There’s no water in Flint

Posted on November 28, 2016 by

The most banal example philosophers use in discussing conceptual analysis is water; from Putnam’s twin earth papers to Kaplan’s two-dimensionalism, this is the classic example that is supposed to illustrate something valuable about the way that concepts work. I won’t delve too much into the traditional analyses, here, though a familiar observer may note this as a fairly strong rebuke of those analyses; I also won’t delve into whether or not water is a better or worse concept for such illustrations than its more problematic sibling, pain.

Per Kaplan, we take it that any semantic analysis of water has to include two dimensions. The first dimension has to do with our ordinary exposure to water; water is the sort of thing that “plays the water role.” (To borrow Dave Chalmers’ locution.) That is, water is the stuff that functionally behaves like water, in that we drink it, and wash with it, etc. and that occupies the places that we expect water to occupy, e.g. lakes, rivers, bathtubs, etc. This is the ordinary dimension of water.

The other dimension is the substructural chemical part of water. Water is H2O, or so we teach primary school chemistry students. This analysis means that it should be the case that any instance of the former dimension can be substituted with the latter. The stuff that plays the water role is H2O, and vice versa.

Of course, tea is basically water from the chemical standpoint, but if you asked for a cup of water and I brought you some oolong, you might be unhappy about that. Similarly, grimy dishwater is chemically quite distant from H2O, but still plays the water role. The various semantic analyses here are interesting for many philosophers of language, but most also take it that it is a problem that can be solved by pragmatics.

If you ask me to bring you a glass of water, and I bring you a glass of tea, you might be upset that I didn’t do what you asked me to do. Of course, if I bring you a glass of grimy dishwater, you’re going to be rather more furious; in this case, strictly speaking, I’ve brought you some stuff we conventionally recognize as water, but it doesn’t count because it doesn’t satisfy the particular sort of condition that it needs to, in order to count in this instance.

So, now, turn your attention to Flint, Michigan or St. Joseph, Louisiana. Suppose that asked me to bring you a glass of water, and I brought you the water that you commonly see coming out of the faucet in either of those places. I suspect your reaction would be similar to the reaction as when I brought you the dishwater. It isn’t that I haven’t brought you something that nominally counts as water; it seems like dishwater is an instance of water in the semantic sense, and so is what happens in Flint.

But there’s a functional sense of water that’s more important, especially from the context of the utterance and in terms of the way that we live our lives. It does not fall within the moral definition of water, for the purposes that we talk about it. If the stuff coming out of your faucet chemically counts as water, but is also combustible, then it doesn’t cont as water from the functional standpoint, the standpoint that matters if you’re trying to wash your infant child or quench your thirst.

Strictly speaking, just like dishwater might count as water, it seems fair to say that St. Joseph has water, but it is tainted. From the moral and functional standpoint, there is no water in Flint.

-Josh can be found on twitter at @thephilosotroll

Photograph credit: Ron Johnson