May 29, 2012

"What would you call that?"

... Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names, and so of not really describing their use, but only, so to speak, giving a paper draft on such a description. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 383.)

In his comment on my blog on experimental philosophy, Matthew Pianalto wrote:

... let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that an x-phi proponent says that what they mean to do is to follow the dictum, 'Don't think, but look!'

That may well be what they would say. However, many of those who invoke Wittgenstein's dictum are liable to misunderstand it. One may be tempted to assume that looking replaces the need for thinking, and that of course is not what Wittgenstein meant; his point, rather, was that we should not try to resolve questions about use by simply turning our glance inward; rather we should remind ourselves of the variety of actual uses to which linguistic expressions are put by ourselves and by those with whom we converse. What those examples of use will tell us, however, depends on the degree of reflective awareness with which we look at them. The lessons to be drawn are not beyond argument; in philosophical reflection, I would maintain, there is no breaking out of the circle of argumentative dialogue.
                      What matters in philosophy is not whether or not you sit in an armchair but what you do while sitting there. And of course, two persons in armchairs, exchanging thoughts, are better than one. (It would be silly to suppose, by the way, that experimental science does not call for hard thinking;  it too takes a lot of sitting in armchairs.)
Some experimental philosophers, however, seem not to have heeded the need to reflect on what they are doing.

Asking for the name of a thing
Matthew also wrote:

what we're doing is informing our own philosophical reflections by making ourselves aware of how people other than philosophers use various words/apply various concepts... it supplies something further upon which to reflect.

When do we ask questions like "Would you use this word here?" or "What would you call this?"? The cases in which we do very often have to do with the drawing of lines between different qualities (as in the case of colour words), or with the classification of objects, organisms or phenomena (as in the case of different kinds of tools, musical instruments or kitchen utensils, the names of plants or trees, birds or fish, foodstuffs, clouds, lightning, etc.) What drives the question may be a wish to learn, uncertainty about usage, or curiosity about other people's uses (say, about individual, diachronic or regional variations).
                      The situations in which people ask these types of question are typically of the following kind: the questioner has some familiarity with the practice to which the classifications belong. Sometimes the classifications are immediately bound up with practical activities. Being told that this is a chisel (and not, say, a screwdriver) may have direct consequences for how I go on to use it. In other cases - as mostly with the classification of plants or birds - the central practice is that of the classification itself (though even then it may have practical significance).
Often, the questioner will have access to some other term for the same thing, e.g. in her own language. And even if she doesn't, she may be able to describe the object in a relevant way. "What was the bird I saw the other day: it had a blue head and it made such and such a sound...?" All she lacks may be the name. And even before being told the name, she may be able to tell whether those other birds over there are of the same kind as the relevant bird or not.
In fact, one must understand a great deal before one can realize that one does not know the name of something - that there is a name to find out.

Grappling with confusion
Thus, what is typical of the cases in which someone asks what a thing is called is that she is not confused about the way names of that kind are used - about what we do with them. Those who are bewildered, say, by the Gettier examples, or by the traditional skeptical conundrums, are typically in a different predicament. Thus, someone who is bewildered by the question how we can know anything about the past or about other people's sensations is not unsure about when people will normally use the word "knowledge". Rather, she is confused about what people (herself included) are doing when they use it. She may feel that the standards for calling something knowledge are so demanding that no belief I hold about the past or about what someone else is feeling can fulfil them. What she needs to be unconfused about is the actual function the word "knowledge" has in the linguistic intercourse she shares with others. Only in that way will she be free of her bewilderment.
(By the way, one of the best attempts, to my knowledge, to bring questions about knowledge down to earth by reminding us about the ways we actually speak about knowledge, is in Oswald Hanfling's Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of our Tongue, Routledge, 2000, chap. 6.)

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