07 September 2009

Russell v. Strawson

For philosophy of language, we've read Bertrand Russell's On Denoting, and Strawson's response, On Referring. I wanted to lay down a few thoughts here before I read Russell's response to Strawson.

For the first half of Strawson's article, he seems to be making reasonable points. But then we get to this example:

Let me now take an example of the uniquely referring use of an
expression not of the form, "the so-and-so ". Suppose I advance
my hands, cautiously cupped, towards someone, saying, as I do so,
" This is a fine red one ". He, looking into my hands and seeing
nothing there, may say : "What is ? What are you talking
about ? " Or perhaps, " But there's nothing in your hands ".
Of course it would be absurd to say that in saying " But you've
got nothing in your hands ",he was denying or contradicting what
I said.

My response? Of course I would be contradicting the speaker if I said "But there's nothing there." It doesn't matter if it was in pretense or not. If I take the speaker seriously, and say there's nothing there, I at least believe that I am contradicting an assertion. The article was pretty much downhill from there.

I think that Strawson is trying to make an argument for how we use language, and tie that to its meaning, while Russell is interested in the meaning itself, independent of usage. Strawson wants to take context into account; Russell wants to explicate the context using quantifiers. Strawson somehow tries to argue that the context itself is not part of the meaning of the sentence, even though he is rather adamant that we use the context to determine the meaning. Russell seems to think that if it is required to determine the meaning, then the context itself is part of the meaning, and, again, must be explicitly included.

I tend to side with Russell. One more example from Strawson and then I'll go see what Russell has to say about him. Strawson argues that these two statements are completely equivalent: "Napoleon was the man who ordered the execution of the
Duc D'Enghien." & "Napoleon ordered the execution of the Duc D'Enghien." Nonsense. Even if I accept the premise that only a human can order an execution (which I do not), the first sentence indicates the gender of Napoleon and makes it explicit that Napoleon refers to one person rather than to a group of people. No. Those are not completely equivalent. If we already knew who Napoleon was, we could use them interchangeably, but only because we already knew that Napoleon was one, and only one, man.

Take a less familiar name. (A) "Trimnald ordered all handkerchiefs to be burned." Is Trimnald a man? A woman? An organization? An alien invader? (B) "Trimnald was the (x) who ordered all handkerchiefs to be burned." Now we know that Trimnald was an x. That sentence gives extra information. To suggest otherwise is absurd. Strawson might argue that in the context where A is written, it is clear what Trimnald is, but that would be the meaning of A plus its context, which would need to be explicitly given.

One of my earlier lessons in writing math proofs was to indicate where everything comes from. So if I want to use x, I can't just insert x and go from there. I have to explicate it as something like "Let x be any real number," or "Let x be any positive integer," or even, "Consider the irrational number x." If I want a decent proof, I cannot allow any of that to be inferred from context alone. If we want the meaning of language to be clear, we must be equally careful not to assume context when it's not actually given.

Okay, going to read Russell's response now.

POST-READING: Mr. Strawson On Referring. First, wow. This is a 5 page article, much shorter than either of the previous ones. It's a bit like a roast, actually, in that Russell, while using the most scholarly of language, manages to call Strawson a dishonest idiot, without ever using those exact words. And I meant to bring up that Strawson analyzes "The King of France is wise," while Russell's example said, "The present King of France is bald," which is a different beast altogether, especially, as Russel points out, if you specify the year.

The terminology is different than I used in my analysis, but I think when Russell mentions "egocentricity," he is referring to what I called "use," and when he refers to "descriptions," that is what I called "meaning." Russell says that, fine, he didn't deal with egocentricity in Denoting, but he did in plenty of other places, and shouldn't Mr. Strawson have read them before going off the deep end? Likewise, Russell would like more precision in language when it is used in philosophy than when it is used in everyday life, just as every other discipline has its own unique jargon.


John said...

My only familiarity with this is this post. Although I know Russell pretty well from his philosophy of mathematics.

"If we want the meaning of language to be clear, we must be equally careful not to assume context when it's not actually given."

I think this is why Russell says that context is an essential part of meaning. Take Stawson's Napoleon example.

In the context of a discussion about Napoleon Bonaparte, the statements are equivalent. The context of knowing who Napoleon is (or was, if you insist) is necessary for either statement to have meaning, let alone equivalence. In cultural context, "Napoleon" is assumed to mean Napoleon Bonaparte, but it is by no means a unique name.

How's this for lack of context:

Napoleon wants you to vote for Pedro.

Qalmlea said...

Perfect example. If you're interested in meaning itself, the context has to be included as part and parcel of the meaning. In most contexts, 2 + 2 = 1 would be false, but in Z3 (that 3 should be a subscript, but the comment section doesn't seem to allow subscripts), it is correct. So is 2 + 1 = 0. Over the whole set of integers, however, both statements are false.

Aside: I like picking on simple math examples because I've seen them misused in various philosophical articles I've read. I get very tired of seeing "2+2=4" trotted out as an absolute and unerring truth, when the authors do not specify which group they're working with.

John said...

I can't say for sure, but I'd wager that Strawson didn't study math very deeply. I think that's the difference here. Russell, as a mathematician, was accustomed to precisely defined context, with no room for ambiguity. Strangely enough, that very lack of ambiguity seems to cause trouble for a lot of students. How weird is that?

"I get very tired of seeing "2+2=4" trotted out as an absolute and unerring truth,..."

What I get tired of are people who don't define their terms and use that ambiguity to weasel around objections. Especially when they should know better (like Michael Behe and BIll Dembski) and must be doing it deliberately.