Monday, December 06, 2004

From the Mail: Latin and the Use/Mention Distinction

Dear Dr. Vallicella,

While I don't know Latin, I can see the point getting the declension right when modifying or "inventing" Latin expressions. But I don't think it reasonable to require a change of declension when inserting a Latin nominative in a non-nominative position. The expression "ens realissimum" is merely being quoted in an English sentence, which has its own grammar and its own way to indicate case, namely position. Maybe it's me, but I see that Latin expression between quotes, even if the quotes are not there.

BV: Philosophers and linguists distinguish between using an expression and mentioning it. Compare:

1. Boston is disyllabic


2. Boston is a city in Massachusetts.

(1) is false, indeed necessarily false, since it makes no sense -- it is a category mistake -- to raise questions about how many syllables a city has. A city is not the kind of thing that could have syllables. Words, not cities, have syllables. (2), however, is true. In both (1) and (2), the word 'Boston' is being used, as opposed to being mentioned. Now consider

3. 'Boston' is disyllabic.

(3) is true: the inverted commas surrounding the subject term indicate that said term is being mentioned, not used. (3) is about a word, not a city. To be precise, (3) is about a word-type as opposed to a word-token. But I won't go into the type/token distinction here. Now suppose a philosopher asserts

4. The ens realissimum is identical to the ens perfectissimum.

In (4), both Latin words are being used, not mentioned or quoted. The sentence is not about those Latin expressions, but about the entities denoted by the expressions. The purpose of the italicization is to signal that the expressions are foreign, not that they are being mentioned or quoted.

So I don't agree with the reason you gave for your first point. That is not to say that I disagree with your point.

If you insist that "ens realissimum" should only be used in nominative position, what about Latin names?

BV: I didn't insist on that, I merely raised it as a question -- an admittedly pedantic question of interest only to the linguistically fastidious. But I would strenuously deny that the use/mention distinction is a piece of pedantry. Serious philosophical errors can arise when words and their referents are confused.

Should "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" be changed to "Render therefore to Caesari the things that are Caesari"? (not sure if the declensions are correct, but you get the idea).

BV: You are close. It would be: 'Render therefore unto Caesari the things that are Caesaris, and to Deo that are Dei.' Mark 12, 17 reads in my Biblia Vulgata: Reddite igitur quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari; et quae sunt Deo, Dei.

But note that 'Caesar' is a word both of Latin and of English: it has been adopted into the English language. That mitigates the sting of your point.

Nevertheless, I take your point. The only reason I brought up the issue was because when Kant employs the Latin terminology of the Wolffean school of rationalism in which he was steeped, he changes the Latin expressions from the nominative to the appropriate case. Thus he writes (translating his German into English), "The unity of a compositi is always only a contingent unity of combination." (Lectures on Philosophical Theology, pp. 70-71.) He does not write, "The unity of a compositum . . . ."

One objection one could make is that Kant's practice involves redundancy. Compositi, as genitive singular, means of a composite. Thus his sentence appears to amount to: "The unity of a of a composite . . . ." Compare: 'The hoi polloi would not be interested in this discussion.'
Isn't 'the' redundant?

Let me point out that I use inverted commas (single 'quotation' marks) when I am mentioning an expression, or sneering, or using an expression in an extended or inappropriate way -- as I just did within the last parenthesis -- and what are properly called quotation marks (double quotation marks) when I am quoting an actual person. An actual person is either a person presently alive or a dead person. The modal term 'actual' contrasts with 'possible,' not with such temporal terms as 'present' and 'future.'

I take the opportunity to suggest that you take a look at the website of Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian "maverick philosopher".

BV: Great! We need more maverick philosophers.

Some of his texts have been translated into English and are available here:

Unfortunately most of these articles are more about politics than philosophy, and the quality of the translations could be better.

Oh, and thanks for your blog.

Rafael Caetano

BV: You are very welcome. Thanks for writing and for the link. I took a quick look and I know I will be back for more.