Skip to main content

Sense/reference distinction



I recently engaged in a stimulating exchange with an Objectivist on twitter. I'll put it together here in a way one can't do in twitter's concision-is-everything format.

He picked the fight. There were too few Jamesians with whom to argue, so he found me, and made the sweeping, but characteristically O-ist, declaration that James' pragmatism abandoned "principles" for "efficiency."

Of course I responded that this was a canard.

After some back-and-forth we got to the issue of what is a tautology and whether it is a bad thing. When O-ists are pressed on this point, they tend to take the absurd position that every true statement is a tautology. Simply because every true statement says of something that it is, what it is.

The reason this is absurd:  it squashes together "sense" and "reference."

The proper name "Samuel Clemens" and the pen name "Mark Twain" refer to the same man, the same biological organism. Hence they have the same reference. But they don't have the same sense.  One conveys roughly the sense, "the man who wrote Huck Finn," the other conveys the sense, "an individual born in November 1835 in MO..." I could know a number of truths about both Clemens and Twain without knowing that Clemens was Twain.

Thus, if we understand the sense/reference distinction we can understand that the statement "Mark Twain was Mark Twain" is trivial, but the statement "Mark Twain was Samuel Clemens" is substantive, and may for some people at some times represent an important discovery.

How does this bring us back to pragmatism and principles-versus-efficiency? Well, in response to that canard, I had characterized Jamesian pragmatism as a victory in a two-front war, against the upper and the lower dogmatisms, against (speaking very roughly) Hegel and Clifford. In 21st century terms, both dogmatisms are still around, the upper represented by Allan Bloom, (and, I argue, by objectivism), the lower by Daniel Dennett. So it is important to continue re-enacting the Jamesian victory.

Part of this re-enactment has to involve the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. The upper dogmatists tend to dissolve this dichotomy by making all important statements analytical. Leibniz was a fine example of that. The objectivist contention that every truth is a tautology is likewise. The lower dogmatists tend to make the contrary error: they make the analytic/synthetic distinction into an absolute one (hence its renowned employment by David Hume as his "fork.") It cannot be absolute, as William James explicitly explained near the end of Principles of Psychology. It cannot be absolute, but it is real, as a continuum.

And for those of us who wish to avoid both dogmatisms it is important to know where, on the continuum from triviality to substance, one stands at a given moment.

I've rather arbitrarily illustrated this post with a photo of Allan Bloom, above.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

https://sites.google.com/site/francescoorsi1/

https://jhaponline.org/jhap/article/view/3

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …