Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Concepts and Survey Results

I'm thinking about a point that Ernie Sosa has made in response to survey-based experimental philosophy challenges. As we all know, some critics have argued that certain experimental results challenge traditional armchair philosophy. In particular, for example, Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich found that there seemed to be a systematic divergence of epistemic intuitions depending upon the ethnic background of the subjects studied: students of East Asian descent were more likely than students of European descent to, for instance, describe Gettier cases as cases of knowledge.

Here's a line that Ernie has pressed a few times now:
And the disagreement may now perhaps be explained in a way that casts no doubt on intuition as a source of epistemic justification or even knowledge. Why not explain the disagreement as merely verbal? Why not say that across the divide we find somewhat different concepts picked out by terminology that is either ambiguous or at least contextually divergent? On the EA side, the more valuable status that a belief might attain is one that necessarily involves communitarian factors of one or another sort, factors that are absent or minimized in the status picked out by Ws as necessary for “knowledge.” If there is such divergence in meaning as we cross the relevant divides, then once again we fail to have disagreement on the very same propositions. In saying that the subject does not know, the EAs are saying something about lack of some relevant communitarian status. In saying that the subject does know, the Ws are not denying that; they are simply focusing on a different status, one that they regard as desirable even if it does not meet the high communitarian requirements important to the EAs. So again we avoid any real disagreement on the very same propositions. The proposition affirmed by the EAs as intuitively true is not the very same as the proposition denied by the Ws as intuitively false.

(That's quoted from his contribution to the recent Stich and His Critics volume.)

As I'd understand it, the core suggestion here is this: maybe there's no real disagreement here; some group of subjects say that such and such 'is a case of knowledge,' while philosophers and other subjects say that such and such is not a case of knowledge, and there's no genuine disagreement, because the former subjects don't mean knowledge by 'knowledge'.

So here's my question. (One question, anyway. I have a few more.) What does any of this have to do with concepts? As I understand it, it's a question about meaning and reference: what does the word 'knowledge' refer to in a given subject's mouth? One can run a little detour through concepts if one wants: word meanings are concepts; the concepts are different; so the word is ambiguous. But what, if anything, does this 'conceptual ascent' contribute? I rather suspect that it does more to distract than to help. Steve Stich's response to Sosa emphasizes concepts in a way that looks to me largely irrelevant:
There is a vast literature on concepts in philosophy and in psychology (Margolis and Laurence 1999; Murphy 2002; Machery forthcoming), and the question of how to individuate concepts is one of the most hotly debated issues in that literature. While it is widely agreed that for two concept tokens to be of the same type they must have the same content, there is a wide diversity of views on what is required for this condition to be met. On some theories, the sort of covert ambiguity that Sosa is betting on can be expected to be fairly common, while on others covert ambiguity is much harder to generate. For Fodor, for example, the fact that an East Asian pays more attention to communitarian factors while a Westerner emphasizes individualistic factors in applying the term ‘knowledge’ would be no reason at all to think that the concepts linked to their use of the term ‘knowledge’ have different contents (Fodor 1998).

But Fodor's theory of concepts is not a theory of word meanings. What bearing does it have on whether there might be an Asian-American idiolect in which 'knowledge' means something other than knowledge? (I do mean this as a serious question; I'm less fluent in Fodor than I'd like.)

To my mind, the sort of view that Ernie needs to be worrying about is not Fodor's but Burge's. More on that in a future post, I think. For now, just this question: is anything usefully gained by thinking about Sosa's suggestion here in terms of concepts?