Pascale Willemsen article "Omissions and expectations: a new approach to the things we failed to do" has been published in Synthese just in time for Christmas, and a Christmas treat it is! Pascale presents a new view of causation by omission in which a key ingredient for judging causation by omissions are (normative) expectations.
One of the things I found particularly illuminating about Pascale's work is her cross-linguistic approach. Philosophers are typically interested in concepts, not words. Most words are polysemic, often in very subtle ways. When exploring concepts using words, it is often difficult to tell whether people are using a word in one way or another. It often takes careful philosophical thought, careful linguistic analysis, and/or ingenious psychological experiments to uncover the different ways in which a single word is used, or in other words, the different concepts that are being expressed by the same word. The English word 'because' is a good example of this. There is converging evidence from philosophy, linguistics, and psychology that 'because' is used to express both causal relations and explanations.
One way to try to get at concepts is to determine the components that people associate with a word in different contexts. When people associate components X, Y, & Z in one context C1 with a word W1 but associate components X, Y, & V with W1 in a different context C2, this might reasonable be taken as evidence that the word is polysemic. The recognition of this polysemy takes us one step closer to concepts. Cushman and Mele's work and Lanteri's work on intentional action provides a good example of this kind of approach.
Another way to help us better understand concepts is to look cross-linguistically. The words of different languages carve up conceptual space differently. By comparing the different ways in which words of various languages carve up conceptual space, we can get a better understanding for that conceptual space and perhaps move a step closer to discovering concepts. This is Willemsen's approach. In her research, she finds that English often conflates omissions from mere nothings, while languages such as German, French, Italian, and Polish explicitly mark this distinction in language. This work provides evidence for an important conceptual distinction in our folk metaphysics between omissions and mere nothings--a conceptual distinction that we may have overlooked if our focus was only on word usage in English.
Please give Willemsen's paper a close read. We highly encourage you to share your thoughts about her research--whether positive or critical--in the comments section.
Abstract Imagine you and your friend Pierre agreed on meeting each other at a café, but he does not show up. What is the difference between a friend’s not showing up for a meeting and any other person not coming? In some sense, all people who did not come show the same kind of behaviour, but most people would be willing to say that the absence of a friend who you expected to see is different in kind. In this paper, I will spell out this difference by investigating laypeople’s conceptualisation of absences of actions in four experiments. In languages such as German, French, Italian, or Polish, people consider a friend’s not coming an omission. Any other person’s not coming, in contrast, is not considered an omission at all, but just a mere nothing. This use of the term omission differs from the usage in English, where ‘omission’ refers to all kinds of absences. In addition, ‘omission’ is not even an everyday term, but invented by philosophers for the sake of philosophical investigation. In other languages, ‘omission’ (and its synonyms) is part of an everyday vocabulary. Finally, I will discuss how this folk concept of omission could be made fruitful for philosophical questions.