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Cunningham, Marnatti, & Moran 1

Drew Cunningham, Daniel Marnatti, and Skyler Moran


Dr. Fosl
PHIL-3404
2/17/15

Russells Transcendental Argument


Bertrand Russell is a philosopher whose works relate largely to the fields of mathematics,
epistemology, and logic. He was one of the pioneers in the field of analytic philosophy and his
works paved the way for many other thinkers of the 20th century. His first work relating to the
field of philosophy of mathematics was An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry (EFG), and it
is this work that the chapter in A.C. Graylings Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge
entitled Russells Transcendental Argument is focused on. In this chapter Grayling examines
the argument that Russell makes that fits the definition of a transcendental argument. He also
works with George Edward (G.E.) Moores objections to the views that Russell puts forth in
EFG. It is this objection that Grayling mainly works with in trying to show how his
misunderstanding of the views Russell has in EFG led to epistemological issues for Russell later
on in his philosophical career (Grayling 86).
Within EFG, Russell was attempting to perform a Hegelian inspired task of synthesizing
science and philosophy that was Kantian in its goal (83). Russells goal was trying to analyze the
roots of geometry via a lens of Kant with recent scientific findings in mind. The Kantian leanings
of Russells inquiries was his acceptance of the form of externality that was present in the
condition for forming a priori synthetic judgments. This was change of Kants original thesis and
Russell argued, that the possibility of such experience rests not just on the constitution of

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sensibility but on the worlds receptiveness to the adjectives we impose on it (89). The crux of
Russells argument lays in this conception of externality and how it works to form a
transcendental argument.
For Russell, an a priori concept is one that is logically presupposed to experience,
which differs slightly form a Kantian outlook on synthetic judgments (91). This is highlighted in
the main argument that he posits in EFG. The transcendental argument of Russell is as follows:
Knowledge starts from sense experience, the objects of sense experience are complex, whatever
is complex has parts, parts have to be mutually external to one another, and therefore a form of
externality is logically prior to experience (92). To put this in the simplest reduced form a
transcendental argument would read: B is a necessary condition for A, and since A is true/exists,
then B must be true/exist. Russell uses this type of argument to discuss the presupposition is
logically consistent with a priori judgments. He is not using this argument to posit that there is a
verification of truth going on based on the presuppositional relationship between A and B. From
an epistemological standpoint, this places Russell as an anti-realist (109).
G.E. Moore, when reading EFG, took Russells argument as something that he was not in
fact saying, and this is the main focus of Graylings approach in this chapter. There is a
fundamental misunderstanding by Moore, whose critiques affected Russells epistemological
views after EFG, and Grayling believes that it comes from the necessary condition conundrum.
Moore takes the presupposition of B being a necessary condition for A to mean that if B is not
true/does not exist, and then A must follow in the same path. This is what leads him to discuss
the issue of infinite regress to the foundational a priori knowledge argument that he lodges
against Russell (101). This is the same skeptical argument that had been going on at this point for

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over 2000 years and was noticed first by Sextus Empiricus. This aspect of Moores objection to
Russells transcendental argument connects his writing to the ongoing debate of skepticism.
Because of Moores writing Russell decided to abandon his project that was set out by
EFG, but it is Graylings point of view that this was a hasty decision and that Russell could have
defended his position. The reason for this possibility is that Moore misidentifies the argument
that is being made, and Grayling argues that Russell does as well. What is being posited in EFG
is an anti-realist argument which Grayling defines as: Anti-realism is an epistemological thesis,
which asserts that the relations between thought and its objects, perception and its accusatives,
experience and its targets, language and the world, or whichever of these (different) pairings one
takes as the focus, is not external, as realists claim (109). The transcendental argument given by
Russell is anti-realist, but this is not the way in which Moore views it. He believes it to be an
idealist position because he reads it as the mind giving way to reality based on the language we
use to define the world. This is a metaphysical view, and not an epistemological one. There is a
vast difference between relations are perceived internally than to say that the mind or experience
creates reality (109). Because of this misconception, Russell is led to give up his transcendental
argument.
If the transcendental argument had stayed in Russells epistemological arsenal there
comes a question on how this would have affected his further writings. The answer that Grayling
gives: not much. Outside of his epistemological viewpoints his atomism, pluralism, non-Platonic
realism might not have been interfered, and it could be said that they may have benefitted from
additional epistemological support. This would have alleviated his reliance on acquaintance in
the absence of a priori knowledge (108). In summation of the chapter Grayling writes,

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Now, Russell did not see the difference, so his unpreparedness to defend against
Moores attack on idealism led him to abandon his anti-realism, a much more
moderate position which he replaced, at first, with a very immoderate realism. It
is the anti-realist features of Russells thought in EFG which would have served
his later epistemology as well (110).

While it is understood that Grayling is viewing the argument of Moore via Russells
original work that spurred the objections, it may have served him better in writing this chapter to
have openly indicated this. The chapters title could have easily been Moores Failed Critique of
Russells Transcendental Argument and still have covered the exact same topic. In fact, it may
have been a more accurate title that would allow readers to more easily see the nuances of his
writing. Just as Grayling points out the flaws of both Russell and Moore, it is equally fair that he
be open to criticism on his writing as well.

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Works Cited
Grayling, A. C. "Russell, Experience and the Roots of Science." Scepticism and the Possibility
of Knowledge. London: Continuum, 2008. 41-82. Print.