Saturday, July 29, 2006

Worlds and Women

I'm currently enjoying a paper from 1993 by Tony Roy called Worlds and Modality (the link is through JSTOR). I like his attempt to ground modal facts in actual-world structural facts about properties (see esp. section 2). Or at least, I think it sits very nicely with the kind of epistemology of modality that I'm working on defending.

In other news, Brit has an interesting post on women in Philosophy. (I'd be even more interested to know the statistics for women Lemmings ...)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Positions On The A Priori

I'm currently working on a paper on a priori knowledge, and I thought it might be helpful to start out with an overview of available positions, characterized in terms of the answers their defenders would give to a set of questions. I'd be really interested to hear whether people think anything important is missing from my overview, whether the description is helpful, etc..

Before I start, it's useful to have an umbrella term for all forms of the view that some appeal to conceptual truth or something in that area is what does (most of) the interesting epistemological work in helping us understand (at least some of ) our a priori knowledge. I'll refer to all such views as versions of the conceptual approach.

First, then, there is the question of whether or not a priori knowledge is a distinctive epistemological phenomenon at all. Those who deny this include Mill and Quine, both of whom argue, in their different ways, that what appear to be cases of a priori knowledge are in fact cases of ordinary empirical knowledge.

If it is agreed that a priori knowledge is a distinctive phenomenon, there is the question of whether or not to adopt any version of the conceptual approach. If the answer is no, then we can ask whether or not any form of factualism is correct for claims of a priori knowledge or justification: that is, whether there are facts corresponding to acceptable claims of this kind, or whether the acceptability of such claims has some other basis. Field defends a form of non-factualism, at least for basic a priori knowledge, arguing that claims of justification for basic a priori principles are merely expressions of pro-attitude towards these principles. Factualist positions available to non-defenders of the conceptual approach include innatism, certain forms of conventionalism which are not wedded to the conceptual approach, and some forms of rationalism (for instance, some of the thoughts of Gödel could be developed in this way: we could posit a priori knowledge of set theory, for instance, via a rational faculty which is 'something like a perception' of its objects, without our account appealing to conceptual truth).

For those who favour the conceptual approach, we now ask whether or not mind-independence realism is true for any of the a priori knowable subject matters that are covered by the account. Those who answer 'no' here I take to include Ayer, Carnap, Kant, defenders of implicit definition views such as Wright and Hale, and perhaps Boghossian.

Those who do want to be realists then have to decide whether to be rationalists: that is, whether to accept that some propositions can be known solely through the exercise of faculties other than the senses. (I take empiricism to be the denial of rationalism). Those who answer 'yes' to this question I take to include BonJour, Peacocke and Bealer.

There is one node left on my imagined diagram: that is the node which I want to occupy. This node represents the view that a priori knowledge is a distinctive epistemological phenomenon to be explained via some sort of conceptual approach, that we should be realists about at least some of the subject matters to be covered by the account, and that rationalism is not true.

(The fun part is fitting all those things together …)

Blogging News

Thoughts Arguments and Rants is to evolve into a group blog, and in future I'll be posting there a bit as well as here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Jobs and Studentships

Nottingham has a three-year postdoctoral fellowship and a three-year PhD studentship available in its AHRC-funded Metaphysics in Science project.

Also, advance notice for those interested that Arché will have two five-year postdoctoral positions and two three-year PhD studentships available in its AHRC-funded Basic Knowledge project, probably to start in September 2007. (NB: I am no longer working in Arché myself; any enquiries about these positions should go to

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Quine and Vague Existence: New Draft

I've posted a new draft of my paper on Vague Existence and Ontological Commitment. I got loads of feedback on this, but I've tried to keep it short and sweet ... still, if anyone thinks there's something crucial missing I'd be interested to hear!

Update: a few typos and other sillinesses now corrected!

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Another new blog for lemmings (especially modal epistemic logicians) that'll be worth following: Knowability, run by Joe Salerno.

Checking out Joe's webpage, I notice that a draft of the introduction to his collection of New Essays on the Knowability Paradox is now available, and looks to be a great overview of the current state of the debate on this topic (as well as providing some history). There is also a draft of a helpful bibliography for the volume.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

They Grow Up So Fast These Days

Today is LWBM's first birthday! Thanks to everyone who's been reading and commenting and helping to make it so much fun.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

New Blog for Lemmings

Berit Brogaard has just started up a new blog, Lemmings.

No Escape for Epistemicism

Some more on the argument of my previous post ...

After my paper, Daniel Elstein encouraged me to think about how epistemicists would respond to the argument. At the time, I was inclined to think they could block it, but now I'm not convinced.

Epistemicists think that (what appear to be) borderline cases for (predicate or property) F exist only due to our necessary ignorance as to where the sharp cut-off for F-ness lies. A defender of the claim that it's vague whether there are any Fs, by these lights, is committed to its being unknowable whether there are any Fs (since according to her, we can't tell where the cut-off is within a certain range, and the actual situation is somewhere within that range). But that, surely, means she lacks commitment to Fs (since in particular, she is committed to its being unknowable for her whether there are any Fs). And hence, via the Quinean criterion, we can conclude that there are no Fs in the range of her quantifiers, so the argument is up and running.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Quine and Vague Existence Again

The Joint Session was fun, although it was a shame that lots of the accommodation was so far from the conference venue - strolling in across the common was nice in the morning sunshine but at 2am it was less appealing to walk back.

Like last year, I thought the open sessions were in need of some degree of refereeing. Still, I very much enjoyed giving my paper in one of them, on ontological commitment and vague existence. The purpose of this paper (which is a much improved version of this post) is to present the following argument and then wonder what should be done about it:

1 (Quinean premise): One is committed to Fs iff there are Fs among the range of the quantifiers appearing in one's best theory.
2 (Assumption): We think it's a vague matter whether there are any Fs (and that's all we have to say on the question of whether Fs exist or not).
3 (From 2): We are not committed to there being any Fs.
4 (Contraposing on the right-to-left direction of 1, then MPP using 3): There are no Fs among the range of the quantifiers appearing in our best theory.
5 (Premise): Our quantifiers are precisely those which appear in our best theory.
6 (From 4 and 5): There are no Fs among the range of our quantifiers.
7 (From 6): We can truly assert 'There are no Fs'.
8 (From 7, disquoting): It is not a vague matter whether there are any Fs: it is settled that there are no Fs.
9 (From 2 and 8): We are mistaken.
10 (Discharging 2, using 9): If we think it's a vague matter whether there are any Fs (and that's all we have to say on the question of whether Fs exist or not), then we are mistaken.

Some members of the audience suggested that rejecting contraposition was the best thing to do, a response I've not come across before. (Although as Daniel pointed out to me later, we really only need modus tollens. But maybe the people who'd want to reject contraposition would want to reject MTT too, for similar reasons?)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Joint Session 2006

Some of my photos from this year's Joint Sesh are now online. When my feet touch the ground I'll hopefully get a couple of comments on some of the papers up here too.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Revenge of the Paranormal

I have just put a new paper online (based on stuff that I posted here a while ago). It's a short response to JC Beall's recent paper 'True, False and Paranormal'. Beall says that his five-valued semantics enables us to desribe a language which allows exhaustuve semantic characterization of its own sentences without generating liar-like contradictions. I say it doesn't!


I'm just back from a fun conference on Moral Contextualism in Aberdeen. Some of my photos of the conference are now online. (I can assure readers that there is a perfectly rational explanation of those ones with the cutlery.)

Highlights from the conference included Berit Brogaard's attempts to convince us that the truth-value of one and the same proposition can vary with the speaker. (Her presentation is available online.) She appealed to Recanati's views on direct speech reports (whereby the quoted sentence is not merely mentioned but used) to argue that such reports, although they create shifed contexts, do not change the parameters of the circumstance of evaluation.

