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THE PRESENT KING OF FRANCE IS BALD

 In my youth, philosophy students were routinely required to write essays or examination answers on “The Present King of France is Bald – Discuss”. Students were expected to observe that there was no Present King Of France; that therefore the class “Present King of France” was an empty class, and, following from that, to say anything about an empty class is meaningless. The argument could be illustrated by overlapping (or non-overlapping) circles (Venn diagrams); or by “predicate calculus” (a system of pseudo-mathematical symbols designed to suggest that the logic of language should be regarded as not merely analogous to, but identical to, the logic of mathematics).

 Apart from the fact that all that is totally boring and not in the least instructive, the entire concept is based on a weaselly turn of the 19th - 20th centuries attempt to prove that religion is logically nonsensical. There is no god, therefore it is meaningless to say anything about God. On a larger scale, the argument was part of an attempt to drive metaphysics out of philosophy (and, more practically, to drive metaphysicians, or professional wafflers, out of their professorial chairs, to be replaced by good honest Logical Positivists).

 The sturdy Positivists of Vienna went on to assert that no proposition was meaningful unless it could be proved to be true (Verwahrungsprinzip). When this assertion was shown to be inadequate, it was modified to the more subtle assertion that a proposition is only meaningful if its negative is also meaningful (Verfalschungsprinzip). Alas, by this time no philosophical statements had any value: they assisted in no way at all in understanding anything whatever. We were left with two distinct subjects for philosophical study: moral philosophy, the exploration of what is meant by right and wrong, for which evidence has to be sought from psychology and anthropology; and epistemology, the question of 'How do we know that we know something?', which is of vital application to cosmology and quantum mechanics.

 There is, however, a third approach, namely linguistic philosophy, the question of how language relates to the world which it seeks to describe. The pioneer of this approach was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Unfortunately for philosophers, anxious to retain their Professorial Chairs, it became obvious that a lot of the evidence required had to come from comparative linguistics. My own insistence on this point would have invalidated any attempt on my part to secure an academic position, even if I had not preferred Wein Weib und Gesang to working.

 Let us return to the follically-challenged Lord's anointed. And, for the first time in this essay, let us use, literally, some common sense. If I say unto you “The present King of France is bald”, I expect you to know what I mean. If you reply “But France is many years into the Fifth Republic”, I know that you and I are not on the same wavelength. For the proposition to be understood, we should both have a common perception of what the words mean. For example, you and I are fanatical monarchists and we meet in obscure clubs and drink to the health of Louis XXXIX or the Comte de Chambord or whoever we deem to be the rightful King of France.

 Are there any other circumstances in which to say “The present King of France is Bald” is meaningful? Let us imagine a long-lost novel by Alexandre Dumas père, in which a doddery D'Artagnan remarks to an arteriosclerotic Athos that “Le roi actuel de la France est chauve”. (Louis XIV was indeed bald, which is one reason why he wore a huge wig and set the fashion for more than a century. The other reason was to obscure his remarkable facial resemblance to Cardinal Mazarin, who was doubtless his biological father). Neither you or I would have the slightest difficulty in understanding this assertion, even though it occurs in a work of fiction. It does not have to be historically true for us to understand it.

 So, the meaning of a proposition is what you and I think it means, within the common usages of language and within the CONTEXT that we both understand. It follows that it is entirely meaningful to say “God has eight arms” provided that we share some concept of “God”. Try extending the idea: “In some villages in India God has eight arms”. We immediately jump from metaphysics to anthropology or iconography and all makes sense. To sum up, what gives meaning to a proposition is a shared understanding of CONTEXT. I hereby claim my Professorial Chair, having invalidated the reason for there being such a position in the first place.

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