Monthly Archives: June 2018

Unconscious Logic and the Myth of the Given

Matte Blanco was a psychoanalyst who attempted to formalise Freud’s theory of the unconscious using the formal logic of Russell and Whitehead. Freud famously argued that the majority of our mental states are governed by unconscious ideas and feelings. Based on his clinical work Freud argued that our unconscious mind had the following five characteristics. (1) Absence of mutual contradiction between the presentations of its various impulses, (2) Displacement, (3) Condensation, (4) Absence of Time (5) Replacement of external by psychic reality (‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ pp. 36-37). Freud noted that unconscious thinking that followed the logic of the above five principles would obviously differ dramatically from ordinary Aristotelian Logic. However he never managed to make explicit precisely how the logic of the unconscious actually worked from a formal point of view. Blanco argued that using two basic principles he could model the alternative logical principles that governed the unconscious.
The first principle that Blanco used was called The Principle of Generalization, and the second was called The principle of Symmetry. Blanco sensibly conceived of the mind as a classificatory system, which was constantly at work organising experience into different categories. This conception of the mind is pretty standard and most psychologists would accept that categorisation is an essential feature of the human (and non-human animal) minds. However, Blanco argued that at an unconscious level we categorise in strange ways that don’t fit with standard conscious ways of categorising our experiences. Blanco called this aspect of categorisation the principle of generalisation. Basically the idea is that our unconscious mind is driven to generalize to more and more abstract sets. Blanco notes that the unconscious mind treats a particular thing as though it were a member of a particular set which contains other members, it treats this set as a subset of a more general set, and treats this more general set as a subset of a still more general set and so on (Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets p. 38)
A concrete example of the above would be treating the furry thing sitting beside me as a member of the set of dogs, and the set of dogs as a subset of the more general set of mammals, and treating mammals as a subset of the more general set of animals etc. Now categorising things according to these principles seems to be just a standard way we consciously order the data of our experiences. But Blanco argues humans typically use these generalisations unconsciously and hence are not aware of the type of categories we are placing in that we are interacting with. Not all generalizations will carve nature at the joints in the way that the above example of the set of dogs does, and our childhood experiences will ensure that we use strange generalizations on an unconscious level.
Blanco supplements his principle of generalisation with a further clause. He argues that when the unconscious mind is engaging in generalisation it operates in a strange way. When the mind is generalising it prefers propositional functions which in one aspect bring about increasing generality, and in another aspect keep particular characteristics of the individual thing to which they started (ibid p.38).
Blanco’s second principle is his principle of symmetry where he argues that an unconscious level the mind treats the converse of any relation as identical with the relation (ibid p. 38). So while the conscious mind treats a relation such as ‘John is the father of Peter’ as an asymmetrical relation, at an unconscious level the mind selectively treats this relation as symmetrical. Thus at an unconscious level the mind would think that because ‘John is the father of Peter’ then ‘Peter is the father of John’. Blanco justifies modelling the unconscious mind this way because he thinks it can explain otherwise inexplicable facts about the behaviour of schizophrenics, neurotics, of dream experiences etc. As a psychoanalyst Blanco was obviously a keen follower of Freud and was trying to explain similar clinical data. However Blanco believed that he had achieved a nice tidying up of Freud’s explication because Blanco’s two principles could explain Freud’s conception of the unconscious in a simpler and clearer manner than Freud managed.
In a 1984 paper ‘Understanding Matte Blanco’ the logician, philosopher and psychoanalyst Ross Skelton criticised Blanco’s conception of the unconscious on formal grounds. Skelton argued that Blanco’s conception of the unconscious resulted in a state of affairs where the unconscious accepted contradictory facts as both being true. Skelton demonstrated that it would be impossible to model the unconscious in this way since in a system that accepted true contradictions anything could be proven. Since Skelton wrote his criticism there has been some brilliant work done by Graham Priest which takes some of the sting out of Skelton’s objection. However, I will not here discuss the formal way to reply to Skelton’s criticism. Here I want to focus on a curious aspect of the Blanco’s reply to Skelton.
Blanco acknowledged the logical point that Skelton made and the difficulties it posed but he then made two extremely strange replies to Skelton. Firstly he noted the following:
“Incidentally, though Ross Skelton explicitly directs his criticisms to me, it can, in my opinion, be said that his remarks could apply with equal right to Freud and to the unconscious. In order to be unambiguous I think he should establish whether he thinks that it is my formulation that is not a true reflection of Freud’s discoveries, and give the reasons for this.” (Matte Blanco: Understanding Matte Blanco)
I cannot speak for Skelton but personally I think that Blanco manages to brilliantly summarise Freud’s views and manages to capture the logic of Freud’s views on the unconscious accurately. Blanco though wonders incredulously whether Skelton thinks that Freud is wrong about the nature of the unconscious. Blanco seems to think that if Skelton’s arguments carried through to Freud as much as they did to Blanco that this would undermine Skelton’s argument. Blanco’s bringing in Freud seems to play no role other than an appeal to the authority of Freud. But I see no reason why this authority should be bowed too. If Skelton’s arguments go through against Freud, then they go through, there is no reason to not follow the logic where it leads simply because of who Freud was.
Blanco then offers another criticism of Skelton’s argument. He notes the following:
“I understand that this is very strange, and, therefore, hard for a logician to swallow. But, in my opinion, it reflects very faithfully the behaviour of the unconscious and Freud’s description of it. All the characteristics of the unconscious described by Freud are bi-logical structures…I must add that I do not believe that he is criticizing the unconscious for daring to neglect the rules of logic…As just said, I exclude that he wishes to criticize the unconscious. But if there is anybody who does not respect the laws of logic he is not Freud nor myself but precisely the unconscious. If such is the case, as Freud is sure it is and I am convinced by him, then one would ask (to put it with the words of a well-known song): ‘what should we do with the drunken sailor?” (Matte Blanco ‘Understanding Matte Blanco’)
Above we can see Blanco treat Freud’s conception of the unconscious as a thing that exists and has been observed. Skelton is arguing that you cannot construct a model of the unconscious using the logical principles Blanco proposes. Blanco’s incredulous reply is that the unconscious exists and is directly observed, if it doesn’t conform to the stringent ideals of the logician then so much the worse for the logician.
In his book on Blanco ‘Unconscious Logic’, Eric Rayner summarised Blanco’s argument as follows:
“Negation and its absence are both at the very core of any bi-logical thought. A serious difficulty appears to arise here. It is obvious that valid inference depends upon the logical consistency inherent in ordinary conscious level, traditional two valued logic. It has already been said that the essence of two-valuedness is that things which ‘are so’ and not ‘not so’ at the same time. Here the non-contradiction ‘If A then Not A’ is crucial. However, if Matte Blanco is proposing a system where this principle of contradiction can be absent, then surely everything and nothing can be explained by it and the theory is useless. This has been skilfully argued by Skelton (1984). Matte Blanco (1984) argued back that he was sorry; he did not invent the way the unconscious levels of the mind work. ( Eric Rayner ‘Unconscious Logic p. 46)
Rayner explicates Blanco’s reply as if the unconscious was an a-theoretical entity which was discovered and its nature is what it is, whether it conforms to our logic or not.
Blanco’s reply can be explicated using a concrete analogy. Blanco and Freud are like brave explorers who discovered the duckbilled-platypus, but who are confronted by theorists like Skelton who deny that the platypus exists. Blanco just needs to reply to the silly theorist by pointing at the platypus and thereby showing the errant theorist that reality is more complex than his a priori intuitions imagined.
However, the problem with the above image is that we don’t directly see the unconscious it is rather a theoretical construct we use to explain the behaviour of humans. Blanco seems to think otherwise:
“At this point I invite the reader to reflect on two points: the first is that the principle of symmetry is a logical way of describing and of arriving at the absence of negation which Freud observed directly in his study of patients and of dreams…” (Matte Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ p. 50)
Above you can see Blanco speak of Freud “directly observe” the unconscious ( Blanco even italicized ‘directly’ for emphasis). However as Blanco was well aware Freud never observed the unconscious, rather he inferred its existence. In his 1915 paper ‘The Unconscious’ Freud argued that it was necessary to postulate the existence of the unconscious to explain otherwise inexplicable facts. Freud used the postulation of the unconscious to explain the nature of parapraxes, jokes, dreams etc. He argued that the best way to explain these behaviours was to postulate the unconscious. Freud made the following point “A gain in meaning is a perfectly justifiable ground for going beyond direct experience” ( Freud ‘The Unconscious’ p. 159). Freud was working in Vienna where the positivist Mach was treated like a God, where logical positivism was on the brink of springing forth. But Freud never went along with the widely held prejudice of the Vienna of his time against theoretical postulates. His unconscious was precisely such a postulate, and one that bore some interesting fruit.
So we can see that Blanco’s reply to Skelton was a nonsense. The Unconscious was a theoretical model to explain human behaviour, and Skelton’s argument proposed that such a model couldn’t be constructed in a meaningful manner . Blanco’s pretence that the unconscious had already been directly observed was a bluff, the fact is that he had a model and he didn’t know how to complete it. So the question begging assumption that his model of the unconscious had already been discovered was a way of pretending that the technical criticisms he was facing were irrelevant.
The above criticism seems a bit harsh on Blanco. However I don’t mean it to be interpreted in that way. Blanco was a brilliant theorist and psychoanalyst. His work was groundbreaking. When I argue he was bluffing I don’t necessarily mean that he was doing this at a conscious level. He may not have been aware of what drove his rhetorical stance.
