Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Philosophy of Language, by William P. Alston

I’ve always been the inquisitive sort. Probably more so than your average kid. I asked where babies come from at four. Never mind that I didn’t listen to the answer. I’m told that I stared at my mother’s mouth throughout the whole birds and bees speech and when asked if I had any questions, said, “Yes. How many teeth do you have?”

I once stumped a hippie couple with a question on metaphysics when, during Sunday school, they told us that God was all about love and that He expected us to love everybody.

I raised my hand. “Does that mean we should love the Devil too?”

Adults know everything when you’re eleven, but they’d hesitated, glancing at each other first as if seeking confirmation or preparing to take a vote. “Yes. I…guess we should.” I wasn’t convinced. 

This questioning has plagued me my whole life. Others call it doubt, cynicism, and annoying. I call it a healthy dose of curiosity. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism, though. I recognize how naïve I can be so I wear this You-Can’t-Fool-Me pin on my breast like a badge of defiance. This habit of wanting to peer behind the curtain is more reactionary than wise most likely, but I blame genetics or something other than myself since I can’t control it. Besides, it’s better than being gullible, misled, and ultimately duped. That still happens. I have yet to find an impenetrable defense against being wrong on occasion. So my brow remains creased and my eyes are forever narrowed. “Convince me” is my motto. Incidentally, it’s also my safe word.

Because this eagerness to understand things followed me into adulthood, it shouldn’t surprise that by the time I was eligible to vote, I’d taken an almost obsessive interest in philosophy. Before philosophy, things like critical thinking, the ability to reason, or how to open a pickle jar in under 20 minutes were unknown to me. Philosophy equipped me with what I like to refer to as the mental tools by which to determine truth. I like to refer to it that way because it makes me sound smart. In other words, prior to learning how to tie a knot, my views were a mess of unraveling ropes and frayed piles of twisted cords. Positions driven, inspired, and maintained by irrational feelings are ultimately laughable. The impassioned adherent is blind to his own foolishness. The Dalai Lama said that. Either him or the guy who does our yard. I often confuse the two. 

In the past, I’d only questioned things. I rarely found answers. But once I learned how to apply some of the things I’d learned from philosophy, once I’d sorted through the emotionally charged claims, salvaged the facts, and extrapolated from what we knew, I finally began to understand some things, such as why I’m such a geek and why hot chicks won’t date me.    

This inevitably led to debates with friends, some of whom found the exchanges lively and insightful. Others found it frustrating and quit inviting me to their parties. Oh, well. The misunderstood genius must press on. At least that’s what I tell myself. The meaning of life, religion, why actors keep getting asked about anything other than their work – all these things weigh on the mind.

Of course one of the most common problems with intellectual arguments that don’t involve throwing food is our habit of assuming we all define the terms we use in exactly the same way. As I’ve often said, no matter how hard I try to express myself the words interfere. Unless you’re a mime or can use telepathy, you know what I’m talking about. One of the problems with communication is that it relies heavily on words. A real obstacle, that. Facial expressions and drawing images on napkins will get you only so far. I should know. Took me forever to negotiate the cost of a beautiful, young Thai woman’s affections for a night. (Her mother who ran the brothel was a tough negotiator.)

Despite our best efforts, despite even the best education, words are often imprecise. Just ask any waiter when you bitch about your order being wrong. It’s best to define our terms before debating an important issue. Never mind what the unwashed masses say. The apathy or indifference of those I delicately and diplomatically refer to as idiots doesn't matter here. What matters is your ability to think for yourself. Notice I didn’t say feel for yourself. Anyone can do that. Thinking is a dying pastime, a lost skill, a forgotten marvel. It wreaks havoc with your texting and sexting and TV viewing. But that’s no excuse.  

If thinking hurts other peoples’ brains, the better for you. Besides, they’re probably doing it wrong. Philosophy is for all who care about being true to both themselves and their convictions. Anything short of that is just pretending or quoting from Jon Stewart. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. You owe it to yourself to think things through. Either that or just agree with everything I think. The world would be such a better place. Plus I’d probably have a better love life.

In Philosophy of Language by William P. Alston, the primary focus is semantics. The book deals with more than just the meaning of words, however. It covers a lot of ground, yet it’s surprisingly user friendly. One of the many interesting points Alston raises is that the more detailed or specific our claim, the less sure we can be about its accuracy. For example, while we might safely suppose that city life carries with it an added anxiety contrasted with country life, when we try to specify the size of such a city and/or the degree to which someone's anxiety manifests, we become less sure. Or consider the fact that pain relievers relieve pain. No one would argue with that. Yet the moment we specify which pain relievers do this and to what degree the pain is relieved, even when backed up with rigorous studies, we become less certain. His point being that claims, stated generally, are impervious to careful scrutiny by mere virtue of their ambiguity. Yet the more particular or specific those claims become, the less sure we can be about their alleged accuracy or truth.

That’s only one aspect to semantics and only a minor point in the book. So it’s not as if I’ve spoiled the experience for you if you decide to grab a copy. One of the reasons some readers avoid these types of books is because unlike with a paperback novel, you may often find yourself pausing, nodding, frowning, tapping your chin, and knotting your brows when thinking about the issues these sorts of books raise. Rolling a particularly tasty, mental morsel around in your mouth before swallowing it takes time. Some simply don’t have that kind of interest or patience or mental stamina.

Before you say critical thinking is for chumps, remember those friends of yours who disagree with you about those silly views you hold so dear. Don’t you want to prove them wrong? Philosophy is a great tool for breaking down confusing and controversial issues and at the very least making better sense of them. While philosophy isn’t for everyone, if you vote or find yourself posting memes on Facebook about the meaning of life or how the other political party is so full of it, you owe it to yourself and others to study some political or moral philosophy. Empower yourself with knowledge and the ability to reason, and quit going for the easy (and let’s face it, annoying) bumper sticker slogans, Thank you. The ability to not only think for yourself but articulate your own position is both a rare and precious skill few regard or appreciate anymore. You’ll certainly have the upper hand. Not that words will always win out. Sometimes you just gotta throw food.

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