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Series Editor: Owe n Flanagan , Duk e University


Mind, Morals , an d th e Meanin g o f Lif e

Owen Flanaga n

In Searc h o f a Fundamenta l Theor y

David J. Chalmer s

Stephen P . Stic h

Personal Identit y withou t Psycholog y

Eric T . Olso n

Philosophers an d Thei r Idea s

Colin McGin n

Philosophers and Their Ideas


New York


Oxford University Press


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Copyright 199 7 by Oxfor d Universit y Press, Inc.

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p. cm . (Philosoph y o f min d series )
Includes index .
ISBN 0-19-511355- 1
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I have not reprinte d al l my book reviews in this volume, omitting those tha t
are more technical and o f less general interest . Bu t I have included virtually
all those that have appeared i n nonspecialist journals. The y are reproduce d
here i n thei r origina l form . I hav e no t though t i t worthwhil e t o rewrit e
earlier pieces in the light of later reflections, though there i s in fact very little
of a substantiv e nature I woul d wish to alter . Th e title s of th e piece s wer e
originally supplie d b y m y editors , neve r b y me; sinc e thes e generall y me t
with m y approval I have let them stand. I am grateful to my various editors
for allowing me to reprint thes e reviews, and fo r inviting me to write them in
the firs t place . I a m als o gratefu l t o Catherin e M e Keen fo r photocopyin g
above and beyon d th e cal l of duty.
New York
January 1997

C. M.

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Introduction 3
1. Wittgenstein : My Wicked Heart 1 1
2. Wittgenstein : Soul on Fire 1 8
3. Wittgenstein : Seething 2 7
4. Russell : Loftily Earthy and Earthily Lofty . . . 3 3
5. Russell : You Would Not Want to Be Him 3 5
6. Russell : The Machine in the Ghost 4 1
7. Peirce : Logic and Sadness 4 7
8. Ayer : Old Scores 5 4
9. Penrose : Past Computation 6 5
10. Humphrey : Getting the Wiggle into the Act 7 4
11. Churchland : A Problem Ignored 8 0
12. Marce l an d Bisiach : The Language of Awareness 8 5
13. Nagel : The View from Nowhere 8 8
14. Chalmers : Wise Incomprehension 10 0
15. McGinn: Out of Body, Out of Mind 10 5
16. Lyca n e t al. : Imagining an Orgasm 11 2
17. Fodor : Mental Representations 11 8



18. Fodor : Using Common Sense 12 2

19. Davidson : Cooling It 12 5
20. Davidson : Weak Wills 13 3
21. Davidson: When Is an Action Intentional? 13 9
22. Putnam : Ideal Justifications 14 2
23. Chomsky : Rules and Representations 14 7
24. Quine : Theories and Things 15 7
25. Strawso n an d Warnock : Reputation 16 4
26. Sacks : Outpouchings 17 1
27. Stroud : Not Knowing What We Know 17 8
28. Kripke : Naming and Necessity 18 1
29. Ayer : Significantly Senseless 18 4
30. Budd : Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Psychology 18 7
31. Searle : Contract with Reality 19 1
32. Dennett : Leftover Life to Live 19 7
33. Singer : Eating Animals Is Wrong 20 7
34. Frey : Beyond the Moral Pale 21 5
35. Pluhar : Born Free 21 8
36. Hel d an d Baier : Mothers and Moralists 22 4
37. Foot : Good Things 23 3
38. Collingwood : Homage to Education 24 0
39. Putnam: In and Out of the Mind 24 7
Index 25 5


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Writing a philosoph y book i s an arduou s an d exactin g task. One doe s no t

emerge fro m th e experienc e unscathed . The menta l burden lie s mainly in
the necessit y of keeping a complex argument , o r se t of arguments, in one's
head fo r a long period of time, constantly repeating and refinin g them, day
and nightunti l the y com e t o see m eithe r lik e gibberis h o r platitude s o r
both. Bertran d Russel l wrot e somewher e tha t th e problem s o f logi c are s o
inhumanly abstrac t tha t th e philosophica l logicia n onl y manages reall y to
think about them for five minutes a year. Russellian exaggeration, no doubt ,
but i t gives some idea of the fea t of mental contortion needed to sustain the
abstracted stat e of mind required t o complete a substantial work of philoso phy. I t i s actually rather amazin g that i t happens a s often a s it does (ballet
dancing perhaps provide s a distant analogy). And then ther e is the unpleasant sens e o f insecurit y that come s wit h itth e feelin g o f bein g constitutionally inadequate t o th e task.
Reviewing philosophy books partakes of this arduousness. Th e reviewer,
no les s tha n th e writer , mus t absor b an d full y maste r a comple x o f argu ments, graspin g th e whol e they compose an d appreciatin g ho w th e entir e
structure i s held i n place . Thes e argument s mus t the n b e reproduce d i n
capsule form , s o tha t th e reade r o f th e revie w can follo w wha t th e boo k
contains. Then the arguments must be evaluated, with the weak points identified an d exposed . This means that it is necessary to go one step beyond th e
author o f th e book , wh o presumabl y thinks he r positio n sufficientl y wel l
defended an d ha s not anticipated the criticisms made. These criticisms must
be fai r an d accurate . All this must be done b y sympathetically entering into


the intellectual world of the author, no t simply imposing one's ow n perspec tive on th e material . On e o f the hardes t thing s abou t reviewin g philosophy
books is that on e must grasp the though t processe s of someone else , thoug h
these ma y be ver y different fro m one' s own . The reviewe r mus t recapitu late th e proces s o f composin g th e book , an d the n offe r a critical respons e
to it .
I never write a philosophy review without feeling more o r less crushed b y
the task. It is always much harder than I expect. At some point in reading th e
book, I wonder whethe r I wil l b e abl e t o write anything at all: th e author' s
position refuse s t o com e int o focus , and I hav e n o ide a wha t I want to say
about it . Then, afte r a sweat y few days, marked b y a tension i n the chest , I
begin t o se e th e shap e o f wha t I wil l write . I thin k o f a workabl e wa y t o
expound th e book's main thesis, and som e response t o it suggests itself to my
laboring mind . I nearly always vow that this is the las t review I am goin g t o
write fo r a good lon g time . Bu t the n a n interestin g book come s along , on e
that I want to read anyway , and abou t whic h I think I may have somethin g
useful t o say. S o here we go again. I hav e bee n doin g this no w for twent y
years and hav e racked u p nearl y fifty of these mind-crunchers . I am disconcerted when people thin k these are just tossed off on a lazy wet weekend, as if
reviewing were a leisure activity .
So why do I do it ? It interferes wit h m y own work; it's exhausting; an d i t
garners ver y little academic credit. The reaso n i s that I believe it is a valuable
form o f writing . It i s valuable for m e becaus e i t forces m e t o come t o grip s
with someone else's ideas, instead of wallowing constantly in my own. I would
recommend i t to al l philosophers, especiall y at th e star t o f their careers . I t
encourages soun d intellectua l habits , b y enforcin g concision , clarity , an d
intellectual empathyno t t o mentio n critica l responsibility. I t als o discour ages the kin d of intellectual solipsism that afflicts s o many academic philoso phers. But i t is valuable, too, i n affording contact with thinking people wh o
are not professionally involved in philosophy. Her e I am speaking of reviews
written, not for professional journals, bu t for publications that represent the
wider intellectual culture. Mos t of the review s included i n this volume were
written fo r suc h publicationsthe Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the New Republic, and others . Th e difficult y o f the tas k is here
compounded b y the fact that one must write in such a way that the intereste d
layman can follow what is being said, while doing justice to the content of th e
book i n question . Accordin g t o th e editor s o f thes e magazines , no t man y
specialists can do that. Yet such magazines are one of the only places in which
academic philosoph y i s publicly heard. I mysel f believ e i t t o b e extremel y
important tha t th e wide r cultur e b e informe d o f wha t i s happening i n aca demic philosophy; indeed, I believe it to be vital to the intellectual health o f a
community tha t seriou s philosophica l wor k b e brough t befor e th e publi c
mind. This i s because philosophica l problem s ar e par t o f everyone's menta l
landscape, so people should b e made awar e of the best tha t i s being don e t o
deal with these problems. Also , there is so much bad stuf f out there compel-


ing for attention that it is important t o put th e good stuf f across to people. I n
short, I believe in my subject, and I want to educate peopl e i n it as best I can.
The troubl e i s that boo k review s in such publication s tend t o have a very
short "shel f life"a matte r o f weeks usually. They ar e comparativel y widely
read whe n they appear, bu t the y soon disappea r int o th e misty past. I have
always foun d thi s dispiriting : s o muc h effor t fo r a resul t tha t last s suc h a
short time . An d I ofte n pu t idea s int o m y review s tha t I d o no t expres s
anywhere else , s o tha t idea s I woul d lik e t o hav e som e permanenc e ar e
quickly forgotten. I am therefore happ y to be able to prolong the life of some
of these pieces by resurrecting the m no w in book form . I hope that genera l
readers wit h a taste for philosoph y wil l find th e collectio n useful, a s providing a n accessibl e windo w int o wha t mus t sometime s see m lik e a wilfull y
arcane world . Since I have reviewed books by many of th e leadin g philoso phers of our time , it is to be hoped that the collection offers a picture of what
has been going on in philosophy for the last twenty years or so. This book can
thus be seen a s a rather unorthodo x introductio n t o contemporary philoso phy.
I a m sometime s charge d wit h havin g a n excessivel y acerbic reviewin g
style. And i t is quite true tha t I can be severely critical of what I am reviewing.
I must confess that I have a somewhat visceral reaction t o work I perceive t o
be shoddy or dishonest, an d I see no point in concealing m y opinion. I have
therefore mad e many "enemies" durin g the course of the last twenty years of
criticism. The plai n fact is that every author want s to be reviewed in terms of
absolutely unqualifie d prais e ( I includ e myself) , eve n thoug h the y d o no t
want everyone t o be s o lauded. O n severa l occasions I hav e bee n congratu lated b y A for havin g spoken th e unflatterin g truth abou t B' s book, only to
find myself th e objec t of an angr y communicatio n fro m A for havin g dared
to criticize his latest effortwhile th e standard s I have applied ar e precisel y
the sam e i n th e tw o cases. That , a s the y laughingl y say , is human nature .
Nevertheless, I have often fel t that the cost in terms of personal enmity is not
worth it. There is a constant conflict in book criticism between the urge to be
truthful an d awarenes s of the consequences of candor. An d th e better on e is
at detecting the faults in someone else' s work, the greate r the resentment a t
having done so . I see no way out o f this dilemma excep t t o cease reviewing,
but tha t seem s to o cowardl y a solution . I ca n onl y plea d t o thos e I hav e
criticized that m y intentions hav e always been t o tell the trut h a s I see it. If I
am wron g o r unfair , tha t wil l ultimatel y reflect badly o n meno t on them .
The mirro r imag e of this, and also something I have experienced mor e than
once, is the tendenc y to be overgenerous i n one's assessment of a book. This
produces a peculia r naggin g feeling , a s i f on e ha s betraye d one' s highe r
ideals. The mora l risk s in book reviewin g are ver y real; an y reviewer wort h
her sal t feels the m keenly. I can assure anyone whose book I have negatively
reviewed (o r positivel y reviewed!) tha t thes e risk s have alway s bee n upper most i n m y mind . I dislike unfairness a s much a s anyone, bu t I also dislike
craven mealy-mouthe d back-scratching .


This is a very mixed collection, ranging across pretty much the whole field
of philosophy , a s wel l a s dippin g int o intellectua l biography. Bu t th e ma jority of the pieces have to do with the mind, in one way or another. I t might
be helpful if I identify some the theme s that have governed m y treatment o f
the issues covered; thes e characterize my general approac h t o philosophica l
questions. First , an d leas t controversially, I stoutl y affirm th e principle s o f
rationality and objectiv e truth. Dispassionat e reason i s the righ t wa y to deal
with th e question s tha t puzzl e us, no t rhetori c o r politica l convenience . I
apply thi s metho d a s muc h t o ethic s a s to metaphysic s and philosoph y o f
mind. Relativis m an d subjectivis m never rais e thei r ugl y head s i n thes e
pages. Clarit y an d rigo r o f argumen t ar e th e standard s adhere d to . But,
second, I also oppose scientismth e tendency to think that all genuine questions are scientific in nature and are to be settled by empirical methods. I take
philosophical questions to be a distinctive type o f question, not to be answered
by th e prevailin g paradigm s o f science . I n ethics , too , I rejec t scientism ,
taking ethica l question s t o b e sui generis, and no t i n an y wa y inferio r t o
scientific questions. Taking thes e two principles together, then , I believe in a
form of rationality that is not scientific in nature. I t is not that there is science
on the one hand an d irrationalism on the other. Rather, th e notion o f rationality has subvarieties, of which scientific rationality is only one. Philosophy,
including ethics, exhibits its own kin d of rationality, in which argument is the
key method , no t empirica l investigation . To thos e reader s wh o hav e ru n
away with the idea that twentieth-century philosophy has done away with the
notions o f objectiv e truth an d universa l reason, le t m e asser t categorically
that tha t i s not th e case . Such a position i s the propert y o f an irresponsibl e
(and confused ) few; it is very far fro m orthodox .
More substantively, I am guide d i n these essays by a commitment t o what
is sometime s called metaphysica l realism. That is , I tak e bot h th e externa l
world and th e world of the mind to be equally and full y rea l domains. I thus
reject, on the one hand, all forms of idealism about the physical world: there
is no sens e in which the worl d of planets and plant s and platypuse s is minddependent, stil l less "socially constructed." And , o n th e other hand, I rejec t
behaviorism and instrumentalism about the mind: thoughts an d feelings are
as real a s anything else we refer to , and the y are no t t o be reduced t o mere
behavior or treated as dispensable constructs. The univers e thus contains two
sorts of entityphysical things and menta l thingsneither being assimilable
to the other . An d thi s means, obviously , that ther e is a problem abou t ho w
these equall y rea l bu t distinc t thing s are relate d t o eac h otherth e mind body problem . Tha t proble m doe s no t exis t i f eithe r o f th e tw o ca n b e
analyzed in terms of the other , o r if the reality of either i s doubted. Man y of
the essay s that follo w deal wit h this proble m i n on e for m o r another . M y
general positio n i s to take th e proble m a s genuine an d a s extremely hard . I
do not believe that any current theor y make s a significant den t in the mind body problem. I thus hold that the relation between the mind and the body is
a deep mystery. More than that, there are hints in these essays that I take it to


be a permanent mystery. This is a position I have argued for elsewhere, in The

Problem of Consciousness (Basi l Blackwell , 1991 ) an d Problems in Philosophy
(Basil Blackwell , 1993) ; I mentio n i t no w becaus e i t informs m y attitude t o
many o f th e book s discusse d here . I t i s a positio n directl y relate d t o th e
realism just affirmed : fo r ther e is a mystery about th e relatio n betwee n th e
physical and th e mental only because both are real constituents of the world.
Something ca n transcen d ou r power s o f understandin g onl y if its nature is
not constitute d o r constraine d b y thos e powers . I t i s because trut h i s no t
epistemic that ther e is room fo r th e possibilit y tha t th e natur e o f mind an d
matter migh t not b e accessible to human thought .
Beyond thes e fou r assumption s I a m guide d b y nothing excep t th e par ticular topic at hand. I try to be as open-minded a s possible, without (as some
wit once said ) letting my brain fal l out . I hope tha t th e virtue s of forthrigh t
intellectual exchang e wil l b e eviden t t o readers; though t thrive s bes t when
continually pu t t o th e challenge . Rationa l argument i s still on e o f th e mos t
powerful force s eve r t o grac e thi s littl e plane t o f ours . I t deserve s t o b e
encouraged an d celebrate d i n al l its forms. This book i s my tribute t o th e
powers o f huma n reason , a s well a s an acknowledgmen t of it s limitations.

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Wittgenstein: M y Wicked Heart
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
by Ra y Monk
Cape, 199 0
Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Student's Memoir
by Theodor e Redpat h
Duckworth, 199 0

Was Wittgenstein a spiritua l a s well as a philosophica l genius ? Ra y Monk' s

exceptionally fine and fa t biography put s us in a better position to answer this
question tha n w e have bee n hitherto .
Perhaps th e best place t o begin tryin g to understand Wittgenstein' s char acter i s wit h th e photograph s tha t exis t o f hi s face . H e himsel f advise d
friends t o pa y more attentio n t o people' s face s an d ofte n passe d remark s
about th e face s of others, sayin g (according to Theodore Redpath) o f Lock e
that h e had " a nice face," of Descartes tha t he had "th e fac e of a murderer,"
of T. S. Eliot that he ha d " a modern face " (meant disapprovingly) . I recom mend, in particular, a striking picture of Wittgenstein, reproduced in Monk's
book, whic h was taken i n Swanse a in 194 5 b y Ben Richards a youn g ma n
almost forty years Wittgenstein's junior, wit h whom he was then despairingl y
in love .
Even a t thi s distance o f time , an d i n two-dimensiona l monochrome, i t is
hard t o meet Wittgenstein' s gaze ful l o n for ver y long. Th e eye s engage you
immediately: the y ar e implorin g eyes , ye t wit h a n intens e rag e flarin g
just behin d th e iris , sendin g of f a n unnervin g blen d o f supplicatio n an d
admonitionyour ow n eye s reflexivel y reboun d fro m them . Framin g th e
scalding ice of these eye s are th e sharpl y scored facial lines of the orbit s an d
brow, which have the informal exactitude of the numbered paragraph s tha t
make u p hi s books. Th e exclamator y shoc k o f hai r bring s a n incongruou s

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Novembe r 22 , 1990).




boyishness into th e face . There is a scornful lift t o th e finely sculpted nose .

The mout h i s distancingly tight an d ye t minutely puckered , a s if sensually
restrained, bleakl y kissless. A slight tilt of the hea d warn s of a denunciator y
access in the offing . Th e loo k is simultaneously delicate and military , tender
and ferocious . If you stare hard at the face , it seems to shift aspec t from on e
of thes e pole s t o th e other , muc h a s his famous duck-rabbit drawing does :
from saintl y to demonic arid back again. You feel the excitement an d peri l of
an encounte r wit h th e man. He seem s both hars h an d gentle , on e o f thes e
traits replacin g th e othe r wit h n o change o f underlying form, as if an "ambiguous soul" informs the face. I t is a face that sends a spear o f doubt int o the
core o f your ow n integrity : yet it sternly repel s al l incursions fro m outside .
You might say that it is the fac e of an executionerthough an executioner o f
a ver y special kind.
The bar e fact s o f Wittgenstein' s life ar e b y no w fairl y wel l known : th e
difficulty ha s been t o discern in them a n intelligible human being . Born int o
a rich and richl y cultured Viennes e family in 1889 , a family of achievers and
suicides, h e too k u p th e stud y of engineering , whic h brought hi m t o Manchester t o do researc h o n kites . This led hi m t o mor e purel y mathematica l
interests, an d thenc e t o th e foundation s o f mathematics , when h e cam e
across Russell' s Principles of Mathematics. Philosophy surge d throug h hi m
and, at Frege's suggestion, he went to Cambridge t o study with Russell. With
phenomenal spee d h e impressed Russel l with his logical talents: indeed , h e
virtually destroyed Russell's own philosophical confidence. The spiritua l torment tha t marke d hi s life wa s already muc h i n evidence at this time, as was
his powe r ove r others .
Abruptly he decided t o go and liv e alone in Norway for two years so that
he coul d wor k o n logi c i n complet e isolation . Thi s pla n wa s thwarted b y
World War I, which saw Wittgenstein, first, behind th e lines and then, voluntarily, at the front. He was decorated fo r conspicuous bravery, having chosen
the mos t dangerous positio n availabl e to him, th e observatio n post ; an d h e
also worked fitfully on the Tractatus. He finished that searing book soon afte r
the war ended, but h e could not find a publisher; neithe r wa s it well understood b y Russel l an d Frege , hi s tw o grea t mentors . Eventually , however,
Russell's influenc e led t o it s publication i n Germa n an d English .
Wittgenstein the n becam e a n elementary schoolteache r i n rural Austria ,
living in extreme povert y and declining the help of his aristocratic family. H e
quit this job when his punitive disciplinary methods got him into trouble with
his pupils' parents, arid he eventually found his way back to Cambridge, afte r
spending a year designin g a house fo r hi s sister. The Tractatus was by now
celebrated b y th e logica l positivists , who contrive d t o ignor e it s mystical
thrust. Hi s own attitude toward th e book was one of growing retraction, an d
he began t o work out a new philosophy.
He next made effort s t o secure manual work in Russia but the authorities
there would only allow him t o teach philosophy , so he gav e up th e idea o f
emigration. He considered trainin g as a doctor instead , but carried on work-


ing ou t hi s new philosophica l ideas . I n 193 9 h e wa s elected G . E . Moore' s

successor i n Cambridge , whic h helpe d hi m avoi d Naz i persecution, bu t h e
found th e pos t stifling . H e wante d t o contribut e t o th e wa r effort , i n du e
course exchangin g hi s professorial dutie s for those of a dispensary porte r at
Guy's Hospital .
After th e war he reluctantly returned to Cambridge, wher e he worked on
the materia l that wa s to become Philosophical Investigations, dominatin g th e
philosophical scen e there. Hi s dissatisfaction with Cambridge, academi c life ,
and Englan d generall y ("th e disintegratin g an d putrefyin g English civilisa tion") culminate d i n hi s resignin g hi s chai r an d goin g t o liv e arid wor k i n
solitude in Ireland. The las t two years of his life he spent living as the guest of
various friends, having no income and n o home of his own. He die d i n 195 1
of cance r o f th e prostate , no t livin g to se e the publicatio n o f the wor k tha t
had occupie d th e secon d hal f o f hi s life.
What kind of character wa s it that carved out thi s exceptional life ? Three
episodes in it are particularl y telling. First, there are his acts of military valor
during World War I , which ar e easil y misconstrued . I t wa s not a matter of
patriotism o r comradel y solidarityi n fact , h e deteste d an d despise d
the othe r soldiers ; i t wa s rather a n exercis e i n self-purification , a proo f t o
himself that he could live in the right spirit. The war, he said, saved him fro m
suicide b y effecting a transformatio n o f hi s soul : it enabled hi m t o achieve
the stat e o f ethica l seriousnes s h e sought . I t wa s i n th e sam e spiri t tha t
he gave away his vast inherited wealt h to already ric h member s of his family.
This ha d nothin g t o d o wit h a sens e o f economi c injustic e or compassio n
for th e poor : it was purely a matter o f expelling fro m hi s life anythin g that
might compromis e th e integrit y of hi s spiritan ac t more o f pride tha n o f
The thir d notable incident is that of his brutal treatment of children at the
school in Otterthal an d the court case at which he lied about the extent of the
corporal punishmen t he administered ; and , year s later, the retur n ther e t o
apologize t o the childre n fo r thi s violence. It shoul d be note d her e tha t th e
hair pullin g an d ea r boxin g wer e mor e ofte n th e resul t o f Wilttgenstein's
impatience wit h som e o f hi s dimme r pupils ' slownes s to mak e progres s i n
algebra tha n the y were punishmen t fo r ordinar y ba d behavior . I n thi s episode we see overt violence centering on intellectual impatience, accompanie d
by dishonest y abou t thi s violence. This inciden t was , it appears , th e chie f
subject o f th e torture d confession s he late r mad e t o friendsagai n a s a
means t o self purgation.
Monk narrates thi s life with understanding, care, industry, and exemplar y
impartiality. H e ha s ha d ful l acces s t o th e materia l i n th e possessio n o f
Wittgenstein's literar y executors , hi s knowledg e o f th e philosophica l an d
cultural background i s deep and extensive, and he possesses exactly the right
combination o f censur e an d sympathy . After readin g hi s book I fel t tha t I
had finall y begu n t o gras p wha t kin d o f ma n Wittgenstei n was , as wel l a s
learning a good deal abou t th e relation betwee n his life and hi s work. I hope



the boo k i s widely read bot h insid e an d outsid e academi c philosophy , es pecially outside. I t i s a considerable achievement .
Russell wrote darkly of Wittgenstein: "He wa s a very singular man, and I
doubt whethe r hi s disciple s kne w wha t manne r o f a ma n h e was. " Those
disciples, by the way, who are said to mimic Wittgenstein's manner, might be
interested t o lear n fro m Redpat h tha t Wittgenstei n tol d hi m tha t h e ha d
picked up mannerisms of speech and gesture from Fregethe archenemy as
far a s some of these disciples are concerned. Ou t o f what ingredients was this
singular man composed ? Her e is a summary list: he was vain, self-absorbed,
emotionally solipsistic; he hate d th e artificialit y and pretentiousnes s o f university life, favorin g the compan y of "ordinary people" ; h e had a deep lov e
of music and rudel y rigorous standard s of musical quality; he relished hard boiled America n detective stories, as well as Hollywood Westerns and musi cals; his sense of humor coul d be surprisingly puerile, thoug h oddl y endear ing; he was passionate and demandin g i n personal relations ye t often capri ciously cold; he held (at least at one time) that Jews were incapable of genuine
originality, here following the weird theories of Otto Weininger; and h e had
a difficul t tim e dealin g wit h hi s sexuality . What ar e w e t o mak e o f thes e
disparate ingredients ? How do the y hang together ?
The ke y seems to lie in the pride fo r which he ceaselessly berated himself.
Everything in his life seeme d eithe r t o bolster thi s pride or t o consist in a n
effort t o dismantl e it . Philosophy , essentially a pridefu l subject , and s o a
potentially humiliating one, was a chief source o f the conceit he strov e constantly t o extirpate : henc e th e self-cancellin g metaphilosophy o f bot h th e
Tractatus an d th e Investigations. Th e ruthles s dominatio n o f others , s o
numbingly applied to young acolytes, sprang from his conviction of his intellectual and mora l superiority, and s o had to be accompanied b y declarations
of his own lac k of "decency." Even the difficult y h e ha d i n staying physically
close t o thos e h e love d show s his inabilit y to giv e himsel f u p t o another :
nothing must encroach o n the charmed regio n of his own spirit. Sex felt like
a fall from this exalted state, as if hi s own body were an affront to his pride of
soul. Hi s life wa s thus an insolubl e alternation betwee n self-celebration an d
self-condemnation. The corn y humor an d taste for popular culture function
like outposts of his psyche to which he could flee to escape his pride and th e
self-loathing i t inevitabl y produced. Thi s explain s th e sens e on e ha s tha t
these pocket s of his personality are curiously remote from th e center o f th e
man: the y ar e periphera l bolt-hole s fro m tha t molte n cor e o f fierc e self devotion. In this light it comes as no surprise thatThe found masturbating at
the sam e time exhilarating and distressing . The imag e o f him starchily and
painfully confessin g his transgressions, some major , some risibly minor, intentionally woundin g hi s prid e whil e simultaneousl y fueling it , perfectl y
sums him up. The ide a that humor migh t play a role in holding his pride in
check seem s not t o have been a possibility for him : to let jokey self-ridicule
into th e inne r templ e wa s more tha n hi s pride coul d taketo o muc h lik e
laughing i n church . Wher e woul d the nobilit y of self-abasemen t b e then ?


This lifelon g struggl e wit h hi s prid e too k a for m tha t ough t t o hav e
seemed t o hi m mor e doome d tha n i t did . Hi s metho d wa s that o f direc t
assault: fierce self-scrutiny, merciless self-condemnation, exposure t o experiences calculated to chasten and humiliate. He approached hi s own soul like a
kind o f mora l engineer : ther e wa s a faul t i n th e desig n an d i t ha d t o b e
dismantled, tinkered with , reconstructed, possibl y scrapped altogether . Gazing inward, poking around inside , was the way to rid the spiritual machine of
its imperfections. Such directness of approach t o a problem wa s quite alien to
his announced philosophica l method : fo r obliquenes s an d indirectio n wer e
to b e th e essenc e o f philosophica l advancement . Th e obviou s fla w i n thi s
approach t o himself was that it inevitably ran th e very risk it was supposed t o
eliminatethe narcissisti c absorption i n hi s ow n bein g tha t stoo d betwee n
himself an d th e outer world . Another methodi f metho d ther e must be
would b e to try turning a bored eye and ea r awa y from one' s own soul an d
toward th e live s an d feeling s o f others , hopin g tha t one' s ow n mora l im provement wil l occur whil e one is , as it were, otherwis e engaged .
One of the mos t shocking and revealing of Wittgenstein's remarks occur s
late in his life when he is reflecting on his love for Ben Richards, which struck
me a s the mos t outward-directed affectio n of his life. I n hi s late fiftie s now ,
he writes , as though th e though t wer e new to him : "I t i s the mar k of a true
love that one thinks of what the other suffers. Fo r he suffers too , is also a poor
devil." What alarms here is the very banality of the thought, an d indee d on e
looks in vai n for an y simila r sentiment i n hi s earlier romanti c attachments .
"Perhaps th e fl y ha d a t las t foun d it s way out o f th e fly-bottle, " Mon k re marks, trenchantl y an d rathe r tragically . Not tha t Wittgenstei n manage d
even i n thi s case to translat e hi s stron g feeling s into a n ordinar y romanti c
relationship with the young ma n i n question.
This bear s o n th e dispute d questio n o f Wittgenstein's alleged perio d o f
homosexual promiscuity, reported by William Bartley III. I n a finely judged
appendix Mon k addresses himsel f to Bartley's claim that Wittgenstein used
to avail himself o f th e sexual favors of "rough young men" i n a certain par k
in Vienna, casting considerable doubt o n the veracit y of this claim. As Monk
argues, Wittgenstein' s obvious discomfort with his sexual nature, hetero - o r
homosexual, make s th e ide a o f suc h freewheelin g promiscuit y seem quit e
incredible. It would, moreover, be extremely surprising if such activities ha d
been confine d to a single, short period o f his life, neve r to resurface. Often ,
in the course of reading about Wittgenstein's romantic involvements, I found
myself heartil y wishing the h e had been homosexuall y promiscuous.
That woul d certainly have eased th e lo t of th e unluck y Franci s Skinner ,
whose love for Wittgenstein clearly included a desire fo r sexua l contact that
Wittgenstein apparentl y did hi s best to avoidthough, happily , he wa s not
totally successful i n this. One suc h "lapse " is reported in Wittgenstein's notebooks, an d incidentall y shows Redpath t o b e wron g in hi s belief that ther e
was nothin g mor e "lurid " betwee n Skinne r an d Wittgenstei n tha t a clos e
male friendship . The tw o were vacationin g together i n Norwa y and Witt -



genstein report s himself as being "sensual , susceptible , indecent " with Skin ner: "La y with hi m tw o or thre e times. Alway s at first with the feelin g tha t
there was nothing wron g i n it, then with shame. Hav e als o been unjust , edgy
and insincer e toward s him , an d als o cruel. " Thes e ar e disturbin g word s i n
more ways than one. Were cruelty and lovelessness his only possible response
to actual huma n intimacy ? Did his need fo r th e affectio n o f anothe r alway s
have t o tur n int o a refusa l o r incapacit y t o la y his own hear t o n th e line ?
My impressio n i s that sexua l promiscuit y wa s about th e las t thin g Witt genstein coul d toleratean d also that ethically, it would hav e been a definite
step in the right direction . Unfortunately , h e didn't see it that way. A story is
told that a close friend o f his once said of him that "h e never ha d a good fuc k
in hi s life. " I canno t vouc h fo r th e trut h o f thi s stor y bu t i t seem s t o m e
infinitely mor e probable , an d infinitel y mor e woeful , than th e ide a tha t h e
once indulge d a taste for roug h trade. It marks a real lac k in his conceptio n
of th e spiritua l lif e o f a huma n being , a s well as being sa d i n itself .
This is of a piece wit h the stor y that i s told, amusin g i n its way, about th e
one femal e lov e o f hi s life , Marguerit e Respinger , who m h e a t on e tim e
wished to marry and , with a proposal in mind, invited on a holiday with him.
She turned u p i n remotes t Norwa y only t o fin d tha t he r suitor' s ide a o f a
prenuptial vacatio n wa s that the y shoul d se e very littl e o f eac h othe r an d
spend th e tw o weeks in prayer an d meditation , fo r whic h purpose Wittgen stein ha d lef t a marke d Bibl e i n th e roo m i n whic h sh e wa s t o stay . Sh e
decided, amazingly , that Ludwi g was not th e ma n fo r her . I n an y case, hi s
wish wa s for a childles s platoni c marriagethough , oddl y enough , h e en joyed kissin g her fo r hour s o n end .
And wha t o f th e philosophy ? Mon k handle s thi s expertly , seamlessl y
weaving it into the narrative, showin g the intimate relationship between th e
ethical concern s o f Wittgenstein's lif e an d hi s philosophica l ideas . There is
much interestin g scholarl y material abou t Wittgenstein' s readin g an d intel lectual influences , an d abou t th e compositio n o f hi s two major works . Per haps th e mos t strikin g item , from a biographica l poin t o f view , i s Wittgenstein's lat e remark : "Nearl y al l my writing s ar e privat e conversation s wit h
myself. Thing s tha t I sa y to mysel f tete-a-tete." Her e hi s personal solipsis m
finds it s natural counterpar t i n hi s philosophica l style : always a turnin g in ward, as if only his own thought s are ultimatel y worth heeding . An d this , of
course, is part of the strengt h an d char m of his philosophical writing, and o f
him a s a personality: an enclose d worl d o f numbered paragraphs , bot h po etic an d mathematical , where n o alie n voic e intrudes . Ther e i s beauty bu t
also desolatio n i n thi s ideal.
I began b y asking whether Wittgenstei n was a spiritual genius . That question reall y ha s tw o parts : wa s h e th e spirituall y sublim e individualth e
"saint"people ofte n sai d h e was ? An d di d h e kno w how to b e suc h a n
individual, whether or not he was one himself? I think the answer must be no
to both questions . His vanity, emotional solipsism, and coldnes s put hi m well
outside th e category o f the saint; and hi s engineering (o r surgical) approach


to hi s spiritua l conditio n seem s t o m e wrongl y conceived, embodyin g a s it

does a deep mistake of ethical attention. Bu t a better questio n migh t be this:
given hi s nature , di d h e liv e a nobl e an d ethicall y distinguished life ? (H e
clearly lived an impressiv e and remarkabl e one. ) Her e I thin k w e must d o
him th e courtesy of taking him a t his word an d no t allo w our natura l senti mentality about great men t o get in the wa y of hearing wha t he actually says
about himself . Of Moore' s reputatio n fo r saintl y childlike innocence, Witt genstein remarked: " I can't understand that , unless it's also to a child's credit.
For yo u aren' t talkin g o f th e innocenc e a ma n ha s fough t for , bu t o f a n
innocence whic h comes fro m a natura l absenc e o f temptation. " I f w e take
seriously Wittgenstein's own repeated assessment of himself as "rotten" an d
"indecent," as having a "wicked heart"in whatever way these epithets were
meantthen i t becomes clear wh y he regarde d hi s life a s a mighty struggl e
with himself, and what he had t o overcome t o achieve the moral standin g he
did. Hi s peculia r greatnes s come s fro m tha t agonizin g battl e betwee n hi s
natural hubris and th e humility he craved, between hi s compulsive devotion
to himself an d hi s willed concern for others. The singularit y of his spiritual
achievement consist s i n thi s straine d amalgamatio n o f aggressiv e mega lomania an d abjec t self-mortification . Somehow thi s battl e brough t some thing spiritually valuable into the worl d that had no t been ther e before: a n
ability, w e migh t say , t o atten d religiousl y to th e fac e o f anothe r huma n
beingbut to do so as if this were the stranges t and mos t impossible thing in
the worl d t o achieve.

Wittgenstein: Sou l on Fir e

Philosophical Occasions, 19121951
by Ludwi g Wittgenstei n
edited b y James Klagg e an d
Alfred Nordman n
Hackett, 199 3
Wittgenstein: The Terry Eagleton Script,
The Derek Jarman Film
by Terr y Eagleto n an d Dere k Jarman
Indiana Universit y Press , 199 3

Ludwig Wittgenstein di d mos t of his publishing afte r hi s death, leaving tha t

sordid busines s t o his literary executors . Th e modes t curriculu m vita e tha t
accumulated durin g hi s lifetimeon e shor t book , whic h wa s hi s doctora l
dissertation, on e article, one book reviewha s now expanded to fifteen substantial volumes . An d ther e i s mor e wher e tha t cam e from . Wittgenstei n
would hardly have flourished in today's academic environment. Th e greates t
philosopher o f the century would have had to fight hard for tenure. Hi s kind
of perfectionis m i s no longe r tolerated .
Not that Wittgenstei n woul d himself have cared, give n hi s propensity fo r
leaving th e professio n o f hi s ow n fre e will . It i s only th e worl d tha t woul d
have suffered. There is a characteristic poignancy, in any case, in the fac t tha t
his grea t matur e work , Philosophical Investigations, shoul d hav e bee n pub lished tw o years afte r h e die d i n 1951 , thu s sparin g hi m th e anguis h o f its
instant an d prolonge d celebrity . So canonical i s that work , indeed, that it is
hard t o believe tha t i t was written b y anyone. I t stand s ther e lik e a natura l
monument, th e resul t o f superlunar y dictation .
Wittgenstein's philosophica l legac y consist s principally o f th e binar y sta r
formed b y the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, whic h appeared i n 1922 , an d
the Philosophical Investigations, high-densit y object s givin g of f complimen tary glows . The view s expressed i n these tw o works ar e sharpl y oppose d i n
Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e New Republic (Jun e 20 , 1994) .



content and in outlook, but there persists a single underlying preoccupation ,

and ther e ar e commo n threads . Mor e tha n an y philosophe r befor e him ,
Wittgenstein was concerned wit h the lin k between language an d reality . H e
wanted to understand how , by emitting sounds, we manage to say something
about th e worl d beyon d language . B y what mechanism o r mean s doe s lan guage, and henc e thought , com e to be meaningful? And wha t are the limits
of meaning?
Wittgenstein's contribution, pu t i n the broadest terms , i s that h e saw how
difficult thi s simpl e questio n is . Talking abou t thing s i s a deepl y puzzlin g
phenomenon, no t th e transparen t ac t of mind-worl d engagemen t tha t w e
tend t o assume. How must the world be, and ho w must language be, for it to
be possibl e tha t th e tw o should joi n i n occasion s of meaning ? What constitutes thi s unlikel y nexus?
In th e Tractatus the answe r wa s a highl y abstrac t metaphysica l syste m
buttressed by formal logic, in which the structure o f reality and th e structur e
of though t wer e deduce d fro m th e requirement s fo r an y possibl e kin d o f
semantic representation . This became know n as the picture theory of mean ing. "What any picture, of whatever form, must have in common wit h reality,
in order to be able to depict itcorrectly or incorrectlyin any way at all, is
logical form , i.e. , th e for m o f reality. " That is , for languag e t o depic t th e
world, it is necessary for these two poles to share an inner logical structure, so
that fact s an d proposition s partak e o f the sam e transcenden t logica l order .
Language an d th e worl d ar e one , i n thei r dee p metaphysical essence. Thi s
ultimate monism may not be apparent o n the surface of language, but it must
be so beneath th e surface ; and ther e must exist an idea l language i n which
the necessar y samenes s o f for m wit h reality is made full y transparent . T o
construct suc h a language would be to devise a symbolic system in which th e
structure of the world would reach righ t throug h ou r mode s o f representa tion: a flawless metaphysical mirror, as it were. The puzzle s produced b y our
imperfect ordinar y languag e woul d b e finall y lai d t o res t onc e th e idea l
language wa s available.
And ye t Wittgenstein di d thin k that ther e is a residue o f significance not
covered b y such an account of meaning. For there ar e thing s that canno t be
said, bu t onl y shown . "Ther e are , indeed , thing s tha t canno t b e pu t int o
words. They make themselves manifest. The y ar e wha t is mystical." This realm
includes ethics, aesthetics, philosophy itself. Strictl y speaking, utterance s o f
those kind s are litera l nonsense , sinc e the y canno t b e brough t unde r th e
picture theory of meaning, but Wittgenstein has no doubt about their impor tance and thei r legitimacy. The famou s last sentence o f th e Tractatus, "What
we canno t spea k abou t w e mus t pas s ove r i n silence, " i s no t intende d t o
suggest a dismissive attitude toward the unsayable. It recommends, instead , a
reverential, attentiv e speechlessnes s i n th e fac e o f th e transcendent . Wha t
cannot b e put int o language ca n stil l be apprehended, in quiet obliqueness .
The for m of the mystical, unlike the form of reality, is not any kind of logical
form. I t lie s outside th e spac e o f possibl e fact .

20 P H I L O S O P H I C A


None o f thi s survive s in Wittgenstein' s later work . I n plac e o f abstrac t

deductions abou t th e essentia l nature o f languag e an d th e world , w e have
meticulous observation s of wha t actually occurs i n th e us e o f language ; a n
intense distrust of generality; an insistence on the irreducibl e multiplicity of
our "language games" ; and the introduction of the living human being at the
root of what makes language work. There is no longer an y such thing as "the
general form of a proposition," an y more than ther e i s a general essence fo r
what we call a game; an d n o longer i s it the functio n of all words to denote a
constituent of reality. The whol e notion o f an ideal language i s riddled with
error and confusion. No picture, however arcane or mental or logical, could
ever confe r a meaning . Rule s o f language , eve n fo r mathematica l terms ,
cannot tak e a grip on our though t an d conduc t independentl y o f our bein g
naturally prone t o make particular choices. Our justifications always run out,
and w e must act without appeal t o foundations .
What i s basic, in th e late r philosophy , ar e th e languag e game s tha t w e
actually play , and th e "form s o f life " into whic h they ar e woven . Meaning
must b e sought i n thos e activities , no t i n a hidden mechanis m or a sublime
structure. Wher e onc e meanin g seeme d crystalline , unitary , an d remote ,
now i t i s humdrum, multifarious , and humanl y mediated. It s stud y i s no t
part of formal logic or metaphysics , but of human "natura l history. " This is
the force of Wittgenstein's celebrated dictu m that the meaning of an expres sion is revealed i n its use: there ar e n o preexistent meaning s onto which ou r
minds magically latch. Rather, ou r way s of behaving with words are the sol e
repository o f semantic significance. Wittgenstei n was fond o f quoting a line
from Goethe : "I n th e beginning wa s the deed. "
What link s Wittgenstein's philosophies i s a deep ambivalenc e about language. I n the earlier wor k language is credited with a marvelous inner logic;
yet i t i s also hel d t o b e inadequat e t o th e expressio n o f som e o f ou r mos t
profound concerns . I t i s like a perfectl y engineered precisio n too l tha t ca n
work only within severe limits. Even the ideal language of Wittgenstein's first
philosophy cannot sa y what can only be shown. And i n the later work we are
told tha t "philosoph y i s a battle against the bewitchmen t o f our intelligenc e
by mean s o f language, " thoug h elsewher e w e are assure d tha t "philosoph y
may in no way interfere wit h the actual use of language; i t can in the end only
describe it." On th e on e hand , ordinar y languag e i s held t o be perfectl y in
order as it is, not needing reform or censure on philosophical ground s alone .
On th e othe r hand , it is supposed t o giv e rise t o intractabl e confusion , because of the misleading analogies it suggests, and because its grammar fail s to
reflect the actual use of words. Language encourage s u s to talk nonsense, bu t
it is not les s than idea l becaus e o f it . It i s like a perfectly adapte d organis m
that ha s a regrettable tendenc y t o turn o n it s owner .
Moreover, language has its limits, in the early Wittgenstein and the late, as
a foundatio n fo r though t an d action , sinc e i t rest s upo n somethin g nonlinguistic in nature. Th e learne r o f language need s more than verba l explanation if he is to latch onto wha t is meant, since no word i s self-interpreting ;


the teacher mus t rely on the learner's taking his instructions i n a certain way
and actin g appropriately . Fo r the sam e reason , th e analysi s of one sentenc e
by means o f another sentence canno t escap e the circle of signs, and th e slack
must be taken u p b y modes o f natural respons e tha t resis t codification. Language i s possible onl y because i t is not self-reliant , because i t is parasitic on a
foundation o f nonlinguistic abilities and dispositions . I n thi s sensehere we
see the ghos t o f th e Tractatuslanguage canno t communicat e it s own pre suppositions.
This ambivalence abou t th e power s o f language reveal s itself in Wittgenstein's pros e style . There i s great confidenc e i n th e expressiv e capacitie s of
language, even th e pared-down, monosyllabi c vernacular tha t he preferred ;
but hi s style is also halting and allusive , discontinuous and metaphorical . H e
writes as if he i s determined not t o ask more of language tha n i t can deliver ,
not to give the reader the illusion that things ar e clearer an d straighte r tha n
they really are. Certainl y his prose require s the utmost scrutiny, as well as an
ability t o engag e creativel y wit h wha t i s bein g said . An d i t strive s fo r a n
intellectual effec t that goes beyond discursive formulatio n t o alter one's "way
of seeing." "Say what you choose," he says at one point, "so long as it does not
prevent you from seein g the facts." This can sound odd , comin g from some one who ceaselessly reminds philosopher s o f their perilou s tendenc y to misuse language; bu t it fits the deeper aim of curing distortions o f vision caused
by languag e itself . For al l his obsessio n wit h language, Wittgenstein' s hear t
was not exactly there. He was as much concerned wit h what language canno t
do a s with what i t can .
In Philosophical Occasions, Jame s Klagg e an d Alfre d Nordman n hav e
usefully an d skillfull y assemble d variou s writings by Wittgenstein tha t hav e
been scattere d an d har d t o obtain. Th e variet y is such as to permit a synoptic
view of his several concernsfrom comment s on Frazer' s The Golden Rough,
to piece s o n ethics , sense-data , caus e an d effect , fre e will , th e natur e o f
philosophy. Ther e are als o some revealin g letter s an d a n informativ e essay
by Henri k vo n Wrigh t o n th e writing s that Wittgenstei n lef t behind . Th e
book i s an excellen t source , an d i t provides a nourishing supplemen t t o th e
Particularly interestin g ar e th e remark s o n th e natur e o f philosophy ,
which expand illuminatingly on theme s pursue d i n the Investigations. Philosophy, fo r Wittgenstein , is not t o b e conceive d i n th e traditiona l wa y as a
maximally general science , so that the task of the philosopher i s to develop a n
entirely universa l theory o f reality . Instead , philosophica l wor k consist s in
dismantling confusions and mythologie s by paying careful attentio n t o ou r
ordinary concepts , resistin g th e fals e analogie s suggeste d b y ou r form s o f
expression. Th e problem s ar e difficult , no t becaus e the y concern especiall y
deep features o f reality, but rathe r because it is hard fo r u s to obtain a clear
view o f wha t w e already kno w ver y well . Philosophy, o r th e searc h fo r th e
ultimate theory , i s over, bu t philosophizin g mus t go on .
"Philosophical problem s ca n be compared t o locks on safes , which can b e



opened b y dialing a certain wor d o r number , s o that n o force can open th e

door until just this word has been hi t upon, and once it is hit upon an y chil d
can open it. " There is nothing intrinsicall y profound abou t th e right combi nation, nor abou t the result it secures; the difficult y lie s purely in the troubl e
we have in hitting upon th e answer , in seeing wha t is before ou r eyes . This
has the consequence that the workings of our language are as opaque t o us as
a secre t code , eve n a s ther e i s nothin g hidde n o r recondit e abou t thes e
workings. We fail to grasp the truth about our language precisely because it is
so familiar t o us. Th e philosophe r mus t approach hi s own master y of lan guage lik e an anthropologist , strivin g to se e i t afresh . Alienatio n i s soun d
Wittgenstein's influence, for goo d or ill, has been continuou s and unpar alleled. Something of his own estimate of the natur e o f this influence can be
gleaned fro m the lapidary preface t o the Investigations, where he says of th e
"remarks" tha t compos e tha t "album" : " I mak e the m publi c wit h doubtfu l
feelings. I t i s not impossibl e that i t should fal l t o th e lo t of thi s work, in its
poverty an d i n th e darknes s o f thi s time , t o brin g ligh t int o on e brai n o r
anotherbut, of course, it is not likely." The pessimis m here is not the resul t
of feelin g that h e wil l be ignored o r underappreciated , sinc e he goe s o n t o
admit tha t fea r o f plagiaris m wa s a majo r stimulu s to publication : " I wa s
obliged t o lear n tha t m y result s (whic h I ha d communicate d i n lectures ,
typescripts and discussions) , variously misunderstood, mor e or less mangled
or watered-down , were in circulation. This stung m y vanity and I had diffi culty i n quietin g it. " I t i s worth askin g whether thes e presentiment s appl y
also to his posthumous reverberations. Ho w much mangling and diluting has
there been ? Mor e t o th e point , ho w much projectio n an d assimilatio n ha s
there been ? For it takes two to influence; and i n the case of Wittgenstein th e
influence tends to be more of a mixing than a pouring. Cloudiness is apt to be
the upshot .
From th e momen t h e stepped int o philosophy, from th e not-so-adjacen t
field of engineering , Wittgenstein ha d a n impac t of extraordinar y propor tions. From th e first he thrilled Bertrand Russell, no lagger in the head area ,
with his intensity and hi s brilliance, leading Russel l to proclaim him the nex t
great hope in philosophy. Later Wittgenstein's criticisms so withered Russell
intellectually that he more or less gave up the kind of philosophy of which he
was a mai n architect , turnin g instea d t o les s theoretica l matters . (Russel l
eventually turned agains t Wittgenstein's mature styl e of philosophy , declaring hi m t o hav e give n u p seriou s thinking. ) I n Vienn a i n th e 1930s , th e
logical positivist s foun d th e rational e fo r thei r ow n scientisti c ideology i n
Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and their teachings went on to dominate philosophy
for a lamentably extended periodthoug h they grotesquely misrepresented
the conten t of that work, notably in respect to its professed mysticism . This
aspect o f th e Tractatus was totally antithetical to thei r ow n outlook.
Installed at Cambridge i n the thirties, Wittgenstein dominated th e scene ,
founding a new style of philosophy and combining torment an d insoucianc e


a wa y that wa s to becom e d e rigueu r i n certai n quarters . Ther e wer e n o

genuine philosophica l problem s t o fre t over , bu t i t wa s agony t o philoso phize al l the same . ("Th e rea l discover y i s the on e tha t make s m e capabl e
of stopping doin g philosoph y when I want to. The on e that give s philosoph y
peace, s o that i t is no longe r tormente d b y questions whic h brin g itself into
question.") "Wittgensteinians " everywher e mimicke d th e master' s man nerisims, declinin g t o theorize , airil y dismissin g th e exertion s o f earlie r
thinkers. Whethe r o r no t yo u understoo d him , Wittgenstei n had t o b e
Then, in the sixtie s and seventies , came th e backlash. Systemati c philoso phy reasserted itself , and Wittgenstei n was eclipsed b y Frege, Quine , forma l
semantics, cognitiv e science . H e wa s too low-tech , to o reactionary , to o de pessing. There was a new thirst fo r theory. Durin g th e las t decade partisan ship has tended to give way to scholarly exegesis, to learned detachment : th e
arch antiprofessiona l ha s becom e professionalized . Wittgenstei n i s no w
beaten dow n by footnotes. Much of this has been fruitful , enablin g us to gain
a clearer idea of what he really means, though the boldness of his thinking is
apt t o be obscured b y the sobriet y o f the commentary . Wha t still remains t o
be done, however , is to identify what is good an d ba d i n the man' s work . He
was neithe r a philosophica l go d no r a philosophica l curio . H e shoul d b e
engaged mor e tha n exhibited . Let' s argu e wit h him.
But the fascination with Wittgenstein is not owed onl y to his philosophical
work. Hi s lif e als o ha s a transfixin g effect. Fo r professor s especially , Wittgenstein represent s a n idea l o f intellectual purit y an d worldl y indifference
that answer s t o a n impuls e tha t stil l throbs , howeve r faintly , withi n thei r
conventional breasts: no home, n o money (he gave his fortune away) , no tie.
He is the rootless poeti c geniu s they might hav e been in another life. But th e
interest ha s spread beyond th e borders of the academy in recent years , even
to thos e no t contaminate d b y th e philosophica l disease . Ther e hav e bee n
Wittgenstein novels , Wittgenstein memoirs , Wittgenstei n biographies . Yo u
hear hi s name o n television.
Some of this interest stems, no doubt, fro m prurien t interes t in his homosexual behavior, which was actually much less extensive than one might wish.
Far fro m indulgin g i n vigorous promiscuity with legions o f unschooled lad s
(as some hav e alleged), Wittgenstein seems to have had troubl e engagin g i n
any kind of sexual relationship with the objects of his affection. But I suspect
that th e current obsession with the difficul t an d auster e Viennese-Oxbridg e
philosopher ha s a grander reason . I t is that Wittgenstein exemplifie s an ide a
of heroism .
Of flawed heroism, t o be sure; but stil l he stands fo r somethin g fo r which
people yearn , eve n i f they would ru n a mile if it tapped the m o n th e shoulder. Wittgenstei n seems like a ma n wh o twang s to hi s own extrem e ideals ,
who is racked b y his own integrity. Hi s life is made u p o f a series o f dramatic
gestures in placation of a god of flint and fire. He has a clear center bu t not a
still one , no t on e a t peac e wit h itself . Th e cor e rage s wit h molte n purity ,



scorching the human surround . Yo u can see this white-hot demon patrollin g
behind his eyes, unsleeping and merciless, missing nothing. I t bears down on
the man, the mere man, refusing to cut him the slightest moral slack . People
are stirred b y this vision, but als o frightened b y it. They see what it might d o
to the usua l moral mush .
Much was required o f Wittgenstein by his steely god. First he must escap e
the comfortable embrac e of his rich and cultured Viennes e family an d g o to
Manchester, wher e he studie s engineering. The n he i s called upon to abandon tha t caree r fo r the philosoph y of mathematics, though profoundl y un certain o f hi s capacities i n thi s area. Havin g mad e a resounding succes s of
this new vocation, he i s obliged t o remove himsel f fro m hi s friends an d hi s
supporters in Cambridge t o live alone in a self-made hut i n deepest Norway.
During Worl d Wa r I , naturally , he ha s no alternitiv e but t o enlist i n active
service, t o pu t hi s lif e a t seriou s peri l wit h a vie w t o self-purification . (He
reads Tolstoy an d Augustine at the front.) Only this proximity to death put s
thoughts o f suicide out o f his mind.
When he completes the Tractatus, he feels the need to abandon altogethe r
the fiel d i n whic h he ha s excelled, giv e away all his money, and becom e a n
elementary schoo l teacher, which he quickl y come s t o hate. H e flees again,
and reluctantl y returns, afte r a perio d a s a monaster y gardener , t o Cam bridge, where he develops a new philosophy, repudiating th e work for which
he ha s become famous . Then h e decide s tha t a job a s a manual labore r i n
Communist Russia is what his soul craves. Sadly, they will employ him only as
a professor, unskille d labor no t bein g a scarce commodity, so he declines to
go, glumly resuming his Cambridge professorship , which he describe s as "a
living death." A spell doing menia l work as a hospital porter during Worl d
War I I i s the n indicated , followe d by mor e solitar y hut-livin g in Ireland .
Finally, he spends his last days, penniless, in the house of his doctor, working
on th e subjec t of certainty , dying of prostat e cancer .
All this is interspersed wit h spasms of self-loathing, force d confession s of
his supposed sin s to friends and tireless perfectionism about hi s work and his
moral state . Spiritua l struggl e i s the unrelentin g theme : struggl e wit h th e
philosophical incubus , with his ow n pride , wit h a soile d an d compromise d
world. N o wonde r h e describe d himsel f as like a ma n glimpse d throug h a
window i n a n unsee n storm , appearin g t o wal k quit e normally , but i n fac t
keeping his balance only with the greatest exertion. This is heroism of a sort,
despite the invisibility of the opposing forces. I t carries the idea that decency
(a favorit e word o f Wittgenstein's ) is something tha t come s a s a hard-won
achievement, an d tha t it must fight a constant battle with the corruptio n o f
the soul . Purity costs. I t hurts . I t ca n mak e you d o peculia r things.
The dram a o f Wittgenstein' s life an d personalit y make s hi m a uniquely
suitable subjec t for a philosophical film. I once discusse d th e ide a o f suc h a
film with Jonathan Miller , bu t w e decide d i t woul d b e to o difficul t t o ge t
right. Recentl y the projec t ha s been execute d b y the literar y theoris t Terr y
Eagleton an d Dere k Jarman , wh o die d thi s year. The y hav e attempte d t o


convey Wittgenstein's life and though t in visual form. The film consists of an
album o f cinemati c paragraphsvisua l remarks , a s i t werean d i t i s a n
imaginative an d seriou s attemp t t o rende r it s subject's life i n for m an d i n
color. Especiall y in color : Jarman render s th e auster e philosophe r o f lan guage fro m a painterl y standpoint . I t i s not a pris m o f Wittgenstein' s own
devising; he wa s interested i n color fo r it s logical grammar, no t it s aesthetic
or expressiv e possibilities.
Spatially, the film is confined and claustrophobic, shot against a uniformly
black background. Optical interest is supplied by the vivid hues of the clothes
worn by everyone except th e protagonist , wh o remains steadfastly gray and
dowdy. H e wil l no t brighte n up . (Kar l Johnson's portraya l o f Wittgenstein
accumulates t o an eeri e reincarnation o f the original . Johnson present s an
uncanny physical resemblance to Wittgenstein, in both face and physique ; he
has Wittgenstein's eyes and mout h exactl y right, th e fragil e ferocit y of th e
gaze, th e sensua l rejection o f th e thin , inturne d lips . An d th e voic e i s th e
perfect blend of the military, the preacherly, and th e childlike.) Russell wafts
about in bright red, Ottoline Morrell traverses most of the spectrum, Keynes
mixes an d matche s lik e a chromati c polymath . There i s even a loquacious
Martian sporting the reptilian green that is standard in that community. This
method of representation i s quite successful, an d i t aptly projects an impres sion of floating abstractness on the characters, condensing them into conceptual beacons , animated categories . That i s probably how Wittgenstein himself tende d t o see people, despit e hi s advice that on e shoul d stud y people's
faces with the utmos t care. It is a mark of his personal solipsism , as well as his
extreme sensitivity to the presenc e o f others. (H e always chose to live alone.)
Yet he himself stands in no need of chromatic heightening, having a natural,
if somewha t glacial, internal iridescence.
There is a fai r amoun t o f philosophical tal k interpolated int o the narra tive. My unease peaked at these points. It is not that what is said is inaccurate,
but i t give s th e impressio n tha t philosophica l discussio n i s just a clas h o f
portentous profundities , a duel o f gnomi c pronouncements; an d th e mor dant tone of the film encourages this impression. But philosophical discourse
is nothing like that: it consists of argument , counterargument, clarification,
detail, restatement, recantation. Philosophy is not intrinsically incomprehensible o r faintl y silly . I not e tha t n o philosophe r appear s t o hav e been con sulted i n the makin g of the film, which is really quite amazing. Did anybody
involved in making the film actually study Wittgenstein's works, or the commentaries on them ? I fear tha t the y took the vie w that Wittgenstei n is what
you make of him. If so, they were wrong: his philosophy does not consist of a
series of "inspire d suggestions, " fro m whic h the reade r i s invited t o deriv e
his own lessons, or t o indulge his own fancy. I t i s a tightly constructed bod y
of doctrine .
Eagleton's origina l scrip t wa s substantially altered b y Jarman , no doub t
because o f it s dramati c inertia : i t i s al l spoutin g heads . Apar t fro m th e
amateurish wa y in whic h th e philosoph y i s presented , th e centra l fla w i n

26 P H I L O S O P H I C A


Eagleton's script is its inaccurate and stereotypica l depiction o f Russell, who

appears a s a shallo w libertine muc h give n t o th e hackneye d phras e ("Oh
come on, old bean, don't be so ornery"). I suppose that, aside from not doin g
his homewor k properly , Eagleto n find s i t politicall y unacceptable tha t a n
English aristocra t coul d hav e bee n a s intense an d a s passionate a s any ex otically accented European .
In his introduction to the script, Eagleton asserts that the Tractatus i s "the
first great wor k of philosophical modernism," and tha t "it s true coordinate s
are no t Freg e an d Russel l or logica l positivis m but Joyce , Schoenberg , Pi casso." This is bizarre, and i t is sufficiently refute d b y the pedestrian fac t tha t
Wittgenstein expresse s hi s debt t o Freg e an d Russel l in the prefac e to that
abstract an d technica l wor k (n o mentio n o f thos e othe r guys) . This i s a
particularly braze n attemp t b y Eagleto n t o wrenc h Wittgenstei n fro m hi s
natural context and pu t hi m in the service of Eagleton's own purpose, which
is the interpretation o f the humanistic disciplines according t o social theory.
It is not remotely correct to say, as Eagleton does, that "before contempo rary cultura l theory , Wittgenstei n wa s teaching u s tha t th e sel f i s a socia l
construct," whatever that means. Wittgenstein was not concerne d wit h such
issues. The socia l intrudes on his thinking only as the requirement tha t rule s
of language should b e open t o public correction, tha t they not be "private. "
This has nothin g t o do with whether one' s personalit y is a product o f social
determinants. I t i s a risibl e distortion t o rea d Wittgenstein' s late r wor k as
some kin d o f anticipatio n o f Foucaul t an d company . Wittgenstei n neve r
abandoned th e traditional problems: knowledge, meaning, mind, mathematics, logic, explanation, analysis . He was not a literary or political theorist. H e
was a pure philosopher .
Understanding Wittgenstein on hi s own terms, however , is often th e last
thing that the fascinate d want. They have their ow n needs, thei r ow n uses,
for him . They see k confirmatio n o f thei r ow n view s an d value s by a n ac knowledged genius . But wha t really makes Wittgenstein so interesting, as a
thinker an d a man, is the distanc e that separate s him fro m familia r ways of
thinking and being . To ge t the mos t ou t o f him , you have t o se e that h e is
nothing lik e yourself.

Wittgenstein: Seethin g
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Cambridge Letters
edited b y Brian McGuinnes s an d
Georg Henri k vo n Wright
Blackwell, 199 5

Wittgenstein t o John Maynar d Keynes :

When I sa w you last I wa s confirmed i n a view which had arise n i n m e las t
term already : yo u the n mad e i t very clear t o m e tha t yo u wer e tire d o f m y
conversation etc . Now please don't think that I mind that! Wh y shouldn' t yo u
be tire d o f me , I don' t believ e for a momen t tha t I ca n b e entertainin g o r
interesting t o you. What I did mind wa s to hear throug h you r word s a n un dertone o f grudge o r annoyance . Perhap s these ar e no t exactl y the righ t
words bu t i t was that sor t o f thing . I couldn' t mak e out fo r som e tim e what
could b e th e caus e o f i t all, until a though t cam e int o m y head whic h was by
an acciden t proved t o b e correct. I t wa s this: I though t probabl y yo u think
that I cultivat e your friendshi p amongs t othe r reason s t o be abl e t o ge t som e
financial assistance fro m yo u if I shoul d b e i n nee d (a s you imagine d I migh t
be som e day) . This though t wa s very disagreeabl e t o me .
Wittgenstein t o Fran k Ramsey :
A thin g whic h is of muc h greate r importanc e t o m e & was so on Saturda y
evening, is , that I stil l can' t understan d how , being m y supervisor even
as I thoughtt o som e exten t m y friend, havin g been ver y good t o m e you
couldn't car e tw o pins whethe r I go t m y degree or not . S o much so , that you
didn't eve n thin k of tellin g Braithwait e tha t yo u ha d tol d m e m y book woul d
count a s a dissertation. ( I afterwards remembered on e da y talkin g to you
about i t in hal l & and yo u sayin g 'it woul d b e absur d t o writ e anothe r thesi s

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Marc h 21 , 1996).




now straightaway,')No w you'l l wan t t o kno w wh y I writ e yo u al l this. I t i s

not t o reproach yo u no r t o mak e fus s abou t nothin g but t o explai n wh y I
was upset o n Saturda y & couldn't hav e supper wit h you. I t i s always very
hard fo r a fellow in m y situatio n t o se e that h e can' t rel y o n th e peopl e h e
would lik e to rel y on .

Wittgenstein t o G . E. Moore :
Your lette r annoye d me . When I wrote Logik I didn't consult the regulations,
and therefor e I thin k i t would onl y be fai r i f you gav e m e m y degree without consultin g the m s o much either ! As to a Preface an d Notes ; I thin k my
examiners wil l easil y see how muc h I hav e cribbe d fro m Bosanquet.I f I' m
not wort h you r makin g a n exceptio n fo r m e even in some STUPID details
then I ma y as well g o t o Hel l directly , and i f I am worth i t an d yo u don' t d o
it then you migh t g o there .
The whol e busines s i s too stupi d an d to o beastl y t o g o o n writin g abou t i t
soL. W .

Wittgenstein to Bertrand Russell:

During th e las t week I hav e though t a lot about ou r relationshi p an d I hav e
come t o th e conclusio n tha t w e really don't sui t one another . THIS I S NO T
MEANT A S A REPROACH! eithe r fo r yo u o r fo r me . Bu t i t i s a fact . We'v e
often ha d uncomfortabl e conversation s wit h one anothe r whe n certai n sub jects cam e up . An d th e uncomfortablenes s wa s not a consequence o f il l hu mour o n on e sid e o r th e othe r bu t o f enormou s difference s i n our natures . I
beg yo u mos t earnestl y no t t o thin k I wan t t o reproac h yo u i n anywa y or t o
preach yo u a sermon. I onl y wan t t o pu t ou r relationshi p i n clea r term s in
order to draw a conclusion. . . . Now , as I'm writin g this i n complet e calm , I
can se e perfectly wel l tha t you r value-judgment s ar e just a s good an d just as
deep-seated i n you a s mine i n me , an d tha t I hav e n o righ t t o catechise you .
But I se e equally clearly, now, that fo r tha t ver y reason ther e canno t b e an y
real relatio n o f friendshi p betwee n us . / shall be grateful to you and devoted to
you WITH ALL MY HEART for the whole of my life, but I shall not write to you
again and you will not see me again either. Now tha t I a m onc e agai n recon ciled wit h you I wan t t o par t fro m yo u in peace s o that w e shan't sometime s
get annoye d wit h one anothe r agai n an d the n perhap s part a s enemies .

And thes e were hi s best friends .

In none of these cases did a permanent rift open up between Wittgenstein
and hi s correspondent. He relente d in th e cas e o f Russell , suggestin g that
they limit their relationship to areas in which their constitutional difference s
would no t show up; an d th e other three cases were based on misapprehensions tha t wer e cleare d up b y th e objec t o f Wittgenstein' s wrath . Wha t i s
remarkable, indeed, is the great fondness that Wittgenstein elsewhere shows
for thes e men ; a fondness clearl y accompanie d b y a dread o f betraya l an d
emotional compromise. It must have been at least as painful fo r hi m to write
these letters as it was for their recipients to read them. They are lov e letters
of a sorttormented, distrustful , angry , pleading, prideful. An d the y obvi -


ously represen t a standar d o f purit y i n persona l relation s tha t fe w peopl e

would b e willin g to liv e by.
The lov e between Wittgenstein and Russel l is the most evident, and touch ing, especiall y in the earlier day s of their friendship , when Wittgenstein was
engaged o n th e logica l work t o whic h Russel l had devote d s o much o f hi s
early life. Their postwar meeting at The Hague , i n order to discuss logic, set
up after much effort and anguish, and followin g many years of separation, is
like nothing s o much as a romantic tryst. Russell breathlessly writes: "I hav e
got here without misadventure and I hope you will. Com e on her e straigh t
the moment you arrive. It will be a joy to see you again." After the weeklong
meeting Wittgenstei n writes: "I enjoye d our tim e together very muc h an d I
have th e feelin g (haven' t you, too? ) tha t w e did a grea t dea l o f rea l wor k
together durin g tha t week."
I don' t mea n t o sugges t that thi s wa s a homosexua l relationshi p i n an y
straightforward sense , bu t i t wa s certainl y romanticall y tinge d (i f no t
drenched). Their shared infatuatio n with logic, so evident in these letters, is
refracted throug h th e medium of fraternal collaboration and mutual depen dence. There is a strong sense that the y found i n each other just wha t they
needed: Russel l certified Wittgenstein's passionate geniu s and tolerate d hi s
eccentricities, while Wittgenstein echoed an d amplifie d Russell's own yearning for perfect rigor and mental intensity. With so much riding on each othe r
it is not surprising that their relationship was so charged. I t is sad that in later
years their friendshi p soured, wit h Wittgenstein writing to Moore: "Russell
was there"a t th e Mora l Science s Club"and mos t disagreeable. Gli b and
superficial, though , a s always, astonishingly quick. " Russell, for hi s part, too k
the vie w tha t Wittgenstei n ha d give n u p seriou s thinking . Their mutua l
disillusionment ha s all the flavor of sundere d lovers .
Aside from these interpersonal friction s and fruitions , th e letters provide
evidence o f Wittgenstein' s sense o f hi s ow n menta l instability . "Sometimes
things inside me are in such a ferment that I think I'm goin g mad: then th e
next day I am totally apathetic again. But deep inside me there's a perpetua l
seething, like th e botto m o f a geyser, and I kee p o n hopin g tha t thing s will
come t o a n eruptio n onc e an d fo r all , s o that I ca n tur n int o a differen t
person." An d again :
Every da y I wa s tormented b y a frightfu l Angst and b y depression i n turn s
and eve n in th e interval s I wa s so exhausted tha t I wasn' t abl e to thin k of
doing a bi t of work . It's terrifyin g beyond all description th e kind s of mental
torment tha t there ca n be! It wasn' t until two days ago that I could hear th e
voice of reaso n ove r th e howl s of th e damne d an d I bega n t o work again.
And perhaps I'l l get better no w and b e able to produce somethin g decent.
But I never kne w what it meant t o fee l onl y one step awa y fro m madness.

He does not appear t o have ever sought psychiatric help, and was sceptical of
Freudian theory , but thes e word s clearly signify menta l suffering of an ex treme degree. Nor i s it clear quite what it was that caused him such agony of



mind. H e seems to have found refug e in his work, if it was going well, and i n
certain intens e friendships ; and i f these failed him, there was always solitude
and isolation , whic h he sough t a t differen t period s o f hi s life.
We als o learn somethin g o f Wittgenstein' s conception o f genius , i n tw o
stray remarks. Of one of Schubert's works he ways that it has "a fantastic kin d
of greatness"; an d speakin g of the bizarre Otto Weininger he says: "It is true
that h e is fantastic but h e is great and fantastic. " I take Wittgenstein to mean
that tru e geniuso r a t leas t on e specie s o f itconsist s i n wrenche s o f th e
imagination, journeys int o th e phantasmagoric . Ther e mus t be somethin g
shocking in the work , something tha t bursts th e bound s o f the orderl y an d
controlled an d familiar . And hi s ow n work display s this: the Tractatus rigorously declares its own meaninglessness in granite-like sentences, while the
Investigations profoundly rejects philosophical profundity as just "a house o f
cards." Bot h book s tak e fantasti c journeys in thei r ow n way : they conjur e
alien world s tha t lur k withi n th e obviou s an d mundane ; the y sti r th e
imagination a s much a s the intellect . Eve n whil e celebratin g th e ordinary ,
they strike a fantastic note. Indeed, Wittgenstein himself has a kind of fantastic greatness : h e i s hard t o believ e in , an d woul d b e impossibl e t o invent .
It i s clear fro m thes e letter s ho w clos e th e Tractatus came t o no t bein g
published. Withou t Russell' s generou s backin g i t would no t hav e been . A t
one poin t Wittgenstei n feel s compelled t o write , after havin g th e boo k re jected:
I've alread y comforte d mysel f on tha t score , b y means of th e followin g argument, which seems to m e unanswerable . Either m y piece is a work of th e
highest rank , or i t is not a work of the highes t rank. I n th e latte r (an d mor e
probable) cas e I mysel f a m i n favou r of its not bein g printed . An d i n th e
former cas e it's a matte r o f indifferenc e whether it's printed twent y o r a
hundred year s sooner o r later . Afte r all, who ask s whether th e Critique of
Pure Reason, for example , was written in 17 x o r y . So really i n th e forme r
case to o m y treatise wouldn' t nee d t o be printed .

When i t was eventually publishe d i t became a classic , its more fantasti c as pects studiously ignored b y its positivistic devotees. I t is interesting to specu late what he would have felt about its publication in view of his later repudia tion o f the entire approach o f the book. Perhap s h e would have favored his
recommendation abou t readin g Weininger : pu t a negation sig n i n front o f
the whol e thing an d rea d i t anyway.
His need fo r isolatio n coul d reac h peak s of austerity not usuall y countenanced by those "who want to be alone." In remote Norwa y he would live for
many month s i n a tiny hut o f hi s ow n construction, cu t of f eve n fro m th e
nearest villag e by a lake he had t o row across for provisions . We can be sure
that hi s accommodation s wer e sparsel y furnishe d an d poorl y heated . Hi s
eating habit s were notably spartan. This stripped-dow n environmen t seems
to have served som e deep need fo r spiritua l purification, a s well as permit ting the concentration h e needed to push his thinking to its furthest reaches .


Since he ha d a strong nee d fo r people, one can only assume that th e loneli ness he must have endured was intentionally inflicted. Perhaps h e disdaine d
his dependence o n othe r people , feelin g it to be a weakness that ha d t o be
purged b y cold , deprivation , an d isolation . O r perhap s the y wer e a to o
tempting distractio n fro m dealin g wit h his own spiritual difficulties.
As I wa s reading thes e letter s I als o happene d t o b e readin g a fin e ne w
study b y Rober t Norton , The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the 18th
Century. Th e boo k trace s th e histor y o f th e concep t o f mora l beaut y fro m
Plato an d Plotinus , throug h Shaftesbur y an d Hutcheson , an d int o Kant ,
Schiller, an d Goethe . Norto n explore s th e wa y this concep t merge d wit h
Pietist religious tradition s i n German-speaking countrie s an d suffuse d thei r
moral culture. Simply put, th e idea was that each perso n shoul d b e engage d
on th e tas k o f radica l self-transformatio n i n th e directio n o f a "beautifu l
soul," thi s being though t tantamoun t t o mora l perfection . Give n Wittgenstein's own heritage, it is very tempting to place him in this tradition. Certainly
he often speaks as if his soul exists in some state of ugliness"my life is FULL
of th e uglies t an d petties t thought s an d action s imaginabl e (thi s is not a n
exaggeration)," he write s to Russellan d was clearly engaged o n a lifelong
project o f spiritua l reconstruction . Whe n i n th e Tractatus h e write s tha t
"ethics and aesthetics are one and the same" it is possible to hear him express ing th e identit y of inner beaut y and mora l goodnes s tha t wa s such a domi nant par t o f the ethica l tradition i n which he gre w up. Thi s makes sense of
what must seem t o many British observers t o be an eccentricit y of Wittgenstein alone : h e i s her e simpl y bein g tru e t o hi s cultura l origins . Morall y
speaking, h e i s a mixtur e o f Pietis t German mora l aestheticis m an d Cam bridge-style mal e Hellenis m (i f I ma y b e excuse d thes e weight y isms). His
aesthetic tastes tended toward th e austere and unadorned, as with the house
he designe d fo r hi s sister an d hi s own spare pros e style ; and tha t seem s t o
have bee n th e kin d o f aestheti c objec t h e wante d hi s sou l t o be , too . Th e
danger o f this approach t o virtue is, of course, th e temptatio n towar d spiri tual narcissism and mora l inactionand these, too, seem to be traits of which
he wa s not wholl y innocent.
Wittgenstein wa s famous for hi s abrasiv e honesty , hi s reckles s truthfulness. In a striking early letter to Russell he states his opinion o f a work highly
esteemed b y the Cambridg e community :
I hav e just been readin g a par t o f Moore' s Principia Ethica: (now please
don't b e shocked ) I d o no t lik e it at all . (Mind you, quite apart fro m dis agreeing wit h mos t of it. ) I don' t believeo r rathe r I a m suretha t it cannot drea m o f comparing wit h Frege's or you r own works (except perhap s
with som e the Philosophical Essays). Moor e repeats himsel f dozens of times ,
what he say s i n 3 pages could I believeeasil y b e expressed i n hal f a page .
Unclear statuement s don't ge t a bit clearer b y being repeated! !

It is not that what he says here isn't true, but I doubt tha t many other peopl e
at the time would have had th e courage t o say sostill less a new postgradu -



ate student , a s Wittgenstein the n was . What i s also notable, thoug h les s salient, is the oblique negative evaluation of some of Russell's own work, which
Wittgenstein plainl y implies is of th e sam e lo w quality as Moore's book .
Why thi s compulsion t o expres s opinion s h e kne w woul d woun d thei r
object an d migh t lea d t o hi s ow n rejection ? Intellectua l honest y i s on e
answer, but it seems a more pointed thin g than that. I n Wittgenstein: The Duty
of Genius Ray Monk reports tha t a s a child Wittgenstein was unusually compliant an d solicitou s of other people' s affection , even a t the expens e o f th e
truth. Perhaps h e was aware of this tendency in himself and fel t compelled t o
resist it on every possible occasion. It was an act of purificationa deliberat e
mortification o f his desire t o be liked. Unwelcome truthfulness was a means
of beautifyin g his ow n soul . Th e damag e don e t o other s wa s presumabl y
their ow n affair .
These letters provide a fascinating glimpse of Wittgenstein and his friends
at a n intimat e an d revealin g level . I a m sur e thei r publicatio n would hav e
horrified him .

Russell: Loftil y Earth y an d

Earthily Loft y . . .
The Life of Bertrand Russell
by Ronal d W . Clar k
Jonathan Cap e and Weidenfel d
and Nicolson , 197 5

This firs t full-scale , sedulousl y researched an d copiousl y documented biog raphy o f Russel l conduct s u s unhurriedly fro m hi s childhood a t Pembrok e
Lodge, Richmond, up through his early Cambridge years. Thence we are led
to hi s firs t marriag e an d it s patheti c demise , hi s oppositio n t o Worl d
War I, via his passionate and endurin g attachment s to Lady Ottoline Morrell
and Lad y Constanc e Malleso n (Colette) , to hi s late r marriages , America n
sojourns, an d stead y emergence int o th e publi c eye , culminatin g in hi s efforts t o secur e a saf e nuclea r arm s policy . E n rout e w e ar e treate d t o a
chronicle o f Britis h intellectual and politica l lif e fro m 187 2 t o 1970 , wit h
illuminating sidelight s on suc h notable s a s D . H . Lawrence , Wittgenstein,
and th e Webbs . Th e resul t i s a thoroughl y workmanlik e and well-rounde d
portrait o f Russell .
Mr. Clark succeeds in conveying, amid the welter of detail, a strong sense
of the man : compounde d o f a dominating (o f others as well as himself) an d
aristocratic intellect, a passionate and romanti c nature, tempere d (one might
almost say civilized) by ironic humor an d a fair measure of ordinary huma n
kindness. The styl e and stanc e adopted by Mr Clark are greatly unobtrusive,
the stor y unfolded wit h a minimum of psychological probing an d authoria l
judgment. Particularl y revealing are th e contemporar y letter s an d journal
entries, whic h sugges t a n immediac y o f feelin g sometime s lackin g i n th e
retrospections o f Russell' s own Autobiography. Ne w ligh t i s thrown o n epi -

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e New Scientist (Octobe r 30 , 1975) .


34 P H I L O S O P H I C A


sodes cursorily treated, i f at all, by Russell himself. A totally unreciprocate d

love fo r Mrs . Whitehead i s plausibly conjectured, whil e his own accoun t o f
his affair wit h Helen Dudle y emerges a s a bit of a whitewash. The histor y of
his trouble d associatio n wit h Ralp h Schoenma n i s painstakingly dissected,
and t o Russell's credit. I f there abides a residual impression o f enigma ove r
Russell, it is the enigm a of th e mana t once loftily earth y and earthil y lofty .
What is clear is that his outlook on human life never fundamentally changed.
In th e prologu e t o his Autobiography Russel l tells us that "thre e passions ,
simple bu t overwhelmingl y strong, hav e governed m y life : th e longin g fo r
love, th e searc h fo r knowledge , an d unbearabl e pit y fo r th e sufferin g o f
mankind." I n eac h o f these i t ma y be sai d tha t h e experience d failur e an d
disillusion. Hi s emotiona l lif e wa s in almos t perpetua l turmoil , muc h o f i t
self-inflicted; an d h e neve r live d with either o f the wome n wh o dominate d
his lifeOttoline and Colette. Nor was he, contrary to a popular view, a mere
philanderer, bu t wa s impelled b y a dee p an d consciou s nee d t o alleviat e
spiritual solitud e through loveth e les s elevated amorou s adventure s notwithstanding. A s to hi s intellectual achievement, considerabl e a s it was, his
main desiret o foun d mathematica l knowledg e o n a bedroc k o f logica l
certaintywas thwarted b y the discover y (in which, ironically, he played th e
leading part) of the set-theoretic paradoxes. Russell' s "logic" turned out to be
epistemologically shakie r tha n classica l mathematics . An d hi s othe r philo sophical wor k is now, with whateve r justice, largely neglected . Hi s political
activities on behal f of mankind, despite th e indefatigabl e energy an d trans parent integrit y wit h whic h h e investe d them , wer e dubiousl y effective
whatever on e migh t thin k o f their purel y notiona l merits .
But i t i s no t o n accoun t o f thi s o r tha t achievemen t tha t w e primaril y
revere Russell . What distinguished hi m was the purit y of purpose, sincerit y
of spirit, and shee r humanit y that informed everythin g he did. This impres sion o f Russell , irresistibly engendered by the Autobiography, i s not dimme d
by Mr . Clark's candi d an d unflinchin g portrait .

Russell: You Would No t Want to Be Him

Bertrand Russell: A Life
by Carolin e Moorehea d
Sinclair-Stevenson, 199 2

Bertrand Russell' s first and formativ e love affair wa s with symbolic logic. But
the relationship , thoug h fertile , wa s troubled. Beginnin g i n rapture , a s h e
molded an d extende d th e ne w concepts and techniques , sweeping away th e
barren detritu s o f two millennia, the affai r eventuall y foundered o n a stinging paradox, unexpecte d an d intractable , which abruptly took the shin e off
the whol e thing. Hi s devotion crumbled , an d h e was driven t o seek comfort
elsewhere, never quite regaining his former idealism. It must have been very
disillusioning, and n o doubt tainte d hi s other romantic involvements, whic h
also began i n ecstasy and the n became mired i n refractoriness of one kind or
another. Fo r th e antinomia l i s not adorable . An d i f logi c can't b e trusted ,
what can?
Along wit h Frege , Peano , an d others , Russel l constructe d th e basi c machinery o f moder n mathematica l logic, clearing u p th e defect s of the olde r
syllogistic logic, and puttin g the new logic to use in the analysi s of mathematics itself. Th e progra m wa s to provide a rigorous demonstration o f classical
mathematics i n purel y logica l (includin g set-theoretic ) terms , thu s settin g
mathematics o n a transparentl y secure foundation . Russell also applied hi s
bright new tool to ordinary language, notably in the Theory of Descriptions,
which enabled hi m to keep meaning denotational whil e avoiding ontological
inflation, an d i n th e treatmen t o f epistemologica l an d metaphysica l questions, where he thought it could be used to reconstruct our empirica l knowl-

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e London Review of Books (Novembe r 19 , 1992) .


36 P H I L O S O P H I C A


edge o n a rationa l basi s an d t o dissolv e som e ancien t puzzle s about substances and properties. Th e logi c of relations, in particular, playe d a key part
in releasing hi m from a youthful infatuation with Hegelian monism . Mathematical logic was going to be the basis for an entire ne w philosophy, in which
traditional quandaries woul d be replaced b y systematic advances. With logic
by hi s side ther e wa s nothing Russel l could no t do .
During th e compositio n o f Principia Mathematical, aide d b y Whitehead ,
his old teacher, Russel l spent te n hour s a day for te n year s in the mos t intimate communio n wit h the form s and relation s of predicate calculu s and se t
theory, denning and deducing, coverin g thousands of pages with dense symbolism, wearing out (a s he later said ) his intellectual vigor. He gav e logic th e
best years of his life and th e purest par t of his soul. What a nasty shock, then ,
to discove r tha t a relativel y simple logica l manipulatio n issue s i n outrigh t
inconsistency. Conside r al l the classe s that ar e no t member s o f themselves ,
such a s the clas s of dogs, which is not itsel f a dog, and tr y t o combine the m
into a big class of thei r own , the clas s of classe s that ar e no t self-members :
then you have the result that this class is a member o f itself onl y if it is not an d
is no t onl y if i t is . Contradiction! Re d alert ! Th e concep t o f a clas s reveals
itself as intrinsically paradoxical, hardl y a solid basis for mathematica l truth .
Surely ther e mus t b e som e mistake , some sli p of reasoning : a t leas t tha t i s
what Russell thought when he first stumbled on the problem. Unfortunately,
the reasonin g i s sound, an d i t show s that ou r naiv e understandin g o f th e
principles o f clas s formation, heretofor e adopte d b y Frege an d Russell , is
flawed. No r di d Russel l succee d i n producin g a cogen t resolutio n o f th e
problem, the Theory o f Types lookin g too much like an ad hoc stipulation to
prohibit u s fro m tryin g to tal k abou t th e offendin g class . The self-eviden t
had self-destructed . "Arithmeti c totters, " a s Freg e famousl y wrot e whe n
Russell sent him the bad news . So, we must presume, di d Russell' s adulation
of hi s no w not-so-perfec t Significan t Other. Forma l logi c di d no t hav e th e
beauty an d virtu e Russel l fondly supposed ; an d it s excellence i n othe r re spects coul d onl y heighte n hi s sense tha t th e hol y was corrupt a t th e core .
The simultaneou s disenchantmen t wit h hi s firs t wife , Alys , mus t hav e fel t
minor i n comparison wit h this intellectual trauma, Russell' s theoretical passions running a good bit deeper than hi s personal ones . No wonder h e spen t
three thwarte d year s strugglin g t o patc h thing s up , frettin g ove r a blan k
sheet o f paper for day s on end, settling in the en d fo r a messy compromise .
Not surprisingly, too, he lost interest in the furthe r development s in formal
logic tha t followe d Principia. Th e magic , a s the y say , had gone . (Godel' s
incompleteness resul t could onl y sal t th e wound. )
I dramatiz e all this because th e biograph y o f a great thinke r lik e Russell
must mak e som e attempt , howeve r ham-fisted , t o reconstruc t th e rol e o f
ideas i n th e thinker' s lifeth e living rol e o f ideas . Russell' s relations wit h
purely intellectiv e objects are a t leas t a s significant, emotionally an d other wise, a s his movements, marriages , finances , an d wha t not. Some languag e
must b e foun d t o confe r colo r o n thes e inne r adventure s an d disappoint -


ments, t o compensat e fo r th e invisibilit y of th e events . And w e need som e

understanding o f how the lif e o f the pur e intellect intersects wit h the over t
life o f practica l action . Ho w d o thos e abstrac t journey s bea r upo n mor e
worldly concerns ? Russell' s paine d adherenc e t o rationalit y i n socia l an d
political matters, for example, mus t have been influence d by his experience s
with forma l logic . Th e powe r o f th e ne w logi c i n theoretica l area s woul d
naturally fue l a belief in th e politica l benefits of rationall y drive n progress ;
first th e pur e science , the n th e ameliorativ e practica l applications . Logic ,
after all , is about th e rule s o f correc t reasoning , ho w t o deriv e onl y truth s
from othe r truths. On the other hand, the discovery of the paradoxes woul d
sound a note o f caution abou t excessiv e reliance o n abstrac t principles , en couraging pragmatis m ove r foundationalism . I t might , indeed , undermin e
faith i n the competence o f pure reason t o encompass every human concern :
beyond th e ri m o f coherence, clarity , and certaint y there yawns an abys s of
chaos, obscurity, and doubtth e plac e where religion s traditionally step in.
Russell's yearnin g fo r a religiou s cree d compatibl e wit h his atheism ha s it s
counterpart i n his logicism and it s limitations: a solid core o f rigorous trut h
surrounded b y a murky penumbra o f unruly forces. (Wittgenstein's distinction betwee n sayin g and showin g has a similar architecture.)
If thi s sound s romanti c o r pretentious , i t i s entirel y i n keepin g wit h
Russell's ow n attitud e t o hi s life . High-flown , intense , earnest , idealistic ,
tragicthis wa s the quotidia n languag e o f Russell' s official self-conception .
Caroline Moorehead' s biograph y i s at it s least comfortable i n dealin g wit h
this aspect of its subject: it is as if she can' t quite se e where al l this is coming
from an d i s mildly embarrassed b y it. Nor doe s sh e mak e any rea l effor t t o
relate Russell' s theoretica l conviction s to hi s genera l outlook . Sh e i s muc h
happier detailin g th e superficia l facts o f Russell' s lifewhich sh e present s
with efficiency an d balance . He r narrativ e flows smoothly along, with places,
people, and books each assigned their prope r slot, but venturing little in the
way of character analysi s or critica l judgment. Ther e are potte d summarie s
of Russell' s mai n ideas , whic h ar e generall y accurat e bu t rathe r wooden ,
more fact-checke d than felt , an d a good dea l o f solid documentation , som e
of i t new. The wome n in Russell's life, in particular, are roundl y an d sympa thetically represented , thoug h thei r fault s ar e b y n o mean s glosse d over .
There is nothing much wrong with the book , as far a s it goes: but i t is left t o
the reade r t o tr y t o fi t th e piece s togethe r int o a n intelligibl e whole . Ray
Monk's biography o f Wittgenstein succeeds in bringing an enigmatic character t o life, bu t Moorehead' s boo k leave s the rea l Russell just out o f reacha
mere compilatio n of deeds and words . She seems not to be able to enter int o
Russell's anguishe d cerebra l psychodram a i n th e wa y Mon k di d wit h
Wittgensteinperhaps because Monk is himself a philosopher. An d without
a more seriou s attempt to reconstruct Russell's inner lif e much of the report age make s him loo k at best hyperboli c and a t worst silly (whic h i s not t o say
that h e wa s never eithe r o f thes e things).
The boo k i s the mos t successfu l i n conveying the ma n whe n Russel l and



his intimates ar e abl e to speak fo r themselves . Fortunately , th e tw o pivota l

people i n Russell' s lifeOttoline Morrel l an d Ludwi g Wittgensteingav e
rise to a revealing quantity of writing, mostly in the for m of letters. Her e is a
typical passag e fro m Bertie' s lov e letter s t o Ottoline : "Ho w ca n yo u as k if
your love can be anything to me? It can be everything to me. You can give me
happiness, an d wha t I wan t even morepeace . Al l my life , excep t a shor t
time afte r m y marriage , I hav e bee n drive n o n b y restles s inwar d furies ,
flogging m e on t o activit y and neve r lettin g m e rest . . . . Yo u ca n giv e m e
inward joy and expel the demons." O r again: "Life is like a mountain to p in a
mist, a t mos t time s cold an d blank , with aimless hurrythen suddenl y th e
world opens out, and give s visions of unbelievable beauty." This exalted ton e
changes, sadly , a s th e affai r wear s o n an d Ottoline' s refusa l t o leav e he r
husband ha s it s inevitabl e effects : "I t i s you r gradua l an d inexorabl e
withdrawallike the ebbing tidetha t keeps m e over an d ove r again a t th e
very last point of agony. You flatter yourself in thinking that you can imagine
passionate love; as far as I have observed, you can't imagine it a bit." Then, a
week later : " I alway s bring grea t miser y to anyon e wh o has anything to d o
with me; I can't help communicating the inward miser y which I carry abou t
like the plague. " And : "Forgiv e m e dearestI will try to love you with more
moderation. . . . [I] t is like a child crying because its parents hav e left i t in
the dark al l alone." Th e las t sentence ma y show more psychologica l penetra tion tha n Russel l knew: the death o f both hi s parents befor e h e was five was
undoubtedly a large facto r i n determinin g hi s lifelong feeling of loneliness
and isolation .
Russell speaks often of the good effects Ottoline ha d on him, opening hi m
up t o less cerebral concerns , but i s is pretty clear tha t hi s disappointment i n
this affair wen t very deep, and when it foundered h e seems to have become a
different person . H e had passe d fro m an emotionally deprived childhoo d t o
a barren first marriage, an d wa s clearly in desperate emotiona l shape when ,
at the ag e o f thirty-seven, he fel l i n lov e with Ottoline. Sh e was not, b y he r
own admission, much interested i s sex in general an d di d no t find the sexu ally needy Bertie attractiv e in that way; nor di d they get to spend muc h time
together. Russel l obviously found th e whol e thin g excruciatingl y painful,
and neve r seem s to have got over it .
At the same time Russell's friendship with Wittgenstein was having its own
exhilarating an d devastatin g impac t o n him . He writes : "Wittgenstei n ha s
been a great event in my life. . . . I think he has genius. In discussion with
him I put ou t all my force and onl y just equal his. . .. I love him and fee l
he will solve the problems that are raise d b y my work, but want a fresh min d
and th e vigou r o f youth . H e i s the young ma n on e hope s for. " Bu t whe n
Wittgenstein pointe d ou t som e fundamenta l defect s i n Russell' s nascen t
Theory of Knowledge h e tol d Ottolin e h e wa s ready fo r suicide , saying later:
"My impulse was shattered, lik e a wave dashed t o piece s agains t a breakwater." Th e episod e cause d hi m t o conclud e grimly : " I sa w that I coul d no t
hope eve r agai n t o d o fundamenta l wor k i n philosophy. " Thes e word s


should no t b e taken lightly : what had sustaine d hi m fo r s o many yearshis

logical and philosophica l powerwas now shown to be wanting. And it could
not hav e helpe d tha t Wittgenstei n openl y disapprove d o f s o muc h i n
Russell's character . Lik e Ottoline , Wittgenstei n firs t offere d Russel l hop e
and passion, but then promptl y stompe d hi m into the ground. Togethe r the
two o f the m extinguishe d somethin g dee p an d goo d i n Bertie' s character .
Thereafter h e become s a les s sympatheti c figure , mor e publicl y directed ,
more cynical , less pure , worldlier . Perhap s neithe r o f the m realize d ho w
vulnerable th e towerin g intellec t who wrot e Principia Mathematica was ; in
any case , they mad e a mess out o f th e manhoweve r inadvertently .
There are suggeston s in Moorehead' s book tha t Russel l did no t find his
own brillianc e easy to liv e with. This strike s m e a s true an d important ; w e
should no t underestimat e the burden s impose d b y Russell's exceptional degree o f brain power . Man y of hi s most troublesom e traitstroublesom e t o
others an d t o himselfstem fro m this central fact: hi s obsessiveness, perfectionism, self-absorption, censoriousness, abstractedness, morbidity, coldness,
loneliness, extremity . With grea t powers o f concentration and menta l capaciousness come man y unhappy side-effects : everything get s magnifie d an d
nothing is forgotten; the menta l volume is always set too high; life becomes a
ceaseless effort t o cure restlessness ; overexertion alternate s wit h boredom ;
an alienating impatience infects every human dealing . When Virginia Woolf
expressed admiratio n fo r wha t sh e calle d Russell' s "headpiece" sh e use d a
telling expression: hi s intellect was a kind of appendage o r incubus , inhar moniously attached, and too great a weight for a mere mortal to bear. He was
like one of those people described b y Oliver Sackssomeone with an abnor mally enhanced menta l facult y wh o mus t somehow fin d a way to accommodate their affliction o f riches. In picture s of him you can see it raging uncontrollably behind hi s eyes, as if he wer e a ma n possessed . H e wa s top-heavy
with brains .
Two contrasin g impression s emerg e fro m Moorehead' s accoun t o f
Russell's life , mor e strongl y tha n fro m hi s own autobiography . Th e firs t i s
the sheer abundanc e o f the man: the enormous numbe r an d range of things
written, th e strenuou s and varie d politica l activity, the roll-cal l of top-notc h
friends, th e many love affairs, th e sheer quantity of packed years. It all seems
exemplary and enviable , the perfec t intellectua l life. Wh o no w has Russell's
intellectual and mora l authority? He was presciently on the right side , politically an d morally , nearly al l the time , and h e mad e fundamenta l contribu tions to huma n thought . Bu t ther e i s another impression , scarcel y less evident: tha t of an appalling emotional bleakness, both persona l an d doctrinal .
Some of this is traceable to overt difficulties, lik e the failure of his marriage t o
Alys o r hi s experience s durin g Worl d Wa r I ; bu t som e o f i t i s harder t o
explain, an d require s a deepe r account . N o doubt , a s remarked, hi s early
orphaning contributed t o the feeling of desolation, but his brother Fran k did
not share Bertie' s arctic temperament. There was, by many accounts, a chilly
charmlessness t o him , despit e th e humo r an d lov e o f children , a dr y awk-

40 P H I L O S O P H I C A


wardness of body and soul , which repelled th e kin d of natural affectio n h e

My guess is that this was the natural consequence of a certain childlikeness
combined wit h a searing an d ruthles s intellect . His mind simpl y would no t
permit hi m the kin d o f looseness necessar y in dealing with ordinary huma n
relations; he was always held i n its exacting grip. Every sentence uttered ha d
to b e perfectl y formed , an d ever y persona l encounte r slotte d int o som e
wider theoretica l visio n o f wha t Lif e wa s about . I t wa s al l par t o f som e
Principia Russellia, axiomatically laid out , full y articulated . Th e ster n intel lect wa s fo r eve r vigilant . Even hi s strictl y philosophica l wor k sometime s
reads as i f i t would have benefited fro m les s scorching brillianc e and mor e
bemused plodding ; fo r everythin g is required t o submit to the ominpoten t
Russell intellect . H e commende d Wittgenstei n fo r hi s commitmen t t o th e
edict "understan d o r die," bu t i n Russell' s case, unlike that o f Wittgenstein,
this took the form of a systematizing reductive urge that does no t always suit
the topic. His mind, he said, was like a searchlight, sharp and focusedbu t it
was a searchligh t tha t burne d a s wel l a s illuminated , consumed a s wel l a s
created. Russell was a victim of his own particular form of genius. You would
not wan t to be him .

Russell: Th e Machin e i n the Ghos t

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude
by Ra y Monk
Jonathan Cape , 199 6

Reading a biography is always at the sam e time an act of autobiographyan

act of self-reflectio n an d self-evaluation . As one absorb s the lif e o f th e sub ject, one is forced to go over the events and theme s of one's own life, making
comparisons and drawing lessons. This can be an uncomfortable experience.
In th e cas e o f Bertran d Russel l and m e ther e i s a specia l edginess t o th e
process. Although I never met him, I read Russel l with great fervor and fir e
at around th e ag e of twenty, devouring a s many of his books as I could. Hi s
autobiography was a particularly potent influence upon me , with its mixture
of extreme intellectualism and emotiona l idealism. I let myself be thoroughly
Russellized. H e ha s bee n a voice in m y head eve r since . (How many other s
have been indelibl y marked b y the Russel l persona?) I admit that I idolized
the man .
It is not that this callow worshipfulness ha s remained constant . There has
been the small matter of my own life to live, and readin g (and reviewing) two
earlier biographie s of Russellby Ronald Clark and Carolin e Moorehead
did much to dampen m y idolatry. But ploughing throug h Ra y Monk's massive, thorough , an d probin g first volume has been a n especiall y chastening
experience, a s it wil l b e fo r al l Russell worshippers. Thi s is not because , as
might b e expected , I fin d m y admiratio n fo r Russel l seriously dented
though it is certainly qualified; rather , it is the sheer unhappines s of the ma n
that i s so disturbing. It i s hard t o accept tha t on e ha s modele d onesel f o n a
Reprinted with permission fro m the Times Higher Education Supplement (May 24, 1996) .




person whos e experienc e o f lif e wa s s o chronicall y and sharpl y painful

a perso n wh o fel t himsel f t o b e s o emotionall y unhinged , s o malformed ,
so deranged , s o desperate . Thi s i s no t th e kin d o f inne r lif e on e want s
to duplicate . I n late r lif e Russel l wrot e a boo k entitle d The Conquest of
Happinessand someho w th e ver y titl e tells i t all: happiness neve r simpl y
came for Russell , it (or some simulacrum ) had t o be fought for, acquired b y
main force. All human idol s have feet of clay, but Russel l seems also to have
existed i n a state o f livin g hell.
You thin k I exaggerate : ho w coul d thi s world-famous , titled , healthy ,
long-lived, stunningl y brilliant, witty, womanizing figure be that miserable?
The answe r lies in the very constitution of his personality, the texture o f th e
Russell self . A recurrin g imag e i n Russell' s self-descriptions , sensitively
picked u p b y Monk, is that o f being a ghost. Her e is a characteristic burst ,
from a letter t o his lover Colett e O'Niel :
The centr e o f m e i s always an d eternall y a terribl e pain , a curious wil d
paina searchin g beyond wha t the worl d contains, something transfigured
and infiniteth e beatifi c visionGod I d o no t fin d it , I do no t thin k it is to
be foundbu t th e lov e of i t is my lifeit'slik e passionat e lov e fo r a ghost .
At time s it fills me wit h rage , a t time s with wild despair , i t is the sourc e o f
gentleness an d cruelt y and work , it fill s ever y passion tha t I havei t i s th e
actual sprin g of lif e withi n me.

Or again , speakin g furthe r o f his search fo r th e sublime :

The outcom e i s that on e i s a ghost, floating throgh th e worl d without any
real contact. . . . I am hauntedsome ghost , fro m som e extra-mundan e
region, seem s alway s trying t o tel l me something . . . . Bu t i t is from listen ing to the ghos t that on e come s to fee l onesel f a ghost.

So much fo r the coolly rationalistic atheist, or the jovially sybaritic aristocrat,

that Russell is sometimes represented as being. The rea l Russell feels himself
to be a wisp y specte r fro m th e grave , subhuman , removed , seekin g futilel y
for a religion tha t wil l stil l hi s torments .
This imag e ha s a numbe r o f aspects : th e ghos t i s shadowy , bloodless ,
inhuman, insubstantial , invisible , disembodied, alien , cut-off , feared , lost ,
unloved, dank , disgusting , dead . Eac h o f thes e adjective s capture s som e
aspect of Russell's personality, his mode of being. Above all, there is the sense
of radica l isolatio n an d othernes s tha t Russel l s o ofte n crie s ou t against .
Monk reports a dream Russell had in old age: "I imagine myself behind plate
glass, lik e a fish in an aquarium , o r turne d int o a ghost who m no one sees ;
agonisingly, I try to make some sort of human contac t but it is impossible & I
know mysel f doome d foreve r t o lonel y impotence. " Thi s i s a shockingl y
disturbing image: to feel oneself so removed fro m others tha t one exists in a
separate insulate d spher e in the shap e of an unsee n wraith . It i s the bares t
kind o f existence, an d th e logica l limi t to huma n loneliness .
Why shoul d Russel l have fel t lik e this? Monk suggests , wit h great plau sibility, tha t th e root s o f Russell' s sens e o f ghostlik e isolatio n g o bac k t o


his wretche d infancy . Hi s mothe r an d siste r die d o f diphtheri a i n quic k

succession whe n Berti e wa s two; then hi s fathe r died , apparentl y o f grief ,
two year s later , stayin g aliv e jus t lon g enoug h t o complet e a mediocr e
book abou t religion . H e wa s raise d b y hi s grandparents , agains t th e wil l
of hi s decease d parents , unti l hi s grandfathe r die d whe n h e wa s six, leaving th e chil d i n th e clamm y and tenaciou s embrac e o f hi s domineerin g
Presbyterian grandmother . I n thi s repressiv e puritanica l atmospher e o f
mindless Protestan t devotion , ful l o f reproachfu l sigh s an d soul-cramp ing discipline , th e bo y Russel l develope d habit s o f solitude , conceal ment, and intensely pensive bookishness. He withdrew into his own etherea l
world o f mathematics , haunte d b y hi s dea d parents , cu t of f fro m thos e
nearest to him. His more boisterous elde r brother, Frank , rebelled outwardly
from al l this and summaril y detested Pembrok e Lodg e an d al l that i t stoo d
for; whil e Bertie, mor e timid , younger, mor e eage r t o please, rendered his
real natur e invisibl e t o thos e aroun d him , sealin g himsel f int o a n airtigh t
container, alon e wit h hi s grie f an d loss . H e becam e a wanderin g ghos t
early on .
The personalit y that grew from these tragic beginnings also had its explosive an d toxi c side . Hatred , murder , and insanit y became par t o f Russell's
mental landscape . Mon k i s particularl y good o n th e las t o f these , tearin g
aside th e mas k of rationalism to reveal the molte n sou l beneath. Writin g t o
Ottoline Morrell , Russel l himsel f declares : " I doub t i f even yo u kno w how
nearly I a m t o a ravin g madman . I t i s onl y intellec t tha t keep s m e sane ;
perhaps thi s make s m e overvalu e intellec t as against feeling. " H e seem s t o
have been continuall y haunted b y the fea r o f madness , o f which there was
indeed som e in his family; an d hi s extremes o f emotion ar e certainl y akin to
madness. Associate d wit h thi s came murderou s impulses:
I remembe r whe n I wante d t o commit murder, th e beginnin g was a sudde n
picture ( I hardl y ever hav e picture s at ordinar y times ) of a certai n wa y of
doing it , quite vivid , wit h th e act vivid befor e my eyes. . . . I too k t o read ing about murder s an d thinkin g about them . . . . I t was only hard thinkin g
that kep t m e straight at the timeth e impulse was not amenabl e t o morals ,
but i t was amenable t o reasoning tha t thi s was madness.

He did in his youth try actually to strangle his friend Edwar d Fitzgerald , and
had murderou s impulse s at other times too. Some of the sudden callousnes s
he could sho w to people mus t hav e ha d a similar source .
Monk's thesi s i s tha t th e fea r o f madnes s wa s a controllin g them e i n
Russell's life, causing him to restrain and flagellate his deepest emotions , an d
to retreat int o cloistered abstractions . Part o f the appea l o f Joseph Conrad' s
work fo r Russel l lay in hi s understandin g o f madness , a s wel l a s hi s acut e
sense o f huma n loneliness .
Russell's lov e lif e veere d exhaustingl y fro m fleetin g ecstac y to dee p de spair. To be loved by Russell was no picnic. He was clearly starved of norma l
female affection as a child and thereafte r sough t i t with a ferocity that coul d



only backfire . I n th e cas e of hi s first wife , Alys , he move d swiftl y fro m joyously kissing her breast s i n a treehous e t o somethin g clos e t o smoulderin g
disgust, thoug h h e staye d wit h he r fo r nin e lon g year s i n a sexles s an d
loveless marita l prison . Hi s nex t love , o f Ottoline , wa s powerfu l an d sustained, bu t (a ) sh e wa s happily married , (b ) she ha d othe r lovers , (c ) she
found Russel l physicall y unattractive. Fo r Russell , th e relationshi p wa s
mostly pai n an d sexua l frustration , wit h som e ecstati c interludes , an d a n
inability to free himself from hi s feelings for her. With Colette the proble m
was he r itineran t actin g caree r an d he r affair s wit h other men , whic h lef t
Russell ravaged by jealousy. H e wanted marriage an d children , no t the od d
weekend wit h someon e wit h disperse d romanti c interests . Hi s affai r wit h
Helen Dudley was a sudden flop: having asked her to England to marry him,
he los t interes t a s soo n a s Ottolin e manifeste d he r rivalr y with Hele n b y
stepping u p he r sexua l interes t i n poo r Bertie . H e undoubtedl y treate d
Helen shabbily, especially in not explaining to her th e seriousness of his prior
affection fo r Ottoline . Meanwhil e Helen tol d Ottolin e everythin g that ha d
happened betwee n her an d Russell , which was not quite what he had admit ted t o Ottoline ; th e resul t wa s that Ottolin e los t he r affectio n fo r Russell .
Etc., etc.
In all this mess, Monk finds Russell culpable on many counts. But I think
he underestimate s th e emotiona l desperatio n tha t le d Russel l to thes e tangled relationships. He did not manage to have a halfway satisfactor y love life
till hi s forties . Sex was a powerfu l force i n hi s life , bu t i t was granted ver y
restricted outlet , leavin g hi m emotionall y starve d t o th e poin t o f near insanity. It is also exceedingly difficult t o have any confidence in one's judgments about suc h matters , the huma n hear t bein g a mysterious organ, an d
the realitie s of romance s o complex and impenetrable . I do no t mysel f find
Russell's behavior i n this respect particularl y low or extraordinary . No r di d
Russell far e muc h bette r wit h his male friends ; and her e I thin k h e reall y
does com e ou t badly . On a pai r o f occasion s he coldl y smiles as two of hi s
closest friendsG. E . Moore and Wittgensteinsuffe r fro m his insensitivity
and lac k o f huma n sympathy . He evidentl y found thei r ver y rea l distres s
amusing, an d i t is hard t o escap e a n impressio n o f unsavor y sadism in hi s
responses. Moor e ended u p wantin g to avoid hi s company whenever possible, an d Wittgenstei n becam e remot e an d condemnatory . Hi s relationshi p
with Conrad was much better, as Monk insightfully explains, but then Russell
hardly ever saw him an d the y were not i n the sam e game . D . H. Lawrenc e
wrote hi m a stingingl y critical letter , pointin g ou t hi s laten t violenc e an d
dishonesty, which caused Russell to contemplate suicide momentarily; but h e
solved th e proble m b y severin g hi s relationshi p wit h the write r an d with drawing eve r deepe r unde r hi s intellectua l carapace . Ther e i s littl e evidence i n Monk' s book o f goo d an d clos e friendship s betwee n Russel l an d
other men ; his loneliness was not t o be relieve d b y ordinary huma n companionship. All the intensit y and nee d i s there, bu t someho w he lacked th e
humanity t o covert i t into th e bal m o f friendship .


Russell did a n enormou s amoun t o f work, of course, som e o f it of heroi c

proportions. Principia Mathematica, te n soli d year s i n th e writing , tw o
thousand pages , probabl y neve r full y rea d b y anyone , wa s a stupendou s
achievement, an d cam e a t considerabl e persona l cost . Seventy-od d books ,
numberless articles , thousand s o f lettersRussell wa s a prodigiou s thinke r
and writer . Tha t i s th e reason , afte r all , wh y biographies o f hi s lif e exist .
What emerges fro m Monk' s account, perhaps surprisingly , is how much o f
this work was motivated by religious impulsesthe need t o find a substitute
for the orthodox Christianit y he had so painfully abandoned a t age fifteen. I f
he could no t reliev e his loneliness by communion wit h God, the n he woul d
do i t b y communio n wit h mathematica l reality , o r wit h nature , o r wit h
women, o r anythin g els e tha t looke d suitable . Hi s pen turne d t o whateve r
seemed t o promis e a n alternativ e t o traditiona l theism .
Connected wit h this, he wa s also obsessed wit h achieving intellectual certainty, an d muc h o f his philosophical wor k is shaped b y this Cartesian con cern. H e ha d doubte d Cod , bu t wa s ther e anythin g tha t coul d no t b e
doubted? H e wa s unable t o achiv e the kin d o f Wittgensteinian insoucianc e
about certaint y tha t i s characteristic o f contemporar y philosophy . H e jus t
could not emotionally accept that our destin y is to be uncertain, to be prey to
scepticism; h e fel t i n hi s bones tha t we ought t o be certain, an d wer e some how fallin g dow n in our dut y whe n certainty coul d no t b e secured .
Russell more tha n once comments on the dehumanizing effec t o f abstract
work. Henc e hi s desir e t o achiev e somethin g i n th e wa y o f imaginativ e
writing, about whic h he harbore d seriou s ambition s i n his thirties. Perhap s
not ver y surprisingly , h e ha d littl e talen t i n thi s directionindee d som e
antitalentbeing unabl e t o conve y anythin g bu t though t an d argument .
Ottoline always found thi s hard to take, referring t o his stiffness an d lac k of
physical an d emotiona l charm . H e wa s logical throug h an d throughth e
machine in the ghost . H e was a man o f pure intellect , tinged wit h flippancy,
and ultimately lacking a human shape. Nothin g seems to have been recorde d
about hi s bedroom style , but th e questio n merit s som e thinkin g about: fo r
ghosts do no t mak e the best lovers. Russell's finest hour, a t least during th e
first half o f his life, which is the perio d thi s book covers, was his opposition t o
World Wa r I . Her e h e showe d rea l courage , grea t independenc e o f mind ,
boundless compassion , and a sincere concer n fo r thing s other than hi s own
mental development . On e wonder s ho w h e woul d hav e turne d ou t i f this
wrenching even t had neve r occurred . Th e sufferin g of other s seem s t o b e
about th e onl y thing tha t connecte d hi m t o other peopl e i n an y deep way.
Suffering an d mathematic s were the real things of the universe; the world of
ordinary object s and peopl e wa s flimsy an d conjectura l by comparison (hi s
philosophy neve r di d quit e manag e t o fin d a plac e fo r th e tangibl e an d
perceptible). Th e wa r a t leas t made som e den t i n hi s instinctive solipsism.
Monk's biography , whic h awaits its secon d volume , i s a n exceptionall y
skillful an d well-documente d account of its subject's life, tol d very largely in
Russell's ow n words, wit h a minimu m of interpretative intrusion . I t i s per -

46 P H I L O S O P H I C A


haps les s arrestin g tha n hi s earlie r biograph y o f Wittgenstein , bu t tha t i s

principally because Russell's life ha s already been well chronicled b y himself
and others . Wha t Mon k ha s achieved , asid e fro m assemblin g a wealt h o f
material i n a smoot h narrativ e form , i s an articulatio n o f th e centra l emo tional axe s i n Russell' s lifehis sens e o f isolation , hi s fea r o f insanity , th e
raging force s that propelle d hi m i n goo d direction s an d bad . Russel l was a
colossal fiery intellect ato p a narrow huma n stalk , a paradoxical bein g wh o
could no t b e a membe r o f himself , a ghos t wit h earthl y yearnings . Thi s
biography tell s u s a s muc h a s w e shal l eve r wan t t o kno w abou t a ma n
described b y his secon d wif e a s "enchantingly ugly."

Peirce: Logi c and Sadnes s

Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life

by Joseph Bren t
Indiana Universit y Press, 199 3

"The opinio n which is fated to be ultimately agreed t o by all who investigate

is what we mean b y truth an d th e objec t represented b y this opinion i s th e
real." I n tha t famous sentence, Charles Sanders Peirc e (18391914 ) enunciated the doctrine for which he is most celebrated, and showe d the heart of his
philosophical position .
The vie w of truth an d reality that he proposed in that sentence, and in his
many writings, inverts the conception tha t has some claim to be regarded as
standard: that inquiry indeed aim s at discovering truth, and hence at uncovering reality , but tha t ther e i s always a logica l gap , capabl e o f provokin g
skepticism, between the beliefs that inquiry yields and th e facts that it aims to
represent. N o matte r ho w har d yo u tr y t o b e right , yo u migh t alway s b e
wrong, however plural "you" are. The trut h of a belief can never consist in its
being believed, even when it is arrived at by the utmost diligence. But Peirce
closes this ominous gap between belief and trut h b y defining truth i n term s
of the eschatolog y of inquiry: truth simpl y is that which competent inquirer s
will eventually come to agree i t is. It follow s tha t when doubt an d disagree ment cease , trut h wil l b e th e inevitabl e result.
Peirce's notion of truth does not permit a situation in which belief reaches
a steady state but fail s t o match the wa y things are, since there is no more to
truth tha n communall y accepted belief . When w e sa y that inquir y aims at
truth, we mean tha t i t aims at sociall y certifie d agreement . W e do no t con Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e New Republic (Jun e 28 , 1993) .



verge o n th e sam e belief s because the y ar e true ; the y ar e tru e becaus e w e

converge on them. Once inquir y has reached it s end, realit y is ours. Indeed ,
there i s no distinguishing any longer betwee n us and it . In the limit, thought
and realit y merge.
If truth i s to be defined i n terms o f inquiry, then w e need t o understan d
the nature o f inquiry. That was Peirce's lifelong preoccupation. H e sought t o
elicit the processe s and th e procedures o f reasoning, the means by which the
fixation of belief occurs. In particular, he wanted to understand tha t peculiar
way of forming beliefs known as "scientific method," whic h he took to be th e
best way of forming beliefs yet invented. The stud y of reasoning i n general
he called Logic ; and h e distinguishe d thre e branche s o f the subject : deduc tion, induction, abduction .
His ow n distinctiv e contribution , late r advocate d b y Kar l Poppe r an d
others, wa s to recogniz e th e importanc e an d th e peculiaritie s o f wha t h e
called abduction : th e proces s b y whic h th e min d generates , i n a kin d o f
guessing, or i n an imaginativ e leap, hypothese s tha t attemp t t o explain th e
data while going radically beyond th e data, but are stil l testable in their light .
Such hypotheses, which occur no t only in science but also, for Peirce, even in
our mos t basi c perceptual judgments, ar e no t deduce d fro m th e evidential
premises; no r ar e the y inductiv e generalizations fro m them . The y ar e cre ative efforts to represent ho w the world has to be in order for the data t o be
rendered explicable. Without this method o f reasoning, whic h is now known
as "inferenc e t o the bes t explanation, " huma n though t woul d be crippled .
But such a procedure als o raises profound puzzles . How can mere guessing eve r yiel d objectiv e knowledge, and wha t is it that guide s ou r guesses ?
The metho d o f abductio n look s workabl e onl y i f ther e i s a dee p affinit y
between what the human mind naturally generates an d the nature of reality;
only if, that is, reality is somehow constituted by the operations o f mind. An d
that wa s indeed Peirce' s master view : scienc e ca n b e rationa l onl y if trut h
consists in what human inquirer s converg e on. Abduction reliabl y produce s
truth fo r Peirc e because truth i s to be defined a s that which abduction pro duces. In the last analysis, then, inquiry is all there is, the persistent pursuit of
stable belief . Ther e i s n o questio n o f belie f corresponding , o r failin g t o
correspond, t o somethin g outside o f it.
This doctrine i s the essence of pragmatism, the philosophica l positio n fo r
which Peirc e i s most renowned . I t is , as h e wa s well aware (thoug h other s
have not been) , a form o f idealism . Yet it differs fro m othe r form s of ideal ism, from Berkele y or Hegel , by taking methodnot ideas o r sens e data o r
souls o r belief s i n themselvest o b e metaphysicall y basic. Objectivit y is
achieved b y way of the interpersona l an d dynami c corrections tha t metho d
allows; and realit y is established as the essentially evaluative norms of correc t
reasoning b y which the min d i s governed, plu s th e menta l item s t o which
these norms apply. The conten t o f any conception i s given by the metho d o f
inquiry we would use in order to investigate the object of that conception. I n
thus marryin g idealis m to logic , Peirc e hope d t o secur e th e objectivit y of
knowledge an d it s possibility.


Peirce's wor k o n logi c itself , a s distinct fro m hi s insistenc e o n it s philo sophical centrality, was also original an d prescient . H e did ground-breakin g
work in formal logic, most notably in devising a logic of relations an d quan tification, late r develope d b y Kur t Schroder ; an d h e notice d mor e clearl y
than an y one befor e hi m tha t a n adequat e logi c had t o be grounded i n a n
account o f representation, i n what he calle d "semiotic. " For reasonin g pro ceeds by courtesy of signs, outer or inner, and these signs must have meaning
if th e belief s produce d ar e t o hav e content . Thu s Peirc e wa s led t o focu s
systematically o n th e relatio n betwee n a sign, its object, and th e perso n fo r
whom the sign has meaning. To understand science , Peirce had to do linguistics. (Chomsk y has acknowledged a large debt. ) Th e theor y o f meaning becomes the basis of epistemology, and epistemology , or the theory of inquiry,
is th e ultimat e subjec t of metaphysics ; here i s the "linguisti c turn" tha t be came s o characteristic of twentieth-centur y philosophy .
Signs, moreover, ar e share d betwee n people , between thos e wh o cooper ate i n inquiry ; an d s o th e idea o f a communit y o f sign-usin g inquirer s
emerges a s centra l t o philosophica l understanding . Th e communit y tha t
Peirce prize d s o highly was essentially a linguistic community. Solipsism o r
individualism, which had marke d s o many earlier philosophies , rationalis t or
empiricist, idealist or realist , is thus abandoned . I n plac e o f the imag e o f a
solitary spectato r o r a cogitato r seekin g trut h i n hermeti c isolation , Peirc e
proposes t o inject a community of inquirers int o hi s account o f what makes
knowledge possible. Thus knowledge has a sociology as well as a psychology.
Each inquire r i s subject t o th e communa l standar d supplie d b y logic , an d
expressed i n a system of public signs, so that in the long run convergenc e o f
opinion i s accomplished.
All these ideas , right o r wrong , hav e a remarkably moder n ring , thoug h
they were the work of a nineteenth-century thinker . Peirc e must be counte d
with hi s almost exact contemporar y Freg e as a progenitor o f contemporar y
philosophical thought, though he cannot be said to rival Frege's clarity , rigor,
or economy. Both men saw that traditional logic was inadequate, an d appre ciated the need fo r a more systematic understanding o f language an d mean ing. Bot h wer e mathematician s o f note , whos e approache s t o logi c wer e
mathematically inspired. Freg e was interested i n deductive logic and it s relevance t o mathematica l reasoning , an d s o hi s result s wer e cleane r an d
sharper. Peirce' s chie f interest s wer e i n th e muc h messie r are a o f natura l
science an d th e logi c appropriat e t o it . I t i s h e wh o ha s a fai r clai m t o
have anticipated , fo r goo d o r fo r ill , mor e o f th e cours e o f twentieth century philosophy , especiall y i n epistemolog y an d th e philosoph y o f sci ence. H e wa s onto th e righ t thing s befor e almos t anyon e else , an d h e de serves th e routin e recognitio n tha t h e no w receives . H e wa s the greates t
American philosopher .
So wha t kin d o f lif e di d h e have ? Absolutel y awful , I' m afraid . Reall y
dreadful. Peirce' s stor y bleeds with irony. It began promisingly , which makes
the end eve n more depressing . Hi s father, Benjamin Peirce, wa s a powerful
and distinguishe d scientis t a t Harvard , an d h e wa s kee n t o instil l i n hi s

50 P H I L O S O P H I C A


precocious so n the characteristic s of genius, which he did wit h considerabl e

success. Littl e persona l disciplin e wa s imposed ; superiorit y wa s assumed ;
arrogance wa s excused; th e valu e of intellect , an d no t muc h else , was extolled. All little Charles had to do was be brilliant, which did not come hard to
The resul t of this education, however, was that Peirce was remarkably bad
at everything except brilliance, especially everything practical or cooperative.
Nor did he have much respect fo r those in authority, including his teachers .
His unconventionality, his hubris, and hi s lack of concern fo r consequence s
soon caugh t u p wit h him . H e wa s dismissed fro m ever y pos t h e eve r held ,
worked i n a university for onl y a short time , spent hi s money recklessly and
ended his life in poverty, virtual starvation, and uneas y relations with the law.
He had fe w friends and wa s shunned b y the respectable. H e never manage d
to complet e th e wor k on whic h he toile d fo r s o long. Adde d t o all this, h e
suffered fro m trigemina l neuralgi a throughou t hi s life , a conditio n tha t
involves bouts of excruciating pai n i n th e face , whic h he treate d wit h mor phine and cocaine , with predictably unsettling results. (His second wife was a
virtual invalid, too.) He announced impendin g suicid e with some regularity,
and no t withou t reason. H e was tenaciously persecuted b y men o f academic
power, whom he misguidedly trusted. H e lived for much of his life in a state
of anxiet y and overwork , on th e brin k o f emotiona l collapse .
Joseph Brent's biography, the first serious account of Peirce's life, tells the
sad and harrowin g stor y with sympathy and understanding , a s well as exasperation. Hi s boo k i s thoroughly researched , ampl y documente d an d abl y
written. It is gripping, in a sober way. Quoting ofte n from Peirce's letters an d
other writings, Brent allows us to understand mor e of this strange characte r
than w e might reasonably expec t t o understand. Th e follie s and th e misad ventures begin t o form a consistent pattern, thoug h thei r underlyin g caus e
remains enigmatic .
Brent's account of Peirce's friendships, notably with his supporter William
James, and o f his enmities, of which there were several , are particularl y well
handled. Peirce' s fortune s wer e largel y determine d b y the estee m an d th e
affection o f some, offset b y the hostilit y and th e dislik e of others, wh o often
had all the powerthe most odious among them bein g Charles Norto n Eliot
and Simo n Newcomb , pillars of th e academi c establishment . Tha t Peirce' s
life an d caree r wer e damaged, indee d ruined , b y the intellectual ineptitud e
and th e stuffed-shir t mediocrity o f me n suc h a s these i s made sufficientl y
clear, a s are th e advers e effect s o f th e pri m conformis m o f th e societ y i n
which Peirc e lived . Peirce's adulterou s relatio n wit h th e woma n wh o would
become hi s second wif e was much hel d agains t him . His peers and hi s superiors seemed to have felt that his character an d behavior would be corruptin g
to the youngwhere have we heard that before?and s o a university teaching position was not to be entrusted t o him. Johns Hopkins even went to the
extreme o f firin g al l it s untenure d facult y an d the n promptl y reinstatin g
them excep t fo r Peirce , a s a wa y of gettin g ri d o f him . He neve r secure d


another academi c position , despit e man y efforts. And al l the whil e he was
generally acknowledge d t o be a genius .
What strikes me now about Peirce's career, reading Brent's account of it, is
the amount of time that h e spen t not doing philosophy. As a young man h e
trained i n chemistry and physics , and hi s first da y job wa s in geodesy, working for th e Unite d State s Coast Survey. His specialty there was gravimetrics,
and h e spen t enormous amount s of time i n the compan y of pendulums, t o
the stud y o f whic h he mad e importan t contributions . H e als o worke d i n
astronomy an d photometry , publishin g a book in the latter field . H e wa s an
internationally renowned scientis t before he reached hi s forties. Recognition
he had , an d soli d achievement , too ; bu t employmen t h e coul d no t sustain ,
and eventuall y could no t eve n secure .
He wa s fired fro m th e Coas t survey , it seems , because o f delay s in th e
production o f hi s scientifi c reports , backe d u p b y th e malig n blindnes s of
some supposed expert s who were invited to comment on his work. The nadi r
came when , despit e a recommendatio n fro m Presiden t Roosevel t himself,
and strong support fro m leading scientists and philosophers , h e was refused
a Carnegi e gran t t o complet e hi s work i n logic . Thereafte r h e scratche d a
living fro m writin g reviews , mainl y fo r The Nation, an d relie d upo n th e
charity of friend s an d relatives . For period s h e ha d t o slee p roug h i n New
York, having lost his house, and h e ofte n went for day s without food. Natu rally hi s already precariou s healt h wa s ruined, no t t o spea k o f hi s sensitiv e
spirit. Bu t h e carrie d on , a s best he could , with hi s logic.
The ironie s of Peirce's life are of a numbingly predictable kind . The grea t
pragmatist, stressing the practical instrumental character of thought, prove d
unable t o realiz e hi s own mos t cherishe d goal s through th e exercis e o f his
own practica l reason. H e wa s a procrastinator, a n evade r o f ugly realities, a
reckless spender of money. He once characterized perception, arrestingly , as
the "outward clash, " castigating Hegel fo r excessive inwardness; but his own
brushes with the external world were abrupt collisions, his own perception o f
reality being minimal.
For all his obsession with methodology, his own schemes tended to be high
on madnes s an d lo w on method . Som e o f hi s awkwardnes s in th e worl d
Peirce put dow n to the cerebral consequence s o f left-handedness, including
his convolutions of speec h (h e was not, t o pu t i t mildly, a clear writer) , an d
some may have come fro m drugs , bu t the quixotic and impulsiv e side of his
character goe s fa r beyon d suc h causes . He seeme d ofte n t o conniv e in hi s
own undermining, as if challenging the world to take a swipe at him. And fo r
all his championing of th e cooperativ e i n intellectual inquiry, his own work
was largel y solitar y an d idiosyncratic ; hi s grou p instinct s wer e no t well developed. Th e ide a o f communit y wa s pretty notiona l a s fa r a s Peirce' s
actual practic e wa s concerned. On e migh t b e forgive n fo r suspecting , i f it
does no t soun d to o pop-psychological , tha t hi s emphasi s o n metho d an d
agreement wa s a form of compensation fo r the opposite qualitie s in himself.
The mos t salien t fact about Peirc e a s a thinker i s his early and persisten t



fascination with logic, formal and informal . He ranked himsel f at the level of
Leibniz and ofte n sai d h e was put o n Eart h b y God in order to do logic . I n
this fascination he resembles the pioneers o f twentieth-century philosophy
Frege, Russell , Wittgenstein, and others . Muc h o f thi s work, however , ha s
now been done . I t is hard to see how anyone today could be gripped in such a
fanatical manner b y a desire to set logic straight. Now logic is straight, thanks
to thes e earlie r obsessives .
I suspec t tha t a large par t o f Peirce' s career proble m wa s simply that h e
was constantly preoccupied b y something that cried ou t for preoccupation
the discoverie s i n logi c wer e rip e fo r plucking , beckonin g hi m t o them .
Instead o f laboring ove r his tedious pendulu m calculations , he was straining
to think about logica l matters; bu t h e never foun d th e tim e or th e peac e o f
mind t o put i n the effor t neede d t o bring hi s ideas t o fruition. H e was thus
continually thwarte d i n hi s ow n stronges t inclinations , always setting u p a
kind of split or instability in his own activities. (How hard it would have been
on the young Russell if he had been prevente d fro m writing Principia Mathematical) Onl y durin g the short period of teaching logic at Johns Hopkins do
the signs of strain recede, resultin g in an important an d collaborative treatis e
on hi s deepest interest .
Speaking of the thwarting of work, Brent's account of the troubled histor y
of his own book is a case in point. Writte n thirty years ago as a doctoral thesi s
in history , it took th e effort s o f th e note d linguis t Thomas Sebeo k t o trac k
down th e autho r an d arrang e fo r th e origina l versio n t o b e revise d fo r
publication. This is a strange business , for the book i s excellent in every way,
and Peirc e i s a subject of extraordinary interest . Th e explanation , a s Bren t
gives it , woul d appea r t o b e tha t th e philosoph y departmen t a t Harvar d
University denie d acces s t o certai n paper s o f Peirce' s containe d i n th e
Houghton Library , and woul d no t permi t Bren t t o quote fro m Peirce' s letters. H e di d no t obtai n persmissio n unti l 1991 . Bren t says :
While the dela y in publishin g Peirce's philosophica l manuscripts can b e attributed almos t entirely to skepticis m or disinteres t [sic] o n th e on e hand ,
and lac k of fund s o n th e other , th e dela y in producin g a biography wa s directly cause d b y the inaccessibilit y of th e biographica l portio n o f th e Harvard Peirc e collection . This suppressio n wa s justified by its owners, the
Harvard departmen t o f philosophy , on th e ground s tha t there was information i n the letter s that woul d seriousl y damage Peirce' s reputatio n an d tha t
must, therefore, be withheld in order t o protec t hi s reputation an d th e sensibilities o f hi s famil y (an d perhap s thos e of Harvar d University ) . . . Th e
restrictive polic y led t o rumor s abou t homosexuality , sexual promiscuity,
chronic drunkenness, violenc e and dru g addiction , an d sinc e there wa s no
published evidenc e t o either suppor t o r disprov e suc h accusations, Peirce's
reputation ha s varied accordin g t o rumor abou t th e content s of hi s letter s
and th e taste s o f th e person s concerne d wit h it. I n fact , man y of the rumor s
were true , bu t becaus e o f the decisio n t o deny access , the researc h whic h
would hav e pu t hi s life int o it s true light , that o f th e dignit y of deep
tragedy, wa s discouraged o r forbidden .


It is clear, after reading Brent' s valuable book, that whoever it was at Har vard who made the decision to impede a biographical stud y of Peirce mad e a
grave mistake . And i t is a sad irony tha t thi s misguided polic y should com e
from th e ver y institution tha t di d s o much to ruin Peirce' s lif e an d career
even to the poin t o f forbidding hi m for decades fro m lecturin g t o Harvar d
students, despit e Willia m James's recommendations . Wa s he reall y so diffi cult and controversia l a man tha t he deserves this double blo w to his reputa tion? I t is hard no t to feel the forc e of Sebeok's commen t tha t Brent's boo k
reveals "a seamy side to American academic polity, its sometime brutality and
mendacity, an d th e ofte n cruell y corrup t machination s o f highe r politica l
authority." Yes, Peirce wa s a wayward and singula r man, who played a leading part i n engineering hi s own downfall: but h e was also the victim of some
mean-spirited an d merciles s individuals . H e ende d miserably , whil e the y
prospered an d n o doubt congratulate d themselves . Readin g thi s biograph y
leaves one wit h a bad tast e i n the mouth ; an d i t is the mor e worth readin g
because o f it . That pai n i n Peirce' s fac e sum s it up .

Ayer: Ol d Scores
The Meaning of Life, and Other Essays
by A . J. Aye r
Weidenfeld, 199 0

When I was a quivering graduate studen t at Oxford i n 1973 , fresh fro m th e

northern provinces , I sa t fo r th e Joh n Lock e Prize , a voluntar y two-da y
examination for Oxford postgraduate s in philosophy. As I had hitherto been
a psycholog y student a t Manchester , I thought thi s would be goo d practic e
for m y upcoming B. Phil, philosophy exams. It was quite a n ordeal (I nearly
gave up a t one point), and afterward I felt I had a long way to go philosophically. A fe w day s later Professo r Ayer , who wa s one o f th e examiners , in iormed me that he had bee n oblige d t o require that m y papers b e typed, o n
account of thei r extreme illegibility : I would hav e to dictate them t o a typist
in th e presenc e o f a n invigilator , bot h o f who m I woul d hav e t o pay . I
apologized t o hi m fo r m y calligraphi c delinquenc y an d expresse d som e
mumbled misgiving s about going t o all that troubl e an d expense , i n view of
my poor performance . T o m y surprise, he sai d h e thought 1 was "worth it, "
on what basis I am not sure . I therefore di d a s I was told, spendin g a couple
of wincing days reading ou t m y script to be converted int o cold type. I really
must improv e m y handwriting , I thought .
Two or three weeks later Professor Ayer told me that I had been awarde d
the prize . He seeme d almos t as pleased a s 1 was, clapping me warmly on th e
back an d congratulatin g himsel f o n hi s forme r perspicacity . A s a resul t of
this, I wa s enabled t o pursu e a caree r i n philosophy , whic h I doub t woul d
have been possibl e otherwise, given my educational background. Thu s I owe

Reprinted wil h permissio n fro m th e London Review of Books (Augus t 30 , 1990) .



a considerable deb t to A. J. Aye r for givin g me a break whe n i t would have

been eas y to allow my bad han d t o count agains t me. Sinc e I later becam e a
John Locke Prize examiner myself , I know what an unusual step this was for
him t o authorize.
Some year s later, whe n I wa s teaching a t Universit y College London , i n
the departmen t Aye r ha d don e s o much t o create , I me t hi m befor e som e
lecture or other. I had just published a review in Mind of a collection of essays
dedicated t o him, which included hi s replies to these essays, and in the cours e
of thi s revie w I describe d hi s remark s o n th e subjec t of de re necessity as
"wholly worthless," a phrase I had hesitate d ove r but fel t was literally correct.
As I feared, he raised th e topi c of this review. I steeled mysel f for his rebuke
for dismissin g his view so summarily, but he made n o mention of the phras e
or the verdict it enshrined, whic h indeed was only the most recent instalment
of a long-standing disagreement betwee n us. Instead, he took me to task over
another wor d I ha d used . I had commente d i n the revie w that hi s presen t
assessment of metaphysic s was far mor e toleran t tha n tha t o f hi s "callower
years," i.e., the year s of Language, Truth and Logic, written whe n h e wa s a
mere twenty-six. His complaint was not, as might be expected, tha t I was here
implying that hi s earlier rejectio n o f metaphysics was merely callow: no, his
objection wa s to what he too k t o be the suggestio n tha t he was now callow. I
was puzzled at first that he could read the offending locution in that way, and
I assure d hi m tha t I ha d no t intende d i t thus, pointing ou t tha t i t did no t
logically bea r tha t entailment , an y mor e tha n us e o f th e phras e "younge r
days" would imply that he was now young. In fact, I had chosen the comparative for m precisel y t o avoi d implyin g that h e wa s positivel y callow whe n
young, no t eve n imagining that i t might b e take n t o imply septuagenaria n
puerility. But my protests went unheeded: th e elderly man of distinction was
determined t o interpret m e as accusing him of advanced immaturity. It was
not a confortable encounter , I ca n tel l you. O n reflection , it seemed t o m e
that I ha d unwittingl y twanged a ra w nerv e i n him , whic h revealed mor e
about hi s own estimate o f himsel f than abou t m y verbal sloppiness: he was
less sensitive to being convicted outright of having "wholly worthless" philosophical views than t o there bein g even a hint (howeve r subtextual or unintended) tha t h e wa s in som e respec t intellectuall y unripe.
It must have been fairly soon after this that he came to read a paper at UCL,
which again touched on the topic of de re necessity. He had flu and ha d lost his
voice, but h e didn't let that put hi m off. He arrange d t o have Richard Wollheim rea d hi s pape r ou t fo r him . A s th e pape r wa s mellifluously read , i n
cadences quit e unlik e Freddie's ow n clipped an d headlon g mod e o f speec h
("prshn" for "proposition"), he nodded hi s vigorous assent to the argument s
that were being advanced, as if congratulating a n esteeme d colleagu e on his
remarkable probity, and occasionall y fixing me with a beady stare where h e
imagined I might disagree. He was not to be deterred fro m fighting his corner.
The las t time I saw Freddie wa s in the autumn of 1988, when we were both
attending an Oxfor d discussio n group h e ha d forme d wel l befor e m y time.



He wa s suffering badly fro m emphysem a an d coul d onl y wal k a fe w pace s

before losin g his breath. H e greeted me in the friendlies t way and sai d half apologetically, " I a m no t th e ma n I was." I foun d thi s difficult t o repl y to .
During th e ensuin g discussio n o f a colleague' s pape r h e mad e strenuou s
interventions o f a wholly characteristic kind : amusing , petulant , a bit axegrinding, exuberantl y deflationary . Afterward he needed a taxi to take him
the hundre d yard s fro m Universit y College t o Ne w College. A membe r o f
the grou p remarke d t o m e tha t i t woul d hav e bee n goo d t o hav e tape recorded tha t session.
I hope these personal reminiscence s succeed in revealing various facets of
Freddie Ayer' s character, a t leas t a s it appeared t o a former studen t o f his
and junior colleague: kind and decen t to young aspirants, unstuffy, wit h an
upfront vanity and vulnerability, a streak of intellectual insecurity wider tha n
might be expected, persona l directness, and a strong need neve r t o be in the
shade. I alway s liked him , and wa s sadder a t his death tha n I expected .
In this posthumous collection of essays Ayer's strengths and weaknesses as
a philosophe r sho w fort h clearly . Th e essay s range fro m a 194 4 piece fo r
Cyril Connolly's Horizon on the concep t o f freedom t o an articl e written fo r
the Sunday Telegraph i n 198 8 o n th e subjec t of his four-minute "death " an d
what he experienced whil e in that suspended state . Between these ar e essays
on th e natur e o f philosophy , transcribe d broadcas t dialogue s wit h Fathe r
Copleston an d Arn e Naess , a summary of Russell's work, an introduction t o
J. S . Mill , a statement o f humanism , an d a lectur e o n th e meanin g o f life .
There is the accustomed fluency of style and air of lucidity, and th e sense that
philosophy i s an enjoyabl e subject : but als o th e impressio n o f a ma n i n a
hurry, talkin g and thinkin g to o fas t fo r hi s subjec t matter, skiddin g ove r
difficulties, curiousl y closed to philosophical perplexity, keener sometime s to
score points than t o win them. You never ge t the feeling, reading Ayer , tha t
philosophy is painfulthat thinkin g seriously about i t hurts. Neither d o yo u
get muc h o f a sens e o f th e natur e o f philosophica l creativity . Indeed, h e
always seems to me to be writing as if philosophy is essentially over, as if there
are no more new ideas to be had. Certainly he was less than full y receptiv e t o
many o f th e idea s tha t philosopher s o f m y generatio n tak e fo r granted ,
especially thos e emanatin g fro m America . Origina l theorie s wer e almos t
invariably referred t o as "fashions." His was the world of Russell and Moore ,
Peirce an d James , a bi t of Carna p here , th e od d mentio n o f Quine there .
The famou s radi o dialogu e wit h Coplesto n provide s som e choic e mo ments. In it Ayer undertakes the difficul t tas k of defending logical positivism
against a shrewd philosopher , an d historia n o f philosophy , of the despise d
old school . I t i s clea r now , a s i t ma y no t hav e bee n then , tha t Coplesto n
roundly refutes Ayer' s position, doing s o with courtesy, clarity, and intellec tual discipline. At times Ayer flails wildly, as his astute tormentor drive s him
from on e uninhabitabl e corne r t o anotherthough i t is not clear tha t Ayer
sees i t that way . The antipositivis t points tha t Coplesto n fasten s o n ar e ba sically four . First , th e verifiabilit y criterio n o f meaningfulnes s simpl y ha s


built into it, by stipulation, the very rejection o f metaphysics it is intended t o

motivate, since on anybody's view metaphysical propositions ar e not going to
be verifiabl e b y means o f sensory observation: their acceptanc e will depend
upon consideration s o f rationa l coherence , economy , systematicity , and s o
forth. Th e traditiona l proble m o f the statu s of universals, for example , wil l
not be decided b y checking the worl d out experimentally : it will be decided ,
if i t is , well , philosophically . Second, n o cogen t argumen t ha s eve r bee n
offered fo r th e verificationis t criterion . I t is simply a dogma designe d t o d o
preset polemica l work: wh y should meaningfulnes s consis t i n wha t ca n b e
perceptually verified? Third, the principl e is open t o obvious counterexamples: not merely statements from ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics , but also
such homely remarks as that there will come a time when there are no human
beingsfor wh o will verify that ? Fourth, and mos t embarrassing, the principle o f verifiabilit y i s self-refuting: fo r eithe r i t is itself empirically verifiable,
or it is "merely formal" (whatever that may mean), or it is meaningless. Since
it canno t clai m to belon g t o eithe r o f th e firs t tw o categories, i t seems con demned t o belong to th e third , in whic h cas e i t says of itsel f tha t it is gob bledygook. I n fact , o r course , i t is just a n ordinar y piec e o f philosophy , as
meaningful a s any , though wildl y implausible . The proble m i s that i t i s a
piece of philosophy that denies its own meaningfulnesswhich i s not a good
way to get yourself accepted. Coplesto n also , en passant, makes mincemeat of
Ayer's crude conventionalis m about logical truth, forcin g him to assert that
the law of noncontradiction ha s no deeper status than the arbitrary rules of a
game. The onl y area of weakness in Copleston's defense of traditional philosophy i s his reliance on theologica l examples : h e woul d hav e been wise r t o
choose a less controversial field of battle.
Ayer was always interested in perception and its relation to our knowledg e
of the external world. He was worried tha t what we perceive of the world (if
anything) does no t see m t o justify wha t we believe about itthe problem o f
skepticism. Thi s i s indee d a legitimat e concern , bu t I d o no t thin k Aye r
handles it at all satisfactorily. He remark s here, as he ofte n doe s elsewhere,
that the causal theory of perception i s inconsistent with naive realism. This is
a peculia r claim , for wh y should th e fac t tha t th e tabl e cause s m e t o hav e
perceptual experience s impl y that I d o no t reall y see the table ? That is like
saying that a causal theory o f collision implies that objects neve r touch ! H e
seems not t o have been abl e to rid himsel f of the ide a tha t what lies outside
the mind, causing events in us and othe r bodies, is somehow cut off from th e
mind's direct apprehension. An d perhap s tha t underlies hi s desire t o find a
description o f experienc e tha t i s neutral a s to th e wa y the worl d stands a
sense-datum language. Ther e ar e interpretation s o f this project tha t mak e
sense, bu t I hav e neve r bee n convince d tha t Ayer' s i s one o f them . Th e
central difficulty, ove r which Ayer's prose i s apt t o lose its usual limpidity, is
what kin d of vocabular y should b e employe d (o r invented ) t o captur e thi s
neutral experiential content. I t is not supposed t o consist of words for qualities o f objects , apparently , sinc e thes e "g o beyond " wha t i s "immediatel y

58 P H I L O S O P H I C A


given," but then we are never quite told what other words we might use. No r
is it clear how his own account of how we move inferentially from perceptua l
data to the world is supposed t o quell the sceptic's doubts. Okay, we can think
of ou r ordinar y belief s a s constitutin g a theor y i n respec t o f th e sensor y
evidence, bu t wha t i s to exclud e th e claim s of riva l theoriesth e one s w e
have no tendency to believe? For example, what is it about the evidence that
rules out the theory that we are all brains in vats being fed these very sensory
inputs b y a godlike Martia n physiologist ? We are no t told , s o the common sense theor y ha s not ye t been vindicated .
Philosophers are often rebuked fo r not askin g what the meaning o f life is
or fo r failin g t o offe r a n answer . I n hi s 198 8 lecture Aye r bot h ask s an d
answers this question. Predictably enough, h e denies that life has meaning in
virtue of a presiding deity , and h e locates its meaning i n the actua l project s
and fulfilment s o f mortal existence . He say s a number o f sensible and famil iar things, but I do not think he quite puts his finger on the essential consid erations, which I tak e to be as follows. T o begi n with , we need t o scrutinize
that little phrase "the meaning o f life": what kind o f meaning is being envisaged here ? I t canno t b e what Paul Gric e called natura l meaninga s whe n
clouds mean rainsinc e the questio n is not wha t causal or lawlik e relation s
our live s stand in to other occurrences. Neither can it be a question of semantic meaningas when a certain Englis h sentence mean s tha t i t is raining
since my life clearly does no t express an y kind of proposition. Wha t must be
intended i s probably bes t pu t b y dropping th e wor d "meaning " altogethe r
and substitutin g a word lik e "point" o r "purpose": th e question then i s what
point o r purpos e ther e is to huma n life .
It seems to be very tempting to feel, as a matter o f metaphysical exigency,
that i t mus t hav e som e pointtha t ther e mus t b e somethin g externa l t o it
that give s it a point . An d her e religiou s ideas ar e commonl y invoked: i t is
either th e existenc e of God that gives human lif e a point, or the fac t of some
more o r les s supernatura l previou s o r subsequen t life . Thes e extramorta l
entities ar e suppose d t o injec t a poin t int o ou r lif e tha t i t would otherwis e
wholly lack . No w the essentia l thing t o notice abou t thes e point-conferrin g
beings is that the y are themselve s instances of kind s of life , eithe r divin e or
supernatural i n som e othe r way. And th e ide a i s that the y are i n some way
"unmeant meaners" : they give point to our live s without themselves needin g
to have point conferre d upo n theirs . But now the flaw should b e apparent :
why should these lives be allowed to have meaning intrinsicall y while our lives
are required t o have meaning conferred extrinsicall y upon them ? If the lives
of some beings must carry meanin g withi n themselves, as God's i s suppose d
to, or th e selve s of th e afterlife , the n wh y can't ou r live s achieve that now?
Clearly it is no us e t o postulate furthe r lives a God fo r Go d o r a n afterlife
for ou r afterlifeo n pai n o f a n infinit e regress . S o i f ther e i s a genuin e
metaphysical proble m abou t wha t give s human lif e meaning , th e religiou s
answers d o no t solv e it; the y just pus h i t back a stage . The logica l positio n
here i s precisel y paralle l t o Wittgenstein' s argumen t agains t th e temptin g


idea tha t linguisti c sign s ge t thei r meanin g fro m othe r (possibl y super natural) signs. As he saw, since this process has to terminate somewhere , why
not halt it at the first stage? The onl y legitimate sense in which supernatura l
lives could give natural live s a point is the trivia l sense in which the existenc e
of othe r morta l live s gives poin t t o m y life: bu t the n w e have that already .
There is no metaphysical problem o f the meanin g o f human lif e tha t coul d
be solve d b y multiplyin g lives , howeve r supernatura l thos e othe r live s
may be .
Once thi s logical poin t ha s been clearl y grasped, the onl y point tha t hu man lif e could have is to be found in what is internal to it. Ayer takes this view
too, bu t I thin k h e onl y partiall y locate s th e interna l fact s i n question . H e
tends, though he is not entirely consistent in the matter, to locate the value of
life in the kinds of fulfilment availabl e to a person leadin g the kin d of life h e
leadswhich bring s hi m t o deny , o r underestimate , th e valu e o f lif e fo r
people no t belongin g t o wha t h e call s a "privilege d minority. " "Th e vas t
majority of the human race, " he says, "in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa, in
the so-called underclasses of the mor e affluen t Wester n societies , are fa r too
fully occupie d i n waging a losing struggle t o achieve a tolerable standar d o f
living fo r i t to be rationa l fo r the m t o wish their miserie s prolonged." An d
presumably, for muc h the sam e reasons, he would deny value to the lives of
animals, o n accoun t o f th e povert y o f their lif e projects .
Now it is not tha t I dispute th e miserie s and limitation s in question, but I
suggest tha t Ayer' s inferenc e fro m the m betray s a lopside d conceptio n o f
what makes life worthwhile. In a word, he ignores, o r downplays, the importance o f wha t migh t b e calle d "basi c experiences" : enjoyin g a coo l drink ,
hearing a friend' s voice , eve n takin g a shit . Thes e experience s constitut e
what lif e mos t primitivel y isfor Oxfor d dons , Amazonia n bushmen, children, dog s and snakesan d i t stays that way even when your nove l doesn't
get published o r your favorite team loses the World Cup . And doesn't everyone a t som e tim e feel , especially when thei r lif e ha s bee n threatened , tha t
these basi c experiences ar e infinitel y precious , tha t i t wil l b e a terrible da y
when yo u ca n fee l the m n o more ? Th e fil m Robocop, abou t a ma n wh o
survives comprehensive violence by being made mainly robot, i s precisely an
exploration of this theme: th e metallic man longs for the days when ordinary
experiences were available to him; he wants his "lower nature" back, because
without it life is hollow. What we need, I think, is a kind of two-layer theory
of th e valu e of life : o n to p w e have th e project s an d satisfaction s we think
mostly about ; beneat h that , th e foundatio n o f biologica l consciousnes s we
tend t o take for granted. Fo r a man not averse to the offerings of the senses,
it i s surprisin g tha t Aye r neglect s thi s latte r sourc e o f value . Was ther e a
repressed asceti c lurking beneath th e frankl y sybariti c exterior ?
The boo k ends with two pieces recounting hi s experience o f four minute s
of heart failure , caused b y a piece of smoked salmo n goin g down th e wron g
way. I t seem s tha t durin g thes e fou r minute s h e ha d a n experienc e a s of
being confronted b y an exceedingl y bright re d ligh t which he was somehow



aware governe d th e universe . Thi s ligh t ha d tw o minister s wh o wer e i n

charge o f space, which they periodically inspected. They had recentl y fallen
down on the job becaus e space had become slightl y out of joint an d th e laws
of natur e ha d gon e awry . I t wa s up t o Aye r t o rectif y matters , whic h h e
sought t o do by operating o n time. However, the ministers of space took n o
notice o f hi m a s h e walke d u p an d dow n wavin g hi s watc h a t them . H e
became desperate , an d the n th e experienc e cam e t o an end.
At th e tim e thi s episod e wa s reporte d ther e wa s som e questio n a s t o
whether Ayer took himself to have, or even really had, "crossed t o the other
side." As he makes clear in a postscript, however, no such thing is implied: by
far th e mos t likely explanation i s that his brain was still functioning to gener ate experiences whil e his heart had temporaril y stopped. I can see, though,
why some readers ma y have been misle d by what he wrote immediately after
describing the experience i n queston: "This experience coul d well have been
delusive. . . . [A ] slight indication that it may have been veridica l has bee n
supplied b y m y Frenc h friend . . . . [TJhes e experiences , o n th e assump tion that the last one was veridical, are rather stron g evidence that death does
not pu t a n en d t o consciousness." The proble m her e come s fro m unclarit y
about what exactly Ayer means by "delusive" and "veridical. " Fro m th e context it seems pretty clear to me that he means to be discussing whether he had
such experiences during the fou r minutes he was heart-dead, no t whether in
having thos e experience s h e wa s really seein g a re d light , its ministers, disjointed space , an d s o on . H e i s not doubtin g tha t i t wa s all som e kin d o f
dream; th e doub t attaches only to its time of occurrence. Th e troubl e is that
the words he chooses mean the opposite of what he means: to ask whether a n
experience i s veridical i s to as k whethe r th e worl d wa s reall y th e wa y th e
experience made it seem, not whether one really had the experience. Here , I
fear, hi s faulty philosoph y of perception le t him down, causing him to utter
words that woul d naturall y be seize d upo n a s an abnegatio n o f hi s lifelong
opposition t o th e supernatural . Thi s wa s ver y unfortunate , an d i t i s no t
adequately cleared u p in the postscript. It is clear to me, however, that he was
not in any way taking seriously the ide a tha t he had temporaril y "crosse d t o
the other side. " The sobe r trut h is simply that he had a rather strange drea m
during th e tim e his heart ha d stoppe d beating .
FYeddie Ayer was a man wh o liked three sort s of scoring: goals in football,
points in philosophy, women in life. O f these thre e impulse s I would specu late that the first represented th e deepest par t of his nature. Hi s enthusiasm
for spor t whil e at Eto n i s stressed i n hi s autobiography an d hi s passion fo r
football wa s obviously totally genuine. H e belong s t o a type abundantl y exemplified o n th e America n sid e o f th e Atlantic , referre d t o b y the cogno scenti a s the joc k nerd : me n o f thwarte d sportin g ambitio n wh o sublimat e
their sportin g instinct s into intellectua l pursuits . Thi s typ e i s to b e firml y
distinguished fro m the nerd jock : the kind of man who finds himself good at
sports an d ha s to conceal hi s intellectual abilities from hi s fellow sportsme n
(it wa s tough bein g a nerd jock). Quit e differen t intellectua l style s ma y b e


expected o f these two types of person: compulsiv e competitiveness from th e

former, it s absence from th e latte r (h e got al l that ou t o f his system on th e
sports field). The jock nerd is alway trying to score goals against his intellectual opponents. Fo r obvious reasons this type is far commone r i n academi c
life tha n th e ner d jock, and h e i s generally found mor e acceptabl e there
especially if he has a "Sir" i n front o f his name. Freddie Aye r tended t o d o
philosophy as if it were a sport, as his fondness for the metapho r of playing a
game indicates. The troubl e is , it is not a sport .
The Meaning of Life ha s a n introductio n b y Te d Honderic h tha t i s illwritten, plodding , an d faintl y nauseatin g in places . I t add s nothin g t o th e
essays that follow ; an d th e boo k itself is poorly edited .

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Penrose: Pas t Computation

Shadows of the Mind: A Search for
the Missing Science of Consciousness
by Roge r Penros e
Oxford Universit y Press, 199 4

Consciousness ha s recentl y com e t o b e cas t a s th e fairgroun d coconu t o f

contemporary thought : everyone wants a crack at knocking it from its pedestal an d the n splittin g it open t o revea l the secre t inne r gleam . Boo k upo n
book, theor y upo n theory , ha s been hurle d a t th e toug h bristl y nu t o f consciousness, with the hope of at least grazing the big prizethe missiles invariably falling limpl y at the thrower' s feet or splashin g wildly into some nearby
goldfish bowl . The targe t ha s proved exasperatingl y elusive. There has been
much gleefu l jeering at the for m o f other contestant s an d manl y displays of
theoretical bravado. Some fret pessimistically over whether th e balls supplied
are eve n capable of the appropriat e trajectory. But ther e is always someon e
out there who believes that he has just the right arm for the job. An d think of
the glory!
Shadows of the Mind i s Roger Penrose' s secon d majo r sh y a t th e stubbor n
coconut, th e firs t bein g The Emperor's New Mind, whic h was a huge popula r
success. Despite the presenc e o f th e wor d "mind " in bot h titles , the bul k of
both book s i s take n u p wit h discussion s o f logic , mathematics , quantu m
theory, and relativit y theory. There is a reason fo r this: Penrose believes that
in those areas li e our bes t hopes fo r a scientific theor y of consciousness. Th e
new book is a systematic and length y presentation o f an argument tha t pur ports t o tell us both wha t consciousness is not an d wha t it might be. As with
the previous book , the reade r admires and appreciate s th e patience, clarity,

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e Times Literary Supplement (Januar y 6 , 1996).


66 M I N

and thoroughnes s o f th e treatment , especiall y i n difficul t matter s o f con temporary physics . Ther e i s neve r an y fudgin g o r wide-eye d metaphor mongering i n Penrose ; h e know s his stuff insid e ou t an d h e doe s hi s level
best t o communicat e i t t o th e la y reader. Tha t i s not t o sa y the boo k i s all
smooth sledding: some of it is forbiddingly technical and complex, and I find
it har d t o imagin e tha t th e typica l nonspecialis t reader wil l mak e muc h o f
some sections o f it. Still, the mai n lin e of argument does not require a high
degree of technical sophistication for it s comprehension, thoug h i t certainly
demands ver y careful attention. Indeed , a s I shall argue, th e central flaw in
Penrose's positio n ca n b e appreciate d simpl y by maintainin g clarit y abou t
certain ke y conceptual distinctions . Her e i s where a bi t mor e philosophical
skill would have usefully supplemented th e formidable scientific expertise o n
The firs t hal f o f th e boo k ha s a negativ e intent , namel y t o sho w tha t
mathematical understandingone manifestation of human consciousness
cannot be reduced t o the followin g of formal algorithmic procedures. Tha t
is, when a mathematician recognize s th e trut h o f an arithmetica l statemen t
he cannot be doing s o by applying a set of purely formal rules in a mechanical manner. Mathematica l understanding transcend s th e applicatio n of for mal rules to an axiomatic system. Accordingly, writes Penrose, i t is not possi ble to simulate mathematical understanding b y programming a computer t o
carry out purel y algorithmic procedures; suc h a computer woul d be unabl e
to appreciate th e mathematica l truths accessibl e to human mathematicians .
Thus consciousnes s possesses a powe r no t availabl e in principl e t o a com puter.
Penrose argue s fo r thi s conclusio n b y appea l t o Godel' s secon d incom pleteness theorem , whic h demonstrate s tha t n o consisten t forma l syste m
strong enough t o formulate arithmetic can be complete, tha t is , generate al l
mathematical truths. There will always be true mathematical statements that
cannot b e formall y derive d fro m an y system of axioms and rules . Penrose' s
thesis is that the Gode l result shows that mathematical truth, a s we recognize
it, i s not accessibl e t o a compute r programme d t o instantiat e a consisten t
formal system . Godel show s us that "huma n mathematician s are not usin g a
knowably soun d algorith m i n orde r t o ascertai n mathematica l truth, " an d
since computers hav e nothing t o go on except algorithms , it follows tha t th e
project o f simulatin g human intelligenc e by means o f a computer mus t b e
doomed. Al l computers ca n do is mechanically execute a Turing table, while
Godel tell s us that human though t ca n get beyond th e limit s inherent i n this
method o f ascertainin g truth .
Thus, Penros e asserts , we have a mathematica l theorem tha t effectivel y
shows that our mind s are not computers. The drea m of artificial intelligence
(AI) cannot then be fulfilled, fo r hard mathematica l reasons. (The argument ,
if correct, als o cuts against the dominan t paradig m o f contemporary cogni tive science , though Penros e doe s no t not e thi s explicitly , sinc e tha t para digm conceive s the min d a s a symbol-manipulating algorithmic engine. ) I n


order, then, t o gain a n understanding o f what underlies our actua l intellectual capacitie s w e mus t undertak e a searc h fo r nonalgorithmi c menta l
principleswhich i s where th e second , positiv e half o f th e boo k come s in .
Penrose expound s th e Godel argument wit h great care and rigor; an d h e
patiently examines twenty potential objections to the argument , concludin g
that i t survive s all criticism. It i s indeed a n argumen t tha t ha s bee n muc h
criticized sinc e a versio n o f i t wa s propounded b y John Luca s over thirt y
years ago. I mysel f am willin g to accept the argument , s o far a s it goes; m y
objections hav e t o d o wit h its significance, rather tha n it s internal validity.
Let m e begi n b y indicatin g wh y th e conclusio n of th e argumen t i s no t
actually very surprising. It is because there are several other reasons why the
algorithmic pictur e o f huma n though t i s implausible. First, ther e i s every
reason t o doub t tha t ou r nonmathematica l understandin g o f th e worl d i s
algorithmically based. Outside of formal disciplines, our mode s of reasonin g
are no t susceptibl e to modelin g i n term s o f mechanica l Turing-styl e pro cedures. W e do no t for m belief s about th e weathe r o r novel s or othe r peo ple's action s o r moralit y o r eve n chemistr y b y grinding throug h th e sub routines of a universal Turing machine. Mathematics is about the onl y area
in which such a formalistic conception could even seem appropriate, becaus e
of th e presenc e o f the notio n o f formal proo f i n that domain .
Second, a n algorithm i s by definition a procedure tha t can be carried ou t
mechanically, tha t is , without understanding; s o i t i s hardly surprisin g tha t
understanding itsel f does no t admi t of reduction t o purely algorithmic pro cesses. Algorithm s substitute for understandin g whe n use d i n a compute r
simulation; they do not reproduce it. That is precisely why we have done so
well in mimicking certain aspect s of human intelligence (think of the pocke t
Third, algorithms ar e essentiall y syntactic procedures tha t operat e inde pendently o f an y semanti c feature s th e manipulate d "symbols " might pos sess. (Thi s i s the basi c point o f John Searle' s well-know n "Chines e Room "
argument, whic h sets out t o show that yo u canno t deriv e th e meanin g o f a
symbol from it s physical properties.) Therefor e huma n mathematica l intentionality canno t be modele d simpl y by installing a syntacti c algorithmic procedure i n a machine. Finally, since the demise of the formalist philosophy of
mathematics, partly under the impact of Godel's theorem, w e no longer tak e
very seriousl y the ide a tha t mathematica l truth ca n b e explained purel y i n
terms o f the consistenc y of a formal system. Mathematical truth i s no mor e
"formal" than any other kind o f truth. Modern computationalis m about th e
mind, insofar as it is a holdover from formalist philosophy of mathematics, is
as discredited a s that philosophy. Both views seek, futilely, t o disregard con tent, hopin g tha t for m alon e wil l capture al l the realit y there is.
Assume, then , a t least for th e sak e of argument, tha t Penros e ha s estab lished th e followin g conclusion: it cannot b e i n virtu e o f enactin g a n algo rithm that we know mathematics, so that this knowledge cannot be simulated
on a computer solel y by dint of its algorithmic program. The proble m i s that



he wishe s to dra w a pai r o f relate d consequence s fro m thi s that simpl y do

not follow : first , tha t present-da y computin g machine s d o no t understan d
mathematics; second, that we need a radically new "noncomputable" physics
if we are t o explain consciou s understanding. Le t me be clear that I a m no t
disagreeing with the truth of these two contentions: I too believe that present day computer s d o no t kno w mathematics, and als o tha t consciousnes s requires a revolution in our vie w of the physica l universe. My objection ha s t o
do wit h th e reasons Penros e give s for assertin g thes e tw o truths.
What th e Gode l argumen t shows , assumin g i t t o b e valid , i s tha t n o
systema computing machine or a human braincould know mathematics
in virtue of following formal algorithmic procedures; bu t fro m thi s i t doe s not
follow tha t an ordinary compute r i s incapable of duplicating human mathe matical understanding . Th e reaso n i s simple: th e computin g machin e also
has furthe r propertie s no t equivalen t t o th e propertie s tha t constitut e it s
program. Fo r example, it contains chips made of silicon; it has a certain colo r
and weight ; it has electronic impulses traveling through it ; it was bought at a
certain shop . And now the point is this: for all the Godel-Penrose argument
shows, i t migh t b e i n virtu e o f thes e other propertie s tha t th e syste m ha s
mathematical understanding. Agreed , program propertie s canno t constitute
or underli e mathematica l understanding ; bu t tha t i s perfectly compatibl e
with insistinghowever implausibly^that it is (say) the color of the compute r
that give s i t suc h understanding ! Fo r Godel' s proo f say s nothing abou t
whether mathematica l understanding ca n be derived fro m colo r propertie s
or any other noncomputationa l property o f a system. Not that the propertie s
mentioned ar e remotel y sensibl e candidate s fo r wha t underlie s consciou s
understanding; bu t the y do serv e to make the logical poin t I am aftertha t
Penrose ha s not ruled ou t a form of noncomputational physicalism . (I myself
reject all such theories; bu t that is another story.) Similarly, we can agree tha t
the algorithm s the brai n use s will no t suffic e fo r mathematica l understand ing, while maintaining that it is (say) the chemical properties o f neurons tha t
do suffice .
To pu t th e poin t differently : Godel' s theore m concern s th e limit s o f a
certain abstract entitya formal systemto yield mathematical truth; i t says
nothing about whether , onc e tha t entit y is instantiated in a physical object,
the objec t ca n hav e thi s o r tha t capacity . This wil l depen d o n wha t other
properties th e object has. It is not that I am saying we know what those othe r
understanding-conferring propertie s are ; m y poin t i s just tha t ther e i s a
whopping no n sequitu r i n Penrose' s argument . H e forgets , i n effect , tha t
there is more to a computer tha n its software. The Gode l argument concern s
the insufficienc y o f algorithmi c software to yiel d understanding; i t is silent
on th e power s of hardware , howeve r conventiona l tha t ma y be. Fo r al l th e
argument shows , the computer o n which I am writing might have conscious
understanding o f mathematicsthough not indeed i n virtue of its program .
This ga p i n th e argumen t ha s a large impac t o n Penrose' s secon d mai n
thesis, namely that we need a new physics in order to explain consciousness .


For, in view of the non sequitu r just identified , he now has no argument fo r
that thesis : any old standby property o f current physic s might do the job, s o
long a s i t i s no t a programmin g property . Th e Gode l argumen t b y itself
cannot motivate the search fo r a new physics, since it has no implications for
the power s o f currentl y recognize d physica l properties t o confe r under standing o n a system.
It might be retorted that Penrose has a way around this criticism, which is
at leas t implici t in hi s discussion . H e migh t sa y that everythin g i n curren t
physics i s itself computabl e an d henc e ca n b e simulate d o n a Turin g ma chine; so any physical property tha t is now ascribed to machines or brains can
be represented a s an algorithmi c property . An d i f that i s so, then w e can just
repeat th e Godel argument wit h respect to that simulating algorithm: it, too,
will necessaril y fail t o yield mathematical truth.
This countermov e is, however, irrelevan t t o th e poin t a t issue . I t migh t
have been relevant , if the claim had bee n tha t mathematica l understandin g
actually consists in the algorithmi c simulation that i s alleged t o hold fo r th e
physical propertie s o f th e system ; then w e might hav e bee n abl e t o appl y
the Godel argumen t t o show that mathematical truth mus t reach beyon d th e
capacities of this simulating algorithm. Bu t that was not th e claim; the claim
was tha t th e physica l property itsel f is what confers understandin g o n th e
device in question . W e shoul d no t confus e a physica l system with its corresponding Turin g simulation : th e colo r o f a n object , say , i s no t th e same
property a s the interna l stat e of som e compute r tha t simulates the color s of
things, say with zeros and ones . Only a kind of bizarre pancomputationalism
could blu r thi s distinction. Bu t w e must always distinguis h clearl y between
following a program an d being simulable by a program. My computer run s a
word-processing progra m specified in its software; it may or may not be suc h
that it s myriad hardwar e propertie s ca n be simulated by some furthe r pro gram, sa y one tha t simulate s its behavior whe n droppe d fro m a bridge . I
cannot ri d mysel f of the impressio n tha t Penros e ha s tacitly conflated thes e
two relations t o an algorithm , which is what enables hi m t o jump from th e
Godelian limits of programs to what the physical world itself can bring about.
He mus t someho w b e thinkin g o f th e ordinar y physica l world a s itsel f a
formal syste m that i s bounded b y the Gode l result . But , of course , i t is n o
such thing .
The notio n of simulation can be mischievous in this regard. If I simulate
the weathe r o n a computer , I d o not , o f course , creat e a syste m in which
winds howl and rai n falls; rather, I create forma l analogues of those physical
phenomena. T o clai m tha t th e win d blow s things ove r i n virtu e o f distur bances of air molecules is, therefore, no t to claim that the simulation of thes e
disturbances i s wha t blow s things over . I n th e sam e way , to clai m tha t i t
is the neural structure of the brain that produces consciousness is not to claim
that a forma l simulatio n o f tha t neura l structur e i s wha t produce s it .
The reaso n fo r thi s is just tha t simulatio n i s merely isomorphis m i n a spe cific respect ; i t i s no t tota l duplicatio n o f th e syste m simulated . S o fro m

70 M I N

the fac t tha t brai n processe s hav e algorithmi c simulation s we cannot infe r
that the y hav e n o productiv e power s beyond thos e o f th e simulatin g algorithm.
Accordingly there is no way out for Penrose, alon g these lines, in spanning
the logica l gap I hav e alleged. Besides , a simulation of th e physica l basis of
mathematical understanding could hardly play the role of a formal system as
that occurs in Godel's proof, since it will not consist (like, say, Peano's axioms)
of a set of axiom s and rule s o f inferenc e concerning arithmetic. In addition ,
the Penros e argumen t require s tha t th e algorithm use d b e knowably sound
and b e employed as a proof procedur e for mathematica l truth; an d thi s will
not be true of a putative algorithm that merely simulates the physical properties o f th e syste m we are considering . Th e upsho t i s that, whil e the Gode l
argument migh t disprove computationalism, it is made o f the wrong stuff t o
disprove orthodo x materialism . Such materialis m has it s own problems , o f
course; my point is just tha t Penrose i s overreaching in deploying th e Gode l
result agains t it. H e ha s thu s no t shown that consciousnes s requires a ne w
There is a less technical worry about the first half of the book. As Penrose
is well aware, mathematical understanding is not th e onl y kind of consciousness ther e is ; there ar e als o sensations , emotions, perceptions , thought s o f
many kinds . Ye t hi s argumen t applie s onl y t o th e mathematica l case ; h e
offers n o argument agains t computationalism for those other areas . It is not
that h e thinks computationalism is true for nonmathematica l consciousness;
but nothin g h e say s count s agains t it s being true . Thi s i s surely ver y odd :
should no t th e underlyin g failur e o f th e computationa l approac h t o con sciousness appl y quit e generall y an d no t merel y t o thi s on e specifi c (an d
peculiar) area? Penrose cannot , by invoking the Godel result , have got to the
root of what makes the mind generall y insusceptible to computational treat ment. I t i s the propert y o f consciousnes s that i s the nemesi s o f computa tionalism, bu t tha t propert y crop s u p al l over th e place , no t just i n mathe matical reasoning .
Further, I thin k Penros e underestimate s th e difficult y fo r hi s approac h
occasioned b y the phenomenon o f subconscious mathematical reasoning. H e
assumes that consciousness and mathematical understanding are inseparably
connected, s o that result s concerning th e latte r necessaril y bear o n th e for mer. But , a s i s well known , mathematicians ofte n achiev e thei r result s b y
means o f subconsciou s mentation , an d thi s mus t involv e a recognitio n o f
genuine mathematical truthwhich the Godel argument show s must exceed
computational resources. Thus nonalgorithmic mathematical understandin g
can procee d withou t benefi t o f consciousness , which suggests tha t i t i s no t
consciousness itself that is responsible for the failur e of the f ormalistic reconstruction o f mathematica l understanding . On e suspect s that , eve n fo r hi s
chosen bes t case, Penrose ha s not pu t hi s finge r o n wh y it is that conscious ness per s e poses a special problem fo r artificial intelligence. Couple this with
the fac t tha t h e offer s n o positiv e suggestion s concernin g what i t i s about


conscious understanding tha t enable s it to outstrip forma l procedures , an d

we are lef t wit h a very partial pictur e o f the terrain .
As I have suggested, th e search fo r a new physics in the secon d hal f of the
book i s unmotivated b y the negativ e contention s o f th e firs t half , but tha t
does no t mean tha t i t is not interesting and worthwhil e in itself. Admittedly,
if I am right , it is a mistake to think tha t radical noncomputabilit y has to be
the appropriat e wa y to formulat e th e goal , wher e thi s allude s t o a typ e of
physics not susceptible to the usual kinds of computable mathematics. But let
us follo w Penros e o n the path h e has chosen to see where it might lead. Th e
central thesis now is that the proble m o f consciousness is integrally linked to
problems in the theor y o f quantum mechanics , specifically t o the natur e of
"state vector reduction"how "measurements" collapse quantum superposi tions to yield a classical world of uniquely characterized state s of things. T o
understand consciousness we need to understand suc h things as why it is that
Schrodinger's cat is not foun d t o be simultaneously alive and dead , despit e
the existenc e of comparable superposition s at the quantu m level . Noncomputability i n th e vicinit y o f quantu m theor y i s what Penros e think s migh t
underlie th e noncomputabilit y of mathematical thought .
To pursu e thi s conjecture , h e take s u s throug h th e man y odditie s o f
quantum theory , providin g a clea r (thoug h demanding ) expositio n o f th e
key principles. His objectivism an d realis m are refreshing, and hi s criticisms
of th e standar d approaches , suc h a s that o f th e "man y worlds" hypothesis ,
seem to my amateur ey e pretty devastating. As an advanced introduction, i t
is exemplary, though ther e are man y pages composed o f such sentences a s
"The vecto r z|a) is the orthogona l projectio n of \>\i) on th e ra y determined by
a), an d |x ) is the orthogona l projection of |i|/ } into the orthogonal complement
space o f |a) (i.e . the spac e of all vectors orthogonal t o a}. "
But the questio n is whether all this yields any dividends when it comes to
understanding th e mind . Doe s Penrose forg e an y convincing link between
quantum reduction an d consciousness ? Well, his eventual proposal i s nothing if not ingenious . Searching for a noncomputable elemen t i n state vector
reduction that will bear upon brain function , he is led to postulate a gravitational theor y o f quantu m actio n that , operate s withi n tiny component s o f
neurons calle d "microtubules. " Th e idea i s tha t a t thi s locatio n quantu m
effects ma y be magnified into a classical level effect tha t could influence the
growth o f synapti c connections. Thu s consciousnes s turn s ou t t o depen d
upon th e globa l superpositions o f quantum state s that occu r insid e the microtubules that exist in the cytoskeletons of neurons. The microtubule s function a s the condui t fro m th e strang e quantu m world t o revealed consciousness, an d a proper theor y of the transitio n fro m quantu m t o classical levels
will have to incorporate noncomputabl e elements . Thus it is that our mind s
can know mathematical truths that we cannot prove from any formal system.
We get input, so to speak, from the noncomputable antics of those marvelous
quantum-sensitive microtuble s in our heads .
What ar e w e to mak e o f al l this? I would certainly not faul t Penrose o n

72 M I N

grounds o f mere theoretica l extravagance , sinc e I too believe that a funda mental revision of physical theory is needed in order to make consciousness
fit into th e physica l world (thoug h I woul d locate th e problemati c nexu s i n
the anomalou s relation betwee n consciousnes s and space) . Bu t I thin k thi s
particular proposa l ha s very little to be said for it; despite the heavy artillery,
the coconut of consciousness isn't even wobbling. As we have already noted,
the searc h for noncomputable physical processes i s otiose, resulting from a n
inflated interpretatio n o f the Gode l argument. I t i s in any case very hard t o
see how th e kin d o f noncomputabilit y Penrose contemplates , operatin g a t
the level of state vector reduction, could possibly yield an explanation o f ou r
conscious mathematical understanding. N o genuine explanatory link is suggested, an d noncomputabilit y cannot b e the key to consciousness in general
anyway. And , obviousl y enough, th e theor y i s hopelessly insufficient a s a n
account of what confers consciousness, since (as Penrose acknowledges ) if it
were taken t o supply sufficient conditions , then superconductor s an d para mecia would be conscious. He thus weakens the theor y t o suggesting onl y a
necessary condition o f consciousness. But this softens it beyond th e poin t o f
real interest , sinc e what needs t o be added i s clearly going to constitute th e
vast bulk of the final theory. It will , indeed, b e precisely that which makes a
system genuinely conscious. After all, lots of things about the brain ar e neces sary conditions for consciousnesssuc h a s the proximit y of neurons t o on e
another, or the temperature o f brain tissuebut to say this is not to provide a
theory o f consciousness. Microtubules are i n fact everywhere in the biologica l
world, bein g par t o f virtuall y al l cells , so wh y i s it tha t the y produc e con sciousness only in certain biological environmentssuch as brains? Presum ably because th e brai n ha s some property, no t itself microtubular, that per mits consciousness to arise. But tha t i s exactly the questio n w e started with .
Among the possible positions Penrose describes is the view that consciousness is not amenabl e t o treatment b y science. He reject s this position o n th e
ground tha t i t i s "the viewpoin t of th e mystic. " But I thin k h e misse s a n
important distinctio n here. One versio n of the positio n is indeed religiously
tinged, picturing the mind as a supernatural something . But there is another
version of the position, which queries the meaning of "science" in the formu lation of the thesis . If it means a body of thought potentiall y available to th e
human intellect , then ther e i s room fo r th e vie w tha t th e proble m o f con sciousness migh t no t b e solvabl e i n term s o f th e huma n science-formin g
cognitive system . But i f it means an y theor y o f nature , whethe r o r no t hu mans can grasp tha t theory , the n w e might readil y agree tha t th e proble m
has some solution in this wider cognitive space. This distinction allows us to
contemplate th e possibilit y that inaccessibilit y t o humanl y constructed sci ence i s n o mar k o f th e mystical ; i t i s simply a resul t o f th e limitation s o f
human mentality . Such a positio n need s t o b e considere d alon g wit h th e
others Penrose identifie s (it is, in fact, m y position). He thinks that we need a
new physics in order to understand consciousness ; my point would be that to
get th e ne w physic s we need w e woul d hav e t o acquir e a ne w mindno t


something t o hold you r breath for . I n othe r words , consciousnes s is a mystery fo r the huma n intellect , given our menta l architecture , bu t i t does no t
thereby betoke n anythin g contranatural. Th e min d indee d cast s a shadow,
and insid e tha t shado w it itself falls .
I have made a number o f serious criticisms of Shadows of the Mind, bu t I do
not want to give too negative an impression of the book. I t is a deeply serious
and hones t attemp t t o understan d on e o f th e hardes t thing s ther e i s t o
understand. I t i s full o f fascinatin g discussions on a wide variety of topics.
Much o f i t is eminently sensible. Th e scienc e is beautifully presented. I t is
clearly the produc t o f a brilliant mind. Unfortunately, however, the subject
of consciousness calls for more than all these excellent qualities combined. I t
must have caused more broken-backed theories than any other phenomeno n
in nature .


Humphrey: Gettin g the Wiggl e

into the Act
A History of the Mind
by Nichola s Humphrey
Chatto, 199 2

Consciousness i s not sempiternal , i t ha s a history , a natura l genesis . Onc e

upon a time the universe contained n o consciousness; then it sprang u p here
and there ; and no w the plane t is Hooded wit h the stuff . Thi s is not t o make
the trivial observation that what people thin k and fee l changes over time an d
generations, sometime s quite radically; it is a point about th e deep biologica l
roots o f consciousness . Just a s animal bodies ar e product s o f a lon g evolu tionary process, in which chance variation is rigorously winnowed by natura l
selection, so animal minds must have a remote genesi s in the mechanism s of
differential surviva l as they worked on the available materials. Eyes gradually
emerged as engines for exploiting th e information containe d in light, relyin g
on th e give n chemical and optica l propertie s o f matter ; an d consciousness
likewise must have emerged fo r som e good biological reason, building on th e
prior properties o f organisms. The questio n is how and wh y this happened :
how did mentalit y arise from cel l tissue? Answering this question would tell
us no t merel y about th e etiolog y o f consciousness ; it would als o hel p u s t o
understand th e nature of consciousnessparticularly its relation to its physical substrate. If we knew the histor y of mind, then w e would have effectivel y
solved th e mind-bod y problem, sinc e we would understan d ho w consciousness arises fro m matter .
Nicholas Humphrey' s boo k i s a bol d an d speculativ e attempt t o recon struct mental history and hence to develop a theory of consciousness. He has

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Septembe r 10 , 1992) .



a goo d project , an d h e i s bracingly undaunte d b y it s difficulty . H e ha s a

number o f interestin g an d sensibl e thing s t o sa y about a variet y of topics ,
from th e affectiv e dimension s of color t o th e natur e o f blindsight. And h e
writes in a fres h (i f jaunty) style. Bu t i n the end , I fear , th e theor y h e pro poses i s a disma l failure : i t doesn' t wor k a t all . Don' t blam e th e author ,
though; blam e the problemi t is just so hard. Like most attempted theorie s
of consciousness , Humphrey's look s lik e a contende r onl y by trading o n a
mixture o f obscurit y an d circularity . What i s instructiv e about i t ar e th e
manifest contortions needed to offer something with even the appearance of
a decent theory . You see Humphrey bein g drive n from pilla r to post, alter nating confidenc e wit h aporia, i n a doome d attemp t t o lass o hi s quarry .
Consciousness stil l swim s ou t o f reach , flauntin g its mysterious gleam.
The book s start s encouragingl y enough, b y locating the proble m i n th e
nature of basic first-order sentience. Humphrey tells us, disarmingly, that in
his earlie r wor k he "cam e i n a t to o hig h a leve l and lef t th e fundamenta l
problems unsolved. " "To o hig h a level " was th e leve l o f self-reflection
knowledge of one's states of consciousness. This leaves quite untouched th e
prior questio n of the natur e o f the menta l states themselvesthe pains, th e
tickles, the seeing s o f red, th e smelling s of roses. Ho w do these spring fro m
mere irritation s o f nervou s tissue ? Humphre y no w see s th e problem , cor rectly, as that of "explainin g how states of consciousness arise in human [sic]
brains": ho w do w e get fro m brai n cell s to subjectiv e sentient fields?
Humphrey's theor y ha s tw o main parts : (f ) a distinction between sensation an d perception , wit h consciousness attaching directly only to th e for mer; and (2 ) the suggestion that to have a sensation is for the brain to initiate
a feedback loop from its core to its periphery. Both parts of the theory strike
me a s fundamentally flawed and cruciall y unclear.
Many theorists of perception hav e felt th e nee d t o distinguish between a
component o f sensory experience tha t acts as a sensation in or for the subject
and a component tha t corresponds t o the way the objective world appears to
the subject . When we smell a rose, we have a sensation in our nose , it seems,
as well a s perceiving something t o b e s o in th e environment . Awareness of
our ow n body thus seems somehow implicated in awareness of the externa l
world: we perceive the world from a specific body and ou r experienc e seem s
to reflect thi s fact. Somethin g happen s in us when the outer world present s
itself to our senses . The difficult y ha s been t o formulate this intuition, or set
of intuitions , in a wa y that doe s no t misdescrib e th e characte r o f sensor y
experience. Whe n we see a scene, which aspects of the experience constitute
the sensatio n w e fee l an d whic h depict th e outsid e world ? What i s strictly
inside us, experientially, and what points outward? This kind of question has
occupied philosophers for centuries and the pitfalls have been diagnosed. I n
particular, the need to preserve the essential intentionality of sensory experience ha s long been recognized .
Unfortunately, Humphre y shows little awareness of, or sophistication in,
the conceptua l an d othe r issue s that aris e a t thi s point, an d ofte n write s in



ways tha t indicat e a good dea l o f error an d confusion . H e fail s t o give an y

account of the representationa l characte r o f sensory experience. I t i s totally
unclear, in particular, whether he takes his category of sensation to be intrinsically nonrepresentational , o r whethe r i t i s simpl y prejudgmental . I s h e
making a divisio n withi n how thing s look t o th e subject , as h e sometime s
seems to be, or is he trying to identify a level of experience tha t has no worlddirected intentionalit y written into it? Humphrey say s repeatedly tha t sensations "represen t wha t is happening t o me, " a t m y bodil y surface . I t i s no t
clear ho w h e i s using "represent" here (itsel f a crucial issue), but i t is surely
false to suggest that in typical visual experience th e way in which my retina is
being physicall y stimulated i s par t o f ho w thing s seem t o me I hav e n o
experience of my retina .
Nor i s it acceptable to predicate colo r words of my sensations themselves,
supposing that when I see something green there is literally something green
inside mea "green sensation. " This is the old mistake of transferring to the
experience wha t properl y belong s t o it s intentional object . I n fact , Hum phrey unwittingly ( I assume) tread s the old path of the sense-datu m theorists, wit h it s debates abou t th e statu s o f secondar y qualities . Mayb e suc h
theories ar e mor e defensibl e than the y have seemed t o recent philosopher s
of perception , bu t Humphre y i s to o naiv e abou t th e philosophica l issue s
involved t o persuad e u s o f that . Th e centra l questio n h e neede d t o wor k
harder o n is this: is the sensation/perception distinction, as he wishes to draw
it, a distinction within the wa y the worl d appears t o the subject ? That visual
experiences hav e affectiv e corollarie s doe s no t show , pace Humphrey ,
that ther e i s a sensationa l componen t t o the m whic h ca n b e hive d of f
from th e way they represent th e world, since this might be extrinsic to thei r
Equally problemati c i s Humphrey' s conceptio n o f wha t th e perceptio n
side o f hi s contras t i s supposed t o be . Sometime s i t seems t o consis t in th e
judgments th e perceiver make s on the basis of his experience, i n which case it
is no t a componen t o f experienc e a t all , sinc e i t goe s beyon d ho w thing s
appear. A t other time s it seems intended t o capture anythin g about experi ence that represent s th e world outside the subjectsay , its looking to one as
if there i s a red roun d thin g therein which case its distinctness from sensation become s problematic . Matter s are no t helpe d b y saying, as Humphre y
does, tha t perception i s not modality-specific , whic h is analytically false, an d
by a n alarmin g tendenc y t o conflat e percepts wit h th e objectiv e facts the y
represent. No r i s it clear wha t he coul d mea n whe n he argue s tha t percep tion, as distinct from sensation , does no t involv e consciousness, since surely
how th e worl d appear s t o m e enter s int o th e determinatio n o f m y state of
The troubl e i s that Humphre y i s playing with a numbe r o f distinction s
and failin g t o pi n dow n precisel y whic h one h e ha s i n mind . Tal k o f tw o
"parallel channels " i s eithe r unhelpfull y metaphorica l o r downrigh t mis taken if taken to imply that there is a dual representation (i n the proper sense


of th e words ) i n ever y sensor y experience . I don't , afte r all , see m y retin a

every tim e I se e something that isn' t my retina .
The poin t o f thi s distinction , fo r Humphrey , i s to pav e th e wa y for hi s
theory of consciousness: it is offered a s a theory of the sensation component .
I find this theory bizarre, unmotivated, and inadequate. Th e idea appears t o
be this: to have a sensation, say a pain or a visual experience, is for the brai n
to send a signal to the peripher y o f the body , s o creating a physical disturbance there, and fo r this disturbance t o be registered, vi a a feedback loop, in
the initiating segment o f the brain. Th e theor y is that a sensation resembles ,
and descends from, such actions as the wiggle of an amoeba i n response t o an
impinging stimulus : in othe r words , it' s an activit y tha t originate s centrall y
and ha s effect s a t th e body' s surface . A visua l sensation o f re d i s thu s (is
nothing mor e than ) the actio n o f causin g the retin a t o fir e i n respons e t o
incident lighta s it were, wiggling the retina. Consciousnes s reduces, then ,
to the neura l causatio n of periphera l bodil y disturbances.
To b e sure , Humphre y i s compelled t o modif y th e origina l (intuitive!)
statement of his theory to handle the fact that we can have sensations withou t
anything occurring in the body, as with phantom limbs : his amended clai m is
that the body finds a surrogate i n a "cortical map," s o that sensations becom e
instructions t o caus e physica l disturbance s a t th e surfac e o f th e cortex
"cerebral sentiments, " h e call s them. Feelin g something consist s in makin g
your corte x wiggle . Bu t thi s doe s nothin g t o mak e th e theor y an y mor e
palatablequite th e contrary . T o repeat , a consciou s sensatio n just is th e
physical action of the brai n a s it causes changes in outlying portions o f itself
or in the body if there is one, wher e these changes are themselves kept track
of by means of a feedback loop. The immediat e presenc e o f sensations to the
conscious subject is held t o consis t in suc h "loopiness. " Since brains ca n d o
these physica l things, and sinc e that is all a sensation is, we have an explana tion fo r ho w brains generat e sensations . Success !
This i s a ver y disappointin g solutio n t o th e origina l problem . First , th e
theory i s really just a variant of familia r physicalist theories. Lik e behaviorism, i t see s th e essenc e o f a menta l stat e i n th e dispositio n t o caus e bodil y
changes, though i n the sensory receptors, no t the motor system . Like centralstate materialism , i t ends u p identifyin g mental state s with neural event s in
the brain . Lik e functionalism , i t stresses the "software " description s o f th e
underlying brain processes , thus allowin g for differen t physica l realizations
of the reverberating feedbac k loops that constitute sensations. And it faces all
the standar d problem s tha t bese t thes e doctrines , withou t makin g an y rea l
advance o n them .
Second, what about bodily changes initiated internally and subjec t to feedback that manifestl y doesn' t involv e any consciousnesshealing of the skin,
muscle growth, digestion, blushing? Since these involv e essentially the sam e
physical processe s ye t don' t generat e consciousness , th e feedbac k loo p
theory cannot provide sufficien t condition s for our being in a conscious state.
Indeed, i t i s hard t o se e why, according t o Humphrey , a thermostaticall y

78 M I N

controlled heatin g syste m doesn't hav e conscious sensations, since i t meet s

his conditions for consciousness. Physical feedback loops come too cheaply to
add u p t o mentality.
Third, the distinctiv e sense in which sensation s are owne d b y the subject
can hardl y b e capture d b y thi s theory , sinc e al l bodily state s ar e similarl y
"owned." N o specia l lin k wit h th e introspectin g sel f ha s bee n established .
Fourth, i t is quite implausible to maintain tha t th e phenomena l typ e of a
sensation i s explicable i n term s o f th e bodil y characteristic s o f th e sit e o f
peripheral disturbance . That would impl y tha t th e typ e seeing red is constituted b y the fac e that my retinal rod s an d cone s are firing in a certain way
as i f tha t wer e ho w thing s see m t o m e whe n I se e somethin g red ! Th e
physical properties o f my receptors, fo r example, th e insid e of my nose, ar e
not wha t individuate the phenomena l typ e o f m y sensations , fo r example ,
the smell of a rose. This kind of physicalist reductionism i s no more plausible
when th e physica l fact s obtai n a t m y surfac e tha n i t i s whe n the y occu r
further in . An d callin g the bodil y disturbance s th e "adverbia l style " of th e
cerebral action doe s nothing to make the theory more attractive. We are still
being told that the feeling of pain is just one kind of physical wiggling among
In fact , afte r a lo t o f preliminar y stage-settin g Humphre y spend s a
breathtakingly smal l amoun t o f tim e explainin g ho w his theory i s meant t o
capture th e characteristi c propertie s o f sensations , an d hi s explanatio n i s
obscure and unpersuasive . What he seems to be offering, at bottom, is a kind
of peripheralist identit y theory: a sensation i s identical with a bodily pertur bation o f a certai n sort . I se e n o goo d reaso n fo r thi s varian t o n familia r
central identity theories, sav e for a kind of half-suppressed behavioris t urg e
somehow t o ge t th e wiggl e into th e act .
Toward th e end of the book, Humphrey quote s me on the difficulty of the
mind-body proble m an d th e inadequac y o f our curren t mode s o f thought ,
and h e issue s thi s challenge : "I f McGin n stil l want s t o den y tha t it"
Humphrey's theory"i s th e win e of consciousness , le t him tast e i t and sa y
what i s missing. " Well , I foun d th e tast e elusiv e at first , thoug h finall y i t
revealed itsel f as the usual old plonk. What was missing? Oh, no t muchjus t
the presenc e o f any real grapes. Seriously : despite som e interesting inciden tal reflections, and a n admirable breadth of reference, Humphre y leave s the
mind-body problem exactl y where it was. His excurus into speculative menta l
history has turned u p nothin g t o alter th e basi c geography o f the issue.
A puzzling question I would like to have seen discussed i s why consciousness is so prevalent in the biological world; beyond th e simples t organisms al l
animals see m t o hav e some . Thi s coul d eithe r b e becaus e i t ha s grea t an d
unique biological utility or because it is written deep into the nature of matte r
and can't , s o to speak , hel p emergin g whe n particle s coagulat e i n certai n
ways. The first alternative is hard to reconcile with the fac t that it seems quit e
possible to imagine even complex organism s reproducing efficiently withou t
their behavio r being guided b y sentienceso why aren't there any (complex)


robot specie s o n th e planet ? Bu t i f the secon d alternativ e is the case , the n

there i s something amiss , after all , with trying to understand consciousnes s
biologically, a s i f it s emergenc e mus t hav e a direc t biologica l rationale . I t
might, o n th e contrary , od d a s this may sound , b e simpl y a by-product o f
traits that do hav e such a rationale. On e o f the grea t puzzle s of evolution is
why sentienc e seem s to be the preferre d metho d fo r handlin g adaptivity to
the environment. Why not process information without any inner feelin g at
all? Why , that is , does consciousnes s exist?
It is common to hear theorists insist that consciousness must be viewed as a
natural phenomenon wit h a natural history, subject to the rules that gover n
other evolve d characteristics . Fine . Bu t th e sam e biologica l perspectiv e
should encourag e a more sceptica l thought: namely , that th e human powe r
to understand th e world is itself a natural biological phenomenon, subject to
the usual constraints and limitations. There is no empirical or a priori reaso n
to suppose tha t our capacit y to understand natur e extend s to all the things
that puzzle us; it would be amazing if it did. Consciousness may be one of the
subjects that our biology has not equipped u s to understand. Thi s should be
regarded at least as a live possibility by anyone who takes the biology of mind
seriously. For all his vaunted naturalism, Nicholas Humphrey is, like so many
others, unwillin g to take his naturalism the whol e way. The reaso n h e can' t
produce a good theor y ma y be that hi s brain won' t le t him.

Churchland: A Problem Ignore d
Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science
of the Mind/Brain

by Patrici a Smith Churchlan d

MIT Press , 198 6

Contemporary cognitiv e sciencethat recen t an d fertil e confluence of phi losophy, psychology, and compute r sciencei s apt t o represent the huma n
mind (o r its underlying mechanism) as a proposition-manipulating engine , a
device for processin g language-lik e symbols. Thus, philosoph y of min d in vestigates the so-called prepositional attitudes (belief, desire, intention, etc.),
those centra l pillar s o f commonsens e o r "folk " psychology ; scientifi c psy chology tries to uncover th e mechanism s and algorithm s whereby the min d
constructs it s representation s o f th e world , thes e processe s bein g see n a s
symbolic computations; and th e builder s of computer model s of mental accomplishments progra m thei r machine s wit h appropriat e language s i n
which the machin e takes instruction. On thi s view, the mind is conceived as a
kind o f word-processor .
But if you examine the brainit s neural nut s and bolts , its electrochemical transactions , it s biological architectureyo u d o no t observ e th e opera tions o f th e propositiona l engine : nothin g sententia l appear s t o lur k i n it s
fissures and nuclei . Higher brains (lik e ours) seem t o resemble lowe r brains
(like reptiles') in this respect; and thes e lower brains look plainly infralinguistic. One reactio n to this invisibility of the informational is to suppose that we
are lookin g fro m th e wron g level : we have mistakenl y allowed th e ey e o f
theory to be fixated on th e brain's hardware; indeed , we shouldn't really be
looking at all. What needs t o be recognized i s that the brai n can be describe d
Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Februar y 6 , 1987) .



at different levels of abstraction; and at the more abstract level talk of prepositional machiner y come s int o theoretica l focus . I t i s th e existenc e o f thi s
more abstrac t levelth e "software " levelthat secure s a certain autonom y
for th e science s of min d wit h respect t o neurobiology. Thi s is, roughly, th e
Standard View .
But there i s another, mor e radical view, namely Eliminative Materialism,
which urge s tha t invisibilit y i n th e hardwar e i s a sig n o f outrigh t nonexis tence. W e strain ou r eye s seeking for th e brain' s propositions onl y because
we ar e shackle d b y obsolet e prescientifi c conception s o f wha t th e min d is .
Folk psychology , a theory o f the min d develope d befor e peopl e kne w what
science was all about, has created theoretica l figments that we are tempted t o
hypostatize into scientifically real structures and processes . A long hard loo k
at th e biologica l brai n shoul d serv e t o disabus e u s o f ou r ancien t folk psychological superstitions, and ope n the way for a genuine scienc e of what
goes o n i n ou r heads . Thi s is , roughly , th e vie w hel d b y Patrici a Smit h
Churchland (an d other s o f her persuasion) . Their mott o migh t b e crudely
put: i f you can't fin d i t in neuroscience, that's because it isn't there.
N'europhilosophy i s a five-hundred-pag e dithyram b t o th e brai n sciences .
Churchland's mission is to convince philosophers an d psychologist s that de tailed knowledg e o f th e biologica l working s of th e nervou s syste m i s th e
answer to their problems. Instead o f theoretical autonomy, they should seek
integration, reductionor, failing that, elimination. Psychology, philosophical or scientific , shoul d thus be prosecuted a s a branch o f neurobiology. Sh e
conducts her crusade with impressive zeal; tremendous energ y has gone into
the campaign, and there is something awesome about her conviction. But the
excesses o f evangelis m obtrude disturbingly : mesmeric repetitiveness, hectoring th e audience , rhetori c masqueradin g a s argument , blindnes s (o r
blind-sightedness!) t o th e opposit e poin t o f view . O f thi s sales-resistant
reader, a t least, she has not mad e a convert to the faith . The sparklin g new
discipline of "neurophilosophy" does not liv e up t o its advertising. It fail s t o
vanquish th e competitio n fro m mor e traditiona l approaches .
The boo k ha s thre e parts . Par t 1 , the lengthiest , offer s a fairl y potte d
survey of the histor y and curren t stat e of neurophysiology. We learn abou t
the behavio r o f individua l neurons, abou t th e functiona l architectur e o f
grosser structures , about the various techniques that have been develope d t o
figure ou t wha t is going o n dee p insid e th e brain . Naturally , this i s all fascinating stuffespecially , perhaps , th e impressiv e progress tha t ha s bee n
made i n understanding th e precis e natur e of the nerv e impulse. As far a s I
can judge, Churchlan d doe s a competent jo b of presentin g thi s material
though I suspect that many philosophical readers wil l find the details a bit too
technical fo r thei r taste . On e wonders , however , quit e wha t th e poin t o f
reproducing thi s material is, since it can be readil y foun d i n standar d text books of neurophysiology. And there is no real attempt to locate the scientifi c
facts in a philosophical context . It serve s t o demonstrate Churchland's cre dentials as a philosopher o f neuroscience who has done her homework , but

82 M I N

that is hardly a sufficient rationale . No significant gap in the literature seems

to be filled by these 235 pages. Th e dominan t impressio n they leave is how
far away fro m th e natur e o f th e min d detaile d knowledg e o f th e brain' s
physiology leaves us. Knowin g little about th e brain , w e are incline d t o en dow i t with magical powers tha t suffic e t o explai n consciousness , thought,
freedom, and s o on; but once we start to understand it s nature as a physicalbiological object, we realize that there is nothing supernatural in there, an d
then i t becomes even harder t o see how the brai n coul d subserv e the mind .
Understanding th e precis e chemistr y of neural transmissio n makes it see m
even more baffling ho w a few pounds o f soggy biological tissue could be th e
basis o f a consciou s mental life .
Part 2 broaches some relevant philosophy concerning theory reduction in
general an d reductionis m about psycholog y in particular. Churchland's exposition of intertheoretic reduction i s clear and workmanlike , though prett y
standard. Sh e gets more interesting when advocating her version of eliminative materialism. Suppose psychology (folk or scientific) failed to be reducible
to neurobiology : wha t woul d tha t sho w abou t psychology ? Ther e ar e tw o
main options: psychology is a respectable autonomous discipline with its own
well-defined subjec t matter; or: th e principle s and taxonom y of psychology
as we have it are bogus and deserv e to be unceremoniously eliminated fro m
science an d ordinar y thinking . Th e secon d vie w take s prepositiona l psy chology to be a falsifiable empirica l theory whose prospects are not bright: it
might well turn out, for example, that there are no such things as beliefs an d
desires, or indeed pain s and emotions, since these commonsense psychological categories d o no t ma p neatl y on t o neurobiological categories .
I do not think that Churchland provide s any good reaso n to suppose that
this elimination i s likely t o happen , an d th e prospec t i s virtually inconceivable. Yo u migh t a s well sa y that physic s is likely t o sho w that ther e ar e n o
objects i n spac e whic h causall y interact wit h eac h other . Whe n Descarte s
asserted tha t h e coul d no t b e wrong i n supposing himsel f to be a thinkin g
being he was not being misled by his ignorance or neuroscience. Tell him all
the neuroscienc e there i s to know, and h e wil l not be justified i n concluding
"Oh, s o I' m no t reall y thinking , afte r all. " A t an y rate , i t i s thi s kin d o f
intuitive conviction that Churchlan d need s t o undermineand n o amoun t
of tire d rhetori c abou t th e intellectua l conservativeness of philosopher s i s
going to turn the trick. Of course, ordinary folk may well harbor some pretty
funny ideas about how their minds work, ideas that deserve prompt elimination; but i t is another matter to claim that the general schem e of psychological understanding tha t we employ every day might , as a realistic possibility,
turn ou t t o b e simpl y false.
What would we lose if we junked th e resource s o f fol k psychology ? Well ,
without the ascriptio n of menta l states with propositional content, we would
lose the ide a of ourselves as rational (or irrational) beings: for the normativ e
notions of correct and incorrect reasoning require that logical relations hold
between menta l states . In consequence , logic itself would be deprived o f its


raison d'etre, since logic is the means by which people's prepositiona l reasoning gets evaluated: if there is no such thing as prepositional reasoning, logi c
loses its point an d purpose . No r i s it clear tha t anythin g recognizable a s ar t
could surviv e the repudiatio n o f the categorie s o f folk psychology : for how,
without thes e categories , coul d w e characterize th e artist' s intention ? Cer tainly the major (and minor ) works of literature woul d not have existed ha d
their authors bee n persuade d o f the truth o f eliminative materialism. How ,
too, ar e w e t o apportio n blam e an d responsibilit y withou t th e notion s o f
motive and intention? And what would ordinary huma n relationship s be like
if we could onl y talk brain physiology ? It sound s lik e a very dystopian pros pect indeed. (Thi s is not t o say that scientific psychology must slavishly follo w
the contours of folk psychology ; it is only to insist upon th e value and utility
of th e latte r a s an autonomou s mod e o f perso n understanding. )
Churchland is on much firmer ground i n part 3, unfortunately much th e
shortest sectio n o f th e book . Her e sh e expounds a theor y o f sensorimoto r
coordination develope d b y Pellionisz and Llina s know n a s "tensor networ k
theory." The basi c idea is that perception an d action might be coordinated i n
the brain by means of metrically deformed mappin g relations between bank s
of neurons. This theory is philosophically interesting because it characterizes
the underlyin g neura l machiner y i n nonsentential terms . I t is presented i n
some detail, but Churchlan d doe s littl e to put i t into theoretical contex t an d
derive appropriate genera l conclusions . She does not see that it is compatible
with propositiona l psychology , even whe n generalize d t o highe r cognitiv e
processes, a s a glanc e a t th e relevan t philosophica l literatur e woul d hav e
made clea r (w e just need th e ide a o f propositions indexing underlying non propositional structures) . Neither doe s sh e relate th e tensor networ k theory
to other theorie s i n psychology of th e sam e genera l shapenotabl y menta l
model theor y and th e analo g theor y o f mental imagery . These ar e area s in
which th e synopti c vision of a philosophe r migh t hav e been expected , bu t
Churchland's vision is too tunneled o n to the detail s of the neurophysiolog y
to suppl y this kind o f perspective .
A disturbingl y antiphilosophical vei n run s throughou t th e book ; begin ning with its very first sentence: "I n th e mid-seventie s I discovered tha t m y
patience with most mainstream philosophy had ru n out. " I t would be widely
agreed, I think , tha t th e perio d i n questio n wa s an exceptionall y ric h on e
philosophically: Davidson, Kripke, and Putnam, to choose just three philosophers, were doing important wor k around tha t time, much of it centering on
the mind-bod y problem . Churchland , however , wa s impatien t wit h it . I t
emerges late r tha t sh e is impatient wit h philosophical metho d i n general
she sees nothing coherent o r valuable in the kind of conceptual investigatio n
typically undertake n b y philosophers , pas t an d present . (Th e presen t re viewer is mockingly berated fo r believin g that i t is possible to do interestin g
philosophy o f min d i n thi s traditiona l way. ) She thu s consign s mos t o f th e
best wor k i n philosoph y o f min d thi s centur y (an d earlier ) t o th e rubbis h
heap. N o remotely convincin g justification is given fo r thi s hubristic dismis-

84 M I N

siveness, and on e can only assume that she has succumbed to a severe case of
scientism. Churchlan d is , of course , quit e withi n her right s t o fin d scienc e
more interesting than philosophyin which case she should hav e become a
scientist. But i t seems t o me deplorabl e t o convert thi s personal preferenc e
into a wholesale condemnation o f philosoph y as a serious subject. There is
really no need t o downgrade philosoph y in order to proclaim the importanc e
of neuroscience . I n fact , I thin k he r attitud e t o philosoph y i n thi s book i s
simply absurd .
It migh t have been differen t i f she had succeede d i n showing how som e
standard philosophica l problems could be solved by means of neuroscience ;
but nothin g of the kin d is shown in the course of this very long book. So far,
then, "neurophilosophy" is the nam e o f a nonexistent subject, at least if it is
intended t o offer a new approach t o the ol d problem s o f philosophy. As it
stands, i t amounts rather t o a proposal t o ignore mos t o f the problem s tha t
have occupied philosophers . Like the old discredited positivists , Churchland
will have none but empirical questions; but unlike them, she has no colorabl e
philosophical motivation fo r this parochial view. It is certainly no defense o f
her neuroscientis m to cite Quine as having "shown" that there is no analyticsynthetic distinction. Nor doe s it cut any ice to go on as if traditional philoso phers are constitutionally "antiscientific." It really shouldn't need sayin g that
both philosoph y an d scienc e ar e perfectl y respectable enterprises , eac h i n
their ow n distinctive way: but apparentl y it does.
This book is clearly intended t o appeal both to philosophers and to neuro scientists (as well as to psychologists), but there is a real question whether it is
necessary at all. The grea t bulk of the materia l covered i s readily available in
standard work s of neurophysiology and philosophy ; putting it between th e
same pai r o f cover s seems no t t o be a very great advantage . An d Church land's own contribution t o the issues could have been condensed int o a much
shorter book . A s i t is , the boo k contrive s t o b e bot h lon g an d superficial .
There are, t o be sure, some worthwhile ideas in it, but they are swamped by
irrelevant technical detail an d b y the fervi d excesses o f th e proselytizer .


Marcel and Bisiach :

The Languag e o f Awareness
Consciousness in Contemporary Science
edited b y A. J . Marcel an d E . Bisiach
Clarendon Press , 199 2

To casua l inspection, th e histor y of the universe woul d appear to have been

marked b y three great upsurges. I n th e beginning , cam e matte r i n space
particles, planets , galaxies . Physic s is the scienc e of thi s primordial being : i t
seeks to say what the laws of matter are , and (i f possible) how matter cam e to
exist i n th e firs t place . Afte r thi s initia l upsurge , nothin g essentiall y nove l
came o n th e scen e fo r a n unconscionabl y lon g time . Then livin g organism s
arrived. Self-replicatin g macromolecules bega t single-cel l organisms, whic h
led eventually to big, complex, war m animals like ourselves. Matter becam e
intricately arrange d int o livin g forms . Biolog y i s th e scienc e o f thi s ne w
arrival, and evolutionar y biology th e stud y of how it came about. Th e thir d
major upsurg e was consciousness. No w here was a genuine novelty , scarcely
predictable fro m what preceded it. Consciousness would need a science all of
its own , a s specia l a s it is , a scienc e tha t woul d tr y t o understan d it s inne r
workings, wh y som e thing s hav e consciousnes s an d som e don't , ho w i t
emerged fro m wha t cam e before , ho w it develops i n th e individual , ho w it
relates to behavior, an d so on. Psychology sounds like a good name for such a
science: th e systemati c stud y o f perhap s th e mos t remarkabl e o f nature' s
Yet the science that has gone by that nam e ha s been notably unconcerne d
with consciousnessits laws, functions, origins. Indeed , psychology has, de spite an earl y flirtation with introspection, pride d itself on repudiatin g con Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Apri l 14-20 , 1989) .

86 M I N

sciousness, an d com e t o be th e scienc e of physica l behavior. Consciousness

was supposed t o be "private" and henc e no t a suitable subject for objective
scientific study . I t wa s a s i f th e thir d upsurg e ha d neve r happened . Bu t
consciousness is now making something o f a comeback, a t least as a topic of
serious discussion, and Consciousness in Contemporary Science is an attempt, by
sixteen authorsneuroscientists , psychologists , philosophersto evaluat e
its statu s i n th e contemporar y science s o f mind . I s consciousnes s unitary?
How does i t relate t o the brain ? What causal role doe s i t play? What are its
pathologies? How does it map o n to the constructs of computational psychology? Wha t conceptual illusion s might i t spawn?
The reaso n fo r this burgeoning interes t is not so much a tardy reappraisa l
of earlier (philosophical) dogmas; i t is, rather, th e occurrenc e o f a variety of
pathological syndrome s i n which ordinary awarenes s is curiously abolished
or disrupted . Conside r "blindsight, " a conditio n muc h cite d i n thi s book .
Normally w e are awar e o f wha t w e see: ou r eye-base d discrimination s ar e
accompanied b y visual experiences o f which we are conscious. But in cases of
blindsight, caused by lesions to the striat e cortex, there i s a strange dissociation o f visua l consciousnes s fro m visua l receptivity. Blind-sighte d patient s
can identif y stimul i presented t o thei r visua l fiel d remarkabl y well, yet the y
protest tha t the y canno t seethey clai m to b e merel y guessing . The y ca n
"see" bu t i t does no t see m t o the m tha t the y can.
It is not immediatel y clear ho w these findings should b e interpreted. I s it
that the blind-sighted have visual experiences but cannot judge that they do,
so that it is their introspective capacity that has been impaired ? Or i s it rather
that they simply have no visual experiences to make introspective judgments
about? The latte r interpretation seem s more plausible , since their introspective capacity remains intact when directed on to input from other senses, and
the damage d are a o f corte x i s concerned wit h early visua l processing; bu t
contribunrs t o this book ca n be foun d sayin g both thing s interchangeably ,
not realizin g th e differenc e betwee n them . A t an y rate , w e hav e her e a n
abnormal cas e i n whic h the absenc e o f norma l consciousnes s force s u s t o
acknowledge its presence i n ordinary case s of sight. It i s as if a biologist ha d
living things brought t o he r attentio n b y observing th e fac t o f death .
Then ther e i s Anton's syndrome , i n whic h patient s ar e "blind " t o thei r
own blindness : the y thin k the y hav e norma l visua l experience s bu t the y
don't. And, o f course , there are th e well-know n split-brai n patients, whos e
left hemisphere doe s not know what the right hemisphere i s up to. These are
all cases in which bizarre dissociations in what we normally think of as seamless capacities seem t o occur. To describ e thes e condition s a t all we have t o
adopt the languag e o f awareness and it s lack, and liste n to the introspectiv e
reports of th e patient s sufferin g them.
While som e contributor s t o thi s volume (Lawrence Weiskrantz, Michael
Gazzaniga) fee l that consciousnes s is forced upo n the m b y the clinica l data,
others suspec t that th e concep t i s too ill defined to be helpful (Alan Allport,
Patricia Churchland , Danie l Dennett perhaps , Kathlee n Wilkes). These lat-

M A R C E L AN D B I S I A C H : TH E L A N G U A G E O F A W A R E N E S S 8

ter authors produce paper s in which one detects a lurking agenda behind th e
inevitable caveat s and retreats . The y clearly distrus t th e ide a o f conscious ness, fearin g i t will temp t u s int o ba d science , bu t the y canno t brin g them selves simply to forswear it, as the old-styl e behaviorists did. Allport bring s a
somewhat chaotic positivis m to bear o n th e proble m o f defining conscious ness, smothering som e of his more interestin g point s in bad ol d philosophy.
Churchland issue s dar k warning s abou t clingin g to o fondl y t o fol k psy chology; she has a dream in which consciousness has gone th e wa y of calori c
fluid or vita l spirits (i.e., there i s no such thing). I don't know whether Den nett thinks his eliminativist nibbles at the taste of soup remov e al l the myste ries from consciousness, but it does not seem to me that we need t o believe in
"qualia" in hi s sense (a s ineffable, private , intrinsic , self-proclaiming) in or der t o believe in the essentia l subjectivity of consciousness. Wilkes hints (he r
word) tha t ou r term s "mind " and "consciousness " lea d u s into harmfu l re ifications, an d tha t a loo k a t othe r language s (Greek , Chinese , Croatian )
should stop us worrying about the phenomena seemingl y referred to . Here I
cannot bette r he r ow n word s upo n concludin g thi s linguisti c survey : i t
"proves nothing." I f this is the best that can be said for eliminating consciousness from respectable society , then I think I will hang on to mine for the time
Among th e othe r contributors , som e embrac e consciousnes s an d se e no
special scientifi c proble m i n doin g s o (Marcel Kinsbourne, Phili p Johnson Laird), whil e other s accep t i t a s a difficul t challeng e t o natura l scienc e
(Anthony Marcel, Tim Shallice , Richard Gregory , Robert van Gulick). Kinsbourne think s it is enough t o say that consciousnes s is an "interactive" property o f group s o f neurons , n o mor e mysteriou s i n principl e tha n macro properties o f matter. Johnson-Lair d finds the secre t of consciousness in th e
hierarchical parallel processing of computers. Sceptic s will wonder whethe r
their confidence is misplaced: is it really that easy to see how a physical system
could be conscious? Van Gulic k has a useful discussion of subjective experience and intentionality, effectively criticizin g Searle, and makin g some inter esting (thoug h sketchy) suggestions of hi s own tha t lin k consciousnes s with
the degre e t o which a system understands it s own internal representations .
I ma y have seemed somewha t negative in my assessment o f these contri butions. It is true tha t a number o f the papers ar e routine , ground-grazing ,
confused. The y sometime s seem t o have been compose d t o mee t a confer ence deadlin e rathe r tha n becaus e the autho r ha d anythin g origina l t o say.
But th e boo k is worth reading a s a survey of how science and consciousnes s
now stand to each other. N o consensus emerges. An d it brings out the intractability of th e proble m o f consciousness , how difficul t i t is to sa y somethin g
illuminating on it .


Nagel: Th e Vie w from Nowher e

The View from Nowhere

by Thomas Nage l
Oxford Universit y Press, 198 6

In his introduction to this important book, Thomas Nage l writes: "There is a

persistent temptatio n t o tur n philosoph y int o somethin g les s difficul t an d
more shallo w than i t is" (p. 12) . No one coul d accus e Nagel of shallowness;
nor i s his book eas y reading. H e tackle s some o f th e hardes t problem s i n
philosophy with unblinking determination: the mind-body problem, the self,
the possibilit y o f objective knowledge, thought an d reality , freedom o f th e
will, the status of moral value, the happy life and the moral life, death and th e
significance o f living . Hi s treatment o f these issue s is consistently illuminating, elegant, an d provocative ; and h e i s properly modes t i n the fac e o f th e
problems. It is hard t o see how one could become on e of those philosopher s
who are "sic k of the subjec t and gla d to be rid o f its problems" (p . 11 ) when
there ar e philosoph y books like this to read. The View from Nowhere i s alive
with th e tru e spiri t of philosophy.
Nagel's boo k range s widely , bu t it s concerns ar e no t unconnected . Hi s
unifying them e i s an oppositio n o r tensio n between tw o sorts of standpoin t
we can take on th e world: a subjective standpoint, which reflects our particu lar and peculia r point of view on reality; and a n objective standpoint, which
detaches itsel f fro m thi s specifi c poin t o f vie w an d aspire s t o conceiv e th e
world sub specie aeternitatis. And hi s central thesis is that it is the simultaneous
existence of these two inharmonious standpoints that generates man y of the
basic problems o f philosophy: we are tor n between these two ways of seeing
Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m Mind (Apri l 1987) .



the world and cannot satisfactorily integrate them into a coherent conceptio n
of things . Becaus e o f thi s spli t philosopher s ar e pron e t o accor d undu e
dominance eithe r t o th e subjectiv e or t o th e objective , thu s producin g a
distorted pictur e of reality; the proper course i s to acknowledge both stand points and tr y to live with the intellectua l discomfort. "Absurdity comes with
the territory , an d wha t we need i s the wil l to put u p wit h it" (p. 11) . I think
Nagel is remarkably successful i n bringing this general structur e t o bear on a
variety of seemingl y disparate problems , and th e benefit s of reciprocal illu mination ar e considerable . Wh o woul d hav e though t tha t th e mind-bod y
problem, scepticis m and th e meanin g of lif e migh t al l exhibit th e sam e ab stract form !
The topic s treate d fal l naturall y int o thre e groupsmind , knowledge ,
valueand f shal l discuss Nagel's views on thes e i n turn , concentratin g o n
the first group, wher e m y disagreements ar e mos t substantial.
Chapter 2 is about th e questio n what notion o f objectivity is appropriate t o
states of conscious subjects, if any is. How can we conceive our ow n minds as
just on e exampl e o f th e man y possibl e form s o f consciousness , no t al l of
which will be "subjectively commensurable" with ours? Nagel rejects the ide a
that thi s objectiv e conceptio n o f th e subjectiv e ca n b e a kin d o f physical
objectivity: all brands of physicalist reduction o f mind are misguided becaus e
they canno t acknowledg e th e irreducibl e subjectivit y of mindthey canno t
capture wha t it is like to b e a (certai n kin d of) conscious subject. Rather, w e
must see k a notion o f "menta l objectivity" that recognize s th e subjectivit y of
mind bu t whic h does no t vie w ou r ow n minds a s privileged. T o d o thi s we
need t o for m a conceptio n of our ow n poin t o f vie w whic h i s not from tha t
point o f viewa conception tha t i s in principle availabl e to creatures wit h a
different poin t of view from ours. Nagel's thesis is that we do in fact posses s
such a general conceptionthe conception of consciousness in generalbut
that i t necessaril y omits wha t i s specifi c t o differen t kind s o f subjectivity.
Accordingly, no t al l aspect s o f realit y ar e representabl e objectivelyeve n
when th e notio n o f objectivit y is extended beyon d th e physica l paradigm .
There ar e som e fact s tha t ca n b e graspe d only b y mean s o f "subjectiv e
Here we must pause to clarify ho w the term s "subjective" and "objective "
are bein g use d b y Nagel . Hi s usag e i s not, I think , altogethe r consistent ;
indeed, hi s employment of the notion s i s haunted b y a systematic ambiguity
throughout th e book. His official formulatio n is this: "Objectivity is a metho d
of understanding. I t is beliefs and attitude s that are objective in the primar y
sense. Only derivatively do we call objective the truth s that can be arrived a t
in thi s way" (p. 4) . I n othe r words , "objective " is a predicat e (primarily ) of
conceptions, no t of the facts or properties conceived: and a conception i s said

90 M I N

to be objective in proportion as it is detached fro m th e specifi c point o f view

of th e conceiver . Thu s th e distinctio n betwee n subjectiv e an d objectiv e is
"really a matter o f degree" and w e may "think o f reality as a set of concentric
spheres, progressivel y revealed a s we detach graduall y fro m th e contingen cies of the sel f (p . 5). Notice that, in spite of his official stipulation , Nagel is
here already slipping into predicating objectivit y of bits of reality, a practic e
he engage s i n al l through th e book . I woul d mysel f say that bot h use s ar e
legitimate an d tha t muc h potentia l confusio n ca n be obviate d b y being ex plicit about the relations between these uses. A fact or property i s subjective if
it i s part o f (o r essentiall y involves) a specifi c poin t o f view ; otherwis e i t i s
objective. A conception i s subjective if it represents a fact from a specific poin t
of view, exploiting that poin t o f view as a medium o f representation; other wise it is objective. Combining this pair of distinctions yields four possibilities,
each o f which has instances : (1 ) a subjectiv e conception o f a subjective fact,
for example , ou r imaginativ e acquaintanc e base d conceptio n o f ou r ow n
conscious states and other s like them; (2 ) a subjective conception o f an objective fact , for example , ou r perspectiva l perceptua l representatio n o f a primary quality such a s shape; (3 ) an objectiv e conception o f a subjectiv e fact,
for example , ou r schemati c conception o f consciousnes s in generalwhic h
may include in its extension forms of consciousness not imaginatively accessible t o us ; (4 ) an objectiv e conception o f a n objectiv e fact , for example , th e
theories o f physics. Note that, on this way of using the words, the subjectivit y
or objectivity of a fact does no t dictat e whether th e fac t i s conceivable subjectively or objectively. Nagel's stipulation, by contrast, has the consequence tha t
manner o f conceptio n transfer s itsel f to trut h conceived a resul t a t odd s
with hi s own views . We can als o see that i t is only the objectivit y of concep tions tha t coherentl y admit s o f degree : a conceptio n ca n b e mor e o r les s
detached fro m an initial subjective perspective, but i t makes no sense (in this
sense) t o sa y that th e distinctio n between subjectiv e an d objectiv e facts i s a
matter o f degree: facts either involv e consciousness o r the y do not . We can
conceive o f a sensatio n o f re d o r th e squarenes s o f a n objec t more o r les s
objectively, but ther e i s no sense in the ide a tha t the squarenes s itsel f i s more
objective tha n th e sensatio n o f red. The temptin g mistak e here is akin t o a
use/mention confusion : we shouldn't confus e th e natur e o f a fac t wit h th e
nature o f the conception we have of it. The mistak e is easy to make when we
are discussing points of view on points of view, but i t is a mistake nonetheless .
(I am not saying that Nage l himself make s this mistake, just that h e does no t
sufficiently war n u s agains t it.)
We can no w sa y that Nagel' s question i n chapte r 2 is whether th e subjectivity o f (th e fact of ) consciousnes s allow s us t o detac h fro m i t t o for m a
conception o f consciousness that is not constraine d b y this subjectivity: must
the subjectivit y of consciousnes s invad e ou r conceptio n o f it ? His qualifie d
positive answer consists of an existence argument an d som e negative consid erations abou t th e working s o f thi s genera l concept : tha t is , we do i n fac t
seem t o operat e wit h th e concept , an d i t canno t b e explaine d i n term s o f


subjective imagination . Bu t h e say s littl e positivel y about th e conten t o f this

general concept : i t seems t o be simpl y the concep t o f a n inconceivabl e per spective. A more full-bloode d characterizatio n woul d be: a perspective tha t
can be grasped full y onl y by an imaginatively omniscient being. Bu t thi s also
seems to o thi n an d schematica s wel l a s bein g insufficientl y objective . A
functionalist accoun t (say) would supply what is positively needed; but Nage l
has (rightly ) rejected that . S o it remains unclea r whethe r w e can reall y pos sess a genera l notio n o f consciousnes s tha t ha s an y mor e conten t tha n th e
totally inspecifi c notio n o f existenc e discusse d i n chapte r 6 : th e notio n o f
an aspec t o f realit y w e ar e constitutionall y unabl e t o grasp . I n sum , th e
idea o f a n "objectiv e phenomenology " look s too muc h lik e a contradictio in
Chapter 3 wrestles with the relation betwee n irreducibly subjective mental
states an d th e physica l worl d i n whic h thos e state s ar e someho w located .
Nagel undertakes t o explore and defen d double-aspec t theorie s o f the mind .
It i s a fascinating discussion, but i t seems to m e seriousl y flawed b y a persis tent failur e to distinguish importantl y distinc t double-aspect theories : mov ing carelessl y fro m on e versio n o f th e theor y t o another , Nage l end s u p
making implausible and inconsisten t claims about th e natur e o f mind. Sur prisingly, th e conflation s turn upo n neglec t o f th e type/toke n distinction .
Perhaps I am wrong abou t this , but I have not been able to convince myself
that I am .
Let m e begi n b y distinguishin g thre e theorie s on e migh t wis h t o cal l
double-aspect. DA I i s th e thesi s tha t eac h entit y (substance , event , state )
satisfying a menta l propert y als o satisfie s a t leas t on e (nontrivial ) physica l
property (Davidson' s anomalous monis m fall s int o thi s category). DA 2 says
that menta l kinds are analogou s t o natural kind s such a s gold o r cat s in that
they possess, in addition t o their superficia l appearance properties , underly ing physical essences that nee d to be discovered empiricall y (early type iden tity theorie s sai d somethin g lik e this) . DAS i s the obscur e Spinozisti c claim
that both menta l and physica l properties are joint products of some hitherto
unknown third kin d of property o f which they are both somehow "aspects"
in somewha t th e wa y that th e temperatur e an d pressur e o f a ga s are bot h
"aspects" o f the underlyin g motio n o f molecules ( I cannot cit e a contempo rary adheren t o f thi s typ e o f view) . Eac h o f thes e thre e these s crop s u p a t
some point i n chapter 3 , but the y are never clearly distinguished. I n particu lar, Nage l tend s t o pass fro m DA I t o DA2 as if nothing wer e a t stake in th e
slide. H e wishe s to clai m tha t menta l concept s ar e "incomplete " in th e way
natural kin d concepts are, tha t is, they leave open what the empirical essenc e
of the kin d is. The wa y is then open fo r him to identify selves with brains an d
mental state s wit h brai n states : fo r thi s migh t tur n ou t t o b e wha t menta l
phenomena essentiall y are. Intuitions t o the contrar y ca n therefor e b e pu t
down to a confusion of epistemic and metaphysica l possibility, resulting fro m
the neglecte d incompletenes s o f the concepts : the y do no t tell us everythin g
about wha t the y refe r to .

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Now i t i s crucial t o distinguis h tw o sort s o f incompletenes s clai m tha t

might be made on behalf of a double-aspect theory. The firs t says that mental
concepts d o no t contai n withi n them specification s of every essential property of entities satisfying them : thi s would be maintaine d b y a two-property
token identit y theor y afte r th e fashio n o f DAI . Tha t kin d o f conceptua l
incompleteness i s uncontroversial and trivial : x' s being a table doe s no t in clude ever y othe r essentia l propert y i t migh t have . Th e secon d say s tha t
mental concepts contain a blank space which might be filled by an empirical
specification o f the very property denote d b y that concept . Clearl y we canno t
infer th e secon d kin d of incompleteness from th e first; it is a much stronge r
claim. The secon d support s the natural kinds analogy; the first does not. It is
not, i n fact , a t al l clear whic h view Nage l wants ultimately to defend . Is h e
identifying eac h human sel f with that human's brain, or is he identifying the
property o f being a self with the property o f having a brain of the same physical
kind as the human? The forme r thesi s is compatible with the variable physical realization of selfhood; the latte r i s not. I n som e places Nagel appears t o
commit himsel f to the stronge r thesi s (pp. 31, 39, 41, 47). But if he wer e t o
take thi s thesi s seriously , h e woul d undermin e hi s ow n insistenc e o n th e
irreducibility o f menta l phenomena ; fo r natura l kin d concepts precisel y do
admit of reduction t o concepts specifying the empirica l essence of the kind .
Pain would be C-fiber stimulatio n in the way heat is molecular motion. Wha t
it is like to be a bat might turn out to be a certain neura l configuration. And s o
mental objectivit y woul d b e reducibl e t o physica l objectivity after all . Th e
only wa y to block thi s result is to deny tha t menta l kind s could b e identica l
with physica l kinds, which is what DAI doe s bu t DA 2 does not . DA 2 allows
for a duality of "aspects" only in the sense that the conceptions are distinct; but
this is not enoug h t o frustrat e physica l reduction .
Nagel's position is rendered yet more puzzling by his remarks on supervenience. He thinks it likely that most mental properties superven e o n physical
properties (sufficienc y withou t necessity), but that there may be some menta l
properties, fo r example , th e tast e o f chocolate , fo r whic h ther e ar e als o
necessary physica l conditions. Rea d i n the usua l way, I thin k these remark s
are, respectively, not consistent with the natural kinds picture and not consistent wit h Nagel's own antireductionism .
It might be thought tha t DAS best represents hi s considered opinion : fo r
it seems to allow us to steer between reductionism and a no-connexion thesi s
about menta l and physica l properties. But thi s is not i n fact the theor y tha t
occupies Nagel' s attentio n mos t o f th e time , an d i t has trouble s o f it s own.
First, it is obscure. Second , i t does no t sustai n th e stron g conceptua l incom pleteness claima s DA 2 would. Third , th e compariso n wit h th e tempera ture and pressur e of a gas (p. 49) implies that mental and physica l properties
may tur n ou t t o be properties of the sam e fundamental kind , in which case
the menta l would b e a specia l cas e o f th e physica l an d menta l objectivity
would no t b e sui generis. On balanc e I thin k i t i s DA I tha t Nage l mainly
wishes to maintain; but the n h e should dro p the natura l kind s analogy. H e


does not need i t for his claim about person s and thei r brains, and it flies in the
face o f hi s own antireductionism. 1
In chapte r 4 Nagel invites the reader to be startled abou t wh o he is. How
could it be that / a m CM, that "small and concrete and specific" (p . 61) particular person? By what metaphysical miracle could th e centerless world of individual person s com e t o contai n me! The connexio n betwee n m e an d C M
must strike me as deeply "accidental." I have to confess right away that I have
never reele d a t the thought tha t I am CM, so I bring n o antecedent intuitiv e
perplexity with me t o Nagel's discussion. And eve n after studyin g it with as
open a mind a s I can muster I stil l do no t fee l the forc e o f the problema t
least not a s Nagel elucidates it. My own identity with CM still strikes me a s a
rather boring fact . 1 can, of course, imagine circumstances in which it would
not be boring: I might have amnesia and live in a hospital where trick mirrors
prevent m e from recognizing which reflection is mine; it might then com e as
a considerable surprise that the person I have learned t o call CM on the basis
of hi s reflection is in fac t me . Bu t Nagel' s claim is not tha t suc h a n identity
judgment could b e startling ; i t i s that i t is (metaphysically) startling , eve n
when al l th e fact s ar e in . S o w e mus t no t le t th e though t o f suc h specia l
circumstances cree p int o ou r assessmen t o f th e surpris e valu e o f suc h
judgments. Th e proble m i s said t o b e analogou s t o th e proble m o f ho w a
particular time can be now (he says nothing about the judgment tha t Oxfor d
is here, and I don' t kno w whethe r h e think s thi s raise s th e sam e kin d o f
Casting around fo r a suitable perplexity to associate with "I am CM," one
naturally turns to Cartesian intuitions: it is remarkable tha t I, this consciousness, shoul d be a particula r spatiotempora l physica l organism. Thi s at leas t
gives us a sens e i n which it might see m tha t I a m "accidentally " linked t o a
particular public person. A Cartesian will certainly profess incredulity at th e
suggestion tha t he can satisf y bot h menta l and physica l predicates. Bu t thi s is
not Nagel' s point: h e i s not merel y approachin g hi s earlier concern s fro m a
fresh direction . I can also agree tha t there i s something vertiginous about th e
recognition tha t I am fo r others n o more tha n the y are fo r me : all this vivid
pressing consciousnes s reduced i n thei r eye s t o a mer e behavin g physica l
organism, a s if my consciousnes s shrinks when conceived fro m a n objectiv e
standpoint. Bu t thi s feelin g seem s t o b e a reflectio n o f th e asymmetr y between first person an d third person acces s to a mental life: I subjectively seem
to mysel f t o b e th e hu b o f th e univers e becaus e o f th e shortnes s o f th e
epistemic distanc e betwee n m e an d myself . But agai n thi s i s no t Nagel' s
point. Wha t h e find s remarkabl e i s the fac t tha t m y "objectiv e self appre hends th e worl d throug h th e subjectiv e viewpoint of CM . That is to say, "I"
refers t o me under the mode o f presentation "beare r of an objective concep tion," whil e "CM" refer s t o m e unde r th e mod e o f presentatio n "creatur e

1 am indebte d her e t o discussion with Anit a Avramidcs.

