March 2, 2021

Dr. David Liebesman explains language, reality, and the relationship between the two

Calgary Public Library presents "Philosophy Now: What is a Book" on March 16, 2021
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The Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary has partnered with the Calgary Public Library to present a series of online public talks. On March 16, 2021 (7 – 8:00 p.m.), Associate Professor of Philosophy Dr. David Liebesman presents “Philosophy Now: What is a Book?” [Registration is open until March 16, 2021, and you will need a Calgary Public Library card to register].

We’ve asked Dr. Liebesman a few questions to help us better understand the topic of his upcoming lecture.

Can you explain the title of your lecture “What is a Book”?  

Sometimes difficult theoretical problems can be brought to light by focusing on what may seem mundane. Books seem like ordinary, everyday objects, and our conversations about them seem clear and well-understood. However, let’s take a closer look. Imagine that you have two copies of The Handmaid’s Tale on your shelf. How many books are there? In one sense, there are two—after all, if want to figure out whether you can fit every book on the shelf or in your backpack, you count both. In another sense, there is just one—The Handmaid’s Tale—even though there are two copies of it. How can we make sense of language and reality such that both answers are correct? My goal in this lecture will be to raise a number of difficult questions about this example.

Could we get a sneak peek at what you’ll present in the lecture?

Let’s begin with language. It is natural to say that the word ‘book’ can have two different meanings: one meaning picks out physical objects, while the other picks out abstract products of creative acts. From this perspective, the word ‘book’ exhibits a sort of flexibility. There is a similar flexibility throughout language; and yet, this flexibility seems to clash with our abilities. Without special effort, we can understand just about any other speaker of our language—how can this be if language is so exceptionally flexible? 

Next, consider reality. In making sense of our two ways of talking about books, we mentioned physical books (the things on our shelves) and abstract books (the products of creativity). Physical books don’t seem particularly mysterious: they have familiar properties like mass, shape, and colour. However, what are abstract books? To put it another way, when you and I have read the same book, The Handmaid’s Tale, what is the thing we have both read? It can’t be a physical book, because we may have read two different physical books. Is this abstract thing independent of its physical copies? When does it come into existence? When does it go out of existence? Can I touch it?  

How does this lecture relate to your current research?

I presented this series of puzzles by focusing on books, but, as will be made clear in the lecture, the puzzles generalize far beyond books. Addressing them forces us to grapple with some of the most fundamental facts about language, reality, and the relationship between the two. I’m currently co-authoring a book (with Ofra Magidor from Oxford University) in which we address these questions. Our book follows a series of articles we’ve written on the topic. I’ll conclude the lecture by briefly mentioning some of our own views.