Correspondence vs. Metaphysics


Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber has a dissection of the latest latest battle between Rorty and the analytics. I’m neither schooled in nor particularly concerned with the vagueness part of things, but I do feel strongly about the Kripke-derived school of essentialism and metaphysics, and Rorty’s original review uses vagueness as more of a arbitrarily chosen example than as a special case. I’m not certain why Rorty chose it, since the study of what is and is not a “heap” isn’t as bewildering to common sense as certain other thought experiments, such as this one:

Consider the following version of the PMC taken from the writings of the Stoic Chrysippus. A man named Dion undergoes the amputation of his left-foot. Assuming that he is identical to his body, we may then ask: what is the relationship between Dion, the amputee, whom we shall call “Leon,” and “Theon,” the erstwhile aggregate of all of Dion’s body parts minus his left foot? Shall we say that it is Dion who is (has become) the amputee Leon, Theon having perished? Or is it Theon to whom Leon is identical, Dion having perished? A third option is that both survive the operation as the amputee. I believe that the third answer is the correct one.

Regardless of the greater implications that such study has on realism and philosophy of language, Brian points out that many of his colleagues have no interest in the larger issue. It seems undeniable to me that the issue is one of territory.

Some of the correspondents mention that Kripkean essentialism is a way to recover ground lost when Wittgenstein and then Quine attacked language correspondence, empiricism, and the analytic/synthetic distinction. This also seems undeniable in effect if not in intent. David Armstrong once said that he thought that in comparing early Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell (he had no interest in later Wittgenstein), he thought that Wittgenstein had gone in the wrong direction in emphasizing correspondence; Russell was the one who had it right metaphysically. My own biases prevent me from understanding this position; I stand by Wittgenstein’s critique of Russell’s weak correspondence theory. But it’s clear that Armstrong, and most likely many others, are concerned enough with what happens past correspondence that the issue itself is not especially important to them. Or, as Soames says of vagueness (among other things) in his response:

This enterprise is one of several in which analytic philosophers are forging ahead by replacing Rorty’s metaphorical question — Are the sentences we use to describe the world maps of an independent reality?
– with more specific, nonmetaphorical questions on which real
progress can be made.


But what is the definition of “real progress”? There’s no question that metaphysics has once again blossomed since Kripke, but aside from outliers like Davidson and Cavell, modern analytic work has had very little disciplinary overlap with other fields. As far as I can tell it has no interaction with its continental bete noir, nor much with literature these days.

One large area of overlap, however, is in the philosophy of mind, as neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists in artificial intelligence, and philosophers engage in long turf wars that often appear as though they’re talking past each other. Baumgartner and Payr’s Speaking Minds incisively portrays the dialogue of the deaf by giving each person their own chapter and letting the differences emerge. I disagree with the review at the above link when Cooper says:

Is it really necessary, for example, to include each interviewee’s description of the Turing test? Surely a singly quote from the original source (which is in any case included in a very useful glossary) would be sufficient.

I would argue that indeed it is, since the definitions vary! Daniel Dennett, Hilary Putnam, Joseph Weizenbaum, George Lakoff, Hubert Dreyfus, and John Searle all proceed from such wildly varying starting points that they hear the questions about building/simulating minds differently and respond in kind. The computer scientists and the neurologists have lower-level problems to solve and don’t want to be bothered with the hard stuff. Putnam and Dreyfus have bigger epistemological problems to solve before this piddling stuff. Dennett wants to define most of these problems of mind out of existence. Even where there appears to be overlap, then, it is commonly incidental.

Yet there has been real overlap between philosophy and cognitive science in ontology. Metaphysical ontological work has been very significant in the development of knowledge representation structures used in, for example, the CYC project, which has been building a large, general purpose repository of object relations and the like for over a decade. Brilliant people like John F. Sowa have worked tirelessly on such projects of ontological knowledge representation, and still I admit I’m skeptical that such rigorous semantics will yield as good results even as search engines do today. See Peter Norvig’s speech on this topic.


Yet clearly the ontologies have produced research with practical application; yet Sowa and others seem to owe more to Russell and Peirce than they do to the current batch of researchers. This is not to say that vagueness could not be used in knowledge representation ontologies; I’m saying that much of the progress being made no longer appears to link back clearly to “specific, nonmetaphorical applications”–rather, certain particular philosophical questions (free will, the mind-body problem, identity over time, “grue”-ness) appear to be spawning out further work at a rate that does not seem to allow for the cohesion that Soames believes there to be. That these questions seem to be based on a set of shared assumptions quite particular to their field gives me reason to pause.

There is always, however, room for epistemology; it undercuts other fields in a way that metaphysics can’t. This won’t make a case for people studying it, but the realms that were explored by Peirce and Russell seem to have been picked up as much by Godel (in the area of math and logic) as any modern analytic. But the epistemological questions have remained squarely untouched.

Personal, if I didn’t believe that language-reality correspondence was inherently paradoxical, and that it was the fundamental basis for so many other areas of study–sociology, psychology, literature, law, organizational structure–I don’t know what other problem would take the place of the huge void it would leave in my head.

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