Verificationism and Transcendental Arguments – Richard Rorty

Strawson and Wittgenstein represent two philosophers in the anti-idealist camp, drawing on Kant, where representation figures as the general term for any object at any stage in its determination by the subject. In Individuals (1959), Strawson argues for a description of the world entailed by interconnected concepts, through an examination of our basic particulars and how these are brought under general concepts to do with space and time. This project is metaphysical, insofar as it attempts to delineate the structural features of our thoughts about the world, thus continuing the idea that the world constrains reality. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein enlarges upon his account of the private language argument. This claims that the idea of a private language is incoherent, that language is at bottom an entirely public, social phenomenon. The private language argument thus has repercussions for the idea that we represent internally through e.g. qualia, from which language gives rise to the concept.

Now, both Strawson and Wittgenstein’s arguments can be said to refute the sceptical argument, which claims that there is nothing but representations, where representations are limited to pure experience. This is because we would not be able to talk about representations at all if we did not know what constituted a non-representation; the way in which we learn the difference is through material objects or people. Thus, the sceptical argument can be said to be parasitic upon the conventional idea of how we view the world.

Philosophers have queried the neo-Kantian programme, however, and Rorty chooses to focus on two in particular, Judith Thomson and Barry Stroud, in order to show how the transcendental argument evidenced in Strawson and Wittgenstein is, to a degree, reliant upon some form of the verification principle. At most, these arguments make the case for what seems to exist rather than what actually exists, thus transcendentalists are some way off being able to make claims about reality. This is because they have equated appearance with reality; the only way to get around this is through an appeal to the verification principle, which states that a statement is valid if and only if one can prove its truth or falsity by appealing to observed evidence. Transcendentalists, so the arguments goes, will not be able to prove that objects necessarily exist without appeal to the verification principle, for example:

In order for ‘X’ to have meaning there have to be criteria for identifying X’s, and the sceptic cannot even talk about X’s unless he accepts that these criteria are sound. Since these criteria are obviously satisfied, he cannot deny that there are X’s. (4)

But, as stated above, all that this arguments shows is that it must ‘seem’ as though there are X’s, not that there actually are.

Nevertheless, the parasitism argument remains intact. The transcendentalist need only reply to the sceptic by stating that because the sceptic does not advance an idea of her own, she cannot be refuted. Thus, the force of the transcendental argument remains intact as there is nothing for it to rebut. At most, the sceptic’s argument makes the case for the possibility of other explanations in other vocabularies, for instance. As Rorty points out, ‘the force of ‘parasitism’ arguments here is to show that we cannot in fact describe such a language’ (5)

In her analysis of the private language argument, Thomson identifies an appeal to the verification principle (step 3):

(1)…if a sign which a man uses is to count as a word in a language, his use of it must be governed by a rule – here specifically, if a sign which a man uses is to count as a kind-name in a language, his use of it must be governed by a rule of the following sort: You may call anything of a kind X ‘K’, and you may not call anything ‘K’ which is not of kind X

(2) If a sign which a man uses is to be governed by a rule of this sort it must be possible that he should call the thing a ‘K’ thinking it is of the kind to be called a ‘K’ and it not be…

(3) There is no such thing as a man’s thinking a thing is of the kind to be called ‘K’ and it not being so unless it is logically possible that it be found out that it is not so. (6)

Consequently, if one’s experience of a certain object is the only sound criterion for a statement about that object, we do not know anything about the object at all, for ‘nothing…follows from ‘There is a K now’ and it follows non-trivially from nothing (to our knowledge)’ (7).

Now, Wittgensteinians would counter that ‘K’ has not been given a meaning in that it has not been correlated with a set of utterances ‘K’. Any yet, even before the utterance, the statement ‘there is a K now’ must bear some ‘non-trivial inferential relations before it has a place in the language game’ (7). This is the meaning is use slogan. Rorty then demonstrates how the verificationist can get out of this objection, since meaningfulness does not have to depend upon a world connection, but rather ‘upon connections between some bits of linguistic behaviour and others’ (9) thereby emphasising the shared social conceptual schema over and above private language.

Stroud argues that transcendental arguments not only require the verificationist principle for their completion, but also that the invocation of such a premise makes these arguments superfluous. There are two main points in this strand of Rorty’s argument. First, he argues that the verificationist principle Stroud analyses is simply false, not up for debate as Stroud suggests. This is because the principle might be expanded indefinitely to allow for the many particulars of different situations. As a result, we would not know whether the conditions of the principle have been fulfilled at all, and so the principle fails on this basis. Furthermore, meaningfulness too fails to convince i.e. an appeal to understanding meaningfully or not. This would only work if we could show that certain words cold only be taught ostensively, ‘and only by ostention of genuine examples of its referent. This latter claim should be the last which anyone impressed by Wittgenstein’s remarks on meaning would want to make’ (11).

Second, transcendental arguments bear the onus of demonstrating the parasitism of alternative arguments if they are to prove that certain concepts are necessary for thought and experience. But how are we to know the alternatives in advance? Natural science, for example, does not proceed via conventional arguments remaining primary whilst alternative theories supplement. There is no room on this view for an account of revolutionary thought, or paradigmatic shifts. As such, ‘there is reason to suspect that the force behind any such claim will actually be for arguments for the parasitical character of certain particular alternatives’ (11).