Monday, January 09, 2006

A tepid defense of conceptual analysis

Over break, I read Frank Jackson’s book “From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis, along with a review of it by Steve Stich and Jonathan Weinberg. S&W pose two questions to Jackson concerning the empirical assumptions that he makes: first, Jackson seems to rely on a dubious notion of concepts as embodying a folk theory, and second, he seems to assume interpersonal consistency of intuitions about hypothetical cases without any basis. What I have to say mostly bears on the first question.

S&W note that in the contemporary cognitive science literature most researchers have adopted theories upon which our concepts do not resemble any sort of “folk theory.” For reasons of space, they only examine one alternative, exemplar theories of concepts.

On such a theory, a given concept is constituted by a set of exemplars, which can be seen as detailed ‘descriptions’ of particular members of the category. When called upon to answer whether some new object is a member of the category, we determine how similar it is to several of the exemplars, and render a verdict on that basis (much of the processing will be unconscious). One important fact about the theory is that a person’s recent emotional and cognitive history “primes” or activates a subset of the exemplars, as well as altering the level of similarity which must be achieved for a positive judgment. So there is a substantial degree of intrapersonal variance in people’s intuitions, as well as interpersonal variance in the exemplars various people have.

Neither of the points which S&W make are very definitive attacks on Jackson’s account as they stand (in all fairness, S&W present them as questions). There is a doctrine, typical of the rationalists, but also present in Aristotle, that only a certain sort of person is capable of properly doing philosophy. For instance, Plato believed that you had to spend years studying a variety of subjects in order to develop your “rational intuition” (not the Platonic term) before you could properly do philosophy.

I don't know whether exemplars are supposed to be the sort of thing you can intentionally influence but it seems possible given that Stich points towards “the importance of myths and parables in moral pedagody, since these stories can serve as the basis for building stored up exemplars” (639). This fits with the fact that you can inculcate reluctant undergraduates with the traditional philosophical intuitions (Gettier and Twin Earth cases, for example). Since one’s recent cognitive and emotional history prime the exemplars that are used in a particular case, perhaps one of the abilities that characterizes a good philosopher is the ability to prime the proper exemplars in herself. If that was true, then there could be an account of how both interpersonal and intrapersonal variation in conceptual intuitions can be compatible with the possibility of conceptual analysis.

There are still problems for this sort of account. Jackson meant to defend an account of conceptual analysis on which the philosopher is elucidating folk concepts—if this is the case, that places a limit on the divergence between the exemplars used by the philosopher and those used by the folk. Still, even this account does not require perfect agreement in judgments-you possess the same concepts at different times in your life, even though you activate different exemplars and make different judgments at different times.

Pointing out that this account is available obviously falls quite short of defending it. In particular, what reason do we have to suppose that anything about the philosophical training we undergo in the Anglo-American tradition has any of the effects on our intuitions that are mentioned above? I think even if everything I've said so far is correc, that question might prove impossible to answer.

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