comment on a pingback

Re: Language can form anything (the new “realm of possibility” or “kingdom of heaven”) / Language can form anything

This material was posted on Skeptical Humanities as a pingback to my own material there.  In general I do not expect to be able to engage in extensive discussion of this material, but this specific sample has been deliberately brought to my attention and therefore I would like to comment on it at some length on this occasion.

The following represents my considered opinion, but of course this is subject to change in response to evidence and argumentation.  I have to say that I find most of the novel aspects of this material difficult to interpret with any confidence.  Unless this material can be presented more clearly, and properly defended, I do not think that linguists and philosophers will feel obliged to take it seriously.  The onus is upon this source to justify the attention of linguists and philosophers (if this is wanted).  (It might also be better if a less ‘forthright’ style were adopted.)

Although the material was posted as a pingback to my specifically linguistic material, in its own discussion of language the source adopts a ‘tone’ and approach very different from what prevails in empirical linguistics.  In addition, the specific statements about language which it makes, where they are intelligible and accurate, are already familiar to linguists.  Any useful insights which the material may possess are more likely to be philosophical in character.  Unfortunately, even this is uncertain, chiefly because the discourse is often (in my view) obscure; it also seems to involve a radical general ontological stance which (here, at least) is only roughly sketched and not defended.

I may wish to comment on the philosophical aspects of this material at a later date.  At this present moment I prefer to address more specifically linguistic issues.

It is claimed here that language means nothing and never will mean anything.  Subject to the major issues regarding how the term nothing is being used here, this viewpoint is, of course, contrary to prevailing opinion both popular and academic (the latter including both linguists and philosophers), and thus needs to be justified at this point.  Indeed, it might be suggested that if language ‘means nothing’ it cannot itself be used to say anything useful.  And, while – as is proclaimed here (albeit in somewhat strange wording) – language can be seen as ‘a sequence of codes for the directing of attention’, it is generally taken as obvious that language has other functions and aspects in addition to this.

Within language, it is accepted here that different words and letters are distinct.  (The use of the term letters seems to betray a folk-linguistic starting-point; a writer with knowledge of linguistics would instead talk here primarily of phonemes.)  But these words and letters are all seen as variations on ‘nothing’ (this raises the above-mentioned issues regarding this term); and, while they do possess meaning (this apparently contradicts what is said earlier), this supposedly arises only ‘through perception’.  Concepts are identified as ‘linguistic formations’ arising ‘out of nothing’, which is ‘the capacity for linguistic formations to simply happen by themselves’.  Like individual words and ‘letters’, each specific language is distinct, being seen as ‘a specific set of distinct, isolated formations’ – and is ‘finite’, in contrast with ‘language itself’ which is ‘infinite’; it is not clear how the terms finite and especially infinite are to be understood here.  And boundaries between languages are, again, seen as different manifestations of ‘nothing’.  I find the conceptualising obscure at this point, and it is difficult to comment helpfully.

I add here brief comments on some specific points in later sections of the material.

‘One language evolves into another, with perhaps an entire family of languages being similar to each other’

While essentially ‘along the right lines’, this claim apparently mixes diachronic and synchronic points and needs to be clarified.  (The term evolve is also contentious here.)

‘Languages mix and influence each other.  Languages may be called distinct, but the boundaries between them shift’

Although the reference to shifting boundaries is obscurely expressed and perhaps mis-conceptualised, these general points are, of course, very familiar to linguists.

‘If the boundaries shift, then the boundaries are arbitrary. In fact, the alleged boundaries between various languages are alive, existing only through the declaration of language’

This appears obscure.  There may be a good (if familiar) point in the former of these two sentences, though it needs to be much more clearly expressed; but the second sentence, as expressed, is very strange (what do alive and declaration mean here?).

‘Is Creole [= a particular creole language? (MN)] a language? Clearly it is entirely composed of other languages.  [Not necessarily the case. (MN)]  However, it is also not a dialect of any particular language. What is it? It is whatever it is called!’

It is not clear that there is a genuine issue here regarding creoles as such.  There are relevant definitional-cum-philosophical issues at a more general level concerning the individuation of languages, the ‘language’-‘dialect’ distinction, etc.; but these are not rehearsed here.

‘Is there such a thing as “I” (“me”)? In many languages there is such a thing as “I” or similar concepts to the concept of “I.”  However, “I” is fundamentally a concept, a construct of language, merely a thing. “I” is not itself fundamental (which is the ancient teaching called anatma).’

There, of course, are words meaning ‘I’ in all languages.  But it is not clear how significant linguistic facts of this kind might be for philosophical issues regarding the reality or otherwise of persons; as I have argued elsewhere, it is probably dangerous in a philosophical context to focus too heavily upon the ways in which ideas are expressed in specific languages – although this approach is common enough in mainstream ‘analytical’ philosophy.

‘Language is more fundamental than “I,” and nothing is more fundamental than language.’

It is not clear what fundamental means here, or what this claim amounts to.

The same source presents  This material again deals with some linguistic issues, this time in the context of an essentially religious discussion involving claims regarding souls, sin, etc.  Linguistics, as an empirical discipline, cannot be grounded in specific theological viewpoints; and as an atheist I would prefer not to engage in this context in discussion which assumes a religious stance that I do not share.

However: it is undoubtedly true, as is claimed here, that it is a conceptual error to mistake a piece of language, such as a word, for the item in the non-linguistic world to which it refers.  Like the well-known picture of a pipe by Magritte, the word pipe is not itself a pipe.  Some such conceptual errors are potentially damaging.  But the further claim that ‘belief in words is the root of all malice or ill will’ is not adequately defended and appears vastly overstated.

I posted the above on the site in question, and JR, the controller of the site, responded as follows:

While this material contains many interesting individual points, I’m afraid I’m too much of a modernist to try to grapple further with material of this general character, presented in this seriously confusing style, in the time available to me.  Among many other issues, JR appears in places to be denying having said what he did say (e.g. ‘language means nothing’); and he also appears to contradict himself (at one point he agrees with me that things are not words, but at another he says that there being no such thing [as an atheist] and there being no such word are equivalent). And if anyone denies that words exist or indeed that atheists like me exist (and is not clearly intending to say something else in a subtle way), it is hard for me to see how I can have any useful dialogue with them.

Mark Newbrook


One Response to comment on a pingback

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: