On Language and the Meaning of Words
Thus far in these essays, I have argued from my metaphilosophy to my general philosophy of commensurablism, which is any philosophy that is neither dogmatic nor cynical, and neither transcendent nor relativist.
In this essay I will start to explore the implications of commensurablism on various specific subtopics of philosophy, beginning with the philosophy of language.
The philosophy of language is a central feature of one of the two major divisions of contemporary philosophy, the Analytic tradition, which is even named after its emphasis on philosophy being essentially about analysis of language. As elaborated already in my earlier metaphilosophy of Analytic Pragmatism, I view such linguistic analysis as one of the two major poles of the structure of philosophy – the other being the practical application of philosophy to our actions, which I will address in detail at the conclusion of these essays, but which will even now influence my account of the philosophy of language.
To briefly recap the arguments for the principles of commensurablism, within the bounds of which I am going to explore the philosophy of language in this essay:
- The task of philosophy is to find a way of discerning correct answers from incorrect answers to questions of any kind, whether about what is real or true or existent, or about what is moral or good or valuable.
- The position that there is such a thing as a correct opinion, in a sense beyond mere subjective agreement, is to be called "universalism", and its negation "relativism".
- If we assume relativism rather than universalism, then in case there does happen to be such a thing as the correct opinion after all, we will never find it, because we never even attempt to answer what it might be, and we will remain incorrect forever.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, rejecting relativism.
- The position that there is always a question as to which opinion, and whether or to what extent any opinion, is correct, is to be called "criticism", and its negation "dogmatism".
- If we assume dogmatism rather than criticism, then in case our opinions do happen to be incorrect after all, we will never find out, because we never question them, and we will remain incorrect forever.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume criticism, rejecting dogmatism.
- The position that the initial state of inquiry is one of several opinions competing as equal candidates, none either winning or losing out by default, but each remaining a live possibility until it is shown to be worse than the others, is to be called "liberalism", and its negation "cynicism".
- Liberalism is entailed by universalism: if we are going to hold that such a thing as a correct opinion is possible, we have to give every opinion the benefit of the doubt that that one might possibly be it, otherwise we would be forced to dismiss all opinions as equally incorrect out of hand.
- Therefore, since to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, rejecting relativism, we must likewise at least tacitly assume liberalism, rejecting cynicism.
- The position that any contest of opinion is to be settled by comparing and measuring the candidates against the common scale of the experiential phenomena accessible by everyone, and opinions that cannot be thus tested are thereby disqualified, is to be called "phenomenalism", and its negation "transcendentalism".
- Phenomenalism is entailed by criticism: if we are going to hold every opinion open to question, we have to consider only opinions that would make some experiential, phenomenal difference, where we could somehow tell if they were correct or incorrect.
- Therefore, since to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume criticism, rejecting dogmatism, we must likewise at least tacitly assume phenomenalism, rejecting transcendentalism.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, criticism, liberalism, and phenomenalism; rejecting relativism, dogmatism, cynicism, and transcendentalism.
To accord with those principles of commensurablism, a philosophy of language must avoid four main things:
- grounding the meaning of any claims in the attitudes of any particular privileged individual, so as to avoid dogmatism;
- reducing descriptive claims to prescriptive ones or vice versa, so as to avoid cynicism;
- grounding the truth of any claims in anything that is utterly beyond all experience, so as to avoid transcendentalism; or
- reducing any kind of claim to something that is not truth-apt at all, so as to avoid relativism.
This thus requires separate but equally truth-apt accounts of both descriptive and prescriptive claims, each in terms of experiential phenomena accessible to everyone.
My approach to satisfying these criteria hinges heavily on the concept of "speech-acts", as introduced by philosophers such as J.L. Austin and John Searle. A speech-act is simply something that you do by saying something. (To be clear, when I say "speech", "say", etc, throughout this essay, I don't mean only the making of noises with the human mouth, but any kind of linguistic communication, including writing, signing, etc).
The clearest examples to illustrate the concept are special cases, such as when spouses at a wedding say "I do" in response to the question of whether they take each other to be spouses: they are not merely giving a factual answer to a question of fact, they are performing the act of marrying each other, which is done by saying certain words in a certain context. Similarly, when a judge says that they sentence a defendant in court to some punishment, they are not just describing something about themselves, they are actively doing the thing by saying that they do it.
But beyond these special cases of ritual or ceremonial speech-acts, my philosophy of language hinges on how "merely" describing something is itself still doing something by speaking – describing is an action – and how speech can do many other things besides just describe, even outside of those iconic ritual or ceremonial cases that best demonstrate the concept of speech-acts. I hold that the meaning of all speech can be found by paying attention to what it is that someone is trying to do by uttering that speech.
I will break down several distinctions that I think are most important in categorizing what kinds of speech-acts different utterances are attempting to perform, completely leaving aside the iconic ritual or ceremonial speech-acts used to demonstrate the concept. All of these types are subcategories of the same broad category of speech-act: the communication of a mental state, what I broadly call an "opinion", from one person to another (or others).
On Statements and Questions
The first and perhaps most obvious of these distinctions is that of statements versus questions. This distinction is about the direction that opinions are being communicated between people. Roughly put, by statements I mean utterances that "push" an opinion from the speaker to the listener, whereas by questions I mean utterances that "pull" an opinion from the listener to the speaker. I feel like belaboring this distinction is probably unnecessary, as this is such a simple and fundamental concept that any native speaker simply must understand already: a statement communicates something from the speaker to someone else; a question requests that someone else communicate something to the speaker.
Nevertheless, this is the broadest distinction between types of actions one might do by speaking, and although in philosophy of language we are usually most concerned with the meaning of statements, I think it is important to highlight that for every speech-act of stating something, there is a corresponding speech-act that is instead questioning that same thing; even at this basic level of abstraction there are already different kinds of speech-acts to consider.
On Impression and Expression
A much more subtle and more important dichotomy is that between what I call "expression" and "impression". I think the best way to illustrate this distinction is to consider a philosophical problem called "Moore's Paradox", put forth by G.E. Moore. The paradox is that while it is clearly possible for someone to disbelieve something that is nevertheless true – all sorts of people hold incorrect beliefs all the time – there seems to be something contradictory in that person themselves stating that fact: "X is true but I don't believe X".
My resolution to this apparent paradox is to distinguish between the speech-acts of "expressing", which is a demonstration of one's own mental state, one's thoughts or feelings, and "impressing", which is attempting to affect a mental state in another person; and to highlight how, if we assume a speaker is being honest and not manipulative, we assume an impression from them upon ourselves to imply also an expression of their own opinions, and vice versa. That is to say, when they say that X is true, if we assume that they are honest, we take that to not only impress upon us that X is true, but to also express their own belief that X is true. (Unless they specifically limit themselves to one or the other by saying either "I believe that X is true" or "You! Believe that X is true!", which then casts doubt on whether or not they also mean the other, as a simple "X is true" would imply).
So if someone tells us that X is true, both impressing upon us that X is true and expressing their own belief that X is true, but then they also express disbelief that X is true, that contradicts the preceding expression of their belief. It is akin to shouting in a rage "I'M NOT ANGRY!". There is nothing self-contradictory in the content impressed, in either case – it's possible for someone to be non-angry, and it's possible for someone to disbelieve a truth – but just as the raged shouting expresses anger in contradiction to the claim of non-anger, the utterance "X is true" expresses belief in X, and so contradicts the attendant claim of disbelief.
The more common term "assertion" can, I think, be taken to be equivalent to my term "impression" here, but I like how the linguistic symmetry of "im-" and "ex-" illustrates the distinction: to "express" is literally to "push out", and one may imagine an illustration of expression as little arrows pointing out of the speaker; while to "impress" is literally to "push in", and one may imagine an illustration of impression as an arrow pointing into the listener.
Though I've spoken of impressions and expressions thus far only as they apply to statements, pushing thoughts from speaker to listener, the distinction can also be applied equally to questions, where an impressed question is a direct question figuratively pulling something straight from a listener, while an expressed question is a more open-ended wondering, a demonstration of the speaker's own uncertainty and openness to input should anyone have any to offer.
