The Role Of Language Essay, Research Paper
The Role of Language
Can contemporary discourse presume a community of interest? In order to answer this question, one is forced to first answer the question, can language be used to reveal anything new? If the answer is yes, then how can it do this and how can we employ it to do this for us. Also, one is forced to ask what is it exactly that we are looking for? Once we ve found it, how can we use it to improve our present condition? Plato and Descartes both believe that language can indeed improve our conditions through it s revelation, and both give methods to attain new knowledge. Although vastly differing, in that Descartes builds knowledge from the ground up, while Plato works from a distorted view, and seeks to clarify it, their philosophies mean the most, and have the highest practical purpose when they are employed together. By basing a Socratic argument on Descartes pre-established truths, one can attain undoubtable new knowledge. This knowledge can, and will improve society. The reason it will do this is explainable by looking at the tendency that man has to correct himself once he knows in certitude that he has been mistaken in his actions. Any enlightened individual who has, in the past, made mistakes due to their own ignorance, would, upon learning the error of their ways, not return into err, but use the knowledge to correct their previous mistake. So it is with society. Once we find out where we are in err, it would be ignorant of us not to correct ourselves. Before we can look at finding knowledge, however, we must first look at how we should properly use language.
Socrates and Plato see language mainly as the mechanism to provide truth and knowledge. In engaging in argument, Socrates is given a definition of a word such as courage, justice or piety. Then, rather than giving his own definition in retort, he offers a situation in which the given definition is incorrect and then challenges his opponents to find something which is common to all courageous, just or pious acts. The commonality in things is the goal that Plato and Socrates are striving for. What makes things, like just acts, the same even though they all differ in some way? What is it that all separate just acts have in common so that they are recognizable as just acts? Knowledge is to know what isn t evident in the object or action, but to know what it is that makes all objects and actions of the sort be what they are, despite all of their internal differences. For Plato and Socrates, one can attain this knowledge only through proper language use. In Plato s most recognized work, the Republic, his cave analogy describes a prisoner who has spent all of his life in bondage looking at nothing but shadow puppets on the back of a cave wall. For him, all, which he believes to be true, are the actions and reactions of the shadow puppets. His entire reality is essentially a shrouded image of the truth. Somehow it comes to pass that the prisoner is released from bondage and, for the first time, stands up, exits the cave and sees the light of the sun. The prisoner will gaze on his body and on all things in the suns light and for the first time see the truth of what actually is and realize the falsities with which he has lived for all of his life. In a sense, Plato is using the sun as a metaphor for the focusing lense provided by dialectic. In the prisoner s case, the sunlight provided the ability to see the incompleteness of his reality. For Plato and Socrates, language enables us to see the incompleteness of our own way of thinking and provides a means with which to fill in the blanks or see things in their completeness. Socrates devised a method of argumentation, now called the Socratic method, in which he uses language in argument to enhance and expound upon a given definition, and then to amplify and refine what is said until all parties understand and agree.
Language, in Protagoras view, is nothing more than a tool of power, capable of creating civilizations and controlling them, and he is partially right. According to Protagoras, man is the measure of all things. That they are that they are. That they aren t that they aren t. What he means by this is that what we say makes what is be what it is. For Protagoras, to bring something into words is to bring it into being. He brings forth the point that were it not for language, a civilization would not be possible. Had humans lacked the skills necessary for interpersonal communication, each man would live like animals, barely able to provide for himself all the necessities for survival. According to Thomas Hobbes, language is used, to describe the world, but also to convey attitudes, as well as make promises and contracts. When humans come together in large groups, contracts and laws must be made to maintain the well being of the population. The making of contracts is simply to ensure that each citizen in the state uphold their promise to contribute, in a meaningful way, to the provision of the needs of the state as a fully integrated whole. It is easy for us to think of an idealistic, self-providing utopia, where everyone is trusting and trustworthy. Human nature, however, is animal like and we as humans cannot function together in a society with a great number of people, because, as we know from our own past experience, man has been known to be deceitful, untrustworthy, malicious, benevolent, and sometimes violent. This being the case, lawmakers and law-enforcers must be put into place to uphold the laws and contracts, thereby upholding the ideals and well being of the fully integrated community. Of course, Plato and Socrates both knew this, as is evident in the Republic when Plato establishes a separation of state based on those who make, enforce and obey the laws. In fact, Socrates and Plato shared the view that it was this separation of things that enabled them to exist at all. Any object or thing in general is made up of parts. In order for an object to exist, its separate parts must function individually, while at the same time, contributing to the whole by providing for some of the needs of the other individual parts. Similarly, if the individuals in a state did not distinguish themselves from the other individuals, then, not only would those people cease to be productive members of the community, but the state would also weaken as a result. For example, take a farmer who has decided to take on the duties of a lawmaker. While occupying these two occupations, he may be forced to make choices in which the only two options available to him are beneficial to only one of his professions and detrimental to the other, like the taxing of produce exports. When one is forced to choose between two choices, both of which harm him in some way, he is essentially destroying himself. Another example is the separate parts of a chair. If the legs, back and seat of a chair were not separately maintaining their individuality, they would no longer be contributing to the chairness of the chair and it would, therefore, cease to be. Plato believes that the state, just as anything, can only be known, that is, its function or purpose can only be known so long as we understand the commonality of its parts. To clarify, if we are to know the goals of a state, we must understand what each element of the state share in common. Just like if we are to understand what justice is, we must understand what it is that all just acts have in common. To repeat myself, Socrates believes that the only way to do this is in proper language use via the Socratic method. In the case of the Republic, however, Socrates never does learn the true definition of justice, and this only strengthens his view that there is something, which we cannot see, which will, upon realization, illuminate the true definition of things.
Rene Descartes, a renowned philosopher of the 16th century was the first philosopher to offer a solution to the problem which Plato and Socrates encountered in their search for the truth. Descartes realized that if one is to arrive at a truthful conclusion in any argument, that argument must begin with a truthful premise and have all other premises flow, in a logical order, from that truth. Socrates and Plato could never find truth in their search because they always began their arguments with a false premise, and using language and logic, could, at best, only prove it incorrect. After Socrates death, Aristotle, a pupil of Plato s, approached Plato with rules of argument, later called Aristotelian Logic, however Plato rejected these rules, possibly due to the notion that discovering truth by basing an argument on a pre-established truth has a circularity to it, since, how can you know that you have a truth to begin with? It was Rene Decartes who saw this lack of a beginning point as a major flaw in the method of philosophy and theology of and prior to his time. He saw that in all of the philosophical and theological teachings in the entirety of the institution, there was no truth with which to build a solid and truthful argument upon. It was for this reason that Descartes dedicates his Meditations on First Philosophy To those Most Wise and Distinguished Men, The Deans and Doctors of the Sacred Theology of Paris. Descartes saw a necessity to appeal to those influential men because the institution lacked in completeness. Descartes insisted that there was a key element, which was instrumental to the stability of the institution. He saw that the institution, in all of its teachings, lacked the one thing, which made those teachings matter. It lacked that which, without it, would have destroyed itself. Descartes saw that the institution lacked basic truth. It lacked a truthful starting point with which to continue all other arguments. Thus Descartes reason for writing the Meditations was to offer to the institution a truth which cannot be denied, and from this truth stems a secure and lasting faith in the certainty of science and mathematics.
In the Meditations on First Philosophy Descartes begins by explaining how, through his life, he has come to realize how many false opinions he has accepted as true. Descartes realizes, as Socrates and Plato did, that to find the truth he must begin anew, tearing down all which he now thinks he knows, and start over by accepting only those thoughts and ideas which are in no way able to be brought into doubt. Realizing the enormity of this task, reason dictates to him that not all of his ideas individually need inspection, but rather, grouping his ideas in the ways which they come to him, and finding reason whether or not to doubt the group will reduce the complexity of the task. He begins by examining all those ideas brought to him by the senses and immediately finds doubt in them in the fact that on many occasions has he been deceived by what they revealed to him. Then he finds doubt in the science of mathematics based on his evil demon hypothesis. He comes to the realization that all of his ideas can in some way or another possibly be false and so he proceeds to formulate an idea which cannot be doubted under even the toughest scrutiny. As to escape from the deceptive nature of the senses, Descartes withdraws himself from them and establishes the freedom of pure thought. In doing this, he also realizes that under no circumstance is it false that he does not exist, for, even when deprived of the senses, his faculty of thought remains. Therefore, so long as he is thinking, he exists, and at no time will he cease to exist so long as he is thinking, With that, Rene Descartes establishes the cogito principal cogito ergo sum, Latin for, I think therefore I am. This principal, as he saw it, was the missing foundational element in the institution of philosophy. It established a truth, which cannot be denied and also provided a starting point in an argument with which one could come to a truthful conclusion. Descartes gave meaning to the argument process which Socrates initiated two thousand years prior. To extend an earlier metaphor, Descartes focused the dialectical lens so that it could correctly illuminate the truth.
Language has, from as long as it has existed, had very persuasive capabilities, as the Sophists knew all too well. In the modern day, it is television, the media, the politicians, the educators, the religions and the Internet that are serving the role of knowledge distribution. I say distribution because in this high speed, fast food, fast answer day and age that we live in, knowledge is becoming something you are handed, rather than something you search for. In TV commercials, the persuasive power of language is being used to let the public know what fashion designer they should buy from, and what beer they should drink. The politicians use television to tell the public what is in their best interest. The educators and the religions are telling us what to think and how to act. It seems that nobody is thinking for himself or herself anymore. Is it that we are all too busy to do the one thing that really set us apart from the animals+ thinking? If this is the case, why are we content to live like this? As the utilitarian John Stuart Mill states, It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. I believe no one would care to argue this point. Since we are contented with our lot in life and do not care to search for truth but rather have it handed to us for the cost of an education, cable bill and Internet connection per month, are we not the fools who are content while the enlightened few, the philosophers and all those others who think for themselves, remain discontented with our situation. As Plato and Socrates would certainly suggest, language use is essential if we are to have some idea of a means to achieving our goal as humans in society. It is quite evident now that language is indeed a powerful tool and can be used for reasons of knowledge and for reasons of power. It is also quite obvious that today only a small number of the population use their own heads to think and leave the power solely to the modern institutions of knowledge distribution . By using Aristotelian Logic, arguments can be used to produce truths, so long as the premises are true, and Descartes has provided this foundational truth. Using argument, talking to each other, one can find the commonality in all things, and discover what our own commonalties are as human beings and as elements in the state.