Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Charge of Essentialism (a reply to David King)



Essentialism can be defined as the view that all things, or groups of things, possess essential features without which they would cease to be what they are. So, for example, all squares have four equal sides and four right angles. Without these fundamental attributes, a shape would not qualify as a square.


Essentialism has been around for more than two millennia, so inevitably there are several different versions on offer. Perhaps the most extreme version was developed by Plato who believed in an abstract realm of perfect "forms" of which the things of our world are merely imperfect copies. So, for example, all squares are approximations of an ideal square to which our only means of access is by way of ideas. Hundreds of years later, John Locke did not posit an immaterial realm of perfect forms but held instead that essences are in the mind, as ideas to which "things existing are found to agree, so they come to be ranked under that name."


Interestingly, it might be suggested that every form of essentialism must necessarily partake of some essential feature or features by which it might be identified as such. Just as all squares share essential features, so too perhaps, do all forms of essentialism. Nonetheless, as has been famously noted by Wittgenstein, many conceptual categories cannot be reduced to essential features, but are formed through what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances." Different members of a family may share no single feature in common, yet several different features may be shared across two or more members. Games, Wittgenstein argued, are related in this way. As a conceptual category, there is no essential feature of all games, yet each game shares features in common with one or more other games. Accordingly, there can be no typical member of a family and no typical game. Therefore only a cross section of examples is likely to provide an indication of some, but not necessarily all, of the overlapping features of the group as a whole.

Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances is often taken to be strongly anti essentialist and is frequently cited in disputes over whether it is possible to determine necessary and sufficient conditions for certain concepts. It should be noted though, that family resemblance categories are not entirely boundless even if many conceptual boundaries are fuzzy. That we usually do not need to see a border between Scotland and England in order to know which country we are in does not mean that no border exists or that no boundary can be erected. Likewise, Wittgenstein is not suggesting that there are no linguistic rules at all or that it is pointless to explore the boundaries between one conceptual category and another. For example, if the concept of games had no boundaries, then it would be indistinguishable from the more general concept of "activities" which itself would be indistinguishable from the concept of "change" etc. Wittgenstein's central point is that we do not need to establish any boundaries or to consult any putative mental or ideal essences to know how to use a concept. But in the process of making this point, he is not saying that we cannot establish necessary and sufficient conditions for concepts under any circumstances. Nor is he saying that it is impossible to distinguish between different conceptual categories through conceptual analysis. My reasons for these important clarifications will become clear in a moment.
On several occasions, philosopher, blogger and Facebook discussion group moderator, David King, has labeled me a "fundamentalist", a "Platonist", a "language policeman" and, in response to my last blog post here on the subject of communication, a "rabid essentialist". Evidently, by characterising my position in these ways he hopes to discredit my view in as expedient as way as possible. King is well aware that my commitment to conceptual analysis owes a great deal to the work of Wittgenstein and since he is also aware that Wittgenstein is widely regarded as an anti essentialist, he sees it as "ironic" that my methods should be so at odds with what he takes to be Wittgenstein's position. I hope I have already made it clear that Wittgenstein's position on essentialism is all too easy to oversimplify. After all, it was Wittgenstein who wrote "Essence is expressed in grammar." Of this statement, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
The 'rules' of grammar are not mere technical instructions from on-high for correct usage; rather, they express the norms for meaningful language. Contrary to empirical statements, rules of grammar describe how we use words in order to both justify and criticize our particular utterances. But as opposed to grammar-book rules, they are not idealized as an external system to be conformed to. Moreover, they are not appealed to explicitly in any formulation, but are used in cases of philosophical perplexity to clarify where language misleads us into false illusions.
On at least two occasions King has asked whether I have conducted tests of native speakers or undertaken corpus analysis of people's every day speech interactions. In order to clarify where language misleads us into false illusions we do not need to consult native speakers to know that "communicating at someone" is not a strong candidate case of communication. Simply being an experienced native speaker—with all that that entails—is sufficient qualification to know that to communicate about someone is rarely, if ever, to communicate with them. And we can also readily observe that it is not entirely unintelligible—although it is somewhat strained—to say that we can "communicate to someone" or "communicate to ourselves" but we cannot do so without also communicating with someone or with ourselves. And to communicate with our hands, lips, mouth or voice is not to communicate to our hands, lips, mouth or voice. None of these points about the relation of the preposition "with" to the verb "communicating" require any corpus analysis any more than they require us to consult some inner essence, ideal, prototype or guide. Nor in fact do they require us to be experts in linguistics, although such credentials would probably help to convince some doubters. So, to suggest that science, linguistics or corpus analysis are necessary—essential even—to establishing anything about ordinary language is to have missed one of Wittgenstein's central points.

