October 25, 2009

Speaking Loosely

Philosophers often use such phrases as 'strictly speaking' or 'in metaphysical rigor' before saying things that might sound outrageous. For instance, many philosophers have denied the existence of entities which everyone 'knows' to exist, such as chairs, or minds, or numbers. The philosopher will almost always prefix such a denial with this sort of modifier.

The opposite of speaking strictly is speaking loosely. In early modern philosophy, the 'strict and philosophical' mode of speech was often contrasted with the 'loose and popular' mode. Other philosophers might use the modifier 'strictly and literally.'

What is the point of making these qualifications?

One of the main points, it would seem, is that the philosopher who denies the existence of chairs is going to continue speaking 'loosely' when not doing philosophy, and so will sometimes claim to see a chair, or to sit in one. Is this practice defensible? Does it amount to a 'performative contradiction' - that is, does this philosopher contradict with her actions what she says in her philosophy?

I've never seen any literature devoted specifically to this question; as far as I know, it only comes up in the context of defending some form of eliminativism or other. Here, I want to propose a definition of 'loose' speech: to speak 'loosely' is to (attempt to) express a truth by uttering a falsehood. (I insert the 'attempt to' modifier because we should still say someone is speaking loosely when he says something he believes to be false in order to communicate something he believes to be true, even if he's wrong.)

First, we should ask whether this definition is coherent. If the meaning of a sentence is just the proposition it expresses, and every meaningful sentence expresses exactly one proposition, and no proposition is both true and false, then it would seem to be impossible to speak loosely, under my definition. However, I do think a principled distinction can be drawn between the meaning of a sentence and what a speaker means by it. The reason this distinction seems odd is that the two ordinarily coincide; the cases where they do not coincide are mostly cases of loose speech.

The meaning of a sentence, in this view, is the meaning that would be constructed by the methods of formal linguistics. One can tag the parts of speech, identify the antecedents of any pronouns, parse for syntactic structure, figure out the lexicography, etc., picking the sentence apart bit by bit according to formal rules, and arrive at a meaning. However, this meaning does not always line up with what the speaker means by the sentence.

Perhaps the least problematic cases of loose speech are metaphor and sarcasm. When the Bible says that God led the Israelites out of Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm," it doesn't imply that God has a hand or an arm. This is because, in metaphor, a falsehood is used to express a truth. Similarly in sarcasm, one says just the opposite of what one believes to be the case, but this is not done in order to deceive. When sarcasm comes off correctly, one communicates a truth by uttering a falsehood.

The cases the philosophers are concerned with are, however, more complicated than these. Eliminativists about macrophysical objects, like Peter van Inwagen and Trenton Merricks, are not speaking metaphorically or sarcastically when they ask whether there are enough chairs for everyone. Rather, they express the content they wish to convey in terms of the (according to them) false presuppositions of their hearers.

Is this a form of dishonesty? I don't think so. It seems to me that honesty permits this in cases where the false presuppositions are irrelevant to the matter at hand. In these cases the false presuppositions are not part of the content of one's speech, but merely the mode of expression.

My claim, then, is that loose speech involves the expression of a truth by uttering a falsehood. I claim, further, that it is possible to do this, and that there are at least three cases in which we actually do it: metaphor, sarcasm, and expression in terms of false presuppositions.

Posted by Kenny at October 25, 2009 5:20 PM
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Comments

I think there are other Biblical instances of speaking loosely, and if you allow the Bible to speak loosely, it helps clean up some messy theological questions. For example, in Genesis 6:6, "...it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." (KJV) Now, most modern theologians believe that God is unchanging and therefore timeless. If God is timeless and unchanging, then he by definition cannot repent from a previous action, which would make Genesis 6:6 contradictory with the rest of the Bible. However, if we allow that the author may be speaking loosely, it allows the interpretation that God, by deciding to wipe out mankind in the flood, appears to be reversing his decision to create them. We humans exist in time, and God's actions will always appear to us to occur over the course of time, even if time is irrelevant from God's perspective. So, even if it is inappropriate to refer to God as acting in time, and reacting to events (as if he did not already have a plan in place according to his foreknowledge), it may still be convenient for us to speak of him as acting in this way. Speaking loosely allows us to discuss God's actions in plain English without committing heresy, and without having to accuse the Bible's authors of doing the same.

Posted by: pferree at October 26, 2009 8:20 AM

Yes. This sort of thing is one of the reasons I was thinking about this subject (I may write another post on loose speech in the Bible later). There is also a strong case to be made that some of the modes of expression in the Bible assume ancient near eastern cosmology. The instance of this that is most obvious is the talk in Genesis and elsewhere about God placing the sky (or firmament or expanse depending on your translation). Ancient near eastern people thought of the sky as a fixed dome - the sort of thing that can be 'placed.' But this is false.

A couple nitpicky points: I'm not aware of anyone thinking that timelessness follows from immutability. The converse is, of course, true. Also, these claims have actually become less common, even among conservatives, in the last 150 years or so. What we can say is, at least, that classical theology definitely affirms divine immutability, and is usually understood also to affirm divine timelessness, though the latter is more controversial. Classical theology is in somewhat ill repute among Protestant theologians (again, even conservative ones) these days on grounds that it (supposedly) relies too heavily on Greek philosophy rather than on Hebrew theology. I am myself, however, an advocate of classical theology - but then I'm not anti-Greek!

Posted by: Kenny at October 26, 2009 9:42 AM

Loose speech (a.k.a. loose talk or loose use) has been a topic of some discussion amongst linguists and linguistically-inclined philosophers for a while. (I first heard of it via Jason Stanley's Phil. Studies article against contextualism about 'knows'.) See, for an early (and somewhat idiosyncratic) treatment, "Loose Talk" by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1986.

Posted by: Greg at November 10, 2009 11:14 AM

Greg - Thanks for pointing this out. Perhaps I will look that up when I get a chance.

Posted by: Kenny at November 10, 2009 11:49 AM

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