Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, April 29, 2016

Philosophy and Language Continued

Stephen Martin (section 4)




Language serves three purposes: (1) to indicate facts, (2) to express the state of the speaker, (3) to alter the state of the hearer. These three purposes are not always all present. If, when alone, I prick my finger and say “ouch,” only (2) is present. Imperative, interrogative, and optative sentences involve (2) and (3), but not (1). Lies involve (3), and, in a sense, (1), but not (2). Exclamatory statements made in solitude, or without regard to a hearer, involve (1) and (2), but not (3). Single words may involve all three, for instance if I find a corpse in the street and shout “murder!”

An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth
by Bertrand Russell, 1950


My last post ended with us discussing the subjectivity of language. How we all speak in our own private language, and must therefor attempt to become multilingual in order to truly understand others. Lucky for us, most of our words have remarkably similar meanings, so even when we don't understand the exact content the speaker is trying to convey, we're close enough to not throw a fit about it. How useful is language then if we can rarely use it to share our truth? The quote above shows Bertrand Russell's attempt to show us the difficulty in understanding its purpose. He states here that Language serves three purposes, yet that not all three purposes are always served. Throughout the rest of the chapter he states the differences on 'meaning' and 'truth' and how language ties them together. However he never truly comes to a conclusion for how language answers these three. This lead us back to the end of Wittgenstein's work when he realized how sentences and words have a much broader field. I personally believe that is where Wittgenstein had his issue though. He looked at language as sentences, as a collection of words. But could a single word be considered language? Is a name considered language? Certainly names are in every language, it could even be said that all words are names.  

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Words can indeed light fires in our hearts and minds. Though sentences perhaps can do more so. Whether they be "once more into the breach, dear friend, once more" or "I have a dream today!" How many words must be grouped together to light that fire?

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
Henry James

Cellar Door has likewise often been attributed to being the most beautiful sounding word in the english language. Though who initially said that is unclear, it has references dating back to Cyrus Hooper in 1903. But can we go less even? What about a single word? If there was one word in which you found to be the most beautiful in the english language what would it be?

Clarity
Clearly, to choose the most beautiful word is impossible, and I don’t care for hierarchies, so I asked for help. My daughter said, Mother Nature (sweet). My son said, Beautiful (clever). My friends said, Love, Courage, Awe (noble). Senescence, Quintessence, Iridescence (fancy). Aphelion, Riparian, Polymnia uvedalia (specific). Ravish, Entwine, Euphoria (romantic). Sjambok, Rhabdomancy, and Cellophane (weird).

Maybe a simple word? Helen Vendler calls you the “human love-syllable” (in Shakespeare’s Sonnets). But, you is not always beautiful (see Shakespeare’s Sonnets). John Keats’s urn says that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” So, the most beautiful word must mean something beautiful (truthfully). I turned to another poet, George Oppen, who wrote: “Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

A word that means brilliancy, splendor, and clearness of color, atmosphere, sight, intellect, judgment, conscience, style. I choose clarity.
-Camille Guthrie

But now I am veering from my point. Language consists of so much more than a compilation of words. Yet Less than a single word. Facial expressions, body language, eye rolling, whistles, yawns, gasps. These are all part of the way we communicate. And that is what Wittgenstein came to realize, that language is not just words, it is communication. As beautiful a word as clarity is, meaning and understanding is more important. I believe even Wittgenstein saw the error of his ways towards the end, and tried to express it with a little self-effacing humor. 

“So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations



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