Language Barrier

Pod-and-blog-fade seems to be running rampant in the post-election libertarian and philosophy circles. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a combination of political hangover and something like a sigh of relief as certain existential threats have been postponed. Everywhere else, lefty entertainment and philosophy podcasts and blogs have begun their four-to-eight year pity-party, wherein they cry about the president to the exclusion of any other form of content. Technically, that’s why I voted for Trump, was to make these people cry… but I’ve got a bit of buyers’ remorse, now.

Anyway, I’m back on the content-producing bandwagon. Today, I’m talking about words.


I expect most of my readers will be well aware of the rules of grammar and have a decently expansive vocabulary. I’m not going to make a “top ten” list of fun punctuation marks… I mean, who hasn’t heard of an interrobang I’m not going to share my fun story about arguing about ancient Greek grammar with Jehova’s Witnesses (subject-object relationships are more important when you haven’t discovered punctuation yet). Instead, I’m discussing the philosophy of language in broad strokes.

As far as I can tell, most people haven’t critically examined the relationship between language and the world around them (unless they’ve smoked a lot of weed or have suffered severe concussions). As such, most people have intuitively just assumed one of two paradigms concerning the operation of language. If this describes you, Understand I’m not talking-down to you, as this is something esoteric enough in the realm of philosophy so as to be compared to particle physics or studying neolithic attitudes towards one’s in-laws. It is, however, an important issue to address when engaging in philosophical discussions.

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, what are these two paradigms of language people assume? The first is that of what could be called “linguistic realism”: it’s a belief that words and sentences directly correlate to reality (in some cases, one could even say that words and reality are commensurate). In the case of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, the word “justice” is an actual expression of some form or concept. When a poor soul makes the mistake of using the word “justice” near Socrates, Socrates assumes that the man must know the platonic form of justice so thoroughly so as to be able to utter the word, itself. Aristotle is a little more grounded, but he still assumes a sort of direct correlation between the word “justice” and manifestations in meatspace of someone “giving that which is owed”. In the modern age, that attitude is usually expressed by people who really enjoy Rhonda Byrne, people who think that bad words are bad words due to some innate quality of the word itself, and people who deride the idea of words changing meaning over time as well as the creation of new words. I used to be a linguistic realist.

The second paradigm of language could be called “postmodern nominalism” or “naive nominalism”. This position holds that words have very little correlation to reality; as a matter of fact, the best way to describe the position would be “the belief that words exist as nothing more than a game between individuals wherein rules are made up concerning the meaning and use of words, with little to no relation to the world outside of said game.” In the case of thinkers like Peter Abelard and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word depends on something along the lines of social consensus and common usage. When I say “tree”, it only means “that thing growing out of the ground, made out of wood, and bearing leaves” if I am speaking to someone who comprehends English and understands the botanical context of the statement. In a different context, the term “tree” could refer to a shape, such as that of a propane tree, a family tree, or a decision tree. To a non-English-speaker, it may as well be any other set of phonemes: it’s pure gibberish. In the modern age, that attitude is usually expressed by people who really enjoy saying “a rose by any other name…”, people who think that bad words are bad because of some historical or class-related context, and people who live-tweet their netflix-and-chill experience with their cis-gendered binary life-partner.

One of the clearest ways to delineate between these two positions is to inquire as to the nature of dictionaries. For example, if I hear or read a word I do not recognize, I obviously go to the dictionary… well… to google’s dictionary, at least. When I read the definition of the word, I am reading one of two things: I’m either reading the common context for the use of the particular term at the time of publication, or I am reading the “actual meaning” of the word. For example, if I were given the word “obacerate”, I would obviously have to google it or look it up in a century-old edition of the OED. When I get the definition “to interrupt one’s speech”, is that what the word means in some innate sense, or is that simply a description of how the word has been used in the past? If I were to begin using the word in colloquial conversation, would it mean “to interrupt one’s speech”, or could it take on a new meaning based on the context in which I use it or the context in which others understand it? If I only ever used the word “obacerate” when referencing covering someone’s mouth or punching them in the jaw, could the word take on that connotation?

If one says “the word means what the word means, regardless of context” one is likely a linguistic realist. If one says “the word hasn’t been used for almost a hundred years, it can mean whatever society begins to use it as” one is likely a naive nominalist. A more apparent, but less cut-and-dried example would be the use of words like “tweet”, wherein it could either be onomatopoeia for bird sounds or an activity which takes place on the website, twitter. If the word were to fall out of common parlance concerning birds, would the meaning of the word have changed once Webster cuts out the atavistic use of the word?

