Costs, Benefits, and the Value of Philosophical Goods

Philosophy is a very diverse field in which practitioners employ different dialectical and rhetorical techniques to advance their views and critique those of their opponents. But despite the heterogeneity, there seems to me to be a prevailing attitude towards the overarching method by which we choose philosophical theories among contemporary philosophers. We are all supposed to acknowledge that there are no knockdown arguments in philosophy. Philosophical theories are not the sorts of beasts that can be vanquished with a quick deductive argument, mostly because there is no set of rules that we can use to determine if a theory has been refuted. Any proposed set of rules will be open to challenge by those who doubt them, and there will be no obvious way to determine who wins that fight.

So, the process by which we compare and choose among philosophical theories cannot be guided by which theories can be refuted by knockdown arguments, but rather we seem to be engaged in a form of cost-benefit analysis when we do philosophy. We look at a theory and consider whether its overall value outweighs that of its competitors, and then we adopt that theory rather than the others. One way of spelling this process out is in terms of reflective equilibrium; we consider the parts of the theories we are comparing and the intuitions we have about the subject matter that the theories are about, and then we weigh those parts and intuitions against each other. Once we reach some sort of state of equilibrium among our intuitions and the parts that compose the theory we’re considering adopting, we can be justified in believing that theory.

Reflective equilibrium seems to be the metaphilosopher’s dream, since it avoids the problems that plague the knockdown argument approach to theory selection, and it makes room for some level of reasonable disagreement among practitioners, since not everybody has the same intuitions, and the intuitions shared among colleagues may vary in strength (in both intrapersonal and interpersonal senses). Unfortunately for me, I worry a lot about how reliable our methods are at getting us to the truth, and the process I crudely spelled out above does not strike me as satisfactory.

To be brief, my concern is that we have no clear way of determining the values of the things we are trading when we do a philosophical cost-benefit analysis. In other cases of cost-benefit analyses, it seems obvious to me that we can make satisfactory judgments in light of the values of the goods we’re trading. If I buy a candy bar at the store on my way to work, I can (at least on reflection) determine that certain considerations clearly count in favor of purchasing the candy bar and others clearly count against it. But when I weigh intuitions against parts of theories and parts of theories against each other, I begin to lose my grasp on what the exchange rate is. How do I know when to trade off an intuition that really impresses itself upon me for a theory with simpler parts? Exactly how intense must an intuition be before it becomes practically non-negotiable when doing a philosophical cost-benefit analysis? Questions like these throw me for a loop, especially when I’m in a metaphysical realist mood. Perhaps anti-realists will have an easier time coping with this, but those sorts of views never satisfied me, because there are parts of philosophy (like some areas in metaphysics) that never really struck me as open to a complete anti-realist analysis, so at least for me global anti-realism is off the table. At the moment, I’m completely puzzled.

Why Verificationism isn't Self-Refuting

In the early to mid Twentieth Century, there was a philosophical movement stemming from Austria that aimed to do away with metaphysics. The movement has come to be called Logical Positivism or Logical Empiricism, and it is widely seen as a discredited research program in philosophy (among other fields). One of the often repeated reasons that Logical Empiricism is untenable is that the criterion the positivists employed to demarcate the meaningful from the meaningless, when applied to itself, is meaningless, and therefore it refutes itself. In this post, I aim to show that the positivists’ criterion does not result in self-refutation.

Doing away with metaphysics is a rather ambiguous aim. One can take it to mean that we ought to rid universities of metaphysicians, encourage people to cease writing and publishing books and papers on the topic, and adjust our natural language such that it does not commit us to metaphysical claims. Another method of doing away with metaphysics is by discrediting it as an area of study. Logical Positivists saw the former interpretation of their aim as an eventual outgrowth of the latter interpretation. The positivists generally took their immediate goal to be discrediting metaphysics as a field of study, and probably hoped that the latter goal of removing metaphysics from the academy would follow.

Discrediting metaphysics can be a difficult task. The positivists’ strategy was to target the language used in expressing metaphysical theses. If the language that metaphysicians employed was only apparently meaningful, but underneath the surface it was cognitively meaningless, then the language of metaphysics would consist of meaningless utterances. Cognitive meaning consists of a statement being truth-apt, or having truth conditions. If a statement isn’t truth-apt, then it is cognitively meaningless, but it can serve other linguistic functions besides assertion (e.g. ordering somebody to do something isn’t truth-apt, but it has a linguistic function).

If metaphysics is a discourse that purports to be in the business of assertion, yet it consists entirely of cognitively meaningless statements, then it is a failure as a field of study. But how did the positivists aim to demonstrate that metaphysics is a cognitively meaningless enterprise? The answer is by providing a criterion to demarcate cognitively meaningful statements from cognitively meaningless statements.

The positivists were enamored with Hume’s fork, which is the distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact, or, in Kant’s terminology, the analytic and the synthetic. The distinction was applied to all cognitively meaningful statements. So, for any cognitively meaningful statement, it is necessarily the case that it is either analytic or synthetic (but not both). The positivists took the criterion of analyticity to be a statement’s negation entailing a contradiction. Anything whose negation does not entail a contradiction would be synthetic. Analytic statements, for the positivists, were not about extra-linguistic reality, but instead were about concepts and definitions (and maybe rules). Any claim about extra-linguistic reality was synthetic, and any synthetic claim was about extra-linguistic reality.

Synthetic statements were taken to be cognitively meaningful just if they could be empirically confirmed. The only other cognitively meaningful statements for the positivists were analytic statements and contradictions. This is an informal statement of the verificationist criterion for meaningfulness. Verificationism was the way that the positivists discredited metaphysics as a cognitively meaningless discipline. If metaphysics consisted of synthetic statements that could not be empirically confirmed (e.g. the nature of possible worlds), then metaphysics consisted of cognitively meaningless statements. In short, the positivists took a non-cognitivist interpretation of the language used in metaphysics.    

Conventional wisdom says that verificationism, when applied to itself, results in self-refutation, which means that the positivists’ project is an utter failure. But why does it result in self-refutation? One reason is that it is either analytic or synthetic, but it doesn’t appear to be analytic, so it must be synthetic. But if the verificationist criterion is synthetic, then it must be empirically confirmable. Unfortunately, verificationism is not empirically confirmable, so it is cognitively meaningless. Verificationism, then, is in the same boat with metaphysics.

Fortunately for the positivists, the argument above fails. First off, there are ways to interpret verificationism such that it is subject to empirical confirmation. Verificationism could express a thesis that aims to capture or explicate the ordinary concept of meaning (Surovell 2013). If it aims to capture the ordinary concept of meaning, then it could be confirmed by studying how users of the concept MEANING could employ it in discourse. If such concept users employ the concept in the way the verificationist criterion says it does, then it is confirmed. So, given that understanding of verificationism, it is cognitively meaningful. If verificationism aims to explicate the ordinary concept of meaning, then it would be allowed more leeway when it deviates from standard usage of ordinary concept in light of its advantages within a comprehensive theory (Surovell 2013). Verificationism construed as an explication of the ordinary concept of meaning, then, would be subject to empirical confirmation if the overall theory it contributes to is confirmed.

Secondly, if one takes the position traditionally attributed to Carnap, then one can say that the verificationist criterion is not internal to a language, but external. It is a recommendation to use language in a particular way that admits of only empirically confirmable, analytic, and contradictory statements. Recommendations are not truth-apt, yet they serve important linguistic functions. So, verificationism may be construed non-cognitively, as a recommendation motivated by pragmatic reasons. There’s nothing self-refuting about that.  