Furthermore there is a sense in which Blanco had a point in his criticism of Skelton’s argument. Research in quantum mechanics has put pressure on our intuitive understanding of the law of non-contradiction. At one point Kant believed that we knew a priori that space operated according to the principles of Euclidean Geometry. However both empirical and theoretical research showed that non-Euclidean Geometries are better ways to model space. So Blanco wasn’t being absurd in thinking that the discoveries being made through the theoretical postulate of the unconscious shouldn’t just cave to a logical argument. The incredible predictive capacity of quantum mechanics forced philosophers to try to develop different logical models to explain the data. Likewise Blanco could have argued that the gain in understanding by adopting a psychoanalytic perspective should make us consider developing a different logical system to model the unconscious mind.
Skelton’s argument indicated that Blanco’s model didn’t seem up to the job. But today there exist more flexible logics which seem up to the task. It will be interesting to see if these models are more successful in accounting for the clinical data than Blanco’s model was.

Fuzzy Sets: Intellectual Dark Web, New Atheism, Logical Positivism and Behaviourism

In this blog-post I will be discussing the Intellectual Dark Web and trying to understand what its distinctive features are supposed to be. To help understand what the features of the group are I will discuss it in relation to three other groups. This first group I will compare it to will be New Atheism in particular as it is represented by the famous Four Horsemen of Atheism. I will then compare it to two major research programmes in the last Century the Vienna Circle and Behaviourism. The purpose of these comparisons will be to evaluate the degree to which the Intellectual dark web compares with these groups in the clarity of its purposes and what they aim to achieve.
Before proceeding to the comparison I need to make a couple of brief caveats. Firstly, to forestall an obvious complaint, I am in no way comparing the intellectual importance of these respective groups. I hope it should be obvious that I am in not arguing that people like Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson belong in the same intellectual universe as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap or B.F. Skinner. I feel embarrassed even having to make this point; but I will do so to avoid confusion.
Another complaint could be that I am not comparing like with like. The Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivism it developed was an actual research programme, and the same is obviously true of Behaviourism. But the Four Horsemen of Atheism and the new atheism they were leaders of wasn’t a scientific research programme. Rather it was better to think of them as a political movement interested in treating questions about religion and God by the standard methods of science. I think that this is a legitimate criticism. However it doesn’t really affect anything I am arguing here as I am just trying to clarify what type of group the Intellectual Dark Web is, and how it compares with other intellectual groups. I am not offering any criticisms of the Intellectual Dark Web for not being a scientific research programme.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism
Intellectual life, like all areas of life, is pervaded with territorial allegiances. Thinkers form groups which they use to separate themselves from those whom they think of as holding a different ethos about life. In the act of naming a group the members of the group become associated with the name and sometimes people have difficulties disambiguating members of the group. Ten years ago four academics met up to discuss and critique religion from a scientific and philosophical point of view. The four thinkers were Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins; all were already famous atheists and known as members of so called new atheism (which was considered more aggressive than traditional atheism). Prior to meeting in Hitchens’ apartment to discuss the question of religion all four of them had authored a book criticising religion and belief in God. Sam Harris published his ‘End of Faith’ in 2004, Dawkins published his ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006, Dennett published ‘Breaking the spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena’ in 2006, and Hitchens published his ‘God is not Great in 2007. All four books were massive successes, and prior to writing the books they were already famous for their atheism. So in 2007 when they met up to discuss religion and God and released the discussion to the general public there was huge interest. They became known as the four horsemen of atheism and set off millions of internet debates.
What was interesting about these debates was that in some circles ‘The Four Horsemen’ were treated as though they were identical people who agreed on every topic. The four horsemen were all sceptics about religion and its effects on society and were all atheists; however they obviously didn’t agree on everything. Harris and Dennett disagreed on the nature of consciousness, and on freewill. Dennett and Dawkins disagreed about the use of the term ‘Design’ in evolutionary explanation. Dawkins politics was slightly more leftwing than Hitchens etc. Yet even when these differences were pointed out some people couldn’t separate out the members of it group. It was like as if the existence of a label for the four thinkers worked against some people’s capacity to distinguish between the members of the group. Nonetheless the label was helpful to the members of the group. It was a nice marketing tool, and it helped to entice guys who liked Hitchens’ writing to read the other four horsemen and vice-versa.
The Intellectual Dark Web
Flash-forward twelve years and one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, Sam Harris appears in a photo shoot for a group called the Intellectual Dark Web. A New York Times Article is written by Bari Weiss on the Intellectual Dark Web , complete with the shadowy photos illustrating the leaders of this new movement. They are described as brave renegades fighting against the shadowy forces of political correctness. The article is an instant marketing success and the internet explodes with argument after argument.
