Category: language



I find myself struggling to get this right, so I’ve written the following in order to think it through. I offer it here because sharing meaning is what it’s all about! 

It’s the idea of naming objects (naming sense impressions) that’s the problem. Because we can’t see into each other’s boxes/brains then when we name a sense impression we do so on our own. 

Imagine this: Sam and I are looking at a watch and I say, “Sam, that’s a watch,” and Sam says, “I agree.” So we both attach the name ‘watch’ to the sense impression inside our heads. 

Now, what we have done is EXACTLY THE SAME as both agreeing that we each have a ‘beetle’ in our matchboxes, without being able to see them, because we can’t see inside each other’s head anymore than we can see in each other’s matchbox. 

We/I struggle to grasp this because when Sam and I are both looking at the watch, when I see Sam seeing the watch, I ‘automatically’ assume he is seeing the same as me. (I’m almost certain he is, but that’s not the point here.) It’s the ‘seeing’ that misleads us. Imagine the same situation if we were both blind. Although we could both feel the watch, hear it ticking etc. I don’t think we would have anything like the same confidence that we both perceived the watch in exactly the same way. I think we would be much less likely to attach meaning to the object itself and much more likely to create that meaning in the language and behaviour that surrounded the object.

I think there’s something about ‘seeing’ that makes it very powerful in the way we understand, (that’s probably why I draw so many diagrams.) 

The ‘meaning’ of watch is not attached to the object, but is in all the things we ever say and do with the watch. 

Imagine a society, perhaps in the future, where people have developed a pretty accurate inbuilt sense of what the time is. They are a very laid back relaxed kind of people and think that the few people who are still obsessed with time and still wear watches are at best old-fashioned and at worst insane. In such a place the meaning of ‘watch’ would be quite different. Wouldn’t it? So the meaning of ‘watch’ is not attached to the object but to the language use that surrounds it. 

So the naming of sense impressions in our heads, the naming of beetles in boxes, is without meaning. We have to forget ‘naming’ sense impressions as giving meaning and see that meaning only comes about through language use.


Swimming Upstream

David Hume made some very telling comments on the problems we face in getting to grips with new ideas. In trying to explain his seemingly counter-intuitive ideas about ‘induction’ – the way we infer effects from causes, he suggested that we struggle to grasp new ideas, and quickly slip back into old ways of thinking because of the force ‘custom or habit’ on our minds. He said that we are;

inclined to behave or think in some way, not because it can be justified by reasoning or some process of the understanding but just because we have behaved or thought like that so often in the pass.

Thinking in a new way requires effort and concentration, and once we let that effort drop the old way of thinking seems to take over again. It is perhaps a bit like trying to swim against the current of a fast-flowing river: if we swim really hard we can make progress, but as soon as our work rate decreases the current quickly sweeps us back in the opposite direction. 

Whilst we are in the midst of reading and thinking about new ideas we can understand them, but once we ‘relax’, the understanding fades away. The only answer to this is to practise thinking the new ideas, so that they become ‘custom and habit’, and we build the strength of our ‘thinking muscles’.