Even though it was clear that King's remarks were aimed more at undermining my arguments than engaging with them, it occurred to me that I could indeed test my conjecture in a way that might partially satisfy King's scrutiny. I Googled "communicating with", "communicating to", "communicating in" etc. and found, just as I had expected, that the preposition "with" is by far the most common usage. In fact it is sixteen times more common than its nearest rivals "to" and "in". With further research it might be possible to use Google to perform a statistical analysis of ordinary language locutions but in this case the results merely confirmed what should have been obvious from the outset. Nonetheless, for King, who seems unwilling to accept reasoned argument (philosophy) on its own merits, perhaps the possibility of providing some readily available statistical evidence might offer a certain utility.

My point in drawing attention to the relationship between the concept of "communication" and the preposition "with" has always been to emphasise that communication is a transaction, and like all transactions it usually occurs between two or more agents. We can communicate with ourselves of course—by making notes, keeping a diary or simply by talking to ourselves—but one group of locutions that are tellingly absent from Google are the following: "communicate in myself", "communicate inside myself" and "communicate in me". I take these as unequivocal evidence that the concept of inner communication is beyond the bounds of ordinary usage. King would dismiss these observations as a priori stipulations but such accusations do not change the fact that communication is a thoroughly public affair that can only ever occur between communicators or, at the very least, on the part of an individual already skilled in such transactions. There are no communicators within us, and without communicators there can be no communications.

So when theorists speak of inner communication, signals, codes, representations and information, they overstep the bounds of ordinary language. Communication is the mark of culture, not biology or physics. These theorists and researchers unwittingly expand the concept of communication to include causal influences, natural processes, stimuli, reflexes and autonomic mechanisms, none of which are communicative behaviours at all and simply do not qualify for inclusion in the category. Just because there are some family resemblances between one conceptual terrain and another does not mean that there is no boundary. Scotland is not a part of England.

When King accuses me of philosophical equivalent of nationalism, he fails to appreciate what I am trying to achieve. He argues: "You just assume without argument that neuroscientist are using the word 'communication' in a sloppy manner because they don't conform to your conventions. This is not an argument it is a statement of how you think they should speak." As I have repeatedly tried to make clear, the conventions I identify are not "my" conventions, they are the conventions of ordinary language. I do not berate anyone, but I am very critical of the misuse of ordinary language within the sciences and philosophy. But it should be noted that I am not critical of these misuses because of some quasi nationalistic commitment to ordinary language. I am critical of these misuses because of the devastating effect they have on our understanding of the difference between natural processes on the one hand and intentional actions on the other.

Intentional behaviours (of which communication is paradigmatic) require goals. What is the having of goals if not the having of abilities to represent the thing or things with which we are engaged? King consistently fails to address this question. If we cannot produce representations then we cannot communicate. This is why I am so insistent that communication is the turning point between biology and culture. If we bundle all natural processes into the same conceptual category as communication then there can be no clear distinction and many important insights will be obscured from view.

Evidently King regards all criticism of conceptual confusion as little more than an irksome punctiliousness on the part of a minority of "Wittgenstein fanatics". He does acknowledge that "Hacker and Bennett DEMONSTRATE [King's emphasis] some contradictory and confused uses of certain terms" but he is clearly unwilling to consider the possibility that the problems of conceptual confusion are much more far reaching.


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