To What Extent Does The Nature Of

Language Illuminate Our Understanding Of The
Relation Between Knowledge Of Ourselves And Knowledge Of Others? Essay, Research Paper

To What Extent Does the Nature of Language Illuminate Our Understanding of the

Relation Between Knowledge of Ourselves and Knowledge of Others?

More than any other thing, the use of language sets humankind apart from the

remainder of the animal kingdom. There is some debate as to where the actual

boundary between language and communication should be drawn, however there seems

to be no debate as to the nature of Language, which is to communicate, using

abstract symbols, the workings of one mind to one or more others with a

relatively high degree of accuracy. It could perhaps be said that we are all

capable of expressing or representing our thoughts in a manner that is only

meaningful to ourselves. Wittgenstein says that ?..a wheel that can be turned

though nothing else moves with it is not part of the mechanism.?1 The idea of

a uniquely personal language is not relevant here and so will not be discussed


Language is a system of symbols which represent thoughts, perceptions and a

multitude of other mental events. Although the meaning of a given word or

expression is by no means fixed, there is a sufficiently high degree of

consensus in most cases to ensure that our thoughts are to a great extent

communicable. This essay will concentrate on two aspects of language. Firstly

that it gives our own thoughts and those of others a certain degree of

portability and secondly that because it has a firm (though not rigid) set of

rules governing the relationships between symbols it allows what would otherwise

be internal concepts that could not be generalised, to be made explicit,

examined in detail and compared.

If we did not have language we would be able to surmise very little about other

humans around us. Non-verbal communication has evolved to instantaneously

communicate ones’ emotional state, and generally succeeds in this, however

although it can reveal what a person may be feeling at a particular time, it

says nothing about why those feelings are present and in any case is most

reliable with strong emotions such as anger, fear, disgust &c. The less intense

the emotion the more vaguely it is portrayed. If we are aware of the events

preceeding the display of emotion we may be able to attribute a cause to it, but

as psychologists Jones and Nisbett (1972) showed, these attributions are quite

likely to be inaccurate due to the predilection that humans have for attributing

behaviour to the disposition of the person being observed. In addition to all

of this, non-verbal communication is limited to observers in the immediate area

at the time of the behaviour.

In contrast to this, language allows us to group ideas and perceptions together

and compare them in order to reach a high degree of consensus about their

meaning. Wittgenstein says that ?You learned the concept ?pain’ when you

learned language.?2 The portability that language imparts to thoughts and

perceptions allows us to compare our own response to various experienced stimuli

with anothers’ report of their response to a similar event which we may or may

not have witnessed. Over time it becomes possible to discern certain trends and

so, for example, the sensation that we feel when we strike our thumbs with a

hammer, the characteristic ?pain behaviour? and such things as the anguish that

people feel at the end of a romantic liaison all become part of the general

concept of pain, even though they are all dissimilar in form (this point will

be discussed subsequently). By using language humans can vicariously partake of

the experiences of another (e.g. when one watches a play or a film or when one

listens to an account of a friends experience.) In short, language allows us

to make comparisons between our own thought processes and those of others which

in turn enables us to infer that the subjective experience of others is in many

cases similar to our own.

An important property of language is that it has rules governing the

relationships between its’ constituent parts. Some of these rules are more

rigid than others which gives the system considerable overall flexibility. For

instance, there is a great difference between saying “You are not allowed to do

it.? and ?You are allowed not to do it.”

This is a crude example but it makes the point that the meaning of an utterance

depends upon more than just the words used. In addition an utterance may be

meaningful, and grammatically valid and still be nonsense, For instance the

sentence; ?An Elephant is a fish in wellingtons? The meaning of the sentence

is perfectly clear and the rules of grammar have hopefully been obeyed, but the

sentence itself is patently untrue.

The analysis of sense and meaning is carried out using Logic, the study of

argument and inference. Logical analysis of an utterance can establish the

validity, or non-validity of any assertions that it makes. To use the oft-

quoted example; ?All men are mortal and Socrates is a man.? One may infer from

these statements that Socrates is mortal, since there is no combination of

circumstances in which they could simultaneously be true and Socrates immortal.

One major contribution that logic makes to the understanding of the difference

between ourselves and others is that it can identify assumptions that are

commonly made when speaking of others. For instance, to continue the pain

example, If one sees a person exhibiting pain behaviour one is apt to think; ?

That person is in pain.? but it is impossible for one to actually know what

they are feeling. To a greater or lesser degree one infers that the others’

actual experience mirrors ones’ own to the same degree that their behaviour does.

In the same vein, if I see my best friend slip with a screwdriver for instance,

and injure his hand, I could reasonably say that I know him to be in pain, given

that long experience has not shown any great difference between his apparent

response to injury and my own. However I could not make the same statement

about myself with any real meaning for the simple reason that my own experience

of pain transcends knowledge. In my own case it makes as much, or as little

sense to say that I doubt that I am in pain as it does to say that I know that I


Language therefore can be said to be something of a two-edged sword when

referring to an understanding of the differences between knowledge of the self

and knowledge of another. One the one hand the ability to ask questions of the

type; ?What do you mean by ……?? can allow some insight into the thought

processes underlying the behaviour of another. On the other hand an analysis of

the differences between what is actually being said when a statement is made

referring to another and the same statement made referring to oneself, can show

that ultimately ones’ knowledge of oneself and ones’ knowledge of others are two

fundamentally different things. Knowledge of self is based on priviliged

information that, in the absence of telepathic communication, is only available

to oneself. This does not mean to say that our knowledge of ourselves is either

accurate or complete. Human beings are generally highly proficient at self-

deception, nontheless a word, a sentence, a series of sentences can only be an

approximation of the thoughts behind them, likewise when words impact upon our

consciousness, they are subject to interpretation. The purpose of language is

to communicate but as Huxley says; ?By its’ very nature every embodied spirit

is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights,

fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand,

incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the

experiences themselves. From family to nation every human group is a society of

island universes.?


1) Wittgenstein. L. 1995. Philosophical Investigations. 271.

2) ibid. 384.

3) Huxley. A. 1954. The Doors of Perception. pp3-4.


Hume. D. 1985. A Treatise of human nature. Penguin.

Huxley. A. 1994. The Doors of Perception. Flamingo.

O’Hear. A. 1985. What philosophy is. Penguin.

Putnam. H. 1975. Mind Language and Reality. Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein. L. 1995. Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell.

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