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Projectivism in philosophy involves attributing ('projecting') qualities to an object as if those qualities actually belong to it. It is a theory for how people interact with the world, and has been applied in both ethics and general philosophy. There are several forms of projectivism.
David Hume describes projectivism:
|“||Tis a common observation, that the mind has a great propensity to spread itself on external objects, and to conjoin with them any internal impressions, which they occasion, and which always make their appearance at the same time that these objects discover themselves to the senses. (Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, I. iii. XIV)||”|
Projectivism in ethics and meta-ethics
The origins of projectivism lie with Hume. He describes the view in Treatise on Human Nature.
More recently, Simon Blackburn has been a major proponent of the view. Blackburn's projectivism is a version of meta-ethical anti-realism. Blackburn conveys anti-realism as the view that statements which express moral properties are our construction, and realism as the view that moral properties somehow exist independent of us, the moral agents. A further distinction should be made to understand Blackburn's projectivism: that between cognitivists and non-cognitivists. Cognitivists believe that moral claims are "truth-apt", that is capable of being true or false. Non-cognitivists, on the other hand, believe that moral claims are not truth-apt—not capable of being true or false.
As a non-cognitivist, the projectivist holds that ethical judgments are the product of conative, rather than cognitive psychological processes. A conative psychological process or state is something akin to a stance, attitude, or disposition. These conative psychological processes should be contrasted with cognitive ones, which are what we typically think of when we talk about human beings “using their reason” or perhaps being rational (at least in the narrow sense). As highly social creatures whose success as a species has been due for the most part to our ability to communicate and cooperate, projectivism holds that the development of a moral interest has actually been in our prudential interest.
Blackburn’s projectivism, what he calls quasi-realism, is based on the significance of the conative stances we hold. His idea is that these conative stances are the starting point for what the meta-ethical realist labels beliefs or even facts, like that you ought to feed your children, or that you have moral values—real values that exist out there in the world independent of you. Since these conative stances are essentially motivating, they can be called desires, and the realist may be tempted to see them as desires connected to true beliefs about things that exist independent of mental construction. This temptation is not in any way ridiculous because as we grow and develop, our conative stances can become quite refined into a kind of moral sensibility. So for the projectivist, meta-ethical realists confuse moral sense and sensibility, as it were. The projectivist position holds that our moral sensibility can become very sophisticated as we age and mature. As we experience compassion, we come to value compassion; or with gratitude, we come to admire being gracious, and consider gratitude a virtue. But the projectivist is not committed to saying that our response to something wrong (i.e. sense) is what determines its rightness or wrongness. The view is that the wrong-making features of actions are external, and they play a role in the development of essentially motivating moral sentiments that guide conduct.
The view is vulnerable to a big worry for the ethical realist: projectivism may collapse into subjectivism or some variety of moral relativism. For example, it may seem that if Hitler truly felt the Holocaust was the right thing to do, the only possible projectivist response would to be that if Hitler truly thought he was doing the right thing, we might say he was wrong, but for him, it was right. But here, projectivism does not collapse into subjectivism. Where a subjectivist sees no moral disagreement (because he believes “X is right” just means “I approve of X”), the projectivist can allow for moral disagreement.
A bigger vulnerability for the view is that it lacks explanatory power. The worry is that projectivism does not explain meta-ethics, it explains it away. Projectivism may stand to meta-ethics as particularism stands to ethics.
Hume's projectivist theory of causation
Suppose for example that somebody is hit by a hammer, and sometime later a bruise appears at the point of impact. The impact of the hammer is an observable event; the bruise too is observable. The causal connection between the two events, however, is not observed or experienced, at least according to Hume. Hume believed that whenever we can claim to know something about the world, that knowledge must be derived from experience (see Hume's fork). We do not experience the causal connection between a hammer impact and the formation of a bruise. All we observe are distinct events, occurring at the same place and time (Constant conjunction). Because we observe events of this type, we are led by induction to suppose that like causes will result in like effects, and from this we have the notion of causation. This does not mean Hume doubted that one material object was able to cause a change or movement in another material object. It means that insofar as we talk about some cause resulting in some effect, it is not something we have learned of the world we are talking about because it is not derived from experience. Rather, we are talking about a feature of our thinking which we are inclined to discuss as if it were a feature of the world.
In short: when we believe we have observed a causal connection all we have really experienced is a conjunction between two separate events. We can only know about the world through experience, so causation as a feature of the world is something unknowable to a human being.
The projectivist theory of probability
What does it mean to say that the probability that a coin lands heads is ½? One might think that the coin will either land upward or it will not, the probability is not a feature of the world, but rather just a measure of our own ignorance.
Frank Ramsey (see his collected papers, edited by D. H. Mellor) and Bruno de Finetti, developed projectivist theories of probability in the early twentieth century. To explain their theories, the concept of degree of belief must first be introduced.
Let us say that a person has a degree of belief of 1 in a particular proposition if he is completely convinced of its truth. For example, most people have a degree of belief of 1 in the proposition that 2+2=4. On the other hand, a person has a degree of belief 0 in a proposition if he is utterly convinced of its falsity; most people have a degree of belief of zero in the proposition that 2+2=5. Intermediate values are possible. A man who thinks that his dog has stolen the sausages, but is not completely sure, might have a degree of belief of 0.8 in the proposition that his dog stole the sausages.
For each person A, we can define a (partial) function CA mapping the set of propositions to the closed interval [0, 1] by stipulating that for a proposition P CA(P)=t if and only if C has a degree of belief t in the proposition P. Ramsey and de Finetti independently attempted to show that if A is rational, CA is a probability function: that is, CA satisfies the standard (Kolmogorov) probability axioms.
They supposed that when I describe an event has having probability P I am really voicing my degrees of belief. Probabilities are not real features of the world.
For example, when I say that the event that the coin lands heads up has probability ½, I do so because my degree of belief in the proposition that the coin will land heads up is ½. (This needs to be restated to show probability in a particular number of flips, not one coin flip, which DOES only have a probability of 1/2 since it only has two sides.)