Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Not the όλ story

My starting point is the assertion that words in everyday languages have indeterminate meanings, with meaning dependent on the lexical ‘bubble’ in which each individual utterer and hearer lives. I live in a predominantly English ‘bubble’ with smatterings of American, Welsh, French, German, Latin, Greek... and perhaps ending up with little Elvish and less Orc. None of ‘my’ words mean precisely the same as any of ‘your’ words. And that is exactly what you would expect if you were a subscriber to the holistic philosophy implied by the first-order logic expounded by W V Quine and others. But if you do so subscribe, most of what I’ve so far written would be nonsense, or unintelligible at any rate. For Quine’s first-order logic will only allow for the existence of material things – those which we label with nouns. In order to describe the properties of things he should have to allow second-order logic. Then we could accommodate descriptive words such as Welsh and Elvish. But Quine does not admit of second-order logic in his scheme of things. Now, the indeterminacy of meaning and the fact that the meaning of no individual symbol can be identified until the meaning of the system as a whole has been identified may be true of arbitrary ‘natural’ languages within the propositions of a logical system. But that is not the way in which normal language (as a means of communicating) works. As Peter Winch says, ‘ is speakers of a language who attempt to say what is true, to describe how things are. They do so in the language they speak; and this language attempts no such thing, either successfully or unsuccessfully. [...] [Languages] do not attempt to describe anything at all. If we do want to speak of a ‘relation between language and reality’, this is not a relation between a set of descriptions and what is described...’ (Winch, P., (1987) p.196 Trying to Make Sense, Blackwell, Oxford, UK.) It is just this final point which causes H P Grice’s claim that there is a triangular relationship between reality, language and a speaker to collapse.

A better approach to meaning is to learn the lessons of second-generation cognitive science and to approach meaning on the basis of (1) the embodiment of concepts and of mind in general, (2) the cognitive unconscious, (3) metaphorical thought and (4) the dependence of philosophy on the empirical study of mind and language. In short, the principles espoused by Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh, if you know what I mean!

Image: Indeterminate Landscape © Tom Tomos 2010

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