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pathways (letters)

27 January 1997

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your letters of 15 and 21 January. Unusually for me, I am starting on them in the Arts Tower computer room (having found a machine that works). It's harder to get into letter writing with all the distractions. Strangely, it bothers me less when I am doing my 'own' work.

It is regrettable to see one of the most important moves in the philosopher's armoury the rejection of false dichotomies posing as instances of the Law of Excluded middle turned into a debater's trick (whereby the politician represents his views as 'mediating' between supposed 'extremes'). You can make just about any programme appear sane and moderate by thus poisoning the wells of all potential opposition. (However, I must be careful what I say. Clinton is an 'old boy' of my Oxford college, Univ. Any hint of criticism is liable to be regarded by some as verging on treason!)

To understand the importance Dummett places on a 'theory of force' you have to go back to Austin's How to Do Things with Words (OUP). However, the attempt to 'mediate' between Frege and Austin (the quintessential 50's Oxford 'ordinary language philosopher') is a precarious project. The American philosopher John Searle's Speech Acts is the most notable attempt to develop Austin's work within the context of contemporary 'systematising' philosophy of language.

The Defining Reality course pack:

On orthodox, Darwinian evolutionary theory, there can under certain circumstances be an 'end to history': things only evolve if there is some external pressure e.g. changing physical conditions, or the effects of increasing population. There is no scope for change if animals are already 'best adapted' for their environment given the limitations imposed by their present physical characteristics ('best adapted' does not mean the design cannot be improved, but only that it cannot be improved through chance genetic mutation). I think I have made the point before that 'evolutionary' philosophies generalise more or less invalidly from Darwin (though there may be interesting analogies).

Evans argues at length for the claim that objectivity implies a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. ('Primary' qualities are defined in Lockean terms as relating to the properties and structures that are in principle capable of being measured by scientific instruments.) My 'Strawsonian' account of Kant's refutation of idealism might be described as the minimum needed to defeat an extreme subjectivism that defines reality in terms of a collection of subjective impressions. You can still be a 'solipsist' (of the transcendental kind) and, crucially, you can still hold a view of reality which fails Evans' rather stronger test for objectivity. That does not mean that Kant or Strawson are 'wrong': only that they are asking different questions.

Dummett once amused and delighted a lecture audience by admitting that he had absolutely no idea of the price of eggs. (Somehow, that had come up as an example.) Typical, you might say. Yet he largely gave up academic work for a number of years to campaign against institutionalised racism, in particular British immigration laws. In appearance, he is rather rotund and very, very white with large lips and eyes like an over-grown baby.

I made the happy discovery of Santayana's essay browsing through Clifton Fadiman's Reading I have Liked. (I think my father bought the book just after the war.) Otherwise I should never have come across it. It is a safe bet that Santayana is not on any of the undergraduate or graduate reading lists at Sheffield.

Now to your second letter!

On 'language...as social control': In 'stating that such-and-such is the case', you can exert a force on me (whether or not you are intending to deceive). That does not mean that you have not stated something, or not uttered a proposition that purports to 'aim at truth'. The question is what you need to establish the stronger claim that we do not in fact ever 'state' things although we appear to; that every assertion is in reality the equivalent of a physical shove. If you do not hold the stronger view, then it would seem that there is scope for a 'two-tiered' theory that first accounts for 'meaning and truth' and then investigates the wider implications of 'doing things with words' (cf. Austin).

By the way, I have seen Everyman editions of Kant (the Meiklejohn translation) in Sheffield from time to time: I shall look out for it!

Wittgenstein in writing the Tractatus was said to have been strongly influenced by Hertz's Principles of Mechanics, which sharply distinguishes laws true merely 'by definition' from other laws. Wittgenstein uses the metaphor of a net with a mesh of a certain size (e.g. the language of Newtonian mechanics). Something is not said but shown by the fact that a language is able to capture all the facts in its 'net'.

I note that all you say in your typed notes about the actual use of language applies equally well to literary criticism. The novelist or the poet is not simply stating that something is the case, or even describing a possible world, but using words with an intended effect. 'Truths' can be expressed in this way that it would be much harder to state in literal terms (although the critic does his/her best to formulate them explicitly).

It is this kind of awareness or 'focus' that leads to sociological/psychological theories of 'the presentation of the self' as well as unmaskings of the manipulations of politicians or the media. In calling attention to these aspects of language, in other words, one is describing merely a means of communication that can be used to good or ill effect. The fact that what is communicated is different from what is explicitly 'stated' does not as such amount to conspiracy. Or if it does, it is conspiracy in a benign sense, a necessary conspiracy. (Think, e.g. about how friends or lovers converse with one another, and how much depends on not being aware of the 'things we do with words'.)

I am keen to hear what you think of my discussion of the problem of vagueness in unit 13. I won't go as far as to say I am bothered by doubts, but I do find myself wondering how, in 'following the argument wherever it leads', I could have been led to make the rather surprising claims that I make there. A case of 'a theory too far' perhaps?

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner