P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 111
25th October 2005
I. 'Critical commentary on Richard Rorty's Thought' by Herman J Pietersen
II. 'Johnson on Meaning: The great lexicographer's modern approach to meaning'
by John Dudley
III. J. Baggott 'Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of
Quantum Theory' Reviewed by Lawrence Trevanion
'Realism' is a term which has different meanings in different contexts. Even
within philosophy, there are strong disagreements about how and where the term
should be applied. In this issue, we have three examples of topics which hinge
in one way or another on the correct understanding of what it is to take a
'realist' view of a particular subject matter or discourse.
Herman Pietersen in his illuminating critique of Richard Rorty, points to
tensions within Rorty's broadly pragmatic approach to meaning and truth. Rorty
is seeking a radical alternative to the traditional realist view of truth as
'correspondence to fact' -- reality and the propositions which 'mirror' it --
but this proves to be a more difficult task than at first appears.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous for putting forward two very different accounts
of the nature of meaning. While Wittgenstein's early view of meaning was
strongly realist -- every proposition, however seemingly vague, has a precise
truth conditions, even when we do not grasp what these truth conditions are --
in his later work he rejected that view in favour of the doctrine of 'meaning
is use'. John Dudley draws a fascinating parallel with Samuel Johnson's great
Dictionary of the English language. Johnson started off with the idea of giving
precise definitions for every word in the language but then, like Wittgenstein,
realized that this ideal could never be achieved and the only way to explain
the meanings of words is to exhibit the typical ways in which they are used.
Lawrence Trevanion, in his insightful review of physicist Jim Baggott's recent
book on Quantum Mechanics, argues that there is more than one way of
understanding what it is to take a 'realist' view of the subject matter of
quantum mechanics. To accept that the world of subatomic phenomena is too far
removed from our ordinary experience to permit the application of models
derived from the behaviour of everyday objects is not to reject 'realism' about
the world of quantum phenomena, as Baggott thinks, but on the contrary requires
a more thoughtful, less naively realist approach.
Philosophy Born of Struggle is a two day conference, which takes place
on October 28 and 29 at the Wolff Conference Rook, 65 Fifth Avenue, New York.
The keynote address will be given by Prof Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr. of Vanderbilt
University, 'In Search of Critical Social Theory in the Interests of Black
Folks'. Amongst the many participants is Pathways contributor Munayem Mayenin,
author of 'Dehumanisation of Humanity'. The conference is free and open to the
public. More details can be found at http://www.pbos.com .
The Philosophical Society of England announces an Open Workshop on Fiction
and Reality: Aharon Appelfeld and the problem of Holocaust fiction, which
will be given by Professor Bernard Harrison on 29 October, 2.30pm at College
Hall, Malet St, London WC1 (opposite the University of London Union). All
welcome. Enquiries to: Michael Bavidge, 0191 2841223, email@example.com .
The 17 November is UNESCO World Philosophy Day. This year World
Philosophy Day will coincide with the beginning of UNESCO's 60th anniversary
celebrations, an added reason to take part in celebrating philosophy. On 17
November 2005, across the world, discussions will be in full swing. And as a
first 'World Day' is well worth celebrating, a special event will be organized
and hosted by the Chilean Government on on 24 November in Santiago, Chile, in
order to celebrate World Philosophy Day 2005. For more information on World
Philosophy Day celebrations in Chile, go to
(website in Spanish). For more information on celebrations in Paris and in
Member States, contact the Philosophy and Human Sciences Section, email
I. 'CRITICAL COMMENTARY ON RICHARD RORTY'S THOUGHT' BY HERMAN J. PIETERSEN
For a variety of reasons the name Richard Rorty has become prominent among
philosophers and non-philosophers alike, especially during the last two decades
of the 20th century. He is both a persuasive and controversial writer --
strongly appealing to some, but not to other thinkers. But, whatever one's
reaction to his philosophy, fact is that Richard Rorty is generally
acknowledged to be an extraordinary thinker and writer, with the distinction of
being one of the few contemporary philosophers who achieved eminence in both the
scientific and humanistic traditions (genres) of philosophical thought. No
serious scholar can afford to ignore Rorty's intellectual output, regardless of
his/ her own philosophical proclivities.
The present essay has the limited purpose of pointing to some controversial and
problematic elements in Rorty's philosophical corpus. It does not pretend either
to be comprehensive or conclusive -- merely illustrative of difficulties
experienced with some aspects of his philosophical writing.
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (hereafter PMN) Rorty states that:
'We must get the visual and in particular, the mirroring
metaphors out of our speech altogether.' (Rorty, 1979: 371).
Given the portentous appearance of this same metaphor in the title of the book
(and elsewhere in his work) and his prolific use of metaphor and analogy
throughout his writings -- after all this is what narrative philosophers do --
this demand is contradictory. It raises questions such as: How then are we to
regard Rorty's choice metaphor for this book? Also, where does the process of
censuring metaphors stop? Must vocabularies of description (language) now be
restricted to metaphors condoned on Rortian or some other neo-pragmatist
authority? How is this censuring to be reconciled with advocating liberal
democracy (also in the intellectual sphere)?
Furthermore, to propagate the notion of different vocabularies yet deny the
same privilege to those who prefer, say, a foundationalist vocabulary or the
Kuhnian-derived vocabulary of 'normal' discourse' also indicates an
3. Negative tendency
Rorty's writing shows a questionable attitude towards science -- at times
acknowledging the utility of its 'vocabulary' for humankind, yet on the whole
inclined to view the scientific way of understanding things (especially in its
philosophical guise, such as American analytical philosophy) with suspicion. He
takes a rather pugnacious stance toward the latter when he says that:
'Edifying philosophers can never end philosophy, but they
can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a
science' (PMN, 1979: 372).
A negative attitude towards scientism is well understood and shared by
many, the present author included. However, the vast majority of scientists
(and at least a core of analytic philosophers one may surmise) out there are
not misguided zealots, but dedicated and talented people, who arguably make a
difference that has cash-value in society.
Rorty's overriding antagonism toward the scientific mode of understanding could
therefore be regarded as inappropriate as is, in another context, the
evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' profuse and quasi-religious
apologetics for science. It is quite unhelpful and, in the end, merely
provides food for a psychological hypothesis that people who persistently make
strong (especially public) anti-authoritarian noises, may have a debilitating
problem coping with authority figures -- whether it be God, Science, Big
Brother, or whatever. If it's capitalized (such as in: Philosophy) it,
presumably, is a bad thing, period.
4. Utopian tendency
Richard Rorty's social philosophy is a philosophy that says:
'Hope -- the ability to believe that the future will be
unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than,
the past -- is the condition of growth' (Rorty, Philosophy
of Social Hope, 1999: 120).
Here he echoes the well-known Western and American humanistic credo of 'faith
in progress'; a future created by humans themselves, unaided by an Originator
(an Author) or some supra-force such Reason, God, or Tradition. This belief is
grounded in a thoroughly pragmatic and humanistic weltanschauung, the
belief that fundamentally no one else but we ourselves are masters of our
individual and collective destinies.
The similarity (at least in broad strokes) between Rorty's Philosophy of
Social Hope (hereafter: PSH) and the theologian, Jurgen Moltmann's
Theology of Hope, is also quite remarkable. In Rorty's case his 'Hope' is
for the 'Democratization of Philosophy' and of Society. In Moltmann's case it
is the 'Democratization of Theology', a theology that can be in service of
especially the poor and oppressed, the victims of undemocratic [read: Platonic]
regimes and societies. Both are historicist thinkers in the Hegelian mould, and
are overwhelmingly in support of and oriented toward the future, toward
becoming, toward a 'Kingdom on earth'. In fact, in his outline of eleven
theses of the 'humanistic intellectual' (PSH), Rorty himself draws the analogy
with social theologies. He writes:
'We humanistic intellectuals find ourselves in a position
analogous to that of the 'social-gospel' [e.g., Reinhold
Niebuhr] or 'liberation theology' [e.g., Gustavo Gutierrez]
clergy, the priests and ministers who think of themselves as
working to build the kingdom of God on earth' (Rorty, PSH,
Lastly, Rorty's strong affinity for the idealist-romantic era of 19th century
thought (of his admiration for Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, James) speaks
clearly in his concluding words:
'The utopian social hope which sprang up in
nineteenth-century Europe is still the noblest imaginative
creation of which we have record ' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 277).
5. Epistemic tension
In Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) Rorty holds forth on 'Science
without Method' and, inter alia, makes the following (and to the
scientifically trained) quite astounding statement:
'We shall not think there is or could be an
epistemologically pregnant answer to the question 'What did
Galileo do right that Aristotle did wrong?'... We shall just
say that Galileo had a good idea, and Aristotle a less good
idea; Galileo was using some terminology which helped, and
Aristotle wasn't... he didn't pick that terminology because
it was 'clear' or 'natural,' or 'simple,' or in line with
the categories of the pure understanding. He just lucked
out' (Rorty, 1982: 193).
But surely this is an evasive and weak answer. Furthermore, and since Rorty
introduces the comparison, on what ordinary grounds of reason (never-mind the
possibility of obtaining a currently non-existent, non-controversial,
master-epistemology) is Galileo's idea better than Aristotle's? Einstein's idea
better than Newton's? Or, how, and in what way was Galileo 'more lucky'?
Presumably it would here stretch the egalitarian ethos of Rorty's pragmatism
too far for comfort to provide any criterion other than the yardstick of
muddling through. [As an aside, Rorty's description of his philosophy as a
philosophy of muddling through is strictly speaking inappropriate -- the
expression 'muddling on' would be better suited. Reason being that
'muddling through' may also imply arrival, a reaching of a destination,
a final answer, that is contrary to at least the spirit if not letter of
Taking another tack -- if one focuses on the phrase 'epistemologically
pregnant' in Rorty's paragraph above, his comments could be seen as a
legitimate critique of philosophy's inability to say how science really comes
up with workable answers to what were previously unknown or mere guesswork.
Hence, perhaps, the falling back on: Galileo merely 'lucked out'. But although,
for the scientist, luck in some non-specific sense may play a role, it would be
highly questionable to suggest (by extension of Rorty's interpretation) that
the success of the whole knowledge endeavour is merely the result of scientists
having 'lucked out'. One might as well then say that all of Rorty's
philosophical work is the result of a mere 'lucking out' -- no research,
careful reasoning or intellectual craftsmanship being involved.
In Philosophy and Social Hope Rorty gives a justification of why
Darwinism is so important for his thought, yet denying at the same time that by
favouring Darwinism he is providing anything but just another re-description.
His deft narrative footwork is admirable, yet does not convince -- as in the
following paragraph, quoted in full:
'An evolutionary description of the development of
linguistic ability gives essentialist thinking no foothold,
just as an Aristotelian account of human knowledge leaves no
room for a Darwinian understanding of the growth of such
knowledge. But, once again, you should notice that it would
be inconsistent with my own anti-essentialism to try to
convince you that the Darwinian way of thinking of language
-- and, by extension, the Deweyan, pragmatist way of thinking
of truth -- is the objectively true way. All I am entitled to
say is that it is a useful way, useful for particular
purposes. All I can claim to have done here is to offer you
a re-description of the relation between human being and the
rest of the universe. Like every other re-description, this
one has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a
purpose' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 65/66).
