PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, April 09, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: We don’t get it.

Dear Friends,

This weekend we are discussing: We don't get it.

As I try to demonstrate in my short essay this innocent looking
expression is not that innocent. Behind this expression there is a
language complexity that digs deep into the key issues of philosophy.

In the meantime Ceit has sent us a link to her ideas on her topic and
Ruel also kindly prepared for us his regular essay:
I don't want to clog up the email too much, so I put my beginning ideas
Hello Lawrence,
I wrote a very short essay on Sunday's PhiloMadrid topic. Here is the link:
Thanks. See you on Sunday.

We don't get it.

So the phrasal verb "to get it", like most phrasal verbs, has a number
of meanings and each is determined by the context. Thus "to get it"
could mean, amongst many, to obtain something, to achieve something, in
pure slang to have a sexual encounter, to bring something or fetch
something etc. I will focus on one specific meaning which is "to
understand"; meaning that we understand a problem or a description given
by someone or a lesson or an issue. Most times we use this expression,
"I don't get it", when we does not understand or appreciate something
that is obvious; for example, a hint by someone that they are
romantically interested in another person.

There are three issues I would like to explore: 1) does the role played
by context imply that language is an empirical phenomenon and thus we
cannot say anything a priori about language? 2) What is the relationship
between formal language (We don't understand) and informal language (We
don't get it)? and specifically to our discussion 3) How do we convey
meaning, and can we really convey meaning between two speakers of
different natural languages? However, there is a little problem here
issues 1 and 2 have been indirectly discussed for centuries within the
confines of philosophy of language and epistemology. Basically, the
topic is so wide that it is neither the scope of this essay nor my
intention to explore the history of language in philosophy that is
relevant to our topic. Hopefully I might be able to make some coherent
observations on some specific issues.

Question 3) concerns us because we are an international group and
therefore by default many of us have a different native language and
most of us speak or need to speak other languages. Issues about
translations (and interpreting of course) in philosophy seem to have
migrated to linguistics under the subject of Translation Theory. But of
course issues don't just migrate. One thing that has happened is that
translation and translated works have become so important in our global
world that translators have encountered certain problems of conveying
meaning that they cannot wait for philosophical argument to solve their
here-and-now problems.

What role does context play in language? For our everyday exchanges with
other people context is everything. We can understand others with or
without valid grammar language acts as long as we have a context;
grammar can be easily substituted for hand signs and pointing. But hand
signs, pointing and grammar will get us no where without a context.
Given, therefore, that we do not have a context for our subject
expression can we say anything about it? Or is the expression "we don't
get it" just a meaningless bunch of signs that look like an English
expression, has the structure of an English expression, uses English
words well accepted in English, but it is not English since we do not
have a context? It's as if our expression is an answer to something but
we do not know what the question is.

However, context is not grammar and it is not even vocabulary, so what
properties does context give to a language structure to give it meaning?
Context is not even an "ingredient", even a metaphysical ingredient like
a grammar rule or word. Context is a state of events in our environment
where we have an interest in communicating our ideas with other people
and vice versa. If we're not interested in a football match we neither
care about the match nor have any desire to express any ideas about it.
But if we are interested in a football match, than yes, we would be
interested in exchanging our ideas with others. In other words, context
comes from outside, it's a sense perception and an empirical input to
our brain, and yet it has no linguistic properties. But it does seem to
be the necessary condition for meaning.

If we need context that is an empirical phenomena to give meaning to a
language act, then language itself must be an empirical phenomenon:
human natural languages are precisely that, human hence empirical. There
is nothing universalizable about language beyond what can universalise
about human beings. But is language an inherited biological organ (like
eyes and muscles) or is it a highly evolved function in us (such as
running very fast like a cheetah or seeing the colours of the spectrum)?

Chomsky's idea that we inherit some sort of universal grammar, as a
representative of language, is no doubt a complex issue, but it's
unlikely to be the case on the grounds (there are many valid arguments)
that even grammar is not a physical structure; running is not a physical
structure of the biological being and neither is grammar even a sense of
grammar. So we don't inherit running any more than we inherit some sort
of grammar, and even more a language.

Thus, having the capacity to process empirical information and stimuli,
including language which is also an empirical phenomenon, does not mean
that we also inherit language any more than we inherit the principles of
mathematics. Language (and maths) is a by product of our capacity to
process certain type of empirical information and how to react to it.
Basically we don't learn a language but rather we learn how to process
certain empirical stimuli (which we do call language) and learn how to
react in a give way to achieve a certain reaction in another person
(which we call communicating). So what kind of empirical stimuli must we
receive to react with the express "We don't get it"?

Since our expression is a valid language structure with equally
sophisticated grammar components (e.g. phrasal verbs) then what it
grammar? But since out title does not come with a context, and therefore
not meaning we must conclude that it is the grammar part of this
expression that gives it respect and legitimacy. We already know that
the "it" does not refer to anything specific partly because it is part
of the structure of the phrasal verb. By the way, if we ever need
evidence that we do not inherit some sort of universal grammar it is the
phenomenon of the "phrasal verb", it takes a English native speaker
(ENS) a life time to manage these grammar structures; non-ENS who do not
live the language seem to have an endless problem knowing the use and
meaning of these structures. Besides many phrasal verbs are based on
culture (e.g. knock me up – UK= wake me up – US=impregnate) so the
problem goes beyond rules, words and meaning.

