27 April 2010

Putnam and Analyticity

As the previous post probably implied, I've been reading more about the analytic/synthetic distinction (and other Quinean themes). Just finished Putnam's essay "The Analytic and The Synthetic". I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, much of what Putnam says against Quine's critics seems to me entirely right and laudable. It's certainly useful for some purposes to have arguments against many philosophical uses of the supposed distinction but which affirm that it exists (since so many people still feel it obviously must have some merit, including the Quine of "The Roots of Reference"). Certainly I'd prefer that everyone agree with Putnam here than with Carnap; if the analytic-synthetic distinction doesn't do any active harm in philosophy then it's rather moot what else we say on the topic.

On the other hand, I'm unconvinced by Putnam's attempt to distinguish "law-cluster concepts" from some other kind (with this other kind being what's susceptible to becoming the subject of an analytic truth). I still think Davidson is right in holding that a concept gets the sense it has by having the inferential connections it has, but that there are no privileged connections here; it's just that if we change too many of them, it's hard to see how we can be working with the same concept we started with. (And it's of a piece with this to not try to make the notion of "same concept" do any heavy theoretical lifting; we can, in general, make that judgement however we like, provided we make appropriate accommodations elsewhere in our story.) So I doubt that there's anything special about the laws connected with a given concept (as opposed to beliefs which make use of that concept more broadly), or that there's a good reason to think any part of language is not like this.

Also, it's worth noting that Putnam is in a sense not defending the analytic/synthetic distinction; he explicitly rejects the notion that analytic-synthetic forms a dichotomy. Putnam thinks there are analytic statements, synthetic statements, statements that are close to analytic, statements that are close to synthetic, and a fifth miscellaneous class. Putnam argues solely in defense of the notion of analyticity: he thinks there are some parts of language which we must not deny as analytic. It was striking how different his defense of analyticity was from Morton White's attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction, reading them back to back like this. (And as a trivial note, Putnam never mentions White in this article, though White was his teacher, nor to anyone else who attacked the distinction; his criticisms are solely directed at Quine.)

I'm not going to try to do justice to everything Putnam has to say in his essay (it's long and dense), but there are a few lines of argument that seem to me to be both central and flawed.

First, a bit I liked, from where Putnam is laying out what he means by way of talking about "law-cluster concepts":

I want to suggest that the term 'energy' is not one of which it is happy to ask, What is its intension? The term 'intension' suggests the idea of a single defining character or a single defining law, and this is not the model on which concepts like energy are to be construed. In the case of a law-cluster term such as 'energy', any one law, even a law that was felt to be defiitional or stipulative in character, can be abandoned, and we feel that the identity of the concept has, in a certain respect, remained. (p.53)
This is very agreeable. Talk of "intensions" carries around the baggage of the "Myth of Meanings": of there being such a thing as The Meaning of a word, and of this as being what a good dictionary entry is supposed to communicate. Dictionaries do not do this, and this is not a flaw; a good dictionary entry gives you some clues as to how a word is used (at least in general, in most cases, by normal speakers), often more by the examples than by the "definitions", and this is often enough sufficient for you to settle any doubts about what so-and-so meant by such-and-such you might've had. Talk of "intensions" or of "meanings" as entities is not a helpful way to understand this.

But, sadly, Putnam does not stop the essay there.
In the case of the terms 'energy' and 'kinetic energy', we want to say, or at any rate I want to say, that the meaning has not changed enough to affect 'what we are talking about'; yet a principle superficially very much like 'All bachelors are unmarried' [the "definition" e=1/2mv^2] has been abandoned. What makes the resemblance only superficial is the fact that if we are asked what the meaning of the term 'bachelor' is, we can only say that 'bachelor' means 'unmarried man', whereas if we are asked for the meaning of the term 'energy', we can do much more than give a definition. We can in fact show the way in which the use of the term 'energy' facilitates an enormous number of scientific explanations, and how it enters into an enormous bundle of laws. (p.53)
I really doubt that it's true that this is the only thing we can say if someone asks what "bachelor" means. Always more than one way to skin a cat, after all. We could, I think, exhibit a great number of sentences in which "bachelor" is used, and trust our hearer to work out the word's significance. And this is plausibly what happens in a great many cases of language-learning; even for terms which Putnam wants to say there are true analytic judgements which take those terms as subjects, it's hardly likely that the use of those terms is *always* taught by explicit statement of an "analytic" definition, or that there's any need for this to be the case. (I imagine this in some more detail in the post on "The Roots of Reference" I linked above.)

