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Form and Content - Schlick

Form and Content - Schlick

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Published by walter horn
One of Moritz Schlick's most important philosophical statements, which includes his comments on "structural realism." An important contribution to logical positivism.
One of Moritz Schlick's most important philosophical statements, which includes his comments on "structural realism." An important contribution to logical positivism.

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Published by: walter horn on Sep 29, 2013
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Form and Content, an Introduction to Philosophical Thinking
Gesammelte Aufsatze, 1926-1936 
. Vienna: Gerold, 1938, p. 151-249
I. The Nature of Expression.
1. Language.
 Human civilisation rests entirely on the possibility of communication of thoughts. There would  be no cooperation between human beings if man could not exchange ideas with his fellow men; there would be no arts, no science, if knowledge could not be handed down from one generation to the next. Communication requires some sort of vehicle which carries the message through space and time. The most common vehicle consists of certain articulated sounds called Speech; but for many  purposes spoken words would be useless on account of their transitory character: in such cases we use certain enduring marks of ink, pencil, chalk, engravings in stone or brass, or similar devices. Any system of lasting marks serving the purpose of communication we shall call Writing. Speech and Writing are two different kinds of Language. They may not be entirely distinct from each other, the difference between them may be one of degree rather than of essence, but at  present we are not concerned with this difference, nor indeed with any differences between various kinds of speech or writing; we are interested only in those characteristics which all the different methods of communication have in common and which are the essential characteristics of Language. There are innumerable methods of conveying thoughts, as a matter of fact almost anything in the world can be used as a vehicle of communication, and modern technical skill has developed some of the possibilities: electric currents, gramophone records, radio waves, and so on. All these possible systems must have certain common properties (otherwise they could not serve a common purpose), and it is these properties which constitute the nature of language. We shall always use the word "language" in its largest sense, in which it denotes any system of things or  procedures or events considered as a means of communication of thoughts. In everyday life we find nothing mysterious in the fact of the existence of Language; but although it is true that there is nothing mysterious about it, it seems strange that philosophers have not paid a little more attention to it and have not (as it is the philosopher's business to do) wondered a little more at this apparently simple phenomenon which we all take for granted as part of our life like walking, eating or sleeping, but which hardly ever has been properly understood. The whole history of  philosophy might have taken a very different course if the minds of the great thinkers had been mor deeply impressed by the remarkable fact that there is such a thing as language.
2. Expression of one fact by another.
Is it not astonishing that by hearing certain sounds issuing from the mouth of a person, or by looking at a few black marks on a piece of paper I can become aware of the fact that a volcano on a distant island has had an eruption, or that Mr So-and-so has been elected president of the republic of So-and-so ? The marks on the piece of paper and the eruption of the volcano are two entirely distinct and different facts, there is apparently no similarity between them, and yet knowledge of the one conveys to me knowledge of the other. How is this possible ? What  peculiar relation is there between the two? We say that one fact (the arrangement of little black marks) expresses the other (the eruption of the volcano), so the particular relation between them is called Expression. In order to understand language we must investigate the nature of Expression. How can certain facts "speak of" other facts ? That is our problem. It is not a difficult problem, I think; but even the simplest question deserves to be taken seriously, and it seems that most philosophers have thought it a little too easy, have given the answer rashly and thereby failed to gain an insight which, as I hope to show, might have  prevented most of the misery of traditional philosophy.
3. Representation by symbols.
 How is it possible that by perceiving one thing we can become aware of another thing which is evidently in no way present in the first one ? The first answer one feels tempted to give to this question is something like this: In order to understand Expression, one might say, it is sufficient to point to the simple fact of representation, i.e. a sort of correspondence between two things which we establish arbitrarily by agreeing that the one shall stand for the other, shall replace it in some given context, serve as a sign or symbol for the other, or, in short, signify it. As for a playing child a piece of wood may mean a ship, or as for a general engaged in battle a couple of strokes on his map may represent a marching army
 in a similar way our words and all our signs for words are symbols which, partly by arbitrary agreement and partly by accidental usage, stand for the things cf which they are symbols. Is it not natural to suppose that in the same way our sentences or propositions stand for the facts which they express ? A child, when learning to speak, has to be taught this preestablished correspondence between the words and the world: this seems to be everything that is required to enable him to use the symbolism which is called his native language. He becomes able to express his thoughts and his expression can be understood because both he and those to whom he is speaking know by heart which particular thing is represented by each particular symbol. In this way the possibility of representing things by signs appears to account for the possibility of language, and nothing else seems to be needed to explain the nature of expression. But a little closer examination of the matter will easily convince us that this account is far from being satisfactory. It does not help us to understand that particular property without which a symbolism cannot be a language capable of really "expressing" anything.
4. Expression as contrasted with representation.
 If we want to study a language we shall certainly begin by learning its vocabulary, i.e. the signification of its words. That is necessary, but not sufficient. We must study its grammar also. But do we not learn the grammar in exactly the same way as the vocabulary, by being taught what particular construction corresponds to a particular fact ? In a certain sense that may be so,  but before drawing any further conclusions we shall do well to remark that a psychological investigation of the way in which a language is learned may not help us at all to understand the nature of language in general. The philosopher is concerned only with the essence or possibility of expression, the psychologist has to take the possibility for granted and shows only the way in which a learning child avails himself of it. In reality Expression is entirely different from mere Representation, it is much more and cannot  be derived from it. Genuine speech is something entirely new as compared with the simple repetition of signs whose meanings have been iearned by heart. A parrot utters significant sentences, but it does not really "speak" in the proper sense of the word. It is true, of course, that language is composed of words and that words are symbols in the sense explained, but that does not explain the possibility of expression. If language were nothing but a system of signs with fixed significations it would never be capable of communicating new facts. If its function consisted solely in representing thoughts or facts by means of symbols it could represent only such thoughts or facts to which a sign had been attached beforehand; a new fact would be one to which no symbol had been assigned, it would therefore be impossible to communicate it. There would have to be as many signs (names) as there are facts; if a new fact occurred it could not be mentioned, because there would be no name to call it by. This state of affairs is made very clear by what is often called the "language" of certain animals such as bees and ants. Their means of communication are not a language in our sense of the word at all, but only a number of signs or signals, each of which stands for a particular class of facts, as "there is honey", "there is danger", and so forth. In the case of the parrot there is, in most instances even less than this, its words being usually mere mechanical repetitions of sounds. The signals of bees and ants represent or indicate certain occurrences, they do not express them. They are restricted to these particular kinds of events and cannot represent anything else. The essential characteristic of language, on the other hand, is its capability of expressing facts, and this involves the capability of expressing new facts, or indeed any facts. A school boy opens his copy of Xenophon's Anabasis, and by reading the first sentence of the book he learns the fact, which (let us assume) is entirely new to him, that king Darius had two sons. He knows what  particular fact is expressed by that particular sentence, although he never came across that sentence before and certainly did not know the fact before. He, therefore, cannot have learned that the one corresponds to the other. It is a necessary conclusion that the proposition and the fact which it expresses must naturally or essentially correspond to one another, they must have something in common. It is this common feature that we have to discover.

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