2.4 supplementary: comparison to Wedgwood

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

As my treatment of reference-fixing for conjunction and quantification stand to Peacocke’s account, so my treatment of reference-fixing for normative concepts stands to Ralph Wedgwood’s. Here I concentrate on the view he sets out in “Conceptual Role Semantics for Moral Terms” , Philosophical Review 2001. Since Wedgwood himself builds on Peacocke’s approach, this is perhaps not too surprising.

The six differences between Peacocke’s approach and my own that I earlier highlighted are again relevant here, and I pick up on one below.  There are a couple of more specific divergences.

Wedgwood’s paper focuses primarily on giving possession conditions and a determination theory for the concept B: all-things-considered-better-to-perform. And the “possession conditions” he sets out (the assumptions about cognitive architecture, in my terminology) is not like the one I gave, appropriate to the moral case and linking normative judgements to blame. Instead, for Wedgwood B has a specific role in practical reasoning—roughly, a transition from a judgement that such-and-such is better to perform than so-and-so, to a preference for such-and-such over so-and-so (a preference, for Wedgwood, is a certain kind of conditional intention—but that detail need not detain us).

Wedgwood seeks to generalize the kind of “determination theory” we’ve already seen in Peacocke. After positing that each concept is associated with a set of “basic rules”, he initially says that the semantic value of the concept as “makes best sense of the fact that these rules are the basic rules for A”. But he immediately refines this, following Peacocke in saying that this requires making the relevant rules valid and complete. In order for this refined account to apply to the kind of transitions Wedgwood is interested in, he can’t characterize it as necessary truth preservation, since preferences are not the sorts of things that can be true or false. Accordingly, he defines a notion of “validity” for transitions from judgements to preferences—guaranteed correctness-preservation—where an intention is correct, says Wedgwood, if it conforms to the goal of practical reasoning.

With the case now squeezed into the model of valid inference, the question is what would make the inference valid (and complete), i.e. what semantic value for the concept B would mean that a true judgement that B(x,y) would guarantee that a preference for x over y would conform to the goals of practical reason. Wedgwood contends that assigning the normative relation being better to perform uniquely fills this role.

Among the ways that my account differs from Wedgwood’s, the thing I think is most illuminating to highlight is the role that he makes validity play. I think he goes wrong, and opens himself up to criticism unnecessarily, by trying to squeeze his account into the model that Peacocke offers of the logical connectives. So really, I’m not criticizing the spirit of Wedgwood’s account. I think that using radical interpretation in the ways already illustrated, one could reach more or less the same conclusion about what the semantic value of B is, on the architectural assumptions Wedgwood makes. But I think the letter of his own account misfires in instructive ways.

If the moral you take from Peacocke is that validity is central to reference-determination, and you are interested in transitions between beliefs and other states (preferences, intentions, emotions, feelings) rather than belief-belief transitions, the central challenge that looms is to generalize the notion of validity so it has application to such states. That is Wedgwood’s strategy. And Wedgwood proposes, quite generally, that the generalized notion of validity needed is necessarily correctness preservation.

Enter Schroeter and Schroeter 2003. They ask us to consider the content “I am in pain”, and suppose–I think plausibly—that part of its conceptual role is a transition from the state of actually being in pain, to the state of believing one is in pain. Again, when it comes to reference-determination, on a validity-centric model we’ll need to posit a notion of the conditions where it is correct that one is in pain (maybe: that all things considered one deserves to be in pain?). And we will then look for a semantic value for the pain-concept P that guarantees correctness-preservation for the transition. But that someone deserves to be in pain doesn’t guarantee that they are in pain! Nor would pain as the semantic value make the transition-rule complete, since someone being in pain certainly doesn’t entail they deserve to be. The property deserves to be pain, on the other hand, would make the transitions valid and complete, in the Wedgwoodian sense.

Something has obviously gone horribly wrong if we reach this point! But it’s interesting to reflect on what has happened. The point is that the notion of correctness that features in the characterization of “validity” is turning up in the validity-making content-assignment. That is something that is not provided for in the general gloss with which Wedgwood begins, viz that the semantic value of a concept “makes best sense” of the fact that the basic rules for that concept are its basic rules. Assigning pain to the concept pain makes perfect sense of the transition mentioned, as far as I can tell. We only get the odd projection of normativity into the semantic value determined when we move to the “more precise” formulation of this in terms of validity-Wedgwood-style. That is when the normative rabbit is stuffed into this particular hat. When we’re dealing with normative concepts, that has what look to be interesting and good results, since it allows us to easily derive the assignment of normative properties to normative concepts. But—and this I take to be the Schroeters point–we can see the way that this is cheating by noting that we continue to get those results even when we turn to non-normative concepts whose conceptual roles involve more than belief-to-belief transitions.

I think this is instructive of the dangers of fetishing validity’s role in fixing reference. Validity should never have been seen as the primary mechanism for reference-determination. It gets into the account of reference-determination for logical connectives and the like only because it is part of a wider epistemological story about which beliefs are justified. Radical Interpretation, on the other hand, makes us ask the question: what assignment of semantic value would make the transition rational? A notion of “validity” will enter the picture, only if we have some reason to think that validity, so understood, is part of what it is for an agent to rationally manage such transitions. There’s no obvious role for it in the case of the transition from a state of pain to a self-ascription of pain. And—say I—while we might be able to back-engineer a notion of validity for a specific sort of belief-to-preference transition, the explanatory order is from thinking about the rationality of the transition, to constructing such a notion, not vice versa. If we made this modification, and saw Wedgwood’s proposal as backed by radical interpretation, rather than specifically Peacockian theses about the the general form of “determination theories”, then we can recover what’s right about his story, and evade the Schroeter’s objection to it.


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