Monday, May 28, 2007

Longer version of 'Reasonable Cosmopolitanism'



One of the most contentious debates in political philosophy today focuses on two camps of international political theory. One of these clusters of political theories is cosmopolitanism, defended by advocates such as Pogge and Benhabib. In opposition, advocates such as Rawls and Avila support a Society of Peoples approach. Each of these two positions claims the best and most feasible conception of a global political structure, and they do this for differing reasons.

In this essay, I will briefly review the clash between cosmopolitan political philosophy and the ideas of Rawls’ Law of Peoples. In addition, I will draw attention to important subject matter that is absent from this debate, namely a discussion of public reason. I will advocate that once both sides can address the arguments of Kant’s conception of public reason and Rawls’ conception of public reason, the debate between cosmopolitanism and the Law of Peoples may be closer to a reconciliation. While Kant’s conception of public reason is too strong to function in the international context, it reveals what parts of Rawls’ public reason require revision within a Society of Peoples.


Cosmopolitan arguments generally begin with a review of universalism, and conclude that morals and political ideals should apply globally. According to this strategy, principles of distributive justice should extend beyond particular national borders, and each nation should consider how wealth becomes distributed to all individuals and societies. Some cosmopolitans hold that this universalism requires each nation to become subordinate to a superior governing body. Other cosmopolitans, such as Pogge, advocate against a structured hierarchy in favor of a distributed and decentralized horizontal decision-making structure, similar to how the U.S. Federal government functions as three branches. Still others see cosmopolitanism as requiring only a revision of individual conceptions of a global distributive principle. However, without a controlling international body, it is difficult to see how a global distributive principle can be enforced without an overarching political authority.

Adherents of a Society of Peoples are not confident that a global government can achieve stability, and if it can, it can at best only accomplish it as a temporary balance of forces. Instead of generating a system where each nation becomes subordinate, advocates of a Society of Peoples argue that achieving a flourishing global society is the responsibility of decent and liberal peoples. The Society of Peoples casts this responsibility as the Law of Peoples, and this law instantiates a criteria of toleration. Toleration, says Rawls and Avila, is the mechanism where liberal and decent peoples justifiably affect political situations outside their borders.

Cosmopolitans usually attack a Society of Peoples approach by focusing on the ideas of a decent people and a liberal people. Peoples and states are not synonymous, but to cosmopolitans the distinctions between the two concepts are vague. This apparent vagueness gives cosmopolitans ground to declare cosmopolitanism superior. In response, the defenders of the Law of Peoples say that the distinction between a people and a state is definitively clear. Peoples define groupings of people, a character that binds them, and identifies them apart from the institutions that define the governments of which they are a part. Peoples do not have the same abilities as states, but this distinction does not prevent peoples from utilizing their governmental institutions from accomplishing state-specific actions. Rawls posits two categories of peoples: decent peoples and peoples that are not decent (not all political societies deserve the honorary title of peoples; societies outside the scope of decency include outlaw states, benevolent absolutisms, and burdened societies). Inside the decent peoples category, Rawls defines that there are liberal peoples and mere decent peoples. One major distinctive difference between liberal peoples and decent peoples is the use of public reason. On one hand, liberal peoples have a democratic constitutional structure. In addition, the individuals within a liberal society offer each other fair terms of cooperation, and this behavior satisfies Rawls’ criterion of reciprocity. On the other hand, merely decent peoples do not necessarily employ democratic and constitutional institutions. Instead, decent peoples utilize various governmental structures that achieve a tolerable distribution of rights to its citizens, and a distribution of wealth that does not threaten anyone’s well-being. Merely decent peoples, because of their specific governments, are incompatible with the use of public reason. The absence of public reason entails that the individuals within a merely decent peoples do not offer each other fair terms of cooperation and do not satisfy Rawls’ criterion of reciprocity.

Cosmopolitans have almost nothing to say about public reason, except to say that a cosmopolitan society would have to employ a wide notion of public reason in order to succeed (Bohman, 1999). Bohman defines a structure of public reason and describes how it would function to accommodate an overlapping consensus spanning a global regime. This version of public reason is tailor-made for a cosmopolitan society constituted strictly by a deliberative democracy (Bohman, 1999), but is incompatible with a Society of Peoples. Bohman’s cosmopolitanism tolerates neither decent peoples nor a global society constituted by more than one peoples, and features no political grounds to defend this standard. We have to assume that Bohman defends his cosmopolitanism on moral grounds. Discussing the truth of moral universalism at a global scale with no political assumptions arguably violates the principles of public reason, since such a discussion draws from Bohman’s comprehensive doctrine and stops there as a moral foundation. A discussion of the merits and viability of global universalism as the best method of eradicating human rights violations worldwide could avoid appealing to comprehensive doctrines. However, Bohman seems to argue for moral universalism rather than mere political viability.

Although Rawls explicitly rejects a cosmopolitan framework and cosmopolitans object to the idea of a Society of Peoples, I believe that a focus on public reason as an issue will be productive because it may offer ways for Rawlsians and cosmopolitans to agree. These new areas of agreement will allow a political philosopher to advocate cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples simultaneously. However, cosmopolitans still need to confront Rawls’ standard of a realistic utopia, and this essay will only indirectly answer that question.

The ideas that I will advocate here are not new. Components of the Law of Peoples that are sympathetic to cosmopolitanism are Rawls’ own footnotes in The Law of Peoples. In addition, I derive a critical analysis of Rawls’ idea of public reason from Onora O’Neill (1997). A review of these ideas should make cosmopolitanism and a Law of Peoples more compatible.


While Rawls does not think that a world government is viable, he is sympathetic to the idea that separate liberal societies should be able to merge, or combine. In a footnote, Rawls has this to say about the merging of peoples:

53. What does the Law of Peoples say about the following situation? Suppose that two or more of the liberal democratic societies of Europe, say Belgium and the Netherlands, or these two together with France and Germany, decide they want to join and form a single society, or a single federal union. Assuming they are all liberal societies, any such union must be agreed to by an election in which in each society the decision whether to unite is thoroughly discussed. Moreover, since these societies are liberal, they adopt a liberal political conception of justice, which has the three characteristic kinds of principles, as well as satisfying the criterion of reciprocity, as all liberal conceptions of justice must do (S1.2). Beyond this condition, the electorate of these societies must vote on which political conception they believe to be the most reasonable, although all such conceptions are at least reasonable. A voter in such an election might vote for the difference principle (the most egalitarian liberal conception), should he or she think it is the most reasonable. Yet so long as the criterion of reciprocity is satisfied, other variants of the three characteristic principles are consistent with political liberalism. To avoid confusion, I add that what I later call the “duty of assistance” applies only to the duty that liberal and decent peoples have to assist burdened societies (S15). As I explain there, such societies are neither liberal nor decent. (Rawls, 1999, p. 43)

This footnote defines very specific conditions for any merger to take place. First, the most obvious condition, according to Rawls, implies that only liberal societies can combine. The main reason for this is clear: liberal societies adhere to public reason and satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. In addition, a liberal society has an authentic mechanism where the electorate will vote on issues and the important details of those issues are salient. The presence of mature voting institutions is questionable at best in societies that are not decent. Finally, the criterion of reciprocity is missing in merely decent societies. In the absence of legitimate voting structures and a space for a people to employ public reason, it does not seem likely that a decision for two peoples to merge will be informed. Therefore, according to Rawls, liberal peoples should only combine with liberal peoples.

It is quite surprising that Rawls considers the possibility for two societies to join and become one society. Such a possibility is an interesting scenario for cosmopolitans, since a Law of Peoples does not tolerate peoples that are not decent. If a Law of Peoples ends this intolerance by transforming all peoples into decent peoples, then any two liberal societies would be able to have merger elections. The only challenges to this sequence of events are (1) a failure of a Society of Peoples in general, or (2) a failure of a specific vote among liberal peoples to combine.

A cosmopolitan will notice that this philosophy offers the possibility of a true cosmopolitan order. Assume for the moment that a Society of Peoples is successful and that all world societies somehow become decent peoples. Assume that we can finesse the issue of decent peoples becoming liberal peoples. Also, assume that all of these liberal societies give a successful up vote on combining. The cosmopolitan has theoretically achieved the ideal of cosmopolitanism.

However, such assumptions are a dream and ignore reality. If we consider what is possible in the real world, we rapidly realize that neither cosmopolitanism nor a Society of Peoples will ever totally succeed. In addition, even granting the possibility of a world where every society is liberal, the possibility of all these different liberal peoples combining to form one liberal people is slim to none, due to the limits of an overlapping consensus. Still more, there is something to be said about the diversity of decent peoples that are not necessarily liberal, since Rawls points out that liberalism mandates that decent peoples are entitled to equal treatment in a Society of Peoples. Therefore, as political philosophers, we should give up the idea that a true one-world institution is possible. Instead, the idea of cosmopolitanism should identify closer with the form of Rawls’ idealism. We should delineate, as Rawls did, between ideal theory and what is realistically possible. A question we should ask is this: is it realistic to envision a world where all peoples are either decent or liberal?

One way to make cosmopolitanism more appealing is by modifying Rawls’ analysis of combining societies. In particular, the Rawlsian and the cosmopolitan may object to Rawls’ insistence that only liberal peoples can converge. If decent peoples deserve toleration from a Society of Peoples, then they are well-ordered enough to conduct their own elections with enough credibility to conduct a merger election. In addition, the Rawlsian and the cosmopolitan should evaluate Rawls’ idea of public reason as inadequate for the task of communication between peoples.

In order to see why Rawls’ idea of public reason may be inadequate for international justice contexts, we should examine how he derived his idea of public reason for use in a Society of Peoples. As Rawls constructed the theory of the Law of Peoples, he utilized a political conception of a person, along with a veil of ignorance to construct a Society of Peoples where peoples would reason in the same way that individuals within a liberal society reason with each other. Rawls called this structure of communication public reason, and he said that those who properly utilize public reason offer fair terms of cooperation and only put forth arguments that they believe produce the possibility of agreement. Put another way, those utilizing public reason satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. However, as O’Neill notes, the criterion of reciprocity properly functions internally within a single liberal society—it does not necessarily function between members of a Society of Peoples.


According to O’Neill, Rawls’ idea of public reason is actually a relaxed version of Kant’s idea of public reason. Rawls was able to implement a more relaxed idea of public reason because his original purpose was to achieve fair terms of cooperation within a liberal domestic society. Inside a liberal society, each individual already has a motivation to offer fair terms of cooperation. Therefore, Rawls’ idea of reasonableness is “a matter of willingness to accept terms ‘which all can accept’ (PL, 50) or ‘to govern their conduct by a principle from which they and others can reason in common’ (PL, 49 n)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 416). In contrast, Kant’s idea of reasonableness is a matter of willingness to accept terms which all will accept. O’Neill names Kant’s public reason as a ‘modal’ version of public reason, and names Rawls’ public reason as a ‘motivational’ version of public reason.

In a nutshell, Kant’s ‘modal’ version of public reason “does not assume that those who reason must share a political identity, yet arguably also manages to do without metaphysical foundations” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 423). The ‘motivational’ version of public reason that Rawls adopts has little to do with “individual capacities and everything to the political contexts in which they function,” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421). This means that

What is to count as reasoned in the search for political principles and standards is the thinking of citizens with a common political identity, who seek additional areas of agreement in building the basic principles and institutions of their shared political life. (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421)

The limitation of Rawls’ version of public reason, then, is that the reasons presented is “insiders’ reasoning, so may not convince foreigners or outsiders—or citizens who stand back from the way things are, and ask whether they should be that way” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 422).

It may be appropriate for Rawls to advocate a motivational concept of public reasoning for the domestic case, since in that context citizens already have a common political identity. However, according to O’Neill, the motivational concept of public reasoning may be inappropriate for use between peoples in a Society of Peoples, since liberal peoples will not be the only participants in a well-ordered Society of Peoples. Inevitably, a Society of Peoples must tolerate and communicate with decent peoples, and the international context necessitates that a liberal peoples not make any political assumptions about decent peoples. Therefore, if we follow O’Neill, in the international context, liberal peoples should utilize a modal version of public reason, not merely motivational public reason.

However, the idea of modal public reason may not function within a Society of Peoples. O’Neill recognizes that both motivational and modal public reason functions with a liberal society, but both do not function identically in the international context. Therefore, the viability of modal public reason is not guaranteed.


There are several reasons to reject the actual use of modal public reason. Modal public reason may not function as well as motivational public reason. In addition, modal public reason may be impossible. As we will see, each of these objections are independently sufficient to reject the use of modal public reason.

The difference between modal public reason and motivational public reason depends on what we assume about the individuals who constitute the ‘public’ in public reason. Those who are participating in modal public reason only put forth ideas that will produce agreement with others that also participate in modal public reason. This form of public reason would be identical to motivational public reason if we assume that each individual already is motivated to produce agreement with other people (O’Neill, 1997, p. 417). Rawls uses political reasons, rather than psychological reasons, to claim that citizens within a domestic society effectively utilize public reason. So, in the context of Rawls’ political philosophy, we are not entitled to make such psychological assumptions regarding the nature of citizens’ minds (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). When considering the debate between cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples, motivational public reason is not equivalent to modal public reason.

The political reasons that Rawls appeals to are assumptions regarding a domestic society. Rawls distances himself from appealing to particular psychological reasons that would vindicate his idea of public reason (“ ‘Moral Psychology: Philosophical not Psychological’ is the title of part 8 of lecture 1 (86-88) in Political Liberalism”; see O’Neill, 1997, p. 417, note 7). Instead, Rawls assumes facts regarding the citizens within a liberal society:

1. “Citizens conceive of themselves and one another as able to hold and to revise, and entitled to advance, their comprehensive conceptions of the good” (O’Neill, 1997p. 418).

