The world is everything that is the case

Ludwig started scowling early and never stopped
Ludwig Wittgenstein as a child, 1890s. Plus: the world.

The oldest, simplest theory says you have a list of sentences in your head. Each is labeled with whether you believe it is true or false. Separately, each is actually true or false in the world.

Inside your head:

Sentence Believed
Water is H2O True
George Washington was the first American President True
The eggplant is a fruit False
All ravens are black True
Before Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat True
Snow is white True

Outside your head:

Fact Truth
Water is H2O True
George Washington was the first American President True
The eggplant is a fruit False
All ravens are black True
Before Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat False
Snow is white True

So you have one wrong belief (the one about Columbus). Rationality was supposed to be the way you fix it. Inside and outside should correspond, and when they do, you are done.

Rationalist philosophers held this Aristotelian view for more than two thousand years, going back to Ancient Greece. It seems at first to accord with common sense, and it is adequate much of the time.

However, in everyday reasonable activity we automatically abandon it for more sophisticated methods when it doesn’t work:

“So are Hannah and Martin having an affair, or what?”
“Sort of… They haven’t actually done it, but they spent hours kissing on a park bench last night.”

This expresses ontological nebulosity: two people may be definitely having an affair, or definitely not, but there’s also Facebook Relationship Status “It’s Complicated.” Is “they are having an affair” true, or false? Neither. “Sort of.”

“Has Ludwig fed the dog?”
“Yeah… I think so… pretty sure… I heard him banging around in the hall when he got home.”

This expresses a degree of confidence, or strength of belief, which Aristotelian logic ignored. It also includes a reason, which tradition treated as a separate issue, but which in everyday practice often seems integral to believing.

I believe in America!

Is “America” something that could be true or false? Is believing in the same sort of thing as believing that, or a separate phenomenon that would need a different explanation? Maybe the statement is an abbreviation for “I believe that America is good”; but “America is good” is so vague and nebulous that it doesn’t seem that could be either true or false either.

The chapter on reasonable epistemology in Part Two catalogs many more types of believings that don’t accord with logic, but which function effectively in context. Logic is meant to correct errors in everyday reasoning; and there is value in that. However, as we’ve just seen, everyday reasonableness can deal effectively with issues that traditional logic can’t.

Over the millennia, philosophers also found several intrinsic, technical problems with the Aristotelian framework. Here’s one: Suppose someone tells you that the present king of France is bald.1 Is that true? Since there is no present king of France, it doesn’t seem to be. So, according to Aristotelian theory, it’s false. In that case, its negation must be true. “The present king of France is not bald.” However, that also doesn’t seem to be true, so it must be false. But a statement and its negation can’t be both false (according to the Law of the Excluded Middle).

In fact, every part of traditional logical epistemology is wrong. Knowledge is not made of true beliefs; beliefs aren’t sentences; you don’t simply believe that statements are true or false; there is no list of beliefs in your head. Beliefs can’t be true or false of the world, either—not in a way that could make this sort of theory work.

However, the main features of the theory have been retained up to the present, with modifications and elaborations. Most of the remaining chapters of Part One each explain one way the simple theory doesn’t work; a more complicated version invented to try to deal with the failure; and why that doesn’t work either.

The problem is not with any of the details. It’s that the whole approach is wrong.

Truth and belief are not central topics for meta-rational epistemology. Its central topic is ways of understanding, and how they enable effective activity. Sometimes—not always—“truths” and “beliefs” are involved. Meta-rationality takes these as informal categories of diverse, nebulous phenomena, whose nature may require case-by-case investigation in context—not as uniform, metaphysical fundamentals, the way rationalism does.2

  1. 1.This example is due to Bertrand Russell, who developed an attempted solution (“On Denoting,” Mind XIV:4 (1905) pp. 479–493). This “problem of existential import” was discovered by the logician Peter Abelard (Dialectica, circa 1115). Gottlob Frege’s discovery of the existential quantifier, discussed in the next chapter, was the basis of all modern solution attempts.
  2. 2.“The world is everything that is the case” is the first sentence, and the central thesis, of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the central texts of logical positivism. “Positivism” is sometimes defined as the claim that the world is nothing more than the list of all true statements. And, indeed, Wittgenstein’s second sentence was “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”