By David Reynolds
The nature of language has intrigued philosophers for ages. Once a topic of considerable interest for Plato and Aristotle, language continues to fascinate contemporary philosophers, as well, such as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kripke, and Searle. However, despite all of the philosophical reflection focusing on language, the nature of language is still a matter of debate and concern. Here, I will offer my own brief account of language, which consolidates significant aspects of the philosophy of language from both ancient and contemporary philosophy of language. Through an examination of selected philosophers on language, I will intuitively argue that language is the manifestation of thought as it would be publicly expressed.
Initially, consider the traditional view of language as proposed in Plato and Aristotle. In the “Seventh Letter,” Plato introduces a picture of our understanding of the world, which he claims is “true doctrine” (Plato 342a). Plato asserts that “first, we have a name, second, a description, third, an image, and fourth, a knowledge of the object” (Plato 342b). He also holds “that we must put as a fifth the actual object of knowledge which is the true reality” (Plato 342b). In Plato’s account, the fifth is the object in the external world, the first three are mimetic representations of the fifth, and the fourth is knowledge that aims towards the fifth. All of our internal processes – names, descriptions, images, and knowledge – reach out to the external object. Perhaps this process is explained more clearly in Martin Heidegger’s commentary on Aristotle’s account of language. According to Heidegger, Aristotle holds that “the letters are signs of sounds, the sounds are signs of mental experiences, and these are signs of things” (Heidegger 97). Unlike Plato’s account in the Seventh Letter, Aristotle accounts for the relationship between writing and speech. Writing imitates speech as speech imitates thought, and each of those three represent things in the external world. The most significant aspect shared between Plato and Aristotle, here, is that since language is representative, language is always about something. Heidegger briefly acknowledges this in his lectures, “The Nature of Language.” There, he states:
…at whatever time and in whatever way we speak language, language itself never has the
floor. Any number of things are given voice in speaking, above all what we are speaking
about…. (Heidegger 59, italics added).
In each of Plato, Aristotle, and Heidegger, there is a subtle acknowledgement of intentionality, that all consciousness is consciousness about something. This is important in the philosophy of language because it is the ever-present link between our internal representations and the external world.
One key aspect of intentionality in language is that it has a significant subjective influence. While all of our consciousness is about something, the way it is represented in language is subject to the way in which we use language. The role of language usage has been influential in contemporary philosophy of language, and it has led the way to ordinary language philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Wittgenstein’s Philosphical Investigations, language usage helps illustrate how we use words and what meaning is intended in their use. For Wittgenstein, this is the “language game.” Basically, a language game is the socially understood context within which a word finds meaning (Wittgenstein S7, S47, S65). The social context of a language game need not be universal; rather, it could be a community of any size. For instance, how “wicked” is understood by Newfoundlanders to mean “really good,” or how “red” can mean “under fire” or “hostile” in military lingo. If one were to ask a question that has no specified language game (or comes from one language game inquiring of another), then one cannot expect to understand or appreciate the answer (Wittgenstein S47). In this sense, you need to be in tune with how a word is used in order to understand its meaning. According to Wittgenstein, the word’s meaning is whatever the speaker intends and others, who are in tune with this usage of the word, can best understand its meaning. In Wittgenstein, not only is language a representation of the external world, it is the manifestation of our own intention, our thought.
It is important to note, however, that some philosophers argue that meaning may not be adequate in reaching out to the objects in the external world. Within discussions on the philosophy of language, there is an important distinction between meaning and reference. This distinction asserts that a name or word’s meaning comes from its description or cluster of descriptions, while the referent is the object that the name or word singles out in the external world. With regards to reference in language, Saul A. Kripke is amongst the more notable philosophers. His lectures, collected in Naming and Necessity, express his causal chain theory of reference, such that:
An initial ‘baptism’ takes place. Here the object may be named by ostension, or the
reference may be fixed by a description. When the name is ‘passed from link to link,’ the
receiver of the name must, I think, intend when he learns it to use it with the same
reference as the man from whom he heard it. If I hear the name ‘Napoleon’ and decide it
would be a nice name for my pet aardvark, I do not satisfy this condition. (Kripke 96)
Basically, Kripke’s causal chain theory of reference has two parts – the initial baptism that connects a name to its referent, and the socially communicated chain where each speaker defers to the referent intended by the initial baptism. The baptism may fix a name to its referent by either pointing it out or uniquely describing it. From the baptism onwards, each speaker defers to the person from whom he/she had learned the term, and this ought to reach back to the initial referent at the baptism of the term. Kripke had hoped to provide a better picture of the nature of language by divorcing intentional content and description from fixing reference.
However, it is arguable that he was sorely unsuccessful in completely separating intent and description from reference. As John R. Searle indicates in “Proper Names and Intentionality,” Kripke’s causal chain theory only reaches to the baptism of the object, where the referent of the name is fixed only by the intention of the baptizer (Searle 308). Furthermore, each speaker thereafter “must intend to refer to the same object as the person from whom he learned the name” (Searle 308). Both of the significant portions of the causal chain theory contain intentional elements. It appears that Kripke’s theory of language and reference cannot avoid strong ties to intentions. Kripke’s causal chain theory can also be understood in the terms of Wittgenstein’s language game. Once the object is baptized, when speakers defer to one another in fixing the referent of a name or word, they essentially constitute the social context of Wittgenstein’s language game. The consistent deferral from speaker to speaker in the causal chain bears a striking resemblance to the social context of the language game. Both accounts of language emphasize the communicative nature of language, the social necessity of language in both meaning and reference. It is important to recognize, here, that each of these philosophies on language share an emphasis on the communicative nature of language – that is, they both rely on language being a public expression.
These insights on the nature of language have developed separately over the ages and, in some cases, they developed as reactions to each other; however, this does not mean that they are entirely incommensurable. The accounts that Plato and Aristotle offer show us that language is the expression of our thoughts or passions, and that our thoughts or passions are representative of the external world. Heidegger also acknowledges that language is an expression of thought in “The Nature of Language.” There is also a strong public aspect to language. This communicative aspect is most evident in contemporary philosophy of language. In Wittgenstein and Kripke, a community of speakers is necessary to determine meaning and reference. This contemporary insight into the use of language in a public forum is not incommensurable with ancient accounts of language as the expression of thoughts and passions; instead, perhaps the two areas should be regarded as interdependent. Together, language begins intentionally and is expressed publicly. As such, language is the manifestation of thought as it would be publicly expressed.
Heidegger, Martin. “The nature of Language.” On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 57-105. Print.
Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980. Print.
Plato. “Letters: VII.” Trans. L. A. Post. Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. 421-474. Print.
Searle, John R. “Proper Names and Intentionality.” The Philosophy of Language. 5th Edition. Ed. A. P. Martinich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.