Achievement Concepts




Achievement Concepts



Knowledge is a certain kind of achievement, but belief is not. Belief aims at an achievement, but it is not in itself an achievement. To be an achievement something has to measure up to an ideal, and belief may not succeed in doing that (it may not be true and justified). It is therefore wrong to suppose that knowledge is a special kind of belief—as it might be, one that is especially vivid or strongly held. We might say that knowledge, being an achievement concept, cannot be reduced to belief, which is not an achievement concept: for aiming to achieve something is not achieving it. A belief is an attempt at knowledge, but it is an attempt that can fail (a lot if the skeptic is right).

            This suggests a general distinction among concepts: those that specify achievements and those that do not. What should we call the latter class? There is no preexisting label for it and the usual terms of art don’t work very well: we could say “factual” or “natural” but that would imply that achievement concepts are not factual or natural—which seems wrong. Perhaps we can say “basic” on the assumption that achievement concepts presuppose the application of non-achievement concepts, and just to have a convenient label. We need to include not just belief but also perceptual experience, sensation, dispositions, states of the nervous system, shape, color, electric charge—anything that does not amount to an achievement, i.e. measuring up to an ideal. To avoid misleading suggestions, I shall simply speak of A concepts and B concepts (think “achievement” and “basic”): ones that involve conforming to an ideal and ones that don’t. The case is like that of the primary and secondary quality distinction: these are just non-descriptive labels for a distinction that is easy enough to recognize but which has no preexisting description (to speak of objective and subjective qualities straight off would beg too many questions); better to keep things abstract and noncommittal. The essential point is that some concepts specify achievements and some don’t (merely being instantiated is not an achievement); there is something good (valuable, meritorious) about knowledge, say, in contrast to mere belief (which may be unjustified and false). To know is to live up to a norm, a standard, an ideal.

            What other achievement concepts are there? I suggest the following: seeing, remembering, justifying, acting, acting rightly, understanding, meaning something, speaking grammatically, and ability (there may be others). It is easy to see the rationale for including seeing and remembering because we have an analogy to the distinction between knowledge and belief: there are episodes of sensory seeming and apparent memories, so that we can fail to see what we seem to see or to remember what we seem to remember. There are attempts at seeing (hearing etc.) and remembering that fail to achieve their goal. Thus we have B concepts applying without the corresponding A concepts applying. The case of action is less obvious but on reflection the same structure applies: for an intention is precisely something that aims at action but can fail to be successful. We often fail to do what we intend to do. Every action is therefore an achievement, not just the obvious ones like winning a race or shooting the sheriff. The achievement consists basically in moving one’s body in the way necessary (and sufficient) to carry out one’s intentions. Whenever I act I measure up to an ideal, since my acting is the achievement of my intention. That is, in normal circumstances my action is an achievement (though not if I am stricken with a motor problem). If it is true that John went to the shops, then John achieved something thereby—moving his body in such a way that he went to the shops. He didn’t merely try to go to the shops (the analogue of belief); he actually succeeded in carrying out his plan, i.e. landing up at the shops. Even if I just crook my finger, I achieve something: my intention was fulfilled in the small movement of my finger. Just as knowledge is always a success, if often a small one, so action is always a success, if insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Acting is to trying as knowing is to believing. Thus action is an achievement concept (acting rightly clearly is).     

            Understanding is also an A concept, since one can try to understand and fail (or not try and also fail). To understand something—a theory, an argument, a sentence, a word—is to have achieved something. Similarly for acts of communication or meaning: to speak to someone and communicate is to have achieved a goal, not merely to ramble pointlessly. People often fail to communicate, to speak meaningfully, or to understand what the other person is saying. Mastery of a language is a kind of achievement, like mastery of chemistry or judo. It is something positive, valuable, good. Meaning is bound up with this norm—“meaningful” is a term of approval, while “meaningless” is not. Hence our talk of linguistic ability—and ability too is an A concept. Language, like cognition and volition, is an area of aspiration, of success and failure—unlike, say, being of a certain color or shape or electric charge. We have concepts that mark the fulfillment of such aspirations, such as knowledge, seeing, doing, grasping. But many concepts do not mark achievements, merely recording facts that do not engage our evaluative faculties—there is no particular merit in being yellow or a sensation of red or a cube or believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no aim such that these properties are the fulfillment of that aim; they are not any kind of success. They may be beautiful or harmonious or interesting, but they aren’t types of achievement.

            The two types of concept are different yet they are related. The following seems true: for every A concept there is a B concept (or concepts) such that the A concept can be instantiated only if the B concept is (are). Whether the B concepts are sufficient for the A concept is another question, but they are necessary. Thus knowledge requires belief, action requires intention, seeing requires seeming, understanding requires conscious experience, and so on. This dependence may encourage reductionist ambitions (or fears), but part of the point of what I am saying is that there is no conceptual reduction of achievement concepts to non-achievement concepts: the former concepts belong in a different conceptual space (language game, cognitive system) from the latter concepts. We have here a basic conceptual dualism, analogous to that between the descriptive and the normative. For some reason we are interested in achievements as well as plain facts, and we have fashioned concepts to express our interest. Conceivable creatures could have no interest in the kind of evaluation proper to achievements and hence employ no A concepts, but we are interested in such evaluative conceptualization. A cognitive creature could attribute beliefs and experiences and intentions but never speak of knowledge or perception or action—this creature is just not interested in the kinds of success or failure we see in such attributes. Indeed our ordinary concepts of knowledge, perception and action don’t figure in typical scientific accounts of the mind; instead B concepts tend to be the preferred mode of description. Whether someone’s mind measures up to an ideal is not of interest to theorists concerned with how the mind works, which is a matter of internal states and causal relations among them. We speak of belief/desire psychology not knowledge/action psychology. Who cares whether the subject really knows that minnows swim or whether she actually went shopping? In our ordinary dealings with each other we are concerned with such evaluations, but that is not the concern of the scientist (as regularly conceived).

            This may fuel eliminative fantasies, the feeling being that real facts can’t have the evaluative built into them: there is nothing good or bad in nature but only in our ways to reacting to it or describing it. Can’t everything in nature be described without using achievement concepts? I don’t agree with this point of view but I see why someone might be tempted by it: for the A concepts do seem to outstrip what can be stated using only B concepts—they conjure up more than nature objectively contains. Certainly they have no place in physics and chemistry, or even biology. Can’t we just eliminate these concepts and get on with the job of describing the basic traits of nature? What is true here is that the two sets of concepts are in different sorts of business, and one sort of business cannot be reduced to the other. Thus a skeptic may insist that in the case of meaning there is nothing real except experiences and linguistic behavior; there are no facts of meaning over and above these facts. Likewise there is nothing to action except internal acts of will and bodily movements; there are no peculiar doings—things that straddle the divide between inner and outer.

            The lesson I would draw is that the traditional metaphysical notions of property or attribute are suspect because they insinuate a monism that doesn’t fit the facts (compare the notions of a natural property and a moral property). There are achievements and there are non-achievements, but is there really a general category of “property” under which both these things fall? Doesn’t talking this way suggest that the distinction is not fundamental? Is knowledge really a property of a person (a “mental state”) just as belief is? Maybe we can talk this way for certain purposes, but it mustn’t be taken to show that the world is really divided into objects and properties—as if everything that is said of something is of the same ontological type. The temptation is to think that all genuine facts are characterized by non-achievements concepts—that the world is the totality of mental and physical states of affairs—so that we can do without (irreducible) talk of achievements in our austere account of reality. But a substantial part of our “ontology” comprises things that count as achievements, i.e. the fulfillment of ideals. To put it differently, much of reality has evaluation woven into it—hence the concepts I have called achievement concepts. Knowledge, say, is both a fact and a value.


Colin McGinn        


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