Rorty vs Soames

by Brian on March 1, 2005

Recently Scott Soames wrote “two”: “books”: on the history of philosophy from 1900 to 1970. “Richard Rorty’s review”: of these books in the _LRB_ has attracted quite a bit of attention among philosophers. A reply by Soames has been printed, but apparently it was cut down quite a bit for space reasons. So a “full version”: of Soames’s reply (warning: PDF) has been put on the web. I expected I’d be rather sympathetic to Soames’s side of this debate, but actually I thought Rorty got in some surprisingly good points, the most central of which were about my primary area of research, vagueness.

Rorty starts his review with what Soames calls an “amusing fable”.

bq. ‘I had hoped my department would hire somebody in the history of philosophy,’ my friend lamented, ‘but my colleagues decided that we needed somebody who was contributing to the literature on vagueness.’

bq. ‘The literature on what?’ I asked.

bq. ‘Dick,’ he replied, exasperated, ‘you’re really out of it. You don’t realise: vagueness is huge.’

I don’t know whether that is true or not. I don’t know anyone who got hired to work on vagueness as such (except at St Andrews where they have a vagueness research project) but it could be true. Both Rorty and Soames agree that in the (near) future vagueness will be a hot topic. And at first in looks like Rorty thinks this is a bad thing. Here’s his initial characterisation of the issue.

bq. To see what philosophy may look like in the future, consider the problem that gave rise to the huge literature on vagueness: the paradox of the heap. Soames formulates it as follows: ‘If one has something that is not a heap of sand, and one adds a single grain of sand to it, the result is still not a heap of sand . . . if n grains of sand are not sufficient to make a heap then n+1 grains aren’t either.’ So it seems that ‘no matter how many grains of sand may be gathered together, they are not sufficient to make a heap of sand.’

bq. Some philosophers, such as Crispin Wright, respond to this paradox in the spirit of Wittgenstein. They argue that (as Soames puts it) ‘the rules governing ordinary vague predicates simply do not allow for sharp and precise lines dividing objects to which the predicates apply from objects of any other sort.’ Others, such as Timothy Williamson, hold (again in Soames’s words) that ‘vague predicates are in fact perfectly precise – in the sense that there are sharp and precise lines dividing objects to which they truly apply from objects to which they truly do not – but it is impossible for us ever to know where these lines are.’

bq. An educational administrator (a dean in the US, a pro-vice-chancellor in Britain), asked to ratify the appointment of someone who has produced a brilliant new theory of heaps, might be tempted to ask whether this sort of thing is really philosophy.

Soames seems to take this to be a sign that Rorty has stopped corresponding with philosophical reality.

bq. Richard Rorty (LRB, 20, January) begins his provocative discussion of my two volumes on analytic philosophy with an amusing fable about a department chair facing the daunting task of convincing the Dean to hire a philosopher working on vagueness. Not to worry. As Rorty himself ends up implicitly acknowledging, the imagined job candidate is not striving to become an expert on the composition of heaps, with the idea of solving practical problems perplexing civil engineers, but of illuminating the rules of our logic and language, and their application to the world. This enterprise is one of several in which analytic philosophers are forging ahead by replacing Rorty’s metaphorical question — Are the sentences we use to describe the world maps of an independent reality? — with more specific, nonmetaphorical questions on which real progress can be made. Rorty’s failure to register this is, I believe, connected to a broader failure of perspective arising from his disengagement from analytic philosophy in the last 25 years.

And if that’s all Rorty had said, that would have been a perfectly good reply. But Rorty has a more nuanced take on the vagueness debates than you might think from reading the above passages.

bq. The controversy between realists, who think that the notion of truth as correspondence to reality can be saved, and pragmatists, who regard it as hopeless, seems to me much more fruitful than the question of whether ‘Water is H2O’ is a necessary truth. The debate about the utility of the ‘map’ metaphor has been going on for a long time now, and shows no signs of abating. It seethes beneath the surface of discussions of many seemingly unrelated questions. One such question is the nature of vague predicates. Timothy Williamson ends his much discussed book _Vagueness_ with arguments against the ‘nominalist’ suggestion that ‘properties, relations and states of affairs are mere projections onto the world of our forms of speech,’ and concludes that ‘our contact with the world is as direct in vague thought as it is in any thought.’ Crispin Wright takes up the topic of vagueness not because he cares deeply about how many grains it takes to make a heap but because doing so helps him formulate a view about the extent to which mastering a language can be treated as a matter of obedience to semantical rules – rules about how to line words up with things. It is an underlying concern with the question of whether and how language gets in touch with the world that has made vagueness a hot topic. Perceived relevance to such larger questions enables philosophers who specialise in heaps to shrug off the suggestion that they are trivialising a discipline that once had considerable cultural importance (and, in some countries, still does).

It seems to me that there is much in that that is correct, and which someone who hadn’t been following the relatively recent literature on vagueness (at least the post-1994 literature, when _Vagueness_ was published) relatively closely couldn’t have picked up upon. It’s not true that _everyone_ who writes on vagueness thinks that it is relevant to debates about the correspondence metaphor (I’m not sure that _any_ of Cornell’s many vagueness-people think that it is relevant for example) but it is in part how Williamson and Wright view their disagreement. Williamson’s theory of vagueness is an attempt to show how realism can be defended even on its toughest ground. If he’s right then, as Rorty realises, the rout is on. And looking at Williamson’s larger body of work, not to mention his comments in his vagueness work, this isn’t some unintended side-effect of someone working in a fundamentally different field, it’s one reason why Williamson is interested in vagueness.

So I think Rorty’s right on this point. One of the areas that is, as Soames acknowledges, a cutting-edge area of philosophy is an area where (contemporary versions of) debates about realism are being fought out. And, at least in Britain, those debates are informed by the successes and failures of realist and anti-realist proposals of days gone by. Score one for the claim that the correspondence debates (or the realism debates as I think of them) are central to philosophy.

Rorty’s main point here is to challenge Soames to find similar areas of philosophy where the debates he thinks are central, in particular debates about the epistemological significance of common sense and the distinctions between various modal and quasi-modal concepts, are just as important. Soames doesn’t even set himself that challenge in the book. I’m not convinced that it is a challenge that can’t be met. The contemporary debates about property dualism, for example, wouldn’t be possible in their current form without Kripke’s work. And they are important parts of philosophy. So I’m not sure Rorty ultimately _wins_ this debate, but I do think he’s making points and that Soames should be responding to them.

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03.06.05 at 6:39 am
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Matt 03.01.05 at 8:05 pm

Thanks for the very useful analysis. I think you’re largely right. My only question is why you found Rorty’s good points to be “surprising”. I know he annoys quite a lot of folks, and he’s often used as either a wipping boy or a boggy-man by a certain set of philosophers, but he’s obviously not stupid not uninformed.


Brian Weatherson 03.01.05 at 8:37 pm

Matt, you’re right that I’m just showing (off) some prejudices with that remark. In this case since Rorty was arguing that Soames was wrong, and Soames is intelligent and well-informed, I could try and express surprise that such a smart person was wrong. Sadly, “Philosopher makes mistake” is not exactly a news headline.

For what it’s worth I thought Rorty did a perfectly fine job in what I think are dreadful environments (philosophical roundtables) at the big St Andrews realism conference last summer. So maybe I should check my surprise at the door.


sacha 03.01.05 at 8:39 pm

Thanks for the links. These were both excellent articles – and it is hard to say that either Rorty or Soames have ‘won’.

It seems to me what the debate rests on is that Soames wants us to believe that Kripke was a genuine advancement in philosophy, whereas Rorty simply believes Kripke broadened the domain of discourse.

Which, of course, seems like a terrible question to answer, because in many ways, an advancement in philosophy is entirely equivalent to a broadening of the domain of discourse.

Then again, I’m inclined to simply agree with Rorty, but only because I don’t like Kripke in the first place.


Rob 03.01.05 at 8:45 pm

I think the heart of Soames and Rorty’s disagreement is over Kripke. As I remember the LRB article, Rorty’s main problem with Soames’s account was the centrality of Kripke in that account. If you don’t agree with Kripke about the possibility of a posteriori necessary truths, if you take seriously the Quinean attack of necessity and analyticity, as Rorty does, then Kripke’s work looks like an attempt to smuggle back in all the bad old claims of analytic truth by the backdoor. Understandably, then, you wouldn’t think well of Soames’s claim that he’s important, and explains why analytical philosophy is as it is, and why it ought to be as it is. The key claim is Soames’s reply then is ‘Rorty cannot understand the Kripkean achievement of expanding the philosophical conception of the necessary beyond the purely linguistic’, and unless you want to start talking about whether sticks a metre long are always and everywhere a metre long, and what we might mean by that, that’s a fair enough reply.

About the other stuff, they actually seem to agree: Rorty’s take on the importance of vagueness is that it tells us something about realism and anti-realism, while Soames seems to see it as part of a similar project, just slightly more fragmented. Rorty is a bit polemical, but when you are regarded as a strange outlier in the way he is, that’s understandable, if a bit unfortunate.


Anderson 03.01.05 at 8:51 pm

I don’t think it’s a very good sign for realism when Soames appears to be writing about a different review from the one Rorty wrote.


dsquared 03.01.05 at 8:59 pm

Is it some philosophical injoke that everyone’s being so equivocal and he-said-she-said about this debate? Surely someone can give us some straight, clear answers about vagueness?

I demand clearly and rigorously demarcated areas of vagueness and uncertainty!


russkie 03.01.05 at 9:31 pm

Didn’t Wittgenstein cure people of the desire to discuss this stuff?

Wouldn’t you rather read Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Strauss instead?


ionfish 03.01.05 at 9:47 pm

As a hideously ignorant undergrad, I’d just like to ask whether — from the wider perspective of the authors and commenters here — there are many “history of philosophy” courses available for undergrads reading analytic philosophy? For myself at least, I find it far easier to comprehend and evaluate philosophical notions once I can place them in a historical framework. While my lecturers are happy to do this, if asked, it often seems as if there’s not enough time to cover seemingly tangential issues (I say “seemingly” because for me, they’ve very central); an odd situation for an Arts degree with a minimum of lectures and seminars. Sorry if this is dragging things away from the topic at hand, but to me at least such questions are an important corollary to any discussion of the history of philosophy; after all, if students don’t learn it when they’re undergraduates, what chance is there for analytic philosophy to “burst the boundaries of the English-speaking world”? An understanding of one’s position within, and relationship to, the academic tradition in which one claims to stand would seem to be a fairly important prerequisite of any boundary-bursting activity.

On a totally unrelated note, Brian, I was wondering whether there was any particular significance attached to your use of Emma Story‘s Amazon referral links for Soames’ books?


Brian Weatherson 03.01.05 at 10:05 pm

I use Emma’s Amazon links because she donates the referral income to charity. I could set up my own links to do this, but I’m worried that when the checks came in I’d be weak-willed. (Or, more likely, feel comfortable with making a smaller donation out of my normal income.) So this way I buck-pass the weakness of will worries.

How much history of analytic philosophy is taught varies a lot between departments. At Cornell we do a lot. I’m teaching a course that goes roughly from Ayer to Quine right now. Like most departments we have a Frege, Russell, early Wittgenstein course. And when we’re feeling especially attached to the period we’ll sometimes offer courses on the period between those paradigm early analytics and the rise of logical positivism. (That’s actually my favourite historical period, just because it contains Keynes and Ramsey.) Few departments will have as many such offerings as Cornell, but plenty will have a course on Frege through Wittgenstein. And of course if you want to look further back, most departments will have some fairly good combination of 17th, 18th and 19th century courses (and earlier).


Matt 03.01.05 at 10:52 pm

Some departments, including some I’ve been involved with, teach the history of analytic philosophy under cunning names such as “contemporary philosophy” or “philosophy of language” or the like. So, one might also look at those classes as well.


dsquared 03.01.05 at 11:40 pm

So this way I buck-pass the weakness of will worries.

Would it be fair to say that “vagueness is the new weakness of will”?


Enzo Rossi 03.02.05 at 12:19 am

I think the heart of Soames and Rorty’s disagreement is over Kripke. As I remember the LRB article, Rorty’s main problem with Soames’s account was the centrality of Kripke in that account. If you don’t agree with Kripke about the possibility of a posteriori necessary truths, if you take seriously the Quinean attack of necessity and analyticity, as Rorty does, then Kripke’s work looks like an attempt to smuggle back in all the bad old claims of analytic truth by the backdoor

Fodor argued along these lines in a recent LRB essay:

Evil Kripke gave the unphilosophical analytic nerds their toys back -booh! Long live Quinenstein!


radek 03.02.05 at 1:29 am

Isn’t the paradox of the heap just Zeno’s paradox dressed up in some fancy new clothes?

Just like an arrow cannot fly from point A to point B, one cannot build a heap starting from a single grain of sand.


bza 03.02.05 at 2:39 am

Not really. Zeno’s paradox concerns the summation properties of indefinitely small quantities. The paradox of the heap (aka the Sorites paradox) concerns the boundaries of concepts. Pace your description, no one doubts that, starting from one grain of sand, you will eventually arrive at a heap of sand by adding grains. The paradox arises from the difficulty of specifying at what point one goes from just having some sand to having a heap thereof. (For what it’s worth, the Sorites paradox is of ancient provenance as well, so it’s not new.)

The analogue to Zeno’s paradox would be to ask whether we could ever achieve a certain finite volume of sand by adding grains of sand whose volume was always smaller than the remaining volume we have to fill.


John Landon 03.02.05 at 3:29 am

Interesting, but…Rorty’s final statement that the only two philosophers still worth reading in 2005 are Frege and Nietzsche I find entirely odd. Speaking as a non-specialist who failed to submit to the pragmatism binge I am left wondering how philosophy got where it is. Rorty suffers the strange delusion he has down away with Kant and Plato. Anyone but a specialist in analytical complications is left scratching his head.


Kieran 03.02.05 at 3:34 am

The only two _19th century_ philosophers.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.02.05 at 4:04 am

Maybe it is only because I was thinking of the topic, but it seems that the idea of vagueness (especially in the heap example) apply quite well to such practical problems as Constitutional interpretation. There are many well taken criticisms of what is called textualism because it has a vaguely defined concept of ‘faithfulness to the text of the Constitution’. This is taken by some as suggesting that faithfulness to the text of the Constitution is a purely politcal window-dressing.


