Thursday, August 3, 2017

--- Notes on language ---

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher.

William James

One of the greatest traps for thinkers is forgetting that words are not the things they refer to. Is language the patterns you see on a page or the concepts they engender in your mind?

Unfortunately, language is both but they are not the same and it's devilishly easy to forget that.

A word like "knowledge" does not have "a" definition. Take a minute and look it up in a dictionary, or just type "define knowledge" into your Internet browser and see what comes up. The very extensive Oxford Dictionary of the English Language will give you plenty to read. If you've never seen it, there is probably one at your local library. Ask your reference librarian about it.

Most words are like that. There is no single definition but a family of definitions - all the definitions are related but there are going to be subtle but important differences. In order to parse out what someone else means in a conversation, you have to figure out, with some precision, how they are using the words they are using, and it is very common that, what you think they mean is not quite, maybe not at all, what they actually  mean.

Language, like philosophy, is an adventure and it can be just as dangerous. In order to understand what others are saying, you have to avoid the natural assumption that you know what they  mean. The devastating thing is that, in order to really understand yourself, you have to let go of the assumption that you know what you mean. If you have ever read Plato's Dialogues, you know that the very heart of most of them is Socrates demonstrating to people that they really don't know what they are talking about. And if you haven't read them, you really should. It's a powerful  medicine to realize that you don't know what you're talking about. That's always the first step toward knowing (as Socrates advised) yourself - "the unexamined life is not worth living."

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