Convention (1) — introduction

by Neil Rickert

I am starting a series of posts on the idea of conventions, as in social conventions.  It has long been clear to me that conventions are important.  This, however, seems to be controversial.  As best I can tell, philosophers are deeply suspicious of convention.

As a self-declared heretic about philosophy, I am not troubled by opposing what seems to be the conventional view of convention among conventional philosophers.

Here’s some background reading:

There’s a highly respected book by David Lewis, mention in both of the above links.  I have not read that book.  From what I can gather, it goes into convention in far more detail than interests me.  My main interest is with the role of convention in knowledge.  And that’s where I think philosophers are getting it wrong.

Convention and species

John Wilkins has a recent post about the concept of species, as used in biology.  I don’t have a clear answer to John’s title question, of whether species are theoretical objects.  I suppose that would depend on the extent to which biologists use the concept of species in their theorizing.  Not being a biologist, I can’t answer that.

But John also mention that some folk see species as conventional:

If, as a significant number of specialists think, the rank is a mere convention (Mishler 1999), then those measures become arbitrary and meaningless.

For myself, I do not see how species could be other than a matter of convention.  However, I disagree with calling that “mere convention”, and I disagree that the rank of species thereby becomes meaningless.  I do agree that it is arbitrary, but I’ll note that arbitrary does not mean random.  It merely signifies that different choices were possible.

There’s a series of comments about this on John’s post, where we discussed the question of species as convention.

I’ll discuss the question of species in a future post in this series.  This introduction is not the place.  Here, I mostly want to get at what seems to underlie the disagreement.

Personal Convention

Normally, by convention, we mean a social convention.  This might be based on either a formal agreement or a tacit agreement among members of a social group.  I want to extend that with the idea of a personal convention.  So here, a personal convention would be something like a behavior practice that I follow myself, and that works in something like the same way as a social convention, except that it only applies to me.  If I look at this in terms of a cognitive system, we might say that a personal convention is something of a convention held by the society of neurons that are part of my cognitive system.

If I allow that extension to personal convention, then I want to take the view that conventions are the foundation of knowledge.  However, I do not claim that all conventions are relevant to knowledge.  I claim only that we could not have knowledge without conventions (including personal conventions).  I’ll be getting into that in later posts in this series.

Suspicion of convention

The idea of convention seems to be held as suspect.

I’m not a real philosopher, so I can only infer what philosophers believe on the basis of what they write.  And there seems to be a lot of suspicion about convention.  Take, for example, Quine’s paper “Truth by Convention”.  This was originally published in “Philosophical Essays for A. N. Whitehead” (1936).  It is an argument against the idea that mathematical truth is all a matter of convention.  I find it unpersuasive.  I see it as a pretty good, though inconclusive argument against formalism as a philosophy of mathematics.  But formalism gives a pretty narrow view of convention in mathematics.  I see the use of convention in mathematics as far broader, and I see Quine’s paper as failing to address that broader use of convention.

In any case, the point here was that Quine seemed suspicious of the idea that mathematical truth is a matter of convention.  It was my impression that Quine saw truth by convention as worthless, but did not see mathematics as worthless.

Quine later went on to make similar points, more broadly than just in mathematics, with his argument against the analytic – synthetic distinction (in his “Two Dogmas” paper).  As often defined, a statement is analytic if its truth is purely a matter of the meanings of the terms used.  It is synthetic, if its truth depends on things in the real world.  If we accept that meaning is conventional, then true by virtue of the meanings is much the same as true by convention.

Suspicion of analytic statements is older.  The traditional view is that an a priori belief is necessarily analytic.  Kant apparently did not like the idea that mathematics might be analytic, so he invented the idea of a synthetic a priori.

And then there is induction.  I see Newton’s laws of motion as analytic.  In fact, they seem obviously analytic.  But many people insist that Newton’s laws were derived by induction.  They never actually document Newton’s alleged use of induction.  There argument seems to be “it just must have been induction; what else could it be?”  They apparently see it as obvious that Newton’s laws must be synthetic, not analytic.  And if they are synthetic, induction is what they see as the only way of coming up with such laws.

My own view

I see conventions as important.  But not all conventions.  Some are useless, or worse.  But I embrace the useful conventions.  I see knowledge as dependent on the knower establishing personal conventions, and building a hierarchy of knowledge on top of those conventions.  I see AI, as presently practiced, as likely to fail because it does not pay sufficient attention to establishing conventions.

I’ll be discussing some of those ideas in future posts in this series.

9 Responses to “Convention (1) — introduction”

  1. I have often told people that I am not a relativist. And, I am far less a philosopher than you, Neil. In fact, I am as common place as they come — but arrogantly, and predictably, I’ve come to value “common place”. This may feed into your convention theme.

    So, living around the world, I quickly saw through “common sense” and saw that everything from wiping our asses to noises during sex are relative to a culture (not common sense) — they are “arbitrary” (yeah, you are right, no really), they are “convention” and not truth.

    So, if you buy into the delusion that your own culture’s ways of doing things are common sense, you sort of buy into them being the truth. All of this is so highly mistaken, it is nonsense. And so when untangling it, as I did, even the untangling didn’t make sense since the words I used were “mere” convention.

    So, rather than say, “hell, the way to wipe your ass is convention”, so I will do as I please, could have horrible consequences. Conventions fit (or do not fit) into the game we play called relationships or culture or …. Conventions matter. Games matter.

    Well, I won’t wax on more. You possibly already see that we agree or not.

    But I must say, the last part about Kant’s epistemological categories frustrated me because I never got that stuff and could barely follow that. I need diagrams probably. Anyway, I will se where this goes. Because like you, not being a relativist, I think conventions are extremely useful — whether you break them or keep them, they are the stuff of relationships. (Yuan)


    • ooops, forgot if I “followed” — I love that Blogspot tells you if you are following.


    • I have often told people that I am not a relativist.

      I don’t consider myself a relativist either, except in the Einstein sense. However, I will be accused of relativism and postmodernism.

      I’ve been investigating human cognition, albeit in a non-standard way. And it is clear that adopting useful conventions is fundamental to cognition. Analytic philosophers are in denial of this. The sociologists of knowledge (the social constructionists) see the use of convention, but they seriously misunderstand it.

      Stay tuned. This might be a long series of posts.


  2. Neil,
    Since “conventions” are such common sense to me (and you, apparently), I suspect one or several of the following:

    (1) Either all analytic philosophers(AP) are wrong about “conventions”
    (2) Only some AP disagree with “conventions”
    (3) AP mean something very different by “convention” than I do
    (4) You mean something very different by “convention” than I or AP do

    Looking forward to see if you clarify that for me as your series unfolds


  3. Ah, so when you said,

    And it is clear that adopting useful conventions is fundamental to cognition. Analytic philosophers are in denial of this.

    You meant that AP may think conventions are useful but are not “fundamental to cognition”?
    Arbitrary rules can help us learn all sorts of things. I play WeiQi (arbitrary rules & conventions) and yet it teaches me much. Surely they would not deny that.

    So I look forward to future posts where you make that more clear.



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