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An alternative to conceptual platonism and psychologism


To: Rachel S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: An alternative to conceptual platonism and psychologism
Date: 21st July 12:29

Dear Rachel,

Thank you for your email of 13 July, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, ''Concepts are not in a Platonic heaven, nor are they in the head. They are out there in the world.' Discuss.'

This is a very good piece of work, which accurately identifies the main challenge behind the question -- how one distinguishes Wittgenstein's doctrine of meaning is use from old-fashioned Nominalism.

The quote at the beginning of unit 5 is a clue: Wittgenstein's charge against the Nominalists is that they merely 'issue a paper draft' on a description of how words are used.

Your point, which is a valid one, is that no criteria for the application of general terms can be derived simply by looking at 'things' in themselves. You say, 'nominalism does not explain how a concept word can be correctly applied to particulars which are not physically identical: how they can be of the same type.' But what is the meaning of 'physically identical'? Don't we need criteria for the identity of physical 'things'? (e.g. criteria for identity over time, what it is that enables us to pick out spatio-temporal particulars).

(PI Para 215: 'But isn't THE SAME at least the same? We seem to have an infallible paradigm of identity in the identity of a thing with itself. I feel like saying: 'Here at any rate there can't be a variety of interpretations. If you are seeing a thing you are seeing identity too.' )

Wittgenstein's analogy of the different levers in the cab of a locomotive (PI para 12) is relevant to the criticism that words 'are not just names'. Some words are names ('Geoffrey', for example). The point, however, is that having said that 'the meaning is the use', the next step is to investigate how words are used, at the ground level, so that we can get a better picture of how concepts terms do their work.

Given the target length of the essay this isn't really a criticism, but what you say about Plato's Forms is a bit rushed, and is worth untangling.

First, there is the epistemological objection: 'there is no... evidence or argument for the realm of Forms'. Surely, it can't be sufficient evidence that positing Forms seems to explain our linguistic ability, in the complete absence of any corroborating data. (Plato attempts, unsuccessfully in the view of most commentators, to provide just such an argument in his 'experiment' with the slave boy in the Meno.)

Secondly, there is the issue of the 'causal relation' between Forms and empirical objects. How does the Form of Horse succeed in impressing itself on a class of particulars, so that they are correctly termed, 'horses'? Plato calls this relation 'participation', but this is just a label for something which remains unaccounted for.

Thirdly (this is where I am not sure what you wanted to say but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt) suppose, for the sake of argument, objections 1 and 2 were met. We know Forms exist, and we also know that they causally make things the kinds of thing that they are, how does this explain our knowledge of the meanings of the words in our language? On a literal reading of the theory of recollection, the soul 'perceives' the Forms before birth. How was the soul able to recognize which Form is which? How, indeed, is this situation any different from the one we find ourselves in, down here on Earth?!

These are not idle questions, and not merely questions of historical interest: contemporary innatism seeks explanations of our capacity to group objects into kinds (and much else besides) in evolutionary terms. What would Wittgenstein have thought of this? 'We are not investigating a phenomenon...'. Are we not? Are we really stuck with merely describing 'forms of life' without any access to a lower level of explanation?

For Wittgenstein, you say, 'concepts ARE therefore concept words'. To grasp a concept, therefore, is to grasp its 'rules of usage'. Who says what these are? We do. The training succeeds when the learner applies the word in the same way as us. Is that it? One problem with this is that 'we' don't always agree on everything to do with linguistic usage. How is the correct view decided? Do we simply take a majority vote? Does every language user's vote count for the same, or do some language users have more authority than others? Can't a concept whose use has been agreed ever be wrong? What about 'phlogiston'? or 'witch'? -- These are questions which you will be looking at later in the program.

All the best,