94 M I N

with this specific subjectiv e point of view." What is held t o be surprising then
is the thought that Ione thingcan represent th e world in these two ways.
No doubt m y capacity for bot h sort s of representation i s remarkable an d i n
need of philosophical account, but I can see no intuitive force in the idea that
this thought i s what "I a m CM " naturally evokes. Sinc e this diagnosis is no t
offered a s an accoun t of the meaning of "I am CM," it is hard t o disagree with
Nagel about whether he has interpreted th e statement correctly: all I can say
is that it seems to me overly contrived to suggest that the identity judgment is
naturally or spontaneously associated with the kind of thought Nagel pins on
it. The Cartesia n thought seem s t o m e much mor e naturall y expressible i n
this way . Indeed Nagel' s own earlie r formulatio n o f th e problemho w a
centerless world can contain "the poin t of view from which I observe and ac t
on th e world " (p . 56)seems closer t o the Cartesia n though t tha n hi s own
preferred diagnosi s is. I therefor e remai n puzzle d a t Nagel' s puzzlement.
But perhaps I have lived with myself for too long to still be amazed at whom I
Nagel's use of the notion of an objective self calls for comment. He is apt t o
speak o f i t a s another self, numericall y distinct from th e subjectiv e self, bu t
coexisting with it. The questio n the n i s how to bring harmony to the uneas y
relations between thes e two competing selves . Bu t in his more cautiou s mo ments h e repudiate s thi s suggestion : he prefer s t o spea k o f ou r objectiv e
capacity, thoug h h e stil l says that "the objectiv e self functions independently
enough t o hav e a lif e o f it s own" (pp . 65-66). What is not clea r i s whether
Nagel relies essentially upon th e incautious formulation, at least rhetorically,
in his treatment of problems: coul d he reformulate his theses without loss in
terms of the sober literal interpretation of the phrase? I think he needs to say
more about ho w exactly he conceive s the ontologica l status of the objectiv e
self. He tends to waver between the dramatic idea of a conflict between selves
and th e more prosaic idea of a conflict between ways of thinking possessed by
the sam e self. Ho w muc h mileag e does h e ge t out o f thi s wavering?
Nagel's epistemology i s dictated b y his metaphysics. And hi s metaphysics is
uncompromisingly realist: We are contained in the world, it is not containe d
in us, and ther e is no guarantee tha t we can know and understan d it s objective nature. We are limited creatures thrown up by evolution, just one species
among others , an d th e world is not about to cut itself down t o our size . Ou r
view of the world is fixed b y our peculia r manner of interaction with it: and i t
is by no means certain that we can transcend the appearances t o discover how
the world is in itself. The ga p betwee n our belief s and thei r grounds i s wide
and perilous . I t ma y eve n b e tha t ther e ar e aspect s o f realit y of whic h we
cannot, even in principle, form any conception: for realit y is not constraine d
by our contingen t conceptual powers. A properly robust sense of objectivity


thus brings with it the threa t o f scepticism. Scepticism is, indeed, a sane an d
sensible reactio n t o our actua l predicament i n the world .
I find myself in considerable sympath y with these views . Nagel provides a
powerful correctiv e t o certai n idealis t trend s i n contemporar y philosophy ,
Kantian, Wittgensteinian , Davidsonian . H e make s som e goo d criticism s of
current attempts to foil the sceptic by invoking causal theories o f meaning (in
particular, Putnam): these theories suspiciousl y resemble earlier verification ist attempt s t o sto p th e scepti c i n hi s tracks ; the y fai l t o demonstrat e th e
unavailability t o the envatte d brai n o f th e genera l concep t o f independen t
existence i n spac e an d time ; suc h semanti c theorie s ar e actuall y refute d by
scepticism, rathe r tha n refutin g it . These point s ar e wel l taken , bu t Nage l
does no t attemp t t o sho w what is wrong wit h these semanti c theories inde pendently o f thei r relevanc e t o scepticism ; an d unles s thi s is done propo nents of such theories wil l regard Nagel's position a s mere assertio n (indee d
there are a number of places in the book where this charge ma y be expected).
But chapters 5 and 6 come like a breath o f fresh air across the somewhat arid
wastes o f contemporar y epistemology .
I do , however , hav e a coupl e o f relativel y minor misgiving s about thes e
two chapters. The firs t i s that the sanit y of scepticism is apt t o seem less solid
when w e inquire what its logical consequences ar e fo r th e trut h o f our ordi nary epistemi c claims . I t seem s fin e t o sa y that w e ca n neve r ge t outsid e
ourselves t o certif y tha t ho w thing s see m t o u s i s how the y reall y are , bu t
acute discomfort sets in when we are told tha t non e o f us knows anything or
has any justified beliefsthat i t is simply false t o say (e.g.) that I know that I
am typin g a review. Nagel does, i t is true, sa y that th e sceptica l standpoint i s
not one that we can happily integrate with our ordinary confiden t beliefs: but
he does no t reall y confront th e question whethe r realist-inspire d scepticis m
contradicts our ordinary epistemic assertions; he tends t o describe the conflic t
in psychologica l (not logical ) terms. Recen t discussion s about th e closur e o f
knowledge under known logical implication are relevant to this question, but
Nagel says nothing abou t suc h attempts t o protect commonsens e knowledg e
claims fro m th e ravage s o f scepticism . His discussio n proceed s a t a rathe r
lofty an d genera l level ; I would have welcomed a bit more analytic detail o n
the consequence s o f scepticism . Technicality i s not alway s t o b e shunned .
Secondly, Nage l advocate s a significantl y rationalis t epistemology : h e
thinks ther e i s an indispensabl e an d nontrivia l a prior i componen t i n ou r
knowledge of the external world. His reason fo r this is that the huma n min d
is capable o f generatin g fro m withi n itself hypothese s abou t ho w th e worl d
might be : experience ca n select among these bu t i t cannot creat e them . (H e
compares hi s positio n her e wit h Chomsky and Popper. ) I t i s true tha t thi s
conception o f knowledge is contrary t o certain traditiona l brand s o f empiri cism, notabl y crude Baconia n inductivism ; but i t doe s no t follo w tha t th e
conception i s genuinely rationalist, that is, assigns a nontrivial role to a priori
knowledge. Nagel (like most philosophers) say s little about what he means by
"a priori," but a s a first shot we can say that a priori knowledg e is knowledge

96 M I N

of truth s tha t i s not justified b y experienceas knowledg e o f mathematic s

and logi c hav e traditionall y bee n suppose d t o be . Bu t thi s definitio n doe s
not fi t Nagel' s " a prior i component" : fo r tha t provide s onl y knowledge o f
possibilitiesand knowledg e o f wha t is the cas e come s onl y when th e possi bilities ar e teste d agains t experience , f d o no t thin k tha t eithe r Chomsk y
or Poppe r ar e speakin g o f genuinel y a prior i knowledg e either : the y ar e
not sayin g tha t w e hav e knowledg e o f fact s tha t canno t b e (an d nee d
not be ) justified b y experience ; the y ar e no t likenin g ou r knowledg e o f
language o r scienc e t o mathematica l knowledge . O f cours e ther e i s more
than one strand in the "rationalist tradition," but it seems to me misleading of
Nagel to speak i n an unqualifie d way of a priori knowledge o f the externa l
In chapter 6 Nagel shows that we have a conception of reality that permit s
us t o formulat e th e though t tha t ther e ma y b e feature s o f realit y tha t
we coul d neve r conceive : th e probabl e incompletenes s o f ou r conceptua l
scheme is thus allowed for fro m withi n our conceptua l scheme. This sounds
paradoxical, bu t i t is not: we need t o distinguish between specific conception s
of reality and th e general notion o f the real. We can have a general notio n o f
truth tha t goe s beyon d th e particula r truth s w e ca n conceptualize . Nage l
argues fo r thi s thesis by inviting us to think of a species of intellectual nineyear-olds: their conceptua l repertoir e wil l be truncated relativ e to ours, bu t
surely they can for m th e ide a tha t thi s is so. A nine-year-old Davidso n wh o
claimed that there could be no conceptual scheme not translatable into theirs
would b e mistaken . Similarly , we might hav e a conceptua l schem e tha t i s
truncated relativ e to some superior species , and th e real Davidson among u s
would b e wrong to deny this. The underlyin g point her e i s that realit y con sists of independent fact s that we may or may not have concepts forwe may
just be constitutionally incapable of grasping certai n truths abou t th e world,
as other specie s certainly are. Thi s argumen t seem s t o me thoroughly con vincing and, as Nagel says, a particularly powerful refutation o f one kin d o f
idealism (t o be i s to be conceivable) . My only quibble concern s th e scop e o f
this realis t claim : migh t any secto r o f realit y transcen d ou r conceptua l
powers? Nage l seem s t o hav e physica l realit y chiefly i n min d (h e make s a n
exception o f ethics and aesthetics) , but w e can ask the questio n abou t other
areas too : logic , mathematics, our ow n minds. Might there b e truths in thes e
areas tha t we cannot i n principle grasp ? If there are , th e explanatio n o f this
transcendence i s liable to differ fro m th e cas e of physica l reality. Is it shee r
complexity that prevents conceptualization or might there be simple properties tha t ou r mind s ar e no t tune d t o get themselves around ? Certainl y th e
idea o f ou r containment in realit y has n o natura l applicatio n i n thes e othe r
areas. Wha t i s it tha t makes a particula r secto r o f realit y possibl y concepttranscendent?
In the course o f this chapter Nage l introduces an d make s use of a distinction between the "form" of a thought an d its "content." H e thinks that all our
thoughts incorporate th e human viewpoint in their form , but that it does not


follow tha t thei r conten t als o doesthis relates rathe r t o what in the worl d
makes the thought true . I n othe r words , thoughts necessaril y have a subjective form but their truth-conditiona l conten t can yet be completely objective.
This distinction is not entirel y perspicuous , bu t I think I understand i t well
enough t o disagre e wit h it: indeed i t seems t o m e a n abnegatio n o f on e o f
Nagel's own main theses, which is importantly correct. For , i f the subjective
point o f vie w inevitably colors ou r thoughts , s o that the y alway s represen t
facts from our poin t of view, then after all we cannot really be said to possess a
view from nowhere. It i s as i f Nagel i s incorporating th e huma n perspectiv e
into ou r ostensibl y most objectiv e thoughts i n rathe r th e wa y our peculia r
perceptual perspectiv e enter s int o our perceptio n o f primar y qualities : th e
"form" of our experienc e i s admittedly subjective but what is perceived migh t
yet be entirely objective. It i s true enoug h tha t we need no t thin k about th e
point of view/row which we think, but so long as our poin t of view enters into
the way in whic h we represen t th e worl d i t wil l mak e tha t representatio n
subjective. I woul d sa y that ou r objectiv e thoughts, sa y in physics , contain
conceptual constituents that are wholly innocent of subjective invasions: they
represent th e world from no point of view, and s o the very same thoughts ar e
available t o creature s wh o d o no t shar e ou r poin t o f view . It is , of course ,
tautologically true that any thought ha d by a human bein g must be accessible
to huma n beings ; bu t i t doe s no t follo w tha t th e though t incorporate s th e
human perspective , eithe r i n for m o r content , fo r th e sam e concept s ar e
available to other perspectives too. In the relevant sense, the objective self has
no poin t o f view , s o its characteristic mod e o f thinkin g is untainted b y an y
point o f view . (Thi s i s no t t o sa y tha t Nage l i s wron g t o scotc h th e no n
sequitur fro m for m t o content: i t certainly does no t follo w fro m th e subjec tivity of our wa y of representing somethin g that that thing itself is subjective,
or els e we could neve r perceiv e what is objectively there. )
The secon d hal f o f The View from Nowhere explore s th e tensio n betwee n
objective and subjectiv e standpoints i n relation t o intentional action, motivation, an d ethics . Parallel s with the earlie r discussion s are dul y noted. Thu s
the subjectiv e perspective o f th e autonomou s agen t i s brought fac e to fac e
with an objectiv e account of the causa l antecedents o f action: free wil l is the
main casualty in this collision. From th e objectiv e point of view it is not eve n
clear wha t freedom woul d be; yet we seem unable t o shed th e convictio n of
freedom i n our engage d doings . We seek to enlarge ou r freedo m by taking a
more objectiv e view of the determinant s o f our actions , but a t the limi t this
search undermines itsel f and freedo m seem s to evaporate. Nagel's presentation of incompatibilism is vivid and compelling ; attempts (lik e Strawson's) to
save fre e wil l simpl y fai l t o address themselve s to the rea l problem . Bu t th e
whole issu e i s s o difficul t an d perplexin g tha t on e canno t bu t agre e wit h

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Nagel's concludin g remark : "nothin g approachin g th e trut h ha s ye t been

said o n thi s subject" (p. 137) .
His defense of normative realism i s masterly: he persuasivel y argues tha t
there ar e reason s fo r actio n tha t w e can discover by taking up a n objectiv e
standpoint, and these reasons exist whether or not we recognize that they do.
He efficientl y dispose s of some popula r antirealis t arguments (Mackie' s "argument fro m queerness, " nihilis m about value , relativism). He put s u p a
strong cas e for th e modes t thesi s tha t pleasur e an d pai n provid e objective
reasons fo r actionreason s that lay claim to engage wit h anybody's will. H e
is les s convincing on wha t distinguishe s preferences wit h objectiv e signifi cance from preferences tha t only the agent himself has reason t o satisfy: thi s
is said to turn on whether the preferenc e i s for an experiential state or not
"the more subjective the object of desire, the more impersonal the value of its
satisfaction" (p . 170) . This seems wrong: surely my preference fo r listenin g
to rock music over classical music has no impersonal force . A more promis ing place to look is the notio n of need: my basic unchosen human need s ar e
what provid e reasons applicable to agents other tha n myself . These need s
will be typicall y associated wit h experiences o f pleasur e an d pain , bu t thos e
experiences ar e no t themselve s the sol e repositor y o f objectiv e value. O f
course thi s suggestio n woul d nee d workin g out, bu t i t seem s t o m e t o b e
roughly on the right track. There is a very good discussio n in chapter 9 of the
dilemmas tha t aris e through th e clas h between deontological mora l princi ples and consequentialis t considerations; Nagel shows how this clash reflect s
(again) the tension between subjective and objectiv e viewpoints (the objective
self ca n mak e nothin g o f a n agent' s deontologica l scruples).
Chapter 1 0 investigates the relationshi p between havin g a goo d lif e an d
living a moral life. Nage l rejects views that tr y t o define the on e in terms o f
the othe r (Aristotle , Plato), a s wel l a s th e Nietzschia n contention tha t th e
good lif e override s the mora l life. H e favor s instead th e vie w that the mora l
life rationally overrides the good life: morality may give us reasons to act that
rationally outweig h th e reason s w e hav e t o pursu e ou r ow n goodthi s i s
indeed par t of the standar d (reluctant ) admission that moralit y may require
great sel f sacrifice . Mora l reason s com e fro m th e acknowledgment , by th e
objective par t o f our nature , tha t other s hav e interest s that provid e u s with
reasons to actand these interests may well, if we are unlucky , conflict with
our own . Nagel is surely right i n taking this to be part o f received morality,
but it is a question whether hi s opponents ar e not recommending a revisionist morality: morality needs to be humanly livable, so where it is not i t should
be pruned accordingly . (I do no t suppor t tha t revisionis t view myself ; I a m
only tryin g t o giv e th e oppositio n a ru n fo r it s money.) I thin k Nage l expresses a n importan t insigh t when he say s that the demand s o f impersonal
morality issue from ou r objectiv e capacity, so that we do violence to our ow n
nature a s objective beings i f we tur n awa y fro m suc h morality : impersonal
morality ma y conflic t wit h th e agent' s well-being , but i t i s no t straightfor wardly against human nature . We might indeed sa y that th e suppressio n of


the objectiv e self s impersonal moralit y is itself a form o f "sel f sacrifice. " S o
the imperiou s claim s of moralit y need no t b e looked upo n a s completely un natural.
The boo k ends , appropriatel y enough , wit h a chapter o n "Birth , Death ,
and th e Meanin g o f Life. " I n thi s chapte r Nage l dwell s upo n th e awfu l
contingency of his birth, the insignificanc e of his life, and th e outright evi l of
his death. Again, it is the objective sel f that is responsible for producing these
disturbing feelings. Anyone incline d t o be unperturbed b y such reflections
should read this chapter (o r perhaps shoul d not) . While not at all wishing to
dissent from Nagel's bleak conclusions, I think there i s a respect in which our
objective insignificance can be quite soothing: it can make us more reconcile d
to ou r man y misfortunes , persona l a s wel l a s universal . I t i s consoling t o
reflect tha t fro m a cosmic standpoint non e of it really matters all that much ,
even ou r ow n death . I t i s something o f a relie f t o recal l tha t al l those to o
human problem s don' t objectivel y count for much . Imagin e bein g a chil d
again when all your worries and disappointment s too k on the dimensions of
the universebette r t o b e abl e t o detac h yoursel f fro m you r project s an d
passions once i n a while. Too muc h meanin g i n lif e ca n be a burden; insig nificance ca n lighte n th e heart . W e nee d no t worr y tha t ou r desire s an d
ambitions will crumble under the objective gaze: they are resilient enough t o
take care o f themselves. Objectivit y make s us aware of the absurdit y o f ou r
mortal plight , bu t i t als o enable s u s t o fin d som e consolin g iron y i n thi s


Chalmers: Wis e Incomprehension

The Conscious Mind
by Davi d Chalmer s
Oxford Universit y Press, 199 6

It is very hard to devise a theory of consciousness that is not open to decisive

objection. This is not because consciousness is so amorphously ill defined that
anything goe s an d w e fin d i t impossibl e t o choos e amon g a plethor a o f
options. Rather , no matte r wha t theory w e come u p with , it always seem s to
run int o som e shatterin g difficulty . Th e proble m o f consciousnes s i s like a
chess game in which a series of forced move s always ends in checkmate, more
or les s humiliating. Sometimes it seems that the bes t we can hope for i s some
teetering ad hoc contrivance that just manages to evade outright refutation
for th e momen t a t least. Philosophy is like that, we know; but with consciousness th e constraint s ar e especiall y tight.
David Chalmers' s boo k i s a n attemp t t o develo p a theor y tha t escape s
knockdown refutation , whil e tolerating som e counterintuitiv e an d uncom fortable features . Th e boo k i s ver y wel l argued , thorough , sophisticated ,
honest, stimulatingan d almos t plausible . I t i s certainl y on e o f th e bes t
discussions of consciousness in existence, both a s an advance d text and a s an
introduction t o the issues. One feels that Chalmer s ha s done about a s good a
job as could be done on this most intractable of problems . That said, I do no t
think the position h e defends ultimatel y works, and fo r reasons tha t ar e no t
surprising. Still , ther e i s muc h t o b e gaine d b y followin g hi s argument :
checkmate, ye t again, bu t a n impressiv e game nonetheless .
The boo k ha s tw o central theses , on e negative , th e othe r positive . Th e
negative thesis is that materialis m is false, becaus e the menta l is not logically

Reprinted with permission from th e Times Higher Education Supplement (Apri l 5, 1996).


supervenient o n the physical . The menta l i s not explaine d an d necessitate d

by the physica l in the wa y that th e observabl e macroproperties o f water ar e
explained an d necessitate d b y th e molecula r structur e o f water . Sinc e
facts abou t consciousnes s are no t entaile d b y physical facts, th e forme r ar e
something ove r an d abov e th e latter . Thi s i s argue d t o follo w fro m th e
conceivability o f zombiesentitie s physicall y just lik e u s bu t withou t an y
consciousness: since these are logicall y possible, the physica l facts alon e can not conceptuall y guarantee th e presenc e o f a conscious life . We cannot the n
come to know anything about consciou s experience itsel f just from knowin g
all the physica l truths of th e universe ; nor, a fortiori, i s it possible to analyze
experience i n physica l or functiona l terms. Experience i s irreducible. I t follows that dualis m of som e for m mus t be true .
The positiv e thesis now is that thi s dualism consist s in fundamental law s
that connec t physica l and menta l propertie s b y mer e natura l (no t logical)
necessity. We cannot reductively explain experience i n physical or functional
terms, but we can suppose ther e t o be a contingent empirica l lawlike connexion between them. This is nomological dualism instea d of the rejected reduc tive monism. The physica l does indeed "giv e rise" t o the phenomenal, bu t it
does s o only with the forc e o f natura l necessity . Experience i s thus a basic
feature o f th e universe , lik e spac e an d time , tacke d o n (a s it were ) t o th e
swarms of particle s tha t constitut e matter .
In additio n t o these tw o main theses Chalmer s speculate s tha t th e notio n
of information migh t provid e som e sor t o f lin k betwee n th e menta l an d th e
physical. Since the concept of information he employs is correlative wit h th e
notion o f causation (the Shannon-Weaver concep t o f selection among possi bilities), it turns out tha t experience i s ubiquitous i n the worldwhic h lead s
Chalmers t o endors e a versio n o f panpsychism . Thermometer s ca n no w
boast consciousness of some primitiv e form, a result Chalmer s declares him self willin g to live with. He als o ingeniously defends a version of functionalism tha t make s experience s lawfull y correlate d wit h (bu t no t reducibl e to )
computational-functional properties . Th e argumen t her e turn s o n th e implausibility o f dissociatin g quali a fro m th e subject' s first-perso n acces s t o
them, a s woul d hav e t o b e s o i f experienc e coul d floa t fre e o f a subject' s
cognitive processing .
There ar e tw o large problem s wit h th e theor y a s presented . Th e first ,
which Chalmers fully acknowledges, is that epiphenomenalism abou t experi ences i s entailed. Sinc e m y zombie an d I shar e ou r physica l and functiona l
constitution, nothing i n our behavio r differs , s o that th e doings o f both of us
can b e explaine d withou t ascribin g consciou s state s t o either o f usye t
I hav e them an d h e does not . I n particular , w e make th e sam e judgments
including, for example , " I am conscious an d currentl y havin g a red experi ence"despite th e vas t differenc e i n respec t o f consciou s experience . Bu t
now i t follows tha t m y utterance o f thi s is not explaine d b y what makes th e
judgment true , since my zombie's utterance canno t be so explainedit being
false i n hi s case. M y experience thu s turn s ou t t o b e epiphenomena l wit h

102 M I N

respect t o my self-ascriptions of experience. Chalmers himself spells out this

consequence and tries his best to draw its sting; but he is clear that it would be
better i f it could be avoided, and h e does not succeed i n removing the atten dant ai r of paradox. Wha t needs t o be noted i s that it is the denia l of logical
supervenience tha t lead s directl y to epiphenomenalism ; s o we nee d t o b e
very sur e tha t thi s denial i s compulsory.
The secon d problem , whic h h e nowher e confronts , i s tha t just a s th e
alleged conceptua l contingenc y o f th e lin k betwee n th e physica l and th e
mental lead s t o th e logica l possibilit y of zombies , s o als o doe s i t lea d t o
the logica l possibility of disembodied consciousness . For i f the lin k is merely
that of natural necessity, then ther e are possible worlds in which the laws are
abrogatedwhich means that the correlated propertie s coul d be instantiated
independently of each other. There are pure spirit worlds as well as zombie
worlds! I do not know whether thi s consequence would alarm Chalmers, bu t
I suspec t i t wouldan d rightl y so . Ho w woul d suc h disembodie d experi ences b e connecte d t o th e res t o f nature ? Wha t migh t thei r causa l power s
depend on? How could the y have any dynamic rol e in anyone's psychology ?
Where woul d they come from ? The troubl e i s that onc e th e psychophysical
link i s loosened t o mer e natura l necessit y the ontolog y o f min d come s ou t
looking pretty radically Cartesian.
Both problem s hav e a commo n source : th e denia l o f logica l superve nience. It is therefore extremel y important that this denial be shown undeni able. Chalmers is aware of this and argue s tha t putativ e notions o f a poste riori supervenience, in which there is no conceptual entailment from one level
to the other, wil l not provid e a viable alternative. Only logical supervenienc e
can block the conceivability argument to the possibility of zombies. I find him
quite convincin g on this , bu t h e underestimate s ho w pressin g i t i s to fin d
some way to defend stron g metaphysical supervenience, i n view of the prob lems tha t aris e fro m denyin g it . Th e crucia l questio n her e i s whether al l
forms of logical supervenience must be epistemically transparent t o us. Must
our presen t concept s allo w us to appreciate the natur e o f the supervenienc e
relations tha t constitut e th e psychophysica l link? Migh t w e no t instea d b e
confronted b y a case o f opaque logica l supervenience? I f tha t wer e so , then
there would exist concepts o f both th e physica l and th e experiential, an d o f
whatever relation s migh t connec t them , suc h tha t ther e i s an a prior i ex planatory connexio n betwee n thos e concepts even though they are not concepts we do or even could grasp. Th e conceptua l dependencie s woul d g o out side o f th e circl e of concepts we bring t o bear i n thinkin g about min d an d
body. Indeed , thes e concept s cannot b e within our gras p o r els e it would b e
plainly inconceivable to us that zombies are logically possible. In other words,
zombies seem possible to u s only and precisel y because w e do no t gras p th e
concepts tha t rende r the m impossible . There i s logical supervenience afte r
all, bu t i t is hidden t o ou r epistemi c faculties.
This i s surely a coheren t position , an d i t provide s a n alternativ e t o th e
other relations Chalmers mentions. In fact, he does briefly discuss somethin g


like this at one point , correctly attributin g it to me. But he does no t se e how
serious ar e th e consequence s o f rejectin g it , sinc e i t seem s t o b e th e onl y
viable way to avoid the twi n problems o f epiphenomenalism and disembodi ment, while accepting tha t we cannot reduc e experienc e t o physical properties. It is not dogmatic materialis m tha t prompts insistenc e on strong super venience but the need to escape the two problems cited. Indeed, th e thesis of
opaque logica l supervenience i s not materialis t at all, if that mean s tha t th e
terms o f current o r foreseeabl e physic s are adequat e t o explain conscious ness. Th e vie w i s actuall y quit e compatibl e wit h theorie s tha t regar d th e
physical as itself just th e appearanc e o f some deeper currentl y unconceive d
realityor with idealism for that matter. Of course, the view assumes that we
do no t know th e concept s tha t ar e necessar y for a satisfyin g explanatio n o f
consciousness; what it does i s use this fact t o explain wh y it is that w e can b e
misled int o denying logical supervenience, with al l the problem s tha t ste m
from this .
It helps here not to be too wedded t o the old framework of "materialism "
versus "dualism. " Bot h notion s assum e tha t materialis m i s a usefu l well defined doctrine , bu t i t is not, sinc e the notio n o f the "material " i s entirely
theory-relative. We don't wan t to limi t ou r theoretica l concept s t o thos e o f
current physics , but i f we make the notio n mor e inclusive it comes to include
anything tha t migh t b e relevan t i n explainin g what happen s i n th e world .
There ar e reall y just a lot of propertie s tha t migh t b e identifie d an d use d
in explanation s o f consciousness . Perhap s becaus e h e stick s t o th e ol d
materialism-dualism dichotomy , Chalmer s find s i t har d t o imagin e ho w
there coul d b e concept s tha t transcen d thos e no w used i n physic s or com monsense psychology , and henc e find s th e ide a o f opaque logica l necessitation difficul t t o accept . Th e firs t orde r o f busines s her e i s not t o declar e
materialism false , but t o question it s very significance .
The speculation s on informatio n an d panpsychis m are admitte d t o be a
bit on the wild side, but the problems go beyond mere incredibility . Not only
do w e se e n o evidenc e i n natur e o f th e experientia l propertie s allegedl y
associated wit h ever y causal process; i t is also not th e cas e that physic s finds
any need t o postulate such properties i n explaining the behavior of matter. If
all matte r ha s experientia l properties , shoul d no t thi s b e relevan t t o th e
correct scienc e o f matter ? Ye t ther e seem s n o ga p i n th e physic s of th e
inanimate that call s for th e ascriptio n of mental properties t o things. Thes e
alleged propertie s mak e no difference t o the way a rock fall s o r wate r flows
or an y other purel y physica l interaction. Th e onl y motivatio n fo r invokin g
them is in order to provide an explanatory account of consciousness; they are
idle otherwise . Subtrac t the m fro m tha t thermomete r an d yo u will no t ob serve any chang e i n it s behavior .
Chalmers's defense of a weak form of functionalism use s some intriguin g
thought experiments , bu t th e conclusio n tha t ther e i s a lawlike relation be tween functiona l propertie s an d consciousnes s is too wea k t o b e o f muc h
interest. We might equally claim that ther e is also a lawlike relation betwee n

104 M I N

experiences and underlyin g neural states: if you keep these constant you will
always get, a s a matter o f law, the sam e experiences. N o asymmetry i s established between the functional and th e neural if lawlike dependence i s all that
is asserted; s o it is wrong t o suppose that any interesting for m of functionalism has been established. All we have is a three-way lawlike relation betwee n
the mental , the neural, and th e functional.
The onl y way to avoi d bein g checkmate d b y consciousness is to assum e
you d o no t understan d it . Chalmers has done hi s level best t o understan d
consciousness, but th e result , despit e it s many merits, shows the wisdo m of


McGinn: Ou t o f Body , Ou t o f Min d

Take our ow n nature a s conscious beingssomething of unique fascinatio n

to us all. We want to know, among other things, how our consciousness levers
itself out o f the body . We want, that is, to solve the mind-bod y problem, th e
deep metaphysica l question abou t ho w mind an d matte r meet . Bu t wha t i f
there i s somethin g abou t u s tha t make s i t impossibl e fo r u s t o solv e thi s
ancient conundrum ? Wha t i f ou r cognitiv e structur e lack s th e resource s
to provid e th e requisit e theory ? Tha t woul d b e distressin g new s fo r th e
knowledge-manufacturing industry. And th e bringe r o f the new s might expect th e opprobriu m tha t traditionall y greet s th e unwelcom e messenger :
Don't say that.
I becam e a proponent of myster y on e dark nigh t i n Oxford , seve n year s
ago. A t about tw o in the morningan d I don't know , maybe the moo n was
fullI wa s seized wit h th e terribl e convictio n tha t ou r cognitiv e apparatu s
simply doe s no t fi t th e mind-bod y problem . Th e reaso n th e proble m i s a
problem i s not tha t consciousness is intrinsically outre (ontologically anoma lous, as we analytic philosophers lik e to say); rather, th e huma n intellec t has
been biologicall y set up t o dea l wit h othe r sort s o f questions , an d thi s on e
happens no t t o lie within its given modus operandi . W e seem pretty goo d a t
answering questions about material objects in space, and als o at handling th e
terms o f ordinar y psychology , but natur e ha s not prepared us to answer the

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic

(November-December 1994) .




question abou t ho w min d an d bod y com e together . T o a Martian , wit h a

different innat e cognitiv e structure, th e problem migh t look easy, while elementary mechanic s migh t prov e terminall y baffling. I t i s all a questio n o f
whether th e appropriat e intellectua l equipment happen s t o hav e bee n in stalled in one's head. Problem s only seem profound whe n we lack the menta l
gear with which to crack them. The profundit y of the mind-body problem is
thus neither a mark of objective miracle nor a misconception i n the formula tion o f th e problem . I t i s just th e perimete r o f ou r conceptua l anatom y
making itself felt .
But one can have some odd thoughts in the dead of night and maybe I was
succumbing to small-hours delirium. I rose an d wrot e down some notes, th e
better t o conduct a sober morning perusal . And lo ! the thought stil l clung to
me the nex t day . I had a n acceptabl e explanatio n o f th e theoretica l intrac tability o f consciousness . Ou r mode s o f concep t formation , whic h operate
from a base i n perception an d introspection , canno t bridg e the chas m tha t
separates the mind fro m the brain: The y ar e tied to the mental and physical
terms of the relation, not t o the relatio n itself . This solves the metaphysica l
problem i n a way, because no w we are unde r n o pressur e t o think tha t th e
world contain s somethin g heav y wit h intrinsi c impossibility: from th e fac t
that we cannot mak e sens e of somethin g i t does no t follo w tha t it makes n o
sense. W e kno w tha t consciousnes s exist s an d tha t i t i s robustl y natural ,
though we cannot in principle produce th e theory that would make its nature
manifest. Ther e is thus nothin g mysteriou s about th e existenc e o f the mystery.
I bega n expoundin g thi s positio n i n conversation s an d seminars , ofte n
causing a marked widenin g of the eyes . At that time I was Wilde Reader i n
Mental Philosophy at Oxford, an d som e waywardness was assumed t o come
with th e title . (Bria n Farrell, who ha d hel d th e pos t fo r thirt y years before
me, reporte d tha t hi s newl y acquired mother-in-la w had sai d t o him , "S o
you're th e Menta l Reade r i n Wild e Philosophy , ar e you?" ) I boldl y an nounced t o anyone who would listen that I had finall y dismantled th e mind body problem . Si r Pete r Strawson , Waynflet e Professo r o f Metaphysica l
Philosophy ( a positio n o f considerabl e seriousness) , onc e retorted , good naturedly, "Bu t I though t I'd don e that. "
A year afte r m y sleepless night, I manage d t o write a paper o n th e topi c
called "Ca n W e Solve the Mind-Bod y Problem?" whic h I submitte d t o th e
Journal of Philosophy, on e o f th e leadin g America n journal s i n th e field .
Hitherto, the y had accepte d ever y paper I had eve r sent them, but this one
was rejected without explanation. Eventually , it found its way into the British
journal Mind in 1989 . I now sometimes feel as if it were the only paper I ha d
ever written, so identified have I become with its content. An d i t is obviously
perceived a s some sort of provocation. "Oh , so you're the gu y who thinks it's
all a mystery, " people begin , eye s aflame. "Well, just liste n to my solution."
I then wrote some other papers expandin g o n the position, where were to
come out a s a collection, The Problem of Consciousness (Oxford), in 1991 . Soo n


afterward, Owe n Flanaga n o f Duke Universit y dubbed Thomas Nage l an d

me th e "Ne w Mysterians, " an allusio n to a defunct 1960 s roc k ban d calle d
Question Mar k and the Mysterians. In a famous 1974 paper, "What Is It Like
to Be a Bat?," Nagel argued tha t consciousness constitutes a serious obstacl e
in the way of materialismthough he has never in fact embraced th e insolu bility thesi s tha t I defend . Noa m Chomsk y should als o hav e been brough t
under thi s ironi c honorific , sinc e h e ha s fo r year s hel d th e vie w tha t th e
human cognitiv e syste m divides th e clas s of intelligibl e questions int o th e
mere problem s and the insuperable mysteries; indeed th e term "mystery" in
its presen t us e i s a legacy from him . I hav e derive d muc h low-fa t nourish ment from Chomsky's writings on this subject, and discussions with him have
been important t o my own development of the basic viewpoint. The modula r
conception o f mind , wit h linguisti c competenc e a s on e modul e amon g
others, i s integral t o m y picture o f cognitiv e limitation.
The labe l "mysterian" is potentially misleading , however: none o f u s re gards hi s convictio n o f th e limit s of huma n understandin g a s i n an y way
mystical or romantic . O n th e contrary, the vie w is motivated by a ruthlessl y
naturalistic perspective o n the huma n intellect. As Chomsky often observes ,
the huma n min d i s just a collection of specifi c finit e organs , a s biologically
natural a s the organs o f the body. There are therefor e limit s to our knowledge in the wa y that ther e ar e limit s to our moto r abilities .
The review s of m y book were , a s one politel y says, mixed. The y tende d
toward th e edg y an d distancing . Th e tw o extremes wer e represente d b y
philosophy professor s Jerr y Fodor , m y colleagu e a t Rutgers , an d Danie l
Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained (Little , Brown, 1991). Fodor sympathized wit h my position , thoug h h e dissente d fro m som e application s I
make of it. Dennett began his review by declaring that he was embarrassed t o
be in the sam e professio n a s me, and wen t on to sugges t that I belong t o a
sinister cadre of "New Jersey Nihilists " intent on destroying cognitive science
as we know it. ("Ne w Jersey" becaus e I move d fro m Oxfor d t o Rutger s i n
1990though thi s mov e ha d nothin g t o d o wit h my views about th e dar k
roots o f consciousness. ) M y fello w Garde n Stat e nihilist s were sai d t o in clude Chomsky, Fodor, and Nagelal l fearfully dangerou s chaps . The labe l
lacked factua l accuracy: Chomsky wa s and stil l i s at MIT , Nage l a t NYU;
Fodor formulated hi s notion o f "epistemic boundedness" while at MIT; an d
I ha d m y idea a t Oxford . Moreover , ther e i s nothing nihilisti c about th e
position, any mor e tha n i t is nihilistic to sugges t tha t huma n being s canno t
learn ever y possibl e languag e b y mean s o f thei r innat e huma n languag e
module. Sometime s pessimism is just th e rationa l upsho t o f realism, not a n
urge t o tea r dow n th e goo d an d th e beautiful . M y response t o al l this a d
hominem labelin g wa s t o suspec t th e operatio n o f wha t migh t b e calle d
Tufts's syndrom e (Dennet t i s a professo r a t Tufts) a conditio n charac terized by the patient's hysterica l hostility to anyone who questions his grandiose ambitions . Bu t her e I ruefully begin t o pla y a game I deplore.
In general, th e reactions I have received, other tha n thos e I have outlined

108 M I N

above, hav e falle n int o thre e mai n categories . On e grudgingl y admit s th e

logical possibilit y of m y thesis's being correc t bu t insist s that ther e i s absolutely n o reaso n t o tak e i t seriously : th e solutio n ma y b e just aroun d th e
corner; w e should ge t on with our researches undaunte d b y the fear that ou r
intelligence might be the wrong shape for the mind-body problem. Anothe r
sort o f reactio n i s brutall y pragmatic : w e shoul d procee d a s i f th e dee p
problems ar e soluble , despite al l the evidence to the contrary, so that we can
continue t o receive funding fo r ou r wor k and kee p u p ou r motivation . Pu t
less cynically: since the value of a theory of consciousness would be very high,
and sinc e there is at leas t a nonzero probabilit y of th e problem' s solubility,
it i s rational t o kee p aimin g fo r a solutio n i n th e hop e tha t fat e wil l smil e
upon us .
A third response i s to associate my view with religious tenets, either favorably or unfavorably . Thus I hav e had peopl e congratulate m e on findin g a
place fo r Go d i n ou r soulles s contemporary worldviewm y positio n bein g
thought t o impl y that th e supernatura l sou l i s alive and wel l an d livin g in
New Brunswick. Then there are th e secula r scientific types who think the y
have foun d th e chin k i n th e otherwis e har d glaz e o f m y officia l atheism .
Next, the y insinuate , I wil l b e extollin g panpsychism , ESP , o r th e spiri t
Perhaps th e most unexpected respons e cam e from a woman attending a
conference I participate d i n wit h mathematicia n an d philosophe r Roge r
Penrose an d Dennet t a t Dartmout h i n April . Th e conferenc e deal t wit h
consciousness, computers , quantu m physics , an d simila r abstrac t topics ,
though i t was intended fo r th e genera l public . I wa s expounding m y usual
position, putting special emphasis on th e poin t tha t whil e consciousness is a
nonspatial phenomenon, huma n though t i s fundamentally governed b y spatial mode s o f representin g th e world , so that ou r way s o f thinkin g tend t o
force consciousnes s ont o a Procrustea n be d o f broadl y Euclidea n design .
The woman , who seemed oddl y agitated, objected, saying that while it might
well be true tha t the male mind coul d not solve the problem s raise d b y these
areas, the female min d woul d be much better a t handling them . I explaine d
that my position was that the problem goe s much deeper than that, applying
to the huma n cognitive system as such. After all, I noted, it is not a s if when
asked abou t th e mind-bod y proble m o r th e puzzle s o f quantu m theor y
women come right out with the correc t solution . She retorted that I was not
entitled t o mak e thi s claim , sinc e ther e wer e n o femal e philosopher s o r
physicists at th e conferenc e t o ask.
The leas t common reactio n i s the one that seem s to me the most obvious:
that my diagnosis of this particular philosophical problem i s simply too facile ,
too convenient. But, I must reply, most of the great dead philosophers hav e
been a s pessimistic as I a m abou t solvin g the cor e philosophica l problems .
What is new about m y position i s not th e unsolvability thesis as such but th e
particular explanatio n I give of it. I suspect the reason for the oppositio n is,
in part , tha t my cognitive pessimism collides with the kin d o f indelible opti -



mism characteristic of modern (especiall y American) culture. Instea d o f cando and leave-it-to-me, I am preaching don't-tr y and it's-never-going-to-work.
I deny , in effect , th e perfectibilit y of man, epistemologicall y speaking .
I recentl y publishe d a book , Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry
(Oxford, 1993 ) that sets out these general views in a systematic and explicitl y
metaphilosophical way . In additio n t o consciousness, I discuss free will , th e
self, meaning , mathematics , knowledgeextendin g m y treatmen t o f con sciousness to thes e othe r topics . Cognitive closure, I argue , turn s ou t t o be
rather pervasive . I also suggest tha t while human reaso n i s not equippe d t o
solve the problems in question, there may be other epistemic systems that can
do better. Thus the genetic code arguably contains precisely the informatio n
about ou r menta l makeu p tha t w e canno t acquir e b y th e exercis e o f ou r
rational faculties , sinc e the gene s hav e to encode th e informatio n necessar y
to organisms with consciousness, free will, and s o on. I can hear th e howl s of
protest now : "It' s ba d enoug h t o downgrad e huma n reaso n b y drawin g
boundaries aroun d it , but no w you are suggestin g tha t DN A molecules ar e
better philosopher s tha n w e are! " Well , yes , tha t i s m y suggestion , pu t
crudely. Huma n reaso n i s an adventitiou s biologica l orga n whos e job de scription plainl y does no t includ e solvin g every proble m abou t th e natura l
worldwhile th e gene s hav e th e biologica l tas k o f engineerin g organism s
from th e groun d up , s o the y ha d bette r hav e acces s t o th e informatio n
needed t o perfor m thi s feat.
I once gav e a talk on this to some biologists and the y construed m y argument a s a reason t o back th e Huma n Genom e Project . I pointed out , how ever, tha t i t wa s a consequenc e o f m y vie w that , whateve r valuabl e philo sophical information the genes migh t contain, it was not going to be translatable into human language. Our conceptual schem e does not, according to my
argument, coincide with the informational resources o f the genes. This is not
to sa y that w e are "stupider " tha n th e genes , sinc e plainl y we can d o man y
things with our mind s that they cannot do. The upsho t o f these reflections is
rather tha t th e concep t o f intelligence need s t o be understood muc h mor e
subtly tha n w e are anthropocentricall y incline d t o think .
Earlier thi s year, Scientific American ran a n article on whethe r scienc e can
explain consciousness. There is a rather eeri e photograph o f me, seated on a
gothic rockin g chai r wit h a curlin g dea d twi g seemin g t o gro w ou t o f m y
skull. Som e sa y I resembl e th e fil m acto r Anthon y Hopkin s i n th e rol e o f
Hannibal Lecter. I certainly look severe. I would hav e preferre d on e o f th e
shots take n o f m y cat and m e pretendin g t o pla y chess together , th e poin t
being that chess is to the cat mind what consciousness is to the human mind
out o f cognitiv e reach. Th e captio n beneat h th e pictur e describe s m e a s a
"Hard-Core Mysterian, " which is I suppose prett y muc h wha t I look like. If
I'd been asked, I'd hav e preferred t o be called a commonsense noumenalist ,
following Kant' s use of the ter m "noumenal" to denote that region o f reality
that is incognizable by us. But by now I realize tha t once i n the publi c real m
one's identit y i s apt t o becom e detache d fro m one' s ow n conceptio n o f it .



From no w on, a hard-core mysteria n is what 1 am condemned t o bea gur u

of ignorance, a hig h pries t o f menta l lack.
By chance, a man fro m Co n Edison came to read m y gas meter wit h that
very issue of Scientific American stuffed int o his back pocket. I indicated th e
picture o f me , t o hi s intens e amazement . I awaite d hushe d inquiries . H e
confided tha t h e wa s particularly interested i n th e articl e o n wasp s that lay
their egg s in the bodies of live grubs and that he hadn't gotten aroun d t o the
consciousness articl e yet. I had t o agree tha t wasp child-rearing wa s indee d
an interestin g subject . The nex t tim e h e cam e h e mad e n o mentio n o f th e
article i n whic h I ha d figured . Clearly , grub s an d wasp s wer e a fa r mor e
fascinating subjec t than consciousness .
What difference ha s being a mysterian made t o my life? Fro m a n interna l
point o f view , i t ha s release d m e fro m th e uncomfortabl e sensatio n tha t
philosophical problem s hav e alway s stimulate d i n meth e feelin g tha t re ality i s inherently preposterous , il l formed, bizarre . No w I believ e tha t th e
eeriness of consciousness and allie d enigmas is just a projection of my limited
intellect interactin g wit h th e phenomenai t i s no t a featur e o f th e phe nomena themselves . I also feel les s intellectually embarrassed i n the fac e o f
problems tha n I used to , as if I really ought to be able to do better . I t i s not
that I hav e bee n give n th e righ t tool s bu t lac k th e necessar y skills ; rather ,
nature ha s given me a toolbox wit h other jobs in mind. A happy sid e benefit
is that I feel no temptation to deny the existence of things that are terminally
puzzling. I can now , for example , se e my way clear t o believing in fre e wil l
again afte r twenty-fiv e year s of denying it s very possibilityo n th e groun d
that neither th e random no r the determined coul d accommodate it . Free will
is, indeed, I still think, a phenomenon abou t whic h we can for m n o intelligible theory, but give n the ide a of cognitive closure it does not follo w tha t it is
unreal. W e can be free withou t being abl e t o understand th e condition s o f
the possibilit y of freedom .
On th e other hand , it is disappointing t o arrive at the conclusion that th e
problems tha t hav e alway s mos t intereste d m e ar e no t humanl y solvable . I
would, trut h t o tell , dearl y lov e t o se e these problem s grandl y resolve d i n
some ne w large-scale theory of the cosmosa s Newton, Einstein , and Dar win resolve d thei r dauntin g problems . I don' t reall y want to sto p tryin g t o
solve the mind-body problem, futil e as the effort no w appears t o me to be. As
Wittgenstein remarked , grapplin g wit h philosophica l conundrum s i s something tha t w e human being s canno t easil y shake off , even whe n ou r meta philosophy assures u s o f their unanswerability . As a consolation, though , I
have a reason now to work more o n ethics, which looks to be an area in which
the huma n intellec t can ge t som e rea l purchase . Ethic s i s an are a o f mer e
difficulty rathe r tha n blan k mystery.
My mysterian identity does hav e its down side. I work in a university and
assert tha t th e centra l aim of universities will remain thwarted . This is not a
very popular lin e to take. I t discourages th e students . It casts something o f a
pall over th e proceedings. People n o doubt thin k I am a traitor t o the nobl e


cause of knowledge. But let me observe that knowledge of our limit s is, after
all, on e sor t of knowledge, and quit e an interesting sort. Psychologist s study
perceptual and memor y limits: why can we not study the limits of theoretica l
reason? And whoever said that the human mind, at this transient evolutionary moment , has been s o constructed a s to be able to deliver th e answe r t o
any question about that vas t intricate worl d we live in? I t is amazing that we
know as much as we do, but we should be wary of epistemic greed. There is a
lot t o be sai d fo r specie s modesty.


Lycan e t al. : Imaginin g an Orgasm

Mind and Cognition: A Reader
edited b y William Lycan
Blackwell, 199 0
Acts of Meaning
by Jerome Brune r
Harvard, 199 0
Modelling the Mind
edited b y K . A. Mohyeldi n Said
Oxford, 199 0

The more philosophically interesting a science, the less secure or transparen t

are ap t t o b e it s theoretical foundations , give n tha t philosoph y thrive s o n
perplexity. I t i s some tim e since chemistry produced muc h o f a reaction i n
philosophers, bu t biolog y ca n stil l ge t thei r juice s flowing , thoug h no t s o
freely a s i n th e day s o f th e Bergsonia n elan vital. Quantu m physic s i s a
contemporary focu s o f philosophica l attentiondespit e th e suspicio n o f
some tha t i t i s only a dispensabl e antirealis m tha t generate s th e putativ e
puzzles. Mathematic s induce s periodi c bout s o f fascination , eve n o f dee p
distrustas wit h Brouwe r and Wittgensteinbu t it s rigor an d finality tend
to kee p th e perplexitie s a t bay . I n th e cas e o f psychology , however, philo sophical interest reaches its highest pitch, and never more so than at present :
perhaps t o the chagrin of practicing psychologists, philosophers ar e now very
interested i n what they are doingo r a t an y rate i n what they ought t o b e
The reaso n fo r thi s intens e scrutin y can b e summe d u p i n tw o words :
"meaning" and "consciousness." These crop up with increasing frequency in
psychological writings , after a long perio d durin g whic h they were anathe matized. And th e topic s the y refer t o have never ceased t o occupy philoso -

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e London Review of Books (Ma y 9 , 1991) .



phers; indeed , the theory o f meaning might justly be regarded as the centra l
concern o f twentieth-centur y philosophy . Together , th e tw o concepts ar e
definitive o f wha t we ordinarily mea n b y "mind. " I t i s largely because psy chology is turning again to these constitutive marks of mentality that philosophers have once more becom e intrigue d b y that science . They found littl e to
grip them while psychology perversely define d itself as the "science of behavior," entirely eliminating the notion s of meaning and consciousnes s fro m its
purview. Put differently , now that scientifi c psycholog y is acknowledging its
continuity wit h commonsens e o r fol k psychology , i n whic h philosopher s
have maintaine d a stead y interest , psychologica l theorie s contai n concept s
that provok e difficul t philosophica l questions . Ther e i s no sham e fo r th e
scientists i n this : i t wa s misguide d t o defenestrat e th e min d jus t becaus e
the concepts that characterize it are philosophically rich and demanding. O n
the contrary , i t i s goo d t o se e on e o f th e mor e philistin e legacie s o f an tiphilosophical positivis m finally melting from th e scene .
I do not mean to imply that the notions of meaning and consciousness are
in good odor with all philosophers of psychology: the y are certainly not. Bu t
the philosophica l issues that surroun d thes e notion s are no w part of what a
reflective psychologis t needs t o be sensitiv e to: the y can n o longer b e left t o
those reactionary old philosophers. For these issues determine th e shape and
content o f empirica l theories . A centra l questio n her e i s whether theorie s
that make serious use of these notions can be properly "scientific"whether ,
that is, their employment calls for a distinctive methodology. Specifically, can
the study of meaning and consciousness conform to the theoretical paradig m
set by th e natura l physica l sciences? The physica l sciences deal wit h quit e
different sort s of phenomenon, at least on the face of it: does this mean that a
psychology s o conceive d canno t tak e th e for m assume d b y physica l
theorieswith thei r laws , causes, mechanisms? What happen s t o th e struc ture o f psychologica l theories, an d th e empirica l procedure s tha t lea d t o
them, whe n yo u mak e psycholog y go consciousl y semantical ? How doe s a
psychology of belief and desir e compar e t o a physics of gravit y and electri c
There ar e basicall y three school s o f though t o n thi s issue , wit h muc h
variation within them. One school, which we may call the nomothetic realists,
holds tha t (ideal ) psycholog y consist s o f a n explanator y se t o f content involving causal laws: psychology is just one mor e specia l science, but on e i n
which intentional properties ar e the domain of interest, as factual and nomi c
as geology or biology. General statement s like "If an agent desires that/) and
believes that makin g it the cas e that q is a good wa y to bring i t about tha t p,
then that agent will, ceteris paribus, bring it about that q" are thus comparabl e
in status to causal laws like "Free-falling bodies accelerate to earth a t a rate of
thirty-two feet per secon d squared. "
This i s the schoo l of which Fodor i s the mos t forthrigh t an d formidabl e
member: o n his view, psychological attributions are made tru e b y real inter nal sententially structured state s of the subjec t that stan d in certain kind s of



reference-creating nomi c relation s t o environmenta l contingenciesi n a

word, by a meaning-endowed languag e of thought. Accordin g to nomothetic
realism, ther e i s no goo d reaso n wh y invoking meanin g shoul d disqualif y
psychology from takin g its place among th e othe r natural sciences. Fodor is
less robustly sanguin e abou t consciousness , however: he tend s no t t o men tion i t at all.
In opposition to the Fodorean school, stand eliminativists and instrumen talists of varyin g degrees o f boldness. Th e Churchlands , followin g Feyerabend an d Quine, assert that folk psychology is a discredited prototheory , an d
that th e languag e of neuroscience state s the only psychological facts worthy
of the name: ther e simply are no beliefs and desires , n o meanings, no state s
of consciousnessperiod. Somewhat less drastically, Stich has suggested tha t
psychosemantics i n th e styl e o f Fodo r shoul d giv e wa y t o unadulterate d
psychosyntax: cognitiv e scienc e shoul d restric t it s theoretica l concept s t o
purely formal or structural features of the internal code, regarding semantic
interpretation a s so much pointless mythmaking. One reason for this recommendation is the difficult y of seeing how referential propertie s of internal
symbols coul d exer t a causa l hol d ove r th e subject' s behavior , onc e i t i s
granted tha t suc h propertie s ar e no t supervenien t upo n th e tota l interna l
physical state of the subject: if meanings are not "in the head," the n they ar e
not where the causes of bodily movements are located. An ostensibly weaker
position undertake s t o define a type of meaning tha t does not diverge fro m
the causal taxonomy determined b y the inner syntax, so that folk psychology
comes out a s approximately fifty percent true . I n an y case, there is to be n o
room fo r th e ordinar y notio n o f meanin g i n theorie s o f cognition.
Dennett, fo r hi s part, reject s the psychosyntacti c story about intentiona l
states, wit h o r withou t a semanti c component, preferrin g t o constru e ou r
ascriptions of belief and desir e in an instrumentalist spirit: folk psychology is
merely a "stance " w e adop t towar d th e behavio r o f people , animals , an d
computersa usefu l schem e that enable s us to predict wha t they will do. I t
isn't a n attemp t t o depict a n inne r landscap e o f th e mind . Hi s most recen t
thesis, indeed, i s that human intentionalit y is just as derivative as the inten tionality w e attribut e t o ou r artifacts : the neares t thin g t o origina l inten tionality i n th e worl d i s exemplified by the blin d processe s o f natura l selection. Th e aboutnes s o f ou r consciou s belief s is thus merel y "as-if" : w e can
retain suc h tal k as a convenien t heuristic , bu t w e shoul d no t credi t i t with
more factua l solidity than this .
The thir d schoo l migh t b e called "interpretationalism" : tal k of meanin g
and conten t is literally true, and trul y literal, but i t is not tal k that lends itself
to canonica l lawlik e formulation . Th e concept s o f belie f an d desir e ar e
agreed t o be causal concepts, an d th e denote d state s take n t o be a s real a s
reality gets, but they are concepts that belong to a kind of understanding tha t
differs fro m tha t typica l of th e natura l sciences: their busines s is Verstehen,
not the expression o f nomic regularities. One mark of this specialness is their
essential involvemen t wit h normativ e notionsconsistency , consequence ,

L Y C A N E T A L . : I M A G I N I N G A N ORGAS M 11

good reasonfro m whic h it follow s tha t ther e can b e n o reductio n o f fol k

psychology to anything purged of the normative . This type of view is championed b y Davidso n an d thos e influence d b y him , a s wel l a s (latterly ) by
Putnam. I f psycholog y is to immers e itsel f i n th e intentional , the n i t mus t
expect t o sacrific e th e kin d of scientifi c rigo r fo r whic h its exponents hav e
hankered. I t mus t join th e intellectua l B-stream o f history , anthropology ,
literary criticism , corne r gossip . Eac h o f thes e schools , whic h I hav e s o
crudely summarized , ha s it s representatives i n th e volume s under review.
Mind and Cognition, in particular , offer s a broa d sampl e o f philosophica l
opinion o n thes e matters , thoug h i t seems biase d towar d th e mor e "hard nosed" en d o f the spectrum .
What shoul d becom e clea r t o theorist s o f cognitio n onc e th e issu e o f
meaning is explicitly raised is that the computer model of mind is a good deal
less straightforward than it might have seemed. I suspect that the enthusiasm
of cognitive scientists for th e computationa l conception o f human cognitio n
was nourishe d b y a certain unclarit y about wha t precisely a computer pro gram is. For, as Bruner observe s in Acts of Meaning, th e cognitiv e revolution
in psycholog y was welcomed precisel y because i t was not properl y under stood: it was made to seem like less of a departure than it really was. With the
idea of a computer program as their inspiration and paradigm, psychologists
felt tha t the y could spea k of human information-processin g without fear of
departing fro m standard s o f scientifi c purity . But th e pictur e become s substantially les s reassurin g whe n th e ide a o f a progra m i s scrutinized mor e
carefully. A s Searle never tires of reminding us, a program i s a list of purely
syntactic or forma l instructions; in itself it contains n o semanti c interpreta tion for the symbols manipulated. We cannot therefore expec t that progra m
rules wil l explai n t o u s wha t meanin g is , thus renderin g semantic s scien tifically reputable . Indeed , i t seem s highl y plausible tha t suc h meanin g a s
computer code s hav e is conferred b y their operatives , an d i s therefore pre supposed rathe r tha n explained. Once we inquire what could determine th e
semantics of a machine code independently of human interpretation, al l the
usual perplexities abou t meaning begin to surface. The idea tha t a progra m
is both wel l understoo d i n virtu e o f it s purely forma l characte r an d a t th e
same time accurately simulates human thinkin g is thus illusory: it will simulate thought only if it carries genuine intentionality (pace Dennett)bu t then
the progra m canno t b e define d purel y formally . S o th e compute r mode l
doesn't answe r th e dee p problem s abou t meanin g raise d b y the cognitiv e
turn i n psychology: it simply presupposes a n answe r to them, o r els e passes
them by. In other words, you can't expect artificial intelligence programming
competence to let you off doing the messy philosophical worknot if you ar e
serious abou t a semantics-based psychology.
I have said little so far abou t consciousness. That is because even philoso phers find this one a bit of a hot potato. Whereas it is possible to say a lot of
quite interestin g thing s abou t meaning , i t i s hard t o sa y more tha n a littl e
about consciousnes s (beyon d th e merel y rhetorical)an d mos t o f thi s i s a

116 M I N

touch too interesting. On the one hand, there are those who insist, startlingly
enough, that , appearance s notwithstanding , state s of consciousnes s reduc e
without residue t o neural state s or physical causal roles of such states. On th e
other hand , ther e ar e thos e wh o stoutl y declar e i t a s self-eviden t that n o
amount of physical information about the brain could ever imply the possession o f a state o f consciousness , so that consciou s experienc e fall s radically
outside the domain of physical science. This dispute has recently centred o n
the questio n o f what one's own experiences teac h on e abou t consciousnes s
that coul d no t b e taugh t otherwise : Mind and Cognition contains a usefu l
section on this. Nagel and Jackson hold that there are real features of experience tha t onl y direct acquaintance wit h i t can reveal : thes e feature s canno t
then be comprised i n physical information about the experiencer, whic h can
be taught discursively. Nemirow and Lewis , on the other hand, contend tha t
undergoing a n experience confer s only an ability to imagine experiences; i t
does not reveal special nonphysical properties o f experience tha t are accessible only by acquaintance. The questio n dividing these disputant s is whethe r
what i s referre d t o b y on e sid e a s a n irreducibl e subjectiv e state ca n b e
exhaustively explaine d b y the othe r i n term s o f a n abilit y t o imagine . As a
student of mine remarked, th e latter thinkers hold, in effect, tha t the feelin g
of an orgasm i s equivalent to imagining an orgasman equation tha t she felt
(perceptively) no t t o be ver y plausible.
As t o th e plac e o f consciousnes s i n theoretica l psychology , it i s almost a
reflex amon g psychologist s to cry "Epiphenomenalism!" and reac h fo r Oc cam's razor. However, it is far fro m clea r that conscious events suffer causal
inertness i n an y sens e beyon d tha t tru e o f event s describe d i n an y o f th e
special sciencesbiology , geology , eve n chemistry . Fro m th e explanator y
universality of basic physics we cannot infe r that other modes of explanatio n
fail t o captur e causall y significant patterns i n nature : th e hierarchica l ar rangement o f the science s should no t b e confused wit h epiphenomenalis m
about al l but th e botto m layer . What is wanted her e is not a priori dismissal
but a seriou s investigatio n into th e propertie s an d processe s o f conscious ness: its developmental history, both phylo - and ontogenetic; its contribution
to ou r mode s o f cognitiv e processing ; th e natur e o f it s pathologie s (e.g. ,
blindsight). Psychologist s should she d thei r date d philosophica l hang-up s
about consciousness , a s i n fac t the y ar e no w beginnin g t o do , an d appl y
themselves t o carryin g ou t som e empirica l wor k o n wha t thei r forebear s
regarded a s taboo. I f nothin g empiricall y worthwhile turns up , that will b e
the tim e t o abjur e interes t i n th e topi c an d leav e it to th e philosopher s t o
puzzle over .
A questio n seldo m raise d i n thes e discussion s is whether meanin g an d
consciousness are susceptibl e of deep investigation by human knowers . (Admittedly, I discuss it myself at some length in The Problem of Consciousness.) A
properly genera l naturalis m shoul d leav e ope n th e possibilit y that huma n
cognition i s not designe d i n suc h a way that w e can gai n an y rea l scientifi c
insight int o th e underlyin g working s of ou r ow n mind s (o r thos e o f othe r

LYCAN E T A I , . : I M A G I N I N G A N O R G A S M


animals). Certainly, it is painfully plai n that we have not achieved in this area
anything lik e th e theoretica l dept h w e have attained i n understandin g th e
physical world : there appear s t o be a systematic elusiveness about th e ulti mate scienc e o f menta l phenomena . Despit e ou r fairl y advance d under standing of brain function , fo r example, we seem n o neare r than Descarte s
was to explaining how conscious state s result from neura l excitations . As an
ancillary investigation t o the science of meaning and consciousness, then , we
should als o try t o develop a higher-order scienc e of our capacit y to under stand thes e phenomena a scienc e of ou r abilit y to arriv e a t psychological
knowledge. I t ma y be th e case , not tha t meanin g an d consciousnes s are i n
themselves suspect or mythical since our scienc e cannot plumb their depths ,
but rather that our science , as a natural produc t o f human cognitiv e capacities, has the wron g kind o f structure t o take in all that th e worl d objectively
contains. Transcenden t nomotheti c realis m ma y in th e en d b e the trut h o f
the matter . Th e philosophica l interest o f menta l notion s migh t thu s b e a n
artifact of the human inaccessibilit y of the ultimately correct menta l science.
Psychology might be philosophically boring after all , objectively speaking, if
only we could com e t o kno w its deep principles. Bu t give n th e limitin g parameters o f huma n cognition , i t is possible that th e scienc e of min d i s condemned t o perpetual philosophica l interest .


Fodor: Menta l Representations

Representations: Philosophical Essays on the
Foundations of Cognitive Science
by Jerry A . Fodo r
Harvester, 198 1

In Mental Acts, published i n 1957 , P . T. Geac h propose d tha t judgment b e

understood i n terms of "mental utterances" i n an "interior language. " Judging, he supposed, consists in the mind's exercise of concepts, and the conten t
of a judgment comprise s a complex o f Ideas whic h represent thing s in th e
world; his suggestion was that these Ideas be identified with wordsto judge
that th e sk y is blue i s to sa y in one's hear t "th e sk y is blue." Thi s theory , o r
something ver y like it, has recentl y been advocate d b y Jerry Fodo r (amon g
others) under the title "the language of thought," though Geach' s early statement of the theor y i s not mentioned . I n thi s new collection of essays, mostly
reprints o f earlie r publications , Fodor' s chie f concer n i s t o expoun d an d
defend wha t he calls the Representational Theor y of the Mind (RTM). RTM,
as Fodo r expound s it , is the thesi s that t o hav e thoughts i s to be relate d t o
internal formula e i n a (probably innate an d universal ) language, thes e for mulae having both syntacti c and semanti c properties; menta l processes suc h
as reasoning consis t in computational operations performe d upo n thes e for mulae.
Fodor hold s that RTM i s (a) a substantive and controversia l thesis and (b )
an empirica l thesis , on e whos e acceptabilit y mus t finall y tur n upo n ho w
successfully i t serves the theoretica l need s of the cognitiv e psychologist. But
Fodor's wa y of presentin g th e issue s is misleading. Surely everyone (except
behaviorists and th e confused) would agree that thinking involves the structured deploymen t o f concepts ; an d tha t concept s ar e (o r correspon d to )

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Januar y 29 , 1982) .



mental elements that somehow represent th e world. What is substantive and

controversial i s not RT M a s such, but th e linguisti c turn Fodo r give s to it.
Fodor's presentatio n obscure s thi s becaus e h e write s as if th e choic e wer e
between accepting the language of thought and rejecting altogether th e ide a
that thought involves the mental exercise of concepts. Geach's original expo sition properl y separate d th e platitudinou s fro m th e contentious : h e firs t
introduced th e idea of mental representation, leavin g it open what the representations wer e to be , an d onl y later propose d tha t word s play the rol e o f
representing Ideas . Th e rea l issue , then, i s not whethe r RT M i s true, bu t
what sor t o f item a mental representatio n o r concep t is.
It i s partly thi s conflation o f issue s that explain s Fodor's insistenc e tha t
RTM i s a n empirica l thesis . Fo r wherea s i t i s arguabl e tha t th e interna l
language theor y i s answerable t o the theoretica l requirement s o f empirical
psychology, i t i s scarcel y t o b e imagine d tha t psychologica l experiment s
should induce us to abandon th e philosophical thesis that thinking consists in
the exercise of concepts. Fodor i s well aware that he is reviving a philosophical account of thought at least as old as the works of Descartes an d Locke, but
he likes to suggest that nowadays the philosophers ca n and should hand ove r
their problems to the scientists and awai t their verdict. But really it is not that
RTM i s philosophically respectable onl y so long a s psychologists find it ex perimentally fruitful; rather , psychologist s are obliged t o conceive the min d
in this way precisely because RTM i s (or is not) acceptable on pretheoretic o r
philosophical grounds . Contrar y t o wha t Fodo r suggests , philosoph y o f
mind i s not i n th e proces s o f bein g engulfe d b y "cognitive science."
The thesi s that thinking is the interna l manipulation of sentences invites
the question how these sentence s acquir e semantic significance: i n virtue of
what do they have a meaning for the thinker? Fodor treats thi s crucial question with notable caution, but his view seems to be that the internal sentences
enjoy significanc e i n virtue of tw o sorts of property : syntactica l or "formal "
properties, whic h determine th e rol e o f a thought conten t i n the thinker' s
mental life ; an d genuinel y semanti c propertiesreference , satisfaction ,
truthrelating the internal words to the world. Anyone familiar with Frege's
writings wil l wonde r wha t ha s happene d t o th e leve l o f sense, tha t is , th e
association of cognitively significant concept s with words considered a s syntactic objects. What Fodor seem s to want to suggest is that mere syntax can
discharge the dutie s of sense, that the "shape" o f internal symbols can func tion a s their cognitiv e meaning.
But onc e thi s suggestion i s made explici t the ide a look s hopelessmere
uninterpreted synta x has n o representationa l significance ; we nee d som e
apparatus tha t assign s concepts t o th e interna l word s o r els e the y wil l b e
literally senseless . Th e relationa l semanti c propertie s wil l no t d o th e jo b
since, a s Fodo r recognizes , the y canno t accoun t fo r th e differen t way s i n
which the same object may be mentally represented (the "opacity" of though t
contents). Nor i s the idea tha t syntacti c properties migh t d o dut y fo r sens e
just a detachable aberration: fo r once the need o f sense is acknowledged th e



question become s acut e a s t o whethe r ther e remain s an y usefu l wor k fo r

internal sentences to perform. I f we require nonsyntactic mental representations anyway, then why not make do with these and let the internal words go?
Of course we are then lef t with the rea l questionwhat a concept is . But th e
language o f thought, so far from answering that question, conceals the need
to ask it, while silently helping itself to resources whose characterization is the
point at issue. Perhaps Fodor' s pronenes s t o suppose tha t syntax can add u p
to sense come s fro m th e feelin g tha t word s i n a menta l medium , unlik e
spoken words, are somehow intrinsically interpretedthis along with undue
concentration o n th e working s of computers.
RTM an d th e languag e o f though t ar e no t th e onl y topics discusse d i n
Representations; there is independently interesting material on functionalism,
on realis m abou t th e mental , on reduction , artificia l intelligenc e semantics,
and th e doctrin e o f innat e ideas . Mos t of thi s seemed t o m e salutar y an d
often stimulatingth e mental is held t o be real, irreducibl e t o the physical,
and more perplexing tha n some people supposebut there are a number o f
shaky points , mainly concerning th e relatio n betwee n menta l and physical ,
and th e issue s of innateness.
Fodor wishe s to argue , reasonabl y enough, tha t th e explanator y rol e o f
thought conten t i s not preserve d unde r neurophysiologica l reduction . Hi s
ostensible reason fo r this is that the "standar d notion " of reduction permit s
the los s of structur e i n menta l content . Th e argumen t i s obscure, an d th e
claim i s so hedged tha t i t often look s empty; at any rate , th e allege d conse quence o f reduction seem s easily circumvented simply by requiring tha t th e
predicates i n th e reducin g neurophysiologica l theor y preserv e th e com plexity of the predicates in the reduced psychological theorya requiremen t
one would think it natural to impose from the start. There is also what must
be some sort of slip on Fodor's par t about the distinction between identifying
mental particulars with brain event s (token identity) and identifyin g mental
properties wit h brain propertie s (typ e identity). Fodo r asserts , incorrectly,
that th e forme r identificatio n relates onl y t o al l actual mental particulars ,
while the latte r identifie s all possible mental particulars with physica l events.
This is a mistake, since the latte r identificatio n does no t entai l tha t fo r an y
possible instanc e o f a give n menta l propert y th e correspondin g physica l
event is of the same physical type: every possible colored objec t is identifiable
with som e objec t havin g a mass, but i t does no t follo w tha t th e propert y o f
being re d i s identifiable with th e propert y o f havin g a certain mass .
About th e innatenes s o f concept s Fodo r make s a surprisin g claim : h e
suggests that, understood correctly , both empiricists and nativist s agree that
primitive concepts are unlearned and so innate; they disagree fundamentally
only ove r which concept s ar e primitive , the empiricis t findin g conceptua l
complexity where the nativist descries simplicity. This latter poin t is interesting and probably right, but Fodo r i s surely in error in his claim that this is the
only disagreementi n particular , i n hi s clai m tha t empiricist s accep t th e
innateness of primitiv e concepts. He arrive s at this unorthodox position b y


too crude a use of the idea that for both empiricists and nativis t experience is
needed t o "trigger" the acquisitio n of concepts. Fo r the nativist , experienc e
functions merel y to activate concepts that are already latently present i n the
intellect; bu t fo r th e empiricist , concept s ar e attaine d b y abstraction fro m
what i s sensorily given an d ar e no t presen t i n th e intellec t before suc h ab straction gets to work. Experience is, it is true, necessary under both theories ,
but it s "triggering" rol e i s conceived quite differently by them .
Fodor i s encourage d t o overloo k thi s obviou s poin t b y a tendenc y t o
conflate th e idea o f innatel y determined constraint s on whic h qualities ar e
perceptible t o a n organis m wit h the ide a o f innatel y given concepts: tha t a
certain concept is accessible to an organism only because of its innate sensory
capacities does no t impl y that th e concep t itself is innately present ; an d a n
empiricist who accepts innate constraints of the first kind will stil l think that
abstraction o n experienc e i s required befor e an y concepts ar e possesse d by
the organism. Once this point of difference between empiricists and nativist
is clearl y acknowledged , Fodor' s nove l reconstructio n o f th e disput e col lapses. H e does , however , hav e othe r worthwhil e thing s t o sa y about th e
acquisition o f conceptsparticularl y abou t th e ol d doctrin e o f "menta l
Fodor's pros e style , though heavil y larded wit h jargon, i s very informal
and facetious . After the initia l shock, the jocose manne r become s just abou t
bearable; bu t i t is not a style to be imitated .


Fodor: Usin g Common Sense

Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in
the Philosophy of Mind
by Jerr y A. Fodor
MIT Press , 198 7

What is the scientifi c statu s of commonsense psychology? Should i t be taken

as a sound basi s from which to build a psychological scienceneeding to be
deepened an d extended , certainly , but righ t i n essentials ? Or shoul d i t b e
discarded wholesal e as so much outworn superstition, fit onl y to be replace d
by some quite new kind of theoretical structure? The latte r attitude prevaile d
during much of the infancy and adolescenc e o f scientific psychology , but th e
former attitude seems to be gaining ground in the (relatively) mature period
we kno w as cognitive science.
Jerry Fodo r i s a fir m conservationist : h e think s tha t moder n cognitiv e
psychology vindicates the constructs of ordinary belief-desir e explanation
in particular, he think s that the ide a of mental representation i s common t o
both an d i s a fin e thin g i n itself . Hi s ai m i n thi s boo k i s t o protec t fol k
psychology, as a solid basis for mental science, from a range of objections that
have bee n brough t agains t i t i n recen t years , mainl y by philosophers . H e
does s o with verve , clarity, and wit , generally gettin g th e bette r o f hi s revisionary opponents. The boo k is vintage Fodor: clever, stimulating, challenging, infuriating. It wil l undoubtedly becom e th e targe t of much critica l discussion a s the philosoph y o f psycholog y moves toward it s adulthood .
According t o Fodor , fol k psycholog y works wonderfully in ordinary lif e
and i s practically indispensable. Its predictive power is no accident, he claims,

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m Nature (Januar y 21 , 1988) . Copyright Macmilla n

Magazines Limited (1988) .



because i t is a deep theory , in the wa y that physics is deep. Th e dept h come s

from two features of the theory: the fact that it postulates unobservables, an d
its preferenc e fo r causa l intricac y ove r proliferatio n o f theoretica l primi tives. Thi s i s a nea t poin t agains t old-styl e positivistic behaviorists, makin g
unobservability a virtue rather tha n a liability; their mistake, ironically, was to
fail t o tak e th e mode l o f physic s seriously enough . Bu t Fodo r neglect s t o
mention a n equall y salient feature o f fol k psychology : the fac t tha t it postu lates introspectablesfor we also have direct first-perso n acces s to our belief s
and desires . By Fodor's criterio n o f depth, thi s feature shoul d mak e u s say
that folk psychology is superficial. Her e i s where it differs from physics. What
would h e sa y about thi s difference?
The scientifi c theor y tha t vindicate s belief-desire psychology , Fodor assures us, is the computationa l conceptio n o f mental processes. Thi s kind of
psychology treat s th e min d a s a symbol-manipulatin g system, th e menta l
symbols havin g both causa l and semanti c properties. Jus t a s we commonly
suppose a rational harmony between what a belief logically implies and what
it is disposed to cause, so the idea of a language o f thought integrate s syntactic shape an d semanti c contentthus explaining how a rational mechanism
might be constructed. This may be, as Fodor says , "a perfectly terrific idea,"
but i t is notcontrary to his repeated assertionsthe only idea i n the field .
Psychologists (suc h as Phili p Johnson-Laird ) wh o fram e thei r theorie s i n
terms of mental models will be surprised t o find their approac h declare d t o
be nonexistent. I n general, Fodo r i s far too ready to move from the need fo r
structured menta l representation s t o a specificall y sententia l conceptio n o f
the for m o f these representations. I n arguin g fo r th e languag e o f thought ,
indeed, he focuses on an example of a mental representation, namel y a treestructure representin g a n understood sentence , that i s in fact mor e a mode l
of a sentence than a verbal description of onesupposing this to support hi s
specifically linguisti c theory o f mental representation .
With fol k psycholog y shown t o be , o n th e fac t o f it , in goo d theoretica l
standing, Fodor goe s on to rebut three potentia l threats to its security: exter nalism, holism , naturalism. Externalis m claims that th e conten t o f a belie f
can b e pulle d apar t fro m it s causa l powers , s o that an y scienc e geared t o
capturing causal generalizations wil l have no use fo r th e ordinar y notio n o f
content. Fodo r accept s this argument, stating it with considerable force , bu t
evades it s allege d conclusio n b y confectin g a notio n o f conten t ("narro w
content") that cannot be divorced from causal powers. Supervenience on the
physical i s thu s respected , bu t a t th e pric e o f ineffabilit y i n th e kin d o f
content tha t s o supervenes.
I thin k Fodor i s right t o discer n thi s kin d o f content , bu t h e underesti mates th e magnitud e o f the concessio n h e make s by banning wid e conten t
from psychology . For, by his own showing, narrow content canno t be (exclusively) specifie d in th e term s o f fol k psychology : so a psycholog y based o n
narrow conten t wil l b e neithe r expressibl e no r a versio n o f ordinar y fol k
psychology; it will not hav e available the for m "x believes that p." The lesso n

124 M I N

is to look more critically at the original demand to make psychology the study
of th e causa l powers of menta l states.
Holism take s the conten t o f a belief t o b e fixe d b y the totalit y of belief s
with which the given one has "epistemic liaisons." It thus blocks generalizing
over believers, since believers will always differ in their total belief sets. Fodor
convincingly demolishe s a numbe r o f argument s fo r thi s extrem e holisti c
thesis, an d opt s fo r a loca l denotationa l theor y o f content . H e als o reject s
theories tha t regar d conten t a s the fusio n o f interna l an d externa l factors ,
though fa r les s convincingly. First, he mistakenl y assumes that "two-factor "
theories tak e each facto r t o determine a unique proposition : bu t th e whol e
point of such theories is that this is not so . Second, hi s own earlier notio n o f
narrow content supplies precisely what the two-factor theorist need s to rebut
Fodor's criticism . Third, Fodor's reluctanc e to allow any place for functional
role i n th e fixatio n o f conten t sit s ill with his previou s claim that conten t i s
conferred b y a harmony between inferential propensities an d logica l consequence.
Naturalism would be a threat i f we could no t explain mental reference i n
naturalistic terms. Fodor trie s to develop a causal covariation theory of reference, thu s explainin g wher e meanin g fits in th e natura l order . Thi s i s an
ingenious discussion , bu t problem s bristlei n particular , th e proble m o f
explaining the possessio n o f content i n the absenc e o f appropriate environmental entities. What would he say about th e brain in a vat? It looks as if he
has t o say , implausibly, that th e causall y isolated term s i n it s language o f
thought either hav e no content or some very bizarre sort of content concern ing nerve-endings o r som e such . I think Fodor shoul d reconside r th e pros pects fo r a ideological theory , whic h he dismisse s too quickly . Pure causa l
theories face formidable problems , especiall y with respect t o the phenome nological content o f perceptual experience a type of content h e conspicu ously fail s t o discuss.
Fodor ma y not have the last word o n all issues, as he would be the first to
admit. But his forthrightness and intellectual daring are the best way to push
our understandin g forward . Psychosemantics i s a notable contributio n t o th e
old question o f how the min d represent s th e world .


Davidson: Cooling It
Donald Davidson
by Simo n Evnin e
Polity, 199 2
Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language:
An Introduction
by Bjor n Ramber g
Blackwell, 198 9

Donald Davidso n i s perhaps th e mos t distinguishe d philosophe r i n history

never to have written a book. Indeed, he did not get round to writing articles
until he was into his forties (he is now seventy-six). Yet those articlesshort ,
intense, allusive, hardhave changed th e shap e o f contemporary analytica l
philosophy. They were in mid spate when I was a graduate student at Oxfor d
in the early seventies, and the y acted a s a kind of philosophical IQ test for th e
young philosopher s o f m y generation . I wel l remembe r porin g wit h tor mented excitemen t over "Trut h and Meaning " and "Menta l Events," two of
the mos t influentia l (and contested ) article s o f recen t times . Thes e crypti c
texts gav e the impression o f well-honed conjuring tricks , in which the deep est of problems wer e given tantalizingly rigorous an d ingeniou s solutions. I n
those days you were either a "Davidsonian" or you weren't; yo u certainly had
to find out where you stood. But it wasn't easy, because each Davidso n article
presupposed th e others, and they assumed you were good a t logic. It becam e
clear tha t Davidso n had a system, but i t needed to be pieced together b y the
reader, as best he or she could. Puzzlement about a particular Davidso n piece
would be met with a knowing look from the initiated and the query "But have
you rea d 'I n Defenc e o f Conventio n T'? " Th e ver y plainnes s o f hi s nam e
(often transmute d t o Davi d Donaldson ) len t a n aur a o f mystiqu e t o th e
plosive econom y o f th e Davidso n corpus . An d th e ma n himself , wit h hi s
startling blu e eye s and precisel y articulate d mod e o f speech , hi s unhurrie d

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Augus t 19 , 1993) .




confidence, hi s immersion in hi s own vision, his neatness, certainly encouraged the feeling that he had it all figured out, and all you had to do was figure
him out. I t did n o harm, too , t o discover that Davidson had bee n a n enem y
aircraft spotte r in the U.S . navy in World War II, tha t he was a trained pilot ,
that h e went gliding fo r a hobby, that h e has climbed mountains , that there
are ver y few places in the worl d he hasn' t visited. Davidson wasn't just pro found: h e wa s cool (an d ther e aren' t man y philosopher s yo u ca n sa y that
about). Davidson had nerve.
The principa l appea l o f th e Davidsonia n syste m lie s i n it s attemp t t o
combine two conceptions of human beings that have traditionally been taken
to be rivals. One conception, advocated by the positivists, though no t uniqu e
to them , draw s inspiratio n from th e physica l sciences an d forma l logic : i t
seeks t o reduc e menta l discours e t o physica l discourse, an d i t offers t o re place ordinar y languag e wit h th e kin d o f formalize d language devise d b y
Frege an d hi s successors. Ultimately, there i s nothing mor e t o u s tha n a n
arrangement o f physica l fact s expresse d i n th e notatio n o f th e predicat e
calculus. Thi s conception effectively displaces our commonsens e pictur e of
mind and languag e in favor of a kind of pared-down physica l naturalism in
which we are represente d a s continuous with the res t o f nature. Th e othe r
conception, associated with the later Wittgenstein, but by no means unique to
him, insists on the autonomy and legitimacy of our ordinary ways of thinking
about human psychology and human language: these are not to be replace d
by some austere physical theory or gleaming logical apparatusfor the y are
perfectly i n order as they stand. W e are, i n fact , wha t we commonsensically
take ourselve s t o be : rationa l agent s wit h fre e choice . Ma n i s no t just a n
irregular clum p of vibratin g particles, no r nee d h e b e coache d i n th e lan guage o f th e logician : h e ha s belief s an d desire s an d intentions , an d hi s
natural mod e o f expressio n i s not t o b e improve d on . H e elude s physica l
science, at least in his mental and linguisti c part: he is separate fro m the res t
of natur e an d need s t o be studie d b y methods peculia r t o himself.
These two conceptions seem t o represent radicall y incompatible ways of
thinking of ourselves, and n o middle ground appear s t o be available. But it is
not as if either conception can be comfortably adopted to the exclusion of the
other. Th e firs t vie w suffer s fro m th e proble m tha t n o suc h reductio n o r
translation ha s eve r bee n carrie d out , s o that limitin g ourselves t o physical
description wil l inevitably involve abandoning th e idea that we have minds at
all. Also , ther e seem s t o b e a lo t abou t natura l languag e tha t canno t b e
reconstructed i n terms of the usua l logical systems, so that we would not b e
able to say as much if we spoke only Formalese. The pric e of seeing ourselves
in thes e restricted way s is that wha t we see is no longe r ourselves , but onl y
some desiccated residue . On the other hand, if we remove the mind from th e
scientific domai n completely , as th e secon d vie w suggests, regardin g our selves as beyond th e reac h o f causation , law, and materia l composition, we
run int o equally severe problems . D o we not hav e brains tha t subserv e ou r
minds? Is not our behavio r somehow governed b y natural law? Are we not in


some clear sense ultimately made o f matter? And i s not formal logic an object
of grea t beaut y an d power , givin g undeniable insigh t int o th e structur e o f
thought, whos e service s w e should solici t and exploit ? Henc e th e classi c dilemma: ho w can w e both b e an d no t b e an objec t o f natura l science ?
Davidson's key idea is that the dilemma is unreal; we can enjoy the benefits
of bot h conception s withou t incurrin g th e disadvantage s eac h appear s t o
entail. Wha t w e must d o i s compromise, no t pushin g eithe r conceptio n be yond its legitimate sphere . Yes , but th e question ha s always been how exactly
that i s to be achieved. Th e beaut y of Davidson' s philosophy o f min d i s that
this massiv e questio n i s hel d t o tur n o n a simplebu t neglectedlogica l
point. Once thi s point i s made plai n we can be all we want to be. No ideologi cal posturing wil l be necessary; no spurning of the obvious; no deep unifying
revisionary metaphysics will have to be generated. Al l we need to recognize is
(a) that there ar e event s and (b ) that events, like material objects, admit o f a
type-token distinction (about which more in a minute). We don't even need a
theory specifi c t o th e mental : onc e w e get clea r abou t ou r tal k of events i n
general we will already have the necessar y resources with whic h t o explain
how th e min d ca n b e bot h rationa l an d natural , irreducibl e an d physical ,
causal and lawless . To pu t i t differently, once w e properly gras p the distinction between events and thei r description s we will be in a position t o be bot h
materialists and mentalists .
It works like this. First, it is obvious that we talk of events as well as objects,
as when w e say that th e bridg e collapse d becaus e o f th e explosion , o r tha t
Smith wen t t o th e shop s becaus e i t occurre d t o he r tha t sh e neede d som e
milk. Tha t is , we routinely includ e menta l an d physica l event s in ou r on tology. Secondly, and onl y slightly less obviously, we allow that ther e ca n b e
different instance s o f th e sam e genera l typ e o f event, a s when tw o bridge s
collapse on different days, or when the same milk y thought occur s to Jones.
These instances are th e even t token s and th e universal s they exemplif y are
the event types. You have to count types differently from tokens , since many
tokens ca n correspon d t o th e sam e typ e an d a give n toke n ca n exemplify
many types . In othe r words , distinc t particular date d event s can fal l unde r
the same general description, an d one and the same particular even t can fal l
under man y descriptions. Accordingly, mental events , too, admi t o f a typetoken distinction , requiring a s to distinguish particula r event s from th e de scriptions that appl y to them .
And no w Davidson's master strok e is just this: every mental-event token is
identical with some physical-event token in the brain, but mental-event types
are no t identica l wit h physical-event types, nor ar e the y reducibl e t o them .
Ontologically, then, every mental particular i s a physical thing (fall s under a
physical description) , bu t i t i s no t possibl e t o reduc e menta l concept s o r
properties t o physica l concepts o r properties . Accordin g t o thi s position ,
which Davidso n christene d "anomalou s monism, " ever y menta l even t fall s
under a physica l law , but ther e ar e n o law s o f psychology ; indeed , psy chology i s not reall y a science a t all . The reaso n i s that menta l description s



apply to things that als o satisfy physica l descriptions, bu t n o systematic relation betwee n menta l an d physica l discours e i s entaile d b y thi s identit y o f
events. Thus we can be, as it were, natural unde r one description an d ratio nal unde r another ; lawlik e when describe d on e wa y but lawles s when de scribed anothe r way . We consis t o f a single serie s o f events , but thi s serie s
admits o f quit e distinc t an d irreducibl e mode s o f description . (Technica l
note: the type-token distinctio n as here invoked i s really a special case of the
use-mention distinctionw e use descriptions t o mention events.)
On th e on e hand , then , w e can say that menta l event s are physical , tha t
reasons caus e actions, an d tha t everythin g i s subject to stric t law; while, on
the other hand, we can insist that mental concepts are irreducible, that actio n
explanation is essentially normative, and that there are no psychophysical or
psychological laws. We do not need, o n this Davidsonian view, to explain th e
relation betwee n mental and physica l properties o f a person: w e ascribe these
properties unde r appropriat e criteria l conditions, following distinct sorts of
principle, and that is all that needs to be said. In order to solve the mind-bod y
problem, then , w e do no t nee d t o represen t menta l propertie s a s physical
properties i n disguise, nor d o we need t o effect a conceptual revolutio n tha t
will bridg e th e gap , o r eve n t o acknowledg e tha t ther e ar e fact s abou t th e
mind-body relatio n tha t w e cannot grasp . W e need merel y t o observ e tha t
one an d th e sam e event can be described i n these tw o ways. We may also, if
we like, hold tha t mental descriptions ar e supervenien t on physica l descriptions, so that physical twins must also be mental twins: but thi s is an optiona l
extra, i n n o wa y entailed b y th e thesi s o f anomalou s monism . Ther e ar e
indeed tw o very different sides to our nature , bu t fro m a n ontological poin t
of vie w we are undivide d beings .
Simon Evnine' s introductory book does a creditable job of bringing all this
usefully together , enablin g th e studen t t o gras p ho w th e variou s part s o f
Davidson's philosophy cohere . H e ha s a sure gri p o n th e metaphysica l and
logical bases of Davidson's distinctive approach, particularl y as regards cau sation, laws, and ontology , and h e puts the essential points in such a way that
only the most determined coul d mis s them. Hi s book should take a lot of th e
pain ou t o f learnin g an d teachin g Davidson . H e i s also wel l aware , o n th e
critical side , o f th e tension s that lur k withi n his subject' s hybri d pictur e o f
human mentality . The hear t o f the trouble , a s he notes , lies in maintaining
both a causal and a normative account of the nature of prepositional content.
Davidson invokes causation at three critica l junctures: t o relate reasons (qua
reasons) to actions; to confer content on beliefs, by identifying the object of a
belief with its environmental cause; and t o account for case s of irrationality,
where the notio n of a mental cause that is not a reason i s brought int o play.
These three causal theses correspon d t o three threat s t o the othe r compo nent o f Davidson' s overal l conception . First , i f reason s (qua reasons ) ar e
causally relevant to action, then ther e mus t after al l be psychological laws of
some sort, just as there ar e laws in other specia l sciences: and thi s means tha t
there i s no inherent conflict betwee n normativeness and lawfulness . Second ,


if belief conten t i s fixed by environmental impingements , the n i t is hard t o

see how it could als o be holisticall y determined b y principle s o f rationalit y
that essentially advert to the agent's other beliefs and desiresany more tha n
the identit y o f th e impingin g object s i s s o determined . Third , i f w e ar e
allowed, in cases of irrationality, t o mak e ascriptions o f content tha t violat e
conditions of rational justification, so that lack of rationality does not under mine the possession of content, then i t becomes unclear why we cannot pus h
this separatio n further , unti l th e poin t a t whic h th e agen t i s preponder antly irrational . Th e troubl e wit h causation, a s the cemen t o f th e mind , is
that i t has the wron g properties t o sustain Davidson' s hermeneutic-holistic normative pictur e o f mentality . Once causatio n i s allowed t o flo w throug h
the mind's channels it threatens to flush out the kind of anomalism Davidson
wishes to combine with it. If this threat cannot be convincingly repelled, the n
we shall be forced into one or other of two kinds of extreme position : either a
position lik e Jerr y Fodor' s i n whic h causalit y reign s an d rationalit y b e
hanged, o r a position like Daniel Dennett's in which rationality is prized bu t
the idea of inner causes i s fed to the dogs. Certainly, Davidso n need s to say
more abou t wh y he is not force d i n either direction . T o b e sure, it would be
nice to be able to combine both viewpoints; but mere conjunctiv e affirmation
is not enoug h t o bring thi s off .
Davidson's philosophy o f languag e i s intimately connected wit h hi s phi losophy of mind , bu t i t raises questions o f it s own. Evnine also does a goo d
job with this more technical aspec t of his subject, which is more than I can say
for Bjorn Ramberg's ill-expressed attempt to convert his reader to the Davidsonian faith . This could no t be used a s an introductory text , despite it s title,
because of its failure t o explain technicalitie s and it s general sloppiness ; no r
does i t contai n materia l o f sufficien t originalit y t o b e o f interes t t o thos e
already acquainte d wit h the literatur e o f Davidson. I t i s exactly the kin d of
book h e doesn' t need : a n exercis e i n undiscipline d banne r waving . What
would have been mor e helpful is a clear tracing out of the several strands that
link Davidson's work on semantics with his epistemology, and ultimately with
his vie w o f ho w th e min d contrive s t o confron t reality . Fo r her e w e ca n
discern an instructive evolution, in which an initially technical problem lead s
to a questioning o f the entir e empiricis t tradition .
I remarke d earlie r tha t Davidso n seek s to dissolve the traditiona l opposi tion between reverenc e fo r forma l system s in developing semanti c theorie s
and respect for the structures actually present i n natural languages. By pairing vernacular sentences wit h suitable formal counterparts, an d providin g a
theory o f th e latter , Davidso n propose s indirectl y t o giv e a theor y o f th e
former. Hence his claim that Tarskian trut h theoriesin which the predicat e
"true-in-L" is rigorously defined for a formal language on the basis of a finite
set of axiomsprovid e th e basi s fo r a theor y o f meanin g fo r natura l lan guages such as English. Davidson is able to suggest this thanks to his considerable success in ingeniously translating logically recalcitrant idiom s of natural language , suc h a s adverb s an d indirec t discourse , int o formula s o f a



standard logica l language. Logica l form is what we need i f we are t o provid e

a theor y fo r natura l languag e a t all , rather tha n bein g a riva l to it.
Details aside, however, there is the question whethe r thi s entire approac h
can captur e th e ful l meanin g o f sentences , give n tha t i t operate s wit h th e
apparently muc h weaker notion expresse d b y "is true if and onl y if." Davidson's response to this persistent proble m ha s been t o enrich th e set of notions
used to capture meaning to include those that would feature in an account of
how we would empirically verify tha t a given truth theor y successfull y inter prets th e speec h o f a particula r community ; specifically , t o emplo y suc h
psychological notion s a s belief an d desire . Th e questio n ha s become: wha t
are the right assumptions to make about the mind o f a speaker wh o holds a
sentence tru e i n certain environmenta l conditions? And her e Davidson applies a principle that has figured increasingly in his philosophythe so-called
principle o f charity.
In orde r t o arriv e a t a n attributio n o f belie f t o th e speake r w e ar e t o
assume that his beliefs are true , s o that we can use the surroundin g fact s t o
determine a content fo r his belief. If he holds "It's raining" true whe n it is in
fact raining , the n w e should tak e i t that h e believe s that it' s raining an d s o
interpret hi s sentenc e t o mea n tha t it' s raining , instea d o f assuming , un charitably, that h e has made a mistake and think s it's not rainin g whe n i t is.
This sound s lik e sensibl e enoug h practica l advic e t o th e would-b e inter preter, bu t i t raises the questio n o f ho w we can b e s o confident tha t people
regularly believe what is true. Isn' t i t at leas t conceivable that a community
could spea k a n interpretabl e languag e an d ye t be massivel y deluded abou t
the extralinguistic facts? Couldn't I be a speaker of English and yet be a brain
in a vat, as Cartesian sceptic s have long assume d t o be possible ? Davidson's
shocking answer is that actuall y I coul d not : h e think s that i t is a necessar y
conceptual truth abou t belief that one's belief s are mainl y true. Beliefs must
not onl y be rationally consistent with each othe r i n order to be possessed a t
all: the y mus t als o veridically represent ho w th e worl d is . But thi s yields a
startling result: scepticism must be incoherent, since it tries to envisage situations in which people hav e beliefs but ge t everything wrong. Davidson justifies this result by insisting that the content o f belie f is fixed by its actual cause,
and no t b y any epistemic intermediary suc h as experience. H e i s thus led t o
reject th e empiricist dichotomy of scheme and content , o f concepts an d th e
given. That is, in sum: in order to make up for the logical extensionality of "is
true i f and onl y if Davidso n i s led first to interpretation , the n t o charity,
thence t o a rejectio n o f scepticism , an d finall y t o a n abandonmen t o f th e
third dogma o f empiricism. Where th e empiricists took meaning to be possible onl y if it stems fro m sensor y experience , Davidso n take s th e theor y o f
meaning t o b e possibl e onl y if experience play s no role i n fixin g meaning .
Meaning, for him, results from a direct collision, or collusion, between belief
and fact .
This i s stirrin g stuff , bu t i t i s fa r fro m obviou s tha t i t i s correct. Wha t


powers the whol e argument i s the initia l claim that interpretatio n ca n onl y
get goin g i f w e mak e a charitabl e assumptio n abou t belief , sinc e mer e
holding-true i s mute as to what is believed. But isn't there something Davidson is forgetting? Agreed, mer e assent to sentences will never by itself decide
between differen t hypotheses about wha t is believed, s o that somethin g els e
must take up th e slac k if we are t o interpret a t all. But we are not compelle d
to leap to a fixed policy of charity, since we can always appeal to the speaker' s
nonlinguistic behavio r t o narro w th e option s down . Suppos e ou r speake r
assents to "it's raining" i n broad sunshine : we might be inclined t o suppos e
that h e can' t reall y believe it' s rainings o w e charitably assig n t o hi m th e
belief tha t it' s sunny , reinterpreting hi s word s accordingly . O f cours e hi s
assent is not all we have to go on: we might observe hi m scampering unde r a
tree, swearing, dabbing at his face with a hankygiving all the signs of a man
who i s convinced it' s pourin g down . Well , that woul d be evidenc e tha t h e
actually believe s it' s raining , i n plai n contraventio n o f th e facts . An d w e
might the n g o o n t o assembl e furthe r evidenc e tha t h e i s suffering fro m
delusory perceptions , perhap s cause d b y malnourishmen t o r whatever .
None o f thi s woul d b e conclusiveh e might b e tryin g t o deceiv e u s int o
thinking he believes it's raining when he knows it isn'tbut then n o empirical evidence for anythin g is ever conclusive.
The poin t is that we are not, as interpreters, stuc k merely with inscrutable
assent, s o that w e have t o g o by the charitabl e assumptio n o r no t g o at all:
there i s other behavio r t o appeal to . I take this to be a Wittgensteinian point:
mere ostensio n i s always multiply interpretable, an d th e onl y way to giv e it
specific conten t i s to bring i n a n extensiv e range o f behavior an d "form s of
life." Furthermore , sinc e it is certainly coherent t o keep a subject's behavio r
fixed while varying his environment, we have here a basis for interpreting his
speech tha t doe s no t presuppose tha t his beliefs fit the facts . Beliefs are no t
just cause d b y things outsid e us : the y are als o that o n whic h we act, so that
how someone act s gives purchase i n deciding what he believes. The upsho t is
that Davidson' s antisceptical argumen t doe s no t g o through: ther e ca n b e
true an d warrante d attribution s o f predominantl y fals e beliefs . Th e goo d
news, s o fa r a s Davidson' s overall schem e i s concerned, i s that i t become s
possible t o accept hi s semantics without embracing hi s epistemology .
Davidson's work combines rigor wit h imagination, cautio n with boldness.
He shows what analytic philosophy can be like at its best. In tackling head on
some of the most profound an d perplexing question s he has opened up new
areas o f inquiry, and i t is impossible not to learn fro m thinkin g through hi s
ideaseven when one disagree s wit h them. There is a well-known genre o f
philosophical joke"X's proof that p"tha t parodies a given philosopher' s
characteristic style of argument. Davidson' s proof tha t p goes: "Consider th e
bold conjecture that p. Therefore p." (That, for a disciple of Davidson, goes:
"Davidson ha s considere d th e bol d conjectur e tha t p . Therefor e p." ) O f
course, thi s is as unfair a s it is meant t o be (i t is actually a good dea l milde r

132 M I N

than othe r examples o f the genre): bu t it does signal one very commendabl e
feature o f Davidson's workit s courage. Davidso n want s to answer th e bi g
questions, an d h e i s no t afrai d t o muste r whateve r degre e o f boldnes s i s
requisite to the task. What is amazing is that he has done this while remainin g
as scrupulousl y analytical as even th e mos t inhibite d o f thinkers . Rea d "I n
Defence o f Convention T. "


Davidson: Wea k Wills

Essays on Davidson: Actions and Events
edited b y Bruce Vermaze n an d
Merrill Hintikka
Oxford, 198 5

Donald Davidso n ha s thi s year bee n Georg e Eastma n Visitin g Professor a t

Oxford: onl y the secon d philosophe r t o hol d th e augus t positio n (th e firs t
being W . V . Quine , a teache r o f Davidson' s a t Harvar d an d hi s greates t
philosophical influence) . This honor reflect s hi s present statur e i n the aca demic world . Last yea r h e wa s the subjec t of a massiv e conference hel d i n
New Jersey, organized by the indefatigable Ernie Lepore. I t was probably the
largest philosophica l conferenc e eve r held , an d i t attracted nearl y all of th e
world's leading philosophers . Mos t of the paper s delivere d wer e addresse d
(often critically ) t o som e aspec t o f Davidson' s work . Fo r a philosophica l
event, it was undoubtedly a great occasion , if a somewhat overwhelming one
(especially fo r Davidson , who attende d a s man y o f th e paper s a s wa s hu manly possible) . Probably n o othe r philosophe r no w working has bee n dis cussed a s much durin g th e las t decade .
It wa s not alway s so . Davidso n was something o f a late-developer, o r a t
least a lat e publisher . Hi s publishin g caree r di d no t seriousl y ge t of f th e
ground unti l th e earl y sixties , when h e wa s into hi s forties . I t wa s in th e
seventies tha t hi s writing s reall y too k hold , passin g fro m cul t statu s int o
virtual orthodoxy (i n certain circles) . There ha s yet to be a significant reac tion. H e ha s stil l not publishe d a single book settin g fort h hi s ideas systematically, preferrin g t o publis h shor t pith y articles , intricatel y interrelated ,
which have eventually been boun d togethe r int o collections. Davidson is not

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Septembe r 5, 1985).




an eas y writer. H e make s free us e of technica l idea s an d results , whic h h e

assumes th e reade r t o hav e mastered , an d hi s predilectio n fo r economica l
and aphoristic formulations sometimes shades into elusiveness. But there is a
firm respect fo r ou r ordinar y thinking , and hi s feet neve r los e contact with
the ground. Har d persistent thinking is always much in evidenceDavidson
always pushes th e subject just that little bit further (th e bit that make s all the
difference). A Davidson pape r invariabl y gets somewhere .
Davidson has worked principall y in philosophy o f language an d philoso phy o f mind , occasionall y spilling over int o metaphysic s and (latterly ) epis temology. Essays on Davidson, a collection of papers by "students, colleagues ,
collaborators an d adversaries " o f Davidson's , deal s mainl y wit h th e wor k
relating to philosophy of mind, though ther e are three essays (by Chisholm,
Strawson, and Thalberg ) addressed t o the metaphysic s of events and causa tion. Davidson's treatment o f intentio n i s discussed i n five papers (b y Bratman, Grice and Baker , Peacocke, Pears, and Vermazen) , three o f which also
discuss the allied topic of weakness of the will . The thir d mai n section of th e
book is about Davidson's views in the philosoph y of psychology, in particula r
his theory o f the mind-body relation (her e th e discussant s are Lewis , Smart ,
and Suppes) . There is one rathe r strang e three-pag e piec e b y Dan Bennet t
on pride. Davidson gets to reply to each paper at the end of the volume, and
a ne w pape r b y him calle d "Adverb s o f Action" ha s bee n included . Befor e
commenting o n thes e variou s contributions i t is as well to remind onesel f o f
Davidson's principal doctrines .
Practical reasoning (the kind addressed t o the question "Wha t shall I do?")
consists i n a transitio n fro m premisse s expressin g belief s an d desire s t o a
conclusion expressin g a n intentio n t o act. This type of reasonin g i s not de ductive in character, sinc e the additio n o f new premisses ca n invalidate th e
inference: wha t it is reasonable t o d o i n th e ligh t o f on e se t o f belief s an d
desires may not be reasonable when further reasons fo r actions are adduced .
So w e canno t represen t th e conclusio n o f a piec e o f practica l reasoning ,
premissed o n a particula r pai r o f belie f an d desire , wit h a n unqualifie d
"Doing a is desirable." Instead , Davidso n suggests, we should compar e prac tical reasonin g with inductive or probabilisti c reasoning, i n which the addi tion o f new evidence ca n als o serve to discourag e u s from drawin g the ini tially reasonabl e conclusion . Wha t w e shoul d the n sa y i s tha t th e agent' s
reasons giv e prima facie support t o a certain practica l conclusion . Thu s th e
form o f a practica l inference i s something lik e this : "Reason r gives prim a
facie suppor t t o doin g a" ; i n symbol s "pf(doing a, r)," whic h resembles th e
"prob(H, e)" (wher e H i s a hypothesis an d e some evidence ) o f probabilisti c
reasoning. However , thi s cannot b e the en d o f the story , for a n agent mus t
act, and prim a faci e judgments o f desirability don't ge t him therean agen t
can make far too many of these at any given time. A new type of judgment is
therefore needed : thi s is what Davidson call s an unconditiona l or "all-out "
judgment of desirability, and it has the adventurous for m "Doing a would be
best." Thi s unconditiona l judgment Davidso n identifie s with intention. Ac-


cordingly, th e agen t i s seen a s engaging in three stages of practical reason ing: first, he makes a number o f prima facie judgments, each relativized to a
particular desire ; second , h e judges o n th e basi s of this that, al l things (desires) considered , h e shoul d d o a, thu s makin g a generalize d conditiona l
judgment; third, he makes the all-out judgment "a would be (is) best." When
the agent reaches th e thir d stag e he is intending t o do a, and i f he does no t
temporize h e i s actually doing a .
This apparatus i s used by Davidson to give an account of the reasoning of
the weak-willed agentthe akratic, as he has quaintly come to be called. T o
act akratically is, pretheoretically, to act against one's better judgment. Thu s
the akratic judges tha t he should do a rather than b (his preference i s for a),
yet he does b, and doe s it intentionally. How, Davidson asks, is this possible?
If the intentio n to do b is, or involves, the judgment tha t doing b is best, then
how ca n th e wil l b e weakwon' t i t alway s follo w th e counsel s of practica l
reason? The solutio n to this apparent paradox, Davidson suggests, lies in the
distinction betwee n conditiona l an d unconditiona l judgments o f value: the
akratic judges tha t al l thing s considere d h e shoul d d o a rathe r tha n b (a
generalized prim a faci e judgment), but he does not detach th e correspond ing all-out judgmentindeed, h e judges all-ou t tha t b is better tha n a . Hi s
error resembles that of the scientist who judges that all his evidence supports
a certai n conclusio n but the n irrationall y believes its opposite. Th e akrati c
lets his all-out judgments get uncoupled from his prima facie judgments: this
is irrational all right, but it is perfectly possibleit does not require the agent
knowingly t o believe a contradiction. Th e ke y idea her e i s that th e akrati c
agent's intention fails to be shaped b y his practical reasoning in the same sort
of way that th e theoretica l reasoner's belief s about th e worl d may fail t o be
determined b y his evidence. The nondeductiv e gap in both cases is the poin t
at which the wea k of mind tri p up. Wha t happens ever y day has thus bee n
shown possible .
This accoun t o f practica l reasoning an d it s deformatio n i s criticized by
several contributors . Th e result s do no t mak e light reading ; on e migh t be
forgiven fo r nominatin g th e topi c of weakness of wil l fo r th e priz e for th e
driest treatmen t o f a juicy-sounding topic i n analytica l philosophy. Much
heavy technica l weather i s mad e o f Davidson' s writings o n intentio n an d
prima faci e judgments . Davidso n cuts throug h thi s thicke t i n hi s replies ,
which contain many accusations of misunderstanding. These protests see m
to m e largel y justified: on e ha s th e impressio n tha t Davidson' s critics have
become swamped in technical detail and allowe d the wood to be occluded by
the trees . Incidentall y some worthwhil e points ar e made , bu t th e cor e o f
Davidson's theory emerges unscathed , as he i s not slo w to poin t out. This is
not t o sa y that th e theor y i s unfaultable: indeed , I thin k i t contain s som e
highly questionable elements. The centra l implausibility is the ascriptio n t o
the akrati c of th e all-out judgment tha t hi s weak act is best. Fo r th e weak willed agen t act s against hi s better judgment, no t i n conformit y with it: h e
precisely does not judge that what he i s doing i s the bes t thing to do. David-



son's distinctio n betwee n tw o sorts o f valu e judgment doe s no t hel p over come thi s point, since his theory stil l represents th e akratic as having his will
shaped b y his best judgmentthe kin d o f judgment tha t i n ordinar y case s
triggers wowakrati c action. Surely it is more plausible , if we are t o use Davidson's apparatus, to suppose tha t the akratic judges both that all things consid ered he shoul d d o a rather than b and that h e should d o a tout courtyet h e
weakly does b rather than a. On thi s way of representing the agent' s stat e of
mind, the intention t o do b cannot be identified with (nor can it entail) the allout judgment that b should b e done, so Davidson's theory o f intention goe s
by the board: but this , too, strike s me as a welcome result, sinc e that theor y
assimilates the will too closely to the cognitive faculty. Intending belongs with
trying, an d surel y it is unplausible t o think o f tryin g as a kin d of judgment.
Weakness of will is a failure of the ratiocinativ e faculties to shape th e execu tive faculties; it is not, as Davidson's theory describe s it, a foul-up within th e
ratiocinative faculties. So there is no paradox to resolve about ho w the agen t
can for m conflictin g judgments abou t wha t he shoul d do .
Weakness of will is in a certain respect analogous with perceptual illusion .
It is possible for a perceiver t o see the world otherwise than h e believe s an d
knows it to be, as when a straight stic k looks bent in water. The operatio n o f
the perceptua l syste m i s here no t bein g controlle d b y what the perceiver' s
beliefs tell him. How is this possible? It can seem tha t there is a puzzle here if
one insist s that experiencing is a species of judging: for it will then see m that
the illude d perceive r mus t b e makin g contradictory judgments abou t ho w
the world ishe must believe both tha t the stic k is straight and tha t it is bent.
The solutio n to this alleged puzzle is clearly not to distinguish two categories
of judgment differin g in their logica l formsuch tha t th e illude d perceive r
judges tha t al l things considere d th e stic k i s straight bu t als o judges all-out
that i t i s bent. Rather , w e mus t recogniz e tha t th e perceptua l syste m ca n
operate autonomousl y with respec t t o the belie f system. Seeing is thus not a
kind of judgingand nor i s willing. In both case s the solutio n is to acknowledge what has come to be called the modularity of mind. At any rate, this sort
of approac h seem s t o me t o make th e righ t assumptions.
The middl e section of Essays on Davidson deals with events, causation, an d
states of affairs . Muc h of thi s is routine (whic h is not t o sa y without value),
but an issue of some significance crops up in the exchange betwee n Strawson
and Davidson . This concern s whethe r causatio n and causa l explanation ar e
relations "i n nature. " Bot h Strawso n an d Davidso n wis h to distinguis h between the relation o f causation holding between events in the world and th e
relation o f causal explanation whic' i "holds betwee n fact s o r truths. " Strawson scolds certain unidentified authors fo r employing the confused locutio n
"under a description " whe n speakin g of causatio n an d explanation . Sinc e
Davidson has used thi s locution himself, he naturally wonders whether he is
one o f those Strawso n has it i n min d t o censure. H e point s ou t i n hi s reply
that it is directly contrary t o his vie w o f causatio n t o spea k thi s way of what
events d o causall y to othe r events , bu t tha t h e ha s spoke n i n thi s wa y of


explanation, and, moreover, ha s warned o f the misunderstandings th e locution can invite. Properly construed, tal k of explanation "unde r a description"
is simpl y a hand y wa y of acknowledgin g the intensionalit y o f explanatio n
claims, and i s thus entirel y innocent o f the confusio n Strawso n stigmatizes.
On thi s point Davidso n seems to me completely in the clear . But ther e is
another potentia l confusio n lurking, and I am no t sur e tha t i t is avoided by
either Strawso n or Davidson . Strawson describes causa l explanation a s "an
intellectual or rational or intentiona l relation," an d Davidso n comes close to
calling it "language-dependent." Th e suggestio n in both authors is that while
causation i s objectively out ther e i n th e worl d there is something essentially
mind- or language-dependent abou t that which is reported when we explain
one even t i n term s o f another . I f thi s were so , then natura l law s woul d b e
similarly people-dependent, sinc e these are what provide our (best ) explanations of what goes on. But this cannot be right: natur e wa s governed b y laws
before we came on the scene to say so. And events have explanations whether
we ar e her e t o giv e the m o r not . Law s and explanation s (considere d a s
sentences) pic k out properties o f events and substance s that ar e lawfull y an d
explanatorily related: thes e properties ar e just as independent o f mind an d
language a s th e entitie s tha t instantiat e the m (o r i f the y ar e not , thi s ha s
nothing in particular to do with the natur e of laws and explanation) . It does
not follo w fro m the fac t that a certain type of sentence is semantically intensional that what it reports i s mind- or language-dependent. Perhap s neithe r
Strawson nor Davidso n thinks it does, but then I cannot see what other basis
their clai m might have.
The thir d section of the book discusses Davidson's doctrine of "anomalous
monism"the thesi s tha t al l menta l event s ar e physica l but ther e ar e n o
psychophysical laws . Th e importanc e o f thi s doctrin e i s tha t i t offer s th e
hope o f reconciling the ontologica l materiality of the min d wit h it s conceptual irreducibilit y to th e physical . I t doe s thi s b y identifying menta l events
with physical events while insisting that the mental properties of those events
are no t physica l properties. Th e paper s i n thi s sectio n rais e som e natura l
queries about Davidson's argumentsin particular, his reasons for removing
psychology fro m th e real m o f th e strictl y lawful . Thu s Suppe s claim s tha t
physics is less strictly lawlike (deterministic) than Davidson suggests and tha t
psychology i s more so . Again, it seem s to m e tha t Davidson' s fundamental
contentions survive , though hi s earlie r formulation s nee d t o b e qualified
somewhat. Nothing particularly new emerges fro m th e thre e paper s i n this
section. I thin k again, however, that Davidson' s critics have here misse d th e
chance t o urg e deepe r objections : I wil l mentio n just two .
First, Davidson's reasons for contestin g the reducibility of mental notions
focus on the logical and semantic features consequent upon the possession of
propositional content. This has the look of a sound thought whe n the reducing vocabulary consists exclusively of terms from physics and chemistry . But
what about th e vocabular y used by cognitive scientists to describe the infor mational and computational properties of the brain? This vocabulary has the



resources t o spea k o f prepositiona l contents o migh t no t th e menta l vo cabulary be reducibl e t o it? And i f it is, as many cognitiv e scientist s believe,
then ho w will matters loo k when we inquire ho w the physica l and computa tional properties o f the brai n ar e related ? Perhap s thi s intermediate wa y of
describing th e brai n wil l brin g min d an d matte r close r togethe r tha n no w
seems t o u s possible . Ther e is , at an y rate , a n issu e her e fo r Davidso n t o
Secondly, what are w, e t o make of thos e irreducibl e menta l propertie s o f
the brainwha t i s their "ontologica l status" ? The y ar e sai d t o b e fixe d b y
physical properties o f the brain , bu t ho w can they be, given their categorica l
difference fro m physical properties? Wha t kind of dependence i s this? What
is its explanation? Ho w in the course of evolution did merel y material things
come to have irreducible menta l properties? These are natural questions, but
we search i n vai n for a n answe r t o the m i n Davidson' s writings (this is why
many materialisti c philosopher s fee l tha t anomalou s monis m doe s no t sa y
enough). I suspect that Davidson does not get himself worked up about thes e
questions because of a more or les s taci t instrumentalis m abou t menta l as criptions: to have mental propertie s i s to be interpretable b y the ascription of
mental predicateshavin g a min d i s as muc h dependen t upo n th e inter preter a s the interpretee . Suppos e on e wer e suc h a n instrumentalist , then
one would not be excessively concerned abou t how the physical properties o f
a subject fix his mental properties, sinc e these latter propertie s ar e possessed ,
as i t were , onl y b y courtesythe y ar e projecte d ont o th e subjec t b y th e
interpreter. I thin k thi s kin d o f instrumentalis m doe s alleviat e th e worr y
about irreducible menta l propertiesbut at an obvious cost. The questio n t o
worry about is : can one res t content wit h anomalous monis m if one believes
that menta l propertie s ar e objectivel y determined ?
In a charming postscript to the volume Davidson says that he used to think
that replying to critics was easy and so didn't bother t o do it, but that replying
to his critics in this volume has changed hi s attitude: critics sometimes have
good points , hard as it may be to admit it . Davidson here show s a degree of
honesty and modest y seldo m foun d amon g philosophers , bu t I hav e to say
that on thi s occasion his critics have not give n him a particularly hard time .
For al l they hav e said, the Davidsonia n edifice stil l stands.


Davidson: When Is an
Action Intentional?
Essays on Actions and Events
by Donal d Davidson
Clarendon Press , 198 0

This volum e usefull y assemble s Davidson' s hithert o scattere d writing s o n

events, action , and th e mind-bod y problem. Thei r juxtaposition bring s ou t
the system in Davidson's thought: on e has the sense of a tightly knit garmen t
held ingeniously together by a few carefully interwove n strandsthe point s
of vulnerabilit y may b e fe w bu t th e consequence s o f snappin g ar e mor e
The maste r threads of this system are the twin notions of event and cause.
These notions, especially that of event, are scrutinized and tested with relentless persistence . Th e spiri t o f the enterpris e i s undogmatic an d theoretical :
events are t o be recognized, no t s o much becaus e of their commonsens e o r
metaphysical credentials, but o n account of their utility in devising attractive
and rigorou s theorieso f logica l form , intentiona l action , th e natur e o f
mental events . Davidson's influence is owed a s muc h t o hi s attitude towar d
philosophical problem s a s t o th e specifi c doctrine s fo r whic h h e i s justly
The proposa l t o acknowledg e an ontolog y o f events can see m banal , fo r
surely thing s changean d change s ar e events . Wha t i s not banal , thoug h
once perceive d i s compellingly obvious, is the ide a tha t events are basic particulars: they are not to be conceived as logical constructions from substances,
times, an d properties , bu t ar e genuin e object s o f discours e susceptibl e o f
multiple characterization . Thi s conceptio n o f event s enable s Davidso n t o
Reprinted with permission from th e Times Higher Educational Supplement (Septembe r 5 ,


140 M I N

treat adverbia l sentence s reportin g chang e a s conjunctiv e predications o f

such particulars; and i t motivates the detection of opacity where others hav e
supposed extr a entities . Thus unintentional action s always have intentiona l
aspects, and explanatio n is always "under a description." I t also makes possible th e clai m that menta l event s ca n b e describe d physicall y even thoug h
there i s no reducin g menta l descriptions t o physical ones. Th e nontrivialit y
of th e even t ontolog y i s shown i n th e frequenc y wit h whic h on e need s t o
press th e questio n "D o you mea n token or even t type?" An d surel y this conception o f events is not t o be denied. Thi s is not t o say that al l of Davidson's
applications of the conception ar e plai n sailing: there ar e adverbs that resis t
the Davidsonian treatment; there are certain actions, namely, omissions, that
are har d t o se e as events; and i t is less than obviou s that a single event can
have both menta l and physica l characterizations, especiall y if one think s (as
Davidson tend s no t to ) o f consciou s sensations . Bu t i t mus t b e sai d tha t
Davidson's framework is what permits a sharp statemen t o f these questions .
An ontological issue he does not discuss is whether w e should welcome properties a s w e hav e bee n advise d t o welcom e events ; th e answe r t o thi s wil l
affect, amon g other things , our assessmen t of the purport for physicalism of
the irreducibilit y of mental descriptions .
In hi s 196 3 paper "Actions , Reasons, and Causes " (reprinte d a s the firs t
essay i n thi s collection) Davidson defende d a "causal theory" o f intentiona l
action: a bi t o f behavio r count s a s a n intentiona l actio n i f an d onl y i f i t is
caused b y the agent' s desire s an d beliefs , and i t is explained b y citing thos e
causally operative desires and beliefs. The star k economy of this theory is not
preserved i n Davidson' s late r papers , a s he come s t o appreciat e it s inade quacy as originally stated. First, we have to cope with the notoriou s proble m
of "lunatic causal chains," cases in which a reason causes a piece o f behavio r
that we would not cal l intentional. Davidson himself despairs o f solving th e
problem, bu t unles s it can be accommodated withi n a broadly causa l framework (whic h I concur wit h Davidso n in doubting) we really have no righ t t o
speak of a causal theory: perhap s som e conceptually quite novel ingredient is
needed t o fill the gap , o r perhap s th e notio n o f intentiona l actio n i s just
irreducible. Thi s admissio n o f Davidson' s leave s u s wit h th e rathe r mor e
modest thesis that it is merely a necessary condition of acting intentionally that
the actio n b e caused b y a reason .
Secondly, Davidson comes round t o enriching his earlier minima l account
with the notion o f intending, which he wishes to construe a s an all-out judgment o f desirability . This suggestio n keep s dow n th e enrichment , bu t fo r
that reason seem s to miss something essential: for surel y it is possible for m e
to judge that doing a is best all things considered, ye t at the same time refrain
from intendin g t o d o a ? Here we may need t o recko n wit h the will , on e o f
those mysteriou s facultie s agains t whic h Davidso n ha s alway s set hi s face .
Intending threatens t o spoi l the simplicit y of Davidson' s theor y i n anothe r
way too. Davidson at one point concede s t o Castaneda that intending always
involves a certai n reflexivity : Oedipu s intende d tha t he himself shoul d see k


the slayer of Laiusreplacing "he himself wit h "Oedipus" does not preserv e
truth conditions . Tha t intentio n necessaril y involve s thi s kin d o f attitud e
toward onesel f suggest s tha t self-awarenes s i s integra l t o th e concep t o f
agencyas integral a s causation. Bu t Davidso n doe s no t pursu e th e conse quences o f Castaneda' s observationperhap s w e shal l als o hav e t o mak e
room fo r th e sel f in our fina l accoun t o f intentional action .
Thirdly, ther e i s the questio n i n virtue of what reasons caus e actions; in
particular, ho w does th e propositiona l conten t o f a n attitud e pla y a causal
role i n producing behavior ? To answe r this questionwhich seems essentia l
if we are to know what sort of causal nexus we are dealin g withwe will nee d
a theor y o f wha t constitute s propositiona l content , an d o f ho w th e trut h
conditions of an attitude ar e connected t o its explanatory force . I t would be
churlish to chide Davidso n with failing t o answer these questions , but thos e
working in his wake must come t o grips wit h the problem s h e leave s open.
Reading these essay s it is not difficul t t o understand th e mesmeri c effec t
Davidson's writings are apt to produce. Th e combinatio n o f logical rigor with
belles lettres , o f gran d theor y wit h attentio n t o detail , o f seriousnes s wit h
lightness o f touch , o f clarit y with arc h allusivenessthes e mak e fo r a n in toxicating mixture . Bu t whe n th e intoxicatio n wear s of f Davidson' s work
stands fort h a s a major contributio n t o analytical philosophy.


Putnam: Idea l Justifications

Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers,
volume 3
by Hilar y Putna m
Cambridge Universit y Press, 198 5

Since the publicatio n in 197 5 of Hilary Putnam's second volum e of collecte d

papers, h e ha s been changin g hi s views; h e has , indeed , bee n undergoin g
something of a conversion. As he confesses in the introduction t o the present
volume, there wa s a time when h e was an unqualifie d realist, hostile to verificationism in an y form ; whe n h e believe d tha t referenc e t o thing s i n th e
world was unproblematic an d semanticall y primary; an d whe n he took trut h
to consis t i n a relatio n o f correspondenc e betwee n though t an d a mind independent world . Bu t no w Putna m ha s com e t o believ e tha t al l thi s i s
wrong, or at least highly misleading: the papers collecte d in this third volum e
set out t o explain why.
There is much t o commend i n thes e efforts : hi s discussion is , as always ,
lively and stimulating ; he takes on the big issues with uninhibited freshness ;
he ingeniousl y connect s wha t ma y hav e seeme d lik e separat e questions .
There are, however , some regrettable lapse s in both conceptio n an d presen tation: formulation s of key positions are obscure an d elusive , relying upon a
liberal us e o f inverte d comma s t o sugges t tha t mor e i s being mean t b y th e
quoted phras e tha n i t literall y says ; ther e i s a tendenc y t o resor t t o shril l
sloganizing when rigorou s argumen t i s what i s wanted, possibl y as a resul t
of hast y composition; an d ther e ar e moment s o f pretentiousnes s an d self congratulation. Th e topic s treate d rang e widely , fro m technica l issue s i n
quantum physic s to meditation s upo n th e plac e o f analytica l philosophy i n
Reprinted wit h permission fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Novembe r 25 , 1983) .



"contemporary culture"thoug h th e issu e of realism i s the centra l an d re current theme .

Putnam's primary target is someone called "the metaphysical realist." This
species o f philosophe r i s credite d wit h quit e a variet y o f convictions : h e
believes in a mind-independent world ; he holds a correspondence theor y of
truth; h e think s ther e i s a uniqu e referenc e schem e fo r ou r language ; h e
supposes ther e t o b e a singl e tru e theor y o f th e world ; h e take s trut h t o
outrun eve n idealize d justification; h e reject s the ide a tha t we have "direc t
access" t o objects ; he canno t tolerat e objectiv e vagueness ; h e prefer s idea l
languages. No w it may be that there hav e been (an d are) philosopher s wh o
have adhered t o all these doctrines (Russell is perhaps a n example), but i t is
not t o b e suppose d tha t ther e i s an y logical connectio n betwee n them
someone could consistently espouse a subset of them without being committed to the whole lot. In particular, I see no reason why someone who believes
in a mind-independent worl d and a nonepistemic notion of truthsurely the
core beliefs of "the metaphysica l realist"should fin d himsel f saddled with
the othe r doctrines listed. Putna m typicall y proceeds by attacking some of
these doctrines an d takin g himself to have thereby undermined th e others ,
thus insinuatin g guil t b y association ; wherea s wha t i s neede d i s a carefu l
articulation of distinctions and o f the advantages and liabilitie s of each component o f the composit e positio n h e opposes . An d wher e Putna m doe s at tempt t o show a rea l theoretica l connection , as , fo r example , betwee n a
correspondence theory of truth an d rejectio n of vague properties, hi s arguments are quite unconvincing: for the believer in correspondence an d vagueness can simpl y hold tha t th e correspondenc e relatio n i s itself vague (non determinate).
But ho w good ar e Putnam' s arguments against the severa l doctrines tha t
make u p hi s target? Abou t th e idea o f a mind-independen t worl d h e say s
some curious things: his chief complain t seems to be that if we locate material
objects wholly outside o f the min d we eo ipso rende r them inaccessibl e to th e
mind. Putna m think s that th e min d ha s acces s only t o it s own representa tions, s o that i f object s ar e distinc t from menta l representation s th e min d
cannot reac h ou t an d embrac e th e objects ; an d i f so, there i s nothing th e
mind ca n do , s o to speak , t o selec t a determinat e rang e o f object s as th e
reference o f it s cognitive acts.
To this line of thought one is inclined to make a short and unsympathetic
reply: namely , that a n objec t does no t nee d t o be (literally ) in the min d i n
order fo r i t t o b e capabl e of comin g before th e mind . D o we not simpl y see
objects, objects that would exist whether we saw them or not, even though (of
course) suc h object s ar e no t constituent s o f ou r minds ? The puzzl e i s t o
understand wh y Putnam seemingl y commits this non sequitur . I suspect h e
would sa y that i n perceptio n th e min d ha s acces s to object s only as represented i n a certain way , so the short reply has not made sense of the ide a of
thought abou t mind-independen t objects . Bu t thi s woul d b e t o mak e th e
same mistake Berkeley made whe n arguing that t o be is to be perceived. I t



does no t follo w fro m th e fac t tha t wheneve r w e conceive of a n objec t th e

object i s conceived tha t we cannot conceive of what it would be for a n object
to exist wnconceived, since our conceivin g of the objec t need no t be part o f
the conten t o f wha t we conceiveas when w e think o f object s as they were
before anyon e had though t abou t them . Similarly , what we see need no t b e
mind-dependent just becaus e ou r seein g it is.
Putnam is clearer about his reasons for doubting the uniqueness of refer ence (though h e tends to conflate this question with the question of whether
truth i s to b e explaine d i n term s o f correspondence) . Hi s doubt s hav e tw o
sources: th e difficult y o f findin g an y suitabl e relatio n tha t coul d consti tute determinat e reference ; an d a technica l resul t i n forma l logi c (th e
Lowenheim-Skolem theorem) which appears t o show that reference can float
free o f more globa l properties o f a theory ( a similar claim has been mad e by
Donald Davidso n an d Joh n Wallace) . One natura l repl y t o thes e doubt s
appeals t o th e relatio n o f causatio n a s wha t glue s word s t o thing s i n th e
world. Putna m dismisse s this reply: hi s objection t o i t is that either i t is th e
claim tha t ou r us e of the wor d "causation " fixes the interpretatio n o f "re fers," in which case it simply raises the same question about that word; or it is
the clai m that i t is in th e natur e o f causation itsel f that i t determines refer ence, i n whic h case it is a perniciou s for m o f "medieva l essentialism. "
Now, plainly , the firs t versio n of th e causa l reply i s a nonstarter, fo r th e
reason Putna m gives , bu t hi s quic k dismissal of th e secon d versio n seem s
unpersuasive. Fo r conside r any question abou t th e uniquenes s an d deter minacy o f a relationspatia l o r familia l relations , sayan d tr y applyin g
Putnam's arguments. Certainl y our us e of words for thes e relation s wil l no t
settle thei r identit y i f th e word s hav e indeterminat e reference ; bu t wh y
should it be thought objectionable "medieval essentialism" to take these relations a s primitiv e features o f th e world , o r t o reduc e the m t o othe r suc h
relations? Putnam's dilemmatic argument thus appears to prove too much: it
threatens t o mak e all relations indeterminate . I woul d sugges t tha t i t i s at
least th e beginnin g o f a reply t o Putna m t o see linguistic reference a s constrained b y mor e basi c natura l relation s i n whic h on e stand s t o one' s
environmentacting upo n it , bein g acte d upo n b y it , havin g one' s goal s
fulfilled b y objects in it, and s o on. Perhap s Putnam' s difficultie s ste m fro m
assuming a n over-"intellectualist " conceptio n o f reference ; th e proble m
starts t o loo k les s rea l whe n w e remembe r th e representationa l state s o f
animals an d infants .
The vie w wit h whic h Putna m woul d supplan t metaphysica l realism h e
labels "internal realism. " Interna l realis m regards truth a s not transcendin g
idealized justification (henc e "internal") whil e insisting that ther e i s more to
truth tha n believed truth (henc e "realism"). Thus the normativeness of truth
is preserved , alon g wit h it s transcendenc e o f wha t i s presentl y assertible ,
while the metaphysica l realist's conception o f truth a s quite independent o f
our capacitie s for justification i s repudiated ("externa l antirealism " would I
think b e an equall y apt nam e fo r thi s view).


Internal realis m i s unfortunately somewha t undercharacterize d b y Put nam, and i t invites questions h e does littl e or nothing t o answer. The crucia l
question concern s th e nature of the idealization: does he intend th e idealization t o b e ove r ou r actua l capacitie s fo r verification , o r doe s h e mea n t o
abstract away from these to the condition o f some kind of ideal knower? Th e
indications are that he means the former, in which case there is a threat of an
unacceptable relativis m in the resultin g notion o f truth, sinc e what is (is not)
justifiable by the exercise of our actua l capacities may not (may) be justifiable
by th e exercis e o f capacitie s possesse d b y other knowin g beingsi n othe r
words, trut h become s relativ e t o a species . Accordin g t o interna l realism ,
man i s the measur e o f all things, but Martian s and monkey s have thei r ow n
measures, an d th e measure s migh t giv e differen t results . Bu t i f Putna m
wishes to avoi d suc h relativis m in th e notio n o f truth , b y prescinding fro m
our actua l capacitie s fo r knowledge , h e wil l ru n th e ris k o f renderin g hi s
position vacuous: if God is the shap e the idealization takes, then it is not clea r
that this is not metaphysical realism by another name. It seems to me that this
is a dilemm a an y equatio n o f trut h wit h justification mus t confront , an d
Putnam say s nothing t o sho w ho w interna l realis m escape s bein g impale d
on it .
Putnam make s som e surprisin g claims about th e relatio n betwee n meta physical realism and th e concep t o f necessity (notably in "Why There Isn't a
Ready-made World"). He tells us that a consistent metaphysical realist cannot
reject essential properties becaus e such a realist needs to hold that there is an
essential or intrinsi c relation betwee n though t an d it s objects. Putnam's rea son for saying this is, apparently, that the metaphysical realist requires some thing ("metaphysica l glue") t o tie words and concept s t o things outside th e
mind. I se e n o forc e whateve r i n thi s contention : wha t th e metaphysica l
realist require s (a s Putna m her e describe s him ) i s just uniqueness , no t
necessitysomething tha t single s a referenc e relatio n ou t i n th e actua l
world. Tha t ou r thought s coul d hav e differen t object s i n othe r possibl e
worlds doe s no t sho w that the y fai l t o hav e unique referenc e i n th e actua l
This puzzlin g clai m i s followe d u p wit h th e suggestio n tha t th e mos t
prominent contemporar y for m o f metaphysica l realism, namely , material ism, i s incompatible with an objectivis t conception o f necessityindee d tha t
it is incompatible with the notion of objective causal explanation. This incompatibility is supposed t o follow fro m the (alleged ) fact that these concepts ar e
not strictl y definable in th e vocabular y of physicsterm s fo r mass , charge ,
and s o on. Bu t tha t i s surely an unreasonabl e deman d t o impose upo n th e
materialist: it would prevent him employing arithmetical concepts, or tempo ral concepts, or indee d th e concept s of ordinary logic . What th e materialis t
characteristically hold s i s tha t ther e ar e n o irreducibl y menta l (including
semantic) facts ; h e i s under n o obligatio n t o provid e a physicalist definition
of every concep t t o which he appeals . Thus a materialist will typicall y claim
that all events have physical causes and tha t everything has a physical expla-

146 M I N

nation; he does not need t o make the further claim that causation and expla nation themselve s have stric t physica l definitions.
Not all of this book is concerned wit h realism^ it also treats of reason. An d
here too Putnam ha s changed hi s views: he used to hold (with Quine) that n o
propositions ar e rationall y unrevisableanythin g w e no w believ e w e ca n
envisage rationally giving up as theory develops. Now Putnam is prepared to
allow that there ar e absolutely unrevisable beliefs, notably the minimal principle of noncontradiction, "no t ever y proposition i s both tru e an d false. " T o
give up this principle would simply be to cease to reason, s o there is no sens e
in the idea of rationally abandoning th e principle. This certainly seems to me
like a step i n the righ t direction , thoug h i t must b e said tha t Putna m offer s
rather little in the wa y of a detailed articulatio n of why reason shoul d enjoy
such absolut e presuppositions . (Thi s typ e o f unrevisabilit y thesis ha s als o
been pu t forwar d an d develope d b y the Danis h philosophe r Pete r Zinker nagel, bu t Putna m evidentl y does no t kno w of hi s work.)
Putnam's new views are manifestl y still in their formativ e phase, it is to b e
hoped tha t futur e wor k wil l clarif y an d sharpe n hi s position, bu t I suspec t
that onc e the proces s o f critical reflection has been pushe d further , w e shall
witness yet another chang e o f view .


Chomsky: Rule s an d Representation s

Rules and Representations

by Noa m Chomsky
Columbia Universit y Press, 198 0

Chomsky's ne w boo k restates , an d somewha t amplifies , th e contention s

about language fo r which he is renowned. It s six chapters record (wit h modifications) sundry lectures given by Chomsky over the last five years. Perhap s
inevitably, given their provenance , th e chapters ar e exceedingly repetitious,
and i t i s doubtfu l whethe r a lesse r figur e coul d hav e go t awa y wit h thi s
degree o f underediting . Nevertheless , ther e i s muc h interestin g materia l
here, an d repetitio n ha s a way of sinking in. Besides, Chomsky might offe r
the excus e tha t som e peopl e never learn . M y own opinion i s that o n som e
issues Chomsk y clearly has th e bette r o f his critics, but ther e ar e other s o n
which there ar e deeper and subtle r worrie s behind objection s whose typical
formulation allows Chomsky's untroubled dismissals. Matters are philosoph ically and methodologically less clear-cut than he acknowledges. I shall divide
my remark s int o tw o parts, th e firs t logicall y prior t o the second , tryin g to
spell out th e deepe r worrie s allude d to .
Psychological Realit y
Chomsky repeatedly insist s that linguisti c theories, i n particula r generativ e
grammars, be accorded th e sam e realist significance as is standardly ascribe d
to theorie s o f natura l science ; h e oppose s wha t h e call s "th e bifurcatio n
thesis" as between cognitive psychology and (say ) physics. Thus he urges tha t

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m the Journal of Philosophy (Apri l 1983) .


148 M I N

a description o f a grammar for a natural language is a theory of the cognitive

structures i n the possession of which linguistic competence consists : its rules
are hel d t o b e represente d somewher e i n th e speaker , s o that a candidat e
grammar is true or false according as it does or does not correspond t o thos e
internally represented rule s and principles . Chomsky challenges thos e wh o
deny thi s t o explai n wh y i t i s that psycholog y should b e methodologicall y
different fro m natura l sciencet o explai n wh y studying linguistic compe tence on the basis of performance dat a is not analogous to studying thermonuclear reactions within the sun on the basis of data relating to its surface. In
both cases our aim , he thinks, is to contrive true theories of the properties o f
unobservables, guide d b y rather limite d empirical evidence . Le t me distinguish thre e Chomskia n theses here , o f ascending strength , an d the n tr y t o
articulate the sourc e of what seem to me reasonable qualm s about th e claim
to psychological reality. The these s are (1 ) that a grammar characterize s an
internal structur e of representations an d computationa l principles ; (2 ) that
this structure belongs to the mind of the speaker; and (3 ) that the structure is
the objec t o f propositional attitudes on the part of the speaker , specificall y
that h e knows th e proposition s o f grammar , particula r an d universal .
Thesis 1 is the leas t controversia l and should , I think , be accepted . A s
Chomsky emphasizes , the cas e of gramma r seem s comparable wit h that o f
vision: recen t empirica l work has postulate d a comple x syste m of "featur e
detectors" implicate d i n th e processin g o f visua l information , t o whic h i t
would b e unreasonable t o deny psychologica l reality of som e sort ; and th e
abstract structures of grammar seem equally good candidate s as mechanisms
involved i n processing linguisti c material, in hearing o r speech . However , I
think h e underestimate s th e difficult y o f immediately interpreting a gram mar a s a piec e o f psycholinguistics . H e say s tha t ther e ca n b e n o genuin e
distinction between th e "goodness " o f a grammatical theory and it s correctness a s a n accoun t o f th e actua l principle s o f linguisti c competenceas a
theory of what goes on in the speaker . But surely, as I think Chomsky would
agree, it is possible to approach th e task of constructing a generative gramma r
with different aims in mind, and with respect to those aims the theory may be
good, ye t neithe r intende d no r construabl e a s psychologica l theorizing .
Compare devising a logical system or proof procedur e for some area of logic,
say, first-orde r quantificatio n theory. One ma y aim at a system that is sound
and complet e wit h respec t t o first-orde r validit y (generate al l and onl y th e
valid formulas) yet refrain from any suggestion that the system characterizes
the mechanism s or principle s whereb y people reason ; one' s criteri a o f success may not (thoug h the y may) bear on psychological reality. Or again , on e
may devis e a set-theoreti c accoun t o f arithmeti c an d b e indifferen t wit h
respect to its psychological reality. Similarly, it seems that a linguist could set
himself the goal of devising a grammar capable of generating al l and only the
grammatical strings of some language and not commit himself on the matter
of psychology . But then , i f yo u can achieve th e aim s i n questio n withou t
venturing into psycholinguistics, it appears that the criteria of success for th e


enterprise d o not themselves verify th e psychologica l imputation; extraneou s

evidence wil l need t o be invoked. Perhaps gramma r differ s fro m logi c an d
arithmetic in som e crucial respect here , bu t Chomsk y needs t o tell us what
it is . Wha t seem s t o m e tru e i s tha t gramma r ca n legitimatel y b e take n
as a psychological theory of competence, bu t it requires empirica l underpin ning fro m consideration s externa l t o simpl y characterizing (howeve r illuminatingly) grammaticality for the languag e i n question. (I n this respect we
have a disanalogy with the cas e of vision.)
Thesis 2 raise s som e difficul t issues , to whic h Chomsky doe s no t see m
sufficiently sensitive . It i s plainly not entaile d b y (1) , or els e fa r to o muc h
would b e mentalcomputers , retinas , an d digestiv e systems , for example .
What i s wanted i s some criterio n fo r whe n a syste m of representatio n an d
computation is genuinely part o f the mind. Chomsky rejects (as he must) the
idea that the criterion i s accessibility to consciousness, but h e does no t really
offer an y alternativ e suggestion. Hi s tacit criterion, I suspect , i s not tha t o f
accessibility t o consciousnes s but rathe r systemati c interaction with conscious
knowledge, that is, being part of a mechanism whose operations explai n what
goes o n consciously . However, thi s criterio n i s far fro m clea r an d precise :
for, again , there i s the danger tha t to o much will count as mentaldigestive
mechanisms an d retina l processin g agai n see m t o mee t th e criterion . On e
feels, perhaps , tha t grammatical rules, even those of universal grammar, ar e
somehow closer to what is authentically mentalare more intimatel y bound
up wit h itbu t th e issu e clearl y demands Chomsky' s consideration. Wha t
may move Chomsky to be so cavalier on the issu e is the convictio n that suc h
questions ar e o f littl e relevanc e t o th e projec t o f constructin g model s i n
cognitive psychology . That ma y wel l b e so , but a philosophica l (o r indee d
commonsense) accoun t of the boundarie s o f the min d need s t o respect dis tinctions insignifican t to th e cognitiv e psychologist . So I d o no t thin k tha t
Chomsky has yet demonstrated hi s right t o the clai m that generative gram mars hav e properly mental reality.
Thesis 3 is, a fortiori, disputable . Hopin g t o evad e philosophers ' doubt s
about attributin g knowledg e of grammatical rules, Chomsky introduces th e
word "cognize," which he glosses as "tacit" or "implicit" knowledge. He could
make it easier for himself by claiming that linguistic knowledge is knowledgehow, a capacity conferred b y (inter alia) an internally represented grammar ;
but no , h e wishe s to asser t tha t ther e is propositional knowledg e of (all ) the
grammatical rules tha t characteriz e a language. H e trie s t o render thi s less
outrageous b y observing that, i n hi s usage , a missil e guided b y a progra m
embodying a n astronomica l theor y cognize s variou s fact s abou t it s fligh t
path. Bu t thi s onl y make s i t illici t t o glos s "cognize " a s "taci t knowledge."
Either "cognize " mean s "know, " in which case it is no improvemen t o n th e
original stron g claim; or it does no t mean "know, " in which case it cannot be
glossed a s "tacit knowledge " (unless "tacit" i s intended a s a privativ e adjective!). I canno t se e tha t Chomsky' s persistenc e i n describin g th e interna l
representations a s knowledge, i n his attenuated sense , really adds anythin g

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to the bar e thesi s that gramma r i s internally represented. If he stuc k to th e

ordinary full-blooded concept of knowledge, he would have the obligation to
explain how the characteristic features of belief appl y in respect of grammar .
And woul d h e b e prepare d t o sa y that th e abstrac t principle s involve d in
vision were objects of the perceiver' s beliefs ? Th e correc t descriptio n o f th e
matter seems to me to bejust this: a speaker know s a languagein particular ,
he know s that certai n string s ar e grammaticali n virtu e o f possessin g a n
internal representation o f its grammar, th e principles of which are not themselves know n and ar e onl y dubiously part o f the conten t o f his mind. Thi s
formulation doe s no t see m t o sacrifice anything essential to Chomsky's conception o f psycholinguistics; his stronger claims seem t o me gratuitou s an d
Chomsky makes a number of other questionabl e claims about psychologi cal reality . H e i s anxious t o distinguis h firmly between th e capacit y to us e
language an d th e "structure d vehicle " tha t underlie s thi s capacity; compe tence consists only in the latter, and s o does not imply ability. Here I think he
has bee n misle d b y hi s opponents . Ther e ar e indee d thos e wh o wis h t o
characterize master y of a language a s a bare capacity , devoid o f structure d
basis in the speaker . I would agree with Chomsky that this is wrong, but th e
proper respons e i s not t o den y tha t competenc e i s a capacit y or abilit y or
disposition; what should be rejected i s the view of mental capacities that such
people presuppose. T o attribute a linguistic capacity is to impute an underlying categorica l basis a "structure d vehicle" ; just a s to attribut e a physical
disposition, say fragility, i s to commit oneself to the presenc e o f an underly ing categorical basis . Chomsky alleges an oppositio n betwee n thes e tw o per spectives on competence (a s distinct from a certain vie w of what the perspec tives involve) because he fail s (oddly ) to appreciate tha t al l dispositions hav e
their enablin g conditions . Thu s h e ha s us consider a moto r aphasi c whos e
speech centers are intact: such a one would, he says, have competence bu t not
the abilit y to engag e i n linguisti c behavior. Yo u migh t a s wel l argue tha t
being a solvent does no t consist in a capacity or disposition to dissolve things,
on th e groun d tha t solvent s cannot dissolv e things when frozen, that is , will
not manifest the disposition when the enabling conditions, normally taken as
read, do not obtain. Chomsky's position is better pu t as the thesis that linguistic competence i s an ability whose categorical basis ("structured vehicle" ) is an
internally represente d grammar .
The issu e of Quinean indeterminac y is touched upo n en passant. Chomsky
is impatient with the thesis, insisting that it amounts t o nothing mor e tha n a
special cas e of empirica l underdeterminatio n o f theory , wit h no antirealist
significance independen t o f th e bifurcatio n thesis , alread y rebutted . On e
might sympathiz e with Chomsky's view that th e consideration s advance d i n
support of indeterminacy do not imply the no-fact-of-the-matter claim , without agreeing that those consideration s indicat e mer e empirical underdeter mination, analogous t o what we find in (say) solar physics. For it is arguabl e
that the inabilit y of behavioral dispositions t o fix mental fact s reflect s some-


thing important and peculiar about the relation between mental and physical
facts, something not assimilable to the relation between homogeneous set s of
facts suc h as we find i n th e astrophysica l example. Case s of inverte d quali a
seem t o sho w tha t menta l fact s ar e radicall y independen t o f functional behavioral facts ; an d Quinea n permutation s o f prepositional attitude s an d
meanings might be similarly viewed. At least it is not obvious that such failure
of determination is a matter of mere evidential exiguity. Chomsky also misses
the point of those (e.g., Dummett) who require meanin g to be publicly manifestable: h e asks , rhetorically, why meaning should mee t this condition an d
mental images (say) not. Th e answe r would be that meaning , i n contrast t o
some other aspects of our psychologica l life, cannot consist in what is hidden
from view , or else it could no t be a communicable object of knowledge. This
requirement o n meanin g ma y be unacceptable , bu t th e issu e is not settle d
simply by a general endorsemen t o f psychologica l unobservables.
Chomsky's analogy with solar physics invites scrutiny on another score . As
he at one point acknowledges (p. 197), the theoretical entities and propertie s
invoked i n tha t cas e an d i n th e cas e o f gramma r ar e rathe r differen t i n
character: i n th e linguisti c case, w e ar e imputin g abstract condition s an d
structures t o the speaker , no t themselve s physical but presumabl y instantiated somewher e i n th e brain ; i n th e astrophysica l case, w e are dealin g i n
actual physical entities and processes . Now this asymmetry may have greate r
significance than Chomsky recognizes, since it appears t o require u s to interpret the explanatory forc e of the theoretical terms in the respective theories
somewhat differently : in th e astrophysica l case, we have causally operative
unobservables conforming to causal laws; but in the linguisti c case the rule s
of gramma r do no t see m t o enjoy that statussuch abstrac t condition s wil l
not enter causa l explanations in any straightforward way. This is not (yet ) to
say tha t grammatica l representations ar e an y les s real tha n physica l unobservables, bu t i t doe s mak e i t intelligibl e wh y someon e shoul d hol d tha t
grammars are mor e descriptiv e tha n explanatory . I am not a t all sure what
should b e said of the theoretica l an d explanator y status of abstract rule s of
grammar, bu t i t does see m tha t ther e i s a real questio n her e abou t tha t i n
virtue of which grammars enter int o the explanation o f behavior: along with
different level s of description we might have to recognize differen t types of
theoretical explanation. This issue connects with Chomsky's view of the rela tion betwee n interna l gramma r an d th e brain , abou t whic h he seem s no t
entirely clear. In response t o the asymmetry just mentioned, he has recours e
to th e in-principl e availabilit y of th e neurophysiologica l fact s underlyin g
grammatical competence. Thi s would help remove th e asymmetr y if grammar wer e reducible t o neurophysiology , fo r the n th e differenc e fro m th e
astrophysical cas e woul d com e dow n t o a merel y empirical-ethica l infeasibility. Bu t Chomsk y elsewhere indicate s tha t h e doe s no t believ e i n suc h
reducibility, a s i n hi s referenc e t o variabl e physical realization o f interna l
grammar (p. 226). So it is not just a matter o f practical infeasibility, but o f the
very nature o f the fact s i n question. A s the functionalis t literature has mad e



plain, the leve l of description occupie d b y grammar correspond s t o an irreducible specie s o f fact . Symmetr y wit h th e physica l cas e canno t the n b e
restored b y gesturin g i n th e directio n o f futur e neurophysiology . Onc e
again, th e issu e o f psychologica l realit y i s subtle r tha n Chomsk y allows
which i s not t o sa y that h e i s wrong o n th e centra l point .
Ontogenesis of Language
Innateness is the othe r major them e of Rules and Representations. Chomsky's
chief argumen t fo r th e thesi s tha t universa l gramma r i s encoded i n th e
genetic progra m o f huma n being s i s from "th e povert y o f th e stimulus" :
grammatical rule s are s o highly detailed an d specifi c a s to be unextractabl e
by standar d mechanism s of learnin g fro m th e linguisti c data t o whic h th e
child i s exposed. I n orde r t o bridge the gul f between stimulu s and matur e
competence we therefore need to postulate a rich system of articulate linguistic principles built into the child's genes; thi s system grows and mature s with
the triggerin g (an d partiall y shaping) effec t o f linguisti c experience. Th e
development o f th e languag e facult y i s thus comparabl e wit h the develop ment o f physica l organ s o f th e body : lik e them , languag e (mor e strictly,
grammar) grows according to restrictive innate principles, and is not literally
learned at all. This conception of the ontogenesis o f the languag e facult y ha s
the consequence that the mind (i n its cognitive part) is modular in structure,
comprising separat e an d variousl y organized subsystem s interacting i n th e
production o f observable behavior. The initia l state of our cognitiv e appa ratus is neither simpl e and unstructure d nor unifor m and indefinitel y plastic. Accordingly , what makes u s abl e t o kno w a s muc h a s w e d o als o an d
thereby impose s limits on the potentia l scope o f our knowledg e and under standing.
All thi s i s ver y interesting , an d b y n o mean s obviousl y false : i t is , a s
Chomsky insists , a n empirica l question whethe r ou r cognitiv e apparatus i s
thus modula r an d geneticall y preset. Moreover , h e i s surely right t o asser t
that classical learning theory is powerless to account for the cognitive systems
we attain. However, I think that he presents us with a specious dilemma: fo r
there is a third accoun t of language acquisition, different from both classical
learning theory and Chomskian innateness, which seems to me to have notable merits. In the remainder of this review I shall try to outline this neglecte d
alternative, comparin g i t with Chomsky' s own position .
Suppose w e were out t o explain how a scientist attains the cognitive state
of knowin g a theor y tha t massivel y transcend s wha t ha s bee n give n in hi s
experience o f th e phenomen a wit h whic h the theor y i s concernedsay a
theory o f th e interio r o f th e atom . Plainly , the acquire d cognitiv e system
could no t be explained a s the outcome of the operatio n o f classical learning
mechanisms; th e povert y of th e stimulu s ensures that . Bu t no w should w e
take th e Chomskia n line and accoun t fo r th e ga p betwee n theor y an d evi -


dence b y supposin g tha t th e proposition s o f atomi c theor y ar e innatel y

present in the scientist's genes? It is not, presumably, logically impossible that
this should b e the cas e (though hardl y likel y from a n evolutionar y poin t of
view), bu t th e assumptio n i s surel y extravagan t an d unnecessary ; an d
Chomsky seems at one point t o agree. 1 The natura l suggestio n her e is that
the final cognitive state is the result of intellectual creativity, the production o f
hypotheses seemingly ex nihilo. That is, the scientist has a faculty of creativity
that enables him to generate hypotheses "from hi s own resources," bu t this is
not a matte r o f the hypothese s bein g latentl y present, awaitin g the merel y
triggering effec t o f experience. Chomsk y speculates (p . 250) that there may
be some innate principle s at work in our "science-formin g capacities," but to
the exten t tha t ther e i s transcendenc e o f stimulu s tha t i s no t t o b e thu s
explained, t o tha t exten t w e need t o invok e a creativ e faculty . And onc e
ingress i s given t o suc h a metho d o f knowledg e acquisition , th e questio n
presses as to whether the sam e method i s more generally exploited . I n par ticular, migh t no t languag e acquisitio n b e correctl y explaine d i n term s o f
such creativ e hypothesi s generation ? Wha t i s strikingl y absen t fro m
Chomsky's discussion of these matters is any recognition tha t there is such an
alternative to the tw o types of theory h e canvasses. Somewhat o n th e mode l
(but se e below ) of th e creativ e scientist , we migh t conceiv e o f th e chil d a s
possessed o f th e capacit y creativel y t o generat e grammatica l hypothese s
about th e language spoke n aroun d him, testing these in his own speech an d
by observing the speech o f others. The chil d is said to have acquired matur e
linguistic competence whe n his grammatical hypotheses have reached maxi mum predictiv e an d explanator y power . Th e rule s o f grammar , o n thi s
suggestion, woul d b e n o mor e innat e tha n th e proposition s o f quantu m
physics. Le t m e no w mentio n som e o f th e advantages , possibl e vul nerabilities, and consequence s o f this sort o f approach .
It shoul d firs t b e observe d tha t th e issu e betwee n th e innatenes s an d
creativity proposals concerns a n empirical question o f fact, though ther e are
certainly questions of principle and initial plausibility that can be raised. Th e
question o f fac t i s this: is the languag e facult y creativ e i n character , lik e (at
least some aspects of) the science-formin g faculty; or is it passive in the sense
that it s final state contain s nothin g tha t wa s not eithe r initiall y present o r
given i n experience ? Ho w t o adjudicat e empiricall y between th e tw o pro posals i s a further question , but on e ca n imagine th e kin d o f evidence tha t
might b e brough t t o bear . I f w e could observ e a chil d o f ou r ow n specie s
brought u p i n th e linguisti c community of anothe r specie s (sa y Martians),
that would afford differentiating evidence: if the language o f Martians, with
a differen t species-specifi c universa l grammar, wer e a s easy for th e huma n
He remarks that "scientific knowledge does not grow in the mind of someone placed in
an appropriate environment " (p . 140) , adding that the study of human knowledge should
allow for "abductive " theory construction as well as innate predetermination an d environmental shaping.

154 M I N

child t o learn a s a human languag e (othe r thing s equal), that would sugges t
that ther e i s n o restrictiv e innat e schematis m o f th e sor t envisage d b y
Chomsky. Less fancifully an d mor e positively , if the chil d were observed t o
make grammatical mistakes , at th e leve l of universal grammar, whic h were
not accountabl e t o performanc e deficiencies , this would b e som e evidenc e
for th e suggestion that he was trying out interim grammars for confirmation
and modifyin g them accordingly ; excludin g performance factors , such mistakes would not be predicted b y the innateness proposal. Non e of this would
be conclusive , but i t doe s a t leas t indicat e th e kind s o f consideratio n tha t
might hel p decid e betwee n th e proposals .
One poin t that seem s to me already t o favor the creativit y proposal con cerns th e connectio n betwee n knowledg e an d justification. Chomsk y con siders th e followin g objectio n to his view of linguistic knowledge: if compe tence ha d th e ontogenesi s h e suggests , the n i t would hav e n o justification
or ground s an d s o could no t properl y qualif y a s knowledge . His repl y t o
this objection is to den y tha t knowledg e require s grounds ; i t is better con ceived simply in terms of "mental structures." But the creativity proposal ca n
accommodate ou r tal k of knowledg e an d learnin g her e withou t such revi sionism: linguistic knowledge will rest upon a n interna l theor y (a grammar)
of the speech to which the child has been exposed an d will receive its justification fro m it s success in coping with the linguisti c data. I conjectur e tha t we
think o f childre n a s learning languag e an d knowin g wha t i s grammatical
because w e inchoately recognize that the y are engaged upo n th e enterpris e
of constructin g a theory o f the linguisti c data provide d b y adults.
The creativit y proposal, a s I have hitherto formulate d it, faces a n obvious
objection: if that is the wa y grammar is acquired, then childre n should know
grammar i n just the wa y a scientist knows the laws of quantum physics; but,
by m y own showing, they do notconstructin g a n explici t grammar i s no t
child's play. This is a serious objection, but I do not thin k it is unanswerable:
what we need i s a notion of subdoxastic hypothesis formation. The chil d does
not, it is true, undertake conscious and deliberate theor y construction; yet he
may b e s o constituted as to generate hypothese s a t a n unconscious , indee d
subdoxastic, level . Her e w e migh t appea l t o a n analog y wit h wha t som e
psychologists sa y abou t vision . They sa y tha t th e visua l syste m generate s
hypotheses about the presented arra y which determine ho w things are see n
(what they are seen as); this is done on the basis of scanty visual cues, and th e
process is wholly unconscious.2 How this capacity to interpret visua l arrays in
terms of hypotheses comes about in the course of ontogenesis i s not generally
accessible t o th e individual' s consciousness; it is , i n th e relevan t sense , a n
exercise of subdoxastic creativity. Somewhat so, we might postulate a similar
capacity relating t o what is heard: sentence s may be heard as grammatical or
ungrammatical accordin g a s the y confor m t o th e gramma r tha t ha s bee n

See, e.g., R. L. Gregory, The Intelligent Eye (Ne w York: McGraw-Hill, 1970) .


generated. At any rate, it does no t seem t o me obviously absurd t o postulat e

such unconscious creativity. Nor coul d Chomsky very well lodge thi s type of
objection to the creativity proposal, give n his own liberality with unconscious
cognitive processes .
There is a second, deeper , objection o f principle, whic h I suspect is influencing Chomsky . I t ma y wel l b e fel t tha t ther e i s somethin g profoundl y
problematic an d mysteriou s abou t creativity ; this feelin g expresse s itsel f i n
the idea, common t o rationalists and empiricist s alike, that in cognitive development nothin g come s fro m nothing . I t ma y b e thi s ide a tha t prompt s
Chomsky to pass over the kind of account under consideration. I am inclined
to agre e tha t creativit y is something o f a mystery, into whos e working s we
have n o rea l insight , bu t I d o no t thin k thi s is a good reaso n t o rejec t th e
proposal. First , i t seems tha t w e have to accep t suc h creativ e emergenc e o f
cognitive system s in othe r areasnotabl y i n th e science s an d arts . Second ,
Chomsky i s in n o positio n t o accus e th e proposa l o f mystery-mongering ,
because he himself is keen t o point to areas in which there are similar mysteries, fo r example , the phenomeno n of free choice . Indeed, he employs th e
idea of creativity, admitted t o be a mystery, in characterizing linguistic performance; s o h e canno t rejec t i t a s a matte r o f principl e wit h respec t t o th e
ontogenesis o f linguisti c competence. I t i s curious tha t h e doe s no t seriousl y
think to apply the notio n o f cognitive creativit y to the acquisitio n o f knowledge, linguisti c and other. 3
Chomsky derives the following consequences from the innateness hypoth esis: that our cognitiv e apparatus i s modular; tha t it has inherent limits ; that
cognitive system s "grow" rathe r tha n resul t fro m learning . Th e creativit y
Chomsky has reminded m e (in correspondence) tha t he does consider and rejec t such
a hypothesis-generatio n account i n earlier publications , e.g., Reflections on Language (New
York: Pantheon, 1975) . The groun d o f his rejection is the significan t qualitative difference
between language acquisition an d th e development s of (say) physics with respect t o spee d
of acquisition, general intelligence, and applicatio n required, an d uniformit y of final state.
These difference s must be admitted, but i t is unclear (to me) how much weight should b e
attached to them. I am inclined to suspect that human beings are capable of different kinds
of "creativity, " and tha t w e may be predispose d t o generat e hypothese s a t a subdoxasti c
level during certain "sensitiv e periods" o f ontogenesis . This ha s been claime d of the visua l
system; but it also appears tha t we need t o invoke such a capacity to explain the acquisition
of particular grammar, fo r th e followin g reason . Th e rule s of language-specific grammar
are not (I believe) held by Chomsky to be innate, but, equally, they are not extractable from
the stimulu s by classical mechanisms of learning: they are comple x t o state explicitl y and
not easil y assimilated at a conscious level later i n lif e (tr y learning Finnish) . So some thir d
method o f grammar acquisitio n has to be attributed t o the child to account for its eventual
competence i n particula r grammar ; an d hypothesi s generation seem s t o b e th e natura l
suggestion. I f so, we are anywa y compelled t o recognize a species of "creativity" implicated
in languag e acquisitio n that differ s importantl y from tha t involve d in th e constructio n o f
scientific theories ; an d the n th e questio n i s whethe r universal gramma r migh t no t b e
similarly acquired. At any rate, I do no t think we should rus h dogmaticall y to dismiss the
creativity proposal just becaus e languag e acquisitio n does no t exactly duplicate th e devel opment o f physics.

156 M I N

proposal ha s contrasting implications . Since it does no t imput e a rich struc ture of genetically fixed principles , it does not immediatel y imply any initial
modularity. Perhap s ther e ar e discret e creativ e faculties, bu t thi s is not re quired b y the proposa l an d seem s gratuitous i n th e ligh t of it. By the sam e
token, the kind s of limits to knowledge and understandin g contemplated b y
Chomsky will not be imposed: innat e principle s seem inherentl y restrictive,
but a creative faculty i s quite the opposite . Thi s is not, of course, to say that
there ar e n o limit s on huma n knowledge , but i t suggests tha t suc h limit s as
there ar e wil l consis t i n general factorsfinit e storag e o r information processing capacity, sayrather than exclude certain sorts of subject matter,
for example , Martia n grammar . Lastly , the metapho r (o r literalism) of en dogenously controlled growt h wil l see m inappropriate ; fo r ther e would be
no prese t geneti c progra m fixin g th e specifi c shap e an d conten t tha t th e
language facult y wil l assume.
I have dwelt at some length o n this alternative to Chomsky's own innateness hypothesis because it seems to me to offer the strongest challenge to his
doctrines, a challenge h e regrettabl y doe s no t tak e u p i n th e boo k unde r
review. To wha t extent th e alternativ e can be sustained, in principle or em pirically, I d o no t know ; but i t should, a t least, be give n a chance .
Chomsky's use of italics invites censure fro m a logical point of view. He is
prone to employ such locutions as "the meaning/o/m exploited Bill" and "th e
meaning die" (p. 150); and i t is unclear how he intends the italicized portions.
There seem tw o possible interpretations. H e migh t really be using italics to
form designation s of "meanings," s o that the cited locution s have the logica l
form o f a functo r applie d t o a singula r ter m denotin g a meaning . O r h e
might be using italics simply as equivalent to quotation, s o that the locution s
are effectivel y translationa l i n purport . I n fac t h e seem s t o us e italic s ambiguously between such meaning specification s and ordinary quotation; an d
he appears also to treat these locutions and the form "the meaning of'. . . ' "
interchangeably (as at p. 151). If he intends the quotational reading throughout, the n th e meanin g theor y h e is presupposing ha s the for m o f a translation manual. If on the other hand he intends italicization to form the name of
a meaning , a s I suspec t h e does , a t leas t sometimes , the n w e need t o b e
clearer abou t how this device is to be understood an d abou t th e for m of th e
background theor y o f meaning. These questions, much discussed in recen t
philosophical wor k (e.g. , b y Davidson ) on th e prope r for m o f a meanin g
theory, are essential for an adequate understandin g o f how meaning specifications are to be presented; bu t they do not seem t o have made any impression o n Chomskya t leas t if his us e o f italic s is symptomatic.


Quine: Theories and Thing s

Theories and Things

by W. V. Quin e
Belknap Press o f Harvar d Universit y

Quine's lates t collection of essays is somewhat of a miscellany: it ranges fro m

the strictl y logical , throug h th e narrowl y philosophical , t o th e accessibl y
popular. Th e slighte r essays make for enjoyable reading, displayin g Quine's
flawless prose to good effect , whil e the weightier essays helpfully clarify an d
extend hi s already familiar doctrines. I n this review I shall comment critically
upon som e of these doctrines as thus clarified and extended, i n the hope that
the issues , and Quine' s stan d o n them , wil l com e int o sharpe r focus .
The openin g essay , "Thing s an d Thei r Plac e i n Theories, " begins ,
strikingly enough, wit h this sentence: "Our tal k of external things , our very
notion o f things, is just a conceptual apparatu s tha t help s us to foresee an d
control th e triggerin g o f our sensor y receptors in the ligh t of previous trig gering o f ou r sensor y receptors " (p . 1) . This conceptio n o f th e poin t an d
payoff of referring t o objects, in both ordinary tal k and theoretica l science , is
recognizably pragmatis t i n spirit : saying what there is is wielding an instru ment whos e functio n i t i s t o predic t an d contro l certai n event s ("sensor y
triggerings") i n th e speaker . Suc h a conceptio n woul d not , o f course , b e
shared by all philosophers o f science. Those who conceive the task of science
as telling how th e worl d i s objectively constituted, independentl y o f ho w i t
strikes human beings, would be offended b y the anthropocentric orientatio n
of Quine's formulation : scientific theories ma y indeed be based upon sensor y
stimulations, bu t i t woul d (fo r thes e philosophers ) b e a distortio n o f th e

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m the Journal of Philosophy (Apri l 1983) .




intended objectivit y o f scienc e to regard i t as aiming at "developin g systematic connections between ou r sensor y stimulations" (p. 2). The instrumental ism presen t i n Quine' s conceptio n o f th e purpos e o f speakin g o f object s is
strengthened b y a further Quinea n thesis : this is the thesi s that ther e exis t
"proxy functions " that enable us so to reinterpret the ontology of a theory as
to leav e verba l behavio r an d empirica l conten t undisturbed . Th e lesso n
proxy functions teac h us, according to Quine, i s that reference i s inscrutable,
ontology relative , and tha t th e "structure " o f a theory i s all tha t ultimately
matters. So not only is science a mere contrivance for linking sensory stimulations, but there are indefinitel y man y alternative contrivances which do th e
linking job equall y well. Which objects we speak of thus appears to become in
the en d a matter of arbitrary decision, not to be settled b y considerations o f
simplicity or othe r canon s o f scientifi c method . One' s ontology accordingl y
comes t o see m a n inconsequentia l an d waverin g affair , i n contras t t o th e
stability an d fixednes s o f th e sensor y stimulation s it i s the busines s o f on tology to organize .
But no w we are brough t up short , for Quine goes on t o insist upo n his
"unswerving belief in external thingspeople, nerve endings, sticks, stones, "
declaring himsel f i n favo r o f "robus t realism " (p . 21) . Evidently , Quine
wishes to combine instrumentalism with realism: arrivin g at a theory o f th e
world i s choosing fro m amon g a plurality of equally serviceable devices fo r
coping with the data, but once a device has been chosen, however arbitrarily,
there is no shirking the existential commitments of the chosen device . As he
remarks o f ontologica l commitmen t t o abstrac t entities , "t o vie w classes ,
numbers, an d th e res t i n this instrumental way is not t o deny having reified
them; i t i s only t o explai n why " (p. 15) . No w o n th e fac e o f i t ther e i s a n
obvious tensio n betwee n thes e tw o views , sinc e th e instrumentalis t thesi s
would seem to nullify th e seriousnes s of our tal k of objectsand Quin e is by
no mean s insensitiv e to this apparent tension . In repl y to the questio n ho w
these tw o strands i n his philosophy ar e t o be reconciled, h e tell s us that i t is
"naturalism" tha t renders them consonant , "th e recognitio n tha t it is within
science itself, and not in some prior philosophy, that reality is to be identified
and described " (p . 21). Grasping ho w it is that naturalis m reconciles instru mentalism and realis m is thus the key to understanding Quine' s philosophy .
As I se e it , th e ide a i s tha t w e mus t accep t some theoryther e bein g n o
theory-neutral conceptio n o f the worldan d w e can comfortably acquiesce
in the theory w e were brought up t o accept, the theor y we were accustome d
to before the proxy functions undermined ou r naiv e confidence in ontological uniqueness . The rol e o f naturalis m i n permittin g ontologica l compla cency in the face of ontological scepticism reminds on e of Hume's treatmen t
of ou r belie f i n "externa l bodies. " Fo r i t wa s Hume' s naturalis m tha t (al legedly) defused th e implication s of his sceptical arguments concernin g th e
external world : instea d o f ou r receive d belief s bein g devastate d b y scepti cism, we naturally and inevitabl y cling to them; and thi s is as it should be. Bu t
if the comparison o f Quine's naturalism with Hume's is illuminating, it is also


disquieting; for just as Hume's naturalism fails to provide any rational release
from hi s scepticism , so Quine' s naturalis m leave s u s wonderin g ho w ou r
habitual ontology and "robust realism" can rationally withstand the impact of
the scepticis m generate d b y hi s pluralisti c instrumentalism . Inasmuc h a s
Quine is attacking a naive attitude we have toward our tal k of external things,
he is undermining the confidence we commonly repose in such talk: sceptical
reflections at the philosophical level thus make themselves felt at the ground
level of ordinary belief , whether common sens e or scientific. Pending a goo d
answer to the question ho w naturalism and th e "immanenc e o f truth" manage to justify ou r habitua l ontology and exclud e the deviant ontologies deliv ered by proxy functions , I cannot see how Quine's realis m is ultimately to be
squared wit h his relativistic instrumentalism. (Perhaps ther e ar e philosophi cal perspectives of a Kantian cast that allow such a conjunction o f views, bu t
I doub t tha t Quin e woul d b e happ y t o res t hi s philosoph y o n suc h Kan tianism.)
In "Tw o Dogmas " wha t lay at th e peripher y o f th e fabri c o f sentence s
comprising science was described a s "experience"experience was the tribunal face d b y scientific theory . Subsequently , experience gav e way to neura l
input a t th e sensor y receptors : "surfac e irritations " becam e th e poin t a t
which theory mad e empirica l contact with the world . A s Quine is careful to
explain, h e doe s no t equate experience with receptor triggerings ; rathe r h e
offers th e triggerings as a naturalistic surrogate for experience. Thus sensory
triggerings ar e to do the job assigne d by the old empiricists to experience
the tribunal is now the scientist's nerve endings (p. 40). The job of experienc e
was, o f course , t o provid e evidenc e o n whic h the scientis t ma y reasonabl y
base his beliefs; and Quin e makes the same claim on behalf of his physiological surrogate: "By sensory evidence I mean stimulation of sensory receptors"
(p. 24). This account of empirical evidence prompts a number o f questions,
to which I cannot se e that Quin e ha s given satisfactor y answers.
Perceptual experience, a s construed b y the old empiricists, had tw o properties suiting it to the role of evidence: first, its availability to cognition suited
it to serve as that on which a scientist might base his beliefsexperience was
"given" t o th e scientist ; second, a normativ e principle , neede d fo r rationa l
inference, wa s plausibly satisfied by experience, tha t is , "If yo u perceiv e (o r
seem to perceive) that/), then you ought (ceterisparibus) t o believe that/?." In
effect, thes e are constraints upon anythin g that can serve as evidence, at least
for anyon e who calls himself an empiricist; and experienc e ha s the virtue of
meeting them. But does Quine's surrogat e notio n meet them? It seems suffi ciently obvious that sensor y triggerings do not meet the first constraint; for ,
as Quine himself remarks (p. 40), the scientist typically knows nothing o f th e
physiological processes a t hi s surface that (partially) cause his beliefs. But if
such processe s ar e no t ordinaril y availabl e to cognition, how can they func tion as evidence upon which beliefs may be based? Quine's surrogat e seem s
to lack the essential property that , in the eyes of the old empiricists, qualified
experience as a suitable evidential base. This seems an obvious enough point,

160 M I N

but I canno t discove r i n Quin e an y respons e t o it . Bu t no w suppos e th e

scientist did kno w of the irritation s o f his nerve endings : woul d that knowledge then afford a basis on which to form beliefs about the external worl d of
bodies? Ca n th e scientis t say, "Given tha t m y nerve ending s ar e firin g thu s
and so , I ough t t o believ e th e worl d t o b e suc h an d such" ? Thi s seem s
doubtful, fo r surfac e irritation s d o no t hav e th e representationa l conten t
enjoyed b y experience: i n perceptual experience th e world is represented as
being a certai n way , but nerv e triggering s d o no t d o thi s i n an y wa y tha t
would allo w one t o derive a belief about th e causative state of affairs. I n hi s
desire t o expel mentalis m fro m empiricis m Quin e has , in effect , jettisone d
the notio n o f observation fro m hi s official story , leaving in its stead surfac e
stimulations an d observatio n sentence s define d i n term s o f suc h stimula tions: bu t thes e asepti c materials d o no t reall y supply a workable notion o f
empirical evidence .
The inadequac y o f Quine' s notio n o f evidenc e ca n b e brough t ou t b y
pressing th e followin g question : wh y should th e physiologica l processe s t o
which assen t t o sentence s i s conditioned be located a t the peripher y of th e
nervous system and no t furthe r in , say in the afferent nerve s or th e cortex ?
Since nerve endings ar e not (typically ) known about b y the subject, it cannot
be that mor e centra l physiological processes would fail t o serve as facts suit able a s bases for inference : neithe r sor t o f proces s meet s th e constrain t o f
availability t o cognition. Bu t i f no relevantl y principled distinctio n between
surface irritation s and cortica l agitations can be demonstrated, the n Quine' s
theory o f evidenc e look s n o bette r of f tha n a theor y tha t invoke s centra l
physiological processe s a s the tribuna l faced b y theoretical beliefs .
Quine sometime s couples his hostility t o experienc e wit h his preferenc e
for naturalize d epistemology , tha t is , th e supplantin g o f normativ e "firs t
philosophy" with descriptive genetic epistemology; but it is worth noting tha t
the tw o doctrines ar e independent . W e can certainly construe epistemology
as a chapter o f cognitive psychology while retaining the mentalisli c notion o f
experience: instea d o f divinin g how the fragmentar y neura l inpu t i s transformed int o a full theor y o f nature, w e study how the subjec t constructs his
theory o n th e basi s of wha t is given i n hi s experience. S o we cannot justify
insistence o n surfac e irritation s a s a corollar y o f th e Tightnes s o f suc h a
naturalized epistemology .
The poin t I hav e been urgin g abou t th e inadequac y of Quine' s concep tion of evidence has obvious repercussions for his account of meaning. Con formably wit h his empiricist convictions, Quine take s meaning to be empiri cal meaninga matter o f the relatio n o f sentences to the evidenc e that warrants assen t t o them . Bu t i f sensor y triggering s d o no t constitut e genuin e
evidence, the n th e expression s o n whic h semanti c concept s ar e define d in
terms of such triggerings will not come out as endowed with empirical meaning. Observ e th e contras t wit h the traditiona l empiricist's account o f mean ing: sentences have meaning in virtue of their experiential implications, and
they are synonymous just in case they are prompted b y the same experiences .


Quine's proposal , o n th e othe r hand , i s that synonym y be understoo d i n

terms of a propensity to elicit assent under like surface irritations. The prob lem her e i s bes t see n i f w e ask , a s above , wh y cortica l agitation s ar e no t
invoked instead : wh y not sa y that two sentences ar e synonymou s if they ar e
assented t o under th e sam e conditions o f cortical agitation? The tw o definitions see m equall y goo d (o r bad ) a s conditions o f cognitiv e equivalenc e o f
sentences, an d neithe r ca n reall y clai m t o b e mor e closel y linke d wit h
anything recognizable a s evidence for assent . In bot h cases , it is true, assent
behavior is causally responsive t o the physiological events concerned, centra l
or peripheral; bu t suc h responsiveness is plainly not sufficien t t o license talk
of evidence .
The questio n o f th e relatio n betwee n Duhemia n holis m an d Quinea n
rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction is addressed i n "Five Milestones
of Empiricism." Here Quine softens his earlier formulation s to what he call s
"moderate o r relative holism," holding it to be somewhat of an exaggeratio n
to speak as if every observation pu t tota l science on trial : "What i s important
is that we cease t o demand or expec t of a scientific sentenc e that it have its
own separabl e empirica l meaning " (p . 71). H e make s it quite clear tha t i t is
acceptance o f suc h holis m tha t lead s t o th e abandonmen t o f th e analyti c
synthetic distinction, rather than the other way about; but there seems to be a
gap in the argument. Fo r we can surely agree with the Duhemia n thesi s that
it is only bundles o f sentences that get tested by observation an d a t the sam e
time insis t that some sentence s ar e immun e fro m empirica l tes t altogether .
Quine say s tha t holis m "blur s th e contrast " betwee n analyti c and syntheti c
sentences; bu t i t is not a t all clear that i t doesunless we just assert, without
argument, that Duhemia n holis m extends to every sentenc e o f a theory. No r
should w e conclude tha t th e in-principl e revisabilit y of ever y sentence o f a
theory undermines th e distinctio n between analytic and syntheti c sentences,
or between a priori an d a posteriori truths , since not all cases of revision need
have thei r sourc e i n th e recalcitranc e o f experience . I a m no t clea r tha t
Quine doe s inten d Duhemia n holis m as a strict argument fo r blurring thes e
alleged distinction s (he say s onl y tha t th e blurrin g "follow s closel y o n thi s
holism"), but others have supposed a s much: anyway, it is a non sequitu r as it
Another Quinea n thesi s that seems wanting in argument a t a crucial point
is the indeterminac y of translation. In Word and Object i t was argued that two
incompatible schemes of translation migh t be compatible wit h all the behav ioral disposition s of the speaker s under translation . Th e conclusio n draw n
was tha t ther e i s no fac t o f th e matte r a s t o whic h scheme i s correct. Thi s
reasoning i s open t o the objection tha t there may be internal physica l conditions of the speakers tha t make one scheme true rather than th e other: thei r
brains migh t b e i n appropriat e differentiatin g states . Then th e fac t o f th e
matter neede d t o bloc k indeterminac y woul d li e i n th e interio r o f th e
speaker's bod y an d no t i n hi s disposition s t o behavior . Presumabl y i n re sponse to this kind of objection, Quine ha s taken to formulating his thesis in a



way that excludes the claime d possibility: "when I say there i s no fac t of th e
matter, a s regards, say , the tw o rival manuals of translation, what I mean is
that both manuals are compatible with all the same distributions of states and
relations over elementary particles. In a word, they are physically equivalent"
(p. 23) . This formulatio n certainl y rules ou t th e respons e t o th e Word and
Object formulatio n just mooted, but it leaves us wondering what the argument
is fo r th e indeterminac y thesis a s so formulated: w e need t o kno w why th e
compatibility of tw o manuals with a given set of behavioral disposition s implies the stronge r thesi s concerning physica l equivalence. Compare th e fol lowing case: i t is argued tha t ther e is no (physical ) face o f the matte r abou t
which color experience s someon e has , on the groun d tha t two incompatible
schemes of color-experience ascriptio n may be compatible with all the sam e
behavioral dispositions (inverted spectra) . Clearly such an argumen t woul d
fail to reach its conclusion, since differentiating internal physical states might
be compatibl e wit h th e sam e behaviora l dispositions . I n th e sam e way ,
Quine's argumen t fo r indeterminac y need s shorin g u p wit h further (hith erto unspecified) considerations.
There i s a helpfu l essay , "O n th e Individuatio n o f Attributes, " whic h
clarifies Quine' s attitud e towar d classe s and attribute s i n respec t o f thei r
identity conditions. The individuatio n of classes is clear once th e individuation of their members is, but not otherwise; attributes, however, want in clear
identity condition s n o matte r ho w wel l individuate d thei r extension s are .
Quine consider s an d reject s necessar y coextensivenes s o f predicate s a s a
criterion of identity for the expressed attributes , on the ground tha t modality
is too infirm a thing to bear suc h explanatory weight. He might have objected
also on grounds of insufficiency: th e determinable attributes expressed b y "x
has a size" and "x has a shape" ar e presumabl y distinct yet necessarily coextensive, an d th e sam e i s true o f th e determinat e attribute s expresse d b y "x
has thre e sides " an d "x ha s thre e angles. " A suggestio n Quin e doe s no t
consider, which makes no (explicit) use of modality and look s fairly promis ing, i s this : tw o predicate s expres s th e sam e attribut e if f the y ar e inter substitutable i n al l causal-explanator y context s (i n a sufficientl y ric h lan guage) salva veritate; or, withou t the appea l t o languages , iff the attribute s
are causally equivalent. I mention this suggestion because Quine at one point
(p. 107 ) remarks upon th e possible need o f attributes in the theory of causation, immediately adding tha t the need could b e filled only if the individuation questio n wer e satisfactoril y answered .
At a number o f places in Theories and Things Quine expresses his distaste
for modalit y and it s logic: thus "[a]nalyticity, essence , and modalit y are no t
my meat" (p . 116) . But it is hard to make out wha t his reason is . It is not tha t
modal locution s are irreparabl y tainte d wit h nonextensionality, for i n "In tensions Revisited" 1 Quin e show s how modality can b e delivere d fro m this

1 have reviewed this article elsewher e (Philosophia, July 1982 ; submitte d 1978 ) and wil l
not repea t her e what I sai d there .


logical impurity . Asid e fro m repeate d complaint s o f "unclarity, " whic h

merely invit e retorts abou t on e man' s clarity , th e onl y substantia l poin t I
could find was the suggestio n tha t "th e very notion o f necessity makes sense
to m e onl y relativ e t o context " (p . 121) . Thi s suggestio n i s not, o f course ,
uncontroversial and Quin e give s no suasive argument fo r its truth; bu t eve n
if it were true, why exactly is it a reason t o "write off moda l logic? Is it a goo d
reason t o "writ e of f indexica l logic , a la Kaplan , tha t it s expressions ar e
relative t o contex t fo r thei r interpretation ? A moda l logicia n wh o agree d
with Quine abou t th e context-relativit y of ascriptions of necessity might, fo r
all Quine has said, interpret hi s formulas as relative to some parameter, an d
proceed as before. Her e one feels that Quine is casting around fo r somethin g
solid to back up hi s distaste; but he needs to do more if he wishes to dislodg e
the modal logician from her calling. (It isn't that I think there are no respect able worrie s abou t modality ; i t i s just tha t Quine does no t presen t u s wit h
anything looking like a real argument. )
On ontological commitment to abstract entities Quine writes: "The num bers an d function s contribut e just a s genuinel y t o physica l theor y a s d o
hypothetical particles " (p . 50) . Presumabl y som e reconsideratio n o f thi s
claim will be called for i n the ligh t of Hartry Field' s Science without Numbers.'2
Quine pursue s hi s philosophical visio n with a n uncompromisin g consis tency of purpose tha t makes his doctrines impossible to ignore. You either go
with him or define your position i n reaction t o his. And thi s is one mar k of a
great philosopher .

Oxford: Blackwell , 1980 . Field' s claim is that sentences about physical-theoretical entities contribut e t o physica l theory i n a radicall y different wa y fro m sentence s ostensibly
about mathematica l entities . I t woul d b e interestin g t o kno w Quine's reactio n t o Field' s
defence o f a nominalist interpretation o f applied mathematics .


Strawson an d Warnock : Reputation

The Secret Connection: Causation, Realism,
and David Hume
by Gale n Strawso n
Oxford, 198 9
J. L. Austin
by G. J. Warnoc k
Routledge, 198 9

Philosophical reputation s com e an d gothe y surg e an d gutteraccordin g

largely t o the prevailin g intellectual climate, and ar e onl y tenuously tied t o
the actua l merits o f the view s pu t forwar d b y the reputan d i n question. T o
have a reputation is to have something perishable and fleeting, an imposition
from without , no soone r bestowe d tha n withdrawn .
Take the cas e of David Hume. I n th e dar k day s of logical [sic] positivis m
Hume's reputatio n ra n hig h a s th e philosophe r wh o firs t di d awa y with
causal necessity ; he wa s though t t o hav e show n tha t causatio n consist s i n
nothing, objectively , but constan t conjunction: things happen in regular se quences but nothing make s them happe n tha t way . In reality , the cement o f
the univers e consists in nothing ove r and abov e th e dependabl e concatena tion o f separabl e events . But whe n positivis m quietly expired, an d natura l
necessity regaine d it s lost respectability , Hume' s standin g correspondingl y
dipped. Th e neglecte d Lock e began t o seem lik e th e philosophe r wit h th e
better ey e for metaphysical truth, while Hume started t o look guilty of trying
to deduc e metaphysica l conclusions fro m epistemologica l premises : "i f n o
ideas the n n o reality. "
Now here comes Galen Strawson to argue that Hume has been grievously
misrepresented al l along: fo r th e rea l Davi d Hume neve r denie d th e objec tive reality of causal necessity. He firml y believe d i n it. And s o Hume's reputation i s set to ris e hig h again . H e di d not , afte r all , commit th e mistak e of

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e London Review of Books (Novembe r 23 , 1989) .




letting the ideational contents of our mind s determine wha t the world might
really containthough he did indee d thin k there was a problem abou t ou r
achieving an adequate gras p of the nature o f objective necessary causal relations. Hume, then, is a sceptical realist about causa l necessity, contrary to the
widely received idealis t interpretation; an d sceptica l realism i s a view much
favored i n thi s postpositivis t era . The positivist s were righ t i n thei r hig h
estimate of Hume , bu t fo r exactl y the wron g reasons .
J. L . Austin was a philosopher wit h a legendary reputation. Althoug h h e
published little , he i s revered, especiall y in Oxford, fo r hi s critical acumen,
withering good sense , originality, and talent fo r hitting the nail on the head .
He wa s made White' s Professo r i n Oxfor d a t th e tende r ag e o f forty . Hi s
intellectual powers ar e sai d t o have struc k terror into th e heart s o f his contemporaries, t o the poin t o f deterring som e of them fro m daring t o put pe n
to paper, o r mout h t o thought. Indeed , i t might fairl y b e said tha t Austin's
reputation depend s largel y upo n hi s reputation: on e tend s t o hea r mor e
about hi s philosophica l reputatio n tha n abou t hi s philosophica l ideas . I t
therefore come s a s a bit of a shock t o read Geoffre y Warnock' s study . Th e
impression here conveye d is that Austin was almost pathologically incapable
of gettin g anythin g right . Tim e and agai n Warnoc k ha s to correct obviou s
mistakes, apologize for unclarities, expose ground-floo r misconceptions . It is
all very puzzling. Even as Warnock attempt s t o celebrat e hi s subject we see
the man' s reputatio n sin k wanl y over th e horizon . H e ma y hav e initiate d
some fruitfu l line s o f inquiry , late r develope d b y others , bu t h e himsel f
seems to have been unabl e t o pursue thes e line s with any surefootedness o r
perspicacity. You begin t o understand wh y he wrot e s o little. Funny things,
reputations. Stee r clea r o f the m i f you can.
Attend no w to a typical causal sequencesay, Mike Tyson's fist colliding
with his opponent's ja w and the opponent droppin g t o the canvas. The blow,
we say, caused th e fall . No w we can distinguis h three view s about wha t this
causal connectio n involves . One claim s tha t ther e i s n o kin d o f necessit y
relating the event s to each other: all that occurs in reality is that one even t is
succeeded by another. A second view insists that a species of necessity underlies the savagery of the nexus: the opponent had to fall, given that his jaw was
subject t o the forc e unleashed o n i t (and the circumstantia l conditions wer e
as they were). However, this second vie w concedes, we cannot kno w or perceive the natur e o f this binding necessity : we can assert tha t i t exists but w e
can hav e n o prope r conceptio n o f what it ultimately involves. A third vie w
agrees that causal relations carry objective necessitation, but thi s view is more
sanguine abou t ou r capacit y to understan d suc h necessitation ; scienc e can
tell us what the nexu s depends on, if it is not alread y clear to common sense.
These three view s of causation and our acces s to it may be labeled antirealist,
sceptical realist , an d naiv e realist, respectively.
Strawson contends , agains t th e commo n antirealis t interpretation , tha t
Hume believes something like the second view. His main ground for attributing this view to Hume i s that Hum e repeatedl y assert s the view, especially in



the Enquiry. Thus: "experienc e onl y teaches us , ho w on e even t constantly

follows another; withou t instructing us in the secret connection, which binds
them together , an d render s the m inseparable" ; "w e are ignoran t o f thos e
powers an d forces , on whic h [the] regular cours e an d successio n of objects
totally depends. " Strawso n adduces man y such quotations , an d dispose s of
rival interpretations o f their purport : they are t o be taken at face value, not
as ironic o r a s occurring i n suppresse d oratio obliqua. H e furthe r contend s
that thi s agnostic positio n chime s better wit h Hume' s strictl y noncommittal
scepticism abou t th e worl d beyond ou r ideas : fo r suc h scepticis m does no t
permit him actually to deny that there is necessity in nature. Similarly, Strawson argues , fo r th e sel f and externa l objects : all we really know of the m i s
contained in our ideas, which fall short of what we routinely take ourselves to
know, an d whic h fai l t o suppl y th e basi s fo r th e kin d o f understandin g
claimed b y certai n rationalis t philosopher s o f th e period ; bu t tha t doe s
not impl y tha t ther e i s nothin g mor e t o thes e thing s tha n wha t i s thu s
containedquite the opposite. Causa l necessity is something in which we do
and ma y continue to believe: it is just that our idea s do not penetrate to its
underlying real nature. What Hume objects to, on this interpretation, i s not
the objectiv e existence of causal necessity: his objection is rather t o the epis temological thesis , held b y man y philosophers o f hi s day , tha t ou r mind s
furnish u s with a full grasp of the nature of this necessity. We can reasonably
assume tha t ther e i s such a thingHum e neve r doubt s itbu t w e canno t
arrive a t an understandin g o f it s inner reality .
And the reason we cannot embrace causal necessity in thought, for Hume ,
is that our idea s are derive d fro m our impressions , and w e have no impres sion from which we could read off the inner workings of objective causation.
This thesi s of Hume' s create s a n initia l problem fo r Strawson' s interpreta tion, to which he i s acutely sensitive, since it is prima faci e har d t o se e ho w
Hume coul d consistentl y believe that something exists and ye t deny that we
can form any idea of it: how is it possible to formulate this existential thought
if its components are no t availabl e to the thinking mind? Strawson register s
the tension but argues that it can be relieved. The ke y is to distinguish merely
referring t o something fro m havin g a "positively contentful conception" o f
it: Hume allows that we have a "relative idea" of causation, which enables us
to refer t o it; what he denies is that we have any impression-based revelatory
conception o f the natur e o f that to which we refer. I n thi s respect, hi s position mirror s tha t o f Locke and Berkele y and Kant , who also had nee d o f a
category o f concept s whic h b y thei r ow n light s fal l shor t o f everythin g a
proper hard-workin g concept shoul d be : dumm y concepts, a s it were.
I fin d Strawson' s case fo r th e sceptica l realist interpretatio n thoroughl y
convincing. The textua l evidence for i t is well-nigh overwhelming; its consonance with other elements in Hume's philosophy is striking; and th e appar ent clash with the theory of ideas is satisfactorily deflected. Hume emerges as
a commonsens e Britis h Kantian . Wha t i s surprising i s that a reader o f th e
Enquiry coul d eve r hav e ru n awa y wit h th e antirealis t interpretation . (I t



should b e note d tha t Strawso n doe s no t clai m t o b e alon e i n interpretin g

Hume correctly . A s he remark s i n hi s preface , other s ar e ont o th e sam e
interpretation, notabl y John Wrigh t i n hi s The Sceptical Realism of David
Hume.) But , as I observe d above , a philosopher' s actua l word s ar e seldo m
sufficient t o deter a reading that fit s contemporar y orthodox y (cf . Wittgenstein). I woul d make only two criticisms of Strawson' s otherwise admirabl e
book. First, it is rather repetitive, a s if the autho r feel s tha t i t is not enoug h
simply to make his case once and well. 1 found tha t my level of credence had
stabilized afte r a coupl e o f restatement s (o r i s it tha t I , lik e other philoso phers, am easily persuaded that my intellectual heroes thin k the same things
as I do?). Second, h e does not appreciat e furthe r tension i n Hume's overal l
positionnamely, th e tensio n between hi s tolerance o f ou r natura l belief s
and hi s radical scepticism. It is really not consistent to grant us permission t o
believe what we naturally do believe and at the same time to insist that we do
not kno w any of the thing s we commonly take ourselves to know, since on e
cannot consistently continue to believe what one believe s one canno t know.
To believ e i s to hold oneself t o know, so one cannot believe wha t on e holds
oneself not to know. One can, of course, combine belief in something with an
admission that one does not know the nature of that thing, and thi s is clearly
one par t o f Hume's general thesis : but it is another matte r t o try to hang o n
to one' s belief s while acknowledgin g scepticism with respec t t o wha t on e
claims t o know . I hav e n o righ t t o believ e in wha t I kno w I canno t know .
As to Hum e himself , the obviou s point of weakness, identified by Strawson, lies in his general theory of ideas. In effect, thi s theory takes perceptual
confrontation a s th e mode l o f wha t a goo d concep t ough t t o be . Hume' s
concept polic e discriminat e agains t an y putativ e citize n o f th e min d tha t
cannot produce sensuou s credentials. This theory is doubly mistaken. In th e
first place , i t dogmaticall y banishes concepts tha t don' t enjo y a perceptua l
prototype, thu s repudiatin g thos e o f a mor e "intellective " kind . Secondly,
and mor e damagingly , the theor y i s wrong eve n abou t thos e concept s fo r
which i t wa s expressly designednamely, sensuou s concepts . A s Berkeley
noticed, and Wittgenstei n rammed home , this picture of concept possessio n
by immediate ostensive confrontation is multiply flawed: no concep t ca n b e
generated b y mer e confrontatio n wit h wha t i t i s a concep t of . I n fact , al l
concepts ar e muc h mor e lik e the kind s of concep t Hum e officiall y foun d
defective. Fro m thi s perspective , then, th e concep t o f causa l necessity is as
healthy as any concept we have. And s o there i s nothing in what Hume say s
to preven t u s fro m goin g on e ste p farthe r tha n hi m an d embracin g naive
realism about causality: there is causal necessity in the world and we can form
an adequat e conceptio n o f it . I therefor e se e n o warran t fo r Strawson' s
making the followin g pessimistic concession to Hume : "I t seem s that ther e
will always be a sense in which the natur e of even the simples t causal interaction i s entirely unintelligible to us. " Which sens e i s that, onc e w e hav e re jected, a s Strawso n does , Hume' s restrictiv e and discriminator y theory o f
ideas? Some causal relations may well be unintelligible to us in principle, bu t

168 M I N

why suppose tha t th e unintelligibility is ubiquitous? Is snookerball causation

really "entirel y unintelligible" ? Indeed , i f ever y causa l nexu s i s said t o b e
unintelligible, the n th e poin t o f declarin g som e t o b e s o is blunted. On e
wonders what intelligibility would be if we could ge t it .
Geoffrey Warnoc k begins his study of Austin by remarking that "his reputation owe d muc h t o hi s certainl y formidabl e personality, " an d tha t "th e
impression tha t he made as a philosopher upo n thos e who knew him may be
difficult t o full y appreciat e fo r thos e no t include d i n that no w diminishin g
number." No t bein g on e o f tha t number , I ca n onl y sa y that fo r m e th e
difficulty i s real. A certain jaunty contempt is never very far from the surfac e
of his prose, a quality I can imagine intimidating some, but for the most part
his arguments lack force and hi s doctrines are shallowly obscure. Hi s studied
casualness too often lapse s into mere slapdashery . Warnock list s the defect s
Austin detecte d i n th e wor k o f othe r philosophers : "carelessness ; haste ; a
persistent tendency to invent and to rely on ill-defined and slippery technical
terms; oversimplification ; reckless and prematur e generalization ; an d per haps above all, a predilection for ambitious either-o r dichotomies." I am sure
that Warnock intended n o irony here, but the rest of his book is almost a case
study in the diagnosi s an d correctio n o f suc h fault s i n Austin himself. Was
Austin peculiarl y pron e t o thes e occupationa l hazardsan d b y Freudia n
projection tende d t o se e them al l around him ? I n an y case , th e following
chapters consis t largel y o f Warnoc k accusin g Austin , evidentl y correctly ,
of precisel y thes e failings . Di d nobod y dar e ventur e thes e critica l point s
at the time ? Did Warnock himself not ste p i n with the objection s he now so
effectively marshals ? Di d Austi n listen ? We ar e tol d tha t h e advocate d a
cooperative approac h i n philosophy, in which patient criticism would lead t o
agreement an d truth , bu t i t is hard t o believe that hi s own papers wer e th e
upshot o f such collective efforts: there ar e just to o many things wrong with
Take hi s suggestion tha t th e wrongnes s of saying, "I kno w it is so, but I
may be wrong," is parallel to the wrongness of saying, "I promise I will, but I
may fail": that is, the suggestion that "I know" is, or is akin to, a performative
verb. Calling this suggestion "reall y unprofitable and misguided, " Warnoc k
makes a number o f simpl e objections to it. You can sincerel y say, "I know,"
and no t know , but yo u can't d o th e sam e with promising. You can say, "He
promised t o do it, but h e won't," but yo u can't say, "He know s it is so, but i t
isn't." You can kno w something withou t saying, "I know, " but yo u can't d o
the sam e with promising. There is in general n o conventiona l or ritualistic
setting in which you say, "I know," unlike promising. You do not, as a rule, in
saying, " I know, " do anythin g beyond sayin g so, unlike promising. The ex planation o f th e original datum i s just that knowledge implies truth an d ha s
nothing specificall y t o do wit h speech act s and wha t they lead audience s t o
expect. Contrar y t o Austin' s thesis, "I know, " unlike " I promise, " i s as de scriptive as any first-person attribution. And, I would add, knowing is not a n
act at all, which precludes it s being effecte d by the utteranc e o f a performa -


live verb. These objections are (a) elementary and (b ) definitive. Ten minutes
reflection shoul d hav e made it clear tha t th e assimilatio n is simply a mistake,
prompted by the most superficial of similarities between the two verbs as they
(sometimes) occu r i n the firs t person .
Austin's paper "Truth" defines truth as follows: "A statement is said to be
true whe n the histori c state of affairs t o which it is correlated b y the demon strative convention s (the one to which it 'refers') i s of a type wit h which th e
sentence use d i n makin g i t i s correlate d b y th e descriptiv e conventions. "
Warnock struggle s to clarify what Austin might hav e meant by the two kinds
of "convention," but i t remains unclear whether thi s is just a confused way of
talking about indexicality in natural language, having little to do with truth in
general. Certainl y th e accoun t i s hard t o exten d beyon d simpl e indexica l
subject-predicate sentences: genera l statements , hypotheticals, mathematical
statements, an d analyti c truths canno t b e force d int o th e Austinia n mould .
Isn't thi s the very kind o f overgeneralization o n whic h he heaped scorn ? I n
comparison wit h Tarski's semanti c theor y o f truth , availabl e at the tim e h e
was writing his paper, Austin' s version of the correspondence theor y looks at
best quain t an d a t worse mire d i n obscurit y an d intractabl e difficulty .
The tw o chapters o n actio n an d abilit y fin d Austi n frequentl y unclear ,
careless o f importan t distinctions , and fa r to o read y t o dismis s defensibl e
ideas for inadequat e reasons . I mention tw o examples: hi s conflation of th e
question whether i t is normally superfluous to append "intentionally " after a
verb of action with the question whethe r it is true to append tha t adverb; an d
his no t noticin g tha t yo u ca n hav e a n abilit y whic h you d o no t successfull y
exercise ever y time you try to . No t ver y difficult points , really .
We turn then , hopefully , to the final long chapte r "Word s an d Deeds, "
which addresses itsel f to what is commonly regarded as Austin's most important an d endurin g work . An d indee d hi s treatmen t o f th e performativ e
aspect of speech ha s been fertil e enough, givin g rise to what has come t o be
called "speec h ac t theory. " Th e centra l ide a t o begi n wit h i s that use s o f
language are not exclusively "fact-stating": some utterances als o enable u s to
perform action s of various sortspromising, betting, bequeathing , naming ,
acquitting, and s o forth. We do these things by uttering appropriat e indica tive sentences, but the sentences (Austin claimed) do not describe us as doing
what we thereby do. (Why we cannot do something with language a t the same
time a s describin g ourselve s a s doin g just tha t i s never mad e clear. ) So , it
initially seems , Austi n i s directing u s t o distinguis h the "constative " us e o f
language fro m th e performativ e use : there ar e tw o kinds of speec h ac t t o
However, a s Warnoc k i s a t pain s t o poin t out , this allege d dichotom y
subsequently evaporate s int o th e insistenc e that al l uses of language hav e a
performative aspect . I t turns out, on close examination o f Austin's text, that
he has been roundl y conflating at least three different definitions of "perfor mative," and their demonstrable inequivalenc e ends up pulling the notion in
opposite directions , eventually causing its disintegration. There is the notio n

170 M I N

of a speec h ac t uttered i n a conventiona l setting , suc h a s a marriag e cere mony; there is the notio n o f a speec h ac t that make s its own characte r ex plicit; an d ther e i s the notio n o f a speec h ac t i n whic h somethin g i s done,
which threatens triviall y to include every speech act . I t i s thus quite unclea r
what distinction Austin was endeavoring t o capture wit h his original constative/performative dichotomy . No t surprisingly , therefore, h e abandon s i n
midstream th e attemp t t o characertiz e th e natur e o f th e distinctio n an d
proceeds t o analyz e the structur e o f speec h act s in generaldistinguishing
the locutionary , illocutionary , an d perlocutionar y aspect s of a n utterance .
Here agai n Warnoc k i s oblige d t o correc t exaggerations , inconsistencies ,
slips, confusionsbut a t least we are now engaged upo n an adequately con ceived project .
I hav e no t ye t mentione d Austin' s note d critiqu e o f Aye r i n Sense and
Sensibilia. Thi s wor k i s almost entirel y negativ e i n intention , consistin g i n
generally convincing demonstrations tha t Ayer says many false and confuse d
things abou t th e ver b "t o see. " Bu t wha t ought no w t o strik e u s is Austin's
own propensity , whe n engage d upo n mor e constructiv e work , t o fal l int o
comparable traps . A s h e himsel f acerbicall y remarks , discussin g Ayer ,
"[TJhere i s nothing s o plain borin g a s the constan t repetitio n o f assertion s
that ar e no t true , an d sometime s no t eve n faintly sensible ; if we can reduce
this a bit, it will be all to the good." Boring, yes, and irritatin g toothough at
least Aye r wa s trying to tackle hard an d dee p philosophica l questions that
resist ready formulations. It seems to me that Austin, while for the most part
eschewing the traditional questions of philosophy, shows an equal pronenes s
to falsehoo d an d confusion , and wit h less excuse.
His personal charisma must have been powerful indeed, because he wrote
little of lasting value. Perhaps hi s greatest legac y was his early translation o f
Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic (from which he seems to have learned little).
Warnock's book ha s the meri t of providing us with a sober an d no t unsympathetic dismantlin g of a reputatio n tha t ha s lon g seeme d inflated . Scru pulously courteou s a s he i s to Austin , I canno t hel p feelin g that h e i s well
aware o f th e perlocutionar y effec t hi s illocutionary acts are likel y t o have .


Sacks: Outpouching s
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
by Olive r Sacks
Duckworth, 198 5

It coul d b e said tha t Olive r Sack s put neuropatholog y o n th e literar y map .

His first book, Awakenings, about the stunning effects o f the drug L-dopa o n
patients afflicted wit h a form of Parkinsonism, attracted considerabl e critical
acclaim fro m th e literar y worl d an d "inspired " Harol d Pinter' s rathe r pon derous pla y A Kind of Alaska. Sack' s second book , A Leg to Stand On, wa s
similarly wel l received . H e ha s publishe d a numbe r o f shor t piece s i n th e
London Review of Books, a s wel l a s i n it s elde r America n sibling , several o f
which ar e reprinte d i n th e presen t collection , along wit h twelve previously
unpublished pieces . (Hi s book Migraine seem s t o hav e excite d rathe r les s
popular interest , no doubt becaus e it is a less popular kin d of book.) Yet the
scientists o f th e nervou s syste m d o no t see m t o hav e bee n similarl y impressed. Whe n I aske d a colleagu e i n neuroanatom y wha t h e though t o f
Sack's wor k h e sai d h e ha d neve r hear d o f him , an d th e neuroscientist s I
consulted wh o had heard o f hi m wer e no t incline d t o attac h an y scientifi c
importance t o his writings. Unanimity between th e tw o cultures i s nor per haps to be expected, but in the present cas e the reason for this asymmetry of
esteem lie s deeper tha n mere difference of interest. The proble m i s that it is
quite unclea r wha t Sack s is doing. Fo r who m i s he writing ? What kin d o f
writing i s it? I s i t intende d a s sobe r scienc e o r fancifu l fiction ? Wha t i s its
relation t o an orthodo x tex t of neuropathology? Ca n i t really be taken seri Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e London Review of Books (Janura y 23 , 1986) .


172 M I N

ously? Literar y peopl e see m toleran t o f suc h uncertainties , bu t thos e con cerned t o discover th e litera l truth wil l want them clarified .
Sacks's procedure i s to describe as winningly as possible the cas e historie s
(or segment s thereof ) o f variou s patient s wit h who m h e ha s ha d persona l
contact. Thes e are , a s i t were , recreate d befor e ou r eyes , lik e entries i n a
doctor's diary , rather than being set down once all the data are in. They have
tension, surprise, realistic dialogue, resolution, tragic denouements, touche s
of humor, epiphanies . Th e case s are divided int o four categories : "Losses, "
"Excesses," "Transports," "The Worl d o f the Simple. " Her e are som e sam ples fro m eac h category . Th e ma n wh o mistoo k hi s wif e fo r a ha t wa s a
distinguished musician, learned and charming, who had, through damag e t o
his visua l cortex, los t th e abilit y t o recogniz e familia r things despit e bein g
quite capable of seeing them; he couldn't associat e the visual appearance o f
things with their proper function or identity. Thus he mistook his foot for his
shoe, hi s wife's hea d fo r hi s hat (h e trie d t o pu t he r hea d o n his) , and h e
would puzzl e verbosely over ordinar y thing s like gloves ("a continuous sur face, infolde d o n itself . It appear s t o hav e five outpouchings, i f thi s i s th e
word"). These failures of recognition ma y have stemmed fro m a total loss of
the concepts in question or from an inability to apply them to what is seenit
is unclear. Sacks characteristically throws no light on the question, though his
data seem to suggest the latter alternative. Instead of approaching the matte r
in a cooll y analytica l frame o f mind , h e prefer s t o burbl e o n abou t th e
"intuitive, personal, comprehensiv e an d concrete " natur e o f judgment, sug gesting tha t th e patien t has los t this capacity and the n observin g (inconsistently) that his judgment wa s "in all other spheres . . . promp t and normal. "
The Los t Mariner , victim of alcoholically induced Korsakov' s syndrome,
can kee p thing s i n hi s memor y onl y fo r a matte r o f second s an d ha s a
retrograde amnesi a stretchin g bac k thirty years. H e ha s vivi d memorie s o f
his life before the age of nineteen and think s this to be his present age . He is
shocked b y hi s appearanc e i n th e mirror , wit h whic h Dr . Sack s brutally
confronts him , and (w e may presume) ha s often been s o shocked i n the las t
thirty years, each time having the shock erased withi n seconds. Naturally, his
life wa s one o f bewildermen t an d confusion . Witty Ticc y Ra y suffer s fro m
Tourette's syndrome, which is characterized by an exces s of nervous energ y
producing "tics , jerks, mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses, involuntary imitations and compulsions of all sorts, with an odd elfi n humor an d a tendency
to antic and outlandish kinds of play." Ray could not hold down a job (o r the
job coul d no t hol d hi m down ) an d hi s social behavior wa s found unaccept able, but he exploited hi s motor mania in jazz drumming and tabl e tennis, at
both o f whic h (w e are told ) h e excelled . Sack s put hi m o n Haldol , whic h
initially induced virtua l catatonia but later leveled out, bringing hi m to near
motor normality . Now he could kee p a job an d no t upset his friends, but h e
felt tha t hi s tic-free self was less exciting than hi s old Tourettic self; h e ha d
from a n earl y ag e buil t hi s lif e an d personalit y aroun d hi s affliction . Th e
solution wa s to take Haldo l durin g the workin g week but g o cold turke y a t


the weekend, thus allowing his old manic and excitable self to reemerge. Thi s
odd inversio n o f th e usua l drug-taker' s schedul e apparentl y le d to a mor e
balanced an d satisfyin g lif e fo r Ray .
A cas e o f transportatio n i s provide d b y Stephe n D. , a medica l studen t
constantly high on cocaine and amphetamines: h e dreamt h e was a dog with
a dog's olfactory gift, and when he woke up he retained th e heightened sense
of smell . No w h e coul d smel l people's emotions , recogniz e hi s friend s b y
their aroma , find his way around Ne w York City with his nose. Three weeks
later h e reverted , wit h mixed feelings , to olfactory normal. H e ha d know n
what i t i s like t o b e a dog . Th e Twins , retarded , misshapen , undersized ,
severely myopic , nevertheles s hav e remarkabl e power s o f computation ,
earning the m regula r television appearances. Sa y any date during the nex t
forty thousand years and they will tell you instantly on what day of the week it
falls. The y ca n remembe r three-hundred-digi t numbers , wher e mos t o f u s
are taxe d t o th e limi t by seven. They can generat e six-figur e prime s at wil l
and are not defeated by the task of going up to ten figures. Yet their IQs are a
mere sixty and the y cannot even perform elementar y addition and subtrac tion. They seemed, Sack s reports, t o see numbers and t o read off their properties without performing calculations. When they were separated "fo r thei r
own good, " the y los t thei r mathematica l power s an d th e enjoymen t the y
derived fro m thei r exercise .
All this is very striking and remarkable , like strange tale s from a fabulous
foreign land. Sacks relates his case histories with great vividness and obvious
compassion. The boo k is a fascinating read all right. But doubts assail one on
almost ever y page. Ther e is , first, the questio n o f Sack' s prose style . I t ha s
been lavishly praised by some critics ("beautifully written"). Lush, belletristic,
edifying, competentthi s is the bes t I could say for it . For th e mos t part it is
embarrassingly overlyrical , gushing, pretentious, an d sentimental . Try say ing thi s out lou d wit h a straight face :
"Watch Jimmie in chapel," they said, "and judge fo r yourelf. "
I did , an d I wa s moved, profoundly moved an d impressed , becaus e I saw
here a n intensit y and steadines s of attention and concentratio n tha t I ha d
never see n befor e i n hi m o r conceive d him capabl e of. I watche d him knee l
and tak e the Sacramen t on hi s tongue, and coul d no t doub t th e fullnes s an d
totality of Communion , the perfec t alignment of hi s spiri t wit h th e spiri t of
the Mass . Fully , intensely, quietly, in the quietud e o f absolut e concentration
and attention , he entere d an d partoo k o f th e Hol y Communion. He was
wholly held , absorbed , by a feeling . Ther e was no forgetting , n o Korsakov's
then, nor di d i t seem possibl e or imaginabl e that ther e shoul d be ; fo r h e was
no longe r a t th e merc y of a fault y an d fallibl e mechanismtha t o f meaningless sequence s and memor y tracesbu t wa s absorbed i n a n act , an ac t of hi s
whole being , which carried feelin g and meanin g in a n organi c continuity
and unity , a continuity and unit y so seamless it could no t permi t an y break .

This passage is entirely typical of the kin d of windy rhapsodizing with which
Sacks embellishe s the bar e (an d sufficientl y eloquent ) fact s o f eac h case .



There i s a constan t strainin g fo r cosmi c significance , and wit h i t a dis turbingly self-regarding messianic fervor. A R. Luria i s quoted with cloying
reverence, an d bi g name s ar e droppe d t o n o apparen t effec t sav e tha t o f
intellectual pretentiousness (Wittgenstein , Frege, Nietzsche , Schopenhauer,
et al.). He is much too fond of the wistful". . . " The resul t is that the patient s
and thei r pligh t are eclipsed by their doctor' s desir e fo r what he imagines to
be a fin e phrase .
More seriously, perhaps, there is the question of credibility. Sacks himself
describes thes e piece s a s "tale s an d fables " prompte d b y wha t h e ha s ob served i n clinica l practice. H e say s that h e ha s change d "name s an d som e
circumstantial detail s . . . fo r reason s o f persona l an d professiona l confi dence, bu t m y aim has been t o preserve th e essentia l 'feeling' o f their lives. "
Is that all he ha s preserved? on e want s to ask. A novelist could sa y the sam e
yet would be making up more than mere name s and "circumstantia l details."
What are we to make of the dialogue, for instanceP'There is no claim that his
conversations with patients were tape-recorded, o r that he wrote down what
was said straight after, or indeed tha t such conversations ever took place. T o
what extent ha s Sacks invented stretches of dialogue fo r dramatic purposes ?
And wa s he reall y as ill informed abou t som e o f thes e case s as he seem s t o
have been, or is it that he is feigning initial ignorance in order to create in th e
reader th e thril l of discovery? Does he eve r exaggerat e th e bizarr e deficit s
and excesse s he describe s fo r greate r literar y effect? Mor e fundamentally ,
did al l of thi s reall y happen, an d ho w doe s i t stan d i n relatio n t o Harol d
Pinter's play ? Are question s o f literal trut h besid e th e point ?
I mysel f suspect tha t th e genr e to which these "stories " belon g i s that o f
the dreade d "drama-documentary"tha t ar t for m whic h blends fac t an d
fiction i n a wa y that defie s evaluatio n unde r eithe r aestheti c o r scientifi c
criteria. Fictionalize d fac t canno t b e criticize d fo r bein g ba d art , sinc e i t is
intended a s a report of fact. It is a genre in which you have no idea where you
are and wha t you are suppose d t o be up to. It should b e discouraged. Sack s
wants his case histories to contribute towar d a more humanistic neurology
no doubt a laudable aimbut neurology won't listen until it is told whether it
is being offered dat a or drama. There is, of course, room for , and a n honor able tradition in , medical (including psychiatric) case histories, but thes e ar e
characteristically objective and impersona l in style, and the authors are quite
clear tha t th e circumstantia l details have not been mad e up . Ther e is a fine
line between legitimate interpretation an d overimaginative reading-into, an d
I a m no t convince d tha t Sack s ha s kep t o n th e righ t sid e o f it , o r eve n
intended to .
Putting aside the issue of genre, what positive value do these studies have?
They certainl y serv e t o remin d us , especiall y the doctor s amon g us , tha t
patients are people tootha t illness, however caused, and especially illness of
the brain , ha s significance in the lif e o f a person. This of course i s a truism,
but it seems necessary to keep on saying it in the face of the forces of "depersonalization." Mor e theoretically , the y compellingl y demonstrat e th e fact ,


unwelcome as it is, that everythin g about th e mind , from th e sensory-moto r

periphery t o th e inne r sens e o f self , i s minutely controlled b y the brain : i f
your brain lack s certain chemicals or get s locally damaged, you r min d i s apt
to fal l apar t a t th e seams . What w e call "the mind " is in fac t mad e u p o f a
great number of subcapacities, and each of these depends upon the functioning o f th e brain . I t begin s t o see m a miracl e tha t th e syste m doesn't brea k
down mor e often .
When i t come s t o theory , however , Sacks' s studies yield littl e o f conse quence. H e make s n o effor t t o pu t hi s dat a int o a systemati c theoretica l
framework; indeed , th e book contain s remarkably little on the mechanisms
of brain function . He offer s us no philosophica l accoun t o f the mind-brai n
relation, despite the importance o f this question for his general them e of the
dependence o f mind on brain: i s he a Cartesian dualist, an identity theorist ,
an epiphenomenalist , o r what ? His occasional references t o Hume' s theor y
of th e sel f ar e naiv e at best . H e seem s t o thin k tha t Hum e regarde d u s as
unconnected bundles of sensations possessed of no principle of unity: in fact,
Hume claime d tha t th e unit y comes fro m precisel y the sort s of connectio n
that are missing in Sacks's pathological cases. It is therefore quite misleadin g
of hi m t o clai m that Hume' s theor y fit s thos e pathologica l case s but no t u s
normals. O r i s it tha t h e i s simply using Hume' s theor y a s a loos e literar y
metaphor? The proble m o f genre again .
It migh t be sai d that Sack s is not ou t t o giv e a scientific o r philosophica l
theory of the phenomena h e reports; rather, he is providing the theorist with
raw data t o work with. But thi s is hard t o square wit h Sacks's casual unconcern about the data assembled by other researchers. Uncomfortabl y often he
appends a postscript in which it is observed tha t there is in fac t a large (bu t
uncited) literature o n the syndrom e h e has just bee n describing . The n why
publish further data of the same kind, unless he has made some new observations? Th e answe r must b e tha t h e think s he has , no t ne w data , bu t ne w
descriptions of old datamor e dramatic descriptions . So , again, what he is
doing i s not science .
So I return t o the questio n o f what sort o f book thi s is supposed t o be. I
fear tha t th e answe r mus t b e this : i t i s a coffee-tabl e boo k fo r th e scien tifically sh y to di p int o an d amaz e themselve s and thei r friends . I t ha s all
the fascinationmorbi d an d humanitariano f a lurid tex t o n medica l pa thology, with the bonus that it is easy reading. There is, of course, a place fo r
coffee-table bookso n th e coffe e tabl e wit h th e color-supplementsbu t
they shoul d no t b e confuse d wit h genuin e scienc e (o r genuin e literature) .
Above all, such writing should no t b e greete d b y the nonscientifi c worl d a s
science a t las t Gettin g Somewhere , becoming Relevant , shedding it s bogus
Claims to Objectivity . Thi s attitude i s in it s way as philistine as the obvers e
philistinism commonl y attributed t o scientist s vis-a-vis th e arts .
Sacks suggest s that "classica l neurology" need s t o be supplemented wit h
modes o f description tha t addres s th e perso n a s a psychological being. This
is a very familiar plaint, whic h was most vigorously urged i n th e sixtie s by

176 M I N

R. D. Laing and other s in respect o f medically based psychiatry . It is part of

the genera l questio n o f the relationshi p between the psychologica l sciences
and th e kin d o f understandin g o f peopl e w e fin d i n novelist s and biogra phers. This is a very hard question. The problem , no t addressed by Sacks, is
how this integration i s to be achievedindeed, whether it can be achieved a t
all. It seems that we have two distinct and distinctiv e modes of thinking here
which refuse to fit neatly together. To solve this problem we need to do some
hard thinking about the relationship between mind and brain , the nature o f
science, and th e viabilit y of our ordinar y notion s o f what a perso n i s in th e
face of the scientifi c facts . Piou s pleas for neurology to "take account" of th e
fact tha t huma n brain s hous e huma n mind s wil l no t resul t i n any progres s
with thes e questions.
Perhaps a mor e radica l thesi s lurks in th e background ; i f no t o f Sacks's
mind, the n o f th e mind s o f hi s admirers . Thi s i s th e ide a tha t "classica l
neurology" provides the wrong approach t o the psychological disorders her e
described; tha t it should be replaced, no t supplemented. W e must treat th e
patient a s a perso n (no t a s a machine ) an d forge t abou t physica l causes
altogether. Thi s attitud e (whic h I do no t attribut e t o Sacks) makes a fundamental mistake. The proposal , in effect, i s to treat Sacks's patients in the kind
of way psychoanalysis treats its patients. That is, we should address ourselves
to the psychological basis of the disorder an d work on it, in collaboration with
the patient , i n orde r t o chang e hi s unhealth y psychi c structure. Thi s i s a
mistake because the whol e point o f neuropathological disorder s i s that they
do not have psychological causes or an intelligible psychological history: they
have brute physica l causes, such as head injury . Herei n resides th e peculia r
difficulty o f bringin g togethe r neuropatholog y an d a persona l vie w o f th e
patient: for th e perso n i s prone to massive psychological changes th e causes
of whic h are entirel y impersonal. B y all means le t u s remembe r tha t thes e
patients are people , bu t le t us also not forge t tha t thei r psychologica l problems do no t li e at the persona l leve l (as the problem s addresse d b y psychoanalysis do). There is thus a clear sense in which these people must be treated
as machinesfor th e simpl e reason tha t the brain i s a machine and henc e is
prone to the breakdowns that are th e lot of all machines. In thi s respect th e
brain obey s the sam e law s as the body; and th e min d wholl y depends upo n
the brain . N o doub t thi s i s a hars h an d disturbin g truth , ampl y and har rowingly demonstrated b y the result s of brai n malfunction , but i t is a truth
that canno t b e dodged . Ther e i s thus n o prospec t o f a full y personalize d
And wha t of th e consequence s of neuropathology fo r th e immortalit y of
the soul? Pretty bleak, it would seem. For consider what becomes of the part s
of mind that are lost upon variou s kinds of brain damage. They ca n scarcely
be supposed t o survive as separate bits , waiting for the other mental parts to
join the m whe n th e damag e i s complete; the y mus t simpl y go ou t o f existence. Suppos e no w the damag e i s progressive, s o that th e severa l compo nents of mind are successively lost. What happens to the last bit? It can hardly


survive on its own, an incomplet e ye t immortal mental fragment . I f parts of

the mind depen d fo r their existence upon part s of th e brain, then th e whole
of the mind must so depend too . Hence the soul dies with the brain, which is
to say it is mortal. Thi s may be thought a n irresistible conclusion anyway , of
course, but i t is gratifying to see it proved b y philosophical neuropathology .
Or i s it that onl y the soul s of those whos e brains are destroye d in one go are
immortal? Thi s seem s hardl y fair.


Stroud: No t Knowin g
What W e Kno w
The Significance of Philosophical

by Barr y Strou d
Oxford Universit y Press, 198 4

I cannot know that I am not dreaming now, because I could have experience s
just lik e these in dreaming slee p and suppos e mysel f t o be awake. If I canno t
know that I am not dreaming now , then I cannot kno w that I am now seate d
before a fire writing. Therefore I cannot know that I am now seated befor e a
fire writing. So Descartes famously argued, thus raising the general proble m
of scepticism about the externa l world. The argumen t i s apt to strike one as
both preposterous an d compelling . What is the sourc e of its power? Where,
if anywhere , doe s i t go wrong? And wha t does i t show about epistemolog y
and philosoph y in general?
These ar e th e question s t o whic h Barr y Stroud' s boo k i s devoted . H e
begins by expounding th e Cartesia n argument wit h exemplary patience an d
care, making its steps as explicit as possible. His aim is to exhibit its strength
and innocenc e o f obvious fallacy. W e can alread y appreciat e tha t th e argu ment i s not goin g t o admi t o f simpl e refutation , and tha t i t get s a t dee p
questions abou t th e natur e o f knowledge and it s relation t o the world . Pro fessor Stroud the n goes on to consider a number of responses that have been
made t o this kind of scepticism, finding each of them i n some respect inade quate.
J. L . Austi n trie d t o convic t th e scepti c o f misusin g th e wor d "know" ;
Stroud argue s tha t Austin confused truth with appropriateness. G . E. Moore
insisted tha t he knew he had tw o hands because he could hol d the m up an d
Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Februar y 22 , 1985) .



look a t them ; Strou d accuse s Moor e o f dogmaticall y refusing t o ben d hi s

mind to the sceptic's claims. Kant felt the powe r of scepticism and was driven
to his problematic distinction between empirical an d transcendenta l realism ;
Stroud point s ou t tha t Kant' s solutio n end s u p limitin g knowledg e t o th e
realm o f the subjective . Carnap questione d th e ver y meaningfulnes s of th e
sceptic's conclusion, on the groun d tha t knowledg e claims would be unverifiable i f scepticis m were true ; Strou d take s scepticis m t o imperi l th e veri fiability principle . Quine' s "naturalize d epistemology" avoids the whole issue
by toughly dismissing traditional suprascientifi c epistemology ; Stroud urge s
that Quine' s ow n conception o f knowledge invites the sceptica l problems h e
wishes t o ignore .
Stroud's criticis m of thes e antisceptica l efforts i s insightful an d convinc ing. Either the antiscepti c concedes to o little to hi s opponent an d s o fails t o
face u p t o the cogenc y of his argument (Austin , Moore, Quine) , or h e con cedes to o much and s o fails to secure knowledge of the externa l world a s we
ordinarily understand it (Kant, Carnap). What emerges fro m Stroud' s pains taking discussion is that scepticism derives its power fro m reflection upon th e
gulf betwee n ou r sensor y experienc e an d th e worl d tha t i t i s (w e believe)
experience of : thi s relationshi p i s causa l an d contingent , ye t knowledg e
seems to demand mor e than thisi t craves a conceptual an d necessar y con nection. Nor does this apparent deman d issu e from an unusual or equivocal
interpretation o f "know": it is our ordinar y concep t tha t seem s t o make this
unsatisfiable demand . That , at any rate, appears t o be the lesson of Stroud' s
Though in many ways excellent, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism
is no t withou t defect . Th e style , thoug h mostl y admirabl y clear , i s ofte n
labored an d repetitious : th e same points are lengthily restated, an d particu lar phrase s recu r wit h wearisom e frequency . Th e boo k coul d easil y hav e
been much shorter. It s style is distinctly Moorean. As to content, I think there
are som e importan t area s o f neglect . Chie f amon g these , perhaps , i s th e
absence of any systematically developed accoun t of the concept of knowledge
itself. Strou d relie s upo n a mor e o r les s intuitiv e gras p o f th e notio n
of knowledg e an d offer s n o rea l theor y o f th e necessar y an d sufficien t
conditions o f knowledge . It thu s remain s unclea r wha t th e sceptic' s denia l
of knowledg e rest s uponan d indee d wha t i t i s precisely tha t h e i s deny ing.
It seems to me that there are a t least three areas in which this lack vitiates
Stroud's treatmen t o f the sceptica l argument. First , I do no t thin k h e give s
enough weigh t to the idea that to know a proposition w e do not need t o know
its logical consequences, eve n when we know what those consequence s are . I
might be able to know that I am seated before a fire writing without knowing
that I am not dreamingthe reason bein g tha t the dream possibilit y is not in
the clas s of possibilitie s "relevant" t o th e forme r knowledg e claim . Strou d
does, it is true, broach thi s idea, but h e does not give it enough o f a run fo r its
money. Causal and information-theoreti c analyse s of knowledge, for exam -

180 M I N

pie, do no t requir e th e would-b e knower to rule ou t th e drea m possibility,

and thes e analyse s have much to be sai d i n their favor .
Second, and connected, Stroud neve r considers whether the sceptic trades
illicitly upo n a conflatio n of knowin g and knowin g that yo u know . Maybe
Descartes's argument show s that I do not know that I know that I am seate d
before a fire writing (perhaps becaus e I cannot eliminat e th e drea m possi bility), but i t does no t immediatel y follow tha t I do no t know this. Indeed, I
would argu e tha t the scepti c makes precisely this mistake a mistak e that a
correct analysi s of knowledg e would reveal.
Third, Stroud tend s t o assimilat e what seem distinc t questions: whether
we enjoy "direc t perception " o f the worl d around us , and whethe r w e have
knowledge of that world . This assimilatio n is rampant i n the traditio n wit h
which Strou d i s occupied, bu t it s erroneousness become s eviden t onc e w e
take a hard loo k at the concept of knowledge. In particular, the directness of
our perception s doe s not by itself undermine Cartesia n scepticism (nor does
their indirectnes s vindicate it).
Stroud doe s not pay close enough attentio n to the conceptual connections
between knowledge and justification an d certainty . He introduces th e latte r
two concept s o n occasions , but h e doe s no t defen d th e vie w tha t the y ar e
necessary t o knowledge , and i t i s arguable tha t the y ar e not . H e doe s no t
discuss whether scepticis m applies equally to all three concepts , no r wh y he
takes knowledg e t o b e th e mos t importan t epistemi c concep t i n sceptica l
contexts. Her e i t seem s t o m e tha t Strou d ha s misse d th e opportunit y t o
bring t o bea r moder n conceptua l analysi s upon traditiona l philosophica l
questions. We need both .
Finally, Stroud restrict s himself to scepticism about the external world; h e
says nothing o f scepticism about other minds , induction, the past, and s o on.
No doubt he felt he had quite enough t o chew on with the one scepticism, but
I woul d think that a proper appreciatio n o f the forc e and natur e o f scepticism needs to take these other kinds into account. Are there equally powerful
sceptical arguments in them? Is scepticism structurally and diagnostically the
same in all areas? Do the sam e kinds of response sugges t themselves across
the board? Not only would a comparative study of the different kinds help in
assessing th e genera l significanc e of scepticismi t migh t als o enable u s t o
understand bette r wha t is going on in the particula r cas e Stroud ha s chose n
to concentrate upon .
Despite these reservations, this is a book to be commended t o both professional epistemologists and students : it is a serious and well-considere d treatment o f a topic tha t ha s onl y recently begun t o receiv e th e attentio n i t de serves. If philosophica l knowledg e is possible then Stroud' s boo k will creat e


Kripke: Namin g an d Necessity

Naming and Necessity
by Sau l A. Kripk e
Blackwell, 198 0

Saul Kripke' s brilliant and ver y influential article, "Namin g and Necessity,"
appeared i n 197 2 in Semantics of Natural Language (edite d b y Davidson an d
Harman), having been transcribed fro m a series of unscripted lecture s delivered a t Princeto n Universit y i n 1970 . No w w e hav e th e recor d o f thos e
lectures i n book form , accompanie d b y a ne w preface, i n whic h the autho r
dates th e origi n o f hi s ideas fro m 196364 .
As Kripk e anticipates , thos e acquainte d wit h th e origina l articl e wil l b e
disappointed b y th e presen t publication , fo r th e tex t i s virtually unaltered
and th e preface is mainly given over to repeating point s already contained i n
the earlie r wor k for th e benefi t of reader s fo r who m the y wer e no t crystal
clear. It is not that Kripke thinks there are no genuine objection s to take up
he admits to certain "substantive problems with the monograph"but we are
not told what these problem s are , no r whic h passages he would (if he could)
revise or expand . Indeed , h e invite s readers t o judge fo r themselve s which
criticisms o f hi s views ar e frivolou s and whic h serious. I t woul d hav e bee n
interesting t o kno w Kripke' s own assessmen t o f som e o f th e man y querie s
that hav e been raise d ove r th e pas t decade .
The concep t o f rigid designatio n i s the mai n topi c dealt wit h in the pref ace. Kripk e begin s b y distinguishin g the necessit y o f th e identit y relatio n
from th e ide a o f a rigidl y designatin g expressio n (on e tha t designate s th e
same objec t in ever y possibl e world), and thi s i n tur n fro m th e thesi s tha t

Reprinted with permission from th e Times Higher Education Supplement (Jun e 13, 1980).


182 M I N

certain expression s o f natura l languagenotabl y prope r namesar e rigi d

designators. H e the n devote s severa l pages t o dismissing the obviousl y misguided objectio n that names cannot be rigid because they are ambiguous; th e
answer i s that th e questio n o f rigidit y makes sens e onl y relativ e t o a give n
disambiguation o f th e sentenc e a t issue . A trickie r questio n concern s th e
relation betwee n th e scop e o f designator s i n moda l context s an d thei r ri gidity. Here Kripke's reply to those who would interpret th e latter notio n i n
terms of the former is that the scope ambiguities alleged t o attend names are
spurious, sinc e the smal l scope readin g o f the nam e i s simply unavailable
and anywa y the notion of rigidity applies in the case of simple sentences fre e
of moda l operators . Les s satisfactory are hi s brief-remarks o n th e semanti c
difference betwee n the rigidity of names and th e rigidity of definite descriptions which express individua l essences, for example , "th e smalles t prime."
To mar k th e differenc e h e introduce s a distinction betwee n rigidit y de jure
where the designato r i s "stipulated" t o refer t o a certain object , and rigidit y
de facto wher e i t just "happens " tha t th e referen t uniquel y satisfies th e de scription i n ever y possible world. This wa y of drawin g th e distinctio n cer tainly answers to an intuitive imparallelism between the two ways of referrin g
rigidity, bu t clearl y more need s t o b e sai d i n explanatio n o f th e semanti c
Readers o f the origina l article may well have come awa y with the impres sion tha t Kripk e doe s no t believ e i n th e independen t realit y o f possibl e
worlds. I n th e prefac e h e is anxious t o remove th e impression : h e make s it
clear tha t h e wishe s to tak e thes e entitie s perfectl y seriously, a t leas t o n a
certain innocuou s understandin g o f them . A "possibl e world " is just an ab stract state the world might have been in, to be compared wit h the alternativ e
ways a pair o f dice might fall , tha t is , with the "sampl e space " o f probabilit y
theory. What is not entirel y clear fro m Kripke' s informal discussion is how
precisely thes e possibl e state s ar e t o b e conceived . Certainl y th e semanti c
interpretation o f modal discourse will not, on this construal of the domain o f
possible worlds, much resemble (sav e formally) th e kind s of model-theoreti c
structures standardl y invoke d fo r th e interpretatio n o f tens e locution s o r
quantifiers generally. Perhaps the best (indeed the only) way to take this talk
of possibl e state s i s t o identif y the m wit h consisten t set s o f sentence s o r
propositions; bu t ther e i s nothing i n Kripke' s remark s t o sugges t tha t h e
regards hi s own vie w an d tha t conceptio n o f possibl e worlds a s equivalent.
No doubt w e will have to wait for Kripke' s promised (o r hoped-for) elabora tion o f thes e remark s t o have the matte r clarified .
Turning to the mai n text , let m e identif y som e o f the issue s on whic h it
would hav e been goo d t o have Kripke' s opinion. First , throughout Naming
and Necessity Kripk e make s heav y use o f th e notio n o f a prior i knowledg e
without makin g an y seriou s attemp t t o define that problemati c notion . Re questing suc h a definitio n is not mer e pedantry , fo r on e o f Kripke' s mor e
startling claims is that ther e are case s of contingen t a priori truth; an d i t is
conceivable tha t a harder loo k a t the genera l notio n of a priori knowledg e


will reveal Kripke's examples no t t o have that epistemi c status. Indeed, th e

knowledge one acquires as a result of fixing the reference of a name seems to
be based upon knowledge of one's own (linguistic) intentions, and so qualifies
as a species of introspective knowledge, which should be classified a s a posteriori. An d i t is noteworthy tha t i n the prefac e Kripk e prefers, neutrally , to
characterize the knowledg e a reference-stipulator possesse s as acquired "i n
virtue of his very linguistic act": it is clear, however, that much knowledge so
acquired (fo r example , m y knowledg e tha t I a m speaking ) i s a posteriori .
Secondly, Kripke' s so-called causal theory of reference stil l hovers rather
uncertainly betwee n a theor y o f ho w word s latc h ont o th e worl d an d a n
insistence o n th e socia l character o f name s an d certai n othe r expressions .
The latte r interpretatio n probabl y bes t represents hi s considered view , bu t
then there is the question ho w radically he diverges from the Fregea n tradi tion h e officiall y rejects . Doe s h e no t advocat e simpl y a Fregea n theor y o f
community reference ? Th e coefficien t o f confusio n surroundin g thi s topi c
might have been appreciabl y reduced ha d Kripk e addressed himsel f to this
Thirdly, th e Kripkea n doctrin e tha t ha s provoke d th e hottes t debat e is
perhaps tha t o f essentialism . Kripk e does mak e ver y compelling appea l t o
our intuitions about what is essential and what accidental to a thing's identity,
but w e cannot rest conten t with such appeal: somethin g mus t be said abou t
why philosopher s hav e alway s found th e idea o f objectiv e necessity so pro foundly problematican d abou t wha t has t o b e don e t o rende r th e ide a
finally acceptable. Kripke' s contribution t o this long-standing issu e is really
just th e firs t stag e o f what ought t o develo p int o a sustaine d philosophica l
inquiry int o the metaphysic s and epistemolog y of modality.
But the least complete and mos t contentious part of Kripke's discussion is
the endeavo r t o revive Cartesian argument s against various forms of mate rialism. There have been several attempts t o rebut Kripke' s challenging ar guments against identity theories of mind an d body , none of which seems to
have made a n impac t on hi s attitude towar d those arguments . However , in
one of his very rare additions to the main text he acknowledges the existence
of one suc h objection to his claims, namely that there i s no smoot h general ization o f his argument agains t identifying menta l an d physica l properties t o
theories whic h identify onl y mental and physica l particulars. About thi s line
of objection Kripke makes the blunt and unhelpful remark, "The argumen t
against token-toke n identificatio n [in] th e tex t does appl y t o thes e views."
Exactly how the argumen t applie s i s left t o the reade r to work out fo r him self, i f he can .
Despite the intense critical attention "Naming and Necessity" has enjoyed,
it stil l stand s u p a s a n impressvi e an d endurin g wor k o f philosophy , out standing i n it s sweep , clarity , and penetration . Fo r tha t ver y reaso n on e
cannot but regret that it s author ha s not taken the opportunity afforde d b y
its republication to fill out an d fortif y hi s treatment o f it s various topics .


Ayer: Significantl y Senseles s

by A. J. Aye r
Weidenfeld an d Nicolson , 198 5

Outside th e profession , Wittgenstein' s fam e a s a twentieth-century philoso pher i s surpasse d onl y b y Russell's . Hardl y a wee k goe s b y withou t ou r
encountering Wittgenstein' s name in one or othe r o f the more popular or gans o f communication . Ther e i s som e iron y i n this . For , unlik e Russell ,
Wittgenstein maintaine d a ferociou s aversio n t o publicit y and wrot e work s
of th e utmos t esotericism . Perhap s hi s presen t cul t statu s i n th e extra philosophical world stems, at least in part, precisely from thi s inaccessibility,
thus doubling th e irony . A t any rate, a market surel y exist s for a n exoteri c
study o f Wittgenstein' s notoriousl y recondit e ideas .
It i s thi s marke t fo r whic h A . J. Ayer' s boo k i s intende d t o cater : hi s
avowed ai m i s to presen t Wittgenstei n t o intereste d reader s wh o lac k th e
benefit o f a "considerabl e trainin g i n philosophy. " I f h e succeed s i n thi s
laudable ai m it will not be at the cost of vulgarization: though Aye r keeps his
pills digestibly small, he does not stoop t o sweeten them. I n other words, th e
nonphilosopher wil l fin d i t pretty toug h going , despit e th e clarit y of Ayer's
style and hi s simplifications of Wittgenstein's doctrines. Bu t it is not clea r that
a bette r job coul d hav e bee n done .
Ayer covers the entire span of Wittgenstein's career, as well as providing a
biographical sketc h and a chapter o n Wittgenstein's influence on subsequent
philosophy. We are taken at a fair clip through th e rigors of the Tractatus, the
exploratory transitiona l writings in which Wittgenstein's late r theme s begi n
Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Jun e 7 , 1985) .



to emerge, th e wor k leadin g u p t o and includin g th e Investigations, the las t

writings on knowledge an d philosophica l psychology , and eve n th e remark s
on magi c an d religionan d al l thi s i n a mer e 15 0 pages. No r doe s Aye r
confine himself to exposition; he also criticizes Wittgenstein i n the light of his
own philosophica l convictions . The discussio n i s generally clea r an d sympa thetic, though Aye r lapses occasionally into simple announcements o f agree ment or disagreemen t without an y real effor t t o expose the underlyin g issues. I woul d lik e t o hav e see n mor e on why Wittgenstein pu t forwar d th e
views he did .
The chapter dealin g with the Tractatus makes the important poin t tha t the
early positivists , including Aye r himself , failed i n thei r enthusias m fo r tha t
work to understand it s central doctrinethe doctrine tha t ethics, aesthetics,
and philosoph y itsel f wer e strictl y senseless. They too k Wittgenstei n t o b e
denigrating an d dismissin g these system s of (so-called) thought, an d elevat ing th e claim s o f scienc e t o cognitiv e superiority . I n fact , Wittgenstei n as signed grea t importanc e t o tha t abou t whic h h e enjoine d u s t o b e silent :
"senseless" was not for him a pejorative term. Ayer goes on to chide Wittgenstein fo r holding , inconsistently , that th e proposition s o f philosophy ca n be
both true and senseless. No doubt there is justice in this chargelor it is hard
to se e ho w a propositio n ca n b e tru e withou t correspondin g t o a stat e of
affairsbut i t is curious tha t Aye r omit s t o recor d tha t hi s ow n positivis m
suffered fro m th e sam e affliction : th e principl e o f verifiabilit y wa s put for ward a s true , ye t i t mus t lac k sense accordin g t o it s ow n demands . Th e
propositions of positivism thus ha d th e sam e meaningless status, as, according to it, the disreputable proposition s o f metaphysics did. Ha d Aye r appre ciated this parallel, he might have seen Wittgenstein's difficulty no t merely as
a kin d o f sli p bu t a s a n inevitabl e consequenc e o f a majo r philosophica l
tendency. Wittgenstein wa s simply more awar e o f thi s difficult y tha n thos e
who took themselves to be following him, and he was bold enoug h t o swallow
the consequences. Any attempt to develop a criterion o f meaningfulness wit h
polemical edg e i s going t o run u p agains t thi s sor t o f problem .
Ayer's criticis m o f th e Investigations focuse s mainl y on th e "privat e lan guage argument." Th e discussio n here has some puzzling features. Ayer tells
us mor e tha n onc e tha t h e disagrees wit h Wittgenstei n on thi s issue, but h e
also say s tha t h e ha s n o wis h to contest th e clai m that ther e coul d no t b e a
language tha t wa s unintelligible t o al l except th e speaker . Sinc e thi s just is
what Wittgenstein means by a private language, as Ayer notes at one point, it
seems tha t th e disagreemen t i s not s o great a s Ayer supposes . Indeed , i t is
hard t o se e how Ayer could disagre e wit h Wittgenstei n here , sinc e t o d o s o
would b e to rejec t th e verifiabilit y principl e whe n applied t o what someon e
else means by their words . As the discussion progresses, i t becomes clear tha t
what Aye r i s primaril y oppose d t o i s Wittgenstein's resistanc e t o th e idea
of a privat e "ostensive definition " of sensatio n words . Aye r think s that th e
speaker's memor y ca n provid e a satisfactory criterion o f correctness fo r th e
use of such words, so that it is not necessar y to suppose, fo r sensatio n word s

186 M I N

to b e meaningful , tha t sensation s hav e publicl y observable manifestations .

But then Ayer does after all seem to be allowing that there could be a private
language i n exactl y the sens e Wittgenstei n denie d an d Aye r earlier acqui esced in .
On th e questio n o f privat e ostensive definition itsel f i t seems to m e tha t
Ayer's discussion i s vitiated b y his failin g t o locat e th e questio n agains t th e
background o f Wittgenstein' s general accoun t o f ostensiv e trainin g an d o f
the condition s unde r whic h word s acquir e meaning . I t i s not a sufficien t
answer to Wittgenstein to say that 1 can now remember wha t I earlier meant
by a sensatio n word ; fo r thi s presuppose s tha t I ha d earlie r succeede d i n
meaning anything. Concentrating on the sensation while intoning the word to
oneself is not enough t o make the wor d stand for th e sensation a whole lot
of linguisti c "state setting " i s needed befor e a wor d ca n b e ostensivel y denned. I am not saying that Ayer is definitely wrong on this matteronly that
it i s mor e complicate d tha n h e acknowledges . I n particular , mor e wor k
would need t o be done i n elucidating Wittgenstein's dictum that "meanin g is
use" befor e hi s account of sensation language could be properly evaluated.
Ayer is on firme r groun d in his criticism of Wittgenstein's views on knowledge an d certainty . Wittgenstein hel d tha t i t is a kind o f nonsense t o prefix
any proposition abou t whos e truth w e could no t be mistaken with the word s
"I kno w that," fo r example , " I a m i n pain. " T o thi s claim Ayer make s th e
entirely convincing (and familiar) reply that it confuses what it is nonmisleading to say with what it is true to say. You might well perplex your audience by
saying, "I know that I am in pain," but you can nevertheless speak truly in so
saying. Similarl y fo r Moorea n proposition s lik e " I kno w tha t 1 have tw o
As Aye r distinguishe s the earl y Wittgenstei n fro m th e positivists , so h e
distinguishes the late r Wittgenstei n from th e schoo l of "ordinary language "
philosophers, typifie d b y J. L . Austin. Wittgenstein was always interested i n
the general nature of meaning, not just in drawing fine distinctions of meaning betwee n words ; hi s detaile d investigation s o f th e us e o f word s wer e
always directe d a t som e genera l "theoretical " moral . An d h e alway s ha d a
great respec t fo r philosophica l error.
Ayer ranks Wittgenstein second onl y to Russell among twentieth-century
philosophers, despit e hi s many disagreements wit h him. I t is a considerabl e
merit o f this book tha t this judgment shoul d see m t o be no t exaggerated .


Budd: Wittgenstein's Philosoph y

of Psycholog y
Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Psychology
by Malcol m Bud d
Routledge, 198 9

Sapiently gaugin g hi s distance , Malcol m Budd offer s u s a synopti c view o f

Wittgenstein's late r thought s o n th e mind . Hi s treatmen t i s selectiv e ye t
representative. Seve n dens e chapter s surve y Wittgenstein's variou s surveys
of meaning and understanding , sensation s and sens e impressions, the seein g
of aspects , images, internal speec h an d calculation , thought an d intention ,
and feelings , emotions, and bodil y awareness. Budd's exposition s ar e i n every way exemplary. H e i s deeply sympatheti c to his subject but b y no mean s
uncritical. I kno w of n o other work o n Wittgenstei n that ca n matc h hi s fo r
clarity, accuracy, concision, and penetratio n (an d there are som e fine book s
our there) . He knows exactly wha t he is talking about and i s able to convey this
to th e reade r with unostentatious efficiency . Hi s book woul d b e perfect fo r
students stil l trying to find their fee t with Wittgenstein, bu t i t can be heartily
recommended t o scholar s wh o thin k the y kno w their wa y around th e Aus trian's late r thought . Her e i s a book o n Wittgenstei n that yo u ca n trust.
Beginning with a chapter o n method , Bud d emphasize s th e prophylacti c
character o f Wittgenstein' s intentions : th e notion s o f grammar , languag e
game, and perspicuou s representatio n ar e t o be seen i n a curative light . H e
brings ou t th e consequen t radica l disjunctur e Wittgenstei n perceive d be tween our ordinary master y of psychological concepts and our bewildermen t
once we reflect upon this mastery: we go from genius to dolt simply by taking
a downwar d glanc e a t ou r concepts ; w e simultaneousl y gras p an d d o no t

Reprinted wit h permissio n from the Journal of Philosophy (Augus t 1992).


188 M I N

grasp what we mean. Budd is sensitive to the apparent paradox this presents
and doe s hi s best t o explai n ho w Wittgenstei n live d with it . I fee l tha t thi s
issue coul d stan d furthe r work : di d Wittgenstei n reall y have a n adequat e
account of the depth o f error he attributed t o our reflectiv e understanding ,
given that h e took ou r ground-floo r conceptua l grasp t o be essentially flawless?
Chapter 2 set s out Wittgenstein' s positio n o n meaning , rules , consciou s
processes, menta l mechanisms , capacities , reasons , an d communication .
These topic s hav e bee n hotl y conteste d i n recen t philosophy , stimulate d
largely by Saul Kripke's "community interpretation" o f Wittgenstein' s posi tion. Budd show s definitively, I think, that this misrepresents th e essence o f
Wittgenstein's view; he stresses instead the contrast between inner and outer.
The mai n target of Wittgenstein's critique is the idea that meaning is a quality
of consciousnesssomething that happen s in you.
Wittgenstein i s surel y righ t abou t this , bu t i t doe s no t follo w tha t th e
concepts of meaning and consciousness are unconnected, no r tha t the latte r
is not a necessary condition o f th e former . Meanin g can b e (an d b e essen tially) somethin g w e do consciousl y without thereby consistin g in a n intro spectible quality of consciousness. Wittgenstein seems no t t o have explored
other les s direc t way s i n whic h meanin g an d consciousnes s migh t inter sect.
Budd's presentatio n o f th e private-languag e argumen t i s impressively
clear an d thorough . Sinc e first-perso n ascription s ar e criterionless , privat e
sensations coul d no t affor d th e constrain t o n correc t us e tha t govern s ou r
actual practice of ascribing behaviorally expressed sensations. The would-b e
private linguis t is thus bereft o f an y mean s of establishin g a reference rela tion. Budd appear s to accept this argument, while plausibly criticizing Wittgensein fo r extrudin g causalit y fro m hi s accoun t o f sensatio n concepts . I
would sa y that th e introductio n o f a causal relation betwee n sensation s an d
self-ascriptions provides one way of resisting the argument. W e should, first,
remind ourselve s of ho w surprising th e conclusio n of Wittgenstein' s argument ought t o seem. H e invites us to believe that someone whose sensations
happen to have no behavioral expression is semantically impotent in respec t
of those sensations. The subjec t has the sensations, she can speak a languag e
for publi c objects, but somehow she just cannot ge t her words to refer t o he r
sensations. Only if her bod y offers u p potentia l criteri a for other s t o detec t
her sensations can she succeed in homing in semantically on those sensations.
Suppose th e sensation s ar e publicl y undetectable u p t o time t and the n acquire behaviora l manifestations at t, only t o rever t t o privac y ten minute s
later. According to Wittgenstein, the subject could not refer to her sensations
before t, thoug h sh e ca n onc e he r bod y start s t o sho w thei r presenc e t o
others; and when the behavioral manifestations go her sensation words lapse
back int o mer e empty sounds . Surel y this is a remarkable result : i t ties m y
semantic abilities with respect to my own mental life to the epistemic powers
of other s i n detectin g wha t it is I a m experiencing .


The suspicio n that some for m of verificationism underlie s Wittgenstein's

argument i s reinforce d i f w e conside r wha t a causa l theor y o f referenc e
might have to say about the possibility of a private lexicon, since such theories
do no t locat e referenc e i n th e speaker' s abilit y to check tha t h e i s referrin g
correctlyonly in the objectiv e obtaining of causal relations between objects
and use s (think, say, of Jerry Fodor's asymmetri c dependence theory). Since
Budd accepts that sensations cause self-ascriptions, he is not precluded fro m
considering a theory o f this kind . An d i f a causal theor y ca n b e applie d t o
sensation words, we have this result: s o long a s the privat e objects bear th e
appropriate reference-conferrin g causa l relations t o first-perso n uses , tha t
will be sufficient t o underpin a semantic relationno matter how private th e
sensations are. I n othe r words, causal theories impose reference condition s
that ar e inclusiv e enoug h t o permi t a private languag e (th e sam e coul d b e
said of ideological theories). For such theories do no t build in any necessity
for anyon e to b e able to verify tha t word s are bein g use d a s their semantic s
demands; it simply has to be the case that tokens of "pain" (say) appropriately
covary with the occurrenc e o f pain s in the speaker . Thes e theorie s ma y or
may no t b e adequate , but w e need t o consider the m i f we are intereste d i n
whether th e privac y o f a sensation thwart s reference t o that sensation .
Nor shoul d w e let th e genera l mysteriousnes s of th e referenc e relatio n
induce u s t o suppos e tha t referenc e i s uniquely impossibl e where privat e
objects ar e concerned , sinc e tha t woul d be t o pi n th e blam e o n th e wron g
thing. Maybe we cannot really explain reference i n any context; i t is just tha t
this becomes more obviou s when we strip reference dow n to its purest form .
In any event, the private-language argument seem s to me a good deal mor e
questionable than i t seems to Budd .
The chapte r o n aspec t perception i s a subtle and luci d discussion of th e
way i n whic h Wittgenstein demonstrates the "polymorphou s character " o f
the concep t of seeing. Seeing a n aspect is neither quit e like seeing color an d
shape, bu t no r i s it a case of interpretin g wha t one strictl y sees . Th e fac t is
that it lies between sensation and thought and cannot be assimilated to either.
The phenomeno n thu s serve s to expose th e simplifyin g error s inheren t i n
both empiricist and rationalist views of mind. Our menta l concepts are much
less monolithic than philosopher s hav e supposed .
On th e distinctio n between visualizin g and seeing , Bud d abl y expound s
Wittgenstein's idea that the difference consists essentially in subjection to the
will. One' s attitud e i n visualizin g is active, while i n seein g on e i s a passive
observer. Th e differenc e is not a matter o f experientia l conten t o r quality.
This i s held , plausibly , to explai n wha t ma y appea r anomalous : tha t on e
cannot see and visualiz e the same thing at the same time, though on e can do
this for differen t thingssinc e one canno t b e active and passiv e toward th e
same experiential conten t simultaneously.
Wittgenstein's oppositio n t o th e ide a o f a n inne r vehicl e o f though t i s
shown t o b e a n instanc e o f hi s wider poin t tha t nothin g o f a n intrinsically
nonrepresentational natur e could ever be the basis of one's knowledge of the



content o f one' s thought , s o that th e putativ e inne r vehicl e coul d pla y n o

epistemic role i n an accoun t o f self-knowledge of intentional states . I woul d
agree with thi s poin t bu t not e tha t i t does no t follo w tha t th e inne r vehicl e
might not be needed fo r other purposes. Indeed , given Budd' s earlie r insis tence on the causal properties o f sensations, he might regard with sympathy
contemporary thinker s (lik e Fodor ) wh o maintain tha t n o account o f inten tional causation is possible without introducing a n inner vehicl e whose structure encode s th e causa l powers o f thought .
The boo k concludes with a fresh discussio n of the relatio n betwee n emo tion an d proprioception , o n th e on e hand , an d somati c sensation , o n th e
other. A s we might expect by now, Wittgenstein's main target i s the idea tha t
bodily feeling s are constitutiv e of emotion o r proprioception . Suc h feeling s
accompany one' s fea r or one's awarenes s of the positio n o f one's arm , but th e
concepts ar e no t concept s of such feelingsrathe r a s certain sensation s ac company linguisti c understanding withou t constituting it. Nor d o w e know
our emotiona l stat e o r bodil y positio n b y mean s o f ou r awarenes s o f th e
accompanying sensations . Thi s explain s somethin g tha t migh t otherwis e
seem puzzling : how a horribl e o r agreeabl e emotio n ca n be s o much mor e
powerful tha n th e somati c perturbation s tha t g o wit h it . Affectiv e ton e i s
more a matter o f th e intentionalit y of th e emotio n tha n it s bodily feel .
In th e prefac e t o hi s book, Bud d make s a nic e acknowledgmen t t o me ,
adding tha t "he has not seen what I have written and is unlikely to agree with
all of it." Well, now I have seen it and agre e wit h far more o f it than migh t b e
thought prope r in a reviewer (an d no t merely because w e are friends) . Th e
book i s a mode l o f Wittgenstei n exegesis . Onl y o n th e soundnes s o f th e
private-language argument d o we seriously disagree: h e thinks it works and I
do not .


Searle: Contrac t wit h Realit y

The Construction of Social Reality

by John Searl e
The Fre e Press, 199 5

When philosophers concern themselve s with what fundamentally exists , they

are ap t to limit themselves to physical facts an d menta l facts, wit h perhaps a
soupgon of the abstract thrown in. There are mountains and muons , beliefs
and tickles, and maybe numbers and propositions. Then questions are raise d
about ho w thes e broa d ontologica l categorie s ar e related , thes e question s
constituting the core of traditional metaphysics . But thi s is to ignore a t least
one other broa d categor y o f facts: the social ones. We also have incomes an d
marriages and presidencies. Ho w are facts about societies to be fitted into our
general ontological framework? How, in particular, are they to be connecte d
with mental and physica l facts? What is, if you will forgive the expression, th e
ontology o f civilization ?
There is a reason that philosophers tend not to be powerfully exercised by
questions of social ontology, and i t is that social facts ar e les s primitive than
the other facts . Social facts depend for their existence on mental and physical
facts, bu t th e opposit e i s not th e case . This is the basi c intuition fro m which
John Searle starts his inquiry: the ontological dependence o f the social on th e
nonsocial. Searle' s ai m is to develop a theory tha t spell s out th e natur e an d
consequences o f this dependence .
Consider money , a familia r social institution. What i s it tha t constitute s
something as money? How does it come to exist? What, as Searle puts it, is the
structure o f th e fac t o f money ? Clearl y it i s no t a matte r o f th e physica l
Reprinted wit h permission fro m th e New Republic (Ma y 22, 1995) .


192 M I N

features of those items with which we conduct ou r economi c exchanges . I t is

the wa y we use those piece s o f pape r an d thos e fla t disk s of metal . Searl e
builds his theory of money-creating human us e around three basic concepts.
First, collective intentionality is the possessio n by a group of agents of certain
mental states , particularly belief s and intentions . I n a socce r game , fo r in stance, we (the team) ar e attemptin g to scor e a goal , an d wha t / d o occur s
within tha t collectiv e intention . Second , function s ar e assigne d t o thing s
when agents begin to treat them as having purposes, a s when we assign to bits
of metal and pape r the functio n o f actin g as a medium o f exchange. Thes e
functions ar e impose d o n externa l reality ; they do not exis t antecedently t o
human interpretation. Third , constitutive rules are those rules that create, by
human agreemen t o r stipulation, a new sort of fact. Chess is constituted by its
rules; i t is not tha t th e rule s o f ches s regulat e som e prio r independen t activity.
The outline s o f Searle' s theor y ru n a s follows . Tak e a dolla r bil l an d
consider it only in its physical aspect, as an object obeying the law s of physics.
By virtue of what does thi s merely physica l thing acquir e th e characte r o f a
unit of exchange, a repository o f value and s o on? I t does so because we, by
collective intentionality , assign t o i t the statu s of actin g a s a mediu m o f ex change an d s o on, where thi s new status cannot b e performe d b y the dolla r
bill solely by dint of its physical properties. W e lay down rules that constitut e
the physica l object as having properties tha t go beyond anythin g in its physical nature. W e thus confer new powers on the object, powers to buy and sell,
to conserv e wealth . W e impos e upo n i t a certai n status , wher e thi s statu s
represents ou r agreemen t t o treat th e objec t in ways that depend upon ou r
having made tha t agreement .
This is the basi s of our acceptanc e o f the dolla r bil l in economic transac tions. So we impose status functions on things against the background o f ou r
collective mentality. And so social reality comes into being. "The centra l spa n
on th e bridg e fro m physic s to societ y i s collective intentionality , and th e
decisive movemen t o n tha t bridg e i n th e creatio n o f socia l realit y i s th e
collective intentional imposition of function on entities that cannot perfor m
those function s without that imposition. " Money is money because w e agree
to treat it that way. In Searle's terminology, money is an observer-dependen t
fact. Thu s money differs from mountain s and screwdrivers , because moun tains exist whether o r no t w e believe in them an d screwdriver s can perfor m
their functio n by virtue of their physica l features. Fo r Searle , socia l institutions are distinguished b y their inability to perform thei r function without a
common acceptanc e o f thei r legitimacy . In a sense , the y depen d o n faith .
All this is explained wit h Searle's customar y clarity and straightforward ness. Th e pros e i s spik y and simple . N o ston e i s lef t unkicked . Polemica l
arrows thud into soft targets . Searle's book is almost pretentiously unpreten tious, an d th e styl e is well suite d t o th e project : a systemati c an d orderl y
dissection of our ordinar y concepts of familiar things. Searle's aim is to make
us see that socia l facts ar e unmysteriou s and ye t remarkable. The y ar e un -


mysterious in that they result completely from the raw materials and mecha nisms tha t h e identifies , which are themselve s sufficientl y perspicuou s an d
anterior t o what they are used t o explain. And the y are remarkable becaus e
what w e fondl y thin k o f a s civilizatio n depends o n th e existenc e o f thes e
constructions, whic h ar e hel d i n plac e b y nothin g othe r tha n a kin d o f
groundless collectiv e contract .
Society would collapse if people wer e to cease agreeing to assign appropri ate function s to thing s lik e weddin g ceremonies , dolla r bills , English sen tences. And since all of these assignments are essentially arbitrary, there is, in
a sense, nothing stoppin g us from ceasing to accord the m th e statu s that we
now accord them . Mountain s will stay there no matte r ho w much we might
wish them away , but it would take nothing more tha n a collective decision t o
dismantle totall y the institutiona l fabric of society.
This, Searl e surmises , is the reaso n w e tend t o invest certain ceremonie s
with s o much pom p an d glitter : w e recognize tha t i t all comes dow n t o on e
person agreein g wit h another , an d w e don' t lik e th e netles s feelin g tha t
results. The emblem s o f authorit y ar e ther e t o reassur e u s that i t won't all
come tumbling down around ou r ears . Huma n agreemen t i s a fragile thing,
and i t is hard t o accept that i t is the onl y barrier tha t stand s between us an d
chaos. Imagine what it would be like if people bega n t o deny that th e word s
you utte r mea n wha t yo u tak e the m t o mean , o r i f you r diploma s wer e
decreed invalid , or i f peopl e treate d you r dolla r bill s a s bit s o f worthles s
paper. Wha t i f the institutio n o f citizenshi p were t o b e abrogated ? Ther e
would be nothing to fall back on, in observer-independent reality , to enforc e
the kind s of right s tha t w e normally take fo r granted . Thes e socia l institutions work, fundamentally, only because w e say they do .
At th e roo t o f Searle' s treatmen t o f socia l fact s i s a distinctio n betwee n
brute fact s an d humanl y constructed facts . Ther e ar e tw o kind s o f brut e
facts: th e physica l entities onto which we impose institutional functions, an d
the mental capacities that mak e this imposition possible. Neither sort o f fac t
is itself humanl y constructed. Rather, we construct social facts on th e basis of
such brute facts . Socia l reality thus presupposes a reality whose origin i s not
social. It cannot be, then, that reality in general is socially constructed; o n th e
contrary, social reality is nonsocially constructed. There cannot be social facts
without th e logicall y prior existenc e o f brute fact s tha t ar e no t th e resul t of
any socia l mechanism . Societ y i s constructe d o n a bedroc k o f anteceden t
realities, both physica l and mental , which are entirel y objective in the sense
that they are not product s o f human actio n or cognition. The ra w materials
of socia l construction ar e independen t o f al l such construction .
Indeed, i f we conjoin Searle' s theor y o f societ y with the view s about th e
mind that he has expressed elsewhere , we get, in effect, a reduction o f social
facts t o physica l and biologica l ones . Fo r h e maintain s tha t state s o f con sciousness, whic h ar e wha t intentionalit y depend s on , ar e jus t biologica l
properties o f the brain, no different in principle from neura l an d biochemi cal properties . Thu s collectiv e intentionality, whic h i s th e mai n engin e o f



social construction, is really a biological feature of the huma n species . Society

is biology imposed outward . I t i s a property o f th e brai n tha t ha s attache d
itself to external things, giving them functions they would not otherwise have
had. Culture , then, is just one manifestation of our biological nature, and has
no autonomou s existence . An d thi s i s simpl y because th e min d itsel f i s a
biological fact .
Searle i s by no mean s obliviou s to the polemica l thrus t o f hi s analysis of
society. Indeed, h e revels in it with the kind of breezy gusto we have come t o
know and enjoy : "Derrida, as far as I can tell, does not have an argument. H e
simply declare s tha t ther e i s nothing , outsid e o f text s (/ / n'y a pas de 'hors
texte"). An d i n an y case , i n a subsequent polemica l respons e t o som e objec tions of mine, he apparently take s it all back. . . . Wha t is one to do, then ,
in th e fac e o f wea k o r eve n nonexisten t argument s fo r a conclusio n tha t
seems preposterous? " Searle' s analysis , a s he point s out , supplie s a kin d o f
transcendental deduction of realism from the nature o f social facts: there can
be social facts onl y because there ar e alread y brute nonsocia l facts that pro vide the basis for social construction. This inverts th e way of thinking associ ated wit h so-called socia l constructionism , in whic h it i s apparently main tained tha t all facts ar e someho w the produc t o f socia l realities.
I agree completely with Searle tha t such views are absurd , tha t the y hav e
no respectable argumentative support, tha t in the end they always rest on an
elementary confusion between reality and our representation o f it. Of cours e
the univers e could exis t without there bein g an y human societies ; it did fo r
quite a while. (It is equally obvious that ther e coul d no t exis t human repre sentations of the univers e without humans.) I recommend, a little urgently,
Searle's patient and devastatin g dissection of the social constructionist way of
thinking: it doesn't take very long to read and it could do a great deal of goo d
in man y quarters .
Since his theory of society is premised o n commonsense realism about th e
physical an d menta l worlds , Searle give s us an extr a coupl e o f chapter s o n
these more basic metaphysical questions. The discussio n here is more purel y
philosophical, especiall y in th e chapte r tha t set s ou t t o rehabilitat e wha t is
known a s th e correspondenc e theor y o f truth . Accordin g t o tha t theory ,
there are language-independent facts , such as the fact that snow is white, and
we make statements corresponding t o these facts , such as the statemen t that
snow i s white, and s o truth consist s in a relation betwee n languag e an d th e
world. This may seem obvious to the naive reader, bu t i t has been denie d b y
most twentieth-centur y philosophers . Searle' s tric k is to sho w that thi s ba nality conceals no logical solecisms. We can safely conclude , I think, that hi s
theory o f th e socia l cannot b e faulted a t the underlyin g metaphysica l level.
But that does no t mean that it cannot be faulted at all. The theor y offers a
set of necessary and sufficien t condition s for th e existenc e o f socia l facts, s o
we need t o ask whether i t succeeds in these analytical aims, if it is to give an
adequate accoun t of social concepts. As to whether th e conditions are neces sary, I thin k ther e ar e problem s wit h th e us e o f th e notio n o f collectiv e


intentionality. First, it is not clea r that we need to accept Searle's doctrin e o f

primitively define d "we-intentions " i n orde r t o ge t socia l fact s of f th e
ground. Ther e are cases in our experienc e i n which shared an d coordinate d
"I-intentions" will d o th e job. I f I inten d t o treat certai n piece s o f paper as
money an d s o d o yo u an d s o doe s everybod y else , the n w e shal l hav e a n
institution of money; i t is not necessar y that th e grou p o f us has a collective
intention expressible as "we intend to treat this as money." It may well be that
"we-intentions" ar e irreducible , an d tha t ou r socia l practice s ar e generall y
backed by them, but it does not seem logically required fo r the assignment of
status functions that suc h intentions be present .
Second, and more important, th e requirement o f full-blown intentionality
looks to o strong . Conside r ant s an d bees . Thes e ar e rightl y describe d a s
social insects, but they do not have beliefs and intentions. What they have are
dispositions and capacitie s tha t interac t t o produce sociall y coordinated be havior; an d the y for m societie s b y virtu e o f thes e interactiv e dispositions .
Searle migh t objec t tha t suc h societie s don' t generat e function s fo r object s
that go beyond their physical features , so that nothing symbolic results fro m
ant o r be e behavior, nothin g analogou s t o mone y an d marriag e vows . Bu t
that seem s wrong . Ant s mar k thei r territor y b y mean s o f chemica l signals
that do not block others by sheer physica l insurmountability; and this kind of
symbolic territory-markin g i s regarde d b y Searle , i n th e huma n case , a s
paradigmatically social and institutional .
So status function can be assigned in the absence of ordinary intentionality.
Famously, bees perform symboli c dances that convey the location of nectar t o
other bees. This is precisely a case of taking a physical phenomenona mere
wiggleand imposin g upon i t a function tha t goe s beyon d it s physical features; the wiggle plays a social role in bee colonies. The poin t here is that th e
imposition o f function, even representational function , does no t necessarily
depend o n th e agent s havin g the kin d o f mind tha t w e have, with our con scious intentions, contracts and rules . Social facts can arise from more primi tive sort s of disposition , a s they d o i n thes e nonhuma n cases .
Neither doe s Searl e provid e properl y sufficien t condition s fo r sociality,
and thi s for a simple logical reason. A social fact must, by definition, involve a
group of individuals, not a single individual in isolation. Searle's actual examples are al l of this kind, bu t hi s analysis does no t itsel f secure tha t result . I t
might see m t o hi m tha t i t must sinc e i t use s th e notio n o f collectiv e inten tionality, but in fact this does no t deliver the intended result . The proble m i s
that the imposed functio n might relat e onl y to a single individual, despite its
imposition by a group of individuals, and s o will not give us a genuinely social
fact. Conversely, a single individual could stipulate a function that relates to a
social group , a s when a kin g decree s a ne w coi n lega l tende r i n societ y a t
Suppose we all decide tha t the ful l moo n is to have the function of indicating to John Searl e tha t i t is time he trimme d hi s sideburns, an d suppos e h e
then dul y trims them. Thi s function is defined relativ e to a single individual



and it s fulfillmen t doe s no t involv e anybod y else ; i t i s no t tha t w e hav e

decided tha t everyone should tri m their sideburns at the full moon . What we
have here is an individualistic status function. The reaso n example s like this
are possibl e i s simply that Searle' s basic conceptassigning a function tha t
goes beyon d th e merel y physica l features o f the objectdoe s no t itsel f import an y socia l element , a t leas t o n th e natura l understandin g o f "social. "
Institutional i t may be, but i t is not thereb y a group fact .
This suggest s tha t Searle' s boo k i s misnamed , sinc e wha t h e i s reall y
analyzing is the notion of stipulated or intention-dependent fact , not a social
fact in the usua l sense. His primary contrast is between th e natura l objective
features o f things and th e feature s that w e impose b y human decision ; bu t
that contras t doe s no t logicall y coincide wit h th e distinctio n betwee n th e
individual an d th e social . Robinso n Cruso e ca n confe r statu s function s o n
things, but tha t doe s no t eas e hi s isolation.
The onl y wa y to ge t societ y int o th e pictur e i s explicitl y to buil d int o
the notio n o f function the ide a o f a function that concern s a group of individuals. Sinc e thi s will work onl y if the collective intention s that impose th e
function matc h its scope, w e need t o suppose tha t th e intention s themselve s
have a content that relates to a social concept: there must be an intention tha t
a certain social institution shall come int o being. Bu t then, of course, we are
presupposing tha t w e already hav e social concepts i n play ; we are no t con structing them fro m other nonsocial concepts. What Searle is really explaining i s how w e convert ou r socia l concepts int o socia l realities.
But thes e ar e th e objection s o f the traine d analytica l philosopher. The y
should not be taken t o undermine the general shap e of Searle's account. H e
is righ t t o observ e tha t th e socia l depend s o n th e nonsocial , and tha t th e
driving forc e of institutiona l facts i s simply the huma n propensit y t o invest
more significanc e in thing s tha n thei r objectiv e natur e ca n bear . Huma n
creativity is at the root of social facts. There is a reality out there that does no t
owe its existence and it s nature t o our creativ e acts, and wha t we then do is
create furthe r realitie s b y imposin g meanin g o n otherwis e meaningles s
things. Thu s w e hav e languag e an d mone y an d wedding s an d academi c
gowns and guest passes. The world bifurcates into the created and the uncreated, thoug h ther e canno t b e the forme r withou t the latter .
But isn' t al l thi s obvious , eve n banal ? No t bana l enough , i n ou r post poststructuralist intellectual life. I wonder i f Searle woul d have written this
book wer e i t not fo r th e polemica l purpose o f refutin g certain fashionabl e
doctrines to the effect tha t reality itself is a construction from human institutions; an d yet , eve n i f Searle' s boo k ma y b e lo w on primar y philosophica l
thrills, it is bursting with plain an d necessar y right-headedness. H e ha s per formed a genuine servic e in bringing his rigor to bear o n the laz y and per nicious relativism latent in the idea that reality is just what we humans choose
it to be. The Construction of Social Reality migh t not exis t if it were not fo r th e
bad ideas of other people, but there are many important books about which
that ma y be said.


Dennett: Leftove r Lif e t o Liv e

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and
the Meanings of Life
by Danie l C . Dennet t
Allen Lane/Penguin , 199 5

Purposive creatures , suc h a s ourselves, tend t o find purpos e everywhere . I t

takes some menta l disciplin e to banish i t from ou r thoughts , eve n whe n we
know ver y wel l i t doe s no t belon g there . Random , mindless , mechanica l
processes ar e har d fo r u s t o kee p i n focus . And thi s i s particularly difficul t
where th e proces s lead s t o creatures wit h purposeshow can our purpose s
lack purpose ?
But tha t i s the wa y Darwin's theory o f evolutio n b y natural selectio n ex plains the history and existenc e of living things. There is no point to the lon g
painful proces s whereby animal species come to exist; it is simply the unfold ing of a purposeless sequenc e o f mechanical steps . Yet even thos e wh o full y
accept th e theor y ar e tempte d b y ideological description s o f th e process ,
supposing i t t o b e aiming a t somethingcomplexity , mind , morality , self annihilation, or what have you. Agency lurks somewhere behin d th e scenes,
it is obscurely felt, directing th e proces s t o some predetermined end. To se e
why thi s i s a mistake , we should not e tha t th e concep t o f natura l selectio n
itself applies also to the inanimat e world; in fact, everything exist s by virtue of
natural selection . Mountains , snowflakes , tectoni c plates , hydroge n atoms ,
planets, galaxiesal l thes e exis t becaus e natura l selectio n ha s operate d i n
their favor . That is to say , the destructiv e force s o f nature allo w entities of
these kind s to come t o be and t o endure. A particular mountain , say , comes
to exist by virtue of th e law s of nature, an d i t persists because nothing occur s

Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Novembe r 24 , 1995) .


198 M I N

to destroy it. Another mountain , a sandier one, may last less long, being mor e
easily eroded into nonexistence b y wind and water . This is primitive natura l
selectionthe differential surviva l of individual things in the fac e of destructive forces. Plainly there is no telos here; it is just the force s of nature destroy ing some things while others endurethi s depending o n the physical constitution o f th e thin g i n relatio n t o it s environment . Welcom e t o efficien t
causation blindl y executin g its winnowing work.
According t o Darwin' s theory , th e surviva l o f animat e thing s i s just a s
unplanned an d mechanical . Some organism s are destroye d mor e efficientl y
by natur e tha n others . Th e notio n o f "selection " her e ha s n o purposiv e
connotation; w e could equall y (and les s misleadingly) speak o f evolutio n by
natural destruction . Th e survivor s are just th e organism s tha t ar e left over
when natur e ha s done it s destructive work. They ar e selected , bu t the y arc not selected/or anything . Of course, in both the animate and inanimat e cases
it i s th e structur e o f th e entit y tha t determine s it s talen t fo r continue d
existencethe form o f it s matter i s what enables th e objec t to cling t o existence. Matter come s in vastly different forms , an d som e forms persis t in th e
presence of destructive forces more robustl y than other forms . The form s of
elementary particle s see m particularl y resistan t t o bein g selecte d out ; the y
are th e ultimate survivors. Some of the most robus t of existents, the hardes t
to kill, are some of the simplest natural objects. Natural selection is simply the
differential applicatio n o f th e force s o f materia l disassembly , and particle s
are notabl y toug h t o break down .
Since the concept of natural selection is so universally applicable, it cannot
be what distinguishes organic existence from other kinds. What marks plants
and animal s off ar e th e mechanisms whereby they exis t t o be selecte d fo r o r
against. The y reproduce , generatin g clos e copies o f themselves , and gene s
are wha t accoun t fo r thi s proces s o f duplication . The y als o mutate , which
provides variatio n in th e bod y type s that compet e fo r survival . But i t is still
ultimately a question of which physical structures ar e most robust in warding
off natural destruction. The outpu t of the mechanisms is just a natural objec t
like a mountain, which endures o r does not, depending o n the natural force s
it encounters . Ther e i s no mor e teleolog y involve d i n th e existenc e o f on e
thing than the other. Natur e no more aim s to make cheetahs or humans tha n
it aim s t o mak e mountains .
Daniel Dennett i s keen t o stress the purposelessnes s o f natura l selection ,
to rub ou r nose s in our ow n contingency. It is a blind mechanica l algorithm ,
he says , but no t a n algorith m for anything . Natura l selectio n simply runs its
algorithmic course , throwin g u p whateve r materia l form s ar e leas t perish able, mos t replicable . There are n o "skyhooks, " only "cranes"mechanisti c
processes whic h happen t o lead t o complex organism s lik e ourselves: "Th e
theory of natural selectio n shows how every feature o f the natural world can
be th e produc t o f a blind , unforesightful , nonteleological , ultimatel y me chanical process of differential reproductio n ove r lon g period s o f time." Hi s


book i s a detailed an d length y defense o f Darwinian orthodoxy. H e ha s n o

fresh perspectiv e to offer, and i s content to follow th e lea d o f Richard Dawkins, whom he quotes an d cite s frequently (as well as quoting an d citin g his
own earlier works with numbing frequency). Dennett does not have the lucid
economy and theoretica l visio n of Dawkins, or his professional expertise, bu t
he doe s hav e depth s o f patienc e i n criticizin g the oppositio n an d mullin g
over the history. Much of the ground covered i s therefore ver y familiar, and
one sometime s wonders whether i t is necessary to retread it . But Dennett' s
style is lively, if sometimes rambling and self-indulgent, the scientific facts ar e
well presented , an d th e argumen t no t reall y losable.
There is a goo d discussio n of Stephe n J . Goul d o n "punctuate d equilib rium," i n whic h Dennet t convincingl y argues tha t n o seriou s revisio n i n
Darwinian orthodox y i s required t o explai n th e "jump y facts " of th e fossi l
record. H e i s also effective i n assessin g the significanc e o f th e indisputabl e
point tha t no t ever y feature o f a n organis m ha s been directl y selecte d for ;
there ar e by-product s an d substrate s ("spandrels") , whic h exis t simpl y because yo u canno t ge t th e selecte d trai t withou t having them alon g fo r th e
ride. Antiadaptationis t thinking , in s o far a s it i s prompted b y this obvious
truth, i s at bes t a n exaggeration . Th e boo k i s weakest in th e later , mor e
philosophical chapters, wher e Dennett i s defending not Darwi n but hi s own
views abou t th e mind , whic h tend towar d th e behaviorist , eliminativ e and
confused. Som e of his swipes at Noam Chomsky, John Searle, Jerry Fodor,
and othe r perceive d adversarie s mak e for unpleasan t (and unilluminating)
Dennett makes heavy use throughout th e book of the notion o f "design, "
and i s quit e happ y t o describ e organism s a s displayin g "excellence, " o f
some designs being "better" than others . H e takes such talk to be integral t o
Darwinian theory . Bu t these ar e dangerou s locution s for a deep-dyed Dar winian, and I am not sur e that Dennet t escape s the teleologica l pitfalls the y
invite. For in no literal sense is an organis m designed b y evolution, any mor e
than a mountai n i s designed b y th e natura l force s tha t permi t i t t o exist .
Organisms have natural structures, to be sure, as do mountains; but it would
be misleading to say that some mountain s are "better designed " tha n others ,
because the y persis t unde r win d an d rai n mor e robustl y tha n others . I f
mountains replicated b y fission, with small variations in the results, we would
have the analogue o f organic replication; but in neither case should we speak
of the succeedin g entities as designed b y the proces s that gives rise to them .
According to Darwin's theory, properl y understood , peacock s are n o more
designed tha n hydroge n atom s arethoug h bot h exemplif y certain orga nized forms. We may marvel at the beauty and intricacy of both, we may even
value more highly the peacock's form; but tha t is a matter o f our response t o
the natura l object s in questioni t i s not par t o f th e conten t o f Darwinian
theory. At the ver y least, Dennett's terminology an d rhetori c beli e the ver y
naturalized version of natural selection that he is officially promoting . I t is as



if h e canno t hel p thinking , i n spit e o f knowin g better, tha t someho w th e

animate world i s "special"that it somehow bears th e mark s of intelligenc e
and agency .
It is the sam e with the notio n o f adaptation: t o say that a characteristic is
adaptive is just t o say that i t is part of what enables th e organis m t o persist ,
and perhap s tha t i t i s presen t becaus e i n th e organism' s ancestor s i t pre served existence. In this sense, though, the solidit y of a rock is adaptive with
respect t o th e force s o f erosion . I t i s true tha t a n anima l ma y itsel f hav e
purposesto fin d foo d o r a matean d tha t it s anatomy help s fulfi l thes e
purposes; bu t ther e i s no furthe r notio n o f adaptivenes s tha t properl y be longs with a rigorous Darwinism . "Survival of the fittest" can mean nothin g
other tha n relativ e durability in the fac e o f entropic forces ; nothing evalua tive can legitimately be read into it (here i s where the Social Darwinists went
wrong). Mer e rocks have "fitness" too, relativ e to blobs of jelly, in virtue o f
their physica l structure. No r d o we need an y richer notio n o f adaptivenes s
than thi s to get Darwin' s theory going .
Once thi s purifie d version of Darwi n is absorbed, w e can as k whether i t
really explain s everythin g that need s t o b e explained . W e shoul d no t le t
ourselves b e lulle d int o theoretica l complacenc y by a failur e t o purg e th e
theory o f illici t ideologica l elements . Thi s strictur e i s particularly relevan t
when i t comes to accounting for th e complexity o f organi c forms: we shoul d
not suppos e tha t evolutio n is aiming for complexity , with us as the ultimate
complex organism just waiting to get ourselves evolved. Why then, given the
mechanisms a t evolution' s disposal, do comple x form s emerge? Dennet t is
weak o n thi s crucia l question , bu t I suspec t th e troubl e i s no t hi s alone ,
because ther e reall y is a puzzl e about wh y organism s displa y th e kin d o f
complexity we observe. Put crudely , the puzzl e is this: why aren't all organ isms a s simpl e as the simples t ones? This i s not th e questio n o f how , given
complex forms , we can sho w how the y develo p fro m simple r forms . That
problem ha s a read y solutio n i n th e ide a tha t evolutio n permit s a serie s of
gradual changes, over millions of years, that take us from simple to complex.
The proble m I a m concerne d with , however , i s wh y ther e i s a tren d t o
complexity to begi n with.
The ke y poin t t o notic e her e i s that complexit y is not a prerequisit e o f
successful persistence . Som e o f th e simples t organisms are th e mos t abun dant an d successfu l b y any objective biological standard, an d inanimat e objects can obviously be both simpl e and robust . Moreover , complexity has its
disadvantages: complex objects take more wor k to construct an d s o call fo r
greater energ y resources ; the y are als o more vulnerabl e to breakdown an d
malfunction. I f you want something to last, keep it simple. But this maxim of
sensible engineerin g i s everywher e floute d i n th e biologica l world ; ther e
seems t o be a definit e trend towar d complexityan d i t has increase d wit h
time. Why ? Wha t i s th e pay-of f o f complexit y with respec t t o th e simpl e
desideratum of continued existence? We are accustomed t o thinking that we
complex beings naturally evolved from much simpler beings; but why are we


not no w evolving toward simple r beingsgiven tha t simple r organism s ca n

be just as robust and cos t less to produce? Why is evolution not "downward "
instead of "upward"? True, we humans are prone to value complex things
they impress us more tha n simpl e thingsbut there is nothing i n Darwin to
predict tha t complexit y shoul d com e t o characteriz e th e biologica l world .
More precisely, there is nothing i n the concept o f natural selectio n tha t pre dicts complexity as the output of its operation. For natural selection does no t
in general produce complexit y o f structur e i n wha t i s selected ; i t simpl y
"produces" durability . Neither does the mere fact of replication predict com plexity, sinc e simplicity could b e preserved acros s replication. Neithe r doe s
mutation inevitabl y lead t o it, or els e viruses would be the mos t complex of
things. Talk o f species-specific environmenta l "niches," which somehow call
forth comple x form s t o "occupy " them , i s transparentl y post hoc. On th e
contrary, it seems quite consistent with the principle s of Darwinian theory t o
suppose that evolution should display a simplification over time. If you think
that evolutio n i s inherentl y progressive , aimin g al l th e whil e a t comple x
organisms with minds and culture, you will not be puzzled by complexity; bu t
once this ideological error has been firml y repudiated , complexit y comes to
seem puzzling.
In th e fac e o f th e puzzle , we migh t b e tempte d t o argu e tha t al l ou r
judgments o f complexity are subjective , so that there is nothing objectiv e in
nature that needs to be explainedI am no more complex, objectively, than
a stone . Thi s woul d defea t Paley' s argument t o theis m fro m organi c com plexity right at the start, but it surely goes strongly against our intuition s and
indeed agains t plausible objective measures of natural complexity (e.g., number o f components) . S o this medicin e i s too strong . Th e proble m the n re mains: th e bes t survivo r of al l would be som e hard littl e simple object tha t
could no t b e broken dow n by the force s of nature; s o why should relentles s
pressure towar d eve r greater durability produce suc h soft, friable , comple x
creatures a s w e se e al l aroun d us ? Just thin k ho w durabl e a diamon d i s
compared t o a human being! So there is something here that the Darwinian
apparatus, as currently understood, canno t by itself explain. We know that
the Darwinia n machine produce d comple x organisms , but w e do no t know
why i t did .
There ar e othe r puzzles , too, tha t Dennet t doe s no t consider , perhap s
because h e i s so kee n t o pu t curren t theor y i n th e bes t possibl e light. Acknowledging these puzzle s does not , however, involve giving up Darwi n in
favor o f som e for m o f creationis m o r othe r supernaturalism ; i t i s simply
to poin t t o area s i n whic h our explanation s ar e wea k or nonexistent , a s is
the cas e i n ever y science . Conside r the n th e puzzl e o f wh y ther e ar e n o
Lamarckian organisms . I t i s an establishe d fac t tha t organism s do no t pas s
on acquire d characteristic s to thei r progen y b y genetic means ; ther e i s no
mechanism whic h link s lifetim e change s i n phenotyp e t o geneti c varia tion. Notoriously, Lamarck was wrong to suppose that th e blacksmith might
pass hi s acquire d brawn y ar m o n t o hi s so n o r daughter . Bu t wh y hav e

202 M I N

Lamarckian organism s neve r evolved ? Surel y a mutatio n tha t mad e th e

genes responsiv e to change s o f phenotyp e ("learning" ) woul d hav e selec tional advantage, and ther e seem s no physical impossibility in such a set-up .
Wouldn't natura l selectio n favo r a physiologica l mechanis m tha t allowe d
learned characteristic s t o b e passe d geneticall y to offspring ? Yet n o suc h
organism ha s bee n recorded . Abstractl y considered, on e woul d hav e pre dicted that all organisms would be Lamarckian, sinc e the geneti c transmission of acquired traits is not ruled out conceptually and ha s clear advantages .
It i s puzzling why Lamarck' s hypothesis is empirically false.
There is also the puzzle of consciousness and evolution : how and wh y did
consciousness evolve ? Wh y i s it tha t animal s are no t al l mindles s zombies,
programmed t o behave without benefit of sentience? Is consciousness adaptive in a way zombiehood is not, or is it just a "spandrel," a mere side effect o f
something wit h a genuin e function ? An d ho w coul d sentienc e possibl y
emerge fro m mer e matter anyway ? I n repl y to these old questions, Dennett
says little or nothing , which is odd i n a philosopher wh o has written a book
called Consciousness Explained an d wh o i s suppose d t o b e considerin g th e
explanatory adequac y of Darwinia n theory. Bu t mayb e it is not s o strang e
when one remembers that Dennett, in effect, think s we are zombies anyway,
so tha t ther e i s no rea l phenomeno n o f consciousnes s to explain . Bu t fo r
anyone wh o reject s thi s eliminativis t position, there i s a puzzl e here: con sciousness seems like a dubious luxury, biologically, and ye t it is found with
great regularit y in the anima l kingdom. There must be something here we
do not understand .
Dennett's discussio n of cultur e borrows Dawkins' s notion o f th e meme
units of information that propagate an d spread , subjec t t o natural selection,
in a way analogous t o genes. This i s a form of evolution that is distinct fro m
genetic evolutio n an d ca n eve n wor k contrar y t o it . Meme s enabl e us , a s
Dawkins says , t o rebel agains t our genes , since their surviva l doe s no t coincide with that of the genes . Dennett spell s out th e utilit y of this idea vividly ,
but he does not squarely confront the proble m o f how this can enable u s to
have moral values. The mem e for altruism may indeed pas s from perso n t o
person, duplicating itself and directin g individual behavior; but given that it
goes agains t the selfishnes s o f th e genes , ho w can i t be a stabl e element o f
human nature? In a battle between memes and genes , the genes must always
ultimately win , becaus e the y determin e whic h bodie s wil l survivean d
memes need bodie s too, notably brains in which to nest. Any meme that ha s
effects contrar y to the interests of the genes tha t produce the brain in which
the mem e reside s wil l resul t i n fewe r copie s o f thos e genes , tha t is , wil l
decrease reproductive advantage. So the altruism meme will be automatically
selected against , in th e sens e that an y organism tha t harbor s i t will b e a t a
reproductive disadvantag e compare d t o a n organis m innocen t o f it ; thu s
genes for not being receptive to such a meme will be favored. Not only, then,
is i t puzzlin g how th e altruis m mem e coul d hav e take n root ; w e ca n als o
predict tha t it s day s ar e numbered . Th e onl y wa y out o f thi s pessimisti c


conclusion that I can see, though Dennet t does not mention it, is to show how
receptivity to the altruis m meme migh t be a necessary by-product o f some thing with a significant genetic advantage, so that selecting it out wil l remov e
a trai t o f overridin g biologica l value. Thus i t migh t b e suggeste d tha t yo u
cannot enjoy the benefits of general intelligence without being susceptible to
occupation b y the altruis m meme . Bu t thes e ar e issue s Dennett fail s t o ad dress i n his rather unfocuse d an d disappointin g chapter s o n evolutio n an d
ethics. Once again, the issues are not as straightforward as he likes to suggest.
Dennett spend s som e tim e defendin g th e analog y betwee n gene s an d
memes, and does s o quite plausibly, but he does not take the next logical step
and not e tha t in fact gene s are a type of meme. This is simply because a gene
is best defined a s a unit of information, s o that what is passed o n t o offspring
is itsel f a semanti c vehicle , containin g instruction s fo r bod y construction .
Some meme s sprea d b y intentiona l communicationth e cultura l ones
while others spread throug h biologica l reproductionthe ones embodied in
DNA. Th e entir e proces s o f biologica l an d cultura l evolutio n i s therefor e
information-driven. Cultur e an d biolog y are unite d b y the centra l mecha nism of th e copyin g of information fro m on e sit e to anotherwhethe r ge nome or brain. Genes are selected according to whether the information they
contain builds bodies that work as effective protectiv e archives . We can thu s
think of genes as DNA-based memes enclosed in mobile biological libraries
animal bodies .
Dennett refers to Darwin's theory as a "dangerous idea" and a s a "universal acid" that remorselessly eats through our cherished system s of belief. I am
not convinced that it is as dangerous a s he suggests. Of course, it undermine s
religious creationism, but it does not threaten anything that a secular human ist might independently value. It certainly does not decrease one's respect for
the anima l world , includin g it s human members . No r nee d i t chang e th e
content of one's moral outlooksince you cannot deduce a moral ought from
a biologica l is. I t i s reall y n o mor e dangerou s tha n ou r post-Copernica n
astronomical ideas . I t i s high tim e tha t we stopped treatin g Darwinis m as a
battleground i n som e religiou s o r politica l war an d se e it fo r wha t it is a
profound an d true empirical theory, abundantly confirmed, but with several
areas in which there are problem s stil l unresolved. B y advertising Darwin's
theory as a dangerous acid , Dennett doe s the theor y a disservice; it is simply
the sober trut h an d nothin g t o be afraid of . Dennett's hyperboli c styl e may
well b e found excitin g by some, but ther e wil l be others wh o fin d th e over heated rhetori c mor e off-puttin g tha n stimulating . He ha s give n u s a per fectly adequate expositio n o f Darwin, brimming with boyish enthusiasm, but
many readers will find the controlle d passio n an d crystallin e purity o f Richard Dawkins' s writings more t o their taste .

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Singer: Eatin g Animals I s Wrong

Animal Liberation, 2nd editio n
by Pete r Singe r
Cape, 199 0

I hav e been persuade d o f th e Tightnes s o f the mora l positio n advocate d i n

Peter Singer' s Animal Liberation for th e pas t twent y years. Ther e is , in m y
view, no moral justification whateve r for the huma n exploitatio n o f animals.
I wa s convinced o f thi s principally by reading th e path-breakin g book , Animals, Men and Morals (1971) , edited b y Stanley and Roslin d Godlovitc h an d
John Harris . Singe r acknowledge s his debt t o this pivotal work as well as to
personal contac t wit h some o f th e contributors , an d hi s own 197 5 book, o f
which there is now a welcome second edition , is largely a sustained workingout o f the mora l perspectiv e developed b y these earlie r thinkers . I hav e to
declare that , in my opinion, th e argument s Singe r mounts , and th e fact s h e
marshals, constitute a definitive and unanswerable case for the thesis that ou r
treatment o f animals , in ever y department, i s deeply an d systematicall y immoral. Becomin g a vegetarian i s only the mos t minima l ethical respons e t o
the magnitude of the evil . What is needed i s a complete revolutio n in the way
we dea l wit h othe r species . D o no t expect , then , t o fin d m e i n an y wa y
"balanced" o n the question: thi s is not really an issue on which there are two
sides. It' s a wo n argument , a s fa r a s I' m concernedi n principl e i f no t i n
If I had written that twenty years ago, I would have been accused either of
shocking moral arrogance o r of mild insanity. Even now I am sure that I shall
be charged wit h exaggeration an d hysterica l extremism. Extrapolating fro m

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Januar y 24 , 1991) .


208 E T H I C

the change s o f mora l outloo k tha t hav e occurred i n th e las t tw o decades ,

however, I predict tha t 2010 will most likely see me accuse d of euphemistic
soft-pedaling. Wh y wasn't I more scorchingly critical of the countles s animal
abuses that scar the moral record o f Homo sapiens"? Wh y did I hold back from
pressing th e historica l parallels with more widel y conceded form s of violent
oppression? Where was my moral rage? The reason , future reader, is that an
air of moderation i s prudent whe n your audience stil l thinks that eating th e
dead bodie s o f intensivel y reare d animal s is quite oka y morally, really no t
such a bad thing at all. You have to sound as if you take this to be a matter fo r
serious mora l debate , eve n whe n yo u kno w very wel l tha t th e oppositio n
doesn't hav e an ethica l leg to stand on . Abortion, capital punishment, drug
legalizationthese ar e genuinel y debatable questions ; no t s o th e kind s of
exploitation o f animal s tha t huma n being s tak e fo r granted . So , presen t
reader, b e warned: I am even mor e extrem e tha n I sound .
Actually, th e whol e issue of the huma n us e o f animals has undergone a
sea-change during th e las t two decades. From bein g disdained a s the crackpot preserv e of cat-crazed grannies and sopp y misanthropes, animal liberation has become a respectable political movement, founded on an articulated
moral syste m and capabl e o f effectin g rea l chang e i n th e treatmen t o f animals. People don't loo k at you in the funn y wa y they used to. They ar e no w
more shiftil y defensiv e tha n smirkingl y condescending. Anima l sentienc e
has take n it s rightfu l plac e i n huma n consciousness . Animals ge t o n th e
This is not to say that sticking up fo r animals isn't still a real family-splitter ,
friend-loser, an d spouse-excluder . You are in a restaurant with some peopl e
you reall y get o n wit h quit e well. Noting that yo u ar e orderin g a flesh-fre e
dish, some sheepish meat-eate r decide s to interrogate yo u about you r foo d
preferences: she wants to know why you will have only your own blood insid e
you. You have been dreadin g thi s moment, familia r though i t is: either yo u
stand u p fo r you r principle s and tel l her, o r yo u tr y t o brush th e questio n
aside. I s sh e perhap s secretl y sympathetic ? Foolishly, you repl y tha t yo u
think it's morally wrong to raise animals for foo d i n the conditions they ar e
raised and anyway you don't see why their lives should be deemed les s important tha n ou r palates . Silence. There the n ensue s a vituperativ e two-hour
row, whic h follows a depressingly predictable course : th e mor e th e assembled diner s see that they cannot refut e you r arguments, and th e mor e thei r
own rationalizations are swiftl y an d humiliatingl y exploded, th e angrier an d
more resentfu l the y become . You , i n turn , gro w contemptuou s o f thei r
moral myopia , thei r evasiveness , and conformity . You leave the restauran t
with fewe r friend s than yo u went in withand forge t arrangin g a date with
the initia l interrogator.
May I the n sugges t tha t anyon e wh o stil l think s tha t ou r treatmen t o f
animals is basically in the moral clear, especially in the areas o f experimentation and foo d production , si t down and stud y Peter Singer's book : then they
can come and tel l me why a vegetarian diet must have weakened my brain. Is


it a deal? The basi c argumentative strategy of the book is simple. First, Singer
establishes that speciesism is a morally unacceptable standpoint. Secondly , he
demonstrates tha t nothin g coul d justify ou r actua l treatment o f animals except implici t adherence t o the speciesist attitude. Therefore , ou r treatmen t
of animals is morally wrong. Speciesism , for thos e wh o haven't heard, i s the
assumption tha t a mere differenc e o f biologica l species is sufficient t o warrant differential moral treatment, s o that the suffering and death o f animals
of species other tha n our ow n is ipso facto o f negligible moral weight. Speciesism stands opposed t o the following principle, cogently defended b y Singer:
indistinguishable sufferin g shoul d b e accorde d comparabl e mora l weight ,
even when the sufferers belong to different species. Thus, speciesism makes
moral equalit y turn upo n biologica l taxonomy, irrespectiv e o f a creature' s
actual psychologica l capacities ; rathe r a s racis m an d sexis m invok e mer e
racial o r sexua l differenc e (themselve s biological distinctions ) a s a basis fo r
moral discrimination . Th e speciesis t is someone wh o want s to kno w what
zoological kind a sentient being belongs to before h e can decide whether it is
right to cause it pain; and if he happens t o be a human speciesist , he elevates
the huma n specie s above all othersbiological affinit y t o him is the decisive
qualification fo r seriou s mora l consideration .
Speciesism as a normative ethical principl e is easily refuted. I t is palpably
absurd t o tie moral concer n t o zoologica l classification instea d o f to th e capacities an d condition s i t directl y involvespain , pleasure , freedom , con finement, life , death. Sentienc e is what matters when it comes to the badnes s
of inflicting unnecessary suffering, not the geneti c makeu p o r evolutionar y
history o f th e organis m tha t doe s th e suffering . I f thi s i s not self-evident ,
then conside r th e followin g hypothetical cases . Martians invade Eart h an d
proceed t o enslave and exploit human beings: they do to us all the things we
now do to our fello w species on earth. Ou r live s accordingly become a hell of
fear, imprisonment, pain and earl y death. W e protest t o the militarily superior Martians , who are clearl y an intelligen t and compassionat e species : we
point out that they could get on perfectly well without ruining our lives . They
don't disagre e wit h thi s an d conced e tha t w e human s ar e sometime s a bit
roughly handled . However , the y insist , we have n o goo d mora l argumen t
against their flagrant exploitation of our species, since we are not of the same
biological kind, so that our sufferin g and death don' t count fo r muc h as far
as they are concerned . Thei r attitude towar d us, they point out , i s really no
different fro m ou r attitud e towar d specie s othe r tha n ou r ownan d the y
are, when al l is said, appreciably clevere r than us . Thus, thanks to the spe ciesist principle , the y needn' t scrupl e abou t brutall y killin g ou r factory farmed childre n fo r breakfast , instead o f having cereal.
Another case: suppose that in a few million years monkeys have evolved to
become a s intelligen t an d civilize d a s w e ar e now , whil e remainin g o f a
distinct species from us . Meanwhile human being s have persisted wit h their
monkey vivisection , oblivious t o th e psychologica l change s tha t hav e oc curred i n th e monkey . No w the monkey s ca n protes t abou t thes e huma n


practices: the y organiz e an d sig n petitions , picke t an d demonstrate ; the y

even threate n gorill a wa r unles s we se t their conspecific s free . W e dismiss
their argument s fo r human e treatmen t wit h a lofty shrug : w e are unde r n o
moral obligatio n t o cease ou r painfu l an d fata l experiments o n them , sinc e
their specie s i s not identica l to ours , n o matte r tha t the y ar e ou r equal s i n
every respec t w e deem morall y significan t in ou r ow n species .
Or suppos e tha t geneticist s discove r tha t ther e ha s bee n a mistak e i n
biological science: we thought mankin d a single species, but it turns out that
there ar e geneti c o r evolutionar y variations among u s sufficient t o warran t
dividing us into two separate species. Despite appearances, then , you are no t
strictly of the sam e species as me, for you r DNA differs crucially from min e
in som e subtl e way . Would suc h a scientifi c discover y licens e a complet e
redrawing o f ethical boundaries, s o that I can now treat you the wa y I have
always treated animal s of other species ? Am I henceforwar d entitle d t o ignore or minimize all our other similaritiesparticularly psychological ones
and us e the fac t o f our differen t biological grouping t o put yo u beyond m y
moral consideration? Would cannibalism, for example, become morall y licit?
Rhetorical questions, surely. Speciesism is therefore indefensibl e as a general
moral principle .
Someone i s now bound to object that these example s are unfair, since th e
species we exploit do not diffe r fro m us merely in respect o f their biologica l
grouping: the y ar e generall y les s cleve r tha n w e are , an d hav e almos t n o
musical appreciation . Tru e enough , bu t th e objecto r i s both missin g th e
point and tacitly conceding tha t the speciesist position is wrong. The essentia l
point i s that a mere difference o f species is morally irrelevant in assessing th e
rightness o f violatin g a given creature' s interests ; i t is not, o f course , bein g
denied tha t difference s of species can correlate with morally relevant differ ences. An d no w the antispeciesis t argumen t i s precisely tha t wha t we do t o
animals would not be done unless we made thei r species count i n itself, since
in other respects, particularly those havin g to do wit h sentience , animal s d o
not diffe r fro m certai n huma n being s who m w e regard a s infinitel y mor e
morally considerable . Thus , a s Singe r says , w e tak e th e permanentl y re tarded chil d t o be fa r mor e worth y of moral respec t tha n th e intellectually
superior gorilla . I n general , w e do no t rate the severit y of an animal' s pain
equally wit h th e lik e pai n o f a huma n being : someho w th e fac t tha t i t is a
dog's pai n i s supposed t o mak e i t less undesirabl e fo r tha t pai n t o occur
rather a s my Martian s justify th e pai n the y caus e us o n th e speciesis t (an d
specious) ground tha t it is, after all, only human pain. The simpl e point her e
is that it is the pai n in itself that is bad, not th e fac t that it is happening t o on e
biological kin d o f individual rather tha n another . A creature's interest s de termine th e dutie s w e owe it, not it s biological proximity t o us .
Having argued agains t speciesism as an ethica l principle, Singe r goe s o n
to detail the fact s o f animal life unde r huma n domination , focusin g on ani mals as experimental tool s and a s sources of food. I do not think it is possible
for a normal person t o read these two chapters without wanting to weep, and


without an accompanying feeling of impotent fur y a t the moral violations so

richly documented. I f you don't know the grim facts of animal experimenta tion an d moder n factor y farming , yo u shoul d sca n thes e pages : yo u wil l
never b e th e sam e again . Singe r report s thes e fact s soberl y an d unemo tionally, generally sticking to the words of those who most directly carry ou t
the practice s w e a s a societ y permi t an d endorse : th e scientist s an d th e
The chapte r "Tools for Research" is a litany of more or less pointless acts
of gros s speciesism : millions of animals , often monkey s and dogs , ar e rou tinely electricall y shocked, irradiated , nerve-gassed , poisoned , maternall y
deprived, sliced , starved , force-fed , drowned , heate d t o death , frozen ,
crushed, shot, strangled, burned, drug-addicted an d otherwise tortured and
maimed. We may safely assum e that non e o f thi s would be perpetrate d o n
members o f ou r ow n species , howeve r comparabl e t o th e anima l subject s
they might be: except, of course, for the notorious (and instructive) examples
of racially based human experimentation. Animals are simply assumed to be
means to our ends , morally negligible in themselves, just so much apparatus.
The chapte r o n farmin g and mea t production i s scarcely less disturbing.
Here illusions flourish and wishfu l thinkin g holds sway. Chickens: crammed
together int o massiv e windowless sheds, their environmen t artificiall y con trolled s o as to ge t mor e meat , the y develop the "vices " of feather-pecking
and cannibalism , so surgical "debeaking" is employed. Laying hens are confined t o tin y cage s i n whic h they canno t eve n stretc h thei r wings , an d i n
which slopin g wir e floor s giv e the m sever e foo t troubl e an d thwar t thei r
nesting instincts . Pigs : highly intelligent, active, and socia l by nature, thes e
animals are kept bored an d frustrated , and tak e to biting their fellows ' tails .
Solution: cut their tails offwithout anaestheti c of course. Stress-death from
overcrowding i s common. Foo t deformit y from slatte d floor s i s standard .
Veal calves: separate d fro m thei r mothers , tethere d b y the neck , these ani mals are confine d for thei r entir e live s to a strawless stall in which the y can
hardly move, while they are fe d an unnatural liquid diet expressly designed
to produce anaemia . They che w the stal l in an effor t t o satisfy thei r craving
for roughage ; the y suffe r chroni c digestiv e problems ; the y lic k anythin g
metal to make up the iron deficiency; man y of them perish before slaughter.
And th e sol e purpose o f this regime of torment i s to produce pal e soft flesh
for well-of f human s to bite into. The vea l calf i s perhaps th e pures t illustration o f the orthodo x huma n attitud e toward food animals : nothing is to be
spared th e anima l if it caters to some trivial tast e on ou r part .
If speciesis m is manifestly absur d a s a moral principle , and i f our entir e
relationship to other animals is riddled with speciesist bias, leading to systematic oppression and cruelty , why are we so ready to tolerate thes e unjustifie d
moral asymmetries? Why don't we recognize what we are doin g for what it is
and the n just sto p doin g it ? What holds the evil s o f speciesis m so firmly in
place? A t this stage of th e debat e thi s is the questio n tha t most need s t o be
addressed. Exposin g the basis of animal exploitation may help dislodge the



evil, revealing it for what it is. What we have here, I suggest, is an ol d enem y
bolstered b y a peculiar featur e of interspecies concern . Th e ol d enemy is the
First Law of Power Relations: the more powerful will always tend t o oppres s
the les s powerful, if they can ge t awa y with it. Where ther e i s vulnerability,
you wil l fin d tha t vulnerabilit y exploited an d magnified . Violenc e is invariably th e ultimat e mean s o f subordination . Thi s la w hold s historicall y fo r
races, children , women , . . . an d animals . Dominatio n an d enslavemen t
are regularly visited on the relatively helpless: and animals are just one more
powerless group tha t ha s fallen victim to this law. Nor ca n the y s o much a s
speak out against their exploitation (thoug h they are quite capable of making
their feeling s know n t o thei r exploiters) . O f course , i t i s common t o fin d
some religiou s o r othe r ideolog y invoke d t o legitimiz e this kin d o f nake d
exercise o f power : bu t w e are no t no w so easily duped by this ploy in cases
other than tha t of animalswe are wis e to the way s of "false consciousness. "
In th e cas e o f animals , peopl e stil l fee l i n thei r bone s tha t thei r exploite d
position i s somehow writte n int o th e orde r o f things , tha t thi s i s what th e
universe intendsinstea d o f recognizin g i t fo r goo d old-fashione d power mongering. W e do it because we can and w e like it, and that' s really the en d
of the matter. Conjoi n this with the sadisti c impulses that are never fa r away
from th e abus e o f power , an d yo u hav e a profoundl y satisfyin g state o f
affairs fo r th e huma n species : w e get to fuc k animal s u p royall y and the y
can't so much as talk back to usnot even a stray rebel or terrorist t o handle .
Perfect! W e can the n flatte r ou r vanit y wit h the deliciou s though t o f ho w
much they have to sacrifice in order to gratify our trivia l fancies. "I must b e
very importan t becaus e m y coa t too k te n tormente d rar e wil d animal s t o
make it. As I am lord of all creation, i t is my God-given right to use animals in
any fashio n I se e fit. Why, it's the nex t bes t thin g t o being God! "
The specia l feature of animal exploitation, which makes the law of powe r
so ingrained i n thei r case , is that th e countervailin g forc e o f empath y i s so
much weaker here than elsewhere. Because other species live lives that diffe r
in variou s respect s fro m ours , an d becaus e the y loo k differen t an d mak e
different noises , it is less natural fo r u s to enter int o their poin t o f view and
appreciate ho w things are fo r them. I t takes an imaginative effort to see the
world as a turtle doesindeed, to recognize that a turtle sees the world in any
way. Just so , my invading Martians may have limited empathy when it comes
to understandin g ho w i t i s for u s t o b e locked i n tin y stalls, malnourished ,
experimented on , hunted , killed . Empathy is the chie f foe of discriminative
harm, and huma n empath y ca n be withheld from an exploited grou p i f that
group differs from us in some salient (though superficial) respect. I n the case
of animals, our capacit y for empath y tend s t o be fitful and arbitrary , senti mentally selective where i t is not barbarically absent. Here , the mora l bridg e
of identificatio n is apt t o b e shak y at best . Accordingly , i f speciesism , a s a
reflexive attitude beyond rationa l critique, is to be effectively undermined , i t
will be necessary to extend an d deepe n our capacit y for interspecifi c empa thy: we need to be able to look upon animal s with fresh eyes, unconditione d


by the rol e i n which we have historically placed them , thu s to engage more
fully wit h their distinctiv e "forms o f life. " An d th e ke y to thi s is not som e
willed increas e i n th e amoun t o f affection we feel for othe r species : it must
come, rather , fro m a respec t base d upo n impartia l appreciatio n o f thei r
intrinsic nature. I t is a cognitive change mor e than an affectiv e on e that we
need. I n m y view, full y absorbin g th e idea tha t w e are al l contingent crea tures o f Darwinia n evolution, subject to it s laws and constraints , i s the bes t
way o f attaining the righ t perspectiv e o n th e live s of other animals : we are
just on e species among others, makin g our way in a not terribly sympathetic
world. Ther e i s n o sense i n whic h other animal s wer e mad e fo r u s (pace
Genesis). Wha t distinguishe s us fro m the m i s our abilit y t o injec t a mora l
dimension int o thes e natura l facts : an d s o not g o right ahea d an d exploi t
whatever w e can at whatever cost to our victim . Animals are no t inherentl y
our tools , and w e have the mora l capacity to recognize tha t the y should no t
be reduced t o that status. Instead, think of other species as existing indepen dently of our species , and a s having their ow n enormously long evolutionary
history; the n remembe r tha t the y hav e a mod e o f sentienc e tha t goe s with
their biologica l nature , just a s we do. Don' t thin k of animal s as convenient
natural artifacts whose existence is exhausted b y their relation to us: they are
autonomous beings . W e onc e gav e u p a geocentri c conceptio n o f th e uni verse, i n whic h we sa t at th e cosmi c centre; no w w e need t o complet e th e
Darwinian revolution and accep t that the anima l creation i s not fundamentally anthropocentric. Speciesis m wil l end onl y when this kind o f informe d
modesty has been properl y achieved .
Singer completes the argumen t of Animal Liberation with a telling chapter
on th e histor y o f anima l abus e an d th e gradua l recognitio n tha t th e la w
should prohibit at least some of the grosser form s of human cruelty. He deals
also with all the counterarguments t o his position that he has heard, however
fatuous these may be. He concludes with a challenge to the reader: "through out this book I have relied on rationa l argument . Unles s you can refute th e
central argumen t o f this book, yo u shoul d now recognize tha t speciesis m is
wrong, and thi s means that, if you take morality seriously, you should tr y t o
eliminate speciesis t practice s fro m you r ow n life , an d oppos e the m else where." I ca n only reiterate thi s challenge.
What doe s th e futur e hol d fo r animals ? Twenty year s ag o I wa s very
pessimistic about th e possibility of fundamental change, because at that time
even morally alive people foun d the very idea of animal rights merely quaint.
Today thi s is a respectabl e par t o f th e politica l agenda. I t i s nice to b e re garded no longer as a naive eccentric, a squeamish sentimentalist with mystical leaning s (me , mystical!) . Perhap s th e progres s tha t ha s alread y bee n
made, suc h as it is, will continue and accelerate , leadin g t o radical improvements for animals . It is arguable tha t we are no w in a transitional period, in
which ol d prejudices an d ideologie s abou t th e cosmi c place of animals have
crumbled, yet our mora l reactions are lagging behind; that it is only a matter
of tim e befor e w e wak e up ethicall y to wha t we alread y implicitl y believ e


about th e biologica l worl d an d ou r positio n i n it . Old habit s and powerfu l

vested interest s wil l thu s eventuall y succumb to mora l commo n sense , an d
one o f huma n kind' s greates t tyrannie s wil l collaps e lik e s o man y other s
before. A s a bonus, ther e wil l b e enoug h foo d t o fee d th e world' s hungry,
once plan t protei n i s n o longe r waste d o n fattenin g unnecessar y foo d
animals fo r th e better-off . Th e deepes t for m o f exploitatio n an d institu tionalized deat h i n huma n histor y will hav e been eradicated , makin g other
forms of oppression psychologicall y harder t o bring about, because less built
into ou r dail y lives.
I suppos e suc h a rosy future i s not impossible , though i n m y experienc e
we shouldn't ban k on ordinary civilize d adults to bring it about: w e need t o
appeal to the natural moral instincts of the preindoctrinated. As Peter Singe r
remarks, children very frequently express their horro r at the origin o f their
dinner an d wis h t o become vegetarian ; it can take a lot of adult cajolin g or
worse t o wea n the m of f thei r soun d mora l standpoint . Childre n ar e th e
natural friends of animals, and payin g them more respect migh t be the bes t
way t o ge t animal s liberated. Pu t mor e practically : animal activists shoul d
work t o ensur e tha t th e fact s o f anima l lif e unde r huma n dominio n ar e
taught in schools and mad e generall y available to the young. Put speciesism
on th e curriculum . To parent s I say : do yo u reall y want your childre n t o
blame you for keeping the m in the dark abou t all the rotten thing s we do to
animals? Wouldn't you prefer t o be able to boast to your grandchildren tha t
you wer e in the vanguar d whe n animal s were give n thei r freedom ?


