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Traboule, Lyon

Certainties, truth and relativism

If we compare the picture that we can extract from On Certainty with Davidson’s view (as expounded in, e.g., ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’), the important difference seems to be this, that Wittgenstein introduces the layer of certainties in between our epistemological practices and external reality, whereas Davidson construes the relation between belief and reality much more directly. The fact that certainties are categorically different from beliefs and other epistemological entities (despite the fact that over time, and between communities and/or individuals,  what counts as what may change) in combination with the plurality of systems of certainties, makes room for a measure of (conceptual) relativism that Davidson seeks to avoid. His way of doing so is to take the core of our belief system to be as stable (over time, over communities and/or individuals) as is the causal influence of external reality on humans. (There is more room for differences in the ‘superstructure’ of complex beliefs that are not directly caused by our interactions with reality, but that is something that Davidson does not pay that much attention to). 

This has also consequences for how truth works in both perspectives. In On Certainty truth is first and foremost a concept that operates within a particular epistemological practice, that itself is made possible by a particular system of reference consisting of certainties. (That Wittgenstein construes it in more or less verificationistic terms is an additional,  independently motivated feature.) The relation between external reality and certainties is not one of determination, but of constraint. This is the source of plurality, and it also implies that certainties are not upheld because they are true. The fact that different certainties  can be upheld at the same time also testifies to that, of course. Nevertheless, certainties differ in terms of their entrenchment and some are so basic to our form of life that it does not seem that much of a stretch to call them ‘true’, admittedly in quite a different sense. In Davidson’s perspective we also have two distinct properties. ‘Mild correspondence’ is the notion of truth that links beliefs (and hence meaning) to the world. It is what  the causal influence of the world on us results in. Internally, i.e., within our actual epistemological practice, truth then takes on a different form, that of coherence. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/03/2012

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Phoenix Mountain, Beijing

On language as the medium of hermeneutic experience

Gadamer, in Truth and Method: “Interpretation […] is the act of understanding itself, which is realized—not just for the one for whom one is interpreting but also for the interpreter himself—in the explicitness of verbal interpretation.” This is the claim that language is the medium of hermeneutic experience. (And all experience, of whatever kind, is also hermeneutic.) Gadamer insists that the absence of explicit linguistic formulations does not constitute a counterexample: all non-linguistic demonstrations in fact rely on language. 

The general claim, that all understanding is linguistic, i.e., has language as its medium, definitely sounds counterintuitive, since we do intuitively feel that there are things that we understand but that we can not ‘put into words’. 

One thing to bear in mind, tough, is the intimate relation between understanding and interpretation: all understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation results in understanding. To the extent that this sound wrong, it might reflect a hidden assumption about the existence of something like ‘ultimate’, ‘final’, ‘true and complete’ understanding, a kind of understanding that transcends the kind of understanding that interpretation results in. That, Gadamer claims, is an illusion. 

That means that from a Gadamerian point of view our problem in fact reduces to the question: ‘Is all interpretation verbal (linguistic)?’ Again, we need to take that in a broad sense, i.e., without any presupposition of actual verbalisations. (In an analogous fashion, Gadamer argues that we need not worry about linguistic diversity.)

The claim then seems to come down to this: anything that is proposed as an interpretation is in principle subject to questioning, argumentation, justification. This must be so, for interpretation itself is the result of such questioning, etcetera. Asking questions, providing answers, disputing and justifying them, all this is done in language (or in a medium that presupposes language), and inasmuch as there is something that fails to be subject to these language-based procedures it can not part of the interpretation itself (and hence can not constitute (part of) understanding). 

It’s not that Gadamer would deny the existence of non-verbalisable phenomena, the claim is that as such they are not part of interpretation and hence not part of our understanding of something.  (Note that this comes remarkably close to Wittgenstein’s analysis of the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon in Philosophical Investigations, II.xi.)

To what is extent is this a feasible position? It seems it all centers around the question whether we can actually point to the existence of a kind of understanding that meets two requirements: it is essentially non-linguistic; it is somehow connected to the kind of understanding that is linguistic.

The second requirement is the really problematic one, I think. But it also seems justified. For without it, the dispute would in fact be merely verbal: Is there something that is not linguistic understanding? Of course there is. Can we call it ‘understanding’? Well, yes, but what would be gained by that? It is only when we can point to relationships between the two phenomena, that we really confront Gadamer’s position.

So the question is: Can we do that? What would be good examples?

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Discussion Board
date: fall 2004

Rambling thoughts on random topics


Ideal, formal, and natural languages

Hand or hammer. An ideal language is an artificial, constructed language. (Historically this is not quite correct. Cf., ideas about Hebrew being the language spoken in Paradise. Cf., also, Heidegger on philosophical languages.) An artificial language is an instrument like a hammer. Constructed by us, and used by us by means of our natural ‘instruments’. And an artificial language can be used only by means of a natural language (this includes its construction), the same way a hammer can only be used by someone who has hands. This holds also for artificial languages that in some sense (precision, clarity, scope) surpass the natural languages by means of which they are constructed. (Cf., Frege on the telescope and the eye.) In some settings this dependence may not be so obvious: mathematics, programming languages, machine code. But think about what we mean when we say that a machine calculates, thinks, … In the end it comes down to interpretation, or translation, into our vernacular. That seems implausible only as long as we forget that our experience (action) is much broader than that which is covered by means of our natural language. (Cf., note dd. 14/07/98: “The role of experience. Experience is not what is expressed in language, at least not solely, but what makes language possible in the first place. It is therefore both transcendent and transcendental. This holds not just for empirical statements and empirical concepts, but across the board. Cf., Wittgenstein on the relation between mathematics and experience. “)

Hence, it seems plausible to consider a natural language to be like a hand, and not like a hammer. However, although we call a natural language ‘natural’ it is not something we were born with: it has to be acquired. This leads straightforward to the assumption of a language of thought. It is the LoT that is the true natural language. (Cf., the biological metaphors in Chomsky’s work, for example: ‘language organ’.)

But then the problem arises as to how this LoT has meaning (and hence conveys meaning to the acquired language. Question: on such a picture would an artificial language need the mediation of a natural language? Or could it be considered to be tied directly to the LoT, in the same way as a natural language?), i.e., how the LoT relates to the world. Explaining that in terms of a natural language (and its relation to the world) obviously leads us straight into a vicious circle. To sharpen the issue, consider theories of direct (rigid) designation. Given some assumptions about the inherent (i.e., non-reducible) indexicality of natural languages, such theories seem at least partly right. From thereon we can turn straight to the steamship metaphor of Putnam: neither natural languages nor a LoT is a natural instrument in the sense of a hand.

Interesting question: could we discover an ideal language? I.e., could we come up against some code that turns out to be (more) ideal? Not clear what that means. Notice that we would need to be able to interpret such a code in our own language, in order for it to be recognisable as a language in the first place. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/07/1998

Rambling thoughts on random topics

New York


Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 398:

[…] Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it. –Someone asks “Whose house is that?” – The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot, for example, step into his house.

