The fool hath said in his heart that there are no words, or that all words lack meaning. (An adaptation of St. Anselm’s famous words: “The fool hath said in his heart “There is no God.” The fool, according to St. Anselm, is the one who fails to understand that the denial of the existence of God is self-contradictory.)
Acknowledgment: I thank Noam Chomsky for his comments on my linguistic argument against skepticism.
Hitherto, this blog has published posts inspired by or related to the social-political work of Noam Chomsky. In contrast, this post is a tribute to his contributions to our understanding of language and its role in illuminating the wellsprings of human knowledge.
This short post provides the shortest refutation of skepticism. It argues that there is something even the celebrated and exceptionally deceiving demon of Descartes’ conception, and its hordes of skeptics, cannot make us doubt: the reality of words and the fact that words have meaning.
In his philosophical classic, Meditations on First Philosophy, the great French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), in the context of his construction of an argument for skepticism, or the view that we cannot know anything with certainty, eloquently invoked, for the sake of argument, a demon of “utmost power and cunning (who) has employed all his energies in order to deceive me”.
But Descartes overlooked at least two simple and profound truths on words, the very units of his famous arguments: neither this demon, nor all the hosts of Hell combined, can deceive or delude anyone that there are words, or that words exist, and that words have meaning.
The reality of words is an indubitable truth.
It is obvious that any denial of the reality of words, or any doubt cast on the reality of words, must itself employ words. Hence, it is self-contradictory to cast doubt on, or to deny the reality of, words.
Why cannot the deceiving demon induce in us a delusion that there are words?
Obviously, the verbal expression of the alleged delusion is self-contradictory because it implies that there are words.
A delusion is a mental state constituted by beliefs and these beliefs have objects. These beliefs can be identified only if they are articulated in words. Therefore, the statement of the alleged delusion about words must again employ words and fall into self-contradiction.
If a dog chases a squirrel and barks up the wrong tree, we ascribe to it the belief that the squirrel is on that tree. But dogs don’t have language. So, there can be beliefs in the absence of language. Note, however, that even the dog’s belief has an object. In this case, presumably, it is the squirrel.
Why, then, can’t the deceiving demon induce in us a false inarticulate or non-verbal belief in the reality of words?
Beliefs are both intentional (in the German philosopher Edmund Husserl‘s sense, they have objects or something they pertain to) and intensional (or involve, in the case of human beings, an understanding of what the belief is).
This implies that even inarticulate or non-verbal beliefs have objects and that, in the case of human beings, or any kind of being which has language, an understanding of what the beliefs are and their objects. Neither the object of any inarticulate belief, nor its meaning, can be identified or understood without recourse to words.
Therefore, even if it is possible for us to have a false or delusive inarticulate or non-verbal belief about the reality of words, this belief must be identified in words in any skeptical argument. Hence, the skeptical argument cannot avoid self-contradiction in identifying the allegedly delusive or false non-verbal belief in the reality of words.
Further, even if we can have inarticulate or non-verbal beliefs about physical objects, it does not follow that we can have an inarticulate or non-verbal belief, delusive or veridical, about words.
Indeed, the claim that there can be a delusive inarticulate or non-verbal belief in the reality of words is simply incoherent.
Since all beliefs have objects, or something they pertain to, the moment we say that an inarticulate or non-verbal belief pertains to “words”, it follows that there is, at least, one word which refers to the object of the so-called inarticulate belief: “words”. This, obviously, implies the reality of words.
Hence, the claim that the deceiving demon can induce a delusive inarticulate or non-verbal belief in words, or that words are real, is also self-contradictory. Therefore, it is incoherent.
It also turns out that the deceiving demon cannot make us doubt or deny that words have meaning.
To clarify, this is not to deny that we can entertain doubts about the specific and mutable meanings of words. Rather, it pertains to the general and indubitable truth that words have meaning.
To constitute a doubt, or denial, the words forming the doubt or denial must have meaning. Therefore, the doubt or denial that words have meaning is meaningful only if the words constituting the doubt or denial have meaning. Hence, it is self-contradictory to doubt or deny that words have meaning.
Is it, again, even logically possible that the deceiving demon could induce in me a delusive inarticulate or non-verbal belief that words have meaning?
Logical possibility is a function of absence of self-contradiction. That which is self-contradictory, e.g., a square circle, or a married bachelor, is not logically possible.
Obviously, logical possibility presupposes that the words constituting the claim or conception here, that it is logically possible that words lack meaning, are meaningful. This shows that it is self-contradictory to claim that all words can lack meaning. Crucially, the claim hinges on the very meaning of “can”.
Therefore, it is not even logically possible for all words to lack meaning.
And, again, on grounds of the intentionality of belief (in Edmund Husserl’s sense), the required identification of the object of the allegedly delusive inarticulate or non-verbal belief, that words have meaning, shows that there is, at least, one word which refers to the object of the so-called inarticulate belief: “words”.
And “words” must have meaning. Otherwise, we cannot even identify the object of the so-called inarticulate belief. This suffices to render the claim, that there can be a delusive inarticulate or non-verbal belief that words have meaning, incoherent.
The word, or the fabric of language of which it is the central thread, is indeed the indubitable foundation and fount of human knowledge. Not even the demon of Descartes with all its “utmost power and cunning” can undermine or unravel this foundation.