A Few Reflections on Language and Reality

I’ve argued before that reality is fundamentally linguistic in its nature – for some more of my thoughts and developments on this theme, head here:

So, what are some of the implications of this viewpoint? To be brief, here are some of the ones that come to my mind (note: this viewpoint is not saying that everything is language, or that only language exists – this isn’t linguistic idealism):

1)      Reality, by virtue of being linguistic, is relational. This works with a realist notion of the universe as the totality of all interacting and relating things. Reality is interactive and relational.

2)      A linguistic reality would point to an objectively existing reality – language always points to a reality outside itself.

3)      It is this relational-ness that allows for scientific study – a relational, interacting objective universe can be studied by relational, interacting humans.

With these points in mind, it seems appropriate to me to tentatively call this idea linguistic realism – to sum up, a conception of an objectively existing reality based on relation and interactive-ness. This account of reality is a whole, coherent and interactive account, which is the kind of account required if there is to be any serious scientific inquiry into the empirical universe (see the numerous quotations of Fr. Stanley Jaki for more on the idea of an objective reality being necessary for science).

These are not dogmatic statements, and no doubt have weak points. My goal here is to work through the issues and implications of this thesis and come to at least some coherent conclusions. Perhaps all of this is worthy to be rejected – I certainly hope that if that is in fact the case, the astute readers of this blog will make it known.

Thought, Language and Consciousness

‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.’

– L.Wittgenstein

As I see it, roughly the same problem plagues consciousness as language: our inability to really step outside of what we are describing, because what we are describing is the means by which we can describe (or do) anything. This obviously doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about either language or consciousness – only that there seem to be built in limits for what we can sensibly say on either subject.

Wittgenstein’s early logical atomism obviously fails here – so a naïve positivism with regard to thought, language and consciousness won’t do.  While I’ve articulated my own views on language being a fundamental part of the makeup of reality, I think any kind of linguistic idealism is as bankrupt as Wittgenstein’s atomism – so either naïve atomism or idealism with regard to thought, language and consciousness are out of the picture.

So, then, what can we say about thought, language and consciousness? We have apparently arrived nowhere – but let’s see if we can pull together some coherent thoughts.

Language, while obviously crucial to our being able to communicate and understand, is not all there is to thought and consciousness – as Fr. Stanley Jaki notes:

‘For language is not thought itself, even if it should be considered the most important expression of thought…were a word or a sentence thought itself, translation from one language to another would be impossible, nor could one explain the availability of alternative sentences within one language. If words were thought itself why should one grope for words to express an already clear though? If words were thought itself, how could entirely different phenomes stand for the same idea, and how could one in fact be conscious of ideas without uttering words? Evidently, thought  implies more than can be contained in purely physical entities acting as symbols.’ (Fr. Stanley Jaki, ‘Brain, Mind, and Computers’, p. 214)

While the above quote is in context of refuting idealistic frenzies of artificial intelligence, it makes a solid point: language is not thought, and thought cannot be restricted to a physicalist account of consciousness.

Thomas Reid’s ideas on consciousness may be of some use here – further musings on that will be forthcoming.

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?

T.F. Torrance on Realism

The following quote was originally read here: http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/realism-defined/

‘The contrast between realism and idealism, implied in the use of either term, evidently has its source in the distinction we make between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified. This is a natural operation of the human mind, for it belongs to the essence of rational behavior that we can distinguish ourselves as knowing subjects from the objects of our knowledge, and can employ ideas or words to refer to or signify realities independent of them. Normally our attention in knowing, speaking, listening, or reading is not focused upon the ideas or words we use, far less upon ourselves, but upon the realities they signify or indicate beyond themselves. Hence in our regular communication with one another we use and interpret signs in the light of their objective reference. Thus the natural operation of the human mind would appear to be realist.

We use these distinctions, then, between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified, naturally and unreflectingly, and only turn a critical eye upon them when something arises to obscure signification, such as a break in the semantic relation. Much now depends upon where the emphasis falls, upon the signifying pole or the objective pole of the semantic relation, that is, upon idea or reality, upon sign or thing signified.

…we shall use the term [realism], not in an attenuated dialectical sense merely in contrast to idealism, nominalism, or conventionalism, but to describe the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it. It is worth noting that it was a realist orientation of this kind which Greek patristic theology, especially from the third to the sixth century, struggled hard to acquire and which it built into the foundations of classical theology. [Ditto for relativity theory in 20th century science.] (Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology, pp. 58-60.)

Reading and Context

It is terribly easy to take things out of context – but it seems moreso with written text. While written text seems like it should be more objective, it’s not really. The text is there, on the page – but that’s about the only objective thing about it. It must be read – which involves a host of things that shape how one interprets the text (presuppositions, linguistics, context of the reader, etc, etc). It is sometimes astounding to me that anything can be communicated at all with language, written or spoken.

Some First Thoughts on God, Speech, and Revelation.

Main thought: delve into the concept of God speaking.

Speech is communication by means of words and verbal expression. The nature of language, as I have argued before, is fuzzy and prone to subjectivism.

Written word vs. verbal word. Written lacks tone, appears more ‘objective’. It’s there, in black and white. Verbal has tone, which often changes the meaning of words. Consider:

‘Good job!’ (normal tone)

‘Good job!’ (sarcastic tone)

The exact same words, only slightly different tones of voice, change the meaning entirely – the meaning is reversed. Written words seem to bring context with them in a different, more static way – to use them in a context which they were not originally used in would be to rob them of their original meaning. Written word is frozen in its context, and can only have its original meaning if used in that context. Distortions of text, out-of-context readings, etc. Written text is not dialogic – one cannot ask the book questions it does not answer.


God, Speech, and Revelation.


In the great monotheistic traditions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, scriptures have a special place of importance. This is because their scriptures are all believed to be, in one form or another, the written word of God, God’s communication and revelation to mankind in which His will is disclosed. I will be focusing on the notion of revelation, speech and communication in the Christian tradition.

Perhaps a broad question is the best way to begin: why is Scripture so important in the Christian tradition? From here, there’s a few other questions that can be asked: what does it mean to say that God has spoken? That God has disclosed His will in Scripture? How do we understand Scripture? How can we understand Scripture?  On a more theological level: how do we interpret Scripture? What role does Scripture play in the Christian life? How does Jesus impact how we read Scripture? How do we come to terms with the idea of God communicating through words, given how tricky language can be?

There are all these questions and many, many more that need to be asked. In the coming few posts I’ll attempt to round out a few tentative answers to these questions and any more that pop up.

Musings on Wittgenstein and Certainty

Reading through ‘On Certainty’ is interesting – because there are very few certain conclusions that Wittgenstein comes to.  It seems odd that an investigation into the nature of knowledge and how we know things doesn’t really offer any firm, certain conclusions. But perhaps, despite a non-systematic format and method, a few things can be gleaned that shed light on the problems of certainty.

‘In the course of our conversations Russell would often exclaim: “Logic’s hell!” – And this perfectly expresses the feeling we had when we were thinking about the problems of logic; that is to say, their immense difficulty, their hard and slippery texture.

I believe our main reason for feeling like this was the following fact: that every time some new linguistic phenomenon occurred to us, it could retrospectively show that our previous explanations were unworkable. (We felt that language could always make new, and impossible, demands; and this makes all explanation futile.)

But that is the difficulty Socrates gets into trying to give the definition of a concept. Again and again a use of a word emerges that seems not to be compatible with the concept that other uses have led us to form. We say: but that isn’t how it is! – it is like that though! and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses.’ (‘Culture and Value’, p. 30e)

The problem emerges in the last paragraph: the fluid nature of language is a real barrier to examining things like certainty and logic. This is why Wittgenstein adopts a more ‘therapeutic’ method of investigation, working, wading and kneading through the issues and problems.  Perhaps no clear, concise answer appears – but can such an answer even be feasible given the limitations imposed on us by our language?

More on Language and Reality

‘If you take the biblical image of God ‘speaking a universe into existence’ (with all the fuzziness, imprecision, and questions that raises!), then the universe is fundamentally semantic in character. This simply means that the constituents are related to one another as semantic units in a semantic web. The classic part/whole problem, in this model, becomes the text/context problem of hermeneutics–because of the category of an ultimate reference point for predication–and in this personal context of a ‘speakers meaning’ (deconstructionism aside for the moment) allows for an “expert witness” perhaps.

What this means for the discovery process, is at least two-fold. First, that each element of the universe (i.e. semantic unit) provides some information in forming the understanding of the context (like a hologram in which each point contains the picture as a whole, and like the process in which we ‘correct’ phonemes based upon expected sentence meaning), and that second, we (as semantic units within the sentence) have a dialogical relationship to the other units. In other words, we do not ‘extract/extort’ data from our objects, nor do we passively ‘wait for the rocks to speak’; they rather ‘answer us’–if we ask the RIGHT questions…Discovery then boils down to dialogue–a framing of questions for the universe and allowing the universe to tell us to change the questions! (if need be)…

This notion of ‘semantic field or web’ has the personal element implicit in it, and as such allows the semantic units to be ‘revelatory’ of some Speaker (to the extent said Speak intends disclosure.)

It is also important to note that the relationships played by words and sentences and paragraphs within a semantic unit, can be seen as a unifying model for both particle and field theories (at some gross level). Words have specific meanings only within a context (field theories); but context is only composed of discrete semantic ‘atoms’ (particle theories). (I am NOT suggesting that we abandon the microscope in favor of the dictionary, of course, but that we be a little less presumptive and harsh in our claims of scientific knowledge–esp. at the expense of other experienced realities like consciousness).’  (http://www.christianthinktank.com/what.html)

If  the Biblical idea of God speaking the universe into existence is true, then reality is in its essence linguistic, and therefore also personal and dialogic, and by that extension relational .