Knowledge and Language


So, how are we to accommodate this predisposition to speak in terms of an objective ‘truth’ of a ‘real’ reality while, at the same time, acknowledging our subjectivist perspective?

We can see that language has evolved as a tool to enable us to identify concepts and exchange ideas; to facilitate our dealings with others and the external (and internal) world. We can go on to recognise that this process has resulted in a basic universal language structure, as identified for example by Noam Chomsky at least insofar as it refers to a universal grammar which requires us to speak in bivalent terms of the verb ‘to be’. We are conditioned to speak in terms of what ‘is’, or ‘is not’ the case.

Early Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Protagoras questioned the relationship between our concepts and the external world. Plato discussed the status of our view of reality and recognised, percipiently, that it was our language, and in particular the use of the verb ‘to be’ (our ‘is’) which determines our account of reality. Later, Nietzsche was to argue that it was this aspect of grammar that caused us to continue to believe in God:

‘I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar…’
Twilight of the Idols

Ludwig Wittgenstein is recognised as the great linguistic philosopher of the 20th century. His philosophy is difficult to summarise (some would say impossible) but in his later work he saw that a word does not have a single meaning with a bivalent truth value (‘is true’ or ‘is not true’). Wittgenstein saw that words are not symbols we can account for using the bivalent concepts of logic. Language is, rather, a multivalent instrument with several functions, meanings, intentions and consequences. We cannot, as Wittgenstein pointed out, apply the ‘frictionless ice’ of logic to the ‘rough ground’ of everyday life. Language is too fluid a vehicle to properly uphold the rigid bivalent conclusions of our analytic philosophers – a conclusion already familiar to our poets and playwrights (and politicians).