Paradigm-Case Argument

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"Paradigm-case argument" is a form of argument against philosophical skepticism found in contemporary analytic philosophy. It counters doubt about whether any of some class of things exists by attempting to point out paradigm cases, clear and indisputable instances. A distinguishing feature of the argument is the contention that certain facts about language entail the existence of paradigm cases. This claim, however, has been disputed in recent years, and the future status of the argument depends upon whether it can be upheld.

The paradigm-case argument has been used against a wide range of skeptical positions. A typical example is doubt about our ability to perceive directly material objects. Such doubt can be raised by reflection upon the physiological and physical facts about perception. For example, since seeing involves the transmission of light waves to our eyes and these waves are what immediately affects our eyes, it may appear that we are mistaken in thinking that we see objects. If anything, we should say that we see light waves. The fact that it takes a certain amount of time for light to travel from an object to our eyes lends support to this. How can we see something unless we see it as it is at the present moment? While considerations such as these show how skepticism can arise, one striking fact about the paradigm-case argument is that if it is valid, the skeptic can be refuted directly without the necessity of examining in detail the reasons behind his position.

The first step in the argument is to make the skepticism bear on particular cases. If we cannot perceive material objects, then, presumably, we cannot see the table we are working on or the pen with which we write. Next, a situation is sketched in which, ordinarily, no one would hesitate to affirm just the opposite. If the light is excellent, our eyes open, our sight unimpaired, the table directly before us, and so on, then we should ordinarily have no qualms about stating that we see a table.

The argument would be weak if it relied merely on the fact that people would ordinarily have no doubts in such situations, for it does not follow from this that they state the truth. But the argument claims something more for the kind of situations it describes. It holds that they are indisputably examples of seeing a table because of their relationship to the meaning of the expression "seeing a table." Typically, this relationship is brought out by saying that such a situation is just what we call "seeing a table" or that it is just the sort of circumstances in which one might teach someone the meaning of the expression "seeing a table." Generalizing and taking the strongest interpretation of the force of these remarks, one might ask: "If this is just what we call X, then in saying that it is X, how can we fail to state the truth? If this is a situation in which we might teach the meaning of X, then how can it fail to be a case of X ?" In denying that anyone ever sees a table, the skeptic seems to be placed in the position of refusing to apply the expression "seeing a table" to the very situation to which that expression refers.

If the skeptic concedes that the situation presented is an instance of that which he doubted to exist, then he admits defeat. But if, despite what has been said, he will not concede this, the final stage of the argument poses a dilemma. When the skeptic wonders whether we ever really see such things as tables, we naturally understand the words he uses in their usual sense. By "usual sense" is meant no more than what we should have understood by his words see and table if, instead, he were describing some scene he had witnessed. But how can his words be construed in this way when he refuses to use them of a typical situation in which their usual meaning might be taught and which is just what we ordinarily call "seeing a table"? On the other hand, if the skeptic claims some different or novel meaning for his words, the original shock of his skeptical conclusion is blunted. For in some special sense of the words, it may be true that we never see tables. In fact, what often happens is that the skeptical position maintains its plausibility only through an unnoticed fluctuation between the usual sense of the key expressions and some special sense. The paradigm-case argument may serve to bring out into the open the fact that an unusual meaning must be looked for.

Further Applications

Other examples of philosophical doubt to which the paradigm-case argument has been applied include skepticism about the validity of inductive reasoning, about man's free will, about the possibility of knowledge concerning empirical facts generally, and about the reality of the past. In many cases these skeptical positions are founded entirely on a priori considerations, and their stand is not merely that, as a matter of fact, there are no instances of some class of things, but that, as a matter of logical necessity, there could not be any. Philosophers who have argued that we can never genuinely know anything about the empirical world, for example, have almost invariably thought such knowledge a logical impossibility. Their reason is often the supposed impossibility of complete verification of any empirical assertion about the world. But this they take to be a necessary truth following from the fact that there are an infinite number of possible observations and investigations relevant to any such assertion. Similarly, the impossibility of justifying inductive reasoning (that which goes from examined cases to a general conclusion or from past instances to a prediction) has been held on the grounds that there is a logical obstacle in the way of all attempts at justification.

