Fool proof

A temptation so powerful that nobody is immune to it, especially no philosopher. What if you could make it such that nobody can disagree with your core thesis? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And so, year after year, paper after paper, they try.

For a while it looked like Timothy Williamson had good chances of winning the contest. Witness: “If the original question, read literally, had too obvious an answer, either positive or negative, that would give us reason to suspect that someone who uttered it had some other meaning in mind, to which the overt compositional structure of the question might be a poor guide. But competent speakers of English may find themselves quite unsure how to answer the question, read literally, so we have no such reason for interpreting it non-literally.” (from: The Philosophy of Philosophy)

So, basically, anybody not gripped by the problem of vagueness (hidden in the “original question” referred to) is most likely not a competent speaker of English. But notice that Williamson fails to really rule out all other options. He consciously weakens the claim about linguistic competence to a ‘may’. (Of course, competent English speakers may also “find themselves quite unsure how to answer the question” not because they are unsure what the answer, if any, to the question is, but because they “find themselves quite unsure” about what the hell the original question was supposed to mean, literally understood. But that’s a separate issue.)

Williamson’s attempt, at any rate, is toppled by Theodore Sider’s more concise and less cautious claim: “The very idea of distinguished structure itself, once grasped, is one that must surely be acknowledged.” (from: Ontological Realism) Marvellous. If you disagree with the idea of distinguished structure that just shows you haven’t really grasped it (yet). It’s not just that you are not a competent speaker. It’s more like: you are not a competent thinker. The ‘surely’ gives it away, a little bit, but other than that: there’s really nothing left to argue about, is there? Davidson would be proud.

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One Response to “Fool proof”

  1. AEA Says:

    Nice bits of rhetoric, although transparent. But then why do they seem so ubiquitous these days? Not even the great Brouwer/Hilbert controversy that seems now in the dark ages witnesses such tricky tools of trade.

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