderstandings – forms which in themselves are not guilty. They then make the mistake of, instead of clarifying how these forms really work, what they really mean, casting doubt on the truth of what they may be used to say.

This is very clear in Russell's remarks above. ('I would not lay too much stress on what strikes one as plausible: it is not a thing you can rely on altogether', 'I really only ask that you should not dogmatize. I do not say positively that there are, but there may be.' All of this suggests a difficult factual question - none of it suggests any difficulty with our understanding of what we are saying.)

What I am saying here is reminiscent of the following remarks of Wittgenstein's:

PI: 194. When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it. (PI.)

Zettel: 450. One who philosophizes often makes the wrong, inappropriate gesture for a verbal expression.

451. (One says the ordinary thing—with the wrong gesture.)

This idea of 'saying the ordinary thing with the wrong gesture' gives us a way of thinking about what is going on when the mysterian metaphysician and the worried doubter alike use the forms which give rise to these worries.

Russell's colourful talk of facts 'going about' in 'the actual, objective world' as it were expresses just such a wrong gesture, putting cues for it into the words themselves, so that the words themselves become more inherently misleading.

The treatment I suggest for these residual worries about facts, then, is the same sort of treatment instanced in this passage in the Investigations (where the topic is not fact-talk, but our inclination to say that, when we have grasped the meaning of an expression, its use is then 'present', or 'determined'):

195. “But I don't mean that what I do now (in grasping a sense) determines the future use causally and as a matter of experience, but that in a queer way, the use itself is in some sense present.”--But of course it is, “in some sense”! Really the only thing wrong with what you say is the expression “in a queer way”. The rest is all right; and the sentence only seems queer when one imagines a different language-game for it from the one in which we actually use it. (Someone once told me that as a child he had been surprised that a tailor could 'sew a dress'--he thought this meant that a dress was produced by sewing alone, by sewing one thread onto another.)

When we fail to look sufficiently closely, in a sufficiently unprejudiced way, at the way fact-talk works, we assimilate its working with that of other talk we know, and it looks funny to us. We sometimes react by doubting that there really are facts, or that there really are certain kinds of facts. But we may also react with an overly thin and superficial deflationism, which doesn't do sufficient justice to the real office of fact-talk.


Bertrand Russell (1985). The Philosophy of Logical Atomism. Open Court.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (2003). Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation. Blackwell.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1967). Zettel. Oxford, Blackwell.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Quine on Facts: A Case-Study in Projective Fallacies

Quine was famously skeptical about facts. As I said in the last post, Quine can be seen as resolutely maintaining something which Strawson seems to suggest at his most objectionable moments. This will enable us to give a sharp diagnosis of one particular skeptical confusion about facts.

What on the part of true sentences is meant to correspond to what on the part of reality? If we seek a correspondence word by word, we find ourselves eking reality out with a complement of abstract objects fabricated for the sake of the correspondence. Or perhaps we settle for a correspondence of whole sentences with facts: a sentence is true if it reports a fact. But here again we have fabricated substance for an empty doctrine. The world is full of things, variously related, but what, in addition to all that, are facts? They are projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence.

But let us ponder this last maneuver for a moment. The truth of 'Snow is white' is due, we are told, to the fact that snow is white. The true sentence 'Snow is white' corresponds to the fact that snow is white. The sentence 'Snow is white' is true if and only if it is a fact that snow is white. Now we have worked the fact, factitious fiction that it is, into a corner where we can deal it the coup de grace. The combination 'it is a fact that' is vacuous and can be dropped; 'It is a fact that snow is white' reduces to 'Snow is white'. Our account of the truth of 'Snow is white' in terms of facts has now come down to this: 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white.

This nicely illustrates the attitude about fact-talk we were arguing Strawson had, and which Quine shares. All but the thinnest, most eliminable uses of fact-talk, such as prefacing propositions with 'It is a fact that', are cast out as bad philosophy. But this doesn't at all follow from the explanatory failure, if such there be, of attempting to account for truth in terms of correspondence with facts; why would dubious theories of truth be the only other thing you can do with fact talk, besides these most eliminable uses? We haven't been given a shred of evidence to suggest that they are.

Consider the argument in the second paragraph. It can be resisted from the point of view of the correspondence theory. Furthermore, we can put the correspondence theory to one side and show that, in any case, it does not even begin to show facts to be 'fictions'.

First of all, consider the point of view of a fact-based correspondence theory: the truth of propositions can be explained in terms of a relation of correspondence and certain relata, facts. Quine's transformation, which he just blandly performs without a word of explanation or justification, of the 'corresponds to the fact that' formulation into the 'if and only if it is a fact that' formulation, from this point of view, could justly be said to rather obscure the explanation. And the next step, of declaring 'it is a fact that' to be vacuous and dropping it, is completely indefensible. One thing is the fact that you can drop that phrase in many ordinary contexts – it does not at all follow that you can further mutilate the philosophical explanation in question in the same way.

In Strawson's case, the “elimination” was of a different sort, effected by imagining a counterfactual scenario in which we speak a language consisting only of simple commands. In the present case, the "elimination" is effected by transforming sentences of our language so that reference to facts disappears. It fails triply:

Firstly, the transformations are unjustified from the point of view of the correspondence theory.

Secondly: no evidence has been given that there are not other occurrences of fact talk which Quine cannot eliminate.

Thirdly: even if fact-talk were always eliminable, that doesn't eliminate facts, doesn't show them not to exist – that would be a use-mention confusion. (This point was made by my former teacher Adrian Heathcote.)

(Quine, or a good Quinean, however, may object that this third objection misses the point, and that there is something lying behind this argument: Quine's conception of ontology. I will not get into that possibility here.)

These three problems with Quine's “elimination” aside, we still have the contention in the first paragraph that facts are 'projected from true sentences'. This suggestive idea, particularly in light of our considerations about the role of concepts (or internal meanings, or modes of presentation) in the individuation of facts, could give independent support to the idea that facts are fiction, so it requires separate treatment. To this end, we shall now consider the idea of a projective fallacy in general, and go on to show that it is Quine, not the person who speaks of facts, who is guilty of one here.

Projective Fallacies (or Confusions) in General

There is a general idea, which seems to me to be important and useful in philosophy, that we sometimes get led into error or confusion by reading features of our language or thought into the world – or alternatively, projecting them onto the world.

Before considering some (hopefully relatively uncontentious) examples of such confusions or errors, let us review some classic philosophical expressions of the general idea.

Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature: “The mind has a great propensity to spread itself on objects.” [Book 1, Part 3, §XIV]

Russell, in his Logical Atomism lectures: 'There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self-conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute.'

Wittgenstein, in the Investigations 104: 'We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it.'

I will speak of 'projective fallacies' to refer to instances of this sort of thing, with the caveat that 'confusion' may be more appropriate in many cases, since there need not be any definite fallacious inference drawn, in the sense of a transition from proposition to proposition forming part of a chain of reasoning.

Examples of Projective Fallacies

Here I will try to give some examples of projective fallacies which aren't very philosophically loaded, in order to give a better idea of what they are.

Bands in the rainbow: looking at rainbows in relative scientific ignorance, it would be natural to think that the bands of colour we perceive in them correspond to intrinsic structural features of them. We might expect that bits of the rainbow near the end (width-wise) of band are more intrinsically different from those near the same blurry boundary on the other side, than are two equally distant bits which fall within one band. But this would be a projective fallacy.

Illusory failures of homophony: Taking two words with the same pronunciation but different spellings in isolation, and saying them one after the other by themselves, we might persuade ourselves that we ordinarily pronounce them very slightly differently, when this is not in fact the case. A difference which lies only in our mode of representing speech has been projected into our speech.

Taking an “operator” for a representative: An extra-terrestrial who had correctly concluded that road signs sometimes depict objects to be found in their vicinity (such as speed-bump signs, signs indicating the presence of wildlife, etc.), might see a sign disallowing dogs and mistakenly infer that there are creatures nearby with large crosses attached to their bodies.

Incidental features of models: A boy makes a model of a boat he admires, and uses a piece of wood in which he had made, at another time and for some other purpose, a regular series of indentations. Years later, as a grown man, he finds the model he made, notices and remembers deliberately making the indentations, and forms the erroneous idea that the boat he admired bore indentations in the corresponding place.

Projection-Based Skepticism about Facts

Let us return now to Quine's formulation of projection-based skepticism about facts. He said:

The world is full of things, variously related, but what, in addition to all that, are facts? They are projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence.

In other words, the idea that there are facts involves a projective fallacy. In the following two sections I want to show that this is completely wrong, and ironically so: it is Quine who is guilty of a projective fallacy here, in thinking that the believer of facts is guilty of a projective fallacy.

Something Which Is True: A Genetic Point about Ideas of Facts

We talk of particular facts – we have concepts, or ideas, of particular facts. How do we arrive at these? I think it is plausible to say that we derive them, in some sense, from true propositions. Think of how we form our ideas of particular propositions: first we formulate the propositions, then we produce an idea of that proposition. We might say these ideas of propositions are projected from the propositions themselves. Likewise with ideas of facts, although the projection is different.

This may be called a genetic point about ideas of particular facts, since it is not a piece of semantics or analysis, but rather a hypothesis about how certain cognitive structures come about.

It seems plausible, does it not, that in order to have an idea of a particular fact, you need to have some true propositions under your belt? The reason for this, we may say, is that our ideas of particular facts are – in some, if not all cases – derived from our representations that such-and-such is the case, when it is the case – that is, from true propositions.

The Irony of Projection-Based Skepticism About Facts

We are now in a position to see that Quine, in painting the idea that there are facts as guilty of a projective fallacy, is himself guilty of a projective fallacy: he has projected a property of our ideas of facts – namely, their being derived, or projected, from our true propositions – onto facts themselves, and concluded that, since facts are also meant to be mind- and language-independent, the whole idea of facts is bankrupt; facts are impossible fictions. But that is a mistake.


Quine, W. V. (1987). Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Skepticism About Facts: The Case of Strawson

So far in this series on facts, I have argued that the object-property-relation model of facts is untenable at its core. Lastly, I have offered a reason to think that granularity considerations apply to our carving up of facts as well as to our carving up of meanings, although not always in a way which yields a one-to-one correspondence between true proposition-meanings and facts.

All of this may give rise to worries about what facts are, and whether they can be held to be the real, mind-independent things we generally think of them as. Relatedly, there is the idea that facts are a fiction invented by thinkers caught in the grip of a “correspondence theory of truth” for the sake of having something for true propositions to correspond to.

The object-property-relation model may have some of its appeal in appearing to stave off these worries to some extent, by giving a uniform, extensional way of picturing things – but that's a desperate game when it comes to our ordinary conception of facts, as we have seen.

Surmounting these worries is no mere defensive exercise, but will afford us insight into the concept of facts, the use of 'fact'.

I will begin in this post by examining Strawson's discussion of facts in his famous article 'Truth', attempting to diagnose and avoid certain confusions (at his expense). (I got quite carried away with this, and my tone gets a bit harsh, especially considering that the poor bugger wrote his paper over 60 years ago. But I like Strawson very much. Much more than Quine.) I will then discuss, in a future post, a well-known and striking passage in Quine, purportedly showing facts to be 'fictions'.

Following that, I will try to sharpen up one aspect of the Strawson-Quine worries by taking the concept of 'projection' used by Quine (in his claim that facts are fictions projected from true sentences for the sake of the correspondence theory) and turning it against him (and Strawson); it is they, not the person who speaks of facts and declines to call them fictions (Quine) or pseudo-entities (Strawson), who are guilty (in a subtle way) of projecting features of language and thought onto reality. (This is a different use of the concept of projection than in the notion of 'external projective relations' used in the characterization of propositions.)

I will then conclude this series on facts with a brief look at residual worries about the 'shadowiness' of facts, and the idea (which comes through very clearly in Russell's Atomism Lectures) that there is something incredible about the idea that certain kinds of facts exist.

