Nyāya Substance Dualism

In a previous post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism 

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this1:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing machine, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the machine. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory 

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self. 


[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. 

How to Interpret Plato

Interpreting Plato is difficult work. It is made even more difficult with the strategy championed by Gregory Vlastos and commonly employed by Analytic philosophers. This strategy has three main commitments: (1) Plato’s views are distinguished from those of Socrates, (2) both views are constructed on the basis of the arguments presented in Plato’s dialogues, and (3) those arguments are interpreted with an eye to constructing a cohesive view for both philosophers. All three of these strategic commitments are problematic and hold us back from rightly understanding Plato’s corpus.[i] And all three commitments are derived from the same basic oversight: Plato wrote dialogues to be read.[ii]

Plato begot the tradition of Socratic dialogues as a medium for public debate. Artistic works such as tragedy and comedy were an important element of Athenian democracy. Poets were divinely inspired: the moral dilemmas presented in their works were given by the gods, and their lessons were taken seriously by the demos as a result. But by the end of the fifth century, Athens was declining. Devastating civil wars ravaged the city amid the Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent dissolution of the Delian League, which provided Athens its wealth and its power.  The demos was hungry for change, and Plato, among others, was willing to bring it. He positioned philosophy as an alternative to tragedy and comedy. This is well known. But he also positioned it as continuous with these more dominant genres. It is this continuity that often goes ignored and is really at issue when we consider (1), (2), and (3). Let us turn to these commitments themselves, beginning with (1).

Plato is often denigrated as something of a scribe, someone who merely recorded the conversations of Socrates for posterity. This is what other Socratic dialogue writers purport to do. Xenophon, for instance, explicitly claims to present the conversations of Socrates as they really took place, according to what he and his sources could remember. But Xenophon criticises Plato for putting words in Socrates’ mouth that he did not say.[iii] This should be historically unsurprising since there was at least a decade between Socrates’ death and the publication of Plato’s first dialogue. Surely Plato would have forgotten the precise wording of Socrates’ conversations. But so too would have Xenophon. What seems more likely is that Xenophon’s critique is not merely pedantic but principled. He knows that Socrates didn’t say what Plato wrote because Socrates couldn’t have said those things. Socrates’ opinion differed from what Plato presented in a way that would have been well known to Socrates’ followers. So what, then, is going on? The answer is pretty simple given the history of Athenian poetry more generally. Socrates was a caricature in Plato’s dialogues just as he was in Aristophanes’ Clouds. Everyone knew who he was and some general features of his personality and his life. But more importantly, Socrates was well known to have been sentenced to death in 399, and by the time of Plato’s writing, this was a matter of severe public guilt. Plato was no doubt inspired by his teacher, but he also capitalised on the facts surrounding his life and his death for his own ends. And hence the picture that Plato gives of Socrates may not be a faithful one. It need only be close enough for his audience to recognise the character as Socrates the wandering questioner. So how then can we on the basis of Plato’s dialogues distinguish between Plato’s view and Socrates’? Quite obviously, we cannot.

The method that Vlastos and others appeal to to make that distinction is to evaluate the arguments presented in the dialogue and all of their various entailments. This method generates two significant questions, one of which we shall leave until we discuss (3). Nowhere does Plato come out and say “I, Plato, will argue for such and such in the following way.” It is left up to the audience to interpret what Plato means by presenting any given dialogue in the way that he has, and in many cases, it is precisely what is not said and not argued that is important for understanding a given dialogue. Perhaps the best example of this is the Meno. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?” Here we have four possible sources of virtue: teaching, practice, nature, or something else. In the succeeding discussion, Socrates and Meno consider three possibilities: teaching, nature, and the gods. They end up with a hesitant commitment to the gods as the source of virtue. Yet throughout there are allusions to tasks commonly learned by practice, and its absence among consideration is conspicuous, especially given the orthodoxy of the period. This of course does not mean that Plato believed that practice is the source of virtue. It means only that Plato is clear on the inadequacy of the discussion and is pointing it out to his audience. Focusing only on the arguments of the Meno, however, would miss this possibility entirely. It would lead one to believe that Plato truly did believe that knowledge is recollection and that virtue is given by the gods. That may be the case, but it is far from certain, and Vlastos’s method doesn’t clear up the matter.

One way that Vlastos tries to clear up various ambiguities in Plato’s arguments is by committing himself to demonstrating that a given argument is consistent with other arguments elsewhere. He constructs Socrates’ and Plato’s positions as coherent wholes that manifest themselves in the arguments of Plato’s dialogues. Each dialogue then gives a piece of the overall whole that Plato’s audience must then hold together to understand what Plato seeks to show them. The difficulty of doing so should be sufficient to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this commitment. Holding all of Plato’s works in one’s head is difficult enough for specialists, let alone for Plato’s Athenian audience reading a dialogue before all of them had even been written. There of course may be some relationship between some dialogues. There was some speculation by Hellenistic commentators, for instance, that Plato presented his dialogues as tetrologies like the tragedians did.[iv] But aside from that, no one of Plato’s audience would be expected to understand how the dialogue he is reading fits into Plato’s broader view. This might be expected of Plato’s students, but the dialogues were published beyond the academy, and purposely so. As Steven Robinson points out, if Plato was simply writing for his students, he would have no reason to do so.[v] These students are philosophers themselves, and they know better that philosophy is no threat to the polis. What matters, on the other hand, is the opinion of the demos, and it is that which Plato seeks to change. And he can’t do that if the demos must first read and comment on everything that Plato has written and will write. (3) completely misses the point of Plato’s writing. Maybe we can find something common amongst Plato’s corpus as a whole, but this would be no help at all in understanding the point of any single dialogue. The really important interpretative work demands that we understand the individual dialogues, not Plato personally. And to this end, there is no reason why there can’t be ten Platos or ten Socrateses in ten different dialogues.

So how do we interpret Plato? Ultimately, I don’t know. But I do know that we can’t do it like we tend to do now. We have to treat Plato’s dialogues as dialogues. They are not essays in analytic philosophy: we cannot mine them for their arguments and be sated by that alone. We have to consider the traditions that influenced Plato. We have to understand his audience. We have to weigh what has been said against what has not. We have to admit the possibility of irony and satire and other dramatic tropes. All this is what makes Plato so difficult, but also so engaging and persistently rewarding.


[i] This is important for more than merely historical interest. I shall save a full demonstration of this for another time. Briefly, however, when we ask about how to rightly do philosophy, what philosophical methods are appropriate or otherwise, we must defer to what philosophy itself is for. This kind of functional demand can only be decided by looking to the foundations of philosophy and to the problems that it was established to solve. Plato happens to be the centrepiece of those foundations.

[ii] There is some dispute about whether Plato’s dialogues were performed. There is good reason to believe that they were, at least in some respect, but they need not have been in order to support the general appeal to the public upon which my account relies.

[iii] This criticism is specifically about the Lysis, an early dialogue of peripheral import.

[iv] Diogenes Laertius considers this rather plausible but attributes the hypothesis to earlier commentators.

[v] Steven Robinson, “Plato in the Crito” in Jonathon Lavery, Louis Groarke, and William Sweet [eds.], Ideas Under Fire: Historical Studies of Philosophy and Science in Adversity, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, WI), 2013: 37-65

A Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Argument for the Existence of God

Historical Context

The different philosophical traditions in classical Indian thought are usually categorized under the labels of orthodox and heterodox. The orthodox traditions accepted the scriptural authority of the Vedas, while the heterodox ones such as Buddhism and Jainism did not. Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika were initially two different orthodox schools. Nyāya was mostly concerned with logic, reasoning and epistemology. Vaiśeṣika focused on metaphysics and identifying the different kinds of substances that ultimately exist. By the eleventh century, these two traditions had merged into a single school, which came to be known simply as Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika (NV henceforth). Apart from a few academic philosophers, the NV tradition is basically extinct today. Historically, however, they were extremely influential and made a number of important philosophical contributions.

Of all the theistic systems in India, NV had the greatest confidence in the scope of natural theology. They came up with a number of arguments for the existence of Īśvara (“the Lord”), and were engaged in a series of polemical debates with other thinkers, their primary adversaries usually being Buddhists. I will go over their most well known argument for theism in this essay.

What the Argument is Not

Before I lay out the the argument, I want to make a few preliminary comments on what the argument is not, since this is often an issue of confusion.

The argument is not like the popular Kalām cosmological argument, which states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and that if you trace the chain of causes you eventually get to an uncaused cause that explains the beginning of the universe. Indeed, the NV system holds that a number of entities are eternal and uncreated. These include the atoms of different elements, time, space, universals, individual souls, and of course, God.

The argument also does not belong to the family of arguments from contingency, which conclude that there is a necessarily existent being that explains why anything at all exists. The NV thinkers were not committed to the view that everything that exists has an explanation for its existence. Finally, the argument is not like familiar teleological arguments that draw on observations of biological complexity to infer that an intelligent designer exists.

That said, the NV argument does bear some resemblance to all of the above arguments. It is therefore best understood as a hybrid cosmological-teleological argument. The argument points out that certain kinds of things require an intelligent creator that has the attributes traditionally assigned to God.

Overview of the Argument 

The argument can be stated as follows1:

(P1) Everything that is an effect has an intelligent maker.

(P2) The first product is an effect.

(C)  Therefore, the first product has an intelligent maker.

The argument as spelled out here is a little different from the way the NV philosophers usually framed it, primarily because they had a more elaborate way of laying out syllogisms. But that need not concern us. The important point is that the argument is valid – if the premises are true, the conclusion does follow. But what are we to make of the premises?

Some terminological clarification is in order before we can assess the premises. By an effect, defenders of the argument refer to a composite object – i.e., an object made of parts. Buildings, rocks, mountains, human bodies are all examples of effects. Recall that NV philosophers were atomists, and since atoms are indivisible and indestructible, they do not count as effects.

The first product refers to the simplest kind of effect that can be further broken down into atoms. In the NV system, dyads – imperceptible aggregates of two atoms – were seen as the first product. But again, that need not concern us. All we need to know is that the first product is the smallest unit that is itself further divisible. We can now move on to scrutinize the premises.

Support for the Premises 

P2 is necessarily true, since the first product is defined as the simplest kind of effect. Things get interesting when we consider the first premise. P1 states that every effect has an intelligent maker, where an intelligent maker is defined as an agent who

(i) Has knowledge of the components that make up the effect;

(ii) Desires to bring about the effect; and

(iii) Wills to do so.

The obvious question then is: why believe that every effect has an intelligent maker?

The support offered for P1 is inductive. NV philosophers defend P1 by pointing out that we have a very large number of examples that confirm it. The classic example is that of a pot. We observe that pots have an intelligent maker: the potter who is aware of the material out of which the pot is made (the clay), desires to make the pot, and wills to do so. Atoms are deliberately excluded from P1 since they aren’t effects, and hence cannot be seen as counterexamples. Given this, defenders the argument claim that the numerous confirming instances (as in the case of the pot/potter), entitle us to accept P1 as a general principle.

Responding to Objections

Philosophers in the NV tradition were aware that the argument was extremely controversial, and came up with a number of interesting responses to common objections. I will go over three of them here.

Objection 1: Counterexamples to P1

The most common objection is that there are obvious counterexamples to the first premise. Rocks, mountains, plants – these are all made of parts, and yet, don’t have a maker. Thus, P1 is false.

The NV response is to say that this objection begs the question against the theist. The mere fact that we don’t immediately observe a maker in these cases does not establish that a maker was not at least in part involved. For the maker could, after all, be spatially or temporally remote2 from the effect.

NV philosophers press the point by insisting that if direct observation of the cause was necessary, then even ordinary inferences would be defeated. For instance, we wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of fire from smoke if the fire wasn’t immediately observable. But of course, the fire could be a long distance away. Similarly, if we happen to come across a pot, we wouldn’t suspend judgement about whether it was made by a potter simply because we didn’t directly and immediately observe the pot being made by one. The potter could, after all, be in a different town, or even be dead. In other words, this objection proves too much, since it would render everyday inferences that we all rely on unjustified.

Objection 2: The Possibility of Counterexamples to P1

At this point, we might be willing to concede that we can’t rule out the existence of a maker for things like rocks and mountains. However, since the maker isn’t directly observed, the theist can’t be sure that a potential counterexample doesn’t exist either. It may be true that we have observed several instances of effects that have makers, but the possibility that there exists a counterexample means that P1 is at the very least unjustified, if not shown to be false.

Once again, the NV response is that the objection proves too much. The mere possibility of a counterexample is not reason enough to give up on the first premise. Consider, again, the example of smoke and fire. The mere possibility that there may have, at some time in the distant past, or in a faraway land, been an occurrence of smoke without fire does not give us enough reason to reject general fire-from-smoke type inferences. Unless we are willing to give up on induction entirely, there is no reason to reject P1.

The skeptic is also accused of another inconsistency at this point. Why does the skeptic not doubt that material things have material causes? If someone who is skeptical of P1 came across an object they had never seen before, they probably would not doubt that the object had been made out of pre-existing matter. And yet, the support for the belief that material objects have material causes is also inductive. The skeptic must provide some principled reason to reject P1 while also believing in material causes without the reason collapsing into the first objection which has already been refuted. Since the skeptic has not done this, they have failed to show that we must not accept P1.

Objection 3: The Gap 

Many arguments for theism face what is sometimes called “the gap” problem. In other words, even if these arguments establish the existence of an intelligent maker, there is no reason to think this creator has any of the attributes traditionally assigned to God. A skeptic may point out that in all the cases of intelligent makers we have observed, the makers were embodied agents. The makers were not omniscient, uncreated or eternal. So there is no reason to suppose that the argument, even if successful, gets us to God. At best, it can establish the existence of some kind of intelligent maker, but any further claims about the omniscience or eternality of the maker would not be justified, since these properties are not observed in any of the cases we discussed.

Predictably, the NV response is that the criterion for inference being proposed as part of the objection is too strong, and would defeat many of our everyday inferences. In most inferences we make, we go beyond the general cases, and can justifiably infer special characteristics depending on the context. To go back to the commonly used fire-and-smoke example, if we observe smoke rising from a mountain, we don’t merely infer that there is fire. Rather, given the specific context, we infer that there is fire that has the property of being on the mountain. In other words, it isn’t fire-in-general that is inferred, it is fire-on-the-mountain. Similarly, based on the specific context, we can conclude that the maker of the first product has certain characteristics.

Since the maker exists prior to the first product, it must be uncreated. It cannot have a body, since bodies are made of parts, and this would simply introduce a regress that would have to be terminated by a creator that is not made of parts. Thus, the maker must be disembodied and simple. Since it is simple, it cannot be destroyed by being broken down into its constituent parts, and hence must be eternal. Since it has knowledge of all the fundamental entities and how to combine them, it must be omniscient. Finally, simplicity favors a single maker over multiple agents. The intelligent maker thus has many of the attributes of the God of traditional theism.


The argument, if successful, does get us to a God-like being. P1 is the controversial premise, and as we have seen, NV philosophers respond to objections by essentially shifting the burden of proof on to the skeptic. This can seem like trickery, and indeed, that’s how the influential 11th century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti characterized it in his work Refutation of Arguments Establishing Īśvara, which is arguably the most thorough critique of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika argument. Either way, it is at least not obvious that the first premise can be easily rejected, so the skeptic must do some work to justify rejecting it. I may go over Ratnakīrti’s criticisms in a future essay.


[1] The argument as I’ve presented it here is roughly based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. 

[2] The terminology I’m using is based on Parimal Patil’s translation of the original Sanskrit terms in Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India. 

Pragmatism and Two Forms of Naturalism: Guest Post by Danny Krämer

American Pragmatists and the first wave of Naturalism

What I call the first wave of naturalism took place in the early 20th century and includes such philosophers as Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, Roy Wood Sellars and – one of the great figures of American pragmatism – John Dewey. Dewey was the one of the pragmatists that saw himself explicitly as a naturalist. Nowadays there is a debate about how to understand naturalism. What does a naturalist view entail and what not? Is it mainly an epistemological or a metaphysical position?

The situation was even worse at the time of the first wave of naturalism. All these philosophers said was that philosophy should be more closely connected to the sciences and that everything that exists is natural. But of course everything depends on what you mean by the word “natural”. I will argue that Dewey’s naturalism is of a different kind than the one that was made popular by the second wave of naturalism.

Two forms of Naturalism

What I will call the second wave of naturalism is the movement that started with the work of W.V.O. Quine. Quine famously denounced the project of “first philosophy”. The classical aim of philosophy was to build a structure of fundamental knowledge for the empirical sciences to rest on. With Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction and therefore of the notion of a priori knowledge that is prior to science, this project was said farewell. Philosophy must talk from inside the sciences. But this rejection of “first philosophy” developed into a more radical way of seeing the things. The main thesis of a – what I call it – “strict naturalism” are as follows:

  • The epistemological thesis: The methods of the natural sciences are the only one that yield genuine knowledge.
  • The ontological thesis: The only entities that exist are the entities of our most well established sciences – especially fundamental physics.

This form of naturalism is a reductive physicalism of a very hard nosed sort. Of course, there are very few that hold such a strong view but some philosophers hold it and it is one picture of naturalism that floats around in the public discourse. The other form of naturalism is nowadays often called “liberal naturalism”. It is non-reductive in ontology and even though it has great respect for the natural sciences, it has also respect for other forms of rational inquiry. (We will come to this in a minute.)

The interesting part of this is that Dewey wrote a paper with Hook and Nagel, where they answered some critiques, which accused them to be crude 1 mechanists. The paper is called “Are naturalists materialists?” and it defends a form of non-reductive materialism, that could stand model for some of the views that liberal naturalists develop nowadays.

The core of Naturalism

What makes these two forms of naturalism forms of naturalism? I think there are three main themes a naturalist position is about:

  1. Anti-supernaturalism: All forms of naturalists deny, that we need things like god, angels, immaterial souls etc. for our best explanations of the world and therefore we should not accept that they exist. Of course there are many other things that seem to be supernatural, for example numbers, moral values, possibilities etc. You could say it in this way – using some phrases from Roy Wood Sellars son Wilfrid Sellars: There are many things in our manifest image of the world that seem to be incompatible with our scientific image of the world. While the strict naturalist tries to eliminate or reduce the things of the scientific image, the liberal naturalist takes them at face value as long as he needs them for the best explanations of the world. Some entities cannot be reduced to entities of the natural sciences, not because they are supernatural, but because they are nonnatural in the sense of dependent on human actions and intentions. So one has to be cautious of not conflating the natural/supernatural distinction and the natural/artificial distinction. The concepts of common sense and the human sciences on the one hand and the concepts of the physical sciences cross classify. (For more details one should see for example Jerry Fodor’s Special Sciences or John Dupre’s The Disorder of Things)
  1. Scientific Realism: Every naturalist should be a scientific realist. (Not every naturalist, actually, is a scientific realist, but I think that is wrong. But that is another discussion.) If you do not belief that the entities of the scientific image really exist, but are only useful fictions for empirical prediction, then the conflict between scientific and manifest image does not even arise. But the manifest image has some supernatural things in it and if you do not want them in your ontology, you should have to say how the world functions without them. But at least every naturalist has great respect of the development of the natural sciences since the scientific revolution. That is one motivation to even become a naturalist.
  1. Second Philosophy: This phrase I borrow from Penelope Maddy. If there is no “first philosophy” left after Quine, what to do? The strict naturalist would say, “Nothing! Let’s just do science!” Penelope Maddy’s answer is we just do second philosophy. We do not try to find a fundamental part of our knowledge that grounds science. Science needs no grounding. But there are still some philosophical questions left. What makes a question to a philosophical one? Well, these questions are the one that scientists do not ask, because they are either too abstract and not of great interest for the practitioner or they are about the interpretation and the integration of scientific theories into our overall theory of the world. Certainly, in questions of physics the physicist has authority. But if it comes to how we understand a physical theory and how we integrate it with our other theories, there is some work to be done.

Two pragmatist traditions

That fits well with the project Dewey had in mind. The empirical method he mentions for example in Nature and Experience, and that he also wanted to use in philosophy, is not what is nowadays known as the search for the scientific method. Famously there was not one method of science to be found, neither by the Vienna Circle nor by Popper or anyone else. And there is also no special philosophical method to be found. Interestingly Quine, who was at times a hardliner, said, in a softer mood, that under science he understands our entire web of beliefs and that he regrets that the word science in English only means natural sciences. As it seems he had a broader field of empirical investigation in mind. And if we take Anti-reductionism seriously, we should take seriously that there are phenomena that cannot be understood in the same way as bosons and fermions.

All of our rational inquiry – natural science, the humanities, social sciences, philosophy – are connected through – to use Wittgenstein’s term – family resemblance. While the strict naturalist only takes natural sciences serious the liberal naturalist also admits that the humanities or literary criticism can provide us knowledge as long as they take place in our family of rational inquiry. The liberal naturalist does not discriminate between evidence of the natural sciences, which is real evidence and evidence from the social sciences which is only derivative. He only discriminates between good and bad evidence, no matter where they come from. (Where the border between rational inquiry and pseudoscience lies, is of course another question.)

This division of perspectives can also be found in the interpretation of classical pragmatism. For Richard Rorty the most important thing the pragmatists did, was to replace the metaphysical notion of truth with a epistemological one. Rorty himself advocated eliminativism about the mental and his pragmatic understanding of truth led directly to his post-modernism. On the other hand there is Hilary Putnam’s work. He rejected the anti-realist theories of truths that the pragmatists got famous for. (At least the early and the late Putnam did. He talked about his anti-realist phase as a mistake in his philosophical career.) What was important for Putnam and why he was interested in the pragmatist tradition was, that philosophical problems should bear a connection to problems of everyday life and the pluralistic picture in ontology and epistemology. So, even Putnam never called himself a pragmatist, Putnam could be seen as a pragmatist and liberal naturalist par excellence.

Danny Krämer holds an MA in philosophy and is now working on a PhD. Danny’s research is on liberal naturalism, and you can find his blog here.

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence (Book X of The Laws)


In Book X of The Laws, the Athenian provides an argument for the existence of god. Unholy acts are committed by those who suffer from three kinds of misconception, which are that gods do not exist, or they exist but do not care about human affairs, or that they can be bribed with sacrifices (Jirsa 239; Laws Book X 885e). The Athenian believes that the atheist ought to be provided with proof of the existence of gods before any punishment is imposed on them for impiety (885c-e).[1]  The Athenian aims to provide a proof that soul is fundamental (892c-d).[2] The proof that the Athenian provides is an argument from motion (Stalley 169-170). In short, a thing can have one of two properties: (a) the property of moving other things without moving itself, and (b) the property of moving other things as well as itself (894b-c). All motion has an absolute origin, which cannot be type (a), because things of that type can only transmit motions to other things by virtue of themselves being moved by something external to them (894e). To be the originator of motion, a thing must be of type (b), because it must have the potential to originate motion within itself, as there is nothing but itself to transmit motion to other things at the beginning of the sequence of moving things. Things of type (b) are said to be alive, or ensouled (895c). So, the originator of motion is soul, which makes soul more fundamental than physical things (892c-d; 896b-c). Since soul is more fundamental than physical things, the properties of soul are more fundamental than the properties of material things (896c-d). Soul, being fundamental, is the source of everything less fundamental, which includes values like good and bad (896d).

Soul controls the heavens and the earth because they are also in motion (896d-e). The goodness or virtue and rationality of the originator of motion is inferred from the fact that the motion of the heavens is orderly and rational, which means that the originator of that motion must also be virtuous, orderly, and rational (896e-898c). This paper will be structured as follows. In section one, I will explain the doctrine against which the Athenian is arguing. In section two, I will lay out the argument’s premises, and explain the rationale behind them. Finally, in section three, I will assess the validity and soundness of the argument.

