Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Churchland's challenge

Churchland's challenge: "show me one example where 20th century conceptual analysis laid a foundational plank for any empirical science"
Patricia Churchland, from the Richard Marshall interview in 3:AM Magazine.


  1. She's dead right isn't she? The only bit I didn't like was the soppy bit about pantheism and about how wonderful it is to be so closely connected to our furry and feathered friends.

  2. Mark, I have to admit, I liked even those bits.

  3. Seems a bit disingenuous to ask a branch of philosophy that she is implicitly defining as being separate from empirical science to have something direct to say about the content of empirical science. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression of conceptual analysis is that it is focused on teasing out the meanings of words into their constituent concepts. I'm not at all sure why one would expect such a process to have anything to say about empirical science beyond clarification of meanings. At best one might hope that it would help prevent some scientists from pushing he boundaries of language in their arguments.

    Perhaps she thinks conceptual analysis should lead to a flash of insight into a particular scientific problem because it brings clarity to a previously obscure thing. Yet there are surely many cases of scientists who advanced the field by analyzing and breaking down the concepts of other scientists, so I assume that's not the path she wants to go down. (e.g. Quantum mechanics and relativity)

    Perhaps she wants a professional philosopher to contribute directly, but that seems a distinct issue from the general technique.

    I don't get the impression that she is asking for science as a general approach to be changed by conceptual analysis in the way that one might ask philosophy of science to affect it.

    Perhaps I am just confused.

  4. Reading the article again, I am of the impression that she is objecting to self-described professional philosophers adhering to genuine conceptual analysis, whom she thinks should have contributed theories or facts to be confirmed by science. This seems an odd standard insofar as I expect few of the people she identifies would profess such a goal. I would be interested to hear if I am wrong on the latter - do adherents of conceptual analysis hope that their ideas will be confirmed by science? Or is Churchland setting up a false standard?

  5. Here's my own take on her remarks. Scientists investigate things that we already have words for, things like planets, digestion, and consciousness. What is to be accomplished in getting clear on the meanings of the words "planet'," "digestion," and "consciousness" that couldn't be accomplished either by (1) the scientists themselves who are doing the relevant astronomy, biology, or psychology, or (2) consulting other scientists, such as socio-linguists, who are studying word usages in a scientific way? If the answer is "nothing", then how isn't that bad news for philosophers?

  6. Yes, interesting, thank you. I sense a stretch and an underlying circularity in her statements, but a certain nugget of truth seems to be there. I suspect many philosophers would say that they are interested in things that science has not been effective at explaining. I'm not sure if her brief argument holds insofar as she seems to have to assume, up front, that all topics of interest fall squarely within the practical limits of scientific explanation. (Perhaps that is true for her.)

    There is a significant area of overlapping topics that some people from both groups are actively trying to explain, such as consciousness. If one takes it that standard scientific methods can eventually provide a fully satisfactory account of consciousness, then her implication that philosophers should not waste their time has some force.

    Very interesting article - thank you for the post and comment.

  7. It is, indeed, quite a challenge. But then I'm one of those people who haven't the foggiest idea of what conceptual analysis is. I mean, there's the standard account that supposes that some concepts "contain" others, but this is just metaphor. Furthermore, was Plato doing this type of conceptual analysis when he said that knowledge is justified true belief? I.e., was he really analyzing his concept of KNOWLEDGE? It seems to be that he thought there was this phenomenon (having knowledge) and he was trying to describe that phenomenon, perhaps by reflecting upon what's common across instances of what he would typically consider knowledge. This is not what I take "middle-aged" analytic philosophy to be doing, and I take Churchland to be fine with this methodology in the preliminary stages of inquiry.

    So I don't have the foggiest of how to respond until I know what the heck conceptual analysis is. But I'm not too worried about rising to the challenge. I think we can proceed without cost.

  8. Hi Ryan!
    Why weren't the examples of Gettier and Kripke perfectly adequate for conveying what she meant by "conceptual analysis"?

  9. Hi Pete,

    My point was just that we tend to throw around the term 'conceptual analysis' with abandon, and it doesn't seem clear at all what it is. I'm skeptical that there's a clean line to be drawn between Gettier's mode of reasoning and the reasoning employed by the physicist or the psychologist. So I'm not sure what could count as an example of conceptual analysis laying a plank for science. Would the economist's pretheoretic understanding of strategic analysis count as conceptual analysis? Would Kripke's pretheoretic notions of necessity and possibility--the notions that he formally modeled--count as conceptual analysis? Would that count as laying the foundation of a fruitful area of mathematical logic? I'm not sure.