Recent Responses

How malleable is meaning? Example: can we take a word that is commonly understood to mean/refer to a specific thing and give it an entirely new meaning (or at least one that, despite its slight similarity is still significantly removed from the original)? Example: referring to a traffic light as 'autistic' (given that it operates in one way, without change) without meaning this metaphorically.

Or, just following up on Amy's response, maybe the right answer is 'both'. Rather than thinking of the meaning of 'glory' in Humpty's mouth, we might think of what the word meant in Humpty's idiolect and what the word meant in English. Many linguists and philosophers (including Noam Chomksy) have doubts about whether there really is such a thing as English, because there are no very significant linguistic features in common among all and only those whom we call 'English speakers'. But even if that's right, we can still distinguish what 'glory' meant in Humpty's idiolect and what it meant to those he was addressing. It was easy for him to change the menaing of 'glory' in his idiolect. But that didn't suffice to change the way anyone else understood it.

I think the issue of how malleable meaning is depends on how many people are involved. It's easy to change the meaning of a word in your own idiolect. It is a little harder to change the menaing of a word in a bit of language shared by two people or a small group. But that's not very hard. We could just agree to use 'autistic' to mean *confined to rigid patterns of operation* or somesuch. But a lot more needs to happen if the meaning of a word is to change in such a way that the change gets registered by dictionaries. Still, that does happen quite a lot.

For any given term or concept, is it possible to formulate a correct definition? Some people claim all definitions are equally valid and subjective. I can't believe this though because if we can't agree on a definition, then you can't transmit your exact meaning to me through words, and the whole idea of communication is shot. How can definitions be rooted in reality and truth?

I will just talk ab0ut words, but the ideas apply to concepts as well.

It is very reasonbale to suppose that a typical word, such as 'apple', has a definite meaning. But then it can't be that all definitions are equally valid, since many will be inconsistent with the truth about what the word means, thus e.g. "'apple': a small glass or vessel for applying lotion to the eye."

I guess the question 'how can definitions be rooted in reality and truth' then boils to the quesiton of what determines the meaning of a word. And that's one of the really big issues in the philosophies of language and mind.

There are real issues about the extent to which words can be defined. People sometimes start out thinking that each word or concept has a definition in terms of conceptually necessary and sufficient conditions, on the model of "vixen': female fox". But in fact the vast majority of words seem not to have definitions like that: we just can't find ways of saying exactly what they mean.

It is not clear that we need agree on a definition if we are to be able communicate. Maybe we can communicate perfectly well even if one or both of us don't have any good ideas about how to define the words we are using. E.g. we both use the word 'apple' to talk about apples, but we don't know how to define the term. Notice also that there is a risk of regress. A definition for a word is just more words. So if we are to agree on a definition, then we have to understand the same things by the words in the definition. But then it looks as though we need to agree on definitions for those. etc. etc.

My own view is that if we disagree 0n a definition of a word we are using, then this does raise problems for communication: what I mean by it will differ from what you mean by it. But actuallythat view somewhat controversial. I discuss the matter a bit in my paper 'Cognitive Content and Propositional Attitude Attributions', which is on my website.

For any given term or concept, is it possible to formulate a correct definition? Some people claim all definitions are equally valid and subjective. I can't believe this though because if we can't agree on a definition, then you can't transmit your exact meaning to me through words, and the whole idea of communication is shot. How can definitions be rooted in reality and truth?

I will just talk ab0ut words, but the ideas apply to concepts as well.

It is very reasonbale to suppose that a typical word, such as 'apple', has a definite meaning. But then it can't be that all definitions are equally valid, since many will be inconsistent with the truth about what the word means, thus e.g. "'apple': a small glass or vessel for applying lotion to the eye."

I guess the question 'how can definitions be rooted in reality and truth' then boils to the quesiton of what determines the meaning of a word. And that's one of the really big issues in the philosophies of language and mind.

There are real issues about the extent to which words can be defined. People sometimes start out thinking that each word or concept has a definition in terms of conceptually necessary and sufficient conditions, on the model of "vixen': female fox". But in fact the vast majority of words seem not to have definitions like that: we just can't find ways of saying exactly what they mean.

It is not clear that we need agree on a definition if we are to be able communicate. Maybe we can communicate perfectly well even if one or both of us don't have any good ideas about how to define the words we are using. E.g. we both use the word 'apple' to talk about apples, but we don't know how to define the term. Notice also that there is a risk of regress. A definition for a word is just more words. So if we are to agree on a definition, then we have to understand the same things by the words in the definition. But then it looks as though we need to agree on definitions for those. etc. etc.

