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What did Dr Johnson prove by kicking the stone?


To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What did Dr Johnson prove by kicking the stone?
Date: 31 August 2004 11:42

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 20 August, with your fifth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''I refute it thus.' - When he kicked the stone in the church courtyard, what was Dr Johnson hoping to prove? Was his demonstration a success?'

First of all, many congratulations on completing your Pathways program! I will be forwarding your Pathways Certificate for the Secretary of the ISFP to countersign, along with my mentor's report.

This is an impressive essay. With your permission, I would like to publish this in the next issue (91) of Philosophy Pathways.

You get off to an excellent start, by brushing aside the naive interpretation of Dr Johnson's argument. It is far more plausible that Dr Johnson was, as you say, making a philosophical point about the limits - or limitations - of 'ingenious sophistry', a point which would be readily accepted by Pragmatists from Pierce and James onwards.

However, there is another model to consider, provided by Berkeley's successor, Hume. In the famous passage 'On Scepticism With Regard to the Senses' where Hume uses his method of analysis to demolish the notion that objects continue to exist unperceived, or have an existence which is distinct from the act of perception, Hume expresses impatience with these 'strained speculations' and famously decides to go off and play a game of backgammon.

This isn't the philosophy of pragmatism, but arguably something even more extreme: a repudiation of the project of philosophy itself. When we remember the context of Hume's remark - Hume saw himself as writing a contribution to the science of 'human nature' which would have as great an impact as that of Newton in the realm of physics - there is a case for saying that what Hume was proposing, in a positivist spirit, the end of philosophy. Henceforth, questions which were previously regarded as 'philosophical' would be answered by the 'science of human nature' - psychology.

Rorty too sees an end to 'philosophy', but also recognizes that philosophers will still be needed after the revolution, to carry out the 'edifying conversation' about the ultimate questions of human concern.

So where does Boswell stand, in relation to these alternatives? Was he closer to Hume or James - or Rorty?

You say some interesting things about materialism, in relation to the question of 'emergent properties'.

To be a good materialist, it is not sufficient to accept that the mental properties which 'emerge' are 'caused' by physical events, as you seem to do at one point. That position would be consistent with epiphenomenalism. I don't accept Chalmers zombie thought experiment - that there could be someone physically and behaviourally just like me who had 'nothing inside' - because it leads to the ludicrous consequence of Charmers' own zombie double confidently 'asserting' the truth of epiphenomenalism! - There's got to be something wrong there.

Things happen in the mind. There are mental events. To be a good materialist you have to believe that statements made about things that happen in the mind are true in virtue of physical events or states of affairs. The obtaining of those particular physical states of affairs logically suffices for the mental events to occur - there is no logical possibility, as Chalmers envisages, of the very same physical events occurring in the absence of the mental.

However, it does not follow from this - and here 'emergence' provides a good model - that statements made about the mind can be translated into the language of physics. Mental events can be *realized* in the physical without being *reducible* to the physical.

The rejection of reductionism does mean that there is a troubling asymmetry in the arguments for materialism and immaterialism. As you point out, the immaterialist claims that in a complete description of our experience, the hypothesis of matter is 'redundant'. In the 60's the Australian philosopher David Armstrong proposed an argument which was the exact reverse of this: that in a complete description of the material world, the hypothesis of mental events is redundant. His argument for saying this was that a statement about 'raw feels', e.g. 'Tom is experiencing a sensation of red' can, in principle, be translated into counterfactual statements about Tom's behaviour. If we reject the possibility of reduction, however, then this translation can never be carried out.

In the final units of the Metaphysics program, I argue that any theory or position which leads to a Kantian-style 'antinomy' is thereby refuted. We know that the theory must be false, even if we do not have an alternative to offer. And here lies the troubling gap which you allude to in your final paragraph. I myself have proposed, in my book 'Naive Metaphysics' that we embrace an ultimate contradiction (between the subjective and objective worlds) so I am the last person to confidently apply argument by 'reductio ad absurdum' to metaphysical theories! But if we go ahead with the reductio anyway, then we embrace pragmatism as the 'third alternative' without any constructive philosophical argument for its truth.

- This essay has given me a lot to think about. Well done!

All the best,