Tag: objects

‘Language as representational’ on my mind

Is language representational?  The question might be more carefully phrased as, need all languages be representational languages?

That question has been on my mind a lot.  Wittgenstein’s theories (if you can call them that) regarding language are close to my own, in some important ways.  Having said that, it’s hard to really say what Wittgenstein thought regarding just how, or when, language ought to be considered as a representational system.  I’ll leave that issue aside since my primary concern in this post is only to introduce what I take to be a very insightful presentation on the matters as I see them.

The author of the Nedcricology blog introduces the problems of representationalism in a very simple but intriguing way.

I. The representational interpretation of language:

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein claims that all expressions susceptible to the ascription of truth or falsity are propositions. Propositions share the same structure and logic as states of affairs, hence their suitability for one another. Wittgenstein encourages thinking of a proposition as a picture, that we can just as easily communicate in pictoral form – and, of course, events lend themselves to being captured in picutres. Propositions represent various possible states of affairs, and true propositions represent actual states of affairs. We can accurately represent in propositional form whatever actually occurs. And added to that is Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: Whatever can be said, can be said clearly.

A few problems pop up:
a) We don’t always need “clear” pictures; not all pictures are representational or portraits – what about abstract expressionism?

b) Thinking of propositions as pictures does not entail that all meaningful sentences are pictures – what about flipping someone the bird?

c) Besides, how do propositions “match up” with states of affairs anyway?

These three problems suggest that the representational interpretation of language is either somewhat narrow or just downright incorrect. First of all, to capture someone, we (well at least I) don’t merely take portraits of them. I take a variety of pictures, and in fact sometimes even encourage them to take a few of their own pictures with my camera so I can see things from their point of view. Second, many of the ways in which we communicate involve little to no “representation,” such as when I say, “I gotta go!” and run towards the toilet. And finally, whatever connections there are between our more “representational” propositions and the world, they are not metaphysically necessary but are conventionally (and humanely, I might add!) important.

I take the third problem as the most pressing for theorists who support the idea, or rather can’t help but to presume it, that meaningful expressions necessary represent the thing(s) or states of affairs, or objects, they are ‘about’.  On the one hand, it is said that any p is true if it accurately represents the R which it is about; on the other hand, if p represents R, in virtue of what does the ‘representing’ obtain? Is it the relation of p and R, or is it it some property of one or the other only, such that it might be said that p inherently is able to represent R or R-type things?

How about propositions about mathematical entities.  ‘I think it’s a number.’ In what sense does my thought make ‘it’–the thing I am thinking of–a number or in what sense does my thought represent it as a number?  Doesn’t a number represent itself as itself without my thinking about it?  Or is its identity as a number contingent on a thought to express it as such?

Do we learn to use language representationally such that its function as a representional system is somehow more basic to its other possible functions–for instance, as ‘capable of emotive expression’ or ‘as a metaphoric system’ ?  To see how how misplaced this idea is, consider the following exchange:

Billy pointed his finger at the apple and said it look rotten.


Billy: <points finger at the apple> It’s rotten!


Billy says, as he points his finger at the apple, “That’s rotten”

Do all three expressions refer equally to the same state of affairs and if so, just what is that state?  On some level, it might appear that yes, the three expression do equally refer to the same state of affairs–namely, the state of affairs containing the individual Billy, who points to a particular apple and exclaims that it is rotten.

Then again it isn’t clear, is it, that in each case, the order of events is always the same.  For instance, in the third expression, the simultaneity of Billy’s act of saying and his act of pointing is emphasized whereas the matter isn’t completely settled in the first instance.  Does that mean that the first expression is comparatively lacking in descriptive value?

Perhaps the first expression is uttered in a different circumstance than the second.  The second looks as it if it belongs in a play, or in some sort of written dialogue.  The third looks more appropriate to a novel.  The first looks hard to place.  But then maybe they each represent different states of affairs, but if that’s the case, then how could we justifiably say that they mean more or less the same thing?

In any event, please do check out the post on the nedricology blog since it presents the case against ‘language as representational’ in a simple but sophisticated way.


Support for ‘theories of propositional attitudes and their objects’? I think not

8.What is the point of Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘it is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact’? Does it improve on other accounts of the relation between propositional attitudes and their objects?

The above question is from what looks to be either a class-related website or a site dedicated to a follow-up discussion for some presentation on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.  Credit goes to Oxford University–you can view it here–but I have no clue who the author is.  Anyway, it raises some interesting issues.

What immediately comes to my mind is the fact that it presupposes a degree of relevance concerning ‘accounts of the relationship between propositional attitudes and their objects’.  But my reading of that quote doesn’t really include ‘objects’ in the sense of ‘referents’ or ‘that which an extensional expression or word is causally connected to’.  It appears that Wittgenstein is refuting the idea that there is some epistemic relationship between ‘what is expected’ and the ‘mental state called ‘to expect’.

I might rephrase the above to something like the following: “it is within language–and not ‘[merely] expressible within language’ or represented in language–that an expectation and its fulfillment ‘make contact'”.  Properly speaking, any talk of the relation between ‘an object’ and ‘the state that has that object as referent’ is made possible, already presupposed by, the language that makes that relation intelligible in the first place. I take that quote as dismissive to the account of language and meaning which says that intentional states are representative of the objects they are ‘about’ or ‘directed towards’, to put it one way.

The connection between ‘state’ and ‘object’ is fulfilled within language, not merely explained by it.  Language doesn’t merely serve the function of explaining the causal link between a state and what the state is about: language is necessary for the relation in the first place.  In that sense, language is as much responsible for the relation as the state and the object conjointly.

Its hard for me to take the quote in context, since I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, though it does look familiar to me–I may have seen it reproduced in Philosophical Grammar. But given what I just elaborated on, it would seem unreasonable to presume that the quote above improves or fails to improve upon theories of propositional attitudes and their objects.  Indeed, the quote seems to criticize talk of ‘theories of propositional attitudes and their objects’ since it presumes language ‘represents’ what already existed ‘absent it’.

My answer to the question, then, is that the quote above undermines the fundamental distinction between ‘word and object’ or ‘intentional state’ and ‘intentional object’.   Or put another way: it dissolves the fundamental difference between state and object (and more generally, between word and object)–a distinction that is necessary to ask that question in the first place.  So in that sense, does the above quote improve upon it?  I have no idea.