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Words and Worlds

or: Poignant examples of humanity's search for meaning in its linguistic experience. By Mark Heyne Dec.2006

Formally speaking, the heap paradox can be transcribed as a logic argument with an unconditional premise ("1 wheat grain does not make a heap"), a general conditional premise ("If i wheat grains do not make a heap, then neither do i+1 wheat grains") and a conclusion like "10000 wheat grains do not make a heap" (10000 can be replaced with no matter how large a number). Vlad Vieru.

Paradoxes show loopholes in the fabric of logic, but some paradoxes are resolvable by linguistic analysis. Here, a vague concept is one with borderline cases, and these are best dealt with in the following ways: by defining the concept clearly, or by admitting the relative nature of the attribute, so allowing a sliding scale of shades of grey between black and white.

Firstly, it may be a matter of definition. We might easily define the ‘heap’ problem out of existence by saying a ‘heap’ is different from a ‘pile’: a pile of books is neatly organised while a heap of books is disorganised. So it is not a matter of quantity at all, but of organisation. It is obviously merely a matter of definition when we ask if a person is pregnant or not, dead or not, where that really is a yes / no type of situation. If we officially define a bald man as a man with no hair, then a man with one or two hairs is not bald, but there are loose usages of the word, so we can qualify ‘bald’ with ‘almost’, ‘completely’, ‘practically’, or ‘-ish’. A person is said to be obese if we apply a technical definition involving the ratio of weight to height, and here we might if in doubt say “he is ‘technically’ obese even though he doesn’t look it!” It is also a matter of definition when we ask if a mixed breed animal is a zebra, a horse or a donkey, and we may resolve that by applying a new label, such as ‘zeedonk’ or ‘mule’. A fish-or-flesh question occurs in most types of hybrid, and the solution by renaming is a common one.

Definition doesn’t help when we have a genuinely vague concept however, such as ‘rich’. Is George Soros sitting on a heap of money? By most standards, yes, but sat alongside Bill Gates at the Billionaires’ Ball, maybe he would feel embarrassingly not rich enough. So we may have matters that are relative in comparison with other incidences. Perhaps an economic formula could be developed to define the borderline between ‘developing’ society and ‘rich’ society that involves per-capita income, GDP, and so on, or a ‘rich person’ could be defined as one whose means exceed his needs by such and such a percentage. ‘Beautiful’ is another case in point. There is no formula that can be applied to adjudicate in this most delicate of matters, and if pressed it is recommended to take the fifth amendment against self-incrimination. The logical rule of the law of the excluded middle, by which every proposition must either be True or False, may not be appropriate in these cases. When Parminedes proposed the first version of this law, Heraclitus said controversially that things could be simultaneously True and Not True, while Plato laid the foundation for what would become ‘fuzzy logic’ by indicating that there was an area beyond True and False where these opposites "tumbled about." [Modern Philosophy is often refered to as mere hyperlinks to Plato, but I cannot find the original Platonic source of this widely quoted factoid.] The sense that natural language does not have an adequate grasp on the world is far from new: Roger Bacon said “For the things of this world cannot be made known without a knowledge of mathematics.” Galileo agreed: 'The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics.” Vague concepts may be inconvenient if the aim is to be logically precise, and this sort of frustration may lead one to feel like Frege that one is struggling against the inherent imprecision of natural language.

“ Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought is presented to the reader – and I must be content with that – wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I want to call 'thought'.” (Frege. ‘Thoughts’ 1918 :333f ). Which sentiment Witgenstein echoes closely in saying: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” As Russell put it in his foreword to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, “ Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned with the conditions for

accurate Symbolism, i.e. for Symbolism in which a sentence `means' something quite definite. In practice, language is always more or less vague, so that what we assert is never quite precise. Thus, logic has two problems to deal with in regard to Symbolism: (1) the conditions for sense rather than nonsense in combinations of words; (2) the conditions for uniqueness of meaning or reference in symbols or combinations of symbols. A logically perfect language has rules of syntax which prevent nonsense, and has single symbols which always have a definite and unique meaning. Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned with the conditions for a logically perfect language -- not that any language is logically perfect, or that we believe ourselves capable, here and now, of constructing a logically perfect language, but that the whole function of language is to have meaning, and it only fulfills this function in proportion as it approaches to the ideal language which we postulate.”