Brian Weatherson 03.02.05 at 4:34 am

Sebastian, that’s right there are lots of potential applications to legal theory here.

There was an intersting-looking book published a couple of years ago, Vagueness in Law by Timothy Endicott which goes over some of these debates, including debates about whether the vagueness in legislative/constitutional language makes a relatively activist role for judicial interpreters a practical necessity. (The link is to the Amazon page which includes a search inside the book capacity.)

I don’t know enough law or philosophy of law to make a judgement on the quality of this, but it certainly looked interesting to me, and my (very much non-expert) opinion is that these debates are taken seriously by people who do know the relevant law and philosophy.


Matt 03.02.05 at 5:18 am

Let me second Endicott’s book, which I read in conjunction w/ a seminar taught by Steven Gross at Penn a few years ago. It’s a very good over-view of the legal issues, even if it’s wrong in several important points ;) There was also a special issue of Law and Philosophy from a few years ago about vagueness in the law, w/ Endicott, Greenawalt, Samuel Schiffer, and others. That’s likely to be of more interest to speicalists, though.


John Emerson 03.02.05 at 6:12 am

Ionfish, you are wrong. I claimed awhile back that analytic philosophy neglected the history of philosophy, and I was assured that it didn’t and that I was talking out of my butt.

Also, there’s no such thing as analytic philosophy any more. Analytic philosphy is all the philosophy there is, and it’s wonderfully diverse.


ken 03.02.05 at 11:07 am


I like your take on the Soames-Rorty exchange. I think you get it about right.

I would just add that although I actually probably agree with a lot of Scott’s substantive positions on many matters, I do think he overestimates the degree to which the Kripkean “revolution” has been consolidated. I think there is an important reason for that incomplete consolidation. There’s a lot missing in Kripke, a terrible lot. For example, though Kripke makes pretty powerful arguments about the semantics of names, natural kind terms and also about belief ascriptions, he never gives us very deep diagnoses of much of this stuff. I mean he pretty much leaves unaddressed what I regard as some deep questions very much in need of addressing before the “revolution” can be consolidated. For example, he never really diagnoses just how and why natural kind terms manage to be “rigid designators” that pick out underlying essences rather than superficial appearances. He argues powerfully that they do, but never explains why this should be so. Similarly, though he gives us pretty convincing arguments — at least I’m convinced — about the semantics of singular reference, he barely illuminates the metaphysics of singular reference, by his own admission, really. But without the metaphysical picture in place I think he can’t really answer Davidsonian, Brandomian style scepticism about reference. I don’t think having “pre-philosophical common sense” on your side is nearly enough to do that. He also never gives us an account of what we might call discursive community. I think such an account is needed if we are to do more than gesture at issues about deference, the division of linguistic labor, first person authority with respect to our thought contents and the whole lot. Not that none of this can be done. I think it can be done. But I think until it is done there can’t be a consolidation of the Kripkean revolution, really. Why not? Because once we delve into these matters we see that there is an “ideational” side to all this that is insufficiently examined and problematized by Kripke. One worries — or, at least I do — that his results tacitly presuppose a lot about what our “ideas” must be like, especially a lot about how ideas relate to the world and what their roles in determining thought content is, and what the dynamics of a rational mind must be like if a Kripkean story about ideas is right. And maybe, just maybe, the rough picture of the ideational side of things more or less presupposed by Kripke’s results simply can’t ultimately be made good or coherent. I don’t think that’s true. But I think it still needs to be decisively demonstrated.

Anyway, I think that’s really what bothers Rorty. I think he doesn’t think Kripke gets it right about concepts and ideas and all that goes with that. And I don’t really think that Rorty thinks it’s Quine and Wittgenstein so much as Davidson that spells trouble for Kripke.

Again, I certainly don’t think it’s been decisively demonstrated that a roughly Kripkean “ideology,” if you will, is wrong. But I don’t think it’s been decisively demonstrated that it’s right either.


ionfish 03.02.05 at 12:50 pm

John: I don’t think I ever claimed that “analytic philosophy neglected the history of philosophy”, just that (in my particular course, at least) there didn’t seem to be much going on in the way of teaching it to undergrads. It appears to be one of those things they assume we’ll simply pick up through osmosis (there are a lot of things like this, I’ve noticed).


harry 03.02.05 at 2:43 pm

I find people who cite and quote Rorty utterly irritating (not you, Brian). By contrast, whenever I actually read something by him I am struck by the intellectual seriousness and worthwhileness of what he has to say, even when I think he’s completely wrong.

Should I try Derrida again?


Phersu 03.02.05 at 2:53 pm

Would it be fair to say that “vagueness is the new weakness of will”?

No, the memo said two-dimensionalism or maybe fictionalism are the new vagueness.


pierre 03.02.05 at 4:40 pm

Interesting, but…Rorty’s final statement that the only two philosophers still worth reading in 2005 are Frege and Nietzsche I find entirely odd.

That’s a slight misquote (I had to go back to the original article and check, because you’re right, it is odd!) — he says nobody in 1904 could have predicted F & N would have been the only two to be studied “intensively” in 2005.

I suppose this is like saying nobody in 1983 couuld have predicted the future trajectories of U2 vs. Echo and the Bunnymen would be so wildly divergent. It’s a false intuition to think the former band is or was 10,000 times as talented as the latter, despite the fact the career and influence of the former has been ~10,000 times greater. Clearly, external influences have played a role.

Soames seems to be concerned with this dynamic since in his reply letter he attacks an eminent figure in his field for giving him a lengthy, evenhanded and generally favorable review in a high-circulation magazine aimed at nonspecialists. Whatever.

(and, ionfish, John Emerson is just taking your remark as an occasion to have some fun with the others here. It’s well-meant, I am sure. :-) )


roger 03.02.05 at 5:20 pm

Interestingly, the sand heap example is also used by complexity theorists to talk about self organization. The variant of the theory associated with Per Bak is about adding grains that cause not a transformation in our inclination to call the thing a “heap” or not, but an avalanche — a physical phenomenon. Taking us back to how we weight causes and what it means for a system to be irreversible or not.

I wonder, are vagueness people aware of this work? Do they have views on it?


dasmoment 03.02.05 at 5:52 pm

ha! roger, I was going to point out the same thing. and SOC is indeed an exploration of ‘borders’. In a way, the pile of sand is not a heap until it is no longer a heap (ie, the moment of SOC destroys the order and returns the system to something like an initial state of disorder again).

in a similar vein, is soames joking around by calling philosophy “an aggregate of related but semi-independent investigations”? is his perfect philosophy a heap? how did it get to be that way? at what point did it stop being simply scholastic degeneration and attain heaphood?

and might it not be better to see the ‘synoptic vision’ that he decries as the metric (a moment of SOC), rather than some godlike all-encompassing overview?


