Friday, January 1, 2010

Bugs Bunny is My Favorite Philosopher

What do you think the meaning of a word or sentence is?

I remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon "Shishkabugs" in which the spoiled king demands his chef (Yosemite Sam) prepare him hasenpfeffer (i.e., rabbit stew). Bugs Bunny enters the scene unwittingly as usual and antics ensue. In the end Bugs replaces Sam as the king's chef and serves a carrot to the king, passing it off as hasenpfeffer. As he is eating the king comments, "If I didn't know this was hasenpfeffer, I'd swear I was eating a carrot!" (Forgive me if this isn't verbatim, it's been a while since I've seen that cartoon.)

A word is a signifier of whatever conceivable existent corresponds with that signifier. I say "conceivable" existent, for not everything that is said to exist actually does exist; moreover, whether certain things exist is a matter of debate. The word "god" comes to mind. Some things cannot exist, like "four-sided circles." We understand the word "carrot" signifies a vegetable with an edible orange-hued root. In fact, the phrase "vegetable with an edible orange-hued root" also signifies this existent (this thing) we commonly call a carrot. This orange-hued vegetable (the existent) corresponds with the word "carrot."

The king, upon eating the carrot, signified the existent he was eating with the wrong word. "Hasenpfeffer" does not correspond with "vegetable with an edible orange-hued root." Likewise, "hasenpfeffer" does not signify such an existent.

Concerning sentences: one of the first lessons taught in any good logic class is the distinction between statements and propositions. Roughly speaking, the statement is the actual sentence or declaration, whereas the proposition is what the statement is trying to communicate, or the meaning of the statement. One can argue that the statement "Jill is taller than John" conveys the same proposition as "John is shorter than Jill," even though they are two different statements.

Perhaps I've read a little too much Tarski, but my understanding is that the meaning of a proposition - or should I say the truth-claim of a proposition - is defined in terms of that which corresponds with reality. "True" is the name of a relation between the proposition and the world. The statement "There is an armadillo on my head" is true if and only if there is an armadillo on my head.

Why would it matter philosophically?

If philosophy is indeed the "love of wisdom" and a pursuit of truth is intrinsic to the pragmatic application of such a love, then understanding the meaning of words - and what the "meaning of words" means - is of utmost importance, because truth is defined in terms of language. If we do not take this question seriously we risk being as ignorant as the carrot-eating king.

The question of the meaning of a word is relevant to the discussion of the existence of god. The word "god" does not hold the same meaning for everyone. One person's asserting the existence of god might be a declaration of belief in one particular conceivable existent while another person's denying the existence of god is an expression of a lack of belief in an entirely different conceivable existent; thus, they are just talking past each other, not really communicating.

If one is to debate the existence of god, one should begin by defining the word. The debaters should agree on a definition of "god" before engaging in debate. After all, how is debate even possible unless both parties understand that about which they are actually in disagreement?

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