A possible interpretation. Perhaps we should read Wittgenstein here as follows: Whenever we imagine something it is our responsibility to determine what it is that we are imagining. So, we can imagine a landscape, and a house, and a man sitting on the bench in front to the house. And it is we who can say: ‘That’s the owner of the house.’ (And not, say, the guy in the field in the distance who is also part of this imagined landscape.) Now what Wittgenstein might mean when he says ‘But then he can not for example enter his home’ is this: If that is going to happen, it is not because the man himself decides to do that, but because we imagine that as well. That is to say, everything about the picture, and in the picture, is the responsibility of the one who imagines it. (Which need not be the maker: if it is an actual picture, it could be anyone who is looking at it.) This way of reading the passage puts it more in line with the point that Wittgenstein makes in the same section, immediately before, viz., the lack of ‘ownership’ of the visual room. 

Martin Stokhof
from: PI Discussion Board
date: spring 2016

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Descartes’ cogito: `I think, therefore I am’. Can one know that one is thinking, but not know what one is thinking? Can one know that one exists, but not know what kind of being one is? If that is impossible, as it seems it is, doesn’t that imply that with the cogito already a whole frame, – of concepts, categories, etc. –,  has to be assumed? But then what kind of claim to a foundation does the cogito make? 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/06/1998

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Zollverein, Essen


The following is a curious catch in Davidson’s account of metaphor. If a metaphor has only literal meaning, then what exactly does it mean to say that a speaker uses a metaphor? What a speaker uses, in any case, is a sentence, and, according to Davidson, any sentence only has literal meaning. So, ‘metaphor’ as it is used here cannot be a predicate of sentences, but at best expresses a property of utterances of sentences, i.e., of use. ‘To use a metaphor’ then must mean: ‘to use a sentence metaphorically’. But is that not at odds with Davidson’s insistence that metaphor is not a matter of speaker’s intention?

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 1998

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Guanghua temple, Beijing

Religious belief and pictures

Concerning the role of ‘knowing the proper technique’ (Wittgenstein, Lectures on Religious Belief). The point of Wittgenstein’s  discussion in the Lecture II (Michelangelo’s picture of creation) and in Lecture III (the doodle-example, the woman-lying-on-her-bed picture) is two-fold. First of all, Wittgenstein emphasises that these pictures are not ordinary pictures, that our ordinary technique of using pictures (or phrases, or what have you) fails us here. (And, of course, that we go miserably astray if we do apply our ordinary technique in such cases.) However, and that is the second point, we do need some kind of connection with what we do in our everyday life. For without such a connection these ‘objects’ are meaningless, and our handling them an empty gesture. 

One question that arises is this: Why would the fact that pictures can be used to convey (communicate, express) a religious point of view imply that the categorical distinction between religious beliefs and ordinary, factual beliefs is discarded? I think that Wittgenstein, when discussing religious pictures, uses the word ‘picture’ in a special sense, at least not in the ordinary sense of something that depicts something that is independent of it and that it may depicts more or less accurately. Rather, this use of ‘picture’ is reminiscent of what in Philosophical Investigations he calls ‘a way of seeing’. It that is what Wittgenstein means here, then we can say, of course, that a religious picture conveys (communicates, expresses) something, but we should bear in mind that these verbs are then used in a special sense as well. I think that also in his early work Wittgenstein did not exclude the possibility of ethics/religion somehow being communicated. What he did insist upon is that this method of communication was not that of the use of ordinary meaningful language, as we use it in everyday life or science, in debates and discussions. But poetry, novels, the Gospels, music, architecture were always regarded by Wittgenstein as providing us with the possibility of expressing what is at stake here. 

There are two questions that this view raises: Are there any pictures or other means of expression that are particularly suited for religious expression? And in so far as the technique of using such pictures connects them to individual experiences, is this technique not vulnerable for a private language type of argument? 

I don’t know what Wittgenstein’s  answers would have been, but as far as the first question is concerned, my guess is that the answer is, ultimately, ‘No’. For if there would be such pictures, then they would qualify as such on the basis of certain properties and that comes dangerously close to saying that religion is about content after all. The hedge ‘ultimately’ is needed to capture the fact that within a cultural community/historical period we can in fact identify certain pictures as unambiguously religious. But that is ‘just’ an historical fact. 

As for the second question, that actually touches on a more general issue, viz., the role of individual experience in our conceptual (linguistic) system. Here it is important to bear in mind, that although having an experience is an individual matter (and the form that it takes may be even quite idiosyncratic), that does not mean that therefore experiences cannot be intersubjective, shared, common to a group. External constraints play a crucial role here. (Think of what Wittgenstein says in Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ about the understanding of a ritual.) 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

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Charity and false beliefs

What Charity does is to assume agreement (in beliefs). That by itself does not automatically assume truth (of those beliefs), it does so only in conjunction with the assumption that we ourselves have the right beliefs. And there is the conundrum: we know that some of our beliefs are false, but we do no know which these are (otherwise we would not hold them). So indirectly we will assume that others, even if we assume they agree with us, will not be right all the time, but for the same reason that we can not attribute false beliefs to ourselves without giving them up, we can not attribute false beliefs to other without giving up the assumption of agreement. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2008

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Rules as attitudes

Viewing rules as certainties is viewing them as attitudes. (Cf., ethics and religious belief as attitudes.) Such a view resolves a certain tension, one that can be the ground for reductionist approaches. The tension comes from an opposition between a rule as norm and the application of a rule as fact. If we view both as belonging to the same ontological or epistemological category (because of monistic assumptions), the tendency to reduce the first to the second is hard to avoid: for what is a ‘normative fact’? How can a norm be a fact in the same way as the application is a fact? (Note that what is not at stake is the fact that something is a norm: that is a social fact, or the same order as factual applications.) But also if we do not assign norm and application to the same category, but make a categorial distinction between the two, a certain tension remains. To view norms as a separate, independent category of entities, distinct from the category of facts, raises the question how the category of norms and that of facts are related. A tendency to reductionism then might be motivated by ontological parsimony, or a need to come up with a hierarchical ordening of categories. And there is the issue that a categorial distinction raises the question how entities from one category, that of norms, are related, or can be related, to those in another category, that of facts.

To view a rule, not as fact of the same order as an application of it, nor as a fact of a different (higher) order that maintains a special relation with its application, but as an attitude towards certain actions, may help oppose the tendency to found or reduce rules.A rule is an attitude towards actions, a way of viewing them, of seeing them in a certain light. Thus viewed, a rule is the result of a decision to consider certain actions as correct and others as incorrect. (Cf., Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations 186: ‘ […] It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every point, but that a new decision was needed at every point.’) Only given that attitude do these actions become applications of a rule. Then there is no division, neither ontologically, nor epistemologically. There is not on the hand hand the rule, on the other its applications, there are actions that are viewed in a certain way, that are considered part of a particular network of actions.

Think of Wittgenstein’s wallpaper manufacturers (cf., Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, Lecture III). They perform the same actions as competent mathematicians. Yet, only the latter follow a rule, because only they have a normative attitude towards what they do.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 14/10/1993

Rambling thoughts on random topics

New Cathedral, Salamanca

“Ethics and aesthetics are one”

The internal relation between ethics and aesthetics that Wittgenstein suggests in this statement is difficult to come to grips with. However, it is clear that whatever the commonality, there is also difference. 

To start with the latter, aesthetic judgements are expressible, in language, by means of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. But ethical judgments are not. Aesthetic judgments form a practice, a system of norms, actions, objects, that is shared by a community. With that comes relativism: over time, and also contemporaneously, over communities. But ethical values are universal. In these (and related) respects ethics and aesthetics are definitely not one. 

The counterpart of an aesthetic practice in the realm of ethics seems to be a moral practice. Moral judgements, too, are expressible, are based on norms that are shared in a community, and thus form a practice . And like aesthetic practices, moral practices, too, display relativism, over time and contemporaneously.

Now for the commonality. As we have argued elsewhere (World and Life as One, chapter 4), morality can be regarded as instrumental with respect to ethics: that is to say, moral norms are not expressions of absolute value, but are instruments that can be used to realise those values. If “being in harmony” with whatever way the world is constitutes the absolute ethical goal, then the moral norms of a community serve as the reflection of those contingent, but relatively stable aspects of the world that this community finds itself in that are morally relevant in that are conducive to the realisation of that ethical goal.

Could we construct a similar relationship in the domain of aesthetics between the absolute and the relative-instrumental? There are at least two reasons to think so. 

First of all, there is the short reference to the sublime in the Lectures on Aesthetics: the gothic cathedral, the Beethoven symphony. These are objects that transcend the rules of aesthetic practices, in much the same way as absolute ethical value transcends the rules of moral practices. It is the nature of the sublime, its absoluteness, that is responsible for that. From that angle, we can view an aesthetic practice as instrumental with respect to the sublime. Engaging in aesthetic practices is a way of preparing oneself for what transcends it, viz., the creation and experience of works that are sublime.  

Secondly, there is the discussion in Culture and Value of the expressive relation between civilisation (culture) and human value. A civilisation, Wittgenstein argues, is a contingent expression of absolute value, and the disappearance  of a particular such expression (much as we may regret it) leaves the absolute value untouched. What is important to note is that what Wittgenstein identifies as expressions of the sublime, of the absolute, are exactly that: expressions, not the thing itself. (Recall the finger pointing to the reflection of the moon.) 

Here we do well to recall Wittgenstein’s characterisation of his ethical experiences in A Lecture on Ethics: these, too,  are emphatically mere expressions, and not the values themselves. Thus, expressions may differ, and will differ, according to the moral or aesthetic practices that they are a part of. And the variation may even extend to the individual level. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2020

Rambling thoughts on random topics


Semantics and natural language metaphysics

One issue that seems relevant to the question what the status of formal semantics actually is, concerns the ontological commitments of the formal theories employed. Does the “metaphysics vs. natural language metaphysics” distinction answer this question in a satisfactory manner? Only, it seems, if we are willing to shield the speakers of the language in question from its very metaphysical assumptions: the semantics of their language has certain metaphysical implications that they, as speakers of that language, need not share (or even be aware of). But this does create a tremendous distance between speakers and their language, and as such it seems to point toward a much more instrumental interpretation of the various theoretical (logical, metaphysical) concepts which are involved in the description of the language.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation

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On interpreting rooks

‘Rooks console each other.’ (NRC Handelsblad, 23/01/2007) Question: can a rook console me? Can I console a rook? If in both cases the answer is ‘No’, then we have two isolated subframes, each characterised by a ‘console’-relation that has certain (formal and material) properties within that subframe, but which is limited to that subframe. The analogy with (in)translatability is obvious. The question that arises then is this: What reasons do we have (could we have) to call two such completely isolated relations both an ‘x-relation’? In what sense are these two the same relation?

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 23/01/2007

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Assyrian figurine, Louvre, Paris

Human thought and the Turing test

Characteristic for the Turing test is that thinking is considered to be an activity or process that is separated from (non-verbal) action, emotion and affect, intuition, and so on. The relation between thought and action is construed as a relation between a program and a machine that executes the program. Thinking consists in formulating instructions, action in their executions. (Traces of a Cartesian dualism are visible here.) Another characteristic, closely related to the first one, is that knowledge and thought processes are assumed to be expressible in rules. (This is closely connected to a representational view of thought.)

What does the Turing-test tell us about human thinking, human thought? Consider the following example. Suppose there are two columns of water that both indicate exactly and correctly the sea level at some point on the shoreline. Column A is directly connected to the sea at that point, via a system of pipes, say. Column B is a closed system in which the water level is determined by calculations that are programmed into the system. Both column ‘behave’ in exactly the same way, yet one would only say of what happens in column A that it is the result of tidal flow. This indicates that the identity of behaviour (or a process, event, action) is co-determined by the network of causal relations in which it is located.

The same seems to be true of human thinking, human thought. If there was a machine that would pass the Turing test, it still remains an open question what conclusion we would (need to) draw. What the example suggests is that one relevant factor is whether the machine is causally related to the kind of things that human thinking is intrinsically connected to: action, will, emotions, and so on. Thus, whether there will be a machine that passes the Turing test is an empirical matter; but what that will mean, for us, is a philosophical question.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/1992

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On foundationalist readings of On Certainty

What distinguishes the foundationalist reading from the constitutive (‘framework’) reading is that the latter acknowledges the interdependence of certainty and knowledge, whereas the former considers certainty to be independent.

Some, e.g., Robert Brice, make a distinction between  ‘heterogeneous’ and ‘homogeneous foundationalism’, arguing that  the former position is the one  Wittgenstein takes in On Certainty, whereas the latter is the traditional position, that is incapable of fending off the attack by the radical sceptic. The distinction between these two positions as such is clear, and important. But why exactly would one want to call them both ‘foundationalism’? That suggests that besides the difference there is also something they have in common. But what might that be?  A constitutive relation is not a founding relation, the former involves an essential dependency that the latter lacks. What constitutes and what is constituted depend on one another, one cannot consists without the other. But what is founded and what founds are not in that way dependent: one can clear what is founded and be left with the foundations. 

Moyal-Sharrock  argues that the fundamental difference between what she considers Wittgenstein’s foundationalism and traditional foundationalism that the latter, but not the former, is propositional. This raises an interesting question. Is Descartes cogito propositional, or is it Descartes’ exposition of it that is propositional? The latter is certainly true, but does that entail the former?  Or consider forms  of foundationalism that consider sensory experience as foundation. Any exposition of this position will have to resort to descriptions of sensory experience, and these descriptions are, of course, propositional. But does it make sense to say that the sensory experiences themselves are necessarily also propositional? That seems not to follow, at least not without additional premisses. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: March 2020

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La chapelle, Saint Polycarpe

Religious belief

Religious beliefs as colouring, rather than as separate language games or as distinct frameworks of certainties. A language game is like a stage set: actors, props, decor. Religious beliefs are the stage lights: they don’t change the stage set, they do not add or remove anything, yet by colouring it they can make it appear completely different.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/11/2002

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Pluralism and the possibility of philosophy

In a sense one might regard the transition from monism to pluralism, as exemplified in the contrast between Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, as a move that rescues the possibility of philosophy. In the monistic (absolutistic) approach of the Tractatus (but that applies to many others; cf., e.g., Being and Time) philosophy is doomed by the ineffability of any kind of analysis that leads to non-contingent answers. In a pluralistic setting, such as the one explored in Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, however, there is at least the possibility of reflection from within one framework on another framework. (But additional  conditions have to be met, of course.) Interestingly, the result of such a reflection is not descriptive, but conceptual. And to the extent that it is possible, one might regard it as a kind of reflective investigation of imagination.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes

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Saint Petersburg

On interpretation

What is the mystery of interpretation is not that it would be impossible: we are not able to fly, nor do we have the ability of bi-location, and no-one wonders why we don’t. Nor that it would be: we breath, walk, and again we take this for granted (which does not mean that we can not investigate the actual physiology of these abilities). Regarding interpretation the real problem seems to be that it is both possible and impossible. That interpretation comes natural to us — understanding somehow happens to us without us knowing how —, and that it is an impossible task — no matter how much conscious effort we put in to it we are in the end always defeated. The otherness of the other makes us strangers to ourselves, yet our familiarity with ourselves makes us understand them. Conscious and mechanical, possible and impossible: interpretation is always all of that, but none of it completely.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: 05-1997

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On transitivity of translation

Part of the argumentation in Davidson’s ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ centers around transitivity of the translation relation. The point Davidson is trying to make here, I think, is that if there exists a translation from L1 into L2, that translation itself can be stated in either L1 or L2, and consists in an accurate mapping of sentences from L1 onto sentences of L2. If the translation is stated in L1 then, by assumption, it can also be stated in L2 (after all, there is a mapping from all of L1 into L2, i.e., also of the L1-sentences describing the mapping). So we can safely assume that if there is a translation from L1 into L2, it can be formulated in L2. Now suppose there is a translation from L2 into L3: that, again is a mapping, in this case of L2-sentences onto L3-sentences. That mapping includes those L2-sentences that describe how to translate L1-sentences into L2-sentences. So what we have then is (among other things) a set of L3-sentences that tell us which L2-sentences are translations of which L1-sentences, and L3-translations of the L2-sentences. But that means we have a translation of L1 into L3. (More neatly: if a translation is a homomorphism from L to L’, then we know that if there is a homomorphism from L1 to L2 and a homomorphism from L2 to L3, then there is a homomorphism from L1 to L3, viz.: the composition of the two.)

Of course the above argument only works if we assume that translations are total, i.e., that they map all sentences of L onto sentences of L’ and vice versa. What if we drop that assumption? First of all we have to ask ourselves whether we are still dealing with translation in such a case. But let that pass, and suppose we have a mapping of all the sentences of L1 onto a proper subset of sentences of L2, i.e., there are parts of L2 that have no counterpart in L1. Notice that the formulation of the translation can not be in the latter set (for that would mean that the translation would be statable in L2, but not in L1, which is absurd.) Now assume we have a translation from L2 into L3: the only way in which that would not give us a translation of L1 into L3 (by the reasoning above), is by being restricted to exactly that part of L2 that does not contain the L1-to-L2 translation. But that would mean that it really isn’t a translation of L2 as such: it must leave out a proper part of L2. Of course, such a mapping could exists, but we would lack any justification for calling it a translation. (And if we would insist that we could call it that, then we actually are assuming what we set out to prove, viz., the failure of transitivity of translation.)

Note that the fact that in actual cases there are bound to be discrepancies between languages, i.e., things in L that don’t have an exact counterpart in L’, or things in L’ that lack a counterpart in L, does not really affect this line of argumentation. The central point is that the translation itself concerns such a substantial part of both languages, that that by itself guarantees transitivity to a sufficient degree.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2004

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Notes from an encounter with Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker’s account of the relationship between philosophy and cognitive science raises questions that concern the ramifications of that position.

When it comes to the relationship between cognitive science and philosophical analysis I am always reminded of Jerry Fodor’s direct approach of the problem. In his seminal book The Language of Thought (p. 57) he relates the following encounter: ‘I was once told by a very young philosopher that it is a matter for decision whether animals can (can be said to) hear. “After all”, he said, “it’s our word”.’ As the context of this quotation makes clear, the issue was not just about hearing, but extended to a wide range of psychological predicates, including talking, thinking, reasoning. Fodor was not impressed by the argument, as is obvious from the way in which he continues his tale: ‘But this sort of conventionalism won’t do; the issue isn’t whether we ought to be polite to animals.’ And then Fodor goes on in his characteristic fashion to explain why, basically, there is no room for a separate enterprise called ‘philosophical analysis’.

If I understand Hacker correctly he would agree that perhaps the young philosopher was not quite as snobbish as Fodor makes them out to be, and that an argument may be construed to attach a basically human meaning to some of the terms the debate was about. Of course, it is not a matter of politeness whether animals think, but it isn’t a straightforward factual issue either. If anything, it is a matter of what the content of the concept of thinking is, i.e., of what the term means. And meaning belongs to the human sphere. 

That is quite the opposite view from Fodor’s, and one that was formulated and defended already much earlier by Wittgenstein, who claimed in Philosophical Investigations (II.xi; cf., also 360): ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.’ The opposition is apt and relevant, since it is clear that Hacker’s analysis owes much to Wittgenstein’s observations concerning the way concepts are acquired and have meaning. 

Motivation: reductionism redux

Why is this important? New developments in cognitive science, in particular new techniques that give access to low level brain processes, suggest to many that finally reductionism is a goal that is coming within reach. Cognitive processes can be observed in vivo, i.e., concurrently with the corresponding processes in the brain. What thinking, feeling, speaking, various perceptual acts really are, we can see with our own eyes when we observe the various electrochemical processes in the brain run their course. And this is ontological reduction, not the linguistic substitute that logical positivism promoted, in which theories were reduced to others by reformulating the statements of the former in those belonging to the latter. This reductionism is the real thing: it explains the cognitive entities of  everyday in terms of neuronal entities.

