Some confusion on the structure of language.

By | August 28, 2011

Not too long ago I engaged a philosophical acquaintance in a rather confusing discussion. I had objected to some philosophers’ tendency to bring up the notion of “incommensurable languages” when referring to our very different forms of expression when we talk about physical objects and when we talk about mental life. Accordingly, these two incommensurable forms of “language” allegedly suggest two distinct orders of existence, namely physical reality and mental reality: the discredited Cartesian dualism.

My interlocutor, Spanos, then restated things by substituting differing perspectives on reality for a dualistic metaphysics.

It is a significant piece of evidence in metaphysics if we assume that the structures of language follow the structures of reality. Then the existence of incommensurable languages suggest that there are incommensurable orders of reality. In other words, it suggests dualism. But if we reject dualism, then we can distinguish between reality as it is in itself, and reality as it is in our experience. Then we can hypothesize that the incommensurability stems from the nature of reality as it is in our experience and not from the nature of reality as it is in itself.”

To which I replied:

Now you choose to talk about orders (plural “orders”) of reality. I thought that you had taken the position that there is only one reality of which there are two manifestations, physical and mental? But now it is a plurality of orders of reality. This might permit you to avoid a Cartesian dualism, but this surely brings up its own set of problems. The point at issue is your presupposition regarding the nature of descriptive language. I have grave problems with that.

Isn’t it a type of metaphysical confusion to speak of the “structures of language” reflecting (you say “follow”) the structures of reality? A good deal of any language (English, French, German , Spanish) has nothing to do with “following the structures of reality.” Language is used for many things other than describing reality. When I use language to make a request, to issue a command or to express my surprise, I am not describing the structures of reality. Moreover, I’m not sure that any part of descriptive language and scientific language can reasonably be described as one in which “the structures of the language follow the structures of reality.” The metaphysical claim regarding parallel structures is suspect, if not downright false. It is not as if a proposition (expressed as a statement in a language) is a picture of reality, which might or might not be commensurable with it.

For example, let’s take the declarative sentence: “The cat is on the mat” — uttered when in fact a cat is on the mat. Does it describe the structure of reality, and hence can be commensurable with reality? It seems to me that all it does is accurately state a fact: the cat on the mat. There is no attempt to state the structure of anything here; nor is the statement one that could pass as a picture of reality. If I needed to show the structure of the situation — cat on the mat — I would take a photograph or construct a model of the room-cat-mat. If I tell you that the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range is southwest from Pueblo, Colorado. I have accurately reported a geographic fact. I have not given a piece of language whose structure reflects the structure of reality (at best a good model of south-central Colorado might do that). Why would anyone think that language does that? I don’t have the vaguest idea what language would have to be to do that. Language does not function that way.

But I suppose this misses the metaphysical point about the function of language that you have in mind. However, surely the metaphysical position at issue (structure of language reflects the structure of reality) is not one held by many philosophers and scientists today.

Spanos then amended his position:

I am not so sure that the structure of language follows the structure of reality. Maybe it only follows the structure of reality as we experience reality. That, in fact, is what the double aspect theory implies. So the dualism may be more apparent than real.

Maybe the structures of language impact causally on the way we experience reality, as many philosophers have suggested. But if statements did not follow something, how could they be true? If a pragmatist says that they are true only because they work, the realist asks how they could possibly work if they did not at least reflect reality as we experience it. If someone says, “the cat is on the mat,” then he suggests a certain relation between the cat and the mat. If I take a look and find that the cat is in fact on the mat, then I would say that the relation represented in the sentence is verified by the relation found in experience. The whole of science seems to depend on this kind of relationship between idea and experience.”

To which I replied:

Your statement that maybe ” the structure of language…”only follows the structure of reality as we experience reality” strikes me as just another way of saying that in some cases we use language which is descriptive of the situation we perceive as fact. If we see a cat on the mat and in fact a cat is on the mat and I describe this by saying “a cat is on the mat,” my affirmation of the entities: cat and mat, and statement of their interrelation — cat is on the map – describes what is factually true. But I would claim nothing about ‘structures’ in general, either about language and certain not about reality, even reality as experienced. A description of a simple empirical fact (cat presently on the mat) does not involve a commitment (not even a suggestion) to a metaphysics regarding structures of language, reality, or reality-as-experienced-by-us. It is just a simple description of empirical fact.

Contrary to what the young Wittgenstein tried to show in his book, Tractatus, the syntax of language and patterns of logic do not parallel the ‘structure’ of the world. Languages function in varieties of ways which are not exposed by any particular patterns or syntax. And whatever “structures’ of the real world are exposed by the natural sciences (not by philosophy, which discovers nothing!) are varied and complex, and hardly such as to be “followed” by the structure of language. Not even the language of mathematics can be fully descriptive of the rich variety of “structures” found in nature. Maybe fractal geometry comes close; but surely the structures of fractal geometry are not found in our natural languages.

In short, I doubt that the parallel between language and reality which you assume as a metaphysical truth is really there at all.

Another acquaintance, Pablo, interjects:

“Well, yes, Spanos, I agree that language does reflect the structures of reality. I argued for this position long ago. Our notions of space, time, causality, and the subject/object nature of language reflect a world that is actually composed of space, time, causes, and a subect/object manner of looking at the world.”

At this point, I could only utter some bewilderment in closing the discussion:

“Language reflects the structures of reality”(?) “Our notions of space, time, causality” reflect “…a world composed of space, time, causes (?) And “and the subject-object nature of language” reflects “a subject-object manner of looking at the world” (??)

HELP! Some wooly-minded metaphysician has captured both Spanos’ and Pablo’s philosophical minds!

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