Theories of Knowledge and Theories of Linguistic Representation in Parallel Outline 1

0. I have found myself turning my attention to literature and the philosophy of literature, more specifically to the literature that is the fictional narrative represented the short story and the novel and the philosophy thereof. This is one of the reasons why I have not been posting as frequently as I would like to have been on the philosophy of Alain Badiou; a second reason is that I have not yet found myself able to disengage the cogent arguments which some of the central theses of Badiou’s Being and Event require from the text itself (and I am getting ready to suggest that this is just possibly because they are not really there); and a third reason is that I find myself just plain too busy to do all that I want to do.

1. All that being said, my wanderings off into literature and its philosophy have left me still wandering within philosophy, in particular within the theory of knowledge and the theory of language or, as I will be focusing in on it, linguistic representation. A case in point: one of the first texts related to literature and the philosophy of literature into which I have wandered is the “Introduction to Theory and Criticism” opening the mammoth The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.* The essay contains a number of passages presenting statements in the theory of language or linguistic representation which fairly beg to be included in a systematic outline of the fundamental options logically available to the theorists of language and linguistic representation. One part of the purpose of the present post is to provide such a systematic outline.

As it turns out, moreover, there is a precise and useful parallelism between the set of fundamental options logically available in the theory of linguistic representation and the set of fundamental options logically available in the theory of knowledge, or epistemology. Now I had already drafted, though not published, an outline of the latter set of options, intending it to be used in my analysis of the thought of Badiou. Given all this, the full purpose of the present post is that of offering parallel systematic outlines of the two sets of theories, first of the perhaps better known theories of knowledge and then of the theories of linguistic representation in parallel with those of knowledge.

2. First, however, as we shall soon see, the various theories of knowledge and of linguistic representation presuppose or imply, in varying degrees of immediacy, various ontological theories. I’ll take note of two of the most fundamental of them now. On the one hand, there is the affirmative thesis of ontological realism, that:

It is possible for there to be some existent.

or (in a “stronger” version, one passing from the merely possible to the actual):

There actually is some existent, i.e., some existent actually is.

On the other hand, of course, there is the negative thesis of ontological nihilism, that:

It is not possible for there to be some existent.

or (in a “weaker” version, one passing from the not possible to the merely not actual):

There actually is no existent, i.e., no existent actually is.

I could, of course, further vary the theories at hand by further varying of the quantifier, i.e., by inserting an “every” for the “some’s” and the “no’s” already used. The goal here is not that of an exhaustive presentation of the options, but rather an illustrative one. Anyone with an acquaintance with elementary logic will be able, in this set of theses and in those to come, to spell out the additional options as desired.

3. Let me digress a bit here and introduce the first of several theses advance by Gorgias of Leontini and related to the theories under review here. Now it happens that the first chapter of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, after its “Introduction to Theory and Criticism,” is devoted to an introduction to the thought of Gorgias and the presentation of selected passages from his Encomium of Helen. It does not, however, concern itself with the essay, if we can call it that, for which Gorgias is best known among philosophers, his On Non-being or On Nature. But the following passage, from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy** article, “The Sophists,” begins to make clear the pertinence of Gorgias’s Non-being or On Nature to the present post and to the theories of knowledge and of linguistic representation.

In addition [to what we can learn about Gorgias from the writings of Plato], we have a philosophical essay ‘On Non-Being or On Nature’ (DK 82B3), purporting to be a rebuttal of Parmenides, in which he maintains that nothing exists, that if anything did exist it could not be known and that if anything could be known it could not be communicated. Scholarly opinion has been and remains divided as to whether this was intended as a parody of Eleatic writing or as a serious piece of philosophy. What can definitely be said is that it shows some knowledge of Parmenides, that it at least raises serious philosophical questions, such as the relation of thought to reality and the possibility of referring to things which do not exist, that no question which it raises is developed to any significant extent and that most of its arguments are extremely feeble.

That is, we can give credit to Gorgias for having been at least one of the earliest, if not the earliest, to have given expression to the thesis of ontological nihilism, that, as I have put it, “There actually is no existent, i.e., no existent actually is,” or, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article puts it on Gorgias’s behalf, “Nothing exists.”

I hardly expect many to accept the thesis as true; I myself regard the thesis that something exists as nothing less than a ‘first principle” of philosophical thought. But we can perhaps agree to look at the thesis of ontological nihilism through the lens of a dialectical stance holding that to every great truth there stands in opposition an equally great falsehood.

We will come back to our digression on Gorgias presently.

