Posts Tagged ‘names’

Some Common Sense about Common Sense and about Common Sense

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

I often hear or read Common sense isn't common. or, ambiguously, Common sense isn't.

The term common sense refers to variety of things believed or formerly believed to be closely related. In some cases, the term is indeed a description; in others, it is like Common Raven, which began as a description or as an attempt at a description, but names a now uncommon bird.

Consulting the SOED, I find about five definitions of common sense. Archaically, common sense refers to a supposed faculty that coördinated and united senses such as those of sight and of touch to form impressions of the world. The term may refer to ordinary or normal understanding (which must be common). Common sense may also refer to collective judgment across some group of people. Philosophers may use common sense to refer to the power by which generally accepted beliefs are formed in the absence of contemplation and of instruction. Normatively, common sense refers to reliable practical wisdom in everyday matters.

I don't use the term common sense much at all, but I occasionally use it normatively, as when I tell people that an introductory course in microeconomics will start with building-blocks of common sense but assemble them with uncommon care. Now, I suppose that I could use those very same words without normative intent, but I really am hoping that the audience will accept the blocks as themselves reliable. I cannot teach my audience everything, and I shouldn't have to teach those blocks to them.

When I use common sense normatively, the notions that I have in mind are of sound reasoning that is within the intellectual capabilities common to human beings, and of the structures of belief that result from such application. Something that would not be what I were normatively calling common sense would be unsound or outside of the possibility of common understanding. However, I'm more likely to say That should be common sense. than That seems like common sense. I'm even more likely to say That should be obvious.

I'm on the subject of common sense because various people in various groups will treat beliefs as if they are obvious to everyone who is not a fool when they are no such thing. Treating them as common sense — here using common sense normatively — is a form of implicit or explicit begging of the question; it is a violation of the rules of proper discourse. That said, most of those who treat those beliefs as common sense sincerely, thoughtlessly regard most of them as such; these people are not violating the rules willfully.

I've encountered this begging of the question by the political left, by the political right, and by political moderates. But I am at present most concerned by the misrepresentations from the left, because they have control of so much of the commanding heights of our culture. When a strong wind prevails, one leans against it, not against a wind of the past nor against a wind that may come in the distant future.

Examples of propositions that some or all of the left treat as common sense include

  • that greater economic efficiency can often be achieved by replacing markets with state administration based upon centralized collection of relevant information;
  • that material inequality is a social ill;
  • that poverty may be reduced by state-directed redistribution of wealth or of income from the affluent to those of little means;
  • that, if a school system is performing poorly, then some increase in the material resources provided to it would be sufficient to improve that performance, and that any decrease in such resources will be followed by a decline in performance.

Treating these propositions as common sense precludes consideration.

To impel consideration of all that the left distinctly takes to be common sense, we want a concise label for that group of their beliefs. We want an X such that we can say things such as This idea is X; if you're going to treat it as common sense, then you're first going to have to show that it truly is common sense. or such as This idea is X but it is not common sense; if you're going to justify it, then you're going to have to justify it on some other basis. Any label that itself begs the question, in some contrary way, will do little or nothing to promote thoughtful consideration. It will not provoke the left to think, and it will offend uncommitted members of the audience (with whom we should be principally concerned) and otherwise cause them to dismiss the argument as logomachy amongst knaves and fools. An insulting label would beg the question in an especially counter-productive way.

But the label should be used to establish a context of discourse across arguments and conversations in which context the left can no longer simply proceed with its presumptions as such or it will come to seem absurd to the audience and outmanoeuvred to itself. I don't know what the properly effective label should be.

What in the Name of Böhm-Bawerk?!?

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A recent post to Facebook by Timo Virkkala reminds me of one of my peeves.

Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk died on 27 August 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated in 1918. The Austrian state eliminated titles of nobility as such with a law passed on ‎3 April 1919, which law came into effect on 10 April 1919.

Had von Böhm-Bawerk lived into 10 April 1919, then he would have been given various choices as to what to do with his name. One of his choices would have been to change it to Eugen Böhm von Bawerk, which could alternately be spelled Eugen Boehm von Bawerk.[1][2] But of course he didn't, 'cause he'd been dead for almost five years.

Still, the Austrian central bank, the US Library of Congress, and that wretched mess Wikipedia decided to pretend that he'd done just that. He didn't adopt that name, his acolytes and admirers didn't and don't call him by that name, and he might have done something quite different (such as omitting the [Ritter] von altogether, which would have left his name more like its earlier form) if he'd been compelled to make a choice; but the Austrian state, the LoC, and Wikipedia still insist on sophomorically transforming his name into that form.

[1] The umlaut ( ¨ ) is an extremely stylized superscripted e. An umlaut may be replaced by writing an e after the letter over which the umlaut had been written; simply omitting an umlaut without replacement is illiterate.

