Sunday, June 25, 2017

Why "Y'all" ain't one of my favorite expressions

"Y'all (the contracted form of "you all") isn't one of my favorite expressions, for a number of reasons. For one, it sloppily paints all the members of a group of individuals with the same broad brush. When used disapprovingly, as in "Y'all told me the office was gonna be open yesterday, but it was closed," it may ascribe blameworthiness to a whole group of individuals, whether they all deserve blame or not. It may ascribe blameworthiness to individuals who are innocent of any wrongdoing. Unnamed individuals may be referred to by the speaker who says, "Y'all..." The speaker takes no responsibility for saying exactly whom she is referring to. She simply makes an unverifiable, vague, and nebulous characterization of some group of individuals (as in "Y'all didn't say I had to be here by Tuesday"). The identity of the persons whom the speaker is referring to is never explicitly stated. It's never made clear exactly who is being referred to.
      Another reason that "Y'all" isn't one of my favorite expressions is that the listener may infer that she is the person whom the speaker is referring to, but this inference is left up to the listener to make, given that the speaker has broad-handedly made an assertion, declaration, accusation, or invitation addressed to whomever is within earshot, but to no one in particular. If the listener finds the speaker's use of the expression "Y'all" to be clumsy, inappropriate, or offensive and confronts the speaker with the clumsiness, inappropriateness, or offensiveness of her assertion, declaration, accusation, or invitation as it applies to the listener, the speaker may simply deny that the listener was the person being referred to. Thus, the expression "y'all" may be empty of any definite reference or meaning.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Baltimore 10 Miler, 2017

The Baltimore 10 Miler was held Saturday, June 3, 2017. The weather was perfect, about 64 degrees at 7:30 am, 70 degrees by 9 am, with only 3-4 mph wind. The race started at 7:30 am, with the runners crowded together in four successive waves (based on estimated finish time). I was in the third wave.
      There were 3,900 runners (1,539 men, 2,361 women). The course was quite crowded for the whole route. Water stations were set up intermittently from the 3 mile point to the end of the race. Police officers patiently controlled traffic at each street intersection.
      The race started and finished in Druid Hill Lake Park, near the Maryland Zoo. The course ran from Druid Hill Park, across an overpass above the Jones Falls Expressway, along Wyman Park Drive to Art Museum Drive, then onto Howard St., then left onto 28th St, along 28th St. to Greenmount Ave., then left onto Greenmount Ave., then up Greenmount to 33rd St., then right onto 33rd St., along 33rd St. to Lake Montebello, then around Lake Montebello and back to 33rd St., along 33rd St. and then right onto The Alameda, then left and back down The Alameda, then right onto 33rd St. and along 33rd St. back to Greenmount Ave., then south on Greenmount Ave. to 28th St., and then back to Druid Lake Park.
      Dave Berdan was the men’s winner in 53:47. Teresa Welsh was the women’s winner in 1:29:54.
      My finish time was 1:48:20 (which was better than I expected, because I was hampered by muscle strains, stiffness, and limited stride length throughout the race). Overall, I was 2395th of 3,900 runners, and 30th of 63 in the 60-64 age group.
      This was the first time I’d run a road race in a while. I think I know now how to get ready for the next one. I felt pretty relaxed throughout the race, and I’m looking forward to running better next time, hopefully.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Carl Wellman's The Language of Ethics

Carl Wellman is an American philosopher who was born on Sept. 3, 1926, in Lynn, Massachusetts. He grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. He earned a B.A. degree in philosophy and political science at the University of Arizona (1949), and an M.A. degree in philosophy at Harvard (1951). He did a year of study at Cambridge University (1952) before returning to Harvard to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy (1954). He served as instructor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin from 1953-1957, assistant professor from 1957-1962, associate professor from 1962-1966, and then professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy from 1966-1968. He served as professor of philosophy at Washington University, St. Louis from 1968-1988, Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities from 1988-1999, and Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor Emeritus from 1999.
      His publications have included The Language of Ethics (1961), Challenge and Response: Justification in Ethics (1971), Morals and Ethics (1975), Welfare Rights (1982), A Theory of Rights: Persons Under Laws, Institutions, and Morals (1985), Real Rights (1995), An Approach to Rights: Studies in the Philosophy of Law and Morals (1997), The Proliferation of Rights (1999), Medical Law and Moral Rights (2005), The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights (2010), Terrorism and Counterterrorism: A Moral Assessment (2013), and Constitutional Rights: What They Are and What They Ought to Be (2016). He has also published articles in such journals as Mind, Ethics, Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, and American Philosophical Quarterly.
      In The Language of Ethics, Wellman asks, “What do ethical sentences mean?” He admits that the term “ethical sentences” may actually be difficult to define, but he explains that the kinds of ethical sentences he’s most concerned with are those that express judgments of value or judgments of obligation. (The term “ethical sentences” may in fact be ambiguous, insofar as it may refer to either sentences that are used in an ethical manner or sentences that are about something ethically right or wrong.) So the question of what is the meaning of ethical sentences is also the question of what is the meaning of judgments of value and judgments of obligation. Wellman says that an adequate answer to this question should explain not only what properties ethical sentences have in common, but also how they differ from other kinds of sentences, how they may differ among themselves, and what kinds of purposes they may have.1
      He describes four basic approaches to understanding the meaning of ethical sentences: ethical naturalism, ethical intuitionism, emotivism, and ordinary language theory. Ethical naturalism is the theory that ethical properties are natural properties, and that ethical sentences describe empirical characteristics. Thus, according to ethical naturalism, the primary use of ethical language is empirical description.2 Ethical intuitionism is the theory that ethical properties are non-natural properties, and that ethical sentences describe direct insights of reason. Thus, according to ethical intuitionism, some ethical truths are knowable by reason, without the need for empirical demonstration. The rightness or wrongness of some actions may be known intuitively, regardless of the consequences of those actions. Emotivism is the theory that ethical sentences are not primarily descriptive, and that they express or evoke emotions. Ordinary language theory is the theory that ethical sentences have their own kind of meaning, and that they cannot be reduced to other kinds of sentences. Thus, according to ordinary language theory, ethical sentences are neither empirical descriptions nor non-empirical descriptions nor emotive utterances.3 Their meaning depends on the linguistic purposes for which they are used. The way to clarify their meaning is to examine their uses as instruments of language.
      According to Wellman, none of these theories (naturalism, intuitionism, emotivism, and ordinary language theory) provides an adequate means of understanding the meaning of ethical sentences. He therefore describes five basic kinds of meaning that ethical sentences may have: descriptive, emotive, evaluative, directive, and critical. Other kinds of meaning may also belong to ethical sentences, but investigation of these five basic kinds of meaning may be necessary in order for us to develop a better understanding of the nature of ethical language.
      Descriptive meaning belongs to sentences that tell us something about a state of affairs. Every description indicates or refers to some thing or things, and is about some thing or things. Descriptions may be of more or less generality, of which there are (at least) four kinds: universality, indeterminateness, abstractness, and applicability.4 They also presuppose that the thing or things they refer to actually exist (at least in some sense).
      Emotive meaning belongs to sentences expressing emotions that we feel or could feel. Emotive sentences are characterized by four main features: emotionality, expressiveness, indicativeness (although indicative meaning may not belong to all emotive sentences5), and partiality6 (they may express positive or negative emotions about or toward certain things, although this may not be true for all emotive sentences, and there may be emotive sentences that express neither positive nor negative emotions about or toward certain things). The strength of the emotionality of an emotive sentence may correspond to the intensity of the expressed emotion.
      Evaluative meaning belongs to sentences that express attitudes toward objects (things, or persons). Every evaluative sentence is about one or more objects, and takes some sort of position on the claim that the attitude it takes is the correct or appropriate one.7 This taking of a position on the claim to correctness or appropriateness may distinguish evaluative sentences from emotive sentences that express emotions but do not necessarily take a position on the claim that the emotions they express are the correct or appropriate ones.8 Evaluative sentences are like descriptive sentences insofar as they take some sort of stand on the claim to objective validity, but they are unlike descriptive sentences insofar as partiality (favorable or unfavorable attitudes) toward their objects is (are) at the core of their meaning.9
     Directive meaning belongs to sentences that direct us to do, or not to do, something. Every directive sentence is addressed to one or more agents who are called upon to perform, or not to perform, some action. Directive sentences presuppose that the agent(s) to whom they are addressed is (are) capable of doing as they are told.10 They also presuppose that at the moment they are spoken or written, there is still time for them to be fulfilled.11
      Critical meaning belongs to sentences that modify, challenge, reject, or reaffirm the rationality of something. By making explicit the claim to rationality that may be implicitly made by someone or something, critical sentences make their own implicit claim to rationality.12 The kinds of things that may be made objects of criticism include statements, actions, emotions, and attitudes.
      Wellman doesn’t mention, however, that the lack of rationality of something may not be the only grounds for ethically criticizing it. The lack of fairness, justice, prudence, practicality, truthfulness, honesty, etc. of something may also be grounds for ethically criticizing it. Wellman says that “To say that an action is right is to assert that its claim to rationality is justified; to say that an action is wrong is to assert that the claim is mistaken.”13 But there are other criteria besides the rationality of an action that may determine whether it’s ethically right or wrong to perform that action in a given situation. For example, a judgment that we have an obligation toward someone in a given situation may be motivated not only by rationality, but also by such principles as beneficence, altruism, civility, generosity, or reciprocity. The absence of these principles of ethical conduct may become grounds for ethical criticism.
      While judgments of value have evaluative meaning, says Wellman, judgments of obligation have critical meaning. He argues that value judgments are without descriptive or emotive meaning, and that judgments of obligation are without descriptive, emotive, evaluative, or directive meaning. But why can’t judgments of obligation sometimes express an emotional sense of obligation toward someone or something, and thus have emotive as well as critical meaning? Why can’t value judgments sometimes be judgments of the comparative rationality of various modes of ethical conduct, and thus have critical as well as evaluative meaning?
      He does explain, however, that a single sentence may have different meanings in different contexts (for example, a sentence may have descriptive meaning in one context, and directive meaning in another context). More than one of kind of meaning may also belong to the same sentence within a given context (a sentence may have both evaluative and emotive meaning within a given context, just as it may have both descriptive and evaluative meaning within a given context).


1Carl Wellman, The Language of Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), p. 8.
2Ibid., p. 25.
3Ibid., p. 130.
4Ibid., p. 174.
5Ibid., p. 205.
6Ibid., p. 202.
7Ibid., pp. 213-214.
8Ibid., p. 219.
9Ibid., p. 220.
10Ibid., p. 242.
11Ibid., p. 243.
12Ibid., pp. 264-265.
13Ibid., p. 270.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Philippa Foot rejected Kant’s notion that morality consists of a single categorical imperative by arguing that morality may instead consist of a system of hypothetical imperatives (Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, University of California Press, 1978, pp. 157-173). But one problem with Foot’s argument is that morality may consist of not only imperatives (commands or requirements) but also permissions, prescriptions, admonitions, and prohibitions. These various categories of deontic modality describe the moral possibility or necessity (permissibility or obligatoriness) of a given action. A given action may be permissible but not obligatory, or both permissible and obligatory, or neither permissible nor obligatory. A more nuanced conception of morality than that of either Kant or Foot must therefore be sought.

What is post-analytic philosophy?

What does the fact that there are dictionaries of philosophy say about philosophy?

Do what extent do we write ourselves into being? Can we each have a written as well as spoken identity? What happens to our concepts of ourselves when we cannot write? To write ourselves into being may also be to write ourselves into history. We may construct ourselves by writing about ourselves, and our histories may be written as well as unwritten (spoken or acted out).

Kinds of power include political, military, economic, social, legal, legislative, judiciary, executive, electoral, penal, disciplinary, coercive, rhetorical, persuasive, and dramatic power.

Is an opinion about things as important to philosophy as it is to social criticism? Do opinionated people make the best philosophers?

Politics may teach us that “seeing” (injustice, inequity, social dysfunction, or our own economic insecurity) is somehow “believing” (in a particular political party, candidate, regime, or system of power). But religion may teach us that “believing” (in a supernatural being or divine power) is somehow “seeing” (ultimate reality).

“dis/advantage” may symbolize the fine line between advantage and disadvantage, just as “dis/appearing,” “dis/approving,” and “dis/arranging” may symbolize the fine line between appearing and disappearing, approving and disapproving, and arranging and disarranging.

Irruption/eruption/interruption/disruption/       abruption may signify a breach, a rupture, an outburst, even an act of violence, but also an emergence, a bringing forth, a beginning and simultaneous ending.

Whenever I visit the Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins, I go directly to the philosophy section on level B (two levels below the ground floor). My mission is usually to find an interesting book to read or to find some book that I’ve already read about and found in the library catalogue. The philosophy section consists of about a dozen double rows of metal shelves filled with books from floor to ceiling. There are two rows of desks separating the philosophy section from the religion section. Each desk is enclosed by a wooden partition, with a sign above it saying THIS IS AN ASSIGNED WORKSTATION. IF YOU ARE NOT ASSIGNED TO THIS WORKSTATION, PLEASE USE ONE THAT IS NOT ASSIGNED. But there are no unassigned work stations, so in order to sit down, I have to break the rules. I have to become a kind of trespasser. But of course all the desks are usually empty, unless there’s an examination period scheduled for semester courses and students are studying at the library. Most of the time, I can choose whatever desk I want. The padded chair in front of each desk is so dusty, however, that regardless of which one I choose, I have to slap the seat several times and wait for the dust to clear before I can sit down. Then I’m able to ask myself, “”In what way, and for whom, is my engagement in philosophy an act of trespass? On whose terrain am I trespassing? Does engaged philosophy necessarily entail a kind of trespass? Must we all be trespassers in one way or another in order to engage in philosophy?”

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Conference on Race, Recognition and Respect, Johns Hopkins University, April 8, 2017

I had the good fortune to be able to attend a philosophy conference at Johns Hopkins today, and to meet some distinguished philosophers. The conference was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and the Center for Africana Studies. Below are some photos.

Falguni Sheth, speaking eloquently about "Race, Vulnerability, and Violence"

Charles Mills, delivering an enlightening, inspiring, and entertaining lecture on "Rawls, Liberalism, and Racial Justice"

Meeting Professor Sheth

Meeting Professor Mills

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What is Lived Theology?

