CONCEPTS

What is conventionalism?

We explain what conventionalism in philosophy and linguistics is. Also, social conventions and naturalism.

  1. What is conventionalism?

Conventionalism is the belief, attitude or procedure that considers as true or valid only the principles, uses, customs and conventional norms that govern human behavior, that is, those that come from a convention: some kind of implicit or explicit agreement of a certain social group.

Said in simpler terms, conventionalism implies the predominance of what is established , of what is accepted in one way or another by social agreement, more or less equivalent to what is formal or instituted.

This term may well be applied to different areas of knowledge , such as philosophy , linguistics , law , among others, keeping more or less the same meaning.

For example, in the field of law, conventionalism establishes that the legal institutions of a community must contain clear social conventions, on which to base the rules they enact.

Thus, conventionalism makes it very clear to the entire population what the circumstances will be in which the State will exercise its capacity for coercion. This theory was strongly defended by the American professor Ronald Dworkin (1931-2003).

  1. Conventionalism in philosophy

conventionalism philosophy science
In philosophy, conventionalism holds that knowledge depends on agreement.

In the realm of philosophy, conventionalism is a way of thinking that all scientific theories and concepts are not really a reflection of the laws that govern the objective world (that is, reality).

That is, he considers that scientific knowledge is the result of an agreement or a convention between the specialists in charge of preparing the scientific discourse , based on their notions of comfort and simplicity.

In this sense, conventionalism is one of the forms of subjective idealism , that is, the negation of the objectivity of a subject’s formal knowledge. The founder of this way of thinking was the French Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), who was also an important cultivator of mathematics , physics and philosophy of science.

The school of conventionalists, as opposed to rationalists, gave concepts a privileged place in the order of thought, above the sensory experience of the world. They viewed the conditions that shape the world as primarily human.

This implies that everything observable depends directly on an internalized conceptual framework, prior even to the experience of things. In other words, before experiencing the world, we necessarily already have a category (a convention) that describes it and that shapes our experience of what it is.

  1. Conventionalism in linguistics

In the field of language study , one speaks of conventionalism to refer to a current of the philosophy of language , which defends the autonomy of the signifier with respect to the signified, that is, its arbitrariness.

Put simply, this means that the relationship that links the set of sounds that is a word (say: “tree”) and the object that this word designates (the real tree, which is in the square) is totally artificial , responding to a convention and not to any type of natural or spontaneous relationship.

In this sense, since the famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) published his Course on General Linguistics , the linguistics derived from it, of a Structuralist type, is also considered conventionalist.

  1. Social conventions

social conventionalism
Social conventions can vary over time.

Social conventions are known as the set of norms, protocols or behaviors that make up decorum, etiquette and good customs , especially those derived from bourgeois morality that became the norm after the Industrial Revolution .

Many of them, like those typical of the Victorian Era in England, were paradoxically the result of copying other nations’ conventions, inventions and imaginations, which nevertheless served to produce a whole series of ideological conceptions and “virtuous life”, controlling and sometimes censuring the behaviors considered impudent or slums.

  1. Conventionalism and naturalism

In the field of linguistics, and more specifically that of the philosophy of language, there are two opposite positions regarding the origin of language and its forms:

  • Conventionalism : As we have seen before, it supposes that the words come from the human creative act, that is, they are conventional, artificial and that the linguistic sign is, in the core, arbitrary. Something that could be summarized by saying that language is a convention.
  • Naturalism : It maintains that language arose as other features of the nature of living beings arise . For them the language in its beginnings was true, fair and clear, and with the passing of the years and the use of human beings we would have been degrading it or moving away from its essence. This position is typical of classical antiquity, especially Hellenic, as it coincides with the basic assumptions of Ancient Greek religion. Cratylus (late 5th century BC) was one of its greatest defenders.

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