by Mark English
In 1936 the high-profile publisher and promoter of humanitarian and radical causes, Victor Gollancz, published a little book called Language, Truth and Logic. The author was A. J. (Freddie) Ayer, then in his mid-twenties, an Old Etonian and graduate of the University of Oxford. The work was crisply and provocatively written. It grew out of Ayer’s interactions with members of the Vienna Circle, a diverse group of thinkers who were attempting to articulate what they saw as an emerging consensus on some fundamental questions about science, knowledge and philosophy. Ayer claimed in his book that all the major problems of philosophy had now either been solved or been shown to have been pseudo-problems. The implication was that most of what goes under the name of philosophy was fundamentally ill-conceived and a complete waste of time. I can still see my first philosophy teacher, Julius Kovesi, extracting a copy of the offending work from his bookcase and waving it about as he outlined in a surprisingly good-humored way its (to him) outrageous claims. Kovesi had been a student at Oxford about the time that Ayer was beginning a long stint as Wykeham Professor of Logic. He was profoundly out of sympathy with Ayer’s views on morality, metaphysics and religion.
I liked Julius a lot but I was unpersuaded and puzzled by what I saw as his scientifically incurious attitude. I remember as an 18-year-old using the word ‘neuron’ in a discussion of free will and being jumped on. No! No! No! Brain talk was a no-go area for Julius. It was irrelevant. He didn’t want to go there and he didn’t want me to go there.
This little exchange gave me my first intimation that academic philosophy was not the discipline which I had naïvely thought it to be: namely, a discipline defined by a no-holds-barred pursuit of truth. The irony is that at the time I had (like Julius) a deeply religious view of the world. You would have thought I would have aligned myself with him against the likes of Ayer and Gilbert Ryle (who was Ayer’s teacher and mentor). But, even during my religious phase, my sympathies –intellectually speaking – were with the latter.
I have been trying for years to figure out how to characterize my disparate and accidental interests so that they might appear (to me as much as to anybody else) more complementary and coherent than perhaps they are. I am reminded of a speech which the intellectual historian and social philosopher, Louis Rougier, gave at a dinner celebrating his ninetieth birthday in which he valiantly tried – for the umpteenth and probably last time – to tie together into a coherent whole the main themes of his intellectual journey.
The fact that one feels one has to do this is perhaps an implicit admission of failure, proof that one’s various themes and projects didn’t really constitute a coherent whole at all. But coherence is elusive and success and failure in these matters is difficult to measure. And, though the phrase has come to sound faintly ridiculous and out of date, I still see a commitment to the pursuit of truth as a desirable character trait.
Though what follows was written primarily as a kind of personal direction-setting exercise, what I am trying to encapsulate here may be seen to have connections to what Rougier was trying to do. His interests, like mine, centered around language, logic, politics and culture. And he was interested (and involved) in the activities of the Vienna Circle during the 1930s, becoming a close friend of its convenor, Moritz Schlick.
These notes could be seen to constitute, in conjunction with some other pieces I have written over recent years, an attempt to orientate my own thoughts about language and meaning, and especially about the dependence of certain kinds of thinking upon language and the constraints which such a dependency may be seen to entail.
Though I rarely try to discuss language in a rigorous way, I am constantly aware of its centrality to human life. It is rooted in biology in a way that most other aspects of culture are not. And, of course, language is a sine qua non for culture: no language, no culture. It forms a sort of framework or medium which supports other cultural elements and binds them together.
Human language is notoriously multi-faceted. It has many angles and can be approached from many angles. The linguist, Roman Jakobson, tried to define the various functions of language. He recognised that different functions are often in play simultaneously.
One of these functions Jakobson called the poetic function. The poetic function dominates when form and style take precedence. The signifier and the medium are emphasized over content, message or referential meaning. The act and form of expression is foregrounded and any sense of a clear or transparent or natural connection between a signifier and a referent is deliberately undermined. This side of language looms larger for some people than it does for others. Consequently it is often neglected or, worse, ghettoized within self-consciously literary circles.
Spoken language – even at its most mundane and conventional – has musical elements. Tones play a phonemic role in many languages but I am not talking about phonemes here. I am talking about the actual sounds: phonetics, not phonology. Like music, this side of language is closely tied to the expression of nuances of feeling and emotion. And again, as with music, there is scope for infinite gradation.
By contrast, the core underlying structures and processes which make language what it is do not deal in continuously variable quantities. To use a technological metaphor, they are digital rather than analog. The binary and other oppositions of phonology provide the basis for a powerful information processing mechanism which, though rooted in physics and biology, goes beyond physics and biology. In turn, the abstract sound systems of various languages and dialects form the basis for syntactic structures which, with an implicit logic mirroring the basic operations of the propositional calculus, bring into play the characteristically human struggle to match ends to means and means to ends.
When I first studied Chomskyan linguistics, we used to draw trees of various structures and transformations. For example, you can specify precise rules whereby a sentence may be transformed from active to passive voice. These forms were seen as being equivalent on an abstract (or deep) level. But, of course, there are subtle semantic differences between active and passive forms. This is where considerations of style come in. And I could see that a Chomskyan approach, modelled as it was on abstract mathematical and computational notions, could not deal satisfactorily – and could not be made to deal – with these subtle stylistic factors.
I am not trying to condemn a Chomskyan or a computational approach to the study of language. These sorts of approaches (whatever the fate of particular theories) are clearly productive and have contributed not only to natural language processing and related areas but also to our understanding of what gives language its power and makes it what it is. And part of what they are telling us is that language is not what it seems.
Dig down deep into language and there is nothing there which is recognisably language. There is nothing propositional, no “language of thought.” It was Paul Churchland who first made me aware of this quite confronting truth. But it chimed with what I knew already, in general terms at least, about how the brain works, as well as with the insights and intuitions of many Western thinkers with whom I was familiar (certain mystics and theologians from previous eras but also some modern writers).
Language derives its power and utility from cognitive processes – an interacting hierarchy of processes in fact – which operate below the level of conscious awareness. Distinguishing richness from power and utility, however, I think you can say that much of the richness of language derives from its “feel”, from its surface texture, from actual sounds in an actual context.
Compare writing and speaking. Writing leaves open the phonetic aspect. The reader can, for example, take pleasure in the sounds of the words in a piece of prose. But precise sounds are not specified in normal written language. They must be provided or imagined by the reader.
Written text represents language in a kind of stripped down, more or less phonemic form. And, phonologically and morphosyntactically speaking, infinite graduations do not apply. Again, the distinction I am making here is similar to the distinction between digital and analog processes or to the distinction between discrete and continuous mathematics.
My point is that the spoken word carries far more information than the written word: it carries within itself the same abstract core of content and structure which writing conveys but it gives us more than this. This unique, actual, personalized stream of sound is the vehicle for expressing and communicating not only the core message but also a raft of paralinguistic content which inevitably affects how the basic message is interpreted and understood.
I spoke earlier about the poetic function of language. In terms of meaning, the poetic function puts the focus on connotation rather than denotation. But even the basic (denotational) aspects of meaning necessarily take us beyond what Chomsky has referred to as the faculty of language, narrowly conceived (FLN), the computational heart of language. The perceptual and conceptual systems which allow us, for example, to identify and categorize and remember objects or incidents or discern the musical or other qualities of sound do not constitute part of the FLN though the FLN is connected to these systems and interacts with them.
Language (on this view) can trigger thoughts but cannot encode or encompass them. This is an idea which has profound implications not only for how we view language but also for how we view certain forms of intellectual inquiry and even, perhaps, for how we see ourselves in a more general sense.
It is important to remember that meanings only arise in the context of actual communication or language use, and details of that context need to be taken into account in order to ascertain, as far as possible, what the meaning is in any given case for any given person. And because of this, and also because meanings are personal and unique to individuals (and therefore quite opaque), semantics can never be satisfactorily formalized.
I have written previously about the way a particular view of language – specifically one (like Chomsky’s) based on an idiolectal view – changes the way we conceptualize meaning and human communication. It shifts the focus decisively away from certain common ways of thinking about language and meaning (and abstract theorizing based on these ways of thinking) and sensitizes us not only to the uniqueness and radical inaccessibility to others of our private thoughts but also to the fact that meanings are always contingent, tenuous and, in most cases, not precisely specifiable.
45 responses to “Thoughts on the Nature of Language and Meaning”
I always look forward to your essays and I am never disappointed. This is a subject where EJ is far more knowledgeable than I am so I look forward to his usually insightful comments.
“Language (on this view) can trigger thoughts but cannot encode or encompass them.”
I would think that it does both but that the balance depends on the nature of the communication. For example the effect of poetry depends heavily on the way the rhythmic expression triggers emotional resonance in us while a dense academic paper would lie on the opposite end of the scale.
“I have written previously about the way a particular view of language – specifically one (like Chomsky’s) based on an idiolectal view – changes the way we conceptualize meaning and human communication. ”
I have often wondered to what extent the kind of language we speak shapes the way we reason. For example did Romans think in different ways to the way we do because of the of the nature of their language, Latin?
