Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Marriage and naming conventions

Recently two of my close friends got married (to each other).  This is great.  It does however raise a problem that's been in the back of my head for a while.  You see, like many people, these friends of mine have names.  And, as with many facets of life, living in the modern word has made this better, but also more complicated.

Back in the day (I like to use this phrase as often as possible to infuriate those friends of mine who are students of history (I also like to write in the passive to annoy those who study English (and lots of embedded parentheses to annoy all that don't study philosophy))) it was nice and simple...  Well, it was definitely simple.  Mr Smith marries miss Jones, and lo and behold, miss Jones becomes 'mrs Smith' in a transformation which is as far as I can tell, philosophically rather uninteresting.  This convention has come under scrutiny, and the seemingly widespread conclusion in the educated, liberal, and generally left wing circles I rotate in and orbit around, is that it is rather dated and sexist.  Not that there's anything wrong with a woman who wants to take on the surname of her husband, oh no, but there is definitely something wrong with the expectation that they should (there are also historical connotations about the ownership of women by their fathers and husbands, but I take this to be part of the same problem).  As such, modern women are (or at least should be) free to abstain from this particular convention if they wish.  In fact, several new conventions have arisen for such circumstances.  I have encountered three candidates, and have been forced to conclude that (based on certain assumptions about values) none of them are satisfactory.

Option one: The hyphenated name.  Under this convention, when mr Smith and miss Jones get married, both of them change their names.  Each acquires the surname of the other in conjunction with their own, in a double-barrel pump-action hefty-calibre name, chained together by the magical hyphen that presumably represents their matrimonial union with a semantic one.  There are several combinations available, Smith-Jones, Jones-Smith, or even each having the name in a different order.  I see some problems with this approach:

1 - Deciding the order.  Okay, so how much of a big deal this one is really comes down to what you make of it.  If we assume that the groom's name goes first then we've not really gained anything from this whole deviation from the norm.  If we assume the bride's name then we've made the exact same mistake with the addition of being either hypocritical or cowardly (interestingly this problem isn't so charged in same sex marriages).  I like the solution where each takes the other's name first/last, but it encounters another problem that I'll drone on about later.

2 - Think of the children!  Here are two anecdotal observations from my own childhood.  First, children make fun of other children for having hyphenated names.  Second, everyone ends up calling a child by the first surname anyway.  There's another problem relating to children, but we'll get there in a moment. 

Option two:  Both bride and groom retain their original surnames.  This one has the virtue of being simple, respectful, and light on paperwork.  However, there is a problem concerning the inheritance of names (I realise that many of these problems relate to children, and so couple not looking to breed needn't worry, but lets face it, statistically the overwhelming majority of married couples have children, and the naming conventions associated with marriage should accomodate this trend).  Say Mr Smith and Mrs Jones decide to bring a little baby Smi..., no, Jone... ah.  What surname does the child get?  Either way one parent misses out.  But wait, we all know what's coming next.  Let's name the child little baby Smith-Jones (or Jones-Smith).  Well, so at least the baby's name makes sense, but (and here comes our first assumption) it seems that it is generally a desirable thing for children to have the same surnames as their parents.  After all, that's pretty much why we started giving surnames in the first place right?  To tell who was related to who?  Anyway, if you can get past that then there's a problem I call 'the problem of exponential and exacerbating proliferation of surnames', or 'PEEPS' for short (suppresses childish grin).

In short, the ultimate problem with any widespread convention of the linking of names (either upon marriage or childbirth) is that it's only a couple of generations before surnames are too large to be used without a portable usb.  If miss Smith-Jones marries mr Abdul-Mohammed, then they'll become some variation of mr and mrs Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed.  Of course, when little baby Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed grows up and marries miss Zhu-Raffioporto-Sidebottom-Agamemnon, then the earth shatteringly cool (but skull-splittingly unwieldy) surname Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed-Zhu-Raffioporto-Sidebottom-Agamemnon comes into existence.  Obviously this will just continue with every wedding/birth to unacceptable levels.

Of course, couples getting married can always chose one name from each and hyphenate the two, discarding the rest.  But here there lies a risk of offence.  Many parents would be pretty hurt to see their children discarding their name, and again, how do you chose which ones to ditch?

Option Three:  The combi-name.  Another couple I know of combined their names upon marriage.  When miss Wood married mr Smith, they both took the name Woodsmith.  I like this approach, but alas, you know I'm going to winge about it now.  First of all not every pair of names will combine as well as this one does.  Second, PEEPS is still a problem, except with really long single word names.  Third, again it seriously disrupts the continuity of family names (making genealogy very difficult).

I have a lot more to say on this, but I'll wrap up.  My final conclusion is that there is no satisfactory replacement convention that could be adopted for everyone (as the old convention used to be).  This doesn't mean that the above approaches are wrong for individual couples, I know of several couples for whom these solutions have been just dandy.  What it does mean however is that none of them could be adopted universally.  The only solution is (and maybe this is the westcountry in me coming out) that we only marry people who have the same surname as us...

Monday, 5 March 2012

Just how explicit is explicit?

I've been thinking about conventions.  In particular about implicit and explicit forms of conventionalism.  A lot of folk seem to think that the whole conventionalism about modality jig was up when Quine decided he didn't like it.  Shortly after he decided this, he also decided to say that it was wrong.  Now, I have this running joke that Quine is the smartest philosopher to be wrong about everything, and whilst this is meant to be taken light heartedly, it's unfortunate that 'Truth by Convention' lends weight to my facetious condemnation.  Whilst he may not be wrong that conventionalism is wrong (my own personal jury (of whom I'm sure you're both eagerly awaiting the verdict) is still out on that one), I'm pretty confident that if it is wrong, it's not for the reasons that Quine gives there.

What Quine says is (broadly) this.  The linguistic doctrine of necessity, if understood in terms of convention, can take one of two forms.  One is a formal system of explicit conventions that stipulate the truth of claims of certain forms.  The other is to talk about implicit conventions, but Quine refuses to understand this, saying that it is simply adding a layer of metaphor to an otherwise already mysterious doctrine.  Quine then goes on to say that the explicit formal system approach is inadequate because it leads to a vicious regress that prevents one from securing all of the necessary truths that we think there are.  This, combined with his dismissal of implicit conventionalism,  leaves Quine in a position to reject conventionalism.

Well, fair play to him.  He was writing in 1936 and the silliness of implicit convention was a pretty widely accepted position, so you can't really blame 'ole Willy-van.  However, we are fortunate enough to live in a post Lewis world where the notion of implicit convention is regarded in better light than silly things. 

However, the advent of the acceptability (or at least potential acceptability, let's not jump the gun here) of implicit convention leaves us with an obvious conundrum.  Where does the distinction between explicit and implicit lie?  The easiest way to think of implicit convention to my mind is just to say convention that isn't explicit.  I know that's a bit lazy, but there you go.  It's nice and flexible, and captures my intuitions well enough.  Any variation in how one interprets the difference should go on the explicit side.  So what is it for a convention to be explicit?  Well, that's a bit trickier.  Here are some (increasingly weak) ideas:

1 - Audible, public, verbal/written agreement:- We're playing a board game and decide it's not hard enough, so we agree that whenever you role a one on the dice you have to go back a space.

2 - Rules that can be formalised or expressed by specific sentences:- Even if we never publicly agreed to shake hands when we meet new people, we could (if we wanted to) say "when you meet new people, it is polite to shake their hand" or the imperative "when you meet new people, shake their hand".

3 - Rules that we can be explicitly aware of:-  It's not clear to me that this would be extensionaly different from 2, but it at least seems to me to be intensionally (or at the very least hyper-intensionally) different.

I haven't thought of others yet, but there probably are.  The particular problem I find is that none of these seem like particularly natural definitions.  Maybe I'm missing some really obvious candidate, but to me 1 looks too strict, and 2 looks too weak (and so 3 also).  I'm not sure where to stand on this yet.  Perhaps I have approached it from the wrong angle after all, and I should be looking for a definition to match my intuitions about what it is for a convention to be implicit.  But, meh.  I still don't like the taste of that.  Maybe I just need to get a grip and chose one, and accept that it may not matter much.  There are also other issues like the amount of freedom one has with regard to the formation of conventions, but I don't think this is directly linked to whether they're explicit or not.  

