On Philosophy

July 19, 2008

2: A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet.

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:40 am

1. Interpretation: By claiming that the rose would smell the same no matter what it was called this saying is asserting that reality trumps language. Reality is what is actually there and is independent of human perspectives, and how a rose smells is fact that is part of reality. What label we use to designate a rose has no effect on the facts about it. That a particular label is stuck to a particular part of reality is therefore simply a coincidence, and when thinking about things we are free to ignore their labels, since the labels tell us nothing about the thing itself.

Evaluation: Certainly it is true that the facts are unaffected by how we choose to communicate about them; replacing the word “rose” with some other term will not affect how that rose smells. However, simply dismissing language as irrelevant is too hasty. Language has a significant effect on how we think about things. We usually think about things through particular concepts; when I think of a rose I think about it as a rose, a particular kind of flower distinct from other kinds of flowers. Of course our conceptual distinctions don’t necessarily mirror language, but most of the time they do. So, while the particular term we use to label something may not have much significance, how we divide up the world using those terms does. For example, the fact that I call both a white rose and a red rose “rose” means that they fall under the same concept for me. And by falling under the same concept their similarities are readily apparent to me, and I will often think using the concept rose which includes both white and red roses. Suppose instead that I called white roses “flower X” and red roses “roses”. Now they will no longer fall under the same concept and thus I will not immediately understand them to be largely similar; their similarities would become apparent only if I explicitly thought about the comparison between flower Xs and roses. Nor will I have a single concept that both flower Xs and roses fall under, making thoughts which previously used that concept much harder to have (since it is no longer possible to think about just a single thing, roses; I must now think about a complex of two things). So, while this interpretation includes the valid insight that specific labels are largely unimportant, it goes too far by concluding that language is largely irrelevant when thinking about reality.

2. Interpretation: By pointing out that the sweetness of the rose is unaffected by what we call the rose this saying expresses the idea that our experience and our understanding of the rose is unaffected by what we choose to call the rose. Even if we called it something else our experience of smelling the rose would remain the same, as would our understanding of that particular rose. The saying teaches us that experience itself is a foundation that language is layered on top of for the purpose of connecting one experience to another and for making sense of them.

Evaluation: Is it really true that our experience of the world is independent of our concepts, and thus of our language? I have heard that with extensive training it is possible to have such experiences, but it doesn’t seem to reflect how most of us encounter the world. For most of us looking out the window and seeing a tree does not result in a raw experience of a tree. Rather we have an experience in which the tree is experienced as a tree. In other words our concept tree plays a role in the experience itself, such that if we had no tree concept or a different tree concept we would have a different experience. Another example of how words color our experience is through how they affect our value judgments. For most of us the word “cannibalism” has negative associations, and so to experience something as an act of cannibalism is to experience disgust and revulsion at it. Now consider the Catholic mass. In that ceremony Catholics believe that they literally consume the body of Christ. If they called that act cannibalism they would feel repulsed and disgusted by it. However, Catholics refuse to call or think of that act as cannibalism, and thus avoid having that reaction. So if our language was different and the word we used to describe a sweet smell was associated strongly with the sweet smell of decaying flesh then our experience of the rose might nauseate us by association, even though nothing about the rose is any different.

3. Interpretation: Literally the saying seems to be expressing the idea that language is unimportant because the rose is the same no matter what you call it. However, ironically, the saying can only be understood because it uses the word “rose” and not some other arbitrary word. Thus the saying expresses the inescapability of language. You can call a rose whatever you like, but you have to consistently refer to it by some label or you will be unable to talk about it. We could even go so far as to say that our experience requires some labeling of the world, even though the specifics of that labeling are arbitrary.

Evaluation: As mentioned previously it might be possible to have experiences unmediated by any concepts if you work really hard at it. And if animals experience the world they probably do so without mediation by anything like our concepts. So saying that we need language for experience probably goes too far. However, this interpretation is on to something when it comes to the inescapability of language for communication. When we focus on how arbitrary a particular label is we may believe that language is a layer of indirection separating us from the world that we put up with because we have to. Wouldn’t it be nice to just get rid of language and deal unambiguously with the things themselves? If we could do that there would be no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. However, the only way that would be possible is though some sci-fi merging of minds were we might experience someone else’s thoughts as our own. Since that technology doesn’t appear forthcoming we are stuck with the need to mediate between thoughts with something that is not itself thought – some symbols that are intended to invoke a particular thought – i.e. a language.

4. Interpretation: Instead of taking this saying to capture some truth about language, as the interpretations so far have, we might instead take it to be offering advice. Specifically it can be read as encouraging us not to be mislead by language and to be guided by what is actually there. A flower should be smelled to determine whether it is sweet. We shouldn’t try to understand the world by pondering the words we use to describe the world, but by examining the world directly. Although words do matter in some circumstances, it is best to make decisions based on the facts and leave language to the side as much as possible.

Evaluation: To an extent this is good advice. In the evaluation of interpretation 3 I noted that when we call or think about something as cannibalism we automatically judge it to be a bad thing. It is best to try to set such reactions aside when making decisions. It may be that in general cannibalism is bad, and we may be right to be repulsed by it. However, being guided by the label “cannibalism” is a mistake. Perhaps this case has been labeled inaccurately, or perhaps it is a rare situation of acceptable cannibalism. It is better to be guided by the facts alone, and let the facts motivate our judgment about whether it is good or bad, not a label. Many modern philosophers often fall into this trap; they try to discover facts about the world though how words are used, which can only lead to problems since which words are used, or whether the same word is used to describe two particular things, is often a matter of convention. And attempting to investigate the world by building on mere convention is a recipe for disaster.
However, it would be a mistake to imply that all reasoning on the basis of language is flawed. For example, we might ponder our language itself in order to improve it. Secondly, the way we divide up the world with words often does reflect some significant facts about it. We call white roses and red roses both roses because they really are similar. As was discussed in the evaluation of interpretation 1 how we conceptualize the world affects how we think about the world, and some ways of thinking about the world may be better than others. Since language has evolved over time often the way we use words has some merit (although there are cases of pure convention too). Finally, even though language may be arbitrary, and even though we may be better off ignoring it in some circumstances, language is a valuable and irreplaceable tool and should not be easily dismissed. Nor are the arbitrary conventions of language valueless; when those conventions are not respected communication becomes difficult or impossible and misunderstandings more common.

5. Interpretation: So far none of these interpretations have looked at the quote in its original context. The original context was Romeo trying to convince Juliet that it didn’t really matter that she was a Capulet and he was a Montague. In that context the saying could be taken as a warning against taking purely human distinctions seriously. Romeo is saying that sure, people draw a distinction between Montagues and Capulets, but really we are both humans and all that divides us is words. Certainly that isn’t the only case of distinctions invented where it is hard to find any real difference; consider the distinction between people of different nationalities. Reasoning on the basis of these distinctions is flawed because there are no real differences behind the linguistic differences.

Evaluation: This is true in a way. People do invent distinctions where none existed before. But is it really the case that there are no differences outside the words? For example, if you know that Benvolio is a Montague and Tybalt is a Capulet you will be able to conclude, correctly, that there is some animosity between them. If Montague and Capulet are distinctions that have no real significance how is it possible to make correct deductions on the basis of them? The answer is that other people also recognize these distinctions, and their recognition of them influences their behavior. And certainly the behavior of people is real enough. Thus distinctions that are invented become real distinctions once they lodge themselves in human minds. And so Juliet should have answered Romeo by pointing out that, because they were Montagues and Capulets, their parents would be furious if they heard of their relationship, and that seeing one another would put into motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to their deaths. Of course the advice isn’t all bad, it can be useful to recognize an invented distinction as an invented distinction, and thus as having a reflection in people’s behavior if not the world itself, but such a distinction should not be dismissed just because it is invented.

6. Interpretation: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – in other words no matter what you call the rose it will smell the same. So construed the saying constitutes a warning against trying to change the world by changing the way you talk about it. Certainly that seems like an absurd thing to do. It would take a special kind of craziness to think that you could change the world in that way. And yet people try to do just that all the time. For example, back when it was fashionable to support the war in Iraq and hate the French, French fries were called freedom fries by some. What is the point of this change of terminology if not to try to eliminate all connections to France, or at least pretend they aren’t there. Similarly, calling the people you are fighting insurgents instead of rebels, freedom fighters, or an opposing military force looks a lot like an attempt to change the nature of the conflict by talking about it in different terms. But the facts about who you are exchanging bullets with are the same no matter what you call them.

Evaluation: Clearly the world does not change in response to how we talk about it. But people’s perception of the world may. If you called honey bee barf people would probably find it less enticing. This is a point that has already been raised in the evaluation of interpretation 1. Now it may be the case that some people can easily see through these changes in language, and aren’t affected by them. But not everyone is, and this interpretation encourages turning a blind eye towards them, reasoning that the facts won’t change no matter which words are used. The realization that the world is not affected by word choice should instead be used to oppose those who would mislead people through clever language. When they pick their words to elicit a certain reaction we can point out that the world is the same no matter which words they use, and thus that their careful choice of words can be motivated by nothing other than the desire to mislead.

7. Interpretation: Pointing out that we are free to call the rose by other names highlights the arbitrariness of language. Why do we call a rose “rose” instead of something else? That language is arbitrary and emerges by convention has been brought up in other interpretations, but none have treated it as the main theme of the saying. Realizing that language is arbitrary may make us more open to changes in language or using language in new ways. If language is arbitrary certainly the current conventions have no special importance.

Evaluation: I can’t deny that language is arbitrary. To experience the arbitrariness of language for yourself simply repeat a single word out loud until it loses all meaning and becomes simply a sound. However, seriously treating language as arbitrary can often be a hindrance, even though it is true. As was mentioned in the evaluation of interpretation 4 we can only communicate because we adhere to linguistic conventions. Thinking of language as arbitrary would probably lead us to ignore those conventions and thus to misunderstandings. Imagine if you regularly used words in ways that were slightly unusual. Then the conversations most people would have with you would revolve around trying to understand what you meant rather than about what you meant. And so it is best to ignore the arbitrariness of language except when you are explicitly recommending changes in the way we use words.

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