Plain speaking for a change

“Plain Language Philosophy” is an approach to the truth which is available to all of us. Nowadays it is popular with serious philosophers – and often used by those who do not think of it as philosophy at all. In principle it promotes the idea that if we make a statement or a claim, even in the most natural way, we have to be prepared to defend the validity of that expression. In doing so we get closer to understanding what we are saying.

Here’s an example. “All Hottentots are rogues, they should be shunned in normal society.” Almost every word in that statement is susceptible to questioning. Let me suggest just three. You will be able to identify the others.
o what do you mean by “rogue”?
o what do you mean by “are”?
o what do you mean by “should?
And of course your responses to such questions will throw up other words and expressions which need their own clearer definitions.

I would choose Socrates as the champion plain language philosopher. His favoured approach was to ask questions rather than to make definite statements. So, when he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, he didn’t just accept or deny it, he went off to ask questions which might lead him to verify the claim. If you had said to him “I need a cup of tea” you might have found him interrogating the word “need”.

So here is an exercise in plain language philosophy: it is somewhat more important than a cup of tea. In each case try and establish the deeper meaning of the verb in each phrase.
“I hope there is life after death. I think there is life after death. I believe there is life after death. I know there is life after death. I am certain there is life after death.”
If you are in an atheistic mood today you can simply turn each proposition into its negative: “I don’t think there is life after death” etc. The exercise is the same.

I hope that working at this exercise will demonstrate to you how easily we make important statements without explaining even to ourselves what we mean. I am not suggesting that you should challenge everyone you meet. You might get as unpopular as Socrates, who died for it. But there will be important statements you encounter in conversation or in the media, or being shouted by the mob which you do need to interrogate through plain language philosophy. But perhaps more importantly you should interrogate yourself. Then you at least can say what you mean, and ensure that you mean what you say.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Quentin queries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Plain speaking for a change

  1. Nektarios says:

    Can one by taking thought/ philosophy find out God?
    If God demands Truth in the inward parts, ones mind and soul, is that accomplished via the discipline of philosophy?

    I note that in many religions across the globe, past and present, they have it as a philosophy.
    have they discovered God, or just reached a philosophical conclusion that such a Being as God exists?

    Are the philosophical arguments, Christianity at all?

    Is the Apostolic Doctrine, teaching and practice philosophical?

    What has the spiritual life and understanding, knowledge and powers thereof got to do with philosophy? Is there really a connection, or is philosophy a merely man-centred understanding where he/ she is the god?

    • ignatius says:

      1)Yes, 2)yes, 3) the former, 4) yes, 5) yes, 6) yes there really is a connection.

      • Nektarios says:

        Ignatius

        Scripture asks us the question to which you answer, 1,yes. I don’t think you have quite undertood the question.
        This in turn shows the limitations of thought/philosophy however clever or thought out displayed in your limited answers; it does not lead to God that is, but a god of ones imagination which is worse than useless. It is man’s attempt to answer in his darkness of mind where he sees nothing, so he invents.

        While the Apostolic doctrine and teaching and practice is sane, sensible and rational, it is not Rationalism, which is a philosophical concept and understanding of thought, alas, fictitious.

        Concerning 6) you answer yes there really is a connection.
        That which is spiritual is spiritual and that which is of the natural man is earthy and linear, and philosophy belongs to the latter reaching no higher.

        Philosophy does not answer the problem of man in his fallenness, lostness, sinfulness.

  2. John Thomas says:

    Quentin, this is excellent, and I warm to all of it (being, as I am, a sceptic who questions everything – particularly the stuff of contemporary culture/ideas/certainties). And, indeed, Know Thyself, as whoever it was said. But I’m sure literature has a few classic parodies of the effete philosophical fop who questions everything – what CUP really means, or TEA, or WANT (your example) – if not, I, as a writer of fiction, must set myself to furnishing just such a (ludicrous) character … (while commending questioning).

  3. ignatius says:

    In my job as a senior clinic tutor I use Socratic method unflinchingly with students. It can be a bit formidable when first encountered but is easily the best teaching/learning tool around.

  4. Horace says:

    Surely the meaning of a word – is, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on context (explicit or implicit). For example my wife often says to me “Put the thingumajig on the what-sit” and I know what she means!

  5. ignatius says:

    As far as I understand it socratic method is able to ferret out those many occasions when we use words as labels for concepts we have not understood. So for example a common student led diagnosis in my line of work for a painful area might be ‘muscle ischaemia’ If I then enquire into the hows, whens and whys of ‘muscle ischaemia’ it will become quickly obvious that the student has simply picked up the term in a lecture but not considered it at all as an entity existing in time and space with a specific cause. Similarly, when we speak of God as ‘Father’ for example we find ourselves plunging immediately into very deep water.

  6. Alasdair says:

    Is, for example, “I am the light of the world”, plain speaking – or is it obscure – or both?

    • ignatius says:

      Alisdair,
      It is both. I have just come from a day workshop on preaching where we discussed this topic in detail coming to the conclusion that much ‘meaning’ is derived from its allegorical/analogical content. In other words most of us can connect with the idea of light and darkness by means of physical experience or stories we have heard which illustrate the analogy between good and evil for example.
      From this point of view the statement is both plain in that it can be grasped but is obscure because of its application in this case. The statement is likely to make a listener think along these lines:
      “Yes I know what a light in the darkness means, but how can this apply to a person?”

  7. Peter Foster says:

    Quentin’s questions are rather about the statements than their verbs.
    Early in his intellectual journey, Karl Popper concluded that a philosophical process of seeking the definitions of words was to take the wrong track. It is the meanings of statements, propositions or theories that are paramount. The relationship between a theory or statement and the words used in its formulation is in several ways analogous to that between written words and the letters used in writing them down. The letters have no meaning in the sense in which words have meaning although we must know the letters (their meaning in some other sense) to recognise the words and so discern their meaning. Approximately the same may be said about words and statements or theories.

    When undertaking a translation into another language we do not see words as having a precision that can relate to a corresponding precise word in the destination language which would make translation an easy process in a mechanical way. A good translation is an interpretation of the original text. It conveys the meaning and other qualities or nuances. There are very great number of languages; many with different structures and vocabularies.

    Assertions, not the definitions of words, can be tested for truth.

    • ignatius says:

      Peter,
      That’s an interesting snippet from Karl Popper. I came to the conclusion awhile ago that the most basic and smallest unit of meaning was probably a paragraph…which is, if I follow your drift, pretty much what you are saying. However words DO also function as labels, isn’t that what nouns are for? Most of us will probably have met the line of preaching which goes like this:
      “Of course when we pray the Our Father we are assuming that our own fathers have been good parents, which is not always the case…”
      So we open up yet another can of worms in that, even for a simple noun, there may be shades of private meaning. So, many words are in fact approximate labels but their particular ‘meaning’ will vary from person to person.

  8. galerimo says:

    I think everyone (except for Horace’s wife who makes perfect sense to me) has gone completely mad.

    Or maybe its Quentin’s punishment for all the nonsense I have been putting on his blog!!!

    Anyway – Better jump in….here goes

    I HOPE…. my reaching beyond what is evident or knowable to me into apprehension of some object.
    I THINK… my engagement with any object internal or external using the functions of my mind.
    I BELIEVE…my full commitment through personal assent to anything or anyone of my choosing
    I AM CERTAIN…my state of being when fully connected with the reality of any other.

    And in each instance of these verbs I am relating to “life after death” (which I don’t think I have to also define?).

    Actually – not a bad exercise – I found I had to think a lot about each verb – but I am not at all satisfied with my results.

  9. Peter Foster says:

    Of course we should question everything.
    Of course words (including nouns) have meanings. Their approximate duplication and ambiguities are the glory of the English middle order crossword.
    Of course Galerimo, expressions of feelings and beliefs are valid but they are only personal.

    What is the source or underpinning of my belief in the afterlife might provide a more fruitful approach?

    My response was a result of. being STRUCK by the acceptance that:
    ““Plain Language Philosophy” is an approach to the truth …

    what do you mean by “rogue”?
    what do you mean by “are”?
    what do you mean by “should?.
    And of course your responses to such questions will throw up other words and expressions which NEED THEIR OWN CLEARER DEFINITIONS.”

  10. G.D. says:

    My spoken word (any spoken word) has the a meaning i presume is correct. The refining of my presumption is revealed when your presumed response refines both. And visa versa.
    Given that both are open to the Truth that is beyond any presumptions – ad infinitum.
    ( My definition for ‘Truth’ in this context is both – what is beyond personal presumption; and causes mutual communion).

    I do not assert, only conjecture.

  11. G.D. says:

    Galerimo, wish i’d read this before i posted, Yes!

    ‘ I HOPE…. my reaching beyond what is evident or knowable to me into apprehension of some object.
    I THINK… my engagement with any object internal or external using the functions of my mind.
    I BELIEVE…my full commitment through personal assent to anything or anyone of my choosing
    I AM CERTAIN…my state of being when fully connected with the reality of any other. ‘

  12. Peter Foster says:

    G.D. The point at issue is whether your “Plain Language Philosophy” of definitions has realised its promise to unearth a deeper truth?

    Assertions can be tested whereas conjectures are just that.

  13. G.D. says:

    Oh, sorry. Trust me to get the wrong idea!
    But then again ….
    if i work with the knowledge (as i do) that there is always a ‘deeper truth’ to be known, and express words with the intention of ‘The refining of my presumption’ (by which i mean coming closer to truth) that is my plain language, so i could say yes PLP does realise it’s promise, for me at least.
    But i only conjecture it, as there is always a ‘deeper truth’ to be known. So i could say no PLP doesn’t realise it’s promise.
    ….. In plain truth, as i see it it can work both ways. Depending on if the definitions are seen as absolute or not …..

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