[Wittrs] More on "meaning as use" (reply to Josh)

  • From: kirby urner <kirby.urner@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: wittrsamr@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 27 Oct 2009 21:08:39 -0700

-- In Wittrs@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, kirby urner <wittrsamr@...> wrote:

>> It's a token, a moving part, a component, a cog.  There
>> need be no specific experience or phenomenon at the
>> other end of a pointing stick.

> There *need* be none, but there *might* be one.
> Same for "cat" or "John".

Consider the fact that we may speak of the word "John"
and yet there's no singular instance of this word, as
new uses of "John" occur literally millions of times
a second all over the world.  Words themselves are
mostly anonymous, not itemized, as language is a
"socialist" enterprise, free and open source, until you
get to the trademarked words and phrases, or "priests
only" sacred sayings, which to a commoner are
perhaps off limits.  Likewise with "cat".  Say "cat"
with wild abandon, with no royalties due.

In this sense, we could say words themselves escape
being named, tagged, referred to individually except in
relatively rare circumstances.  This begins to change
in a computer, where every string of bytes has a starting
memory address, more like in a printing shop, where
each physical instance of a word has heft, takes up

I mention this rather obvious fact to emphasize that
relatively few things in our world receive names such
that we might track them over time, even our very
words, which are more like grains of sand, pebbles,
all without names of ID tags.

Most nouns such as "belt" or "box" give us a momentary
way of fixing attention and sharing information about
specifics, then releasing said items from attention, with
no permanent tagging or naming.  You won't know if
that seagull is the same one from last week, though
in principle we apply the same grammar of persistent
identity (lots of philosophical literature on this concept
of "identity").

A friend and I both look at this grain of sand or this
microbe under a microscope, then lose it  back into
the mix.  We don't incur the overhead of needing to
establish "same" versus "different" in so many
games with "referents" -- just wanted to remind us
of this fact.

Of course scientists, in their need to monitor and track
over time, have extended the need for labeling,
applying serial numbers, other tags -- learning  from
merchants and their evolving bookkeeping games.
Notions of "cardinality" (keeping things distinct,
perhaps with no ordering or only a partial ordering)
connect to notions of "ranking" (sorting, indexing,
devising a system for storage and retrieval --

[ what's engaging, for me about writing this, is
I'm at the same time focusing on a specific capacitor
inside a DVD player and reading on the web about
replacing it -- engineers and owners of electronics
take advantage of our industrial age ability to get
very very specific about things (it's not the fact
that the capacitor has a named position on the
circuit board that amazes so much as the fact
there's a whole literature on this particular
problem with this particular model of DVD player
-- the so-called "knowledge explosion" has its
advantages ]

We might call language an "attention management
system" in that it allows humans to control what
we call "focus".  At least that's one thing it's good
for:  concentrating the attention of one or more
people on the same task, activity or item, a
prerequisite for getting work done in many cases.
Nouns help, proper names not always required,
i.e. only sometimes to we care about "identity
over a relatively long period of time".

> The point is that language is *independent* from
> ontological commitments - or fulfillments, not
> that such referals are never valid, nor that there
> really aren't cats or minds out there somewhere.

Comparing "cats" with "minds" in the sense that
both are "out there somewhere" is just playing into
this sense that minds are localized spatial objects
of a ghostly nature (ghostly because we have no
agreement on how to point to them, as distinct
from brains or cats or cats' brains).  This is to fall
victim to a random image, to buy into a mental
picture that goes nowhere, a kind of dead end.

Both "cat" and "mind" have instrumental applications
in social situations.  "That's not what I have in mind"
means something like "that's not the course of
action I was intending" or "this was not my dream
for the future" or "I was envisioning something else."
This isn't the same instrumental use for "cat", a
different kind of tool, although one might have a
sacred being associated with cats (e.g. Bastet)
that one prayed to for guidance (i.e. fixing a
future course of action has been a job for oracles,
a function some serve even today, thought that's
not what's on the business card usually (the
term "oracle" has been deprecated, except we
still have "the oracle of Omaha")).

>> The pre-Wittgensteinian believes that words
>> are primarily nouns or names that tag objects.

> I would note that many post-Wittgensteinians believe so too.
> (cough) Kripke (cough)
> Unless such are taken as atavistic throwbacks.

I've taken issue with Kripke at some length on
another elists, have also heard him in person at Princeton,
though this was on a visit, after I'd already moved on.
He writes about Nixon doesn't he? As an example of
a proper name?  Google confirms. I've been writing
about Nixon lately in my blogs, or about Nixon-Kissinger
(almost like a hybrid individual).

Kripke will go down in history associated with Nixon.
The meaning of the word "Kirpke" has been affected
by the meaning of the word "Nixon" (their word-meaning
trajectories have altered, is how I might put it, a fancy
way of talking about "karma" -- or "precession" in the
Buckminster Fullerian sense).

> I'm also trying to remember my college linguistics,
> I suspect there are other linguistic traditions pre-
> Wittgenstein that do not take words as quite that
> atomic, certainly the universally understood linguistic
> fact that sounds or marks are arbitrary and only
> acquire even simple associational meanings in
> context or by use, is along these lines.  And
> skepticism about the quality of associational
> meanings is a long tradition.  So, carefully drawn,
> it may be a bit more difficult to find what exactly
> in Wittgenstein is a new and unique take on
> language, than just to say pre- and post-.

Yes, true.  My off-the-cuff answer was that Wittgenstein
was role modeling a practice, a method, showing us
ways to investigate, to disentangle.  He was less into
writing discursive 10,000 foot overview stuff, melodious
grand summaries, which is pretty much the meat and
potatoes of most philosophy.  He needed a more
aphoristic style and an implied sense that it'd all
fold up via hyperlinks (a term not yet coined) and
make a light go on. More like setting a trap or, more
positively, freeing us from a trap.  The Philosophical
Investigations are supposed to "spring to life" as it
were, as when you look at a 2D pattern of lines and
suddenly see a 3D figure.  Duckrabbit analogy, or
the tetrakis (obscure!).

> And then, Quine (post-W) has his famous holistic
> statement: our statements about the external world
> face the tribunal of sense experience not individually,
> but only as a corporate body

That's somewhat clever, has that Roman influence
so evident in Anglo culture (where the idea of "a tribune"
comes from).

> The problem is that holism is as problematic as
> word-atomism. We need, we use, all sorts of
> strategies in our everyday language. "Meaning as
> use" covers many, it doesn't outlaw much of anything.

It's a nudge away from nominalism and towards
operationalism.  What I take from the "meaning as
use" dictum is "meaning" is not some phenomenon
staring you in the face (as it were) at the time of
a singular usage.  You need to watch an hour long
documentary, let us say, to really have a sense of
the meaning.  If you want to study "pain" (it's
meaning), it's not a matter of pinching your arm
or biting your tongue and saying to yourself
THIS is what pain means.  That'll reinforce your
nominalist tendencies, but you won't get that
Wittgensteinian sense of language games, of

>> Even this slight variation for the norm
>> helps break the hold of the idea of
>> "referents".  I am Robert one day, George
>> the next, and it's easy to see these names
>> as tools, tokens.

> The entire computational art of "neural networks"
> shows how you can duplicate referential systems
> with virtually no references at all.

> Quine's holism is also purportedly reference-free
> - more like reference-problematic I suppose, but
> it's over in that direction.

Feel free to elaborate.

>> Computer languages were far less evolved
>> when Wittgenstein was writing, however they
>> today provide a clear exhibit of meaning as
>> use, as the language games have everything
>> to do with driving machinery, making things
>> happen, more like those "orders in battle" he
>> was talking about (indeed, we speak of "imperative
>> languages" sometimes, of expressions as
>> "commands").

> But most languages tend to be very referential
> in their styles.

I'll have more to say about this sometime.

> However, what do they refer to - real entities in
> the world, or conventional entities we stipulate
> - objects we make up, virtual gears for our
> virtual watch?

>> [ Speaking of Python, we also have a strong nominalist
>> model in that everything is an object and every object
>> has its names (note use of the plural).  Yes, that's right,
>> the very same object may have lots and lots of names,
>> all pointing to the very same thing.

> But this is an inverse to what the main meaning of
> nominalism is, or certainly the main point of nominalism
> for me, which is that systems can manipulate by the
> names, without ever knowing what the real objects are.
> When I go to the Claim Jumper restaurant, they hand
> me a tag that says, "Clem".  When they have a table
> for me, they call for "Clem", and I go and sit down.
> I'm not Clem, except for the moment, in this context,
> but the "name" works.

Hey, that's like my cocktail party example, didn't know
a certain restaurant chain (?) had already institutionalized
this language game.

Aside:  what if we said "mind game" instead of "language
game"?  How would that make a difference?

> The restaurant never makes any ontological commitments
> to anything about me, except that I can fill the role of a
> Clem.

I'm getting the feeling that I could maybe learn your
language.  If you could drain away any sense of ontological
commitment from language, I think you'd be at a certain
place in the TLP -- I need to dig up the passage.  That's
the value-free world of pure facts, separate from what
waxes and wanes in the aesthetic dimension.

> (hence "functionalism", but this is a distraction, not
> where I'm going at all)

> How a Kripkean could ever make sense of this I don't
> know, they would see the associational "baptism" and
> understand that, but how it would then be true that
> I am "necessarily Clem in all possible worlds" or
> "rigidly designated" by a name that will in an hour
> refer to someone else entirely - would seem to not
> work at all.  Oh, they'd make up an entire new
> metaphysics - to explain the waiting system
> at the restaurant.  Good luck with that.

Interesting.  I like getting philosophical about
restaurants practices, very Wittgensteinian.

> A Wittgensteinian can just say, "meaning is use",
> and have more time to drink beer.

Raising a glass.  "To Wittgenstein!"

>> For this reason alone I would urge anyone
>> wishing to understand the later Wittgenstein
>> to pay some attention to computer languages.

> I absolutely agree, watching the mechanics of
> how computing systems compile and execute
> languages is another world that any modern
> philosopher of language or mind can only
> benefit from, whether it ever turns out that
> human brains work this way or not.

So how might we challenge the universities to
upgrade their philosophy curricula?  I suppose
it's a political issue.  I have the same issue
with high school math curricula.  Why is it OK
to stay stuck in the age of calculators?  If you
went with an object oriented language ala the
Litvins text, used at Phillips Andover... but I
digress.  Sounds like we agree on this point

Thanks for chatting.


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