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Foundations of Analytical Philosophy, Part 3: Descriptivism, Naturalism and Pragmatism

In the last part of this series, Dan Hutto describes the options open to analytical philosophers today.

Three events mark analytical philosophy’s transition from its middle to its mature period. These are the dissolution of the analytic/synthetic distinction, the emergence of the ‘indeterminacy of translation’ thesis and the articulation of the private language argument. I will begin by discussing these philosophical milestones, without particular concern for chronology.

1.1 The Fall of the Analytic/Synthetic Distinction

If you recall from the last instalment, the logical positivists called a proposition ‘analytic’ if its truth was secured by definition. Thus, “A vixen is a female fox” is true simply due to the conventions by which we use the terms. Analytic statements differed from synthetic statements, which related directly to some possible experience. The connection of synthetic statements with ‘objective reality’ ultimately grounded the meaning of all statements. Put another way, in the end all meaningful statements were supposed to be capable of reduction (even if exceedingly complex reduction) into synthetic ones.

Willard Van Orman Quine famously revealed serious problems with this picture. He challenged the idea that there could be any ‘neutral’ synthetic observations, at bottom, upon which to ground meaning. He emphasised that any and all ‘observation’ is infected by various background beliefs and that changing one’s background beliefs can affect what one ‘sees’. If this is correct there can be no statements that are made true simply by experience. A good candidate for that kind of proposition might be “The Earth is stationary” for if we simply have a good look that is how it appears. At one time we might have thought this to be self-evidently true – and moreover we might have held it to be proven true by a simple observation of the facts. However if Quine is correct there is no such animal as a simple observation! Presumably, I see the Earth in much the way my forefathers did and yet I deny that it actually is stationary (it only appears to be) whereas they would not. Hence, experience alone cannot possibly decide what is true or not – and thus experience cannot ground meaning in the way the logical positivists hoped.

Quine emphasised that there are in fact many implicit background assumptions (in this case largely assumptions about cosmology) which make all the difference to how we interpret our experiences and how we make our final evaluation of statements. If this is so then we cannot simply get meaning from experience since there are no ‘neutral’ observations available to us. And it is because our conceptual judgements meet experience as a body that we must allow for possible revision at any place within that body. From this Quine concluded that “no statement is immune to revision”(Quine, 1953, p.43). If he is right we must even allow for the possibility of changes in our verdicts on what is experienced itself!

The idea that our knowledge forms a revisable framework seems to destroy the distinction between absolute fact made true by experience, on the one hand, and mere definition or human projection, on the other. This is why Quine believes that any and all ‘facts’ are open to alternative interpretations and why he famously proposed that “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only at the edges (Quine, 1953, p.42). The analytic/synthetic distinction has long been discredited by Quine’s advocating of this kind of holism.

1.2 The Rise of Indeterminacy of Translation

Another influential argument against the logical positivist view of meaning goes under the grand name of the ‘Indeterminacy of Translation Thesis’. This thesis also comes originally from Quine. What it says is that there is no fact of the matter concerning the meaning of sentences. Quine thought this was most clearly revealed by an examination of what goes on when we try to translate alien sentences into English ones.

Imagine we are trying to translate from Phoenician into English, with no prior knowledge of Phoenician and nothing to go on except the behaviour and actions of the group of Phoenician hunters we have just met. Suppose we have good reason to think that a Phoenician sentence expresses something like:

“A so-and-so is present.

Further observation has revealed that the Phoenicians only utter this sentence in the presence of rabbits. What should we make of this? Well, Quine’s point is that we mustn’t think that the only or best way to translate the sentence will be by using the English expression:

“A rabbit is present.

He argues that although it may seem intuitively obvious to us, we don’t have sufficient reason to make that assumption. For all we know, and considering all our evidence, the Phoenicians might be saying that a temporal segment of rabbithistory is present, that an instance of rabbithood is present, or that an undetached part of a rabbit is present (see Quine, 1969, p.2). Quine thinks that nothing will ever tell us definitively which is the correct translation. The upshot of this is that he feels there cannot be a single ‘right’ translation. He feels that there is ‘no fact of the matter about meaning’.

The later Wittgenstein raised a similar point in the Blue and Brown Books. He asked: How can we indicate what we mean simply by pointing? To modify an example of his imagine you are trying to teach me the word ‘goose’. Simply pointing or jabbing at what appears before my eyes won’t do, for I might take what I see in a variety of ways. How am I to know that you are not trying to indicate the general concept ‘animal’, or ‘white’, or ‘feathered’, or ‘goose-shaped’, or ‘bird’, or ‘one’? In other words experience cannot, by itself, determine meaning and we have to rely partly on the preestablished framework provided by other language-users – what Wittgenstein called ‘the stage setting’. This conclusion is devastating for positivistic views on language. For remember, if all statements are made true by experience, then we cannot use a definition or other language to clarify what you mean by your pointing, since the pointing itself is supposed to carry the meaning.

1.3 A Private Retreat

If you accept the above arguments, you might still try to save logical positivism by saying that the meaning of statements consists of inexpressible, private sensory experiences. However, Wittgenstein produced a powerful critique of this move. To modify his examples again for the sake of consistency, we might ask: How can I know whether your sensory experience of a goose, a colour, or anything else is the same as mine? Might it not be the case that you see the world in a radically different way to me? Imagine that Alfred and Donald have very different sensory experiences. Perhaps Alfred sees white as whatwe- would-call-red, and feathers as what-wewould- call-skin. If it helps imagine they are wearing different virtual reality helmets running different programs. That would be a graphic illustration of the situation if private sensory experience grounded meaning.

But none of this will do. For what it fails to secure is precisely what it sets out to secure – that is ‘meaning’ in the ordinary sense of the word. If you and I did see the goose in radically different ways, but still conversed about geese (or any other feature of the ‘public world’ as I did in my God’s-eye description of our situation in the virtual reality helmets) then this in itself would be enough to show that meaning (ordinarily conceived – i.e. public) cannot depend on private sensory experience. Your private, inexpressible sense experience of the goose is not important to the public meaning of the concept ‘goose’ (even Frege knew that).

The impact of these ideas on the course of analytical philosophy has been enormous. They shattered once and for all the idea that our philosophical method could simply be some form of reductive analysis of language in the sense described in parts one and two of this series. Further, by effectively discrediting this possibility, these arguments forced analytical philosophers to treat meaning, and our understanding of the world that was based on it, as ungrounded in any purely ‘objective’ phenomena (see axioms (a) and (b) outlined in part 1). Thus, while some changes are ground-breaking these were quite literally ground-destroying.

It is against the background of this collapse of a pretence to ‘objectivity’ that we can best see the development of the major strands of ‘postpositivist’ philosophy. Hence, to conclude my selective story about the foundations of analytic philosophy, I will review the standard options now available to followers of this tradition. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which today’s analytic philosopher chooses his direction on the basis of the values he or she holds dear.

2. Descriptivism

What is left for the philosopher who believes that we can only understand the world by understanding language, but who also accepts that meaning isn’t grounded in any objective phenomena? I think that Wittgenstein was tormented by this very question and that only the moves he made in his later work managed to bring him ‘peace’ (Wittgenstein, 1953, §133). His central aim in his later work was to stress that it is not the task of philosophy to perfect our ordinary language. He remarked “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it”(Wittgenstein, 1953, §124). For if meaning has no ultimate ground then there can be little point in searching for such a ground.

He makes the same point again in this oftquoted passage: “And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way to make us recognise those workings; in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information but by arranging what we have always known”(Wittgenstein, 1953, §109).

He is saying that if we look carefully at how language is actually used in specific circumstances, if we are content to describe it and not try to get ‘behind it’ or ‘underneath it’ then we will resolve our philosophical problems and worries. Moreover, if the later Wittgenstein was right they cannot be solved in any other way since they are the result of misunderstandings of how language works. Hence, says Wittgenstein, the primary task of the philosopher is not to advance theories but to describe our ‘form of life’ by describing our use of concepts.

He says “Our mistake is to look for an explanation where we ought to look at what happens as a ‘proto-phenomenon’. That is, where we ought to have said: this language-game is played”(Wittgenstein, 1953, §654) “Look on the language-game as the primary thing (Wittgenstein, 1953, §656). In his last philosophical project before his death, Norman Malcolm described this attitude as partly encapsulating Wittgenstein’s ‘religious point of view’ (cf. Malcolm, 1993, ch.2). Wittgenstein himself was aware that this repudiation of explanation put him at odds with most twentieth century thought. In Culture and Value we find these words:

“It is all as one to me whether or not the typical western scientist understands or appreciates my work, since he will not in any case understand the spirit in which I write…. I am not aiming at the same target as the scientists and my way of thinking is different from theirs”(Wittgenstein, 1980, p.7e).

That explanations simply come to an end, that we get by very well without determinate meanings or ultimate grounds are ideas that sit uncomfortably with most philosophers, who see it as their very purpose to provide such ‘grounds’. If Wittgenstein was right such a quest is both superfluous and misguided. So, in answer to the question which opens this section, a philosopher who accepts that meaning is not grounded might simply be content with this ‘fact’. They might choose to simply describe the workings of language – and take these workings on ‘trust’ (Wittgenstein, 1969, §509).

3. Scientific Naturalism

Whereas Wittgenstein was happy to ‘work without a net’ – the ‘scientific naturalists’ prefer to erect a makeshift one. For them, science provides the ultimate court of appeal on matters philosophical. Science is the arbitrator that Wittgenstein thought was missing and was content to leave missing. For many late twentieth century thinkers modern science continues to hold out an attractive promise of a systematic, God’s-eye view from nowhere. As Richard Rorty tells us “Science is thought of offering ‘hard’, ‘objective’ truth; truth as correspondence to reality, the only sort of truth worthy of the name (Rorty, 1991a, p.35). This attitude transforms the project of the early analytical philosophers by shifting the metaphysical base upon which inquiry proceeds. Atoms in the void become the given not logical atoms or parcels of ‘experience’.

Nevertheless this move away from the traditional concerns of analytical philosophy changes the whole dynamic. The main philosophical question now becomes: How does meaning figure in the natural order, if at all? For if this question were answered then, at least, the appeal to science would seem to be justified. It would offer a complete account of our position in the world. Thus, in a nutshell, to make their choice philosophically respectable the scientific naturalists must show that Thomas Nagel is wrong to say that “the mental activity of forming an objective conception of the physical world seems itself not capable of physical analysis”(Nagel, 1986, p.15). There are two main ways that scientific naturalists attempt to meet this challenge – one conservative, the other radical.

‘Conservative’ scientific naturalists are optimistic that an explanation of how meaning figures in the world order will be forthcoming. They hope that one day a theory of ‘meaning’ will be vindicated by a naturalistic account of how our mental machinery works in relation to particular stimuli and that such a relation can be identified wholly impersonally and objectively. And even though this ambitious project is still very much alive (as a corrupted form of analytic philosophy) it has faced, and is facing, many serious problems (cf. Putnam, 1988, 1990).

The more radical scientific naturalists are content to make do without content! They argue that if propositions, truth, rationality, meaning, etc. can’t be reduced to something objective (something scientifically recognisable) then we must abandon them. Paul Churchland even goes so far as to write “Truth, as currently conceived, might cease to be an aim of science. Not because we had lowered our sights…but because we had raised our sights, in pursuit of some epistemic goal even more worthy than truth”(Churchland, 1989, p.150). And to further this project he has recently become committed to an account of our relation to ‘reality’ which “contrasts sharply with the kinds of representational and processing strategies that analytic philosophers, cognitive psychologists, and AI workers have traditionally ascribed to us (namely, sentence-like representations…).”(Paul Churchland, 1989, p.130-131). In this way the radical scientific naturalist undermines analytical philosophy (as traditionally conceived) by altogether denying the importance of the role of ‘language’ in describing reality (cf. Hutto, 1993a, 1994b).

We can see from this that to be a scientific naturalist is not, however, to claim that science necessarily grounds ‘meaning’ as such – even though it is the assumption of some scientific naturalists that if one puts one’s faith in ‘science’ an explanation will be forthcoming as to how meaning figures in the natural order. If not – so much the worse for meaning. In either case the scientific naturalist clings to the rock of science to provide the support they need while they carry out their philosophical business. Our guide to all questions philosophical will be science and science alone. Science, whose precise .boundaries are unclear, becomes a bit like Mary, and the naturalists become like Mary’s lamb. For wherever science goes they are sure to follow – without question or regret (cf. Hutto, 1992). Notice however that the choice to follow science is not (initially, at least) philosophically justified.

4. Pragmatism

Another reaction to the failure of attempts to ground meaning has been the revival of pragmatism (cf. Rorty, 1991a, 1991b, Putnam, 1990). C.S.Pierce, an American philosopher of the 1800’s, was the first to use the name pragmatism to describe his philosophy, but it was later adopted and developed by William James and John Dewey. The central tenet of pragmatism is described here by James:

“The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable…The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences (James, 1912, p.45)

Pragmatists condemn all philosophical inquiries and debates which yield no practical worth to a human society. For if there is no practical means to settle a dispute between two philosophical systems then the alternatives will effectively generate the same consequences and all dispute is idle (James, 1912, p.45). Hence even if such a dispute between systems may not be meaningless (where meaning is not grounded in anything objective) it can, nevertheless, be seen as pointless. An example James cites to illustrate this is the case of a metaphysical debate about a squirrel. As he tells it:

“The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly around the tree but no matter how fast he goes the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man. The resultant metaphysical debate now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not?”(James, 1912, p.44)

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Some people would say that the man does go around the squirrel in virtue of going around the whole tree. Other would argue that the man does not go around the squirrel because he never passes the squirrel on the outside.

When James was posed the question he answered as a pragmatist, saying, “Which party is right…depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel”(James, 1912, p.45 emphasis mine). To a pragmatist no dispute is reasonable or useful unless some parameters are established by which it can be settled. This is done by grounding meaning in practical consequences. For the pragmatist “no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but any one of them may from some point of view be useful (James, 1912, 57). There is no final court of appeal on the matter of truth, hence science and philosophy are only tools for the improvement of humanity’s condition.

James describes the very heart of the pragmatist vision in this passage: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this word-formula or that word-formula be the true one.”(James, 1912, p.50). Philosophy, according to the pragmatist, should not be a quest for ‘truth’ per se but a tool for achieving a better life for man. As Rorty tells us, using Bacon’s words and echoing James, pragmatism is the claim that the function of inquiry is “to relieve and benefit the condition of man.”(Rorty, 1991b, p.27)

Pragmatism responds to the groundlessness of meaning by holding that we are justified in believing that which is useful to us. For the pragmatist, philosophy is regarded as a kind of service enterprise, but unlike being employed as an under-labourer for science (as Locke saw it), philosophy is to serve humanity in general. Technology and science, says the pragmatist, are also here to serve, not to lead, inquiry.

There is a potentially serious and pressing difficulty which does plague the pragmatist. Throughout this section I have quoted several pragmatists who have blithely spoken of philosophy’s task as helping to make humankind better off, seeking to improve our condition, enabling us to live the good life, and so on. But at the heart of all this noble talk lies a confusion. For once we have abandoned the notion of objective truth how can we define what human improvement will consist in? And without such an objective standard how will the pragmatist know which theories or philosophies will be useful to us? What standard is being used? The pragmatist may be accused of leaving us with a merely arbitrary means of choosing between different ways of life. To this charge pragmatists can simply reply that there is no final answer as to how we should live and what we should strive toward. And if this leaves us in the uncomfortable position of not having all the answers, they can argue that we have always been in this position. The only difference is that if we accept pragmatism, we can occupy it honestly.

5 Conclusion

We have reached the end of our exploration of analytical philosophy’s past and its possible future. We have seen how the collapse of the idea of an objective ground to meaning (and all that goes with it) has led to the variety of different styles and attitudes that currently dominate philosophical inquiry and method. If this exploration has served any purpose at all then I hope it will have helped to make some readers conscious of the foundations of one major tradition in philosophy, while making other readers self-conscious about those foundations.


Churchland, P.M. 1989: A Neurocomputational Perspective (MIT).
Hutto, J.D.D. 1992: “A Job For Philosophy”in Philosophy Now No.4; 1993a: “A Tactical Defence of Folk Psychology”in Inside/Out Vol.8; 1993b: “Foundations of Analytical Philosophy Part 1: Early Analytical Philosophy”in Philosophy Now No.8; 1994a: “Foundations of Analytical Philosophy Part 2: Logical Atomism & Logical Positivism”in Philosophy Now No.9; 1994b: “Minding our Language: The Role of Simulation in Linguistic Interpretation”in Inside/Out Vol.9.
James, W. 1912: Pragmatism (Longman, Green & Co.)
Malcolm, N. 1993: Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View (Routledge).
Nagel, T. 1986: The View from Nowhere (Oxford).
Putnam, H. 1988: Representation and Reality (MIT); 1990: Realism with a Human Face (Harvard); 1993: Renewing Philosophy (Harvard).
Quine, W.V.O. 1953: From a Logical Point of View (Harvard); 1960: Word and Object (MIT); 1969: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (Columbia).
Rorty, R. 1991a: Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge); 1991b: Heidegger and Others (Cambridge).

Wittgenstein, L. 1953: Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell); 1958: The Blue and Brown Books (Blackwell); 1967: Zettel (Blackwell); 1969: On Certainty (Blackwell); 1980: Culture and Value (Harper & Row)

© Dr. J.D.D. Hutto 1994

Dan Hutto is a lecturer in philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Hertfordshire.

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