Sunday, May 25, 2008

Williamson on Telescopes

Philosophers who refuse to bother about semantics, on the grounds that they want to study the non-linguistic world, not our talk about that world, resemble astronomers who refuse to bother about the theory of telescopes, on the grounds that they want to study the stars, not our observation of them. Such an attitude may be good enough for amateurs; applied to more advanced inquiries, it produces crude errors. Those metaphysicians who ignore language in order not to project it onto the world are the very ones most likely to fall into just that fallacy, because the validity of their reasoning depends on unexamined assumptions about the structure of the language in which they reason.

-- Timothy Williamson, 'Must Do Better' [pdf], p.9.


  1. What a pity that Parfit didn't bother to study semantics! I'm sure it is due to his ignorance of this important field that Reasons and Persons looks so crude and amateurish.

  2. I couldn't disagree with this post more. I would tend to say that Parfit's Reasons and Persons does look crude and amateurish compared to how it might have been written if he had studied physics and economics deeply prior to writing it, but pretty much everything in modern philosophy looks laughably crude compared to Parfit, or for that matter to Kant.

  3. Great quote. I stole it and added it to my quote selection.

  4. Williamson should better give up philosophy and change to astronomy!

    Semantics is not basical for philosophy or, generally, for knowledge at all. There is no way in which philosophy could gain an argument from semantical considerations - and semantics itself belongs to linguistics, not to philosophy!

    When finally will analytical philosophy leave the linguistic turn behind? It should quickly be thrown into the trash can!

    I find it confusing that Richard posts the quote of Williamson without any comment. This leaves the impression he assents to it. But until now I thought he does not care much about semantics.

  5. Paul, he's not saying it's a basis for philosophy. He's saying that it's hard to do philosophy without paying close attention to semantics. The analogy is that words are the lenses through which things reveal themselves to us. But that doesn't make them a foundation in the least.

  6. I'm also pretty skeptical of the possibility of anyone being even competent in semantics without learning several languages with native fluency; much more than I am of the possibility of mastering philosophy (by accepted standards of mastery) without mastering semantics.

    Given the impact that skill at bullshitting can have on reputations it seems reasonable to assume absolute incompetence in the field beyond the high IQ rank amateur level from anyone who can't pass for native in at least 4 languages from different families and not to even investigate the theories or claims of such people just as you wouldn't investigate non-mainstream physics claims made by people who hadn't mastered linear algebra and who scored zero on the Putnam.

  7. @ Michael: You are on my side, are'nt you?

    @ Clark: What do you mean? Either, some knowledge of philosophy presupposes certain knowledge of semantics, then semantics is basical for at least some kind of philosophy. Or, philosophy is independent of semantics, but then one cannot recognize the use of it.
    Perhaps you mean that some philosophers are easier to understand if you know semantics. This might be right, but I doubt that philosophers who require semantics to be comprehensible should be read at all.
    Of course, one sometimes calls an argument "semantical" if you e.g. say that a concept entails something. But, speaking with Williamson, this is something you see THROUGH the lenses and is not about these. It is actually a misguided use of language

    Oh, I forgot cannot write the sentence with the lenses because it presupposed we thought through language. However, thinking presupposes language in no way. Certainly a statement for which I will be slammed. ;)

  8. To clarify: the point of interest I took from Williamson's quote is that learning about our instruments of inquiry may aid our learning about the world, and so should not be blithely dismissed for the latter's sake.

    Paul - I don't think there's any such presupposition here. Regardless of whether all thought requires language, there's no question that philosophy is done through language, and it's merely the latter claim that Williamson needs.

    Compare Sider on Semantic and Metaphysical Intuitions, for an example of how attending to philosophy of language can help us to avoid metaphysical mistakes.

  9. RC:
    "there's no question that philosophy is done through language"

    Isn't this a little bit strong? At least on some views, you might think we each 'do' philosophy in the language of thought, and it only meets English when we try and communicate it to others. If that were true, then studying English might help you communicate your ideas better, but it's unlikely to help you have clearer ideas.

    Obviously you, and Williamson, might dispute such a view, but I do think it's true that his argument here presupposes some picture of the relationship between language and thought. Or, now that I think about it, are you taking what he means by 'semantics' to includes the study of the language of thought, if there is such a thing?

  10. Richard,
    Sider helps himself to the notion of metaphysical intuiting and contrasts this notion with semantical intuiting.
    But "presupposing the worm view" seems to be explicable via thinking that survival is done by perduring rather than by enduring which seems
    to be a metaphysical intuition.
    People like Wiggins, who are the intended target of this passage, hold furthermore that there is no knowledge of meaning that is not knowledge of the world.
    Yep, you said it all.

  11. Just a short answer for the moment:

    Of course we do not think through English or whatever. But I would also not speak of a "language of thought" (Mentalese?).
    One can perhaps define language as a medium to communicate others ones thoughts. Obviously, thinking is quite different from language because the notion of thinking entails no communication but just the awareness of something. One can even gather from the definition given above that thinking cannot be "through language" because it PRESUPPOSED thoughts which also required thoughts to exist ad infinitum. So the conclusion is that we do not think through language.

  12. My point was the trivial one that philosophical arguments are always given in language. This may be combined with the less-trivial observation that this use of language deeply influences how we understand and assess arguments. Superficial linguistic features can mislead us into finding a bad argument plausible (cf. Sider's example). Conversely, attention to logical and semantic formalities (de dicto / de re, scopal ambiguity, etc.) can surely discipline our thinking and thus improve our philosophizing.

    Perhaps Williamson was making a stronger claim, but I don't see myself as suggesting anything controversial here.

  13. Richard I think more interesting is that philosophical questions are also given in language. Arguments about them that don't pay attention to the language then arguably aren't addressing the question.

    I think you can see this in the various free will debates where a lot of progress was made by attention to semantic issues.

    Of course one can change the question. But to the degree there are classic problems that people still debate then it's hard to see how one can avoid language.

  14. @ Clark: of course, to understand the thoughts of OTHERS we need to understand the language of them and we have to apply the rules of semantics and pragmatics (if there can be maintained a difference at all) to their utterances.
    But is it necessary to KNOW those rules? It is a very interesting problem of conciousness that we can apply and even know things (for the least in a certain manner) even though they are not aware to us as an object of our thoughts. Obviously, language is much older than their scientific research, isn't it? How then can one postulate to study semantics to be able to understand language? Has a physician or an economist ever studied semantics as a conditio sine qua non for his science?

    @ Richard: You stated in your first post that philosophy is done by language and it seems that this was to mean that we PHILOSOPHIZE through language. But I am pleased to see you now having weakend your view to the indeed uncontroversial one that we communicate our philosophical thoughts through language.
    I also do not challenge that linguistic items can confuse our philosophizing although I cannot confess to be well acquainted with this problem.
    By the way, studying logic or semantics can only approve our philosophical abilities if we do it with a genuine philosophical attitude.

  15. of course, to understand the thoughts of OTHERS we need to understand the language of them and we have to apply the rules of semantics and pragmatics (if there can be maintained a difference at all) to their utterances.

    I think I'm making a stronger claim than that. I'm saying that philosophical problems are cast within a public language. That's more than merely understanding others nor is it about understanding any particular philosopher's intents. It's purely that the meaning of many philosophical problems is a matter of language.


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