Noam Chomsky – Language and the Rest of the World – lecture transcript part four

Perhaps the first study of these matters was by Aristotle. He asks for example whats the nature of a house? And he concludes “we can define a house as stones, bricks and timbers in terms of its material constitution or as a receptacle to shelter, chattels of living beeing in terms of function and design.” So I may think that the place that I call home is a house but I could be wrong it could really be a library in which some odd people spend much of their time. And in fact someone entering it for the first time might be parted for reaching the conclusion. The answer depends on choice of perspective and on circumstances, which I not might even know. So if that thing was designed to be a library and is characteristically used this way while I am gone, then it perhaps it really is a library. It is not a house. Contrary of what I though. Or perhaps its a garage. Or maybe it is an oddly constructed and missplaced paperweight belonging to a giant. There simply is no mind independend truth of the matter and material constitution as Aristotle recognized is only one factor in reaching answers.

We can also integrate the factors of material constitutions and function/design – thats in Aristotle terms combining “matter and form”. And we can bring in other factors to. Some of which he also explored. Well, for Aristotle, these where questions of metaphysics. That is the way the world is. Notice, he talks about house, the thing, not the word house. From the 17th century there has been a very reasonable tendency to reformulate such analysis in epistemological conceptual terms. That is as properties of something real named but as construction and interpretation of experience thats provided by our cognitive capacities. Thats our cognoscitive powers in 17th century terminology. Which include the internal semantics of the language.

And in fact it was quiet illuminating discussion of these issues by Hobbes, Locke and many others. Sometimes adopting David Humes’ princibles: “That the identity with which we ascribe to things is only a fictitious one established by the mind not a peculiar nature belonging to what we are talking about”. Well, and all of these matters textual and interpretation is uncertain. But the general idea seems clear enough and very plausible.

The house that Smith lives in or the books that he is reading surely do not have their strange and quiet intricate properties by virtue of some mind independent constitution. And the properties are really strange and intricate as soon as you look at the meanings of the words carefully. Dictionaries have nothing to say about this. Rather they have these properties by virtue of the ways Smith and others think in particular circumstances and the internal meanings of the terms in which these thoughts are internaly or sometimes externaly expressed. These devices in turn are a property of fixed and shared internal human nature as our other aspects of their lives and beeing. The semantic properties of expression are used to think and talk about the world in terms of perspectives that are made available by the ressources of the mind rather in a way the sounds of language seems to function in the latter case as everyone assumes.

I have tried to show elsewhere and wont review that these conclusions are supported by descriptive observations that are in a tradition that is much to long forgotten and greatly reinforced when we look more closly about the meaning of even the simplest words. Including those investigated in the 17/18th century british empiricist philosophy. Words like tree or river or person or names of substances like water or the most elementary devices of referance and anaphora. Probably every aspect of language. All are far more intricate that is commonly been supposed. So much so that they must come to use from the original hand of nature (David Hume) and hence must be fundamentaly be the same for all languages.

These topics have been addressed in iluminating work by Julius Moravcsik over in standford on what he calls the “Ideational Theory of Meaning” bringing classical sources to bear on contemporary issues of language and thought. [more information]Others have pursued them too. And the approach seems to me to have a lot to recommend it.


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