The Kantian doctrine of freedom turns on the idea that the acting agent is neither fully part of nature nor fully outside of nature. Nature, on this doctrine, is a totally causal system governed by strict laws of necessity. The acting agent is self-governed (according to Kant) by reason and bound by the moral law, and it would make no sense for the agent to be bound by the moral law if he wasn’t free to obey the moral law. Freedom here is a condition for the possibility of duty – the agent must be free from the causal/necessitarian order of nature, in other words. Whether or not Kant’s doctrine as a whole can withstand scrutiny is a matter of debate, but surely his fundamental insight is worth reflecting on: the possibility of free agency requires that the free agent not be subject to strict causal laws. Jaegwon Kim, in Psychophisical Laws, notes that Donald Davidson’s theory of anomalous monism was developed out of roughly Kantian concerns – Davidson accepts a picture of the physical world that is fully and causally determined, but wants to retain a place for mental autonomy and the possibility of free agency. Continue reading
The Birth of the Subject as the Death of Art
It is virtually unquestioned that the essence of art lies in the expression of the self. To give a dangerously vague definition of this doctrine: Art is the taking of something inner by way of some medium and rendering it external. It’d be fair to say that this is a watered-down and popular version of expressionism, which is a doctrine that ‘stresses the artist’s emotional attitude toward himself and the world,’ (H.W. Janson, History of Art, p. 666). This doctrine may have its origin in Kant, for whom aesthetic judgement of taste cannot be subsumed under any universal law or generalization, which seems to kick off the ‘turn to the subject’ in aesthetics – that is, post-Kant, aesthetics is primarily concerned with the inner state of the subject. This isn’t too far from romanticism – indeed, expressionism and romanticism are in some cases so similar it can be difficult to distinguish them:
Sellars and the Origin of the Theory of Folk Psychology
In Saving Belief, Lynne Rudder-Baker takes to task one of the two central doctrines within reductionist/eliminativist (RE) philosophies of mind: the doctrine of folk-psychology as an empirical theory. This doctrine, put simply, states that what traditional philosophers take to be the very ‘stuff’ of the mind – propositional attitudes, for example – is a kind of empirical theory and framework used in every-day, common-sense interaction and prediction of behaviour. Paul Churchland defines it thus: Continue reading
Notes on Naturalizing the Mind
Naturalizing intentionality is easy. We could go Searle’s route, and argue for a causal, but not ontological, reduction of intentionality and intentional states, as well as their emergence from brain processes. Intentionality here would be inseparable from consciousness, and would be a way of representing the world so we can act on it. Keeping with Searle, an arrangement of particles by an agent would be an example of derived intentionality, the same kind of intentionality that language has. Continue reading
Aquinas and Russell Against Anselm
In his essay on the ontological argument in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, Gareth B. Matthews makes an interesting observation about one of Aquinas’s lesser-known objections to the argument. The objection is fleshed out by reference to Russell’s theory of definite dsecriptions, and forms a pretty solid argument against Anselm. Continue reading
Moving Some Furniture Around in Mary’s Room
As far as important papers in the philosophy of mind go, Frank Jackson’s Epiphenomenal Qualia and What Mary Didn’t Know are pretty high up on the list of must-reads. They’ve spawned a mass of literature devoted to picking apart just what Mary did or didn’t know made all the more intriguing because Jackson himself later distanced himself from the argument. Every possible response to the argument has been (seemingly) given, and there’s ample reason to regard anyone writing on it the same as someone writing on substance dualism – interesting, no doubt, but somewhat well-worn. Continue reading
Ruminations on Essences and Modal Epistemology
A neo-Aristotelian account of modal epistemology is one which is built on the idea of essences – that is, prior to both ontology and epistemology is a things real definition:
…one way to understand real definitions is to take them to be expressed by propositions which tell us what a given entity is or would be. (Tuomas Tahko, An Introduction to Metametaphysics, p. 163)
An essence is a things real definition – it is what it is, to put it another way. The cash value of this is basically that to know an essence is simply to know what a given thing is:
To know something’s essence is not to be acquainted with some further thing of a special kind, but simply to understand what exactly that thing is. This, indeed, is why knowledge of essence is possible, for it is a product simply of understanding, not of empirical observation, much less of some mysterious kind of quasiperceptual acquaintance with esoteric entities of any sort. And, on pain of incoherence, we cannot deny that we understand what at least some things are, and thereby know their essences. (Lowe, Two Notions of Being, p. 39, quoted in An Introduction to Metametaphysics, p. 164)
An interesting question for an epistemology of essence identified by Tahko is just how much of an essence do we need to grasp in order to have an accurate picture of its existence and identity? A question I would add is, does this leave room for error if we take ‘grasp’ to have a classical Aristotelian meaning, where the mind abstracts the universal from the particular. Another area where I’d question is exactly what the role of the empirical is here, especially when regarding natural kinds like gold – where does the a priori start and the a posteriori start, or vice versa? The above is clearly a priori and largely rationalistic, and so would bode well for modal epistemologies of, say, abstract objects (as well as counterfactuals, with which most modal epistemology is done), but what of actual, concrete objects, for which empirical data is needed? To what extent are our conterfactuals constrained by the empirical?
I don’t want to go so far as to say that we need an account of essences, at least in Aristotelian terms, because there’s a lot of metaphysical baggage there that can be questioned, but a neo-Aristotelian account of essence may certainly help as far as modal epistemology goes. Tahko goes on to suggest a combination of both a priori and a posteriori but is somewhat pessimistic about how well the distinctions actually serve here. The payoff here, however, is that an account of essences may serve to bolster a modal epistemology by combining the empirical with the rationalistic. Timothy Williamson suggests that ‘constitutive facts’ (basically, background knowledge that stays constant when we consider counterfactuals) may play an important role. Constitutive facts ‘fix’, as it were, our modal considerations by showing that any counterfactual without such a constitutive fact would generate a contradiction (gold having a different atomic number than 79, for instance). Tahko suggests that an account of essences would supplement an account of constitutive facts by showing us just what facts actually are constitutive – thus, we can think of essences as non-modal constitutive facts.
Ontology: A Historiographical Sketch
Ontology is all the rage right now in philosophy (as much as anything in philosophy can be, anyway). New volumes on ontology and metaontology are popping up with increasing frequency, but there’s a bit of a lack of studies of ontology from a historiographical perspective, which is a shame, because it’s a fascinating thread to unravel (if anyone knows of any, please, point them out!).
Aristotle, in the ‘Metaphysics‘, said of metaphysics:
There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these others treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do. Now since we are seeking the first principles and the highest causes, clearly there must be some thing to which these belong in virtue of its own nature. If then those who sought the elements of existing things were seeking these same principles, it is necessary that the elements must be elements of being not by accident but just because it is being. Therefore it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes.
Ruminations on Quine and Quantifying
Quine is well known for his aversion to universals – his ontology of existential quantification rules out commitment to the existence of universls such as redness, tallness, etc. For Quine, first-order existential quantifier is ontologically committing, and it is this quantifer which quantifies over objects, of which properteis are predicated. Thus, to use a stock example, if we say ‘Socrates is mortal’, we can ‘quine’t it by translating it into a formal logic sentence – ∃x M(x), where M is mortal and x is Socrates – which tells us just what we are ontologically committed to. In this sentence, the domain of the existential quantifier includes x, therefore, we are ontologically committed to x. Thus, we can predicate properties of objects without being ontologically committed to universals.
Emergentism and the Problem of Psychological States
Emergence in the philosophy of mind is one of the more popular positions on the contemporary philosophical scene, and I myself have strong sympathies towards it. I’ve considered it to be one of the very rare philosophical doctrines that gives appropriate weight to both philosophical as well as scientific ideas – an example being John Searle’s commitment to seeing consciousness and the mind in general as biological phenomenon (I’m not a naturalist myself but I do think his heart is in the right place.