Cocktail party or war?

Here are a few quick thoughts about the relation between belief and social facts, feel free to read them or skip straight down to the Quote bellow if you just want to answer the poll about it.

An interesting feature of social reality is that, it seems to be, at least partially, constituted by what people believe about it. For example, part of what makes the pieces of paper in my pocket money is that we believe things like them to be money.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like we can just conjure up any social fact by believing it to be so. I think this is the case for two reasons:

Firstly, it seems like social facts require belief on a social scale, we all (or at least most of us or alternatively those with a certain authority) have to believe it to be money. If only I believe something to be money will be both unlikely to get me far and factually incorrect.

Secondly, social facts seem to be also constituted by their actual functional character (regardless of our beliefs about this character). Take the money example, for something to be money we must both (collectively) believe (in some way) it to function as a means of exchange and it must actually function as a means of exchange for us.

Anyway now for the pre-theoretical intuition poll – read this quote from John Searle and say if you think that his cocktail party is really a war:

“Suppose, we decide to we are going to have a cocktail party and we invite the whole population of Wilmersdorf, and we have a hell of a great cocktail party. But suppose that things get out of hand and the casualty rate is worse than the battle of Gettysburg. All the same, it’s not a war. It’s not a war unless people think it’s a war. As long as they think that it is a cocktail party then it’s a cocktail party , it’s just one hell of a cocktail party.” John Searle, 1998


About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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6 Responses to Cocktail party or war?

  1. If you answer this question from a linguist’s perspective, then you can answer it by simply taking umbrage with the question.

    Asking whether something ‘is’ a war is arguably asking whether the something fits into our mental perception of the meaning of the concept. Given that perceptions can change according to the person doing the perceiving, or even within a single person at different points in time, there is no single definitive answer to the question.

    However, given that it’d make it impossible to communicate if everyone held different perceptions of meanings, or continuously changed them over time, there’s usually enough of a degree of commonality of the perceptions (particularly within social communities) for us to act as if there only a single shared perception, even if this isn’t strictly true. If we didn’t do this, communicating would be exhausting, and we’d be constantly trying to define everything (also known as being an academic).

    So, to answer your original question, it is meaningless to say whether the cocktail party is a war or not (or even whether it was a party), however if everyone (or even just most people) do not perceive it as a war then we can say, for convenience of perception and communication, that it is not a war.

  2. P.S not sure I agree with “social facts seem to be also constituted by their actual functional character”… 🙂

  3. andyroberts says:

    I can take umbrage with the question anyway because it’s badly written slang that doesn’t make any clear sense. I’d stick to philosophers who can write in English or get a better translation.

  4. Thanks for your comments Frankie,

    I think your comments can be read as saying a number of different things, some of which I agree with but others are in danger of slipping into relativism (though you may not necessarily be as worried about relativism as analytic philosophers tend to be)

    So you say, that perceptions change over time so there can be no definitive answer to the question whether some x is a y. Now, this can be read as an epistemological point i.e. we can never really know whether some x is a y, or it might be read as an metaphysical point i.e. there is never any fact of the matter whether some x is a y.

    The first seems like it might be true, though I think that I probably would assign a greater degree of epistemic certainty to peoples beliefs about what things are then perhaps you would. The second however seems worrying, if you accept that there can be facts of the matter about what-things-are beyond what people call them, perhaps you don’t, then one might think that some things really are apples, mountains, wars or cocktail parties and others are not.

    In support of the last point, if you where out on a walk with a bunch of people all taking some hallucinogenic drug and who all claimed that, what you say as a mountain was actually a rabbit, then it is not a case of measuring the degree of commonality of the perceptions to get the right answer. Rather you are right it is a mountain, they are wrong, it’s not a rabbit.

    The assumption of some kind of objectivity reality is then the assumption behind this, given it the puzzle is how come social objects/events (money, parties, wars) seem both to be objective (this really is money in my hand whether I think it is or not) and subjective (it is only money because we believe it to be money).

    On your last point, my thought is that, for example, if some children play a game where they pick up some leaves a say they are money but don’t actually use them to regulate exchanges then they don’t have money.

    Even if you don’t buy any of this, try treating the poll as asking whether from your perspective the murderous cocktail party is a war in virtue of its participants acting in the same way people act in a war (i.e. killing each other) even though none of the participants sees it as a war.

    • Hi Joe,

      I think I’m arguing your second reading of my response, that “there is never any fact of the matter whether some x is a y”.

      This is at least true for some (perhaps many, or even all) instances of y, as y is a human concept, that only means something in so far as humans have enough of a shared and stable understanding of the concept in order to be able to communicate reliably when referring to it. When removed from the shared human understanding, y often has no independent and objective meaning.

      An obvious example is ‘beautiful’ – it makes no strict sense to say whether something objective is beautiful, we can only refer to whether people believe or perceive something to be beautiful. If there’s enough of a shared perception of something beautiful, we might say that it is beautiful, but this is simply a convenient and pragmatic shortcut that makes communication and mental conception easier. (Humans have evolved to believe things to be true based on inconclusive evidence, otherwise we couldn’t function – we literally wouldn’t be able to believe our eyes.)

      The obvious next question then is whether there are any cases of y which for which it is true to say that x is y, independently of humans perception. I’m not sure that I can think of any. Perhaps not only impossible for us to know whether x is y, but it’s also impossible for us to know whether it is possible for x to objectively be y? 🙂

      To answer your last question, of whether my perception of the cocktail party is that it was a war, I don’t think I could give an answer based on the description in the question. I’d want to know how the people died, for instance (it’s implied through fighting, but it could have been through food poisoning or accidents). Did the people form ‘sides’, or was it every-person-for-themselves? And how long did the fighting last? Wars feel like they ought to continue for a length of time – if it was just a few hours, then it might be more accurately described as a battle. And so on.

      An interesting question is how do humans make these kinds of judgements? Do we refer to an internal definition, or compare it to our pre-existing internal descriptions of things that we already believe to fit into the category? I guess this is a physiological question, and I don’t know the answer for certain, but vaguely recall that evidence seems to point towards the latter – which fits with my intuition.

  5. Re. andyroberts – I don’t feel qualified to comment on John Searle’s grammar, but he is a native English speaker – a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley no less – in his defence this quote is from paper that appears to be a transcript from a talk. He has clearer examples, but I like this one because its funny thinking of him (he is 78) attending a party that is so raucous that everyone dies!

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