Posted by on December 20th, 2009

For a while now I have been working on a meta-ethical theory that revolves around the role of language as a signifier for language games/interest groups. It is by its nature a descriptive theory rather than a prescriptive one and is concerned with the way in which specific groups label and identify themselves and by definition their binary opposites using specifically value-laden coded language that signifies concepts such as them/us, right/wrong, good/evil, etc.

So I was delighted and slightly peturbed (the similarities to my own work is annoying) to find that American comedian George Carlin wrote/performed a piece on this matter.

I post an extract here from “Euphemisms: Political-Interest Groups – Choosing Sides”

It’s impossible to mention the word choice without thinking of the language that has come out of the abortion wars. Back when those battles were first being joined, the religious fanatics realized that antiabortion sounded negative and lacked emotional power. So they decided to call themselves pro-life, Pro-life not only made them appear virtuous, it had the additional advantage of suggesting their opponents were anti-life, and, therefore, pro-death. They also came up with a lovely variation designed to get you all warm inside: pro-family.
Well, the left wing didn’t want to be seen as either anti-life or pro-death, and they knew pro-abortion wasn’t what they needed, so they decided on pro-choice. That completed the name game and gave the world the now classic struggle: pro-choice vs. pro-life. The interesting part is that the words life and choice are not even opposites. But there they are, hangin’ out together, bigger than life.

George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

Review: The Real God (part 3)

Posted by on October 22nd, 2008

In this part of my review I wish to briefly explore Harries discussions on the postmodern view of language. He is attempting to describe the views of Anthony Freeman the postmodernist theologian who has ceased to believe in a supernatural or transcendent God – seeing Him rather as being a projection of human ideals. Much of postmodernism has its roots in relativism, subjectivism and a sort of late Wittgensteinian Philosophy of Language.

A simple exposition of this philosophy goes like this:

mind is a social reality and language a public phenomenon. We see mothers bending over their prams making noises at their babies. In due course the noises are reciprocated and come to be recognized as talk. Soon this talk becomes internalized as thought. But the talk is prior and public and this enters into the very soul of our thinking. Because language is a public possession, written texts are particularly important. How those texts are intepreted or read still depends very much on the interests and outlook of the readers and these in turn will reflect the ineterests and concerns already built into the language that we use to intepret the texts. If we say we want to find out what a particular text really means, we are stymied, for the language we used to interpet it ourselves is a given, which will shape how we read…

Harries, again somewhat suprisingly is not completely anti-pomo. He accepts a certain degree of interpretative and cognitive relativism. However he rejects total scepticism and abandonment of truth and meaning notions – correctly suggesting that such a position would dissolve philosophy into just one of many methods of literary criticism.

I would just add by means of a clarification that although language is public and in turn shapes our ways of thinking this should by no means be used to suggest that speech is thought, or that absence of speech indicates absence of thought. (I could write much more here on my theories of unthought-thoughts and vocal-thought-thinking-thoughts or about the conscious and unconscious but I will digress.)

I will finish with a quote from Anthony Freeman that illustrates what one may call a postmodern view of religion – it is this view which Harries is ultimately attempting to challenge with recourse to realist arguments.

“A false distinction within Christian doctrine itself between an essential core and a negotiable husk. In presenting the faith to this generation I am bound to be presenting a different faith from that which my forefathers presented. Not just a different interpretation of the same essential core, but a different faith. This is because there is no essence of inner core. The interpretation is not like taking the shell off a nut. It is like peeling the layers off an onion: the interpretation goes all the way down. All is intepretation. That is the essence.”

Review: Unspeak

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 31st, 2008

Unspeak by Steven Poole

Another insightful book on the power of words and how they can be used to control how a debate is conducted – and ultimately the outcome of a debate.

[Unspeak] represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and os having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view…

So called “Unspeak” uses ideas we associate with words to control how we think about other idea. I suppose this is a standard technique in rhetoric. Once something is labeled with a word, that word brings associated value judgments to the bear. So to control vocabulary is to control thought. This is well known in politics and public relations.

Wolfowitz acknowledged that, according to international law, the US was in fact engaged in ‘occupation’, but still argued that they shouldn’t have ‘accepted that label’. In other words, he seemed to think that if they had simply called it something else – perhaps a mass sleepover – then no one would have noticed that the occupation was actually an occupation.

You may notice that the US and UK parliments do not have “wars” any more – at least they are not declared. We now are told we have peace keeping operations, liberation operations, etc. And the author points out the word “operation” has medical and beneficial connotations. How easy it is to accept another’s language!

The case of the ‘insurgents’ was a small triumph of journalistic resistance to propagandistic terminology.

… we should at the very least expect, and demand, that our newspapers, radio and television refuse to replicate and spread the Unspeak virus.

