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Philosophy of language: words and world


To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophy of language: words and world
Date: 9 January 2007 10:57

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 28 December with your, 'Internet Blogging on Language and Linguistics', your email of 29 December with the first version of your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, 'Words and Worlds' and your email of 30 December with the extended version.

A couple of things before I start:

It was A.N. Whitehead (Russell's collaborator on 'Principia Mathematica') who in his magnum opus 'Process and Reality' said 'The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato' (Process and Reality Part II, ch. 1, sec. 1).

The later rather than the early Wittgenstein said that it was his task to 'shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle' ('Philosophical Investigations' para 309).


Your essay starts with the question of the logical analysis of vague statements. It is not clear from what you say whether you think that such analysis is either necessary, possible or impossible.

'Defining the concept clearly', admitting the relative nature of the attribute', or (or, 'and so') 'allowing a sliding scale' are all proposed general solutions which do not in fact work.

The utility of vague terms lies precisely in the fact that they do not have precise definitions. Most of the terms in our language are in fact vague, or have a dimension of vagueness.

The relativity of attributes is a different phenomenon from vagueness as such, as is the phenomenon of attributive adjectives. This is shown by the fact that we can produce any number of versions of the Sorites paradox which do not depend on such relativity.

Again, a sliding scale is just another useful way of sorting objects which is itself infected with vagueness. An object is either grey or not grey, warm or cool (it is of course irrelevant to the question of vagueness as such that observations such as these are observer dependent).

Vagueness is a difficult challenge, whichever way you take it: either as a challenge to provide an adequate analysis - to my knowledge this has not yet been done - or as a challenge to provide an alternative model for what is actually achieved in acts of linguistic communication.

As I remarked in an earlier email, Wittgenstein did not accept Russell's characterization of his project in the Tractatus, as 'seeking an ideal language'. This brings his early philosophy closer to his later philosophy, because he always held that our language, as it is, is fully adequate to do what we do with it. The difference - which is profound - is that in the Tractatus he claimed that what we do with language is picture 'facts', or assert 'propositions', while in his later philosophy he described the radically different theory of language games, which you talk about in the second part of your essay.

While both the early and late Wittgenstein 'had great confidence in the ability of everyday language to convey significance', the early Wittgenstein was led to the project of symbolic construction, not as an improvement on ordinary language, but rather in order to reveal the logical structure that actually exists underneath the skin of ordinary language.

The statement you quote from Wittgenstein, 'Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of language', is intended as a deflationary claim. There is no metaphysics. There is only grammar, which we mistake for metaphysics. He is not making a claim about the mystical harmony of thought and reality. Wittgenstein's 'mysticism' is reserved for questions of aesthetics and value, our sense of the meaning of life - all questions which escape language, as he defines it.

The claim that 'meaning is socially constructed', therefore the witch persecutors of Salem or the Sharia courts are necessarily in the right cannot be derived from 'meaning is use' without the use of additional, and very questionable premisses. Our ordinary language 'is all right as it is'. We have the resources to seek justification and question belief, even in cases where acceptance of a given word seems to imply acceptance of the belief which it embodies. As Oscar Wilde said in his trial, '"obscenity" is not one of my words' (see my glasshouse notebook 2, page 65). You can refuse to use a word, or deliberately use it with a different meaning (like 'nigger', said by a rapper). But much more is being 'done' than appears on the surface.

However, I would not go so far as to assume that we can say anything, or that there are no limits. There has been discussion recently of the question whether the human mind is incapable of discovering the solution to the mind-body problem, as claimed by Colin McGinn. Might there be limits, which we cannot see? This is the frustrating thing about limits, that you don't see them.

I am not arguing that 'therefore' there are limits, or that any of the limits that have been claimed are limits, but simply that we don't know. We don't know what it would take to create a 'language' that successfully limited thought (as attempted in Orwell's '1984'). Maybe it is ultimately an empirical question, like the fact that some people are just smarter than others. Maybe there is a limit to just how 'smart' we can be - or there again maybe not.

All the best,