[hist-analytic] Philosophy as Nonsense

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Mon Oct 10 18:44:44 EDT 2011

Thanks to Scott for his many interesting comments. At one point he says, 

"I actually don't really make much of a distinction between physics and 

Well, then we have a problem with ethics and aesthetics. If there is not distinction, then physics falls into philosophy and I don't think the physicists would go for this. As Bergmann once put it, something like: "Philosophy is not physics but there are windows." I think this is the best way to look at it. A philosopher can't claim to be a philosopher of science if he is unacquainted with mathematics; but a physicist can't claim to be a philosopher if he's unfamiliar with the issue of metaphysical realism, ethics, etc. 

When I raised the matter of "expert opinion" I was implicitly referring to the matter of meaning and scientific change. So that a term in science when operationally defined will receive additional or alternative such definitions. Since this is true the issue becomes one of discovering the basis of continuity, besides certain sociological facts about physicists and their use of words. There are a variety of things can be said, but consider this: When a physicist say 'water' (pointing to a glass of water) he means what the layman means (where meaning can be thought of as reference). If a layman point to an x-ray tube and says 'x-ray tube' I susepect he MEANS the same thing as the physicist. But 'electron' is a term of theory; it is conjectural and inferred from experimental measurements, 'coincidences' to use Schlick's appropriate terminology. But did Lorentz mean the same thing by 'electron' as Heisenberg? Or does a physicist who holds to a competing theory MEAN the same thing as his competitor when they use 'electron'? I think so, but here no such thing as informedness is at issue. So Scott's comments don't really address these issues, at least. 

As for 'continuty' of meaning, touched on by Scott, this is unresolved, and so asking a certain question can't really be a mistake or an error. A question may be bad, but rarely a mistake in the asking. I'm never so confident myself as to make this assertion when a question is asked. My experience is that attacking the question is a way of avoiding having to give an answer. Not so sure that is a good strategy in philosophy. Philosophy would have had a short history if Aristotle had thought so. 

Scott says: 

"The world is circumscribed by the limits of our understanding" 

Well, this is more or less Kant's view. Of course there are thngs "we don't know about" but I'm not sure how this argues the case for Kantian idealism. 

Scott says that philosophy does nothing else than show us a way of talking but since he doesn't distinguish physics and philosophy it follows that physics is nothing more than showing us a way of talking. I think we need more argument than is provided, given this assimilation, for his claim. 



----- Original Message -----
From: "Scott Holbrook" <scott.holbrook at gmail.com> 
To: Baynesr at comcast.net 
Cc: "hist-analytic" <hist-analytic at simplelists.co.uk> 
Sent: Sunday, October 9, 2011 6:18:06 AM 
Subject: Re: Philosophy as Nonsense 

"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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