This Saturday we are visiting the exhibition "Warhol sobre Warhol" at
the Casa Encendida, Ronda Valencia, 2, which is half way between Atocha
and Embajadores. We'll meet out side the Casa around five, or inside if
you arrive later.
On Sunday we will be discussing the topic: How does language define our
world? It has been some time since we discussed a topic in the
philosophy of language, I am therefore looking forward to this meeting.
I hope you will have the time to read my essay for the meeting, which
you will find at the end of this email.
The third news item is that on the 26th January, a Saturday, we are
going on a day trip, (bring your own picnic) to Toledo before the
weather changes into crazy hot temperatures and would put Toledo out of
bounds. I propose catching the 10.30am bus from Mendez Alvaro. This
service should take one hour, we then have a wait at the station in
Toledo for the bus to get to the city centre. The information I have
from the Alsa web site is that the return fare costs 7.90 euros. The
last bus from Toledo leaves at 22.30pm. We'll confirm every thing this
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How does language define our world?
We mustn't make the mistake, which is quite reasonable to do, that when
philosophers talk about language we are only talking about natural
languages. Our project is not exclusively about French, German, English,
Spanish or Cantonese. Although I propose to look into these natural
languages later on.
We have to think of language as a means for conveying information we are
in possession of to other people. There are many definitions of language
so I am intentionally keeping away from them in order not to get stuck
in a metaphysical quagmire. However, I also intentionally do not use
communication because as Dawkins pointed out communication is all about
manipulation. And it is too early to get involved in a moral discussion.
The expression "our world'' also needs clarifying here. We are of course
excused for thinking that our world refers to the objective and
ontological word out there which we all participate in. Of course, our
world can also mean our experiences and our personal development in the
world out there. For example, I enjoy conversing with my girlfriend when
we are having afternoon tea on Saturdays. This personal world of
feelings and emotions is no less part of the world, our world, as Marble
Arch is part of London.
However, we usually place limits to what is acceptable as legitimate
information when it comes to our personal experience, or our personal
world. Some of these objections are legitimate while others are not so
legitimate. If I insisted that, "I enjoy conversing with the present
king of France during afternoon tea on Saturday" you would immediate
come two conclusions. The first is that I studied philosophy in Britain
during the early eighties, when it was common to invoke the present king
of France in philosophy of language. And the second conclusion is that,
in the absence of a reasonable explanation, I urgently need psychiatric
But what we are or are not allowed to share with others is usually based
on whim or prejudice or both. For example, why is it alright to say we
speak to God, but not that God speaks to us? At face value, this
sentence need further explanation, despite the fact that a large number
of people who profess to believe in God. So, my conversations with my
girlfriend are in, but not those with the present king of France, and
God is some where in the wings.
Going back to language, the reason why we need to qualify what we mean
by language is because our world is not only defined by natural
languages, but also by other types of languages. An idea which we find
expressed by Wittgenstein amongst many philosophers. By far the most
important of these languages, even more than natural languages, I would
say are mathematics and scientific languages.
We know what mathematics is. A good essay on what is a scientific
language was written by Werner Heisenberg, in his collection of essays
Physics and Philosophy: language and reality in modern physics (Penguin
classics). The issue here is how can we describe natural phenomena using
a natural language when such a language was developed when we were not
aware that these phenomena existed? Heisenberg describes the issue much
clearer than my attempt here. But to give a practical example, our
natural language idea of location is different from that of a quantum
physicist. The quantum physicist needs a scientific language to describe
his or her experience in the same way that the lawyer needs his or her
legal language. Thus, using natural language words to explain scientific
phenomena might lead to misunderstanding or confusion; hence mathematics.
Thus a psychiatrist needs a scientific language to describe that part of
the world concerning human mental functions. For a professional
psychiatrist the word crazy does not have enough meaning to describe his
or her professional world. In fact the word crazy does not really belong
in a psychiatrist's clinic, but maybe at tea party. Which explains why
psychiatrist would only use this word crazy when they are having tea
with the present king of France (OK, I'm joking, and I certainly don't
know what psychiatrists do during tea parties).
The same reasoning, of course , applies to mathematics as a language.
Except that mathematics is not only more versatile but more far
reaching. Something a natural does not have which is why mathematics is
the primary language of science.
Thus, the language that preoccupies the philosopher when discussing
language is not the same language we employ in our every day life
activities. But does this mean that philosophers also need their own
language to describe their world in the same way as scientists and
lawyers do? Indeed philosophers have had their own language ever since
Thales or Parmenides. And in the same way that Heisenberg identifies a
gap between natural language and scientific language, we might also
identify a gap between natural language and a philosophical language.
Indeed it was Wittgenstein who early in his writing identified
metaphysics as leading to complete darkness (Tractatus). However, I
would say that it is the occupation of philosophy to bridge this gap and
to relate the "professional" world with the world of the natural language.
So how does language define our world? The first obvious way is that the
language we employ to describe or inform others about our experiences
might not be adequate for the task. I can no more describe the state of
my brain using day to day English any more than I would be able to
describe the beauty of a painting by Sorolla or Rembrandt using mathematics.
Even if the correct language is used to define our world, we still have
to select the right ''aspect'' or ''style'' for our purposes. For
example, it is not enough to say that mathematics is the primary
language of science; we have to define the mathematics for the task at
hand. A simple example would be using trigonometry or geometry to design
a building and probability statistics to prepare a clinical study. The
same applies for natural languages. Today in business we use the direct
speech for most of our linguistic exchanges with others. It is simpler,
easier, quicker and most of all precise and clear. In other words we
would be communicating (in Dawkin's sense) more effectively by using
this style because people react much better to this style of communication.
Even if we get the first two factors right we still have to determine
whether our version of the language we are using is sufficient for our
purposes. Take a practical example. It is one thing to use a slide rule
to calculate the probable trajectory of an atomic particle in a two slit
experiment, and another to calculate the behaviour of fuel rods in a
nuclear reactor. For latter purpose scientists use such tools as super
computers and Monte Carlo routines. Therefore, how refined and how
advanced our language is will determine how far we can take a definition
of our world.
But these three factors, which I only give as examples from a possible
number of factors, do not include the most powerful factor of all; at
least in my opinion. We are as important for our language as much as our
language is important in defining our world.
How we develop our languages (natural and otherwise), determines how we
define our world. If in our language pork has the semantic meaning of a
religious taboo then our world is going to be defined differently from a
world where pork is defined as a food source and maybe a source for some
But more seriously, our languages develop as a direct result of our
experiences and knowledge acquisition. In a way, this factor has the
strongest impact on how language defines our world. Imagine two people,
one is fully conversed with the teachings of an extremist demagog and
the other is fully informed on the economic and political cycles of
international commerce. Who is more likely to have a realistic view of
how income distribution that actually takes place in the real world? I
purposely used the words demagog and informed here, but more about this
We mustn't forget that there is a huge gap between what we want and what
we can achieve. What we want tends to be more prone to ending up in a
metaphysical cul de sac. This is not to say that what we want dos not
play a role in how language defines our world.
In effect our knowledge, awareness and enlightenment help us to interact
with our world in a way which would be different if we did not have
these qualities. And just in case we need a practical example here,
knowing about the basic characteristics of epilepsy would define our
world of these unfortunate people differently than if we believed that
these people were possessed by the devil.
The foundations of a language are usually put fair and square on
culture. Language is a public activity. And this is even more so when we
are referring to natural languages. As Wittgenstein pointed out, how can
we begin to understand a private language?
But language, as a natural language, is also inherently linked with
evolution and genetics. Not necessarily in the Chomskian sense of
inherent grammar, but in the Darwinian and Sforza's sense of
evolutionary survival. The latter proposes a direct correlation between
biological and linguistic evolution. Sforza (Genes, Peoples and
Languages; Penguin) accepts that this correlation is not perfect, but
nevertheless significant enough. The main differences between genetics
and language is that genes mutate randomly and only affect the next
generation who inherit the genes. Whereas, language changes are faster,
can affect non related language speakers and can be aimed at changing a
certain aspect of a language (e.g. political correctness). However, all
children are born with the ability to learn a language and, as Sforza
points out there are no relevant genetic difference in learning (or not)
a language. So everyone has an equal chance of learning a primary language.
How does this affect us when considering natural languages in our
debate? First of all, if a natural language does not evolve, in the same
way that genes evolve and have to evolve, it might easily end up in the
equivalent of metaphysical darkness.
In the same way that some genes might dominate, I think that we can
safely conclude that some natural languages also dominate. Thus
surviving dominant genes (in humans) will also take with them genes that
are better disposed for linguistic skills. Which, in my opinion, makes
more sense to inherit genes that help us learn languages rather than
inherit genes with a pre packaged syntactical system. For example, until
the turn of the twentieth century people were happily talking about
luminiferous aether to describe the medium through which light travels,
then Einstein et al came along and people had to start talking in
statistics and probably to understand light; the present perfect, eat
your heart out! Last time this happened was when Descartes introduced
his concept of dualism, and since then we have been speaking of body and
mind. This duality in effect displaced the theory of the soul and what
we have today is just an archaeological relic. I would say that in a few
decades time duality would follow the same trajectory as the soul into
Of course, language is not the only factor that can give us an
evolutionary advantage. Being killed by a passing train does not usually
require exceptional language skills. So, in itself, a natural language
does not necessarily give us the edge in how our world is defined. One
can happily survive as an individual and as a gene without having the
need to know more than one's native tongue; billions have done so. The
way I read this is that in an equal survival race, if any anyone should
have the edge it should be the one with the better language skills.
This does not mean that knowing a number of languages will in itself
conclude into survival /for example by getter a better job/. Nor does it
mean that know just about one language will lead to oblivion /for
example not find a job/. What it means is that given a situation where
language is the decisive factor the one with the better language skills
should have, on a balance of probabilities, the advantage. But this does
not mean that all situations depend on languages skills as many a
politician has proved.
As I like to point out to my students of English, if you are an
exceptionally gifted person in your profession the chances are that
irrespective of whether you know English well or not, it won't stop a
company from giving you the job. They will then have to spend some money
on you to bring your English skills to an acceptable level. On the other
hand, given an average, or just above average, situation, not knowing
English will certainly exclude you from any selection process in most
professional job applications these days.
Whilst natural languages can certainly define our world, at least at the
day-to-day level, we have to compare our world with the world of other
people, if we want to compare survival advantage. However, there are two
issues about natural languages that can have a direct effect on the way
we define our world and in effect our survival.
The first is that, natural languages have a direct emotional and moral
effect on us which mathematics and scientific languages do not seem to
have. Take the following two statements, 1) People should do their best
to avoid subjecting others to passive smoking. 2) Smoking must be banned
when there are non-smokers present. Do you remember my use of demagog
and informed earlier on?
Natural languages have the capacity to introduce non linguistic factors
in the way our world is defined. Moral implications and emotional
feelings can even change the meaning, implied or explicit, or any
proposition we might put forward. I purposely used such words as demagog
and banned to make you feel emotional about issues of politics and
smoking respectively. When I used "informed" and "best to avoid" I
wanted you to feel morally neutral. Now consider E=MC^2, 2(pi)r and
2+2=4, no matter how you look at these mathematical structures they
neither imply nor import emotion or moral feelings. What you see is what
This is not to say that emotional and moral feelings do not have a place
in our life, but that these can easily interfere with our world in a
negative way or at the very least in an unintended: foe example, using
pig for pharmaceutical components, believing people are possessed by the
devil, or imaging that our five euros contribution to a charity will
solve world poverty.
The second problem about natural languages is that of translation. When
two speakers of different natural languages meet they have very few
options if they want to share information: use hand jesters, use a
common third language or translate /interpret/ what they have to say.
Apart from being time consuming and costly, translations are no where
close to conveying the full semantic and pragmatic meaning of a text in
a natural language. Of course, I am not talking about expressions such
as where is the bathroom? or Does your tailor charge a lot of money? I
am thinking more on the lines of political, legal or philosophical texts
Some try to solve this problem by advocating learning a second or third
or fourth language. Sure this might get us a good bargain at the
tailor's, but from the evidence of the UN and EU it does not necessarily
lead to political consensus and harmony. But in most cases we have no
choice so we learn not only to take it or leave, but we also learn to
accept second best. People who speak (quite well) a common language are
more likely, on the balance of probability of understanding each other's
intentions, than two people who don't.
Compare the situation with that of the scientific community. At the very
least, most scientists would today be very familiar with the mathematics
of their science. And those scientist who try to play a part at the
development and discovery end of their science would certainly be
familiar with their scientific language. And although a scientific
language might today be based on English (other eras would easily
involve other languages), most of these scientists would today be able
to read and understand a scientific text written in English. If they
didn't they would just be glorified bureaucrats. Writing and speaking
are a different matter, and are not key features compared to reading.
Thus scientific language and practitioners, unlike natural language and
speakers, revert to a higher order language to exchange information.
Maybe even a higher order level in the Gödel sense of higher order level
Furthermore, when scientists want to inform their colleagues about their
world they already have a common language (mathematics) which would
require little or no adaptation to get things going. It is also that
much easier then to adapt any scientific language based on a natural
language. The concepts and their meaning would have already been in
place and established.
Natural languages do not have all their concepts in place and
established. And they certainly do not have all concepts in common. On a
good day, such discrepancies would be solved by borrowing or adapting
concepts from other natural languages. On a bad day concepts would be
foregone or fudged.
Indeed, language does define our world. However, if we want to take the
discussion to the next level we need to ask ourselves what kind of
definition is our language giving us? And further more, is our language
leading us to metaphysical darkness?
from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How does language
define our world? + News items