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pathways (letters)

12 October 1996

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your letter of 30 September. You will find enclosed with this letter the overdue list of essay questions for units 7-9. Sorry for the delay!

I can well understand the importance you attach to the issue of 'sharing a nature'. The history of the twentieth century provides ample evidence of how dangerous a notion this can be. The best way to guard against misuse is to make sure that the 'nature' in question is always carefully defined first.

When I said that any human being had the advantage, in attempting to make sense of the linguistic behaviour of any other human being, in the fact that they both 'share a nature' something they would not do with Martians who had evolved independently from humans I had in mind (at least) three specific things:

1. Human beings have evolved with the same, or at least very similar quality spaces. By that I mean the range and detail of the colours we can see, the sounds we can hear, the smells we can smell. What we do with this same basic set-up may of course be very different in different cultures, but at least the starting point, the infant learning language, is the same.

2. If Freud is right, then leaving on one side the fact that all intelligent beings, human or otherwise, would seem to require a long period of dependence on adults who cared for their basic needs, in order to develop their intellectual and linguistic skills the fact that human beings eat (rather than gathering their nourishment automatically from the air around then like plants) defecate, and are sexually differentiated all contribute to characteristically human forms of motivation and desire. We have grounds for holding this even if the complex aetiology of desire should prove in the end too difficult to fathom out. Again, I claim, this is a feature which, in principle, is not culturally specific.

3. If Chomsky is right, then the human brain is 'hard wired' with structures necessary for learning the depth grammar of human languages. This hard wiring need not, in principle, be the same for all intelligent beings, however.

There are probably other features that would be relevant to mention here, but you get the general drift. I make no claims about how narrow or wide the differences might appear between human beings within these basic parameters. No 'gap is bridgeable' to everyone's satisfaction. But it does not follow from the fact that B refuses to accept that A understands, or has the capacity to understand him/her, that B is right in taking this stand. (From what you say you seem to accept this point. Husbands are forever complaining that their wives to not 'understand' them.)

On meaning and use: I have always understood this to mean that the meaning of a word is to be found within its use. Wittgenstein himself was well aware that some uses are more essential than others in illustrating the meaning of a word (cf. his concession that a concept not only has a use but a 'point', somewhere towards the later parts of the Investigations I don't have my copy with me, but you can find it in the index). Having said that, Wittgenstein's complaint against present-day philosophers of language would almost certainly be that they search too hard for 'essences' try to hard to simplify the complex facts of language use.

On cardboard flying saucers: Here a point made by H.P. Grice is relevant. We have to distinguish natural and non-natural meaning. An example of natural meaning is 'dark, heavy clouds mean rain', or 'the petrol cans in the burn out warehouse mean that an arsonist has been at work'. Human actions have a natural meaning too. The motorist's sheepish smile as we get out of our cars to examine the damage to our bumpers means that he is fully aware that the collision was his fault.

Not only that, but one can exploit the fact that a certain action will be understood to have a certain natural meaning in order to convey information. In Grice's example (from his original paper 'Meaning') you leave the pieces of a broken vase prominently displayed, knowing that this will be taken to convey the information, 'This is what the children did this morning.'

Non-natural meaning, by contrast, is something very specific. In saying certain words, I intend to convey something to another person via his recognition that it is the words rather than the saying of them that he is to focus on. This is putting the matter deliberately vaguely. Defining 'non-natural meaning' has become a philosophical industry, with more and more complex theories appearing in the attempt to cover all possible objections and counter-examples. But can linguistic meaning be defined in this way? To think that it can implies that the notion of linguistic meaning is logically posterior to the notion of belief or intention, a claim which I for one would not accept. But even if it can't, the point about the difference between natural and non-natural meaning is a fundamental one, and, I believe, fully copes with your example.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner