KNOWLEDGE AND LANGUAGE:
WITTGENSTEIN AND THE POLYSEMY OF LANGUAGE
A few years ago a spontaneous version of Wittgenstein’s ordinary language approach was encapsulated spontaneously by a TOK student. She had never seen any Wittgenstein. This is what she wrote in the opening paragraph of her first TOK essay:
In normal everyday conversations—say, with a friend—one may sometimes use the word “know” instead of “believe,” or say, “I believe…” instead of “it is my opinion that…” In this kind of conversation, one rarely contemplates the exact meaning of each of these words. It seems like one would say whatever would sound the best.
The activity which follows was inspired by these words. It has the added bonus of forcing students to grapple with the fine distinctions between two essential TOK concepts: opinion and belief.
Students work alone. They are told to examine and consider the following pairs of sentences. In each case the first sentence (in bold font) is an example of normal usage of opinion or belief. The second sentence is an attempt to substitute opinion for belief, or vice-versa, whilst keeping the sentence grammatical.
In my humble opinion…
It is my humble belief that…
According to a recent public opinion poll…
According to a recent public belief poll…
The newspaper’s editorial opinions…
The newspaper’s editorial beliefs…
The Supreme Court opinion declares…
The Supreme Court formal statement of belief declares…
I believe in Santa Claus.
It is my opinion that Santa Claus exists.
Believe it or not!
Let it be your opinion or not!
The Zupi tribal belief system…
The Zupi system of opinions…
In order to enjoy an evening at the theater it is necessary to suspend your disbelief.
In order to enjoy an evening at the theater it is necessary to suspend your opinion that what you are seeing is not real.
You are so opinionated.
You are so belief-ridden.
You always express such strong beliefs.
You always express such strong opinions.
Our graduates know the difference between fact and opinion.
Our graduates know the difference between fact and belief.
That’s just your opinion.
That’s just what you believe.
I believe that God exists.
It is my opinion that God exists/I opine that God exists.
I believe you.
It is my opinion that what you say is true.
Seeing is believing.
Seeing is opining/Seeing is having an opinion.
What’s your opinion about her new hairdo?
What’s your belief about her new hairdo?
Students should consider the following before opening up class discussion. :
To what extent is each of alternative sentences a satisfactory “translation”?
Is belief simply a strong opinion?
What extra insights have you gained about the meaning of these slippery terms?
What is the difference between denotation and connotation when considering the meaning of words?
To what extent is "perception" interchangeable with opinion and belief?
Is perception interchangeable with Knowledge?
Why do you think the folks that created TOK conventions made a distinction between Sense Perception as a Way of Knowing and perception generally?