Conventionalism

by Neil Rickert

A while back, I indicated that I would start posting about my own ideas on philosophy.  But I have not posted much since then.  This is an attempt to resume that effort.

My own philosophy appears to be a variety of conventionalism.

I have previously stated that I am a behaviorist.  That does not change.  I see social conventions as, primarily, behavioral conventions.  A simple example is the convention that we should drive on the right side of the road.  This is a convention about behavior.

What is conventionalism?

According to Wikipedia:

Conventionalism is the philosophical attitude that fundamental principles of a certain kind are grounded on (explicit or implicit) agreements in society, rather than on external reality.

Conventionalism appears to be controversial within philosophy.  There is fairly broad acceptance that language is conventional, though there are disagreements about that, too.  Henri Poincaré was conventionalist about geometry, which seems right to me.  Some have argued that mathematics is conventional.  That is more controversial, and many philosophers believe that Quine refuted that position in his “Truth by convention”.  I’ll not that I disagree with Quine, and perhaps I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Again, quoting the same Wikipedia article:

The French philosopher Pierre Duhem espoused a broader conventionalist view encompassing all of science.

I am inclined to agree with that view of science.

Why conventionalism

My own conventionalism comes from my attempts to understand human cognition.

The traditional empiricist position is that we gain knowledge by induction from observations.  I do not see much support for this in the history of science, and it seems implausible.  At least part of the problem is that observations, as described by empiricists, presuppose concepts about which the observations are made.  But it is hard to find a good account of the origin of concepts.

My own study of science seems to suggest that concepts, and the rules for observation, arise at the same.  This is as we would expect if it is a matter of establishing pragmatic conventions.

I tentatively plan to say more on this in future posts.

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