Monday, August 31, 2009

Can words be used incorrectly?

The other day at Language Log there was a post directing us to a philosophically-themed Dinosaur Comic, where T-Rex jubilantly schools philosophers with his deflationary solution to the sorites paradox. I have a number of comments about that, but for now I want to address one aspect of one of the comments there (as you'll see, that will be plenty for today). The commenter, Marinus, after giving an excellent explanation of why the sorites paradox is indeed a real problem in philosophy, suggests that some philosophers, Wittgenstein among them, are committed to the idea that it is impossible for anyone to use a word incorrectly. Marinus does not mention any other such philosophers, and the attribution to Wittgenstein seems like a stretch, or is at least not obvious.

Putting Wittgenstein to one side for now, I can attest that Akeel Bilgrami, following Davidson, has stated explicitly that "normativity is irrelevant to the meaning of words" ("Norms and Meaning"). Here, however, I would like to give some reasons why such talk of using words wrongly is perfectly natural, and, more importantly, can be harmless even by Davidsonian lights. That is, it will seem at first that in helping myself to properly semantic normative considerations, I invite the Platonism which both Davidson and Bilgrami correctly reject. My task will be to show, or at least suggest, that in so doing I issue no such invitation. (Bilgrami actually does qualify his claims somewhat, but not in the way I would prefer. I'll say a bit about this at the end.)

an ocelotLynxes and ocelots are members of the cat family. They're bigger and wilder than domestic cats, but smaller than the big cats (tigers, etc.). Other than that I get a little fuzzy on the details. I think ocelots might be a bit smaller than lynxes, and I think lynxes have little tufts on the ends of their ears. As you might expect, though, cat family classification is somewhat more complicated than I make it appear here, and as it turns out, lynxes and ocelots aren't really that similar. I don't think that affects the following argument, as our question is still what to say if someone were to confuse them: is the mistake epistemic, semantic, both, indeterminate, or something else? If the example bothers you, ignore the kitty pictures and think about elms and beeches instead.

With that in mind, let's say I work at a zoo (a real zoo, that is). I've spent the morning admitting an ocelot: having it checked for the standard ocelot parasites, feeding it ocelot food, cleaning out the ocelot cage, etc. At lunch the conversation centers around lynxes and ocelots, and I mention that the lynx I admitted today had some interesting markings. You've seen the animal in question too – maybe you received delivery and glanced in the cage before signing – and you reply: "Lynx? You mean ocelot, don't you?" My response: "Right, the ocelot." In other words, I don't bat an eye, but simply acknowledge what we would call a slip of the lip. My belief is fine: I knew all along it was an ocelot – that's why I did all those ocelot-specific things – but just now I made a semantic error. I simply came out, as does Michael Palin uncontrollably in a certain Python skit, with the wrong fusebox.

In particular, I attempted to express my (true) belief that the cat was an ocelot, but in so doing, I misused the word "lynx," which after all means lynx, not ocelot, and therefore cannot (or so it seems; I consider a qualification below) be used correctly in expressing beliefs – true or false – about ocelots rather than lynxes.

a lynxSo far, so good. However, I can also make a mistake about the cat, rather than the word. In order to do so, however, I have to use the (mistaken) word correctly in order to express my false belief. Let's say I simply made a cursory examination (before I had my morning caffeine?) and handed the "lynx" over to my assistant for the admission procedures I myself performed in the previous example, only this time it's cleaning out the lynx cage, etc. Again at lunch I speak of the "lynx's" markings, and again your reaction is "Lynx? You mean ocelot, don't you?" Now my response may very well be to frown, and say something like: "My goodness, you're right, it was an ocelot! I better get Terry to clean out the ocelot cage. After he's finished with the lynx cage, anyway."

Again, in referring to the "lynx" as I did, I expressed my mistaken belief that the cat was a lynx; but in order to do that by so speaking, I must have been using the word "lynx" correctly – to refer to lynxes, which the cat in question was not.

Now for some clarifications. My point here is certainly not that we must speak in this way – that the first really is a case of properly semantic error as opposed to the latter, a clear case of properly doxastic error. So already some peace can be made, as I take the Davidsonian point to be mainly that there can be nothing which forces us to speak this way. It's just that the natural way to make that point is to make sure to speak the other way instead, referring in all cases to doxastic error only, rather than semantic error; and I grant in advance that even this example can be spun that way if you like, as again no force was intended. I simply think there's no real reason not to speak of semantic error in particular cases if we so prefer, and that it can in fact be salutary to remind ourselves that that possibility is open to us.

another ocelotThat we can construe each example in either way is further suggested by the qualification I promised above; for there is a sense in which I can indeed refer to ocelots (i.e. successfully), and express beliefs about them, even when using the word "lynx." Suppose I say "This lynx here [patting yon ocelot on the head] has worms, can you give him a deworming pill?" I've expressed a belief, let's say a true one [i.e. that he's got worms] about what is in fact an ocelot, albeit by using the word "lynx." It would be perverse of you to pretend that I haven't said anything about the ocelot at all, simply because I used the "wrong word" to refer to it. Note that this case is intermediate between the two others, at least so far. For all you know, my response to "I think that's an ocelot, not a lynx" could be either "right, an ocelot; can you give him the pill?" or instead "no, it's a lynx; look, he's got the little tufts on his ears"; where the first suggests that I merely misspoke (failed to express my true belief that the cat is an ocelot), and the second sounds more like I have misidentified the cat rather than misused the word.

