Arvan and Others on Unger


The primary value of Unger’s critique of philosophy may be that it generates good and thoughtful responses. There was Schliesser’s the other day, and also the post by Pigliucci (though he says in a comment it was not aimed at Unger directly). Now Marcus Arvan has a more sympathetic take on what Unger is up to, and it is well worth reading.

What I agree with Unger on—and what I want to make the case for—is this: just as psychology was “mere speculation” prior to actually making predictions, the same is true of philosophy…. I think that philosophy that does not make any predictions at all is mere concept manipulation—manipulation of fundamentally indeterminate concepts that, by virtue of conceptual indeterminacy/vagueness, cannot in principle provide answers to the conceptual questions analytic philosophers ask….
Another way to put this is as follows: in the absence of determinate predictions, philosophy is little more than an exercise in battling argumentatively over how to interpret vague concepts for which there is no determinately correct interpretation (i.e. no truth at all). But now if this is right, then Unger is right. In the absence of predictions, philosophy is not about any determinate truths at all—for it is only concrete predictions that give determinacy to our concepts, latching them onto determinate phenomena in the world.

Read the whole thing at Philosopher’s Cocoon. Meanwhile, feel free to post additional responses to Unger you come across in the comments here.

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Michael Bench-Capon
6 years ago
Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
6 years ago

Marcus seems to think that all, or at least most, philosophers are trying to analyze every important philosophical concept into its One True Analysans. Since the important concepts are usually technical and vague—like “substance,” “evidence,” “abstract,” and “justification”—this project is hopeless. But mainstream analytic philosophers know that already, and they’ve abandoned that project.

Here’s Gideon Rosen in the SEP entry on abstract objects (doesn’t get more mainstream analytic than this):

“When technical terminology is introduced in philosophy by means of examples but without explicit definition or theoretical elaboration, the resulting vocabulary is often vague or indeterminate in reference. In such cases, it is normally pointless to seek a single correct account. A philosopher may find himself asking questions like, ‘What is idealism?’ or ‘What is a substance?’ and treating these questions as difficult questions about the underlying nature of a certain determinate philosophical category. A better approach is to recognize that in many cases of this sort, we simply have not made up our minds about how the term is to be understood, and that what we seek is not a precise account of what this term already means, but rather a proposal for how it might fruitfully be used in the future.”

Most philosophers I know prefer Rosen’s approach to the one imputed to them by Arvan. I know I do. I don’t care about or even believe in the One True Analysis of “Ought.” I just want to learn about obligation. To that end, ethicists sometimes have to sharpen up the terms they use to talk about duties and rights and so on. But what makes for a good sharpening is usefulness, not faithfulness to the One True Analysis.

And to anyone who thinks that substantive ethical knowledge must be either empirical-prediction-generating or impossible, I hope you’re enjoying your visit to Planet Earth.Report

Marcus Arvan
6 years ago

Daniel: You’re right that I make the strong claim — that philosophers are looking for the One True Analysans — you attribute to me in the blog post. Although I think more philosophers than you or Rosen suggest at least implicitly conceive of themselves as doing just that, the basic criticism I am making is more subtle than this, and does not require the strong claim.

Consider two philosophers engaging in a debate over whether N hairs is bald and N+1 is not bald. These philosophers are not engaging in a worthwhile enterprise. They are supposing that there is One True Analysans where there is none. The right thing to say is that they fail to understand vague language properly. (I assume here that Williamson’s flat-footed epistemicism is false, for reasons I give in the post and in more detail in the comments).

You can agree that they are engaging in a fruitless enterprise, I hope!

Okay, but now consider two philosophers engaging in a debate over which of two slightly different interpretations of “baldness” is the *More Fruitful Analysans* of baldness, with one fellow arguing that it’s more fruitful to take “baldness” to treat people with N and N+1 hairs as bald, and the other arguing that it’s more fruitful to take “baldness” to treat people with N hairs as bald but N+1 as not bald. These people are not assuming that there is One True Analysans — but their endeavor is no more worthwhile than the first set of philosophers. For they are making a *similar* mistake. They too fail to understand vague language. For it is the very nature of a vague concept that (1) there are many different permissible interpretations (or precisifications), (2) none of which are more “fruitful” or “correct” than any other permissible ones.

I am arguing that that certain philosophical debates — for instance, the debate over material composition and mereological nihilism — mistake vagueness for depth *simpliciter*. The mistake may be a very strong one (the participants may think there is One True Analysans), or the mistake may be a weaker one (the participants may think there are some More Fruitful Analysans than others). My point is that it is a mistake either way. Also, as I emphasize in the comments section of the post, my argument is a flatly empirical one. The argument is that (1) conceptual indeterminacy (as determined by brain representation and behavior), where (2) there *is* no best or most fruitful interpretation across speakers, is (3) the *best explanation* of why, despite all of our hard work, almost all conceptual debates in philosophy turn into interminable dead-ends, where (as M.B. Willard puts it, http://philpapers.org/rec/WILGCO ), there is no argument in *principle* that can lead to anything but a stalemate.

Finally, some over at the Leiter thread have wondered why, if this is the case, so many of us have been so bewitched by conceptual analysis. I think the answer, empirically, is straightforward. We have, for instance, a word, “table.” Since it is a single word, and we all use it, it is natural enough — naively — to assume that there must *be* some True or Most Fruitful interpretation (viz. “What are tables? Are they sense-data? Etc.”). It is natural, in other words, to assume that there is a Deep Philosophical Question…where there is none. Why? Because the word *looks* like it must have “a referent”, as opposed to what the empirical reality is…namely, that there *is* no determinate meaning or referent (Wittgenstein understood this, Quine did too, etc.).

To put it more briefly: on their *face*, concepts look determinate. “Table” must pick out *tables*, right? (The philosopher then say: so let’s do metaphysics about tables and composition). But the fatal mistake was at Step 1. Empirically, if we look beyond the face value of the word, we see — again, in empirical reality — that there *isn’t* any single, best, etc. interpretation of the word/concept.

This is also, I think, what Searle is going on about here (http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/06/tim-crane-interviews-john-searle.html ). It’s the *way* philosophers analyze concepts — with arguments, rather than empirical — that is fundamentally mistaken. If you want to know what “table” means (or anything else for that matter), the place to look is not philosophical arguments: it is the brain and behavior. And, once you look *those* things, many of the conceptual questions we battle over no longer look well-motivated.Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
6 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful, detailed response, Marcus! I agree with you that some philosophers are engaging in hopeless enterprises, but I disagree with you on a few substantive points.

1. You make these claims about vague concepts (like “abstract object”):

“For it is the very nature of a vague concept that (1) there are many different permissible interpretations (or precisifications), (2) none of which are more “fruitful” or “correct” than any other permissible ones.”

I have trouble even imagining your second point being true (unless you have some especially strict notion of permissibility in mind). Take two permissible interpretations of “abstract object”: Quine’s and Frege’s. Quine says that abstract object =df universal. Frege says (according to Rosen) that abstract object =df non-mental & non-sensible object. On the face of it, Frege’s notion is obviously more fruitful. What good is there in having another synonym for “universal,” itself a vague and shifty term of art? But according to you, just in virtue of the fact that “abstract object” is a vague concept, neither interpretation can be more fruitful than the other. I’m not sure why anyone should believe that, nor can I make sense of the claim that this follows from the nature of vague concept-hood. A fruitful interpretation is one that yields new tools for understanding issues that matter. Not all interpretations will yield the same tools. Isn’t that just common sense?

(You also accuse analytic philosophers of assuming that there must be a *most* fruitful analysis. But that’s just uncharitable. Most analytic philosophers are only committed to the weaker, commonsense assumption that some interpretations are *more* fruitful than others.

2. You claim that philosophers take seriously the question of what (e.g.) “table” refers to—they assume that it has a unique, determinate answer. I don’t know what philosophers you have in mind, but I think most would disagree with you.

To take an obvious example, lots of philosophers have noted that people use the word “table” to refer both to abstract objects and their concrete instances. (Frege’s notion of “abstract object” bears fruit!) Just off the top of my head, I know Chomsky makes this claim in New Horizons, Harman echoes it in his review, and Rosen makes it in his work (including his SEP article). I even remember learning this point from other undergrads while I was at UT Austin. (Though not all parties just mentioned have the same opinion the semantic/speaker reference distinction.)

Still, you’re right that lots of philosophers think there’s a genuine question as to what sort of concrete beast “table” refers to. (Sider thinks tables are non-fundamental 4-D spacetime worms, some think tables are enduring 3-D objects, van Inwagen thinks tables don’t exist, and so on.) But it’s not fair to say that these philosophers just *assume* that they’re asking substantive questions. If anything, philosophers working in metaphysics seem to be especially aware of the “meta” issues in their field. (Just look at Metametaphysics.)

3. What about Carnap-inspired “quizzicalists” like Yablo and Chalmers? I don’t think it’s fair to say that they’re outside of the philosophical mainstream. http://www.mit.edu/~yablo/om.pdf

4. How on earth could brain scans bear on the debate over compositional nihilism? My impression is that we’re nowhere near being able to extract even fairly basic information about lexemes from neurological data. But I might be wrong. (Parthian shot: I don’t think it’s so obvious that any amount of info about our concepts of composite objects will settle the question of whether composite objects exist—or the question of what metaontological view we should adopt here.)Report

Marcus Arvan
6 years ago

Hi Daniel: Thanks for continuing the conversation, and pressing me on this stuff! It’s really good to think about and discuss. Who knows, maybe I have it all wrong! 🙂

1. You write: “I have trouble even imagining your second point being true (unless you have some especially strict notion of permissibility in mind). Take two permissible interpretations of “abstract object”: Quine’s and Frege’s. Quine says that abstract object =df universal. Frege says (according to Rosen) that abstract object =df non-mental & non-sensible object. On the face of it, Frege’s notion is obviously more fruitful. What good is there in having another synonym for “universal,” itself a vague and shifty term of art? But according to you, just in virtue of the fact that “abstract object” is a vague concept, neither interpretation can be more fruitful than the other. I’m not sure why anyone should believe that, nor can I make sense of the claim that this follows from the nature of vague concept-hood. A fruitful interpretation is one that yields new tools for understanding issues that matter. Not all interpretations will yield the same tools. Isn’t that just common sense?”

I reply: Yeah, sorry–I’ve been overgeneralizing a bit in some places. One of the things I’ve tried to emphasize in various places is that I’m *not* knocking all conceptual analysis. The way I’ve put it, only some kinds of conceptual analysis are problematic and unfruitful. Vague terms have two features: (1) relatively clear central domains of application, where there may be more fruitful ways to theorize about the concept, and (2) penumbral areas, where I do not think there is any fact of the matter to be discovered. I think what Quine and Frege are both doing here is providing different theories of the *central* notion of an “abstract object.” I think this is fruitful, and indeed, as you say, that Frege’s notion is the more fruitful of the two (though I’m not an expert in these areas). What I think is problematic is when we delve into debates–such as mereology debates over nihilism/compositionalism–that the very concepts at issue lack enough determinacy or “friction” (to use Wittgenstein’s imagery of a perfectly slippery surface) to provide any well-motivated grounds for proceeding further. Does that make sense?

2. You then write: “You claim that philosophers take seriously the question of what (e.g.) “table” refers to—they assume that it has a unique, determinate answer. I don’t know what philosophers you have in mind, but I think most would disagree with you.

To take an obvious example, lots of philosophers have noted that people use the word “table” to refer both to abstract objects and their concrete instances. (Frege’s notion of “abstract object” bears fruit!) Just off the top of my head, I know Chomsky makes this claim in New Horizons, Harman echoes it in his review, and Rosen makes it in his work (including his SEP article). I even remember learning this point from other undergrads while I was at UT Austin. (Though not all parties just mentioned have the same opinion the semantic/speaker reference distinction.)”

I reply: I think you’re misunderstanding my claim a bit. When you say lots of philosophers use the word “table” to refer to both abstract objects and concrete instances, *that* is a unique, determinate answer (“table” refers to those actual and possible objects!). Anyway, the point you’re making here–about different people defending different answers as to what “table” picks out (actual tables, abstract tables, etc.)–sort of misses my point, which is simply that, in ontology and metaphysics more generally, philosophers presuppose that concepts (“table”, “object”, etc.) have well-defined phenomena that *answer* to them (i.e. relatively determinate satisfaction-conditions). If you want to know in more detail what the view I think philosophers have here, and what I think is wrong with it, see Avner Baz’s 2014 article in PPR, “Recent Attempts to Defend the Philosophical Method of Cases and the Linguistic (Re)turn” (http://philpapers.org/rec/BAZRAT ). In brief, I think what he thinks. 🙂 I think a lot of metaphysics presupposes a conception of language that is arguably false, and which has not been sufficiently defended by its many (tacit) proponents.

3. You write: “What about Carnap-inspired “quizzicalists” like Yablo and Chalmers? I don’t think it’s fair to say that they’re outside of the philosophical mainstream. http://www.mit.edu/~yablo/om.pdf

I reply: I’m right with them! But, suffice it to say, although Chalmers and Yablo are enormous names in the field, I don’t think their worries have been sufficiently well appreciated…though I am optimistic, given that so many people are increasingly raising similar worries!

4. You write: “How on earth could brain scans bear on the debate over compositional nihilism? My impression is that we’re nowhere near being able to extract even fairly basic information about lexemes from neurological data. But I might be wrong. (Parthian shot: I don’t think it’s so obvious that any amount of info about our concepts of composite objects will settle the question of whether composite objects exist—or the question of what metaontological view we should adopt here.)”

I reply: Oh, I don’t think brain scans could *settle* the debate, so much as they could show that the debate itself is ill-motivated (that we simply have vague concepts, and that the composition/nihilism debate is the result of their vagueness). You’re broadly right about lexemes, but I believe that what we do know about the brain–namely, that (1) lexemes are mapped in *some* way across the surface of the cortex (which we know through individual neuron stimulation), and (2) the relevant neural networks are massively replicated across many lower layers (i.e. there are many, many “near copies” of each circuit–strongly suggest the view of vagueness I favor (roughly, the one Diana Raffman defends–one that I defend on similar grounds as her in an unpublished manuscript from several years ago).

Anyway, thanks again for such a good discussion!Report

Daniel Munoz
Daniel Munoz
6 years ago

No, thank you! I think I understand the intended scope of your remarks now, and I think you’ve made a good case for them. Thanks for the great discussion–I can’t remember the last time I had an argument in a comments section and walked away feeling pleasant about the whole thing. 🙂Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
6 years ago

Cool – it’s even nice “meeting you.” Hopefully some day we’ll be able to talk shop in person! 🙂Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
6 years ago

Darn auto-correct. I just meant to type it was nice to meet you, not that it was “even” nice to meet you! 😛Report