Defectiveness of Concepts

January 28, 2014

There’s a kind of pragmatism, call it Carnapian pragmatism, that concerns the adoption of languages. More specifically, Carnapian pragmatism, as I am using the term, combines two theses: (1) there are no a priori rationally indispensable languages, and (2) the adoption of a language ought to depend on the weight of the various benefits that speaking that language confers on one and one’s community. (1), rules out, for example, the a priori indispensability of a language involving material substances that persist through time and underly change. That is, of course, compatible with that language’s being as a matter of fact the obviously best language in which to (e.g.) conduct inquiry. (2) gives us a criterion scheme for choosing among eligible languages.

Now consider the following claim, a rough first approximation: there are some truths that one ought never to come to believe, because they involve defective concepts. Everyone, I think, will grant that there are some truths we ought not to come to believe for some significant sense of ‘ought’, perhaps because they would be too damaging or morally corrosive. But suppose the ‘ought’ is the ‘ought’ of inquiry: given the goal is furthering inquiry, one ought to φ (in general I don’t think this will be what is called the epistemic ‘ought’). The claim, then, is this:

(*) There are some unambiguous truths (where an unambiguous truth is simply true, and thus not also false) and subjects S such that (A) S is warranted in believing p, and (B) has considered whether p, but (C) ought not to believe p because p contains (or is expressed with) a defective concept.

Another way of putting things: are there concepts defective from the point of view of inquiry not just because they have no instances (or, more generally, cannot be used to express positive truths)?

I consider (*) to be stronger than Carnapian pragmatism. According to Carnapian pragmatism, there are languages we ought not to speak in view of what best furthers inquiry. Important progress in science can be made by hitting on these languages. But this thesis is just a thesis about language, and not about rational belief. Carnapian pragmatism does not forbid you from believing content composed of or expressed by bad concepts. As a view, it has a large amount of prima facie plausibility, whereas the claim of the previous paragraph looks pretty controversial from the first.

There are some concepts it would be better if we did not have, if only because they add clutter without doing much corresponding work for us. Hirsch’s incar and outcar might be good examples. Other concepts are more pernicious, because they encourage thoughts it would be prudentially better for us not to have. Slurs might be one example here. But if our only goal is inquiry, are there really concepts with which we can express truths, but where those truths simply ought not to be believed? It is just not plausible that, where we find ourselves thinking about incars, and we realize some true thing about them, that we ought not to believe that true thing. It’s just that it’s unfortunate that we ever set out thinking in terms of incars, since that’ll mostly be a waste of our intellectual resources.

A variation on Prior’s tonk might be the kind of thing we’re after. It’s characterized (incompletely, for present purposes) by its introduction rule (from A, infer A tonk B) and its elimination rule (from A tonk B, infer A). But these rules don’t give us any truth conditions for tonk, so let’s stipulate some: A tonk B is true iff A is true or B is true. Suppose we have a sentence like ‘Grass is green tonk Gibbard invented penicillin’ (call it G). is true, since the corresponding disjunction is true. But we ought not to believe G, since then we would be “licensed” to infer that Gibbard invented penicillin, a manifest absurdity. So perhaps this is a counterexample. I don’t think it is, though. Though it is true that G analytically entails that Gibbard invented penicillin, we are often not permitted to believe even what’s logically entailed by what we believe, as in preface cases, or where we have contradictory beliefs (not just anything goes in that kind of case). Similarly, though the concept is characterized by certain sorts of inference rules, it is impermissible to infer according to those rules, because we know that a huge variety of tonk-inferences do not preserve truth, and do not even pretend to.

To forestall an objection: we still have the concept tonk even if in most cases we don’t infer according to its characteristic rules, if only because we can argue about it and have good reason to say things like ‘tonk is a dumb concept’ with complete justification (compare Williamson on McGee and modus ponens). That is, I think I have at least one tonkish belief (G), though I haven’t yet inferred that Gibbard invented penicillin. So, we might be permitted (required, if the truth and our warrant are obvious enough) to believe truths expressed with this version of tonk, though we would also have to be sure not to make risky inferences.

Here’s a worry about that response to the tonk variation. Tonk will still differ from incar, because in worlds where incars are extremely important, truths about them become very important. That is, there are some possible beings for whom it would be useful to think with incar. But with tonk, no matter which possible world and which possible beings, or beats it in view of inquiry. Or and tonk make the same contribution to truth conditions, but with or, you need not worry about making the inferences that come with possession of the concept; with tonk you need to be on your guard. So or will always be at least as good as tonk. While I agree, I don’t see how this gets us (*). It would be better to reason with or than with tonk, no doubt about that. But ought we really to disregard the tonkish truth, just because or does better? That just doesn’t follow. The worry, then, is just an instance of Carnapian pragmatism, and does not establish (*).

