On the philosophy of language — Part I

language-definitionby Sal Scilicet

It’s never a very good idea, I know, when witnessing a regular saloon brawl, or when two large dogs, all bristle, slobber and grin, are noisily asserting unspecified territorial prerogatives, to come injudiciously betwixt, among and between the contenders in order to call a truce and tend to the wounded.

Nevertheless, I would like to intervene, if I may, in the many feisty, on-going and by-now tediously predictable semantic jousts in this-here genteel forum, in particular between Massimo and some of his regular readers,  those who from time to time, perhaps in spite of themselves, appear to feel, be it overtly or covertly, somehow existentially implicated in all the dust, sweat and feigned brow beating.

Not another insufferably pretentious essay on the meaning of meaning? No. Not even one of those ‘post-modern’ attempts to say something new? No. I am not, for what it’s worth, yet another bored academic. But I am at least as motivated, I think, by an earnest desire to remind you, gentle reader, of what I know you surely know already. For whenever I watch ordinarily intelligent people freely mobilizing so interchangeably words like ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘awareness,’ as if such are universally understood as synonymous, I hope I shall always want to remind you, but especially my ‘self,’ of what they are doing.

Humans appear to be the only species that have evolved the ability to shape vocal sounds into so-called “intelligible speech.” And we can believe that only if we are content to accept that the sounds animals make are not intended, nor therefore to be understood, as some sort of cognitively coherent, independently verifiable and intellectually defensible, semantic code.

Therefore, we as humans feel exceptionally entitled to believe, based as all belief is based on grand assumptions, that “what I say obviously makes sense.” And I’m here to remind you that ever since Neolithic Homo sapiens consented to cohabit, cooperate and parley, that particularly ubiquitous, conveniently comforting conceit is patently false.

We are well accustomed to using nouns as though these essentially arbitrary semantic artifacts could somehow ‘represent’ concrete, discretely discernible objects. Even notoriously ambiguous words, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness,’ which function so well within the narrow confines of every grammatically correct narrative, are only too easily read as somehow representative of common experiential phenomena, like regular objects found on the street. Hence: “the pursuit of happiness …”

Thus, instead of imputing our own inherently subjective, perceptual deficiencies to each articulate observer, we blithely ascribe the objective quality of discernibility to mere words. And because we do this all the time, without a moment’s hesitation or discomfiture, we never notice that we treat all nouns this way. We simply must implicitly believe whatever we see is really what’s there and whatever we say is really what we mean. There is no alternative. Knowing all the while that this clearly ain’t so.

Hence the inevitable, hopelessly equivocal results so glaringly obvious in all these deep and meaningful on-line discussions. Not to mention international conferences, business meetings, press conferences … Wherever people gather to converse, debate, resolve, all fervently believe “we will reach a consensus.” Which, in all of human history, has undeniably never yet happened. Love and war are made of this.

So a guy says he’s an atheist. Why? Because he believes he’s entitled to expect that everybody knows what an atheist is. And he’s right, of course. Everybody does know, or thinks s/he does, what an atheist is. There’s only one problem. In a veritable minefield of intractable problems. There simply is no way of establishing, to the satisfaction of all, that what each person says means the same thing to everybody.

One obvious answer is, an atheist says there is no God, therefore does not believe in God. Which opens at least a dozen other cans of worms. Such as, if “there is no God,” where is there no God? Everywhere? So, do we have a fix on the true dimensions of the entire box and dice? Besides, what God? Not who’s God? But whose God? What is the precise nature and definition of this alleged Big Thing that is said, like the little man upon the stair, to be not there? To simply declare, “God is dead” is just praying for philosophical gridlock.

If the necessarily linguistically defined meaning of “truth” is supposed to apply equally throughout “The Universe,” a French speaker knows no equivalent for “there is.” A French atheist cannot say, “there is no God.” In France, if you’re so persuaded, you have no choice but to say, “God does not exist.” Which is not quite the same thing as saying that God is “not there.” Not where? Who/what does not exist where?

In German the common expression is, “Es gibt keinen Gott.” (Yes, the upper case G is obligatory. Not out of dumb respect for the non-existent Omnipotent, but because all German nouns are capitalized.) The literal English translation is incomprehensibly, “there is given no God.” Given by whom? (What’s for dinner comes out as, “was gibt es zum Abendessen?” Literally, what gives there for dinner.) Given by whom? If no God, what gives? Besides, the whole notion is patently absurd of course. If God is not given (taken for granted), what about all that innocently boiling blood spilt all over “The Reformation”? What was all that about, if not some sort of fictitious God or what-not-there-be? And yes, you bet it matters.

The word ‘atheist’ is just one of hundreds of examples of adjectives being pressed into service as nouns. Such as American. “S/he is an American.” What does that say about a person? In and of themselves, the words say nothing at all. But they might be taken (if you’re prepared to do the work) to mean s/he holds an American passport and/or is in fact an American citizen. Or at least claims to be so. Which is certainly not the same thing and infinitely more difficult to differentiate. All language involves trust, based on grand assumptions, as the world turns and time goes by. Conclusion: the adjective, American, is useful to identify a person’s documentary evidence of nationality. Nothing more.

Besides, for all we know, s/he might be a nasty piece of work. Or a candidate for canonization. And any one of 300 million-odd other possibilities in between. ‘American’ is an adjective that is only useful for identifying a legal document. That’s it. And yet, the whole world talks about what “The Americans” are doing, have done, will do, think and believe, on and on. Knowing all the while that this is pure media hype.

Statement after statement about countless convenient collective entities we’ve never seen in the flesh and bear no relationship whatsoever to experience. If a rowdy tour group should happen to come your way consisting entirely of nominal American citizens, you might prefer to be somewhere else. But of one thing you can be damn sure. They do not all believe the same thing, think the same thing, like the same things, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, nor even speak the same language.

Some of the discussions at Scientia Salon remind me of a dilemma that has beset every known civilization: the testosterone-driven confidence of youth. All native tribes everywhere have always had to ensure, for their very survival, that, metaphorically, “the young men must not hunt and kill the alpha male.” Go seek your truth, young man, go look for the formula for everything, the Holy Grail. Just do not expect to find it. As Russell Stannard implied [1], we might need a Hadron Collider the size of the Milky Way to get anywhere near a proper handle on particle physics. It was ever thus. Kill the alpha male of the Bison and the tribe is doomed.

Every pioneer of wisdom who said “Eureka! I’ve got it!” from Socrates through Chomsky has failed to accommodate one essential and notoriously perverse human quality. Namely, whereas the cerebral hardware and its unlimited potential seems identical, the capacity for translating and assimilating the unrelenting welter of raw, conflicting and competing sensory data, by which we make coherent linguistic sense, is unique to each person who has ever lived.

