Moral Realism meets Non-Cognitivism

One particular criticism of non-cognitivism is that it is not intuitive (as if this is the arbiter of truth). Much of statistics is not intuitive. The behaviour of quarks and other quantum events are counter-intuitive. This is a poor argument, especially given the limitations of intuition—whatever that might be.


In his book Moral Realism, Kevin Delapp advances his belief ‘that as a descriptive thesis, noncognitivism appears exceptionally counterintuitive’. He advances with argumentum ad numeram (or ad populum—take your pick): Most speakers of most languages do not mean by “killing innocents is wrong” merely that they don’t approve of it, or even that they are simply endorsing a norm, no matter how universal in form. Rather they say, namely that killing innocents is literally wrong.’ Moreover, what people think they mean and what they mean may diverge widely. But these are petty arguments.

“Killing innocents is wrong.”

Let’s unpack the example Delapp uses. Let’s even move forward by accepting common idiomatic notions of these terms. The problem is one of scope. Keeping away from any metaphysical complications but considering a cosmic scope, how is this wrong?

Ignoring that people die routinely of natural and otherwise ‘unnatural’ causes—however these might even be classified—, the absence of some particular human or all humans or all life forms would have a nil effect on planetary motion, the birth and death or stars, or of the creation of other universes. An analogue might be similar to killing a single bacterium in your body, an event that happens countless times daily yet you don’t even notice.


The reason that this is considered wrong relates to hubris, the self-importance humans bestow themselves. It would be amazing for another lifeform with the capacity for language—a shared human language—to impose its parallel morality on earth-dwelling mortals…with the twist that they envision themselves as superior lifeforms. Of course, in the work, the earthlings would justify eliminating this hostile species—and vice versa. Yet neither would be right. As we do on earth now, we’d rely on our divine intuition and know that our vantage was the true one and these usurpers would need to be shown the error of their ways.

In any case, the only reason this logic is justified is by some argument of self-preservation, as if the universe somehow cares about this. Of course, the religious attribute the special place occupied by humans to be justified because we are God’s special children—but these are short-bus children indeed.

Returning to recast the original statement, ‘killing innocents is wrong’, we end up with something less than universal and quite contextual more along the lines of ‘killing [human] innocents is wrong [to me as a human with simple cognitive assessment skills and who has been socially indoctrinated to believe that humans are the most important lifeform in the entire universe or any possible multiverse]. Here wrong means ‘not conducive to the furthering of humanity‘, which is miles away from some claim with a deeper foundation, integrally woven into the fabric of space-time itself.

And when these people counter with, ‘would you want me to kill you’ (smugly clever, indeed), taking this to be some logical checkmate as opposed to the “I know you are but what am I” juvenile retort. Weak tea, indeed.

You might be selling it, but I’m not buying it.

Will the Real Jordan Peterson Please Stand Up?

On the topic of social constructivism and cultural relativism, Jordan Peterson is both a vehement counter voice and a hypocritical adherent. This post calls out Peterson’s hypocrisy. To Peterson, the notion that people create their own reality and especially their own identity is heresy. Worse, he will not abide where someone wishes to be identified by some non-gender-performative pronoun.

In his world, it’s obvious that there are two each of singular, gendered subject pronouns and their correspondent object pronouns: he, she, him, and her. Betwixt the two shan’t ever meet. For people like Jordan Peterson, this arbitrary taxonomical classification is written in stone in a manner reflective of Moses encounter with God on the mount.

Peterson 23:13-15

There shalt be two and only two genders, male and female;

and all humans shall conform to these classifications;

and all humans shall dress and behave in compliance with these classifications


For people who view the world like Peterson, there is no distinction between sex and gender, so there is no CIS-this or CIS-that. They will accept for the minority of exceptions for hermaphrodites, but these people are freaks of nature and need to pick a path.

If you have were born with certain primary sexual traits, you must comply with gender stereotypes:

  • Male = Penis
  • Female = Vagina

And these are not cultural stereotypes, by the way; it’s obvious that this is Natural Law handed down from on high because identity is not an individual’s construct. If anything, you must accept with grace the identity society bestows upon you. If they perceive you as X, you had better conform to X or all hell will break loose, and your parents and friends will corral you into the X-mould, if you’ll only listen and comply. It’s for your own good.

