‘Kuhn-losses’ in discourses (and the superception principle)

Let us consider some candidate discourse, or standardised practice.

We may grant that the candidate discourse or practice may contain certain conceptual presuppositions; Relativity, for instance, presupposes things that certain disputes of the 19thC raised. Modern philosophy; in its species of rationalism and empiricism, came about in lieu of the failure of the grand Aristotelian metaphysical system; which permeated not only our conception of the nature of reality (qua being), but also some primitive conception of what we may call ‘science’.

Consider some of the hubbub about some more recent philosophical takes; particularly error-theoretic [Mackie, Joyce], and eliminativist discourses [Churchland and Churchland]. Error theory (in the seminal statement of Mackie) makes two claims: firstly, that propositions of a given discourse k is truth-apt. The candidate for Mackie’s own analysis is ethics. Secondly, all the propositions in the discourse are FALSE!

A bold claim; but I think that Mackie’s arguments are in fairly good spirit (that’s not to say I agree…). Queerness and relativity are two appeals that Mackie makes. Queerness appeals to the strangeness of what we may purport to if we endorse moral claims as truth-apt. Relativity points to the sociological fact that there are variances in motivational profiles on a society level. Propositions such as “Mary was brave for standing up to Thomas earlier”, or “Jazz is the music of the devil!” are truth apt; but all false, why? Because ‘brave’ doesn’t refer to anything in our objective world; nor does the evil that comes from Jazz that a person may address.

If we (assumption) say that error theory is a correct analysis of our talk regarding morality; we then are led to say (on a SECOND ORDER LEVEL), that it is meaningless talk. Have we lost anything in terms of our intuitive ascriptions or rules of conduct about moral talk? Are we still legitimate to talk of, say, Mary’s bravery, or the evils of Jazz. I think we can; insofar as a second order theory may not have to impact upon the substantive issues within a first order theory. So; perhaps, we can still dispute whether democracy is the just way of governance, even if we may grant in some second order way, that talk of justice is null.

But what about eliminativism? Particularly of folk concepts. Error-theory may be intuition-preserving (or, rather, we can maintain the desiderative that we preserve intuitions); but someone like Churchland and Churchland want to eliminate talk of the folk psychologist! What if talk about feelings like joy, sorrow, arousal, shame or even talk of folk concepts like belief or pain are redundant?

If I say “I feel aroused”, but am using a poorly formed concept for my appraisal of what I feel, I can perhaps understand the importance of using a more superior term in a conceptual vocabulary. However; is this a matter for natural language? For instance; how the word ‘accidie’ has come to mean ‘sloth’; or how (textbook example) ‘depression’ is seen as a medical condition [NB: Taylor’s work on secularism addresses this in an interesting folk sociological way].

Not to play devil’s advocate, or the crude role of Antisophie; but I think of Chris Rock’s bit on the ‘trenchcoat mafia’; where white middle classes overemphasise their calamity (Rock is making explicit reference to the black community in comparison; who, in his view, have got it much worse) of teenage youth, which always seemed to be explained away. But Rock says “whatever happened to ‘crazy?!’ ” [apologies for the non-PC-ness of this all]. My point is this: if we replace one concept by another; we should want to say that the superceding concept should want to encompass all the truth-preserving extensions of the preceding term. I think this may be far too easily said than done…

Michael (assisted by Destre)


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