Cat’s Whiskers

Jerry Fodor

  • Points of View by A.W. Moore
    Oxford, 313 pp, £35.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 19 823692 1

Proust’s Swann is obsessed by what he doesn’t know about Odette. His anguish has no remedy; finding out more only adds to what he does know about her. Since Kant, lots of philosophers have suffered from a generalised and aggravated form of the same complaint. They want to know what the world is like when they aren’t thinking about it; what things are like, not from one or other point of view, but ‘in themselves’. Or they think that maybe that’s what science aims to know, and wonder whether it’s a project that makes any sense. They are thus worried about ‘the possibility of objectivity’.

A.W. Moore’s book is a sort of defence of the possibility of objectivity (what he often calls the possibility of ‘absolute representations’). He doesn’t argue that objectivity is ever attained or ever likely to be; perhaps not even in our most scrupulous investigations. All he wants is that the goal should be coherent Given the modesty of the enterprise, it’s really shocking the conclusions that he’s driven to: ‘We are shown that absolute representations are impossible ... [But] we do well to remind ourselves ... that what we are shown is nonsense. Properly to replace “x” in the schema “A is shown that x” is a quasi-artistic exercise in which one creates something out of the resonances of (mere) verbiage. There is no reason whatever why this should not sometimes involve making play with inconsistency.’

It’s a fascinating story how Moore gets to this; in fact, a cautionary tale. He takes on board, from the beginning and essentially without argument, what is currently the received view of meaning in philosophy. The rest follows as the night the day. What’s splendid about the book is that, unlike most philosophers who share his premises, Moore is prepared to face the consequents. What’s appalling is the tenacity with which he clings to an account of representation from which it follows, inter alia, that his own philosophical views are nonsense. (‘Inter alia’ because, of course, your views and mine are nonsense, too.) Not just like nonsense, mind you, but the real thing; on all fours with ‘ “Phlump jing ax” ’ since ‘there can be no other reason for an utterance’s failing to be a representation than that certain [of the] words lack meaning.’ I propose to trace, briefly, the course of these events. At the end, I’ll moralise a little about how things stand if Moore’s book is read, as I think it should be, as a reductio of his theory of meaning.

The book starts oddly: ‘a representation need not be objective ... a representation can be from a point of involvement ... I shall call any [such] representation ... “subjective”.’ This makes representations that contain indexicals (like ‘it is humid today’) perspectival and subjective since, ‘if I wish to endorse an assertion I made yesterday of [this] sentence, I have no alternative but to produce a representation of some other type (‘it was humid yesterday’).’ This, to repeat, is an odd way to start. For, while indexical sentences are uttered from a point of view (in the sense that ‘it’s raining’ can be true here and false there at one and the same time; or true then and false now in one and the same place), there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly subjective about them. If what you want is subjectivity, try ‘red is warmer than green’ or ‘Callas was better than Tebaldi.’

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