Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Philosophy and Language

Stephen Martin (section 4)

 "Language is not an infallible guide, but it contains, with all its defects, a good deal of stored insight and experience. If you begin by flouting it, it has a way of avenging itself later on."
C. S. Lewis

Language is at the heart of all who we are as a people. Culture, community, civilization, all come from first having communication. Or more specifically understood communication. What in today’s society would exist had we not developed a common language? Surely we would have no great structures, no bridges or skyscrapers, no vehicles or electronics. But what about religion? What about philosophy? Ludwig Wittgenstein especially had some interesting thoughts on this matter. He uses the phrase 'meaning is use'. If you want to understand what a word means, look at what the speaker does with the word and the context in which it is used. 

  “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be master. That is all.”
Lewis Carroll

So the rules of language are subjective, because even though the words we use have a precise definition, it is not necessarily the meaning we are trying to get across. Wittgenstein suggested this by explaining how we interpret language. when someone says a word to you, you take that word and form it into a picture in your mind. the difficulty comes when while by definition all of our mental pictures are correct, they still may differ. If I say 'hammer', though some people may imagine a tack hammer, while others a sledge hammer, most likely we all will have a relatively similar picture of  a hammer in our minds. However if I were say 'house', this is a much broader subject, in fact the image in your mind will come from what you know most, so if you grew up in a modest single room cottage, that will probably be the image in you head, while others may picture a mansion, or even others a hut. These are all houses but suddenly our language are slightly different.

"In all pointed sentences some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness."
Oscar Wilde

Language cannot be relegated to its mere definition, but rather must be interpreted into its meaning. Therefore the better we know the speaker, the more we are able to understand their thought, the better we are able to understand their language. Robert Lewis Stevenson said "All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer." That prepared hearer means someone who is willing to listen not only in his own language, but also to learn a bit of the speaker's language as well. 

"Language is a public tool to understand private life." 
Ludwig Wittgenstein

1 comment:

  1. "A public tool to understand private life" - notice that you can't turn that formulation around, and use language the Humpty Dumpty way. A private language is really no language at all, unless you're content only to engage in private soliloquy. So meaning is the use we collectively find for our various words and sentences, and that turns out to be a much broader field than the young Wittgenstein had realized.