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The philosophy of language leaps heavily into the heart of philosophy’s natural activity of pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps, and considers repairing the bootstraps, or the boots themselves, or maybe building new, improved boots, ones which can stand the strain….hover-boots maybe, so the original activity becomes null. Do we need language? What’s the criteria for ‘need’?

What is language?

Couch it out: information; communication; symbols; signals; etymology (the roots of words, what are the original sources of the meanings of the parts); translation; speech; writing.

I’ll end the laundry list there but also say anything can be used linguistically, so long as it is treated as symbolic. In even deeper waters of understanding, language is used, especially so in Literature, to express metaphorical relationships. “The air pressure is telling us to expect rain.” A geological instrument of detection communicates this information to us in a real (although not conscious) sense. In this far-out-to-sea way, everything can be taken to communicate something…except for ‘nothing’. However this discourse is not an excavation into the sea-bed of existential scepticism, so I’ll leave that topic to tail off, and move on in the subject - anything may be perceived to convey information, whether that information is genetic, binary, neurological, chemical, or of any other kind.

In which sphere of academic inquiry are we asking the question ‘what is language?’? Clearly the philosophical, and within this, the scientific, the biological, the psychological, the technological, the literal, the historical…actually, in every other domain. The philosophy of language has a remit over the lot, and is engaged as usual in studying the subject itself; its essence; its core nature. Philosophy is here analysing the design of a hammer (language) which it will use to build a newer hammer (language). - Not only is philosophy examining language, but it is using language to examine it, and the art of examination is the key to advancement. Language ought then to develop and improve exponentially as it works on itself, improving its performance by virtue of its own self-involvement. Although it might involve a lot of bootstrap-pulling if you’re not careful.

Computing seems to confer the values 0 and 1 onto basic communication. It’s a temptation to find a correspondence of some intellectual kind between these values, and values of equivalent status in the notation of formal logic, i.e. True and False. If we could in theory divide the world up into atomic units of meaning (sometimes called ‘memes’), and represent those units faithfully in a system of language, it would surely be tempting to use a symbolism which respected their value of being ‘true’ or ‘false’ in any particular case (which brings in spatio-temporal factors of course…it might not be true that ‘I am drinking a cup of tea’, but it might have been yesterday.) Can we separate the world theoretically into units which represent reality…or should it be seen more realistically as situations viewed from personal perspectives?

Physics would seem to confer the name ‘data’ upon language. Chemically speaking, all things communicate with each other in so far as they react with one another. These two sciences do not (yet) have a strong foothold in the arena of the study of language, so we should not arrive at a physical explanation as the crux of the matter…not yet anyway. Attempts to reduce language microcosmically have not thus far succeeded; I don’t know of any scientific figures who claim to have ‘solved’ the elementary nature of the physical universe in linguistic terms, so to speak. Science hasn’t pinned down the physical attributes of all concepts, even if that is a genuinely feasible aim. Claims to macrocosmically describe the world have arguably been more plentiful, with terms such as ‘everything’, or ‘universe’, or ‘god’, or ‘meaning’, or ‘evolution’. Particle physics doubtless requires investigation and proof of a concrete, observable, testable kind, meanwhile metaphysics involves a degree of imagination, speculation and generalisation to discover what might be the overarching natural principles of the cosmos.

Biologically speaking, an explanation of the function of language has to be angled toward evolutionary advantage being the purpose; the conservation and promotion of the species being the primary objective. With the appearance of unfaltering allegiance to its neighbouring scientific disciplines, psychology would provide a million examples of the diversity of functions, but sit on the fence as to the core nature of language, in this writer’s unbiased opinion (!)

So does the philosophy of language become a sort of ocean of the world? Not just one, but all the seas and the rivers and streams of communication, with the Russian language over here, and binary computer language over there; speech somewhere in the centre, writing on the right, sign language just to the left and brail a touch further over; body language, deception and emotional understanding are massive, elementary, and just a few examples of phenomena which are ‘everyday’ and yet somehow subsidiary academically to the general theatre of expression, and feature merely as complex facets of it.

Language always seems to involve the transmittal of something, so two questions arise: do we need two individuals, and do those individuals need consciousness, in order for language to be in evidence? It doesn’t seem to be the case, because on the one hand communications of a kind are happening between organisms all the time, even non-conscious ones, such as plants, and as a matter of fact a human being can use language to convey something to himself - to remind himself of something for instance; therefore language does not necessarily require two individual organisms. All things are essential to their own existence and nature, whereas language pertains to all things, as well as to itself. If we put another concept or object instead of language under examination there are several things which that concept or object will not be. Language, however, is applicable to everything. Language is good. Language is bad. Language is purple, red and green, and all the other colours. Language is both black and white and not black and white. Language is everything and nothing by default.

This whole discourse has developed in a character you could call infinitely regressive, and thereby verifies its own premise. So the question remains, I put it to you, have I successfully pulled myself up by my bootstraps? Or have I been hoist by my own petard?

 

 
 

 

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