Lingual trivialities

Yesterday I went to see the Finnish philosopher Panu Raatikainen speak at the Helsinki Metaphysical Club. It took about two minutes to realize that the scholar I thought had some pragmatistic qualities to his thinking was advocating the type of formal logic and philosophy of language the point of which just escapes me.  This branch of analytical philosophy is the leading trend in philosophy and a lot of people have written, and are (oddly enough) still writing hundreds of thousands of pages on paradoxes caused by language. The problem for me is not that philosophy of language is so popular but the fact that it is a very narrow field of philosophy, yet it pretty much serves as the starting point for the majority of philosophy. As a field of philosophy, philosophy of language is like chess among all other games. Problems would arise if chess players were trying to apply the rules of chess to any game they play. Even though not all (if any) philosophy of language maintains that reference is based on some mystical relationship between an idea (as something absolute) and an object, the often used argument includes the idea of reference as somehow inherent to the word. For obvious reasons I don’t know much about philosophy of language (I got lost trying to understand Goodman’s paradox when I took the first year introduction to philosophy course) I just can not fathom what that property of a word would be. However, I do not maintain that language is not referential. It’s just that the processes in which a word receives its reference capabilities are different to what philosophy of language in general states. In this respect I hold an essentially pragmatistic position stating that what a word means is the habits it involves. A word gets its reference capability through use in certain contexts by repetitive use. In this sense what a word refers to is always dependent on my personal experiences as well as on the way the word has been used before my time. Raatikainen maintains that when two people (who have a shared cultural and lingual background?) use a word in any given context there is a shared reference point, i.e. the word ‘London’ for both of us refers to the city in Southern England. Now a pragmatist may oppose to this by saying that what the word refers to is not the same London but the collection of experiences I have of the use of the word. Yet Raatikainen maintains that there is a shared reference point. The nature of this reference point has not been adequately defined. Raatikainen was not able to give an explanation to the problem but I, and many other pragmatists would say that in order for us to be able to compare two theories for example, a third and in some way relatively unchanging reference point is needed. Even the statement that two theories are incommensurable requires comparing of these two theories. This is not a very interesting topic and if I recall correctly, it was Donald Davidson who, to my mind, ended this whole discussion on incommensurability of theories by pointing out that in order to say that two theories are incommensurable we must have already compared them. I could take this further by adding that even if we didn’t compare the two theories to each other, we compared their abilities to produce certain outcomes, their esse in futuro. This, I think is in the widest sense the type of indexical reference that is also taking place when we say that a word can have two references that do not exclude each other. Contrasted with this, the use of a language that only deals with phenomena taking place within that language to make that point is just trivial.


  1. Svein V. Nielsen

    “… formal logic and philosophy of language the point of which just escapes me.”

    I totally agree with you. As I can recall from my own studies in philosophy, no one discussed in what sense the philosophy of language (and which part s of it) is relevant to other sciences.

    Philosophy of language can be interesting as long as it makes a relevance to other fields of study, for example through the works Austin, Wittgenstein and Derrida. But that is as far as my interest goes..

    • Yes, that is one of the main problems with this kind of ‘a priori’ philosophy. It can not be applied to anything other than a certain type of language, yet it serves as a starting point for many theories of truth.

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