One's first reaction is to say: 'Methinks the philosopher protests too much.'
Rorty is here interpreted as being under strain not to let a latent
(Darwinian-historicist) idealism ruin his nominalism. His writings show however
that (like previous pragmatists) he cannot do without the Darwinian-derived
promise/ expectation of 'brave' new vistas of human progress and growth. The
voluntarist (self-creating, bootstrapping personal freedom) thread in
pragmatism simply cannot do without evolutionist support -- it's part of the
same subjectivist-materialist intellectual package deal that glorifies an
anti-establishment, egalitarian, freedom and growth for all dispensation
A problematic aspect of Rorty's more political-reformist writing is the
apparently inexplicable separation of the public and private spheres of human
existence. It inevitably introduces a tension in his exposition, leading one at
times to wonder which of the two his philosophy is most concerned with. However,
a possible answer is to be found in considering competing elements in his
meta-philosophy -- that between the poetical-critical and political-ideological
modes of thought.
The former mode is typically concerned about and engaged with the individual
(private sphere), whilst the latter reflects a more transcendent (empyrean)
striving to work for the betterment of all humankind (public sphere),
collectively viewed. Although on the same, humanistic, side of the fence, there
are distinct differences in meta-orientation -- and the two modalities of mind
do not necessarily or always comfortably exist together. Among theologians one
is here, for instance, reminded of the quite distinctive differences between
Luther, the severe critic of the 'Old', Catholic order, and Calvin the
quite obsessive, reformer and organizer of the 'New' church of
Protestantism. In philosophy one finds the same sharp difference between
Nietzsche, the poet of a Zarathustrean anti-Christ, of the anti-Philosopher,
and Marx the action-orientated ideological thinker and social revolutionary of
the Communist Manifesto. All four figures mentioned here are, however,
'joined at the hip' in their opposition to scholastic and metaphysical (read:
In PSH Rorty, for instance, states that:
'The anti-essentialist has no doubt that there were trees
and stars long before there were statements about trees and
stars' (PSH, 1999: 58).
But this immediately raises the question whether Rorty can consistently be
depicted as a nominalist. If one says that one can think of and acknowledges a
world without or before humans -- that there were trees, rocks etc before/
without humans, then you're a realist and cannot credibly stick to the position
that the only reality is a 'social construction', or a 'linguistic awareness'.
Then you have Objects and Minds to contend with.
This perplexity about Rorty's nominalism remains when one further on again
comes across an attempt to account for both a realist world outside of us, and
a pragmatist view that all these are merely different vocabularies. He says:
'Pragmatists are not instrumentalists, in the sense of
people who believe that quarks are 'mere heuristic
fictions'. They think that quarks are as real as tables,
but that quark talk and table talk need not get in each
other's way, since they need not compete for the role of
What is There Anyway, apart from human needs and interests'
(PSH, 1999: 156).
Rorty's portrayal of (his preferred) role of the philosopher as the
'...informed dilettante, the poly-pragmatic intermediary between various
discourses' (PMN, 1979: 317) is problematic for his philosophy, a philosophy
that wishes to do without appeal to a criterion of truth. It raises the
question, again, on what basis, how, would the Rortian interpreter who
acts in this manner be able to function as 'intermediary' between various
(unique, different, even oppositional) discourses, without a more privileged
third position to adjudicate on these discourses?
Thus, Rorty's statement pre-supposes the very 'thing' (some common basis of
thought, or set of cognitive rules to enable one to compare and relate
different discourses) that he denies.
He states further that:
'Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are
compromised or transcended in the course of the
conversation' (PMN, 317).
But this raises the issue. What does Rorty mean by the term 'transcended'? Is
it 'transcend' as in two parties to discourse finding agreement in some higher,
better, position -- as in agreeing on a common position/interpretation?
In PMN he states that:
'The notion of an edifying philosopher is, however, a
paradox. For Plato defined the philosopher by opposition to
the poet' (Rorty, 1979: 370).
However, this can be regarded as true in the same way that the
pragmatist-existentialist Rorty defines the 'strong poet' in opposition to the
Analytic Philosopher. It highlights the umbilical cord between the two camps.
Hence, rational-scientific (Platonic) thought will always be 'parasitic'
upon doxa (mere opinion, perception, custom, superstition, sentiment,)
for its privileging truth claims. Vice versa, existentialist-humanistic thought
will always be 'parasitic' upon episteme (foundationalism) in attempting
to bootstrap itself into a privileging of non-privileging truth (Rorty's
edifying philosophy of conversation).
Herein lies an important indication of the fact that two main camps in the
history of philosophical thought simply cannot 'exist' without each other --
they form two indispensable sides of the intellectual coin -- as given in the
dynamic tension between but also complementary nature of philosophies of the
One (Platonism) and of the Many (Sophism). This presents us with the ancient,
ongoing and seemingly unbridgeable divide between thinkers.
There seems to be no escaping this dialectic. One cannot go further, there is
no Hegelian synthesis into 'Absolute Spirit' here -- only the possible danger
of disappearing into either a 'cloud of all-knowing' (dogmatism,
foundationalism, a mystical One) or a 'morass of never-knowing' (scepticism,
relativism, a mere passing parade of the Many). That is why, in the present
author's view, the center must be made to hold -- why both centrifugal and
centripetal forces are needed in human thought.
Two extremes should be avoided: the Rule of the One (absolutist/
totalitarian philosophies and ideas, complete determinism, immutability, the
nothing-but-this mindset) and the Rule of the Many (anarchic
philosophies and ideas, complete mutability, complete voluntarism, the
'everything goes' mindset). On either side of healthy (rationally justifiable)
conviction and healthy (rationally justifiable) doubt lies an abyss. Stated
differently, and in Rortian terminology, we must keep the conversation going.