The IDW is a much larger group of thinkers than the Four Horsemen. Bari Weiss listed members of it as including Sam Harris, Brett Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Summers, Ben Shapiro amongst many others. What makes someone a member of the IDW? Barri Weiss offers the following vague unhelpful definition:
“Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.”
She notes that these iconoclastic thinkers are committed to disagreeing strongly with each other while also remaining civil when engaging in this discourse. A couple of lines down, without a hint of irony she gleefully notes that Jordan Peterson responded to an article by Pankaj Mishra which criticized Peterson, by calling Mishra a sanctimonious prick who Peterson would like to slap. Bari Weiss who claimed that to be a member of the IDW is to remain civil while having intellectual disputes; didn’t seem to spot any difficulty in the aggressive uncivil behaviour of one of the leaders of the IDW when someone criticises him.
This is one of the problems with the IDW, it extension is extremely vague. If the being civil to ones critics was a key defining property of its members than Peterson wouldn’t be included in the group. If being banned from your institute because of political correctness was a key criterion for being a member then Sam Harris couldn’t be a member. And the attempt to individuate them as iconoclastic thinkers who are having discussions on podcasts and on twitter etc is equally hopeless. Philosopher Robert Wright has appeared on Sam Harris’s podcast to discuss Buddhism, Harris has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and vice-versa, and of course Wright has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and one of the Very Bad Wizard’s (Tamler Sommers), has appeared on Wright’s podcast. Similarly, people like Russell Brand have had Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on their podcast, Brand has appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast to discuss politics, religion etc. So do the Very Bad Wizards, Russell Brand, or Robert Right belong in the IDW? If not why not? They are an iconoclastic bunch of thinkers who are having an ongoing online discussion, they are committed to civil discussion with each other (I haven’t heard any of them threaten to punch a critic in the face yet). Admittedly they haven’t faced trouble in a University over their political views, then again neither has Harris and he is a member of the IDW.
When people interview members of the IDW they typically emphasise that they all hold different views on a variety of different topics and so, for example, Harris shouldn’t be held responsible for the views of Jordan Peterson. This is similar to the way it would have been a mistake to assume that all of the members of The Four Horsemen held the same views on consciousness. However, there is one clear difference with the four horsemen they claimed to be in agreement on their atheism and on the fact that atheists should be more critical towards religion than had typically been the case. So there were certain key features that the members of the group all shared in common and this was clearly delineated. With the IDW this is not the case. There seem to be no core beliefs that hold them together in a set that exclude people who are not members e.g. Massimo Pigliucci, Robert Wright etc. It is hard to view the IDW as anything other than a marketing plan of a group of friends to promote each-others work.
Even the members of the IDW don’t seem to agree on the significance of the group or what it stands for. In pod-cast Sam Harris portrayed the whole thing as a bit of a joke that isn’t meant to be taken that seriously. Eric Weinstein, on the other-hand, argued that he came up with the name IDW in a deliberate manner to implicitly force the mainstream media (who according to Weinstein have some problem with them), to inadvertently promote the group. It is as difficult to know whether Harris’s account of the IDW or Weinstein’s is meant to be the authoritative, as it is to know what the criterion for membership of the IDW is meant to be. At the moment the so called IDW seems to be little more than a marketing plan to bring attention to a group of podcasts.
The Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism
Of course, just because something has an inauspicious beginning doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of being developed further once a bit more thought is put into the project. One of the more famous groups in the history of philosophy is the Vienna Circle, they are now remembered as logical positivists, but they began as a discussion group between a few PhD students interested in science, mathematics, logic and philosophy. The group eventually became known because of their joint manifesto on the nature of the movement, and popular books designed to spread it, but in the beginning they were a group held together by shared interests not by an official doctrine.
The unofficial head the group was Moritz Schlick who was trained as a physicist but was working as a professional philosopher. Schlick was known as “Einstein’s Pet Philosopher”, and wrote a book outlining the philosophical implications of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But he soon came under the sway of another great man: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus became a kind of bible for the group. His use of Frege and Russell’s logic to draw limits to what could sensibly be said about reality was exactly what the logical positivists were looking for in their battle against metaphysics. Wittgenstein seemed to have provided a clear criterion that could be used draw a line to demonstrate when claims that had been made were not empirical but were metaphysical nonsense.
However despite his work being central importance to the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein wasn’t exactly a member. The group did manage to get him to attend some of the meetings, but he didn’t attend regularly and he didn’t approve of the views of many members of the group. Furthermore despite his work being of central importance to the group, there was not universal agreement on how his work was to be interpreted. Some members of the group such as Otto Neurath sneered at the reverence that Wittgenstein was held in by Schlick and Waisman; and argued that Wittgenstein was treated like the leader of a religious cult instead of as a fellow logician. Others such as Carnap was impressed with Wittgenstein’s work; but didn’t agree with all of it. One of the difficulties with Wittgenstein’s work was that it purported to divide statements into three subcategories: empirical propositions, logical and mathematical propositions (construed as tautologies), and metaphysical sentences (nonsensical sentences). The difficulty was that the propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus were not in any obvious sense either tautologies or empirical propositions. They seemed on the face of it to be metaphysical claims which on Wittgenstein’s theory were nonsensical so the entire book could be construed as building up its arguments using nonsensical claims.
The important point to note is that the logical positivists didn’t all agree on how to deal with this problem. Despite being members of a single group they didn’t all agree on either the importance of Wittgenstein’s work, nor on how to deal with difficulties interpreting his Tractatus. And this wasn’t the only point of dispute within the group. There was an intractable debate on the status of protocall sentences that virtually none of the members of the circle could agree on. Nonetheless despite holding many disagreements there were core principles that held the group together. They were all empiricists, promoting a science based world view and who thought that the new logic was the best way of systematizing our best scientific theory of the world.
So the Logical Positivists, like the Four Horsemen, disagreed on many subjects but they were held together by a core set of beliefs on certain topics, in this way they differed from the IDW which doesn’t seem to be held together by any core beliefs that separates them from people who were not members of the IDW. However as we saw above when the Logical Positivists began meeting first they were just some like minded friends interested in a science based world view. It was only later that they developed an explicit manifesto about what the group represented. Likewise the IDW as far as I can see at the moment is nothing but a collection of friends who are promoting each-others work. But it is possible that like the Vienna Circle the IDW could eventually develop a set of core principles that they stand for. It is just that as things stand there seems to be no core principles they stand for that can be used to differentiate them from anyone else.
The Behaviourists
Of course even having a manifesto doesn’t guarantee unity on core topics. J B Watson’s ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It’, could be viewed as the document that launched behavioural psychology . It has been a hundred years since Watson wrote his famous text and to this day a lot of scientists still identify as behaviourists. However, it would be a difficult task to extrapolate precisely what it is that makes one a behaviourist other than an emphasis on behaviour and scepticism about introspection as a tool.
Watson and Skinner are probably the two most famous behaviourists, they disagreed on many things. Watson was a stimulus response theorist, while Skinner used the three term contingency to explicate behaviour. Watson argued that we couldn’t study private events scientifically, while Skinner argued that private events are a form of behaviour that can be studied in the same way as any other behaviour. However, even amongst the neo-behaviourists who tried to move beyond Watson’s behaviourism there wasn’t a homogenous set of beliefs held by all of them. Thus Edward C Tolman believed that it was acceptable for a behaviourist to use inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts, Clark L Hull argued that behaviourists could use inferred constructs but not cognitive concepts, while Skinner argued against inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts (‘Logical Positivism and Behaviourism’ p. 305). While Hull argued that behaviourism should be a deductive science, Skinner and Clark argued that it should be an inductive science (ibid p. 305).
Tollman considered himself a behaviourist and is considered a behaviourist to this day, however given that he allowed cognitive constructs and inferred entities it is difficult to see why his views should be considered any different than those of a contemporary cognitive scientist. Behaviourism started as a reaction against the introspective tradition in psychology and most cognitive scientists would agree that introspection is a bad tool to rely on in science. With some behaviourists such as Tolman it is hard to find a line that distinguishes them from non-behaviourists; whereas with others such as Skinner the line is a bit clearer.
Behaviourism like both logical positivism and the four horsemen of atheism was largely defined by what they were against; Introspective Methods in psychology, Metaphysics and a belief in God. In the hundred or so years since Behaviourism was first proposed as a method, it has branched off in many different directions; methodological behaviourism, radical behaviourism, applied behavioural analysis, relational frame theory etc. Some behavioural theories can be clearly distinguished from other branches of psychology such as cognitive science, while it more difficult to distinguish some kinds of behaviourism from cognitive science.
It is clear though what it was the behaviourists were reacting against and that the movement developed in concrete ways and was successful in dealing with most of the problems that it set itself. This distinguishes it from the IDW, it is unclear who they are opposing, what makes them different than people who aren’t members of the group, and what would constitute the group being successful.
In our comparison of the IDW with other groups we have noted that unlike all of the other groups there appears to be no clear criterion as to what makes someone a member of the group. This isn’t a devastating indictment of the group, as it is possible that overtime they will develop a coherent ethos. Nonetheless as things stand the IDW is a group of individuals that seems to be grouped together on the basis of mutual marketing and nothing else.


Russell: Negation and Innate perceptual Judgements

In Russell’s ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ he discussed how we apply propositions involving ‘negation’ and the relation of these propositions to experience. Russell’s primary concern was how experience could show that a proposition is false. He noted that while negative propositions seem to have an immediate relation to experience they in fact involve not immediate experience; but perceptual judgements. Thus suppose we are told that the fridge contains cheese and butter. When we look in the fridge we immediately see the cheese, however when we look in the fridge we also discover that there is no butter. Russell thinks that discovering that cheese is in the fridge and discovering that butter is not in the fridge are not of the same logical type.
When we look in the fridge we do not see the absence of butter, rather we see a series of products. We then judge that these products are not butter, and as they are only products in the fridge, we judge that there is not butter in the fridge. Russell also notes that to make a negative judgement involves linguistic capacities. If a non-linguistic creature peered into the larder and just looked at what was there and made arbitrary judgements about what was not there; the creature could make an infinite amount of judgements as to what was not in the larder. There are a potential infinite amount of objects that are not in the larder at any given moment. He argues that when one involves linguistic communication this potentially infinite amount of negative judgements gets paired down. Thus, if someone will says ‘there is butter and cheese in the fridge’, this will make it more likely that the other person will make the judgement that there is ‘no butter in the fridge’ when they do the relevant search.
Russell’s discussion of negative propositions is admirably done in relation to concrete examples. He asks us to consider a very simple negation: ‘This is not white’. We are to imagine that we said the above statement in response to a judgement about laundry (An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p. 77). So we have in our minds eye the proposition ‘this is white’ but your direct experience elicits the proposition ‘this is grey’. The question is how do we go from the proposition in our minds eye, the proposition elicited by our direct experience to the negative judgement ‘this is not white’?
Russell offers two possible ways to arrive at the negative proposition:
(1) You know the general proposition ‘what is grey is not white’, and from this together with ‘this is grey’ you derive the proposition ‘this is not white’.
(2) You confront the word ‘white’ with what you see and perceive an incompatibility. (ibid p. 77)
Russell notes that from the point of view of pure logic (1) or (2) must be the correct answer. As from you cannot logically derive conclusions that are negations from premises which don’t contain negations (ibid p. 77) So if we are to have negative propositions they need to either be basic propositions, either pure negations as in (2) or derived from implications of the ‘form p and not q’ as in (1). Logic allows no other possibility.

The Case of Incompatible Colours
“…Two different colours cannot coexist at the same place in one visual field. Position in the visual field is absolute, and may be defined by relation to the centre of the field by means of two angular coordinates which we may call ⱷ, ⱸ. I am saying that we know the following proposition: ‘at a given time and in a given visual field, if the colour A is at the place ⱷ, ⱸ, no other colour B is at this place’. More simply: ‘this is red’ and ‘this is blue are incompatible.” (ibid p.78)
Russell argues that the above generalisation is one that we intuitively know to be true but how we know it to be true is difficult to ascertain. According to Russell it isn’t a logical truth as Red and Blue are not logically incompatible, nor does it appear to be a truth which is derived from experience.
Russell notes that there are many other sensible qualities which we immediately recognise to be incompatible, he gives a variety of different examples such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ etc (ibid p. 78).The important point about the preceding examples is that they are not examples of logical incompatibility. He argues that if we take these incompatibilities as basic propositions, they must be grounded on the basic general proposition (which is a more abstract version of (1) above):
(3) “For all possible values of x, ꬿx implies not ꬸx. Here ‘ꬿx’ may be ‘x is blue’, and “ꬸx’ may be ‘x is red’.” (ibid p. 78)
Russell argues that with the help of the general proposition above we can infer from seeing that ‘x is red’ that ‘x is not blue’. The important point to note here is that the inference ‘x is not blue’ is derived from a non-empirical proposition (3) above. Russell is not very happy with the above conjecture as to how we arrive at our negative proposition ‘x is not blue’. However he is not very clear on why he is unhappy with his conjecture he merely vaguely claims that the conjecture is not very plausible or satisfying. He then moves on to a different attempt to solve the problem which he also finds unsatisfactory. However before delving into his second attempt to solve the problem of negation I will critically evaluate Russell’s first attempt to solve the problem of negation.
Russell, Evolution and Innate apparatus
Russell found his above explanation implausible. One of the reasons for this was that he preferred to justify his speculations on empiricist grounds and was reticent to use rationalist explanations. Rationalist explanations were generally held in pretty low esteem at the time Russell was writing. There were a number of reasons that rationalism was not looked upon unfavourably at the time. Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz were at the forefront of the scientific revolution. However their rationalist explanations of the success of science came under severe pressure through arguments of the empiricist philosophers who contended that empiricist explications of the sciences explained its success better. One difficulty that empiricists had with rationalist explanations was that it was utterly mysterious how we derived our capacity of so called ‘a priori’ knowledge. Prior to the scientific revolution and the birth of rationalist tradition; philosophers such as Plato and Saint Augustine argued that humans had innate knowledge in areas such as morality, mathematics etc. However they had no convincing explanation of this a priori knowledge. Plato argued that we had innate ideas acquired in a prior life that we could remember by contemplation of the forms, while Saint Augustine claimed we arrive at this universal knowledge through a revelation from god. None of the rationalists had a more compelling explanation of how we acquire non empirical knowledge of things like mathematical truth; for example, Descartes had to bring God into the picture as a guarantor of the validity of our logical and mathematical truths.
