Quine and the attack on analyticity

quineWillard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher best known for his work on the logic of language and his criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction. He is commonly considered one of the most important thinkers in the school of analytic philosophy.

Hume’s fork first brought the problem of analytic and synthetic statements to the attention of modern philosophers. What would follow from Hume was the edifice of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealistic method and his redefining of the analytical and synthetic to also include the a priori and a posteriori.

Quine, in his work on language, would however come to doubt the validity of analytic statements (i.e. such as “All bachelors are unmarried men”). Quine argued that all attempts to ground analytic truths rely on circular logic. Quine further argues that philosophers like Kant do not sufficiently take into account analytic statements dependence on the contingency of language. In essence, Quine collapses the analytic into the synthetic, along with the in/famous distinction between the two.

It should be noted that Quine’s attack on analyticity is broadly an attack on rationalism and metaphysics itself. Given that most metaphysical systems involve the use of deductive arguments from analytical statements, it follows that if Quine is correct the consequences for metaphysical argument would be disastrous.

So what is Quine’s answer to this problem? Quine says that the best we can do is Humean matter of facts and synthetic claims. And the best pursuit of these claims is the modern scientific method, a method that Quine called a “naturalised epistemology”.

Camus and the absurd

Albert-Camus-7Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French-Algerian writer and Nobel Laureate. Camus began his career as a journalist and playwright in his native Algeria. He would go on to write several novels, plays and essays that would gain him international recognition – the most notable being The Stranger and The Myth of Sissyphus.

Camus was neither a philosopher by training or profession, yet his works are full of insight and are heavily influenced by the burgeoning Existentialist philosophy in Europe. Camus’ greatest philosophical contribution is his idea of the absurd.

In the work of Sartre, one finds the particular legacy of Phenomenology; that while human consciousness is intentional (“of something else”), the external world has no such teleology. It is this tension of meaningful man against an indifferent world that gives rise to Camus’ absurdity.

This tension is particularly evident in the final chapter of The Stranger, where Meursault (imprisoned for murder) laments being trapped in what he feels is an inadequate justice system. Meursault writes that “what interests me at this moment is to escape the mechanism.” He conjures the image of a guillotine, a machine of death that gives its victim no chance of survival, and compares it unfavorably to taking a drug that would kill 90 % of it’s victims (i.e. the chance of survival). After this flight of fancy, Meursault writes “But all things considered, nothing allowed this luxury, everything denied it to me, the mechanism took hold again.”

For Camus, affected by the Cartesian and Newtonian modern mechanistic view of the world, the absurd arises because man is a kind of Unmeant Meaner – desperately seeking order and significance that can never exist outside of his own mind.

Sartre’s unique anti-theist argument


Most anti-theist arguments take the form, in one way or another, of the problem of evil. The classic example is Epicurus’ trilemma.

Sartre however, formulates a fascinating and unique atheistic argument. I have written in the previous post regarding Sartre’s existential anthropology – in that a man’s existence precedes his essence and thus he is necessarily a subject, and necessarily free.

With that background, I will attempt to trace out Sartre’s argument syllogistically.

  1. If God exists as traditionally conceived, then essence will precede existence and man must be an artificial object of God.
  2. Man is not an artificial object.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Sartre writes in his play No Exit in the voice of Garcin:

This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece and I understand that I am in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more, many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all that we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales, there’s no need for the red hot pokers. Hell – is other people!

As Garcin is being scrutinised he feels like the bronze statue, an artifice. Sartre then moves from the gaze of men to the gaze of an omniscient God. As RC Sproul writes, Sartre sees God as a kind of “cosmic voyeur” that reduces all men to mere objects. After all, if other people are hell, how much worse is the company of God!

Of course, this argument is not without controversy. One may point out that man is natural rather than artificial due to his intrinsic teleology, even if essence precedes existence. Or one may simply concede that in fact man is a type of object.

Sartre and authenticity

Fotolia_41409422_XS-300x223In the previous post on Sartre I have provided a very brief overview of his phenomenological and existential philosophy. Like most philosophers, Sartre had plenty to say in regards to how one should live one’s life.

Sartre begins with the existentialist thesis that existence comes before essence. What flows logically from this is Sartre’s idea of human freedom – that because there is no essence or nature to man, he is free to do as he pleases. This similar to Kant’s thesis of man as self-legislator, and in contrast to a natural law thesis under which man’s nature determines what is good for him.

So, what to do with all this freedom? Sartre asserts that a man makes himself through his actions, and key to this are his positive concepts of individuality and authenticity, and their corresponding negative bad faith.

Beginning with bad faith, this is most clearly understood as when the “for-itself” rather chooses to become an “in-itself”. Sartre gives the example of a waiter who comes to identify himself as his role, instead of as an individual choosing to perform a certain set of tasks. In this way, the human as waiter relinquishes his burden of freedom as a “for-itself”. Loosely, bad faith can be approximated as man’s tendency to reject his status as a subject and become an object.

In the opposite, a man that recognises his status as a “for-itself” and fully embraces his freedom will live an individual and authentic life. But at the same time, Sartre more fully fleshes out the psychological problems with Kant’s radical ideas about human freedom; in that while man may be free to act as he chooses towards the world, ultimately he will find only indifference and uselessness.


Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

sartreJean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was a French philosopher and playwright. His philosophical magnum opus Being and Nothingness (1943) is widely regarded as the most important work in the school of 20th century existentialism.

While a prisoner of war in 1940-41, Sartre read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Sartre was fascinated with Heidegger’s ontological investigation using Husserl’s phenomenological method.

Sartre was however skeptical of the Heideggerian imperative of Dasein. Sartre rather turned his own phenomenological inquiry inward, to describe what it is to be ontologically human.

Sartre begins with the Kantian idea of the “thing in itself”, that is the objects of human consciousness. According to Sartre, these objects have a real existence and are not mind dependent. However, following the phenomenological tradition consciousness is always intentional i.e. it is always “of something else” rather than “in itself”. Because of this, it is impossible to fully grasp the essence of consciousness – consciousness is being “for itself”.

Sartre’s existentialism arises out of the individuals desire to ground itself in being through the execution of tasks and jobs. This leads to Sartre’s views on ethics, which I will explore in the next post.


Karl Popper on science and falsification

Karl_PopperKarl Popper (1902 – 1994) was an Austrian born philosopher that spent most of his academic life working in New Zealand and Britain. In his youth, he worked in road construction and cabinet making, but struggled with the toil of heavy labour. Popper obtained his doctorate in psychology in 1928, and by 1937 he had obtained an academic position in New Zealand that enabled him to flee the rise of Nazism in Europe.

Popper completed many political works, but he is most well known for his work on the philosophy of science. Particularly, his proposal that all scientific theory should be falsifiable; that it is a strict condition that a scientific theory should be overturn-able given empirical evidence to its contrary.

In the modern era, Francis Bacon is the father of scientific philosophy with his inductivist method. Bacon’s idea was that one would observe the world, propose a law, and then confirm that law by further observation of many particulars. This law may later be modified or discarded pending further empirical study.

However, David Hume’s criticism of this method was that human beings do not directly perceive the causal connections between events (a.k.a problem of induction). This is a problem for Baconian science in that while one may see certain things and certain activities at certain times, this is by no means proof of any law of operation in nature.

Popper provides a solution for this problem: scientific theory must be falsifiable. The popular example is of the sun rising every morning. Popper states that while there is no way to prove that the sun will rise every morning empirically, one may formulate a scientific theory that the sun will rise every morning. There is no need to reject this theory until there is a morning where the sun does not rise – in which case a new theory will need to be formulated.

Popper works under the assumption that no scientific theory can be proved true, it can only be falsified. In this way it is like ancient Pyrrhonism, where the thought that one way is better than another lays in the deluded belief that one could prove their prejudice true.


Heidegger: phenomenology and being

Heidegger_1955Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was a German philosopher and one of the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century. Raised a Roman Catholic, Heidegger attended the University of Freiberg at the Church’s expense to study theology on the understanding that he would become an apologist. However, Heidegger broke with the Church and switched his field of inquiry to philosophy.

He would complete his doctoral thesis on the works of Duns Scotus, but it was Edmund Husserl and his philosophy of phenomenology that would become Heidegger’s greatest influence.

Like most great thinkers, Heidegger begins with a problem. Per Heidegger, the problem with Western Thought in the 20th century was that it had lost it’s concept of being and thus collapsed into nihilism. To clarify, it is the question of nature of being itself that fascinated Heidegger, rather the study of individual beings.

Heidegger developed two important concepts. The first is “Sein”, this is being itself. The second is “Dasein”, which are particular beings that “care” for the question of “Sein”. The main concern of Heidegger’s early philosophy is the phenomenological analysis of Dasein in order to understand Sein.

Heidegger’s search for Sein complicates Husserl’s philosophy. For Heidegger, the idea of the intentionality of the mental world is transformed because the experiences that are key to phenomenological analysis are already grounded in being. Rather, Heidegger argues the Dasein is what it is because the question of Sein matters to it.

For Heidegger phenomenlogy is methodological rather than metaphysical. One may also note the modern and especially Kierkegaardian emphasis on the subject as the starting point of philosophy. Heidegger would go on to influence the wave of existential thinkers of the 20th century.