Author's Note: This blog post was written in the context of a 400-level ENG course on The 2008 Housing Crisis. The blog post stands alone, but was also in conversation with other blog posts and with class discussion. All of the blog posts I made during this class—most of which integrate my philosophical interests into larger discussions about literature, class, and economic crisis—can be found here.
As we begin reading The Parable of the Sower and thinking about the nature of things like safety, necessity, violence, homes, or adequacy, some of the philosophical tools I mentioned in class on Friday might allow us to pursue a more fine-grained analysis of the issues that will continue arising in this class. I also want to use these tools to reflect on Francesco’s post on the problem with words—and especially words like “necessary.”
The major question Francesco’s post raised for me is, What are words for? This question bears on metaphysical issues insofar as we usually want the words we use to track something that is true and real about the world. Yet, words and how we use them also shape and filter our experience of the world. When it comes to thinking about the identity of certain words, there are surely meta-linguistic issues that are salient. I could go down the rabbit hole with this, as I have on other posts, but I won’t today. Instead, I want to reiterate the different kinds of conceptual analysis I discussed on Friday while also convincing you that these philosophical tools are useful for what we are doing in this class.
When you hear me discussing “possible worlds,” some of you might think, “Why do possible worlds matter when we are thinking about issues as pressing as water shortages, housing crises, and racism?” And sometimes, I think this too. I sleep at night by reassuring myself that there are myriad ways to make sense of the world—we can gain new perspectives and a greater understanding of the important issues from light and color and sound (photography, art, music), from prose, from economics, from sociology, from psychology, and from philosophy. Even applied ethics that seems “relevant” bears on questions related to the nature of moral propositions, the nature of moral psychology, what it means to change something, the right way to define words, and so on. So, although I bring up philosophy yet again, I encourage you all to remember the profoundly human aspects of philosophy that motivate the cold-looking logical proofs: we’re trying to better understand the nature of the things around us, and sometimes, this more abstract understanding might illuminate a question or solution that we might not have otherwise seen.
Now, for conceptual analysis. In “What Are We Talking About? The Semantics and Politics of Social Kinds,” Sally Haslanger discusses complications related to the social constructionist project of analyzing discourse and concepts, especially those like “gender” and “race,” which differ from natural kinds like “water” or “trees.” Haslanger points out several approaches one might take to analyzing a concept.
One might take a “manifest” conceptual analysis—it is a priori(something that can be known without going into the world) and looks at our intuitions about some concept, like “knowledge.” I might reflect on knowledge, and attempt to define it and list the necessary and sufficient conditions for something counting as “knowledge.” One could do this for a word like “house as well.”
A descriptive analysis would be concerned with the referent of our “epistemic vocabulary,” which might be done by seeing which paradigmatic cases track the concept “knowledge.” If someone has a justified true belief that it is 11:59am but the justification rests on the fact that the clock says 11:59am but the clock it broken, this would challenge my belief that knowledge is defined as a justified true belief since this is a case of a justified true belief that doesn’t count as knowledge. In the “house” case, I might look around and see what people are usually referring to when they use the word house, and get together some paradigmatic cases of “houses” to better understand what a house is. Our drawings were a great example of this.
Between these two modes of analysis, Haslanger believes that the goal is to create a more accurate concept. If the descriptive and conceptual accounts are “misaligned,” one might decide between fixing the referent (in the cases of natural kinds, like water) or drawing further conceptual distinctions (as in the case of knowledge).
In resolving this “misalignment,” Haslanger notes that there is also an ameliorative approach that asks about the point of having a specific concept at all; this approach asks about the utility of a concept and what concept would do best to achieve the desired outcome or idea. If we think whether one has knowledge depends on practical interests, we adjust our concept of “knowledge” for this (e.g., Do I trust that the bus time is correct if I overhear a stranger talking speculatively about what time the bus will come? Do I trust this if I’m just going to a friends house? Do I trust this stranger if I am on my way to a job interview?). If the descriptive analysis of woman seems wrong because it excludes transgender women, we might adjust our concept of “women.” If we think the very categories of woman and man are oppressive altogether, an ameliorative analysis might look like an eliminativist project. we think the ideas we all have of what a “house” is are classist, elitist, and normative in a way we don’t approve of, perhaps we would be right to adjust our concept of what a “house” is. Finally, if we think the ideas we all have of what a “house” is are classist, elitist, and normative in a way we don’t approve of, perhaps we would be right to adjust our concept of what a “house” is.
There are obviously complicating factors here: is “house” a social kind in the way that “gender” or “race” are social kinds? Is there a metaphysical truth to house—or to something being the same over time—that we might be missing if we pursue an ameliorative analysis? Could the metaphysical truth of a thing (if there is such a thing) be time-indexed or contextualist? Is President Donner’s conception of “adequate housing” true in that context, or does it fail to live up to an objective truth to what it is to adequately housed? How many of these concepts are socially constructed? Do socially constructed kinds still have a metaphysical realness, even if it is different than that of a kind like “water?” Is it morally and intellectually irresponsible to think about these questions when social constructs like “safety” and “housing” end up being life or death for some people? Like Francesco, I do not have the answers either, but perhaps these modes of analysis will serve us well as we continue reading.