Say Show Elucidate

(Another class handout. Last one for a while, I promise.)

Let’s think more about saying and showing—and about elucidating. To do so, I want to use an example of Edmund Dain’s but to situate it in a little more detail.

Imagine that you have been thinking about metaphysics.  After a long, brow-knit silence, you intone:  “There are objects.”  I have been sitting next to you, drinking coffee and losing to myself at tic-tac-toe.  I close my notebook full of x’s and o’s and look at you, puzzled.  “Huh?”

Again you intone, with increased metaphysical drama:  “There are objects.” 

I can tell that you regard what you are saying as urgent, so I try to understand:  “Huh?”

You sigh, shaking your head at the hardness of mine, and you explain:  “Descartes, you know doubt recall, quested heartily for something that was clear and distinct, indubitable.  He hit upon ‘I think, therefore I am’.  But I have hit upon something at least as good, likely better:  ‘There are objects.’  That, my good man, is a true metaphysical principle.  It survives even the furies of the evil genius.  After all, if the evil genius fools me, then HE fools ME.  There are objects, you see, him and me.  I cannot be mistaken if I believe that there are objects.  And notice how cleverly I have escaped Cartesian subjectivity.  No need to talk of thinking at all.  No need to find a path from in here to out there.  I start out there.  Me, the good genius, and him, the evil genius.  Just objects, only objects; there are objects.  There are objects.”

I say that I do not understand.  “What do you mean, ‘objects’?  I don’t get it.  If you tell me that ‘There are objects that fell’ in answer to my question, ‘What made that noise?’ I would understand.  I would know how to symbolize it even, after taking my logic class:  ‘(Vx) (Fx)’.  Or if you said, pointing to the fruit on the table here, ‘There are apples’, I would understand that, too:  ‘(Vx) (Gx)’.  But you don’t seem to be telling me anything about objects—like, they fell—or telling me that there are certain sorts of objects—like, apples—you are telling me what?”

You look disappointed.  As usual, I have failed to match the seriousness of your thinking.

“I wish you had never taken that logic class.  It has ruined you for thinking.  You now just monger symbols.  –Anyway, when I say ‘There are objects’, I mean that there are objects.  And if I must resort to symbols to explain this to you, then I symbolize my indubitable thus:  ‘(Vx) (Ox)’.”

“Huh.  So you mean ‘There are objects’ to be like ‘There are apples’.  But then what is the variable in your symbolization doing?  In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says something about how ‘object’ talk, when used rightly, is expressed symbolically by variable names.  So, if I want to say ‘There are two objects which…’ I say it by ‘(Vx, y)…’  I can thus predicate something of the ‘objects’.  For example, when I symbolize ‘There are apples’ as ‘(Vx) (Gx)’ I can elucidate that by saying ‘There’s an x such that x is an apple’.  So your symbolizing of your indubitable could be elucidated in a parallel way:  ‘There is an x such that x is an object.’  But notice that your use of ‘object’ there is predicative, as my use of ‘apple’ is.  Is that what you want, to predicate ‘( ) is an object’ of some x?’

You look puzzled.  “Well, I am not quite sure.  That seems like what I want and it does not seem like what I want.  I am unsure that I want a predicative use of ‘object’.  That seems to make the objects I am talking about too robust, too spatio-temporal, too ordinary.  When I say that there are objects, although I am glad to be right because there are apples or because there are alligators, I take it that such objects as apples and alligators are not the best examples of my objects.  I want objects that are less robust, less spatio-temporal, less ordinary.  The more I think about it, I am not sure that I really mean to be using ‘object’ predicatively.  I am using ‘object’, not to predicate, but rather to indicate that which is the subject of predications.  I want to symbolize it in a way that resembles the symbolization of ‘There are objects that fell’, ‘(Vx) (Fx)’.”

“Oh.  Huh.  But what do you want to predicate of your ‘objects’?  The sentence you mean to be analogous to your indubitable predicates ‘fell’ of the ‘object’.  But your indubitable lacks any such predicate.  I don’t understand what you want.”

“Well,” you say, now becoming exasperated, “this is what happens when you mix logic and metaphysics.  Philosophy consists of two parts, metaphysics and logic—and the metaphysics is the basis of philosophy.  How do I want to symbolize my indubitable?  Like this:  ‘(Vx) ([ ]x)’.  There.  That. Says. It.”

“It does?” I ask.  “I don’t think that says it.  I don’t think that says anything at all.  I understand that you want it to say something, in fact, to somehow say your indubitable.  But, as it stands, with the  ‘[ ]’, it is a propositional variable, not a proposition.  We need a predicate.  I also understand that, as it stands, it seems indubitable, but that is because, since it fails to be a proposition, no one can take a propositional attitude toward it. Cheap indubitability, as it were.”

“Ok.  I suppose I concede that.  I must want something else:  maybe ‘(Vx)’, just that.  But that looks weird.”

“Yeah.  Frege would’ve regarded that as a monstrosity.  But I see, in a way, what is happening to you.  But there isn’t really anything you are saying when you say ‘There are objects’.  You are drawn both to what Wittgenstein calls the ‘pseudo-concept’ use of ‘object’—the one replaced by the variable—and to some other use of ‘object’, a use on which it means something like ‘anything that can be carried’.  But the problem is that neither of those is really what you want.  The first won’t let you say anything, and so won’t let you say enough; the second lets you say something, but it says too much.  An isolated quantifier is a monstrosity; it says nothing.  A propositional variable says nothing; but it at least provides a kind of stencil for saying something.  But the predicative use of ‘object’ seems wrong too.  I wonder if part of the reason why your indubitable seems indubitable to you is that is not only seems to say something, it seems to say more than one something and, oddly enough, more than one nothing, all at once.  Depth, indeed.”

You meet this with a profound frown.  “Huh!”

Comment:  I do not take the argumentative movements in this little conversation to be obligatory.  The point is not to establish anything seriously about ‘There are objects’ but rather to provide an incarnated example of elucidation.

Much that is said in the conversation is what I call “ladder-language” (borrowing a term from Sellars).  It is language that is meant to help to show (transitively) what shows (intransitively) or does not show (intransitively) in some sentence or sentence-like structure.  Thus the language is didactically useful, but is not meant to stand—constatively—on its own.  The language is unformalizable but nonetheless tied to formalization, tied to (intransitive) showing or its failure.  (Remember, in nonsense, nothing (intransitively) shows.)  When someone comes to see clearly the symbols in a genuine sentence or when someone comes to see that there is nothing that he means by some sentence-like structure, then what was said to get him to see that has no further role to play.  All that matters is the person’s clear recognition of the sense or the nonsense.

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