Archive for June 21st, 2021

June 21, 2021

Conventionalism

by Neil Rickert

I skipped posting last week. I had planned to post about knowledge and belief, but decided to skip that post.

Conventionalism is interesting, in part because much of our life seems to depend on social conventions. And, in part, because philosophers seem to be strongly opposed.

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.”

Convention

It is usually agreed that a social convention is an agreement, perhaps implicit rather than explicit.

The rule that we should drive on the right side of road is often mentioned as an example of a convention. In some parts of the world, including Australia (where I grew up), people instead drive on the left side of the road. That there was a choice between driving on the left, or driving on the right, illustrates why conventions are said to depend on arbitrary choices. But those two choices (left vs. right) are not the only options. For example, there could be a system where people drive on the left on even numbered days and on the right on odd numbered days. This would be more confusing, with probably more accidents. But it serves to illustrate that there is often a degree of pragmatism in our choice of convention. Saying that a convention is an arbitrary choice does not rule out the involvement of pragmatism in the making of that choice.

Poincare proposed conventionalism for geometry. In his view, the axioms of geometry derive from our measuring conventions. I agree with Poincare on that.

Hilary Putnam argued against conventionalism in “The Refutation of Conventionalism”. One of his arguments was that under conventionalism there could be no matters of fact. I just measured the height of my desk as 74 cm. That’s a matter of fact which depends on the measuring conventions which define the centimeter. From the way that I look at it, all facts are relative to the conventions that we follow when observing those facts.

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