The technical developments are real and we cannot rule out a priori that a reduction of this kind of some cognitive processes will indeed turn out to be feasible. (Although we certainly are not yet in a position to actually affirm that.) Several questions arise. Are there any cognitive entities that resist this kind of reduction? With regard to those concepts that are susceptible to reduction, does this affect all of their content, or will there be irreducible residues? And where reduction is feasible, what consequences does this have for the application of the concepts in question in their everyday domain?

Conceptual analysis versus empirical science

Hacker’s position on this is clear: philosophy deals with concepts and provides an analysis of their contents and logical relation relations; cognitive science is concerned with the neural conditions that determine the operation of the functions corresponding to these concepts and provides descriptively and explanatory adequate theories.

So, it seems that both with regard to method as well as with regard to content philosophy and cognitive science are strictly separated.  There is an a priori distinction between the conceptual analysis provided by philosophy and the  empirical investigations of cognitive science. This seems to suggest that no interaction  occurs between the two realms, but that is not what Hacker means. He does see a role for conceptual analysis vis à vis empirical science: conceptual analysis may provide the necessary conceptual clarity without which the empirical investigations may go astray. 

I wonder, first, whether philosophical reflection might not provide more than just conceptual clarity, i.e., whether it does not also provide actual empirical data; second, whether there may not also be an influence in the other direction, viz., from empirical science to conceptual analysis. And, third, whether one could not combine philosophical and scientific methods,  as is being done for example by people working in neurophenomenology. 

The main reason for thinking that this might be possible is the rather humdrum observation that after all the conceptual domain of philosophical analysis and the empirical domain of  cognitive science are both related to (not: coincide with) the same field of everyday phenomena. 


Cf. the following quote from Hacker’s paper on emotions:

‘Moods are such things as feeling cheerful, euphoric, contented, irritable, melancholic or depressed; they are states or frames of mind, as when one is in a state of melancholia, or in a jovial or relaxed frame of mind.  […]  It is, therefore, unwarranted to characterise moods, as Damasio does, as emotional states that are frequent or continuous over long periods of time.’

It seems obvious to me that we are not dealing here with some kind of nominal, stipulative definition. The concepts in question have a pre-theoretical content and it is this content that is being captured and analysed in definitions (philosophy) and at the same time it is this content that motivates and directs empirical investigations (cognitive science).

My suggestion would be that this imposes restrictions on both conceptual analysis and empirical investigation. 

On the empirical side: it seems obvious to me that empirical investigations into everyday phenomena such as emotions, moods, knowledge, memory can not be dissociated from whatever content these concepts have in everyday life. Perhaps cognitive science may discover that certain distinctions should be drawn slightly differently, or that connections exists that are not apparent from the conceptualisation of these phenomena in everyday language. But it cannot attribute a different content to these concepts. If it does that, it studies something, but not emotions, moods, etc. This marks a difference with cases where science is able to correct common sense understanding, such the case of jade turning out to be two different kinds of chemical compounds, of that of light  having both a corpuscular and a wave nature’ 

So it seems to me that our first person experience, i.e., the content of these concepts as  it reveals itself in philosophical reflection, provides an empirical constraint on cognitive research. (From which it follows that there is a distinction to be made between the study of those concepts that allow for such reflection, such as emotions, moods and certain cognitive actions, and those that do not, such as perception. Interesting question: on which side of this divide are language and meaning?) 

This constraint, I propose, goes further than mere conceptual clarification, but actually provides additional empirical data that need to be accounted for by empirical theories.

But on the conceptual side, too, constraints arise. Conceptual analysis is not empirical research: philosophers traditionally don’t do experiments, use questionnaires, etc. Nevertheless, conceptual analysis is tied to empirical issues. For one thing, the fact that we have the concepts that we have by itself is an empirical matter. Different cultural and/or historical circumstances may give rise to (slightly) different sets of cognitive and emotional concepts. And the contents of these concepts themselves may change under the influence of both philosophical analysis and empirical research. To put it differently, in as much as our concepts embody a (rudimentary) conception of our selves, this very conception, and thereby the contents of those concepts, may change when we analyse it, both conceptually as well as empirically. 

In particular the last point means that although  there is a categorical difference between conceptual analysis and empirical research (here I agree Hacker), it does not follow that conceptual analysis is a priori to empirical research. The very object of conceptual analysis may change due to the results of empirical investigations, in much the same way as the empirical investigation must proceed on the basis of the results of conceptual analysis: there exists an ongoing interaction between the two. 

Also, it seems to me that this might have methodological consequences as well, in so far as it indicates that the idea of a combination of philosophical reflection and empirical research, i.e., of a first person and a third person perspective, may prove to be relevant if we are to gain a proper understanding of what such phenomena as emotions, memory, etc are. Neurophenomenology à la Varela, Thompson, Depraz and Vermersch may provide a model here, but it need not be the only one. I do feel that this is something that philosophers and cognitive scientists need to explore. 

Finally, the empirical and contingent nature of the concepts involved also provides an impetus to investigate to what extent these phenomena transcend the boundaries of the individual. Hacker quite rightly stresses that the attitudinal aspects of these concepts, viz., the fact that to have a belief, to reach a decision or to form a hypothesis, to be in a melancholy mood or to be proud, or jealous, are not isolated, instantaneous events or states, but phenomena that are related with all kinds of other properties and relations that individuals may have and enter into, with a whole network of cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions and capabilities.  But he tends to ignore that a substantial part of those capabilities (such as those that enter into the use of language) are  essentially social in nature, at least in this sense that the idea of only one single individual having these capabilities is conceptually incoherent, These concepts presuppose a social framework that allows them to be instantiated in an individual. Taking this seriously would provide us with an impetus to investigate to what extent modern cognitive science suffers from an individualistic bias, which may be due to its reductionist presuppositions and/or the limitations of its experimental toolbox. 

Consequences: identity

‘What X is for us’: what we are, is in an important sense what we think (feel, imagine) that we are. And in this sense reductionism might succeed that once we believe in (some version of) it, i.e., once we are willing to adapt our self-image to the particular picture it presents, we in fact become whatever that picture says we are.

(Note that such a development would have ethical consequences as well. That is one reason why imagination of what we are and, in particular, imagination of what we could be, as for example literature provides, is (also) of ethical importance.)

If central concepts pertaining to human identity, such as will, consciousness, thinking, feeling, imagination, meaning, are concepts with a content that is determined by ‘What X is for us’, human identity is essentially a construct: historically, socially and culturally constrained and only partially individually maintained. We are in that sense what we think we are, although the freedom we have in thinking ourselves is constrained by social, cultural and historical factors (and, of course, physical and biological ones). In modern times science has become an important source for what we count as content of certain concepts. For example, our view of the material world is increasingly informed by scientific theories (albeit often distorted by popular misconceptions and simplifications). To the extent that this holds true also for the concepts that go into determining our identity, our conception of ourselves may change as well. 

