What’s the most interesting philosophical argument you have come across?

Salik asked:

What is the most interesting philosophical argument the panel has come across?

Answer by Helier Robinson

For me it is the arguments in response to the question: are the empirical objects that we perceive around us real objects, or are they only images of real objects? There are good arguments for each side.

On the side of us perceiving real objects we have:

1. Real objects are outside of us, and so are empirical objects, so empirical objects are real.

2. Real objects are public, and so are empirical objects, so empirical objects are real.

3. Real objects are material, and so are empirical objects, so empirical objects are real.

4. Real objects continue to exist when unperceived, and so are empirical objects, so empirical objects are real.

On the side of perceiving only images of real objects we have:

5. Empirical objects are composed of sensations, such as coloured shapes, tactile qualities such as various degrees of hard and soft, hot and cold, rough and smooth, penetrable (e.g. marshmallow) and impenetrable (e.g. cast iron), heavy and light, etc., as well as sounds, smells and taste. That is all that empirical objects are: structures of sensations. And sensation are manufactured in our brains, out of afferent neural impulses that come from the sense organs. So empirical objects are images of real objects, in our brains, not the real objects themselves.

6. All empirical objects are illusory to some degree. Imagine a straight road lined with telephone poles: as it goes into the distance the road gets narrower, the poles get shorter, and the poles get closer together. In other words, visual space shrinks with distance from the perceiver, in all three dimensions. But real space does not shrink with distance, so visual space is illusory. The only explanation of illusions is that they are misrepresentations of real objects, not the real objects themselves, because illusions are unreal. But misrepresentations are images.

These two positions can be reconciled, but I will leave it to you to work out how. The starting point is the fact that you own body is an empirical object.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I would like to put in a bid for Wittgenstein’s considerations on the possibility of a private language, which occupy a considerable portion of his later work Philosophical Investigations.

This was a major impetus for me when I wrote my D.Phil thesis, ‘The Metaphysics of Meaning’ (Oxford 1982) and indeed right up to the present time.

What is the private language argument? Although, arguably, there is no simple statement that collects together all the various strands of dialectic, Wittgenstein himself makes a stab at capturing the central move:

‘Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you’ (PI, p.207).

Although the quote talks about memory, as Wittgenstein makes clear elsewhere the issue isn’t to do with scepticism about memory as such, but rather the idea of ‘recognizing’ an entity of a certain kind, where no criterion can be given for what counts as ‘same’ or ‘different’, where, in effect, whatever you say or think will be ‘right’.

(The hypothesis concerning a private object is stated explicitly in PI para 258, which you will often see quoted, inaccurately, as ‘the’ private language argument.)

I wrote in my D.Phil thesis that the private language argument first presents itself as a wall, blocking the path of one’s thoughts. You look for a way past the wall, over it, or under it. But then you reach the wall, only to find yourself facing the other way.

The idea of a private inner object, a discrete component of my mental life, that I can make true judgements about, judgements which in principle cannot be wrong because my mind is in direct contact with the object itself, is an illusion. It’s like attaching a target to your arrow, and then claiming that in shooting the arrow you have ‘succeeded in hitting the target’. There is no ‘success’ or ‘failure’, nothing to ‘think’ or ‘judge’.

With that seemingly simple argument, a whole philosophical tradition falls, or so it has been claimed. I actually don’t think any philosopher (Descartes included, someone who has often been branded as believing in ‘private objects’) ever literally believed this, but the point is that until Wittgenstein no-one had thought to pose the question about our inner life in this way.

Do we not have an inner life? Yes, of course. I would go further and state that no-one, in principle, can know ‘what it is to be I’ because my unique attunement with reality is the result of the way my brain and nervous system interact with the world outside, an attunement which cannot be captured in language or judgements, because it concerns my very being as an agent in the world.


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