Philosophers in Russell’s time were impressed by the empiricist criticism of rationalist epistemology; however, they weren’t convinced that the great empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) had a compelling account of mathematical knowledge etc. In ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell wasn’t interested giving an explanation of how we acquired our mathematical knowledge. Rather he was trying to demonstrate how we derive our knowledge claims from basic perceptual beliefs. In his introduction to ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell noted:
“I shall, throughout this book, try to avoid the consideration of logical and mathematical knowledge, which does not raise the problems which I wish to discuss. My main problem, throughout, will be the relation of basic propositions to experiences, i.e., of the propositions that come first in the epistemological order to the occurrences which, in some sense, are our grounds for these propositions.” (ibid p. 16)
He was interested in analysing our language, and discovering how we go from simple object languages which pick out perceptual features of our environment, to a secondary language which included logical constants, true and false, and so on up the hierarchy of languages. But as we saw above when moving from the object language to the meta language Russell immediately ran into difficulties as to how we could do this based entirely on perceptual experiences. He was forced to admit the unempirical basic proposition which is necessary to form negative judgements from experiences:
(3)“For all possible values of x, ꬿx implies not ꬸx. Here ‘ꬿx’ may be ‘x is blue’, and “ꬸx’ may be ‘x is red’.” (ibid p. 78)
Russell was uncomfortable with appealing to an unempirical basic proposition but didn’t have any other compelling way to explain our knowledge in this domain. As we saw above though appeals to non-empirical knowledge had a chequered history in philosophy. An atheist philosopher like Russell, who had strong empiricist leanings, would have been extremely uncomfortable with the explanations of non-empirical knowledge that philosophers such as Plato, Augustine and Descartes provided. While Russell was prepared to countenance unempirical knowledge, he was extremely uncomfortable with doing so and only did so if he had no other choice.
An avenue available to Russell to explain non-empirical knowledge was the theory of evolution. Yet Russell, unlike later philosophers, such as Chomsky and Quine never made much use of this avenue. When Russell was considering how a human could derive negation from experience he didn’t sufficiently appreciate how important negation or proto-negation would be to living creatures in the wild.
Russell gave the example of a person looking in the fridge and forming the judgement that ‘there is no butter in the fridge’. He then tried to analyse how the person would be capable of forming the judgement and considered a variety of different difficulties with his explanations. But better question with more immediate consequences would be how could a mouse form the proposition ‘there is no cat in this field’?
If we consider the question about a mouse forming a negative proposition from an evolutionary perspective; things look much different. Russell noted that we cannot form a negative proposition purely from the fact that something is not present in the field. There are an infinite amount of possible entities that are not present in the field. So the mouse going into the field would have to make an infinite amount of judgements about what is not present in the field. Of course from an evolutionary perspective such a situation would not occur. A mouse isn’t just some blank slate who forms its judgements entirely based on empirical observation. A mouse will have particular concerns and interests that will limit the type of hypotheses it makes. A creature that couldn’t make snap judgements as to whether there were no predators in the field before entering it to eat would be culled by natural selection in no time. Animals pausing to consider the infinite possibilities of counterfactual entities before acting wouldn’t last long enough to pass on their genes in the time constrained environment that natural selection acts on.
A logician like Russell didn’t consider the time and energy constraints on a living creature trying to survive in its environment. Natural Selection builds cheap fast brains that do the minimum; i.e. try to survive long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. Such a creature will not will not consider logical possibilities; rather they will be concerned with salient information, the salience being primarily what will get me food for energy, what will help me find a mate, and what danger may be nearby.
With this fact in mind, Russell’s question about the perceptual basis of forming negation takes on a different hue. The non-linguistic creature will have expectations of what there is in the world it is exploring and a quick glance will tell the creature that some things that it expects to be there are in fact not there. From here is a short step for the creature to form the judgement ‘there is no cat in the field’. So from an evolutionary perspective there is little reason to follow Russell in arguing that forming perceptual judgements of negation must involve linguistic capacities.
Likewise, there is little reason to follow Russell in worrying about the fact that he has to use non empirical axioms to show how we derive negative propositions. From an evolutionary point of view we would expect any creature to come to the learning situation choc o bloc with innate apparatus.
