Précis of epistemology/Speech
What is speech?[edit | edit source]
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life,
and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1, 1-5)
Logic and metaphysics[edit | edit source]
Logic and science invite us to reason about the world as if it were a big book. To reason about beings is always to reason about what we say about them. All truths are determined from elementary and fundamental truths, all atomic truths about all beings. All these truths together are like the big book of the world.
Are there unspeakable beings? Beings we can not talk about? Beings which can not be named?
All beings can be named as soon as they can be known. To say "this," or "a being," or "x," is enough to name any being, so to name all beings. One name suffices to name all beings.
When we say that a being is ineffable, we mean that we do not know words to describe what we perceive or feel, but we do not mean that we can not say anything about it, since by saying that it is ineffable, we name it and speak of it.
Everything speaks[edit | edit source]
If one hears the concept of speech in its broadest sense, everything speaks. Life is a speech. Even being, just being, is a speech. To be, for all bodies, living or not, is to act on other beings. All material beings do it, simply by being material. To be visible, or audible, or to be perceived in any other way, is always to show oneself, and that is always to speak. Living beings perceive other beings and live by reacting to what they have perceived. Their reactions show how they understand the speech expressed by the beings they perceive.
Animal communication[edit | edit source]
In a more restricted sense, animals speak only when they emit signals so that they are perceived and influence those who perceive them. They show themselves to the eyes which look at them, or they make their presence felt in another way. It is not necessary to assume that the animal gives its signals voluntarily. A wasp indicates by its yellow and black robe to a possible predator that it is a dangerous prey. Evolution by natural selection is sufficient to explain such animal communication. Wasps have an advantage in showing their dangerousness and predators have an advantage in perceiving it. There is no need for will or conscience. Blind instincts are sufficient to establish this communication.
To influence the imagination and the will[edit | edit source]
In an even more restricted sense, animals speak only if they emit signals because they want to influence the imagination and the will of those who perceive them. This assumes that the animals which emit and receive these signals are capable of imagining and wanting, and especially that they have the knowledge of the mind, that is, they know themselves and others as beings who imagine and want.
Speech is the voluntary emission of signals to influence the imagination and the will of those who receive them.
Meaning through imagination[edit | edit source]
Why do words make sense? What makes sound sequences useful for communicating? What gives words and statements their meaning?
When one understands a description, one imagines what is described. Words and verbal expressions arouse the imagination as soon as we understand their meaning. One imagines what is described when one simulates its perception, when one activates, in simulation mode, the detection systems which would be awakened if we perceived what is described. When concepts detected by our perception systems are associated with verbal expressions which name them, we can both describe what we perceive, by naming perceived concepts, and imagine what is described by simulating the detection of named concepts (Saussure 1916).
Silent knowledge is the knowledge that precedes speech and results from perception, imagination, emotion and will. It can be translated into words as soon as the detection systems that it uses are named by verbal expressions. Descriptions are then a translation into words of the knowledge of perception and imagination. The laws which relate the description of conditions to the description of consequences are a translation of silent inferences. A reasoning which combine these laws is a translation of a sequence of silent inferences. In this way, silent knowledge can be translated into words, and thus communicated.
Silent knowledge is fundamental to the development of reason, because talking knowledge begins as a translation of silent knowledge. It can then fly on its own because it can speak about speech, but it needs silent knowledge to take off, because words must awaken the imagination to make sense.
A verbal expression has a meaning when it names a concept or an individual. The named concept, that is to say, the property or the relation, is the meaning of an expression that names a concept. The named individual is the reference of an expression that names an individual. The reference of an expression that names a concept is sometimes identified with the extension of the named property or relation.
A concept is empirical when it is an observable property or relation. Silent knowledge is always empirical.
We understand the meaning of an expression that names a concept or an individual when we know how to detect them.
The same verbal expression can have several meanings. The same name can be used to name several concepts or several individuals. It can be interpreted in many ways.
The understanding of speech can be conceived in a purely passive mode, as if the words were the notes of a score and the understanding, the music performed by an inner mechanical piano. But imagination is not only awakened by words in this passive way. The understanding of speech is also and especially active. We understand because we want to understand, and what we understand, that is, what we imagine, often depends on our expectations.
Understanding words means knowing how to use them[edit | edit source]
A speaker acts on those who listen to her. To know what she does when she says what she says, she must know what the audience does or can do with it. A speaker must be able to put herself in the place of the listeners and understand what they understand, otherwise she does not really understand herself. Conversely, to know what to do with what is said to them, listeners must understand the speaker's intentions, why she says what she says. They must therefore be able to put themselves in the speaker's place and understand what she does, otherwise they do not really understand what is said to them. The understanding of words is one of the forms of mutual understanding, in which everyone knows others and oneself, and knows that one is known by others in the same way as one knows them.
A description can be communicated on its own. In this simple case, the speaker understands what he says if he knows what he is describing, and the listener understands what is said as soon as he imagines what is being described. But obviously there are many other uses of speech than the communication of descriptions. Knowing how to describe what one perceives and knowing how to imagine what is described are only the most fundamental part of language understanding. It is fundamental because all other uses of language make use of descriptions.
Wittgenstein has invited us not to separate the study of the meaning of language from that of its use:
« To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.» (§19) « Here the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life. » (§23) « For a large class of cases-though not for all-in which we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. » (§43, Philosophical investigations, 1953)
For example, he proposes to reason on a simplified example of linguistic communication:
« The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words 'block', 'pillar', 'slab', 'beam'. A calls them out; --B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. » (§2)
Any way of using speech as a speaker or listener is a way of understanding it. The comprehension of a language is nothing other than its use. The speaker understands what he says when he knows what he is doing by saying it. The listener understands what is said when he knows what to do with it. To understand words is to know how to use them. To explain how we understand words we must explain how they prepare us for action.
When we define understanding only by use, even machines show that they can understand a language, because they can obey the orders given to them. The Turing test is to try the ability of a machine to understand what is said. An experimenter discusses with the machine without knowing whether the answers it gives him are provided by another human being, or whether they result from a computer program (Turing 1950). At the end of the discussion, the experimenter must guess whether it is a discussion with a machine or with a human being.
But the understanding of language is not just any use. Speech influences the imagination and the will of those who hear it. The uses of language require imagination and will. If there is no imagination or no will, it is not really language understanding but only a technique of information transmission.
Theoretical frameworks, the a priori and the knowledge of abstract beings[edit | edit source]
Theoretical frameworks are the talking equivalent of silent conceptual frameworks. A theoretical framework is determined with a system of names, intended to name concepts, and a system of axioms and definitions, which make it possible to reason with named concepts. A theoretical framework receives an empirical interpretation when the named concepts are identified with observable properties or relations that together form an empirical conceptual framework. As soon as they have an empirical meaning, the expressions of the theory can be used to formulate descriptions, to state observations. The statements are true as soon as the observations they translate are (Locke 1690).
When a theoretical framework is interpreted by a silent conceptual framework, a silent inference can be translated into talking knowledge in the form of a conditional law: if the conditions then the consequence. The inference from the conditions to the consequence can then be put in the form of a logical reasoning: if the conditions then the consequence, now the conditions are true, hence the consequence is true. 'hence' separates the conclusion from the premises from which it logically results. In this way, sequences of silent inferences can also be put in the form of a logical reasoning: if A then B, and if B then C, now A, hence B, hence C.
The same theoretical framework can be interpreted by several different empirical conceptual frameworks.
Observation is not the only criterion of truth, because theoretical frameworks impose the truth of their principles (Leibniz 1705, Kant 1787). These are accepted by definition of their terms. Their truth is supposed to be known as soon as the meaning of words is understood. A theoretical framework thus gives abstract meanings to names of concept, independent of observation. For example, the truth of the principle of transitivity, 'if x is greater than y and y is greater than z then x is greater than z' is accepted by definition of the relation 'is greater than'. This relation can be interpreted in many empirical ways, but the principle of transitivity can never be contradicted by our perceptions. If it leads to an erroneous anticipation, it will be said that the observed relation has been misnamed, that it is not an empirical meaning that can be given to the expression 'is greater than'.
The paradox of Condorcet (1785), in political science, illustrates the priority of an a priori principle:
One can assume that electoral results give strength to the various candidates and consider measuring this force. Assume that in an election where each voter must rank three candidates A, B and C in order of preference, the three ABC, BCA and CAB orders have each been chosen by one-third of the electorate. It seems that the force of A is greater than that of B, since two-thirds of the electorate prefers A to B. Similarly B is stronger than C, and C is stronger than A. The principle of transitivity is therefore contradicted by experience. But it is not refuted, it has only been poorly applied, because such an electoral system does not make it possible to measure the strength of the candidates. It will not be said that the theoretical framework (the measure of the magnitude of the forces) is false, but only that it is not adapted to the perceived reality.
Statements provable from a system of axioms and definitions are the theorems of the theory defined by such principles. A theory gives an abstract meaning to the names with which it forms its statements, because its principles can be accepted as true by definition. Sometimes axioms are said to be disguised definitions, because they serve to give meaning to their terms, and thus to define them.
