April 10, 2013

Face value

This is in response to David Cockburn’s comment on my previous blog. David wrote:

There is something not so very far from what we might call a ‘face value’ of certain sequences of words. (The ‘duck’ example features in the literature because it is a very obvious exception to this.) Much as there is a ‘face value’ of many facial expressions: the face suggests to us (no doubt generally defeasibly) a certain context and certain feelings. And this is important to the way in which our understanding of a situation may run through our understanding of other people. Similarly, I think, with our understanding of words. (I suspect that the grip of ‘standard’ philosophical views of language partly turns on this.)

I’m sure something like face value plays a role in our thinking about language, and in our actual linguistic communication as well. (I believe the notion is closely related to what Bernard Harrison had in mind in speaking of the autonomy of the linguistic sign in his Philosophy of Language (1979).)
                             It seems to me that one might mean several things (some of them closely related) in speaking about face value. One is this: when we encounter a sentence out of all context, say, written on a slip of paper we find in the street, we may be ready to venture an interpretation. E.g. “Caesar was a highly popular ruler.” We immediately suppose that the speaker is referring to the Roman dictator G. Iulius Caesar, who was murdered in 44 B.C. Or: “The sun’s distance from the earth is 300 million kilometers”, where we’d assume the reference was to conditions in our solar system (even though in such a case the sentence would not be true, evidently). This is not equally true of all sentences, e.g. “After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before”, to use Wittgenstein’s example from Philosophical Investigations § 525. There’s much less we’d be ready to say about the latter independently of context (I imagine it comes from a telling of Rumpelstiltskin).
                             These are mere psychological facts, though. In fact, the sentences containing “Caesar” and “the sun”, above, don’t actually refer, since they owe their existence simply to occurring as example sentences in this blog.  It wouldn’t make sense to say that the first sentence “really” or “probably” refers to the Roman dictator, or that “we can’t know” whether it does.
                             Another thing one might mean by face value is something like this. We probably have something like default responses to things we hear. That is, unless the context gives any indication, or an indication to the contrary, speakers of a language are likely to take what is said in such and such a way in preference to some other particular way. Thus, among a certain group of speakers, if they catch the word “cricket”, they’re more likely to assume that the topic of conversation is the game rather than the insect. But this can hardly be a general rule of the language; for in another group, the opposite might be true. (Of course, certain default expectations might be near universal.)
                             Very often, in practice, I would imagine that what’s at play in listening to someone speak is a kind of dialectic between our expectations and the actual situation. But to me these are empirical rather than logical observations. In practice, they undoubtedly have a great role in how linguistic communication is carried on, but I don’t see why they should have a bearing on a discussion of “the meaning of meaning”. (Donald Davidson discusses such matters in “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, but I don’t see what makes it philosophy. When I insist on this, it’s not because labels matter, but because it’s important to be clear what kind of inquiry one is conducting.)
                             Be that as it may, I believe both types of face value phenomena, as David suggests, help explain the lure of much standard analytic philosophy.