Adam Tuboly (Ed.): The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic

The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic Book Cover The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic
History of Analytic Philosophy
Adam Tamas Tuboly (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2021
Ebook 93,08 €
XV, 370

Reviewed by: Piotr Stalmaszczyk (University of Lodz, Poland)

Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic was first published in 1936, a second, revised edition appeared in 1946. Chapter 1 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’) of this book opens with the following paragraph:

“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. The surest way to end them is to establish beyond question what should be the purpose and method of a philosophical inquiry. And this is by no means so difficult a task as the history of philosophy would lead one to suppose. For if there are any questions which science leaves it to philosophy to answer, a straightforward process of elimination must lead to their discovery.” (Ayer 2001: 13)

The author of these words was only twenty-five when he finished writing a book which became a milestone in contemporary philosophy. It was indeed “a young man’s book” (…) “written with more passion than most philosophers allow themselves to show”, as Ayer admitted in the second edition (Ayer 2001: 173). “With these and similar assertions the young Ayer embarked on a course of discussion that was designed to shake the philosophical establishment” (Hanfling 1997: 4). And even though time has clearly demonstrated the flaws and shortcoming of Ayer’s text and its main ideas, it needs to be acknowledged that Language, Truth and Logic (henceforth LTL) is a major achievement in the field, with long lasting influence, provoking over the years vivid discussions and reactions, especially in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

The volume edited by Adam Tamas Tuboly reconsiders the philosophical and historical importance of LTL, and discusses its more contemporary legacy in several different disciplines. Tuboly specifies that the questions that need to be asked and discussed: “are the following: how did Ayer preserve or distort the views and conceptions of the logical empiricists, especially those of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap? How are Ayer’s arguments different from those he aimed to reconstruct? How influential was LTL really, and what are the factors that explain its success in Britain and especially at Oxford?” (3).

The book comprises an introduction and five parts (each consisting of two chapters). The introduction gives necessary background information, part one contextualizes Ayer’s book, part two concentrates on philosophy of language in LTL, part three discusses philosophy of mind and psychology, part four looks at epistemology and truth, and part five focuses on ethics and values. The individual chapters provide critical re-examinations of LTL, with the final chapter offering a highly critical analysis within a wide context of philosophy and culture. Each chapter is furnished with an extensive list of references.

In the first, introductory chapter, ‘From Spying to Canonizing – Ayer and His Language, Truth and Logic’, Tuboly traces Ayer’s road to LTL, his first encounters and contacts in Vienna, and provides a brief overview of the book’s content and its main theses. He observes that Ayer’s main task is “twofold: to show that all metaphysicians try to go beyond the empirical realm and to buttress his core thesis that only empirical propositions are meaningful in a literal sense” (12).

An important part of this chapter is devoted to discussing the controversy surrounding the significance and influence of LTL. Tuboly offers here a brief overview of the most important references on the subject and concludes this section observing that “the influence of LTL can be measured on two grounds. First, it was quite negatively received by the philosophical community, as it stepped on many toes and produced a mainly critical response among both philosophers and public intellectuals. (…) On the other hand, Ayer’s book was more than successful in other ways. LTL is one of the best-selling philosophy books of the twentieth century; every student of analytic philosophy has to read it at least once (…), and many educated laymen know it as a source of inspiration and a seminal text from the intellectual history of positivism – a distinction shared by only a few books in analytic philosophy. Whether institutional success is enough for philosophical success, however, is a different question” (27-28). Tuboly also stresses that LTL, though written when the Vienna Circle was past its peak, provides rather scarce information on logical positivism and its historical and theoretical developments. These remarks prepare the ground for more detailed analyses in the following parts of the volume.

Further contextualization of Ayer’s book is provided by the two chapters in Part One (‘The Book and Its Context’). Andreas Vrahimis discusses LTL and the Anglophone reception of the Venna Circle, he further investigates the issue of omissions made by Ayer in tackling the history of logical positivism, the debate around the Neurath-Haller thesis, and Ayer’s divergences with Carnap. Vrahimis observes that the linguistic Empiricism of LTL is presented as partly conceding the Rationalist critique of classical Empiricism, while rejecting the metaphysical conclusions the critique had driven them to; fortifying Empiricism by rejecting the mistaken assumptions of its classical proponents; and both aligning itself with the Empiricist side of the dispute, and also resolving the dispute in an Empiricist manner (47). In concluding remarks on the aftermath of the publication, Vrahimis observes that:

“Ayer’s book focused on discussions of particular problems and only very briefly touched upon the context in which they had initially been addressed by the Vienna Circle and its predecessors. The reception of his work also followed course, and the bold claims made by LTL resulted in bringing a critical debate over the viability of verificationism to the center of Anglophone philosophy during the 30s and 40s. Within this debate, there had been little concern about the acceptability of Ayer’s brief history of Logical Empiricism”. (63)

