Monday, December 21, 2015

Conceptual analysis in a social world

Individuals or group?

Take this statement by Kit Fine: “Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: ... it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and yet constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language ...” (source: see below). This is especially so in the analytical philosophy. As the name indicates already, its method comprises conceptual analysis, hoping that by doing so we can say something about reality. Analytical philosophy in its several forms is one of the main streams of Western philosophy so one must not underestimate its influence on thinking about important questions.
I am a big fan of this approach. Since I am a sociologist by education, it might be expected that I prefer to answer questions about society by going to the field with a questionnaire and ask people what they think. Or that I should observe how they behave. Then I should try to find out from the data I collected what is common in what people do. For instance, a question that intrigues me at the moment is: How do groups behave? Well, collect data about all kinds of groups and draw your conclusions. However, what I actually do is sitting behind my laptop and analyzing the concept of group.
I am certainly not alone in studying social groups this way. Outstanding analytical philosophers who do so are for instance Michael Bratman, Raimo Tuomela and Margaret Gilbert. Take for instance the latter. Gilbert argues that when we want to explain group activity, we can look at a simple model of a two-person group for seeing what is going on; for example the case of two people walking together. She says: “[G]oing for a walk with another person involves participating in an activity of a special kind, one whose goal is the goal of a plural subject, as opposed to the shared personal goal of the participants. [It] involves an ‘our goal’ as opposed to two or more ‘my goals’.” (1996, p. 187) Walking together is more than just walking next to each other in the same direction, even when both are talking with each other, for maybe at the next corner each will go his or her own way. “[I]n order to go for a walk together”, so Gilbert, “each of the parties must express willingness to constitute with the other a plural subject of the goal that they walk along in one another’s company” (id., p. 184; italics MG). The individual wills must be put together to “a pool of wills that is dedicated, as one, to that goal. ... The individual wills are bound simultaneously and interdependently” (id., p. 185; italics MG). It is not only that each individual promises to follow the group goal, but there is a mutual, or as Gilbert says it, joint commitment that I follow the group goal if you do: “[E]ach person expresses a special form of conditional commitment such that (as is understood) only when everyone has done similarly anyone is committed.” (ibid.; italics MG) Only if the others agree one is released of the obligation. So, according to Gilbert, a group is founded on some appointment between its members, and the two-person walking group is a model that basically applies to all kinds of groups. From this we can conclude that in the end all groups are based on a kind of explicit agreement between its members.
Is Gilberts right? At first sight it sounds plausible. Nevertheless I think that we come here at the limits of the analytical approach. For when I look around what is happening in the world, the practice is often different. Groups as described by Gilbert do exist, indeed. If people go for a walk together, usually they do this by agreement. But is it a model case of all kinds of groups? I have my doubts. How often doesn’t it happen that I belong to a group that I don’t have constituted with the other members, but that I simply joined and that I adapt myself to, because I have no choice and because the positive aspects of joining exceed the negative aspects. People join sports clubs but often they have no say in its rules. “The club” determines in which team you play and changes also the club rules now and then, and it often happens that you have no say in it. You are in an army unit because military service is compulsory in your country, but if possible you would quit. Or you work in a team of a department of your company, for you need the money, but if you had the choice, you would work elsewhere. However, the unemployment is high so you can’t. And your boss can dismiss you, if he doesn’t need you any longer, even if you don’t agree. Most people have so little influence on the groups they belong to, that it’s difficult to say that these groups are based on a joint commitment. Indeed, the members have committed themselves to do what the purpose of the group requires, and once having joined they must follow orders and adapt without having much say in what the group does. As said, I am a big fan of the analytical approach, but I find it also important to look at the facts. Philosophy, even analytical philosophy, and sociology need to go together and they go well together, when they talk about society.

Sources: Margaret Gilbert, Living Together. Lanham, etc: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996. Mahrad Almotahari, “The identity of a material thing and its matter”, in: The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 64, No. 256 (July 2014), pp. 387-406 (p. 387 for the quotation of Fine).

No comments: