One of the pressing themes of analytic philosophy, starting from Gottlob Frege and continuing onwards, is to try to establish the relationship between language and reality. At the very beginning, Frege attempted to establish a philosophy of language rooted in his mathematical background, where he defines meaning as having a sense, which approximates to our notion of the concept a word refers to, and reference, which relates to the actual thing we are trying to describe in our language. Frege did not want these meanings,
Then, it was Russell’s student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who
So does language access an objective reality? Early on with
There has been a common assumption within later, Western philosophy of thought and language; that our thinking is determined by language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism proposed that all human thinking is limited and determined by language. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that the unconscious is structured like a semiological system. We can perhaps see a similar, albeit more muted, version of this assumption started with Frege, that the thinking done in language is structured like a mathematical system, which itself is a specialized language; the thinking of normal language is structured by a higher-tier language of math.
But what if thought is formed by and
In this case, language can be connected to a sense of reality, but by the middle, mediating phenomenon of human thought. As my thinking is formed to my perceptions, my language is used to describe my thinking, including the parts of my thinking formed by my perception. When I use language, I can have the intentions to refer to some intersubjective reality that is shared between my friend and me, such as words in the Bible we both read. But I select the words to talk about because those are the words in my own mind and thinking, perceived through sensation and recalled through memory.
Nowhere does my language ever function to provide a direct access to reality, but all my language is pointing something within my own thoughts. Language is effective only to the degree there is common perceptions, shared memories of the same or similar events, shared attention, and similar pairings of words/signs to semantics/concepts. Only my perception may be said to provide a potential access into what is “objectively” real, but because my thinking is formed by both perceptual sensation and language, I can never truly isolate the boundaries between objective sensation and subjective conceptualizations to say “this is objective” and “this is subjective.” And so, insofar as we are able to use language to describe our thinking, we can never be certain as to what degree we are being objective.
Instead, language functions as a virtual reality, blending together the various semantic structures embedded in our neural networks to imagine something in our minds, whether there is anything in our sensory perception that corresponds to our imagination or not. Insofar as these semantic concepts are formed by direct perceptual experience that we then give language
If all of this is correct, then reality is never accessed by language itself. I do not come to an objective understanding of the world through reading and hearing other people speak. However, by reading and hearing, I may be moved myself to act, think, and pay attention in certain ways that can direct me towards having my thoughts formed by perception more and language less. I can imagine through language how the world might work and then mathematics my attention and action to engage in the world to see if this is true, to experience what I have heard or read. But forming my understanding into greater conformity to reality itself and less into the linguistic imagination only comes when I direct my attention and action to perception, which is formed by my sensation of certain aspects of reality (such as vision, audition, inner physiological states, etc.) I must put what I imagine through language into action for it to become more than simply a virtual reality, but a blend of virtual and actual reality.
And so, I would argue that analytic philosophy can never through an account of language give us confident, direct access to reality. It may be able to
However, there is the possibility of novel meanings and uses of words that occur in what is an initially private meaning; when I perceive something new and try to use language to describe it, my thinking operates as a blend of the semantic concept of the word I use and the perception, leading to novel shades of meanings that are not immediately shared by others. Then, through the sharing of perception, memory, attention, and language those private meanings may eventually become public meanings. Because we are in touch with and think about reality through sensory perception and because thought is a blend of semantic memory and present perception, there is the possibility of private semantic meaning. This at the heart of non-fictional prose, where we describe what we have seen. Furthermore, we can try to describe our experiences through different words than is customarily used, which leads to novel, private meanings; then these novel meanings become public through the sustained attention of others to reconstruct. So much poetry is but the expression of this semantic novelty.
By recognizing that thought mediates the relationship between perception and language by being a blend of perception and language (among other sources), we can simultaneously a) allow that there can be an objective reality that we can study, observe, and think about while b) recognizing that language itself doesn’t convey this reality but only allows us to imagine it. But this relationship between the two makes any attempt to formalize the relationship between language and reality futile, as the degree to which we are focused and engaged with the perceptual and linguistic sources of thinking will determine how much language represents reality.