Against such a priori skepticism the argument need not produce an actual paradigm case. The mere fact that a hypothetical case can be described is sufficient. This in part accounts for the fact that philosophers who have employed the argument in practice do not bother to describe an actual occurrence. So, for example, one writer, in using the argument to refute skepticism about induction, asks us to imagine that "the observed confirmatory instances for the theory of gravitation were a million or ten million times as extensive as they now are" (Paul Edwards, "Bertrand Russell's Doubts about Induction," p. 65). By its very statement this is only a hypothetical case. But the skeptic about induction cannot admit that if this were to happen, we should then be justified in accepting the law of gravitation, because if justification were a logical impossibility, no paradigm case of justified inductive inference would even be conceivable.

But not all philosophical skepticism is completely a priori. Doubts about the human ability to choose among genuine alternatives is often supported, for example, by citing the success of the behavioral sciences and arguing that they will eventually be able to describe and predict human actions through causal laws. Here the philosopher appears to argue from empirical premises. But here, also, the descriptions of paradigm cases offered to the skeptic have usually been hypothetical. A writer, for example, who pointed to a marriage where there has been no pressure and the like placed on the two people as a paradigm case of choosing freely would not feel compelled to prove the existence of some actual marriage fitting this description.

The reason why a purely hypothetical instance can be given even where the skepticism is based on empirical premises is that there is a sense in which the skeptic does not deny the existence of paradigm cases. In this example he would not, for instance, dispute the frequent occurrence of the sort of marriage described. And he would be prepared to admit that in such cases the appearances are in favor of a free choice having been exercised. But, he thinks, the other considerations provided by his skeptical argument show that, in fact, it is doubtful or impossible that such an occurrence should be an instance of genuinely free choice. This is why the appeal to the connection between such situations and the meaning of, in this example, the expression "free choice" is the vital step in the paradigm-case argument. It is that which, if anything, shows that whatever the skeptical argument, these circumstances must be counted as instances of free choice.


The idea that philosophy cannot cast doubt on the applications ordinarily made of everyday expressions is not a new one. It can be seen, for example, in George Berkeley's refusal to draw skeptical consequences from his radical thesis that nothing exists apart from the mind. He did not conclude that we are mistaken in talking of material objects such as trees and tables; instead, he attempted to show how his thesis could be used to analyze the meaning of statements about these things. Everyday language succeeds in saying something true about the world; the only question for him was, What does it say?

But what is perhaps novel is the erection of this idea into an explicit philosophical argument. And this is largely the product of what has been called the "revolution in philosophy," which began in England shortly before World War II and which has subsequently dominated much of Anglo American philosophy. The possibility of defeating skepticism by reference to particular cases, however, was already present some time before this in the many essays on the subject, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century, by G. E. Moore.

g. e. moore

Moore thought of his opposition to skepticism in any form as a defense of common sense. The statements of common sense that he wished to defend were of two kinds: such context-free statements as "Earth has existed for many years" and such context-bound statements as "Here is a human hand" and "This is a pencil." Moore held that he knew with certainty the truth of statements of both kinds. Any skeptical argument, therefore, which entailed that he did not or could not know them must be mistaken. To his critics this has seemed a strange sort of defense of common sense, for how can one defend a position merely by reaffirming it? In answering this, some writers have suggested that Moore was implicitly using the paradigm-case argument. While it is difficult to interpret Moore's affirmation of context-free statements in this way, the suggestion is quite plausible, for example, when we find him attacking skepticism about the existence of material objects by holding up his hand and saying that it is quite certain that this is a human hand and that at least one material object therefore exists ("Proof of an External World," pp. 145146).

Moore himself, however, apparently saw his procedure in a different light. He thought of it as a challenge to the skeptic: Which is more certain, the (usually esoteric) premises of your argument or the commonsense statements that you are compelled to deny? Moore also pointed out that whereas the skeptic has an argument that leads to the denial of some commonsense statement, a counterargument can be constructed using the commonsense statement as a premise and the denial of the skeptical reasons as a conclusion. The question then seems to resolve into who has the more certain premises. And in this conflict common sense surely seems to be on firmer ground. In an examination of four assumptions from which Bertrand Russell had drawn skeptical conclusions, for example, Moore ends by saying: "I cannot help answering: 'It seems to me more certain that I do know that this is a pencil and that you are conscious, than that any single one of these four assumptions is true, let alone all four'" ("Four Forms of Scepticism," p. 226). And at a much earlier time he wrote: "I think the fact that, if [David] Hume's principles were true, I could not know of the existence of this pencil is a reductio ad absurdum of those principles" (Some Main Problems of Philosophy, p. 120).

In this interpretation of his procedure, Moore defends common sense as the more certainly true view of the world. The paradigm-case argument, in contrast, appeals to language to show that skepticism conflicts with the facts about the use of expressions needed to state it. Although Moore pointed to the importance of particular cases, it is necessary to look at the ideas that have subsequently come to the forefront of Anglo American philosophy to see why a connection with language should be thought relevant.


Of central importance are the views of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work has heavily influenced many of those who have used the paradigm-case argument. (It is, however, debatable whether Wittgenstein himself employed the argument.) One of his central contentions, in opposition to his own earlier work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was that while rules can be formulated for language, it is a mistake to view the particular uses of language as deriving their correctness from being in accord with rules. Rather, the fact that those who speak the language agree that this is the correct thing to say here and that incorrect there shows what the rules are. If anything, this agreement in judgment about particular cases is primitive. So, in the notes he dictated to some of his students in 19331934 (subsequently known as the Blue Book ), Wittgenstein said, "It is part of the grammar of the word 'chair' that this is what we call 'to sit on a chair.'" It would be a mistake to take it as a consequence of such remarks that if the users of a language agree in calling this an example of X, then, in the sense which the expression has in their language, this must be a case of X. Such a principle would indeed immediately yield the validity of the paradigm-case argument.

But there is an obvious objection that an example will illustrate. There was a time, perhaps, when all agreed in calling Earth flat, although it was not. They were in agreement, but they were all mistaken. This, however, is a situation in which people were relying upon certain evidence that proved misleading. And in holding that there is a connection between the situations in which we should use a description and the meaning, or "grammar," of the description, Wittgenstein was probably thinking of circumstances in which we are not relying on evidence. It was one of his important ideas that where it makes sense to speak of having evidence that something is so, it must be (logically) possible to get beyond mere evidence.

Thus, while we may sometimes have evidence that someone is sitting in a chair (from, for example, a report that he is), Wittgenstein would argue that when we are standing in a well-lit room looking at the person so seated, it would be a mistake to suppose we then have mere evidence. This idea runs directly counter to long traditions in philosophy. For philosophers, even those who are not skeptics, have most often held that one gets beyond evidence only in a very small class of statementsin general, only first-person, singular, present-tense assertions about one's own mental life. It appears reasonably certain, however, that some such general claim as Wittgenstein's must be substantiated before the paradigm-case argument can be declared valid, because a paradigm case of, for example, a free choice must be one in which there is more than just good evidence that a free choice has been made. Otherwise, the skeptical reasons may be sufficient to show that the evidence is misleading.

Whether Wittgenstein's view, if correct, is sufficient to show the validity of the paradigm-case argument is another question. It will depend, for example, upon whether a situation in which we have got beyond mere evidence is also one in which we cannot be mistaken.

It is important to note that the idea that we must be able to get beyond evidence presupposes that we are dealing with a concept free from logical inconsistency. We cannot, for example, ever be confronted with a round square or a genuine trisection of an angle. But a priori skepticism is based on a "proof" that a certain concept could have no instantiation because there would be some inconsistency in supposing it did. The paradigm-case argument, if it is to be generally employed, may need a proof of its own that no expression in everyday use can turn out to designate a self-inconsistent idea. While this has sometimes been held, more needs to be said about it. It seems impossible that anyone should prove, for example, that the idea of a table is self-inconsistent, but it is not so implausible to suppose that someone might show that the idea of a time machine or of transmigration of souls, which are ordinary expressions in the sense intended, contain contradictions. And is it beyond doubt that the concept of a free choice, for example, is logically irreproachable? Moreover, if it were to be demonstrated independently that no expression in ordinary language can designate a self-inconsistent idea, this would be sufficient by itself to discredit any a priori skepticism concerned with such expressions and would render the subsequent use of a paradigm-case argument superfluous.

There is a further difficulty in supposing Wittgenstein's viewthat what we say in particular circumstances is determinant of what we meanto entail the validity of the paradigm-case argument. This arises from the fact that particular cases can be related to the meaning of an expression without necessarily being paradigm cases.

This may be brought out by an illustration. Suppose someone doubts the existence of elephants. Very likely the surest way to convince him of his mistake would be to show him the elephants at a zoo or circus. That we call these elephants shows something about the meaning of the word elephant. If the skeptic about elephants sees no connection between what he has been shown and the existence of elephants, we have grounds for suspecting that he does not know what the word elephant means. But the connection need not be that having seen these things, he must admit that elephants exist. All he must admit is that these things have the appearance of elephants (see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 354). If he maintains, for example, "These certainly look like elephants, but I am sure that they are in reality camels with false noses and padding," he has acknowledged a connection between what he has been shown and the meaning of the word elephant. His skepticism, however, remains.

At this time it is an open question whether the important general ideas about the connection of language to particular cases that have fostered the use of the paradigm-case argument also entail its validity.

Criticism and Variations

Critics of the paradigm-case argument have questioned the legitimacy of the move from "This is just what we call X " to "Thus, it is a genuine case of X." Some reasons for doubt about this transition have already been mentioned. It should be pointed out, however, that there are times when the transition is legitimate, although the paradigm-case argument can draw no comfort from this fact.

Suppose, for example, that someone doubted that there are any bachelors but admitted that there are unmarried males of marriageable age. We might naturally say to him, "But this is just what we call 'being a bachelor.'" Here, however, the doubter has no reply (other than to question whether this is how the word is used) because this refers to a description that logically entails "being a bachelor." In the paradigm-case argument, however, especially where the case is actually pointed out instead of described, no such entailment is normally claimed.

If there is not an entailment, however, then there seems room for the skeptic to maneuver. How can one hold that no matter what the skeptic's reasons may be, he must admit this as an instance of what he doubted to exist? Faced with such difficulties, some proponents of the paradigm-case argument have placed restrictions on its use. They have said that it is valid only for expressions designating concepts that must be taught ostensivelythat is, taught through examples. Philosophers have often held, for example, that color words can be taught only in this fashion. The usual reason given is that the concept of a particular color is simple and that its meaning cannot be captured by a verbal definition. Hence, it must be taught by pointing out things that are of that color. When the paradigm-case argument is confined to such concepts, a special reason is supplied for why there must be indisputable instances. If there were not (or had never been) any red objects, how could the concept get into the language?

The appeal to what must be taught ostensively is frequently presented as if it were merely an elucidation of the force of the paradigm-case argument. But it seems, instead, to be a separate and distinct form of argument. There is, for example, no need to describe or point out particular circumstances. The conclusion that there are instances of, for example, red objects is drawn directly from the premise that the concept can be taught only ostensively. There would, perhaps, be point in calling this form of argument by a different name.

argument from ostensive teaching

Whether such an argument is valid against a skeptic will depend upon several questions that have yet to be conclusively answered. First, are there any concepts that can be taught only ostensively? Is it logically impossible for someone to have the concept of, for example, redness without having obtained it through ostensive teaching? Second, even if a concept must be taught through such methods, must there be exemplifications of the concept? It seems possible, for example, to teach someone the meaning of "is red" by using objects that merely appear to be red as long as this fact is concealed from the student. Third, even if the answer in the above cases is affirmative, are the important concepts that give rise to skepticism of the required kind? Is the concept of choosing freely, for example, one that can be taught only by such methods?

Sometimes it is said that the paradigm-case argument need be confined only to those concepts that can be taught ostensively. When this is done, no conclusion can be immediately drawn about the existence of cases falling under the concept. The concept of a unicorn could be taught ostensively if only there were such a creature, but as things stand, it never has been. What, then, is the value of such a restriction? The idea seems to be that if a concept can be taught ostensively, then there must be conceivable circumstances, at any rate, in which something falls under the conceptthose circumstances in which it could be taught in this fashion. Such an argument, in general, has force only against an a priori skeptic. But it is possible that the circumstances in which, it is claimed, the concept could be taught ostensively actually occur and that the skeptic may not wish to dispute their existence. It might be urged, for example, that the concept of acting freely can be taught ostensively in circumstances which the skeptic about freedom would have to admit do occur. Some of the same problems about ostensive teaching arise for this kind of argument as for the previous one.

evaluative concepts

Still another restriction on the use of the paradigm-case argument has been proposed by some writers. J. O. Urmson questions the legitimacy of applying it to evaluative expressions such as "good (inductive) reasons" ("Some Questions concerning Validity"). His point is that the use of evaluative expressions has a dimension that the use of purely classificatory expressions lacks. Evaluative expressions not only sort out things and situations but also signify approval or condemnation. The skeptic, therefore, may be willing to grant that there are differences between what we call, for example, "good inductive reasons" and "bad inductive reasons" and that he has said nothing to show that these differences are not exemplified. But he may question whether these differences support our approval of the one and our rejection of the other. Thus, to take Urmson's analogy, he may grant a difference between what we call "good apples" and what we call "bad apples" but urge that our standards are faulty. How can pointing out that this is just what we call a "good apple," he may ask, show that we would not do better to approve of some other kind?

two sorts of skepticism

Urmson's point, if valid, appears to have many consequences. The dispute concerning whether we can exercise genuine freedom of choice about our own actions does not seem on the surface to be a dispute involving evaluative concepts. Philosophers, however, have been particularly uneasy about the use of the paradigm-case argument in this area, in contrast, for example, to its employment against skepticism about the existence or perception of material objects. The explanation may be that there are two sorts of skepticism involved. It may be that the skeptic about human freedom is not, in fact, denying that many of the ordinary relevant expressions mark genuine distinctions but, rather, querying the purpose to which we put these distinctions. In contrast, the skeptic about the existence of material objects does appear to deny that there is, for example, a distinction between a material object and the mere appearance of one.

We contrast seeing material objects with seeing hallucinatory or imaginary objects. By describing circumstances in which we ordinarily are in no doubt about which member of these distinctions is present, the paradigm-case argument may be construed as pointing out that the everyday expressions do, after all, serve a function. The fact that we do make these contrasts in practice and, more importantly, that we generally agree in our judgments shows that some genuine distinction is being made. Moreover, the skeptic does not usually dispute the fact that we can independently reach agreement about particular cases. Thus, it might be said to him, "Whatever your arguments to show that we never see material objects, for example, after we have looked at them and debated them, there will still be that difference between what we have called 'a real object' and what we have called 'hallucinations,' 'illusions,' or 'imaginary objects.' We shall still need to mark that distinction and so return to our usual way of describing things."

While this seems quite powerful against, for example, skepticism about the perception of material objects, the same sort of explanation of the paradigm-case argument is not so convincing when tried out on disputes about evaluative terms or the existence of genuinely free choices. The trouble may be that although the skeptic's arguments cannot destroy the correctness of contrasting what we should call cases of freely choosing from those we should not, his argument may still destroy what we thought to be the point of making the distinction. To say that a choice was free often involves the ascription of responsibility and the possibility of praise and blame. We behave differently toward persons who have made a free choice than we do toward those who have been coerced. If we knew all our "choices" to be the product of prior conditioning or hereditary traitsa possibility that appears often to generate skepticism about our freedomwould we still be on solid ground in behaving differently toward those who have made a "free choice"? Although we could continue to make the same distinctions we do now as far as classification goes, we might think that to call certain choices "free" would have a hollow ring.

Whatever the ultimate verdict on the paradigm-case argument as a refutation of skepticism, there can be no doubt that its use in recent philosophy has generated very important questions about the relationship of language to the world.

See also A Priori and A Posteriori; Common Sense; Induction; Knowledge, A Priori; Moore, George Edward; Philosophy of Language; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Skepticism, History of; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.



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applications and critical discussions

Alexander, H. G. "More about the Paradigm Case Argument." Analysis 18 (1958): 117120.

Beattie, Catherine. "The Paradigm Case Argument: Its Use and Abuse in Education." Journal of Philosophy of Education 15 (1981): 7786.

Black, Max. "Paradigm Cases and Evaluative Words." Dialectica 27 (1973): 262272.

Black, Max. "Making Something Happen." In Determinism and Freedom, edited by Sidney Hook. New York: New York University Press, 1958. Application to freedom of the will and causation.

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Butchvarov, Panayot. "Knowledge of Meanings and Knowledge of the World." Philosophy 39 (1964): 145160.

Danto, Arthur C. "The Paradigm Case Argument and the Free-Will Problem." Ethics 69 (1959): 120124. Critical.

Edwards, Paul. "Bertrand Russell's Doubts about Induction." In Essays on Logic and Language, edited by Antony Flew. 1st series. Oxford: Blackwell, 1951. Application to skepticism about induction and a sympathetic analysis.

Eveling, H. S., and G. O. M. Leith. "When to Use the Paradigm Case Argument." Analysis 18 (1958): 150152.

Findlay, J. N. "Time: A Treatment of Some Puzzles." Ibid. Application to skepticism about the passage of time.

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Flew, Antony. "Philosophy and Language." In Essays in Conceptual Analysis, edited by Antony Flew. London: Macmillan, 1956. Sympathetic.

Hanfling, Oswald. "What's Wrong with the Paradigm Case Argument?" PAS 91 (1991): 2138.

Harre, R. "Tautologies and the Paradigm Case Argument." Analysis 18 (1958): 9496.

MacIntyre, A. C. "Determinism." Mind 66 (1957): 2841. Contains criticism of application made to freedom of the will.

Mackie, J. L. Contemporary Linguistic PhilosophyIts Strength and Weakness. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago, 1956.

Malcolm, Norman. "Moore and Ordinary Language." In The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, edited by Paul A. Schlipp. Sympathetic analysis and several applications.

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Passmore, John. Philosophical Reasoning. London: Duckworth, 1961. See Ch. 6 for a critical analysis.

Richman, Robert J. "On the Argument of the Paradigm Case." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 39 (1961): 7581. Critical.

Richman, Robert J. "Still More on the Argument of the Paradigm Case." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 40 (1962): 204207.

Sosa, E. "The Paradigm Case Argument: Necessary, Causal, or Normative." Methodos 15 (1963): 253273.

Stebbing, L. Susan. Philosophy and the Physicists. London: Methuen, 1937. See Ch. 3 for application to skepticism about the properties of material objects.

Stroud, Barry. The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Urmson, J. O. "Some Questions concerning Validity." In Essays in Conceptual Analysis, edited by Antony Flew. London: Macmillan, 1956. Critical of application to evaluative concepts.

Watkins, J. W. N. "Farewell to the Paradigm-Case Argument." Analysis 18 (1957): 2533. Critical.

Watkins, J. W. N. "A Reply to Professor Flew's Comment." Analysis 18 (1957): 4142.

Will, F. L. "Will the Future Be Like the Past?" In Essays on Logic and Language, edited by Antony Flew. 2nd series. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953. Application to skepticism about induction.

Williams, C. J. F. "More on the Paradigm Case Argument." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 39 (1961): 276278. Defense of the argument against criticisms of Richman.

Keith S. Donnellan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)

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