Not Quite Meaningless

April 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

It was quite interesting to go through this post by Professor Hertzberg of Åbo Akademi wherein he elevates a viewpoint which he is opposed to, by excluding it from the set of “meaningless claims” and permitting its consideration as an “interesting formulation”.

I first came across Professor Hertzbeg’s name watching a conversation he had with Frederick Stoutland on Georg Henrik von Wright, and remember him mentioning that he liked and preferred very much von Wright’s Den logiska empirismen to A J Ayer’s Language truth and Logic, which is a book I very much adore.

So when reading this post I was half aware or at least assumed that for philosophers of that tradition the term “meaningless claim” may have a far more restricted denotation than one would usually encounter.

Nevertheless I find that if one follows a primitive formula according to which,
Something has meaning for a subject by way of making a “difference to them”
the question does not even arise in the way it’s raised. A claim is meaningful for the claimant as an essential expression of the way such concepts make a difference to them.

The claim in question is one of the varieties employed by the opponents of a recent marriage law reform in Finland, and so Professor Hertzberg points out that:
“Clearly, the intended force of “Marriage is between a man and a woman” can’t be that of a definition. The fact that a linguistic convention exists does not preclude going against it.”

Surely so, but there is no reason why the convention itself should not have supporters, who would base this claim on convenience of the norm. What stops the proponents from devising an alternative name is not quite clear.

But it is in the next argument, that one finds if not a contradiction, an element which can just as easily lend force to the claim in question:
“Furthermore, as a description of an existing linguistic convention the claim would not even be true. The word “marriage” has traditionally been employed in speaking about polygamous relations.
In fact, one would be unable to explain what “polygamy” means without allowing for the conceptual possibility of a marriage involving something other than one man and one woman.”

Polygamy to the best of my knowledge is not legal in Finland and its been overused as an argument by conservatives opposed to gay marriage, who suggest that once such a law is passed we would be on slippery slope of including varieties of arrangements under the same label, which would devalue its currency and alter the “meaning” of the convention.

If we were to imagine a not so desirable future, where, given a demographic shift in favor of certain non-indigenous religions there would be a citizen’s initiative in Finland, and a law is requested in favor of polygamous marriage, would such a reminder lend as much favor to that hypothetical initiative?

I don’t quite get why Professor Hertzberg then goes on to discount a reading of the claim as a stand or opinion. Opinions are not meaningless claims. What is declared in one, is an expression of a state of affairs which makes a difference to the speaker, and yes it would have to be pushed into the arena of argument.

The necessity of the position is in the value, the restricted definition, has in the life-world (umwelt) of those subjects, and in their respective attempts to structure and make sense of bio-cultural streams of stimuli.

This would make even more true the confusion they’d want to attribute to the supporters of same sex marriage, apropos of their appropriation/seeking of the term. An essentialist crime if any can just as easily be attributed to the proponents as they seem to be attributing an essence to the term “marriage” which justifies their challenging the will of those who hope to reserve the term.

Moreover as Roger Scruton has expressed in a characteristic dialectical fashion this attempt is in a sense self-defeating for “…in seeking equality with something unlike yourself the thing that you join to is no longer what you joined.”

Professor Hertzberg’s conclusion leaves one even more dissatisfied:
“What makes the proposition “Marriage is between a man and a woman” philosophically interesting is that it shows that people may say things that do not fit into any of the standard categories philosophers commonly use in classifying utterances. It is neither the expression of a linguistic convention, nor a statement of empirical fact, nor a normative claim.”

How is it not a normative claim? It seems to be nothing but that?!

But its even true as an expression of an empirical fact in so far as the petition is made to the Finnish parliament and it is the Finnish state which we expect to solemnize marriages and secure them through legal privileges.
This same state has through its history in penalizing say bigamy or incest used just such a conception as claimed by “Marriage is between a man and a woman” and not those of Toda people of Nilgiri plateau, whose fraternal polyandry may not necessarily be more accommodating to such an initiative.

Again its not the initiative which Professor Hertzberg has argued for, its just the sense and status of the claim
“Marriage is between man and woman” which is pondered on. It appears this would only be problematic if we agree that as an utterance its neither normative nor empirical. Yet in the context of an exchange between citizens of Finland and the Finnish Parliament I fail to see how this assertion holds.

I am tempted to refer to a delightful essay by Professor Hertzberg titled “The Sense Is Where You Find It”. which considers how invocations of nonsense in philosophy are to be understood.

The essay concludes that at most what can be said about problematic/nonsensical/appearing to be nonsensical utterances are things like ‘You can’t say this and mean that’, or, ‘If you say this here, it will come out as something quite different from what you mean to be saying’, or maybe even just, ‘I wouldn’t say that if I wanted to make that kind of point in this situation’.

Now as a proponent of the initiative I don’t imagine Professor Hertzberg would be much bothered to indulge in any of the above as a response to “Marriage is between man and a woman”. But I am curious as to how otherwise could the opponents utter their view, to say, make it easily classifiable as a normative claim?

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