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December 15, 2010 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Is there a name for the sort of radical skepticism that results from accepting Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein but rejecting his solution to the rule-following paradox?

It's been a long time since I read most of the source material, so bear with me (and please correct me) if I get most of this wrong.

Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, put forth quite convincingly that it was impossible for any private language (an internal set of object-meaning pairs known only to one person) to actually exist and name something meaningful. In other words, not only do I not know that what I mean by "red" is the same as what you mean by "red," but I can't even be sure that what I mean by "red" is the same as what I mean by "red" and thus any meaning that "red" might hold is lost).

Kripke came along and said that this argument of Wittgenstein's can actually be applied to destroy not just private meaning but all meaning (not only is "red" meaningless, but also "the world" and "addition"). There is no way, says Kripke, to build any correspondence between words, beliefs or propositions and any real facts, truths or states of affairs.

Kripke then rides in and saves the day by saying that all is not lost. Just because our words and beliefs can have no truth-value pertaining to any actual state of affairs, they can still have truth value relative to a shared community agreement regarding some real or imagined the state of affairs.

Thus the crux of Kripke's argument (regarding Wittgenstein and Meaning) is:

1. No word or belief (not even ones like "I think therefore I am") can be shown to correspond to an actual state of affairs.

2. It doesn't matter because the world that we agree to pretend exists functions just as well as would the real thing, leaving us with a new flavour of Epistemic Relativism.



But here's the thing. I know that some other philosophers have come around and basically said that, even if we accept 1, there's no real basis for 2. One angle of attack is simply that 1 quite effectively destroys any theory of other minds. It seems to me though that most critics have been attacking 2 as a minor detour on the way to also rejecting 1.

Are there any major philosophers who have rejected 2 but accepted 1 thus leaving us with a new flavour of radical skepticism?
posted by 256 to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure I understand your question. Are you asking for anyone who might suggest a radical skepticism may be in order such that one should embrace proposition 1? Or are you asking for someone who would accept one purely because of problems of language?

If the former...

I don't recall anyone who fits that bill from my days as a student of philosophy, but you might look at William P. Alston's work on epistemic circularity. He might accept some proposition like 1, with the emphasis on "shown" for purely epistemic reasons. The breakdown for him is not because a problem of language, however, but that it's hard to prove the reliability of sensory perception to a skeptic without the initial presumption that sensory perception is reliable.
posted by Hylas at 1:52 PM on December 15, 2010


Just to clarify: I'm not really looking for any Zen-type angle or any criticism on why this may or may not be a belief structure one could base their life around. Modern philosophy has long worked on the assumption that we can interact with and communicate within the world regardless of what that world may or may not be. Just because the act of having-a-discussion-about-meaning necessitates certain ad hoc assumptions about rational discussion being possible (and thus Meaning existing) does not inherently mean that one cannot reasonably advocate the possibility that Meaning doesn't exist. Or at least that's the grounds upon which the entire field of epistemology is built.

The article Hylas links, based on the very brief segment that's available to JSTOR non-subscribers, is more along the lines I'm looking for. But I'm more specifically hoping to find something that is in direct response to either Kripke or Wittgenstein. I could have sworn that W.V.O. Quine had written such an essay (replying to Wittgenstein, not Kripke) but if it exists it is hiding from me very well.
posted by 256 at 3:05 PM on December 15, 2010


Unfortunately, in order to attempt to answer your questions, one would have to go into a great deal more precision in definitions and "what exactly do you mean when you say X" etc., which leads philosophers to write entire volumes about the meaning of one word. This also means that sadly, message boards are very poorly suited to a detailed technical discussion of such issues - one reason why I generally don't participate in discussing technical issues in philosophy. It takes pages and pages just to get us to define terms precisely enough so that, we can be more or less on the same page (pardon the pun) before we even delve into the actual questions. This is not a dodge, it's in the very nature of the field.

The other thing is that when you as "which philosopher espouses X", often the answer will rely on degrees of adherence to X, which can result in a fruitless historical expedition subject to interpretation.

My suggestion would be, that if you are interested in these questions, to just start with broad introductory books on epistemology and then move onto foundational papers that deal with narrower questions, as unfortunately there are no shortcuts.
posted by VikingSword at 3:07 PM on December 15, 2010


And not to leave you with no avenues to explore, I'd point to much earlier texts, from Brentano and particularly Twardowski. For Twardowski, see "On the Classification of Mental Phenomena" and "On Idio- and Allogenetic Theories of Judgment" (1898 and 1907).
posted by VikingSword at 3:15 PM on December 15, 2010


If the above is true, then both philosophers are liars, and their own words are rendered meaningless. I mean, I'm just a simple gal, but I can spot a scam a mile away.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 5:02 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I probably should stay out of this.
posted by wittgenstein at 9:31 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, put forth quite convincingly that it was impossible for any private language (an internal set of object-meaning pairs known only to one person) to actually exist and name something meaningful. In other words, not only do I not know that what I mean by "red" is the same as what you mean by "red," but I can't even be sure that what I mean by "red" is the same as what I mean by "red" and thus any meaning that "red" might hold is lost)."

