Francesco Berto

Francesco Berto is an Italian philosopher who mainly deals with language, existence, logic, maths and paradoxes. He was born in Venice, but he left the lagoon to conquer the Structural Chair of Metaphysics at the University of Amsterdam and to become Research Leader in Logic & Metaphysics at the University of Aberdeen. His unconventional approach to the subject has brought many young aspiring philosophers to have at least a glance on logic, in spite of the worry that goes with every literature lover trying to flirt with that formal lady. CONDO asked Anna Corazza* to converse with him.


1. In your opinion, why should philosophers still investigate language?

Well there was a time in the 20th Century when philosophers thought philosophy of language was the “first philosophy”: the most important part of philosophy, the one we should engage with when we address the key questions. Wittgenstein and others opened the way. It’s not like that anymore in the 21st Century. Other branches of philosophy are more fashionable (metaphysics, for one: the investigation of the most general and most fundamental features of reality).

Still, there are questions about language philosophers can deal with, in my view, better than anyone else: what is meaning, for instance? Not the meaning of this or that word (“love”, “Barack Obama”, or so). Just meaning, meaning in general. Hilary Putnam, one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, wrote a very famous paper called The meaning of ‘Meaning’. What makes something meaningful, rather than meaningless? And if meanings exist, where are they? The meaning of a name like “Barack Obama” certainly involves Barack Obama, and we know (more or less) where Barack may be (say, busy in Washington). But what about the meaning of “love”? Is that just an idea in our heads? If instead “meanings are not in the head”, as Putnam argued in that famous paper – where on earth are they? Where’s the meaning of love?


2. Nominalism and philosophical realism. Thinking about concepts, I was reflecting on their grade of existence. What it’s your opinion: does the concept of “tree” have a real existence? And what about the concept of “love”, does it have a lower grade?

I don’t think that existence comes in degrees: either you exist, or not. But I have a non-standard view on existence – different from the one of minor and unimportant philosophers like  Kant, Hume, Frege, Russell, or Quine: I think that some things are nonexistent. Sherlock Holmes and Santa, for instance, but also my merely possible sister (I have no sisters but I could have had one: my sister is a merely possible thing that actually lacks existence). To put it a bit bluntly: the Kantian motto “Existence is not a real predicate” is, well, wrong.

Now concepts like tree or love are certainly there for me. But are they existent or nonexistent? I think they are existent, but in a different way from my dog Fido. For Fido, to exist is to have causal powers and a place in spacetime: I can stumble upon him and caress him. But I can’t stumble upon a concept. So how does love exist? The short answer is: by being consistent. The long answer would have to say what consistency is, and this would take a bit too much. But lo, it happens to be a logical notion. So here’s logic poking its nose into the nature of concepts like love.


3. Logic: what do you do with it in the daily life? Tell us something about cooking, watching tv, talking with friends, and other situations in which we couldn’t imagine its presence.

Logic is about reasoning on consequences: what follows from what. Then you use logic continuously, to extract information from the things you know or believe. You’d be dead in a day if you didn’t.

Suppose you know that Edinburgh is in Scotland and that Scottish cities can be quite rainy. You’ll infer that Edinburgh can be quite rainy. That’s good to know: you’ll bring a coat and an umbrella with you there. And you know that by logic; to get the conclusion, you applied at least two elementary logical rules: modus ponens (If P then Q; P, therefore Q) and Universal Instantiation (All F’s Are G’s, therefore if x is an F then x is G): you can easily google the two rules and get the details. So logic is what you do all the time.

(You don’t need to be smart to do logic: you can be bad at reasoning. Still you reason. So can you be bad at weightlifting: most people won’t make it to the Olympic Games on that. Still most people lift things all the time in everyday life: your iPhone and your scolapasta, for instance)


4. Let’s talk about maths: what role does it play in language and why has it become so important to you?

Maths plays a role in the study of language, insofar linguists and philosophers use mathematical tools to model aspects of language, for instance in formal semantics. But there’s more: the mind of anyone who speaks any natural language performs a lot of calculations, that is, of maths, whether the person is aware of it or not (indeed, whether or not the person knows any maths!).

Example: you only know the meaning of a finite number of words (that’s plausible: we can only handle a finite amount of information in our brains). How come that you can understand potentially infinitely many sentences in a language you master, which you never heard before? For instance:

(S) On January 1st, 419 b.C., at 5pm, Socrates had a frog under his clothes.

I bet you never heard anyone uttering (S) before. But you get what the sentence means.

How? Well here’s the only plausible explanation: you know the meanings of the various words (“Socrates”, “frog”, etc.). And you have, hard-wired in your brain, an algorithm that computes the meaning of (S) as a function of (a) the meanings of the words composing it, and (b) the grammatical form of (S), whereby the words fit in the syntactically right place.

Computing (a)-(b) is non-trivial mathematical calculation. But any English speaker performs it instantly and effortlessly.


5. What are the most interesting aspects for present analytic philosophy?

That it’s not so analytic anymore!  J

What you are referring to is the Great Division of contemporary philosophy. So-called “analytic philosophy” is the philosophy founded by people like Frege, Wittgenstein and Russell, with great exponents like Carnap, Quine, David Lewis, Saul Kripke (the greatest living logician). This kind of philosophy used to be very strong in the Anglo-Saxon world, and had some stereotypical features: love for logic, analytical clarity, respect for the natural sciences, lack of interest for the history of philosophy.

So-called “continental philosophy” – a name given to it by the analytics, by the way – used to be strong, well, in the European continent. Its stereotypical features were: attention for the history of philosophy (especially German idealists like Hegel, or people like Nietzsche), engagement with hermeneutics (think Heidegger, Gadamer), existentialism (think Heidegger again, Sartre), deconstructionism (think Vattimo, Derrida).

The Division is slowly melting, and I’m very happy about this. Analytic philosophers do more and more stuff they didn’t like in the beginning (ethics and metaphysics, for instance), and they tend to pay more attention to the history of the stuff. They are taking seriously Kant, sometimes even Hegel. I think it’s all for the good: let a thousand philosophical flowers bloom!


Interviewed by Anna Corazza, graduated in Philosophy at the University of Venice and specialized in the Newtonian relationship between Physics and Theology.