Ziad Abouabsi: Why does language matter to philosophy?

Why does language matter to philosophy?

In the question: ‘Why does language matter to philosophy?’ we ought to consider three aspects; viz.,

1. Language,

2. Philosophy, and

3. Language is indispensable to philosophy.

First we will discuss language separately, second philosophy, and third why language matters to philosophy.

There is no arguing whether we speak or not. Of course, we speak. Speaking is the utterance of words. Words are symbols and those symbols stand for things. Things are either corporeal objects such as the word ‘lantern’ which means a lighting instrument. The spoken symbol, i.e. utterance, is noise put in shape. A word describing an object is denotative by nature. Other words do not describe corporeal things such as ‘I love Anne’. Anne is a corporeal object to our senses since Anne can be a pretty woman who is probably a colleague of mine or anybody else. The same applies to the ‘I’ of the speaker. However, the word love describes a mental state similar to ‘ I feel lonely’, ‘I feel great’, and ‘I am anxious to write this essay’.

Another function for speech is a bit more complex; e.g., ‘Give me five pounds’. This sentence means: put your right or left hand in the place where you keep your money. It could be your purse or pocket, take all the money you have, count five pounds if you don’t have a five pound bill and give me the amount I asked for. ‘Give me’ means hold the amount with your fingers, stretch your arm towards me and when I stretch my arm and catch the money with my fingers, you untie your fingers. Then the money I grabbed become in my possession; i.e., given to me. Afterwards I do a certain act to end the process seizing possession of the money.

These are all statements that describe sates of affairs, no doubt. My love for Anne is a sentiment and this sentiment is a state of affairs, since it is something that is happening inside my chest and I call it love and it is happening when I think of Anne or see Anne or hear of her.

I might not say ‘This is a lantern’ but this instrument is still there. I might see it and remain silent and it will still be there. The case in point is that when I utter the statement, I am informing another person about a whole industry entailed in making lanterns by giving a name to a sensible object which has been manufactured, distributed, sold, carried from one place to another, bought with money, and this money has been collected through a long process and the lantern is now in front of my sight.

Loving Anne might be something I experience, but the feeling surges up inside me, and this feeling keeps augmenting in my chest, and the words have to come out sooner or later. What made me love Anne is perhaps her charm, or maybe it is because she gives me the attention I need or perhaps she is the prettiest woman I know and I want her for myself.

‘Give me five pounds’ could be either asking for charity or return of change from a cashier at a supermarket or just borrowing money from a friend. In all cases, so far, what is being said is just a slice of the states of affairs that occur through time. The statements are said in the present tense and they must be preceded by happenings leading me to utter these words. My utterance is a communication act. This act serves a human interest to express certain human needs, in the ordinary ongoing matters in daily life. It is crucial to make statements in order to serve human needs. These statements must be understandable; i.e., the speaking subject should make himself clear to the listener who needs to understand and the communication is complete regardless whether the ensuing reply actually pleases the speaker or not.

Understanding doesn’t start with the person I am addressing. It starts with the speaker’s sensations. If I (the speaker) understand what I need to communicate, then, I put my words in an understandable array enabling the hearer to know my needs. In this sense, understanding and knowing what I intend to communicate are inseparable. Hence, understanding and knowing become synonymous. As a result we can say that language is the communication tool that makes people communicate with each other. This communication is tethered to things that occur. These things fall within the perimeters of recognizing what is to be said. Utterance by the resonance of the mouth, the space in which the vocal vibrations travel, the ears of the listener, and the interpreter’s mind of the listener complete the communication circuit in the case when verbal language is used in the interactive process. In all cases of such communication we cannot ignore the motivation behind the speech act before its occurrence, its influence on the listener, and the possible feed back of the latter. Therefor, utterance is the presage for dialogue since it anticipates response.

Philosophy is this huge pile of books written by philosophers. Philosophers are people, who wonder about human existence, raise inquiries out of wonder, try to come up with remedial answers in order to subdue the anxiety resulting from wonder. A philosopher is a person who ponders on enigmatic queries that question his intellect in his states of inquisition. Those enigmas swell and enlarge and need out of one’s head because their intensification in the memory of the philosopher would disturb the whole being of the curious individual. When queries start weaving excessively in the mind, they imprison the thinking subject. By nature we do not like imprisonment in any of its sorts. Philosophical ideas are not faint; on the contrary, they are great and heavy on the mind. The first act a philosopher has to do is either speak out or write down what lingers in the mind. In both cases the philosopher is exercising a speech act whose tool is language.

Philosophical inquiries do not just pop in the mind of a person out of no where. They certainly have their causes. When a philosophical statement is made, it certainly needs explanation. The same principle that applies to explaining my love for Anne, or asking for five pounds, or the fact that this is a lantern, also apply in trying to understand a philosophical statement. There are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that a philosophical statement is attached to a chain of experiences and generative ideas that breed its formation. This formation is made manifest through language. In the course of communication and duration of time, philosophical statements are susceptible to feedback and responses that consequently instigate dialogue. In any speech act there are implications that need explanation such as in the process of giving me five pounds or any other statement. This explanation that is done through language which is the explicit means for knowledge. This ,quintessentially, is what we mean by dialogue.

In this perspective we find out that language liberates the philosopher from the burden of contemplation. The act of liberty is only possible exclusively through language. Language is the vehicle that carries philosophical dialogue. Hence the act of philosophizing is an act of dialogue aiming at liberty from the dungeons of ignorance. This is a constant human desire. This liberty is achieved through language and its continuity is the emblem of the elevated human freedom. Philosophy is made manifest through language, and without language philosophy cannot exist and cannot be part of life either. Language is the only tool to communicate knowledge and liberate the human soul.

© Ziad Abouabsi 2014

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