Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In the middle of giving a counter-intuitive answer to the Special Composition Question (when do xs compose a y? If and only if they compose an organism), Peter van Inwagen pauses to acknowledge his argument's affront to common sense:

"A good many philosophers...may want to accuse me of a philosophical ploy that Saul Kripke has described in these words: 'The philosopher advocates a view apparently in patent contradiction to common sense...Personally, I think such philosophical claims are almost invariably suspect....The real misconstrual comes when the claimant continues, "All the ordinary man really means is..." and gives a sophisticated analysis compatible with his own philosophy.'"

Inwagen then proceeds to (1) deny that there is any such body of belief as common sense and (2) answer Kripke's philosophy-of-language-informed charge by denying that he is proposing an analysis of language. Up to this point, Inwagen has been saying something analogous to this: "When the ordinary man says the sun has moved behind the elms, what he really means is that the earth has moved in such a way that our position relative to the elms and the sun has changed such that the elms now block the sun." But then he seems to switch gears and claim that the ordinary man really does mean the sun has moved behind the elms and that furthermore, "this sentence is sufficiently empty of metaphysical commitment."

Prima facie, Inwagen's move smells like a blatant contradiction. One philosopher that I know, however, suggests that it's possible that Inwagen is stepping outside the metaphysics room momentarily to address Kripke. Perhaps there's even more to it. Maybe Inwagen is pointing out that statements of this sort constitute "protocol" sentences which, in contrast to "system" sentences, are about primitive, immediate perceptions and not scientific fact. And since such protocol sentences are never really false, what's the problem? In short, PvI gives a linguistic rebuttal to a linguistic objection and continues doing metaphysics as if he's just swatted away a fly. Personally, I take his remark as a kind of F you to philosophy of language on the whole (and, as such, humorously endearing), but decide for yourself [here].