Saturday, 24 December 2016

What Are My Problems Now?

This is a follow-up to What Was My Problem?.

1. The Basis of Puzzlement about Modality

One line of investigation I would like to pursue now is into what might be called the basis of the puzzlement about modality. And as suggested by my experience of vaguely wrestling with a bunch of problems, before realizing that my strongest leading ideas for my thesis were really about some of these problems rather than others, I think this line of investigation may itself call for the distinguishing of various problems.

One locus of puzzlement about modality is the notion of metaphysical or subjunctive necessity as it applies to propositions. And one question about this notion is whether, and how, meaning comes into the picture. Also, just the question of how this notion relates to other notions, and the extent to which it can be analyzed (not necessarily in non-modal terms). Those problems are addressed, properly I hope, by the account in my thesis. But lots of what I was wrestling with at the beginning of my research remains, and does not attach specifically to the notion of subjunctive necessity de dicto; there is a lot that is puzzling about modality that my thesis does not address.

One puzzling thing which borders directly on my thesis work, and does have to do with the notion of subjunctive necessity de dicto, is the question of how this relates to de re modal constructions and quantification into modal contexts. But I have been very frustrated in my research here, and to be honest I have come to feel like it is a bit of a minor, abstruse issue compared to some of the more fundamental problems about modality (although I have no doubt that very interesting work could be done on that issue, and have a couple of ideas).

A more fundamental area I would like to work on is indicated by the question: Why is modality puzzling at all? But here too there are probably several puzzling things to distinguish. One thing I am not primarily thinking of, although it may end up becoming relevant to the problems I am grasping at, are questions about modality in an extremely general sense. For instance, the question of what unifies all uses of expressions which we call modal, or which we say are about possibility or whatever - including 'You can come in if you like', 'It could be that John is on his way', 'It is impossible for two colours to be in the same place', '"Hesperus is Phosphorus" is necessarily true', 'I can lift this weight', 'This apparatus has four possible configurations'. Also, questions about what generalizations can be made covering all or at least a great diversity of such uses, for instance about logical implication relations between them.

Rather, I am interested in trying to get at the basis of our puzzlement about what may be called objective modality. What does 'objective modality' mean? Well, one clear thing it does is exclude epistemic modals, like 'It could be that John is on his way' in natural uses. These are to be put to one side - at least initially - in the line of investigation I want to pursue. Likewise with uses of modal language having to do with permission. Within the puzzlement attaching primarily to objective modality as opposed to these set-aside kinds, important distinctions may have to be made. For instance, there may be a need to distinguish between more down-to-earth uses of modal language, for instance 'I can lift this weight', from what may be called more metaphysical uses - but not 'metaphysical' in the sense often used in modal philosophy, to mean either something like 'objective' or something a bit more specific, like picking out what I pick out with 'subjunctive'. Rather, by 'more metaphysical uses' I mean uses which are so to speak puzzling from the start. That is, where there isn't as much non-problematic, clearly useful use as in the case of 'I can lift this weight' and the like. E.g. 'The world could have been otherwise', 'Aristotle is essentially human'.

One way forward in this line of investigation would be to look critically and closely at philosophers' attempts to give a sense of the puzzlement about (objective) modality, often as a preliminary to some account or a survey of accounts. For instance, Sider's remarks on the subject in 'Reductive Theories of Modality'. But I think it will also be important to look within, so to speak, and keep seriously asking myself 'What is it that puzzles me about this?'.

2. Propositions and Meaning, Language Systems, and Our Expectations

Another line of investigation I would like to pursue has to do with the account of propositions and meaning sketched in chapter 6 of my thesis. That account appeals to a notion of an expression's internal meaning, cashed out in terms of the expression's role in the language system to which it belongs. This may raise questions about the nature of the system, and how we should think of it and describe it. In my thesis, I tried to remain quite open about this, emphasizing that I was offering a sketch, and that different fillings in of the detail here may be possible.

It was hard to avoid striking a false note here. For I do not think this is the whole story about my sketch, and the middle-Wittgenstein idea about role-in-system which it takes over; it may not be quite right to just think about it as a sketch of a theory, where some aspects are not filled in. For the very idea of what needs filling in, and how, should I think be scrutinized. It is not that I am advocating quietism, or defeatism, about questions about the 'language system' I appeal to. But I think that some of our expectations here may be in need of examination.

A curious thing happens in this territory - it is easy to become disoriented, and wonder what the problem was and what is needed now. Maybe sometimes in philosophy, as we solve problems, they slip from our grasp. Sometimes there is a strange feeling where we wonder something like: how could there be a solution here which is given in mere words? How could that ever do? We feel we still need to be taught something, or shown something. Could it be something practical, so to speak? I.e. something we could get through practice?

In the new year, I intend to use this blog to try to make some inroads into these and related problems.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

On Why Crude Analyses are Often the Most Enlightening

The crudest conceptual analyses in philosophy are often the most enlightening - in metaethics, for example. It would certainly be wrong to thing that these enlightening analyses are only incidentally crude and false as analyses. Rather, their crudity and literal falsity is essential to their being illuminating. We are noticing an illuminating analogy - and for an analogy, you need two different things, so the analysis which shows clearly such an analogy is bound to be crude and false qua analysis.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

What Was My Problem?

From notes made early in my PhD research:
The central flaw in much of what I have written is that it has the unintended appearance of giving a kind of unexpected grounding for modal discourse. Perhaps it also might look as though what I'm saying might change our evaluative criteria, cast doubt on earlier beliefs about what's possible, etc. All of this has to be avoided. But it isn't satisfactory to simply insist 'No no no, that's not what I'm doing at all' - this has to be made evident. And the way to do that is to be better (more effective) at what I'm really doing. Very often, my problem is that I don't know what my problem is. I have to take it easy about that, and just look for frontiers where they arise.
I think I ended up avoiding this flaw. It gradually became clear that the problem to which I had a solution in inchoate form (now it's hopefully in a clear form) was not about the grounds of modality in general, but rather about the particular, partly-themselves-modal grounds, of the modal notion of subjunctive or metaphysical necessity as it applies to propositions. More specifically, about whether and how semantics comes into the picture. (A proposition is necessary iff it is or is implied by a proposition which is both inherently counterfactually invariant and true, and it makes sense to think of inherent counterfactual invariance as a broadly semantic property.)