October 1, 2012

Language and Knowledge

There was a question in class whether or not language could construct knowledge or merely convey it, and while the crux of what simmered by the casual toss of semantics had to deal with "the chicken or the egg" paradox (whether or not to consider the signifieds as empirically "prior" to the application of sound images), there is perhaps a possible "portmanteau" of text that might help answer that question by example.

Locke and Richards and Ogden agree that language has no "standard in nature," rather that they gain meaning through sedimentation (something Campbell said?) and for Richards and Ogden, "It is only when a thinker makes use of them [words] that they should stand for anything, or have 'meaning' (Richards and Ogden 1274). In this way, this new line of thought runs counterpoint to the metaphor of language as vessel of meaning (Lakoff and Johnson). It also seems to lean towards way language as incompetent; unable to promulgate knowledge. Yet, for Locke, this predicament may lay inlaid in the discourse of philosophy, of which he bundles in practice such as science, and law. To use a somewhat flimsy example, take the concept of murder.

Clearly, we know what this is. By law, it could be called homicide, or suicide, or manslaughter, each a conceptual sub/re/classification of a socially engendered concept:murder. We can say that a man murdered his neighbor, but we cannot say that a bear murdered its neighbor. If, in fact, a bear did kill something near him, perhaps a wolf, we would instead call that "the circle of life," ultimately putting it metaphorically out of our reach of conception. Even if a bear is to kill a human, we do not say that the man was murdered by a bear, we instead say that he was "killed." The action however, to kill: death set in motion by outside action, is ultimately the same. It can be seen then that language can indeed construct meaning, in this instance, not only referring to the act of killing, but its social relation, its intended effect, the personal state of the murderer, and its negative qualities that link and separate it from its other modes of numeration, similar to what Richards and Ogden drew up in their triangle of meaning (Richards and Ogden 1275).

So, language can construct a knowledge, and namely, one that does not exist in nature. Granted, this new construction is not independent, and nor does something "new" have to be considered as such, for even if its substratum lay in the root or proliferation of related significations, the manipulation, or uniqueness in application is sufficient warrant to warrant its authenticity as "original." The real question, using Derrida, is how many words, related and extant based in opposition can there be before the root meaning, or origin is entirely lost?


HScott3 said...

I think in this case murder is a good example of organizing the points made by each theorists. To start Ill answer your rhetorical question using Derrida, and my answer is still unsure. On one hand I believe words start to become less vague after more than one meaning is established. Yet, words have the uncanny ability to withhold a meaning in most historical contexts. I think you're right by pointing out the biggest argument is what came first, the signifier or the sound image. Clearly the thought process would seem to be first but, due to the various meanings of words and lack of definitions it also makes it hard. I think this is one of those arguments we may never get to the bottom of.

tyreekminor said...

You offered a wonderful example in which I wholeheartedly agree! Just because something has not been socially constructed by societal practice or language of that society does not mean it doesn't exist. Things do not have to be spoken into existence. The air we breathe will be air regardless if we have the knowledge or the terms to construct and categorize it (and I do not mean to link knowledge and language). Trees have been around far longer than the person that applied a term to describe and/or encompass them. And one could say that this only applies to physical items. That is not so. For example, the concept of love. Love cannot be spoken into existence and showcased to everyone whom is skeptical. There are still plenty of people who do not believe that love exists. There lies a failure of language. Conversely, a person who may be deaf, blind, and mute can still feel and articulate (although in their minds and/or hearts) love when it is presented to them from someone who cares from them. This person may never have heard the word "love", read about it, or seen images or signs that represent it, but they can still "feel" loved. It is very faulty to say that language is what constructs our reality. Language only creates the sets or groups in which we categorize our reality.

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