My own view is that if we disagree 0n a definition of a word we are using, then this does raise problems for communication: what I mean by it will differ from what you mean by it. But actuallythat view somewhat controversial. I discuss the matter a bit in my paper 'Cognitive Content and Propositional Attitude Attributions', which is on my website.

Is global capitalism workable? That is, if capitalism is a system where most of the economic activity is based on self-interest, are the kinds of restricting factors like social welfare, laws, charity and human instincts enough to stop the polarizing of wealth, destruction of the environment and stuff that we see?

To take a different line, those defending capitalism would argue that despite its inequalities and inefficiencies, it nonetheless produces more overall wealth than any other economic system. There is no reason why that wealth should not subsequently be distributed in fair and sensible ways, provided that such an allocation does not interfere unduly with the production of yet more wealth. In fact, some capitalist societies have been rather good at doing this, and there seems no a priori reason why all could not. After all, it might strike people that what you call unbridled self-interest involves social security, protection of the environment and so on. It is not in most people's interests, after all, for the streets to be unsafe due to poverty or the ice caps to melt and drown us all.

I am a philosophy graduate who has been 'out of the game' for about 3 years now. During this time I have not read much philosophy, and what little I have seems to be forgotten as soon as a couple of days later. I was wondering if any of you might recommend any techniques or reading material that might get me back into the philosophical way of thinking, with a view to renewing my interest and bringing back my intellectual confidence. Thanks.

Philosophy is my profession, but even I find picking up and just reading a piece of philosophy outside of my area of expertise plain difficult. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that philosophy emerges best, for me, at least, in conversation and spirited collaborative reflection. Thus, Joe Moore's suggestion of finding a reading group is a fine one. That can be difficult, though, and without a structure academic context (like a graduate program) to infuse life into the group, they often fizzle out or attract people of widely different skills, interest, and background.

Another tack is not to read philosophy to get back into a philosophical mode of thinking. There is much great literature that is philosophically sophisticated and provocative. My favorites are the short stories of Jorge Borges, a great Argentinean writer of the 20th century (available on-line). Try, for instance, "The Library of Babel," which evokes a wealth of metaphysical and epistemological themes. Another is "Funes the Memorious," about a boy who develops perfect recollection after an accident. Alas, he seems incapable of abstract thought. These are more philosophy of mind and cognitive science topics.

What is the philosophical take on the subconscious and who came up with the idea? It seems highly problematic to me in that its existence can never be established because of its very nature. It is rather like positing Pluto to account for wobbles in other known planets' orbits except that Pluto can be demonstrably found! This is different from the unconscious mind which keeps you breathing, etc. which works rather like the programmes running in the background on your PC. No mystery here. And where do dreams enter into this debate? I can't ever recall having had a 'symbolic' dream, just ones dramatising traits and memories I am well aware of. A statement like 'I hated her but I now realise I subconsciously loved her' is surely just hindsight. Knowing and not knowing something at the same time has to be impossible?

I concur with Richard.

The idea of positing the subconscious was first taken seriously by Freud. It was a theoretical posit, posited to explain a large number of phenomena, including slips of the tongue, dreams and a whole variety of psychological conditions such as obsessional neurosis. Freud actually got the idea from hypnosis. Under hypnosis people perform actions without knowing their own reasons for so acting (the reasons having been put into their minds by the hypnotist).

Freud's 'New Introductory Lectures' provide a very good introduction to his ideas on the topic.

According to Freud, all dreams are symbolic. You just don't know how to interpret the symbolism.

Freud's theories, and those of later psychoanalysts, are extremely sophisticated and address a very wide range of data. Their status, however, is very controversial amongst philosophers and psychologists.

Why are Picasso paintings so important? How can I appreciate the importance of Picasso paintings? Honestly, when I look at them I think that they are interesting but I never get the impression that they are produced by a genius. If understanding Picasso's paintings (and art in general) needs training (knowing Picasso's life, knowing the context in which the paintings are created, knowing Picasso's intentions, knowing the traditions in painting, etc.) why are they exhibiting art works to the public? Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" is one of the best and most influential articles in the history of analytic philosophy but nobody expects non-philosophers to appreciate its importance. There are no Quine exhibitions. Thanks.

