Language and Meaning

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

I was reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine last weekend and caught this article, written by Michael Pollan, about the rise of agricultural diseases. In it, he begins with bemoaning the decreasing power of the word “sustainability”, seeing as it has been turned impotent; yet another zombiefied corporate catch-phrase designed to make what one does appear useful even when in practise the reality is much more ambiguous.

There is a biting summary of this phenomena in the second paragraph of Pollan’s article:

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

I sat at the breakfast table, thinking about this paragraph. It stunned me, because my awareness of the philosophical questioning of language – its power to distort and clarify – didn’t extend as far as back in time as Confucius. To read it made me understand that this conflict – the fight to keep language from becoming a meaningless putty in the hands of technocrats – has been going on probably since the dawn of communication. It wasn’t until reading, of all people, Confucius – that old aphorism-spewing chestnut – speak about it that my understanding of the conflict was deepened.

The two writers who outlined this conflict most beautifully for me were Wittgenstein, quoted at the top (from his treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and John Ralston Saul, who rallied against the rise of technocrats most effectively in his books Voltaire’s Bastards, and The Unconscious Civilization. Each fulfilled a means of illuminating the power of language in a way that was neither impractically academic nor precious. Saul warns about how the images and words we share can be/have been actively distorted by those with corrupting self-interest. Wittgenstein’s very philosophy is about the parsing of truth and falsity (or senselessness, as he would put it) in how we use language to construct a world view.

With the discovery of Confucius’ addition to this subject, I now have more to research and reflect upon. I suppose I’m fascinated with this subject, and for reasons I don’t think are trivial. We are beset by corrupted means of communication every day: images that lie as well as they seduce, thoughts withheld from publication/broadcast because of vested interests. And yet, most importantly, I believe it’s also language that can save us – the very tools used to fool us can be used to liberate.

I suppose one of the first questions I have is whether there are more than a handful of people out there who give a shit, or whether this is a pursuit (non-Quixotic, I insist) only a begrudging elite will ever have interest in following. Sometimes I’m haunted by the words of writer William Sturgeon, who – when asked if it was true that he thought 90% of science fiction was crap – answered that, actually, 90% of everything is crap. What haunts me is how this somewhat off-the-cuff pronouncement translates into the percentage of everyday people who truly care enough about things like this. It’s important to me that people understand that the corruption of language (visual, textual, audible) is not simply an academic concern, and that it’s possible to put up an effective, civil defense against it.

Update: For more on Confucius and the “rectification of names”, please see this link for some context.

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2 thoughts on “Language and Meaning

  1. I, too, was compelled to dig deeper after reading the Pollan piece with the mention of Confucius and language. That’s how I found this blog!

    As a public health advocate, I’ve been working hard to re-create language that would be empowering for consumers that are trying to cut thru the confusion created by the food industry. Nowadays, words like “all natural”, “vitamins” and even “water” have taken on new meanings. Even the term “healthIER” has questionable meaning nowadays. Most healthier food products are not healthier at all!

    After reading “Don’t Think of an Elephant” by George Lakoff, I learned that whoever controls the language runs the show.

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