Monday, August 27, 2012

Philosophizing about ordinary concepts

At the end of my last blog I quoted Giere with consent where he said that human science must not develop ideas that are too far away from pou common sense notions. In this case that we must not defend an idea of memory that is too different from what the man or woman in the street thinks it is. But can we maintain this in general? If it were true, philosophizing would not be more than asserting what everybody already knows, albeit with some nuancing and in a clearer wording. But take this example, which is not from philosophy but from the natural sciences (although in those days, the natural sciences were seen as a kind of philosophy). Galileo defended the idea that the earth moves around the sun instead of the other way round. This view was contrary to what most people (and not only the Roman Catholic church) thought. As we know now, Galileo was right and the public idea was false. Why might such a turn in thinking not be brought about by philosophy? Why might philosophy not be able to undermine false ideas? In a certain sense philosophy can. One task of philosophy is correcting errors in reasoning, not only errors made by scientists but also those made in public reasoning. As such, these corrections can have radical consequences, in case it comes out that just the opposite of what always was held to be true is the case. However, there is a fundamental difference between what facts in the natural sciences are and what facts in the social sciences are. In the natural sciences facts exists independent of what we, the observers of these facts, think of it. It is our task as observers to find out what these facts “really” are (I put the word really between inverted commas since also in the natural sciences what we see as facts must pass through the filter of manmade concepts and theories). In human society, however, facts that are independent of us do not exist. Social facts are literally “made” by us. When we play chess, we don’t simply move wooden objects, but we play a game and we move pawns, rooks and queens etc. When humanity dies out, the wooden objects may still exist and they may be found by a roaming animal, but the idea of game and the idea that these pieces of woods “actually” are pawns, rooks or queens has been lost. Such meanings belong to, using Giere’s words, “our shared conceptual scheme and culture”. Social facts are ways we think about what is around us in the social and in the material world and ways we react to them, but when we think differently about these ways, they change with our thoughts and get another meaning. And just that is, I guess, the reason why Giere says that our philosophical ways of speaking and our philosophical interpretations must not be too distinct from our common sense ways of speaking and interpreting. If they would be, they’ll lose touch with the social reality as it exists for us, and they’ll not affect what the ordinary man or woman thinks but only exist as separate interpretations at most; interesting for philosophers, scholars and scientists, but of only marginal value for what people actually do and think. Then for most people our memory will remain to be only something that in the head, although some philosophers think that’s on the front doormat, too.

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