In an interview with Stossel (1998) Rorty, perhaps unintentionally, makes a
meta-theoretical statement. His words are:
'There's no God, no reality, no nothing that takes
precedence over the consensus of a free people. What I like
about Dewey and pragmatism is the anti-metaphysical claim
that there's no court of appeal higher than a democratic
consensus.' (Stossel, 1998: 4).
But this in itself is a metaphysical 'utterance' -- an admission of a
metaphysic -- a 'ruling idea' or 'grand principle'. In Rorty's case it is the
ideal of an ongoing, and broad inter-subjective agreement among citizens on the
Kantian what is and, especially, what to do questions in life --
which he (Rorty) equates with democracy. It may be 'anti-metaphysical' in the
conventional anti-Platonic usage of the term, yet it clearly remains a
metaphysic (and quite utopian at that) given the practical difficulties in
getting people to obtain consensus often on the most trivial of issues.
Finally, Rorty's evasiveness concerning rationality is also commented upon by,
for example, Bernstein (1990) and Blackburn (2001) who wish to remind Rorty
that there is still a generally accepted and very useful distinction between
'better' and 'worse' reasons in a moderate epistemological sense, and that he
himself does not consistently escape using a weaker form of rationality himself.
6. Concluding remarks
It may be concluded that whilst Rorty successfully debunked the scientistic
pretensions, and showed the increasing public irrelevance (outside academia),
of Russell-inspired Analytic philosophy in the contemporary intellectual
marketplace, his own philosophy is not without some troubling and contradictory
Bernstein, R J (1990) 'Rorty's liberal utopia', Social Research, Vol.
57, Issue 1, p31,
Blackburn, S (2001) 'The Professor of Complacence', New Republic, Vol.
225 Issue 4518, p39
Rorty, R (1979) 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature', Oxford, London:
Rorty, R (1982) 'Consequences of Pragmatism', New York: Harvester
Rorty, R (1999) 'Philosophy and social hope', London: Penguin.
Stossel, S (1998) 'A conversation with Richard Rorty', The Atlantic
(c) Herman J. Pietersen 2005
II. 'JOHNSON ON MEANING: THE GREAT LEXICOGRAPHER'S MODERN APPROACH TO MEANING'
BY JOHN DUDLEY
Beguiled as they were by the comparative method in
historical linguistics, nineteenth century philologists and
lexicographers were so focused on the reconstruction of
morphological and semantic changes that they had little
energy left to address the question of what word meaning
actually is. In this sense, Johnson, for all his instinctive
conservatism, was a radical thinker two hundred years
ahead of his time. He addressed the central issues of
lexicography, shed light on the nature of language, and
illuminated our understanding in ways which we can still
salute with gratitude.
These words were uttered by Patrick Hanks in concluding the Johnson Society of
Lichfield's Annual Lecture on 2 March 1999. They serve as a suitable prologue
to these observations, which have been written as a brief personal celebration
of the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary
of the English Language. Hanks's lecture was entitled Samuel Johnson and
Modern Lexicography and for those interested in such things it is an
invaluable resource. Johnson's massive contribution to lexicography is revealed
in a masterly fashion.
I shall draw on some of Hanks's insights to make my own observations. A further
prop for these observations is my belief that Johnson's approach to meaning was
similar to that of Ludwig Wittgenstein. These two men lived two hundred years
apart and worked with different purposes but, to my mind, they identified
similar problems with word meaning. To a degree their solutions to these
problems were similar. They both moved from an attempt to fix meaning -- to
make the meaning of all terms unambiguously clear -- to a position where it was
clear that, for large areas of human discourse, meaning could only be found, in
many cases, by referring to the context in which a particular word is spoken or
Before he started out on his great undertaking Johnson's approach to his
lexicography seems to have been coloured by a fashionable desire, which was
prevalent in the first half of the eighteenth century, to make the English
language as it were 'respectable'. The French, for example, had produced Le
Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francaise in 1694 but English still full of
'wild and barbarous jargon' as Johnson first put it, had no such badge of
honour. Johnson, in his Plan of an English Dictionary (1747), speaks of
fixing the language:
...since one great end of this undertaking is to fix the
However as one reads the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language
(1755) one realises that Johnson's views had changed in the years he spent
compiling it. Faced with what he calls, 'the boundless chaos of living speech'
he no longer concerned himself with fixing the meaning of words but with
explaining them. As Hanks points out (p27H) Johnson's choice of the term
'explanation' rather than 'definition' for what he was doing is very
significant. Johnson was no longer intent on looking for certainty in the
fixedness of a definition: he was looking at the meanings of words as they were
actually being used.
Hanks, points out that Johnson developed techniques for dealing with the
dynamism of language. Many of these techniques are still in use today. A few
examples are: lexical creativity (use of diminutives etc), compound words,
phrasal verbs (e.g. take -- on, off, in). This was the first time principles
such as these had been developed and applied rigorously in English
lexicography. Today they are still applied. Thus Johnson's Dictionary
has a modern feel to it albeit his examples are far more lengthy than the those
of modern dictionaries. For example:
Johnson (1755) (eight meanings) (Four examples in some
FAIRLY. adv. [from fair] 1. Beautifully: as a city fairly
situated 2. Commodiously; conveniently; suitably to any
purpose or design Waiting till willing winds their sails
supplyd, Within a trading town they long abide, Full fairly
situate on havens side. Dryden 3 Honestly; justly; without
shift, without fraud; not foully 4 There is due from the
judge to the advocate some commendation and gracing where
causes are fairly pleaded. Bacon 8 Completely; without any
deficience.(sic) All this they fairly overcame by reason of
the continual presence of their king. Spens. State of
Compact Oxford (2003) (three meanings):
Fairly Adverb 1 with justice. 2 moderately. 3 actually;
But how did Johnson arrive at this method of dealing with meaning?
He seems to have met with very similar problems to those met by Wittgenstein
although they both started from different standpoints. Johnson was concerned
with the meaning of words; his approach was empirical. He went word by word as
it were. Wittgenstein first approached meaning with a theory, known as the
picture theory of meaning. He outlined it in his Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus (1922). He then applied this theory, as it were, to
the world, or at least the world of language.
One finds that Johnson, in his preface, moved from the concept of fixed
definitions to explanations of how a word is used. However, even this more
realistic perspective produced more difficulties for Johnson to resolve:
To explain requires the use of terms less abstruse than
that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always
be found; for as nothing can be proved but by supposing
something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so
nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to
admit a definition. p315 
He addresses here a basic problem of meaning which is that, at some point, the
explanation of what a word means is unsayable. At this point something has to
be assumed or taken for granted or even pointed to. Some part of meaning seems
to depend on intuition. (Or it might even depend on something innate. Johnson
however never approaches the conflict between the concepts of innate ideas and
empiricism.) Having noted the problem he proceeds empirically.
He describes it further:
This uncertainty of terms and commixture of ideas is well
known to those who have studied philosophy with grammar;
and, if I have not expressed them very clearly, it must be
remembered that I am speaking of that which words are
insufficient to explain. p317
Johnson's way round the difficulty was to exemplify the use of the words.
Indeed this becomes the main theme of his preface. The mode of selection, the
authors to be used, the chronology -- Johnson spends many pages on these and
other issues -- but, quite early on, the basic method is revealed:
The solution of all difficulties, and the supply of
defects, must be sought in the examples subjoined to the
various senses of each word, and ranged according to the
time of their authors. (P.318)
Which is to say that in order to supply the missing dimension of meaning to the
list of words in the dictionary the only way to go is to exemplify the way the
word is used. This meant of course that some words would have many
explanations. One is strongly reminded of a Wittgensteinian aphorism from
3.3 Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a
proposition does a name have meaning.
Thus we have a very similar sentiment. Wittgenstein was also trying to fix
things. In fact he was trying to tidy up philosophy; philosophical problems
were to be things of the past. His picture theory of meaning, as developed in
the Tractatus, was intended as the solution to the problems of word
meaning. The world was pictured in words. Each word in a sentence stood for a
bit of reality. The way the words related to each other reflected the way the
objects in the world related to each other. There are a number of flaws in this
position. Most obvious of course is the assumption that the logical form of
propositions in language is isomorphic with the physical relationship of
objects to each other in the real world. Wittgenstein nowhere presents
arguments to support this assumption. Unfortunately the deceptively simple
approach of the picture theory masks other weaknesses. Wittgenstein admitted a
further difficulty towards the end of the work:
4.1 Propositions represent the existence and non-existence
of states of affairs.
4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of
natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural
4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The
word 'philosophy' must mean something whose place is above
or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)
And so all sentences (propositions) except those of natural science are ruled
out of court. The obvious conclusion is that all other sentences are
meaningless. But of course they are not. Wittgenstein's comment on all this?
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence
And so both men had come to the conclusion that there was something about the
relationship of words to meaning, of language to meaning, that resists
description but which can only be exemplified.
Wittgenstein, in his later work, turned to look at language use in human
discourse in Philosophical Investigations (1953) but he had already
commented in the Tractatus on the difficulty of using language to analyse
itself. He summarised the position cogently thus:
4.121 ...What expresses itself in language we cannot express
by means of language...
In his own way Johnson wrestled with similar difficulties:
To interpret a language by itself is very difficult; many
words cannot be explained by synonyms because the idea
signified by them has not more than one appellation; nor by
paraphrase, because simple ideas cannot be described. P315
For both men the way out of the difficulty lay in looking at the way words were
actually used. As noted previously, Johnson turned to the use of examples. How
did he select them? He describes his criteria in the preface. He decided, for
better or worse, to select his meanings from the pantheon of English literature
and from experts in the growing fields of science, engineering and industry.
After setting his earliest boundary for the selection of his examples at the
time of the poet Sidney (1554-1586) Johnson outlines and defends his selection
of authors. He notes in passing that his selection of meanings is certainly not
universal and that 'many senses have escaped observation'.
Wittgenstein reached similar conclusions to those of Johnson. At one point he
43. For a large class of cases -- though not all -- in
which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus:
the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
He thus points to the crucial role of the social context of the language as
providing the key to word meaning. The key to meaning is the way we use
language in the world.
Wittgenstein developed two inter-linked conceptions to explain the way language
works. One was the notion of language games. The other was that of public forms
of life. A language game is the characteristic language employed in a
particular social context. These social contexts are the forms of life.
Wittgenstein's examples include: giving orders and obeying them, reporting an
event, play acting, making a joke, solving a problem. In other words we learn a
particular way of behaving and speaking in a myriad variety of social contexts.
These are the bits of meaning which defy analysis. This is why a word can have
different meanings. On this basis the context supplies the cues to establish
the bits of meaning that can be shown but not said.
226. What has to be accepted, the given, is -- so one could
say -- forms of life.
He elucidates the position further in the following:
241. 'So you are saying that human agreement decides what
is true or what is false?' -- It is what human beings say
that is true and false: and they agree in the language they
use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.
This is a significant advance from the picture theory. We learn words. We
master the various language games. We learn how to apply different word
meanings in different language games. We apply an appropriate meaning from the
definitions at our disposal. Our knowledge of our language games we have the
tools to interpret what is meant in the various forms of life.
