April 11, 2008

Language and the Metaphysics of the Material World

Let me begin with a reminder: be sure to get your posts in for the 67th Philosophers' Carnival by tomorrow (Saturday) midnight (Eastern time), and remember that the theme is idealism. I've received many good posts already (probably more than I'll be able to include), but only a handful are idealism-themed. Having said that, let me begin my own idealism-themed post.

In my paper "The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley" (which I never tire of linking to, because it is much better thought out, developed, and argued than the mostly half-baked stuff I post on this blog), I spend a considerable space of time discussing the question of where to locate the semantic content in Berkeley's "universal language of the Author of Nature." The problem which I try to address there is that virtually all of the things that look based on the broad outlines of Berkeley's theory as if they might be semantic relations are explicitly asserted to be syntactic* relations if one closely examines the particular texts where Berkeley discusses the structure of the language. In this post, I want to discuss the structure of the language (its "grammar" in the broadest possible sense) and the possible correspondence between problems in linguistics and problems in the metaphysics of the material world (and philosophy of science). This isn't necessarily a tight interpretation of Berkeley's text; rather, it is my reflection on how Berkeley's theory would work if true. I do think it is clear that the analogy (if it is merely an analogy and not, as Berkeley claims, an identity) between language and the phenomenal world is close enough for linguistic insights to be usefully applied to metaphysical problems (which would be a great thing, since linguistics is making a lot more progress than metaphysics). I've been thinking about writing this idea up in a paper, so I would very much like to get comments or criticisms on it. I will proceed by building language from the ground up, and in the process building up a picture of the structure of the phenomenal world.

Phonology = Theory of Properties

In linguistics, phonology is the study of the structure of the sounds of a language and the accompanying rules (e.g. the way sounds change when placed near other sounds). An individual sound is called a phone and groups of sounds which are not distinguished from one another within a given language are called phonemes. The analog to phonology in the material world is the theory of properties. In the language of sense perception, a particular sensible property (e.g. a particular shade of red) corresponds to a phone, and these group into phonemes which are ordinarily indistinguishable to us (but may be distinguishable if place side by side or examined with scientific instruments).

Morphology = Mereology

Morphology is the study of the internal structure of words. According to the most widely accepted (though there is still considerable controversy) theories of morphology, phonemes compose morphemes, which are the smallest meaningful bits of language. Morphemes are built into words, which are a little bit difficult to define, but are usually defined in terms of having their own accent. Finally, words compose lexemes which can be considered intuitively as dictionary entries. The analog to morphology in the metaphysics of the material world is mereology - the theory of parts and wholes. Properties are built up into specific object-appearances, which are built into objects. Note that we can now distinguish an object from an appearance of that object without sacrificing our phenomenalism. An object-appearance is like a word. Widely varying object-appearances can in certain circumstances be members of the same object, just as "am", "are", and "is" are all words belonging to the same lexeme, which we call "to be" (since in English we conventionally name verb lexemes by their infinitives). However, most cases do not vary so widely - consider "run", "run", "runs" for the same forms of the lexeme "to run". Similarly, under the most common circumstances appearances which are appearances of the same object will look similar and will vary according to well-specified rules (as you turn the object around or get nearer or farther from it, for instance), but there are some exceptions where the rules seem to break (for instance, the case Berkeley considers at length of a straight stick appearing bent when it is partially submerged in water).

Physics = Syntax

Finally, and perhaps most importantly (certainly this point is most important to Berkeley and many interpreters have seen this as the whole of the theory of sense perception as language), we come to syntax. Syntax governs the ways that words combine to form larger units - clauses, sentences, and paragraphs - and how these words are related to one another. The material world's analog to syntax is physics, which describes the rules by which individual objects combine to form a single coherent phenomenon deserving of the name "world."

I have not argued that this approach actually works, but I think that it is clear that there is at least some degree of analogy here. I hope to do future research into just how far the analogy can be carried, and whether it can perhaps be carried even to the point of identity, as Berkeley attempts to do.

*Berkeley's term is "grammatical;" see endnote 20 of the online version of my paper, which was deleted from the Religious Studies version due to space constraints.

Posted by Kenny at April 11, 2008 9:07 PM
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