International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 111 25th October 2005


I. 'Critical commentary on Richard Rorty's Thought' by Herman J Pietersen

II. 'Johnson on Meaning: The great lexicographer's modern approach to meaning'
    by John Dudley

III.  J. Baggott 'Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of
    Quantum Theory' Reviewed by Lawrence Trevanion



'Realism' is a term which has different meanings in different contexts. Even within philosophy, there are strong disagreements about how and where the term should be applied. In this issue, we have three examples of topics which hinge in one way or another on the correct understanding of what it is to take a 'realist' view of a particular subject matter or discourse.

Herman Pietersen in his illuminating critique of Richard Rorty, points to tensions within Rorty's broadly pragmatic approach to meaning and truth. Rorty is seeking a  radical alternative to the traditional realist view of truth as 'correspondence to fact' -- reality and the propositions which 'mirror' it -- but this proves to be a more difficult task than at first appears.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous for putting forward two very different accounts of the nature of meaning. While Wittgenstein's early view of meaning was strongly realist -- every proposition, however seemingly vague, has a precise truth conditions, even when we do not grasp what these truth conditions are -- in his later work he rejected that view in favour of the doctrine of 'meaning is use'. John Dudley draws a fascinating parallel with Samuel Johnson's great Dictionary of the English language. Johnson started off with the idea of giving precise definitions for every word in the language but then, like Wittgenstein, realized that this ideal could never be achieved and the only way to explain the meanings of words is to exhibit the typical ways in which they are used.

Lawrence Trevanion, in his insightful review of physicist Jim Baggott's recent book on Quantum Mechanics, argues that there is more than one way of understanding what it is to take a 'realist' view of the subject matter of quantum mechanics. To accept that the world of subatomic phenomena is too far removed from our ordinary experience to permit the application of models derived from the behaviour of everyday objects is not to reject 'realism' about the world of quantum phenomena, as Baggott thinks, but on the contrary requires a more thoughtful, less naively realist approach.

Geoffrey Klempner



Philosophy Born of Struggle is a two day conference, which takes place on October 28 and 29 at the Wolff Conference Rook, 65 Fifth Avenue, New York. The keynote address will be given by Prof Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr. of Vanderbilt University, 'In Search of Critical Social Theory in the Interests of Black Folks'. Amongst the many participants is Pathways contributor Munayem Mayenin, author of 'Dehumanisation of Humanity'. The conference is free and open to the public. More details can be found at http:--- .

The Philosophical Society of England announces an Open Workshop on Fiction and Reality: Aharon Appelfeld and the problem of Holocaust fiction, which will be given by Professor Bernard Harrison on 29 October, 2.30pm at College Hall, Malet St, London WC1 (opposite the University of London Union). All welcome. Enquiries to: Michael Bavidge, 0191 2841223, .

The 17 November is UNESCO World Philosophy Day. This year World Philosophy Day will coincide with the beginning of UNESCO's 60th anniversary celebrations, an added reason to take part in celebrating philosophy. On 17 November 2005, across the world, discussions will be in full swing. And as a first 'World Day' is well worth celebrating, a special event will be organized and hosted by the Chilean Government on on 24 November in Santiago, Chile, in order to celebrate World Philosophy Day 2005. For more information on World Philosophy Day celebrations in Chile, go to (website in Spanish). For more information on celebrations in Paris and in Member States, contact the Philosophy and Human Sciences Section, email .



1. Introduction

For a variety of reasons the name Richard Rorty has become prominent among philosophers and non-philosophers alike, especially during the last two decades of the 20th century. He is both a persuasive and controversial writer -- strongly appealing to some, but not to other thinkers. But, whatever one's reaction to his philosophy, fact is that Richard Rorty is generally acknowledged to be an extraordinary thinker and writer, with the distinction of being one of the few contemporary philosophers who achieved eminence in both the scientific and humanistic traditions (genres) of philosophical thought. No serious scholar can afford to ignore Rorty's intellectual output, regardless of his/ her own philosophical proclivities.

The present essay has the limited purpose of pointing to some controversial and problematic elements in Rorty's philosophical corpus. It does not pretend either to be comprehensive or conclusive -- merely illustrative of difficulties experienced with some aspects of his philosophical writing.

2. Inconsistencies

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (hereafter PMN) Rorty states that:

   'We must get the visual and in particular, the mirroring
   metaphors out of our speech altogether.' (Rorty, 1979: 371).

Given the portentous appearance of this same metaphor in the title of the book (and elsewhere in his work) and his prolific use of metaphor and analogy throughout his writings -- after all this is what narrative philosophers do -- this demand is contradictory. It raises questions such as: How then are we to regard Rorty's choice metaphor for this book? Also, where does the process of censuring metaphors stop? Must vocabularies of description (language) now be restricted to metaphors condoned on Rortian or some other neo-pragmatist authority? How is this censuring to be reconciled with advocating liberal democracy (also in the intellectual sphere)?

Furthermore, to propagate the notion of different vocabularies yet deny the same privilege to those who prefer, say, a foundationalist vocabulary or the Kuhnian-derived vocabulary of 'normal' discourse' also indicates an inconsistency.

3. Negative tendency

Rorty's writing shows a questionable attitude towards science -- at times acknowledging the utility of its 'vocabulary' for humankind, yet on the whole inclined to view the scientific way of understanding things (especially in its philosophical guise, such as American analytical philosophy) with suspicion. He takes a rather pugnacious stance toward the latter when he says that:

     'Edifying philosophers can never end philosophy, but they
     can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a
     science' (PMN, 1979: 372).

A negative attitude towards scientism is well understood and shared by many, the present author included. However, the vast majority of scientists (and at least a core of analytic philosophers one may surmise) out there are not misguided zealots, but dedicated and talented people, who arguably make a difference that has cash-value in society.

Rorty's overriding antagonism toward the scientific mode of understanding could therefore be regarded as inappropriate as is, in another context, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' profuse and quasi-religious apologetics for science. It is quite unhelpful and, in the end, merely provides food for a psychological hypothesis that people who persistently make strong (especially public) anti-authoritarian noises, may have a debilitating problem coping with authority figures -- whether it be God, Science, Big Brother, or whatever. If it's capitalized (such as in: Philosophy) it, presumably, is a bad thing, period.

4. Utopian tendency

Richard Rorty's social philosophy is a philosophy that says:

     'Hope -- the ability to believe that the future will be
     unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than,
     the past -- is the condition of growth' (Rorty, Philosophy
     of Social Hope, 1999: 120).

Here he echoes the well-known Western and American humanistic credo of 'faith in progress'; a future created by humans themselves, unaided by an Originator (an Author) or some supra-force such Reason, God, or Tradition. This belief is grounded in a thoroughly pragmatic and humanistic weltanschauung, the belief that fundamentally no one else but we ourselves are masters of our individual and collective destinies.

The similarity (at least in broad strokes) between Rorty's Philosophy of Social Hope (hereafter: PSH) and the theologian, Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope, is also quite remarkable. In Rorty's case his 'Hope' is for the 'Democratization of Philosophy' and of Society. In Moltmann's case it is the 'Democratization of Theology', a theology that can be in service of especially the poor and oppressed, the victims of undemocratic [read: Platonic] regimes and societies. Both are historicist thinkers in the Hegelian mould, and are overwhelmingly in support of and oriented toward the future, toward becoming, toward a 'Kingdom on earth'. In fact, in his outline of eleven theses of the 'humanistic intellectual' (PSH), Rorty himself draws the analogy with social theologies. He writes:

     'We humanistic intellectuals find ourselves in a position
     analogous to that of the 'social-gospel' [e.g., Reinhold
     Niebuhr] or 'liberation theology' [e.g., Gustavo Gutierrez]
     clergy, the priests and ministers who think of themselves as
     working to build the kingdom of God on earth' (Rorty, PSH,
     1999: 128).

Lastly, Rorty's strong affinity for the idealist-romantic era of 19th century thought (of his admiration for Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, James) speaks clearly in his concluding words:

     'The utopian social hope which sprang up in
     nineteenth-century Europe is still the noblest imaginative
     creation of which we have record ' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 277).

5. Epistemic tension

In Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) Rorty holds forth on 'Science without Method' and, inter alia, makes the following (and to the scientifically trained) quite astounding statement:

     'We shall not think there is or could be an
     epistemologically pregnant answer to the question 'What did
     Galileo do right that Aristotle did wrong?'... We shall just
     say that Galileo had a good idea, and Aristotle a less good
     idea; Galileo was using some terminology which helped, and
     Aristotle wasn't... he didn't pick that terminology because
     it was 'clear' or 'natural,' or 'simple,' or in line with
     the categories of the pure understanding. He just lucked
     out' (Rorty, 1982: 193).

But surely this is an evasive and weak answer. Furthermore, and since Rorty introduces the comparison, on what ordinary grounds of reason (never-mind the possibility of obtaining a currently non-existent, non-controversial, master-epistemology) is Galileo's idea better than Aristotle's? Einstein's idea better than Newton's? Or, how, and in what way was Galileo 'more lucky'?

Presumably it would here stretch the egalitarian ethos of Rorty's pragmatism too far for comfort to provide any criterion other than the yardstick of muddling through. [As an aside, Rorty's description of his philosophy as a philosophy of muddling through is strictly speaking inappropriate -- the expression 'muddling on' would be better suited. Reason being that 'muddling through' may also imply arrival, a reaching of a destination, a final answer, that is contrary to at least the spirit if not letter of Rortian philosophy.]

Taking another tack -- if one focuses on the phrase 'epistemologically pregnant' in Rorty's paragraph above, his comments could be seen as a legitimate critique of philosophy's inability to say how science really comes up with workable answers to what were previously unknown or mere guesswork. Hence, perhaps, the falling back on: Galileo merely 'lucked out'. But although, for the scientist, luck in some non-specific sense may play a role, it would be highly questionable to suggest (by extension of Rorty's interpretation) that the success of the whole knowledge endeavour is merely the result of scientists having 'lucked out'. One might as well then say that all of Rorty's philosophical work is the result of a mere 'lucking out' -- no research, careful reasoning or intellectual craftsmanship being involved.

In Philosophy and Social Hope Rorty gives a justification of why Darwinism is so important for his thought, yet denying at the same time that by favouring Darwinism he is providing anything but just another re-description. His deft narrative footwork is admirable, yet does not convince -- as in the following paragraph, quoted in full:

     'An evolutionary description of the development of
     linguistic ability gives essentialist thinking no foothold,
     just as an Aristotelian account of human knowledge leaves no
     room for a Darwinian understanding of the growth of such
     knowledge. But, once again, you should notice that it would
     be inconsistent with my own anti-essentialism to try to
     convince you that the Darwinian way of thinking of language
     -- and, by extension, the Deweyan, pragmatist way of thinking
     of truth -- is the objectively true way. All I am entitled to
     say is that it is a useful way, useful for particular
     purposes. All I can claim to have done here is to offer you
     a re-description of the relation between human being and the
     rest of the universe. Like every other re-description, this
     one has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a
     purpose' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 65/66).

