On Saying That

“If we could recover our pre-Fregean semantic innocence, I think it would seem to us plainly incredible that the words ‘The earth moves’, uttered after the words ‘Galileo said that’, mean anything different, or refer to anything else, than is their wont when they come in other environments. No doubt their role in oratio obliqua is in some sense special; but that is another story.” Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, p. 108, Clarendon Press 2001.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 02-11-2008. This one is dear to me as it will be the starting point of my magnum opus if I ever have the time to start it.]

This essay is one of the most wonderful pieces of reasoning I have had the honor of reading. It does precisely what it sets out to do: make it plausible that  strange notions like ‘intension’ – a notion so private & subjective as to obliterate any hope of ever getting rid of the magical from our lives & our thinking – is simply superfluous. Instead of it a simple extensional alternative is put in place,  an alternative that allows what we normally do in public discourse, in science, in any reasonable human endeavour: check with the observable facts.

Read the essay to get the alternative! Read on if you want to  see what are some  interesting potential consequences.

Put succinctly (and undoubtedly incompletely) it goes as follows: when someone is indicating to believe, desire, want that … what’s happening is that someone is making a relation between herself believing, desiring, wanting and something that is pointed to (much in the same way as she would point to a bird in saying ‘that is a bird’). So you extend the pointing to-reference to allow pointing to something non-physical.

That’s it.

Away with the talk of thoughts that are mysteriously, opaquely embedded in clauses and somehow cannot break free from the intimacy of the first person(al) thinking.

Great!, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, Davidson leaves it very much at that. That’s unfortunate because it’s one of the very few philosophers who have achieved a credible link between philosophy of language and moral philosophy. Certainly one of the even fewer who has done so by delivering a final blow (there are philosophical knock-down arguments) to both full moral relativism and the type of moral absolutism that prescribes behaviour to an excruciating level of detail, leaving humans shackled hands and feet to some arbitrary notion of ‘the good life’.

We need to find Davidson’s flaws in his philosophy of language in order to mend the remaining inadequacies in his morality. Indeed, his moral philosophy is close but still inadequate: it does not allow to derive a categorical imperative, not even a very modest one.

That’s what I will need to research because I believe that, I am in fact convinced that, it is necessarily so that in morality we need something categorical. I also know that it isn’t sufficient for me to point to that, even if I point vehemently to it. No, I need to not just demonstrate the truth of my little that-clause but I need to prove it and I will only be able to prove it by finding where the flaw is in Davidson’s philosophy of language because I am willing to bet that that flaw is linked to the inadequacy of his moral philophy.

So there you have it: a project. The project will maybe start with ‘on saying that’, as it is something that I think is safe; and along with it, all things it presupposes are safe and the consensus is building from there that there’s nothing magical about thought that can keep it confined, under a spell, within our heads.

Thoughts are not in heads, thoughts are between heads – they’re there to point to & to analyze from different angles in order to see whether they refer to the same, and from there whether they are consistent & ultimately true, or not.

[It would seem that the last paragraph is in fact the start of the project. Anybody interested in co-operating on it?]

[Whilst writing this I wasn’t listening to anything really.]


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