Archive for ‘convention’

December 5, 2016

Are conventions arbitrary?

by Neil Rickert

Well, yes (to the title question).

I chose that title for its brevity.  This post is intended to explain what it means to say that conventions are arbitrary.  But that’s a bit long for a title.

We generally adopt conventions for a reason.  For example, the convention that we drive on the right side of the road was adopted to reduce the likelihood of head-on collisions.  But it would work just as well to drive on the left side of the road (as they do in Britain and Australia).  So there was a choice to be made between the two.  That particular choice was an arbitrary choice — it would not matter which way you chose, at least with respect for the reason that the convention was adopted.

There are all sorts of other options that could have been chosen.  It could have been decided to drive on the right for one mile, then on the left for the next mile.  Or it could have been decided to drive on the right on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and on the left on the other days.  But these kinds of choices would have been confusing and would therefore have been less effective in reducing head-on collisions.  Pragmatically speaking, it boiled down to only the two choices — left or right.

The use of the word “arbitrary” seems confusing at first, because it seems to suggest “random”.  But conventions are not random.  What we mean, when we say that they are arbitrary, is just that they are not fully determined by reality.  Adopting a convention usually means some kind of choice.  But, although not fully determined by reality, that choice is still guided by the goals that have led us to adopting a convention.

February 15, 2014

From nihilism to knowledge

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been planning to post this for a while.  However, I have been struggling with exactly how to present it.  So I guess I should just blurt it out, and not worry.  The reason for my hesitation, is that I know it will be misunderstood by some readers.

This is related to earlier posts on convention and posts on categorization.

I shall be quoting two short segments from Genesis 1.  There is no religious reason for this, and I will be giving a non-standard reading of what I quote.  My reason for quoting is that the quoted text will be familiar to many.  And it happens to fit with the topic.

Epistemic nihilism

There’s a kind of epistemic nihilism, in which a person’s head is full of facts but he does not believe any of them.  This sometimes explored as a way of investigating the extremes of skepticism.

November 13, 2013

Convention (7) – Relativism

by Neil Rickert

When I mention my ideas about the role of conventions in science, I am often accused of being a relativist or a social constructionist or a post-modernist.  Those seem to all be related.  I am not any of those.  Today’s post will look at why my ideas about conventions do not have any relativist implication.

What am I

I’ve just said that I am  not a relativist or a social constructivist or a post-modernist.  So perhaps I should say something about what I am.  It’s not easy to say what I am, because my views don’t fit any of the standard labels.

In his book “Science and Relativism“, Larry Laudan presents a discussion between four philosophers of science, whom he labels as a positivist, a realist, a pragmatist and a relativist.  I disagree with all four of them.  For each of them, there are places where I agree with what they say.  But, overall, I do not see science the way that any of them see it.

November 11, 2013

Convention (6) – Essentialism

by Neil Rickert

Today I want to look at “essentialism” as a possible alternative to the use of conventions.  And then, toward the end of the post, I’ll briefly consider some other possible alternatives.

With today’s post, I will continue to use the hypothetical that I introduced in my previous post.  That is to say, I will assume that small animals are classified into two species, which I shall call “cats” and “dogs”.  There is no assumption that I am talking about what we usually call “cats” and “dogs”.  I’m just borrowing those names for convenience.


The idea of essentialism, is that what makes an animal a cat is that it contains the essence of cathood.  Likewise, what makes an animal a dog is that it has the essence of doghood.  The name “essentialism” comes from this reference to essences.

November 10, 2013

Convention (5) – objections

by Neil Rickert

In this post I’ll respond to some of the objections raised by John Wilkins, as best I understand them.  John raised objections during our discussions in comments to his blog post “Are species theoretical objects“.  I want to be clear that I am not picking on John.  It is my impression that many philosophers have similar views, and I have come across that sort of disagreement in discussions elsewhere.

I’ll start with a quote from that discussion, which I think reasonably summarizes John’s position.

As to conventions, again we may mean different things. I am basing my understanding on a read through of Lewis’ Conventions a while back. Consider correctly driving on the left side. Yes, if we all did the same things we’d all be driving on the left, but there is no fact of the matter which is best, left or right. In the same way, we may all choose to classify using the same conventions, but there need be no fact of the matter tracked in virtue of it being a conventional classification. If all we are doing is following conventions, then the ranks or categories so constructed are flatus vocus. There is nothing “out there” that is being tracked.

November 9, 2013

Convention (4) – Biological species

by Neil Rickert

This series of posts on convention originated with my comment to a post by John Wilkins, that I see species as being determined by convention.  See the first post in this series for links.  John disagrees with me, and gave reasons for his objections.  I plan to discuss those objections in the next in this series.  Today’s post will discuss why I take the designation of species to be conventional.


Biological classification is an example of categorization.  I take categorization to be a dividing up of the world into manageable parts.  This is often described as “carving the world at the seams.”  However, there aren’t enough seams to account for how we carve up the world.

As an example, consider the dividing of the USA into fifty states.  Some of the state borders are along rivers.  Some are survey lines.  We could perhaps think of rivers as natural diving lines, or seams, except that we often don’t use them even when rivers are available.

November 7, 2013

Convention (3) – why we need conventions

by Neil Rickert

In this post, I shall give a couple of examples to illustrate why we use and need conventions.

3D Space

For the first example, consider 3-dimensional space as discussed by mathematicians and scientists.  We usually represent objects in space in terms of coordinate axes.  We typically use an x-axis in the left-right direction, a y-axis in the forward (away from me) direction, and a z-axis which is vertical.

The first thing to notice about this choice of axes,  is that the choice is rather arbitrary.  When I am at home, the x-axis is in a north-south direction, because my desk happens to face east.  And at work, where my desk faces roughly north, the x-axis is close to an east-west orientation.  The direction of the vertical axis also changes with location, due to the curvature (the spheroidal shape) of the earth.

November 3, 2013

Convention (2) – word usage vs. behavior

by Neil Rickert

This continues the series that I started at

Today’s post distinguishes between conventions of word usage, and conventions of other kinds of behavior.  Word use is, of course, a kind of behavior.

I’ll give an example of each.

A word use convention

In his “Truth by convention,” Quine writes:

A contextual definition sets up indefinitely many mutually analogous pairs of definienda and definientia according to some general scheme;  an example is the definition whereby expressions of the form ‘sin —/cos —‘ are abbreviated as ‘tan —‘.

November 2, 2013

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: