Thursday, August 05, 2004
What it is, what it was, and what it shall be
This proposal sounds more radical than it is. To say that reality is a product of language is to say that the application of such notions as resemblance, agreement, and realism is tethered to the expressive resources available within the classificatory scheme that is our language. It implies that our language, and hence reality, could have been different, but it does not imply that every possible classificatory scheme would be adequate to our needs.
Our language is a historical artifact. The words it contains and the expressions that it allows are the product of habits of thought that beings like us, beings whose mode of life was much like ours, have found to be useful. Language, and hence reality, is an amalgam of successful choices. There may be other choice worthy modes of representation that we have not hit upon, but not just any mode of representation will be worthy of choice.
I have been writing as if each of us knew and made use of the whole of our common language. Obviously, this is not true. We each have and use only a small fraction of the linguistic resources available to our community. One implication is that reality is, for each of us, slightly different. Another is that any of us can extend our knowledge of the world merely by extending our mastery over the representational resources currently deployed in our community—or by extending our community's store of representational resources.
Let me illustrate these implications by briefly discussing agreement and disagreement. There is a philosophical analysis of disagreement which holds that it isn't really possible to disagree unless there is already significant agreement about the matters central to the dispute. The idea is that without this antecedent agreement the parties will be talking past one another rather than engaging the issues at stake.
This analysis of disagreement goes hand in hand with a notion of agreement which holds that what one comes to agree upon must have been available prior to the dispute. According to this view, one resolves a dispute by reaching this common ground, and if there is no antecedent common ground then there can be no agreement, and hence, no real disagreement either. One implication of this analysis is that some disputes are irresolvable.
The view I have been urging admits of a very different way of accomplishing agreement. On this account agreement can be achieved when one or both of the parties extends their vocabulary in a way that allows a representation of reality capable of securing the assent of the other. Importantly, the extended vocabulary need not have existed prior to the dispute. It can be forged in the heat of argument and, in such a case, is adopted precisely because the new vocabulary solves the problem that led to the dispute. Unlike the traditional analysis, there are no disputes which are insoluble—the only barriers to resolution have to do with the practical willingness to work towards a solution.
What has been written here is not so much an argument as a programmatic expression of certain views that I hold. For myself, I came to these views by way of exposure to various arguments--most notably those of William James, Nelson Goodman, and Lugdwig Wittgenstein--which seem to me to establish the incoherence of the correspondence theory of truth. One could also arrive at similar views through an archaeological examination of the metaphorical apparatus of language. This is what Richard Rorty seeks to provide. I'll give him the last word:
The very idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature—one which the physicist or the poet may have glimpsed—is a remnant of the idea that the world is a divine creation, the work of someone who had something in mind, who Himself spoke some language in which He described His own project. Only if we have such a picture in mind, some picture of the universe as either itself a person or as created by a person, can we make sense of the idea that the world has an "intrinsic nature." For the cash value of the phrase is just that some vocabularies are better representations of the world than others, as opposed to being better tools for dealing with the world for one or another purpose.
- Contingency, irony, and solidarity, p. 21.