Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#003)

Chapter 1 of the Logic is titled, "Of the Necessity of Commencing with an Analysis of Language".

Mill acknowledges that it is common enough to begin a treatise on logic by discussing terms and other matters of language that there isn't really a need to explain why he is going to start with a discussion of language, but he goes on to discuss it anyway.
Language is evidently, and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principle instruments or helps of thought; and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable, still more than in almost any other art, to confuse and impede the process, and destroy all ground of confidence in the result. For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words, to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing, would be as if some one should attempt to become an astronomical observer, having never learned to adjust the focal distance of his optical instruments so as to see distinctly. (p. 19)

This remark from Mill is a very similar thought to one advanced by Tim Williamson in "Must Do Better":
Philosophers who refuse to bother about semantics, on the grounds that they want to study the non-linguistic world, not our talk about that world, resemble astronomers who refuse to bother about the theory of telescopes, on the grounds that they want to study the stars, not our observation of them. Such an attitude may be good enough for amateurs; applied to more advanced inquiries, it produces crude errors. Those metaphysicians who ignore language in order not to project it onto the world are the very ones most likely to fall into just that fallacy, because the validity of their reasoning depends on unexamined assumptions about the structure of the language in which they reason. (p. 9)

I find the telescope/microscope analogy interesting, and compelling.  Note that neither Mill nor Williamson is embracing the view that questions about language are the primary target of inquiry; rather they both liken the importance of understanding how language works to the importance of knowing how to use your tools.

In the next section of Chapter 1, Mill explains, more or less, the basics of his view of propositions.  We are told that "the answer to every question which it is possible to frame must be contained in a Proposition, or Assertion" and that "whatever can be an object of belief, or even of disbelief, must, when put into words, assume the form of a proposition" (p. 20).

Mill goes on to characterize a proposition as "discourse, in which something is affirmed or denied of something" (p. 21), and analyzes propositions as containing three parts (subject, predicate, and copula).  Throughout this section, Mill seems to be describing what an Early Modern like Locke called "Verbal Propositions", insofar as they are "formed by putting together two names", and Mill tells us that propositions "consist of at least two names".  Similarly, when we were earlier told that the answer to every question is "contained in a proposition", or that propositions are a certain type of "discourse", it is clear that Mill is taking propositions to be something linguistic or verbal.  Mill's propositions diverge, importantly, from at least one major strand of use of the term "proposition" in contemporary philosophy, and this will be important to bear in mind.

Mill ends chapter 1 with an argument in favor of studying names before studying things, by appeal to the fact that language was shaped by many people:

In any enumeration and classification of Things, which does not set out from their names, no varieties of things will of course be comprehended but those recognised by the particular inquirer; and it will still remain to be established, by a subsequent examination of names, that the enumeration has omitted nothing which ought to have been included. But if we begin with names, and use them as our clue to the things, we bring at once before us all the distinctions which have been recognised, not by a single inquirer, but by all inquirers taken together. It doubtless may, and I believe it will be found, that mankind have multiplied the varieties unnecessarily, and have imagined distinctions among things, where there were only distinctions in the manner of naming them. But we are not entitled to assume this in the commencement. We must begin by recognising the distinctions made by ordinary language. If some of these appear, on a close examination, not to be fundamental, the enumeration of the different kinds of realities may be abridged accordingly. But to impose upon the facts in teh first instance the yoke of a theory, while the grounds of the theory are reserved for discussion in a subsequent stage, is not a course which a logician can reasonably adopt. (p. 22)

Here I think we see an interesting commitment on Mill's part to a sort of qualified attention to ordinary language.  There is something like a very weak presumption that distinctions made by ordinary language are legitimate distinctions, at least to the extent that one has to show cause to disregard them, rather than having to show cause for attending to them.  This, I think, falls far short of a commitment to anything like the subsequent movement of ordinary language philosophy, but it is worthwhile to note that Mill explicitly references ordinary language (and not, say, specifically the technical vocabularies of past scholars).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging returns next week

I wound up taking this week off of Mill blogging, to finish up some grading.  Mill Blogging will return next Monday (or Tuesday, if my past performance is any indication).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Berkeley on the Molyneux Problem

In the course of "An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision", Berkeley considers Molyneux's question. The question, as quoted by Locke (and Locke being quoted by Berkeley at NTV 132): "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other, which is the cube and which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?"

Berkeley, in agreement with Locke (who was in agreement with Molyneux), says "no": it is not possible for someone born blind, who learned shape-names by touch, to then tell by vision alone, which of two shapes presented is a sphere, and which a cube.

Berkeley uses this opportunity to argue for the doctrine of proper sensibles—the view that there is no overlap among the ideas proper to different senses.  In other words, Berkeley maintains that there are no ideas that originally enter the mind through more than one sense.

It is easy to see what Berkeley has in mind if we put the issue this way:  Call the idea you get through touch of one side of a cube T-SQUARE (for tangible square).  Call the idea you get through one vision of one side of a cube V-SQUARE (for visible square).  Berkeley proposes that, if some ideas (such as the idea of a square) come in through both sight and touch, then T-SQUARE would be identical to V-SQUARE, and the only difference would be in the way you acquired them.  But if T-SQUARE and V-SQUARE are identical, then, Berkeley argues, the formerly blind individual should be able to identify the cube, since they know that a cube is a body terminated by squares, and they can also see some squares.*

The most interesting part of Berkeley's discussion, though, comes in NTV 141 to 143(ish).  And what makes this interesting is the startling similarity between what Berkeley says here, and the position Leibniz takes in New Essays On Human Understanding.
Right before NTV 141, Berkeley has just responded to the worry that V-SQUARE and T-SQUARE are called by a common name ('square') because they are of a common species, by appeal to the view that we often use the same name for the sign as well as for the thing signified.  This, in combination with the view that V-SQUARE is a sign of T-SQUARE is intended to address that worry.  The discussion moves on, then, to another potential worry:

But, say you, surely a tangible square is liker to a visible square than to a visible circle: it has four angles and as many sides: so also has the visible square: but the visible circle has no such thing, being bounded by one uniform curve without right lines or angles, which makes it unfit to represent the tangible square but very fit to represent the tangible circle. Whence it clearly follows that visible figures are patterns of, or of the same species with ,the respective tangible figures represented by them: that they are like unto them, and of their own nature fitted to represent them, as being of the same sort: and that they are in no respect arbitrary signs, as words. (NTV 141)

The worry of this passage rests on what I'll call the "greater fitness" claim: Some visible ideas have greater fitness than others to serve as signs of a given tangible idea. The worry attributes this fitness to a cross-modal commonality of species. In NTV 142, Berkeley responds to this worry by noting that the fitness of representation can be accounted for in terms of the complexity or simplicity of the ideas, without appeal to a common species. Importantly, Berkeley does not deny the greater fitness claim. Rather, he tries to show that a canonical instance of arbitrary representation exhibits a parallel case of differential fitness.
But it will not hence follow that any visible figure is like unto, or of the same species with, its corresponding tangible figure, unless it be also shewn that not only the number but also the kind of the parts be the same in both. To illustrate this, I observe that visible figures represent tangible figures much after the same manner that written words do sounds. Now, in this respect words are not arbitrary, it not being indifferent what written word stands for any sound: but it is requisite that each word contain in it so many distinct characters as there are variations in the sound it stands for. Thus, the single letter a is proper to mark one simple uniform sound; and the word adultery is accommodated to represent the sound annexed to it...It is indeed arbitrary that, in general, letters of any language represent sounds at all: but when that is once agreed, it is not arbitrary what combination of letters shall represent this or that particular sound. I leave this with the reader to pursue, and apply it in his own thoughts.

In the New Essays, Leibniz (through the mouth of Theophilus), answers Molyneux's question thus:
[Y]ou will see that I have included in [my reply] a condition which can be taken to be implicit in the question: namely that it is merely a problem of telling which is which, and that the blind man knows that the two shaped bodies which he has to discern are before him and thus that each of the appearances which he sees is either that of a cube or that of a sphere. Given this condition, it seems to me past question that the blind man whose sight is restored could discern them by applying rational principles to the sensory knowledge which he has already acquired by touch...My view rests on the fact that in the case of the sphere, there are no distinguished points on the surface of the sphere taken in itself, since everything there is uniform and without angles, whereas in the case of the cube there are eight points which are distinguished from all the others. (NEHU, book 2, chapter 9)

Leibniz claims that the formerly blind person could reason their way to the right answer, if they are told that the two visual appearances are of shapes with which they are already familiar (and further, told the specific pair of shapes that the two visual appearances are of). Berkeley concedes that, taking for granted that the visual is to be a sign of the tangible, it is not arbitrary which visible figures represent which tangible figures.
To give credit where credit is due; Leibniz himself indicated that he thinks he is on pretty much the same page with people who want to give a "no" answer; he just thinks they are giving a fine answer to the wrong question.
Anyway, it was interesting for me to find out that Berkeley pushes what is essentially the Leibnizian line on Molyneux's problem.
*Berkeley's argument is actual given in terms of numerical and specific difference, which is good, because it avoids an issue present in my quick reconstruction, having to do with token vs. type identity.  To frame it so as to avoid this issue, we can take T-SQUARE to name a particular idea you got through touch. Then the question is whether T-SQUARE and V-SQUARE are of the same kind (i.e. intrinsically alike, for a certain sense of intrinsic), not whether they are identical.  That way of putting it captures Berkeley's language more clearly: "upon the supposition that a visible and tangible square differ only in numero it follows that he might know, by the unerring mark of the square surfaces, which was the cube, and which not, while he only saw them" (NTV 133).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#002)

You might be thinking that there is something wrong with naming this feature "Monday Mill Blogging" when I appear to only ever post these entries on Tuesdays.  I rest secure in the knowledge that a few weeks from now, we'll be canvassing the Mill's views on whether names can be inaccurate, and we can find out whether it is actually a problem.

