Sunday, September 17, 2006

The World of Words III

In this series of posts it has been argued that words, in a serious and important sense, represent our thoughts, and indeed, our thoughts are to a crucial extent conditioned by words. It has also been argued that metaphor is in a significant sense the 'engine' which gives words their power.

In response to these cogitations, a number of interesting and challenging points have been raised by commentators. For this reason, before continuing on with this discussion further, I will address some of the more significant of these points.

In a recent post, Toastedsuzy remarked (quoting himself from elsewhere) that,

"Any time we begin to describe someone or something, we are putting it in a box. Any time we apply any sort of label (that is, any time we use language) I think we are confining the thing we are talking about to perameters [sic] more limited than those the thing really inhabits."

Although this view has some supporters, I believe, at least as stated, that it cannot be correct. First off, notice the highly metaphorical nature of the initial claim -- what does it really mean to 'put something in a box'? Second, the idea of 'applying a label as confining' appears somewhat problematic. If we cannot/do not name/describe something, then we cannot talk about it. So, in a sense by NOT naming, we may not be boxing, but we will also be excluding. The problematic nature of the issue comes to the fore when we think of cases of ostensive definition.

Suppose I look over towards a person and perhaps nod my head in their direction and say (borrowing an example from Russell) "That is the author of Waverely". How have I boxed 'Scott' in doing this? Now, consider a more descriptive case where I just say "Scott is the author of Waverely". In this case also, the alleged 'boxing' is none too apparent.

Let as look at these cases again. In what sense do I '...confin[e] the thing we are talking about to p[a]rameters more limited than those the thing really inhabits', in each case? In the ostensive definition case, if I have done anything, I have added information about the person under discussion. Granted something like a 'parameter' has been added, in so much as, assuming I am correct, I am ruling out the predicate ' not the author of Waverely', as applying to that individual. However, this is surely not a parameter that is 'more limited than those the thing [i.e. Scott] inhabits'. Unless the intent here is to tip one's proverbial hat to proposition 7 of Wittgenstein's famous Tractatus -- "That whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence", the question becomes 'what is the insight that is being reached for here?'

It seems to me that what is missing here is that the objection only really has bite, if there is some further metaphysical thesis that provides a basis for complaining about language. One common metaphysical thesis that might motivate this position is that the world is constantly in change, whereas, in some significant and problematic manner, language treats the world as fixed and unchanging, in a manner that falsifies the actual facts of the matter. This kind of metaphysical thesis can be found, for example, in the works of Heraclitus, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. These philosophers believe that change and 'becoming' are the central salient features of the world. This view stands in contrast to the view of Parmenides, Plato and many other major philosophers. On this latter view, stability and 'being' are the central notions.

This metaphysical debate is an interesting one, but really lies beyond the scope of the current discussion. For what it is worth, I personally hold some sympathies for philosophers who advocate the centrality of change. However, this is not a view I will defend here. The point of this post though is to argue that the objections quoted at the beginning of this post are interesting and non-trivial, although they are not without their difficulties. Furthermore, as they appear to have their true origins in matters of metaphysical presupposition, which lie beyond the topic at hand, it will now be safe to proceed with a further discussion of the World of Words, without worrying too much further about these matters, at least for now.

The CP


Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

CP I cannot believe you sicced me!!!

Maybe I meant to say Per-a-meters, you don't know.


Anyway, I didn't think I was really objecting to your view of language. I, too, see language as a means of understanding the world. I mean, I think our view of language is quite similar if not exactly the same.

I don't think my assertion that to name a thing is to put it in a "box" contradicts that view of language because--well, there's more than one box, and more than one size of box. And the fact that we need words to understand the world, I think, rather supports the box metaphor because language is a way of sorting things out--finding metaphors is a way of sorting things into their appropriate compartments. It is a paradox. We understand things by naming them what they are not.

Really our understanding, therefore, is only limited by our experiences in the world and our vocabularies.

I see the problem with the box metaphor that you point out, though. The box doesn't work very well. I can be a poet and a mother at the same time, though the two states of being have little to do with one another. There's no box within a box going on there. I am as much a poet as I am a mother. I could be a Viking while I'm at it, if I wanted--these three things simultaneously and independant of eachother. So here I am, one thing, and those names have to be parts of me--I'm the box.

So, good point there. I get it.

Anyway---once again, just thinking out loud.

This is fun and interesting stuff to read and write about, so thanks.


5:57 PM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Hi TS,
Thanks for the comments. Sorry about bugging you on the spelling thing, as a chronic bad speller, it was a cheap shot. Sorry and I mean it.

This is a good debate. I wish Clampett had stayed in the game. He had a lot to offer. Actually, you both do. Thanks.

I am still not to sure of the box metaphor. In broader terms, the container metaphor is important -- see for example how it is used by Socrates in the Phaedo. However, this is not the point I wish to drive at here.

There is (what I take to be) a really important point about how language (or the use and abuse thereof) can be used to influence reality, often in a pernicious manner. That was going to be the content of this post, but as your objections were good, I wanted to address them before continuing.

Now, I could well be wrong on this. I am also a philosopher, so that my manner may not be the same as those which are considered polite in other disciplines. However, my goal is truth. As your objections were good (at least for a philosopher), they should be considered. Perhaps think about this situation as being like having a paper written claiming that your views are wrong. One can write back. However, at least someone has read the paper and cares enough to write about your work (think 'citations')

As I have mentioned before, I am very sick of the fakes and failures that like to pontificate in this blog arena. You engage, think and are even very funny, so please keep reading and commenting. When I get around to writing the next part of this series, I would really appreciate your comments. First drafts often need a lot of changes. I wish that other bloggers, who are denizens of the non-natural numbers knew this too. However, 'lightweights' and frauds are well, lightweights! Clearly, you are a person of gravitas. We have to work together against the terminally stupid -- or else the frat morons (and their academically appointed functional equivalents) will win.

The CP

11:34 PM  
Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

I wasn't upset about the sic. I thought it was funny.

I'm kind of working on a kind of post that has to do with the ways we learn to lie and the way we have of listening and understanding almost everything we hear as some degree of lie.

Especially in advertising, of course, and always in our personal relationships. I mean, it's not even unusual for a person to become convinced that he or she "has been lying to his or her self."

That's something I've been thinking about lately, in part because of you, and eventually I will post about it.

We will both be very old then, and it won't matter anymore.

In the meantime, I'll keep reading and commenting.


9:23 PM  

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