“Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” So asks Meno at the very beginning of Plato’s dialogue, the Meno. Socrates replies that he can’t tell him how virtue is acquired, because he doesn’t know what virtue is. In order to find out the properties of object X, you first need to individuate or pick out X, so that your observations and statements can be about it (as opposed to their being about something else). This may seem relatively easy if your X is the moon, gold, Uruguay, or the set of people who are taller than 1.88 meters and live in Montevideo, Minnesota. But what are you to do if your X is virtue, piety, justice, knowledge, love, empathy, law, intending, or lying?
Pardo and Patterson are no Platonists, and Minds, Brains, and Law doesn’t draw on Plato and his disciples, but on Wittgenstein and his disciples, especially Bennett and Hacker. However, one way of paraphrasing one of the key arguments of the book might be as follows: the burgeoning field of law and neuroscience (and cognitive neuroscience more generally) hasn’t paid proper attention to Socrates’ reply to Meno. Neuroscientists do experimental research and make knowledge-claims about certain cognitive and social phenomena, whose properties they aim to identify, including their neural “correlates,” “underpinnings,” or “substrates.” Unfortunately, it’s often unclear what exactly these phenomena are. Then, P&P go on to argue that these are primarily conceptual questions, i.e., not the kind of questions that empirical research can resolve by itself—no matter how much of it and no matter how innovative or sophisticated.
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance and timeliness of this twofold argument that Minds, Brains, and Law advances. Even though P&P’s book is “first and foremost… a philosophical project” (p. 208), its importance is practical and methodological as well. It should have an impact on the work of both neuroscientists and legal scholars who draw on neuroscience: they can’t afford to neglect their explicit conceptual choices and implicit conceptual assumptions anymore. That’s why P&P shouldn’t be “taken to be ‘skeptics’ about the prospects of neuroscience for law” (pp. ix, xx). On the contrary, they are strengthening the field by distinguishing what is meaningful and useful from what is meaningless and useless. As they convincingly argue, sound conceptual foundations are a prerequisite for scientific progress. There’s no way around that.
In what follows I’d like to raise four questions about P&P’s book, in particular about their conceptual analysis:
(1) First, what’s the difference (if any) between a concept of X and a conception of X (where X might be, say, knowledge, law, lie, love, or lion)?
(2) Second, what is it to get a conception/concept wrong? In virtue of what are conceptions/concepts bad, defective, or inadequate? I understand P&P’s arguments against particular concepts/conceptions that are common in neurolaw, such as voluntary action, mind, knowledge, memory, lying, and rule-following. But I’m curious about the general criteria or principles that they’re using in these cases and presumably would use to detect other bad cases. Put differently, what do “problematic” and “confused” conceptions/concepts share?
In this respect, what role (if any) do these four elements play? I. The conceptual analyst’s and/or the reader’s intuitions; II. Logic: consistency, inferences’ validity, infinite regress, etc.; III. Ordinary language, as spoken by the person on the street; and IV. The Oxford English Dictionary lexical definitions (or the Duden, Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, or whatever natural language you happen to speak).
(Here P&P’s word choices are significant, I think. They say that concepts/conceptions are “problematic,” “confused,” or “mistaken.” Ideas, claims, and views “make no sense,” in a specific technical sense (p. xxv). Once they say that an idea isn’t “intelligible” (p. 13), and once that something can’t be “intelligibly said” (p. 20). Because the concept of intelligibility has a complex genealogy, I wondered what work P&P intended it to do. I also wondered if it’s a property of ideas, or a property of utterances, or both.)
(3) Third, suppose you’ve already gotten rid of all the bad concepts/conceptions of knowledge, love, justice, intending, lying, and so on. Yet, probably, more than one will still be left. Then, how should you choose among the conceptions/concepts that do make sense? Sometimes P&P use the expressions “plausible” (pp. 3, 43-44, 129),“best understood as” (p. 5), and “properly understood” (p. 125). So, what makes a conception/concept more plausible than another? And what are the general criteria or principles that these predicates represent?
Sometimes P&P use the expression “correct conception,” or “correct criteria in applying the concepts” (pp. xxv, 43, 46). So, is there one and only one correct concept/conception of each object or phenomena (or one “right analysis,” as some philosophers would put it)? Or do we have to be relativists about concepts/conceptions, and let several of them coexist, especially across cultures and languages?
(4) Finally, let’s return to Plato and knowledge (epistêmê). Suppose a person named Artime says that knowledge is true belief (doxa). Abreu objects that it’s true belief plus an account (logos). Recoba objects that it’s true belief obtained in a reliable way. P&P disagree with all of them: “knowing is an ability”; “knowing something… is an ability” (pp. xx, 17, 69, 139, 209). In the previous question I asked what to do in such cases, where none of the conflicting concepts/conceptions fails to make sense. In this question I’d like to ask what exactly the verb “to be” means in sentences like these: “Knowledge is A,” “Love is B,” “Mind is not C,” “Law is D,” or “Memory is not E.”
This way of using “to be” might be expected from someone who endorses Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” But aren’t more metaphysically modest folks better off staying away from it? For, as P&P observe, “law,” “lie,” “deception,” “knowledge,” etc. don’t carve nature at its joints; they aren’t “natural kinds”; they don’t have “true essences” (pp. 114-115). At least, then, if you make claims about what these things “are,” you’ve got to clarify and defend the following distinction. On the one hand, “is” as applied to knowledge, law, mind, virtue, and love; on the other hand, “is” as applied to krypton, the top quark, Abell 1835 IR1916, and the name of the current president of Uruguay.
Gabriel Abend - Assistant Professor of Sociology - New York University