Society knows best. If you can’t see it, that’s your problem. It our world, it’s majority rule, and if the masses perceive you as gender X, you had better comply. And don’t be a sissy about it. Purses are for women. Makeup is for women. Dresses are for women. Skirts are for women.

Image: Men wearing kilts
As action figures are not dolls, kilts are not skirts; even so, don’t wear a kilt unless you are either Scottish or playing dress-up, but don’t play dress-up, and you’d better be toting a bagpipe or we’ll question your motives.


Where was I going with all of this?

At the same time, Peterson and his ilk defend universalism, they leave open the ability to envision their own deities as realities as they choose in a ‘it’s my personal god’ sort of way. They want to have their cake and eat it, too.

It’s fine to take a position of objectivism versus subjectivism. I mean you’d be wrong, but you don’t really get to cherry-pick from each where it is convenient. Actually, you do, but you’d be a hypocrite, so there’s that. Perhaps just logically inconsistent or disingenuous.

The Treachery of Images

Magritte used art to comment on the distinction between the map and the territory. His The Treachery of Images, likely more commonly known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe, may be the most famous example in art.

Image: Ceci n'est pas un GIF
Ceci n’est pas un GIF

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!

— René Magritte

People commonly or at least idiomatically refer to the terrain when they should be referencing the map. Likewise to the film Inception, we can recurse these maps all the way down. This is represented by the image above, Ceci n’est pas un GIF, which is a further reflection of Magritte’s work.


But the precursors of social constructionism predate post-structuralism. In fact, they predate structuralism itself. Although Surrealists like René Magritte were products of the post-structuralist era, there were hints of it at the dawn of the Enlightenment.

In 1772, Denis Diderot uses his story, Ceci n’est pas un conte (This is not a story) to demonstrate that a person’s behaviour is not in itself moral or immoral. Morality is not universal, and therefore it is not revealed either.

The point here is to underscore the difference between the referent and the symbol, whether by visual or auditory means. Dualist, René Descartes in his Cogito even understood this difference when he pointed out the ways each of the senses can be deceived. What he didn’t fully appreciate (or at least articulate) is how this disconnect is more prevalent than he had even considered.

3-4 pointing
Image: Perception is reality

Returning to the modern era, in 1966 Peter Berger published The Social Construction of Reality (PDF).  This theory centres on the notion that human beings rationalise their experience by creating models of the social world and share and reify these models through language.

In closing, this is important because even when discussing facts about the world, we are still mired by perception. The legal system understands that eyewitness accounts of an event are among the least trustworthy. Ambiguity exists in language.

An example I used when I was teaching undergrads was the concept of fairness. Who felt that ‘things’ should be fair or that any person should be treated fairly. Accuse me of argument by anecdote if you must, but I have never encountered a person who disagreed with this notion.

But then the conversation got interesting: What was their perception of fair? Did it need to result in equality of outcome or was equality of opportunity sufficient? I wrote about this last year. Similar conversations happened when discussions arose over justice and so on.

My conclusion: There is no reason to believe humans’ employment of language results in a very precise representation of reality. There is even less reason to believe that language provides some vector to know moral truths—or any truths, really. The best course of action is to rely on the slight

My parting gift is this classic Annie Hall bit with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.



Alvy Singer’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?

Annie Hall’s Therapist: Do you have sex often?

Alvy Singer: [lamenting] Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

Annie Hall: [annoyed] Constantly. I’d say three times a week.

Happy Endings

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. 

Somehow, I happened across a blog post, Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean? Of course, this is right up my street, I skimmed a couple other posts on the site and followed some links to establish some contextual frame.

My by-now standard (read: autonomic) reaction to this line of questioning is that this is a correct assessment of the conditional statement.

If everything is just X, Y, or Z, there is no real way to judge anything.

Before evaluating the entirety of the content, let’s look at the lexical choices, in particular:

  • everything: Realising that this is hyperbole. I am going to assume that the author did not mean that everything is X, Y, or Z. I believe he means everything within some imagined yet undefined domain. I’ll guess that this domain relates to some moral or social sphere. Anything employs the same hyperbole, so I’ll ignore it.
  • just: This rhetorically modifies X, Y, and Z, in order to diminish them for the reader, to make them appear petty.
  • real: I believe the term he was looking for is objective or perhaps ontological. Otherwise, we’ll need to discern what he considers to be real versus not real.

Also, notice the use or as a conjunction. This seems odd, as the listed items do not have equal weight or effect. Rhetoric does not exist without language, and power really feels out of place, Michel Foucault’s law of the instrument complicity notwithstanding. To him, power was his litmus.


Firstly, all social perception is the result of the construct of human language. Of course, there is the physical world that exists independently of humans and perception—perhaps this is the real world where real judgments occur. Let’s label this real world the terrain. The earth and the larger universe would exist absent of humans. In fact, it had for aeons and will persist for many aeons beyond the last semblance of humanity. Humans are also real, if ephemeral on a grander scale.

If this independent, objective, real world is the terrain, language is the map. We use language to communicate and make sense of the terrain, but it is only a representation based on our imperfect sense faculties.

cat saussure labels
Image: Symbolic language mapping of terrain

So when one makes a claim that everything [sic] is, say, language, they are making a claim similar to that of Saussure. Saussure was a structuralist. In fact, post-structuralism (or its expanded form labelled post-modernism) was a reaction against structuralists. Within the context of this post, Saussure believed that if one could fully qualify the structure of language, one could achieve a one-to-one fidelity relationship of the map to the terrain.

Post-structuralists pointed out all of the reasons why this was a fool’s errand. Like a geographical map, it is only a representation of the underlying terrain. Language serves the purpose of communication including expression and phatic aspects. One form of communication is rhetoric, which is a form employed for the purpose of persuasion. One possibility of this persuasion is to gain and retain power—or to at least win the upper hand in your argument. I suppose this is where the original statement starts to coalesce: rhetoric, power, and language.

All models are wrong, but some are useful.
My point, then, is that our language map is always disconnected from the terrain. Moreover, it can be a pretty low fidelity map indeed. So when one says that everything is language, they are making a claim that we can not acquire this real knowledge. We can make sensory observations and construct narratives about it.

If you’ve ever taken a basic communications class, you’ve probably experienced the telephone game. Perception works in a similar manner. There are many things of which we have little or no experience save for conveyance through language. But as with the telephone game, fidelity can be lost. This is less likely to be a problem when interfacing with the so-called real world of rock and trees and of lions and tigers and bears.

terrain saussure
Image: Symbolic language mapping of nebulous concept

It is more likely to become a problem when dealing with non-ontic concepts, these ‘things’ that would not exist without humans or, more critically, without language. These artificial (in contrast to real) concepts are things like goodness, justice, democracy, liberty, sovereignty, nations, and on and on, ad nauseum. Humans have constructed narratives about all of these, but if the last human were to die tomorrow, these concepts would die, too. Whether some new lifeform would eventually evolve to develop language and further develop these concepts is debatable.


All of this aside, let’s look at the perceived intent of this statement, which is the same sentiment behind Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ quip.

As has been discussed, the Enlightenment replaced God with Nature and Nietzsche realised that if this worldview were universally adopted. the tyrannic role that God and gods had played could not be leveraged to maintain control or power, much in the same way that the divine rights or kings had withered and died. God played a vital role in this narrative. Nature, particularly human nature, was a weak substitute. This said, moral and natural realists, quickly (and relatively successfully) filled the void with cognitive filler, a perfect pairing for budding Enlightenment thinkers.

Given that even if there were some objective morality (terrain), there is no reason to believe that a human could gain access to it. Previously, priests and pharaohs claimed to possess this ability, but this vector was no longer extant or accessible. Even if a person did have this power through some miracle of some sort or another (or another or another), what reason (other than convincing rhetoric) would one have to believe him (or her—but let’s be honest; it’s pretty much all hims).

