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The Three Discussions

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The different types of discussions we have and how we can become confused about them.

In any given argument, you are either:

1. Talking about what different people want (an ethical discussion over competing values)

2. Talking about how people are defining terms (a discussion over language, in which the field of logic represents the formal attempt at clarifying our language so that we are not talking over each other. Within the context of this type of discussion, Wittgenstein is quite right that there are no philosophical problems, only language problems)


3. Talking about what the external facts in a situation are (an epistemological discussion concerning objective/external reality)

These areas bleed into each other. For example, every definition is itself a value assertion over how to break up and organize the external facts of reality, so people may actively seek to not be on the same page so as not to cede to their opponent's way of organizing. In turn, different values (desires) are often the result of different beliefs about the facts concerning external reality, which leads to an attempt to define things in different ways (although different values (desires) can also be the result of other things, such as how things relate in terms of power. If a fox eats a chicken, it is good for the fox and bad for the chicken. Their opposition is not reducible to a disagreement over the facts in the situation).

Nevertheless, being aware of the distinction between these different discussions helps us to avoid confusing one for the other. Values (desires) aren't reducible to facts--people may agree entirely about the facts and still want different things. Facts aren't reducible to values (desires)--wanting something to be the case doesn't necessarily make it so. And the words we use are not the same as external facts--words are contracts between people, and every single person that uses a word enters into a renegotiation concerning its connotations and denotations. Definitions by their nature cannot be true or false in the same way that external facts are--only more or less useful. At the same time, words are not merely based on the desires of any given individual, because their purpose is communication between individuals.
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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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