The Problems of Philosophy 1

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The Problems of Philosophy

  • Philosophy 1

  • Spring, 2002

  • G. J. Mattey

Bertrand Russell

  • Born 1872

  • From England

  • Aristocrat

  • Anti-war activist

  • Won Nobel Prize for literature (1950)

  • Author of popular essays

  • Died 1970

Russell’s Contributions

  • Discovered, and tried to solve, “Russell’s paradox” in the theory of sets

  • Published first widely-read treatise on symbolic logic (with A. N. Whitehead)

  • Tried to reduce mathematics to logic (logicism)

  • Applied symbolic logic to philosophical problems

  • Co-founder of analytic philosophy (with G. E. Moore)

Perceptual Relativity

  • We think that our ordinary beliefs are certain, e.g., I am sitting at a table of a specific shape

  • But these beliefs are very likely to be wrong

  • We describe the table on the basis of what we see and feel, and we think others would describe it in the same way

  • But the description only reflects our own point of view

  • No two people see and feel it the same way

Appearance and Reality

  • A painter is concerned with appearance, a practical person with reality

  • The philosopher wants to know what appearance and reality are

  • Perceptual relativity shows that color is merely appearance: the table has no single color

  • The same considerations hold for shape, hardness

  • The real table is not immediately known by sense

Two Questions

  • Is there a real table at all?

  • If there is a real table, what are its real characteristics?

  • Both are very difficult to answer


  • Sense-data are things immediately known in sensation

  • Sensation is the experience of being immediately aware of sense data

  • Colors, shapes, textures are sense-data

  • So, a sensation of color is the sensation of a sense-datum

  • The sense-data are not the table or properties of the table, so how are they related to the table?


  • Objects such as tables are physical objects

  • The collection of physical objects is matter

  • Berkeley tried to show that matter does not exist at all, and at least succeeded in showing that its existence is not certain

  • He admits that sense-data are signs of something mental outside us

  • The real table is an idea in the mind of God

Existential Doubt

  • If we cannot be sure that matter exists, we cannot be sure that other people exist

  • We may be all that exists (solipsism)

  • Even the “I” might be doubted

  • All that is certain is that a sense-datum is being perceived at a time

  • This is the solid basis for knowledge

From Sense-Data to Matter

  • Do sense-data provide good evidence that physical objects exist?

  • Common sense, on the basis of practice, answers in the affirmative

  • There must be matter for there to be public objects that are neutral with respect to point of view

  • Why believe there are such objects?


  • One argument for public objects is that there is similarity in people’s sense-data

  • But this begs the question, because it supposes that there are other people receiving sense-data

  • They may be part of my dreams

  • So evidence for public objects must come from our own private experiences


  • There is no contradiction in supposing that my private experiences have no public counterpart

  • My dreams present elaborate scenes

  • But it is simpler to explain my sense-data through public objects

  • The simplicity is due to the continued existence of public objects, which accounts for gaps in sense-data

  • It also accounts for behavior such as that of a cat’s exhibiting hunger

Human Behavior

  • The real advantage of public objects is in the explanation of human behavior

  • Sounds and motions are produced that are most simply explained by reference to a body similar to my own

  • Public objects can also account for dreams

  • “Every principle of simplicity urges us to adopt the natural view”

Belief in Physical Objects

  • Our original belief in physical objects is instinctive, not demonstrative

  • It seems that the sense-datum is the independent object (Hume)

  • There is no good reason to reject the natural belief, given its explanatory simplicity

  • It is the task of philosophy to show how our deepest instinctive beliefs form a system

  • The possibility of error is diminished by the harmony of the parts of the system

The Nature of Physical Objects

  • Science has drifted into reducing the phenomena of nature to motion

  • The motions of physical objects are not identical to sense-data (e.g., the light itself)

  • Nor is the space we see and feel the space in which physical objects exist

    • The space we feel and the space we touch are distinct (Berkeley)
  • Private shapes differ when public shapes are static


  • Physical objects cause sensation through interaction with a physical body

  • Changes in sense-data should reflect changes in bodily position relative to objects

  • The senses testify in favor of one another

  • Other people confirm what we belief

  • So we may assume that there is a physical space corresponding to our private space

Knowledge of Physical Space

  • We can know of physical space only what is required to explain the correspondence

  • For example, we can know that the moon, earth, and sun are in a line to explain the appearance of an eclipse

  • But our knowledge is limited to relations of distance and does not extend to distances themselves

Knowledge of Time

  • The private feeling of duration is a poor guide to public durations

  • But the order of public events corresponds to that of private experiences, “so far as we can see” (and this holds for space)

  • The correspondence is not exact

    • Lightning is really simultaneous with thunder
    • The light we see left the sun eight minutes ago

Knowledge of Physical Objects

  • Differences in sense-data correspond to some differences in physical objects

  • We have no direct acquaintance with the properties in the physical objects

  • We know only the relations they hold to one another

  • The intrinsic properties cannot be known through the senses

  • It is gratuitous to think that any sense-data resemble properties of physical objects


  • Idealism is the doctrine that what exists (or is known to exist) is in some sense mental

  • This doctrine is absurd from the point of view of common sense

  • But we only know of public objects that they correspond to sense-data

  • We cannot reject the doctrine that the intrinsic character of public objects is mental simply because it is strange

Berkeley’s Argument for Idealism

  • The existence of sense-data depends on us

  • Sense-data are immediately-known ideas

  • All we know immediately about common objects (e.g., a tree) is the sense-data

  • There is no reason to think that we know anything else about them

  • So the being of a tree is its being perceived

  • Its public character is explained through God


  • To know a tree, it must be “in” our minds, but only as thought of

  • But it does not follow that it is “in” our minds as a private object

    • When I have my wife in mind, she does not exist there solely as a private object
  • An idea exists in the mind as an act, but its object may be “before the mind” while it exists outside the mind


  • An argument for idealism is that what we are not acquainted with is of no importance for us, and so does not exist

  • It is granted that we do not know in the sense of being acquainted with matter

  • But it is of importance to us

  • And we can know things with which we are not acquainted—we can know by description through general principles

Knowledge of Things

  • The simplest kind of knowledge of things is by acquaintance, as with sense-data

  • Knowledge of things by description requires knowledge of truths: general principles

  • Acquaintance with does not yield knowledge of truths

    • I know the color directly but I do not thereby know any truth about the color

Knowledge by Description

  • We know things by description as “the so-and-so”

  • The table is “the physical object which causes such-and-such sense-data”

  • To know the table, we must know general truths about causality

  • Knowledge by description rests on knowledge by acquaintance as a foundation

Objects of Acquaintance

  • Our knowledge would be very limited if we were only acquainted with sense-data

  • Memory extends sense-data

  • We also have higher-order acquaintance with our states of being aware (self-consciousness)

  • For example, acquaintance with seeing the sun is with the fact “Self-acquainted-with-sense-datum”

  • I know that I am acquainted with this sense-datum

Definite Descriptions

  • We are also acquainted with universals such as whiteness, diversity, brotherhood

  • This is required for the use of language

  • A definite description is of the form “the so-and-so”

  • When we know an object by description, we know it as “the so-and-so”

  • Definite descriptions imply existence and uniqueness

Knowledge by Description

  • Descriptions can be nearer or further from the things with which we are acquainted

  • We know the things described only through the components of a description with which we are acquainted

  • But we can use descriptions to go beyond the limits of private experience, as in the case of physical objects

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