Today, it seems, essential aspects of the contents of many of the central concepts mentioned above are determined externally, i.e., by reference to things outside the  individual mental realm. However, increasing influence of research in cognitive science (psychology, neurobiology) may change that. We may come to adopt, for example, a view on what meaning is that takes into account only what  can be explained in terms of individual, psychological and/or neurobiological properties. That would not be a better (or worse) account, since there is no fact of the matter that would provide an independent measure here: if meaning is what counts as meaning for us, then if we ‘change our mind’ about what meaning is, meaning indeed becomes something else. But then so do we: as these central concepts change, our identity changes accordingly. And so we may end up with a view of ourselves in which any differences that we now count as essential differences between, say, human intelligence and artificial intelligence have been obliterated, or a view in which we accept only explanations for our actions that are based on facts concerning our material (neurophysiological) make up. 

So, humanity may well come to an end by its own hand, not through physical destruction (although that is certainly not unlikely) but by conceptual elimination. After all, is that not how we got rid of a lot of other things?

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: December 20, 2008

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Oslo, Opera House

The need for uncertainty

Suppose there were creatures with the following features. If something is the case, they believe it; if something is not the case, they believe it is not the case; they do not entertain any other thoughts, more specifically they don’t have thoughts of the form ‘Suppose A were (not) the case …’, ‘If B had not been the case …’, and so on. Would we say that these creatures had knowledge? They could serve as reliable oracles, as perfect encyclopaedias, but we wouldn’t want to say that they knew anything. So knowledge presupposes (among other things) our ability to be uncertain, to entertain suppositions, to consider situations that we know to be counterfactual.

Does this mean that the concept of an omniscient interpreter à la Davidson is incoherent? Not necessarily. Perfect knowledge about the world is compatible, at least so it seems, with counterfactual uncertainty, and hence with having the concept of being wrong. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
e: 13/10/2000, 09/08/2001

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Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Wittgenstein and Frazer

Description itself is never neutral or objective, there is no Archimedean point that allows us to ‘just describe the facts’. But that does not necessarily imply that description and explanation are alike. An explanation, unlike a description, presupposes a theoretical framework, of general principles, inferential relations (causal or otherwise). An explanation typically presents an individual event as an instance of something more general, a law, a pattern, and in doing so links it to other events that are supposed to be similar. Description, though not objective, remains level with what is described, so to speak. It does not generalise, and respects, you might say, the individuality, the uniqueness of what it describes. Of course, description, too, is possible only within a framework, but it functions quite differently. 

[The rain king] What Wittgenstein opposes in Frazer is that the latter attributes some kind of naive proto-science to these people; according to him they are simply wrong (and we are right) about the causal antecedents of the annual rains. That the difference of opinion between Wittgenstein and Frazer itself is like a scientific debate (of sorts) is true but, as far as I can see, that has no direct bearing on the adequacy of Wittgenstein’s  criticism. For Wittgenstein, the essential point is that they do not conceive of the relationship between the Rain-King (and what he does) and the coming of the rains as a causal relationship. Q.E.D., as far as Wittgenstein is concerned: for that is exactly what he holds against Frazer, viz., that he (Frazer) does ascribe to them a kind of naive scientific theory that attempts to explain, in causal terms, the coming of the rains.

[The fire-festival] If to understand the meaning of the ritual means to experience its depth, the terror its enactment brings about, then to laugh at the description would be to show a thorough lack of understanding. That applies to the specific examples Frazer and Wittgenstein are concerned with, and it does not mean, I gather, that there couldn’t be rituals for which to laugh would be the hallmark of understanding. But in these particular cases, to laugh, to ridicule the ‘savages’, is to show that one does not understand. 

[Kissing a portrait] One important characteristic that Wittgenstein mentions, and that seems what is needed to distinguish the kissing of a portrait from doing the dishes, is that in a ritual means and ends coincide. An ordinary action aims at something: we do the dishes because we want to dine from clean ones, because we want to prevent bacteria from growing in the kitchen sink, because we want to impress someone, and so on. Here the action is a means to an end. A ritual is not like that, a ritual is not performed with an eye to its effects (although it may, of course, have effects, and some of these we might find agreeable). Rather, a ritual is performed for it own sake: “…  it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” 

One important consequence of this is that whether an act is ritualistic or not (in Wittgenstein’s  sense) does not depend (at least not solely) on the nature of the act. (So doing the dishes can be a ritual as well.) And as far as I can see it also means that we can not say that rituals are either private or social, they can be either, and both.

As for the question whether science itself is a ritual, my guess is that Wittgenstein would acknowledge that many people have indeed replaced their reliance on some religious system by a reliance on science. However, he also quite emphatically states that this is a misunderstanding of what science is and what it can do. (Recall Tractatus 6.371-6.372; cf. also the foreword to Philosophical Remarks in Culture and Value) A proper view on science has no place for ritual, since science is about external, causal relationships between (types) of events, whereas ritual is concerned with the internal significance of an event or act. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

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Den Oever

On unconditional commitment

Dreyfus, Kierkegaard, ‘unconditional commitment’. Remarkable thing about the case of Abraham is that we do not consider the issue from Isaac’s point of view. What would he have said? “I’d rather have a despairing Buddhist as a father than this unconditionally committed Christian …”? He might have, and that’s enough. The unconditional commitment of Abraham to his God might go against whatever views Isaac has concerning the way he wants to lead his life, and that really should be reason enough for us to reject, not just this particular unconditional commitment of Abraham’s, but the very concept itself. Given the fact that we lead our lives with others, and that hence, whether we like it or not, our actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of those others, an unconditional commitment, precisely because it is unconditional, i.e., also not conditioned by concerns about others, is intrinsically morally wrong. This is independent of the moral status of actual effects of some particular unconditional commitment, it is an objection to the concept as such.

My guess is that the concept is appealing for reasons quite similar to those that make people susceptible to the idea of living in ‘historical times’, witnessing ‘turning points in history’, and so on (Heidegger). We want our lives to be dramatic, exciting, important. Whereas in reality they are ordinary, humdrum, inconsequential, even if they turn out to make a difference. That sounds contradictory, but it is not. The point is: what is a decisive moment is decided by history (i.e., by reality in its temporal dimension and complexity), not by us, and it is hardly ever possible for us to discern while we are witnessing it.  Too often an event is labelled ‘historical’, something that ‘changes the world as we know it’ by contemporaries, and most of those events turn out to be completely unimportant. At best some of them may become regarded as symbolic for a much more complex and extended sequence of events. History is complex, much too complex for us who are witnessing it to grasp, and often also too complex for those who have the benefit of hindsight to fathom completely. There is no communis opinio among historians about the majority of the events that make up our history, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of their sheer complexity combined with the unavoidable multiplicity of perspectives. So even if a certain event or action does make a significant difference, the claim of those participating in it that it does, in most cases will be completely unfounded.

