Does Language Exist?

To say that there is no such thing as language would be to say there is no such thing as a theory of meaning. This equivocation becomes confusing when trying to establish semantic or foundational theories of meaning that rely on the use of propositional attitudes or cultural identities.

Davidson makes very compelling arguments for why the ordinary notion of language- “the ability to converge on a passing theory from time to time”- should be abandoned. While I am apt to agree with his conclusion, he fails to fully account for the role that socialization plays, what Wittgenstein refers to as enculturation and Bourdieu refers to as censoring, in shaping a learners beliefs and reducing indeterminacy to contextually determinate linguistic practices.

While Davidson rejects the building block theory, the seeming core of Wittgenstein’s language game theory, they both agree that human action is the starting point for any linguistic theory discussion. For Davidson, words are meaningless unless they occur within a sentence, just as sentences are meaningless unless they occur within a context of some purpose or aim: the semantic content is rendered radically indeterminate without a context. As a corollary, one sees that sentences are meaningless unless they communicate a set of propositional attitudes that harmonize with the interlocutor’s beliefs about the action or aim, beliefs tightly bound to purpose or aims unique to the community of the interlocutor. The purpose or aims directly reflect the social and environmental demands that the community works to resolve through cooperative human activity, as Wittgenstein illustrates with the enculturation of language games. Each ‘language’ contains the propositional attitudes associated with this human activity. The defining characteristic of a language then is the evolving social and environmental demands manifesting as a shared intentionality which take form as common propositional attitudes or beliefs that become embedded into the language and words.

Language[1] then can be defined as a manner of speech which functions as a device of exchange ‘to make common’. It can be concluded that Davidson’s passing theory, similar to Wittgenstein’s language game theory, is simply the origin of language formation as a result of converging on an aim or purpose through a shared intentionality which gives rise to propositional attitudes. Mastering the art of interpretation requires the ability to converge on a common aim or purpose by successfully cognizing the demands or shared intentions of the interlocutor.

Does language exist? So long as common demands exist among interlocutor, then a convergence of purpose or aims, as facilitated through Davidson’s principle of charity, can be achieved as shared intentionality. The result is a commonality among the interlocutors that provides ground for future cooperative exchanges. The repeatability of practices gives way to customary norms and standard conventions that provides communicative exchanges with a contextual determinacy that aid in facilitating the translation of intentionality and successfully addressing shared purpose or aims.

Many philosophers have presented objections directly against Davidson’s claim against the existence of language. One difference argues a fundamental difference between translation and understanding that stresses the divide between the hearer’s stance and the detached perspective of the observer. Social objections include Putnam’s linguistic division of labor between experts for articulating semantic domains, questions of national and cultural identity that possess certain linguistic struggles and linguistic rights, the social costs emphasized by Bourdieu for departing from linguistic norms, and the reality of unintended meanings occurring within social contexts.

On a linguistic level, language, dialect and idiolect reflect the nuanced conventions of a community specific to the human activity contained in each of their unique purposes and aims. The development of a distinct language is the manifestation of enculturated conventions on a macrocosmic scale according to the social and environmental demands, while a dialect mirrors a more narrow deviation from this enculturation corresponding to more regional variations in demands, and idiolect even narrower still.

To assert the importance of one linguistic level over another would effectively overlook the function of language as a medium for facilitating the cooperation of human activity toward shared purposes and aims. Each level elucidates a degree of enculturation that distinctly comprises the purposes and aims of a family, community, and/or nation. A system of linguistic practices always develops as a result of the convergence of shared intentions between two or more persons addressing a common purpose or aim interactionally. However, as the demands change, so to do the purposes and aims as individuals arrive at new shared intentions. As a result, conversational exchanges become chained together as preexisting linguistic practices are inherited through the traditional conventions and customary norms embedded and passed on through the language as residue of antiquated conventions and outdated practices of the past

The consequence for individuals born into a preexisting language systems are the subtle ideological influences within in the language that contain inconspicuous propositional attitudes that shape an individual’s ideology and identity. While individuals can develop new linguistic practices by identifying demands and form shared intentions, they are constrained, insofar as they have been enculturated by institutional practices and habituated by ideologies inherited from the language. In this way language solidarity is achieved that supports a homogeneity among a populous which affords a more singular consensus and more unified propositional attitudes. The result is an integrated linguistic community that allows for greater ease in communicating purposes among people with demands that would be typically varied within a widespread population. As Bourdieu argues, this integration of a linguistic community is a condition for the establishment of relations of linguistic domination.

However, so long as an individual fails to recognize the inherited practices and ideologies of their language, and fails to embrace their ability to identify personal demands and purposes, they are bound to the conceptual scheme inherent to the language, for better or worse, and blind to see beyond its capacity for addressing possibilities and coining new meaning outside the language.

I can only conclude then that the idiolect, the variety of language created and instantiated by an individual, is the most important linguistic level of communication. Only at the idiolect level does an individual possess a role in the creation of a language that is relevant and meaningful according to their personal purpose and aims.

Davidson’s analysis of language is conducted on a metaphysical level by investigating the origin of language formation from an idyllic perspective void from any influence of enculturation. His work did a great deal to elucidate how language can arise between individuals, but failed to make a significant contribution to the discussion of how socialization affects the development of language. For Davidson, insofar as language was neither systematic, containing definable properties and rules, nor shared, as an agreed method, language was non-existent. In his essay A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs he argued that any prior theory of language was weak and insufficient describing the interpretation of meaning and that passing theory could not be reduced to methods. He concluded that if language was “the ability to converge on a passing theory from time to time” as a result of wit, luck or wisdom and not because of any regularity, we have simply “erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally.” Language is an intersubjective pragmatic process that develops between two individuals.

Bourdieu focused on this intersubjective relationship and delineated the way in which symbols such as language shape ideologies and creates class stratifications within a society.  According to Bourdieu, language possesses a symbolic power that maintains value as linguistic capital which is exchanged within linguistic markets as well as among overlapping linguistic markets that are politically and socially defined by lifestyles. An individual’s language makes him apart of a normative group, whoever or whatever that represents; it is not a communal tool available and equal to all. The consolidation of linguistic communities into official language is a means of domination by reinforcing the authority of it’s authors. This consolidation is achieved through instituting social apparatuses such as formal education and the creation of dictionaries as a means of creating a standard tongue within the nation. These institutions infiltrate the ideological apparatuses and reinforce prescribed ideologies through conditioning the habitus, an embodied way of responding to symbols or language, which dispossesses an individuals of their natural language and facilitates the loss of identity through instructed censorship that eventually develops into internalized self-censorship. This unification creates homogenous economic and cultural values which allows for the greater ease of governing.

Much like Bourdieu, Anzaldua discusses the function of language in identity formation and discusses the dispossession that occurs during censorship. In her books Borderlands, Anzaldua describes living on the fringes between two languages and hybridization that occur between the two languages. Much like Bourdieu’s notion of a linguistic market and their ideology, the Chicana hybrid between overlapping linguistic communities that developed out of necessity for a distinct identity. This identity serves as a reflection of the unique community situated at the borders and obscured by two dominating languages. Davidson would agree that the formation of the Chicana language is a special kind of creativity borne out of the unique shared intentions of the people. Anzaldua argues “I am my language” and that language is inseparable from identity and that to citizen someone for being poor in language is to criticize their value as a human being.

The tensions and struggles between languages is really a struggle for power. As language is born out of the shared intentions of a people, it begs the question of what these intentions seek to accomplish and who they serve. Language is a reflection of a communities identity, a way of life embedded with beliefs and ideologies. A break in language can lead to a devastating divide in the ideology of a people and the destabilization of a nation and government.

When Nietzsche proclaimed “God is Dead,” he essentially prophesized the break from religion that emphasized the supreme authority of a singular text and the ideology it possessed. The break from religions authority on language destabilized the notions of a singular truth and an ultimate meaning which led to the proliferation of existential freedom that challenged antiquated norms and created new perspectives for examining what it means to be.


[1] ‘Language’ is derived from the L. lingua meaning ‘tongue’.‘Communication’ is derived from the L. communicare meaning ‘to share, divide out; impart, inform, joine, unite, participate in” from communis meaning “to make common”.

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