On Philosophy

November 17, 2007

How Philosophy Proceeds

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

I have heard philosophy characterized as strong opinions in the absence of any information. And I can’t say that is an entirely unfair description, because even when considering philosophical claims that seem correct it is always a bit of an open question as to how the author arrived at them or what justifies them. I’m not exactly sure what to do with philosophy as such, we might embrace it and accept that philosophy is wildly different from most worthwhile intellectual enterprises (in the sense that correctness mostly falls by the wayside). Or we might say that there is something wrong with them, that they only approximate the best way of doing philosophy in some loose sense, and that philosophy is a discipline in which we have yet to come to an unproblematic understanding of what we are supposed to be doing. I opt for the second. As such I often begin with theories about the way knowledge works and the way investigations in general must proceed and then try to apply those standards to philosophy in order to reach some conclusions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. The problem with that, naturally, is it runs the risk of collapsing philosophy into science. Which is not by itself a bad move to make, because there is probably some broader category under which philosophy and science genuinely are united. But being blinded by that fact is undesirable, just as it would be undesirable to be blinded by the differences between the sciences themselves and collapse them into a single discipline. So today I am going to focus on what is characteristic of philosophy, rather than of investigations in general. And what is characteristic of philosophy is an unusual, some might even say unhealthy, emphasis on definitions, and on conclusions that follow essentially from those definitions.

Of course inquiries in every discipline involve definitions, generally new words are needed to hide some of the complexity developed as part of the investigation so that we have a manageable way to deal with the subject on levels beside the most fine-grained. Imagine how tedious biology would be, for example, if we were unable to use the labels used to divide life into groups and instead had to fully describe in each case what the distinguishing characteristics were exactly which two species were united into a single category by. Such definitions are always stipulative; there is never any question about their correctness because the definitions are just abbreviations. But in philosophy definitions are often challenged, which means that, whatever they are, they are not simply convenient abbreviations. In fact almost every philosophically interesting definition seems to be an attempt to turn a vague concept into something precisely defined. Let us bracket for a moment the point of doing that, and instead direct ourselves to issues that may arise as a result of proceeding in this way. To make the discussion more concrete let’s also consider an actual example, justice, an exquisitely vague word, defined as follows: justice consists in adjustments made so that in interactions between parties any special advantages a person has accrued from acting unethically and any special disadvantages a person has accrued from acting ethically or from interacting with an unethical person are compensated for after the fact. (With what is ethical being precisely defined somewhere else.)

The first observation we might make is that, since these concepts are vague to begin with, not everyone will have exactly the same vague concept. Of course since we can successfully communicate there must be some overlap, but that by itself doesn’t provide us with a neutral starting point. Although the vague concepts of any two people may have a great deal in common the amount of overlap given larger and larger numbers of people may shrink until there is no substantial universally common ground remaining. Secondly, since these are vague concepts determining where the overlap is may be a Herculean task in its own right. And, finally, trying to proceed on the basis of some shared overlap means that an empirical investigation into what people commonly take those vague terms to mean must be conduced before any philosophical attempt at preciseness, and clearly that is not anything like how philosophy proceeds. This is certainly the case when it comes to justice, our example. Everyone’s conception of justice overlaps to some extent, at the very least that certain laws demonstrate it, but beyond that the nature of justice is largely up for grabs, so long as justice is superior to injustice by some standard (because justice is a normative concept). And so obviously the precise definition being entertained will be more in line with some vague conceptions of justice than others.

A second observation is that by giving a precise definition we must necessarily contradict the vague concept that it was developed from. For starters with any vague concept there will always be borderline cases, cases where whether something does or doesn’t fall under that concept isn’t completely clear. By giving a precise definition we automatically do away with all such cases since there is now a clear-cut matter of fact whether something counts as such under the new definition, and so it differs from the vague concept to at least that extent. Furthermore, the vague concept tends to be shaped to a large extent by the examples that we originally abstracted it from in our psychological development, and by what we would like to be the case when it comes to normative concepts. Because of this it rarely follows any simple set of properties, and thus there will be cases in which the vague concept will plainly contradict the more precise definition. But such conflicts are simply unavoidable unless we wish to develop extremely long definitions, perhaps pages and pages long, which probably make them useless for any purpose. With respect to our example of justice I suspect that we could construct some situations in which people act ethically or unethically without the intention to do so, or possible the opposite intention, and which we don’t think they should be punished. Or perhaps our intuitions lead us to think that unethical behavior should be punished even when the person acting unethically doesn’t gain anything by it. But such contradictions can’t invalidate the definition of justice, because, if they were allowed to, then it would simply be impossible to define it, and thus to do philosophy at all.

