Language: July 2008 Archives

Vague Joints

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I was reading through a section of my dissertation that I haven't looked at in a while, and I found myself reading about vague joints. I didn't remember using that expression, so it was kind of interesting to notice it there.

It doesn't exactly sound like the kind of thing you'd see in a Ph.D. dissertation. Of course, neither do gunk or stuff. Metaphysicians come up with some great technical terms sometimes. Of course, metaphysical discussions of holes really are about holes.

Oh, and if you don't have a sense of what vague joints might be, here's a hint.

Latest Cute Kid Quote

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The boys were at their Occupational Therapy, and it was Isaiah's turn. Ethan and Sophia were playing with a game in the gym, which abuts the therapy room. This was late enough for the room to be empty, since they do their therapy from 5:00-6:45 pm, and this was after 6:00. The sanitation engineer, a woman wearing a pink shirt, came in the room to change the trash bags just as I was poking my head into the therapy room to see how Isaiah was doing. When I went back, Sophia said the following:

Daddy, we were sitting here, and that pink lady came in, and she said hi, but we didn't either, because we were too shy.

1. Sophia still refers to people as having certain colors not because their skin is a certain color but because they're wearing clothing that color. She used to do this regularly when she was just beginning to speak in complete sentences. She clearly knows how to distinguish people according to skin color, but she's got a clear enough sense of accuracy not to call anyone black or white, since no one actually is those colors; Mommy is brown, and the rest of the family is peach. It still doesn't stop her from saying a person is the color the person is wearing.

2. The word 'either' seems to be doing the job of 'also' or 'too', either of which would have sounded very strange, so she substituted something that sounds syntactically ok even if it's semantically crazy. Her error-correction has problems in terms of its positive solutions, but she certainly can catch something that doesn't sound right.

3. Many kids are shy. Some will admit to it occasionally if you ask them. What kind of a kid will volunteer her shyness as an explanation for not saying hi to someone, when you didn't ask for an explanation, didn't know to begin with that the person had said hi and she'd refused to respond, and really wouldn't have noticed if you'd never been told? She realizes that she's being shy by not speaking to the woman, but she has this compulsion to tell us not only that she didn't respond but that her shyness is the explanation why she didn't respond. It's as if she has to speak her inner monologue aloud all the time whenever she's just with us, but she won't say a word to other people. That's a weird combination of being shy and being very much not shy.

4. She doesn't just tell us the events that occurred. She's engaging in behind-the-scenes explanation of why she does certain things, and she attributes it to a somewhat abstract quality of herself, her shyness. Do three-year-olds typically engage in such second-order reflection? This is new for us. Since her brothers are well behind her in such things, we have no idea when this sort of thing normally begins.

A few weeks ago I was looking for something that I was sure I'd written down somewhere, and I found myself saying to myself, "I should have written it down." I did not mean that it would have been a good idea to write it down, and it's too bad that I didn't. I had failed to do something I should have done. When I tried to think about it more carefully, though, I wasn't sure what exactly I had meant. I didn't mean that I had done it because it was a good idea. What exactly is 'should' doing in the sentence?

I meant something like what we mean when someone asks us where the comb is, and we say it should be in the bathroom, fully expecting it to be there and ready to be a little upset upon finding out that someone had moved it. But what's different about this case is that there's no other person involved. Is it that I expect it to have been written down, and then I'll get mad at myself for not doing it if it turns out I didn't? I'm not sure at all what's going on here and how the components of the sentence contribute toward what I thought I was saying when I said it.

Here's a good example of the kind of stream-of-consciousness monologuing Sophia engages in most of her waking hours.

Sophia: Daddy, I want to wear my ugly dress today. It's in my closet hanging on a nail, just like my nail polish. My nail polish is over here. Daddy, look. See, my nail polish is melting off.

She'll often move across several different tenuous connections like that within the course of 20 seconds, and sometimes she even goes on for several minutes. We pick up very little of it most of the time because of how quickly she moves through the various stages.

She also likes to throw in lots of irrelevant information just because she likes to talk about it, so she'll tell me where her bear is (next to her blanket) and have to say that the blanket is a certain color or colors and that her Mommy made it for her. Sometimes she ties things to certain occasions or just mentions some term for a day a while back (often Saturday, which just means a while ago as far as she's concerned).

We got to see her cousin last week, who is only six weeks younger, and I was curious to see if she does the same thing. Not remotely, as far as I could tell.

Oh, and I have no idea why she calls it her ugly dress or why she nevertheless likes to wear it.

Gorgias has argued (see here and here) that there isn't anything and (see here) that, even if there were anything, you wouldn't be able to think about it. Now he argues that, even if there were anything and you could think about it, you wouldn't be able to communicate it to anyone.

1. We communicate with language. Language about things that are is not the things that are. So we don't communicate the things that are. We communicate language. The only thing that gets transferred to another person isn't the thing we saw but our words about it. We can't make perceptual images into sounds and vice versa, so we also can't make external objects into language. So the things that are, even if they could exist and be thought of, could not be communicated.

2. Language comes to us just as flavors do. It's an external thing we perceive with senses (visually or aurally). We might be inclined to think of this as language revealing some external object, but that's backwards. We have the language, and we posit an external object to explain the language just as we posit an external object to explain the image we see or sound we hear. (We posit a Grand Canyon when we hear someone tell us they went there.)

3. Language isn't really an object the way visible and audible things are. Even if it is, it's not similar to visible objects. It's grasped by a different organ. So language doesn't reveal these objects that are dissimilar from it.

4. Objects can't reveal each other's nature. So language, which is even more different, can't reveal other objects.

Responses:

1. Couldn't there be something in our mind when we hear them describe something that's similar to what's in someone else's mind when they see it?

2. We do posit an external object when we hear about it or read about it. We also posit an external object when we see it or touch it. How does that mean the object doesn't exist? How does it mean we can't communicate about it?

3. Language is distinct from the things it is about, but that doesn't mean it doesn't represent those things in a way that it can cause us to think about them. It doesn't mean we can't communicate something by using it.

4. Language doesn't connect us with the very essence of the things it's about, but it does communicate something that allows us to envision some features of those things.

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