Language, innovation, history; in philosophy

A blogger writing under the handle Philosopher Eric, recently replied to a comment at Plato’s Footnote ( ), “(…) my actual theory is that meaning doesn’t just exist as consciousness, but rather as the positive/negative sensations which consciousness presumably produces for a given subject to experience. Thus for a cat in a world without humans, “pain” would be something meaningful to it. While you have no ability to logically assert that this definition of meaning happens to be “wrong (…)” – which, of course happens to be mistaken, as his interlocutor pointed out. (Much of what follows is my own commentary on the discussion.)

The hard fact is that we cannot change the of philosophy (less so of science) willy-nilly simply by thinking matters through and coming up with some Great Idea that will answer everybody’s questions, and set all matters right. Further, the language we have with which to communicate just is as it is; it may be highly specialized in specific fields of discourse; but it is not open to sudden change by sheer will. Innovations in language require time, effort, but most importantly community. Language is a shared practice; if you can’t get others on board to your personal language usage, you might as well keep a journal of your unique and special proclamations – and burn every day’s entry upon completion, because nobody’s ever going to read it besides your self. (As Eric’s interlocutor, Daniel Kaufman, noted, “While you are free to invent a word, argument by stipulation is rarely very persuasive.”)

I see this misstep frequently from people who believe they have discovered The True Philosophy (their own or another’s), and are convinced that if readers don’t get what they are saying, or read it in contextual ways they won’t allow, or expect clarification in commonly understood conversational terms, that there is something wrong with the readers, or with the conventions of normal conversation, or with commonly understood language usage.

Language does not function communicably that way. Language has never functioned that way. Language cannot function that way. Language is a communal system of verbal signification that came before us, prepared us in our youth, and will speak eulogies over our graves.

Of course language changes over time; But this takes concerted responses by groups of people engaged in determined efforts to do so. It may be a collection of academic professionals, it may be an ethnic minority unsatisfied with expected norms, it may be poets or novelists looking for better ways to express themselves – but it’s always a group, it is never an individual, and it is never achieved through a top-down injunction. Esperanto failed, Positivist purification failed, puritanical grammarians have failed – all efforts to ‘clarify’ language from some supposed position of wisdom ‘outside of language’* will inevitably fail. Language just is, in the first instance, what we speak; and what we speak, if it is to communicate, must respect the expectations of our audience. Refusal here leads to isolation, not to superior authority or winning arguments.

As to the question, whether ‘pain’ is ‘meaningful’ to a cat: here the distinction between semiotics and philosophy of language may be useful. If a cat steps on a thorn and thereby reacts in a manner attempting riddance of the invasive object, we can indeed say (semiotically) that its sensations have significance – the sensation signifies the invasion into the body of the foreign material, as immediate response to the thorn as sign of threat, calling forth the ‘ridding’ response.

That doesn’t make it ‘meaningful’ in the semantic sense, since this requires an ability to formulate the experience conceptually for verbal expression.

This also illuminates the issues of whether there is inherent meaning to the universe or to life. The universe is filled with phenomena that can be responded to as signs – but only by living beings, since that is in the nature of life, that it is responsive to the stimuli it encounters as significant to its survival in one way or another.

But if meaning is a function of language, then only an intelligent species capable of language (and humans are the only species we know to be so capable) will be able to ‘make’ or ‘find’ or other wise articulate meaning, for meaning to be understood.

And it has to be understood, by those of like intelligence, in order to be communicated; else-ways we are spinning wheels in isolation. That may make someone feel good about themselves or their ideas; but it won’t effect anyone else’s thought, nor the common language in which these thoughts are communicated.

Bottom line: If one reader doesn’t understand you, that may be his or her problem. If multiple readers do not quite ‘get it’ or read it differently than you intended, then it is best to rethink your writing strategies. Believe me; I been there; I know.

And if you have something truly new to contribute to science or to philosophy, or to some other field of inquiry, find some way to express it within the many streams of discourse that we inherit in our history. Innovation is difficult, but not impossible. The question is whether you can attract others to it in way that is meaningful for them, given that they share the same history.

Or start a religion; but don’t expect others to flock to your church. You may be your only congregation. That might not be a bad thing – you can always save yourself. But others might think it more reasonable to find traditions in which they feel comfortable – and there’s nothing wrong with that either. **

*There is no ‘outside of language’ for the human animal; hence no position of pure authority from which to adjudicate and purify language usage.


** It is said that, after his enlightenment, the Buddha met a Hindu yogi on the road, and explained all that he had learned.  The yogi listened patiently;  saying something like, “very well for you,”  he walked away.  The Buddha thus learned that his message was only for those who wanted it.


2 thoughts on “Language, innovation, history; in philosophy

  1. Hi EJ.

    How would you go about justifying your claim that there is no ‘outside of language’ for the human animal? It is a bold claim given that it seems to contradict the reported experiences of a great many human animals. Or perhaps I’m misreading it.

    I cannot agree with your interpretation of the Buddha’s conversation, especially as he would have been well aware that his message could only ever reach people who want it. I would see the yogi as saying that we must our own experiences in order to learn anything important, a view with which the Buddha concurs, and that a description is just ‘very well for you’. .

    Why must I always feel obliged niggle?


    • PeterJ,

      “The reported experiences” – this phrase itself discredits the thesis that there is any ‘outside’ to language – how could reports be made except within language?

      Are there experiences outside of language? Maybe; but then they could never be reported.

      Once we speak, language itself will decide what we can or cannot report.


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