Sunday, May 23, 2004

Conceptual Nominalism

This post will give a brief overview of the 'universals debate' in metaphysics, and my thoughts on it.

A 'universal' is special sort of entity, one which can be possessed or exemplified by many different objects ('particulars') simultaneously. The idea is that when different objects agree in attribute, this is because there is some part of them which is literally shared by both: namely, that they both exemplify the same universal. For example, when we say "Socrates and Plato are both wise", we are saying that they both possess the same special entity (universal) of 'wisdom'.

At least, that's what metaphysical realists suggest. Nominalists, however, deny that (mind- and language-independent) universals exist. They say there is not actually any such entity as 'wisdom' (for example) floating around in the world. To say 'Socrates is wise' is taken to be a basic unanalysable fact about the particular thing that is Socrates (rather than interpreting it to mean 'Socrates possesses the universal of wisdom', which the realist takes as being the basic unanalysable fact).

I see realism here as a sort of last-resort: we really want to be able to explain the world without postulating any unnecessary entities (ya know, Ockham's Razor and all that). The question then, is whether universals are necessary...

The challenge for Nominalism:
The biggest problem for nominalism is to explain our use of abstract reference (eg 'Wisdom is a virtue', or 'Red is my favourite colour'), i.e how it is that we can speak truly about universals if they don't exist. The usual method of response is to somehow translate sentences which seem to be about universals, to instead be about something else (and so avoiding any mention of universals. Adjectives are okay, since they merely describe particulars. What we need to avoid are those dratted abstract nouns!). The big question is what that 'something else' should be.

Austere nominalism suggests the answer is particular objects (eg 'wisdom is a virtue' gets translated as something like 'wise things are virtuous things'). Such translations can run into difficulties however (though I won't go into details here), so this seems a less than ideal option.

Metalinguistic nominalism recommends interpreting talk about universals as instead being talk about language. Here, 'wisdom is a virtue' becomes 'the word "wise" is a virtue predicate', and 'courage is a property' becomes 'the word "couragous" is an adjective', etc. This can eventually form a coherent (and not too complicated) theory, but it's so counter-intuitive I find it difficult not to discard the whole approach as just plain wrong. After all, we generally think that when we're talking about wisdom, we're really talking about the concept of wisdom, rather than something so trivial as the mere word.

So that suggests an alternative answer... that talk about universals is really talk about concepts.

Conceptual nominalism:
I'm kind of making this section up as I go along - there was nothing on it in the textbook, and our lecturer only mentioned the possibility in passing, so I don't know what the details are supposed to be like. So I'm making up my own details. Here goes...

It might be thought that concepts are universals, that this position is no different from realism. However, recall that the realist's universals are supposed to be mind- and language-independent; entities which really exist out there in the world somewhere (though possibly outside of space & time). Concepts, by contrast, are mind-dependent; they only exist in people's minds.

Apart from that crucial difference, I do see concepts as being fairly similar to how a realist conceives of universals. A few key points though:

1) Predication: Objects may 'exemplify' concepts, but they do so in the sense of 'being a good example of', rather than the 'possession' associated with universals. That is, an object exemplifies a concept if it shows relevant similarities to the paradigmatic instance of a concept. For example, we have a concept of 'wisdom', and a rough idea of what it means for someone to be wise. So when we say that 'Socrates is wise', we are saying that Socrates is relevantly similar to this paradigmatic case we have in mind (i.e. Socrates behaves in a relevantly similar way to how our idealised conception of a 'wise person' behaves).

2) Attribute agreement: Similarly, to say that 2 objects agree in attribute is not to say that they share some metaphysical essence, but rather, it is because we see them both as exemplifying (being a good example of) a single concept we have in mind.

3) Abstract reference (i.e. abstract nouns like 'wisdom') is used not to refer to universals out in the world, but rather, concepts within our own minds. To say that 'wisdom is a virtue' is to say "I have this concept of wisdom, which exemplifies ('is a good example of') this other concept of virtue".
That translation only sounds complicated because I also had to include the explanation of predication (for the general 'X is a virtue'; see #1 above).

