Sunday, November 19, 2006

Words mean things.

Entry for Wed, 25 January, 2006

Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics. The issue is what gives words their meaning - our own mind, society as a whole, or do words have some sort of independent existence out there in platonic heaven? Interestingly, modern Jewish rabbinic thought believes that the letters and words were created before the world was, giving words (at least in Hebrew) an independent existence. As a philosopher and linguist, however, I am more inclined to lean toward social theory establishing the "definitions" of words, but personal minds invest words with "meaning."

I have seen nothing so far in my Philosophy studies so far to convince me that people don't suffer from Radical Subjectivity. In layman's terms, our mental landscape is unique to ourselves, and though we communicate as best we can using the tools we have available, no one can know exactly what I "mean" when I say something. This is especially true of concrete objects, for example a chair. Some picture of some chair just popped into your head, but the probability is extremely that the image that popped into my head is not just like yours, or even close. Same for "dog," etc., etc. We extrapolate the general characteristics of the ideas expressed by words, and use these to communicate. But our mental landscape is intensely personal and unknowable to others (except God, of course Image).

And when you are speaking or writing, you use varying degrees of precision depending upon your audience. Some of you might know this as "code switching," the idea that the words and structure that you use to speak is different for your religious grandmother than for your friends at school. There is a higher level of code-switching which as far as I know has no separate name, when you are involved with different cultural groups. If you are involved in two different cultural worlds, or more, you know that some words and concepts are ok when dealing with a specific group of friends or relatives, but not others. The idea here is that communication between cultures is especially difficult, because the very framework of thinking is different from culture to culture. Shared cultural history and experiences create a different mind set, and it's hard for two different mind-sets to communicate effectively. Even the words themselves have different "meanings."

Now translate this to the key of middle eastern relations, and you should immediately grasp the problem. What is peace? To us? To them? Not the same thing at all. And therein lies the problem. Both sides use the same word, but mean different things. And we are the ones, apparently, suffering from an inability to see this. They know they are not speaking our "language." They know when they say things the "right way," we interpret them to suit ourselves and think they are agreeing and cooperating with us. And we fail to recognize that what they have said is not what we think they have said. So much for communication.

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