Strawson on Facts

Strawon's discussion of facts in his much-discussed paper 'Truth' (a reply to Austin's paper of the same name) seems to me to embody certain confusions which, at our present dialectical point, we are particularly liable to. We have examined the object-property-relation model of facts and found it wanting, and have noticed some striking features to do with the individuation of facts, namely: that concepts of modes of presentation come into their individuation in some way, that they can be individuated at different granularities, but that this does not go hand-in-hand with the individuation of true proposition-meanings.

Strawson's paper is positively tortured with scruples about 'fact' talk. One gets the feeling that, if he's right, then with fact talk, if you so much as blink, you might find yourself making up fictions and talking nonsense.

He is arguing against the correspondence theory of truth, particularly Austin's purportedly cleaned-up and clarified version.

Strawson's idea seems to be that fact-talk is assigned a role in the correspondence theory of truth which it is not fit to play – and that nothing else is fit to play the role either. He urges this in part by drawing our attention to the grammar of 'fact', and its close relationship with 'that'-clauses. That is, he has noticed, at least in part, what Wittgenstein was pointing out in the quotations from the 'Complex and Fact' given here LINK.

So, correspondence theorists, in Strawson's view as I understand it, are trading on a misconstrual of facts, of the grammar of 'fact', in order to create (for themselves as much as for others) the appearance of a theory which accounts for the truth of propositions in terms of (to take, rather than Austin's difficult remarks, the full-blown early-analytic object-property-relation 'complex' view) a correspondence between elements of the proposition and elements of a fact. (Austin's view retains enough of this approach for Strawson to object that the correspondence theory requires 'not purification, but elimination'.)

There might be something in this as a criticism of the correspondence theory of truth qua explanatory theory. I will not pursue this here. What I want to do is vouchsafe the idea of facts from Strawson's attacks on it, and understand the pathology of these attacks – not for the sake, necessarily, of explaining what truth consists in, but for broader reasons: fact-talk is important in all kinds of connections besides philosophical theorizing about the nature of truth.

However, perhaps I should say a couple of things about (my view of) the proposition 'Truth is correspondence with the facts', in case this helps to avoid some possible misunderstandings. This proposition can be used legitimately, but it can be also be misunderstood and misused (in ways connected with the object-property-relation model of facts we considered above, but also in others, such as by making all truth look like it has to be empirical, through a narrow conception of 'correspondence with the facts'). You can say it, it is true as far as it goes, but some (who you might call 'correspondence theorists') have imagined it to go further than it does. It can be a useful consideration against certain confused views in the directions of coherentism, relativism and pragmatism (not to say that all views in those directions are confused), although by itself it cannot be expected to have any effect on seasoned theorists. More humbly, it might in some connections be able to assist someone to learn to speak correctly, and with more expressive power.

Correspondence theory of truth aside, Strawson's rejection of it so far leaves a proper understanding of the notion of facts as an open problem: how does fact-talk work, and what's it doing in our language and thought? This is where Strawson is weak. He doesn't seem prepared for what a subtle and difficult matter this may be. His view of the matter is reactionary, and it leads him to say some strange things of his own about facts, things which could be said to be out of touch with the real grammar of 'fact' – and the grammars of the certain other words in the things he says – every bit as much as much as the explanatory or pseudo-explanatory use of 'fact' by the correspondence theorists. (This dogs Strawson's negative arguments about the correspondence theory, which more-or-less make up the whole paper, too – it is not a simple matter of a good negative story and a bad positive one).

He doesn't seem to realize what a subtle and difficult matter this may still be once you reject the correspondence theory. The correspondence theory is the root of all evil – get rid of that, and there is no difficulty. His view of the matter is reactionary, and it leads him to say some strange things of his own about facts, things which could be said to be every bit as out of touch with the real grammar of 'fact' – and the grammars of the certain other words in the things he says – as the explanatory or pseudo-explanatory use of 'fact' made by some correspondence theorists.

Strawson is probably not aptly characterized as a 'skeptic about facts' (a phrase Quine must wear), although many of the things he says sound like skepticism about facts. His position at the time of this paper was probably essentially confused and unstable. We can only describe as best we can the pickle he is in.