The book claims a small triumph against Unspeak was the media (or a subsection of it) rejecting the word terrorist – which instantly condemns the subject – and substituting the word “insurgent”. This word supposedly had no prior meaning so had no previous value judgments. This is a compromise between calling them “freedom fighters” or “terrorists”. The catch is the word “insurgents” previously had no meaning at all and so conveys no information. Is it the job of the media to invent neutral vocabulary? In the extreme they might invent a new word for everything to make everything “objective” – but this would make the media void of meaning.

Naturally, in such a book, it is impossible that I will not myself have committed barbarous acts of Unspeak. I leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to identify them.

I take it as a gauntlet thrown down! 🙂 The very concept “Unspeak”, subtitled “Words are Weapons” implies it is a bad thing and should be avoided. But the book does not say why “Unspeak” is bad! It also avoids the point that all words contain value judgments. “Unspeak” implies that some ideal “Speech” exists. It does not exist, as has been outlined many times on this blog. Invent a word and apply it to a set of “stuff” requires someone to do some valuation (see the Will to Power). What is needed is not a rejection of Unspeak but more critical thinking.

Anti Citizen One

PS “Do not all words lie to the light ones?” FN

Searle’s Response to the Is-Ought Problem

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 1st, 2008

Searle published an attempt to answer Hume’s Is-Ought Problem. It states:

Consider the following series of statements:
(i) Jones uttered the words “I hereby promise to pay you,
Smith, five dollars.”
(2) Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars.
(3) Jones placed himself under (undertook) an obligation
to pay Smith five dollars.
(4) Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.
(5) Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.
Searle J R, How to Derive “Ought” From “Is”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 43-58

Searle states that the following are tautological truths:
“All promises are (create, are undertakings of, are acceptances of) obligations,”
“One ought to keep (fulfill) one’s obligations.”

With these definitions, we can see the logic to go from statement (2) to (5) because it is a tautological, according to Searle, to equate “promise” with “ought to”. It is then possible to simplify the above argument with:

(A) Jones uttered the words “I hereby ought to to pay you,
Smith, five dollars.”
(B) Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

I cannot see any way B automatically follows from A. And since this is logically equivalent to Searle’s response, we can see the original argument is invalid in going beyond step (1). Another way to state my objection is to consider if “One ought to keep (fulfill) one’s obligations” is really tautologically true? If we can say “promise = obligation”, then is “One ought to keep (fulfill) one’s promises” a tautological truth? No, it isn’t.

And, even if Smith believes he ought to pay back Smith, why ought he believe that? The whole argument is couched in social convention and definition of words – to a critical eye this reeks of faulty reasoning.

Ayn Rand’s attempt also relies on the loose interpretation of words. “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought'” Which is suddenly appears similar to Searle’s answer.

Update: I also noticed Searles definition “All promises are (create, are undertakings of, are acceptances of) obligations,” does not really reduce to “promises are obligations”; the words in the brackets are important. Promises are only representations of obligations. Obligations may be represented without actually existing!

Anti Citizen One

The Field of Language Games

Posted by on April 17th, 2008

It would be a vast understatement to say that I have a strong interest in the philosophy of language, and that this influences the way in which I approach other aspects of philosophy. But despite my many posts on language games I havent always clarified my views on the field itself. So this short post is to fill that void.

In my opinion a philosophy of language is broadly semiotic, i.e. a study of the systems of signs that we use in communication. And a comprehensive philosophy of language encompasses all the many different means of communication we have and ideally should also tackle non-human languages.

Crucially though a philosophy of language is not (or rather should not be) exclusively logocentric, i.e. focused solely on the spoken or written word, but should incorporate other systems of signification and signifiers.

Generally though most of the famous theories in the philosophy of language have focused predominantly on words, mostly for the sake of convenience. Wittgenstein and Lyotard mostly focused on these language games, though Wittgenstein was interested in proposing a broader semiotic theory. On the contrary Derrida focused almost exclusively on texts.

Historically the philosophy of language has studied natural languages i.e. linguistics, and semiotics has studied other language forms. But it is important to remember that the distinction is one of traditions rather than subject (one arising out of philosophy, the other out of science).

An example of how the two overlap struck me this afternoon. I was attending a funeral, conducted according to Christian rites. After much contemplation, discussion and protest I wore a black tie, black trousers, and “smart” black shoes. I protested because I find the neck-tie to be a non-functional and reduntant item of clothing and not a little restrictive around my neck. Similarly I dislike the “smart” black shoes as they are somewhat less comfortable than my usual footwear. And above all I resent the fact that in attending a funeral I should dress in anyway different from that which I would have done when visiting the person alive – particularly when that person had little time for such petty conventionalism either.

In my discussions two particular themes arose, firstly it was a sign of respect (both to the deceased and their immediate family), secondly it is the done thing to be respectful at funerals.

