Burge's Arthritis And Social Externalism

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Externalism is understood as a thesis about how contents of thoughts are individuated. More specifically, social externalism refers to the doctrine that the meaning of an item is determined partly by social factors and the thinker’s community. Social externalism focuses on the thinker themselves, questioning the conditions that determine someone’s thought of a particular content (Lau, Deutsch 2016). In this essay, I will outline Burge’s Arthritis thought experiment, in favour of social externalism. I will then consider Burge’s claim that partial understanding is sufficient for competent use of concepts, discussing how incomplete understanding may affect rationality and ability for critical reasoning. I will then consider reasons supporting…show more content…
If this counterfactual situation is conceivable, it is reasonable to suppose that in the counterfactual world, person B is not misusing the word arthritis, but is using it correctly and expressing a true belief. When person B utters “I have arthritis in my thigh”, they are actually expressing the true belief that they have tharthritis in their thigh. As “the patient’s counterfactual attitude contents differ from his actual ones”, it can be suggested that belief content can differ, even when individualistic properties (i.e. physical histories) remain the same. Burge therefore concludes that differences in mental contents are due to differences in linguistic environments, which can be defined as social externalism (Burge 1979a).

The arthritis thought experiment is a model of partial understanding. An individual comes to grasp a general sense of a term by living in a social community of people who use it, however does not understand the full meaning. They can pass as a partially competent member of the practice of using ‘arthritis’ by deferring to experts. If the individual wrongly explains ‘arthritis’ but defers to the experts, it is reasonable to suppose that the right concept has been explained, just in the wrong way, and they thus have an ‘incomplete understanding’ (Langkau, Nimtz
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The contents of our beliefs are often inaccessible to introspection and reflection, and to explain full meaning of beliefs we may need to defer to other members of the speech community, known as semantic deference. Similarly, to the individual in Burge’s arthritis thought experiment, we do not always have the knowledge to say how technical terms should be used, but we are ready to conform to the views of experts, described by Putnam as a division of linguistic labour (Kallestrup 2011). This then allows us to have competent use of

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