Saturday, April 21, 2007

Philosophy, de dicto and de re

There are two things I really want to know. Unfortunately, I'm not too sure what they are. (So maybe that makes three!) The de dicto/de re distinction seems relevant to both. Let's see if writing this post can help me get a grasp on them at all...

1) What's the story with philosophical analyses? What's the relationship between a concept and its analysis, which provides necessary and sufficient conditions for something to fall under the concept? For example, suppose I could mentally grasp the entire set of all possible knowledge-instances, or goodness-instances. Do our concepts of 'knowledge' and 'goodness' invoke anything beyond these infinite sets (or their compression into systematic formulae)? Aren't the concepts normative in a way that their object-involving intensions cannot be? Is this what allows there to be substantive disagreements involving the concept? What's the central issue here?

*pulls hair*

2) What's the deal with numerical identity? Is there even any such thing, fundamentally, I mean? Or is all modality fundamentally de dicto, concerned with the distribution of descriptive qualities across the Humean tapestry of spacetime, with other possible "me"s bearing a relation to me that's merely a counterpart-theoretic construction? In what sense is this really the same chair as it was a moment ago? There's a certain physical continuity between the two temporal parts, of course. But does the fact of numerical identity -- being one and the same object -- consist in anything over and above this? My clearest thinking on this topic is here, but I suspect even that is hopelessly confused.

Combining the two problems: what does our concept of identity add to the raw, bleeding reality -- the set of temporal parts and counterparts that we'd classify as belonging to a single object? Where's the interpretation? What meaning do we project onto this raw stuff through our classification of it as numerically identical? (And is this merely a projection on our part, or something independently real?)

Argh! I really need to do more metaphysics and philosophy of language. (Though if anyone out there is able and willing to clarify these issues in a comment, that'd be just grand...)


  1. Richard,

    Could you tell me how to make posts expand/collapse?


  2. I’m with the de dicto explanation. I see space time as a set of interconnected things, time allows two objects to be connected but no more so (fundamentally) than two adjoining sections of space are connected or some sort of chain reaction (such as a thought process or a chemical reaction).

    If we are interested in the meaning of the word our definition appears to reflect the casual relationship between the items (I guess this goes towards its usefulness) so. "the fire moves from one house to another" as opposed to "house A gets hot and combines with oxygen and thus causes house B to also get hot and start combining with oxygen”. If the fire splits in two we call it “two fires” because the apparent relationship between the left and right side of the fire appears to be broken. Similarly you have one table but two halves of a table if it is broken.

    Also of interest is when the house burns the burnt part (the CO2 etc) is Not usually seen as ‘the house’ but the remains are. Although that may be due to most people not understanding the reactions. I imagine the study of word definitions would run into that sort of issue a lot at the margins.

    as to substantive disagreements, Im not sure it makes sense to ask "I could mentally grasp the entire set of all possible godness-instances" while still at the same time allowing for the potential to have a disagrement in what goodness is. because the situation would define your definition of the concept.

    I think that multiple people could have multiple different sets of "knowledge" and "goodness" based on what they define those words as andthey could structure or process the same information in different ways but then your test conditions determine your conclusion.


  3. Richard,

    The identity question is going to take on a very different character if you adopt a couterpart-ism. I don't understand the relation I bear to any of my counterparts. I prefer to forget counterpart-theory and repudiate mere possibilia.

    Things identity does:

    helps answer "how many things are there, really?" "are wholes simply their parts?" "who (of those living today?) will be affected by the lie I will tell tomorrow?" and one of a question I like to ask a lot, "how different does something have to be before it is no longer what it was to start with?"

  4. Richard,

    I have a hard time understanding your first question. When we suppose that we mentally grasp the entire set of possible goodness-instances, do we further suppose that in so grasping we recognize that this set really exhausts all the possible instances of goodness? If so, don't we then presuppose that we already have understanding of (the concept of) goodness? [otherwise, how could we know that this set of (let's focus on actions, say) actions really (a) is a set of only good actions; and (b) includes all instances of good actions?]

    There's a worry, of course, that we're mistaken in even supposing that concepts like 'goodness' or 'knowledge' are stable enough to have a fixed set of possible instances.

    Of course, we could describe a set of actions and stipulate that these (and only these) would count as good actions, but that would not be the same as understanding our concept of good.

