I was just reading the Powerpoints for David Chalmers’ 65536 Definitions of Physicalism (warning – powerpoint) and I was struck by a couple of things. First, I wasn’t entirely sure we got 16 options for the type E at the end of the definition, but that’s just a quibble. What I really wanted to write about was this slide.
Test for when an issue involving C is just terminological:
- Give away the term ‘C’, in favor of ‘C1’, ‘C2’, etc.
- Is the issue still statable, without using ‘C’? Is there a substantive disagreement about the truth of some sentence in the new vocabulary?
This test seems to overgenerate. Let’s just pick one example. Manny says that executing an innocent to stop a riot is not morally good. Jack says it is (in the right circumstances) morally good. Is this dispute solely about terminological term ‘C’, i.e. goodness? Let’s apply Chalmers’s test.
It seems Manny uses ‘good’ to mean ‘in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal’, and Jack uses ‘good’ to mean ‘maximises preference satisfaction’. These are C1 and C2. Now it seems there is no dispute. Manny and Jack agree that the action (executing the innocent) is not in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal. And they agree that it does maximise preference satisfaction. So they just had a terminological dispute.
But disputes between Kantians and utilitarians are not terminological, they are among the most important disputes in philosophy. Sometimes we can’t rephrase a philosophical dispute because it really is just terminological. And sometimes we can’t rephrase it because we’ve hit philosophical bedrock, and our terms latch onto the most important philosophical concepts there are. In these cases, any reformulation would fail not because the original issue was terminological, but because the reformulation would just miss the point.