The obsession with language in modern philosophy

Words are empty buckets that carry meaning individual to a person or group.

I have reviewed several dozen philosophers of the modern era, and they seem obsessed about language, as if by creating rules around words philosophy may progress in some manner.  I consider the obsession with words a dead end, a waste of time.

Words are noises. Words are useless empty containers that only become meaningful when meaning is given to them.  The meaning is relevant only to the individual or group that uses that word.

An examination of words are only relevant to understanding the minds of the people that uses those words, for they are tools that those people use to interact in their particular locus.  The Sami are nomads who live in the Arctic, they have 300 words to describe ice and snow, and several dozen words for reindeer.  In Islam they have 100 words to describe their god, and the Arab uses dozens of words in regard to camels.

The word “gay” has different meanings to different peoples: pre 1900’s it meant “happy” and “bright”; amongst homosexuals it describes their sexual outlook; amongst children it means “stupid”.

Each profession, industry and subculture have their own words.  Children in schools have their own mini cultures with their own words.

Anyone studying dreams knows the language of dream is rarely of words, but metaphors, biased towards function, action and concrete based meanings.

Part of the problem philosophers have is that many languages are abstract, so meaning must be obtained through mind rather than the senses.  In coding artificially intelligent computers abstract words are also problematic, as how does one code the meaning of love to a computer?

I liked the article on ancient Jewish treatment of language based on concrete thought, action, function and personalised approaches.


14 responses to “The obsession with language in modern philosophy

  1. I agree.
    I follow eastern philosophy, rather than western. The eastern philosophy is far more based upon metaphorical understanding of the words spoken or written.
    I find within it that a much more concise understanding can be reached as they talk around a common centre that is by its very nature, indescribable. It is the understanding that builds over time that delivers a deep core structure to their philosophy, and the increasing ability to follow the lessons within.
    It is not the abstraction of the words that matters, but the message within.


    • I noticed the eastern philosophy uses metaphors.
      If a message is abstract, this forces the listener to take their own meanings from it, which then results in error and disagreement. With metaphor there is less error in conveying the meaning of the message.

      • Ah, well there’s the difference. If following Eastern philosophy, one finds an answer that demonstrates a level of enlightenment (doesn’t have to be a high level), then no matter how it is understood by the individual, it is deemed correct. By the very nature of self-growth, it cannot be in error.
        As I understand it, when following western philosophy, a person needs to reach the same answer as the person who first described the ‘idea’, thus demonstrating an entirely different style of philosophy.

      • It depends on the purpose of the Western philosopher. There is something called the Socratic Method that asks many questions in order to arrive at a conclusion, usually ending in a twisting maze that leaves no satisfactory answer. Peoples like the Basques and Celts rarely wrote anything down (until the Christians came), so they passed knowledge down the generations in metaphor, symbol, story and verse, with the intention that its transmission was intact from speaker to hearer.

      • Ok. I’ll look up the Socratic method – thanks. This sounds similar to a method that I use, in that I will ask many questions on a subject to try to approach it from many different directions. Then like tangencies to a circle (the core truth of a subject) the circle is described, without ever being seen. The questions lead me to finding an answer that is more than satisfactory anought for me.
        In my experience, it is the journey that the questions lead me on that teach me the wisdom I need, then I often find that full understanding comes much later, but when it does, the true answer reveals itself.

        Interesting – thanks.

      • It appears Danny that you are using a type of Socratic Method. Socrates was nicknamed the “gadfly”, a type of fly that irritates horses, because his Socratic Method upset people.

  2. Oops, … hope it’s not upsetting you…

  3. Michael J. Melville

    Abstract language has enabled many a philosophical system over the centuries. Ludwig Wittgenstein started two schools of philosophy in the 20th century. The first, Logical Positivism or Logical Atomism, assumed that logic was the basis of mathematics. Russell and Whitehead demonstrated that mathematics can be derived from logical connetives in their Principica Mathematica. This made possible a language for mechanical applications and computers were invented shortly afterward. Ramsey pointed out to Wittgenstein that his early work created certain paradoxes and Ludwig returned to Cambridge to work out the bugs. His Philosophical Investigations was an attempt to show, by doing, how we have created vast systems of thought because we haven’t taken a look at how we use language in the first place. This started another school of philosophy, Ordinary Language Philosophy. Oxford spawned the analysis of language and I had to wrestle with all of that back in the 1960s. It is all very fun to play these intellectual games, but it doesn’t get one closer to the heart. Jungian Psychology and the work of Alice Miller got me there. I recommend their writings as a more meaningful and direct path to one’s feelings.

    • I admit I have a particular dislike for abstraction preferring concrete sensory outlooks. Thanks for these suggestions, which I will look at.

      I have an interest in artificial intelligence, so I am interested in language in relation to this. How do I program a machine to know about the concept of “love”? There is no way I can teach a machine to understand “love” through any abstract approach.

  4. Just re-read this post and thought I’d offer another view…
    As an engineer, I often find myself fighting with words in order to correctly express that which I mean.
    In my investigations of philosophy, I find the same obstacle in that the language of words, especially when written because of the lack of body language, expression and context, is too coarse.
    The hang-up with words is probably necessary due to the frustration of trying to find the right words…!

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