Saturday, August 27, 2011

The non-linguistic...

"Tell me about the linguistic without using language. Show me something outside language without staying inside language."

Tell me about the past without incurring or implicating any element of the present. Indeed, explain to me the former without the latter. Show me something outside the present without being in the present.

If language is utterance, what is Utterance attempting to do/convey? If language is use, what is Language using? Words, presumably. But then, why words and not something else? What do words possess--or access--that Language needs with them? What is language ABOUT?


djr said...

Don't these look-see objections to realism just presuppose that when I say something like "the cup is on the table" I can't possibly be talking about some mind-independent objects and the relation between them? "You can't talk about extra-linguistic items without using language." So what? It's remarkable how often objections to metaphysical realism attempt to pull some kind of anti-realistic conclusion out of some premises that realists accept.

Why, I wonder, if I can't make cognitive contact with objects in the world because I have to use language to talk about them, can I make cognitive contact with the words that other people use?

I hope I'm just missing something in anti-realist arguments. That would be preferable to concluding that a great many philosophers are actually just raving idiots.

One Brow said...


My (admittedly very uneducated) understanding of the alternatives to realism (conceptualism and nominalism) is that they don't deny that the cup or table exist, or even that the cup and table have properties, only that these properties take on some meaning beyond what they are as properties fo the cup and table. Could you link me to an example of what you meant?

djr said...

You're thinking of debates over universals, in which various sorts of views are given the label of 'realism' (ante rem realism, in rebus realism, moderate realism, etc.) in contrast to conceptualism, nominalism, and other accounts of so-called universals (i.e., what we're doing when we think or speak about general concepts or categories like 'blue' or 'monkey' or 'asteroid' rather than 'this blue right here,' 'that monkey there,' or 'that asteroid over yonder'). I'm thinking, rather, of metaphysical realism, which is most basically just the view that there is a world that exists prior to and independently of our beliefs or judgments and which, in one way or another, our beliefs and judgments are about. Old-fashioned views opposed to realism in this sense include idealism in various forms and phenomenalism. To appreciate the difference between these two senses of 'realism,' consider that a nominalist can be a metaphysical realist.

For a very technical overview of this business, see

Famous recent philosophers who are or have been interpreted as anti-realists include Hilary Putnam (in some stages), W.V.O Quine, Michael Dummett, Richard Rorty, and most of the so-called Continental philosophers that you're likely to have ever heard of (Gadamer, Hebermas, Foucault, Derrida). It is, despite the suggestion of some of Elliot's recent discussions, an open question whether Wittgenstein was or should be taken to be an anti-realist, though many have certainly seen him that way.

For the record, I don't claim that all anti-realist arguments are question-begging (though I've often suspected as much); I just claim that the sorts of arguments that some philosophers have called "look-see" arguments (because they attempt to show that realism would require us to step outside of our language and/or conceptual schemes to "look" and "see" whether the beliefs we hold within our language and conceptual schemes are true) are question-begging. There is an interesting consideration of these and similar issues at, though I sometimes think that Post gives what he calls 'terminal philosophers' too much credit.

Anyway, it seems to me that a metaphysical realist faces no challenge from the fact that we can only talk about things by using language; the only way that could seem like a problem is if one supposes from the get-go that language can't describe items in the world as they are prior to and independently of our beliefs and judgments about them -- and that supposition just begs the question against realism.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

At least in this case, I'm not attacking a straw man, as I'm virtually quoting a friend of mine who has a PhD in philosophy, and is very big on Frege, Wittgenstein, Quine. He posted something almost identical to my opening target. It dawned on me after writing this post that he was just committing "the worst argument ever", so I suppose I was having fun with the dialectic here. Cheers!

One Brow said...

Thank you both for the links.

djr said...

Man, I wish I'd been accusing you of attacking a strawperson. Unfortunately, that style of argument is extremely common. It confuses me. Deeply.