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Philosophical Devices

David Papineau
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Luis R. G. Oliveira
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David Papineau’s Philosophical Devices is an excellent introduction to central tools, ideas, and pieces of vocabulary now current in Anglo-American (so-called “analytic”) philosophy. Since he is himself an important contributor to their development and dissemination, one can hardly expect to find fault with the content of his introductory effort. And one would be right; Devices delivers what it promises with speed and clarity.

Papineau aims “to introduce readers to some of the technical ideas assumed in present-day philosophical writing” (xvii), and to satisfy “anybody who is curious about the technical infrastructure of contemporary philosophy” (xix). Consciously different from standard introductory texts, however, this books spends no time motivating the various everyday concerns which give rise to philosophical problems — those towards which these “technical ideas” are presumably put to work. As I will discuss at the end of this review, this is perhaps a reason for concern.

Devices is divided into four parts. Part I is about sets and numbers, and there is little about it available for complaint. Perhaps some readers will find it undesirable that, after discussing Russell’s Paradox and the inconsistency of naive set theory, Papineau gives nothing but his word regarding subsequent theoretical progress (pp. 10–14). Just as much, perhaps Papineau’s off-hand sympathies towards fictionalism about sets will offend those readers who are sufficiently tuned-in to notice it (p. 36). Such small complaints aside, part I of Devices is convincingly skillful.

Part II is about different kinds of truth — more exactly, it is about analyticity, a prioricity, and necessity — and there is even less about it available for complaint. Here the reader is not so much introduced to certain philosophical tools — such as set theory — but rather to careful vocabulary distinctions that are incredibly important for clear thinking about philosophical topics currently in vogue. That is, part II of Devices brings the reader up to speed with several philosophical achievements of the last fifty (or so) years, specially with respect to our understanding of necessity and possibility (pp. 58–69), and Saul Kripke’s philosophically fertile Naming and Necessity (pp. 72–83). The reader leaves part II well-informed, no doubt, even if not in the possession of some deployable tool.

Part III is about probability, and it is in fact the most valuable of the four parts. Not only does it provide the reader with a very good, and succinct, introduction to probability theory (pp. 89–94), it does admirably at putting that tool to work. Here the reader sees how philosophers have deployed probability theory, for example, in the service of decision theory (pp. 94–100), epistemology (pp. 104–110), and statistical research in general (pp. 119–128). Papineau, of course, skates over finer points and controversies — as with his overly prudentialist discussion of rational degrees of belief (pp. 98–99), for example. But such common introductory practices ought to be expected and excused.

Lastly, part IV is about logic and metalogic. Here the reader is again introduced to a philosophical tool and to interesting (and important) substantive points about that tool. The introductions to propositional (pp. 137–146), predicate (pp. 153–159), and second-order logic (pp. 159–163) are informative but perhaps a bit too brief to impart any useful familiarity with them. Perhaps as expected, Papineau’s brief work here is no substitute for more standard introductions to logic — despite Papineau’s bid for replacement at the outset (pp. xviii–xix). That said, Papineau says enough, and says it well enough, to carry the reader comfortably all the way to Gödel. Here once again Papineau’s explanatory skills are on display. Although the discussion keeps abreast of deep waters, it manages nonetheless to be rigorous and clear.

It is surprisingly hard to avoid criticizing a book for not delivering something that it explicitly set out not to deliver. The temptation is specially great when one has so little to criticize about the book’s actual content. At what he sets out to deliver, there is no doubt that Papineau succeeds. But one can hardly avoid the feeling that some of what was purposefully left out amounts to a miscalculation.

What I have in mind is not, incidentally, other important tools, ideas, or vocabulary that Papineau chooses not to address — prima-facie, pro-tanto, and all-things-considered reasons (in epistemology and ethics); identity, supervenience, constitution, and grounding relations (in metaphysics and philosophy of mind); among others — but rather his choice of presenting his chosen bits of infrastructure in complete independence from the concerns and puzzles that stand as their raison d’être}. Why do contemporary analytic philosophers care about sets? Why do they care about necessary truths or soundness? Which everyday concerns or philosophical problems do these help the contemporary philosopher to address? Of course, philosophers care about these in themselves, and properly so. But the reader leaves Papineau’s book much like a young carpenter who knows quite a lot about hammers, boards, and nails, but precisely nothing about shelves, tables, and chairs.

Since most introductory courses are not pitched for undergraduates already sold on the value and purpose of philosophy — and since the same is true of most readers of introductory books — perhaps Devices falls short of a standalone text, its explanatory excellence notwithstanding. Either way, David Papineau’s Philosophical Devices can hardly be bested as a rewarding auxiliary reading.

Luis Oliveira is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts.

Part I: Sets and Numbers
1. Naive Sets and Russell's Paradox
2. Infinite Sets
3. Orders of Infinity
Part II: Analyticity, a prioricity, and necessity
4. Kinds of Truths
5. Possible Worlds
6. Naming and Necessity
Part III: The Nature and Uses of Probability
7. Kinds of Probability
8. Constraints on Credence
9. Correlations and Causes
Part IV: Logics and Theories
10. Syntax and Semantics
11. Soundness and Completeness
12. Theories and Godel's Theorem