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Philosophical Language Pitfalls

The path to philosophical knowledge is misdirected by false grammatical analogies. The analogies are false because most nouns are not names although all are classified as such. The hypothesis "A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing" misrepresents the logic of our natural language.

The surface logic of nouns suggests analogies such as this: that, for example, If the book can be in the shelf, then the mind can be in the head. But the mind cannot be in the head or anyplace else if the word 'mind' is not the name of an object, but has a different use in the language.

We aren't "schooled to walk warily amongst" the pitfalls which are dug for us by our language, pitfalls "not consciously seen" until they are looked for. The same pitfalls, the same traps, the same false paths are set for everyone by language -- but they are, for the most part, only dangerous when we try to think philosophically.

The background of these remarks is Wittgenstein's revision of the concept 'grammar', which an investigation of meaning shows logic to be equivalent to. By what standard is language-with-meaning (sense) distinguished from language-without-meaning (nonsense) in the discussion of philosophical questions? That the question of "logic of language".

Will not a philosopher who is blind to the pitfalls of language lead his followers into the pit with him? (Philosophy's first question, and why it is the first question.)

Outline of this page ...

Philosophical ideas in fiction

"What death will be, what pangs or peace it may bring, I have no conception. I argue with Epictetus that fear of death is by way of being an impertinent assumption of the knowledge of the hereafter, and that we have no reason to believe it is any worse condition than our present. I am not afraid to die -- but I am afraid of dying."

"Quite so, sir," murmured a sympathetic but wholly uncomprehending detective, who had no mind for nice distinctions. And Superintendent Falmouth, listening with every indication of attention, yawned inwardly and wondered who Epictetus was. (Edgar Wallace, The Four Just Men [1904], iii)

But, the Foreign Secretary says, "if I cannot imagine the exact process of dissolution", he can imagine breaking faith with those who have trusted him. And that is something he will not do.

And so there are many allusions here, first to Plato's Apology 40c-41c ("pangs or peace": whether death is sleep or further dreams), then to Apology 29a ("impertinent assumption": thinking you know what you don't know, thinking yourself wise when you are not), and to what one must do ("my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious" (Apology 32d, tr. Grube); cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 4, 2-4) regardless of what death ("process of dissolution") may be.

Forms of Expression Suggestive of Ideas

There are many phrases in Wallace's book that carry (or suggest to me) ideas. For example are above's "schooled to walk warily amongst pitfalls digged cunningly by friendly Powers" (Chapter ii). And "a search for four men whom no person had ever consciously seen", which -- but now useful in a different context, that of "intangible" or "abstract object" -- continues "a hunt for a will-o'-the-wisp, a groping in the dark after indefinite shadows" (iii).

"He looked like a gentleman," he said, trying to recall from the chaos of his mind a picture of his victim; "he had a white weskit, a white shirt, nice patent shoes --" (Chapter x)

If asked the picture 'my mind' suggests to me, I would answer: a wooly gray space. As to memory, nothing in my experience suggests a library or an aviary (Plato, Theaetetus 197c). What is indistinct, undefined is chaotic.

"Think of the enormous power for good or evil often vested in one man: a capitalist controlling the markets of the world, a speculator cornering cotton or wheat whilst mills stand idle and people starve, tyrants and despots with the destinies of nations between their thumb and finger ... evil forces all, and all beyond reach of the law. We have said of these people, such of us as are touched with mysticism, that God would judge them" [, the prime minister said]. (viii)

By 'mysticism' we mean beliefs about a presumed to exist, deeper reality that we do not perceive. This may be religious or metaphysical.

Is it true -- I am asking about our concepts 'justice', 'equity' and 'law' -- that justice belongs to God (man only enforces laws, Antigone's "Thy writ, O King"), that if someone doesn't believe in God, then there is no justice (The merciless standard "to let the punishment fit the crime" is merely the human presumption of thinking itself wise when it is not, as if man knew what anyone deserves in the eyes of God. Revenge isn't justice).

... thought it would be a sin to neglect the opportunities that the gods had shown him. (viii)

Equivalent forms of expression: a sin against the gods = an impious deed. It would be a sin not to = It would be impious not to = it would be an unholy deed. Sinfulness = impiety = moral wrong-doing = moral viciousness (in contrast to 'virtuousness').

"Normative science"

This is apropos of Natural language is not chess and Meaning and rules as a standard. (Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey)

F.P. Ramsey once emphasized in conversation with me that logic was a 'normative science'. I do not know exactly what he had in mind, but it was doubtless closely related to what only dawned on me later: namely, that in philosophy we often compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game. (PI § 81)

"Economics ... is a normative science, which means that it describes what men and women do in pursuit of wealth but not what they ought to do in pursuit of wealth ... the elementary principle of economics is to refrain from laying down restrictions of conduct ..." (Marshall, Prayer for a Concubine (1978), iii, 4)

The "ought" above means moral imperative not "ought" in the sense of "to get the best result", e.g. accumulate the most wealth, the least debt. 'Normative' means that the science of economics "describes what men and women do", and goes no further. And what will it mean then to say that "Logic is a normative science"? It means, in the context of Wittgenstein, that logic describes what we in fact do when we use language (A fact is a 'fact' because it is public and therefore objective DEF.; closed doors can be opened, and if any cannot be they play no part of logic), and goes no further.

[Logic of language] does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfill its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs. (PI § 496)

A "normative science" describes what is done. It doesn't say what "must" be the case for that to be done; e.g. it does not say that someone using language must be following strict rules if they are not to be talking nonsense (even if no one can say what those rules are). It does not say that a field cannot be defined if there are gaps in the fence that surrounds it.

"... political economy was a normative science, they said, which aimed at showing how men tended to behave in certain circumstances and not how they ought to behave. Well, the Church of God was not a normative Church ..." (Marshall, All Glorious Within (The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith (1945), xxvi) [The word "ought" here means that the Church says how men are morally obligated to behave. That is not the "ought" Wittgenstein is talking about, however.]

"... that logic is a normative science", meaning that it describes, rather than sets requirements: it describes the norm; it doesn't say what the norm must be (if language is to have meaning rather than be nonsense). That is why Wittgenstein's second (or, later) logic of language makes comparisons: "but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game"; it doesn't say what kind of rules must govern language (e.g. strict rules like those of chess or loose rules like those of a child throwing a ball into the air and catching it) if language is not to be "mere sound without sense". The logic of the Philosophical Investigations is normative, but the logic of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is not: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus claims to state what the essence of language is, i.e. the particular logic without which language would be nonsense; the later logic (unlike the earlier) "only describes and in no way explains the use of signs"; by 'explanation' is meant a speculative theory as is offered by the TLP or as the Theory of Abstraction offers.

The Theory of Abstraction for Common Names is an example of an "explanation". Unlike logic, the theory seeks to account for -- i.e. to answer the question of how it can be possible that human beings use common names when they are unable to "explicitly" (the presumption is that there is another, a non-public way) identify the defining common natures presumed to be the meaning of common names. Plato's theory of Forms -- known in the soul's pre-existence "out of the body" and then recollected when the soul is "in the body" -- is another example of a speculative explanation. In contrast, Wittgenstein's logic does not answer the question of how it is possible that human beings use common names when they are "unable to say what the names' meanings are". Because speculation is not Wittgenstein's project in philosophy, but instead logic is. Logic does not explain, but only describes, and therefore Wittgenstein must use a different meaning of 'meaning' from the one Plato and the Theory of Abstraction use (which has become the traditional one) -- if he is to say no more than we know (BB p. 45) -- i.e. to describe what is public and therefore objective about language meaning. That different definition of 'meaning' allows him to describe the grammar of common names without resort to speculative explanations.

Logic is neither speculative nor prescriptive; it is not metaphysical; it does not presume. It is "normative": it does no more than "describe what people do", like "normative economics" in the quotation. It does not set requirements (PI § 107) that language must conform to if language is not to be nonsense ("mere sound without sense), requirements which express preconceptions about how language works, pictures of how it seems to us that language must work, "reality despite the appearances".

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