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When I was in graduate school I almost began a dissertation project on theories of reference. I have never found theories of direct reference very plausible and I wanted to show that the alleged failure of the Fregean account of reference was based more on a failure to understand the view than on its inability to account for certain linguistic intuitions. Well, of course, I discovered that many people feel the same way that I do, regardless of the fact that so many of the people I knew were convinced by Putnam and Kripke style arguments. As I went through the literature, I quickly got bored with the arguments and decided that I didn’t have much to contribute to the current debates.

I recently came across an old paper I wrote on the topic in which I suggested that some common nouns, such as ‘rock,’ ‘air,’ ‘lake,’ ‘mountain’ could not possibly fit the Kripke-Putnam paradigm because in all of these cases there is no fundamental micro-structure that all class-members have in common. It seemed to me at the time that Kripke and Putnam had, in effect, cheated by choosing terms such that most speakers already know that class membership is in virtue of micro-structure. In advance of modern chemistry, I can’t think of a reason why anyone would have supposed that all samples of gold or all samples of water have the same microstructure, anymore than prior to modern geology there would have been any reason to suppose that all samples of rock have a common micro-structure. If we had discovered that, just as in the case of ‘rock,’ not all samples of what we had been calling ‘gold’ have the same microstructure, I think we would nevertheless still have called all such samples ‘gold.’

Of course now most speakers know that all samples of gold have the same micro-structure and so it is not surprising that many of us have the intuition that, in Kripke’s scenario, the pyrites would not be the same stuff as what we call gold. And how else to express this intuition than by saying that the stuff in the mountain, in the imaginary scenario, would not be gold? But, again, this is an unfair case to test competing theories of reference; it most likely has become part of the description commonly associated with ‘gold’ that it is an element.

I concluded the paper by suggesting that, to some extent, metaphysical issues have been confused with linguistic ones. It is very plausible to say that natural kind membership is in virtue of micro-structure. And it is equally plausible that some of our natural linguistic terms will name natural kinds. But there is no way to know this in advance of scientific study. For all that was known in 1000 CE, ‘gold’ may have been more like ‘rock.’ The fact that a term does name a natural kind does not tell us anything about the theory of reference that is true of the term.

So, in any event, I submitted this paper to a couple of places and got some very vigorous rejections (blind reviewers can be vicious), so I assumed that there must be something I was missing and decided to scrap the project.


Here is the video clip (low-quality version) that I showed my students. What does it have to do with philosophy?

I spent some time thinking about how to introduce the subject of philosophy to my Survey of Philosophical Thought course this semester.  I haven’t taught an intro class for over a year and I thought it was a good time to re-think some of the ways that I have approached the course in the past. While I was trying to find a good way of characterizing philosophy, I naturally thought of Socrates’ adage that philosophy begins in wonder. I had recently seen a couple of videos, having nothing to do with philosophy (one was about a leopard reacting to an infant baboon after killing its mother), that I thought did an excellent job of inspiring wonder and awe. So, before even talking about what philosophy is, I showed the two short clips to my students and got their reactions. Of couse I anticipated that this approach might be a disaster with students wondering about this odd philosophy professor showing clips from nature documentaries, so I prepared some remarks that I hoped would link the videos with my idea of what philosophy is.  I thought I might be a good idea to share those remarks here and see if anyone feels like responding. (The class wasn’t a disaster, by the way. The clips provoked quite a bit of discussion that was directly relevant to philosophy). Here is what I had prepared to say:

The world is a mysterious place.  There are places that can overwhelm you with beauty, make you want to get on your knees and worship the unknown power that creates such a glorious world. And there are events that make you turn inward and contemplate the miracle of your self; that you are a conscious being who can experience the wonder and beauty and glory; how is it that this universe is capable of creating beings that, as part of it, can also, at the same time, be aware of it? I have a body that I can move merely by willing it, how does this happen? And who or what is this “I” that has a body, is aware of its body, and can will to move it and thus affect the world around it? The face of a child can make you feel tremendous responsibility for his future, for making sure that he has all of the opportunities for joy and exploration and meaning that he imagines that he can have.

And it is a place of such horror. A world in which the inhabitants turn on one another, indeed must turn on one another just to fulfill the urge to survive, an urge over which individuals have no control. All life cries out with the desire to continue to exist, and yet, when we think about it, we don’t know why. Where does this drive to survive come from? I do not control it and yet it controls me.

And there are unspeakable horrors that we cause to one another, murder, torment, fear. We can take one another’s most beloved and valuable possessions, cause them great stress and unhappiness, and even take their lives.  Why is this world such a place?  And what about the tragedies that are caused by the so-called natural, indifferent world? The powers in this universe can snuff out countless lives in an instant, can reduce the hopes and dreams of thousands to rubble with an earthquake, volcano, storm, or disease.

We seem to be naturally inclined to react to the world as if it were inhabited by a conscious spirit who controls things in much the same way that we (at least in our imaginations) control our own small sphere. Is there such a spirit, or is the universe basically mindless, soulless, and without purpose? If there is such a spirit, then what is he/she/it like? Does he have plan? And why would any being introduce conscious creatures into a world in which they must kill one another just to survive and where they face countless dangers that seem bent on depriving them of the one most powerful desire that, as living beings, they cannot resist and did not chose?

The world is a mysterious place.  Why is it here?  Why are we here? How can we learn about it? What can we know about it? These are the questions that strike philosophers with overwhelming force.

Jason Thibodeau

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