philosoraptor42: (Fatpie42)

A quick lesson in the philosophy of language.


The big name in philosophy of language is Ludwig Wittgenstein. His insights into language have had implications into pretty much every philosophical field, because whatever the philosophy problem someone is going to need to describe it.

He described the typical understanding of language as the Augustinian view, but it might be more helpful to describe it as the dictionary view. This view is that every word must have a specific corresponding definition, like a dictionary might suggest. On this basis we could form an entire language purely through 'ostensive definitions'. That is, by pointing to things and naming them.



Of course when we use language, pointing and naming will never be enough. For one, what about connective words such as: and, but, as, then? Also the following scenario makes even clearer how poor a tool ostensive definitions are for establishing a language.

The example from Wittgenstein himself is pointing to two nuts. If I point to them and say an unknown word like 'shapistus' what might this strange word mean? Certainly it might mean 'nuts' but it might just as easily mean 'brown' or 'two' or 'food' or perhaps it might even be a question like 'what is this?' Using a word when pointing is not sufficient to establish meaning.



So what does establish meaning? How does language attain meaning? Well Wittgenstein has a phrase which sums it up neatly: 'Meaning is use'.

When we learn a language, pointing to objects might well be helpful, but there's a context involved. And it is the context which enables us to recognise more complex grammar. Language is always fulfilling a role in a social context. Wittgenstein refers to the role of language in a particular context as a 'language game'.

That's why I am left completely perplexed when someone starts discussing football even when I recognise the words being used. I am not familiar with the language game. On the other hand when I discuss movies with friends, some other friends can find it tough to keep up because they don't fully understand the rules of this language game.



It seems that even the languages of isolated communities can be learnt by outsiders through living with them in a social setting. Once again, Wittgenstein has a term for this. He claims that we are able to share common concepts with isolated tribespeople because we are the same 'forms of life'. We have similar needs to them and necessity is the mother of invention. Under such contexts, language inevitably develops to handle those needs.



But if social context is required for language, does that mean we cannot develop a language living on our own? Well technically we can use our pre-existing language and just replace the words, but from scratch? No, we need a community to develop a language. Without a social context, there is no right or wrong way to use a word. On your own you can switch the meanings of words as often as you like and there is no situation where you might fail to convey the meaning to yourself. A language needs correct and incorrect ways of being expressed. A phrase is incorrect when it fails to convey its meaning and that requires more than one language speaker.


(Okay so you actually need to be familiar with Wittgenstein's philosophy to know why I put this image here.)

So why did I write this short introduction to the philosophy of language?

I did it because I had an issue with the use of language in the recent movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes". It's not exactly a major criticism, but the discussion could do with these details being understood first.

Basic gist? The apes now all speak in pigeon English and that annoys me.....


Sometimes pigeon english is entirely appropriate. Ahhh Grimlock, my favourite Transformer, but the way he talks is just daft. Thankfully the development of Dinobot language isn't an important part of the Transformer universe...

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philosoraptor42

August 2014

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