Sunday, December 15, 2013

About language and reality

“338. One cannot make experiments if there are not some things that one does not doubt. (...) When I write a letter and post it, I take for granted that it will arrive – I expect this. (…) ”

“339. Imagine someone who is supposed to fetch a friend from the railway station and doesn’t simply look the train up in the time table and go to the station at the right time, but says: ‘I have NO belief that the train will really arrive, but I will go to the station all the same.’ He does everything that the normal person does, but accompanies it with doubts or with self-annoyance, etc.”
(...)
“341. That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some prepositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.”
(...)
“342. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted.”

Wittgenstein, On Certainty, translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, Harper Torchbokks, 1969


This makes me imagine some quite funny situations. I go to the university one morning to teach and when I start talking about the most easy to understand subject nobody seems to understand the language I am talking. I pause and ask them: 'why are you looking at me as if you didn’t know me and didn’t understand what I m saying’. They seem puzzled and one of them first and then others talk to me in a language that I totally ignore. I think: this is a joke! But it is not a joke. It is reality, things as they are. I am confused. I go to my department, search for a colleague, find one and explain to him the most strange thing that just happened to me. He doesn’t understand me either and talks to me in a language that I do not understand and that resembles the language the students were talking a moment ago.

I leave it to you to think about what is a language and what it means speaking it. You may also imagine a situation where suddenly one day everybody is driving on the left side of the road except you and where the traffic signs, some sort of bizarre objects with unkown figures, are not the ones you learned and are used to. You do not believe that you moved to another country during the night (it just doesn't make sense...) and you don’t believe either that you suddenly lost your memory and went crazy. To make it short: what does it mean to live in society, to speak a language or simply to be a person here and now?

Also: can someone who spends most of his time reading and writing - dealing with organized and meaningful signs - lose partial or total contact with what we call reality and with people, with that to which the signs point? The question seems absurd but maybe it is not.

Also: If language speaks about reality, as it seems it does, how much can language say about reality, how well can it represent it or refer to it?

If I am a music composer does it make sense to ask this question: how well  can I, playing my piano, "say" what I want or need to "say"? I need to know a lot about each note and about the syntax that allows me to put them together (in relation) in order to achieve my goal. Is that useful to understand what happens with language? Is the relation of music with what the feelings it provokes similar to the relation between language and reality? Is the degree of relation of a system of signs with the reality they supposedlly try to represent (and also, but that's another topic, with feelings) scientifically, or at list rationally, measurable?  

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