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Blogenning Theme of the Week: Language

Part of the fun of the Blogenning is having another person choose a topic for one of your three mandatory weekly posts.  Some weeks it’s incredibly easy, some weeks you have nothing to say about that subject and just have to roll with it. This week we’re talking about language. I’ll let you decide where this one falls.

Language is a drunken bastard.

Let me explain. Whenever we speak, we fail horribly at accomplishing 90% of what we intend to accomplish. Much like a drunken bastard fails to accomplish 90% of being a decent human being to those around them.

I’m going to drag Wittgenstein in to this, so those of you with no interest in philosophical discussions best tune out and check back another day.

So in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein spends a very long time talking about language. He paints a picture theory of language. In short a logical proposition can picture the world. When someone says “there is a car parked on the street” it paints a picture of how the world might be. If there is actually a car parked on the street, then the proposition accurately represents the real world. However, much like a model of a car is smaller than a car, so to a proposition about the real world is smaller than the real world. That is to say that when we represent the world in language, we are losing a great deal of detail from the world itself. The model of the thing cannot be as detailed as the thing without actually being the thing.

Everything is capable of being modeled, even models. When your model is a thought you run in a problem. A thought is not something that can be seen in the world. A thought is already a model. The model of thought, Wittgenstein says, is logical structure. Wittgenstein goes on to argue that the logically ideal language cannot provide meaning, it can only reflect facts. (Read the Tractatus for the argument, I’m not really going to reiterate it and bastardize it, as it’s not relevant and I’d do a terrible job.) So language outside of stating simple facts of the world is nonsense and just causes problems. Philosophically speaking, what Wittgenstein wanted to do was show that most of the crap philosophers spend discussing is meaningless and we should stick just to the facts. Since all of the things in the world are handled completely in the Tractatus, Philosophy has no more problems. Everyone can go home.

The last line of the Tractatus translates to “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Okay, so Wittgenstein thought he had taken care of all of what was worth talking about. So he’s telling us, basically, to shut up and stop talking about all of this stuff. Wittgenstein in the Tractatus says that useful language cannot provide meaning, only state facts. What he wants, I think is for people to stop wasting time and get down to what life is really about.

So language, according to this view, is a bit bullshit. It doesn’t really serve us to find meaning. It’s much more a practical tool in helping us to function at a high level. It speaks of the world in factual terms. That’s about it. To use language probably the best way it is meant to be used by this view would be for me to tell you to go get me a beer, and have you do it.

No seriously, go get me a beer.

Much better.

Wittgenstein would later abandon this view. It would be taken apart and he would realize that he had not actually solved philosophy. Later Wittgenstein would go on to talk about how language works in terms of a game. It’s definitions are not tied to things in the world, but to a loose set of rules that we’ve discovered that help us express things to each other. One version of it explains that to communicate, basically, we conjure up an idea of the meaning in our head, then use our understanding of language to try to inspire that same meaning in another persons head. This is mostly futile though, because without you being exactly the same as me, the meaning you arrive at is highly unlikely to be the one I arrive at.

So basically language is a nice game we’ve constructed for ourselves to play with each other as an attempt to accomplish practical things which are mostly uninteresting, and which in the end is mostly futile because we can never really convey an exact meaning that would perfectly accomplish our goals anyway. Language is utterly terrible at providing meaning. Hell in that sentence meaning along had, in my mind, two possible definitions, and may have had more in yours. Weird.

What about music? I’ve said here before that I consider music to be the communication of things which spoken language utterly fails at describing. Nope, music is as pointless a game as spoken language, it’s just got different rules and speaks to different things.

Granted, this has not been a rigorous exploration of these concepts. This is because:

1) If it were, I would have to spend years on it and wouldn’t have published it here, but in some philosophical journal to much fame and admiration (hopefully)
2) If this is right, there’s no point to spending the years on it or publishing it as indicating in 1 because language is a bit bullshit
3) This is actually probably wrong and gross oversimplification of something someone much smarter than I said once, so it would be embarrassing as anything more that a hopefully thought provoking blog post

So why am I writing this? Well, hopefully you’ve either agreed with what’s been said and started thinking silently about really neat philosophical things, or you think I’m a simplistic moron without the slightest clue as to what I’m talking about, and have begun thinking about and picking apart everything I’ve written.

In both cases, you’re thinking, which is awesome.

If you’ve completely ignored all this but tuned in to the last few lines to see the conclusion, you’re probably the best off of us all.

– B


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