Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Phenomenology of Moral Experience, Part the Fourth

Taking up where we left off, that is; with the notion of a web of collective intention:

As we move into this area though, we do need to be careful, and stick to our phenomenological game. Let’s not presuppose something by way of the terminology. Instead we need to ask: Is this structure of intention indeed a web or is it more accurately conceived in foundationalist terms?

[I have in mind here something like the difference between Quine’s notion of a ‘web of beliefs,’ as opposed to the foundationalist Cartesian notion of some set of beliefs which as pieces of knowledge, ultimately underlie and support a superstructure of beliefs. The analogy Quine uses is not quite apt to his intention. I think a better analogy is a tissue of bubbles in three dimensions. If some one bubble bursts, (that is, some belief thrown into doubt or shown false) then all those around it ‘adjust’, but the whole does not collapse. Stability can still be purchased by conceptual modifications in the rest of the web. On the other hand, a foundationalist view is built on analogy with...,well… buildings, and has as a central metaphor, the idea of a crumbled foundation causing collapse of all that stands upon it. Descartes believed that certainty has this sort of feature. If the basic or foundational beliefs lack certainty, this is transmitted to all beliefs that rely upon them.]:

Dependency Relationships between Bodies of Rules

Clearly there are dependency relationships between bodies of rules. Some bodies of rules would not be possible unless other bodies of rules were in place. For example, the instruction manual that allows one to build or repair a car would not be possible unless a rule governed language were in place which allowed the formulation of sentences. Language makes possible the communication of the steps in the repair or maintenance process. This holds for rules of games as well. It would be difficult, if not impossible to teach games unless one had language as a medium.

Language would not be possible unless more fundamental collective intentions, rules, or agreements were followed by human beings, one such being an intention to use phonemes and symbols in uniform ways, with regard to form and meaning or content, when communicating with others.

If I wish to communicate that I need my car repaired, I have to use the standard phonemes or graphemes of English with their ‘standard’ semantic contents, or I will not be able to communicate. Others too must not only expect that I do this, but must also ‘agree’ to do so. These are basic or fundamental collective intentions, rules or agreements that make language use possible.

Notice here, I used the terms “collective intention,” “rules,” and “agreements” in the above. I think though, in the context, they are somewhat misleading terms in one respect. The words carry a relatively strong connotation of conscious action or intention. But, it is obvious that you, no more than I, have never in the course of our lives, even in its earlier stages, “agreed” to a set of “rules,” or consciously decided in some originary act, to go along with, a “collective intention” as a component part of using our language. No. We just find a language in our environment, and learn it through use and various schooling techniques. Yet, despite our never having consciously decided to go along with the practice, we can nevertheless come to see that the whole structure of language would not be able to stand if we did not go along with each other in this way. There is a collective intention at the heart of the very possibility of language. We notice this only in odd circumstances of breakdown of expectations.

In learning language, we learn and make use of relatively sophisticated rules even if we cannot explicitly formulate them. (We can attempt to explicitly formulate them with some effort, as do grammarians or linguists, but it is not easy.) Yet, language would be hanging in the air and useless if we did not, at a more fundamental level, intend to use words and rules of grammar consistently with one another. This is something like an explicit promise to honesty.

Human life is girded round about by bodies of rules, some of which do appear to be foundational in this same sense. As does the collective intention to use phonemes and graphemes honestly, so too other activities are constituted by, indeed made possible by collective intentional acts of a very fundamental sort, intentions about which it is a bit odd to say that we have ever “agreed” to abide by them, yet we all recognize them as being vastly important. In fact, they are so important that we take them for granted, and only become aware of their importance when there is a violation or breakdown in that realm.

Human life exhibits this hierarchical structure: rules or structures of collective intention supported by more basic rules or structures of collective intention this set of indeterminate size serving as foundational for super-structural sets, all of this resembling a building, or perhaps several buildings with foundations. The further down you go, the less conscious or explicit seems the collective intention, the more we take it for granted, or don’t notice it, until breakdowns occur, and the more odd it feels for us to call this collective intention an agreement.

I intend to make the case that all human activities that can be described as rule based are founded on a fundamental layer of collective intention which is something like a collective promise of consistent behavior with regard to several fundamental items of value, things having to do with human well-being, freedom, and flourishing. They are a necessary condition of the possibility of super structural rules, and any valuable items therefrom derived.

Next time!