The chimera of a logically perfect language has fascinated the greatest minds in history. Apart from Frege’s Begriffschrift we might reference Leibniz and his project of a ‘Characteristica Universalis’, or universal symbolic language based on Chinese ideograms. None other than the great logician Kurt Gödel believed that the characteristica universalis was feasible. Similarly, John Wilkins, a founding father of the Royal Society and Dean of Wadham Oxford for ten years from 1648, though more renowned for being Master of Trinity Cambridge for one, attempted to construct a universal philosophical language in which every concept would have a unique 'non-arbitrary' name. Symbolic representation.

Russell continues; “Wittgenstein also asserts that in order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact. This is perhaps the most fundamental thesis of Mr. Wittgenstein's theory.”

``In the picture and the pictured there must be something identical in order that the one can be a picture of the other at all. What the picture must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it after its manner -- rightly or falsely -- is its form of representation'' Wittgenstein, Tractatus 2.161

Do we mean more than the ability of language to ‘reflect’ reality, with a structural similarity between language and the world, a grammar of the world we might say, in the way we might entertain Lacan’s idea that the ‘unconscious is structured like a language’? Or maybe this is similar to Kant’s saying "Human reason is by its nature architectonic." Unfortunately, Wittgenstein is coy about exactly how this picturing works: Russell explains that “the structure in common cannot be put into words since it is a structure of words as well as of the facts to which they refer.” So language cannot be used to explain what language does, on the view that language is also a part of the world , and a hierarchy of languages would be needed to do so. Wittgenstein says “Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.” This is a possible approach that considers the relation of natural language to the world as ‘given’ or unanalysable [so ‘mystical’]. The Chomskian idea of innate grammar is a Kantian solution to the issue, seeing natural language in a necessary position mediating between reality and the mind, though this expression tends to imply a dualism we might want to avoid. In ‘picturing’ the world, sentences as bearers of meaning by necessity have a unique symbolic relation to the world. For explanation of this symbolic representation we return to Frege: “I do not deny that even without symbols the perception of a thing can gather about itself a group of memory-images; but we could not pursue these further: A new perception would let these images sink into darkness and allow others to emerge. But if we produce the symbol of an idea that a perception has called to mind, we create in this way a firm, new focus about which ideas gather. We then select another idea from these in order to elicit its symbol. Thus we penetrate step by step into the inner world of our ideas and move about there at will, using the realm of sensibles itself to free ourselves from its constraint. Symbols have the same importance for thought that discovering how to use the wind to sail against the wind had for navigation.... Also, without symbols we would scarcely lift ourselves to conceptual thinking. Thus in applying the same symbol to different but similar things, we actually no longer symbolize the individual thing, but rather what the similarities have in common: the concept. This concept is first gained by symbolizing it; for since it is, in itself, imperceptible, it requires a perceptible representative in order to appear to us" (Frege 1882:83f.) We should note here the dangerous ground in Frege’s writings of an ‘imperceptible concept’ which is made perceptible to the mind through symbolism. Later, Frege postulates a further imperceptible entity which perceives this concept, thus opening up a regression of immaterial entities constituting the mind.

Language Traps

One of the most important strands of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy is the conviction that our use of language can seriously mislead us in thinking about philosophical matters. He famously likes these confusions to being trapped like flies in a bottle. The purpose of philosophy in ths view is to clarify linguistic misunderstandings and so show the way out of the philosophical bottleneck. Though this sort of ‘linguistic’ philosophy may no longer be as popular as it was fifty years ago, there are vital lessons to be learned from this approach.

For example, the reification of concepts can be deceptively easy: “ to 'thingify' an idea, treating a relatively abstract signified as if it were a single, bounded, undifferentiated, fixed and unchanging thing, the essential nature of which could be taken for granted. It is a representational practice which functions to establish the self-evident 'reality' of the concept in question, treating it as if it has the ontological status of a specific physical thing in an objective material world. Reification suppresses the human intervention involved in the defining process as if the signifier were neutral and had been an integral part of a pre-existing thing in the world.” Daniel Chandler

Being is not an attribute, says Russell, and this clarifies confusions arising from the similarity of sentences like “ My car is red” and “Ghosts are scary!” where the similar function of the verb seems to bestow existence on ghosts. We might say that natural language is agnostic on these matters. In a classic phrase, AJ Ayers warns us that the grammar of English can confuse us into giving unwarranted ontological status to some things best left fictitious: “ The postulation of real non-existent entities results from the superstition that to every word or phrase that can be the grammatical subject of a sentence, there must be a real entity corresponding…to this error must be attributed the utterances of a Heidegger who bases his metaphysics on the assumption that ‘Nothing’ is a name that is used to denote something particularly mysterious...” Ayer LTL 59

The Language of Life If we say that Wittgenstein was not in fact interested in constructing a universal language, and had great confidence in the ability of everyday language to carry significance, then

we can move away from the need to look for truth-values in each proposition or utterance. With linguists like Roman Jakobson and philosophers like Paul Grice, we can join Wittgenstein later in life speculating on the way everyday language carries meaning in ‘games’. This period of language philosophy is more British than Germanic, with the ‘ordinary language’ philosophers endorsing natural language as a carrier of meaning in the 1940’s and John Austin putting forward the idea of ‘Speech Acts’ in 1955. While Wittgenstein’s later thinking on the subject may have been influential within Oxbridge philosophical circles, his text of ‘Philosophical Investigations’ was only published in 1953. Contextual or constructivist views of language use start with Roman Jakobson and his emphasis on the communicative contexts of utterances, culminating in a philosopher like Paul Grice who emphasizes the underlying etiquette of communication as a social construct. The later Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘language games’ has thoroughly entered into the culture. This contextual or constructivist approach to language has become widespread and may be described as the orthodoxy of the moment, with every competent language teacher in the world sporting a plaque over his desk inscribed: “Meaning is Use. Period.” The language of life, as Frege calls everyday language-acts, is formed out of human interactions. It is not an abstract system that somehow resides in the mind and comments on our behaviour. Wittgenstein comments: “it is the form of life common to humankind, ‘the common behavior of mankind’ which is ‘the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language’” (PI 206). Words and sentences arise out of social interactions, and only have their meanings in those contexts. Says Wittgenstein, “It is our acting that lies at the bottom of the language game,” and, “the meaning of a proposition rests ultimately in the use we make of it.” However, we might ask if meaning is socially constructed, against what sort of criterion can we measure its truth or veracity? That is to say, how can we be sure that a community-constructed language game with its inherent value system has underpinnings relating it to reality? For example, the good citizens of Salem Mass. may all have agreed on the definitions of ‘witch’, ‘possession’, ‘evil’, but how can we leave our own judgements at the door of history here? It does seem that the system of the later Wittgenstein abdicates all responsibility for evaluation or judgement. Religious and ethical matters are declared self-contained ‘games’ with their own rules and regulations, and we cannot comment on their outcomes. Unfortunately each ‘language game’ seems to be untouchable. So the language-game of Sharia law can be defended on the grounds that it is a social construct with its own circle of interlinked definitions, which cannot be compared with any other system such as the Napoleonic Code of France, or the constructs through precedent and reinterpretation in British law. Yet there is definitely a sense in which we would want to compare and confront these differing ‘legal games’, and find some way to adjudicate between them in terms that transcend the individual circumstances from which they arose, measuring them against a yardstick of universal human interests.

References : A.J Ayer. Language, Truth and Logic 1935. Daniel Chandler. Glossary of Semiotics Gottlob Frege "On the Scientific Justification of a Begriffsschrift".1882 Bertrand Russell. Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Text at: Vlad Vieru . Vague Concepts and Sorites Paradoxes Machine Intelligence Research Laboratory Ottawa. Text at: