Here. (Thanks to Rik Hine for the pointer.) An excerpt:
JS: I think it’s in terrible shape!
JS: Well, what has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight. My own conception is that the formal modeling by itself does not give us any insight into the function of language.
Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto the formal model, and people think that gives you an insight. I mean a most famous current example of this is the idea that you will explain counterfactuals – for example, if I had dropped this pen, it would have fallen to the ground – by appealing to possible worlds. And then you have a whole load of technical stuff about how to describe the possible worlds. Well I won’t say that’s a waste of time because very intelligent people do it, but I don’t think it gives us insight. It’s as if I said: Well the way to understand the sentence, ‘All ravens are black’, is that what it really means is that all non-black things are non-ravens. You can get a mapping of one sentence onto other sentences where each side has the same truth conditions, but that is not, in general, the right way to understand the sense of the original sentence. And it’s a philosophical question of why you don’t get the insight.
And this goes back to Russell’s Theory of Descriptions. You see, Russell gets uniqueness of reference by going through a whole domain, but that is logically and psychologically unrealistic. I think the notion of an object already contains the notion of uniqueness. I think this was a fatal move to think that you’ve got to get these intuitive ideas mapped on to a calculus like, in this case, the predicate calculus, which has its own requirements. It is a disastrously inadequate conception of language.
And this is pervading other areas of philosophy. Formal epistemology seems to me so boring. I’m sure there’s some merit in it, but it puts me to sleep. The requirements on formal modeling are that you must have something that’s difficult to do. There must be a right and a wrong way to do it, it must be objective, you must be able to teach it to graduate students, and you have to be able to tell who’s good at it and who isn’t. So those are the four features of formal modeling in philosophy, and I think they lead nowhere. That’s my main objection to contemporary philosophy: they’ve lost sight of the questions. It sounds ridiculous to say this because this was the objection that all the old fogeys made to us when I was a kid in Oxford and we were investigating language. But that is why I’m really out of sympathy. And I’m going to write a book on the philosophy of language in which I will say how I think it ought to be done, and how we really should try to stay very close to the psychological reality of what it is to actually talk about things.
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