PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

How does language affect reality and perceptions?

How does language affect reality and perceptions?

The preoccupation of Anglo-American philosophers (i.e. Analytical philosophy) with language these past 104 or so years, bewildered and puzzled most European philosophers (i.e. Continental philosophy). However, it must be pointed out that one can philosophise against the importance of language and one can philosophise in favour of the importance of language. But one cannot philosophise about anything without language.

By language philosophers usually mean natural languages: Italian, German, Spanish, English are all natural languages together with the rest of the languages that exist around the world. Does this mean that other forms of communications should be excluded, such as body language or gesticulating? And what about such formal languages as logic and mathematics, should they also be excluded? And are painting and drawing other forms of languages? All the above certainly have one thing in common and that is they all transmit information.

We can safely say that the title question assumes that language does affect reality and perceptions. What, then, is the nature of this causal relationship between language, reality and perceptions? One interpretation is that: I have an idea, say a desire, formulate it into a linguistic act, transmit the linguistic act to a hearer and then the hearer interprets this linguistic event and acts accordingly. If the hearer's interpretation of the linguistic event and the subsequent acts coincide with my original idea then my reality and the hearers reality have been changed. In other words, the universe has been changed. I go to an ice cream shop, ask for a strawberry ice cream, the assistant gives me a strawberry ice cream. The universe has been changed.

I'm walking down the street and I see a shop with the following sign in big letters, "FRESH STRAWBERY ICE CREAM". I look at it, read it, and believe me understand it, cross the road and buy a strawberry ice cream. Language has affected my perceptions, I long for a strawberry ice cream, and in this case my reality.

However, what is reality and what are perceptions? Take reality. Common sense tells us that reality is what is out there, independent of us and we can say true or false statements about it. Even my wishes, pains and states of mind are taken to be as someone else's objective reality. However there has been a whole series of philosophers, for example Hume and Kant, who told us that we cannot really know anything about the outside world. Then early last century scientists started telling us that there comes a point, at least at the quantum level, that when we try to find out about what reality is we change the very thing we want to know about. At the same time others were telling that the reality we can know about is limited to what information has reached us. But information cannot reach us faster than the speed of light. The up shot of this is that, if information about an event has not reached us, not only we cannot know about the even, but also that the event cannot form part of our reality. This scepticism about reality seems to take us in the opposite direction of what we take for granted.

The problem about reality also stems from the nature of our perceptions. Our perceptions have a habit of sometimes letting us down in real life. And if that was not enough, perceptions seem to be at best "information go-betweens"; i.e. things that tell the 'I' about what is going on in the world out there. The question is: how efficient is that information? In a language context a lot depends on conventions, ambiguity, content, and what Information Theorists call redundancy, statistical undercurrents of language and randomness. In other words a lot goes on with languages (and information) than what common sense seems to tell us.

On the applied issues I would like to introduce three areas where language, perceptions and reality all come charging head on at us. If ever there was a need to assess the efficiency of linguistic information it is in the language of politics. It seems to me that the language of politics tries to affect reality without actually touching it!. Advertising and marketing communications try to affect our perceptions especially of reality. Selling a car because it gives us "a smooth ride," is just not the same as a car being an "efficient means of joining traffic jams!" And finally, the law seems to bring together language and perceptions as part of the process of justice by requiring reasoned judgements and that "justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done."

See you Sunday, Lawrence

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