“An artificial novelty is never as effective as a repetition that manages to suggest a fresh truth.” Marcel Proust.Have the last ten years really seen the emergence of fifty – fifty? – interesting new philosophical ideas? I doubt it. Some currently-fashionable ideas, I suspect, will turn out to be less interesting, or less novel, than they now seem; or both. And anyway, too much emphasis on “artificial novelty”, besides obscuring the fact that there is no neat way to individuate ideas, tempts us to forget that significant philosophical advance usually requires weaving together a whole congeries of ideas, some more and some less familiar.
The idea I have chosen to write about here, which has been explicit in my work for at least a decade, illustrates this last point nicely. Conceptual innovation, the growth of meaning, is a recurring theme in the “worldly” philosophy of science I developed in Defending Science: Within Reason (2003). The meanings of scientific terms evolve as science advances; but this is not necessarily, as radical proponents of “meaning-variance” supposed, an impediment, but can actually contribute to the rationality of the scientific enterprise. (Think of the evolution of the concept of DNA over the century since Friedrich Miescher discovered “nuclein”.) As we should have learned from “grue”, supportiveness of evidence is not a purely logical matter, but depends on increment of explanatory integration, which in turn depends in part on the fit of scientific vocabulary to real kinds. This is one reason why purely formal models of science (deductivist, inductivist, or probabilistic) don’t work; and why scientists are constantly altering and adapting their vocabulary.
By the time of my paper “On Logic in the Law” (2007) – where I argued that purely formal models of legal reasoning are no more defensible than purely formal models of science – the growth-of-meaning idea had also woven into my legal thinking. Like the meanings of scientific terms, the meanings of legal terms – “insanity”, “causation”, “responsibility”, “privacy”, “marriage”, etc. – evolve: sometimes, as in the sciences, by the accretion of new information, more often by adaptation to new social conditions and values, or to technological advances. But this doesn’t mean that legal decisions are bound to be arbitrary and capricious; on the contrary, conceptual flexibility and growth is just what a legal system needs if it is to adapt appropriately as the world changes.
I was never a big fan of the “necessary and sufficient conditions” style of conceptual analysis; always resisted the idea that philosophical concepts “have no history”; and have long been given to neologisms (think of “foundherentism”). So, at some not-quite conscious level, I must always have known that conceptual innovation matters in philosophy, too. And by the time of “The Legitimacy of Metaphysics” (2007) this idea was weaving itself into an understanding of philosophical inquiry as continuous with scientific inquiry, and as depending on experience – though not, like scientific inquiry, recherché experience obtainable only by means of fancy instruments, etc., but close attention to familiar kinds of experience.
The growth of meaning can advance inquiry; but this is not to say that “change is good”, tout court. Some meaning-change advances inquiry; but some impedes it. So recently, in “The Growth of Meaning and the Limits of Formalism” and “The Meaning of Pragmatism” (2009), I have begun trying to articulate the difference: good, productive meaning-change is the kind we see when old words acquire new information or new words allow us to escape false dichotomies; bad, damaging meaning-change is the kind we see when old words acquire misinformation or are so stretched or fragmented that they lose meaning, or when new terms embody confusions – or are just foam-rubber public-relations words.
Finally: an admission I have deliberately been withholding thus far: the growth-of-meaning idea is not exactly new. “Meaning grows,” C. S. Peirce wrote, more than a century ago; “in use and in experience … . Such words as force, law, wealth, marriage, bear for us a very different meaning than they bore to our barbarous ancestors.” But because this not-so-new idea is so alien to today’s resolutely ahistorical post-Fregean neo-analytic philosophy, its potential to illuminate familiar issues and to cross-fertilise with other ideas has gone largely unnoticed; which, I suppose, is why it was only relatively recently that I began to appreciate the “fresh truths” to which it can contribute.
Defending Science: Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Susan Haack, (Prometheus, 2003).
Susan Haack is professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Miami
Read all fifty ideas and more in the special 50th issue of tpm