This is going to sound very ‘conventionalist,’ but as it happens, I think that language does stabilize, as a means of communication, largely through rather boring, conventional understandings of the social world in which we live – and I suspect we couldn’t live in that world otherwise. What we seek from others in communication, is not simply information, but re-affirmation that we are among others experiencing the world pretty much as we do.
We are often amused to find ourselves standing in the doorway coming in from the outside, to hear a weather reporter on TV or radio prophesize, “the forecast is for likely rain today” – and there we are, soaked from a cloudburst. What we don’t recognize is what service the weather reporter is really providing us. No, not information about the weather. We get from such a report reassurance that our perceptions are congruent with those of others of our own species, of similar intellect, who share similar concerns, such that they read the signs of the weather, however more abstractly, as indicating a state of affairs similar to that formed by our own interpretation.
“Look, it’s raining!”
“Yes, it is raining.”
“Yes, well, anyone can see that.”
“Good; I thought I was imagining it.”
Do we find this example silly? Well, let us imagine a world where we could be standing in a doorway soaking wet, and everyone around us wondered why, since they all ‘knew’ that rain was utterly impossible that day.
“Look, it’s raining!”
“I can hear your anxiety about the weather, would you like to talk about it?”
“What? No, look, it’s raining right now!”
“‘Raining’ is frequently used as a metaphor for our unconscious fears or regrets; tell me how this is so for you, and perhaps we can alleviate your sense of guilt.”
“I don’t feel guilty about anything. It’s raining, don’t you see?”
“I can see this is difficult for you; perhaps you would like someone to escort you home, just to feel a little safer?”
“I don’t want to go home, I’m just saying that, y’know – it’s raining.”
“You seem very uncomfortable every time one of us suggests another way to cope….”
“Cope? with what? the rain?”
“You say there’s rain; we’re just wondering what you mean by that?”
“Uh – that it’s raining?”
“We agree that you seem to believe this, and are prepared to intervene lest you are considering rash action -”
“Who are these people anyway?”
“I called these police officers, because I was afraid your obsession with the weather would grow critically threatening. They can take you to a safe place for professional supervision if you persist in this – well, what can we call it? This delusion, this ‘rainfall’ you continue to claim -”
“Hmmm… you know, I was really only kidding. There’s no rain out there. I just, uh, doused myself at the water-fountain. Good joke, uh?”
Bob Dylan was simply wrong, when he asserted that we don’t need a weatherman to say which way the wind blows. We do. Insofar as we are social animals, we need persistently recurrent indices of the stability of our own grasp on the significations that surround us, such that we feel confidant communicating with others like ourselves. Problems arise when – for whatever reasons – our weather reporters obscure the signs, rather than re-affirming the validity of our reading of them.
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, called you children.
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
your horrible pleasure. Here stands your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
(Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2)
Stripped of his social status, his interpretations of reality ridiculed and denied, spurned by the daughters he thought loved him most, deserted by those he trusted – Lear goes mad.
Not all of us expect to be loved (dependent on our upbringing), but we all expect to belong among others of our own species. This is the real psychological foundation of the need to communicate – not that we want to tell others something we know, but that we want re-assurance that what we know can be shared with others like ourselves.