Thursday, 8 March 2018

'Metaphorical Truth'? Three Frontiers for a Sharper Metalinguistic Negotiation Toolkit

I have recently been thinking about verbal disputes, a topic which has seen an increase in philosophical attention over the last few years. I began to think more about them when confronted with some debates involving public intellectuals on the idea of truth. Roughly, some prefer what I call an 'austere' conception of truth, which does not for instance allow that a single claim with a given meaning is false in some "literal" sense while true in some other "metaphorical", mythological, metaphysical, or higher sense. Others prefer a more capacious conception of truth, which does let us say things like 'That may not be literally or scientifically true, but it is metaphorically true: this idea can guide us in the world and help us'. (This is interestingly different from pragmatism about truth as normally discussed within philosophy, since it retains a plain conception of truth which need not be thought of in pragmatic terms at all, but can be thought of as correspondence to the facts, and then has a separate stratum of truths, or a separate way of being true.)

Now, I would like to discuss this particular dispute further in future, applying in detail some of the thoughts which follow. In this post I will outline some general ideas about what I call 'tenacious verbal disputes', which I think show how complex and multi-faceted such disputes can be, and may help furnish us with a toolkit for better engaging with, arbitrating, and understanding them.

Tenacious verbal disputes are different from 'merely' verbal disputes - roughly, ones which dissolve once their nature becomes clear. Tenacious verbal disputes do not so dissolve. I think that many philosophical disputes are tenacious verbal disputes, and that many (if not all) tenacious verbal disputes are normative, ethical, or pragmatic disputes about how to use words (and symbols, and pictures).

It is merely verbal disputes that Chalmers spends most of his time on in his agenda-setting 'Verbal Disputes' paper of 2011. He does, however, say some insightful things about what Peirce called "the ethics of terminology" - how we should use words - but this is a very brief glance made during the fourth entry in a list of four things that ordinary language philosophy can do. 

The sort of thing I am interested in here has been discussed, especially by Plunkett and Thomasson, under the umbrella 'metalinguistic negotiation'. Some of their discussions are more in terms of what concepts we should use, rather than how we should use certain given representations, but such discussions are obviously still relevant. (Here it's helpful to distinguish between repertoire and deployment. If I want to use a term X in a certain way but my opponent wants to use it another, I may still want to have the concept they want to attach X to on board, but just in a less central place.) Or what concepts we should use for some 'task at hand'. (But sometimes there's no very circumscribed task, and our disagreement surrounds a term which comes up all over the place.) In view of repertoire vs. deployment issues, and the open-ended nature of some 'jobs' that representations do, I think it is often more helpful for many disputes to frame the issue in terms of how we should use certain words, symbols, or pictures.

Here are three frontiers I see for sharpening our metalinguistic negotiation toolkit:

(1) We should not just think of the issues in terms of some indefinitely expandable 'we' - as in 'How should we use word X?'. Some ways of using words, symbols and pictures will be best for some people, others better for others. Likewise not just for different persons but different times, situations, and communities.

(2) The above point also makes it clear that there are issues of what I call contagion to consider. For example, two thinkers having a tenacious verbal dispute may actually be disposed to agree that it's horses for courses, and that maybe one disputant's usage could give them some value in certain ways, but the other party may nevertheless worry that this sort of usage, which has certain virtues in some range of application, may catch on overly and have bad effects which outweigh the good. Realising that this is the issue, when it is the issue, could help the disputants to settle the issue, or at least to stop wasting time and effort arguing about it in the wrong way.

(3) Just as, with normative issues more generally, we recognise distinctions between differences in values versus differences over how things are, and between basic and instrumental values (or at least relatively basic vs. relatively instrumental ones), we should take this sophistication and apply it to tenacious verbal disputes. Two disputants, for instance, may be unclear about whether the crux of their disagreement is that they have different views of what would actually happen if the usage at issue caught on, or that they differ in their preferences regarding a given such outcome. Getting clear about this could pay real dividends. For instance, if they manage to agree that it's largely due to different views about what would actually happen, they could then move on to investigating more thoroughly what would actually happen, using the wisdom of relevant disciplines instead of confused, frustrating arguments.


  1. Before reading the Chalmers, Plunkett and Thomasson articles, may I take as an example the term 'truth' as used in philosophy? If you have a given single sentence s1, let's say a simple descriptive claim, and the sentence has, among others, a "literal" (or better "normal") sense and a "metaphorical" sense, then, since the important relation is the one between the sense of the sentence and the objective situation referred to (the referential aspects of a descriptive sentence include more than just the subject NP, and I think Frege, e.g., allowed that), you make a judgment wrt each sense: s1 in sense 1 may be false, while s1 in sense 2 may be true. In the case of each sense, how is it determined whether or not that sense meets the criteria of "truth" with relation to the situation referred to? The notion (category) of 'truth' used must be able to evaluate both cases while also making the distinction, since metaphor is a ubiquitous feature of language use. It is not possible to understand the phenomenon of metaphor without an adequate understanding of the relation of reference. Any notion of truth that is to be used to evaluate cases such as the sentence with literal and metaphorical senses must involve evaluation of the reference relation for the two senses, as well as the appropriateness of the language used (linguistic system). The notion of 'truth' used by Tarski, Davidson or other formal semanticists can not do this. A precondition is an adequate notion of 'reference', and this requires getting rid of the restriction to definite subject NPs (an artifact of the old subject- predicate as reference- predication conception from traditional grammar) and recognizing that the entire core propositional content of a descriptive sentence, e.g., has a referential relation to an intentional object outside of the linguistic act of meaning. So, the terms 'reference' and 'truth' as theoretical notions have to be adjusted in order to handle the epistemic demand of figuring out how language "hooks onto the world", to use Putnam's phrase. You can't answer this kind of question using formal modeling.


  2. In addition to the articles cited above, just out in the journal Erkenntnis is an article by Inga Vermeulen, "Verbal disputes and the varieties of verbalness" (Erkenntnis (2018) 83:331-348).