A More Platonic Take on Language

My take on language should be somewhat known to readers of my blog – but perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps a more platonic philosophy of language is correct. I’m fairly Wittgensteinian – but let’s think about an alternative.

Let’s say that somewhere out there is the form of every word – and all our words are approximations of that form. Would this make sense? For a pure form of every word to exist? What would such a form look like?


10 thoughts on “A More Platonic Take on Language

  1. mackman July 8, 2012 / 11:57 am

    “And Dimble, who had been sitting with his face drawn, and rather white, between the white faces of the two women, and his eyes on the table, raised his head, and great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth. Jane felt her heart leap and quiver at them. Everything else in the room seemed to have been intensely quiet; even the bird, and the bear, and the cat, were still, staring at the speaker. The voice did not sound like Dimble’s own: it was as if the words spoke themselves through him from some strong place at a distance – or as if they were not words at all but present operations of God, the planets, and the Pendragon. For this was the language spoken before the Fall and beyond the Moon and the meanings were not given to the syllables by chance, or skill, or long tradition, but truly inherent in them as the shape of the great Sun is inherent in the little waterdrop. This was Language herself, as she first sprang at Maleldil’s bidding out of the molten quicksilver of the star called Mercury on Earth, but Viritrilbia in Deep Heaven.”
    C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

    Of course, Lewis loved Plato and always sought to redeem certain platonic ideas: Language was certainly one of them. I’m a fan of this because it takes out a lot of subjectivity that otherwise, as you’ve noted previously, would be inherent in the world around us. This means that when God said, “Let there be light,” there was no chance of any misunderstanding, because the meaning of each word was actually objectively inherent in the word itself.


  2. whitefrozen July 8, 2012 / 12:03 pm

    I had Lewis in mine when I wrote this, actually. I’m not totally convinced of the idea – I like Wittgenstein too much to be converted yet. But I’m thinking on it,


  3. Ryan July 8, 2012 / 5:52 pm

    I haven’t read your blog for long enough to know enough details of your philosophy on it, and Wittgenstein is interpreted in many different ways, so I’m not sure what I’m expected to comment on or what I’m responding to. That’s despite your careful, concise writing, my comfortable understanding of the words in it, and my active effort to understand your intent. Look at how words evolve over time, phonologically (at one point it made sense that “good,” “food,” and “blood” were all spelled similarly), semantically (“sensible” and “sensitive” have a long history of switching meanings in both English and French), even syntactically (the verb “edit” was originally considered a mistaken analysis of “editor.” A doctor does not “doct,” and an editor did not “edit,” but now we’re happy with the verbal form). Sometimes these changes can be quite drastic and take place in less than a generation (in Japanese, “futsuu ni” used to mean “normally” and now also means something closer to “exceptionally”). If a pure form of the word existed, does that pure form evolve and grow in parallel to the social forces that determine its meaning in context? What do we make of the new form, or the new words, or the new sense? What are we supposed to make of polysemy and homophony? I want to be open to different conceptions, but the idea of some “pure form” that is objective seems only possible to conceive of if we put our heads in the sand and ignore any semblance of how languages actually behave in the real world.

    More to the point, though, if such an objective form of language ever existed, would it matter? How would the existence of an objective referent change the fact that the very act of thinking of the word, let alone saying/writing it or further reading/hearing it, be any less social of a process?

    I apologize again if I’m not on-point.


    • Ryan July 8, 2012 / 5:57 pm

      Ermm…. my last sentence kind of broke down there, haha. Let me try again, “Would the existence of an objective referent change the fact that the very act of thinking of the word, let alone saying/writing it or further reading/hearing it is an inherently social process?”


    • whitefrozen July 8, 2012 / 8:34 pm

      Your comment is quite on post – oddly enough, I was having thoughts not unlike those you wrote out here as I was on the way to my apartments computer center, where I am now.

      Your concluding paragraph is one I agree with quite strongly – your whole comment I agree with, actually. I just don’t see enough evidence that somewhere out there (or at some point in our primordial past) there is/was a perfect language – a language of one-to-one ration of sign/meaning. It just doesn’t jive.


  4. facedownphilosophy July 18, 2012 / 4:37 pm

    Aren’t all words just place-holders for the archetype that we are referencing? Like Hume said, we come to talk about groups of objects like “tables” without referring to the specific table, but the object that we perceive and its “tableness.” Locke seems to think this is acceptable as well because if were to try to speak about every specific thing as we perceive them, then language would be useless, no one could be understood, and communication would be impossible. That’s why the words we use are just symbols that cause us to hearken back to our conception of the archetype we’re referring to.

    I too am interested in this and, as such, will be taking philosophy of language for my final quarter. I look forward to chatting it up with you on these puzzles.



    • Ryan July 20, 2012 / 4:47 am

      Archetypes are relatively simple for most concrete nouns, but it’s harder to apply that to other parts of speech or especially function words like “as” or “to.” What is the archetypal referent of “it” or “up” in the phrase “chatting it up”? You could imagine some sort of abstract semantic archetype, but you’d be hard-pressed to explain real-world language usage patterns that way. Is there any systematic reason why oceans and rivers in English always have a definite article (i.e. “the” as in “The Pacific Ocean” or “The Pacific,” “The Mississippi” or “The Mississippi River” or even “The River Thames”) while lakes almost never do (“Lake Michigan” and “Shuswap Lake,” but not “The Lake Superior”) except the occasional exception like “The Great Salt Lake”? Can we really extract any semblance of an “archetype” of “the” from that mess? It seems to me that this problem, and a lot of data on language, would be better explained by frequency effects, theories of collocations, and a complex systems framework. This seems much more like the realm of science than philosophy.


      • facedownphilosophy July 20, 2012 / 10:11 pm

        Good points, all. It seems to me that someone like Matthew Davidson would be better suited to addressing questions regarding philosophy of language. He’s pretty accessible. You can probably find his contact info from the CSUSB website. He’s a metaphysics and language whiz.


  5. whitefrozen July 22, 2012 / 5:58 pm

    I don’t have time enough but to post a couple recommendations relating to the issues being discussed here:

    This post has some bearing on the matter: https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/t-f-torrance-on-realism/

    I would also recommend C.S. Lewis’s *brilliant* historical/etymological study on words, called, aptly enough, ‘Studies in Words’. Absolutely fascinating study of the history and evolution of language. Also see Wolterstorffs ‘Divine Discourse’ for a stupendous treatment of the issue of language and speech-act.


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