The Concept of A Flourishing Life in Aristotle’s Politics & Nichomachean Ethics

June 18th, 2010 Comments off

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In Politics, Aristotle argues that to lead a flourishing life, it is imperative that all free men embrace their responsibility in the political system, thereby protecting the interests of their personal lives, social class, and community, as well as instilling virtue in oneself through civil servitude and leadership. Consistent with this theory is the notion, as described by our political philosopher, that inherent human nature holds men to the conviction that they should participate in governmental proceedings, as he finds, “soul and body are the basic constituents of an animal, the soul is the natural ruler; the body the natural subject. ” (8). In this statement, one can decipher that Aristotle believes that each citizen rules in how the city-state is governed through a democratic system and is ruled by obeying the laws and keeping allegiance towards the governing body. In the opening pages of Book I, Aristotle produces a strong declaration about those who do not wish to take part in politics, “…human is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else super human…for someone with such a nature is at the same time eager for war, like an isolated piece on a board game. ” (4). As the collection of political theory progresses, Aristotle examines the necessity of an established community, governing body, social hierarchy, and inter-household status ranking in living a perfectly joyous and happy life, however we first must decide what exactly constitutes this supposed “flourishing life” in ancient Greece.


According to Aristotle in his prior publication, Nicomachean Ethics, happiness in lifestyle far surpasses the simple explanation of a contented emotion, but however, rely much more on success and fulfillment in the political world, thus necessitating involvement governmental affairs to the happiness of every free man. In modern society, most would consider happiness as coming from physical pleasure or honor, but as Aristotle insists, this is only due to an imperfect view of the good life. Predominantly, the concept of Greek happiness, which a flourishing life entails, is a much more public matter than how it is viewed by twentieth century philosophers. In ancient times more so than now, a Greek individual’s identity was extremely closely linked to the city-state to which he belonged to; thus, happiness was closely connected to the success and fulfillment achieved during public service. Moreover, happiness was not viewed as an emotion in the private sector, but more importantly a reflection of a person’s position within a city-state. Additionally, Nicomachean Ethics discusses the belief that because everything in nature exists for a specific purpose, the end goal of human existence (the specific purpose of human life) is happiness. Aristotle acknowledges a contrast between the means of attainment and the ends, ultimately happiness, of attainment. He states that men pursue happiness and rational activity for the sake of enjoyment, where as they will seek out wealth and health simply because they feel these acquisitions will bring them happiness. He will go on later to define this determination by stating, “…there are three groups – external good [wealth, reputation] goods of the body [health, sensual pleasure], and goods of the soul [wisdom, virtue] – surely no one would raise a dispute and say that not all of them need be possessed by those who are blessedly happy. ” (191). However, Aristotle places more importance upon the goods of the soul, since they are the ends themselves and the former types of good are the means at which acquiring the latter. Following up on this idea, Politics examines how to best secure these ends of happiness for the citizens of a city-state, which predominantly involved political activity, beginning with the construction of a community.

To begin the quest for obtaining a flourishing life, one first established a community in which to become actively involved, known in ancient Greek terminology as a poleis or city-state. The interests of the city-state and its citizens were one and the same, both to attain happiness in affairs, and therefore, conflict between individual liberties and the laws of the city did not often occur. As Aristotle expresses in his opening statements, “every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone performs every action for the sake of what he takes to be good). ” (1), and as our author views it, one cannot lead a happy life without community engagement, as an individual will not fully realize the nature of their political being separated from the city-state. In asserting that man fails to fulfill his ultimate purpose when he disconnects from the state, Aristotle argues that life has no value outside the walls of a city-state.

The formation of a community is a natural phenomenon based on the principles of rational speech, reproduction, education, and religion. Once human beings were able to develop a language, they had a strong desire to interact with one another, and thus social groups and later political entities were founded. These assertions are echoed by Aristotle in saying, “Those who cannot exist without each other necessarily form a couple as [1] female and male do for the sake of procreation, [2] as a natural ruler and what is naturally ruled for the sake of survival. ” (2). An organized system of reproduction to best ensure the success of offspring needed to be devised in this ancient Greek society, as Aristotle constructs, determining that women should not be married until they are eighteen years of age and men should not be wed to these women until they have reached their thirty-sixth birthday. In modern times, a marriage license is required to surpass the problems that ancient Greek citizens had to enact laws to overcome, such as the marriage between cousins and a proper age to marry. Education, and even determining what subjects should be taught, also needed to be a collective endeavor. He believed that the city’s educational system will largely forecast the character of its future citizens and therefore asserts that it is preferable to enroll children in public education over private tutoring. A fundamental aspect of the state governments of the United States is just the topic, and overall, to every society, education is determined to be a very crucial political concern. Men also need leisurely activities, such as sports and music, to live to the fullest, and thus, for the sake of a flourishing life, it is ideal for humans to live in groups with common interests. As Aristotle puts it, “For it is by seeking happiness in different ways and by different means that individual groups of people create different ways of life and different constitutions. ” (204). In the creation of a city-state, Aristotle comments that all citizens should know each other and that the population should be “surveyable”, to reinforce the common aims of the community. Standardized religious practices and the public construction of temples in the worship of Gods were also public domain, as it would be nearly impossible for every citizen to have access to the proper altars and temples without publicly funded religious sites. In all these social aspects of life, reproduction, leisure activities, education, and religion, a functioning government must be held responsible and therefore, a community was formed to distribute money and duties across its populace.

