Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Linguistic Puzzle

Say you read something meaningful—e.g. ‘my tabletop is flat’—where’s the meaning? A fairly standard answer is that in that case, it’s a proposition whose constituents are the tabletop and something like the property of, or the extension of, being flat. That is, the meaning is in the flatness of the tabletop. A philosophical problem is to connect my tabletop and these words, these patterns of light and dark. All you get from me is patterns of light and dark. Never mind how I came to produce them. Unless they’re like words in a book of magic spells, all they are is stuff in the world exhibiting such patterns. Any meaning they have for you must be put into them by you. The paradox is that you read words to get from them someone else’s meanings. You often know, on reading something really meaningful—e.g. a great novel—that you’re not just getting back what you put into reading the words, not just a rearrangement of what (since you can read the words) you already knew. That’s the paradox; the puzzle is how analytic philosophy hopes to resolve such matters.

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