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Re-Thinking Language | The Truth Is You

Re-Thinking Language


"Philosophy is not a body of doctrine, it's an activity." ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of the things that Wittgenstein worked on was the characteristics that a perfect language would have. This would be a language where there would be no chance for a particular word, or sentence, to mean more than one thing. If this were the case, the intended meaning of a communication would always be delivered. Obviously this would save all of us some trouble.

Unfortunately we would quickly run into a hyper-expansion of what Korzybski asked us to bear in mind. Namely that "the map is not the territory." There's a funny thing about maps - you don't want them to be too detailed. The point of a map is to give the essentials for successful navigation, while doing so in a more compact form. If a map contained every single detail of the territory it represented then it would have to be very nearly the same size as the territory. Tough to fold up into your pocket.

All maps abstract from the territory, to one degree or another. This is so they can avoid the issue of being a one-for-one replica of the territory.

Language takes the issue several steps further.

Let's take an example. What if I want to say that, "Sally was standing beside the car." How precise is that? Not very. First, which car? Second, which Sally? (More than one person has that name.) Third, which side of the car? Also, how far from the car? Etc, etc.

If someone told you that "Sally was standing beside the car" and you go outside to see her, you might be surprised that she is on the left side of the car, as opposed to the right. Chances are you'd recover rather quickly, but we can see that exact meaning was not delivered.

For the perfect delivery of meaning via language, our perfect language would need a word for that Sally. It would also need words for that car. All of the possible sides. The precise distance from the car. The angle of departure from axis of the car, etc. The English language falls woefully short of that perfection in a couple of these points. Still, we can imagine a language that does fulfill all of these needs. It would simply be a nightmare to converse in.

"Sally was standing beside the car." becomes instead, "Sally Brenda Blarswight, born on October 12th in 1970, according to the Gregorian calendar, at 0817:32 hours in Bridgeport, New York, USA was standing 3 feet and 6 inches from the right forward quarter of the 2014 Ford Tempo (standard edition) at an angle of departure of 60 degrees from the line of the main axle of the....." Very cumbersome. Also, nowhere near what a perfect language would carry with it. Wittgenstein made the case that in a perfect language, each word could refer to one thing only. So you would not say, "my 2014 Ford Tempo" as the "2014" could refer to a number of calendars, the "Tempo" could refer to anyone's Tempo. Etc.

Essentially, what happens with such a language is our linguistic map becomes bigger than reality itself. That would make ordering a meal at a restaurant a week long event.

This is why our languages use so much abstraction and implication. It's a great way to keep vocabulary and grammar rules small enough for easy access. There is a sacrifice in specificity, and that's where things get interesting to me.

My supposition is this: the amount of abstraction necessary to keep a language usable dictates that meaning is never 100% expressed, or transmitted. There are simply too many variable in life to let a complete transmission of meaning take place in a language that allows any abstraction at all.

For me, the realization that meaning is never fully transmittable, and therefore that communication is always a bit of a gamble, was incredibly liberating. No more did I have to be concerned with getting to absolute certainty that I had been understood. That goal is a pipe-dream. Instead, I do what I can to get my message through, and then hope for the best.

There is a great freedom and relaxation in this insight. No longer am I responsible for insuring that my attempts at communication always make it through. I'm not responsible, because such a thing is impossible. No communication is ever 100% true. That leaves me the freedom to try my best, and the release from fretting over it. Time will tell.

Of course, old habits die hard, and I still fall back into the struggle to get 100% accurate communication to take place. After having see the above however, I catch myself doing this more often, and can smile at myself as I step out of the trap.

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Leave A Reply (6 comments so far)

  1. Michael Bazeley
    5 years ago

    Language is the hammer we have which makes all issues look remarkably like nails. Reasons for not wanting to obsess about language used to communicate (even unto meta-communication) is so as not to confuse the map with the terrain. Thinking in words is just such a trap. Communication is dynamic process: I say "This." you gesture and reply, "This?" I shake my head and say, "No, this", to which you make another gesture, "This?!" at which I nod and we both smile in satisfaction.

    • Travis
      5 years ago

      I dig the hammer/nail metaphor, Michael. Nice one!

  2. Viking Queen
    5 years ago

    This is also why folk miss the full reality of situations and suffer isn't it? If one looks at a situation, it is difficult to see it all as it actually is; instead one sees a selected view probably based on the ego mind. Could it be that language has the same problem?

    • Travis
      5 years ago

      I don't know if this is the reason for why people miss reality, and suffer, but I do think it's one of the key contributors. Language has problems in proportion to how far it has been allowed to evolve. In a real sense, our consciousness can only evolve as fast as our language can. What I think is being called for is an active participation in that process. Maybe. 😉

  3. lucy e
    4 years ago

    Loved this, great way of explaining it, thanks!

    • Travis
      4 years ago

      Glad you liked it!