The Language of Wisdom and Folly: Background Readings in Semantics

By Irving J. Lee | Go to book overview

The How and the Why of Things1

CLAUDE BERNARD

The nature of our mind leads us to seek the essence or the why of things. Thus we aim beyond the goal that it is given us to reach; for experience soon teaches us that we cannot get beyond the how, i.e., beyond the immediate cause or the necessary conditions of phenomena. In this respect the limits of our knowledge are the same in biological as in physico-chemical sciences.

When, by successive analyses, we find the immediate cause determining the circumstances in which a phenomenon presents itself, we reach a scientific goal beyond which we cannot pass. When we know that water, with all its properties, results from combining oxygen and hydrogen in certain proportions, we know everything we can know about it; and that corresponds to the how and not to the why of things. We know how water can be made; but why does the combination of one volume of oxygen with two volumes of hydrogen produce water? We have no idea. In medicine it is equally absurd to concern one's self with the question "why." Yet physicians ask it often. It was probably to make fun of this tendency, which results from lack of the sense of limits to our learning, that Molière put the following answer into the mouth of his candidate for the medical degree. Asked why opium puts people to sleep, he answered: "Quia est in eo virtus dormitiva, cujus est natura sensus assoupire." This answer seems ludicrous and absurd; yet no other answer could be made. In the same way, if we wished to answer the question: "Why does hydrogen, in combining with oxygen, produce water?" we should have to answer: "Because hydrogen has the quality of being able to beget water." Only the question "why," then, is really absurd, because it necessarily involves a naïve or ridiculous answer. So we had better recognize that we do not

____________________
1
From An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927, pp. 80-83. Reprinted by permission of The General Education Board, owners of the copyright.

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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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