More generally, communication takes place in multiple channels, simultaneously. With speech these information channels are
1) expressive, that is intonation, gestures and facial expression
2) evocative, the communication triggers or elicits responses from our store of intuitive knowledge.
3) informative, that is the substantive content of the communication.
4) contextual, information invoked by contextual references.
Putting all these channels together, speech is informationally dense communication and we excel at doing this. But it has one great weakness, that is the fleeting nature of verbal communication. You only have an instant to grasp all the channels and make sense of them. Once that is past any analysis is dependent on semantic recall and that is subject to the filters in the mind.
Written communication, on the other hand, gives you time to parse the sentences, re-examine them and carefully understand their meaning. But the expressive channel is absent and the evocative channel is attenuated. So with reading we have a better grasp of the informative channel but a weaker grasp of the expressive and evocative channels.
Then there is a further problem. With speech our attention is dominated by the expressive and evocative channels, drawing our attention away from the informative content. For example, a political leader may deliver his words in a confident, persuasive and authoritative manner that compels belief even though the informative content is weak.
For all these reasons I seldom watch Dan’s audio-visual productions, much preferring his written essays. On the other hand, the very few I have watched brought across a picture of a likeable, warm, persuasive, intelligent and sincere person. This had the result that I read his essays more attentively and with more sympathy for his point of view. But at the end of the day I can read and fully understand his essays in a fraction of the time that it takes to watch one of his video productions and in a time-limited environment that is decisive.
I realize that this isn’t the central point of your essay, but like you, I had always thought that my themes and project should constitute a coherent whole and they don’t. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder why people believe that they should constitute a coherent whole. We’re all very complex and contradictory creatures, and why shouldn’t our
theme and projects reflect that? If that troubles some people, that’s their problem, not mine.
I enjoyed this. I would love to see you apply your understanding of language to the aesthetics of poetry. I have no knowledge of aesthetics or literary criticism, but I absolutely love poetry. And It seems to me that your understanding of language might shed some interesting light on poetry.
“Language derives its power and utility from cognitive processes – an interacting hierarchy of processes in fact – which operate below the level of conscious awareness.”
Is this notion of “cognitive processes… below the level of conscious awareness” intelligible? This seems mysterious and questionable to me. Following Wittgenstein, mustn’t the ‘inner’ require ‘outer’ criteria? A whole raft of invented connections that have no application may have been constructed here.
Mark, this is a very useful and readable summary of your thinking on the subject of language, regardless of what I may think of the details.
With regard to this, however, “…sensitizes us not only to the uniqueness and radical inaccessibility to others of our private thoughts,” I’d be interested in hearing your response to the well-rehearsed Wittgensteinian critique of this notion of mental privacy.
“Language derives its power and utility from cognitive processes ”
I suggest that it is the other way around. Cognitive processes are enabled by and given their power by language.
Interesting subject and thoughts about it. I would highlight a few things.
Homo sapiens is a social creature, and much of our success as a species comes from our society and the communicating unseen (private) experience and meaning had within the mind between individuals.
Language does this through the “lengua,” the tongue, directly in the form of spoken words and indirectly in the form of written words. Language is reductionist in that it divides meaning into discrete elements each indicating single abstract meaning. This selects for conscious intellectual thought which is by nature reductions and abstract.
But as pointed out, language is not the only way to communicate meaning. Indeed meaning can be communicated without language at all in the form of facial expression, pantomime, aesthetics, touch, etc. These other ways are more sensual and circumstantial and communicate more the “feel” of things. They are not linguistic but thus corporistic, of the body. This selects for unconscious/semiconscious intuitive sense, a different form of experienced meaning that is inherently emotional that is more immediately relational and wholistic.
Experienced meaning is not strictly intellectual and inherently (largely?) emotional, thus strict language alone can’t fully express human meaning. Language can approach expressing intuitive emotional content by being more wholistic, sensual, and circumstantial such as employing simile, metaphor, poetics, and narrative, but it still retains its inherent intellectual limitations.
We will always have to go beyond language to express human meaning.
“And, though the phrase has come to sound faintly ridiculous and out of date, I still see a commitment to the pursuit of truth as a desirable character trait.”
I agree with you, completely and absolutely. Truth is a good that transcends almost all other values. It is the compass and the pole star in our lives. The moment you take your eyes off this compass you become ensnared in the delusions of self interest and power. Today we have only two semi-reliable means of arriving at the truth, and that is through science and the law. Both have their flaws because we, as people are riddled with flaws. We minimize the impact of our flaws on the determination of truth by the application of the adversary process, so well known in law. It is the determined and vigorous contest of ideas in open fora that purifies our thoughts, reveals the truth and eliminates the dross of delusions. There is no better method of determining the truth than through the contest of ideas. This is what makes the woke silencing movements such a deadly enemy of the truth.
