January 07, 2012

Philosophical Amputations: 1: "Brute Facts" and "Institutional Facts"

For those readers who I have, I should start by apologizing for not providing much content over the previous months.  I have focused most of my attention on linguistic projects (think Khan University for foreign languages), and the time that I've spent in philosophical dialogues occurred in Warp, Weft, and Way (specifically here, here, and here) and some other places.

But a new year is upon us, and in efforts to keep my New Years resolution (as I said I would last year), I decided that I would force myself to dedicate at least a certain amount of time to some philosophical topics.

But more still, my exposure to the philosophical literature and lectures has left me disappointed by the very nature of the philosophical venture, and so much of my attention has turned from doing philosophy (attempting to answer philosophical problems) to doing what I'll call an amputating approach to philosophy -- telling philosophers that the distinctions, definitional underpinnings, and other groundwork for the explanatory models that they aim to provide or address are themselves incoherent nonsense.

That said, I don't get invited to many philosophers' parties.  They don't like much being told that their salaries are won by sophisticated con artistry.  It's a heavy sword.  It's hard to swing.

Thus, for filler between talks about Yang Zhu and most of my "hardcore" Analytic stuff, I decided that I would open a subtopic -- Philosophical Amputations -- to outline some of those terms which exist in philosophy, but which fizzle to nonentities upon some basic logical inspection.

This first one came from John Searle's lecture series on the philosophy of language, specifically his discussion of "brute facts" and "institutional facts."

I think most people, even without much investigation, could shoot down most of what Searle has claimed here.  But let's take it piece by piece.
  1. "The brute fact doesn't require a human institution in order for it to exist."
    • Searle's own example does not exemplify this claim.  Take the sentence, "The Sun is [about] 93,000,000 miles from the Earth."  First of all, that fact only exists because of an institution -- measurement.  The decision to define an arbitrary length as a unit (say, a centimeter, or a league, or a li), demands the institutionalization and standardization of that length as that length and not any other.  The fact follows from the institution of that measuring system.
    • But can there by any facts that are not institutional?  No.  The entire delineation of facts versus non-facts is a "human institution."  It's a distinction between the observations that we make and, more or less, its "agreement" with the sentences that one uses to code that observation.  Those sentences are built on a lexicon of terms and predicates that are the institution of a certain language, and thus the fact is just the comparison of a decoded sentence and our observations.
    • But this has an interesting consequence.  It means that all facts are merely tautologies of a given language.  Consider the measurement example that Searle gave.  We could, at any time we chose, make a neologism for a unit between the Earth and the Sun.  Let's call it a "solarterron."  Now, if someone asks, "How far away from the Sun is the Earth?" I can now respond, "It's one solarterron away."  But what have you really learned about the distance?  Well, unless you know what a "solarterron" codes, you have learned nothing.  The answer isn't contained in the sentence, alone, though the truth-value of that sentence is true by definition, and as such is tautological.  The answer is contained in the empirical observation which is independent of the way in which we describe it.  The sentence is merely a code which a person must decode and compare to his observations and experience.  If the code says something that doesn't match the empirical data, then it's false, and it's true otherwise, and those true facts are ultimately definitionally true for that given language, and so are tautological (or conversely, are contradictory).  There is no "bruteness" to the relation.  There's the observation, which is independent of language, and then there's a description which can match the observation and be true or fail to match it and be false.  All facts, truth, and the rest depend on the language, and they follow from the language's underlying definitional foundations for their establishment.
  2. "The Sun and the Earth are that far apart no matter what anybody thinks."
    • That's not true, either.  The Earth and the Sun are that far apart because we observe it to be that far away, and so think it is that way, and the statement is true because we have an institution that makes it true by definition.
  3. "They [regulative rules] regulate behavior that can exist without the rule, whereas some rules not only regulate behavior, [...] but they constitute the very behavior that they regulate, in that isn't even behavior of that kind unless they are following a certain number of the rules."
    • Searle's example of the regulative rule: "Drive on the right side of the road," can just as well be a constitutive rule if we reinterpret his statement.  Is it really driving in any conventional sense if the people don't agree on an institution for driving on certain sides of the road?  Well, what we want most out of this rule is to avoid collisions, which impedes driving in the sense that we normally would mean it.  If by "drive," Searle only meant, "Travel any distance by operating a motor vehicle," then the rule really is regulative in that sense.  However, if Searle meant by "drive," "Travel to destinations safely and securely by operating a motor vehicle (in Southern California)," then the rule actually constitutes the behavior, since driving on the left side of the road in Southern California is decidedly unsafe.  A behavior that we may read as regulative in one sense is equally constitutive in another sense.
    • One can see the explanatory power of constitutive rules over a falsely distinguished class of regulative rules in other contexts.  "Do not kill another human unless you must do so to defend yourself."  Why then, do you suppose that slave-owning societies try so hard to dehumanize their slaves?  Why do many wars receive a propagandist's spin that the enemy is a threat to personal safety?
  4. "In the case of driving, people had to make up their minds."  In effect, they institute a lane directionality rule.  But this is not the case with the game of chess.
    • Actually, that is exactly the case with the game of chess.  In order to constitute the game, people had to assign movement roles to pieces and relevant protocols for play and end of play.  Those can be changed at any time upon agreement of the players.  A game called "Knightmare Chess" does exactly that.  Any "official regulations" of chess exist only within the officials' dominion (e.g. "official tournaments").
Often in philosophy, we find jargon that muddies the waters to make them seem deep.  The "brute fact" and "institutional fact" are two such junk terms, since we have no definitive criterion by which one could substantially categorize a fact under the former heading, but not the latter heading simultaneously.  We can handle all of our descriptions of rules and so forth without this extra contrivance, and in the interest of accurate and parsimonious understanding of the matter at hand, we should pluck it from our brains and cast it into the fire.

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