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Philosophy and Rhubarb

Written by Peter Allison

"In my youth when I indulged in amateur dramatics it was said that actors in crowd scenes would mutter "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb". I do not know if was true then and, if it was, whether it is true now.

Words do not have meaning. They have value, use, according to the situation in which they are which they are put. The first section deals light-heartedly with the development of language. The second illustrates how words attain their values. There follows in the third discussion on some basic so-called traditional problems indicating that they are meaningless. An appendix attempts to illustrate the barrenness of using words alone in solving troubles.

Section 1

The Beginnings of Language

Many thousands of years ago a group of hunter-gatherers were sitting round a fire eating some elk. I do not know how they got the fire started nor how the elk came to die. At some point one of the younger members made the sound - accompanied by the appropriate body language - "Ugh. Ugh Ugh. Ugh Ugh". In contemporary English this can be translated as: "I say, chaps, I'm fed up with all this Ugh Ugh Ugh business - let's invent language." Today we would call him a modernist. As they had enough elk to last them several days they saw a window of opportunity to take this initiative forward and formed a committee. How many thousands of years ago this was is complete conjecture. Some held that language arose some thirty thousand years ago. But as cave paintings can be dated from one hundred thousand years ago the cooperation involved must suggest vocal communication. ("Hold that torch steady, lad - this antelope will look more like a camel"). There are some artefacts on the shores of the Congo, which can be dated four hundred thousand years ago. The date of the start of language seems to recede further and further backwards. In the same region, incidentally, there's a specie of chimpanzee (one of our relations) which can make some thirty distinct sounds. Unhappily is it doubtful if they can join them up? (Danger, big danger, danger gone).

There are, of course, many theories of the start of language. Some would hold it began with the need for cooperation in hunting, (Desmond Morris once suggested the reason men have deeper voices than women is because such voices carry better in the hunting field), or warning shouts of alarm and defence, or the utterings of endearments - " Come over here darling, let's have a roll in the tundra". More latterly there is a suggestion that language came about as a bonding mechanism. Some animals groom each other and bond as a group in this fashion. This is a one to one device. With language a whole group can be addressed. It does not really matter at this point. It is readily agreed that of all the theories, which abound the one suggested above is the least likely. For whatever reason language came about, whether it started in more than one geographical area or which time:

They did not have Philosophers in Mind

Language arose for common everyday use. Put another log on the fire, I'm going for a swim, Get out of the way, When will this rain stop? There are no bison left hereabouts, it’s time we moved on. Certainly with this invention instead of jumping up and down and screeching someone could yell - "Look out Cedric, there's a sabre-toothed tiger behind you".

One beginning of religion

May we change the scene. If you are a primitive man and have, for example, a source of water in an area where water is short, you do not wish to sit around all day guarding it. You cannot protect it with razor wire still less install closed circuit television. Some bright descendant of Cedric, however, came up with an idea. In this well or spring, he claimed, lives a devil, a spirit, a djinn. If you take water from this well and then make a prayer to him (or an oblation - throw three coins in a fountain!) then you can drink happily or safely. Thus the visitor is less like to spit into the well - or worse - after his refreshment. Now it is not suggested that all religion came about in such ways but it is likely one of them.

Pre-Socratic tidy-up

Some thousand of years pass and along come the pre-Socratic philosophers. If there is a spirit in this river and another in that river - which is the chief one ? Which is the most powerful ? How were they born or how did they come about ? The position is altogether too fanciful, too bizarre, we've got too many spirits and gods about the place. Common sense dictates that we must do some downsizing. We must add reason and logic to the human condition. For political and social reasons - and unlike their Semite neighbours - what they did not do is reduce all the gods to one. They could perform an element of dumbing down but not go too far. They did, however, take much of the mystery and superstition from the feelings of the times. And what is more they could make a living out of it.

But... A Fundamental Error

Thus we have some bright spark (Heraclitus apparently) who says "We cannot step into the same river twice" (viz the waters will quickly pass us by and we are met with a new bucketful). Bully! How splendid to be a philosopher! Teach us more, Oh mighty one! What nonsense. The word river has a use (or many uses) indicating an area of land, lower than its surroundings, through which water normally passes. (Tautological but that's how the cookie crumbles.)

As professional philosophy unfolded undoubtedly a service was provided removing untruths in their systems and provided what we would call a civilizing influence. Unhappily in attacking the nonsenses which abounded this new semi-professional group failed to consider the tools which they were using. Language has been about for so long they thought of it as fixed in meaning, part of human personality, probably therefore a gift from the gods.

Unhappily this outlook was inherited by the great Plato himself. We have words and we use the same word in so many different situations, possibly each time with a slightly different value - so what does any one word really mean. Even if Plato was given to writing a dictionary he would not have been satisfied. There must be a true, everlasting, unique referent of each word, or more unquestioningly each noun we use. Thus there are many different tables about the place. (Philosophers are fond of tables). What or where is the real table ? What is it that each table has in common ? As the answer is not to be found here on earth the real table must be in the heavens. Somewhere up there (or down there, depending where on this planet you live) there is the table of all tables and all those on earth are merely copies of the form of table which exists elsewhere.

Of course this is a source of rich pickings for those who came after. Aristotle promoted the idea that you look at the characteristics of all tables and the sum of these qualities which exist in an object make that object a table. Much later Kant talked about the thing in itself. Others claimed that the definition of a word lay in its purpose. A table is something for laying objects on. Thus a stool could be used as a table - the supposition unfortunately being that somehow, somewhere, the stool copied the universal table.

Given that objects are only shady copies of the real things up there it is a short step to claiming that qualities have a true and absolute meaning. Thus goodness, righteousness, justice, love have real meanings and lead to the belief that experts in the field have insights and knowledge about them denied to us lesser mortals. It has given rise to the making of much fine gold and the acquisition of noble reputations.

Peter Abelard Spots a Difficulty.

Moving on a thousand years or so we come to Peter Abelard (P.A. for short) who said something like... 'Hold on guys. Just because we have a word for square or for hill or for chair or for anything else does not mean that they are anything but noises.'

The fact that the word exists does not mean that the object exists other than in the form to which is referred and that the link between that object and other similar objects is useful but does not imply that such a thing exists in an ideal form. We use the word matchbox and probably have a dozen similar matchboxes about the place but the noise matchbox is only a useful link. It does not imply there is some ideal matchbox in the heavens as Plato would have it. Nor is there any need for the Aristotelian dodge of taking the characteristics of the matchbox, comparing the characteristics of another and then claiming that any object with those characteristics could be entitled to name matchbox. So nominalism was born. Well done, Peter, we're getting there.

The word 'set' has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb and 10 as a participial adjective. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary 60,000 words to discuss them all. (Bill Bryson : Mother Tongue)

Of course safe guarding their trade philosophers cannot leave it at that. Kant wrote of the Primary and Secondary qualities that go to make up the object. Matchboxes coloured red or blue essentially have the same purpose. The secondary qualities do not over-ride the primary ones. What is a primary characteristic? The purpose for which the object is put, what it is used for, or its basic construction or something else. What is the thing in itself? The importance of nominalism is continually undermined by the metaphysicians and absolutists who continue to identify some entity as the referent of some particular word. Neglecting that the world is much, much greater than language.

Wittgenstein Puzzles

In the 20th. century philosophers did indeed start looking at language as a tool, led in many ways by Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein is the acknowledged leader who offered the notion that the cure for philosophy was more philosophy which is itself actually a series of language games. (Elegantly summed up by Robert Soloman and Cathleen Higgins in their 'Short History of Philosophy' ... no single definition of games, and no one thing all games have in common. (Some games do not have goals or end points. Some games are played alone. Some games are played without rules or with rules made up as one goes along. Some games are not (and are not intended to be) fun.))

Thus I flippantly cruise through the saga of language and the manner in which philosophers have treated it for over two and half thousand years. The contemporary conclusion lies in the detailed investigation of how words are used and their various meanings.

And this flippancy is tinged with enormous diffidence. Erudite and distinguished philosophers through the ages have included in their thoughts their attitude to language. Gobbets can be taken from practically any of them and, as always, going back to Plato. It is in the last hundred years, however, that specific attention has been paid to human communication. Whether it be semiotics, or how children learn a language or investigating the underlying accepted rules of language compared to what is actually spoken or, indeed, the importance of silence within communication.

Words are not perfect - Nor is anything else

But words are not universals. They are not absolutes in any circumstances. Examples : The perfect cylinder does not exist. The nearest we can get to one is as a mathematical formula, which itself (see the debate about number below) is itself imperfect. If one holds a pen parallel to the ground it will have one measurement. Hold it vertical and (in theory) it yields another. Although, of course the difference could not be measured. Or… It is stupid for some foreign national to say 'I hate America'. There is a body of land, a constitution, a number of people, a flag to represent the concept and all kinds of good and perhaps ugly things. But America there aint. The protesting national makes sense if he says 'I disapprove of the economic system' 'I dislike the can-do approach to life' but what he cannot meaningfully say is 'I hate America'.

We can take this further. There is no such thing as 'physics'. There are studies of the infinitely large and the infinitely small and lots of stages in between. The University Of Oxford has sixteen different departments of physics. And artificial intelligence….. viz the problems associated with the assumption that AI exists. Will we have AI in fifty years’ time? How can this question possibly be answered when there are so many facets and uses of the sound intelligence?

It might be objected that America, Physics, AI work in the same way as group names. A farmer owning fifty sheep in his field might sell the lot. In which case we can usefully say that he has sold his flock. But there is no such thing as flock itself. It is merely a useful way of pointing to a certain situation.

Certainly the physicists and astro-physicists have to think abstractly, away from words. Using symbols and equations which few of us understand. Then reducing their thoughts from these abstractions they come up with words like big bang, parallel universes, quarks. The rest of us play with these concepts and in consequence probably mislead ourselves in our interpretations. Fortunately they are just games to us and although they add to our sense of wonderment have little real effect on our lives. Few of us could recognize a few thousand miles let alone a million. A light year is a form of words, useful in drawing our attention to the vastness of things. But they don't butter no parsnips as grandmothers are alleged to say. (Mine never did as a matter of  no particular interest)

It is stated as a fact. Words by themselves have no absolute meaning. Their value lies in the character, state of mind, personality, experience of the sender, similarly of the receiver and the medium through which the words have passed.

Words do not have meaning.

They are sounds with value according to the situation in which they are uttered. 


If words do not have meaning then how can we communicate at all?

Hold hard, it will be objected, if words have no meaning how can we successfully communicate at all? The clue is to be found in the committee founded by Cedric which continued long after he died.

(People turned up not because they were interested or had any special contribution; they had been elected to it and felt obliged to appear. Generations after it still met for no other reason than no one had the courage to question its existence. They had always had this committee and people continued being appointed to it. Dynamic modern management had yet to be founded.)

Compare the Number '1'

One of the topics was to question the 'meaning' of the number 'one'. No matter how hard they tried they were always faced with tautologies…….a single thing, something alone, the only object. By now their arithmetic had progressed far further than calculating how many elks it would take to satisfy a tribe of a hundred through the dark days of winter. They were counting the number of days it took to trace the moon through its cycle, how many moons there were in a year and were finding difficulty in the fact that using a cycle of twelve moons the year seemed to get shorter.

In the end they decided that they could not possibly find the definition of 'one' and by common consent agreed to let the matter lie. They had got on well enough without being able to define the concept and they all agreed to accept it without any further discussion. Some bright Cedric 15th pointed out that the same problem held with the concept of 'naught' and posed problems which thousands of years later faced the Romans. Nevertheless their happy agreement to dispose of the problem in this way was accepted by every other tribe in the whole world - for ever.

When, however, we all agree to 'know what we mean' by '1' and '0' we can build a whole system of mathematics.

The Inuit have words for wet snow, freezing snow. fresh snow and so on - up to perhaps fifty expressions. But no word for 'snow'. Similarly the Trobriand Islanders have a hundred words for 'yams', native Tasmanians can name every type of tree but they have no word for 'tree'. Would a little green man from Mars, therefore, assume there is no such thing as snow in the Artic and no trees in Tasmania. (Bill Bryson, again)

The concept of snow has use for us in more southerly climes and indeed we might talk about slushy snow, or white as snow but we have no need to differentiate as do our friends in the North. When we communicate 'snow' it represents our needs and values at a particular time. We have no need of a dozen expressions. Where there is a need the vocabulary accommodates so that the Laplanders have, I am led to believe, over four hundred words for 'deer'. What they would make of the word 'set' cannot be made clear any more than we would recognize their words for 'deer.

It is, of course, in everyone's interest to maintain that words have meaning. Whether they be philosophers, theists or computer experts. (The latter have come a cropper when it comes to synthesizing speech. The famous computer Hal in the film '2001' is still decades away in practicality. For Hal to work it would have to have an intimate knowledge of the personality and experience of the person with whom it is attempting to communicate as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of its own).

Words are the tools of their trades and they can indulge in Wittgenstein's games. If there is flexibility of any kind they are doomed. They constantly have to define and having defined according to their expectations can propose, knock down and come up with what they believe to be answers.

Which one meaning does the little green man from Mars choose?  If he has a vast computer he might be right in his selection according to the circumstances but then he must be wary of Humpty Dumpty….. When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, - neither more nor less. (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carrol).

And Humpty Dumpty has a third of the case. The value of any word he uses depends on himself; h is background, his psychology. When we use any word we 'know' what it means to us. But this, of course, does not necessarily imply that it has the same value to an audience.

The Military Discover the Difficulty

There is nothing new in this. It derives perhaps from the Second World War when the armed services were concerned about messages sent by radio. Interference of such a degree was experienced that there was constant misinterpretation. (Although the old joke from the First War where the front line sent a runner with a message via Brigade to Army Head Quarters several miles back 'Send Reinforcements we are going to advance' became 'Send three and fourpence we are going to a dance' also has relevance).

Deliberate misunderstanding of words and terms is the essence of much humour. If you would like an even older old joke, dating from the Middle Ages, we have the one about the sewage workers. 'It may be shit to us but its somebody's bread and butter. A contemporary, perhaps more sophisticated joke going the rounds: Philosopher A: Have you heard that Smith has won a car? Philosopher B: In principle, Yes. But it wasn't a car, it was a bicycle. And he didn't win it, but lost it. And it wasn't Smith but Jones.