Coercive Theories of Meaning or Why Language Shouldn't Matter (So Much) to Philosophy

Logique Et Analyse 53 (210):151 (2010)
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This paper is a critique of coercive theories of meaning, that is, theories (or criteria) of meaning designed to do down ones opponents by representing their views as meaningless or unintelligible. Many philosophers from Hobbes through Berkeley and Hume to the pragmatists, the logical positivists and (above all) Wittgenstein have devised such theories and criteria in order to discredit their opponents. I argue 1) that such theories and criteria are morally obnoxious, a) because they smack of the totalitarian linguistic tactics of the Party in Orwell’s 1984 and b) because they dehumanize the opposition by portraying them as mere spouters of gibberish; 2) that they are profoundly illiberal since if true, they would undermine Mill’s arguments for free speech; 3) that such theories are prone to self-contradiction, pragmatic and otherwise; 4) that they often turn against their creators including what they were meant to exclude and excluding what they were meant to include; 5) that such theories are susceptible to a modus tollens pioneered by Richard Price in his Review Concerning the Principle Questions of Morals(1758); and 6) that such theories are prima facie false since they fail to ‘predict’ the data that is it their business to explain (or, in the case of criteria, fail to capture the concept that they allegedly represent). The butcher’s bill is quite considerable: some of Hobbes, a fair bit of Locke, half of Berkeley, large chunks of Hume, Russell's Theory of Types, verificationism in its positivist and Dummettian variants, much of pragmatism and most of Wittgenstein - all these have to be sacrificed if we are to save our souls as philosophic liberals.

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Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago


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