Part of me felt uncomfortable at this demand for conformity, after all most people (Christians included) believe that after death the body is an empty husk or shell. Whether you believe in a soul or not most people accept that the body of the deceased is lacking something. It is no longer the person we all knew and loved. And yet we still have traditions of showing respect to this empty vessel, perhaps partly this is a residue of much older belief systems, or perhaps again it is simply an expression of a more general respect towards both the deceased and the bereaved.

Ultimately I bowed to pressure and conformed, but it struck me as a pertinent example of Wittgensteins fundamental principle of language games. Language, and by this I mean any broad system of signification, gets its meaning from its use. Thus the emphasis on wearing black, a visual symbol if ever there was one, was based not on some sort of positivistic essence where black always means death, mourning, grief and so on. But rather the wearing of black has gained this meaning through consensus. It signifies mourning, or respect because society decided it did at some point in time.

Crucially though and again contrary to positivistic assumptions this is only one of many different significative meanings for the colour black. It can have many other different meanings and as a consequence many other associated values. For example in the US, Black Cats are symbols of bad luck, whereas in the UK they symbolise good luck. In Japan the colour black represents age, wisdom and experience, hence the highest grade that a martial artist can attain is usually signified by a black belt.

I’m sure there are many other examples, but as I sat awaiting the service to begin, tugging at the knot of my neck-tie and wincing in discomfort from my shoes, I took solace in the fact that my compromise was shared by many others in the same room, I was participating in a language game.

It is one of the tasks of the philosophy of language, particularly the post-positivistic traditions, to emphasise the cultural and cognitive relativism of language games. That the meanings we attach to signs are not fixed but are fluid and sometimes quite arbitrary.

With this in mind maybe next time I shall not wear black, or simply do without the neck-tie. Or maybe I will, who knows?

Why Dawkins thinks he’s not a fundamentalist

Posted by on December 21st, 2007

Here is the famous man himself explaining why he is not a fundamentalist, and defending himself merely as a passionate atheist.

The true scientist, however passionately he may “believe”, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.

An excellent riposte one may think. One problem undermines it, the assumption that theism/atheism can be ‘proved’ or ‘disproved’ by scientific evidence.
Its ironic that he challenges theologians for assuming the existence of God a priori to their ‘proofs’ – which as many theologians will argue are not at all proofs but prerational illustrations that say nothing more than ‘I believe in God heres a good reason why.’ It is ironic because he makes the assumption that the scientific method, which relies on evidence, is the method that proves atheism. How can it be so? Could it be that he did an experiment where he prayed to God for something and neither recieved an answer nor the object that he prayed for? Does this constitute evidence? What are his views on the claims of the mystics who believe they have had an ‘experience’ of God – is this admissable as evidence – is subjective experience in that sense testable? Or does he as I suspect find reasons to render the evidence inadmissable – no cant accept the claims of mystics its just their word against mine!

Altogether relying on scientific method to prove or disprove theism/atheism or any worldview of its kind is liable to be frustrating and disappointing – perhaps that frustration is a reason for his impoliteness? I was reminded by someone of the general applicability of Dawkins theory, can scientific method tell us anything meaningful about other kinds of truth that we take for granted.

is there only one kind of truth – one that is provable and scientific and that is the one by which religion must be judged” and they concluded by asking “what about other kinds of truth – such as artistic, emotional – which we find valuable and enriching?”

I’ve no need to re-write Wittgensteins point on language games that science trying to prove or disprove God is like explaining the game of chess by using the rules of tennis. This quote expressed the point far better than I ever could.

There is no conceptual foothold for trying to prove or disprove the existence of married bachelors or non-physical persons, nor is there one for wondering about metaphysical transcendence. Once this is clear, a great deal of chatter will stop, and a clear-headed silence prevail.

Thus Dawkin’s vulnerability to evidence of the scientific variety -as I assume he does not expect a personal revelation and that he rejects a priori the claims that others have had such experiences- closes him to the possibility altogether and only reinforces the notion (if he is aware of it) that he is a fundamentalist at heart.

Finally his assertion that fundamentalists know that nothing will change their mind is a nonsensical statement. To know something is to be able to test it, verify it and be open to doubt it – do fundamentalists test, verify or doubt their fundamentalisms? If they do then they are not fundamentalists! It would be better if Dawkins had said that a fundamentalist is impervious to even the possibility that their mind could be changed. If he had then he would be on firmer ground, to know something is to make an epistemological statement, fundamentalists go beyond epistemology, beyond knowledge and rest assured in their certainty which is a psychological state of affairs. Perhaps he doesnt want to say this for it would illustrate his own peculiar certainties about knowledge.

Thomas Becket and the meaning of Words

Posted by on December 21st, 2007

In the last couple of posts we have had a very interesting debate about fundamentalism and the language of intolerance. This has also been supplementary to a number of posts that we have written on free speech and offence. The crucial question that these posts all hinge upon is where is the point of demarcation between the language of disagreement, the language of intolerance and the language of violence?

The problem around which this question revolves is that the boundaries between these different types of language, which have different intentions, seem rather blurred and indistinct. Thus we ask ourselves how sensitive should we be?

In earlier posts AC1 has proposed that we take a literal view of language and assume good faith on behalf of the authors. Thus only when language is explicitly commanding violence to another should we condemn it as the language of intolerance. But this view is highly problematic and overly simplistic, it requires us to assume in the absence of explicit commands to the contrary that the author is benevolent in intent. Furthemore though it completely ignores the role of the reciever and the context in which the language is taken. By ignoring these two key elements we forget the complexity of language and the axiom that its meaning is best found in its use.

In a language game there are three crucial elements. The speaker/writer whose intentions may not be explicitly known, but whose intentions we hope to interpret from his words. Equally important is the person of the listener and reader to whom the words are addressed, the meaning of the words and the consequences rest heavily upon this persons shoulders. The final element is context which can be determined with recourse to history, tone, environment, and circumstances. The meaning of a sentence of words has deeply imbedded and interwoven within it a number of assumptions, evaluative judgements, conditions, intents and so on. Thus the spoken and written word, far from being literally translatable is in fact often deeply complex. Thus only with reference to these three elements of deconstruction can we begin to meaningfully understand and identify the boundaries between the language of disagreement, intolerance and violence. – It is important to note here that the right to disagree is assumed, but that in common judgement it is an abuse of the liberty of speech to be intolerant and to incite hatred.

To give a general picture of how these elements work and how language is extraordinarily complex – how meaning is found not in the words by themselves but in the interaction between speaker and listener and the circumstances of their utterance – I will use an analogous example from history. The words spoken in anger by King Henry II that led directly to the murder of Thomas Becket.

The precise formula of the words used are argued over by historians. The two extremely different versions are as follows.

1- “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”


2- “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household to let their Lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”

Either way, the historians argue the words were interpreted by Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breto, four Knights of the Kings court eager to curry favour, as an explicit Royal Command. Their execution of this command resulted in the murder and martyrdom of Thomas Becket. On face value: without intepreting the Kings words for ourselves we can say that this was an incitement to violence. And yet, by AC1’s more literal intepretation of meaning if the King had spoken the second formulation above, that in content was an exhortation of anger against the members of his court for not defending the Kings honour – we should say that there was absolutely no incitement to violence and that the murderous Knights had misinterpreted the King – who would then appear to be exhonerated from the crime!

Yet what is clear from history is that in popular opinion the King was held to be directly accountable for the actions of his knights and thus was an accessory (unwittingly perhaps) to the murder itself. It is clear from history that Henry accepted this judgement (either from genuine remorse or political expediency) and subjected himself to a lengthy public penance.

Our interpretation of his words and the violent consquences of them, mean that we should seek to understand the power of language as lying not in their literal meaning but in their use, application and context. In other words when Henry spoke his words of anger, the Knights in the context of that anger directed at them and towards Becket, chose to interpret the words violently. Thus Henry II’s exhortation became (with or without intention) an incitement to violence. And an example of an absence of the sort of respect and politeness that Mencken exemplifies as being characteristic of the language of disagreement.

The power of language lies not only in the speaker but in the hearer and the overall environment in which the words are spoken and heard.

In Ac1’s theory of language had the King said “go and kill Thomas Becket” then the Knights murder would have been an appropriate response to the command, and the King would have been accessory to and the incitement of the murder. Thus if we were to seize the knights post-murder and ask why had they done this, they could reply we were only obeying orders. Although this would not exhonerate them it would provide a contextual meaning for their actions and lay the blame squarely at Henrys door.

If however the King said simply “Beckets challenge to my authority is an insult to my Kingly dignity” then we should take the Knights actions to be wholly disproportionate and innappropriate. They would be condemned severely and the King would be exhonerated as in no way could the words he uttered be interpreted as an incitement to violence – he was simply stating an opinion or a fact and the Knights were mistaken.

But in the context of what really happened, the Kings rage at Becket, the Kings displeasure at the attendants to his court not doing anything to defend his honour, the feudal relationship between King and Knight, and the traditional punishment for treason:- the Knights interpretation of the King was inevitable, even if he spoke the ambguous 2nd formula the context of speaker and listener and the environment in which it was spoken means that Henry was responsible for inciting violence, either by intent or carelessness. And if our judgement be the latter, in the context of the murder his carelessness is no defence and this should serve as a retrospective maxim to reinforce Menckens proposition that in the language of disagreement we be careful to show respect and due politeness lest our words be interpreted any other way.