Description and specification

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There is a distinction to be made between having knowledge of X and knowledge about X. The former proceeds from comprehension, the latter from description. Consider the following phrases:

  1. Jocelyn has curly hair.
  2. Jocelyn, my neighbour, has curly hair.
  3. Jocelyn, my next door neighbour and colleague, has curly hair.

Phrase 1, P1, can correspond to a state of affairs, or not; it may be true or false, thus, it may denote something or nothing. P1 as presented amounts to a claim on truthfulness, so that “It is true that Jocelyn has curly hair“. On the face of it, reference is made to a definite “Joselyn”, although its specificity remains obscure, since the name “Joselyn” is not necessarily exclusive to a unique entity. Then, should the correspondence of P1 to a state of affairs be true, the information conveyed amounts to knowledge about the fact that P1 is true” or else It is true Jocelyn has curly hair is true“.

In spite of having attained knowledge about a state of affairs — about its surface aspects —, the substantive aspects of “Jocelyn” and its properties remain largely unknown. At first, “Jocelyn” may be the name of a human, yet it might as well be that of a pet, say, a dog. Secondly, we only have proximate acquaintance with the enumerated properties of “Jocelyn”, namely “curly hair”, for we may only assume what these actually are. The linguistic terms in use might indeed be found in the milieu of everyday language and their intended meaning may be enforced by intersubjective norms and social institutions. Even so, this in itself is no firm foundation on which to establish with certainty that the properties characteristic of “Jocelyn” are indeed whatever is contained in the ordinary meaning of the applicable linguistic terms.

The tension can become more evident when the words themselves are not familiar or when they constitute a concept or set thereof that is unidentifiable at the outset, such as when they acquire a peculiar meaning in a certain context, as they do, for example, in scientific parlance. We may indeed recognise the need to be inquisitive beyond the familiarity of appearances when presented with a phrase such as “The filamentous biomaterial that grows from follicles found in the dermis of Jocelyn is curly” (scientific jargon found on wikipedia). Though one may venture to penetrate the hermeneutic patina of P1, the phrase in and of itself will not provide grounds for certainty but, at the very best, for justified beliefs on the likeliest of possible conditions applicable.

The degree of ambiguity peculiar to P1 — the low specificity value it exhibits — prevents us from unequivocally affirming that it can be analysable from “P1 is true” or its equivalent “It is true that Jocelyn has curly hair is true” to something more descriptive such as e.g. It is true that Jocelyn is human and it is true Jocelyn has curly hair is true”. Given that we cannot proceed from certainty to postulate the truthfulness of the latter, we might instead opt to concede the possibility of such reformulation being valid in its correspondence to a state of affairs, so that “P1 is sometimes true“.

The same approach is to be adopted for phrases 2 and 3, P2 and P3 respectively. For the sake of brevity, the reader need not be subjected to a tedious repetition of the aforementioned, but only be provided with the elements of analysis that are new and whose consideration can offer further insight into the matter.

With regard to P2, the degree of specificity relative to P1 is to be treated as higher due to the presence of the explanatory statement “my neighbour”. The latter can only signify a human if P2 is stated by a human and if the word “neighbour” is interpreted in its literal sense. With the operation of the explanatory element and always assuming correspondence to a state of affairs, two propositions are implied beyond “P2 is true“: (i) “It is true that Jocelyn is human” and (ii) “It is true that Joselyn is my neighbour“.

Yet there is a possibility, even a remote one, that the term “neighbour” in P2 is used metaphorically or in some other idiosyncratic sense. Whether that is indeed the case or not is not pertinent to the current example. What is our intention is to rather admit the possibility of things being different and, most importantly, to adapt to that scenario by incorporating a dialectical restraint in our logical analysis of the phrase. The ramifications on the implicit propositions of P2 would then be two-fold: (a) “It is true that Jocelyn is human is sometimes true” and (b) “It is true that Jocelyn is my neighbour is sometimes true“. A reformulation of “P2 is sometimes true” would then stand for “It is true that Jocelyn is human and it is true that Jocelyn is my neighbour and it is true that Jocelyn has curly hair is sometimes true“.

P2 is thus to be considered a more descriptive and specific phrase than P1, for it provides more solid grounds for holding justified opinions on the implicit propositions therein. However, it still leaves a relatively broad scope of interpretation in the definition of “Jocelyn”, for even though it is communicated that they are the neighbour of the one presenting P2 it is not clear whether this status is one of exclusivity or not. It might be the case that there are several entities who can qualify for the description contained in P2, suggesting a need to maintain an aporetic approach in our examination of it.

Proceeding to P3 two additional descriptive elements are introduced, namely “my colleague” and “next door neighbour”. These two statements, when functioning in tandem, contribute to the further specification of the entity “Joselyn”. They allow us to exclude all possible candidates for “Jocelyn” that do not partake of all the particularities entailed in P3. They do, in other words, provide certain conditions for exclusivity that can be used as benchmarks with which to assess and ultimately draw clear delineations between valid and invalid cases applicable to P3. It thus becomes more likely, if not certain that “Jocelyn” is a human, that this very “Jocelyn” is the colleague of the one stating P3 and that they do stay in the next-door residence from the subject. Consequently, and assuming correspondence of P3 to a state of affairs, we have:

  • P3 is true
  • It is true that Jocelyn, my next door neighbour and colleague, has curly hair is true
  • It is true that Jocelyn is human and it is true that Jocelyn is my next door neighbour and it is true that Jocelyn is my colleague and it is true that Jocelyn has curly hair is true
  • It is true that Jocelyn is human and it is true that Jocelyn is my next door neighbour and _it is true that Jocelyn is my colleague and it is true that Jocelyn has curly hair and it is true that all this is germane to Jocelyn is sometimes true_“

The last formulation of P3 suggests that while there may be very good reasons to justify assumptions on the uniqueness/exclusivity of “Jocelyn”, they will still not reveal any universal, necessary and sufficient conditions for truth; a truth that holds in all possible states of affairs. The additional factors of specification peculiar to P3 which were not found in P1 or P2, do foster a degree of certainty that facilitates daily communication or context-specific statements underpinned by knowledge of the same status, though they do not provide the kind of precision and clarity necessary for grasping the abstract, transcendental structure of reality.

All phrases here examined, P1P2P3, differ in their descriptiveness and specificity, ranging from more vague/accurate to less vague/accurate. Their commonality consists in their epistemic value, where they all convey knowledge about a certain state of affairs, inasmuch as they are indeed corresponding to it — _inasmuch as they are true _that is. Should they be true, they would be describing an instance of reality, which implies that our understanding of them would furnish an understanding of that specific case. To that end, description and specification can engender an awareness of the factors that interoperate to deliver such an outcome, and, furthermore, they can contribute to clarifying the concepts drawn out of them, while also potentially improving the precision of any statement to be issued thenceforth.

In logical analysis, we find that it is a matter of studious scrutiny to identify the descriptiveness and specificity of propositions in order to gauge their accuracy in documenting states of affairs. By doing so, we reduce or eliminate the factors that contribute to the obscurity of the subject matter, permitting us to proceed from its indirect description to its direct comprehension — from our knowledge about it to our knowledge of it. For epistemology and metaphysics, this means to appreciate the epistemic value entailed in each proposition and the relation it has to the eternal aspects of reality.

To be continued…

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Protesilaos Stavrou

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