Philosophical Analyses: An Explanation and Defense

  • Michael Levin
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 216)


If definitions are what you find in dictionaries, philosophical analyses aren’t definitions. The difference runs deeper than concern with use over meaning and the explication of obscure concepts by clearer ones, matters of perhaps less moment to lexicographers than philosophers. Rather, successful philosophical definitions have the ring of empirical discoveries or illuminating theories. Think, for instance, of Hobbes’ celebrated definition of “laughter” in terms of “sudden glory,” or Russell’s of “number” as “maximal set of equinumerous sets.” Successful or not, philosophical definitions have been tested like theories since Socrates first vexed his interlocutors with hard cases.


Verbal Behavior Philosophical Analysis Phenomenal Property Perception Word Stimulus Meaning 
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  1. 1.
    This proposal was first made in J. L. Mackie, Truth Probability and Paradox (Oxford U.P.: Oxford, 1973). I develop it in too-compressed form in Michael Levin, Metaphysics and the Mind-Body Problem (Oxford U.P.: Oxford, 1979), pp. 11-44.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Language-learning meets the standard ethological criteria for innateness: irreversible appearance in virtually all conspecifics, with strength of emission depending on age, in all environments in which the species evolved. Virtually all two-year-olds learn to speak if exposed to sounds to mimic, and no child regresses to babbling after first producing Victorian prose. Certain recognitional capacities (‘predator’) and perhaps some features of grammar may also be innate. For more on innateness, see Michael Levin, Feminism and Freedom (Transaction: New Brunswick, N.J., 1987); pp. 55-66, and James Gould, Ethology (Harper and Row: NY, 1982).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “It is important to think of what prompts the native’s assent to ‘Gavagai?’ as stimulations and not rabbits. Stimulation can remain the same though the rabbit be supplanted by a counterfeit. Conversely, the stimulation can vary in its power to prompt assent to ‘Gavagai’ because of variations in angle, lighting and color contrast, though the rabbit remain the same. In experimentally equating the uses of ‘Gavagai’ and ‘Rabbit’ it is stimulations that must be made to match, not animals” (Word and Object [MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1960], p. 31). The closest ethological analogues of predicates whose meanings are their stimulus meanings — the observation predicates of the animal world — are fixed action patterns, stereotyped sequences of muscle movement triggered by definite sensory stimuli in accordance with an innate program. A greylag gosling will peck at a red dot whether or not it is on an adult female’s beak. However, most animal responses, like most human responses, are mediated by learning. Furthermore, there is a clear sense in which even the presence of fixed action patterns are to be explained by distal objective causes. Thus, goslings peck at red dots because — mother geese having such dots where they keep their food — such behavior is adaptive in the wild. Both sorts of explanation parallel possible explanations of the verbal responses of speakers in terms of the distal causes of proximal sensory stimulation. It is thus unclear why distal objective causes should be excluded from the objective portion of meaping, even if the immediate sensory causes of verbal behavior can be produced without the actual distal cause.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    H. P. Grice, ‘The Causal Theory of Perception,’ in R. Swartz, ed., Perceiving, Sensing, and Knowing (Doubleday: NY, 1965), p. 463.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Kripke formulates the problem in Wittgenstein on Private Language and Following a Rule (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1982): Should S call both an adult male human being and a rock glimpsed in shadow a “man,” the dispositional theory seems committed to including both in the positive circumstantial meaning of “man.” His calling the rock a “man” becomes an indication, merely, of idiosyncratic usage, not a mistake. Quine replies that S’s having been taught a word with so complex a meaning can be excluded by the invocation of “hypotheses regarding plausible processes” (Quine and Ullian, The Web of Belief, 2nd ed. [Random House: NY, 1978], pp. 53-54). Quine also suggests — I have been unable to track down the reference — that S made a mistake by his own lights because he would not have assented to “Man?” had he had a clearer view of the rock. These criteria together may seem to construe correctness as too dependent on what seems correct to the speaker, but on close inspection they give intuitively satisfying results. If S persists in calling the rock a man under better lighting conditions, we would no doubt conclude that, somehow, he has picked up non-standard associations for the phoneme “man” and was not making a mistake.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Roy Sorensen, Blindspots (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1988), pp. 216-252, and references therein.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanation (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1981), pp. 172-247.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    For a Platonistic attack on the paradox, see George Bealer, Quality and Concept (Oxford U.P.: Oxford, 1982), pp. 74-77, 171. According to Bealer, someone who knows there is a circle in front of him can be said to know there is a set of points equidistant from a given point in front of him (since circles are sets of points, etc.), if’ set of points [etc.]’ denotes the unanalyzed concept of a set of points, etc. He does not however know there is such a set of points in front of him, if by’ set of points [etc.]’ we refer to the fully analyzed concept of such a set of points. For a strikingly similar view from a strictly naturalistic perspective, see Fred Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.), pp. 215ff.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Nelson Goodman, ‘Merit as Means,’ in Problems and Projects (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, Indiana; 1972), pp. 120–121.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Levin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCity College of New YorkUSA

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