I must first start by stating that this blog is not a philosophical premise so much as it is the culmination of thoughts about language. Of late I have been torn between the idea that language is a key sign of higher consciousness in our species but that it is also our enemy. Language being the currency of our complex thoughts and experiences is also the stumbling block, potentially, from further improvement.
This is by no means a new concept. In fact it is rather neatly summed up in the book that is now rather crumbling away as the mainstay of western thought and morality. The creation story in Genesis 1 sees the world created in seven days concluding with the creation of Adam. In Chapter 2 Adam is, supposedly, delegated to name all the animals. Chapter 3 sees the fall of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Now if the first chapters of the Bible are to be taken as a representation or poetic image of the nature of our being, then we see something fascinating occurring. Within two chapters we are both elevated as perfect complex God like beings and then expelled in shame for misusing the power that comes from this. My interest in this passage, however, is based on the possibility that the very thing that makes us more complex, more conscious and aware, is the very thing that causes our potential downfall. Whilst it makes us more awake, it also leads us to a horrendously over elevated opinion of how great we are.
The philosophical heavy weight, Ludwig Wittgenstein spent a lot of time approaching the problem of language and reality in both Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. In the first he examines the notion of reality within language reflecting statements that helps us picture the world as we see it. In the latter he looks at the opposite; language reflecting reality. They are, despite appearing subtly different, at very different ends of the spectrum. Something view people really think about or observe. But then why should we? It is not an everyday problem to us is it?
Whether one sees the above as a problem or not, what we have available to consider is whether there is no reality outside of our language or whether reality is poorly reflected by our language. After all; we experience with language, we think with language, we exist within language. Our existence and awareness is characterised by the balance that exists between us being in command of language or actually being slave to it and whether, in the middle of all this, reality exists within language alone or beyond it.
A.J. Ayer in Language Truth and Logic approaches some very important issues about how we misuse language to end up believing things we really shouldn't believe. Ayer argues that statements should never be taken on face value. In fact there is a criteria of valuing a statement or proposition on the strength of its verification. For a statement to be significant, to be fact, there have to be observations that can be made that will prove that it is either true or false. If that cannot be achieved then verification has to be obtainable in "principle" i.e. it is foreseeable that something would be verified if the correct observation were to be available. Ayer gave the idea of mountains existing on the dark side of the moon being potentially verified by the use of a rocket which we do not, at present, have available. If we begin to apply this criteria to every statement we make, it becomes quite clear just how much we say and think has little real fact about it. In fact he suggests that most statements we make are, at best, highly probable and verifiable in principle and therefore not strong in significance. Of course there are issues with his argument. On the one hand he states the importance of this criteria but then accepts that it then renders almost everything we say nonsensical. As a result, he inadvertently renders his own argument to a nonsensical state. He does, however, accept that a statement may be true or false regardless of the quality of evidence or observations made. Indeed whilst reality is limited, defined and contained in language, our own command of language or ability to obtain adequate evidence or information stains our ability to come to the correct conclusions or to be secure in our verification. This is the key problem when it comes to making assumptions about aspects beyond the realm of experience or reality.
Ayer argues that the notion that the world of sense and experience as false is itself false. A notion put forward perhaps in eastern spirituality. It is something that he seems to dislike as much as he disdains the solid, definition brandishing , fact asserting faith of the Abrahamic religions. Both sides, he believed, could not be verified at all because they both commented on metaphysical, other realm assertions that just cannot be proven. Ayers ideas have truth, I think, but once again there is a flaw in that his own verification criteria dictates that this argument is nonsensical. For him to be safe in the knowledge that sense and experience are not false, he would have to verify each sense and experience or at least prove that most of them were not deceiving us. Indeed he would have to be enlightened and able to move beyond the limits of language, truth and logic to be able to prove it. Even when he had done that there would still be an issue in how to communicate such a thing that exists outside of language which again would make it insignificant and beyond our ability to experience. Of course one might even argue that we could never tell if a mystic is telling the truth or not unless we have passed over the boundary with him/her or overtaken him/her and passed the boundary or reality and language.
To highlight the above problems, Ayer suggests that we have a primitive , superstitious tendency to name everything. This brings us back to our, supposed, first ever man who must have been proud as punch to be given the job of naming and having dominion over all animals. If we look closely enough we can see that the naming occurs in two ways. We give a word or phrase to an animal or object which stands for that very thing, but then sometimes we also give names and words which comment on its appearance or attributes. It is the confusion that arises in this that brings about a schewing of our ability to observe clearly. Ayers' example is the confusion of boundaries between statements such as "dogs are faithful" and "unicorns are fictitious." There is a carelessness in both statements, although it is only the first which can't be verified; but the actual problem comes from the issue that attributability confuses the boundaries of existence. By calling a dog faithful we work with the assumption that dogs exist. However we do the same when we say a unicorn is fictitious. The fact that we are attributing fiction to a unicorn, gives the unicorn a certain level of existence even if it is on a different level to the Dog. Ayer suggests that this is where metaphysics and perhaps religion have emerged= through an error and oversight in grammar as opposed to experience.
So here we see that there are vast differences in how each human uses language and experiences as a result. It can either bless or curse. An example I would like to give here is the Akita. This is a dog which possesses two very different labels in two very different cultures. In Japan, the story of Hachiko the Akitas' loyalty to its master by waiting for him at a train station day after day for nine years after the master had died made it the national symbol for faithfulness. In the United Kingdom, there are calls to put the Akita on the list of dangerous dogs. So whilst one human might say the Akita is loyal, another would say the Akita is dangerous. Both attribute aspects onto the dog and ultimately have a bearing on its existence. We might go further by asking "Is the Akita a dangerous dog?" many would answer with yes until we see that Akitas have a tendency to be aggressive towards people who are not members of the family to which it belongs. It is sometimes aggressive because of its loyalty to its owner. Does that make it dangerous? You might argue that this is the wrong question. What if the right question was "Are there going to be problems if I introduce an animal into an environment and culture which is different to the one in which it was bred for or different to the environment it has evolved within?".
Language blinds and language enlightens. It defines friend and foe. It frees and it imprisons. It releases and it owns. Our language has the potential to enlighten but very often hinders. Words are a commodity that we take for granted. So as we look back to Adam and his enthusiastic naming of all things, I wonder whether the Chapter 3 account of the fall is the poetic account of the fall that occurred the moment humanity developed its tendency to label. For by naming something or someone, we either diminish its existence or we diminish our ability to see things are they really are.