Chapter 5


But this is not all there is to understanding. Since understanding realizes that the concept applies to an infinity of other objects than the one it was discovered in, it also recognizes that it doesn't want to be rediscovering this concept every time it meets the right type of object; but on the other hand, it doesn't want to clutter itself up with being conscious of all of its concepts all the time. Further, this would not really be possible, since the sensations are a "dimension" of the understanding; but they can't (in this life, at least) be divorced from their energy-"dimension"; and, of course, there is only a finite amount of energy in the brain at any one time.

So what is needed is (a) a "switch" that will turn a particular concept on and off, and (b) something that will economize on the brain's energy, so that you wouldn't have to recall all of the relevant images you had experienced in order to reawaken a concept. This would probably be a requisite for any mental act that you wanted to store and recall quickly. The most efficient thing to do is to have something simple substitute for it so that it could be reawakened by calling up just this simple sensation rather than the whole complex set of sensations.

Now a "switch" that turns consciousness on and off has to be a sensation of some sort, because it is both conscious (and so accessible to understanding and spiritual consciousness) and a form of energy. Pure energy won't do it, nor will a purely spiritual act. Hence, what is needed for purposes of getting a concept out of one's consciousness and yet having it readily available is the creation of some simple image (because if it is internally created, it is using imagination, not perception, to create it) which (a) is somehow spiritually linked to the concept (i.e. which is deliberately created so as to "stand for" it and reawaken it when it itself is conscious--or in other words, which somehow contains the concept within it as one of its "dimensions); and (b) is connected by some nerve-pathway to the area(s) of the brain that contain the sensations that have the aspect in question. Presumably, other sorts of mental acts would also benefit, as I said, from having simple symbols (like "Wow!") which stand for a given emotional state, and which simultaneously awaken understanding that this emotional state is being expressed, and have links to the area of the brain where this emotion is felt. And since these images are sensible, they can be reproduced as some kind of external object, which will then be accessible to others as the expression of the mental act in question.

Therefore, we can say this:

Conclusion 6: The human spirit will create a language to store and retrieve and express to others its mental acts.

A word is a sensation that represents a mental act.

A language is an ordered system of words.

The first thing to note is that what the word is is arbitrary. It need not be a sound or set of sounds. The words you are reading are not sounds, and there is no particular reason why they have to represent sounds. I have heard that written Chinese is the same for all dialects, because it is a separate language; and reading is really translating this visual language into the (other) spoken language of the dialect that the person happens to speak. If this is true, then written Chinese is a purely visual language; its symbols stand for concepts, not sounds which then stand for concepts. Further, the deaf-mute language is clearly only a visual language for those who can't hear. A shrug of the shoulder is also a word, as is a wink and various other uses of "body language." Some of these things are spontaneous expressions, like smiles or tears, but they can also be used to mean something and be understood by others as well as simply reacted to.

But why are most languages sounds? This presumably has to do with the expression-to-others function of the language, to make it as efficient as possible. If you are communicating with your hands, you don't leave them free to be doing anything else while you are communicating; and at the same time, the person you are directing your expression to must be looking at you. If you are making sounds, you can be doing whatever else you please, and the other person can receive the communication in more cases than with sight, because sound can bend around objects, and even go through solid objects like walls. Sound has many advantages over other forms of communication (except perhaps writing, which has its own particular pluses, such as that I can communicate with you even though I am probably now dead as you read this).

Let me now give a slightly broader definition of meaning:

The meaning of a linguistic expression is the mental act it stands for.

The definition I gave earlier seemed to imply that only expressions of acts of understanding had meaning; and there are many philosophers, A. J. Ayer among them, I believe, who at least seem to hold this--and the position is reasonable on the face of it.

But in point of fact, unless you know what the relation is between the linguistic expression and the mental act, then you don't know what is being expressed, and the expression does not convey anything to you. For instance, if you don't know colloquial English or its punctuation, then "Wow!" is meaningless, and you don't realize that the writer is excited. If you don't understand English tones of voice as expressing emotional attitude toward what is being said (e.g., if you are Chinese, where tones express concepts), then "That was a really beautiful meal!" said in an ironic tone will be taken to mean that the person is satisfied with the meal, when he meant to convey that it was terrible.

So such expressions, even if they are not and don't contain statements of fact, have the meaning that the speaker is in a certain mental state. He can, for instance, lie by speaking as if he is pleased when in fact he is displeased, whether or not the words taken as statements have anything to do with this.(1)

So even though not every linguistic expression is a statement of fact, it is understood as a fact; and when it isn't a statement of fact itself, it is understood to mean the speaker's attitude or desire dealing with whatever the words talk about.

Also on the topic of the arbitrariness of language, the words in a language that exists in a culture may be arbitrary with respect to the culture as a whole, but they are not arbitrary for the individual who uses that language. That is, when the word was first invented and began to be used, whoever the first users were determined what concept the sounds in question would stand for; and from then on it is the understanding of the culture as to the meaning of the word that is the meaning of the word; and if a given person understands it to mean something that the culture doesn't understand, then the person is wrong.

This is not to say that cultures can't change the meaning of the words they use; but the word as in current usage determines the meaning that is to be understood by this word at this time. Thus "awful" does not now mean "inspiring awe" (this is now "awesome"), but "extremely bad." The translators of Plato's Republic insist on using "justice" to translate dikaiosyne, when what Plato meant by the word is an almost exact equivalent of what we now mean by "honesty."

And, of course, the pejorative connotations the feminists have put to certain expressions and the "sexual orientation" they have tacked on to them were--it seems to me--obviously not intended by the culture at all. For instance, "chairman" as implying something masculine (so that you have to say "chairperson" to be "sexually neutral") is absurd, given the fact that "madam chairman" has been the proper form of address to women in that position for decades. To say that "lady" is pejorative, and allege as evidence the expression "ladies of the night" (prostitutes) is to take an ironic usage literally, and is as dumb as saying that "gentleman" is pejorative because "gentleman of the road" is an ironic way of saying "tramp."

The problem I have with feminists who want to revamp the language is not the attempt to inculcate a non-sexist attitude; it is a disrespect for the language itself, and is analogous to Humpty-Dumpty's definition of "glory" as "a good knock-down argument." Further, it is an attempt to remake the language into something sexist in the opposite direction. I hear women nowadays speaking of "women" and "males." It is forbidden nowadays to use "man" in the inclusive sense, and so it is supposed to refer exclusively to masculine human beings; but lately you can't use it at all; and "women" are referred to with a term that conveys gender, not sex, while "men" are designated by a term that refers to nothing but what is between their legs. If I were a "black male" I would resent the assault on my personhood that this term (which is almost exclusively used now to refer to these people) conveys.

Because of the aggressive attempt to change the language into something that promotes a political agenda, we have lost several things in our beautiful tongue. We have, for one thing, lost the concept of "brotherhood," because there is no word to express it except "brotherhood," and that word is forbidden as "sexist." We have also lost flow and grace in speaking. It matters little if he/she or "chairperson" is anything but tripping on the tongue; if you don't use such expressions, you are automatically supposed to be putting women down.

In any case, how much this has succeeded in altering thought-patterns is doubtful. For instance, I once heard a colleague refer to her "chairpersonship." Now the abstract of "person" is "personhood," not "personship"; so it is obvious that while she said "chairperson," she was thinking "chairman."(2) The wrenching of the language out of shape succeeded in achieving lip service, but it didn't change the mentality even of one who was in favor of what it was supposed to be doing.

And because and to the extent that the attack on the language is political rather than linguistic, it is failing. I notice that lately announcers on radio and TV are using "chairperson" and "spokesperson" to refer to women and "chairman" and "spokesman" to refer to men. He/she has, thank God, fallen into desuetude, except that you still find college professors in learned papers switching genders in the middle of paragraphs to give men and women equal time. The first sentence will say something like, "If anyone takes this line of reasoning, she is doomed to contradict herself"; and two or three sentences later that same "anyone" is a "he." That isn't language--at least it's not the English language; it's insanity.

Some changes apparently are sticking. Terms like "man" and "brother" are taken by the culture in the male sense, and "person" is, in its less awkward usages, replacing the neutral sense of "man." This is robbing "person" of its meaning beyond the human race, as referring, for example, to God or to an angel. Since I suspect that you are reading this years after I am writing it (maybe even--I hope--centuries), I wonder what your reaction is, since whatever changes there are have got into the traditional language.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that tampering with the language is very tricky; you might wind up achieving the goal you intended and have all kinds of side-effects that you wish hadn't occurred.

The second thing to note is that, since language is a way of economizing on what reawakens a concept, then this economizing tendency also carries over into the language itself. It tries to have as few words as is consistent with conveying clearly the meaning of the speaker; and the result is multiple meanings of given sounds, where the context distinguishes one from the other, and different ways of combining words into statements that express new relationships. If every word were a statement or an expression of a complete mental attitude, we would have very little room in our brains to store anything but words; as it is, most people begin to feel linguistic overload when the vocabulary they are confronted with is upwards of twenty thousand words; and so even people who have large vocabularies tend to use only a tiny fraction of the terms they know, because they want first and foremost to be understood; and so there is a great deal of resorting to metaphor and analogy. One of the reasons slang is so "colorful" is that it stems from the lowest and most uneducated class of society; and the smart people there very often don't know what the word is for something, and so make up a catchy phrase for it using familiar terms unfamiliarly.

In any case, economy of words in a language tends toward an intricate grammar, which allows the words to be used in various recognizable senses. Thus, the meaning of a "car radio" is different from that of a "radio car" simply by the position of the words. In English, we convey differences in many cases just by position, while other languages convey them by inflection or modification of the word itself, and position conveys emphasis.

Is there a built-in grammar that all languages share, as some contemporary linguists seem to think? Yes and no. If understanding is, as I think it is, knowing relationships, then language will be constrained by the minimum necessary to express relationships among (or within) objects. And what this entails is that there has to be some way (a) to point to objects, (b) express the relationship with others, and (c) express the aspect, or "hook" of that relationship onto the object. There is also the fact that language has to express the activity of reality somehow, and this generally, I would think, would be connected with time relations--though every language would also have to have an "aorist" usage that does not express any time (like our present tense, when used abstractly and not meaning "now"). But how you do all this is subject to enormous variation; and let us leave the linguists to figure it out and see if in fact there is a an actual construction or mode of construction that is common to absolutely all languages. I am inclined to think that there is no "natural" grammar, however, or way that we "by nature" express in sounds the relationships and so on I enumerated above--in the sense that one type of grammar is somehow "preferred" or "primitive": a kind of Ursprache.

For our purposes, however, I should point out that languages also have to express four distinguishable types of complete linguistic expression (sentence):

A statement expresses an act of understanding (a judgment); and consequently what the speaker thinks is a fact.

A question expresses a desire to be informed, or puzzlement.

An exclamation expresses an emotional attitude toward something.

A command expresses a desire that someone perform an act.

All of these, as I said, have to be able to be understood, and so they mean something; but the only kind of sentence that actually expresses understanding is the statement; and since a judgment is a judgment of what the fact is, then the statement will also refer (supposing the speaker not to be lying or mistaken) to what the fact is.

Because statements express facts, then statements are involved in a complicated truth-relationship. In Chapters 6 and 7 of 5 of the First Part, 1.5.6 I spoke of the relationship between the judgment and the fact, and pointed out that the judgment would be true if it thought that the fact (the relation "out there") was what it actually was, or mistaken if it didn't.

But statements can match or not match the facts they are supposed to represent in more complex ways, at least one of which is not mistaken at all. Hence, let us used new terms to refer to the truth-relation of statements.

A statement is true if it agrees with the fact (i.e. if it says that the fact is what in fact it is).

A statement is false if it does not agree with the fact it states (i.e. if the fact isn't what the statement says it is).

Notice that "true" and "false" do not have any reference in themselves to the judgment the speaker is making, but only to the fact that he is talking about. Hence, when speaking of a statement's truth or falsity, you completely bypass the one who made it and directly relate it to the fact.

Now then, there are four possible ways a statement can be false: (1) If the speaker has a mistaken judgment and expresses the judgment correctly; (2) if the speaker has a correct judgment and mistakes how to express it (misstates it unintentionally); (3) if the speaker deliberately misstates a true judgment (this is, of course, a lie); and (4) if the speaker has a mistaken judgment and misstates it in such a way that the two errors do not cancel each other out.

Thus, if a person says, "John is in the room," thinking that John is in the room when in fact he isn't, then his statement is false because his judgment is false. If a person says, "This book is infinitesimal in length," because he judges it to be very long, the statement is false, because he didn't realize that "infinitesimal" means "immeasurably small" rather than "immense." If a person says, "I paid you the money I owed you," knowing that he didn't pay, and knowing what the statement means, the statement is false because he is lying. If a person says, "This book is "inscrutable" because he thinks it is very boring and he thinks that "inscrutable" means "very boring," his statement is (I hope) false because his two mistakes don't cancel each other.

Statements can be true for various reasons also: (1) because the speaker correctly expresses a true judgment (the usual reason); (2) because the speaker mistakenly misstates a mistaken judgment; or (3) because the speaker deliberately misstates a mistaken judgment. The last two cases result in a true statement when the two mistakes (or the misstatement and the mistake) cancel each other out.

An example of the second case would be "The Gettysburg Address was a very concise speech" if the person thinks that it was very prolix and thinks that "concise" means "long-winded." An example of the third would be, "John is not in the room," if the speaker thinks that John is in the room and is lying, but doesn't realize that John has in fact left the room. In this case, note that the statement is simultaneously true (because it states what the fact is) and a lie (because it deliberately states the opposite of what the speaker thinks the truth is).

A couple of sections from now, we will return to statements, discussing what is called "formal logic," which is actually not the way we think, but the way we express our judgments in language.

Now then, the third thing to note about language is that, since words are sensible symbols for concepts and other mental acts, then it is true in a sense that we "think in a language." That is, our concepts very rarely are completely divorced from linguistic symbols and only related to the images we take them from (we can, of course, create a language using pictures as words, but this is not the same as just using the original sensations as the termini of the relationship). Until we find or create a word that expresses our understanding, we are in an unsatisfied, incomplete state, because there is no way we can make it conscious again when we need it.

But there are times when the concept is known, and the words aren't. People who have had strokes sometimes seem to experience this frustration of knowing what they want to say and finding no words (now) to say it. I myself had a peculiar experience in this regard once. I was teaching philosophy in Spanish in Argentina, and wanted to show the difference between my view and the traditional Scholastic view; and so I tried to give the traditional definition of "cause" in Latin, as I had learned it. But I was speaking in Spanish, and there was apparently no link in my brain from Spanish words to their Latin equivalents; so I could not think of the definition in Latin. I then tried to think of it in Spanish, and then in English; but the circuitry in my brain had been by this time so jammed, that I could not get at it in any of the languages, even though I knew perfectly clearly what I wanted to say. (As I recall, I said a few other things, which cleared up my brain-pathways, and was then able to say the definition in Spanish).

This, to me, establishes two things: (1) that the judgment is different from the language it is expressed in, and (2) that it is intimately connected with some sensible expression. This would not be surprising if the human spirit also has an immaterial "dimension" to itself.

Another indication of the difference between judgment and language is that when we say a word that we have already assigned a concept to, we recognize the concept as already known, and not as new.

This is very interesting, because it means that the concept does not get lost when it becomes unconscious; it just somehow lapses into latency. Even when we "change our idea" of something, we have not really replaced the old concept with a new one, we have simply acquired the new one and used the old word to refer to it; and the old concept is then reawakened by some more complicated expression. For instance, if you think that all trees have leaves that fall off in the autumn, and then someone shows you an evergreen, you "change your idea of tree." But the concept you had hasn't changed; it is just that now you have to get at it by something like "deciduous tree," and recognize that the word "tree" now refers both to deciduous trees and evergreens, and so what aspects all trees have in common does not include what happens to their leaves in the autumn.

I think, then, that we can safely draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 7: Once we have understood a concept, it becomes a permanent "dimension" of our spirit, but it is accessed only if its word (or a related image) is conscious.

Thus, you may "lose" a concept for the rest of your life, because you have forgotten the word it attached itself to; but in another sense, it is not really lost, because if you should happen to remember the word, the concept will reappear. And, as we will see in the next section, since our spirit will not cease to exist when we die, all of the spiritual acts we have ever had in this life will reawaken all together, because there is now no brain to shut them off selectively.

In any case, if the conclusion above were not true, I do not see how a person could be aware that he already knew a concept that he had reawakened.

Finally, let us note that understanding seems to be required for using language in the sense I am talking about it. Let me give what I think is the evidence, and then we can make it a formal conclusion. Since the symbol in the language is arbitrary and does not of itself evoke the mental act it stands for (even, really, in onomatopoetic words, which don't actually sound like what they're supposed to sound like), then the only way you can use the language in anything other than a repetitive or mechanically manipulative way would be if you knew the relationship between the words and what they stood for. But this means that you understand, which means that your mind is basically spiritual, not immaterial.