§ 4. Logic Concerns Inference, not Intuition
Mill had been concerned that "the art and science of Reasoning" was too narrow, and that "the art and science of the pursuit of truth" too broad.  His middle route between the two is to distinguish between truths known "directly", and those known "through the medium of other truths".  The suggestion is that logic is concerned with inferences from intuitive (i.e. directly known) truths, and not with the intuitive truths themselves.  Importantly, this will not limit our attention to deductive inference, since it was already flagged that Mill intends to include inductive reasoning, as well as syllogistic under the scope of inquiry.

Most interesting in this section is Mill's discussion of the certainty of directly known truths, and related caveat:
Whatever is known to us by consciousness, is known beyond possibility of question. What one sees or feels, whether bodily or mentally, one cannot but be sure that one sees or feels. No science is required for the purpose of establishing such truths; no rules of art can render our knowledge of them more certain than it is in itself. There is no logic for this portion of our knowledge.
But we may fancy that we see or feel what we in reality infer. A truth, or supposed truth, which is really the result of a very rapid inference, may seem to be apprehended intuitively. It has long been agreed by thinkers of the most opposite schools, that this mistake is actually made in so familiar an instance as that of the eyesight. (p. 7)

Mill goes on to discuss our knowledge of distance through sight.  Also worth noting in this section is the claim that it is "almost universally allowed that the existence of matter or of spirit, of space or of time, is in its nature unsusceptible of being proved" (p. 9).  He ends the section by declaring that "logic is not the science of Belief, but the science of Proof, or Evidence."

§ 5. Logic and Other Sciences

Mill moves on to consider the "authority of logic" with regard to other sciences, concluding that, because most of our knowledge is inferred, "the greatest portion of our amenable to the authority of logic" (p. 9).  He is careful though to distinguish logic from knowledge::
Logic, however, is not the same thing with knowledge, though the field of logic is coextensive with the field of knowledge. Logic is the common judge and arbiter of all particular investigations. It does not undertake to find evidence, but to determine whether it has been found. Logic neither observes, nor invents, nor discovers; but judges. (p. 10)

Mill's example is the appearances found to accompany a violent death.  Logic, he says, isn't in the business of telling the surgeon which appearances those are (that is the business of observation and testimony).  "Logic sits in judgment on the sufficiency of that observation and experience to justify his rules, and on the sufficiency of his rules to justify his conduct."  It appears, then, that Mill thinks logic also bears on what we would term "practical reasoning", though this is the first mention I've noticed of anything like that.

Also important to note: Mill does not seem to think that the fact that this science is grounded on the descriptive science of our actual human mental operations of inferring stops logic from being "the science of science itself."

§ 6. Logic is Useful

The main thrust of this section is that, with the rare exception of certain savants, most people benefit from knowledge of the principles governing good inference, rather than simply following our unreflectively acquired or natural inclinations.

§ 7. Logic Defined

We are finally told (provisionally) what logic is:
Logic, then, is the science of the operations of the understanding which are subservient to the estimation of evidence: both the process itself of advancing from known truths to unknown, and all other intellectual operations in so far as auxiliary to this. (p. 12)

We are also informed of what this amounts to, in terms of a goal for the project of Mill's System:
Our object, then, will be, to attempt a correct analysis of the intellectual process called Reasoning or Inference, and of such other mental operations as are intended to facilitate this: as well as, on the foundation of this analysis, and pari passu with it, to bring together or frame a set of rules or canons for testing the sufficiency of any given evidence to prove any given proposition. (p. 12)

Also worth noting in this section, is Mill's claim that he will be treating certain operations/processes as relative primitives (i.e. as not subject to analysis for his purposes), without intending to claim that they are themselves primitive.  His comparison is to "analytical chemistry", of which he says the results "are not the less valuable, though it should be discovered that all which we now call simple substances are really compounds." (p. 13).  In other words, there may be more analysis left to do, but we can make progress in developing this science without entering into those analyses.


I have no doubt that I have overlooked some important and interesting elements of the discussion Mill provides in the Introduction (and might well return to some of this later), but for next week, I'll be on to the beginning of book one, "Of Names and Propositions".