Without access to this objective morality, we are left with creating some subjective morality. I fully admit that trying to gain consensus and compliance to a known-to-be constructed moral code would be akin to herding cats. It is no doubt that society would operate more efficiently if all constituents follow the same code.

If wouldn’t matter if this society adopted, say, monogamy over polygamy, so long as everyone accepted this as the rules of engagement. Cultural subjectivism would provide a moral framework for this situation, We have many examples of social arrangements where this is the mode of operation.

Sports are an example. There are rules. Players agree on the rules, protocols, and procedures, and they operate within this socially constructed framework. There is no objective sportsball deity on high that conveyed the commandments, and yet it works.


Locke and Rousseau each wrote about social contracts. Granted, they believed in a supernatural Nature with a capital N, but they still felt that people could operate as a society based on some sort compact or accord.

This missing element would be power because those in power could not use some higher power to justify their actions especially in regard to retributive justice and so on.


What I still don’t understand after all these years is how this logic works. It is eerily similar to Pascale’s Wager.


If not [belief in God],
then not [eternity of bliss in Heaven; instead eternal suffering in Hell, so double down]
therefore [convince yourself of or feign belief in God]

If not [objective means of judgment],
then not [real judgment]
therefore [delude yourself into the belief that an objective means of judgment exists]

And they all lived happily ever after



happily ever after

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


Abolishing Prostitution

So, now I’ve gone and done it. I thought that my commentary on prostitution would be a one-off. However, in researching arguments against prostitution, I happened upon this blog, which led me to videos on Elly Arrow’s Youtube channel.  To be fair, she self-identifies as ‘a radical feminist from Germany’, and although there are many cultural similarities between the US and Germany, I could be missing some urgency not present here in the US. Please visit her channel and decide for yourself.

At the start, it seems we have many things in common. She Elly declares, ‘I am the humanist, atheist, pro-lesbian, sex industry-abolishing, gender-critical, radical feminist Liberals and Conservatives warned you about’. Whilst, I am not a Humanist, as I feel this is too narrow of a focus on the larger system, I am an atheist, pro-lesbian, gender-critical, and radical, though perhaps not feminist. I do have to ponder how one can simultaneously be gender-critical and pro-lesbian or a feminist, as both of these rely on gender identity, but I’ll save this for a possible future topic.

Specifically, she replied to a commented I made on her video, Arguing for Abolition Pt. 2 – Talk About Class. I also commented on How To Make The Case For Prostitution Abolition, so I’ll start there. I haven’t watched the rest of the series or any of her other videos yet, though I may if only to critique them.

Let me get the ad hominem stuff out of the way first. Perhaps she mentions on her blog or in other videos how she came to this place, but I’d like to understand her experiences and motivations that brought here to this conclusion. She says she used to feel differently, so I’d also like to know how she formulated that conclusion, too. It is apparent that she reads a script, which is distracting. Even the choice to read can be edited to sound more natural. It would also make the presentment more succinct. It would also be useful if she would upload her transcripts to the videos so we didn’t have to rely on the auto-translate feature. Pro Tip: This would also help with search indexing and findability.

How To Make The Case For Prostitution Abolition

In this video, Elly gives good advice on how to engage in a ‘debate’.

  1. Make sure your opponent really wants to debate.
    • Emphatically, yes.
  2. Don’t try convincing an opponent all at once. This is a complex issue, and it is unlikely that you will succeed in countering all facets in one conversation.
    • Yes. This is the basis for propaganda and marketing alike. Chip away and win small battles before you worry about the war.
  3. Assume the other side has good intentions. 
    • Good intentions are not necessarily relevant; rather, assume they have a reason for their convictions without recourse to good or bad intentions. What would be an example of bad intentions in this arena anyway?
  4. Don’t antagonise your opponent.
    • Indeed. This is likely to lead to escalating commitment, where they dig in their heals and double down.
  5. No ad hominem attacks: Attack the view, not the person.
    • Solid advice. Continue… 
  6. Change minds on the fence.
    • Sure. If you are in some context where you’ve got onlookers or evesdroppers, make your points, and take wins where they fall. 

In the midst of this setup list, Elly slips in some irrelevant commentary about pimps. This is a related but distinctly separate side issue. Later, she tries to conflate sex trafficking and prostitution, which is again a tangential concern but can be resolved independently. In policy, this is known as scope or specificity. This is an intentional misframing of the argument. Don’t fall for this ploy and adopt this frame. You’ll lose the debate by not recognising that she’s switched domains.

Allow me to illustrate this:

We start simply with a canvas of all work.

Venn Diagramme: All Work

Then we add ‘sex work’ as a subset of ‘all work’.

Venn Diagramme: Sex Work

Then, let’s add prostitution as a fully contained subset of sex work (and all work). Again, clearly, this is not to scale. Although sex work can be subdivided into categories besides prostitution, cam girls, phone sex operators, pornographic actors, and so on, and some women may operate in more than one of this subcategories, I will ignore them for the sake of this illustration.

Prostitution can be future subdivided into categories of streetwalkers, escorts, call girls, and so on, each sharing aspects whilst retains distinctions. Besides distinctions in services and autonomy, the ranks comprise of women from different socio-economic classes.

Venn Diagramme: Prostitution

Next come ‘pimps’, but before we get to them, let’s recognise for the moment that these people—for better and for worse—provide a supervisory or managerial function. ‘Managers’ exist outside of prostitution, inside the sex industry and out.

Venn Diagramme: Managers

Within the sex industry, and particularly within the subset of prostitution, these managers are called pimps, so we’ll focus our attention there. As depicted, not all and perhaps not most prostitutes have pimps. Presumably, there are pimps, if even by some other name, who ‘manage’ sex workers who are not otherwise considered to be prostitutes.

Venn Diagramme: Pimps

Now that we’ve established that pimps are not involved in all prostitution, let’s step back for a moment before bringing all of this together. First, let’s recognise that there exists a general category of human trafficking. These humans might be domestic workers, manual labourers, or sex workers.

Venn Diagramme: Human Trafficking

But for the sake of discussion, let’s limit the scope to the subset that is human sex trafficking, again noting that not all prostitution involves human sex trafficking.

Venn Diagramme: Human Sex Trafficking

Finally, let’s look at the final diagramme. Here we see the overlaps among the entities, and we can see that, theoretically, we can formulate a policy solution that addresses the deeper exploitation without disrupting the broader order of things.

Venn Diagramme: Complete

In the end, one cannot simply conflate either human sex trafficking or pimping with prostitution. This is an attempt to win an argument by playing slight of hand with a language shell game. But at no time does Elly create a compelling argument as to why prostitution somehow does not fall into the category of work.

I am not going to enter into debate at this time the issues that Capitalism and Colonialism introduce into the world at large, though I feel that the real debate lies there.

Moreover, looking at the length of this post, I am going to address my response to Arguing for Abolition Pt. 2 – Talk About Class in another entry, hopefully, either today or tomorrow.

The Rhetoric of Foucault

OK, so this isn’t at all about Foucault’s rhetoric. My main riff this year is the assertion that there is no Truth, only rhetoric—or should I rather say Rhetoric. I created a Reddit post asking for references to other philosophers (or whomever) who had made a similar claim, to which I was offered Vico and Rorty. Unfortunately, there were only two responders, and their assistance was superficial.

What I did encounter by one of the responders was a criticism similar to that levelled at Foucault, hence the inspired title of this post. This critique at its essence is that having proposed no positive solutions to the issues I point to, I cannot defend my position. In fact, as with Habermas‘ fault with Foucault, evidently, I have disarmed myself.

I find this line of argumentation weak tea at best. To argue that one has no claim to declare something incorrect if they don’t have a correct replacement for it is absurd. For example, I don’t know what 13,297 ÷ 1,492 equals arithmetically; but I can assert with confidence that it does not equal 2. Moreover, to criticise, one doesn’t need the ‘ability to generate positive alternatives’.

“There is no truth but rhetoric.”

So when I say there is no Truth but rhetoric (for non-ontic concepts), I am making a Truth statement. As such, this assertion—by my own admission—is only as strong as the rhetoric I can muster to its defence. Alas, my defences are weak, and so the argument fails. Were I to make a stronger argument—a more convincing argument—, it might be accepted as Truth.

Evidently, my first mistake was to separate ontic and non-ontic, which is to say things existing apart from their given names and those whose existence is entirely fabricated. An ontic thing might be a stone, a tree, a planet, a star, or the sensation of pain. These things exist even without language, a label, or an observer. As Saussure and other structuralists have noted, in semiotics, there is the signified (or referent) and the signifier—the object and the identifier. In the context of language, these are tautological.

There is no spoon.
Non-ontic things are conceptual, freedom, truth,  justice, rights, gods, and so on. I may opt to replace non-ontic with language-contextual or some such to sidestep the taxonomical quagmire. Or perhaps I’ll adopt the dichotomy of concrete versus abstract. These concepts do not exist outside of language. They are wholly constructed in a complex system created by humans—and humans whilst humans have done OK with complicated systems, they have an abysmal track record when it comes to complex systems. By analogue to the physics of solids, there is more space than atoms, and the atoms and their constituent particles are in constant motion—zero-degrees Kelvin, be damned. Our senses perceive something to be there, but as in that scene in The Matrix, ‘there is no spoon‘.

In my mind, leveraging Saussure’s ideas are useful to depict the differences in the concrete versus the abstract.


The famous painting depicted above illustrates explains the difference between a signifier and a referent. In this image, there is only the signifier. Magritte makes clear the distinction with the text, Ceci, n’est pas une pipe: This is not a pipe. It is merely a depiction of one. To be even more arcane, the image is a signifier to another signifier that in turn refers to the referent.

A sign is the device that encapsulates the concept. It may be visual—an icon (an illustration of photograph) or a written word or even Braille—or it can be spoken or signed, as with American Sign Language. These are all signs.

cat sign

Notice when one considers a sign that a concrete cat (or in French, chat), it is pretty clear to what one is referring. Above the line, we see the signified, the idea conveyed by the sign. This doesn’t mean that everyone sees the silhouette depicted above, but it is a catlike thing, a feline animal, a mammal, normally with four legs and a tail. Perhaps you are thinking of a particular cat. But to someone with a grasp of the language in which you are communicating, when you say cat, there is little room for ambiguity. In fact, if you are trying to teach someone a different language, say, French, you could show them the cat with the chat signifier, and they would grasp your meaning almost instantaneously.

All language is arbitrary and socially constructed, so there is no connection between the words—say, the spelling or shape of a word—and its referent. The words cat and chat do not look like cats.

There are concrete things that cannot be so readily translated into an icon; for example, the wind. However, one could fairly quickly be able to articulate or gesticulate, as the case might be, the notion of wind. The same cannot be said for the abstract concept of justice.

As I’ve mentioned before, justice, especially one of the restorative or retributive varieties, is a euphemism for vengeance. The distinction is supposed to be found in the intent, but intent cannot be known; it can only be inferred. And, speaking of Foucault, justice can only be delivered from a power position.

But the notion of justice relies heavily on social construct; it has geo-spacial dependencies. What is considered to be just in ancient times may not be considered just now. What is considered just in one country might not be considered to be just in another. And this is more than a difference in instantiation. It is due to the arbitrary if not capricious articulation of a nebulous concept.

Returning to Foucault, (Christian apologist) Nancy Pearcey declares his stance paradoxical: “[when someone] states that it is impossible to attain objectivity, is that an objective statement? The theory undercuts its own claims.”

First, Pearcey merely asks a question about objectivity, but it doesn’t matter. The answer is: this may as well be an objective statement, but it’s just another language game. Wittgenstein (and Russell and Heidegger and Rorty…) was on the right path when he pointed out that the ambiguity inherent in language provide cover for all sorts of mischief. I’m only pretty sure that Derrida might yield paydirt as well. Besides, let’s pretend for a moment that there exists some objective truth, there is no reason (language game; except in accepting the broadest definition, reason is a capability elusive to many if not most humans) to expect that this truth is either accessible or verifiable anyway. The best one can do is to pose a more convincing rhetorical argument.

