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August 19, 2009



Professor Chalmers,

I just finished your "Revisability" paper, and it seems completely right to me. I was wondering, since Quine's arguments are so weak, why did "Two Dogmas" become, arguably, the most influential paper in post-war English-language philosophy? What have I been missing?

I'm looking forward to the new books!


I just read your 'Verbal disputes and philosophical progress'. I confess there is a lot in it I did not understand, so I thought I'd just ask a few (of my many) questions, I hope you don't mind.

1. I don’t really understand why you assume that (morally) ‘good’ is a ‘bedrock’ concept, while e.g. ‘justified’ is not. Firstly, there seems to be a crucial difference between ‘good’ and ‘conscious’ (which you also assume to be bedrock): There is (at least on your account) no a priori supervenience between facts about consciousness and non-mental facts, while there is a widespread consensus that facts about goodness supervene a priori on non-moral facts. Secondly, I fail to see a relevant difference between ‘good’ and ‘justified’. Couldn’t one ‘apply the subscript gambit’ to the former as well? There is good1 which applies iff an act has ’a certain deontological property’, and there is good2 which applies iff an act has ‘a certain consequence property’. (I think the likely response of the disputants would be the same in both cases: They would insist that justified1/2 or good1/2 is not really justification/goodness.)
I found two hints in the text why you might think that ‘good’ is special: Firstly, you say that intuitively, moral disagreement is intuitively no verbal disagreement. But is there any independent reason to assume this? Secondly, you seem to suggest that moral truths are synthetic a priori. Again, why is that? Is it also just because moral concepts are intuitively bedrock? But what if someone (like me) just doesn’t see this, or if someone holds the same for all kinds of other terms?

It seems to me that your thesis that there is a privileged class of bedrock truths (including logical and mathematical truths) and your distinction between grounding and a priori entailment is crucial to avoid the conclusion that every dispute which is not over the distribution of fundamental properties, or reducible to it, is verbal. Is this the reason why you make this distinction or do you have any further independent reasons?

2. I actually have many questions regarding your deflationism with respect to conceptual analysis, but I restrict myself to one.
You say that instead of getting lost over the question ‘What is X?’, we should focus on what X is supposed to explain and identify a number of concepts X1, …, Xn which may serve different explanatory purposes. My question would be: Is ‘X is supposed to explain …’ here itself a conceptual truth?


Jeremy: Complicated question! I expect that part of the answer lies with Quine's very influential position within the profession, part lies with the existence of stronger critiques of related positions in "Carnap and Logical Truth" and "Truth by Convention", part lies with general doubts about ordinary-language philosophy and a movement toward science-based philosophy, and part lies with the attractive positive position that he sketched in the last section of "Two Dogmas". It often happens that an attractive positive picture, developed by a serious and influential philosopher, can make a relatively weak negative argument more influential. Other instances are Sellars' arguments against the given, and (to a lesser extent) Kripke's arguments against descriptivism.


Kappatoo: I don't rule out that 'justified' is bedrock. I just gave an instance of a particular sort of dispute between an internalist and an externalist in epistemology that could be dealt with by this method. What I suspect is that at least one epistemic 'ought' is bedrock, but there may be more than one epistemic 'ought', and it may be that the internalist and the externalist are using different oughts. Of course there may also be more than one moral 'ought', but I think that in this case it's very implausible that the Kantian and consequentialist are using different oughts. This is reflected in the fact that the method of elimination/distinction tends to get no purchase in the moral debate whereas it often gets useful purchase in the epistemological debate. But of course there is a range of possible views in the epistemological case, and one respectable view is that there is a single bedrock normative notion over which the internalist and externalist are arguing. I'm not trying to settle that difficult issue here.

The distinction between apriority and translucency arises because it seems obvious that some debates in the a priori domain are substantive -- say, a debate between two mathematicians about whether some mathematical claim is true. At least, it would be much too bold to assume in advance that a priori entailment suffices for translucency, without some strong argument for that claim. Perhaps one could argue that analytic entailment suffices for translucency and that there is no synthetic a priori, but the latter claim especially would take a lot of work! The view you mention on which only the distribution of fundamental properties is bedrock is certainly a position in philosophical space, but I'd say that I reject it because of my view that a priori disputes can be substantive, rather than vice versa.

Re conceptual analysis: No, I'm not claiming that 'X is supposed to explain...' is a conceptual truth, though in some cases it (or something in the vicinity) might be.

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