Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Context and content

Anthony has commented a couple of times that we require context in order to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language.  True, but the requirement is strictly limited, as the following argument shows. 

We can divide sentences which require context into those which contain indexicals, and which therefore require a perceptual context, and those which require a linguistic context (or those which require both, but this is not an important or separate case). An indexical is a term which requires a perceptual background in order to be intelligible.  The background will determine which object is pointed to, or which place is 'here' or which time or date is 'now', and so on.  The context requirement for indexicals is therefore limited. 

The requirement for linguistic context must also be limited, for if the context-supplying language A itself required a linguistic context B, and if B required yet another context C, there would be an infinite regress, and nothing would be intelligible.  But language is intelligible, therefore the requirement for linguistic context must be limited.

As an example of the limitation of linguistic context, consider:
A man and a boy were standing by a fountain.  The man had a drink.
The sentence 'the man had a drink' requires a context in order for its meaning to be properly understood, for the description 'the man' tells us which of the two individuals standing by the fountain had a drink.  The context is supplied by the preceding sentence 'A man and a boy were standing by a fountain', which requires no further context.  We understand the first sentence simply by understanding the meanings of 'a', 'man', 'and', 'boy' and so on, and this understanding should be available to any competent speaker of the language.  As a result, the two sentences together require no further context at all.  Any competent user of the language can understand them, as long as they are available together, and as long as their correct sequence is determined by the physical nature of the text (or by some other method of determinate ordering).


Anthony said...

All terms require a perceptual background in order to be intelligible.

This perceptual background is what you are hiding in your notion of "any competent speaker of the language".

Edward Ockham said...

>All terms require a perceptual background in order to be intelligible.

Probably all terms require a perceptual background in order to learn them. Is that what you mean? Why would I deny that?

Edward Ockham said...

For example, if I tell you (an anonymous person with whom I am not in any visual contact whatever) that the folder on my desk is red, you understand what I mean. You learned the meaning of 'red' - by perception - some time ago, I hope. I'm assuming you aren't blind, of course. So this requires a past perceptual background.

But if I talk about 'the colour of the folder I am now pointing to', you will not understand me fully, because you have no current perceptual background or context.

Do you accept this distinction between terms which only have to be learned once, and which require no perceptual background to 'reuse' them, and other sorts of terms (indexicals) which do require a current or present background? That is fundamental.

Anthony said...

I accept that context can sometimes be given by physically pointing out the referent of a term. This distinction is one regarding the *use* of a term, not one regarding the term itself.

I might say "that folder" and point to the folder I'm talking about. Or I might say "that folder" after saying "there is a red folder sitting on my desk". (Or I might take a picture of the folder, put it up on a website, tell you the URL, and later refer to the folder as "that folder".)

Same thing with names. I might say "Bill", and point to Bill. I might say "Bill" after saying "there is a guy named Bill sitting on my desk". (Or I might take a picture of Bill wearing a nametag which says "Bill", put it up on a website, tell you the URL, and later refer to Bill as "Bill").