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There are pretty many philosophers who talked and wrote on the philosophy of language. Usually language only means the use of words and symbols, however, I noticed that symbols may have different forms, like flags, logos, hymns, etc. There is also such a thing as body language.

This made me think that language is much wider than simply words and letters. But I thought about how do people get the "meaning" of symbols. The meaning of a sound pattern (utterances, in particular), the meaning of a flag, the meaning of a handshake, etc. So, I turned back to my associations theory.

If you hear a roar, then it very likely means there is a dangerous animal nearby. If you hear someone utters a particular sound pattern that you call your name, that very likely means the person wants you to hear them (and do something, maybe). I don't think this is a new view and I'm not the first with that theory. People say this is quite a classical thought.

But then we can say that language is not different from cognition as a whole. It is a subtype of cognition, more precisely and not merely something tied to cognition (post-modernist thought, right?). This would have huge implications on cognitive psychology and linguistics. This makes it possible to talk about cognitive games, generalizations of Wittgenstein's language-games. We also can assume that for a human it's similarly hard to change/acquire alternative ethical/cognitive habits as it's to acquire second language.

Also, it results in a difficulty of distinction between symbols and non-symbols. That is, almost anyone will say that 'A' is a symbol. Many will say that flags are symbols, because many people deem them valuable. Yet, there are dreadful symbols, like a black cat or an eclipse (and both prove that symbols are not necessary something human-made). So, it appears that people might call something a symbol because other people have irrational beliefs about them. But even the one who actually values "his" flag, also will tell that a flag is a symbol.

Yet, how can we say that a real roaring lion in front of us is not a symbol? Symbolic black cats are as real as that lion.

But are there philosophers who have similar views? Are they united under some camp? And are there some sources where I can read about that them?

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  • The strongest form of this is probably the Language-of-Thought Hypothesis, which suggests that all mental activity is linguistic in form. plato.stanford.edu/entries/language-thought – jobermark Jan 25 at 20:32
  • But what the mental content is made of has nothing to do with the difference between real, imaginary and symbolic things even if all the ones in thought are symbolic. The most basic test case for Lacan (plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan), is that the difference is the degree to which the things presume a shared world. – jobermark Jan 25 at 20:33
  • The roaring lion is something anyone can perceive (even if they must store symbolic aspects of it to do so and therefore do not perceive it identically), my internal image of the perfect lion is something only I can perceive (even if it is composed of symbolic structures, I still can't share it), and symbolic structures themselves span the whole range between these special cases, one can perceive them only by applying symbols shared by groups with independent cultures. – jobermark Jan 25 at 20:33
  • @jobermark Everyone can hear an utterance or see a flag as well. But not everyone knows what consequences it bears. That is, if you call someone a bastard, it bears some particular consquences (depending on relations with that person, of course). But I agree that language composed of words is human-made. But as I said, symbols are not necessarily human-made. And it's not truly clear what divides amanita from an eclipse. That is, effects of neither of them are perceived personally and people believe to others that eating amanita will cause problems and that an eclipse will cause problems. – rus9384 Jan 25 at 21:18
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One of the earliest authors with thoughts like you describe that come to mind is Ernst Cassirer with his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms I-III (1923-1929) and An Essay on Man (1944).

As of the "camp", it probably is (Philosophical) Hermeneutics with Heidegger and Gadamer as the ones that refined it to a specific philosophical methodology. You can read an introduction on SEP. Philosophical Anthropology (Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen) followed similar ideas with their own methodology. Charles Taylor is one of the more contemporary authors that pursued philosophy in this direction.

All of these authors have in common that they consider language as only one possible symbolic structure, albeit the example par excellence. Painting with a broad brush, they also share the thought that the specifically human mode of cognition is the culturally mediated and nevertheless to some extent spontaneous interpretation of symbolic structures since their subjectivity itself stands in a symbolic (i.e. triangular) structure to the empirical self and the world (although probably not all of them would subscribe to this description).

In this sense, language simply is the example par excellence (but other than that, not special) because it is an epitome of abstract symbolism in complete and purposeful agreement with our mode of cognition. Still, there are other symbolic forms that work the same way.

  • Certainly, there are some similarities. Symbols are human creations. But learning symbols entails no different processes than learning anything else, that is one of the points. And that people get offended if I wash a toilet by a flag only because they think, that if they won't say anything against me, they themselves are in danger. Because they learned that if you don't defend 'flag' (as a symbol, not any particular flag), then you are to be punished. Compare that to a roar: if you hear it, you flee. – rus9384 Jan 25 at 11:51
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    @rus9384: I think you should be careful to distinguish instinctive behaviour and our (supervening) cognition of them. Yes, we can represent everything symbolically, but there are forms of behaviour that are not right inherently cognitively mediated or meaningful (even if we can understand them as such), they just are. – Philip Klöcking Jan 25 at 11:56
  • If you are not familiar with a roar, you don't flee. If you don't know the language, you don't respond meaningfully. Isn't that similar? Learning first language is not much different than directly (through experience) learning anything else. It is just an induction at first. I don't argue, there are instincts. But the one who is unfamiliar with the notion of a flag hardly will be offended by that. Cognition is not what we are aware of, at major part of it. Most of learning happens on unconscious level. We just notice that X often yields Y, and create a cognitive rule 'X -> Y'. – rus9384 Jan 25 at 12:08
  • @rus9384: This broadly Humean picture is too simplistic IMHO. Perhaps you should clarify what you deem "cognition", since most 20th century (and earlier) philosophers would actually say that cognition begins with symbolically mediated understanding. Of course, language is nothing more or less learned as a behavioural pattern than, say, reacting to nudity with shame. But the latter can hardly be considered a cognitive act, can it? Just one nitpick: Anxiety in the face of a deep roar is instinctive, regardless of your understanding of their being a huge predator nearby. – Philip Klöcking Jan 25 at 12:28
  • Well, for some reason I got used to 'cognition' as "gathering and interpreting information" in general. Maybe just because most texts where I saw it presupposed that meaning. Or it feeled more intuitive to understand it that way in those texts. The problem with "symbolically mediated understanding" is to divide symbols from non-symbols. And the whole my position is that it's impossible, just like you can't tell me where is a border between red and green in a rainbow. A shameful reaction is not the act of "gathering and interpreting information", but a result of that process. Same for a speech. – rus9384 Jan 25 at 12:41

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