In his preface to his dictionary Johnson alludes frequently to the shifting
nature of language, to the dynamism of semantic change and to the hopeless lot
of the wretched lexicographer but he makes a point not dissimilar in tone to
that of Wittgenstein:
...it must be remembered that while our language is yet
living, and variable by the caprice of everyone that speaks
it these words are hourly shifting their relations and can
no more be ascertained in a dictionary than a grove in the
agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its
picture in the water. (P 316)
And he too arrives at a very similar conclusion. The way to elucidate meaning
is to see how the word is used. The best way to do this is to see how it is
used in a sentence. The following quote from Johnson's Preface has a
remarkable resonance with many later Wittgensteinian observations:
It is not sufficient that a word is found unless it be so
combined that its meaning is apparently determined by the
tract and tenor of the sentence. (p.320)
Clearly he too thought that the meaning of a word could only be made clear by
its use in the language. On this basis he developed principles to help him in
his work and which proved so successful. Quite an achievement!
The general image of Samuel Johnson in the public mind, if such an entity still
exists, seems to be composed elements of the bluff Englishman or a sort of
academic John Bull full of wise words and argument. This image stems from some
of the better known biographies such as those of Boswell and Macaulay. But the
Johnson of the Dictionary of the English Language was far more than
this. He was a first class thinker who identified and grappled with problems
and issues surrounding word meaning which were also identified by one of the
greatest philosophers of the twentieth century -- Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Johnson's solutions to these problems led him to establish some working
principles in lexicography, which, as Patrick Hanks has indicated, have been
used ever since.
I therefore salute the memory of this great man of Lichfield and his
marvellous Dictionary of the English Language. He was far more than his
own definition of a lexicographer -- 'a harmless drudge' (although implicit in
the phrase are the long hours of grinding work) -- he was an incisive
pragmatist whose acumen raised English lexicography to a new level. In
concluding I therefore echo the sentiments of one of his Idler essays:
He that has improved the virtue or advanced the happiness
of one fellow- creature, he that has ascertained a single
moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to
natural knowledge, may be contented with his own
performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may
demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with
I think that the applause, which has greeted his dictionary down the years
right up to the present day has been a proper response to a great achievement.
1. HANKS, PATRICK (1999) Samuel Johnson and Modern Lexicography, Transactions
of the Johnson Society 1999, p39. [All further references to this work will be
by page number and the letter H in the text]
2. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1747) The Plan of an English Dictionary, Electronic Text
Version, professor Jack Lynch's Site http://
3. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , translated by
PEARS, D.F. & McGUINNESS, B.F. (1961) Routledge &Kegan Paul, London and Henley
[Further references by paragraph number and the word Tractatus in the text]
4. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1755) A Dictionary of the English Language -- Preface in
GREEN, D. (ed.) Samuel Johnson Oxford Authors, OUP (1984) Oxford and New York
[All further references to this work will be by page number and the word
Preface in the text)
5. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1953) Philosophical Investigations Trans, ANSCOMBE,
G.E.M.& RHEES, R. Basil Blackwell Oxford (repr 1978) [Further references will
be by paragraph number and the words Philosophical Investigations in the text]
6. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1759) The Idler, No 88, The Limitations of Human
Achievement in GREEN, D. (ed.) Samuel Johnson Oxford Authors, OUP (1984) Oxford
and New York
(c) John Dudley 2005
III. J. BAGGOTT 'BEYOND MEASURE: MODERN PHYSICS, PHILOSOPHY AND THE MEANING
OF QUANTUM THEORY' REVIEWED BY LAWRENCE TREVANION
Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory
J. Baggott, Oxford University Press 2004.
Jim Baggott tells us in 'Beyond Measure', his latest book on the philosophy of
quantum mechanics, that (p287),
'...no matter where we start from, we always return to the
central philosophical arguments of the anti-realist versus
The realist, we are told, is the loser in this argument because (p287),
'...any final plea for an independent reality is really an
appeal to faith, in the sense that the realist must
ultimately accept the logic of the anti-realists' argument
but will not be persuaded.'
Baggott describes himself as a realist and so his use of the word 'faith' is
not disparaging. He subsequently writes (p288),
'Like all acts of faith, the search for an independent
reality involves striving for a goal that can never be
reached. This does not mean that the effort is any less
worthwhile. On the contrary, when free of the straitjacket
of dogma, it is through this process of striving for the
unachievable that real progress in science is made.'
He seems to be affirming unshakeable, irrational realism. Yet, by contrast, he
speaks strongly against 'dogma' and 'unquestioning acceptance' with respect to
the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Baggott also tells us (p203),
'It is in the nature of theoretical science that there can
be no such thing as certainty. A theory is only 'true' for
as long as the majority of the scientific community
maintain a consensus view that the theory is the one best
able to explain the observations.'
This remark does not bear close scrutiny but we get the gist i.e. we cannot be
absolutely certain that a scientific theory is true.
Baggott adopts the posture of a tour-guide. He tells us, belatedly, that he has
tried to argue (p287),
'...for all the different positions described in this book
with something approaching equal force.'
This makes his discussions on the relationship of quantum theory to god theory
and consciousness theory and free-will theory seem undiscriminating and out of
character with the general quality of the book.
The quotes I have given above do, I think, represent the author's own voice.
They are very similar to Einstein's as presented on p115. Nevertheless, we may
conclude that Baggott is very confused: he is both dogmatic and anti-dogmatic;
he appears to be more certain of his own notion of realism than he is of
powerful scientific theories; and although he describes his realism as an
essential inspiration for science he pessimistically tells us it is
It is my view that Baggott's realism is representative of the twentieth
century. We can find in it, I think, the reason why twentieth century
scientists and philosophers found quantum mechanics so incomprehensible and
hence why Feynman wrote in 1965 (quoted p287),
'I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum
The central question, therefore, is what is realism? The most precise
definition of reality given by Baggott is that of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen
1935 (quoted p131).
'If, without in any way disturbing a system, we can predict
with certainty (i.e. with a probability equal to unity) the
value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element
of physical reality corresponding to this physical
This definition is not intended for philosophical application as it only
progresses us from 'physical quantity' to 'physical reality', and 'physical'
itself presumably implies reality. Apart from the issue of knowing about
systems without disturbing them, which Baggott discusses, there is also a
problem with the requirement of absolute certainty because such certainty is
generally not claimed in scientific theory or measurement.
The aim of definition is to reach a secure understanding. In the case of
'reality' there seems no basis for much refinement for it is both widely used
and philosophically murky. We say something is real in contrast to saying it is
illusory or imaginary. The world around us is real. Solid objects are real.
Liquids and gases may seem decreasingly real and light may seem miraculous. We
understand that we apprehend the real by virtue of phenomena that mediates from
objects to the object that is ourself, light for vision, sound for hearing etc.
We understand that this apprehension has no effect on what is observed except
that we, the observer, are also an object and real. Consequently we understand
that the real persists regardless of whether it is observed or not. (Here is
not the place to discuss arguments to the contrary.)
It follows that because our apprehension of the real is mediated it cannot be
ideal -- perception cannot be perfectly or completely informative of objects.
Perception is less effective to the extent that the mediating phenomenon
disturbs what is observed or damages the observer. Vision is our most powerful
sense for recognising objects. When we imagine objects we do so visually.
Vision is so powerful that we use a word from vision for imagining and we
hardly notice when we say we can imagine hearing, feeling, smelling or
It is my view that the world of seen objects, complemented by touch, is what
most powerfully informs Baggott's (and almost everybody's) notion of the real.
Consequently, although we understand that objects exist regardless of whether
we see them or not, such an understanding requires us to imagine these unseen
objects. This we do, quite literally, by producing an image (or 'ghost-image'
perhaps). This is a philosophical argument about how we conceive of the real
and it is, I think, a critical point of difference. Baggott would, I think,
distinguish objects as we experience them from the objects themselves whereas I
would emphasise that we have no notion of objects except as we experience them.
Baggott would argue that the real is independent of our experience of the real
whereas I would argue that our notion of a real independent of our experience
is nevertheless conceived in terms of our experience.
I understand Baggott to be separating the real from our experience of the real.
This is the reason his realism is unrealisable and is inaccessible except to
faith. And to him, the real underlying our experience is the same real that
underlies quantum mechanics. The apparent inconsistency of quantum mechanics
with our experience, therefore, is for him a serious problem and any
accommodation of that inconsistency is to him anti-realist.
I would argue that we conceive of the real underlying our experience in terms
of our experience. When we analyse the real we are also delving into the
mechanism of our own perception, a mechanism that we have no means of
perceiving. (We might write 'mechanism' to mark that this is a metaphor from
our experience of objects.) For example, we see objects because of light. The
seeing of light itself is impossible in principle. Light is not see-able and so
trying to imagine it involves an inconsistency in principle. As it is
there is no coherent way of visualising light in practice and this is what we
I would argue, therefore, that when we analyse the real to arrive at quantum
mechanics we go beyond our experience in principle and hence beyond our notion
of the real. There is no reason to suppose that our concept of reality should
be mirrored in quantum mechanics i.e. that the analysis should lead us back to
where we started from (or according to Baggott's conception, to never depart
from it). We do not look through a microscope to discover a world where
microscopic microscopes can be made; and look through these to discover a world
where micro-micro-microscopes can be made. This is the equivalent in physics of
the regressive homunculus in reproductive biology.
Baggott, of course, does not support the view that the quantum world should
somehow be a microscopic version of our own. Rather, we may understand him as
wanting to include quantum mechanics into the diversity we find in the world
that we experience so that quantum mechanics conforms to the principles of that
diversity -- the notions of space and time perhaps. He understands the world of
quantum mechanics to be part of the real rather than arising from the analysis
of the real. He is seeking, in effect, some features of the world, as we
experience it, that persist under analysis.
The failure of quantum mechanics to fit into this scheme leads him to regard
the current interpretation of quantum mechanics as anti-realist and he promotes
the idea that we should fix this problem by finding better principles. We have
suggested that Baggott falsely tries to conceive (i.e. imagine) a real
without reference to experience. We now suggest that he abstracts the real into
principles but finds these principles to be inadequate. We may characterise his
real as the desire to find principles that unify our understanding of the world
around us with the 'world' we find under analysis. It is a quest, in effect, for
a regressive explanation and it is for this reason that his realism is probably
best termed 'regressive realism'.
Baggott describes his realism as unachievable and requiring faith. I, also,
would describe it as unachievable, but I reject the notion of unaccountable
knowing suggested by the word 'faith'. Our recognition of the real is not
unaccountable -- it is conceived in terms of our experience. Baggott thinks his
realism is an ideal to which we should aspire. I would argue that the 'world' of
quantum mechanics cannot be understood as real and attempts to do so are
regressive and futile. I would argue that Baggott's realism fails to respect
the means by which we comprehend the real and I would assert, therefore, that
it cannot guide us toward a deeper comprehension of the real.
If quantum mechanics is consistent with our experience of the world, which it
appears to be to a profound degree, then it should be regarded as a realist
theory for this reason. It cannot have a realist interpretation of its entities
in the sense that these entities can be visualised or otherwise conceived of as
objects because such entities are beyond our experience in principle -- they
are unperceivable by us and cannot contribute to our notion of the real. We may
analyse a rock and find it is made up of smaller pieces of rock. It is only when
we find something different in this process of splitting that any explanation
becomes available to us. We ought not to be surprised that light cannot be
visualised. We ought not to be surprised that our analysis of the real leads to
the unreal. This does not mean the quantum 'world' is inaccessible to reason and
it need not see quantum mechanics degenerating into 'senseless empiricism', as
Einstein feared (quoted p115).