Wittgenstein was concerned with the impossibility of a private language. I am not claiming that you can have a private language, just that our thoughts are not fully communicable. I am making a distinction between what can be communicated and what cannot. I can talk to you and understand what you are saying but this doesn’t allow me to “get inside your head” as the saying goes, i.e. to see things exactly as you do.
Reviewing this topic, I came across something Stewart Candlish wrote for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Candlish was a colleague of Kovesi’s at UWA and, from the little I know of him, I think he might be someone whose themes and projects *did* cohere.
His summary of his take on Wittgenstein and private language may be of interest:
“I would think that it does both [trigger and encode/encompass thoughts] but that the balance depends on the nature of the communication. For example the effect of poetry depends heavily on the way the rhythmic expression triggers emotional resonance in us while a dense academic paper would lie on the opposite end of the scale.”
My point is something like this: that language can never encapsulate — and so communicate — *in a complete and perfect way* any complex impression/sensation/thought/feeling etc. that a person might have.
“I have often wondered to what extent the kind of language we speak shapes the way we reason. For example did Romans think in different ways to the way we do because of the nature of their language…”
I can’t believe they really *spoke* like that (classical Latin, that is). Later Latin (like Augustine’s) feels much more natural to me. Obviously language does shape how we think to an extent but this idea has often been taken too far.
“Written communication … gives you time to parse the sentences, re-examine them and carefully understand their meaning. But the expressive channel is absent and the evocative channel is attenuated. So with reading we have a better grasp of the informative channel but a weaker grasp of the expressive and evocative channels.”
Yes. And there’s another angle to this. Being literate changes the way you speak.
“Then there is a further problem. With speech our attention is dominated by the expressive and evocative channels, drawing our attention away from the informative content. For example, a political leader may deliver his words in a confident, persuasive and authoritative manner that compels belief even though the informative content is weak.”
I agree that written communication is a more efficient means of communicating many kinds of information.
Thanks Gordon. You may be interested in this piece I wrote a few years ago…
“Is this notion of “cognitive processes… below the level of conscious awareness” intelligible?”
Just think of it in terms of the brain doing whatever the brain does. Makes sense to me.
“Following Wittgenstein, mustn’t the ‘inner’ require ‘outer’ criteria?”
See my reply to Dan.
“A whole raft of invented connections that have no application may have been constructed here.”
Much of the theory I allude to has direct applications in various areas.
I appreciate this, but I was intending to point my query directly at the portion I quoted. Could you say something more specific about that?
I agree with the gist of what you are saying. But, whatever the medium, there are always limits on what can be expressed.
I thought what I said was quite clear and specific. I’m not clear what your query is.
Ayer impugned the private language idea of Wittgenstein’s with a thought experiment about Robinson Crusoe making up his own for private fun. I think that the consensus was that this showed that Ayer had not understood the argument. Private meaning may be a different beetle in a box so to speak. Could we retain it and agree that we have public concepts and that there are no private experiences that serve to establish them? Maybe then the power of poetry and literature arises from the attempt to ‘I feel you man’, a resonance. Owen Barfield writes of ‘Speaker’s Meaning’ and his ‘Poetic Diction’ advances the theory that all abstraction is rooted in the concrete. A lot of early treatises were metrical and that was not I believe just for mnemonic purposes rather that the ordered sounds brought the mind into sympathetic resonance that facilitated understanding. Cliche trips off the tongue in contrast to the effort to bring thought into a form educing a shape that in its moulding of cadence and content slips the thought past the guardian of received understanding.
Thanks for posting this. You provide a lot of food for thought. When it comes to semantics and psychology, I am definitely in the “language of thought” camp, and like Jerry Fodor, and many other, I think the content of our mental states is, indeed, propositional. When I say:
I believe that..
I hope that…
I expect that..
I doubt that…
The “that clause” is filled in with a proposition or sentence. I believe that [Fred Jones will get divorced] I hope that [Interest rates will go down], etc, And the proposition “Fred Jones will get divorced” is the content of my belief. And we can, in turn, have different “attitudes” to the same proposition. I can both expect that and believe that Fred will get divorced.
One of the strengths of this view is how well it meshes with our everyday psychology and how we explain people’s behavior and their mental states. When I ask a friend why Fred seems unhappy, he may claim that Fred believes that his wife is having an affair. That belief, coupled with an evaluative judgment about his wife’s behavior, explains his unhappiness. Or I may be mad at my coworker, Joe, because I believe that he went through my desk without my permission. If I come to believe that I was mistaken, then I will cease to be mad at him.
In fact, my understanding of myself and the people around me is so dependent on this view, I cannot imagine what could replace it.
I was kind of hoping the beetle would not put in an appearance!
“Private meaning may be a different beetle in a box so to speak. Could we retain it and agree that we have public concepts and that there are no private experiences that serve to establish them?”
This gets very convoluted. Forget about meaning for a minute. The word means different things in different contexts anyway. We have private experiences, sensations and so on. I see no point in questioning this. To do so strikes me as perverse intellectualism. As animals, we experience things. Forget about communication or precisely how it seems to us. Watch a dog curl up by the fire. Or whimper or snarl. Something is going on there in terms of experience. You can set aside language here. The dog can’t speak, but obviously can feel pain and pleasure and so on. Okay, we infer these things from behavioural cues, coupled with our own (similar) reactions to warmth and cold etc.. I am happy to make the inference. Who isn’t? Nothing is certain in this world, as Descartes well knew. He even wondered if those men in cloaks and hats passing beneath him were really men rather than robots. But radical skepticism, in the end, just isn’t very interesting — whether it’s about the world around us or the world of personal experience (mine or yours).
So what is the link between these private experiences and public concepts? Now we are talking about humans and not dogs and about language. Presumably there is some kind of link but I don’t have a ready answer to that question. I tend to see language as generally not very good at conveying the details or the flavour of private feelings etc.. I see it as a kind of practical tool which enables complex forms of interactive action: ordering, comforting, asking, deceiving, etc., etc..
You mention poetry. Yes poetry etc. tries valiantly to convey those inner thoughts and feelings. It succeeds in part, usually using concrete imagery or narrative in preference to concepts.
“Cliche trips off the tongue in contrast to the effort to bring thought into a form educing a shape that in its moulding of cadence and content slips the thought past the guardian of received understanding.”
I can go along with this.
And, in contrast to this, I am definitely not in the “language of thought” camp. For me, thought is mostly not linguistic though it is often accompanied by linguistic expression. And I’m skeptical about propositions.
By contrast, it is hard for me to imagine how people can get by with that way of understanding people.
To be clear, I am not trying to start a debate. I’m just pointing out that there is more diversity out there than you imagine.
If ‘cognitive processes’ are ‘what the brain does’, are you telling me cognitive processes are perceptible? Perhaps via brain scan? But aren’t cognitive processes like this: “I added 2, then carried the 1, then I rewrote the sum in terms of millimeters… etc.” Certainly, things are going on in my brain while I did this, but is what was going on in my brain during these cognitive processes the same thing as the cognitive processes? Isn’t that, at best, a confusing extension of the notion?
You’re right, I could see this work having an application in the domain of artificial intelligence. What are the others?
Thanks for this. I’m writing on un-formalizable dimensions of meaning in the (ideogrammic, not phonogrammic) writing systems in which mathematicians do their work, so we might be on different paths toward roughly the same point. (One obstacle I should mention in reference to your remark, “semantics will never be satisfactorily formalized” — an obstacle I keep running up against — is that for theorists of a certain stripe, semantics *entails* formalization!)
I’m having trouble discerning the connection between:
“The perceptual and conceptual systems which allow us, for example, to identify and categorize and remember objects or incidents or discern the musical or other qualities of sound do not constitute part of the FLN though the FLN is connected to these systems and interacts with them.”
“Language (on this view) can trigger thoughts but cannot encode or encompass them.”
Is the latter supposed to follow somehow from the former?
“… Is the latter supposed to follow somehow from the former?”
My point is that the core language system (FLN) does not include substantive semantic content. The lexical entries of the FLN are largely phonological and syntactic. They are linked to other (non-linguistic) brain areas which carry the bulk of the semantic content. So the lexical entries for “horse” and “ride” will be linked to — and trigger — (non-linguistic) memories of my horse-riding experiences etc.. They will do the same for you (assuming you are an English-speaker). But your experiences will be different so “horse riding” conjures up a different set of memories and associations for you.
“I think the content of our mental states is, indeed, propositional… The “that clause” is filled in with a proposition or sentence. I believe that [Fred Jones will get divorced] I hope that [Interest rates will go down], etc, And the proposition “Fred Jones will get divorced” is the content of my belief.”
Leaving aside arguments about what you actually find when you look at brain processes (even those associated with linguistic processing), there are problems with what you say, I think.
Take the sentence, “I believe that Fred will get divorced.” You could simply say, “Fred will get divorced,” and I will conclude that you believe that Fred will get divorced. And yet you are saying that the proposition, “Fred will get divorced,” is the content of your belief. Isn’t this a bit circular?
