Rules? What Rules?

Christopher Hurtado —  January 15, 2010 — Leave a comment
Rules? What Rules? | Christopher Hurtado

Introduction

Strawson argued that Russell conflated meaning and reference because Russell held that to be meaningful, expressions and sentences had to have a reference. Russell argued that for every meaningful piece of language there has to be a chunk of reality to which it refers, even if it is just a propositional function. Strawson asserted that the meaning of a word is not its reference, but the rules for the use of that word. Prima facie, this seems like it might work with indexicals, if not with with non-indexicals. However, I will argue that, despite the intuitive appeal of  Strawson’s theory, he is ultimately begging the question in arguing against Russell. Rules for the use of words, whether indexical or non-indexical, cannot be significantly specified without relying on Russellian reference.

Background

A perennial problem in the philosophy of language is how expressions and sentences with no reference have meaning. For example, the sentence “The king of France is wise” is meaningful even though France is no longer a monarchy. “The king of France” is the subject of the sentence. So, if the sentence is meaningful, it is about the king of France. But if France is no longer a monarchy, then what is the sentence about? Furthermore, according to Russell, if the sentence is meaningful, it must be either true or false. If the king of France is wise, then the sentence is true. If the king of France is not wise, it is false. But for the sentence to be true or false, France would have to be a monarchy. In 1905, Russell gave a theory to explain the meaning of sentences with no reference in On Denoting. In it, he proposed an answer to both of the above paradoxes.

Russell’s theory solved the paradox of meaning in sentences with no reference by distinguishing grammatical and logical form. Russell argued that, though “the king of France” is the grammatical subject of “The king of France is wise,” it is not the logical subject. The logical subject, Russell argued, is the propositional function “x is male and x is sovereign over France.” Thus, the proposition expressed does not contain a non-existent monarch, but the propositional functions “’x is male and x is sovereign over France and x is wise’ is sometimes true.” And “’if y is male and y is sovereign over France, then x=y’ is always true.” As for the truth value of the sentence, Russell argued that it is clearly false since France is no longer a monarchy.

In 1950, in On Referring, Strawson rejected Russell’s 1905 theory in On Denoting. Strawson argued that Russell had conflated meaning and reference. This, Strawson argued, was clearly in error. Strawson contended that it was not the case that the grammatical form of “The King of France is wise” is not that of a subject-predicate proposition, rejecting Russell’s theory of logical propositions. Strawson gave his own theory to solve the paradoxes of reference and truth value in sentences like “The king of France is wise” where France has no king. His theory is based on pragmatics.

Strawson’s solution to the paradoxes of the meaning and truth value of expressions and sentences with no reference is the distinction among “expressions/sentences,” “uses of expressions/sentences” and “utterances of expressions/sentences.”  Strawson argued that one and the same sentence could be uttered at different times and that its meaning and truth value would vary depending on when the utterance was made. For example, if the utterance of the sentence “The king of France is wise” had been made in 1643, “The king of France” would have a reference – Louis XIV, who was male and French sovereign from 1643 to 1715 – and the  sentence “The king of France is wise” would have a truth value depending on whether Louis XIV were, in fact, wise.

Strawson argued that meaning is a function of expressions and sentences but that their references are a function of their uses. Strawson based his argument on uniquely referring uses, or egocentric expressions. For example, “I.” Strawson argued that it is logically impossible for two people to use an expression or a sentence with the word “I” in the same way since it can only be used to refer to oneself. Therefore, it does not refer to any particular person. Thus, the reference of the word “I” in any expression or sentence including it depends entirely on the use of the expression or sentence. The meaning of an expression or sentence, in Strawson’s own words, “is to give general directions for its use to refer to or mention particular objects or persons” (Strawson 327).

Strawson theorizes that meaning is use, not reference. He claims that if you look at the sentence “the present king of France is bald,” you cannot say it is true or false unless you know when it is used. He further argues that this shows that sentences are not true or false, uses are. Meaning is given by rules for using words. Strawson’s two key points are (1) the word/use or sentence/use distinction and (2) rules for correctly using them. For Strawson, when you say, “the king of France is short,” when there is no king of France and ask whether the statement is true, you have not used the “the king of France” correctly.

