Archive for the ‘language’ Category

The virtue and vice of the analytic tradition of philosophy as it has developed (and floundered) in the 20th and now 21st centuries is its focus on dialectic, and this especially over and beyond rhetoric. This may in fact be considered its substantial difference from the continental tradition, for while the continentalists may concern themselves over the dialectic what they are really doing, as I am using the terms in their classical sense (and this will provide an etymology of “the dialectic”), is focusing their efforts on a rhetorical process.

Understood classically, rhetoric is “the art of speaking with persuasion.” It treats of the psychological mode in people as its fundamental category, to see why what is said has such an import on the ultimate ideas which people will implicitly or explicitly act upon. Dialectic, on the other hand, is “the science of treating meanings (ideas) as themselves.” It seeks to “get past” people’s psychological modes, to hash out for-itself that which is meant and what applies to the real.

That I treat one as art and another as science is, I hope, a rhetorical distinction not lightly glanced over, and I should be subject to it even if I were to pretend that I were being plainly and strictly analytic, or participating in mere dialectic. This illuminates the problem of communication, or speaking, in that our rhetoric remains a substantial part of what we say. I believe we can take this to mean that there is really no such thing as dialectic per se, void of rhetoric; likewise, though, there is no rhetoric per se. They are both intrinsic parts of the action we call communicating, the act of “meaning to another, beyond oneself.”

It is relevant to focus and dwell on rhetoric because, no matter the supposed analytic ideal of a “perfectly logical argument,” you cannot crack the egg of understanding in another without prying them open with rhetoric. Even the notion of a merely dialectic discussion is rhetorical. I believe the idea of a “non-rhetorical argument” should be treated as economic models: ultimately oversimplifying and not anything you can find out there in the world. Does this make it beside the point? No. It remains useful, but this to the extent that it does not make of itself the world. This is because the world is filled with people for whom rhetoric is substantial. This is not some cute sociological observation, but rather a description of people as they are. People are rational creatures, but they are also rhetorical creatures. The idea of the purely logical man is not something we can assume of reality. For while logic/dialectic is an essential element to who we humans are, and we would not be human without it, nor should we even attempt to go outside it, rhetoric remains a structure we are placed within and cannot go beyond because it is the very condition of meaning to another at all.

The rhetorical inheres to the dialectical, and the dialectical inheres to the rhetorical.

Logic is just another rhetorical game. It is not a wrong game, but its psychological attributes ought to be appreciated. It is something we undertake and understand from a psychological mode of being human, and were one to remove the psyche, one should also remove the care for logic at all. I am loathe to call it strictly a passion, but logic is a tool we use to fit our purposes. Logic cannot instruct of itself. Its explanation and reason is external.

I do not mean by any of this that dialectic can be done away with, as though we should simply drift off into the dialectic and cease trying to get anywhere. It is only that one cannot truly see the world without knowing something about the glasses they are wearing. But there is nothing to see without the glasses on, without an instrument facilitating the sense. The instrument cannot be left out of the equation! How one sees something is crucial to knowing what one sees.

I will admit that this creates a problem. If rhetoric is substantial and fundamentally colors our view of the world, how can we truly know of the world? For now, my answer is that truly knowing of the world does include rhetoric; one should be not themselves if they try to go without it, since it is an essential element of being oneself as a human. But then how do we get out of the rhetorical circle, with the rhetoric we adopt being arbitrary? After all, if the rhetorical circle cannot be escaped, then you cannot transition yourself to another rhetoric on a reasoned basis. Ah, but that is to miss the point of what I am saying! Rhetoric is substantial, and its substance can be examined for fault. No rhetoric leaves itself without some way of looking at itself, for the glasses analogy aside, rhetoric is truly an apperceptive sense. It perceives itself, such is the matter of the dialectical inhering to the rhetorical!

Therefore, I propose a new project. The study of rhetoric as substantial in facilitating what we are able to understand.


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I’ve declared before that natural language, as being a function of what there is to be said which is founded in what there is (which is to state formulaically, logic is grounded in metaphysics). Well, I didn’t declare that quite so precisely, but then I’m working on a paper which takes some themes I’ve spoken about before and states it that way, so anyhow, same difference.

However, there are certain aspects of natural language that seem not to be representable in a formal system. To this, I would agree. The reason we speak using natural language is not purely accidental; whatever there is about which there is to be said, we will find some way of speaking about it. Were there only states of affairs in the world that might be represented by predicate logic, then I reckon that our natural language would parallel the structure of predicate logic. However, there are certain kinds of states of affairs which cannot be spoken of by predicate logic. Hence while predicate logic can reflect some part of natural language, this is because it was designed to speak about a certain category of states of affairs. Compare to modal logic, which speaks about states of affairs where there are the qualifications of possibility and necessity; deontic logic lets us qualify obligation, permissibility, and forbiddenness; quantitative logic lets us qualify universality and existentiality.

I propose that were the world completely capturable by some more parsimonious logical structure, then that is what natural language would be. However much there is to be said is however much there will be said by natural language. I will call it the Principle of Semiotic Parsimony. While different languages might require us to speak of things in different ways (English requires temporal tense; I said, I say, I will say; there are languages which don’t require this), every language will have some way of stipulating all the same states of affairs. Contra Whorf, language reflects thought. As thought follows what there is, then language simply acts as the tool to trace out those contours which thought is already aware of. (For more on this line, see my metapsychics category.)

A formal system is an artificial language, and the artificial language’s adeptness at reflecting some process in our natural language is because it cuts out all the irrelevant sorts of qualifications that natural language insists on always being able to speak of. Natural language is already just as parsimonious as it needs to be for us to speak of what there is, which is to express qualifications of certain relationships. Therefore, natural language is entirely logical, being respectful of what there is to its full due. No more, no less. Just because natural language is not reducible to some “simpler” formal system it does not follow that it isn’t wholly logical; that would be like saying because predicate logic is not reducible to some simpler system which still maintains the ability to express all that predicate logic does it follows that predicate logic is not wholly logical. To reduce it to something else would make it something else other than it is, thus no longer being what we were speaking of and about which we wished to state certain propositions.

At the same time, I do not want to take this conclusion to stating that metaphysics or epistemology can be reduced to an analysis of language. Thought is contrary to language, and thus language is to be molded to these pursuits, rather than the other way around. Ironically, for as much as I’m agreeing with Wittgenstein, the one feature of Wittgenstein’s philosophy that persisted through his life, the implication of reducing philosophy to analysis of language, I do not agree with.

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As I’d meant to in my last post on Wittgenstein but ended up writing something completely different, I wish to focus our considerations to the way in which words might first be associated with their meaning. Before we are able to understand language, and so learning cannot be by language (as one who does understand language might), we must have some predisposition to associating words with meanings. We see people yammering, and we have some way of thinking to ourselves “What’s that?” and so seeing what is being pointed out. But this requires some intrinsic attachment to the idea of pointing. Therefore, there is some intrinsic virtue of Pointing. (What I call “Pointing” is only analogous to, say, pointing with one’s finger; while this is certainly an instance of “Pointing,” there are other ways in which we signify or cause to associate.)

With language as a medium of learning, this operates on the assumption that something has already been Pointed, so that some association that has been established is utilized to span the gaps between what wasn’t known but now is. If there were no Pointing, then it shouldn’t be possible for one to be inducted into the circle of language, as language operates on the assumption that one understands the principle of association that one operates in understanding the meaning of words, i.e. attaching some directed-towards phenomena with its term, like how “snow” refers to snow. Our understanding of Pointing is not itself learned, for how should it be except by Pointing? You can’t get at Pointing without Pointing, implying that our perception of Pointing is ready to occur in our structuring of the world.

Pointing is built into our understanding of the world. But this is really to say that we cannot remove intentionality; Pointing is the assumption that something has intentionality, some directedness, in order to explain what is perceived. Without intentionality, all sense is removed from the phenomena of language and meaning. Therefore, intentionality cannot be discounted, not without opening oneself to a fundamental contradiction. The fact of Pointing is irreducible and derives our understanding of the world.

This brings us around to indexicality, which will be touched upon soon.