For a simpler example: 'Bob prefers red to blue' becomes 'Bob prefers the concept of red to the concept of blue'. It's an extremely simple procedure - whenever you come across an apparent reference to a universal, simply replace it with a reference to the appropriate particular concept.

So... that's my initial (rough) thoughts, anyway. Do let me know if you see any flaws, or have any suggestions, etc.


  1. Can concepts change? ie. when the definition of the word "wisdom" or the word "morality" changes through the course of history (and surely you can agree that it does) does the "concept" change? Supposing that concepts do change over time and, further, that they differ between people (which, if a person's personal definition of a word is in their experience of the use of that word, seems a plausible assertion) then what can you mean when you ask a qeustion such as "what is morality?", or "what is an object?". If the answer that these questions demand is a description of the "concept" that the word in the question refers to, then the question (and therefore the answer) will be different for everyone. I hope that makes sense.

  2. The standard account would say that concepts are static, but if our words change then they might start referring to subtly different concepts from what they used to.

    For your second point, I'd agree that such questions can only have determinate answers within a single linguistic community (i.e. who all mean the same thing by the word "morality", or whatever). If you're talking about different things then that causes problems, as you note. But I think most of us do have the same concept in mind when we use these words. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to talk about them -- we'd be speaking different languages.

  3. Yes, I think we do speak slightly different languages, but in the *stream of life*, in ordinary discourse, the differences are slight enough to make communication and understanding possible; and it is only when we demand from language a precision and detail greater than that which language has evolved to handle (ie. when we do philosophy) that we run into difficulties, and start looking for a universality that does not exist. One way, I suppose, is to give up on the English language altogether, and do maths. The other is to do philosphy, and try to modify the meanings of ordinary words, or create new words, to give us the precision that we want. But both of these things make the results of the inquiry less comprehensible to ordinary language users, if not less true.

    On a slightly different matter, I notice that you describe metaphysics as "mathematics with meaning." I thought differently. I always felt it was more like science with words: seeking elegant generalisations to describe sets of empirical facts (like the fact that people have learnt to associate the sound "object" with the physical thing "apple", and not with the things Mars and apple combined. The problem with this method, I always thought, was that language seems to have developed much more haphazardly and lawlessly than nature, and so generalisations are hard to make, and hard to make elegantly.

    Perhaps it is more useful - rather than asking what an "object" is - to ask why people apply the word "object" to the things that they do, and why we developed the word "object" in the first place. I think that if we asked "why do we have the word "morality"? ", we might produce something more interesting. But that is to turn metaphysics into anthropology, and I am not sure if philosphers want that.

    What are your thoughts?

  4. Yes, evolutionary biologists and game theorists have much of interest to say about the historical origins of morality. But that isn't really philosophy any more. Metaphysics is about what is, not what words people say and why. Both questions are legitimate, for sure, but it's the first sort that philosophers are interested in.

  5. I've just realised that you have said most of what I said, in a more compact way, in "Multiplicity".

    "We define objects in terms of the general categories we feel they 'fit' in to. It is both useful and necessary to do so. But we should never forget that such descriptions are incomplete; there are always further properties that have gone unnoticed. So we should beware of focussing on a single feature as if it as if it exhaustively defined the object."

    1) What does it mean to find out what “is” if it does not mean to “exhaustively define” reality, and should we “beware” of the attempt? It is true that, even if we cannot exhaustively describe reality, then we can at least find a (metaphorical?) description that is consistent with our experience of physical reality, our uses of words, and our ideas about internal coherence. But the whole point of metaphysics, as I see it, is to do more than simply define reality with better and better approximations – rather, it aspires to something complete, eternal and perfect, and if we admit that such a thing is impossible then we must admit that the aspirations of metaphysics are thwarted in advance.

    2) In another post, you outline your ideal approaches to metaphysics, and I am puzzled by the phrases:

    a) “try to spin them together into a coherent, conceptually simple, system of understanding.”

    b) “What we need instead, is a presentation of the metaphysics underlying scientific materialism/physicalism.”

