G. Naturalism & Normativity > Gibbard on thick concepts and their descriptive content (1)

Allan Gibbard is an interesting writer whose views about naturalism and normativity the virtue responsibilist might find appealing. Gibbard says that it is the restriction to specific areas of human life that allows "thick concepts" to convey content and distinguises them from thin concepts such as the concepts of goodness and rightness, which can be used to commend persons and actions in any sphere of moral life and so lack determinate desriptive content. Is this correct? Can the descriptive content of a thick concept be spelled out more precisely? How useful or unuseful do you find Gibbard's point about the the contextual yet descriptive content of thick concepts?
June 8, 2006 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
I realize Guy's post about Gibbard is from 2006, but I am hoping that it is still pertinent in 2008! At the end of "Thick Concepts and Warrant for Feelings", Gibbard remarks that his treatment of thin terms like 'wrong' is different from his analysis of thick terms like 'lewd' (his example). He states that his analysis of terms like 'wrong' relies on feelings and warrant. His analysis of 'lewd' "invokes the same two elements: a feeling (L censoriousness) and warrant. In addition, it included a description of the kind of thing assessed by the thick term ('sexual display and conduct')." (282) So, it seems that thick terms include description and evaluation. Thin terms do not include description.

Gibbard rejects the 'two component analysis of thick terms' which is sometimes advanced by non-cognitivists. The two component analysis treats thick terms as involving two separate/independent components: one descriptive, and one evaluative. Gibbard rejects this analysis on the grounds that the so-called descriptive component is too sparse. Roughly, we can't find enough of a descriptive meaning, which when added to the evaluative meaning, could produce a thick term's whole meaning. After rejecting the two component theory, Gibbard remarks that "descriptive and evaluative components intermesh more tightly than that" But, exactly how do they intermesh on Gibbard's view?

As a very rough response to one of Guy's questions above, it seems to me that whether a term has descriptive content (or to use Williams' term is "world-guided") is a matter of degree. Even thin terms like 'right', 'wrong', etc. are tethered to the world to some degree (they have some descriptive content).
January 12, 2008 | Registered CommenterHeather Battaly
Heather, I think you're right that even 'right' and 'wrong' can have some descriptive content, and that thickness is a matter of degree. I would suppose the even some of the virtues could be graded as more or less world-guided (and perhaps more or less directly action-guiding for those who engage them).

As for Gibbard's account, you might wonder where he has to go with this, after conceding that the descriptive meaning of 'lewd' is only partly determinate. It is prescriptivists like Ayer, Stevenson, and Hare who provided "two-component analyses of evaluative terms, and Gibbard himself holds the noncognitivist view that judgments about warrant don't state truths, but rather express one's acceptance of certain norms. So this paper by Gibbard I'm sure doesn't give his other way to affect reduction, but I think a great follow-up read in Thomas Hurka's "From Thick to Thin: Two Easy Reduction Plans." There Hurka argues the reductionist side against the anti-reduction argument that Williams aimed at the non-cognitivists by using thick concepts as counter-example to their thesis. Williams held that counter to the reductivists account, "seem to express a union of fact and value."

In his 1985 Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Williams pointed out that it is essential to Hare's two-component account "that the specific 'thick' character of these terms is given in the descriptive element. The value part is expressed, under analysis, by the all-purpose prescriptive term *ought*" (1985, 130). Now according to Williams, "Some of the difficulties with this picture concern the prescriptive element and how it is supposed to guide action in the relevant sense...But the most significant objection applies to the other half of the analysis. Prescriptivism claims that what governs the application of the concept to the world is the descriptive element and that the evaluative interest of the concept plays no part in this. All the input into its use is descriptive, just as all the evaluative aspect is output. It follows that, for any concept of this sort, you could produce another that picked out just the same features of the world but worked simply as a descriptive concept, lacking any prescriptive or evaluative force" (141). Then citing McDowell and the rule-following argument he gives, Williams says that "Against this, critics have made the effective point that there is no reason to believe that a descriptive equivalent will necessarily be available.

This I think is kind of the 'essential history' of this debate. I don't know that Gibbard gives much of a response to Williams, though he makes some good points. But Thomas Hurka defends Gibbard while giving a more developed "reductionist" response to the anti-reduction arguments of Williams and McDowell (and of course more radical particularists like Dancy). Hurka makes the point that Williams assumed that all reductionists were non-cognitivists, but he insists that's not the case, and that he can be both cognitivist and reductionist. He gives his own "three component" analysis that makes some concessions to 'thickies' like Williams and McDowell, while saying that this is needed to defend to lasting importance of thin concepts to ethical thought and theory: "there are several forms a reductive analysis can take other than the descriptively two-part form" and he thinks on the one's he prefers, "McDowell's point does not count against reductive analyses but is fully captured by them."
January 14, 2008 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell