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Suppose that all the languages in the world have the same number of vocabulary.

Suppose that all the languages in the world have the same number of vocabulary. Is it possible that one language is more superior than another in the way it represents the world, even if they have the same number of words contained in them?

I don't see what is so good about brevity in language. What is wrong with lots of synonyms? You then get to choose which word to use. Perhaps it seems that it does not matter, since the choice is between equivalents. Well, they may mean the same thing but they don't sound the same or look the same.

It is worth trying to avoid a Gradgrind theory of semantics!

Of course! To see why, consider a thought experiment: I have heard (and don't know whether it is true or not) that Inuit people have many more words for (the different kinds of) snow than what are available in other languages. But even if this isn't true, one can certainly imagine this sort of thing. So imagine that there is some language spoken by island dwellers whose economy and survival is almost entirely based on hunting/gathering and cultivation of sea life. This culture might have much more sophisticated and complicated descriptions of local sea creatures than ours (organized, in other words, not just in terms of differences in species, but also this combined with sizes, colors, and other traits that may mark off individuals within the species as better for different purposes to which they might be put by the islanders). Briefly, they would have single words for different descriptors that we would have to attempt using many more words to complete the description. In that sense, they might...

Is it reasonable to claim that a particular language is more superior than

Is it reasonable to claim that a particular language is more superior than another in terms of the way it captures reality, for instance, by having a wider vocabulary than others?

Sure it is. Obviously, one would have to defend any such claim with specific examples in mind, but here's one that is now famous among philosophers.

For a long time, people used and made decorative items made from "jade." But then, chemical analysis showed that what people were calling "jade" was actually two distinct materials, which are now called "jadeite" and "nephrite." Both are still generically called "jade," but sophisticated buyers now know well that there are differences between these two materials, and these differences may have an impact on the value of artifacts made from each material.

Here's the point: a language that simply has the term "jade" in it will not be as effective for describing the world as a language that has both "jadeite" and "nephrite" in it. So there's your answer.

Sure it is. Obviously, one would have to defend any such claim with specific examples in mind, but here's one that is now famous among philosophers. For a long time, people used and made decorative items made from "jade." But then, chemical analysis showed that what people were calling "jade" was actually two distinct materials, which are now called "jadeite" and "nephrite." Both are still generically called "jade," but sophisticated buyers now know well that there are differences between these two materials, and these differences may have an impact on the value of artifacts made from each material. Here's the point: a language that simply has the term "jade" in it will not be as effective for describing the world as a language that has both "jadeite" and "nephrite" in it. So there's your answer.

Can translations ever capture the true essence of the original word? More

Can translations ever capture the true essence of the original word? More abstract concepts or ideas such as love, anger, or honor are fundamentally built on cultural and social understanding and context, which may be difficult to be aptly understood by outsiders. So when we take these culturally-laden terms and attempt to translate them into a different language, are we inadvertently imposing assumptions and simplifications upon the authenticity of the term? Is the art of translation so futile that only the native speakers can truly understand, or if not, how can we do these words justice when translating?

As someone who teaches ancient Greek philosophy in translation (almost all the time, at any rate), I have worried a lot about questions like yours. I have also been a translator of some of the texts I and others teach, and so I have also encountered the problem from that side, too. It's a thorny one, for sure. The easiest answer is the purist one: translations are simply never adequate. But in the end, I also think this is far too easy an answer, to the point of actually being worthless.

Here's why: What happens when some student decided he or she really wants to avoid the pitfalls of working from someone else's translation? Well, he or she must learn the original language. OK, good choice. But wait: do the teachers of that language themselves somehow manage to avoid the cultural and social aspects of the culture(s) of teacher and student so completely or effectively that the process of learning the new language is not itself just as likely to continue whatever misunderstandings the student was trying to avoid? I hope you see the conundrum: learning a different language (not one's native language, in other words) itself generally takes place within a social and cultural context other than the one native to the language learned. This is why teachers of modern languages emphasize in-culture learning as something that is very important to mastery. But such opportunities don't exist for "dead" languages like Greek or Latin, or even the older versions of still-living languages. (I'm assuming that time machines don't exist, of course!)

So...some of the problems you are worried about are simply not removed by learning the original languages. But here's the deal: Good translators know this very well, and when they provide their translations, one of the challenges they are alert to is that of cultural distance.

There is a great quote from Aristotle that I love to use with my students to make this very point. I will give it (for obvious reasons) in translation. In Nicomachean Ethics Book I chapter 7, Aristotle says (in Martin Ostwald's translation): "To call happiness the highest good is perhaps somewhat trite." The Greek word translated as "happiness" here (now in transliteration) is "eudaimonia." As I say to my students, forget "happiness" for a minute and just think about what word we could put into the blank where it now appears--"to call ________ the highest good is perhaps somewhat trite" and make the sentence something true in English, since Aristotle thought that what he was saying (in Greek to a Greek-speaking audience) was so obvious as to be "trite." There is no word that will make the sentence true in English, I claim, because English speakers do not have a shared common view about what word they would apply to "the highest good." But the Greeks, it seemed--though they may have had some disagreements about how best to understand or analyze more closely what the word meant--did have a word for this that was commonly shared and accepted as appropriate. So that really compels recognition that there is a cultural difference at work here. So what do I do about this, as a teacher, or as a translator? The answer is, alert to the problem, I at least put in a footnote or find some way to add explanation and words of caution about my own translation decisions and how a simple substitution of English for Greek creates potential misunderstanding.

But once I have done this song-and-dance, I frankly do not see that my own students, working from translation, are just as alert to the questions that apply to this part of the original text (for us) as are those who have learned the original language. In other words, alert and well-assisted users of translation are in a much better position than what I earlier called the purist view seems to acknowledge.

As someone who teaches ancient Greek philosophy in translation (almost all the time, at any rate), I have worried a lot about questions like yours. I have also been a translator of some of the texts I and others teach, and so I have also encountered the problem from that side, too. It's a thorny one, for sure. The easiest answer is the purist one: translations are simply never adequate. But in the end, I also think this is far too easy an answer, to the point of actually being worthless. Here's why: What happens when some student decided he or she really wants to avoid the pitfalls of working from someone else's translation? Well, he or she must learn the original language. OK, good choice. But wait: do the teachers of that language themselves somehow manage to avoid the cultural and social aspects of the culture(s) of teacher and student so completely or effectively that the process of learning the new language is not itself just as likely to continue whatever misunderstandings the student...

What does "fuc*ing" mean and why is it a bad word? Does fuc*ing mean sex where

What does "fuc*ing" mean and why is it a bad word? Does fuc*ing mean sex where there is a desire to express physical control or dominance over a woman? Is that a bad thing? Is it a normal aspect of what is sometimes thought as its opposite, "lovemaking"? If it is normal does that mean that it is not a bad thing? (I use an asterisk because I do not know if this site has a word filter.)

I agree with my colleague, N.S., and would like to add that his last line is worth reading the whole post!

Another way to think about this term comes from personal experience - in which meaning and gender analysis had no part. A number of years ago I was walking down a hallway in a classroom building and suddenly remembered that I neglected a Big Commitment...and the word "F**K!!" emerged loudly from my professorial mouth. Horrified, I looked around to apologize to any tender ears but I was spared because fortunately no one overheard me. But the ease with which it blurted out without my conscious permission gave me pause. It was, at the very least, unbecoming behavior. I vowed to amend my ways; I wanted to become more becoming in my speech. With practice I have developed some verbal temperance. As a virtue, this temperance has led to at least two good things: first if, as Aristotle suggests, we are what we do, using obscenities is simply a nasty habit and we become, well, nasty, and who wants to be thought of as nasty? But secondly, the very selective use of an obscenity preserves its impact. The ubiquity of course language around us makes it harder to up the ante when one feels truly vexed. But then, I'm just a professor. As some of my students might say, what the f**k do I know?

-bjm

OK, there are a few things going on here. Let's begin with a little bit about obscenity. Some words are regarded as obscenities, but then other descriptions of the very same things are not. If I use the term "sexual intercourse," no one is going to accuse me of using an obscenity. So why, then, do people object to the f-word, since it seems to refer to the same thing? Well, the very notion of an obscenity is a bit unclear, and may simply be contextual. I can certainly imagine circumstances in which a use of the f-word would not seem to me to qualify as an obscenity. It might, for example, be a part of a rather intriguing invitation (or promise), under the right circumstances. The problem you seem to be attending to might perhaps be in the fact that the f-word is usually associated with doing something to someone , as in "f*** you!" So part of what make it an obscenity is that it conceives of sexual intercourse in an offensive (and possibly threatening) way. So the element that makes...

