Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Modernizing (and Medievalizing) Analyticity

A project I've been hoping to do eventually is to re-work the concept-containment notion of analyticity. Something has always seemed to me intuitive about it, at least in the "Bachelors are unmarried" sorts of cases. (From the 19th century onward, for various reasons, the analytic truths seem to have become equated with the logical truths; this seems wrong to me.)

I'd also like to see whether the notion of analyticity comes up at all in medieval philosophy, and whether any of the tools of medieval philosophy could be of use for this project (or, what would be just as interesting, whether they would find the concept-containment notion of analyticity hopelessly confused).

There are several problems for the concept-containment approach, but a big one is this:

1. Forms of Analytic Judgments: Kant (sometimes) defined analyticity in terms of conceptual containment, roughly as: A judgment of the form 'A are B' is analytic iff the concept B is contained in the concept A.

The worry is that there are many judgments that do not seem to have this form, but where they seem to also be true in virtue of 'meaning' or 'concepts' (or something close). Some examples, taken from SEP:
(11) If Bob is married to Sue, then Sue is married to Bob.
(12) Anyone who's an ancestor of an ancestor of Bob is an ancestor of Bob.
(13) If x is bigger than y, and y is bigger than z, then x is bigger than z.
(14) If something is red, then it's colored.
Other examples, from Jerrold Katz:
(15) Mary walks with those with whom she herself walks.
(16) Mary walks with those with whom she herself strolls.
(17) Poor people have less money than rich people.
(18) Rich people have more money than poor people.
It's not totally clear how all of these examples can be analytic (assuming they all are) if we take analytic truth to mean that the predicate-concept is contained in the subject-concept.

I don't have a worked-out answer to this yet, but I suspect that some of the work in cognitive linguistics might be helpful. In fact, Katz' own work might be helpful here, though from what I understand Katz is a Platonist (rather than a "conceptualist") about meaning, and so it would have to be properly adapted.

In addition to these strategies, where medieval philosophy might be useful here is in seeing how we might, in fact, be able to reformulate all "basic" sentences and then parse them out so that they technically obey the constraint of "subject-copula-predicate" form.

As Terence Parsons points out, medieval scholastic Latin is unique in that it is a natural language and yet there is no distinction between a sentence's ordinary surface grammar and its logical form.

Now, if one had a close enough association between words and mental concepts, one might then be able to get a nice conceptualist-type semantics going. And it seems certain medieval thinkers did have precisely this sort of close association between mental concepts and meaning, viz., in the theory of "subordination" (I'm thinking of Buridan and Ockham right now).

This suggests that we could translate basic ordinary-language sentences into medieval subject-copula-predicate sentences, and the concept-containment idea could become more useful again.

I'm not sure it will be as simple as that or that this will solve everything, but I suspect it will make things easier.

There are some other issues for a conceptual containment theory of analyticity too:

2. Conceptual Containment: There are really at least two problems here: (a) a theory of concepts, and (b) a notion of containment. Can we give a plausible and clear theory of both? (And, what would be even better: Can we give a theory of both that is mathematizable and subject to rigor and computation once we are given a case?) And how neutral can we be here with respect to different theories of concepts and containment?

How can medieval philosophy help here? Medieval philosophy certainly contains much discussion of concepts, and that should certainly be useful.

As for the notion of containment, I can't help but think of Scotus' theory of "repugnance" and "non-repugnance" by which he assesses the modal status of basic propositions -- the kinds of propositions concept-containment seems to be after (see page 162, here). What's interesting is that Scotus seems to define repugnance as a relation holding between terms. That seems to make it a semantic relation rather than a conceptual relation for Scotus; moreover, the relation's holding is said to be grounded in "notae," which are in some sense objective features of the external world.

So this isn't exactly concept-containment analyticity; but still, in terms of its formal/logical properties, non-repugnance/repugnance behaves similarly to concept-containment/exclusion. (This seems to be an instance of a more "externalist," metaphysical picture of containment and exclusion relations; I get the sense that this sort of externalism is the norm in medieval philosophy, especially pre-Nominalism, though even after that as well.) Moreover, like repugnance-relations, concept-containment relations are supposed to ground the modal status of propositions, and moreover, they both seem to deal with the same sorts of propositions. So I can't help but think Scotus will be helpful here, even if he probably wouldn't have a view of analyticity like Kant's.

3. Rigor: How would a rigorous conceptual semantics go? Can we make it as formal, precise and mathematical as the non-conceptualist semantics have been? Some work has already been done on this sort of thing, but there's more to be said. Again, I wonder if the medieval logic might help us here, since Parsons and others have shown it to be entirely rigorous and fit for mathematical treatment. Medieval logic at its height was generally far more sophisticated than anything after it -- certainly more sophisticated than anything Kant did on logic -- and so I can only imagine it will make this project easier.

4. Externalism: Although the conceptual-containment approach seem plausible in certain cases, so does semantic externalism. Gillian Russell, a professor here at UNC, has done some brilliant work on updating analyticity to take these post-Kripkean insights into account. However, she tends toward the more externalist side of things, and I'd like to see whether we can salvage more of the connections between meaning, analyticity and concepts than she does, while still giving a reasonable account of the externalist insights (something I worry cognitive semantics a la Peter Gardenfors hasn't quite done -- see 4.1 here, for instance).

One thing I worry about in trying to find analyticity in medieval philosophy is that medieval philosophy seems to tend much more toward externalism about semantic content (though this is only a hunch I get -- I can't point to anything specific). But maybe I'm wrong and there is room for analyticity in medieval philosophy; and even if not, the project may still be worthwhile, since maybe we will find new reasons to either abandon or revise our conception of analyticity in interesting ways we've never thought of.

So I plan to do some research on medieval logic and semantics in the next few weeks, and maybe this will help my concept-containment project. Moreover, I think it is an interesting historical project in its own right to see whether something like analyticity can be found (or reformulated) in terms of medieval semantic categories.