Truth suffers from too much analysis

Metaphysics and Meaning

Posted by allzermalmer on January 17, 2012

This blog will be based on a paper done by W.T. Stace in the philosophical journal Mind, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 176 (Oct., 1935), pp. 417-438. The title of the paper was Metaphysics and Meaning.

A.J. Ayer published a paper called “A Demonstration of the Impossibility of Metaphysics” in the philosophical journal Mind in July of 1934. A.J. Ayer went over the basic principle of the Logical Empiricist, which was known as the Principle of Verification. This principle was suppose to give us a way of telling the difference between what statement was meaningful and what statement was meaningless. And Metaphysics was considered to be part of meaningless statements. These meaningless statements were also called pseudo-proposition.

Some of the metaphysical ideas that they would question, and say were meaningless, were those saying there is something behind the appearances. In other words, how there was something that was hidden from our senses. For example, the talk of an external world would itself be a meaningless proposition, for it would be stating that there is something behind the appearances, or what we experience with our senses.

One of the things about being a meaningless proposition is that it means that the contradictory of that proposition is also meaningless. For example, this means that metaphysical proposition A is meaningless, and means that ~A is also meaningless. Both propositions are also meaningless, and so they carry no meaning. These propositions don’t stand for anything. And this is all based on the Principle of Verification:

“the meaning of a statement is the method of its verification.”

This makes many of the statements of metaphysicians to be meaningless, or moral philosophers to be meaningless, some of our commonsense beliefs, and some scientific statements would also be meaningless. Verification is only possible of what is, but never what ought to be. One of the common examples of what is rendered to be meaningless by the Logical Positivist is “other minds”.

“It is, of course, quite senseless to ask whether one person’s sensations bear any resemblance to the corresponding sensations of another person, whether, for example, what I call ‘red” is anything like what you call “red”. for it is in principle impossible for me or anyone else to compare my red with your red or to verify either their likeness or their unlikeness.”

So to say that someone else has experiences, or is conscious of any experience, is something that would be meaningless to ask. We can’t verify this statement to say if it is true or false, and thus becomes meaningless. There is no experience we can have to verify such a statement. And along with this, it is meaningless to say that there is an external world or to say there’s no external world. This would also mean that if you do agree that there is an external world, which is meaningless, whatever you say that the external world is would also be meaningless.

Now Stace wishes to bring up a criterion for meaning that will allow for some of our previous beliefs that the Verifiability principle would have had us gotten rid of. But the point is that the Verifiability principle seems to rest on this idea.

“…the meaning of any statement which a man makes about the world, or about part of it, has to be interpreted, in the long run, in terms of possible experiences. If it has meaning, it must be analysable into statements each of which sets forth a possible or actual experience. Any part of it which is not so analysable cannot be said to have meaning.”

Now take the example of saying “This is a wooden table”. This statement will deal with certain things that we shall experience. For example, with the wood, it will deal with our observation of something that is oblong and colored. If you touch it, you will get a certain tactile feeling of resistance in the fingers, and will emit a certain sound if you tap on it, and if you cut it open you will get a certain white visual observation. And other people, in the same conditions, would have the same experiences as well.

“Thus the meaning of the statement consists in certain possible experiences. But these very same experiences would also constitutes its verification.” So the statement “This is a wooden table” is talking about possible experience, which can only be verified with actual experience. The statement was bringing up the possible experience you would have, which would be of the observation of something oblonged and colored, as well as when you touch it you feel some resistance in the fingers, and will emit certain sound if you tap on it, and if you cut it open you will get a certain visual observation. “Hence the verification of the statement would consist in bringing to actuality the very same experiences the assertion of whose possibility constitutes its meaning.”

Now take it that someone makes a statement that says “this table is cotilaginous”. Here is a statement that would need to be qualified with some possible experience that would help give it some meaning. We have the possible meaning of “table”, but now we need one of “cotilaginous”. We would wonder what the word stands for, and we would have to say that it deal with some sort of possible experience. For example, it would have to describe some possible experience in some possible circumstance to be received from the table, and that the experience in those circumstances is what is meant by being “contilaginous”. Now if I were to give such a specification based on experience, then you would understand the meaning of that word. When this can’t be done, this word carries no meaning.

“All meaning is clearly conceptual…The point I want to make here is that, whichever view we take, a concept is meaningless unless it has application in experience.”

So if we follow the empiricist, all concepts are abstracted from experience, then every concept must at least apply to experience from which it was abstracted. And this means that a concept that has no application to experience is meaningless. Say that we say that some part of experience is X, this would mean that x asserts something that is experienceable. It will say something verifiable in experience. And this should be obvious when the empiricist usually works with induction. We experience something that has X, and abstract that particular property from what we’ve experienced.

Now there is a Kantian view that we have some sort of a priori concept, but this is still consistent with the idea that Stace is bringing for for the empirical principle. These a priori concepts wouldn’t necessarily be meaningless. For they might not be derived from experience, but they are still applicable to experience. And being applicable to experience is what gives these a prior concepts their empirical meaning. “[a priori] concepts, although they are not derived from experience, would be empty and meaningless unless they had application in experience.” This means that a concept not derived from experience isn’t meaningless, unlike going with the inductive procedure of abstraction with the empiricist.

“They cannot be thought of except as potential or dormant forms which only spring into living actuality when the mind makes contact with empirical reality. They are the structure of experience. But structure cannot exist by itself. It must be the structure of something. And the categories cannot come to be, cannot come to consciousness of themselves, until they have become embodied in actual perception.”

This follows Kant motto of “concepts without percepts are empty”. This would also seem to form one of the foundations of what the Logical Positivist were trying to get across with their principle of Verifiability. This all helps to form what makes the verification principle so appealing. There seems to be something to it that we latch on to, and we see to carry something strongly appealing to it. It’s just that some problems arise from the way in which the Logical Positivist have taken some of this idea that takes it too far.

The Logical Positivist make half of our common propositions to be meaningless, and this seems to say something about about the criterion that they are using. Most people, in fact, actually seem to find many of these propositions that the Logical Positivist say are meaningless seem to be meaningful. We know that certain statements have meaning, but the logical positivist actually think that none of this has any meaning.

One example is statements of the past. Statements of the past would be meaningless under the verifiability principle. Some might say something like C.I. Lewis said: “At any date after the happening of an event, there is always something, which at least is conceivably possible of experience, by means of which it can be known. Let us call these items its effects. The totality of such effects quite obviously constitute all of the object which is knowable…The event is spread throughout all after-time.” And we can take this to mean that the past is verifiable in its present effect.

We can take the proposition that “Brutus killed Caesar”. How would we know this past event based on it’s present effect? We would know this that it is written in history books or written on some stone monuments, which are the present effect of that murder. But it would seem that knowing the present effects of the past event is the same as knowing the past event itself. So me reading a history book on the murder of Caesar would be the same as knowing that the murder took place. So “Brutus killed Caesar” would be the same as saying “It is stated in a book that Brutus killed Caesar.” For it could be that Brutus didn’t kill Caesar, and yet the history book says that Brutus did killed Caesar. And there’s another reason for seeing that we have a problem with the meaning of a proposition is based on the verifiability principle:

“And I cannot know that a present event had a certain cause in the past unless I have a knowledge of the past which, though the present may have been the clue which led me to it, is a logically distinct piece of knowledge from my knowledge of the present…Knowing B (an effect) is not the same thing as knowing A (its cause). For in the one case what I know about is B, while in the other case what I know about is A. It is impossible to get away from the fact that if knowing the past is simply identical with knowing the present, then the past is itself simply identical with the present. A proposition about the past has for its subject a thing or event which no longer now exists. A proposition about the present effects of something past has for its subject a thing or event which exists now. Therefore, since these two propositions have different subjects, they cannot be the same propositions, and the knowledge conveyed by the one is not the same as the knowledge conveyed by the other.”

So it seems that there is something appealing about the verification principle, but it also brings one objection that would follow from this principle. So we might try to get the good part out of the principle, while getting it to the point where this objection can be met.

When we go back to the statement of “this is a wooden table”, which means that when scratched it will look whitish, doesn’t mean anyone in the future or now has to verify it. The table could annihilated at this instant, and so verification would be impossible. And this would make the statement meaningless. But we just have to say that there should have been possible to observing it. “And it begins to emerge that what is necessary for meaning is simply that what is asserted in the statement should be something of a kind which is in general an experiencable character of the world.”And we would add on one more thing, which is based on Kant’s motto of “concepts without percepts are empty”, which carries that “a concept, to be meaningful, must have application in experience.”

So the Empirical theory of meaning, which is distinguished from the verification theory.

“either that any statement, to have meaning, must symbolize experiencable characters of the world; or, what is the same thing, that every concept employed in it must have empirical application.

Let’s go back to a statement of the past like “Caesar’s hat was red”. It is a meaningless statement under the verificanist principle, but it is meaningful under the empirical theory of meaning. Under the verification principle, the redness of the hat wouldn’t be verified because it was in the past, which can’t be experienced. However, with the empirical theory, it is meaningful because redness is of a general experiencable character of things, and is proved that you have had the experience of it before. But the concept also has application in experience as well.

Here is one of the other major differences between the verification principle and the empirical principle.

