The Fear of Instability

Ilkka Pättiniemi

While Ilmari is dealing with the errors of empiricism (an endeavour on which I hope to contribute), I will continue diagnosing the realist’s condition. There is of course the idea that if we are not in touch with the really real, then anything goes. That is, a straightforward fear or relativism. But there is also a related fear, the fear that if we do not have solid, unquestinable grounds on which to build, things will be unstable – we will not be able to rely on anything. It is this fear that I wish to address.

We earlier encountered the worry that mere conventions will not support enough weight to do any actual work in our enquiry. Conventions, after all (we are told), can be – are – quite arbitrary. Related is the fear that if language is not built on solid foundations all talk will be rendered meaningless, will be but noise. Enter, again, one of my heroes, Lewis Carroll. In Through the Looking-Glass (1871[1999]) Carroll uses the character of Humpty Dumpty to highlight the problems of a use-based semantics:

‘As I was saying, that seems to be done right — though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now — and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents —’

‘Certainly,’ said Alice.

‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Carroll (1871[1999])

Alice, more than reasonably, doubts that words can be made to do such things. Even Humpty Dumpty’s assurance that he pays words double for double duty, is not enough to alleviate Alice’s – our – fears. ‘Glory’ simply does not mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’!

Though the worry of relativism is evident here, a deeper worry is that on this view meaning is unstable. And if this were what the purveyors of use theories of meaning, and of conventionalism, were selling, then we should not give them the time of day. But ‘conventional’ and ‘based on use’ do not mean arbitrary. Nor do they mean without criteria. (Unless, of course, we start using them that way!) As long as we are able to keep our meanings and conventions fixed enough for long enough times, communication, classification – and science, are possible. They will grant us stability enough. Certainly we will not have an eternal, ahistorical ground on which to build, as the realist might hope, but Venice has stood for ages without comparable grounds, and – I propose – so will science.

Carroll, Lewis (1871[1999]). Through the Looking-Glass, in The Complete Lewis Carroll, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions (1999). 

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

One thought on “The Fear of Instability

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