Reflections on Philosophy of Language
Recently I attended a Berkeley Philosophy Meetup focused on the Philosophy of Language. As so often plagues a meeting of philosophy aficionadoes unfamiliar with each other’s was significant confusion throughout the conversation as to what constitutes “language” itself.
My sense is that language is essentially an outgrowth of something nature was already doing in various other forms — that Speech is the “duckbill of the human primate”, as I put it. Think of the various layers of communication humans use that aren’t speech: physical gestures, facial expressions, sign language — these are all considered fair game for Linguistics as the study of language.
Where we start to get fuzzy is when we look at music, dance, visual art, mathematically described shapes, and other types of deliberately organized information. Can we call those language? What’s lost if we do?
In my view, privileging one linguistic space over another, e.g. privileging speech acts over facial expressions — constitutes nothing more than arbitrary and dangerous delineations between essentially equivalent arenas of deliberate information organization. One can classify them as having certain advantages over others, e.g. speech acts tend to have greater fidelity of transmission than a caress and with it a greater chance of re-transmission, but there can be no doubt that the caress of a stranger in an empty elevator does portray a message.
If we have to restrict the definition of Language to what can fit within the space of speech and maybe some gestures we can easily take pictures of and set down with definitions in a book, then we’re duping ourselves into thinking that communication doesn’t “truly” occur on any other plane.
But the alternative view is a sort of “turtles all the way down” assertion — which feels right to my intuition but, for me, failed the simple communication test; I don’t think I conveyed my perspective all that well.
Leave it to Terence McKenna, in his bardic way of initiating people into a new perspective, to have already addressed the problem of defining Language — and he does so within the span of a minute, starting with DNA, the stuff of life itself:
Part of what it makes it difficult for us to think about language, clearly, in English, is that this word, language, is used by us to mean Spoken Language, and it also refers to the general class of linguistic activity, as in computer language, body language, so forth and so on. And to think clearly about language, we need to have a clear distinction between spoken language and the general syntactical organization of reality.
Language: because that is old. Honeybees do it; dolphins do it; termites do it; they all do it different ways; octopi do it.
There is much of language in nature. In fact you could argue that ALL of nature is a linguistic enterprise.
Because the DNA essentially is a symbolic system. Those codons which code for protein are arbitrarily assigned — assigned, in other words, by convention. There is no chemical relationship between the codons and the proteins they code for any more than there is a relationship between an English word and the thing it intends. Those are just conventionalized by probability over time.”
So language is DEEP in nature. what is not deep in nature is SPEECH.
[You can hear this from about 37 minutes into McKenna's speech as podcast by Lorenzo Hagarty on the Psychedelic Salon: In the Valley of Novelty Part 1.]
I have much more to say on this topic and on why probabilities are the most important component of language and meaning, and tangentially why the word “meaning” should be considered meaningless, but it will have to wait for the next spot of free time perhaps under the influence of another potent thinker.
Steve Dee managed to sum up succinctly a piece of the matter after the meeting:
I think study of philosophy of language has basically invalidated the theory that we can use language to communicate.
I’d revise the statement to something along the lines of, “The theory that we use language to communicate is a totally meaningless assertion.” But Steve’s comment is funnier.