Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Post-Modernist and the Dinosaur

In response to the my defence of post-modernism, "Antirealist" asks two different questions:

Are you saying that prior to the time when people grasped the concept 'living thing', there were no living things, or no facts about whether, say, algae is alive?

The answer to the first is "no" and the second is "yes". On the plausible assumption that bacteria have no concept of life and death, there were innumerable (if yucky) living things before there was a concept of "living thing." However, there were no facts about living things, at least not if facts are true propositions. You can't have propositions without concepts, so you clearly can't have true propositions without them.

It may be that there is now a fact about whether there were bacteria 4 billion years ago. But there wasn't back then.

Update: "realist" says, I'm assuming you'd agree that the truth of straight empirical propositions like this one depends on goings on in the world

Here is where we might locate the difference. I would more or less endorse Foucault's views on this issue. Empirical propositions do not really stand on their own. They are situated either in a science (or other specialized discipline like engineering, accounting or law) or as part of common sense. In other words, without all the background that makes up the science or or other technical discipline or common sense (collectively, "discourses"), the proposition wouldn't be meaningful, and therefore wouldn't be capable of being true or false.

"Discourse" may be a misleading term because Foucault confirms that the discourse embodies both linguistic and non-linguistic elements. By definition, *empirical* discourses use some physical interaction with the extra-linguistic world as part of their way of determining whether propositions are true or false. A proposition in chemistry has to lead you to some lab experiment that verifies or falsifies the proposition (or, at very minimum, raises or lowers your Bayesian prior about that proposition).

So, yes, the truth of a proposition in an empirical discourse depends on extra-linguistic goings on in the world. But what goings on it depends on is part of what makes it the discourse it is. Which external events trigger truth/falsity depends on the discourse, not the external world. And until the discourse comes into being, nothing "out there" in the world has any effect on the truth or falsity of any propositions.

What's interesting about all this is that the production of new concepts is a historical event. It occurs because someone sees the new concept as useful and others agree. Figuring out why they see the new concept as useful depends on figuring out what problems they think the new concept helps them solve. And figuring out why other people oppose the new concept depends on figuring out what new problems it creates for those people. In other words, the rise or decline of a concept is a political event.

Some common-sense concepts (like the distinction between living and non-living things) are so basic to the human condition that it is hard to see them as politcal. But they aren't political in the same sense that a completely settled issue of public policy (like whether the Stuart line will be restored to the throne or who will get Alsace Lorraine) isn't political. No one has an interest in fighting about it. And the concepts of a technical discourse usually aren't contested except by the participants in the technical discourse, who only contest the ones on the margin.

But then there are concepts like "racism", which are contested, and for which understanding the contest requires suspension of worrying about whether it is true or false that A is a racist.

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