Monday, April 23, 2012

Recent work has suggested...

The Stone is my go-to site when I want to criticize something so as to have something to post on my blog. I have realized that this is neither noble nor really worthwhile, but I'm not sure I can resist this time. Peter Ludlow writes:
Recent work in philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence has suggested a [...] picture that rejects the idea that languages are stable abstract objects that we learn and then use.  According to the alternative “dynamic” picture, human languages are one-off things that we build “on the fly” on a conversation-by-conversation basis; we can call these one-off fleeting languages microlanguages.  
Well, yes, we can I suppose. But how do we learn these microlanguages? It surely helps to know some other microlanguage already, to have had other conversations before. More specifically, here is Ludlow's example:
suppose I am thinking of applying for academic jobs and I tell my friend that I don’t care where I teach so long as the school is in a city.  My friend suggests that I apply to the University of Michigan and I reply “Ann Arbor is not a city.”  In doing this, I am not making a claim about the world so much as instructing my friend (for the purposes of our conversation) to adjust the meaning of “city” from official definitions to one in which places like Ann Arbor do not count as cities.  
This reminds me of p. 234 of this essay by James Conant, in which he discusses Frege's sentence "Trieste is no Vienna." It isn't news that we can do things like this with language. Nor that we can break language into parts and call them something, be it microlanguages or language-games.

I don't mean to reject what Ludlow is saying though. Apart from this invitation to invent counterexamples:
If word meanings can change dramatically during the course of a single conversation how could they not change over the course of centuries?  
(Compare: "If whether I'm alive or not can change dramatically during the course of a single conversation how could it not change over the course of several decades?") For the most part I think I agree very much with Ludlow. And as ever with articles in The Stone the main problem might just be with the task he has taken on of explaining complicated issues and ideas in simple terms. But I hate the thought that an idea is only valuable when recent work in some kind of science has suggested that it is true. If people insist on thinking like that then maybe they deserve to come late to what has long since been pointed out.


  1. i do feel sometimes somewhat unfortunate in not wanting much to do with what 'studies have shown', since that seems to associate me by default with arch-rationalists whose own justifications for why they do things the way they do are not available to me.

  2. True, although you get to look down on two groups of people this way. There's always that.

  3. "In philosophy it's always a matter of the application of a series of utterly simple basic principles that any child knows, and the - enormous - difficulty is only one of applying these in the confusion our language creates. It's never a question of the latest results of experiments with exotic fish or the most recent developments in mathematics. But the difficulty in applying the simple basic principles shakes our confidence in the principles themselves." (Philosophical Remarks §133)

  4. That's a great quote, Tommi (and one I had completely forgotten). Thanks.