Xunzi on Language II

I think a lot of the apparent inconsistencies in Xunzi, as well as a lot of the arguments his remarks on language have occasioned, are due to some confusions that can cleared up if we make more use of some modern analytic philosophy of language. In particular I’m inclined to argue:

1)       Xunzi does hold to an externalist account of reference in the neighborhood of those defended by Hilary Putnum or Tyler Burge. Read more…

Meta-Ethical Musings

There are things we know about the world because of the achievements of the physical sciences and that are the bases for widely held beliefs. I have in mind things like the fact that the water is H20. It’s safe to say few people come to believe these scientific claims by way of scientific investigation of the world. Rather, most people–I would guess a vast majority of people–who believe water is H20 do so because they were taught to believe this rather than as a result of their own rigorous empirical explorations of chemistry. Consequently we can readily distinguish two kinds of questions here. One kind would concern the nature of a scientific claim like “water is H20”, and another would concern the processes by which people come to believe a claim like water is H20. At first glance anyway, it would be odd to think that we could learn much about scientific claims–whether they’re true or false, what makes them true or false, the basic nature of the world they try to describe–by looking at the processes by which people typically arrive at their scientific beliefs, the accuracy of those beliefs, the level understanding of science or the natural world evinced, and so on. Surely the burden would be on the person–a certain kind of scientific anti-realist–who thinks we can connect these two kinds of questions to make the case. Keep reading…

 

Are gender roles inevitable?

There is a certain kind of political debate that turns on what we should make of “traditional gender roles.” The “traditional” here is redundant, as there are no gender roles that are not highly mediated by shared practices and expectations of the sort we point to when we talk about traditions. Implicit in debates about gender roles is a reference to the gender roles of a particular cultural setting, which in the American context usually is the immediate post war world of the white middle class (or an imagined version of that world). “Traditional” is added to distinguish this cultural setting from what emerged after the social upheavals of the last few decades, often to suggest rhetorically that what we’ve seen is a move away from strictly observed gender roles. This is lamented by conservatives and celebrated by progressive feminists, but there’s a general agreement that there’s a meaningful divide here. One side sees gender roles as necessary and healthy acknowledgement of biological reality; the other sees them as embodying generally pernicious socially created hierarchy. In light of the previous post I want to suggest both sides are a little confused. Keep reading…

 

The Family: Natural not Political

Martha Nussbaum is fond of arguing that “the family’ is a political institution rather than natural. Her point is that however natural and inevitable we find them, our familiar ways of defining family relations emerge from historically shaped institutional arrangements that define roles, obligations, expectation and so on. This is in part why Nussbaum wants to deny that the “family as such has any moral standing.” Rather, family relations, and behaviors the happen in the context of the family, are subject to the same moral scrutiny as those found in other realms of human interaction.

The contrast between natural and political is a dubious one, as it is doubtful that there are any structured human interactions that could count as “natural” if the very fact that they are framed by social institutions suffices to render them “political.” Given her purposes Nussbaum is right to stress the extent to which “the family” is structured by laws and customs and is highly variable across cultures and historical periods. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that her definition of “political” as contrasted with “natural” is so broad as to elide important distinctions. Surely Nussbaum see some fundamental differences–differences that carry moral weight–between a relationship between a father and daughter and that between a senator and his constituent. More…