And this is connected to my next point: I don't see what's special about the "enormous number of scientific explanations" and "enormous bundle of laws" that "energy" enters into; it just looks to me like a particular case of a word having meaning because it has a use in a form of life (very broadly speaking). Putnam doesn't address this at any point in the essay; I suspect he's privileging laws just because he's using an example from the history of physics to make his anti-Quine's-critics points. Putnam's certainly right that it's this holistic web that gives "energy" the meaning it has, but I see no reason to think the vocabulary of the natural sciences is special in this respect.

I *think* the reason Putnam introduces the notion of a law-cluster concept is just because the notion of a "cluster concept" was already floating around, and Putnam regards this concept as applying solely to "typical general names like 'man' and 'crow'" (p.52). As a philological note, I don't know if this was standard. Putnam attributes the view to Wittgenstein, and the obvious proof-text there is the discussion of "Moses" in PI 79, which is not a general term but a proper name (I'm setting aside for now the nitpick that the "cluster concept" reading of that passage given by Searle is not the best reading). So I'm not sure where the link between "cluster concepts" and general terms is coming from. But as a philosophical matter, I don't see that there's any good reason to distinguish between "cluster concepts" which are "constituted by a bundle of properties" and "law-cluster concepts" which are constituted by "a cluster of laws which, as it were, determine the identity of the concept". Putnam says he agrees with Quine's emphasis on "the monolithic character of our conceptual system", but I think Quine does this monolith more justice by not making the distinctions Putnam here makes. In general, the web of inferential connections a concept is embedded in "as it were, determine the identity of the concept". We can leave out just what those inferential connections are as unimportant; inferential links are inferential links.

Putnam does have more to say about why "bachelor" is not a law-cluster concept:
... 'energy is a law-cluster term, and 'bachelor' is not. This is not to say that there are no laws underlying out use of the term 'bachelor'; there are laws underlying our use of any words whatsoever. But it is to say that there are no exceptionless laws of the form 'All bachelors are...' except 'All bachelors are unmarried', 'All bachelors are male', and consequences thereof. Thus, preserving the interchangeability of 'bachelor' and 'unmarried man' in all extensional contexts can never conflict with our desire to retain some other natural law of the form 'all bachelors are...'. This cannot happen because bachelors are a king of synthetic 'class'. The are not a 'natural kind' in Mill's sense. They are rather grouped together by ignoring all aspects except a single legal one. One is not going to find any laws, except complex statistical laws depending on sociological conditions, about such a class. Thus it cannot 'hurt' if we decide always to preserve the law 'All bachelors are unmarried'. And that it cannot hurt is all the justification we need; the positive advantages are obvious. (p.57)
The first part of this is simply wrong; "all bachelors are nonlobsters" is a counterexample. And Putnam later in the essay gives the definition of "bachelor" as "male adult human being who has never in his life been married" (p.59), which isn't a consequence of "all bachelors are both male and unmarried". And Putnam entertains the (logical) possibility that there are laws like "all and only bachelors suffer psychological trouble Phi" (where Phi is something like "sexual frustration"); he says that if it turns out anything like that is true, then it will have turned out that "bachelor" is a law-cluster concept. His confidence that nothing like this will happen is his ground for saying that "bachelor" is not a "natural kind" and that it cannot hurt to decide to always preserve the law "All bachelors are unmarried men"; if it turns out that "bachelor" is a law-cluster concept then Putnam would reject it as the possible subject of an analytic truth. All of this strikes me as fishy enough to be suspicious that Putnam's "analyticity" is something we'd be better of without. (We can still say that "All bachelors are unmarried men" is something to not give up simply because it's true, and stop there.) But, Putnam says that there are obvious benefits, and he appeals to these as one of the chief motivations for retaining the notion of analytic truths.

