Denotation Switch 01: Ordinary Speakers, Hard-Earned Confusion, Philosopher’s Hat

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 11 min.

1. Denotation Switch

Last year I published a post called “What Do You Mean by “God”?: Denotation Switch, Three Forms of Disbelief, and Zealous Agnosticism.” While writing it, I made lots of notes about one of its core ideas: the denotation switch. I’m going to share the notes—along with new ones as they occur to me—in slightly polished chunks.

First, I’d like to say a few words to motivate the discussion, starting with what I mean by denotation switch, or what I sometimes call the denotation fallacy. A brief excerpt from the above-linked post suffices:

The denotation switch takes several forms, but essentially comes down to a hidden, subtle, or obvious usage deviation from what a word either usually denotes, or would be reasonably expected to denote in a given context; this deviation may be consciously or unconsciously motivated or performed.

A silly example would be if I told you I’m giving you the fifty bucks I owe you while handing you a penny and saying that “fifty bucks” is what I call pennies. …

… [Here’s] the first denotation switch I remember experiencing. … I put into the house stereo [at the restaurant where I worked] a tape from the popular Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares series (this would have been about 1989, the year the second volume of the series won a grammy). A chef bolted over to turn it off. He thought it was terrible. I said, “But you told me you love all music.” He said, “I do love all music! But this… is not music.”

I broadly use the word “word” here to include phrases, symbols, and anything else that can be vocalized, written down, hand-signed, etcetera.

That post is about the denotation switch in the context of the word “God.” The notes cover many other examples (plus a little bit more about God), and thus better represent the scope of the fallacy than can be done with a simple definition.

The point right now is simply that denotative slipperiness poses a tremendous barrier to good-faith discussions, both with others and with oneself, so to speak. (It does so as a subset of a greater problem I call the mind gap, which I won’t get into here, but have written about elsewhere: “Attention: Mind the Mind Gap“).

2. Call to Ordinary Speakers

My aim here isn’t to review, critique, or synthesize the various areas of study usually referenced in undertakings of the present sort. That would be a distraction involving the additional burden of understanding and explaining and comparing those theories, many of which are not only highly technical, but also use identical terminology to mean different things, or use differing terminology to refer to the same things. More importantly, those disciplines have never scratched the itch I’m trying to reach here as an ordinary, everyday language speaker.

I want to talk about how and why specific words are abused and why we should care. I want to contemplate and better understand what I experience as an ordinary speaker ferociously convicted by the belief that what we actually mean to say to one another matters a lot, and that this fact should supply the basic ground on which any conversation worth having and taking seriously takes place.

I trust I don’t have to start from scratch to convince you of this. We’re all acquainted with the deep frustration of what I broadly call the denotation switch: of being misunderstood or misled, intentionally or unintentionally, by the slipperiness and vagueness of words. And we all know that there are people who make a habit of—or even whose jobs depend on—exploiting that slipperiness and vagueness.

But I didn’t grasp just how pervasive it is, how far-reaching its effects, until I started paying attention to it. And yet so often the denotation switch and even its effects go unacknowledged, even when it seems something is amiss (though it often doesn’t seem so, seems business as usual). This leaves the fallacy plenty of room to work, with or without our help.

My hope is that by drawing focused and sustained attention to the denotation switch, we can train ourselves to try to at least take it into account and to help one another avoid it. This means accepting the hard work of endeavoring to understand what others mean by the words they use, and what in fact we ourselves mean by our own words.

That’s the only way to get anywhere near instantiating in the minds of others the mental content that is in our own minds. The slightest wrinkles of difference in meaning matter to this process of of telepathic transformation that we take for granted, but is in actuality some kind of delicate miracle too often finds itself wasting away, trapped in the skulls of us hardheaded humans.

In any event, I have to situate myself in the world as a speaker and receiver of language. These notes reflect my effort to acknowledge what I see as my duty to take the position seriously.

3. Hard-Earned Confusion: Good; Semantic Confusion: Bad

I often praise confusion, and in fact recently dedicated a post to driving the point home: “Confusion, in Praise Of.”

All you need to know about that here is that I praise the confusion that follows from a good-faith effort to understand. The denotation switch impedes or distracts from that effort, principally by generating semantic confusion. Semantic confusion can be interesting, namely when it turns out to be extremely difficult or even impossible to eradicate. But we can only know if it is interesting—if it is in fact the basis of a healthier, self-aware, illuminating confusion—after trying to eradicate it.

The denotation switch is a great way to generate semantic confusion.

4. Philosopher’s Hat

Some people, on sensing themselves entering a philosophical conversation, put on the philosopher’s hat, as I like to call it. That is, they transparently pretend to believe preposterous things they don’t actually believe and never would or could believe. They do so because they mistakenly believe that philosophical discussions are competitions to see who can (appear to) commit themselves to the weirdest, most interesting, most infuriatingly counterintuitive premises.

I’ve lived through plenty of instances I could recount, particularly from when I was a philosophy major. It happened especially outside of class, but also sometimes in philosophy courses, mostly introductory ones. I won’t recount them, as I’m sure you know what I mean.

Unsurprisingly, the philosopher’s hat is not welcome here. It works against everything I consider philosophy to be good for.

That said, it can be difficult to keep track of the line between the philosopher’s hat and an honest quest to unleash full-strength philosophy onto one’s beliefs, intuitions, background assumptions, and such in order to see what they’re made of, to put them through the wringer and see what murky mess seeps out, to… you get the idea, pick your favorite metaphor.

(I chose violent metaphors. This violence is inward facing and of a piece with viewing philosophical discussion as a collaborative effort to help one another effectively self-interrogate. A consequence of this, I hope, is better and better ideas and understanding for all. As for how the collaboration is enacted, I offer George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s thought experiment, in Chapter 1 of their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By: imagine a culture in which arguments, and discourse more broadly, are viewed not in terms of war, but of dance.)

I try to keep myself on the virtuous side of the line by periodically asking myself: Do you actually believe what you’re saying?

If you know at dinner and while driving that you have two hands, then you know it in your epistemology seminar, though the latter is a fine place to consider, unapologetically: what it requires for you to sincerely say you know it; the possibility that your knowledge in fact fails to meet those requirements; what it might mean or feel like, if only for a moment, to give up, lose, or doubt the beliefs that found that knowledge; and what, finally, all this does, or should be taken, to mean for your beliefs in general.

That last step is where you decide to what extent to overlap your philosophical and practical selves. Frustratingly—paradoxically, even—that too is a philosophical question!

Still, it’s clear that even good-faith philosophizing has its time and place. A funeral isn’t the place to interject your philosophically tested atheism—nor is hardly anywhere else, really. The philosophical gadfly must recognize that to be too annoying with get it squashed, along with any attempts to inspire or share in deeper contemplation.

(For some of us, though, this is how we find our best friends. Annoyed people is a price oft paid for the privilege. Angry people, too, I’ve encountered on several occasions. Once, a drunken jerk, having just learned that I was studying philosophy, yelled at me in front of a homeless man: “Let’s see your philosophy help this homeless man! Come on, let’s see it!!”)

These observations provide all the more reason to shun the philosopher’s hat. If philosophy deals with anything of importance (of course it does, don’t get me started), then, in those rare moments of unembarrassed philosophical license, honesty is especially crucial.

I am, of course, not the first to worry about the difficulty of well-intentioned relating—e.g., balancing; overlapping; exchanging beliefs, attitudes, judgements, opinions between—one’s philosophical and practical selves. David Hume seems to have something similar in mind when he writes in Book 1, Section 5 of A Treatise of Human Nature:

Should it here be asked me, whether I sincerely assent to this argument, which I seem to take such pains to inculcate, and whether I be really one of those sceptics, who hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falshood; I should reply, that this question is entirely superfluous, and that neither I, nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion.

In the conclusion (Section 7) of Book 1, Hume deepens and elaborates on this thought. Good stuff for the chronically contemplative. Some choice extracts:

… The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? …. I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition, that I am ready to throw all my books and papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy. …. But does it follow, that I must strive against the current of nature, which leads me to indolence and pleasure; that I must seclude myself, in some measure, from the commerce and society of men, which is so agreeable; and that I must torture my brains with subtilities and sophistries, at the very time that I cannot satisfy myself concerning the reasonableness of so painful an application, nor have any tolerable prospect of arriving by its means at truth and certainty. ….

… In all the incidents of life we ought still to preserve our scepticism. If we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, it is only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise. Nay if we are philosophers, it ought only to be upon sceptical principles, and from an inclination, which we feel to the employing ourselves after that manner. Where reason is lively, and mixes itself with some propensity, it ought to be assented to. Where it does not, it never can have any title to operate upon us. ….

… It is certain, that superstition is much more bold in its systems and hypotheses than philosophy …. [Since] it is almost impossible for the mind of man to rest, like those of beasts, in that narrow circle of objects, which are the subject of daily conversation and action, we ought only to deliberate concerning the choice of our guide, and ought to prefer that which is safest and most agreeable. And in this respect I make bold to recommend philosophy, and shall not scruple to give it the preference to superstition of every kind or denomination. …. Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous. ….

… It is easier to forbear all examination and enquiry, than to check ourselves in so natural a propensity, and guard against that assurance, which always arises from an exact and full survey of an object. On such an occasion we are apt not only to forget our scepticism, but even our modesty too…

Hume’s words only strengthen my sense of duty to cut a harder route and to avoid the readymade paths of unconsidered, fashionable opinion (while fashionable opinions are sometimes the best ones, they are best arrived at the long way). I think we all have this duty—call it the duty of the informed electorate, if you prefer—though I admit that some of us can’t help but “torture [our] brains with subtilities and sophistries,” and have a difficult time pinpointing the time and place for it, which Hume and I seem to agree exists, his solution being, apparently, to “seclude” himself, whatever that means.

Interestingly, he seems less enamored than I am of the confusion inherent in the philosophically obsessed life (presuming you’re living it right). Though he’s certainly no less willing to own up to it. What comes immediately to mind is his retraction in the Appendix of his account of personal identity, though it’s not clear what he takes his mistake to be, and I am in fact of the opinion that he’s being overly harsh on himself and was onto something with that account:

…of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involved in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent. If this be not a good general reason for scepticism, it is at least a sufficient one (if I were not already abundantly supplied) for me to entertain a diffidence and modesty in all my decisions.

Hume never explicitly mentions anything like what I call the philosopher’s hat, as far as I know. He didn’t have to: we can infer from the first quote I shared above that he would be suspicious of anyone claiming to be “sincerely and constantly” of an opinion that he himself  seemed “to take such pains to inculcate.” Imagine how he’d have felt about even more extreme, less rigorously offered premises; by which I mean the philosopher’s hat.

The philosopher’s hat often (though not always) involves denotation switches. Denotation switches show up in plenty of other places as well. Some scientists, for example, rely on the denotation switch while in public conversations with the aim of blowing the audience’s mind.

More on that in the notes, which I’ll begin sharing in the next post. (Link coming soon.)


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