Socrates (or perhaps Plato) seems to have been opposed to writing. As I

Socrates (or perhaps Plato) seems to have been opposed to writing. As I understand it, the objection was twofold - first, that writing "offloads" mental effort (memory, communication, reasoning, etc.) into physical media rather than leaving it in the mind, and second, that writing is unable to react to the reader and thus aid the latter in the pursuit of truth. Both of those suggestions seem to hold true for writing, yet it seems that for the past several hundred years, we have consistently thought of writing as the intellectually superior form of communication. What has changed? What makes these earlier objections loose their power?

Most philosophers are still very much interested in, and try to engage regularly in, live discussions with others. You won't find many of us claiming, for example, that teaching philosophy can effectively be done remotely, for example. The direct exchange of ideas and the interplay of active minds in an immediate person-to-person context still seems to most of us to be critical.

On the other hand, writing and reading make ideas more available than does simply speaking. You don't have to have known Kant to read his works and be engaged with and influenced by his thought. Reading and writing are the skills of our globalized age, and it allows us to transcend time by "speaking" to those who we can never meet, because of distance in space or time. By reading my colleagues' work (before I meet them in person), I can get to know which of them I want to speak with in person. So as important as speaking, listening and such are, writing and reading offer distinct advantages that we would be very much impoverished without!

Most philosophers are still very much interested in, and try to engage regularly in, live discussions with others. You won't find many of us claiming, for example, that teaching philosophy can effectively be done remotely, for example. The direct exchange of ideas and the interplay of active minds in an immediate person-to-person context still seems to most of us to be critical. On the other hand, writing and reading make ideas more available than does simply speaking. You don't have to have known Kant to read his works and be engaged with and influenced by his thought. Reading and writing are the skills of our globalized age, and it allows us to transcend time by "speaking" to those who we can never meet, because of distance in space or time. By reading my colleagues' work (before I meet them in person), I can get to know which of them I want to speak with in person. So as important as speaking, listening and such are, writing and reading offer distinct advantages that we would be very...

What's in a name? Recently, Ron Artest, a member of the world famous NBA LA

What's in a name? Recently, Ron Artest, a member of the world famous NBA LA Lakers team changed his name, officially, to "Meta World Peace". Apparently the sports announcers have been rebuked by the league for calling him by his former name, what someone might consider a "real name" or legitimate name. So now, when he does something great, the announcers excitedly shout what some might consider a slogan rather than a name: "World Peace!" I suspect there are a tangled network of issues involved here, and I'd appreciate some untangling. One issue that occurs to me, for instance, is whether the league's insistence that the announcers call this player "World Peace" is genuinely motivated by a respect for his choice of name. If he had named himself something offensive (a name involving a curse, for instance), would they insist the same? Ethically, as a society, do we prioritize respecting his choice of name over our taboos involving language? Is this even the right way to think about this issue? Are there...

This is an interesting one. One rather tangential aspect of your question is the fact that the backetball player formerly known as Ron Artest (whom I have watched play numerous times) seems a very poor role model on the topic of peace (or peaceful demeanor)!

Anyway, such sniping aside, the news is that he changed his name to Metta World Peace (not Meta)--go figure!

OK, so what is the philosophical issue here? Well, it seems there is a question as to whether or not we have a right to be called by our legal names. This does not seem to me to be a matter of "respect" for his choice of name, but a matter of recognizing that the name is now legally Metta World Peace. But I don't see why announcers couldn't refer to him as "MWP" or "Peace" without implied disrespect. In the end, public figures such as Metta World Peace (by any name) should get used to the idea that they do not have complete control over what others say about them or what others call them. I think one should expect as much respect as one earns. 'Nuff said!

