Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Language, Logic and Epistemology: A Modal-Realist Approach by Christopher Norris (Palgrave Macmillan) In this book Christopher Norris addresses a rang-of topics — deconstruction, epistemology, philosophy of logic, philosophical semantics, and music theory — on which his work has focused during the past two decades. Along the way he raises some crucial questions about the scope and limits of an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to 'deconstruct' the boundaries between various fields of enquiry.

Norris makes his case through a close analysis of the arguments put forward by philosophers, linguists, cognitive psychologists, music theorists, and advocates of a Wittgensteinian treatment of philosophical problems that would count them mere symptoms of our chronic 'bewitchment by language'. He also argues for the vital role of cognitive science in resolving certain issues raised by recent philosophy of mind and language. This claim is pursued in chapters on Chomskian psycholinguistics and on the way that deconstructive musicologists have allowed their foregone theoretical commitments to preclude any adequate reckoning with our perceptual experience of music.

A notable feature of Norris's book is its heterodox approach to the work of some widely influential contemporary thinkers. Thus, for instance, he reads Derrida as making a significant (though so far unrecognised) contribution to current debate about modal, deviant, and paraconsistent logics. While acknowledging the value of interdisciplinary work on these and other topics Norris urges that this should be combined with a due respect for certain area-specific standards of relevance and method.

Excerpt: This volume brings together a number of chapters which I should happily describe as 'inter-disciplinary' if that term had not acquired - to my mind at least - certain negative or worrisome connotations. These have to do with the currently widespread idea that the boundaries between disciplines are so many artificial constructs of comparatively recent date whose chief function (so the argument goes) is to shore up standard academic divisions of labour. Such thinking derives from a wide range of sources, among them post-structuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies, the 'strong' programme in sociology of sci­ence, Kuhnian paradigm-relativism, the 'linguistic turn' (after late Wittgenstein) in various fields of thought, and Richard Rorty's neopragmatist notion of 'truth' as just the compliment we pay to this or that currently favoured style of talk. It has also taken heart from developments in post-empiricist episte­mology which - following Quine - emphasise the 'underdetermination' of theory by evidence and the 'theory-laden' character of observation-statements. In Chapter 6 I discuss the way that analytic philosophy has tended very often to swing back and forth between a 'normal', constructive or problem-solving discourse and a whole range of (by its own lights) untypically extreme reactive proposals. If this account suggests an analogy with Kuhn on the cyclic alternation of 'normal' and 'revolutionary' periods in the history of science then it does so more with a view to locating the sources of such chronic instability within the analytic enterprise.

Not that Quine would have taken at all kindly to finding himself lumped among the cultural relativists or the purveyors of a wholesale postmodern scepticism with regard to standards of scientific method and truth. All the same his attack on the two last 'dogmas' of logical empiricism - the analytic/ synthetic distinction and the idea of scientific statements or hypotheses as individually testable against the evidence - is often thought to have opened the way (via Kuhn) to a full-scale doctrine of paradigm-incommensurability and hence to the claim that there exist no objective (i.e., non-paradigm-internal) criteria of rational theory-choice. Thus, according to Quine, we can always conserve some anomalous empirical result by redistributing predicates or truth-values across the entire existing 'fabric' of belief. This might involve renouncing a hitherto cherished item of physical theory, or even - at the limit -`suspending an axiom of classical logic, such as bivalence or excluded middle. And, conversely, we can always 'save' some cherished theoretical belief by putting the empirical anomaly down to defects in our measuring apparatus, the limits of precise observation, or - again at the limit - perceptual hallucination. From here it is arguably no great distance to the kind of cultural-relativist thinking that would challenge the very idea of scientific method as possessing certain distinctive standards - of empirical warrant, replicability, and respect for the ground-rules of evidential reasoning - which set it apart from other, less rigorous (e.g., sociological) modes of enquiry. What this amounts to, in effect, is a wholesale inversion of the old 'unity of science' programme which proposed a hard-to-soft scale of priority with physics at the top, then chemistry, biology, economics, certain (empirically grounded) branches of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and then - very much at the bottom of the scale - such manifestly unscientific 'disciplines' as ethics, aesthetics, and literary criticism.

