Tag Archives: philosophy of language

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.