One's first reaction is to say: 'Methinks the philosopher protests too much.' Rorty is here interpreted as being under strain not to let a latent (Darwinian-historicist) idealism ruin his nominalism. His writings show however that (like previous pragmatists) he cannot do without the Darwinian-derived promise/ expectation of 'brave' new vistas of human progress and growth. The voluntarist (self-creating, bootstrapping personal freedom) thread in pragmatism simply cannot do without evolutionist support -- it's part of the same subjectivist-materialist intellectual package deal that glorifies an anti-establishment, egalitarian, freedom and growth for all dispensation for society.

A problematic aspect of Rorty's more political-reformist writing is the apparently inexplicable separation of the public and private spheres of human existence. It inevitably introduces a tension in his exposition, leading one at times to wonder which of the two his philosophy is most concerned with. However, a possible answer is to be found in considering competing elements in his meta-philosophy -- that between the poetical-critical and political-ideological modes of thought.

The former mode is typically concerned about and engaged with the individual (private sphere), whilst the latter reflects a more transcendent (empyrean) striving to work for the betterment of all humankind (public sphere), collectively viewed. Although on the same, humanistic, side of the fence, there are distinct differences in meta-orientation -- and the two modalities of mind do not necessarily or always comfortably exist together. Among theologians one is here, for instance, reminded of the quite distinctive differences between Luther, the severe critic of the 'Old', Catholic order, and Calvin the quite obsessive, reformer and organizer of the 'New' church of Protestantism. In philosophy one finds the same sharp difference between Nietzsche, the poet of a Zarathustrean anti-Christ, of the anti-Philosopher, and Marx the action-orientated ideological thinker and social revolutionary of the Communist Manifesto. All four figures mentioned here are, however, 'joined at the hip' in their opposition to scholastic and metaphysical (read: objectivist) thought.

In PSH Rorty, for instance, states that:

     'The anti-essentialist has no doubt that there were trees
     and stars long before there were statements about trees and
     stars' (PSH, 1999: 58).

But this immediately raises the question whether Rorty can consistently be depicted as a nominalist. If one says that one can think of and acknowledges a world without or before humans -- that there were trees, rocks etc before/ without humans, then you're a realist and cannot credibly stick to the position that the only reality is a 'social construction', or a 'linguistic awareness'. Then you have Objects and Minds to contend with.

This perplexity about Rorty's nominalism remains when one further on again comes across an attempt to account for both a realist world outside of us, and a pragmatist view that all these are merely different vocabularies. He says:

     'Pragmatists are not instrumentalists, in the sense of
     people who believe that quarks are 'mere heuristic
     fictions'. They think that quarks are as real as tables,
     but that quark talk and table talk need not get in each
     other's way, since they need not compete for the role of
     What is There Anyway, apart from human needs and interests'
     (PSH, 1999: 156).

Rorty's portrayal of (his preferred) role of the philosopher as the '...informed dilettante, the poly-pragmatic intermediary between various discourses' (PMN, 1979: 317) is problematic for his philosophy, a philosophy that wishes to do without appeal to a criterion of truth. It raises the question, again, on what basis, how, would the Rortian interpreter who acts in this manner be able to function as 'intermediary' between various (unique, different, even oppositional) discourses, without a more privileged third position to adjudicate on these discourses?

Thus, Rorty's statement pre-supposes the very 'thing' (some common basis of thought, or set of cognitive rules to enable one to compare and relate different discourses) that he denies.

He states further that:

     'Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are
     compromised or transcended in the course of the
     conversation' (PMN, 317).

But this raises the issue. What does Rorty mean by the term 'transcended'? Is it 'transcend' as in two parties to discourse finding agreement in some higher, better, position -- as in agreeing on a common position/interpretation?

In PMN he states that:

     'The notion of an edifying philosopher is, however, a
     paradox. For Plato defined the philosopher by opposition to
     the poet' (Rorty, 1979: 370).

However, this can be regarded as true in the same way that the pragmatist-existentialist Rorty defines the 'strong poet' in opposition to the Analytic Philosopher. It highlights the umbilical cord between the two camps. Hence, rational-scientific (Platonic) thought will always be 'parasitic' upon doxa (mere opinion, perception, custom, superstition, sentiment,) for its privileging truth claims. Vice versa, existentialist-humanistic thought will always be 'parasitic' upon episteme (foundationalism) in attempting to bootstrap itself into a privileging of non-privileging truth (Rorty's edifying philosophy of conversation).

Herein lies an important indication of the fact that two main camps in the history of philosophical thought simply cannot 'exist' without each other -- they form two indispensable sides of the intellectual coin -- as given in the dynamic tension between but also complementary nature of philosophies of the One (Platonism) and of the Many (Sophism). This presents us with the ancient, ongoing and seemingly unbridgeable divide between thinkers.

There seems to be no escaping this dialectic. One cannot go further, there is no Hegelian synthesis into 'Absolute Spirit' here -- only the possible danger of disappearing into either a 'cloud of all-knowing' (dogmatism, foundationalism, a mystical One) or a 'morass of never-knowing' (scepticism, relativism, a mere passing parade of the Many). That is why, in the present author's view, the center must be made to hold -- why both centrifugal and centripetal forces are needed in human thought.

Two extremes should be avoided: the Rule of the One (absolutist/ totalitarian philosophies and ideas, complete determinism, immutability, the nothing-but-this mindset) and the Rule of the Many (anarchic philosophies and ideas, complete mutability, complete voluntarism, the 'everything goes' mindset). On either side of healthy (rationally justifiable) conviction and healthy (rationally justifiable) doubt lies an abyss. Stated differently, and in Rortian terminology, we must keep the conversation going.

In an interview with Stossel (1998) Rorty, perhaps unintentionally, makes a meta-theoretical statement. His words are:

     'There's no God, no reality, no nothing that takes
     precedence over the consensus of a free people. What I like
     about Dewey and pragmatism is the anti-metaphysical claim
     that there's no court of appeal higher than a democratic
     consensus.' (Stossel, 1998: 4).

But this in itself is a metaphysical 'utterance' -- an admission of a metaphysic -- a 'ruling idea' or 'grand principle'. In Rorty's case it is the ideal of an ongoing, and broad inter-subjective agreement among citizens on the Kantian what is and, especially, what to do questions in life -- which he (Rorty) equates with democracy. It may be 'anti-metaphysical' in the conventional anti-Platonic usage of the term, yet it clearly remains a metaphysic (and quite utopian at that) given the practical difficulties in getting people to obtain consensus often on the most trivial of issues.

Finally, Rorty's evasiveness concerning rationality is also commented upon by, for example, Bernstein (1990) and Blackburn (2001) who wish to remind Rorty that there is still a generally accepted and very useful distinction between 'better' and 'worse' reasons in a moderate epistemological sense, and that he himself does not consistently escape using a weaker form of rationality himself.

6. Concluding remarks

It may be concluded that whilst Rorty successfully debunked the scientistic pretensions, and showed the increasing public irrelevance (outside academia), of Russell-inspired Analytic philosophy in the contemporary intellectual marketplace, his own philosophy is not without some troubling and contradictory elements.


Bernstein, R J (1990) 'Rorty's liberal utopia', Social Research, Vol. 57, Issue 1, p31,

Blackburn, S (2001) 'The Professor of Complacence', New Republic, Vol. 225 Issue 4518, p39

Rorty, R (1979) 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature', Oxford, London: Blackwell

Rorty, R (1982) 'Consequences of Pragmatism', New York: Harvester

Rorty, R (1999) 'Philosophy and social hope', London: Penguin.

Stossel, S (1998) 'A conversation with Richard Rorty', The Atlantic Monthly.

(c) Herman J. Pietersen 2005




     Beguiled as they were by the comparative method in
     historical linguistics, nineteenth century philologists and
     lexicographers were so focused on the reconstruction of
     morphological and semantic changes that they had little
     energy left to address the question of what word meaning
     actually is. In this sense, Johnson, for all his instinctive
     conservatism, was a radical thinker two hundred years
     ahead of his time. He addressed the central issues of
     lexicography, shed light on the nature of language, and
     illuminated our understanding in ways which we can still
     salute with gratitude.[1]

These words were uttered by Patrick Hanks in concluding the Johnson Society of Lichfield's Annual Lecture on 2 March 1999. They serve as a suitable prologue to these observations, which have been written as a brief personal celebration of the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. Hanks's lecture was entitled Samuel Johnson and Modern Lexicography and for those interested in such things it is an invaluable resource. Johnson's massive contribution to lexicography is revealed in a masterly fashion.

I shall draw on some of Hanks's insights to make my own observations. A further prop for these observations is my belief that Johnson's approach to meaning was similar to that of Ludwig Wittgenstein. These two men lived two hundred years apart and worked with different purposes but, to my mind, they identified similar problems with word meaning. To a degree their solutions to these problems were similar. They both moved from an attempt to fix meaning -- to make the meaning of all terms unambiguously clear -- to a position where it was clear that, for large areas of human discourse, meaning could only be found, in many cases, by referring to the context in which a particular word is spoken or written.

Before he started out on his great undertaking Johnson's approach to his lexicography seems to have been coloured by a fashionable desire, which was prevalent in the first half of the eighteenth century, to make the English language as it were 'respectable'. The French, for example, had produced Le Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francaise in 1694 but English still full of 'wild and barbarous jargon' as Johnson first put it, had no such badge of honour. Johnson, in his Plan of an English Dictionary (1747), speaks of fixing the language:

     ...since one great end of this undertaking is to fix the
     English language.[2]

However as one reads the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) one realises that Johnson's views had changed in the years he spent compiling it. Faced with what he calls, 'the boundless chaos of living speech' he no longer concerned himself with fixing the meaning of words but with explaining them. As Hanks points out (p27H) Johnson's choice of the term 'explanation' rather than 'definition' for what he was doing is very significant. Johnson was no longer intent on looking for certainty in the fixedness of a definition: he was looking at the meanings of words as they were actually being used.

Hanks, points out that Johnson developed techniques for dealing with the dynamism of language. Many of these techniques are still in use today. A few examples are: lexical creativity (use of diminutives etc), compound words, phrasal verbs (e.g. take -- on, off, in). This was the first time principles such as these had been developed and applied rigorously in English lexicography. Today they are still applied. Thus Johnson's Dictionary has a modern feel to it albeit his examples are far more lengthy than the those of modern dictionaries. For example:

     Johnson (1755) (eight meanings) (Four examples in some
     FAIRLY. adv. [from fair] 1. Beautifully: as a city fairly
     situated 2. Commodiously; conveniently; suitably to any
     purpose or design Waiting till willing winds their sails
     supplyd, Within a trading town they long abide, Full fairly
     situate on havens side. Dryden 3 Honestly; justly; without
     shift, without fraud; not foully 4 There is due from the
     judge to the advocate some commendation and gracing where
     causes are fairly pleaded. Bacon 8 Completely; without any
     deficience.(sic) All this they fairly overcame by reason of
     the continual presence of their king. Spens. State of
     Compact Oxford (2003) (three meanings):  
     Fairly Adverb 1 with justice. 2 moderately. 3 actually;

But how did Johnson arrive at this method of dealing with meaning?

He seems to have met with very similar problems to those met by Wittgenstein although they both started from different standpoints. Johnson was concerned with the meaning of words; his approach was empirical. He went word by word as it were. Wittgenstein first approached meaning with a theory, known as the picture theory of meaning. He outlined it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922).[3] He then applied this theory, as it were, to the world, or at least the world of language.

One finds that Johnson, in his preface, moved from the concept of fixed definitions to explanations of how a word is used. However, even this more realistic perspective produced more difficulties for Johnson to resolve:

     To explain requires the use of terms less abstruse than
     that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always
     be found; for as nothing can be proved but by supposing
     something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so
     nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to
     admit a definition. p315 [4]

He addresses here a basic problem of meaning which is that, at some point, the explanation of what a word means is unsayable. At this point something has to be assumed or taken for granted or even pointed to. Some part of meaning seems to depend on intuition. (Or it might even depend on something innate. Johnson however never approaches the conflict between the concepts of innate ideas and empiricism.) Having noted the problem he proceeds empirically.

He describes it further:

     This uncertainty of terms and commixture of ideas is well
     known to those who have studied philosophy with grammar;
     and, if I have not expressed them very clearly, it must be
     remembered that I am speaking of that which words are
     insufficient to explain. p317

Johnson's way round the difficulty was to exemplify the use of the words. Indeed this becomes the main theme of his preface. The mode of selection, the authors to be used, the chronology -- Johnson spends many pages on these and other issues -- but, quite early on, the basic method is revealed:

     The solution of all difficulties, and the supply of
     defects, must be sought in the examples subjoined to the
     various senses of each word, and ranged according to the
     time of their authors. (P.318)

Which is to say that in order to supply the missing dimension of meaning to the list of words in the dictionary the only way to go is to exemplify the way the word is used. This meant of course that some words would have many explanations. One is strongly reminded of a Wittgensteinian aphorism from his Tractatus.

     3.3 Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a
     proposition does a name have meaning.
Thus we have a very similar sentiment. Wittgenstein was also trying to fix things. In fact he was trying to tidy up philosophy; philosophical problems were to be things of the past. His picture theory of meaning, as developed in the Tractatus, was intended as the solution to the problems of word meaning. The world was pictured in words. Each word in a sentence stood for a bit of reality. The way the words related to each other reflected the way the objects in the world related to each other. There are a number of flaws in this position. Most obvious of course is the assumption that the logical form of propositions in language is isomorphic with the physical relationship of objects to each other in the real world. Wittgenstein nowhere presents arguments to support this assumption. Unfortunately the deceptively simple approach of the picture theory masks other weaknesses. Wittgenstein admitted a further difficulty towards the end of the work:

     4.1 Propositions represent the existence and non-existence
     of states of affairs.
     4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of
     natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural
     4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The
     word 'philosophy' must mean something whose place is above
     or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)

And so all sentences (propositions) except those of natural science are ruled out of court. The obvious conclusion is that all other sentences are meaningless. But of course they are not. Wittgenstein's comment on all this?

     7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence

And so both men had come to the conclusion that there was something about the relationship of words to meaning, of language to meaning, that resists description but which can only be exemplified.

Wittgenstein, in his later work, turned to look at language use in human discourse in Philosophical Investigations (1953)[5] but he had already commented in the Tractatus on the difficulty of using language to analyse itself. He summarised the position cogently thus:

     4.121 ...What expresses itself in language we cannot express
     by means of language...

In his own way Johnson wrestled with similar difficulties:

     To interpret a language by itself is very difficult; many
     words cannot be explained by synonyms because the idea
     signified by them has not more than one appellation; nor by
     paraphrase, because simple ideas cannot be described. P315  

For both men the way out of the difficulty lay in looking at the way words were actually used. As noted previously, Johnson turned to the use of examples. How did he select them? He describes his criteria in the preface. He decided, for better or worse, to select his meanings from the pantheon of English literature and from experts in the growing fields of science, engineering and industry. After setting his earliest boundary for the selection of his examples at the time of the poet Sidney (1554-1586) Johnson outlines and defends his selection of authors. He notes in passing that his selection of meanings is certainly not universal and that 'many senses have escaped observation'.

Wittgenstein reached similar conclusions to those of Johnson. At one point he writes:

     43. For a large class of cases -- though not all -- in
     which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus:
     the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
     (Philosophical Investigations)

He thus points to the crucial role of the social context of the language as providing the key to word meaning. The key to meaning is the way we use language in the world.

Wittgenstein developed two inter-linked conceptions to explain the way language works. One was the notion of language games. The other was that of public forms of life. A language game is the characteristic language employed in a particular social context. These social contexts are the forms of life. Wittgenstein's examples include: giving orders and obeying them, reporting an event, play acting, making a joke, solving a problem. In other words we learn a particular way of behaving and speaking in a myriad variety of social contexts. These are the bits of meaning which defy analysis. This is why a word can have different meanings. On this basis the context supplies the cues to establish the bits of meaning that can be shown but not said.

     226. What has to be accepted, the given, is -- so one could
     say -- forms of life.
     (Philosophical Investigations)

He elucidates the position further in the following:

     241. 'So you are saying that human agreement decides what
     is true or what is false?' -- It is what human beings say
     that is true and false: and they agree in the language they
     use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.
     (Philosophical Investigations)

This is a significant advance from the picture theory. We learn words. We master the various language games. We learn how to apply different word meanings in different language games. We apply an appropriate meaning from the definitions at our disposal. Our knowledge of our language games we have the tools to interpret what is meant in the various forms of life.

