concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Linguistic idealism 

The term 'linguistic idealism' is used in Middle Way philosophy to refer to a philosophical view of the limits of meaning put forward by Donald Davidson. This view limits meaning to what can be directly represented, condemning as meaningless any talk of what we cannot conceive. My argument against this position draws on Thomas Nagel, who points out that the meaningfulness of ideas that we can conceive also carries a complement of meaningfulness for things we cannot conceive. The inconceivable lies in the shadow of the conceivable, and each is necessary to the meaning of the other. More accurately, we should talk about meaningfulness as a matter of degree, becoming more and more attenuated as we enter realms of negativity and abstraction, rather than building a wall around some concepts as meaningful and casting others into outer darkness as meaningless.

I go on to argue that Nagel's position cannot be defended in relation to representationalist or expressivist theories of meaning, because the idea that meaning is derived either from representations of the world or expression of inner states requires meaning to relate to a fixed object (or subject). If meaning is derived from representation and a particular piece of language fails to represent anything, then we would be justified in calling it meaningless. However, both representationalism and expressivism offer unduly narrow dualistic accounts of meaning. Meaningfulness combines representational and expressive elements, both cognitive and emotional content related to symbols. If we see meaning in this way, it has attenuated rather than clear boundaries.

One important implication of the rejection of linguistic idealism is that metaphysical assertions are not meaningless, for however distant their relationship to representations in experience, we may still have an emotional connection to them which makes them meaningful. Logical positivist attacks on metaphysics on these grounds are mistaken (for example A.J. Ayer's view that the concept of God was meaningless). However, metaphysics should be criticised instead on epistemological and moral grounds.

The rejection of linguistic idealism in this case implies the acceptance of linguistic realism. There is no alternative agnostic position between these two alternatives here because we are not dealing in matters of belief, but of meaning. Accepting all symbols as meaningful to some extent (that have any degree of cognitive or emotional impact) is psychologically necessary in order to adopt an integrative perspective to moral objectivity. Linguistic realism just allows the acceptance of all symbols as linguistically and psychologically "real", without any commitment to ontological reality or unreality. Moral objectivity requires us to combine this basic acceptance of all symbols with a critical attitude to beliefs formed from these symbols, so that we get a sense of moral universality at the level of meaning but remain discriminating in our commitments.

Links to further discussion

'Linguistic Idealism' from thesis (scroll down to section iv - section iii also discusses representationalism and expressivism)

'Logical positivism' from thesis (scroll down to sections iii and iv)


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