Thoughts, Words, Objects

17 04 2006

I just got back yesterday from the University of Texas Graduate Philosophy Conference, which was a lot of fun. In fact, I think it was the most fun I’ve had at a conference other than FEW last year, which coincidentally was also in Austin – maybe it’s just a fun town! At any rate, it was a lot of very good papers, and I got a lot of good ideas from the discussion after each one as well. Even the papers about mind-body supervenience, and Aristotelian substance (which aren’t issues I’m normally terribly interested in) made important use of logical and mathematical arguments that kept me interested. And the fact that both keynote speakers and several Texas faculty were sitting in on most of the sessions helped foster a very collegial mood. I’d like to thank the organizers for putting on such a good show, and especially Tim Pickavance for making everything run so smoothly, and Aidan McGlynn for being a good commentator on my paper (and distracting Jason Stanley from responding to my criticism!)

Because the theme was “thoughts, words, objects”, most of the papers were about language and metaphysics, and perhaps about their relation. There seems to be a methodological stance expressed in some of the papers, with some degree of explicitness in the talks by Jason Stanley and Josh Dever, that I generally find quite congenial but others might find a bit out there. I’ll just state my version of what’s going on, because I’m sure there are disagreements about the right way to phrase this, and I certainly don’t pretend to be stating how anyone else thinks of what’s going on.

But basically, when Quine brought back metaphysics, it was basically with the understanding that it wouldn’t be this free-floating discipline that it had become with some of the excesses of 19th century philosophy and medieval theology – no counting angels on the heads of pins. Instead, we should work in conjunction with the sciences to establish our best theory of the world, accounting for our experiences and the like and giving good explanations of them. And at the end, if our theories are expressed in the right language (first-order logic), we can just read our ontological commitments off of this theory, and that’s the way we get our best theory of metaphysics. There is no uniquely metaphysical way of figuring out about things, apart from the general scientific and philosophical project of understanding the world.

More recently, it’s become clear that much of our work just won’t come already phrased in first-order logic, so the commitments might not be transparent on the surface. However, the growth of formal semantics since Montague (building on the bits that Frege and Tarski had already put together) led linguists and philosophers to develop much more sophisticated accounts that can give the apparent truth-conditions for sentences of more complicated languages than first-order logic, like say, ordinary English. Armed with these truth-conditions from the project of semantics, and the truth-values for these statements that we gather from the general scientific project, we can then figure out just what we’re committed to metaphysically being the case.

Of course, science is often done in much more regimented and formalized languages, so that less semantic work needs to be done to find its commitments, which is why Quine didn’t necessarily see the need to do formal semantics. Not to mention that no one else had really done anything like modern formal semantics for more than a very weak fragment of any natural language, so that the very idea of such a project might well have been foreign to what he was proposing in “On What There Is”.

In addition to the obvious worry that this seems to do so much metaphysical work with so little metaphysical effort, there are more Quinean worries one might have about this project. For one thing, it seems odd that formal semantics, alone among the sciences (or “sciences”, depending on how one sees things) gets a special role to play. On a properly Quinean view there should be no such clear seams. And I wonder if the two projects can really be separated in such a clear way – it seems very plausible to me that what one wants to say about semantics might well be related to what one wants to say about ordinary object language facts of the matter, especially in disciplines like psychology, mathematics, and epistemology.

In discussion this afternoon, John MacFarlane pointed out to me that this sort of project has clear antecedents in Davidson, when he talks about the logical structure of action sentences, and introduced the semantic tool of quantifying over events. This surprises me, because I always think of Davidson as doing semantics as backwards from how I want to do it, but maybe I’ve been reading him wrong.

At any rate, thinking about things this way definitely renews my interest in the problems around various forms of context-sensitivity. The excellent comments by Julie Hunter on Elia Zardini’s paper helped clarify what some of the issues around MacFarlane-style relativism really are. Jason Stanley had been trying to convince me of some problems that made it possibly not make sense, but she expressed them in a way that I could understand, though I still can’t adequately convey. It seems to be something about not being able to make proper sense of “truth” as a relation rather than a predicate, except within a formal system. Which is why it seems that MacFarlane has emphasized the role of norms of assertion and retraction rather than mere truth-conditions, and why he started talking about “accuracy” rather than “truth” in the session in Portland.

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff! Back to regularly-scheduled content about mathematics and probability shortly…

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5 responses

18 04 2006
william Sherman

What is it to assent to something, to call something true? what is truth?
It seems in nowise fixed into some indubitable form–this notion of truth—
and that truth is a proposition seems laughable to me. Propositions were made up to fill the gap–to join the gap between idea and the world that we have so cleverly separated into mutually exclusive things.
mental/physical, real /unreal, actual/ metaphorical,
This pat separation is confronted by the
impossiblity of cleanly separating words and things, concepts and objects and so on– saying where one stops and the other starts.
We want to say–that our words fit the world. The words , the mentality are over here and the world ,the physicality are over there and the words “correspond” to the world.
One camp uses the ‘”I can directly apperceive” strategy saying “I can directly
apperceive that concepts and words are separate and unlike and that words can match the world.”
The other camp says “But what you are saying consists of words and concepts–in fact you wouldn’t be able to even have notion of world versus words if you didn’t have the words and concepts.- so words cannot be separated from the world-any object must be at least partly words.
The reply: oh no, we can directly apperceive the difference, don’t need words at all. Like the taste of sour and sweet. And describing the same object in different ways verbally does not change the object– so the object is independent of words.
The counter; but you need words and concepts to even have any sense of difference.
no we don’t
yes you do
—-and so the dance continues.
One side believes the concepts and words are ontologically prime, so to say
and the others think that immediate direct apperception is ontologically prime and that words and concepts are irrelevant.
Is either one indubitable?
Back and forth. How to make peace?
Well let’s make up by positing this thing called a proposition.
The proposition somehow is not words and concepts and not really physical — but instead it is a marvelous entity which combines both and is neither. We can’t say what it is beond that. But with the proposition words and mentality remain separate from world and physicality and yet the words and the world really fit together — in fact the words can express exaclty the world– all due to this fantastic entity called the proposition. Amazing.
My theory is that the proposition is also meant to preserve the human ego as an independent agent.
After all, if the world and the mind are
considered two aspects of one thing–
then the world and the words must cooperate together–and man’s supposed judgment about what is or is not the case–man’s ablity to decide which words are accurate and true– is only apparent—in fact the universe as a whole is making it all up as it goes along and the human ego is only a device– perhaps there is even no self at all beyond some sense of self— perhaps there is no entity behind the self at all and so human agency is really another word for non-human agency and therefore there is no free human will.
Human will then would be just another
way of saying the universe did this, or somelhing did this.
The running body crossed the finish line
The running body said “I crossed the finishe line” . No human needed.
So, let’s keep the mutually exclusive categories and keep the proposition in its honored place. It is safer that way.
What all this points out is that truth is
not about indubitability but about what shows up. Something happens and then
the idea that something happened showsup and then something else shows up and so on, until what I have just said here shows up. What is the truth is not the story, the content– I am writing on a blog– not even the most basic description– it is the fact of its existence– that it shows up at all.
To grasp this, don’t confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself. The story means nothing outside the story itself –it has its significance in the interaction with the other things that show up— these apparent things.
What is significant fundamentally is rather the contrast between what shows up— the words and the sense and the whatever that comes and goes—- with not showing up.
We know the something which shows up because it is contrasted with that which does not show up.
All that shows up is seen as the same by being contrasted with the not showing up.
The not showing up appears as darkness in contrast to the showing up.
Yes, i know, you think I am getting metaphysical. But really, I am not. All of the above, the story, is not the point– not even this last sentence is the point. The point is to look and see in experience what is in contrast to that which shows up– the silence that contrasts it.
what does not show up is as much there as what does, as the taste of a peach is there.
Philosophy facilitates toward this and this I think is its greatest use.
Thanks for inspiring my writing tonight.

18 04 2006
David Corfield

I would love to see how philosophers seven centuries hence represent Quine and Davidson if they haven’t learned the importance of knowing the history of their subject. They would surely lampoon the twentieth century for wondering about possible fat men in doorways. But then at least this was a topic that was actually discussed, unlike that nonsense about angels on heads of pins (see second bullet point of this).

On a different matter, I wonder what research Bas Van Fraassen, who has a wonderful attack on Quinean metaphysics in the first chapter of The Empirical Stance, would have done as Waynflete professor of metaphysical philosophy had he accepted the post.

18 04 2006
Kenny Easwaran

I hadn’t realized that the angels on heads of pins was just a later invention. But still, one must admit that trying to decide whether or not angels could be colocated by exercise of pure reason sounds at least somewhat futile. As many current philosophers find much of what is currently done by some analytic metaphysicians (though people can’t agree on which parts are like this).

21 04 2006
Greg

Among many philosophers of science who are amenible to Quinean metaphysical enterprises, the kinds of formal semantics projects you mention here are viewed as not terribly enlightening about ‘the way reality is at bottom’ or whatever it is metaphysics is supposed to be about. Such philosophers of science see formal semantic projects as merely a codification of a pre-scientific conception of the world — and thus not enjoying the epistemic support and priviledge of physics etc. So the formal-semantics-metaphysics does reveal the structure of metaphysical committments in ‘everyday language’ or whatever, but there’s no reason to think that reveals something about the deep structure of reality.

21 04 2006
Kenny Easwaran

The way I see the project, one should come up with formal semantics for scientific language as well – presumably this won’t just reflect pre-scientific conceptions of the world. Especially since scientific language tends to come with a relatively straightforward semantics (after all, Quine thought it could be read directly from the surface structure, because it could be done in first-order logic). I suppose there’s a possibility that the intuitive truth-value and semantics for “there is a table in the room” will lead to a conflict with the scientifically supported truth-value and semantics of some statement of physics – but this is the sort of case that should convince us to give up talk of tables, not armchair meatphysical reasoning. At least, that’s how the idea goes.

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