Limits of Language

Most of the time, language is a pretty good way for one mind to communicate its thoughts to other minds. For example, if the idea of a pig pops into my mind, I can say the word pig to you. You will recognize the word “pig” and recall learning that those fat pink animals are pigs so the idea of a pig will pop into your head. Thus I will have managed to get this idea from my mind into your mind.

The success of language hinges critically on our common experiences in the outside world. The thoughts in our minds are private so we can’t just observe thoughts in other people’s minds. To communicate a thought I must invoke some common experience. In the case where I am trying to communicate the idea of a pig, this is pretty simple since “pig” is such a concrete idea that I’m sure you are familiar with. We are bath familiar with the idea of a pig through our sense data from seeing, touching, and tasting pigs in the outside world. Also we become familiar associating the word “pig” with the idea of a pig from hearing people reference them that way many times.

Many of the ideas we talk about are more abstract that the idea of a pig, but we are still able to talk about them. For example, the idea of three. I have never seen, tasted, smelled, heard, or touched a three since is not in the category of physical things that can be sensed. I have, however, heard the word “three” used to describe many sets of three elements. These repeated references have introduced the idea of three to my mind so that I can talk about it. But in this situation, again, we are only able to talk about the idea of three by referring to many sets of three in the outside world.

This need for your ideas to be anchored in the outside world can make communication about your subjective 1st person experience (aka what you feel) tricky since those thoughts are strictly private. For some feelings we can try to describe them in terms of what sorts of situations in the outside world evoke these feelings. For example, we can talk about the idea of happiness by describing the sorts of situations that make people happy like eating delicious food, lolling, accomplishing things, etc. When I try to communicate the idea of happiness, you must interpret it in terms of what happiness feels like for you since you can’t feel my happiness. Whereas when I talk about a pig, we both have access to basically the same idea of a pig. So it seems like talk of feelings is less precise than talk of more concrete objects like pigs.

There are some feelings that are harder to anchor in the common experiences in the outside world though. It seems possible, and I think it’s pretty clearly true, that there are feelings which are beyond words and cannot be communicated right now. For example, the Buddha said he felt, “Consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around,” but after reading that I probably don’t have the same idea he was trying to communicate. Perhaps it is the case that I would instant recognize this feeling if I had experienced it before but it sounds so vague that I think there are many feelings I might falsely identify as his intended idea. His problem is that he can’t really base his description in any common experience.

I say that I think these ideas are not communicable right now because I think it may become easier to anchor these ideas in the outside world as neuroscience progresses. Perhaps in the future we will be able to refer to different feelings as very precise sets of brain states, although this might be tricky since each brain might implement a given feeling differently making it difficult to compare.

Listening to: Clocks – Coldplay


2 Responses to “Limits of Language”

  1. darren Says:

    When you look at a pig how do you know you see the same pig as everyone else? We have to presume that happiness, like experiencing looking at real things in the world feels the same for everyone since we all have the very similar neurological responses to pigs and also to emotions. In other words there is no evidence to suggest that people experience emotions differently to others, save a few genetically abnormal people perhaps. Therefore it should be sufficient to say that you are happy and not have to refer to concrete examples of happiness.

  2. themindofbruce Says:

    Hi darren,

    I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t all experience the same set of emotions (although of course it would be hard to tell otherwise). The problem is that we have thousands of emotions, and it is difficult for us to communicate about them. For example, I can choose to label one of my emotions ‘X’ and tell you ‘One time I felt X’. Even if ‘X’ is an emotion you have experienced many times in the past, you won’t be able to anchor the meaning of ‘X’ to a specific emotion without reference to other ideas.

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