Quotation Marks

So most of this time I try to write things that are out in the public world, but this time I’m just going to try and give a flavor of a philosophical problem that’s occupying my mind.

The problem is quotation marks. How do they work? It seems ridiculous right, how could this be a philosophical problem? Its not, you know, like, deep, man.

It turns out that quotation marks and their usage is related to a huge number of the most vexing problems facing linguists right now.

So, there is a question of how language works, and it turns out to be very hard to answer. Most of the trouble starts by noticing some very fantastic things about natural languages, which is to say, languages that you could learn in school like English, German, Spanish, etc.

Natural languages are inconsistent, which is big trouble. They are so powerful that they can talk about themselves in certain ways. This ability to be self referential remarks makes english (and all natural languages) contradictory.

Take this sentence: This sentence is false. If the sentence is true, then the sentence if false, but if the sentence is false, it’s true. And it gets worse. If there is one contradiction that the language allows, then everything is provable, which invalidates the language as a useful one for proving things.

A brilliant approach to this problem was formulated by Alfred Tarski, who, the more I learn about him, is clearly one of the smartest human beings to ever live. His solution to this problem is to construct a “meta” language that can be used to talk about the “object” language (in this case english). The meta language works by providing translations of sentences of the object language, thus preventing paradoxes.

You get things like this

(1) “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.

or less confusingly (2) “Snow is white” is true if and only if Der Schnee ist Weiss.

The reason (1) is confusing is because English is being used as both the metalanguage and the object language, but in (2) German is the metalanguage. Notice that the word true only appears in the metalanguage whereas the sentence from the object language is in quotes.

So we see that quotes are important because it lets language talk about itself. I can say:

Boston has many people.

but I can’t say

“Boston” has many people.

I could however, say:

“Boston” has six letters.

But I could not say

Boston has six letters.

And all of these sentences work the way they do because quotations indicate that we are using language to talk about language. When we write: Boston is full of people, what we write is true because the word “Boston” refers to a place but ” “Boston” ” does not refer to a city but rather to a word, the word “Boston.” Confusing? You betcha. I have to write a paper about this soon…


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