Friday, November 19, 2010

A Bridge Too Far

D.A. Ridgely
Much of the intellectual history of the West got off on the wrong foot when Socrates (or Plato using Socrates as his philosophical sock puppet) insisted that words and their underlying concepts do have essential meanings. (See, e.g., the discussion of virtue in the Meno.) We are forever indebted to classical Greece for much of our intellectual heritage, but as parents are wont to do, they left us with some unfortunate intellectual baggage, too. Again excluding technical terms stipulatively defined, the meanings or correct uses of words simply don’t have sharp borders. At least none of the really interesting words like beauty, justice, God, etc. The question whether a word is being correctly used in a doubtful or unfamiliar case ultimately depends not on any further discovery or finding of facts but on a decision resulting from a weighing of the facts already known. And, as such, because reasonable people can reasonably disagree about such decisions, what we mean by one side in such a dispute being right or wrong (two more of those philosophically interesting words, by the way) is thus less about truth or falsehood (two more!) than about, for lack of a better term, appropriateness.

Which perhaps seems like a pretty trivial point. Until you consider how much blood has been shed by those who have failed to grasp it.

FLG concedes there is ambiguity in language, but Mr. Ridgely is getting too close to relativism. Yes, language can be ambiguous, but let's not overstate this ambiguity to such an extent that it is irreconcilable or impossible to overcome. If FLG uses the word virtue, and there is ambiguity, then FLG can further explain what he means by the word. So, yes, each word's meaning can be ambiguous, but meaning can be conveyed.

What makes FLG so uncomfortable is that Mr. Ridgely seems to be offering something akin to this:
The meaning of words are ambiguous.
We use words to communicate with other people.
Therefore, we cannot definitively communicate essential meaning.
Consequently, truth, itself a word, does not exist. Or if it does, we'll never be able to come to some agreed understanding of it.

As a somebody who admires Platonic Realism/Idealism, FLG obviously strenuously objects to this line of argument.

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