Philosophical Problems With Pointing.

In Analytic philosophy there is a problem with using pointing as a reference in language acquisition.   In a quick and dirty summery, how do you know what is being pointed at?(I believe this is a variation of the ‘binding problem’ originally formulated as an objection to John Locke’s empiricism.)   So you point to a tree, and say “tree”.   How do I, the observer, know what was being pointed to?  Does ‘tree’ refer to the trunk?  The color? The texture?  The bark?  The shape?  Height, breadth, length? The action of pointing at this particular object?  Logically, there are an infinite number of objects and qualities that the pointing finger and the associated utterance could refer to.   This would seem to indicate that it is a logical impossibility for a non-speaker to acquire a language this way.

As I was discussing with a colleague the other day, this form of skepticism does not explain how we are actually point to things and “get it right”, so to speak about what is being pointed to.  Considering protodeclaritive behavior in babies, it seems that babies have no problem grasping the significance of pointing and gestures in the case of protoimperative.

Not to be too smug, It is worthy to note that an infant’s ability to follow someone’s gaze or pointing gesture seems to occur early enough in development to indicate that there may be a biological component operating here. (Piaget’s sensorimotor stage.)  If this is truly the case, then the philosopher can continue to affirm the philosophical problems of pointing, since the behavior isn’t being determined by logic, but by biological factors and hard-wiring.   Its an impossible task, but everyone does it because we’re built that way.

Just remember that the next time someone points at something and says, “Look at that!”    How can you ever learn the meaning of the word “that”?   You can point to anything and say “that”.   So how do you learn that “that” refers to none of these objects in particular, but to only “this” object right now?  There is no object called a “this” or “that”!

“Look at that!  Look at what?  That!  What? THAT!  What’s that?” :   Precisely my friends.  Precisely.

Stuart Walker


~ by havok43v3r on November 13, 2009.

2 Responses to “Philosophical Problems With Pointing.”

  1. perhaps the baby just assumes what ever you say means what they meant whether or not that is what you meant. But some things are obvious that they mean such as a baby pointing to a cookie. obviously the baby isn’t pointing to a chocolate chip usually.
    emily blackburn

  2. Btw the above was my 7th post.

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