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Archive for the ‘meaning’ 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 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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A basic concept is essentially one for which no definition in more basic concepts is possible. It is a concept which is known just as it is, and for which it can only be explained by reference to how you can put it in something and then, subtracting what else is there, you are left with just that basic concept. Examples of basic concepts (that I’m quite confident are basic concepts) would be Being, happiness, metaphysics, God, and so on.

If a basic concept cannot be defined in terms of more basic terms, it follows then that a basic concept can be expressed as a logical atom for which there is no equivalent proposition (a proposition can be a logical atom or multiple logical atoms with an expression of relations) except itself. They are like prime numbers; they lack a formula of derivation.

But we are to demonstrate that there are basic concepts. This can be done by considering how it is to explain a concept. When we explain a concept, and that concept is not a basic concept, we point out how it will be the case that the concept is actual if and only if some relation between propositions holds. In other words, a concept can be replaced by what it’s defined with, and it will be the same thing. So we can express definition by equivalence;

p <–> q

However, in the case that p is equivalent to some composite state of affairs, then we will have to say that;

p <–> (r • d)

Now, if there are no basic concepts, then it follows that, for every proposition, it can be expressed as equivalent to some composite proposition. This means that you would see something like this;

p <–> (r • d)

r <–> (w –> e)

by the principle that if a = b and b = c, then a =c

p <–> [(w –> e) • d]

Now if there are no basic concepts, then it follows we can keep doing this for every atomic proposition invoked,it will be the case that p if and only if some infinitely long state of affairs is the case. But then it would follow that no proposition can actually be explained.

Therefore, there are basic concepts.

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I want to forward a particular thesis with the intention of defeating materialism. I call it the “Universal Semantic Thesis.”

Any arrangement of things can mean anything.

What I mean by this is that literally anything can serve to mean anything. For any given particular meaning, it can be expressed by any arrangement of things. The actual construction of language is perfectly arbitrary. The only reason for there to be a tendency towards speech and writing are that they can be more easily manipulated for the purposes of communication. But this doesn’t have to be the case. If we were creatures that existed in different ways, then we might tend to utilize symbols in another way.

For the symbols “snow” and “la neige,” while both mean snow, there is no essential reason for them to do so. That is, the utterances “snow” and “la neige” do not necessarily mean snow. We can conceive communicating in many different ways. In fact, we often do make up other “languages” where speech and writing become less convenient. In The Two Towers, Rohan and Gondor maintained a string of fires that would signal to the other “We need help.” That is what the fires meant. In order to construct computers, we have chosen to interpret the presence or absence of electrical charge on a circuit as a 0 or 1 (in older computers, this would’ve been a vacuum, but with the same meaning). We’ve constructed sign language for those who can’t hear or speak. Braille for those who can’t see. In battle, we used to communicate through drums.

If there were creatures the size of universes, then they might communicate with each other through the organization of galaxies within their body. If we were very very very small, then we might communicate by passing carbon atoms back and forth. And so on.

All of this is to say that there simply is nothing essential to the construction of a language. Anything at anytime under any circumstance can serve as a symbol within a language. The only thing that makes us tend to use certain languages are due to convenience.

What is implied by this? If meaning can be expressed by any material arrangement, then it follows that meaning cannot be explained by any material arrangement. Even in the brain there is no reason for any arrangement of neurons, synapses, and electricity to mean any particular thing. Were it the case that particular meanings were always associated with particular brain states, that would still not demonstrate that the meaning is in the brain state; after all, the brain’s penchant for expressing certain meanings by certain brain states could still be a matter of convenience. Even among humans, it is possible for different brain states to mean the same thing; for my thought of snow there will be a different brain state associated with it than for another human, because we will have had different experiences and thoughts about it. So there doesn’t even exist a “material state that is the meaning of snow.” In brains of other creatures, it will be the case that their states won’t even be similar (of course, the recognition of “similarity” is just another idea of meaning that is not essentially captured by any material state).

So materialism cannot explain our ability to mean things. But we do understand meanings. Therefore, materialism is false.

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These parts will not be systematic. They are fragmentary, jotted off as I think of them.

Any logical calculus is beholden to a higher-level self-referential analysis. This is true of natural language, but we can see it in that what a logical calculus can actually tell us is that if you have some atomic propositions holding in a relationship as described in the following;

1) a v b
2) ¬b
3) a ⊃ c /∴ c

then it will be the case that c. But if that set of premises were not sound, then it fails to describe anything which holds in the world. The logic can only tell you that if this set of premises holds, then the conclusion follows. What I want to be seen is that the logical calculus is already placed into itself, giving you an if… then… relationship description of the world.

No logical calculus that deals with virtual propositions can avoid this sort of meta-logic.

Our natural language, being a logical calculus, is also susceptible to this same meta-logic, albeit without having to resort to higher-level relationships in the description of what it is doing; rather, the possibility of the description of what is going on in a language is an essential component of that language, since language is a real thing and we could want to describe language. In fact, we are already doing precisely that.