That is to say, what we are witnessing now, given the speed of modern technological development and the associated abandonment of long-held traditional belief systems, ‘the young and the restless’ feel ever more empowered to believe implicitly in their own unquestioning infallibility and that ‘The Truth’ lies just around the corner. There is a pervasive sense, certainly in the Western hemisphere, that we are finally in command of our own destiny, that ‘Reality’ is clearly visible all around, that all the big mistakes have now been made and that ‘Science’ will finally save us all.

My thesis is this. There is no ultimate truth. There is no such thing as effective communication. Language is far from a reliable means of exchanging information. Each human brain is unique. What I see is not only not what you see. There is no way for us to verify that what I see is in fact in any way similar to what you see. We can never say what we mean. What I mean is never what I say and what I say is never what you understand. Knowledge is belief disguised as dogma. I could go on.

Because we all know that one plus one is two, we believe implicitly that such hopelessly inadequate ephemera bear any kind of direct material relationship, let alone any serious significance, to experience. All experience is instantaneous and fleeting. What we are left with is an historical account, based on flawed memory, of “what happened” in the swiftly receding past. Necessarily expressed in words. All knowledge is confined to a language. Such as Math. Numbers are metaphors, not descriptors of reality. Mathematics cannot describe reality. No language can describe reality. We each build our own reality from early childhood, ever since we first learned to say words in association with experience.

Reality is not a given, such as Doctor Johnson’s rock, which he famously kicked to rebut Bishop Berkeley’s sermon on the doubtful materiality of what was then confidently spoken of as reality. It seems to me, what you and I call “the material world out there” is nothing more or less than a convenient and eminently adequate collage of what your brain and my brain has laboriously learned, ever since it began to assemble memory even before we were born, to cobble together from the available raw sensory data.

There are two things to be said about this. First, while what you see may appear similar to what I see, you and I have no way of verifying what I see is in fact what you see. Second, what I see (a vast array of discrete significant objects and events) is not my reality and what you see (a similar assemblage) is not your reality. Realities are not simply collections of discrete objects and connected events in a box, but an elaborate, apparently coherent anthology of never-ending stories.

Each of our highly individual realities, assembled during a lifetime of looking, listening and learning, together with a whole raft of ancillary, jarringly disparate, seemingly quite incongruous, circumstantial jig-saw pieces, consists of historical narratives, a not necessarily coherent but tangled web of stories, abstract situational scenarios, concerning all the intricate relationships each brain intuitively weaves, by ‘connecting the dots,’ in all sorts of imaginative, often irrational and illogical ways, to end up with a kind of unique, essentially personal, highly individual, quite dazzling tapestry of “my” life experience. A fascinating fabrication, whose warp is the substance of a notoriously unreliable and necessarily selective memory and the weft all the occasional, intensely private and prejudicial, diversely applied meanings.

We know that experience is fleeting and quite inaccessible to precise narrative definition. All we manage to assign to memory is the history, the inaccurate and fragmented accounts of “what happened” after the fact. The moment we call “now” has no dimension. All we have is what we remember as each present moment rapidly recedes into what we call “the past.” Which then becomes that tangled web of narratives and intrigues that, even as it is continually edited and amended, informs “me who I am.”

_____

Sal Scilicet (subtext: Dico, ergo sum) sometimes see himself as a rabid iconoclast. Then an instinctive Pyrrhonist. This changes with the weather. Sal holds a degree in linguistics (1983) and another in Social Work (1992). He is familiar with four languages and a number of derivative dialects. Physically and ironically, he lives in Australia; emotionally and ideologically, he most emphatically does not.

[1] Russell Stannard,  The End of Discovery, 2010.

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82 thoughts on “On the philosophy of language — Part I

  1. ej Winner wrote: “I agree with the rest of this statement, language cannot “describe” reality. ”

    —–

    “My dog has white fur.”
    “I am typing these words on my Lenovo laptop.”
    “Missouri is a state in the United States of America.”
    “Dolphins are warm-blooded.”

    Seems to me like these sentences all describe reality.

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  2. A really good piece, Sal — but I wonder if you don’t push it too far.

    Some questions, if you don’t mind:

    1) Do not people who share similar forms of life communicate effectively? Wouldn’t you agree that language games emerge from forms of life, and that people share a language game insofar as they share the form of life from which the language game emerged?

    2) Similarly, does your embrace of private language necessarily exclude a robust public language? I’m sympathetic to the idea that each of us has developed a unique conceptual map, with unique metaphorical associations and therefore unique understandings of most everything, but again, isn’t human society enough evidence that we share enough context with each other to the degree that we can still communicate reasonably effectively? Wouldn’t paradigm shifts in individuals betray some degree of exposure to alternative worldviews?

    3) More to the point, don’t we have a significant capacity for developing shared language games given that our hardware is the same, so to speak? I recognise that every brain is different, but as Lakoff noted, we can’t just think anything that we want to — rather, we can only think what our brains physically permit us to think — and human brains are extremely similar in a lot of physical respects. Without denying that reality (i.e. the phenomenon that occurs when our individual brains interpret raw sense data and create our experience of life) is unique for each of us, isn’t there enough cumulative intersubjective nature and nurture (so to speak) that we can more or less can get into each other’s heads?

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  3. Hi David,

    Thank you for what I take to be intended as a thoughtfully respectful response. I shall endeavour to do it justice, in like manner.

    “I am deeply convinced that what we need is better discourse and not to give up on discourse altogether.”

    If you are deeply convinced of this, that cannot be disputed. My problem is that not many people in my orbit publicly profess to share your concern. I’m afraid ordinary language practice in the market place is not conducive of such awareness. On the contrary, conventionally constrained, socially habituated language practice promotes and relies upon all sorts of rash, unsubstantiated grand assumptions.

    My main concern is that “we ought” [a fatuous construct] to be much less confident and much more aware of the inherent risks. We ought to teach our kids what we are doing when we rely on language to arrogantly assert moral and dialectical authority on “the truth”. Intuitive language practice is universally, socially and culturally taken for granted. Which seems to inspire institutionalised linguistic laziness. Needless to say, I hold out little hope that much is likely to change quickly, “any time soon”.

    “While I see many of the same problems you do, I want to draw the opposite conclusion.”

    You see, that’s my problem right there. This is like telling a bereaved person, “I know how you feel”. How do you know you see what I see? It would be nice, but we have no way of confirming that grand assumption. Without resorting to yet more discursive conjecture. Whenever we seem to agree I believe is an ineluctable illusion, evoked by wittingly and unwittingly ignoring the detail.

    As long as the problems you see are not necessarily the problems I see, I cannot accept the inevitable gaps as irrelevant. Unless you credit me with the unbelievable ability to say exactly what you mean, let alone what I mean. Not that we can do better. I don’t think it gets any better than this. I think we should bravely acknowledge that, not pretend that the line of communication is perfectly sound and reliable.

