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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, and how G.E. Moore Fails to Respond to the Skeptics (Part 4)

March 20th, 2008 Comments off

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Wittgenstein construes this attempt as not only one to refute skepticism, but to provide a list of “certain propositions… excluded from doubt” in a “logic-book” (625). According to Wittgenstein’s approach, however, the proper response to skepticism is not to delineate particular empirical facts, which can be ultimately undermined, to show certainty; rather, it is to assert that one must be sure of facts that allow one to think about other facts.

Closing

To return to the Tractatus once more, even there Wittgenstein’s anti-skeptic stance was developed in key ways: “Doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said. ” There are some things which must be taken without question in order for one to function as a human being. Some may mistake this as a kind of fideism, but it is, in fact, a necessity for thought and goal-directed action.

Wittgenstein aptly undermines the meaningfulness of skepticism by showing that its arguments depend in some way on what it sets out to disprove. The philosophical nature of the skeptics’ arguments is dependent on the kinds of necessary contextual statements embodied by Moore-type propositions. There is a dependency on some certainty in belief necessary for the use of language: “if you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either” (114). Further, communication between two people – employed by skeptical philosophers, clearly – can not occur without some common ground. The most basic propositions like, “I have a body” or “here is a hand,” when doubted, wholly eliminate that common ground. Without certainty of rules of a language-game, which depend on commonality founded in propositions like “here is a hand,” all ideas and the meanings of all communication must be doubted, including those of skepticism. Skepticism is thus a self-detonating position.

Logic and experience can only be responsible for themselves, as there exist no other tools for evaluating them. Moore failed to call attention to the fact that skepticism uses an argument against logic and experience that requires logic and experience. Instead, he attempted to “play the skeptic’s game” by attempting to show examples that conform to the skeptics’ super-rational definition of knowledge, an attempt invariably doomed to failure. To doubt, one must have a foundation from which to doubt. He must have a position of truth to which he can retreat when he spots a falsehood. The skeptic wishes to criticize this position and any such positions, while still maintaining a meaningful existence as a human being who uses language and takes action. As On Certainty shows, those two desires are mutually incompatible. For all intents and purposes—intents and purposes, whose existences depend on human language and action—skepticism is left meaningless.


[1] Subsequent citations of this form refer to the numbered notes in the edition of On Certainty edited by G. E. M Anscombe and G. H. Von Wright, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe and Denis Paul.

[2] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4. 121

[3] Tractatus, 3. 031

[4] Note that Wittgenstein clarifies that there is no “sharp boundary line” distinguishing between propositions like “here is a hand” and “at this distance from the sun there is a planet” (53), and in turn no sharp line between “rule” propositions (those of which we are sure) and empirical propositions (those which are justified by our rules) (319). He suggests that basic propositions vary and can be doubted, but only in context of fixed others. In line with the river-bed analogy, he likens this to sediments that are picked up from one part of the bed, carried off, re-deposited elsewhere, etc.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, and how G.E. Moore Fails to Respond to the Skeptics (Part 3)

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He is not presenting a skeptical challenge to knowledge of mathematics.

At the crux of his argument, Wittgenstein rejects the Cartesian-style premise that all propositions, even foundational ones, should be doubted along with any beliefs that they justify, unless they can be proven empirically. The skeptics’ doubt of these propositions does not merely test the truth, falsehood, or likelihood of those propositions, but ultimately necessitates questioning the methods by which testable empirical propositions are tested (317, 318). If all knowledge is based on testable empirical propositions that are justified by methods that are themselves subject to the skeptics’ pervasive doubt, then one must always acknowledge skeptical possibilities (i. e. the skeptics’ position is meaningful).

To counter this, Wittgenstein explains that claims like “here is a hand” or “the world has existed for longer than five minutes” merely appear to be statements about the external world that are true or false. However, these propositions lie beyond knowledge or doubt, because they serve as the framework by which we can speak about objects in the world. He uses two metaphors: first, that these kinds of propositions are like a “river-bed” that allow the “river of language” to flow freely (97, 99); and second, that the propositions are like hinges on a door, which must be fixed in order for the door to function in any significant way (341, 343). These kinds of propositions ostensively defined; they are not making an empirical claim about the external world, but merely show an example and hence demonstrate how the statement is to be used. The possibility of language is not made by actual facts in the world (which the skeptic can always undermine), but by simply never calling into question those facts (creating the “river-bed”). [4] Thus, Wittgenstein does superficially agree with the skeptic that such foundational propositions lie beyond empirical verification, but questions the sensibility and usefulness of such an assertion.

Objection to Moore’s Objections

G. E. Moore attempted his own refutation of skepticism, toward which On Certainty was inspired and directed to a large degree. Moore wrote several articles in challenging skepticism, including A Defense of Common Sense, Four Forms of Skepticism, and Proof of an External World. His general objection can be summarized by taking the skeptics’ modus ponens and using the same conditional to form a modus tollens argument. Using the same example as earlier, Moore would argue,

  1. If I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake, then I can not be sure I have a body.
  2. I am sure I have a body.
  3. Therefore, I can distinguish between dreaming and being awake.

Though Moore is correct in challenging that doubting such basic claims is unreasonable, Wittgenstein suggests that Moore still fails to answer the skeptic because Moore’s claim that he knows he has a hand is subject to the question of how he knows- bringing him back to the beginning of the argument with the skeptics.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein accepts Moore’s propositions, but not his subjective assurance that they are true. The meaning of the phrase “I know that…” is initially explained in demonstrating the insufficiency of Moore’s arguments against skepticism. Firstly, “P” can not be properly inferred from someone’s statement, “I know P. ” While “P” can be inferred from “he knows P,” this requires justification (13, 14). The assurance “I know” is insufficient to demonstrate that no mistake is possible (15). Besides the contextual exceptions of the usage of “I know” (“I can not be wrong,” “I thought I knew,” etc. the phrase is insignificant; if one actually knows that something is the case, then it is the case.

He then proceeds to argue, “Moore’s mistake lies in this – countering the assertion that one cannot know that, by saying ‘I do know it’” (521). Since skepticism is nonsense, as Wittgenstein establishes, it need not and can not be refuted by a counter-example. Moore, actually, commits the same error as the skeptic by treating logic (which is founded on those basic propositions) as empirical statements requiring proof.

Wittgenstein makes a general statement about Moore’s argument, which also happens to be a repetition of one of the most important themes of On Certainty:

When Moore says he knows such and such, he is really enumerating a lot of empirical propositions which we affirm without special testing; propositions, that is, which have a peculiar logical role in the system of our empirical propositions (136).

Moore did not recognize this, instead attempting to answer the skeptic on epistemological grounds.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, and how G.E. Moore Fails to Respond to the Skeptics (Part 2)

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” Day to day life demonstrates that common-sense propositions must be known in some way, as evidenced by the fact that we say things to others like “move that table over here” or “open the window” (7). In light of this, the nature of being mistaken about a statement like, “I am certain that these are words on this paper” is unclear (17, 24, 32). What it would be like to find out that “here is not a hand” is peculiar and seemingly indescribable by language. This is because the language-games people use, those ingrained deeply in their practices and beliefs, depend on affirming such propositions in order for them to make any sense (to be explained shortly).

Furthermore, as Wittgenstein asserts several times, the notion of doubt presupposes certainty (115 and elsewhere). In order for one to doubt anything, one must first have certainty about what he doubts, be certain that he, in fact, doubts it, and so on. This relates closely to the foundation of (the human expression of) logic in language, as implied in Tractatus. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein delves into the nature of language games, which later play an important role in On Certainty. Section 7 of Investigations states, “I shall call it the whole, consisting of the language and the actions into which it is woven, the language-game. ”

Wittgenstein explores how a child learns and the relationship between its learning and language in section 6 of the Investigations. A child learns what words mean by ostensive action; for example, one might instruct, “that is a chair; that is a car; that is red; etc. ” In all this, however, there is a necessity for an understanding of ostensive definition itself. A child, to learn that “this is called ‘car’,” must first comprehend that names can be assigned to things. Later, in section 31, Wittgenstein uses an example of teaching someone how to play chess. When he points to a piece and says, “this is the king; it can move like this,…” the phrase “this is called the ‘king’” is only a definition if the student knows what a game is, what a piece in a game is, etc.

The point of the exploration of language games is, in short, that understanding requires some background of trust – some kind of sureness. Continuing in On Certainty with the case of the child, Wittgenstein says, “the child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief” (160). A child could never learn anything if he constantly questioned existence, for if that were to happen, he could never learn the definitions of things ostensively, just as if a person were to question the game or the pieces of chess, he would never learn that “this is called “the king” and it moves like so. ”

The process of learning language is one of action (or reaction) first, then epistemological reflection at a later time once a system of beliefs is formed and it becomes gradually understood where doubt can be reasonable (538). For example, a child initially listens to verbal and written instructions, responding trustingly and candidly to what others say. When a child realizes that people have the capability to lie, however, he then has a reasonable basis for sometimes doubting the truth of what someone says. The system of belief he develops is essential to forming these kinds of curiosities and doubts. If he did not understand that other human beings like himself existed and behaved autonomously and with similar capabilities, he could not even begin to comprehend the notion of doubting the truth of their words. Moreover, even when he believed and spoke candidly, he would not have been able to do so had he questioned the existence of other human beings, and he would have not been able to understand the existence of other human beings if he questioned the existence of a world external to him.

Language is inextricably embedded into our lives. Without it, we would be unable to learn, and without learning, we would be unable to doubt. Further, it is the common understanding and foundations of language that allow human beings to communicate. Incidentally, by no means is the plain use of signs universally indicative of meaning (another basic idea explored in Tractatus that blocks a potential route for skepticism). A person who interprets and acts upon the mathematical directive “halve” by multiplying by three hundred is not casting doubt upon halving, but is merely out of sync with the rules and norms of a language-game.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, and how G.E. Moore Fails to Respond to the Skeptics

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Beginning with Descartes, traditional forms of epistemology have attempted to create a foundation of knowledge that can not be doubted. The skeptical tradition, employing and developing Cartesian doubt among other variations of it, has sought to undermine the possibility certainty about the external world and, more generally, all knowledge. The philosopher G. E. Moore attempted to respond to skepticism by directly demonstrating his certain knowledge of the external world. As a response to skepticism and to Moore’s attempted refutation of it, Wittgenstein essentially argues that while there is no valid means to actually answer the skeptic, the skeptic’s claims are nonsensical in the first place. The skeptic can only have functional claims when the propositions they doubt are removed from all possible contexts, rendering them meaningless and requiring an invocation of logic external to language and human understanding. Fundamentally, Wittgenstein replaces the response to skepticism’s “you cannot know” by Moore’s “I do know” with what ultimately reduces to, “I do not need to ‘know’. ”

Skepticism and logical possibilityWhile skepticism takes many different forms, the primary form of skepticism under consideration can be described by single, general argument. This skepticism’s basic premise is that we are unable to logically disprove possible states of affairs in the world that would undermine our claims to knowledge about reality (“skeptical possibilities”). Generally, arguments for skepticism take the form of a modus ponens argument, such as,

  1. If I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake, then I can not be sure I have a body.
  2. I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake.
  3. Therefore, I can not be sure that I have a body.

Support for the second premise derives from the possibility that, for any empirical proposition we form at a point in time, events could follow that would provide evidence to falsify that belief. If this is true, no empirical proposition is verifiable and thus none are certain.

Wittgenstein does not disagree with this, to an extent; he grants that such subsequent falsifying events are indeed always a possibility. For example, one may have very good reasons for believing his old friend is standing in front of him, but it is imaginable for that person to suddenly start behaving as though he was not that old friend after all (613). [1] However, Wittgenstein challenges the notion that such events transpiring would undermine the relevant prior empirical beliefs about the situation. In other words, he argues that such possibilities do not undermine “knowledge,” in the meaningful sense of the word, but merely fail to satisfy the conditions of a notion of logic removed from practitioners of logic (human beings).

On Doubt

In the second paragraph of On Certainty, Wittgenstein elucidates the role of doubt, almost spelling out immediately what will become his objection against skepticism: “from its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so. What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it [emphasis added]” (2). Though the skeptics are correct in questioning the assertion of seeming or “common-sense” empirical fact, such doubts fail to (meaningfully) endorse their assertion that all knowledge can be undermined.

Primarily, the skeptics make the error of conceiving logic as an empirical statement – as something independent of the agent in question – that is subject to the possibility of falsification. The Tractatus, though earlier in Wittgenstein’s philosophical development, is particularly illustrative of this problem with skepticism: “Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds reflection in language, language cannot represent. ”[2] Moreover, 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. [3] Yet this is precisely what skepticism demands.

Skepticism, by externalizing logic, thus encounters serious error when it casts extreme doubts upon common-sense propositions, which are necessary for establishing language (and hence the use of logic). When someone says, “There are trees,” he is presupposing the existence of objects. This is not to imply an epistemological assertion that there are objects in a specific sense of the word, but it simply reveals the absurdity of saying “objects do not exist. ” If one holds that to be true, he runs into the intractable problem of explaining of what it is that one is speaking when one says “there are trees.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 4)

March 5th, 2008 Comments off

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Critique

One potential shortcoming in Quine’s argument lies in his approach to singular terms- their elimination and replacement by quantifiers- as an application of Occam’s razor. As was explained, if singular terms can be done away with, then their supposed implications about existence vanish. Hence, by using a singular term, one need not acknowledge the existence of the entity described by the term in order to be speaking meaningfully. Yet, if quantifiers could be done away with in the same manner, would they not be also subject to ontological elimination? One such possible elimination arises from combinatory logic, which was initially intended as a means of clarifying the role of quantifiers in logic by their elimination, much as quantifiers were intended to clarify existential statements by a similar process. In her book Philosophy of Logics, Susan Haack notes, “Quine concedes that his criterion doesn’t apply directly to combinatory logic, but observes that it can be applied indirectly, via the translation of combinatory into quantified formula. ”[9] This may only be an evasion of the demand that the elimination of quantifiers places on their ontological status (via Occam’s razor). Even without delving into deeper discussion, it is a possibility worth mentioning, as it questions the validity of one of Quine’s necessary steps in reasoning.

Assuming that this problem with Quine’s methodology is somehow irrelevant to his general reasoning or can be answered appropriately, Quine’s dismission of the necessity of universals, as part of a common trend in dismissing the imaginary problems of Plato’s beard, is quite effective. Indeed, something appears highly flawed about the presupposition that denying the existence of an entity somehow presupposes that entity in the same sense that affirming that entity’s existence does. Quine accurately assesses logical possibilities (though not in those exact words) as meaningful, but does not make the error of “stealing” the concept of existence by making it a predicate.

For the non-Quinean, how much can Quine’s reasoning be used to make a more decisive case against the realist position on universals? On an absolute basis, Quine seems hesitant to commit himself ontologically,[10] and does not rule out the possibility of an ontology containing universals; he merely rules out the possibility of a poorly-reasoned ontology containing universals. To utilize Quine’s argument from an objectivist standpoint, there is not much that can be meaningfully done in the discussion of universals besides Occamite elimination, as is true with any other unnecessary multiplication of entities. In communication and in action, often times a person consistently holding the realist view on universals and a person not holding the view are totally indistinguishable, except in their assertions about the nature of universals. Lacking positive proof of a position or falsification of its negatory position, an appeal to Occam’s razor is the only logical argument left to pursue.


[1] P. 135

[2] Here, Quine briefly introduces a subtler-minded pseudonymous philosopher- Wyman- who advances the argument that Pegasus is simply an unactualized possible. Hence, when it is said that “Pegasus is not,” what is really meant is that Pegasus does not possess the property of actuality; in other words, it is an entity that is already understood to be. Wyman’s definition of the word “existence” entails that “Pegasus” has spatio-temporal connotations if “Pegasus exists,” but that “exists” does not (it merely refers to actualization). Quine then moves on to discuss some problems with unactualized possibles. This discussion is not directly necessary for his discussion of universals, except in as much as unactualized possibles can be looked at as entities in a similar manner to universals.

[3] What Quine means by “ambiguity” in this instance is that the quantifiers are subject non-specific on their own and only necessitate the satisfaction of arbitrarily-stated conditions in a proposition, not that they are poorly defined in usage.

[4] P. 137

[5] P. 138

[6] P. 139

[7] Ibid.

[8] Quine uses “significant” as interchangeable with “meaningful. ”

[9] Haack, Susan. Philosophy of Logics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

[10] At the very least, his hesitation is reflected in this article.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 3)

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Quine’s criteria are different; his basis for claiming the significance[8] of a linguistic utterance either derives from treating it as an ultimate and irreducible matter of fact, or from analyzing people’s ordinary reactions to the utterance in question and similar utterances. He reduces the useful ways that people commonly speak of meanings to two: the having of meanings (significance) and the sameness of meanings (synonymy). One’s “giving” the meaning of an  utterance is his utterance of a synonym in a more ordinary and clearer language than the original. If such an interpretation of meaning is unsatisfactory, then one can simply speak of an utterance as significant or insignificant, and in relationship to other utterances (in synonymy or heteronomy). Though Quine recognizes the difficulty and importance of handling this approach properly, he once more refers to the lack of any increase in explanatory power resulting from adopting McX’s ontology- in this case, the adoption of special and irreducible intermediary entities called “meanings. ”

In light of the preceding arguments, McX is led to question whether any statements are possible that lead one to be committed to universals or other entities Quine finds unwelcome. Once again, Quine cites Russell’s theory of descriptions in tandem with quantifiers, explaining that the entities can be stated as bound variables, so long as it is said that “there is something [a bound variable] which red houses and red sunsets have in common. ” As explained earlier, the only way to make ontological commitments is to use bound variables. If “to be is to be the value of a bound variable,” whatever is said by names can be spoken of without names; names can be converted to descriptions, and then eliminated by Russell’s theory of descriptions; the purported namehood of an utterance can be repudiated if no respective entity is affirmed by the proper use of bound variables. Variables of quantification have a range of reference over the whole of an ontology (regardless of the particular ontology), and an ontological presupposition is convincing if and only if it must be considered among entities in this range of reference in order to establish the truth of an affirmation.

Therefore, the utterance “some dogs are white” does not commit the speaker to recognizing doghood or whiteness as entities. Rephrased, it states, “some things that are dogs are white,” which only creates the requirement that the quantifier “something” has a range of reference that includes white dogs, but need not include whiteness or doghood. However, it is also recognized that the statement “some zoological species are cross fertile” entails a commitment to the abstract entities “zoological species” unless the subject of the statement is reducible to another entity. Generally, a commitment to any reference persists until some means of paraphrasing a statement can be devised to change (or properly delineate) its bound variable’s reference.

Choosing an Ontology

Bound variables alone do not commit one to any single ontology, but only describes the process by which one becomes committed to an ontology. One means of adjudicating among ontologies, relative to a particular theory, is by finding an ontology whose entities are required to be within the range of reference of the bound variables of the theory in order to render the affirmations of the theory true. Modern disagreement over the foundations of mathematics is divided almost exactly on the issue of which entities lie in bound variables’ permissible range of reference.

Quine suggests that Occam’s razor be fully applied as an adjudicator among ontologies and that any ontology should be accepted in the same way that scientific theories are accepted: one must seek the simplest theory that accounts for all of the evidence. In the case of ontology, one must seek the simplest conceptual scheme that can be created to account for all the elements of raw experience. Quine’s argument, by his implicit admission, refutes the realist position on universals only as much as he asserts that a physicalist ontology containing universals is a useful “myth,” specifically in the fields of the physical sciences and more so in mathematics; put differently, he refutes it only by undermining its necessity by emphasizing the marked difference between naming and meaning, untangling Plato’s beard in the process. In the end, he states that the question of which ontology to adopt remains unanswered, with only “tolerance and an experimental spirit” as advice and judgment to be reserved for each myth based on its quality relative to a particular point of view.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 2)

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Under Russell’s translation, however, the statement is changed to “Something wrote Waverly and was a poet and nothing else wrote Waverly,” thus shifting the burden of objective reference from the descriptive phrase to what is referred to by logicians as a “bound variable” (“something”). Bound variables- words such as “something,” “nothing,” and “everything”- are not names of specific entities, but refer to entities generally with a meaningful ambiguity. [3] The significance of the quantifiers does not require the presupposition of any preassigned objects. To be, according to Quine, is “to be the value of a bound variable” (emphasis added). With quantifiers in mind, Quine asserts that the notion of statements of nonbeing defeating themselves “goes by the board. ”[4]