    To b), I ask: what does it to give a “presentation”? Does it mean a definition of concepts using abstract philosophical terms, or does it mean a kind of all-encompassing metaphor that everyone can just picture, and say “ah, this is all” ? In my (limited) experience, metaphysics (think caves and suns, bundles and loaves and windowless nomads etc.) is inclined to towards the latter, and a) and b) show how central metaphors are to any understanding of things. I know what it is to “spin together” a set of threads, and I see how the completed garment might relate to the original threads, but what does it really mean to “spin together” a system? In b), doesn’t the word “underlying” play on our (possible erroneous) instinct that everything must be “grounded” upon something that “lies beneath it.” ?

    Also, whose notion of a “conceptually simple system of understanding” do you want to realize? A completed String Theory might give mathematicians a “conceptually simple system of understanding”, but for most people the only “conceptually simple” part would be the image of long threads being knitted together in a kind of gigantic cosmic sock.

    3) I do not see how we can make sense of the question “What is?” unless we have some idea of what we mean by the word “is” in the question. Clearly some notion of “concept” is essential here, or else the answer to the question is the same as the answer to the question “What is X?” (ie. either “whatever we have previously defined X to be” or “lets answer a more useful question.”)

    4) But I remain unconvinced by your word “concept”, or at least of its necessity.

    As I understand it, your main objection to metalinguistic nominalism is that it is counter-intuitive. You say that your intuition is that “we generally think that when we're talking about wisdom, we're really talking about the concept of wisdom, rather than something so trivial as the mere word.” I think that if you treat our “mere words” (by which I presume you mean mere lines on a page, or mere sounds) more sympathetically, that will seem less counter intuitive. Instead of “something so trivial as the mere word”, I suggest something like: “the physical objects (people and utterances) that we have learnt to refer to with the word “wisdom”, and also to the memories we have of those physical objects, memories which the word “wisdom” also refers us to.”

    I suppose this veers towards austere nominalism, but I can’t see where objections to this theory might come from. Can you point me towards a book?

    4) In your brief sketch of conceptual nominalism, you don’t say much about your idea/concept/linguistic understanding of the word “concept.” Can you say what you mean by “concept”? - supposing that question means giving a metaphorical description of how “concepts” fit into a mind, and how they relate to one another.

    5) (Please note: the rest of this is guesswork, metaphor and speculation.) I guess that the answer to the question in 4) (and I am not sure if this is a question that you are interested in) would go something like this. “Concepts are discreet entities that exist in the mind and are either extremely strong and durable, or do not change at all. There may or may not be an infinite number of them, but they are all distinct from each other. They fit into the mind like the electrons in the plum-pudding model of the atom. To each of these concept-particles there is a word, which we use to refer to the concept. To answer the question “what is a [insert concept]” is to put the concept into words, which means relating the given concept to one or more other concepts. (I presume that there is a “concept” for each kind of physical object, as well as for each kind of abstract noun.).”

    At least, this is what I intuitively imagine when I think of “concept.” I think that this intuition might be wrong or misleading. Instead, we might say that there is a kind of concept ‘stuff’, in which there are an infinite number of latent concepts, which can be picked out in any way, and which we pick out but giving them a word. Perhaps we can update the plum-pudding model to something more akin to the quantum description of electrons in an atom.

    In other words, and other metaphors: “We imagine the entire 'loaf' of the mind at any particular moment, then we say that every portion (or combination of portions) of the loaf counts as a ‘concept’. Pick and choose whatever you want, and you get a ‘concept’. The extreme generality is almost beautiful.”

    I have quite brutally paraphrased you here, but there might be something in it. The point is that, by seeing concepts in this way, we can recognize a) that there is something we call a mind, with something in it that is able to somehow “contain” things like “wisdom” and “redness” and b) that the mind-entities that these words refer to are inherently arbitrary and transient.

    I you've read all of that, I sympathise.

  6. Interesting comment! I can't respond to all of it right now, but I can at least answer your book request. Check out Metaphysics: a contemporary introduction by Michael Loux. For a more compact summary, see my overview of the universals debate (which is better than this post).

  7. Sorry about the length - I grimace every time I read the first line.

    To head off on a normal for a moment:

    I saw somewhere that you had written some fiction. The English department puts out an anthology each year (you may have seen the posters) called "defect perfection." If you think your storie(s) are any good, or if you have written anything that might be relevant to a Cultural anthology (God knows we need a bit of Philosophy in there) - Fiction?, Linguistics? Aesthetics? (although I haven't found any of that yet, on your blog), then point them out and I'll do the rest.

    It's an annual publication, and although it has a far narrower readership than Canta, it does target a slightly different audience. If nothing else, you'ld get to write more than 500 words (where were your five-hundred words this week? have you stopped altogether?)

  8. This is to elaborate on a claim that I made in my second comment above, about "concepts", everyday speech, and precision in language

    A group of contributors recently devoted 13 rather long and occasionally fractious comments to an argument over this:

    “My claim is that well-being is not just something that happens in our minds. It partly depends upon the external world - a factor which may not be epistemically available to us. In other words, how well-off we are depends on more than just what we know. It also depends on how things really are.”

    There are two possibilities here, both of which suggest (I think) that all that time could have been spent more profitably on something else.

    1) That the quoted claim is not precisely what all the disputants had in mind as they argued, and that is why they disagreed. In that case, the discussion could have been greatly shortened if the point at hand had been stated clearly, and kept in mind, throughout.

    2) That the claim above is pretty much what everyone had in mind, and that everyone involved interpreted the claim in the same way. In this case, I do not see why the point could not be settled by consulting a good dictionary. I suspect that this would yield a more objective and more widely applicable answer to the problem, on the basis that: firstly, there would be less matter for discussion, and so there would be less danger of peoples’ personalities interfering; and, secondly, that lexicographers are probably more sensitive to the meanings, connotations and nuances of words than philosophers.

    I strongly suspect that the results of the dictionary inquiry would not be to every philosopher’s taste – that is, “well-being” is probably used differently in different situations. My instinct (made solely on the basis of having read, written and spoken the English language for a slightly above-average fraction of my life) is that “well-being” can be used to mean either objective or subjective “desire-satisfaction” (although the dictionary probably does not suggest that hyphened word as a synonym for "well-being", because most people do not use it. I do not see why we want to reach conclusions based on words that are foreign to most people.), with a strong tendency towards the “subjective” bit. If (as I suppose) the dictionary definition is not precise enough to favour either side decisively, I think that:

    a) since this ill-defined word “well-being” was used repeatedly during the discussion, it is no surprise that noone could agree on the stated claim.
    b) there is a possibility that someone would suggest defining “well-being” more precisely, to make it favour one side decisively. I do not know what anyone could possibly hope to gain by doing this.

    In light of the above, I speculate that:

    a) To assume that everyone has a precise “concept” of “well-being”, and that the solution to the problem is merely to describe that concept accurately, is mistaken, unreasonable, and time-consuming.
    b) We should spend more time consulting dictionaries.
    c)It is true that arguments such as the argument about "well-being" and "happiness" give people practise in exercising their literary, analytical and communicative skills, that these are very useful skills in many contexts, and that dicussing something like "well-being" can lead one into inquiries about other things. However, I think there are enough difficult problems in the world without spending time on the less useful ones.

    What are your thoughts?

  9. Nah, dictionaries are useless for philosophy. We weren't arguing about what the word "wellbeing" meant. Rather, we were arguing about what is really good for an individual, i.e. what is in their self-interest. The disagreement was substantive, not terminological. If you want to define "wellbeing" to mean subjective happiness, then I would instead ask whether this is what's really important, or if instead objective desire-fulfilment is what matters. There's a real issue here that cannot be defined away. (Indeed, one would hope that all philosophy involves substantive rather than merely terminological issues. Who cares about words? They're just tools we use; what really matters is what lies beneath, i.e. concepts and reality.)

    I agree with you that the word "well-being" is unimportant. But well-being (the real thing) is of vast importance. Indeed, what could be more important than inquiring into what makes the well-lived life?

    I'd add that it seems awfully anti-intellectual to say that philosophical questions are not sufficiently "useful". What would be more useful? Should we go into carpentry instead? But what is the use of creating consumer goods? People these days are so obsessed with means that they lose sight of the ends. Things are only useful insofar as they bring about something that is of value in itself. So you see the importance of being "useful" is parasitic on the importance of being intrinsically valuable. And philosophical inquiry is intrinsically valuable. This is better than merely being useful. (Compare: "what's the use of saving lives?" This is obviously a silly question. There is no "use". It is valuable in itself.)

    We must ask: "useful for what?" People assume that so-called "useful" trades serve a valuable purpose. But do they really? This, of course, is a philosophical question. If you deny that philosophy has value in itself, you are making a philosophical claim. The practice is, in this sense, immune from criticism.

    P.S. I haven't written any fiction for a while. But I'll get in touch with you if I ever do. (Though I don't know that it was much good anyway.) And my Canta columns are fortnightly -- there should be something in there next week.

    Also, if your comments don't display immediately, just try pressing refresh. Alternatively, clicking the "X comments" link, below the main post, will bring up a window showing all the comments, so you can check if your new one is there.

  10. Thanks for your reply – I agree that these matters are well worth discussing. I am also afraid that we might end up doing exactly the same thing as the contributors in the “well-being” discussion, which wouldn’t do my argument much good. Because of this, I have tried to make my self as clear as possible, which is why this is so bloody long. To help things out, I will lay down my prejudices here.

    1) A tendency towards visual things.
    2) What might be called a Wittgenstinian bias. That is, a general belief that “the meaning of language is in its use”, that “the sense of the world lies outside the world”, and that one of the important tasks of philosophy is to work out which philosophical questions are worth asking, and which are not.
    3) A superstition that many careful thinkers are beset by Platonic superstitions. (This is closely connected with 2). I have tried to get rid of this prejudice, and would be grateful to anyone who can remove it for me. In the meantime I will continue to hold it, because there is no point just replacing one prejudice with another one.)
    4) Whatever prejudices attach themselves to an English student.

    Right. Here are three responses to your comment.

    Response 1)

    In my last comment, I did not put my last sentences very well. It should have read: “However, I think there are enough difficult problems for philosophers to solve without spending time on the less useful philosophical problems.” I did not mean to imply that philosophy as a whole is not useful.

    (Nevertheless, I can’t resist responding to your point.

    “I'd add that it seems awfully anti-intellectual to say that philosophical questions are not sufficiently "useful". What would be more useful? Should we go into carpentry instead? But what is the use of creating consumer goods? People these days are so obsessed with means that they lose sight of the ends. Things are only useful insofar as they bring about something that is of value in itself. So you see the importance of being "useful" is parasitic on the importance of being intrinsically valuable. And philosophical inquiry is intrinsically valuable. This is better than merely being useful. (Compare: "what's the use of saving lives?" This is obviously a silly question. There is no "use". It is valuable in itself.)”

    I quote this in full because I am confused by it. To help things, here is a list of what I think is valuable in philosophical inquiry:

    a) It helps people to find out what they want in their lives (or what they desire, or what gives them well-being, or what is genuinely important, or however you wish to put it. I think that reducing all of these things to “what people want” is much the same as reducing “morality” to “what people ought to do”, and just as valid).
    b) It helps people to find out what other people want in their lives (or desire, and so on)
    c) It helps to tell us how to arrange things (govt, society, education etc) so that as many people as possible can get want they want, without hindering other people too much in getting what those other people want.
    d) It brings people to a better understanding of what they mean when they use language, and of how to communicate their meaning precisely to other people. In other words, it helps people to agree on things. This is important, because there is no point arriving at a truth if no-one can agree on it.
    e) In general terms, it helps to refine people’s reasoning power, which is valuable. This is valuable for the same reason that it is valuable for some people to listen to Mozart even though most people listen to pop music. That is, it sustains an ideal, so that people are not fooled by the imitations.
    f) It has more immediate effects as well. For example, it gives people challenging intellectual problems to solve, which people often find stimulating and enjoyable. People who are good at doing these things get a sense of pride out of it, which is obviously good for them. (Or good to them – I’m not sure which one)
    g) It gives practitioners the feeling that they are doing something important and meaningful. (I do not deny that what they do is important and meaningful. I just say that this feeling/knowledge gives a sense of security and gratification, which is valuable.) I use “meaning” in two senses. Firstly, in the historical sense: philosophy has such a long and influential history, that the sense of carrying on a strong and important tradition is very alluring, and very hard to resist. Secondly, in the contemporary sense, for the reasons given in a) to d).

    I do not see how any of these reasons make philosophy any more than “instrumentally useful.” I agree that it may be more valuable than carpentry in some ways, but I do not see how this is a difference of kind, and not one of quantity. You may add more of your own reasons for valuing philosophy, and I will probably agree with them. You may also subtract some from my list. I cannot understand, however, how one can judge the “value” of Philosophy (or of most things) except by considering the effects that it has; that is, on its usefulness. Nor do I see how saving lives is “intrinsically valuable”, while something like carpentry is only “instrumentally valuable”. As I see it, “saving lives” is valuable because, if it is done, people are allowed to carry on with what they want to do (whether they want to do carpentry, philosophise, travel, drink beer, read or have lots of sex). If “saving lives” did not achieve these things, or any other such things (like averting painful deaths, or averting the pain of those who would lose close friends etc.), then we would not call it valuable. Carpentry is valuable because, if it is practiced well, people are able to live in houses that are warm and safe. It is also valuable for the carpentry equivalents of f) and g). I agree that it is much more important for someone to save five or ten lives (pick a number) in a day than it is for a carpenter to hammer a few nails into a piece of wood, but I still do not see how one can be described as “intrinsically” valuable while the other one is just “useful.”

    The only things I have mentioned that I might call “intrinsically valuable” are those things that apply directly to people. That is: self-pride, varied and stimulating work, security, basic material comforts, sex (physical elation and emotional intimacy), companionship, enjoyable leisure activities.

    But perhaps you mean something different from me when you use the words “intrinsic” ,“useful” and “instrumental.” If you do, I do not think it is that important that we argue over which definitions are better. If you agree with a)-f), and do not have any reasons to add to them, then I think that is enough to show that we are in agreement on this matter. In this case, I do not think there is much use looking for new ways of disagreeing)

    Response 2)

    I am still nonplussed by your attitude towards words, concepts and meanings. I am not sure how to present my ideas so that you can see what I am getting at, but here is another attempt. (If you can point out where I am going wrong, or why we differ so much, I would be grateful. I hope that does not sound sarcastic, because it is not meant to.)

    I am thinking, in particular, about the following statement. (I have selected this one because it seems to show your position most clearly, and because it supports my case most strongly.)

    “I agree with you that the word "well-being" is unimportant. But well-being (the real thing) is of vast importance. Indeed, what could be more important than inquiring into what makes the well-lived life?”

    I will ignore the third sentence here, because (as “indeed” implies) it is a rephrasing of the other two sentences. Now, to the other two sentences.

    As you put it, the thing that is of “vast importance” is to find out about the “real thing” called “well-being.” That is, you want to describe the “real thing” called “well-being.” When you use the word the second time, you italicise it, and call it the “real thing.” This suggests that you are using that word (“well-being”) to point to something in the real world, or in my mind, and that that thing is the thing that we want to describe. You seem to be pointing to this thing, “well-being”, in the same way that someone points to a “real apple” when they want to begin a discussion about what the apple is. (Is that right?) In the apple case, there is clearly some object in the world to describe. In the “well-being” case, I do not know what it is that you are pointing at (if it is not the word “well-being”). You suggest two possibilities, and I will look at them in turn.

    1) Something in “reality”. In this case, I presume you mean all those people who exhibit what we call “well-being”. But how do we know who those people are, unless we already know what you mean when you use the word “well-being” to refer to them? If we knew that, we would be able to go into reality and find the people you mean. If you could bring these people (the real people) to us, then that would also be helpful. However, if neither of these things happen, then each one of us must either a) confess that we do not know what you are asking us or b) assume that the group of real people whom we consider to exhibit “well-being” is the same group of people that everyone else considers to exhibit “well—being.” The following would result:

    From case a): We would request a new question, possibly a new philosophical question. (This is what I meant by turning to something more “useful.”)

    From case b): I can see two reasons why the discussion resulting from case b) is unlikely to be very useful. Firstly, because it is highly unlikely that we would agree on our various chosen “groups of people” and, because we would never actually state the make-up of these various groups during the discussion, we would probably disagree in our descriptions of “well-being”, without knowing why we were disagreeing. Secondly, if everyone’s group of people was the same, there would be very little point holding the discussion, since the whole point of the discussion is to find what it is to be a person with “well-being.” It would be like standing in front of a group of apples, and describing the essential features of each one, just so that we knew what we had to pick when we went fruit picking. We could work out what fruit to pick just by looking at some real examples of apples. We would not need to discuss it.

    2) Something in our heads. You call this a “concept.” In your head, you probably have a “concept” of “well-being”, and this is what you want to describe when you discuss “well-being.” I put quotation marks around the word “concept” because I do not know what you mean by the word “concept.” I described what I think you might mean by “concept” in a comment above. I do not know what you yourself mean by a “concept.” However, I gave some reasons for thinking that the concept of “well-being” (like the concept of “concept”) that is in your head is likely to be different from that in my head. It is also likely to be different from that in the heads of a)many of the people alive today and b)most people who were alive once, and are now dead. I suggested above that these concepts of “well-being” are (like words) usually similar enough to make ordinary discourse about “well-being” quite easy and sensible. I then said that philosophical discourse about such things tends to show up the differences between the “concepts” that different people have in their head. You argue that “most of us do have the same concept in mind when we use these words. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to talk about them -- we'd be speaking different languages.” I argue that some philosophical discussions do indeed involve two or more people speaking different languages.

    I do not want to say that all philosophical discussions are like this, or even that most of them are. I want to say that we should be more wary of the kind of discussions that are most likely to lead to this kind of confusion and disagreement. I agree that the “apple” analogy is flawed, and probably points towards some reasons why philosophy is so useful (for creating more precise distinctions between different kinds of apples, perhaps, or for making sure people can come to agreement when they dispute which kind of apples are which, and so on.) I even think that a discussion about how philosophical discussion differs from the apple analogy might be quite fruitful. Nevertheless, these things do not change the fact that philosophers always in danger of arguing over matters that are not very useful, and sometimes almost absurd in their lack of usefulness.
    (For example: your discussion with Jason (sic.) about Egoism is not "absurd", but I think that you two agree on much more than your language seems to suggest. But I think I have written enough.)

    Response 3)

    I think that the concept of “well-being” that most people hold has a lot to do with the things that I listed in the penultimate paragraph of the piece in parenthesis. If anyone wants to find something higher or greater or more pleasurable than these things, then I wish them luck.

  11. STOP STOP STOP AND CEASE, AND QUIT AND HALT AND STOP AND ABATE, YOU Bold Browser and Intrepid Thinker. If you are scrolling down the tenth comment STOP NOW and read this instead because the only merit of the above comment is the answer it gives to the question that philosophers the whole earth and history over have been asking, which is of course: “if a dog is barking up the wrong tree, and there is noone around to hear, is he still talking nonsense?” The answer is of course yes, except I think that there is a lesson to be learnt from the above, namely: if you want to get anywhere at all, make sure you look up now and then - at the very least you’ll avoid going round in circles, and if you’re still hanging around, Richard, I think we will be speaking the same language by the end of this comment.

    Right, here’s the problem. We are NOT, as I suggested above, trying to answer the question “What is well-being”, or even “What is WELL BEING (THE REAL THING)”, or even “What is WELL BEING (THE REAL THING – THE REALLY, REALLY REAL THING)”. Nor are we answering the question “what is good for us as individuals?”, nor even “what is really important to us?” We are not answering any of these questions, UNLESS these questions are taken be the question that everyone is trying to answer and everyone has a different word for: “What do I want”. In other words, the question: “here are two states of being to choose from: if you had to choose one of them, what would you do?”
    We are not looking at a bunch of apples and trying to describe them. We are describing different apples to each other and trying to choose between them. (“Um…the green one” “Are you sure?” “Yes, green is nature's velvet ink.” “Yes, but are you REALLY sure, and don’t you see that everyone who has chosen the green apple has died instantly or suffered strange and terrible diseases?” “Oh” etc.)