The idea of an unconditional commitment is based on a similar misunderstanding of our lives: appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it places us, as an individual, in the centre of things. The unconditional commitment is ours, even where (or should we say, precisely because?) it involves a complete surrender to God. As such it displays a complete disregard of the fundamental given that our life is always related to that of others, even if we live alone, in the remotest place on earth. Given that, whatever commitment we make to live our life in accordance with, it needs take into account others and therefore  can never be unconditional. The alternative is a fundamental dismissal of others as worthy of moral, ethical concern, something that unavoidably leads to nihilism. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/05/2003

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East Goodwin

On belief and introspection

Wittgenstein claims that belief (like doubt, expectation, etc.) is ‘introspectively accessible”: if we believe that p, we know that we believe that p. Hence, we cannot say, Wittgenstein claims, that we thought we believed something, but actually did not believe it. Knowledge is not like that: we can think that we know something, only to find out that we didn’t. The reason is (presumably, but Wittgenstein does not discuss this explicitly) that belief concerns a certain state or disposition, whereas knowledge in addition involves a particular relation to the world (this is where truth comes in). 

Does this hold up if what a person believes ultimately must show itself in his or her actions, i.e., if belief is a disposition to act in a certain way? That is a view that Wittgenstein seems to endorse as well, so the issue at hand can also be formulated as follows: does it make sense to say that one can somehow be mistaken about what it is one is doing, or is disposed to do? 

Stepping back: is there at this particular point a difference between belief in the ordinary, epistemological sense, and religious beliefs and ethical convictions? If we grant Wittgenstein that, indeed, it does not seem to make sense to say “I think I believe that Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t believe that”, are we then forced to also hold that it does not make sense to answer “I don’t know” if someone asks us “Do you believe in an after-life (transubstantiation, Last Judgement, …)”, and that we cannot meaningfully express doubt concerning an ethical prescription, as in “I’m not sure I believe that one should always respect the right to bodily integrity” ? It would be interesting to try to construct different cases and see whether doubt concerning belief is possible, and if so, what it means to express it. In that way we might also get a better picture of how various kinds of beliefs are related to action, on the one hand, and reality on the other (cf. above, concerning knowledge) 

It is true that what people say and what they do all too often diverges, but that does not mean that what they believe and what they do diverges as well. For saying something is one thing, believing it is another. It is only a sincere utterance that allows an inference to a belief (cf., Grice’s Maxim of Quality). This is the gist of what is known as “Moore’s Paradox” (which Wittgenstein regarded as Moore’s most important contribution to philosophy): an utterance of the form “p but I don’t believe that p” may very well be true, but it cannot be sincere. 

So, the crux of examples about a person saying one thing and doing another concerns that person’s sincerity : that cannot be taken for granted, but has to be argued for. 

That many (most) of our beliefs are unreflected, unanalysed, is an important here: in fact, explicitly held beliefs seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. And that seems to make the way a person acts the primary source for belief-ascriptions. 

This observation itself raises some other questions: Can we as outside observers always derive distinct beliefs from the way a person acts? Can a person himself do this? What kinds of beliefs lend themselves to such investigation? Aren’t these more like certainties, rather than cognitive beliefs? What about the requirement that it should always be possible to explicate a belief derived from a way of acting? 

Consider the case of the egalitarian who does not act upon his beliefs: would that be a case of a person being wrong about what he believes (he thinks he believes in equal rights, yet his failure to act shows that he does not), or is it rather a case of failing to act upon one’s beliefs? Given his beliefs the egalitarian also believes that he should act in a particular way in particular situations. That he does not, might also be attributed to weakness in character, or some other circumstance, and not to a mistake about the beliefs he holds. Of course, if he consistently acts in opposition to what we would expect on the basis of the beliefs he confesses to, we would start to doubt. And his sincerity would be the first thing we would doubt. 

Note finally that the phrase “I believe” itself can be used in a variety of ways: as a statement of a firmly held conviction; but also as a way of indicating that we are not sure (yet), that we actually leave room for the opposite. “I think” is more like “I believe” in the latter sense than in the former. And for Wittgenstein’s  argument we do indeed need the former sense. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: October 2002

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Uninterpreted content

Theodore Schatzki’s analysis of dispersed and integrative practises implies that normativity arises, not at the higher order level of rules, or practises, or institutions (at least not exclusively), but at the very basic level of individual interaction with the environment. This view is reinforced by various analyses of know-how and expertise.

What is interesting to note, especially with regard to Davidson and Gadamer, who actually are in the same boat here, is that uninterpreted content then plays a key role. We need such content in order for normativity to have a basis on which the language-based practises may build.

For Gadamer this is anathema: all experience is linguistic and exists only in and through language. For Davidson it presents a problem too, although it may not be immediately obvious that it does. For doesn’t Davidson avail himself of a primitive causal relationship between the world and us? And doesn’t he reject any form of mediation (linguistic or otherwise) between ourselves and the world?

But unmediated content is not the same as uninterpreted content as we use the phrase here. For in Davidson’s view our causal interaction with the world results in beliefs, and beliefs and (sentence) meanings are indistinguishable in terms of structure and content. So Davidson’s unmediated content is highly structured, in such a way that it is immediately expressible (given a suitably expressive language, of course): definitely not the uninterpreted content of everyday expertise. In fact Davidson seems committed to the same kind of linguistic view on experience that Gadamer embraces explicitly.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/11/2006

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Davidson, indeterminacy and charity

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The question boils down to what follows from the assumptions mentioned about reference. Let’s start with the use of the Tarskian framework. For Davidson this follows from the assumptions he makes concerning the nature of meaning (extensionalism) and the function of a semantic theory (explanation of competence); cf., ‘Truth and Meaning’ for the details. So his view is that if we want a theory of meaning for a language, it has to have that particular form. And that in its turn presupposes that in any language we find a shared logical machinery, consisting of propositional connectives, quantificational apparatus (and the basic distinctions brought along by that) and the logical rules governing their behaviour. But that is all, in particular it does not involve any assumptions concerning the reference of the non-logical vocabulary. Of course, reference is used in stating the Tarskian truth theory, but there it is used only as an auxiliary notion. What the theory defines, or accounts for, is (our knowledge of) truth conditions of sentences. It does so using the auxiliary notion of reference of sub-sentential expressions, but, and this is the important point: it does not define truth on the basis of an independent account of reference. And as Davidson points out, any account of truth along these lines leaves reference essentially underdetermined (a point also made by Putnam and several others): two sentences may have the same truth conditions under different assignments of references to their sub-sentential expressions. (If the sentences are from different languages, we have two translatable sentences which do not allow us to infer any shared reference; if the sentences are from the same language, this means that synonymy does not guarantee unique reference; and as a special (but most important) case we have that it is possible to assign to one and the same sentence the same truth conditions based on attributions of different references to one or more of its component expressions.)

