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    Thread: Do any of you think language fails at conveying abstract ideas?

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      Member NeoSioType's Avatar
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      Do any of you think language fails at conveying abstract ideas?

      Especially those in philosophy?

      Sometimes when I drift off in thought it becomes hard for me to put certain ideas in words, and it's even more difficult to remember exactly I was thinking. It seems at times the process is more in ideas/feelings than anything else.

      Is there a flaw in language? Are there words for higher ideas that we lack simply because we never think in that way? From my experiences I believe it to be so.

      Do you believe language places a limiter on society's growth? Are we confined/conditioned to behave, to think in certain ways? And what are these higher ideas, these words that we lack?
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      I don't think that language is limited in that way. It's just that most of us are not trained in expressing very abstract ideas. You use language for normal 'daily' conversations and your use of language becomes limited to expressing your daily experiences.

      Another problem is that different people have different 'scope of meaning' for the same words. Previous sentence is in itself an example of this. I know exactly what I mean by 'scope of meaning', but I'm not sure other people will understand it in the same way.
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      *nods*

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      I think language is very limited. Many times, there are concepts or ideas I fail to categorize. Some of you who have talked to me might have noticed this. There are so many things I've thought up that deserved their own names.

      What I hate even more is how language-dependent people become. They fail to think in any other form but through language. It is bad because the specific grammar and words you use shape the way you think about the concepts they convey. I mean, look at logical operators, for example. We have the words "is" and "isn't", but we don't have a word for no implication, aka "not necessarily". Furthermore, we don't have an inverse logical operator to "is" - I can say "Bruno is gay", but I can't say "Gay ????? Bruno". I could say "Gay is a category in which Bruno fits", but come on, that's like 12 syllables.

      Now, what I hate even more is when people create names that are not intuitive to understand, or don't represent the concept properly. And what I hate EVEN more is people that don't realize that the purpose of language is to communicate, and intentionally use complex words in a pathetic attempt to show off. Seriously, doing that only shows off how idiotic you are.
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      Member NeoSioType's Avatar
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      Quote Originally Posted by SnakeCharmer View Post
      I don't think that language is limited in that way. It's just that most of us are not trained in expressing very abstract ideas. You use language for normal 'daily' conversations and your use of language becomes limited to expressing your daily experiences.
      Yes, that is very understandable. It's similar to what I mentioned.

      From what I can gather you don't believe language keeps us from expressing ideas? I agree with you. However it certainly makes expressing them more difficult.

      I guess this is what you mean from the scope of the word. In this case I guess that word was from how I understand "limit" Either to be held back, as you thought. Or to be restained, to have resistences as I was thinking
      Last edited by NeoSioType; 02-21-2010 at 09:20 PM.

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      Do you believe language places a limiter on society's growth? Are we confined/conditioned to behave, to think in certain ways? And what are these higher ideas, these words that we lack?
      Interestingly enough this is used in the novel 1984; the language is simplified with the ultimate aim of making any form of revolution impossible by rendering the idea impossible to comprehend in the first place.

      I don't think language these days limits growth that much. And if we find words do not adequately describe something, we either tend to make new words up that do, or poach them from other languages.

      For the most part I have no problems in putting my philosophical musings in to words. The only time I have problems doing so is either when they're so abstract I struggle to get to grips with it myself, or when it's something that is basically impossible to describe in words, much like trying to describe the colour blue to someone who is blind.

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      Verbal language, especially english is a one to one translation that cannot possibily match the complexity of reality or human cognizance. We match one word to one phenomenon, but because of the huge amount of variation in observed phenomena that word ends up being used to represent a whole host of distinctly different things. The word tree cannot possibly accurately represent every organism that falls under the category egually and individually. Most of the time, an exact understanding is unnecessary and what someone says can still carry consensual meaning even though their use of the word tree doesn't really describe the exact tree they are thinking about.

      The more specific the idea or concept or phenomena, the harder it is to accurately express in terms of verbal language because the words just don't exist to describe all of the details.
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      While I agree with all of what has been, on the flipside I believe language is less limited than it might initially seem due to the contextual usage of it.

      Two examples:

      - a phrase following a powerful speech may completely change the feeling of the phrase even if it carries the same meaning.

      - "They did the thing in the thing with the thing."
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      How are we not a forklift? All that contraction and elongation to raise and lower objects...

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      Quote Originally Posted by NeoSioType View Post
      From what I can gather you don't believe language keeps us from expressing ideas? I agree with you. However it certainly makes expressing them more difficult.
      I agree , and that might be related to the way language evolved. It's been a tool for survival much longer than it's been a tool for expressing abstract ideas.

      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      We match one word to one phenomenon, but because of the huge amount of variation in observed phenomena that word ends up being used to represent a whole host of distinctly different things. The word tree cannot possibly accurately represent every organism that falls under the category egually and individually. Most of the time, an exact understanding is unnecessary and what someone says can still carry consensual meaning even though their use of the word tree doesn't really describe the exact tree they are thinking about.

      The more specific the idea or concept or phenomena, the harder it is to accurately express in terms of verbal language because the words just don't exist to describe all of the details.
      You expressed what I called 'scope of meaning' using completely different words. Not only do we use the same words to express different phenomena, we also use different words to express the same phenomena.
      This thread is becoming self-referential

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      yes language fails!

      Look at how many people debate here over the definition of a word, attacking each other for the words they have chosen to use, rather than transcending the word and seeing the meaning behind it that is wordless

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      Quote Originally Posted by NeoSioType View Post
      Especially those in philosophy?

      Sometimes when I drift off in thought it becomes hard for me to put certain ideas in words, and it's even more difficult to remember exactly I was thinking. It seems at times the process is more in ideas/feelings than anything else.

      Is there a flaw in language? Are there words for higher ideas that we lack simply because we never think in that way? From my experiences I believe it to be so.

      Do you believe language places a limiter on society's growth? Are we confined/conditioned to behave, to think in certain ways? And what are these higher ideas, these words that we lack?
      Yes. As far-fetched as it may sound, I hope society grows cyberpunkish enough so that we can hook computers up to our brains, and communicate with others hooked up. We can comminucate images sounds tastes smells and ideas so much better that way.
      And now.. for a Stephen Strutmeyer Film...
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      Quote Originally Posted by juroara View Post
      yes language fails!

      Look at how many people debate here over the definition of a word, attacking each other for the words they have chosen to use, rather than transcending the word and seeing the meaning behind it that is wordless
      It's fairly fashionable to scoff at people who choose to debate over the most useful definitions of words and concepts, but truthfully these criticisms are misguided. Consider these facts:
      1. People do use different words to mean the same thing, and/or use the same word to mean different things.
      2. People cannot read each others' minds.
      As long as these remain true, it will always be necessary to clarify what each party in a debate means when they refer to certain terms. As nice as it would be for people to "transcend the word" and see its intended "wordless meaning" through some form of apparent telepathy, here in the real world we have to carefully define our terms before meaningful debate is even possible.

      The only thing that I have to add to what's been said in response to the OP is: if you find that your ability to communicate is limited by language, you are doing language wrong. Try harder. Most bad communication stems from the unfortunate fact that people usually can't be bothered to make themselves more clear. Some ideas are harder to express than others, but with enough care written/spoken language can express basically anything. (And then there's always pictures )
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      Quote Originally Posted by juroara
      yes language fails!

      Look at how many people debate here over the definition of a word, attacking each other for the words they have chosen to use, rather than transcending the word and seeing the meaning behind it that is wordless
      Ahh yes agreed. From what I understand there's the Aristotelian way of looking at language (that when properly used a word can truly define the essence of something), and the far more recent way of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics (meaning is something far greater than definition and conception).

      Despite the fact that every tree is distinctly unique to the human eye, we tend to see them as all the same when walking through the forest because our mind labels them as simply 'trees'. We don't call them 'tree #1, tree #2, etc.' or give them names. If we did our mind would interpret them as something more individual. We'd automatically notice defining characteristics that set them apart. Come to think of it it'd certainly be harder to knock down a tree if you knew this one as 'Steve' and that one as 'Mary'. I should start naming the ones I pass every day.

      In short, not only does language fail at conveying abstract ideas, but also basic ideas and forms as well. But seeing as we are linguistic creatures, an enhanced usage of language and vocabulary means an enhanced understanding of the world.

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      Sleeping Dragon juroara's Avatar
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      Quote Originally Posted by Speesh View Post
      Despite the fact that every tree is distinctly unique to the human eye, we tend to see them as all the same when walking through the forest because our mind labels them as simply 'trees'. We don't call them 'tree #1, tree #2, etc.' or give them names. If we did our mind would interpret them as something more individual. We'd automatically notice defining characteristics that set them apart. Come to think of it it'd certainly be harder to knock down a tree if you knew this one as 'Steve' and that one as 'Mary'. I should start naming the ones I pass every day.

      Ohh that's so true! Come to think of it, I can't ever remembering seeing any two trees that look identical. This goes even further than just conveying abstract ideas, this is about language influencing our own perspective!

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      Language definitely fails at communicating abstract ideas, and effects the way we think too.

      This is why the English language has become flooded with euphemisms and this politically correct shit. If you change the words we use to softer, less descriptive language, our thoughts will become softer and less descriptive.

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      Not at all.

