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ANSCOMBE. the Essential Contestability of Some Social Concepts

ANSCOMBE. the Essential Contestability of Some Social Concepts

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Published by Ernesto Castro

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Published by: Ernesto Castro on Feb 27, 2013
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The Essential Contestability of Some Social ConceptsAuthor(s): Alasdair MacIntyreReviewed work(s):Source:
Ethics,
Vol. 84, No. 1 (Oct., 1973), pp. 1-9Published by:
Stable URL:
Accessed: 26/02/2013 12:55
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TheEssentialContestabilityfSome
SocialConceptsAlasdairMacIntyre
BostonUniversity
Ibegin with a setofactuallydebated anddebatablequestions:Dothedominantsocialgroups in TudorEnglandcompriseaninstanceof arisingbourgeoisie? Arethesexual liaisons oftheNayarsto becountedasin-stancesofmarriage?Are Ibsen'sdramastragedies? Were thelooselycon-nectedalliances oftheeighteenth-centuryEnglishparliamentpoliticalpar-ties? AreslaveryinAtticain the fifthcentury
B.C.,
inIreland in theninth
century
A.D.,
and inVirginianthenineteenthcentury
A.D.
variantsof the
sameinstitution? Istheresuch athing aspostindustrialsociety?
II
Theimportance ofsuchquestions isoftenpresentedas follows:uponhow weanswerthesequestionsdependswhethercertain keygenerali-zationsaboutsociallife areconfirmed orprimafacierefuted. Totheextentthatthisissothesequestionsparallel certainquestions thathavearisenduring thehistory ofnaturalscience,suchas,Istheearthaplanet?orIs asolutionacompound?Tothislatter classofquestionhavebeengivendecisiveandeffectiveanswerswhich areinseparablefrom theformulationofcertainkeygeneralizations. In thesocialscienceswe lackbothdecisiveanswersandcorrespondinggeneralizations.Why?
III
Onepossibleanswerwouldcombinethesuggestion that wehavesimplybeeninadequatelyhardworking orveryunluckyinourempiricalinquiries insocialsciencewith anallusiontoanotionwhichweowetoFriedrichWaismann:that of theopentextureofconcepts.We usecertaincriteriatoidentify thisorthat asgoldor anamino acidora
*
Thiswas theleadpaperin asymposium ofthesame titleatthe annualmeet-ingoftheWesternDivisionof theAmericanPhilosophicalAssociation inChicago,April27, 1973.
1
This content downloaded on Tue, 26 Feb 2013 12:55:52 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
 
2Ethics
Christmas pudding.If certain characteristicsarepresent and others ab-sent, thenthiswillsuffice in all normal circumstancesfor the identifica-tion. But what if the standard criteriaare satisfied andthenitturns outthat this apparently otherwise normalgold emits radiation (asin Wais-mann'sexample)or thatthisChristmaspuddingtalks(asin theAus-tralian fairy story)? Are wetosaythat after all this isnotgold ornota Christmas pudding, or are we tosay that we were mistaken abouttheproperties of gold or of Christmaspuddings?
IV
Ido not want topursueWaismann'sdiscussionfurther;what Iwantto note is that the force of his pointdependsupon a contrastbetweentheapplication of criteria (i) in whathave been up to now normal cir-cumstances, (ii) as a result of experiencein standard conditions-andnote that thesearenotthe same-andtheir applicationinabnormalorradically new situations. This contrastis also embodied in Hilary Put-nam'sarguments about 'aluminum'and 'dreaming'when Putnamshowsthat to convey the normal use of aword involves certain sets of whathecalls "core facts."' I can put thematter like this: bothWaismannandPutnam have shown that there is nota finite and determinate set of neces-saryandsufficient conditions whichdetermine the application ofacon-cept (Waismann) or a word (Putnam);but the examples which theycite also reveal that in normal circumstancesand in standard conditionswecan behave as
if
there were sucha finite and determinate setandwe do indeed so behave. Otherwiseevery question of fact wouldbeindefinitely debatable, and whileevery assertion of fact is potentiallyopen to question, every such assertionis not always actually open toquestion.Naturalscience settles certaindebates at least temporarilyandprovisionally.But inlarge areasofsocialinquiry there are not even temporary andprovisional settlements. We donot know how to decide whetheragiven alleged instance of a phenomenonis to be treated as a counter-example to a proposed generalizationor as not an example of the phe-nomenonatall, because debate remainsopen about which the central,standard,andparadigmatic instancesof the phenomenon are. Giventhatthis is empirically the case in socialinquiry (and only seems not to bethecase when there is a highly selectivepresentation of the situationas
in the InternationalEncyclopediaof the Social Sciences), the suggestion
that what the social sciences needis more industriousness and that dis-agreements over the questions I citedearlier are merely due to the opentexture ofconcepts begins to appearimplausible. Waismann spokeofanessentialincompletenessofempiricaldescriptionwhich arisesfromopentexture.Thelack of evenprovisionalandtemporaryclosureto
1.Hilary Putnam, "Is SemanticsPossible?"Metaphilosophy1(1970): 187-201.
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