Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Uses for Conceptual Analysis

Coming up with a systematic way to paraphrase sentences involving some wacky new term W in biology, sociology, psychology, or art criticism, into sentences that are just a logical product of claims about sets, mereological sums of other more commonplace objects, and preserves all our intuitive reasoning about W, is useful in three ways.

a) New Applications for Old Knowledge: Getting a method of paraphrase lets us bring our logical/set theoretic/substantive knowledge about the terms used in the analysis to bear on the new term in question. If the facts about the Ws parallel the facts about sets of such and such kind, set theory may have interesting implications for facts about the Ws.

b) Avoiding Adding Terms Which are "Incoherent" or "Have False Presuppositions": Getting a method of paraphrase may let us prove the consistency and conservativity of reasoning about the wacky new entities. For example if you analyze 'x is bachelor' as 'x is unmarried & x is a man', and then only accept informal reasoning about bachelors that can be reconstructed using this analysis, then it is clear that adding the term 'bachelor' and doing this informal reasoning will not allow you to derive contradiction, or any other new consequences. So, adding informal reasoning about bachelors will do no harm. Here the proof theory (any proof of P which uses the term "bachelor" could be turned into one that doesn't) is so obvious that it's easy not to notice. But the mathematical issues involved in showing consistency and/or conservativity of adopting some term (together with analytic feeling reasoning that goes with that term) can become more interesting when conceptual analysis only provides an *implicit* or recursive definition of the term.

This is valuable, to the extent that you are worried a purported new concept may be 'incoherent' (in the sense that intuitive, analytic feeling reasoning about it literally lets you prove contradiction) or may have bad 'presuppositions' (in the sense that that intuitive, analytic feeling, reasoning using the term allows one to derive new propositions not using that term, which are false)

c) Teaching: Obviously getting a method for paraphrase sentences involving new terminology in terms of old terminology provides a way of teaching the new terminology to people who already understand the old terminology.

Note that none of these purposes require that conceptual analyses be unique. Different analyses of claims about, say, the imaginary numbers, in terms of set theory can each serve this purpose equally well. Nor do these uses for conceptual analysis require that one make any claim about the metaphysical status of the objects in question. It's useful to know you can reconstruct all intuitively acceptable reasoning about the imaginary numbers in terms of intuitively acceptable reasoning about sets, even if you don't want to claim that the imaginary numbers ARE sets or anything like that. Nor, lastly, do they require that the analyses have some kind of psychological reality - that when you are thinking about imaginary numbers you are really somehow implicitly (subconsciously?) considering one or the other paraphrase in terms of sets.

[Hidden agenda: Even if it turns out that Occam's razor doesn't apply to positing special sciences objects like livers, species, trade deficits and languages, so there's no need to look for paraphrases which would allow us to *deny* that such "extra" objects exist, finding Quinean-style parapharases will still be illuminating and useful for other reasons. So we philosophers won't be talking ourselves out of a job :). Also, to the extent that you feel like something substantial is going on when one looks for Quinean methods of paraphrase, this may be because these paraphrases illuminate the structure of our intuitive reasoning about Ws, and let us relate the W facts to facts about objects we understand better - not because there is a serious question about whether the Ws really exist.]