Bit of this (or that) for you (or I)

Reflecting the Mind
April 8, 2005

Western philosophy continues to huff and puff about problems of "indexicality", "egocentric particularity", "token-reflexivity" or, in old-fashioned parlance, "deixis". Eros Corazza's book is an example of how tortuously these problems are nowadays conceived. They relate to such commonplace words as "...", "you", "this", "that", "here", "now" and their allegedly logical implications.

Corazza chooses to treat all these under the rubric of "indexicality". This (or that) is a bad start, because that (or this) is itself a poorly elucidated term that philosophers have cribbed from Charles S. Peirce. In his (or this, or that) theory of linguistic signs, Peirce defined an "index" as a sign "which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object". If you (or I) can make much sense of this (or that), then we (I, you and anyone else) are already halfway to being professional philosophers. Unfortunately, Peirce's face-saving caveat seems often to be forgotten - he said "it would be difficult, if not impossible... to find any sign absolutely devoid of the indexical quality". In plain English, there is no well-defined class of such expressions.

Oblivious to this wisdom, some have carried on as if there really were such a class: Corazza is the latest in a long line. The usual move is to reinterpret Peirce's indexicality in terms of invariance of meaning versus variance of referent. (Thus "tomorrow", allegedly, always means the same, but the day referred to shifts from one 24 hours to the next.) The formalisation owes much to Gottlob Frege: for those who reject Fregean neo-Platonic semantics lock, stock and barrel, there is little more to be said.

Readers are taken on the familiar jaunt around pronouns, proper names, demonstratives, anaphora and adverbs. Corazza seems unacquainted, however, with what has been published on the subject of tenses and the subtleties of tense usage, or the linguistic peculiarities of "free indirect discourse".

His linguistic reading seems mainly confined to the works of Noam Chomsky and his disciples.

While paying lip service to the notion of "context", Corazza's context is so narrow as to let him get away with conveniently decontextualised examples whenever it suits his argument. But time and again Corazza trips himself up. For instance: "'This', unlike 'that', suggests proximity, just as 'she' suggests that the referent is a female." Not so. Pronouns no more make suggestions than they have intentions: it is not pronouns but people who do such things by their contextualised verbal behaviour. Again, "the reference of a proper name is always independent of another NP": but any fifth-former could supply dozens of counterexamples.

In brief, Corazza shows no sign of realising that the philosophical "problems" of indexicality are generated by the question-begging way philosophers construe English and other languages segregationally as fixed codes. Typical of Corazza's style of argument is the following. "Monday," we are told, "looks like a proper name." Why? Because it begins with a capital letter. But it can be pluralised. ("How many Mondays are there in July?") Does this mean that proper names are also count nouns? Some philosophers have made this assertion. Corazza is not convinced. "I believe that proper names are neither count nouns nor indexicals." Believe it by all means. But, as with so many of these sterile scholastic meta-meta conundrums, does it make any difference? "One" (meaning I, you, he, she, we, old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all) might well (now, then, or timelessly) be listening to some cantankerous medieval grammarian arguing endlessly for argument's sake about how many parts of speech there are in Latin.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, Oxford University.

Reflecting the Mind: Indexicality and Quasi-Indexicality

Author - Eros Corazza
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pages - 368
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 19 9018 X

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