Tag Archives: philosophy of language

Things are individuated. The p=q is not a truth. Categorically, this can be true. Realistically, p is p and q is q.

The objectification of non-things

Unless a concept is turned into an object – a noun – we cannot talk about it. We cannot escape the the idea of it being an “it”. Notice the countability of “it”. This move or ability to convert a concept into a countable, tangible thing is one of the most powerful and useful tools to us – the human being. It defines us and at times separates us from other beings. So much so, that it may elevate us about gods or even God. This is not a new idea. Nietzsche had said so much with the phrase “God is dead”. But let us go further and talk about what it is like where God may be talked about in the past tense, to be able to talk about a time when God was alive. The fact that God was, is and will be yet is only ever discussed in terms of the present or presence (as it were) should set off critical and philosophical alarm bells.  Fundamentally, we must see through the power (and weakness) of language which had once moved us forward but is now holding us back.

Nature includes us

There is an excellent account of the word “nature” in Raymond Williams’ book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (page 219). Three definitions of the word were listed.

  1. the essential quality and character of something
  2. the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both
  3. the material world itself, taken as including or not including humans beings

Example sentences of these respectively could be, for example:

  1. “The nature of the crime was too gruesome to describe.”
  2. “Nature will dictate our planet’s future.”
  3. “Man and nature have achieved harmony.”

While the oldest usage is that 1 it is used more now as 2 and 3 where differentiation is difficult between the the latter two. What is important is the inclusion and exclusion of human beings. One is to equate nature with God with a capital G (as noted by Williams). Thus 3 is close to the physical reality when man is included, but only the natural world apart from human being and human culture.

Personally, I believe nature includes us (meaning 3). Nature made us to develop ideas which includes ideas about God, nature, and culture. There is a role for the idea of exclusion as well as inclusion. We have the capacity to think and express either. The ground of battle is not in God, nature, or culture but the nature* of language itself.


*First meaning was meant and unavoidable.

The structure of meaning and existence

There are things. And there are processes of things. The epistemological process of a body-thing is conceptualisation. The communicative/functional process of a body-thing is symbolisation. Let us label these meaning-structure words referent, concept, and symbol respectively.

Picture 1

The above diagram is the standard Ogden/Richard triangle of reference.

But it is possible to have:

  1. a referent with a concept and symbol for it;
  2. a referent with a concept but without a symbol for it;
  3. a referent without a concept or symbol for it;
  4. a concept without a referent or symbol for it, and;
  5. a concept with a symbol for it.

The symbol for a referent-less concept in (5.) is substituted for its referent. And it is here that often our understanding of the world breaks down.

For example, the process of invention usually begins with the conceptualisation something which does not exist (study case: iPhone). Eventually this is given a name and the physical product of the iPhone is manufactured and the referent iPhone is brought into existence. In other cases this creation process may not be possible (study case: Harry Potter). The only way it is brought into being is through the process of literature (writing and publishing a novel). Harry Potter only exists as a character in a novel, and not as a person as such. In this sense Harry Potter remains in (5.) never to become a real thing as in (1.). Only fiction about Harry Potter in the form of physical novels becomes (1.).

 

Differance and the metaphysics of presence

A is a because it is not b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, or z.

B is b because it is not a, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, or z.

C is c because it is not a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, or z.

And so on until z.

A does not have an inherent meaning, only meaning because it differs to the other symbols.  And by not having an inherent meaning it defers meaning. This is what Derrida had meant by differance. The choice of a different letter but identical pronunciation was to highlight differing, deferring and difference. The implication is that nothing has meaning present unto itself, only meaning via absence. He terms the mistake to think otherwise metaphysics to presence.

Metaphors we live by

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s important work Metaphors We Live By pointed out an aspect of conceptualisation and language – that we must resort literal physical meanings and relationships in order to talk about the abstract.

The employment of metaphors of the real is the only way we can talk about unreal.

Consider these sentences.

  1. He is in the kitchen.
  2. The concert starts in three hours.
  3. She is in the choir.
  4. They are in love.

All sentences employ spatial relation “in” to describe the concepts.

But only 1 is literal or real. Both “he” and “the kitchen” are real things. The person is located in a space. In 2 uses space to talk about time. And 3, and 4 use space to talk about membership and emotional state. While it can be argued that one can use non-space to describe things, it is neither easy, economical, nor natural. In other words, abstract or unreal concepts simply cannot be mentally, psychologically or conceptually manipulated without recourse to the real literal world.

Brown

“There is a book on the table. The book is brown. I will accept the book exists. But does the colour brown exist?”

Brown is a wavelength. White light bounces off the book. The characteristics of the book absorb certain wavelengths. What is not absorbed is reflected. Let us call this isolated, reflected wavelength (low-intensity light at 600 nanometres) which reaches our eyes “brown”. The eyes, which are receptive to wavelengths, transmits that information from the retina down the nerves to the brain where it is equated to “brown”.

You see the book. I see the same book. The colour which is reflected corresponds to “brown” in your vocabulary and my vocabulary. But whether we see the same colour in the same manner does not matter. As long as we are talking about the same “thing” is all that is important.

In this sense, we have isolated the property “brown” to be the wavelength and given it this agreed-upon name. The wavelength exists as light, as energy. I would say “yes”, it physically exists.

Linguistic efficiency

Chomsky believed there were innate ideas when it came to language. But cannot the patterns (deep structures) of language explained by the limitations of probable choice and the tendency towards linguistic efficiency, rather than some kind of pre-determined given?

In some ways this is what Chomsky is saying. But somehow there is a gap between his understanding of the physical reality and the reality of his language.

Language is a physical property and should be treated as such, not as some mystery akin to religions and gods.

Statements of non-facts

By simply saying, “God” does not bring God into existence anymore than saying “Harry Potter” will bring this fictional character into existence.

Human beings are very good at creating abstract objects. And indeed we treat ideas and thoughts as objects, often mixing them up with the real objects of the world.

The general and the particular

Plato was mistaken, or at least his concept of forms (ideas) was.

The mistake was in the relationship between physical reality and innate ideas. The concept is understood to be that the thing of the reality is derived from the innate idea (forms). The concept is that forms are the true reality, and the physical world is but its shadow, or reflection of it.

Modern science has shown where ideas are created — in the brain as the mind. The more experience we have the better our ideas of the things of physical reality. Each particular thing categorised becomes a general idea of the thing. It is within the name-meaning (sign) that which our knowledge is based upon.

Philosophical realism

An object exists independent of our perception or conception of it. Michael Dummett is against this stance and calls it “colourless reductionism”.

Interestingly it is, in my opinion, precisely that reality is “colourless” that our minds colour it. It is the necessary part of our being conscious of our reality. And again, it is precisely because we erroneously supplement to the reality with minds that perhaps we need to reduce (remove) what was added to it.

things

The world is the totality of facts, not of things. (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)

I think Wittgenstein is wrong.

The world is the totality of things, not of facts.

To be sure, his assertion is a firm rejection of materialism. I firmly reassert it. What remains always are things, not facts, not souls. This is an inducted reason. Like a good philosophical citizen, I do not claim deduction.

Logic has its failings. It regards language as flawless a medium for expressing ideas. It is far from it. Philosophy must investigate language as well.

Emergent or projection?

Does the quality of something emerge from it or do we project into it the quality we want to see?

Are these appropriate metaphors for the way we experience the world?

Can we do away with metaphors?

I think how we approach the world as a sentient being determines how we engage with it.

When does a soul get created?

As a Buddhist, I do not believe in souls. Talk to most people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and even Buddhists – and they talk as though something survives after death. Such is the power and attraction of the concept of the soul.

Out of curiosity, I asked an American Muslim when is the soul created. He said, “at the moment of conception”. And thereafter it remains either in Heaven or Hell (and also Purgatory if you are Roman Catholic). So the mystery, it seems to me, is that the eternal soul did not start off as eternal but was created out of the grace of God or gods (of which again in Buddhism are concepts).

The problem here is that we have no evidence for these, only that of the textual sources, and not any independent or direct proof of souls and gods as such. Apart from being told by someone else, namely the sacred texts and by those who believe in word of the sacred texts, there is no other proof. Buddhism’s claim that everything is impermanent can be verified by observation. While we cannot observe everything, the weight of non-contrary evidence is substantial. Inferential logic tells us that the soul is perhaps one of these “things” which stands counter to impermanence even though no one can show us any evidence for its existence.

This alone should sound off alarm bells in your head.

While I do not have a problem with the concept of the soul, I do have problem with the belief in the existence of a soul. But at the same time, it is normal to think and believe that such a thing exists. This is something humans do very well, and perhaps defines us from other animals. But it is also natural that some for the human species (Buddhists) to “see through” it, that is, to understand the nature of it.

So it is baffling that in this day and age, where our understanding of the natural physical world has progressed this far, to be still caught in the grips of such an illusion. Powerful indeed is this illusion, passed on from generation to generation through speech and action.

Souls are not created. The concept of a soul is. The concept is perpetuated by its continued reinforcement. The root is therefore in the nature of words and not in the nature of the thing.

Physicalism, not atheism

I don’t like atheism.

I don’t like atheism because it drags God, god or gods in the conversation as if they exist. It assumes first that there is a god or gods then proceeds with the argument to deny it. Atheism is the trap that theists have set for the unsuspecting.

The better approach is physicalism. Conclude that everything is physical, then to proceed to see what is a god or gods means we can deal with it like the fiction that it is. The concept of god is then seen as ordinary like Harry Potter and purple unicorns. The verbalisation or iteration of these do not make them real. Physicalism allows us the possibility to deal with concepts.