As an operator can be identified with the functional relation which it defines, the logical connectors can be considered as concepts, which enable us to specify the logical relations between affirmations. Logical principles determine theoretical frameworks which give abstract meanings to logical concepts. These theoretical frameworks can be applied to any reasoning in order to verify its logical correction.
A theory can be used in a way that resembles perception, like a system of detectors. To know if a statement is true or false, it is enough to prove it or to prove its negation. In this way the names of concepts are associated with theoretical detectors that determine whether the concepts are true of the named individuals. Theoretical detectors detect what they must detect by finding logical proofs, based on accepted principles. If they do not find any, their detection has failed. « The eyes of the soul, whereby it sees and observes things, are none other than proofs. » (Spinoza, Ethics, Book V, prop. 23, Scolie) Just as the eyes of the body enable us to see visible beings, logical proofs based on principles enable us to know abstract beings. The perception of abstract beings consists in reasoning from the principles which define them.
To develop a purely abstract knowledge, it is sufficient to choose principles, to admit their truth by definition of their terms, and to use them to prove theorems (Russell 1903). From the point of view of abstract knowledge, any system of principles, as soon as it is not contradictory, can be considered as true by definition. But of course we do not choose our principles arbitrarily. They decide our reasonings, the theories we develop and the meanings we give to our words. They must therefore be chosen very carefully.
Abstract theoretical knowledge is the talking equivalent of the silent imagination of fictions. For theoretical beings to exist and be known, it is enough to make a theory of them, to give oneself principles and to reason from them. Theoretical beings exist as objects of a theory, simply because it is true that we speak of them. Theoretical beings are completely determined by our definitions and by the theories in which we have defined them.
Just as the imagination of fictions makes us discover our capacities of knowledge by silent inference, the invention of abstract theories makes us discover our capacities of knowledge by reasoning.
Purely abstract theories are sometimes of prodigious utility to know the concrete reality. One can be surprised at the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences (Wigner 1960).
Talking ethical knowledge resembles an abstract theory. It is stated with principles which are admitted as true by definition of an ideal.
To develop a theoretical knowledge about knowledge, we must define a theoretical framework which enables us to reason about the development of knowledge. This is precisely the main ambition of this book.
Freedom of interpretation[edit | edit source]
Words and verbal expressions can be interpreted in many ways and thus receive many empirical or abstract meanings. To determine an empirical interpretation, it is enough to associate to the named concepts perceptual systems which enable us to detect them. In order to determine an abstract interpretation, it is enough to associate to the named concepts systems of principles which enable us to reason with them.
In general, an expression can have many empirical meanings, and new ones can always be invented. But when principles are true by definition they impose constraints on interpretation, limits on the empirical meanings we can give to our expressions. Empirical interpretations are not independent of abstract interpretations. Truth by definition is generally a priority. If an expression is used in a way which contradicts a principle, it will be said that the interpretation is not correct, or that it is not one of the interpretations permitted by the principles. In this way, we can be sure that our principles are always true, because an interpretation that would make them false is a priori excluded.
Logical principles always make us pass from the true to the true (Aristotle, Prior analytics). When affirmations are true, their logical consequences can not be false. More precisely, whatever interpretation we give to affirmations, if these affirmations are true, according to the supposed interpretation, then the logical consequences are also true, according to the same interpretation. The relation of logical consequence does not depend on the interpretation of what we affirm, it depends only on the meaning of the logical operators.
When we prove a conclusion by logical reasoning, the premises determine sufficient conditions of truth. Whatever interpretation is chosen, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. Reasoning serves not only to prove, but also to explain the conditions of truth. To understand a theorem, one must know its proof, because it gives truth conditions which specify how one must interpret it.
According to the interpretation given to it, the same statement can be at the same time an abstract truth and an empirical truth. Such an ambiguity can be very useful, because by developing an abstract knowledge, one at the same time obtains an empirical knowledge. We do not even need to change the wording. Obviously for such magic to occur, the theoretical frameworks and their interpretation must be adapted to the observed reality in order to make it intelligible. The encounter between the abstract truth and the empirical truth of our statements is the goal of all empirical sciences, because we want to know by reasoning what we know by the senses.
When we learn a language, we learn at the same time new expressions, new ways of perceiving, which give empirical meanings to these expressions, and new principles with which we can reason. We develop thus our empirical knowledge and our abstract knowledge at the same time. The two are intertwined in an inextricable way because in general one and the same expression combines both empirical and abstract meanings.
To know if a statement is true, one must first specify its meaning. The same speech may be sometimes true, sometimes false, it depends on its interpretation. Most of our controversies come whether from misunderstandings, because we give different meanings to the same expression, or lack of precision, because we leave in the vague the truth conditions of what we say. We do not explain the principles which decide abstract truth or we do not specify the systems of perception which decide empirical truth.
The diversity of interpretations can make communication of knowledge very difficult. The speaker must respect a principle of clarity: to provide clarification so that his speech can be interpreted correctly. The listener must respect a principle of charity: always to interpret a discourse in the way that is most favorable to it, as far as possible. It is always possible to dispel misunderstandings and to reach consensus, because we can all do the same reasonings and perceive the same world.
Thought[edit | edit source]
« Do you accept my description of the process of thinking?
- How do you describe it?
- As a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering. You must take this explanation as coming from an ignoramus ; but I have a notion that, when the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying Yes or No. When it reaches a decision — which may come slowly or in a sudden rush — when doubt is over and the two voices affirm the same thing, then we call that its judgment. So I should describe thinking as discourse, and judgment as a statement pronounced, not aloud to someone else, but silently to oneself.
- I agree. »
(Plato, Theaetetus, 189e-190a)
Thought is the imagination of speech.
Solitary thought is a kind of imaginary social life. The human comedy is internalized by imagination, as if all society could speak on the interior scene.
Why do we think? What is the use of talking to oneself imaginatively? Why want to influence with words one's own imagination and one's own will?
Speech gives knowledge and will a social existence, independent of the individuals who know and want. Thanks to the word, everyone can benefit from the knowledge acquired by all the others, make others benefit from the knowledge he or she has acquired, and participate in projects carried by a common will. Silent imagination is enough to develop a knowledge, but it produces only private knowledge, which can only be passed on to someone capable of putting himself in our place. Talking imagination, that is to say thought, makes it possible to appropriate and develop a collective knowledge, potentially universal.
We need the eyes of the world to feel that we exist and to assert our identity. To believe that I am really what I am, I need to be recognized by others. My only judgment on myself is not enough because I am a spirit that exists in the assembly of all spirits. As long as my beliefs about myself are not confirmed by others, they are just my fantasies. I can not really exist alone as a spirit because the spirit is fulfilled by affirming its truth for all spirits.
Sensations, emotions and all perceptions are not directly communicable, unless we translate them into words. Through speech we can show the world what we perceive and feel, so we are accomplished as true spirits.
Even when thought is solitary, it is still an affirmation of the spirit before the spirit. We are for ourselves our own listener. What we think could be said and evaluated as a speech delivered to others. Even solitary, thought is an expression of the essentially social nature of the spirit.
As agents build themselves by imagination and will, and as they can influence the imaginations and wills of other agents by speech, they can each act on how others build themselves. By the word they build, train and develop themselves all together. As the word can be shared, it is a common resource for building oneself. We can all receive the same benefits of the word to train us.
We build ourselves by word and thought, but we can also say that it is the word that builds us.
With thought, we internalize the values of the society in which we live, we appropriate them. Thought is one of the main ways in which we give strength to our ego ideal. When we think, we continue to justify ourselves, as an actor and as a thinker, we constantly affirm the values we want to believe. The superego exercises its power over our entire life first and foremost by its authority on our thoughts.
Thought helps us to do our work of interior unification, to impose a minimum of coherence in our beliefs, our decisions and our values. The superego makes the unity of the self, provided that it is itself unified and adapted to reality. We need the permanent affirmation of what we believe to feel we exist. I think hence I am, not only because I can not think without being (Descartes 1637) but also and foremost because without thinking, I do not even know if I am. If one renounces the work of internal unification by thought, the ego is like exploded (Laing 1959), dispersed in many fragments that oppose one another, and one does not even know who one is, nor even if one is.
Talking ethical knowledge makes the unity of the self provided that it honestly seeks to know the truth in order to adapt to reality. In the same way it makes the unity of human societies. By sharing common values, affirming them, inviting all comers to share them, communities forge an identity. They affirm an existence that exceeds those of their members.
Science, wisdom and reason exist when human beings collectively give themselves the means to make them exist. And the first of these means is the ideal. The ideal is both the means and the end, the motor cause and the final cause (AristotleMetaphysics).
To do science, we must unite, we must do it all together by collectively giving us an ideal of science, a kind of superego for all humanity. Just as the individual superego unifies a personality, so the rationalist ideal unifies humanity. The individual superego makes one intelligent and powerful when it makes one consistent with oneself and with reality. In the same way, the ideal of reason renders humanity capable of uniting and thus realizing reason.