I've formally studied five foreign languages (plus two more if you count mathematical and logical languages) and I've learned a smattering of at least a dozen others during my travels, and I've written hundreds of thousands of words now about philosophy and philosophers, but I haven't spent any time on the philosophy of language. So when I saw the title of the paper that this week's experiment is based on—"The Meaning of 'Meaning'"—and realised it was practically a definition of this subfield, I started really looking forward to doing an overview of the issues contested here and then pouring over the original 63-page paper from Hillary Putnam. Unfortunately, what I found early on in my research stopped me from getting very far. Let's see the thought experiment and then I'll explain.
NASA had dubbed it "Twin Earth." The newly discovered planet was not just roughly the same size as ours, it had a similar climate and life had evolved there almost identically. In fact, there were even countries where people spoke dialects of English.
Twin Earth contained cats, frying pans, burritos, televisions, baseball, beer, and—at least it seemed—water. It certainly had a clear liquid which fell from the sky, filled rivers and oceans, and quenched the thirsts of the indigenous humanoids and the astronauts from Earth.
When the liquid was analysed, though, it turned out not to be H2O but a very complex substance dubbed H2No. NASA therefore announced that its previous claim that water had been found on Twin Earth was wrong. Some people say that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck. In this case, the billed bird waddled and quacked, but it wasn't a duck after all.
The tabloid newspaper headlines, however, offered a different interpretation: "It's water, Jim, but not as we know it."
Source: "The meaning of 'meaning'" by Hilary Putnam, republished in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2: Mind, Language and Reality, 1975.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 220.
The last time I discusssed a thought experiment like this was in My Response to Thought Experiment 47: Rabbit!, when I said:
Doesn't seem like such a big deal, does it? To me, this lack of anything interesting is unsurprising. It's exactly what usually comes from the technical world of analytical philosophy.
As I explain in my list of terms in Philosophy 101, analytic philosophy is now how "the overwhelming majority of university philosophy departments identify themselves" in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand. This is a result of the unfortunate "linguistic turn," which was "a major development in Western philosophy during the early 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy and the other humanities primarily on the relationship between philosophy and language." Among other things, this resulted in "the view that there are no specifically philosophical truths and that the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts...rejecting sweeping philosophical systems in favor of close attention to detail, common sense, and ordinary language."
Just how closely do analytic philosophers seek to understand langauge? Well, according to the wikipedia entry on the philosophy of language:
Generally speaking, there have been at least seven distinctive explanations of what a linguistic "meaning" is:
- Idea theories of meaning, most commonly associated with the British empiricist tradition of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, claim that meanings are purely mental contents provoked by signs. Although this view of meaning has been beset by a number of problems from the beginning, interest in it has been renewed by some contemporary theorists under the guise of semantic internalism.
- Truth-conditional theories hold meaning to be the conditions under which an expression may be true or false. This tradition goes back at least to Frege and is associated with a rich body of modern work, spearheaded by philosophers like Alfred Tarski and Donald Davidson.
- Theories of language use, for example theories by the later Wittgenstein, helped inaugurate the idea of "meaning as use", and a communitarian view of language. Wittgenstein was interested in the way in which the communities use language, and how far it can be taken. It is also associated with P. F. Strawson, John Searle, Robert Brandom, and others.
- Constructivist theories of language are connected to the revolutionary idea claiming that speech is not only passively describing a given reality, but it can change the (social) reality it is describing through speech acts, which for linguistics was as revolutionary a discovery as for physics was the discovery that measurement itself can change the measured reality itself. Speech act theory was developed by J. L. Austin, although other previous thinkers have had similar ideas.
- Reference theories of meaning, also known collectively as semantic externalism, view meaning to be equivalent to those things in the world that are actually connected to signs. There are two broad subspecies of externalism: social and environmental. The first is most closely associated with Tyler Burge and the second with Hilary Putnam, Saul Kripke and others.
- Verificationist theories of meaning are generally associated with the early 20th century movement of logical positivism. The traditional formulation of such a theory is that the meaning of a sentence is its method of verification or falsification. In this form, the thesis was abandoned after the acceptance by most philosophers of the Duhem–Quine thesis of confirmation holism after the publication of Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism. However, Michael Dummett has advocated a modified form of verificationism since the 1970s. In this version, the comprehension (and hence meaning) of a sentence consists in the hearer's ability to recognize the demonstration (mathematical, empirical or other) of the truth of the sentence.