To reinforce his point, Quine anticipates and alleviates a potential problem with converting names to descriptors. In the “Pegasus” example, the word- a supposed name- cannot be processed immediately by Russell’s theory, and it must be rephrased to apply (e. g. “Pegasus was” becomes, perhaps, “Something was a winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon, and nothing else was that”). To make alleged names subordinate to Russell’s analysis, the word must first be translated into a description. Even if there is no evident definition or descriptive translation, an irreducible attribute of being Pegasus can be applied, granting the use of predicates “is-Pegasus” or “pegasizes,” resulting in the possible descriptor “the thing that is-Pegasus/pegasizes. ” In summary, all (alleged) names can be converted to descriptions, and by Russell’s theory of descriptions, those descriptions can be eliminated. Quine thus concludes,

We need no longer labor under the delusion that the meaningfulness of a statement containing a singular term presupposes an entity named by the term. A singular term need not name to be significant. [5]

The Debate over Universals

At this juncture, Quine recognizes the need to address universals because of the introduction of predicates like “pegasizes,” having now dealt with the issue of rejecting the presupposition that Pegasus must in some sense be if it is said not to be. McX begins his argument for universals by citing the pre-philosophical common sense of recognizing that there are red houses, red sunsets, red roses, etc. The houses, roses, and sunsets have something in common, and that this commonality is all McX is referring to when he speaks of an attribute. That there are attributes is as “obvious and trivial”[6] as the fact that there are red houses, red sunsets, and red roses; no less does Quine expect from McX’s or anyone else’s ontology, which is basic to one’s conceptual scheme. Under McX’s conceptual scheme, the statement “there is an attribute ‘redness’” must follow from “there are red houses, red sunsets, etc. ”[7]

Under a conceptual scheme different to McX’s, argues Quine, it is possible to admit the existence of red houses, roses, and sunsets while simultaneously denying that they have anything in common. “Redness” can be true of each of them individually, but there is no requirement that there must be some entity called “redness”; it could be that the houses, roses, and sunsets are all red irreducibly. Thus, there is no comparative gain in the explanatory power of McX’s theory provided by all entities given under the name “redness. ” Incidentally, Quine notes that a potential argument for McX’s ontology was pre-empted by the earlier discussion of the difference between names and descriptions, and how the latter can be significant without becoming the former. Because of this, McX is unable to argue that in order for predicates like “red” or “is-red” to be meaningful, they must be names with the objective reference of a single universal entity.

In response, McX grants the distinction between naming and meaning, and cedes that “is red” and “pegasizes” are not names of attributes. With that, he counters that “meanings” are still universals, perhaps even things similar to the attributes he posits, whether named or not. Quine acknowledges this objection, explaining that he can only satisfy it by refusing to ontologically admit meanings, but he also explains his lack of hesitation in doing so: refusing meanings does not entail the absence of meaningfulness of words and statements. This is evidenced by the fact that McX and Quine can agree perfectly upon classification of linguistic forms as the meaningless and the meaningful, though McX’s criteria for meaningfulness includes the “having” (in one sense) of an abstract entity he labels a “meaning.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary)

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On What There Is: Quine’s Theory of Ontology and Position on Universals

A universal describes a member of a class of mind-independent entities in reality that is not a particular thing, but an attribute, relation, etc. The realist position on universals posits that individuals share attributes with other individuals and that this commonality is manifested by the existence of universals. However, several philosophers have objected to this position, on the basis of objections because of the metaphysical strangeness or lack of necessity of universals, among others. In “On What There Is,” W. V. Quine addresses some of the logical and grammatical issues of ontology, and then relates them to the dispute over universals. Quine applies Russell’s theory of descriptions to form ontological propositions that entirely avoid referring to universals and invokes Occam’s razor to repudiate them as a result. One potential drawback to Quine’s approach is that he possibly fails to consistently apply Occam’s razor- as he applied it to the problematic singular descriptors- to the quantifiers (the “bound variables”) with which he replaces singular terms. Beyond that issue, however, Quine makes a convincing case against realist position on universals.

