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The Primacy of Concepts in Belief Systems: How Concept-to-Instance Reasoning Contradicts the Empirical

November 1st, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Imagine the famous scene in the 1973 movie American Graffiti involving mischievous persons attaching the rear axle of a stationary police car via steel cable to a post, an accomplice speeding by, and the intent police officer pulling away in pursuit only to find the car jerked into the air and its rear axle pulled away from under it. With that in mind, now imagine there were two very science-focused vandals intent on wreaking havoc upon police property. One postulates to the other, “Remember American Graffiti? We could attach that police car’s rear axle to a pole; then the car will be immobilized like in the movie, and then the police will look embarrassingly bad in front of everyone!”

In a way, said vandal has deployed the concept of the destructive prank put forward in American Graffiti as an argument for taking a particular action. This action, he believes, will be a functional means to his end (a specific kind of destruction of police property with desired aesthetic consequences). Naturally, one would reject this argument, probably retorting “Don’t believe everything you see in movies.” Indeed, on the popular T.V. show MythBusters, this was tested: a police cruiser was put under the circumstances portrayed in the movie, and it was discovered that the axle could not be removed from the chassis after several attempts. Essentially, what the MythBusters team did was test the validity of the argument, “it occurred in the fictional story of American Graffiti; therefore, it will occur when we try it.”

Like the screenplay writer puts a concept in the script and the director’s crew executes it on the screen, the philosopher postulates a concept in his writing. Through visual representation, the movie scene symbolizes the event of a normal police cruiser’s axle being cleanly pulled off as a result of its attachment to a fixed object; the concept is conveyed to us like the words on a page convey to us the concept of “the People” or “goodness.” The “police-car-axle-trick” concept is a more tangible one, but in due course, it is just as well a concept as “the ideal city.”

Looking in reality for referents for these concepts—or their sub-components—is an act of verifying arguments invoking those concepts. Those arguments which fail to provide concepts with referents sufficient to reasonably draw their conclusions can be described as holding concepts as primary. No philosophers who posit these arguments, naturally, would agree that this is unreasonable. In fact, some may even embrace those kinds of arguments as the only kinds of arguments one could possibly make on the subject matter. The suggestion that concepts are primary in a belief system is hence either one of the philosopher’s own implicit metaphysical and epistemological admission, or one of simple description of a belief system’s fundamental nature.

Here, my intention in exploring belief systems from the perspective of the concepts they employ and the manner in which they employ them is not to form a strictly bounded definition of “the primacy of concepts,” though one could perhaps be created; instead, my intention is to create a helpful way of thinking about how many belief systems—whether they are epistemic, religious, political, social, and the like, or comprehensive—predicate their conclusions upon conceptualization over empirical evidence.


A thorough explanation of what is meant by “concept” is necessary for the proceeding discussion, due to the widely varying use of the word across different disciplines and philosophical viewpoints. The phrase “a concept” refers to an abstract idea in the human mind used to organize sensory information, often expressed through language. Concepts serve as a means by which thought is simplified and communication is made possible, via the distillation of immense amounts of mixed sensory information into discrete and meaningful units. The process of abstraction is the means by which such distillation occurs.

Though they are constructed from information gathered from the senses about the external world, concepts only exist within the human mind. Matter and energy are arranged in a particular way out in the world, which lends itself to certain sensual impressions upon a perceiver; commonalities are then sorted out in the perceiver’s brain to create general attributes or sets of attributes. A natural difficulty of speaking in this manner, of course, is that we can not conceive of a universe without our conceptualization; in other words, we can not think of reality without using concepts like “matter” and “energy” in doing so.

To continue the tradition of epistemologists’ uncanny obsession with furniture, we can begin with the concept “chair.” In common understanding, it is something intended for humans to sit on, with a flat surface and some kind of foundation to separate that flat surface from the ground. There are many different kinds of chairs: rocking chairs, swivel chairs, dining room chairs, patio chairs, and so on. The concept “chair” holds the attributes all of those chairs share in common.

There are certainly things in the world that fit the definition of “chair” given above, but what about the imagination? An easy and commonly cited example of a concept in the imagination is the Pegasus: a winged, white, and horse-like creature. Examining the Pegasus, we find that concepts need not have a direct referent in reality, though at some level the concepts that constitute them must. Thus, the first person to conceive of Pegasus never once had to experience a Pegasus but, having seen horses, white things, and winged creatures, combined some of the attributes he saw into one concept. That we can conceive of something does not imply that such a thing exists somewhere, in the spatio-temporal sense; it only implies that some component parts of the Pegasus exist.

While the process of abstraction requires multiple instances of an attribute for abstraction to make sense, a concept itself is not necessarily an abstraction but can be built of abstractions. Those things in the world to which a concept refers can also be unique things. That there is only one Empire State Building does not mean that the Empire State Building, in our minds, is not a concept. It is a concept built of other concepts, or, better said, is a member of multiple and sometimes overlapping classes of objects: things with a name, buildings, edifices taller than 1,000 feet, and so forth. A concept is hence not necessarily a particular abstraction, but can be a combination of abstractions. A concept without a direct referent—like Pegasus—is one composed of abstractions that do not jointly hold with any object in reality. There are things in the world with wings, horns, and horse-ness, but there are no things that are all three.

In a theoretical context, the process of concept deconstruction is, in logical terms, reducible down to the most basic logical unit of reality. If one had knowledge of the most elementary unit of existence (supposing such a thing was real) and all of its properties, he could hypothetically conceptualize anything: all manner of materials, phenomena, organisms, machines, etc. The human mind, however, is limited to what the senses can perceive and what the brain can process.

Those objects in the world which we immediately perceive help accelerate the process of creating concepts, especially useful ones. Birds, for example, provided to human beings the concept that things could move above the ground; their wings inspired the idea that friction between air and a surface can create a force opposite to gravity.

Someone very intelligent could have figured out that he could make a flying object after watching a leaf fall off a tree, or even just by the feeling of wind pushing against him. It is the first-hand experience of aerodynamics, though, that allowed those inventors to create the concept of aerodynamics. Psycho-epistemologically, all conceivable things must have their origins in some minimum level of experience.

In light of this definition, a concept itself can not be invalid by definition, since what makes it a concept is that it can be conceived of in the human mind. Words are then used to signify concepts and their relation to each other. Each concept, with relation to evidence (the referents of its constituents) in reality, has a range of arguments in which it can be validly used. However, a concept can also be used in an invalid manner.

One may argue that accepting certain concepts as reality can generate desirable consequences. Here, we must make an important distinction between accepting concepts as reality and contextually employing concepts as functional metaphors. In mathematics, for example, complex numbers (even roots of negative numbers) can be argued to be lacking a referent or even inconceivable in reality (like a “round square”). Applying mathematical conventions, though, they can be written down and operated upon. It turns out that the use of the complex number system has resulted in several useful implications about the real number system. The idea of validity, as used here, however, relates to the kinds of claims that are made on the basis of a concept itself. The complex number system as described above serves as a functional concept employed in context of another conceptual system—namely, the system of mathematical operators.

Suppose the adoption of the “legal fiction” of a corporation—treating it like an individual in the legal system, among all the other implications as we know them—was argued for with the justification that it would increase the overall economic product of a society by reducing the costs of causing legal disputes at a greater rate than its negative consequences. Such a hypothesis can be empirically tested. However, the concept of the corporation as an autonomous entity in reality, of course, is a strange one: there is no such being that is conscious, self-aware, can take action, etc. that represents the totality of what is involved in legal proceedings involving a corporation as an individual (all of its assets). Individual human minds make decisions and take actions within that corporation.

The corporation as individual serves as a functional concept employed in context of another conceptual system—in this case, the legal system. Thus, there is a distinct difference between a concept’s being a convenient way of thinking about something—not unlike a metaphor—versus its possession of a referent in reality. To clarify (or maybe jumble things some more), the concept of a metaphor being useful or effective is a concept with a referent in reality. The concept of the food pyramid does not imply that the universe intrinsically organizes food in the shape of a pyramid; however, conceptualizing a healthy diet as a pyramid is a useful tool in teaching one how to proportion his diet.

Warranting clarification is what constitutes a valid claim about reality—or, in other words, what truth is. Phenomenologically, all truth is ultimately a matter of human action. We can not look “behind the curtain” of human experience. In light of that, truth as “correspondence with the external world” is an unverifiable hypothesis, formulated on the basis of a god’s-eye view of human experience. The material consequences of human existence and experience can be the only basis upon which a meaningful idea of “truth” is founded. With skeptical arguments pushed to their limits, life and death are the ultimate standards of knowledge: where we fail to act in accordance with our sense-perceptions, we are hurt—that we are having an experience of pain can not be doubted—or we die, after which doubt seems to be unlikely. Empirical methodology is the adherence to the evidence of the senses and the recognition of its validity. From the standpoint of the mind, the senses are a brute fact; all theories which try to deny the evidence of the senses or to construct truth via some non-empirical means have their origins invariably in the senses. One must have knowledge in order to doubt.

The evidence of the senses has produced a methodology—reason, the scientific method, etc.—which has repeatedly led to successful human existence through consistent integration of sense data. Belief systems in which concepts are primary contradict that methodology. Accordingly, devotion to those belief systems bears the consequences of failure to act upon fact, or at the very least, failure to act upon the best possible methodology for forming beliefs about the world.

The Primacy of Concepts

The phrase “primacy of concepts” thus refers to a particular kind of use of concepts in reasoning to a conclusion. We can not define it without, to some degree, pointing to its inherent flaws, for it is a phenomenon which embodies invalid reasoning by its definition. Because all that we, as humans, can conceive of predicates upon experience, any statement someone makes that bears any meaning to us is a concept, and thus has some relation to reality. The mark of the phenomenon of the primacy of concepts, however, is the outright inadmissibility of certain empirical evidence. Note that the view of concepts outlined here and earlier will quite distinctly run up against others—in particular, the classical theory of concepts, especially of the kind that holds that concepts are mind-independent entities. The primacy of concepts as a fallacy only persists if we accept a mind-dependent and empirical theory of concepts and reject the classical and mind-independent theories of concepts.

Thus, unsurprisingly, the first and most prominent examples of the primacy of concepts are belief systems which embody the “classical” theory of concepts: classical concepts possess a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for that concept to apply to something that hold across all worlds. Classical concepts are represented in philosophy by the tradition of conceptual analysis, the first and most prominent example of which being the work of Plato, which has sought to provide an answer to certain questions such as, “What is happiness? Virtue? Beauty? Freedom? Good? Evil? Knowledge? Space? Time?” These kinds of questions—in most cases when they are asked—personify philosophy in which concepts are primary. Certain concepts possess a nature or essence which can come to be known through the proposal of candidate definitions and the seeking of counter-examples (through thought experiments) to invalidate them. In a way, this process the treatment of concepts as static objects of sorts in philosophical discourse; philosophers of this tradition examine concepts like scientists examine physical specimens, as though they were things in plain view to examine.

In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates seeks from his discussion with Euthyphro what the essence of piety is; he asks what in the world makes pious things pious—what they share in common—and not for examples of people who are pious or what the gods are known to think is pious. In the Lysis, he pursues the essence of friendship similarly; in the Phaedrus, love; in the Thaetatus, knowledge; and in the Republic, justice. Behind the character of Socrates in these dialogues is Plato’s theory of the Forms, the most prominent example of a belief system that makes concepts primary. The Forms themselves are a kind of hypostatization of concepts—the forms inhabit a timeless reality outside the human mind. He attempts to provide a direct metaphysical explanation for concepts: they are caused to appear in the human mind as a result of their exact metaphysical counterparts. Hence, it is no surprise that Plato’s approach to concepts is one of classical analysis.

In the case of the scientists, when they ask a question of a physical specimen they capture—such as “of what is this creature made?”—they have agreed upon a referent of the concept signified by “creature,” as applying to the matter in front of them; they have, implicitly and instinctually as a matter of rules of language, agreed that this animate and discrete entity composed of matter is the object of discourse. They can then shock it with electricity, give it food, douse it in chemicals, dissect it, etc. to answer the questions they may have about it.

In contrast to the scientists’ investigations, there is no such obvious referent when it comes to Plato-type questions. They only make sense in context of the theory of the Forms or similar postulations about the external and discrete existence of concepts; so long as we reject such metaphysical claims (and with good reason), the referents that are brought under inspection can only be a product of the amalgamated meanings of the words brought by the parties to the discussion. The explicit reliance of answers to “What is F?” upon intuition is perfectly explainable by the non-existence of concepts as entities in reality and the different definitions brought by different parties to the dialectic. Plato’s exposition of the forms through the character of Socrates in the Republic and other works is very educative in the actual ambiguity of reference, but specimen-like treatment of words.

The above kind of concept primacy is only a subset of a broader definition of concept primacy. One need not formally accept the classical theory of concepts in order to commit a similar fallacy. The idea of concept primacy merely requires that the rational necessity of instance-to-concept reasoning be invalidated, with a concept used to exclude an instance. In this way, belief systems inhabit a continuum of concept primacy: on one end, there are its most egregious cases, in which one conceptualizes something and holds it as reality purely arbitrarily; on the other, there are concepts which have reasonable uses and that are even reasonably used, but are held to a reality above the instances that derived them. The spectrum can be loosely characterized by the placing the examples of mythology, religion, and fantasy on one extreme, and scientism, skepticism, and cynicism on the other.

The Plato-type errors are frequently just unconscious ones; they take the words of language, which are created to describe reality, and turn them into reality itself. At the core of the problems of philosophy—especially those of the Platonic kind—are issues of language. The fallacies of concept-primacy, in general, constitute the removal of concepts from the human context in which they were generated, and the assertion of those concepts as a priori fact. Because those concepts are defined without experience or to the exclusion of some experience, thought experiments can endlessly “refute” one’s conclusions about the world, precisely because they are not based on experience, but upon conceptual construction. Adherence to some system of rules—following religious texts, star-gazing, meditating, utilizing heuristics, and so on—in deriving certain conclusions, when it is to any degree non-empirical, necessarily requires that some empirical evidence can never be cited as both arguments and counter-arguments: the discussion is bound by the domain of the system’s rules.

Descartes’ exploration of knowledge and doubt in his Meditations is subject is another notable—and highly influential—example of concept primacy. Indeed, Cartesian foundationalism and the other deduction-focused metaphysics of several of the Continental Rationalists leave little room in the world for contingency—metaphysically and thus epistemically. They call upon a methodology for verifying beliefs that downplays the senses in favor of “logical truths” and, as Descartes describes them, “clear and distinct” things. Because of the inherent deficiency in providing any truths about the world on the basis of his “hyperbolic doubt” in Meditation I—the hypothesis of the powerful, evil deceiver—it is no surprise that Descartes appealed to the concept of God and argued “logically” for his existence.

The epistemological school following in the tradition of Descartes’ “hyperbolic doubt” is one of skepticism. The claim of skepticism—that knowledge is impossible—is justified on logical grounds: we can not be sure that what we experience as truth about the external world is in fact the external world and not an illusion. As one of skepticism’s most recent representatives, Keith Lehrer put forward a “skeptical hypothesis”:

There are a group of creatures in another galaxy, call them Googols, whose intellectual capacity is 10100 that of men, and who amuse themselves by sending out a peculiar kind of wave that affects our brain in such a way that our beliefs about the world are mostly incorrect.

The irrefutable logical possibility of this being true, he claims, entails that our beliefs can never be completely justified. Thus, we cannot have knowledge.

The important issue at hand with Lehrer’s skepticism is the prescription accepting his conclusion offers. So we cannot have knowledge of a certain kind; “Now what?” we ask. Not coincidentally, the claim “knowledge is impossible” could itself be a reiteration of the Plato-type language problem—depending on the implications we draw from it. We can be sure here that the skeptical argument defeats the classical conceptions of knowledge (a correspondence theory of truth, for example). The world of the perfectly known and perfectly deductive, from a psychological standpoint, is not a concept with a direct referent found in human experience. Certainty of that kind is either a functional tool of discovery (as in mathematics or logic), or merely a manner of speaking: when I say, “I am certain that I will turn in this paper on Saturday,” I do not mean that in my mind I have discounted the logical possibilities of my severe injury, death, sudden lack of interest in the academic, and so forth. The probability of those occurrences is so low that my statement of certainty is one of cost-benefit analysis: to warn the reader of an alternative outcome is to insure against those outcomes, but such outcomes are so unlikely (and the magnitude of the payoff is so low) that the inconvenience of enumerating the alternative possibilities is a net loss in well-being.

The discussion of skepticism here is not aimed at addressing the flaws of skepticism specifically, but at how the concept-primary world of traditional philosophy’s conceptual analysis is vulnerable to paralyzing criticisms that leave it unable to explain the world with its methodology. However, from the epistemology laid out in this paper, the question “So what?” should immediately follow Lehrer’s argument. Only through fallacy can Lehrer’s argument lead to a significant implication beyond the nonexistence of the classical concept of knowledge—one which this epistemic paradigm holds as an empty fabrication, anyway (to say “I know that x” where there is no possibility of doubt is to be redundant; “x” suffices).

Specifically, the fallacy of equivocation is an exploitation of, or a mistake with, symbols in language that create the illusion that conclusions follow from particular arguments. Take the following silly example:

1) O’Doul’s Non-Alcoholic Beer is better than nothing.

2) Nothing is better than a nice, hearty lager.

3) Therefore, O’Doul’s Beer is better than a nice, hearty lager.

Though the word involved in the relations of quality about the beers is the same one—“Nothing”—it clearly shifts senses from one premise to the next. Only while assuming the word meant the same thing in both premises (“nothing,” as in the absence of all things) would the argument would be a syllogism.

The concluding statement of Lehrer’s argument—“we cannot have knowledge”—certainly does not eliminate the phenomena we associate with our use of the word “knowledge”: the Microsoft tech support knowledge base, the knowledge of the physical sciences, self-knowledge, and so on. There is certainly a distinct difference between my assertion that “I know the earth is round,” versus another’s assertion that “I know the earth is flat.” For one, there are pictures of the world showing its roundness; I can travel off into the horizon, and if I travel long enough, I will return to the place where I started; and when I travel on the land versus how the crow flies, the disparate distances between the two voyages are as geometry would predict with a sphere versus a straight line. I have evidence for my knowledge; while I still may be wrong in some remote sense, the distant possibility is excluded from my speech because it is useless (and wasteful) to enumerate every remote logical possibility of my being wrong. Speech is a means to an end—not a slave to logic. Hence, “knowledge” can be understood by its use: in my case, it is the presence of scientific evidence for my claim.