Yet these are mere suggestions, at least in advance of further investigation. After all, maybe the former of these responses acknowledges a false belief (if one I regard as unimportant and easily corrected), while the latter confusion about lynxes can also be construed as instead concerning the proper referent of "lynx," a semantic matter.

Now for the moral. The trick here, in my view, is to see two things at the same time. First, "using a word properly" ("having the concept") has (at least) two aspects: first, the semantic part: getting the meaning right; and secondly, the epistemic part: getting the world right. Secondly, on the other hand, these two things, while not identical, are very closely related, indeed interconstitutive, rendering interpretation (determination of meaning) more complicated than simply checking the dictionary to see if a speaker has used a word "correctly." It is in this anti-Platonistic sense only that such obligations are, in Bilgrami's not entirely univocal terms, neither "sui generis" nor "intrinisic."

Sometimes we will emphasize one of these two points rather than the other. For example, we sometimes say that knowing the meaning of a word is knowing how to use it correctly, where the paradigmatic example is that of using the word X to correctly identify X's. If someone says "that's a lynx" when and only when in the presence of lynxes, he most likely knows what "lynx" means. Similarly, when we are teaching someone a word, especially children, we test their understanding by seeing if they do the "appropriate" thing, e.g. apply "doggie" to dogs and not to ferrets, or responding "five" when asked to "add three and two."

This can make it seem that what we have here is a single determination – one of the meaning of a subject's utterances – which is determined behaviorally, by seeing if the subject makes correct judgments. The idea is that knowing the word (having the concept) "add" just is to add correctly; and knowing (the meaning of) the word "lynx" just is identifying lynxes correctly. But this leaves no room for going on to claim a distinct notion of semantic normativity over and above that involved in judgments that things are thus and so, a doxastic matter (Bilgrami is correct that McDowell can be careless on this point).

In other words, this conception of the relation between belief and meaning puts them too close together. In response, we point out that while I can indeed express a false belief that that cat is a lynx, I must, in so doing, be using the word "lynx" in its proper meaning – to refer to lynxes. Recognizing the conceptual distinctness of the two components restores the proper flexibility to an interpretive process which requires us, in standard cases, to attribute beliefs and meanings simultaneously. This reflects the internal connection to the learning process, in which, in learning "how to use words," we learn both what they mean and a whole bunch of truths about the world: what "lynx" means and what lynxes are, and what "add" means and how to add, without those two amounting to (exactly) the same thing.

On the other hand, however, we don't want to think of belief and meaning as two different phenomena (or things) entirely, in the sense of being determinable by separate processes (instead of the single complex process of interpretation cum inquiry); instead, again, we need to see them as interconstitutive.

According to Davidson and Bilgrami, we risk doing this when we speak of "linguistic norms" at all – that is, as in any way distinct from the doxastic norm of "getting things right." To do so makes it sound like meaning is determined not in the interpretive process itself but instead by allegedly independent facts about, say, English: given the actual dispositions of English speakers, on this view, if I make the sound /links/ (or inscribe l-y-n-x), then I necessarily thereby refer to those things (i.e., lynxes) – no matter what an engaged interpreter may say – simply because "that's what 'lynx' means in English." This semantic Platonism makes utter hash of the holistic Davidsonian picture, and is what provokes Davidson to declare, famously, in "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," that "there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed."

(Let me just give a bit more from that article. The quote continues: "There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases." Earlier on, he says that to say this means that "we have abandoned not only the ordinary notion of a language, but we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally"; or, as I would say, between meaning and belief. "Erasing the boundary" in this way, however, sends us back to the first point – that we must not think of these things as identical or simply reducible to the normativity of belief. The two are not dualistically opposed, but distinct.)

another lynx (here, a bobcat)My claim is that even loyal Davidsonians can recognize a difference between "linguistic norms" in this deceptive sense, on the one hand, and on the other, the idea that "getting things right" is a norm for meaning just as much as it is for belief. We can have the latter without the former. Consider the Davidsonian triangle, with a subject at one point, an interpreter (or an informant) at another, and our shared but objective world at the apex. Each point can exert normative pressure on what we say (and believe and do): I get the world right when I believe the truth; I get meaning(s) right when I speak properly; and I get myself right when I act in accordance with my most fundamental commitments. Yet in each case talk of "getting right" need not commit us to the existence of some separably characterizable thing. The lack of a language, in the sense in which Davidson rejects it, is analogous in this image to the lack of the Cartesian world-in-itself on the one hand, and the non-existence of my "true self" on the other. Just as with belief and meaning, it is the dualism of norm and norm-follower that is rejected, not the distinction (and the relation). Even if that means we give up the terminology of concrete "norms" for something fuzzier like "normative commitment" (or as above, normative "pressure"), there is still a role for such a relation between meaning and "language" (if not *a* language).

Bilgrami does suggest that "norms" of meaning could be salvaged if construed as the "extrinsic" prudential norm of "speaking as others do" (rather than "speaking rightly"), or the hypothetical imperative of "... if you wish to be understood." But while prudence is indeed a part of the interpretive picture, I think, for the above reasons, that even properly semantic normativity (if not "norms") can be unobjectionable. But there's a lot more to say about that, so I'll leave Bilgrami's views for another time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who says philblogging isn't the royal road to riches?

As Abbas points out in the comments to the previous post, 3 Quarks Daily is now accepting nominations for a prize to be awarded to the best philosophy blog post of the past year. Here's the link. Better hurry though, nominations must be submitted by August 31st. The top prize ("Top Quark," get it?) will net the winner *one thousand* smackers, so choose wisely!