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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 3 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from December 1999 — January 2000:

  1. Cosmological proof of God's existence
  2. Democracy and obedience to the state
  3. Postmodernism and the end of 'self'
  4. Communicating infinite truths
  5. Russian philosophy
  6. Idea of lifelong learning
  7. Buddhism and reincarnation
  8. Justice, morality and the law
  9. Can killing people ever be right?
  10. The academic philosopher's work load
  11. Free will and determinism
  12. Moral relativity and moral absolutes
  13. Can mind be separated from body?
  14. Frege and Mill on proper names
  15. Are we born with morals?
  16. The case for Vegetarianism
  17. Can you be unhappy and not know it?

Sarah asked:

I have recently started an A-level R.E. course. My essay question is, Does the cosmological argument offer substantial proof for God's existence? Can you help me on where to start and the scholars involved?

Have a look and see what books/readings you can get hold of on the philosophy of religion. The contemporary philosophers Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga are two to look out for.

The most famous criticism of the Cosmological Argument is in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Although you will probably find the text too hard-going at your stage, you might well find that a commentary on Kant — there are many available — will say something useful about Kant's views on the Cosmological Argument.

Stephen Hawking, in his Brief History of Time, attempts to outflank the cosmological argument altogether, by questioning the assumption that an infinite series of events going back into the past involves an infinite time. I suspect that he has missed the philosophical point, however. As you will see below, the infinitude of time as such is not really the issue.

What is the cosmological argument? The best way I know to present the argument is with an analogy. Imagine that you are in the middle of an incredibly long spiral staircase, looking at a glass chandelier suspended on a chain. Looking up, you see the chain disappear into the sky. Now, a reasonable question would be, What is holding the chandelier up? If some clever Dick said, 'Well, every link on the chain is held by the preceding link, but the links go on to infinity,' you would not be impressed. That merely puts off the question 'What's holding it up?' indefinitely. To put off a question indefinitely is not the same as answering it.

But that seems to be just what someone is saying, when they argue that every event happens BECAUSE of its preceding cause, and so on to infinity!

If that argument does seem fishy to you, then the alternative seems to be to believe in a 'First Cause'. Either the chain of effects to causes is not infinite, because God is the first cause in the chain, or the chain of effects to causes is infinite, but the 'cause' of the infinite chain's existing, rather than not existing is outside of time altogether, in God's eternal will.

I have tried to make the Cosmological Argument appear 'substantial'. I don't think it is valid. I do think, however, that it is invalid for interesting reasons.

Geoffrey Klempner


David asked:

Having spent the last few days banging my head against a wall, I was wondering if you could save me a major headache by answering the following questions. Is democracy the 'least worst' form of government. And are there limits on the duty of obedience to the state, if so how can these be defined.

Is democracy the 'least worst' form of government? — The question assumes that government is for some purpose or set of purposes, and that the only dimension of assessment of different forms of government is how well, or how badly they accomplish their objectives. However, if a political philosopher were to put forward the argument that democracy is the only acceptable form of government — for example, that our duty of obedience to the state can only hold if the state is ruled by a democratically elected government — then it would not matter if democracy was the worst of all possible arrangements for getting things done.

That is not the only principled argument for democracy. Another argument is that the fundamental assumption of human equality is inconsistent with any form of government other than a democratic one.

Are there limits on the duty of obedience to the state? — This is the classic question of political philosophy. It would be impossible to attempt to answer it here. Roughly, the reasons given fall into two main categories. Either we are morally obliged to obey the state, in which case the question is how far this obligation extends before it is overridden by other, conflicting moral obligations. Or it is in our own best long-term interest, all things considered, to obey the state, in which case the question is under what circumstances one might make the well founded judgement that disobedience was in one's best long-term interests. My own inclination is towards the first, rather than the second strategy.

On the view that our obligation to obey the state is a moral obligation, it would seem to be the case prima facie that there can be other moral obligations which override it. When a moral claim is overridden, that does not imply that the claim itself is invalid. However, the moral obligation to obey the state is itself conditional on certain requirements being fulfilled. Consider the case of the Israeli Mordechai Vanunu, who gave away his country's atomic secrets. It is possible that he simply believed he was responding to an overriding moral imperative. An alternative explanation is that he believed that his government, in secretly stockpiling weapons without a democratic mandate had forfeited its moral claim on his obedience.

Geoffrey Klempner


M asked:

Does Postmodernism mean the end of the self?

I am researching the above question can you help?

In Analytic as well as Continental philosophy, there has been a shift away from the first-person approach to epistemology and the philosophy of mind (which one finds, for example, in the philosophy of Descartes) and towards a third-person view. Talk of the 'end of the self' is just an extreme expression of this shift. In the Analytic tradition, the British philosopher Derek Parfit argues in his book Reasons and Persons that the notion of personal identity cannot be logically defended, and that we should therefore place far less importance on the notion of a person. 'My' past and future 'selves' ought to be of no greater concern to me than all the other selves who might be affected by my actions. This quickly leads to a Utilitarian moral philosophy of the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

Insofar as postmodernism is seen as embodying the 'deconstructionism' of philosophers like Derrida, it does mean that we should no longer consider the author's view of his/her writing or artwork as having any privileged role in unravelling the meaning of their production. But now comes the twist: The view I have just characterised may be correct or incorrect, IT DOESN'T MATTER. Because if an artist or writer sets about their project with the idea that their conception of what they are doing has no decisive role, that they as individual selves should be invisible in their work, then the works that are produced as a result will simply confirm the idea of the 'end of the self'.

Geoffrey Klempner


Daye asked:

This isn't so much a philosophy question, but more of a teaching question. How does one take the infinite truths that they learn and encapsulate them into instant truths that people can read and understand? How can one take something that they found profound and a universal truth and help others to realize that too?

Your question is about teaching and also about philosophy. The philosopher who has thought about this question more than any other is Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations. But one could also cite the example of Descartes' Meditations.

Let's say that you have discovered a profound and universal truth and you write it down. That is not enough, because the reader needs to be persuaded of its truth. Well, suppose you give the argument, would that be enough? In philosophy, the answer would in many cases be, No. The reader can follow the logic of an argument and still fail to grasp the meaning of its conclusion. Something more needs to be done.

A good teacher can achieve more than can ever be achieved by the written page. In the process of dialogue one engages with an individual, and each individual's needs are different. The process by which you came to appreciate those truths is one you can repeat with others, and so understanding is passed on, not all at once, but in gradual stages.

What is remarkable about philosophical education, however, is how much we all have in common. Descartes conceived his great work, Meditations on First Philosophy from a heuristic standpoint. By adopting the very personal style of a series of private meditations, Descartes invites the reader to do the same. The reader is encouraged to look within themself, and find what Descartes finds there.

Wittgenstein, in the Philosophical Investigations, invites the reader to participate in a form of therapy. At every stage, he gives voice to the reader's doubts and worries. So you find a number of voices, besides Wittgenstein's own. Some times, it is not always easy to tell whether it is Wittgenstein speaking. Unlike Descartes, Wittgenstein never tells the reader where this is all leading. The process is completed when the reader has successfully battled with their illusions, when they are no longer tempted towards false theories of the nature of consciousness and the self.

My practical aims as a teacher are perhaps more modest than your question implies. I don't expect all my students to agree with me. It is enough that they learn to see the question. I do not see that as in any sense a failure. There is no philosophical truth that is so true that one cannot conceive how an intelligent person could be incapable of believing it.

Geoffrey Klempner


Valentin asked:

Why in the West don't philosophers know Russian philosophy and don't study it at their universities?

Let me first describe a prejudice that is widely held amongst the Western philosophers. The feeling is that the only philosophers who managed to keep their jobs in Russian universities up until the early 80's fell into two distinct categories. The first category comprised of those who were dedicated to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. The second category comprised of those who were prepared to compromise with the prevailing political orthodoxy in order to continue pursuing their philosophical work. The latter became very adept at avoiding the controversial issues, while at the same time giving the superficial impression of carrying out their work with full intellectual rigour.

It would be fair to say that Russian philosophers belonging to the first category were held in awe in the West rather than contempt. Marxism continues to be a major interest amongst Western philosophers (I realize that it is questionable to describe Marx as a 'Russian' philosopher!) What is awe-inspiring about the dedicated Marxist-Leninists was (and is) their loyalty to the theory in the face of all the atrocities that were committed in its name.

The Russian philosophers falling under the second category, the one's who survived by 'ducking and diving', by subterfuge, are admired for their survival instincts but not for their philosophy. How can you study a philosophical work hoping to learn something valuable from it when you know that every paragraph, every line and word, has been subject to self-censorship? It is an impossibility.

Apart from the well broadcasted work of dissidents, two exceptions that I am aware of to this summary Western judgement of philosophy from the former Eastern Bloc is Polish logic, which has always been held in very high regard, and the religious philosophy of Nicholas Berdyaev, who has continued to attract a small but dedicated following.

Geoffrey Klempner


A. Dierks asked:

If you think of lifelong learning, is it acceptable not to participate in lifelong learning?

There is a remark that was once attributed to the eminent Dr Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College and translator of Plato's Dialogues:

I am the Master of this College

And what I don't know isn't knowledge.

It is not necessary for a person to believe that they know everything that is worth knowing, in order for them to feel — perhaps at a certain time of their life — that they have had their fill of knowledge and learning. Nor need this be a matter of glorifying in one's ignorance. It is simply the realization that one has reached a comfortable plateau. — Is that a justifiable attitude?

In an age is one that has made a god of the ideal of personal growth, the view I have just expressed is often regarded with scornful disdain. One is 'never too old to learn'. Now the evening classes are packed with old folk learning Herbal Remedies and History, Indian Cuisine and Italian. I think that's great. But I have no criticism to make of those who choose to stay at home.

From a practical standpoint, we are told that today's job market makes emphasizes the need for continual re-training throughout one's working life. One cannot count any more on following a single career path. — I have lost count of the number of times I have heard that apology for wage slavery.

But, yes, I believe in lifelong learning. What I would seriously question is the view that the value or the cause of lifelong learning is somehow compromised if some persons refuse to jump on board.

Geoffrey Klempner


William asked:

Are there any Buddhists who do not believe in reincarnation. I have previously been told that 'no, it would be like a christian not believing in an afterlife'. This answer has nagged at me ever since — it seems hard to believe that it is intuitively correct, even though I know intuition is often false.

The interesting question here is what would be the philosophical implications of a person's sincerely combining the characteristic beliefs of Buddhism with disbelief in reincarnation. Whether or not there are in fact any such persons is an empirical matter. The fact that a view is absurd or illogical does not necessarily prevent people from believing it.

The concern of Christians (and Moslems and Jews) in the existence of an afterlife has a superficially similar motivation to the concern of the Buddhist. The problem is reconciling the injustices of the world with the belief that the universe as a whole is, ultimately, just rather than unjust. If the universe is ultimately unjust, than it becomes much harder to believe in the existence of objective moral laws.

However, the remark 'it would be like a Christian not believing in an afterlife' masks two very significant differences between Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian religions. As a Jew, I have a personal interest in my survival after my material body has ceased to be. In Buddhism, by contrast, this 'personal interest' is regarded as the product of a metaphysical illusion concerning the substantiality of the self. The goal is to be permanently freed from this illusion. Only then will 'suffering' truly cease.

A further, very important difference is that it would seem to be extremely difficult for a Christian, Moslem or Jew to cast doubt on the existence of an afterlife without thereby putting into question the central belief in a transcendent Deity. There are, however, those who are prepared to take the radical option (like the 'God is dead' Protestant theology that arose in the 60's) to give up the literal belief in a Deity. By contrast, the core of Buddhist teaching is a negative, rather than a positive doctrine concerning the illusoriness of the self. It is consequently easier to see how such a negative, philosophically motivated view could survive the sceptical rejection of belief in reincarnation.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sarah asked:

Are certain fundamental norms necessary for legality? Is it justifiable to protect officials from being liable in law for their past behaviour

I do not believe that a system of rules enforced by the state could justifiably be called a 'legal system' if it was not founded on norms of justice and morality. This is a proposition that needs to be argued for, however. There is a view in Jurisprudence that justice and legality can be defined purely by reference to a given set of laws. I believe that this cannot be correct, because the consequence would follow that it was logically impossible for a system of laws to be unjust.

