At some point during the episode, Dylan and Wes were arguing about Moore and referred to the good as a ‘term’. I corrected them that Moore actually calls it a ‘concept’ as if something hung on that distinction. I guess it is incumbent upon me to explain.
First off, Moore never uses the word “concept” in the chapter – my bad. He uses “idea” and “notion”. But my point is the same: I just felt like we were experiencing Wittgenstein hangover in the way we were discussing Moore. He does try in the first chapter to make the point that he is not doing linguistic analysis of the meaning of the word.
What, then, is good? How is good to be defined? Now it may be thought that this is a verbal question. A definition does indeed often mean the expressing of one word’s meaning in other words. But this is not the sort of definition I am asking for…If I wanted that kind of definition I should have to consider in the first place how people generally used the wordgood; but my business is not with its proper usage, as established by custom…I shall, therefore, use the word in the sense in which I think it is ordinarily used; but at the same time I am not anxious to discuss whether I am right in thinking it is so used. My business is solely with that object or idea, which I hold, rightly or wrongly, that the word is generally used to stand for. What I want to discover is the nature of that object or idea, and about this I am extremely anxious to arrive at an agreement.
We didn’t read further into the book, and I didn’t read any other Moore where he fleshes out a scheme for concepts or how language functions, but it appears he’s assuming a fairly standard view that words (specifically names) refer to ideas or objects. (Moore uses “idea” and “notion” interchangeably throughout this first chapter.) So maybe we weren’t experiencing a hangover; this seems to be analogous to Wittgenstein’s characterization of ostension and is probably subject to the critique W. lays out in the Philosophical Investigations, but…
Words pick out things, whether they be objects in the world or ideas. Now, there are some words which pick out things that can be explained by use of other words. These words refer to ‘complex’ notions that can be ‘defined’. The ‘complex’ notions can in theory be broken down into a collection of ‘simple’ notions and the words used to refer to the simple ideas can be used to define the word used to refer to the complex idea. He explains:
…definitions which describe the real nature of the object or notion denoted by a word, and which do not merely tell us what the word is used to mean, are only possible when the object or notion in question is something complex. You can give a definition of a horse, because a horse has many different properties and qualities, all of which you can enumerate. But when you have enumerated them all, when you have reduced a horse to his simplest terms, you can no longer define those terms.
So Moore is putting forth a conceptual scheme of simple and complex ideas, where names refer to these ideas. Names which refer to complex ideas are ultimately explainable using names which refer to simple ideas (you could in theory have complex ideas explained by other complex ideas, but at some point in the explanatory chain you will have to be able to reach simple ideas.) Simple ideas are not explainable in terms of other ideas: you just have to have some unmediated connection to the notion in order to understand the word. Moore thinks that “good” is a word picking out a simple idea and he compares it to the paradigmatic example of “yellow”:
My point is thatgoodis a simple notion, just asyellowis a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.
OK, let’s pause for a second to absorb this. Moore is proposing that there are words that refer to simple notions that cannot be explained by reference to other notions. Somehow we come to “know” these notions and associate them to their proper words (names). For example, we know what yellow is, we associate yellow with the word “yellow” that refers to it and we then understand the idea of yellow and the meaning of “yellow”. At this point we have made no reference to the use of the word in a language context, only its use as a referring instrument to the concept.
So when the other guys were referring to the ‘term’ as opposed to the ‘notion’, I was thinking that they meant “yellow” and not yellow (the name and not the idea). Moore clearly thinks that there are ideas/notions to which we have some conceptual access and, on my reading, that access must be prior to naming – that is, it must be prior to language.
This is of course highly controversial and was in fact a point of contention during the first Wittgenstein podcast. Wittgenstein questions what it would mean to have an idea without language, how the referring content of names is acquired (ostension) and whether the relation between word and idea can even be prior to use in language. Moore takes on none of these potential criticisms of his conceptual assumption and I think can be justifiably criticized for not doing so.
Additionally, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the distinction between simple and complex ideas. Even if you buy conceptual access and acquisition prior to language, there is good reason to question whether complex ideas can be distinguished from simple ones. Take his examples of a horse and yellow. He says (I summarize):
*You can give a definition of a horse (actually, I think he means that you can give a definition of “horse”)
*This can be done because a horse has qualities and properties (e.g. mammal, four-legged, good for riding, etc.)
*Therefore horse is a complex idea
*Yellow is a simple idea because it cannot be explained by reference to any other ideas
Note that these two things are completely unrelated. Definition and explanation are not related in this scheme. As in:
*If x has properties, x can be defined.
*If x can be defined, x is complex.
*If y cannot be explained by reference to any z, y is simple.
The only way to make this argument work is to associate explanation by reference to and having properties. In other words, for yellow to be simple and not complex, explanation by reference to must be the same as not having properties. But yellow clearly has properties (it can be mixed with red to make orange, for example), its just that you can’t use any of them to explain to someone what yellow is. If yellow had no properties, the idea would be empty and all simple ideas, by virtue of having no properties would be identical, which is to say there would be only one simple idea that had no content.
What Moore needs to do here is talk about simple and complex in terms of the explanatory content of the properties of the objects. To amend his argument:
*If x has properties by which you can explain x to someone who doesn’t know x, then x can be defined.
*If x can be defined, x is complex.
*If y has properties but none of those can be used to explain y to someone who doesn’t know y, then y cannot be defined.
*If y cannot be defined, y is simple.
Now the legitimate question of whether you can explain to someone what a horse is merely by reference to its properties comes into play. There is a good argument to be made that you can’t really know what a horse is until you get some unmediated experience of horses independent of an enumeration of their properties. But that might be sneaking in some idea of the essential nature of horses, which I don’t want to do.
Moore may be right that I can explain what a horse is to someone simply by describing its properties and they will then know the idea of horse and that I can’t do that with yellow. I’m not sure that’s true. But we would have to determine what it would mean for someone to understand my explanation, which I think would have to cash out in their being able to correctly pick out a horse using the word “horse” based solely on my explanation. I don’t know how else to understand what he’s trying to say.