Chapter 3, by Siobhan Chapman, concentrates on ‘Viennese Bombshells’, i.e. reactions to LTL from Ayer’s philosophical contemporaries, especially John L. Austin, Arne Naess, and L. Susan Stebbing. All three philosophers found interesting elements in LTL but also had objections to the implications of Ayer’s study for the study of language. Chapman focuses on the reaction of these three philosophers to LTL, and on their further influence upon the study of language. Austin’s name is closely associated with ordinary language philosophy, one prominent version of the ‘linguistic philosophy’ (acknowledged by Ayer in his retrospective). Naess is less well known in Anglophone philosophy, “but was extremely influential in the development during the middle part of the twentieth century of philosophy in Norway, where he was celebrated as the founder of the school of empirical semantics” and finally Stebbing’s work “has been relatively neglected in recent decades, but in the 1930s and 1940s she was recognized as a leading figure in British analytic philosophy, particularly in relation to what became known as the Cambridge School of directional analysis” (71). In the remaining parts of the chapter Chapman discusses some subsequent developments connected with LTL and ordinary language philosophy in the fields of philosophy and linguistics, and she claims that after initial criticism connected with the fact that Ayer failed to recognize the disjuncture between philosophical inquiry and the assessment of ordinary linguistic usage, in the last few years “some analytic philosophers have returned to the idea that ordinary language might be of relevance, and even of vital methodological significance, to philosophical inquiry” (85). She also points at some interesting developments in Critical Discourse Analysis which might have been inspired by the close attention to different uses of language explicit in ordinary language philosophy (92).

The two chapters in Part Two are explicitly devoted to philosophy of language in LTL. Nicole Rathgeb discusses Ayer’s stance on analyticity, and Sally Parker-Ryan studies Ayer and early ordinary language philosophy. Ayer’s definition of analyticity is of great significance for his whole philosophy, not least because he regards philosophical truths as analytic propositions, hence his conception is often cited as ‘truth in virtue of meaning’ (101). Rathgeb carefully traces the inspirations and sources for Ayer’s ideas, the developments of this conception, changes between the first and second edition of LTL, and objections voiced against this approach. In the conclusion, the author suggests that Ayer’s account of analyticity is fundamentally correct, and that “the two definitions of analyticity given in LTL and in the introduction to the second edition can be brought into accord, that the truth of analytic propositions so understood is not contingent upon the existence of language, and that the different factors Ayer appeals to in his explanation of the necessity of analytic propositions are all important, although one of them is more fundamental than the others” (120).

In chapter 5, Parker-Ryan examines the development of two approaches to language: the concept of ideal language, and the concept of ordinary language. The former is connected with Ayer’s views expounded in LTL, whereas the latter is discussed by Parker-Ryan with reference to the work of John Wisdom. The author briefly presents the origins of the method of linguistic analysis, the influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and of his later views, succinctly introduces ordinary language philosophy and contrasts it with theories advocating ideal language. In conclusion, Parker-Ryan claims that Ayer and the positivists “understood linguistic analysis as the weeding out of nonsense, such that the ‘logic of science’ could emerge. Such a language would be ideal, in the sense of being perfectly transparent logical form, and comprised exhaustively of empirically verifiable propositions, logical propositions and nothing else” (146). On the other hand, for ordinary language philosophy, the aim was also to resolve philosophical confusion; proponents of this movement “believed that a closer and more thoughtful examination of how language really is used, in various circumstances, can be philosophically revealing” (147).

Part Three is devoted to philosophy of mind and psychology. Gergely Ambrus traces the evolution of Ayer’s views on the mind-body relation, whereas Thomas Uebel investigates the puzzle about other minds in early Ayer. Ambrus observes that the analysis of Ayer’s views, “beyond being interesting in itself, is also important in that it provides further details about the large-scale development of analytic philosophy, stretching from the logical positivists’ radical anti-metaphysicalism in the 1930s to the 1960s when (some) classical metaphysical problems like realism or idealism, and the mind-body problem, were treated as being meaningful and legitimate once more” (153). The chapter discusses the phenomenalist background, focuses on the relations between the mental and physical events (a core issue in contemporary philosophy of mind) and on reinterpretations of the psychophysical relation within Ayer’s ‘sophisticated realist’ framework. Ambrus sums up the developments in Ayer’s thought in the following way: “the changes in Ayer’s views about the nature of the psychophysical relation were embedded in the evolution of his overall approach to philosophy. He departed from the radically anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism and arrived at a sort of pragmatist realism” (187). The shift from radical anti-metaphysical to ‘soft’ metaphysical views (with simultaneous faithfulness to earlier empiricist foundations) is characteristic of developments in Ayer’s thought (188).

Chapter 7 provides additional evidence for Ayer’s changing views in what today might be referred to as proto-philosophy of mind. Uebel concentrates on the account of knowledge of other minds as formulated in LTL, provides different interpretations and reinterpretations, and discusses Ayer’s approach to logical behaviorism: “once it is noted how his verificationism limited his options, it is of course difficult to dispute Ayer’s conclusion that no knowledge of other minds is provided at all, but this limitation does not apply unless the doctrine of logical behaviorism is also reinterpreted” (211).  Uebel also points to the discrepancies between the argument as presented in LTL, and as later interpreted by Ayer himself (240), a very interesting observation connected with authorial methodological consciousness (or lack of it).

Part Four deals with epistemology and truth. First Hans-Joachim Glock takes a close look at Ayer’s verificationism, next László Kocsis focuses on the problem of truth and validation. Truth, the second element in the title of Ayer’s book, was crucial both for the author’s line of investigation, and for the interpretation of his theory. Glock opens his chapter observing that the most fundamental aspiration of LTL is meta-philosophical: “Its stated aim is to argue for a positivist, anti-metaphysical conception of philosophy, its tasks and proper methods” (251). Further in this chapter, Glock discusses the importance of verificationism in LTL, different criteria of verifiability, the principle of verification, and the differences between the two (also in the context of Wittgenstein’s use-theory of meaning); it follows from this discussion that “there remains more to be said both against and for Ayer’s verificationism” (275).

In chapter 9, Kocsis starts with examining the difference between the definition and the criterion of truth and how they can be connected; next, he devotes some space to Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth and his place in the famous protocol-sentence debate, including his defense of a correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. In the final section he shows that Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth is not in conflict with his correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. This is because, contrary to his logical positivist contemporaries, Ayer did not admit any intimate connection between the two above-mentioned truth-theoretical tasks. According to Kocsis, “Ayer was convinced that the correspondence criterion could be applied to synthetic propositions, but as a fallibilist he did not distinguish between epistemically basic and incorrigible propositions (…) and all other non-basic propositions (hypotheses)” (301).

Part Five brings two chapters dealing with ethics and values. In chapter 10, Krisztián Pete compares Ayer and Berkeley, and their concepts of the meaning of ethical and religious language. Ayer starts the preface of the first edition of LTL with the following claim: “The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the Empiricism of Berkeley and David Hume” (Ayer 2001: 9). Berkeley’s and Hume’s influence on Ayer, and Ayer’s interpretation of Empiricism have already been discussed in chapters 1 and 2. Pete discusses in some detail Ayer’s and Berkeley’s views on emotional and theological use of language, he also explores the claim that Ayer is indebted to Berkeley “not only for the core ideas of his phenomenalism but also for his emotivism” (307), and provides a Berkeleyan reinterpretation of Ayer. Pete concludes that “by examining the semantic theory of one of Ayer’s distant empiricist predecessors, we can get some guidance on how to modify the ethical theory that Ayer outlined in LTL” (330).

The last chapter, by Aaron Preston, is significantly entitled ‘Ayer’s Book of Errors and the Crises of Contemporary Western Culture’. Preston offers a highly critical reading of LTL, with an equally critical assessment of its influence:

“Given that its flaws were both grievous and fairly obvious to many, LTL and the simplistic positivism it exemplified would be mere curiosities in the annals of a very curious century if it weren’t for the fact that they had massively harmful effects on culture, effects which persist to this day. (…)

LTL’s real significance lies here, in its role as a sophisticated and successful bit of propaganda for an ideology that played a critical role in loosing Western culture from its moral and epistemic moorings”. (334; 335)

Preston considers the rise of positivism in the light of the crises of contemporary western culture, including contemporary politics, fake news and post truth politics. Parts of this chapter sound rather like a political manifesto; however, it is interesting to see the line of argumentation leading the author from flaws in LTL to analyses (neither very deep nor original though) of Trump’s presidency. The tenor of the conclusion is predictable: “What, then, is the real significance of LTL? Sadly, its significance is overwhelmingly negative. It resides in the fact that it gave a distinctive and rhetorically powerful voice to a form of scientistic naturalism which has played a powerful role in fouling our relations to moral truth” (361). A brief critical remark with respect to these claims is included earlier in the volume, in chapter 8, where Glock observes that Preston’s dismissive attitude is precipitate, for:

A. Ayer’s later assessment leaves open that LTL also includes important truths.  B. Mistakes can be philosophically significant. C. By its own lights, LTL aims at introducing and implementing a method of clarification and critical thinking rather than at propounding a true doctrine.” (273-4)

The above points provide a good coda to this final chapter; however, it would be interesting to see a chapter polemic with regard to Preston’s stance.