The classical theory of concepts grants a window for the assertion that there are no referents of a classical concept. Logically, the claim is moot, but it bears psychological implications for those not aware of the linguistic nature of philosophical puzzles. “There is no justice,” as one interpretation of Thrasymachus in Republic would have him say. Someone convinced of Thrasymachus’s assertion would then challenge any person who used the word “justice” with a particular referent in mind, as if to tell him that the “justice” he was looking at did not exist—even if the person who tokened “justice” used it in reference to the legal system, whose norms are often labeled “justice.” That Thrasymachus asserted “There is no justice” changes no reality; it does not alter any rationale for the legal system’s “justice” (that does not depend on the classical concept of justice). Likewise, that Lehrer argues “we cannot have ‘knowledge’” changes no reality; it does not cause me to drop my belief that the world is round, and I am none the worse for it.

How do we ever come to invalidate a primary concept, once accepted? To illustrate, we can begin with an extreme case of a primary concept: belief in a deity as strictly a matter of faith. Acceptance of that premise as true can then explain away any empirical evidence to the contrary. If one believes he has prayed and has not received the desired results, the only explanation is that he was not, in fact, praying correctly, or that he failed to meet some other necessary condition for his prayers to be answered.

Yet this could occur in any variant of concept primacy. Take the example of Marxism: the concepts it employs are founded in historicity of observations about power relations between the powerful and the dominated. In as much as the methodology of historical analysis is applied, though, Marxist concepts must be taken as truth. In turn, when some Marxists are confronted with evidence of countries which have embodied Marxist principles, with their performance measured by amount of violence, material well-being, and other empirical data, they are forced to respond in one of two ways: they must assert that those countries are, in fact, successful in some way according to Marxism, or they must assert that those countries are not, in fact, Marxist.

In either case, there is no way of finding empirical evidence that stands against the theory besides that evidence which can be used to contradict the grounds upon which Marxist concepts are founded. Certain evidence is simply precluded by the acceptance of those concepts themselves. For example, the concept of alienation asserts that it provides objective features of individuals in capitalist society independent of their awareness, so some evidence—such as any assertions made by said persons about their own psychological states—is irrelevant. From a logical and empirical standpoint, a simple way of understanding the inherent irrationality of reasoning from unreasonably chosen concepts is to view doing so through the demands of Occam’s razor. When we cannot distinguish between a world in which the theory is false and the world in which we live, we can not reasonably postulate that theory over another one similarly situated, much less over one which actually has evidence.

The pragmatic problem of the acceptance of any empirically exclusionary belief in practice is quite clear: it creates an infinitely-recurring, invulnerable hope in seeking an outcome that will never be realized. If the reality is that there is no deity who answers prayers, people who pray and accept the argument for this deity will perpetually spend their time praying and depending on this fictional deity, with an argument perpetually compelling them to do so against the empirical evidence they will have (no consistent answering of prayers). If the reality is that the claims of Marxism about human nature, the path of history, and economics are false, societies will continually be founded on Marxist principles and will continually be met with failure, but will continually be compelled to do so when swayed by the arguments of Marxism, against empirical evidence of those failures. Sinners will be created to take the blame.

The philosophically admissible at the level of metaphysics and epistemology (and, ultimately, ethics) translates necessarily to the admissible at the level of the political. The Classical Greek philosophers, as adherents to the classical theory of concepts and their analysis, can be said to be the fathers of formalized political theories in which concepts are primary. Returning to Plato once more, observe the political philosophy he generates from his theory of the forms. To him, justice in the political is to be found in the structure of the city, like justice in the individual is to be found in the structure of the soul. Critical to Plato’s polity is the division of individuals into three classes: producers (farmers, craftsmen, etc.), warriors, and rulers. He bases this tripartite political division on a tripartite division of the individual soul: the appetitive, the spirited, and the rational.

Those assertions about the individual soul can be translated into the modern tongue as assertions about human nature. Like all concepts he expressed must have been, each of the three parts was at some level derived in Plato’s human mind from an empirical experience of human beings as possessing those faculties. However, the broader concept of the human mind as being composed distinctly and exhaustively of these three parts is the concept which he came to use to derive his idea of the just polity. This concept, to a large degree, precluded actual worldly observations about human psychology, and how likely it was in actuality that, for example, a human being like a philosopher king could singly embody rationality.

