How does an austere treatment of the sense of names differ from that provided by one guided by a rich conception of sense?

In this essay I am going to analyse in depth both accounts of the sense of names using all the relevant contrasts drawn by McDowell in his paper ‘on the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name’.

‘Richness as opposed to austerity, is the shape which immodesty takes in the case of names’, according to McDowell. So, to understand the contrast between richness and austerity, we also need to consider the contrast between immodesty and modesty, respectively.

According to Mc Dowell, Dummett’s exposition of the notion of modesty is the notion of a theory which is not intelligibile if you don’t already understand the expressions it deals with, and it does not say what would suffice for understanding the language nor what this ability consists in.

Therefore, it seems that the notion of modesty is somehow connected to the concept of implicitness.The notion of implicitness, opposed to the one of explicitness, is mainly used to explain the concept of ‘psychologism’ and is therefore connected more with the inner realm of the speakers than with the things themselves.

The contrast between speakers and things as well as the one between knowledge of truth and knowledge of things reaffirms the contrast between the inner world –of the speakers in this case- and the outer world- of the things. This is the most important difference in order to understand all the contrasts that McDowell examines and, ultimately, the difference between the austere treatment and the rich one.

The key point is that the austere treatment considers the referent of the name sufficient to understand the sense of a sentence in which the name is contained; while the rich conception takes into account the sense as well, according to Frege’s distinction between sense and reference.

For Frege the reference is, in the case of names, the bearer of that name, while the sense is the ‘mode of presentation’ i.e. the way in which the hearer grasps the intended object. So, even in the case of the contrast between reference and sense, what matters is the perspective: things and communicators, respectively.

The contrast between connotation and denotation, in my opinion, is the most useful one in order to understand the difference between sense and reference, respectively. Indeed, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, connotation is ‘the abstract meaning or intension of a term which forms a principle determining which objects or concepts it applies to’ while denotation is ‘the object or concept to which a term refers, or the set of objects of which a predicate is true’.

To be more precise, denotation corresponds to the referent, which is a slightly different thing from ‘reference’; while the referent is the object picked out in the world, the reference is the way of picking out that object. Reference can be considered a ‘mode of presentation’ and therefore associated to the concept of sense.

The fact that the distinction between sense and (Fregean) reference is the same as the one between (non- Fregean) reference and referent can show that ‘crediting names with senses is not necessarily crediting them with anything like connotation or descriptive meaning’.

Indeed the main difference between ‘reference’ and ‘connotation’ (or ‘descriptive meaning’) is the fact that while the word ‘reference’ necessarily implies a referent in the world, the words ‘connotation’ or ‘descriptive meaning’ don’t.

Frege introduces the difference between sense and reference to attribute a meaning even to bearerless names. Indeed, ‘a name without a bearer could, in Frege’s view, have a sense in exactly the same way as a name with a bearer’.

However, the ‘reasonableness’ is what guides the interpreter in ascribing beliefs to the subject in order to make sense of the subject’s behaviour. Therefore, a person using a berarerless name would undermine this principle.

On the other hand, on behalf of Frege, a bearerless name is a name, which has only an intrinsic characterization and not an extrinsic one. The referent is the extrinsic characterization of the name in the actual/external world of things while the intrinsic characterization is the sense of the name in the inner world of the speakers. According to Frege, in order to express a thought it is not necessary for that thought to have an extrinsic characterization.

However, following Frege’s account there is the risk of falling in the psychologism, which takes the speaker’s mind as the protagonist., unlike behaviourism, which takes the speaker’s behaviour as the protagonist. Actually, McDowell says that there is Frege’s anti-psychologism (…) which gives the mind a place in reality and is an intermediate between the two.

On the other hand, Frege’s account does not satisfy our purpose of constructing an exhaustive theory of names because its richness and immodesty make it a ‘hidden psychologism’, which is ‘pseudo-scientific’ and therefore not valid.

Moreover, another famous account of names is the causal theory, in which deduction moves from axioms, which assign semantic properties to sentence-constituents, to theorems, which assign truth-conditions to sentences. This shows that truth and meaning are interconnected.

The problem with this account is that from the particular causal relations between the speaker, the name and the bearer it is not possible to construct a general relational formula true of every name and its bearer.

In conclusion, I agree with Saul Kripke’s suspicion that ‘any substantial theory of names is most likely to be wrong’ since the main risk of the austere treatment of the sense of names is to be reductive in focusing only on the reference, while the main risk of the rich conception is to pose too much attention on the speaker’s mind and therefore fall into psychologism.

Is it possible to steer a middle course between psychologism and behaviourism?

This essay is going to talk about psychologism and behaviourism and whether it is possible to steer a middle course between them, comparing McDowell’s and Dummett’s account of meaning.

When building a theory of meaning in order to explain in what the mastery of a language consists, the main problem, according to Heck, concerns the integration of language with the speakers’ and listeners’ conscious mental life. This integration is also the origin of all the discussions regarding psychologism and behaviourism, as it will be demonstrated in this essay.

Although this integration has been analysed in many different disciplines such as psychology, linguistics, philosophy and even cognitive sciences including informatics, it is still unclear whether or not thought precedes language.

Two accounts are considered here. One states that mind shapes language; the other states that ‘language shapes the mind’, in the sense that language and mind are involved at the same time. So, according to the former, thought precedes the linguistic expression. According to the latter, they are simultaneous. This difference is fundamental if one is to understand the difference between behaviourism and psychologism. Behaviourism dictates that linguisitic ability can be explained merely in terms of the speakers’ and listeners’ behaviour, whereas according to psychologism, the mental aspect of speech is located behind linguistic behaviour.

First of all, it is worth noting that McDowell’s aim to build a theory of name parallels Dummett’s aim to build a theory of meaning; they both want to establish a theory, of which the knowledge would suffice for understanding a language. Another shared point is that they both use the Fregean notion of sense in their theories. According to McDowell (1977, p.165), Dummett’s use of the notion of sense is precisely ‘to capture a notion of meaning which makes it true that a theory of meaning is a theory of understanding’. For his part, McDowell (1987) demonstrates that, even adopting the Fregean notion of sense it is still possible to be modest, despite of what Dummett thinks, Dummett’s conception of the theory of sense depends on the notion that it is possible to explain contents- if there are any- ‘’as from outside’’. Since the idea that it is possible to explain contents ‘as from outside’ (Dummett (1976) cited in McDowell (1987, p. 90)) is precisely what makes Dummett’s theory immodest, it follows that modesty would result in repudiating the notion of sense altogether, according to Dummett (McDowell (1987)). However, according to McDowell, Frege does not believe that it is possible to explain contents as from outside, and yet he does not repudiate the notion of sense at all (Mc Dowell, 1987, p.101). In fact, Frege is exactly the one who introduced that notion, actually.

Frege introduced ‘sense’ in opposition to ‘reference’ primarily to give an account of the bearerless names so that ‘a name without a bearer could have a sense in exactly the same way as a name with a bearer’ (Frege (1892) cited in McDowell (1977, p.172)). According to Frege, a bearerless name is a name; however it has only an intrinsic characterization and not an extrinsic one, which means that it has only a sense without a reference. Indeed, the difference between reference and sense corresponds precisely to the one between extrinsic and intrinsic characterization. The former concerns the name with the actual/external world, while the latter is concerned with the inner world of the speakers. This dichotomy between the inner world of the speakers and the external world is crucial in understanding the multiple contrasts that McDowell examines and, ultimately, the difference between behaviourism and psychologism.

Indeed, behaviourism focuses on the extrinsic characterizations, the ones in the external/actual world of the speakers and listeners. Psychologism focuses on the intrinsic ones, the ones that are in the inner world of the speakers and listeners. Psychologism employs the speaker’s mind as the protagonist while behaviourism uses the speaker’s behaviour as the protagonist. Therefore, due to the notion of sense, Frege gives an account of the mental aspect of speech, abstracting from the actual world. As McDowell (1977, p.173) states, in the Fregean view ‘thought relates to objects with an essential indirectness’, therefore ‘whether the object exists or not would then be incidental to the availability of the thought’. Reading Frege is this way, he appears to sustain the priority of thought. However, in this case the priority of thought is not over language, as stated for Grice in Heck’s paper, ‘’Use and Meaning’’, but over reality. Moreover, the apparent contradiction is that, even if Frege prefers thought over reality, he detests Psychologism. But, as McDowell (1977, p.168) states, there is a difference between psychological and psychologism: ‘phsychologism’ is a theory or tendency, which is based on the psychology of the speakers and listeners in this case. ‘Psychological’ is only an adjective that indicates a relation with psychology. Therefore, according to this distinction, Frege is able to give an account of the mental aspect of the speech act, thanks to the notion of sense, without, however, adopting psychologism; he only uses a psychological element.

Furthermore, the non -Fregean view associates the mental aspect of speech with the reasonableness attributed to the speaker by his/her audience (McDowell, 1977, p.172). The fundamental proposition is that the interpreter ascribes beliefs to the subject in making sense of his behaviour, in the light of reason, which means assuming that if a speaker uses a certain name it is to talk about an existing entity. This concept of reasonableness can be associated with the concept of the priority of reason, in opposition to the priority of thought that will to be analyzed in relation to Dummett’s account of the mental aspect of the speech act (Heck, 1998). Actually, Dummett uses Frege’s notion of sense in order to build upon his theory of meaning. However he criticizes the fact that ‘sense is supposed by Frege to be something objective’ (Dummett, 1975, p.65). Frege’s belief derives from his exigency of constructing a theory of sense within the framework of a realistic theory of meaning in terms of truth-conditions (Dummett, 1975, p.65), something that Dummett initially tries to do, but, after observing that some sentences are ‘undecidable’, he then realizes that a verificationist theory leads him closer to the aim.

Dummett builds a theory of meaning in order to explain philosophically in what a mastery of a language consists. However, he then realizes that the theory of meaning for the language is not sufficient, because ‘the account of what it is to have such knowledge can only be given in terms of the ‘practical ability which the speaker displays in using sentences of the language’ (Heck (2007)). This claim, which refers back to the fact that ‘the speaker will manifest his knowledge of the theory of meaning by his actual use of language’ (Heck (2007)), shows that Dummett ‘clings’ to the thesis, that Heck calls ‘the Use-Meaning Thesis’, according to which, ‘meaning is, in some way or other, determined by use’ (Heck, 2007, p.1).

The theory of meaning is divided into three parts: the first is the core theory, or theory of reference, the second is the theory of sense, and the third is the theory of force. ‘The theory of reference determines recursively the application to each sentence of that notion which is taken as central in the given theory of meaning’ (Dummett, 1975, p. 57). First of all, the central notion is truth, which is necessary in order to give an account of meaning. However the main difficulty for taking a speaker’s understanding of a sentence to consist in knowledge of its truth conditions is the fact that for some sentences it is not possible to decide whether they are true or false. This is true especially in the case of the subjunctive conditional, the past tense and quantification over unsurveyable or infinite totalities.

Therefore, after sketching a generalization of the intuitionistic theory of meaning for the language of mathematics, Dummett switches the attention to verification and falsification, because they are effective notions. ‘In a verificationist or falsificationist theory of meaning the theory of reference specifies the application to each sentence of the central notion of the theory so that ‘the speaker will manifest his knowledge of the condition for its application by his actual use of language’’((Heck (2007)). The verificationist and the falsificationist theories of meaning get closer in order to meet the requirement to incorporate into the theory of sense an account of the basis on which to judge the truth values of the sentences, because ‘they explain meanings in terms of actual human capacities for the recognition of truth’ (Dummett, 1975, p. 66).

However, they are still not sufficient to meet the requirement because they don’t provide ‘a firm foundation for a claim to know what meaning essentially is’, they only help to draw ‘an outline of the manner in which every feature of the use of a sentence can be given in terms of its meaning as specified by a recursive stipulation of the application to it of that central notion chosen’ ((Dummett, 1975, p. 67).

In addition to Dummett’s own admission to having failed to meet the ultimate requirement, McDowell accuses Dummett mainly of the fact that his notion of use of meaning/language falls into the same mistake that Quine made, which is the fact that, conceiving the language behaviouristically, he did not leave space for the rationality of the rational agents-the mental aspect of speech (Heck, 2007, p. 13).

Therefore, although Dummett’s theory seems complete and well articulated it is accused of having a ‘big’ issue. However, Heck (2007) analyses Dummett’s position in depth, in relation to McDowell’s objection. He discovers that, even if at first sight Dummett’s argument does not seem to give an account of the mental speech in language use, this is not actually true. Dummett, as well as Grice, if well analysed and developed, proposes a notion of use, which explains the role of the mental aspect of language.

Grice combines the Use-Meaning Thesis – the idea that meaning is determined by use- with the priority of thought over language, characterizing use in terms of the contents of mental states, a grasp of which needs to be understood prior to understand the actual speech act. These contents do not concern the external conditions under which the speakers make various utterances but the internal ones i.e. the psychological conditions such as beliefs, intentions etc. Therefore the Gricean conception is content-laden, but not meaning-laden, because it ‘does not help itself to any notion of linguistic content’ (Heck, 2007, p. 19). Therefore, Grice’s account provides an explanation of the mental aspect of language without accepting a meaning-laden conception, meeting precisely what McDowell aimed for.

Dummett, on the other hand, reaches the same objective but in a different way, since he rejects the priority of thought over language since he argues that it is ‘at best useless to appeal to a speaker’s possession of particular concepts in attempting to explain what it is for her words to express them’ (Heck, 2007, p. 19). Heck (2007) states that, even if he rejects the priority of thought to language in terms of the contents of sentences which need to be grasped prior to our understanding of them, he still give an account of the role of the mental aspect because he sustains the priority of reason to any linguistic capacity. This admission permits ‘to characterize use in terms of psychological notions (…) and yet refuse to appeal to any prior capacity to entertain thoughts with the very contents expressed by the utterances’ (Heck, 2007, p.19).

Therefore, Dummett’s theory, which is at the same time content-free and non –behavioristic, if well interpreted, can give an account of the role of the mental aspect in the use of language and confute McDowell’s view, according to which, the only way of ‘registering the role of mind’ in our use of language is by describing use in terms of the contents of speech acts’’(McDowell (1998) cited in Heck (2007, p.13)). For McDowell the only way to account for the mental aspect of speech is to accept that use is content-laden. Dummett rejects the idea that the meaning of a sentence can be taken to be the thought it is used to express.

Developing Dummett’s account in the light of McDowell’s objection, Heck (2007) shows that Dummett’s theory remains intact to his attacks, and, in particular, that McDowell’s conviction that ‘Dummett’s refusal to countenance a meaning-laden notion of use is driven by a flawed epistemology of understanding’ (Heck, 2007, p.2) is wrong. This flawed epistemology of understanding, which can also be called ‘the sense-datum conception of understanding’ (Heck, 2007, p.3) considers understanding as the listeners/speakers’ reconstruction of the meaning from simply facts about what sounds were produced under what circumstances, which are the only facts immediately available to them when they experience someone making an utterance (Heck, 2007, p.2). Therefore, according to McDowell, Dummett’s belief that experience is content-free is what makes his notion of use not content –laden. However, Heck (2007) proves that if Dummett’s notion of use is not content-laden is not because he thinks that experience is content-free, but because he does not attribute to the speakers/listeners the ability to grasp the content of the sentence prior to understanding, as stated above. Therefore, according to Heck, Dummett, despite McDowell’s accusations, is successful in giving an account of the mental aspect of speech.

McDowell (1987), in his paper ‘’In defence of Modesty’’, gives an account of the mental aspect of speech, while drawing a distinction between behaviourism and psychologism in relation to modesty and immodesty –or full-bloodedness- with regard to Dummett’s theory of meaning, thus sustaining the validity of modesty. The main difference between modesty and immodesty is that ‘Modesty, in relation to meaning, is the denial that we can ‘hope to give an account of the concepts expressible by the primitive vocabulary of a language’’ (McDowell, 1997, p.105). According to the immodest-or full-blooded-theory of sense sustained by Dummett, however, it is possible to do that ‘as from outside’. McDowell (1987) claims that, even embracing behaviourism -as immodesty requires- and trying to avoid psychologism, it is not possible to locate the mental aspect of speech anywhere except behind linguistic behaviour, therefore falling into psychologism. On the other hand, according to McDowell, to accept modesty would avoid this contradiction, because as the outward aspect of linguistic behaviour is essentially content-involving, the mind’s role in speech is part of what one presents to others, not something behind it. Moreover, McDowell underlines the fact that this outward aspect is ‘presentable’ only to those who already understand that specific language in which the thought is formulated.

This last specification is crucial because if it is necessary to already understand the language used in carrying the content-involving outward aspect of a certain linguistic behaviour, it is not possible to characterize language use ‘as from outside’ that language employed, which was Dummett’s aim. According to McDowell (1987, p. 90), trying to characterize language use ‘as from outside’ would only generate an endless recursive system of languages. Giving a theory of language in a distinct language-object language- and then ‘as from outside’ that language in a second language-the background language-, it would then be necessary to give a theory of language ‘as from outside’ that second language and continue like this endlessly. This system would be only helpful to the contents expressible in the object language, but, according to McDowell, ‘Dummett’s idea is that a proper theory of meaning for a language would be formulated ‘as from outside’ content altogether’ (McDowell, 1987, p. 91). In McDowell’s opinion, then, Dummett’s idea is fallacious.

The problem of recursion is connected with the one of circularity, which is one of the main obstacles facing the construction of a theory of meaning. Circularity is well shown by a passage in which Dummett explains the concept ‘square’ using that same concept. If the ‘explicans’ term -the term which explicates- contains the ‘explicandum’ one-the one which is supposed to be explicated- then the argument generated is a question begging, because, instead of answering the question, it uses that very same concept which it was supposed to explain. This applies to the theory of meaning because, even using only one language and so giving a theory of language as from inside that language, it is still very probable to come up against circularity. Indeed, a theory of meaning itself lies on the ultimate presumption of giving a full meaning to the concept of meaning, which is, in my opinion, intrinsically ‘question begging’, and that is why I agree with McDowell’s opinion that giving a theory of meaning as from outside is not possible, or at least not in a non-recursive and not question-begging way.

In fact, in another paper called ‘Dummett on truth conditions and meaning’ John McDowell (1985, p.356) states that this ‘alleged’ circularity applies only to languages with undecidable sentences i.e. sentences of which it is not possible to decide the truth of falsity. Because if all sentences were effectively decidable, according to McDowell, it would be easily possible to equate understanding a sentence with the practical ability of using ‘the ‘ex hypothesi’ available effective means for deciding whether the sentence is true or false, and to accept or reject it according to the results’, despite Dummett’s conviction that understanding a sentence consists in a theoretical knowledge. Moreover, McDowell (1985, p.356) adds, even if there are no effective means for attributing truth or falsity to a sentence, it is still possible to accept or reject the sentence in a way that is rational in the light of how one understands it. The complete impossibility to judge the truth or falsity of a sentence would undermine the fact that the sentence has a sense at all. Therefore, McDowell confutes Dummett’s idea that undecidability of some sentences undermines the entire theory of meaning, because he thinks that understanding a sentence does not consist in a theoretical knowledge, but in the practical ability to judge a sentence, which is implied by its having a sense.

Even while trying to steer between psychologism and behaviourism the problem of circularity is the first difficulty that McDowell encounters. Still using the example of the concept ‘square’ he tries to avoid circularity by saying that ‘it is not the words of Dummett’s suggested explanation by which one is guided in using the word ‘square’, but what they express’ (McDowell, 1987, p. 95). However, he then realizes that saying this, ‘in connection with the propositions of the theory of meaning’, would lead him into the idea that we can ‘strip off the linguistic clothing and penetrate to the pure naked thought beneath’, in accordance to the conception of language as a mere code (McDowell, 1987, p. 95). This would support the psychologistic view, therefore undermining McDowell’s initial intent of avoiding psychologism. However, a way to support Dummett’s theory, according to McDowell, would be to say that, since ‘square’ is used only in ‘the first intention-that is, never inside a content-specifying ‘’that’’ –clause’, the concept ‘square’ is only employed but not ‘displayed in its role as a determinant of content’ (McDowell, 1987, p.91). In this sense a full-blooded theory would describe a practical capacity to acquire the concept, employing that concept ‘as from outside its role of determinant of content’ (McDowell, 1987, p.91). Therefore, that would lead to the conclusion that a full-blooded theory of meaning is constructed ‘’as from outside’’ content and concepts. However, the idea that a truth-conditional ‘core’ would need to be formulated ‘as from outside’ content is confuted by McDowell’s (1987, p.92) conviction that the truth conditions are derived precisely from the fact that they specify the content for actual or potential assertions, therefore they cannot be given ‘as from outside content’. Therefore, even trying to justify Dummett’s belief that it is possible to give an account of meaning ‘as from outside’ would ultimately lead us to the conclusion that it is not true, unless begging the question, in this case of what truth conditions are. In conclusion, according to McDowell, despite of Dummett’s belief, it is not possible at all to explain content ‘as from outside’, in accordance with Brentano, because, as we have demonstrated above, it would lead either to recursion or to question-begging.

Moreover McDowell thinks that it is possible to steer a middle course between psychologism and behaviourism, respecting a modest account of meaning. The reason why Dummett rejects a modest account is because he wants to give an account of meaning as from outside content, since he conceives understanding of language as ‘lying open to view’ (McDowell’s (1987, p.92)). On the other hand, accepting modesty would seem to fall into psychologism because it would involve the conception of language as a code for thought, but McDowell demonstrates that this is not true. The only reason why modesty would imply the psychologistic conception of language as a code ‘depends on the assumption that content must be capturable ‘’as from outside’’(McDowell’s (1987, p.92)). However, rejecting this assumption, modesty does not imply the psychologistic conception of language anymore. Therefore, it is possible to have a modest account of meaning and at the same time give an account of the mind’s role in speech, avoiding falling into psychologism.

In conclusion, having given an account of the mind’s role in the speech act and having steered a middle course between psychologism and behaviourism, I think that, despite of Heck’s attempts to defend Dummett’s account from McDowell’s attacks, McDowell’s argument is more convincing, especially considering his stance on circularity. I believe that the aim to characterize meaning ‘as from outside’ in a non-recursive and non-circular way is impossible. On the other hand, it is possible to give an account of meaning using some primitive concepts, and that is why a modest account is preferable to an immodest one, as McDowell sustained against Dummett.

 

Do Gettier cases show that the tripartite definition of knowledge is inadequate?

In this essay I will argue that Gettier cases do show that the tripartite definition of knowledge is inadequate.

 

According to the tripartite definition of knowldge, the three necessary and sufficient elements to have knowledege are: 1) the belief by a of p 2) the truth of p and 3) the justification of the belief.

 

However, Gettier showed that ‘you could have a justified true belief and yet still lack knowldege of what you believe because your true belief was ultimately gained via luck’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28 ). Therefore, Gettier cases show that there isn’t a biconditional relation between the three elements and the knowledge because the belief (by a of p), the truth(of p) and the justification (of the belief) are necessary but not sufficient conditions for knowledge because there is still something missing for the justified true belief in order to be knowledge. Therefore the tripartite definition is inadequate.

 

Now I’ll show how we came to the three elements of the tripartite definition of knowledge which is extremely important for epistemologists because ‘knowledge is the primary focus of epistemological theorising’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). Firstly, before giving a definition of the propositional knowledge (the knowledge in which we are more interested), we should consider the instrumental value of knowledge. Knowledge is valuable because it permits someone to achieve his goal. Approaching the topic of the value of knowledge, one of our premisses is: ‘one can only know what is true’(Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). This demonstrates how the concept of truth is necessarily connected to the concept of knowledge. Indeed If a knows that p then s is in the psychological state of HOLDING p TRUE. If s knows that p then a believes that p. So, the belief of p by a and the truth of p are necessary for the knowledge of p by a. However, there is not a biconditional relation between knowledge and true beliefs because true belief is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge. In fact, ‘while knowledge requires truth, not every instance of a true belief is an istance of knowledge’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28) . This means that in order to be knowlede, true belief must have something else. Since some true beliefs have instrumental value but not all of them, it can be the case that instances of knowledge are true beliefs with instrumental value. However a true belief with instrumental value is still not sufficient to have knowledge because ‘mere true belief is that, unlike knowledge, it is very unstable’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28) because it is easily mistaken. That’s why Plato compares knowledge to the statues of the ancient Greek sculto Daedalus: ‘mere true belief is like one of the untethered statues of Daedalus, in that one could very easily lose it; knowledge, in contrast, is akin to a tethered statue, one that is therefore not easily lost’(Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). Therefore, true belief, in order to be knowledge, needs to be justified. At this point seems that the best definition for knowledge is the tripartite definition: justified true belief.

 

However, Gettier confutes this definition, as shown above. I will use a different example from the ones cited by Gettier, though one that has the same general structure. Imagine a man, let’s call him Paul, who goes to the train station, as every morning, and takes the train that he takes everyday. So, his belief to be on the correct train is justified by the fact that the train has been always the same in the last ten years. However, he doesn’t notice that on the train it’s written another destination. So Paul is now forming his justified true belief (that he is going to London) by being on a train which has another sign destination written on. Fortunately, just the written destination was wrong, while the actual destination of the train was correct. After all, that Paul reaches his destination is, ultimately, a matter of luck.

 

This is the general structure that Gettier follows constructing his cases:

  • ‘First, he takes an agent who forms his belief in a way that would usually lead him to have a false belief’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). In the example above we took the case of someone taking a train with written on the wrong destination. Clearly, taking a train with the wrong destination in order to go to London would usually result in a false belief.
  • ‘Second, he adds some detail to the example to ensure that the agent’s belief is justified nonetheless’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). In the example above, the detail we added was that the passenger had no reason for thinking that the train was different from the one he was supposed to take because he goes to London everyday at the same time and the train is always the same. Thus his belief is entirely justified.
  • ‘Finally, he makes the case such that while the way in which the agent formed his belief would normally have resulted in a justified false belief, in this case it so happened that the belief was true’(Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). In the train case, this is done by stipulating that the train just happens to be ‘telling’ the wrong destination but in fact it was going to the correct destination.

So we can conclude that knowledge is not simply justified true belief, but it’s necessary a greater co-operation on the part of the world than simply that the belief in question be true. One way to solve this issue is to guarantee the truth of the justification trough another justification: in that case the original belief would have its justification and then every justification would have its justification generating an infinte regress. There are many reactions to the infinte regress which can be sinthesised by Agrippa’s trilemma. The word ‘trilemma’, which derives from Greek, means a forced choice between three (tri-) unattractive alternatives (lemmas). In Agrippa’s trilemma the three alternatives are: infinitism, coherentism and foundationalism. These are just the main ones, but in general reactions are divided in: sceptical and non-sceptical theories. Non-sceptical theories, in turn, are divided until the far end which is the externalist view that is a relation between belief and the situation which makes it true. So, if we analize the various positions we can observe that the theory which goes farthest is the non-inferential knowledge that is the one which is non based on reasons. This shows that the regress ends in non inferential knowledge, because it’s impossibile to find an end in the knowledge based on reasons. So, in the end, Gettier has confuted the tripartite definition, without giving a solution. On the contrary he has raised many other issues. As for the infinite regress, indeed, we can notice that when we try to define the concept of knowledge we can’t reach a conclusion. Indeed we can’t properly define ‘knowledge’ because we don’t have the criteria for it. At the same time we can’t properly define the criteria without instances of knowledge. So, what’s the beginning and what’s the end? According to methodism, of which the Frech philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) is representative, we need criteria in order to define knowledge; according to particularism, of which the American philosopher Roderick Chisolm (1916-99) is representative, we need instances of knowledge in order to define criteria.

In conclusion I don’t agree neither with methodism neither with particularism, but with scepiticism: I think that an objective conception of knowledge is impossibile because knowledge and its criteria are like ‘The Chicken and the egg’. The chicken or the egg causality dilemma, indeed, is commonly stated as “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”.

 

Therefore, I think that even if Gettier cases do show that the tripartite definition of knowledge is inadequate, they’re still not useful because, in the end, it’s not possible to give a complete definition of the concept of knowledge.

 

Bibliography:

 

Plato, Meno, 96-100

 

Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28

 

  1. Gettier. 1963. ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’. Analysis 23, 121-3, reprinted in S. Bernecker and F. Dretske (eds) Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

What is Moore’s open question argument and what does it show?

This essay is going to analyse Moore’s Open Question Argument and it will show how Moore uses his Argument in order to confute Naturalism. It will also report the defects which have been attributed to the Argument.

Firstly, it’s important to specify that the main question in Ethics is ‘what is good?’ In his work Principia Ethica, (The subject-matter of ethics) Moore (1903) writes his opinion about it and claims that it is not possible to give an exhaustive answer to it, because the adjective ‘good’, which needs to be distinguished from the noun ‘good’, is indefinable, because ‘it is simple and has no parts’. ‘Good’ is the ‘ultimate term’ .

 

That being stated, Moore’s position is going to be contextualized in the debate between naturalism and non-naturalism. Beforehand, it’s necessary to make further clarifications in order to have a complete metaethical map (Debbie Roberts, lecture).

The biggest distinction is the one between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. According to the latter, moral judgments & utterances do not express beliefs. Cognitivism is the exact opposite which is split into realism and irrealism. Realism includes naturalism and non -naturalism. Essentially, naturalism ascribes the evaluative and normative properties to the descriptive and natural ones. Non- naturalism on the contrary denies the correlation between evaluative and natural spheres. Moore aligns himself with non-naturalism when formulating his Open Question Argument.

In order to construct the Open Question Argument he considers any candidate natural property so that, for example, “x is good” is equivalent to “x is pleasure.” Moore said that if this claim were true the judgement “Pleasure is good” would be equivalent to “Pleasure is pleasure”. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore- moral/). However, it doesn’t seem the case because the latter is simply an uninformative tautology whereas the former is not.