Are there any conceivable circumstances under which it would be justified to protect officials of the state from being liable in law for their actions? I have tried hard to think of plausible examples:

1. Members of the armed forces who might not automatically be liable in civil law for certain actions can be brought before a court martial. There problem that the court martial might not consider the offence to be as serious as would a civil court. In such a case, the victim might justifiably feel that justice had not been done.

2. In the British Parliament, members of the House of Commons have immunity from prosecution for slander when speaking in debates. This has for a long time been a subject matter for controversy. In favour of this 'parliamentary privilege' it is argued that parliament (like the army) has its own sanctions against abuse of the system. The rules of what it is acceptable to say are in many ways more strict than outside parliament. The objection is that if you are slandered by an MP speaking about you in the House of Commons, you cannot sue for damages.

3. In the shadier world of espionage, it might be argued that the need for secrecy and anonymity is inconsistent with servants of the state being accountable in a court of law for their actions. The only justification that I can conceive here is where granting immunity from prosecution in a particular case would be regarded as the lesser of two evils.

Geoffrey Klempner


Umut asked:

When does a human being has right to kill another human being? To make the question a bit interesting I set up the following case study. There are 3 people in the scene: an observer, an adult and a child. The observer sees that the adult person is about to kill the child. The observer has to make a choice. Either the observer watches the kid to get murdered or he/she kills the adult person. If the observer thinks that the adult does not have the right to kill the child, he should kill the adult but in this case this becomes a paradox since the observer does not have the right to kill the adult either.

What does a professional philosopher say about this?

I do not see a paradox in the situation you have described. Your question, 'When does a human being have the right to kill another human being?' implies that there are situations in which killing is justified, and other situations in which killing is not justified.

An adult is about to kill a child. For the sake of the example, we may assume that this killing is a wrongful killing. It is not a case, for example, of turning off a life support machine, after a court order has given permission to do so.

The second adult sees that this wrongful killing is about to take place. The second adult is therefore morally justified in taking the minimal steps necessary to prevent the killing. If there is no reasonable alternative but to take the first adult's life (for example, if the second adult is a long way off and armed with a pistol, and the first adult has ignored his warning shots) then the second adult is justified in shooting, and if necessary killing the first adult, because it prevented a wrongful killing from taking place.

There is an apparent paradox, however, for any person who believes that killing is not justified under any conceivable circumstances. Someone who holds this extreme pacifist view can still defend their decision not to shoot the first adult along the following lines: There is a morally significant difference between the actions I intentionally do, and the actions that other persons do as the unintended consequence of my actions. Though I am to some extent responsible for all the foreseeable consequences of my actions, whether I intend them or not, my responsibility is less — other things being equal — if these consequences result from the wrong doing of others that could only be prevented by my own wrong doing.

Geoffrey Klempner


Robyn asked:

How much does a typical academic philosopher read in a typical week and how long should this take him? e.g. how many papers etc..

Or put another way, how long should one spend on a piece of written philosophy for practical purposes (say an imminent essay or seminar)?

I am lost in a labyrinth of papers, articles and books and wonder how people cope with such a huge literature.

The way to cope with the labyrinth of articles and books is to step lightly. Dip in. Read enough to get the gist of what the author is saying and move on. Use the time that you save to concentrate on the book or the article that deserves your close attention. Usually, in writing an essay or preparing for a seminar, it is possible to narrow the list down to one or two important pieces.

You have to unlearn the habit of automatically treating authors of philosophical texts with respect. Be bloody minded. If you are not convinced that the piece is worth spending time on after the first or second page, the author has missed their chance.

Lecturers love to write long book lists. It's a way of showing you all the hard work they have done on your behalf. Often, though, the thing you should really be reading is not in the book list but in the current issue of Mind or the Philosophical Review. Once again, healthy disrespect is the order of the day. Trust your judgement in rifling through the journals, or scouring the selves of the book shop or library.

As regards time, I remember Freddie Ayer in an interview once saying that he found it impossible to do more than four hours concentrated work in philosophy in one day. I would set an absolute upper limit on philosophical reading of two hours. You'll be surprised what you can do in that time, if you concentrate your efforts. Look after your eyes, they have to last you a lifetime.

Geoffrey Klempner


Lois asked:

I have been having some thoughts about determinism. Although it is one of many things that probably cannot be proved, I think it is a fascinating idea that we have no free will, but that every 'decision' we make is actually determined by our genes, our psychology, our environment (and possibly some other factors), but that we only think we are making a decision. It certainly would make us all feel less guilty about the choices we have made. I understand that Freud was a determinist or at least wrote something about it. Do you have a source? Also, I would appreciate any other sources you have for this philosophical idea. I am not interested in Biblical or other religious aspects of it. I am interested in it in a secular way only. Also, what is your own view of determinism?

First, let me apologize for missing the seven-day deadline for your question, which I received a week ago on Friday. I can only plead in mitigation that given the state of my body and brain at the moment and my birth, and the totality of things that have happened to me since that time, it was inevitable that I would miss the deadline by one day.

- What I have just said illustrates one way of understanding the thesis of 'determinism'. The challenge from determinism to our naive belief in 'free will' is very powerful

Here's how I would define 'determinism': If determinism holds, then any possible universe which is indistinguishable from the actual universe at a given time T, is indistinguishable from the actual universe at all other times. Consider, for example, a universe where GK starts off by writing, 'Dear Lois, First, let me apologize...'. Let us assume that determinism holds in that universe, just as I am assuming that it holds in ours, and that the two universes were indistinguishable at the time when GK wrote those words. Then the words GK goes on to write in that universe will be the same as the words GK writes in this universe.

I believe I have a choice in what words to put down, and in a sense I do. No-one is controlling me or pointing a gun at my head. Yet in a sense, there is no possibility, if determinism holds, of my deviating from the tracks that were laid down when the universe first went 'Bang' billions of years ago.

What a terrible prospect! Would it be better for us if the universe was not deterministic? At the present stage of knowledge, no-one can be sure whether it is or not. But suppose it isn't. Let's suppose that in the parallel universe the very next sentence I write after this sentence is different from the sentence I will write in this universe. What accounts for the difference? Nothing at all. I just 'happen' to decide differently. There's no explanation, nothing about the way I was thinking that accounts for the difference. — That's more like the spin of a roulette wheel than a 'free action' that I have responsibility for.

So there's the dilemma: no free will either way.

Freud was interested in a stronger thesis of 'determinism' than the one I have defined here. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams he makes the methodological assumption that every feature of a dream has psychoanalytic significance. Everything that the patient remembers of their dream is a suitable subject matter for psychoanalytic interpretation — including the patient's mistaken belief that the feature 'has no significance'. Determinism as I have defined it could hold even if Freud's view of the significance of dreams was false.

The point is sometimes made in discussions of free will that we are constrained by our genetic inheritance and upbringing. These are merely particular examples taken from the totality of the conditions under which we make decisions and act. Being able to trace the causal influences on a person's actions, however, does make a significant difference to the way we view punishment. It does not follow, however, that it is wrong to punish. Rather, we have to question the way we naively justify punishment, prior to philosophical reflection.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

How do I reconcile a belief in certain moral absolutes that are incontrovertible so far as I am concerned (e.g. I will never kill someone, or if I did I would be crippled with guilt) with what experience indicates is a world in which morality is wholly relative (e.g. perhaps in some circumstances it might be necessary to kill innocent Serbs — for the sake of argument — for a greater good i.e. stopping other Serbs killing Kosovans)?

This issue gets particularly wranglesome if one has faith in a particular religion — e.g. Christianity — certain sects of which ultimately deny tolerance to other faiths yet the prevailing moral authority which most of us would describe as a 'good' thing is to extend tolerance to others and, to borrow a well used phrase, 'love thy neighbour as thyself'. Intellectually speaking, how would one fit both moral absolutes and the flexibility of moral belief into a single coherent system which is neither rigidly totalitarian nor anarchically lax?

Sorry about the length of this one — it is a bit of a thorny issue I suppose!

First, we need to clear away a possible misunderstanding. The view that the right moral action is the one that produces the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' — as argued for in J.S. Mill's book 'Utilitarianism' — is an attempt to set up a single objective standard for right and wrong which stands strictly opposed to relativism. Differences of opinion about which action is right can only concern the factual question of which action will produce the best consequences, measured in terms of human happiness.

Taken to its limit, utilitarianism advocates an extreme form of 'tolerance', where what is added up in the utility calculation is not pleasure or happiness — the measurement of which is open to dispute — but simply the satisfaction of preferences. The 'preference' utilitarian refrains from making any judgement concerning whether the preferences expressed by different individuals are 'good' or 'bad', except insofar as they conflict with the utilitarian principle itself.

I want to say that the utilitarians are right in holding that there is an objective, rational basis for moral conduct but wrong in thinking that it entails a universally applicable formula that can be used to decide every ethical question.

My own view is that the basis for moral conduct resides in the 'authority of the other'. I regard that principle as the one 'moral absolute'. What I mean by that is that the judgements of others concerning their needs and interests have necessary authority over my actions. So moral beliefs are not merely 'subjective'. But claims conflict. People want different things. Most importantly, the claims of some persons have a higher authority for me than others. The claims of my wife and children, for example.

The result is an 'ethics of dialogue' in which we are duty bound to respect the claims of others. The actions that follow, however, depend on a process of negotiation. Not every claim on me has equal strength. It also follows that tolerance has its limits. For example, the abortionist and the anti-abortionist cannot ask for toleration from one another. Yet they are still bound to respect one another's right to exist. That is the precarious balance that has to be struck.

Geoffrey Klempner


Peto asked:

In your opinion is it necessary that soul should be aparted from body?

Let us look at the reasons that might be given why the soul must be necessarily 'aparted' or separated from body.

In the Meditations Descartes argued that it is possible that I could have all the subjective experiences I am having now, even though an external world of material objects in space does not exist. For it is conceivable that all my subjective experiences are being produced in me by an evil demon who wants to deceive me into thinking that a material world in space exists when it doesn't.

Descartes used this sceptical hypothesis to raise the question of how we can prove anything about the external world. But in the 'Sixth Meditation' he also made a further deduction. He said that if it is conceivable that my subjective experiences can exist even though my body does not exist, then even if my body does exist — even if there is no evil demon but a God who is not a deceiver — then my subjective experiences cannot belong to anything material but must belong to something non-material. In other words, my experiences occur in a non-material soul which is necessarily separate from my body.

What Descartes is saying is that if there are two things, A and B that can be conceived of as existing apart, then they can never be called the 'same thing', even though we never find them apart in the actual world. If my experiences can be conceived of as existing apart from my body or my brain, then experiences can never be the 'same thing' as brain processes, even though in the actual world experiences never occur without brain processes.

What is interesting about this argument is that it does not rely on alleged cases of reincarnation, or out-of-body experiences. It is based on purely logical considerations. But is it valid?

To answer that question would require a long essay. I believe that Descartes' argument does present a serious challenge to materialism. The materialist has got to prove, not only that materialism is true in the actual world, but also that materialism is true in all possible worlds. For if we grant just one possible world where materialism is not true, i.e. a possible world where subjective experiences occur in the absence of any physical processes, then any subject which has those kinds of experiences in the actual world must be regarded as 'necessarily separated from body'.

You asked for my opinion. In my view, materialism can be defended against Descartes' argument. However, the debate does not stop there. According to materialism, a possible world exactly like this one with someone exactly like me in it would necessarily be a possible world in which I myself existed. Yet it does seem that I can conceive that things might have been just the way they are, that there might have been a Dr Klempner writing these words to you now, even though I did not exist. I have not yet come across a satisfactory reply to that argument. But I am also not sure what conclusions, if any, can be deduced from it.

Geoffrey Klempner


Christan asked:

How should I approach this question taken from an undergraduate paper?

'Can a proper name have a Fregean sense but lack a Millian connotation?

In his System of Logic Mill distinguishes between the denotation and the connotation of a term. If the term is a general term, the denotation is the class of things to which the term applies, like 'all horses' or 'all planets'. Its connotation is its descriptive meaning, i.e. the information that would be deduced by a competent speaker from the fact that something is a 'horse' or a 'planet'. If the term is a name, its denotation is the bearer of the name. But what about it's connotation? Mill claimed that proper names do not have a connotation. Take my name, for example. I am told that 'Geoffrey' originally came from the Latin for 'bringer of peace'. However, it does not follow from the fact that my name is Geoffrey that I am a bringer of peace. A competent speaker could not deduce anything about me from the fact that my name is Geoffrey.

In his paper 'On Sense and Reference', Frege argued that both singular terms and general terms have both a sense and a reference. The sense of a term is the 'mode of presentation' of the reference, or, as some commentators have explained it, the 'route to reference'. Frege's idea is that there can never be such a thing as simply 'knowing' the reference of a term. You know it in a particular way, or from a particular standpoint. To take Frege's example, the planet Venus is known as 'the Morning Star' and also as 'the Evening Star'. At one time, people did not know that the Morning Star is the Evening Star. They did not know that these were two 'modes' in which one and the same heavenly body was 'presented' to them.

For general terms, Frege's 'sense' seems pretty much like Mill's 'connotation'. The same holds for descriptive singular terms such as, 'The Prime Minister' or 'the car parked outside my window'. With proper names it's a different story.

There has been much controversy in recent philosophy of language over the question whether proper names have a Fregean sense. In what follows, I am voicing my own opinions:

Mill did not address himself to the question how a proper name 'gets' its denotation, or what it is for a competent speaker to know that a proper name has the denotation that it has. Frege saw a problem here which Mill did not see. In giving examples of the 'senses' of names, however, Frege always gives descriptions. The trouble is, that whatever you or I know in grasping the correct use of a proper name cannot be analysed in terms of any specific set of descriptions. So it begins to look rather problematic whether there is any such thing as 'the' mode of presentation of the reference which belongs to any given name. The names 'Hesperus' for the Evening Star and 'Phosphorus' for the Morning Star are pretty rare exceptions. Usually what happens is that a name gains currency, and people get to know about its bearer in lots of different ways.

For Frege's theory to be true, there has to be a standard or canonical way in which a fully competent speaker is presented with the reference of the name. After that, the name gets passed around and lots of people get to hear about the person or thing named even though they are ignorant of its canonical 'route to reference'. Gareth Evans explores this theory in his book The Varieties of Reference.

But I remain sceptical. I accept that there is a story to be told in each case that explains how a given name has the use and the currency that it has. But I don't see that this information could ever be encapsulated into a neat theory of the 'sense' of proper names.

Geoffrey Klempner


Andrew asked:

Are morals, ethics, something that is hard-wired i.e. a priori? Are we born with a set of basic morals and ethics or are they learned?

There are really two questions here. The first question is whether our capacity for moral judgement is 'hard-wired', i.e. whether we are moral by 'nature' or by 'education'. The second question is whether there is a rational, a priori justification for being moral. To see that these two questions are separate, consider the following two cases:

1. Suppose it were true that morals are hard-wired. It is still open to an individual to raise the question whether it would not be better for them if they could find a way to free themselves of their biological conditioning.

2. Or suppose that there is an a priori philosophical argument that provides a rational basis for moral judgement. Even if our biology makes us naturally immoral, the rational thing to do in the face of that argument is curb our natural instincts and do what morality demands rather than what we naturally want.

Are morals 'hard wired'? Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene gives a convincing demonstration of the untenability of the theory that the survival of human society shows that human beings must have 'evolved' a gene for altruism. The problem with that theory, as Dawkins points out, is that the basis for the selection of one gene in favour of another is strictly its capacity to confer on the individual a greater chance of surviving to procreate. Groups are not selected, only individuals are.

Thus, if you put a ruthless user amongst a group of simple altruists, the user will survive at their expense. On the other hand, a gene for 'bearing a grudge' or paying someone back in kind if they don't scratch your back when you scratch theirs does have a potential to survive. Amongst one another, the grudgers will behave altruistically. When a ruthless user comes along, they close ranks.