Before an individual can become active in a political life, and thus achieve the all-important definition of happiness as described by the Greeks, one first must determine who should be given access to the government in terms of a social hierarchy. When deciding who should take part in political affairs, the author clearly separates the people who are necessary to the city, including slaves, and those who are essential members of the city. Aristotle is not concerned with giving every individual the access to the operations of the government because he does not consider their input to be valuable, rationale for excluding slaves. Slaves, he insists, are like property, and therefore, cannot comprise a city. He cites a fundamental difference in slaves and freemen in governmental affairs in saying, “For ruling and being ruled are not only necessary, they are also beneficial, and some things are distinguished right from birth, some suited to rule and others to being ruled. ” (7). Only freeborn citizens have the capacity to become leaders because only they would have the time to pursue education and leisure activities, and thus be well rounded and knowledgeable for government involvement. Our political theorist also makes distinctions along the lines of origin and age in stating, “Nor is a citizen a citizen through residing in a place, for resident aliens and slaves share the dwelling place of him…like minors who are too young to be enrolled in the citizen list or old people who have been excused from their civic duties, they must be said to be citizens of a sort, but not unqualified citizens. ” (65). Similar are the requirements in the United States to either naturalized if not born in this country and to eighteen years of age to participate in elections. By setting parameters for which individuals can participate in politics, Aristotle attempts to preserve what he believes a qualified social ranking of free men.

Aristotle concludes that the goal of the community as a whole is to achieve as much unity as feasibly possible, and thereby, protecting the interests of all citizens; however, Aristotle maintains that different people must make different contributions, fulfill different roles, and fit into distinct social classes to ensure that the city-state will be self-sufficient. Class division is important in maintaining a proper social order, but there seems to be a place for each free class in government participation, whether it be through leadership or simply voicing an opinion. Certain of this principle, he states, “A city-state is excellent, however, because the citizens who participate in the constitution are excellent; and in our city-state all the citizens participate in the constitution. ” (213). Aristotle suggests that the middle class is most vested in the success of a political entity in stressing that it is the least susceptible to factionalism, self-interest, and hatred of other classes. Both the rich and the poor, on the other hand, are more likely to conceive of justice and equality selfishly. He declares that a population of farmers would make for the best democracy, as they must work hard and are well spread apart, preventing the group as a whole from spending too much time involved with governmental affairs. Alternatively, he proposes that the population least conducive to democracy would be made up of mechanics, shopkeepers, and laborers because they are crowded within the inner city, and therefore could take an active role in politics leading to mob rule and violent overthrows. By involving all classes in the political system, Aristotle nearly achieves the prospect of a flourishing life, centered upon happiness in political participation, for every group of natural-born free men.

Once the standards of citizenship have been determined, it is next necessary to determine how a government should be operated and maintained in order to maximize the number of individuals who can become involved. Aristotle suggests that a governing body must include all citizens and govern in the common interest, and that the laws be well constituted and directed toward the general good. Contrasting many political philosophers of his day, our author insists that a collective populace is wiser than an individual expert and an overall better judge as to whether people are being well-governed. In descriptions of each practical type of government, Aristotle concludes, “For tyranny is rule by one person for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and democracy is for the benefit of the poor. But none is for their common profit. ” (78). In an oligarchy, influential and high standing offices should be reserved for the wealthy, yet the poor should still be able to hold infer employment in the functioning of the government. Additionally, wealthy officers are obligated, in this system, to perform significant public service in order to hold office, thus deemed worthy of leadership by the poor. Civic government consists of three main elements: the deliberative, the executive, and the judicial. The deliberative elements involve public matters such as foreign policy, enacting laws, judicial cases in which a severe penalty is involved, and the appointment of public officials. The executive branch of Aristotle’s government holds public order and takes responsibility for governing and issuing commands. Finally, the judicial element passes rulings on matters of private and public interest. Aristotle recommends that the ruling party always be wary of lawlessness, never try to deceive the masses, treat everybody well and fairly, especially those outside the constitution, cultivate a state of emergency so that people will not attempt a revolt, prevent in-fighting between nobles, ensure that property qualification for office remains proportionate to the wealth of the city, be careful not to confer great promotions or significant withdrawals of honor too suddenly, be wary of a class that is on the rise, and give power to the opposing class or the middle class, prevent public office from becoming a source of profit, and offer special consideration to the rich in a democracy and to the poor in an oligarchy. In all aspects of the prescribed varieties of government that Aristotle examines, the focus and motive remain the same: to create a political entity that will best suit individual citizens for a flourishing life.

In relating the ideas posed by Aristotle to the modern definitions of government in the United States, many political issues and dilemmas come to mind that obstruct such a flourishing life. As Aristotle suggested, “Nowadays, however, because of the profits to be had from public funds and office, people want to be in office continuously, as if they were sick and would be cured by being in office. ” (77). This has become increasingly so in the maturation of our nation as well, while congressmen and presidents fight to stay in office for as many terms as possible to ensure the push of their political agenda, often influenced by interested groups and top campaign contributors. Another problematic situation that the U. S. government has encountered since the birth of our nation is the decrease in individual participation in government. In ancient times, all citizens were required to contribute in some way to the government. Assemblies of citizens made decisions in governmental bodies that were similar to the law courts and city councils that few Americans take part in today. In ancient Greece, these lawmaking assemblies would rotate membership to ensure that every citizen could serve a term, however, the only institution which mirrors this rotation in modern day is jury duty. Without required participation in the government, many individuals in society wish to seek no part in it, and therefore, do not fulfill their civic duty or live in the criteria of happiness Aristotle maintains is essential.

Aristotle advocates a lifestyle involving political activism as a means of achieving a happy and flourishing life, by first detailing the necessity of establishing a community, defining a social hierarchy, and instituting a governing body in which every free man should take part. In arguing the need for politics in an individual’s well-being, he pronounces, “Some people think that ruling over one’s neighbors like a master involves one of the greatest injustices, and that rule of a statesman, though it involves no injustice, does involve impediment to one’s own well-being. Others think almost the opposite, they say that an active political life is the only one for a man, since the actions expressing each of the virtues are no more available to private individuals than to those engaged in communal affairs and politics (194). Political bodies make education, leisure, organized religion, and marriage possible, many of which compromised ancient issues reflected in modern dilemmas. Without politics, possible chaos and obviously a decreased level of interaction and social harmony would occur; therefore, it is in the best interest of the community and of the individual, to partake in government.

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Redefining Property Rights through Value Creation (and an Attempt at Grounding Claims to Natural Resources by “First Comers”)

April 29th, 2010 No comments

Any theory of ownership must always answer the challenge of how initially unowned things can come to be justly owned. Intuitively, the world-ownership hypothesis—that a person may appropriate any number of un-owned resources in the world as long as some conditions are met—faces the objection (among others) that it seems like an arbitrary deviation from an equal-share hypothesis, which would entitle one to an nth of those un-owned resources. This, however, is merely an intuitive claim, reflecting more of an intellectual discomfort rather than a clear picture of the origins of entitlements.

While we have yet to settle on any such picture, other intuitions can present us with a different picture. Israel Kirzner’s article, “Entrepreneurship, Entitlement, and Economic Justice” (1978) provides us with an excellent intuition as to how else these entitlements could come about, through appeal to the idea of value: the chief reason why we gain our entitlements to property is because we have created an economic value in it.

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Hillel Steiner’s Original Rights and Just Redistribution (Summary)

May 2nd, 2009 No comments

In Original Rights and Just Redistribution, Hillel Steiner attempts to answer three questions: to what sorts of things do we have original property rights?; how do we distinguish these sorts of things to which we have non-original property rights?; and finally, who counts as being one of ‘us’ with these rights? He begins with the concept of self-ownership: for someone to have any rights at all, he must not be part of another’s bundle of possessions. After establishing that laboring within’s one domain produces products within one’s domain, he asks how initially unowned things outside of one’s domain becomes justly ownable. He concludes that our equal original property rights entitle us to an “equal share of (at least) raw natural resources.”

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 3)

April 30th, 2009 Comments off


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Nozick cites Rawls’ counterargument that he avoids this dilemma, “because people in [Rawls’] original position rank the principle of liberty as lexicographically prior to the difference principle, applied not only to economic well-being but to health, length of life, and so on. ” One of Nozick’s footnotes calls our attention to the discussion of collective assets later to further this objection.

Continuing, Nozick professes his inability to find a cogent argument to help support that variations in holdings caused by variations in natural assets ought to be eliminated or minimized. He connects the idea of the “moral arbitrariness” of natural assets to Rawls’ construction of the original position by pointing out that there must be an argument to “shape” the original position to exclude natural assets from the participants’ knowledge (i. e. there must be a justification for the veil of ignorance). Nozick argues that if a particular feature being arbitrary from a moral point of view is sufficient to fall under the veil of ignorance, then those behind the veil of ignorance should know nothing about themselves, because each of their features (like rationality, the ability to make choices, having a life span of more than three days, having a memory, ability to communicate) will be based on morally arbitrary facts (that the sperm and ovum that made them were genetically composed in a particular manner). However, Rawls’ construction of the original position has persons know some of these things.

At this point, Nozick stops to qualify his argument. He calls our attention to an ambiguity in the statement that “a fact is arbitrary from a moral point of view”: in one sense, it could mean that there is no moral reason why a fact ought to be; in another, it could mean that a fact is of no moral significance and has no moral consequences. Nozick states that rationality is not morally arbitrary in the second sense. Nonetheless, if rationality escapes exclusion for this reason, it now has a “partner in guilt”—natural assets—which must also escape exclusion for that reason. Thus, an entitlement theory similar to Rawls’ that holds that entitlements arise from or are at least dependent on such facts is called into question.

“Collective Assets”

Later in the book, Nozick aims to tackle Rawls’ seeming notion of “collective assets,” specifically referring to the idea that “everyone has some entitlement or claim on the totality of natural assets (viewed as a pool), with no one having differential claims. ” He argues that a theory separating men from their talents, assets, abilities, and so on can only be adequate if one “presses very hard on the distinction between men [and those things],” noting that whether any conception of a coherent person remains when this distinction is made is an open question. Further, he states that talents and abilities are an asset to a free community, and are not part of a constant sum game, then asking whether extraction of more benefit is what justifies treating natural assets as a collective resources, leaving open the question of what justifies the extraction.

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 2)

April 30th, 2009 Comments off


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Thus, one may not only not appropriate the only water hole in a desert and charge what he pleases, but he also may not charge what he pleases if it just so happens that circumstance destroys all other watering holes. Nozick briefly deviates for a moment to clarify that the owners’ rights are not eliminated in these cases, but simply “overridden to avoid some catastrophe” (not, however, in some ad hoc way, but internal to the given theory of property).

Delving into further exposition, Nozick asserts that someone owning the entire supply of something necessary for others to remain living does not always mean that appropriations leading up to this ownership left some people in a situation worse than the baseline. In service of this assertion, he cites the case of a medical researcher who finds an effective treatment for a disease but refuses to sell it except on his own terms; the researcher does not violate the proviso because he did not appropriate the chemical materials he used in a way that, through causing scarcity, violated the Lockean proviso. Ultimately, this demonstrates that the Lockean proviso is not an “end-state principle”; the structure of the situation that results is not relevant, but the nature of the actions taken to reach that result is. Following this, Nozick puts forward his belief that a free market system would not actually come into conflict with the Lockean proviso, making the “empirical historical” claim that people’s concern for the possibility of the proviso’s violation above other possibilities is only due to the effects of previous illegitimate state action, ending his exploration of the “complication in the entitlement theory introduced by the Lockean proviso. ”

Nozick then moves on to address what he earlier labeled “the negative argument”: “the use of the claim that people don’t deserve their natural assets to rebut a possible counterargument to Rawls’ view. He has us consider the following counterargument to Rawls (“E”):

1. People deserve their natural assets.

2. If people deserve X, they deserve any Y that flows from X.

3. People’s holdings flow from their natural assets.


4. People deserve their holdings.

5. If people deserve something, then they ought to have it (and this overrides any presumption of equality there may be about that thing. )

Because Rawls would rebut this counterargument by denying the first premise, the connection between natural assets being morally arbitrary and the statement that distributive shares should not depend on natural assets is clearer. Here, Nozick attempts to show that the concept of “desert” needn’t be present in an argument of this sort for it to properly follow. He starts with a new counterargument, “F”:

1. If people have X, and their having X (whether or not they deserve to have it) does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) right or entitlement to X, and Y flows from (arises out of, and so on) X by a process that does not itself violate anyone’s (Lockean) rights or entitlements, Then the person is entitled to Y.

2. People’s having the natural assets they do does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) entitlements or rights.

The argument would then proceed to argue that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor and to what others voluntarily give or exchange with them. Nozick, quite succinctly, phrases his objection to holding equivalence between desert and entitlement:

It is not true, for example, that a person earns Y (a right to keep a painting he’s made, praise for writing a theory of Justice, and so on) only if he’s earned (or otherwise deserves) whatever he used (including natural assets) in the process of earning Y. Some of the things he uses he just may have, not illegitimately. It needn’t be that the foundations underlying desert are themselves deserved, all the way down.

Thus, since people can be described as entitled to their natural assets even if they can not be labeled as deserving of them, then an argument parallel to argument E with ‘are entitled to’ replacing ‘deserve’ throughout will be valid. Returning more explicitly to Rawls, Nozick then implies that Rawls’ argument is in a bind. Recognizing people’s entitlements to their natural assets could be necessary to avoid a strict application of the difference principle that would entail even stronger property rights than wealth-redistributive theories usually yield.

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets

April 30th, 2009 Comments off


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[Readings come from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Part II, Sections I & II]

Locke’s Theory of Acquisition

Nozick’s goal in this section of AS&U is to, in his words, “introduce an additional bit of complexity into the structure of the entitlement theory. ” To do this, he uses as a starting point Locke’s approach to justice in property acquisition—namely, that ownership of an object originates in one’s mixing of labor with that object. Nozick then proceeds to ask the standard gamut of questions calling attention to some difficulties in Locke’s theory of acquisition, like whether dumping a can of tomato juice in the ocean constitutes “mixing one’s labor” with the ocean. Essentially, the questions seek the strict boundary between what constitutes a mixing of labor sufficient for just acquisition and what does not. Under the Lockean notion of acquisition, it seems that one naïve interpretation would say that improving upon an object entails full ownership of the object. Of course, as Nozick points out, if the stock of improvable unowned objects is limited, this view is unfeasible. He uses the appropriation of a grain of sand as an example of one’s appropriation removing another’s liberty (as Hohfeld uses the word) to act on a previously unowned object, but intuitively suggests that this particular removal is not problematic. The central concern, he says, “is whether appropriation of an unowned object worsens the situation of others. ”

Here, Nozick introduces a principle aimed at addressing that notion, which he terms “Locke’s proviso”: that an appropriation must leave ‘enough and as good left in common for others. One version of the proviso, if applied consistently, would make all past appropriations disallowed under Locke’s proviso once a single person’s situation were worsened by an appropriation. Nozick interjects that this argument actually depends on how stringently the proviso is interpreted. Further, he asks whether persons in a world where there are no more “accessible and useful unowned” objects are indeed worsened, citing numerous empirical considerations favoring private property vis-à-vis its satisfaction of the proviso. The difficulty of the argument, however, lies in answering the question “Lockean appropriation makes people no worse off than they would be how? ” Nozick says answering this question lies beyond the scope of his work; he suggests that discovering the baseline could begin by estimating the general economic importance of original appropriation (say, by the percentage of income based on natural resources rather than human action). He closes with a note that these questions not only must be faced by advocates of private property; all theories of property (like collective property) must still, too, provide a theory of property rights legitimately originate.

The Proviso

Nozick starts off by assuming that any reasonable theory of justice must have some sort of proviso similar to a weak version of Locke’s. In short, if the position of others no longer at liberty to use an appropriated thing is worsened, a permanent bequeathable right to that thing can not be conferred by any valid process. The emphasis on the mode of worsening is important here, as the proviso does not encompass other modes of worsening, like worsening due to more limited opportunities to appropriate or “worsening” of one seller by another due to an appropriation leading to more market competition. Nozick also suggests that compensation of the appropriator to those whom he is worsening can satisfy the proviso.

Nozick then shifts the focus to justice in transfer, asserting that any theory of just acquisition must account for justice in transfer. Quite centrally, he posits, “If my appropriating all of a certain substance violates the Lockean proviso, then so does my appropriating some and purchasing all the rest from others who obtained it without otherwise violating the Lockean proviso. ” Unlike the earlier argument in which the original appropriation violated the proviso as well as the appropriation which actually left a person worse off, it is only the combination of the original appropriation and the later transfers that is sufficient to violate the Lockean proviso.

Next, Nozick argues that one’s title to his holding includes the “historical shadow” of the proviso; namely, the title-holder may not transfer it into an agglomeration that violates the proviso, nor may he use it in a way that violates the proviso by making others worse than their baseline situation.

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Heroes and Henchmen: The Lost Tale of the Individual

February 20th, 2009 No comments

John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) is a majestic tale of a prophecy, a king, his wizardly guardian, and the many heroes of his quest. This makes for awesome battle scenes, no doubt, as well as slow-motion 80s sex scenes that always involve the presence of a fire place, fire pit, or 30-plus candles, and bad 80s hair. A byproduct of battle scenes, and sex that eventually leads to more battle scenes, is a lot of dead people.

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Categories: Aesthetics, Collectivism, Ideology Tags:

A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 4)

January 11th, 2009 Comments off


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By our having thrown out realism, the only case of error that can even be meaningfully considered is where some theory posited based on sense experiences is later falsified by a subsequent sense experience. On our view, this is no longer a problem with induction, of course. It is merely a case in which a particular induction has been identified as “bad” through induction.

