Language as a picture of reality

William asked:

Letters are just lines. The combinations are finite. So why do we fall so heavily onto language to communicate and solve the nature of big philosophical questions? Language will never have the capacity to represent reality, so why try? Why don’t we consider it a lost cause?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Letters and words are just lines on paper, and spoken words are just sounds. And yet they seem to be capable of representing a reality external to themselves. And that is truly something to wonder at. I am using words now, tapping keys, making letters appear on a white screen. And although it is not altogether clear what my words represent — this answer isn’t just a description of some facts about the world. — i intend them to be understood in the way I mean and not in some other way. Representation, speakers’ intentions, meaning are fundamental concepts in the philosophy of language.

The best way to answer your question is to give a bit of the history of this puzzle. Arguably, the first philosopher to realize the philosophical problem of how words can represent reality was Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus, although the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus had first posed the question. How can there be such a thing as meaning when the world around us is constantly changing? You can never step into the same river twice, so how come we are able to use a word like ‘river’ when the object that this word-label is attached to is different on every occasion of its use?

In the 17th century, Locke proposed that words are ultimately just labels that we attach to mental ‘ideas’ that are produced by our five senses. The ultimate meaning of any statement is the combination of ideas that it resolves to. In other words, lines on paper or spoken sounds get their meaning from something that is going on inside our heads. It’s a two-stage process. Meanwhile, on the continent, Leibniz, Locke’s famous adversary, entertained the idea of a characteristica universalis, a language that would articulate reality so clearly that all philosophical problems could be resolved by calculation. In other words, Leibniz recognized that the nature of the language that we use sets limits to what can be thought.

Then, in the nineteenth century, came an obscure mathematician who had a side interest in philosophy. His name was Gottlob Frege. Frege created the first effective system of symbolic logic — the Begriffschrifft — that was capable for the first time of representing the quantifiers, ‘All x…’ or ‘Some x…’ in such a way that all possible logical relations between quantified statements were displayed clearly, a task that had defeated Aristotle and generations of philosophers in the centuries that followed right up to Frege’s time.

This is the context in which Ludwig Wittgenstein made his revolutionary contribution. In the first decade of the 20th century, Wittgenstein had gone up to Manchester University to study aeronautics but became fascinated by the mathematics involved. Where do numbers come from? What do they represent? The man to see was Bertrand Russell, in Cambridge, who had taken Frege’s ideas about symbolic logic to the next level. Unlike Frege, Russell saw himself as making a contribution to epistemology and metaphysics, and not just to mathematics. Like Locke before him, Russell saw that the logical analysis of language could reveal something about the way words are able to be vehicles for knowledge about the external world.

Then came the First World War. Wittgenstein joined the Austrian Army and was soon at the front, where he wrote his famous 1914-1918 Notebooks. These laid the basis for a work published after the end of the war, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

As an undergraduate student, this was one of the first philosophy books I picked up, and it blew my mind. Wittgenstein started with what seemed like an obvious thought: words arranged in a sentence form a picture of reality. Any statement you can think of ultimately resolves into simple or atomic sentences which refer to bits of the world and whose structure literally displays the relations those bits have to one another. An analogy frequently quoted is that of chess notation. Every possible chess game can be represented in algebraic form by numbering the 64 squares from a to h and 1 to 8. The world outside of chess isn’t like that you say. But Wittgenstein said, it may not be obvious at first sight, but it is!

That was the mind-blowing idea.

In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein came to see the limitations of the picture theory of meaning. It was not, as he had previously believed, a satisfactory answer to the question how it is possible for words to mean anything. But that’s a side issue so far as your question is concerned. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein is adamant that nothing can be said that isn’t resolvable into pictures of reality, or representations of plain fact. And it is clear that nearly everything we are interested in philosophy requires language to go beyond its fact-stating function. In other words, most of what philosophers say is gibberish. All statements about ethics and values are gibberish. The very question, why is there anything at all? or why am I here to experience it? is gibberish. It seems to mean something in my head but that’s just my subjective impression. Objectively, nothing is being said.

In response to this problem, it is no help to be told, as the later Wittgenstein claimed, that there are numerous ‘language games’, so that discourse about God, or values, or possibly the ultimate nature of reality are just games we play with words, and hence legitimate on that human-centric level. When I ask these questions I am not ‘playing’. I mean what I say. I am looking for an objective reality. I want to know. What is so frustrating is that any account of how it is possible for words to have meaning falls short of being able to explain exactly what it is that I ‘mean’ to actually mean. But I shall leave the question there.

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