I was reading a critique of Daniel Dennett's 'From Bacteria to Bach and Back', and in this criticism it is alleged that Dennett's conception of words as object descriptions is false. The suggestion made instead is that words express feelings which link to experiences. This is part of a criticism against Dennett's idea that brains are computers. I will quote the example used, though I am not sure if it is novel.

Notice how quickly this ‘saying what you feel’ mechanism becomes conversation: if you walk into a stranger’s living room, point at a chair and exclaim ‘Chair!’ then you are a bit of a dumbass, but if you do the same and exclaim ‘I love this chair!’ then we are well on the way to regular brunch dates.

Who first created this distinction of words as expressions of emotion instead of functional description? Does this have a name? When was it first published?

  • IMO, it is hard to find the origin regarding words. But see Jakobson's functions of Language for modern point of view about the different ways (six) that natural Language "works". Sep 27, 2019 at 11:44
  • Linked In is not exactly a philosophical journal, and I would not call this particular post a "critique". Aside from not understanding the meaning of "duality" and "Darwinian", the author objects to the purpose of minds being manipulating information because... "our words, for example, evolved to serve our more primitive drives". Well, sure, and our ears evolved to serve them too, but that does not mean that it is not their purpose to receive acoustic signals. And for emotions to serve evolutionary ends, they'd have to reflect what they are reactions to, i.e. convey a description.
    – Conifold
    Sep 27, 2019 at 18:06

4 Answers 4


Skimming though that link, I'm not at all certain that idea is tied to a particular school of thought. This is critical book review, and reviewers often speak from loose conceptual structures rather than tight analytical positions. The idea Shackleton-Jones is trying to get across is that Dennett's description of 'words' is both inaccurate and hypocritical: that Dennett is using the idea that words are object descriptions as part of an emotional (rather than analytical) attack on other positions. There's merit in that critique — I'm not a fan of Dennett, and I think this is largely true — but it may not pay to dig too deeply into it. As Shackleton-Jones says in his very last line: "I can see another path but, alas, it will be for someone else to explore it fully"; that implies this piece is not meant to be fully rigorous.

Part of the problem, I think, is that S-J is using the loaded colloquial term 'emotion', which isn't strictly correct in this context either, and tends to lead the mind astray. If you want a more analytical approach to this, you might go back to George Herbert Mead's social psychology (and particularly the way Habermas uses it in the "Theory of Communicative Action"). For Mead, the root of language is not emotions, but what he calls attitudes. Attitudes in this sense are the kind of organic postural relationships living creatures take towards each other: e.g., the way a dog might instinctively crouch down to show submission to another dog, or the way that human beings subconsciously change their physical posture when they feel attraction toward another (standing taller, sucking in the stomach, pushing out the chest). In humans — for Mead — these innate organic relations between creatures transform into gestures (conscious physical signaling, like pointing or raising a fist), gestures develop a vocal component (the way a young child will both point and say a single word, like 'dog'), and the physical gesture component is replaced by word-structures (grammar and syntax) that do the job of signaling entirely in sound. Emotions are part of attitudes, because at the level of attitudes expression is still organic and holistic, but they are not the totality of it.


The critique by Nick Shackleton-Jones is on Dennetts dogmatic rationalism. At one point he writes:

Dennett actually says of Intuition Pumps: ‘when you read what I write, you download a new app to your necktop’. Really? And how did that work out? You might think I am being a little harsh on Dennett who, as far as one can tell, is a decent chap – but it precisely this kind of rationalist claptrap that has made possible a global regime of torture, encompassing billions of people, in which they are expected to behave like computers, ‘inscribing’ knowledge and algorithms into their brains as if they were automatons [emphasis added].

And he writes this as some-one who was once quite keen as on Dennett to forestall any argument that this is merely a hatchet job. The notion of words acting primarily as carriers of emotion was already implicit in Plato/Socrates which is one reason why he rebuked tragedy for leading people astray by seducing them with emotion. It's not emotion per se that Plato was against but its overuse, especially in darkening and hence weakening the soul.

This critique was sufficiently well-regarded then that Euripides pioneered a more intellectual form of drama that involved the play of ideas - primarily on justice and governance (in fact, in the last century, the Marxist dramatist, Brecht, was taken by the same critique and pioneered a set of techniques to snap spectators out of the frame of the drama into the real world).


Wittgenstein already sees the positivistic notion of 'words as object descriptions' as false. But he would probably not make the leap automatically from subjectivity to emotion. (There is a lot of space in between.)

Words are moves in a game, and the collaborators determine the rules by participating. Those rules go way beyond description, and even when they intend to be sheerly descriptive, they do more. They have connotations that carry impressions. So the choice of words, inflection, etc really carry information about the speaker in addition to the topic. It is the intention of the speaker to have an effect upon the hearer that is the real meaning, even if he is doing so through description of the environment. We attach the meaning to the usage because the group needs that usage, but most of the things we need to refer to are not about objects, including many nouns, e.g. 'love' and 'struggle'. These are actually concepts that affect us before notions like 'chair', and they form the basis for our usage to a greater extent than object references.

But this is implicit even before the notion of language games is introduced. It is clear that words like 'quickly' don't describe any objects, and that they are subjective expressions of an impression -- though not necessarily an emotional one in ordinary terms. Even for the younger Wittgenstein, shared impressions that resonate meaningfully form a 'picture' in composite, and that is what the word really refers to, not directly to any object.

When the referent is less full of subjective information, words may appear to refer to objects. But like Plato's forms, the 'picture' only participates in the environment, and it contains the real meaning. It refers to generalities instead of the single object, and its purpose is to convey an impression, even if that impression is a very down-to-earth one.

That impressions are basically complexes of emotion and experiences is more of an extrapolation, and a bit of an overstatement. But they are 'intersubjective' -- subjective data refined by exposure to others' similar subjective data. They never manage to just describe objects. Doing just that, without also conveying personal impressions, should be easier than doing something more, if it is in their nature of words to be object descriptions.

Clearly some large part of our impressions are sensory. But they remain our subjectively embedded, personal experiences of the sensory world. We grow into adult objectivity by 'cleaning them up', and we would not need to do so if they were 'objective' by nature.


About first I dont know

Here are some Roland Barthes quotes in the direction you seek though not literally

  1. I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me

  2. Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire

  3. Language is never innocent

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