Philosophy Snapshots: ‘When is a shopping list not just a shopping list?

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When is a shopping list not just a shopping list?  When it’s Elizabeth’s!  Let me explain :-

When I go into a shop with my list, I desire to collect and buy all of the items I wrote down.  A philosopher might say the list has a conative function – it prompts me to do something, like buying vegetables.  Before I get to the check-out/till to pay for my food I might want to double check that I have got everything I wanted to get, so I look at my basket and cross-check it against the items on the list.

img_20161101_1156021 A philosopher might say that in this respect the list has a cognitive function because my belief that I have got everything I wanted is derived from the objects in my basket.  If I didn’t double-check my shopping basket against the list, paid for the items and went home, I might find that I forgot to buy an item on the list.  I might be cross with myself, but the mistake would be in my action not in my belief.

Are you still with me?!   The important different between the former conative state and the latter cognitive state is where the desire and the belief stem from and what it leads to.  The desire you had [to buy vegetables] started in your mind and worked its way out into action.  We might say that the desire started in the internal world of your mind and worked its way out through action into the external world.  Such is a conative state.  However, the belief I had in my head stemmed from my observation of the external world and then became an abstract belief in my mind, in my internal world.  Such is a cognitive state.  And this difference is called ‘direction of fit’.

This nuanced distinction was used in philosophy to highlight the difference between speculative knowledge – both theoretical and empirical knowledge – which derives from objects in the external world.  As such it is cognitive knowledge.  Practical knowledge  – knowledge of actions and morals – is different because it starts in your mind and works its way out into action.  The difference in direction is all important.

So, when is a shopping list not just a shopping list?  When it is Elizabeth’s shopping list demonstrating a nuanced philosophical distinction!

Elizabeth Anscombe wrote about this in 1957 in her book Intention.  No doubt she used lots of shopping lists in her time, having a large household of seven children and husband, at the same time as working as a philosophy professor 🙂

Which reminds me, I need to pop out to the shops…

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