      Maybe your own diction, or a limitied vocabulary could be a problem... but not language.

      edit:
      It is true... in the english language there are 1000 different ways to say the same thing, and those 1000 different ways to say that one thing all effect us differently. But the simple fact is, that's a fault of the person... not the language. Persuasion lies in the mind, not the language.

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      Quote Originally Posted by mindwanderer View Post
      Not at all.

      Maybe your own diction, or a limitied vocabulary could be a problem... but not language.

      edit:
      It is true... in the english language there are 1000 different ways to say the same thing, and those 1000 different ways to say that one thing all effect us differently. But the simple fact is, that's a fault of the person... not the language. Persuasion lies in the mind, not the language.
      There is more than one language than the english language

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      There is more than one language than the english language.
      I'm aware of that thanks...
      Could you elaborate a bit for me? I don't see what you're trying to get at. Regardless of the language, the same principle stands. The ability to explain abstract ideas rests solely in the being... not the language. Regardless of how simple or complex the language.

      Look at the simplist 'language'... binary. A bunch of 1s and 0s, and they can be used to describe any infinite amount of things. Then look at the english language, rather simple... puts more importance on context and tone... it can do it perfectly too. Look at spanish or italian, a very different language to english... relying more so on the conjugation and things like that as opposed to the context... yet you can do it.

      You also have to consider the person trying to receive the abstract idea. Perhaps they're a more visual person, or they learn easier with examples, metaphors etc. Some people simply don't have the capacity to comprehend some abstract ideas.

      Assuming the person A has ability to speak, and person B has ability to hear AND understand... then language will get any idea across... it's incredibly versatile.

      edit: You're under estimating language. Like I said, the only restricting factor is the ability to use the language properly and well. As you know, one person can hear something and understand it, while another can not... and the simple solution is to change up the wording and try again.
      Last edited by mindwanderer; 02-24-2010 at 07:01 AM.

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      Quote Originally Posted by juroara View Post
      yes language fails!

      Look at how many people debate here over the definition of a word, attacking each other for the words they have chosen to use, rather than transcending the word and seeing the meaning behind it that is wordless
      Oh yeah?!!!? Well look at this!

      yes guns fail!

      Look at how many people shoot other people with guns, fighting over what guns they have chosen to use, rather than transcending the gun and seeing the meaning behind it that is gunless.
      Get my point? Language doesn't fail... it's just that people are stupid. The old "guns don't kills people, people kill people" idea.

      I can't believe how unbelievably ignorant your statement is.... it boggles the mind.

      Of course the meaning behind words are wordless. Words are sounds tied to meaning that we can express to others as well as have expressed to us.

      You're logic is flawed. Language doesn't fail, you... and much of humanity does.

      It isn't the languages fault.
      Last edited by mindwanderer; 02-24-2010 at 07:15 AM.

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      Some ideas are simple and can easily be expressed. Some, especially ideas that haven't been explored yet (new ideas) can be extremely difficult to express clearly.

      I believe any idea that can be grasped can be expressed linguistically, but it might take a lot of effort for a complex or unfamiliar idea. It helps if the speaker is blessed with linguistic skillz, and if the listeners are really trying to understand, as opposed to just lazily taking in blocks of words and expecting them to all carry familiar meaning (the way people usually communicate).

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      Quote Originally Posted by Speesh View Post
      Despite the fact that every tree is distinctly unique to the human eye, we tend to see them as all the same when walking through the forest because our mind labels them as simply 'trees'. We don't call them 'tree #1, tree #2, etc.' or give them names.

      In short, not only does language fail at conveying abstract ideas, but also basic ideas and forms as well.
      Bolded part is contradicted by the very example you put out in the first quoted paragraph.
      "Tree" is an abstraction of all tree-like objects . It enables you to have an approximate idea how a baobab tree might look, even though you probably never saw one.
      Without this, it would be impossible to use language in a meaningful way and it would be impossible to learn it.

      Abstraction and categorization are not defining characteristics of language, they are defining characteristic of how our minds work and how we learn.
      You show a cup to a baby and tell it it's "a cup". The baby will then automatically learn that every cup-like object (defined by its shape and function) is a cup. You don't have to tell it that a bigger blue cup is as much of a cup as the smaller red one.

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      Shameless Zenarchist Speesh's Avatar
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      I suppose you're right, in essence the idea that created this thread was an abstract idea arrived to by means of language. Abstract speculative ideas and logic most likely can't exist outside of the scope of language. I definitely worded that wrong, thanks for bringing it up.

      I don't however believe that abstraction and categorization are necessarily a good thing. And in my eyes our minds are totally linguistic, and wouldn't exist they way they are without language. The mind in language go hand in hand.

      At any rate, why try to explain something myself when I can have Aldous Huxley do it for me?

      "Language permits its users to pay attention to things, persons and events, even when the things and persons are not present and the events are not taking place. Language gives definition to our memories and, by translating experiences into symbols, converts the immediacy of craving or abhorrence, of hatred or love, into fixed principles of feeling and conduct.
      In some way of which we are totally unconscious, the reticular system of the brain selects from a countless host of stimuli those few experiences which are of practical importance to us. From these unconsciously selected experiences we more or less consciously select and abstract a smaller number, which we label with words from our vocabulary and then classify within a system at once metaphysical, scientific and ethical, made up of other words on a higher level of abstraction.
      In cases where the selecting and abstracting have been dictated by a system that is not too erroneous as a view of the nature of things, and where the verbal labels have been intelligently chosen and their symbolic nature clearly understood, our behaviour is apt to be realistic and tolerably decent.
      But under the influence of badly chosen words, applied, without any understanding of their merely symbolic character, to experiences that have been selected and abstracted in the light of a system of erroneous ideas, we are apt to behave with a fiendishness and an organised stupidity, of which dumb animals (precisely because they are dumb and cannot speak) are blessedly incapable."


      Mindwanderer: I believe that last paragraph is what juroara is referring to. We create our own personal realities unconsciously by selecting the few bits of stimuli that fit our conditioned mind's beliefs. The stuff that doesn't fit we either ignore, change to our liking, or react negatively to. This tunnel reality occurs entirely because of language. A neurological process known as called latent inhibition.

      The only reason people fight is because they're living in different (ultimately linguistic) realities, just as the only reason you call someone 'ignorant' or 'stupid' is because they're living in a different linguistic reality that doesn't agree with and possibly threatens yours. People are the way they are because of unconscious processes that we are ALL subjected to. I'm just as much of an ignorant schmuck as the guy next to me.

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      language is all we have to express ideas....don't underestimate the word.

      the word "abstract" is a word, and without that particular word, we wouldn't be able to conceive what abstract means...so basically, abstract ideas are dependent on the word "abstract"
      naturals are what we call people who did all the right things accidentally

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      Quote Originally Posted by Speesh View Post
      I don't however believe that abstraction and categorization are necessarily a good thing.
      I would agree that they are not always beneficial. Categorization is usually done with preconceived categories, and they might be faulty. It can also lead to over-generalization and over-simplification.

      Having said that, would you agree that communication would be impossible without categorization? How would I convey the message: 'I saw 50 people from an opposing tribe, they are carrying weapons and are approaching our camp" if I couldn't use categories such as 'weapons', numbers, 'people', 'tribe'?
      Do you see how this would impair our survival?

      Quote Originally Posted by Speesh View Post
      And in my eyes our minds are totally linguistic, and wouldn't exist they way they are without language. The mind in language go hand in hand.
      If that was the case, then any abstract idea you might have is an idea already worded in your mind. Hence, you should have no problem communicating it to other people.
      There are non-verbal thought processes going on in our minds and I'm under the impression it's their result that OP finds difficult to express using words.
      Maybe I misunderstood the original question.

      Quote Originally Posted by Speesh View Post
      The only reason people fight is because they're living in different (ultimately linguistic) realities, just as the only reason you call someone 'ignorant' or 'stupid' is because they're living in a different linguistic reality that doesn't agree with and possibly threatens yours.
      Well, I disagree with some of the things you said, but I don't plan on calling you stupid. You probably nailed it when you said people do it when they feel threatened.

      I also have the problem of English being my second language. Maybe others are not stupid, maybe I just suck at explaining my position in English.

      Quote Originally Posted by AirRick101 View Post
      language is all we have to express ideas....don't underestimate the word.

      the word "abstract" is a word, and without that particular word, we wouldn't be able to conceive what abstract means...so basically, abstract ideas are dependent on the word "abstract"
      Well, that's part of the problem, isn't it? Everything in language has to be defined in relation to something else.
      Last edited by SnakeCharmer; 02-24-2010 at 06:50 PM.

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      Quote Originally Posted by SnakeCharmer View Post

      I also have the problem of English being my second language. Maybe others are not stupid, maybe I just suck at explaining my position in English.



      Well, that's part of the problem, isn't it? Everything in language has to be defined in relation to something else.
      if that's true, then I have severe respect for your ability to speak (or at least type) a 2nd language so fluently. I only say this because I speak English fluenty, but my Mandarin (my native language) is less than ideal, haha. other than taking spanish and japanese and school, english is all I really feel that I need.

      but you are right, language is part of the problem ~ you can only read so many definition before you realize that some words need to be self-explanatory. and when THAT's the case...what hope do we have left for people ever truly relating on a subject?
      naturals are what we call people who did all the right things accidentally

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