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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Roderick Chisholm’s ‘Philosophers and Ordinary Language’ (1951)





Roderick Chisholm seems to suggest that in terms of the word ‘certain’ everything is only a matter of (prior) stipulation, not about which language is correct (whether that of the philosopher or ordinary language).

Take the case of the epistemologist who uses the word ‘certain’ to refer to “a type of cognition which it would be logically impossible for any man to have (177)”.

We may immediately ask what the point of such a cognition would be if it were “logically impossible for any man to have” (177). Indeed in what sense would it be cognition at all if no man has ever experienced one?

In any case, this usage would be ‘incorrect’ according to ordinary language (or only according to Malcolm and/or G.E. Moore?). Despite that, even if the epistemologist’s use of ‘certain’ is incorrect, it is still the case that “we have not refuted him” (177). What we've done is to show him that he's misusing ordinary language; not that what he says is (necessarily) false. However, if the ordinary language defender is prepared to admit that what the epistemologist says about certainty isn't actually (necessarily) false, why would he also insist on calling his use of the word ‘certain’ incorrect? Doesn’t this create an unacceptable disjunction on the ordinary-language speaker’s part? Can we make this separation? –

  1. The epistemologist misuses the word ‘certain’ according to ordinary language.
  2. What the epistemologist says about certainty, not the word ‘certainty’, may well be true.
It's the case that

now we understand [the epistemologist], we are no longer shocked by his statement that 'certain', in his sense, does not apply to beliefs about furniture”. (177)

Is that simply because we understand his stipulative definition (if it's only that) of ‘certain’? Or is it that we may also concede that his account of certainty may well be true? After all, Chisholm claims that “we are no longer shocked by his statement”. That seems to suggest that it's okay to be shocked by his incorrect use of the word ‘certain’; though not to be shocked by his (possibly) false account of certainty itself. (Isn’t this like the complaint to the BBC which instead of criticising a comedian for his racist jokes; criticised the comedian’s split infinitives which he used while making his racist jokes?)

Chisholm himself recognises this dis-juncture between truth and correctness when he writes that

we now see, what we had not seen before, since, presumably, our beliefs about the furniture do not have what he calls 'certainty'” (177).

Now we have two possibilities.

  1. That our beliefs about the furniture aren't certain. Or,
  2. That our beliefs about the furniture aren't certain; though only according to the epistemologist’s stipulative definition. (According to our own definition, they're still certain.)
Despite my setting up a choice between 1) and 2) above, Norman Malcolm thinks that both 1) and 2) are false. There's no according to about it! If the epistemologist’s statement is paradoxical, which it is according to Malcolm and perhaps also according to Chisholm (though that wouldn't make it automatically false to him), then it “cannot… not be false” (177). That is, it must be false. It's false because it's not an example of ordinary language. And, according to Malcolm, it's paradoxical for a very specific or particular reason. It's paradoxical because “it asserts the impropriety of an ordinary form of speech” (177). That doesn't necessarily mean that the philosophical statement explicitly “asserts the impropriety of an ordinary form of speech” by being meta-linguistic (as it were). It may implicitly assert such an impropriety simply by what it says or by going against the rules and forms of ordinary language. In fact Malcolm himself suggests that the implicit assertion is more likely in the philosopher’s case. The fact that his statements are really “disguised linguistic statements” may be “concealed from himself as well as from others” (177).

Despite the psychoanalytic undertones of what Malcolm says about these ‘paradoxical’ statements, philosophers have always been keen to uncover what we really mean by discovering, for example, the logical form or suchlike of an utterance. Malcolm just turns this venerable tradition on its head by instead of telling us what the plebeians really mean, he tells us what the (paradoxical) philosopher really means. (What does Malcolm really mean when he says that the paradoxical philosopher really means X? And what did I really mean by what I've just said about what Malcolm really means?)

Chisholm then gives us a synoptic account of Malcolm’s position on what paradoxical philosophers really mean:

  1. First we show that the philosophical statement isn't really an “empirical statement”. That it doesn't concern the ‘empirical facts’.
  2. From this it will follow, according to the theory, that the philosopher is really trying to tell us something about language.
  3. Then, with the philosopher’s disguise thus removed, an easy refutation is at hand (178).
From that chain of reasoning we can conclude that the paradox-merchant is really a philosopher of language. But that isn't quite right. He is, in fact, only a linguistic philosopher who “is really trying to tell us something about language” (178). This is a strange conclusion because the linguistic philosophers of old would have been the last type of philosopher to say anything that was even remotely paradoxical – or at least they would have never intentionally have said anything paradoxical. Of course we all know that the paradox merchants that Malcolm had in mind (like Russell, McTaggart and even A.J. Ayer) were far from being (mere) linguistic philosophers, even if some of them did take language and its role in philosophy seriously.

*) An interesting example of Malcolm’s disjunction of truth from (linguistic) correctness is supplied by Chisholm.

Chisholm says that even though Columbus knew that the earth is round, if he “wanted to teach his children the meaning of the word 'round' he would never cite the earth as an example” but would refer instead to “peaches and olives”. According to Chisholm, Malcolm holds that

this would not show that Columbus was using language incorrectly, since in this case ordinary people were making a mistake and Columbus was not”. (176)

  1. "The earth is flat." = a correct ordinary-language statement from the time of Columbus.
  2. The earth is flat.’ = a ‘mistaken’ ordinary-language statement from the time of Columbus.
  3. The earth is round.’ = an incorrect ordinary-language statement from the time of Columbus.
  4. The earth is round.’ = a true non-ordinary-language statement from the time of Columbus.
  5. The earth is round.’ = (?) a true statement which uses ordinary language incorrectly from the time of Columbus.
According to Malcolm, even the true statement expressed in 4) would be ‘incorrect usage’; whereas 1) would (only) be an example of ‘mistaken usage’ (i.e. because it states a falsehood); though not one of ‘incorrect usage’.


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