2. Citizens “acknowledge that although they may hold different comprehensive conceptions of the good, they cannot resolve disagreements about them” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418).

3. Citizens “conceive of themselves as the citizens of a certain society with abilities ‘to be normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life’ (PL, 81)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418).

4. Citizens conceive of their society as “self-contained and as having no relations with other societies. Its members enter it only by birth and leave it only by death” (Political Liberalism, p. 12 as cited in O’Neill, 1997, p. 418).

If we grant each of these political assumptions, Rawls is able to justify his theory of domestic justice in a liberal society. These four assumptions, respectively, guarantee four parameters or consequences of a society: (1) Members of a liberal society are entitled to share their comprehensive doctrines. (2) Comprehensive doctrines that citizens have will never be completely reconciled. (3) This failure of social reconciliation does not prevent members of a society from achieving a certain level of cooperation. Finally, (4) a society does not participate in international relations with other societies. This restriction applies to trade of goods and technology, and it prevents significant communication with other societies.

If the above four political assumptions of public reason obtain, then motivational public reason will be successful. Specifically, O’Neill writes, “Within a closed democratic society, reasonable citizens will indeed and unsurprisingly be willing to seek and abide by shared principles and standards for the fundamental arrangements of life when this is possible” (1997, p. 421). In short, instead of using a theory of psychology to justify the viability of motivational public reason, Rawls appeals to a contractualist framework to vindicate public reason within a liberal society (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421). The terms of the social contract as Rawls defines behind the veil of ignorance produce a special state of affairs. O’Neill says, “The most general principles and standards on which citizens who share their political identity can agree are likely to be ones on which they will agree” (1997, p. 422). These assumptions entail that strong cooperative motivations exist within a domestic liberal society. However, in the debate between cosmopolitans and Rawlsians, we cannot always appeal to this ideal structure.

Modal public reason will have to function without these assumptions. This entails an abandonment of assumptions (1)-(4) and a denial of the respective consequences. In its place, modal public reason requires that assumptions be applicable to all intelligent beings. In the philosophy of Kant, the only universal assumption of this magnitude is the possession of the faculty of reason. Therefore, according to Kant’s modal public reason, the individuals participating in public reasons present reasons on the condition that those ideas will be accepted by any person (I am narrowing the scope of reason to the anthropological context).

Unfortunately, there are few, if any, viable agreements individuals can achieve by the sole virtue of reason. The contemporary debate over Kant’s metaphysics of morals and the Categorical Imperative give ample room for critics to cite the problem of evil and the problem of particularism (created by over-specifying moral rules so that they universally apply to only one particular case) as grounds not to rely solely on reason as an arbiter of political justice in either the domestic case or the international context. In addition, there is abundant evidence that the possession of rational faculties is not essential to humanity or any intelligent being. Societies frequently grant personhood to individuals who have limited rational ability, and individuals are able to put forth ideas and accept ideas while at the same time lacking the ability to reason rationally. Unreasonable individuals that achieve agreement could still be free of coercion. Furthermore, even if all people are rational, it is difficult to see what agreements are reachable under modal public reason. The lack of standing agreements in today’s global is perhaps the most salient example of the number of agreements that modal public reason achieves. Therefore, Kant’s modal public reason is not a viable base to achieve social cooperation.

Given that decent peoples are equal members in a Society of peoples, and given an articulation of motivational public reason, neither Rawls’ public reason, nor modal public reason are viable candidates for mediating reasons between members of a Society of Peoples. The use of the domestic version of public reason would not work between decent peoples and liberal peoples, since decent peoples do not necessarily utilize public reason at all (Avila, 2007). In addition, Rawls’ public reason would not be viable between liberal peoples, since such a scenario would violate the assumption of a closed domestic society. Therefore, we need a global alternative to Rawls’ motivational public reason and Kant’s modal public reason.

For the assumptions of a particular kind of international public reason, we will begin with the impossible ideal of modal public reason and add on political assumptions until we are sure that liberal and decent peoples can and will achieve fair terms of cooperation. I will begin by analyzing Rawls’ four assumptions of motivational public reason and rejecting the assumptions that liberal and decent peoples do not share.


The first domestic assumption of public reason is that “citizens conceive of themselves and one another as able to hold and to revise, and entitled to advance, their comprehensive conceptions of the good” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). In analyzing whether all decent peoples share this assumption, we may check whether this assumption’s consequence is present within all decent peoples. The consequence of this first assumption is that members of a liberal society are entitled to share their comprehensive doctrines. If it turns out that this consequence is absent in some decent peoples, then we cannot make the first assumption regarding decent peoples.

To reveal whether assumption (1) is viable, we must examine what constitutes decent peoples. Avila argues that there are three conditions of decency within a Law of Peoples: “(1) that they do not have aggressive aims and respect the independence of other societies, and (2) that they have a developed sense of justice” (2007, p. 96), and “(3) has a unique historical relationship to a comprehensive doctrine or religious faith” (2007, p. 96). Barring considerations of what “a developed sense of justice” means, it is possible for a people to have peaceful international aims, respect the independence of other societies, have a unique historical relationship to a comprehensive doctrine or religious faith, and still consistently disallow its members the right to an unfettered ability to present their comprehensive doctrines. I interpret “a developed sense of justice” to refer to any developed sense of justice, which may effectively deny members within a decent hierarchical society the unfettered ability to share their comprehensive doctrines.

We produce the same possibility even when we utilize Rawls’ original criteria of decency. Rawls posited two criteria of decency. Avila and Rawls agree on the first criteria, which define the nonaggressive aims of decent peoples. However, Avila and Rawls disagree on the second (and more robust) criteria. Rawls’ second criteria is represented here:

(a) A decent hierarchical people’s system of law, in accordance with its common good idea of justice, secures for all members of the people what have come to be called human rights. A social system that violates these rights cannot specify a decent scheme of political and social cooperation. A slave society lacks a decent system of law, as its slave economy is driven by a scheme of commands imposed by force. It lacks the idea of social cooperation.

Among the human rights are the right to life (to the means of subsistence and security); to liberty (to freedom from slavery, serfdom, and forced occupation, and to a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience to ensure freedom of religion and thought; to property (personal property); and to formal equality as expressed by the rules of natural justice (that is, that similar cases be treated similarly). Human rights, as thus understood, cannot be rejected as peculiarly liberal or special to the Western tradition. They are not politically parochial. […]

(b) […] Impose[s] bona fide moral duties and obligations (distinct from human rights) on all persons within the people’s territory. Since the members of the people are viewed as decent and rational, as well as responsible and able to play a part in social life, they recognize these duties and obligations as fitting with their common good idea of justice and do not see their duties and obligations are mere commands imposed by force. They have the capacity for moral learning and know the difference between right and wrong as understood in their society. In contrast to a slave economy, their system of law specifies a decent scheme of political and social cooperation.