    “Most of your arguments deal with how we know and understand and know the world and each other. You show comparatively little interest in metaphysical questions of how language relates to the world (truth, intentionality and surrounding notions). So how do we know we don’t know?”

    Maybe it has something to do with growing up in multiple language environments, raising kids in a third language, and conducting a marriage in yet another. In my family, we take for granted that whatever words we use will inevitably mean different things to each of us, under narrowly defined time-and-space-specific circumstances. My wife and I are quite used to the idea that what she sees in her mother tongue cannot be what I see in mine. We know this and have slowly come to accept that each POV is critically relevant in deciding what is and what is not “real”.

    “I find you very hard to pin down on what the problem with language actually is.”

    Which I shall gratefully accept as your albeit reluctant confirmation of the tangled web we weave in a nutshell.

    “Is the problem with language that it is “essentially arbitrary” or our failure in not “imputing our own inherently subjective, perceptual deficiencies” to other speakers (supposing I know what that means).”

    Bingo. Whatever that means to you, is all your own work. I cannot be held responsible for how you read the text. What I might have meant is inaccessible, even to me. Every text needs to be read, and read, and read again. On every pass, different aspects emerge. If you are willing, of course, to see what isn’t there.

    The ancient Hebrew scribes are said to have used the ‘Pesher’ method, weaving deeper meanings into an apparently innocent narrative. Similar to the well-known parables, fables and medieval mystery plays. Hence the injunction, “he that has ears to hear let him hear, and eyes to see let him see”.

    “You … seem comfortable asserting [that] I know it already. Well I assure you I don’t.”

    I can’t be sure, but I think I was referring to what my readers might recognise, not to what they may claim they cannot see. Obviously?

    “… while problems of interpretation and conceptual confusion are certainly legion, that is no argument that they are intractable.”

    Indeed they are, we appear to agree on that, to the extent that we might in fact be talking about the same problems. But it doesn’t stop there. As JFK intoned, we went to the Moon, “not because it was easy, but because it was hard”. Rather begs the question, though, with hindsight, whether the profligate expense was worth the “rewards”.

    “If language is an imperfect tool we can still use it … The natural reaction to these many problems is to address and adjudicate them.”

    Of course. My sentiments [more or less] exactly, I think, maybe. Too often we forget to remind ourselves and each other that what I said is never all there is to say. Nor is the response ever the last word. It’s just that there are only so many hours in a day, and I do have to pick the kids up from school, and …

    “… [you] attempt to paint all our attempts to gain insight “from Socrates through Chomsky” as basically coming to naught.”

    Now that is a serious problem. Is our information adequate? How are we to determine that accurately? “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the Earth”? From which dizzy moral high ground shall we say we’ve got this bull pretty much by the horns?

    “We have very strong consensus about many aspects of the physical world which were all once contentious. And actually we have very good results in other areas including philosophy as well.”

    One can only be delighted for you that you appear so confident of that “very strong consensus”. Without benefit of any better substantiation than that your friends appear to agree with whatever it was supposed to be, they more or less say they believe the motion before the House was actually taken to mean, and/or what the implications might be.

    “… philosophy does narrow the field to our best attempts to make sense of complex phenomena and in the bargain call attention to hidden problems, banishes some nonsense and problematizes some common sense.”

    Do I detect a tremulous tone of caution here? Lest the gods get pissed with too much hubris?

    “Philosophy has had and continues to have a huge influence in building a more just society.”

    Ouch. No, I’m terribly sorry, I can’t follow you there. “A more just society?” Clearly, we walk the same planet but we do not inhabit the same world. [More cake?]

    “Science yields technology which made possible previously inconceivable quality of life.”

    The fact that the majority still has no access to clean drinking water, electricity or a flushing toilet is conveniently overlooked as we congratulate ourselves on how good things are now. Happy days are here again?

    “What we ought to see when we look at history is that good discourse can create wonderful things and bad discourse can pose serious dangers to society.”

    Speaking of which, you cannot hear the arrant obscenity that I can hear painfully loud and clear in your words. I rest my case.

    “I think it’s more than fair to say we have “a good handle” on the issue. Particle physics is extremely precise and predictive.”

    But of course, not everyone will agree with you. Try as you might, with all the authority you can muster, just saying so does not make it so.
    
“I think we can make many meaningful statements about America and American culture and do all the time.”

    Of course, and no law is breached. Meaningful to whom? For whom, and why? Cui bono?

    “American culture is more anti-intellectual than many European cultures. … We can’t freely draw conclusions about every individual but … that doesn’t mean we can’t make meaningful generalizations.”

    Oxymoron much?

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  4. Yes, a hoax I guess. By our host perhaps, or by his permission if my Latin still serves me.

    Maybe that is what part two will reveal. Oh, well I guess I can always claim I knew all along and was making a Sokal style hoax response.

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  5. Robin et al., no, this is no hoax, although it is by far the most post-modernist type essay I’ve ever published. The point of Scientia Salon is to stretch our collective minds and challenge them by exposure to territories they wouldn’t necessarily venture into. The discussion has actually been productive, so far. Please, stay away from harsh language, even though sometimes it may escape my filter. It doesn’t help.

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  6. Hi Aravis,

    While I agree that the original post did not offer much in the way of argument, again I think you’re asking for a little too much academic rigour for this forum. I doubt many articles on Scientia Salon will be making points that have not been made before. That doesn’t mean that the audience of Scientia Salon have considered them before, so there is value in presenting them in this format. As long as Massimo is happy to accept submissions from non-academics, it may be too much to expect that every submission have a comprehensive list of references or literature review behind it.

    People often have good ideas which, while far from original in the scheme of things, are at least original to them and their audience, so they have something to say and they simply don’t know where it has been said before. That doesn’t mean their ideas are not worthy of consideration.

    In asking that Theo address every argument against his position that has ever been published, I think you’re also asking for too much. Even if he had the knowledge and ability to do so (which I agree he possibly does not), then he doesn’t have the space and time. I’m sure there are responses to those arguments in the literature. I think, for this forum, what is more productive is if you attack what he specifically says with the arguments that are most persuasive to you, and then he can answer those specific arguments if he can.

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  7. “Do I detect a tremulous tone of caution here?”
    Caution, yes. Tremulous, no.

    I have been frustrated throughout this conversation that I am being told consistently that I am claiming something extremely arrogant and robust, making some “grand assumption”, taking myself to be at an Archimedean point to move heaven and Earth, claiming language is “perfectly sound and reliable” all in defending the modest point that communication, though often partial and imperfect, is achievable and should be fostered while you claim the remarkable insight into matters necessary to claim that “Knowledge is belief disguised as dogma”, “the cerebral hardware [is]…assimilating the unrelenting welter of raw, conflicting and competing sensory data, by which we make coherent linguistic sense”, “Numbers are metaphors, not descriptors of reality”, “Mathematics cannot describe reality” and “No language can describe reality” under the guise of modesty. I appeal to the other readers. Who here is being modest?

    A case in point. You wrote: “As long as the problems you see are not necessarily the problems I see, I cannot accept the inevitable gaps as irrelevant.” No one, certainly not me, said you must. Generally in philosophy people feel out for those gaps and try to deal with them when found. The trouble is for me to accept your argument that meaningful communication (at least on complex matters) is never possible in ordinary language (again NOTHING modest about this claim) *you* must prove that those gaps are *always* there and *always* more or less insuperable. As I wrote above I dont think you substantiated that claim very well from either an analysis of the nature of language or from the history of past attempts to use language to investigate the world (because I think there was progress from Socrates to Chomsky).

    [I wrote] “I find you very hard to pin down on what the problem with language actually is.”

    [You replied] “Which I shall gratefully accept as your albeit reluctant confirmation of the tangled web we weave in a nutshell.”
    No I’m sorry, that won’t do at all. I may have found your treatment inadequate because all language everywhere prevents me from understanding or because your treatment was inadequate. And how hard were you trying to be understood when you gleefully proclaim that not being understood proved your point…. (A very Pigliucci-esque drift off).

    “Bingo. Whatever that means to you, is all your own work. I cannot be held responsible for how you read the text.”
    Ditto

    “One can only be delighted for you that you appear so confident of that “very strong consensus”. Without benefit of any better substantiation than that your friends appear to agree with whatever it was supposed to be, they more or less say they believe the motion before the House was actually taken to mean, and/or what the implications might be.”
    This one I actually resent. Im an educated man and I base my beliefs on more than a poll of my friends. In the case of philosophy I have put in about five years of continuous study and think I have a right to say I know the lay of the land. It also seems very strange to try to claim that there is not strong consensus on many points in science.

    “The fact that the majority still has no access to clean drinking water, electricity or a flushing toilet is conveniently overlooked as we congratulate ourselves on how good things are now. Happy days are here again?”
    Huge outstanding problems do not erase massive past achievement. Really this a non-sequitur. It takes nothing from what science and philosophy have achieved to say there is much more to achieve.

    [On particle physics being precise and predictive] “But of course, not everyone will agree with you. Try as you might, with all the authority you can muster, just saying so does not make it so.”
    But it is so and based not just on authority but all the evidence. Particle physics is extremely precise and flourishing.

    [On meaningful generalizations] “Oxymoron much?”
    No not at all.

    So, what after all this, Sal, what is left to do?
    ” Every text needs to be read, and read, and read again. On every pass, different aspects emerge.”
    So with all its imperfections we try to use language as best we can, being modest, circumspect and rigorous?
    “Of course. My sentiments [more or less] exactly, I think, maybe.”
    I’ll stick with yes.

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  8. DM,
    “In asking that Theo address every argument against his position that has ever been published, I think you’re also asking for too much.”
    Come now, thats not what was asked. Sal need not address everything, but he actually adresses *nothing* as though writing in a vacuum. Not even a vague, general, hand-wavy kind of rejection so we could see what kind of rejection he goes in for.

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  9. Hi David,

    Sal need not address everything, but he actually adresses *nothing* as though writing in a vacuum. Not even a vague, general, hand-wavy kind of rejection so we could see what kind of rejection he goes in for.

    I don’t disagree. Theo could certainly have done more. I think Aravis sometimes asks for too much though.

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  10. DM, the author has not offered a single argument for his theses. He has shown no awareness whatsoever of the relevant literature on the subjects he addresses, all of which, as I have pointed out, have received quite thorough treatment, and he has failed to address virtually any of the challenges made to him. (His reply to Ottlinger is the one exception.)

    So, I don’t think I’m asking too much. He doesn’t have to answer all the possible objections…how about just one? He doesn’t have to offer all the possible arguments…how about just one? He doesn’t have to read every relevant articles on the subject…how about just one…or two? I’ve asked very specific questions, regarding the idea of untranslatable languages, meaningfulness, etc., as have others. Hopefully, he will elect to answer them.

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  11. Hi Aravis,

    So, I don’t think I’m asking too much. He doesn’t have to answer all the possible objections…how about just one? He doesn’t have to offer all the possible arguments…how about just one? He doesn’t have to read every relevant articles on the subject…how about just one…or two?

    That’s fair enough. It’s just that some of your questions seemed very broad.

    Also, I think it’s reasonable to write articles on Scientia Salon to cover material already covered elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s much of a criticism to point out that all this has been said many times before (although I agree it would have been nice if the author had done some research so he could refer to one or two others who have made the same points).

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  12. DM wrote: ” I think it’s reasonable to write articles on Scientia Salon to cover material already covered elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s much of a criticism to point out that all this has been said many times before.”

    —–

    So, if I were to submit an article, in which I said, “You know, I’ve been thinking very hard and have come to the conclusion that space is curved and that matter is convertible into energy”, giving no indication that anyone has said this already, with no citations, it would be published?

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  13. yaryaryar [August 8, 2014 • 2:03 am]

    A really good piece, Sal — but I wonder if you don’t push it too far.
    Some questions, if you don’t mind:

    Thank you, [whoever you are] not at all.

    1) Do not people who share similar forms of life communicate effectively? Wouldn’t you agree that language games emerge from forms of life, and that people share a language game insofar as they share the form of life from which the language game emerged?

    The short answer is yes, of course. Which is what language encourages. The shorthand is so much easier than the interminably pedantic qualifications. And, I’m afraid it’s the populist, popular shorthand that results in all the polemical gridlock. Eventually it’s the ‘Great Men’ who dominate the discourse. On the basis of universally accepted, conventionally scripted reputations, the VIPs easily intimidate the “ignorant plebs”. It was ever thus. [Plus ça change …]

    So, to do your question some semblance of justice, if I can. Yes, it certainly nearly always feels like we are communicating sensibly and reliably. That’s what I find so unsettling. It’s too easy. Why am I never completely satisfied that the question has been adequately addressed? [Statler and Waldorf: “Because you’re as pig-headed as a mule!”]

    Your phrase, “People who share similar forms of life” strikes me as just another convenient construction. We never experience such discrete, allegedly collectively coherent phenomena as “people” on the street. [Notwithstanding what the ‘Madmen’ need to have us believe.]

    We think we do see evidence of corporate coherence, because the language beguiles us into believing that the words represent what we see on the street. I don’t know about you, but all I have ever dealt with are individual persons. Who evince all sorts of perverse idiosyncrasies.

