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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pinker's Thinkers - Abbas Raza

I'm going to make this story very simple: In 1879 a man in Germany named Gottlob Frege wrote a paper entitled "Über Sinn und Bedeutung." (That means "On Sense and Meaning.") For more than two thousand years before Frege, the Western world had been worrying about all kinds of philosophical questions: What is the nature of justice? What is the nature of beauty? What is the nature of truth? And, of course: What is the meaning of life? After Frege, we (at least Anglo-American analytical philosophy) have spent the last century-and-a-quarter mostly wondering whether it makes sense to even ask such questions, and to answer that, focusing on language itself. From Bertrand Russell's attempts to model natural languages with formal ones such as the predicate calculus, to Wittgenstein's language games, to the verificationism of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle, to Rudolf Carnap's confirmation theory, to Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin, to W.V.O. Quine, to, in more recent times, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, and my own Ph.D. adviser (and Davidson's student) Akeel Bilgrami, the struggle to elucidate the workings of language, and therefore the meaning of meaning, has been the primary focus of philosophers, as well, of course, as of linguists. Suppose for a second that we had been struggling with the question "What is the color of love?" for all that time. Wouldn't that have been silly? Is it not obvious that to ask, "What is the color of love?" is a category mistake? Purple, after all, is not a predicate that applies to the category "love," just as "brittle" is not a predicate that applies to something like the number 17, say. Noam Chomsky famously coined the grammatically perfect but nevertheless meaningless sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" as an illustration (partly) of this point. (And this is also the basis of Douglas Adams' joke that the meaning of life is 42.) What if the basic questions we have been grappling with for millennia are so intractable precisely because they are nonsensical? (I say all this by way of motivating the minute attention to details of language that is soon to absorb us.)

[click on the heading for the full essay]


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