Friday, August 31, 2007

Six Theses about Language and Philosophy

                The format is a little goofy, because I pasted it from an email. I've changed nothing from the email text which means it was written on the fly, but reading over it I think I endorse it in essentials (as clarified in such a manner as to be clearly true of course). :-)~

              1. There is a fact of the matter
                as to the “rules” governing the application of terms. This is “logical”
                fact. It uses the same basic ramseyfication maneuver Lewis and other Humeans
                use for natural laws.

              2. Based on this fact I make an
                inference to the best explanation, that the generally consistent pattern is
                not the result of chance, but language users (not necessarily) conscious grasp
                of those “rules” not unlike a realist about laws.

              3. That people break from the
                pattern when they are asked to think about the rules I take to be evidence
                that they are not good at consciously representing those rules. Since the
                rules are simply generalizations over instances—pretty much exactly like a
                humean supervenience view of natural laws—to diverge from them *just is*
                to mistake what it was that was guiding them.

              4. What is guiding them, in my
                view, is the possession of concepts that words express. It is not the case
                that we can consciously think well about concepts we possess. We acquire the
                concepts by linguistic socialization. We are taught how to use words by our
                community. We are almost never told rules of application. We are just
                observers of applications, initially paradigm instances and then later fringe

              5. Since language skill is a
                kind of know-how, there is no expectation of ability to articulate the rules.
                This is a general feature of know-how. I couldn’t begin to tell you how I
                throw a Frisbee so damn well. In fact, when I try to pay attention to what it
                is the ability vanishes. Every time I formulate a theory about the rules of
                Frisbee throwing and test them I find I’ve failed. I’m not much more sanguine
                about terms (for non-scientists). There are of course exceptions, I’m an
                expert bike rider and though much of it is ineffable, some things I think I’ve
                figured out and have justified beliefs about what the rules are.

              6. I think ordinary language
                terms are often ultimately incoherent. I think this is the lesson of many
                logical, semantic, and metaphysical paradoxes. I think this is not surprising
                because of how I think language is acquired, by application to paradigm
                instances and then further and further extensions therefrom. As a result, my
                philosophical methodology is closest to Carnap’s “explication.” See Maher’s
                “Defense of Explication” and his lecture notes on line for a good defense of

              4 Comment(s):

              • Trent,

                This all seems pretty reasonable to me. Could this be expressed in terms of properties? For example, there are rules governing the application of terms because terms denote which objects exemplify certain properties. Language users tend to grasp which properties a term denotes in an object, but often they are not consciously aware of exactly which properties are members of the set denoted by the term. They tend to make mistakes because different terms may share various properties among the set which they denote. For example, 'ball' (round, p2, p3...) 'globe' (round,....). Since they are never taught the specific members of each set, they have a hard time expressing the rules. They only have a general grasp of this group of properties (which may not be exhaustive of the actual set for the term) is a 'ball'.

                By Blogger kevin, at 9/01/2007 10:24 AM  

              • Kevin,

                I think that is very well put, and I like the example a lot!

                Did you get that from somewhere or did you just come up with that?

                By Blogger Trent_Dougherty, at 9/01/2007 2:47 PM  

              • Trent,

                Thanks. I just made up the example.

                A question about the final thesis: Do you think that the incoherence of some ordinary language terms is a result of the term denoting a set of properties that contains both a given property and its compliment or is it the result of something else?

                By Blogger kevin, at 9/01/2007 4:27 PM  

              • Kevin,
                I think it is usually caused by the way terms acquire their meaning: application to paradigm instances. Then those usages are stretched to *similar* cases along *multiple* dimensions. Since similarity isn't transitive, we end up with applications which don't have enough in common to apply to the same instances but don't seem to qualify as different enough to invoke ambiguity.

                If someone wants to invoke ambiguity, that's fine with me. I think people are not realizing they are equivocating, which is why I call it incoherence. Maybe I erred in attributing it to the terms and should instead attribute it to the users. They are so closely related though that I'm not sure that would work.

                Note that I don't see that an ambiguity view would solve the skeptical puzzle. It's tempting to think it would do what contextualism is suppoed to do, but with more plausible semantics. That won't work, though, for reasons Rich has pointed out: even in the ordinary sense, there are skeptical puzzles to be faced. It's questionable whether we have reasons for beliefs in even the weakest sense of non-pragmatic reasons (see Underdetermination).

                By Blogger Trent_Dougherty, at 9/01/2007 4:49 PM