This is an interesting one. One rather tangential aspect of your question is the fact that the backetball player formerly known as Ron Artest (whom I have watched play numerous times) seems a very poor role model on the topic of peace (or peaceful demeanor)! Anyway, such sniping aside, the news is that he changed his name to Metta World Peace (not Meta)--go figure! OK, so what is the philosophical issue here? Well, it seems there is a question as to whether or not we have a right to be called by our legal names. This does not seem to me to be a matter of "respect" for his choice of name, but a matter of recognizing that the name is now legally Metta World Peace. But I don't see why announcers couldn't refer to him as "MWP" or "Peace" without implied disrespect. In the end, public figures such as Metta World Peace (by any name) should get used to the idea that they do not have complete control over what others say about them or what others call them. I think one should expect as...

What are we doing when we censor expletives? Even when a person's speech has

What are we doing when we censor expletives? Even when a person's speech has been censored (on the TV airing of an R-rated film, say), it's often perfectly clear exactly what he is saying or intends to convey. In this sense the content and meaning of the speaker's explicit speech is completely intact--so what exactly is being censored?

As you say, even those of us not trained in reading lips can often make out what is being said. So all that is censored is the actual sound of the word(s) being spoken. Don't ask me why people find this comforting or morally improving. In my view, most allegedly bad language is simply in bad taste. Etiquette is not the same as morality, no matter how vigilantly it is someetimes enforced. Of course, not all bad language is simply bad taste--hate speech actually is immoral, I think. And I also would allow that the border between hate speech and other "bad" language (e.g. certain obscenities) can be somewhat blurry. So *+#!~+%$* that!

As you say, even those of us not trained in reading lips can often make out what is being said. So all that is censored is the actual sound of the word(s) being spoken. Don't ask me why people find this comforting or morally improving. In my view, most allegedly bad language is simply in bad taste. Etiquette is not the same as morality, no matter how vigilantly it is someetimes enforced. Of course, not all bad language is simply bad taste--hate speech actually is immoral, I think. And I also would allow that the border between hate speech and other "bad" language (e.g. certain obscenities) can be somewhat blurry. So *+#!~+%$* that!

Where can I find an exhaustive list of the formal fallacies of definition. I

Where can I find an exhaustive list of the formal fallacies of definition. I need this for my work, for controlling the content of data dictionaries and data models. This class of definitions has to be real, not nominal. Thanks in advance, Malcolm C.

There is a very good entry on definitions in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (on-line), and a pretty good review of the various fallacies of definition in Wikipedia.

Happy hunting!

There is a very good entry on definitions in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (on-line), and a pretty good review of the various fallacies of definition in Wikipedia. Happy hunting!

Where on earth did Philosophers get the idea that "just in case" means "if and

Where on earth did Philosophers get the idea that "just in case" means "if and only if"[1] instead of "in the event of"? I ask just in case there's a legitimate reason for the apparently willful muddying of language! [1] for example http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/2290

Professor Bloggs is an easy grader, and students flock to his courses in droves, because he will give an A to a student just in case the student turns in all the assignments.

The easiest answer to your question (other than showing in my example that the logical understanding of "just in case" is one legitimate sense of this term) is that the other senses cannot be reduced to the sorts of truth-functional connectives that are required in logic. But plainly, this is one of those expressions that can be used in several different ways--and thanks to Peter Smith for giving another clear case of this (where "just in case really means "because")!

Professor Bloggs is an easy grader, and students flock to his courses in droves, because he will give an A to a student just in case the student turns in all the assignments. The easiest answer to your question (other than showing in my example that the logical understanding of "just in case" is one legitimate sense of this term) is that the other senses cannot be reduced to the sorts of truth-functional connectives that are required in logic. But plainly, this is one of those expressions that can be used in several different ways--and thanks to Peter Smith for giving another clear case of this (where "just in case really means "because")!

When we describe something as 'indescribable', can we really say that? Because

When we describe something as 'indescribable', can we really say that? Because we have just described it.

I don't quite catch the description given in "indescribable." What positive information is provided? Of course, one might also now wonder precisely what it is we are talking about--because if it is truly indescribable, it sounds like there's not much to say. If so, 'nuff said!

I don't quite catch the description given in "indescribable." What positive information is provided? Of course, one might also now wonder precisely what it is we are talking about--because if it is truly indescribable, it sounds like there's not much to say. If so, 'nuff said!

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