Department of Philosophy



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The Department of Philosophy Colloquium Series presents

Henry Laycock (Queen's)

“Reality and reference: Metaphysics and the mind-forged manacles of logic”

THURSDAY, October 12th, 2017

WATSON HALL, ROOM 517 @ 4:00 p.m.

A certain picture of the relationship between the world and human thought has made its presence felt within philosophy for well over two millennia. Central to the picture is the idea of a necessary correspondence between human acts of reference and the concrete contents of reality. This same picture is painted both by Aristotle and by Quine: the Categories presents it as a dichotomy of the primary substance or this-something, and a predicable attributed to the subject. In Quine, more austerely, the dichotomy is one of individual variable and predicate-letter. Variables take concrete individual things as their basic values; predicate-letters or general terms connote merely sets or classes of individuals. Metaphysically, the dichotomy is that of ‘particular thing’ and ‘universal’: on the one hand, there are items localised and identifiable in spacetime – localised events and concrete objects – and on the other hand, there may be something general and non-localised, something that an entire range of localised phenomena might embody or possess in common. For the realist, this could be an actually existing common kind, or a multiply instantiated quality or power (for example, the ever-present power of an acid to attack flesh); for the antirealist, perhaps nothing more than a common word or concept, somehow truly applicable to each of many separately identifiable things.

That there is a problem with this picture, despite its tenacity, is suggested by a thorough examination of the concept of material stuff – and in particular, the concept of a substance, in that kind of sense in which gold and water count as substances, but dogs and cats do not. But for now, a single image, one suggested by reflections on the phenomenon of fluid flow – echoes of Heraclitus – must suffice. Imagine that we are standing by the falls at Niagara. In this context, an assertion to the effect that there is water here would seem like an overwhelming truism: water is pouring over the Falls continuously, incessantly, at the rate of 2407 m3/s. How can this reality provide grounding to the process of pouring in terms of determinate references to water? Where are the concrete, individual identities underlying the process of flow? Notice that even in the case of traffic, flowing smoothly along the 401 – where the motions of individual vehicles somehow underpin the flow – the flow itself is a distinct and emergent phenomenon. At the same time, the universality of undifferentiated substances such as water grounds the ancient case for a ‘materialist’ metaphysical realism.


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