The term “lived theology” may be definable in so many ways that no single definition may be adequate. Lived theology may be a philosophical or practical theology. It may be a moral, ethical, pastoral, ecumenical, or political theology, It may be a theological aesthetics or theological hermeneutics. It may be a liberation theology, resistance theology, reconciliation theology, or some other kind of social theology.
      Perhaps instead of trying to answer the question, “What is lived theology?”, we each should try to answer the question, “What does it mean to live my theology?” We each may need to ask ourselves: Am I living my theology? Do my actions reflect my theology? Is my theology dying or dead, or is it a living thing? Do I believe in a living God? How am I living my faith?
      We may also have to distinguish between theology as dogma or doctrine and theology as daily practice or social action. We may at some point have to think about our own lives differently, and think about theology differently. If we say that God is love, and that we believe in a theology of love, then we each may have to ask ourselves: Am I trying to love others in the same way that God loves each of us? Am I showing love and understanding toward others in the same way that God shows love and understanding toward each of us?
      Lived theology is not something that can be done merely individually; it must be done collectively. To really live theology, we cannot merely act as individuals, we must live our theology as members of a (spiritual, religious, vocational, or social) community.
      Perhaps we should also distinguish between “living theology” (or expressing in our daily lives what we believe about God) and “living theologically” (or acting according to a rule book or set of doctrines). The phrase “living theology” may also have different meanings, depending on whether the emphasis is placed on the word “living” or on the word “theology.” Living theology places the emphasis on our daily actions and ongoing experiences, while living theology places the emphasis on our religious beliefs and convictions about the nature of God.
      Carl R. Holladay, professor of New Testament studies at Emory University Candler School of Theology, explains that “living our theology…is inseparable from having and doing theology.” We cannot really have a theology without living and doing that theology.  When we do theology, we are putting our faith into action. Lived theology is faith in action.1
      David Dark, professor of religion at Belmont University College of Theology, answers the question “What is Lived Theology?” by saying, “One would think that the “lived” in “lived theology” would in some sense be redundant. But we have our world so divided up, and our God-talk so divided up from our actual lived commitments, that the term “lived theology” ends up being a very helpful provocation.”2
       Charles Marsh, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, explains that lived theology as a subject of theological writing, research, and teaching examines the impact of our daily experiences on our theological beliefs and practices. Lived theology may be a unique way of understanding how we feel God’s presence in our lives.3
     Insofar as “living” means “living in a body,” “lived theology” means theology lived in a body (or through the body as a medium of experience) or embodied theology. The corporeality of lived theology anchors it in daily experience. It cannot be merely a spiritual practice; it must also be social and communal.
      Insofar as theology is a mode of discourse about God, the discursivity of lived theology may be expressed by our capacity to communicate (e.g. by speech or writing) through our daily actions our thoughts and feelings about God.


1Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ (Nashville: Abington Press, 2005), p. 10.
2David Dark, “What is Lived Theology?", The Project on Lived Theology (Sept. 4, 2015), online at
3Charles Marsh, “Lived Theology: Method, Style, and Pedagogy,” in Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy, edited by Charles Marsh, Peter Slade, and Sarah Azaransky (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 6-7.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bonhoeffer's Ethics

