28 May 2007

The Problem with Communication and Language

We are the only beings on the planet (that we know of...) that can communicate in abstract thought. Language and thought are entwined inseparably from each other.

Language forms our thoughts into complex patters of communication in order to not only share with others, but process these thoughts to ourselves.

And yet, like any complex organism, language is an inexact science full of problems.

Recently, philosophers and linguists are beginning to see the framework of language differently than they have in the past. Not so coincidentally, it parallels the transition from modernity to postmodernity.


Modernity uses what is sometimes called the "Fido" theory to study language. In this straightforward approach, a simple example might be when one is teaching a toddler about language, one would point to a truck and say truck. This is a simple yet effective way to learn language. It's the way we learn on a very basic level. I show my youngest daughter a red blanket and say, "Red blanket." She says, "Red Blenki.."

With Fido theory, we begin to structure our words around what is similar. Other blankets take on the quality of a blanket and we begin to identify it as such.

This gets a bit more complicated when we begin to define words like, "ouch", "God", or "Justice".

Fido is however constant. We may re-evaluate what is "justice" but the meaning of "justice" remains the same.

Conceptual Scheme

A new theory that has emerged is much more integrated and relational. In this theory, Conceptual Scheme, defines the meaning of something by how it relates to other things. For example, we know Garfield is a cat and not a dog, or a pigeon, or your favorite pillow.

This seems a bit silly at first, but when we pick words like "Intelligence" we can see the difference. In Fido theory the problem arises when we try and determine what constitutes "Intelligence". A brilliant brain surgeon might not be able to balance his/her check book or change a flat-tire. So is this person intelligent or not?

Fido does not address themes like social status, salary, relationships, etc, and more problems arise when addressing more abstract issues like the ones mentioned above.

If I've lost you, think of it this way.

You are looking at a Rook on a chess board. Fido theory would explain the rook as a castle looking object about 2" high made of wood. In no way does it address the Rooks meaning in relationship to the other pieces, or the game as a whole.

Conceptual Scheme would not only explain the Rooks' place within the game and the rules of the game, it also leaves the idea that you can even create a new game with the rook that might in no way resemble chess.

Modernity into Postmodernity

To conclude, think of the ramifications of this. On one level we can get much deeper definitions of the words we use, but we also can get endless definitions. In modernity, rational thought was said to be the eventual utopia of society.

We see that this has failed.

Postmodernity now attempts to define our complex world through relationship and experience (is not moving a Rook around the board an experience?). This means words become more fluid and language possibly less precise.

Even science - the 'god' of rational thought now tends to acknowledge this. Quantum physics, black holes, chaos theory, multiple universes, the nature of light, etc. We are all beginning to understand that the Universe in which we live is much more complicated than previously thought.

Language is following suit, as it must do. As it does, it influences the new ways in which we think, which in turn again, influences our language...and the circle continues.

We are in the middle of a great cosmic shift in redefining culture and language. No one is clear where we will end up, but one thing is sure; Fido is in the dog house and a new theory has taken over the backyard.