As a brief aside, it is important to note once more that a formal observance of classical conceptual analysis is not the only way for a series of political implications to be drawn from a concept. Though Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in part modernized political philosophy by founding it on a more fully integrated and empirical view of existence, the thought experiment that underlies his view of the state, the State of Nature, is a concept bearing primacy over experience as well. He puts forward a hypothetical situation in which humans are engaged in a perpetual state of war “of every man against every man”—a state so horrible that men will endeavor to seek peace, the only recourse being an all-powerful state. That this state will occur is based on his own construction of human nature. Quite similarly to Plato, he derives the aspects of that nature from some level of experience with the humans of his time: a restless appetite for power, reputation, glory, riches, and so on. However, it is questionable whether those observations—made in the context of a period of political power, religious dominance, poverty, and despair—hold universally and a-contextually.

One final specific area of interest with regards to conceptualization as truth lies in morality. The idea of an intrinsic kind of goodness brings with it a host of problems, both in its derivation and in the end-state it envisions. The “is-ought gap,” a problem with the idea of goodness brought to the forefront by Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, becomes an issue the moment consistent empirical methodology is brought to bear on moral assertions:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with… I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence.

All systems of morality must overcome this challenge—how can a plain fact about the state of affairs of the world entail a (categorical) ought?

Furthermore, how do we come to observe that goodness occurring in the world? As J.L. Mackie explains, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Is it possible to observe these relations? Can they be pointed to without being circularly defined? In the realm of physical fact, it is easy to go from instance to concept: those instances are ostensible. We can point to objects falling down and the orbits of planets to derive the concept of “gravity”; we can observe the lack of bone structure in creatures and derive the concept “invertebrate.” We can even observe human parents who cause pain inside their children and enjoy it, and call that “sadism”—but that, of course, is a sense of sadism as a matter of descriptive fact (i.e. “sadism” means one who causes pain and enjoys it) and not a matter of moral fact. With goodness in most cases, however, the only means of ascribing moral fact to the world is to proceed from concept to instance.

Usually, the most important effects of any belief system stem from its conception of the good; when the goodness it posits is derived from an approach to knowledge in which concepts are primary, the consequences are quite significant in terms of the measurable aspects of human life. That which possesses goodness is what possesses “to-be-pursuedness”; it is that which an end-in-itself is. It is an argument from morality, which historically is easily seen to be a compelling argument for human beings: millions have martyred themselves and otherwise been exploited for causes they believed were right.

How might one rank priority in achieving those goods, however? Here, we can pick on an often self-described moral approach to politics: constitutional liberalism. In Constitutional Theory, Carl Schmitt argued that governments operating under the principles of the Rechstaat are plagued by an inability to take necessary action to preserve it. Primarily, they are bound inextricably to certain rules and procedures that are unbreakable, even in times of need. Constitutional liberalism indeed is sometimes interpreted as carrying with it a supra-legal set of principles by which it is governed. Often times, that supra-legality is itself written into a nation’s constitution. Thus, even adherence to the procedures outlined in that constitution is more than just an instrumental act: adherence to procedure is directly the fulfillment of the principles of goodness upon which the nation is based, or, at least, non-adherence to those procedures is a violation of those principles.

While in practice there may simply be politically expedient reasons why such action is not taken, at least in the context of philosophical debate there persist irresolvable problems between different positions each taking up the cause of, by the given principles of goodness, a worthy end. The results are frequently win-lose situations—zero-sum or negative-sum games—between opposing camps. The long-standing struggle between the often-mutually-exclusive liberty and security, with its many variants, is one such example of this inherent conflict. Should habeas corpus be suspended, or should the risk of a terrorist attack killing citizens (whose lives and property the government is also morally tasked with protecting) be allowed to increase? Should the rights of electoral participation be extended to those who hold values opposite the constitution—threatening that very constitution—or should suffrage and office holding be regulated, an action which by definition opposes the constitution? Are the lives of those living outside the state worth anything next to a citizen of the state, or can those outside the state be killed or harmed so long as it preserves a citizen? If these questions were not a matter of intrinsic goodness, at the very least they would be questions of pragmatism, utility, or even whim. Still, goodness demands that it be followed in itself, presenting a quandary for all states built upon a moral foundation.

No doubt, too, we have brought a new issue into consideration: what are the principles or moral foundations of a given constitution when that constitution is understood to have a life beyond the organisms that brought it into existence? Who is to determine these? From where did these principles come? In any case, national constitutions are representations of belief systems in which concepts are primary, in as much as those constitutions are not in principle built on the explicit consent of those governed by it (or the forcible imposition upon some by others); they are, instead, built upon a concept above human action.


There are many more examples of the primacy of concepts fitting the loose definition provided here, and many implications to be observed from them. All of them are bound together, perhaps, by the broadest implication of the fallacy: it creates a never-ending battle of refutation and counter-example, by means of its dependence on the realm of infinite conceptualization. Indeed, 2500 years of philosophy “qua philosophy” has failed to answer successfully, to the same degree of consensus as the natural sciences and mathematics answer their own questions, the questions which it is purportedly intended to answer—namely, those of human nature and action: what are we? What ought we to do?

Practitioners of the natural sciences, to a large degree, possess a shared language and methodology. As a result, fields like physics and medicine have seen huge advances. The shared methodology, the scientific method, is a means by which conflicting viewpoints are resolved. At the root of this methodology is the presence of clear and distinct referents of discourse: the observations made from controlled experiments involving the materials and phenomena in question. In light of this, there is no surprise that philosophers have been frequently relegated to a back-seat role in new discoveries about the nature of the world, particularly to scientists. Human nature, or at least the empirical data to be used in determining it, is now in the purview of evolutionary biologists; no longer is it the role of the philosopher to postulate it and other things on the basis of intuition.

The philosopher can still try to do this, obviously, and some still do. Nonetheless, the chief difference between the present in the past is that the work of those philosophers has less predictive power and even has facets which contradict the organized empirical evidence of the sciences. Indeed, empiricism in recent human history has created friction between the realities of the world and theories produced by traditional philosophy and other non-empirical means. As the disciplines of science and statistics have increasingly both discovered phenomena unexplained by the old answers and produced theories explaining old phenomena better. At the foundation of this new approach to knowledge are the epistemic postulates put forward at the beginning of this paper. Applying consistent experiential methods is a necessary condition for analytical robustness: just as we can be certain that our experience was what our experience was, we can be certain that we observed what we observed. The realm of interpretation of that experience lies within the scope of doubt and debate, but even with that caveat, empirics have brought mankind a long way from the days of the classical philosophical approach.

When we see the concepts of God, logic, justice, beauty, science, the state, or The People used to draw a conclusion about the world, we can always think of the concept of the American Graffiti police car gag and how a television show went about looking at it objectively. MythBusters is aptly named for this analogy: these concepts can constitute the “myths” upon which society runs (whether effectively or not). The MythBusters are the “boots on the ground” in investigating the many interesting assertions about reality put forward in popular culture.

Though they may just be entertainment, they wave the banner of empiricism in the boldest way possible: they dive straight into reality, replicate the circumstances, and put claims to the test. They do not dream up extreme action scenes to confuse young people more, and they never use visual trickery; they always recreate, observe, and analyze. To do the same to battle myths of the broader, societal kind, there are a parallel set of prescriptions: do not create new myths by deriving a concept and holding it as real without evidence, and never equivocate; always, work from instance to concept and reason from there.

Categories: Epistemology, Ideology, Language, Metaphysics Tags:
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