On Language

One of the most important and significant concepts or ideas at the heart of what we would consider to be the ‘philosophy of language’ is called “Language Games” which in turn was conceived and developed by the 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. What the concept or idea of “Language Games” suggests is that the meaning of a language is derived first from the understanding of a language and then from the use of the language.

But without the understanding of a language, the language cannot be used. And if the language cannot be used, then the language cannot convey its true meaning. This chain of logic essentially demonstrates what is meant by “Language Games.” In turn, understanding a language is similar to being in on an “inside joke” in the sense that both an “inside joke” and a language require understanding more than anything else. Arguably, mutual understanding between individuals and groups emerges from a common language more than anyone else, but this point is nonetheless debatable.

Wittgenstein also argued that philosophy and thought can only go as far as language permits. Thus, as Wittgenstein put it: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

But most interesting about Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language is the notion that the phenomenon of language is deeply intertwined with “mental processes.” In this regard, Wittgenstein wrote:

“It seems that there are certain definite mental processes bound up with the working of language, processes through which alone language can function. I mean the processes of understanding and meaning. The signs of our language seem dead without these mental processes; and it might seem that the only function of the signs is to induce such processes, and that these are the things we ought really to be interested in.”

Central to communication and expression and thus central to language is the expression of feeling, as Wittgenstein noted:

“There is the idea that the feeling, say, of pastness, is an amorphous something in a place, the mind, and that this something is the cause or effect of what we call the expression of feeling. The expression of feeling then is an indirect way of transmitting the feeling. And people have often talked of a direct transmission of feeling which would obviate the external medium of communication.”

Noam Chomsky — who is perhaps the most prominent and famous expert on the study of language and linguistics of our day and age — also ties the “phenomenon of language” to ‘mental processes’ which in turn draws a line between an empirical ‘behavioural science’ approach to the study of language on one hand and a true ‘study of the mind’ on the other hand which can shed light on the ‘mental processes’ behind the employment of language.

For instance, even grammar and syntax — which deal largely with matters such as word order, sentence structure, punctuation, and so forth — are tools and instruments which enable the mind to bring meaning and simplicity to what are otherwise complex and difficult sentences and texts. Thus, in the overall philosophy of language, there is a “mentalistic” approach to the study of language on one hand and an “anti-mentalistic” approach on the other hand. As Chomsky said:

“Behavioural science has been much preoccupied with data and organisation of data, and it has even seen itself as a kind of technology of control of behaviour. Anti-mentalism in linguistics and in philosophy of language conforms to this shift of orientation…I think that one major indirect contribution of modern structural linguistics results from its success in making explicit the assumptions of an anti-mentalistic, thoroughly operational and behaviourist approach to the phenomena of language.”

Thus, the elucidation of the “mental processes” behind language is yet another “chapter of human psychology” and yet another stage in the evolution of the overall study of the human mind.

In turn, the notion of language as a byproduct of ‘mental processes’ and the notion of language being largely dependent on the functions and operations of the human mind rather than having language be an autonomous social function which can simply be learned or picked up without considering a set of mysterious and largely unexplainable psychological factors would most likely have broad-reaching and impactful implications for the social sciences in general. And more broad-reaching and impactful than any other concept or idea in the evolving philosophy of language is the one which contends that language as a mode of communication and expression is actually miraculous rather than anthropomorphic.

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