This would seem, on the face of it, pretty obvious. But it is quite difficult to devise unambiguous tests for animals to see whether they can understand sentences or whether they simply manipulate them by their ability to make very complicated associations, and because they have been trained to make connections according to the language's grammar.

In recent decades, there have been experiments with chimpanzees using arbitrary-shaped pieces of plastic as words that stand for various objects, adjectives, and verbs. The animals quickly get trained to put the symbols for "Keeper give banana chimp" in that order rather than "Chimp give banana keeper," because in the one case, they get the banana as a result, and in the other they get it taken away. They can then do things like "Chimp2 give banana chimp," expecting the other chimp to give up his banana; and they do various other rather amazing manipulations of their plastic chips using their vocabulary of dozens of words.

But there seems no instance of them ever trying to create a word to stand for something else they are interested in; and some rather recent looks at some of the studies seem to indicate that the experimenters were giving a rather too sanguine interpretation of what their chimps were doing, and explaining as understanding something that could be accounted for by ingenious connections among the chips and the objects; and connections are not enough, as we saw, to establish that understanding is present.

So far, then, we have not seen any instances that any other animal except man can understand; because any use of language by other animals is either the making of some sound or gesture that produces an effect in the other animal, or it is a manipulation of things associated with other things. Neither of these is a language in the sense we are talking about here.

Here, then, is the conclusion:

Conclusion 8: If an animal can use an abstract language creatively, then the animal must be able to understand.

Actually, something of what animals do must be what happens in our dreams, where we hear ourselves and others saying things that actually (when we wake up) are meaningful and appropriate. But do we understand in dreams? I think not; otherwise, (a) we would know we were dreaming, (b) we would be aware of the illogic (e.g. as in my dream last night, I started driving up a hill, which I was then climbing on foot, and when I got to the top I found I was on a platform and had been climbing a ladder, not a hill); and (c) we are not really aware of ourselves as subject, but our experience is more or less the same as watching a movie of ourselves or reading a first-person novel. It is not that illogical things don't happen to us when we are awake; but we don't accept them as a matter of course the way we do when we are dreaming;

Clearly, we are conscious in dreams, at the low level of consciousness of imagination. But we do not seem to be intellectually conscious, for the reasons above.

But then how explain our use of language in a dream? With the same explanation as that of the use by animals of language. Our vocabulary is, of course, much more complex, and so are the rules of grammar stored in our brains; and as situations unfold in our imagination (following, as I said in the last section, the path of least resistance) phrases and sentences that have correct grammar and are appropriate also occur--but it has many many times happened with me, at least, that the sentences that I was perfectly satisfied with in my dream were remembered upon awakening and turned out to be completely meaningless and absurd.

So while I have in the past believed that perhaps we do think in our dreams, but that our awareness of our dreaming state is (ordinarily) suppressed (sometimes we do, of course, seem to be dreaming in the dream), I am inclined to think now that we don't understand in our dreams but only use language on the sense level. I can't see how a person can understand without knowing all about his conscious act, because it is all self-transparent if a spiritual act is involved.(3)

Further discussion of language we can postpone until the next part, when we treat formal logic.



1. Ayer contends that you can't really lie when making moral judgments, because they express an attitude, but aren't statements of the fact that you have the attitude. Thus, "It is wrong to steal" is the equivalent of "Stealing!" spoken in a tone of horror or revulsion. But (a) we will see much later that moral statements do have a factual meaning, and (b) even something like "Stealing!" if it is spoken to someone is intended not just to express but to convey the attitude; in which case, to say it when in fact you don't have the attitude is a falsification of what it says. Otherwise, ironic statements, like, "Really terrific! You did a lot of work on this!" when remarking about a failing grade on a test would mean the exact opposite of what the speaker intends them to be understood as and which are in fact understood by the tone of his voice.

2. Those ready to quibble might note that the abstract of "man" is also "manhood," not "manship." But that simply reinforces my point: Chairman is not the same word as chair-man.

3. But, as I said in an earlier footnote, in my revision of this I have my doubts. It is perhaps not so cut-and-dried as this; it would be strange if intellectual consciousness were completely inactive when a person is conscious at all.