Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 06, 2014


One important reason we often fail to understand each other is what we call a category error. Jurgen Habermas's formulation is congenial to me so let me restate it in fairly simple terms (something Habermas, alas, is incapable of doing.)

Most of what we say to each other, contrary to centuries long obsessions of linguistic philosophers, is not actually about representing reality. Words create reality. The umpire says you're out, you're out. Doesn't matter whether the ball hit the glove before the foot hit the bag. That's actually an entirely different question. But we also create reality with very mundane speech. I make a promise, I've created an obligation. I ask a question, I place a social obligation on you to answer, assuming my question was appropriately put. I give you an instruction, you may be obliged to follow it if I have social standing to give you orders; or you may choose not to thereby creating resentment in me. Whatever, you can play out all the examples in your mind.

What I actually say, the content of my utterance, is called the locutionary act. But depending on context, the same locutions can constitute many different illocuations, that is the social act embodied in the utterance. Then there's the perlocution -- what happens inside your head in response to what I say.

Okay then. There is a diverse category of illocutions called assertions or assertorial acts. Yes, they do purport to represent reality but they also create reality. You now may have a new belief -- either that what I have told you is true, or perhaps that I'm a liar or a fool. You may form a new intention. You may have an emotional response to the information. (E.g., your cat is dead.)

Habermas reminds us that there are three main kinds of "validity claims" contained in assertions, and we get into a lot of trouble by confusing them.

The First World -- the world "out there," intersubjective reality, facts that can be proved or disproved by evidence accessible to anyone in the right place and the right time with the right sensory apparatus. (Maybe aided by a telescope.) This world is subdivided into what we can directly apprehend, and the realm of inference perhaps requiring expert knowledge or rigorous deduction. This is the realm of The True, as Plato has it.

The Second World is the social world, including norms and values, status and social structure. These can be asserted in first world terms, e.g. "England was ruled by a hereditary monarch in 1600," but the assertion that England should be ruled by a monarch or that you have a duty to bow to the queen is a different kind of claim. You can't prove it by a randomized controlled experiment, or by observation. You might try to support it by an argument that IF England is ruled by a monarch THEN some desirable consequence will ensue, which is at least partly back in the First World although probably very hard to demonstrate. But we have to know exactly what kind of claim you are making in order to criticize it validly. This is the realm of The Good.

The Third World is what's inside us, what each of us feels and wants individually. The only validity claim here is sincerity. Do I really love you? You can perhaps make a Second World claim that people should not feel that way but that is different from saying that I don't feel what I say I feel. This is the realm of The Beautiful.

So what's really going on when I say that Jahi McMath is dead and her parents say she isn't? Are we talking about the same thing? If they truly believe that she will one day open her eyes and say "Hi Mom," then I suppose we are. But I don't think that's what's going on, not at all.

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