Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What can be known?

Quite a lot can be derived from the nature of things. From the nature of Islam, from the nature of Christianity or America. The essence of Germany can be understood even though its not readily observable in these times. The national characters of Spanish and Swedish people, and their difference, can be observed, and we can derive things from it -- i.e. when speaking in terms of groups, though not about individuals. The same with men and women, etc.

But we live in times where this is not acknowledged. Philosophically, blank slate empiricism has been elevated to the highest truth. Social science is reduced to surveys, followed by advanced statistical analysis; a method that is considered to be the epitome of how to achieve knowledge today. Math is considered neutral so a disproportionate effort is put there. But virtually no effort is put in conceptual analysis of what the concepts used in the survey really means. This since conceptual analysis is considered opinion. So these investigations are consequently grossly blunt, no matter how sophisticated the ensuing mathematical analysis. Junk in, junk out as they say. And typically such surveys start from a blank slate, since the common wisdom is that nothing, in social science, can really be known. There is no essence of things. Every investigation has to start from zero.

So let's have a look at utterances of people. What can be objectively observed about that? What constitutes a lie? A promise? An honest question? In the wake of the latter Wittgenstein, linguistic philosophy became and important branch of 20th century philosophy where things like these were explored. John Austin was first out with his speech act theory -- we are not just simply saying things with words: we are acting! There are certain preconditions that have to be fulfilled for a speech act to be of a certain kind. E.g. was George Bush really lying about WMD in Iraq? Were the preconditions of the speech act "lying" really fulfilled?

John Searle is another philosopher of this school. Here is his analysis of the felicity conditions for promising. These are the most important preconditions for a speech act to constitute a promise:

  1. S expresses the proposition that p in the utterance of T.
  2. In expression that p, S predicates a future act A of S.
  3. H would prefer S's doing A to his not doing A, and S believes H would prefer his doing A to his not doing A..
  4. It is not obvious to both S and H that S will do A in the normal course of events.
  5. S intends to do A.
  6. S intends that the utterance of T will place him under an obligation to do A.
So from the utterance of someone it can be objectively observed and derived whether it is truly a promise or not, for anyone paying attention to the details, in spite of the superficial look of it. E.g. in a normal context "I promise to beat you up!" is not a promise (it breaks rule #3 in above list). If all other criteria are fulfilled, but S says the utterance with his fingers crossed, then rule #5 is broken. Making promises about the past is of course senseless and breaks rule #2. And to promise something one would have done anyway violates rule #3, e..g. for certain men to say "I promise to obey my wife".

So an utterance can be objectively observed and judged, and we can categorize what sort of speech act it is, using such criteria. But as I described in a previous post, under the paradigm of non-judgmental egalitarianism, making a judgment is of course considered as something bad, and therefore often as invalid, and we are implored to pretend that things are not as they are. So such analysis might become called mind-reading, or is considered jumping to conclusions or pure speculation. And in the flow of events this normally becomes the common wisdom. But we can stop the time, and properly analyze people's speech acts. And the analysis can be presented. And so I will.

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