    Therefore, as I have never found apparently cohesive groups of individual persons expressing or displaying similar particulars, I’ve always been in the habit of treating each person as a self-evidently unique human being, deserving of respect and attention. [Seems to me “group-think” is yet another convenient rhetorical device.]

    Needless to say, I don’t frequent sports stadia. Mixing it with vast, insanely animated crowds is not my bag. While such manifestations may appear coherent and single-minded, I’m sure that is more indicative of some sort of temporary mass psychosis.

    2) Similarly, does your embrace of private language necessarily exclude a robust public language? I’m sympathetic to the idea that each of us has developed a unique conceptual map, with unique metaphorical associations and therefore unique understandings of most everything, but again, isn’t human society enough evidence that we share enough context with each other to the degree that we can still communicate reasonably effectively? Wouldn’t paradigm shifts in individuals betray some degree of exposure to alternative worldviews?

    Once again, the short answer is yes, of course. But that is derived from the perceived need to believe in ’society’ as some sort of common good. Even though the glaring inequalities that every ‘society’ appears to tolerate without permitting of upsetting the applecart, causes me serious misgivings. The “public perception”, clearly articulated in the conventional political rhetoric and slavishly disseminated by the media, is not reflected at all in my experience. And therefore I doubt anybody else, if challenged and willing to stand still long enough, will be able to confirm that “society is representative of my best interests”.

    I’m sure we each experience existential paradigm shifts all the time in each our own, intensely private ‘Weltanschauung’. It’s just that we are so thoroughly socially conditioned to ignore what does not fit the ruling paradigm, that we are not even aware of all the concessions we make. Much as we accept a red light as a necessary evil in the overall scheme of things. How many here are really worried about illiteracy, enough to organise yet another march, or write letters to the editor? Do we really care that education is such an indefinable thing?

    3) More to the point, don’t we have a significant capacity for developing shared language games given that our hardware is the same, so to speak? I recognise that every brain is different, but as Lakoff noted, we can’t just think anything that we want to — rather, we can only think what our brains physically permit us to think — and human brains are extremely similar in a lot of physical respects. Without denying that reality (i.e. the phenomenon that occurs when our individual brains interpret raw sense data and create our experience of life) is unique for each of us, isn’t there enough cumulative intersubjective nature and nurture (so to speak) that we can more or less can get into each other’s heads?

    No. Emphatically, no. You get into my head? [Are you wearing a white coat, by any chance? And horn-rimmed glasses?] I don’t even want to get into my own head, let alone yours. A human brain is not a nice place to be, let’s face it. I don’t mean the icky grey matter, I have little problem with flesh and blood. No, I mean the cerebral processes that produce this insidious “consciousness and self awareness”. All those words popping into the silent, wholly involuntary, so-called “stream of consciousness dialogue”. The brain’s incessant murmurings, whenever we’re in idle contemplation mode, feels like the brain is constantly talking to “myself”.

    I believe what we remember in the morning of what we call ‘dreaming’ is nothing other than the brain’s incessant recollection of dissociated fragments of idle linguistic confabulation, connecting the most incongruous dots. Incongruous, because as soon as we are fully awake, we become aware of the brain’s rapid intuitive assembling of today’s agenda, “where am I and why”. For all the world like a regular computer booting up. Calibrating my emotional GPS.

    I think I already made the point that, while we are born with identical cerebral hardware, the differentiation starts well before birth. Four weeks after conception, the brain begins laying down a matrix of sequential synapse firings, indelibly inscribed patterns, which we later depend upon as memory. But after we took our first breath, none of us shared the same cradle, enjoyed the same upbringing or pursued the same interests. My life experience is unique.

    Now, you may well ask. How do you know you are right about all this? I don’t know, of course. The question is, do you recognise any of this as a reasonable explanation for the unnerving sense that nobody ever really listens to you? That nobody really cares [there just isn’t time] whether the person they see really is the person I think I am? That nobody really understands me? Don’t you ever ask yourself, why do I so often feel I’m not really like anybody else?

    Perhaps I should reduce this to grade school vocabulary. Not to insult your intelligence, but some things are simply not conducive to TED Talk complexity. Do you have a crazy aunt? That coloured your world. Did you cut your knee when you were six and it needed eleven stitches? That coloured your world. You are unique. Your world is unique. Nobody can see what you can see. Remember that, when you see blood in the street and tears and hurt on the television news, warning you that these images may be disturbing to some viewers. It’s what you remember of your cut knee that informs you how to make sense of disasters.

    The Big Men of Science and Learning easily convince us that what they see is what we should see too. That what they see is all there is to see. But The Big Man cut his knee too. And that coloured his world. But not your world. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” No matter what anybody tells you, nobody can see what you can see. Remember that.

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  14. The thread comments for the second part reminded people not to forget this thread. I’m still confused by the nested tracers but I’ll reply to myself in lieu of nothing?

    So, to rephrase, “Being nice while repeating conventional wisdom doesn’t mean you’re right.”

    Niceness or a reasonable tone of voice are not the touchstones for effective discourse. Accepting conventional wisdom without critical judgment is a recipe for eventual error or disaster, however rewarding announcing the conventional wisdom is.

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  15. “No matter what anybody tells you, nobody can see what you can see.”
    I agree, but then the question becomes how we interact with other individuals with the same situation. (Which, I understand, is one of the very issues you’re addressing in your article.)
    “Wouldn’t you agree that language games emerge from forms of life, and that people share a language game insofar as they share the form of life from which the language game emerged?
    The short answer is yes, of course. Which is what language encourages.”
    This may very well be the primary purpose of language, reassuring us that we can interact with other individuals with a similar epistemological isolation. But I suggest that, even allowing all your complaints about it, this is a good thing, contributing to our survival as a socialized species, despite the many pains it has caused.

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  16. Hi Aravis,

    So, if I were to submit an article, in which I said, “You know, I’ve been thinking very hard and have come to the conclusion that space is curved and that matter is convertible into energy”, giving no indication that anyone has said this already, with no citations, it would be published?

    I agree with you that it would have been better for him to give credit to philosophers who had preceded him.

    I suspect this will annoy you (and Massimo), but I think a difference between philosophy and physics is that it is not too hard for a thoughtful person to come up with some of the important and interesting ideas in philosophy by oneself, even without being exposed to the literature or academic philosophy in any form (that’s not to say that there are not technical areas in philosophy that require a solid grounding).

    It is quite common for me to have an idea, and only later find out that some philosopher has previously published it. I don’t often (if ever) have that experience with physics. When I study physics, I am always learning new things about the world. When I study philosophy, more often than not I am learning only how my views fit in with established views, who I agree with and disagree with. I seldom read anything that makes me change my mind or think about something in a new way (although it does happen sometimes).

    This difference between philosophy and physics feels relevant to me in the comparison between this article and the one you propose.

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  17. DM wrote: “I think a difference between philosophy and physics is that it is not too hard for a thoughtful person to come up with some of the important and interesting ideas in philosophy by oneself, even without being exposed to the literature or academic philosophy in any form.”

    ——-

    I knew this would be your reply, and that indeed, was my point. It at least appears like we are operating with very different standards, where we think that science requires a specific education and thus, expertise and philosophy does not.

    It may be true, as you say, that it is “not too hard for a thoughtful person to come up with some of the important and interesting ideas in philosophy by oneself” All I can say is that if it is, it has not yet been demonstrated in *this* forum and certainly not in these posts. Sure, one can stumble upon anti-realism on one’s own, but a completely uninformed anti-realism is not just uninteresting, but catastrophically boring. One can imagine a person intuiting that translation *might* suffer from some kind of indeterminacy, but a completely uninformed semantic anti-realism or relativism is also quite boring.

    But what I find most objectionable about these posts and the followup conversation is the gleeful refusal to answer questions. Beyond pointing to important source material, many of us have also asked very straightforward questions, the response to which has been to cite the Sanhedrin and being crucified. It is not the hyperbole that I find off-putting, however, but rather the complete abandonment of the whole idea of productive discourse. If we are not going to move forward, together, as we converse, by way of questioning and answering, then I don’t see the point of talking at all.

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  18. Hi Aravis,

    It at least appears like we are operating with very different standards, where we think that science requires a specific education and thus, expertise and philosophy does not.

    It depends what level you’re playing at. To publish academic papers, or to be an authority on a given field, then you need a specific education and expertise. But much of philosophy is about thinking interesting, insightful, coherent thoughts and presenting them in well-communicated arguments. These abilities are lifelong skills informally developed in professional and private life by many people in a way that understanding of theoretical physics is usually not.

    Perhaps a better analogy than physics might be music. One can be a brilliant musician without any understanding of music theory, music history or even ability to read music. Education doesn’t hurt, and may help a lot, but it is not always required (depending on the type of music or philosophy you’re attempting). As with musical influences, philosophical ideas can percolate out into the wider culture and influence new thinkers in ways they may not even realise.

    I see Scientia Salon as something of a jam session, where “music” enthusiasts of all backgrounds share some of their riffs and songs with a lot of back and forth, criticism and encouragement. You are like a professor of modern music, who has really great knowledge and insights and so has a lot to bring to the meeting, but you also demand that every performance be accompanied by a thoroughly researched list of musical influences and complain when there is insufficient originality or when some particular musical idea you like fails to be incorporated. Furthermore, you phrase this dislike such that the problem is not that the music is simply not to your taste, but that the musician is obviously “completely ignorant” of the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie or whoever.

    Certainly your constructive criticism is welcome. I agree with much of what you say about this particular article, particularly with reference to “the gleeful refusal to answer questions”. I just think complaining of unoriginality or asking for a literature review is a bit much.

    Sure, one can stumble upon anti-realism on one’s own, but a completely uninformed anti-realism is not just uninteresting, but catastrophically boring. One can imagine a person intuiting that translation *might* suffer from some kind of indeterminacy, but a completely uninformed semantic anti-realism or relativism is also quite boring.

    To someone as informed as you, sure. And somewhat to me also, as it happens. But this will be the case whenever you’re reading ideas you’ve read before. If it were your first time to encounter these ideas, then you might have found the article exciting or invigorating. It is not therefore the fault of the article if it’s pitched at too low a level for you. There were plenty of commenters who seemed to appreciate it.

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  19. DM:
    “However I do not agree with your apparent implication that there is no objective reality out there”

    I think your ‘reality’-concept might differ from Theo’s (note: Theo’s use of the term seems inconsistent). Explicitly, Theo wants to contrast (a) the crude empiricist idea of reality as “given” through sensory information, i.e. “discrete significant objects,” with (b) reality as a conjunction of sensory information with background assumptions, i.e. “apparently coherent anthology of never-ending stories.” Whatever you mean by “objective reality” doesn’t seem relevant to his explicit meaning.

    “and I do not agree that mathematics cannot describe it.”

    Crudely, lets suppose Theo argues that if we understand reality in terms of a conjunction of coherent stories with sensory information, mathematics satisfies the coherence criteria but not the sensory, and so does not “describe reality”. Here I think Theo has equivocated a sort of ‘ultimate reality’ or ‘independent (objective?) reality with what he earlier wanted to say about reality. Otherwise, it seems pretty obvious that mathematics and other languages can describe our OWN realities, as he likes to refer to them.

    “Where two people think alike, communication can be effortless and productive.”

    Theo can accept this in the conditional form: if 2 people think the same, then they can communicate effectively. But what he denies is that we can ever affirm the antecedent. If you are interested in WVO Quine, you can find some parallel arguments (underdetermination, radical translation, etc.). The gist of Theo’s argument is that the meaning of a word or sentence for Person X can be different than that of Person Y, even when X and Y appear to communicate effectively. But I side with you in part: Theo’s skeptical doubts can be accepted as possible, and we can weaken our criterion (and allow varying degrees of success) for “effective” communication.

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  20. “I only got this far because you have just announced that what you are about to say is not going to make any sense.”

    This is, trivially, a misinterpretation. Theo cannot say that what he says “will not make sense” to another person any more than he can say that it “will make sense” to another person. He states in the previous paragraph some examples of what he wants to argue against: ” whenever I watch ordinarily intelligent people freely mobilizing so interchangeably words like ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘awareness,’ as if such are universally understood as synonymous”.

    This is a denial of effective communication, which is not equivalent to a denial of coherent interpretation, which is arguably what you need to make sense of something. You can disagree with his argument, but parody has its limits.

    That said, Theo does not seem to eager to be understood, and I’m not sure he is really making much sense!

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  21. Thank you, Dyami. I appreciate your sentiments. [Provided, of course, that I read you correctly.]

    I’ve given the matter some more thought. [As you do.]

    “My dog has white fur.” Aravis Tarheena offered this raw statement as “a description of reality”. In my thesis, this is a classic logical fallacy. We do this all the time. By extracting such statements from their essential habitual context, we can claim that this is an accurate description of reality. That is how O.J. Simpson was found both guilty and not guilty, in the court of public opinion, long before the trial.

    Barry White is black. Cilla Black is white. These are statements of fact, not descriptions of reality. That can never be the whole story. We must apply the socially significant context to obtain the meaning. And we do that without hesitation. The construction of meaning is effortless, literally insensible. Costing the brain a lot of sugar and oxygen. That is why, I believe, we are so eager to jumpy to a priori conclusions.

    I have only five bucks in my pocket. That is the reality. [The definite article is determinative. “Reality” is much more convoluted.] Then comes the essential qualifier: therefore I can’t pay for your lunch. There we have the meaning, as it is drawn from the context of the moment. That I only have five bucks is true. What it means [to me] is derived from the context. Statements of demonstrably falsifiable fact do not live in a petri dish. Taken out of context, such statements are literally incomprehensible.

    You don’t get on your usual bus and accost the first person you meet by saying, “my dog has white fur”. If that person does not suddenly remember he forgot to feed his goldfish, he’s likely to turn on you and say something like, “so what?” [Subtext: Give me the context.] In the New York subway you’ll be lucky to read the news, not be the news.

    That is the social, ‘in situ’, contextual reality. In Holland, the standard knee-jerk response to being presented with gross irrelevancies is to declare, with equal gravity, “my aunt also has a bicycle”. In Holland, if you don’t own a bicycle, you are not only nobody’s aunty. You are, in fact, an oxymoron. [A zombie?] He’s breathing, but he’s obviously not really Dutch.

    As every courtroom drama clearly demonstrates ad nauseam, the context is everything. [Well, almost.] If you tell a stranger that your dog has white fur, that person is within his constitutional rights to demand an explanation. “What do mean to say by that?” There’s the clincher right there. I know what you said. What do you mean to say by that? Without all the essential collateral data, we literally cannot make sense of such stand-alone statements.

    In court, you might very well say your dog has white fur. By which you might mean to imply that your dog could not have attacked the plaintiff. Eyewitnesses testified under oath that the offending dog was black. Which, for my learned friend opposite, may immediately beg the question, whether the offending dog’s fur had been treated with non-permanent dye. [Subtext: The plaintiff was momentarily distracted by the dog’s naked teeth, which the ostensible owner of the dog exploited to snatch the plaintiff’s purse. My dog has white fur today. On the night in question it did not.]

    Members of the jury, as I have repeatedly tried to establish, my reality is a tangled web of unfinished stories, in which raw statements of fact are more or less incorporated, as I believe at the time the situation requires. Your reality is a similar anthology of “tall tales and true of the legendary past”. No two people ever share precisely the same reality. I rest my case.

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  22. Sal Scilicet wrote:

    ” ‘My dog has white fur’. Aravis Tarheena offered this raw statement as “a description of reality”. In my thesis, this is a classic logical fallacy.”

    ————-

    As a teacher of logic, I’m interested in knowing what “classic logical fallacy” I have committed. I can’t think of one. (I may be mistaken in my claims about this sentence, but that doesn’t make it a logical fallacy.)

    —————-

    “These are statements of fact, not descriptions of reality.”

    ————-

    Unless you explain what you mean by this distinction, it doesn’t serve as any sort of argument or even to clarify.

    ————-

    As for the rest, I have no idea what you are going on about. Certainly it has nothing to do with my reason for invoking the sentence “My dog has white fur,” which was in response to the (obviously) false claim that sentences *never* describe reality.

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  23. Hi Aravis,

    You wrote: “Unless you explain what you mean by this distinction, it doesn’t serve as any sort of argument or even to clarify.”

    OK. How’s this.

    I must confess, I am indebted to you for reminding me, yet again, of how easily we all conflate raw statements of fact with accurate descriptions of reality. I include myself in that assessment.

    Your use of the word ‘reality’ is different from mine. I’m tempted to say, it’s as simple as that. Except that I believe it is never that simple.

    This is why I believe the American polity is so polarised today. The home of the brave and the land of the free … and the DSM. This makes it very easy to diagnose ‘cognitive dissonance’ [climate change denial, homosexuality, any nonconformity] as a mental illness. Just as the KGB used to define ‘ideological dissidence’.

    Too many of us assume there is only one reality possible. Of course that’s true for you. And it’s true for me. The problem is that it means different things to each of us. Which invites both of us to conclude that, first, I am not stupid. And second, therefore, my reality must be the only possible reality.

    Allow me to demonstrate what I am obliged to believe is at least true for me. As far as I’m concerned, according to the way I see it, your assertion that a statement of fact is an accurate description of reality is a logical fallacy.

    But that is just my opinion, the result of how I interpret what I see and hear. I can only assume you do likewise. We are both obviously intelligent, eloquent and we seriously mean well. The trouble is that we are therefore even more likely to accuse each other of erring in law and in logical truth.

    Now, I ask you. To keep shouting at each other, “Is that a white dog or not?!!” is hardly going to lead to world peace and tranquility for all.

    You have every right to be offended at the suggestion that you have “committed a logical fallacy”. But that is only what Theo Wit said. That is not reality, defined as universal truth. We none of us can claim to rise above the inherent limits of our intellect, transcend the incessant brawling in the market place, and declare we own some kind of universal truth.

    I was expressing my opinion. I naively assumed that was the point of this forum. To be peremptorily commanded to “answer my questions”, and when I fail to do so, dismissed as “incompetent”, evokes a response. [Cut me and I bleed.] Which is then received with ever more rising frustration on both sides. The Middle East in a nutshell.

    Please note. I live in Australia. The Australian east coast is fourteen hours ahead of the US east coast. When it’s 7am in NY, it’s 9pm by me. On the same date. That means, by the time I read your questions, ‘Disagreeable_Me’ of all people, by his own admission one of the more assertive gadflies at SciSal, had already come to my defence. “Don’t be too hard on poor old Theo …” [Have you ever stood with a group at a party who talk about you in the third person?]

    You wrote, “As for the rest, I have no idea what you are going on about”.

    Bingo. What does that mean? That therefore I am obviously wrong? Or that you misunderstand what I meant? If the latter, that would seem to support my thesis: we can never be sure what the other means. If the former, you condemn all those you disagree with to the boondocks. That is precisely the dilemma I have been talking about.

    Here is my reality. Your reality is not my reality. We conflate statements of fact with an accurate description of reality at our peril. What we conveniently assume to be “the material world out there” that we all see, is nothing more or less than a catalogue of patently obvious facts.

    We conveniently forget that we make use of these facts selectively. We have no choice. If our brain had to deal with every piece of sensory data indiscriminately, we would not go crazy. The brain would simply shut down. Blot out the unacceptable. Ignore the irrelevancies.

    As it does, when we are confronted with incomprehensible news, unspeakable sights and sound. In the interest of self preservation, we do not employ all of the patently obvious facts to make sense. For the sake of preserving our sanity, we see the forest, not the leaves. [You’ve heard of gestalt theory, I’m sure.]

    The fact that your dog has white fur is going to be irrelevant to me. Until your dog bites me. My brain ignores irrelevancies. I believe yours does too. Otherwise we could not drive at speed on the freeway. Your passenger might say, did you like that song on the radio? You didn’t hear it. Your mind was elsewhere. How could you not hear that? Are you even awake? Let me out.

    President Obama has black skin. That is a clear, unambiguous statement of fact. What we make of that fact is wide open to interpretation. An open invitation, in fact, for everyone with a barrow to push, to reveal our prejudices. That is how I see my reality. The fact that Obama has black skin is not the whole story.

    For some, it means Obama obviously has a huge Jim Crow chip on his shoulder. He’s obviously the guy with the black hat, who’s gonna run the KKK outta town. [The black sherif in ‘Blazing Saddles’: “Anybody move, the nigga gets it”.]

    Obama’s middle name is Hussein. For some, that obviously means he prays five times a day towards Mecca and wants to wipe Israel off of the map. He says he was born in Hawaii and his father was Kenyan. For some, that obviously means he has no right to be Commander In Chief.

    Oprah Winfrey said, “He is the one!” And the crowd went wild. [For some, it ain’t over till the Big Lady is done singin’.] For some, that means Obama is the anointed one, who shall lead us to the Promised Land.

    Look around. The United States has become ungovernable. The Constitution has become an open invitation to civil war. [It’s no better in Australia, or Europe. There’s little rumour of civil unrest in China, because the ignorant masses are strictly controlled. As were the faithful in the Middle Ages. The Tea Party would like to emulate such rigour.]

    I hope we can at least agree that you have as much right to your Point of View as I do to mine. It’s just that your righteous indignation in response to my opinions comes across to me as reminiscent of the Inquisition. For me, the reality is that we all construct our own realities. And that is why especially the most intelligent and civilised among us will always come to blows.

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  24. A reasonable response, I think. Thank you.

    “This may very well be the primary purpose of language, reassuring us that we can interact with other individuals with a similar epistemological isolation. But I suggest that, even allowing all your complaints about it, this is a good thing, contributing to our survival as a socialized species, despite the many pains it has caused.”

    I’m not sure that our incessant conjecture on “the purpose of language”, any more than, “why we are here”, will ever bear much palletable fruit.

    Also, I’m not sure to what extent our comfortable assumptions really reassures us “that we can interact with others with a similar epistemological isolation”.

    When I read, “even allowing all your complaints”, I immediately think of how often we hear the acute exasperation in the market place: “What are you talking about?!” ; “What are you on about?!”; “Didn’t you hear what I just said?!”

    It seems to me, we are all complaining bitterly, most to the time [viz. the hostile reception to my posts right here], that our words just don’t seem to fly. [“We manage to get people on the Moon, why can’t you understand what I mean?] My thesis was to suggest one explanation for this infuriating phenomenon. “Preposterous!”

    Is this a good thing? I think that’s too strong. It’s about as good as spraying all open water with kerosene to combat malaria. Thereby killing all the fish, threatening the birds that depend on the fish and the tribes that depend on the birds …

    I prefer to say that our much-vaunted linguistic sophistication is about as good as it gets. Which, I grant you, is not saying much.

    I think you hinted at it. “… despite the many pains it has caused.”

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  25. Footnote.

    You claim to be a teacher of logic. Is that really relevant? To you it is, I’m sure. But to me …?

    Does that mean your Weltanschauung is unassailable? That it is pointless arguing with you? If we take that to its logical conclusion, doesn’t that mean Galileo, Martin Luther, Charles Darwin et al were wrong? That to argue with the Ecclesia is to risk excommunication?

    Only one problem. [Among legion.] I am not one of your amenable students, looking for a meal ticket.

    Not only do you appeal to authority. You appeal to your own authority. Is that logical? To you it is, I’m sure. But to me …?

    As I understand it, argument from authority inebitably leads to a logical fallacy. In informal reasoning, the appeal to authority is a form of argument attempting to establish a statistical syllogism.

    In your case, appeal to authority relies on the argument:
    I am an authority on this topic. Therefore, I am obviously correct.

    Fallacious examples of using the appeal include any appeal to authority used in the context of logical reasoning, and appealing to the position of an authority or authorities to dismiss evidence.

    While authorities can be correct in judgments related to their area of expertise, more often than laypersons, they can still come to the wrong judgments through error, bias, dishonesty, or falling prey to groupthink.

    The appeal to authority is not a generally reliable argument for establishing facts. [Wikipedia]

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  26. Not only do you appeal to authority. You appeal to your own authority. Is that logical? To you it is, I’m sure. But to me …?

    =====

    I have not appealed to authority. I mentioned that I teach logic, because it means I know what logical fallacies are and the statement to which you referred is *not* a logical fallacy.

    I don’t think that we are accomplishing anything productive in our exchanges, so I am going to bow out.

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  27. Re: Aravis: “These are statements of fact, not descriptions of reality.”… Unless you explain what you mean by this distinction, it doesn’t serve as any sort of argument or even to clarify… I have no idea what you are going on about.

    Hi Aravis. First, I wouldn’t call myself a teacher, but was a TA for formal logic last year. Regardless I hope to keep the discussion as pedestrian as possible.

    The gist of the argument could be that statements (such as the one you are now reading) do not refer to reality-proper, but merely to reality-reader(Aravis). And your reality, or your statements about it, are statements about other representations in your head. In short, your mind ain’t outside your head. And so whats in your mind (belief) is in your head.

    So, “my dog has white fur” is true if my dog has white fur. But the consequent, despite freeing itself from quotation, ain’t free from your head. I am leaving out the juice and jargon.

    But let us suppose we can overcome this semantic solipsism (as I think we can). “My dog has white fur” (Language-Aravis) is true if my(aravis’s) dog has white fur (Language-public). We may now wish to say that this ‘Language-public’, unlike Language-Aravis, refers to reality(proper). But we can deny this by comparing truth of Language-public across time, so things like “E=MC2” is not true for Language-PublicT1, but true for Language-publicT2. The argument would be arduous, but one may arrive at a view that Languages establish intersubjective coherence, not descriptions of Reality per se. Also, this type of contradiction (something true and not-true) might be what THEO had in mind with his use of logical fallacy. Indeed, his court room examples suggest this is the case.

    We can question a number of things here, of course. But we should be open to the idea that a Good Idea might be sufficient for Good Philosophy, even if rigorous proof and clarity are subordinate to poetic polemics and rhetoric (personal examples: Nietzsche re religion, Charles Taylor re language and meaning).

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  28. Re: your main point, regardless of the way the author presented it, I could never accept the idea of a “language-Aravis”, simply for the sorts of reasons Wittgenstein lays out in his arguments against Private Language. To use words is to follow rules and rule-following cannot occur other than in a social context.

    As for the other point, your examples are lost on me, I am afraid, as I am not a fan of either of the authors you cite, but nonetheless, fair enough.

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  29. “I could never accept the idea of a “language-Aravis…”
    — That is quite fine by me! Disagreement is better than discombobulation. I will sometimes ‘take a stance’ for dialectic purposes.

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