The Purpose of Words

“What if ‘brown’ isn’t really called ‘brown’? What if ‘brown’ is actually called ‘shovel’ and we’ve just been calling it the wrong thing?” I’m still not exactly sure what to make of my classmate who made that statement, even several weeks after he said it. If there is any bright side to the “open discussion” format of my introductory philosophy class, it is that I get to observe the philosophic chaos of modern university students firsthand. And if there is one thing that statement represents, it is chaos.

Some context is in order: the class discussion that day was on Empiricism and the Skepticism which it spawned. Specifically, we were supposed to be discussing Hume and Lehrer. Hume argues that man can know nothing about the nature of the physical world (“matters of fact”) because he does not directly experience the physical world. Because our sense data are meaningless until made comprehensible by the brain, Hume asserts that what man actually perceives are nothing more than ideas – ideas of which man can never know the origin, nor can he be sure that they bear any resemblance to reality itself. Hume maintained, however, that man could know truths derived from “relations of ideas” with certainty (e.g. “There can be no such thing as a married bachelor.”), though those relations of ideas still leave man impotent in the physical world. By resurrecting Descartes’s “evil deceiver” in the form of “Googols” and “Googolplexes,” Lehrer asserts that man can know literally nothing, even relations of ideas. It is this level of absolute skepticism that my classmate had adopted.

I do not intend to go great lengths in this essay critiquing Empiricism and Skepticism as such. Both doctrines appeal to mysticism just as much as the Rationalism they attempted to reject, if only in a different manner. All of these philosophies treat man as a dualistic being (one of mind and one of body) living in dual realities (one of ideas and one of external objects, at least for those philosophers who say external objects exist).  In actuality, man is an integrated being living in one reality; the errors of accepting otherwise are too vast for this singular essay.

Rather, I want to respond to the errors in my classmate’s misunderstanding of the purpose of words. By his standards, words and concepts are one in the same, meaning that there is only one correct word which could be used to for a particular concept. If we use any other word to convey a specific concept, then we are, in fact, not referring to that concept at all. By what standard can the usage of a certain word to denote a concept be incorrect? “A standard which we cannot perceive.” How do we know which word is correct? “We don’t.” Even here, I must further explain his position: words do not denote concepts under his philosophy. Words are concepts.

By these standards, the word “brown” is the literal equivalent to the concept of “brown.” If the word is incorrect, then the concept attached to it is also incorrect. By extension, this means that the word “shovel” could potentially be the literal equivalent to the concept of “brown.” The word “shovel” would not actually refer to a “shovel,” but would instead refer to the color “shovel” – that is, what we call “brown.” Such reasoning rejects the law of identity – a word is what it is not, and a concept could potentially not be what it is. Under philosophies which already reject the idea of objects external to the mind, the problem is no longer simply epistemological – it is metaphysical as well. The world itself becomes an incomprehensible, inconstant mass of anti-conceptual mush in which man is helplessly lost. He can know nothing, not even the contents of his own mind.

The horror of such a world explains the unhappy disposition of many of the philosophers who accept such notions, explicitly or implicitly – the unhappy natures of Kant and Hegel come to mind. The errors which this kind of epistemological nightmare spawned are numerous, and let it suffice to say that they lie at the root to most, if not all, of our modern world’s problems.

I don’t intend to fix all of those errors here, but let’s address the ones specifically brought up by my classmate. First, the notion that a word is its concept is absolutely incorrect. The word “brown” is not the concept “brown.” It denotes the concept of “brown,” but it is not the concept itself. Moreover, words are not their definitions. This may sound like an epistemic trick, but only on the superficial level. Take the word “tree” for instance. Is the word “tree” actually “a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground?” No – it is a word which stands in the stead of that definition, which brings us to the next point.

Words are symbols. Rather than being the concepts themselves, words are visual and auditory symbols which denote the concepts that they represent. While the word “brown” is not actually the concept of “brown,” it serves as a mental unit of abstraction which allows man to keep separate the concept of “brown” from other concepts such as “red,” “blue,” “television,” and “piano.” The word itself is irrelevant insofar as man could use any visual, auditory symbol to denote any given concept, provided that the word maintains an efficient conceptual unit economy – meaning, provided that remembering which concept is denoted by a given word does not become a laborious task and hinders man’s intellectual capabilities. Once a word has been attached to a specific concept, it ceases to be purposeful to apply that word to any other concept. For example, what benefit would it be for man to use the word “shovel” to denote the concept of “brown” after the former word has already been attached to the concept of “shovel” and the concept of “brown” is already sufficiently represented by the word “brown”?

There is no “right” or “wrong,” per se, as it applies to creating a word for a previously unknown concept, save in whether or not that word conforms to the requirements of man’s conceptual unit economy. Once a concept has been given a visual, auditory symbol to represent it, however, attempting to argue that a concept is denoted by something other than that which it is, or attempting to argue that a word stands for something other than that which it does – as determined by some Platonic noumenal dimension – becomes a pointless endeavor. It inhibits man’s ability to mutually communicate with other men, reducing man’s language into useless jargon. In other words, my classmate can use the word “shovel” for the word “brown” as much as he chooses, but he’s sure to receive odd looks in an art class if he tells his instructor that he painted the bark on trees the color “shovel.”

The last point worth making is that, just like words, concepts are not their definitions. Definitions are merely a kind of conceptual shorthand which provide man with the conceptual least common denominator – that aspect of a concept which delineates it from all other concepts in a given conceptual chain while omitting specific measurements. Concepts are abstracts because they isolate distinct groups of concretes from others based on their conceptual least common denominators; they are integrations because they unite all possible concretes which share that least common denominator under a single mental unit.

For example, the concept of “tree” implies far more than the definition itself. Trees can have leaves or needles, can bear fruits or cones, can have thick or thin trunks, etc. But all of these specifics are omitted even though they still very much fall under the concept of “tree.” Including such things in the definition would make it unnecessarily long, as that which separates the concept “tree” from all other concepts is already included in the definition. There are epistemologically infinite amounts of possible measurements which could be included in a given definition, but it is unreasonable to include them. They are merely implied and already covered by a given concept. More intensive concepts (e.g. “conifer”) and more extensive concepts (e.g. “plant”) can be reached by making the definition itself more or less specific. Again, however, any new concepts are not equivalent to their definitions – they are merely differentiated from other concepts by their definitions.

Epistemology is an often overlooked branch of philosophy by those outside of academia. Its commonly ignored in favor of branches further down philosophy’s hierarchical chain, such as ethics and politics, but how can such abstractions be grasped when the very fundamentals on what those abstractions rest are ill-defined and inconstant? How can man be moral or how can a government execute the law if the words to convey that morality and law can mean what they do not? The answer quite simply is that they can’t, and this is precisely the goal of the subjectivists in the Occupy Wall Street Movement who later employed such epistemological chaos to equate freedom with “freedom from reality.” For those who doubt the validity of my claim, consider the following from Ari Armstrong at The Objective Standard who quotes a sign from the Occupy Chicago May Day event: “If you have to work to live, is it a choice? If you have no choice, are you free?”

Such are the results of a volatile epistemology. While my classmate was wrong on several levels, the explicit point of his question was whether or not there is only one possible word for every possible concept. Though this already been answered, a quote from Shakespeare adequately refutes my classmates position: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Similarly, a fool by any other name would be as foolish.

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