Correlationism?

July 31, 2009

I’ve just been re-reading G.E.Moore’s classic 1925 essay A Defense of Common Sense – and I thought the following passage was perhaps relevant to some of the current debates about ‘correlationism’.

Some philosophers seem to have thought it legitimate to use such expressions as, e.g. “The earth has existed for many years past,” as if they expressed something which they really believed, when in fact they believe that every proposition, which such an expression would ordinarily be understood to express, is, at least partially, false; and all they really believe is that there is some other set of propositions, related in a certain way to those which such expressions do actually express, which, unlike these, really are true. That is to say, they use the expression “The earth has existed for many years past” to express, not what it would ordinarily be understood to express, but the proposition that some proposition, related to this in a certain way, is true; when all the time they believe that the proposition, which this expression would ordinarily be understood to express, is, at least partially, false. I wish, therefore, to make it quite plain that I was not using the expressions I used in (1) in any such subtle sense. I meant by each of them precisely what every reader, in reading them, will have understood me to mean. And any philosopher, therefore, who holds that any of these expressions, if understood in this popular manner, expresses a proposition which embodies some popular error, is disagreeing with me and holding a view incompatible with (2), even though he may hold that there is some other, true, proposition which the expression in question might be legitimately used to express.

In what I have just said, I have assumed that there is some meaning which is the ordinary or popular meaning of such expressions as “The earth has existed for many years past.” And this, I am afraid, is an assumption which some philosophers are capable of disputing. They seem to think that the question “Do you believe that the earth has existed for many years past?” is not a plain question, such as should be met either by a plain “Yes” or “No,” or by a plain “I can’t make up my mind,” but is the sort of question which can be properly met by: “It all depends on what you mean by ‘the earth’ and ‘exists’ and ‘years’: if you mean so and so, and so and so, and so and so, then I do; but if you mean so and so, and so and so, and so and so, or so and so, and so and so, and so and so, or so and so, and so and so, and so and so, then I don’t, or at least I think it is extremely doubtful.” It seems to me that such a view is as profoundly mistaken as any view can be. Such an expression as “The earth has existed for many years past” is the very type of an unambiguous expression, the meaning of which we all understand.

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