Argument

Although Strawson’s theory of rules for use of words has some intuitive appeal, I will now argue that such rules cannot be specified significantly. Or, when they are specified, they end up relying on Russell’s view of meaning. To be tenable, Strawson’s theory requires rules for the use of words that do not depend on references. On the face of it, my suspicion is that when you start to articulate rules for use of words, you are going to end up talking about a referent. The problem is that if Strawson’s theory depends on references, then he has begged the question in arguing against Russellian reference. Strawson’s rules for use cannot depend on Russellian references for Strawson’s theory to hold water.

The rule for an indexical can be given, but, when I try to understand this rule, I then have to appeal to Russellian reference. For example, the rule for the use of the word “I” is: “I” is used reflexively by the person speaking. However, when I try to understand the rule, I then have to appeal to the Russellian reference of “person” to understand the rule. In the case of words like “yellow,” which are not indexical, I cannot even articulate the rule for their use in the first place without appealing to something like Russellian reference. The problem occurs in both the rules for the use of indexicals and the rules for the use of non-indexicals. Rules for the use of indexicals can be stated, but when we try to clarify these rules, we end up relying on Russellian references. Rules for the non-indexicals cannot even be stated without relying on Russellian references.

Indexicals

Let us first examine rules for indexicals. Rules for the use of words that do not depend on references may exist in the case of rules for the use of indexicals like “I” and “this.” “I” refers to the person speaking. That is the rule for its use. “This” refers to an object ostensively identified by a person speaking where the object in question is near the person speaking, as opposed to “that,” which refers to an object removed from the person speaking. These are the rules for the use of “this” and “that.” But what about “person?” What are the rules for the use of the word “person”? And how can I understand the rules given for “I,” “this,” and “that” without understanding the rule for the use of the word “person”? If Strawson replies by saying that a person is that which belongs to the group of humans, then he sounds just like Russell (“x is human”). Now, if there were some other way to define indexicals but by reference to the persons using them, Strawson’s theory might work for indexicals. The problem is that there is not.

Non-indexicals

Rules for the use of non-indexicals cannot even be stated in the first place without depending on something like Russellian reference. Non-indexical words like “yellow” require a rule that directly involves reference. When I make a unique reference like “the person wearing yellow,” how does “yellow” refer to any particular object? What are the rules for its use? If Strawson answers that “yellow” stands for yellowness, then he sounds just like Russell again. And what about “person”? As demonstrated above, there is also no way to give a rule for  the use of the word “person” without something like Russellian reference.

To give another example, let us say I make a unique reference like “the person in the yellow convertible.” In addition to the problems specifying rules for the use of the words “person” and “yellow,” Strawson must now articulate a rule for the use of the word “convertible” that does not depend on Russellian reference. A convertible is “a car having a folding or detachable roof.” That is the rule for the use of the word “convertible” when referring to cars. But how am I to understand “car” and  “roof” without something like Russellian reference? Pragmatics may tell us that the word“convertible” in “the person in the yellow convertible” refers to a car, but they can’t tell us what a car is.

Conclusion

Given the examples above, Strawson’s theory of rules for the use of words does not work. In rejecting Russellian reference in favor of his own theory of rules for the use of words, Strawson is begging the question against Russell. Any rules specified, whether they be rules for the use of indexicals like “I,” “this,” or “that;” or  non-indexicals like “yellow” or “convertible” end up relying on Russellian reference. Strawson’s theory ultimately depends on Russell’s. When you articulate the rules for indexicals like “I,” “this,” and “that,” you end up with other words like “person” that need a referent, or, in the case of non-indexal words like “yellow,” and “car” you cannot even state the rule for their use without reference in the first place.

Works Cited

Russell, Bertrand. “On Denoting.” The Philosophy of Language. 5th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 230-38. Print
Strawson, P.F. “On Referring.” The Philosophy of Language. 5th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 246- 60. Print

Works Consulted

Russell, Bertrand. “On Denoting.” The Philosophy of Language. 5th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 230-38. Print
Strawson, P.F. “On Referring.” The Philosophy of Language. 5th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 246- 60. Print

Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.

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