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was active in the resistance movement against Nazism in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s. He was imprisoned and eventually executed in a concentration camp. He was a very heroic and inspiring figure of self-sacrifice and moral commitment, and he became one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century.1
      Bonhoeffer’s ethics are religious and Christian ethics. They are also Christological and Christocentric ethics. He says, “We began by saying that, instead of asking how one can be good and do good, one must ask what is the will of God. But the will of God is nothing other than the becoming real of the reality of Christ with us and in our world. The will of God, therefore, is not an idea, still demanding to become real; it is itself a reality already in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”2
      The reality of Christ and the reality of the world are one and the same, says Bonhoeffer. The world has no reality of its own, beyond its reality as God’s revelation in Christ. The world is only real insofar as God reveals Himself to us in it.3
      Christian ethics can therefore have only one purpose: participation in the reality of the fulfilled will of God. If we are reconciled with God, then we will be included in the fulfillment of God’s will in Christ.4
      What then does Bonhoeffer have to offer to those who are interested in a non-religious or secular ethics? Not much. He seems to say that we must realize that our world is relative to Christ, whether we want to admit it or not. “There can be no retreating from a ‘secular’ into a ‘spiritual’ sphere,” he says. “There can only be the practice, the learning, of the Christian life under (the)…mandates of God.”5 He also says, “The world, like all created things, is created through Christ and with Christ as its end, and consists in Christ alone (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is empty and abstract. The world is relative to Christ, no matter whether it knows it or not.”6
      Bonhoeffer says that only if we believe (in Christ) are we (or can we be) obedient (to the call to discipleship and to the call to life in the fellowship of Christ), and only if we are obedient do we (or can we) believe. Faith makes obedience possible, but faith is only real when there is obedience.7 Obedience is therefore not merely a consequence of faith; it’s also a presupposition of faith. “Faith is the condition of obedience,” and “obedience is the condition of faith.”8 Only the obedient believe, and only believers are obedient. Believers obey the call to discipleship. The call to discipleship is a call to submission, a call to take up the cross. If we take up the cross, then we prove that suffering love can vanquish evil.9 Discipleship grants us participation in the cross.
      We’re justified by faith alone, but we’re also justified by God’s grace alone. Faith is only possible with God’s grace. But faith is never alone; it’s always accompanied by love and hope.10
      What is love? The answer is clearly “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But Bonhoeffer says that the emphasis should be placed on the word “God,” even though we’ve fallen into the habit of emphasizing the word “love.” God is love.11 Only by knowing God can we know love, rather than the other way around. To know God is to know love, but we can only know God through God’s self-revelation. Love is the (self-)revelation of God, and God’s (self-)revelation in Christ is the revelation of His love for us. 12 Love is also our reconciliation with God in (and through) Christ.13
      Our moral responsibility for our actions depends on our freedom to make responsible choices. Where there is no freedom, there is no responsibility. Responsibility therefore presupposes freedom, and freedom can only consist in responsibility.14 However, obedience and responsibility are also interlinked in such a way that obedience is rendered in responsibility.15 Obedience without freedom is bondage, but freedom without obedience becomes arbitrary self-will.16 In responsibility, both freedom and obedience are realized.17
      Christian ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, are not a matter of our merely applying Christ’s teachings to the world, but rather of our being shaped in the form, or conforming to the likeness, of Christ. We are shaped in the form, or conform to the likeness, of Christ not by our own efforts, but by Christ who shapes us in conformity with Himself.18 Thus, we take the form that God has given us as members of Christ’s body, the Church.19
      Christian ethics are also based on the unity of the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. Christian life, according to Bonhoeffer, is “life with the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ, whose word confronts us…in the message of the justification of the sinner by grace alone.”20 Christian life also means that we become human through the efficacy of the incarnation, we are sentenced and pardoned through the efficacy of the cross, and we lead new lives through the efficacy of the resurrection.21 All three forms or efficacy are interconnected and interdependent.
      Regarding the right to life, Bonhoeffer says that “In the sight of God, there is no life that is not worth living: for life itself is valued by God.”22 Thus, he argues that suicide and euthanasia are wrong, because “God maintains the right of life,” even against those who have grown tired of living.23 Bonhoeffer sees suicide as an attempt at self-justification, motivated by lack of faith in divine justification. He says, “God has reserved to Himself the right to determine the end of life, because He alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. It is for Him alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God, self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide is therefore also sin.”24 Bonhoeffer also argues that contraception and abortion are wrong, and that they violate the right to life. He also argues that sterilization is wrong, unless it is performed for health reasons.
      Regarding the relation between Church and State, Bonhoeffer says that the State should be designed to serve God. “Jesus submitted to government, but He reminded government that its power is not arbitrary human will, but a ‘gift from above’ (John 19:10).”25 Government institutions should serve God by establishing and maintaining justice. Christians have a duty to obey government, unless government forfeits its claim on them by violating its mission to promote justice. The aim of the Church should be not for the government to enact laws and pursue policies that favor Christians, but for the government to fulfill its mission of justice.


1Eric Pace, “Eberhard Bethge, 90, Theologian and Biographer,” in The New York Times, April 18, 2000, online at
2Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, translated by Neville Horton Smith from the German Ethik, Chr. Kaiser Verlag, Munich, 1949 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), p. 77.
3Ibid., p. 195.
4Ibid., p. 209.
5Ibid., p. 204.
6Ibid., p. 204.
7Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, translated by R.H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth, from the German Nachfolge, first published 1937 by Chr. Kaiser Verlag München (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1959), p. 54.
8Ibid., p. 54.
9Ibid., p. 130.
10Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 121.
11Ibid., p. 53.
12Ibid., p. 53.
13Ibid., p. 55.
14Ibid., p. 244.
15Ibid., p. 248.
16Ibid., p. 248.
17Ibid., p. 249.
18Ibid., p. 82.
19Ibid., p. 84.
20Ibid., p. 132.
21Ibid., p. 132.
22Ibid., p. 162.
23Ibid., p. 168.
24Ibid., p. 167.
25Ibid., p. 333.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why Rorty's Conception of Epistemology is Wrong