Therefore, a complete system of semantics which can achieve real communication has its possibility of speaking about itself in-itself. We can point to the fact that we do this in our reasoning, no matter what sort of qualifiable/quantifiable relationships are being exemplified in the logical operators. So this goes to show that the completeness of a logical system can be achieved, albeit only as informed by the injection of semantics by language; ideally, what cannot be achieved is a syntactical demonstration of completeness. I believe this is what Gödel demonstrated; not the incompleteness of thought, but the incompleteness at representing that thought with a limited set of logical operators, symbols, and rules of inference. There are certain acts of knowing which transcend inference (which is what logic exemplifies; the act of inferring truths from other truths); they are objects of knowledge intrinsic to being a mind, and are not inducted. As I’ve spoken before on this matter, metaphysics is precisely what this periphery of knowledge is, as it serves as the framework by which we may attribute significance and make referential propositions about the world at all.

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If, as I say, what is not possible is not thinkable, how can we reason about what is not possible? What is it that the mind is doing when it applies logic to a fundamentally meaningless proposition?

I think the case to be made in these instances is that we subvert the given meaningless proposition into a logical matrix, i.e. we substitute a virtual proposition (for instance, the logical variable p) and simply declare that it has a relation of such-and-such to another proposition, virtual or substantial. (Note: A virtual proposition is a logical variable, and is open to being imbued with meaning; a substantial proposition is a proposition about something which is actually the case, and must actually possess meaning.)

So, let us suppose I say that the utterance “I rew grabe hat nothwack,” and we suppose it implicates the truth of “I rew beln” and the falsity of “O rew belno.” Thus, we can deduct that if ‘I rew grabe hat nothwack’ were the case, then it follows that ‘I rew beln’ is the case and ‘O rew belno’ is not the case.

This reveals that the ability to perform logical operations on even a well-coordinated system of utterances does not reveal that the utterances are, in fact, propositions.

Perhaps this accounts for why many are confused by the idea that whatever is thinkable is possible. They take it to be the case that because they can apply logic to a system of utterances, that this demonstrates they are in fact something like what it is to be the case that those utterances mean. It also accounts for why we can reckon the incoherency of utterances like “There is no truth.”

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I think it is important to establish that, for the given Metapsychical thesis

Whatever is thinkable, is possible

in order to present a falsifying example of something which is both thinkable and also not possible, one’s argument will have to take something of the form

u and w

where it is also the case that

(if u then ¬w) and (if w then ¬u)

However, the problem with this route is that we would generally have to take the fact that, if (u and w) along with some other propositions made an inconsistency, then the logical route is to take that as a reductio ad absurdum of (u and w), replacing that with (u or w). Thus, it seems to be the case that the very idea that a falsifying example to the given Metapsychical thesis is incoherent. For, we can really examine the problem of falsifying examples that we might imagine exist by postulating the logical possibility of its contradiction, viz.

It is thinkable that something impossible can be thought

The problem with this contradictory thesis is that we take it to be the case that inconsistent sets of premises lack sense in the first place. If we interpret the falsifying examples problem with the Metapsychical thesis to state something like

An inconsistent set of premises can be held true all while the inconsistent set of premises are understood

then it is easy to point to the fact that, when someone makes the claim of a set of premises “These premises can all be true” but after which it is demonstrated that the set of premises are inconsistent, we take this to mean that the person didn’t, in fact, understand the meaning of the set of premises. If they persist in claiming that “These premises can still all be true,” we regard them as simply incapable of understanding logic.

This helps to paint all proposed falsifying examples in the light of someone saying something that, while it is meaningful to someone else, it isn’t meaningful to them. For example, you could say

Non, je ne suis pas égoiste, mais je pense je suis intelligent. [Pronounced, for you non-French speakers: “No, zhe ne swee pah ay-go-east, may zhe pahnce zhe swee on-tell-ee-zhah.”]

which, assuming you don’t understand French, means, to a French speaker

No, I am not egoistical, but I think I am smart.

Yet, even to you, that French sentence can be understood to be an utterance. An utterance is when something is stated without knowing what is meant, or even if it means something. [I could’ve made you say “Non, je ne suis jaimer le rien,” which a French speaker will know means nothing.]

Thus, we can classify nonsensical statements like “I can think of a square circle” as mere utterances, and we can treat statements which we don’t know the meaning of (or if they even have meaning) as agnostic utterances. The ability to utter “I can think of something being alive and dead at the same time” does not translate into the ability to actually think such a thing. I think that, as many atheists like to make of the Anselmian ontological argument, such is already understood, but these same people seem mysteriously able to forget that they ever uttered such a thing.

This should help to clear up the falsifying example problem which some imagine goes to disprove the Metapsychical thesis.

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