The Lexical Fallacy
I’m working on a review of Bryan Van Norden’s book, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. There is a very interesting discussion in his Introduction about what he calls “the lexical fallacy,” a fallacy that he notes was first pointed out to him by Kwong-loi Shun, in conversation.
Van Norden quotes Henry Rosemont (from “Against Relativism” (1988 ) in Larson and Deutsch’s Interpreting Across Boundaries), who actually formulates and uses the lexical principle that Bryan asserts to be fallacious. Let’s call it ‘L’:
(L) “…the only way it can be maintained that a particular concept was held by an author is to find a term expressing that concept in his text. Thus we cannot say so-and-so had a ‘theory of X,’ or that he ‘espoused X principles,’ if there is no X in the lexicon of the language in which the author wrote.” (Rosemont p. 41, footnote 11).
Maybe there is something fallacious about the principle. But Van Norden’s argument for its fallaciousness seems to rely solely on apparent counterexamples. Here they are (all from Van Norden p. 22)–I’ll number them so we can refer to them in discussion:
(C1) “…it seems clear that Anaximander and Anaximenes were doing philosophy, had views about philosophy, and (in some sense) had the concept of philosophy, even though both lived before the Greek term for philosophy, ‘philosophia,’ was coined by the Pythagoreans.”
(C2) “…Aristotle claims that there are ‘unnamed virtues,’ by which he means virtues that he has a concept for but which do not have names in Greek.”
(C3) “…outside of crossword puzzle fans and those in the shoelace industry, almost no English speakers know the word ‘aglet.’ However, I submit that almost all English speakers have the concept of ‘the plastic or metal tip on the end of a shoelace.’
The principle is fallacious, Van Norden further clarifies, because it requires one-to-one lexical correspondence (pp. 22-23): “A slightly different kind of case that illustrates why the lexical fallacy is a fallacy is that of someone who has no one word for a concept because she has several words for one concept.” Bryan asks:
(Q1) “Do we speakers of English not have the concept that corresponds to the contemporary Chinese ‘wo 我’ because we use two different words that translate it in different contexts: ‘I’ and ‘me’?”
(Q2) “Do speakers of contemporary Chinese not have the concept of ‘million’ because they have to use a phrase to express it rather than one lexical item (‘bai wan 百萬,’ literally ‘hundred ten-thousands’)?
I have a few questions that I hope we can discuss here.
First, what do we think of these counterexamples? Are they obvious?
Second, what would be the reason, or argument, that explains why L is fallacious and therefore why C1-C3 are counterexamples to L?
Third, is L something of a “straw man”? Is there some more plausible lexical principle that Rosemont should be after, for his purpose (which I assume is to invite a skeptical attitude toward projects like Bryan’s that take there to be in China theories of virtue or of human rights or whatever despite, let’s suppose, there being no clear “one-to-one” translatable Chinese term). Maybe there is some lexical principle like L that does not require one-to-one lexical correspondence but instead some other lexical correspondence?
Lot’s of questions. Please feel free to comment in any sort of way…
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