Rorty’s Kripke

About ten years ago I picked up Kripke’s Naming and Necessity in the midst of lots of reading that centered on German Idealism and the Ancient Greeks. I didn’t really get the point of Kripke, I didn’t ‘feel the force’ of the philosophical problems except to notice that the emphasis on language’s relation to natural kinds seemed vaguely Aristotelian in an unpalatable sort of way.

Still, the urgency with which Kripke wrote also created the impression that something important was going on. In a way, that led me to a much deeper engagement with analytic philosophy and I’m thankful for that, even if much of the stuff is turgid scholasticism.

A lovely short tour through the Kripkean ‘revolution’ is Rorty’s review of Soames’ new tomb in the London Review of Books. If only more people could write like Rorty does about contemporary philosophy.

Before Kripke, most analytic philosophers would have said that all essences were merely nominal. That is, they thought that the question of whether water was ‘essentially’ H2O, or whether something with much the same properties but a different chemical composition might also be water, was uninteresting, because merely verbal. (This is also the view of most non-analytic philosophers: Heideggerians treat talk of real essences as part of the discredited onto-theological tradition, and Derrideans as a distressing symptom of phallogocentrism.) On a pre-Kripkean view, it may indeed be found convenient to find a word other than ‘water’ for the strange new substance, but there are no deeper reasons – nothing like what Kripke had dubbed ‘metaphysical necessity’.

Darwin was generally thought to have struck a blow against Aristotelian essentialism by showing that the lines between biological species had not been drawn by God, and that species kept mutating into different species. But Kripke argued that one could accept Darwin’s story but still say that ‘Whales are not fish’ is a necessary a posteriori truth. For whales would not be whales if they did not have a certain DNA sequence, just as water would not be water if it were not made of hydrogen and oxygen. Microstructure is a tip-off to intrinsic nature, not just a pragmatically useful redescription of things that were originally identified by their macrostructural properties.

Kripke thought that their refusal to take natural kinds seriously showed that everybody from Russell to Quine had been arrogantly turning their backs on what Soames calls ‘the great mass of ordinary, pre-philosophical convictions arising from common sense, science and other areas of inquiry’ – convictions that philosophy cannot ‘overturn wholesale’. A typical result of this arrogance was Quine’s claim that everything we talk about – water, electrons, numbers, mountains, you, me, the Olympian deities – is just a pragmatically convenient ‘posit’. This looked to Kripke, as it does to Soames, like frivolous paradox-mongering. The popularity of such frivolity in the winter of 1970 was, Soames thinks, a sign that analytic philosophy was in dire need of reform.