Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wittgenstein and the value of clarity again

Just in case anyone's interested, I've revised this paper. The new version is here.


  1. philo of sport, know-how, rules,etc

  2. I've just read your introductory paragraph (I'm not stopping there!), and I want to say already that, as opposed to 'clarity' as a value (in communication), I think the fundamental concept is going to be 'clarification' as a progressive process of the revision of expressions, and that we need to get clear about the criteria that determine, given two sentences, s1 and s2, whether or not s2 is an acceptable clarification of s1. s1 and s2 may even both be true in the Tarskian sense, but s2 may be "better" for the communicative purposes than s1; e.g., s2 may provide a deeper and more detailed account of a causal relation between two events, so that s2 is "preferable" for the understanding. Deliberate unclarity is bad, but the refusal to clarify is an indication of intellectual dishonesty, and should be noted as such in any communicative situation, at least in the public debate. (Let me note that Republicans regularly refuse to clarify.)

    'communication' and 'understanding' I would regard as additional and separate categories, which I think can be given definitions in formal terms, given the fundamental linguistic notions. In general, I also think an account of meaning where the fundamental intuitive guiding concept is understanding, perhaps in the sense of Dummett (Thought and Reality), rather than truth in the Tarskian sense (which I think is inadequate for natural (non-formal) and referential use of language) would be more effective in allowing us to understand the phenomenon of linguistic meaning, indeed, whether we're talking about meaning expressed in natural language use or in formal language use.

    1. Thanks for this.

      I agree that "Deliberate unclarity is bad, but the refusal to clarify is an indication of intellectual dishonesty". My focus in this paper, though, is the former rather than the latter. Actually, I don't distinguish much between deliberate clarity and accidental unclarity. Perhaps I should.

      There is at least a book's worth of issues in this area, I think. Clarification is, as you say, a very important one.

  3. Perhaps the question of clarity should be less about whether some terms or phrases mean the same thing to every speaker/listener/reader in common circumstances than about whether there is a fundamental fuzziness in all of our understandings, that is, there is no such thing as meaning but only a continuum of activities in which meaning is asserted as part of language itself. Meaning, on this view, is a function of what we do when using words, not some special feature attached to that use.

    Understanding, itself, is probably best seen as a constant process of "working through" rather than as instances of clarity or unclarity given some particular word or phrase. If semantic meaning is about getting what the words mean (when heard, spoken or read), the place to look for meaning is not in the words or even in their uses per se but only in their role within an ongoing flow of usages (the activity, both verbal and non-verbal, of the interlocutors). Meaning, in this sense, is found when our expectations of the other, in terms of what they do or say, are met and in terms of the degree to which they are met.

    Do we ever understand anyone a hundred percent? That's probably not even a useful question for we understand enough to share a world when we have the same language (or the right kind of language, even if you speak English and I speak Hindi or Urdu, i.e., languages that can bear translation into one another).

    1. If semantic meaning is about getting what the words mean (when heard, spoken or read), the place to look for meaning is not in the words or even in their uses per se but only in their role within an ongoing flow of usages (the activity, both verbal and non-verbal, of the interlocutors).

      This seems about right. Communication is an interactive activity, and like other such activities it should, I think, be non-coercive, non-exploitative, and done with respect for others. At least in most cases.

      (Sorry for the delayed response. I've been away.)

    2. If communication is practice, then part of that is the stuff people like Trump do,too: mantra-like repetitions that fix thoughts in others' heads, sloganeering, misdirection, obfuscation, verbal aggressiveness. If meaning in language is just getting others to react in the way we want, then perhaps there is not such a clear delineation between explaining ideas, marshalling facts and making arguments, on the one hand, and the verbal legerdemain of the bullshitter and prevaricator, on the other.

      Maybe that's why it's so hard, at times, to tease instances of each apart and why it's apparently so easy for a man like Trump to reach and maintain a loyal following. It's certainly no easy task in real world discourse to convince others by argument alone.

      So much of our discourse seems to happen outside the realm of logic and simple facts and isn't Trump exhibit A in this case?

    3. Yes, I think this is right. Still, we can see differences and tease things apart. And it's often important to do so.

    4. Yes, it seems so. But even when arguing with people who do seem aware of logical connections and the role of facts, convincing others seems like a longshot, a thing, in fact, rarely achieved. But isn't the point of discourse to state a position and support it and THAT implies convincing.

      Yet, if convincing is as rare as it appears to be then perhaps it's not as important as many of us think. Perhaps the real aim is just to get something from someone else by way of reaction (the Trumpian way) or just to hear ourselves speak Sometimes I've found that that IS all I am after because gauging others' responses helps me experiment with my own views by showing how others respond and so giving me the feedback to readjust. In this sense discourse is more personal than interpersonal (as in influencing others). But then what is its point? To influence ourselves?

      Perhaps yes, for people who are interested in ideas and conclusions (as opposed to mere crowd reactions or manipulation of others). I find, very often, that arguing is an extension of "talking to myself" as in thinking things through. And when I do that it helps me in decision making (whether in the world in terms of actions or in my mind in terms of what I think right or wrong). In this sense arguing discursively has a value flavor, more than a factual. It's about getting things right, whether right ideas about the world or about what we should or should not do.

      So teasing things apart works and appeals to people engaged in a certain kind of discourse, those who think discourse is for things like making better as in smarter decisions or understanding a complex situation more completely (effectively?) But for some, maybe most of us on this planet, discourse is more about reaching out, making connections with others, forging bonds, getting our way, feeling good, etc.

      Philosophy is excluded from all that stuff though not from analyzing it and putting it in a more useful perspective, at least for those with a philosophical bent. But does any of this help anyone else? Do Trump supporters suddenly say oh, wait, that's not right, I (or he) made a mistake on that one? Can this other kind of discourse, the discourse of bonding, of affiliation, of joining forces ever be susceptible to such considerations or do they, when invoked, undermine the bonding aspect or simply fail to resonate?

      So much of our discourse is made up of bullshit, isn't it? Does that make it illegitimate?

    5. I think this is mostly right, sadly.

      Do Trump supporters suddenly say oh, wait, that's not right, I (or he) made a mistake on that one?

      Surely some do sometimes. And any other name could be substituted for Trump's here. Which is reason for hope.

      Perhaps once someone becomes a Trump supporter they become less likely to think this way, but there surely was, and to some extent still is, a time when not every Republican was uncritical of Trump. When he was trying to become the Republican candidate I would think that most Republicans agreed with him on some things but not others, and would have been open to changing their minds on this point or that. Now that he is the person the Republicans chose there is a tendency for Republicans to want to get behind him and not be too critical. I don't think that kind of partisan loyalty (on either side) is a great thing, but wouldn't be too harmful if there were a large, thoughtful, non-partisan middle. It's not clear that any such thing exists though.

      As for your final question, I don't know. Bullshit might be OK when everyone knows it's bullshit. If it's basically a form of story-telling or joke-telling. On the other hand, I'm not sure how easy it is to love the truth and still enjoy (at least certain kinds of) bullshit. It might be hard to say what's wrong with people sharing implausible stories about the size of the fish they caught, but you can't imagine Gandhi joining in.

    6. Right, no fishing for him! I'm not saying that meaning and cogency never matter but that they matter much less than many of us (especially in the philosophical arena) think they do. I still consider myself a Republican, by the way (though I said I would quit if Trump won the nomination but then didn't) and I have been pretty critical of him even after he won the nomination and then the presidency. Yes, there is a tendency to salute the flag with everyone else, to follow your side's banner and to wish to avoid making it harder for your side in its pursuit of aims you mostly agree with, especially when the aims are many and complex. Perhaps politics demands things like loyalty to a cause and a leader if he or she becomes the embodiment of that cause. Perhaps affiliation always trumps rational discursivity in human life. I think that's what has started to bother me in the wake of Trump. How to explain him, how to explain the unthinking reaction of so many to him?

      The idea that being clear about our meanings certainly matters. But meaning is more than just the semantic content of our words. It's also their effects and the affiliations they express and maybe establish.

      Many Trump supporters argue that one should not listen to his words, try to find their meanings per se, look for the underlying thoughts, but, rather (the argument goes) look to their effects and what he is trying to do with them. Some call that dog whistling and maybe that's the best terminology for it for we human beings are just as susceptible as our canine friends to signaling and Trump's rhetoric is more about signaling than describing and denoting. Maybe signaling is a bigger part of our linguistic repertoire than even Wittgenstein imagined?

      On the other hand you have a guy like Robert Brandom who argues that Wittgenstein underestimated the significance of assertoric practices to the nature of language itself. Brandom argues that language that consists only of signaling isn't language at all and can never be. But then how much of it must be assertoric for it to become real language?

      I don't believe Brandom quantifies it but maybe it's a lot less than his claim seems to suggest. Maybe asserting (making claims that can serve as reasons -- sources of inference in his lexicon) is really a much smaller aspect of our lives than the large role it often seems to play in our conscious thought seems to suggest.

    7. Stating facts, or purported facts, is a small part of language-use, I think. Signaling is another part, but not a huge one, I would think. Would be interesting to see data on that though.

    8. Signaling seems to be more basic, an older part of language, than asserting. All sorts of animals signal, including us. But only we assert (talk about things).

      Asserting seems to grow out of signaling, i.e., to be a special form of it which happens when our signals serve to prompt not just certain behaviors in others but certain kinds of awareness, i.e., thoughts about things.

      What are such thoughts? They consist,I would say, of mental pictures though they needn't be any particular picture. They just need to be directed by the words, as signals, that we hear or read. When sounds that signal (serve to prompt behaviors in others) also prompt thoughts related to the behaviors, when the thoughts matter for the behavior, then we call it asserting, making claims, talking about.

      That seems to make up a lot of what we do and, if Brandom is right, is the difference between emoting in a social context and having a language.

      Without the occurrence of intentional thought in others around us and our awareness of it as such, words can only be sounds we make. So language as such appears to be built on a signaling foundation, making the latter broader than the former.

      But how much broader? I don't know of any studies, any data counting sounds according to the two categories: those that merely signal and those that also prompt or direct the mental life of others.

      But they seem not to be mutually exclusive. Because of our kind of mental life, one shaped and infused by language (thought prompting usages), we are always running thoughts in our heads, as the signals are picked up, whether directed by others' sounds, symbols or gestures or not. If our kind of mental life is language-dependent (as it seems to be), it is only so because of this role played by signaling for us, a kind of parallel function in which every signal we pick up also directs the flow of our thoughts.

      A dog may respond in predicted ways to our words, reacting as we expect when we say "sit" or "stay" or "fetch" but there's no reason to think it has ideas in its head about doing these things, that it can run through a series of further thoughts in its head prompted by these sounds, that it can make judgments concerning them, answer questions with regard to them, respond to us in a way that goes beyond reacting.

      The dog has a kind of mental life, too, but not one conditioned by the signals it picks up around it. Its mental life seems to be much less rich. Is this because it hasn't got language or does it lack language because of its more impoverished mental life?

      Maybe both are apt ways of explaining the apparent difference? If language makes our mental life possible there is also something about our brains that enables signaling to do more than elicit our reactions, i.e., to also guide a mental life in us behind, and in accord with, those reactions

    9. I see what you mean about asserting being a kind of signaling. I was thinking more of the dog whistle kind of signaling, which I assume is relatively rare.

      As for dogs' mental life, I have no idea how to separate language-use from mental life.

