Friday, August 27, 2010

Tables and chairs

Like many philosophers, I don't believe that tables and chairs are fundamental objects. Like a much smaller number of philosophers, I like to say that I don't think tables and chairs exist. I have good reasons for my denial. For instance, it does not appear that there is an exact moment at which a table comes into existence. I take four wooden rods, each two feet long, and stand them on their ends outlining a rectangle. On this precarious perch, I put a sheet of plywood. That's not a table. I put some glue between the rods and the plywood. Initially that's still not a table, since the glue hasn't gripped. But once the bond is strong enough, what I have is a (poorly engineered and ugly) table. But then there must be a time such that a nanosecond before it the bond wasn't strong enough to make for a table and a nanosecond later it was strong enough.[note 1] This is very implausible.

So what should I say? Here are three options:

  1. Say in contexts both ordinary and philosophical that there are no tables or chairs (and hence if someone asks me if there are any chairs in a conference room, answer in the negative, and then explain further).
  2. Say in ordinary contexts that there are tables and chairs, but deny it in philosophical contexts.
  3. Say in all contexts that there are tables and chairs, but in philosophical contexts emphasize that they are not fundamental.
Option (1) would be practically the toughest and (3) would be practically the easiest. Option (3), however, is not satisfactory as the arguments against tables and chairs existing do not seem to be just arguments against their fundamentality.

In the absence of (3), it would be nice too be able to defend (2). But it seems like plain dishonesty. I think, though, it can be defended.

First of all, ordinary folk already make something like this distinction. If you ask someone: "Are there any potholes on your way to work?" they may answer in the positive. But if you press them and ask whether potholes are really existing, if they aren't rather a matter of there not being asphalt there, I expect you will be told something that sounds contradictory like: "Potholes don't exist, but they're there." If this is right, there is in ordinary language a distinction between real existence and just existence in a manner of speaking.

Suppose that a community of English speakers started saying "There is a xyzzy" whenever there was a full moon, and mosquitoes were biting somewhere in Minnesota, and there was a Democratic president in the US. And they even had identity conditions for xyzzies. They would say that there can only be one xyzzy at a time, and that a xyzzy at t0 is the same xyzzy as the one at t1 provided that either the same Democrat is president at both times or the two presidents are related by a chain of president to vice-president relations. If we were members of the community, we'd have to say that this summer there was a xyzzy. But I think we'd want to deny the existence of xyzzies. Why? Because the right thing to say is that the logical grammar of "There is a xyzzy" does not match its surface grammar. The surface grammar is "There exists an x such that x is a xyzzy." But the deep logical grammar is "There is a Democratic president, there is a full moon and the mosquitoes are biting somewhere in Minnesota."

I think the same sort of thing should be said about tables and chairs. The surface grammar can involve existence claims (and predications and the like). But the deep logical grammar is different. And in cases where the surface grammar does not match the real logical grammar, we do in fact have two usages: an ordinary usage and a philosophical usage that mirrors the deep logical grammar. This is what we do for holes and this is what we would do for xyzzies. We also do this for some claims that aren't existential. For instance:

  1. That overgrown graveyard isn't really spooky. It's just that you are spooked by it.
  2. Actually, nobody is annoying. It's just that we are annoyed by some people.
The second sentence in each pair is a way of noting that the deep grammar of "... is spooky" or "... is annoying" is in fact something like: "x is spooked by ..." or "x is annoyed by ...". The use of "really" or "actually", as well as the paradoxicality of the first sentence in each pair, signals that we are doing something other than going with the surface grammar.

Now, to make sense of this, one does, I think, need some view on which there is something like an Aristotelian focal sense of existence (in the tables and chairs case) or predication (in the spookingess and annoyance cases), and in philosophical senses we focus in on the focal sense. Here then would be an example based on Aristotle's own example of focality:

  1. There is no such thing as healthy food. There is only food that makes one healthy.
It's tempting to say that (6) is confused: "That's what I mean by healthy food, silly!" But (6) isn't a confusion. It is signaling that food isn't healthy in the focal sense of "healthy". That we can correctly speak of food as healthy in a non-focal sense is not being disputed. But it is denied that there is a property (in a sparse sense) that both the healthy woman and the healthy dinner have in virtue of both being healthy.


Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

Is it essential that the distinction be between surface grammar and deep *grammar*? Why not make the distinction between the surface grammar and the nature of the truthmakers (assuming one accepts some form of truthmaker theory)?

So long as one doesn't think that there has to be some sort of isomorphism between reality (i.e., the truthmakers) and representations of it, then you've got a distinction that will do the work for you. You can say that the move from, for example, "There were potholes on my way to work" to "there were places in the road where there was no asphalt" is a move from ordinary language predication to talk about the nature of the truthmakers for the ordinary language predication.

Heath White said...

I can accept a distinction between surface and deep grammar, if there is some paraphrase of an allegedly misleading statement into a non-misleading one that preserves all the former's logical characteristics. I believe such paraphrases work much less often than advertised; witness the history of linguistic philosophy in the mid-20th c.

But tables and chairs don't seem to benefit from this strategy; there is no paraphrase of "there are chairs in my office" which removes a misleading reference to chairs in favor of something else.

My own suspicion is that ambitious metaphysicians (I am no kind of a metaphysician) are misled by formal logic. Formal logic demands countable objects with identity conditions; I am not at all sure this is a reflection of the real world.

Even if we accept a distinction between the existence of potholes and the existence of roads (for example, which I am not sure we should) it's not clear to me that one of these is "real" existence and the other is some ersatz substitute.

An analogy: If you start out thinking of numbers as means of counting objects, you will be astonished and dismayed by the prospect of irrational numbers, even if their existence is entailed by premises you accept. Complex numbers will be totally inconceivable. It is not until you fundamentally rethink the nature of number that the picture becomes clear.

Dan Johnson said...

I'm with Heath on this, but I'll put it in a slightly different way. Consider your example of xyzzies. For that to work, you need to be able to say this:

What it is for there to be a xyzzy is for there to be ....(I forget all your conditions).

In other words, you need a reductive explanation, what I've called an "ontological explanation." This is close to Heath's point about paraphrase.

But the problem with your arguments about tables and chairs is that they rule out a reductive explanation or paraphrase. There aren't any successful attempts at finding necessary and sufficient conditions for "there exists a table." Some so-called "eliminativist" arguments perhaps do not rule out such a paraphrase, but then they should be called "reductive" rather than "eliminative."

Alexander R Pruss said...


How about this paraphrase? You replace: "There are tables and chairs" with "'There are' 'tables' and 'chairs'", using scare quotes. :-)

I suspect that after a bit of time using "xyzzy" there would be no good paraphrase of xyzzy talk into talk without "xyzzy". For instance, there might be no way to specify the standards in play for how many mosquitoes there have to be and how often they bite, as the standards "There is a xyzzy" might well diverge from those in "The mosquitoes are biting".

But lack of a paraphrase is not, I think, a sign of the absence of deep logical grammar.

Take any example of a surface/deep grammar distinction. We can imagine a language which lacks the resources to express the deep version. For instance, suppose that "The graveyard is spooky" has the deep grammar of "The contextually relevant people are spooked by the graveyard". Well, in a language that has no predicate "to be spooked", there may be no way to express the paraphrase. Moreover, there may be no way of specifying the right relevance class.

But one can extend the language to allow a paraphrase. Introduce the location to be spooked" as follows: "x is spooked by y" expresses the proposition whose truth grounds the claims of the form "y is spooky" whenever x is contextually the relevant subject (perhaps a plural subject). Since there is probably no good way to specify the contextually relevant subject, we proceed ostensively: "We were spooked by the graveyard" expresses the proposition whose truth grounded the truth of my statement last night "The graveyard was spooky", etc.

(It's important that these be conservative extensions in the sense that they not change what propositions are expressed by sentences of the unextended language.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Here's one reason to think that we've got a difference between surface grammar and logical/deep grammar. The licensed inferences are different. It seems deeply implausible to suppose that there is a set containing a xyzzy. But it is plausible that for any genuine concrete object, there is a set containing it.

Here's another. I suspect that the loose "There is" is indexical, indexed to the current state of the language. But there is a non-indexical "There is".

Here's my argument. I introduce a new term into language, a "chrio". A chrio is present in a room iff the number of chairs in the room without people sitting on them is a prime number. Now, consider a room with 12 unoccupied chairs and the sentence:
(*) "If there were one fewer chair in the room, there would be something in the room that isn't there now."

Assuming the context is ordinary, if (*) is said in the language extended to have chrios, it is true. If (*) is said in the earlier language, it's false. Otherwise, we've got an incredible ontology.

Now, we could say that "there is" changes in meaning as "chrio" is introduced. That seems implausible. But even if it is true, there is, plausibly, a "there is" that does not change meaning, and it is surely the more fundamental one, the deep one, or whatever (I am very confused about all this). But if "there is" does not change in meaning, the only other option seems to be that this is an indexicality phenomenon. Thus, we have a language-indexed "there is".

I don't know. As I said, I am very confused about all this.

Alexander R Pruss said...


A possibility worth keeping in mind is that one can introduce a way of speaking in a language in such a way that not every typically grammatically permitted sentence using that way of speaking makes sense.

For instance, I might stipulate that "There is a gobbie" is true iff the sky is blue when the last king of France is born, but not assign any meaning to "There are is a gobbie at t0", etc. Likewise, we might have gappy stipulations. We might say that where there is a circular window there is a friggie, where there is no window there is no friggie, and where there is only a polygonal window there is no friggie. But this simply fails to specify the truth value of "There is a friggie" when there is only an oval window. I don't know what to say about this. Maybe "There is a friggie" doesn't express a unique proposition.

awatkins69 said...

What do you think of Leibniz' monads?

Steve Finnell said...

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awatkins69 said...

"But once the bond is strong enough, what I have is a...table. But then there must be a time such that a nanosecond before it the bond wasn't strong enough to make for a table and a nanosecond later it was strong enough. This is very implausible."

Another question. How about biology? I have here the species homo erectus. Now, it must be such that an individual female homo erectus gave offspring to someone with just a little tiny change in genetics to be a homo sapiens. However, this seems wrong. We have two choices:

a)a homo erectus gave birth to a homo sapiens, thanks to an almost inscrutable change in biology at an undetectable time. This seems wrong.
b)homo sapiens are the same as homo erectus and there was no time where the species went from homo erectus to homo sapiens(which seems incorrect). In fact, we'd have to conclude by this line of reasoning that there never was a distinguishable time where one species became another, which seems to lead to the conclusion that we are the same as the first primitive organisms!

I hope you understand my question.

What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I like Leibniz's monads!

Biological species are defined in terms of significant genetic interchange between individuals. This kind of thing is not an intrinsic property of the individuals in the species, and just doesn't sound like a candidate for a fundamental property to me. So I am happy to accept the argument in the case of biological species, as showing that there aren't any.

Nonetheless, in addition to biological species, I think there are metaphysical species, membership in which has normative consequences. For instance, there were ancestors of humans for whom it was normal to have tails, but it is abnormal for an adult human to have a tail. So, somewhere there must have been a case where tailedness was normal for the mother but not normal for the offspring. (There are two options: (a) first a transition from its being normal to have a tail to its being optional to have a tail, and then a transition from its being optional to its being abnormal, or (b) a single transition from normal to abnormal.) However, because the normal doesn't supervene on non-normative properties of organisms (like positions of molecules), I do not think it is absurd to suppose that there might be a gradual transition in non-normative properties and a non-gradual transition in normative properties. It is, of course, a difficult question how the normative transition worked. I actually think this is the problem for a purely naturalistic evolution.

Of course, one might deny an objective normativity here. But that would have unfortunate ethical consequences. The nature of medicine depends on a normal/abnormal distinction.

Heath White said...

Alex, I came up with this last night and wondered what you thought.

Suppose we start with Normal Predicates in a Natural Language. Then an Object1 is anything that falls under a NPNL. An Object2 is composed by unrestricted mereological composition from Object1s. We are not likely, in ordinary language, to call Object2s "objects" but that is a pragmatic matter.

Now suppose we say this. Your table started out as a clear case of an Object2, and made the transition to being an Object1 as it became a clear case of a table. Being a table, however, is vague, so the transition wasn't crisp. Still, non-crisp transitions happen all the time, and will, so long as we have vague NPNLs.

I believe this avoids the paradoxes you identified in your post. What difficulties do you find in this story?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I worry that any weird predicate can become a normal predicate in a natural language, given the right environmental conditions for the language's development. And we don't want to, I think, say that whether an object1 exists depends on what language is in fact being spoken, so we need to allow for counterfactual languages.

Now, maybe, there is some way of distinguishing normal and abnormal environmental conditions for the development of a language. But since languages are supposed to be highly adaptable to various weird conditions, I am not sure that is very promising. For instance, if aliens are greatly rewarding anybody who is simultaneously touching a lamp and a car, maybe language will develop a term for the mereological sum of a lamp and a car. And would that be any less natural than language having a term for a meteor or creek?