Before exploring universals, Quine discusses a series of preliminary concerns important for establishing his argument. He begins the article by declaring the problem of ontology to be finding the answer to a simple question: “What is there? ” Because of the evident fact that there is disagreement on these issues, the first part of his argument is dedicated to exploring the issues of rival ontologies, manifested in the form of a dispute between him and a pseudonymous philosopher, McX. If McX recognizes certain entities (has a different ontology), but Quine does not, Quine “cannot admit that there is something which McX countenances and I do not,” because it contradicts his initial rejection. Quine refers to this traditional Platonic predicament of non-being as Plato’s beard: “nonbeing must in some sense be,” Quine notes, “otherwise what is it that there is not? ”[1]

One instance of Plato’s beard in action is a disagreement between McX and Quine over the entity “Pegasus. ” McX contests that if Pegasus somehow were not, then the use of the word Pegasus could not possibly be talking about anything- but its usage does talk about something, rendering that position incoherent, resulting in the conclusion that Pegasus is. Because McX clearly does not believe that space and time contain “a flying horse of flesh and blood,” he must provide details about what Pegasus is if it is not that. Quine rules out the possibility that it is just an idea in the mind, pointing out that it is not what “Pegasus” is referring to when people deny it. [2]

Distinguishing Naming and Meaning, via Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

An essential point of contention between Quine and McX reduces to what Quine describes as a gap between naming and meaning, and whether an utterance can be significant or not if does not purport to name some entity existing in reality. In the case of Pegasus, McX argued that if Pegasus were not, then the word would convey nothing (in other words, it would be insignificant). Quine invokes Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions to resolve this issue, disentangling the ambiguities and fallacies caused by McX’s poor language use. In particular, the theory of descriptions functions as a means of rephrasing the articles “the,” “a,” etc. to create propositions with better-defined referents. For example, the propositions “the current Czar of Russia is cute,” can be true or false, but in both cases could imply that there is either a Czar of Russia who is cute or a Czar of Russia who is not cute. However, it could be the case- as it is- that there is no current Czar of Russia. Russell’s theory of descriptions would rephrase the original statement as “There exists someone who is Czar of Russia who is cute,” thus making clearer the propositional nature of the existence of the Czar, in addition to his cuteness.

Quine utilizes Russell’s famous “The author of Waverly was a poet” example in order to illustrate the lack of ontological commitment entailed by singular descriptors, by showing that the descriptor can be contextually rephrased into another statement with a truth value. McX falsely assumes that there must be some objective reference in the statement, “the author of Waverly was a poet,” for the statement to be meaningful.

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Scholarship Submission: Ayn Rand Institute Atlas Shrugged Essay Competition (Part 2)

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However, beyond its stated altruistic, common-interest motive, the rule’s passage is part of a personal deal between Orren Boyle and James Taggart to exert influence in Washington to cripple Rearden Steel in exchange for destroying Taggart Transcontinental’s primary competition in Colorado: Dan Conway’s Phoenix-Durango. When Dagny Taggart confronts Conway about fighting back to keep his railroad, he responds, “… they had the right to do it… I promised to obey the majority. I have to obey… It would be wrong. I’m just selfish. Though he had been wronged by the expropriation of his line, Conway gives his predators sanction for their actions by not fighting the seizure of his property, and even recognizing their right to do it despite his beliefs to the contrary.

Quite differently from Conway, Ellis Wyatt issues an ultimatum to Taggart Transcontinental to serve his needs or be destroyed with him, essentially denying permission to the predators to harm him. This is reflected later on when he disappears, not only removing his productivity from the reach of the looter society, but also setting his oil wells on fire. His burning wells become known as Wyatt’s Torch, a symbol of defiance- a refusal of sanction that burns until the heroes can return to reclaim the world.

The ever-increasing regulations issued by the looter government in the name of “the public good” until and after the passage of Directive 10-289 destroy all remaining incentives for production and soon afterward halt the growth of the economy. Directive 10-289 gives the government a limitless range of “emergency” economic powers, freezes wages, consumption, and innovation. Employment becomes based on need instead of productivity, as determined by the Unification Board, while the new-found power of those residing in government is exploited to grant favors to friends and other preferred classes. Production and commerce come to a halt; quality plummets as the worst companies receive windfall demand for essential commodities; the good of the public becomes the good of the cronies and scavengers as wealth is pried from the corpse of what was once an economic giant. The philosophy of sacrifice results in a reality of destruction.

