[hist-analytic] Philosophy as Nonsense

Scott Holbrook scott.holbrook at gmail.com
Sun Oct 9 07:18:06 EDT 2011

"What is it about philosphy that would have us push against the limits
of our understanding? How does this differ from, say, physics pushing
the same limits?"

I actually don't really make much of a distinction between physics and
philosophy.  I think the division is more a product of the times than
anything intrinsic to either one.  It's only relatively recently that
the two have been considered distinct.  Newton and those guys called
themselves "natural philosophers."  Up until the early to mid 20th
century, there was extensive dialogue between philosophers and
physicists.  From my point of view, Physics, as a sub-discipline of
philosophy, chose to focus on certain types of questions (about the
natural world) as opposed to others (e.g., morality).  Turns out,
unsurprisingly, that certain methods of inquiry (empirical
investigation) work better than others in answering those questions.

Can a layman know what is being claimed by "There are electrons?"  I'm
not saying that laymen are clueless about it, only emphasizing the
importance of background.  In the American education system, everyone
is given some background regarding electrons and whatnot.  But, it
must be granted, a physicists thoughts about electrons are not the
same as those of a layman, without extensive training.  This is
because of their background.  When a physicists claims "There are
electrons" his claim is not the same as that of the layman.  At the
very least, the physicist can DO a lot more with his claim than the
layman can with his.  Likely, much of the description a physicist
would give on an electron will be very difficult to comprehend to a
layman without some sort of specialized training.  I don't see how the
two can possible mean the same thing by the claim.  At best, the
layman may be able to offload the intellectual work onto the
professional and say something like "What I mean by the claim, is
whatever a physicist means by it."  But this is hardly what the
physicist is claiming.  Deference to a community and participation in
that community are not the same thing.

I think it's a mistake to ask "How do we know when a thing has changed
to another thing (e.g., atoms of Democritus into atoms of Bohr).  This
seems to ignore the continuity.  With regard to this issue, I take a
somewhat neo-Kantian/Piercean view.  The Marburg School viewed objects
of Knowledge as an incompleteable "X".  Peirce says, similarly, that
(scientific) inquiry is on a converging path and calls that
convergence "truth."  This seems right to me.  Sometimes we may
jettison certain ways of talking, or certain aspects of ideas,
especially if such paths close off more expansive ways of increasing
the limits of our understanding.  Ways of speaking/ideas either prove
their worth (by opening new ideas) or fall by the wayside.  But
nowhere in this process, is there a "replacement" per se.  Bohr's
atoms don't replace Democritus' atoms.  They are different, but this
is because the atoms of Bohr add features to those of Democritus' that
are needed to open up new avenues thought.  To say Democritus was
"wrong" would be like saying your first move in a game of Chess was
"wrong."  Certainly, some first move are better than others, but
"wrong" doesn't really apply here (certainly not before the end of the
game, and even then, some endings may confer "wrong" whereas others
may not).

"Are the limits of our understanding circumscribed by the world; or
can our understanding consist in more than understanding the world,
the 'world' being, say, what can be figured using the concepts of
mass, distance, and time."

I want so say, "Of course not."  I'd want to say it's the opposite.
The world is circumscribed by the limits of our understanding.  Are
there things that "exist" that we don't know about?  No.  Are there
planets we haven't discovered?  Most likely.  Are there things in our
world that we don't understand.  Obviously.  Pushing the boundaries of
understanding is creative.  That is, it creates new objects of
understanding.  ("To discover" and "to create" are much more closely
related than is usually recognized.)  We bring things into existence
by creating language to speak about them.  I follow Carnap here: To
"exist" is to be an element in a linguistic framework.

"Doesn't philosophy do more than show us a way of talking? Isn't the
concept of justice, as far as concerns philosophy, more than talk?
Isn't action suggested by the conclusions we draw about justice."

No.  I don't think so.  But, to be fair, I don't anyone else does
anything more than talk either.  Is justice more than talk?  I'm not
really sure what it would mean to say "Yes."  Is it to say that that
there are just and unjust actions regardless of whether we've
formulate a language to describe actions as one or the other?  I'd
have to say no.  Was murder wrong before it was codified into law?
The question is mistaken...before it was codified into law, there was
no murder.  Sure, we can project back, from OUR point of view, and say
that certain actions would NOW be considered murder (and usually we
also mean that THEY should have considered it murder as well), but
this seems like another first move in a Chess game.  Is action
suggested by what we take "justice" to be.  Sure.  So what?  Is the
action suggested because we now recognize some "truth greater than
ourselves?"  Well, I'm also suggesting action when I ask someone to
"Shut the door."  I'm not sure what the "truth greater than ourselves"
would be in this case.  The problem I see occurring here, is that if
we say sometimes our language is getting at something greater, and
sometimes it is not, is that we'd now need a way to know which was
which.  My desire to have the door shut certainly seems "greater" to
me than the fact that thousands of years ago humans did things, that
we'd be punished for today, and were not, in fact, legally

"We paint a picture; and then paint a new one over it. Compare: "a new
way of talking.""

Well, the picture underneath still exerts its influence.  It affects
brush strokes, perhaps it affects color hues.  And, I presume, it
could always be uncovered at a future date.  This is really my point
from above.  "A new way of talking" doesn't mean "Replace the old."
This isn't a discreet process.  If I wanted, I could not paint over
certain parts of the picture and integrate them into the new one.  One
must always pay heed to what has gone before.  This is part of the
context in which we do the things that we do.  Part of the context
from which our words derive their meaning.  This is why certain
socio-economic classes ought not (at present), for example,  say
"nigga."  Granted, maybe they just wish to emulate rappers.  Perhaps
there is not a racist bone in their body.  It doesn't matter.  There
is a shared background, a shared context, a shared history from which
such things derive their meaning (meaning is a social phenomenon).  In
fact, this shared history is still exerting influence over all of us.
Effects from the past are still reverberating in the present.  This
picture has yet to be fully painted over.  There are still lots of
holes where the original comes through.  What's in your head (or
heart) is irrelevant to this.  They are in a given context that must
be recognized.

"If you take 'sense' in the way Frege does and assuming senses are
intensions, then how can philosophy be nonsense and provide a way of

It's been a while since I've read Frege.  All I really remember about
"sense" is that it's how the thing is presented to us.  So, perhaps,
the idea weighed heavily with me at the time, and, subsequently, I've
now sort of molded it it, added and took away some parts meshed it
with other things I've read and, possibly, lost the Fregean part in
the fray.  I can tell you that Wittgenstein, Carnap and some others
have had a heavy hand in this area of my thinking.  So, I'll have to
rain check you on this last question.

Hopefully, however, everything else provides enough controversy to
stimulate some good conversation.

"Conventional people are roused to fury by departures from convention,
largely because they regard such departures as a criticism of
-- Bertrand Russell

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