Then charity. Notice that charity, too, concerns sentences, not words. In interpretation, i.e., in actually trying to construct a Tarskian theory of truth for a given language, the empirical data we start from are utterances made in a context (situation). The assumption that truth plays the same role for the speakers of the language we are interpreting as it does for us, these data can be viewed as utterances of sentences held true in that situation. A specific (to be determined!) subset of those will be utterances of sentences held true about that situation, i.e., utterances of sentences that are held true on the basis of certain aspects of the situation in which they are uttered. Each and every sentence uttered is supposed to express a belief. So certain sentences uttered in a situation express beliefs of the speaker about that situation. This is where charity comes in: it allows us to proceed on the assumption that the belief that the speaker expresses in these sentences (but remember, we do not know of every sentence in advance whether it belongs to this set) is a belief that we hold about the situation as well. This is supposed to give us enough common ground to work our way into the language. But, and this is the important point, just as two sentences can have the same truth conditions, yet not share reference of sub-sentential expressions, beliefs too can be shared without a shared set of objects, properties and relations that can be attached in a unique way as references to the expressions that occur in the sentences that are used to express these beliefs.

So neither the Tarskian framework nor charity allows us to venture beyond the level of sentences/beliefs and be confident that we will return with a unique ontology in this particular sense. But for Davidson the conclusion is not that hence there is a relativity of ontological schemes, but rather that the idea behind it, viz., that the beliefs we hold and the meanings of the sentences we use to express those beliefs, are built up from referents in this particular way, is misguided in the first place. In combination with the holistic nature of language and belief that Davidson clearly endorses, this assumption would lead to relativism. But there is, according to Davidson, no reason to make it in the first place.

Martin Stokhof
[from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 10-2003]

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On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998]

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Tang pottery, Tsinghua University museum

Concerning Gadamer and normativity

The following seems a very plausible conjecture: it is the meaning of the text itself that provides the necessary normative constraints on its interpretation. But there are a few problems with that. 

First of all, it makes interpretation very much a factual, ‘realistic’ concern: independent from interpretations and interpreters, there is such a thing as ‘the meaning’, and the task of interpretation is to discover that. Once we’ve done that, the task is fulfilled and there is no more need for interpretation. But that doesn’t sit very well with Gadamer’s insistence that interpretation is an on-going affair, and moreover, one that not only constantly changes the views of the interpreter, but also the meaning(s) of what is interpreted: the ‘fusion of horizons’ is a temporary equilibrium, brought about by adjusting both the perspective of the interpreter and that of the text.

Secondly, if the objective meaning of the text itself were to play this role, this wouldn’t fit into an interpretational scheme that follows the hermeneutic circle. Recall that if we follow the structure of the hermeneutic circle we need to compare two things that both are different from this postulated objective meaning of the text itself, viz., the fore-projection, i.e., our ‘initial hypothesis’, and the result of our (first) reading. The problem was that we can compare these two without any problem, but that in order to evaluate the outcome of that comparison, we need a standard, something normative. Now suppose the objective meaning were to play that role? How would that help? If we know that this is the objective meaning of the text, we wouldn’t need any interpretation to begin with. And if we do not, it will fail to hold any normative authority.

The essence of the problem is that the hermeneutic circle, precisely because it is a circle, involves only entities of the same kind (meanings). And without reference to any external source of normativity, none of these can play the required normative role, on pain of the entire circular structure collapsing into what is basically a realistically understood concept of objectivity.

Martin Stokhof
[from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2006]

Random thoughts on random topics


Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998]

Random thoughts on random topics

North Sea

On natural phenomena as aesthetic objects

Are natural phenomena (objects, events) aesthetic objects in the Wittgensteinian sense? There is no doubt that we apply  adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ to things like sunsets, landscapes, people. But what does that mean? Are there norms that we apply?  Do we compare one phenomenon with another? Last night’s sunset with this one? The landscape before our eyes with the one we saw in a movie? This person’s face with that of our favourite movie star? 

In the last case it seems that we do indeed compare and also that we are able to express the reasons for our evaluations to some extent. In the case of sunsets this is far less obvious. Is there a sense in which this sunset is more beautiful than last night’s? More spectacular perhaps, yes. But more beautiful? And if we compare landscapes, aren’t we just  expressing preferences? (“I hate woods, give me open skies any day.”)  

We can sharpen the issue somewhat by asking about the role of two key features of aesthetic practices in Wittgenstein’s sense: training and expertise, and directed discontent. 

As for training and expertise, we have no problem in acknowledging that some people are better than we are in judging the quality of a musical performance, or that of a painting, or a sculpture. That is why we seek to learn from them and so develop our own skills and our own appreciation of a given kind of aesthetic objects. Does the same happen in ‘evaluating’ a sunset? Do we ask an expert to tell us whether this sunset is better than the one we saw yesterday, and if so, to explain to us in what way? If we ask someone whether he prefers a rugged mountainous landscape to an ocean view, do we seek to learn anything over and above his preferences, something that will help us make a more informed judgment ourselves? And if someone declares that she thinks her husband is more beautiful than the man just voted ‘sexiest man alive’, do we take her to task for not agreeing with ‘the experts’? 

It appears that although the answers may not be the same in each of these cases, there is a marked difference with how training and expertise work in aesthetic practices that are concerned with non-natural phenomena, with artefacts, performances, and the like. This relates to the second feature, directed discontent.

Directed discontent typically involves judgments about objects according to norms with an aim to improvement. We look at the object (or performance, that’s basically the same in this regard), apply a relevant norm, and judge that the object does not qualify unreservedly, that there is room for improvement. Typically, improvement presupposes control, at least in principle. Hence, a key feature of aesthetic objects is that they lend themselves to manipulation, to change and be changed. 

Now, natural phenomena are not disqualified  by this requirement per se. But it does place restrictions on when natural phenomena can be regarded as proper aesthetic objects. First of all, there has to be some element of control. Since sunsets are typically not man-made, they equally typically are not aesthetic objects: there is no aesthetic practice that aims at producing sunsets according to certain shared norms. Landscapes are an in-between case: think of landscape architecture, garden design. Here there is enough control to start an aesthetic practice. But we don’t go about designing and producing mountain ranges. (At least, not yet. Notice how all this is conditional on human ability, and hence human technology.) What about people? A human face becomes a proper aesthetic object in the context of, e.g., plastic surgery. We can well imagine two people judging the result of an operation and one of them expressing directed discontent; “Nice result, but the left cheek is not quite what it should be … Let me see, a bit more like this, perhaps?”

And this immediately reveals the second  conditio sine qua non for something to be an aesthetic object, viz., that there has to be a set of shared norms. 

So we see why on the one hand natural phenomena do not automatically qualify as aesthetic objects and why on the other hand most of our aesthetic practices involve pure artefacts: control is needed for a practicable application of norms.

Martin Stokhof
[from: EOL Discussion Board
date: 27/02/2020]