Strawson has, we might say, become paranoid about fact-talk: he sees the correspondence theory – with its attendant misuse of fact talk - everywhere he looks. He sees it in certain linguistic forms which in themselves need not be used in a correspondence-theoretic way at all: they admit of perfectly harmless use, and more than that, their use is important from our general point of view as speakers and thinking people, and their working is non-trivial from the point of view of the investigator of language and thought. This paranoia leads him to denials and counter-prescriptions of his own which are every bit as objectionable as correspondence-talk.

I will now briefly discuss some important passages from Strawson's paper, to illustrate the above charge. We will then move on to Quine on facts, who can be seen as resolutely maintaining something which Strawson seems to suggest at his most objectionable moments. The discussion of Strawson's we are focussing on presently is complex and ambiguous and many-sided – this makes it rich but difficult material to discuss. The passage from Quine we will look at, by contrast, is utterly forthright, and this will enable us in a later post to give a sharp diagnosis of one particular skeptical confusion about facts.

That (person, thing, etc.) to which the referring part of the statement refers, and which the describing part of the statement fits or fails to fit, is that which the statement is about. It is evident that there is nothing else in the world for the statement itself to be related to either in some further way of its own or in either of the different ways in which these different parts of the statement are related to what the statement is about. And it is evident that the demand that there should be such a relatum is logically absurd: a logically fundamental type-mistake. But the demand for something in the world which makes the statement true (Mr. Austin's phrase), or to which the statement corresponds when it is true, is just this demand.

The phrase 'in the world' is doing a good deal of work here, but what does it really mean? Are facts in the world or not in it? Isn't this precisely the sort of unclear, grammatically out-of-touch talk which Strawson is supposed to be so fastidious about? Having noticed fundamental grammatical differences between, e.g. 'fact' on the one hand and 'table' and 'complex' (and 'proposition' for that matter) on the other, he tries to mark them by saying there is nothing in the world which could be called a fact and which could be said to make propositions true, and which propositions could be said to fit or correspond to. But this is crude in the extreme. There is simply no reason to think there is a single, clear-enough idea of what it is for something to be 'in the world', which Strawson can use here. So the impressive-sounding phrase 'a logically fundamental type-mistake' is quite unjustified. That makes it sound almost as if this were an instance of some fallacy well-known to experts. It is nothing of the kind. I think it is fair to say that there is an element of hocus pocus here with this talk of a 'logically fundamental type-mistake'.

The only plausible candidate for the position of what (in the world) makes the statement true is the fact it states; but the fact it states is not something in the world. It is not an object: not even (as some have supposed) a complex object consisting of one or more particular elements (constituents, parts) and a universal element (constituent, part).

Here, after a rehearsal of the opaque 'in the world' line, we get a further heady-sounding claim – facts aren't objects! As if this too followed from the rejection of the correspondence theory, and the realization that 'fact' behaves very differently not just from 'proposition', but also from 'table' and 'complex'! But to me, this sounds like further unexplained metaphysics, or at best, hopelessly crude, hand-wavy grammar. (Are facts things, if not objects? May we say that, officer?) More to come.

Mr. Austin seems to ignore the complete difference of type between, e.g., "fact" and "thing"; to talk as if "fact" were just a very general word (with, unfortunately, some misleading features) for “event,” “thing,” etc., instead of being (as it is) both wholly different from these, and yet the only possible candidate for the desired non-linguistic correlate of “statement.” 

This passage is shot through with use-mention confusion. What would it mean for 'fact' to be a word for other words ('event', 'thing')? (None of 'fact', 'event' and 'thing' is synonymous with another, and Austin never implies otherwise, as far as I've been able to tell.) Secondly, how could the word 'fact' be a candidate for a non-linguistic correlate of anything? And why would the word 'statement' have a non-linguistic correlate?

'Thing' is indeed very different from 'fact' – it is a lot more general, and often functions like a variable. But does that mean we can't speak of facts, that we can't use the word 'thing' in connection with them (as in 'Facts are her favourite things', 'Something I didn't appreciate was the fact that …')? (But why not, officer, when there's no harm in it?)

These points are, of course, reflected in the behaviour of the word "fact" in ordinary language; behaviour which Mr. Austin notes, but by which he is insufficiently warned. "Fact," like "true," "states" and "statement" is wedded to "that"-clauses; and there is nothing unholy about this union.

It is interesting to note that Strawson says 'there is nothing unholy about this union'. It is easy enough to comprehend, because we know Strawson allows that fact-talk is not always entirely spurious, with the caveat its use is quite specific and narrow, and cannot be exploited for a correspondence theory of truth. Compare what is said in this description of a form of skeptical position about facts, given the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for 'Facts':
3.F2: All facts, even the most simple ones, are disreputable. Fact-talk, being wedded to that-clauses, is entirely parasitic on truth-talk. Facts are too much like truthbearers. Facts are fictions, spurious sentence-like slices of reality, “projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence” (Quine 1987, p. 213; cf. Strawson 1950)

The second citation is to the paper we are now considering! (The first is to the passage in Quine which we will discuss in the next post, and that is where the quoted phrase 'projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence' is taken from.) Contrast 'disreputable' with Strawson's 'there is nothing unholy about this union'. This is a testament to how ambiguous and difficult Strawson's position is.

This citation may seem from the narrow point of view of this passage to betray an incompetent misreading, but that would be completely unfair to its author. Recall Strawson above saying that the 'demand' for facts as things 'in the world' for truths to correspond to rests on a mistake, and his curious claim that facts are not 'objects'. And furthermore, following the above-quoted talk about the not-unholy union, as a continuation of this theme of the close relationship between 'fact', 'statement' and 'that'-clauses, we find:

Of course, statements and facts fit. They were made for each other. If you prise the statements off the world you prise the facts off it too; but the world would be none the poorer. (You don't also prise off the world what the statements are about – for this you would need a different kind of lever.)

What? (Is that you, officer?) Strawson has been having such a good time that his ordinary-language hat has fallen off entirely, indeed out the window. He is now heading for the stratosphere, where Kant sits waiting; he'll probably exit via the same window.

There is obviously a double-standard at work here. We mustn't say that true propositions correspond to facts, and we mustn't say that facts make true propositions true. But it's perfectly legitimate to say something like: facts are made for statements. It's fine to talk about prising facts off the world.

We can explain this as follows: Strawson has got it into his head that the correspondence theory is the root of all evil when it comes to our understanding of fact-talk, and of language and its connections to the world. As long as we don't say correspondence-theoretic things, we'll be alright. So we can forget all our scruples and say all sorts of colourful, deeply-philosophical sounding things, as long as they aren't correspondence-theoretic in spirit – and if these things might work as propaganda against the correspondence theory, we positively ought to say them.

The question remains: what on Earth is going on in this passage? When we consider Quine on facts in the next post, we will suggest that Quine is, ironically, guilty of a subtle 'projection fallacy' (a term which will be explained) in his contention that facts are 'projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence'. We should then be able to see clearly that this is also what is going on in this astounding passage of Strawson's. And so the SEP citation of Strawson in connection with the idea that facts are 'disreputable' 'projections' is justifiable.

Here is a passage which shows that, not only are facts not objects, they are not even things.

the whole charm of talking of situations, states of affairs or facts as included in, or parts of, the world, consists in thinking of them as things, and groups of things; [...] the temptation to talk of situations, etc., in the idiom appropriate to talking of things and events is, once this first step is taken, overwhelming. Mr. Austin does not withstand it.

What does he mean by this? What does it mean to think of something as a thing, anyway?

The reader will probably agree whole-heartedly that I have protested sufficiently now about the meaningfulness and clarity of what Strawson is saying. I will leave off that now, and conclude this post with a word about a curious argument involving imperatives, which occurs near the end of Strawson's section on facts:

Orders, as well as information, are conventionally communicated. Suppose "orange" always meant what we mean by “Bring me an orange" and "that orange" always meant what we mean by "Bring me that orange," and, in general, our language contained only sentences in some such way imperative. There would be no less need for a conventional correlation between the word and the world. Nor would there be any less to be found in the world. But those pseudo-entities which make statements true would not figure among the non-linguistic correlates. They would no more be found; (they never were found, and never did figure among the non-linguistic correlates).

The argument seems to be, in essence: if our language consisted only of simple commands, these would have to be correlated with the world, but we wouldn't correlate them or any of their constituents with facts, and so facts would 'no more be found'. But why does that entitle Strawson to call facts 'pseudo-entities'? And how can he say, on the basis of considering this primitive sort of language, say that 'they [the relevant “pseudo-entities”, facts] never were found'? He can't – that's a completely different, and completely unsupported, claim.

The following analogy, though rough, seems to bring out the unsoundness of Strawson's semi-implicit reasoning here. Suppose we spoke a language with no word for acceleration. In a sense, acceleration would then no longer be a correlate of our language. And perhaps, in a sense, acceleration would not be 'found', by us. But that doesn't mean there is no acceleration, and that we do not 'find' it as a correlate of something in the language we actually speak. To conlude that would be to perpetrate a use-mention confusion: eliminate the signs, and you haven't thereby eliminated what they represent. (We will have occasion to note a similar confusion in Quine in the next post. The point is due to my former teacher Adrian Heathcote, who applied it to Quine.) We can also see it as a projection fallacy: what is gotten rid of in Strawson's imagined case is language, concepts, but this absence is projected onto reality, i.e. onto what the language and concepts were about.


J. L. Austin , P. F. Strawson & D. R. Cousin (1950). Symposium: Truth. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 24:111 - 172. 

Further background:

- A video of Strawson and Gareth Evans discussing truth in the early 1970s.
- Section 3 of the SEP article on Strawson.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Facts and Granularity

We have already noted that (it is natural to say that) the fact that Clark Kent is Superman is distinct from the fact that Clark Kent is Clark Kent. And this seems to reflect, in some way, the fact that our proposition 'Clark Kent is Superman' involves two different concepts, modes of presentation, name-uses or internal meanings, whereas 'Clark Kent is Clark Kent' just involves the one.

As we have argued, these things (let's call them concepts for now) can be individuated at different granularities. This raises the question: should we say that facts can be individuated at different granularities as well?

We will now consider a case which strongly suggests an affirmative answer. We will then consider the further question: does the individuation of facts go hand-in-hand with that of propositions? Consideration of a familiar case will be seen to suggest that it does not: there are contexts where we can naturally distinguish two true propositions which we might count as the same at a coarser granularity, but where it is unnatural to distinguish two facts corresponding to the propositions so distinguished.

Here is the case which suggests that facts can be individuated at different granularities. An untravelled German called Pieter who is, like Kripke's Pierre in France, ignorant of English, uses the name 'Uebermensch' for the hero we know as 'Superman'. He has never heard the term 'Superman', but is privy to the fact that the hero has two guises, and knows that he is called 'Clark Kent' in the non-hero guise. So he assents to 'Clark Kent ist Uebermensch'. He knows, from reading and testimony, quite a bit about the hero, but doesn't know much about his appearance in his hero guise – has never seen a picture, heard or read a detailed description, etc. Let us suppose further that he assumes correctly there must be some name, unknown to him, which is used for the hero in his hero guise, but has no idea what this might be.

In a Pierre-like development, Pieter comes to America and comes into regular contact with Superman. He learns the name 'Superman', and uses it to refer to Superman. But he doesn't realize that this is the hero with two guises, the hero he already knew about in Germany. He just assumes this hero whom he knows as 'Superman' only appears as a hero. He has learnt some English, including the words 'super' and 'man', but just hasn't put two-and-two together.

When Pieter is talking one day with someone privy to the business of Superman having two guises, this person makes some remark, intended to be quite trivial, beginning: 'Even though I realize that Clark Kent is Superman, when ever he wears that suit, I…'. The penny drops. Pieter bursts out with 'Clark Kent is Superman?!', and thinks to himself ('Superman ist Uebermensch!'). The person looks at him, and says 'I didn't realize you weren't aware of that fact'.