An obvious objection to my above discussion is that it relies on the unargued assumption that non-linguistic creatures use propositional attitudes when thinking. However, my argument isn’t actually reliant on this assumption. I am arguing that IF non linguistic creatures think using propositional attitudes, natural selection will have build constraints in to the possibilities the creatures will entertain when judging what is or is not in the environment, and these innate constraints will make it much easier to form negative judgements.
Russell’s Second Way of Forming Negation
We saw above that Russell had little reason to be so wary about appealing to unempirical knowledge once we adopt an evolutionary perspective. Russell offered another way we a creature could acquire negation. This way involved comparing a word such as ‘white’ and judging whether the environment contained this entity. Russell seemed to view this explanation as in competition with his first explanation in terms of non-empirical grasping of incompatibility. However, there is no reason to view these explanations as in competition they could both play a role in people acquiring the use of negation.
On difficulty with Russell’s discussion of our use of word’s was that he didn’t really appreciate the role of reinforcement shaping how language is used. To this end I think that using Skinner’s work on Verbal Behaviour would help push Russell’s explication in the right direction.
In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed the type of perceptual experiences which would work to elicit the response ‘Not Red’. While Russell was concerned with the fact that we seem to be able to form non-empirical judgements about our perceptual field:
“I am saying that we know the following proposition: ‘at a given time and in a given visual field, if the colour A is at the place ⱷ, ⱸ, no other colour B is at this place’. More simply: ‘this is red’ and ‘this is blue are incompatible.” ( An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p.78)
Skinner was more concerned with the environmental and social contingencies which would shape our response ‘Not Red’:
“The stimuli which continue to strengthen Red and which therefore continue to produce the qualified Not Red are only those situations which are similar to red. Blue will not only not evoke Red, it will not evoke Not red. A strong reddish-orange, may however, do so. Additional verbal stimulation- for example, the echoic prompt red- may, of course evoke the response Not red in the presence of a blue object” ( B.F. Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour p. 324)
When Skinner is discussing negation he does so in relation to what he calls a qualifying autoclitic. He defines a qualifying autoclitic as “a function that qualifies the tact in such a way that the intensity or direction of the listener’s behaviour is modified” (ibid p. 322). In this respect Skinner asks us to consider the qualifying autoclitic of ‘No’. ‘No’ can be used to qualify any tact. The tact ‘rain’, which is under the control of a particular environmental event, could theoretically be metaphorically extended to include such things as a water sprinkler and metonymically extended to a dark grey sky. If the verbal community that a speaker is a member of doesn’t reinforce such metaphorical and metonymical extensions, or even punishes it, this type of Verbal Behaviour will decrease in use.
Skinner notes that ‘no’ is used a lot of times as a mand to change behaviour. Thus if a child is playing with something dangerous the parent will say ‘no’. In this instance ‘no’ functions as a mand to change ones behaviour; to stop doing what one is doing. This use of ‘no’ as a mand also occurs with verbal behaviour. Thus if a child pronounces a word wrong or uses it in the wrong circumstances the parent will say ‘no’ and may follow the ‘no’ with an explanation of what is wrong with the behaviour. So a child growing up will pretty quickly come to understand that ‘no’ is a mand to stop or change what you are doing.
When a person is using a tact such as ‘Red’, it is possible to modify the tact by using the qualifying autoclitic ‘no’. A person who has grasped the use of no as a mand to modify behaviour could of course apply it to his own verbal behaviour. He could apply it to any statement about our perceptual experiences and modify the intensity or direction of the statement. Thus when the person sees a dog he could use the tact ‘cat’ and qualify it by saying ‘no-cat’, meaning that the tact that ‘there is a cat present’ is false. However Skinner argues that a person will only qualify a tact with a ‘no’ in certain circumstances. As we saw above he gives us the example of something red; he notes that ‘red’ is unlikely to evoke either ‘blue’ or ‘not-blue’. The rationale for this is that we wouldn’t use a qualifying negation for no reason. Something reddish may act as a stimulus for us saying ‘not-red’ as it is close enough in hue to red to be confused with it so we could use a qualifying tact to ‘not-red’ upon being presented with a redish orange object. If a person were to say ‘not-blue’ in the presence of a red object it may be in response to a query from a person who doesn’t know the colour of the object and wrongly guesses that it is blue . The important point to note is that Skinner is using both context and intersubjective communication as a key to understanding how the qualifying autoclitic ‘no’ is typically used.
Skinner’s emphasis on intersubjective communication and social reinforcement is important as a way of supplementing Russell’s account. A person may eventually learn to use the word ‘white’ and check if there are any objects in the environment matching it but and therefore derive the negative judgement ‘not white’ but this process will be reliant on two more fundamental processes. (1) Our innate biologically given expectations of what is salient in our environment (2) Shaping by our sociolinguistic group in how to appropriately use the word ‘no’.