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.)

7 comments:

S said...

This passage seems overly convoluted.

Is the excerpt basically saying that what one person thinks and what another person thinks the first person may be talking about, may not be equal? But in effect, one can only approximate the true meaning of another's language? Is this the "plurality of fact"?

If so, it doesn't seem very mind-blowing--only obvious.

miladawley said...

很讚的博客..................................................

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Dear S,

I don’t think Price is saying that. If it has any mind-blowingness it’s in its assertion that we shouldn’t assume that words represent what’s out there. That trying to create a theory of knowledge that does assume or try to demonstrate correspondence is not necessary. So it follows on Richard Rorty’s critique of the metaphor of the mind or language as the mirror of nature and that words get their power from their being like the world. This metaphor has been taken literally and science has often been thought to be the means by which we mirror nature as it truly is. Consequently other uses of language – poetry, folk psychology, the social sciences – are thought to be less true because less representative.

Price is describing a conception of language that does not use the mirroring metaphor and so the Correspondence Assumption. What replaces the Correspondence Assumption is inferentialism. (More on that later.)

Jeff

S said...

So, according to what Price is saying, words don't represent the external environment, the _something_ which we think we are referring to. For example, if I say "The tree is tall," people hear the words, translate them, and automatically infer that I am talking about this object in front of me, in the external world, that is tall. The erroneous assumption would then be that the information that I said correlates with the real tree. (if I am reading this passage right)

What doesn't make sense is:
"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."

What are these functional relationships?
--

On science versus poetry, myth, etc. I would say that each is describing certain aspects of world and reality and truth, that there is not one overall arching mega-truth that could be described by any one part of reality. Because of course, a part of a whole is never as great or deep as the whole itself.

Zetetic_chick said...

Hi Jeff,

Merry Christmas!.

I write you to ask you something.

I was reading again your book on Wilber, and you mention that Wilber attacks a straw man when critizing relativism, because he accuses relativists of commiting the self-referential fallacy of argue that "everything is relative"

My question is: Do not authors like Rorty, Kuhn and Feyerabend defend, explicitly or implicitly, that proposition?

For example, I think it was Feyerabend who says that there is not difference between scientific medicine and nonscientific ones, or something like that.

Doesn't that position lead to nihilism and extreme relativism of the kind "everything is relative", even if they don't defend such proposition explicitly?

Thanks

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

To S,

You wrote:

'So, according to what Price is saying, words don't represent the external environment, the _something_ which we think we are referring to. For example, if I say "The tree is tall," people hear the words, translate them, and automatically infer that I am talking about this object in front of me, in the external world, that is tall. The erroneous assumption would then be that the information that I said correlates with the real tree. (if I am reading this passage right)

'What doesn't make sense is:
"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."

'What are these functional relationships?

** Examples of functional relationships are: asserting, making moral judgments, making commitments, mathematics. The prevailing way of understanding how words mean is to determine how words represent the world, the nature of the link from word to part of the world it refers to. So description or representation is the ideal and science as the most successful representer of the world is taken as a model. But if that is the ideal how do we understand these other functional relationships. When we say: “He did a good thing.” What does that correspond to? An objectively existing standard of rightness? Where does its meaning come from?

You wrote:

'On science versus poetry, myth, etc. I would say that each is describing certain aspects of world and reality and truth, that there is not one overall arching mega-truth that could be described by any one part of reality. Because of course, a part of a whole is never as great or deep as the whole itself.'

** Or that to understand how words mean we shouldn’t use the method of trying to find how words or sentences correspond (The Correspondence Assumption) to the objects of the world. That approach leads to insoluble problems. Price does support the deflationary definition of truth. So in your example all that we can say about truth is “The tree is tall” is true if and only if the tree is tall. It doesn’t tell you much.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Z Chick,

It depends on what the person saying “everything is relative” means by it. Do they mean that everyone’s truth is valid even if they contradict? I don’t know if anyone reputable asserts that. Do they mean that there are no conclusively established foundations of knowledge; no pervasively accepted philosophical absolutes? Then most philosophers would agree.

I don’t know enough about Feyerabend. He may have defended an idea of the incommensurability of differing (even scientific) worldviews.

Good to hear from you again.
Have a good New Year.

Jeff