As is typically the case, I get the feeling that most people who bother to read this far are asking themselves “Why do I care about this hair-splitting over words?” If you are, you are right to do so. In day-to-day conversation, words just mean what they mean. If there is a misunderstanding, we need merely exchange one word for a synonym or offer a definition to contextualize the use of a particular word. In philosophy (and, therefore, any sufficiently advanced field of thought), though, these sorts of distinctions become important.

For example, if I assume that words have innate meanings and are either direct representations of something or are a sort of manifestation of the thing, itself, then when I start talking about something like colors, thoughts, phenomena, property norms… you know, abstractions, it can get hairy if I’m speaking to someone from a different set of preconceptions about language. I’m a sort of compatibilist nominalist. I greatly appreciate Peter Abelard’s contributions to the philosophy of language and I’m a recovering linguistic realist. As I will eventually get to in the 95 Theses, and I have already covered in the Patreon subscribers-only content, the human experience appears to be one which takes place entirely within one’s mind.

Whoah. Hit the brakes. That likely seems either patently obvious or totally insane, depending on who’s reading it. It’s either obvious that one has a consciousness which navigates a never-ending stream of sense-data and never grasps a “thing-in-itself” beyond those sense-inputs, or it’s insane to start talking like a Cartesian or Kantian solipsist: of course one sees, touches, tastes, smells, and hears the world around them and discusses these things with others…

…Which is a similar divide as the one between the linguistic realists and the postmodern nominalists. As far as I’m concerned, though, my mind is locked away from the world and only sees it as mediated through sense organs, nerve connections, chemical emulsions, brain wrinkles, and more. The only way I can make sense of all those inputs is to pick out regularities and assign concepts to those regularities. Through this systematic approach to those sense inputs, one can create a noetic and epistemic framework by which one can interact (albeit though similar mediation as the senses) with the world outside of one’s mind.

After all that fancy noesis and epistemology is underway, it becomes useful to apply language to this framework. If I consistently see a woody creature growing from the earth and bearing leaves and fruit, and I wish to express that set of concepts to someone else (who is obviously a similar set of sense perceptions, but I assume to be someone like myself), it helps to have a name, a sound, a mark, etc. to signify that set of concepts. And the basis for the word “tree” is created. The intuitive concepts such as causality, correlation, etc. also exist in that bundle of sense inputs and later receive names. If trees, causality, or even a world beyond the phenomena don’t actually exist, the sense inputs I have mistaken for these things still do. The reason I bring up abstractions of relationships, such as causality, is because they seem to relate to certain aspects of grammar. For example, subject-object relationships and prepositions seem to presuppose these causal and abstracted relationships.

Now, of course, there’s hundreds of years of philosophy of language at work and I couldn’t hope to go through even a thorough examination of my particular flavor of philosophy of language. The reason I tried to give this 2,000-word summary of the idea is twofold. First, I think that this is an issue that underlies a lot of misunderstandings and disagreements on the more superficial levels of human interaction. From the comical dilemmas over who’s allowed to say “faggot” or “nigger” to the more fundamental issues of whether or not “rights” or “norms” exist and in what manner, these conflicting theories of language are at play. The 95 Theses will go into the idea more in-depth and if the Patreon subscribers demand it, I’ll explore the idea further.

Second, I want to announce the upcoming glossary page on the website. I am often accused of mutilating language or using words in a way that only I can understand them. Less often, I’m accused of using too many technical words for people to keep up. I hope to remedy some of these issues by providing a cheat sheet of sorts to help people keep up with me and to understand what I am saying when I use words in a more precise way than they are commonly presented in dictionary definitions and colloquial use. Of course, I need feedback on which words should go in said glossary so, please, do comment on this post and send me emails about my abuses of language.

TL;DR: Philosophy of language is a very involved field of study, but nearly everyone is a philosopher of language, provided they speak a language. Even if one hasn’t critically analyzed their understanding of how language relates to the world, they are walking around with a bundle of assumptions as to what they mean when they speak certain words, and whether or not those words have some innate quality to them or whether they are just some sort of social game being played with other speakers of that same dialect. Most of those assumptions can be categorized as being that of “linguistic realism” (words are directly related to things and act as an avatar of the things they relate) or that of “postmodern nominalism” (words don’t mean anything in and of themselves and only vaguely gesture at socially agreed upon concepts). There are other, more nuanced positions that people can hold, but usually only as a result of actively engaging in the philosophy of language, an exercise I strongly recommend for those that are able.

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