Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Philosophy of Language, Or Ordinary is good enough for me

I rearranged my bookshelves a month or so back and found a bunch of books that I bought while in university that I hadn't (ever) gotten around to reading. Part of that "rearranging" was actually purging but I hung on to a few books in the area of 'ordinary language' philosophy.

For the uninitiated (and let's remember that I don't really know what I'm talking about here): Ordinary language philosophy approaches many philosophical problems as "muddles" caused by misuse of the language. For instance, a great deal of philosophical discussion revolves around the nature of "reality." A die-hard ordinary language philosopher would say that we should first begin by looking at how the word is used in "ordinary language"--at the day-to-day use of the word. So we say something like, "Yes, but--in reality--it doesn't work that way." By building up all the different uses of the word (and some of those uses have little or nothing in common with other uses), we can see what the word "means". And, it may turn out, that we don't ever use the word "reality" to refer to some external, shared experience. Instead, we use it as a kind of modifier to indicate that something is practical. A philosophical inquiry into what "reality" is only exists because we are using the word in some peculiar way that the language doesn't support.

The other side of ordinary language philosophy is that some problems exist solely because of some peculiarity in our language's syntax. Imagine that our language's syntax required us to say, rather than "Nobody is in the room", but that "Mr. Nobody was in the room." Someone might launch an entire school of philosophy in the search for "Mr. Nobody". I would see that kind of muddle perpetuated in the phrase "my mind", which looks similar to "my car", "my DVD player" and so on. This leads to a philosophical discussion of who is the "me" that is separate from my "mind" and what is the "mind" independent of any particular person. The relationship between "me" and "my mind" doesn't exist: I am my mind and my mind is me though the language makes it appear that a distinction exists. The phrase "My mind" is more like "my voice" than it is like "my car."

Now this doesn't have much to do with technical writing, except that the exploration of language always helps me to understand my tool better. I just finished, for instance, "How to Do Things with Words" which points out that statements we make aren't always "true" or "false" (e.g. "Go and get me the hammer" isn't true or false). For instance, one way of looking at statements is to see them as performing an action rather than asserting facts.

For instance, in a marriage ceremony when I say "I do" I am--by saying those words--performing an activity; when the ministering official says "I pronounce you man and wife", that official is performing the marriage activity. Similarly, when a referee declares a penalty in a game, the words that the referee utters can be classed among those utterences that "do something" just by being said (which gives the book one of the puns embedded in its title: "How to Do Things with Words"). If you don't say the words, the activity doesn't happen.

I certainly didn't go into ordinary language philosophy deeply back in university to actually appreciate/understand it. But it did leave one lasting mark on my life: the phrase "I don't think that's a meaningful utterance." It's not something that I get to use often but it's damn useful when I do get to use it. And, when writing, I try to apply it to everything I write: Is this a meaningful utterance?  Some criteria I use:
  • The things it refers to actually exist. I frequently hear pundits commenting on contentious issues by saying things like "America wants ...." or "America expects..." To what does the word "America" refer in that sentence? Given that the issue is contentious, obviously not "everyone who lives in America" or even "American citizens."
  • The sentence accomplishes a useful purpose for the audience. For instance, when a commercial for a diet as being rated as "the top diet" my first question is "What does 'top diet' mean?" Does it mean 'Most effective in losing weight quickly'? 'In keeping weight off ? 'Works really well for its target audience'? Works for everyone'? The sentence may be useful to the person saying it but doesn't do much of anything for the audience.
  • The sentence is being spoken in the appropriate scenario and to the appropriate audience. For instance, saying "I do" if you are the officiating minister doesn't work; saying "I now pronounce you man and wife" if you are not the officiating minister or, even if you are but are in the wedding rehearsal, doesn't count either. Is what I'm saying actually relevant to the people reading it? Is this the right forum for saying it?
It's especially fun to listen to elected officials and ask how many of the sentences they utter are actually, in any meaningful sense, meaningful. The percentage sometimes approaches zero.

Reading or read

No comments: