Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hattiangadi: Oughts and Thoughts (2007)

Front cover (from
This book, based on Anandi Hattiangadi's doctoral dissertation, embodies pretty much everything that's wrong with analytic philosophy — the scholasticism, the narrowness, the in-breeding. Opening up the book on a completely random page, I find the following example:
Similarly, if we want to explain why Jones tokened a 'horse' thought, but Smith did not, we might cite the fact that there was a horse in front of Jones but not in front of Smith. However, if there is a horse in front of both of them, but Jones is in the light and Smith is in the dark, we will cite the fact that the horse in front of Jones was well lit. In that case, it looks like it is the light rays bouncing off the horse and into Jones's eyes that caused the 'horse' thought, since the in the absence of that condition, in Smith's case, a 'horse' thought was not caused. (p. 138)
And so on. You probably get the point.

Private Commitments And Bananas

The reason why I checked out the book from the library is that it contains a discussion of the issue of normativity in semantics. In fact, its last chapter before the conclusion is called "Is Meaning Normative?" (ch. 7).

Hattiangadi doesn't think so. Her argument comes in three species:
  1. Meaning can't be based on prescriptions, promises, conventions, etc. because that would only work if you could already understand those prescriptions, promises, conventions, etc. So they would presuppose meaning (pp. 193–97).
  2. If you assume that norms are somehow a matter of personal, private, inner commitments, there's a lot of stuff that doesn't make sense: "Eating a banana instead of an apple does not mean that I have failed to do what I ought to do in anything other than the trivial sense that I have violated the hypothetical imperative conditional on my intention" (p. 201). This argument often co-occurs with the character Matilda, who is a notorious liar.
  3. Since norms and rules are only negative and restrictive, they won't generalize, for some reason: "The rule that tells me to apply 'horse' only to horses does not tell me that 'horse' applies to all horses" (p. 206).
Those all seem to be pretty bad arguments. The first one, in particular, is an exact parallel to the often-used argument against relativism which, like St. Anselm's proof of God's existence, can be used to support any theory of meaning or knowledge, however whacky.

No comments :

Post a Comment