The story of my book review – it all started with the book I selected for it.
I won’t tell you about the book itself because that is all in the book review which I have included at the end of the post. I will just tell you how it felt to read it. I was halfway through before I realised something was off. You may think me dense, but I had never encountered a philosopher, never mind a professor who would use his position to further his private religious beliefs. I thought such practices had died out decades ago, in western Europe at least.
I did my best to write a book review which others might find informative and pleasant to read. However, the initial review from the professor was not altogether positive. He wanted more structure and more facts. I expected the class review to be along the same lines because the other ReMa students seemed serious and inclined to listen to their elders en betters. Once I had read the reviews they did, I found that some of them had not stuck to the format, and like me, had tried to write a narrative, tried to pick a style which suited the topic. One was superb, even lyrical in places, and made me want to read the book she reviewed. Yet when I complimented her on this before class, it turned out that the professor had also been critical of her writing. Something stirred inside me.
The rebel awakens
We spent an entire afternoon discussing all the book reviews.
My book review was the last but one. I was nervous because I did not relish being attacked by a whole group on lack of clarity or information even if I had braced myself to learn to write to proper academic standards and take all criticism like a woman. Imagine my surprise when the other students, one after the other, declared how much they loved my review. They even quoted from it. Assured me to change it as little as possible. Never to change the ending. Etc, etc. The professor just stared. I looked at him and said I would put in more facts at the beginning of the review.
The thing itself
I have included the review below. I will change it somewhat to please the professor. He is the audience, and he
Philosophy of language and text. René van Woudenberg, Filosofie van taal en tekst, Budel: Uitgeverij Damon, 2002, 175 pages, ISBN 9055732508. Review by Inge Wertwijn, Radboud University Nijmegen.
The nature of meaning has been a philosophical issue since Plato addressed it in the Cratylus dialogue. In this book, René van Woudenberg presents his view. He explains his intentions in the preface. He wants to establish exactly what we mean when we say a word, sentence or text, has a meaning. He will achieve this, not by presenting an overview of the current debate, but by explaining the philosophical problems underlying the concept of meaning. Van Woudenberg freely admits that the solutions he provides in this book will not always reflect the accepted philosophical views but may represent his specific ideas on the matter.
Van Woudenberg has taken pains to make this book attractive to the reader. He usually avoids unnecessary technical jargon and illustrates his claims with many examples, some of which are very humorous. For instance, the snail who writes I love you on the beach – without spaces between the words, “because snails don’t jump” (p.148). Does this I love you have meaning? Van Woudenberg thinks not, because there is no intention behind the sentence, the writing is just a collection of haphazard snail trails. He then has the reader pick up the imaginary snail, turn it over, and find little rubber wheels on the bottom. Now the symbols on the sand suddenly gain meaning: this may be a proposal. Or a joke.
Throughout the book, van Woudenberg uses a particular approach to instruct the reader. He will first present a philosophical issue about the concept of meaning in some detail; explain why it is an issue and then offer two or more theories which might solve the problem. Next, he will test these theories against several inventive examples. It soon becomes obvious that either these theories will not fit or will yield contradictory results. This inevitably confuses the reader. According van Woudenberg (p.118), this is a necessary step in the reader’s enlightenment process, because having become confused and exasperated, the reader will now be open to a true answer. In the last step, the author patiently explains what that correct solution is. One imagines the reader heaving a contented sigh.
Such a didactic recipe is not common to academic writings. It is reminiscent of a sermon – indeed, throughout the book, van Woudenberg references his personal religious beliefs. These are not in the core of his argumentation, but intertwined with the many examples he gives. There is a general sense of the outcome of some important theological issue hinging on the outcome of this philosophical treatment of meaning and language, but van Woudenberg does not make this relationship explicit.
The book consists of four sections: the meaning of words, the meaning of sentences, the meaning of texts and the ontological meaning of meaning. Three general theories on meaning are examined: referential, representational and behavioural. The latter two theories are somewhat misrepresented, and this sets a pattern for the whole book. Bloomfield’s behavioural theory, for instance, is reported to imply that when a word has a particular meaning, some situational and response characteristics must always be the same whenever that word is used. This idea is first taken to extremes, then refuted with obvious relish. Bloomfield, however, said something different. He held that meaning is related to the situation in which a verbal act takes place, and that this connection should be investigated further by science, not by linguists or philosophers.
But Van Woudenberg’s interests do not lie with individual theories. In the name of common sense, he makes a more general claim which cuts across all theories of meaning: the meaning of a word cannot be identified, he says, by referring to an external object or conditions. Therefore we must ask ourselves “what it means for two expressions to have the same use” (p.35) – which is a well known question asked by Alston. This is the central argument and van Woudenberg spends quite some time on it.
First, he explains Austin’s speech act theory. This holds that when someone says something, he or she also performs an action. Speech acts exist at three different levels: a locutionary act which is the uttering of a word or sentence, an illocutionary act which is the dimension of the intention behind the utterance, and the force of that intention, and a perlocutionary act, which is about the intended effect. For example, when I say “Great shirt!” (locutionary act), what I do is to compliment you (illocutionary act). The intended perlocutionary effect is that you might like me better or will lend me the shirt sometime or perhaps compliment me in return.
Second, he explains Alston’s additional idea that two sentences have the same meaning, if their standard illocutionary act potential is the same. Van Woudenberg strongly agrees with this and takes it one step further: two words usually have the same meaning if they can be swapped without changing the illocutionary act potential of the sentence they are used in. For example, in the sentence “the police is coming”, one may swap the word “police” for “cops” or “pigs” or “fuzz”, so these words must mean exactly the same. How one might determine which words may be swapped without affecting sentence meaning, or how usual ‘usual’ is, is not discussed.
Van Woudenberg then moves on to the connection between meaning and truth, or rather, the lack of connection between them. This is an important distinction: sentences with propositional content (
Metaphors can also be reduced to precise expressions. His reasoning is: in principle it is not impossible that for a vague expression x, let us say “I smell a rat”, there exists a precise lexical equivalent. This is not impossible because we can imagine it. So if this not impossible, it follows that it must be possible, in principle, to have a precise and lexical equivalent of “I smell a rat”. If in practice we cannot find this lexical equivalent, this must be because “there is a hole in our language” (p.62).
This is not a convincing argument as is demonstrated by substituting terms: “It is not impossible that people are kind. Kindness is a characteristic which we imagine all people may have. Therefore kind people exist. To find a kind person, one must simply look in the right places,”. Next, if we replace “people are kind,” by “God is good,”, the argument becomes: “It is not impossible that God is good, because goodness is a characteristic which we imagine God may have. Therefore it is possible that God is good even if you don’t see it. If, in practice, if you cannot see that God is good, there is something missing in you.”
Suddenly the clouds lift and the true objective of this book shines through. On the surface this book appears to be about speech acts and intentions, but it is actually about the distinction between what people mean when they speak versus what can be known to be inherently true. We are no longer surprised to find that the last section of this book ends with a chapter on the meaning of life – not a frequent occurrence in books on the philosophy of language. Despite its title and structure, this book is not about philosophy at all. It is a directive to the faithful, to strive for clear and precise formulation of thoughts and find the everlasting Truth within.