    Is that right? Good. I’m not sure if that is an insight or a colossal piece of stupidity, but either way I still think that using words like “well-being” and “the really important things” to refer to “what people want” can be very misleading. Firstly, because not every state that we describe as a “state of well-being” is a state that everyone would want, or one that everyone would distinguish from a state we describe as “not well-being” (a point that some of the thought experiments bring out, I think). Secondly, it is very confusing when you use the words “well-live life” to refer to “the kind of life I want”. One seems to refer (the connotation is certainly there) to the life people OUGHT to choose; the other is the life that people DO choose, beacause they WANT it. They are only the same thing if one does not really WANT anything except to find what they OUGHT to do, and then to devote themselves to doing that; or if they are such nice people that they instinctively do what other people call “what everyone OUGHT to do”, and do this without thinking about OUGHTS at all, but just because that is what they do. That is, if they are either saints or philosophers, or a confusing combination of both, or whatever.

    The intriguing thing is “what I OUGHT to do” has a lot to do with “what other people WANT me to do.”

    (And I think this goes some way to removing my Plato prejudice, if anyone is interested in my various philosophical addlements, or in Plato’s “Republic.” All that bosh about “Justice in the Individual” was just a cover. It didn’t have much at all to do with “the just human” (which has the same connotations as “the human with a well-lived life”). It was just an excuse to discuss the kind of life that those guys WANTED to live, and Plato’s great blunder, or his great achievement (I’m not sure which) was to bring together what people WANT and what people OUGHT, by making the quest for “Knowledge of the GOOD (read: OUGHT)” something that every thinker would WANT to devote large amounts of time to. And people are damn well still doing it, except modem speeds are significantly faster nowadays and none of us are quite as ugly as Socrates.)

    Richard – is there an end-of-year award for the most futile and long-winded comment?

  12. Ha, well, there was much of interest in there still. Now that you've pointed it out, I guess I'm not completely clear on what a 'concept' is. I'm using the word to refer to a certain class of abstract entities, e.g. the referent of 'well-being' or 'red' or 'ought'. I'm not sure in what manner these entities exist, they're puzzling in that regard (much like numbers and other abstract mathematical entities), which is why I originally sought to locate them in our minds, but I'm no longer so confident that that's the right way to go. "Platonic superstitions" tend to make thinking about such entities a whole lot easier. Whether they can be done away with -- well, that's the whole 'universals debate' in metaphysics, isn't it! Maybe I'll revisit my position in a new post some day. (I would want to avoid Platonism if at all possible. I just don't know whether it's really possible.)

    By the way, I should've thought to reference my post on words and meanings before. Basically I treat italicized wellbeing as the referent of the term 'wellbeing'. But I think you picked that up already, with the 'apple'-apple analogy, and all. Neat. Though the post also discusses the old falling tree non-problem, so if you're interested in that... ;)

    Anyway, getting on to your most recent comment, I think that's close but not quite what's going on here. 'Wellbeing' just means the same thing as 'self-interest'. I'm wanting to investigate what is, as a matter of (normative) fact, in a person's best interests. This is not synonymous with what an individual wants. Desire-fulfillment theories suggest that well-being is about what an individual wants, and I'm sympathetic to those theories, but they are making a substantive (and not merely terminological claim). There's nothing incoherent or self-contradictory about asserting that what people want is not what's really best for them; or that something would be good for someone despite their not wanting it. Such claims might turn out to be false, but they're not a contradiction in terms, as it would be if 'wellbeing' and 'desire' were literally synonymous.

    In fact, I disagree that well-being can be simply identified with what an individual wants. I think one's interests are related to one's desires in a slightly more complex way. See my post on the Good To vs. Good For distinction, and my essay on well-being for more detail.

    I do think wellbeing is a normative, not merely descriptive, concept. That is, it's about what we OUGHT to do. But not morally ought; rather, prudentially ought. Someone might really want to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others. Such altruism would be admirable, but of course they aren't doing what's in their own best interests, even though it's what they want to do. But we're getting a bit off topic here, so if you're now clear on what I mean by 'well-being', and merely dispute what it really consists in, then perhaps we should continue this discussion in the comments of a post that's about that topic. (Though feel free to continue here if you're still not convinced on the meta-philosophical issue of what the wellbeing debate is about.)

  13. Cheers. I am still not completely convinced on either matter, but I agree that it might be better to write things in a more relevant place (rather than simply analysing the Platonic Philosophical Discussion)

    Yeah, those number thingys are a bit befuddling, but I might have a dip into Loux. I leave you with this thought:



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