To be sure, this was a crudely simplified model and one whose fortunes were closely tied to the rise and fall of old-style logical positivism. Few phil­osophers of science would nowadays subscribe to such a doctrine, especially in the wake of Quine's 'Two Dogmas' and after so much work that has emphasised the problems with any appeal to the empirical evidence which fails to take account of its theoretically mediated character, not to mention those various historical or sociocultural factors that might have played a role in the scientific 'context of discovery'. On the other hand thinking has sometimes swung so far in the opposite direction - toward a 'sociology-first' perspective - that it seems to herald the emergence of a new orthodoxy with its own, equally partial or distorting methodological bias. What very often seems to motivate such work is a covert desire, on its practitioners' part, to occupy the high ground of explanatory method while appearing to operate on a principle of parity that grants the physical sciences their place in a strictly egalitarian or non-hierarchical range of discourses. However this claim must look highly dubious if one considers how the principle of parity works out in practice. For it is a chief tenet of the strong-sociological approach that its method applies to all scientific theories, whether those (like the phlogiston theory of combustion) that we now think of as totally discredited, or those (like Newton's theories of space-time and gravity) that have now been superseded while retaining a certain limited field of application, or again, those - like Special Relativity or the DNA model of genetic inheritance - which presently count among the best established scientific truths. For, according to the strong sociologists, there is no question of confining this approach to cases where scientists got things wrong and where explanations should therefore take account of historical, cultural, ideological, or other such 'extraneous' factors. On the contrary: the approach is equally valid when applied to (what we think of as) 'good' science since here also we have to take account of that whole range of motivating interests and incentives that might have played a role in persuading scientists to pursue some particular line of enquiry.

Yet of course this puts the ball very firmly in the sociologists' court since it gives them the last explanatory word as to what constitutes the crucial difference between theories that have retained 'scientific' credibility and those that have since fallen by the wayside or else been subject to continuing refinement and modification. That difference lies not so much in the fact that some theories can be shown to manifest a greater degree of theoretical, empirical, or predictive warrant but rather in the fact that they have gained acceptance amongst a wide enough section of the scientific community to count as valid for all practical (i.e., socially relevant) purposes. Thus the principle of parity works out in effect as a kind of all-purpose device for demoting scientific truth-claims - along with those arguments typically advanced by mainstream philosophers and historians of science - and for boosting the interests of sociology as a discipline inherently less prone to delusions of epistemological grandeur. The usual response to any such charge of academic empire-building is to invoke a self-reflexive principle whereby the strong sociologists of knowledge take their own claims as like-wise subject to sociological analysis and explanation. However that argument cuts both ways, on the one hand seeking to disown the idea of privileged self-exemption, while on the other reinforcing the general claim that sociology alone has the resources to handle such a wholesale critique of epistemic authority, its own authority included.

Modality and Anti-Metaphysics by Stephen K. McLeod (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Philosophy, 1150: Ashgate) The Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Philosophy series aims to bring high quality research monograph publishing back into focus for authors, the international library market, and student, academic and research readers. Headed by an international editorial advisory board of acclaimed scholars from across the philosophical spectrum, this new monograph series presents cutting-edge research from established as well as exciting new authors in the field; spans the breadth of philosophy and related disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives; and takes contemporary philosophical research into new directions and debate.


This book has two principal aims. Firstly, it aims to defend metaphysics, chiefly against the logical positivists. Secondly, it aims to defend objective non-logical necessity and possibility against empiricist views, which hold that the very notions are unintelligible, and which reject the view that there is ontologically grounded modality. As an adjunct, I defend a conception of the tasks of ontology against the objectual conception adopted in some contemporary discussions.

Chapter 1 concerns philosophies which have been thought to seek the elimination of metaphysics. I argue that the common view that Hume considered all metaphysics meaningless and sought its elimination is the misguided result of the positivist appropriation of Hume. I suggest that Camap's revisionary view of meaning, in accordance with his notion of logical syntax, poses no serious threat to metaphysics. I set out the logical problems associated with Ayer's notion of indirect verifiability and the well-beaten dispute about the status of the verification principle itself. I indicate my intention to study the modality involved in verifiability and my view that, setting aside the aforementioned logical problems, the classification of cognitively meaningful statements as either analytic or empirical is inadequate. I discuss a modal argument against metaphysics offered by N.R. Hanson, my criticism of which serves to illustrate a broad form of essentialist argument, common to much essentialist work, which might justifiably be attributed to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Given the case for saying that the Tractatus is in fact committed to realism about a (very restricted) class of modality de re, it should not be regarded as anti-metaphysical in the manner of the positivists. I suggest that: Wittgenstein's attitude to metaphysics was more subtle and more tolerant than that of the positivists; contrary to the views of some commentators, his Philosophical Investigations neither establishes nor seeks to establish anti-essentialism.

In Chapter 2, informed by developments in contemporary anti-realism (with which I am not allied), I set out my argument so that the initial issue is not that of realism/anti-realism about modality, but that of primitivism/anti primitivism. I argue that modal discourse is primitive, i.e. neither eliminable nor reducible to non-modal discourse. I endorse a strict distinction between eliminativism and reductionism. After McGinn, I outline epistemological motivations behind such anti-realist positions. In order to assuage these I provide some modal epistemology. I adopt a broadly Kripkean account of de re modal knowledge while disputing the famous Kripkean tenet that there are necessary truths typically discoverable a posteriori. I take it, after Wiggins, that it rests upon a misconception about the form of essentialistic attributions. I illustrate the distinction between necessary truths and true statements of de re necessity using the necessity of identity as a key example. I try to improve on the epistemology offered by Kripke and largely subscribed to by McGinn. Taking Quinean empiricism as a paradigm, I argue, after Pap, Wright and McFetridge, that the modal eliminativist's position is untenable due to its own incoherence. I argue that, beside other problems, modal reductionists such as David Lewis and D.M. Armstrong face difficulties in respect of purging the appeal to primitive modality from their own theses. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether a reductionist account of modality can succeed.

In Chapter 3 I illustrate how modal projectivism is ill-placed to account for de re modality. I expand upon the distinction between logical and metaphysical modality. Having distinguished, under Hacking's influence, between de re and de dicto modality, I argue for realism about a class of de re modality on the basis of work done by Wiggins. I charge that anti-realist conceptualism about modality and essence results in an untenable and epistemologically barren metaphysic. In addition, when the conceptualist realist dialectic developed by Wiggins is duly recognized, anti-realist conceptualism fails to get off the ground. That dialectic is ignored by Sidelle, yet it undercuts his attack on real essentialism.

In Chapter 41 expand upon the de relde dicto distinction. I discuss the conceptions of the modality involved in the notion of verifiability in principle which can be extracted from the works of the logical positivists themselves. I claim that the logical positivists conflated logical possibility and substantive possibility despite their predominant intention to characterize verifiability in terms of logical possibility of verification. I argue, further to the discussion of modal epistemology in Chapter 2, that the classification of cognitively meaningful statements as either analytic or empirical is inadequate. I defend the allocation of de dicto status to constructions employing the logical modalities. I discuss the issue in relation to some revisionary accounts of logical possibility offered under the influence of essentialist thought. I reject these, seeking to maintain the distinction between logical and metaphysical modalities. My views are influenced by the writings of McFetridge and Wiggins. I conclude with a brief comment on empiricism and essentialism in relation to the conflation of logical possibility and substantive possibility de re.

view of concepts need not restrict logical possibilities in so far as we distinguish between de re and de dicto conceiving. On the account I have offered, after Wiggins, it is inconceivable for a solid iron bar to float on water, since an entity which can float on water does not have the persistence principle of a solid iron bar. Any conceiving going on can therefore not be conceiving of an iron bar. Nonetheless the logical possibility of the statement that an iron bar floats on water is in no way undercut. The restriction on conceiving de re is in virtue of metaphysical necessity de re: there is no such restriction on conceiving de dicto. Claims about the natures of concreta are not founded upon de dicto, or logical, necessities. The accounts of Rasmussen, Putnam and Plantinga show no awareness that there is logical room for the position I adopt according to which, for example, it is impossible for iron bars to float on water but logically possible that iron bars float on water. My account, unlike those I brand revisionary, respects the utility and the formal and a priori nature of the logical modalities.

Despite their desire to eliminate metaphysics, the logical positivists did not banish substantive modal talk from their philosophy. Like empiricists before and since, they conflated the notions of logical possibility and substantive possibility, thus neither successfully banishing objective non-logical modalities nor properly respecting the useful notion of logical possibility. Some of those who responded to the empiricist abuse of logical possibility proposed their own revisions of the notion, others adopted eliminativist views. Such views are untenable and the motivation behind their adoption is undermined by clarifying the nature and utility of the notion of logical possibility. This, in turn, promotes the restriction of the notion to its proper role.

Despite the rejection of positivism and the vogue for broadly Aristotelian realism which took place, the conflation of logical modalities and metaphysical modalities de re was very apparent in the writings of many of those, including some of the most prominent, who adopted essentialist views. This was due to a lack of rigour concerning the observance of the de relde dicto distinction and attendant matters.

The cogent essentialist, however, observes the de relde dicto distinction, and the distinction between logical modalities and metaphysical modalities de re. The cogent essentialist, in addition, is well-placed to preserve and respect the core notions of logical possibility and necessity. This is a great advantage if the logical modalities are, as McFetridge has suggested, and I have agreed, crucial to the whole practice of reasoning from suppositions.

Opponents of classical empiricism, such as Kant and Hegel, distinguished between merely logical possibility and real possibility, observing that logical possibility is, in Hegelian terms, an abstraction from the ontological process, rather than a feature thereof. So grand, and so derided, a metaphysician as Hegel was opposed to the conflation of logical possibility and real possibility; yet those who sought to eliminate metaphysics were blinded to a distinction which, in comparison with many aspects of the apparatus of modem philosophy, is far from being sophisticated or obscure. It is ironic, given their insistence that there are no modalities in nature, that it is empiricists who have been guilty of obscuring the distinction. Real possibility cannot easily be forsaken, as is evidenced by the inappropriate role in which empiricists have sought to cast logical possibility, as a surrogate for the former notion. The irony is all the more pronounced in the case of a philosophy which called itself `logical'. It is unfortunate that the conflation has been perpetuated by neo-essentialists still under the spell of empiricism, since it is detrimental to metaphysics and the philosophy of logic and it obstructs the path to a sound modal epistemology, especially for modality de re.

Headline 3

insert content here