Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More than words

4.022 Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense without having any idea how each word has meaning or what its meaning is-- just as people speak without knowing how the individual sounds are produced…. 
In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein discusses the slipperiness of language.  At 3.221 he states that “objects can only be named. Signs are their representative.”  And at 3.261 “Names cannot be anatomized by means of definitions” (although 3.263 seems to soften this by stating that “the meaning of primitive signs can be explained by means of elucidations”). 

This led me to ponder how the words that represent the most elementary concepts are the most difficult to define.  For example, one struggles to come up with a definition of “color” or “number” (N.B. not the same thing as a “numeral” which is the written sign that represents a number) without just giving a list of examples.


My first thought was that colors are something like “shades of light” but “shade” is not quite the right word.  Shade is either the opposite of light, making that phrase an oxymoron, or it is just a near-synonym to color, much like “tinge” or “hue”.  To define a word with a synonym is to assume the reader’s knowledge of the word’s meaning, and it does not really convey any new information.  

If you type in “color definition,” Google comes up with “the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light.” That makes it sound like some sort of glare.  The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition gives “that aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of the light reflected or emitted by them, definable in terms of the observer or of the light.”  Differing qualities of light?  I guess that’s true, but it still doesn’t really do justice to what colors are like.  Wiktionary is arguably even worse, describing color as “the spectral composition of visible light.”  At first it sounds like colors are ghosts of light, but upon further reflection one realizes that “spectral” here is supposed to refer to the spectrum and not specters.

Trying to describe individual colors is also not easy.  One might be tempted to say that blue is a “cool” color and red is “fiery,” but this is just misapplying qualities that properly belong to objects that possess those colors (i.e. we only say blue is cool because the sea is blue).  I remember once looking up these colors in an Italian and an English dictionary (I must have been bored).  The Italian dictionary gave traditional definitions such as blue is “the color of the sea” and red is “the color of blood,” naming the go-to object for each color, while the English dictionary identified red as visible light with a wavelength of 620-750 nanometers, which sounds scientific and precise but gives you no idea what red might look like.  Of course the best way to convey the meaning of a color is to provide an illustration.  Wittgenstein might say that these are things that must be shown rather than said.


As for “number,” Google defines it as “an arithmetical value, expressed by a word, symbol, or figure, representing a particular quantity and used in counting and making calculations and for showing order in a series or for identification.”  That actually does a pretty good job of summing it up, but I would still note that this is a fairly long definition required for a basic concept.

idea, concept

Even more difficult to define are words such as “idea” or “concept.”  For “idea,” Google gives us “a thought…. a concept or mental impression,” which is just listing related terms.  A philosopher would likely set down a clear distinction between an idea, a concept and an impression.  Having myself read so much philosophy lately, I want to call an idea an object of the mind.  On the other hand, the Google definition of “concept” is “an abstract idea.”  I agree that a concept is a type of idea and that what distinguishes it from other ideas is the fact that it is an abstraction.


What about a definition for  “person?”  Most dictionaries seem to wrongly equate “person” with “human being,” yet I believe it is a discrete concept which brings with it specific philosophical and legal implications.  Thus, under the law, corporations are said to be legal or juridical persons (despite the recent furor, this idea is actually over a century old and not merely an innovation dreamt up by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision).  Wikipedia notes that the 6th-century philosopher Boethius defined a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature” and (citing 20th-century philosopher Charles Taylor) that Descartes or Locke might identify a person as an agent possessing consciousness over time “who is therefore capable of framing representations about the world, formulating plans and acting on them.”

slipperiness of words in general

When you really think about it, all definitions of words are wanting in that they must rely on other words whose meanings, in turn, can also be questioned.  As Wittgenstein puts it, “the tacit conventions on which the understanding of everyday language depends are enormously complicated.”  We must all pretend that we share a clear understanding of the ideas lying behind a certain set of words, at least, if we are to communicate with each other at all.  At 3.62 Wittgenstein seems to note how context and the way we use words can help our interlocutor (at least part of the way) in understanding: “What signs fail to express, their application shows.  What signs slur over, their application says clearly.”

words and thought

One final quote from Wittgenstein, “language disguises thought,” makes me question how much of my thought is verbal, consisting of words, and how much is genuinely nonverbal.  We must imagine that babies, before they acquire a firm grasp on language, and of course animals largely conceive of pure, nonverbal thoughts about the world.  Yet once we learn language most of our thoughts become mediated through words.  It seems to me that, for the most part, it is only my extemporaneous thoughts regarding sensory perceptions/sensations and perhaps my immediate reaction to these sensations that do not express themselves through words. And even that is not true 100% of the time: I might look at a dog and immediately think “dog” or “that’s a cute dog” or “I hate dogs.”  It’s similar to how, once one learns to read, one cannot pass one’s eyes over a written word without automatically reading it.  It’s different with a whole page full of words, but with a sign bearing just a word or a short phrase to see it is to read it.

Perhaps it might be a good thing to try and engage in more nonverbal thought-- to occasionally give the mind a break from words and stop the narration and commentary going on in my head.