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Coffee & Wisdom 02.88: The Problem with Language Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about the problem with language.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden…. This is Coffee and Wisdom, and thanks for joining us today. We have gone to a live-on-Tuesday-and-Thursday format for summer Wisdom. And this week we’ve been talking about The Problem With Language. What is the problem? Well, as I mentioned the other day, one thing is that it’s really, really old thing. It’s probably about two million years old, and it probably occurred before either of the Neanderthals or the Homo Sapiens, probably Homo Erectus was the first speaking human type animal. And therefore, this is a very, very old and imbedded form of communication, the way we talk to each other. And so it’s almost instinctive in that way, which… that’s pretty cool, except that we don’t always know exactly then how this works. And it’s a little hard to figure out how it works, actually, I mentioned on Tuesday that Daniel Everett has written a book back in 2016 called How Language Began, The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention. It’s a little bit controversial, but I think he’s on the right track to talk about Homo Erectus and how we developed language. And he says a human language has three properties. One is arbitrariness, one is intentionality, and one is the word he kind of makes up, which is conventionalization, which I have a hard time saying. But here’s how it really goes. Number one, the sounds that we make are completely arbitrary. That’s why different languages have different words in them. So the word tree is absolutely arbitrary in the way that that sound comes out. Other languages have other words for it. English has other words for different kinds of trees. So it’s arbitrary. We just have to remember that. But it feeds into intentionality. At least two people have to agree that a particular sound means some particular thing or we couldn’t have any kind of communication. And then from that we get the conventionalization idea that we, a larger and larger group, begins to agree on some sort of meaning for this language. That’s all very great and cool, except it doesn’t always work that way, as we will talk (about) today. Number one is Epimenides, who is really an unknown philosopher at this point, except for one very famous paradox in which, he was from Crete, and he said all Cretans are liars. Okay, well, was he telling the truth or was he lying then? And this is the paradox. And we suddenly realized that language sometimes breaks down. Sometimes what we say and what has to be real, whatever that means, is in some way disagreement or we can’t figure it out. And that’s what I want to look at today. I mentioned on Tuesday a simple phrase like “God exists” suddenly has some problematic things to it, if those arbitrary sounds begin to mean different things to different people. We’ve talked a lot about the concept of God in Coffee and Wisdom. There are lots of ways to define God. One is a very Theistic, that God is outside the universe and some sort of throne or in the sky. Also, though, we have Pantheism, in which God is exactly, matches the universe, no more, no less. And then there is Panentheism, in which there is a God and the universe. The universe is in God, but God is larger than the universe. And then a Process-Relational idea, it’s kind of a little bit panentheistic, a little bit pantheistic. But this is the idea that all the processes of the universe, including the expansion and an accelerating expansion, are all parts of the creativity of something that we can call God. So we can mean a whole lot of different things by this arbitrary sound. And again, we can say God exists, but what really are we saying in that particular case? Now, Rene Magritte was a famous surrealist and in 1929 he painted this. It’s called The Treachery of Images. It says this is not a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Well, okay, he’s saying it’s not a pipe. No, you can’t put tobacco in that, it’s a painting, but it is a painting of a pipe, so it’s not a particular type of pipe, but is it another particular type of pipe? And that’s really the question. So that’s when we have to bring in the most famous 20th century philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is (an) absolutely amazing and interesting philosopher. Number one, there’s no evidence that he read more than about two philosophers in his life. He did not have a degree in philosophy. He didn’t write a dissertation in philosophy until very late in the game. He was trained as an engineer, but he was interested in logic. And that’s what got him involved then in language. 1889 to 1951. A little trivia about him: Do you know what great philosopher went to grade school with Adolf Hitler? Well, it was Ludwig Wittgenstein. They were both Austrian. Wittgenstein was at one time one of the wealthiest men in all of Europe. Then he gave his money away and became a great school teacher in a provincial town, a very highly decorated war veteran, but he was on the other side from his later friends, the British, where he went to live, interestingly enough. So there are a lot of contradictions and interesting things about Wittgenstein. He wrote only two works in his lifetime, one of them published during his lifetime and the other published immediately after his death from cancer in 1951. The “early” Wittgenstein, he says this: Language “works” by producing pictures in our minds. That is a pretty intuitive idea. Why people hadn’t been talking about this before is interesting. And so in that case, this is a pipe, isn’t it? I say pipe and by golly, bang, you have an image in your mind and we’re in agreement. That’s a pipe. And so language has worked from this idea. Now, one of the things about Wittgenstein is that he did die in 1951, so neuroscience had not really caught on yet. We know a lot more about how this works now than he knew about it. But what he was guessing at in this particular way is probably what we would call a “precognitive,” right. We are in some ways, again, because the language impulse is two million years old, we were able to say these things without really even thinking about them. It’s almost an emotion in that way. This has to do with what in philosophy is called the “Correspondence theory of truth.” That is, that I can say Milky Way as a conventional language sign and we can talk about it. It’s something that we will agree exists. It has pictures. It has all kinds of astrophysics about it, and we can talk about that, because Milky Way corresponds to something that we say actually exists. But wait, there are all kinds of pipes and this is what really Wittgenstein got involved in later after the publication of his first book. There are many types of pipes. How do we know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a particular kind of pipe? Recently we’ve been talking about a pipeline shutdown. Well, that’s not the manufacturer of smoking pipes that we’ve been talking about. It’s something that conveys petroleum. So there are different kinds of pipes. So how can we do that?, Wittgenstein says. How can we talk about these different kinds of pipes or these different kinds of gods and understand that we’re actually not talking about the same thing, and avoid confusion? Well, Wittgenstein realized that words have meaning because of the context in which they are used. So we have a smoking pipe and we have a water pipe. We have a petroleum pipe. We have various kinds of pipes. So how do we know which one we’re talking about? Because of the context of the particular conversation. We don’t get confused because we know we’re talking about an oil pipeline when we set it up as an oil pipeline in that context. Now, this was a real revelation. No one had really discussed this before in exactly this way. What he began to think about in his career as he grew older, was that, that context of language, then, is what he called a language game? Now this is often misunderstood because, no, we’re not playing games when we’re using language, we sometimes we are, but usually we aren’t. But what Wittgenstein says is, let’s think about games. What is it that is common to all games? We know a game when we see it. There, you know, there’s hockey, there’s curling, we know Pacman, etc., we know board games, we know checkers, we know tic-tac-toe. So we know that these things are games. But if you really began to look at it, Wittgenstein argued, you can’t find the one thing that all games have in common, even serious/nonserious, or that kind of thing, win or lose, or none of those categories fit all games. So what is then going on? Well, it is the context. All games actually have nothing in common, he says. There is, what he would call, a family resemblance. That is, that we sort of know what a game is because they are like other games in certain ways, even though we have two extreme poles in which the games are nothing alike. But there’s a continuum in between. And therefore we can understand that they’re both games. They have a family resemblance. But are we ever talking about the same thing when we are in a situation in which we are talking about pipes or games? And that’s the real question.

Are we ever really talking about the same thing? Well, there is then in philosophy three theories of what we would call truth. I mentioned the Correspondence Theory, that we can talk about the Milky Way because we agree what the Milky Way is. Well, that’s one way of doing it. But there is a problem with that, which is that, remember the arbitrary sign thing, there’s actually no connection between those two words and anything that exists except, again, by common agreement. So some philosophers will argue that actually truth only works because of Coherence. That would be how these ideas work together. And we agree that’s true, and that’s true, and that’s true. They have to cohere in some way. And that’s how we build truth claims. Fine and good. And in some instances, that makes perfect sense. In others it doesn’t. And that’s where Pragmatic philosophy comes in, in which we simply say, you know what? Milky Way is Milky Way, because we can agree on that. Let’s just call it that until we call it something else. And let’s not worry about it actually being true in any way. So, three ideas of how this actually works. So Wittgenstein said, All philosophical “problems” are actually language games. Again, he doesn’t mean that we’re playing games. It means that when we get into a philosophical problem like what is the Milky Way, what we’re really doing is talking about the context of language.

We’re not really talking about anything in reality whatsoever. So then, back to my original claim here, God exists, and okay, is this statement “true?” Does the idea of God exist anywhere in the universe as a one-on-one Correlation, or does God exist only in some other form of Pragmatic form or a Coherence form? Is the statement then true or false? Can we say either one about it? All right. Well, all right. We all know that God exists is one of those big questions. So let’s think about something a little bit easier, such as the “Easter Bunny exists.” All right. Does the Easter Bunny exist? Hmm. We might immediately say, well, of course not. It’s a fantasy. It’s a fable. It’s something we tell kids. The Easter Bunny manifests in chocolate around Easter holidays. But other than that, the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. Maybe you could say that, but you could also say, well, wait a minute, the Easter Bunny does exist because I’ve seen photos of the Easter Bunny. Here is the Easter Bunny and Superman. Oh, wait, do either of those exist? And you know, that is a good question. How do they exist? In what context do they exist? And then we have. Donald Trump with the Easter Bunny. Do either of them exist? If so, which one? Or if both, how do they exist and do they exist in different ways? So God exists? All right, let’s talk about that.

The Easter Bunny exists. All right. Let’s talk about that. Are they different language games? Do they have different context?, is what Wittgenstein would ask us about that? Actually, there is a very good book by Eric Kaplan that is called: Does Santa Exist?, a Philosophical Investigation. You see that the creator of The Simpsons says the funniest book of philosophy since, well, ever, not a bad recommendation. So Kaplan, who is not a philosopher, but does a pretty good job at it, says, does Santa exist, the same question as does the Easter Bunny exist? And what he will get at in the book, if you’re interested, is it’s actually the same question as does God exist? But how do we get there? Well, let’s look at this is a pipe and “ceci n’est pas une pipe,” this is not a pipe. Actually, both statements are true and false at the same time, because of the context. I can’t put any tobacco in either of those pipes and smoke it. Therefore, if that is my definition of pipe, sorry, neither of these are pipes. But if I think that a representation of a pipe is a pipe in some context, in some language games, then both of these statements can be true at the same time.

That’s what Wittgenstein really got at finally and it really revolutionized the way we think about language. But he died in the mid 20th century, and we have gone on in terms of neuroscience, etc., and certainly in linguistics as well. But he remains important because he asked these very fundamental questions and came up with some very interesting ideas. So that’s something to think about. And next week, we’ll also be meeting live on Tuesday and Thursday. And next week, I do want to talk a little bit about neural pathways, the saying being that when you fire together, you’re wired together. That’s how habits develop or they don’t. It’s way language develops or it doesn’t. We have to figure that out. But we’ll go from a very early 20th century idea of how language works to the newer examination of how we now think the brain works. And we’ll see if there is any Coherence or at least Pragmatic truth between those two things. Thanks a lot for listening this week. Our overall theme for this merry month of May is Story at First Unitarian Society, looking at various aspects of story as the month goes on. So join us at 10:30 Central Time on Sunday morning and we will be talking about Story. Thanks a lot. And I’ll see you live here next week on Tuesday morning. Thank you.

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