It's all about the deep questions.
Against Deep Questions
(FYI: This post should probably considered to come prior to the “what it is to know” post)
Many philosophical questions are considered so deep, that it is often the case that one doesn’t know where to begin. Take the seemingly deep question, what is the nature of X? Don’t we just “point” at what the concept of X means? If one asks what is a bachelor, most people wouldn’t want to take that question too seriously, but if one asks what is morality, one is often taken very seriously. What really is the difference between these two questions? Well, since the only difference in the two sentences is the words “bachelor” and “morality” then the culprit has to lie in those two words. Two vital distinctions need to be made to address this question.
A first distinction can be made between precise and imprecise words. The best example of a precise word is that of a mathematical definition introduced within an axiomatic framework. The standard words used in every day english usually fall far short of this standard. Take the word “chair”. There are some cases where it is clear whether a certain object should be referred to as a chair. In other cases, two different people may disagree on whether a certain object should be called a chair; the cases cease to be so easy. So, should we deem the question “what is the nature of chairness” a deep, philosophical question? After all, its answer doesn’t seem to be straightforward, and for most (if not all) definitions we propose for “chair”, there would be someone who disagreed. Most of us would answer no, asking the nature of what it is to be a chair is not a profound philosophical question. The problem is that the concept “chair” is an imprecise one and hence defective for an in-depth debate of the nature of chairs. When two people utter the word “chair”, they might have two slightly different meanings in mind. We can distinguish the different meanings that chair might have as chair1, chair2, …, chairn, etc. Now, when asking “what is the nature of chairn?” The endless counterexamples of proposed definitions cease to exist. Once we stipulate a precise definition, the answer is in front of our faces. In summary, a precise word is one in which there exists unambiguous necessary and sufficient conditions for its application, an imprecise word is one where there does not exist unambiguous necessary and sufficient conditions. The vast majority of english words are imprecise [Note: Vague concepts are not meant to be necessarily imprecise. One could say red = (exact levels of gradation as to how red something is at particular wavelengths.) This concept of red can be discussed with perfect preciseness.]
A second distinction can be made between descriptive and prescriptive words. The best way to introduce these two new concepts is through examples. Equating bachelor = [unmarried male] makes bachelor a descriptive word. While equating morality = [those rules of conduct that maximize human happiness] makes morality a prescriptive word. To fully understand descriptive concepts, no further work is involved. To fully understand prescriptive concepts, empirical investigation is often needed. For example, a big question lurks about morality even after that definition is given: exactly what are those rules of conduct? One way to think about it is that the descriptive definitions of prescriptive concepts vary among possible worlds. Adopting two-dimensional semantics, prescriptive concepts give you the intention, descriptive concepts give you the extension. Roughly, the extension of a word is the set of its referents, while the intension of a word gives a function or a method for finding its referent given a possible world.
Now, back to questions like “What is the nature of X?”. When exactly are they substantive? Well, using these two distinctions, there are four categories we can place words in: precise and descriptive, precise and prescriptive, imprecise and descriptive, and imprecise and prescriptive. As stated before, imprecise concepts are basically another way of saying defective concepts. Before all ambiguities are discarded, no investigation is worth having, because it is impossible for an investigation to proceed without first discarding ambiguities. So, the latter two categories we can deem as useless debates to be having. How about the first category: precise and descriptive? Well, these debates turn out to be trivial. Imagine a mathematician asking, “What is the nature of a vector space?” Other mathematicians would just look at him strangely and point at the definition. Lastly, the second category is precise and prescriptive. If someone asked, what is the nature of morality (where morality means those rules of conduct that maximize human happiness, which I recognize may not be “correct”), then finding those rules would be a meaningful, non-trivial, yet empirical, project. I take this to be a crucial point, which I rarely find that philosophers do. Before beginning any kind of project about the nature of X, write down the precise prescriptive definition down. If you are relying on the intuitions behind our use of the word, it is most often the case that either our intuitions reach contradictory results when put in extreme cases or that our intuitions differ from one another. Most importantly, figuring out what our intuitions point to is psychologizing rather than philosophizing. What often occurs when we make a concept precise is that the “philosophical” questions plaguing the concept dissolve. An investigation into that concept often turns into a standard, empirical investigation, or more rarely, into a conceptual, a priori investigation. In any case, I take the feeling of “deepness” to largely disappear once definitions in ink take the place of definitions in intuitions. If it persists, it is most likely that a”deep” word is still in the spelled out definition. Take defining free will as the capacity that would make an agent morally responsible for his actions. One would have to spell out moral responsibility! As it turns out, every question of this form is either useless, trivial, or more or less straightforwardly answered.
(Note #1: Here, I want to emphasize that by straightforward I do not mean easy. The question of whether there is gold on pluto may not be easy to answer, but it is still a straightforward question.)
(Note #2: I am not claiming that there are no deep questions; I am only claiming that questions of the form “What is X” are often considered deep by many for mistaken reasons.)
(Note #3: This post was actually written some time ago; a future post will grapple with worries over the analytic/synthetic distinction)