Saturday, June 07, 2008

It goes the other way about

Here is a blog that I don't follow enough. Cambridge logician Peter Smith reflects on some profound issues on the philosophy of logic and language while drinking wine in Tuscany (how much do they pay him?). In this post he makes two points close to my heart.

1) Formal languages don't magically do what ordinary language can't do: they just do ordinary things like use singular terms and quantify in tidier ways.

2) We can't first pick out a class of genuine objects and then locate the genuine singular terms as those that refer to them: it goes the other way about.

Yes. The second point in particular makes a point that divides the philosophers of language from the metaphysicians - a shame Vallicella is in his self-imposed temporary exile. Metaphysically-inclined types will want to look for and investigate 'objects' first. Analytic types will investigate the language by which we talk about objects.

But this still leaves us with the problem of empty names. Signifying follows understanding, as the medievals said: significare sequitur intelligere. And it seems we can understand empty names, so why don't they signify? My understanding of 'Noah' is just the same whether or not 'Noah' refers to an existing person, or not. And 'Noah' seems a 'genuine singular term' in Smith's sense. But there may be no corresponding object.

We could resolve the difficulty by dropping or modifying (1). Perhaps empty names are not those items of ordinary language that we can 'tidy up' using the formal apparatus of constants and quantifiers. But that goes against the spirit of it. Formal language doesn't magically do what ordinary language can't. It is, literally 'formal'. It captures the 'form', literally the figure, that is characteristic of certain propositions and arguments.

There is a difficulty with this that I don't altogether see how to resolve.

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