4. But let’s now return for a time from our digression and attend to the first set of the theories of knowledge and linguistic representation under review, first among them the most basic of the affirmative theories of knowledge, that which I like to identify as epistemism. This is the thesis that:

It is possible for there to be a knowledge of some existent.

or (in a “stronger” version, one passing from the merely possible to the actual):

There actually is a knowledge of some existent.

I should perhaps recognize here, at least for the record, that the two versions just given of the thesis of epistemism assume, without argumentation, that knowledge is knowledge of something and not of “nothing.” But I’m comfortable in so assuming for the purposes of the present exercise.

Let’s note then that the thesis that it is possible for there to be a knowledge of some existent presupposes the ontological thesis that it is possible for there to be an existent. Similarly, of course, the thesis that there actually is a knowledge of some existent presupposes the ontological thesis that there actually is an existent.

We can also note that the definitions just given are of epistemism in its most simple, most basic, and most broadly applicable version. The thesis of epistemism also exists in a prodigious variety of more specific or particular versions. There is, on the one hand, the prodigious variety of possible objects of knowledge, ranging from, say, the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle,” to, say, the divine himself, herself, itself, or themselves, if such there be. There is, on the other hand, the probably not quite so prodigious variety of possible knowers, including, say, human animals qua intelligent or qua sensate, non-human animals, extra-terrestrials, angels, or the divine, if such there be.

5. The opposite thesis, of course, is that of skepticism, though the name “anti-epistemism” would bring out the contrast more clearly. This is the thesis that:

It is not possible for there to be a knowledge of any existent.

or (in a “weaker” version, one passing from the actual to the merely possible):

There actually is no knowledge of any existent.

[A January 2, 2014, correction: instead of the “in a “weaker” version, one passing from the actual to the merely possible” placed just above within the parentheses, I should have written “in a “weaker” version, one passing from the impossible to the merely not actual.”]

The note offered above concerning epistemism in its most simple, most basic, and most broadly applicable versions and in the prodigious variety of its more specific or particular versions can be offered, mutatis mutandis, concerning skepticism. It is, however, otherwise with the note concerning epistemism’s presupposition of the ontological thesis that it is possible for there to be some existent or that there actually is some existent. Skepticism does not presuppose in the same straightforward, non-meta-theoretical way that there possibly or actually is some existent. Nor does it presuppose at all either that it is not possible for there to be any existent or that there actually is no existent.

6. We can here note quickly that our man Gorgias deserves credit for having been at least one of the earliest, if not the earliest, to have given expression to the thesis of skepticism, that, as I have put it, “There actually is no knowledge of any existent” or, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article almost puts it on Gorgias’s behalf, “If anything were to exist it could not be known.”

7. The first set of the theories of knowledge under review having been attended to, let’s look at the corresponding theories of linguistic representation. The theory of linguistic representation analogous to epistemism, one for which I do not have a name to offer other than, say, linguistic representationalism, is the thesis that:

It is possible for there to be a linguistic representation of some existent.

or (in a “stronger” version, one passing from the merely possible to the actual):

There actually is a linguistic representation of some existent.

I’ll assign as an exercise for the reader the provision of the commentary, on this thesis and those to follow, analogous to that which I offered above on the basic theories of knowledge.

The opposite thesis, analogous to skepticism, is that of “anti-linguistic representationalism,” the thesis that:

It is not possible for there to be a linguistic representation of any existent.

or (in a “weaker” version, one passing from the actual to the merely possible):

There actually is no linguistic representation of any existent.

[A January 2, 2014, correction: instead of the “in a “weaker” version, one passing from the actual to the merely possible” placed just above within the parentheses, I should have written “in a “weaker” version, one passing from the impossible to the merely not actual.”]

8. As you will have anticipated, I will here return to our digression, to notice that Gorgias once again deserves credit, this time for having been at least one of the earliest, if not the earliest, to have given expression to the thesis of “anti-linguistic representationalism,” the thesis that, as I have put it, “there actually is no linguistic representation of any existent” or, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article almost puts it on Gorgias’s behalf, “if anything were to be known it could not be communicated.”

9. I’m going to let this recognition of the third of Gorgias’s expression of great falsehoods bring this post to close. In the next post I will review yet other of the fundamental theses, true and false, in the theories of knowledge and linguistic representation.

* Vincent B. Leitch, general editor, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second edition; New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

** Taylor, C.C.W. and Lee, Mi-Kyoung, “The Sophists”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/sophists/&gt;.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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