Ontological Relativity: Another Essay

by Mordecai Plaut - Part 3

This can be said in an unqualified sense, including even the most intimate conversations between two people. No part of these mental universes has any possibilty of being directly communicated. There is neither hope nor intent nor attempt to transmit this type of information. Furthermore, there would be no way to tell if it were successful, were any attempt made. This all may be somewhat surprising, but it leaves us no worse off than before, and possibly better if it is a true understanding of the phenomena of communication.

Let us imagine for a moment that we have, in addition to this paper (the one upon which these words are written) another thing very similar to it. It is the same color, weight, and so on, in fact it is equivalent in every respect except experientially, that is, the experience of this other entity is radically different from the experience of this paper. Because of this experiential difference, no one is likely to confuse them, but nonetheless everyone would recognize that the two are otherwise equivalent.

One would probably be inclined to say that this second thing would be a very good representation of the paper if it were convenient to use a representation and if that second entity is an acceptable surrogate. One might say that this new thing is somewhat hard to imagine, but that can certainly not be for lack of information about it for it is exactly like this paper in all respects save the single one mentioned earlier. One might insist that it is nonetheless hard to imagine, but we shall soon see that it most certainly is not hard to imagine for such things are continually experienced. The difficulty lies in recognizing things for what they are.

To return to the previous discussion, in this "fantasy paper" there is a whole "fantasy world." in this world there is not only some odd paper but actually a whole array of objects which stand in the same relation to the objects of this world as that funny paper stands in relation to that real piece of paper. Not only are there mock objects, but also mock properties as well. That is, there are properties which are true of the same mock objects as real properties which are true of real objects.

Needless to say, these properties are also the same as real properties except experientially. Actually it is in virtue of these funny properties that we were earlier able to say that all the funny objects were identical to their counterparts (except experientially). Actually identity is not properly predicated of each entity of the "fantasy" and real objects, but of the two worlds as wholes; the real world and the fantasy world are identical except experientially. This was merely an instance of what was earlier noted as the difficulty arising from the serial nature of language when dealing with "holistic" things.

Part of what I have been calling a "fantasy world" lies right in front of you. The first of its objects that I described is `paper' with some appropriate index, `that' should be sufficient here. The bemused reader will no doubt point out that I am confusing use and mention since while it is true that that paper is (say) white, it is most certainly not the case that `that paper' is white. Obviously, but that would be a false anticipation of what I intend to say, for I will merely observe that `that paper is white' is true, and q.e.d.

It will certainly not be denied that `white' : 'that paper' :: white : that paper, for that analogy is essential to the ability to use words to talk of things. This is certainly a most curious view of language and I call it the "through the looking glass" approach.

There are two important relationships with language: the word-to-word relationship and the word-to-thing relationship. To continue with the above examples, besides the already mentioned relationships, there is the `that paper' to that paper relationship. The latter has come in for all the attention but I think that some attention to the former will shed much light on the latter, too.

Let '=' stand for the standard word/word relationship. It can also then stand for the object/object relationship as we observed earlier. If we are told only that `that paper'=`white' that would be insufficient information to determine that `white' means white or that `that paper' denotes that paper. However we are generally given a number of simultaneous relationships among the words (such as `white'=`snow',`white'=`clouds', `that paper'='light' and so forth) which, when solved (simultaneously), would give approximately <2> that `white' means white and that `that paper' means that paper -- approximately because of the indeterminacy.

The intent in an attempt to communicate is to apprise the second party of some state of affairs. Clearly the most direct and effective way to do this would be to actually display the state of affairs to him, possibly pointing out aspects of special interest. However this is impractical in most cases and impossible in many (such as past events).

If language works as I have here described it, verbal communication is comparable to real display. In "Word and Object," Quine takes the ostension of a single object as the primitive case of communication, while I seem to have taken display of a whole scene as the most basic. These are not as different as they may appear for display is merely a broad ostension. Also Quine's proposals are compatible with what has been said here if his account is taken as a description of the process that a child goes through in learning a language while what has been given here is a reconstructed account of the finished product.


<1> There is a tendency to think that if something can be formulated simply and appears reasonable, then it must be meaningful and that the onus is on the one who would deny that it is significant to demonstrate that it is in fact so. That is perhaps necessary, but I would just like to appeal for some sympathy for that task. It is comparably easy when the words in question are nouns but nonetheless it required a long and drawn out argument in "On What There Is." It is much harder when a more complex locution is involved. See also "Number" by Tobias Danzig, p. 88, "the very act of writing down the meaningless has given it a meaning, and not easy to deny the existence of something that has received a name."

<2> I said "approximately" so as not to cause confusion in view of indeterminacy, but there is actually a very neat argument that allows one to say "exactly." There is no doubt that anyone who understands the use of quotation marks in English and uses them correctly, will agree that `white' means white. Of course it is possible that the mental representation that one person has of white is not the same as used by another, but that should not prevent either from affirming it even when uttered by the other.

The sentence expresses a truth about the relationship between a (particular) word and its name formed with quotation harks and has nothing to do with the meaning of either, unless it is understood to be saying: "the (public) word "white" means my (private) representation of white." Despite the fact that it is common for people to understand such sentences in that way, as asserting a close connection between some public entity (such as a word) and a private one (such as a mental representation) this strikes he as a silly, if not perverse interpretation of what somebody is likely to say, for that makes it a trivial falsehood.

Post script:

One of the main points of this paper has been the observation that something like the formalistic view in mathematics is adequate to account for the transmission of information, there are two key qualifiers here: "adequate" and "transmission of information." As usual, adequacy, which is my claim, does not guarantee accuracy. Also, our experience with communication is exclusively with the processing of information, either for transmission or from reception. The transmission itself is via atmospheric or electronic pulses, or through a combination of visual patterns and locomotion.

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