In his preface to his dictionary Johnson alludes frequently to the shifting nature of language, to the dynamism of semantic change and to the hopeless lot of the wretched lexicographer but he makes a point not dissimilar in tone to that of Wittgenstein: must be remembered that while our language is yet
     living, and variable by the caprice of everyone that speaks
     it these words are hourly shifting their relations and can
     no more be ascertained in a dictionary than a grove in the
     agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its
     picture in the water. (P 316)

And he too arrives at a very similar conclusion. The way to elucidate meaning is to see how the word is used. The best way to do this is to see how it is used in a sentence. The following quote from Johnson's Preface has a remarkable resonance with many later Wittgensteinian observations:

     It is not sufficient that a word is found unless it be so
     combined that its meaning is apparently determined by the
     tract and tenor of the sentence. (p.320)

Clearly he too thought that the meaning of a word could only be made clear by its use in the language. On this basis he developed principles to help him in his work and which proved so successful. Quite an achievement!

The general image of Samuel Johnson in the public mind, if such an entity still exists, seems to be composed elements of the bluff Englishman or a sort of academic John Bull full of wise words and argument. This image stems from some of the better known biographies such as those of Boswell and Macaulay. But the Johnson of the Dictionary of the English Language was far more than this. He was a first class thinker who identified and grappled with problems and issues surrounding word meaning which were also identified by one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century -- Ludwig Wittgenstein. Johnson's solutions to these problems led him to establish some working principles in lexicography, which, as Patrick Hanks has indicated, have been used ever since.

I therefore salute the memory of this great man of Lichfield and his marvellous Dictionary of the English Language. He was far more than his own definition of a lexicographer -- 'a harmless drudge' (although implicit in the phrase are the long hours of grinding work) -- he was an incisive pragmatist whose acumen raised English lexicography to a new level. In concluding I therefore echo the sentiments of one of his Idler essays:

     He that has improved the virtue or advanced the happiness
     of one fellow- creature, he that has ascertained a single
     moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to
     natural knowledge, may be contented with his own
     performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may
     demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with

I think that the applause, which has greeted his dictionary down the years right up to the present day has been a proper response to a great achievement.


1. HANKS, PATRICK (1999) Samuel Johnson and Modern Lexicography, Transactions of the Johnson Society 1999, p39. [All further references to this work will be by page number and the letter H in the text]

2. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1747) The Plan of an English Dictionary, Electronic Text Version, professor Jack Lynch's Site http:--- p.5

3. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , translated by PEARS, D.F. & McGUINNESS, B.F. (1961) Routledge &Kegan Paul, London and Henley [Further references by paragraph number and the word Tractatus in the text]

4. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1755) A Dictionary of the English Language -- Preface in GREEN, D. (ed.) Samuel Johnson Oxford Authors, OUP (1984) Oxford and New York [All further references to this work will be by page number and the word Preface in the text)

5. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1953) Philosophical Investigations Trans, ANSCOMBE, G.E.M.& RHEES, R. Basil Blackwell Oxford (repr 1978) [Further references will be by paragraph number and the words Philosophical Investigations in the text]

6. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1759) The Idler, No 88, The Limitations of Human Achievement in GREEN, D. (ed.) Samuel Johnson Oxford Authors, OUP (1984) Oxford and New York

(c) John Dudley 2005




  Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory
   J. Baggott, Oxford University Press 2004.

Jim Baggott tells us in 'Beyond Measure', his latest book on the philosophy of quantum mechanics, that (p287),

     ' matter where we start from, we always return to the
     central philosophical arguments of the anti-realist versus
     the realist'

The realist, we are told, is the loser in this argument because (p287),

     '...any final plea for an independent reality is really an
     appeal to faith, in the sense that the realist must
     ultimately accept the logic of the anti-realists' argument
     but will not be persuaded.'

Baggott describes himself as a realist and so his use of the word 'faith' is not disparaging. He subsequently writes (p288),

     'Like all acts of faith, the search for an independent
     reality involves striving for a goal that can never be
     reached. This does not mean that the effort is any less
     worthwhile. On the contrary, when free of the straitjacket
     of dogma, it is through this process of striving for the
     unachievable that real progress in science is made.'

He seems to be affirming unshakeable, irrational realism. Yet, by contrast, he speaks strongly against 'dogma' and 'unquestioning acceptance' with respect to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Baggott also tells us (p203),

     'It is in the nature of theoretical science that there can
     be no such thing as certainty. A theory is only 'true' for
     as long as the majority of the scientific community
     maintain a consensus view that the theory is the one best
     able to explain the observations.'

This remark does not bear close scrutiny but we get the gist i.e. we cannot be absolutely certain that a scientific theory is true.

Baggott adopts the posture of a tour-guide. He tells us, belatedly, that he has tried to argue (p287),

     '...for all the different positions described in this book
     with something approaching equal force.'

This makes his discussions on the relationship of quantum theory to god theory and consciousness theory and free-will theory seem undiscriminating and out of character with the general quality of the book.

The quotes I have given above do, I think, represent the author's own voice. They are very similar to Einstein's as presented on p115. Nevertheless, we may conclude that Baggott is very confused: he is both dogmatic and anti-dogmatic; he appears to be more certain of his own notion of realism than he is of powerful scientific theories; and although he describes his realism as an essential inspiration for science he pessimistically tells us it is unrealisable.

It is my view that Baggott's realism is representative of the twentieth century. We can find in it, I think, the reason why twentieth century scientists and philosophers found quantum mechanics so incomprehensible and hence why Feynman wrote in 1965 (quoted p287),

     'I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum

The central question, therefore, is what is realism? The most precise definition of reality given by Baggott is that of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen 1935 (quoted p131).

     'If, without in any way disturbing a system, we can predict
     with certainty (i.e. with a probability equal to unity) the
     value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element
     of physical reality corresponding to this physical

This definition is not intended for philosophical application as it only progresses us from 'physical quantity' to 'physical reality', and 'physical' itself presumably implies reality. Apart from the issue of knowing about systems without disturbing them, which Baggott discusses, there is also a problem with the requirement of absolute certainty because such certainty is generally not claimed in scientific theory or measurement.

The aim of definition is to reach a secure understanding. In the case of 'reality' there seems no basis for much refinement for it is both widely used and philosophically murky. We say something is real in contrast to saying it is illusory or imaginary. The world around us is real. Solid objects are real. Liquids and gases may seem decreasingly real and light may seem miraculous. We understand that we apprehend the real by virtue of phenomena that mediates from objects to the object that is ourself, light for vision, sound for hearing etc. We understand that this apprehension has no effect on what is observed except that we, the observer, are also an object and real. Consequently we understand that the real persists regardless of whether it is observed or not. (Here is not the place to discuss arguments to the contrary.)

It follows that because our apprehension of the real is mediated it cannot be ideal -- perception cannot be perfectly or completely informative of objects. Perception is less effective to the extent that the mediating phenomenon disturbs what is observed or damages the observer. Vision is our most powerful sense for recognising objects. When we imagine objects we do so visually. Vision is so powerful that we use a word from vision for imagining and we hardly notice when we say we can imagine hearing, feeling, smelling or tasting something.

It is my view that the world of seen objects, complemented by touch, is what most powerfully informs Baggott's (and almost everybody's) notion of the real. Consequently, although we understand that objects exist regardless of whether we see them or not, such an understanding requires us to imagine these unseen objects. This we do, quite literally, by producing an image (or 'ghost-image' perhaps). This is a philosophical argument about how we conceive of the real and it is, I think, a critical point of difference. Baggott would, I think, distinguish objects as we experience them from the objects themselves whereas I would emphasise that we have no notion of objects except as we experience them. Baggott would argue that the real is independent of our experience of the real whereas I would argue that our notion of a real independent of our experience is nevertheless conceived in terms of our experience.

I understand Baggott to be separating the real from our experience of the real. This is the reason his realism is unrealisable and is inaccessible except to faith. And to him, the real underlying our experience is the same real that underlies quantum mechanics. The apparent inconsistency of quantum mechanics with our experience, therefore, is for him a serious problem and any accommodation of that inconsistency is to him anti-realist.

I would argue that we conceive of the real underlying our experience in terms of our experience. When we analyse the real we are also delving into the mechanism of our own perception, a mechanism that we have no means of perceiving. (We might write 'mechanism' to mark that this is a metaphor from our experience of objects.) For example, we see objects because of light. The seeing of light itself is impossible in principle. Light is not see-able and so trying to imagine it involves an inconsistency in principle. As it is there is no coherent way of visualising light in practice and this is what we would expect.

I would argue, therefore, that when we analyse the real to arrive at quantum mechanics we go beyond our experience in principle and hence beyond our notion of the real. There is no reason to suppose that our concept of reality should be mirrored in quantum mechanics i.e. that the analysis should lead us back to where we started from (or according to Baggott's conception, to never depart from it). We do not look through a microscope to discover a world where microscopic microscopes can be made; and look through these to discover a world where micro-micro-microscopes can be made. This is the equivalent in physics of the regressive homunculus in reproductive biology.

Baggott, of course, does not support the view that the quantum world should somehow be a microscopic version of our own. Rather, we may understand him as wanting to include quantum mechanics into the diversity we find in the world that we experience so that quantum mechanics conforms to the principles of that diversity -- the notions of space and time perhaps. He understands the world of quantum mechanics to be part of the real rather than arising from the analysis of the real. He is seeking, in effect, some features of the world, as we experience it, that persist under analysis.

The failure of quantum mechanics to fit into this scheme leads him to regard the current interpretation of quantum mechanics as anti-realist and he promotes the idea that we should fix this problem by finding better principles. We have suggested that Baggott falsely tries to conceive (i.e. imagine) a real without reference to experience. We now suggest that he abstracts the real into principles but finds these principles to be inadequate. We may characterise his real as the desire to find principles that unify our understanding of the world around us with the 'world' we find under analysis. It is a quest, in effect, for a regressive explanation and it is for this reason that his realism is probably best termed 'regressive realism'.

Baggott describes his realism as unachievable and requiring faith. I, also, would describe it as unachievable, but I reject the notion of unaccountable knowing suggested by the word 'faith'. Our recognition of the real is not unaccountable -- it is conceived in terms of our experience. Baggott thinks his realism is an ideal to which we should aspire. I would argue that the 'world' of quantum mechanics cannot be understood as real and attempts to do so are regressive and futile. I would argue that Baggott's realism fails to respect the means by which we comprehend the real and I would assert, therefore, that it cannot guide us toward a deeper comprehension of the real.

If quantum mechanics is consistent with our experience of the world, which it appears to be to a profound degree, then it should be regarded as a realist theory for this reason. It cannot have a realist interpretation of its entities in the sense that these entities can be visualised or otherwise conceived of as objects because such entities are beyond our experience in principle -- they are unperceivable by us and cannot contribute to our notion of the real. We may analyse a rock and find it is made up of smaller pieces of rock. It is only when we find something different in this process of splitting that any explanation becomes available to us. We ought not to be surprised that light cannot be visualised. We ought not to be surprised that our analysis of the real leads to the unreal. This does not mean the quantum 'world' is inaccessible to reason and it need not see quantum mechanics degenerating into 'senseless empiricism', as Einstein feared (quoted p115).

The reasonable approach to adopt is to abandon the futile quest for a regressive explanation of the real and instead to recognise that the real is our only tool for analysing the real, obviously in an experimental sense but also conceptually. The development of quantum mechanics from combining particle mathematics (from solids) with wave mechanics (from fluids) and interpreting it in terms of the mathematics of probability illustrates this process at work. Vision, in providing us with our concept of the real, naturally enough, is a powerful tool for analysing the real. If it were not such a powerful tool it is doubtful we could analyse the real at all. But just as we should not over-emphasise vision and expect the quantum world to be visually real nor should we under-estimate it.

There is not a sharp transition from the world as we experience it to the quantum world. (As I understand it, quantum mechanics comprehends this transition very well.) We can indeed see smaller and smaller pieces of rock, in principle at least, and there is not a point at which seeing is no longer possible, rather the picture becomes less coherent as we reach to the atomic scale. Atoms cannot be seen in principle but it may be satisfactory to argue that their closeness to the scale of visible objects is the reason visualisation in chemistry is so effective. Whatever the case, if visualisation leads to effective exploration then this is justification enough.

This philosophical look at quantum mechanics has not returned us to the debate between the 'anti-realist versus the realist'. Rather, we have argued that Baggott's realism, the realist view of the twentieth century, is poorly conceived. We have argued that quantum mechanics cannot be understood in terms of this realism, which is to say that quantum mechanics has been incomprehensible because we have tried to comprehend it in the wrong way. I have argued that the way forward is to deliberately and creatively use the real as a resource for analysing the real without concern for the unreality that may result. The twentieth century development of quantum mechanics is an example of this process at work. One may optimistically suggest, therefore, that a generalised understanding of this process may lead to as yet undreamt of comprehension of the real, progress that is not driven by unrealisable faith but by confident understanding. It is amusing to think that humanity may still be in its conceptual childhood, or, in the language of biology, that humanity has only just begun to explore the conceptual niche.


This is the conclusion of this review except for a very brief discussion on Baggott's notion of truth, which I would argue is also representative of the twentieth century. This is an issue that is not specific to quantum mechanics but concerns science generally.

Baggott distinguishes between true and 'true'. He tells us scientific theories are 'true' because we cannot be absolutely certain they are true. We may understand him to be saying that it is useful to regard scientific theories as true but that they might nevertheless be false. Baggott does not deal with this issue explicitly and he takes it for granted that we understand what he means by true. I would expect him to regard mathematics as the model of true statements and would expect him to say mathematical statements are either true or false but never 'true' or 'false'. He would say, I think, that 1+1=2 is true within the traditional system of numbers and when applying this mathematics to counting apples would say 1 apple + 1 apple = 2 apples is 'true' (because the scientific theory that might say, 'Taking one object and then another object means we have two objects' is only 'true').

In mathematics, however, statements are evaluated according to the mathematical system in which they appear and we may use the terms consistent and inconsistent in place of true and false. (These systems are generally so precise that they can be mechanised!) The mathematical system itself is not true or false as such. It is just a system. Our evaluation of a mathematical system is likely to be in terms of its usefulness. This means that the issue of truth can be removed from mathematics entirely. If mathematics is the model of Baggott's truth, and I think it is, then we may assert that there is no truth, only 'truth'.

Baggott might not quite agree for he writes of Godel's 'incompleteness theorem' (p112),

     'Such undecidable propositions can, however, be proved
     'informally' through so-called meta-mathematical arguments
     outside the axiomatic structure.'

This suggests he sees the possibility of mathematical proofs outside axiomatic structures, which is odd given the trouble mathematicians take to embed proofs in axiomatic structures. His use of 'informally' and 'so-called', however, does not suggest much confidence and he is much less assertive than Godel himself:

     'From the remark that [R(q);q] assets its own
     unprovability, it follows at once that [R(q);q] is correct,
     since [R(q);q] is certainly unprovable (because
     undecidable). So the proposition which is undecidable in
     the system PM yet turns out to be decided by
     metamathematical considerations.'

Perhaps, at last, there is declining confidence in Godel's  'incompleteness theorem'.

I would argue that 'true' is the only type of truth and that it can be understood as both objective and relativist (i.e. it is neither arbitrary nor absolute). This view of truth means that we regard statements as evaluated as true rather than intrinsically true, evaluation that does not of itself imply or require a final or absolute evaluation. Accordingly, we may say scientific theories are true. (It seems extraordinary, given their power, to suppose that they are not!) We may say experiments can and do prove theories (meaning 'prove' both in the sense of 'test' and 'verify' but obviously not in the mathematical sense). True theories may nevertheless become obsolete and may come to be regarded as in some way false.

The relationship between mathematics and science, according to this viewpoint, does not involve an interaction between true and 'true' -- between ideal truth and contingent truth. I would argue that just as our notion of the real is founded on our experience so too is mathematics: number is a mathematical system abstracted from counting (and reflexly counting is an application of that system); geometry is a mathematical system abstracted from measuring space. These mathematical systems are reflexly applicable to the real because they have been conceived in terms of the real.

This completes this review of Baggott's 'Beyond Measure'. I have argued that he has mistaken notions of both realism and truth, confusions that are typical of the twentieth century. It is an interesting book and probably an excellent guide to the past. I have argued that it is no guide to the future.

(c) Lawrence Trevanion 2005


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020