Saturday, January 26, 2013

Breaking the spell of language

G. Randolph Mayes

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.  ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Since DoR is a philosophy blog I thought our first step into the blogosphere could be a meta-step, a post about the nature of the dance itself.

A lot of you know that Wittgenstein was the father of what we now call the Linguistic Turn in philosophy. He is known for claiming that many problems of philosophy are (what Rudolf Carnap later called) pseudo-problems.  Wittgenstein said that many apparently profound philosophical questions are actually confusions that result from a kind of illusion. We are tricked into believing that we are thinking about some property of the world when we are really thinking about some property of language. 

One of Wittgenstein's early mentors, Bertrand Russell, puts this beautifully in a 1923 lecture on vagueness.

Reflection on philosophical problems has convinced me that a much larger number than I used to think, or than is generally thought, are connected with the principles of symbolism... In dealing with highly abstract matters it is much easier to grasp the symbols (usually words) than it is to grasp what they stand for. The result of this is that almost all thinking that purports to be philosophical or logical consists in attributing to the world the properties of language. 

My absolute favorite example of this is the nature of truth, which certainly sounds like a profound question about the the relation of our thoughts to the external world. If you study the concept of truth in an introductory philosophy class, your teacher might motivate it by saying something like this: "If a statement is true, then clearly there must be something that makes it true. In philosophy we are trying to understand what that something is." 

Well, wait.  Way back in 1933 a logician named Tarski provided a famous definition of truth that doesn't particularly satisfy this intuition at all. Tarski successfully treated truth as a meta-linguistic predicate. What this basically means is that he saw 'true,' not as a word belonging to the part of our language that we use to talk about the world (the object language), but rather a word belonging to the part of our language that we use to talk about language (the meta-language). 

If this sounds all dry and technical and too demanding for a blog piece, hang in there. I'm trying to save your freakin' soul here. 

The basic idea is just that when we utter a sentence like "Snow is white," there are a number of practical reasons why we would choose to express the information contained in this sentence by talking about the sentence itself.  We might say '"Snow is white" is true,' or more simply "That's true." The important point here is that on Tarski's definition the meta-linguistic sentence containing the word 'true' does not contain any more information about the world than the original sentence. It's just a different way of communicating the very same information.

So one slightly bombastic way of understanding Tarski's work on truth is that he gave us a way to break the spell that the word 'true' has cast over philosophically inclined thinkers for thousands of years.  He showed that we can use the word in a perfectly straightforward and intuitive way while explaining the belief that there must be some profound metaphysical relation that makes sentences true as an illusion. It is an illusion that results from the surprising difficulty of distinguishing statements about the world from statements about language.

The idea that sentences of the form  "S is true" do not contain any more information than is contained in the sentence S itself is what we now call a deflationary view of truth.  This idea can be traced to Gottlob Frege, but it was first developed carefully by a lesser known and incredibly brilliant philosopher named Frank Ramsey, who died very young. (Both Ramsey and Frege were profoundly influenced by Wittgenstein, with whom they both corresponded.)

The deflationary theory of truth is popular, but it is not universally accepted. (Ironically, Tarski himself does not seem to have accepted it.) Those philosophers who reject the deflationary account may say something like this: "Well, yes, Tarski certainly provided an analysis of one meaning of the word 'true,' but that doesn't mean it is the only philosophically significant meaning."  Of course they are right about that. It is still possible that there is some completely distinct philosophically significant sense of the term. But if the deflationary account is not the whole story on truth, it has certainly shifted the burden of proof.  It is now up to people who believe otherwise to show what, beyond their own suspicions and intuitions, the deflationary view has failed to account for.

Every year I read (or at least start reading) lots of articles by philosophers who seem happy to go about their business as if the Linguistic Turn never happened. They practice their craft as"analytic philosophers" but without any real awareness of the concerns that brought this style of philosophy into existence in the first place. For me, Wittgenstein's account of philosophical problems completely changed the rules of the game. I do not think all philosophical problems are due to linguistic confusion.  But the first thing I suspect about any philosophical theorizing is that the people engaged in it are bewitched. And since I know how hard it is to detect, I suspect I usually am, too.

Further reading:  The best piece I ever read on the Linguistic Turn is the introduction to Richard Rorty's anthology by the same name.  The article is called: "Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy." Check it out.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hi everyone, welcome to Spring Semester 2013! And welcome to The Dance of Reason, the new blog of the Sacramento State Department of Philosophy.

This blog is an experiment. The basic idea is to try to break down the barriers imposed by the classroom and encourage the exchange of ideas between students and professors who otherwise may not get the chance to do so.

As for the name. Most people would not think to compare reason to dance, but the similarities are striking when you begin to think about it. Excellence in reasoning requires a cooperative attitude, a litheness of step and a lightness of being that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously.  As philosophers, we do not assign reason the plodding task of getting what we want or the truly degrading one of proving that familiar and comfortable ideas are correct. Rather, we set our reason free to cavort with strangers. We celebrate the opportunity to reinterpret our world, to learn new steps, new ways of moving across the intellectual landscape.

So, starting today, students, professors and friends of the Sacramento State Department of Philosophy have an open invitation to submit posts to this blog.  Note that our standards will be high. A good blog piece- and we won't waste your time with anything that isn't good- will be fairly short, well-written, well-reasoned, creative, accessible to a general philosophically inclined audience and interesting.  As time goes by, our hope is that professors in the department will use the blog as a forum to discuss what they are currently thinking about.  But we also hope that they will encourage students who write particularly interesting papers or who make particularly interesting points during class discussion to develop their ideas for the blog.

To submit to the blog you will send your piece to Professor Mayes <>.  Submissions that don't meet the above criteria will be kindly rejected, though you may also be encouraged to revise them for re-submission, perhaps in consultation with your professors.  As in life, rejections will probably be common. But don't let that discourage you from trying again.  All posts are subject to editing.  However, if you do not approve of the final form in which your post appears, we will remove it at your request.

Finally, a word about comments.  It is ok to make short complimentary comments, but critical ones need to be written in a civilized, thoughtful and generous manner. Any comments that do not meet this standard will be deleted.  (Please feel free to report what you regard as uncivilized activity to Professor Mayes.) Also, if you get a submission accepted to the blog, the spirit of dance compels you to follow your partners in inquiry and respond in kind.

For most people, the easiest way to follow this blog will be through the Sacramento State Department of Philosophy's Facebook Page. Just like us. You know you do.