The Language of Wisdom and Folly: Background Readings in Semantics

By Irving J. Lee | Go to book overview

The Nature of a Question1

HANS REICHENBACH

One of the foremost results of . . . scientific philosophy is the clarification of the nature of a question. The adage that a fool can ask more than a wise man can answer finds its logical equivalent in the distinction between meaningful and meaningless questions. A question is meaningful only if it is so asked that before we can give the true answer we at least can tell how a possible answer would look. Thus to ask for the origin of the terrestrial globe is a reasonable question, because we can imagine an answer, for instance in the form of a theory according to which the earth was originally part of the sun and then detached by centrifugal forces; whether this answer is true remains to be found out by scientific investigation. But to ask for the origin of the universe is an unreasonable question; it is meaningless because we cannot say how a possible answer would look. Any answer would make the universe the product of some other occurrence which in turn would have to be included in the universe and therefore could not be the source of the universe. A review of philosophical systems shows that many so-called philosophical questions are of the meaningless type. No wonder that a great many of the philosophical controversies are so empty and futile. The distinction between meaningful and meaningless questions is the scientific form of a criticism which common sense has always raised against philosophy. "Where concepts are missing, the word is right at hand," says Goethe. The term "metaphysics" is now often used, by its opponents, to indicate what they consider to be an empty brand of philosophy.

Not all philosophical questions are meaningless, however. Some have remained unanswered because their answer required a scientific

____________________
1
From "Philosophy: Speculation or Science?" The Nation, Vol. 164, No. 1, January 4, 1947, pp. 19-21. Copyright, 1947, by the Nation Associates, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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The Language of Wisdom and Folly: Background Readings in Semantics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction xiii
  • Part I - The Recognition of Words as Such 1
  • Everything Has a Name 3
  • The Phenomenon of Language 6
  • Symbolic Pointing 7
  • The Mobile Word 15
  • Two Types of Names 19
  • Precision in Natural Language1 23
  • Part II - The Functions and Purposes Of Language in Use 29
  • The Three Forms of Discourse 31
  • The Condition of Clarity1 41
  • The Functions of Poetry 48
  • Behavior That Language Makes Possible 57
  • Talking About the Weather 59
  • Part III - Matters of Fact, Fiction and Opinion 63
  • Matters of Fact and Opinion - George Cornewall Lewis 65
  • The Semantic Conception of Truth - Alfred Tarski 67
  • Every Man His Own Historian 71
  • Literature as Revelation 78
  • Knowledge by Definition 82
  • On the Logic of Fiction 92
  • Fictions, Hypotheses and Dogmas 101
  • Part IV - Questions and Answers 109
  • The Nature of a Question 111
  • "Footless" Questions 121
  • The How and the Why of Things 129
  • Part V - The Ambiguous Word 135
  • On Definition 137
  • Nominal and Real Definitions 139
  • How is "Exactness" Possible? 141
  • Definitions and Reality 149
  • Interpretation 160
  • Ambiguity and Its Avoidance 164
  • Part VI - The Recognition of Differences 173
  • Of General Terms 175
  • Realists and Nominalists 178
  • On Knowing the Difference 180
  • The Passion for Parsimony 184
  • The Individuality of Things and The Generality of Language 188
  • Part VII - Verbal Fascination 205
  • The Attributive Attitude - Ellis Freeman 207
  • Riefication 214
  • The Context of Associations 224
  • Part VIII - The Structural Patterns and Implications Of a Language 245
  • Perception and Language 247
  • An Experimental Study of the Effect Of Language on the Reproduction Of Visually Perceived Form 251
  • Language and Thought 262
  • Languages and Logic 273
  • Part IX - Escape from Verbalism 287
  • Sensation and Cerebration 289
  • An Address on Words and Things 295
  • Experience with Languages 305
  • Two Kinds of Knowledge1 309
  • Preparation of the Child for Science 310
  • Significs 336
  • Index 359
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