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Hi. I'm a philosophy student and don't take Rand's work seriously but I am fascinated by Objectivism and the community around it for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Anyways, in some discussions I've had with supporters of Objectivism I've had various questions, concerns or criticisms relating to language but the other person always seemed hesitant to say much and never pointed me toward anything which could serve as a response or clarification. Are any of you aware of any writings on Objectivist theories of language? If there aren't any, that confuses me because of the explosion in linguistics beginning before and lingering after the writings of Rand. Based on my beginner to intermediary knowledge of Objectivism, I've assumed what that theory might look like. This is another part which is kind of interesting to me because, the 'Objectivist theory of language' that I haphazardly threw together looks very similar to what was, essentially, the theory of language that began the explosion. I don't consider that to be impressive since it happened several decades before Rand was writing but I do see it another problematic component of Objectivism given the relative ease with which one can topple this sort of linguistic theory. Regardless, my point here isn't to argue about philosophy of language but to ask if anyone is aware of and Objectivist philosophy of language.

If you're curious, the following is how I think about an Objectivist approach to language. Feel free to tell me if you think this is accurate or in which ways this is inaccurate. I'm aware that this will surely have flaws being incorporated into an existing Objectivist philosophy of language if one exists. I've noticed that discussions on this forum tend to almost immediately get sidetracked into bickering over peripheral issues so please remember that this section isn't the point of my post, I'm just sharing it in case anyone is interested. It seems to me that an Objectivist theory of language would be very similar to Frege's. Language functions properly with sense and reference. There is a common sense view that there reality is composed of divisible objects which exist, objectively, 'out there' or things-in-themselves with objective identities. Going from there, language boils down to the function of naming. We have a word, arbitrarily chosen, which is attached to a thing-in-itself, objectively existing. Some things have multiple words attached to them. Our language misfires when we speak nonsense. In order to speak sensically we must form propositions with a logical structure that refer to the things. For example, we say, "There is the morning star," and, "There is the evening star." Our sentences make sense and have a referent. They both have the same referent, the sun, which is expressed in two different senses. This seems to accurately reflect my impression that Objectivism takes common sense to the extreme by appealing to these sorts of pieces of reality which have objective characteristics and relations. What would you say with regard to Frege's thoughts and an Objectivist theory of language?

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I have my own personal thoughts on the matter which I think are consistent with Objectivism. Language refers to concepts and precepts, not things-in-themselves. When I say a word I typically evoke a system of concrete memories, emotional responses, and abstractions in me and anyone who listens to the word. The problem is that those two reactions are necessarily different (even when two people who are equally rational) because of the ontological subjectivity of experience. Since nothing is viewed without there being someone to experience the object, a word is just as much about the subject as it is about the object.

This can be over come to some degree though long discussions that uses logic and tons of demonstration (essentially rebranding a word with new shared expereinces) in order to bring into harmony the minds of the people who are using the word. If this is done rationally this will lead to minds aiding one another in their tasks with the same tools.

Another important thing about language is that it is not directly capable of imparting knowledge. If someone wants to know something, they have to go to the trouble of seeking out and learning from those experiences themselves. The best that language can do is evoke an older set of experiences in the recieving subject or attempt to draw attention to certain aspects of new experiences. No matter how clear my proof is or how well made my argument is, no one will automatically accept it as truth.

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Rand talks about language in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. She rejects the linguistic turn and any claim that philosophical problems can be solved by analyzing language, so philosophy of language isn't a central concern for Objectivism. I don't know of anything on philosophy of language by other Objectivist philosophers, but perhaps there would be something in the forthcoming Ayn Rand: A Companion to Her Works and Thought. Alan Gotthelf makes some comments about Rand's views on philosophy of language in a draft of one of his papers for that book: Ayn Rand on Concepts.

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For example, we say, "There is the morning star," and, "There is the evening star." Our sentences make sense and have a referent. They both have the same referent, the sun, which is expressed in two different senses. This seems to accurately reflect my impression that Objectivism takes common sense to the extreme by appealing to these sorts of pieces of reality which have objective characteristics and relations. What would you say with regard to Frege's thoughts and an Objectivist theory of language?