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Is Language just a Tool?

How do we come to understand meaning? Our understanding, being semantical, is beyond our hearing a word and thinking “This means I should do x, for there will be a reward if I do so and a punishment otherwise.” We can take the word and hold it in our mind and contemplate on it, what it means, how it means, and so on. The Wittgensteinian words-as-tools is altogether behaviorist, which doesn’t give proper homage to the fact of the mind and its connection to reality. Treating the subject as epiphenomenal, an experiencer who needn’t experience (since all the important work gets done underneath, in the instinctual-conditioned subconscious, if words are just tools) is to throw out the entire ability to say that words can serve as tools; unless they are tools for someone, then they aren’t tools. Hence the treatment of words as mere tools is contradictory. Words might be correctly described as tools at times (think of how we might shout “Hey!” to get someone’s attention in a desperate situation), but they aren’t always tools (what then could the purpose of our recursive contemplation on words be?).

This is a point worth dwelling on, so I’m going to expand on this line of reasoning.

The later Wittgenstein, in explaining language, teaches that words are tools, and we use them simply to produce certain effects in others. Their use might be complex, but that is what it all boils down to, passing around certain ideas (and ideas are always of-things-to-do); if you want a different effect, you simply dig through your toolbox for a different tool. Sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes a screwdriver, and so on. But the end is the same; language is just a tool, and there is nothing significant or even remotely important of our ability to use words. We speak to a dog, and it obeys; we speak to a human, and they obey. The end is the same.

This is why philosophy gets into such dreadful knots, because its trying to use language as something it isn’t. If language is just a tool to producing certain effects in other people, then it can’t be used to tell you about, for instance, the existence of God. At best, if you want to talk about the existence of God, you’d just look at how people use the word God, what sort of effect; sometimes it is in order to comfort a grieving one, sometimes it is in order to express gratefulness, sometimes to repent of our actions. But something like “I believe in God” fails to state anything, because you can’t use that as a tool for something (or if you are, then it isn’t doing what we ordinarily take such a statement to mean).

So, for Wittgenstein, words are just tools (this might be only one of several takes, but it is my interpretation of his Philosophical Investigations). The problem with this is that tools must be utilized by someone for some purpose. The understanding of this purpose is expressible in words (consider how we can mean “When I tell you ‘I want you to wash the dishes’ I want you to wash the dishes” a meta-sentence that needn’t be simply a recursive tool trying to get someone to wash the dishes, as in this instance of our consideration of just such a sentence); but then if that is the case, then our words-as-tools paradigm must insist that we’re using tools to define tools.

Socrates might say “Yes, so that might be an example of what we’re talking about, but just what is the principle behind it all?” In the Euthyphro dialogue, after Socrates asks him “What is justice?” Euthyphro gives as one of his replies “Why, exactly what I am doing, turning my father in for the murder of a slave.” (It should be noted that Euthyphro’s intentions aren’t fully noble here. As the son, he stands to inherit his father’s fortune, and it isn’t as if Euthyphro is planning on freeing the slaves he’d inherit.) If words are just tools, then we can only bandy about examples, but we can never define words. Yet to our minds words do have meanings, correct and incorrect uses that can fail to adequately express ideas which are theoretical, not stooping always to the “This word just means to do this.”

If tools must be the tools of a subject, then the subject is beyond description with these tools. But I am quite aware of my existence (no matter what eliminativists might want to say). Can my existence be understood? Yes, it is very well understood by myself. Am I only producing some effect with my words here? No, I am successfully pointing out that I am thinking, I am understanding.

Therefore, the Wittgensteinian take on language is self-contradictory. Words can only be expressed as tools if they are more than just tools. If words are just tools, such could never be expressed or even referenced to. But we can conceivably speak of such an idea. As such, words must be more than tools. This can all be pointed to.

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I have no clear target with this post, but there are several things I’d like to try and make clarified.

We must recognize the distinction between meaning and word, or sense and sign. The sense of what we say always transcends just what is uttered, for I can say “It is snowing” and mean the same thing by “Il neige.” In fact, there are a potential infinity of ways in which we might mean “It is snowing;” we could encode our meanings in not only what is uttered in different languages, what is written with different symbols, but we could devise systems that express meanings that use, say, the arrangement of whiskey in shot glasses or the coloring of cubes. There is nothing essential to the way we happen to speak, which is due only to a matter of pragmatism (we can communicate much more easily if we choose to use uttered languages like English or symbols like the Latin alphabet than if we tried to communicate through, say, the slapping of tables with rubber bands) than anything else. Were we in some other possible worlds, we might find it expedient to communicate through the coloring of our skin (in fact, in certain situations we choose to communicate by other methods; consider smoke signals and maritime flags; the only problem is that they are limited in what can be stated).

However, the meaning is essential; “It is snowing” is only essentially identical to the meaning that “It is snowing” and nothing else. Even if the symbols could be changed, the meaning must remain the same, no matter how it is signified; otherwise we simply wouldn’t be meaning the same thing.

I think many people are confused on this point. They take the fact of universal association to mean that the meaning must, in some way, reside in some symbol, somewhere (probably in the brain). They think that if you had a full account of neuroscience, then you would be able to confidently take a picture of someone’s brain state and confidently say “See here at this muscle registering this electrochemical change? That is the meaning of ‘It is snowing!'” What are they to make of brains in different individuals? Considering my own experience with snow is different from your own, then it follows that the precise arrangement of matter and energy that constitutes a brain state will be different when I think “It is snowing” and when you think “It is snowing.” How then can the same meaning be represented in two different brain states?

Further, what of alien individuals, who might have brains that aren’t merely evolutionarily different, but composed of different materials? What if there were some gaseous jellyfish alien, for whom the entire body was also considered its brain? Obviously, this is going to be very different from our own brain states, yet (assuming it is sentient) we should be able to point to snow and successfully communicate the meaning “It is snowing.”

So there is a serious problem with trying to identify the meaning of words with some particular brain state. Even if the association might be scientifically exploited in individuals (something I’m willing to say is possible, and I don’t see why not; we can, after all, read a book provided you understand how to interpret the symbols), the fact that the same meanings can hold of different brain states ought to indicate that the meaning isn’t in the brain state (and it does in fact indicate that).

Our propensity to attribute the kind of understanding we possess (which I will call semantical understanding, i.e. not only can we manipulate symbols, but we can know their meaning to be beyond the symbols themselves) to other things is only a metaphorical sort of analysis. To do so literally would be a mistake. I think this where a lot of people get confused; they want to attribute semantical understanding to computers and/or animals. However, it must be understood that a syntactical engine (the ability of some system to take in an input and produce an output) does not amount to semantics. All the syntax in the world does not one semantics make.

To really point out why a syntactical engine is not sufficient to demonstrate that something is semantical, consider a nonsense register. In this register, I devise certain rules. You feed it bundles of I’s and II’s, and it will perform some operation repeatedly to those I’s and II’s so that you get some other I’s and II’s. Exactly how it does isn’t the point; the point is that, from an input you can formulate the output mechanically. The I’s and II’s don’t mean anything, the operation performed by the nonsense register doesn’t mean anything, and the resultant I’s and II’s don’t mean anything. They never meant anything, and thus no part of the whole gig can mean anything. That the nonsense register does its mechanical operation repeatedly and according to identifiable rules means nothing. It is a syntactical engine which is clearly without semantics.

Suppose for some possible world we could find a way that the I’s and II’s correspond to our understanding of something in the world, so that we can invest meaning in the I’s and II’s. We can even set up the nonsense register to do its operation in a way that corresponds to our treatment of some information, so that the output from some input becomes something we would invest with meaning. Were this to occur, does it follow that the nonsense register always had semantics? No. That it does now seem to express something semantical is only because we have invested it with meaning; it’s semantics is derived, extrinsic, not intrinsic.

Consider the digestive system. It is a syntactical engine. You put in an input (food and beverage), an operation is performed (digestion), with clear output (energy for the body and waste). Does it all meaning something, like “It is snowing?” No. It’s just an automatic physical process, a syntactical engine void of meaning.

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Language and People

Consider the possibility of an artificial language. If it is possible for there to be a full-blown language that actually works as a language (i.e. Tolkien’s Sindarin, Esperanto, or JAVA), even though it isn’t organic (didn’t occur by necessity in communities of people), then this seems to indicate that there is some element of language which is removed from people. While a language will never be spoken without some people, a language could still possibly be spoken so long as the world is such that there might be something which could be meant.

Therefore, the possibility of language is not consequent to, but concomitant with, the possibility of people.

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When reading or listening to some passage or speech, we are wont to understand that its intended meaning will depend on an interminable conflux of situation, interconnected themes, the speaker, the intended audience, and so on. In other words, there are a great deal of conditions under which we shall choose to interpret something as “literal,” “allegorical,” and so on. When we do so, it can be perfectly natural or contrived; when we hear of the Parable of the Good Shepherd, we take its meaning “allegorically,” as it were, even though under present cultural circumstances it is what was the allegorical understanding that we now take to be the “literally intended” meaning. When we speak of things like allegory, metaphor, simile, and the like (and so on), we are performing a sort of mental transaction of comparisons and likenesses that is really always, in fact, comparable to what we might call “literal comparisons,” i.e. comparing something’s being (literally) darker or lighter, and then taking these literal comparisons and making of them qualitatively different “allegorical” comparisons, like playing a subtle game, if you take my meaning.

So there is, when we speak of “literal” and its “less-literal” counterparts, allegory, myth, metaphor, and so on, a yet-undetermined sense to the words, such that I can only tell you whether one is taking the literal or allegorical interpretation if you supply me with all the particulars. Someone is reading Moby Dick, and extolling on the futility of revenge? Allegory. Someone is reading Being and Time, and telling me about the at-hand approaching of death? Literal. And so on.

Ultimately, what then do we mean by “literal?” I’m not too sure. There is the Wittgensteinian understanding, wherein a “word is its use,” akin to (and literally a verbal type of) a tool. We use words to hammer out specific messages, to set-into-place understandings and established protocols. If you examine a phrase like “The only begotten Son of God,” you could understand it literally as a signifier of ceremonies and rituals; but then obviously it takes on a different use in theology, where the “literal” sense of “Son of God” is to state “the second person of the Trinity, begotten but not created of the first person,” but even here “Son” and “Father” are really allegorical to a certain sense, relying on a kind of comparison to the earthly relations between father and son. The point here, however, could very well be that the meaning of a word or phrase can’t be totally disconnected from its use, in the case that there is some relevance between the uses. A hammer remains a hammer whether I use it to beat in nails or skulls, and while one has a context more akin to carpentry and the other war, there remains a connection between the action of beating in nails and skulls due to our appropriation of its tool. Likewise with words. The “only begotten Son of God” can serve more particular uses in theology, but insofar as it is supposed to be a theology which serves a purpose in the greater whole of Christianity, then its theo-ontological specifications cannot be completely detached from the liturgical. If one were to do so, they would be missing the point, or at least establishing up a whole ‘nother “Christianity.” (Might one make the case that this occurs with more liberal forms of Protestantism?)

For a thing to be literal depends on its context, as a phrase within a greater tradition or body of knowledge. Blue, stated of music, has a literal meaning, even if it is somewhat allegorical. After all, Rhapsody of Blue is not very blue.

But suppose we say “Blue is blue.” Are we stating a tautology? It doesn’t seem to definitely be the case. For here, first we refer to “blue” as a thing, and we go on to say that it has a particular property, that of “being blue.” Can “blue” partake in “being blue?” Why not? But then what do we mean? Blue isn’t a thing, but a property. But blue is still blue. Blue certainly isn’t green or red. Then again, if we say “That is a greenish blue,” now we mean that the aforementioned “blue” is not really “blue” at all!

Yet I’m confident my meaning remains apparent through all of this. Is my intended meaning the literal meaning? What then is the allegorical?

It seems apparent, at least, that the meaning of individual signs always remains just beyond their material instantiation. For even if I can’t definitively capture all the things “literal” refers to, it is definite that there is a literal meaning meant by “literal.” Literal doesn’t have an allegorical meaning, anyhow.

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