Radical Skepticism (Part 4 of 4)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, November 4, 2010
Radical Skepticism, Part 4 of 4: Linguistic Skepticism
Linguistic skepticism is a version of radical skepticism which says that we can neither know nor communicate objective truth about the world because of the distorting effects of language.
Today I will set out linguistic skepticism, plus offer a critique.
According to linguistic skepticism (which lurks behind some postmodern philosophizing), we think only in language, and language refers only to other language, so language is a “prison” (of signifiers) that keeps us from knowing anything outside language. Because there is no reference to an extra-linguistic world, and because words continually refer to each other, there is a never-ending deferral of meaning. Or, if there is a reference to the extra-linguistic world, that reference is clouded by our language, because vocabularies differ from culture to culture as well as reflect the purposes and perspectives of those cultures. The semantics (word meanings) and syntax (grammatical structure) of languages are social constructions (cultural creations), so the way people understand reality is dependent upon culture, which varies.
• There is no objective truth that can be actually known and communicated; each community merely has its “story” or “narrative” or set of “language games.”
• There is no objective element to rationality; we reason in language, which is wholly dependent on, and varies with, culture.
• There are no objectively true ethics; values and moral principles are also wholly relative to language and culture.
• Power rules; the dominating cultural group ultimately controls the language (wittingly or unwittingly), so it determines “truth,” rationality, and ethics.
Thus (or so the argument goes) we should be radically suspicious of alleged knowledge of the external world.
Should we be persuaded by linguistic skepticism? I think not, for seven reasons.
First, and most importantly, the linguistic skeptic’s basic view of language is false. To be sure, language often refers to other language (check any dictionary) and language sometimes clouds our references to the actual world (check the flyers in your newspaper). However, it is simply not the case that language is completely defined by other language. There is such a thing as ostensive definition, i.e., we define our words by physically pointing at the extra-linguistic thing/s to which we intend our words to refer, and we can communicate such definitions without insurmountable difficulty.
Think of snow. We are not limited by language in our descriptions of it. We can increase our vocabulary for describing snow to reflect snow’s extra-linguistic properties (e.g., its powdery nature, granularity, slushiness, stickiness, etc.). We can point to such properties, and, if necessary, we can even invent words or combine linguistic qualifiers with our words for snow to reflect a reality/dimension about snow that other observers have missed (as Eskimos seem to have done because of their attentiveness to snow).
Language, then, isn’t a “prison” that always keeps us from reality; there isn’t an endless deferral of meaning. We can know reality truly (albeit fallibly and non-exhaustively), and reality can inform our language (if we are careful in our investigations). [It’s not interpretation all the way down.] And so we can communicate accurate descriptions about the extra-linguistic world (at least sometimes).
Second (and closely related to the first point), although the semantics (word meanings) and syntax (grammatical structure) of languages are not absolutely fixed (i.e., they are contingent social constructions), it does not follow that our understanding of reality depends wholly on language and so is wholly socially constructed. Yes, labels and how they are used are in fact dependent on the language system in use and are in a sense arbitrary. The word “dog” is in fact an arbitrary collection of letters (in France “chien” is used, in the Netherlands “hond”). Also, the semantics and grammar we use with the word are conventional (culturally dependent, not fixed absolutely).
Nevertheless, such labels can refer successfully to extra-linguistic entities. Think of the dog down the street. Clearly, the dog itself is not a mere social construction—as the torn pant leg will attest. In other words, relativity of term selection and use does not mean that language cannot clearly refer to external reality nor that external reality has no clear say (or bite).
Third, we can legitimately ask: Is there really no objective truth? To answer this question, it may be helpful to look to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Famously, Nietzsche wrote the following: “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms… Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions.”
We should think about Nietzsche’s claim. When Nietzsche says truth is mere metaphor or illusion, then his claim, which purports to be true, is mere metaphor or illusion—in other words, not true. But if truth is not mere metaphor or illusion, then Nietzsche’s claim is false. Either way, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is guilty of a direct self-refutation charge, and so should be rejected.
The fact of the matter is that there is something called simple truth. Simple truth is the (correspondence) notion of truth expressed eloquently by Aristotle: “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” We are all aware of this notion of truth, and we all use it in everyday life and in science: e.g., it’s true that my desk is made primarily of wood; it’s true that water freezes at 0° Celsius (under normal atmospheric conditions); etc.
Fourth, it is doubtful that we think only in linguistic terms. Yes, we often do think with language. However, we have all had the experience of realizing that words sometimes don’t properly express our ideas—which suggests that at least some of our thoughts are pre-linguistic. Also, many of us have had the experience of thinking in terms of non-linguistic images or pictures, which we later express in language, using, if needed, new language or a new combination of old language. (My PhD work was an experience of this.)
Fifth, the claim that rationality is wholly relative to the community/tribe is false. Yes, different cultures have different worldviews or philosophical/religious assumptions that influence their interpretations of what is real. Nevertheless, there are core elements of rationality that are independent of culture and can be used (along with our knowledge of truth) to test our culture’s assumptions.
For example, the principle of non-contradiction is a fundamental principle of logic applicable to all. The principle of non-contradiction states that nothing can both be and not be, at the same time and in the same respect. Upon reflection, this principle can be seen to be necessarily true. Can anyone be taller and not taller than his/her neighbour, at the same time and in the same respect?
Moreover, there exist various argument forms that are deductively valid and thus applicable to all, too. Consider the valid argument form modus ponens as instantiated by the following argument: If Fido is a dog, then Fido is mortal; Fido is a dog; therefore Fido is mortal. The argument is deductively valid everywhere and always. (“Deductively valid” means that whenever the premises are true, the conclusion must be true too.)
Sixth, that moral relativism is true can be seriously challenged. Yes, some behavioural norms vary from culture to culture (think of family honour, rules of the road). But surely, (former Colonel) Russell Williams’ murder of two women is wrong, period. Surely, Josef Fritzl’s 24-year imprisonment and ongoing rapes of his daughter are wrong, period. Surely, poking pins into a baby’s eyes for fun is wrong for everyone, everywhere, always.
Seventh, the fact that language and power are often intertwined is grounds for caution, not radical skepticism. People who have power—e .g., politicians—might use words that carry persuasive emotional appeals rather than truth: e.g., “only non-progressive people vote for [the politician you like the least].”
But the claim that language is wholly a power play and thus not capable of communicating knowledge is false. The truth or falsity of sentences depends on the reality of the world, not power agendas. That’s why we are able to check up on power-mongering politicians to hold them accountable. That’s why we can also check the claims of scientists and historians.
Moreover, if (contrary to fact) language were wholly a power play, then we should be skeptical of the linguistic skeptic’s arguments—because he/she would be merely using language to exert power over us.
In sum, we should thank the linguistic skeptic for encouraging us to be careful with language, because, yes, sometimes our language is imprecise, unclear, ambiguous, emotionally loaded, false, misleading, misused for socio-political ends, etc. Nevertheless, the fact remains that language need not and does not always blind us to truths about the extra-textual world, nor does it keep us from communicating those truths with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
Thus, because of its exaggeration of the problems associated with language, linguistic skepticism is deeply problematic and should be rejected.
It turns out that we can know and communicate much about the extra-linguistic world, albeit fallibly and non-exhaustively.
Significantly, this opens the door to the possibility of knowledge about God (or at least reasonable belief about God) and communication of this knowledge based on what God might happen to reveal via the external world, whether God’s revelation is via the heavens declaring His glory or via Scripture’s pages presenting information about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
(For my Apologia columns on evidence for God revealed in the world generally and in Jesus specifically, look here.)
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)
P.S. The above column is a slightly revised excerpt from my larger article, “Reasonable Skepticism about Radical Skepticism,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 31, Number 5 (2008): 30-38.
Apologia columns on radical skepticism:
- Radical Skepticism (Part 1 of 1): Funky/Pop Skepticism
- Radical Skepticism (Part 2 of 4): Sensory Skepticism
- Radical Skepticism (Part 3 of 4): Kantian Skepticism
- Radical Skepticism (Part 4 of 4): Linguistic Skepticism
- Skepticism Concerning Colours?
- Nietzsche’s Skepticism
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