167. Word and object
Here I start a series that continues an earlier discussion on language, meaning, and cognition.
In ‘old’ philosophy, ideas, reason and meanings are seen to be foundations, preceeding and guiding action in the world. Looking at the world objectively, from outside, we are supposed to analyse, plan and act. Ideas are seen as representations judiciously attached, item-by-item, to things in the world. Meanings are seen as objects attached to words. The philosopher Quine used the ‘museum metaphor’: meanings are like exhibits in a museum, with words as labels. Words and their meanings are given, fixed, a-temporal.
That is boring, since it precludes novelty and surprise, scary even, since it imprisons us.
As analysed by Braver, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and before them David Hume, turned the logic around. Practice, action and habit in the world are primary, in time, origin and quality, and ideas and meanings arise from them, as frozen frames, snapshots cut from a film. Thinking is a response to action, and then also a basis for further action. Most of the time, competence is tacit; we have no reflective awareness of what we are doing. Meaning is not analytic, applying to independent items, but holistic: words have meanings in constellations of words in expressions. Meaning depends on the context of action. Meaning is not substantial but functional. To understand the meaning of a word one should look at how it is used. For this, Wittgenstein used the term ‘language game’. Meaning is a role in that game, and meanings vary across language games.
There is no rock bottom, absolute, unambiguous, context-independent, constant meaning. In justifying what we say or do we reach a point where one can only say: this is how we do it. Meanings and considerations of validity or justification are relative to a language game. As in chess one can say that a move is legitimate or not, while it does not make sense to ask whether chess is true.
It is meaningless to talk of the justification of linguistic conventions by describing what is represented, because any such justification presupposes the conventions. We cannot talk of what transcends our talk.
By postulating meanings independently from practice we impose a separation between subject and world and then question how meaning is connected to the world.
I sympathise with this analysis, but the problem now is this. One of the most pervasive and tenacious language games is to talk about things in the world, designated by words, in a separation of subject and world. If old philosophical intuitions arise from that game, and if language games form the basis for judging validity, aren’t those intuitions valid? Either old philosophy is justified or there is something not quite right with the story of language games.
So, where do we go from here, with what theory of meaning? I have discussed my view in earlier items of this blog, and I will return to it in a following item. I propose that it is entirely reasonable to use words to refer to things, as more or less independent entities, apart from practices. That is what we use language for.
As I argued before, a problem arises only when we use intuitions from objects moving in time and space metaphorically to grasp abstract concepts such as meaning, identity, knowledge, concepts, culture, etc. I called this the ‘object bias’.
Meanings themselves are not like objects moving in time and space. A word when shifted from one sentence to another shifts its meaning.
As I discussed earlier, in items 146 and 148 in this blog, a second problem with the story of language games is that it appears to imply radical relativism. If meanings are tied to language games and have no sense outside them, does that mean that meanings are incommensurable between language games, and that debate between them is hopeless? Or do meanings allow for some connection between games?
In different language games, some words are often the same. Their meanings vary with the game but are nevertheless connected, in the process of meaning development. Could this not yield a bridge between the games? The rules of chess and draughts differ, but they can be compared. Wittgenstein used the notion of ‘family resemblance’. That may apply to la