Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What is this?

Consider the black item to the right here on your screen. Is it a token of the Latin alphabet letter pee, the Greek letter rho or the Cyrillic letter er? The question cannot be settled by asking which font, and where in the font, the glyph is taken from, because I drew the drawing in Inkscape rather than using any font, precisely to block such an answer. Nor will my intentions answer the question, since I drew the thing precisely to pose such a philosophical question rather than to express any one of the three options.

There are two interesting questions here. The first is an ontological one. Is a token on screen something different from the pattern of light? If it's the same as the pattern of light, then there is at most one token, there being at most one relevant pattern of light (perhaps none, if our ontology doesn't include patterns of light), though this token is a token of pee, and a token of rho and a token of er. If a token is not identical with a pattern of light, then we might as well keep on multiplying entities, and say that there is a pattern of light and three tokens, of pee, rho and er, respectively, with the first entity constituting the latter three.

The second one is a philosophy of language one. What determines whether or not the pattern of light is or constitutes a token of, say, rho? Is it my intentions? If so, then indeed we have tokens of pee, rho and er, as making these was my intention, but we do not have a token of the Coptic letter ro or a token of the letter qof in 15th century Italian Hebrew cursive, since I didn't think of these when I was doing the drawing. Is it the linguistic context? But then it's not a token of any letter, since a displayed png file in an analytic philosophy post is not a the kind of linguistic context that determines a token.

Or is it that the pattern of light is or constitutes tokens of all the letters it geometrically matches, whether or not it was intended as such? If so, then we also have a letter dee (just turn your screen). But now suppose a new alphabet is created, and it contains a letter that looks just like the drawing. It would be odd to say that if a new language were created on another planet this instantly would multiply the entities on earth (at the speed of light? faster?). So it seems that on this view, we should say that the pattern of light is or constitutes tokens of all the letters in all the alphabets that will ever exist. But future actions shouldn't affect how many things there now are. So on this view, we should be even more pluralistic: the pattern of light is or constitutes tokens of all the letters in all possible alphabets.

We thus have two questions: one about ontology and one about what is being tokened. Both questions have parsimonious and profligate answers. The parsimonious answer to the ontology question is that there is one thing, which can be a token of multiple things. The profligate one is that we have many tokens. The parsimonious answers to the language question are that intentions and/or context determines what's been tokened. The profligate answer has an infinite amount of tokening.

We probably shouldn't combine the two profligate answers. For then on your screen there are infinitely many physical things, all co-located (and some perhaps even with the same modal profile). That's too much.

That still leaves three combinations. I think there is reason to reject the combination of ontological profligacy with parsimony on the philosophy of language side. The reason is that tokens get repurposed. Consider a Russian who has a Scrabble set and loses an er tile. She then buys a replacement pee tile, as it looks pretty much the same (I looked at online pictures--both have value 1 and look the same). Then it seems that a new entity, a token of er, comes into existence if we have ontological profligacy and linguistic parsimony. Does a mere intention to use the tile for an er what magically creates a new physical object, a token? That seems not very plausible.

That leaves two combinations:

  • ontological and linguistic parsimony
  • ontological parsimony and linguistic profligacy.


Michael Gonzalez said...

To me, it's like asking what a plastic "checker"/"draughts" piece IS. It can easily well be used in Connect 4, Backgammon, and any number of other games. If it is initially constructed for a specific purpose, then that is what it is until re-purposed, and even then we often speak of a "checker piece that I'm just using as a backgammon piece". If it is initially constructed to be multi-purpose (some companies make pieces that can be used in a variety of games), then that is what it is until I explicitly assign it a role in one of my games.

If there is no mystery in the case of this plastic piece, then there should be no mystery in the shape you drew. You are correct in ruling out any options involving ontological profligacy. And the linguistic choice evaporates when you factor in initial intent and re-purposing. The shape you drew was explicitly intended to resemble lots of pieces in lots of language-games. Therefore it is analogous to the multi-use checker-piece that company might make.

Heath White said...

I will go with the phil-language parsimonious answer. (The ontological question seems to me like a less interesting, "merely verbal" dispute.) It is context which determines what alphabet a token is a member of, with the creator's intention a typically important part of the context. Your token, being intentionally ambiguous, is a member of no (or perhaps several) alphabets.