Lastly, one could take verificationism to be internal to a language, in Carnap’s sense, and analytic. However, the criterion would not aim to capture the ordinary notion of meaning, but instead it would be a replacement of that notion. Carnap appears to endorse this way of construing verificationism in the following passage,

“It would be advisable to avoid the terms ‘meaningful’ and ‘meaningless’ in this and in similar discussions . . . and to replace them with an expression of the form “a . . . sentence of L”; expressions of this form will then refer to a specified language and will contain at the place ‘. . .’ an adjective which indicates the methodological character of the sentence, e.g. whether or not that sentence (and its negation) is verifiable or completely or incompletely confirmable or completely or incompletely testable and the like, according to what is intended by ‘meaningful’” (Carnap 1936).

Rather than documenting the way ordinary users of language deploy the concept MEANING, Carnap appears to be proposing a replacement for the ordinary concept of meaning. The statement of verificationism is internal to the language in which expressions of meaning are replaced with “a . . . sentence of L” where ‘. . .’ is an adjective that indicates whether or not the sentence is verifiable, and thus is analytic in that language. The motivation for adopting verificationism thus construed would then be dependent on the theoretical and pragmatic advantages of using that language.

So, verificationism can be construed as synthetic, analytic, or cognitively meaningless. It could be considered a recommendation to use language in a certain way, and that recommendation is then motivated by pragmatic reasons (or other reasons), which makes it cognitively meaningless but linguistically useful, which does not result in self-refutation. Or, it could be considered a conventional definition aimed to capture or explicate the ordinary concept of meaning. It would then be verifiable because it could be confirmed by an empirical investigation into the way people use the ordinary notion of meaning, or by its overall theoretical merits. Lastly, it could be internal to a language, and thus analytic, but not an attempt at capturing the ordinary notion of meaning. Instead, it would be a replacement that served a particular function within a particular language that is itself chosen for pragmatic (non-cognitive) reasons. In any of these construals, verificationism is not self-refuting.

Works Cited:

Carnap, Rudolf. "Testability and Meaning - Continued." Philosophy of Science. 1936. Web.

Surovell, Jonathan. "Carnap’s Response to the Charge that Verificationism is Self-Undermining." 2013. Web.


Buddhist Apoha Nominalism

The Problem of Universals is one the oldest subjects of debate in Indian philosophy. Realists about universals believe that universals exist in addition to concrete particulars, while nominalists deny the existence of universals. The Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā schools were vocal defenders of realism. Nyāya philosophers believed in universals for a number of reasons:

  • Universals explain how different objects share common characteristics. Cow A and Cow B differ from each other in various ways, and yet we recognize that they’re both cows. The Nyāya explanation for this is that what Cow A and Cow B have in common is the universal “cowness” that inheres in both.
  • Universals fix the meanings of words. The word “cow” doesn’t just refer to a particular cow, but cows in general. How can a word refer to many different objects at once? The Nyāya solution is that the word “cow” refers to a particular qualified by the universal cowness, which is present in all individual cows.
  • Universals are a solution to the Problem of Induction, first raised by the Cārvāka empiricists. Nyāya philosophers viewed the laws of nature as relations between universals. Our knowledge of these universals and the relations between them justifies inductive generalizations, and consequently, inferences such as the presence of fire from the presence of smoke.

Buddhists were the best-known nominalists in the Indian philosophical tradition. The Buddhist hostility towards universals is perhaps best expressed by Paṇḍita Aśoka (9th century): “One can clearly see five fingers in one’s own hand. One who commits himself to a sixth general entity fingerhood, side by side with the five fingers, might as well postulate horns on top of his head.”¹

In this post, I will briefly go over how Buddhists responded to the first two reasons for believing in universals provided by the Nyāya school. The Buddhist defense of induction will have to be the subject of a separate essay.

The form of nominalism Buddhists advocated is called apoha, the Sanskrit word for “exclusion.” The first precise statement of apoha nominalism can be found in the works of Dignāga (6th century). Dignāga claimed that the word “cow” simply means “not non-cow.” Since there is obviously no universal “not cow-ness” present in every object that is not a cow, this semantic view doesn’t commit us to the existence of universals. Every cow is a unique particular distinct from all other objects. We simply overlook the mutual differences between cows and group them together based on how they’re different from non-cows.  Thus, it’s not because cows share something in common that we call them by the same name. Rather, we think all cows share something in common because we have learned to call them by the same name.

There are some objections that immediately spring to mind, and Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers brought them up repeatedly in their criticisms of apoha nominalism. First, how does saying that “cow” means “not non-cow” provide a solution to the problem of universals? “Not non-cow” involves a double negation, so to say “cow” means “not non-cow” is just to say “cow” means “cow.” This leads us right back to where we started, and just as before, it seems that we need to posit a universal cowness. Second, how can we focus on cows’ common differences from non-cows unless we already know how to tell what a cow is in the first place? Once again, we seem to have gone in a circle, and apoha seems to presuppose precisely what it was supposed to explain.

Dignāga’s successors responded to the first objection by drawing distinctions between different kinds of negation. Consider the statement: “This is not impolite.” Now, at first glance it might seem like this just translates to “This is polite,” because of the double negation involved in “not impolite.” But this is not necessarily the case. The statement could be about something to which the very category of politeness does not apply, in which case “not impolite” is distinct from “polite.” Thus, “not non-cow” can mean something genuinely different from “cow.”

To understand how Buddhists responded to the second charge of circularity, it helps to look at another Buddhist view. Buddhists were mereological reductionists: they did not believe that wholes were anything over and above their parts. So, a table, for instance, is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is just a conceptual fiction: a convenient designator we use because of our shared interests and social conventions. It is conceivable, for instance, that someone who has never seen or heard of tables before will not see a table, just pieces of wood put together in seemingly random fashion. The idea that the table is ultimately real arises when we project our interests on to the world. How is any of this relevant to the question of universals? Buddhist philosophers argued that something similar goes on when we fall under the impression that all cows share a common cowness. We overlook the differences between individual cows because they satisfy some of our desires – for example, the desire for milk – that non-cows don’t. We then project our interests on to the world, mistakenly concluding that cowness is a real thing.

This may not seem like a very satisfactory response. It just pushes the problem back a step. How do all these particulars satisfy the same desire if they don’t share something in common? In this case, it seems like the cows really do share something: the ability to satisfy our desire for milk. Dharmakīrti (7th century) responded to this by using the example of fever-reducing herbs. He pointed out that there are many different herbs that reduce fevers. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that there exists a universal “fever-reducing-ness.” Each of these herbs is different, and they don’t reduce fevers in the same way, or use the same mechanisms to do so. We group them together under a single category only because of our subjective interest in reducing fevers. Dharmakīrti’s claim is that the same is true of everything. Each particular serves our interests in a manner that’s utterly distinct from everything else in the world. And so once again, there is no need to posit universals.

But there are still some lingering worries here. While we may accept that in the case of the herbs there is no universal fever-reducing-ness, does the same response work for simple substances such as elementary particles? Assuming for the sake of argument that an electron is an elementary particle, surely all electrons share something in common. Doesn’t the ability to bring about similar effects require a shared capacity – in this case, the same set of causal powers? One possible response to this line of argument, formulated by the philosopher Kamalaśīla (8th century), is to adopt what we would recognize as a Humean view of causation. Kamalaśīla rejected the notion of causal powers entirely, and like Hume, stated that there is nothing more to causation than constant conjunctions of events. Once again, talk of “causal powers” is just a convenient way of speaking about certain correlations that we never fail to observe.

This is obviously a very brief sketch of apoha nominalism. There is much more to say, particularly on the subtle differences between different versions of apoha defended by different Buddhist philosophers. This is a good place to start for further reading.


[1] From the translation in Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition, edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans and Arindam Chakrabarti (2011).