I don't think it follows from this that morals are merely conventional, as Dawkins seems to hold. I would argue that respect for the other is learned as part of a natural process that starts in early infancy. We learn to be moral as we learn language.

The natural dialogue of self and other as played out in the relation between the human infant and its parent or carer is not sufficient, however, to establish an a priori basis for moral judgement. A metaphysical argument is needed.

In my book Naive Metaphysics I try to give the metaphysical argument. I am not going to try to say here whether I think that argument is successful. Intuitively, the idea is that if the other is not 'real' in my eyes, if their needs and interests have no authority for me, then reality itself is not 'real'. A world without moral values would be a world without 'truth' of any kind.

Geoffrey Klempner


Rocio asked:

I find myself in a philosophical dilemma. The problem is that while I am firmly vegetarian, due to the belief that there is no justification of murder, I still wonder if this argument can lead to ridiculous conclusions. Such as would I not, to commit to my claims, be able to swat a fly, or spray for ants or stomp on a cockroach. I am at a plateau in my thought. Perhaps there is truly no dilemma, if one merely refers to the intention of the agent; in so far as murder is justified. However, how can this justification be sufficed by mere convenience of living conditions. Non-vegetarians would probably think that this is trivial, but I truly think that animal rights have been widely overlooked, save Peter Singer. Some thoughts on this subject would be of great help.

The case for Vegetarianism assumes that we do not need to eat meat to survive. The fact that meat is very tasty and nutritious is not sufficient to justify killing animals for food. However, in a possible world where human beings were physically incapable of surviving without eating meat, killing animals for food might be justified as the lesser of two evils.

Everything therefore turns on the question of 'living conditions'. Even if killing sentient life is wrong in itself, killing pests which threaten human life is justified as the lesser of two evils. On the other hand, the fact that the buzzing of a fly annoys me and prevents me thinking about philosophy is not sufficient to justify swatting the fly. I just have to put up with the noise.

It is true that many people are inconsistent vegetarians. Insects generally get a hard deal, because they are less able to attract our natural sympathy. I would say that the Vegetarian who would swat a fly without a moment's thought is being inconsistent.

But how do you decide which of two alternatives is the 'lesser of two evils'? Singer has argued that in certain circumstances, we ought rationally to save the life of a chimpanzee in preference to that of a human being. Without the aid of some ultimate principle — like the 'Utilitarianism' of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill which Singer relies on — there seems to be no way of deciding hard cases. For if you say, as a matter of principle, 'Humans first', then it does look as if the slightest inconvenience to humans would justify the killing of non-human animals.

In other words, if you do not subscribe to the moral philosophy of Utilitarianism, it is hard to be a consistent, principled vegetarian.

Geoffrey Klempner


Yeah asked:

If you don't know you're unhappy, are you?

It seems a paradox to say that a person could be unhappy, even though they didn't think that they were unhappy. Surely happiness is a feeling which you know you have, if you have it, and know you don't have if you don't have it.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle would not agree with what I have just said. He had a conception of 'happiness' as more than simply a subjective feeling but rather a judgement that we make about the quality of a person's life. A man who is being cheated on by his wife is not 'happy' according to Aristotle's definition, even if he is blissfully unaware of the fact and thinks that he is the happiest man in the world.

We could argue all day about definitions. You might reply that Aristotle is not talking about 'happiness' per se, but something else (the Greek word is 'eudaimonia'). The substantial question is what sort of happiness we should want. Once you accept that the happiness you should want is Aristotle's, rather than the subjective feeling of happiness, then some important consequences follow, which I leave you to work out.

There is another dimension to the problem, however. Since Freud, we have got used to the idea that we are not always aware of how we truly feel. You assert you are happy, and as you utter the words you seem to believe what you say. Yet deep inside there is a gnawing unhappiness which is causing you to 'act out' in various ways, spoiling relationships and hurting people. — Freud said that his objective was to transform a person's neuroses into 'generalized unhappiness'. It sometimes seems as if he thought that everyone ought to be 'unhappy'.

Geoffrey Klempner