D. Philosophy of Language: 1st Extract
Language and the World
The hypothesis of 'private objects' cut off from any connection with the physical world has no significant role to play in accounting for the way language is actually used. When I talk about the blue of the sky, I am talking about a colour to which others can have as good an access as I. When I talk about feeling giddy, I am talking about a phenomenon with physical causes and effects, and characteristic behavioural manifestations. We all live under the same sky. Riding on funfair roundabouts has predictable effects on the human constitution. Something other than an 'association between words and mental objects' is going on here that explains how we are able to use language successfully to describe our experiences to one another. The question is, How does our language work, if not by each individual's mentally associating words with incommunicable subjective experiences? What is the force or steering mechanism that keeps our use of language on track?
Before attempting to answer that question, let us first pause for a moment to marvel at some of the things language can accomplish. Just as I can look up at a clear sky and say, 'What a delightful shade of blue!', so I can point to the bottle of black ink that the assistant in the stationary shop has just mistakenly handed to me and declare, 'That is not blue!' Or I can exclaim after my funfair ride, 'My goodness, I feel giddy!', or tell the doctor examining me a few days after my hospitalisation for concussion, 'I do not feel giddy now.' These points may seem childishly obvious. However, for the philosopher of language starting out by attempting to make the minimum of assumptions, they ought to seem puzzling. Even if one grants the modest claim that at least one of the central functions of language is to express and communicate the way we find things, or how things are in the world, how is it that a thought concerning 'blue' can be appropriate in a situation where blue is present, while another thought concerning 'blue' can be no less appropriate in a situation where blue is absent? How is it that a thought concerning 'giddy' can be appropriate in a situation where the feeling of giddiness is present, while another thought concerning 'giddy' is appropriate in a situation where the feeling of giddiness is absent? How can I think of the meaning of 'blue' and mean not blue, or think of the meaning of 'giddy' and mean not giddy? In other words, what is negation? What is this magical power of the word, 'not'?
Whatever language does must amount to more than simply attaching labels to objects or situations that we encounter. For otherwise, if blue is absent from a given object or situation, then there would be nothing for the linguist to do with the label 'blue'. If no-one is feeling giddy, then the 'giddy' label remains in the box. The relation between name and object can only constitute one aspect of the functioning of language, it cannot comprehend the whole of it. A statement that can be true or false is not like a name or label which one either attaches or one does not attach, depending on the presence or absence of an object which the label fits. Nor is it simply a list of such labels, for a mere string of labels would not hang together in the way that a statement hangs together, would not be capable of being 'true or false'. These simple observations will turn out to have profound implications.
There is another, equally important aspect of language, which might also be described as being concerned with negation, but in a rather different way. So far, the examples we have looked at have concerned the use of language to describe states of affairs that are present to the speaker. It is hardly necessary to say to myself, or indeed to anyone else, that the sky is blue when that fact is patently obvious to everyone with eyes to see. Nor is it necessary to tell myself that I feel 'giddy', when the very feeling engulfs my consciousness. Yet I can also tell someone else, as I step off the roundabout who may or may not be feeling giddy themself that I 'feel giddy', someone for whom the giddiness I feel is not present but absent. Equally, I can talk about how blue the sky was yesterday, or of a blue sky recorded long ago in the journals of Captain Cook. In this way, language serves as a potentially far-reaching extension of our powers of perception. By telling you how I feel, I make my experience available to you by means of a linguistic proxy. Reading the Captain's journal, the very words embody the knowledge I would have gained had I been on board with the author at the time when the words were written. In both cases, the words in some so far mysterious way seem to make what is absent present to the hearer's or reader's mind.
Here then are two 'marvels' of language: the ability to state what is not the case, and the ability to describe states of affairs that are not present to a person who understands what is said. To those two cases one may add the case already remarked upon in relation to the thought experiment of a private language: the possibility of making a false judgement concerning the applicability of a given term to a certain situation, or, more generally, the false judgement that things are the way a given statement states that they are. The states of affairs that we use language to describe can fail, due to an error on our part, to match up with reality, not only when we are describing something absent but also when we are describing something present; or, rather, seemingly present. One might indeed say, somewhat controversially, that the fundamental lesson of the rejection of a 'private language' is that no state of affairs is ever simply present present as such, without the slightest room for error to the mind of the linguist. As soon as judgement reaches beyond the subjective standpoint of the speaker to make a claim about the objective world, howsoever modest a claim, then there arises the possibility of error. It is learning to wonder at facts such as these, which do not strike common sense as strange or marvellous only because they are so all-pervasive, which provides the impetus for pursuing the philosophy of language.
We asked earlier, 'What is the force or steering mechanism that keeps our use of language on track?' But we had not at that point established just what it is that our language is on track of. Are we in any better position to say now? Undoubtedly, cognition plays a significant role. One of the things that we use language for is to keep track of the facts or, rather, what we take to be the facts. We may find ourselves in dispute over the truth of a particular claim, but such disputes are only possible against a relatively stable background of agreement in the words are used to express factual claims. But how is such linguistic agreement established and maintained? How is it that we are able to continue to understand one another despite our disagreements?
It seems that there are just two possible explanations. One possibility is that the force that guides our linguistic practices is external to those practices, in other words, something in the nature of reality that gives authority to the rules governing the words we use. Alternatively, the force in question is nothing more than that which we more or less continually exert upon one another, a constraint internal to those very practices themselves. One might think of the difference metaphorically as that between the laws of a divine right monarchy, and the laws of a democracy. The question is, are the speakers of a language in fact capable of being effectively their own law-makers, or is there necessarily some higher authority involved?
The question we have just posed is one aspect of the ancient problem of universals. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in addition to the concrete objects of sense perception there existed abstract objects such as Justice, or The Horse, or Square, or the number twelve. But his realism concerning concepts had an added metaphysical dimension. He believed that it was our knowledge of these non-sensual 'Forms' or 'Ideas' that actually guided us in making judgements about whether a certain act was just, or in recognising a horse, or doing a geometrical construction involving a square, or in counting twelve horses. the Forms functioned as an external authority. In learning the words 'just', 'horse', 'square', 'twelve', one learned, through repetition of examples, which Forms the words referred to. That is to say, in terms of Platonic metaphysics, one recalled the forms with which one's soul had directly communed before it was born into a physical body and thereafter condemned to live in the confusing world of sense perception. One of the main tasks for the modern philosophy of language is to find a workable alternative to Platonism.