Mistakes

Synthese 136 (3):389 - 408 (2003)
Abstract
A suggestion famously made by Peter Winch and carried through to present discussions holds that what constitutes the social as a kind consists of something shared -- rules or practices commonly learned, internalized, or otherwise acquired by all members belonging to a society. This essays argues against the explanatory efficacy of appeals to this shared something as constitutive of a social kind by examining a violation of social norms or rules, viz., mistakes. I argue that an asymmetric relation exists between the notion of mistakes and that of the social. In particular, mistakes do not presuppose a concept of the social, but the concept of the social requires prior specification of a category of mistakes. But no such prior specification proves possible. The very notion of a mistake is so inchoate that it makes it impossible to provide the kind of regimentation required for a rule-governed domain. Thus, there may be recognized mistakes even in the absence of a unified system or common knowledge of norms. Later writers attempt to avoid Winch's over-strong assumption that something shared and internal constitutes the social but cannot. Extending recent work by Stephen Turner, I argue that "the social" is not a domain that is susceptible to lawlike treatment, but rather a heterogeneous, motley collection. For absent the assumption of a shared something, no social object exists to be explained. So, I conclude, we have at present no clear way of marking out the social as a coherent or unified domain of inquiry.
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