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Re: Talking of conceptual schemes

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  • Jim Stuart
    Dear Een, When I use the expression conceptual scheme , I am implying something looser than what you understand by the term. Further conceptual schemes are
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 15, 2004
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      Dear Een,

      When I use the expression 'conceptual scheme', I am implying something looser than what you understand by the term. Further conceptual schemes are not just abstractions - they are tied up with our abilities, practices and forms of life. In fact, I would almost be happy to use Wittgenstein's notion of a language game instead of talk of conceptual schemes.

      I don't associate conceptual schemes with either ontological relativism (I've never been completely sure what this is) or with objective thinking. For a person to possess a concept is for that person to have an ability - perhaps an ability to discriminate between things, or perhaps an ability to have certain feelings or thoughts, or an ability to perform a certain type of task, or an ability to interact with others in a certain way. All this is thoroughly subjective - conceptual schemes belong to us because of our various ways of living.

      My own world view consists of a number of overlapping conceptual schemes, tied up with my various interests, activities and ways of behaving. Thus during my time at my present job I have developed a conceptual scheme which I share with my work colleagues in our joint venture to produce accurate, bug-free computer software. Some terms I use when speaking to my work colleagues have specialist meanings that my colleagues and I understand, but which someone outside would not. I have a conceptual scheme when philosophising - I use terms when communicating with the Kierkegaardians which I would not use - without a lengthy explanation, at least - when talking to my children. Different 'sets of thoughts' (to use your expression) are used in different practices ('forms of life').

      Now I know that Wittgenstein would claim that different language games are fairly self-contained and judgements of right and wrong (truth and falsity) only apply within language games. Davidson says the same thing about conceptual schemes - at one point Davidson says (if my memory serves me correctly) we shouldn't say that the ancients had a false belief that the sun revolved around the earth.

      I am unorthodox - I am in disagreement with both Wittgenstein and Davidson when I claim that a judgement from within one conceptual scheme (language game) can be appropriately applied to a belief or a set of beliefs within another conceptual scheme (language game).

      Let me give two examples. William, an educated individual of the seventeenth century was brought up as a strict Catholic and educated at a Catholic school to believe the Catholic canon of his day. This canon included the doctrine of the earth being at the centre of the universe with the sun, moon, planets and stars revolving around the stationary earth.

      Later William went to university to study natural philosophy (science), and here he came into contact with the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo. These ideas were shocking to him, but the more he studied the more he became convinced of their truth. He underwent a 'paradigm shift' in which his whole cosmological conceptual scheme was turned on its head - he saw clearly how evident it now was to him that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter being stationary relative to the former.

      William return to his family and tries to convince them of his new scientific beliefs, but without success.

      Now what is important to my view of judgements across conceptual schemes is what William says about his childhood belief that the earth was at the centre of the universe, with all other planets and stars revolving around it. He will say: "I was wrong to believe that the earth was stationary at the centre of the universe." He will also say: "My devout but fearful parents are still wrong!"

      Here William is make valid judgements from one conceptual scheme (the Copernican cosmological conceptual scheme) about the beliefs of his past self and his present family who inhabit a different conceptual scheme (the Ptolemaic conceptual scheme). I think these sorts of cross language game judgements are in order if there is sufficient overlap between the two forms of life. Arguably the concepts 'earth', 'sun', 'planet', 'motion' are relatively stable in meaning between the two cases, such that judgements of truth and falsity from within one conceptual scheme targeted at the other conceptual scheme are in order.

      I could tell a similar story about a young person growing up now within a strict pentecostalist environment, who is brought up to believe that illness is cured by prayer, fasting and exorcism. Our young woman goes to university, learns about physiology, and is aghast when her mother's church are preparing to cure her younger sister's severe epilepsy with an exorcism. Our young woman is correct to tell her church that they are wrong to think that exorcism is the best way to cure her sister's epilepsy.

      This is not just 'objective thinking' - inhabiting different conceptual schemes is a very subjective matter determining how we live our lives, and the degree to which we achieve worthwhile things in our lives, or, alternatively, cause harm to ourselves and others.

      Would it not be just to characterise what Kierkegaard is trying to do in his writings as attempting to get us to compare two language games - the 'objective' language game of the complacent Hegelians and Copenhagen elite with the 'subjective' language game of the ethical and religious individuals SK describes in the positive sections of his work?

      To summarise: no two conceptual schemes are 'entirely independent' of each other - if they were one couldn't break into one from the other. We manage paradigm shifts when we jump from one conceptual scheme to another, partly because there is some common ground between the two. The fact that conceptual schemes do overlap to some extent, enables judgements of truth and falsity across conceptual schemes to sometimes be applicable.

      I've rushed this off rather, but I hope it aids understanding of my view.


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