He also substitutes ‘what I desire to desire’ and many other natural properties to goodness. But for every natural property Moore takes into account, it is always the case that the first identity is substantial, while the second is trivial (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

The conclusion is that the property of goodness does not exhaustively correspond to the candidate natural property. The Argument is called ‘Open’ because, although it is true that pleasure is good, as with any other natural property, it is inherently reductive to define goodness solely in terms of pleasure. The definition of goodness is wider than this, it is more ‘open’.

Actually, Moore’s Open Question Argument seems to have a failure because he takes for granted that ‘if a definition were sound, it would seem to be a sort of tautology’. (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

Since when we associate the evaluative property of goodness with any natural one we don’t have a tautology he assumes that naturalism is wrong.

However, he does not consider the possibility in which two terms with different meanings pick out the same property. (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

In that case Frege would say that the two terms have different senses but the same reference. However, if we take into account the reference, which is the object picked out in the real world, the identity statement between the two terms must be considered a posteriori and not a priori.

Therefore the naturalism, which is not effectively ruled out by his argument, is just the non-analytical one. He succeeds in refuting analytical naturalism, but not the nonanalytical one (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

The second defect with the Open Question Argument, pointed out by Sturgeon (2003) (Dancy and Copp, 2006) is that the property of goodness itself can be considered a natural property. It seems weird that Moore didn’t think of this possibility. Dancy and Copp suggest that Maybe he just took for granted that the term ‘good’ as well as ‘right’ and other such moral terms are intrinsecally too different ‘in style’ (Dancy and Copp, 2006) from any terms expressing a priori natural properties such as ‘causing more pleasure than pain’.

In conclusion Moore underlines the exclusivity of the term ‘good’ and similar terms. He asserts that ‘they cannot be directly perceived’ (Dancy and Copp, 2006). Moreover, ss stated at the beginning of the essay, the adjective ‘good’ cannot be even definable, according to Moore.

Everything considered, the defects seem to bring/call into question the validity of the Open Question Argument. Therefore, in order to find effective argument against naturalism we need to take into account some other arguments (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

References

Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica (CUP) Preface and Chapter 1

Dancy, J. (2006) ‘Nonnaturalism’ in the Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory David Copp (ed) (OUP).

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore-moral/

 

Word Count: 728.

 

If we are brought up in the right way, are we bound to be virtuous? If we are, are the virtues really admirable? If we are not, what more is required?

Since Aristotle focuses on the importance of the upbringing in order to be virtuous, in this essay i’m going to examine Aristotle’s concept of being good.

 

Analysing Aristotle’s position it seems clear that the right upbringing is necessary, although not sufficient, to be virtuous. ‘The road to full virtue’, that Aristotle proposes, is composed by gradual stages therefore each of them is necessary in order to proceed to the next one.

The first stage is ‘the right upbringing’. Aristotle says that the only starting point possible is what is familiar to us. And what is familiar to us depends on our upbringing. Therefore, the right upbringing is necessary to be virtuous. It allows a person to grasp ‘the that’ (the starting point). At this stage the person intuitively comprehends that there are some noble and just things because his good upbringing led him to them. However, he does not fully understand yet why they are noble and just. Before discovering why they are noble and just, the person needs to verify by himself that what he has been told is actually good. How to do that?

 

The key is habituation. Aristotle wants to mark his difference from Socrates’ intellectualism by underlining the importance of not only reason but action in morality. We need to know what is good in order to act and we need to act in order to know what is good. He says that at first, since we need to know what is good in order to act, we need our parents or teachers to show us the ‘good things’. However, our ‘knowing’ is not yet ‘full knowing’. In order to obtain a ‘full knowing’ we need to verify it ourselves. Therefore, repeated practice, which is habit-forming, ‘has cognitive powers’ since through it we come to proof ourselves that what we have been told is true.

 

At this point Aristotle introduces another fundamental concept which is pleasure. Since the well educated person has an intrinsic kinship to virtue and to appreciate noble and just things, recognizing that the things he is practicing through habituation are good, he will take pleasure in them. At the same time, since he enjoys them he realizes that they are good, because, considering his good predisposition, he would have not enjoyed them if they were bad. ‘The growth of enjoyment goes hand in hand with the internalization of knowledge’. They are interdependent.

 

The internalization is another key concept. Burnyeat writes ‘the actions pain him internally, not consequentially’. This sentence means that if the well predisposed man wrongdoes and he realizes that what he is doing is unjust or ignoble he will not find it enjoyable because he will feel bad about it. Therefore, he will abstain from wrongdoing not to avoid an external pressure i.e. the pains of punishment, but to avoid an internal one i.e. ‘shame’ which is ‘the semivirtue of the learner’. In the same way, in order to complete ‘the road to full virtue’, he needs to enjoy noble and just things for their own sake, for their intrinsic value and not because of the consequences as non educated people do.

 

So, after learning, really learning, that the things indicated by his educators are actually noble and enjoyable he needs to understand why they are so, in order to have the ‘unqualified knowledge or practical wisdom’ which is ‘the because’. He only has ‘the that’ which is the starting point. In order to let the person, who already wants to be virtuous, acquire ‘the because’ Aristotle in the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ gives a course in practical thinking.

 

At this point the importance of irrational components becomes clear, because a mature morality must also be ‘a matter of responses deriving from sources other than reflective reasons’. Aristotle thinks that feelings are intrinsic to human nature and very important in the fulfillment of virtue. In order to be effectively good we need to train them so that we can solely follow and even produce the good ones. Through knowledge, we need to create the ‘desire pursuing what reason asserts to be good’ which Aristotle calls ‘choice’.

 

In conclusion, we can’t be virtuous without the right upbringing. However, the right upbringing is insufficient. For the virtues to be really admirable we need to fulfill every step of the chain. Upbringing gives the right predisposition but the personal choice of virtuous fulfuillment is what is truly admirable.

 

Reference: Miles Burnyeat, ‘Aristotle on Learning to be Good’ in Amelie Rorty, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Is there a morally crucial sense of ‘consent’, and if so what is it?

In this essay I am going to analyse the concept of ‘consent’ in the paper called ‘Between Consenting Adults’ by Onora O’Neill. Consent, in moral terms, appears much more complex than it seems at first glance.

 

Consenting presupposes a choice, which in turn presupposes freedom. Freedom is an intrinsic property of human beings. Behaving morally means to respect people and to respect their ‘being human’. So, giving the possibility to choose means to respect the ‘humanity’ of the person -which can choose- and therefore behaving morally.

 

So, consent is essential in terms of morality. However, it is not always clear whether the consent is given with fully awareness and spontaneity. O’Neill goes through many different tricky cases of consent in order to give a broader framework of the concept of ‘consent’.

 

It seems pretty straightforward that consent means ‘the permission for something to happen or agreement to do something’ (New Oxford American Dictionary) however it is not clear what constitutes consent.

 

Consent usually occurs in legal and institutional contexts which seems the easiest way to explain it. However, ‘Even the clearest formulae of consent, such as signatures and formal oaths, may not indicate consent where there is ignorance, duress, misrepresentation, pressure or the like’. Ignorance, duress, misrepresentation, pressure or the like are all constraints.

 

Usually we think of coercion, which is the most evident constraint. However it is not the only form of constraint, because there are also other external factors, which limit the possibility of choice. For example, it often happens that a person is forced to opt for the least bad option, which does not necessarily correspond to the best one i.e. the one he would choose in a situation without constraints.

