blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

[WARNING: Not spell checked or re-read, because I don't care and neither should you]

I don't have to have been lied to in order to have an incorrect belief about how the world works. If every time I eat a bagel an earthquake strikes for the first few times I eat a bagel, I might well believe, based solely on experience, that my eating a bagel causes earthquakes. But further experimentation with bagel-eating would show that this belief is false/incorrect.
First off, how would you be able to recognize that your belief was incorrect? If the earth ceased to quake as you ate a bagel, how would you be able to conclude that the two incidents weren't correlated? That something had been incorrect about your original belief?

Isn't this superstition? The two events, outside of LINGUISTIC communication with others, will always be related. Just because it stops doesn't mean you can conclude the events were never related in the first place. Also, exactly who would the belief be incorrect to? This example doesn't work, because you're speaking of yourself, yourself who already knows the bagel-eating is not related to earth-quaking. Therefore you CAN conclude that the two events are unrelated.

So let's bring in the feral child, bring in a bagel, start an earthquake and get cracking. Ms. Feral Child doesn't know anything about earthquakes. Ms. Feral Child can eat a bagel. So everytime she does the earth shakes. RUMBLE. "My god," Ms. Feral Child doesn't think, "There must be some correlation between my bagel eating and earthquakes."


We have a problem. How can Ms. Feral Child seperate the bagel and the earthquake? Well, I suppose she could've experienced earthquakes before independent of bagel eating, but this would invalidate the whole experiment out of the gate. Right? For our (your) own purposes you'd like the test subject to form an unadulterated belief that bagel-eating is linked to earth-quaking.

So now, moving backward: How can Ms. Feral Child seperate the bagel and the earthquake? I would argue that since the two events occur simultaneously and have occured without predating one another that they are in fact the same event. Bagel eating would involve the taste, the masticating, the digestion, the salivating as much as it involved the earth-quaking.

Now we, being Mr's and Mrs's Non-Feral Children know that there's no correlation between bagel eating and earth-quaking. We also know that the two events are seperate. We have two categories, bagel and earthquake. Of course, these are just morphemes attach to concepts we could've formed anyway without language. You see here's another issue with all of this: To suppose the child has "non-liguistic thought" is I suppose alright, but don't we mean "non-linguistic" in the sense of "not linguistic in the sense of our modern evolved human world". We are really imagining humans at the origin here, something we can only do looking back through the lens of our existing and categorized "linguistic thought". So this "non-linguistic thought" on the part Ms. Feral Child, how can we say it's not "linguistic thought" in a different sense than WE mean "linguistic thought".

Some would have us believe that this feral child, the human being at its origin had completely non-linguistic thought, thought completely uncorrelated to modern thought. This strikes me as ludicrous. If there thought was completely unrelated to our "LINGUISTIC" thought then how did human beings ever form this whole "LANGUAGE" thing in the first place. And, aside from that: What makes this language thing, as a pinning down of concepts succeeding and sometimes failing any different than just an evolution of this arbitrarily defined "non-linguistic thought".

Honestly, I'm losing steam here, so I'll have to come back to this, but one other thing before I sign off. In response to "A1", language is not infinite and neither is thought. This notion of concept that is undefinable seems to imply a complete non-linguistic understanding of a concept. Even if this were possible, which I don't think it is, it's not provable.

These examples are just getting more far flung and ridiculous. We need to move on. Or restructure the discussion.


Seb said...

[The same warning about spell-checking and re-reading applies, today...]

First, a quick note on thought experiments: Yes, I know they're silly. But making fun of them solely for their silliness is a cheap shot. The idea behind a thought experiment (feral children, mangos, squirrels, bagels, earthquakes...) is that they are meant to stretch the conditions of a complex world so that we can see all the peices clearly, but without letting that world snap apart. I think the feral child case has been successful if only because she's allowed us to discuss this complicated topic very clearly and exposed some of the differences in our assumptions. If you think that I have stretched the world too far in these examples (if, as you say, "these examples are just getting more far flung and ridiculous"), please show me how. I think you've attempted to do that in this post, although I have some questions and doubts still.

Second, I'm a little miffed at your declaration of the need to "move on." It's your blog, and I'm not stopping you from posting whatever content you like, so in that sense, move on by all means. Are you suggesting that I should move on? If you're telling me to stop responding to your posts, I guess that's your prerogative too. Just tell me straight up and I'll go away. But I can't just move on from my position until I'm convinced otherwise, which I haven't been yet.

So you have your freedoms, but I'll keep mine. If you want, I'll get out of your hair, but until then I'm going to keep posting comments, because I had the understanding that this blog was meant to encourage discussion.

I should stop babbling and address your points.

Ok...so it looks like have two arguments going on, the (1) that you can't have an incorrect belief without linguistic thought, and (2) you can't have non linguistic thought (this would be your arguments against A1).


I think I'm going to respond to (2) first, partly because it's most important to my argument and partly because I have the most questions about what you're talking about.

First, you lose me when you start talking about "our modern evolved human world" and "the human being at its origin." Could you explain what you mean here, and how it's relevant to this argument?

Are you saying that the feral child is a poor example because as modern people, all our thought is linguistic? Because I heard an interesting example from somebody who had studied psychology the other day about bilinguals.

I'm a monoglot myself, so it's very hard for me to disassociate the word "table" from the object, table. According to this person, people that grow up bilingual see the world a little differently. "Table" is thought of as the word, in English, used to refer to an object X. If they have another word (I'm a pathetic monoglot myself, so I can't really come up with one on the spot...) then that is thought of as the word in whatever language used to refer to object X. But object X is distinct from both words.

For what it's worth, there was a bilingual person at the table where we were discussing this who could attest to this.

I bring this up because I think it's another example of why concepts are not the same as words, which implies that thoughts need not be linguistic, I think.

Maybe this isn't what you mean at all though. If so, could you please explain?


There's another argument you make that starts like this:

"Some would have us believe that this feral child, the human being at its origin had completely non-linguistic thought, thought completely uncorrelated to modern thought. This strikes me as ludicrous."

I totally agree! I don't know who was telling you otherwise, but the point of the feral child was that she does think like us "modern" people--she has the same conceptual system--she just doesn't use her linguistic system, which, as I was saying before, is distinct.

So, in my mind-theory, the answer to your about how we came to "form this whole 'LANGUAGE' thing in the first place" would be that through a conceptual capacity people came up with ideas, then through a linguistic capacity they attached those ideas to morphemes and morphemes to phonemes and in just a short kickass time the miracle of language is born. Rock on.

But I don't think that makes your question "What makes this language thing, as a pinning down of concepts succeeding and sometimes failing any different than just an evolution of this arbitrarily defined "non-linguistic thought"?" a rhetorical one. Here's my answer:

Language, in my usage and thinking, is not the pinning down of concepts. It is a faculty that allows us to communicate concepts to each other that get pinned down by a seperate psychological process. So they are very different indeed.

But even if language were the pinning down of concepts, there is another difference. Language is something that is learned and reinforced by convention--by agreement with other people. "Non-linguistic thought" is all internal, and while it may be affected by linguistic arguments, my use of a particular concept does not depend at all on others' usages. For example, as has already been seen in this discussion, the concept that I attach the word "language" to is very different from the concept the post-structuralists attach "language" to.

I'm not sure that argument was sound, really, because I haven't eaten breakfast yet. In fact, it's lunch time. So I'm going to finish off this discussion of your first arguments now and get back to bagels and earthquakes a little later. Is that ok?

The last thing I wanted to do was ask you what you mean by "provable" in "Even if this were possible, which I don't think it is, it's not provable." Do you mean, like, deductive certainty provable? Because I'm totally not about deductive certainty.

Do you mean inductively likely? Empirically discernable as a better explanation than others? Then I'll defend this until the evidence points elsewhere. Because the idea of a "complete non-linguistic understanding of a concept" seems to me to be the most empirically plausible thing I've got so far, based on my understanding of how, psychologically, conceptual and linguistic systems are related. (Which is not to say that language doesn't often have a lot of impact on concepts in practice; what I mean is that a concept can grow without or independent of language). The simplest examples of these are the cases of thought-without-language that I gave when describing A1, earlier, the case of the bilingual dude, and (here's another one) the documented cases of people with high-functioning autism who, by their own accounts, do not think in words, but only in pictures--a personalized and non-linguistic sign system which allows them to perform very well in society.

Ok, I'm too hungry now to start a discussion of bagels without getting distracted. But I'll try to get back to this later this afternoon.

Scott said...

To speak to your preamble. I know my post was a bit glib, but it has a point. When we suppose a situation like the feral child, we are contemplating something outside of our own existence. We are already trapped (contained?) inside the system that we wish the Feral Child as an example to function outside of. In contemplating such a situation we look at the feral child through the viel of that system. Consequently, our understanding cannot be as complete as we hope. Essentially, the feral child is a vessel through which we set sail our own personally held beliefs about language/thought/truth etc. etc. And try as we might to leave ourselves out of it, it proves impossible. This is what I hoped to point to in this post.

(Cristi believes this perhaps more firmly than I do. We had a discussion several months ago about symbols, signs. Cristi, I think, believes that all signs are arbitrary. I was attempting to argue that there must be something essential about them, that perhaps they could've been developed in relation to the form of the body. It turned somehow into a discussion of cups. I suggested that human beings would alwyas have developed the cup, because it's an essential tool. Or maybe not the cup but the container. Cristi, being a good derridian dismissed the argumentation out of the gate because I was supposing an unsupposable situation... I think that's how it went (my memory has faded on it a bit). An hour later we both frustrated and agreed to halt discussions :P... So in a sense, I understand where you're coming from.)

Also, no need to be miffed. I feel like we've been spinning wheels in the dirt about this discussion for a bit, and I was meaning to suggest that perhaps we move in in the context of the discussion. For the reasons above I think we can talk in circles about the mango eating child, when we could probably be discussing in different terms and moving forward. We always welcome your posting, it's given much to think about and you should know that we appreciate it a lot.

Here's where I think we're losing eachother, and perhaps I'm wrong. While concepts/thoughts/pictures can and do exist outside of language, I believe that some can be created as by the functionings of language. "The Law" for example is made possible by language. Law could not have predated it. An idea of marriage, also, is made possible by language. An event which requires a promise, an expression of devotion. I view truth in this way. Language is, in a sense, the thing that gives us the power to speak of the truth or falseness of something. The natural world to my mind is beyond truth. A Romantic notion I think. In fact, I believe it is the essential strain of romanticism and behind Keat's notion of "Negative Capability".

To quote the man himself:

"I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"

Romantics in a sense were trying to write the unknowable of natural experience and constantly coming up against the failure of language (a realm of fact & reason) to describe it. The real world itself, experience, beyond any reaching for fact & reason read: TRUTH.

Truth, because it does not exist in nature, is a concept we've developed to... Police? maybe... our differential system of language or of any sign system to which it can be attached. 2+2=4, 2+2(sign for does not equal)5.

Perhaps Truth exists in a broader sense. But I would only say that everything in the world is true. The world is what it is. I've said to Cristi before: "Everything is simply apparent." When we take the bagel-earthquake situation, we know the correlation is not true. However, someone without that knowledge, but who had the earth quake whenever they ate a bagel, could not see through it. They could not sense a differential break in the apparentness of the world.

So this then, as at least where I see our disagreement. I think language is that tool, or any sign system, that allows us to see beyond the apparent, for our brains to link up and combine multiple opinions, and viewpoints, concepts etc. On our own, everything is just what it is. How would we know any different?

I know I probably haven't addressed all of your questions, but I felt like this type of clarification would be more valuable. Please, keep commenting, we love it (even if we all get a little testy about it at times). But who wouldn't? These are the essential questions!!!

Ms. Feral Child said...

Oh man. Text overload! Now how do I pick apart the theses?

Thanks for the encouraging remarks and reconciliatory tone. I appreciate it. And I'll be happy to dismiss the feral child...just as soon as I respond to your critique of the bagel-earthquake scenario, because I really do think that's, like, central to my idea of truth.

What am I responding to now? I guess your comment. I guess I'll reciprocate by putting my cards on the table.

I'm not really sure which philosophical school I'm coming out of, really. I think it might be one of the harder-nosed (pro-science) forms of pragmatism (Charles Sanders Pierce, maybe... Quine sometimes...), which has had to wrestle a lot with all sorts of critiques from Kuhn, post-structuralists, etc. Also, I'm getting a lot of this from an informal understanding of the philosophy of science, and a particular end of that spectrum, which is instrumentalism, as opposed to realism.

Looking back on that paragraph, I see it's just a lot of buzzwords and name-dropping. Sorry. But it might provide some context.

Anyway, I think in my view, I think saying that signs are arbitrary goes a bit too far. I would certainly say they are posited, say. So we definitely create them. No matter how hard we believe in cups, they aren't necessarily real. Like there's not necessarily an ontologically existing cup object. Does that make sense?

But that doesn't mean all conceptual differentiation is arbitrary, because concepts are really useful in organizing the percepts that we are constantly bombarded with. So when on a lot of different occasions a lot of what we would consider after the fact to be cup-like experiences happen all at once, having a 'cup' concept is very useful. Because that means that I can make all sorts of predictions about my experience when I recognize something as 'cup'--say, if I see something that looks like a cup, then I'll then expect that I can put stuff in that something.

[I think that when I talk about raw experience, or raw percepts, I mean something similar to what you mean by "apparent." Do you get this impression? Concepts are ways we roughly break up experience/the apparent that we need because, literally, our lives depend on it. Is that clear? Is that right?]

Other concepts, however, are not nearly as pragmatically useful. So if I had a single concept which covered both, say, blind rage and cups, this would be a lame concept. Because my experiences of cups are not often associated with blind rage. Manipulating this concept would require all sorts of extra cognitive work that would prune off some of the concept's features every time I wanted to use it in a cup-like or blind-rage-like way. It's clumsy and psychologically costly.

So there's some sort of standard by which you can judge a concept or sign. Roughly, that standard is about how much information the sign conveys usefully, or how well it lets you accurately predict future experience. Conveniently, following this standard is also a tendency people naturally seem to have--Psychologist Eleanor Rosche describes it as "carving the world up at its joints." This makes sense--a conceptual capacity wouldn't be very useful if there weren't some built in mechanism to reduce complexity--computational resources are limited, both in computers and in the head.

This is, incidentally, what scientists say they do, except essentially with an entire sign system, as relevant to a particular area of research. So there's one hypothesis--sign system, or some of those signs within the system, arranged in a certain way. Then that hypothesis is compared with empirical findings. If a new hypothesis--with new, posited signs made to replace the old ones--turns out to be more successful and explaining and predicting phenomena, then you overturn the old hypothesis--and its signs--and replace it with the new one.

So this is TRUTH to me. And the opposite is FALSEHOOD. They aren't properties of raw experience or objects in the world. They are properties of systems of signs we use to describe and predict the world.

Now, I've been interpreting this argument as "In order to have these concepts of TRUTH and FALSEHOOD, do they have to be accepted as truth and falsehood by linguistic convention?" And my answer has been No.

I say this recognizing, I think, what you've said about some concepts being created by language. You think that truth and falsehood are some of these. I don't.

(In fact, I'm not sure what I think about concepts created by language in general. A year or so ago I might say that a concept that existed necessarily by virtue of language would be a bad concept, but now I'm grudgingly leaning away from all that...that's a discussion for another day though.)

So how can you have these concepts of truth and falsehood without language? Well, first, I have to make my definitions clear. You write:

"I think language is that tool, or any sign system, that allows us to see beyond the apparent, for our brains to link up and combine multiple opinions, and viewpoints, concepts etc."

Ok--so I really have a problem with using "language" to refer to an internal sign system that doesn't work through morphemes and syntax, because if I use "language" to refer to all sign systems in general, then I don't have a word to describe what I normally think of as "language" (more evidence for non-linguistic thought?).

Also, I think that the primary mental tools we have that allows us to form a general concept out of the specific experiences, and manipulate those concepts by "linking them up," are not linguistic, in my sense of the word. I believe this for empirical reason. By which I mean: I think that the best system of concepts that I have so far for predicting and explaining my experience includes a concept whose content is something like "a mental capacity that forms and manipulates concepts but is distinct from the linguistic system." This is very rough--I'd go into more detail about my own working model of the mind, which is a mishmash of folk psych, cog sci course, wikipedia browsing, and philosophy classes, but that would veer way off topic. But my point is that in order to overcome it (which includes within it good old premise A1), you have to build something better (more truthful, in the pragmatic sense) in its place, which I haven't seen post-structuralists do yet.

So I think we pretty much all got this thing--this ability to form concepts, even from raw experiences if necessary. So when you say:

"On our own, everything is just what it is."

I'm start pulling out my hair. Because on our own, we still have that conceptual capacity, chugging away, building up useful signs like 'cup' and 'eating' and 'squirrel'--and these are precisely the things that lift us from "the apparent," because they are systems of differentiation, they are generalizations. They are attempts to carve the world at it's joints so that way I can make sense of experience and figure out that if I want to eat the squirrel I should smash it over the head with the cup. I can't form that sort of complex plan just swimming, perceptually, in a formless sea of sense data. I need signs.

But as soon as I get those signs, then I can figure out TRUTH. How? Well, it's like bagels and earthquakes....

You write:

"However, someone without that knowledge [of earthquakes and bagels], but who had the earth quake whenever they ate a bagel, could not see through it. They could not sense a differential break in the apparentness of the world."

Do you see now why I reject this? We are able to break down the apparentness of the world. Ms. Child could already have a concept of 'eating', for example, and a concept of 'everything fucking shaking what the fuck', which would allow her to distinguish between eating the bagel and an earthquake.

You could argue that this implies an infinite regress--that then I have to explain that this requires an 'eating' concept, and how does she distinguish that from the apparent? Well, I guess my answer is:

(A) We just manage to pull it off, because we're built that way. We have the ability to automatically, unconsciously associate common features of experience and glom them together into general concepts. You can model this sort of thing with, say, a neural net or parallel distributed processing model of the mind, so it isn't a theoretic impossibility in the slightest. Since we do seem to do it, we might as well use the theoretic possibility and consider it true, until something better comes along.
(B) If you follow this infinite regress into infancy, then you get a new problem--if all you have is the apparent, and you can't distinguish one experience from the other, then how is it possible to acquire language (my or your usage) at all? Like, if I can't distinguish a bagel from an earthquake, there shouldn't be any way for me to distinguish speech or text from sunshine. So I'd never learn the word for anything. You haven't just sabotaged non-linguistic thought, you've sabotaged language itself! Clearly this is contrary to your experience--better revise your psychological theory to make it have more explanatory power.

Even if you don't buy this, I think we might be able to avoid this argument if we delay the earthquake by a few seconds. That way they wouldn't be "the same event." (However, if you're willing to distinguish events by virtue of time, I'm not sure why you wouldn't also let them be distinguished by space, or type of sensation. Flavor-X now is a different event from flavor-X later; why isn't flavor-X now different from a kick in the shin now? I think most animals without linguistic capacity seem to be able to know the difference...)

So Feral (first name basis?) has a bagel-eating experience, and a everything-shaking experience a few seconds after. This happens, oh, five times. Freaky.

