On Philosophy

October 19, 2007

What Language Is

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

Language is essentially a form of mind-control. Which is not to say that we need to deafen ourselves or risk being dominated by some speaker, because all perception is a form of mind control, in a way. Our mental state at one moment is determined by a combination of our previous mental state and our perceptions. And so to the extent that our mental states are influenced by our perceptions they are controlling our minds. Now we might argue that perception is less influential than our previous mental states, but whether it is has no bearing on the fact that perception is a way in which the external world exerts some control over our minds. In most cases of perception this influence is restricted to the “lower” levels of the mind, in the sense that perceptions are conceptualized and then those conceptualizations lead to ideas and then onwards to further and more abstract conclusions. For example, if we are exposed to the perception of a car coming at us our minds will first conceptualize that perception so that we understand it as a car that is headed towards us. And this in turn will lead to the idea that the car might hit us, which prompts the further idea that we should get out of the way. (In an actual situation of this sort our reflexes would result in us actually getting out the way before this process has time to come to its conclusion, and so we may only fully realize that we had to get out of the way after we have already done so.) Thus the perceptions themselves are some mental distance away (to speak metaphorically) from what we might call the conceptual component of the mind and thus their influence on it is reduced. Language is, I claim, a way to get around that distance; when a speaker of the language is exposed to a statement in that language in perception it is immediately transformed into thoughts, bypassing the need for those thoughts to be generated either in response to perceptions or by the thinker’s own thoughts. For example, using language we can assert “there are 10 birds in the cage” and immediately prompt that thought. Without language we simply have to present the cage and the birds in it and hope that the person being exposed to them counts them at some point.

Because language is a way of influencing the other people’s ideas themselves it does not have to restrict itself to just assertions about the way things are, while perceptions (that aren’t linguistic in any way) do. Each perception simply presents the world as a certain way, if you see a red cloth then the perception is presenting the world as containing a red cloth in front of you. Language can, of course, do the same. Every perception has some thought about the world being a certain way that it tends to prompt (although not every perception is reflected upon), and so language can prompt that same thought (assuming that the language is completely expressive, such that every thought can be expressed in language), in this case the sentence “there is a red cloth in front of you” would be the equivalent. Language also has the potential to make assertions about the world being a certain way that are not supported by experience, and could possibly never be fully supported by experience (“the Eiffel tower is tall” if you have never been to Paris and “there are no unicorns” are examples of this) but this is still language playing basically the same role as perception, leading to thoughts about the world being a certain way.

But language can do more than this. Not only can language influence what we are thinking about but it can also influence how we think as well. Consider the number of linguistic structures that serve primarily to call attention to some feature of the statement being made. If we say “it is the case that there is a red cloth in front of you” we make the same assertions about what is the case as when we say that “there is a red cloth in front of you”. But this does not mean that the two sentences are equivalent, that one can take the place of the other in all contexts. What is different about the first is that it calls attention to the fact that the world is a certain way, and away from the content (the red cloth), where our attention is usually directed. A similar effect is at work when we say “this painting is by Picasso”, with an emphasis on the this. Such a sentence directs our attention to which painting is the Picasso and away from the fact of the painting being a Picasso, and is thus a sentence we might utter when someone is confused about which painting is the Picasso and we are trying to call their attention to their mistake. In both these cases the difference between the two sentences is not the content of the thoughts they bring to mind, but rather the thoughts that they will tend to prompt subsequently (the subsequent thoughts being influenced by what facts our attention is focused on). A similar phenomenon occurs in what is called the emotive use of language. In the emotive use of language certain words are used that the listener has an automatic emotional reaction to. When used in conjunction with a statement expressing the way things are we exploit that fact that the emotional reaction to those words will influence the subsequent thoughts that result from thinking about that state of affairs. Specifically, if we use a word with a negative emotional connotation then we are hoping that the listener’s negative opinion of that word will influence their thoughts about that state of affairs such that they come to have a negative opinion about them as well. (A more complicated example of this at work is when a speaker intentionally uses an offensive word, which prompts a negative opinion of the speaker, which in turn prompts adopting attitudes opposite of those expressed by the speaker, and so the speaker may endorse a view contrary to the one they want the listener to come to adopt in order to exploit this phenomenon.)

Allow me now to digress briefly and illustrate how to use this analysis of language by applying it to Searle’s example of the captured solider who utters a sentence in German that expresses something completely irrelevant in German to convince his Italian captors that he is a German soldier. Obviously this may result in the Italian soldiers coming to believe that he is a German soldier, which is his intent. However, this is not an example of language use because it does not have a direct influence on the thoughts of the Italian captors. Rather it presents them with a perception, a man speaking a sentence of unknown meaning in German, from which they may or may not conclude that he is a German soldier. Indeed the fact that they are not necessarily led to entertain this thought demonstrates that it is not language, because if we were to assert that he was a German soldier in Italian they would be forced to consider that fact, whether or not they decide to endorse it.

Now this feature of language, its ability to influence how we think, receives little attention. Indeed the vast majority of analytic philosophical thought about language focuses on how it describes the world being one way or another and in how those descriptions can be transmitted from one person to another such that the second person ends up intentionally directed at the same state of affairs as the first. This is, perhaps, because they have seemed to be the most “mysterious” features of language. But their mystery arises from primarily a misconception about language, that a word or sentence designates the same thing for all speakers of the language. Thus non-physical senses, or some replacement for them, have to be invoked so that there is some singular structure that all speakers of the language connect to, which can be appealed to so as to explain the constancy of language. However, I see no problem in denying this constancy and allowing that words simply mean similar things to speakers of the language (and not exactly the same thing), which allows the explanation of the ability of language to refer to states of affairs to reduce in a relatively simple way to intentionality. On the other hand, there is some mystery regarding how our thinking is influenced by language in the ways I have described here. In this case though it is not the underlying mechanism that is in question, we can assume it has something to do with the way the brain is wired. But it remains to describe and categorize the ways in which our thinking is influenced by language, which is interesting in its own right and may even illuminate to some extent how the underlying physical mechanism works.

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