Note on the emergence and role of language


The theory of knowledge developed in the papers has as its base how an idea comes to be. Once the idea exists, and if the species has the necessary neural and physical apparatus to both concept and to make a range of sounds, then it is a short step for ideas to be given labels, this enabling sharing of the idea, if by nothing more basic than pointing and making some regular sound.

Development from this fundamental has always seemed to me to be something that would obviously occur. That is the sounds would become more refined, the ability to link sounds, which is effectively linking ideas into coherent statements would also occur. Also, the sound and the thought become differentiated from the event that gave rise to both in the first place. So then, ideas and sounds that convey ideas take on an existence of their own.

Any object will have parts, and since events are partly observer dependent, an observer is able to define and redefine some event into parts. So an animal has a head and tail, as does some other animal. We then have the emergence of categories, heads, tails and so on, each of these having a range of properties and some actual example having a sufficient number of the properties so as to be so classified as a ‘head’, or ‘headlike’, etc. Again, from this obvious and elementary position the burgeoning of categories and definitions and descriptions will and certainly has occurred, the whole structure of categories now quite independent of the objects of Reality that might have given rise to the categories in the first place.

It is crucial we now distinguish two very different aspects of language. First, the emergence of language and the effect of language on the species, and second the emergence of language and the effect of language on the individual.

From the point of view of the species, thought precedes language. To argue or suggest otherwise is to suggest that before humankind developed any ideas, it had words. Which just seems to me to be silly.

From the point of view of the person, language precedes thought. That is the very first things we see are already being contaminated with the framework of words used to convey the ideas of that community, the language given us by our family already circumscribes our first true concepts. For the individual thought is shaped by language, the ideas conveyed by the language becoming the framework of the person.

This then brings us to modern day, the tension in language evident. How do we progress the understanding of the species, how do we progress science when we are as individuals so circumscribed by the language of the day?

Take the simple example of de Broglie matter waves. What on earth are they? And how can we describe them when no concept, no word we have seems to get close, the current conceptual systems lead us into weird contradictions. I do not think, at least just yet that I am advocating the advancement of a new word to describe every new event we encounter. But as a species we do need to be more aware of what Ross Ashby called ‘borrowed knowledge’ that is the application of ideas to a system when those ideas are not directly evident in that system. We do that as a matter of course, every day when we call a door a door. In the case of de Broglie we are clearly using ‘borrowed knowledge’, that is applying concepts we previously developed and proved useful in our understanding to new situations. Science needs to take much, much more heed of these problems of epistemology and the contradiction and tensions inherent in the growth of knowledge in the person and the growth of knowledge in the species, especially now, since we have scientific and general history of thought of such duration that issues of the species development of understanding and thought are foremost. To grow understanding of the species we need be much more aware of the shackles language places on the individual. I suggest that quantum electro dynamics is bound in just such dilemmas. Paradigms are real in science and have the effect of inhibiting science by limiting the creative and conceptualization output of scientists. This then reinforced by funding and publication systems, if you are outside the paradigm you cannot get money nor get published.

Too often too much is made of language. Linguistic philosophies are of limited value, especially in the study of language in and of itself, divorced from the conceptual system and underlying structure of thought language is intended to convey. What arises here is a clear distinction between language and meaning. To seek ‘deeper structures’ of language parallels the style of thinking of the psychodynamics of Freud, or the structualism of Levi Strauss, it inevitably leads to the postulation of concepts whose only existence is in the mind of the thinker proffering the ideas. The deconstructionism of Derrida has some uses, especially if it uncovers hidden assumptions in some word or phrase. Beyond uncovering implicit assumptions, deconstructionism degenerates to voyeurism.

To summarize

    1. Concepts need to come before language, and we best reinforce this to assist the integrity of language, and moderate the shackling of the individual by language.
    2. For the species: thought precedes language.
    3. For the individual: language precedes thought.
    4. To grow thought requires individual creativity, therefore we need be more aware of these issues else we limit the growth of understanding of the species.
    5. Too much emphasis can be placed on language itself, when what is really required is to understand the thought behind the language.