The reasonable approach to adopt is to abandon the futile quest for a
regressive explanation of the real and instead to recognise that the real is
our only tool for analysing the real, obviously in an experimental sense but
also conceptually. The development of quantum mechanics from combining particle
mathematics (from solids) with wave mechanics (from fluids) and interpreting it
in terms of the mathematics of probability illustrates this process at work.
Vision, in providing us with our concept of the real, naturally enough, is a
powerful tool for analysing the real. If it were not such a powerful tool it is
doubtful we could analyse the real at all. But just as we should not
over-emphasise vision and expect the quantum world to be visually real nor
should we under-estimate it.
There is not a sharp transition from the world as we experience it to the
quantum world. (As I understand it, quantum mechanics comprehends this
transition very well.) We can indeed see smaller and smaller pieces of rock, in
principle at least, and there is not a point at which seeing is no longer
possible, rather the picture becomes less coherent as we reach to the atomic
scale. Atoms cannot be seen in principle but it may be satisfactory to argue
that their closeness to the scale of visible objects is the reason
visualisation in chemistry is so effective. Whatever the case, if visualisation
leads to effective exploration then this is justification enough.
This philosophical look at quantum mechanics has not returned us to the debate
between the 'anti-realist versus the realist'. Rather, we have argued that
Baggott's realism, the realist view of the twentieth century, is poorly
conceived. We have argued that quantum mechanics cannot be understood in terms
of this realism, which is to say that quantum mechanics has been
incomprehensible because we have tried to comprehend it in the wrong way. I
have argued that the way forward is to deliberately and creatively use the real
as a resource for analysing the real without concern for the unreality that may
result. The twentieth century development of quantum mechanics is an example of
this process at work. One may optimistically suggest, therefore, that a
generalised understanding of this process may lead to as yet undreamt of
comprehension of the real, progress that is not driven by unrealisable faith
but by confident understanding. It is amusing to think that humanity may still
be in its conceptual childhood, or, in the language of biology, that humanity
has only just begun to explore the conceptual niche.
This is the conclusion of this review except for a very brief discussion on
Baggott's notion of truth, which I would argue is also representative of the
twentieth century. This is an issue that is not specific to quantum mechanics
but concerns science generally.
Baggott distinguishes between true and 'true'. He tells us
scientific theories are 'true' because we cannot be absolutely certain
they are true. We may understand him to be saying that it is useful to
regard scientific theories as true but that they might nevertheless
be false. Baggott does not deal with this issue explicitly and he takes
it for granted that we understand what he means by true. I would
expect him to regard mathematics as the model of true statements and
would expect him to say mathematical statements are either true or
false but never 'true' or 'false'. He would say, I think,
that 1+1=2 is true within the traditional system of numbers and when
applying this mathematics to counting apples would say 1 apple + 1 apple = 2
apples is 'true' (because the scientific theory that might say, 'Taking
one object and then another object means we have two objects' is only
In mathematics, however, statements are evaluated according to the mathematical
system in which they appear and we may use the terms consistent and
inconsistent in place of true and false. (These systems are
generally so precise that they can be mechanised!) The mathematical system
itself is not true or false as such. It is just a system. Our
evaluation of a mathematical system is likely to be in terms of its usefulness.
This means that the issue of truth can be removed from mathematics entirely. If
mathematics is the model of Baggott's truth, and I think it is, then we
may assert that there is no truth, only 'truth'.
Baggott might not quite agree for he writes of Godel's 'incompleteness theorem'
'Such undecidable propositions can, however, be proved
'informally' through so-called meta-mathematical arguments
outside the axiomatic structure.'
This suggests he sees the possibility of mathematical proofs outside axiomatic
structures, which is odd given the trouble mathematicians take to embed proofs
in axiomatic structures. His use of 'informally' and 'so-called', however, does
not suggest much confidence and he is much less assertive than Godel himself:
'From the remark that [R(q);q] assets its own
unprovability, it follows at once that [R(q);q] is correct,
since [R(q);q] is certainly unprovable (because
undecidable). So the proposition which is undecidable in
the system PM yet turns out to be decided by
Perhaps, at last, there is declining confidence in Godel's 'incompleteness
I would argue that 'true' is the only type of truth and that it can be
understood as both objective and relativist (i.e. it is neither arbitrary nor
absolute). This view of truth means that we regard statements as
evaluated as true rather than intrinsically true, evaluation that
does not of itself imply or require a final or absolute evaluation.
Accordingly, we may say scientific theories are true. (It seems extraordinary,
given their power, to suppose that they are not!) We may say experiments can
and do prove theories (meaning 'prove' both in the sense of 'test' and 'verify'
but obviously not in the mathematical sense). True theories may nevertheless
become obsolete and may come to be regarded as in some way false.
The relationship between mathematics and science, according to this viewpoint,
does not involve an interaction between true and 'true' --
between ideal truth and contingent truth. I would argue that just as our notion
of the real is founded on our experience so too is mathematics: number is a
mathematical system abstracted from counting (and reflexly counting is an
application of that system); geometry is a mathematical system abstracted from
measuring space. These mathematical systems are reflexly applicable to the real
because they have been conceived in terms of the real.
This completes this review of Baggott's 'Beyond Measure'. I have argued that he
has mistaken notions of both realism and truth, confusions that are typical of
the twentieth century. It is an interesting book and probably an excellent
guide to the past. I have argued that it is no guide to the future.
(c) Lawrence Trevanion 2005
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