Neel Krishnaswami 03.02.05 at 7:21 pm

In his LRB review, Richard Rorty writes:

An educational administrator (a dean in the US, a pro-vice-chancellor in Britain), asked to ratify the appointment of someone who has produced a brilliant new theory of heaps, might be tempted to ask whether this sort of thing is really philosophy. Most analytic philosophers would think this a dumb question – as silly as whether inquiry into the neural processes of squids is really biology. Fruitful work in an academic discipline is whatever those trained in that discipline find it important to do. Outsiders do not get to kibitz. But suppose the dean remains obdurate. I know that biology has not reached the stage of decadent scholasticism, she might say, if only because biological research links up with medical progress. The biology department, she continues, had no trouble explaining to me why the work of their squid-neurone specialist might eventually culminate in a cure for Parkinson’s Disease. I expect something similar from the philosophy department.

Analytic philosophy is one of the key storehouses of ideas that we computer scientists loot for our own pragmatic purposes. Two doors down from me, there is someone using Girard’s linear logic to build a typesafe assembly language; four doors down, there is someone using Lewis’s theory of counterfactuals to explain the errors a model checker discovers; in the next hall over, someone is using modal logic to model computer programs communicating and travelling over a network. And I have spent the morning trying to use lax logic to modularize imperative assignment constructs. This stuff has a more direct connection to actual practice than research on the squid neuron.


Anderson 03.02.05 at 8:21 pm

Neel K. makes an excellent case for moving the analytic philosophers into the Comp Sci department. I’ll help them pack.


sadi 03.02.05 at 8:53 pm

And when they’re gone, philosophy departments can get back to the useful business of writing bad prose about Being-in-the-X.


Robert McDougall 03.02.05 at 9:01 pm

My only question is why you found Rorty’s good points to be “surprising”.

ISTR some consider the author of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” an unreliable witness to the doctrines of his colleagues.

[Soames] attacks an eminent figure in his field for giving him a lengthy, evenhanded and generally favorable review in a high-circulation magazine aimed at nonspecialists.

Well said. OTOH, Soames’ withers are not entirely unwrung. One valid summary of Rorty’s review is “Soames can’t popularise philosophy and I can.”


russkie 03.02.05 at 9:12 pm

Neel K. makes an excellent case for moving the analytic philosophers into the Comp Sci department. I’ll help them pack.

Take a look at this paper by a Comp Sci prof entitled “Beautifying Gödel” ( ). The author says that Godel’s scheme for mapping between numbers and logical statements is overly complex – syntax developed for proving program correctness is sufficient.

A consequence – according to the author – is that Godel’s proof merely shows the intuitively obvious truth that no formalism completely describes all formalisms.

When I described this to my Scottish Russell-scholar Phil professor he was not even interested in reading it.


bza 03.02.05 at 11:56 pm

Russkie, you might want to ponder the meaning of a remark by (iirc) Tim Poston, to the effect that the fate of a good theorem is to become a definition.


John Emerson 03.03.05 at 12:36 am

“Decadent scholasticism”. Ha! I didn’t say it, Rorty did.

On the whole, Rorty’s criticim of analytic philosophy seems to be more fundamental than just a difference about Kripke. Seemingly people are giving him credit for being more moderate than he is because they don’t want to excommunicate him entirely.

Analytic philosophy’s contributions to AI, computer science, and areas of psychology seem pretty well established. I agree with Anderson that, now that that part of philosophy is scientific, it should be moved to the appropriate departments.

I do not see a comparable achievement in ethics, politics, or history (yes, philosophers should have something to say about history), and I don’t see it in the offing.

Recently I read a well-intended book called “How History Made the Mind”, and even though I agreed with the thesis in some form, I was appalled at how sketchy his knowledge of history and society was. I extrapolated from here to conclude that if philosophers who think history is important are as sketchily-informed as he was, the ones who don’t think history is important must be virtually totally ignorant.


roger 03.03.05 at 12:38 am

Dasmoment, I have no prejudice against analytic philosophy, although I was educated in “continental” philosophy — but my allergic reaction to it does kick in with Kripke and Lewis, and especially the overuse of counterfactuals to create arguments that, I believe, are often illegitimate — that is, the argument framing the counterfactual often makes the same assumptions entailed by the counterfactual — and of thought “experiments”. Ironically, analytic philosophy, which shows a lot of scorn for the lack of rigor of continental philosophy, seems to spend a lot of time in the science fiction mode.

But I do like analytic philosophers like Davidson and Bennett and Kim on events, and I would figure that there is something there to help us understand what Bak’s self-organizing criticality is about. Ontologically. Frankly, who cares if it is useful to computer science, or useful at all at present. Philosophers up to now have tried to understand the world — and done a pisspoor job when trying to change it. Perhaps they ought to go back to the first objective.


pierre 03.03.05 at 1:48 am

I do not see a comparable achievement in ethics, politics, or history (yes, philosophers should have something to say about history), and I don’t see it in the offing.

Oswald Spengler produced the Beat Poets. What more do you want?

More seriously: while you suggest philosophy should have more impact on a variety of applied disciplines, you also propose moving analytical philosophy into appropriate departments now that it is sufficiently “scientific”. Doesn’t such an attitude condemn the philosophy department by definition to a sort of irrelevance? Any time it gets traction, the solid part of its work will be spun off into something that is not philosophy?

I’m not being polemical, I think this is a difficult question and am interested in your thoughts. (And those of others here.)

In my own reading I have developed the habit of regarding anyone doing foundational theoretical work in any field — architecture, nutrition, logistics, whatever — as a “real philosopher” of their generation, and regarding the nominal “philosophers” that were their contemporaries as perhaps something else, but I’m not sure what.


John Emerson 03.03.05 at 3:02 am

To me, scientific questions are those which have been successfully answered or made algorithmic, or which there is reason to think might be made so. (Chomsky istinguishes between “problems” and “mysteries”, where problems are questions which you think you know how to solve, though you haven’t yet).

There are also many large areas of discourse which are not on the point of becoming algorithmic and given scientific answers. These include much of social thought, ethics, etc., plus areas like cosmology, etc.

The positivistic point of view says that only scientific, alghorithmic answers have any value at all, and that everything else is just nonsense where one man’s answer is as good as another’s.

It is also believed that eventually all valid questions will have scientific answers, as if there were a stack of answers in a warehouse to be solved one at a time until they were all gone.

And also that the problems not solvable scientifically are just nonsense, as I said. (One problem with that view is that each new answer generates new questions.)

I do not think, for a lot of reasons, that we can get ethical or political answers the same way we get mathematical or scientific answers. So the scope of philosophy would include what Chomsky calls “mysteries” (not my preferred term at all).

