Teaching this Term: I, You, We

I’m co-teaching a module at the University of Sheffield this term (Autumn 2017-2018) together with James Lewis. We called our course I, You, We and treat broadly the philosophy of the social. James focusses on second-person relations and I present key issues in social ontology. In particular, I consider the debates on joint actions, group agency, group ontology, and Brian Epstein’s recent contribution. James and I will also have week on feminist contributions.

The syllabus of the module is available on my academia.edu page.

Relevant blog posts for my students and others interested in social ontology:

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Upcoming Talk at ENPOSS

I’ll admit it upfront, I’m joining the illustrous club of academics who present on the same topic twice in a row. Attendees of the ENPOSS conference in Cracow can look forward to a talk revealing the weakness of attempts to analyse group membership as mereological parthood. In particular, I look at nested groups just as I did at the ENSO V. However, I promise that the audience will hear new material. I got feedback at the ENSO conference and will try to address it in my talk (although I will have only so much time to respond to potential criticisms).

I talk on Thursday 21st of September (see program).

Quote of the Week: Dewey on Social Judgements

The evils in current social judgments of ends and policies arise […] from importations of judgments of value from outside inquiry. The evils spring from the fact that the values employed are not determined in and by the process of inquiry […].

-John Dewey, Late Works Volume 12, p. 496

The quote illustrates Dewey’s emphasis on the epistemic endeavour of inquiry. The values which lead our social judgements should arise out of this endeavour, at least as far as Dewey is concerned.

The quote also reveals how moralising Dewey can be concerning social judgments. He does not merely accuse the judgements of being bad, he accuses them of being evil. I find this moralising aspect of his theory the hardest to justify. In the end, I do not see how he can defend it without contradicting himself or accepting a fundamental revision to this theory.

If you want, you can add here the usual paragraph about defending the value of inquiry/science/truth in the age of alternative facts.

On Organised and Feature Groups

For my upcoming talk on group ontology I am re-reading key papers on the topic. One of the most recent contributions is Brian Epstein’s “What Are Social Groups?“. Brian wrote one of the most advanced and wide-ranging text on the topic, but I will focus on a minor point from his paper.

Right at the beginning Brian discusses Katherine Ritchie’s distinction between organised and features groups. Microsoft is an organised group and males are a feature group. An organised group is characterised by a structure and a feature group by a feature, such as being male. You are a member of Microsoft if you fill a node in Microsoft’s structure and you are a member of the group males if you have the property to be male. Ritchie complicates the analysis slightly by arguing that the feature must be socially constructed, but that will remain secondary for my post.

Brian raises a number of serious problems for Ritchie’s distinction between the two group types. I look at one of those problems and suggest that it is not a problem after all. Here is the central quote:

“A key challenge for this approach is how to understand a “feature” in the latter category. Which sorts of features that members possess count for such groups, and which are ruled out? Ritchie needs to balance this carefully: if we include all properties, including extrinsic ones, then even the property being a person filling in a node of such-and-such a structure counts, so all groups would be feature groups and the intended contrast between the categories would collapse. If, on the other hand, the “features” were restricted to only intrinsic properties, then we would leave out the archetypal groups Ritchie highlights, such as races and genders.” (p. 4)

Brian argues that filling a node in a certain structure is a property and that therefore you cannot distinguish organised groups from feature groups.

The first few times I read the quoted passage Brian convinced me. Since then I’ve changed my mind. I now look at it this way: Brian is right, to fill a node of such-and-such a structure is a feature. I even grant it is the kind of feature that individuates a feature group. So there is a feature group of those individuals who have the feature to fill nodes of such-and-such a structure. There is the feature group of people who fill the nodes of Microsoft’s corporate structure, which I call the Microsoft-feature-group for short.

But admitting this feature group does not undermine the distinction between feature and structure groups at all! There are just two groups: an organised group and a feature group. There is the group Microsoft, an organised group, and there is the Microsoft-feature-group. They are two groups of two types.

Sure, being a member of Microsoft entails being a member of the Microsoft-feature-group and vice versa. But why is that a problem? The two groups share all their members at all times, but Brian allows for such coinciding groups in his paper. Even in different possible worlds the groups always have the same members, but they diverge in other features. Microsoft is part of S&P 500 index, but the Microsoft-feature-group is not.

Brian also doesn’t worry too much about parsimony, so he should not have a problem with the increasing number of groups. Having two coinciding groups does not undermine the distinction between types of groups.

Brian could try to argue that the Microsoft-feature-group has the same structure as Microsoft. Organised groups are individuated by their structure, so if the Microsoft-feature group had the same structure as Microsoft, it would be identical with Microsoft.  At least in her 2015 paper Ritchie does not provide identity conditions for feature groups, therefore the argument cannot run the other way. Brian must show that the Microsoft-feature-group has the same structure as Microsoft.

The best reason I see for assuming that the two groups have the same structure, is that they coincide at all times. However, I don’t think that he wants to commit to the claim that if two groups coincide they have the same structure. If the Supreme Court coincides with a golfing club, does the Supreme Court have the structure of the golfing club and vice versa? Probably not. (Admittedly Microsoft and the Microsoft-feature-group coincide over all possible worlds, but I don’t see why that makes a difference.) So, the Microsoft-feature-group could lack all functional structure, although it coincides with Microsoft. At least Brian would have to give us a different reason to think that the Microsoft-feature-group has the same structure as Microsoft.

We have two groups of two distinct types. If I’m right, this challenge to Ritchie’s account fails.

 

 

 

Quote of the Week: Misak on Peirce and Peirce on Doubt and Action

In Peirce’s view, what is wrong with the state of doubt is not that is uncomfortable, although it is in fact uncomfortable. What is wrong with doubt is that it leads to a paralysis of action.

-Cheryl Misak, The American Pragmatists, p. 33

I consider Misak one of the best current scholars of pragmatism and in this quote she captures a distinctive feature of pragmatist thought. Many philosopher have produced theories about belief and knowing, but the pragmatists have their own theory of doubt, which they turned against the Cartesian scepticism.

Misak’s quote points out the strong connection between doubt and action, or rather paralysis of action. I wonder, however, whether we should say that causing paralysis of action is wrong. Is it not the function of doubt to stop action? And in many situations such a pause to action in light of doubt might be advisable. If in doubt whether the bridge will carry the weight of my car, I should stop in front of it.

However, the pragmatists seem to think that the paralysis is always something to be overcome. At least until the end of the universe, action has primacy. Doubt plays a role in redirecting the action, giving it a secondary role.

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?”

Dennett’s FBtBaB: Chapter Eight

This post presents a question about chapter 8 of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. For more information see this post.

 

On pages 161-162 Professor Dennett expresses his regret for certain formulations he used for presenting his position. The position in question is homuncular functionalism and Professor Dennett has come to regret the use of the terms “committee” and “machine” in presenting it. I can see, why he finds the term “committe” misleading. He is unhappy with the “cooperative bureaucracy” suggested by it. Continue reading “Dennett’s FBtBaB: Chapter Eight”