Monday, 4 October 2010

Bogus Primitives, Customer Services and menaces

Some things just are.

Further analysis of some concepts is an academic pursuit, possibly valuable and interesting, but only tangentially connected to the real world. “Colour” is such a concept. If you say that an object is coloured you may be asked which colour it is, whether it’s solid or patterned or dark or light. You won’t be asked to explain colour per se. You can lie about the object, “this glass is coloured”. You can hallucinate, you can have a set of sense impressions that entail that the glass is coloured. There is a sense, though, in which you cannot be mistaken about the concept of colour. If you have a set of sense impressions that the glass is coloured then you have a set of sense impressions that the glass is coloured. If anything is wrong it’s your impressions not your concept of colour.

Other things are dependent

“A painting” is not a primitive, we can further analyse the concept of “painting”. A painting is an arrangement of coloured stuff designed to look in some particular way. Some of this analysis can be further analysed, some can’t. “Coloured”, we have already seen is primitive. “Stuff”, in this context, is primitive. Arrangement is not. We can talk of the purpose of an arrangement, the spatial relations of the arrangement etc. Notice, though, that where we can further analyse we reach a point where we get to a primitive concept. Notice also that if we don’t then we “lose” the concept. A painting that is not made of coloured stuff that has been purposefully set in spatial relations is simply not a painting.

On a more abstract level a concept that doesn’t analyse down to some primitives is an empty concept. Just as atoms are the “stuff” of matter, primitives are the “stuff” of concepts. A non-primitive concept that cannot be further analysed is simply meaningless.

You can also be wrong about a non-primitive concept in a way that you cannot with a primitive concept. You may think a chance pattern, lacking purpose, is a painting. Or you may mistake a reflection, lacking stuff, for a painting. For this reason reasonable disputes tend to be about non-primitive concepts.

Bogus primitives
If, in “real life”, you start trying to analyse a primitive then you really are being pedantic. To dispute someone’s use of a primitive, in “real life” again, you near-enough have to accuse them of dishonesty or mental illness. So people can get away with an empty or incorrect claim by pretending that it is a claim about a primitive.

Now sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to treat a non-primitive concept as primitive. Where any disagreement about the concept must be due only to dishonesty or mental illness, where operationally there is no difference, then we may as well act as if it were primitive. We all know what we mean by “a painting” and, say in a court of law, we are just going to accept someone’s testimony that they saw a painting. This leads onto a second problem. There is no question that something is (insert primitive here) but one can be wrong about something that is non-primitive. To discover your mistake with a non-primitive concept you need to do some analysis of that concept. What is (insert non-primitive here)? Does what I am considering have that? If you treat the concept as primitive you may not just get the concept wrong, but you miss the question you need to discover that fact.

Empty and incorrect

@RichardWiseman tweeted:

PC World have the worst customer service dept I have ever encountered. I vow never to buy anything else from them. Just saying.

What is this “service”? Can we further analyse it? Of course we can. A “service” is an action, by somebody else, that we want done. Companies “offer” services, PC world offer:
- Selling us computers
- Setting up computers
- Repairing computers

From the words “customer service dept” it would appear that PC World have a separate department charged with doing these services. But the “customer service department” doesn’t sell computers, set them up or repair them. Different departments sell them, set them up and repair them.

So what is the service that the “customer service dept” does? What is the action that we want doing that they do? What do we get if we try and further analyse the service? We get what we would get if we asked “what do you mean by “coloured”?”: either a restatement of “customer services” in slightly different words or blank incomprehension. “Service” in “customer service dept” is treated as a primitive when “service” is not a primitive. “Customer service” is meaningless, it does not exist. There is no service that a customer service department provides.

The purpose of a Customer Service Dept is to build up the claim that a company has customer services with no relation whatsoever to actually providing them.

Wrong, because you failed to notice the question

Can “menacing” be further analysed or is “menacing” a primitive? The gerund gives the game away: to be “menacing” something must have a tendency to menace. “Menace” may be primitive: “menacing” is not. Now is the following menancing?

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!

Don't answer that! Just think what type of things would help answer that or not. Just think that there are things that will help answer it or not. "Menacing" is not a primitive concept that just either is or isn't present in a tweet. But the judge in the Paul Chambers case treated it as just such a primitive concept. The judge failed to give any analysis of "menacing", and analsysis which would have shown what the prosecution needed to demonstrate to establish that the tweet was menacing. Instead the judge took his own impressions as correct, "is it menacing? Yup.", in the same way as he would establish a promitive: "is is coloured? Yup."

Much modern discourse is characterised by an appeal to bogus-primitives. "Respect", "reasonable", "progressive", "regressive", "excellent customer service", "efficiency", "evidence" are all words thoroughly abused with their meanings horribly distorted but the fact of that distortion is hidden. It's time we called people on this, at least, sloppy practice.