If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
I often think about the relationship between the public and the private. As a naturally introverted person, I feel very keenly the separation of my own experience from the rest of reality. I make music, take pictures, and write this blog as a way of communicating this inner reality—of manifesting my private world in a publically consumable form.
Having an ‘inner world’ is one of the basic facts of life. Each of us is aware that there is a part of us—the most vital and most mysterious part, perhaps—that is inaccessible to others; we can keep secrets, we can make judgments without anyone else noticing, we can have private pleasures and pains. All of our experience takes place in this space; the only world we ever see, hear, or touch is in our heads.
And yet we are also aware that this reality is, in a sense, insubstantial and ultimately secondary. Our inner world exists in reference to the outer world, the world of objective facts, the world that is publically known. My senses are not just mental facts, but point outward; my thoughts, actions, and desires are oriented towards a world that does not exist in me. Rather, I exist in it, and my experience is just one interpretation of this world, and one vantage point from which to view it.
How are these two worlds related? How do they interact? Is one more important? What is the relationship of our private minds to our public bodies? These are classic philosophical conundrums, mysterious still after all these millennia.
Historical philosophers aside, most of us, in our more reflective moments, become acutely aware of the division between subjective and objective. When you are, for example, searching for a word—when a word is on the tip of your tongue—you feel as though you are rummaging through your own mind. The word is in you somewhere, and nobody but you can find it.
From this, and other experiences like it, we get the feeling that speaking (and by extension, writing) consists of taking something internal and externalizing it. Language is, in this view, an expression of thought; and words take their significance from cogitations. That is to say, our private mental world is the wellspring of significance; our minds imbue our language with meaning. The word “pizza,” for example, means pizza because I am thinking of pizza when I say it.
And yet, as Wittgenstein tried to show in his later philosophy, this is not how language really works. To the contrary, words are defined by their social use: what they accomplish in social situations. In other words, language is public. The meaning of words is determined, not by referring to any inner thought, nor by referring to any objective facts, but by convention, in a community of speakers. (I don’t have the space here to recapitulate his arguments; but you can see my review of his book here.) The word “pizza” means pizza because you can use it to order in a restaurant.
This may seem to be a merely academic matter; but when you begin to think of meaning as determined socially rather than psychologically, then you realize that your cognitive apparatus is not nearly as private as you are wont to believe. In order to communicate thought, you must transform it into something socially consumable: language. All of our vague notions must be put into boxes, whose dimensions are determined by the community, not by us.
But the social does not only intrude when we try to communicate with others; we also understand ourselves through these same social concepts. That is to say, insofar as we think in words, and we understand our own personalities through language, we are subjecting our deepest selves to public categories; even in our most private moments, we are seeing ourselves in the light of the community. We are social beings to our very core.
This does not only extend to the definitions of words. As Wittgenstein points out, to use language effectively, we must also judge like the community.
Any word, however well-defined, is ambiguous in its application. To apply the word “car” to a vehicle, for example, requires not only that I know the definition—whatever that may be—but that I learn how to differentiate between a car, a truck, a van, and an SUV. Every member of a community is involved in educating one another’s judgment, and keeping their opinions in tune. If I call an SUV a “car,” or a pickup truck a “van,” any fellow speakers will correct me, and in this way they will educate me to judge like a member of the community.
As I learn Spanish, I have firsthand experience of this. To pick a trivial example, English word “sausage” is more broad than any corresponding Spanish word. Here in Spain they differentiate between salchicha and salchichón, a difference that my American mind has a hard time understanding. Although Spaniards have tried to define this difference to me, I have found that the only way for me to learn it is by being corrected every time I apply the wrong word.
More significantly, in order to conjugate properly in Spanish, I must not only learn how to change the ending and so forth, but I must learn when it is appropriate to use each tense. To pick the most troubling example, in English we have only the simple past, whereas in Spanish there is both the imperfecto and the indefinido. I constantly use the wrong form, not because I don’t know their technical usage (it has been explained to me countless times, using various metaphors and examples, and I can recite this technical definition from memory), but because my judgment is out of alignment.
Whether an action is continuous, periodic, completed, ongoing, or occasional—this is not as self-apparent as every native-speaker likes to assume, but indeed requires a good deal of interpretation. My judgment has not yet been properly educated by the community, and so, despite my knowing the technical usage of these two forms, I still misuse them.
In a way, this aspect of language learning is somewhat chilling. In order to speak effectively, not only must I use communal vessels to contain my thoughts, but I must learn to judge along the same lines as other members of the community—to interpret, analyze, and distinguish like them. What is left of our private selves when we subtract everything shaped and put there by the community? Am I a self-existent person, or just a reflection of my social milieu?
Yet I do not think that all this is something to dread. Having communally defined categories, and a communally shaped judgment, gives permanence and exactitude to communication. Left on our own, thinking without symbols, communicating with no one but ourselves, there is nothing that grants stability to our reflections; they constantly slip through our fingers, an ever-changing flux tied to nothing. With no fixed points, our judgment flounders in a torrent of ideas, thrashing ineffectually.
When we learn a language, and learn to use it well, we learn how to pour the ambiguous stuff of thought into stable vessels, how to cast the molten metal of our mental life into solid forms. This way, not only can we understand the world better, but we can learn to understand ourselves better. This, I think, is the very purpose of culture itself: to partition reality into sections, to impose structure on ambiguous reality.
Let me give you a common example.
A relationship is a naturally ambiguous thing. The affection and commitment that two people feel for one another exists on a spectrum. And often we do not really know how committed we are to somebody until we examine the relationship in retrospect. And yet, relationships must be defined, and defined early-on, for the sake of the community. Every culture on earth has rituals and categories associated with courtship, for the simple fact that somebody’s relationship status is a big part of their social identity. Ambiguities in social identity are not tolerated, because they impede normal social life; to deal with somebody effectively, you need them to have a recognizable social status, a status they tells you what to expect from them and what you can ask of them and a million other things.
In modern culture, as we delay marriage ever-more into the distant horizon, we have developed the need for new relationship categories. Now we are “dating,” and then “in a relationship.” The status of being “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is now socially understood and approved as one level of commitment.
The interesting thing, to me, is that the decision to be in a relationship, to become boyfriend and girlfriend (or whatever the case may be), seems like a private decision, affecting only two people. And yet, it is really a decision for the benefit of the community. To be in a relationship defines where you stand in relationship to everyone else: whether it is appropriate to flirt with you, to ask you out, to dance with you, to ask about your significant other, and so forth.
Now, this is not to say that the decision is solely for the benefit for the community. To put this another way, this also benefits you and your partner, because you are also part of the community. It puts a publicly understood category, indicating a certain level of commitment, on your naturally ambiguous and shifting feelings. In other words, by applying a public category to a private feeling, you are, in effect, imposing a certain level of stability on the feeling.
Look what happens next. This level of commitment, being publically labeled, is also bolstered. Friends, family, and coworkers treat you differently. You are now in a different category. And this response of the community helps to form, bolster, and reinforce your private feelings of commitment. Relationships are never wholly private affairs between two people. It takes a village to make a couple.
Again, I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing. To the contrary, I think that having communal definitions is what allows us to understand our own selves at all. This is also why I write these quotes and commentary. By forcing myself to take my ambiguous thoughts and put them into words, into public vessels, not only do I communicate with others, but I find out what I myself think.