Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Linguistic Argument Against Relativism

One of Wittgenstein's most famous arguments is known as the "Private Language" argument but it might be more accurate to refer to it as the "Public Language" argument, as the starting point is that language (like playing games) is the kind of thing that happens between people, out in the world. There are neither words nor rules "in the head" (Wittgenstein also doubts that there are any images or anything else to "look at" in the head, but that requires some additional attack. Roughly, I think that the idea here is that it explains nothing to posit any sort of "mental representation"). Language, furthermore, does not generally function on the model of "object-designation," rather there are myriad functions that are performed using language, all of them coordinations between subjects. Thus classical "meaning" semantics is replaced by a kind of functional-role semantics: the "meaning" of the utterance is just the pragmatics of the performance of the utterance. This public account of language, if correct, precludes the possibility of phenomenology. We can talk about "blue," but we cannot, using language, gain any purchase on "blue-for-me," or "blue-to-you." These are literally meaningless constructions, not because we are zombies (my students keep thinking that Wittgenstein is claiming that we are zombies), but because the quality of experience is beyond the reach of language. If "relativism" is the claim that there is no such thing as Truth, Wittgenstein's language argument exposes some philosophical (Wittgenstein would say "grammatical") confusion. On the one hand, he would take the point that there is nothing meaningful in any attempt to talk about "Truth" as something that "exists" independently of some specific, contextual "language-game." So what epistemologists have lately been calling realism (Arthur Fine?)is a misguided project. But by the same token, there is nothing in statements such as "What's true for you is true for you, what's true for me is true for me." Anything that's "true" (any actual use to which we might put the concept of truth) is necessarily intersubjective. I suspect also that the "end of objectivity" rhetoric of Richard Rorty, informed as it is by some serious consideration of Wittgenstein, is a misapplication: commitment to beliefs and principles doesn't evaporate along with classical semantics, any more than consciousness does.

1 comment:

  1. Anderson,

    I like your overview here quite a bit, but I have to note regarding the notion of Rorty's "end of objectivity rhetoric," that later in life Rorty made a serious concession both to "objectivity" and to Donald Davidson (who also was quite influenced by Wittgenstein's Public Language Argument). Their over a decade long dispute over whether there need be a theory of truth, reached its resolution when Bjorn Ramberg wrote his "Post-ontological Philosophy of Mind", which convinced Rorty that for all these years he had not properly understood just what Davidson was arguing--and for that matter, perhaps one could say Wittgenstein.

    Rorty came to the conclusion that indeed there must be a sense of "getting it right" (a prescriptive normativity) and that this was what "truth" was, helping constitute the "objective" leg of the knowledge triangle. The two essays which trace this remarkable reversal, Ramberg's own, and Rorty's response, can be found in the Book "Rorty and His Critics", if you haven't seen it. I might say that it is easy to use Rorty as the symbol of the high crimes of Relativism, for he often positioned himself there at the edge intentionally, but I find this late reversal on his part to be one of them more honest examples of modern philosophical re-evaluation.