Conference Level

Undergraduate

Start Date

31-3-2017 4:30 PM

End Date

31-3-2017 4:30 PM

Abstract

The Paradox of Imprecision in Language

Abstract

This paper investigates philosophical questions bearing on the relationship between language and mind, through an analysis of the phenomenon of “efficient imprecision” in language. It is argued that language users’ ability to intuitively connect allegedly imprecise linguistic expressions with definite conceptual information presents a paradox that might lead philosophers, linguists and cognitive scientists alike to reconsider the relationship between the computational machinery of human language and its function as the vehicle of conscious thought.

Like the puzzle about the identity relation which Gottlob Frege presents in the seminal Sense and Reference (1892), which Frege is careful to frame, not in terms of the semantics of his logical language, but in terms of the “cognitive value” of the statements under discussion, the paradox of imprecision in language is not really about language itself, but about the intuitions of language users, and is therefore a philosophical problem. Obviously, an expression of natural language is either well-formed or not, and, considered in itself, can only be alleged to be imprecise relative to its own semantics, i.e. not well-formed, since the semantics of a language is internal to the language, able to be formalized entirely in linguistic terms. Therefore, the analysis focuses on cases of syntactic deviance and semantic ambiguity in which the imprecision is in principle not soluble by the language user by reference to the recursive rules of his language. If he acquires the correct cognitive content from the expression, then on what grounds is the expression alleged to be imprecise? And if the expression is not in fact imprecise, then how does the language user get the intuition that it is? Examples of the phenomenon of efficient imprecision are drawn from ordinary colloquial speech and also from slang expressions, whose function and development this analysis may help to explain.

After analyzing this apparent paradox, the paper concludes by briefly sketching some possible consequences bearing on broader philosophical topics of questions raised in the course of the analysis; in particular, that the process of acquiring information from such expressions, with which our everyday language is filled, may in fact be the central activity involved in Wittgenstein’s concept of the language-game, and that the tacit and widespread assumption among philosophers of language that human language is either a high-resolution inner “picture of the world” or a meaningless “game” is likely a fundamental fallacy.

 
Mar 31st, 4:30 PM Mar 31st, 4:30 PM

The Paradox of Imprecision in Language

The Paradox of Imprecision in Language

Abstract

This paper investigates philosophical questions bearing on the relationship between language and mind, through an analysis of the phenomenon of “efficient imprecision” in language. It is argued that language users’ ability to intuitively connect allegedly imprecise linguistic expressions with definite conceptual information presents a paradox that might lead philosophers, linguists and cognitive scientists alike to reconsider the relationship between the computational machinery of human language and its function as the vehicle of conscious thought.

Like the puzzle about the identity relation which Gottlob Frege presents in the seminal Sense and Reference (1892), which Frege is careful to frame, not in terms of the semantics of his logical language, but in terms of the “cognitive value” of the statements under discussion, the paradox of imprecision in language is not really about language itself, but about the intuitions of language users, and is therefore a philosophical problem. Obviously, an expression of natural language is either well-formed or not, and, considered in itself, can only be alleged to be imprecise relative to its own semantics, i.e. not well-formed, since the semantics of a language is internal to the language, able to be formalized entirely in linguistic terms. Therefore, the analysis focuses on cases of syntactic deviance and semantic ambiguity in which the imprecision is in principle not soluble by the language user by reference to the recursive rules of his language. If he acquires the correct cognitive content from the expression, then on what grounds is the expression alleged to be imprecise? And if the expression is not in fact imprecise, then how does the language user get the intuition that it is? Examples of the phenomenon of efficient imprecision are drawn from ordinary colloquial speech and also from slang expressions, whose function and development this analysis may help to explain.

After analyzing this apparent paradox, the paper concludes by briefly sketching some possible consequences bearing on broader philosophical topics of questions raised in the course of the analysis; in particular, that the process of acquiring information from such expressions, with which our everyday language is filled, may in fact be the central activity involved in Wittgenstein’s concept of the language-game, and that the tacit and widespread assumption among philosophers of language that human language is either a high-resolution inner “picture of the world” or a meaningless “game” is likely a fundamental fallacy.