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Is ‘There Are External Objects’ an Empirical Proposition?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Trudy Govier*
Affiliation:
Trent University

Extract

Alice Ambrose once criticized Moore for treating the proposition ‘There are external objects’ as an empirical one. She said that those who denied that we could know this proposition to be true would not accept any evidence as going against their denial of it, and were not regarding the issue of its truth as empirical. She also maintained that one could not point out an external object in the way in which one could point out a dime or nickel and alleged on these grounds that saying that there are external objects is not the same sort of thing as saying that there are coins. The issue arose concerning Moore's paper, “Proof of an External World.“

In “Reply to My Critics,” Moore pointed out that he had been concerned in “Proof of an External World” not to prove that we know that there are external objects, but rather to prove that there are external objects. But he applied Ambrose's remarks to that proposition. Moore rightly asserted that the fact that someone denies that there are external objects and treats all evidence as irrelevant to the issue does not show that the proposition he denies fails to be empirical.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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References

1Moore's Proof of an External World,” in The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, ed. Schlipp, P.A. vol. 2, pp. 397–417.Google Scholar

2 Moore, in Schlipp, vol. 2, p. 672.

3 E.D. Klemke, “G.E. Moore's Proof of an External World,” in Studies in the Philosophy of G. E. Moore, pp. 276–87.

4 This obvious point has often been ignored. Recently Kripke's work has served to bring it to our attention. See “Identity and Necessity,” in Identity and Individuation, ed. M.K. Munitz, pp. 150–51.

5 ‘On the most natural analyses’ is added here because an idealist like Berkeley would admit that (e.g.) there are lakes and deny that this entails that there are external objects, in the sense in which ‘external’ is used in the present paper, and by Moore. This, it strikes me, is where Moore's proof of an external world is less than adequate. Its reasons for taking such words as hand so that ‘This is a hand’ entails ‘This is an external thing’ are less than fully convincing. And yet everything hinges on this entailment. See “Proof of an External World,” p. 144 in Philosophical Papers. Moore is reduced to saying, “Consider any kind of thing, such that anything of that kind, if there is anything of it, must be ‘to be met with in space’: e.g. consider the kind ‘soap bubble’. If I say of anything which I am perceiving, ‘That is a soap-bubble’, I am, it seems to me, certainly implying that there would be no contradiction in asserting that it existed before I perceived it and that it will continue to exist, even if I cease to perceive it. This seems to me to be part of what is meant by saying that it is a real soap-bubble, as distinguished, for instance, from an hallucination of a soap bubble.” (My emphasis.)

6 ‘There are living things’ might not be empirical after all. It is arguably a self-verifying proposition and hence a priori. See this paper, p. 316-8. See also Alice Ambrose's rejection of the notion of external object as another category, comparable to categories like ‘coin’, and ‘plant’, in Schilpp, vol. 2, p. 408.

7 In Semantics and the Philosophy of Language, ed. Urbana, L.Linsky III., University of Illinois Press (1952) pp. 210-11.Google Scholar

8 One might, departing from Carnap's text here, wish to say that any question may be either internal or external, depending upon the context in which it is raised. This is a promising suggestion, I think. But endorsing it would not make any great difference overall, for as we shall see, it is entirely possible for an external question to be an empirical one.

9 Joel Kupperman, “Realism vs. Idealism,” American Philosophical Quarterly, July 1975.

10 Ibid., p. 203.

11 Ibid., p. 201.

12 Ibid., p. 203.

13 It is worth noting that Kupperman needs this mistaken interpretation of logical independence in order to make out the next central thesis of his paper — namely that realism in its statement opens the door for scepticism. This is an interesting thesis and one which I confess to having some sympathy for. But Kupperman cannot demonstrate it in the way he does because his whole demonstration relies on this faulty statement of the realist position.

14 One could plausibly broaden this category by including propositions whose denials are compatible with conditions of assertion. To simplify matters, I have not done this here, but the considerations below would apply to propositions which were self-verifying on that basis, too.

15 For some preliminary clarification on the matter of what it is to “incorporate empirical data,” see this paper, pp. 318–20.

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