  1. Physicalism

The Athenian’s opponent is the physicalist. Physicalism is responsible for the attractiveness of atheism (887b-c). In the context of the Laws, physicalism is the doctrine that all things that come into being do so by virtue of nature, change, or art (888e).[3] The physicalist believes that the basic elements (earth, air, water, and fire) exist by nature, and they combine in various ways by chance to produce everything else that exists (889a). Things that exist by virtue of art are secondary to those that exist by chance or nature (889c). Examples of things that exist by virtue of art are things crafted by humans and human conventions (889c). When it comes to crafts that involve mixing labor with the natural world, the products such as fresh produce and meat are considered natural (Jirsa 242-243). The secondary, or less fundamental (derivative) entities are those that do not involve outright mixing of human labor with the natural world. Statesmanship, for example, seems not to involve the natural world, so it is secondary to the natural by virtue of the object of its inquiry (the state) being a product of art (889c-e). Furthermore, on the physicalist view, the gods are the products of human activity, and therefore are not ontologically primary (889e). Clearly, this threatens the notion that the laws which structure Magnesia are from the gods, so it is important for the Athenian to refute the doctrine of physicalism (886e-888e). So, the Athenian, encouraged by Clinias, sets out to formulate an argument against physicalism, which establishes the existence of god.

  1. The Argument

The Athenian begins his exposition of the argument by laying out a taxonomy of motion, which seems to be ordered according to ontological priority (Jirsa 244). The motion I classified as type (a) is identified with that which can move other things but cannot move itself, and the motion I classified as type (b) is identified with that which can move other things and itself (894b-c). Types (a) and (b) motion are considered to be the most basic kinds of motion in the Athenian’s taxonomy (Jirsa 244). Since the Athenian aims to refute the doctrine of physicalism, which says that earth, air, water, and fire are natural, or fundamental, which is to say that they are ontologically primary, and everything else derives its being from them (Jirsa 243; Laws Book X 889a). So, the Athenian must find the fundamental kind(s) of motion, and he must show that it does not fall within the set of things considered natural (fundamental) by the physicalist.

The Athenian proceeds by showing that type (b) motion is more fundamental than type (a) motion. Since all motion must have an absolute origin, there must be an originator of motion (894e). The originator cannot be of type (a), because it would have no source for its ability to move other things. If there is no prior motion to move the originator, then the motion that the originator transfers to other entities in motion must come from within the originator, which is to say that the originator is of type (b). So, the originator of motion must be self-moving and capable of moving other things. Self-motion, therefore, is the fundamental kind of motion (895b). The first premise of the argument is:

  1. Self-motion is prior to all other motion.[4]

The Athenian bolsters the first premise by considering a thought experiment. If all things in motion stopped moving and were stationary, which would be identifiable as the first motion? Type (b) must be the first, because if it were type (a), it would require a prior transfer of motion to enable the first motion to move other things, which, ex hypothesi, cannot exist (895b).

The Athenian then aims to show that soul is identical to self-motion. When we examine the world around us, those things we consider self-movers are what we classify as alive (895c). Things that are alive are also ensouled (895c). So, self-movers are ensouled, since self-movers are alive, and the set of living things is a proper subset of ensouled things (Jirsa 246). The second premise of the argument is:

  1. Soul is self-motion.[5]

The Athenian backs up the second premise by mentioning that we can see three aspects of something, namely its being, its name, and its definition (895d). The Athenian’s definition for the entities picked out by the name “soul” is just, “that which is self-moving” (895e-896a). So, the thing denoted by the name “soul” is the same thing as is defined as, “that which is self-moving.” So, to say that something has a soul is to say that it is capable of self-motion (Jirsa 246). From premises one and two, the Athenian infers that soul is prior to all other motions and entities that are or could be in motion (Jirsa 253; Laws Book X 896b-c). So, the first conclusion is:

3. Soul is prior to all other motion.[6]

The notion of priority that the Athenian employs seems to be both temporal and ontological (895b). So, soul is temporally and ontologically prior to all other motions, including the motions of the elements that the physicalist posits as fundamental. The Athenian has shown so far that soul is ontologically and temporally prior to the physical, which means that soul, rather than the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) falls in the category of natural that the physicalist employs (892c).

At this point in the argument, the Athenian suggests that it could be two souls that govern the heavens and the earth, one good and the other one bad (896e-897c). The Athenian aims to show that it is a good soul that governs the heavens and the earth, which would entail that the world we presently inhabit is ordered rationally and virtuously.[7] He points out that the products of soul guided by virtue and reason are different than those of soul not guided by reason (897b). The products of soul guided by virtue and reason are better than those produced by a soul not guided by virtue and reason. Because the heavens move in a way that resembles reason, the soul which orders the heavens must be guided by virtue and reason. But if the heavens were ordered by an irrational soul, the motions of the heavenly bodies would not be as they actually are (897b-898b). From this we get the next steps in the Athenian’s argument:

  1. If the heavens move rationally and virtuously, then soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.
  2. The heavens move rationally and virtuously.[8]
  3. Soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.

The second conclusion of the Athenian’s argument, then, is that the heavens are ordered by a rational and virtuous soul, because to be guided in action by virtue and reason is to be virtuous and rational. Finally, to get to god, the Athenian points out that the soul guiding the sun must be regarded by anybody as a god (899a). Since the other heavenly bodies move in ways resembling the sun in relevant respects, it follows that the souls guiding those bodies must also be regarded as gods (899b-c).

Now, to complete his case, the Athenian must show that the gods care about human affairs, and are not capable of being bribed. Since the gods are all powerful, all knowing, and all good, they cannot disregard human affairs, because doing so would call into question their power, knowledge, and goodness (901d-e). For the gods to disregard human affairs would be for them to succumb to indolence and idleness, but given their attributes, they cannot succumb to such things. Furthermore, to take bribes would be to succumb to self-indulgence, which would call their goodness into question (901e). So, the gods concern themselves with human affairs and are not susceptible to bribery.

  1. Evaluation

The Athenian’s argument seems valid. The first conclusion (3) follows from the first two premises (1 & 2) by virtue of substituting co-referring expressions (soul and self-motion). The second conclusion (6) follows from premises four and five by modus ponens. Finally, the Athenian’s conclusion that the gods concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed follows from the properties he ascribes to the gods. If those properties logically exclude disregarding human affairs and being bribed, then it is a valid form of argument to move from some set of properties being possessed by some entities to the negation of the proposition that the properties logically excluded by that set are possessed by those same entities.

The Athenian’s argument is quite ingenious, but it is susceptible to various criticisms which call its soundness into question. First, the notion of ontological priority employed by the Athenian to justify his first premise can be questioned. If one embraces the (contemporary) orthodox way of doing ontology, the notion of levels of being will become unintelligible. It is only given the idea that some things are more fundamental than others such that they form more basic levels of being that the justification given for the first premise can work. Second, the reasons given to think that there must be a first motion were insufficient. Merely thinking of a hypothetical situation in which motion is stopped, and we are free to judge which motions are more fundamental than others is not enough to justify the claim that there was a first motion. The defender of the view that there is an infinite series of motion-transference that stretches backwards eternally will not see that, given a stoppage of all motion, there must be a first motion. Furthermore, Parmenides doubted the reality of motion (Stalley 170).

The fourth and fifth premises of the Athenian’s argument are also questionable. Setting aside anachronistic reasons such as the falsity of the Athenian’s thesis that the heavenly bodies move in perfectly circular orbits, there are still other reasons to doubt his premises. First, premise four is a conditional, and it seems not to be true. There are possible states of affairs where the heavenly bodies happen to move in virtuous and rational ways merely by virtue of chance, or by virtue of the nature of the elements composing them. In other words, the physicalist thesis examined in section one seems to have the resources to account for the appearance of the virtuous and rational guidance of the heavens. Perhaps the intrinsic properties of each kind of element constrains the range of possible combinations of those elements, and the possible motions of those composite objects such that they inevitably would move in apparently virtuous and rational ways. The Athenian does not address this possibility at all. So, on the physicalist view, the fourth premise is questionable because the consequent of the conditional has not been shown to be a consequence of the antecedent obtaining.

Finally, moving from the claim that the soul which guides the heavens is rational and virtuous to the claim that that soul is all powerful, all good, and all knowing seems to be a non sequitur.[9] The soul which guides the heavens may be only capable of moving the heavens and nothing else, perhaps by virtue of a limitation on its power, or on its knowledge. Maybe all such a soul can do is move the heavenly bodies in a circular fashion, forever. That soul could not concern itself with human affairs, because it would be outside of the scope of its power or knowledge to do so. Even if we grant the Athenian’s claim that the soul has the properties of maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, it may not follow that the soul could not be bribed. It could be the case that we humans are so limited in our moral knowledge, that the soul could allow the wicked to prosper by bribing it with sacrifices because doing so allows for some greater good which we cannot currently comprehend. So, even granting the set of properties that the Athenian ascribes to the soul he calls god, it does not obviously follow that that set logically excludes the ability to be bribed.


I have examined the argument in Book X of The Laws presented by the Athenian. The argument’s premises are all questionable, which means that it is within the physicalist’s rational rights to doubt the conclusions. The Athenian aimed to provide reasons to believe in gods which would be provided to atheists before punishing them for impiety (885c-e). The gods, given the Athenian’s argument, concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed. They are not fictions created by humans, as the physicalist maintains (889e). However, the Athenian underestimates the resources available to the physicalist. The physicalist can resist the Athenian’s argument while remaining within her own ontological framework. So, the Athenian has failed to supply the atheist with reasons to believe in gods.


[1] Whether or not the proof is supposed to be rationally compelling or just sufficient for rational acceptance is an open interpretive question (Jirsa 241).

[2] Plato seems to use the term “natural” in the same way as “fundamental” is used by Jonathan Schaffer, which is to denote ontological priority (Chalmers 2009; Jirsa 243).

[3] I am using “physicalism” to characterize the Athenian’s opponent because his opponent holds to the view that the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) are fundamental or primary, and those elements seem paradigmatically physical entities (Jirsa 2008).

[4] See (Jirsa 253).

[5] See (Ibid 253).

[6] See (Ibid 253).

[7] By virtue of being ordered by a rational and virtuous soul.

[8] See (Book VII 822a-b) for a description of the moon, sun, and stars following a circular path, and compare with what is said at (Book X 897d-898b). Both the moon, sun, and stars and the image chosen to represent reason are circular (Jirsa 252). So, the motions of the heavenly bodies and of reason are the same.

[9] I am using the singular instead of “souls” for stylistic purposes. The Athenian’s argument actually entails that there are multiple souls that are virtuous and rational. But this does not affect my criticisms.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David John, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman. “On What Grounds What.” Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford: Clarendon, 2009. 347-83. Print.

Jirsa, Jakub (2008). Plato on characteristics of god: Laws X. 887c5-899d3. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 5:265-285.

Plato, Malcolm Schofield, and Tom Griffith. Plato the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.

Stalley, R. F., and Plato. An Introduction to Plato’s Laws. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983. Print.

Logic as Theory, Not Dogma

There are many interesting remarks that arise when people are discussing areas of disagreement, perhaps especially in areas of philosophical disagreement. These include:

  • “That’s illogical!”
  • “It’s logically impossible for that to happen!”
  • “That violates the Laws of Logic™!”
  • Etc. etc.

There are a number of interesting questions that can be asked here: “What is logic? What is the relationship (if there is one) between logic and reality? What are these ‘Laws of Logic’ and why are they special?” However, let’s stick with the question of what logic itself is. This can be phrased a number of ways:

  • The study of valid argument forms
  • The study of the correct principles of reasoning or inference
  • The study of the logical consequence relationship
  • The study of what follows from some set of truths, and why it follows

And so on. One fundamental reason we want to have the correct answers about how to reason is that we want to be able to discern how to determine what else is true, given some set of known truths. And if a party makes an invalid inference, we want to be able to point out that there is a gap between what’s asserted & what is concluded.

But there’s an interesting quality to the discourse about logic. When speaking about whether or not some piece of reasoning is valid, the remarks I mentioned at the beginning seem to conceptualize logic as some concrete, unchanging thing. It seems to view logic and logical rules as something handed down, rather than as a topic that has changed over time. And this is flatly untrue.

Without getting into the discussion about Non-Classical Logics, logic has changed over time. For about 2,300(-ish) years, Aristotelian Logic was the dominant logic in Western Philosophy. However, around the end of the 19th century, logicians began to realize that Aristotelian logic was unable to account for the inferences that were being made in mathematics at the time. In order to make logical sense of the reasoning mathematicians were engaging in, the systems of logic we now call “Classical Logic” were born. Logicians like Frege intended for this new logic to form the foundation of mathematics (a program known as “Logicism”). This project, however, ended in failure thanks to the work of other logicians like Kurt Gödel and Bertrand Russell.

But there is something important to note here: Logic changed. And it didn’t change by the pure light of natural reason or some intuition about a priori truths. Rather, logicians had data which they needed to account for – the reasoning mathematicians were engaging in at the time. The new logic had a different logical consequence relation than the old one.  Some argument forms which were valid in Aristotelian Logic were no longer valid, & some previously invalid argument forms were now valid. Take the following syllogism:

  • All Bs are Cs
  • All Bs are As
  • Therefore some As are Cs

Aristotelian logic considers this a valid argument, but it is invalid when translated into Classical Logic. What I aim to get at is fairly simple. The picture of logic as this inscrutable, unquestionable entity is blatantly ahistorical. Logical systems are theories about what follows from what, and why they follow. Just as other fields construct theories to account for the relevant data, so too are logics created to ascertain what the norms of correct reasoning are. Unsurprisingly, there are many debates about the respective virtues of logical systems and the problems they purport to solve.

But what exactly should qualify as correct reasoning is a complex topic. Is there only one correct system of reasoning, one true logic (logical monism)? Or perhaps different logics are apt to different domains, so that there is no one true logic (logical pluralism)? How do we decide between logical systems in the first place? And in doing so, must we privilege a particular logic?

Irrespective of your view on these & other related philosophical problems, you must be able to account for the historical facts about how logic has developed. Otherwise you seem to be giving a baseless “just so” story, and this makes it difficult to take your view as anything other than dogma.

If you’re interested in why exactly Classical Logic superseded Aristotelian Logic, I’ve uploaded an edited part of a talk Graham Priest once gave. It outlines the history & reasons behind the shift from Aristotelian Logic to Classical Logic. I hope this is helpful!

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3gMR0qVjRc


Priest, Graham. Doubt Truth to Be a Liar. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006. Print.

Why Verificationism Is Not Self-Refuting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Carnap, Rudolf. Testability and Meaning – Continued. Philosophy of Science, Jan. 1936.

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