sunnuntai 4. syyskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on the capacities of the human understanding and their correct use in knowing truth - Words and concepts

After Wittgenstein and the linguistic turn in the philosophy it is hard to remember that there was a time when there was no philosophy of language to speak of, at least beside few passing remarks. What little discussion of language there was, happened usually within another discipline, like logic or psychology. Thus, in Wolff's German logic, we find a whole chapter dedicated on the issue of words.

We have already seen Wolff telling how words are one means for representing things and thus could be used as one possible type of concepts in addition to mental images. A definition of words was still lacking, but Wolff is quick to provide us with one: words are signs for our thoughts that we use in communicating our thoughts to other people.

The role of communication is important in Wolff's definition. While the analytic philosophy of language began from semantic considerations, Wolff's starting point would be pragmatics, that is, the use of language in a concrete context of human communication. Thus, Wolff begins from the question of how a person can understand what the other is saying: firstly, Wolff says, the speaking person must think with the word a certain concept and the listener must think the exact same concept through the same word.

More important than the actual definition of mutual understanding is that the meaning of the word or the concept connected with it is then based on this universal communicability and it is not just assumed that words have some meaning. Thus, the semantics does not just float about without any anchor to the actual communication. I think that in analytic philosophy it was only Paul Grice who first thought of doing this – time would have been saved, if Frege and Russell had read some Wolff.

A consistent and subject-independent meaning is then something that is not instantly given. Instead, the meaning of the words must be decided in an interaction between speakers. This pragmatic nature of semantics leaves room for possible misunderstandings and arguments over the meaning of the words.

But it is not just other people's understanding of the words used that a speaker may fail to connect with. In addition, a speaker might connect no concepts with the words she pronounces. This lack of meaning is made possible by the difference between the phonological form of the word and the reference of the word. Thus, a person can well know the word in the sense that she has heard people using it and knows how to pronounce it, but she might not know what the word conveys, just like a theologician who has heard the word ”trinity” a lot during his studies and has so learned to use the word regularly, although he has no clear concept of the reference of the word – although Wolff is quick to admit that someone else might have this clear concept.

The most crucial lack in Wolffian philosophy of language is that Wolff provides us with no theory of how meaning of the words is carried into the meaning of sentences. He merely makes the analogy that as concepts are to words, such are Urtheil or judgements as unions of concepts to Satz or sentences as unions of words, and even here Wolff appears to ignore the distinction at times.

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