On The Search for a Perfect Language

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1 On The Search for a Perfect Language Submitted to: Peter Trnka By: Alex Macdonald The correspondence theory of truth has attracted severe criticism. One focus of attack is the notion of correspondence itself. Talk of correspondence naturally calls to mind pictures or mirror-images. We do indeed speak of pictures as being true to life. But the correspondence theory is supposed to explain the truth of beliefs or judgments or propositions, the content of which is expressed by complete sentences. Sentences are not pictures, at least in any straightforward way. The Ideal Correspondence In Serendipties, Umberto Eco writes of the centuries long search for a primordial perfect language that took place in medieval Europe. It was believed this language would have been spoken before the calamity of the tower of Babel, where the Lord confounded the tongues of men and birthed linguistic and cultural relativism.

2 1 For centuries, he writes, Hebrew was the leading claimant for this mother tongue. The Hebrew language lines up well with Williams talk of pictures or mirror-images as corresponding to reality in this passage, as the Hebrew letters, in their earliest form, were direct correspondences to reality; they were drawings of physical objects. It was believed this perfect language would, incorporate a natural relationship between words and things, and even that it had a revelatory value, for in speaking it, the speaker 2 would recognize the nature of the named reality. This resembles something like the most idealistic form of the correspondence theory of truth: a language so perfect it not only reflects reality but reveals it. This is not exactly the correspondence theory of truth, which is the position that the truth or falsity of a given statement is determined by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes it. The particular words of a sentence must possess a structural isomorphism with corresponding matters of fact in the world for the sentence to be determined true. In other words, there has to be a symmetrical structure of matching parts and relations between given sentences and experienced states of the physical world. Accordingly, Bertrand Russell s example of the sentence a cat is on a mat is determined true or false depending on the contingency of there being a cat on a mat within his field of perceived reality. 1 Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language and Luncacy, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1998), 97 2 Eco, Serendipities, 97

3 Intrinsic Credibility In addressing the notion of correspondence in this passage, Williams is referencing an earlier topic of discussion in Problems of Knowledge; that of foundationalism and the empirical search for epistemically basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are beliefs that can be 3 justifiably held in the absence of any further beliefs due to their apparent intrinsic credibility. This view entails a form of semantic atomism: the perspective that full meanings can be contained in single, isolated parts. Wiliams notes, The foundationalist s commitment to intrinsic credibility is thus a commitment to encapsulated knowledge: knowledge that is independent, justificationally and semantically, of any further knowledge. 4 The main view on how this intrinsic credibility is achieved has been Phenomenalism: the view that we may attain basic empirical knowledge at the level of experience: our awareness of how things appear to us or, more generally, in our immediate knowledge of 5 our own mental states. The insight in this view is that we cannot go wrong about how they seem or look to us to be or how we think they are, so that we may fairly base our systems of belief upon a form of awareness that is not mediated by any kind of 3 Michael Williams, Problems of Knowledge: a critical introduction to epistemology (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001),,94 4 Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 94 5 Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 95

4 representation, including the sort of conceptual representation involved in linguistically articulated thought. 6 The Psychology of the Body In his essay Science and Philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the psychology of organic beings. He notes that, in experiencing ourselves as a body, we know ourselves as a function of unification of a plurality of things which are other than 7 ourselves. In other words, that we are not our hands, our nose, our eyes, feet, chest, brain, skin or bones and yet these things are what make up our selves. This physiological aspect of our perception undercuts the notion of intrinsically credible meanings and atomistic knowledge, as it points out that we perceive reality through the lens of a complex system of inter-relating functions of distinct parts. Since this is our perception is it also how we conceive of reality: functional relations between distinct parts that make up coherent wholes and why we understand the functional relations of distinct parts, to be what knowledge consists of. When we are conceptualizing reality, we are projecting onto it, the implicit logic of our experience as bodies. Perhaps physiological psychology is the perfect language. 6 Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 97 7 Alfred White Northhead, Science and Philosophy, (Random House, New York, 1947),14

5 This demonstrates what Williams is hinting at in this passage in contrasting the distinctions of pictures and sentences; reality is never perceived as utterly distinct or isolated particulars of sensation, but rather as unifications of particulars of sensation, what Kant calls the transcendental unity of apperception. This experience of integration dictates how our languages and therefore how our conceptions (beliefs and judgments) of reality form. Physiological psychology supports the perspective of the coherence theory of how we justify our beliefs. Williams metaphor of a space station illustrates this view as systems of beliefs, without foundations, that are justified by their internal structure, such that the interlocking of each part, makes up the solidity of the whole. For example, if you take the Hebrew letters, their connotations do not come into full context until they are conjoined with other letters, the combinatory force of which, actually creates the meanings of the words. After which, the words are further contextualized by the surrounding words which make up the complete sentence. This suggests that the meanings of particulars are defined in the context of the sum total of all other particulars. This holistic conception of perceived meaning and understanding is called semantic mass. Willard Van Orman Quine called this our web of beliefs.

