Wednesday 27 July 2011

Mind-Independence and Propositions

I will try to say something about a profound confusion or blindness which occurs in connection with the notion of mind-independence. What I will say will be reminiscent of some of Wittgenstein's ideas from his mid-late period, especially the ones which influenced Waismann's work on 'language strata' (see references).

This post was prompted by a recent lecture of David Macarthur's, wherein he emphasized that propositions were not linguistic items for Moore and Russell. (Nor, I would add, were they linguistic items (signs) in a projective relation to the world, as in the early Wittgenstein.) Instead, they were supposed to be abstract objects1 which do not in general depend on minds or on language for their existence. This aspect of Moore and Russell's early post-Hegelian thought is often labelled 'Platonism' or 'Platonic realism'. Macarthur wanted to emphasize that this is quite a difficult idea - i.e. to think of propositions as being 'so completely language-independent' (I think he used some such expression).

I want to say: no, not necessarily - this last statement has to be qualified, although it is appropriate enough in connection with the philosophical views of Moore and Russell. I will try to explain what I mean.

We talk of concepts, meanings, propositions, statements and the like. Our talk about these things has a certain logic and grammar; it makes sense to say that a concept is used by somebody, but it makes no sense to say that a concept is three metres away from somebody. It makes sense to call a proposition true, but not red.

I think it is plausible to think of the notion of a proposition, or statement - in something like the sense of 'that which is asserted by a meaningful declarative sentence' - as ordinarily not coming into direct contact with the notion of dependence as it applies to minds and spatiotemporal things. In Wittgensteinian-Waismannian terms, the relevant notion of dependence is part of one stratum of language, and the notion of a proposition is part of another. We don't talk of a proposition depending for its existence on this or that mind, thing, process, etc., any more than we talk of a house being tautological.

At least, this is how it is in the ordinary, or primary language-game. (I think the term 'primary' is perhaps better, since I don't mean to imply that there is anything especially folky about the primary language-games we play with the word 'proposition'.) And this, I believe, is what - in the first instance - makes it correct to say 'Propositions do not depend for their existence on minds', just as it is correct to say 'Houses do not themselves possess arithmetical properties'.

But there is something which makes the statement about propositions significant to us, in a way which the statement about houses is not likely to be. As a piece of grammar, this statement can be said to warn us against a mixing up of language strata which – for reasons which I will not inquire into here – we are especially prone to when philosophizing.

However, 'Propositions do not depend for their existence on minds' is not a reliable guard against this confusion, due to its superficial similarity to non-grammatical statements such as 'The nobility in fourteenth century England did not depend for their existence on the King'. This leads to what might be called a Platonic interpretation of this statement. Rather than being taken as a grammatical warning or prohibition against bringing the mind-(in)dependence concept into direct contact with the proposition concept, these concepts are brought together, and propositions are thought of as, so to speak, being positively independent.

This supports, and is supported by, strange uses of “pictures” of propositions which resemble our pictures of physical objects, ideas of durability and hardness being applied to propositions, Plato's Heaven, and the like. (This is of course very loose talk.) Also, consider the expressions used in this remarkable statement of Russell's in the Logical Atomism lectures: 'To suppose that in the actual world of nature there is a whole set of false propositions going about is to my mind monstrous.'

We should be careful not to confuse the grammatical sense of 'Propositions do not depend for their existence on our minds' with an apparently material sense which arises from a confused mixing of levels (or from a language-game which goes beyond the primary ones we play with 'proposition' and related words).

In the primary game, we simply don't talk about existential dependence on minds in relation to propositions, and this is perfectly in order. That is what is hard to see.

The idea that we simply don't, or can't, talk about propositions (in the ordinary or primary sense) depending on this or that mind, may have an air of quietism and renunciation about it. 'Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent' etc. Even worse, it might seem depressingly parochial and conservative. To a great extent, this would be a mistaken reaction. We are not prevented at all from talking about 'propositions' 'depending' on minds - however, if we do so, and if this is anything more than a mere grammatical confusion, then we are simply not playing the primary game.

Despite the anti-metaphysical political stance of the historical antecedents for this sort of view (particularly in the Vienna Circle), I don't see these points as being hostile to philosophical speculation, or the development of new ways of thinking. And perhaps a lot of what is called 'metaphysics' can be thought of as an attempt to develop such new ways of thinking (and talking) about the world. (None of this, by the way, should be taken to imply any sort of Rortian antirealism, excluding considerations of objectivity and correspondence to reality, or anything like that.)

Consider in this connection the growing attention paid by metaphysicians to the way they are using language, especially quantifiers and terms like 'real' and 'exists' (e.g. Hofweber) and also - more relevantly - terms like 'depends on' and 'grounds' (e.g. Schaffer). Investigations into such matters are increasingly common, and often go under the headings 'metametaphysics' and 'metaontology'.

The remarks above are not very well-made, nor are they particularly original. I make them anyway because they seem to embody an important sort of consideration which seems somewhat neglected in contemporary post-linguistic-turn philosophy (although hopefully this is changing).

The relative obscurity of this sort of consideration today has, of course, to do with the fact that it involves something like an analytic-synthetic distinction, or perhaps more like Wittgenstein's arguably non-exhaustive distinction between grammatical and empirical propositions. Such distinctions sit under a dark cloud today. This in turn has to do with the ideas of Quine in 'Two Dogmas' and 'Truth by Convention', and a shift in emphasis toward certain modal notions, arising from Kripke's clear isolation of them.

Tristan Haze

Cf. this freely available copy of Waismann's article, 'Verifiability', which has some material on language strata. (Note however that one can use the notion of language strata without accepting a verificationist view of meaning.)


Thomas Hofweber (2005). A puzzle about ontology. Noûs 39 (2):256-283.

Thomas Hofweber (2007). Innocent statements and their metaphysically loaded counterparts. Philosophers' Imprint 7 (1):1-33.

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

Willard Van Orman Quine (2010). Two dogmas of empiricism. In Darragh Byrne & Max Kölbel (eds.), Arguing About Language. Routledge.

Willard Van Orman Quine (1951). Two dogmas of empiricism. Philosophical Review 60 (1):20-43.

Jonathan Schaffer (2009). On what grounds what. In David Manley, David J. Chalmers &
Ryan Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press.

Friedrich Waismann (1946). The many-level-structure of language. Synthese 5 (5-6):221 - 229.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1975). Philosophical Remarks. University of Chicago Press.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1974). Philosophical Grammar. Blackwell.

1 Or at least partly abstract objects; Russell thought propositions about concrete objects had those concrete objects as constituents.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Quine and Lewis on Semantic Relativity

This post is by guest author Timothy Scriven.

In 'Ontological relativity' Quine suggests that the linguist's translation of a term into another language is radically indeterminate. Neither the intension nor the extension of terms can be deduced from behavior alone. In his famous example “Gavagai” might refer to a rabbit, an undetached rabbit part, a time slice of a rabbit or any number of other entities. This under-determination is not merely an epistemological problem (perhaps one we could solve via inference to the best explanation), for if anything is meaning constitutive, it is behaviour.

Quine does concede that the linguist is likely to make certain sorts of translations and not others. Quine says that “Enduring and relatively homogenous object[s]” which “[move] as a whole against a contrasting background” are likely to be selected as the translations for short expressions. We might call this “the rule of moving blocks” (RMB). Surely though there will be other rules that linguists tend to use to resolve indeterminacy, let’s call these rules R collectively.

Imagine a linguist considering lexicons from a variety of languages, and noticing a pattern of R-preserving meanings. For example, languages tend to have words for “Horse” but not “The undetached lower half of a horse”. A linguist might think that they have uncovered a human universal in RMB, and in whatever other rules they may extract. Quine, however, thinks this is purely an artifact of our interests, and the way we do linguistics. Roughly speaking, translations consistent with R rules tend to be more natural.

Quine thinks that
if we are being purely philosophical and bracketing our values and interests, we cannot make a choice between the alternative translations, one of which preserves R as much as possible, and one of which disregards R. Only facts about our interests determine which translation it is best to adopt. Quine says that he would recommend adopting the semanticist’s practice of sticking with R-friendly or natural translations to anyone. But this is only for practical reasons, from what we might think of as a purely theoretical perspective, we’re stuck with massive indeterminacy.

There’s a ruffle in the carpet for Quine’s view that isn’t urged by commentators often enough. Quine sets up a dialectic in which he is being philosophical, refusing to attend to pragmatic interests at least for a while, and considering alternative translations schemas without referring to human interests. The semanticist on the other hand attends to the mucky practical requirements of her field. What she should say is relative to her interests. Not her pecuniary, ethical or emotional interests, but certain cognitive interests- simplicity, tractability etc. No blame falls on the semanticist for this, but the projects of the philosopher and the semanticist are clearly divergent.

How does Quine come to the view that semanticists typically make assignments on the basis of adjoining words to natural things or types? Why, by parsing the semanticist’s language of course. Presumably he reaches his understanding of the semanticist’s language through an interpretive theory, but either this theory is incomplete and does not uniquely select an interpretation, or it is laden with interests. Thus Quine “shows” that linguists interpret relative to a set of pragmatic concerns, but he can only show this by smuggling in pragmatic concerns of his own, inferences about meaning beyond what his cherished behavioral data would permit. There is no strict self-refutation here, but it is surely compromising nonetheless.

Lewis is famous for expounding the view that natural properties play a vital role in fixing meaning (c.f.
'New work for a theory of universals'). For Lewis, it’s not that, as a contingent psychological matter, people tend to refer to natural properties instead of unnatural properties. Instead it’s part of the meaning of “meaning” that translation schemes which are “higher scoring” with respect to certain virtues, like mapping onto natural properties, win out over lower scoring schemas.

At heart, these views have very little separating them. Perhaps this is unsurprising. In my view, Lewis can be read as Quine, with greater respect for Moorean facts.1 Both Quine and Lewis acknowledge the role of something like naturalness in deciding our theories of meaning. Quine just insists that naturalness gets a role for “pragmatic reasons”. When the difference is put so, I think it becomes difficult indeed to give a reason to be a Quinean rather than a Lewisian. One might insist that Quine has one less ontological commitment than Lewis, he doesn’t need to hold there is anything actually like natural properties. But if Quine can do without these properties in his semantics and metaphysics, I think we can reconfigure the Lewisian thesis as simply stating that the correct meaning theory is the competitor that preserves naturalness the best2. as captured by R, without a commitment to any particular ontology.

It is not even clear that there is a material difference between the views. One could talk about the set of meaningsQ and the set of meaningsL. The meaningsQ of a word W are those that are compatible with all available data on F that Quine would consider acceptable. The meaningsL of a word W are those that are compatible with all available data on W that Lewis would consider acceptable. The set of MeaningsL for W will hopefully consist in just one meaning, since, unless there are ties, there will only be one top ranked meaning for each term, accounting for all of Lewis’s ranking criteria. MeaningQ is underdetermined, meaningL is not, so we are inclined to use meaningL.

Timothy Scriven
The University of Sydney 


David Lewis (1983). New work for a theory of universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (December):343-377. 

Quine, W. V. (1968). Ontological relativity. Journal of Philosophy 65 (7):185-212. 

1 Compare for example Quine’s reasons for accepting Platonism, and Lewis’s reasons for accepting modal realism. Of course Lewis is a modal realist, but even this position was reached by trying to respect deep principles of commonsense.

2 Of course there may be other criteria.

Monday 18 July 2011

Philosophers' Carnival - July 18, 2011

Welcome to the July 18, 2011 edition of Philosophers' Carnival. Marvel at the range of different topics discussed! No analytic-continental divide here!

Crazyism - Eric Schwitzgebel of The Splintered Mind introduces the concept of crazyism about some given area of inquiry - the view that something crazy (in a certain sense) must be true about that area. (I think the 'must' here is just epistemic, but I may be wrong.)

Constitution - Kevin Somerville of dthat discusses the relation 'x constitutes y' in connection with the philosophy of mind.

The Open Question Argument - Richard Yetter Chappell of Philosophy, et cetera issues a call for objections to a defence of the Open Question Argument. Please try to refute him as soon as possible.

Paradoxes for "expresses the proposition" - Wolfgang Shwarz of wo's weblog discusses a Liar-related paradox which arises when propositions are treated as sets of possible worlds. Dustin Tucker has made some detailed and learned comments.

Public sector pension reform: my advice to the Prime Minister - thanks to Thom Brooks of The Brooks Blog for giving me the unexpected pleasure of posting a link, on this blog, to an article in which a philosopher gives advice to a head of state. I mean this in the best possible way.

And now for two special sections, exclusive to this edition of the carnival:

Criticisms of Readings of Great Philosophers

Why Kant Was Not A Cognitive Scientist - Matt Whitlock of A Rigid Designator presents a criticism of Andrew Brook's reading of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Nietzsche on Agency and the Will - the mysterious Carlos AKA Narziss criticizes an aspect of Brian Leiter's reading of Nietzsche.

Arguably Inappropriate Submissions

Deconstructing Godel (sic) - I include this post because it's about Goedel. It's essentially a short and maybe slightly dubious biographical sketch. (I don't think Goedel was ever actually part of the Vienna Circle, but someone please correct me if I'm wrong.) I feel bound by duty to inform the prospective reader that the title is a bit misleading; whatever it may mean to deconstruct Goedel, I'm pretty sure it doesn't occur here. Some may say this is for the best.

7 Reasons To Never Lie Again - by Kyle Warren of Follow the FLOW (indeed). I'm pretty sure this isn't meant to be a serious piece of philosophy, but it was submitted, and I include it because it made me laugh several times. It was posted over a year ago, which adds to the arguable inappropriateness.

That's all for this edition of the carnival. The next one is at the Blog of Noah Greenstein on August 8.