Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Empirically determining concepts or instances of wellbeing?

In the Equator coffee house yesterday with Laura Buckley (pictured), a PhD student at UCLan working on conceptions of wellbeing amongst older people, I was struck by a Quinean thought. Suppose one wishes to find out someone’s conception of wellbeing, one might ask them: ‘What does wellbeing mean to you?’. But if so, the question might be answered in either of two ways.

Someone might articulate a general concept. Thus they might press eudaemonic or, alteratively, hedonic views emphasising either broader conceptions of the role of virtue in flourishing or a narrower view of the importance of pleasure or happiness. They might stress a role for meaning or narrative intelligibility and so on. (Laura has highlighted some interesting differences in such views between older people and younger professional carers.)

On the other hand, they might not advance a general conception of wellbeing but rather say what instances or exemplifies it or even what might cause a state that instances or exemplifies it. Thus, for example, they might say that wellbeing was being surrounded by one’s family, or involved keeping active or eating icecream on a pier.

The Quinean thought was this. There is a kind of slack between these two ways of answering the question. So one might have a eudaemonic conception and think it instanced by family interaction. Or – perhaps if one’s family is a barrel of laughs – one might have a hedonic view and still think it instanced by family interaction. Or, whilst it may seem obvious, that the eating of a pizza would merely instance the latter, to a retired pizzaiolo it might, carried out with due solemnity, exemplify the former.

Conceptions of wellbeing, on the one hand, and instances of it, on the other, can be mediated by different surrounding beliefs about the instances. And thus there is no clear way of telling what role the instances are playing: of what they are taken to be instances.

Now there is, in principle, a solution to this. One might brief one’s sample population on the distinctions between different general conceptions of wellbeing and inculcate a distinction between general concepts and what exemplifies them. But this move, like the similar one in empirical approaches to philosophy, threatens to distort the raw data. I suspect, instead, one has to tolerate some degree of indeterminacy in exactly what one is measuring but minimise it by an exercise of interpretative judgement in what role the instances probably have in context: the burden, no doubt, of social science.