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine. Though Rearden had not yet met John Galt at the time of his trial, he unsurprisingly reiterates a form of Galt’s oath when he rejects the “public good” that aims to shackle him to the needs of society. No matter how altruistically its actors behave, any system which emphasizes the moral righteousness of sacrifice is barbarous as a principle in compromising one individual for the benefit of another. Beyond that, it is corruptible. It serves as a means of exploitation of man’s passionate desire to live: the villains of Atlas Shrugged are numerous and of many philosophical colors, but they all are similar in advocating coercion as a means to their ends. The “public good” is merely one pretext by which they seek to guilt those who produce into volunteering their livelihood away without resistance. Should the productive reject the public and not proffer their labor, the villains then have no value to offer the individual- as one offers a value in exchange for another in mutual trade- but merely a “zero,” the promise that they will not kill, imprison, or otherwise harm the productive if they submit to their demands. When the Atlases of the world- the producers- shrug their burdens and consent to their subjection no longer, the villains will have no control over individuals who understand rationality and production as the only true means of survival. They will no longer possess an avenue to evade reality. They invariably must face that reason is law, that creation is sustenance, that A is A; to do otherwise is to perish.

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Scholarship Submission: Ayn Rand Institute Atlas Shrugged Essay Competition

February 12th, 2008 Comments off

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I drafted this one up in 2006, in the most religiously Objectivist fashion I could. and all I got was an offer to sign up for the Ayn Rand fanclub. Blast!

Prompt: At his trial, Hank Rearden declares: “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it! ” What does he mean? How does this issue relate to the rest of the novel and its meaning? Explain.

When Hank Rearden sells four thousand tons of steel in mutual trade, he is tried as a criminal for breaking economic regulations. Rearden’s resounding declaration at this end of his speech during his trial carries two significant concepts that reverberate throughout Atlas Shrugged: the illegitimacy of the principle of collective good, and the removal of the sanction of the victim from acts of evil. –more–>”The public good” is the political extension of the moral principle of “the greater good”- a concept that implies the existence of some single good that supersedes the good and well-being of the individual. This underlies one particular category of the philosophies that the novel’s heroes vehemently oppose: collectivism. Whether they truly believe in it or not, many of the villains in the book use the notion of collective good as their stated motive for action. It permits them to initiate the use of force against individuals in the name of a supposed higher justice. More importantly, the justice entailed by a “greater good” is so ambiguous and incalculable that it provides a blank check of moral authority to those who wield it, granting nearly any whim the ruse of righteousness.

Rearden had committed no moral crime. Much to the prosecutor’s confusion, he neither offers any official defense nor throws himself upon the mercy of the court. Defending himself, he argues, would not only be an admission of guilt, but sanction of the processes and principles that would be invoked to deprive him of his life, liberty, and property, only perpetuating “the illusion of dealing with a tribunal of justice” to onlookers. “If [my fellow men] believe that they may seize my property simply because they need it well, so does any burglar. There is only this difference: the burglar does not ask me to sanction his act. Through his denial of participation in his trial and his imposed duties of citizenship, Rearden affirms that he will not consent to involvement in the system of supposed values entailed by “the public good. The trial is the defining moment in Atlas Shrugged in which Rearden, a victim of society’s false morality, wholly refuses to give sanction to his oppressors.

After his mills pour the first order of Rearden Metal, a triumphant personal success following a decade of hardships, Rearden goes home and gives his wife a bracelet made of his innovation. In return, his wife ridicules his romantic obsession with his work, while his mother and brother deride him for what are, in actuality, his virtues. What Rearden truly feels for his family is contempt, but he is also reluctant to take a stand against them; he cannot understand their actions, and thus feels obligated to tolerate (and support them) them for their weaknesses. Rearden remains a victim who allows legitimacy to his domination by his family and society, until he tells his brother Philip that his fate does not interest him anymore. He realizes that this was what had caused him to bear the condemnations for nearly ten years, and revokes his sanction.

The National Alliance of Railroads (an organization allegedly created to protect the welfare of the railroad industry) votes on and passes the “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule,” a precaution claiming to eliminate “destructive competition” by not permitting more than one railroad to operate in a region.

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