I have choices to make if I'm to go ahead with forming a taxonomy of conventionalist positions on essence.  I eagerly await being able to write on an implicit and expressive conventionalism which (thanks to Schmomas) I'll be calling 'impressive conventionalism'.  

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Convention: reductive or expressive?

Okay, just a quick post to help consolidate some thoughts.

I've been thinking about conventionalism, the old school badass conventionalism about logical truth that my realist metaphysician's upbringing taught me was a comical boogie man to be shunned.

There are some pretty standard attacks on traditional conventionalism, folk like Quine, Kripke, and Lewy seem leave some folk pretty confident that the matter has been put to bed, and the world has moved on (I suspect that this may not be the case outside of the metaphysical bubble that is Leeds university, but I'm in said bubble, so what are you gonna do about it, eh?).  To me these are starting to look like pretty thin reasons for abandoning convention as a source of necessity.  The main reason for this is that it's becoming less clear to me that the kind of thing the conventionalists were talking about is the same as the kind of thing that its critics were.

If you want to ground necessity (or logical truth) in convention then it seems that there are a few ways of going about it:

1 - The formal system:  In 'Truth by Convention' Quine lays out a formal system in an attempt to derive all the necessities from axioms.  He concludes that this cannot be done because you'll never be able to get the truth of all the necessities, a Caroll-esque regress follows.

2 - Identify necessity with analyticity:  Folk like Kripke and Putnam put this one to the sword, and rightly so (I reckon).

3 - Go hard-core anti-realist (as opposed to some kind of reductionist anti-realist) about necessity and treat modal claims in the same kind of way that expressivists in (say) morality treat claims like "pulling off Jimmy's face is wrong".  When we say "one plus one is necessarily two" we are expressing a commitment to use language in such a way as to never allow anything to count against our belief that 1+1=2.  Now, this isn't grounding any special kind of truth.  It's not reflecting anything special about the world either.  Just as my claim about Jimmy's face doesn't ground or reveal any ethical truth, neither do modal claims.  When I say it's wrong to pull off Jimmy's face, I'm expressing my lack of approval for such actions, and my preference that they not be done.  When I make claims about necessity, I'm expressing (albeit tacitly) the character and rules of the language I use when reasoning about stuff in the world.

The literature on conventionalists seems to presume that the position the first two.  I'm beginning to think that this may be something of an error.  I think that maybe (at least some of) the conventionalists had something  bit more like 3 in mind.  If they didn't, then they probably should have done considering the motivations that led them to be conventionalists in the first place.

Okay, so that's a thought about conventionalism about logical truth.  Now I need to start thinking about conventionalism about essential truth.  If I can consolidate and back up these thoughts for logical truth then maybe I can start to map out the positions available to the (as of yet seemingly hypothetical) conventional essentialist...  I anticipate taxonomical headaches.

P.S. Incidentally, if anyone thinks they can recommend any sources that might highlight this kind of distinction in the literature on conventionalism, please do let me know.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Modality de dicto and de re

I had a chat about my favorite topic in the pub the other day.  That's right, beer.  Shortly after that, I had another chat about modality.  What started off (as I recall) as chat about my research soon drifted off to a strange (but wicked cool) mid-point between my research and that of my friend, let's call him Schmomas.  Schmomas' research is into the nature of logical laws and structure, whether it is something worldly a la Sider, or something unworldly, a la Hirsch.  After apologising for what is probably a gross oversimplification of Schmomas' research, I'll get to the point.

Schmomas, I'm sorry for grossly oversimplifying your research. 

Having discussed the potential for essentialist accounts of modality, we started talking about how one might account for logical truth in particular.  Fine reckons that we can ground such things in the essences of logical concepts (though I'm guessing he doesn't really mean to say 'concepts'), but let's face it, that's kinda weird.  If we're going to be asking people to accept essences, let's at least try to slow down and not reify absolutely everything we can think of.  So Schmomas and I started to talk about the potential for an account that split modality in two. What would happen if you accounted for all the de re necessity in terms of the essences of things, but then turned to linguistic conventions when it came to things like logical truth and de dicto necessity?  This is a leap from a traditional essentialist picture which, as far as I can tell, takes the unconventional (excuse the pun) step of basically treating all de dicto necessity as just de re necessity about propositions or whatnot.  

So how about it?  It looks pretty weird at first.  Especially as it portrays a serious theoretical divide where folk don't often put one, and what's more it places necessity de re as the more real of the two, which bucks against the historical trend.  Now that's enough to get some hats spinning, but I think there's something to be said for it.  For a while now I've been wondering if modality de re and de dicto are just too different to be covered realistically by the same theory.  I remember making some slightly drunken midnight tweets about this a while ago (oh yeah, that's how I roll).  Imagine my joy to find that someone else actually had thoughts along the same lines!  It seems to me that modality de dicto and de re are really different, more so than most people acknowledge (at least publicly).  I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't a significant advantage of a theory if it accounts for the two in radically different ways.  Think about it.  Necessity de re is about stuff.  Could that thing be more like this other thing?  Did that thing have to be like that? etc.  Necessity de dicto just isn't like that.  It's about the way that we reason, the way that we think about the world.  The apparent overlap between the two doesn't really seem any more significant than the use of certain bits of vocabulary.  Normative claims involve the same kind of vocabulary, and we don't expect to cover those with the same account.  Of course there are de dicto claims that seem to overlap a lot more.  "It could have been the case that there was a dragon in my bathtub" seems to be talking about stuff (in a way) just as much as "My dragon can't get out of the bathtub!"  But let's look at that.  Whilst the latter is a modal claim about what's possible of the abilities of my dragon, the former just isn't.  It's a case of us reasoning about the world, and about the compatibility of properties.  The reason why we think there could have been a dragon in my bathtub is that we think the properties we associate with dragons are consistent, and that they are consistent with the mechanics of bathroom fixtures.  The only kind of stuff that the de dicto claims could be about are propositions, logical notions, properties, or the way we think about them.

Oh course, if you want a more unified account, but still don't want to go reifying things willy-nilly, then you could be a conventional essentialist.  You ground all modal facts in the essences of things, and you give essences to anything that you want there to be modal facts about.  This means just about everything.  Numbers, logical forms, the lot.  This can go along the lines of the Finean essentialist account of modality.  Then you just go and be a conventionalist about neo-Aristotelean essence and Bob's your uncle, you don't have to worry about reifying all those things you just gave essences to because those essences are conventional and don't commit you to much at all.  The advantage of this is that you get to talk about modality and think in modal terms without having to worry about any of the spooky stuff that us metaphysicians get bullied for not thinking of as being all that spooky.  A potential downside is this doesn't really seem to be the way we think.  It hangs on a fair few 'ifs', like the viability of a complete essentialist account of modality and a conventionalist account of essence (both of which I plan to write about in some depth), and also the slightly cringe worthy claim that all de dicto necessities are really just de re ones in disguise.

So there you go.  Some ramblings from the pub.  Feel free to digest and reject at your leisure.  

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Reductive ambitions (Part 2)

Okay, so my actual concern (massively delayed because I forgot to post it when I wrote it).

I've been thinking about reductive ambition.  Particularly I've been worrying about the responsibility that comes with reductive potential. 

I've been working on a conventionalist account of essential predication, through this, essential predications represent claims in the form conditionals.  The essential truths about x entail that it has certain (conventional) necessary properties in virtue of the kinds it is a member of.  In light of the revelations of the last blog post, at first I was only looking to provide a grounding for essential (and potentially modality) in conventions.  However, it soon became clear that the account has potential for a full reduction of the notion(s).  This in inconvenient, as a full reduction is no longer something that I'm all that fussed about, but if the potential is there then it seems like I have a responsibility to investigate further.  This seems odd, that reductive potential should result in reductive obligation even in cases where reduction isn't that desirable an outcome.

Now, maybe I'm just being silly.  Maybe my intuitions are out of whack and I'm making some big mistake by either rejecting reductive ambition, or then reluctantly accepting it as a result of reductive potential.  After all, there are other cases in which reductive potential doesn't lead to reductive obligation.  If you think the whole Lewisian realism jazz provides a full reductive analysis of modality but you think that the ontological burden is just to heavy, you don't go around lamenting the fact that you simply have to be a Lewisian. So what am I doing wrong here?