6 What this essentially points out about beliefs, judgments and meanings is that they must, at minimum, come in the form of complete sentences. Sentences are descriptions of how at least two objects (distinct parts) function in relation to each other. We can only understand one part by virtue of it s relation to the other. Williams concurs, the content of experience, if it is to have any epistemological significance, must be propositional in form. This amounts to rejecting any sharp 8 distinction between experiencing and judging and believing. Theoretical Realities These coherentist, holistic, theoretical models are what make up our notions of reality. Perceiving, assimilating, generalizing and categorizing experiences into simpler and simpler conceptual unity is the truest way in which we experience our beliefs as corresponding to reality. Mathematics, for example, are generalized (or simplified) abstractions from experience of the physical world, which we can use to express single explanations of how distinct parts or aspects of the physical world do or would relate to each other. This process of generalizing implicit within abstraction is reflective of the unification of a plurality of 8 Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 97

7 things that Alfred North Whitehead speaks of. It seems this is also how we create and utilize our systems of generalized associations: our languages. Observations of reality must be interpreted within the lenses of these generalized abstractions (or conceptual unifications) in order to be perceived as data. Before then, they are only phenomena. However our means of measuring reality aren t always up to par in measuring the phenomena of reality. Physicist-priest, John Polkinghorne mentions this limitation in his book Exploring Reality, in speaking of the accessible world of 9 classical measuring apparatus and the inaccessible world of quantum realities. He notes that trying to measure things at the quantum level with instruments that are built on the laws of classical physics (and are therefore limited to measuring by the laws of classical physics) amounts to an intrinsically incredible system of interpretation. This is analogous to trying to reflect reality within language. Our languages are too based on logical connections of discrete parts to correspond directly to the essentially impenetrable, mysterious aspects of nature. This leads us to adhere to a method of inference to the best explanation. Williams writes, given a range of data to explain, we formulate various hypotheses, selecting the best in the light of various epistemic desiderata: for example, empirical adequacy and theoretical 9 John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005),15

8 10 elegance. Albert Einstein once said, the grand aim of all science is to cover the greatest possible number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest possible number of axioms or hypotheses. Idealism vs. Materialism The distinction that Williams is drawing out in the chapter this passage is from is between the correspondence theory of truth and the deflationary theory of truth between whether words primarily relate to the external realities they are describing or if they primarily relate to the other words they are in logical relation to. The truth as to which is the more primary relation comes down to the deciding line between idealism and materialism. From an idealist perspective you could say that words do correspond to reality, since mind is primary, meaning thereby that the content of the mind, namely words, are the primary content of reality. This allows for something like the perfect language, mentioned in the opening part of this essay. In a materialist perspective you would have to say that there is a stronger correspondence between the logical relations of the words, since induction is always contingent in this view, while deduction is still necessarily true. To say that reality is at base material is 10 Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 114

9 really a way of saying that we don t and can t know what it is at base level, which leaves a void between ideas and reality. The contradiction I find implicit within a materialistic conception is that materialism itself is an idea, which leaves the materialist conceiving of reality as an idea that is not an idea, which is a slightly incongruent notion. It seems materialists find the very lack of coherence of their beliefs to actually be a kind of counter-intuitive coherence to support their beliefs. Almost like saying, it makes sense that it doesn t make sense. If mind is primary you could end up with the solution that perhaps the function of conceptually unifying our perceptions, that is to say induction and deduction (or perception and logic) is the perfect language. From this perspective you could further argue that the teleology of reality is to be understood as unified. To take this notion is to suggest that, both synthetic, inductive and analytic, deductive truths are necessarily true and to conceive of perception and logic as providing real access to the nature of the world, even into the truth of reality. This relates to the notion of things being themselves: the law of identity. If reality is primarily and essentially mind, then it is coherent that understanding the truth or the essential unity of all particulars, would be intrinsic to existence. You might say this is circular argumentation. In defense of this I would say that for there to be a reality at all, things have to be essential at some level (things have to be themselves.) Therefore there

10 is no such thing as escaping tautologies in basic conceptions of reality. I don t think that makes life incomprehensible, not, at least, if the essence of existence is also the essence of perception. As George Berkeley stated, Esse est percipi.

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