Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Huw Price on Representationalism

This from philosopher Huw Price from a lecture he gave called "Two Readings of Representationalism"

The view I’m challenging can be thought of as a loosely articulated combination of two fundamental assumptions about language and thought. The first assumption (call it the Content Assumption) is that language is a medium for encoding and passing around sentence-sized packets of factual information – the contents of beliefs and assertions. The second assumption (the Correspondence Assumption) is that these packets of information are all ‘about” some aspect of the external world, in much the same way. For each sentence, and each associated packet of information, there’s an appropriately 'shaped’ aspect of the way the world is, or could be – viz., the state of affairs, or fact, that needs to obtain for the sentence to be true. The orthodox view bundles these two assumptions together (not recognising that they are distinct). Once both are in place, it is natural to regard language and thought as a medium for mirroring, or representing, these sentence-sized aspects of the external environment, and passing around the corresponding packets of information from head to head.

My proposal rests on pulling the two assumptions apart, foregrounding the Content Assumption but sidelining the Correspondence Assumption, replacing it with richer, practical and more pluralistic understanding of the role of various kinds of linguistic information in our complex interaction with our environment. The key is inferentialism, which frees the Content Assumption from the Correspondence Assumption. According to an inferentialist, the internal logical machinery of language creates packets of information, or contents, but these may be associated with many different functional relationships, in the complex interaction between language users and their physical environment.

From the inside – as ordinary language users – we don’t notice these differences between one sort of content and another. We talk about ‘facts’ of many different kinds – e.g., about tastes and colours, or right and wrong, as easily as about shape and position. The differences are only visible from a theoretical perspective, by asking about the different roles that commitments about these various matters play, in the lives of creatures like us. (Facts thus become a kind of projection of informational structures made possible by language, echoing Strawson’s famous remark that ‘if you prise the statements off the world you prise the facts off it too’ (Strawson 1950); and there is plurality in the resulting realm of facts, reflecting the underlying plurality of functions of kinds of assertoric commitments.)