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.