With the very first paragraph of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty's conception of epistemology starts to go astray, as he begins his criticism of traditional epistemology by saying that such philosophers as Descartes, Locke, Kant, Russell, and Husserl have sought to adjudicate claims to knowledge by trying to define the “foundations” of knowledge. Rorty says that if knowledge is seen as being based on accurate mental representations of the world, then the mind may be seen as a mirror of nature, and philosophy’s task may be seen as that of adjudicating knowledge claims by judging the accuracy of their representations of reality. He criticizes this mentalist and representationalist approach to the theory of knowledge, saying that epistemology as it has, in his view, traditionally been practiced (as a theory of representation) should be abandoned.
      Rorty conflates the search for the “foundations” of knowledge with the search for the “conditions” of knowledge, however. The distinction between the two is important, although he might deny this, and might say that the conditions of knowledge are merely foundational principles of knowledge. There is a difference, however, between seeking to establish certain basic or foundational truths and seeking to establish the conditions under which those basic or foundational truths may be known. While the “foundationalist” approach may seek to define certain basic truths or knowledge claims on which other truths or knowledge claims may be based, the “conditionalist” approach may seek to define the necessary and sufficient conditions under which truth or knowledge claims can be made. Rorty identifies epistemology with foundationalism, and therefore rejects it. But his critique of epistemology amounts to a kind of straw man argument. He criticizes epistemology for being something that it is not (al least not in the view of many classical and modern philosophers).
      This is not to say that epistemology is merely an attempt to define the conditions of knowledge; it is much more than that. It is also concerned with the nature, extent, and limits of human knowledge, the formulation and communication of knowledge, and the differences between knowledge and belief, opinion, faith, and imagination.
      Alan Malachowsksi (1990) explains that Rorty also tends to conflate the notion that it is unwise to crave for a theory of knowledge with the notion that it is unwise to think of knowledge as something that has or needs foundations, and that Rorty fails to establish the truth of either of these notions.1 Since Rorty also claims that it’s unwise to pursue an epistemologically-centered philosophy, Malachowski says that it’s fair to ask whether Rorty’s views actually amount to a substantive position on epistemology, and that this may indeed be a difficult question to answer.2
      Descartes (1641) is a foundationalist, insofar as he argues that we can know the truth of things if we have clear and distinct ideas about them. He says there are innate ideas in the human mind that are independent of our own perceptions and our own will. All innate ideas are clear and distinct, but adventitious ideas derived from our perceptions and factitious ideas derived from our illusions or imaginations may be unclear and indistinct.
      Locke (1689) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he describes three “degrees” of knowledge: intuitive, demonstrative, and sensory. According to Locke, intuitive knowledge is an immediate perception of the agreement or disagreement of two or more ideas, without the intervention of any other ideas. Demonstrative knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement or two or more ideas, based on proofs provided by intervening ideas. Sensory knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement of two or more ideas, based on sensory experience of the external objects to which those ideas refer. Demonstrative knowledge is based on intuitive knowledge, and intuitive certainty is required for every step of reasoning that produces demonstrative certainty. The faculty of understanding is necessary, however, in order to combine the three degrees of knowledge (intuition, demonstration, and sensation) into a more unified and comprehensive knowledge that transcends the respective limits of reason, intuition, and experience.
      Hume (1739) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that all ideas are originally derived from sensory perceptions, and that knowledge is ultimately based on experience rather than reason. Hume says that in order to establish the existence of an object, we must have already had a sensory perception of that object or of other objects from which the existence of that object can be inferred. Reason alone is insufficient to establish the existence of an object; sensory perception of that object, directly or indirectly, is necessary.
      Russell (1913) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that knowledge is based on acquaintance with self-evident truths. According to Russell, true propositions that are not self-evident must, in order to become objects of knowledge, be demonstrated to be true by self-evident propositions.. Knowledge is based on acquaintance with self-evident propositions and with propositions whose truth can be demonstrated by self-evident propositions.
      Carnap (1924) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that all scientific statements are reducible to structural statements about basic elements of experience. According to Carnap, structural statements are logical propositions about the formal properties of objects or relations. A constructional system of reality is a system in which the objects of each level are constructed from objects of more elementary levels of construction. The most elementary level of a constructional system is the level of basic objects, which includes basic elements and basic relations. The basic elements of a constructional system are “elementary experiences” that are not constructed but are immediately given to consciousness as formal objects.
      The “conditionalist” philosophers, on the other hand, may include Plato, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and others.
      For Plato, belief, truth, and justification are conditions of knowledge. True beliefs constitute knowledge if they can be logically justified. In response to the kinds of counterexamples supplied by Edmund Gettier (1963) of cases in which justified true beliefs may not constitute knowledge, many contemporary philosophers have proposed immunity to Gettier cases as another condition of knowledge. This subject has been discussed by such philosophers as Chisholm (1989), Lehrer (1990), Zagzebski (1994), Sosa (2011), Turri (2011), and Dretske (2015).
      Kant (1781) may be both a foundationalist, insofar as he calls for a critique of pure reason in order to determine the possibility, principles and extent of a priori knowledge, and a conditionalist, insofar as he attempts to describe the conditions under which a priori knowledge is possible. He provides a table of twelve categories or pure concepts of the understanding, describing them as a priori concepts that define conditions of possible experience. These categories or pure concepts of the understanding also define conditions under which the content of intuitions and representations may be unified by the understanding.
      Fichte (1794-95) claims that the first, absolutely unconditioned principle of the science of knowledge is the act by which the self becomes conscious of itself. The second principle, conditioned as to content, is the act by which the non-self is opposed to the self. The third principle, conditioned as to form, is the act by which the self and non-self are posited as divisible so that a limited self may be opposed to a limited non-self.
      Schelling (1800) argues that transcendental idealism is a system for all knowledge, and that it affirms that a transcendental unity of the self and nature, the subjective and objective, and the conscious and unconscious is a condition of knowledge.
      Schopenhauer (1818) says that transcendental idealism affirms that a transcendental unity of reason and experience is the condition for knowledge. He also says that all knowledge, except for knowledge of Platonic Ideas, depends on the principle of sufficient reason, and that the conditions for knowledge of Platonic Ideas include pure contemplation, extinction of desire, transcendence of the subject-object relation, and freedom from confinement by individuality.
      Rorty describes epistemology as a discipline concerned with the possibility of accurate representation, as if most epistemologists have already agreed that this is what epistemology is, and as if this is all it can be. In his view, if knowledge is not a matter of accurate representation, then we have no more need of epistemology. But this is a very skeptical and simple-minded view of epistemology. Does Rorty actually believe that a theory of accurate representation is all that epistemology can be? Is he perhaps being intentionally obtuse and simplistic for the sake of provoking some sort of critical response?
      His position also seems to be that to debunk Cartesian mind-body dualism is to debunk epistemology.
      He criticizes the concept of philosophy as a foundational discipline for other disciplines, as a discipline that can adjudicate the procedures and truth claims of other disciplines. He also criticizes the concept of philosophy as a discipline that “takes as its study the ‘formal’ or ‘structural’ aspects of our beliefs,” serving “the cultural function of keeping other disciplines honest” by “limiting their claims to what can be properly ‘grounded.’”3
      There may, however, exist within epistemology viable alternatives to foundationalism, which Rorty does not seem to account for. For example, Keith Lehrer (1990) explains that the explanatory coherence theory of justification (that justification is a reciprocal relation of coherence among beliefs belonging to a system) may be an alternative to the foundation theory (that some beliefs are completely justified in themselves and can therefore serve as the foundation for the justification of other beliefs).4 Rorty comes close to acknowledging this when he says, "For the Quine-Sellars approach to epistemology, to say that truth and knowledge can only be judged by the standards of the inquirers of our own day is not to say that human knowledge is less noble or important...than we had thought. It is merely to say that nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and that there is no way to get outside of our own beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence."5 
      Infinitism (the theory that beliefs may be justified for an infinite number of reasons) may be another alternative to the foundation theory.


1Alan R. Malachowski, “Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language),” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), edited by Alan R. Malachowski (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990), pp. 140-141.
2Ibid., p. 143.
3Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p.  162.
4Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), p. 87.
5Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 178.


Carnap, Rudolf, The Logical Structure of the World & Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1924), translated by  Rolf A. George (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

Chisholm, Roderick. Theory of Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966).

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy” [1641], in Ten Great Works of Philosophy, edited by Robert Paul Wolff (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).

Dretske, Fred. “Gettier and Justified True Belief: 50 Years On,” in TPM Online, Jan. 23, 2015, at

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Science of Knowledge (WIssenschaftlehre, 1794-95), edited and translated by Peter Heath (New York: Meredith Corporation, 1970).

Gettier, Edmund L. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” in Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 6 (June, 1963), pp. 121-123.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature [1739], edited by Ernest C. Mossner (London: Penguin Books, 1969).

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), translated byJ.M.D.Meiklejohn (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Lehrer, Keith. Theory of Knowledge (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990).

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1689], edited by Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Malachowski, Alan R. “Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language),” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), edited by Alan R. Malachowski (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990).

Plato. Theaetetus. Translated by M.J. Levett. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Russell, Bertrand. Theory of Knowledge: The 1913 Manuscript, edited by Elizabeth Ramsden Eames in collaboration with Kenneth Blackwell (London: George Allen & Unwin , 1984).

Schelling, F.W.J. System of Transcendental Idealism (System des transcendentalen Idealismus, 1800), translated by Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978).

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818), Vols. I and II, translated by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

Sosa, Ernest. Knowing Full Well (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Turri, John. “Manifest Failure: The Gettier Problem Solved,” in Philosophers’ Imprint, Vol. 11, No. 8, April 2011, pp. 1-11.

Zagzebski, Linda. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 174 (Jan., 1994), pp. 65-73.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Obligatoriness of Washing Our Hands, and the Permissibility of Getting Them Dirty

Consider all the possible statements we could make about whether we should wash our hands, and what they reveal about the kinds of (personal, moral, and social) decisions we could make. Some examples are:

We should (must, or have to) wash our hands now.
We shouldn’t (mustn’t, or don’t have to) wash our hands now.
We would (probably, likely, or most certainly) be remiss if we weren’t to go ahead and wash our hands now.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless we won’t have time to wash them later.
It’s probably best that we wash our hands now, rather than later.
If our hands aren’t dirty, then we don’t have to wash them now.
If our hands are dirty, then we should wash them now, rather than later.
It would be better to wash our hands now, because someone might notice that they're dirty.
It doesn’t matter whether we wash our hands right now or sometime later. In fact, it doesn’t (or may not) matter whether we wash them at all.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless there is someone we know who thinks we should.
We'd better wash our hands now, because we don’t want people to think we’re being careless about making sure our hands are clean before we shake their hands.
We could wash our hands right now, but we don’t really have to, so we might as well wait until later.
We might as well wash our hands right now.
Washing our hands right now is no better than washing them later.
If there are sanitary facilities available, then we should go ahead and wash our hands now.
If there is hand sanitizer available (and if our hands aren’t too dirty), then we can use the sanitizer instead of washing our hands with soap and water.
If we’ve touched something unclean or dirty, then we should wash our hands with soap and water as soon as we can.
If we’ve already washed our hands, then we don’t need to wash them again right now, unless there is some reason for us to get them extra clean.
If it’s more likely that we’ll have time to wash our hands now than later, then we should go ahead and wash them now.
If we wash our hands now, then we can still (or might still be able to) wash them later.
If we wash our hands now, then we won’t have to wash them again later.

      Most of these statements are modal expressions employing modal auxiliary verbs such as “may,” “might,” “will,” won’t,” “can,” “could,” “should,” and “must” to indicate deontic modality (moral possibility or necessity). They vary in the strength of moral necessity that they express, with some expressing only moral possibility or permissibility, and others expressing moral necessity or obligatoriness.
      Given all the possible decisions we can or could make (and all the possible ways of rationalizing those decisions) regarding whether it is or isn't permissible, advisable, or necessary to wash our hands at a given moment, how are we able to decide what to do without consciously thinking about it? Such a decision-making process seems in most cases to be an unconscious and effortless one (unless for some reason, such as a mental or behavioral disorder, we have an obsessive or compulsive habit of washing our hands).
      In daily life, why is it that we don’t ever (or so rarely) seem to have any difficulty deciding whether to wash our hands? Is it because we’re always so busy doing something else that deciding whether to wash our hands at a given moment becomes very easy whenever the opportunity presents itself?
      According to CDC guidelines, we should wash our hands before, during, and after preparing food; before eating food; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing our noses, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage.1
      Metaphorically speaking, when are we morally obligated to wash our hands of something, and when are we morally obligated to risk getting our hands dirty? When should we accept moral uncertainty in a given situation rather than refuse to risk any compromise of our moral principles? Risking moral blame or culpability may actually in some cases require a greater degree of moral commitment than refusing to put our own personal reputations at risk. We may in some cases have to risk getting our hands dirty if we've put ourselves in a position of responsibility that requires us to compromise our moral principles for the sake of a greater good, (unless we've consciously or unconsciously avoided putting ourselves in that position to begin with).
      An example of a “dirty hands” problem might be the president or prime minister who orders drone strikes against known terrorists, targeting them for destruction but thereby potentially endangering the lives of innocent civilians. However, Ben Jones and John M. Parrish (2016) argue that the dirty hands problem “describes an emergency that forces an individual to break a moral rule, not a policy that routinely breaks moral rules.” They also argue that “Rather than provide moral clarity, dirty hands justifications of current U.S. drone policy risk legitimizing a practice that expands state power in potentially dangerous ways.”2
      Michael Walzer (1973) argues that the politician who has dirty hands, even if he has acted out of concern for the common good, must nevertheless bear a burden of guilt and responsibility for his blameworthy actions. It is in fact by the politician’s acceptance of guilt and responsibility (why guilt, necessarily?) for his blameworthy actions that we know him to be a moral person. If he were not a moral person, then he would pretend that his hands were clean.3 Once he has atoned for his wrongdoing, then his hands will be clean again.
      Stephen de Wijze (2007) argues that the dirty hands problem may be a case of “doing right by doing wrong” or “doing wrong to do right,” but may also be subject to various conceptual confusions. He explains that it may involve either a moral conflict in which a right choice can be made between incompossible duties or a moral dilemma in which there is no right overall choice between incompossible duties (and in which there may only be a choice between the lesser of two evils). Some dirty hands problems may involve moral conflicts but not dilemmas, while others may involve both moral conflicts and dilemmas. De Witze also argues, following Michael Stocker (1990), that a dirty hands problem is a special kind of moral conflict in which an action is ‘justified, even obligatory, but also none the less somehow wrong.’However, de Witze explains that “not every wrong action is a dirty action and not every moral conflict involves dirty hands. Furthermore there can be dirty hands cases which involve moral dilemmas, whereas many moral dilemma situations do not involve dirty hands.”5
      Steve Buckler (1993) describes the dirty hands problem as an example of moral ambiguity in which there may be a choice between what is morally necessary and what is morally good. Some actions, despite being morally necessary, are in themselves not morally good. Thus, dirty hands cases may not be true dilemmas, which require a choice between two or more undesirable alternatives. The politician or government official, for example, may get dirty hands simply by doing what it is morally necessary for her to do (in order to promote the common good), rather than doing what it would be morally good for her to do. She may do exactly what she has to do, even though it may be morally disagreeable. In fact, this may be an obligation for her as a politician or government official, and failure to perform the necessary but morally disagreeable action may represent a neglect of her duty to the people she represents.6


1Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives,” September 4, 2015, online at
2Ben Jones and John M. Parrish, “Drones and Dirty Hands,” in Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killing, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare, edited by Kerstin Fisk
3Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 2, Issue 2 (Winter, 1973), p. 168.
4Michael Stocker, “Dirty Hands and Ordinary Life,” in Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 9-36.
5Stephen de Wijze, “Dirty hands: Doing Wrong to do Right,” in Politics and Morality, edited by Igor Primoratz (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 9.
6Steve Buckler, Dirty Hands: The Problem of Political Morality (Avebury: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1993), p. 7.