  4. It would be odd to spend any time with a dog and think it no more than an automaton. But if it's not, then it must have a mental life, however truncated compared to our own because it's world is circumscribed by an immediacy of time and place which does not limit ours.

    It does seem to me that language is necessary to exist in a world like ours, one that extends beyond this moment and this place. But what then is the difference in mental capacities between us and dogs, what makes language possible for us and thus the kind of world we operate in? At some point, signaling transitioned into something else for our kind. Our brains developed a capacity to gather and hold a broader array of mental pictures and to link signaling to these. For animals signaling seems to be no more than emitting sounds or gestures, in response to stimuli, and which other members of the species have inherited certain ways of responding to and/or the capacity to learn to respond to. At some point our kind began to link this function, signaling, to mental pictures which then developed in complexity, thanks to increasing linguistic complexity, allowing ever more sophisticated mental pictures and so forth.

    Language seems to be the result of this development and, because it is reflexive, it enables further development and so increasingly sophisticated thoughts, setting us apart from dogs and other socially competent animals.

    1. Right, a dog is not a machine. But any metal life I ascribe to one is going to be partly by analogy with human behavior (e.g. taking twitching during sleep to be a sign of dreaming) or based on communication, broadly understood. Sometimes it's clear that my family's dog wants to go out, or come in, or thinks we are going for a long, fun walk. But I only attribute these desires, thoughts, etc. to her when she engages in behavior that I take to express them. Some of this is deliberate on her part, e.g. barking when she wants to come in. Some is just naturally expressive, e.g. whining in fear. But I don't see any reason to think that she thinks in some doggy language, or that even when she is showing no signs at all of emotion or thought that she might nevertheless be feeling or thinking something.

  5. I think it's clear that dogs feel . . . but not in complex emotions, dependent on an extended world in terms of the ideas we have about it and their scope, as we do. Theirs is a simpler picture and their feelings involve simpler stuff. But then we have that level of feelings, too.

    When your dog plays with you (and you with it), when it greets you excitedly and shows by its behavior that it wants something from you, can you simply step back and say what an intriguing machine this is?

    Perhaps we can do that by consciously adopting a certain way of thinking (or if we are somehow missing the neurological mechanisms that prompt us to respond in kind), but these are certainly abnormal cases. What is normal is to respond as to an infant or child or other person, to take the excited show of happiness or affection at face value, as genuine.

    We can adopt an attitude of skepticism and even work hard to hold fast to it. But let our guard down for a moment and we're grinning and scratching the pup's ear. Or if it's snarling menacingly we're backing away. The reality of intentionality is there in the behaviors and this implies a mental life, however much more limited than our own.

    Of course, there's no reason to ascribe a mental life like ours, shaped and informed by language, to a creature giving no evidence of linguistic capability. That would be an exercise in fantasy (not that that's beyond us but it's a different game). Having a mental life does not, I think, depend on having language, even if having OUR sort of mental life does.

    Feeling and thinking are entangled in us because thinking is a function of having language and language expands our world in ways beyond dogs and even our closer relatives, the apes. But feeling, in the sense of internally and behaviorally responding to one's environmental impacts, including the intentional activities of others around us as they affect us, is more basic and, arguably, earlier on the evolutionary ladder than concept formation and use, although these add a dimension to our feeling world that non language-capable creatures seem unable to have.

    If language is a form of communicating it is a specialized form grounded in something far more basic, the signaling capacities found in all corners and levels of the animal world but increasingly specialized through the pressures of evolution until a jump is made in our species, allowing signals to link up with observables in the world through the medium of mental life.

    Once signals come to represent, because they produce sympathetic awarenesses of things in others in a predictable, because ststematic, way, our world explodes beyond the here and now which is all that's available to the non-linguistic creatures on this planet.

    1. Having a mental life does not, I think, depend on having language, even if having OUR sort of mental life does.

      I agree. This is well put.