“On the verificational view, in order to give meaning to my assertion that a certain entity has a certain character I must be in a position actually to experience (if I want to) that very instance of the character in that very entity. I must be able to experience every particular example of the concept which I want to assert. That is what is meant by verifiability. But on the empirical theory, all that is necessary is that I should have had experience of some instance or instances of the concept. The concept then has application in experience and can be extended by me to other cases far beyond the horizon of my own limited experience. “

So take the example of other minds. Under the verification principle, it is meaningless to say that other people have minds. This means that they don’t feel pain, don’t feel pleasure, don’t have any sensory experience of things like blue, red, hot, cold, and etc. All we can say is that we see a body behaving in a certain way, but we don’t see them being in pain itself. The face is moving, but we can’t see pain or feel the pain. The empirical principle says that saying there are other minds is perfectly meaningful. This concept is experienceable because it has been experienced and so have one case. And this helps us form the concept and thus give it some application in experience to ‘other minds’.

Under the verificaton principle, it was meaningless to ask if someone elses experiences were similar to you. This would mean, if I saw a cat and a friend was next to me looking at the same place, we can’t say that we saw the same thing or anything similar to one another. This is because I can only experience my experiences, and can never experience another persons experiences. There’s no way to verify them. In other words, whether the sensations of one mind are qualitatively similar to the corresponding sensations of another mind, is meaningless for the verificationist. But it is perfectly meaningful under the empirical theory.

“It is true that the likeness or unlikeness of A’s green to B’s green is in principle unverifiable. This shows that we can never discover whether they are alike or not. But it has no bearing on the question of meaning. If A makes the statement “B’s green is similar to my green”, the statement is meaningful since both “green” and “similarity” are concepts which have application in experience (in A’s experience, and in B’s experience, and in that of other people.) Therefore the question is not meaningless, though the answer to it may be impossible to discover.”

The logical positivist, under their principle, also stated that questions of morality, or what we ought to do are meaningless. Under the empirical theory, this isn’t quite the case. The empirical theory is definitely open to the idea of oughts being meaningful. There are different ways in which one could do this, and Stace brings up one way in which it would be meaningful. But the logical positivist basically took that things should be sensuous, while moral statements were said not to be sensuous. But there is one way in which objective morals could fit into the Empirical theory.

“But the value of the thing might be a character of it actually experincible by an intuition of the mind. And the theory of value which I had in mind when I said that a meaningful theory of objectivity might be framed is that which asserts that value is a kind of quality directly experienced in intuition. If there is any such non-sensuous kind of experience, then this concept of the objectivity of value would be meaningful, since it would have application in that experience.”

“It is urged that what is not, but merely ought to be, cannot be experienced. But when any quality has been apprehended in experience, it is frequently possible to conceive a higher degree of that quality than any which has ever been actually discovered. For example, the idea of a perfectly elastic body has empirical meaning, though no perfectly elastic body has ever been found. For elasticity is an empirical character of things which admits of degrees. And the notions, first of a more elastic, and finally a perfectly elastic, object are reaching by an extension of degrees beyond what has been actually experienced. And if goodness were an experincible quality of things admitting of degrees, exactly similar considerations would be applicable. We could speak with perfectly clear meaning of a degree of goodness beyond any actual experience, and such a notion would yield a norm and an empirical concept of obligation.”

The same consideratiosn of morals could also hold with what have been deemed mystics. For they have an experience of some kind, and to have an experience of some kind is to to have a structure of experience. And this structure of experience can have applicability in communication. Now what the mystic might say might be nonunderstandable to the masses of people, but there are also a group of mystics that understand what the other said. This is because they would carry the same structure. But this would also seem to hold universally with any speaking community.

A question that could arise would be, “If a concept, to have meaning, must have application in experience, whose experience is here referred to?

“The first suggestion is likely to be that the experience referred to must be the experience of the mind to whom the concept is to have meaning; that a concept cannot mean anything to me unless it has application in my personal experience; and that similarly what is to have meaning for you must have application in yours. And in a sense I believe this to the correct answer.”

Now there are certain ways that this can be taken, so it would probably be best to clarify some of it in some way. Take the point of “having application in my experience”. Taking this too loosely would lead to the verification principle. But we need to keep in mind that it is necessary to assert that a for a concept to have meaning, it must have application within the experience of the mind which is to understand it. For all knowledge and meaning, is individual. It’s somebody’s knowledge, and so it’s somebody’s meaning. So when we ask if a proposition has meaning, we must ask whether it has meaning for some particular mind.

But this isn’t the only point. For if we follow just this part strictly, we are lead to the verification theory. Take, for example, the point of “dogs hear sounds which are inaudible to human beings”. This would be meaningless, because we can never have this experience, and I wouldn’t be able to have those experiences and so wouldn’t have meaning to me. However, we do have the experience of sounds ourselves, so the concept itself, like of “red”, dos seem to make sense and we do have experience of that. “The conditions for the solution of our problem seem therefore to be that, on the one hand, meaning must be solipsistic in the sense that no mind can understand any concept which has not direct application in its own experience; and yet, on the other hand, that it must somehow be possible for the mind to make available for is meanings the experiences of the other, even of non-human, minds. How can we combine these apparently irreconcilable conditions?”