Her conceptual system kicks in and forms a bagel-eating concept and an earthquake concept. Perhaps she uses an already formed eating concept to help her along with this, if you're going to allow that.

Also, based on past experience she can form a belief that bagel-eating, in general, across the board, causes earthquakes.

Note that a belief has to be general like this if it is to have predictive power. A belief like "One day X, I had experiences A, B, and C all in a row" is pragmatically worthless, except as information used in building larger concepts--otherwise, it's just the apparent.

So now Feral really believes that eating another bagel (which she can identify, conceptwise), will cause, a few seconds later, another earthquake.

Then she eats a bagel, and she waits, and waits, and waits....

"Well damn, I guess bagels don't always cause earthquakes," she thinks to herself in mentalese [NOTE: Use of words here is unfortunate necessity of our communicating. Since Feral doesn't know any words, this is all thought being manipulated by her conceptual system.]

This happens another ten times.

So now what? You say that she could still claim that the first five bagels caused the earthquake. Maybe so. But this requires a revised sign system, because before, all bagels caused earthquakes. Maybe only...magic bagels cause earthquakes. Or maybe...only when the earthquake god is awake does bagel eating spark his rath and cause earthquakes.

Or maybe she decides that bagels and earthquakes are uncorrelated. This is unlikely, I think, because people are generally irrational in belief formation (see psychologists Kahneman and Tversky) and so hold onto stupid superstitions all the time.

But either of these options are more pragmatically true than "all bagels cause earthquakes." At least now when Feral eats a bagel she'll think "I wonder if this is a magic bagel..."

But more importantly, after five or so episodes she thinks back on her mental exploits:

"I recall once believing that all bagels cause earthquakes. Now I know magic earthquake-god-wrath-inducing bagels cause earthquakes. And once I believed all mangos tasted like flavor-X. But now I know, because of that one squirrely-tasting one, that not all of them do."

And then her conceptual capacity picks out something in common out of the first two beliefs--they both caused Feral to inaccurately predict something. And it forms a concept that is the crude and undernourished runt of a brother of the concept of false....

And now, unless you have counterarguments that relate specifically to this scenario, we never have to speak of the feral child ever again.

Seb (halfway out the door) said...

Oh--just a heads up. I'll be MIA for a few days, so I won't be able to keep up with the grueling pace of this debate until Tuesdayish.

Please don't read silence as forfeit! If you do, the ghosts of hundreds of dead white men with historically privileged epistemologies will come and haunt you for the rest of your lives!

Cristi said...

i don't want to reject empiricism altogether. a quote that i used in my last post was meant to point out this fact: scientific inquiry must necessarily suspend the questions we're asking about language. the first variable that has to be considered controlled is the concept itself. to study the sky, we have to assume we're talking about the same concept of what the sky is. but in the debate we're having, this kind of assumption is no longer useful. in fact, it's important we do away with it. yes, the ways we organize concepts are extremely useful, and, i would argue, necessary, but we can still consider that those concepts might still be conventional, and we shouldn't assume that they're transparent.

The cat who came back said...

I'm back!

And I'm having trouble figuring out how to interpret the last comment. But let me take a stab at it...

"scientific inquiry must necessarily suspend the questions we're asking about language"

I'm sort of in agreement with you here--I think scientific inquiry works by "suspending questions" or freezing one group of concepts and then questioning others with a sharp eye for empirical evidence.

(By working around the whole sign system, you could concievable question and rework every individual concept. In fact, I think that the scientific attitude is very self-consciously fallible and entails the belief that all concepts should be brought into question at some point.)

"but in the debate we're having, this kind of assumption is no longer useful"

This I disagree with completely if I understand you right. If by "this kind of assumption" you mean agreement on terms, or the holding of some concepts as fixed and others as in doubt, then I think that the history of this debate has shown that we are in fact agreeing on holding some concepts (like "concept," "word," "sign,"...) as the "control" in our experiment (which is more analytical than empirical, but I think the difference may be unimportant here.)

"we can still consider that those concepts might still be conventional, and we shouldn't assume that they're transparent."

I'm happy to consider that concepts might be conventional. But what I've been trying to show here is that they are not necessarily conventional, and specifically that the concept of truth is not necessarily conventional. Because that was how I understood your original thesis.

(I'm a little skeptical about any concept really being purely conventional, since even those who are acting within the same supposed conventions often have different sets of concepts. But that's an argument for another day....)

Lastly, what do you mean by "transparent"?

Cristi said...

This is the beauty of language: that we HAVE to use the best possible term at any given time. post-structural thought could never be a pure break with the metaphysics that came before it, because it has to use their vocabulary (of words and concepts).

in order to speak at all, we have to rely on some conventional norms, and at least provisionally pretend that they're transparent (meaning they don't distort or interrupt our view of what's behind them).

but the problem with empiricism (or analysis, or whatever we're doing here) is that it IS logical. it begins with and operates in logic, and the first tenet of logic is that truth and falsehood are opposed. this kind of thinking uses an assumed concept of truth to prove something about the position of truth, and i think we always have to reject that.

hence my reason for pulling in that non-sensical quote from Of Grammatology... 'the interior of the interior is not exterior to the exterior of the exterior...' or whatever. The point this quote makes is not that illogic can be used to prove anything, but rather, that to think ourselves outside of logic, to begin from another premise than logic, to imagine a different boundary between inside and outside, or truth and falshood, is incredibly difficult, and necessarily nonsensical.

Seb (pragmatically) said...

Hmm... I think I understand what you're saying--empirical study and analytic thought presupposes a truth-false distinction, so that truth-false distinct cannot be properly said to be the product of empirical study. Is that right?

If so, I think that it's an effective attack on foundationalist epistemology, but not necessarily on the other alternatives.

What I mean by foundationalism is the sort of Cartesian way of thinking about knowledge as a setting up of axioms and rules of inference then deducing things from then on.

So yes, if truth and falsehood are presupposed in the axioms, then they aren't really proved by any of the conclusions.

I think this points to just one of many problems with foundationalist epistemology, and I think Descartes was a total wanker.

On the other hand, there are other epistemological theories. Take coherentism, which says that what matters is not that you have this carefully constructed pyramid of knowledge with a solid foundation, but just that your knowledge hangs together without a lot of internal contradictions. This isn't quite as prone to your critique, I think, because a coherentist doesn't mind if his reasoning involves presuppositions. Beliefs only have to be justified in relationship to each other.

There's a catch to this, which is it runs into the madman objection--what stops you from having a completely crazy set of beliefs that all manage to hang together (maybe because they lack a belief about the necessity of coherence...). What then?

Recently I've become a pragmatist, so my answer is something like "You shouldn't pick a crazy set of beliefs because that's not useful."

There are probably some problems with this view--do me a favor and point them out if you catch them!--but I think it dodges the post-structuralist critique.

But also, and this is my point all along, it doesn't depend at all on convention as usefulness is something you can figure out if you're...um...

[searches for another way to say "feral child," but give up, so instead just trails off....]

Cristi said...

i think you're absolutely right that a post-structuralist wouldn't have many problems with coherentism or your version of pragmaticism. in fact, i think it's possible for all these things to gel pretty well.

i think that what's 'useful' in thought is that which allows communication. in order to predict the future, anyone (including she-who-shall-not-be named) must have a concept that is somewhat coherent over time. we have to have an already-unified concept of 'bagel' to compare a past bagel to a present bagel or a future bagel. and this type of communication (in signs) is not so very different from communication among multiple people.

i would argue that that which is useful in signs (including 'truth') is that which allows communication (with the future, or with others). and i like the 'usefulness' principle, because i think of language (in general) as a technology - it stores information, it extends our reach (toward other people, or into the future and past), but it also structures the communication we're able to have.

sorry, that's a bit of a tangent. but i'm glad we're reaching more of an understanding.

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