Blogs > Liberty and Power > Playing with Wollaston's Significancy

Feb 15, 2010 1:13 pm

Playing with Wollaston's Significancy

have always enjoyed thought experiments and other intellectual mind games that break through habits of thinking or offer unusual insights. It is just plain fun to play around with ideas, to arrange them like legos or blocks you can topple. People often lose this sense of fun because they are obsessed with whether an idea is right or wrong, moral or immoral, acceptable or laughable... These are certainly considerations when you present ideas publicly but there is also real value to allowing ideas to flow in the privacy of your own mind even if you have doubts about their validity. Let me offer an example of a mind game that became a favorite of mine for awhile.

In his book "The Religion of Nature Delineated," the English philosopher William Wollaston (1659-1724) wrote, “I lay down this as a fundamental maxim, That whoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare, that they are so, or not so; as plainly as he could by words, and with more reality.” He argued that actions have “significancy”, by which he meant that the actions themselves could be true or false. For example, theft is a denial of the truth of who owns the item stolen. Conversely, returning property to someone who has lost it is an acknowledgment of the truth of ownership. In short, Wollaston argues that actions make truth claims and can even"imply propositions." For the latter, he uses the example of one group of soldiers who fire upon another; the act of shooting, he claims, is the statement"the other group is the enemy."

He then argues that moral evil is the denial through action of truth and moral good is the affirmation of it through action.

I remember how impressed I was by this formulation of the relationship between values, action and facts. Undoubtedly the groundwork for being impressed was an earlier embrace of Ayn Rand's arguments connecting values to facts. For weeks I went around trying to translate moral actions into the truth or lie they were expressing. Quite apart from whether Wollaston is correct in his formulation, the exercise entertained me then and now...and led to some interesting conclusions. Give it a whirl.

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