22 May 2007

Analytical Philosophy

And they say the analytic tradition in philosophy is moribund!

In a recent book on the contending definitions of truth in philosophy today, a book with a distinctly Russellian/Wittgensteinian focus, I've found a passage that bears on that accusation. To me, its a very funny piece of writing too, though I'm sure it wasn't intended as such.

The author, Matthew McGrath, early on mentions sentences that contain the word "sake," as in "Lois Lane risked her life for Clark Kent's sake."

He then discusses the problems that we might run into if we regarded a "sake" as a thing, something Clark possesses. (Like a pet?) -- so that we might try to understand the sentence as analogous to, "Lois Lane risked her life for Clark Kent's collie." He calls this "sake realism."

"The opacity of sake-talk makes sake realism objectionable. But it is objectionable for reasons of a more general relevance. By accepting sakes, we would confront a panoply of seemingly unaswerable questions: Do all things have sakes? My socks? the number 7? Do sakes themselves have sakes? Why is it that the things that have sakes have only one sake?"

You might think that I'm being unfair, taking this out of context. Surely he was attempting a reductio? Some opponent's view strikes him as analogous to "sake realism" and, accordingly, absurd?

Not quite. He's playing defense in this passage. As near I can tell, he's trying to say that although his view of truth bears some relation to "sake realism," it is sufficiently distinquishable to survive such a reductio.

But never mind about that. The next time you want to give your mind the cleansing benefits of an Zen koan, just recall the question: "Do sakes themselves have sakes?"

But don't do it for my sake.

Mr. McGrath needs to get out more.


Henry said...

Christopher, you fail to say what his view of the truth is, or how it bears some relation to sake realism; what you quote is entirely critical of sake realism. I do not see how any rational person could regard a sake as a thing. "For X's sake" means "in X's interest." The only interesting question I see is whether a non-sentient being can have a sake (i.e., an interest), and even this is merely a sematical question. Do we water our plant for its sake? Sure, we can and do say that, but we should keep in mind that we are using "sake" differently from when we say that we feed our dog for his or her sake. We really water the plant for our own sake, as we and not the plant is the one who cares whether it flourishes.

Henry said...

Of course, we may feel our dog for our own sake as well as for his or hers, as we may derive pleasure from seeing our dog thrive. It is even theoretically possible that we might feed our dog solely for our own sake. Say that we hate dogs and would be happy if they all starved to death, but this particular dog is an expensive show dog whom we feed so that we can benefit from his monetary value.

Christopher said...

I summarized McGrath's view of truth a week ago, in my posting for May 15th.

Also, in that post, I critiqued one aspect of McGrath's view: i.e. that the meaning of a sentence, its value as a proposition, is what is properly true or false. I think that a dualism of sentence/proposition is akin to a dualism of body/mind, and suffers from the same problems. Let us not postulate a ghost in the inkwell.

McGrath's book takes account of such criticisms as that, and it is in the context of defending the notion of a proposition as a sort of entity that he talks about sakes. The point is that propositions don't prove as unwieldy as sakes.

But in this post I just wanted to quote this particular passage for amusement's sake.

Maggie said...

It is still more amusing if you read "sake" as the Japanese alcoholic beverage sake. Are we referring to alcoholic beverage realism? That could be a pretty shaky realism.

Christopher said...

Sake (with two syllables) indeed! That is an entity I want to keep in my ontology.

Anonymous said...

Hi Christopher, Matthew McGrath here. Well, this book is my dissertation, written about ten years ago, so it is a bit green. And no doubt you are right that I did need to get out more.

In the passage you quote, I did mean to be humorous in a geeky way, with the silly references to socks, etc.

My aim with all the sake business, as I think you see, was to take a look at the extreme case, the case where we definitely should not reify our nouns into entities, where it is ridiculous to do so. Since at the time I wrote the dissertation, I thought that that-clauses denoted propositions, I wanted to show that my proposition realism was not like the sake case. Looking at extremes, I think, is important to gain ones bearings, though it can sound silly when presented on its own. This method is not unique to analytic philosophy either. Take a look at some of the dialogues of Plato again!

So, sure, you're right to poke fun at the passage. But I do think there are interesting and hard questions behind the passage about how to understand the ontology implicit in ordinary language. I try to get into some of these issues in my Stanford Encyclopedia entry on propositions. There I give a hearing to the more pragmatist views of Carnap, who regarded the traditional questions of ontology as at best questions of what sort of linguistic framework to work with.


Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.