(*) is an exciting claim, while Carnapian pragmatism seems old hat to me. It would be a way of combining conservatism with revisionism: “granted, the people here are saying true things, but what they’re doing is nevertheless defective”. So, it would be very interesting to find the truths it claims are out there, though I haven’t yet found any. For my own part, I’m inclined to think something like this: from the point of view of inquiry, anyone is permitted to believe any unambiguous truth for which they have undefeated warrant. If, for example, theological discourse is defective from the point of view of inquiry, it is defective because its positive claims are all of them false, since they would involve a concept with no instances. I don’t know if I have more of an argument for that claim than the ridiculousness of conceding to someone that some claim is true, and they have great reason to believe that claim, but even so they oughtn’t to believe it. We all just need to be careful about what we do with even the truths we believe. That might sometimes be difficult, practically speaking, but it seems always at least possible.

(Thanks to Umer, Boris, Zoe, Paul and Nick for the interesting discussion much of which I’ve translated here.)


Hunger-Striking and Ideal Judges

August 31, 2013

As some of you know, I have been on hunger-strike this week as a small token of solidarity with the detainees held without trial at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. During this week I have taken on only water, non-calorific flavoured water, and small amounts of salt. It’s been quite the experience.

There’s plenty to hate about being on hunger-strike. The weakness, the waves of nausea, the occasional vomiting, the broken sleep, the frustrating sense that one’s life is on hold, the coming and going of mental clarity, and, of course, the intense unabating hunger.

But there have also been some more pleasant surprises. The lack of energy brings with it a certain heightened consciousness of one’s embodied self. The body ceases to be a cage in which a bare Cartesian ego is imprisoned, instead revealing itself as a quite miraculous thing in which the mental and the physical are intimately befriended, even if, as with many friendships, there are occasional violent disagreements. Another surprise has been the way fasting has altered my sense of taste and smell. Following one bout of vomiting, water, plain Jane tap water, tasted sweet, literally sweet. As in, “who dumped sugar in my water?” sweet. This is an extraordinary experience. It led me to wonder whether it might explain why Germans call freshwater (as opposed to saltwater) Süßwasser—literally, sweet-water. Just a thought.

The experience with water was a one-off. But the most pleasant surprise is something that has persisted since around day 3; that is my heightened sense of smell. Not only has it been sharpened, but the smell of food in particular has become intensely pleasurable. I put it to you that you haven’t smelled food—really smelled food—until you haven’t eaten for a few days. A lot of people curious about the phenomenology of fasting have apologized for eating near me, or remarked that I “must dread passing by restaurants”, or something to that effect. But they’re mistaken. The smell, and to a lesser extent the sight, of food has been one of the few things bringing me sensory pleasure during this week of denial.

This, I think, raises an interesting philosophical issue. I can’t possibly do it justice in this short(ish) post, but I’ll sketch some of my thoughts out in what follows.

Many philosophers, following Hume, have thought that any standard of aesthetic goodness (or perhaps, merely for settling aesthetic disputes)[1] must be grounded in the notion of an ideal appreciator. This is someone whose set of abilities for appreciating artworks and other aesthetic objects make her an authority for others.

Hume describes the requisite abilities in a “true judge” as follows:

“Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”[2]

Here’s a question: what if some of these standards, whether Hume’s or better ones, are in tension? I don’t mean in logical tension. There’s no contradiction between being free from prejudice and being well-practiced in appreciation, for instance. But what about what we might call human tensions—tensions in the joint realizability of abilities and characteristics in a human being.

My experience on the hunger-strike has made this troubling possibility acute. For, if we include the olfactory within the domain of the aesthetic (and I don’t see why paradigmatic artworks couldn’t include olfactory components, even if in fact they rarely do), then it seems to me that an ideal appreciator just might be someone who, among other qualifications, exists several days into a fast.[3] And here’s where the tension arises. For, a person on a fast is hardly ideal in many other respects. She isn’t comfortable, she’s less patient, and her mind is often foggy. All of these characteristics are ones we’d want to eliminate from our ideal appreciator, even if Hume doesn’t do so explicitly. Hume stressed that his true judges would be rare. But this suggests they might not exist at all.

The obvious response goes something like this: you’re missing the point. An ideal appreciator is just that: ideal. It’s nothing more than a theoretical construct. There’s no requirement that any person actually embody, or be able to embody, all the relevant abilities and characteristics.

The problem with such a response is that it flies in the face of the very human aspect of aesthetic appreciation. Superhuman aesthetic standards, it strikes me, are simply irrelevant on any plausible aesthetic theory. Consider piano flourishes that are literally too fast for us to hear, although a superhuman might appreciate them, or narratives that are so incredibly complicated no-one can follow them, although, again, a superhuman might. A plausible response to such cases, I suggest, is: who cares what the superhuman would think? If the art was created for human appreciation, then rococo complexity and indiscernible speed aren’t aesthetic merits. If anything, they’re defects.

One might, of course, have the rare person with the olfactory sensitivity of someone on hunger-strike, but who isn’t actually on hunger-strike. The possibility I’m raising is just that we might also not have such a person, and worse still, that we can’t (where the strength of this modal operator is suitably qualified, as above). To the extent that we want our ideal judges in the aesthetic domain to be realizable, not just in principle, this looks like a problem.

[1]  Something along these lines is pursued in James Shelley’s 2013 article, “Hume and the Joint Verdict of True Judges”, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

[2] David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste

[3]  One might resist this on the grounds that such a person is apt to delight in every smell without discrimination. I don’t think this is the case. But in any case, I want to put this worry to one side.

Philosophy in an Unjust World

August 27, 2013


“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.” – Karl Marx, These über Feuerbach.

A 2009 article in the Miami Herald describes the policy at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp library.[1] The policy is outlined on a slip of paper that was returned to a Pentagon lawyer along with the book he tried to donate to the library—an Arabic translation of Noam Chomsky’s Interventions. The book was refused; the slip of paper offers some explanation why.

The document divides potential Guantanamo literature into two classes: Authorized and Restricted. On the Authorized side, one finds a ragbag of categories: “Poetry”, “Fiction”, “Nature”, “Sports”, “Mathematics”, “Puzzles and Sudoku”, “Chemistry”, “Agriculture”, “Electronics” etc. The categories are rough-and-ready and pitched at differing levels of generality (call me crazy, but I’m willing to forgive the authors for lacking a fully worked out taxonomy of literary types). On the Restricted side, meanwhile, things get a little edgier. One finds categories like “Military Topics”, “Excessive Graphic Violence”, “Racial and Cultural Hate Groups and Ideologies (i.e. Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western)”. In a touch of dark irony, the Restricted list also includes “Travel Offers”. You know… in case the detainees get any ideas.

For me, the most interesting part of the document, however, is a small and unique parenthetical qualification on the Authorized side. Sat awkwardly between Sudoku and Sociology (a wry comment on the state of the discipline, perhaps?) is the entry: “Philosophy (limited)”.

Limited. Why? A little reflection is enough to begin answering this question. Among philosophy’s hallmarks—the normative, the conceptual, the a priori etc.—is the discipline’s skeptical attitude. Philosophy is an art form that questions even the most fundamental assumptions, including some of the deepest commitments, real or alleged, of other disciplines—the existence of numbers, or the prospects of scientific progress, for example. In a similar vein, philosophers also question social practices and institutions such as modern norms of feminine appearance, the distribution of goods in a society, or the circumstances that make war permissible. This kind of thoroughgoing skepticism, I propose, makes the people who run an institution like Guantanamo uncomfortable. The Guantanamos of the world can only survive to the extent that they evade critical eyes. Philosophy—at least, some kinds of philosophy—has the potential to expose injustice and thereby incite the slighted and their supporters to action. Gitmo no likey.

Modern professional philosophers are in many respects perfectly suited to take such action. Philosophers are able to bring an incredible potential for critical thinking to any given problem, coupled with their relative wealth, access to incredible informational resources, and ability, if they’re lucky, to manage much of their own time. It’s for these reasons that I’m often disappointed at how much time philosophers, myself included, spend on mastering sometimes incredibly arcane bodies of knowledge at the exclusion of other more pressing demands. It’s partly for these reasons that I decided to protest the injustice the U.S. government is perpetrating at Guantanamo Bay.

The action—a week-long fast and a few days distributing literature about the state of Guantanamo—is largely symbolic. And I don’t imagine it will achieve much. But I do hope it reaffirms in fellow philosophers, and similarly situated others, to recognize their position as highly-trained critical thinkers in an unforgiving world, and the responsibility that comes with that. Just one day into the strike, I find the response encouraging.

Man I’m hungry.

The “Core”

July 6, 2013

A metaphor familiar to ethicists and political philosophers is that of the “expanding circle” of justice. Circles, of course, have a centre. At the centre of the justice circle stands, as a matter of historical fact, that ominous presence: the prosperous, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgendered etc. man (incidentally, I am guilty as charged). The idea behind the metaphor, then, is to suggest that, as a matter of historical description as much as normative prescription, our circle of moral concern must expand beyond this narrow centre. It must expand in concentric bursts to incorporate, piece by piece, outsiders into its periphery: people of colour, women, homosexuals, the disabled, non-human animals, and even (God forbid!) the working class.

Metaphors are just metaphors. But they do (to deploy another metaphor) frame our imaginative conceptions of philosophical problems. So it’s worth pointing out that while the metaphor of the expanding circle might be descriptively accurate, it’s normatively inadequate. This is because circles, even expanding ones, still have centres and peripheries. Even once we’ve included those who were once excluded, we do so only by moving them into the periphery—social Neptunes around a privileged sun. Perhaps this means we should find a better metaphor (the melting pot of justice? The frontier of ethical inclusion? – both seem problematic). Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that the metaphor should only carry our thinking so far, if not abandon it all together.

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Internal Reasons That Cannot Motivate

February 8, 2013

Bernard Williams begins an influential essay [1] by defining internalism about reasons as follows:

Internalism   There is a reason for person A to φ only if A has some motive which would be furthered by his or her φ-ing.

Plenty of philosophers have found something intuitive about this idea, but there has also been no shortage of disagreement over the exact sense in which A must “have some motive” which φ-ing must further. In the introduction to a recent anthology of literature on internal reasons, Kieran Setiya [2] seems to think that the most attractive versions of internalism are those which satisfy the explanatory constraint. Bernard Williams gives it best:

EX   If something can be a reason for action, then it can be someone’s reason for acting on a particular occasion, and then it would figure in an explanation of that action. (p. 106)

There are at least a few reasons for adhering to EX. You might think that there is a unified account of explanatory and normative reasons, and that EX is a link in that unification. You might think that what it is for A to have a motivation which would be furthered by A’s φ-ing is just for there to be some p such that A is disposed to make p A‘s motivating reason for φ-ing. If you’re inclined to believe either of these, you’ll probably think with Setiya that the broadest plausible version of internalism is IR:

IR   The fact that p is a reason for A to φ only if A is capable of being moved to φ by the belief that p. (p. 4)

However, I don’t see how EX could possibly be true, as I don’t think it can overcome the kinds of cases which motivate so-called “advice models” of reasons. I argue that an agent can have a reason for action which, qua reason, could not possibly motivate them. This undercuts the motivation for thinking that IR is the correct way of understanding internalism.

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Understanding Ecumenical Expressivism

January 8, 2013

Call a metaethical view a hybrid if it allows that moral sentences sometimes express cognitive states of mind and sometimes non-cognitive states of mind. Then one kind of hybrid view is an ecumenical one, which requires that moral sentences always express both cognitive and non-cognitive states of mind. I’ve been interested in hybrid theories for a while now, so it’s been a pleausure to find Michael Ridge’s ecumenical expressivism (EE), which is  subtle and deftly defended. However, I’ve got some reservations about how it’s cashed out.

The basic idea of EE is that the non-cognitive attitudes expressed by a moral sentence have priority in that the cognitive beliefs which are also expressed do not determine the truth-conditions of the sentence. To color things in a bit, it’s much as if we thought that speakers had hazy necessary and sufficient conditions in mind for “good”, but we also stipulate that the meaning of “good” doesn’t commit a speaker to using that term whenever those conditions are satisfied (hence preserving the Open Question intuition).

Now here’s a first development of EE, which Ridge calls Plain Vanilla EE (concentrating just on the notion of a reason for action):

(PV)   “There is a moral reason to X” expresses (a) an attitude of approval of a certain kind toward actions insofar as they have a certain property and (b) a belief that X has that property. (Ridge, 2006)

Note that in PV Ridge intends there to be a unique property I approve of in all my assertions about reasons, though this property may be disjunctive. Ridge (2006) argues that this feature of PV excludes particularists and pluralists, so he suggests the following dispositional account instead:

(D)   “There is a moral reason to X” expresses (a) an attitude of approval of a certain kind towards actions insofar as they would garner approval from a certain sort of subject and (b) a belief that X would garner approval from that sort of subject (Ridge, 2006),

where it’s understood that the subject in mind is of the ideal observer variety.

But the curious thing about (D) is that Ridge (2006, n. 47) denies a very natural interpretation: that (D) is just (PV) coupled with a first-order normative view, i.e. that in talk of moral reasons I’m expressing a certain pro-attitude toward actions with the property that the ideal observer would approve of them (as well as a belief that this particular action has that property). One problem Ridge raises for this view is that it doesn’t really avoid the problem of monism above. But there are others as well. For instance, while dispositional theories might say something important about certain normative concepts, I doubt they can plausibly be folded into the contents of the associated states of mind. 

Consider the attitude of belief towards a proposition P. Suppose I believe P; if I were to learn that my epistemically-ideal self does not believe P, it seems I would ought to drop belief in P. But that normative relationship does not imply that my belief was all along about what my epistemically-ideal self believed. The content of my belief was just P. And if it wasn’t just P, then the content of my belief must be even less accessible to me than I thought, and presumably can’t play the kind of role in guiding conduct that many expressivists think states of mind do play.

Now suppose I have a pro-attitude toward all actions which are φ. Once again, were I to learn that my normatively-ideal self wouldn’t approve of all φ-ing, it seems I would ought to modify my attitude. But I don’t think this means that my pro-attitude was all along towards what my normatively-ideal self approved of. I just approved of actions that were φ – or so it seems. Once again, if I’m in the dark about my own states of mind, how can states of mind guide my actions?

I’m skipping a bunch of steps here, but I want to suggest another reason for agreeing with Ridge on how not to interpret (D): that it might make the notion of a moral state of mind so anti-transparent that it (a) strains credulity and (b) may not do a lot of the simple work in explaining behavior expressivists want it to. But, that done, I’m not sure how to interpret it in a way that avoids these problems. It can’t be that moral sentences express the ideal advisor’s approving state of mind. I am not my ideal advisor, and I cannot express another’s state of mind unless I am acting, or perhaps quoting that individual. But in those contexts I generally don’t mean to endorse those attitudes. Everyone finds Hitler reprehensible, but no one finds actors who play Hitler reprehensible. (At least, not for that reason.)

At this point I wonder whether the solution is to drop the uniqueness requirement in (D). Why not think that some moral sentences express approval of property φ and others of property ψ, for ψ ≠ φ?


Ridge, M. (2006). “Ecumenical Expressivism: Finessing Frege”. Ethics 116, pp. 302-336.

Ridge, M. (2007). “Ecumenical Expressivism: The Best of Both Worlds?”. Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Vol. 2, pp. 51-76.

Jumpstarting the Blog: Objecting to Sider’s Objectivism

June 27, 2012

Given that it’s been over a year since we’ve had any posts, I’ve decided to try to jumpstart the blog again. Here goes…

While reading Sider’s Writing the Book of the World, I noticed a strange dialectic circularity. One of Sider’s main theses is that structure is objective: it’s ‘out there in the world’ in some metaphysically heavy sense. But, Sider then goes on to give an account of objectivity in terms of structure. Given this circularity, it’s possible to find a reductio.

Sider claims that structure is not subjective (i.e. structure is objective). I take this to mean that sentences about structure are not subjective. Without loss of generality, let’s take the following sentence about structure:

(S): ‘being negatively charged’ is structural

Sider wants to claim:

(O): (S) is not subjective

He goes on to give the following account of subjectivity: “A sentence is subjective…if and only if it’s truth-value depends on which of a range of equally joint carving candidates is meant by some term in the sentence, where the candidate that we in fact mean was selected in a way that is not arbitrary, but reflects something important about us, such as our values” (59). Combining this account of subjectivity with (O) gives us:

(O’): It’s not the case that the truth value of (S) depends on which of a range of equally joint carving candidates is meant by some term in (S), where the candidate that we in fact mean was selected in a way that is not arbitrary, but reflects something important about us, such as our values.

This roughly amounts to saying that in order for facts about structure to be objective, they must ‘carve at the joints’ — in other words, facts about structure must themselves be structural. But that’s a condition that far too easy to meet. For instance, take a simple expressivist view of structure. Roughly, to say ”being negatively charged’ is structural’ is simply to express some mental attitude A towards ‘being negatively charged’. I think we can all agree that, pretheoretically, this is a subjective account of structure. But, if Sider’s account of subjectivity is correct, an expressivist account of structure is consistent with the claim that (S) is objective. Accepting (O’) amounts to expressing attitude A towards ‘is structural’; this is all we need to accept (O’), because the terms in (S) do not have ‘a range of equally joint carving candidates’ — by our own lights, ‘structural’ is joint-carving. So, either Sider must reject his account of objectivity or accept that expressivism about structure is consistent with structure being objective. I take it that he will choose the former.