Uneasy about ‘Language’ and ‘Thought’ as Entities

By | May 29, 2010

Recently someone asked me to look at an essay entitled “Language and the World.” Below I include some of my initial reaction to the idea, expressed in the essay, that we can talk meaningfully about the relation between the world and abstractions like “language” and “thought.”

Language, as an abstraction is just that: an abstract concept. Language does not have a separate and independent existence. It ‘grows’ out of the fact that there are cultures or groups of people who speak a language. In other words, language-using creatures (persons) and groups of people (cultures) come first, then we reflect on this phenomenon and refer to an abstract entity, namely, the “language” that they speak, e.g. English, Spanish, Latin, Russian, Chinese, etc. People speak specific languages, not language in general. If asked to do so, we can identify and describe specific languages; but I would be hard pressed to identify and describe this mysterious ‘entity’ called language in general.

So the question as to the relation between language and the world is for me a confusing question. Are we asking about the relationship between language-using-cultures and the world? Are we asking about the relationship between the world and specific languages, e.g. that between the world and Spanish? “Language,” as a general, abstract term, does not refer to a real entity that could have any identifiable relationship with the world, whatever that would mean.

Yes, I’m aware of the many philosophers who have spoken of the relationship between language and the world, e.g. Heidegger, Wittgenstein (of the Tractatus period), Nietzsche, and many others. I have read some of them and thought I understood what they meant, but now I’m not so sure. An analytical philosophers of the 20th century, A.C. Danto, even spoke of philosophy as occupying the space between language and the world, adding another questionable entity, ‘philosophy,’ into the mix. I read, enjoyed, and thought I understood what he was getting at. But now I’m not so sure.

I have an analogous problem with talk about ‘thought’ as something that may or may not exist independently of the language user who expresses it. Along the same line, I have a problem with worries or questions about the nature of thought: What is thought? What is the stuff of thought? Again, it seems to me that we’re dealing with an abstraction. Persons, or creatures capable of thought exist. Because we have evolved as creatures that can reflect on things, mull things over, and talk about it, we make reference to something called “thought.” It is only because there are such creatures, i.e., thinking persons — and the cultures they create — that we concoct the general notion “thought.” “I have many thoughts on the subject” can be restated “I have thought much about the subject.” The verbal terms (to think, to have thought about ..) seems primary. Later we concoct the substantive “thought” and then worry as to how this ‘entity’ relates to language or to the world.

I don’t mean to imply that all talk in terms of substantives (“language,” “thought”) lacks any useful application. I’m just expressing my unease with the tendency to use this talk of substantives as an excuse for quickly directing attention to a variety of metaphysical and ontological quandaries. Maybe we should look first at how we come to talk in this somewhat odd way.

9 thoughts on “Uneasy about ‘Language’ and ‘Thought’ as Entities

  1. Jonathan S. Laudly

    Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here,
    Interesting issue.
    This is, it seems to me, ultimately an issue of Ontology.
    Apparently you are a Nominalist about language; you believe that "language" is just a general term to conceptually corral a bunch of specific languages–and not an entity in itself. Kind of like saying that there is no forest—just a bunch of trees. But some are Realists, holding that a forest or language is a thing in itself such that it does make sense to say that language generally relates to the world.

    What to do?

    1. jbernal Post author

      Yes, I have been labeled a ‘nominalist’ before; and I suppose there’s a point in favor of that. I think that it is people as language users who have primary reality. ‘Language’ — whether we see it as an abstraction or as a social phenomenon — only comes about because language users exist. And specific languages, e.g. German, only because there’s a culture of language users, e.g., German speakers. I don’t believe that much is served by positing ‘language’ as an entity in its own right, as a Platonist might do with any variety of concepts and ideas, giving them primary reality as ‘forms’ or ‘universals.’ But that is just my philosophical orientation.

  2. Jonathan S. Laudly

    Hi again, Jonathan Speke Laudly here,
    To continue…
    I would say that if one argues that language generally is not a thing with properties, because just a concept or abstract idea–and only specific languages are actual— then by the same logic one could also argue that any specific language, German for example, is not a thing either, since the term language is just an abstraction from a bunch of sentences and declarations and
    so on, just as a forest is just a bunch of individual trees.
    Language, its seems to me is basically the process of relating specific things to general categories–x is a y — and to be useful such categories must be elastic, flexible. Thus we all have the difficulty of trying to be specific within the context of the fundamental generality of language.—-with limited success. Hence the ambiguity and vagueness of most communication.

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