Lewis on Reduction of Mind

I still haven’t crawled out from under the mountain of work that I abandoned before and during the APA, so blogging will be slow for a while. But happily, part of the work is something bloggable. That includes the latest Lewis notes I wrote. These are on the first half of “Reduction of Mind”, and include an extended discussion of a point that was at the centre of Eric Hiddleston’s interesting paper from last week’s APA. (Sadly Eric’s paper isn’t online or I’d link to it.)

The notes are on the Lewis blog and in PDF.

Tuesday Message Board

Use for any announcements about philosophy conferences, events, websites or anything else related to the field.

Regular blogging will return after I clear off the email pile that built up during the APA. It’s down to 36 emails to deal with…

Monday Wednesday Message Board

I’ve been travelling a bit and forgot to post the Monday message board for this week, so instead we have a Wednesday message board. Use this for all and any philosophical announcements.

The End of an Era?

So on Thursday I’ll be on Philosophy Talk talking about the future of philosophy, and I’ve been thinking a bit about what exactly the future may look like.

Conventional wisdom has it, I think, that the last 30 odd years have seen an unprecedented amount of specialisation in philosophy, and the immediate future will see the acceleration of this trend. A good and persuasive statement of this bit of CW is at the end of Scott Soames’s history of analytic philosophy.

In my opinion, philosophy has changed substantially in the last thirty or so years. Gone are the days of large, central figures, whose work is accessible and relevant to, as well as read by, nearly all analytic philosophers. Philosophy has become a highly organized discipline, done by specialists for other specialists. The number of philosophers has exploded, the volume of publication has swelled, and the subfields of serious philosophical investigation have multiplied. Not only is the broad field of philosophy today far too vast to be embraced by one mind, something similar is true even of many highly specialized subfields. Link

And I basically believed this until recently. But now I think, largely because of arguments I got from Ishani, that the CW is out by 180 degrees, and that the immediate future will see less specialisation than the immediate past. I don’t mean to pick on Soames at all here; I think he’s stating what pretty much everyone believes, and that everyone believes everyone believes, etc. I.e. the conventional wisdom. I picked Soames because it’s such a clear statement. (Note he titles his epilogue “The Era of Specialization”.) And I believed it too, until recently.

I have two primary reasons for my change of heart, one theoretical, the other historical.

First, there is too much to be gained from being a generalist to imagine that in the future there won’t be a pressure towards being a generalist. In particular, there are too many specialised areas of philosophy that could be improved by some cross-fertilisation. Here’s just one example (that doesn’t reflect particularly well on me I’m afraid).

The other night at dinner I was running through a broadly Williamsonian argument against the phenomenal conception of evidence. (The conversation had got onto indifference principles, and on principle I always remind people that the applications of indifference always assume the phenomenal conception of evidence without much by way of argument for this.) Some way into this, Tim Schroeder pointed out that my way of running this argument wouldn’t go through on various conceptions of the nature of the phenomenal. And I have to admit that up to that moment, I had paid not one moment’s attention to the possibility that the metaphysics of the phenomenal might affect the epistemological status of the phenomenal. But of course it very well could.

(UPDATE: That paragraph is clumsily written. I don’t mean to imply that everyone has the particular blindspot I’m confessing to have had. That would be impertinent, and false to boot. But I do think there are some such blindspots about connections between areas of philosophy that are pretty widely shared. How many of us had thought, for instance, about the connection between the importance of free will and the importance of political freedom before reading Philip Pettit? That’s a very surprising, in retrospect, blindspot that I bet many people had. If the CW is right, there will be more of them in the future, and hence more incentive for philosophers, especially young philosophers, to be generalists.)

So I think that there are a lot of philosophical $50 notes lying around on the sidewalk, and it only requires a little bit of generalism to know they are there. The CW implies that there won’t be people who know enough about different areas of philosophy to realise the easy gains to be made by applying lessons from one area of philosophy to another. That is, it implies that these $50 notes will get left lying around. But it’s as safe a generalisation as there is in social sciences that $50 notes don’t stay lying around on the sidewalk forever. So I think the CW is wrong.

A second reason to doubt the CW comes from a crude induction on the history of philosophy. Our time period is not unique in having people in departments called ‘philosophy’ (or an equivalent word) working on extremely different subjects. The way this kind of situation was resolved in the past was by some of the people working on different subjects going off into other departments. Think of William James walking out of Emerson Hall to go into psychology, or Alfred Marshall founding the economics tripos at Cambridge as a separate subject from philosophy. A crude induction suggests that the equilibrium state of philosophy is to be relatively unified, and the mechanism by which such equilibrium is maintained is by ‘defection’.

This kind of historical reflection leads one to wonder just how much the late 20th century differed from the late 19th century in terms of specialisation. For some context, consider that the economics tripos at Cambridge was only separated out from moral sciences in 1903. Or consider especially William Stanley Jevons. Jevons is one of the most important intellectual figures in 19th century Britain, and one of the three founders of the neoclassical revolution in economics that established the economics paradigm in place to this day. And at the time he wrote his most important works, he was a “professor of logic and mental and moral philosophy”, as well one should add as a professor of political economy. And the titles are not just for show; at the same time as he was introducing marginal utility to Britain (he independently, but belatedly, discovered the idea) he was writing a logic textbook, and a somewhat important book in philosophy of science.

So in Jevons we have someone who was, by any accounting, a philosopher, and whose intellectual work was as important as anyone employed in a philosophy department in 19th century Britain, save possibly Russell. But was his work studied by all in philosophy, or for that matter by just about anyone in philosophy today? Well, I know of some contemporary work on Principles of Science, but basically no.

The history of philosophy looks to be devoid of specialists like we find in the present because we’ve cast so many of them out. I suspect more than a few people in current day philosophy will have the kind of career, and legacy, that Jevons has, of being incredibly important to fields other than philosophy. And I suspect it is inevitable over time that such Jevonian figures will come to be employed elsewhere than in philosophy departments. When that happens, the era of specialisation will start to wane. Continue reading “The End of an Era?”

Soames on Amazon

I was just checking out the Amazon page for Scott Soames’s Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2. And I noticed the book had only one rather quirky review, which only rated the book at 1 star out of 5. As we’ve discussed here, I didn’t think the book was perfect, but I think that rating is more than a little ridiculous. So anyone who wanted to head over to Amazon to write a review and increase the book’s rating a little would be doing a service to both Amazon and to the cause of disseminating good philosophy.

Intrinsicality without Naturalness

In a recent paper in PPR, Gene D. Witner, William Butchard and Kelly Trogdon (WBT) have a paper called “Intrinsicality without Naturalness”. (It doesn’t seem to be available anywhere online, hence the lack of link.) As the title suggests, the paper is an attempt to offer an analysis of intrinsicness without appeal to Lewisian naturalness, which they argue is too mysterious to use as the basis of a usable analysis. I don’t quite understand this motivation; the difference between grue-like and natural properties is about as clear to me as any distinction in philosophy. Be that as it may, WBT’s analysis is interesting in its own right.

They propose that in place of Lewis’s naturalness, we should take as primitive the idea that some properties are had in virtue of other properties. They fret a little about how well understood this might be, but I don’t want to press that point. (I couldn’t really, given that I use the same concept in Morality, Fiction and Possibility.) Rather, I’m not sure that their analysis works even given that concept as a primitive.

Like Langton and Lewis’s analysis, WBT’s starts with independence from accompaniment. They extend that idea to an analysis the following way.

(I1) F is an intrinsic property iff for all a, if a is F, a has F intrinsically
(I2) a has F intrinsically, then for any G such that a if F in virtue of being G, G is independent of accompaniment.

They also defend, in the course of defending these claims, (I3).

(I3) If a is F in virtue of being G, and G is extrinsic, then a does not have F intrinsically.

I think (I1) is correct. But I think that the conjunction of (I1) with either (I2) or (I3) leads to counterexamples.

WBT acknowledge that this analysis won’t work for impure properties, like being identical with a, where a is something that could exist unaccompanied. So it is only proposed as an analysis of pure properties. And it doesn’t work for necessary properties, so it is only proposed as an analysis of contingent properties.

The biggest problem concerns a property they discuss in the paper, Ted Sider’s example R = being a rock. As Ted points out, R is extrinsic because it is maximal. But it is independent of accompaniment. So WBT have to find a property that is not independent of accompaniment in virtue of which something is a rock.

Their proposal (roughly) is that any given rock is a rock in virtue of having some intrinsic properties and being embedded in something that is quite different intrinsically. This proposal has an odd implication. Consider some rock a in any everyday environment, and a duplicate rock b that is in a void, i.e. surrounded by nothing. WBT are committed to the odd view that a is a rock in virtue of very different properties to b, because b is not embedded in something that differs from it intrinsically, since it is not embedded in anything at all. This seems wrong. To use some of the paraphrases of this idea that WBT propose, what makes it the case that a is a rock is very different to what makes it the case that b is a rock. The metaphysical basis of a’s status as a rock is very different ot the metaphysical basis of b’s status as a rock. This all seems wrong.

The metaphysically natural thing to say is that something is a rock in virtue of having the right intrinsic properties and not being embedded in a sufficiently similar environment. This is a property that a and b share. Unfortunately for WBT, it is independent of accompaniment.

Consider now a variant of an example of John Hawthorne’s that WBT also discuss, T = attending to something that is could have been one of your parts. So if I’m attending to one of my actual parts I have this property, as I do if I’m attending to a piece of my hair that was just cut off, or a pacemaker that I could have installed. But if I could not have a planet as a part (as I imagine), then I don’t have it if I’m attending exclusively to planet earth.

Clearly T is independent of accompaniment, since a lonely person attending to his foot has the property, so it is compatible with loneliness, and the other three cases are actually satisfied. But it is also clearly extrinsic. So WBT has to find a property that is independent of accompaniment in virtue of which something has T. The proposal they come up with (roughly, remember this is a variant on a case they discuss) is that some things have T in virtue of attending to something wholly distinct from them, and others have T in virtue of attending to one of their parts. The first of these properties is not compatible with loneliness, so it works for their purposes.

Again, the problem is that this does not seem to get the metaphysical basis of my having T right. Imagine that I’m looking at a particularly long hair. I’m attending only to it, because I’m concentrating on cutting it off without doing myself a mischief. I keep attending to it, and it alone, while I cut it off. All through this time I have T, since I’m attending to this hair and it could be, indeed was, a part of me. I think the properties in virtue of which I have T don’t change before and after the hair ceases to be a part of me. (Maybe I should pluck the hair rather than cut it iff I want it to cease being part of me. If that’s not too painful to contemplate for you, let that be the example. It is too painful for me, so I’ll stick with cutting.)

Now I think it’s fairly simple to say which property I have T in virtue of before and after the cutting. I have the property of attening to that very hair. In general, a person who has T generally has so because there is some a she’s attending to, and she has T in virtue of attending to a. But since a could have been one of her parts, that property is compatible with loneliness. So I’m sceptical that there’s any property not independent of accompaniment that I have T in virtue of.

Finally, I want to raise a worry about (I3). Consider D = being a duplicate of a possible human. Since this is a property that never differs between duplicates, it is an intrinsic property. But I think some things have it in virtue of extrinsic properties. In particular, I have this property in virtue of being a human, and hence, because I’m by necessity a self-duplicate, being a duplicate of a possible person. But being a human is maximal and hence an extrinsic property.

Big Ideas

The other night at dinner, Tim Schroeder asked me what exciting new philosophical ideas I’d heard recently. This was at the end of a long (and really very good) dinner with a few glasses of wine, so naturally I couldn’t think of anything. But it seems we should be able to answer a question like that.

Tim made it clear that by ‘recently’ he didn’t mean in like the last week, but in relatively recent times. So here is a list of interesting ideas and arguments that I know about (and to have to some extent incorporated into my thinking) that I didn’t know about in grad school, i.e. before 1998. The list will be naturally very lemming-focussed, without the mind part, because that’s what I mostly work on. Some of the ideas are important because they are more detailed, and more powerful, versions of familiar points, while some of them are still to be worked out in great detail. Most of them are ideas I learned from friends. I think that’s because it takes telling me something about 10 times before I get it, and only friends get that many opportunities to tell me the same thing. And the list isn’t in any particular order.