Actually, constraints can be of many different kinds. Constraints, which limit consent, are not only external but also internal. For example, if we consider ignorance, it is very hard to say whether it is an external constraint or an internal one. Even if a person is not facilitated in his education by his environment this person is still able to compensate his lack through independent studies etc. Therefore, in the end ignorance is an internal constraint because the person himself is responsible for it.

 

Actually, ignorance is not only lack of information in general, but it can be lack of knowledge of your own intentions/desires/needs. O’ Neill says that ‘by the standards of full rationality we are all impaired’. This leads to the extreme conclusion that sometimes we are not even fully aware of our own choices because we are not even aware of our own deep needs and desires. We do not have the right objectiveness.

A person close to you should rationally interpret your desires in order to fully rationally decide for you. This should happen if this person treats you as a person. ‘Treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simple as means, but always at the same time as an end’. (Formula of the End in Itself). So, this formula is not only restrictive –because it says what not to do- but also prescriptive- because it also says what to do-. Not using a person is not sufficient to treat this person as such. O’ Neill says that Kant says that treating a person as such is not only respecting his/her ends but also helping him/her in pursuing them.

 

The key is the right balance between respect and love (beneficence). ‘The principle of mutual love admonishes men constantly to come nearer to each other; that of the respect which they owe each other, to keep themselves at a distance from one another’. This means that it is good to act positively toward another person and helping him/her in pursuing his/her ends, but always in the respect of his/her spaces and independence in order not to override him/her. This should be applied to intimate relationships- to avoid manipulation and paternalism- but also at work. In fact, the love Kant talks about is more a form of solidarity than the love of a couple. Since we are all human being, we are all the same and all unique at the same time.

 

To conclude, the morally crucial sense of consent is that the person who consents to share someone else’s ends should be in the full possession of his/her human faculties and in the full freedom of exercising them.

 

Reference: Onora O’Neill, ‘Between Consenting Adults’, from Constructions of Reason, Cambridge: 1989, pp. 105-25.

Life and death

Is a meaningful life a valuable life? And is a valuable life a meaningful life?

 

Introduction.

 

In order to answer to both questions this essay will analyse i) the need for human beings to have a meaning in life, ii) the impossibility of reaching an ‘external point’, iii) the difference between ‘meaningful’ and ‘valuable’ and their correlation, iv) existential ‘meaningfulness’ v) love as a ‘middle way’ between ‘self-interest’ and ‘morality’ vi) the insufficiency of love vii) the Bipartite View viii) existential absurdity ix) the consequences of immortality x) fulfilment as the link between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ in life. In conclusion it will demonstrate that ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ are interdependent in respect to human life, therefore a meaningful life is also valuable and a valuable life is also meaningful.

 

  1. Human life and its need of meaning.

 

Life is the state of being alive. Therefore, life can be defined, in scientific terms, as the period of time during which any organism conducts its vital functions such as breathing, blood circulation, regulation of body temperature etc. Therefore, in biological terms, if creatures have a meaning in life it is to survive and to make the species survive through reproduction. The preservation of the species could be considered the only purpose of life, or not even a purpose, but more an instinct of all living things, human beings included. On the other hand, human kind is different from other species because it has the use of intellect, which permits him to, not only survive, but also to make his life meaningful in a deeper, more abstract and sometimes more enduring sense, if possible. Indeed, ‘what is ‘valuable’ in typical human individuals is ‘intentional agency’, which is broadly conceived as the capacity to have beliefs, desires and preferences and to act on them in order to achieve one’s goals’ (Bortolotti, 2010). On one hand, it seems as if life is so ephemeral and contingent, because it concerns a precise and relatively short period of time, that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to attribute a meaning to it. On the other hand, it seems somehow necessary to find a meaning to individual life as well as to life in general, because otherwise humans would not have any reason to do anything that goes beyond the mere primitive need to survive; they would therefore live as animals. That is why human beings are perpetually looking for purpose, point, significance, depth and value.

 

  1. The external point.

 

According to Nozick (1990), ‘the notion of reality has various aspects or dimensions. The dimensions specify the notion of reality by describing its aspects and these same dimensions also provide the criteria for evaluating each object’. In ‘The Examined Life’, Nozick (1990) considers both ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ as two of those ‘evaluative dimensions’, since they both provide criteria for evaluation. According to Nagel (1989), it is a human tendency to see (or try to see) oneself from an external point of view. Therefore it is a human tendency to apply the ‘evaluative dimensions’ of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, used to make up the notion of reality, even to oneself. However, it is not clear whether it is possible for a human being to reach this ‘external point’ in evaluating oneself -and one’s own life- and, if so, to what this external point corresponds. According to Nagel (1989), a complete ‘objectivity’ about oneself is not reachable, and that is why he defines this attempt as an aspiration to take a ‘view from nowhere’. ‘The real problem with the external point of view is that it cannot remain a mere spectator once the self has expanded to accommodate it’ (Nagel, 1989). This means, that, despite of its attempts, the ‘objective self’ of human being cannot transcend from the ‘subjective self’, because the two selves are part of the same self, two sides of the same coin; they are tightly linked. Therefore, since ‘the objective self’ cannot reach ‘the external point’, both ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, despite of their being ‘evaluative dimensions’, cannot be considered fully ‘external’, since the ‘evaluator’ is always the human being.

 

III. The difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’, and their correlation.

 

Despite of the fact that ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ cannot be considered fully objective evaluative dimensions, ‘value’ is somehow ‘more objective’ than ‘meaning’. Indeed, according to Nozick (1990), the main difference between ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ is that ‘we need not look beyond something to find its (intrinsic) value, whereas we have to look beyond a thing to discover its meaning’. For example, Nozick (1990) thinks that ‘to seek to give life meaning is to seek to transcend the limits of one’s individual life’. That’s why Nozick (1990) considers ‘value’ inherent and ‘meaning’ relational. This difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ comes from their ‘primary home’. ‘‘Meaning’ and its cognates have their primary home in the semantic domain’ (Audi, 2005), which is ‘interpretable’ since it concerns words, while ‘value’ and its cognates have their primary home in the ‘countable’ domain, such as the economic one. Even if they originally belong to different domains, when applied to ‘life’, ‘meaningful’ and ‘valuable’ often overlap and they both tend to coincide with the word ‘important’. That is why it is really difficult to draw a line between a meaningful life and a valuable life. Despite of this difficulty, this essay will attempt to clarify the relationship between a meaningful and a valuable life and demonstrate that they are interdependent.

 

  1. Is Meaningfulness applicable to life?

 

Considering the concept of ‘meaningfulness’ in general, it is necessary to give a definition of ‘meaningful’. ‘Meaningful’ means both ‘having meaning’ and also ‘having a serious, important, or useful quality or purpose’ (New Oxford American Dictionary).

 

  1. 1. Semantic meaning.

 

If we consider the first meaning of ‘meaningful’ we realize not only that it is not possible to give a fully satisfactory explanation of what meaning is, but also that ‘meaningfulness’, according to some philosophers, is not applicable to life.

The attempt to give a definition to ‘meaning’ inevitably leads to circularity. Since the word ‘definition’ means ‘a statement of the exact meaning of a word’ (New Oxford American Dictionary), the concept of meaning is already contained in the concept of definition of a word. Therefore, giving a definition of meaning, without having a prior concept of meaning seems impossible.

Moreover, even if it were possible to give a definition of meaning without resorting to the concept of meaning, it would still be unclear whether ‘meaningfulness’ is applicable to life. Indeed, ‘some philosophers have been suspicious of the very concept of the meaning of life’, since, according to them, ‘only linguistic or ideational signs have meaning; life is not such a sign; therefore, life has no meaning’ (Gewirth, 2009).

 

  1. 2. Existential meaning.

 

However, Audi (2005) has confuted this thesis, demonstrating that, even if it is difficult, it is possible to attribute ‘meaningfulness’ to life, in its second acceptation of ‘having a serious, important or useful quality or purpose’. According to Audi (2005), in order to consider a life meaningful, it is necessary to distinguish between ‘semantic’ and ‘existential’ meaningfulness. ‘Semantic’ meaningfulness, the one that has been previously analysed, concerns the literal meaning of words, while the ‘existential’ one concerns existence and is therefore the relevant one in the attempt of building an account of a meaning in life. Indeed, Audi (2005) focuses on the latter in his paper called ‘Intrinsic Value and Meaningful Life’. In both cases -semantic and existential- ‘meaningfulness implies that there is a way to make sense of the phenomenon in question, indeed to interpret it in some way’ (Audi, 2005). However, while words necessarily have at least one meaning, ‘a life can be meaningful even if there is nothing it means’ (Audi, 2005). This is what Audi (2005) calls ‘the paradox of existential meaningfulness’. That’s because, unlike for words, it is really difficult, if not impossible, to find just one meaning of life. On the other hand, there can be many things, which, depending on the person, make his/her life meaningful. Therefore, there can be meaning in life without necessarily a meaning of life: ‘while the meaning in life is conferred by elements, including activities of our own that are up to us, at least indirectly, the meaning of life is conferred either by God or by some cosmic or other force beyond our control’ (Audi, 2005). Therefore, it seems as if the meaning in life has a subjective value, because it depends on the individual interpretation, while the meaning of life has an objective value, because it depends on a universal scheme. At this point Audi (2005) introduces another distinction between metaphysical meaning and existential meaning so that the former can be associated to the meaning of life and the latter to the meaning in life. The ‘metaphysical’ meaning of human life is called such, because it is ‘meta’ i.e. ‘after’ -from Greek- the Physics; therefore it transcends what is physical or natural. According to the metaphysical meaning of human life, the individual is inserted into a grand scheme, something which is over and above, ‘larger’ than the individual, which is often associated with a divine force; the existential meaning, on the other hand, does not have the presumption of going beyond the natural realm, but it considers humans in their physicality. In conclusion, having said that it is possible to attribute existential meaningfulness to human life, keeping in mind all the distinctions mentioned so far, which will be useful for the rest of the essay, this paper will now focus on Wolf’s account of a meaningful life.

 

  1. Love as a ‘middle way’ between ‘self-interest’ and ‘morality’.

 

Assuming that it is possible to attribute meaning to life, a meaningful life is a life worth living. Therefore, the question to answer now is what it is that makes it so. According to Wolf (2010), ‘being prone to be moved and guided by reasons of love, when the objects of love are worthy, is the core of our ability to live meaningful lives’. Wolf (2010), in order to arrive at this conclusion, starts from an original division of perspectives, which offer people valid reasons to act: an egoistic perspective and an impersonal one. The former is related only to the individual, to his/her self-interest; the latter concerns the community, the universe. However, many times people do not act neither out of self-interest nor out of duty or any other sort of impersonal or impartial reason, but rather out of love (Wolf, 2010). Interestingly, love is not only considered as ‘love for particular individuals’, but also as love for certain fields, ideals, activities or things such as philosophy, music or flowers. In these cases, indeed, the reason to act lies ‘outside oneself’, but also, ‘outside other people’, it lies in the thing itself. For example, when writing her essay, Wolf (2010) says, it is the love for the essay itself which drives her, her desire to make it sound, solid, coherent, well structured etc. Therefore, the reasons of love are a valid alternative to the reasons of self-interest and impersonal or impartial reasons, such as those of morality.

 

  1. Love is not sufficient.

 

However, not all actions that are motivated and guided by reasons of love are justified, for two reasons, according to Wolf (2010). The first reason is that love for something or someone is no guarantee that a person knows what is actually good for it, so although he/she may act in order to advance the interest of the object of his/her love, his/her action may not actually be in its interest. People might spoil their child, overwater their plants, cramp their philosophical style. The second reason is that love can be misplaced or misguided; the energy and attention that people give to an object may be disproportionate to what that object merits. Therefore, according to Wolf (2010), in order to have a meaningful life it is not only important to act out of reasons of love, but it is also necessary that the objects of love (either a person or an activity) are worthy and that people interact with them in a positive and active way. So now the question is: how do we judge whether an object of love is worthy of love? There must be an objective standard. However, love seems antithetical to objectivity since it is an irrational and subjective intense feeling. One parameter to judge the worthiness of the object of love, according to Wolf (2010), is that it is ‘larger than oneself’. However, ‘larger’ than oneself cannot mean ‘of greater value’ because, in this case, a life devoted to the care of a single other individual cannot be considered meaningful, for the value of the one cared for is presumably just equal to rather than larger than the value of the person who cares (Wolf, 2010). Therefore, ‘larger than oneself’ is better interpreted as something ‘other than oneself’, something whose value is independent of and has its source outside of oneself (Wolf, 2010).

 

VII. The Bipartite View.

 

Wolf (2010) makes a distinction between the ‘Fulfilment view’, the ‘Larger-than-oneself view’ and ‘The Bipartite view’. According to the ‘Fulfilment view’ it does not matter which activities or objects one has the passion for, as long as fulfilment is reached. Since everyone finds his fulfilment in a different way, according to this view the meaning of life is totally subjective. The meaning depends exclusively on the person’s own interpretation; he/she creates his own meaning. However, this does not seem a plausible view, because it leads to the conclusion that, since the person’s inner states are the only ‘judges’, even a life dominated by activities that most of the people would be tempted to call worthless, can be considered meaningful, as long as it provides fulfilment to the person, or at least as long as the person thinks so. In order to prove the fallacy of this thesis, Wolf (2010) uses ‘Sisyphus’s life’, that is commonly treated as ‘a paradigm of meaningless existence’. According to the ancient myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a heavy stone up and down the hill in an endless cycle. Taylor (2000) suggests a ‘thought experiment’, according to which, thanks to a substance inserted in his veins by the gods, Sisyphus is fulfilled by his task. Therefore, if fulfilment is considered as a sufficient condition in order to have a meaningful life, Sisyphus’s life should be considered meaningful, after the insertion of the substance. However, this argument still does not seem correct, because there is the need of an objective parameter. That is why Wolf (2010) introduces the ‘Larger-than-oneself view’, according to which the object of love must be ‘independent’ of oneself, as previously said. The object of love must be intrinsically valuable, which means ‘valuable in itself’ and not in relation to something else. Unlike in the ‘fulfilment view’, according to the ‘larger than oneself view’, the meaning does not involve inner states of the person, it does not depend on the person’s beliefs, but rather on some items on the objective list, therefore it is discovered and not created. However, this last view is still incomplete, because it does not take into account the ‘fulfilment’ of the person, which, even though not sufficient, is a necessary element for a meaningful life. In the end, the most plausible view for Wolf (2010) seems the ‘bipartite one’, which is the union of the two previous views, because it states that ‘in order for a life to be meaningful both an objective and a subjective condition must be met: meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness’.

 

VIII. Absurdity as a result of the tension between objectivity and subjectivity.

 

However, this inevitably leads to the ‘irreparable’ tension mentioned at the beginning of this essay, between objectivity and subjectivity. Indeed, Wolf (2010) in her ‘Tanner Lecture II’ stresses the importance of an ‘objective component’ in giving an account of ‘meaningfulness’ in life, but she also states that she has no positive account of ‘non-subjective value’ with which she is satisfied. That’s because, as previously said, it is impossible for the human being to reach radically objective accounts -of value in this case-. That would require ‘the objective self’ to transcend entirely from ‘the subjective self’ in order to gain a fully external point of view. However, as previously said, this is not possible because ‘the objective self’ and the ‘subjective self’ are two ‘selves’ of the same ‘self’, two sides of the same coin, which are therefore inseparable. That’s why the ‘objective self’, which is perpetually trying to detach itself from the ‘subjective self’ does not succeed. The ‘objective self’’s attempt to detach itself from the ‘subjective self’ derives from its need to fuse with the universe. Its need to fuse with the universe, in turn, comes from the awareness of its ‘littleness’ compared to the ‘cosmic vastness’. Therefore, since the objective self does not succeed in reaching a completely external point of view and detach itself from the ‘subjective self’, it is still inevitably engaged in the particular contingent life by which the ‘subjective self’ is totally absorbed. Therefore, in the self there is a continuous tension between the ‘subjective self’, which leads towards a ‘blind self-importance’, and the ‘objective self’, which leads towards a ‘nihilistic detachment’ as a result of the awareness of the self’s ‘littleness’ in respect to the ‘cosmic vastness’. This juxtaposition is precisely what causes the absurdity of human existence (Nagel, 1989). Actually, the absurdity consists even in trying to answer the question to what it is that makes a life meaningful, since a human life is so insignificant compared to the rest of the universe. It can seem a ‘bourgeois indulgence’, a pastime of people who don’t have anything better and more important to do. Moreover, even if that is not the case, considering that ‘to seek to give life meaning is to seek to transcend the limits of one’s individual life’ (Nozick, 1990) and ‘transcending the limits’ is not possible, it would seem as if there are no possible solutions for human beings to give life meaning, a part from immortality.

 

  1. Immortality.

 

According to many philosophers, immortality is desirable, because the chances to give life a meaning would be infinite, since the temporal restrictions would be eliminated. On the other hand, the existentialists seem to have said that death was what gave meaning to life, if anything did, just because it was the fear of death that gave meaning to life (Bortolotti, 2010); therefore, eliminating death would consequently eliminate the meaning of life. However Williams (1973) does not go that far, he only analyses whether death is reasonably regarded as an evil or not. He reaches the conclusion that death should not be regarded as evil and that immortality is not desirable because it would inevitably lead to boredom or fragmentation. Boredom would be caused by the fact that everything that could happen and make sense to one particular human being had already happened to her/him, no matter whether the relevant life goals have been satisfied or not. The only way to avoid boredom seems to be the change of goals, but then the ‘radical shift of life goals’ would lead to fragmentation. Every change of goals and memories, caused by varied experiences, would correspond to a sort of ‘inner death’ so that the life of a person would then be decomposed into many different ‘mini-lives’ (Bortolotti, 2010). However, this would undermine the continuity of identity and the coherence of life goals that, according to Gallagher (2003), is a necessary element for a meaningful life (Bortolotti, 2010). In conclusion, William (1973), even without reaching the radical conclusion that the meaning of life is death, shows that death should not be regarded as evil and that immortality is not desirable. Therefore, immortality does not seem to be the right solution for ‘the absurdity’ of human existence.

 

  1. Fulfilment.

 

After having demonstrated that life is somehow ‘absurd’ and that immortality is not the right solution in order to give human life meaning, the only option available in order to maintain existential ‘meaningfulness’ in life is to find a link between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’, between the ‘subjective self’ and the ‘objective self’ and between the individual and the rest of the universe, finding the ‘objective element’ missing in Wolf’s account of a meaningful life. According to Wolf (2010), the ultimate reason why it is important to interact in a positive way with a worthy object of love is ‘fulfilment’. Considering fulfilment as a form of pleasure, pleasure seems to be both the cause and the effect of what is ‘meaningful’. Indeed, in order to have a meaningful life, it is important to go along with passion, or more in general to what gives pleasure, and also the result of doing that will be even more pleasure. However, it seems as if ‘pleasure’ cannot be the only measure of ‘worth’ of an action, because there can be activities which provide pleasure, despite of being of little value. That’s why Audi (2005) mentions ‘the Aristotelian principle’, according to which, ‘when other things are equal, we should prefer those experiences that engage our more complex faculties, especially our rational faculties-including the aesthetic- in virtue of which we are beings capable of thought and creativity’. Indeed, according to Audi (2005), the good things which make a life meaningful are: creativity and high-excellence; a substantial reduction in the suffering of others or (less clearly) to enhance their happiness; rich human relationships; pleasing God. Since this essay is taking into account only the ‘temporal’ life, without considering the potential existence of a God, ‘pleasing God’ will be excluded. On the other hand, the other three ‘things’ can be subsumed in Wolf’s definition of ‘love’, since love is intended not only in respect to other people, but also in respect to some activities. Also, the ‘Aristotelian principle’ can be applied in all three cases because there are not only activities, which are more ‘intellectually stimulating’ than others, but also people. Moreover, the first meaning of ‘fulfilment’, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary is ‘satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s abilities or character’. This highlights the fact that pleasure comes from the feeling of ‘completeness’, which can be reached only using not only the physical, but also the ‘intellectual’ faculties. Since using the intellectual faculties is universally considered valuable, it becomes clear that what is valuable is also what provides pleasure. Since meaningfulness is what is enjoyable and valuable, valuable is what is good and useful, and what is good and useful is also enjoyable, therefore enjoyment is the link between ‘meaningful’ and ‘valuable’. Therefore, despite of the individual differences, despite of the different interpretations of ‘meaningfulness’ in life, it seems clear that it is possible to find some objective parameters. Indeed, going along with passions and pleasures is good as long as it engages our rational faculties; love is what creates interpersonal connections in the society, when for people, what makes people improve, when for activities, what provides fulfillment and ultimately gives life meaning.

 

Conclusion.

 

In conclusion, a meaningful life is also a valuable life and a valuable life is also a meaningful life. This is because ‘value’ is like the ‘objective self’ and ‘meaning’ is like the ‘subjective self’. ‘Value’ and ‘meaning’, with respect to human life, are so tightly linked that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate them. Therefore, ‘the tighter the connection with value, the greater is the meaning’ (Nozick, 1990) and the tighter the connection with meaning, the greater is the value. Indeed, not only is a meaningful life valuable, because being valuable is necessary in order to be meaningful, but a valuable life is also meaningful, because being meaningful, which implies the enjoyment of the individual, is necessary in order to be valuable.

 

References

 

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Baird, R. M. (1985). Meaning in life: Discovered or created?. Journal of Religion and Health, 24(2), 117-124.

Bortolotti, L. (2010). Agency, life extension, and the meaning of life.

Burnyeat, M. F. (1980). Aristotle on learning to be good. Essays on Aristotle’s ethics, 69-92.

Dworkin, R. (1993). Life is sacred. The New York Times Magazine, 36-60.

Gallagher, S. (2003). “Self-Narratives in Schizophrenia,” in T. Kircher and A. David (eds.) The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Cambridge University Press, 336–57.

Gewirth, A. (2009). Self-fulfillment. Princeton University Press.

Nagel, T. (1989). The view from nowhere. oxford university press.

Nozick, R. (1990). Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Simon and Schuster.

Sanders, S. and Cheney, D. (1980) The Meaning of life: questions, answers, and analysis.

Taylor, R. (2000). Does life have a meaning?

Williams, B. (1973). The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. Problems of the Self, 82-100.

Wolf, S. (2010). Meaning in life and why it matters. Princeton University Press.