Frey: Beyon d th e Mora l Pal e

Interests and Rights: The Case
against Animals
by R . G . Fre y
Clarendon Press , 198 0

In questionin g receive d attitude s towar d th e mora l statu s o f animals , it is a

common experienc e t o fin d one' s qualm s reinforced b y the jejun e and so phistical character o f the arguments pu t up i n defense o f our curren t prac tices. R . G. Frey's book i s sure t o hav e thi s unintended effect , an d fo r tha t
reason ma y no t b e withou t value . H e i s out t o oppos e th e "philosophica l
orthodoxy"(!) that calls for radical changes in our treatmen t o f animals, and
does s o by offering a series o f transparent paralogism s directed agains t th e
proanimal writing s of various contemporary philosophers .
Frey's targe t i s the claim , du e originall y t o Leonar d Nelson , tha t sinc e
animals have interests and interest s confer mora l rights , animals have mora l
rights. He is sceptical of this claim on two counts: he does not believe in moral
rights at all, and h e denies tha t animals have interests. Sinc e the first of these
contentions i s not specifi c t o the cas e of animals, he propose s t o concentrat e
on the second . Hi s procedure i s to examine a number o f suggested base s for
the possessio n o f interestshavin g needs , beliefs , desires , emotions , bein g
sentient, and havin g the capacity to sufferand t o deny eithe r tha t animals
have them , o r tha t the y confe r interests . O n eac h o f thes e topic s hi s argu ments have th e unmistakabl e hollow rin g o f the botto m o f th e barrel .
Some hav e suggeste d tha t sentienc e an d th e capacit y to suffe r giv e animals an interest i n not being subjected to certain kind s of life. Frey' s reply to
this modest suggestio n i s that i t is inconsistent wit h the motivatio n o f thos e
Reprinted wit h permissio n fro m th e Times Literary Supplement (Augus t 1 , 1980) .

216 E T H I C

who mak e it , becaus e i t amount s t o a ne w for m o f "discrimination"no w

against the insentien t worl d of plant s and rocks . This complaint i s absurd :
any attemp t t o circumscribe (as we must) our mora l obligation s will involve,
as a matter o f logic, such "discrimination," on pai n of treating everything
including numbers, electrons and region s of spaceas of equal moral status.
Nor i s one committe d t o accordin g no value to a n entit y just becaus e on e
insists that i t does no t bear a certain kind o f value. Another favorit e tactic of
Prey's i s to accus e hi s opponents o f havin g no "argument " for thei r views.
Thus h e want s it demonstrated tha t pai n i s (other thing s being equal ) a ba d
thing, or else he feels free to deny it. He seems unaware that every argumen t
has at least one premiss and tha t mora l argument , like any other, must sto p
somewherepreferably wit h something n o rationa l ma n ca n honestl y dispute. But Frey tells us that, on the contrary, we are "autonomous" in respect
of argumentsnothing can force ou r assent . One wonder s how he come s to
believe anythin g (if he does) .
Frey's centra l thesi s is that interest s require belief s and animal s d o no t
have beliefs. Th e questio n whether genuine belief i s possible in the absence
of language is indeed difficult an d vexed , but Frey' s own reasons for a negative verdic t verge o n th e ludicrous . H e say s w e cannot attribut e belief s t o
animals becaus e (a ) a particula r piec e o f behaviora l evidenc e neve r con clusively establishes whether an animal has a given belief, and (b ) the huma n
observer cannot directl y perceive the animal's belief. With the requirement s
pitched thi s high , no t eve n professor s o f philosoph y ca n b e credite d wit h
beliefs. No r doe s th e appea l t o speec h hel p here , sinc e i t doe s no t enabl e
belief states to meet these unrealistically stringent conditionsspeech is itself
a kind of behavior requiring interpretation . Frey' s argument fo r connectin g
belief an d languag e seems to be that sinc e a belief ascription embeds a sentence, what is believed is that that sentence is true. No t onl y is this a breath taking non sequitur , but the conclusion is open t o the textbook objection that
the believer would have to speak the same language as the ascriber. (It should
be note d that , a s Fre y disarmingl y acknowledges, speechles s childre n ar e
similarly robbed o f interests by the abov e considerations. Thi s consequenc e
obviously places the normative significance of the whole book in grave doubt ,
a fac t o f whic h he i s sometimes half-aware.)
The treatmen t o f anima l want s i s scarcel y les s flawed . Her e Fre y an nounces a dilemma : eithe r th e want s of animal s are mer e needs , i n which
case they do not differ essentially from the "needs " of inanimate objects, for
example, that of a tractor fo r oil ; or the y are sai d to be genuine desires , bu t
then desires require beliefs and animals have already been show n not to have
beliefs. The first horn of this alleged dilemm a turns upo n a crude equivocation on the word "need": plainly the needs of a conscious creature (an d even
Frey allow s animals consciousness ) are suc h tha t thei r frustratio n ha s il l
effects o n the well-being of the creature, notabl y suffering, different in kind
from th e breakdown o f a tractor. The secon d hor n of the dilemma assumes
that all desires involv e belief i n a lack. Speechless childre n ar e thereb y ren -


dered nonconative , a s well a s animals. Fre y attempt s t o eas e th e implausi bility o f thi s b y tryin g t o lin k desire wit h self-consciousness , but h e neve r
explains wh y unreflective consciousnes s would no t suffice .
Emotions ar e likewis e denied t o th e speechless . Frey' s cas e fo r thi s i s
wholly vitiated by exclusive concentration o n the emotio n o f shame. Sham e
does indee d appea r t o be the kin d o f emotion tha t require s a complex sub structure of belief, unavailabl e t o the average dog; bu t wha t o f anger, fear ,
and (perhaps ) grief? What does Frey think is going on, psychologically, when
a child or monkey displays behavior w e naturally describe a s emotional? And
what doe s h e mak e o f th e physiologica l facts abou t emotion s i n me n an d
animals? I f w e ar e t o insis t upo n a cognitiv e componen t t o suc h menta l
phenomena, w e migh t d o better , i f belie f prope r seem s inappropriate , t o
invoke informational states of nonlinguistic creatures whic h function in ways
analogous t o th e way s in whic h beliefs function: thus i t ha s bee n suggeste d
that a creature ca n b e said to register a proposition withou t strictly believing
it. A t an y rate , thi s i s on e o f th e man y substantiv e issue s whos e prope r
treatment evidentl y exceeds Frey' s philosophical sophistication.
His remark s o n sufferin g and interest s sho w th e length s t o whic h he is
prepared t o g o in prosecutin g th e "cas e against animals." Hi s main poin t is
that not everything we would describe a s an interest is conceptually linked to
the sensation of pain. But this misses the mark: the claim he needs t o contest
is that th e capacit y for sufferin g is necessary and sufficien t t o confer certain
kinds of interest upo n a being, in particular those that our curren t treatmen t
of animals (e.g., in factory farms) typically infringe. In respec t of the simpl e
claim tha t animal s hav e a n interes t i n no t feelin g pain becaus e pai n i s a n
intrinsically bad thing , Fre y resorts t o his fallback ploy of asking for a proof
that unnecessar y sufferin g i s intrinsically bad . B y his standard s no moral
position coul d b e established
Recalling the subtitl e of Frey' s book, one i s somewhat take n abac k by his
postcript: fo r h e ther e admit s tha t animal s ma y b e wronged , an d indee d
regards i t as a seriou s questio n whethe r w e do systematicall y wrong them .
This i s laudable , bu t sit s il l wit h hi s announce d intentions : wha t h e ha s
offered u s is, in fact, a critique of a moral theory with which he disagrees, no t
a set of normativ e claims. Indeed, i t could hardly be other than that, given his
concessions abou t speechles s children. Th e suspicio n is encouraged tha t hi s
concern is less with the substantive normative questions themselves than with
adding to the philosophical literature that has already been generated. Whil e
this ma y somewha t excus e th e casuistica l quality o f th e book , i t i s surel y
deplorable t o fin d practica l issue s of thi s momen t treate d wit h suc h mora l


Pluhar: Bor n Fre e

Beyond Prejudice: The Moral Significance
of Human and Nonhuman Animals
by Evely n B. Pluha r
Duke Universit y Press, 199 5

Strange t o say, not all human institutions owe their existence to sound mora l
reasoningnot even those that have proved themselves most durable. Monarchy, slavery, patriarchy, dictatorship, child labor: these practices were sustained b y power an d advantage , no t b y their invulnerabilit y to mora l criti cism. Spuriou s mora l defenses , ofte n bizarrel y ingenious, hav e grow n u p
around thes e practices , enablin g thei r beneficiarie s to sooth e thei r con sciences o r t o war d of f thei r critics , bu t fe w would no w pretend tha t thes e
exercises of power enjoy any defensible ethical rationale. The suggestio n that
slaves wer e made t o b e exploited , b y God o r nature , woul d no t no w b e re ceived a s anything other tha n self-servin g delusion. Enslave d persons have
their inherent mora l rights to life, liberty, and th e pursui t of happiness, an d
the institutio n of slaver y violates these rights . This ma y no t hav e bee n ob vious then , but i t i s a platitud e now.
In recen t decades , w e have grow n use d t o hearin g a comparabl e claim
made o n behalf of animals. It is said that they, too, are th e victim s of unjust
exploitation. We humans use them a s means to our ends , without regard fo r
their inalienabl e rights. W e treat animal s in way s tha t ar e contrar y t o thei r
interestsas whe n w e eat them , confin e them, experimen t o n them , hun t
them, wear their skinsan d thi s is a plain violatio n of mora l principle . W e
are, i n effect , discriminatin g agains t animal s on th e basi s of thei r species .
Isn't this really just an exercise o f brut e power, devoid o f moral foundation ?
Reprinted wit h permission fro m th e New Republic (April 8, 1996) .



Isn't i t disturbingly lik e slavery, except tha t w e are exploitin g member s o f

other species ? I f so , th e practice s i n questio n shoul d b e dismantle d an d
animals accorde d i n la w what thei r mora l statu s requires . S o th e anima l
liberationist argumen t goes .
To these claims there is a natural answer, frequently offered. In the other
examples of exploited groups , the victims are al l persons, whil e animals ar e
notand persons ar e the only proper bearers o f moral rights. Slavery is the
exploitation o f conscious, rational, moral beings , with a sense of the futur e
and their own potential, and capable of protesting against their enslavement;
but pig s an d cow s an d chicken s fall shor t o f thi s standard , bein g a t mos t
sentient and conative . So there i s no valid comparison t o be made here : it is
wrong to violate the right s of reflective articulate beings, but animal s do no t
fall into this category. Thus there is nothing arbitrary about the difference i n
the way s that w e treat member s o f ou r ow n species and member s o f other
This repl y ha s persuade d man y peopl e tha t th e cas e of animal s lay s n o
serious claim on their moral attention. But it is open to a fairly obvious retort.
What about thos e member s o f the huma n specie s who fai l t o qualif y a s ful l
persons i n th e intende d senseth e ver y young , th e senile , th e mentall y
retarded, th e brain-damaged ? The menta l faculties of suc h individuals are
severely truncated relative to those of the typical human adult, but we do not
exclude them fro m th e moral community, doing t o them what we routinely
do to animals. Compare a normal chimpanzee to a severely retarded huma n
child unable to take care of itself or to speak or to reason. Give n that neither
qualifies a s a rational moral being, capable of asserting its rights, why do we
allow vivisectio n o f th e chim p but no t o f th e child ? Surely, if moral signifi cance attaches only to full persons , then the child should be granted n o more
protection tha n th e chimp , o r th e pi g awaiting slaughter.
Do we want to accept this? There is an obvious dilemma here: either giv e
up th e lin k between personhoo d an d mora l right s o r regar d animal s and
mentally limite d humans a s both lackin g basic moral rights . Fo r i n neithe r
case are w e dealing with full personhood , whic h is the allege d touchston e of
moral worth. Evelyn Pluhar's book is devoted t o the evaluatio n of this argument for animal rights. Taking he r cue from Peter Singer' s use of the argu ment in Animal Liberation, she undertakes to state it as rigorously as possible
and then to defend it against every objection she has heard o f or can think of.
Her book is exceptionally thorough, expertly reasoned, an d entirely convincing.
The essenc e of Pluhar's case is that there is no way to protect what she calls
"marginal humans" from moral exclusion that does not extend t o nonhuman
animals. Onc e i t i s acknowledge d tha t ful l personhoo d i s no t a necessary
condition for mora l significance , a s in the case of margina l humans, then we
must grant the same moral status to animals, on the ground tha t no morally
relevant distinction can be drawn between the tw o cases. Pluhar is absolutely
determined t o argue through ever y possible objection to the argument, even


some o f the sillie r ones, so that n o doub t ca n be left abou t it s cogency. Th e

upshot, afte r th e dialectica l dust ha s settled, i s that ther e is a deep inconsistency i n current mora l attitudes a doubl e standar d tha t crie s ou t fo r rec tification. The simpl e truth i s that we unjustly discriminate against member s
of othe r specie s fo r transparentl y selfis h reasons .
It is a commonplace reactio n t o Pluhar's argumen t tha t marginal human s
are human , whil e othe r animal s ar e not . Thi s i s the groun d o f th e mora l
distinction that we habitually make. Such a "homocentrist" position take s the
human specie s t o defin e the boundarie s o f th e mora l community : you ar e
morally considerable if , and onl y if, you are a member o f the human species .
It i s important t o see, a s Pluhar emphasizes , that thi s is not a version o f th e
full personhoo d viewtha t i t is , indeed, incompatibl e wit h it , sinc e not al l
humans ar e ful l persons . Wha t i s being claimed , rather, i s that a biologica l
criterion, no t a psychologica l one , i s decisive fro m a mora l poin t o f view .
There are many problems, however , with this "speciesist" defense. Isn' t it
really just a form of bigotry, analogous to claiming that the biological characteristics o f ski n colo r o r se x ar e morall y crucial ? Wha t i f scientist s made
discoveries that caused the m to redraw th e boundaries o f the species, so that
in fact we featherless biped s are composed o f two distinct species with different evolutionary origins and DNA structures? Would each of us then be right
to conclude tha t only the specie s that we belonged t o had mora l standing , so
that the other humaniods could be treated a s we now treat pigs and mice ? Do
intelligent extraterrestrial s automaticall y lac k mora l significanc e becaus e
they are not of our biological kind? Is God beyond the moral pale because h e
is no t biologicall y human ? Woul d th e trut h o f th e Bibl e impl y tha t Jesu s
Christ suffered n o moral evi l by being crucified, since he was not full y of ou r
species (being immaculately conceived and so on)? How can morality depend
upon biology , anyway? Surely my rights stem from th e kin d of life I am able
to leadfro m m y statu s as a psychologica l beingnot fro m whateve r bio logical substrate happens t o underlie this . If I find out that I am not huma n
after all , having been deposited her e by a UFO, do I then voluntarily give up
all m y right s t o decen t treatment ? No , I d o not : m y biologica l typ e i s a
contingent fac t abou t me , and i t is neither her e nor ther e whe n it comes t o
assessing my moral rights .
It migh t no w be said tha t margina l human s diffe r morall y from animal s
not becaus e the y ar e human , bu t becaus e the y ar e member s o f a specie s
whose typical member s ar e ful l persons . Th e retarde d chil d i s no t a ful l
person, bu t h e or sh e is at least a member o f a species characterized b y such
superior beings . Thus, wheneve r a species has typical members wh o are ful l
persons, an y membe r o f th e specie s enjoy s mora l standing , eve n i f tha t
particular membe r fall s woefull y shor t o f th e mark . Thi s suggestio n i s no t
"speciesist" in the stric t sense, and i t seems to give marginal humans a moral
foothold; but Pluhar shows that it will scarcely do as a sound mora l principle.
The suggestio n locates the basis of a being's moral rights not in the intrinsic natur e o f tha t being , bu t i n it s relatio n t o othe r beings : th e retarde d


human i s not valuabl e by virtue of hi s individual traits, but onl y because of

his relation to other mor e richly endowed humans . This implies that i f these
relations change , the n s o does hi s moral standing . Th e margina l human' s
moral wort h depend s precisel y upo n hi s being marginal . Bu t now , i f th e
human specie s manages so to pollute the earth tha t in time a typical member
is n o longe r a ful l person , almos t everyon e havin g been chemicall y braindamaged, the n n o huma n wil l enjo y mora l significancethoug h eac h i s at
the leve l of marginal humans now accorded mora l worth . Similarly, an individual dog would become morally significant i f its species, but no t it , were to
develop int o ful l canin e persons , despit e th e fac t tha t ther e ha s bee n n o
intrinsic change i n that dog. Bu t how can you change a n individual's mora l
status simply by fiddlin g wit h what is true o f othe r member s o f it s species?
Surely w e trea t individual s wit h consideratio n becaus e o f wha t i s tru e o f
them, not because of the contingent fact that they share their kind with other
individuals who differ fro m them .
All this , o f course , i s a contrive d attemp t t o escap e th e obvious . Wha t
makes the marginal huma n morally considerabl e is not that her conspecifi.e s
are typicall y ful l persons ; i t is simply that she is herself a sentient individua l
with desires and conditions of well-being. The huma n infant, though no t yet
a rationa l mora l agent , ca n yet experience pleasur e an d pain , ca n hav e its
desires satisfie d o r thwarted , can hav e its life wrongfull y taken . The prera tional infan t i s a subjec t o f consciousness , a goal-directe d seeke r o f well being, a n avoide r o f harm . Margina l human s ca n b e happ y o r unhappy ,
according t o whether thei r need s an d desire s ar e satisfied , an d thi s is what
underlies thei r clai m on ou r mora l attention . Bu t it is equally true tha t ani mals ar e sentien t conativ e individual s wit h condition s o f well-being , an d
in som e case s ther e i s n o relevan t distinctio n t o b e draw n betwee n the m
and margina l human s i n respec t o f thei r degre e o f sentienc e an d goal directedness. Pu t crudely, some animals are as smart as some humans. Onl y
by ignoring th e mora l relevanc e o f sentienc e can we draw a sharp dividin g
line betwee n animal s an d th e les s fortunat e member s o f ou r ow n species .
Pluhar explores thes e issues in detail, dealing with such objections as that
the mistreatment of marginal human s has a worse effect o n the mora l char acter o f th e agen t tha n th e mistreatmen t o f animals , o r produce s wors e
utilitarian consequence s i n th e huma n population . Sh e ha s n o difficult y
showing th e weaknes s o f thes e arguments . Bu t sh e als o wishe s t o fin d a
positive rationale fo r th e mora l relevanc e of sentience . Wha t precisel y is it
about sentience that makes it so morally crucial? This part of the book will be
particularly interestin g for ol d hands a t this subject, because her e sh e part s
company wit h Pete r Singe r an d propose s a nove l wa y to conceiv e o f th e
rights of animals.
It might seem that sentience matter s because mora l valu e depends solel y
upon th e maximizatio n of pleasure an d the minimizatio n o f painthe utilitarian position . Sinc e sentien t being s suc h a s dogs an d gorilla s experienc e
pleasure an d pain , w e shoul d ac t s o a s t o maximiz e utilit y i n thei r case .


Utilitarianism thu s morally unites animals, marginal humans , an d ful l per sons, since all are receptacle s of pleasure an d pain . But there are problems .
Utilitarianism allows us to sacrifice an innocen t if this will produce a greate r
balance o f pleasure over pain i n sentient beings as a group; i t permits what
we woul d normall y tak e t o b e a violatio n o f individua l rights. Thi s i s n o
comfort, however , to the anima l vivisection community: whereas utilitarianism i n principl e permit s experimentin g o n animal s for th e benefi t of hu mans, it also permits experimenting o n humansmarginal and typicalfo r
the benefi t o f other human s (an d animals!) . Man y find this morally repug nant, and reasonably so. And the "replacement argument" o f the utilitarians
is no better . I f our dut y is simply to maximize pleasure an d minimiz e pain,
then ther e ca n b e n o objectio n t o killin g individual s so long a s we replace
them with other individuals who will function as new repositories o f pleasurable experience. The ne t amount of pleasure will not be reduced if I produc e
a new sentient being t o take up wher e the ol d one has involuntarily left off .
Thus i s the righ t t o lif e abrogate d b y the utilitaria n principle.
Pluhar is right to conclude that thi s i s not a workable mora l theory. We
need a viewpoint that finds a place for individual rights, human an d animal .
What, then , wil l thes e right s depen d upon ? No t o n th e capacit y t o clai m
rights, o r els e marginal human s are , wit h animals, off th e mora l map . W e
must look instead to what it is that rights serve to protect. Buildin g upon th e
ideas o f Ala n Gewirth, Pluha r defend s th e vie w tha t right s ste m fro m th e
capacity to care about what happens to onefrom desire s and thei r satisfac tion. The emphasi s thus shifts fro m sentienc e to conation, fro m th e passive
reception o f sensation s t o th e activ e seeking of goals . On e ca n onl y satisf y
one's desires if one i s alive and fre e to act in appropriate ways ; so one values
one's life and one's freedom because these are necessary conditions for satisfying one' s desires . Wha t i s presupposed b y the valuabl e is itself valuable .
Hence lif e an d freedo m ar e valuabl e and requir e th e protectio n tha t th e
ascription o f right s affords .
Desires vary , of course , fro m individua l to individual , and som e set s of
desires ar e mor e extensiv e than others , thoug h th e satisfactio n of desires is
no less important t o an individual because his desires are mor e limite d than
the desires of someone else. A dog's desire to run fre e does not matter less to
it tha n m y desire t o enjo y a balle t performanc e matter s t o me . A sentien t
conative bein g ha s th e righ t t o th e freedo m an d th e continue d existenc e
necessary for the satisfaction of its desires, whatever these may be. This is the
ultimate basis of m y right no t t o be imprisone d o r eate n o r experimente d
upon, an d th e sam e is true o f a chimp's right t o simila r freedoms .
So sentience matters, not because it is the vehicle of pleasure an d pain , bu t
because i t is concomitant wit h a goal-directe d agen t tha t require s freedo m
from interferenc e i n order to fulfil l it s purposes. Th e sentien t conative subject care s abou t what will happen t o it, and henc e i s of a kind t o have basic
moral rights . Thi s poin t o f vie w unifie s (many ) animals wit h norma l an d
marginal human s i n a nonarbitrar y way : all ar e morall y considerabl e i n


virtue of their natur e a s sentient conative beings. We cannot trea t animal s as

we would not trea t mentall y comparable humans .
The consequence s o f adoptin g thi s perspectiv e ar e large . Th e huma n
practice of using animals to serve human ends , regardless o f their interests ,
turns out to lack a cogent ethical basis. When our interests conflict with theirs
we cannot simpl y override the m o n the grounds tha t animals fail to count as
morally considerable . I t i s reall y just a for m o f prejudic e t o coun t thei r
interests as somehow less intrinsically significant than ours, especially when it
is a matter of their vital interests versus our trivia l interests. They deserve th e
same mora l respec t tha t w e accord t o marginal humans . Whe n wonderin g
what to do about a conflict of interest, always ask yourself whether you would
countenance som e propose d wa y o f resolvin g i t i n th e cas e o f margina l
humans: that i s the aci d test for whether unfair discriminatio n is being prac ticed. Woul d yo u shoo t retarde d peopl e becaus e the y ar e encroachin g o n
your food supply or messing up your back yard? Would you kill and eat them
because of the culinary pleasure t o be derived? If your answer is no, then you
should retur n a similar answe r i n respect of animals .
Evelyn Pluha r ha s pushe d thi s debat e t o th e nex t level , challengin g he r
readers to refute her argument s or to change their attitudes . She is moved as
much by a passion for reaso n a s by the plight of animals; and indee d i t is the
sheer irrationalit y of conventional attitudes toward animals that strikes some
of us as humanity's worst moral failing . I t is bad enoug h t o mistreat animals
for blatantl y selfis h reasons , bu t t o defen d thi s mistreatmen t b y mean s o f
transparently shodd y argument s i s almost as objectionable. I t i s not just th e
welfare of animals that is at stake here. The integrit y of human reaso n i s also
on th e line . Where i s our intellectua l pride ?


Held an d Baier :
Mothers an d Moralist s
Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture,
Society, and Politics

by Virginia Hel d
University o f Chicag o Press , 199 4
Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics

by Annette C. Baier
Harvard Universit y Press, 199 4

G. E . Moor e wrote , i n Principia Ethica, th e classi c work o f analyti c mora l

philosophy: "By far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine,
are certai n state s o f consciousness , whic h ma y b e roughl y describe d a s
the pleasure s o f huma n intercours e an d th e enjoymen t o f beautifu l ob jects. . . . [Pjersona l affection s an d aestheti c enjoyment s includ e all th e
greatest, and by far th e greates t good s w e can imagine. . . ." * This celebra tion of human intimacy , in all its forms, was the element in Moore's book that
most ignited th e members of the Bloomsbur y Group, mal e and female , heterosexual an d homosexual . (Beaut y was already o n th e list. ) I t i s nothin g
other than th e firm suggestion that lovepersonal love of particular others ,
not a n abstract love of humanityis the central moral value . This emphasi s
on love was not, by itself, a particularly novel suggestion (there was that other
male mora l theorist , Jesus). Bu t adjoinin g i t in secula r for m t o a pur e an d
rigorous syste m of analytic thought was felt t o mark a major moral advance .
And i t reflecte d Moore's personality : searchingly critical, relentlessly clear,
yet famously kind , simple, and pure . T o many , that seemed lik e a good way
to be ; an d nobod y a t th e tim e wa s surprised o r trouble d b y th e fac t tha t
Moore wa s a man .
Reprinted wit h permission fro m th e New Republic (Octobe r 3 , 1994) .
*G. E . Moore , Principia Ethica, Cambridge : Cambridg e Universit y Press , 1993 ,
pp. 237-8 .



David Hume, two hundred years earlier, had proclaimed tha t the foundation of morality is not reason, but emotion . Reason may direct the "passions "
in moral contexts, but i t is fundamentally their slave . Moral altruism towar d
others originates in a "natural sympathy" with which we are endowed, and it
spreads outward from th e famil y t o more impersonal kind s of human rela tion. Our mora l sense, said Hume, is governed b y innate fellow feeling , not
by the affectless cognition of abstract truths; and despit e Kant's opposition to
this vie w o f morality , it became th e dominan t conception . I n ou r century ,
indeed, "emotivism" came to be the received view. Moral philosophy has thus
been awas h with emotion fo r a considerable time, and thos e dispensin g all
this affec t hav e been mainl y men.
Bernard Williams , among livin g moral theorists , is noted fo r hi s opposition t o the impersona l character o f certai n ethica l theories, especiall y utilitarianism. Such theories invite us to act solely on the principle of maximizing
the total of human happiness, without regard to our own personal relation to
those bein g benefited o r harmed . A s Williams observes , this sor t o f mora l
reasoning confers n o special statu s upon those with whom we are intimately
involvedfamily, friends , neighbors . Bu t suc h relations , argues Williams,
carry thei r ow n mora l value , whic h should no t b e swallowe d up i n som e
global calculation of th e likel y effect s o f m y actions on peopl e in general . I
owe special duties to my intimates; and therefore impersona l moral theorie s
distort th e patter n o f obligation s that define s m y mora l space . Williams's
maleness does no t see m t o have impeded hi m from appreciating thi s point,
which seem s appreciable b y anyone with huma n intelligence .
I adduce these three moral theorists because they constitute something of
an embarrassment for the historical and psychological theory put forward by
some feminist mora l philosophers, including Virginia Held an d Annett e C.
Baier. That theory is simple: moral philosophy has been produced mainl y by
men, unde r conditions of patriarchy, and s o it has neglected o r rejected th e
moral insights that are the prerogative of women. Each of the three contributions'cited (Moore's, Hume's, and Williams's ) is routinely arrogated b y feminist mora l theorists to themselves, as somehow uniquely their province : the
value of affection betwee n people, the emphasis on moral emotion as a guide
to judgment, th e importanc e o f th e famil y an d othe r intimate s in shapin g
one's mora l world.
Clearly, then , mal e mora l philosopher s hav e bee n abl e t o overcom e
whatever malig n intellectual effects ste m from malenes s and mal e domination. For it is a raw historical fact that it did no t take feminism to make these
ideas possible. Moreover, there is nothing distinctively feminist about thes e
ideas, beyon d th e fac t tha t the y appea l t o certai n feminists . Thes e philo sophical notion s ar e gender-neutral , availabl e in principl e to an y reflectiv e
person; the y ar e base d o n intellectua l grounds tha t i n n o wa y owe thei r
origins to anything specific t o women. As in other areas o f philosophy, you
can hav e worthwhile ideas n o matte r wha t se x you are. Yo u nee d onl y th e
brains an d th e patience.

226 E T H I C

Perhaps ther e ar e other conceptions that migh t be more plausibly attributed t o a distinctively female point o f view, conceptions tha t hav e been systematically overlooke d i n male-dominate d mora l philosophy . Th e sugges tion is not, I think, absurd. Afte r all , moral theor y wa s largely developed i n
conditions o f mal e dominance , i n whic h women seldo m go t th e chanc e t o
work out or to state their philosophica l views; and th e biological and psycho logical differences between me n and wome n might make certain mora l per spectives come mor e naturally to one se x than th e other . Mayb e the mora l
faculty o f wome n is innately bette r tune d t o mora l realit y tha n th e mora l
faculty o f men. Feminis t physics and feminis t logic sound instantl y silly, bu t
maybe not feminist morality. It is a heady and exciting thought tha t we might
make larg e mora l strides , theoreticall y an d practically , by attending mor e
closely t o th e mora l thinkin g of women.
One woul d like to think this might be true, what wit h th e pressin g nee d
for suc h strides. Thus it was with great expectations that I cracked open thes e
two books by professional female moral philosophers. M y expectations wer e
swiftly dashed, or slowly eroded. It turns out that patriarchy has not been so
bad for moral philosophy, however bad it has been fo r female moral philoso phers. From the reading of these books, I conclude that there is no untappe d
pool o f dee p mora l reflectio n that a feminis t perspective enable s u s t o re cover.
Virginia Held' s boo k ha s gran d aims . I t set s out t o overtur n traditiona l
moral theor y i n favo r of a type o f mora l thinkin g uniquely consonant wit h
female experience. Once again, Carol Gilligan's work on moral developmen t
in girl s and boy s is the startin g point. Roughl y speaking, Gilligan's thesis is
that boy s are mor e concerne d wit h abstract principles of justice, while girls
tend t o dwell on caring an d persona l concern . Hel d claim s that thi s alleged
difference show s up i n the kin d o f moral philosoph y produced b y men an d
women. Me n favo r th e mode l o f impersona l contract s betwee n equals ;
women tak e the involuntary trust and dependence o f the mother-chil d rela tionship as primary. Thus feminist morality is held t o fill a gap lef t b y male
philosophers, pointin g towar d a mor e complet e an d satisfactor y moralit y
that wil l hel p solve our man y social and individua l woes. Instead o f viewing
obligation a s me n vie w it , i n term s o f voluntar y contract s betwee n equa l
strangers i n competitio n fo r th e good s o f th e world , w e shoul d thin k o f
obligation on the model of the preordained emotional relationship that binds
mother an d child , which is how women view it. Instead of demanding impar tial justic e betwee n people , w e shoul d encourag e motherl y concern . A n
"ethic o f care" should replac e an "ethi c of justice."
It is hard to state this position without making it seem foolish ; and indee d
I thin k that , upo n examination , ther e i s little to b e sai d i n it s favor. Held' s
method o f persuasion proceed s b y sectarian exaggeration , tendentiou s for mulation, politica l tub-thumping, and a resolut e unwillingnes s to conside r
potential objections to her position . The styl e is numbingly academic, foggy,
and hope-for-the-best . On e ha s th e constan t impression tha t thi s book wa s



generated i n a n isolate d worl d o f yea-sayin g comrades wh o considere d i t

unsisterly to argue wit h the speaker. Some of Held's better points are famil iar fro m th e mal e tradition, thoug h sh e avoids giving credit where credit is
due. Thus the Humean emotivist tradition is scarcely alluded to , and Moore' s
famous emphasi s on persona l affectio n i s not mentioned . Hel d contrive s to
give the impressio n tha t everythin g in moral philosoph y that oppose s Kan tian rationalis m i s of recent , and feminist , origin .
Her mai n critica l thesis is that th e "male " theor y o f moralit y as a social
contract runs into trouble whe n extended t o family relations . At the level of
actual mora l psychology, as opposed t o idealized theoretical modeling, this
certainly seems to be correct. But it is a fair criticism only if contractarianism
was designe d t o appl y t o famil y relations . Surely , however , th e poin t o f
contractarian theorie s is to take up th e mora l slack left after famil y relations
have done their obligation-producin g work. We don't nee d a social contract
with members of our family , because of the nature of family bonds; but when
it comes to strangers, no suc h instinctive underpinning sway s us. The poin t
of contractual agreements is to ensure tha t we treat people outside of ou r
circle of intimates in a proper and decen t manner. A contract theorist could
happily accep t tha t th e mora l cemen t o f th e famil y doe s no t consis t i n a
voluntary agreemen t betwee n equals . Held' s criticis m i s beside th e point .
Many o f Held' s mora l an d philosophica l recommendations ar e no t distinctively feminis t in an y clea r sense , but ther e i s one argumen t tha t doe s
appear t o qualif y a s feminis t in content . Thi s i s Held's suggestio n tha t all
moral relations between people shoul d be considered accordin g to the para digm o f mothering :
The relatio n between mothering person an d child , hardly understandable in
contractual terms, is a more fundamenta l relation and ma y be a more prom ising on e o n whic h t o build our recommendation s fo r th e futur e tha n i s any
relation betwee n rational contractors. W e should loo k to the relatio n be tween motherin g person an d chil d for suggestion s of ho w better t o describ e
such societ y as we now have . And w e should look to i t especially for a vie w
of a future mor e fi t for ou r childre n than a global battleground fo r rational,
egoistic entities trying , somehow, to restrai n their antagonism s by fragil e

There ar e a numbe r o f sever e objection s to suc h a view . Fo r a start , i t

ignores fathering , whic h i s equall y beyond th e reac h o f contrac t theory .
Surely it is the parental relation that should be invoked, not just the mother ing relation . Hel d waver s an d hedge s o n thi s point , sometime s conceding
that fathers can be "mothering persons, " which is all well and good , morally
and theoretically ; but the n w e have lost any distinctively feminine contribution t o ethica l understanding . Al l tha t i s bein g sai d i s tha t th e car e o f
childrenby a mother o r a fatheris somethin g that need s t o inform ou r
wider ethica l outlook, that th e experienc e o f parentin g ca n b e a sourc e of
moral insight. This is true, but trivial. And the fact is that fathers are virtually


absent fro m Held' s depiction o f famil y life ; the y ar e mentione d onl y to b e

rebuked fo r no t doin g thei r bi t in child care .
But is the relatio n o f mothering (o r fathering) reall y a helpful paradig m
for socia l relations i n general ? Ho w exactl y is it supposed t o appl y to one' s
relations wit h friends , colleagues , stranger s o n th e train ? O n thi s crucia l
question Hel d i s reticent, thoug h sh e writes rather revealingl y that
on th e first occasion when I spok e about considerin g th e relatio n between
mothering perso n an d chil d as the primar y social relation , a young ma n i n
the audienc e aske d who the mother s ar e an d wh o the childre n ar e i n society,
by whic h he mean t societ y outside th e family . I t wa s meant a s a hostile question, bu t i s actually a ver y good one . Th e difficult y s o many persons hav e in
imagining an answe r may indicate ho w distorted ar e th e traditiona l contractual conceptions.

Note th e strang e antithesi s between a "hostile" questio n an d a "good" one .

Plainly the young man i n question was offering a straightforward criticism of
Held, rathe r tha n engagin g i n sycophancy and eg o stroking.
In fact , of course, the questioner hit the nail on the head. In relations with
that vas t majority of peopl e wh o are neithe r one' s mothe r no r one' s child,
who i s to b e th e mothe r an d wh o th e child ? Held vaguel y suggests that w e
might shuttle from one role to the other as we deal with people at large. This
is absurd: peopl e d o no t wan t to be th e chil d t o my mother, whateve r tha t
would mean, and I have no desire t o be the child of every mother-surrogat e
(that is , person ) wh o come s m y way . The motherin g relatio n i s a highl y
specific relation , with a particular psychology and a particular se t o f obliga tions. I t i s ludicrous to sugges t tha t w e should g o aroun d duplicatin g this
relation i n ever y social encounter o f ou r lives . I t woul d b e condescending ,
fake, an d comical .
Should I b e able t o disciplin e people wh o don' t d o a s I tel l them? A m I
expected t o buy everybody Christmas presents? Presumably Held's sugges tion i s not suppose d t o b e take n s o literally. But i f i t is not, the n i t quickly
collapses into the bland (but worthy) injunction to treat everybody with kindness an d concern . Hel d seem s t o b e committin g th e followin g fallaciou s
inference: mother s (ideally! ) treat thei r childre n wit h kindness and consid eration; it is good t o treat people with kindness and consideration ; therefor e
we should treat everybod y as if we were thei r mothers . Th e problem , obviously, i s that kindnes s and consideratio n ar e no t th e exclusiv e property o f
mothers, thoug h i t sometimes sounds a s if Held think s that the y are. Onc e
her argumen t i s detached fro m motherhoo d specifically , i t become s indis tinguishable fro m th e entirel y nonfeminis t injunctio n t o car e abou t one' s
fellows an d trea t the m well . I coul d no t subscrib e mor e whole-heartedl y to
that injunction , but i n s o doing I a m clearl y not proposin g t o recas t traditional mora l theor y alon g feminis t lines .
Actually, i t strikes me a s somewhat reactionary, fro m a feminist point of
view, to give mothering the central role. If mothering is where real goodnes s


lies, then w e are all under a n obligation to be mothers, since we should striv e
to be a s good a s possible; bu t sinc e "ought" implie s "can, " onl y women fal l
under thi s edict, and s o alland onlywome n ar e oblige d t o be mothers ,
assuming tha t the y ar e biologicall y capable. Bu t thi s assign s to wome n th e
patriarchal obligatio n o f havin g childre n an d bringin g the m up , wit h this
obligation morall y trumping an y other project s that they might entertain. I
doubt tha t Hel d woul d welcom e thi s resul t o f he r position , bu t i t follow s
logically fro m wha t she i s saying. Held's vie w i s also reactionary, a t leas t by
implication, in a more genera l way. Insofar as it selects the famil y as the focus
of ou r mora l concern , i t is only too likel y t o lead t o indifferenc e an d wors e
when i t comes t o thos e no t relate d t o u s b y blood ties , since famil y feelin g
cannot be simply willed into existence. In order to extend ou r mora l concer n
beyond th e fiel d o f our intimates , we need impersona l principle s o f justice
and consideration , o r th e despise d apparatu s o f "male " mora l thinking .
Held has some subsidiary concerns to which she thinks a feminist perspective wil l contribute . Sh e ha s a chapte r deplorin g th e commercializatio n o f
culture in capitalist countries suc h as the United States, and sh e suggests that
feminists wil l shar e he r condemnation . Maybe , but agai n ther e i s nothin g
distinctively feminis t about th e complaint , righ t o r wrong , tha t contempo rary culture has been debased b y the power of big economic interests. There
is also a rather tire d and unconvincin g chapter abou t violence and gender, in
which it is predictably maintained tha t men ar e responsible fo r violence and
war, while women are pacific and nurturing. Th e empirica l grounds fo r this,
as always, are inconclusive, and Hel d certainl y oversimplifies the attitudes of
men and women toward violence and its prevention. I t is odd, too, to sugges t
that the family is the place to look for a nonviolent culture when, as we know,
there i s so much violence within families, and no t all of it committed b y men.
Families are a s much a part of the proble m a s a part of the solution . But th e
wickedness of women seem s not t o appear i n her worldview , except, I suppose, a s the resul t o f mal e domination .
Held's idea l societ y would b e dedicated , sh e says , t o th e "flourishin g of
children," with that aim being accorded a higher priorit y than i t is now. It is
hard t o disagree wit h the sentiment behind this , but it should no t be forgotten tha t th e well-bein g o f adult s i s als o o f importance . Childre n becom e
adults, after all, and thei r problem s don' t sto p when the y do. I t is idiotic t o
suppose tha t i f childre n wer e give n mor e attention , th e ill s o f th e worl d
would disappear. Indeed , fro m Held' s poin t o f view, it is not easy to see how
more motherin g coul d b e th e solutio n t o ou r problems , sinc e sh e believes
that i t is women, not men , wh o now shape th e mora l outloo k o f the youn g
during thei r developmen t (th e men bein g of f a t wor k an d war) . On e ca n
readily imagine a dystopian future in which the young are catered t o lavishly
while th e ol d ar e lef t t o rack an d ruin .
And the n ther e i s a mor e strictl y philosophical matter , whic h i s Held' s
persistent denigratio n o f the us e of abstract rule s in morality, viewing them
as someho w cu t of f fro m contex t an d feeling . This i s a tendentious carica -


ture. Abstract rules can be rules about feeling and action, and they can always
be qualified t o allow for variations of context. The rul e that one should trea t
others a s one woul d wish to be treated onesel f i s by no means an abstractio n
removed fro m concrete reality. Such rules play an indispensable moral role.
A moralit y without them woul d b e vulnerabl e t o caprice , specia l pleadin g
and shee r chaos . If genera l rule s ar e someho w characteristic of male mora l
thinking (which I doubt), then men have made a contribution to morality of
great moment , whic h it would be foll y t o repudiate o n ground s o f feminist
Annette C . Baler's boo k i s more successfu l tha n Held's . She , too , write s
from a feminis t standpoint, bu t sh e i s much les s anxious t o conver t ever y
insight into a victory for feminism . I t must also be said that her book is clearly
superior t o Held' s fo r intellectua l substance an d literar y style. This i s no t
because she is any less of a feminist than Held; she is just a more circumspect
and war y philosopher. Sh e know s what it takes to establis h a philosophical
position. He r discussion s of trust, in particular, constitute a serious effort at
understanding; and her treatment of Hume and Kant on the role of emotion
and reaso n i n ethic s shows real scholarl y ability.
But she, too, occasionally lapses into ideological bias and dubious rhetoric .
Take her discussio n of Hume. Unlik e Held, Baier has the grace to acknowledge that many of Hume' s centra l doctrines prefigure themes that are dea r
to contemporary feminis t philosophers, and sh e discusses Hume with sensitivity and resourcefulness. There is no tendency here to disagree wit h Hume
because he was a man. In a pair of essays called "Hume, th e Women's Moral
Theorist?" and "Hume , the Reflectiv e Women's Epistemologist?" Baier contends tha t Hume' s philosoph y fits the kin d o f mora l outloo k tha t Gilliga n
claimed t o fin d exemplified by females, suggesting that Hum e i s "an unwitting virtual woman." But surely it is a contortion t o infer from Hume' s moral
theory that he has a female moral faculty, rather than inferring that his (and
her) kind o f positio n is intrinsically gender-neutral. B y Baier's method, any
good ide a coul d b e pu t dow n t o femaleness . Th e attraction s o f Hume' s
thought ar e purel y intellectual ; they ar e no t th e consequence s o f som e fe male essenc e tha t occasionall y takes up residenc e i n men' s bodies . Hume' s
position avoid s th e nonnaturalis m o f mor e "cognitivist " positions , an d i t
carries al l the appea l o f empiricist theories i n general. That is why it was so
strongly favore d b y logical positivism, a male bastion i f ever ther e was one.
Baier's main theme is trust. Her plain t is that trust has not been accorde d
the plac e i n mora l theor y tha t it s importance warrants . Trust , sh e thinks,
should be the centra l concep t of ethics. She sees it as woven into virtually all
human encounters , fro m th e mos t warml y personal t o th e mos t austerel y
economic. Sh e also appreciate s it s intense psychologica l significance for us ,
both a s a source of well-being and a s a possible source of emotional distress .
We can't do withou t trust, but it s abuse can be devastating. Trust is not th e
same as merely believing that someone wil l behave reliably, since that migh t
depend upo n a mutuall y know n powe r t o tak e reveng e o n violation s of


contract. Trust is faith in the goo d wil l and th e good sens e of others, a sort of
leap in the dark. One of the things it seems to take at least a lifetime to learn is
whom t o trust, an d when . Mistakes as to who is trustworthy are amon g th e
most emotionall y costl y that huma n being s ca n make .
The importanc e o f trust is surely one of the few areas o f moral agreemen t
that w e have. Fo r thi s reason, an y philosophica l attemp t t o clarif y th e concept, and t o enable us to do better a t trusting and being trusted , ca n only be
to th e good . Afte r readin g Baier' s hundre d o r s o page s o n th e subject ,
however, I did not feel particularly enlightened. Th e proble m i s that it is very
hard t o say anything philosophicall y interesting abou t trust , despit e it s human significance . W e ar e bette r educate d i n th e way s o f trus t b y works of
literature an d b y experience tha n b y quasi-conceptual investigation s o f it s
necessary an d sufficien t conditions . I suspec t tha t thi s i s th e rea l reaso n
behind th e relativ e neglect o f th e topi c i n mora l philosophy . I t i s not tha t
trust is a concept o f more interes t t o women than men, no r tha t i t somehow
conflicts wit h othe r mora l idea s favore d b y men; it is simply difficult t o d o
any goo d philosoph y o n th e concept . Onc e trus t ha s been free d fro m th e
narrow domain o f contractual obligation, as Baier rightly says it should be, it
is hard t o come u p wit h anythin g genera l an d illuminatin g to sa y about it .
The mos t political chapter o f Baier's book, called "Ethic s in Many Differ ent Voices, " has some curiou s an d disturbin g moments . Her e sh e is at he r
most self-consciously feminist. Speakin g of the presenc e o f women philoso phers i n academi c institutions , she writes:
We hav e show n ourselves capable of panderin g t o mal e fantasies a s well as
having ou r ow n alternative fantasies. I n philosoph y seminars, as in th e bou doir, som e wil l prove protectiv e o f fragil e male egos, other s wil l fulfil l th e
worst nightmare s of the castratin g woman by putting som e teeth int o thei r
philosophical gri p o n mal e mora l theories . . . . [O]ther s alternat e thei r
styles i n disconcertin g ways, o r simpl y display that postmenopausa l ris e in assertiveness which should b e n o surprise , bu t ofte n doe s disconcer t thos e wh o
suffer assault s fro m feist y ol d women who ha d bee n meeke r an d mor e diplomatic when younger.

Wow. I don't kno w what kind of seminars Baie r has been attending , bu t my
own femal e colleagues simpl y proceed b y makin g thei r point s a s incisively
and civill y a s is appropriate. I hav e neve r fel t tha t m y eg o wa s being protected b y women, beyond wha t any tactful perso n woul d do, nor hav e I fel t
imperiled, i n th e semina r roo m o r i n th e boudoir , b y castratin g teet h o r
postmenopausal predators . I s it really necessary to say that i n philosophy we
try to seek the truth, and tha t hones t criticism, constructive and destructive ,
is part of that enterprise? Seriou s philosopher s o f either se x remember onl y
that simple rule when wondering ho w to comport themselve s in the semina r
Later in the same essay Baier raises the question o f tenure for women. She
tells us that women "tend t o get into thei r writin g stride a s men o f the sam e


age ar e losin g steam, " s o tha t w e would d o wel l no t t o insis t on th e sam e

quantity o f publishe d wor k fo r youn g wome n a s fo r youn g men . "Wil l
enough wome n professionally survive their hig h estroge n years , will they be
able t o squeez e ou t enoug h article s while they are menstruating , gestating ,
and lactating? " No w there i s a problem . Baie r suggests , a s a solution , tha t
women migh t be allowed to delay their ow n tenure decision s until they ar e
fifty. Apart fro m th e obviou s point tha t such a delay would remove mos t of
the rationale for the tenure hurdle , thi s whole line of thought is dangerously
close to the kin d of reactionary stuf f sometime s peddled b y prefeminist me n
who want to keep the academ y exclusively male. What Baier is saying, when
you get right down to it, is that women are biologically incapable of perform ing as well as men during the first several decades of their academic life. This
strikes me as false, an d a s an insult to women. But the n I am a feminist who
believes i n th e equa l treatmen t o f wome n and men , an d als o tha t feminis t
philosophy is not much better tha n feminis t physics or feminis t logic. Philosophically, i t turns ou t t o be a dead end .


Foot: Goo d Things

Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot
and Moral Theory
edited b y Rosalind Hursthouse ,
Gavin Lawrence , and Warre n Quin n
Oxford, 199 5

Suppose I perfor m a n actio n certifie d b y moralit y a s goodsay , givin g

money to charity. I then d o something goo d becaus e it is good. W e might say
that thi s action ha d th e mora l propert y goodness an d tha t in acknowledgin g
this to be so I had a reason t o perform it . Anyone else has an equal reason t o
perform th e sam e action , whic h is good n o matte r wh o perform s it . Thus,
generalizing: morality is aptly seen as a set of principles that ascribe values to
states o f affair s an d thereb y provid e reason s fo r bringin g thos e state s o f
affairs about . Moralit y says what we ought t o do an d insofa r a s we grasp it s
dictates we have the reason s i t specifies: w e know what we ought t o do, an d
that w e ought t o d o i t is a reaso n fo r doin g it .
This commonsens e pictur e make s man y philosopher s squirm , an d no t
because the y ar e avowe d mora l nihilists . There ar e tw o main reasons . Th e
first is that it seems to presuppose mora l "cognitivism" : the agen t recognizes
goodness as an objectiv e property tha t may be instantiated b y his actions. By
ascribing it to an action, he comes to know an objective truththat his action
is (o r wil l be ) good. Thi s makes some philosopher s nervous , because i t suggests a metaphysics they don't lik e the look of, whereby goodness become s a
"queer" propert y o f things .
There i s a secon d reaso n wh y th e pictur e i s found rebarbative : i t entails
that morality affords reasons fo r action that fail to take into account what the
agent ma y himsel f desire o r wha t ma y b e i n hi s interest . Onc e I se e tha t

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Jul y 18 , 1995) .




giving money to charity is good I have a reason t o do it, but that reason hold s
whether o r no t I wan t to giv e mone y t o charity. I ma y not car e abou t th e
people wh o will be benefited, but ther e i s still a reason fo r m e to do ittha t
they wil l b e benefited . S o moral reason s d o no t appea r t o depen d o n m y
contingent desires . T o man y philosopher s tha t i s hard t o take : ho w coul d
reasons no t involv e desires?
Philippa Foo t i s foremost amon g thos e wh o have jibbed a t the notio n o f
reasons tha t are independent o f desires. Sh e doesn't believ e in goodness a s a
property that , once recognized , provide s reasons fo r action . Moralit y itself
does not , fo r her , suppl y any reasons fo r action ; reasons com e in only when
agents hav e desires tha t happe n t o conform t o morality's prescriptions :
Moral judgments are, I say , hypothetical imperatives in the sens e that they
give reason s for actin g only in conjunction with interest s and desires . W e
cannot chang e that, though w e could kee p u p th e pretenc e tha t it is otherwise. T o han g onto th e illusion , and trea t mora l judgments a s necessarily
reason-giving, i s something I woul d compare t o a simila r choice i n matter s
of etiquette; an d indee d w e do find some wh o treat th e consideration tha t
something is "bad form " o r "no t done " a s if it had a magical reason-giving

That a n actio n i s morally good i s thus not a reason wh y I shoul d d o it . I

have no more reason t o refrain from murder o n account of its badness than I
do t o refrai n fro m holdin g m y for k i n m y righ t han d whe n i n England ,
where it isn't done. Reasons enter th e picture only if I happen t o desire to act
in accordance wit h the rul e in question. Morality thus has no intrinsic rational authorit y over ou r wills . There is nothing contrar y to reason abou t no t
doing the right thing, and irrationality can only consist in not doing what will
best satisf y ou r desire s (which may be egoisti c or altruistic).
This doctrin e is rightly seen a s subversive and disturbing . The mer e fac t
that something is good i s not, accordin g to Foot , eve n a start at providin g a
reason t o do it; it is the wron g kind of consideration altogether . W e get into
the real m o f reason s onl y when w e dig around i n someone' s actua l desire s
and decid e tha t h e happen s t o want to do variou s things, a s it might b e t o
keep promises. Reasons are internal to the agent an d variable across agents;
morality's apparent universalit y is a fiction. Thi s i s a radical view. Instead o f
being able to say to the miscreant, "You should do such and such" and expec t
this to supply him with a reason, we can only say, "If you look inside yourself,
you wil l se e that yo u reall y want to do suc h and such. " Rational persuasio n
then come s t o an en d i f he retorts , "Actually , I don' t wan t to do suc h an d
such, than k you very much. "
Such a vie w put s Philipp a Foot , th e mode l o f propriety , n o sor t o f wil d
woman, into the same camp as the most extreme mora l nihilist. She does no t
reject th e content of ordinary moralit y or favo r existentia l choice as the way
*Philippa Foot , Virtues and Vices, Berkeley : Universit y of California Press , 1978 , p . 29 .


to kick-start a moral psychology ; but sh e does hol d tha t there is no sens e in

which to be moral is to be on the side of reason, that it is irrational, indeed, t o
be guide d b y morality if your desire s don' t inclin e yo u tha t way . There is
nothing unreasonabl e abou t someon e wh o full y accept s that promise keep ing is good, ye t sees absolutely nothing in favo r o f doing it . If he desire s t o
keep promises and fail s to, then he is being unreasonable; no t otherwise. For
Foot, moralit y is practically inert .
It migh t be possibl e to hol d a simila r positio n in respec t of logic . We
normally think that a n inference's being valid is a reason t o make it, and its
being invalid a reason no t to make it. Asked for my reason fo r believing that
q, I might say that it follows by modus ponens fro m p and "i f p then q"my
reason i s that thi s is a valid rule of inference. A Footian woul d say that this
was a mistake . Validity itself is not a reaso n fo r formin g one' s belief s in a
certain way ; rather, w e need t o determin e whethe r th e thinke r desire s t o
reason validly . If sh e doe s not , sh e i s not bein g irrationa l i n reasonin g b y
invalid rules of inference, concluding that p from "q and not-p," say . We may
hope that people will desire to reason as logic says they should, but we can't
accuse them o f unreaso n i f they fai l to .
Such a vie w o f logica l reasoning wil l strik e mos t peopl e a s radica l an d
bizarre: they will incline to the view that logic supplies us with a set of reasons
for formin g our belief s according t o certain rule s an d no t others . Ye t Foot
and thos e wh o thin k lik e he r (includin g Bernar d Williams ) rejec t th e
analogous positio n wit h respect t o morality. Assuming that the y would no t
embrace the view that logical reasons depend on our desires, they must then
hold tha t goodness and validit y differ fundamentall y when it comes to pro viding reasons. An opponen t o f their position , suc h a s myself, will wonde r
how to justify thi s difference and why it should be thought necessar y to deny
the commonsense view of ethical reasons. If reasons do not generally hav e to
depend o n desire s t o be reasons , why must they in th e specia l case of mo rality?
Virtues and Reasons collect s together a grou p o f distinguishe d contributors, wh o no d i n th e directio n o f th e honore e an d the n tal k abou t wha t
interests them. Some of the book is about Foot's moral philosophy , but a lot
of it isn't. The paper s ar e o f a predictably professiona l quality , though no t
very groundbreaking. I shal l comment on a few of thos e tha t engag e mos t
directly with Foot's views on mora l reason .
Warren Quinn's paper, "Putting Rationality in its Place," is the best in the
volume, both in its clarity and i n the correctness of its arguments. He under mines Foot's position in the most direct way possible, by arguing that desire s
considered i n themselve s cannot be reason s at all , only judgments o f valu e
can. Reasons have to be justificatory, since they show an action to be rational;
they cannot be merely causal. But since only propositions can justify, reason s
must be prepositional. This shows that desire s cannot be reasons, sinc e desires are no t propositions . So the desir e theory need s t o be reformulated t o
the effec t tha t proposition s about desire s constitute reasons .


But whic h propositions abou t desires? There seem t o be only two serious
options: first, the proposition that I have the desire; second, th e propositio n
that satisfyin g th e desir e woul d b e a goo d thin g i n som e way . Th e firs t
possibility is surely inadequate: wh y should the mere fact that I have a desire
be a reason t o act on it? Quinn give s the example of a brute desire to turn o n
any radi o I com e across . Surel y a reason shoul d mak e i t apparent tha t m y
action has some good attache d t o it. But the mere fac t that I have the desir e
fails t o delive r that . An d wha t abou t desire s i t i s no t goo d t o ac t on , sa y
jumping of f a hig h buildin g whe n unde r th e influenc e o f vertigo ? Isn' t i t
really because satisfying a given desire is good that it is reasonable (when it is)
to ac t on it ?
So we move on t o the secon d alternative: the proposition tha t if satisfyin g
my desire is a good thing, this gives me a reason t o act on it. But this explicitly
assigns a valu e to something : t o th e satisfactio n of a desire . S o the desir e
theory is not an alternative to the theory tha t locates reasons i n values themselves; i t i s simply a specia l case o f tha t theory . W e nee d a n independen t
ascription of value for a desire t o become a reason. Th e reaso n fo r acting on
the desire is that some good wil l come of it. The desir e causes the action, but
its reasonableness depend s o n th e non-causa l property o f goodness .
This shows that even for egoistic desires an ascription of value is needed if
they ar e t o becom e reasons . Bu t the n th e obviou s commonsense poin t t o
make about moral reasons is that they can function simply in virtue of moral
values, or the recognition of such. My reason for giving money to charity was
that I saw it as morally good; just as my reason fo r eating a banana would be
that I saw it as prudendally good. If I am asked to justify these actions I do so
in th e sam e basic way: by showing that the y have goo d results , morally o r
prudendally. I certainly don't justify the m by simply recording th e presenc e
of an urge, though I might cite this as their cause ; and i f I do so this is really
an elliptical form of the fulle r proposition tha t it was a desire whose satisfaction would be a good thing . Even if. some good attache s to th e satisfactio n of
any desire at all, the point stil l standsthat it is this goodness that constitutes
the reaso n fo r actin g on it . Suppos e w e were t o identif y ou r desir e wit h a
particular brain state; can it then be seriously maintained that our reaso n fo r
doing somethingour justificationis simply that we are in this brain state?
That migh t wel l b e what causes us to act , but i t is not i n virtu e of thi s tha t
desires supply reasonsthey do so only because they meet certain evaluative
conditions. I t i s reasonable t o ac t on ou r desire s whe n an d onl y when i t is
good t o satisf y them . Thu s value s enter int o reason s fro m th e start . Th e
upshot o f Quinn' s pape r i s that Foot' s desir e theor y ha s misconceive d th e
nature o f reason s quit e fundamentally , and i n doin g s o ha s generate d a
pseudoproblem abou t mora l reasons . Practica l reaso n i s concerned b y it s
nature wit h value s as such: they ar e it s proper subjec t matter.
Gavin Lawrence arrives at a similar position, though a t greater and mor e
diffuse length . It is odd that he makes no mention of Quinn's work in view of
the similarit y between the m an d th e fac t tha t the y wer e colleague s unti l


Warren's tragic early death b y suicide as this volume was being prepared. (I
became friend s with Warren a t UCLA in 1979 : that a person o f his charm,
kindness, and integrity , as well as intellectual talents, should take his own life
is the kin d of thing to which it is impossible to become reconciled.) Lawrence
makes th e sam e goo d poin t abou t th e foundationa l rol e o f value s in th e
operation o f practical reason. It would have been interestin g to know Foot's
reaction to these arguments an d it is a pity that she hasn't contributed replies
to the paper s i n this volume.
Of the other contributions those by Simon Blackburn and John McDowell
make an opposing pair. McDowell, writing with the preacherly obscurity that
has come, regrettably, to characterize his work, offers t o defend a new kind
of moral naturalism that reaches back to Aristotle. His point seems to be that
since the ris e of science in the seventeent h century we have become steepe d
in a vie w o f th e natura l worl d a s comprising onl y the kind s o f fact s men tioned by the physical sciences, but that the Greeks would have found a place
for a wide r set , includin g fact s involvin g moral values . The ideolog y sur rounding scienc e has made u s tunnel-visioned, so that w e suppose values to
be grounded merel y i n subjectiv e human responses .
So far, not s o unreasonable. But , in opposition t o this , McDowell argues
for a view o f nature tha t ha s "intelligibl e order" built into it : "the worl d of
nature is internal to th e spac e o f logos, in which thought ha s it s being," h e
intones. Bu t what could thi s mean? How "internal"? Th e idea i s in obvious
danger of reducing either to a triviality or to an obvious falsehood (assuming
we rejec t idealism , a s McDowel l wants us to) . Eithe r i t mean s simpl y that
thought succeeds in representing th e worldour thoughts sometimes correspond t o ho w things are; which is trivial. Or i t means tha t natur e contain s
thought itself, which is idealism o r mayb e panpsychism. I t is of course true
that objectiv e reality must b e suc h tha t though t ca n represen t it , i f it doe s
represent it ; but i t surely doesn't follo w that "the natural world is not constitutively independent o f the structur e of subjectivity," in the sense that there
would be no such world if there were no such subjectivity. Kantian idealism
does not follo w fro m the correspondence theor y of truth. McDowell is pushing for the idea (I use the phrase advisedly) that thought and natur e shar e a
common feature or structure, but it is notoriously hard t o make sense of this
without implyin g idealism. Hume sai d w e spread ou r mind s o n th e world ;
McDowell's view appears t o be that th e worl d i s already sprea d wit h mind.
Finding values in the world is then nothin g but finding that our mind s have
got there before us. It is difficult t o see what any of this could mean, unless it
is a frank espousal of the Kantian doctrine that the world of our experience is
really an experientia l world , that is , idealism. McDowell's discussion of this
central issue is so obscure, metaphorical , an d undevelope d tha t one ha s n o
idea whether anything can be made t o rest on it on behalf of moral realism.
Blackburn defends th e opposit e poin t of view: that values are reflections
of human sentiment, are subjective to the core. You know where you are with
Balckburn; at least you know where he wants you to be. His doctrine is that


"attitudes, o r feelings , or th e recognitio n o f reasons fo r actio n contai n som e

kind o f key to the natur e o f ethics." Ethic s is thus reall y a branch o f huma n
psychology, no t a discourse abou t objectiv e values . H e see s Foo t a s movin g
away from such projectivist theories (a s he calls them), notably in the gap tha t
exists fo r he r betwee n ethica l judgment an d reason s fo r action . Sh e i s psychologistic abou t mora l reason s bu t no t (apparently ) abou t mora l truths ,
while Blackburn favors a psychologism about values, too. Foot's view is a kind
of subjective-objectiv e hybrid , whil e Blackburn's is the pur e subjectiv e article.
What i s strang e i s tha t Blackbur n simpl y assumes , a s i f i t wer e no t a
substantive point , tha t mora l reason s mus t b e founde d i n contingen t atti tudes o f caring on the par t o f the agent; yet surely he would not want to say
this o f reason s i n logi c o r empirica l discoursewher e reason s exis t eve n
when nobod y care s wha t the y recommend . A s i t were , reason s don' t car e
whether w e care. Wha t prompt s thi s assumption, it seems, is that Blackbur n
thinks reason s mus t influenc e th e willmus t hav e motivationa l force . Bu t
this conflate s a conceptual wit h a psychologica l question. Conceptually , a n
action's being good is a reason t o do it ; psychologically, I may be indifferen t
to goodness an d it s reason-giving power, an d henc e ignor e what it tells me.
So moral reason s can exist even thoug h the y mov e me not at all, on accoun t
of my wickedness or stupidity. Blackburn takes it for granted that ethics must
somehow be a matter o f human psychology , the only serious questio n bein g
whether th e righ t par t o f human psycholog y t o invoke is beliefs or desires ,
cognition o r conation. H e simply does no t allow space to the idea, defende d
in thi s volum e b y Quin n an d Lawrence , tha t value s might figur e founda tionally in the wa y ethics give us reasons fo r action . H e canno t contemplat e
for ethic s what he would presumably accept for logic: a gap between reason s
and psychologica l dispositions .
What is the attractio n o f the projectivis t position t o start with? Blackburn
rests hi s argumen t o n consideration s o f metaphysica l economy : wh y hav e
values in th e worl d i n additio n t o value-free fact s that imping e o n people' s
sentiments? All the necessary explaining can be done in terms of the facts o n
which value s supervene. Thi s is a perilous argument , however , threatenin g
to eliminat e fro m th e worl d everythin g tha t i s supervenient o n somethin g
else. Wh y not just mak e d o wit h particles i n space an d thei r impac t o n ou r
sensibility? Why indeed hav e sensibility at all, in view of its supervenience o n
the physical ? Blackburn's oppositio n t o objective moral fact s ca n b e gener alized t o alarmin g effect . H e need s t o tel l u s mor e abou t ho w t o limi t th e
strength o f the argument; h e also needs t o say more about wh y explanator y
utility shoul d b e the onl y criterion o f the real .
The essentia l thing about morality, as G. E. Moore lon g ago recognized, is
that i t stand s abov e th e flu x o f feeling s and desire s an d tendencie s t o act ,
because yo u ca n as k of an y o f thes e whethe r i t is morally good. Goodnes s
cannot b e a mere projectio n fro m huma n sentiment s because , a s a matter o f
conceptual truth , it is always possible to ask of any given sentiment whether i t


is a goo d sentimen t to have . No matte r whethe r everyon e agree s o n wha t

they feel approval for, it never follows that what they approve is really good.
Judgments o f value are logically independent o f the existence of patterns of
desire. You cannot deduce an ought from an iseven at this late stage of the
twentieth century.


Collingwood: Homag e to Education

Essays in Political Philosophy
by R . G . Collingwood,
edited b y David Bouche r
Oxford, 198 9
The Social and Political Thought
of R. G. Collingwood
by Davi d Bouche r
Cambridge, 198 9

Robin Collingwoo d (1889-1943 ) wa s born seventee n year s afte r Bertran d

Russell and die d twenty-seve n years before him. Given the style and conten t
of Collingwood' s philosophical work, this fact ought to seem surprising . Fo r
there is no apparent mark of Russell's influence, nor o f those who influenced
him, upon Collingwood' s own philosophical corpus . Fo r better o r worse, h e
stands aparteve n alooffro m th e Britis h analytical tradition exemplifie d
by Russell . Or perhap s fo r bette r and worse : better , becaus e h e thereb y
created a distinctiv e style o f philosophy , i n whic h history , no t scienc e (o r
formal logic) , was the mode l an d focu s of interest ; worse , because hi s ow n
thought lack s som e o f th e clarit y an d rigo r an d analytica l dept h o f th e
"school" he opposed, o r ignored. No t for him the dry deductions of Russell's
Principia Mathematica: consciousnes s in history was what excited hi s interest .
Yet there exists a certain affinit y betwee n th e politica l and socia l writings
of the tw o men. Both see m t o have bee n draw n t o political writing more by
extramural convulsion s (i.e., wars) than b y theoretical inclination , feeling i t
to be thei r dut y t o se t the worl d straigh t o n ho w i t shoul d ru n itself . Bot h
display th e sam e belie f i n th e civilizin g role o f dispassionat e reason , th e
importance o f education , th e danger s o f submissio n t o authority . Ther e is
the sam e ton e o f paine d rebuk e i n thei r politica l admonitions , a s i f the y

Reprinted wit h permissio n from th e London Review of Books (Augus t 16 , 1990) .



cannot quit e believ e wha t the y ar e witnessingcivilizatio n confronte d b y

barbarity. They ar e men o f the ivor y tower compelle d t o look incredulousl y
down o n th e swarmin g hordes below, and plea d fo r order. Oddly enough ,
however, they seem reluctant t o hail each other and join voices in the Battl e
against Confusion: there is no mention o f Russell in either o f the books here
reviewed, and I do not recall Russell having a good wor d t o say for Colling wood. Philosophically , eac h wa s on th e wron g side , s o far a s the othe r was
concerned; politically , they woul d hav e go t on famously.
Like the boy Bertie, young Robin was educated a t home, where he showed
remarkable precocity . Hi s father, wh o was John Ruskin' s secretary, under took th e tas k of educating hi s son himself; Robi n receive d fro m hi m a very
wide an d thoroug h educationi n ancien t an d moder n languages , history ,
science, music , art . I n hi s Autobiography Collingwoo d report s havin g ha d a
certain amoun t o f trouble , a t th e ag e o f eight , wit h undertstanding Kant' s
ethics, but this only determined hi m to become a philosopher whe n he gre w
up. (Russel l had a similar experience wit h Euclid when he was a lad.) These
halcyon days were abruptly pu t a stop to when Collingwood mino r reache d
fourteen, a t which time he was sent to Rugby School. H e loathed i t there. "I
went t o Rugby, " h e said , "wher e w e though t winte r a tim e fo r playin g
footballand summe r a tim e fo r thinkin g about playin g football." Libera tion cam e i n 190 8 when he gaine d a classical scholarshi p to Universit y College, Oxford . Fou r year s later h e wa s elected t o a philosophy fellowshi p at
Pembroke College .
He spen t th e res t o f hi s professiona l lif e i n Oxford , ascendin g t o th e
Waynflete Chai r in 1935 , which lifted th e teachin g burden of thirty to fort y
hours a week which he ha d hithert o endured . Bu t h e was , David Bouche r
tells us, as intellectually isolated within his own university as he was from th e
broader philosophica l currents represente d b y Russell. His chief influences
came from quite elsewherenotably , from th e Italia n idealists , Croce, Gen tile, and d e Ruggiero. Neithe r di d Collingwood much care fo r the compan y
of hi s Oxfor d colleagues , wh o include d Bosanque t an d Bradley ; h e eve n
went so far a s to remove himsel f to Didcot. He wa s pretty muc h ignore d b y
the philosophical establishment during hi s lifetime, and i n his obituary in the
New York Times was rioted mor e fo r hi s work in Roman archaeology tha n fo r
any philosophica l innovation. Nevertheless, he wa s a popular an d effectiv e
teacher i n Oxford , renowne d fo r hi s clarit y o f presentatio n an d fo r hi s
exceptional speaking voice, which h e had traine d especiall y for the purpos e
of lecturing .
What distinguishe s Collingwoo d fro m th e ru n o f philosopher s i s th e
breadth o f his interests, and his desire to develop a philosophy that will find a
place for all of them. Multilingual, polymathic, hydratalented, omniskilled
he didn't want to be tied down to one way of looking at things. In particular ,
he didn't wan t to be confined t o the present : historica l knowledge ha d t o be
integral t o philosophy , a s i t was for Hegel . An d h e like d hi s influence s t o
come fro m a differen t tim e o r place , preferabl y filtere d throug h a n alie n



medium, made perspicuous by learning. Th e Italia n philosophers o f history

fulfilled hi s archaeological predilection s perfectly .
In Essays in Political Philosophy, a somewha t mixe d collectio n o f Colling wood's publishe d an d unpublishe d writings , w e fin d discussion s o f eco nomics, moral action, punishment, religion, liberalism, fascism, communism,
education, war , sex , Plato , Marx , Freud . Som e o f thes e essay s are dated ,
others slight , but there is plenty of interest her e for reader s other tha n th e
dedicated Collingwoodian . I foun d "Economic s a s a Philosophica l Science "
and "Punishmen t an d Forgiveness " especiall y fresh an d insightful , both essays demonstratin g th e benefit s to b e derived fro m patien t an d seemingl y
pedantic conceptua l inquiry . Collingwood' s relaxed incisivenes s and mora l
acuity are her e displayed i n their sharpes t an d mos t engaging form .
Focusing on the essenc e of economic action , he brings ou t th e conflict of
interest inherent in any economic exchange, and argues that the idea of a just
wage or a just price is incoherent, a confusion of the moral and the economic .
"Indeed," h e remarks , " a renunciatio n o f purel y economi c aim s i s the es sence, negatively defined, o f the moral life." An economic action is defined a s
one perso n usin g anothe r a s the mean s t o hi s own ends b y permitting th e
other t o use him as a means to the end s o f that other .
Punishment is argued t o be a binding moral duty which is not merely consistent with forgiveness but ultimatel y indistinguishable from it . This is because
both attitudes or acts are directed, if they are properly conceived, at reformin g
the moral consciousness of the wrongdoer; the y are intended t o bring him back
into th e mora l community . Characteristically, Collingwoo d observes that "th e
most perfect punishment s involve no 'incidental ' pains at all. The condemna tion is expressed simpl y and quietl y in words, and goe s straight home." Theorists of punishment ar e advise d to study this subtle essay.
An abiding concern o f Collingwood's, stressed i n David Boucher's sympathetic an d thoroug h study , is that o f educatio n an d it s relation t o politics .
Education i s held t o be the provinc e of both paren t an d politician , and i t is
defined a s the proces s that create s an d sustain s civilization. Without proper
education, Collingwood contends, liberal democracy cannot function or even
survive. I n a n essa y unsparingl y entitle d "Ma n Goe s Mad, " writte n circ a
1936, h e fulminate s as follows :
the conceptio n o f politica l life a s permeating th e whol e community, of government as the politica l education o f th e people , i s the onl y alternative to
anarchy o n th e one han d an d th e rul e o f brute forc e on th e other. Th e
work o f governmen t is difficult enoug h i n an y case ; i t is only rendered pos sible if rulers can appeal, ove r th e head s o f criminals, to a body of public
opinion sufficientl y educate d i n politic s t o understand th e wisdo m of thei r
acts. Authoritaria n government, scorning the dialecti c of politica l life i n th e
name o f efficiency , an d imposin g ready-made solution s on a passiv e people ,
is deliberately cutting off th e branc h o n whic h it sits by de-educating its own
subjects, creatin g round itsel f a n atmospher e o f ignorance an d stupidity
which ultimatel y will make its own wor k impossible, and mak e impossible
even th e ris e of a better for m o f politica l life.


Contained i n thi s passag e i s an importan t thesi s o f what Collingwood aptl y

calls philosophica l politics : th e thesi s tha t ther e i s an interna l relatio n be tween libera l democracy an d educationa l attainment . Le t me spell out in my
own wa y what I thin k Collingwoo d i s getting a t here.
Democratic state s are constitutively committed t o ensuring and furtherin g
the intellectua l healt h o f the citizen s who compose them : indeed , the y ar e
only possibl e a t al l if peopl e reac h a certai n cognitiv e level . The reaso n i s
simple: rationa l governmen t b y the majorit y presuppose s tha t th e majorit y
are rationaltha t the y kno w wha t need s t o be known , that the y ca n thin k
effectively, tha t the y ar e no t blinded b y prejudice an d confusion . This pre supposition is , of course , buil t into th e electora l law s o f democrati c states :
children ma y not vote, nor ma y retarded people , no r ma y animals. Moder n
democracies ar e ruled , i n effect , b y a n educationa l o r intellectua l elite
consisting of sane adult huma n being s wh o have gone t o school. I t i s only a
contingent fac t that thi s elite constitutes the numerica l majority : it would be
possible i n principle fo r the children i n a society to outnumber th e adults or
for mos t adult s to suffer seriou s mental retardation as a result of pollution.
In such possible cases the minorit y of democratic ruler s would be obliged, as
they are now , to respect th e interest s o f the politicall y disenfranchised ma jority o f citizens , but th e vot e woul d belon g onl y t o thos e relativel y few
people wh o met th e intellectua l standards w e now actually require. Superi ority i n poin t o f adherenc e t o democrati c ideal s consist s no t i n majorit y
rule a s such but i n th e selectio n o f a nonarbitrary subse t of the populatio n
as thos e t o b e veste d wit h politica l powerwher e cognitiv e competenc e
is the operativ e criterio n o f selection. Thu s the prim e dut y o f a democrati c
state i s th e provisio n o f sufficien t mas s educatio n t o satisf y it s ow n pre conditions.
Other duties of state are often urged: the facilitation of personal freedom ,
the maintenance o f social order, the promotion o f happiness, th e defense of
the stat e against th e depredation s o f other states . Doubtless there are suc h
duties, but the y are no t integral t o the very concept o f democracy; the y ar e
not essentia l t o democrac y qua democracy . Democrac y i s define d a s tha t
system of social decision-making in which political agency attaches generall y
to th e citizen s o f a stat e (wit h th e proviso s just mentioned) ; bu t the n i t
follows, a s a theore m o f philosophica l politics , that rationa l politica l actio n
requires a suitable degree of intellectual competence o n th e par t of citizens
at largewhethe r thes e citizen s rul e directl y o r throug h electe d repre sentatives. Democracy an d educatio n (i n the wi