“Fred will get divorced,” is (a statement of) what you believe. But what is the semantic content of this statement? I am saying that, ultimately, what you believe is not something propositional. It is something about your friend Fred and his behaviour patterns as observed by you and his wife’s character or behaviour patterns as you know them and how you envisage these behaviour patterns playing out in the future. You have all this knowledge about the couple which you can express (to some extent) linguistically but surely the first-hand knowledge and memories of actual interactions upon which (in part) you are basing your expectations is not essentially propositional. Nor is the expectation propositional. For me, at any rate, it would be image-based. Lawyers and documents and squabbling over money and possessions. Poor old Fred, hitting the bottle. Etc.
I see. Thank you.
“Language [. . .] can trigger thoughts but cannot encode or encompass them.”
Something I’ve gleaned by triangulating what Wittgenstein writes and what Cavell writes about Wittgenstein is this: nothing acknowledged to have encoded or encompassed a thought (to use Mark English’s words) can be acknowledged at the same time to be the *expression* of a thought. In other words, part of our very grasp of the (Wittgensteinian) grammar of “expression” is our grasp of its appropriate application in circumstances in which we know at some level we have *not* got a complete hold of the thought we acknowledge to be given expression.
In still other words: To say that E is an expression of T is not to say that E is a mere indicator of T (something, that is, from which we can only *infer* T). Nor is it to say with the behaviorists that “there is nothing more to” T than utterances. After all, E is an expression *of* something that is not itself E.
Expression is a sui generis phenomenon in which we recognize (against the indicator view) that we have no more direct access to thoughts than through expressions of them and (against the behaviorist view) that this doesn’t imply that thoughts are identical to or exhausted by utterances.
Both the indicator view and the behaviorist view encourage the forming of an idea about abstract, complete-sentence-shaped items lying hidden behind linguistic expressions. The only difference is that the indicator view tends to reify the items the idea is about into abstract propositions we exchange or mutually grasp or whatever, while the behaviorist view denies that the idea refers to *anything* beyond utterances.
What I’m saying here is not meant as a rebuttal to anything Mark English says, though it might be. I just thought it relevant to the points made in the post and the comments.
Hi Mark: I thought you might like this story, from Amartya Sen’s autobiography, which I am reading.
“According to a widely told anecdote, [Piero] Sraffa conveyed his scepticism of Wittgenstein’s insistence on a strictly specified logical form for meaningful communication by brushing his chin with his fingertips. That Neapolitan gesture of scepticism was understood clearly enough by Wittgenstein, so Sraffa asked, ‘What is the logical form of this communication?’ When I asked Piero about this event, he insisted that the story, if not entirely apocryphal (‘I can’t remember any such specific occasion’), was more of a morality tale than an actual occurrence. ‘I argued with Wittgenstein so often and so much’, he said, ‘that my fingertips did not need to do much talking.’ But the story does illustrate graphically the force of Sraffa’s questioning and the nature of his scepticism of the philosophy in the Tractatus. (Of course it also helps us to understand how social conventions, with regard to both words and expressions, facilitate communication.)”
Sen, Amartya. Home in the World (pp. 352-353).
Hi Mark. I found this so interesting. A few random (probably dumb) things I think about when this kind of topic comes up:
Kimura’s findings about language lateralization in Japanese compared to English (and cf professional musicians versus music lovers). That is, empirical suggestion that there are different languages of thought for, perhaps, the same FLN. Probably similar changes in literate v. illiterate, I think.
The (to be pretentious) dual between “down deep” and a formal semantics. I mean, a naturalist thinks this must be in some way the case. So in systems like GPT-3, the most compact description of the higher level nodes and weights on interconnections will be something like the “best” semantic model (maybe in the game semantics sense?). This then
has something to do with intention and “the intentionalist stance” – eg a behaviour makes sense from the evolutionary (game) standpoint, but not from anything intrinsic to the individual’s biology. I have previously mentioned bee language as a model here – where each “statement” by a bee can be seen to be a proposition (as pointed out by JBS Haldane IIRC).
The above means (to me) that the paralinguistic can always be verbalized, even though that description might be a lot longer (eg “Hmmph” from someone reading this).
Private language must exist, otherwise there would be no neologisms, surely? AS mentioned mathematical languages (maybe NR could comment) – consider the kerfuffle about Mochizuki and the abc conjecture, where most people couldn’t make sense of his proof (I only know what I read in blogs ;)).
Perhaps that “NR” refers to me.
It is trivial for a mathematician to come up with a private encoding system.