Sentences of the forms "I wonder if X." and "Is it true that X?" clearly illustrate the difference. Since questions "pull" rather than "push", we might continue the clear Latinate verbal illustration by terming the "is it true" type of question an "extraction", meaning literally "pulling-out" of the listener, and the "I wonder" type of question an "intraction" – not "inter-action", but "in-traction" – meaning literally "pulling-in" to the speaker.
The difference intended here is like the difference between billing someone for a service, versus putting out a hat so passers-by can donate what they like. The difference between impression and expression is likewise comparable to the difference between sending a product to someone directly, versus setting it out with a "free" or "take one" sign.
The difference between impression and expression is somewhat analogous to, but not literally the same as, the difference between the imperative and indicative linguistic moods, inasmuch as an impressive speech-act is effectively telling someone what to think (or in an impressive question, telling them to tell you something), while an expressive speech-act is effectively showing others what you think (or in an expressive question, showing your uncertainty).
However it is important to stress that I am not saying impressions are literally imperative and expressions are literally indicative, because I hold that the ordinary indicative type of statement that's generally held to be the plainest, most default kind of statement is itself a kind of impressive speech-act: saying "Bob throws the ball" impresses a belief in Bob throwing the ball, implicitly tells the listener to believe that Bob throws the ball, and so is kind of imperative-like in that way, but is still distinct from the literal imperative "Bob, throw the ball!".
Similarly, expressive speech-acts, while they are indicative-like in the manner that they communicate, can be more imperative-like in their contents, such as "I think Bob ought to throw the ball", without impressing that opinion on anyone, much less Bob himself. But, of course, we can also merely express indicative-like, descriptive opinions, ala "I think Bob throws the ball", and importantly, I hold that we can also impress imperative-like, prescriptive opinions, ala "Bob ought to throw the ball". Expression and impression are about how an opinion is delivered; it's a separate matter as to what the contents of that opinion are.
On Description and Prescription
This distinction between impression and expression becomes particularly important when we come around to the meaning of moral statements, where it allows me to distinguish my own novel position from the more common one called expressivism. Before I can elaborate on that, though, a little bit of recent philosophical history is in order.
One of the two main schools of contemporary western philosophy, the Analytic tradition, has its roots in a group of early 20th century philosophers called the Logical Positivists, whose work was largely focused around philosophy of language, and who generally found the function of philosophy itself to be all about clarifying language. (Hence the name of the Analytic tradition, being at least in its inception all about the analysis of language).
They promulgated what was called the verificationist theory of meaning, which held that, aside from the tautologically true (true-by-definition) statements of logic and mathematics, the meaning of all statements was to be found in the sensations or perceptions that they told you to expect (and that the truth of those statements thus hinged on the actual sensations or perceptions that followed successfully fulfilling those expectations, verifying the statement, hence the name of the theory).
The specific formulations of verificationism as put forth by the Logical Positivists themselves were fraught with problems, and verificationism as such was considered a failed theory even by most of its former advocates in the end. I will address some of those problems myself in my later essay on knowledge. But that core idea of the meaning of a statement being found in the sensations or perceptions it told you to expect has survived in successor theories (such as falsificationism) that have since overcome those faults, and I myself agree with it within the limited domain of specifically descriptive statements: statements uttered so as to perform the act of describing reality.
But, I hold, not all statements aim to perform that act: some statements instead aim not to describe, but to prescribe, and by being thusly different kinds of speech-acts, their meaning is different from descriptive speech-acts. The Logical Positivists themselves found their verificationism to raise the immediate question of what moral utterances mean. That question spawned a whole field of moral semantics, about the meaning of moral utterances, with many different positions on the question.
The oldest recorded accounts of the meaning of moral utterances actually long predate the formal invention of the field of moral semantics. One of the oldest philosophical arguments on record at all is between Socrates and an interlocutor named Euthyphro (after whom the dialogue is named), wherein Euthyphro puts forth an account of moral terms whereby what is good is equated to what is commanded by a god. This position is called Divine Command Theory. Though modified versions of this account still have some philosophical defenders today, and it is often tacitly assumed by many religious laypeople, it has been broadly rejected by most philosophers since at least the time of Socrates. I likewise reject it for reasons already laid out in my earlier essay against dogmatism.
The often-unspoken default assumption by many philosophers since then, as well as by many irreligious laypeople, is that to call something good is simply to identify that it has particular natural features that we've defined in our language as the referents of words like "good". This position is called Ethical Naturalism. But philosophers like David Hume and G.E. Moore have pointed out how, from a mere description of some natural features of a thing, we cannot ever conclude anything prescriptive about it. As Hume puts it, we cannot derive an "ought" from an "is"; and as Moore puts it, there always remains an open question as to whether the thing we're defining as the referent of words like "good" is actually good. I likewise reject this position for such reasons, as already laid out in my earlier essay against cynicism.
Moore's proposed solution to this problem was to conclude that as moral utterances cannot be reduced to descriptions of natural properties, they must therefore be describing non-natural properties, creating the theory called Ethical Non-Naturalism. But anyone who, like me, is committed to non-existence of any non-natural things, for reasons such as those as laid out in my earlier essay against transcendentalism, cannot accept such an appeal to non-natural things as an account of moral language.
Most of the Logical Positivists were likewise opposed to that, so much more popular among them and their philosophical descendents was another alternative, called expressivism, which instead holds, as I also do, that moral utterances are not only just not describing natural features of things, but they are not even attempts to describe reality at all. Expressivism instead holds that moral utterances are expressions of desires, akin to booing or cheering their nominally descriptive content; e.g. it takes an utterance like "killing is bad" to mean roughly "boo killing".
But although I agree with expressivists that moral utterances are not attempts to describe reality, I disagree with them about what moral utterances are trying to do instead, because their account renders morally utterances inapt to be true or false, and thus runs counter to my stance against relativism. The short form of what I propose instead is that that I hold moral utterances to not be expressing desires any more than descriptive utterances express perceptions. Rather, just as descriptive utterances impress beliefs, I would say that moral, prescriptive utterances impress intentions.
I've already elaborated on the difference between expression and impression above, but to elaborate on this difference between desires and intentions, and the analogous difference between perceptions and beliefs, a little bit more philosophical history is called for. In the field of moral psychology, there has been debate over the nature of what are called "moral beliefs", which we can say are more or less the mental states communicated, in one way or another, by moral utterances. The two main sides of that debate are the Humeans, after David Hume, and the Kantians, after Immanuel Kant.
The Humeans hold that beliefs, properly speaking, that is to say cognitive states of mind that can possibly be true or false, are either about definitional relations of ideas to each other (as in logic and mathematics), or else about expectations of sensations or perceptions, and that everything else is mere sentiment or emotion. They say, in what is called the "argument from queerness", that a "moral belief" would be a very strange thing, asking exactly what difference we would be to expect in our perception of reality if we held some "moral belief" instead of another. Finding no answer to that question apparent, they conclude that there actually are no such things as moral beliefs, only sentiments, emotions, feelings, specifically desires for things to be one way and not another.
Kantians, on the other hand, bite the bullet of the argument from queerness, and affirm that there are such things as moral beliefs, that are capable of being true or false.
The analogous relation between this dichotomy and the dichotomy of expressivism versus more traditional views of moral semantics (called moral realism) should be obvious here, I hope. I find this Humeanism vs Kantianism to be a false dichotomy, and moral expressivism vs moral realism to be a false dichotomy as well. I think, like the Humean, that there are no such things as "moral beliefs" per se, and that moral utterances do not have any meaning to be found in some description of reality; but I also think, like the Kantian, that moral utterances do much more than just express desires incapable of being correct or incorrect. My position is not even that moral utterances impress desires, because I hold that desires are not the only mental state besides beliefs, and that beliefs are not the only cognitive mental states either, capable of being correct or incorrect.
I use the term "opinion" to name the overarching category of mental states I am going to subdivide here, and I analyze an opinion as something I term an "attitude" toward something I term an "idea". The idea component of an opinion can be thought of as a mental picture of some possible, imaginable state of affairs, though it doesn't have to be literally visual: it is just the state of affairs that the opinion is about. But one can have different positions on different kinds of opinions about the same thing, and those different kinds of opinions about the same thing are what I mean by attitudes.
On Direction of Fit
One important difference in attitude toward an idea is sometimes called "direction of fit", in reference to terms like "mind-to-world fit" or "word-to-world fit", and "world-to-mind fit" or "world-to-word fit"; I prefer to say "idea-to-world" and "world-to-idea" to avoid overloading the terms "mind" and "word" elsewhere in my philosophy. In an "idea-to-world fit", the idea is meant to fit the world, in that if the two don't fit (if the idea differs from the world), then the idea is meant to be changed to fit the world better, because the idea is being employed as a representation of the world. In a "world-to-idea fit", on the other hand, the world is meant to fit the idea, in that if the two don't fit (if the world differs from the idea), the world is meant to be changed to fit the idea better, because the idea is being employed as a guide for the world.
(The ceremonial kind of speech acts described at the start of this essay are assertions with what is called a double direction of fit, where the uttering of the assertion representing the world to be some way itself changes the world to match that representation).
It is the difference between a picture drawn as a representation of something that already exists, and a picture drawn as a blueprint of something that is to be brought into existence: it may be the same picture, but its intended purpose changes the criteria by which we judge it, and whether we judge the picture, or the thing it is a picture of, to be in error, should they not match.
The clearest example of this difference in attitude that I can think of is that, given the idea of a world where some people kill other people, I expect most will agree that that idea is "right" (not "wrong") in the sense that they agree with it as a description (most people, I expect, will agree that the world really is like that, and an idea of the world that doesn't feature such a thing is descriptively wrong), but simultaneously that it is "wrong" (not "right") in the sense that they will disagree with it as a prescription (most people, I expect, will agree that the world morally oughtn't be like that – whatever "morally oughtn't" means to them, which we're getting to – and that a world that features such a thing is prescriptively wrong).
Same idea, two different attitudes toward it: the world is that way, yes; but no, it oughtn't be that way. Two different opinions, but about the exact same thing, different not in the idea that they are about, but in the attitude toward that idea and its relationship to the world.
But it is not the case, on this account, that descriptive opinions (ideas meant to fit the world) are thereby universal or objective (in that they come from the world, which is the object of our experiences), while prescriptive opinions (ideas that the world is meant to fit) are relative or subjective (in that they come from ourselves, who are the subjects of our experiences). Rather, direction of fit on my account is about the role of these different descriptive and prescriptive opinions play in our overall function from our experiences to our behavior, in such a way that they are both capable of being objective, in the sense of universally correct or incorrect, without bias toward any particular subject.
As will be elaborated in later essays, I hold that we do not have direct access to the whole of the world, either access of our awareness (most of what we are aware, we are only indirectly aware) or access of our control (most of what we can control, we can only indirectly control). All we have access to is our interactions with the world, what it does to us and what we do to it.
Being interactions between ourselves and the world, all our experiences are about both ourselves and the world. Some experiences tell us about how things "look" (descriptively, as in sight, sound, etc) to beings like us in certain circumstances, while others tell us about how things "feel" (prescriptively, as in pleasure, pain, etc) to beings like us in certain circumstances. Direction of fit, on my account, is more between those self-regarding and world-regarding aspects of our experiences, internal to the experiences themselves, than directly between our ideas and the external world.
To most beings – the inanimate and otherwise non-sentient objects that are most of the world – the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of their interaction with the world are completely intermixed: the world does something to a thing, and that immediately prompts it to do something in response. Sentient beings, on the other hand, differentiate our experiences into those two types just described above, the former to be used to build a descriptive picture (a depiction of the world as it is), and the latter used to build a prescriptive picture (a blueprint for how the world ought to be). We then behave in such a way as to bridge the difference between the two images we've constructed: to change things from the descriptive idea to the prescriptive idea.
The two types of opinion, the differences between their directions of fit, can thus be defined in terms of their role in driving our behavior: one is the "from" side of the changes we aim to make through our behavior, and the other is the "to" side. And just as both types of opinion drive our behavior, both are likewise informed by our experiences, and so equally capable of approaching universality by accounting for ever more and more experiences.
On Order of Opinion
Direction of fit alone isn't enough to account for what I mean by "intention" as distinct from "desire", which both have the same direction of fit, world-to-idea. To explain that, I need to first elaborate on differences in attitude between opinions with the same idea-to-world fit:
- More fundamental than opinions are experiences, and experiences with idea-to-world fit are called "sensations". These are the raw input from our senses, free from any interpretation: the contents of a sensation are colors of light, pitches of sound, and so on, not yet shapes or words.
- In contrast, the simplest opinions with idea-to-world fit, first-order or irreflexive opinions of that type, are called "perceptions". These are interpretations of that raw sense-data into more abstract representations, but still of the same idea. (An analogy can be made here between raster and vector computer graphics formats, where a raster format stores an array of colored pixels and any shapes that appear in them are merely inferred by human viewers out of the patterns in those pixels; while a vector format stores abstract representations of exact shapes directly, which can then be rendered as arrays of pixels for display. The human viewer senses something like the array of pixels with their eyes, but then in perceiving shapes in the image, they are essentially "vectorizing" the image in their own mind).
- Further still, higher-order or reflexive opinions with idea-to-world fit are called "beliefs", and I hold that the distinguishing feature of beliefs is that they "objectify" what have thus far been completely subjective opinions, because they are reflexive in attitude, being capable of casting judgement on other opinions with the same content: one can disbelieve one's perceptions, or judge someone else's perception to be wrong as well. A belief is a perception that has been questioned (however thoroughly) and found (however correctly) to be the correct interpretation of sensations, the correct picture to use as a representation of the world, the correct opinion with idea-to-world fit.
I hold that there are analogues to all of those, but with world-to-idea fit instead:
- I call experiences with world-to-idea fit "appetites". These are composed of the raw inputs of things like pain, hunger, thirst, and so on. While sensations are the experiences that make us feel, on a raw unexamined level, like the world is some way, appetites are those experiences that make us feel, on a raw unexamined level, like the world ought to be some way. I visualize this as building two images, two ideas, in our minds: one of them a picture of the world as it is, meant to serve as a representation of the world, meant to fit the world; and the other of them a picture of the world as it ought to be, meant to serve as a guide for the world, meant for the world to fit. Sensations are those experiences that feed into that first picture, and appetites are those experiences that feed into that second picture.
- In contrast to those uninterpreted appetites, the simplest opinions with world-to-idea fit, first-order or irreflexive opinions of that type, are called "desires", like the expressivists and Humeans are all about, which I hold to differ from appetites in the same way that perceptions differ from sensations: desires are interpretations of appetites, and while an appetite may have as its content the feeling of, for example, hunger pains, the desire that is interpreted from that will have as its content instead, for example, to eat a burrito; just as sensations may contain patterns of light while perceptions instead contain shapes.
- And lastly, higher-order or reflexive opinions with world-to-idea fit I call "intentions", and I hold that the distinguishing feature of intentions is that they "objectify" what have thus far been completely subjective opinions, because they are reflexive in attitude, being capable of casting judgement on other opinions with the same content: one can intend other than what one desires, or judge someone else's desires to be wrong as well. An intention is a desire that has been questioned (however thoroughly) and found (however correctly) to be the correct interpretation of appetites, the correct picture to use as a guide for the world, the correct opinion with world-to-idea fit.
It is that reflexivity of attitude that I hold to make an opinion cognitive, apt for being found universally correct or not, though as they differ in the purposes to which they put their ideas, they differ in the criteria by which they are to be judged correct or incorrect: beliefs are to be judged by appeal to the senses, everyone's senses in all circumstances if they are to be judged universally, and intentions are to be judged by appeal to the appetites, everyone's appetites in all circumstances if they are to be judged universally. Intentions are cognitive but non-descriptive opinions; in the same way that perceptions are descriptive but non-cognitive opinions.
I like to term cognitive opinions like beliefs and intentions "thoughts", and non-cognitive ones like perceptions and desires "feelings". So when I say that I hold prescriptive statements, moral utterances, to impress intentions rather than to express desires, I mean that they are not simply demonstrating the speaker's present feelings about how things ought to be, any more than descriptive statements are simply demonstrating the speaker's present feelings about how things are. They are instead pushing a considered thought about how everyone should think things ought to be, in the same way that descriptive statements are pushing a considered thought about how everyone should think things are.
On Indicative and Imperative Moods
Another way to think of my concept of prescriptive statements impressing intentions is to consider the speech-act of uttering a command. There is a position on moral semantics called universal prescriptivism, advocated by R.M. Hare, that holds that moral utterances are actually imperatives, or commands, that are universalizable, which is to say that whoever utters that command is committed to doing the same in any relevantly similar circumstance. That is the closest well-known position on moral semantics to my own, but my position differs in that I do not say that prescriptive statements are a kind of imperative, but rather, that imperatives are a kind of prescriptive statement.
The usual, broad kind of moral declarations are not imperatives in the usual sense, on my account, but narrow moral injunctions to specific people are equivalent to imperatives, and so broad moral declarations are a kind of abstraction from imperatives. "Bob, you ought to throw the ball" is equivalent, on my account, to "Bob, throw the ball!"; but "Bob ought to throw the ball", uttered to someone besides Bob, is not quite an imperative, though it has the same substantive content (that Bob ought to throw the ball); and "the ball ought to be thrown", in the passive voice, is clearly not an imperative because there is no subject of the action to be the recipient of the command.
An exhortative statement of "(let) the ball be thrown!" is a better translation, ala the idiom "(let) the saints be praised!", which is not a command to the saints to get praised, but an exhortation for someone, anyone, everyone, to praise the saints. As "be" is the imperative form of the verb "is", I do think it is fitting, if a bit unnatural-sounding to the modern ear, to write prescriptive statements by substituting "be" for "is" in descriptive sentences, effectively forming an archaic-sounding exhortation, e.g. turning the descriptive sentence "Bob is throwing the ball" into "(let) Bob be throwing the ball", prescribing the described state of affairs; and when that utterance is directed at Bob himself, without the optional "let", it forms an oddly-phrased imperative, ordering Bob to "be throwing", i.e. to throw, the ball.
In this way, imperatives can be seen as a narrower subtype of the broader kind of prescriptive speech-act that I hold moral statements to constitute.
Imperatives, of course, are not capable of being true or false in the same way that descriptive assertions are, but that does not make them incapable of being judged universally right or wrong in their own different way. Imperatives, or commands, and by extension the broader prescriptive statements that are abstractions of them, are not aiming to represent the world, so truth or falsehood in the sense of accurate representation do not apply to them.
Instead, they aim to guide the world, so what instead applies to them is goodness or badness. A moral utterance, communication of a so-called "moral belief", is on my account an impression of an intention, which is equivalent to a kind of command or an abstraction thereof, inasmuch as it is speech made for the purpose of getting someone to intend to do something, and its meaning is thus that that is something that ought to be done, something good; and a "true", correct, moral utterance is consequently equivalent, on my account, to a good command, or abstraction thereof.
A "yes" response to an indicative statement affirms that the listener agrees with it, believes what is claimed; while a "yes" response to an imperative statement affirms that the listener agrees to it, intends what is commanded; and "no" responses inversely for each, signalling that the belief or intention meant to be impressed has been rejected rather than accepted. Just as a descriptive statement is true if the belief it impresses is the correct thing to believe, so too a prescriptive statement is true if the intention it impresses is the correct thing to intend. How exactly to judge what beliefs or intentions are correct will be explored further in my later essays on knowledge and on justice, respectively.
On Embedding Problems
The major usual objection to views of moral semantics like this, that treat moral claims as something other than "ordinary" descriptive claims, is that on such an account, a non-descriptive sentence – being presumed to also be a non-cognitive one, and so incapable of being true or false – cannot straightforwardly be embedded in contexts where a descriptive sentence could be, such as a conditional (an "if... then..." sentence). This is called the embedding problem, or the Frege-Geach problem, after Peter Geach who developed it out of the work of Gottlob Frege.
For example, if "it is wrong to murder" means something like "don't murder", then the sentence "if it is wrong to murder, then it is wrong to murder Bob" would have to be rendered something like "if don't murder then don't murder Bob", which is grammatical nonsense. The consequent of that conditional could easily be rendered as an imperative, something like "if it is wrong to murder, then don't murder Bob". But because we cannot substitute "don't murder" for "it is wrong to murder" in the antecedent, it seems that we cannot generally account for all instances of "it is wrong to..." with "don't...", or likewise other moral claims with imperatives. (And likewise exhortatives: "if let nobody murder, then let nobody murder Bob" is equally nonsense.)
My solution to the embedding problem is that it is not the clauses embedded within the conditional that need to be understood as something like an imperative or an exhortative, but rather, it is the entire conditional sentence. "If it is wrong to murder, then it is wrong to murder Bob" would mean, on my account, something like "let it be the case that if nobody murders then nobody murders Bob", which makes perfect grammatical sense.
This also solves another problem in the field of deontic logic, the logic of moral or prescriptive language. That problem is called the paradox of gentle murder, or Forrester's paradox, after its inventor James William Forrester. The paradox is that if we took the sentence "if you murder, you ought to murder gently" to be true, which would seem to many people a plausible thing to do, ordinary logic would supposedly suggest the absurd conclusion that anytime anyone was in fact gently murdered, not only was it morally permissible, but it was morally obligatory to murder them, and to do so gently.
The reason for this apparent absurdity is that the antecedent of that conditional is a descriptive sentence, "you murder", and the consequent is a prescriptive one, "you ought to murder gently". It would then follow that whenever the antecedent was true, and in fact you did murder, then the consequent was true, and you ought to have murdered, so long as you did so gently.
My solution to the embedding problem also resolves this paradox, in that on my account it is the entire conditional sentence that should be taken as prescriptive, and understood as "it ought to be the case that if you murder, you murder gently", which is logically equivalent to "it ought to be the case that either you murder gently or you don't murder at all". That does strictly, all by itself, leave open the possibility that you ought to murder gently. But if, as we normally would, we hold it is true that you ought not murder, then my interpretation of the problematic sentence remains true: either you ought to murder gently or you ought to not murder at all, and since you ought to not murder at all, that disjunction is true.
I am aware of only two philosophers who have held a view of moral semantics like mine, Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons, who co-authored a paper on a view nearly identical to this in its core features. They also called their view a kind of "non-descriptive cognitivism", were similarly inspired by the work of R.M. Hare as I was, and offered a nearly identical response to the embedding problem as I have.
In addition to the descriptive and prescriptive types of claims that most of this essay has been about, and the ceremonial kinds of speech-acts that I've only briefly glossed past, there are also some kinds of claims that are neither quite descriptive nor prescriptive, at least in the empirical and hedonic senses discussed thus far, but are still closely related to them. The most central of these are philosophical claims, which as discussed in my earlier essay on metaphilosophy are neither in the business of saying what in particular is real nor what in particular is moral, but rather are claims about what we mean in asking questions about those things, and how to go about answering them.
Failing to make that distinction is another of the major common criticisms of verificationism as a complete theory of meaning, because on a verificationist account, the claims of verificationism itself – being philosophical claims, not empirical ones – are literally meaningless. Distinguishing such philosophical claims from either empirically grounded descriptions or hedonistically grounded prescriptions, just as in the aforementioned essay on metaphilosophy I distinguish philosophy itself from either empirical physical sciences or hedonistic ethical sciences, salvages my account of meaning from similar such critiques.
I ground such philosophical claims, instead, on a combination of two other types of claim that are closely related, respectively, to descriptive and prescriptive claims, but still subtly distinct from them. Those two other types of claim are logical or mathematical claims (as already exempted even by verificationists), and aesthetic claims, respectively; and they combine to create the meaning of philosophical claims in the same way that logic and mathematics combine with rhetoric and the arts to produce the methods of philosophy itself, as described in my metaphilosophy again.
There is much more to be said about those other two types of claims, and their relations to reality and morality, respectively. Over the next two essays I will go over many of those details, one focusing further on the validity of the structure of the content of speech-acts, as in logic and mathematics; and another focusing on the effectiveness of the style, presentation, and delivery of them, as in rhetoric and the arts.
Continue to the next essay, On Rhetoric and the Arts.