My thought about this is that although those refer to the literally the same object, the referent is not identical. They refer to a specific phenomena that someone believes to be two different objects, or to refer to a specific characteristic about an object only present at certaiin times of the day. What matters is that words refer to concepts, and hopefully those concepts are tied to the perceptual level. I'm not sure how different that is from Frege, but I don't like the notion here that what counts more is that regardless of if someone knows two words/phrases refer to the same object, the concept is still the same. For one, reality isn't just made of divisible parts. It's really just one thing, but epistemologically, a person breaks reality down according to perceptual differences and similarities, and concepts are formed base off of that. A word is just the final step in concept formation, not merely something that refers to an object.

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In the case of the morning star and the evening star, the referent is Venus. The morning and evening refer to when it appears in the sky; prior to sunrise, or just after sunset.

Unless, of course, you are using it in a manner I am not familiar with.

Edited by dream_weaver
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  • 1 year later...

Rand talks about language in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. She rejects the linguistic turn and any claim that philosophical problems can be solved by analyzing language, so philosophy of language isn't a central concern for Objectivism. I don't know of anything on philosophy of language by other Objectivist philosophers, but perhaps there would be something in the forthcoming Ayn Rand: A Companion to Her Works and Thought. Alan Gotthelf makes some comments about Rand's views on philosophy of language in a draft of one of his papers for that book: Ayn Rand on Concepts.

 

An update on Gotthelf's essay: this is reprinted (I don't know if it was revised) in Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox (eds.), Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.  Stephen Hicks reviews it here. While this may be logically prior to the OP's concerns, it would be foundational to a critique of the "linguistic turn". More philosophical clean-up...

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  • 2 years later...

This thread was kindly pointed out to me, so I have a belated reply.

As a prelude, it is mistaken to try to understand an Objectivist theory of language by comparing it to Frege’s. If one wants to understand what an Objectivist theory of language is, one can investigate that, and maybe at some point later one might even try to compare that to what you believe Frege claimed, but that comparison should not be your starting point. Second, discussions of language that focus on proper names and long-corrected factual errors (the Babylonians understood the nature of Venus) are likely to lead one up and down a twisted blind alley which ends nowhere.

An Objectivist theory of language is centered around concepts. “The Evening Star” is not a concept, nor is “The Morning Star”. These are proper names (singular terms), and one can substitute “Superman” and “Clark Kent” just as well. One can believe that Superman can fly and not believe that Clark Kent can fly, even though Kent and Superman refer to the same thing. An Objectivist theory of language is about concepts, not factual errors pertaining to proper names. “Sense” and reference are not different things – “reference” basically described the relationship between consciousness and existence, and “sense” is interjected into the discussion to introduce a consequence of false inferences: or, to conflate two aspects of an existent yet recognizing those aspects, thereby sowing confusion. “Refers to” is a simple relation between something symbolic, and what is symbolizes, so nouns refer to things, verbs refer to places, adjectives refer to attributes. I don’t see that “sense” is at all a useful concept.

I don’t know what it means to say that one thing boils down to another thing, but language is not just a system of names. Language is part of a general faculty of cognition, and Objectivism has had a lot to say about the “naming” aspect, via the theory of concepts. The “names” are specifically the labels (words) by which we access the cognitive folders that are concepts. Besides concepts, there are also propositions, where Objectivism has had less to say – until Harry Binswanger’s book How We Know. There is a huge amount to say about propositions and language.

Words are not arbitrarily chosen. The relationship between a word and the units that it unifies is a social fact, one which is learned. It’s a fascinating but tangential matter how a particular phonetic sequence came to be the label for a given concept. One thing is for sure, it is not arbitrary. As far as I can tell, all things have multiple words attached to them. Oranges, for example, have the words “citrus; fruit; sweet; orange; carbohydrate; round; inexpensive; seasonal” attached to them. There is a peril to using expressions like “attached to” in a vague way. In a narrower sense, there are some things for which there are two or more referentially-interchangeable words, such as “penis” and “phallus”, and there are many other such words (a fact profitably exploited by Mike Myers) which have subtle social fact attached to them (you don’t use the word “wang” in the same contexts as you use the word “penis”). There is really nothing interesting to say about that fact.

Language is not capable of misfiring when we speak nonsense. Language cannot act, and misfiring describes a kind of action. A being might misfire, or something like that, and might do so in a way somehow related to language, for example one might be incorrect in attempting to interpret a person’s intent as expressed by some piece of language.

You can follow the rules of language, or not, just as you can follow the rules of logic, or not. Language is made up of structural units like sentences and clauses (and individual words), which can be used for many purposes (such as setting forth a proposition, but it also can be used to accomplish an end such as tricking an enemy into self-immolation). To say that a sentence “makes sense” is to say that it is possible to identify or express judgements that underly a linguistic expression. “That is a dog” classifies an entity as one of the units subsumed under the concept “dog” – in this case, the person is asserting a particular judgment. “The dog is running” presupposes such a classification of the subject entity, and classifies its action.

I would like to especially address this question:

Are any of you aware of any writings on Objectivist theories of language? If there aren't any, that confuses me because of the explosion in linguistics beginning before and lingering after the writings of Rand.

There are a number of reasons why there aren't. First, the study of language is a very complex scientific matter, one vastly beyond the realm of philosophy (just as physics and chemistry are beyond the realm of philosophy). There has been virtually no progress on general philosophy of language for my entire lifetime, but there has been an explosion in scientific linguistics in that same period.

As to why there aren’t a ton of linguists who are Objectivists, the ultimate explanation probably rests in the political problem that being a practicioner of an abjured non-communist philosophy is dangerous to one’s professional survival in an academic discipline. There is, additionally, a special reason, that the (formerly) reigning epistemology of professional linguistics is dimetrically opposed to the Objectivist epistemology. Linguistic theory has taken, for almost 50 years, a strong nativist position that man is born with a vast repertoire of factual knowledge about the world, whereas the Objectivist epistemology rejects this assumption. It has only been in the past 15 or so years that there has been some retreat on the nativist position in linguistics, whereby a theory of linguistics at least informed by Objectivism is possible.

While the results of a half-century of linguistic research are in principle available to scrutiny by linguists, this requires an in-depth empirical understanding of the subject matter. There are relatively few linguists, and relatively few Objectivists, so the intersection of the two sets is even smaller. The hook into philosophy of language would be a tiny subset of linguists, namely formal semanticists.

 

 

 

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David, I was lately reading contemporary work on the nature of assertion by philosophers, some of whom are also linguists, but anyway they are philosophers who must deal with the nature of language in the course of crafting an analysis of what is an assertion. The pertinence to philosophy that led me to this area of study was my elaboration in my book in progress of Rand’s idea here (and its bar to skepticisms), relying on the notion assertion, though Rand is here calling it statement:

“Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms . . . .”

A helpful orienting review article for me has been one in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the article titled “Assertion.” Its author is Peter Pagin. This is the link for anyone after information and stimulation for his or her own reflection on this moment in Rand’s layout of her philosophy, which moment importantly contacts philosophy of language.

Here is a sample excerpt of my book draft in which nature of this central element in language comes up:

To assert Existence exists is to remind one or other of that ultimate framing already known or to bring into full light what one or other had known without previous articulation. Rand rightly held that it is incorrect to try to prove the existence of the external, perceived world.[1] The world’s existence is self-evident in perception. If a person is able to deny the existence of the world or to assert the possibility that it does not exist or that we have no way of knowing it exists, that person knows well those assertions are false, regardless of his or her persistence in the feint.[2] A person capable of language and capable of distinguishing the notion belief from truth is in no position to authentically believe that the world and any others do not or might not exist or that he or she does not very well know that they exist. Further, denial of the world’s existence or any of those kindred assertions attempts to reverse the embedment of meaningful assertions in world and living body. Furthermore, denial or doubt of the world’s existence or each other’s existence voids our common ground for all communicative utterance. Then too, …

 


[1] Rand 1961b, 28; cf. Gilson 1937, 146–47, 152–55; Heidegger 1927, 194–200.

[2] See further, Jary 2010.

Edited by Boydstun
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