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Why does language matter to philosophy?


To: Dorothy G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why does language matter to philosophy?
Date: 26th May 2010 13:03

Dear Dorothy,

Thank you for your email of 18 May, with your first essay on the Philosophy of Language. Although you haven't given a title, from what you say in your concluding paragraph I gather that you are answering the question, 'Why does language matter to philosophy?'

You say a number of things about language, its role in human development and its use in communication, which no-one would take exception to. You also touch on a philosophical question, the interdependence on culture, language and perception, which could be developed at much greater length.

The vagueness and ambiguity of language, the differences between cultures and customs, all make the attempt to communicate a hazardous process, as you explain. However, in that observation we have not yet reached the philosophical point. It seems that you don't need any philosophical theory to tell you that words, being symbolic, can be interpreted in different ways, and that sometimes a hearer will interpret words differently from the way they were intended by a speaker.

How far is it possible for conceptual schemes or languages to differ? Can we imagine meeting a previously undiscovered tribe, or maybe aliens from Mars, whose language, thought processes and perceptions were so different from ours that it was impossible to understand them despite every effort? What would that be like?

That question does get us deep into philosophy. There is no simple or direct way to answer it. First, one needs to formulate a theory of how language works. This is necessarily different from a linguistic 'theory' or a theoretical account of the grammar of a particular language because it addresses the question, How is language possible? The theory applies to all possible languages, not just to English or Swahili.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain how language relates to experience and thought, starting in the 17h/18th centuries, although there is evidence that language was considered a philosophical question back in the times of Ancient Greece (e.g. in Plato's dialogue Cratylus).

Locke famously argued that words are labels for 'ideas'. You show me a rose and I form the idea of a rose in my mind. I associate this idea with the word 'rose'. On this model, language is like a conventional code which we use to communicate our ideas to one another. You can never see my private idea of a rose, or my idea of red, but we can agree on the public circumstances when it is appropriate to say, 'That is a rose' or 'That is red'.

Much of 20th century philosophy of language has been about the battle against that Lockean picture. In particular the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (early and late) plays a very significant role, as I describe in the Philosophy of Language program.

I know you are anxious for my judgement on your essay. Your writing is articulate and intelligent, and you are clearly interested in the question of language and its implications for communication between cultures. However, the problem isn't about writing or putting pen to paper. I am less interested in how well or badly you write, than I am in how deeply you are able to plunge into the waters of philosophy. Do you want to do this? Are you ready to?

Wittgenstein has a very apt observation on this point. Philosophy is hard, in the way that swimming under water is hard, because we are constantly battling against the body's natural tendency to float to the surface.

I raised the question above whether it was conceivable that there could exist intelligent aliens with whom we were permanently unable to communicate. Here is another philosophical challenge in a similar vein. The American philosopher W.V.O. Quine put forward a thesis which he termed the 'indeterminacy of translation'. According to this thesis, all the actual and possible data on the basis of which a linguist might construct a translation from one language A to another language B is, in principle, insufficient to decide between rival translations. Moreover, there is no 'fact' of the matter, or unreachable 'meaning' that we fail to capture in our translation. There are just the two languages, A and B, which can be aligned in different, possibly endlessly different, ways.

Many students (including myself) have struggled to get their minds around that idea. In your reading, you will come across Quine's indeterminacy thesis in relation to questions about interpreting different languages and cultures. Our tendency is to think that there must be some ultimately 'correct' way to understand another human being, even if we never achieve this in practice. But what if there is no 'correct' way? What if there is no ultimate answer to the question whether you have really 'understood' another person or not?

All the best,