“The solution of the difficulty lies…in a distinction which has been made familiar to us by the logical positivists themselves, the distinction between structure and content. One can put the essence of the solution in a few words by saying that concepts are structure, the structure of experience, and that what alone is necessary to render available for the mind’s meanings the experience of another is that this latter should possess the same structure as mine…If a concept is to be meaningful to me I must have personally experienced the structure which is that concept. I need not have experienced the content with which another mind fills that structure. It is correct then, as originally suggested, that a concept cannot have meaning for me unless it has application within my individual experience. But the phrase “having application within my individual experiences” must be interpreted so as to refer to structure only. The content of the experience need not be experiencible me.”

Now we might wonder what it means to say that “concepts are structure”. We can try to get a hand on this with an example. How could it be applied with the concept of “green”? It is usually understood that very general concepts like those used in categories, constitute the structure of experience. But a concept like “green” seems to be part of the senses, and so part of the sense content. Now imagine that A says to B, “This book is green”, and both share normal vision. So for B to understand A, it isn’t necessary to suppose that what A calls “green” is qualitatively similar to what B calls a green sensation. But we can assume that what A calls green is unlike what B calls green, and if A could experience B’s green, then A would call it a toothache. Even with all this, A and B can perfectly understand one another when the statement “this is green” is made. So they have the same concept of “green” but they have different content. Thus, they are constituted by structure and not by content.

Now we could wonder “what is this structure of the concept “green”? The answer, it would seem, would be that is consists in a network of relations. The concept holds between what is presently before my senses as “green” and those other within my experience of the past. Stace gives us one example.

“When A says, “This book is green” he is asserting a number of relations between his present experience and other past experiences, of which “similarity to one of the sensations received from grass” may be taken as a typical example. Now suppose that the green book gives B a sensation which A would call a toothache if he could experience it. B will still understand A’s statement about the book, provided that grass also gives B a sensation which A, if he could experience it, would call a toothache. For there will then still be the relation of similarity between the book and the grass in both A’s and B’s experiences. And it is this relation which (among others) is asserted by the concept of “green”. The structure of A’s experiences will be (to this extent at least) the same as the structure of B’s, not with standing their differences of content. They will have the same concept.”

So this means that when we talk about the structure of the concept of ultra-violet color has its relation to the colors that we do know. It stands in a definite relation to red, green, and blue of the spectrum. Thus, we can fill in the structural pattern with any imaginable sensory content that we like. But this does seem to bring up something interesting, which is that we can meaningful speak of salamanders, fairies, or ghosts. So how do we deal with this? Well, Stace does bring up a limiting example.

“The limit is set by the consideration that the experience of these remote minds, though its content may be unimaginable to us, must share the structure of our own. If not, there is no bridge of meaning by which we can pass over. The assertion of the very existence of a mind, or of experience, completely beyond these limits, is meaningless. It is utterly meaningless to say, therefore, that there might exist a mind whose experience should have absolutely nothing in common with ours. There must be structure in common.”

Now this helps make clear how we can understand something of a higher degree. For the concept does consist of relations that we have experienced, even though we have not experienced these higher degrees themselves. For example, you might only experience a dark green, but you’ve experienced green itself, but of a lower degree. And you can extend this to a higher and higher degree, even though you’ve never experienced these higher degree’s themselves.

So this means that the empirical theory does allow for some metaphysics. But the verification theory doesn’t allow for metaphysics, and many of our common beliefs. Thus, the empirical theory is friendly to certain kinds of metaphysics, while the verification theory wasn’t friendly to any kind of metaphysics. Stace gives an example of how it is friend to metaphysics or some structure of metaphysics.

“But the theory of meaning which we have now evolved shows that any statement is meaningful provided the concepts which it employs have application in experience; or in other words, provided what it asserts is an experiencible character of the world; and the experience which is thus the criterion of meaning may be that of any mind, human or non-human, provided that it share structure with our experience…The assertion of a reality which lies behind our experience, and which can never be experienced by us, may be meaningful provided it is conceived as the possible expeirence of some other mind wich shares structure with our own. Otherwise it will be meaningless…The mere facts that the thing-in-itself cannot be experienced by the human mind does not deprive its concept of meaning. If it is conceived as an entity which might be experienced by some other mind, say the mind of God, then it will have meaning (though it may of course be quite false). This, however, will only be the case provided its structure is conceived as in some way similar to that of human experience…The greater the amount of common structure, the greater the quantity of meaning. The less the common structure, the less the meaning. The less the commons structure, the less the meaning. The absence of all common structure is the absence of all meaning.”


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