August 29, 2012

Philosophical Amputations: 3: Normative Lexicography

I'm going to risk some redundancy for another attempt to hack at some of the sophistry that philosophers exploit.  Like my other charges, I'm going to prod at philosophers' linguistic fallacies which they use to enable philosophical discourse.  Unlike them, I want to poke at a problem that laypeople who actually meet and talk with philosophers experience -- philosophers' assumption that people don't "really" know what they mean by what they say.

The issue that I'm going to raise here often arises in what philosophers call "philosophical interest."  It's come up more and more in lieu of the pursuit of truth, such that what passes for philosophy instead is a sort of talk about how other philosophically trained people will be interested in engaging an argument that another philosopher writes.

In some studies, this kind of talk can work fine, because experts in other fields have an already defined and narrow field of inquiry from which other studies are likely to be very distal to the ones that they themselves study.  Anatomists and sociologists, for instance, work in partly overlapping areas.  The former studies interactions within a single human body, while the latter studies interactions among human bodies.  It's clear that their studies inform each other in many respects, as certain anatomical facts comprehensively explain certain facts about human socialization, and vice versa.  However, those revealed facts from the anatomist are not so "sociologically interesting" in the sense that they don't directly relate to the experiments that sociologists undertake or to the causal relationships that they're usually trying to find.

But how do philosophers invent most of the questions and problems that then become "philosophically interesting?"  And more, how can non-philosophers then separate the wheat from the chaff?   Philosophy prides itself on being the amorphous profession, one in which its methods of inquiry can fit any discipline and provide productive criticism and alternative perspectives from certain data.  Being "philosophically interesting" can't be probing at that aforementioned kind of difference.  That previous sentence is misleading.  The difference is still about a narrow sub-domain of our empirical knowledge, but what exactly the "interesting" content is is not obvious.

Philosophers, however, occasionally blurt out the "interesting" domain of study and the vanity of the methods that they apply when seeking to understand that domain, as Peter Millican does at the end of his introductory lecture on epistemology:


While I agree with a portion of what Millican says (that we're not setting God's-eye standards for determinations of knowledge), there is a problem that would have avoided the whole issue right at the start if they had caught it as laymen do, and it may perhaps enlighten Millican here and other philosophers not to chase their own tails and then recommend a move that everyone else does as a matter of everyday practice.

At this point, a typical example, one that laymen experience when they deal with philosophers, will offer more explanatory force.  In it, we can imagine a layman (LM) making claims to knowledge who confronts a skeptic (SK), who sucks the layman into his rhetorical game:

LM: "I know that I have a hand, that there is no rational solution to the square root of 2, and that I will still be alive for the next nanosecond, etc."
SK: "Well, how do you really know those things?  Maybe you're a brain in a vat, and that it's not really your hand.  Maybe we just don't have the right mathematics, and it's incorrect to say that the square root of 2 is non-rational.  Maybe lightning just struck you, and you've just died."

This ought to tell us that the "philosophically interesting" content of their discourse is the lexicons of human languages (in Millican's video above, the use of the headword know).

But once the skeptic has outlined the domain of his investigation, he has already succumbed to two unique fallacies by pursuing his method of criticism.  The first fallacy is a forced category shift from which no layperson wants or needs to follow.  Skeptics (and philosophers, too) play this game by forcibly contrasting what was the framework or narrative from which the non-academic masses provide meanings to their terms to some other framework or narrative where the terms were never intended to be used.  Consider the following: What if I'm living in a dream world, and then a mad scientist puts my imaginary brain into a vat?  Does that mean that I'm thrust into a deeper illusion than I just was when I was living under the previous illusion?  Don't even attempt to answer the question!  If you're tempted to address that question, you're already playing into the philosopher's bigger mistake.

This bigger mistake, I think, is the most insulting part of the philosophical attitude (and I think the part that turns most people away from it).  Rather than accepting what regular people mean in circumstances when they use terms, and investigate from there, they attempt to form a more "philosophically interesting" narrative assumes that the regular person was proposing a sort of universal definition which must apply in all situations.

This, too, marks the drastic separation between the laity and philosophers.  Regular people are only offering a loose descriptive lexicography of their senses of words as they mean it when they say it, to have a message which is clear enough for practical uses.  Philosophers wrongly assume that our descriptive lexicon is on trial, that we're supposed to subject our linguistic habits to some sort of normative lexicography, and where the meaning that a layman gave for a certain term or proposition was supposedly a statement about how we should use the term in any imaginable situation.  This means that laypeople can disarm most philosophers with a single sentence: "If that's what I meant by the phrase, I would have used a different one."  Further philosophical challenges amount to semantic mavenism (in the very sense that Stephen Pinker dismisses "grammar mavenism"), which assumes that specialists are going to enforce a "correct" account of a meaning of a term that no regular people use in the situations that the "mavens" prescribe.

The fallacies of normative lexicography break down into a number of different false assumptions:
  • It is false that a single grapheme, phoneme, or related x-eme of a language must correspond to exactly one all-inclusive sense or subscribe to just one universal definiens.  The syntactic elements of natural languages inject and surject into our semantics, but they do not biject it!
  • It is false that meanings for terms come from conformity of an x-eme to the truths of the world.  Meaningfulness is a matter of consensus among users of a language, and the illustrations that said language provides under a particular framework or narrative.
  • The idea that we're attempting to propose some supreme, unalienable, objective fact about the world when we're conveying a message is mistaken, and further (and philosophers should know this!), logically impossible (because of the infinite regress of ambiguity).  The framework or narrative by which we provide meaning to our sentences is confined to life as we comprehend ourselves living it.
  • It is false that we could get a better grasp of the extralinguistic world by probing at the mere linguistic conventions of a community.  We can aim for consistency in interpretation.  We can aim for factuality in statements.  But those issues come after we've conveyed an already meaningful message.

Limiting ourselves to descriptive lexicography does not beget incommensurable lexicons, as some philosophers suggest, because descriptive lexicography is plenty to keep people from saying, "Red bananas read newspapers," in English to mean, "I went to the supermarket yesterday," in English, too, without careful ad hoc qualification that they would have to concede upright in order to be understood.  With such concessions, the problem over incommensurable lexicons disappears as soon as the interlocutors interpreted said meanings to each other.  (That's also what allows English speakers to understand, "Let's bury the hatchet," to mean, "Let's reconcile our mutual opposition.")

I think the most convincing evidence of the vanity in the practice of normative lexicography is that philosophers, themselves, suddenly play the roles of descriptive lexicographers as soon as someone normatively challenges what they mean by what they say when they talk about "philosophy."  "No, no!" such a philosopher says, "That's not what I or we mean when we use the word philosophy.  If that's what I meant by that phrase, I would have used a different one."

But more, we don't really need a normative lexicography to challenge people's claims about the world, because if we clarify that people's seemingly separate meanings translate into something with which we agree, then the disagreement ends there.  But, if it doesn't, then the basis for the claim isn't going to be the vocabulary, or imaginary tales in which we have no reason to assume that our everyday lexicon should apply, but some separate fact which informs those claims.  But once we're discussing what the facts beyond the terminology that we use to convey those facts are, admitting pro tem a world beyond ourselves, the tools of our investigation switch from philosophy to science.  We shift the discussion from the coherence of the rhetoric to the facts of the matter, and philosophical interest drops out.