Insufficiency Theory of Language

I’m not an ethical subjectivist. The truth* is that I am a non-cognitivist. I gravitate more toward Ayer‘s Emotivism. Stevenson‘s Expressivism and Hare‘s Prescriptivism add the element of intention. This may seem like hair-splitting, but the distinction lies in the taxonomy of meta-ethics.

Emotivism and the rest are categorised under the non-cognitivist branch whilst ethical subjectivism falls into the cognitivist bucket. Intuitively, humans appear to have an innate bias toward accepting cognitivism, much in the same way as they seem to be wired to believe in supernatural concepts and see images of Jesus in toast. Whether these are vestiges of some successful evolutionary strategy is beside the point, but the problem it creates is that, in contrast, non-cognitivism is perceived as counterintuitive.

In its essence, cognitivism can be distilled down to the belief that moral statements are truth-apt, which is to say that they can be evaluated as true or false. Because of the current created by intuitionists, I lead with my fallback position, which is one of ethical subjectivism or more likely error theory.

Heads I win; Tails you lose

Although for reasons I’ll articulate later, entering a conversation assuming truth-aptness, the conversation can at least focus on the compositionality and universality components because whether I believe that moral statements cannot be evaluated as true or false, the default cognitive position of the general population is that they can be. This is not to say that I identify as a quasi-realist, which is to believe that there is no truth-aptness but to behave (pretend) that they do.

coin-flip - Captioned
Image: Deciding the truth-aptness of a moral claim

God Is Dead

In his critique of Enlightenment beliefs, Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ as he understood the implications of a society absent a justification for not only believing that morality claims are truth-apt but that they are true, divinated from some metaphysical, supernatural, and universal power. In practice, the Enlightenment replaced God with a rather animated and interactive concept of Nature, hence were born all sorts of natural rights. You may get a sense of some déjà vu, as humans, not being particularly creative, just reappropriated and rebranded the same tropes Theists use prior to that. They just performed a search-and-replace of God with Nature in a manner similar to the Christian appropriation of pagan holidays.

Image: God is dead

Non-cognitivism has generally fallen out of favour primarily because it was sort of painted into a corner by the Frege-Geach (embedding) problem, but this issue is only intractable if you accept the given frame.

I should probably just link out to a different source to explain the Frege-Geach problem because I feel it’s a red herring, which only presents a problem if you accept the frame established by the Structuralist

The problem here is that language is a complex, socially constructed communication system. Even if we accept Chomsky’s theory of the innate ability to parse language, the syntax, lexicon, and grammar are still arbitrary human constructs. I can’t likely repeat this point often enough: humans have a poor track record of creating and comprehending complex systems, examples of which are the various half-cocked socio-political, economic, jurisprudent, and philosophical systems. Hubris is evidently a successful evolutionary selection factor, as it persists everywhere and certainly in people of power.

The logical positivists ran into a similar problem when they proposed the verification principle that asserted that a statement is only truth-apt if it is either an ANALYTICAL statement or a SYNTHETIC statement, and yet this assertion with neither analytical nor synthetic, so it itself does not meet the verification principle. It’s simply a normative prescription.

Fundamentally, this quandary underscores the deficiencies of the constructed language system more than anything else, what I am developing with a working title of Insufficiency Theory. A tangent to this theory is my concept that the only moral truth (and many social truths) are simply rhetorical victories—situations where one agent employing rhetorical devices has convinced others as the truth of some condition.



A problem with writing an unstructured stream of consciousness is that you look up and realise your post is getting pretty lengthy, and there is a lot more depth than you expected. Due to this, I am going to unpack this over several posts over several days.


DISCLAIMER: I am not a professionally-trained philosopher, linguist, psychologist, or gynaecologist for that matter. I had considered studying Linguistics at uni as well as Philosophy, but I opted instead to study Economics and Finance, as these appeared to be more pragmatic. As relates to philosophy and language, I am an autodidact. This said, this particular area is new to me, so I am certain that I am missing key elements and may have large gaps in my understanding. In some cases, I’ve read more excerpts and others’ perspective on these people and their work than their actual work product. I am trying to catch up, but that leads me to a place fraught with selection and affirmation bias—though I do try to comprehend counter arguments as well. Moreover, I am painfully well aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I am trying to allow for enough time to elapse to move further along this curve.

Chart: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Article head  image cropped from here:



* Truth: (n) an opinion or held belief


Rhetoric and nothing more

Morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are employed, and a person will either accept or reject the claim contingent to an emotional response based on prior experiences. This is Ayer’s Emotivist position—or even that of George Berkeley. There is no moral truth, and any moral truths are nothing more than an individual’s or group of individuals’ acceptance of a given claim. Rhetoric is used to sway the claim.

Logic is employed but only after having been filtered through the experience through the emotion and through the rhetoric. Accepting some particular truth claim does not make it true; neither does rejecting a truth claim make it false.

I’d like to expound upon this, but for now, I’ll create this placeholder.

Fast-forward, and I’ve returned. Still, I feel that morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Perhaps I’m even more convinced—and this extends into jurisprudence and politics. I’ve rather latched onto Foucault’s or Geuss’ sense of power or Adorno’s socially necessary illusion that is ideology by way of Marx.

Talking about power, Geuss says, “you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position”.

« One cannot treat “power” as if it referred to a single, uniform substance or relation wherever it was found. It makes sense to distinguish a variety of qualitatively distinct kinds of powers. There are strictly coercive powers you may have by virtue of being physically stronger than me, and persuasive powers by virtue of being convinced of the moral rightness of your case; or you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position. »

I tend to think of myself as a proponent of the Hegelian dialectic, but even this is in a rather small-t teleology manner instead of a capital-T flavour, so I feel that although history moves in somewhat of human-guided direction, there is no reason to believe it’s objectively better than any number of other possible directions, though one might be able to gain consensus regarding improvement along several dimensions. Even this will not be unanimous.

[To be continued…]