Monday, 8 September 2014

Metaphysical Realism and Conceptual Relativity: An Application of Granularity

This is another instalment in the 'Applications of Granularity' series I introduced in the last post. To learn what is going on here, have a look at the first paragraphs of that, and the original post on Kripke's puzzle and semantic granularity.

Let us characterize metaphysical realism as the view that there is exactly one true and complete description of the world, and let us characterize conceptual relativity as the denial of that claim.

These two opposing views, at least in name, come from Putnam's discussions in, among other places, the books cited at the end of this post, and have since been discussed by many philosophers. It is not clear to me whether Putnam ever took the characterizations I have given as full characterizations, but they have certainly been for him at least part of what is involved in the two views.

Putnam used different characterizations at different times, and plenty of people have worked at sorting that out a bit. I'm not getting into any of that. I just want to stipulate the above characterizations, and briefly indicate how the doctrine of semantic granularity can dissolve the appearance of a hard- or impossible-to-resolve philosophical disagreement here.

It can do this as follows. If a complete description of a domain D is a set of propositions such that every proposition which says something true about D means the same as one of the propositions in the set (or a conjunction of them), then whether we say a description of the world is complete depends on the granularity we are operating at. Conceptual relativity may hold at a certain granularity, but once you make the granularity finer, it may collapse into metaphysical realism.

Seen in this way, where one claim, conceptual relativism, holds at one granularity or set thereof and the other, metaphysical realism, holds at another (finer) one or set thereof, they are not inconsistent with each other, and each has its own point.

Conceptual relativity as it were emphasizes the possibility of attaining the same or similar goals by different cognitive and linguistic means. Metaphysical realism on the oher hand emphasizes what we might call the sovereignty, the special individuality, of the different ways of doing things.

Relevant Works

Putnam, Hilary (1978). Meaning and the Moral Sciences, Routledge & K. Paul.

Putnam, Hilary (1981). Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, Hilary (1985). Realism and Reason, volume 3 of Philosophical Papers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, Hilary (1990). Realism with a Human Face, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Not to mention the innumerable writings by others dealing with Putnam's philosophy.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Granularity and Quine

In a former post I introduced the idea that meanings and the like can be carved up at different granularities. This was motivated using Kripke's famous puzzle about belief, and introduced as offering the key to a solution.

I plan to develop this doctrine of semantic granularity further, adding detail and removing certain possible misconceptions, in future posts. For the time being, however, I will defer that and outline a further application of the doctrine (the original one being to Kripke's puzzle). Several more applications have occurred to me since arriving at the doctrine, each time bringing great joy and encouragement, since they seem to suggest that it really is a good idea. Accordingly, this will in all probability be the first of a series of posts which as a whole may be called 'Applications of Granularity'.

The application I want to outline this time is to Quine's famous skepticism about meaning and propositions. Quine's position is not so much that there are no such things as meanings or propositions (where these latter are construed as sentence-meanings) - although he does sometimes seem committed to that too - but rather that semantic notions such as that of meaning are somehow second-rate, badly-behaved, and not worthy of serious thought.

(Quine's peculiar conception of serious thought, first-rate concepts, real scientificality and the like - which could be called a scientistic conception, but is, to be fair to science, really much narrower than that; what we really have is a bias in favour of notions which Quine for his own peculiar reasons thinks of as first-rate scientific ones - is a very interesting matter which I would like one day to scrutinize here at some length. But this will have to wait till another time.)

Now, the application of the idea of semantic granularity I want to outline here is not to the refutation of Quine's position, although it may go some way toward breaking its grip. Rather, my focus is the explanation of Quine's position; what was going on with him when he came to it, and secondly, what is going on when other thinkers feel his arguments to have force.

Quine's skepticism focuses on the, to him, confusing individuation-behaviour of intuitive notions of meaning. To give a sense of his position, I will first quote from a section of McGrath's Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on propositions, a section called 'The Individuation of Propositions', and then give a couple of illustrative quotes from Quine himself.

Some Quotes Illustrating Quine's Position

This section can be skipped or skimmed depending on how much of a sense one wants to get of Quine's position, or how much reminding one needs. To skip it, just scroll down to 'The Diagnosis'.

Probably needless to say, these quotations by themselves, to a reader unfamiliar with Quine's writings on the subject, will not give the full picture of what he had to say; it was an issue he picked up again and again and said a lot about.

Here is McGrath in the SEP:
Some philosophers, notably W.V.O. Quine, recognize the existence of certain sorts of abstract entities but not others at least partly on the basis of concerns about identity conditions. Quine granted the existence of sets, in part because they obey the extensionality axiom: sets are identical iff they have the same members. When it came to properties, relations and propositions, however, he found no such clear criterion of identity. The property of being a creature with a heart, he noted, is distinct from the property of being a creature with a kidney, even if all the same things exemplify the two properties. 
It is a controversial matter whether Quine was right to demand such rigorous criteria of identity as a condition for acceptance of a class of entities. However, even if Quine asks too much, any good theory of propositions ought to have something to say about when propositions are identical and when they are distinct. Developing theories which give such accounts in a way that fits well with intuitive data concerning propositional attitude ascriptions would enhance our reasons to accept propositions.

Now a couple of illustrative Quine quotes.

From 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (1951 edition):
For the theory of meaning the most conspicuous question is as to the nature of its objects: what sort of things are meanings? They are evidently intended to be ideas, somehow -- mental ideas for some semanticists, Platonic ideas for others. Objects of either sort are so elusive, not to say debatable, that there seems little hope of erecting a fruitful science about them. It is not even clear, granted meanings, when we have two and when we have one; it is not clear when linguistic forms should be regarded as synonymous, or alike in meaning, and when they should not.

This paragraph from a section of Philosophy of Logic boldly entitled 'Propositions Dismissed':
The uncritical acceptance of propositions as meanings of sentences is one manifestation of a widespread myth of meaning. It is as if there were a gallery of ideas, and each idea were tagged with the expression that means it; each proposition, in particular, with an appropriate sentence. In criticism of this attitude I have been airing the problem of individuation of propositions.

This passage from the 'Meaning' entry in the playful Quiddities:
[...] what is it for two expressions to have the same meaning? They cannot have exactly the same use, for when we use one we are not using the other. One wants to say rather that they have the same meaning if use of the one in place of the other does not make any relevant difference. The question of sameness of meaning, then, comes down to the question what to count as relevant difference.
I see no prospect of a precise answer, nor any need of one. Everything real and objective having to do with our use of expressions, and hence with their meaning, can be said without positing any relation of full synonymy ofexpressions, or sameness of meaning. In describing ways in which an expression is used we may be said still to be explaining its meaning, but there is no lingering trace of a museum of labeled ideas nor of any clear and simple relation of paraphrase or translation.
I urged at the end of the entry on IDEAS that there is no place in science for ideas, and under KNOWLEDGE that there is no place in the theory of knowledge for knowledge. Now we find me urging that there is no place in the theory of meaning for meanings, commonly so called.

Finally, if a bit more detail is wanted, here are selections (kept in order) from a more nuanced discussion in section 42 of Word and Object, 'Propositions as Meanings':
A large part of learning 'apple' or 'river' was learning what counts as the same apple or river reexposed and what counts as another. Similarly for 'proposition': little sense has been made of the term until we have before us some standard of when to speak of propositions as identical and when as distinct.
If we are content to define identity of propositions by synonymy of sentences, there is no evident objection to calling propositions meanings of eternal sentences. Misgivings as to what sort of object such a meaning might be could be allayed, if one pleases, by identifying it with the very class of all those mutually synonymous sentences that are said to have it. The worry that remains is the worry over a suitable notion of synonymy of eternal sentences. If propositions are to serve as objects of the propositional attitudes, then the broad sort of sentence synonymy talked of in § 14 [Details of that don't matter here - TH] would be unsatisfactory as a standard of identity of propositions even if adequately formulated. It would be too broad. For it would reckon all analytic sentences as meaning an identical proposition; yet surely one would not want to regard all analytic sentences as interchangeable in contexts of belief or indirect quotation, especially if all mathematical truths are regarded an analytic. Hence Lewis and Carnap have resorted to narrowed derivative relations of synonymy, or intensional isomorphism in Carnap's phrase, as better suited to interchange in contexts of propositional attitude.
Mates, Church, and Scheffler have argued that Carnap's intensional isomorphism (and Lewis's earlier construction of similar character) is still too broad for interchange in contexts of propositional attitude. Putnam and Church have responded with proposals for further tightening the relation. Scheffler still finds loopholes, but part of his criticism can be annulled [...]
We do have our analyticity intuition, but it grades off. [...] Now there is no objection to a graded notion of synonymy or of analyticity, supposing it made reasonably clear; but it is unlikely to contribute directly or indirectly to a standard of identity of propositions. For propositions have to be the same or distinct absolutely; identity, properly so-called, knows no gradations.
These reflections count only against hoping to base identity of propositions on some sort of intensional isomorphism derived from the broad sort of sentence synonymy which is interdefinable with analyticity. We might still hope to construct some approximation to intensional isomorphism suitable for identity of propositions, in some other way than from the elusive broad notion of sentence synonymy.
This last point [No need to worry about what that was - TH] has the germs of an argument not only against our specific plan of a structural synonymy concept as a standard of propositional identity, but against the whole idea of positing propositions. For, insofar as we take such a posit seriously, we thereby concede meaning, however inscrutable, to a synonymy relation that can be defined in general for eternal sentences of distinct languages as follows: sentences are synonymous that mean the same proposition. We would then have to suppose that among all the alternative systems of analytical hypotheses of translation (§§ 15, 16) which are compatible with the totality of dispositions to verbal behavior on the part of the speakers of two languages, some are "really" right and others wrong on behaviorally inscrutable grounds of propositional identity. Thus the conclusions reached in § 16 may of themselves be said implicitly to scout the whole notion of proposition, granted a generally scientific outlook. The difficulties cited earlier in the present section are merely by the way. The very question of conditions for identity of propositions presents not so much an unsolved problem as a mistaken ideal.

The Diagnosis

As we can see, Quine's objection to meanings, propositions, etc. was based on the idea that there is no single, clear criterion of identity for them. Given the doctrine of semantic granularity, this is no surprise and no objection. The individuation of these things differs at different granularities. In the grip of preconceptions about how language must properly work, Quine mistook a feature for a bug.

(I say that 'the individuation of these things differs at different granularities', but that form of expressing the point could be misleading and sound like some kind of antirealism - I will address that at length in a future post. For now: the point could be more carefully put in terms of the truth-values of synonymy or non-synonymy sentences, or of identity or distinctness statements about meanings, propositions etc.

This is connected with Quine's point in the Word and Object selection above, 'For propositions have to be the same or distinct absolutely; identity, properly so-called, knows no gradations.' On my approach, it is not that identity needs to have gradations, rather that identity statements with meaning- or proposition-designating phrases come out with different truth-values when operating at different granularities.)

It is instructive here to see how I, with my doctrine of granularity, can and indeed must agree with a lot of the things Quine says on the way to his hostile position, and how with the doctrine of semantic granularity on board, we can see that the hostile position doesn't follow.

For example: 'The very question of conditions for identity of propositions presents not so much an unsolved problem as a mistaken ideal' from the Word and Object selection. Indeed, if the question is construed as asking for a single, all-purpose set of conditions, it does present a mistaken ideal. What the doctrine of granularity says is that the conditions are different at different granularities, and that is part and parcel of the power and flexibility of semantic notions as bundlers and separators of linguistic items and occurrences.

And from Quiddities, 'The question of sameness of meaning, then, comes down to the question what to count as relevant difference. I see no prospect of a precise answer, nor any need of one.' Note the 'one'; the whole point of the doctrine of granularity is that there is no one answer here.

I hope I have conveyed in outline how the doctrine of semantic granularity can explain and perhaps help break the grip of Quine's hostility towards meanings, propositions and the like. This application will, if I am right, only become clearer and seem stronger with the development of the doctrine I intend to pursue in future posts.

Note finally that despite the focus here  (especially in the Quine quotes) mostly being on propositions construed as sentence-meanings, all this applies just as much to sub- and super-sentential meanings as well, for instance with names and the individuation of their "meanings", which I construe as name-uses or individual concepts, or with the meanings of larger things like arguments or speeches or books.


McGrath, Matthew (2008). Propositions. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Quine, W.V.O. (1986). Philosophy of Logic. Harvard University Press.

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

Quine, W.V.O. (1951). Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Philosophical Review 60 (1):20–43.

Quine, W.V.O. (1960). Word and Object. The MIT Press.

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.