Schlick’s Chair

I just stumbled across the following passage from Moritz Schlick’s “Form and Content” (1932):

I might use a chair in my room, for instance, as a means of saying anything I like. All I need to do is to select a number of different positions of the chair in the room and agree that each one shall correspond to a letter of the alphabet. By this agreement I shall have constructed a new language which will consist in changing the position of the chair; and by moving it about in the room I shall be able to express all the plays of Shakespeare with the same perfection as the best of the printed editions. (p. 288)

It is quite amusing to picture Schlick wildly moving his chair around his office to “read”, say, a passage from Macbeth. I wonder whether Carnap would have stayed and “listened”. On a more serious note, though, Schlick seems to be quite wrong when he says that he has created a new language. But what has he done? In a way, I guess, he has created, not a new language, but merely a new set of letters. His chair’s standing in the relevant position stands to the letter A as, e.g., “A”, “A” and “A” stand to it.

Posted by Miguel.

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5 comments

  1. Nice picture and nice quotation. I think you are right about Schlick’s not having created a new language. I am not sure, however, about the rest of your remark. You say that

    (i) Schlick has created new letters, and

    (ii) these new letters stand to the letter A in the relation in which “A” and “A” stand to it.

    (I use bold and italic letters simply because I don’t know how to change the font; take the letters as substitutes for the signs you used.)
    Now I doubt that you can have both points.
    Take (ii) again; in which relation stand “A” and “A” to the letter A? It seems to me that two answers are possible: either “they” just are the letter A (if you refer to the types of letter that you present in quotation marks), or they are tokens of that letter (if you refer to the inscriptions you presented). In any case, they are not letters that are different from the latter A.
    But new letters (which Schlick created according to your first point) will be letters that are different from the letter A. So, there seems to be a tension between points (i) and (ii). Or am I wrong?

  2. Yeah, you are right. Originally I was going to write that Schlick created a new font. But I was unsure about the proper use of “font” in English… Probably typeface is the right thing to say. Anyway, what I wanted to say was that Schlick brought something into existence that is (roughly) on one level with Arial, Times etc.

  3. Fine.
    Another question: can just about anything be an instance of the letter A? can there be fonts which include the letter A, while this letter looks in that font like the picture of a giant opossum jumping off an airplane?
    I would have thought that any inscription of the letter A must look somewhat like the following: A. (Of course, the “somewhat” is very vague, but comparisons of similarity are always very vague.) Admittedly, I am not absolutely sure about it. But it sounds strange to me that a chair in a certain position could be a token of the letter A. But this has to possible, it seems, if Schlick would have created a new font by formulating the rules about the chair.
    Here is an alternative description of what Schlick did: he did create new letters. But the letters are systematically related to the letters of the English/German alphabet (there is a translation manual which maps Schlick’s letters on the latter letters). Compare the following: “αδορε” is not composed of letters that belong to the English alphabet. Yet, we can read the word aloud as “adore”, because we learned to map the letter Alpha on the letter A, the letter Delta on the letter D, etc.
    What do you think?

  4. I guess there is a lot of ambiguity involved.

    First, there is the familiar type-token ambiguity. A token of the letter “A” can be found at the beginning of this sentence, while the type is an abstract object that doesn’t exist in space. The type-token distinction applies at various levels. I will reserve “letter” for the types at the top level. There is also the type of an A in Arial, in Times, etc. and their various tokens. No token of an A in Times is a token of an A in Arial, but both are tokens of the letter A. We should probably also acknowledge a level in between the top one and the Arial, Times etc. one: there is type to which all tokens of an A in Arial, Times, etc. belong but no token of an A in, say, braille . This would seem to be a type that requires some kind of similarity in shape, though it is not very strict. (And it will of course require more than just similarity in shape.)

    Is there any limit to how much two objects are allowed to differ in shape in order to be tokens of the same letter (top level)? I doubt it. Take a token of the letter A and imagine a printed sign of whatever shape you like. Now take a chain of morphing-steps from one to the other (make the steps as small as you like) and imagine a community which over a period of n years (make n as big as you like) goes from using the first as an A to using the second as an A, via using the intermediate ones. It seems natural to say: Weird, why are they printing all those opossums? Oh, thats what an A looks like now!

    But back to Schlick’s chair. I guess we should say about this case whatever it is that we would say about the braille case. And it seems plausible that both systems provide us with ways of tokening the (top-level) letter A. Hesitation to accept this might be explained by pointing out that talk about letters is often talk not about top level letters, but of types at some more specific level.

  5. Perhaps.
    But if so, what would it take to be a token of the letter A? What makes this letter, if not (at all) a kind of shape? Is it the position in an alphabet? No – the alphabet is but a system of letters. Perhaps, it is a role in a language, and this role can be occupied by things of different shapes. Can we specify what this role consist in? or is it not the role but something else?

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