Author Topic: A question of practicality: How to, in Philosophy, discuss meaning, with words.  (Read 651 times)

Andreas Geisler

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Often, we find ourselves discussing for long times, only to realize towards the end, that we've been discussing different things all along.
To take a crass example, "Free will", what is meant by that? We've discussed it elsewhere, so there's no need to go through all that again, but I would like to discuss how we might manage to talk about things that we're only trying to pin down, perhaps with a burden of dogma to hinder us, something which is often the case in Philosophy.
Philosophy is full of age-old questions, and as Alan Watts said: “Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.”
Can we refine our approach, to bring more focus on how we ask those questions? So that we can know what the parameters of asking them are, so that we can experiment with them, to "pick the lock" so to speak?
It's a bit more practical than the usual topics, but I am a pragmatist :)

Eric Bright

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I am trying to understand your questions. So please correct me if I am wrong. You asked:

1- How can we use words to talk about words?
2- How can we ask proper/relevant question?
3- What does make a question “good”? (this seems related to #2)

Maybe we can summarize them into this sentence:

What should we ask and how should we ask it?

If the above questions were what you actually asked (or any number of similar variations), then we might attempt to go through them one by one. If not, then you will help us “ask the right question,” I hope.

 ;)
“Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.”

Andreas Geisler

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 ;D
That's a perfect example of the problem, let me (try to) be completely clear:
We are not arguing over words. We are arguing about meanings - not the mappings between words and meaning.
Of course we use words to indicate and select those Semes, but the traditions of Philosophy have made sure to introduce lots of excess verbiage, and lots of excess referents.
So, yes, "What do we ask, and how do we ask it" along with "How do we make sure that we are not arguing about semantics, but about semes".
A classic example is the discussion between secular and religious morality, or the various discussions about free will, consciousness, agency, etc.

Eric Bright

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We can always ask: “What do you mean by “xyz”?” can’t we? Then we can compare it with what we mean by the same “xyz.” And try to figure out what we both should have meant by “xyz.”

Actually I am not sure if I understand your question well enough. What should “xyz” actually mean is something arbitrary that can be agreed upon in a conversation. Once it is done, the rest sounds like business as usual. Or, am I missing the whole point?

At this stage of my severely-limited understanding of your question, it seems to be that semes are not things independent from the whole process of an agreement. They don't exist anywhere else but in a discourse and between the involved parties.

Would you please help me fill in the gaps in my understanding once again?
“Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.”

Andreas Geisler

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Let's take a concrete example: Free will.
What does it mean, exactly? How many arguments over free will are really disagreements over semantics, rather than disagreements about what is?

Eric Bright

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So, are we asking: “What phenomenon (or noumenon?) are we dealing with in the free-will case?" Instead of “What do you mean by "free-will?”

Is that the right distinction you are asking about?

For some weird reason, I always thought I was asking about the phenomenon behind a given term rather than the dictionary meaning of it. Maybe because I could always define my words as I pleased and thought everyone else could do the same, so, hell, “tell me what you really mean by “xyz,”” or “When you say “xyz,” what does it refer to in this universe of ours?” were always the intended questions. The emphasis on “really” should have been explained more gracefully though.

Where am I going with all these? Am I off the track yet?
“Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.”

Alain Van Hout

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In this situation does 'mean' not simply reflect a reference to the phenomenon that is meant?


(I'm geting a bit twisted up by this meta-meta discussion as to which words to use to convey what I mean :) )

Andreas Geisler

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Right on.
The problem is, the semantic space is pretty amorphous. And many philosophical issues are like with language: we think we know what they are, but they are really rather un-analyzed. Like, say, "What is a word?" - if you ask that question, you can mince and dice and get pretty much nowhere, because "word" is an emergent concept: We don't know how we built it, but it reflects a usage pattern in language.

Personally, I try to apply short-circuit logic with these concepts. For instance, "Free will" becomes "the feeling we have that we do things on purpose", and "consciousness"  becomes "what it feels like to be a brain". From that one can approach the other meanings in step, by asking for instance "Is the feeling we have that we do things on purpose caused by us actually doing things on purpose, or are we merely rationalizing the result of a deterministic neural outcome?".

Does that make sense? In a way, it's like finding the least common denominator, something that definitely exists on both (or all) sides, so that one can begin to arrange the stances in terms of additional semantic loads.

Eric Bright

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I tried but I failed to see how the examples of the “short-circuit logic” that you mentioned differed from a definition, one way or another, that one might find in a dictionary (albeit, a personal or private dictionary). Would you please help me see the difference?
“Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.”