Formal and Informal Language

Paul Ricoeur suggested that more formal kinds of explanation and informal understanding are related to one another by the first playing a mediating role in the second, and used this in a very nice reconciliation of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. From the formal side, the mathematician Haskell Curry — whose work has greatly influenced the theory of programming languages — argued in the 1950s that the ultimate metalanguage for all formal languages can only be ordinary natural language. Amid the tremendously rich development of formal languages in the 20th century, this point got somewhat lost, but more recently Robert Brandom’s expansion of Wilfrid Sellars’ work on material inference has provided a detailed account of how this works. The circumscribing role of informal natural language in all formal developments is related to the great Kantian insight of the primacy of practical over theoretical reason.

Self, Infinity

Ricoeur’s idea of an ethical Self as an aim is an important new variant in the menagerie of nonequivalent concepts of self. Perhaps this one has been implicit for a while, but I had not clearly made this exact connection. I very much like Aristotelian ends and Brandom’s reading of Kantian unity of apperception as an ethical goal though, so it is a welcome addition. Now I suspect this is behind what Ricoeur later called ipse identity and narrative identity, which had been troubling me.

The same older work of Ricoeur’s also uses the term “infinite” for the relatively modest if still noteworthy kind of freedom that is indirectly apparent in ordinary language use and ordinary determination of concepts. I would probably still choose a different word to avoid other connotations, but have no objection to that meaning. Again though, a couple of later, less clear references to infinity that had troubled me could be explained by this.

Syntax, Semantics, Ethics

How we understand one another in our social interactions is of paramount importance for ethics. Pointing, gestures, and similar cues can get us started, but we cannot get very far without considering linguistic meaning, and we cannot get very far with natural language meaning without considering implicit and explicit inferences.

In concrete utterances, syntax still plays a large role in specifying the overall shape of the inferences a speaker is implicitly asking us to endorse with respect to some content in question. Here we are concerned not with formal definition of syntactic features, but with specific, concrete usage that we implicitly, defeasibly take as specifying definite higher-level inferential connections by virtue of the grammar employed.

By understanding the structure of a speaker’s overall argument from syntactic as well as semantic cues, we get all sorts of nuances like intended qualifications and specifications of scope that can be all-important in assessing the reasonableness of what is being said. How well we do this depends at least partly on us as well as what was said, and also on our familiarity with the speaker’s particular speech patterns, which may vary from what is common or usual. We can also silently compare the speaker’s speech patterns to what is common or usual, and wonder if what they seemed to say was what they actually meant; or kindly point out to them that what they actually said could be misunderstood. (See also Inferential Semantics; Honesty, Kindness.)