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Language and Logical Positivism Essay

If asked “What is language? ” one would try to define it in his or her own words or possibly look the word up in the dictionary. Language, by definition, is “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community” (Merriam-Webster). Though the association between this word and its simple definition is what would be widely accepted by our society, philosophers or more specifically logical positivists would argue against the simplicity of language.

According to the man who pioneered the logical positivist movement, Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it” (Wittgenstein). But first, we must have an understanding of what logical positivism is and what this school of philosophy believes. Logical positivists’ view is solely based on something called verification and meaning. To understand what verification and meaning is, there are two other very vital elements in understanding logical positivism: tautologies and empirical statements. Tautologies are statements that are known to be true through logical analysis or the meaning of words.

For instance, mathematics would be a tautology because it is a logical truth, as well as an existing statement that would say that water is H2O. On the other hand, an empirical statement is almost the exact opposite. Empirical statements are statements known to be true through observation only. An example of an empirical statement would be to say that a man is wearing a black coat. Surely, a person can observe the statement that that same man is indeed wearing a black coat if he or she actually saw the man. But even if our eyes tell us that it is a black coat, how do we really know if the coat is a black coat or not?

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Since there is no real way, scientifically nor mathematically, in proving that his coat is actually black, we must assume that the statement is an empirical statement. Now that tautologies and empirical statements are understood, what is the connection to verification and meaning? “Verificationism is the idea that a statement or question only has meaning if there is some way to determine if the statement is true, or what the answer to the question is” (Wikipedia). According to logical positivists, a statement must be verifiable to have true meaning.

If it cannot be verified, then therefore it must be meaningless. The two types of statements we learned before, tautologies and empirical statements, are forms of how we can determine verification. Now, how can we connect language and meaning to what we have learned about the basics of logical positivism? Since stating earlier that language is much more complicated than it seems, it is starting to prove obvious from how much information has just been said that it is indeed a very complex thing. Language is what gives us meaning; it gives us an understanding and sense of our own reality. Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality” (Edgar Allan Poe). A word would be meaningless if our sense of reality of the word was nonexistent. In every language, there is a list of words that create a vocabulary and the grammatical arrangement of those words into a sentence is the syntax. In what is socially understood and accepted by any society, each and every word has its own definition and that definition is true. Though each definition is true, the combinations of the word into the sentence may not be.

If the syntax is incorrect, it will be nonsensical. From what was learned above about tautologies and empirical statements, one can determine whether a sentence is true or false by the rules of logical positivists. Logical positivists, like Rudolf Carnap, believe that it is possible for a sentence to have meaning but that same sentence can also prove to be either true or false. Only a meaningful statement will be able to be proven true or false. If a statement is meaningless, the arrangement and sequence of the words create a statement that will not make sense.

There are some cases where the sequence of words can look like a sentence that has meaning at first glance, but it does not prove to be logical. Carnap and other positivists would call these types of statements a pseudo-statement. “Since the meaning of a word is determined by its criterion of application…, the stipulation of the criterion takes away one’s freedom to decide what one wishes to “mean” by the word…The meaning is implicitly contained in the criterion; all that remains to be done is to make the meaning explicit” (Carnap).

One can have an idea of a certain word through mental images or feelings, but he or she cannot acquire any meaning to the word from just a mental image or feeling. Furthermore, to understand the full meaning of a word, one must determine the word’s criterion of application “by the relations of deducibility entered into by its elementary sentence-form, by its truth-conditions, by the method of its verification”. This all, in opposition to metaphysicians, is only describing the significance of a word.

Put it all together and imagine the significance of a sentence, still in terms of logical positivism. As said before, a sentence can only have meaning if its words are coherently organized in syntax. But positivists seem to argue somewhat against this. In each language, there is a possibility that a sentence can be arranged using perfect grammar and syntax, but not always will it make sense. For example, a person can say “Bob is make” and have it be perfectly, grammatically correct in syntax. But is it logical? Obviously not, because it does not make any sense.

Since natural languages are able to form grammatically correct but illogical sentences, logical positivists believe that grammatical syntax is insufficient. It is suggested that to understand and make sense of a sentence, instead of focusing on the meaning of each individual word, to focus on the syntactical type of each word. Since we now know and understand the logical positivists view on the significance of words and how they are formed to understand the significance of a sentence, we know that the formation and use of words and sentences are what creates a language.

But how does language explain our perceptions of reality? “The limits of my language are the limits of my reality” (Wittgenstein). Everyone’s perception of reality may be different, but how each is perceived, well, that is solely based upon language. It is true that we all have our own perception of reality, and it would be impossible to even experience reality without the understanding of our own language. Our language is what tells us who, what, where, when, why and how. We would not have a sense of self identity if we did not have a language to describe ourselves, for example, a first name or ethnicity.

Anything we do would not have any meaning if it weren’t for language. Life would just simply be chaos to us; since, without it, we wouldn’t even know what we are doing. Without language, we wouldn’t even know where we are or how to even describe our locations. We’d be lost in space. Time, therefore, would not even exist without language; time is a key element in our sense of reality. If there is no language, then there is no time; therefore there is no reality, so would we even exist? Without a language to explain why, we would be lacking knowledge.

Without knowledge, we would be useless, meaningless beings. Lastly, a natural language can always explain how. A language explains how things work, or how things exist, etc. If we do not have the knowledge of knowing all the how’s, we would probably question our own existence, which again would distort our perception of reality. So, “the limit can … only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense” (Wittgenstein). “Philosophy is language idling” (Wittgenstein).

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