- A pragmatist theory of meaning is any theory in which the meaning (or understanding) of a sentence is determined by the consequences of its application. Dummett attributes such a theory of meaning to Charles Sanders Peirce and other early 20th century American pragmatists.
Phew! That's a lot of different attempts to try and pin down logically perfect universal definitions of "meaning." It's too much for me to go through them all in detail. As a summary, wikipedia says:
"Most philosophers have been more or less skeptical about formalizing natural languages, [but] many of them developed formal languages for use in the sciences or formalized parts of natural language for investigation. ... On the other side of the divide were the so-called "Ordinary language philosophers" [who] stressed the importance of studying natural language without regard to the truth-conditions of sentences and the references of terms. They did not believe that the social and practical dimensions of linguistic meaning could be captured by any attempts at formalization using the tools of logic. Logic is one thing and language is something entirely different. What is important is not expressions themselves but what people use them to do in communication. ... The question of whether or not there is any grounds for conflict between the formal and informal approaches is far from being decided."
I'll weigh in on this larger undecided debate later, but first, let's look at this week's thought experiment, which is essentially a fight between half of number 5 from the list above (semantic externalism) and the modern efforts of number 1 (semantic internalism). To describe that fight formally:
Semantic externalism comes in two varieties, depending on whether meaning is construed cognitively or linguistically. On a cognitive construal, externalism is the thesis that what concepts (or contents) are available to a thinker is determined by their environment, or their relation to their environment. On a linguistic construal, externalism is the thesis that the meaning of a word is environmentally determined. Likewise, one can construe semantic internalism in two ways, as a denial of either of these two theses.
For a very quick resolution, the wiki entry for the Twin Earth thought experiment, noted this:
In his original article, Putnam had claimed that the reference of the "water" varied even though their psychological states were the same. Tyler Burge subsequently argued in "Other Bodies" (1982) that the mental states are different: [Earthling] has the concept H2O, while Twin [Earthling] has the concept [H2No]. Putnam has since expressed agreement with Burge's interpretation of the thought experiment.
A number of philosophers have argued that "water" refers to anything that is sufficiently water-like. They reject, therefore, the contention that "water" is a rigid designator referring to H2O. John Searle, for example, argues (Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind) that, once we discover that our water is H2O, we have the choice of either redefining it as H2O or continuing to allow the term water to refer to anything with the basic properties of water (transparency, wetness, etc.). Searle suggests that in the Twin Earth example, the second seems more plausible, since if Twin Earth doesn't have water, then all its water-based products will also be different. Twin ice cream, for example, will be constitutionally different, yet we will still be tempted to call it ice cream. Searle, along with others, considers this sufficient argument to "solve" the thought experiment altogether.
In other words, the meaning of our words can evolve as more information comes in. To me, this is why the many and varied efforts of philosophy of language to find a logically perfect and universal definition of meaning are doomed to failure. As Putnam said at the beginning of The Meaning of "Meaning":
"notice that the topic of "meaning" is the one topic discussed in philosophy in which there is literally nothing but "theory" — literally nothing that can be labeled or even ridiculed as the "common sense view."
There is no "common sense view" because people don't find "meaning" to be a difficult problem. Meaning in general evolves as more information comes in, and misunderstandings about meaning between individuals can dissolve as more information comes in too. In my Response to Thought Experiment 23: The Beetle In The Box, I wrote something that gives us some comfort about this ever-so-slight fuzziness in our understanding.
No one can know exactly what it is like to be another person or experience things from another’s perspective (look in someone else’s box), but it is generally assumed that the mental workings of other people’s mind are very similar to our own. From the perspective of an evolutionary philosophy, this is highly self-evident. For other philosophers to claim that our internal thoughts and feelings are ineffable, unknowable, and "private" from others in society, is to deny the billions of years of evolutionary history that we share, during which time the (essentially) same bodily structures were created everywhere in our species as we evolved to survive in the shared environment we exist within in this one universe. As neuroscientists unravel the functions of our brain structures, we don't find infinite varieties of beetles (or non-beetles) crawling around in our heads; we find 99.5% similarities in our molecular sub-structure. We are not so alone in our minds...even if other's thought experiments can sound awfully confusing at first blush.
What do you think? Do you need more explanation of what I mean here? If so, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, I gotta run.