A third observation is that when a vague concept is given a precise definition there may not be anything that the new definition actually refers to. For example, there is a vague concept of water that conceives of it as a continuous clear fluid with certain properties. But, if we gave it a precise definition following those guidelines, as a continuous clear fluid, and so on, there would be nothing that was actually water (because of the atomic nature of matter). In fact it is reasonable to say that almost every vague concept is defined almost exclusively by appearances, that what is X before we set out to say what X is precisely is simply those things that present themselves to us in one of a number of ways. Thus while the concept is guaranteed to latch onto something, simply because it could really be latching onto nearly anything, the precise definition is not. Of course how to determine when something exists is a matter of some debate. And what we may be considering could very well be a kind of ideal, such that what we want to show is not that it exists but that things naturally tend to approximate it, which adds additional complications. The easiest way to show that something exists is simply to show that it has already been discovered in some way by science. In fact that is probably the only way to show that something exists, because if we can’t find it in an objective way through science then that is a good reason to believe that it doesn’t exist. Fortunately there are no such difficulties when dealing with our example here. That parties interact and that they can receive advantages and disadvantages depending on how ethically they act in their dealings is not a matter of much debate. Of course justice, described as a perfect balancing, can only be an ideal, but it is also fairly trivial to show that societies have at least some motivation to approximate that ideal: because ethical behavior is good for society it is beneficial to encourage it by protecting the ethical from being taking advantage of by the unethical, which also has the benefit of discouraging unethical behavior.

Fourthly we observe that even if a precise definition may manage to refer to actually existing things the things it picks out may not be what the vague concept referred to. To return to the example of water given earlier it may be possible that some weird substance is found in an odd corner of the universe really does fit that definition (and which is thus infinitely divisible, and so on). But just because that definition now manages to refer to something doesn’t mean that it does a good job of being a precise definition of the vague concept water. So not only do we have to show that something exists that is described by the precise definition we must also show that what is picked out by the vague concept is often referred to by the precise definition as well. About the only practical way of doing that is simply taking a number of samples of things that fall under the vague concept and demonstrating that they are picked out by the precise definition as well. In our case this means simply bringing a number of cases that seem to embody justice before our minds, such as just laws, and seeing whether they usually are cases of correcting imbalances resulting from unethical behavior or not (or at least approximate such corrections). Naturally listing a number of such examples would be tedious, but I think you can easily confirm for yourself that many of them have that property.

Finally, on the basis of the previous four observations, we can see that however constructing precise definitions is supposed to work it must be a matter of finding a best fit or a good fit to the vague concept, and this that there is no “correct” precise definition, and that our precise definitions may always be subject to revision as long as we are motivated to bring them more in line with the vague concept. This is because, as the first and second observations pointed out, there is no single vague concept to make precise, nor is there a single best way of making it more precise. And thus we will always have a number of options open to us for developing precise definitions. And, as a result of the third and fourth observations, we can see that there is always the possibility that what seemed like a perfectly acceptable precise definition based on its own merits may be discovered to need serious revision if it turns out that nothing actually existing is described by it, or if a large number of cases come to light in which it vastly misses the vague concept (or what actually satisfies that definition turns out to be other than was initially expected).

Given these facts about how precise definitions can be developed on the basis of vague concepts we must examine what we expect of them, why we are making our vague concepts precise, to see whether these limitations raise any problems for philosophy. Or perhaps, to be more honest about how I am proceeding, we must see whether we can come to an understanding of the philosophical enterprise where they aren’t problems. Originally I intended to include that discussion in this post, but I have gone on long enough for one day, and so I will leave for tomorrow the task of describing how we might proceed on the basis of these definitions and what the point of such investigations is.


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