The Confusion Around Language
How language might really work and what that means.
Language has always fascinated people and has been the subject of discussion in philosophy and science for a long time. In particular, the linguistic turn in philosophy has led to an obsession with the topic.
This obsession is understandable: after all, language is perhaps the most important, or at least most obvious, difference between humanity and the animal kingdom, and as such might provide major clues to the age-old question: who are we? Indeed, far from being just another tool for Darwinian survival, it deeply connects our experience, gives us access to collective experience, and, as I would argue, Experience with a capital E: that which drives experience from behind the walls of Plato’s cave, if you will.
In that sense, language brings us closer to the ground of being, to the higher realm, to the higher principles of the cosmos.
Karl Popper postulated the existence of three worlds, the material world (one), the world of conscious experience (two), and the world of cultural products (three). This line of thought underlines that the cultural realm of externalized consciousness is somewhat independent of the individual and has a life of its own: it is in constant dynamic interaction with our experience in a relationship of co-creation: our experience creates it, while our experience is also created by it.
Now, this reality, this process, I would suggest, is not arbitrary: it has its own inner logic, its own constraints. Obviously, it is constrained by physical reality. But not only that: this dynamic interplay between experience and the realm of culture and language also depends on certain higher constraints and principles. It is not a random, or completely arbitrary, process.
If true, this means that indeed, there is something behind our reality from which this logic and these constraints must spring forth. Perhaps we can think of it as a teleological landscape, as many have done.1 In any event, it is not nothing, but something that gives a certain order to Popper’s world 3, including, importantly, to linguistic expression.
(Fascinatingly, it seems that even sounds, as basic units of language, are at least to a degree universal in their meaning. This would go well with the idea that the cultural realm as expressed in language is indeed not arbitrary and there is something else going on behind it all.2)
The result is a sort of complex cultural field that we can connect to using language. A field of capital-E-Experience, or Experience-at-large, which is partly brought about by a process of cultural evolution, and partly by teleological and other constraints—the rules of the game—that lie beyond tangible, material reality.
Think of language as a springboard that can be used to connect us to the realm of Experience.
Language is not so much a set of descriptions pointing to material objects, but more like a map, a pointer, leading us to an experience that we share with our interlocutor and that we can therefore recognize, relive, reenact. What is necessary for this process to work is that we share enough of the experience in question so that we can establish the connection.
To use a crude analogy: language is not like sending a file, but more like sending a link to a file in the cloud, with the requirement that the file be in a format that we can read and deal with.
I believe this way of looking at things jives very well with the experience of learning a foreign language and solves a variety of philosophical puzzles.
Learning Languages: A Process of Connection
Perhaps readers who speak different languages will share my experience of how learning languages plays itself out.
First, you learn some vocabulary and some grammar. You begin to recognize and understand certain words, then certain sentences, when you hear them. But it still involves a big effort. You also try to speak—with lots of errors, lots of “uhs” and “ahs,” and still more effort.
But at some point, particularly (and crucially) if you are immersed in the culture that speaks the language, something interesting happens: it clicks. Suddenly, you really speak. It just flows out of you. You go from constructing sentences to effortless communication, even though you might still make mistakes or search for words. It is the moment where the connection is established, like tuning a radio and finding the resonant frequency: where before, you could hardly make sense of the faint voice buried in the static, suddenly the station comes through loud and clear.
You then begin to grasp, to truly feel the culture that the language represents. You use words and expressions you had no idea you even knew. You sense the deeper meaning behind words and phrases, all those subtleties that no translation into your mother tongue could ever reveal. You feel how each expression, each word—the often-used ones in particular—has a ring to it that seems to connect you directly to the deep experience of other people over long time spans.
Here’s the interesting thing: all of this can happen even though you have not grown up in that culture, your own culture is very different, and you have been immersed in that new culture for only a few months.
