On Philosophy

September 21, 2008

The Big Picture

Filed under: Language,Mind — Peter @ 11:39 pm

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July 19, 2008

2: A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet.

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:40 am

1. Interpretation: By claiming that the rose would smell the same no matter what it was called this saying is asserting that reality trumps language. Reality is what is actually there and is independent of human perspectives, and how a rose smells is fact that is part of reality. What label we use to designate a rose has no effect on the facts about it. That a particular label is stuck to a particular part of reality is therefore simply a coincidence, and when thinking about things we are free to ignore their labels, since the labels tell us nothing about the thing itself.

Evaluation: Certainly it is true that the facts are unaffected by how we choose to communicate about them; replacing the word “rose” with some other term will not affect how that rose smells. However, simply dismissing language as irrelevant is too hasty. Language has a significant effect on how we think about things. We usually think about things through particular concepts; when I think of a rose I think about it as a rose, a particular kind of flower distinct from other kinds of flowers. Of course our conceptual distinctions don’t necessarily mirror language, but most of the time they do. So, while the particular term we use to label something may not have much significance, how we divide up the world using those terms does. For example, the fact that I call both a white rose and a red rose “rose” means that they fall under the same concept for me. And by falling under the same concept their similarities are readily apparent to me, and I will often think using the concept rose which includes both white and red roses. Suppose instead that I called white roses “flower X” and red roses “roses”. Now they will no longer fall under the same concept and thus I will not immediately understand them to be largely similar; their similarities would become apparent only if I explicitly thought about the comparison between flower Xs and roses. Nor will I have a single concept that both flower Xs and roses fall under, making thoughts which previously used that concept much harder to have (since it is no longer possible to think about just a single thing, roses; I must now think about a complex of two things). So, while this interpretation includes the valid insight that specific labels are largely unimportant, it goes too far by concluding that language is largely irrelevant when thinking about reality.

2. Interpretation: By pointing out that the sweetness of the rose is unaffected by what we call the rose this saying expresses the idea that our experience and our understanding of the rose is unaffected by what we choose to call the rose. Even if we called it something else our experience of smelling the rose would remain the same, as would our understanding of that particular rose. The saying teaches us that experience itself is a foundation that language is layered on top of for the purpose of connecting one experience to another and for making sense of them.

Evaluation: Is it really true that our experience of the world is independent of our concepts, and thus of our language? I have heard that with extensive training it is possible to have such experiences, but it doesn’t seem to reflect how most of us encounter the world. For most of us looking out the window and seeing a tree does not result in a raw experience of a tree. Rather we have an experience in which the tree is experienced as a tree. In other words our concept tree plays a role in the experience itself, such that if we had no tree concept or a different tree concept we would have a different experience. Another example of how words color our experience is through how they affect our value judgments. For most of us the word “cannibalism” has negative associations, and so to experience something as an act of cannibalism is to experience disgust and revulsion at it. Now consider the Catholic mass. In that ceremony Catholics believe that they literally consume the body of Christ. If they called that act cannibalism they would feel repulsed and disgusted by it. However, Catholics refuse to call or think of that act as cannibalism, and thus avoid having that reaction. So if our language was different and the word we used to describe a sweet smell was associated strongly with the sweet smell of decaying flesh then our experience of the rose might nauseate us by association, even though nothing about the rose is any different.

3. Interpretation: Literally the saying seems to be expressing the idea that language is unimportant because the rose is the same no matter what you call it. However, ironically, the saying can only be understood because it uses the word “rose” and not some other arbitrary word. Thus the saying expresses the inescapability of language. You can call a rose whatever you like, but you have to consistently refer to it by some label or you will be unable to talk about it. We could even go so far as to say that our experience requires some labeling of the world, even though the specifics of that labeling are arbitrary.

Evaluation: As mentioned previously it might be possible to have experiences unmediated by any concepts if you work really hard at it. And if animals experience the world they probably do so without mediation by anything like our concepts. So saying that we need language for experience probably goes too far. However, this interpretation is on to something when it comes to the inescapability of language for communication. When we focus on how arbitrary a particular label is we may believe that language is a layer of indirection separating us from the world that we put up with because we have to. Wouldn’t it be nice to just get rid of language and deal unambiguously with the things themselves? If we could do that there would be no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. However, the only way that would be possible is though some sci-fi merging of minds were we might experience someone else’s thoughts as our own. Since that technology doesn’t appear forthcoming we are stuck with the need to mediate between thoughts with something that is not itself thought – some symbols that are intended to invoke a particular thought – i.e. a language.

4. Interpretation: Instead of taking this saying to capture some truth about language, as the interpretations so far have, we might instead take it to be offering advice. Specifically it can be read as encouraging us not to be mislead by language and to be guided by what is actually there. A flower should be smelled to determine whether it is sweet. We shouldn’t try to understand the world by pondering the words we use to describe the world, but by examining the world directly. Although words do matter in some circumstances, it is best to make decisions based on the facts and leave language to the side as much as possible.

Evaluation: To an extent this is good advice. In the evaluation of interpretation 3 I noted that when we call or think about something as cannibalism we automatically judge it to be a bad thing. It is best to try to set such reactions aside when making decisions. It may be that in general cannibalism is bad, and we may be right to be repulsed by it. However, being guided by the label “cannibalism” is a mistake. Perhaps this case has been labeled inaccurately, or perhaps it is a rare situation of acceptable cannibalism. It is better to be guided by the facts alone, and let the facts motivate our judgment about whether it is good or bad, not a label. Many modern philosophers often fall into this trap; they try to discover facts about the world though how words are used, which can only lead to problems since which words are used, or whether the same word is used to describe two particular things, is often a matter of convention. And attempting to investigate the world by building on mere convention is a recipe for disaster.
However, it would be a mistake to imply that all reasoning on the basis of language is flawed. For example, we might ponder our language itself in order to improve it. Secondly, the way we divide up the world with words often does reflect some significant facts about it. We call white roses and red roses both roses because they really are similar. As was discussed in the evaluation of interpretation 1 how we conceptualize the world affects how we think about the world, and some ways of thinking about the world may be better than others. Since language has evolved over time often the way we use words has some merit (although there are cases of pure convention too). Finally, even though language may be arbitrary, and even though we may be better off ignoring it in some circumstances, language is a valuable and irreplaceable tool and should not be easily dismissed. Nor are the arbitrary conventions of language valueless; when those conventions are not respected communication becomes difficult or impossible and misunderstandings more common.

5. Interpretation: So far none of these interpretations have looked at the quote in its original context. The original context was Romeo trying to convince Juliet that it didn’t really matter that she was a Capulet and he was a Montague. In that context the saying could be taken as a warning against taking purely human distinctions seriously. Romeo is saying that sure, people draw a distinction between Montagues and Capulets, but really we are both humans and all that divides us is words. Certainly that isn’t the only case of distinctions invented where it is hard to find any real difference; consider the distinction between people of different nationalities. Reasoning on the basis of these distinctions is flawed because there are no real differences behind the linguistic differences.

Evaluation: This is true in a way. People do invent distinctions where none existed before. But is it really the case that there are no differences outside the words? For example, if you know that Benvolio is a Montague and Tybalt is a Capulet you will be able to conclude, correctly, that there is some animosity between them. If Montague and Capulet are distinctions that have no real significance how is it possible to make correct deductions on the basis of them? The answer is that other people also recognize these distinctions, and their recognition of them influences their behavior. And certainly the behavior of people is real enough. Thus distinctions that are invented become real distinctions once they lodge themselves in human minds. And so Juliet should have answered Romeo by pointing out that, because they were Montagues and Capulets, their parents would be furious if they heard of their relationship, and that seeing one another would put into motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to their deaths. Of course the advice isn’t all bad, it can be useful to recognize an invented distinction as an invented distinction, and thus as having a reflection in people’s behavior if not the world itself, but such a distinction should not be dismissed just because it is invented.

6. Interpretation: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – in other words no matter what you call the rose it will smell the same. So construed the saying constitutes a warning against trying to change the world by changing the way you talk about it. Certainly that seems like an absurd thing to do. It would take a special kind of craziness to think that you could change the world in that way. And yet people try to do just that all the time. For example, back when it was fashionable to support the war in Iraq and hate the French, French fries were called freedom fries by some. What is the point of this change of terminology if not to try to eliminate all connections to France, or at least pretend they aren’t there. Similarly, calling the people you are fighting insurgents instead of rebels, freedom fighters, or an opposing military force looks a lot like an attempt to change the nature of the conflict by talking about it in different terms. But the facts about who you are exchanging bullets with are the same no matter what you call them.

Evaluation: Clearly the world does not change in response to how we talk about it. But people’s perception of the world may. If you called honey bee barf people would probably find it less enticing. This is a point that has already been raised in the evaluation of interpretation 1. Now it may be the case that some people can easily see through these changes in language, and aren’t affected by them. But not everyone is, and this interpretation encourages turning a blind eye towards them, reasoning that the facts won’t change no matter which words are used. The realization that the world is not affected by word choice should instead be used to oppose those who would mislead people through clever language. When they pick their words to elicit a certain reaction we can point out that the world is the same no matter which words they use, and thus that their careful choice of words can be motivated by nothing other than the desire to mislead.

7. Interpretation: Pointing out that we are free to call the rose by other names highlights the arbitrariness of language. Why do we call a rose “rose” instead of something else? That language is arbitrary and emerges by convention has been brought up in other interpretations, but none have treated it as the main theme of the saying. Realizing that language is arbitrary may make us more open to changes in language or using language in new ways. If language is arbitrary certainly the current conventions have no special importance.

Evaluation: I can’t deny that language is arbitrary. To experience the arbitrariness of language for yourself simply repeat a single word out loud until it loses all meaning and becomes simply a sound. However, seriously treating language as arbitrary can often be a hindrance, even though it is true. As was mentioned in the evaluation of interpretation 4 we can only communicate because we adhere to linguistic conventions. Thinking of language as arbitrary would probably lead us to ignore those conventions and thus to misunderstandings. Imagine if you regularly used words in ways that were slightly unusual. Then the conversations most people would have with you would revolve around trying to understand what you meant rather than about what you meant. And so it is best to ignore the arbitrariness of language except when you are explicitly recommending changes in the way we use words.

May 24, 2008

Some Thoughts About Gold

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 11:10 pm

Why does the word “gold” designate what it does? Currently the word gold is taken to designate a specific type of atom, or, more colloquially, any substance that is made up mostly of that atom. But is that what gold always meant? The word “gold” was around long before we knew about the existence of atoms. Gold was once defined by its density, its color, and its malleability. Indeed, even in modern times, most people have a relatively imprecise conception of gold (especially before they learned about atoms). Most people, I think it is safe to say, just think of gold as a rare shiny yellow metal. But let’s go back to historical times when discovering the nature of gold was still a work in progress. The natural scientists of the times were aware of a number of different substances: typical gold, pyrite (fool’s gold), white gold, and brass polished to look like gold. How did they manage to make a decision as to what counted as gold and what didn’t? Whichever of the ordinary features of gold you pick out it is possible that some substance that we now know is not really gold will be picked out as gold by it (or that some substance that really is gold will be left out). There are other malleable metals, other yellow metals, and other alloys of the same density. Picking a combination of these features that will just pick out what we now think of as gold is hard to do. The most direct way is probably through a definition that appeals to none of the ordinary properties but rather the behavior of the metal under certain tests (namely purifying it and testing its density).

But that definition doesn’t seem to have any special connection with the ordinary understanding of gold, why favor it over one of the other possibilities? Why not pick some more colloquial understanding of the term that includes pyrite or excludes white gold, but which just as determinately and objectively defines a class of materials? One answer to this, the kind of answer that David Lewis, among others, would give, is that what “gold” refers to is the natural kind that best fits the ordinary usage of the term. Sure, there are lots of definitions that more or less respect pre-theoretical intuitions about gold, but all of them, except a definition in terms of gold atoms, are unnatural, they would claim. A definition that includes both pyrite and gold, for example, is lumping together two chemically different kinds of things under one heading, and a definition that excludes white gold is drawing a division where none really exists.

Obviously this isn’t an entirely uncontroversial answer because it relies on natural kinds, which not everyone agrees exist or thinks we have access to. But let’s put the metaphysics aside for the moment and just pretend that natural kinds exist. The first problem with this answer to the question, even granting the existence of natural kinds, is that a definition based, for example, on the reflective properties of the substance seems to be just as natural (surely the way light is reflected is a natural division of the world), and, while it doesn’t perfectly respect pre-theoretical intuitions about gold, it doesn’t do that much worse than the atomic definition. Such an objection might be avoided, however, by a more complicated story about natural kinds, which makes facts about composition more fundamental and facts about reflecting light somehow secondary. Again this is a questionable move that drags in even further metaphysical commitments. But again I would say that we should just concede, for the sake of argument, that these are acceptable metaphysical commitments, since arguing metaphysics rarely gets anywhere. Still, there are other questions we can ask. Why do we divide the atoms by proton count instead of neutron count? Most elements have a characteristic number of neutrons that a majority of the atoms of that type have. So, if we instead divided up the atoms into elements by neutron number rather than proton number we would have roughly similar divisions of the world. Among these divisions there would be one that corresponds roughly to the familiar category of elemental gold. Why not say that this unfamiliar division is what gold refers to, since it too would roughly respect intuitions? Certainly there is no metaphysically acceptable way to privilege neutrons over protons for deciding what counts as a natural kind. Thus the appeal to natural kinds breaks down; there are simply too many candidates for the natural kind that might fit our intuitive understanding of “gold”, and this is even more obviously the case when it comes to substances that are defined partly by structural properties (such as crystals), where there are even more candidates for natural kinds in the same region as our pre-theoretical intuitions.

On the other hand, there seems to be something undeniably appealing about the turn to natural kinds. Wouldn’t there by something wrong with a category that included both gold and pyrite but nothing else? The division feels arbitrary and unnatural, and instinctively there seems to be something wrong with any position that would approve of it. Whatever “gold” might refer to surely the candidates shouldn’t include such unnatural things, even if we are willing to concede that there is no immediately obvious natural kind corresponding to our pre-theoretical ideas.

What is it that strikes us as wrong about a gold-pyrite category? Some might say our intuitions about naturalness. But that just raises the question: why do we have the intuitions about naturalness that we do? And on this issue I am not inclined to be tolerant of metaphysical explanations that justify our intuitions. There are a number of well-known problems with intuition that fairly conclusively indicate that they aren’t truth tracking. That doesn’t mean that intuitions can be ignored, and I don’t intend to ignore them, but it means that we can’t explain our intuitions by positing that the world is as they portray it to be. Rather it is often the case that our intuitions serve some other purpose, that we simply dress them up by assuming that they track metaphysical facts in order to justify our use of them. But there is no real need to justify usefulness; usefulness is useful. So what is useful about our intuitions regarding naturalness? Well is the gold-pyrite category a good one? Sure it is an objective division of the world that we can precisely define, but that is not all we look for in a category. We categorize the world because those categories are useful. A first order kind of usefulness is expressiveness; a category is useful because we can refer to it in order to express facts about the world. But, in that respect, every category has roughly the same intrinsic usefulness modulo the other categories that we already employ (redundancy is not very useful). So obviously that isn’t the relevant issue. However, there is also a second order of usefulness that categories can have with respect to how those categories play a role in useful theories. If the K group of properties plays a role in some theory, or better, in a number of theories, than categories that divide along the lines of the K properties are more useful to us. This is why we divide atoms by protons and take neutrons as secondary. The number of protons an atom has is extremely important when it comes to the kinds of chemical reactions it will enter into, while the number of neutrons is important much less often. Thus we divide the atoms by their number of protons because that is the division that tells us the most theoretically important facts about them.

And this explains our intuitive resistance to the gold-pyrite category: it isn’t one of our pre-existing linguistic divisions, it doesn’t give us any significant new expressive power, and, most importantly, it doesn’t play any theoretically significant role. If, however, we did discover something interesting about the gold-pyrite category as a whole, say that it participates in some interesting category of reactions or played an important social role, then our intuitions would change. Obviously we would still think that gold and pyrite were significant categories on their own, because of our existing theoretical commitments. But the new category would also have a role to play, and thus would seem more natural. Or, at least, it should become more intuitively acceptable, if our intuitions are helping rather than hindering us, because now being able to appeal to that category is useful. Sure we could say all the same things by saying “gold or pyrite” over and over, just as we could equally well express all the facts about gold by appeal to the category “atoms with X protons and 1 neutron or atoms with X protons and 2 neutrons or …”. In both cases the mental and linguistic convenience makes the division useful. (The mental convenience is especially important, because it makes the difference between being able to put irrelevant details out of mind so as to focus on what is important, and being unable to do so. Perhaps if we had unlimited mental capacity the only thing that would matter for us is expressivity, and so we would express every idea by appeal to the most primitive divisions, i.e. fundamental particles and their arrangements. But we do not have unlimited mental capacity.)

Now we can finally return to the original question. Why does “gold” designate what it does? Well originally the terms simply designated some gerrymandered, but objective, division of the world. The term existed because it was expressively useful, and since there are pressures in favor of being able to communicate people eventually came to mean the same thing by it, even though some other, altered, understanding of the term would have served them just as well. As time went on it turned out that some of the things designated by gold were rare, and hence socially important as units of value. Thus the terms altered its meaning somewhat to pick out the genuinely rare from the mere imposters (bronze, pyrite). When the discovery of the elements was made gold shifted its meaning again; tracking the scientific divisions was more important than just tracking something rare. Fortunately rarity and the scientific divisions aligned pretty well; the scientific divisions essentially ended up explaining the kinds of tests used to separate the really rare stuff from imposters (purification, density, etc) and why some substances (white gold) met those tests despite not quite looking like normal gold. And this is why gold refers to what it does: it refers to an objective division of the world that is of greatest utility, and which bears some resemblance to the pre-theoretic origins of the word.

And this theory seems to be generally true for all designating terms, not just gold. One advantage of the theory is that it allows that there can be something in the world that the term refers to, which explains how we can make discoveries that inform the way we use the term. And it also explains that reference in a way that avoids an appeal to pre-existing divisions of the world, or any other metaphysical facts, which is an advantage because language is clearly a human invention, and hence how it works can reasonably be expected to be explainable in terms of us, rather than in terms of facts that are, for the most part, independent of language.

December 14, 2007

The Logic Of Language

Filed under: Language,Logic — Peter @ 12:00 am

It’s not hard to generate apparent paradoxes by applying logical rules to ordinary uses of language. One famous example of this is the liar, the sentence that says “this sentence is false” (which, if true, is false, and vice versa, and which thus can be neither true nor false, apparently). Another, slightly less famous, example is considering whether the present king of France is bald or not bald. Clearly everything is either bald or not-bald, but the present king of France, as a non-existent entity, can be asserted to be neither. What do such paradoxes tell us? Some have taken them to imply that ordinary language is logically inconsistent. Certainly it might be, however I don’t see much evidence of such inconsistency. Inconsistency, in the kinds of logic usually adopted to determine the implications of these natural language expressions, is a problem because a single inconsistency would imply that every statement was true. But, despite these “inconsistencies”, we have no trouble actually reasoning. It is not the case that, upon coming across the liar, we subsequently become convinced that every statement is true or follows from it. Indeed most people would deny that anything is true as a logical consequence of the liar. This strongly implies that, whatever is going on, language is not inconsistent.

