Language and Philosophy

While I was working on judging this last week I would often find myself taking breaks from the works and engaging in political conversations on Facebook.  I’ve remarked here before that I am relatively politically active and generally don’t shy from sharing my views and observations with others, but this was a rather new experience for me.  The frustrations I experienced in these conversations was minimal while the philosophy behind my ideologies was, at the very least, respected.  I daresay the true commonality in several of the threads, however, was the utilization of words in such a way that actually misrepresented the words’ original meanings. [To avoid a rehash of some intense conversation I am not going to tell you the words, but if you want to guess it could be fun!]

Word meanings to me are rather concrete and so seeing it qualified with another word that actual countermands the original definition has caused me no end of frustration.  I don’t know where else this occurs, but I do know words that are used politically seem to have a greater tendency to be misrepresented and qualified to pander to certain ideologies instead of enabling them to exist as is.  One particular word I found in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary with a definition from 1877 only to be informed by someone else that it was effectively wrong due to it not taking into consideration it was actually a “specific kind” of “that word”.  I truly kid you not.  To string the words together for the purpose of writing literature is artful construction and, as such, there needs to be a certain amount of fluidity inherent in the work.  But, if no definition is concrete or limited then whose to say this excerpt is not art?

…Toothbrush in the jaw toothbrush brush brush come home home in the jaw Rome dome tooth toothbrush toothpick pickpocket socket rocket…  – The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand (p.237)

Disclaimer:  If you have not read The Fountainhead let me assure you the above quote was actually from a book one of the characters was reading and is not representative of Rand’s prose.

I, personally, think the above quote is crap.  No matter how much fluidity we can give to language I can not make my way to thinking that above sentence was amazing except in how it serves the purpose of the story.  It does bring up a very good and solid question as a craftsman of the written word:  If words can be twisted and combined so as to nullify their original/previous concrete definitions to what point is there in paying strict attention to word definitions at all?  Why continuously and arduously work toward a specific level of prose, a rhythm in sentence, if it is not to communicate something with words?

Where is the limitation of subjectivity in our communication and language?  I don’t know that there is any, but as I write this I’m suddenly struck by how truly wonderful The Road was as a result.  McCarthy, and Rand as well, hold language and definition in reverence to such a level that I can not help but read their words and walk away thinking I KNOW what they were trying to communicate.  The truth is:  One can never really know they “get” precisely what the author was trying to communicate unless they discussed their thoughts with the author themselves, but certain works ring with more clarity than others.  There is no play upon the subjective interpretations, but instead an inescapable demonstration of the meanings intended by careful word selection.  For me, that confrontation with the reader, with the various preconceived notions that might very well be running amok, is the ultimate in courageous art.

Perhaps it is the climate of being surrounded by punditry ad nauseum where past friends insure loopholes in conversation by hiding behind a contextual loophole, the politicians having plausible deniability by not really saying anything, that has me so enamored with the notion of a concrete reality.  In these moments I can easily understand the drive to confront subjectivity, to deny its necessity via Objectivism, but stand firm behind the notion that it is our subjectivity that enables and encourages the wonderment of individuality.  The question still remains, however:  How far can and will definitions be allowed to morph before they are incorrect or the above quote is, in fact, deemed artful?


6 responses to “Language and Philosophy

  • Chris

    The beautiful thing about language is that it isn’t a solid, unchanging (even since 1877) edifice. Rather, it’s a living, evolving creature that grows with the times. Otherwise, thou wouldst still be speaking thusly.

    The Academie Francais is besides themselves that the word “le weekend” has slipped into common use in France, simply because people like to go away for the weekend, but there’s no way to say that in French. Despite being commonly used, they refuse to officially accept it as an addition to French.

    We’ve had sketchy words like “bling” added officially, and while not everyone agrees, you have to admit that it is used by a large portion of English speaking people.

    Granted, these are all examples of additions to the language, but that is just one form that the evolution takes. Modifications to usage, and definitions all occur, and it’s natural for people to rail against that, but I think it’s healthy for the language to stay current. Some modifications will be unable to survive in the language jungle and die out, others will fill some niche and thrive.

    • kimberlyloomis

      I agree with fluidity, but I don’t think subverting the original definition is the best or most appropriate way of gaining and/or keeping said movement. Your example of “thou would still be speaking thusly” is a good one. Words shift around, come and go out of mainstream use, but have the meanings of thou and thus changed? No. Mainstream has just dictated that we use “you” instead of “thou” and thusly (HAHA!) made them synonyms. Basically, it’s another addition to the language, not one that’s created a hole within it. Would “thou” still be used if we never adopted “you”? Think of the ramifications of “thou” coming to mean “me” and there never being another “you” employed. What limitation does that place upon ideals and notions that can be aptly communicated? By changing definitions to “suit the times” it can create a hole in the language and leaving entire ideas without words to give voice to them. Adding, I get that. I can never advocate the misrepresentation of a word such that it nullifies the previous meaning; to do so by way of popular notions and consent is nothing more than having a majority of whatever population decide how words should be used. Needless to say that is completely contrary to my own philosophy and ideals. 😉

  • Helen Ginger

    Words die out. New words come into use. As the world changes, so must our words. I don’t like legal speak or political speak – both are used primarily to hide and confuse, it seems to me. But lawyers and politicians understand the hidden meanings.

    I don’t know what was going on in your situation. Clearly, things were not understood or misunderstood.

    Straight From Hel

    • kimberlyloomis

      Helen – The issue we wound up having was the conflicting and paradoxical definitions for the same word. Incredibly frustrating that such notions of exclusionary definitions could both be considered accurate when one clearly states the other is not. Might as well have picked the word red, with me stating the definition was black and the other person white then looking it up and finding we were both right, and yet the answer was never “gray”. If this paradox is allowed to exist within the confines of something like a definition then why not add a word to the language instead?

  • Jan

    What I discovered was useful (long ago) is to define the words you are using when you are having a conversation with someone who does not know you well. Everyone should probably do this and it would save a great deal of mis-communication from happening.
    My favorite game of all time is to have an intimate partner attempt to repeat what their partner just stated. It is sad but sometimes hilarious how people do not listen to each other. Written words can generally be defined in context, but only by someone paying close attention!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Jan – Yeah, we tried that. Had to do it several times. Unfortunately sources agreed with both of our definitions. *le sigh*

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