Ideas of Michael Devitt, by Theme

[American, b.1938, Professor at the University of Maryland, then Professor at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York.]

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8. Modes of Existence / D. Universals / 1. Universals
Realism doesn't explain 'a is F' any further by saying it is 'a has F-ness'
     Full Idea: Realists feel that the one-place predication 'a is F' leaves something unexplained, yet all that is offered is a two-place predication (a relational statement). There is an equal problem about 'a having F-ness'.
     From: Michael Devitt ('Ostrich Nominalism' or 'Mirage Realism'? [1980], p.97)
     A reaction: I think this is a key argument on the nominalist side - the denial that the theory of universals actually makes any progress at all in giving an explanation of what is going on around here. Platonist have the problem of 'partaking'.
8. Modes of Existence / E. Nominalism / 1. Nominalism / b. Nominalism about universals
The particular/universal distinction is unhelpful clutter; we should accept 'a is F' as basic
     Full Idea: Talk of 'particulars' and 'universals' clutters the landscape without adding to our understanding. We should rest with the basic fact that a is F.
     From: Michael Devitt ('Ostrich Nominalism' or 'Mirage Realism'? [1980], p.98)
     A reaction: Ramsey was first to challenge the basic distinction. I find the approach of Quine and Devitt unsatisfactory. We abandon explanation when it is totally hopeless, but that is usually in the face of complexity. Properties are difficult but simple.
8. Modes of Existence / E. Nominalism / 1. Nominalism / c. Nominalism about abstracta
Quineans take predication about objects as basic, not reference to properties they may have
     Full Idea: For 'a and b have the same property, F-ness' the Quinean Nominalist has a paraphrase to hand: 'a and b are both F'. ..In denying that this object need have properties, the Quinean is not denying that it really is F.
     From: Michael Devitt ('Ostrich Nominalism' or 'Mirage Realism'? [1980], p.95)
     A reaction: The question that remains is why 'F' is used of both a and b. We don't call a and b 'a', because they are different. Quine falls back on resemblance. I suspect Quineans of hiding behind the semantics.
9. Objects / D. Essence of Objects / 10. Essence as Species
Essentialism concerns the nature of a group, not its category
     Full Idea: Essentialism is concerned with the nature of a group, whatever the category it falls under.
     From: Michael Devitt (Resurrecting Biological Essentialism [2008], 6)
     A reaction: This seems to me such a simple and obvious point that I am amazed that anyone rejects it, yet lots of people seem to think that an essence is just some sort of category.
Things that gradually change, like species, can still have essences
     Full Idea: An intrinsic essence does not have to be 'neat and tidy'. ...Essentialism can accept the gradual change of one thing into another.
     From: Michael Devitt (Resurrecting Biological Essentialism [2008], 11)
     A reaction: My thesis is that essentialism is a response to the needs of explanation, so as long as there is some core explanation to be found, even in something transitory, then the concept of an essence can apply to it.
12. Knowledge Sources / A. A Priori Knowledge / 4. A Priori as Necessities
Why should necessities only be knowable a priori? That Hesperus is Phosporus is known empirically
     Full Idea: Why should we accept that necessities can only be known a priori? Prima facie, some necessities are known empirically; for example, that water is necessarily H2O, and that Hesperus is necessarily Phosphorus.
     From: Michael Devitt (There is no a Priori [2005], §2)
     A reaction: An important question, whatever your view. If the only thing we can know a priori is necessities, it doesn't follow that necessities can only be known a priori. It gets interesting if we say that some necessities can never be known a priori.
How could the mind have a link to the necessary character of reality?
     Full Idea: What non-experiential link to reality could support insights into its necessary character?
     From: Michael Devitt (There is No A Priori (and reply) [2005], 4)
     A reaction: The key to it, I think, is your theory of mind. If you are a substance dualist, then connecting to such deep things looks fine, but if you are a reductive physicalist then it looks absurdly hopeful.
12. Knowledge Sources / A. A Priori Knowledge / 9. A Priori from Concepts
We explain away a priori knowledge, not as directly empirical, but as indirectly holistically empirical
     Full Idea: We have no need to turn to an a priori explanation of our knowledge of mathematics and logic. Our intuitions that this knowledge is not justified in some direct empirical way is preserved. It is justified in an indirect holistic way.