I will now explain why I think this case shows that it is natural to individuate facts at different granularities, given different descriptive needs. Before the Pierre-like development, when Pieter was in Germany, we would, on the basis of what we have supposed about him, find it natural to say that he knows who Superman is (although he doesn't know the name he is called by in America, and doesn't know what he looks like), and that he is aware of the fact that Clark Kent is Superman. Nevertheless, as the story develops above, someone has the opportunity to, apparently quite properly, say 'I didn't realize you weren't aware of that fact' right after his outburst, which was 'Clark Kent is Superman?!'. Here, it is natural to say that he became aware of the fact that Clark Kent is Superman, and also of the fact that Superman is the hero he knew as 'Uebermensch'. In this latter connection, he might say: 'I am very surprised at the fact that Superman is Uebermensch – I never even considered the possibility, although I should have worked it out!'.

I submit that the best way of making sense of this situation is to embrace the idea that we carve up facts at different granularities. If we consider Pieter in Germany, without any inkling of what is to take place later, we find it expedient to use a granularity coarser than the one we will end up at, and we take Pieter's sentence 'Clark Kent ist Uebermensch' to state the same fact we state with 'Clark Kent is Superman'. (Although, if we so much as consider speaking of 'the fact that Uebermensch is Superman', we will begin to want to shift to a finer granularity.) Then, once Pieter goes to America, it becomes expedient to shift to a finer granularity and distinguish more facts: there is the fact that Pieter stated in Germany with 'Clark Kent ist Uebermensch', which we might call the fact that Clark Kent is Uebermensch, and there is the fact which now surprises Pieter in America, which we might call the fact that Clark Kent is Superman. It also seems natural to say that Pieter puts knowledge of these two facts together and immediately comes to know a third, which we might call the fact that Superman is Uebermensch.

If we do individuate facts at different granularities, the question arises whether this goes hand-in-hand with the individuation of proposition-meanings. There are really two questions here. It is expedient to operate at different granularities under different circumstances. One thing we can ask is: is it the case that, in any given circumstance, if it is expedient to distinguish two true proposition-meanings, is it also expedient to distinguish two facts, and vice versa? Another thing we can ask is: is it the case that, if it is expedient in some circumstance to distinguish two true propositions meanings, it is expedient in some (possibly distinct) circumstance to distinguish two facts, and vice versa?

It seems to me that the answer to the first question is 'no'. I do not know what to think about the second question, and remain agnostic. I think the 'vice versa' parts hold in both cases; if ever it is expedient in some situation to distinguish two facts (and provided these facts are expressible by propositions at all), it will be expedient to distinguish two corresponding true propositions, and expedient in the very same circumstance at that.

The answer to the first question is 'no', I argue, because, while the vice versa part holds (granted the expressibility of the facts), the first condition doesn't – i.e. it is not the case that, in any given circumstance where it is expedient to distinguish two true propositions, it is expedient to distinguish two corresponding facts. Kripke's original Pierre case gives us an opportunity to see this.

Suppose that London is pretty. (Worries about the subjectivity or indeterminacy of London's prettiness – in short, about there being no fact of the matter, can be easily avoided with a simple alteration of the case.) Now, as we saw in 'Kripke's Puzzle and Semantic Granularity', once Pierre comes to London and forms a second, unconnected conception of it, it becomes expedient to distinguish the proposition he expresses with 'Londres est jolie' from the proposition he would understand by 'London is pretty' – he believes the first, and disbelieves the second. But in this case, as it stands, there is no pressure to distinguish two facts – on the contrary, this is not natural at all. There is just one fact which makes these two propositions true: the fact that London is pretty. Pierre, we might say, is aware of this fact via one mode of presentation (or concept), via one belief-content, but also has another belief-content, involving another mode of presentation, which directly contradicts (or is made false by) this fact.

So, to sum up the preceding discussion: we have reason to think that facts can be carved up at different granularities (the Pieter case), but that their carving up does not go hand-in-hand with that of true propositions (the Pierre case).

In future posts I will discuss skeptical worries about facts, beginning with Strawson's pronouncements on the matter in his famous article 'Truth'.