Some mysteries are nonsense, some will be solvable later, but some are just difficult, complex questions that need discussion but will never have algorithmic answers.


john c. halasz 03.03.05 at 3:53 am

Characterized as an academic discipline, philosophy specializes in grounding arguments. I think it’s basically good that philosophy has lost its pretentions to self-grounding autonomy. But that means that grounding arguments are secondary matters. Two people can agree on a conclusion, but back it with entirely different premises and means, or, conversely, can agree about the appropriate premises and means and reach divergent conclusions. Oddly, that renders the disciplinary “authority” of philosophy tantamount to a paralogism. And the dissolution of the epistemological project- but has everybody, pace Rorty, heard the news?- means that philosophers don’t know anything; that is, there is no distinctively philosophical knowledge as such. Whereas I would not be in favor of the mere aestheticization of philosophy, the shift away from an exclusive, even obsessive definition of rationality as cognition is a release, a potential opening up to a broader field of inquiry. But henceforth philosophers would be dependent on knowing something else, other matters. The function of philosophy is simply eludidation, understanding what it means to understand. To understand what it means to know, for example, does not amount to a certification of a body of knowledge, but rather simply the explication of the meaning of a claim to know and what is at stake in it. Henceforth, philosophy is hermeneutics. Classically, philosophy was the attempt to limn rationally or logically through a systematic implicature the intelligible and “necessary” order of the world, with indirect reference to its implications for the ethical conduct of life and/or the purging/purification of the soul. We are a long way past any such ambition and would seek for an understanding of components of worldly order, such as it is, in other fields and disciplines. But the detachment of academic Analytic philosophy from the “problems of life” which would remain “were all the problems of philosophy solved”, to me at least, limits its appeal or interest. Of course, I’ve not read much Analytic philosophy, since it’s not my cup of joe, and what I have is old, from the ’60’s or ’70’s. But I find elaborate arguments about just exactly how language would pick up and reflect the things of reality rather silly, mostly because I don’t think that’s exactly what language does.


hick 03.03.05 at 1:23 pm

“And the dissolution of the epistemological project- but has everybody, pace Rorty, heard the news?- means that philosophers don’t know anything; that is, there is no distinctively philosophical knowledge as such.”

Yeah, as Russell indicated in about 1903. See also Heisenberg’s comments (re the Copenhagen position on quantum phyiscs) on positivism (which he felt was needed to some degree) and the irrelevance of Kant, Descartes, etc. Once the language is in order (via Tractatus, Carnap, semantics, etc.) there’s really nothing much left, at least for analytical types, except amalgamating material from other disciplines.


pierre 03.03.05 at 4:11 pm

Thanks for these.

Classically, philosophy was the attempt to limn rationally or logically through a systematic implicature the intelligible and “necessary” order of the world, with indirect reference to its implications for the ethical conduct of life and/or the purging/purification of the soul. We are a long way past any such ambition

Are we really so far away from it? Consider the otherwise inexplicable impact of Otto Weininger (discussed here a few days ago).

One would think it should be possible to discuss ethics and the soul, here in our condition of post-modernity, without automatically resorting to woo woo cultural studies self-caricatures. For instance, I think of Frederick Taylor as a figure who promulgated revolutionary philosophical ideas about time, work and the human relationship to society; ergo, he was a major philosopher, and incidentally these redefine the context of ethics and the soul. (Meanwhile Taylor’s approximate contemporary John Dewey, in his time supposedly the next big thing in philosophy after Kant, did pretty much nothin’ from the point of view of the year 2005.) But “philosophy” doesn’t address Frederick Taylor.


John Emerson 03.03.05 at 10:52 pm

When American rightwingers rage about “secular liberalism” as far as I can tell they mean Margaret Mead, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey. The first two were living presences in my youth. Dewey wasn’t, but when you hear someone ranting about “progressive education”, they mean him exactly.

Dewey’s contribution is at risk, but not nonexistent at all.


john c. halasz 03.03.05 at 10:55 pm

But Russell was the very type of the epistemologist. His addiction to the quest for certainty got this whole “Analytic” thing going. Oddly, there was a cross-Channel debate early on between him and Husserl as to whose approach constituted the “true positivism”. How times change. It was at least the limited virtue of the “Tractatus” to have given positivism an explicitly metaphysical cast, giving the lie to positivism’s bluff claims to have instantaneously surpassed and done away with metaphysics. As for the “Copenhagen interpretation”, though my knowledge of physics is rudimentary at best, my instinct is to say that it is wrong; it is too operationalist-instrumentalist and doesn’t accord with the fundamental aim of science at understanding the objective truth about the structure of reality. I would guess that experimental inquiries into “decoherence” point beyond it. As for Taylor, he has at least been extensively discussed in the literature of Marxist philosophy.


hick 03.04.05 at 2:11 am

The early Russell does seem close to platonic realism occasionally–his writing on sense datum and universals and so forth is quite metaphysical as is Wittgenstein’s “gegenstande” and logic as the great mirror and so forth–yet their intentions were toward clarifying language in light of modern science, were they not? Though it may offend some I think the project–say On Denoting—was as much semantic as logical. The Tractatus is also very concerned with syntax and semantics, and programmers have noted some of Wittgenstein’s contributions to artificial languages. And doesn’t W. in the last section of the Tractatus proclaim that all of what has preceded is in accord with natural science? Positivism is, in essence, physicalism: as Quine stressed later as well.


seth edenbaum 03.04.05 at 4:42 am

“There was an intersting-looking book published a couple of years ago, Vagueness in Law by Timothy Endicott which goes over some of these debates, including debates about whether the vagueness in legislative/constitutional language makes a relatively activist role for judicial interpreters a practical necessity.”

Not a necessity an inevitability.
The meanings of words are ambiguous, and they change over time. Interpretation is performance, and is judged as such.
Philosophy as ‘pure’ reflection, as mapping. is opposed to performance; is opposed to the thought of performance asreflection.
We speak from within the confines of language and doing so, cause it to change.
That’s how law and literature work.

Analytic philosophy will remain decadent scholasticism so long as it chooses to ignore the paradox of performance in communication.


john c. halasz 03.04.05 at 9:18 am

Much of Analytic philosophy seems inspired by a drive for a systematically consistent and complete naturalism. But I fail to see why many matters concerning language, meaning, human agency, or even “mind” and cognition must needs be addressed in the naturalistic attitude, which may very well deform, if not lose altogether, the relevant phenomena, rather than in the framework of a socio-cultural form of life. But then I am an incomplete and inconsistent naturalist, and don’t cherish the allegedly unique virtues of either systematicity, or completeness. And, estimable as the natural sciences are, are they really the paragon and paradigm of all thought? Natural science is itself a human cultural activity, and the temptation to self-reification invited by the methodological elimination of human agency from the picture might only damage a proper appreciation of science and its problematic impacts. Alas, poor Yorrick, there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in such philosophy.

As for performativity, of course, that happens all the time, but one might equally inquire into the constraints on performativity, which, after all, might be what renders it possible. One doesn’t want to go mongering paradoxes simply to disguise the banality and inefficacy of what one is saying. I no more believe that there is such a thing as a “pure” semantics than I believe that language could be effectively organized without a tendency to semantic self-stabilization.


John Emerson 03.04.05 at 9:29 am

I just read (in “Solon the Singer”) that Athens’ first lawgiver — and actual historical figure, btw, not a legend — was thought by the Greeks to have deliberately made his laws vague in order to ensure that juries have a substantial role in deciding cases.


hick 03.04.05 at 5:28 pm

Halasz–“Natural science is itself a human cultural activity, and the temptation to self-reification invited by the methodological elimination of human agency from the picture might only damage a proper appreciation of science and its problematic impacts.”

Bilgewater. It’s amusing how postmodernists often appear in the guise of clerics from 12th century Padua or something. Don’t drive your car or use your computer or cross a bridge or visit your doctor. Grow your own food. Yes, of course science may be used for nefarious ends but that in no way diminishes the fact that you are a biologically-determined primate who existence depends on the products of naturalism and positivism (e.g. your computer) Philosophy itself is produced by those comfy enough to have time and space to contemplate its futilities. Perhaps ponder “self-reification” when you order your sprout burger and motor home to Astroglide Arms in your electric yugo or whatever.


john c. halasz 03.04.05 at 8:28 pm


I’m not a post-modernist. And I don’t own a car or graze upon sprouts. I was thinking more along the lines of Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” and I did not say “nefarious”, but “problematic”, i.e. something that needs and deserves to be thought about. As for “biology” being a product of naturalism, that’s news to me: I thought it was, in the relevant sense, a “product” of nature. And the rush to assume that one is necessarily a biologically-determined being in one’s capacities and potentials, other than the obvious ways in which one exists as a biological being- (I did say “incomplete naturalist”)-, what is that but precisely a misrecognized form of metaphysics, which confuses the fact of existence with a pregiven necessity, which “necessity” is itself obscured in its sense by its abstraction from its relation to its contrast terms? That would be a nice illustration of how an exclusive preoccupation with natural science as the sole legitimate form of rationality can blinker the capacity for critical thinking- (see the third sentence of this post.) And if philosophy is nothing but a futile luxury, is the alternative then a blind worship of “necessity”? Classically, the source of philosophy was said to be “thaumezein”, wonder or astonishment, and the desire to know. I would wonder how dispensible such-like really are, even if philosophy can not be their self-sufficient satisfaction and if the alleged bliss of the bios theoretikos is not all it was cracked up to be. But I myself think that the really interesting line of philosophical thinking, post-epistemologically, is rather in the revival of the classical conception of practical reason, in contra-distinction to and separate from theoretical reason, (e.g. Hannah Arendt). However, as to the wonders of the computer age, yes, we should all bow down and worship that, as the dispensation of the “grace of Being”, even though I could just as well have typed this on a typewriter and put it in a bottle. So, it’s not exactly clear to me which one of us two is subsisting on an ascetic diet of bilgewater.


seth edenbaum 03.04.05 at 11:02 pm

I’ve said this how many times?
When you can explain, Hick, why systems of justice are based on adversarial formalisms rather than the ‘objective’ ‘scientific’ search for truth then I’ll take your ‘bilgewater’ seriously.
Given a choice between listening to an academic discussion of language, and listening to the great Philadelphia lawyer Henry W. Sawyer III perform cruel surgery- while drunk[?]- on the arguments by the state concerning the costs of constructing a platform on which the Pope was to offer mass, I chose the latter. It was quite a show.
And as far as naturalism is concerned- legal naturalism- when Brian Leiter can give us a naturalist analysis of the contradictions of his imagination- the intellectual snobbery and demi-leftism; when he is willing or able to be self-aware enough to REFLECT, I will take that discussion seriously.

Academic specialization means that a person can write all day about the ins and outs of the details of language and then after hours be a U-2 fan.
And all my life I’ve assumed that fandom was like, anti-philosophical.

But then I’m a generalist.


hick 03.04.05 at 11:30 pm

Let me rephrase it:

Naturalism, Darwinism, and/or biological determinism as a whole do not bode well for the philosophy business, nor for literature, nor for law I guess. The harshest attacks on EO Wilson or Dawkins come not from the fundamentalist morons, but from professional academics who realize somewhere deep down that a materialist nominalism implies, well, they should have attended more chemistry classes or at least stats. And though philosophical types–mostly from elite private schools such as USC or Stanford or Ivy League–seem to, in de rigeur clerical style, manipulate the debate and with some slick equivocation (see Halasz for examples) put the naturalists and nominalists on the defensive: yet it is, as Russell himself often stated, the immaterialist, idealistic or theological views that are suspect, if not impossible. So I guess I’m simply asserting that any proper understanding of positivsm depends on one’s stance towards the materiality issue: and “analyticity” does not imply any a priori or noumenal ghosts anymore than trigonometry does. “On denoting” is taught in formal semantics courses as well as logic or Phil. of language. It could along with the Tractatus be interpreted correctly as a description of early programming strategies.

I haven’t yet read Soames book, but knowing what USC professors tend towards, I suspect he’s rather non-committal on this issue as is Rorty: thus insuring at least a few more decades of work for ontologists, i.e, the bogus.


seth edenbaum 03.05.05 at 12:16 am

“Naturalism, Darwinism, and/or biological determinism as a whole do not bode well for the philosophy business, nor for literature, nor for law I guess.”

That’s not an answer.

You posit a false dichotomy between technocracy and faith, when the dichotomy is between overdetermination and passivity and the acceptance of the ambiguities of experience.

Things do fall into place sometimes.

Read the article carefully, and it gives almost the definition of the problematics of a scientific philosophy. Judges are members of society; they are not isolates, intellectually or emotionally. But why not argue simply as members of society, from their own definitions of terms? Anyone who speaks uses the language of the time, whether s/he wants to or not. Polling is passivity, as it implies an unwillingness to have an opinion.

It is not possible for us to become science machines. All that we can do is pretend, which means that we end up ignoring our blind spots. Better to have opinions, be aware of them as such and to take responsibility for them.
Better two people with opposing perspectives than two people with none at all. The pretentions of vulgar naturalism are that people as individuals don’t exist in any important ‘meaningful’ way. The opposite is not idealism but the realist acceptance that they -we- do exist: as animals capable both of rational thought and of being subject to conditioned response.

If you can prove to me that you can always tell the difference between one and the other in your own life, or if you can give me even one example of someone else who has achieved this I’ll concede.


hick 03.05.05 at 12:43 am

“You posit a false dichotomy between technocracy and faith, when the dichotomy is between overdetermination and passivity and the acceptance of the ambiguities of experience.”

Oh that’s what I was claimng. No, you are using words to refer to some rather ambiguous concepts, and also politicizing the discussion. I said nothing about technocracy. My point was that positivism was, with few exceptions, empiricist/nominalist rather than idealist or platonic. I do think Russell held on, rather consistently, to some weak version of mathematical realism, or at least asserted that there was knowledge–logical relations -that could not be deduced from experience, but I do not think he was therefore idealist, but more skeptical about the ultimate truths of induction. He’s not Ayer. Yet regardless of a few doubts about empiricism he did want to eliminate metaphysics and “essences” from the language discussion, and like Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is not incorrectly categorized as a semanticist.

I m no law student but I tend to view law and justice issues as more akin to alpha baboons on outcroppings protecting their food cache and harems of young nubile baboonettes from the rogue beta males out roaming the steppes.
Scalia himself bares a nice set of incisors.


john c. halasz 03.05.05 at 8:33 am


I am not an academic, elite or otherwise; in fact, I’m not even a college graduate. I’m simply a wage laborer. I’m not a theologian, but, in fact, an atheist, and I would not be uncomfortable being called a materialist, though I prefer to think of myself as some sort of non-metaphysical realist, since materialism/idealism is a metaphysical aporia that one should be wary of embracing. And I don’t even know what an “immaterialist” is, unless it’s just a figment of your imagination. So your aggressive resentments fall rather wide of the mark, for all that you think that their asservations make for an argument. In fact, I did not even challenge one iota of settled science. I only stated that science is a human activity, or, to put it overemphatically and onesidedly, science is what scientists do, so that it is not at all really an estrangement of human agency, and that is a perspective that needs to be taken into account in considering the multiple roles it plays in modern social life and thought. Indeed, I did mean to question whether natural science is the unique, self-sufficient and exclusive model of all rationality, or whether rather science is part of a broader panoply of forms of rationality and in part depends for its rationality on that broader field. That question does not at all delegitimate natural science, but only questions the positivist account, which badly misconstrues the actual modus operandi of science and is barren of any account of the normativity of scientific cognition, other than dogmatic assertion. But that is enough to substantiate that you have been unfairly mailgned by all those evil sophisticates with their sinuous equivocations? That physical reality exists is hardly news; in fact, one can’t even prove its existence, (since one can’t prove a tautology), but why would one ever have cause to doubt it, or, conversely, to make it an article of faith? Do you really imagine that the affirmation of physical reality is a priori the answer to all possible questions? (That would be an even-more-than-Nietzschean affirmation!) Do you even know what it is to entertain, that is, to seriously consider a question as a question? And together with your intolerance for questioning, your intolerance for ambiguity suggests a weak-minded need to repress any threat of doubt. Do you really think the elimination of ambiguity is possible? Most real thinking is a disambiguation of ambiguities rather than their elimination. If a prior elimination of ambiguity is required to guarantee one’s access to reality, then one has a very long way to go indeed before one even begins to deal with any real issue.But then, just as your notion that literary types really need to know chemistry laughably indicates your ignorance of the function and enjoyments of literature, perhaps you are just not interested in anything so futile as thinking.

As for “biological determinism”, -(and I hardly think that Dawkins and Wilson constitute the last and definitive word in biology; why not, say, Gerald Edelman or Stuart Kaufman? the former two are more like purveyors of a biological cult)-, whereas it’s obvious, say, that brain processes form the substrate of thought, it should be equally obvious that such accounts do not determine the contents of thought, nor even begin to address all the issues that surround cognition, not least, the grounds and procedures of its rational justification. (Consider that if cognition were such-wise biologically determined the brain processes of, say, a medieval theologian and a modern biologist would have to be different, in accordance with the different contents of their thinking, and, further, millenia of cultural struggle and differentiation to arrive at modern science would have been superfluous, since it would already have been pre-given as an adaption.) But, most of all, isn’t the appeal to biological adaption as the ground and function of knowledge precisely a form of instrumentalistic reductionism with respect to knowledge, which ill-accords with the fact that knowledge is supposed to be true?

Finally, for all that you cite the “Tractatus”, you are aware that Wittgenstein thoroughly criticized and, for the most part, repudiated his “Tractatus” views, aren’t you? (Indeed, the large reputation of the “Tractatus” is rather puzzling, since no one has ever been able to make exactly heads or tails of it.) Have you considered those criticisms and just how Wittgenstein found a way out of his own dead end?

Hick, if that is your real name and not just a character you play, you’re a rather comical fellow, bared incisors and all.


hick 03.05.05 at 4:36 pm

“Do you really imagine that the affirmation of physical reality is a priori the answer to all possible questions?”

Yes. Or rather it is the ground of all possible meaningful discussion, rather than dogma. What is called theology is in fact primitive ethics: the Beatitudes provides views of action, nearly Maslow of the 1st AD. Though not Marxist I do think materialism, whether construed economically or biologically, must be acknowledged. That seems obvious, but after a few encounters with philosophy students I do not think it is–they are always atempting to bring back in the transcendental, the a priori analytical, the theological: didn’t Herr Nietzsche himself say philosophy was marred with the clerical and theological?

Thus positivism was about putting the language into proper form to make inductive or deductive arguments about the physical world, which are to confirmed, verified, falsified, or perhaps merely shown to be probable. Language can be used for other purposes obviously as Wittgenstein of the PI and others have pointed out ad nauseum: yet I hold with Russell and Popper that the ordinary language phil. spawned from the PI is not nearly so relevant as Witt.’s earlier comments on semantics and logic. There’s a pragmatic argument here as well–the symbolic language, based on unambiguous reference (rather than meaning) functions well–in a computing or mathematical context. It works. Thus, it meets a general pragmatic requirement of efficaciousness.


john c. halasz 03.06.05 at 12:15 am

If you go all the way back to Aristotle and consider what “pure actuality”, which characterizes the godhead, means, you’ll find that the notion is unconstruable, virtually unthinkable,- (which is perhaps a hint of why it is characterized as divine.) The rough point of all that analysis of language games is to build up from almost-too-primitive-to-ever-be-actual cases through adding on further layers for analysis to the real potentiality, the constrained possibilities, of our form of life, which exceeds the natural, and from which emerge the needs and necessities by which to assess the adequacy of our concepts of the actual. Reference does not occur through abstraction from the workings of language, as if to thereby lay bare its already logical structure, completely independent of any actual behavior, but rather works precisely through all the other “junk” of language. And Wittgenstein had scarcely anything to do with Oxford “ordinary language” philosophy: PI occurs at a deeper “foundational” or “logical” level, as a critical dissolution of epistemology, with its mistaken efforts to ground knowledge in certainty, itself a residue of the metaphysical recursion to the pregiven. Henceforth, knowledge is not subject to philosophical fiat, but is left to the empirical openness of the specialized sciences.

As for induction, that is an especially weak form of inference, as has been broadly known since Hume. In fact, that was precisely why Popper replaced it with his criterion of falsification, though he then signally failed to inquire into the sources of the concepts needed to construct scientific theories, which then could be subject to falsification. In a way, Kant was right about “synthetic judgments a priori”, it’s just that they are not nearly so invariant, ahistorical, unempirical, and subject to “transcendental” grounding as he made them out to be; nowadays they are usually discussed in terms of the buzzword “paradigms”. And I am not terribly enamored with pragmatism: to cite the instrumental success of actions as a criterion would seem to require nonpragmatic criteria not just for the identification and structure of actions, but for their “success”, and the latter is always,- very broadly speaking,- a political matter. But the pragmatic emphasis on paying attention to the “follow through” is important: it’s just that we don’t really know how far our inferences or their broader structures extend and can carry us and they don’t necessarily possess a prior guarantee every step of the way. That is a good reason to be wary of being too systematic.

As for the need to take account of the material world, both biologically and economically, coming from a quasi-Marxist background, I quite agree, with the proviso that that is not all there is, really or potentially. What remains of philosophy is not any sort of knowledge, nor any prescriptive authority. Philosophy simply concerns the analysis and interpretation of meaning, that is, understanding rather than truth, and the elucidation of what is already obscurely or implicitly there, though unthought in its implications. It also concerns the elucidation of norms, whether cognitive or ethical, and, though it lacks the capacity to mandate them, it can bring to the understanding the stakes involved in the inevitable clash and conflict between different norms, as well as, between the counterfactual status of norms and reality.


seth edenbaum 03.06.05 at 2:39 pm

John, you’re not being specific enough for our friend. You’re being too vague.

