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.