Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Adjective is a Noun is a Verb

In my earlier blog entry about Russell's Theory of Descriptions, it gave the example of rewording "The present king of France is bald" into a special descriptive form. You may have noticed in that discussion that the phrase "X is kingly" was used instead of a more natural sounding "X is a king". This is because Russell was attempting, via his special form of making statements, to remove all implicit claims that X exists, to be replaced with mere descriptions of X.
Programmers should think of this as the difference between:
"(x instanceof King) && x.bald && x.french"
"select * from AllThingsTable where french='Y' and bald='Y' and kingly='Y'".
The former would blow up in Java with a null pointer exception if X didn't exist, whereas the latter in SQL would not blow up; it would merely return zero results meaning that none exist.
In philosophy, nouns are reworked into adjectives and even verbs all the time to make statements more precise. In Russell's template, nouns are reworked into adjectives. In process philosophy (where everything is considered a "process" rather than a "thing"), a "king" would really be considered the process of "kinging".

Lest all this awkward wordsmithing seem too artificial, a quick look at McWorter's video introduction to linguistics[1] will show that what seems natural to us, is English specific. He gives the example of "I like Pam", where "like" is a verb, but in Japanese, the equivalent "Pam ga suki" literally means "Pam likeableness". So, a concept in one language may naturally be an activity, but in another language, it's a noun form of an adjective.

[1] Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language, John McWhorter