concepts section : copyright Robert Ellis 2009

Defeasibility contexts

'Defeasibility' means the property of being able to be defeated. Defeasibility was specifically used by Wittgenstein (and others) in their philosophy of language to provide a criterion for what is or is not meaningful. If we do not know in what circumstances a piece of language can be defeated (i.e. be shown to be meaningless), then according to this approach it cannot be meaningful. For Wittgenstein, the circumstances in which language is made meaningful are those of its use in a language game, where a particular piece of language fulfils a particular communicative function. Thus, if no such communicative function can be specified in any language game, then a term is meaningless.

This approach to meaning is useful in some ways, as in focusing on the function of language it avoids some of the limitations of earlier correspondence theories of meaning. The concept of defeasibility also captures some aspects of the bounds of meaning. However, Wittgenstein's use of defeasibility is also in other respects unhelpfully narrow, because it examines meaning only as a cognitive, not an emotional, phenomenon, and because it gives meaning boundaries that are too sharp and rigidly defined. Wittgenstein recognised that the boundaries of language-games are indeterminate, but this seems inconsistent with the strict bounds he gives to meaning. Meaning as we experience it may have a close, perhaps even a necessary, relationship with social contexts in which language is exchanged: but meaning also has a large affective or emotional dimension. I could utter a word defined and understood only by me, in private, in a state of emotional excitement, that would be loaded with meaning for me, though Wittgenstein would accord it none. The links between the cognitive meanings of language and the largely affective meanings of things like music and emotive symbols (like a flag, or a crucifix) also needs to be made clearer.

It is for this reason that the wider concept of defeasibility contexts is needed, to apply the Wittgensteinian concept of defeasibility without the narrowing assumptions with which Wittgenstein used it. A defeasibility context is a sphere in which a particular utterance, sound or symbol (or combination of these) has meaning for an individual or a group of people. The meaningfulness of that defeasibility context will be a matter of degree and will have undefined, tapering boundaries. The meaning will combine cognitive and affective elements to varying degrees. Most importantly, the extent of a defeasibility context depends on the integration and objectivity of the person or group who finds the symbol meaningful.

So, for example, I may find a man's speech meaningless or almost meaningless, not just because I don't know his language (or participate in his language-game), but for affective reasons: I'm not culturally or physically adjusted to engaging with this man's speech. Perhaps he's talking about something in which I have no interest or emotional investment (say, the relative merits of different routes to a destination I'm not going to, or the chances of relegation of a particular football team) - so, I'm just not "on his wavelength", and I don't listen. If he's using jargon, perhaps there's a cognitive element to my lack of understanding, but I could probably work out the terminology if I was interested enough in doing so. To have significance for me and to engage my attention, more than just cognitive meaning is needed. If the man asks me if I think it's true that Rotherham United will avoid relegation, and this is a point of complete indifference to me, then there are no circumstances in which a particular answer would have a communicative function: "yes" or "no" would satisfy the enquiry equally well, perhaps because either would fulfil the more basic communicative function of keeping the man happy by offering some sort of answer. The specifics of the question lie outside, or at least largely outside, my defeasibility context.

Crucial to the concept of a defeasibility context is that it can be extended. I could make the effort to engage in the question of whether Rotherham United will be relegated. I could extend defeasibility contexts both cognitively (by extending my vocabulary) and affectively (by extending my interest and engagement with the different areas of concern of others). Such extension of defeasibility contexts contributes towards the integration of meaning, as previously separated spheres of cognitive and affective meaning become more united, both psychologically and socially. The integration of meaning creates important conditions for other kinds of integration, such as the integrations of desire and belief. I am in no position to empathise with others, to share their interests or their beliefs, if I do not find their language meaningful in the first place.


Further discussion


Integration and meaning (scroll down to Chapter 5 section c - this deals explicitly with defeasibility contexts)


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