So I now turn to the supposedly obvious benefits:
Most important, there is the advantage of brevity. Also, there is the question of intelligibility. If some of the statements in a language are immune from revision and if some of the rules of a language are immune from revision, then linguistic usage with respect to the language as a whole is to a certain extent frozen. Now, whatever disadvantages this freezing may have, there is one respect in which a frozen language is very attractive. Different speakers of the same language can to a large extent understand each other better because they can predict in advance at least some of the uses of the other speaker. (p.56)
Putnam says nothing else on the topic of brevity. I doubt there's any real gain in saying "bachelor" rather than "single man"; both are trisyllabic. Certainly there are advantages to having multiple words with similar meanings (for poetry and to avoid monotony), but we don't need "strict synonymy" for that.

The gain in intelligibility, then, is what I take to be the real supposed benefit. But I don't see that this works, either. For one thing, if we reject Putnam's notion of analyticity we can still say that everyone believes that all bachelors are unmarried men, so we can still predict in advance that any particular speaker will believe this. There's no need to have a "frozen language" when there're frozen beliefs. This I take to be a fully adequate rejoinder; Putnam does not show any good reason to not drop "analytic" from our vocabulary, as Quine would have us do.

But I think there is a real risk that Putnam doesn't address. I think it's not entirely crazy that someone might chaff at "All bachelors are unmarried men"; certainly "married" and "man" are both terms certain people have problems with. (I vaguely recall reading an interview with Judith Butler where she complains about the supposed "necessity" of just this categorical statement, in the mouth of Kripke.) Perhaps there are some intersex persons who feel comfortable self-identifying as "bachelors" but not as "male". Or perhaps some unconventional partnership arrangements lead to men who regard themselves as equally husband and bachelor (perhaps it's an open marriage and they keep separate apartments). If Putnam is right, anything like this involves ceasing to speak English; a "nonmale bachelor" and a "married bachelor" would simply involve equivocation on the term "bachelor". But this seems to me unfair, at least on the a priori grounds Putnam supplies; presumably the intersexed person and the unconventional husband think of themselves as "bachelors" not because of some crazy new meaning they've attached to the word, but because they see themselves as being what is called in English a "bachelor". To say whether their projections of the term are reasonable seems to me impossible to decide without seeing how life works out if we do project with them or we don't. It's not something philosophers have any privileged view on.

So, my conclusion is the inverse of Putnam's: I don't see any gain to retaining the analytic/synthetic distinction, and I see some real possible risks. So I'm happy to go without it.

25 April 2010

Morton White and the Dualism of the Analytic and Synthetic

I just finished Morton White's 1950 essay "The Analytic and the Synthetic: An Untenable Dualism", which is something Quine footnotes near the end of "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". I liked it; it's a nice companion piece to Quine's essay. Here are some observations, largely made to help me remember them later.

White's essay opens as follows: "John Dewey has spent a good part of his life hunting and shooting at dualisms: body-mind, theory-practice, percept-concept, value-science, learning-doing, sensation-thought, external-internal. They are always fair game and Dewey's prose rattles with fire whenever they come into view."

It's this Deweyan approach to dualisms that guides White throughout the piece; whereas Quine seems (especially outside of "Two Dogmas" itself) purely skeptical of notions like "meaning" and "synonymy". Many of the arguments White makes are similar to ones in Quine, but the way they pose the challenge is slightly different: most of "Two Dogmas" is devoted to trying to find a non-circular definition of "analytic", most of "An Untenable Dualism" is devoted to trying to find a way to draw a sharp line between analytic and synthetic statements in ordinary language. In both cases, the conclusion reached is that any distinction we can make sense of here is plausibly one of degree rather than kind (centrality vs. periphery in a web of belief, for Quine), but this conclusion is much more centrally stated in White. White's piece ends as follows: "[If the analytic-synthetic distinction is only one of degree] an unbridgeable chasm will no longer divide those who see meanings or essences and those who collect facts. Another revolt against dualism will have succeeded."

It's also worth noting that Quine called his version of empiricism "pragmatist" just because that was the label Carnap gave to the view he was opposing, and this position was what Quine took up to defend; White does not call his view "pragmatist", but does align himself with Dewey. So you have primarily nominal versus primarily movementarian pragmatism in the two authors.

One place where White distinguishes himself from Quine (explicitly) is that where Quine suspected he would need a behavioristic criterion for sameness of meaning to make any sense of the notion, White only asks for a term extensionally equivalent to "X is synonymous with Y" (other than "X has the same meaning as Y" and others which are similarly in need of clarification), as "X is a featherless biped" is to "X is a rational animal". I don't think these demands differ a great deal in practice, but it's always nice to be able to trim away some of the mid-century behaviorist trappings of Quine's thought.

One bit from White that's not explicitly in "Two Dogmas" resembles an early version of the thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. White notes that if we're dealing with a formal language some logician has cooked up, it can be a simple matter to say whether "X is a rational animal" and "X is a man" mean the same or not: the language can simply have explicit meaning postulates (here he grants his opponent more than Quine does). But if we then try to decide whether a given artificial language is "the rational reconstruction" for a natural language, no means of deciding this has been provided; White concludes that the attempt is suspect. He makes the same point with regards to attempting to treat analyticity as a matter of convention: no criterion has been given for distinguishing between what is conventional in language and what is there for other reasons, though in particular cases we can establish explicit conventions of word-usage without much trouble.

White is also much more explicit about the sorry state of contrary-to-fact conditionals than Quine is (in "Two Dogmas" anyway), and his criticisms are more extensive than those Quine made (at least when it comes to modal semantics, as opposed to modal logic). Quine notes the connection between meaning and essence in passing ("Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word"), but White explicitly sets himself against "essentialism" repeatedly. A discussion of C.I. Lewis's views on modality makes him sound awfully Kripkean:

He holds that I only need to make what he calls an "experiment in imagination" to find out whether all men are necessarily rational animals. And when I try this experiment I am supposed to conclude that I cannot consistently think of, that I cannot conceive of, a man who is not a rational animal. But how shall we interpret this "cannot"? How shall we understand "thinkable"? I suspect that this view leads us to a private, intuitive insight for determining what each of us individually can conceive.... One either sees or doesn't see the relationship and that is the end of the matter. It is very difficult to argue one's difficulties with such a position, and I shall only say that I do not find this early retreat to intuition satisfactory.
So, it seems that even before modal logic & semantics were made respectable (by Kripke's soundness and completeness proofs and his possible worlds semantics), the semantics had a similar sort of backing to it: we're supposed to just have intuitions about modal matters, and that's what the modal logic is used to talk about. This is exactly how Kripke handles things like the necessity of origins; the fact that we're supposed to get similar "insights" from science in the case of "Water is necessarily H2O" and "Gold is necessarily the element with the atomic number 79" does not seem to me to make those less suspect. In both cases the modal element seems to come from a magical faculty we are supposed to each have that lets us know an essential predication when we see one.

Finally, White's article is just a fun read. At one point he considers the defense that we can identify self-contradictory claims because they "produce a certain feeling of horror or queerness on the part of the people who use the language". White notes that for this to work
we will have to be careful to distinguish the horror associated with denying firmly believed synthetic statements from that surrounding the denials of analytic statements. The distinction must not only be a distinction that carves out two mutually exclusive classes of sentences but it must carve them out in a certain way. It would be quite disconcerting to the philosophers I have been criticizing to have the whole of physics or sociology turn out as analytic on their criterion and only a few parts of mathematics.

14 April 2010

Indiana Bound

I have accepted an offer of admittance from Indiana University for philosophy PhD program.

It's been a really long few months waiting for all this to get settled out; I finally got the offer yesterday, and accepted this morning. I will be a real grad student in the fall!

Posting here will hopefully resume at some point; while I was waiting to get accepted someplace I was not in the mood for blogging. Mood much improved now.