Saturday, October 29, 2011

My perfect cousin

Hacker objects to certain combinations of words on the grounds that they haven't been given a sense. But what if we give them a sense? His way of doing philosophy is not obviously equipped to deal with this possibility (I'm not saying that he couldn't deal with it). But there are innovations, as Fleischacker describes in his book. For instance, the law can grant people certain rights and then morally justified (but not legally defensible) claims might be called rights in what Adam Smith called "a metaphoricall sense" (Lectures on Justice p. 9, according to Fleischacker p. 27). We can accept this metaphorical use of the word "rights" or we can reject it as nonsense. If accepting it seems to threaten confusion then we can distinguish between, say, perfect and imperfect rights, as Smith, Hutcheson, and Pufendorf did. Dismissing such talk as nonsense is not something we can do without either failure to remember, or to see, that innovation is possible (and allowed) in language, or else to take an evaluative stand (which, of course, is also allowed), as Bentham does.

As Fleischacker remarks,
For Hutcheson and especially Smith, these "imperfect rights" did not much resemble their perfect cousins, did not, in particular, lend themselves well to legal formulation.
But they do lend themselves to a musical segue.


  1. I can't remember the exact passage of Hacker's you're referring to, but I suppose his defence might involve drawing a distinction between moral philosophy and analytic philosophy.

    The former is at least in part about innovation - ie, it can suggest new ways in which we ought to live and develop new concepts and linguistic innovations to help that process (think of Human Rights, and, indeed, Animal Rights). But the same is not true regarding (eg) qualia. Here we are dealing with a sraight-forward metaphysical illusion that leads to incoherent statements about empirical phenomena. The only way to give "qualia" a legitimate sense would be to change what it means (but that would merely involve using it to mean what we already mean by other words - it would be a pointless act of substitution). There isn't the same scope to be creative when it comes to such matters.

    (That's off the top of my head and probably badly expressed, but hopefully you get the idea.)

  2. Yes, I think I get the idea, and I think I agree as well. Thanks. We can innovate pretty much anywhere in language, I would think, and I wouldn't want to say a priori when this will be pointless and when it won't be, but there is certainly a difference between deliberate innovation and unintentional innovation mistaken for discovery. Talk about qualia and about what it is like to be a bat seems to be mostly of the confused variety, and for the reasons Hacker brings up.