April 30, 2012

A Joke on Theories of Reference


A man walks into a bar.  A causal theorist of language is the bartender that night.  The man approaches the bartender in search of a woman.

Man: "I heard that I could get some play around here.  Who's the sluttiest girl in this place?"
Bartender (C): "If you're looking for some action, you should talk to Fiona."
Man: "Who's Fiona?"
Bartender (C): "Fiona names that which was so-named in this world, but could be differently named in some other possible world, and so anything I tell you about her would only be contingent and secondary to her direct reference."
Man: "Thanks a lot, dick!"

Clearly pissed off, the man curses the bartender and leaves, but returns the next night.  A descriptive theorist of language is the bartender that night.  The man approaches the bartender in search of a woman.

Man: "I heard that I could get some play around here.  Who's the sluttiest girl in this place?"
Bartender (D): "If you're looking for some action, you should talk to Fiona."
Man: "Who's Fiona?"
Bartender: "She's the woman with the six teeth and the eye patch at the end of the bar."
Man: "Thanks!
Bartender (D): "You're welcome."
Man: "You know, the bartender last night wasn't nearly as straightforward with me."
Bartender (D): "That's just how he gets his goat off!  He's always trying to jerk a flaccid designator into a rigid one."

Summary: 
  1. If you don't know what a referent for something is, you learn what it is by a description of it, not by masturbating possible worlds semantics.

April 12, 2012

Laozi's and Analytic Types' Consanguinous Philosophy of Language

It's here.

I disagreed, however, with this assertion:
"The question we should ask is not, ‘What does the text literally and mathematically say’, as if interpreting the Daodejing is like adding numbers, but rather, ‘What does the text mean?’"
If we take that kind of rigor to the text, we don't lose much of the text to inconsistency, and we can very neatly outline what the referent of '道' must be when one reads it with such rigor.  In so doing, we better understand "what the text means."

But there's an element to "namelessness" that this article does not discuss, and that is in the ambiguity of "having a name."  My wager is that the Laozi is not raising a highly skeptical philosophy of language, since the text provides sufficient descriptions to isolate a clear referent for '道.'  I've generally assumed, as I thought other readers did, that "無名" in chapters 1, 32, 37, and 41 similarly refer being "nameless" in the sense of being "faceless," the way we English speakers might talk of "not making a name for ourselves."

My impression with the Laozi, more generally, is that it establishes a definition for the set U, and then attempts to extract further moral lessons from that amoral entity.  Laozi's Daoism, in this light, is just cargo cult set theory.