February 23, 2005

Parthood and Indeterminacy

Normally I'd post this comment to the Phil. Mind. message board, but the graduate students are swamping that thing out of existence, and what I have to say is veering away from Phil. Mind., so I thought I'd post it here.

When discussing the indeterminacy of the word 'gavagai', Quine gives 'rabbit fusion' (that is, the set of all rabbits), 'rabbit', and 'undetached rabbit part' as possible referents of the word. It strikes me is that all these concepts are united in parthood. A rabbit is part of the set of all rabbits; an undetached rabbit part is obviously a part of the rabbit.

In our Phil. Mind. class, Professor Dennett suggested that natural kinds nestle into hierarchies, and it's indeterminate which of those natural kinds a folk term like 'water' refers to. Does 'water' refer to certain isotopes of H2O, all isotopes, or a higher-level natural kind that includes D2O (heavy water)? We might have different intuitions, but it seems we need to lay down a stipulation. Just appealing to a 'natural kind' as Putnam does doesn't help, because there are many. Another example: if a marsh tribe has a word for a smelly gas that erupts from the bog outside their village, that word might mean methane, gaseous hydrocarbon, or simply gas. Note that parthood seems to be in play in these examples too! Methane is a part of the set of gaseous hydrocarbons; gaseous hydrocarbons are a part of the set of gases.

Here's my question: what's the relation between Quinean indeterminacy and parthood?

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Blogger Dub! said...

I forgot about temporal rabbit slices. They're temporal parts of a four-dimensional rabbit.

2/24/2005 01:21:00 AM  
Blogger Tucker said...

I don't know if there is any significance to what I am about to say, but I wonder if you aren't playing fast and loose with parthood. I am inclined to think there is some distinction between 'x is part of y' and 'x is a member of set y'. Honestly I don't know if this is even a point, but I was just thinking that maybe you can't do what you want with parthood alone or with sets alone. A rabbit’s foot is part of that rabbit, but it isn't a member of the set of all rabbits. It is a member of the set of all rabbit parts. So you would have to define your set as the set of all rabbits, rabbit parts, rabbit time slices, etc—rabbitabilia. Is that a problem? I am not sure. I can't think of any good reason but I have one of those suspicion alarms going off.

Also, doesn’t Putnam generalize from there to show that Quine’s argument extends beyond rabbitabilia?

2/27/2005 09:10:00 AM  

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