Monday, February 09, 2009

The opposition?

Despite having gotten off to a good start, so far I'm not nearly as impressed with this book as I thought I would be. Part of the problem, I think, is that it's unclear to me exactly who Williamson means to be addressing. In my post on the last chapter, I complained that he was setting up a straw man because those in favor of the conceptual turn must have something more interesting in mind than merely the claim that all philosophical theses are *about* language/thought in Williamson's various senses of 'about'. When I started chapter 3, then, I was excited because it seemed like Williamson was going to address this very point. But I still think he must be misunderstanding or misrepresenting his opposition, whoever they are.

His main point in this chapter is to argue that thinking about analyticity as "true in virtue of meaning" doesn't entail that analytic truths are insubstantial. I take it that in the next chapter he'll argue that thinking about analyticity in terms of some epistemological formulation also doesn't entail that analytic truths are insubstantial, and hence we get a fuller defense of the claim that philosophy is more than merely conceptual. But I'm a bit skeptical of this strategy, in part because I would think we should *begin* with the presupposition that analytic truths are less substantial and then go on to investigate both what this means and also whether all philosophical truths count as analytic. Doesn't it just seem obvious that the truth expressed by "Vixens are female foxes" is somehow less substantial than that expressed by "There are black swans"? Maybe this means I'm just coming at it from a different perspective, but I wouldn't have thought that the burden was on those who made these claims of insubstantiality. Or, at least, the burden on them is not to show THAT these truths are insubstantial but instead to say in what their insubstantiality consists. That seems like an interesting project, but I don't really see Williamson engaging concretely with those who would wish to embark on it.

P.S. Sorry I don't really have anything terribly penetrating to say about the book so far...I'm still trying to get my head around the general project, and I haven't been very impressed so far with the clarity of his writing.


Blogger Joshua said...


I agree with you that "vixens are female foxes" sounds less substantial than "There are black swans". But, I think that Williamson could concede this point. After all, the proposition expressed by "There are black swans" entails that something exists whereas the proposition expressed by "vixens are female foxes" does not. But, the philosopher who wants to say that philosophy is distinctive from other disciplines in that it involves drawing important inferences from insubstantial statements needs to do more than say that "vixens are female foxes" is less substantial than "There are black swans". It seems that such a philosopher needs to say that all the core analytic statements are less substantial than any typical empirical statement and that their degree of substantiality (whatever degree that is) accounts for our philosophical knowledge, that is our knowledge that is (in some sense) independent of experience.

Maybe it would help us see the difficulty if we compared our sentence "vixens are female foxes" to standard empirical claims like "Gold is a yellow metal". Neither claim expressed by these sentences has existential import. So, we won't mistaken think that one is less substantial than the other because of such existential import. But, when I compare these two statements, I don't know what to make of them. I am not sure that either is less substantial than the other. I am not even sure if the new sentence is supposed to be analytic.

2:40 PM  

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