John Hawthorne raises the following objection to commonsense views of material objects, on which there are familiar kinds (islands, statues, snowballs) but no strange kinds (incars, gollyswoggles, snowdiscalls):
“Barring a kind of anti-realism that none of us should tolerate, wouldn’t it be remarkable if the lines of reality match the lines that we have words for? The simplest exercises of sociological imagination ought to convince us that the assumption of such a harmony is altogether untoward, since such exercises convince us that it is something of a biological and/or cultural accident that we draw the lines that we do.” (2006, 109).
We “draw the lines that we do” largely as a result of our intuitive judgments about what kinds of things there are, so the suggestion evidently is that it is a biocultural accident that we have the intuitions that we do. Why exactly are we supposed to be convinced of this by “the simplest exercises of sociological imagination”? There are a number of things that Hawthorne might have in mind. Let me mention a couple.
(1) Surely Hawthorne doesn’t mean to suggest that the mere fact that we’re able to imagine strange communities should convince of this. After all, we can also easily imagine communities who don’t share our intuitions about the multiple-realizability of mental properties, about the moral impermissibility of torturing babies for fun, about the premises of various arguments against commonsense ontology, and so on. Whatever reasons there may be for global skepticism about intuition, the mere imaginability of communities with different intuitions is not one of them.
(2) Perhaps what Hawthorne has in mind is that we can easily imagine the sorts of circumstances that might have led us to draw the lines differently and that, since these circumstances could easily have obtained, we could easily have drawn the lines differently. There are two ways in which this is right, and one way in which this is far from obvious.
First way in which it’s right: We could easily have found it convenient to categorize things differently. We classify things as infants, toddlers, and adolescents. Had our biocultural circumstances been different, we may well have found it convenient to have different categories, e.g., infoddlers (i.e., humans that are infants or toddlers) and toddlescents (i.e., humans that are toddlers or adolescents). But infoddlers and toddlescents aren’t strange things. They’re familiar things, strangely categorized. So this is no problem for the commonsense ontologist.
Second way in which it’s right: Had biocultural circumstances been different, we may well have found it convenient to make different kinds of things. In that case, there would have been different kinds of artifacts. Perhaps they’d have strange persistence conditions. In that case, we would have had different (and correct!) judgments about which kinds of things there are. But that’s no reason to worry about our judgments about what sorts of artifacts we have in fact made. So, again, this is no problem for the commonsense ontologist.
The sorts of cases that would be problematic for commonsense ontologists involve strange ways of individuating (vs. merely classifying) nonartifacts. Let a supertoddlescent be a strange thing that comes into existence when a child becomes a toddler, ceases to exist when a child becomes an adolescent, and is colocated with the child at all times in between. Intuitively, there are none. Are there possible circumstances in which a whole community has different intuitions about supertoddlescents (setting aside communities who’ve been subjected to philosophy)? I suppose so -- for instance, they could just all be stupid. But it surely is no less easy for there to have been stupid communities with different intuitions about supertoddlescents than for there to be stupid communities with different intuitions about the indiscernibility of identicals, or multiple-realizability, the supervenience of moral facts on natural facts, etc.. So, setting aside idle skepticism about the quality of our present cognitive conditions, this by itself is hardly reason to worry about the reliability of our intuitions about supertoddlescents, moral supervenience, etc.
[[I’m ignoring one further interpretation of Hawthorne: that these exercises in imagination show us that there’s no ontologically significant difference between the strange and familiar things which could account for the existence of the one but not the other. I’ve got a whole paper on this if anyone’s interested.]]