Advanced Search

A question was asked earlier, "if something cannot be defined, can it exist?". I would like a better answer to that question, if you would please. The question refers to the existence of a 'thing' that cannot be defined, the answer was given for an object that has not defined yet. These are not the same thing. If there is no possible way to define an object, ever, can that object exist? Can a 'thing' exist with no identity?

Your distinction between something not yet defined and something for which there could never be a definition is a reasonable one, and thus an answer that bears only on the former doesn't answer your question. Here's one possible approach. If something exists, it has some properties or other; for every property a thing might have, the thing either has it or it doesn't. If that's right, then we might say that nothing could be that thing unless it has that set of properties. And in that case, we might say that the set of properties "defines" the object, whether or not any finite list could capture all the properties. That's a rough sketch. It would need careful spelling out and it would also be subject to various objections; leave those aside. The point is that if we look at things this way, the notion of "definition" we're appealing to needn't have anything to do with how limited creature like us get a grip on the object. If this line of reasoning is correct, then nothing could exist unless...

It seems to me that a lot of basic philosophy is about definitions of abstract words. So, Plato might have asked what courage or love are, Enlightenment philosophers might have been interested in what freedom is, more modern philosophers might inquire what science is. I guess I'd like to ask a two-part question. The first is what the difference is between the sort of definition a philosopher might give and the sort of definition a lexicographer might give. What are philosophers doing that lexicographers aren't? The second is, if it's fair to say that philosophers are interested in defining abstract words, well, is the task inevitably culturally and temporally specific? I mean, does the Latin word "pulchritudo" really mean the same thing as the English word "beauty"? Does the Greek "aletheia" really mean the same thing as "truth"? And couldn't the meaning of a word like "freedom" change over time?

Think about water. When a lexicographer asks what the word "water" means, s/he is asking how the word is used. It's an empirical question about people's actual linguistic behavior. If it turned out that enough people use the word "water" to refer to vodka, then "vodka" would be one of the meanings of the word "water." But when a chemist answers the question "What is water?", s/he's not telling us how the word is used. On the contrary, s/he will assume that that's settled. The question isn't about the word; it's about the stuff that we use the word to refer to. What is it? And, at least close enough for present purposes, the substance that we refer to by using the word "water" is the liquid composed (mostly) of molecules of H2O. The chemist's answer can be quite different from the lexicographer's. A lexicographer could have come up with a perfectly acceptable account of the meaning-in-use of the word "water" before we knew what water is. Many people who use the word "water" correctly don't know...

I want to define something which I'll call object X. I have to come up with a sentence, but how can I tell that the sentence will be right? I can't compare my attempt with the definition of X of course, because there is no definition of X - the definition of X is the very thing I'm trying to find out. It seems I have to know what X is in order to find out what X is - paradox?

I'm not convinced that there's really a paradox here. Let's consider various cases. 1) You want to coin a new term, perhaps "snurp" which you define as the sound a half-empty balloon makes when cut with scissors. No paradox here. You wanted a word to refer to this sound. You coined a word and assigned it that meaning. You know what a snurp is because you decided what a snurp is. That's what makes the sentence right. 2) You're in a contest in which you get points if you can recite the standard definition of a term correctly. The quizmaster asks what the definition of "bachelor" is. You reply "an unmarried male of marriageable age." You defined it correctly. You had to know what a bachelor is to give the correct definition, but again, no mystery. That amounts simply to knowing a certain convention about a certain word. No paradox. The sentence summing up the definition is made right by social facts about accepted conventions. 3) You're a lexicographer, and you are trying to give a definition of some...

If something cannot be defined, can it exist?

Usually, when we use the word "defined," it's about words. We might ask, for example, whether the word "chair" can be defined. If a definition is supposed to rule in exactly the things that are chairs and rule out exactly the things that aren't, then I doubt that "chair" can be defined. We can, of course, say things about what typical chairs are like. But any supposed strict definition we offer will, I'm willing to bet, have various counterexamples. Typical chairs are for sitting on. But benches aren't chairs, and we often sit on benches. And some chairs---certain works of art, perhaps---aren't actually meant for sitting on. And yet there are chairs. In fact, I'm sitting on one as I type this. However, there's another use of the word "defined" that isn't about words but about things. When we ask for definitions in this sense, we're asking for an account of the nature of the thing itself. For example: it's of the nature of an electron that it has negative charge and spin one-half. Or so we might say....

Hello, My question is: what makes a swear-word/curse/cuss offensive? I submitted to a friend that in order for a word to be offensive three criteria have to be filled. 1) The speaker must utter the word with the intention to offend. 2) The speaker and hearer must both be aware of the background context of the word as an offensive word. 3) The hearer must hear the word and react; taking offence The justification for this is that a word is just a sound and that many languages use sounds that in another language are curses. It is irrational to take offence to a sound if the speaker is ignorant of it's vulgar connotations. Without a shared contextual understanding of a word's history as offensive, a speaker seeking to offend through uttering a word (without using other signs of contempt or emphasis) is just making a sound to the hearer which has no offensive connotations to them. The hearer upon hearing the word reacts, consciously or unconsciously actively taking offence. A person intending to offend...

I'd suggest that we need to keep three things separate: 1) whether the word is offensive, 2) whether offense was intended, and 3) whether the hearer was offended. All eight possibilities are real. To take the most relevant, a word might be offensive, and yet the person using it might not have intended to offend and the hearer might not be offended. For example: suppose someone who's not a native speaker uses a deeply racist term to refer to someone. The speaker is not at all a racist and would be deeply mortified if she knew how the word is normally used. She intended no offense. But that's because she didn't know that the word is an offensive word. The person she was speaking to, meanwhile, is a racist. The speaker doesn't know that; she's just met him. He's not offended, but only because of is racism. On the contrary: he thinks he's met a kindred spirit. There's no mystery here. The word is offensive because of its history, its usual meaning, and the way people typically respond to it. ...

I am sometimes struck by how we use language in an exaggerated manner. We often say "That is SO GOOD!" when it is not that good; we say "it has been a pleasure to talk to you" simply out of convention, regardless whether we derive any pleasure from the conversation. I am troubled by this because first when I hear people say those words I cannot help doubting their sincerity. Also, it is because those words become devalued: when I want to express my genuine praise by saying "this is really good," it just sounds like what everybody else will say no matter what. So how should we view those uses of words?

If I'm writing a letter to someone I don't know very well, I might begin it "Dear _____" and end it "Yours truly." But nobody is under the slightest impression that the recipient really is dear to me, nor that I'm declaring any sort of fealty. I said "nobody," but of course that's not quite right. Nobody who's even noddingly familiar with the conventions of letter writing will be confused, though someone from a very different culture might be. What someone means by using certain words isn't just a matter of what you find when you look the words up in a dictionary. Or suppose I run into a nodding acquaintance by chance. I hug them and say "Good to see you." Is the hug an expression of intimacy? Am I really pleased to see this person? Maybe or maybe not, but at least in my part of the world, this is how people great one another. I don't make judgments about people's overall sincerity based on interactions like this, because in following the conventions of polite greeting, sincerity isn't the issue. Do...

I'm grateful for Allen Stairs' response to question 5821, but he, like Richard Heck and Stephen Maitzen when answering question 5792, ASSUMES that words like "all" have the same meaning in everyday English as they have when used by logicians. That's what seems very strange to me. At least, everyday "all" is ambiguous. Professors Stairs, Heck and Maitzen believe that "all the strawberries he has" always means "all the strawberries he may have", and never "all the strawberries he does have". But look at the latter example ("does have"): you're still using the word "all", but here it is clearly said that he has some strawberries. Why can't that happen (in the right context) with "all the strawberries he has"? By the way, in several Romance languages, there is a difference between (e.g., in Portuguese) "todos os morangos que tem" (indicative) and "todos os morangos que tenha" (subjunctive). Both can be translated as "all the strawberries s/he has", but the first sentence indicates that he (or she) does have...

