Instrumentalism and B.S.

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In the last chapter of my dissertation, I make mention of instrumentalism about race, defining it as follows. "Instrumentalism is not concerned with whether there are races but focuses simply on how it is best to use the race-language. A pragmatist view that retains race-talk and racial classification without regard for whether races are real could, for pragmatist reasons, adopt a fictionalist semantics and look much on the surface like the pragmatist adoption of fictionalism that I explained above. Or the semantic theory about how race-language operates might be more purely instrumentalist, taking race-statements to be true or false according to whether they are useful statements to make."

[For those who care about what fictionalism is but who aren't familiar with the term, fictionalism about race is "a semantic thesis about how race-language works, taking there to be a fictional account of races that our race-language assumes, with some kind of operator explaining how our language about race is really about what 'race in the fiction' would be like. Such language would not be strictly speaking true, but unlike error theory it would allow us to maintain that language without having to go around correcting everyone all the time about their false and non-referring statements."]

As I was thinking about instrumentalism, it occurred to me that Harry Frankfurt's best-selling work on b.s. doesn't, as far as I know, connect up with instrumentalism, but he defines b.s. in a very similar way, as the practice of making assertions without care for whether they're true, for the purpose of impressing people rather than communicating or deceiving (i.e. disrupting communication). The motivation distinguishes b.s. from what instrumentalism is up to (about whatever domain they're instrumentalists about: in my dissertation, it would be race, but the view was developed initially about science, and some of the ancient sophists were instrumentalists about morality). It's not as if instrumentalists think we're all just engaging in b.s. all the time. But both involve a similar disregard for the truth, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen anyone point this out before.

As I was revising this section earlier this week, it occurred to me that it might be funny to put in a footnote citing Frankfurt's work as a contemporary development of instrumentalism and then sending that version to the members of my committee who might get a kick out of it, but I think that would be a bit too much. My long footnote on Tolkien and mixed race is already skirting the edge.

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