In the conclusion of his brief introduction to Ayer’s work, Oswald Hanfling observed that “just as one must admire the bravado of his early book, so one must be impressed, when reading his later work, by his cautious and painstaking treatment of the questions at issue, and his constant striving to do justice to alternative views before arriving at his own conclusion” (Hanfling 1997: 51); and Ben Rogers added that the greatness of LTL resides in the fact that “it exudes a rare and inspiring passion for truth” (Rogers 2001: xvi). The papers collected in the reviewed volume attest to the depth and breadth of Ayer’s thought, they demonstrate that the shortcomings of his early work cannot overshadow its lasting influence in several philosophical disciplines.

Ayer’s book provoked reaction also within literary studies, and its title inspired at least two publications – Hamm (1960) and Martin (1975) – with both authors consciously alluding to the original title, and both investigating the benefits and shortcomings of logical positivism as applied to literary analyses. This aspect of Ayer’s influence is not discussed in the reviewed book, however, it additionally confirms the importance of LTL for various developments in several disciplines.

The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic provides an excellent overview of the topics discussed by Ayer, the controversies surrounding the publication and its influence. Additionally, it provides important (not only historical) considerations connected with the developments in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

References

Ayer, Alfred J. [1936/1946] 2001. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Penguin Books.

Hamm, Victor M. 1960. Language, Truth and Poetry. The Aquinas Lecture 1960. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Hanfling, Oswald. 1997. Ayer. Analysing What We Mean. London: Phoenix.

Martin, Graham Dunstan. 1975. Language, Truth, and Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rogers, Ben. 2001. „Introduction.“ In: Ayer (2001), ix-xviii.

Sofia Miguens (Ed.): The Logical Alien: Conant and his Critics

The Logical Alien: Conant and His Critics Book Cover The Logical Alien: Conant and His Critics
Sofia Miguens (Ed.)
Harvard University Press
2020
Hardback $59.95 • £47.95 • €54.00
1080

Reviewed by: Nicola Spinelli (King’s College London / Hertswood Academy)

This is the kind of book one hates to review. Not because it is bad; it is an excellent work, rich and profound and relevant at least to: the scholar of half a dozen areas in the history of philosophy (from medieval through early modern, modern, Kant, post-Kantian, to the early analytic philosophy), the philosopher of language, the metaphysician, the philosopher of logic, and the epistemologist. But it is complex – much more complex even than your average 1069-page philosophy collection. Perhaps this is to be expected: one way to think of The Logical Alien is as a commentary (on steroids) of James Conant’s 1991 “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus”, itself a long, seminal, profound and – dealing as it does with history and theory and some of the heavyweights of the last five hundred years of philosophy – multitasking paper.[1] The papers collected in the book are written for one third by different authors engaging with Conant’s 1991 paper, and for two thirds by Conant engaging with his former self and with each of the other contributors, occasionally with more than one at the same time. The parts of the book end up being so interconnected at so many levels, that it takes several readings just to find one’s way through it – never mind figuring out what to make of even one of the numerous debates involved or convey it to prospective readers with something resembling accuracy. Yet the book is as difficult to review as it is exhilarating to read. Once you get hooked up (and you do get hooked up), you won’t be finished for a long time.

The central question is taken from Frege and is simple enough: Is there such a thing as thought which is logical but whose logical laws are different from, and incompatible with, ours? Put this way, there would seem to be an equally simple answer: yes. Consider systems with different and incompatible rules of inference: in a classical setting, Excluded Middle and Full Double Negation are laws; in an intuitionistic setting, they aren’t – yet nobody from either camp seriously thinks that the other just isn’t thinking logically. After all, intuitionistic and classical logic are equiconsistent (a proposition is classically provable if and only if its double negation is intuitionistically provable). Of course there is a qualification to make in this case: some logical laws are in common. For example, Non-Contradiction – which in any case seems to be needed for concepts like ‘consistency’, ‘incompatibility’ and ‘disagreement’ to even make sense. What about, then, thought which shares none of our logical laws – not even Non-Contradiction? Conant’s original paper, and much of the discussion in the book, revolve around this insight: that since at least some of what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, thought which does not conform to them is in fact not thought at all. In one form or another is attributed by Conant, past and present, to Frege, Wittgenstein and Putnam (or Putnam at some point of his career).

The insight – which we shall call the Insight – develops in interesting ways. Consider the following way of putting the central question: Are the laws of logic necessary? If the Insight is correct, then, one might say, they are. Not so – at least on the view Conant and his critics are interested in. Since what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, logically alien thought is an impossibility. Discourse about it, then, is what Conant calls philosophical fiction (768).[2] The contrast is with empirical fiction. The latter invites us to contemplate a scenario which happens not to be the case, but which ‘falls within the realm of the possible’. The former invites us to contemplate something which is not even possible. So that in philosophical fiction we ‘only apparently grasp what it would be for [the scenario] to obtain: its possibility can only seemingly be grasped in thought’. But, the view concludes, if logically alien thought is philosophical fiction, then the project of establishing its possibility or impossibility is in fact a non-starter: for in order to affirm or deny that logically alien thought is possible, or even ask whether it is possible, we first need to grasp ‘it’ – the thought with content ‘logically alien thought’ – but that is exactly what we cannot do. Far from being able to answer the question, we seem to have no question to answer. It looked as though we had one; but it turns out we never did. It was a mock-question. Hence, for example and according to Conant (past and present), the austere – non-mystical – Wittgensteinian stance at the end of the Tractatus: the necessity of logic isn’t a question which logic cannot answer; it is a non-question. Hence, too, the Wittgensteinian idea that philosophy should be conceived of not as doctrine, not even as research, but as something called ‘elucidation’: the activity of recognising that some or all of what we take to be profound philosophical problems are in fact simply nonsense.

In the original 1991 paper, Conant follows the development of this line of thought – call it elucidativism about logic – from Descartes through Aquinas,  Leibniz, Kant, Frege, to Wittgenstein and Putnam. He does not defend elucidativism, but he clearly favours it. In the first part of The Logical Alien, his critics either follow up on 1991-Conant’s historical claims in the paper (which is included in the book), or take issue with theoretical claims, or both. The following is an overview of the contributions. A.W. Moore’s is about Descartes and what he ought to have thought about modality. In particular, whereas 1991-Conant claims that Descartes’ official view was that necessary truths (amongst which are the laws of logic) are contingently necessary, Moore argues that statements to that effect to be found in Descartes are aberrations rather than expressions of the official view. Matthew Boyle’s chapter is about Kant’s and Frege’s conceptions of logic and of the formal. Arata Hamawaki’s paper is about a distinction between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism. I have to say that, while the former contributions are excellent reads, I found this one rather difficult to follow and, despite the theme, somewhat underwhelming. Barry Stroud’s paper is the skeptical contribution: historically, doubts are cast on 1991-Conant’s reading of Frege; theoretically, issue is taken with the notion that necessary truths are apt to being explained. Peter Sullivan objects to 1991-Conant’s view of Frege, and argues that the latter is more Kantian than is usually thought. The contribution also contains a very good summary of the dialectic of the 1991 article (in case you struggle to follow it). Along with Moore’s, perhaps the best of the (mainly) historical contributions (to my taste). Martin Gustafsson and Jocelyn Benoist concentrate on post-tractarian Wittgenstein: the former to examine the relations between language use and rule-following, the latter to show how Wittgenstein’s treatment of private languge is an exercise in elucidation. Finally, Charles Travis’ chapter, the longest, discusses Frege, Wittgenstein and the heart of the elucidative enterprise. Undoubtedly the most important of the critical essays. I agree with many points he makes, and I will be saying something similar in the remainder of this review – but from a very different perspective. The second part of The Logical Alien consists of present-day Conant discussing both his 1991 paper and the critics’ contributions. I see no point in saying anything here, except that he (and probably the editor, Sophia Miguens) did an excellent job of making the Conant’s own chapters a single narrative rather than a collection of discrete replies.

Now, upon my first reading of the 1991 paper, and on every subsequent reread, and indeed as I was ploughing through the book, I thought it a shame that there was (virtually) no reference to the phenomenological tradition at all. This is not to say that there should have been: as far as I can tell, phenomenology has never been among Conant’s interests, and that this should be reflected in a book about his work is, after all, only natural. On the other hand, at least some of the debates in The Logical Alien might have benefited from a phenomenological voice; and others are relevant to discussions within the phenomenological tradition. And since I am writing this review for a journal called Phenomenological Reviews, I will allow myself to expand on the above and bring phenomenology into the melee.

I have already said what the central view at stake in the book is: that the question as to whether there can be logically alien thought is a non-question, because its formulation involves something akin to a cognitive illusion. The further question, however, is: Why is grasping a thought about an impossibility itself impossible? Why, in other words, should we buy the claim that in philosophical fiction, as Conant says, we only seem to grasp a thought but we really do not? Why is the thought that there may be logically alien thought, despite appearances, no thought at all?

The reason lies in the following view, endorsed at lest to some extent by Frege, embraced by tractarian Wittgenstein and assumed in Conant and his critics’ discussions: To grasp a thought is to grasp what the world must be like for the thought to be true and what the world must be like for the thought to be false.[3] A thought for which either of these things cannot be done is a thought for which, as Frege would put it, the question of truth does not genuinely arise. It is then not a thought but a mock-thought. This is the basis of Wittgenstein’s notion that tautologies and contradictions have no content: for we just cannot imagine what the world what have to be like for tautologies to be false or contradictions true. For all the depth and complexity of the debates which Conant’s 1991 paper has sparked, and which are well represented in The Logical Alien, if what we may call the Assumption falls it is hard to see how the rest might stand. For if grasping the content of a thought is decoupled from grasping its truth-(and-falsity-)conditions, or from even bringing truth into the picture, then even if philosophically-fictitious scenarios are impossible we can still grasp them – if only to deem them impossible. Thoughts about them are not mock-thoughts; or, if they are, they are so in a weaker sense than Conant seems to envisage – too weak for the work he wants mock-thoughts to do.

Conant is aware of this. In his reply to Stroud he highlights how the 1991 paper pinpoints a tension in Frege between 1) his elucidative treatment of the logical alien in the foreword to Grundgesetze, and 2) his commitment to the idea that tautologies and axioms are true.[4] If the Insight and the Assumption are true, then 1) and 2) are (or very much seem to be) incompatible. Conant suggests that the ‘deeper wisdom’ to be found in Frege, which is also the strand of Frege’s thought which Wittgenstein develops, is 1). The claim that axioms and tautologies, despite having negations which are absurd, are true is treated by Conant as stemming from Frege’s conception of content (thought) as ‘explanatorily prior’ to judgement. So that it is only if we think that the content of a judgement pre-exists the judgement that we can take judgements about impossible scenarios to have a content. Otherwise we would have to say: there is no judgement to be made here, and therefore there is no content.

I will not go into the minutiae – or even the nitty-gritty – of Fregean scholarship. But surely the move only pushes the problem a step further. Grant that judgeable content should not be thought of as explanatorily prior (whatever that means exactly) to judgement, the question is: Why buy the claim that we cannot judge about impossibilia – not even to say that they are impossibilia? If we can, there is judgement; and therefore there is content. Are there views on the market which do not take judgeable content as explanatorily prior to judgement, and according to which we can and do judge about impossibilia?

Husserl held just such a view throughout his career. There are several ways to see this. Begin with the Investigations. There, meanings are ideal objects (universals) instantiated by the act-matter of classes of meaning-intentions. The latter are intentional acts through which a subject intends, or refers to, an object. Their matter is, with some oversimplification, their content.[5] Notice that the content of a meaning-intention is not the meaning: without an act there is no content – though there is a (perhaps uninstantiated) meaning. So even in the early Husserl, despite his ostensible Platonism, it is not obvious that judgeable content is prior to, or even independent of, judgement. In the fourth Logical Investigation, a distinction is made between nonsensical (Unsinnig) and absurd (Widersinnig) meanings. A nonsensical meaning is a non-meaning: an illegal combination of simpler meanings (illegal, that is, with respect to a certain set of a priori laws). A syntactical analogue would be a non-well-formed string of symbols: ‘But or home’. So, when it comes to nonsensical meanings, there just is no content (no act-matter). An absurd meaning, by contrast, is a (formally or materially) contradictory one: ‘Round square’. In this case there are both a meaning and an act matter; it’s just that to intentional acts whose matter or content instantiates the absurd meaning there cannot correspond an intuition – intuition being the sort of experience which acquaint us with objects: perception, memory, imagination. So we cannot see or remember or imagine round squares, but we can think about them, wonder whether they exist, explain why they cannot exist, and so on. Moreover, the very impossibility of intuitively fulfilling an absurd meaning-intention is, in Husserl, itself intuitively constituted and attested: attempting to intuit the absurd meaning leads to what Husserl calls a synthesis of conflict.

Say, then, that whilst engaging in philosophical fiction we try to make sense of logically alien thought, and we fail. This failure consists, in Husserlian phenomenology, in the arising of a conflict in our intuition, as a consequence of which we deem the scenario impossible. In the Husserlian framework this failure does not entail that there was never any thinking taking place with the content ‘logically alien thought’: it was ‘merely signitive’ thinking – thinking to which, a priori, no intuition can correspond – but contentful thinking nonetheless. We cannot intuit the impossible, but we can think about it.

So in Husserl the impossibility – the philosophical-fictitiousness – of logically alien thought does not entail that, when we think of logically alien thought, we only seem to do so. When we think of logically alien thought, we actually do think about logically alien thought; and one of the things we reckon when we think about logically alien thought is that it is impossible. All of this, notice, without appealing to the explanatory priority of judgeable content over judgement – which is what Conant finds disagreeable in Frege. Husserl, then, seems to be in a position to agree with Conant that judgeable content doesn’t come before judgement, and yet disagree with Conant that there is any wisdom whatever in Frege’s elucidative treatment of the logical alien.