[…] Persons [in a decent peoples] can recognize, understand, and act in accordance with their moral duties and obligations as members of these groups.

(c) […] There must be a sincere and not unreasonable belief on the part of judges and other officials who administer the legal system that the law is indeed guided by a common good idea of justice. (Rawls, 1999, pp. 65-66)

Unsurprisingly, decent peoples may satisfy all of these added conditions and still fail to endow all of its members with the ability to freely share their comprehensive doctrines. Rawls does think that this freedom must be present, but with strict limits. Rawls establishes these limits under the rubric of a “sufficient measure of liberty of conscience,” (1999, pp. 65 & 74), but this quantification appears to be absent in the criteria of liberalism because “these freedoms are not as extensive nor as equal for all members of the decent society as they are in liberal societies” (Rawls, 1999, p. 74). Therefore, because we have no bright line of sufficiency, when considering international public reason, we cannot safely assume that comprehensive doctrines are freely exchangeable within decent peoples, at least not as freely as within liberal peoples. However, we can assume that both liberal and decent peoples meet the lower standard of a “sufficient measure of liberty of conscience,” whatever that means.

The second domestic assumption of public reason is that citizens “acknowledge that although they may hold different comprehensive conceptions of the good, they cannot resolve disagreements about them” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). Fortunately, we do not have to appeal to consequences to conclude that this second assumption is present within both liberal and decent peoples. Some decent comprehensive doctrines may hold that children or mentally disabled individuals lack a comprehensive doctrine, but I am going to finesse this problem since neither Avila nor Rawls give it significant attention. Even in the strictest decent hierarchical societies, decent comprehensive doctrines recognize that their doctrine is not universal and that disagreements at this level are permanent. We can assume a plurality of comprehensive doctrines between liberal and decent peoples. In addition, this analysis allows us to increase the precision of decency by requiring that decent peoples tacitly acknowledge that its members have comprehensive doctrines rather than merely accord its members with a limited ability to share them.

The third domestic assumption of public reason is that citizens “conceive of themselves as the citizens of a certain society with abilities ‘to be normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life’ (PL, 81)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). Decent peoples appear to satisfy this assumption, as members within decent hierarchical societies commonly conceive of themselves in this fashion. If this assumption is not realized within a particular society, then that society arguably fails to meet Rawls’ and Avila’s criteria of decency.

The fourth domestic assumption of public reason is that citizens conceive of their society as “self-contained and as having no relations with other societies. Its members enter it only by birth and leave it only by death” (Political Liberalism, p. 12 as cited in O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). This assumption obviously fails in the international context. A well-ordered peoples cannot be a closed society. A Society of Peoples would not tolerate a peoples that completely isolated itself from outside contact, particularly because it would produce an opaque international situation. In international situations where a nation impugns a society’s human rights record, other peoples traditionally demand a certain level of transparency in order to guarantee that nations meet basic human rights standards. This standard applies to both liberal and decent peoples, because members of a Society of Peoples deliver the verdicts of decency, not the omniscient observers of hypothetical examples.

At this point, we are left with three viable assumptions of international public reason that carry over from Rawls’ motivational public reason: (a) Members within a society are granted a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience and freedom of religion and thought. (b) Members within a society have comprehensive doctrines and differences between those comprehensive doctrines is not reconcilable. (c) Members within a society conceive of themselves as normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life. Although it is important to note that within a decent peoples, these conditions are met for the wrong reasons (Avila, 2007, p. 97), accomplishing these conditions for the right reasons is not essential for us to assume them for the purposes of defining international public reason.

With these three assumptions, we can construct a model for motivational public reason that is sharable within a Society of Peoples. Peoples employ public reason iff they advance reasons that they believe that other peoples will accept. The advancement of reasons will be contingent on the above three assumptions of all decent peoples, not the assumptions that Rawls makes in the original domestic case.


At first blush, it would appear that all members of a Society of Peoples should be using public reason. However, according to the standard of decency, this is not the case. Public reason is still an essential mark of liberal peoples. While both liberal and decent peoples meet the criteria of decency, liberal peoples meet the criteria by virtue of public reason, but decent peoples only meet the criteria because it matches their comprehensive doctrine (Avila, 2007, p. 96). Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that decent peoples are employing public reason when participating in international relations. However, it does not seem to be the case that a decent peoples is incapable of using international public reason when communicating with other members of a Society of Peoples.

The presence or absence of public reason may answer the question of whether decent peoples are able to combine. Rawls’ footnote suggests that the presence of international public reason is irrelevant, but the real question is whether he would say that a liberal peoples could be justified in not tolerating merely decent peoples that decided to merge. I think that we should entertain this possibility, since it is dubious that there are liberal peoples that could merge, let alone two adjacent liberal peoples that successfully vote to merge. Because the standard of a liberal peoples is so high, we should be tolerant of transnational decisions between decent peoples to merge (or for that matter, between decent peoples and liberal peoples). In any event, the use of international public reason between two peoples that are considering a decision to combine seems to be an important prerequisite.

In addition, Avila suggests that we should be prepared to see decent and liberal peoples move in the opposite direction away from combination. In particular, just as Rawls sees the possibility for peoples to come together and form one nation, Avila notices that it is possible that a decent or liberal peoples may need to split and separate. A society may develop or encounter new aspects of culture that affects its overlapping consensus in such a way that it becomes difficult or impossible for the society to maintain stability for the right reasons or stability as a balance of forces. In these cases, the prospect of separation and combination for societies is a real possibility that has applications that extend beyond the interests of cosmopolitanism. In the situations where peoples need to secede, the establishment of international public reason is crucial in order to ensure that recently-separated societies can return to their previous configurations.

In terms of political theory, both cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples approach may require slight revisions. When considering the effect of international public reason on a group of nations, cosmopolitans may not have to clash with a Society of Peoples as a rival theory. Instead, cosmopolitans should view a Society of Peoples as sympathetic to cosmopolitan objectives. However, cosmopolitans should realize that a Society of Peoples does not tolerate bare moral reasoning, but only the practical benefits of decent peoples and political groups. If the world works better by combining peoples and forming larger social bodies, then a Society of Peoples can assist in that endeavor. However, all cosmopolitans should realize that a Law of Peoples is political, not metaphysical. Within a Society of Peoples, the question of a cosmopolitan framework should not be whether such a conception is right, it is whether is it possible. A Society of Peoples answers the cosmopolitan question best because it decides the limits of possibility by allowing real peoples to explore those limits themselves.


Avila, M. (2007). Defending a law of peoples: political liberalism and decent peoples. The Journal of Ethics 11, 87-124.

Bohman, J. (1999). Citizenship and norms of publicity: wide public reason in cosmopolitan societies. Political Theory, 27(2), 176-202.

O’Neill, O. (1997). Political liberalism and public reason: a critical notice of John Rawls, political liberalism. The Philosophical Review, 106(3), 411-428.

Rawls, J. (1999). The law of peoples; with, the idea of public reason revisited. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

An essay on natural and artificial kind terms.


One of the primary purposes of language is to pick out things in the world. Most of the time language users accomplish this task by naming those things. For example, when a community wants to identify a particular substance that just happens to be important for irrigating crops and drinking, they name that substance water. When the named thing has a natural essence, or an essence constituted by a common structure, these names become natural kind terms. Natural kind terms contrast with artificial kind terms, because people view the defined common structure of an artificial kind term as arbitrary.

Despite its reliance on examples that seem completely benign and natural, the concept of natural kind terms is controversial. Various theories explain and detail the rules for defining natural kind terms. This essay will focus on the most widely accepted theory of natural kind terms, as argued by Kripke and Putnam. Despite its wide acceptance, the Kripke-Putnam Theory still attracts many critics. For example, Mellor advocates a rejection of the Kripke-Putnam Theory based on the argument that natural kind terms are not rigid designators (Mellor defends a Fregean approach; see Mellor, 1977). In addition, Ben-Yami (2001) rejects the Kripke-Putnam Theory because one cannot found the essence of natural kinds on structural properties.

Mellor and Ben-Yami argue that we should reject the Kripke-Putnam Theory, but neither advocates an outright rejection of the concept of natural kind terms. I will argue that there are far fewer natural kind terms than Kripke and Putnam would enumerate. I will conclude that most known kind terms are artificial and that only elementary particles are natural kinds. In order to accomplish this, I will review Kripke’s and Putnam’s theory of natural kind terms and explain why we should dispense with the prevailing distinction between natural and artificial kind terms. In its place, characterizing most kind terms as artificial kind terms will function without succumbing to the objections against the traditional distinction between natural and artificial kind terms.


Kripke’s philosophy of language extends far beyond the scope of natural kind terms. His metaphysics and the concept of the rigid designator are important aspects that lie at the foundation of natural kind terms and essentialism. I will briefly review Kripke’s metaphysics and theory of rigidity. This will reveal the framework essential for his theory of natural kind terms.

There are several aspects of Kripke’s metaphysics that are important to the subject of natural kind terms. Kripke advocates the existence of structural properties, notably aspects that things will have as a “kind of thing” (Kripke, 1980, p 122). These properties will be important when Kripke moves from naming one particular thing (e.g., ‘this is water’) to using that particular as a “paradigmatic instance” (Kripke, 1980, p. 122) of a natural kind. For Kripke, a given natural kind constitutes a set of structural properties that a particular must possess in order for the natural kind term to fit that particular. For example, assume that tigers are a natural kind and one of the essential properties of tigers is stripedness. An animal that does not possess the property of ‘striped’ is not a tiger.

Kripke rejects the existence of bare particulars (a notion that particulars have no properties; 1980, p. 52), indicating that nothing stands as a substratum behind a particular’s properties. This rejection of bare particulars entails that names will not be able to refer to an object without also referring to at least some of its properties. Kripke rejects the notion that a particular thing is only a bundle of properties (a notion that a particular is constituted solely by the aggregate of its properties; 1980, p. 52). The rejection of both the bare particular view and the bundle-of-properties view means that referring to a particular thing will require a name to refer to both an object and some of its properties.

Kripke separates epistemological and metaphysical claims. The identification of natural kind terms will pick out paradigmatic instances, and some of the properties of the paradigmatic instances will be essential to the natural kind term. This essentialism of properties is metaphysical, not epistemological, which means that an agent may fail to know the set of properties that are essential to a natural kind. A person may use the term ‘water’ to identify a pool of water, and lack a complete or even correct awareness of water’s properties. Fortunately, it is possible that a language knows these metaphysical truths, but knowing a natural kind’s properties and knowing what natural kinds are will be an a posteriori endeavor. (Kripke, 1980)

In order to introduce Kripke’s concept of rigidity properly, I must first explain Kripke’s view of possible worlds. One competing view is that possible worlds are actual self-contained universes that have whole histories and exist independently of our world. This view is championed by David Lewis. In contrast, Kripke rejects Lewis’ theory, stating that possible worlds are not a distant place that we can observe through a telescope or some other set of technology. Kripke argues that we should not interpret possible worlds as foreign countries that one could view through an apparatus, but as stories that philosophers stipulate. Thus, for Kripke, possible worlds are derivative of the world that we live in. (Kripke, 1980)

Kripke’s view of possible worlds is important to the concept of rigidity. In the case of counterfactuals, we can stipulate some things to be different, and the things that remain unstipulated will remain identical to the actual world. Kripke argues that proper names always refer to the same object, regardless of whether we use them in the normal sense or in counterfactual conditionals. When we consider what would have happened to Nixon if he never became President, the name ‘Nixon’ refers to the same Nixon, only with a different stipulated property. It is possible that Nixon could have not been President, but it is impossible that the proper name ‘Nixon’ fails to refer to Nixon. According to Kripke, natural kind terms are rigid: they refer to the same kind of thing in all possible worlds. (Kripke, 1980). More specifically, a natural kind refers to the same paradigmatic instance in all possible worlds.

Natural kind terms rely on rigid paradigmatic instances. These paradigmatic instances will provide a number of structural properties that will determine whether other objects are of the same kind. Thus, if a particular possesses all the essential structural properties of a natural kind, then that particular belongs to that natural kind. A paradigmatic instance of a tiger will provide a number of properties that another thing must have in order to be a tiger. If an animal fails to have the essential properties of a tiger, then the animal is not a tiger. However, these internal properties only define whether an object is a specific kind—it is not necessarily the case that a language user will use these properties to identify whether a particular object is a specific natural kind. For Kripke, it is more important to understand the nature of what makes a natural kind than to ensure that language users are right when they differentiate things that are of a certain natural kind and things that are not a certain natural kind. (Kripke, 1980)


Putnam also argues for the existence of natural kind terms. In Meaning and Reference, Putnam argues that water is a natural kind term determined by an initial indexical reference. In addition, Putnam argues that cooperation among individuals allows society to divide the linguistic labor between sociological groups.

Putnam’s main argument is, “The traditional concept of meaning is a concept which rests on a false theory” (Putnam, 2001, p. 289). We can trace Putnam’s discomfort to one of the assumptions that Putnam attaches to the traditional concept of intension/extension:

(2) That the meaning of a term determines its extension (in the sense that sameness of intension entails sameness of extension). (Putnam, 2001, p. 289)

Instead of viewing extension as an effect of intension, Putnam argues that a word’s extension determines its intention. Putnam uses his famous Twin Earth experiment to show how this is the case.

Consider Putnam’s Twin Earth example. Twin Earthians are exact duplicates of Earthians (except perhaps that the “water” in their bodies has a different molecular structure); water on Earth is H2O, and a different sort of water on Twin Earth is XYZ (a shortened formula of a complex chemical). Putnam stipulates that in 1750 the Doppelgangers on Twin Earth have the same psychological states as their respective twins on Earth. This stipulation forces the mental criteria of water to be the same on Earth and Twin Earth. However, due to the differences in molecular chemistry, water on Earth is very different from the water on Twin Earth, except for the fact that the two versions of water have the same superficial characteristics. H2O boils at the same temperature as XYZ—they also have the same freezing point. In fact, without equipment for molecular testing, Earthians and Twin Earthians have no way to discriminate between H2O and XYZ.

Putnam describes through an example of aluminum and molybdenum that human society frequently commissions ‘experts’ to cooperatively define the meaning of a term and to prescribe that meaning to those individuals who are not ‘experts.’ This notion of linguistic outsourcing coheres with Putnam’s formal hypothesis:

Hypothesis of the universality of the division of linguistic labor: Every linguistic community exemplifies the sort of division of linguistic labor just described; that is, it possesses at least some terms whose associated “criteria” are known only to a subset of the speakers who acquire the terms, and whose use by the other speakers depends upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets. (Putnam, 2001, p. 292)

There are several important facets of this hypothesis. The hypothesis defines two subsets of a linguistic community: a subset of speakers “who acquire the terms,” and a subset of speakers who depend “upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets.” This second subset refers to people who depend on the analysis of experts in order to create criteria for the meaning of terms.

Putnam denies that a pattern of social cooperation initially determines the meaning of a natural kind term. Since extension determines meaning, the Twin Earth water example features no division of linguistic labor. There were no experts in the Twin Earth example in 1750. Putnam’s analysis involves a theory of reference, rather than a theory of the universality of the division of linguistic labor. Putnam presents two hypotheses, rejects the first, and affirms the second. The first hypothetical theory of reference is this:

(1) One might hold that ‘water’ was world-relative but constant in meaning (i.e., the word has a constant relative meaning). On this theory, ‘water’ means the same in W1 and W2; it’s just that water is H2O in W1, and water is XYZ in W2. (Putnam, 2001, p. 292)

This hypothetical theory denies Putnam’s assumption that “two terms cannot differ in extension and have the same intension” (2001, p. 288). Putnam wants terms to have a complete meaning and have a one-to-one relation with the world, so he prefers the second hypothesis:

(2) One might hold that water is H2O in all worlds (the stuff called “water” in W2 isn’t water), but ‘water’ doesn’t have the same meaning in W1 and W2. (Putnam, 2001, p. 292)

If we agree with the conclusions that Putnam makes from his examples and his claim that “two terms cannot differ in extension and have the same intension” (2001, p. 288), then water a natural kind term and a rigid designator. Natural kind terms will then consist of a set of essential structural properties, such as H2O, which will hold in all possible worlds.


In response to Kripke and Putnam’s analysis of natural kind terms, Mellor advances several arguments against the idea of natural kind terms. Mellor analyzes Putnam’s thought experiment of Twin Earth and concludes that Earthians and Twin Earthians both refer to water.

Mellor points out that Putnam assumes that the microstructure of water on Earth and Twin Earth are a basis to separate them into two different natural kinds. Mellor challenges this assumption, stating:

There was water on both planets alike, and there still is. We simply discovered that not all water has the same microstructure; why should it? Because its microstructure is an essential property of water? Well, that is what’s in question. (Mellor, 1977, p. 303)

Mellor justifies this challenge by specifying scientific examples. Mellor describes various heavy waters and chlorine isotopes that have varying microstructures, yet chemists in our world still refer to all chlorine isotopes as chlorine and all densities of water as water. Putnam’s only available answer is that “chlorine and water have been found not to be natural kinds after all, but rather mixtures of natural kinds” (Mellor, 1977, p. 303). According to Zymach (as cited by Mellor, 1977, p. 303), this response may entail that there are no natural kind terms at all. As we delve further into the microstructure of natural kinds, scientists will discover fine distinctions among the particular molecules that we were previously unable to detect. If those differences are significant, then our scientific discoveries will reveal that the supposed natural kind terms were merely rough-and-ready properties. If we evaluate those differences as insignificant, then we effectively trivialize these new distinctions and appeal to the molecules’ previously visible “superficial characteristics” (Putnam, 1975, p. 241, as cited by Ben-Yami, 1999, p. 169). Either way, Putnam’s Twin Earth example begins to come apart. Consider what would happen if we utilized new scientific advancements to discover that half of Earth’s water had a subtly different microstructure from the other half. If Earthians concluded that this discovery meant that half of what we considered water was not water, this creates a disturbing precedent against the existence of natural kinds. If, instead, Earthians concluded that this discovery was trivial and did not warrant a new identity of liquid, then this possibility argues against Putnam’s premise that the liquid on Twin Earth was not water. Mellor’s claim is that water on Twin Earth is water, and the specified difference in microstructure leads us to affirm that water exists both on Earth and Twin Earth.

Mellor admits that Putnam can always fall back on his theory of the division of linguistic labor. Putnam can stipulate that XYZ is not water, since his theory of the division of linguistic labor allows experts to delineate these distinctions. Putnam addresses what would happen when Earthians and Twin Earthians use space ships to experience the differences between water1 and water2. These explorers will eventually discover the differences between the two Earth’s waters, and experts on each of the two planets may eventually embrace these distinctions. However, when experts on Earth say that XYZ is not water or experts on Twin Earth say that H2O is not water, these decisions to make a difference of microstructure relevant will be arbitrary. It is equally plausible that Earthian scientists will trivialize the difference between XYZ and H2O and categorize XYZ as water. Putnam can tell a story where two civilizations think that two chemicals requires different common names, but we receive no explanation why the difference between XYZ and H2O (or any two superficially similar things) should be significant.

Putnam assumes that XYZ and H2O are a basis to divide water1 and water2 into separate categories, but he does not explain how such a division is natural. Putnam can divide XYZ and H2O into two categories by relying on a society’s linguistic labor, and this leaves us with unsatisfactory methods of discriminating natural from artificial kind terms. We understand the difference between a natural and an artificial kind term in the following way: we see natural kind terms as a way of acknowledging natural differences between the kinds specified, and we view artificial kind terms as ad hoc mechanisms that differentiate two kinds. In order to reify the distinction of water1 and water2, Putnam relies on a society’s linguistic labor to generate an arbitrary standard of differentiation, which effectively destroys the distinction between natural and artificial kind terms.

Kripke recognizes that new discoveries can disrupt our understanding of natural kind terms. For example, it is possible that a scientific discovery shows that there are two different types of gold. In this case, scientists can split gold into two types, or drop the name ‘gold’ altogether (Kripke, 1980, p. 134). This sequence of events is bad news for natural kind terms, since it seems that new scientific discoveries will deprecate rough-and-ready natural kinds, and we will eventually abandon these newer natural kind terms once future discoveries demonstrate that these new natural kind terms are inadequate. In this epistemic sequence, the essential properties that constitute natural kinds are beyond the limits of the experts’ skill.


