Language & Knowledge

The following post is actually a blog entry I wrote in 2008 — when my interest in philosophy was strong & my love for language budding. It does contain a few edits to suit my present stylistic tastes, but content-wise, judge it as written by a non-linguist. Please do listen to the videos — what I write is a commentary. Re-reading this blog entry makes me really look forward to tackling Wittgenstein’s  Philosophical Investigations (next on my docket). Anyway, enjoy! — MLR

Here are two of my most favorite lectures by the English philosopher, Alan Watts, set to video:

Who is it that Knows There is No Ego?

For purposes of description, we must break the world down into some sort of units. This is the basis of Calculus. How do you measure a curve? Well, you treat it as a set of points; … although it isn’t a set of points. There is no such thing as a point.

The tendency of language is to compartmentalize the Universe as a way to understand and interpret — much like a Rorschach Blot. However, the Universe, as Watts claims, is an organism to which we are all a part of. And much like the question “Where does your neck end and your head begin?” it is only through general, but largely arbitrary, agreement of terms and definitions that we can work out any concrete, entirely separate entities.

And while this is admittedly beneficial as far as communication and social interaction are concerned, it has its detriments when language takes us too far into separating ourselves from the Universe. We are in tune with the world, and to think of ourselves as separate from this organism in effect eradicates the significance of of a holistic Universe in the first place — and don’t we assume that the Universe is in fact the sum of all “things”?

Language is a tool; language is use. But to equate what we put into language, or understand with language, with reality is a mistake.

To Speak the Truth

We populate the world with ghosts which arise out of the structure of our language and thus, therefore, are the structure of our thinking.

To comprehend the world through language, which is our natural tendency (our only tendency), is to make unexamined assumptions. The language itself constrains our worldviews; our ways of interpreting and understanding and acting. Inevitably, we cannot fathom our Universe by way of a system of describing it that essentially constrains it.

We cannot understand the world though language, but Alan Watts says that because this is our sole mechanism for doing so, we will never grasp the truth that rests at the heart of all things. He also addresses the false assumption built into our language that things are made of “stuff” that must be “formed” — this assumption calling into necessity a creator or a “former.” Reminding anyone of Plato?

When we try to perceive the Universe we are fundamentally looking into ourselves as the Universe. But we cannot look at ourselves and language cannot interpret itself through language. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a mathematical theorem, tells us rational thought can never penetrate to the final ultimate truth.

Alan Watts

Since writing this I’ve obviously learned a fair amount about language & linguistics. Unfortunately, I haven’t continued to pursue philosophy nearly as much, though like I said, I’m picking up Wittgenstein ASAP. Anyway, when I talk about language constraining our worldview, I mean it gives us a finite set of ways for which have a natural proclivity to describe reality. I really, really don’t mean to conflate this with linguistic determinism à la Sapir/Whorf at all. I’m currently reading a book called From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language by Jerome Feldman. I find that it quite nicely relates to this idea of the constraints of language & thinking. When I finish it I’ll probably be ready to write a blog about it, so watch out for that.

Megan L. Risdal

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Language & Knowledge

  1. This very much reminded of Derrida and his examination of language and presence. He says that in a general sense we use language to make something “present” which is not immediately there. However, his critique ultimately finds that language can never making anything present–that meaning is always deferred, because the meaning of a word is always related to an infinitude of contingent factors: the letters that make up the word, the letters that aren’t in the word, the words that serve through difference to help define the word. This is his theory of differance. A simple example is the idea of using a dictionary to look up the meaning of a word. Unless one knows what the words in the definition mean, the definition is useless. One then has to look up the definitions of the other words and on and on ad infinitum.

    I find it interesting that Watts repudiates the idea of “atomizing” language–of breaking it down into components. But I would assert in the vein of Derrida that the only thing that makes meaning possible (even if it is always deferred) is this multiplicity of units. I don’t see language (or the universe) as a unified whole, but rather an infinite network or web of contingencies that has no shape or central nexus. The quest for absolute truth of reality, or in this case absolute meaning and comprehension through language, is a futile one in my opinion.

    • Yeah, from what I’m reading in essays on Wittgenstein it sounds like he first supported an atomic view of language (like Derrida), but then by the time he started work on Philosophical Investigations he had shifted into something more like what Watts talks about, though not exactly so, uhh, mystical? He also trashes metaphysics & questions what philosophy should be in the first place, so I think if you get a chance to read him too, it’ll be something completely different from Derrida!

      From what I gather, Wittgenstein also believed we place too much confidence in dictionary definitions. That words are indeed part of a network of contingencies … but that it ultimately comes down to a word’s use which gives us its meaning.

      I guess to give this post even more context I should mention that I was also heavily interested in psychedelic drugs & ego death & things like that at the time of writing this entry … (for the sake of my online reputation, I’ll also mention I’ve never actually taken any psychedelics, haha). And I was super fascinated by the idea of a holistic universe, artificially compartmentalized & cut into useful bits by our words. For this reason the philosophy of Watts appealed to me & even now why I’m eager to read Philosophical Investigations.

      Anyway, when I’m finished with Wittgenstein & the essays on Wittgenstein, perhaps I’ll pick up Derrida next.

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