All this is reflected in Husserl’s view of logic. From the Investigations throughout his career, Husserl maintained that logic comes in layers. In the official systematisation (Formal and Transcendental Logic, §§ 12-20) these are: 1) the theory of the pure form of judgements; 2) the logic of non-contradiction; 3) truth-logic. The first of the three is what in the fourth Investigation was called ‘grammar of pure logic’, and its job is to sort the meaningless – combinations of meaning which do not yield a new meaning – from the meaningful. It is the job of the logic of non-contradiction to sort, within the realm of the meaningful, the absurd meanings from the non-absurd. It is debatable whether truth is operative in this second layer of logic; I understand Husserl as denying that it is. But in any case, truth is not operative in the first layer. When Conant and his critics discuss the laws of logic, they take them to be such that, first, they are constitutive of thought, and second, truth plays a crucial role in them; and they take thoughts which misbehave with respect to truth, such as tautologies and contradictions, not to be thoughts at all (giving rise to tension in Frege). From a Husserlian perspective, what makes a thought a thought is not the laws of truth, but the laws of the grammar of meanings. Truth has nothing to do with it – nor, as a consequence, with what it is to be a thought.

The second part of Conant’s reply to Stroud (roughly, from p. 819 onwards) connects the above to another phenomenologically relevant strand of The Logical Alien: Kant and the project of a transcendental philosophy. The starting point is the difference between Frege’s approach on the one hand, and Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s on the other. The issue is, again, the central one of the relations between thoughts and judgements. Conant’s aim is to show that Frege can conceive of thought as separate from judgement – of content as distinct from the recognition of the truth of content – only by committing himself to the following conjunctive account: whenever an agent S judges that p, a) S thinks that p, and b) S recognises that p is true. These are two distinct acts on the part of S. This is contrasted with Kant’s (and, later on, Wittgenstein’s) disjunctive approach: there is a fundamental case of judgement in which S simply judges that p; and there are derived cases, different in kind from the former, in which S entertains the thought that p without recognising its truth – for example, in what Kant calls problematic judgements (‘Possibly, p’). Conant does not seem to provide a reason why we should be disjunctivists rather than conjunctivists – other than the claim that conjunctivism is at odds with the wider Kantian transcendental project. The implication being that if one buys into the latter at all, then one ought to be a Kantian rather than a Fregean when it comes to the relations between content and judgement.

What is, for Conant, Kant’s transcendental project? This is spelled out in the excellent reply to Hamawaki and Stroud.[6] To be a Kantian is first of all to put forward transcendental arguments. According to Conant, a transcendental argument is something close to an elucidative treatment of what he calls Kantian Skepticism: the worry, not that the external world may not be as experienced or not exist all, but that we may not be able to ‘make sense of the idea that our experience is so much as able to afford us with the sort of content that is able to present the world as seeming to be a certain way’ (762). Kant’s way to resolve the worry is to show that the scenario in which our experience is not able to present the world at all is philosophical fiction: if we probe the Kantian-skeptical worry enough, we find it unintelligible.

I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as endorsing elucidativism – that is, I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as making the final step: if the scenario in which experience does not present us with a world is unintelligible, then so is the scenario in which it does. But he does say that this ‘is arguably the closest Kant ever comes to an extended philosophical engagement with something approximating the question of the intelligibility of the idea of a form of cognition that is logically alien to ours’ (772). If one is a transcendentalist, in any case, one has to put forward transcendental arguments; and if Conant is right in his reading of what a (Kantian) transcendental argument is, then a transcendentalist needs to be in a position to reason from the unintelligibility of a scenario to the unintelligibility of the question as to whether the scenario is possible. But to do so – recall the (alleged) tension between Fregean conjunctivism and the Kantian project – a transcendentalist ought to avoid seriously distinguishing between content and judgement.

Another strand of Conant’s discussion of Kant, and at some level a consequence of the nature of transcendental arguments as described above, is the recognition that any account of our cognitive capacity must be given from within the exercise of our cognitive capacity – so that no account of the latter can be given in non-cognitive terms. Conant calls this ‘the truth in idealism’ (776). And this is what, for Conant, ultimately is to be a Kantian: to pursuse a philosophical project in the light of the truth in idealism. Needless to say, Wittgenstein counts as a Kantian par excellence; and so does the elucidativist half of Frege.

The phenomenologically alert reader will not have missed the fact that the truth in idealism is in fact a central tenet of Husserl’s post-Investigations philosophy. Suffice it to quote the title of Section 104 of Formal and Transcendental Logic: “Transcendental phenomenology as self-explication on the part of transcendental subjectivity”. I am less sure about Conant’s reading of transcendental arguments: granted that they do involve the recognition of the unintelligibility of skeptical scenarios, it is unclear why that should not simply be thought of as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps of a quasi-aristotelian elenchos, rather than as something pointing to elucidation. Be that as it may, Husserl’s mature philosophy is a view in which the truth in idealism is preserved and in which, however, elucidativism is avoided – because even in the mature Husserl absurd thoughts are contentful.

Consider the relation between content and judgement. In the mature Husserl the interdependence of content and the mental is reasserted and strengthened with the notion of meaning as noema, introduced alongside the old Platonistic one in the 1908 Lectures on the Theory of Meaning, and center-stage in the first volume of Ideas in 1913. The main difference here is that the noema, one of whose component is intentional content, exists only insofar as the relevant mental act – in our case, the relevant thinking episode – does. As to the relations of noema and judgement, Husserl does think that it is possible to thematise a propositional content without judging that it is true. Yet this is claimed within a broader story – genetic phenomenology – of how more sophisticated intentional performances, together with their productions (including propositional contents), arise from more fundamental ones. The chief text here is Experience and Judgement. So Husserl could be said to hold something like what Conant calls the disjunctive account: the act of merely entertaining a thought is derivative of the act of straightforwardly judging. But this is not to say that one cannot merely entertain a thought! It simply means that we would not be able to mereley entertain thoughts if we were not able to straightforwardly judge. Indeed, for Husserl the existence of a noema such as, say, ‘ABCD is a round square’, while dependent on the relevant meaning-intention, is independent of the possibility of there being round squares at all. We can and do entertain the thought whether round squares exist, ask ourselves whether they do, and judge that they don’t. (The simplicity of the example might lead to error: it might appear as though, in this case, phenomenologically or introspectively, there were no distinction between entertaining and judging, for it is immediately clear that there are no round squares. All you have to do is try with more covert absurdities; to take a pertinent example, Frege’s very own Basic Law V.)

It really does seem to be a phenomenological fact that content and judgement are distinct. As the Husserlian case shows, one can maintain that that is so while still allowing the distinction to be derived rather than fundamental. Not only this: one can maintain the distinction, thereby blocking elucidativism, and still subscribe to the truth in idealism and be counted as a Kantian by Conant’s own standards. Or so, at any rate, it seems.

So being a Husserlian may be one way of being a Kantian without being an elucidativist. I hope it is and I hope there are others. Elucidativism usually divides people into three categories: those who buy it, those who don’t, and those who dismiss it as empty gobbledegook. I don’t dismiss it – but I don’t buy it either. For example, the argument for it discussed, and indeed put forward, by Conant seems to me to prove too much. This is a point Stroud makes in his contribution.[7]  In the reply, Conant is, I think, too concerned to show Stroud’s (alleged) misunderstandings to take his commonsense worries seriously. Regardless of that dialectic, consider any proof by contradiction in mathematics: we set up a proposition, we show that the proposition is inconsistent (either with itself or with other assumptions), we conclude that the negation of the proposition is true. If the elucidativist is right, the latter step is unwarranted: if a proposition turns out to be nonsense (which it does, being a proposition about an impossible scenario) then its denial is also nonsensical. So, if the view is correct, a large part of mathematics either is merely a cognitive illusion or, at best, is an exercise in elucidation. And yet the proposition, say, that there are infinitely many primes – whose negation is absurd in the same sense in which logically alien thought is – seems to be a perfectly legitimate proposition. So does the question whether there is a greatest prime, even though, it turns out, it makes no sense to suppose that there is. For some of us, intuitions in this respect are just too strong. In comparison, the elucidativist manoeuvre really seems sleight of hand of sorts.

Of course, even we must bow to argument. And in any case, since the stakes could not be higher, high-quality discussion is always welcome. The Logical Alien provides plenty – as I said, enough to go on for a long time. That is one reason to recommend the book – eve if, like me, you are not in the elucidativist camp. Another reason, relevant to the phenomenologically-minded reader, is that there seems to me to be a family resemblance, however faint, between elucidativism and certain strands of the phenomenological tradition broadly construed: Deleuze’s operation in Logic of Sense, Derrida with his différance, Sartre’s manoeuvres in Critique of Dialectical Reason. The Logical Alien might add something meaningful to those discussions, too.


[1]     J. Conant. 1991. “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the TractatusPhilosophical Topics 20 (1): 115-180.

[2]     Part II, Section X, “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution of the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782. Arabic numerals in parentheses in the main text refer to pages in The Logical Alien.

[3]     I say ‘assumed’, but it is in fact at the heart of Travis’ piece. Sullivan discusses it, too.

[4]     Part II, Section XI, “Reply to Stroud on Kant and Frege”: 783-829.

[5]     For an excellent overview of Husserl’s philosphy of language and its development, see Simons 1995.

[6]     Part II, Section X: “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution to the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782.

[7]     Part I, “Logical Aliens and the ‘Ground’ of Logical Necessity”: 170-182.

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