Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Comments on The Philosophy of Philosophy

In Chapter 2 of The Philosophy of Philosophy, “Taking Philosophical Questions at Face Value”, Timothy Williamson argues that a certain philosophical or “proto-philosophical” question is not, explicitly or implicitly, about language. This, what he calls the original question, is: “Was Mars always either dry or not dry?” He shows how a number of ways of answering the original question, through the consideration of intuitionistic, three-valued, and fuzzy logics, still don’t make it a linguistic question, since the answers are not about (i.e. don’t refer to) linguistic items. The answers are “Mars was always either dry or not dry”, “Mars was not always either dry or not dry”, and “It is indefinite whether Mars was always either dry or not dry.” Since none of these answers is about language, the question is not a question about language.

Let’s focus on yes-no questions for now. Say that A is a straightforward answer to a yes-no question Q, stated in language L, iff A is stated in L and expresses what “yes” would express or expresses what “no” would express. Clearly, not every non-straightforward answer to a question is about language. If Susan asks “You ate lunch at Vinny’s last night?”, and Tim responds “Actually, I went to Aunt Suzie’s”, Tim does not give a straightforward answer, but neither does he give a linguistic answer. Nor is every linguistic answer non-straightforward. If Tim responded “True” – as in “What you just said is true, stated indicatively” – I think the answer is both straightforward, because equivalent to “yes”, and linguistic, because about a sentence. Still, most linguistic answers are non-straightforward. If Tim responded “Depends on what you mean by ‘lunch’”, because, say, he ate a borderline meal of salad and an omelet at 11:45, that would be a typical non-straightforward, linguistic answer.

Note also that linguistic questions – questions about language – admit of non-straightforward and perhaps also straightforward non-linguistic answers.
Tim: “… but then I had to jet to the supermarket.”
Susan: “What does ‘jet’ mean?”
Tim: “Somebody jets somewhere whenever they try to get there very quickly.”
Tim: “I had to get there very quickly.”
Tim’s first answer might be straightforward. His second answer is non-straightforward. Neither answer is about language.

The point is that questions that are about language admit of non-linguistic answers, and questions that aren’t about language admit of linguistic answers.

One way for a question to be implicitly, but not explicitly, about language, relative to a kind of answer K, is for all of the members of K to be explicitly about language. Williamson has shown that the original question is not in this way implicitly about language, relative to its philosophical answers, since the philosophical answers are not explicitly about language. But might the question be implicitly about language because the philosophical answers are implicitly about language? I kinda think so, for the following reasons.

1) The original question is stated in English.

2) Languages are partially constituted by their logics. Two things with different logics cannot be the same language.

3) The language of each answer has some formal logic – three-valued, fuzzy, intuitionistic, classical, etc.

4) English has no formal logic – neither three-valued, nor fuzzy, nor intuitionistic, nor classical, etc.

5) Therefore, English does not have the same logic as the language of any of the answers.

6) Therefore, the language of each of the answers is not the same as the language of the original question.

(1) and (3) are obvious. Although I’m not sure Quine would agree with me on (2), I think Williamson would. (4) is probably the most controversial, but I take it that Williamson should agree with me on that as well, judging by what he has to say about Vann McGee in his paper “Understanding and Inference.” But (6) straightforwardly follows from (1)-(4).

Now, once we get to (6), it’s not obvious that every answer in L1 to a question in some other language L2 is thereby a linguistic answer. After all, if a bilingual speaker asks me how the weather is in English, and I answer “Hace fresco”, I have not thereby given a linguistic answer. But, I want to say, that is because it was merely a manner of speaking for me to answer in Spanish. The philosopher who answers in a three-valued language, or a fuzzy language, or an intuitionistic language, or a classical language thinks she has to answer in that language, because that is the right language in which to answer the question, or the only (kind of) language in which to state her theory of vagueness, then the answer is not merely a manner of speaking. The step of translation from the logical language to natural English is a necessary step for the philosopher to give the sort of answer she wants to give. I want to say that it is in virtue of this necessity that the original question is linguistic, at least relative to these sorts of answers grounded in logical metareflection.

I think it is reasonable to say that there is a sense in which a question is implicitly about language, relative to a kind of answer K, iff every member of K is in another language because it must, for the speaker’s most cherished purposes, be in another language. So it is, apparently, with the original question and its philosophical-type answers – or at least the original question and the philosophical-type answers that Williamson has on offer. I guess that if the deconstructionist wants to say (in English) that Mars was always both dry and not dry, because binary distinctions are always unstable and every inscription of both “Mars has always been dry” and “Mars has always not been dry” is internally contradictory, then we have a philosophical English-language answer to our English-language question. But that’s not the kind of philosophy we were talking about, right? Weren’t we looking for the right philosophy of analytic philosophy?

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