Friday, August 29, 2008

Two Worries for MacKinnon

I’ve been reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Umodified, and had a couple of ideas. One was in response to a bit from the great talk, “Desire and Power”.

“Similarly, to say that not only women experience something – for example, to suggest that because some men are raped rape in not an act of male dominance [over a victim in a female social role?] – only suggests that the status of women is not biological. Men can be feminized, too, and and they know they are when they are raped.’ (56)

MacKinnon seems to be claiming that a man, when raped, is always raped as feminine, i.e. his experience of the rape or the status of the rape is as of woman’s experience or status in society. This just seems to me quite false. Surely, if there are such things as the social role of woman and the social role of man, then there are socially womanly characteristics in a man’s experience of being raped – powerlessness, enforced silence, passiveness, penetrability, perhaps being taken as sexually available regardless of one’s own interests. But there must be distinctly male characteristics of this experience, and I think these are socially, and not (or not just) biologically male characteristics. Men are probably more likely to be believed than women when they report being raped, but they presumably still fail to report some rapes. I think (and MacKinnon should think) that this would typically be for socially male reasons – a desire not to be seen as powerless, not to be treated as a victim. If a man is ashamed of being raped, I imagine it is not typically shame at being ruined, as a woman might be socially pressured to feel. It would typically be shame, again, for distinctly male reasons – failure to overcome one’s rapist, for instance. This is a small point, though.

Another, bigger problem with MacKinnon’s theory is that it seems incapable of explaining that rape, child molestation, incest, prostitution, and pornography (and even in some cases job- and pay- discrimination) are taboo and frowned on. If the dominance of man over woman is best evidenced in society by male-female sexual violence, and feminism is necessary because, among other things, the dominance of man would go unchallenged except by feminism, then why is it that non-feminist forces suppress male-female sexual violence, even to the extent that they do? The equality principle can’t explain these taboos, on her interpretation of how it is accepted in society, since MacKinnon wants to say that the deleterious function of the equality principle is that women and men are often too unlike, especially with respect to their proneness to sexual violence, to be treated as likes. I imagine MacKinnon might say that there aren’t any (or very many) non-feminist forces suppressing male-female sexual violence, but I would disagree. This suppression is preached in church, enshrined in the law (even if the law isn’t systematically enforced), and acknowledged, at least in cases other than pornography, by society’s male-dominated moral discourse (a discourse which MacKinnon apparently believes also to be male in its characteristic social role). The force of this suppression is non-trivial. It is not as if there is a clear explanation of these phenomena that MacKinnon’s theory just can’t countenance; I think these facts really are difficult to explain. What seems to be the case, then, is that there are social forces other than feminism that combat at least some of the more pernicious effects of male dominance. (We might, alternatively, take the above to suggest that male dominance is not, in fact, expressed in those instances of sexual violence which (male) society seems to disapprove of, but I think this would be too severe.) Isolating what these forces are might be of considerable use to feminism. What forces guide the church, the law, and male moral discourse to oppose sexual violence? How, if at all, can feminism put these forces to its own use?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Philosophers' Carnival LXXVI

Welcome, readers, to the 76th fortnightly Philosophers’ Carnival!

Enigman asks what philosophical reasons mathematicians have for assuming the axiom of infinity in his post Philosophy of Mathematics. It’s not clear what sorts of reasons he’s looking for; fundamental questions about mathematical truth and the role of axioms seem to be lurking just below the surface here. The comments thread hasn’t grown prohibitively long yet, so hop on over and pitch in your $.02.

Alexander Pruss criticizes several ways of construing the supernaturalness of magic in Magic, science, and the supernatural. I’m not convinced by a lot of what he says, but the discussion is very clear and open-minded. Peruse the other entries while you’re there, if you haven’t visited before – it’s a nice blog.

Avery Archer works on a theory of rational agency in Why Questions and Rational Agents (more about the latter than the former). I like this post, even though I don’t like a lot (of the little) I have read elsewhere on rationality. It’s not clear to me that the appearances of the good (allegedly) involved in desire are reflections of a perspective held by some subsystem of an agent which is involved in producing the agent’s desires, just because I’m not sure that subsystems of agents are the sorts of things that can have perspectives. This might be a quibble. When a person’s reasoned course of action conflicts with her desires, there obviously does seem to be some sub-agential system bearing some interesting relationship to the course of action desired but not taken, or a mental representation of that course of action. It might be useful to spell out what is not quite “perspectival” about that relationship, though. I have more to say about this, but you don’t need to read it.

Over at Possibly Philosophy, Andrew Bacon weighs in on Counterexamples to Modus Ponens. I’m not sure I understand why he thinks that a syntactic characterization of modus ponens won’t work, and I don’t understand accessibility (between possible worlds) well enough to follow the rest of the argument. The McGee counterexample is super-interesting, though, and deserves attention from those of you out there with more logical competence than your humble host.

Thom Brooks of The Brooks Blog lets us in on his Five Secrets to Publishing Success, published on Helpful to those looking for, well, publishing success.

Richard Chappell offers a brief but convincing discussion of Fair Shares and Others’ Responsibilities. He argues that, in the interest of fairness, we should pick up the slack for others’ moral failings. I think I agree, although I do not live up to the conclusion in my own life. Also, it’s not clear to me how well this sits with Richard’s views on the “demandingness objection” and the permissibility of living a basically decent life expressed here.

Bryan Norwood presents some objections to epistemological internalism, with an alternative, in Internalist Justification vs. Virtuoso Expertise. There is a lot I don’t understand here – the distinction between subjective and objective blame, the relationships between foundationalism and this distinction, and the relation between internalism and K = JTB. Still, I think there are some good ideas about epistemic blameworthiness brewing here.

Chris Hallq discusses Gettier and the purpose of analyzing “knowledge” in The case against Gettier. Some of the literature on what knowledge is for – the relation between knowledge and assertion, or knowledge and the attribution of other factive mental states – could help here. Still, the basic point, that philosophers interested in a concept need to keep the distinctive intended uses of the concept, is worth reiterating.

Lastly, Gualtiero Piccinini disambiguates “connectionism” for us, and spells out some of the morals of the disambiguation in The Ambiguity of "Connectionism". I was taught that connectionism is the view that the brain does most everything using Parallel Distributed Processing, but these other senses of “connectionism” are useful to distinguish as well.

That wraps up this edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival. If you’re still jonesing for more philosophy after all that, I invite you to check out some of the posts here on Think It Over. And, as always, keep your eye out for the next edition upcoming at Kenny Pearce’s blog.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What to Expect from a Theory of Meaning

It’s clear that different thinkers want different things from a semantic theory of a language, or a theory of meaning. I want to schematize the different possible desiderata for a theory of meaning. Here is the beginning of a schema, and a comment on one of its problems.

A good semantic theory (where a theory is construed as a class of sentences) of a language L is/expresses:

(a) What we must understand
(b) What we must know
(c) What we must believe
(d) What we must know-true
(e) What we must believe-true
(f) What we must act as if true

in order to

(1) Understand the sentences of L
(2) Know the meanings of the sentences of L.

A conception of the goals of semantic theory comes from picking "is" or expresses in the first clause, one item on the lettered list, and one item on the numbered list.

I include (f) for those who think that semantics is a branch of sociology, not psychology – who think that the meanings of sentences are not mental representations or attitudes towards mental representations, or are not best studied through mental representations of meaning or attitudes towards those representations, or are not determined, in any interesting sense, by mental representations or individuals’ attitudes towards them. But I feel like, to accommodate just these sorts of folks, there should be something corresponding to (f) in the numbered list. “Count as a(n expert) speaker of L” or “Count as a member of the linguistic community centered around L” is too strong, because some phonological or pragmatic know-how or behavior goes into these things, but is not properly semantic. I’m at a loss.

There are also more ways of clarifying what we want from a semantic theory by placing different sorts of restrictions on the values of L – idiolects, dialects, the verbal behavior of maximal sets of mutually intelligible speakers, or whatever.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Explications and Empirical Revision

In what senses are explications open to empirical revision?

Say you have a term t and an explication of that term t`. For instance, t could be “heat” and t` could be “mean kinetic energy”. Or t could be “volume” and t` could be “amplitude”. Or t could be “more probable than” and t` could be “has a greater limiting relative frequency than”.

One obvious sense in which the explication t` could be empirically revised is that we could have some theory T1 in which t` occurs essentially, and then, in light of new empirical evidence, we replace T1 with some theory T2 in which t` does not occur. For instance, we could have a Newtonian mechanical theory, in which “heat” is explicated with a certain definition of “kinetic energy”, and (loosely speaking) the evidence could suggest that we replace it with a relativistic theory, in which the definition changes. Or the evidence could suggest that some classical theory of statistical mechanics be replaced by a quantum mechanical theory, in which (so I understand) the frequentist explication of "probability" is not appropriate.

Another slightly stronger sense in which t` could be empirically revised would be this. Suppose we have some theory T, containing the term t, then we replace every occurrence of t in T with the explication t`, producing the theory T`. Then, since T is presumably more vague or ambiguous than T`, there is some conclusive evidence against T` which is not conclusive evidence against T. If we discover just this evidence, then we should abandon T`, but we should not necessarily abandon T. I imagine that some would want to say, in this situation, that they had learned that they had chosen the wrong explication. This would be especially tempting if there were another explication t`` of t, such that the theory T``, gotten by replacing every occurrence of t in T with t``, were true, or supported by all of the relevant evidence at hand.

I feel like these senses aren’t strong enough to capture what someone might want to express by saying that explications are open to empirical revision. An explication is empirically revised in this stronger sense not only if the theories in which it occurs are found to be false, and not only if some competing explication better preserves the truth of theories in which the explicandum occurs. But is there such a sense in which explications are open to empirical revision?

Perhaps the idea is that there is some source of empirical evidence that can tell for or against the decision to explicate a term a certain way that is not empirical evidence for or against any particular theory in which the explicatum is used. This seems unlikely to me. What form could this sort of evidence possibly take? If we choose an explication, say, to render the empirical consequences of a theory more transparent, then we might have evidence that the explication fails or succeeds in doing so. We might have evidence, for instance, that “…t`…” is a borderline case but “…t…” isn’t. But would this be empirical evidence? Can’t we tell borderline cases from the armchair, given enough background information? Note that we can supply the necessary background information ourselves, using thought experiments. We might be incapable of telling what the empirical consequences of some explicated or unexplicated theory are if we don’t know what the theory says. So we should be familiar with theories in which explicanda occur in order to make our explications work best. But is this really empirical knowledge, in the relevant sense? What is necessary is not knowledge that any given theory is true, or knowledge of the evidence for or against a theory, but knowledge of what the theory says. (Of course, what makes what one theory says more or less important than what another theory says is the relative likelihood of the truth of the theories, but philosophers qua explicators don’t generally take on the task of empirically assessing the relative likelihoods of theories – generally, I suppose, they assess the importance of a scientific theory on the basis of its prominence in modern scientific discussion.)

Perhaps the idea is that, since no one sentence in which a (non-observational) term occurs is immune to empirical revision, then no sentence we pick out as the explication of a term is immune to empirical revision. This also seems implausible to me. As I understand it, part of what it is to explicate t with t` is to treat “t = t`” (perhaps relative to a given theory) as if it were the definition of t (in that theory). Part of what that amounts to is agreeing to the eliminability of t for t` in all extensional contexts (in a given theory). When we cease to agree to this, we change the subject. In general, as I see it, the explicit adoption of an explication of a term in a theory is an attempt to escape the consequences of various sorts of holism about that theory. We explicate, in part, to make the meanings of terms less diffuse. Of course, if a popular theory containing t is rendered trivially but empirically false by replacing all occurrences of t with t`, then t` is useless as an explication of t in that theory. Nobody would agree to explicate t with t` in such a case, and everyone’s refusal to adopt the explication would be on empirical grounds.

As it stands, this satisfies me that explications are open to empirical revision only in our first two senses. Am I missing something?