Social syllogizing. William of Ockham, John Lutterell, Walter Chatton and Adam Wodeham on the division of epistemic labour*

In my last post, I suggested that Ockham’s account of language and concepts might be founded on the thesis of a “division of linguistic labour”. In what follows, I would like to say more about this thesis by showing how it figures in the debate over the demonstrability of articles of faith. Far from being a debate of merely theological interest, I believe that the thesis is put to work as founding the idea of a division of epistemic labour, even between the living wayfarers (viatores) and those considered happy in heaven (beati). [If you are mainly interested in Ockham’s account of the division of epistemic labour, you can jump straight to section 2 of this post.]

When Ockham’s pupil Adam Wodeham delivered his Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences around 1330 in Norwich, Ockham had already been excommunicated. But this didn’t stop Wodeham from defending and elaborating Ockham’s doctrines. Like many of his contemporaries, he particularly dealt with questions concerning the relation between theology and the Aristotelian notion of science. One of these questions was whether articles of faith such as ‘God is three and one’ can be scientifically demonstrated. Wodeham’s answer to this question might sound quite peculiar: Instead of a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he replies that it is possible in principle to demonstrate such creditive propositions, but not by means that are available to wayfarers, i.e. human beings in this life. Yet they are demonstrable through sentences formed by one who is blessed in heaven. So, in order for this solution to work, we have to imagine a syllogism that contains the premises of a blessed one in heaven and the conclusion of a wayfarer in this earthly life. In this sense, the epistemic labour is shared even across domains as different as heaven and earth …

Wodeham provides intriguing arguments to defend this thesis, which was originally proposed by Ockham. But what is at stake here? To be sure, it’s one of the big themes: the relation between faith and reason. The question of the demonstrability of creditive propositions aims at the epistemological status of theology. Quoting Augustine, already Peter Lombard warned theologians against endorsing the truths of faith on the grounds of ecclesiastical authorities alone. If theologians do not wish to be utterly defenceless against hair-splitting logicians, they had better come up with some reasonable arguments as well. But how was the gap between natural reason and faith to be bridged? From the mid 13th century onwards, Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics – a book that clearly did not consider matters of catholic faith – was the leading source on scientific knowledge. If the traditional talk of ‘truths of faith’ is to be taken seriously and that is taken literally, then we require a general answer to the question of what it means for such a ‘truth’ to be true and demonstrable. Yet, if articles of faith were as evident as principles of science, then faith would have to belong to the realm of naturally accessible human knowledge. And since the knowledge of both realms would be equally evident, the difference between the wayfarer’s faith and the beatific vision of a blessed one would be lost. If, however, articles of faith belong to the realm of heavenly knowledge only, then it is incongruous to call theology a science.

I think that Ockham’s solution to this dilemma gave a new meaning to the debate, in the sense that it is rooted in the conviction that knowledge – no matter whether it’s heavenly or earthly – has a general form: it is subject to general criteria of rationality. This form or structure is for Ockham psychologically real in that knowledge is generally given in the structure of a mental language, which means (to a first approximation) that the concepts we have in our minds are structured in ways significantly similar to the sentences we utter. Thus, the difference between a wayfarer (viator) and a blessed one (beatus) is not that they have different types of lower and higher knowledge (or rationality), the difference is simply that they are in different epistemic situations. But for Ockham’s solution to work, it is not enough that there is a common structure of knowledge. We also have to take the different epistemic situations of different knowers into account. Thus, the idea of a common rationality requires a division of epistemic labour. Let’s now look at the debate.

  1. Lutterell’s critique

Ockham’s teaching in Oxford and London provoked many criticisms. Already John Lutterell (Chancellor of Oxford University till 1322) was deeply concerned about Ockham’s doctrines: Ockham held that we do not know things but mental sentences whose terms stand for things. Mental terms, in turn, are caused by cognizing things. This doctrine tries to acknowledge the fact that an assent or dissent does not aim at things but at propositions: we don’t say, for instance, ‘the stone is true’, but ‘the mental sentence’, whose subject-term stands for a stone, ‘is true’. To have knowledge, then, is to have a certain mental attitude towards a proposition. Lutterell, however, concluded: “This is dangerous, because it eliminates all real science and faith.” (Libellus contra Ockham, art. 30)

Now since, on Ockham’s account, forming an evident judgement requires epistemic access to the things the proposition refers to, Ockham indeed denied that theology is, strictly speaking, a science and he denied that articles of faith can be demonstrated in this life, although they could be demonstrated in principle by means of premises formed by someone who has epistemic access to God, namely a blessed one. Lutterell, however, won’t have that. One of his main arguments against Ockham’s position is that the blessed would not form a proposition at all. On his account – and in accordance with many medieval theologians resorting to Augustine – the blessed one has a sort of vision which enables him or her to form a single and simple unstructured concept (Libellus contra Ockham, art. 4), whereas humans in this life attain simplicity only in complex ways, that is they do not attain real simplicity at all.

An helpful illustration of the difference between complex and simple thought is the difference between writing a text on your word-processor and looking at the photocopy or pdf of a text: With the word-processor you can alter the text you’re writing, you can copy words or phrases and put them elsewhere and so on; by looking at the photocopy you get the whole text at once, but there’s no way of altering the text or transporting bits of it elsewhere.

Simplicity is a feature of divine perfection and is therefore traditionally held to be a property of the beatific cognition: since, unlike complexity which is often associated with materiality, spatial and temporal order, simplicity precludes falsity or error. Seeing God, then, precludes the formation of complex concepts or any kind of discursive thinking. On Lutterell’s account, the knowledge of the blessed is shaped with regard to the object of knowledge and is thus simple, whereas the wayfarer has to form complex propositions about God, hence reaching the simple only through complex means.

Lutterell’s defence of theology as a science is largely owing to Aquinas, who held that we can justly claim that our complex conclusions about the divine are true, so long as we believe in the principles of the higher and simple knowledge of the blessed ones. But Ockham didn’t buy this argument, maintaining that we cannot know conclusions unless we evidently know the premises.

  1. Ockham’s position

Ockham’s own position is quite different. On my reading (see here and here for details), his point is that this way of talking and dividing knowledge is generally ill-formed. So his arguments amount to saying: I grant that these articles of faith aren’t demonstrable in this life, since otherwise they wouldn’t be articles of faith, and there would be no difference between this life and beatific vision. I also grant that we have to construe articles of faith as being demonstrable in principle, since otherwise our faith would aim at nothing. But if we want to say that our sentences could be demonstrable through the premises of the blessed, we first have to grant that our and their knowledge is compatible. And since our knowledge is structured, we had better assume that their knowledge is structured as well, otherwise it wouldn’t be compatible with ours.

But how can Ockham reasonably hold that articles of faith are demonstrable in principle? A scientifically demonstrable conclusion requires that the proposition is (1) necessary, that it is (2) deducible from necessary and evident propositions in a syllogistic discourse and that it is (3) doubtful (otherwise it would be self-evident, and therefore not demonstrable from other propositions). Now, the blessed one can form the required evident propositions, but the trouble is, the blessed one couldn’t form a doubtful proposition, since it would be – presumably – immediately evident to him or her, and thus independent of any argument or any other proposition.

To fulfill the criteria of demonstration it is required that we are in a position to form a doubtful proposition which the blessed one could access in principle. Ockham argues that this requirement is met, if there is someone who can doubt the proposition or if the blessed one was once in a position to doubt the proposition, which in turn requires that the sentence structures are preserved.

As I see it, Ockham’s reply combines two lines of argument: On the one hand, he insists that the structure of thought is the same for all. On the other hand, he argues that the dubitability is provided once there is someone (else) in a position to doubt (see In I Sent, d. 3, q. 4; OTh II, 440-441). It is with this move that Ockham makes the case for a division of epistemic labour. Properties of thought do not have to be fulfilled by every individual thinker. Rather it suffices if someone can fulfil them. In the given case, demonstrability even requires that thinkers are (or have) been in different epistemic situations.

  1. Chatton’s critique

Ockham’s idea is, then, that the very same proposition is doubted or believed by the wayfarer and evidently known by the blessed one. So it is possible that someone, let’s call her Martha, reads a theological treatise and stumbles upon the sentence ‘God is three and one’. Martha thinks hard, but neither can she infer this sentence from any principles she knows, nor did she have any experience with any entity that is at once three and one. We may say that she simply entertains the sentence in her mind, without judging its truth or falsity. But then she thinks even harder and realises the overt contradiction in the ascription of something being three and one at once. Now Martha, not familiar with the many logical twists and turns of trinitarian debates, concludes that it may be impossible for something to be three and one at once and doubts the sentence. Now, she may have a conversation with the author of the theological treatise in question and find him rather learned and trustworthy, so that she eventually casts aside her doubts and believes that after all there might be one entity that is very special just because it is beyond contradictions in terms. We might say then that she believes the sentence on certain premises. Now, let’s assume that Martha dies and is entitled to beatific vision. She might then, as it were, remember the sentence and evidently judge that it is necessarily true.

Although one might argue that this judgement is not a demonstration, because the kind of sentences she can form on the grounds of immediate experience are self-evident and not dubitable, we can reply with Ockham that it is indeed a demonstration because the blessed one’s newly acquired sentences are the very premises from which she infers the truth of the very sentence she formerly believed. Sentences and its parts are transportable. They can recur in different contexts, even in heaven. But Ockham pushes the point even further: it is sufficient that someone can doubt the proposition in question. Presumably, the blessed ones cannot doubt articles of faith. Therefore, it is vital that some wayfarers in this life have doubts, and thus enable the division of epistemic labour.

On Lutterell’s account, this cannot be true, because the blessed one doesn’t entertain propositions in his or her mind, so the parts of former propositions could not be transported into the newly formed simple cognition. But Ockham encountered smarter opponents than Lutterell. To be sure, it’s perfectly possible to grant that the blessed one can think discursively, and still deny that wayfarer and blessed one can entertain the very same propositions.

Ockham’s opponent and fellow Franciscan Walter Chatton attacked his doctrines in many respects. Chatton granted that the blessed ones can think discursively, but he still denied that articles of faith can be demonstrated, on the grounds that such an article cannot be the conclusion of a heavenly demonstration. In this life we have premises from which we might infer a sentence and believe it; in heaven we have other premises from which we might infer a similar sentence, but – says Chatton – although our common manner of speaking might suggest that we are dealing with the same sentence, we have in fact sentences of a different kind. Because different kinds of premises acquired under different epistemic conditions entail different kinds of conclusions. And the blessed one could not but immediately judge that the wayfarer’s sentence is true. So Chatton infers that, although the knowledge of the wayfarer and the blessed one might be discursively structured, it still is of different kinds and thus incompatible.

  1. Ockham’s reply and Wodeham’s defence

Ockham concedes that the wayfarer’s premises are different from the premises available to the blessed one, but he denies that Chatton’s inference, according to which ‘different kinds of premises entail different kinds of conclusions’ is valid. As Aristotle had already established in his Posterior Analytics, the knowledge of the conclusion is not necessarily caused through the knowledge of the premises. Accordingly, Ockham claims that the blessed one might have the conclusion before he or she turns to assess the premises in order to prove the conclusion. And this conclusion may well be the article of faith that the now blessed one formerly entertained as a wayfarer in this life under insufficient epistemic conditions.

As I have said in the beginning, Ockham’s pupil Adam Wodeham defended this position. He counters Chatton’s tenets by pointing out that it does not contradict the beatific state of the blessed one if he or she forms the sentence of a wayfarer. This was exactly the idea that Chatton meant to attack, when he claimed that the article of faith of a wayfarer could by no means function as the conclusion of a demonstration, otherwise – Chatton had argued – we couldn’t say that the blessed one has more evident knowledge than the wayfarer.

Wodeham’s move against Chatton is even more subtle than Ockham’s initial defence. Wodeham repeats Chatton’s thesis that “the blessed one could not but immediately judge that the wayfarer’s sentence is true” and asks how the blessed one could achieve this judgement without engaging in a syllogistic discourse. Wodeham then explains that, if the blessed one assesses the sentence of the wayfarer, the blessed one has to demonstrate not his own but the wayfarers’ conclusion. Wodeham thus points to the logical blunder committed by Chatton: If the blessed one had solely knowledge of a different type, incompatible with the wayfarer’s knowledge, then the blessed one couldn’t know whether the wayfarer’s sentence is true. According to Wodeham, Chatton missed his target and refuted himself.

  1. Conclusion

Ockham and Wodeham argued against their opponents that the degree of certainty of knowledge and belief depends on the epistemic conditions of the knower. The difference between the knowledge of a wayfarer and of a blessed one is not a difference between types of knowledge but a difference of epistemic situations: If, for instance, I actually see something, I can form a reliable judgement about its existence and the properties belonging to the object seen. If I see God, then I can claim to have evident knowledge about him; in this life however, the sentences I form are expressions of faith. There is thus no difference with regard to the type of rationality, such as the difference between simple intuitions and complex propositions. All knowledge is processed in mental sentences which have a compositional structure and transportable parts.

Ockham’s point was not to raise hopes that we might meet the odd blessed one and ask him or her to demonstrate our conclusions. His thought experiment was designed to show that we need to assume a generally consistent structure of knowledge, if we want to claim compatible criteria for identifying and assessing judgements formed under different epistemic conditions. The scope of rationality that Ockham assumes comprises the knowledge of all thinking creatures, including humans, blessed ones and angels, creatures whose knowledge is shaped by common structures, rendering knowledge identifiable under different epistemic conditions. But for the idea of a common rationality to work, there also needs to be a division of epistemic labour. In this sense, Ockham defends a social notion of rationality.

  1. An afterthought

Ockham’s and particularly Wodeham’s subtle defence against those who assumed a plurality of incompatible types of lower and higher knowledge rest on interesting arguments. But as in many construals of logical form as not merely an instrument but the actual shape of knowledge itself, there remain troubling questions, one of which I’d like to sketch now at the end of this post: Do not many of these defences amount to transcendental arguments by means of which we proceed from supposed facts to the necessary conditions of their possibility? I think we are indeed inclined to infer from the fact that our reasonings are logically reconstructible, that it is a necessary condition of the possibility of such a reconstruction that the logical form really is a feature of our knowledge. Recall: Wodeham claimed that, for the blessed one to assess the wayfarer’s sentence, he or she needs to entertain and demonstrate the wayfarer’s sentence, and that hence their shapes of rationality have to be compatible. That seems quite conclusive.

If I assess a sentence S, the necessary condition of the possibility of my assessing S is obviously that I can form and entertain S, and thus that my mental capacities and structures have to be of a kind allowing for the entertainment of S. We couldn’t even talk about the blessed one doing so without implicitly or explicitly ascribing to him or her that capacity.

The trouble with such arguments is that our ascription of such capacities can be both indispensable and false, false at least in the sense that the capacity of entertaining S might completely exhaust the blessed one’s structured rationality, and that every other piece of his knowledge is indeed couched in a different, namely structureless type of rationality. On a lighter note we might urge this point as follows: When you have finished reading this post and you’ll start forming critical responses in your mind, you’ll certainly do so on the assumption that I have written this post in English and that we share a common rationality. You’ll say: the fact that Martin has written this post and might even respond to my comments rests on the condition that he has the capacity to speak English. But maybe I have just shot my bolt and wouldn’t know how to write anything else that might look like English; perhaps this post is just a sort of gap in my otherwise entirely different way of thinking. To put it in terms of the illustration I gave in the beginning: I might not be processing words, but simply be tossing out a sort of photocopy. So if I can’t reply to your comments the reason may well be that I didn’t write this post in English in the first place. The letters I have written down here may just look very similar to English words. But then again: how could I tell you that without sharing or anticipating your assumptions?


*This blog post is the revised version of an unpublished paper, first presented at the conference Dialectic on Trial, Cambridge, Clare Hall, 2005, and it contains some passages from my papers published here and here.


Ockham on the division of linguistic labour

One fascinating feature of language is that it enables us to talk about and thus handle things that we have no clue about. Although I have never seen a dinosaur, I can talk about dinosaurs and even recognise images of them. Arguably, this feature of language is owing to what Putnam called the “division of linguistic labour”. Although I don’t know anything about or at least not much about certain things, I can apply the words correctly. The reason I can do so is that I defer to other speakers, in this case experts who do have the knowledge I lack. According to this view, language is not a solitary tool like a hammer, but a social tool, only working in a collective, like a steamship. Although the social understanding of language is often portrayed as a modern idea, I’d like to suggest that it dates back at least to the early 14th century.

Thinking about language in wake of Putnam, we might find the thesis of the division of linguistic labour quite intuitive. But it doesn’t come naturally if we follow the standard interpretation of what is now known as the semantic triangle as sketched in Aristotle’s Peri hermenias (16a3-9). Here, Aristotle suggests that words relate to things in virtue of the mental concepts we have of things. The reason that words like “apple”, “pomum” or “Apfel” signify the same things is that they signify the same non-linguistic concepts. A common way to take this mediation of the word-thing relation through concepts is to assume that speakers must know the things they refer to. Using the word “apple”, then, requires me to have the concept of apple and thus knowledge of apples. – Now, in the first chapter of his Summa logicae, Ockham rejects this assumption. As is often the case, he frames his rejection as the proper interpretation of Aristotle. The details are a bit technical, but his own view is clear enough. In the translation by Paul Spade (p. 5-6), Ockham argues as follows:

Now I say that utterances are signs subordinated to concepts …, not because, taking the word ‘signs’ in a proper sense, these utterances always signify those concepts of the soul primarily and properly, but rather because utterances are imposed to signify the same things that are signified by the concepts of the mind, so that the concept primarily signifies something naturally, and the utterance secondarily signifies the same thing, to such an extent that once an utterance is instituted to signify something signified by a concept in the mind, if that concept were to change its significate, the utterance itself would by that fact, without any new institution, change its significate. The Philosopher says as much when he says that utterances are “the marks of the passions that are in the soul”. Boethius too means the same thing when he says that utterances “signify” concepts.

According to Ockham, then, words (translated as “utterances”) don’t signify things by signifying concepts first; rather it is enough that words signify the same things that are signified by the concepts that the words are subordinated to. Let’s compare these views schematically (the arrow indicates a signification relation):

Aristotle:            word     –>         concept  –>     thing

Ockham:            concept –>       thing

                            word      –>         “

So while the Aristotelian model suggests that each successful use of a word requires the user to have a concept that is signified by the word, Ockham’s model only requires that the word be subordinated to a concept. It is neither required that every actual use is mediated by a concept, nor is it required that the actual user does have the concept in question. Arguably, it is enough if some users have such a concept. If this is correct, we can assume that even those users who don’t have the pertinent concepts can use words correctly.

Although Ockham does not develop this idea straightforwardly into a thesis of division of linguistic labour, his rejection of the standard Aristotelian model clearly opens the door to such a view. Although she does not ascribe such a division thesis to Ockham, Sonja Schierbaum’s discussion of Ockham provides further evidence for such a reading. Ockham doesn’t develop this subordination semantics out of the blue. The discussion about the naming of God already led others before him to acknowledge that the use of words allows for talk about things that we don’t understand or have concepts of. (See here for more on this issue.) What Ockham adds in the Summa logicae is the idea that words can generally be used for referring to things irrespective of our concepts or knowledge. All that we need is that some other users have those concepts.

The upshot is (1) that conventional language is a more powerful tool than the mental concepts to which conventional language is subordinated and (2) that individual language use requires other users, especially for cases in which we lack pertinent concepts or knowledge.

The conventional signification of Lockean complex ideas*

In the course of writing up a paper on Locke’s theory of ideas for a volume on The Lockean Mind, it dawned on me that all complex ideas are conventional signs. So in what follows, I’d like to suggest that, while simple ideas are natural signs of their causes, complex ideas, even complex ideas of substances, are conventional signs that depend on linguistic consolidation.

In recent years, work on representation in Locke has reached some sort of consensus. Most scholars agree that simple ideas represent their causes. But it’s not at all clear what complex ideas represent. If substances are not given in experience, what do complex ideas represent? Do they have corresponding objects? Given Locke’s metaphysics, it seems safe to say that there are no apples, dogs, cats, trees or stones in the world, at least not properly speaking. Let’s unpack this a bit: While the ingredients of complex ideas, i.e. simple ideas, represent the qualities (= properties) that cause them, the resulting complex idea might be said to represent its cause insofar as the simple ideas represent their causes. So the complex idea of an apple might be said to be a natural sign of its cause insofar as the simple ideas (of which it consists), say the ideas of round, green, sweet and firm, are natural signs of qualities. Yet, this cannot be the last word, because complex substance ideas seem to have no direct correlate that they represent. Arguably, we cannot say that the things we think of in virtue of complex ideas are given in experience. My idea of an apple is not simply caused by an apple. Rather the complex idea of apple is made up of ideas of qualities, while the apple as a substantial bearer of the perceived qualities is not itself given in experience but presupposed. Looking at the causal explanation of such ideas, we cannot simply invoke extramental qualities. We also need to take into account the tacit mental operations that form the complex idea out of simple ideas (Essay II, xxiii, 1).

What, then, do complex ideas represent? As I have just said, the idea of an apple can of course be analysed into ideas of qualities. But if the apple idea as such is not taken as a sign of the causes (qualities), what does it represent? To answer this question, it is important to note that Locke appeals to an old distinction between two kinds of ideas, archetypes and copies or ektypes. Traditionally, archetypes would be taken to be ideas in the mind of God, where they serve as blueprints of things to be created. Locke doesn’t appeal to divine ideas, but he still makes use of this distinction when discussing adequate and inadequate ideas (see Essay II, xxxi). Arguably, Locke assumes that our mind forms, stores and names such archetypes when we encounter things or invent moral categories. The archetypes are what Locke calls nominal essences in book III. What does this mean? When we have an occurrent idea of an apple, this idea can be seen as a copy of the archetype through which we recognise the thing as an apple. So when we see an apple, we have in fact an idea that matches to some extent the archetype of apples in our mind.

This archetype-copy relation also forms the foundation for Locke’s famous criticism of our assumption that we have cognitive access to real essences of things. According to Locke, we tend to assume that a present idea of an apple matches the real essence of an apple. But this is a mistake, argues Locke. In fact, we refer it to the nominal essence, which is nothing but an abstract idea with a name annexed to it (see Essay III, iii, 15).

An immediate worry arising from this account is that such archetypes would be highly subjective or instable. After all, nominal essences (or archetypes) of substances are formed in our various accidental encounters with things. But if we invoke Locke’s discussion of language, we can see that he meets this worry. Briefly put, the fact that nominal essences are annexed to names means that these essence ideas are socially consolidated. The linguistic community a speaker is part of will sanction some uses and confirm other uses. This way, the abstract ideas are stabilised and even rectifiable in the light of new discoveries. So if I happen to call apples tomatoes, other users will correct and amend my use of the term, and thus make me adapt the conventional nominal essence.

The upshot is that complex ideas of substances (and mixed modes) are conventional signs to some degree. Although complex ideas consist of simple ideas that can be seen as natural signs of their causes, the complex ideas ultimately function as conventional signs for us. What they present to our mind is not solely determined by what causes their ingredients but also by the patterns that are consolidated within a linguistic community. This means that my occurent idea of an apple, while caused by certain qualities, presents to my mind an apple that I can recognise as an instance of what we call apple, because it has to match the socially consolidated criteria of the nominal essence of apple. Were it not for the historically grown categories salient in my speech community, for instance those for certain kinds of fruit, it is possible that my mind would register the recurrent ideas of certain qualities without ever recognising them as pertaining to a certain kind of thing.

Locke makes this point clear when he writes that ideas without names annexed to them would resemble a library with unbound books in which we could access pages without it being determined to which books the pages belong: ‘He that has complex Ideas, without particular names for them, would be in no better Case than a Bookseller, who had in his Ware-house Volumes, that lay there unbound, and without Titles …’ (Essay III, x, 26-27). The point is that the precise ingredients of our complex ideas, the structure and amount of simple ideas belonging to them, are determined by the naming practice in a given speech community. Thus, although the ingredients themselves have a causal origin, the way the ingredients are bound into bundles and used in thinking is a matter of convention.


* This piece is now kindly featured by Locke Studies 19 (2019).

“How would you arrange the deportation of my father?” On responsible (free) speech. A response to Silvia Mazzini

Could you tell me, face to face or in writing, how you would go about having my father deported? – Why, you ask? – Well, maybe you think he is a burden for society. After all, he is quite old by now. So how do you do get it arranged? Should some people be sent to fetch him? Perhaps at night? Go on, then! –

You, gentle reader, probably don’t have such desires. But if I follow the political discussions in the Netherlands and other countries, many people want that. Only they don’t tell me personally; they talk about certain groups, not to me.

Ah, it’s not old people, you say, just Muslims? So they don’t want to come for my father? Well, lucky me then… Should it make a difference whether people want to deport my or someone else’s father? Well, it makes a difference, but does it matter? Not much. –– The point I would like to suggest is that we can imagine that certain opinions concern us directly, even if they don’t. In a controversial discussion between two opponents, such imaginations can help both interlocutors to make the conversation more personal, concrete, emotional and thus responsible. Following up on my last post, I would like to develop some ideas, then, how we can turn free speech into responsible speech.

In my last post, I tried to show that our disagreements about the limits of free speech are owing to two different ways of understanding how language works. Ultimately, I suggested that the crucial limit of free speech should be determined by the responsibilities we have as speakers. But I didn’t say much about these responsibilities themselves. Commenting on the post, my colleague Silvia Mazzini suggested that responsibility could be seen as offering the other the ability to respond:

Maybe we could then interpret [responsible freedom of speech] like Levinas did: responsibility is the “ability to respond”. In this sense, freedom of speech would mean that all the people involved in a dialogue are able to respond – that they have the intention to consider the different positions of the others.

This strikes me as the way to go. What I like about this idea in particular is that it doesn’t require us to provide a complicated catalogue of virtues or rules. Rather, the responsibility is imposed through the very fact that the opinion is not voiced as a statement about others but to others.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, does it really make such a difference whether I offer my opinion about a policy regarding a group of people to someone in particular? David Livingstone Smith’s work on dehumanisation made me see one point in particular recurring again and again: Although it might be simple to imagine doing harm to a certain group in the abstract, it is really hard to do something harmful to someone directly in front of you. (That is why dehumanising tactics are employed: it is easier to harm someone if you think of them as not really human.) Arguably, this carries over to speech acts. My hunch is that it is much harder to direct hate speech at someone in particular (rather than speak abstractly about members of a group).

My idea is, then, that it is easier to act as a responsible speaker, if you are addressing someone in particular directly. There are a number of reasons for this. Interacting with a concrete person, we are more likely to respond with adequate emotions and empathy, and we have to face the response. Although a face-to-face encounter will be best, I think this will even work in online communication. It makes a difference for me as a writer whether I imagine you, whoever you are, as a concrete person who might frown or agree. Or whether I simply toss out statements about abstract ideas, however much they might affect you. The point is, thus, that we shouldn’t always try to amend online debates by being as rational as possible or by cancelling out emotions. Rather, the task would be to facilitate adequate social emotions necessary for responsible interaction. Addressing others directly should have two consequences: (a) it should be more difficult to objectify and thus to harm the interlocutor; (b) it should invite the other to respond and make me anticipate some response. Thus, if we get people who utter opinions to address people directly in this way, they will speak more responsibly, rendering free speech not a battleground but a possibility for genuine and considerate exchange.

So far, so good. Of course you might have objections, but my worry at this point is not how to justify my idea. Rather, I see the main challenge in implementing it. I think we should give it a try and then see how well it works. So how can we change our conventions? How can we get from talking about people to taking to them? This is an open question, but at this moment I can think of four steps in the relevant contexts:

  • Change speech acts from third-person to second-person sentences: Saying that you should leave this country is much harder than saying that blog readers should leave this country. I’d think twice about what’s going to happen if i did so.
  • People can stand in for targeted people: If you hear someone going on about a religious group, you can respond as if you were targeted. The point is not to lie, but to offer yourself as a possible interlocutor (which might be more effective than just saying that the speaker is a bad person).
  • As a possible interlocutor you can demand the other to (empathetically) imagine your situation: It might make a difference to ask your opponent how she thinks the deportation of your father should be arranged. Rather than discussing the rights and wrongs in the abstract.
  • Dehumanising language must be rejected. Of course, there are limits. It is vital to state that, if your interlocutor crosses a red line.

Now you might think that all of this is too difficult. I doubt that. In the face of what we often call political correctness, we have acquired a lot of vocabulary and changed some of our speaking habits. Now we can adjust our imagination and syntax a bit. Of course, this will take time. But I really hope that you and I as well as (other) people in education, in companies, in the press, moderators in the media, citizens in online or analogue discussions gradually train and learn to adjust their language and address people directly. Yes, it will be harder to offer your opinion, but it will also be more fruitful. – At this point, I’m suggesting this and hope for more ideas about means and ways of implementing it. Ideally, we’ll find that this or something like it turns out to be a viable way of amending political discourse.

By the way, this should cut across the entire political spectrum. It has, for instance, become fashionable to engange in what is sometimes called leftist populism or target the group of “old white males”. Whatever your contention might be, if you want to tell someone like my father that inverse racism isn’t a thing, you won’t get him to respond sensibly if you target him as a member of that group. We act through language. And the way we act in our words is palpable, it affects individuals, and individual people are likely to respond in kind. Verbal attacks affect us, irrespective of the side we think we are on. Thus, whenever we want to make a point that affects others, we should try and address them directly. Conversely, if we encounter problematic opinions, we don’t need to shut them down. To respond on behalf of a targeted addressee, as if you were addressed directly, might be more fruitful in maintaing adequate standards and emotions.

Finally, it goes without saying that I am worst at following my own advice. So please don’t call me out too harshly.

Words as weapons? Free speech requires responsible speech

Whenever I’m asked what sparked my interest in the philosophy of language, I immediately remember two texts that I read almost thirty years ago: one is a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann called “Everything”; the other one is an essay by Václav Havel called “A Word about Words”. Both texts can be read as rather powerful reflections on the social and political dimensions of language. For me, they show a crucial feature of language: language is not merely a medium of describing reality; rather it is interwoven with our actions. Bachmann’s story dispels the illusion that we can freely teach and learn language, irrespective of the social and historical baggage that our verbal categories come with. And when Havel writes that a word can “turn into a baton” that is used to “beat” one’s fellow citizens, this is not entirely metaphorical. A word might carry and pass on the very force that makes someone lift or drop a baton. Thus, a word can hit and harm you. In recent years, these ideas began to haunt me again. If words have such force, then the current appeals to free speech require us to speak responsibly, or so I’d like to suggest in what follows.

Two camps. – Yesterday, the feminist Mona Eltahawy explained that she no longer wants to speak at De Balie, a famous forum of public debate in the Netherlands. The reason was that, after accepting the invitation, she had learned that this forum had formerly hosted a group of speakers who ended up openly discussing the “deportation of Muslims”. Among these speakers were Paul Cliteur, a Dutch academic and active politician in a right-wing party, and Wim van Rooy, a Flemish author with similar political leanings. Already back in the day, the event sparked strong reactions. Some thought that such speech is outright harmful and suggested that this debate triggered associations of the Wannsee Conference. Others thought that the right to free speech entitles us to say anything, or anything as long as it isn’t evidently unlawful. If you’re following the news, you might by now think that this follows a familiar pattern: on the one hand, there are those who deem certain speech acts as harmful and protest against them; on the other hand, there are those who declare that such protests infringe free speech. (See here for an earlier post on misconstruing free speech.) At first glance, then, it looks like we’re dealing with two camps: those who want to regulate speech and those who reject the regulation of (free) speech.

Two camps? – Many people and especially journalists seem to have bought into the idea that we are indeed dealing with two camps, with those who want to restrict and those who don’t want to restrict free speech. But I think that this is a misleading way of plotting the disagreement. It’s not easy to pin down what’s wrong with it, but here’s a try. I think we’re basically dealing with two different ideas of language: let’s call them the action view and the entertainment view.

  1. According to the action view, speech is interwoven with other actions and thus, depending on the kinds of actions, harmful or good. Thinking and speaking are actions, and to be treated accordingly. If I call someone an asshole, for instance, I act in a certain way and can harm others, even in a way that is recognised by the law that sanctions insults.
  2. According to the entertainment view, speech is a medium in which we entertain certain thoughts: we exchange arguments and hypotheses that are detached from action. Thinking and speaking are decidedly distinct from actions. Ideally, we think and speak before we act or instead of acting.

If we take these perspectives as opposites, we can immediately see why they spur so much disagreement. If I take the entertainment view, free speech and open debate will not be a means of harming others but rather a way of preventing bad action. We can argue instead of hurting or harming each other physically. We can anticipate bad consequences, and stop them from happening. – By contrast, if I endorse the action view, then speech is already a way of possibly harming others. Arguing or insulting can be the beginning or incitement of a chain of related and escalating actions. If I start insulting you, I might subtly begin to legitimise stronger harms, possibly ending up with forms of dehumanisation. In fact, ongoing insults might damage your (mental) health already. The upshot is: the disagreement is not about (free) speech, but about how language actually works.

Differences in degrees. – Now, if you ask which of these views of language is right, I have to say: both, in a way. The relation between language and action is not one of different categories but one of degree. Some language use is clearly action-related or even a form of action; other language use is detached from action or even a replacement of certain acts. So if I insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, the language is clearly detached from action. However, arguably the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults.

Now what does that mean for the debate between the two camps? The good news is that they both have a point: language allows for action as well as for replacing action, even if these views are degrees on a continuum. This should allow for some progress in the debate between the two camps. But the crucial question is how we can deal with situations where the different emphases of these linguistic features lead to conflicts. As far as the general pattern of the opposition is concerned, I’d try to treat such conflicts in the same way we treat complaints more generally. How do you react if someone says that they feel insulted or intimidated? If you don’t understand what the complaint is targeting, you will probably ask what it is that constitutes the insult or threat, rather than continue with the abuse. Insisting that your right to free speech entitles you to say whatever you like is comparable to hitting someone and then, if they complain, saying that they might as well hit you, too.

Appealing to free speech is just a way of pointing out that language opens the possibility of entertaining certain thoughts, but it is no adequate response to someone complaining about an insult or threat. What many people forget is that freedom comes with responsibility. So, whatever we think we are entitled to through that freedom requires us to exercise that right responsibly. Thus, free speech requires responsible speech.*

That said, the right to free speech is important and should not be infringed easily. So what about the concerns regarding this freedom? The first thing to note is that such freedom is not infringed by protest or criticism. In fact, if Mona Eltahawy protests and cancels her attendance for the reasons given, she exercises her right to free speech. The second thing is that speech acts and other acts happen to have consequences. You can secretly think whatever you like, but if you publicly discuss the deportation of people belonging to a certain religion or race or whatever, you should face the consequences of being publicly called out and sanctioned accordingly. Again, appealing to free speech is not an adequate reaction to such complaints.

But if free speech is of no concern in such situations, when does it pose a concern? First of all, we should ask ourselves this: Who can actually infringe our right to free speech? Generally, it’s people who hold some power over us. So ask yourself whether the notorious student protests or other events that fill the media are really a threat to free speech. As long as people don’t have any power over you, it’s unlikely that they pose a threat to your right to free speech. It’s more likely that they exercise this very right. That said, exercising this right can be done in a sincere or in an insincere manner. And it can be done in a hurtful or threatening way. Spotting the difference between sincere concern and tactics is probably a lifelong exercise.


* Here is a follow-up post on how free speech can be turned into responsible speech.

I don’t know what I think or feel. On psychological indeterminacy

Somewhere in his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that, if you don’t think something determinate, you think nothing at all. I guess this assumption did catch on, because among philosophers of mind it’s still common to say that beliefs and desires are individuated by their content. So what makes your current mental state the state it is is that it’s p and not q you’re thinking or desiring. Although I can understand the idea, I always thought that this was odd in view of my actual mental life. I often think that I’m not sure what I believe or desire. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this indeterminacy of mental states should perhaps be taken more seriously.* Why? Well, simply because I think it’s fairly pervasive. Our conversational maxims might demand that we be clear, but I think what’s actually going on is more like a duck-rabbit situation: given the context, we might be sad or angry, but we don’t really know, and there might not be a fact of the matter as to what is actually the case. So what’s going on?

“Do you love me?” This is a question we’d probably like to have a determinate answer to. But do we? Stating how we feel or what we think is common in our daily exchanges. If you asked me how I am now and what I think, I’d answer that I am fine, but a bit tired, and that I’m wondering whether to stay up or go to bed. It seems, then, that my mental states come in fairly clear categories: I feel fine in a certain way to a certain degree; I feel tired, and that makes me think whether I should go to bed. It seems, then, that my feelings and thoughts are determinate: I’m not angry or sad, but fine. My thought has a certain content: it’s about whether I want to go to bed, not about the aftertaste of the wine I had a moment ago. However, perhaps more often than I am aware, I don’t know how I feel and I don’t know what goes on in my mind. If you were to ask me in these moments how I am, I’d feel slightly embarrassed because I couldn’t tell. So my hunch is that we make our mental states seem more determinate than they actually are, not because we’d know how we are, but to spare ourselves and others embarrassment.

Now you might want to object that our own insecurity about what we think doesn’t actually matter. As a good content externalist, you might want to say that our thoughts are often about things we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean they are not determined by something definite; it just means that we don’t have the means to tell what that definite content is. To pick up an example my friend Markus Wild once gave me: You might be bitten by a poisonous or non-poisonous snake; even if you don’t know the least thing about snakes, it will definitely be one or the other. What matters is not what you know about snakes but the kind of snake that bit you. The upshot is that the content of our thoughts or desires or feelings might be determined whether we know it or not. In other words, the content that I am aware of might not at all be the content that my mental state is about. This is an important objection: I might want chocolate, but my body might in fact crave some sort of sugar, whether I know it or not.

That said, this externalist account might be important if we talk about beliefs and desires regarding natural kinds. I’m less sure this account figures in any instructive way when it comes to the question of whether we love someone or whether we have this or that opinion or association etc. What I mean is: even an externalist must accept that there are some thoughts and desires and feelings with regard to which it matters whether or not we are aware of their determinacy. If you ask me whether I love you, it’s no way out to say that I’m a content externalist…

So again: why doesn’t this figure in the philosophy of mind? If it does, please let me know. But as far as I can see, the fact of psychological indeterminacy is pretty underrepresented. That said, this is not quite true outside the narrow confines of philosophy. Although most philosophers (at least the ones I know, except perhaps for Wittgenstein) don’t seem to have picked up on it, literature and art is brimming with it. Thus, I’d like to close this post with one example.

Although there might be a number of instances, the short story “Suspicion” by my fellow medievalist and writer Evelina Miteva is the best illustration I can think of. It suggests psychological indeterminacy on four levels:

  • firstly, you don’t know what the main characters think of each other; so you don’t know whether they can ascribe determinate mental states to one another;
  • secondly, you as a reader cannot guess what the mental states of the protagonists are;
  • thirdly, the author does nothing decisive to make the mental states of the protagonists appear to be determinate;
  • fourthly, the protagonists themselves are portrayed as being unsure about their actual mental states.

Of course, the story offers cues as to what you (or the protagonists or the author) might believe, but it never reassures you about your guesses. I guess that is pretty much what our (mental) lives are like anyway. It’s not just that we don’t know what we think or feel; it’s indeterminate what the content of our mental states is. Given the complexity of thoughts, feelings and perhaps traumata that are present beneath the surface of what we are aware of, it is not surprising that many of our occurent states appear to be indeterminate. But if this is so, why does it not receive more attention in theories of mind?


* Tim Crane kindly points out an intriguing paper on the issue. Here, the idea that mental states are determinate is succinctly questioned as a “textbook view”: “A lot of what we believe is incomplete, partial, confused and even contradictory. The single proposition-plus-individual belief state picture makes it hard to see how this can be the case, tending to attribute these features to our knowledge of our belief states, rather than to the states themselves. […] So we need to be able to say that it may simply be indeterminate whether Sam believes that his son is a great artist. But this is not because there are no psychological facts about what he believes — it’s rather because there are too many. Complexity and confusion can go right to the bottom of our worldview.”

Call for ideas: Why the humanities and sciences protect our values

As you all know, the sciences and humanities are targeted on many levels. We’ve all seen budget cuts happening, for more or less comprehensible reasons. By now we’re used to that, and the more cynical sides of our souls will quickly admit that at least many of the humanities are not much of an asset to the average tax payer. So far, this made for nasty ways of playing off the sciences and humanities against one another. But now the sciences are explicitly targeted, too, for example by people doubting climate sciences or the standards of vaccination. Over the last two weeks, I got a ‘live’ glimpse of the way in which right-wing politicians mobilise people against universities. Of course, we have seen this happening everywhere: prominently in the US and in Hungary for instance. Nevertheless, being exposed to the tactics in my academic home country, the Netherlands, made me realise just how powerful the narratives against us are. This phenomenon is not going to go away by itself. Thus, I think we – people working in the sciences and especially in the humanities – need a positive narrative about why academic work matters and a more concerted way of communicating this. By now, I’ve seen a number of petitions and open letters going … nowhere. Part of the problem is that we’re not only targeted from the outside, but also, mostly inadvertently, internally. In the light of the current threats and the way that universities are structured, the common ways of defending ourselves do not work. Therefore, I would like to launch this call for ideas.

Yes, it’s really bad. – We all know that academia is under threat in many ways. Up till recently, that is, perhaps up till ten years ago (perhaps shortly after the financial crisis), these threats have been generally justified with economic arguments: We need to shut down philosophy, languages and cultural studies because otherwise we can’t finance cancer research and the military – or some such line of reasoning that would convince at least some of us. But now the tune has changed. The narrative that I encountered in the Netherlands and elsewhere is running under the heading of cultural marxism (in the sense of a conspiracy theory): Whether you know it or not, if you are working in education or at a university you are willy-nilly part of a left-wing conspiracy that counters free speech and all sorts of other values. This accusation is of course nonsense. But the problem is that it is widely held and believed. Given that Mr Trump has already approved a policy targeting what are thought to be enemies of free speech, it won’t be long until we will see this in action as a more general means to “evaluate” studies and departments. These are the beginnings of a fairly new concerted set of actions against standards in (higher) education. But the new line of argument against academia is not that we’re just useless; it’s that we are inherently bad.

What might stop us. – In many alt-right narratives, universities are portrayed as bulwarks of leftist indoctrination. So far the the response has been defensive: “Science has no agenda” etc. But instead of defending ourselves against outrageous claims, we need a comprehensible narrative of how academia contributes to the protection of democratic values, and we need ways of implementing this narrative. As it stands, the academic communities are defenceless against such doubts for three reasons: firstly, we represent a form of institutionalised doubting, as it were, and will respond with more doubting rather than reassurance; secondly, we are very bad at collective action and solidarity because we are incentivised to compete against one another wherever possible. Therefore, the principles of our work and the structure of our career paths make it very hard to respond even to common threats. A third reason might be that the narratives against academia have already gained too much power: The current way of playing off academics as right-wing versus left-wing or free-speech versus de-platformers, for instance, has gained so much force that even some of your colleagues might go along with it and see you (or you them) as a mere instance of left or right-wing activism. Academics are of course not immune to the effects of ideologies.

What we need to do. – Given the incentive to compete, it’s difficult to start a conversation. But that’s what we need to do. When we see academia in Turkey or Hungary under threat, we follow the news and start petitions or some such measures. But when it hits home, it’s much harder to believe that it is happening in the first place. So the first thing we need is to break the silence. We need a clear-headed exchange about what is happening around us. If it turns out that I’m just alarmist and everything is fine, then all the better. In any case, it will help to have an open conversation across different status groups (from higher administrators to deans to professors to students). Secondly, we need clear ideas why we matter. Such ideas are hard to come by because we’re often used to make our case against other disciplines. These ideas should not be just defensive, like “no, we’re not against free speech!” Thirdly, we need ways of communicating these ideas at all levels. Many of us are good at talking to students or grant agencies, that’s by and large preaching to the choir. We need to reach those who currently believe that we are the enemies of society. So we need to talk to journalists and others who shape the discourses of the many intently.

How we should begin. – Of course, we don’t need to begin with the most difficult of interlocutors. Convincing your colleagues about the fact that we’re in trouble might be tricky enough already. What we need is an understanding of what is going on. So we should indeed begin by exchanging anecdotes and tentative ideas. Given that we’re all too busy already, the easiest would probably be to ask Greta Thunberg to do it on our behalf. – Joking, sorry! Of course you can begin by responding to this blog post or just by talking to a colleague. If you’re looking for ideas, you could ask a friend outside academia. They exist. Or why not devote some twenty minutes to some exchange at the end of the next department meeting or conference? Once we begin a conversation, ways of coordinating action will suggest themselves.

Whatever we do, we need to understand that we’re not defending ourselves (only) against claims about economic necessities; we’re up against people who claim that we undermine basic values. We shouldn’t let these people dictate the stories about who we are and what we do. Countering them doesn’t mean that we should be defensive; it’s enough if we begin to take control of our own stories and why they matter.