putting philosophy to the test

(This post has almost nothing to do with feminist philosophy, but rather records an announcement that bears on various  philosophical arguments.  It’s a product of my surprised recognition.)

The Independent tells us that scientists are worried that the standard kilogram does not weigh what it used to.  In fact, that is old news; the new news is that they are going to “redefine the kilogram”.

This metal block, known as the International Prototype Kilogram, has been used since it was first registered with the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in 1889 as the definitive unit of mass against which all other kilograms are measured. .. However, scientists now believe it is time to redefine the kilogram because there is evidence that the precise mass of the international prototype in Sèvres is not as constant as it should be.

And that’s enough to raise the question:  In Quine v. Wittgenstein, Who wins? Does one of them lose?

On the left (?) is Quine, Two Dogmas:

Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.

While on the right is Wittgenstein, PI 50:

There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one meter long, nor that it is not one meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris.   But this is of course, not to ascribe any extraodinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language-game of measuring with a meter-rule.

What do you think?

(There are a number of differing interpretaters of Wittgenstein’s remark, among them Cora Diamond, Heather Gert, and Saul Kripke. )

5 thoughts on “putting philosophy to the test

  1. Are these two statements mutually exclusive (or are you assuming so)? I think they make the same sort of thing, though Quine dwells more heavily on the “logical laws” (I think near that passage he mentions even rejecting the law of the excluded middle in logic as permissible). That is, though both concentrate on different aspects of language (logical laws vs. “use”), there are several aspects similar. Both Quine and Wittgenstein believe the meaning of a term (such as it is) is much more malleable then philosophers traditionally thought. Also, both are, arguable, meaning holists, Quine explicitly and, I would argue, Wittgenstein implicitly.

    So, to make this simpler: both win. Or at least, Wittgenstein wins because he used a direct analogy that foresaw the issue (the meter discussion) but Quine comes in a close second.

  2. Nice post. To add some historical context to the two statements by Witt and Quine: When Witt wrote his about the yardstick in 1919/1920, there had already been competing definitions of the meter:

    ” The origins of the meter go back to at least the 18th century. At that time, there were two competing approaches to the definition of a standard unit of length. Some suggested defining the meter as the length of a pendulum having a half-period of one second; others suggested defining the meter as one ten-millionth of the length of the earth’s meridian along a quadrant (one fourth the circumference of the earth). In 1791, soon after the French Revolution, the French Academy of Sciences chose the meridian definition over the pendulum definition because the force of gravity varies slightly over the surface of the earth, affecting the period of the pendulum.

    Thus, the meter was intended to equal 10-7 or one ten-millionth of the length of the meridian through Paris from pole to the equator. However, the first prototype was short by 0.2 millimeters because researchers miscalculated the flattening of the earth due to its rotation. Still this length became the standard. In 1889 [the year Witt was born], a new international prototype was made of an alloy of platinum with 10 percent iridium, to within 0.0001, that was to be measured at the melting point of ice.”

    That was the background against Witt said what he did in the quote about that prototype in Paris.

    Then, in 1927, the meter was re-defined, (or, perhaps, its definition was refined):

    “In 1927, the meter was more precisely defined as the distance, at 0°, between the axes of the two central lines marked on the bar of platinum-iridium kept at the BIPM, and declared Prototype of the meter by the 1st CGPM, this bar being subject to standard atmospheric pressure and supported on two cylinders of at least one centimeter diameter, symmetrically placed in the same horizontal plane at a distance of 571 mm from each other. ”

    The above, in 1927, is the background against which Quine made his remark in 1951 in “Two Dogmas.”

    There is more about the meter stick after Quine’s remark, recounted here, in case you’re intrigued:


  3. Flaffer and another philosopher, I usually get notified if there are comments on a post, but this time it seemed I didn’t. Or at least I didn’t see any.

    Let me say simply that I thought Wittgenstein is in trouble with this one, though this may be way to simple minded. However, since we can have reasons for saying “the standard kilogram is not the weight it used to be,” that suggests the statement Witt is dealing with can be said to be false, and so also not false.

    It seemed to me that Witt didn’t see that, as Quine saw, even paradigms get surrounded by a web of beliefs, and it can make sense to deny the paradigm is really paradigmatic any more.

    Of course, the idea that Witt missed the web of belief sounds implausible, so I may be all wrong.

    Anotherphilosopher: thanks so much, that’s fascinating! That gives a more complex picture than Witt seems to have, but I’m now worried because I don’t think Witt is someone who oversimplifies.

  4. What I always took Wittgenstein to be saying here was this:

    How do we tell if something is a meter? Well, we usually measure it with an instrument that is one meter (a measuring stick). So how could we tell if the standard meter was one meter? Now, we could try to measure it using a measuring stick that is one meter, but if the measuring stick is based on the standard meter, our measurement would seem circular, and besides if we found that the standard meter was not one meter using this method we would be liable to question if our measuring stick was made correctly. The inability to measure the standard meter in this way would constitute the standard meters peculiar role.

    Now I dunno if Wittgenstein thought that the standard meter did not relate to some constant, his remarks makes better sense if we assume that he thought that the standard meter was simply what defined a meter. Considering that he was an engineer of sorts, perhaps this interpretation is a bit doubtful, or perhaps he knew that the meter was not the best example to use here. How one identifies tones might be a better example.

    Is this an OK interpretation?

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