Undoubtedly, we can be continually pressed to justify each successive answer we have given. Why shouldn’t we doubt mortality, or anything else foundational to the above discussion? Certainly, there is a point at which we can no longer give any justification, yet it is the very point from which we get our notion of justification. We do superficially agree with the skeptic that such foundational propositions lie beyond any empirical verification, but this is only because our notion of empirical verification is solely derived from these kinds of propositions. At some point, we must reach bedrock: certain beliefs “underlie all questions and thinking. ”[8] Even if we imagined the most hard-core doubter telling us that we have “no reason” to believe the “biological myth” of death, he could not be using anything but human-contextual concepts in, say, appealing to our self-interest through telling us that what we believe is false and that we ought to change it. In that way, doubt is only possible with knowledge, so an all-encompassing, ‘hyperbolic’ doubt is clearly nonsensical; in even thinking of that doubt, much more communicating that doubt, we are invariably asserting things that we know.

In addition to questioning the logical feasibility of Hume’s general argument against induction, we have now also supplemented it with an answer to the fundamental question of how we separate good inductions from bad inductions. Most importantly, we have shown how a careful examination of the terms at play in the argument against induction demonstrates how it relies on a contrived sense of necessity as a criterion for justification and improperly treats this idea of necessity as standing independently of induction. In this, we showed how induction is, in fact, the basis of all criteria in evaluating the justification of our beliefs. Then, in addressing the metaphysical problem, we showed how meaningful criteria are generated against a back-drop of goal-oriented action.

With this answer to the supposed problem of induction in hand, we have a kind of argument which, when generalized, defeats skeptical arguments against empiricism. By reducing our criteria for the truth or falsehood of a proposition to its relation to strictly sensory phenomena, we have removed the possibility of skeptical error, and brought the concept of error within the boundaries of the senses: we can only be mistaken in a sense that is relative to other sense experiences. Hume, imaginably, would have appreciated this, as he did not desire to be a thoroughgoing skeptic; he only wished to fight off philosophical phantoms, much like Wittgenstein did. Again, like Wittgenstein, he sought a rational basis for our norms of speech and action, but found the answers of philosophers to be mystical and woefully deficient. Indeed, he did not see a convincing means of showing how we could justifiably believe in induction, and retreated to a seemingly resigned position of “custom and habit. ” Our goal here, as was Wittgenstein’s goal, was to show how we are justified in believing in our senses, and thus induction—without resignation.

[1] Vickers, John, “The Problem of Induction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. forthcoming URL <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2008/entries/induction-problem/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. This exposition of Hume’s account of the problem is paraphrased from this source.

[4] Ibid. section 2: “Hume”

[5] Ibid. section 7: “Hume’s Dilemma Revisited”

[6] The Wikipedia entry on Philosophical Investigations explains Wittgenstein’s approach well, at http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Philosophical_Investigations#Method_and_presentation

[7] Tractatus, 3. 031

[8] On Certainty pp. 415.

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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 3)

January 11th, 2009 Comments off


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So, given that, we have actually gone ahead and strengthened Hume’s justificatory dilemma by turning it into just a lemma: the option of justifying induction deductively is nonsensical for reasons that prevent us from even admitting it into our discussion. To justify using deduction, we must first justify induction.

Hence, the conclusion of the argument that constitutes the problem of induction, that we are not “justified” in believing the conclusion of inductive arguments, is itself dependent on an inductive argument. Here, we have reached the skeptical error of externalizing logic, which creates arguments more paradoxical than unimportant on this account. If the logical possibility that things could be some other way than we believe them is used to undermine all of our beliefs, then no beliefs undermined in this way can be believed while constructing logical possibilities. But the construction of logical possibilities is only possible given the inductive process that creates our idea of necessity. Further, we cannot sensibly falsify (or take any other action standing outside of) logic, since we can not describe what a non-logical world would look like. [7] Yet this is precisely what, by implication, skepticism requires by questioning our foundations for logic, which are the very experiences and thus inferences from experience that they challenge.

Because Hume does not want to make extra-sensory assertions at all, he is then also committed to holding to this account for the very logical principles he uses to criticize inductive statements. Thus, we have established that the argument attempting to establish that induction is problematic implicitly must assert what it intends to disprove. By showing how we can not use deductive necessity as a criteria for justification (at the epistemic level), we have eliminated the standard by which induction is considered to be problematic. More generally, we have implied that some coordination of repeat sense impressions is the only means we have of generating any criteria of justification. And we can properly call such coordination “induction,” as it is indeed in what “the problem of induction” purports to show defect. By this, we have shown how the general argument against induction fails.

More clarification of the unproblematic nature of induction is still worthwhile, nonetheless. For one, we are still pressed with the question of importance of skeptical arguments such as the argument against induction, as suggested earlier. If the lack of necessity of inductive conclusions prevents us from attaining omniscience—an immunity of our theories to subsequent falsifying events—and can validly offer no prescriptive changes in our behavior, there seems to be no value in pointing it out. It is part of the unavoidable limits of our world. We can label this state as our being “unjustified” in believing inductive conclusions, but what have we changed by doing so? We could easily say a belief is unjustifiable when it does not reduce its conclusions to the properties of cheese. We must ask, “Unjustified relative to what? ” The word must be put in some context to have any implications. Saying that we are “unjustified” because we can not look beyond the limits of our world—a precise lack of context—can not have any condemning epistemic implications, for the simple reason that there is no prescription that could ever conceivably change it! To speak meaningfully about “justification,” then, we must affix it to some sensory phenomena to which we can appeal to differentiate among the justified and the unjustified. In this regard, there is still a sense in which we have “justification”; in Humean terms, that sense is predicated on the notion that some inductions are more reliable than others.

Finding out how to distinguish the reliability of different inductive methods is the epistemological component of the problem of induction. More or less, Hume’s response to this part of the problem works quite well: Hume’s intuition that induction about induction begins to yield how we separate good inductive habits from bad ones is straightforward enough. We look at different inductive methods applied over time, and see how often each method produced a good induction. From this, we discern the reliability of different methods.

It is in reference to the so-called metaphysical problem of induction that we can offer more clarity regarding the validity of induction. Certainly, the metaphysical problem, if unanswered, leaves the epistemological problem insoluble as well: after all, we do need some account for what is a “good” versus “bad” induction in order to determine which inductive methods are more reliable than others. Yet, having tossed out criteria for “good” and “bad” such as “corresponding with the external world,” the answer is quite simple: there is no metaphysical problem because there is no metaphysics (at least in the relevant sense).

One posing the metaphysical problem might ask: if we only have sense experiences, what is there that could possibly provide objectivity? Indeed, what reason do we have to sort and organize different experiences to form theories? Without constraints, our sense experiences are simply floating variables from which we could construct an infinite amount of different theories with no difference in consequence. Thus, just as a 2-variable equation has infinite solutions until another equation constrains it, so too does what is “true” have infinite solutions until we affix some constraint to our interpretations. In short, our interpretation of sensory phenomena only has implications when those phenomena arise to some degree outside of our will, and we have particular goals for those phenomena. We have particular desires to bring about certain things in our sense experiences, but we can not simply will these things to come about. We wish to taste something sweet, but no amount of willing a taste of sweetness into our mouths gets us that. Ultimately, this lies against a background of what we understand to be necessary for accomplishing our goals (life) and what we understand to be the end of all accomplishment (death). Simply put, our “metaphysics” is one of life versus death.

That we can not merely will certain things to occur is a basis for objectivity in interpreting our sense experiences; our acceptance of mortality is what gives us the motive to take one interpretation over all and call it “truth,” even if only by the actions we take. 14th-century explorers had two competing views of the earth, one saying it was flat, one saying it was round. Without fear of death or fear of a voyage done for nothing (both objective constraints), this debate would have been meaningless. After all, there are infinite logical possibilities as to why a flat-earth theory might still prevail over a round-earth. But that explorers found new lands and, after sailing in one direction long enough, wound up in the same place, and have acted on the principle of “circumnavigation” successfully up until the present, has compelled people to accept a round-earth theory over a flat one. People who have acted on this principle, other things equal, have achieved the goals they set out, and they and others will continue to act on that principle. In this sense, people have accepted the round-earth theory as truth; it was a “good” induction.

Thus, good inductions are separated from bad ones on the basis of how successfully they inform our goal-directed actions, where success is measured by the presence of a desired sense experience.

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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 2)

January 11th, 2009 Comments off


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This could also be framed probabilistically (e. g. Bayesian induction). The latter type of rule would form some system of delimiting the precise significance of an inference given its evidence; for example, it might show us in what ways an inference may be falsified, and thus the level of certainty with which we should treat a particular proposition.

The Non-Problem of Induction

A Wittgensteinian response to any philosophical “problem” can be described as a reduction of the problem to a linguistic puzzle, and a subsequent resolution of that puzzle. In short, a linguistic puzzle is a seemingly insoluble contradiction that can be successfully rectified by clarifying the definitions of the terms in use. Once the definitions have been clarified, the next stage is to determine whether the conclusion (whose terms have also been clarified) still follows from the premises, and whether the premises are true. Once this has been done, a problem should have been shown to be merely confusion. This methodology is most strongly associated with Wittgenstein’s most significant work, Philosophical Investigations. [6]

Given this background, we can now freely address the problem of induction. To show how the problem of induction can be reduced to a linguistic puzzle, we will first return to a simplified formulation of it: no inductive conclusions necessarily follow from their premises, because we have no justification for believing that the unobserved will be like the observed once we observe it (a generalization of “the future will be like the past. ”) The justificatory problem of induction, put in simple terms by Hume, states it similarly: the definite outcomes of deduction can not justify the indefinite outcomes of induction, and induction can not justify induction without circularity. Thus, we are not justified in believing the conclusion of an inductive argument.

Now, to prove that this is merely a linguistic puzzle, we have to show how clarifying our terms in this argument will dissipate the problem, whether in showing some self-contradictory aspect of the argument, showing that the conclusion that follows from those definitions is unimportant to us, showing that the desired conclusion of the argument does not follow from the premises, etc. By an “unimportant conclusion,” we only mean that all further implications of that conclusion do not constitute anything that merits addressing or reparation. In other words, the conclusion made to have followed from the premises is not a philosophical problem requiring a solution on our part, but just some proposition that conforms to its premises. Our criteria for importance is not simply soundness, as there are many sound arguments that are not of philosophical concern to us. Thus, it is certainly the case that if we define “justification for a belief” as “immunity to the logical possibility of subsequent falsifying events,” we could easily concoct an argument from skeptical premises that (properly) concludes that we are not “justified” in believing any proposition because we have not immunized it from subsequent falsifying events. But, as we will see, this conclusion sounds important because it uses a word which is usually of epistemic importance (justification), but is in fact unimportant because it fails to have any implications worth considering.

We can apply this method to the problem of induction by first investigating the employment of the idea of necessity in the argument against induction. Asserting that there is no necessary connection between matters of fact is not incorrect, given a particular meaning of the word “necessary”—namely, where “necessity” implies conformity to the rules of deductive reasoning. Given that induction has been identified as non-deductive because of the “unfounded” assumption that the future will be like the past, then we can conclude that there is no “necessary” connection between inductive arguments and their conclusions. Asserting that this poses some sort of epistemic problem is a mistake, however. In other words, clarifying the definitions as we have, this conclusion follows from the premises, but it does not tell us anything important. The sense in which we mean “necessary” to establish this conclusion is much connected to the sense in which we used “justified” above: it produces a conclusion that sounds scary because of what we associate with the words in it, but can only establish its conclusion by redefining those words in a way that makes the conclusion ineffective.

Naturally, a defender of induction would be impelled to ask “why is the assumption that the future will be like the past unfounded? ”; but note that we are returning to the justificatory dilemma once again. In the dilemma, Hume has ruled out induction justifying induction, on the basis that it is a circular argument. But Hume must find circular arguments unacceptable for some reason: specifically, because of deductive logic. We know from this that the only way to “justify” anything, as the word is used in the argument, is to find a deductive argument for it. So it is evident that understanding the exact implications of accepting the notion of necessity as it arises in deductive logic as our standard for justifiability will help us understand why the conclusion that there is no “necessary” connection between inductive arguments and their conclusions is not important. In fact, we will now show how using deductive logic as a standard of justifiability (in this context) renders the argument against induction useless.

Much like the concept of infinitude, the concept of necessity has no direct referent in our sense experience. Because we have implicitly rejected an a priori account for it, we can only say that the notion of necessity is an effect of our repeat experiences and interactions with the world which represents an effective certitude with which we expect some association to hold. We say that by necessity, the sun rising in the east is associated with morning, but this is an expression of an effective certainty than a certainty so as to assert our omniscience; we simply have little incentive to mention the remaining logical possibility that the sun might not rise in the east. Hume’s account of necessity is the same:

Upon this head I repeat what I have often had occasion to observe, that as we have no idea, that is not deriv’d from an impression, we must find some impression, that gives rise to this idea of necessity, if we assert we have really such an idea. In order to this I consider, in what objects necessity is commonly suppos’d to lie; and finding that it is always ascrib’d to causes and effects, I turn my eye to two objects suppos’d to be plac’d in that relation; and examine them in all the situations, of which they are susceptible. I immediately perceive, that they are contiguous in time and place, and that the object we call cause precedes the other we call effect. In no one instance can I go any farther, nor is it possible for me to discover any third relation betwixt these objects. I therefore enlarge my view to comprehend several instances; where I find like objects always existing in like relations of contiguity and succession.

Clearly, Hume adheres to our view that the epistemic origins of an idea must reside in sense-experiences (“impressions”). Though he was speaking about causal necessity in this passage, his reasoning ensures that he accepts that our idea of deductive logic is also the consequence of a series of impressions.

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