Does language reflect or reconstruct reality?

Recently, I had a Facebook dialog with an old Yale friend, who just graduated this year with high honors. In my senior year, I had written an exposition of Nietzsche’s philosophy of language, which my friend had asked to read. A little background: In my essay, I wrote that Nietzsche made persuasive arguments that language does not actually reflect nature as it is. Rather, all linguistic conventions are arbitrary, all of the words we have chosen to use are grounded in metaphor, and so our linguistic world is ‘anthropomorphic’ in that in organizes and taxonomizes the world according to human needs and wants, rather than objective reality. Finally, I argued that Nietzsche’s philosophy of language explained his aphoristic, literary style, because it suggested that a scientific, analytic representation of the truth about the world in language was impossible. So Nietzsche urged his “new philosophers” to speak like him — using aphorisms, ironies, puzzles, declarations, and stories to deconstruct old, conventional, hardened ways of seeing and speaking about the world, in order to force us off our conventional taxonomies and cliches, to explore new, more imaginative and original metaphors and ways of talking about the world. So I concluded that my exposition of Nietzsche’s philosophy of language argued against the form in which I presented it (an analytical, academic essay). I thought my friend’s questions were interesting enough that I might publish our dialog. 

***

J: I’m writing a paper on Nietzsche, and I just read over your essay for some guidance on his philosophy of language. A few thoughts: if your non-ironical, clarity-aspiring paper recommends its own destruction, why is it worth reading? Is clarity a ladder to be kicked away? And why does the conventionality of language render it arbitrary?

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MS: I’m glad you’ve found my essay useful. I in contrast (I’m sure you know what I mean) cringe to read anything I wrote more than a few minutes ago, it included, and am blushing at the idea that you have a digital copy. But regardless… Toward a response to your questions: (1) There’s only an awkward half-defense. We really should just get what Nietzsche is doing in his later work, understand his implicit critique of language, and learn to speak in his style. But since we don’t all get that, my clarity-aspiring approach, complete with its appeals to our human weakness for taxonomies and structures, is needed to make the point clear, at which point we can finally move on. (2) So yes. A ladder to be kicked away, in your fine metaphor. (3) In my use of the words, it is almost tautological that the ‘conventionality’ of language renders it ‘arbitrary.’ A ‘conventional’ thing is, etymologically, something we humans have just ‘come together’ around—it is justified by broad agreement and choice rather than its status in nature itself. And since language is not tied to anything in nature, i.e., outside of convention, how language develops and evolves is necessarily the product of human arbitration. But I use ‘arbitrary’ in a non-normative, certainly non-pejorative, sense. Indeed, language is a useful metaphor for all other social conventions—they’re all arbitrary, and yet absolutely essential for our sanity and society’s functioning.

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J: Another thought on Nietzsche: are all linguistic “conventions” equally arbitrary? Suppose I make up a word – “grark” – to refer to my left toe, the moon, and the set of prime numbers under 30. Isn’t there a sense in which this doesn’t “fit” nature in the same way the word “leaf” does? I’m not convinced that every abstraction is equally violating of the natural order…

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MS: Tough, good, pressing question. And you’re surely, unavoidably correct—our linguistic taxonomies and categories definitely do fit the real, natural world, better than a randomly assigned lexicon would. But let’s work with your own example, the word ‘leaf’ — we use that noise to refer to both the photosynthetic organs of fauna and sheets of paper. This makes sense to us, because both are thin and flat and light. But I can imagine an intelligent extraterrestrial for whom that pairing wouldn’t make sense. Maybe, in her world, flat and thin things are trivially common, but each flat and thin thing has a radically different function, and these differences are essential to survival. Her eyes and brain would not have evolved to taxonomize things according to a flat and thin shape as we do. So our pairing of the paper with the photosynthetic organism just might not register with her. Or maybe this extraterrestrial’s civilization has been technologically advanced for so long that their language has evolved to make no distinction between natural and artificial technologies. They refer to their solar panel as ‘leaves’ because both turn sunlight into usable energy — and they would think us curiously backward for not doing so.

So I guess our taxonomies mostly have some grounding in nature, but always have an anthropomorphic inflection as well.

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J: I’m on board with what you say here about language being grounded but anthropomorphic. It’s not clear, though, that you’re still being a Nietzschean. Awfully realist about properties, nature, some things “fitting” the world better than others, etc. Let’s talk more this summer.

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One thought on “Does language reflect or reconstruct reality?

  1. Is Neitzche saying that certain ideas come more naturally to us because of the vocabulary and idioms we have at our disposal, and to explore other ideas in our linguistic “blind spot,” we must develop new idioms, stories, analogies, etc.? Seems pretty reasonable to me.

    I would question how big this “blind spot” is. Language already adapts well to help us think the ideas we need to think. For example, as Zipf argued, ideas that are more common tend to have shorter words representing them, which allows us to communicate more efficiently (see here: http://web.mit.edu/piantado/www/papers/PNAS-2011-Piantadosi-1012551108.pdf).

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