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Friday, August 31, 2012

Philosophy of Language Notes Part 1: Wittgenstein

Over at Scholardarity I've posted Part 1 of my notes on the Philosophy of language, the first contribution to Scholardarity Student’s subsection Open Source Study Notes. This  part deals with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here's an excerpt:


~ Prelude ~
Why philosophers study language–

1) Philosophers have been accused of “making mistakes” based on language. Consider the sentences:

i) “Santa Claus does not exist.”
ii) “Santa Claus wears a red suit.”

a) “How can one talk about something”, philosophers sometimes ask, “and say something true or false about it, if it isn’t real or doesn’t ‘have being’ in some sense? In order for statements like (i) or (ii) to be true, they have to be about something—Santa Claus, in this case. Granted, in light of the fact that (i) is true, Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but nevertheless he is some kind of being and has properties—including the properties of being non-existent and wearing a red suit.” However, at least since Bertrand Russell published his famous article “On Denoting” in 1905, most philosophers think that arguments like this are based on linguistic confusions. It can be true that Santa Claus does not exist without Santa Clause being real in any sense.

b) From time to time philosophers also ask: Is there such a thing as “goodness”, or something like Plato’s “Form of the Good”? Able philosophers have thought so, but others–emotivists, in particular, such as A. J. Ayer, C. L. Stevenson, Richard Hare—have held that to call something good or bad, or to say that an action is right or wrong, is not to say that it objectively has some moral feature—“goodness”, “wrongness”, etc.—but to express how the speaker feels about the thing or action in question.  For example, on this view a sentence like “Lying is wrong” is neither true nor false; nor, when properly understood, is it purported to be. It merely evinces that the speaker who uttered the sentence disapproves of lying. It does not even say that the speaker disapproves of lying—that would be a sentence that is apt to be true or false; true if the speaker disapproves of lying and false if they do not. On the emotivists’ view, to say that lying is wrong is more like saying “Boo lying!”, “Screw lying!”, “Down with lying!”, or something of the sort.

(Personal note: Words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, may have an expressive function, but it doesn’t follow that they only have an expressive function. Sentences involving ‘good’ and ‘bad’ might sometimes attribute objective goodness or badness to some entity, and it may be that it is in virtue of one’s belief that the entity in question is objectively good that one can use the term ‘good’ or ‘goodness’ to express how one feels about it. For it may be that if one had no belief concerning the entity’s moral value, one might not have any feelings about it, whether positive or negative.)

2) What are the limits of human knowledge? What can we conceive? The “early” Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, thought there was a connection between the limits of conception and the limits of what can be expressed in language:

The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather—not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought).
The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.—Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, p. 3

3) Language is inherently interesting.

1 comment:

Sam Ronicker said...

There's a problem with your idea that saying "Lying is wrong" is the equivalent to "Boo lying" or that the speaker him/herself thinks lying is bad and that's the extent of it. That type of thinking will render something like Orwell's 1984 language, devoid of meaning and subtlety. If one says (even a deep-thinking philosopher) "lying is wrong" then it shouldn't be doublespeak where the person actually means, "I think lying is bad" or something like that. One should mean what one says and say what one means. I agree, this isn't a linguistic problem, it's a moral relativity problem. IF there's no such thing as a universal moral standard then what you're saying must be so, but if there is "goodness" then one can easily say "lying is wrong." And, be safe in the real meaning that lying is bad and there is a real good and that it's not lying.