  1. Timothy Williamson’s safety arguments against luminosity and hence in favour of the idea that we shouldn’t treat our knowledge of mental properties as being in any way epistemologically privileged.
  2. Jeremy Fantl, John Hawthorne, Matthew McGrath and Jason Stanley’s idea that whether we have certain epistemological properties might depend on our practical interests.
  3. The idea, which I first got from Jim Pryor’s work, that what is hard about the sceptical paradoxes is deciding whether we know a priori or a posteriori that various sceptical hypotheses do not obtain, and building a plausible, systematic theory of a priori/a posteriori knowledge that validates our decision.
  4. The work that many philosophers and semanticists have done on showing how the relationship between context and (truth-conditional) content can be explained systematically. Obviously this work started well before 1998, and the highlights of it are now several decades old, but I think there has been a lot of progress, by (among others) Zoltan Szabo, Jeff King and Jason Stanley, in the last few years.
  5. Two ideas about relativism: John MacFarlane’s idea that we can formalise relativist semantics using a simple generalisation of Kaplan’s approach to contextualist semantics, and Andy Egan’s idea that if there are sentences that express de se beliefs, then the right semantics for them is relativist.
  6. Bob Stalnaker’s idea that rational behaviour in a game has to be interpretable as rational behaviour in the face of a decision problem for each player, and that various familiar approaches to game theory fail to satisfy this constraint. (I’m cheating a little here, since some of this material is from pre-1998. But not all of it is, so it makes the cut.)
  7. Ted Sider’s observation that most ordinary predicates denote maximal properties, and maximal properties are an important class of extrinsic properties.
  8. Adam Elga’s idea that taking seriously the idea that credences are de se attitudes not de dicto attitudes matters to decision theory. Ten years ago I would have said for sure that de se decision theory was just de dicto decision theory with a change in what counts as event. Now I’d merely say that hesitantly.
  1. Finally, two ideas about causation. David Lewis’s arguments, at the start of the long version of Causation as Influence, from the plurality of causal relations with which we are familiar to the need for a reductive accuont of causation. And Sarah McGrath’s arguments from the facts about causation as omission that this reductive account should reduce causal talk to, inter alia, normative talk.

I’m sure that if I worked on other areas I’d be talking about other ideas, but those are the ones that have had the most impact on me over the last few years. Indeed, many of my recent papers involve my trying to work out the consequences of these ideas.

So I started writing all this because I was worried about how much progress we were making in all of the flurry of philosophical activity that gets mentioned here. But I think the nine ideas I mentioned above are a fairly good amount of progress for a few years in a few subdisciplines of philosophy. And this is a long way from an exhaustive list.

What other new big ideas have come out of philosophical research in the last few years?

Nico Silins

I’m very pleased to announce that Cornell has signed Nico Silins to start in the Fall. Nico is a very talented epistemologist who has spent the last two years on a post-doc at NYU. Among other things, he works on the interplay between epistemology and philosophy of mind. I think there will be some important results coming out of this field in the next few years, and I’ll be surprised if Nico isn’t one of the people coming up with those results. We’re very excited to welcome him to the team!

Yet More Dogmatism

Another installment of the dogmatism epic.

In Defence of a Dogmatist (sections 1-5 of 6)

In the latest section I respond to Bayesian arguments against dogmatism by suggesting that Bayesianism is too restrictive a model to use when modelling the situations about which dogmatists say distinctive things. I suggest a more expansive model that I call dynamic Keynesianism, which is compatible with dogmatism and is independently plausible as an appropriate model.

The only remaining section to be written is on Moore’s argument, about which I have a lot to read and not a lot to say. The main line I suspect I’ll end up taking is that there is a real disanalogy between learning what the world looks like for the first time, and confirming that your hands have not gone missing while you weren’t looking. Dogmatism isn’t very plausible about the second case, but it doesn’t need to be, for in that case there is independent justification to believe that things are as they seem. But this is all well into the future.


I just got back frm presenting a paper, partially on the magnets problem, at the University of Manitoba, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank my hosts for a wonderful trip. Great philosophy and great food for three days! Thanks especially to Ben Caplan and Tim Schroeder for organising so much of the trip.