Saturday, May 05, 2012

Meno and negation

Jason suggested in a comment on the last post that my problem about how we learn to apply negation is related to the ‘Meno question’.

A couple of comments. First, there are two Meno questions or Meno problems. The first is to explain how knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief, and that is the Meno problem as commonly understood. The second problem, which is clearly related to the first, is to explain how we learn anything at all. If knowledge is different from true belief, how can we possibly acquire knowledge by teaching? If teaching is the mere repetition of true propositions (‘The battle of Hastings was in 1066’), and if learning is the acceptance of those propositions as true, on account of the authority of the teacher, or for whatever reason, and if knowledge is more than simple acceptance of the truth, it logically follows that we can’t acquire knowledge from teaching, as so defined. So how do we acquire knowledge? Is it already there, and does teaching in the proper sense require uncovering what lay hidden?  – the Latin root of ‘educate’ means ‘drawing out’. Or does it come from without?

The second problem clearly underlies the difficulty about negation, but there is a further difficulty. The medieval philosophers, following Boethius*, divided discourse into three types, namely written, spoken and conceptual. Written discourse signifies spoken discourse, by convention. It is a convention, e.g., that the written word ‘dog’ signifies the noise that comes out of my mouth when I utter ‘dog’. In turn, spoken discourse signifies mental discourse, also by convention. It is by convention that the spoken word ‘dog’ signifies the idea of a dog. French people use the word ‘chien’ to signify that same idea, Germans use the word ‘Hund’ (I think). Ockham, though he was English, would have used the Latin word canis. However, mental discourse signifies not by convention, but ‘naturally’. The English and French and German and Latin words for dog all signify exactly the same thing, namely the idea of a dog. For otherwise we could not communicate, unless we could signify the same idea in another person’s mind as the one we want to convey. But we cannot teach the signification of the idea itself – we don’t have it available to match up with the thing signified, for ideas are private. So ideas or ‘mental terms’ signify naturally. Ockham explains this right at the beginning of his Summa Logicae.

Now the word ‘not’ is what Ockham would have called a syncategorematic term. He explains the distinction in chapter 4, although it does not originate with him. A syncategorematic term is one that does not signify on its own (in the way that the term ‘dog’ on its own signifies or ‘supposits for’ all dogs), but signifies by making other words signify. For example, ‘every’, ‘some’, ‘only’ and of course ‘not’.

If Ockham is right, there is a sense in which we cannot learn the meaning of the word ‘not’. Of course we learn that the English word ‘not’, the spoken word, corresponds to the mental ‘not’, and in that sense we learn the meaning. But in another sense we cannot learn or acquire the mental term itself. It must be already there.

Thus, if he is right, we don’t learn the meaning of negation. It is already there. But is he right?

*See his commentary on Aristotle’s Perihermenias ed. 2a, I, Patrologia Latina 64, col. 407B.

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26 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

Ah, that "justified true belief" stuff. Yeah, I remember that.

Unfortunately I can't get through your second paragraph without raising numerous objections.

11:34 am  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> However, mental discourse signifies not by convention, but ‘naturally’. The English and French and German and Latin words for dog all signify exactly the same thing, namely the idea of a dog.

Oh...This, I think, is a fatal flaw.

>> For otherwise we could not communicate, unless we could signify the same idea in another person’s mind as the one we want to convey

Communication does not require the idea in my mind to be *exactly* the same as the idea in your mind. It just requires the ideas to overlap enough for the particular context.

Making up an example, if the German word "Hund" includes a few species which would be classified under the American English word "wolf", a German and an American could still communicate, via simple translation, the sentence "I have a pet dog". Maybe a bit would be "lost in translation". But communication is still possible.

11:50 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Anthony, not everything I say is said from my point of view. Sometimes I give these 'in universe' accounts which are intended faithfully to reflect what people thought in some period, but don't necessarily reflect any of my thoughts.

In fact, as I said once before, I don't really have any beliefs. I try and record things. Hopefully in a faithful way, though I don't believe I really do that.

12:32 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> Of course we learn that the English word ‘not’, the spoken word, corresponds to the mental ‘not’, and in that sense we learn the meaning.

This essentially begs the question. It presumes that there is a mental "not" which exists prior to learning the word "not". There is no justification as to why that is true, and it's not clear to me that it is true.

12:34 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> In fact, as I said once before, I don't really have any beliefs. I try and record things. Hopefully in a faithful way, though I don't believe I really do that.

Yes, this is that painful quality I've experienced with a lot of modern philosophy educators which I misattributed to "relativism" a few days ago.

Is this a response to my comment about "your second paragraph"? If so, I understand that you were trying to present the views of others. I'm not sure if you misrepresented those views, or if those views were incoherent. I suspect it was a little of each. Plato was a smart guy. But we've learned a lot in 2400 years.

12:39 pm  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

Excellent exposition, EO.

Anthony, EO is expositing the classic discourse on the subject, though I had never heard is two-part division, especially the first part, of the Meno question phrased that way.


Let's try this. Common-sensically, it is easier to understand how someone could gain ideas of things that they encounter. But it is far more difficult to understanding concepts that do not have physical correlates. My students always struggle with the notions of necessary and probable with regards to logic....

1:06 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

I understand that Ed is expositing a classic discourse. I can't get through it. It is chock full of false premises and false assumptions. I just can't enter myself into a world with so many flawed beliefs.

Like I said, Plato was a smart guy. But we've learned a lot in 2400 years.

"Common-sensically, it is easier to understand how someone could gain ideas of things that they encounter. But it is far more difficult to understanding concepts that do not have physical correlates."

Surely we "encounter" things which aren't "physical".

Everything we have a concept of, is something that we encounter.

"My students always struggle with the notions of necessary and probable with regards to logic...."

There certainly are explanations for that which don't have anything to do with the students.....

1:23 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

Oh what the heck, let me give it a try:

>> The first is to explain how knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief

Hidden assumption: that knowledge is more valuable than "mere true belief"

>> If teaching is the mere repetition of true propositions

It is not.

>> if learning is the acceptance of those propositions as true, on account of the authority of the teacher, or for whatever reason

It is not.

>> So how do we acquire knowledge?

We acquire beliefs through the process of induction. Some of those beliefs are classified as knowledge. Some aren't.

1:37 pm  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

Anthony,

You are missing the point. It’s not about whether Plato had the right answer; he had the right question. The point is brought up to see how one responds to it. Thus, your dismissal not only says nothing, but is offered without argument.

We encounter things which are not physical? Can you introduce me to Twoness, because I would surely like to meet him. While we are at it, I would like to meet Pi.

If we acquire knowledge through the process of induction, then defeat Hume’s criticism of that point, i.e., the inductive fallacy discussed in An Enquiry on Human Understanding.

I do not write this expecting answers. My goal is to show that there is far more going on than you appear to realize. I read EO’s blog because he discusses interesting tidbits of important but obscure philosophy, much of which is not introductory, though he does make it accessible. Perhaps you have conflated his accessibility with simplicity and are reading things on the face of it, which say more about the reader than the author.

1:52 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

J:
>>though I had never heard is two-part division, especially the first part, of the Meno question phrased that way.

For the first part, see the SEP. "Socrates raises the question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief". The second part is a consequence of the first.

A:
>>Yes, this is that painful quality I've experienced with a lot of modern philosophy educators which I misattributed to "relativism" a few days ago.
<<

No. Relativism is the view that truth itself is somehow relative. You can believe the truth is absolute (as I do) without believing it is easy to get hold of, or is difficult etc.

2:00 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Hidden assumption: that knowledge is more valuable than "mere true belief"
<<

Yes it is a hidden assumption. Or rather, an assumption. It's not very well hidden. From memory, Plato gives a number of examples (the slave and the diagonal of the triangle) to support the assumption.

>> I read EO’s blog because he discusses interesting tidbits of important but obscure philosophy, much of which is not introductory, though he does make it accessible.
<<

That's very kind and exactly what I am trying to do here.

As well as holding back on things a bit to provoke ideas.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> You are missing the point.

Yes, I am.

>> It’s not about whether Plato had the right answer; he had the right question.

My very first problem was with his question - "[how is] knowledge more valuable than mere true belief". It isn't.

>> We encounter things which are not physical? Can you introduce me to Twoness, because I would surely like to meet him.

Look at two of something. You are encountering twoness. (Look at something blue, you are encountering blueness.)

>> If we acquire knowledge through the process of induction, then defeat Hume’s criticism of that point, i.e., the inductive fallacy discussed in An Enquiry on Human Understanding.

Would you like me to read "An Enquiry on Human Understanding" until I come to the first flaw, and then point it out to you? Or would you like to make the criticism yourself, so that we can get a back and forth discussion?

>> I do not write this expecting answers. My goal is to show that there is far more going on than you appear to realize.

I realize there is far more going on than I am writing about here and now. There are several reasons for this: 1) This isn't the place to write an entire book on philosophy; 2) There are others who have written better books than I can; and, I think most importantly, 3) No one is adopting the actual positions, so as soon as I arrive at one flaw, I must stop, because the author is not here to defend or correct the flaw so I can move on (and, in fact, is not alive at all).

2:12 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"Relativism is the view that truth itself is somehow relative. You can believe the truth is absolute (as I do) without believing it is easy to get hold of, or is difficult etc."

Yes, I know. This is why I said I misattributed it.

I guess the position is closer to skepticism than relativism. Though it's not necessarily actual skepticism either (as I suppose you can believe the truth is difficult to get a hold of, while still believing that it is possible to get a hold of).

2:16 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> Yes it is a hidden assumption [that knowledge is more valuable than "mere true belief"]. Or rather, an assumption. It's not very well hidden. From memory, Plato gives a number of examples (the slave and the diagonal of the triangle) to support the assumption.

And I'm sure you're aware of the many attacks which have been made upon those examples and that assumption.

Granted, these attacks were made after Plato was dead, so he didn't get a chance to defend against them. But others have tried, and I believe they have failed.

2:25 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> If we acquire knowledge through the process of induction, then defeat Hume’s criticism of that point, i.e., the inductive fallacy discussed in An Enquiry on Human Understanding.

By the way, I said we acquire beliefs through the process of induction, and that, if done properly, the vast majority, but not all, of those beliefs qualify as knowledge.

2:28 pm  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

EO,

Though I value the SEP, I do not do so as a source of historic commentary. Regardless, I commented on the phrasing and not the content of your words, which as I said of Anthony, says a lot about me and little about the merits of your words, which were fine. I'm informed of analytic philosophy but not such a philosopher; each tradition has recognizable differences in communication patterns, vocabulary, etc.

Anthony,

If knowledge is not more valuable than true belief, then you either are conflating knowledge and true belief, or find no value in the demonstration or justification that distinguishes knowledge as opposed to true belief (cf the Justified True Belief model of knowledge).

What is the twoness? I see one thing and then another. What about Pi? Or the irrationals? I will keep naming examples of concepts that do not have distinct physical correlates. You proclaim what I am asking you to prove when you implicitly argue that we can arrive at twoness by counting. That conventional account might get you some distance, but once we start talking about irrational or imaginary numbers, then you should realize that your approach does not generalize.

Finally, on Hume.

My point is that you appear to be arguing from ignorance, i.e., claiming that something is not true without your knowing much about that thing, which is a basic logical fallacy or poor form of reasoning. You would have more success if you explained why this or that is wrong rather than assert that it is. That said, I don’t actually think you should bother to respond to my points, as it would not be productive. I offer them to be informative, but not as a question.

3:13 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Apologies, Jason's last post ended up in the spam box, not sure why.

1:29 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> If knowledge is not more valuable than true belief, then you either are conflating knowledge and true belief, or find no value in the demonstration or justification that distinguishes knowledge as opposed to true belief (cf the Justified True Belief model of knowledge).

Perhaps. I do not agree with the Justified True Belief model of knowledge as it is commonly presented. I do not conflate knowledge with true belief, however, I do not conflate knowledge with Justified True Belief either.

>> What is the twoness? I see one thing and then another.

I was asking you to look at a pair, not at one thing and then another. It seems to me that we (as well as other animals) have the ability to perceive twoness. Large numbers are purely conceptual, of course, but even birds can recognize two.

>> What about Pi? Or the irrationals? I will keep naming examples of concepts that do not have distinct physical correlates.

Ah, but I did not say that all concepts have distinct physical correlates. In fact, I said quite the opposite. I said that surely some of the things we "encounter" are not "physical".

However, at this point, if you want me to be more specific, I need you to define "encounter" and "physical". Because maybe I am not understanding correctly your definition of these terms.

>> You proclaim what I am asking you to prove when you implicitly argue that we can arrive at twoness by counting.

No no no. You misunderstand me. I am saying that we can perceive twoness. (And before you ask, no, I am not saying we can perceive one-hundredness. We can arrive at ("encounter") one-hundredness, by counting, however.

>> That conventional account might get you some distance, but once we start talking about irrational or imaginary numbers, then you should realize that your approach does not generalize.

Why not? Some concepts are derived directly from sensations. Some concepts are derived directly from perceptions. Some concepts are derived from other concepts. Irrational and imaginary numbers (and, actually, most numbers, but, significantly, not the number two) are concepts of the latter type.

3:50 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> My point is that you appear to be arguing from ignorance, i.e., claiming that something is not true without your knowing much about that thing, which is a basic logical fallacy or poor form of reasoning. You would have more success if you explained why this or that is wrong rather than assert that it is.

There have been many writers who have responded to Hume, and have done so more eloquently than I ever could. Many writers have defended the process of induction. Quine, for instance, called it "efficacious". And regardless of whether or not you agree that induction is "efficacious", it is a scientific fact that induction is the process by which we acquire our core beliefs. There is no need to invent reincarnated immortal souls which have learned all there is to know before inhabiting the human body. This ancient mysticism is not just old, it is obsolete. Quine touches on this point when he presents natural selection (which was not even known at the time of Hume, let alone Plato) as a mechanism which accounts for our ability to acquire true beliefs, and this mechanism is much simpler and therefore preferred to a theory of immortal souls being incarnated from heaven. And even if you want to conflate "knowledge" with "justified true belief", you still are recognizing that knowledge consists of a subset of beliefs.

As I have said, if you'd like me to point out a flaw in An Enquiry on Human Understanding, I can do so. Although, first we should come to an agreement as to what exactly An Enquiry on Human Understanding claims about induction. What exactly is Hume denying about induction (in his book which apparently doesn't even contain the word "induction")?

Alternatively, if you'd like to discuss induction between the two of us, we can do that. However,

>> That said, I don’t actually think you should bother to respond to my points, as it would not be productive.

I'm sorry you feel that way. However, I will continue to respond to your points, as I find it to be a useful exercise. I hope you can get some positive benefit from it as well. Is there something you were hoping to get from participating here, that maybe I can help with?

3:55 pm  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

No, there is nothing further. I just wanted to see if I could get a response out of you that was not just an assertion.

As for old and obsolete, I suspect we'd differ so much on what is and is not that and why we should just get back to giving EO a hard time instead.

4:34 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"I just wanted to see if I could get a response out of you that was not just an assertion."

What would be an example of such a response? Any reason I give for an assertion is, itself, an assertion.

6:04 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Is the 'built-in' mental 'not' classical or intuitionistic do you think?

9:22 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Is the 'built-in' mental 'not' classical or intuitionistic do you think?

Remind me of the difference (bedtime now).

10:03 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

The classical ~ supports excluded middle (p or ~p) and double negation (~~p <---> p), intuitionistic neither. It was a rather facetious question. There's no doubt, I think, that the logic we apply to everyday life, be it learned or innate, is classical. Imagine having to give up reductio ad absurdum. Maybe intuitionistic logic is more appropriate to mathematical objects whose behaviour is a consequence of the rules that we have invented. In contrast, the external world goes its own way with rules we can only guess at.

1:06 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Hi Ed,
Following the latest clues (this is far better than sudoku) I'm trying again to piece together your position. Here you seem to avow the medieval view that the spoken 'dog', 'canis', etc, signify the idea of a dog, clearly a mental entity. A little later you say that '...the term dog on its own signifies or supposits for all dogs'. The context here suggests that 'the term dog' means 'the (spoken) word dog'. Now 'all dogs' presumably means the very doggy dogs, not the non-doggy idea of them, so is it unfair of me to complain of a certain ambiguity here?

12:33 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Following the latest clues (this is far better than sudoku) I'm trying again to piece together your position. Here you seem to avow the medieval view that the spoken 'dog', 'canis', etc, signify the idea of a dog, clearly a mental entity. A little later you say that '...the term dog on its own signifies or supposits for all dogs'. The context here suggests that 'the term dog' means 'the (spoken) word dog'. Now 'all dogs' presumably means the very doggy dogs, not the non-doggy idea of them, so is it unfair of me to complain of a certain ambiguity here?
<<

That would be the distinction between

(1) 'simple supposition', which is the utterance 'dog' standing for the idea of a dog (or in earlier versions of the theory), the essence of dogginess.

(2) 'personal supposition', which is the utterance standing for actual dogs.

Is this equivocation? Well, according to William of Sherwood it isn't, but that's another topic.

12:07 pm  

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