Monday, September 25, 2006

Does Conceptual Analysis Have Practical Significance?

I've been puzzling over the proposed motivation for Carrie Jenkins' fun paper on the philosophy of flirting. She writes:
What is it to flirt? Do you have to intend to flirt with someone in order to count as doing so? Can such things as dressing a certain way count as flirting? Can one flirt with an AI character? With one's own long-term partner? With an idea?

The question of whether or not an act of flirtation has taken place is often highly significant in our practical decision-making. For example, one may want to know whether or not one's partner has been flirting with other people in order to decide whether to continue the relationship. Or one may want to know whether two of one's friends have been flirting with each other in order to decide whether to give them some time alone. To facilitate such decisions, it would be helpful to have a secure grasp on what flirting actually amounts to.

Is that really true? Surely what's significant here is the underlying behaviour, not whether it falls under our concept of "flirting". If you're wondering whether to give two friends some time alone, presumably you should consider their desires, as reflected in their behaviour; I don't see what's gained by consulting your linguisitic intuitions about how to describe their behaviour. You know, "a rose by any other name..." and all that.

Of course, if you're interested in exploring a concept for its own sake, I have no objection to that. I'm merely puzzled by how it could prove "helpful" in any broader sense, since as a general rule only extra-linguistic facts have practical significance, right? (It can be theoretically useful to clear up conceptual confusions, of course, but that's a different matter.) When we care about flirting, i.e. the behaviour actually referred to by the word 'flirting', it's the behaviour we care about, not how we refer to it. (If it turns out that 'flirting' actually means something different from what we thought, that shouldn't change how you treat your friends!) Or am I missing something here?

4 comments:

  1. I'm certainly interested in knowing when certain behaviour falls under the concept of 'flirting' and when it does not fall under the concept. One concern brought out in the paper is that there are certain patterns of behaviour that mirror flirtatious behaviour without being agent actually flirting.

    The point you are missing is that when my wife accusses me of flirting with the sales girl because I engaged in some witty banter I need some objection at hand. I can now protest that I never acted with the intention of raising the flirtee romance to salience in a knowing yet playful way. Lacking that necessary condition I was not engaged in flirting. So she can get mad if she'd like, but she can't accuse me of flirting! ;)

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  2. Matthew:

    As I understand the matter, your last line really serves to demonstrate Richard's point. The point is that you have not gone very far to establishing whether or not your action was right simply by demonstrating that your action did not fall under the category of "flirtatious" behaviour. There remains the question of whether or not your action was a good sort of non-flirting or a bad sort of non-flirting. If this is true, your conceptual analysis does not ease tensions between you and your wife. In fact, it may even exacerbate them, if it turns out that your non-flirtatious behaviour was the bad sort, it which case your wife may get even madder at you for trying to evade censure with a philosophical quibble. Or perhaps I am being a bit of a kill-joy here!?

    Perhaps the puzzlement would disappear if it were true that there is necessarily no such thing as bad non-flirtatious behaviour (in some sense: clearly one can do an awful lot of bad things without doing any flirting). That is, if the conceptual analysis began on the assumption that no non-flirtatious behaviour can be bad (in some sense).

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  3. Matthew:

    As I understand it, your last line serves to demonstrate Richard’s point. The point is that you have not gone very far towards establishing whether or not your behaviour was reprehensible just by establishing that your behaviour does not fall under the category of “flirtatious” behaviour. There remains the question of whether your non-flirtatious behaviour was of the reprehensible sort or the non-reprehensible sort. Hence your conceptual analysis may not ease tensions with your partner. In fact, it may even exacerbate them: if it turns out that your behaviour was of the reprehensible sort, your wife may be justified in getting mad at you for trying to evade censure with a philosophical quibble!

    Perhaps some of the puzzlement would disappear if it were clearly true that the reprehensible-non-reprehensible distinction mapped cleanly onto the flirtatious-non-flirtatious distinction. Perhaps it is part of our concept of “flirtation” that it will always be reprehensible to behave flirtatiously and always all right to behave non-flirtatiously (in some sense: clearly one can do an awful lot of bad things without doing any flirting). A possible analogy is the concept of “murder”: there is a lot of moral force behind an accusation of “murder”, because the behaviour in the “murder” category is all bad. On the other hand, this moral force is no longer directed at a person when their behaviour is known to fall outside the “murder” category.

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