Thanks for your thanks. I'm not sure whether we really disagree. The point of my post is that we can go different ways here, but there are costs and benefits. To repeat my last paragraph, "There are approaches to logic that find ways around this sort of thing. But the carpet will have to bulge somewhere. Either the rules of inference will be a bit more complicated or we'll have to give up principles that seem appealing or we'll end up with some cases of "correct" inferences that seem peculiar. Different people will see the costs and benefits differently. My own view, which would not win me friends in certain circles, is that there's nothing deeply deep here. But not everyone agrees." Your concern is about what words like "all" really mean in English, and in particular about whether "all the strawberries he has" actually entails that he has at least one strawberry. Perhaps it does, but I'm not sure this is a question that has a uniquely correct answer. One linguistic approach is to distinguish...

I'm still puzzled by the answers to question 5792, on whether it is true that Mary won all the games of chess she played, when Mary never played any game of chess. Both respondents said that it is true. But is it meaningful to say "I won all the games I played, and I never played any game."? It seems to me that someone saying this would be contradicting himself.

I think you're right to at least this extent. If I say to someone "I won all the games of chess I played," the normal rules of conversation (in particular, the "pragmatics" of speech) make it reasonable for the other person to infer that I have actually played at least one game. Whether my statement literally implies this, however, is trickier. Think about statements of the form "All P are Q." Although it may take a bit of reflection to see it, this seems to be equivalent to saying that nothing is simultaneously a P and a non-Q. We can labor the point a bit further by turning to something closer to the lingo of logic: there does not exist an x such that x is a P and also a non-Q. For example: all dogs are mammals. That is, there does not exist a dog that is a non-mammal. Now go back go the games. If Mary says "All games I played are games I won," then by the little exercise we just went through, this becomes "There does not exist a game that I played and lost." But if Mary played no games at all,...

Why are counterfactual claims taken seriously by philosophers? Aren't they just an imaginative way of thinking and talking? For example, why is a counterfactual of the form "If it had been the case that A, then it would be the case that C" supposed to have truth conditions? For if causal determinism is true, then there is a complete specification W of the history of world w in which A would occur such that W entails either the truth of C or the falsity of C, making the counterfactual either vacuously true or a contradiction (and this is so for all possible deterministic worlds which include A); whereas if causal determinism is not true, then the history of w cannot be fully specified because A depends on non-deterministic processes, and the truth or falsity of the counterfactual is not determined. And for a non-deterministic world of which the history is fully specified (i.e. W includes the outcomes of non-deterministic processes) in which A occurs, the vacuous/contradictory result again obtains. ...

The most obvious reason why counterfactual talk is taken seriously by philosophers is that it's virtually impossible to avoid it. We constantly find ourselves asking -- for good reason -- what would happen in certain circumstances, and so understanding more deeply what that sort of talk might amount to seems to be a reasonable project. You offer a dilemma. We consider a counterfactual "If A were the case, then C would be the case." You then give us a choice between determinism and indeterminism. So suppose determinism is true. Then even if 'A' is false as things are, the deterministic story you're imagining can still be applied in a hypothetical case in which A is true. After all, we do that sort of thing all the time when we solve physics problems! If the result of applying the theory is that C also turns out to be true, then it's true as things actually are that if 'A' were true, 'C' would be true as well. Why is that vacuous? It's certainly not trivial; otherwise physics itself would be...

Isn't racist to find the word "nigger" racist? As in when it's merely said around you and not directed towards you. When someone calls another an "asshole," there isn't a normally a particular ethnicity that comes to mind -- yet The "N" Word is automatically associated with people of African descent. This all seems to fit into the ideology of race making racism possible.

I'll have to admit that I'm having a bit of trouble following you. In the sorts of cases that matter for this discussion, the "N" word is a slur. It's also a slur that, unlike "asshole," has a racial meaning. It's belittling someone because of their race. I think we agree on all that. The reason the "N" word brings "a particular ethnicity" to mind is because of what the word means; no mystery there. You write "yet the 'N' word is automatically associated with people of African descent" as though this was somehow puzzling or in need of explanation, but there's no puzzle that I can see. Close enough for present purposes, a racist is someone who has a negative view of some people simply because of their race or who mistreats people on account of their race. Seems pretty clear that that's bad; also seems pretty clear that there are plenty of people like that. Using a racial epithet like the "N" word is stereotypically racist behavior, and I can't see why that should seem puzzling. So what's left is...

Pages