Quote of the Week: Amartya Sen on Revealed Preferences

I do not find it difficult to believe that birds and bees and dogs and cats do reveal their preferences by choice; it is with human beings that the proposition is not particularly persuasive. An act of choice for this social animal is, in a fundamental sense, always a social act.

– Sen, “Behaviour and the Concept of Preferences”, p. 253

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Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument

I am currently re-reading some foundational texts on Symbolic Interactionism (the school of sociology) for my thesis. One of the most influential is Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism and I am struck by Blumer’s ontological claims and the curious absence of any argument for them. Consider the following passage:

For purposes of convenience one can classify objects in three categories: (a) physical objects, such as chairs, trees, or bicycles; (b) social objects, such as students, priests, a president, a mother, or a friend; and (c) abstract objects, such as moral principles, philosophical doctrines, or ideas such as justice, exploitation, or compassion. (Blumer 1969: 10)

Blumer proposes three categories for objects and we can discuss this proposal, but Blumer does not provide any argument for it. He just moves on. From my own research into social ontology I know that such categories are far from uncontroversial. I would also object to the examples Blumer offers. Consider the bicycle (or the chair), which he proposes as an example for a physical object: A bicycle has a teleological function. All bicycles necessarily have the purpose of serving as means of transportation. Electrons do not have a necessary teleological function. One might make the argument that only social objects can have such functions. But Blumer does not even attempt to defend his categorisation. Continue reading “Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument”

Reading: Arlie Hochschild “Strangers in Their Own Land”

It took me a while, but I finally found the time to read Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.  The book addresses burning questions: How came the USA to be so politically divided? How does the other side relative to Hochschild, that is the right-wing tea-party, see the divide? How do emotions influence the political allegiances?

But being a philosopher I want to discuss the methodology and underlying theory of the book instead of those juicy topics. I hope that this discussion is at least as interesting. In fact, the philosophical aspect might be of more lasting interest. The political landscape of the US will shift sooner or later, while the insights for sociological theory might stay with us for a long time. And at the end of this post, politics creeps in after all. Continue reading “Reading: Arlie Hochschild “Strangers in Their Own Land””

Quote of the Week: Robert Nozick on Charitable Interpretation

The most charitable interpretation presents only one facet of something’s nature.

– Nozick, The Nature of Rationality, p. 158

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How Many Concepts of Preference Are There?

It has been recently suggested to me that there might be a difference between the philosophical concept “preference” and social science concept “preference”. Since I am working in philosophy of the social science, getting such a distinction clear would be important for me. Given my area of work , I am especially in danger of mixing them up.

But I am not entirely convinced that there is such a distinction in the first place. In my notes I mainly distinguish a behaviourist-constructivist concept of preferences from mentalist-realist one. The distinction follows basically the 2016 paper by List and Dietrich, in which they argue for the mentalist-realist concept. You can very the exact formulations of these analyses, but the difference between the two concepts should be clear enough.

According to the behaviourist-constructivist approach preferences are nothing but logical constructions out of choice behavior. Preferences turn out to be mere re-descriptions of choice behaviour. If you always choose the orange over the apple, then this implies that you prefer oranges over apples. Many economists  apparently endorse such a concept of preferences, and so does Simon Blackburn in Ruling Passions. Therefore, the concept is used by social scientists and philosophers. One might argue that Blackburn only intends to reconstruct what social scientists are saying, but reading his text I get very much the impression that he buys into it. (On page 167 he notes that he would prefer to use the word “concern” rather than “preference”. He apparently endorses the concept, and only objects to the hedonist connotations associated with the word.)

On the mentalist-realist account preferences are real mental entities with causal efficacy. If you always choose the orange over the apple, this is evidence that you prefer oranges over apples, but it does not imply it. As soon as one endorses the mentalist position a myriad of questions arise within the ontology of mind. How are preferences realised? How can mental entities be efficacious at all? I am not going to say anything on these issues here and only note that List and Dietrich argued forcefully that the social sciences, and in particular economics, need such a mentalist concept of preferences for their explanatory purposes. Continue reading “How Many Concepts of Preference Are There?”

Unpreferred Happiness and My Mother’s Grandchildren

This post is about whether we sometimes do not prefer happiness and whether my mother should want me to procreate. In a dinner conversation my mother stated that she would be happy if I had children, but does not mind if I do not have children. Her point was that my procreation is up to me and she does not want to act in any way to increase the likelihood of me having children.

As I see it, my mother made two claims:

  1. My mother would be happy if I had children.
  2. My mother is not motivated to make me get children.

How can one make sense of my mother’s position within decision theory? A natural interpretation of claim 1 would be to say that my mothers desirability value for me having a child (C) is larger than zero (C > 0) – after all the child would make her happy – and the desirability for me having no child (~C) is equal zero (~C = 0), since there is no happiness or unhappiness associated with no child.

This interpretation, however, results in a contradiction with claim 2 that she does not want to do anything to increase the likelihood of me having children. After all, if C > 0 and ~C = 0, then C > ~C and there should be some prize my mother should be willing to pay to increase the likelihood of procreation. But I took it that my mother is not motivated to make me get children! Either my mother is irrational and should perhaps actively try to get me to have children, or something with my interpretation is wrong. Continue reading “Unpreferred Happiness and My Mother’s Grandchildren”

Talk in Milan: Homuncularism and Group Agency

As mentioned in a previous post, I will give a talk on homuncularism and group agency in Milan tomorrow. More information on the workshop, which is about cognition in groups, can be found on the website of the organisers.

There are two ideal types of talks: There are talks where you already have a full paper before you apply and then try to tour the world with your paper. And there are talks where you submit a vague abstract and then try to figure out what you are actually saying. My talk in Milan falls into the latter category. If you plan to attend and hope to hear me talk exactly about what I promised in the abstract, you are in for a disappointment. Continue reading “Talk in Milan: Homuncularism and Group Agency”