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”.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed Review

Chapter One

  In chapter one Paulo Freire addresses the matter of humanization, or the problem of dehumanization. Initially the reader is left wondering what it means to be fully humanized. As he talks of these hierarchal roles of subject-object, of oppressor-oppressed, he refrains from explicitly prescribing what it means to be fully human. This is not unintended, for such a prescription would vitiate his message by qualifying the very structure he seeks to eliminate. For Freire, humanity is not a thing to have or possess, but rather a responsibility towards freedom that allows being more fully.
 
Continue reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed Review”

A Reflection: An Evolution of Responsibility

The Evolution of the Responsibility to Self and Place:

Looking back on the semester, I fastidiously inspect the various moments my mind was exposed to new insights. The philosophy class has been a period of incubation. Throughout the fall I have allowed my mind to freely explore the legitimacy of novel ideas and weighed their relevance to my life, unhindered by competing feelings of preservation. A burning passion kindles in my chest. I reflect on the philosophers and the discussions that struck deeply, that fanned that flame into a fiery blaze. My thoughts turn to a few readings and philosophers that reinforced and, at the same time, upended my antiquated belief system. In order to illuminate the timid shadows of self deception, I allowed these philosophies early on to serve as a spectacle for all further reflection.

At the start of the year I was enveloped in a dense cloud of confusion. As we progressed in our readings and I accreted understanding, a series of themes began to emerge. The themes, strung individually throughout the weekly readings, later weaved themselves into a vivid tapestry as the semester culminated. They included the conception of self, the genealogy and history of society, the role of belief, and the function of nature as it relates to a sense of place. None of these themes stand alone, but borrow from each other. Of each, I will speak broadly and expound on each philosopher’s contribution to the construction of each theme as it appeared to me.

I believe the core to understanding is primary experience. In an age of information, I believe its role in the modern life has been diminishing. With so many perspectives to read on a subject, who needs to waste time experiencing it for themselves? One can read of the countless errors and achievements and interpretations of each and come away feeling equally wise and judicial. The fault with this, however, is that we rob ourselves the task of exercising our own powers of reason and interpretation. Nevertheless, our lives are short and we cannot possibly indulge all our curiosities so, read we must. With this in mind, we are obligated to read judiciously, choosing texts carefully (preferably primary sources to ensure minimum distortion of interpretation) and reflecting with the intent to incorporate the new knowledge into the faculties of understanding. John Aubrey said, “He had read much, if one considers his long life; but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men he should have known no more than other men.” Reading must involve contemplation. Thus is the duty of the philosopher.

Continuation…

Becoming the Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I’m thinking this draft is too vague and not concise enough. I’m not sure if my opinion is stated clearly. I need to quote Simpson more, and clearly state whether I support, refute, or modify her claim that multitasking inhibits concentration and detracts from effective communication.

Becoming the Jack of All Trades, Master of None:

Responding to the Unquestioned Demands of Multitasking
Rough Draft

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            At the turn of the twentieth century information consumption hit an all time high. Managing all the information required new methods of organization and processing. Technology quickly came to our defense and created new ways of its gathering and dissemination.  Mankind is now ingesting more information and juggling more tasks than ever before. As we incorporate more and more technologies that aim to improve our efficiency and effectiveness, the question remains if multitasking truly contains detrimental tradeoffs worth exploring. There is a poignant expression that describes the nature of those who specialize in multi-tasking: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

            As the industrial era gave way to the information era, technological advances produced computers that allowed businesses and people to tackle more tasks with greater efficiency resulting in an influx of knowledge. The internet presented itself as the perfect catalyst that spurred the flow and exchange of this knowledge. As the need to harness and organize this information became a priority, the demand for people to make sense of it all gave rise, resulting in the emergence of analytic thinkers: engineers, computer scientists, lawyers, investment bankers, accountants, and MBA’s. A generation was born into a world where crunching numbers and juggling tasks was prized and rewarded. Acing standardized tests and performing in rigid curriculums meant to regurgitate knowledge has been the benchmark for success. In the process, it seems, the need for deep, creative thought has been overlooked.

            Mainstream society is currently a single interconnected whole where the populous is integral in dictating current trends through its contributions. People are required to share themselves, their opinions and their interests with the world, be it through their cell-phones, Facebook, twitter, or other technology.  The resulting trend is a society constantly being pulled in all sorts of directions as their attention remains commanded by the whole.

            Joanne Simpson is an excellent observer of the multi tasking phenomenon. As a professor, she has a front seat in witnessing the effect of a culture constantly demanding the attention of the developing youth. In her essay Multitasking State of Mind Simpson illustrates her experiences as an educator dealing with a generation of mentally taxed students raised in a world that expects interconnectedness and constant communication.

            Because technology has allowed people to manipulate information and knowledge with lightning speed, people openly adopt its presence in their life and give little thought to the accompanying tradeoffs. Simpson believes people have gotten carried away with all the positive aspects of being able to manipulate this information. While technology allows us to do more with the time we have, instead of freeing up our thoughts and free time, we become entrenched in even more tasks. It is clear that people in our culture are packing more and more into their daily lives as technology helps them manage the flood of information and activities. PDA’s, smart phones, and laptops allow for ultimate organization and even allow for work on the go.

            Simpson reminisces to her experiences prior to the tremendous technological boom when people’s lives were slower, more thoughtful and directed. “As I remember it, I still paid attention to one thing at a time” she recalls.  As tasks were allotted to specific portions of time, thoughts were more continuous and distractions were numbered. Nowadays, people manage to accomplish inhuman amounts in a single day. When Simpson polled her classroom at to whether they do several things at once, every students hand was raised. Watching television and listening to an IPOD while doing homework are almost an expected part of studying.

            With technologies help, people are expected to produce the same quality of work in half the time. Despite the efficiency of doing more, the depth of thought required for these tasks remained the same. An example is writing papers. Once an arduous process of continuous writes and rewrites, accompanied with countless edits and proofs, computer word processers gave people the ability to type at lightning speed, and leave the majority of editing, punctuation, and spelling, to the computer while still producing relatively high quality work. When this level of performance is achieved, it is demanded everywhere. Soon the act of writing becomes a single task instead of a process. When this happens form is left unrefined and content is sacrificed.

            Consider the process of research writing. Before computers and databases, hours were spent in the library burning the midnight oil, flipping through pages, hand writing notes and bookmarking pages. Compiling the information was an even greater task. Academics were all too familiar with the discipline and focus required for a typical research paper that required twenty four hours of effort.

            Today students are able to jump on a database, read article summaries with lightning speed, bounce from web page to web page, refer to citation machines, and use the ctrl+F function to find their information with minimal effort. The compilation of this information is just as quick.

            What we are seeing with the adaptation of technology is a decline in sustained effort towards given tasks. Quality ideas and work are a culmination of focus, concentration, reflection, and continued applied effort. Jumping from task to task, aside from the time lost in transition, doesn’t allow the mind enough time to familiarize itself with concepts and understandings. The superficial level of thought allotted to ideas consequently jeopardizes the student’s ability to articulate these ideas. Simpson is not amiss when she notices students coming to class in dazed and distracted states. When they step into her classroom they enter a place very different from their connected world; their attention is demanded everywhere as they juggle multiple priorities simultaneously.  The classroom is a place where prolonged attention is required to hash out the idiosyncrasies of an idea.

            While Simpson presents a persuasive case for multitasking’s detrimental effect on concentration, and its translation to poor communication, there is an unspoken standard of normalcy that her essays infer. Simpson claims that multitasking has left students more distracted and less able to concentrate. She spoke of Multitasking as an anti-Zen and describes how really living involves concentration. I would argue that Simpson is taking a conservative and bias approach to these changes in our society. Multitasking is a result of our adaptation to changing demands.  She outlined the negative effects she witnessed as a professor, but failed to mention how multitasking has contributed to the overall productivity and efficiency of work. The very e-mail she uses to illustrate a student’s ineffective communication skills provided a clear example of how technology has opened the lines and eased communication with her and her students.

            Perhaps the sheer ease of communicating and being connected has caused people to overlook quality. E-mails, texts, status updates and posts are sent by the dozens. The sheer volume messages sent daily may have people overlooking the quality of messages they send, not because they can’t send quality messages, but because being efficient is a greater priority. When hand written letters were the norm for communicating, much time was spent during the writing process to ensure effective communication because few letters, by today’s standards, were sent out.

            Its possible that Simpson has it all wrong and that the academic setting is the real problem. Perhaps its rigid, inflexible constructs don’t allow students to synthesize the volume of knowledge that they normally do. Perhaps students are bored and not stimulated.

            Simpson states that “really living and connecting with people—requires concentration, not distraction”. It sounds as if Simpson believes that ‘connecting with people’ is something that happens one person at a time. In our generation, information is prized. The thoughts and ideas we seek are gleaned from volumes of people. No longer is one person enough to qualify an experience or an idea. This generation seeks to understand and contribute to the consensual understanding of people. We ensure sound scientific literature through peer reviewed studies, vote for our American Idol contestant, give five stars to YouTube videos, and contribute to open forum discussions to share expertise and knowledge. If our aim is to seek and verify truth and knowledge as a people, than connecting with the population is what matters most. Not, as Simpson believes, one person at a time.

Familial Traits.

Looking back on my childhood I remember spending time with my father as he worked around the house, ran errands, and traveled. I am told that my favorite two words as a child were “what’s that?”. Every time we were together I was given the unique opportunity to learn something new because, as it seemed, he had all the answers. He himself was a curious boy which caused him to never settle for a quick response. As a result, he was always digging up a deeper understanding. What was distinctly unique and frustrating about our relationship was that he never just told me an answer. He would ask questions in return that caused me think for myself, and implore my own understandings. It was never easy getting to the bottom of something with him. There were times where his questions would frustrate me to the point of anger. I just wanted to know! Looking back I value this relationship. I have adopted his inquisitive nature of always asking questions when I was given an answer.