The task before us is to discover and to discuss some of the intricacies of "language" and to determine their role in human relations.
      We do not commonly believe "language" to be a complex concept.
      However, it constitutes much more than the tongues of the world.
      The following also function as language: a pistol shot, a flag, a wink of an eye, a blush, music, numbers, material objects, actions, rituals, laws, and customs.
      A study of language involves an analysis of "communication," symbols of the most diverse kinds, their referents, symbols without physical referents and, inferences.
History shows that man's concepts of language have run the gamut of possible meanings.
      Many of us concern ourselves with what language should be -- prescriptive definition; others with what it appears to be in man's behavior -- descriptive or demonstrative definition.
      Our concern is not with what men say language is, but with man's behavior and responses which demonstrate what he thinkingly and unthinkingly accepts and uses as language.
      As George Orwell dramatically emphasized in his book, 1984: to the degree that man manipulates language, to that degree language is a regulative device in our thinking.
      Language is, then, a function of man (and probably some non-human forms of life) in which he relates and GIVES meaning to symbol, referent, and inference.
      In other words, nothing (be it word or object) has meaning in and of itself.
      Meaning "exists" only in "minds."
No one has doubts as to the many languages on earth.
      Usually, however, this means, to most people, an awareness of such national languages as English, German, Italian, and French.
      This hardly scratches the surface of the complex uses and levels of language.

Consider this none exhaustive list of uses and "levels" of language:
     scientific, mathematical, psychological, ethnic, supernatural,
     paranormal, religious, theistic, philosophical, ordinary, simple,
      technical, muddled, silent, ceremonial, expressive,  objectionable,
     objective, connotative, metaphorical, poetic, political, regulative,
     clear, critical, analytical, logical, national, cultural, ideational,
     childish, aesthetic, behavioral, ethical, moral, hypothetical, etc.
     Emotional: fear, hate, love, anger, jealousy, sarcasm. 

Strictly speaking, every time we use the symbols of language, they refer, not to a physical world but, to the "CONTENT" OF OUR MINDS.

EXPERIENCES of an assumed external physical world.
      Knowledge of that world is constituted only of present experiences of past events and the conclusions we draw from them.
Merely blindly accepted beliefs,
      Synthetic statements (about the "directly" or indirectly observable world).
      Supported by direct or indirect evidence.
      Events and facts predictably able to occur repeatedly.
      For which there can be NO evidence.
      Theistic claims: An incorporeal, unknowable, unverifiable god exists.
      I like ham and eggs better than anything.  ("Anything" includes ham and eggs.)
      The universe is expanding twice its size every second.  (The measuring device, being part of the universe, is expanding twice its size also.)
      Analytic statements in which the predicate repeats the subject.
      Truth by definition: Axioms, "a straight line is the shortest distance between two points."

Below is an excerpt (revised) from CRITICAL ANALYSIS: LANGUAGE AND ITS FUNCTIONS, Sebastian Publishing Co. (Copyright 1966), 1986 edition.

Strictly speaking, there is no such THING as language; there is only what we may call languagING; i.e., language is a FUNCTION.  Languaging is that total configuration of activities which we call "giving meaning": symbolizing (creating or selecting "symbols" to "point" to something); referring ("attaching" the meaning, given to the symbol, to something, i.e., the referent); inferring (deducing meaningful conclusions called "inferences").

Our haphazard use or abuse of words in particular, and language in general, and our unawareness of the complexities of the latter, have doomed us to remain floundering, incompatible human beings, incapable of solving our most basic problems.
      Because of a lack of understanding and harmony, we approach a degree of animal existence, periodically giving vent to savage impulses.
      However, we differ radically from the lower animals in some major respects.
      We need mention only a few.
       Man is aware of his awareness much of the time.
     According to available evidence, lower animals are aware but (with rare exceptions are) not aware of their awareness.
     Man creates complex symbols,
      lower animals do not.
      Man creates complex language systems,
      lower animals do not.
Thus, to the degree that a human being is not aware of language and its relation to his environment, to that degree he approaches the intelligence level of the lower animals.
      Furthermore, to the degree that man is able, through an intelligent and rational use of language, to pool his knowledge, to that degree he becomes successful in lifting himself from the status of mere animals to that of a society, a culture, a civilization.


Symbols, Referents, and Inferences


Strictly speaking, nothing is inherently a symbol, a referent, or an inference.  They do not exist outside of the "mind" however much we refer to them as "things," "words," etc.  Anything can SERVE as a focus for those acts of mind which we call "symbolizing," "referring," and "inferring."  When something is not so serving because no mind is present, it cannot validly be called a "symbol," a "referent," or an "inference."  Furthermore, in the presence of different minds, what is a symbol to one often is a referent to another, and an inference to a third.


      Anything: word, sound, object, thing, motion, act, a look, expression, pistol shot -- whatever -- (none of which is INHERENTLY a symbol).  Each can function as a focal point for that symbolizing act of mind pointing to, indicating, or naming some REFERENT on some particular level of language.  Likewise:
Our failure to find solutions to many of the problems that plague us in Philosophy and perhaps to realize that some problems may have no solutions are caused by our lack of a clear understanding of what constitutes a referent.
      So long as we insist upon giving referents an ontological status, solutions will not be forthcoming.
      Those same "things" used as focal points for symbolizing can serve also as focal points for those acts of mind that determine them to be "referents," i.e., objects, meanings, intentions, whatever the symbol is "pointing" to or one is intending to have attention drawn to.
These can be subsumed under four basic kinds of referents:
      1. the assumed physical world that we can never experience, Kant's ding-an-sich, i.e., the thing-in-itself. (All we have are our perceptions and conceptions of the presumed thing-in-itself.),
      2. our perceptions,
      3. our conceptions,
      4. our memories (including our dreams).
These four in turn can be reduced to:
      ding-an-sich: (noumena),
      to the world of our experiences (phenomena).

The Diversity of Referents

Referents are dynamic in character.
      "A" referent is as much a process as is any physical object in the universe, ever changing while each symbol "points" to it from one nano-second to another.
      Only in our concepts do we particularize referents.
      Moreover, there are different referents for different people in different contexts at different times.
      When we have "idea-referents," whether they be in reference to concepts, such as laws, courage, bravery, or "idea-referents" in imagination or in memory, or "idea-referents" in value judgments, or "idea-referents" in mathematics, we must not infer that because such "idea-referents" really "exist" that there are necessarily physical existents or some kind of physical reality beyond the "idea-referents" themselves.
     Conclusion, judgment, guess, opinion, etc., drawn from the uses of symbols and referents in thought or argument.
      We must, consequently, be careful never to confuse our personal, unverifiable belief claims, i.e., experiences that may have no existential foundation, with claims that can be verified to be directly or indirectly accessible to the sense faculties of the peoples of the world.  

                                                     In Broader Scope  



                                                                     /    \                                                     

                                                                   /        \

                                                              3 /_>_      \  No physical referent

                                 Meta-language-- 2 /_>___<_  \  Language about language

                                           Symbol-- 1 /__>___>__\  Referent (See 3 above.)


            1. How a referent is to be recognized requires that the level of language should be clearly evident.  In conventional usage (i.e., “level” of language), there is nothing complex about it: a referent is whatever, i.e., a thing, thought, or concept, is meant (intended) when using a symbol. 

2. In reality, however, symbols, referents, and inferences do not exist except as acts of “mind,” i.e., functions of the brain.  Just as no word has an inherent meaning, nothing is inherently a symbol, referent, or inference.  

What in fact is happening is that the mind is symbolizing, referring, or inferring (three verbs) when it is focusing on something.  Unconsciously we delete the ing thereby changing the verbs to nouns, i.e., names for what the mind is focusing on.  Then, again unconsciously, we conflate the act of focusing with the object of the focusing, i.e., we make a mental elevation to the level of conventional usage, number 1 above, and call the focus of attention, “the referent.” 

Analogously, just as we neglect to distinguish the name of a thing from the thing, we also forget that the act of focusing, the mental act of referring, is not the thing being referred to.  Nothing in reality may be conventionally considered to be a referent unless the mind is in fact referring to it instead of symbolizing.

For instance, if two people come across a sleek modern desk in the middle of the desert, and person 1 focuses on the object as a desk, conventionally the symbol is the word, “desk,” and the desk is the referent. If at the "identical" moment, person 2 focuses on it as a symbol of civilization, conventionally the symbol is the physical desk and the referent is the idea, civilization.  Hence, conventionally the object being focused upon "is" a symbol, and a referent at the "same moment."  In fact, in a level of language referring to a reality beyond our perceptions, it is neither.     

            3. The referent, a perception/conception of a person or of anything, (See 5 below) which really is all any of us has, is not the same referent as that held by someone else or of “the person or anything.”  Your perception is “caused” by Immanuel Kant’s “ding an sich,” i.e., the “thing in itself,” assumed to exist beyond our perceptions.

            4.  On the level of perception, even if conceptually you do not think so, referents are dynamic in character changing from nano second to nano second perceptually (and conceptually, see 5 below).  As Plato taught us, today, you, the student are a far cry from what you were at the date of birth (changing nano second to nano second with every physical change, new experience, knowledge, belief, whatever) and from what you will be (as a parent, husband, wife, mother, father, teacher, politician, scientist, psychologist, whatever), never being the same person from nano second to nano second even if you retain the same name, qualities, and characteristics of younger days and seemingly the same appearance.  

            You are after all, shorter at the end of the day thanks to the “pull” of gravity, than when you woke up in the morning.  And according to Einstein, because of time dilation, i.e., time slows down as you accelerate, and speeds up as you decelerate, you are fatter or thinner, shorter or taller as you move on earth, or through the vastness of the universe, along with the earth.

            5.  Now we must realize that everything we experience is a combination of perceptual and conceptual construction—the perceptual/conceptual level. When you see the professor at the head of the room, no two of you perceive him the same way, nor do you see the professor the same way as he moves around the room turning his back or side to you or according to your eyesight or how the light reflects from him. 

            Mentally, all of us ignore these different experiences.  We conceive all physical things as a unit of one, singleness, sameness, or wholeness.  When the professor’s back is turned to you, as he is writing on the blackboard, you conceptualize him as having a “front.”  However he may move, you construct, from memory or as you conceive him, that part of him that you are not perceiving.  

            But more complex than that, though you think you are perceiving the whole person at a given moment of time, you are in fact constructing him from an almost “infinite number” of rays of light reflecting from the parts of him you are perceiving at different times depending on what parts of his body are nearest to or farthest from you. 

            Think of it in astronomical terms.  When you look at a “star” or “nebula,” i.e., the light being issued from it, millions of light years away from earth, you are looking into the distant past at what looks, to the naked eye, to be a flat surface object.  However, every celestial object as observed is constructed of an “infinite number” of past moments.  Since a nebula, for instance, is extremely large, one light year (6 trillion miles) in diameter, there are parts of it considerably farther away than is the front of it.  Hence, the light issued from the side of it, and also its past history, reaches your eye much later than does the light and past history from the front point of it.  

            On our personal levels of “reality,” the same “laws” of the universe obtain though they are not perceptible to our limited sensitivities.  Consequently all knowledge is a present experience of a complex of past events. 

            6. On the Meta-language level, the language is not about things or concepts.  It is about the meanings we attribute to linguistic symbols and referents, whether those symbols are written or spoken words, actions, signs, manner of dress, or whatever is intended to convey a message. 

             For instance, the sound of a word will refer only to the written version of it, and vice versa the written word, not to the thing being named.  If someone utters the words, “God is spirit,” someone else may ask, “What do you mean by, “spirit?”  More words will be uttered to “explain” the use of the term, ‘spirit.’

             On the meta-language level one is not talking about a god or a spirit but instead is talking about the meaning being attributed to the symbol or symbols.  If one confuses the word with what the word is naming, he is guilty of changing the subject.  If one says “I mean” and then goes on to use unfalsifiable language in explaining what one means, it is an instance of the “Dog chasing his tail,” or as you may already have studied, the fallacy of Begging the question.


      ceremonies, (rituals, greetings, tradition).
      venting (not "expressing") emotions.
      instilling a sense of beauty or art.
      to persuade one to act in a particular way, inducing action.
LITERAL and INDUCTIVELY LOGICAL: leading to factually probable conclusions as opposed to DEDUCTIVELY LOGICAL: leading to necessary non-factual and (when the premises are true) necessary probable factual conclusions--because all claims to knowledge are only PROBABLY true.
      Conveying information, facts, and data in unemotional, neutral, objective, denotative language.  NOTE:  Only the last two functions of language can relate to verifiable or falsifiable claims to knowledge.


Clear, critical, and analytical thinking is not likely to occur in the absence of understanding the difference between statements (synthetic) that can be verified or falsified and those (analytic) that cannot, i.e., are unfalsifiable.
      verifiable (even if we cannot verify them now,
      testable (even if we cannot test them now).
      DESCRIPTIVE language about our perceptions of the world that is presumed, with good reason, to be "outside" our minds.
      About things that do and can exist in the universe, i.e., things with physical/energy characteristics.
      Interchanging the subject and predicate alters its truth value.
      Truth values: true, false, neither.
      Observation (direct of indirect) statements.
      Testable claim:
       Falsifiable: "There are dogs on Mars." 
      It can be shown whether there are or are not dogs on Mars because dogs have dimensions; therefore, the claim is testable.
  UNFALSIFIABLE:  Cannot be verified, through physical evidence, to be true or false.
      Analytic claims,
      Language about ideas unsupportable by evidence,
      Statements that are true by definition,
      There are angels on Mars.
      Such a statements are not testable.
      It can't, ever (eternally), be shown whether there are angels on Mars if angels are defined to have no physical dimensions.
      Prescriptive statements,
      Circular statements,
       Subject and predicate are interchangeable without changing the truth value of the claim: e.g.; 1 + 1 = 2; 2 = 1 + 1.
       They are not descriptions of a world "outside" our "minds."


© 1997 by Pasqual S. Schievella