In order to explain why we use natural kinds to refer to aspects of nature that exist beyond our knowledge, Ben-Yami advances a different explanation of natural kind terms. Ben-Yami does not agree that natural kinds refer to essential structural properties. As the most salient examples, Ben-Yami states that “a paradigm of natural kinds are elementary particles; if anything is a natural kind, electrons, quarks and photons are” (Ben-Yami, 2001, p. 166). Electrons, quarks, photons, and other indivisible subatomic particles, according to Ben-Yami, have no apparent structural properties, since we presumably know nothing and assume nothing about the internal structure of these elemental particles to posit any structural properties. Elemental particles, as Ben-Yami says, “are elementary particles” (2001, p. 166).

This description of natural kinds is inconsistent with the Kripke-Putnam theory of natural kinds, since Kripke and Putnam require that natural kinds share a common set of structural properties, such as having a certain genetic pattern or a molecular structure or some other salient internal constitution. Ben-Yami explains that for quarks, photons, and electrons, “no unknown structure is assumed to exist, and the definition of the kind is not by reference to paradigms” (2001, p. 166). Quarks, photons, and electrons only seem to share basic properties.

Kripke and Putnam do not account for the existence of natural kinds that only share basic properties (Ben-Yami, 2001, p. 166). In fact, Kripke and Putnam rule out the possibility. In the case of elementary particles, quarks, photons, and electrons only share basic properties. Ben-Yami suggests that if elementary particles are natural kinds in virtue of basic properties, then we should disband the Kripke-Putnam rule that mandates that internal structural properties constitute natural kind terms. Ben-Yami argues that elementary particles, not structural properties, capture the essence of natural kind terms (1999). This move from structural properties to elemental particles shifts the notion of natural kind terms from a metaphysical to an epistemic notion, since we traditionally expect science to reveal that basic properties are disguised complex properties.

Although structural properties do not constitute natural kinds, they are essential for artificial kinds. Consider a structural property: water has a structure of H2O (on Earth). Scientists are aware of this type of structural property, and scientists recognize certain underlying explanations for this structural property. For example, scientists understand that a particular subatomic force, the polar covalent bond, causes H2O to maintain its stable structure. It is conceptually possible for an H2O molecule to exist without the constitution of a polar covalent bond, although scientists have not produced any cases. Therefore, while scientists admit that all observed water molecules are bound by the polar covalent bond, scientists do not consider such a bond as an essential structural property of water. Instead, scientists rely on superficial physical characteristics and ways that water reacts chemically with either different kinds of molecules or various environmental phenomena. If an experiment produced a stable H2O molecule did not exhibit a polar covalent bond but otherwise exhibits the same superficial characteristics as a water molecule would, we would not say that the outlier was not water. Scientists might say, based on future experiments, that a polar covalent bond is not a part of the essence of water. However, at this time, such a judgment would be arbitrary, since we see no natural reason why a non-polar-covalent-bound H2O is or is not water. Using structural properties will only function for characterizing artificial kinds.

If we reject the notion that natural kinds depend on structural properties and view elemental particles as constitutive of natural kinds, not only is it clearer how society utilizes natural kind terms, it is easier to see how the essence of natural kinds depends on how much a society knows. Since elementary particles are natural kinds, and elementary particles only share basic epistemic properties, structural properties differentiate artificial kinds. For the elementary particles, we have no way to differentiate one quark from another. As our scientific expertise increases, we may discover structural properties where we previously saw none, and this revision of basic properties into structural properties will eventually disqualify quarks, photons, and electrons as natural kinds. This may be why Ben-Yami says that “natural kinds have an inexhaustible number of distinctive properties, which are not logically derivable from each other” (2001, p. 181). This slow evolution of natural kinds into artificial kinds suggests that metaphysically there are no natural kinds at all. People use natural kind terms in an epistemological sense, not in a metaphysical sense. Therefore, if we want to use a kind term in a metaphysical sense, we are constrained from using natural kind terms.

In opposition to the Kipke-Putnam Theory, Ben-Yami advocates an alternative to using natural kind terms. Philosophers, according to Ben-Yami, analyze natural languages “by means of the predicate calculus” (2001, p. 176). For example, the sentence ‘All humans are mortal’ translates into predicate logic as (x)(Hx ⊃ Mx). This method characterizes the common noun ‘human’ as a predicate and characterizes the adjective ‘mortal’ as another predicate (Ben-Yami, 2001, pp. 176-177). Ben-Yami thinks that characterizing common nouns as predicates is a mistake.

When it comes to using common nouns, Ben-Yami suggests that we should use ‘kind terms’ instead of natural kind terms. Kind terms, Ben-Yami says, should be used only as referring expressions (2001, pp. 176-182), not as predicates. These referring expressions “refer to, ‘stand for’, or denote particulars” (Ben-Yami, 2001, p. 177), but these referring expressions do not ascribe properties to the named things. For example, “ ‘Tiger’ in ‘Tigers are dangerous’ is not a predicate, but a referring expression” (Ben-Yami, 2001, p. 177). ‘Tiger’ merely picks out the whole population of tigers. In contrast, adjectives refer to properties and are predicates. For example, “ ‘Are pretty’ and ‘runs fast’ do not refer to things, but say what properties things have” (Ben-Yami, 2001, p. 177). In summation:

The only semantic function of kind terms in their basic occurrences in natural language is to refer to particulars. The properties that we think members of a kind have are not part of the meaning of the kind term. We rely on some of these properties when we identify members of the kind to which the term applies, but the semantic function of the term is to refer to members of the kind and not to ascribe any property to them. (Ben-Yami, 2001, p. 177)

In sentences such as ‘This animal is a tiger’, Ben-Yami claims that ‘tiger’ is not an adjective. ‘Tiger’ remains a referring expression, which merely classifies the animal as one of the things referred to by the term ‘tiger’ (2001, p. 178). The sentence ‘This man is Paul’ is similar. ‘Paul’ ascribes no properties to the named man, but classifies ‘Paul’ as the thing referred to by ‘Paul’.

Characterizing common nouns as referring expressions is clever, but it is metaphysically problematic. A close reading of Kripke suggests that Ben-Yami’s alternative risks referring to bare particulars. If we use ‘tiger’ as a referring expression, we would only be referring to the total group of actual tigers. This structure of referencing picks out each individual particular tiger, without referring to any corresponding properties. If we use ‘Nixon’ merely as a referring expression, we would only refer to Nixon. This reference picks out Nixon without referring to any of Nixon’s properties. Kripke objected to this strategy, saying that it would be erroneous to refer to “propertyless substrata underlying the qualities” (1980, p. 52) of particulars. Referring expressions that pick out particulars without simultaneously picking out at least some properties will always violate this principle and is an unacceptable alternative to natural kind terms.

It may make more sense to reify what we have learned about natural kind terms, artificial kind terms, and understand the function of each. We use natural kinds only in an epistemic way in order to identify elementary particles. In this fashion, we use natural kinds to posit basic properties, not structural properties. When a society discovers that a natural kind possesses structural properties, such a kind will cease to be a natural kind. In contrast, society uses an artificial kind term to identify structural properties. Of course, one may object that the idea of natural kinds is becoming obsolete. When scientists discover that so-called natural kinds possess structural properties, they will probably also posit new basic properties. For example, scientists previously believed that protons and neutrons were basic particles, and before that, that atoms were basic particles. Some day, scientists may understand how to split photons or why electrons have unique spins. When scientists make these advancements, they will recognize that photons and electrons are not basic particles, and will eventually discover new elementary particles that are more fundamental than the natural kinds they previously named. In this process, scientists will rename the old natural kinds into artificial kinds and commission new natural kinds. These scientists will derive the new natural kinds from the limits of a society’s knowledge, not from metaphysics. Natural kinds, therefore, will signal what a society does not know about what it names.


Ben-Yami, H. (1999). The semantics of kind terms. Philosophical Studies, 102, 155-184

Kripke, S. A. (1980). Naming and necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mellor, D. H. (1977). Natural kinds. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 28(4), 299-312.

Putnam, H. (2001). Meaning and reference. In A. P. Martinich (Ed.), The philosophy of language (Fourth ed.) (pp. 288-195). New York: Oxford University Press.

On P. F. Strawson's "On Referring"

On Strawson’s Functionalism

In the 20th century, many philosophers of language look at view words, not in isolation, but as parts that interact with other things to generate meaning. For Russell, denoting phrases interacted with various parts of speech in order to generate meaning for whole sentences. In this sense, words by themselves have no meaning, but they contribute meaning to sentences. Strawson takes this functionalism a step further: words, expressions, and sentences alone have no meaning and have no truth-value by themselves. Meaning and truth-value are absurd concepts until a person uses a sentence.

Strawson rebuts Russell’s analysis of proper names. Russell does not merely build his own theory, as Strawson does not merely build his own theory. Russell constructed his position by arguing against Meinong’s theory of names. According to Russell, Meinong’s arguments entail seemingly contradictory conclusions. In particular, Meinong’s philosophy holds that if a meaningful sentence has a subject as one of its parts, then the subject must have meaning. Furthermore, if the subject has meaning, it must refer to something that subsists. In Russell’s example, when we examine “The king of France is bald,” we notice that Meinong’s philosophy leads us to the conclusion that the denoting phrase ‘king of France’ refers to a subsisting king of France. Russell rejects this absurd conclusion, and advances his own theory of descriptions to solve the problem of meaningful denoting phrases that fail to refer.

Strawson argues that Russell advances an unsuccessful solution to this puzzle. Specifically, Strawson agrees with Russell in rejecting the whole of Meinong’s arguments. However, Strawson points out that Russell accepts a key premise from Meinong. This premise, that logically proper names and descriptions exist for each sentence, according to Strawson, is a blunder. It is possible for a sentence to be significant, and “begin with an expression used in the uniquely referring way” (p. 230) and fall outside of Russell’s categorical analysis. In fact, according to Strawson, this is the rule, rather than mere possibility, since he says, “there are no logically proper names and there are no descriptions” (p. 230).

Strawson’s first step in demonstrating this conclusion is by creating three distinctions of sentence and expression formation. According to Strawson, the first category is the sentence or expression. The second category is a particular use of a sentence or expression. The third category is an utterance of a sentence or expression. To see how this distinction operates, consider this example. Last semester I took several exams. Suppose I talked about my performance on one of these exams, and said shortly after I received my graded exam, “I did well on the exam.” Now, consider an exam that I took two weeks ago. Suppose, also, that I talked about how I did on the more recent exam, and said, following my receipt of the graded exam, “I did well on the exam.” According to Strawson’s distinctions, the sentence and its component expressions are identical in the two occasions. In addition, my usage of the sentence on the two occasions was the same: I used that sentence in the same way. However, Strawson’s distinction leads me to conclude that even though I used the sentence in the same way on two occasions, the utterances of the sentence were different. This difference allows room for the two sentences to differ in meaning, refer to different objects, and have independent truth-values.

The distinction of utterances means, for Strawson, that sentences and expressions alone have no meaning. In fact, Strawson says that unused sentences and expressions have no truth-value either. This argument that forbids unused words and sentences from having meaning or truth-value seems to solve the puzzle of self-contradictory denoting phrases. However, it is less clear how Strawson solves the problem of when a person utters the sentence “The present king of France is wise.”

Strawson’s answer is that the utterance is not genuine (p. 233). According to Strawson:

If, when he utters it, he is not talking about anything, then his use is not a genuine one, but a spurious or pseudo-use: he is not making either a true or a false assertion, though he may think he is. (p. 233)

In particular, when a person utters the sentence, “The present king of France is wise,” he or she does not concurrently assert that the present king of France exists (p. 234). Although such a sentence implies that the present king of France exists, this implying does not mean that the example logically entails that the present king of France exists. This leaves room for Strawson to claim that no contradiction arises, since we are “giving a reason for saying that that the question of whether it is true or false simply does not arise” (p. 234).

Strawson connects this analysis to Russell by arguing that Russell conflates sentences with sentence use and sentence utterance. When Russell argues that sentences are true or false and that denoting phrases have meaning, he puts sentences to use, rather than showing that unused sentences have a truth-value or have meaning. Russell utilizes the context and conventions relevant to a particular utterance. Russell’s error, according to Strawson, is that he uses this information to analyze a non-uttered sentence. For example, in considering the sentence “Scott is the author of Waverley,” Russell discusses the occasion where a nobleman uses the phrase to ask who wrote Waverley, at the end of this analysis, Russell takes the facts specific to the utterance of a particular sentence and applies those details to that sentence as if the sentence was never uttered. Strawson thinks that this is a mistake; an utterance’s context and corresponding conventions are only relevant when a person utters a sentence. If we analyze a sentence aside from its utterance, we are not entitled to appeal to information contained in a context or a set of conventions.

The only way for Russell’s analysis to be fruitful in light of Strawson’s objections is to consider the logical possibilities of a sentence when a person utters it. It may be possible that a certain sentence will always produce a stable meaning and/or truth-value in every possible utterance. Russell produces examples in his response to Strawson: “the square-root of minus one is half the square-root of minus four” and “the cube of three is the integer immediately preceding the second perfect number” (p. 243). Russell argues that these are examples where “egocentricity of wholly absent” (p. 243), but even the above examples feature some egocentricity. For both examples, the sentence still depends on a context and conventions of interpretation to reveal the meaning and the truth-value. Without this information, our refusal to examine utterances robs us of the essential information needed to determine the truth-value and meaning of particular utterances. Russell would have us believe that matters of mathematical analysis are free of human interpretation (i.e., egocentricity), but this claim asks language to function independently of human use.