2005-09-14

Ramsey’s “General Propositions and Causality”

Apologies for the long delay in blogging. I've been both busy and uninspired. Hopefully, I'll get back to it.

Part of what was keeping me busy was working on an long overdue paper on Ramsey's "General Propositions and Causality". I had originally planned to build on the interpretation of this paper offered by Richard Holton and Huw Price in their "Ramsey on Saying and Whistling: A Discordant Note", using Ramsey's treatment of general propositions as a solution to the Frege–Geach problem for expressivists in ethics. Those ideas still need to get turned into a paper, and didn't because every time I set to work on getting Ramsey's position straight I found my thinking kept getting twisted in knots. After many false starts, I realized the problem lay in Holton–Price's interpretation of Ramsey's paper: simply put, they misread the text. The paper I eventually wrote was a critical response to their paper, demonstrating that their interpretation is erroneous and developing a more promising interpretation. It still need to be cleaned up, but it stands up well on its own and gives my a basis on which to write my paper about the Frege–Geach problem. Here's the gist:

ABSTRACT

In his 1929 essay "General Propositions and Causality", Ramsey argues that general propositions of the kind used in natural laws, which he terms "variable hypotheticals", should not be interpreted as propositions; he then considers the metaphysics of natural laws. Richard Holton and Huw Price, in "Ramsey on Saying and Whistling: A Discordant Note", interpret Ramsey as basing his denial that variable hypotheticals are propositions on concerns about the graspability of concepts with infinite extensions; they then argue that these concerns resemble Wittgensteins's rule-following considerations, and that these concerns generalize beyond variable hypotheticals, leaving Ramsey's position unstable. I show that Holton–Price misread Ramsey's paper and place unjustified emphasis on concerns regarding infinity in the process. I argue that they err because they fail to pay sufficient attention to Ramsey's discussion of metaphysics in the latter half of his paper. I offer an interpretation of "General Propositions and Causality" on which Ramsey's denial that variable hypotheticals are propositions is motivated by his metaphysical position that laws of nature are not facts. As Ramsey holds propositions to express facts, he distinguishes our use of variable hypotheticals from our use of propositions, telling against analyzing them as propositions, and develops a positive account of their meaning in terms of habits which better explains their use without entailing they express facts, thus avoiding conflict with his metaphysics.

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