  5. I'm not sure I can be of much help here, but I'll take a stab at (1).

    If by "concept" you mean "mental representation of word meaning", then I tend to think most of the questions you're asking suffer from presupposition failure. Your use of "analysis", "necessary and sufficient conditions", and "set" leads me to suspect that you might be neglecting that most concepts are of vague words (or, if you like, are themselves vague). If an analysis is not vague, then it is not an analysis of a vague concept. I take it that analyses are never supposed to be vague. So I take it that, in this sense of "concept", most concepts do not have good analyses.

    I'm not sure I know what you mean by "invoke", but I'll suppose for the sake of argument that you mean to ask "must a person compute anything other than whether x is a member of the set of all possible instances of knowledge in order to judge whether x is an instance of knowledge?" I think the answer to this question is that, with the sole possible exception of the case where a thinker knows (or believes that she knows) all the possible knowledge-instances, nobody ever computes anything of the sort in order to judge whether x is an instance of knowledge. In psychology, prototype theory and exemplar theory both say (roughly) that, for most concepts C, we judge whether x falls under C by comparing x with a set of weighted features of Cs or a set of exemplary Cs. The other popular theory, the so-called theory theory, has it that we somehow call up our folk theories about Cs to judge whether x is a C. (The theory theory yields that "sole possible exception" above, because if you were really such an expert in knowledge, it's possible that you actually would have to invoke your acquaintance with this infinite set - you would just do it very quickly on account of your expertise.) The above comments hold also on most interpretations of "systematic formulae".

    I really don't know what you have in mind with the question about normativity. I'm also not sure what you mean by a substantive disagreement "involving" a concept. But if you mean that a substantive disagreement involves a concept P just in case P is x's or y's concept of P, and x and y have a substantive disagreement over some statement of the form "Pz", then I don't think there's any special problem here. There can be substantive disagreements involving P in this sense because, for instance, there are cases in which it is really hard or psychologically impossible for x and y to lay out all the reasons for thinking that some statement of the form "Pz" is or is not true.

    I don't know enough about the philosophical (as opposed to the psychological) debates about concepts to answer your questions under (1) on any interpretation of "concept" other than the one I offered at the beginning of this comment. I hope I've kept you from pulling all your hair out.

    - Ian

  6. Proteus - I think I got the code from ChuBlogga. You can always google for blogger hacks.

    Jack #1 - are those really substantive questions? I don't understand what in the world their various answers are meant to reflect. (This linked post describes my ontological deflationism in more detail.)

    Jack Woods and Ian - I guess I'm wondering about the difference between a concept and its instances (the "concept/property distinction", perhaps?). There seems a certain lack of transparency, so that one might grasp the intension of 'knowledge' (the set of all possible knowledge-instances), without recognizing it as such. So there seems to be more to meaning than just intensions. I'm wondering what that 'something extra' is -- a certain mode of presentation, perhaps, or some kind of built-in normative evaluation?

    To illustrate: suppose we have two sets - X and Y - containing various possible mental states. Perhaps X includes Gettiered beliefs, and Y doesn't. Now, suppose Bob is unconvinced by Gettier, and so claims that knowledge is co-intensive (is that a word? like 'co-extensive', but across all possible worlds) with X, whereas Carla insists on Y instead. Are they arguing about anything substantive, or could it be resolved through stipulating that 'knowledge1' is X and 'knowledge2' is Y? That seems unsatisfying. Perhaps the solution is that we think that knowledge - whatever it may be - matters, and so really Bob and Carla are disputing which of X and Y is the "better" set, i.e. the set of more valuable mental states -- the ones that deserve to be honoured with the title "knowledge". That sort of normative dispute isn't one we can just stipulate away as involving two equally legitimate alternative concepts.

  7. Richard,

    What would make these questions substantive?

    I read your post, and in some sense I agree with you. I do occasionally believe that philosophy abounds with pseudo-questions.

    But other times I think that reality has an objective structure--that there is a fact of the matter about whether there are chairs or merely simples arranged chair-wise. And if there is a fact of the matter, then I want to figure it out.

  8. Jack, I guess I'd just like to understand what such facts consist in. What is "objective structure", exactly, and what (if any) difference does it make? If you or others have a real grasp of the difference between chairs and simples arranged chair-wise, then that suggests it's a substantive issue after all. My skepticism arises simply from my inability to see any real difference here.

  9. I'm an unabashed nominalist, but Searle's Intensionality, Chap. 8, might resolve a conflict the medievals left us.


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