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Philosophical Viruses

Richard Taylor on how language can mislead us.

Philosophers in the British tradition like to manipulate words and concepts, neglecting to consider what connection these might have, or lack, with reality. This is how they are able to invent clever philosophical arguments yielding conclusions that are presented as being true, albeit sometimes bizarre. It is this sort of intellectual exercise that evoked from Wittgenstein the exhortation “Don’t think about it, look at it!”

For example, philosophers assume that words have meanings much as birds have feathers, that they carry their meanings with them. Marks on paper and sounds in the air do not, however, have meanings as such; rather, they are used, by human beings, to convey meanings.

A simple experience drove this home to me long ago. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant I often patronized and was told that it was closed. I pointed to the sign in the window which said OPEN, to which the owner responded “That don’t mean nothing.” It seemed to me that it clearly meant that they were open, but of course the owner was right. The word was not being so used.

This common notion that words have meanings is a fertile source of errors, and often very serious ones when it comes to nouns. Over and over we find philosophers simply assuming that in the case of a true and clearly understood statement containing a noun, that noun must be the name for some thing or event and, the statement being true, that thing or event must be real. Often, however, those things do not exist at all, and strange philosophical theories are the result. This is why I call such nouns viruses. They introduce chaos into philosophy, as philosophers go merrily about their business of inventing philosophical theories that sometimes resemble elaborate jokes rather than the fruit of serious thought.

To say, for example, that I was born at a certain specified time does not entail that there is or was a time at which I was born. Times are not real, and when we speak in ways that suggest otherwise we are only using abbreviated expressions to describe the temporal relationships between actual things.

Similarly, to say that my hat, for example, has been in the same place for the last two days does not entail that there is a place where my hat has been. It is an abbreviated way of relating my hat spatially to other actual things.

Or, to cite an especially mischievous virus, if someone is described as having a quick mind, this should not be understood to imply that he has something, called a mind, which is quick. Rather, it is a way of describing the sorts of things he is able to do, such as, to see the point of a subtle joke, to balance his checkbook quickly and accurately, to solve complex puzzles ‘in his head’, perhaps to see elusive chess combinations – that sort of thing. It is, in other words, a way of alluding to his visible behavior, not the behavior of some ghost in his head.

Perhaps the strangest philosophical virus, however, is the word ‘self’. This is not really a noun or name for anything at all, and it never appears outside of philosophical literature. It is a personal suffix, detached from its pronoun, so that ‘myself’ becomes ‘my self’, henceforth to be treated as the name for some supposedly real thing and, usually, a very strange thing indeed. We are told that selves choose, that they deliberate, that they are the causes of free and responsible actions, and so on. What can a self be, however, other than a living human being, with arms and legs and head and torso – an actual physical object, in other words? When I look in a mirror I see myself or, more accurately, the reflection of myself – a physical object of undoubted reality. I am not confronted by a self, if this is supposed to be something else, some strange agent implanted within me.

I am not going to elaborate on those examples, but rather, on the class of nouns that philosophers assume designate feelings, or more specifically, the feelings of pleasure and pain. Common ways of speaking, like “I felt a pain in my foot,” are taken to imply that there is some real thing, in this case a pain, that was felt. From there a philosopher is apt to go on to note that this pain can be felt only by whoever happens to have it, that it is therefore something ‘private’, and it soon gets baptized as ‘mental’, suggesting the existence of something even more strange, a kind of theater of the mind to which the person in question has exclusive access, and so on. What has actually happened, however, is that the noun ‘pain’ has been interpreted as a name for some real thing, when in fact that is not its use at all.

Consider the word ‘pleasure’ and its cognate ‘pleasant’. Usually, when these words appear in true statements of fact, they have no reference at all to pleasures but are instead expressions of appraisal. They are in this respect like such words as ‘terrible’, ‘awful’, and ‘wonderful’. A book, for example, can be correctly described as terrible without implying that it strikes terror in anyone. A meal can be awful without inspiring feelings of awe. And something can be described as wonderful without suggesting that it evokes any sense of wonder – as when one says, for example, that he had a perfectly wonderful night’s sleep.

Similarly, if I say, truthfully, that I derive a great deal of pleasure from listening to classical music, all I am saying is that I like classical music. I am not saying that this music stirs in me feelings of pleasure, and that this is why I like it.

Or, for another example, I might say, truthfully, that I spent a pleasant afternoon walking in the woods on a warm autumn day without suggesting that I experienced any actual or felt feeling of pleasure. I am just saying that I enjoyed the afternoon.

The point I am making is even clearer, I think, if we consider the noun ‘pain’ or its cognate ‘painful’. Suppose, for example, that at a social gathering you are thrown into the company of a colossal bore. He is next to you at dinner, and manages to be at your elbow through the evening. He talks of nothing but himself and his work, his children and their achievements, on and on, showing no interest whatever in anything you might want to say. The next day you can truthfully say, “What a painful evening that was; I just couldn’t get away from that guy.” You are not at all implying here that any actual pain was felt. It would be totally inappropriate for anyone hearing this to say, for example, “Where did it hurt? Did you try aspirin? Was it a dull pain, or perhaps piercing, or throbbing?” – any of which questions would have been perfectly appropriate with respect to any actual felt pain. The speaker was using the word ‘painful’, and using it correctly in a true statement, to express his dislike for a certain situation. He was not saying that this situation evoked in him a feeling of pain, or that he disliked it because of any such feeling. What he disliked was the situation he was compelled to endure.

What, then, of pleasures and pains that are indisputably real? The feelings you are likely to get when, for example, someone scratches your back? Or drops a cement block on your foot? The pleasures and pains that result are undoubtedly real, but the philosophical theories that sometimes get spun around them resemble religious mythology more than descriptions of fact.

Someone, for example, drops a cement block on your foot, and your experience of pain is ever so real. The statement that you feel pain is certainly true, and it is not merely an appraisal. But what shall we say of that pain? That it can be felt only by you? That it is therefore something private? And therefore something nonphysical, appropriately described as mental? A kind of severe perturbation delivered to your soul?

Nothing like that is required at all. What we know to be real are your foot, the cement block, and the wound inflicted. These are all visible things. The pain here alluded to is not some additional real thing (however intensely felt), something that is hidden from the view of all but the person who feels it. It is, instead, the way you feel the wound in your foot. You are feeling that wound in a way that is appropriately described as painful. You are not feeling some additional thing, notwithstanding the fact that it is alluded to by the common noun, ‘pain’.

Thus, a physician palpating the damaged area might ask “Does this hurt? Where does it hurt?” And these are clearly questions about how something feels. They are not questions about some hidden mental thing that is privately felt. And what you do, in response, is point to the area of your foot where it (the actual wound) hurts.

True statements, literally interpreted, are sometimes beguiling things. Perhaps most of what is sometimes called philosophical psychology arises from just this source. But wisdom lies in looking beyond those statements to see what is actually being said.

© Professor Richard Taylor 2000

Richard Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York.

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