Strict Certainty Will Kill Your Thought, Research Time, 28/01/2014

To start, a note about Graham Priest himself, in addition to the praise I heaped on him yesterday: Having finished Beyond the Limits of Thought, I wish there was more of it. But his point in writing the book was to demonstrate that people have been writing about true contradictions for centuries, and that true contradictions occur when people try to think about the limits of human thought. Because when we conceive of those limits, we face the phenomenon of having to go beyond what we identify as a limit of thought in order to identify that limit.

The most obvious illustration of this idea is in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. All of his work has the common theme of identifying and proving that philosophy has limits. One of the reasons I was drawn to Wittgenstein more than anyone else in the Analytic tradition when I first began learning the history of philosophy. But I was also disturbed by his conclusions, and the conclusions of those like him in identifying the slipperiness of meaning, and therefore the slipperiness of truth.

Priest’s last chapters about Willard Quine and Donald Davidson also describe ideas that I found disturbing when I was young. The idea that the meanings of words couldn’t be fully determined, that there would always be uncertainty in communication and even uncertainty in the meanings of words themselves unsettled me. When I first learned about the inevitably shakiness of language, I thought this was a problem that needed to be solved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a very neurotic man
who was a great theorist of knocking
down the pretensions of certainty.
I smile a nostalgic smile when I think of my youthful naiveté. But it seems I’m not the only one who thought of the indeterminacy of language and meaning as a destructive conclusion. I’ve never read Saul Kripke’s book about Wittgenstein,* but Priest describes Kripke’s conclusion that Wittgenstein was a skeptic about meaning. An action can express any rule (linguistically, an utterance could express whatever meaning) that our ingenuity can formulate for it. And the same utterance can have a variety of justifications, some of which are mutually incompatible. Therefore, meaning is not a matter of conforming our utterance to the precise concept underlying it, and understanding is not a matter of knowing a precise meaning. Kripke calls is a “skeptical solution” to the problem of meaning’s indeterminacy, because Wittgenstein has the disappointing conclusion that language and meaning rest on customary practices.

* Here’s a key reason I never went into Wittgenstein studies as a specialty: the field was  so fucking immense with secondary material, it intimidated me away from it. I’m usually not one to become irritated. But when I send articles for review, I often get the response from some reviewer who’s a specialist in a writer I refer to, that I should read X’s book about this writer. I sometimes think they’re talking about their own book. But there was so much secondary material written about Wittgenstein that I didn’t think I’d be able to sort through it all without devoting myself entirely to the exegesis of Wittgenstein for my career. I wanted to do more than that. Sadly, I think the same phenomenon is happening now with Deleuze: so much secondary material is being written about him that its scale would frighten new students away from Deleuze and his ideas.

I now know this to be a better conclusion. If meaning were determinate in the sense of a strong determination of concept to word or proposition, then I can’t see how it would be possible for language to adapt or change. Hell, I can’t see how language would evolve at all. Certainty is the same as freezing, the super-stability that amounts to sterility, the stillness that amounts to being dead.

For Wittgenstein (and David Hume, and Hannah Arendt, and Gilles Deleuze), language is a matter of external action and relation. We know we understand what another person says because our response to their words elicits a happy response from the speaker, or at least the appropriate response. There is vagueness underlying all language, but this vagueness permits creativity in action, adaptability to new circumstances. Utterances and sentences aren’t disconnected from the messiness of worldly action. The drive for certainty always comes at the expense of flexibility. Just look at the certain beliefs of religious or ideological extremists: the American, Islamic, or Buddhist Taliban. Flexibility, adaptability, and change are necessary for the vitality of life, language, and meaning.

I don’t think I’m naive about this question anymore. I think Kripke might have been.

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