Reality has no name

We find it so easy to use words as the ‘names’ of things that we don’t recognize when these ‘names’ over-extend their ‘nameness’ or naming function into generalities that cannot possibly be considered as actual entities.

It seems to make sense, and it is even commonplace, to refer to that tall woody thing that dumps leaves on my lawn every autumn a ‘tree.’ further extending that to other entities like it, collectively, as ‘trees’ is simply grammatical pluralization, again making sense according to the rules of both classical logic and modern biology. But – what is a thing called ‘forest’? where is such an entity? Is it just more ‘trees’? A spot on a map? Something that isn’t a desert? What’s a desert?

Most people are not aware that the Antarctic is considered a desert by scientists. ( ) I think most of us believe that ‘desert’ signifies a geographical space that is hot and sandy. And because most of us use the word in this way and refer to images, and experiences, and narratives including these qualities, we would be right. The Antarctic is something else. But only in so far as we imagine it, and experience it (if we are fortunate enough). Otherwise – well, scientists have agreed to call it a desert. Fine; who would argue with science? But it’s no ‘desert’ as most of us who use the term would imagine it to be.

The fact is, language is not about naming objects; it is not a mirror of nature, it does not validate ‘justified true beliefs’.

I see no difficulty in saying that forests don’t exist in nature.

We walk among these tall, rough-shelled things with irregular poles sticking out of them, all covered with thin green things. We’ve come to call these things ‘trees,’ with their ‘branches’ growing ‘leaves.’ To the extent we can differentiate a large number of these ‘trees’ from areas without much of them, or any of them, we have come to call the area with the ‘trees’ a ‘forest,’ so we have a location in space to which to refer for the sake of directions.

There are a number of ways we’ve developed to address these phenomena, including careful dissection and analyses of activities and events that permit the objects under study continued existence. But do ‘forests’ exist? Do even ‘trees’ exist except within the discourse of humans needing to refer to ‘those things there’? I confess I doubt this.

What we call tomatoes are fruit, and watermelons are vegetables – until we get to the table; then it is neither wrong nor nonsense to toss the tomato into the vegetable salad, and afterwards, enjoy the fruity flavor of the watermelon.

Individuals cannot define words arbitrarily. But the meaning of words is found in their usage, not in the existence of objects to which they are used to refer. That gives us some collective power over how we can or should use words. So distinctions between words and their references are very important.

Do forests exist ‘in reality?’ I’m not sure I recognize that as a legitimate question.


5 thoughts on “Reality has no name

  1. Do forests exist ‘in reality?’

    Sure they do. But I think you have confused yourself.

    If meaning is use, the “do forests exist” is really only asking if we use “exist” in that way. They exist because “exist” means what we (collectively) want it to mean and we find it useful to say that forests exist.

    I think you were wanting to ask whether forests exist in some sense that is independent of human language practices. But you cannot ask that without finding a way of getting outside of human language practices.


    • The problem is with signifiers that we expect to be pointing out toward the world, but are pointing instead to a concept or a social construct. ‘Forest’ is one of these; as it happens, ‘reality’ is another.

      1. ‘When you get to 221B Baker Street in London England, you will find there, in reality a bank.’

      2. ‘When you read a Conan Doyle mystery story, you will find that, in reality, 221B Baker Street is the home of Sherlock Holmes.’

      Both statements are true, because the ‘realities’ they refer to are constructions within differing domains – the first the domains of politics, history, empirical experience; the second, the domains of fiction, imagination, and the consistent texts of the named author.

      Neither assertion perfectly overlaps the thing we bump into at a certain physical location. That pile of stone and glass and metal and electricity (etc.) is not by nature or by any ontological necessity a numbered structure on a street. ‘Streets,’ ‘numbers,’ ‘maps,’ ‘countries, are all of human invention.

      So I am not saying there is no reality – I am saying there is more than one. 221B Baker Street ‘really’ is the home of Sherlock Holmes. But if you follow a map to the location we call ‘London,’ you will ‘really’ find a bank.

      There is a problem with this, by the way, and I will try to address it later. But briefly, when you ask the person at the corner, ‘where’s 221B Baker Street?’ and they point to that pile of rock and glass (etc.), have they signified a concept? or merely pointed in a given direction for you to follow?


  2. If a group of scientists decides that in their technical terminology, a word has a certain definition, that definition does not become authoritative for everyday language nor for other technical terminologies in which the same word might have a different meaning. The word “fruit” has a different meaning in the botanis’s technical terminology (where the fig is not a fruit but the little seed inside it is one) from that in the cook’s technical terminology (where a fig is a fruit and the little seed in it is a seed). For the geoscientists, Antarctica consists of deserts, in everyday language, that word does not apply there. The meaning assigned in a technical terminology might become part of the everyday language. For example, The word “fish” once had a much wider meaning (as can be seen in words like cuttlefish and jellyfish) and also included the whales. In those days, it was not wrong to call a whale a fish. The meaning of the word was different. It is not the case that we have learnt that that was a wrong classification and now we know better, instead the meaning of the word has changed (it should be noted, however, that certain groups of bony fish are more closely related to whales than they are to some other groups of fish, e.g. to sharks. One could well redefine the concept of “fish”again to include amphibians, reptiles and other classes of land-living vertebrates and their water-dwelling ofspring as a class of bony fish).

    Generally, I think the logicist model of language is simply wrong. Language does not work that way, The meaning of utterances is not determined by their truth conditions or by some deep structure definable in some logic notation. Exact logical languages are just a borderline case, not the normal case or the underlying structure. In real language, a word like “forrest” makes sense, as long as people can use it, even if there will be many cases where it would be disputable if something is a forrest or not and a “set of all forrests” cannot be clearly defined. The word is still usable and useful. Forrests exists in the sense that people will agree to call certain agglomerations of stuff “forrest”.

    I think meanings of words are inherently vague, the are variable, they change historically and there might be different versions in use at the same time (e.g. in different technical terminologies).

    Maybe this is relevant here: (I always wanted to write more about language, linguistics, semantics, vagueness etc. but have not had the time to do so yet).

    Nice you have resurfaced, by the way. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi EJW. I think you have it with this comment…

    “The problem is with signifiers that we expect to be pointing out toward the world, but are pointing instead to a concept or a social construct. ‘Forest’ is one of these; as it happens, ‘reality’ is another.”

    Next step would be to reduce everything to a conceptual imputation or construct, as the Buddhists do.

    Liked by 1 person

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