The most basic feature of language is that it starts with someone speaking, writing or keying a message —which is then put into the public domain. So every statement has an author, which may sometimes be a group of people. The next question is what this act of “making a statement” achieves, especially in the case of unfunctional statements. (Functional —Austin’s ‘performative’— words, achieve things like provoking answers, closing meetings, declaring loyalty…) So the question is mainly about what unfunctional speech —as in conversation, talks, writing essays and books— achieves. It won’t, of course, ‘achieve’ anything if it is not seen or heard: or, more maliciously, if it is ignored or disbelieved. There is a good general metaphor for this, which is offering (sharing) food, an idea associated with the philosopher David Lewis, who introduced the notion of ‘servings of information’.
A great deal of ‘language use’ occurs in ordinary everyday conversation. There is in most cases no ulterior motive driving this, just a desire to share experiences and stay onside with someone one believes (trusts), and enjoys talking to. (Ironically some fantasists also manage to amuse their listeners, even though the listeners don’t believe a word they are saying.) However, if the person you are conversing with is not minded to share experiences with you, you may find conversing with them becomes “hard work” and loses its appeal. We enjoy conversation when it enlivens our day, because we receive shared experiences of a fresh, worthwhile, unexpected kind. More seriously, conversation which is mutually enjoyable offers a window into the mind of another, and thus addresses part of the Sense of Perpetual Enigma of ordinary life, which is what is going on in the minds of everyone else. As Aristotle pointed out a long time ago, we are social animals. Knowing nothing about what is going on in the minds of others is a form of ‘solitary confinement’ which is generally experienced as painful and worrying. It is at present causing special dismay and mental angst among many children and adults, who are confined by lockdown, and therefore missing their normal “socialising chatter”. They need it to maintain their confidence, to cope with the Sense of Perpetual Enigma… Without it they are unable to judge the general state of mind and decide “what’s what”.
The complexity of the modern world has probably, for the majority of people, produced what looks like an immense labyrinth of baffling incomprehension, once they are off their familiar pathways. Partly this is a result of a tsunami of recent innovations, but it is also a consequence of the serious breakdown of reason which occurred around 1900… and which has spawned all kinds of dangerous pitfalls and non-standard modes, not to mention frauds, fake news and scams. The name of the game for the average person now seems to be to find well-trodden, safe pathways, where you know where you are going —i.e. know what to expect. This is where language makes all the difference. Through conversation with other people whom you believe you can learn new pathways to add to your personal mental map, which is a huge bundle of safe pathways.
A friend may say <<There is an app which tells you where you can pay a premium to sit for two hours on matchday at a window of a house or hotel which overlooks the local football ground.>>. What does such a statement achieve? The answer is plain: it is sharing with you a secure pathway to something you would dearly like to experience —sight of a live football game between your local team and their opponents. What it “achieves” is not mere words, but the expectation of an experience —a non-verbal “thing”, which can be illuminated in all sorts of ways by using words, but does not consist of words.
The important point is that such words make a real difference to one’s life: they add to one’s awareness of safe and agreeable pathways —and of course also of unsafe and disagreeable ones. It is this kind of ‘use’ of words which is commonly in play when we listen to a talk, engage in conversation, or read a book. So a development of Wittgenstein’s advice <<Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use!>> is <<Don’t look for the meaning, look to learn previously unmentioned pathways!>>. Language enables us to share our personal awareness of safe and agreeable pathways with others —if they are minded to listen and to believe what we say.
The Vienna Circle of the 1920s and 30s surprisingly gave rise to three different general accounts of the meaning of meaning, Logical Positivism, Linguistic Analysis and Falsificationism. (Insiders seem to suggest that Wittgenstein was the originator of the first two of these developments, though he quickly disowned the former, and spent the rest of his life exploring the latter.) Logical Positivism was the doctrine which said, roughly, that a statement was meaningless unless there was an explicit or implicit way of verifying what it said. It sounded initially unexceptionable, because if nothing counted as verifying a statement, what on earth was it telling you? Linguistic Analysis also sounded unexceptionable, because the way words were used clearly determined their meaning: when the use changed abruptly (e.g. the re-definition of ‘education’ as ‘doing training’ in the 1980s), the meaning changed also.
So were they both right? Hardly, Logical Positivism was rolled out in a way which implied that only empirical scientific statements really counted as ‘having meaning’. This was because a hard line was forming about what counted as a ‘verification’, a position into which the Positivists were forced, when critical philosophers ruthlessly exposed the ambiguities and vagueness of their key word ‘verification’. Verification was not a cut-and-dried thing. It couldn’t be, unless one had a cut-and-dried test for truth —something it is pretty evident does not exist. Positivism also reduced mathematics to tautologies, a valuation no mathematician would ever accept. So this was soon exposed as an outrageously blinkered way of looking at the world.
Karl Popper introduced the alternative notion of falsification, so that a statement made no sense —according to him— unless it could be falsified. Again it sounded credible. If nothing which happened would ever count as falsifying a statement, whatever was it telling you about the real world? However ‘falsification’ turned out to be almost as vague as ‘verification’, i.e. still disputable. If so, the implication was still there that only scientific, empirical statements (properly falsifiable ones) made sense.
Linguistic Analysis treated words as tools, and implied that it was the “use” of a word which carried its meaning. This is quite close to Pragmatism, which was based on the idea that to say that a statement was true was to say that its message worked.
Everything hinges, of course, on what this ‘use’ signifies. That it can create awareness of safe pathways is a step forward, but can this analysis apply to backward-looking language like historical statements or timeless statements, as in mathematics? These are the well-known stumbling blocks.
Mathematics has its pathways and within this ‘Special Sector of language’ it is evident that mathematical statements are used to share awareness of safe pathways, such as what you get if you work out the square root of 169 or apply De Moivre’s theorem to find a formula for sin(n).
Historical language is less clear-cut. It is, however, on reflection, also classifiable as a ‘Special Sector of language’ in which we seek to build a stable picture of the past. Bertrand Russell raised the question of the meaning of ‘It snowed on Long Island on January 1st 1000’. If you believe someone who tells you this, you acquire an awareness of a snapshot of the weather at that time: which might not look like much of a “pathway”, but could conceivably become a pathway if an Inuit record were found which could be dated by an astronomic observation it contained, or mentioned the weather or weather-sensitive effects.
More broadly the meaning of words is that they offer you new expectations of potential experience. Our take on the human condition is roughly the huge total bundle of awareness of the potentialities of experience we have acquired by looking, seeing, touching, tasting, listening-to-speech and reading.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL February 2021