Reason /ˈrēzən/ (noun)
the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic

A similar critique has been advanced by (another Christian apologist) Diana Taylor, and by Nancy Fraser who argues that “Foucault’s critique encompasses traditional moral systems, he denies himself recourse to concepts such as ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, and therefore lacks the ability to generate positive alternatives.”

So whilst I’ve just managed to stream-of-consciousness my contention, I am not in a position to resolve anything. For now, I’ll settle for documenting my position as I continue to search for other supporters and formulate a more cogent response, a more robust rhetorical presentment.

If anyone can direct me to resources relevant to my position, let me know in the comments. I’ll appreciate it. If you don’t agree—which would be expected, as this is the accepted orthodoxy—feel free to comment as well. 


The Mind is Flat

So, given the wide gap between the last post and this, it may be apparent that I’ve been otherwise occupied. I’ve been a bit distracted, but, among other things, I’ve just commenced reading The Mind Is Flat by Nick Chater.

Although this is more about the pseudoscience that is psychology, there is a bit of a philosophical, subjectivist undertone, and I find the political and jurisprudent implications interesting.

No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives’, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. It is not hard to plumb our mental depths because they are so deep and so murky, but because there are no mental depths to plumb.

Of course, this perspective is right up my street: There is no there there, and this is where it becomes problematic: in the US anyway, much of law is based on the concept intent and motives—and the underlying belief that these can be sussed out. But in reality, as it were, it’s not much more than rhetoric obfuscated with smoke and mirrors.

Our ‘computational innards’ are not a churning sea of experiences, feelings, beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, whether conscious or unconscious. Our mind spins stories about how we work – driven by motives, beliefs, percepts, moral norms, religious precepts. And they are such compelling stories that we can imagine that they are true, or partially true, or surely at least along the right general lines.

From the perspective of evolution, humans are storytellers.  More to the point, humans are storylisteners, and they can be are influenced by compelling narratives. These narratives range from a sense of identity to the yarn about history and progress. As Foucault might have noted, people in positions of power leverage these narratives and spin their own in order to maintain their advantage.

In practice, humans are mere parsing machines. Their brains may not work precisely like a computer, but practically, the brain is an interpreter and it generates ‘consciousness’ based on experiences and sense data. Input a new narrative and the brain will interpret it in context with other experiences—or as Chater puts it, ‘motives, beliefs, percepts, moral norms, religious precepts’.

Marketers, politicians, and other hucksters use this to their every advantage.

Well, enough typing for the moment. Back to reading…

Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought

…and Justice for All

I’ve been out of sorts as of late, too busy to be contributing to this blog. Abstract philosophy, as Geuss notes, is a field for the comfortably idle. I’ve been in the midst of a divorce, and it’s not that I don’t think about the abstract, but my focus is pulled toward the mundane. The US court system comes to mind. I’ve already served on several juries, so I understand how pathetically that side is structured; I’ve been of the claimant/petitioner side and the defence side, and now I am a respondent. I’ve never been an attorney or barrister, nor have I been a judge, but I’ve known some of each, and it’s really a blind faith they have in the system—as well as a paycheque (let’s be honest here)—that keeps them going. As Upton Sinclair once noted, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’. Between this and escalating commitment, this poor excuse for a system is going nowhere fast.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

I don’t even believe there is such thing as Justice, let alone some ability to systematise it. As I mentioned in my last post, the system is constructed to prioritise consistency over outcome and favour deontology over consequentialism with just a smidgen of virtue ethics for good measure, but it’s all still just smoke…… and mirrors. It’s theatre—procedure for procedure’s sake. I guess that Foucault may have been right about the Power bit, but there’s more nuance than that.

Meantime, I am trapped in this flawed system trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. If I’m not out by the end of the month, come in to rescue me.

—Decidedly not a fan.