Reminder: Upcoming Talk on Nested Groups

I’m going to give a talk about nested groups at the ENSO V at Lund next Thursday. (See previous post and official conference website.)

The topic of my paper changed less than papers you submit half a year in advance tend to do. I’ll discuss how cases of nested groups, such as a philosophy department being nested in a university, bear on our ontology of groups.

Mereology plays a bigger role than in my original draft. My talk has significant repercussions for how can think about the members and parts of groups. For more details, attend my talk! (Or drop me a line and I’ll share a draft with you.)


Gilbert’s Contribution to Group Ontology

Margaret Gilbert’s “Walking Together: A Paradigmatic Social Phenomenon” is a seminal paper in the analytic debate on joint action. On 14 pages it summarises what Gilbert considered the most important insights from her book On Social Facts.

The paper has earned its position in the literature. It was a path-breaking contribution and remains worth reading more than two decades after publication. But to all students out there: Do not start your papers like that! First Gilbert presents her paper as a contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences, then she frames it as an analysis of groups, before she turns to a rather special case of joint action. In other words, Gilbert first asks a question about the social sciences, then switches to a question about social groups in general, to then actually discuss a special case of social groups: The group of two people walking together. Continue reading “Gilbert’s Contribution to Group Ontology”

Necessary Group Members, Group Size, and Intuitions about Social Ontology

I am still thinking about the group membership relation (for more on the topic see here and here). Today I wondered about the following question: Do some groups have essential members? I do not want to get into a debate about essentiality, so I instead turn to the simpler question: Are there groups which have a member in all possible worlds in which the group exists? In the following, I always mean the property of having the same member across all possible worlds, when I say that a member is essential. Microsoft or the group of males continue to exist even if all their members change, but does this hold for all groups?

Expect no final answer to that question in this post. Instead I want to note that our intuitions vary with group size, or at least mine do. (In case you do not like the talk of intuitions, read “pre-reflective judgements” instead.) The two of us go for a walk together and thereby form a group. My intuition is that this would not be the same group if either of us was replaced. On the other hand, if a group of twohundred went for a walk, I would maintain that it remains the same group if you exchange any of the members. I would even intuitively judge that if you replace a hundred of the twohundred members, it remains the same group. My intuitions do not concern the proporation, but about the absolut numbers. (Any experimental philosopher out there wanting to test the universality of this intuition with me?) Continue reading “Necessary Group Members, Group Size, and Intuitions about Social Ontology”

Quote of the Week: Jeffrey on Desirability

“It my indeed by that I desire something, and later, when I have it, find it not as good as I had thought. This is a case where my judgement of desirability have changed as a result of experience.”  – Richard Jeffrey. The Logic of Decision. p. 63

I am currently rereading Richard Jeffrey’s classic The Logic of Decision to refresh my knowledge of decision theoy and this passage caught my eye. It occurs in a discussion of whether we can desire something we have (or believe to have) and amounts to little more than an aside. For a quote of the week it might seem less than exciting, but it surprised and excited me.

The formulation is not entirely clear, but Jeffrey appears to suggest that a desire is a judgement that something is desirable. The goodness of the thing appears to come first. We learn it through experience and adapt or at least should adapt our desires to it. Our judgements of desirability are proven wrong, if things are less good than we thought. It is not just that we found out that we have different desires than we thought, rather our judgements of desirability are proven wrong by experience.

This picture conflict with the kind of non-cognitive Humeanism I would have assumed to find in a book on decision theory. I would have assumed that Jeffrey presents desires not as a form of judgement and that the goodness of objects would not guide the desires. Desires would be practical states conferring the desirabaility to objects. Instead I found this surprising quote, which reminds me more Elijah Millgram’s work on practical reasoning.

Sadly, I am still catching up on decision theory and lack acquaintance with Jeffrey’s later work. I do not know yet whether this quote conflicts with Jeffrey’s other contributions or whether it fits in.

Quote of the Week: David Lewis on Possible Worlds

“As the realm of sets is for mathematicians, so logical space is a paradise for philosophers. We have only to believe in the vast realm of possibilia, and there we find what we need to advance our endeavours” – David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, p. 4

I don’t know anyone else who can make modal realism – the idea that all possible worlds are equally real – sound so enticing as David Lewis. All our problems dissolve and we live in paradise if we just swallow this one premise! What seemed utterly absurd a second ago becomes tempting upon reading Lewis.

Beside attesting to Lewis’ qualities as a used-car salesman, the quote reveals features of Lewis’ conception of philosophy. It is a philosophy which invites the comparison with mathematics, in which formal logic and metaphysical debates about the reality of possible worlds go hand in hand. Paradise lies in construncting the simplest and most powerful theory describing all we ever want to describe.


Group Ontology and Nation States

The analytic debate on social ontology can sometimes be far removed from what happens in the social sciences, so I am happy to have found a potential overlap. I currently work on my upcoming group ontology talk. My talk will concern what the metaphysical limits of group membership.

Group membership is a pecular thing from the perspective of metaphysics. As has been argued by various authors (Uzquiano 2004, Effingham 2010, Ritchie 2013) it cannot be reduced to set membership or mereological parthood. My talk will hopefully reveal more about its ontological role.

But group membership might also play an important role in the history of European nation states. I presume the following (simplified) historical picture taken from or at least inspired by Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States: The European nation states grew out of numerous armed conflicts and outright wars. A large number of small municipialities, dukedoms, city-states and the occassional empire, fought against one another until those left standing became modern nation states.

To survive this selection process, the states had to draw as many resources as feasible from their population. To make the people willing to support the war, they had to be co-opted in one way or another. The states increasingly provided services to their population and offered them a voice – or perhaps one should say that without starting to listen to their subjects states could not acquire the resources they needed. Continue reading “Group Ontology and Nation States”

How Many Concepts of Preference Are There? A Sequel.

In a recent post I asked how many concepts of preferences are in use and I answered: basically two. Some authors favour a behaviourist concept of preferences and some authors favour a mentalist concept. See the original post for an elaboration of this distinction.

I also asked whether the concept of preference used in philosophy differs from the concept used in the social sciences. Since the behaviourist and the mentalist concept are both employed by philosophers and social scientists, I denied a difference cutting along the disciplinary boundaries.

In hindsight, however, I neglected another distinction: Some authors assume that the concept of preferences implies a selfish motivation and some do not. If we ignore what it means for a motivation to be selfish, we might be tempted to subdivide each of the two concepts of preferences discussed in the earlier post further into a version with and a version without selfishness assumption. The following options seemingly result:






No Selfishness-Assumption



However, as soon as we take into account what it means for a motivation to be selfish, one option becomes dubious: A. If preferences are just re-descriptions of choice behaviour, then I don’t see why we should not allow re-descriptions. Assume Matilda works all her life to give money to needy anonymously. No one knows about it The easiest re-description seems to be that she prefers to help those in need. A standard response might be that she might actually do it for feeling happy about being a good person. This is a possible interpretation, but as a re-description it is actually more complex than just attributing non-selfish preferences. I can describe Matilda as preferring to spend her money on helping the needy, or I can describe Matilda as preferring to spend her money and what makes her happy and helping the needy. The first description is more straightforward.

I don’t want to get into the debates about the possibility of altruism, rather I want to point out that if one accepts a behaviourist account of preferences, the more plausible version of this account does not include a selfishness assumption. I doubt that anyone wants to actually endorse this version, so effectively we end up with three analyses of preferences. (And I find B fairly unhelpful as well, but this becomes more difficult to argue and I therefore leave it for another time.)