Showing posts with label Philosophy of Language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philosophy of Language. Show all posts

Sunday, October 13, 2013


I've been thinking about this for a while and I'd like to address it here.

As a bit of background, I've often mentioned the History of Philosophy podcast.  Unfortunately, I don't get the chance to take notes, so I'll be honest, I don't remember many of the names of the philosophers mentioned in the podcast.  The other day however, one of the Hellenistic philosophers had a thought lesson that goes something like this.
Philosopher: Here is one grain of sand.  Is it a "heap of sand"?
Respondent: No of course not.
P: Here is two grains, it is a heap?
R: No.
P: Here are three, it is a heap?
R: No.
.... This continues, then eventually the respondent will answer, "Yes."
P: Let me take away one grain of sand, is it still a "heap"?
R: Well...
P: Certainly you don't mean to tell me that ONE grain of sand constitutes a "heap of sand" because earlier you said it wasn't.
This speaks to many different issues, one of which was that the sage (wise man) will withhold judgement, and the topic I have been thinking about, vagueness.

This basically falls into the philosophy of language subset of philosophy but it has serious ramifications for all levels of philosophy.  Think about it, the term "human" as clear as it seems, has at least some vagueness to it.  From; the Science Dictionary, "A member of the species Homo sapiens;  a human being."  A member of any of the extinct species of the genus Homo,  such as Homo erectus or Homo habilis,  that are considered ancestral or closely related to modern humans.  Assuming darwinian or neo-darwinian evolution, when does that start?  How many human characteristics does something need to have to be human?  How can you define something so vague?  No matter how detailed a dictionary may be, there's always going to be some level of vagueness.

Obviously I've picked one of the hardest definitions to start out with, but this relates to epistemology as well.  If there's skepticism in everything including definitional issues, how can we communicate at all?  How are you reading this blog?  What if you don't even define blog the same way as I do?  Granted my definition is the correct one!  Obviously we're standing on some amount of common ground, but that brings up what type(s) of common ground we need to communicate.  There's vagueness within my talk about vagueness.  Definitions, what's a definition?  We need a definition of definition before we can talk about vagueness because we need that common ground.  Are definitions subject to the will of the people?  Dictionaries change and disagree, which one do we trust?  Even if we agree on which dictionary we should use, what about when dictionaries change?  Do we both agree with the new definition?  What about what made the definition change, do we agree on the reason why the dictionary decided to change the definition?

Now that we've not decided on that bit of common ground, now we need to decide how much common ground we need to have before we can communicate.  So we don't completely completely agree on the exact word-for-word definition of each and every word used in this discussion, does that mean we can't communicate?  Apparently not, because I'm assuming you can read and understand what I'm writing here.  So now, even if we have a level of acceptable vagueness in definitions and definition change, what about agreeing on how much difference is acceptable?  There's vagueness in the amount of vagueness acceptable for communication.

I don't have any answers for you here, only questions.  Just casting doubt on everything we say and the very basics of communication.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philosophy of Language

Plato's Cratylus again Plato shows his uncanny aptitude for inovation by discussing a part of philosophy that is generally considered modern.  Once again, he's ahead of his time.  Here's the two primary lines of argument.  First, language is more or less arbitrary, words get their meaning based on arbitrary assignments or convention.  Second, language comes from a source like nature or god and our use of it is an imperfect reflection of true language.  In general, Plato, using Socrates' voice argues both sides of the issues and then ends up supporting neither.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, I pretty much side with Plato on this one.  I don't think either side of the coin answers reality.  I mentioned this before, this is a stereotypical giraffe:

What if I told you I have a beautiful giraffe that has short legs and a short neck and looks like this:

So, what say you?  Is that a giraffe?  What if lots of people all started calling this a giraffe?  What if EVERYONE started calling this a giraffe? People in Korea call it a 기린 (gilin--kīrīn), people in China say 長頸鹿 (chángjǐnglù), people in Japan say キリン (kirin--kīrīn, not surprising that it's nearly identical to Korean), people call it kameelperd in certain versions of Afrikaans.  If we're to subscribe to a source for our language why don't we all call it a kameelperd?  We probably should, if there's some ethereal language source out there by which all languages are derived.  If language is completely subjective and reliant to what people prefer then it makes sense that we now call that first picture a giraffe at least in English speaking places.  Obviously it makes sense that that we use just the word giraffe rather than always saying, wow look at that nice long-necked, long-legged, 16-20ft tall, approximately 3,500lb, mammal, etc. etc. just to describe a giraffe.  Obviously it's much easier to just use the word which apparently comes from Arabic, zarafa (زرافة).