Wittgenstein is not easy to read. But my take is that Wittgenstein would not consider a private encoding system to be a language. So the question becomes that of what we mean by “language”.
I think there’s a similar issue with “meaning”. Mark sees meanings as private and personal, and I agree with that. But Dan questions that view. Putnam has a paper “The meaning of meaning” where he argues that “meaning is not in the head”. I have always disagreed with Putnam’s view on that. But when I look closely at Putnam’s argument, I can see that he is mainly arguing that reference is not in the head. And I can agree to that about reference. For me, “meaning” is very distinct from “reference”, but some people don’t see it that way.
Some of this might be cultural. I grew up in Australia, as did Mark. And I seem to recall that David Duffy is Australian. Perhaps “meaning” has different connotations for Australians than it has for Americans.
Neil’s suggestion about “meaning” having a different sense in Australian as distinct from American English may (or may not) have been slightly tongue in cheek but there is certainly a huge amount of confusion in the philosophical literature around these issues. And much of the confusion relates to words being used in different senses, sometimes by the same person and within the same discussion. I referred in another comment to the need to bear in mind that the word “meaning” has different senses.
It doesn’t help that the terms Frege used in his paper, “Über Sinn und Bedeutung” — which started the ball rolling in many ways — are difficult to translate. But even Frege seems to accept the (I think obvious) point that there are subjective ideas which are unique and not communicable. He wrote: “The reference and sense of a sign are to be distinguished from the associated idea… The idea is subjective: one’s man idea is not that of another.”
“… the paralinguistic can always be verbalized, even though that description might be a lot longer.”
You can describe paralinguistic phenomena: a novelist might; scientific observers might. But, as I see it, the descriptive “map” will never match up perfectly with the “territory”.
“Private language must exist, otherwise there would be no neologisms, surely?”
An example. As a small child my younger brother invented a “word” /bi:də’lui:/ for the wooden knob on our bed posts. The word at first was private to him and then shared between us and subsequently with the rest of the family. But a private word is not a private language.
By the by, my brother and I apparently spoke a private (nonsense?) language before he learned to speak English. But it was two-person-private, not what LW was talking about. (Not uncommon between siblings, I think.)
Here is Bernard Harrison’s view on Wittgenstein and meaning. Quote:
“The late Wittgenstein is not interested in the project of explicating the concept of meaning, taken as conceptually problematic, in terms of a supposedly unproblematic concept of truth. It would be truer to say that although for the later Wittgenstein the connections between meaning and truth remain of interest, neither concept, for him, is unproblematic. Both, for him, are semimystical notions defying naturalistic understanding as they stand, and both endlessly productive of “philosophy,” that is, of intrinsically interminable metaphysical dispute. His solution is to explicate both in terms of practice. In the course of such explications the “cloud of philosophy” through which gleam, dully and numinously, such entities and relations as meanings, propositions, “internal relations,” truth, falsity, contradiction, condenses into “a drop of grammar.” We are left confronting the prosaic landscape of our own stipulative acts, together with the background of nonnecessary “facts of nature” against which their intelligibility is buttressed, though never more than provisionally so, and the endlessly multiplying practices—counting, measurement, arranging colours in qualitative series, keeping track
of direction by means of a compass, and so on, and so on—that they bring into being.”
From “Criteria and Truth”, 1999, accessible here: https://utah.academia.edu/BHarrison
In short, “meaning” arises from social practices and is for that reason not private.
An excellent quote from an excellent source, by a truly excellent philosopher. Thank you!
“In short, “meaning” arises from social practices and is for that reason not private.”
Of course meaning arises from social practices. The social and cultural background is a given for human thought and language. This goes without saying, surely.
But it doesn’t follow from this that there is no sense in which our thoughts and feelings are private, i.e. (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on exactly what kinds of thought or feeling we are talking about) opaque and inaccessible to others.
Frege pretty much started this philosophical tradition of talk about meaning and truth, didn’t he? But, as I pointed out, even he accepted that sense and reference were limited concepts that did not encompass all thought, that “[t]he reference and sense of a sign are to be distinguished from the associated [subjective] idea.”
As he put it: “one’s man idea is not that of another.”
Are you denying this?
It is a stylish piece of writing, rounding off a rigorous extended argument.
I’m glad we agree on the sociality of language. Does everyone agree on this?
I also agree that some things are individual and not social. My nose is my nose and no-one else’s, for example. Likewise, my writing are my writings and no-one else’s, for better or worse. All that is clear enough.
There is also the case of what I would call “public acts”. Signing a contract is a public act which differs from me merely writing my name, in that a contract is a public “instrument” (as I think lawyers would call it) which has legal force. Hitting a home run can only be done against the background of the social practice of baseball, which includes the concept of a home run. These cases are both individual and social.
If I privately plot to overthrow the government, my doing so depends upon the existence of governments and on my having the concept of government in my conceptual repertoire. My plotting may be kept secret from everyone else, so it is private in that sense, but there is nothing in the plotting that is in principle “opaque and inaccessible to other”, I would say. If, after changing my mind, I reveal my former plans, no-one would find my revelations opaque (though my former motives might be puzzling).
So do we disagree at all? I’m not sure.
“I’m glad we agree on the sociality of language. Does everyone agree on this?”
These, at least, are accepted facts: Human beings evolved and their communicational abilities developed in a context of social groups and interacting individuals. Language is learned by infants as they interact with other humans within particular social and cultural contexts. No interaction, no language.
Our brains are all configured differently, reflecting (amongst other things), the unique set of experiences which has shaped them. My memories are different from your memories. I have direct access to my memories but not to yours (as you do and don’t also). I can talk about my memories and write about my memories but this is like telling stories of foreign travel. Reading a travel book is different from actually visiting the place. Likewise one simply can’t completely convey any rich remembered experience (the sights and sounds and colours and smells and associated feelings and connections with other significant incidents or concepts or beliefs). This applies especially to emotional memories (romantic attachments, grief and so on) but also to mundane memories.
This seems so obvious that it puzzles me why my claims in this regard are (apparently) being questioned.
Concerning your writings being your writings and no one else’s: who would deny it? And my words are my words. But I thought we were talking about thoughts. I was talking about thoughts anyway, and making a distinction between words and thoughts.
Activities like signing a contract and hitting a home run only occur within a framework of conventions and rules, sure. These cases are both individual and social, you say. Yes. But who is denying this?
Finally you talk about a secret plot to overthrow a government. Your plotting “depends upon the existence of governments and on my having the concept of government in my conceptual repertoire.”
Again, nobody will object to these claims.
“My plotting may be kept secret from everyone else, so it is private in that sense…”
Good! Thank you. But then comes a qualification.
“… but there is nothing in the plotting that is in principle “opaque and inaccessible to other”, I would say.”
Yes, in a sense something like a plot can be revealed and laid out for all to see via language and maybe also maps and plans of government buildings etc..
“If, after changing my mind, I reveal my former plans, no-one would find my revelations opaque (though my former motives might be puzzling).”
Yes, the motives aspect is more the sort of thing I had in mind. Emotions and so on. “What drove him to such lengths?” people might say of the plotter. “What possessed him to imagine that he could singlehandedly overthrow Emperor Xi?”
Of course, the plotter may not know exactly what was driving him either. But he *would* know whether, for example, he felt driven or had simply done a kind of cold cost-benefit analysis; or perhaps was just bored and wanted some stimulation. He would know whether he was supremely confident or afraid of failure; whether he envisaged himself as a hero or more like a comic book villain.
And of course he could write a book about it all. But, even if he had great literary gifts, he would not be able to translate into linguistic form the fullness and the nuances and the precise feel of his thoughts and feelings as they had actually played out during the period he was working on his secret plan.
“I have often wondered to what extent the kind of language we speak shapes the way we reason. For example did Romans think in different ways to the way we do because of the of the nature of their language, Latin?”
I don’t disagree with any of that. Thanks.
[…] Thoughts on the nature of language and meaning. […]
Terran, you might enjoy the discussions and empirical evidence in:
I was disappointed in your take on Julius Kovesi. I’m assuming you didn’t read his book, “Moral Notions.” You also didn’t mention John Searle. Searle and Kovesi were contemporaries at Oxford and in many respects their thinking runs in parallel tracks. I wish Kovesi had written more.
I liked Julius very much and I respected him. In some areas I agreed with him, but at a fundamental level our outlooks and preoccupations were quite different. He respected science, certainly, but was also committed to a basically religious view of the world. I believe that the latter commitment motivated — and shaped to a large extent — his thinking.
I agree with you that there are parallels with Searle.
Matti: A colleague and I edited a collection of essays on Kovesi, which includes essays that relate Kovesi to Williams, Putnam, MacIntyre and Searle.
I was disappointed that the book only got three reviews, but I’m very pleased to see from WorldCat that it is in 1200 libraries.
Matti: A colleague and I edited a collection of essays on Kovesi, including essays on the relation between Kovesi and Williams, Putnam, MacIntyre and Searle.
I was disappointed the book got only three reviews, but very pleased to learn from WorldCat that it is in 1200 libraries.