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?


  1. Brian Weatherson3/30/2011 01:28:00 PM

    Just a short meta-note. The RSS feed for the blog seems to be truncated. Is there any way you could put the full entries in the RSS?

  2. jonathan weinberg3/30/2011 03:14:00 PM

    Here's one way of seeing the potential relevance of such a move: anyone wanting to run a "different meanings" line as a response needs to have some sort of working theory of when divergent predications are, and when they are not, the manifestation of divergent meanings. One obvious candidate way of doing this is via concepts, on a Fodoro-Gricean picture of the sort fairly commonplace in philosophy of mind: if two people are expressing the same concept in their different predications, then they are disagreeing; if not, not. (That's the answer to your question about Fodor, by the way: there's not much more to a theory of word meanings than a theory of concepts, plus a theory of how tokens in Mentalese get mapped by your brain to tokens of English or whatever.)

    And so a theory of concepts, and concept individuation in particular, would be needed in order to run a line in that direction. And so it's not that one _needs_ to run a line in that direction, though it's still what one would expect to be the first direction many folks would think to go in (clearly it was so for Sosa). But clearly having a good theory of concept individuation would go a long way towards making this kind of meaning-pluralist move credible. And if one isn't going to go that way, one still needs a line on the issue of how we can distinguish between actual disagreements, and meaning-divergent differences in predication.

  3. Brian: I've changed what I suspect is the relevant setting; hopefully full posts will be RSSd in the future. (Maybe the change is even retroactive? I don't know.)

    Jonathan: I'm afraid I'm not getting it. Take a really obvious example of a merely verbal dispute. (I'm on the record as thinking these are a lot rarer than a lot of philosophers do, but I think it's obvious there could be some.) For example, suppose someone hears me say "Jonathan is a Yankees fan," and also hears you say "Jonathan is a Red Sox fan". We're each talking about each other, and so what we say is perfectly consistent, but some witness to our remarks thinks we're talking about some one individual Jonathan, and thus wrongly takes us to disagree. Here's the right thing to say about this case: Weinberg and Ichikawa are each using 'Jonathan' differently; Weinberg's use picks out a different person than does Ichiakwa's. There is no genuine disagreement. 'Jonathan' is in the relevant sense ambiguous.

    I haven't said anything about concepts. I could if I wanted to; I could say that Weinberg's use of 'Jonathan' corresponds to Weinberg's concept, C1, while Ichikawa's use of 'Jonathan' corresponds to Ichikawa's concept C2, and C1 and C2 are not the same concept type. So they don't disagree because the thoughts their utterances express are made up of different concepts.

    I don't think this more complicated story is in any sense better than the more natural one that just stuck to word meanings. Of course, one could ask, why think that the story about word meanings is right? What reason have we to believe that 'Jonathan' in Weinberg's mouth means something different than 'Jonathan' in Ichikawa's mouth? This is a legitimate question, of course. But I don't think the answer to it has anything essentially to do with concepts. We'd cite facts about use, facts about reference, facts about truth conditions, etc. Switching to concepts just doesn't help.

    I think the same goes for 'knowledge' and 'knowledge'. Ernie wants to suggest that the words are used equivocally; that there is no genuine disagreement. It is entirely proper to ask why we should think this is so. (And I have some sympathy -- more than I did when I first started engaging these questions some years ago -- with the idea that this is a pretty serious challenge.) But I don't see why we should think concepts are relevant to the answer here. We CAN 'conceptually ascend' and have the conversation at that level; but why think it would help? What's at issue is what this word means in one mouth, and what it means in another mouth. Fodor's conceptual atomism is entirely consistent with any arbitrary putative disagreement's being merely verbal in Ernie's sense.

  4. jonathan weinberg3/31/2011 02:43:00 AM

    I don't see why you are setting the really high bar for yourself here of arguing that bringing in concepts _can't_ help. The argument you mustered in the last comment involves a case where they aren't needed, which is fine, and I don't think anyone would disagree. Surely one need be committed to
    --Appealing to concepts is necessary to handle all cases of putative verbal disagreements.
    in order to claim that
    --In the sorts of cases philosophers are generally interested in, appealing to a theory of concepts (if someone were to have one) would be useful in handling putative cases of verbal disagreements.

    Fodor's theory of concepts makes the gap between those claims easy to see. On his view, we can just tell very easily in the "Jonathan"/"Jonathan" case that the concept expressed by the one is locked on to a different property than the concept expressed by the other. But it's hard to see how to even start telling a story (or at least get to chapter 2) about how we do that with "knowledge"/"knowledge". We need resources for the philosophically interesting cases that seem very substantially beyond the resources we have ready to bring to bear in ordinary, easily-umpired cases of verbal disagreement, like with proper names of good gestalt middle-sized physical objects. _Especially_ if one requires that those resources be available from the armchair, concepts are likely to be a very attractive candidate for a place to try to get those resources from.

  5. jonathan weinberg3/31/2011 02:45:00 AM

    Er, "need _not_ be committed", that is. Pesky negations.