A while back, Nina Strohminger gave a legendarily brutal review of Colin McGinn's 2011 book, The Meaning of Disgust. One of the many things Strohminger criticizes McGinn for is his near-complete lack of engagement with the empirical literature on disgust, bypassing the most widely accepted theory of disgust by people who have done empirical work on it -- the view that disgust functions to help us avoid contaminants and disease. (p. 1)
Anyway, as luck would have it, now that Strohminger's review has been published, I came across an article by someone else in a top philosophy journal -- Wendell O'Brien's "Boredom" (Analysis, 2014) -- that I think is guilty of the same kind of error. Allow me to explain.
In "Boredom", O'Brien attempts to derive metaphysical conclusions about boredom from conceptual analysis of "boredom." He writes, "My chief aim here is to try to gain some understanding of what boredom essentially is -- to take a stab at an analysis of the basic concept of boredom..." (p. 236-7; my emphases) Notice what O'Brien is explicitly asserting here. He is asserting that he thinks he can derive boredom's essence from analysis of the concept of "boredom". I think this is plainly fallacious, and that O'Brien, like McGinn, has been misled by language. The concept of "boredom" is one thing. The physical/metaphysical phenomena the concept picks out are another. Allow me to explain.
O'Brien begins by claiming that although "the multidisciplinary literature" on boredom mentions different types of boredom, his analysis will subsume all of the different types under the concept of "boredom." I don't think anyone in the empirical literature would deny this, as different types of boredom are all recognized to be just that. Anyway, let us take a closer look at what O'Brien does in his article. The first thing to notice is that none of the multidisciplinary literature that O'Brien mentions includes any empirical psychological studies or reviews of empirical findings on boredom. O'Brien simply cites one article from a sociology journal (Aho 2007), a New York Times Sunday Book Review (Schuessler 2010), a book on the literary history of boredom (Spacks 1995), a book on the "lively history" of boredom (Toohey 2011), and finally, a philosophical book on boredom (Svendsen 2004).
O'Brien's ignoring the psychological literature on boredom is surprising for many reasons -- not the least of which is the fact that boredom has been very widely studied in empirical psychology, is known to have three quite different types, and is known one of the single biggest predictors of depression and a vast array of psychological, physical, educational, and social problems. But we'll come back to this in a moment.
O'Brien's article is devoted to defending the following analysis of the concept of boredom (p. 237):
(1) a mental state of
(3) restlessness, and
(4) lack of interest in something to which one is subjected,
(5) which is unpleasant or undesirable,
(6) in which the weariness and restlessness are causally related to the lack
Interestingly, despite the fact that O'Brien only purports to analyze the concept of boredom, he infers from his analysis of the concept that boredom itself (the phenomenon(-a) the concept picks out) "has no grand metaphysical significance." This is strange and, I believe, fallacious. Although the concept of boredom may not have any grand metaphysical significance, the phenomena it refers to very well might (for more on what is problematic about inferring metaphysical conclusions from analysis of concepts, see this new paper by Avner Baz). Or again, consider the following analogy, which I take from Mark Balaguer's paper, "The Metaphysical Irrelevance of the Compatibilism Debate (And, More Generally, of Conceptual Analysis"). Suppose two philosophers are debating whether Pluto is a "planet." Suppose they have a hard time coming to an agreement, and they then say, "Well, I guess there is nothing metaphysically significant about planets -- for it doesn't matter how we categorize it!" This is silly. There is nothing semantically signifcant about what we call Pluto;...but Pluto, for all that, has metaphysical significance. It is a massive object in our solar system will kinds of metaphysically significant properties (gravity, mass, etc.).
By the same token, even if the concept of "boredom" has no intrinsic significance, there is plenty of empirical evidence suggesting that boredom -- the phenomena the concept (vaguely) picks out -- may indeed have great metaphysical and/or moral significance. Boredom, as I mentioned earlier, is known empirically to be one of the most destructive mental states a person can suffer from. It predicts a vast array of negative psychological, social, physical, and educational outcomes -- and can be experienced by those who suffer it as having profound metaphysical significance. As O'Brien himself points out, many writers, artists, and philosophers have experienced it in just this way:
Several literary and philosophical writers have felt that the phenomenon of boredom shows us something important and deep about our human condition in the world. Two of these are Pascal and Schopenhauer. Pascal regards boredom or ennui as a sense of our own helplessness, an infinite void within ourselves, and our dependency on God, the only thing that can fill that void (1958: 14–61). Schopenhauer in one place defines boredom as the sensation of the worthlessness of existence (1973: 54). Such definitions of boredom seem to me to be sensationalistic and farfetched.
I see no reason why analysis of the concept of boredom provides us with any reason to doubt any of the metaphysical claims that people like Pascal and Schopenhauer make about boredom. All O'Brien argues is that none of these metaphysical implications are contained in the concept of boredom. But, again, so what? It is fallacious to argue from the lack-of-signifance of a concept to the lack of significance of the phenomena the concept picks out.
Or so say I. Am I right? Wrong? As always, I'm happy to listen (and, of course, argue!;)