Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Nature of Language

An acquaintance expressed some frustration that a girl he knows identifies herself as a lesbian while pursuing romantic relationships with men.  This made me think, and my first thoughts are on this page.

From my perspective, language is demonstrative. It points at something: sometimes it points badly (in a way that other people have real difficulty following). If you use language too cryptically, I am left in the dark when it comes to seeing your meaning out there the real world as I experience it. You say words like 'lesbian' and I am not sure that you mean what I would mean if I used those words. I sit back and wait for more data from you (language or behavior) before deciding what you are getting at.

There is an interesting problem here: sometimes, especially when dealing with complex phenomena (like sexuality or the economy), we have a tendency to oversimplify. Words are part of that oversimplification. We use them to refer in a general way to specific circumstances that we are familiar with. Thus, one person says 'lesbian' when she means to say something like 'woman attracted to women but also to certain men, i.e. a woman like me.' Maybe for her the point is that she is not entirely straight, and 'lesbian' is the first word that comes to her mind when she wants to put a tag on that. If you listen to her carefully, notice how she uses the word (e.g. what contexts call it forth from her), and avoid projecting your own idea of lesbianism into her idea of lesbianism, then you can understand her (well enough not to be completely clueless every time she speaks about her lesbianism). 

But there is this thing out there known as logic, a thing which maintains such unnatural (and in complex contexts, frankly absurd) idea that A ('lesbian') cannot be not-A ('likes sex with men'). 'Free market' cannot be 'protectionist racket.' 'Too big to fail' cannot be 'too big not to fail.' And so on. Since antiquity, there have been people who thought that words were more real than other phenomena -- that words allow us to deal directly with pure truth, unclouded by pesky empirical data (which is full of logical fallacies and paradoxes, unlike the perfect world academics have historically imagined -- a world in which A is never not-A).  The great power of words is that they generalize, making individual experiences shareable across time and space.  This is also their great weakness, especially when they are used to generalize a particular experience that many people have never had (e.g. being a lesbian the way my friend's acquaintance is) -- and one word is used all by itself to define that experience for everyone, everywhere (logically, A is never not-A anywhere, so we should be able to invoke it as the same thing anywhere, in any context -- people who see problems with this are just fools attracted to 'nuance,' 'paradox,' 'ambiguity,' and other namby-pamby 'unscientific' and illogical things).

But reality is beyond concepts. Things like lesbianism, capitalism, and such resist reduction to simple formula. These words point: they don't define. In the real world, people aren't either homosexual or heterosexual: we exist on a spectrum. And capitalism isn't either the best thing that ever happened to society or the worst: human social behavior, like human sexual behavior, exists on a spectrum. As long as we use language to point at material stuff that historically resists reduction to real dichotomy (good/evil, positive/negative, up/down, gay/straight, A/not-A), we are speaking descriptively, not definitively (unless we want to join the prophets who speak as morons -- prophets who exist in and out of the LDS church). We need to realize the artificiality of our language: it is emphatically not prior to the phenomena that call it forth. Reality is bigger than our reductive efforts to define it (historically: maybe one day, God will come down to earth in the form of a great scientist and give us words that define all things perfectly; it is a cool thought, and I really doubt it). 

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