Thursday, September 28, 2006
Friday, September 15, 2006
Content Holism: Gabriel Segal.
The sort of holism I have in mind might be very roughly expressed by saying that the content of an individual’s concept depends on the totality of beliefs in which it features. So, for example, if, one day, Bart thought that measles is more common amongst girls than boys, and the next day he came to believe that it isn’t, then his ‘measles’ concept must have changed. Equally, if Bart thinks that measles is more common amongst girls than boys and Lisa doesn’t, then Bart and Lisa have different ‘measles’ concepts.
Here is a very rough thumbnail sketch of the argument for holism. Suppose that Bart and Lisa disagree on the question of whether measles is more common amongst girls than boys, but agree on pretty much all the other properties of the disease. They also both know that ‘measles’ and ‘rubeola’ are synonyms and they use the terms interchangeably. Now suppose that a naïve subject, Maggie, learns ‘measles’ from Bart and ‘rubeola’ from Lisa. She becomes competent with the terms, sharing most of Bart’s and Lisa’s ‘measles’ and ‘rubeola’ beliefs. Maggie comes to believe that measles is more common amongst girls than boys, but that rubeola isn’t. So, of course, she believes that they are different diseases.
Evidently, by standard Fregean principles, the content of Maggie’s ‘measles’ and ‘rubeola’ concepts differ. Now, by liberal, non-holistic standards of individuation we would want to say that the content of Bart’s and Maggie’s ‘measles’ concepts is the same and that the content of Lisa’s and Maggie’s ‘rubeola’ concepts is the same and that the content of Bart’s and Maggie’s ‘rubeola’ and ‘measles’ concepts are the same. But, given the difference between Maggie’s ‘measles’ and ‘rubeola’ concepts, that’s impossible. So we must deny at least one of the identity claims. But all the identity claims are on the same footing: there is no reason to favour one over another. So we should deny them all. So, it follows from the fact that Bart and Lisa differ in just one little, unimportant belief about measles, that their concepts differ in content.
The argument from the Simpsons generalizes. So holism is true.
Of course, spelling out the argument properly takes some time and patience. But it can be done. So what then? Then we wonder how it is possible coherently to use opaque propositional attitude attributions to talk about the Simpsons. How can they all believe, de dicto, that measles causes spots if the contents of their ‘measles’ concepts are different? Then we see that psychological generalizations work fine because they deploy a flexible standard of sameness of content, with different levels of content-similarity governing the correctness of opaque generalizations, in different conversational contexts. But how does that work? What is the metric of similarity here? Where do we even begin to look?
So the challenge is: either answer those last questions or find a flaw in the argument from the Simpsons.