This post is a sketch of the skeptical view of the meaning of words and phrases which I use in my book. I claim no originality for this view. I have acquired it from a forty year career in academic philosophy through study of Wittgenstein, Quine, Kripe, Rorty et al.. These people may not agree with exactly what I hold and have expressed its various components better than I express them.
The gist of the view is that people determine what words mean in conversation . Here “conversation” is used broadly. It covers what people write as well as speak and refers to both current and remembered conversation. There is no realm of meanings which people can inspect to determine the truth of what we say about the meaning of terms. If questions about meaning are settled, they are settled by agreement in conversation. If no agreement upon a truth claim about meaning, the claim is neither true nor false. This view is about truth claims about meanings; not about truth claims in general.There may be a reality beyond our speaking and thinking to determine the truth of what we say when we are not talking about the meaning of terms.
Call truth claims about meaning semantical truth claims.
I call this view “skeptical conceptualism.” I call it “conceptualism” to link it with the classical problem of universals. It is a view on general terms or concepts such as “harm.” It proposes that a concept is what people produce in their thinking and speaking, viz.,. conversation. Conceptualism holds that concepts are conceptualizing. It is skeptical by virtue of leaving open the possibility of indetermined claims about meaning.
I honestly think that this conceptualism solves the classical problem of universals by satisfactorily clarifying conceptualism. The price of the solution is what here is called conceptual skepticism.
Skeptical conceptualism at first glance seems trivial. It seems to maintain only that people given meaning to terms which have no meaning apart from that given them by people. However,a bit of reflection shows us that we cannot arbitrarily change the meaning of terms. At least not as individuals. Wittgenstein famously pointed out the difficulty in trying to make “cold” mean “hot.” Even at the communal level, it is hard to change meanings. Most likely legal decisions about the permissibility of same-sex marriage will not change what we mean by marriage. People will simply go on to talk of homo-sexual marriage and hetro-sexual marriage with an insinuation that hetro-sexual is what is really meant by marriage. So, at least a felt objectivity about the meaning of terms places an obstacle against a claim that it is a mere truism. Also there are difficulties in trying to make a clear separation between truth claims about meaning and other kinds of truth claims. Once you accept that truth claims about meaning are settled, if at all, by conversation, there are arguments, too complicated for this post, that seem to require accepting that all truth claims are settled by conversation. A hint of such an argument comes from a demand that we have to determine what “agreement with reality” means if we say that truth is agreement with reality.
The point of this post amongst my blog posts is to explain the status of many of my blog posts. In many of my posts I am engaging in a conversation, with unknown participants, about the meaning of terms. A clear example of this is in my post Penance : Fulfillment of Our Obligation to Express Moral Wrath. There I plea that many terms such as penance and retribution should be give meaning in our moral framework.
So I am arguing about the meaning of terms. But these arguments are important because it is with use of terms that we make truth claims about topics different from meaning. It may turn out that there is not agreement about the meaning of terms in some disputes. When this conceptual disagreement occurs, there will not be agreement about which non-semantical truth claims can be asserted.
A rough summary of the above is: All definitions are ad hoc working definitions.
Conceptual skepticism is a fundamental feature of the philosophical methodology used in my book on sexual morality.
My book arguing that sexual neutrality leads to nihilism is Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. The publisher’s listed price is $26.99. Printed copies can be purchased here by credit card for $12.99, plus $3.71 for shipping and handling.
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Charles F. Kielkopf
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