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« Wittgenstein's Error | Main | Was Wittgenstein Wrong on Ethics? »

Hall, Wittgenstein and Dennett

Walter Horn, who from time to time posts here, is a former professor of philosophy and the author of numerous articles as well as at least two books dealing with philosophical questions. The first is a somewhat strange account of conversations with a mystical teacher of presumably eastern meditative practices which is somewhat hard to characterize. The other, more recently published and mentioned by Walter here, is an overview of 1950's philosopher Everett Wesley Hall who is little known today and who, Walter feels, deserves more recognition than he has gotten since his untimely early death. The book consists of various critical essays by others looking at his work as well as some of Hall's own work. A number of Walter's own essays are also included. Although the book is costly, Walter provides a substantive introduction to it which is available free on the Internet:


Having read one of Hall's books at Walter's suggestion, Our Knowledge of Fact and Value (apparently his last work based on a series of lectures he gave at a Japanese university and compiled and published posthumously), I can now claim some acquaintance with his thinking. Of course, I am no expert on the man, nor do I profess to fully understand everything he wrote in that book. Walter thinks I have missed quite a bit, in fact, and that may be. However, it seems to me to be at least somewhat worthwhile to consider some of Hall's ideas here, particularly because Hall seems to have been influenced, at least to some degree, by the early (Tractarian) Wittgenstein. Of course, there are significant divergences. I note that Hall is portrayed by some as a linguistic idealist though I don't think that would be a fair description of early Wittgenstein (though I have heard some make such a claim). If anything, it is probably right to say that Hall was somewhat influenced by the Tractatus but not that he was a Tractarian in the way Wittgenstein and some others who followed Wittgenstein can be said to have been. Walter, in his introduction to the book, offers the following by way of explaining Hall's relation to Wittgenstein:

On Hall's view, to be a language is to be essentially intentional, so any theory according to which languages are tantamount to games and/or explicable by linguistic behavior alone is, to him, anathema. Hall's critique may remind some readers of Searle's famous "Chinese Room" argument: if language requires semantics (intentionality) in addition to syntax (rule-governed behavior), then understanding can never be reduced to behaviors -- no matter how apparently 'successful' or 'correct' these may be."

From this it's clear that the later Wittgenstein's work would have been incompatible with Hall's thinking at the time of his death and earlier, at least as Walter sees it. Not surprising, perhaps, since Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations did not become widely disseminated and commented on until after Wittgenstein's own early demise in the early fifties. Interestingly, Walter invokes Searle's Chinese Room argument to point out the role of intentionality in semantics, intentionality being a key term for Hall and one by which he characterizes both language and the nature of empirical knowledge in general. Hall considered himself an empiricist, apparently, but with a difference.

His view of our knowledge of the external world hinged on the role of our intentionality with regard to it. That is, he offered a view based on the idea that language occurs and operates at at least two levels for us. Superficially we have the language of conventions (such as all natural spoken languages in the world) of which English is but one example. Hall notes that the particular usages of any given language are a matter of convention, i.e., the cumulative use decisions made by any community of language users over time. But, he argues, such languages reflect a deeper structure. Where Russell and the Tractarian Wittgenstein conceived of language as structurally mirroring the way the world is (a view the later Wittgenstein came to reject), Hall theorizes that language mirrors our intentional capacities, i.e., the various ways in which we are equipped to relate, and do relate, to the world around us.

He takes our perceptual capacities to imply the intentionality of which he speaks and proposes that the conventional languages we possess are built on and reflect that perception-based intentionality. That is, he offers an analysis of the things we say in language about the world based on our modes of relating to it rather than, as the early Wittgenstein and Russell did, as based on how the world is. There may not be a lot of difference in the result, in terms of our depiction of an external world, between the two conceptions of language (both support an empirical interpretation of things), but there are certain implications for Hall in choosing the idea of language as intentional and as rooted in the intentionality of our very natures which choice is not available for the logical atomist/Tractarian picture theory of language. Most important is Hall's treatment of value talk. Here he uses his belief that language is ultimately an expression of our intentionality to establish value language on a parallel of intentional meaningfulness with descriptive, fact-based talk.

The Tractarian view removed value talk from the realm of the sensible because it did not follow the fact-descriptive paradigm and so Wittgenstein, at that time, was obliged to hold a view that value issues, such as ethical knowledge claims, were necessarily nonsensical, although he seemed to hold that such talk was nonsensical in a positive sense of that word. That is, he thought that ethical claims were important and an indisputable part of our lives, even if they were necessarily outside the framework of any possible meaningful inquiry about them and were ultimately a matter of personal understanding only. Hall's view allowed him to reject that kind of thinking and argue, instead, for a meaningfulness based on the intentionality inherent in our emotional relation to the things which triggered emotions in us. He constructed a picture of parallel intentionality and argued that, if descriptive language about facts is intentional, so, too, must be emotional language about the facts which prompt emotional responses in us. (For Hall, values just are emotions or the expression of them and they have their own semantics.) On this foundation he argued that we can discover semantic content in our value claims in a very similar way that we do in our descriptive claims. He used the idea of intentionality as the key to an account which restores meaningfulness to value claims and so contravenes the Humean notion that value talk, being about no more than our feelings, our passions, is therefore unreliable as a basis for asserting the objective (and so demonstrable) existence of moral standards.

