Language is inherently limited. We often find that it is virtually impossible to say anything of any real meaning. Sometimes people will say, “I know what I mean, I don’t know how to express it.” Do these people really know what they mean, or are they mixing up knowledge with feelings, intuitions, and instincts? Is knowledge possible without language? Many theorists would answer “no” – without language, they would say, we have no thoughts. To these theorists, language is the medium of thought – we could no more have thoughts without language than we could have vision without light. As James Powell states: We can never really have knowledge of language, but only in language. (The Tao of Symbols)
“We can never really have knowledge of language, but only in language.”
If this is true, then for us to hold knowledge, we must be able to put it into words. But is language always powerful enough to capture what we want to say? The philosopher W. V. Quine points out that We cannot know what something is without knowing how it is marked off from other things. (Ontological Relativity) But where are the boundaries? If we point to a rabbit in the grass, where is the boundary between the rabbit and the grass? And why don’t we talk about rabbits as groups of undetached rabbit parts? Why do we make the delineations that we make? Where should our categorizations end?
The point is that we often get so wrapped up in our words and categories that we miss things. Real life is what is happening while you’re searching for the right word to describe it. Much as the amateur photographer who never actually experiences his vacation until he sees the pictures back at home, actual experiences pass us by while we search in vain for a way to describe them.
Real life is what is happening while you’re searching for the right word to describe it.
Quine, mentioned above, in his classic paper Ontological Relativity, describes the difference between objective and subjective reality. Most theories, he states, are nothing but circular references – and, since theories which are circular are meaningless, he begins to worry: We had better beware…lest we be tricked into repudiating everything there is to say.
Now, this might seem to suggest that I believe that anyone can say anything and it is all equally justifiable — nothing could be further from the truth! Given that we understand that words are inherently limiting, it is incumbent upon us to speak (or write) as clearly as possible. The world is already confusing enough by its nature; it’s unconscionable to further obfuscate the situation on purpose!
The world is already confusing enough by its nature; it’s unconscionable to further obfuscate the situation on purpose!
Thus, when I witness people in the media or politicians (which are the same thing!) purposely misuse words to confuse people, it truly infuriates me. And, that being the case, it’s hard to maintain a mystical equanimity. This kind of win-the-argument-at-any-cost sophistry has been hated by people of good will for thousands of years; we really need to hate it now. The problem is that our education system is so bad that no one is taught the difference anymore.
Education “theory” is filled with what is wrongly labelled “postmodernism” and “constructivism” and instead should just be labelled “brain washing” and be done with it. These people truly believe the first premise of Schopenhauer’s treatise (The World as Will and Idea): “The world is my idea.” Contrast this to the first premise of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: “The world is everything that is the case.” It seems that Schopenhauer has a narcissistic personality disorder, while Wittgenstein believes that there are such things as facts. Which would you rather have running the world?
It seems that Schopenhauer has a narcissistic personality disorder, while Wittgenstein believes that there are such things as facts. Which would you rather have running the world?