(Now, this process can also involve a back-and-forth over years, particularly if you are not immersed in the culture and language every day, all day long: sometimes you find the station, sometimes you don’t. This also explains why one can speak a language fluently one day, and struggle the next.)
The picture I have painted here somewhat contradicts the atomistic take on language so predominant particularly in modern philosophy.
Philosophers often start with a reductionist approach: they postulate that when we say “tree,” we mean a particular object. They seek to establish a connection between words and things, which they then go on to generalize: for example, there should be a correspondence between judgements (in the form of subject-predicate sentences) and reality (objects and their properties). They soon realize that this produces all kinds of puzzles: what about conditional sentences? What if the judgement is false—to what “objects” do the words correspond here? And so on.3
Believe it or not, but whole libraries could probably be filled with books and articles discussing the “problem” of fictional works: if words correspond to objects, or facts, how do works of fiction even make any sense at all?4
I would say this line of reasoning starts from a fallacy: I like to call it the Limit Case Fallacy.
When we talk about the word “tree” and how it supposedly corresponds to the object of a tree, we arbitrarily pick out a simplistic case of language use. We isolate and idealize this word-object relationship, whereas in reality, even such simple language use doesn’t take place in a vacuum. But even if we grant that such cases exist, there is no reason why we should start from there, postulate a whole general theory, and then wonder why it doesn’t make any sense once we work ourselves up towards more complex examples.
Why not start from the whole, from the complex?
In fact, I would say that almost all of our use of language is entirely different from and not reducible to a simple word-object relationship. This simple relationship might just be a limit case of how we normally use language, where there appears to be a simple connection. However, normally our language is much more like something that plugs into the world of experience, as described above. The supposed connection between “tree” and the object of a tree is merely an abstraction of a very simple form of shared experience to which people can connect to using language.
Language consists of symbols and sounds that, to the degree that they correspond to anything, correspond to experience—to Popper’s world 3, if you will, but as I argued earlier, this world of “externalized experience” or capital-E-Experience is not arbitrary and therefore embedded in a still higher world with certain properties. It is also, as Popper would agree, not just about books, but the world of experience that flows out of the interplay over long time spans between consciousness and the products of consciousness, the results of which are variable and dynamic, but, again, not arbitrary.
It is this world that language connects us to: with aspects that are specific to certain cultures, as the experience of learning foreign languages shows, and aspects that are common to humanity, which delimits the connection process everybody goes through when first learning to speak.
(I would think that learning to speak as a baby is also more akin to a “tuning in” process than to piling up word-object references in the brain.)
This way of looking at it immediately solves many of those philosophical conundrums about correspondence, reference, and so on: a work of fiction speaks to our experience, just as the description of a real object speaks to our experience. It’s just that one happens to exist in the material world (part of our experience), while the other describes other aspects of life (also part of our experience). Common sense: rescued!
It also clears up some of the confusion surrounding linguistic ideas such as the conduit metaphor: in his famous paper, Michal Reddy listed countless examples of how we use this metaphor when talking about language:5
Try to get your thoughts across better
None of Mary’s feeling came through to me with any clarity
You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean
Whenever you have a good idea practice capturing it in words
Try to pack more thoughts into fewer words
Don’t force your meanings into the wrong words
The sentence was filled with emotion
Your words are hollow—you don’t mean them
He writes sentences in such a way as to seal up the meaning in them
That concept has been floating around for decades
The metaphor here is that we pack thoughts into language, that ideas can exist “out there,” that we can capture them, send them, unpack them, and so on. It is interesting to note that this also means language and ideas are not identical: somehow, in this metaphor, we use language as a conduit that contains ideas.
Reddy then goes on to critizise this use of the “conduit metaphor” and presents an alternative. He also talks about the conflict arising from the different approaches.
However, if a certain way of speaking seems deeply and naturally ingrained, we shouldn’t dismiss it so quickly or focus on its problems, real or imagined. Yes, the conduit metaphor is a metaphor; the question is: a metaphor for what? I would suggest it is a somewhat culture-specific metaphor for precisely the way we use language to connect to experience, and help our interlocutor connect to this same experience, if he is able to.
Hence, in the best case, when we communicate we may not send “thoughts”, but chunks of experience—although not literally, but by both interlocutors achieving a connection to the same “station,” the same locus in the endless realm of possible experience. Just like the radio metaphor seems like a good fit for this process, so does the conduit metaphor with its talk about sending, receiving, embedding, capturing thoughts and feelings, etc. No wonder it is so prelavent.
(I might add that this concept of how language works in no way implies flawless communication all the time. In particular, people who cannot relate to a certain way of experiencing the world, for a variety of reasons, won’t be able to establish the connection; indeed, they might even “tune in the wrong station” when hearing someone speak or reading something.)
Language, Thought, and Ideology
This way of thinking about language also helps better understand attempts to manipulate language, a hallmark of ideologies and totalitarianism past and present.
It is often assumed that language limits the way we can think, and that, conversely, changing language changes the way we think. While there is truth to that claim, perhaps looking at language as a gateway, as a connection to Experience, will help clarify the issue.
It is not so much that language limits the way we think; rather, what we think is limited by our collective and individual experience. Language is merely our access point, part of our way of attending to this experience, particularly when we are communicating. Artificially changing language for ideological or political reasons, in that picture, means to stifle our connection to both our own experience and that of others, our community, and humanity at large.
We still have, of course, our own experience. But the dynamic and symbiotic relationship between us and capital-E-Experience is disturbed and warped; as a consequence, we lose our direct sense, our intuition, of what our experience means, and how it relates to the experience on all levels: personal, cultural, species-wide, and finally Experience-at-large with its timeless, non-arbitrary features.
It is not so much that forcefully changing language immediately changes our thoughts, but rather it confuses us by cutting us off from our natural way of connecting—just like introducing noise into a radio signal. Once the connection is weakened or almost lost, it becomes possible to replace our “radio station” with a new one representing the ideology of those who have initiated the process.
However, the content of this new “station” is merely an artificial layer of pseudo-experience that doesn’t correspond with our actual experience, with captial-E-Experience, and with the higher teleological realm injecting its information into it. Hence this new artificial layer requires energy and force to uphold, just like a radio jammer requires constant energy input that surpasses the energy of the station it is designed to jam. Remove that energy, and the original station comes back.
Similarly, those who seek to engineer language for nefarious purposes are always up against the realm of true experience. Once the pressure, the energy, is removed, things snap back. You could see this both with Nazism and communism: all those new words and artificial demands upon language almost entirely disappeared once the system changed. What survives in such cases are only those things that somehow deeply connect to people’s actual experience, including their actual experience living under such a system.
An open question is whether it is possible to confuse people so much, and use so much energy to create this artificial layer of pseudo-experience, that people lose their connection entirely and irrevocably. In other words: a one-way ticket into la-la-land.
What is clear is that if we don’t want to end up there, we better cultivate our connection, via language, to actual experience as flowing from the depth of time as well as the teleological realm, including attractors from the future, to use a Whiteheadian concept: possible pathways that lay open for us.
And this includes talking about language in more fruitful ways that correspond better to our experience than those endlessly argued about in much of the reductionist philosophical literature.
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Such as Alfred North Whitehead, Bergson, and, yes, even Darwin himself.
See James G. Lennox, Darwin was a teleologist, Biology and Philosophy 8 (4):409-421 (1993), and Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things, Perspectiva Press, 2021, p. 1174
For a review of such theories, see David, Marian, The Correspondence Theory of Truth, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Keep in mind that philosophical truth theories rely heavily on linguistic analysis.
To get a sense of the (in my view) absurdity of much of this discussion, see Kroon, Fred and Alberto Voltolini, Fiction, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Michal J. Reddy, The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language, In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979