“But is it really an X?”

Consider non-human animals and language. Does any other species have language?

To start with, what we pretty much know is that various non-human animals do have ways of communicating with each other (and some have been taught sign language, about which we could ask another similar question, “do they really use language?) — and that other species don’t have complicated languages like we do. (Putting aside Cetaceans — dolphins and whales — whom there may be some actual uncertainty about.)

Now, suppose some people are arguing about whether “animals” really have language or not. They may be so vague about it that we don’t know, based on the above, which one is right; when they say “language”, what does it mean? Is a system of communication enough? Does it have to be just like human language? Is the line somewhere between, and where? If you don’t know, what’s the point of the whole discussion?

They may end up defining what they mean by “language”, at least as the discussion proceeds. This may reflect what it turns out each person can claim rather than by what they were thinking in the first place. For example, one party might have at first said that animals never form anything like sentences, but if they didn’t say that already and then heard that some animals do combine their equivalent of “words” into meaningful strings (I’m not even sure whether that’s actually true), they might, even if unknowingly, shift the goalposts and say that, okay, they can do that, but that’s not enough to have a language, you need to do something else like refer to objects that are not present.

Anyways, the parties in the debate might define what they mean by language — and they might continue arguing even if they don’t mean the same thing by it. The “no they don’t” guy might define language as having a complicated grammar like human language, whereas the “yes they do” guy might say that it’s enough to have a system of communication. Now, clearly both are right about animals (not) having that thing that they’re talking about. But still they continue to ague about whether it’s really language.

A few things have to be said about what makes this kind of debate meaningful and not meaningful. For a start, is the debate about the world, or about just the word? Bearing in mind that words are just something that have evolved (or invented in some cases) to have meaning to us, but wouldn’t have such meaning if we didn’t give it to them, then arguing about what’s really language could be seen as an argument about what the word “language” means. In that case saying “that’s not real language” would mean that it’s not how people use the word “language”, or not how experts define it.

That’s a debate you could have, but this would probably not be about that. Even asking the question about language of non-human animals shifts the framework a bit, because unless they’re talking cartoon animals, they probably won’t have exactly the same kind of language as humans do. Thus, the question is probably not even interesting to ask in the first place unless we allow “language” to be a more fuzzy term. Words are, anyway; with words in normal language, there’s usually no clear definition but a lot of fuzzy edges.

All right, so is the debate about the world? Wait, how can it be? If you’re not debating the definition, you should accept different definitions, and thus people knowing they use the word “language” to mean different things shouldn’t have to disagree when they would agree if you paraphrased the word “language” with those descriptions.

Well, there is a way you can still be talking about the world, albeit you’re also talking about the word at the same time. That’s when you’re saying something in the lines that the world is such that some things exist as meaningful entities and others don’t, and there’s no sense in using the word to refer to a collection of things that don’t actually have much in common when there’s a better collection that fits the way the word has been more casually used. How would this apply in this case, though? Actually there are ways, but that’s not what I was thinking of when coming up with the example, and there’s no point in prolonging this by going into that here when it’s not the point I want to make. (See the point on ontological questions below, though.)

So, to summarise: When people are arguing whether something is really X (like language), they could sensibly

  • Have the same definition in mind and disagree about facts.
  • Talk about the word and disagree about its common meaning.
  • Talk about how the word is best used (when it’s fuzzy or contradictory in normal usage).

Often, though, it seems there’s a fourth motivation, or a trace of it:

  • Really talking about how things should be valuated and (less than logically) use the word as a shorthand for that.

So, the person who says that non-human animals do have language might be sympathetic towards them and want to emphasize how they should be treated more like equals, or be fascinated by the idea of their communication and want to emphasize it, or what have you. The one who opposes the idea might be unsympathetic towards animals and want to posit them as Other or wary of being “unscientific” or otherwise careful of anthropomorphism, etc. When they say “language”, they don’t just mean what they’re verbally effectively defining it as, but a bunch of other things like “and that’s really interesting” or “and it’s significant”.

This can happen in all kinds of cases with different words. A word has some particular weight in our minds, and then we argue about the weight when we’re supposed to argue about the world. Sometimes it even makes sense. Suppose we were arguing about whether something is real science; then it might be that whether it is tells us whether it can be trusted. But even there, it’s easy to see how it could go wrong. The English word “science” is weighted towards the natural sciences. If you were having the argument about whether something — a field of humanities, say — is real science, and you were saying that it’s not because it’s not enough like natural science, but the conclusion you wanted was it was not really reliable, then you’d be equivocating. You’d also be hiding your premiss that a field of study must have the methods of natural science to be reliable. That’s largely an ideological premiss. There are other methods. You might not know those — which certainly doesn’t give you the right to judge them. There are so many details in this example, too, that could be discussed. But making it all about what is “science”, without saying in what sense, makes it a rhetorical juggle instead of a real discussion.

You have to know what you’re talking about and say it. It’s as simple and complicated as that. Of course, we don’t usually stop to analyse every word, we just use them — but, especially when we get caught talking past each other, we need to be aware of when that’s not working. Then we have to take a step back. And if things get more complicated, the right question to ask is rarely whether something is “really an X”. Words don’t work like that, even though they can be used like that. Usually anything debated about is kind of an X in some sense — kind of like language, something like science — and should acknowledge in what sense it is. After that, it can go two ways.

Sometimes, there’s not much to add. Non-human animals have something like language, but in some ways our language is unlike theirs. Okay, whatever. There’s probably nothing to add to that, even if the participants were covertly advancing conclusions about the worth of animals or something. If they want to discuss that other thing, they should do so explicitly.

But at other times, “whether it’s really an X” is used as a premiss for a conclusion. Say, whether something is science and therefore whether it’s reliable. In such a case, you need to look at the ways in which it is and the ways in which it isn’t and see how they are relevant. In the example of humanities as sciences, the discussion might then turn to whether they need to be like natural science or not, and other evidence about their reliability. Then the one trying to put them down as not science would at least have to bring out the premiss that only “natural science” methods are reliable, and it could be contested and discussed. If things went differently, it might suffice to show what is relevant to simply dismiss a conclusion, probably as an example of the noncentral fallacy (I do recommend reading that link). If you’re saying that an X is (not) Y because X is (not) Z, but then it’s shown X is not (not) Z in the sense that leads to Z being (not) Y, the whole thing falls apart. So, suppose someone was saying that a science is a religion because it has beliefs and rituals and therefore science is not reliable as a source of knowledge because religion isn’t. Then one could point out that the rituals are not relevant to the question and the beliefs in science are tested rather than taken on faith, so there is no relevant analogy and the conclusion is nonsense.

A special mention for this problem goes to many questions in metaphysics and ontology. Do universal properties exist, or are there only particular instances of properties? Do abstract entities exist, or are they only relations between concrete entities? How you answer these questions doesn’t seem to make any difference to how you actually describe the world. What’s the difference between there existing redness in general or just a lot of instances of red colour that resemble each other? What’s the difference between there “existing” abstract entities that correspond to relations between concrete entities and their “not existing” but there still being those relations? If we were asking about whether unicorns exist, or whether some conspiracy exists, we’d know what we meant by “existing”. In those metaphysical questions, philosophers think there’s “just existence” even though they don’t have a definition for it, and then they fight over whose definition matches the “real thing”. Really the referent of any concept exists if the concept has criteria for when that kind of thing exists and then the world matches those criteria. We can’t fool around with existence criteria too much when we’re talking about ordinary concrete things the language is used to dealing with, but in abstract metaphysics, we just have to stipulate them.

This is not to say that metaphysicians talking about such questions aren’t sometimes aware of this and really just looking for the most elegant theory. But if and when so, at least they know they’re really doing that.

So, to sum up: Don’t get caught arguing whether something is really whatever. In such cases, take a step back and see what you actually mean by it, and what the other guy does. Otherwise you’ll jut be caught in the imperfection of language and won’t understand what’s being said, perhaps even by yourself.

See also


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