Meditation X, Logos – The Building Blocks of Philosophy

Cuneiform

~ Our meeting today, my dear reader, is not one of coincidence, luck or blind chance. That we have met today means that we were meant to meet and our meeting could not have happened in any other way. It is inevitable that the past must be as it has been before the future can unfold. We may forget in the near future that this meeting has ever happened but we cannot change the fact that this encounter has already taken place.

~

Philosophy, like a painting, requires colours. Words are for philosophy what colours are for paintings. I have established in my last two essays, Philosophos – The Inescapable Philosophy of Philosophy and Systēma – Approaching Systematic Philosophy, that philosophy is unavoidable and our knowledge and understanding of reality is an imperfect product of reverse reengineering by the human mind. In this short essay, I wish to highlight the importance of languages in philosophy not only for those who philosophize, but also for those who read philosophical text.

Languages are probably the greatest of all human inventions. The origin of our greatest invention is however, rather a mystery. History does not record how our guttural and primeval cries of pain and joy evolved into the various languages that we know today. If we count languages the same way we count species, which is by asking whether two candidates of the same species can interbreed, and in the case of languages, breed communication, the world would contain at least 4,500 natural languages. Africa on its own contains around 700 to 3,000 languages!

It is a mistake, from a philosophical point of view, to think that languages are only those that are spoken and written like English or Mandarin. One should note that languages are essentially a form of expression. In saying so, the old pictures in caves by Cro-Magnon men may very well have been their own version of a form of writing! With that being said, we should treat music and paintings that are a form of expression as a language to convey meanings in their own right. Even mathematics can be considered a form of expression as it is almost universally understood by mathematicians all around the world.

As a means for communication, languages are the most important reason that we can live together as a community. In terms of utility, languages enable us to work together as a team by allowing us to communicate our ideas with other individuals. Without being capable of understanding what another human being is thinking, working together would be an impossible feat. This is evidently seen in the seven wonders of the ancient world, whether the Pyramids of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis, the Statue of Zeus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, that would all be impossible endeavours for humanity without languages as an instrument of communication. Take for example how the construction of the Tower of Babel in the Bible came to an immediate halt when God caused everyone to speak in different languages. This gives us a glimpse of how societies would collapse if languages cease to facilitate communication.

Languages are not only a means for communication among the living. The written word enables those who are no longer living to communicate with their descendents. Through writing, human beings have been able to pass down the knowledge and experiences that previous generations have gained. The impact of the written word is often taken for granted. We sometimes forget that the developments in science and technology would not have made its leaps and bounds without the ability of men to build on top of the knowledge of previous generations. Historians note that the one of the most important elements that distinguish primitive savages from a civilized community is the presence of the written word. Without written languages, we would all have to painfully relearn everything from scratch!

Because of the importance of language, it is imperative that we should begin the study of philosophy by understanding its possibilities and limitations. Language consists of sentences that are in turn consisted of words. Words are used to express our ideas that we intend to communicate to another individual. How words are formed is more than just the materialization of our ideas. Many words are in fact concepts or classes developed through philosophy. The philosopher Plato is commonly known with his idea of the ‘forms’. For Plato, if a triangle is a two dimensional shape with three sides, all shapes that are two dimensional with three sides are to be called ‘triangles’.

Plato’s theory is a form of generalization of the objects and occurrences in reality into classes or concepts that can be identified with words. These words are ‘universals’ that denote a property or attribute commonly shared by all members of its class. This is rather confusing because in reality there is no such thing as a walking and talking ‘universal’ concept. People like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are people that exist in reality. However, the universal concept of ‘man’ does not exist in the physical world. It is an idea only based on generalization and classification.

The writings of Aristotle also hold many important ideas that we can use to understand words. According to Aristotle, a good definition of a word must stand on two legs. The first leg is the universal concept that we have seen in Plato that is to put the object or occurrence in question into a class or family with all members sharing the same properties and attributes. The second leg lies in taking it out from its class of family and noting its distinct properties and attributes. Hence we can define a man as a rational animal since man requires all the living necessities of an animal while having the unique ability to think rationally.

However, no matter how well we try to define a word, our definitions will always fall short of perfection.

Like all human inventions, languages are imperfect. Every year, the dictionary would add new words that represent new terms that were previously unheard of. Translations from language to language usually adopt words taken from other languages to enhance their own respective vocabulary with words that their own languages are unable to describe. Furthermore, languages that are written and spoken have often been unable to represent their initial intended meaning. A word uttered by a person can very well mean something very different to a listener. Imperfect as it may be, languages remain to this very day the most important form of communication and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Due to its importance as a means of communication, no philosophy can do without language. In order to understand the philosophy of others and to explain our own philosophy, it is an imperative that we should master a language to its highest degree.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

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Please Proceed to the Next Meditation: Meditation XI, Paradoxos – The Philosophy of Paradoxes

Or Go Back to the Meditations Page

Comments
2 Responses to “Meditation X, Logos – The Building Blocks of Philosophy”
  1. lizii says:

    agree with much, of course. obviously words are crucial to the expression of philosophy, but what of thought? what of a different type of thought; the type that creates such wonderful philosophy as those at which we marvel? those who have created these thoughts are indeed extremely clever, for they have spelled out truths which we only recognise so fully after we see them.

    • jamesesz says:

      Words and languages are the crude form of thought..Concepts and ideas are only represented imperfectly through words..However, this remains the only way we can successfully communicate them..Maybe one day we can read each others’ mind and words won’t be necessary..

      I for one do not look forward for that day..LOL

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