Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Abstract, concrete nouns, common sense, truth and Richard Rorty

"Common sense" should not be too under-rated. The evolutionary development of our "common sense" has been happening now for reasonable estimates of 200,000 years. It happens as a consequence of us building mental models of the way the world is. The models that help us get on better tend (on average) to inhabit the minds of people who flourish into later generations. We could say our "common sense" has survived 200,000 years of experimental testing - not to be sneezed at.

This is not to say that "common sense" is good for everything. It is terribly bad for somethings. Imaginative thinking is able to take us right out beyond what we can discover if we constrain ourselves only to trial and error.

"Common sense" has a tendency to treat every noun as though it is a "thing". In other words anything that is either the subject or the object of a verb is misconstrued as being a thing. Where as in fact most nouns that have any kind of importance in our lives (eg. love, god, money, sex appeal, friendship, power, justice, integrity, yada, yada, yada) are not things. To use the grammatical, they are "abstract nouns" rather than "concrete nouns". Concrete nouns have physical existence. Abstract nouns do not. The grammar of the language we speak makes no distinction (or hardly any) between these two, even though they are in fact radically different. For example compare "Lynne is in a house" and "Lynne is in love".
Or "Lynne is out of the country" and "Lynne is out of integrity".
Or "Andrew fell in love" and "Andrew fell in a hole".

So whereas you probably can be "immediately responsible" for the abstract nouns you are using, and giving meaning and life to, to be responsible for the concrete nouns we live with is very much a matter of a social agreement where each of us only gets 1 vote.

Here is what Richard Rorty has to say about this - or nearly about this.

"We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations."

"... the fact that Newton's vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle's does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. The world does not speak. Only we do."

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