Philosophy of Language: We Have No Idea What We're Talking About!

By Johnny Apocalypse
September 1st, 2012

The philosophy of language --- which strongly coincides with linguistics --- has been practiced for a very long time; many believe it started in the Western traditions around 5 B.C. but India started even earlier. However, the modern fashions of language philosophy began with philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and the grand-master of the game, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

While there are several major fields of the subject --- linguistics, language and it's effects on thought (and vice versa) --- the primary field is meaning.

The primary scope of this article is meaning. In our context "meaning" is similar to looking up words in a dictionary since it's concerned with what words really mean. But this field goes beyond the simple definition of words, into one's "personal meaning", and which meaning, if any, can be considered the "true" meaning.

For a reasonable example, let's assume there are four doctors: John, Paul, George and Ringo. They're sitting about discussing the human hand. Now Ringo considers the hand to consist of the palm, fingers and wrist (including all bones, blood passages, etc), but Paul thinks the wrist is not included- simply the palm and fingers. George has a different idea, that they're only discussing the palm. Sadly, John failed medical school and believes that the hand is part of the abdomen.

Now three of these four men are not discussing the same thing. They're discussing a very similar thing, but it's not exactly, precisely the same (John has no idea what's going on, and has left the room to watch MTV). This is because their personal meaning of hand includes or excludes different parts, namely the fingers and the wrist. While the fingers are technically their own thing, most everyone will consider them to still be part of the hand. But how many people would or would not consider the wrist to be a part of the hand? Would a poll show this to be a fifty-fifty split? Or would there be a wider gap?

Now I know from personal experience with carpel tunnel that at least to some extent, the wrist will be included. This is because I had to see a hand specialist, and not a wrist specialist, even though the carpel tunnel problem happens within the wrist itself. There was no wrist specialist for me to visit, just the hand specialist. I did not think to ask this doctor her opinion, but I plan to when my other wrist goes downhill.

So how would Paul, George and Ringo go about resolving their personal meanings? Through debate. Let's say that during their discussion they realize that they aren't really talking about the same thing. At this point they have to argue the matter between themselves to solve the issue. This is why the wrist is included, this is why the fingers are not, etc.

So what, exactly is philosophical about a hand? Not much. But language philosophy can really come into play with metaphysics.

One field of metaphysics that applies is free will. At this point in time, philosophers can only agree that free will is not proven or disproven, and that's all they agree on. While there are several theories as to why free will may or may not exist, we'll concentrate on what's generally called "psychological determinism". Determinism is the idea that there is no free will, and this theory states there is none due to psychological make up.

Dr. Sutcliffe is a hypothetical world-renown psychiatrist. He is, in fact, the greatest expert in psychology to ever exist. And he's devoted his time and effort into studying you.

Now Doc Sutcliffe has sufficiently studied you, your upraising, your habits, your beliefs, etc. He has sufficient information to know exactly how you react in a certain situation, let's say buying a mystery book by one author or another. He observes you go into the book store, browsing the titles, and you come to two books, one by Andrew Vachss and one by Michael Connelly. Sutcliffe knows, without doubt, that you will by the Vachss book. And he watches you debate, flip through a few pages, debate more, and in the end, you buy the book by Vachss.

Sutcliffe was right, and will be right every time he decides which way you will choose. This is because, in this make-believe world, you have no free will. Every choice you can make has been determined by your psychological makeup.

But inside your mind, there was an actual debate. You thought the books over carefully, you read a little of them both, and made your decision based upon what you felt were the best factors supporting your purchase. You had no idea beforehand that you'd pick Andrew Vachss, and you had to figure things out yourself. With no outside controls visible to you, you made a perfectly free decision.

Some philosophers say that even though someone can accurately predict what you will do, you still make the free decision, and therefore have and exercise free will. What others can predict has no effect on these things, regardless of their reasoning. Other philosophers say there is no free will here, because you don't have the free will to break away from the psychological makeup that made this decision for you. Even if you say to yourself "I'm going to do something that makes no sense to the psychologists who may study me", your decision to do so was caused by your previous upbringing, experiences, etc, saying "it's time to break away from this mold!" Confusing, I know.

So along comes the language philosopher, and says "these people have two completely different ideas of free will! In fact, they're not even arguing about free will, since they're not on the same page as to what free will is! Let's solve this problem!"

At which point, the language philosophers decided to differentiate between the two ideas of free will here. The general (although not unanimous) conclusion here is that two things are evident- you have no free will here, because of your psyche. But since your brain vigorously debated matters, you exercised "free choice" instead. Arthur Schopenhauer once said something like "man can will how he acts (free choice) but he cannot will how he wills (free will)".

So what did the language philosophers do for us in this case? Well nothing has exactly been resolved, but we do have a shiny new term to use while arguing!

Now wait a minute, what's the point of language philosophy if you don't actually resolve anything? Well according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, this is the only way we ever will resolve anything in philosophy. Wittgenstein came up with the idea that philosophy had reached a point where it had become nothing but "language games". By this, he claims that all we're doing is arguing about terms, but not what they actually mean.

Going back to the free will example above, Wittgenstein would say that to finally resolve the issue we have to get to the true, clear meaning of all the terms we were discussing. Once we fully define "free will", "determinism", and other related matters, we would be able to finally get to the bottom of the actual question over whether or not free will exists. In fact, there are times when Wittgenstein seems to say that not only can they be resolved, but they'll be resolved quite easily.

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