Hall's approach is interesting but it founders in a number of ways, I think. Firstly, it is highly complex and so tends to be difficult to formulate clearly or to argue for in a way that offers the chance to convince a skeptic. Second it rests on what looks like a largely unexplicated notion of "intentionality," an old word, as Walter has reminded us, from medieval philosophical thinking. As I mentioned elsewhere, Hall argues that intentionality is a real part of our lives but fails to give an account of it. Walter suggests that Hall is a "mysterian" about this and that may well be. But then what is he really claiming except that we have something that is beyond any possible understanding? People have said this sort of thing but it hardly seems sufficient for a philosopher, or at least it shouldn't be taken as that unless and until all efforts to explain the phenomenon have truly been exhausted. And Hall seems to make no effort or only a confused one to do that.

It's arguable (and I would argue this case) that Wittgenstein came to see the problem with mysterianism at the core of his own account of language and its relation to the world in the Tractatus and that this largely explains his sharp shift in his later years to a re-thinking of language and its relation to the world (i.e., to one of language as use, in the context of language-games with distinct rules or grammars plus family resemblances as a way of explaining word relations and use as an account of meaning). Hall might have grown as well, had he lived, but what he left us with is a theory built on an unexplicated concept: "intentionality."

Others have tried to explain what it means to speak of the "intentional," as Dennett does with his "intentional stance" thesis. In that he offers the notion that intentionality (the condition of being intentional) is not any particular thing (like Hall's mysterious feature of minds which infuses symbols and the like with their semantics, their meanings) but, rather, just a way we have of speaking about the presence and operation of a whole bunch of things that some brained entities display. So, on this Dennettian view, when we say of anyone or anything that it is intentional, what we mean is that it behaves in certain ways, i.e., its behaviors demonstrate awareness of things in the world and that these awarenesses are distinctive, in terms of the various perceptual equipment in play. For Dennett, the brain serves as a great integrator of these various inputs and that integration (and the behaviors it produces) is just what is meant by "intentionality." Seen this way, we are naming something as if it existed as a single feature of an entity when, in fact, there is no such single feature there, only lots of different kinds of activities and operations.

For Dennett, intentionality is thus ascribed to other entities but it does not exist or subsist in them as a distinctive feature. Yet, when I pointed out to Walter that Hall's own claim that "intentions" have an ascriptive mode of being, in contrast to the exemplified mode of being he ascribed to properties was apparently in keeping with Dennett's notion that we ascribe intentionality to some things rather than find it, as a particular feature, in those things, Walter suggested that I had Hall wrong.

Hall, Walter seemed to be suggesting (although he declined to elucidate further), meant something different by "ascriptive" than Dennett seems to be doing. But what?

Walter told us it was "representative" as in to ascribe is to represent. Well yes, there is at least one use of "represent" where we can substitute "ascribe" as in "he represented that so and so was agreeable to that." In this use, the representing referred to amounts to ascribing agreeableness to so and so. But that hardly looks like the use Hall was making of it when he differentiated between intentions' modes of existence (which he called "ascriptive") and properties' modes of existence (which he called "exemplified").

Although Walter never bothered to elucidate how "represents" can be substituted for "ascribes" in the sense in which Hall uses the term "ascriptive," Walter remained adamant that what Hall meant, when he claimed that intentionality is a "dimension" or "aspect" of certain physical events (going on in brains) was that intentionality exists in a way akin to what Hall ascribes to properties, i.e., that some things associated with brain events are properties, like the observable phenomena discernible in brains which are exemplified for us in the world (seen as the properties of synaptic connectivity, electrical charges, etc) and other things are dimensional or aspectual, as it were, but not properties. (This last must be obvious since Hall explicitly distinguishes between the exemplifiable mode of existence which he ascribes to properties and the "ascriptive" or non-exemplifiable mode of existence he ascribes to intentions).

Well, perhaps Walter has Hall right here but, if so, then Hall seems to me to have been guilty of a serious confusion when he differentiates between intentions and properties this way because he has failed to distinguish the "dimensional" or "aspectual" from properties which "have exemplification" (in Hall's own words). That is, Hall has told us that intentionality is not a property because its mode of existence is different from that of properties, and yet it apparently occurs for Hall, if Walter is right, as properties do, i.e., as aspects or dimensions of some physical events. That is, some properties of brain events, like synaptic discharges, are observable because exemplifiable, constituting one aspect of those events, and some others, like intentions, occur in a way that is not observable and which Hall calls "ascriptive" and so is not observable (because it is not exemplified).

But if Walter is right that Hall meant "ascriptive" as "representative" or "represents" then this has been inadequately elucidated by him and by Walter, himself. Hall, it seems to me, clearly fails to make clear this apparently key component of his thesis about language and the world, thereby putting the whole edifice he has constructed upon it at risk.

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