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pathways (letters)

26 September 1996

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your letter of 17 September. I am writing this in the computer room at the University, as a combination of circumstances has robbed me of several early mornings in a row! So you might wonder at my choice of Courier script, when I have any number of fancy typefaces to choose from. To me, the typeface signifies, 'This is a letter.' Somehow the polished elegance of Times or Palatino seems inappropriate.

Let us start with your 'Two postulates'. I totally agree with 1. In fact, I would go further and say that a person's opinions on a matter can be different depending on who is asking them, or indeed how the question is put. (That is the bane of opinion surveys.) I also agree with 2, that a person can change their mind on some matter even though they have not been presented with any fresh evidence, simply because having thought about it again things appear in a different light. There may be no other explanation forthcoming.

I am more wary of the conclusions you draw: 'Any language (English) is made up of many sub-languages...language is a fluid concept'. Why does a change in attitudes/beliefs have to be accounted for by a difference in language? Surely, two persons who come to different conclusions on some matter on the basis of the same experience and the same evidence are not thereby deemed to be speaking different languages (or 'sub-languages').

My point about kashrut was actually intended to highlight the difference between the religious and philosophical issues. A human being with the intelligence of a pig would not be treated as a pig. The moral code that demands sanctity for human life rightly does not distinguish between different examples of the natural kind 'human'. Yet, I would argue, a pig that had been fed a chemical that boosted its intelligence to the point that it was able to learn a human language ought to be treated as a person and granted 'human rights'. No doubt this would raise some very difficult moral issues. The point is simply that our status amongst other animals is a function of what we can do, and not of our outward form.

On Blackburn's full stop. To dissolve a philosophical problem is not to show that it was 'spurious all along', at least, in the sense that philosophers are shown to have been foolish in ever having been concerned about the problem. With the benefit of hindsight, one can look back at all the false paths one has taken before reaching one's present position, but that is not something to deplore. It is simply part of the process. A Davidsonian would say that holding that there are such entities as Fregean 'senses' is such a false path. There are simply no adequate criteria for sameness or difference in sense, as there would have to be if the notion of a 'sense' had to be included in the furniture of reality, alongside material objects, persons and their linguistic behaviour. The reasons for positing senses appeared at the time good ones, but these can be circumvented. — Time will tell. Technical trickery can lead to genuine illumination, but it only takes you so far.

Do problems of understanding only involve different languages, or the same language at different times? As English speakers attempting to make sense of one another's utterances — to grasp what is on another person's mind, or to appreciate the quality of their emotional life — we are all engaged in the art and science of hermeneutics. At least we have the enormous advantage of all being human beings. We share a 'nature'. Here perhaps super-intelligent pigs (or Martians) would present a special, perhaps in the end irresolvable difficulty. I don't know. Yes, it is quite likely that different languages will have terms that prove particularly difficult to translate. The gulf may at times seem 'mysterious'. It does not follow that the gap is unbridgeable.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner