Wednesday, December 13, 2006

MM Sider: what kind of dismissivism is this?

Ok. It seems that I will open our second session of the Logos’ e-reading group on MetaMetaphysics. The text to be discussed is Sider’s “Criteria of personal identity and the limits of conceptual analysis”. In this paper, Sider tentatively defends the view that “there is no fact of the matter” as to which criterion of personal identity is right ---i.e. a ‘dismissivist’ position about this issue, to borrow a term from Bennett’s paper previously discussed here. However, the main aim of Sider’s paper is not to defend the dismissivist claim about personal identity but rather to clarify with the help of this example which form a dismissivist argument could have (sections 1-6) and argue that this kind of argument does not apply to disputes in ontology like the 3D-4D debate, the debate over composite objects, etc. (sections 7-8). The main idea seems to be that the dismissivist argument outlined in the first part of the paper could apply to those disputes which are decided on the basis of conceptual analysis (though he thinks that it actually applies to only some of them), and ontological disputes are not like these. I have doubts about several points of the paper, and hope to discuss all of them during this e-session. I start with two points on the first part of the paper, which relate to our previous discussion on Bennet’s paper.(I save for later some other points about more central issues in the paper)

(1) Which of Bennet’s three types of dismissivism suits best Sider’s position about the debate on personal identity? I would say that it is epistemic dismissivism. Though Sider repeatedly says that his view is that “there is no fact of the matter” as to which criterion is true (which could suggest antirealist dismissivism), he acknowledges that future philosophical inquiry could resolve the issue between bodily continuity and psychological continuity. Thus, it is not that there is no fact of the matter. It is only that, if there is one, we do not know yet which it is. But then, Dan’s point about Bennett’s epistemic dismissivism applies here as well: rather than dismiss the debate, we should keep trying and not be discouraged by the long standing epistemic impasse. (Sider acknowledges something like this, though, in pf. #7 of section 7).

(2) Can Sider’s view be considered as an instance of “semantic dismissivism”? I do not think so. And I think that the reasons why not will help to understand the semantic dismissivist’s position –a point we were discussing before here and here. I propose the following characterization of semantic dismissivism, which I think is in the spirit of Bennett’s official characterization and differs from the one given by Dan here:

Semantic dismissivism about the debate over ‘there are Fs’ is the view that the parties in the debate disagree about the meaning of some term in the disputed sentence and fail to perceive this disagreement is taking place. (Equivalently: they are not aware of the analytic character of the “linking principles” over which they disagree). As a consequence, they talk past each other when they argue about whether there are Fs, i.e. the dispute is merely verbal. The dispute could be resolved simply by first exposing the unnoticed semantic disagreement and then finding out who is speaking ordinary English and who is not.

So construed, the view is not simply that the debate should be dismissed because it involves a semantic disagreement (which could be relatively easy to resolve), but rather that something is wrong with the debate because the semantic disagreement is not being noticed by the participants.

On Siders’s view the debate on personal identity is much like the case in which the sorority girl and the purist disagree as to whether there is a Martini on the table; on both debates, the parties agree on “all the facts” (namely, that there is, say, a mindless body in a coma in front of us, and that there is an alcoholic beverage in a V-shaped glass in front of us, respectively). They only disagree about how to “describe” these “facts”. But this is not enough for the disputes to be a target of semantic dismissivism, as I propose to understand it. In addition to there being a semantic disagreement, semantic dismissivism requires that this disagreement goes unnoticed, with the consequence that the participants of the debate “talk past each other”. And this is what happens when they do not acknowledge the analytic character of the linking principles over which they fight ("there is a human body --> there is a person, there are simples arranged tablewise --> there is a table. etc). In the case of the debate over composition, what makes people talk past each other, on the dismissivist`s view, is that they are not aware of the alleged analycity of the principles they defend. In contrast, in the case of personal identity as described by Sider, this clearly does not happen. On Sider’s picture of the debate, the participants are well aware of the analyticity of their principles and cannot be described as being talking past each other (I am bit puzzled about the second paragraph in section 7, where he introduces the issue of ambiguity without explicit connection to the previous discussion). Thus, his view about this particular debate is not an instance of semantic dismissivism, as I am proposing to understand it (in consonance with Bennett, I think, and dissonance with Dan).


Dan López de Sa said...

Good! I think this helps clarifying part of what we had been discussing in the previous session.

As you yourself emphasize, you add the condition that people "fail to perceive this disagreement is taking place" (regarding their different semantic views) for the view you want to call 'semantic dismissivism', whereas this is (perhaps a frequent, but) not a necessary feature of the cases I want to call 'genuine but semantic disputes.'

As we agreed that the martini example is authoritative re Karen's, and certainly the kind of ignorance you are interested in is not an essential component of it, I take it that her 'semanticist dismissivism' alternative is closer to mine than to yours—although her talk about 'talking past each other' might then be perhaps unfortunately misleading.

In any case, we can compromise, as I am quite happy to divide my 'semantic disputes' taxon into 'diaphanous semantic disputes' and 'obscure semantic disputes' attending to whether ignorance of the semantic character of the nature of the dispute is readily available or not to the partipants :-).

What do you think?

manolo g-c said...

I fail to see why the attitudes of participants in a debate (i.e., whether or not they have noticed some features it has) should matter for classifying it along the lines required in the debates between dismissivists and their opponents. Thus, I tend to agree with Dan that Sider's position is better seen as a form of semanticism, in Bennett's terms. We can perhaps distinguish an initial characterization of a semanticist position, closer to the merely intuitive, from a philosophical account of the nature of such a position. Bennett's (2), p. 3 of the manuscript, is a statement of the former kind; Hirsch's elaboration (H), her own variation H-A, and Sider's proposal are statements of the latter kind. I prefer Sider's proposal, for the following reason: I very much doubt that, in the cases that interest us (proposals concerning the nature of fundamental concepts or their referents), unlike the martini case, we can appeal to a "neutral" vocabulary in which to state the alleged alternative meanings for the disputed terms, on a semanticist version of dismissivism; this is what is behind Bennett's "preliminary worry" against Hirsch's proposal (p. 15), about how to state the alleged undisputed falsehoods in the composition and constitution cases. Given characterizations such as Hirsch's or Bennett's, I cannot see how we could even phrase semanticist proposals for, say, the existence case.

Dan López de Sa said...

I took Sider's proposal to be in fact similar to the one I was myself also sympathetic to in previous posts. For the relevant "neutral" vocabulary, just introduce by stipulation new terms for the different candidates. (And this is in fact what Sider himself does.)

True: this does not seem to fit with the 'existence' case, but this is precisely why, for some, the dispute there is genuinely ontological ;-)!

(There seems to be further discussion about how to spell out the details of a semanticist and (true) dismissivist proposals in papers suggested here.)