Grammar is usually referred to as the set of language rules which we
employ to coherently communicate with others. The held belief is that we
need to use grammar rules in order to construct a language act (a
command, a question etc) so that others can understand us. The
assumption is that the rules are there to give meaning to language acts,
but as I have argued we can arrive at a meaning with gestures and
pointing as long as we have a context. I grant you that this is
primitive, and it is certainly limiting, but still it is meaning without
grammar. Maybe I am forcing the point and maybe the king is not nude,
but certainly down to the boxer shorts.

If grammar is rules, then surely what grammar gives us is predictability
and not meaning. The very meaning of rules is to predict which of our
actions are acceptable and which are not. Footballers know that if they
break the off-side rule there will be certain consequences; they know
this without having to commit any off-side infringements. The rules do
not make the game more enjoyable or more of a football game than if the
rules are not followed. The rules are there to predict what actions on
the pitch are allowed and which are not; and the spectators are the
first to appreciate this difference.

Hence, given that communication is all about influencing others
(Dawkins) rather than exchanging information knowing the rules will
enable us to predict the type of actions we want from others. It is not
that we apply grammar to concoct a meaning, but rather grammar will help
us predict and influence the actions (maybe even behaviour) of others.
We and the other person understand the structure of the grammar and the
definitions of the words used, plus we are conscious of the context
(world around us) that creates a meaningful exchange. But of course
predict does not mean knowing what the future is like, but a high
probability that things will turn out our way.

Hence, when a friend of mine spends half an hour trying to explain a
situation and I reply, "I just don't get it" I am not trying to convey
meaning I am trying to predict a reaction from my friend; we both know
what the expression means but that's the least of my problem. Knowing my
friend, the first reaction would certainly be, "Are you dim or
something?" Meaning, what's there not to understand? So apart from
predicting that my friend will be exasperated at my failing I also
expect them to try and explain the situation again.

From a philosophical language point of view the expression "We don't
get it" is both complex and clearly a language problem of the first
order. However, what is clear is that although language itself is
complex, it is certainly not as clinically sterilized as linguist and
philosophers might want us to think. Language acts are not like painting
by numbers, but more like a wrestling match that is choreographed but
still loose and dirty.

This brings me to the other issue of the relationship between formal and
informal languages in a given natural languages such as English. No
doubt our expression is an informal expression in English which we are
more likely to use in our everyday life than the formal form. "We don't
understand that (i.e. the issue in question)". One of the reasons why I
would normally use this expression with a friend is basically because
relationships amongst friends are usually informal. Whereas the express,
"I don't understand what the problem is" is something we'd leave for
formal situations.

It should be evident that although the meaning might seem to be the same
between "We don't get it" and "We don't understand that", but if meaning
is to be measured by the predictability of the reaction from the other
person, this similarity is only true at the surface. It's quite an
accepted reaction from a friend to react with "are you dim?" (and
without implying to insult me) but I wouldn't imagine in a formal
situation the reaction to be "are you stupid?" or some such reaction.
That would be an insult of the highest proportions; there is nothing in
the formal expression to suggest an insult might be part of the reaction.

No doubt this issue of formal/informal language requires an in-depth
analysis but we can tentatively say that informal language is not some
sort of reflection of formal language (e.g. a parallel language), but
that these are distinct language functions within a body of a natural
language. This should not come as a surprise since the contexts are
different. No doubt, however, that the subtle structures and meanings
with their implications are usually only relevant to native speakers and
very advanced users of a language. One of the implications of context is
of course the social context. Language is more than just words and
grammatical structure. Language is also context including social context.

Hence, being able to apply a language in both its formal and informal
functions gives added information to the other person; and if a second
language learner is not aware of the subtle nuances they might give away
more information then they intended to. This might create a situation of
doubt in the other person if they are not alert to the skills of the
speaker. For those learning a second language being able to master both
the formal and informal functions of the language is more important than
say speaking with an accent. In any case, one can pick up an accent
after a few sessions with a competent acting tutor, but one cannot bluff
one's language skills. And this is why expressions like "We don't get
it" are more complex than the superficially formal equivalent "We don't
understand that".

So what is the translation problem for us? A traditional issue has
always been, whether we should translate the language structure
(grammar, words etc) or whether we should translate for meaning. The
ideal option would always be to translate for meaning, but this comes at
a high price. The translator needs to be very familiar with the language
being translated; otherwise the nuances of that language might easily be
lost. Secondly, there is a difference between what the person is saying
and what the person actually wants to mean: understatements, innuendos,
veiled insults etc. These are not always easily evident. Thus the formal
expression "we don't understand that" can be translated by simply
looking at the words, but not so "we don't get it". And this requires
being skilled in both functions.

So how should we translate "We don't get it"? The question here is not
only the context in general, but within that context the intention of
the speaker. Maybe when I say to my friend, and using the correct
intonation, "I don't get it" I want to tease my friend more than I want
to understand the problem. And this betrays the weakness of the argument
that somehow we inherit some form of a common language (grammar). An
inherited language does not account for the intentions of the speaker.

We can all run without learning how to run, but we really need to work
hard to learn a language. We mustn't be betrayed with the ease children
seem to learn languages, both their native language and some other
language. For children, learning their native language is an exercise in
survival until, that is, adults come along and destroy any chances they
might have had by filling their brains with dubious philosophical

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
From: January 15 at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: We don't get it.

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