I've never read Kripke, and it's been a really long time since I've read Wittgenstein. But I'm not following you here. In fact, I don't think your first sentence quoted above (no "private language") has anything to do with the second ("red" is meaningless).

"Red" isn't part of a private language, it's part of the English language. It's meaning isn't a reference to anyone's purely subjective experience (the "beetle in the box"), but something that arises through "language games" and attaches to things bearing a "family resemblance" -- the color of apples, fire trucks, etc. We can use this word without difficulty, so it's meaningful. To the extent that our subjective experiences differ, these differences factor out as irrelevant.

Also, my takeaway from Wittgenstein is that "radical skepticism" is kind of silly. You can pretend to doubt certain things -- like that your hand or your chair actually exists. But you're not really doubting those things. His book "On Certainty" talks a lot about this.

The way you're describing Kripke, it sounds like he's insisting that words have to have some fixed meaning beyond how they're used. I thought Wittgenstein's whole point is that that's not how language works or how meaning works.
posted by anonymice at 12:38 PM on December 16, 2010


"Red" isn't part of a private language, it's part of the English language. It's meaning isn't a reference to anyone's purely subjective experience (the "beetle in the box"), but something that arises through "language games" and attaches to things bearing a "family resemblance" -- the color of apples, fire trucks, etc. We can use this word without difficulty, so it's meaningful. To the extent that our subjective experiences differ, these differences factor out as irrelevant.

Right, "red" was a sort of bad example. I was using it rather than pulling out the entire beetle-in-the-box analogy so as to make the question accessible to those who haven't read Wittgenstein. Which is sort of silly, since those who haven't read Wittgenstein wouldn't be able to answer anyway.

But I do think "red" qualifies as part of a private language if we're talking about my use of "red" to describe the qualia I experience as red-here-now. Of course, it is part of a natural language when it is being used to describe a common property shared by a set of objects (rather than the internal experience of that property) and in that sense Wittgenstein would not hold "red" to ever be meaningless.

Please correct me If I've still got that wrong.
posted by 256 at 4:20 PM on December 16, 2010


Oh, and Kripke as I understand him is saying that no utterance can have solid reference to anything in the real world. That when I say "dog," that word fails to connect up to any actual entities or state of affairs regardless of my intention for it to do so or belief that it does so. Not just in the generalized case of "dog"-as-word, but also in each specific case of "dog"-as-utterance. And that this lack of meaning in language can be extrapolated to a similar lack of meaning in thought and thus to a complete loss of any foundation we might have for positing an actual real world of any variety.

Or rather, Kripke is saying that Wittgenstein is saying those things.
posted by 256 at 4:26 PM on December 16, 2010


I'm definitely no authority on Wittgenstein. I read him a lot in college, but that was almost 20 years ago.

I guess I should read Kripke. I don't think Wittgenstein was saying those things, but Kripke may have good reason for saying otherwise.

My own take is that Wittgenstein would probably agree about utterances having no solid references to the external world, but he'd say this doesn't lead to meaninglessness, and that our concern that it does is based on philosophical/grammatical mistakes dating back to Plato -- who was so insistent on permanence and external referents that he had to posit the metaphysical world of Forms before he could acknowledge that words have any meaning at all.

But I always had a really hard time understanding why the lack of solid references wouldn't lead to pure relativism, which I guess would be akin to meaninglessness. Which is to say, I never really understood what I think was Wittgenstein's central point. (Hangs head in shame.)

I think that Wittgenstein's idea that "meaning = use" might be like talking about the value of money after it's been taken off the gold standard. The distinction between exchange value (which paper dollars have) and inherent value (which they don't). And the point that exchange value can be somewhat fuzzy and can change over time, but this doesn't make exchange value illusory or nonexistent. There's fundamentals under there somewhere, but the connection between dollar value and the underlying fundamentals isn't strictly linear; it's more of a consensus established through a volume of transactions.

This all reminds me of a friend's comment asked after a major stock market correction: "These stocks had all this value yesterday. Where did it go?" I think that's the Plato question that Wittgenstein says we're not supposed to ask. But not asking it is easier said than done.

Anyway. I think I've gotten way off your point. And my head's starting to hurt because I'm out of practice at this stuff.
posted by anonymice at 7:41 AM on December 17, 2010


The argument for meaning skepticism that Kripke advances has nothing to do with Wittgenstein's arguments for the impossibility of a private language. It has to do with Wittgenstein statements on rule-following paradoxes. These are two different beasts entirely.

Also, the sort of meaning skepticism that you get from the rule-following paradoxes doesn't necessarily imply radical skepticism. Meaning skepticism is not nearly as scary. You make it sound like Kripke is suggesting that we should believe in an external world for pragmatic reasons. But he doesn't say anything like this. The argument is about the correct interpretation function for our language... it's purely concerned with natural language semantics and has nothing to say about the existence of an external world. (Kripke himself was instrumental in distinguishing issues in linguistic semantics and issues in metaphysics, which earlier philosophers like Wittgenstein often mushed together.)
posted by painquale at 11:17 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


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