If we don’t want to simply throw our hands up and admit that language is inconsistent there are two possible ways to solve these problems. One is to hold that what is expressed logically by a sentence is more complicated than it seems. This is the solution commonly given to the linguistic dilemma posed by “the present king of France”, as described by Russell. Instead of taking it to be an object to which properties might apply such constructions are taken instead to be a shorthand, expressing something like “there is a single object x such that x is the present king of France and x is bald”. This solves the “paradox” by allowing both assertions that the present king of France is bald and that he is not bald to be false, because they are no longer assert something of the form Bx or ~Bx, of which one must always be true. And a similar solution could be conceivably be given for the liar, where the expression “this sentence” is taken to be a shorthand for something more logically complex. Such solutions may seem appealing initially, but they have their drawbacks. For example, consider reasoning such as “if the wall is less than 5ft high I won’t get hurt, if the wall is not less than 5ft high I won’t get hurt (because of some safety device), therefore, because the wall is either less than 5ft high or not less than 5ft high I won’t get hurt”. This reasoning appears sound, but it simply can’t work if we expand the definite description “the wall” as Russell would have us, because then it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that “the wall is either less than 5ft high or not less than 5ft high”, as both assertions may turn out to be false if the description can apply to more than one object or to no objects. Thus to actually derive the conclusion we must also be entertaining the premise that “there is exactly one object that satisfies the definite description ‘the wall’”. Since we clearly don’t entertain such assumptions when we reason (at least we don’t consciously consider them) then our reasoning must be flawed, that even if the premises we are considering are all true the conclusion may still be false because of the premises we didn’t consider. Which is to ask us to reason differently despite the obvious fact that reasoning as we do works perfectly well.

The other solution is to assume that the logical content of these sentences really is as it appears but that the logical rules of deduction we use to generate the paradoxes are defective, and that the proper rules should more closely reflect how we actually arrive at conclusions, which apparently don’t give rise to contradictions. One promising way of doing that might be to admit partial truth functions. We can think of a partial truth function as an algorithm that operates on objects which, if it yields a value, yields either true or false. However there is also the possibility that the algorithm won’t halt and will fail to produce a truth-value. And this does not effectively introduce a third truth value into the system for reasons that are somewhat complex, but which I can describe in a quick way as stemming from the fact that it is in principle impossible to say whether a partial truth function that hasn’t produced a value will or won’t produce a value at some point in the future. And thus there is no way to talk generally about the function not producing an output. (Or, in other words, the halting problem has no solution.) We could apply this to solve the “paradoxes” mentioned by simply asserting that “is a true sentence” fails to yield a result in certain cases of self-reference, and that most predicates don’t yield a value when applied to non-existent objects. One way to interpret what that means, in ordinary terms, is as a failure to assert, that saying that the self-referential liar sentence is true or false doesn’t really assert anything, nor does attributing properties to things that don’t exist. Of course that still means that when we reason in a normal fashion that we are presupposing facts such as “it is possible to assert things of ‘the wall’”, but that seems like a kind of presupposition that we might actually have in mind, or might endorse our commitment to as a byproduct of actually asserting things about it.

Setting aside how we might fix the problems we encounter when we combine logic and language let us take another look at what the fact that language our reasoning using it actually works indicates. All we can say, without presupposing more than we should, is that evolution knows best. Evolution has produced in people a capability to reason effectively that allows them to correctly deduce facts about the things that they encounter. And, naturally, we can check this capacity of ours for errors by simply examining whether the deductions we make about those things are correct, since they are about things we interact with. But, obviously, evolution doesn’t care about our ability to reason about fictional entities or semantical facts, so long as thinking about them doesn’t interfere with our ability to reason practically. This is why I think it is a bad idea to generalize from logical laws that seem true enough, such as the law of the excluded middle. Sure the law of the excluded middle seems as certain as anything can be, since it holds in every case that we have ever encountered, and thus evolution has led to our minds incorporating it at a very low level, as, given that evolution cares only about the cases we might encounter, there is no reason its validity in other cases to matter in that respect. But why assume, given those facts, that it must hold for non-existent entities as well? Certainly we can’t imagine them in any way except as obeying the law of excluded middle, but that could be simply because of limits on our imagination when thinking about what is not the case. Indeed I can’t even think of a way to settle the matter, even in principle, because given that non-existent things don’t exist there is not way to check. And the same holds for semantic facts in the context of self-referential sentences, because there is no way to check the liar sentence to see whether it is really true or not. Indeed this might even be an argument that we should leave such cases complete aside, after all the fact that we can’t confirm any possibilities regarding them strongly implies that what we say in those cases doesn’t really matter in any significant sense, and thus we can safely ignore them, so long as we firmly resolve to also ignore any similar cases in the future that threaten to give rise to logical paradoxes in language.

