Tuesday 17 March 2015

On Kripke's Intuitive Anti-Quinean Defence of De Re Modality

This is the second post in a series on de re modality and quantification into modal contexts. The first is here.

Immediately after the passage quoted at the beginning of the last post where Kripke introduces the problem of de re modality, he goes on to argue that de re subjunctive modal ascriptions, and the notion of necessary and contingent properties, have intuitive content. I will quote this influential passage in full, and make a criticism of it. I will then suggest a weaker argument from analogy which could be given in its stead, and finally indicate my own view on the matter.

Here is the passage:

It is even suggested in the literature, that though a notion of necessity may have some sort of intuition behind it (we do think some things could have been otherwise; other things we don't think could have been otherwise), this notion [of a distinction between necessary and contingent properties] is just a doctrine made up by some bad philosopher, who (I guess) didn't realize that there are several ways of referring to the same thing. I don't know if some philosophers have not realized this; but at any rate it is very far from being true that this idea [that a property can meaningfully be held to be essential or accidental to an object independently of its description] is a notion which has no intuitive content, which means nothing to the ordinary man. Suppose that someone said, pointing to Nixon, 'That's the guy who might have lost'. Someone else says 'Oh no, if you describe him as "Nixon", then he might have lost; but, of course, describing him as the winner, then it is not true that he might have lost'. Now which one is being the philosopher, here, the unintuitive man? It seems to me obviously to be the second. The second man has a philosophical theory. The first man would say, and with great conviction 'Well, of course, the winner of the election might have been someone else. The actual winner, had the course of the campaign been different, might have been the loser, and someone else the winner; or there might have been no election at all. So such terms as "the winner" and "the loser" don't designate the same objects in all possible worlds. On the other hand, the term "Nixon" is just a name of this man.' [Presumably the quote from the imagined "first" man should have ended one sentence ago, but this is how it is in the text. -TH] When you ask whether it is necessary or contingent that Nixon won the election, you are asking the intuitive question whether in some counterfactual situation, this man would in fact have lost the election. If someone thinks that the notion of a necessary or contingent property (forget whether there are any nontrivial necessary properties [and consider] just the meaningfulness of the notion) is a philosopher's notion with no intuitive content, he is wrong.

I do not want to be dogmatic about this, but I suspect that there may be a bit of a bait-and-switch going on here. Certainly, it seems everyday and intuitive for someone to point at Nixon and say 'That's the guy who might have lost'. But then what this 'first man' says in response to the 'unintuitive man' (the philosopher), is beginning to sound pretty philosophical itself, albeit sounder. It is true that what he says, especially if you're trained in philosophy, seems intuitively compelling. But I think it's quite arguably out of character for the first man.

One way of making good on this suspicion is to reflect that forms like 'could have' and 'might have' do not just signal talk about counterfactual scenarios and counterfactual possibility. They also commonly find a retrospective epistemic modal use. And it seems to me that this is the most natural way to interpret the everyday, non-philosophical remark of the 'first man' above, 'That's the guy who might have lost'. To say that Nixon might have lost, on this suggestion, means something like: at some former stage, things could have gone either way – it would have been unreasonable then to be convinced that he would win.

This seems to me like a fairly everyday thing to say. The meaning Kripke intends – where what is asserted means something like (ignoring the later Finean distinction between essential and necessary properties): it's not part of Nixon's essence that he won the election – seems less so.

We can also argue along Gricean lines that the first interpretation yields something which it might actually be good to say in the sort of conversation about contemporary events Kripke has in mind. But saying this thing about – speaking loosely – Nixon's essence seems pragmatically odd; if you know that, then presumably you know something stronger from which it follows (such as that winning some election can't be an essential property of anyone), rather than making it sound as if there's something special about Nixon here. (Consider an obscure bystander around Nixon's age: it seems, from an unabashedly philosophical point of view now, implausible that it is part of this bystander's essence that he didn't go into politics, get to run for Presidential office in the election in question, and lose. So it seems you could say of that guy too that he might have lost the election, in the sense in which Kripke has in mind.)

So, I find Kripke's story about the first man and the unintuitive, philosophical man unconvincing: if the first man were really not a philosopher, I'm inclined to think that his intuitive-sounding utterance of 'That's the guy who might have lost' is far more plausibly interpreted along epistemic lines. This is somewhat ironic, given Kripke's seminal insistence on carefully distinguishing epistemic modality and a priority on the one hand from subjunctive modality on the other.

We can get a better idea of how it might have happened by recalling the grammatical devices Kripke uses to isolate subjunctive modality: what could be the case for all we know a priori is to be distinguished from what could have been the case (given various things we know, and not always a priori). This may lead to an overconfidence in the subjunctive mood (or whatever you want to call it) as a signal of subjunctive modality proper, a signal of the thing Kripke isolated.

Still, this criticism doesn't imply that there is nothing in what Kripke says in this influential passage. Two things can be gleaned from the passage which do militate in favour of his main conclusion, which is that the notion of necessary and contingent properties makes sense.

One is a kind of argument from analogy: even when you interpret the first man's initial, everyday-sounding utterance along more appropriate, epistemic lines, it is clear that what is under discussion is not a statement: that is, de re epistemic modality makes sense. (For a recent study of that topic cf. Seth Yalcin's work.) And so, putting this consideration together with Kripke's compelling isolation of a concept of necessity applying to propositions which is distinct (intensionally and extensionally) from those of a priority and analyticity, we might naturally expect de re modal constructions where the modality is of this broad sort, having to do with alternative ways the world could have been in some non-epistemic sense, to be possible too.

Another is a direct philosophical appeal to our intelligence: forget guys on the street, forget questions about what they may or may not say without thereby becoming philosophers, and just think about it. What the first man is made to say in response to the unintuitive man, even though it just sounds like Kripke doing philosophy, seems awfully compelling. To quote it again: 'the actual winner, had the course of the campaign been different, might have been the loser, and someone else the winner; or there might have been no election at all. So such terms as "the winner" and "the loser" don't designate the same objects in all possible worlds'.

The situation, as I see it, is something like this: Kripke has clarified and isolated notions of necessity, contingency etc., which in the first instance apply to propositions and perhaps states of affairs. Now, by analogy with other expressions in our language, we are led to consider forms like 'is necessarily F' and 'There is an which is necessarily F' (or 'There is an x such that it is necessary that x is F'), where we have a vague idea that the terms 'necessarily' and 'necessary' here are, in some way, to express this same notion, which we know in the first instance in application to specific propositions. Consider the syntax of quantified modal logic, where modal operators are combined with first-order logic, in advance of any definite understanding of what these formulas are to mean.

Philosophers often behave like little children who scribble some marks on a piece of paper at random and then ask the grown-up "What's that?" — It happened like this: the grown-up had drawn pictures for the child several times and said "this is a man," "this is a house," etc. And then the child makes some marks too and asks: what's this then? C&V 17e

Our problem is, in a way, similar to that of making a game which is like an existing game, but different in some respects – but where the required similarities and differences are not completely spelt out (and how could they be, without thereby completing the task already?). For example, chess for three players, or with no queens.

In the present case, the task draws us in, since we feel we can already make some dim sense of these constructions. The question of whether this can be spelt out clearly, and the spelling out of it should this be possible, is of logico-philosophical interest. Furthermore, the issue is connected in many people's minds with difficult philosophical topics – with Aristotelian essentialism, with metaphysics, and with confused issues to do with whether modality is 'located' or 'grounded' in language and thought, or in other things.

Accordingly, in the next post in this series I will take up the challenge of de re modality, trying to adapt my account of necessity as an attribute of propositions so that it can be applied to de re modality. My main assumption in taking up this challenge is: there must be a connection here, and a tight one (e.g. not something you would have to describe using words like 'sometimes' or 'usually'), and we now have to make this clear. This will also take heat off the idea that de re modality makes no sense, but perhaps in a way which might look strange from the point of view of certain ways of thinking about analysis: the right hand sides of my analyses will in many ways be less simple, more problematic and more difficult than the left hand sides, the things to be analysed. But the problems are not the same ones as affect the left hand sides, and that is important. Roughly, I want to show that de re modal talk is not left hanging by itself, when we have a notion of necessity which applies to propositions. It may in a sense be more intelligible left as it is than when analysed along the lines I propose. But we must distinguish between the first-order intelligibility of a linguistic form on the one hand, and our philosophical conception of how that form works and what it does on the other. Connecting de re modal talk to de dicto can, I think, help a lot with the latter.

(Contrast, for example, Kit Fine's approach of taking essence as something basic – I get the sense of a wall having been erected to keep out trouble, but which also leaves us hapless and isolated. It is similar with his metametaphysical ideas: we must distinguish how things really or metaphysically are from how they are simpliciter, or something like that – and if you don't understand that, too bad: we're up against a wall. The difference, I think, is that in the first case the talk (essence talk) does make some sense, but has been walled off from things which may shed light on it in a way that can make this hard to believe, and hard to grasp, whereas in the second case, you have at most a degenerate, affect-charged sense, and the walls are merely there in a vain attempt to stop this from becoming glaringly apparent.)