     From: Michael Devitt (There is no a Priori [2005], §2)
     A reaction: I think this is roughly the right story, but the only way it will work is if we have some sort of theory of abstraction, which gets us up the ladder of generalisations to the ones which, it appears, are necessarily true.
12. Knowledge Sources / A. A Priori Knowledge / 11. Denying the A Priori
The idea of the a priori is so obscure that it won't explain anything
     Full Idea: The whole idea of the a priori is too obscure for it to feature in a good explanation of our knowledge of anything.
     From: Michael Devitt (There is no a Priori [2005], §3)
     A reaction: I never like this style of argument. It would be nice if all the components of all our our explanations were crystal clear. Total clarity about anything is probably a hopeless dream, and we may have to settle for murky corners in all explanations.
Some knowledge must be empirical; naturalism implies that all knowledge is like that
     Full Idea: It is overwhelmingly plausible that some knowledge is empirical. The attractive thesis of naturalism is that all knowledge is; there is only one way of knowing.
     From: Michael Devitt (There is No A Priori (and reply) [2005], 1)
     A reaction: How many ways for us to know seems to depend on what faculties we have. We lump our senses together under a single heading. The arrival of data is not the same as the arrival of knowledge. I'm unconvinced that naturalists like me must accept this.
26. Natural Theory / B. Natural Kinds / 1. Natural Kinds
Some kinds are very explanatory, but others less so, and some not at all
     Full Idea: Explanatory significance, hence naturalness, comes in degrees: positing some kinds may be very explanatory, positing others, only a little bit explanatory, positing others still, not explanatory at all.
     From: Michael Devitt (Natural Kinds and Biological Realism [2009], 4)
     A reaction: He mentions 'cousin' as a natural kind that is not very explanatory of anything. It interests us as humans, but not at all in other animals, it seems. ...Nice thought, though, that two squirrels might be cousins...
27. Natural Reality / F. Biology / 5. Species
We name species as small to share properties, but large enough to yield generalisations
     Full Idea: Our explanatory purposes in introducing a name for a species demand that we draw the lines around a group that is small enough to share a whole lot of important properties and large enough to yield broad generalizations.
     From: Michael Devitt (Resurrecting Biological Essentialism [2008], 10 'Arb')
     A reaction: Grist to my mill. In this reaction slot (16th Oct 2013) I launch my new metaphysical school - welcome to EXPLANATIONISM! Folk metaphysics, and the best philosophical metaphysics, is entirely driven by the needs of explanation.
Species are phenetic, biological, niche, or phylogenetic-cladistic
     Full Idea: The four main concepts of a species are 'phenetic' (similarity of traits), 'biological species' (interbreeding and isolated), 'ecological niche' (occupying an adaptive zone), or 'phylogenetic-cladistic' (start and finish at splits in lineage)
     From: report of Michael Devitt (Resurrecting Biological Essentialism [2008], 4) by PG - Db (ideas)
     A reaction: [my summary of Devitt's list] Devitt attacks the whole lot, in favour of essentialism - the species being fixed by its underlying explanatory mechanisms.
The higher categories are not natural kinds, so the Linnaean hierarchy should be given up
     Full Idea: The signs are that the higher categories are not natural kinds and so the Linnaean hierarchy must be abandoned. ...This is not abandoning a hierarchy altogether, it is not abandoning a tree of life.
     From: Michael Devitt (Natural Kinds and Biological Realism [2009], 6)
     A reaction: Devitt's underlying point is that the higher and more general kinds do not have an essence (a specific nature), which is the qualification to be a natural kind. They explain nothing. Essence is the hallmark of natural kinds. Hmmm.
Species pluralism says there are several good accounts of what a species is
     Full Idea: Species pluralism is the view that there are several equally good accounts of what it is to be a species.
     From: Michael Devitt (Natural Kinds and Biological Realism [2009], 7)
     A reaction: Devitt votes for it, and cites Dupré, among many other. Given the existence of rival accounts, all making good points, it is hard to resist this view.