So what I am saying then is that, if we must pick some way to deal with such cases, that the choice we make is, to a large extent, arbitrary, so long as it doesn’t interfere with how reason works in normal cases. Which is why I lean towards treating our predicates as partial truth functions, because our normal reasoning is recovered under the simple assumption that those predicates actually have values in the cases under consideration. But no matter how we decide to deal with these cases, or not deal with them, I think there is one position we are certainly justified in resisting, namely the idea that language is in need of repair because of these apparent paradoxes. To endorse this view is seemingly to prefer some particular logic over language, and thus to think that language is deficient so far as it does not conform to that logic. But I think it is easier to argue the opposite, that language and our reasoning with it is extremely productive when it comes to deducing conclusions about the real world (versus artificial mathematical situations), and thus that as far as that logic isn’t a satisfactory model for language and linguistic reasoning, given the contradictions that it taking it as such would give rise to, that it is deficient. Because, while simple, logic is also unnatural and lacks expressive power compared to natural language. Since the claimed inconsistency in natural language doesn’t actually trouble us there is no need to give up its expressive power for a solution to what is essentially a non-problem.

October 19, 2007

What Language Is

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

Language is essentially a form of mind-control. Which is not to say that we need to deafen ourselves or risk being dominated by some speaker, because all perception is a form of mind control, in a way. Our mental state at one moment is determined by a combination of our previous mental state and our perceptions. And so to the extent that our mental states are influenced by our perceptions they are controlling our minds. Now we might argue that perception is less influential than our previous mental states, but whether it is has no bearing on the fact that perception is a way in which the external world exerts some control over our minds. In most cases of perception this influence is restricted to the “lower” levels of the mind, in the sense that perceptions are conceptualized and then those conceptualizations lead to ideas and then onwards to further and more abstract conclusions. For example, if we are exposed to the perception of a car coming at us our minds will first conceptualize that perception so that we understand it as a car that is headed towards us. And this in turn will lead to the idea that the car might hit us, which prompts the further idea that we should get out of the way. (In an actual situation of this sort our reflexes would result in us actually getting out the way before this process has time to come to its conclusion, and so we may only fully realize that we had to get out of the way after we have already done so.) Thus the perceptions themselves are some mental distance away (to speak metaphorically) from what we might call the conceptual component of the mind and thus their influence on it is reduced. Language is, I claim, a way to get around that distance; when a speaker of the language is exposed to a statement in that language in perception it is immediately transformed into thoughts, bypassing the need for those thoughts to be generated either in response to perceptions or by the thinker’s own thoughts. For example, using language we can assert “there are 10 birds in the cage” and immediately prompt that thought. Without language we simply have to present the cage and the birds in it and hope that the person being exposed to them counts them at some point.

Because language is a way of influencing the other people’s ideas themselves it does not have to restrict itself to just assertions about the way things are, while perceptions (that aren’t linguistic in any way) do. Each perception simply presents the world as a certain way, if you see a red cloth then the perception is presenting the world as containing a red cloth in front of you. Language can, of course, do the same. Every perception has some thought about the world being a certain way that it tends to prompt (although not every perception is reflected upon), and so language can prompt that same thought (assuming that the language is completely expressive, such that every thought can be expressed in language), in this case the sentence “there is a red cloth in front of you” would be the equivalent. Language also has the potential to make assertions about the world being a certain way that are not supported by experience, and could possibly never be fully supported by experience (“the Eiffel tower is tall” if you have never been to Paris and “there are no unicorns” are examples of this) but this is still language playing basically the same role as perception, leading to thoughts about the world being a certain way.

But language can do more than this. Not only can language influence what we are thinking about but it can also influence how we think as well. Consider the number of linguistic structures that serve primarily to call attention to some feature of the statement being made. If we say “it is the case that there is a red cloth in front of you” we make the same assertions about what is the case as when we say that “there is a red cloth in front of you”. But this does not mean that the two sentences are equivalent, that one can take the place of the other in all contexts. What is different about the first is that it calls attention to the fact that the world is a certain way, and away from the content (the red cloth), where our attention is usually directed. A similar effect is at work when we say “this painting is by Picasso”, with an emphasis on the this. Such a sentence directs our attention to which painting is the Picasso and away from the fact of the painting being a Picasso, and is thus a sentence we might utter when someone is confused about which painting is the Picasso and we are trying to call their attention to their mistake. In both these cases the difference between the two sentences is not the content of the thoughts they bring to mind, but rather the thoughts that they will tend to prompt subsequently (the subsequent thoughts being influenced by what facts our attention is focused on). A similar phenomenon occurs in what is called the emotive use of language. In the emotive use of language certain words are used that the listener has an automatic emotional reaction to. When used in conjunction with a statement expressing the way things are we exploit that fact that the emotional reaction to those words will influence the subsequent thoughts that result from thinking about that state of affairs. Specifically, if we use a word with a negative emotional connotation then we are hoping that the listener’s negative opinion of that word will influence their thoughts about that state of affairs such that they come to have a negative opinion about them as well. (A more complicated example of this at work is when a speaker intentionally uses an offensive word, which prompts a negative opinion of the speaker, which in turn prompts adopting attitudes opposite of those expressed by the speaker, and so the speaker may endorse a view contrary to the one they want the listener to come to adopt in order to exploit this phenomenon.)

Allow me now to digress briefly and illustrate how to use this analysis of language by applying it to Searle’s example of the captured solider who utters a sentence in German that expresses something completely irrelevant in German to convince his Italian captors that he is a German soldier. Obviously this may result in the Italian soldiers coming to believe that he is a German soldier, which is his intent. However, this is not an example of language use because it does not have a direct influence on the thoughts of the Italian captors. Rather it presents them with a perception, a man speaking a sentence of unknown meaning in German, from which they may or may not conclude that he is a German soldier. Indeed the fact that they are not necessarily led to entertain this thought demonstrates that it is not language, because if we were to assert that he was a German soldier in Italian they would be forced to consider that fact, whether or not they decide to endorse it.

Now this feature of language, its ability to influence how we think, receives little attention. Indeed the vast majority of analytic philosophical thought about language focuses on how it describes the world being one way or another and in how those descriptions can be transmitted from one person to another such that the second person ends up intentionally directed at the same state of affairs as the first. This is, perhaps, because they have seemed to be the most “mysterious” features of language. But their mystery arises from primarily a misconception about language, that a word or sentence designates the same thing for all speakers of the language. Thus non-physical senses, or some replacement for them, have to be invoked so that there is some singular structure that all speakers of the language connect to, which can be appealed to so as to explain the constancy of language. However, I see no problem in denying this constancy and allowing that words simply mean similar things to speakers of the language (and not exactly the same thing), which allows the explanation of the ability of language to refer to states of affairs to reduce in a relatively simple way to intentionality. On the other hand, there is some mystery regarding how our thinking is influenced by language in the ways I have described here. In this case though it is not the underlying mechanism that is in question, we can assume it has something to do with the way the brain is wired. But it remains to describe and categorize the ways in which our thinking is influenced by language, which is interesting in its own right and may even illuminate to some extent how the underlying physical mechanism works.

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