Universals and Meaning As Use

Take the sentence “Fido is a dog.” From this, we are entitled to infer various other sentences by substituting for a subsentential component. Thus we are entitled to infer “Fido is a mammal.” We are also entitled to infer “My pet is a dog.” The difference is that the latter inference is reversible, while the former is not. From “Fido is a mammal” we are not entitled to infer that “Fido is a dog,” whereas we can infer “Fido is a dog” from “My pet is a dog.” The particular, in other words, is that segment of the sentence that has symmetric substitution relations, while the universal is the one that does not. It is this symmetry that gives us the notion of different particulars being “coreferential,” and out of that, the very idea that there is an object to which singular terms refer.

Joseph Heath

This simple insight just saved you hours of cannabis fueled dorm room philosophy debates about the existence of universals. You’re welcome.

The key all along was to think of the meaning or content of a word as being derived from its use in a sentence—that is, from its contribution to a judgment. And judgments are things we do. They are actions… speech actions, like the act of asserting something. Just as a valid chess move is governed by shared rules over permissible actions rather than the intrinsic properties of a chess piece itself, shared rules of inference and judgment govern valid moves in discourse, rather than the intrinsic properties of words and concepts—much less the arbitrary phonemes that attach to them.

Leonardo_polyhedra[1]

It’s easy to see how this resolves a lot of the problems created by the other school of thought, the one that locates meaning and content in reference, in sign and signified. If meaning comes from reference, then what does the universal “dog” mean absent its particular instantiations? Platonists thought the question demanded there must be an ideal dog, an abstract object with reality just as real as the particular Fido on your lap, perhaps an idea in the mind of God. Nominalists rightly thought that was absurd, and so instead posited that universals are just names that refer to particular things with common properties—preserving the same meaning as reference that led Plato down the wrong track in the first place.

It’s edifying to realize thousands of pages of scholarship, and centuries of debate within Medieval Europe, stemmed from a confusion generated by the inferential structure of ordinary language. Indeed, the failure to make meaning as reference “work” as a theory, combined with the odd resistance to giving it up, has led generations of “semioticians” to radical conclusions like nihilism, post-structuralism, and moral error theory, when it turns out the starting premise was unmotivated in the first place.

Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box analogy provides a great illustration of the basic idea. It shows how we can talk meaningfully about concepts, i.e. signs, even without direct access to the private, subjective perception of the thing “signified”. Instead, the shared, public meaning of any given word (like beetle) is given by its use, its pragmatics, particularly in the context of a sentence.

That’s why Wittgenstein argued a language can never be totally private. The rules of discourse, like the rules of chess, only make sense insofar as they are shared. Sure, you could invent a new board game with all new rules that only you know. But when you make a move in a game that no one else around you can recognize you might as well be speaking gibberish.

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Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.

Tree-in-Flower-near-Vetheuil

Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.


I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.