Unfortunately, the modern glyph for the umlaut is indistinguishable from that of the diæresis, and the louts in Unicode Consortium decided to pretend that the two were the same character. (Yes, we've hit three of my peeves in this entry.) When not written diacritically, a diæresis should not be replaced by an e. (I've not seen that done, so it doesn't count as a peeve.)

[2] The [Ritter] von Bawerk might still look like a title of nobility, but it would not have counted as such. And somehow such reärrangements were seen as important.

λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Years ago, National Lampoon had a monthly column that they entitled True Facts. The title was a joke, not because the contents weren't true (they were an assembly of extraödinary news reports), but because facts cannot be untrue; something untrue is not a fact. Yet many people in various contexts were using terms such as actual fact, real fact, and true fact, almost as if it were possible for some facts to be false, imaginary, unreal. People still do, perhaps even more often. One can find lots of instances of people using imaginary fact; sometimes they do so ironically, but more often they are quite serious. By imaginary fact they mean a proposition that may be untrue, is likely to be untrue, or simply is untrue. In this retasking of the word fact, they've lost the use of the word to talk about facts, unless they add a word such as true. But, with that change in meaning, it not only becomes possible to use a term such as alternative fact to refer to a rival claim, but it becomes harder to see that untrue rival claims don't have equal standing with true rival claims, as they are all supposedly facts.

We aren't at all helped here that a great many people don't understand the words true and truth. That's not simply a problem of vocabulary. Truth is a hard concept, because it entails a meta-propositional act of mapping from a proposition back to itself. That is to say that, in most cases when we apply the word true or equivalent and certainly in the case of true facts, we are explicitly or implicitly making a proposition about a proposition. When we say It's true that I went to the store, that actual referent of the grammatic subject is not I, but the proposition that I went to the store, yet the upshot of this sentence is merely what would be conveyed in saying I went to the store. We perhaps don't need this device of recasting a proposition (I went to the store) as a meta-proposition (It is true that I went to the store), but it is useful because we are not omniscient, and must entertain propositions that are uncertain or discovered to be false; the concept of truth complements the conditions of falsehood and of uncertainty. Yet it is very hard to see that function, exactly because we use the concept to discuss itself. Truth is more easily named than described, if indeed a description is possible.

The difficulty in understanding the nature of truth makes it psychologically easier to embrace such notions as that all aspects of of past, present, and future are simply artefacts of individual belief or of group belief (expressed with formulæ such as truth is a social construct) or that what one wants or ought to want is to be treated a true. The word fact may then be used for components of narratives; embracing one narrative is seen as licensing one to accept propositions as fact that are alternative to components of rival narratives, and to reject propositions for no better reason than that they participate in rival narratives. Evolution of narratives is seen as licensing one to change the status of a proposition from fact to falsehood, or vice versa, even when discussing history. And we may even observe those socially identified as fact-checkers testing claims against narratives which are themselves never fact-checked, because the checkers implictly treat their favored narratives as the ultimate determinant of fact.

When Pilate asked What is truth?, perhaps he was truly curious as to the nature of truth, but he may merely have been asking why he should give a damn about it. Our political leaders have become ever more disdainful of truth. They have long offered us alternative facts, and their followers in each of our major political tribes and in most of the smaller groups as well have decided that, for them, these are the facts. Now we have an Administration that does so more baldly and less artfully. One might hope that this practice will explode on them; but, even if that explosion should happen, their opponents are likely to see an expansion of the envelope within which they may disregard the facts.

Common Sense about Names and about Descriptions

Monday, 1 February 2016

The entry in Sibley's Birds for Common Raven begins Uncommon.

This case illustrates the important distinction between names and descriptions. Common raven is a name; it was surely intended to be a name that worked as a description, but it presently fails as the latter while continuing to be the former.

A description can be usefully analyzed. It has components, each of which has independent meaning, and considering those meanings allows one better to understand the thing described.

A name as such is not analyzed; sometimes it might usefully be analyzed; sometimes it cannot be analyzed; sometimes analysis is misleading (as in common raven).

Often, what we call description is no more than naming. For example, if someone points to something and asks What is that?, and I say an urn, then all that I have really done is to provide a name, perhaps trusting the other person to know what urn means. On the other hand, if I say an ancient urn or a ceramic urn or an empty urn, then I have described it (though surely not as thoroughly as it might be described).

Notice that all description is constructed of names. The audience might subsequently ask for descriptions corresponding to names used, but eventually one reaches a point at which the names are of things that cannot be described (though alternative names might be offered).

Occasionally, I read something mocking someone for not understanding a description, such that a more perspicacious observer would recognize that the someone being mocked was treating the description as a name. This error may be no more foolish than wondering whether the common raven is a common bird.