I believe that God created human and taught Adam and Eve how to speak.  Perhaps not the way we think of teaching per se, but rather like the Matrix where information is just uploaded into the subject's mind.  I think (just an assumption, since the Bible includes Adam and God communicating) that God must have made Adam and thereby Eve with language.  Though Adam may have taught Eve how to communicate.  So, I believe the answer is both, God taught Adam language and that language has changed over the years since.  Also, the verses in Genesis about the Tower of Babel are telling.  Obviously God saw fit to use the power of language to enact change.  Then, over the six thousand some odd years since language has changed.  It's interesting that we seem to be following a cycle.  According to biblical history humans all started out with the same language then everything changed so that there are many different languages but we seem to be heading towards globalization of a single language again.  That idea happens to be prophesied in the Bible as well, though it seems quite a long ways in the future.

What say you?  Is there some magical source of language?  Is it merely convention?  Is it both?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Aristotle on Logic

When it comes to learning logic Aristotle is one of the founding fathers.  If you want to study logic a great place to start is Aristotle's collective work called the Organon traditionally made up of 8 different books: The Categories, On Interpretation, Prior-Analytics, Posterior-Analytics, Topics, Sophistical Refutations, Rhetoric*, and The Poetics*.  The last two are the ones that many modern philosophy/logic students often don't consider logical works, and it seems like these last two were just kind of thrown into the mix.  Sophistical Refutations is kind of like a text on anti-logic, a kind of how to spot the sophistical, empty arguments.  Of course, these works cover a wide range of logic and Aristotle's works in general cover a very broadly defined concepts of logic and philosophy.  There's no way I or anyone else could even try to attempt to cover every bit of these works but I've been listening to the History of Philosophy podcast, and Professor Adamson gives a nice overview of these works.  He talkes about how ancient philosophy students would start their foray into logic and philosophy with these works.

So far the podcast, as I've been going through it, has only given a broad overview of the logical works. To me, the most interesting book is the first one listed, The Categories.  In general, it's about categorizing various things.  The categories for different objects are listed as: substance, quality, quantity, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and being acted upon.  How certain parts a thing are essential to that that thing, and some are accidental.  It may seem silly but there's a problem I have with this.  One of the concepts within the philosophy of language is that words are given their meaning through a somewhat arbitrary process.  Prof Adamson uses the example of a giraffe quite often, so I'll follow his example.  I'm assuming everyone of my readers knows what a typical giraffe looks like.  One of the examples is a giraffe painted blue, so we have a blue giraffe, but that's just an accidental characteristic of that particular giraffe, or if there was a giraffe with a broken foot.  Those are accidental characteristics of giraffes.  So here's my question, one would assume that a long neck and legs would be considered essential characteristics of giraffes.  However, what if I told you that I had a short-necked short-legged giraffe?  What makes what I'm calling a giraffe?  Me calling it a giraffe?  According to some concepts of linguistics that's part of what makes it a giraffe.

The next on the list, On Interpretation is also quite interesting.  To me, it has one of Aristotle's most important contributions to logic and philosophy.  I've always heard it called the "Law of Non-contradiction" though Prof Adamson doesn't specifically mention it.  In general, this particular text is about negation and how to make statements and syllogisms.  I don't have the space to explain all that but I would like to talk a little about non-contradiction.  According to the professor of the logic course that I was taking through negating a statement isn't as easy as it appears.  The most straightforward method is to append the statement with "it is not the case that..."  So, the non-contradiction idea is this: two statements that are contradictions of each other cannot both be true at the same time.  For example, the statements "giraffes exist" and "it is not the case that giraffes exist," cannot both be true at the same time.  Obviously, at some time in the future or in the past giraffes may or may not exist, but at the same time they cannot both exist and not exist at the same time.  Though according to Prof Adamson, it seems that Aristotle leaves an exception to this idea, namely, for statements about the future.  For example, the statement "I will win the lottery tomorrow" is about the future and it is both true and not true at the same time.  Tomorrow, when I'm taking a bath in gold and jewels like Scrooge McDuck, I still can't say that statement was true or false just because it ends up coming true doesn't mean that when it was made it was true.