[lit-ideas] Re: What is information?

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 24 Sep 2006 20:17:25 -0700

John McCreery calls my wanting to see an example of a thing's being defined in
such a way that none of the properties attributed to it distinguish it in any
way from anything else, 'non-serious blowing smoke.'

Let me assure John that I was entirely serious, for I saw the incoherence of
this as a genuine response to a definition of 'non-essentialism' that had been
proposed: if this is what non-essentialism amounts to, it makes no sense.

John then goes on to distinguish the linguistic aspect of essentialism from its
ontological aspect, the former's being the claim that 'respectable'
propositions are 'framed in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions
that define the sets to which they refer.' Since not all propositions refer to
sets ('I have a headache' doesn't refer to a set) it may be that this proposal
is somewhat limited. The view that if one cannot 'define one's terms' by giving
necessary and sufficient conditions for their application one is speaking
'inaccurately,' or 'only loosely' (or not really speaking at all), is, as John
notes, hard to defend. It's as if only God knew the proper meanings of words
and we poor sinners can only guess at them. Indeed, as The Philosopher said,
'Stand roughly here,' is a perfectly intelligible request. (For the record, I
think that human beings talk to one another by means of sentences, not by means
of propositions, but that's a topic for another time.)

['On the other hand,']says John, is an 'ontological claim that the sets in
question exist immutably as facts in the world independent of the minds that
contemplate them.' As sets, if we're really talking about sets, are not given a
priori, and can be made up on the spot, e.g. the set of all members of lit-ideas
who are not Mike Geary and whose private cars are Bentleys, I'm not sure who
believes this (I don't think John does in the way he expressed it); yet the
necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in this set have been
clearly spelled out, without contradiction or compromise. Still--to leave sets
where they belong--is it true that every kind of 'fact' exists 'immutably'? The
fact that the Columbia is low is hardly immutable; the fact that I'm the age I
am now (and when else would I be it?) is alas not immutable. The fact that
Socrates is taller than Glaucon was true at one time, false later, i.e., when
the boy grew up. Well, I'm getting nowhere.

John continues:

> Serious critiques of essentialism attack both sides of the coin.

Both sides being, I take it, the side on which some sort of essentialism re
words and concepts is depicted and the side on which some sort of essentialism
about the immutable existence of things is displayed. But why must a serious
attack (I was dead sober when I responded to Donal) attack them both if they're
unrelated? One might believe, with Frege, that a concept without sharp
boundaries isn't a concept at all, and with a precocious Jamesian infant that
the actual world will continue to be a vast, buzzing, blooming confusion. Words
are words and not some other thing and the relation between word and world is
something else entirely.

Robert Paul
The Reed Institute

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