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Prior Knowledge

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Russell's Robust Sense of Reality

This is something I have on my mind, mostly because I have to give a presentation on it on Monday, but also because it is very interesting.

Bertrand Russell (An introduction to philosophical mathematics, p.169) writes:
It is argued, e.g. by Meinong, that we can speak about “the golden mountain,” “the round square,” and so on; we can make true propositions of which these are the subjects; hence they must have some kind of logical being, since otherwise the propositions in which they occur would be meaningless. In such theories, it seems to me, there is a failure of that feeling for reality which ought to be preserved even in the most abstract studies. Logic, I should maintain, must no more admit a unicorn than zoology can; for logic is concerned with the real world just as truly as zoology, though with its more abstract and general features.

In this quote it appears that Russell is asserting that there is a strong bond between ontological commitments and formal logic. It seems far more plausible that the function of formal logic is merely a method for evaluating inferences. Any connection between logic and ontology is purely contingent. As Crittenden comments
logic should be neutral between different positions: a system of logic which was available to logicians of a particular philosophical persuasion only would hardly qualify as a logic.
Having said all that I still agree with Russell about his robust sense of reality. Guess I haven’t thought things through or something, but I’m in it for the discussion anyway. (this is my first post so if I've failed at some unspoken rules with blogs then please inform me and i'll attempt to conform in the future)

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  • Isn't Russel misunderstanding the position that he is arguing against?

    Isn't the idea that in order to say "the unicorn's horn is pointy", in a sense, there must be a unicorn... even if simply a logical definition? But to say that saying that a unicorn exists in a logical (ontological too?) sense (maybe in a far away possible world - I'm pretty sure I can imagine one that doesn't seem inherently contradictory) commits one to the idea that one exists in the empirical, biological sense is a strange claim.

    Although perhaps I shouldn't be bringing possible worlds into this.

    3/10/2005 05:13:00 PM  

  • Well according the Russell it is not true that "the unicorn's horn is pointy" for the same reason that "the king of France is bald" is not true. There simply aren't any objects in the world to make it true. In the mentioned paper he argues that while names denote something, descriptions may or may not denote anything. Thus, when we talk about unicorns we are using descriptions that do not denote anything in the world. Thus we do not have to appeal to there being a unicorn; because when we say "the unicorn's horn is pointy" we are not making a true statement. (A possible solution to this undesirable position is to say that when one speaks about fictions and the like one is implicitly putting "In fairytales" or whatever in front of the sentence. Thus “in fairytales the unicorn’s horn is pointy” can be true, this is because the description is secondary, but if you want to know more about that you’ll have to read some russell)

    I was thinking some more about the general problem today and have maybe reconciled the views somewhat. If Russell is to be taken as asserting that the world is a certain way based on a system of logic, then he would be very mistaken. An example of this way of thinking would be to say that logical contradictions cannot exist in the world because logic says they cannot. It seems to me that if one were to reason in the other direction, from there existing no contradictions in the world to having a system of logic in which contradictions are not aloud, then one would have not made any great error at all. If one is willing to accept that the world is the truth maker in logic, then it seems plausible that the logic will depend on the world to a certain degree.

    3/11/2005 09:53:00 PM  

  • Some Neo-Meinongians do bring possible worlds in. Graham Priest, for example. But he will still claim that there are impossible worlds too, where there are round squares. The tricky bit is that according to Priest, these impossible worlds don't exist. Indeed there are loads of things that don't exist.

    Meinong (and neo-meinongians) claim that 'unicorn' refers to something, but that something does not exist. Russell can't understand how a unicorn can be a something without existing.

    10/12/2006 01:55:00 AM  

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