John Cleese has caused some controversy for repeating his 2011 claim that London is no longer an English city. In an opposing tweet Maajid Nawaz claimed that “London is majority English statistically. Not majority white-English, but majority English. It is also a city, based in the country of England. It is therefore English. “
“Like Scotland & Wales, England is a country. If you’re born in the country of England, you’re English. If you’re white, you could be Anglo-Saxon, but not all English people are Anglo-Saxon. Like being Scottish or Welsh simply means being from Scotland or Wales.”
This is the same anti-realist argument I addressed in “Why The No True Scotsman Fallacy is Not a Fallacy (And Why It Matters).” I could spend my entire life on social media refuting this same fallacy 1000 times a day. There is a deeply entrenched view of the relation between language and reality that goes something like this:
1. To be a member of a kind is to possess some set of properties. Theories differ over whether it is the set of necessary and sufficient properties, or just all the necessary, or just the sufficient but jointly necessary, or something else, but whatever theory you hold, these properties uniquely designate some group.
2. If an individual is missing one of these essential properties it is not a member of the kind.
3. These properties are given in the definition of a term.
4. To know the meaning of a term is to know this definition. And thus, if an individual can not give the definition of a kind, they don’t know what that kind-term means.
5. If no individuals possess these essential properties, it is rational to conclude that the kind does not exist.
You don’t have to accept every premise but they usually travel together. They’re all wrong. Almost every internet argument presupposes this view. Someone is challenged to produce a definition to a term. Either they can’t do it, or there are counter examples of Xs that are not Y. Then it is concluded either that X doesn’t exist, or some very specific definition is offered. I discussed similar cases in “Sex Is Not a Social Construct.” Someone might challenge you to define male and female. If you say to be male is to have male genitalia an example of a male without male genitalia is produced. If you claim males are XY and females XX, examples of individuals who are neither are produced. Then a very specific notion is introduced by claiming that all that females have in common is that they identify as female. And so transsexuals are every bit as female as any other woman since all it takes to be female is to identify as female.
A similar pattern exists in this case of of ethnicity. You are challenged to define “English.” Now you have to name some set of properties that constitute Englishness. Say, the English wear bowler hats, drink tea, and speak English. Ah ha! I just put a bowler hat on the head and a cup of tea in the hands of Queequeg the Pacific Islander. He’s English now. And what’s more, my friend John Smith neither wears bowler hats nor drinks tea. Oh you don’t like that huh? Well I guess we’ll have to just say that all it takes to be English is to live in England. And since London is a city in England it must be an English city.
As Jerry Fodor states: “A major problem with the definition story was the lack of convincing examples; nobody has a bullet-proof definition of, as it might be, ‘cow’ or ‘table’ or ‘irrigation’ or ‘pronoun’ on offer; not linguists, not philosophers, least of all English-speakers as such. “ (Concepts 1998, p. 92-93)
In contrast to this traditional views of kinds, Millikan claims that what it is to be a member of a kind is to possess a certain history, not a set of common essential properties, and, sensibly enough, she calls these historical kinds. In historical kinds “there is a causal/historical link between between the members of the kind that causes the members to be like one another… The two most obvious sorts of historical reasons why members of a kind might be caused to be like one another are, first, that something akin to reproduction or copying has been going on… and/or, second, that the various members have been produced by, or in response to, the very same ongoing historical environment.” (OCCI, p 20.)
Examples of historical kinds are human artifact such as chairs. “Chairs have been designed to fit the physical dimensions and practical and aesthetic preferences of humans, who are much alike in relevant respects for historical reasons. Moreover, the majority of chairs have not been designed from scratch, but copied from previous chairs that have satisfied these requirements… Clearly there are reasons that go well beyond (mysteriously agreed upon) points of definition why one knows roughly what to expect when someone offers to bring a chair. Similarly, one knows what to expect when someone offers to lend a Phillips screwdriver (designed to fit screws that were designed to fit prior Phillips screwdrivers), or to take one to see a Romanesque church.” (OCCI, p. 21) Does Romanesque architecture not exist because not every building which might fall under that category possesses a certain definite set of features? Instead, Romanesque features tend to clump together and be copied into new instances together, but often just one or a few features might be copied independently of the others. Art historians thus become more sophisticated and might speak of Romanesque influences, or speak of something being proto-Romanesque or something.
“Historical kinds of a somewhat less concrete nature are, for example, retail chains (McDonald’s, Wal-Mart) and buses on a certain bus line (bus #13, the Elm Street bus). Many kinds of interest to social scientists, such as ethnic [my emphasis], social economic, and vocational groups, are historical kinds.” (OCCI, p. 22).
“[H]istorical kinds are not likely to ground many, in any, exceptionless generalizations. The copying processes that generate them are not perfect, nor are the historical environments that sustain them steady in all relevant respects… The idea that either a historical individual or a historical kind is somehow defined for all possible worlds, not just this one, such that there are definite properties that must endure for the individual to remain in existence, or that must be present for the kind member really to exemplify the kind is mistaken. Who is really a member of the working class?… Historical kinds typically have naturally and irreducibly vague boundaries.”
And the real kicker:
“There are good reasons in nature why one member of a real kind is like another. So, although real kinds can have vague boundaries, still, the question whether an item belongs to a certain real kind or not, or whether it is on the border, is written in nature… If it is not like other members of the kind for the very same reason they are like one another, then no matter how many properties it has in common with them, it is not a member of the same real kind.” (OCCI, p. 25.)
Historical kinds are often confused with classes. A class is a group of individuals who possess some property or group of properties in common. Classes can be whipped up willy-nilly such as one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eaters, but usually the idea is that the the properties that define a class are instantiated in natural kinds.
So to apply all this to the current brou-ha-ha. English ethnicity is a historical kind. The English (and every other ethnic group) have been formed by the forces of history. These ancient and ongoing forces have produced the language, styles, values, tastes, political resentments, emotional attachments, pride, shame, and even genetics, of the English people. And for the most part, these factors are then passed on to successive generations. Of course all of these things are in constant change and flux, but you can learn the history of the English people and come to understand the historical events that produced these changes, see how new ideas were derived or imported, and so come to understand why the current generation has the features it does.
To repeat, “If it is not like other members of the kind for the very same reason they are like one another, then no matter how many properties it has in common with them, it is not a member of the same real kind.” This is the case of Maajid Nawaz. He may have inherited many features of the English, such as language, but he is not English as his ancestors did not undergo the historical forces that formed the English.
Nawaz wants to turn English into a class, which, as I mentioned in “Why The ‘No True Scotsman’ Fallacy is Not a Fallacy (And Why It Matters)” is a common scumbag leftist move. He stated “[London] is also a city, based in the country of England. It is therefore English.” To him, English is a class that means “is present in England.” “Like Scotland & Wales, England is a country. If you’re born in the country of England, you’re English.” Anyone who tries this scumbag move to turn a kind into a class for personal gain or political motives should be drawn and quartered.
On the other hand, it seems to me that “British” is a class. I remember some years ago there was an effort among the Brits to define Britishness. It was pathetic and they came up with the same list of liberal values that define all liberal societies; they didn’t pick out anything particularly British at all. The class British used to mean English, Scottish, and Welsh, but I suppose it is now a useless term and does mean “resides in the British islands.” Don’t feel too bad, my British friends, “American” has been similarly stripped of its traditional meaning and is now equally meaningless. At least you can still be English, we’re not allowed to even exist.