I'm no expert on art, just someone who enjoys it, but I certainly would agree with you that Picasso can be hard to understand. Most of his painting (and sculpture) isn't what one would describe as "beautiful", though there are paintings of his that are beautiful: For example, "Child with a Dove" (see it here). But what's beautiful about paintings like this one, to my mind, is what they convey emotionally and less anything to do with sheer physical beauty. And one finds a similar sort of emotional intensity in many of Picasso's other works. His portrait of Gertrude Stein (here) is just brilliant.

Now, to be sure, Picasso's later works can be more challenging. It can be very hard even to see what's happening in paintings like "The Guitar Player" (here) or "Afficionado" (here). And, in this case, I think it can help a great deal, as one tries to learn how to see these paintings, to learn something about the aesthetic that lies behind them. Picasso did not decide to paint in the ways he did simply out of perversity. He was looking for a way to express things he could not otherwise express. (Schoenberg makes similar remarks about the reasons for his invention of the twelve-tone method of composition.) How much success Picasso had is presumably for the viewer to judge. But once one opens one's mind, and better one's heart, to what Picasso is trying to do, one can come to see a painting like "Portrait of Maya with a Doll" (here) as, indeed, quite beautiful.

For me, though, the proof of Picasso's genius is the single painting "Guernica" (here). No more powerful comment on the horrors of war has ever been produced, and I can't even begin to see how Picasso could have produced such a powerful piece of work except by marshalling everything he had done beforehand. If you are ever in Madrid, you really must see it. It's exhibited along with many of the studies Picasso did as preparation, and it is fascinating to see the vision finally emerge.

Is there anything existing within or beyond the human body/mind that can be called "I"? If so, exactly where is "I" located?

We naturally think of the world as made up of things with properties. Take my black pen: the pen is the thing and being black is the property. But metaphysicians disagree about whether at the end of the day there are things entirely distinct from properties. Some say you need some kind of substance to have properties; others say that a pen is really just bundles of properties: its colour, weight, shape, composition, etc.

It's the same with our mental life. I have a headache: "I" is the thing, and having a headache is its property. But some philosophers would say that although we distinguish between the thought and the thinker, at the end of the day the "I" -- the thinker -- is really just a bundle of thoughts. (Insofar as it exists at all.) In that case, I suppose that the "I" would be located in the same place as those thoughts. Other philosophers may wish to insist however that the "I" must be distinct from the thoughts it has: it must be some kind of substance. It might be a physical substance or it might be a mental substance. So presumably a substance "I" would be in the same place as the body or the mind.

I often find myself to be impatient, often frustrated, when people claim something to be 'obvious', and never more than when I think that they are using it incorrectly. An example of this might be "obviously, Hitler was an evil man", or "obviously, it's better to be poor and happy than rich and sad" - this is because I wish justification for their claim, and do not want to simply accept it (in these cases because of popular opinion). I realise that both of these examples are ethical, but is there anything that is understood by philosophers to be obvious (and by obvious I mean without need of qualification or justification)?

If I may reply in terms of personal experience: when students start"doing philosophy", one of the first thing they (need to) learn isthat what seems obvious to x may be much less so to y. As soon as things become interesting, they stop being obvious. Yet I have noticed that this is not the only important lesson about "obvious". For once they have understood therelativity of "obviousness" then they also need to realize that no answer in terms of “obviously p” will ever convince anyonewho was not already convinced that p in the first place. Philosophy is not doneadverbially, as it were, since “obviously (clearly, truly, certainly…) 2 + 2 =4” is no more (nor less) convincing that “2 + 2 = 4” as a reply to someone whoshare a different sense of the obvious. So there are no obvious p on which philosophers agree (or they would not discuss them) and no obvious way (i.e. "obviously") to tackle them.

To which philosopher it may concern, I recently been perplexed by the following logical puzzle (or what seems to be, anyway): Working at a used bookstore, I and the rest of the staff are constantly asked about where to find books. One of my co-workers had the following exchange with a customer and couldn't make anything of it: Customer: "I am looking for a particular book." Co-worker: "Well is it fiction or non-fiction?" Customer: "Neither." So far, this is what I've come up with: (1) The customer is looking for a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction, which would mean that it can't be both fiction and non fiction (which is quite common, e.g., historical fiction). (2) If non-fiction is the opposite of fiction (and not considered as a separate entity), then was the customer contradicting himself and as a result saying absolutely nothing? (3) If fiction is defined as something that isn't true, and non-fiction defined as something that IS true, then the customer was asking for something that was neither true nor false. Can that happen? Can something not be true or false? And further more, what would that mean? (4) This whole problem is irrelevant because there ARE books that are not fiction or non-fiction--which I am unaware of. I think the big issue here is how you define fiction and especially non-fiction, then again, I don't know and would greatly appreciate your response. Thankyou, Haley

Your definition of fiction and non-fiction (your point (3)) seems flawed. For one thing, a lot of what commonly goes under the non-fiction heading is false, at least in part. Think of an book about the bombing of Pearl Harbor which, although marketed as an accurate historical account, is full of errors. So, what's characteristic of a work of non-fiction is that it presents its content to be a true account of something in the real world.

Correspondingly, fiction might then be defined as a work that does not present its content to be a true account of something in the real world. Not presenting its content as true, such a work thus cannot be false (in relation to the real world) either. Someone who claims that Mark Twain's book is incorrect in some of what it says about Huckleberry Finn hasn't understood that this was meant to be a work of fiction. Works of fiction are neither true nor false much like -- to use a favorite example of Sidney Morgenbesser's -- the number 3 is neither married nor unmarried. Morgenbesser's point was that, while it is indeed not that case that the number 3 is married, calling it unmarried would inaccurately suggest that it is the kind of thing to which the married/unmarried distinction applies, that things of its kind could be married. Similarly, calling a work of fiction untrue or false inaccurately suggests that it is the kind of thing to which the true/false distinction applies and that it could be made true through suitable corrections of the text.

(I should say here in parentheses that works of fiction are often discussed in terms of truth and falsity. Thus, one Twain scholar may say to another: "You are quite wrong about Huck's feelings and motives on XYZ occasion..." Here the discussion is not about truth and falsity in relation to the real world, but in relation to the world of this work of fiction.)

Now let's think about your customer, and what s/he may have had in mind. I see three possibilities. First, and developing your point (4), one may think that the headings of "fiction" and "non-fiction" are not jointly exhaustive. Of course, this possibility is excluded if one of the headings is simply defined as covering everything not covered by the other. (My definitions work this way, as do yours.) But a plausible pitch can be made in favor of this possibility. Think of How-to books, for example, such as How to Live Well. This is not non-fiction by my definition (does not present its content to be a true account of something in the real world). But it's not really fiction either, in the sense in which this term is usually understood. So, employing a somewhat narrower definition of "fiction" than I have given, your customer may have thought that there is a third category of books covering (among other things, perhaps) advice about the aims and ambitions one should pursue in life.

Second, one may think that the two headings are not mutually exclusive. One could motivate this by saying that the fiction/non-fiction distinction is not binary (like odd/even, pregnant/non-pregnant), but scalar (like fast/slow). On this picture, books fall somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from a "fiction" pole at one end to a "non-fiction" pole at the other. You may object that the p/non-p terminology rules out this possibility. But ordinary language isn't so rigid. Think of the competitive/non-competitive distinction. I can easily imagine someone saying, in the context of a job search, that a candidate is not really competitive (in the sense of possibly being the most suitable candidate) and not really non-competitive (fit to be dropped from contention) either -- meaning that the candidate is somewhere in between and his application should be kept on hand for more detailed study later if more competitive candidates withdraw. In the fiction/non-fiction case, your example of a historical novel illustrates this possibility. Some of what's written in the book is, and some is not, presented as a true account of something in the real world. And the work is then a hybrid, somewhere between pure fiction and pure non-fiction. One could say about such a hybrid that it is both fiction and non-fiction (to some extent). But one could also (and perhaps in addition, thereby challenging what you write under your point (1)) say that it is really neither. This is analogous to how one might say that a hermaphrodite is neither purely female nor purely male, in a sense both, and in a sense neither.

The third possibility develops your point (4) in a different direction. It is another instance (one level up) of what I illustrated above with Sidney Morgenbesser's example. A predicate may be inapplicable to an object such that we should reject both the claim that the object is p and also the claim that it is not-p. The predicates even and odd are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive within a certain domain (natural numbers). But there are things outside this domain -- you and I, for instance -- and we are neither even nor odd (in the mathematical sense). So how does this apply to the fiction/non-fiction distinction? The number 3 would seem to fall outside the domain in which this distinction applies -- it makes no sense to ask whether this number does, or does not, present its content to be a true account of something in the real world. Of course, your customer was specifically searching for a book. So what books can we plausibly place outside the domain in which the fiction/non-fiction distinction applies? Well, notebooks containing only empty pages, presumably; and there are bound to be other examples.

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