While I agreed that the view seems to have advantages over Macfarlane-style relativism, one thing that made me suspicious about it was that one surely wants to deliver the same result for unquoted sentences as for quoted sentences. The following pair, for instance, sounds very odd:
1. At t, John said 'Murder is wrong' and he was mistaken.
2. The sentence John uttered at t was true.
But it wasn't clear how the account could deliver this uniformity; since it appeals to special features of quoted speech to deliver the desired result in case 1, it wasn't clear how to get it for cases like 2.

John Hawthorne suggested in his talk that 'ought' claims might be subject to contextual variation in semantic value for the same reasons as are the 'can' claims which they (supposedly) imply. This, I thought, might sit quite well with the view (suggested in Lewis) that there is contextual variation in the semantic value of modal utterances due to contextual restriction of the quantifiers over worlds which they involve.

I was particularly interested, therefore, to hear Ralph Wedgwood developing a version of Angelika Kratzer's possible-world semantics for 'ought' claims in the next-but-one session. Kratzer's basic idea here (subject to many bells and whistles, of course) is that context supplies a set of propositions which are held fixed across all relevant worlds, and an ordering on those worlds. 'It ought to be that p' is then true iff p is true in all the worlds ranked as unsurpassed.

Tomorrow I'm off to Southampton for the Joint Session, so more paper reports should follow soon.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Williamson on Conceptual Truth

Tim Williamson has a paper on Conceptual Truth in the new Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume. His target is the view that appealing to something like conceptual truth or analyticity can help us explain how a priori knowledge works.

But strangely, he focuses almost exclusively on one particular - and particularly weak - version of this type of view. Almost the entire discussion is concerned with the view that anyone who understands a conceptual truth knows it. I don’t know of any contemporary philosopher of the a priori who defends this claim, and indeed it is not attributed to anyone by Williamson. Although in footnote 5 Williamson claims that Boghossian holds ‘something like’ it, I doubt whether Boghossian would accept this reading of his work. Peacocke is also mentioned, but as I understand him Peacocke is not committed to anything in this vicinity either. The same footnote also says that ‘the focus of this paper is not on some few thinkers in particular; it aims to make explicit and criticize a conception on which many contemporary philosophers still rely, often tacitly, at various points in their work.’ But the paper would be more exciting if its took into account some of the potentially interesting versions of the conceptual approach currently being proposed by serious philosophers of the a priori. There is too much of the straw man about the view Williamson actually discusses. Even some examples of places where he thinks this view is being assumed by philosophers who are not specifically interested in the a priori would have helped to motivate the paper.

The only attempt to engage with slightly more sensible versions of the conceptual approach is fleeting: on pp. 26-7 he considers the view that understanding merely puts one in a position to know or justifies the relevant belief. He argues that some people who understand the relevant propositions aren’t even in a position to know them, because certain of their other commitments get in the way of their believing them. This may or may not be the best way of describing these cases, but even if it is, it isn’t particularly devastating: a nearby position which Williamson doesn’t consider is the view that whoever understands certain propositions and believes them on the basis of that understanding knows them. Not that I would defend anything like this view myself - my point is just that Williamson's arguments do nothing to touch it. (Moreover, the debate on, for instance, how Boghossian’s view fares with regard to the distinction between possessing knowledge and having a warrant available to one is already at a more advanced stage than Williamson’s discussion takes account of - see Philip Ebert’s 2005 paper on this point).

Also, the argument in this section relies heavily on assumptions I think are false, e.g. that ‘justification rather than knowledge is the central epistemological question only for internalist theories’ (p. 27). Justification, like knowledge, can be construed in an externalist or an internalist fashion, and an externalist about both notions could well take justification to be the, or at least a, central epistemological notion.

A good point is mentioned on p. 4, namely that conceptual approaches tend to assume the epistemological problem of a priori truth is somehow ‘automatically’ solved for conceptual truths, but they ‘do not say how it is solved’. This point, however, is anticipated (and developed in more sophisticated ways) in various places, including e.g. Field 2005 and BonJour 1998.

Williamson's discussion, which focuses on finding counterexamples to the view under consideration, does not take the most illuminating tack in attempting to show what's wrong with it. What's more illuminating is the fact that even if it were true that everyone who understood a certain proposition knew it, we still wouldn't have given any account of how they knew it.