Hick, since you don’t understand legal logic it must not exist. Incisors etc. Funny.
Well then lets talk gambling. You talk as if blackjack were the only game in town. The house is “the world” and all that stands between you and money are numbers and odds.
You should try poker sometime.
I’m done.


john c. halasz 03.06.05 at 9:48 pm

Any generalization is, by definition, vague. Only pigeons pecking at grain are relieved of the burden of vagueness.


hick 03.07.05 at 4:49 am

Sethski: The discussion concerned positivism and analytical philosophy. There are plenty of arguments–not just typical leftist or marxist, but biological–for viewing basic legal concepts–torts, contracts, property etc.– as simply the various techniques used by English or ancien regime aristocrats (alpha males) for protecting their assets and niche if you like. Property law is not based on logic or ethics anymore than theology is: the fact that some ancient thugs conquered a big piece of land, held on to it for years, rented it out, hunted on it, etc, doesn’t give them any more right to it than starving sharecroppers.

From the few cases I have scanned from a Torts text, proving causality or negligence seems to make use of the same methods as casting a horoscope. It’s neither science nor Logic; it’s more like a shadowy priesthood for rich whites not smart enough to get into med. school or engineering.

Eliminating vagueness indeed is the analytical goal; or was before the quasi-metaphysical analytical types appeared. Kripke may have had a few points, though there are some that think he misunderstood Wittgenstein as well as Russell’s definite descriptions.


john c. halasz 03.07.05 at 9:02 am

For someone who is into Perfect Clarity, Hick, you’re awfully confused. It’s called saving one’s ammunition- mercy killing is still illegal.


hick 03.07.05 at 2:38 pm

NO ’tis you that’s confused…putting on some hip metaphysical gloss to everything.
What part of the preceeding did you not understand. You don’t have any decent grounds for rejecting either semantics, reference, or even basic verificationist/falsifiable criteria–other than some cheap cafe aesthetic. Most marxists or post-modernists ( or anti-naturalists) think for some vague reasons that positivist criteria have been refuted (of course they drive their car or turn on their computer every morning), but only because some tenured windbag (role model as it were) told them that, never proved it.


john c. halasz 03.08.05 at 2:00 am

So we meet again in the underworld… A crude reductionism that backs one into a self-chosen corner, resulting in the “necessity” of resort to polemical reflexes- that’s certainly news! Among other things, it leads to an ignorance of and inability to recognize/misidentification of other positions and their possible grounds. As to shysters and legality, I am entirely inclined to take a cynical view, as a good many are, but that is just a starting point for the consideration of those issues and not a definitive conclusion. However, legality is a good case in point for where the appeal solely to physical criteria or “physicalism” can gain no purchase. But if one limns the bounds of permissible utterence solely in naturalistic terms- (and wouldn’t that really amount de facto to a kind of transcendental claim?)- then perhaps one is incapable of seeing that. As for “verificationalist/falsifiable criteria”, verificationalism, aside from having an oddly instrumentalized conception of meaning without otherwise accounting for its source, quickly proved inadequate for carrying the load intended, which is why falsification was proposed instead, but then “naive” falsificationalism, (Popper, if only in part), needed to move to more advanced falsificationalism, (Lakatos), with consideration of criteria for theory replacement. And even that is not the definitive last word, as “degenerating research programs” might just be a sign of intractable problems, such as, e.g., the limits on predictability in complex systems. So the truth about everything was not definitively revealed in 1905, though Einstein did make a good start toward a new beginning, even if you have been unable to move on since and if you’re own tendency for non-responsive repetitiveness has been amply revealed this week. So you’re insistent mistaking me for a metaphysician just serves to indicate that you have swallowed the rather shallow and unreflective positivist rhetoric on metaphysics whole and are entirely unfamiliar with the terms and stakes of the broader progressive critique of metaphysics since Kant, paradoxically a painful, but masterful product of the capacities for self-critical reflection cultivated by philosophy. As for being a hip aesthete, actually I’m quite dowdy, even shabby, and am not at all interested only in the latest “thing”, even if I could afford the expense. And I think the notion of “role models” vulgar, indicating a sickly idealization of conformist mimetic behavior.


hick 03.08.05 at 4:22 am

Bravo! Though you certainly have the continental rhetorical schtick down pat, I suspect your knowledge of relativity is a bit more meager than your knowledge of formal logic. Really man read about relativity: after Einstein worked out the equations of Speical Relativity his predictions–that the sun’s gravity would have some effect on the velocity of light– were confirmed by the eclipse experiments. But confirmation, whether inductive or deductive, verifiable or falsifiable, bayesian or otherwise, is not your concern: you’re on some quest for Truth, and I suspect it’s of the theological variety, or at least broadly idealistic.

I have perusing some of the neo-positivist David Stove’s witty cynicism, and, philistine that I am have decided to share some with you:

“But let us never forget, either, as all conventional history of philosophy conspires to make us forget, what the `great thinkers’ really are: proper objects, indeed, of pity, but even more, of horror”


s.e. 03.09.05 at 12:30 am

You two still at it? I told you you were too vague John and I meant it. Hick insults my examples but does not attempt to refute them. F’n briilaint move kiddo.
Hick, last I heard they haven’t been able to predict combinations on a pool table beyond what: 4? 7? You tell me.

And again:
So far at least- in the future who knows?- no one has been able to develop a system for poker, and yet it is considered a game of chance and skill [dig the italics] Quantify that skill for me if you would, H. Please

And where’d you get your religious idealism, cloudcookooland bullshit: business school?
No, don’t tell me.


hick 03.09.05 at 1:13 am

What’s your point? Logic is like blackjack? Probability wasn’t the issue here, though yeah, many real- life problems will be a matter of assessing factual probabilities.

Logic is more akin to solving chess combinations. There is one correct answer to a tough combination, and a decent computer program will solve it better than 99% of humans. But at the beginning of the game, when there are thousands of possible combinations and consequences, the experienced player-a Kasparov–is a good match for Deep Blue; in other words there is probably some unquantifiable feeling for the position or something–not just a ability to figure out 10 moves in advance–which the computer lacks, at least at present.

A UC Berkeley professor, Dreyfus I think, argues that no computer has yet been ( or is likely to be) devised that can be entrusted with driving a car ( though they do of course fly planes). Many cog. sci . people dispute this, but it is a difficult problem for those who think computational or positivistic models of mind are going to be proven in the next few years or something. So I agree that math and logic are very limited in terms of predictive hypothesis, and that intelligence is not just quantitative. When you see ‘bots in 405 rush hour traffic (or pulling up a chair at Starbux), then cyberia will have arrived.


seth edenbaum 03.09.05 at 3:07 am

My brother plays chess and blackjack. He’s one of the better players in the the US at the former and he makes money at the latter, but again you’ve avoided my point.

” So I agree that math and logic are very limited in terms of predictive hypothesis, and that intelligence is not just quantitative”

Or maybe not.


hick 03.09.05 at 4:19 am

I think it is you who is avoiding the issue. What are you saying ? Logic has limits? NO mierde. Let’s put it this way–I wager someone who earned a high SAT or GRE score in quantitative or analytical sections will play chess better; he probably would be a better lawyer also. Knowledge is quantitative–and positivism is/was quantitative, though it has taken a metaphysical turn–and that quantitative knowledge is on the whole more applicable and useful than what is taken to be aesthetics or intuitive knowledge. Metaphysics is for bored aristocrats, bourgeois students, and ex-seminarians who don’t know what to do with their lives. A decent java programmer or UNIX hacker is as much a analtyical philosopher as a Soames.

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