May we agree that there is no such thing as a purely meaningless word, for even nonsense words have about them an aura of meaning, either to convey humour, for verbal pranks, or to make a point about meaninglessness. Anything else is a merely a sound. There were notations which might convey no meaning such as might confront us in a foreign country or in a book written in an unknown language; but once a notation became a meaningful sign we called that a word.
By force of definition words are meanings. Then how did it come about that many modern university faculties actually teach that this is not so? They do this and justify it, either by promulgating theories which depend upon depriving words of their meaning in certain conditions or which, by a priori denials of greater philosophical implications made necessary by the correct understanding of words as they are, they develop linguistic theories to accommodate certain post 17th century doctrines which are inimical to scholastic philosophy and even moral and legal principles.
Indeed the driving force behind most of the theories which are so easily reduced to absurdity or directly refuted, or which are self-evidently based upon false principles, is either from the denial of intellect or its exaggeration; or, as in the case of Hobbes and Hume, a blanket materialism. It will come as little surprise that this triune fallacy is the essential philosophical ground for atheism or pantheism.
We have been so far considering Locke, and in passing Hume, in respect of mistaken notions of how the human intellect functions. Basically both of these philosophers failed to grasp the nature of the mind’s power in acquiring knowledge and certainty, in the case of mental images formed to convey what the senses perceived. These were seen as one and the same thing as ideas, and in turn this confusion gave rise to the notion that we can only directly apprehend ideas and only indirectly (or not at all) those objects to which these refer when an object is perceived through the senses.
Again when these philosophers turned to the use of language and the process by which words receive meaning, they did not have such philosophical distinctions available to them (through denial or ignorance) which would have illuminated the problem adequately and offered the solution. This distinction we learned earlier was between words (signs) as signifiers and designators and, most importantly, words as formal signs. Just as ideas ARE meanings, so also formal signs are ideas of referential meanings, meanings themselves.
Now what about Hobbes? He led thinking into the narrowest constriction imaginable. If a notion failed to conform to his doctrine of materialism it was simply described as "meaningless" although it unarguably bore reference to a mental image or concept. It is a quite stupefying position to adopt and so effortlessly toppled that the insolence supporting it is sometimes mistaken for a form of truth too deep and complex for its detractors to grasp. However, limited as we may be, let’s run through the arguments...
Hobbes insisted that certain words or phrases conveying concepts were meaningless. He seemed blithely unaware of the necessary contradiction involved in such a denial. Even to isolate a notion in order to deny it, words had perforce been used by him and others to refer to and identify those notions. They therefore HAD meaning, even if their meaning had no echo in reality or ultimately in truth. But let us take his denial step by step; and first let us restate what is meant by a meaningless word or phrase.
The term "meaningless" has the purely descriptive significance that the notation, whatever it is, simply lacks meaning. Dyslogistically, Hobbes employs the term to signify anything which did not conform to his doctrines of materialism. Materialism proposes that nothing has reality unless it is a material body or refers to that which really exists.
Hobbes wrote: "If a man should speak to me about immaterial substances, or about a free subject, or free will, I should not say that he were in error, but that his words were without meaning, that is to say, absurd." He also insisted that words like "angel" or phrases like "incorporeal substance" were also meaningless and absurd. He went further and stated that "it is a contradiction in terms to propose incorporeal substance in the same way that it would be absurd to propose the term "'square circle’".
He failed to consider that we CAN deny (as he did) or affirm the notion of angels. The word conveys a meaning, refers to a mental concept, and as such HAS meaning. It is palpably NOT meaningless. Neither can such concepts be dismissed as "contradictions in terms" because the mind remains free to consider the possibility that such things might exist, did exist, or that it was possible that they could exist.
Even from an extreme materialistic position (that nothing exists except bodies or corporeal substances) it does not cogently follow that angels cannot possibly exist in the sense that a square circle cannot exist. The only valid conclusion Hobbes might find (albeit based upon an opinion) is that "angels do not exist", not that they are impossible.
To propose the existence of angels is NOT self contradictory. You can see that, why not Hobbes? Perhaps he did not "give a hoot", being driven as I say he was by a desire to attack received wisdom in the West rather than by hunger for philosophical truth. Indeed Hobbes like many who followed him used philosophy to justify non philosophical prejudices and most of these were prejudices against the Church or even against the implied authority inherent in any proposition of God.
It is worth noting that the ambiance of "intellectual freedom" claimed by doctrinaire theorists of Hobbes type to be the fruit of their philosophy, so quickly degenerated into that dark freedom which considers itself free of even reasonableness and logic. Remember Hobbes is the man who stated "nothing exists except matter in motion,"causeless, directionless, unaccountably. It is not a judgement arrived at syllogistically through necessary steps or reason. It is a bald statement, the unconcerned creation of a first principle in defiance of reason. Look at the poverty of his opinion again. If we do no more than ask whether angels exist - and certainly if we affirm or deny that they do - we are engaging in meaning.
Discussion in meaningless terms is impossible, the elements of which are beyond affirmation as is any conclusion supposed to relate to those elements. If there be no meaning we cannot even ask the question, or make the affirmation or denial, any more than we could discuss the merits of Glubbmleflink. The only truly meaningless notations are either nonsense words or contradictions in terms. A square circle is inconceivable, unthinkable, and we can have no idea of it and no object of thought which we can grasp arising from its consideration. The phrase designates or refers to Nothing! But Hobbes not only denies free will or angels on no other ground than his erroneous understanding of the word Meaningless; he goes on to assert that " statements about things that never have been nor can be, incident to the sense, are absurd; speeches taken upon credit, without any significance at all."
At root Hobbes’ error lies in his evading all designative references that are not at the same time existentially denotative (references to what really exists). But we have already seen that except for Proper names and common names for objects perceived, all other common names have designative references that are NOT also existentially denotative. Nearly every object of memory or imagination that we can name, certainly about all the objects of conceptual thought that we can name, the question as to whether it exists in reality may be asked. If such objects (about which questions may be asked, affirmations sought) cannot be named by signs that have referential significance, then those essential questions cannot BE asked. The elimination of referential significance that is not also existentially denotative would make it impossible to ask such questions.
These refutations are so comprehensive how can theories depending upon Hobbesian principles survive and flourish today? I say that the need for justifications are sought politically rather than philosophically as much today as in the time of the 17th century sensualists, rationalists and materialists; and that this desire to defend ideologies inimical to the true nature of intellectual man constitutes the stronger motivation of the people who promulgate them. Much modern philosophy is the stuff of enthusiasms. Serchez la fan. But do they present defences? Of course, but as Locke dug himself deeper into his pit of selective meanings, others can do no better.
The defence of Hobbes actually crosses the line of common sense. Its pretenders claim to distinguish between what they call "sense" and "reference". The argument runs thus... they claim that the only referential significance that name words have involves existential denotation; that is, they refer to real existence. They say that only a tiny number of special proper names exist - or equivalent phrases that are definite descriptions, such as the First President of America - which have referential significance. They assert that all other words have only sense - no reference. They say that sense consists in their connotation, which can be expressed in a set of other words; but still refer to nothing at all.
There is really no need to do more than draw attention to such absurdity - sadly so common among linguistic enthusiasts - but Adler, eager to trace its development suggests that it could only survive in ignorance; that scholastic distinctions would have rendered the proliferation of such errors unlikely.
One phenomenon attending their continuing survival is the halo of respectability accorded to the luminaries of "the enlightenment" and a widely perceived association with what is supposed to have risen in that time and our present political and religious freedoms. This is a formidable position held by modernists of an amazing variety, however incoherent and contradictory; that their commonly adopted gospel (about the only matter they unite upon) is that while THEY are the repository of Liberal values and tolerance, those who refute their various philosophical tenets are the reactionary forces from whom freedom had first to be wrested in the 17th century.
Adler is not altogether correct in stating that a contempt for the past was all that led men to eschew scholastic philosophy. I say that while it may be true that truth is burdensome and that it present obligations perhaps prior to freedoms, and while I would be open to admit that there is little in politics or the law that is incorrigible or immutable, even among the most intelligent civilisations, the Enlightenment was the least best change possible at that time. I say this because with the benefit of hindsight the trail of philosophy is one of destruction and the trivialisation and often brutalisation of mankind, despite technical progress materially. Adler points out that even this was founded on the scholastic universities.
In short I say that the heart of the matter is not just in the managing of logic and syllogisms but deeper in the soul of our time. This must be held in mind or you may imagine that your only opponent is another open mind. I fear that opponent of truth is sometimes what you should suspect him to be anyway, a liar. But good Dr Adler writes: "The only explanation in my judgement (of exponents of errors leading to linguistic absurdities) lies in their ignorance of the distinction between formal and instrumental signs, and the consequent failure to understand that the words which become names through direct acquaintance with the objects named refer to whatever objects are signified by the ideas in our mind functioning as formal signs of those objects."
It is clear to properly educated people that words which name objects of thought (about which we may ask the existential question - does it exist?) DO have referential significance. Their designative meanings consist in their reference to such objects, whether or not any instances of them can be perceived as to be existing in reality. Such words are more than SENSE; they have as much referential significance as any correctly used proper name or definite description.
Now all of the forgoing leads to the most destructive of all the complex fallacies militating against human judgment and discernment, an enthusiastically disseminated doctrine which has overtaken the academic world; known as Reductionism.
The Reductionalist fallacy. Reductionism consists in reducing referential significance to the one mode of significance. That is an attempt to suppose one can limit significance of words only to what exists corporeally. It is the fallacy implicit in Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Descriptions. But it is also a willful refusal to accept meaningfulness in its natural (and obvious) domain and by synthetically constricting meaningful signs to particular use - in this case limiting their reference to the concrete - manipulating and deflecting others from vital intellectual realities.
It is the machinery of NewSpeak. There is also a deeper error which is the fallacy of confusing apprehension and judgment in the processes of understanding. Russell thought that to name something was to affirm it (assert it). He said that we cannot name something without also asserting that what we named really exists. In fact this is not the case.
To name something is not at the same time to judge or assert its reality - no more than apprehending an object of thought is tantamount to making a judgment as to its reality. Apprehending an object and making a judgment that it really exists are inseparable only in what are called veridical perceptions - that would be when noticing a swan in your kitchen.
In every other case the act of apprehension and judgment are not only distinct but separate. One act CAN occur without the other; thus we CAN use words to refer to apprehended objects about the existence of which we suspend judgment or ask questions. As a result of these errors, linguistic philosophers have now given up even trying to explain the referential significance of most words in languages (all those that refuse to be limited to one mode of referential significance denoting the really existent). Adler quips: "that is, according to whatever metaphysical doctrine may be held about the components of reality).
We now hear from places like Oxford or Harvard inanities like this: "Do not seek for the meaning of words, look for their use." The counsel of Mrs Malaprop, one is tempted to say. Nota Bene: Language does not precede or control thought as faddish opinion asserts. The exact opposite is the case; thought controls language and it is given to man to think, even to think up words and give all things their names, whether these be even impossible things. How that came to be is not the domain of Philosophy.
The flight from lexical meanings and the problem of their derivation could be explained by a need to save face. It seems that bereft of scholastic distinctions and vocabulary, the choice is either to join Locke in digging the muddied pit of their choosing ever deeper, or simply to lie in it and deny that they are stuck in it Adler puts it down largely to ignorance and who shall say him nay?
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