In the pursuit of knowledge we formulate our ideas by attaching names and labels to the thoughts we conceive. This dependence on language is common to both thought and communication. As a form of communication, language is restricted to those universal terms, which can be understood by all people in their limited scope of perception. Therefore, a precipice is reached where the limitations of language affect formulated concepts, confining them to the minute window of understanding which all humans share. George Steiner explained it best when he wrote: “Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality.
The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence. “1 In defining concepts, language also ties meaning to other preconceived definitions and from this there evolves a impedance to true accuracy. Therefore, it is possible to say that despite the attempt by all languages to describe all possible realities, in the rendering of thoughts the use of names and labels skews to a great extent the realm of possible meaning, often times diverging from one’s original intent. In order to develop the way in which names and labels skew our conclusions, one must first analyze their roles in the formation of thoughts.
One major use of words is to attempt o provide an objective description of our environment. We label something as a “red car” or a “smooth surface,” with the intent of describing an objective environment. The second is in simplifying concepts as to make them easier to communicate. This task subdivides names and labels into Generality and Specificity. By generalizing, one can describe a “wooden shaft encasing a filament of graphite which gradually rubs off when pushed against a textured paper… ” as a “pencil. ” The simplification of this concept can be made with a single word.
In specifying, one can break the object down into its components when convenient: “the rubbery material has a stronger attraction to the graphite dust than does the textured material on which you are making the marks and thus removes the dust by a gradual degradation of rubbery shavings. ” A final use of names and labels, which will ultimately influence our conclusions, is in providing relationships to preconceived concepts. In saying, “a pen is pencil-like but uses ink instead of graphite” the user is defining the new concept of the pen in terms of the already understood concept of the pencil.
These three formations of names and labels are the principal sources of language limitation. When understanding the use of language in forming knowledge claims, one must find a thought-language relationship. A general question can define such a relationship: Does language label thoughts and/or are thoughts molded by language? In solving this problem we know that the former statement is true because a purpose of language is to label our thoughts. In addition, a good example of the latter being true also is in the history of chemistry.
Around the fourth and fifth centuries BC, a great controversy arose over the primordial element, which composed all other forms of matter. 2 At this point in time, there were no words to describe a base unit of matter, such as we have today with “atoms,” “particles,” “quarks” etc. Because of this deficiency in the contemporary language, scientists were limited to those concepts which had names. Hence, we find Heraclitus defining the primordial element as fire; Thales, defining it as water; and Anaximentes, defining it as air. Each attempted to break the enigma by finding the most basic unit of existence.
Each used what they believed was the most basic unit of matter, but at the same time were not able to fill the void of terminology. Empedocles reconciled the three aforementioned diverging theories by making earth, water, air, and fire the primordial elements. 4 This conclusion arrested the progress of science for many years until Mohammedan alchemists in the search for a way to transmute base metals into gold, began to discover elements for which no names existed. Only later when the first “chemists” began to define such base concepts with new vocabulary, did a deeper understanding of chemistry emerge. The idea that language is essential to thought has been approached from the fictional field also. In his novel, 1984, George Orwell developed an entirely new language called “newspeak. ”
The premise for newspeak was a language which could be strictly regulated and which would not permit the conception of revolutionary ideas. For example: “the word goodthink, meaning, very roughly, ‘orthodoxy,’ or, if one chose to regard it as a verb, ‘to think in an orthodox manner. “6 In this manner, not only did Orwell create new words but simplified the concepts which the Ingsoc government (New “English Socialist” totalitarian Order) deemed acceptable, making it easier for the expression of orthodox ideas and impossible for revolutionary ones. This provides a perfect example of the reciprocal relationship between language and thought. At the same time, many people would argue that if there is an objective reality in which everything is the same to everyone, then language should be independent of perception and able to adapt to encompass any concept.
Many times the influence of language on the conceptualization of thoughts can be found in analyzing the disparities between different languages. For instance, in Portuguese the word saudades is not fully translatable into English. If one were to attempt at a translation it would include the English nouns: longing, nostalgia, yearning and many others. By using these names and labels in English however, one would find it extremely difficult to express the concept of saudades.
In this lack of an accurate representation for the Portuguese concept, an English-speaker by using the word longing, may not come to the same conclusions as a Portuguese-speaker using saudades. Names and labels by their very constructions can have very different connotations as well, which ultimately affects conceptual understanding. Take for example the English word business. This word has developed a positive connotation in American English as being productive, industrious, commendable. However, the Spanish translation negi?? io has the opposite connotation. Deconstructing the word one finds the roots neg- and ocio, neg- being “negation” and ocio being “leisure”. 7 In full, the word indicates the negation of leisure time. These disparities are what challenge the use of names and labels to represent defined thought. If, in the very definition, there is deviation then one can assume the thought has not been clearly defined in the mind. These incongruities of speech and labeling affect the communication and conception of ideas.
It is the dual purpose in the pursuit of knowledge to better one’s understanding of the theory of knowledge, and, at the same time, to clearly define one’s principles so that other persons may find the same path to his conclusions. In addition to the above illustrated problems, there are other general difficulties associated with the names and labels used in the pursuit of knowledge. These include ambiguity of terms, multiple meanings for a single term, and the relativistic connotations associated with particular labels. Ambiguity of terms can be found whenever the definition of an idea is vague and without definite boundary.
An example of this is in the sentence “The man was quite helpful. ” Here the word quite does nothing to clarify the level of helpfulness that the man presents. Multiple meanings can be found when one says: “That is a bad idea. ” Here the term bad can denote evil, of low morals, of low quality, lack of application of the idea, or countless other meanings. Relativistic connotations present themselves when people say, “It is a hot day. ” Because no two people see the world in the same way, a person from the Caribbean may consider the day moderate or even cool, whereas a person from Canada or Alaska would consider the day sweltering.
In this instance it is the difference in cultural and geographic conditioning that confuses the transmission of ideas, or even accurate illustrations of objective reality. The goal of each area of knowledge and medium of communication is to assign more accurate names and labels to loftier and more obtuse concepts. A mathematical or scientific representation of, “it is a hot day” may seek to find the objective reality by reducing the level of relativism. ” Artists could try to illustrate the heat of the day by painting a canvas with reds and oranges like fire. There are an infinite number of ways to represent an infinite number of shades of the same idea. In every case, there exists a direct correlation between the labels and names we give concepts, and, the conclusions we reach from using different labels and names.