Friday, August 5, 2016

On Language and Thought

 "Language is the perfect element in which interiority is as external as exteriority is internal." -Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

Language precedes thought. Such a radical thesis will slowly prove convincing through an analysis of set theory, its relation to language, and its paradoxes. It will soon become clear that language is the first and only immediate thought; all others presuppose language and are mediated by it. 

We should first start out with the set. A set is, quite intuitively, a grouping of elements; and elements can be just about anything. Mathematicians tend to talk about sets of numbers, in which numbers are the elements. For example, there is the set of all even numbers which includes 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. It is also represented or signified as E = {2, 4, 6, 8, ... }. There can also be a set of existing entities. For example, we can have the set of all frogs or the set of all green objects.

In this way, sets are also the basic unit of language. The word is the category. What I mean by this is that all words are sets or relationships between those sets. For example, when I say the word "frog," I really mean the set of all frogs. When I say the word "green," I really mean the set of all green objects. On the other hand, when I say a phrase like "the frog is green," "is" relates the frog to its appropriate color, and the article "the" (which is not even present in every language) specifies a certain frog, rather than any frog, which would be denoted by the article "a." So in this sense, the words "frog" and "green" are sets, and the words "is" and "the" are relationships between those sets. Hence, set theory is really the purest language, the language par excellence, since it specifies this aspect of all signifiers (or words) and the relationships between them. All nouns and adjectives are sets, and all other words are relationships between those sets. If language is abstraction of reality, then set theory is language in the abstract -- an abstraction of the abstraction. 

However, there is a paradox within set theory which arises. And that paradox arises from "the set of all sets which are not elements of themselves." Sometimes referred to as Russell's Paradox, the conundrum arises from the fact that if such a set belongs to itself, it does not; and if it does not belong to itself, then it does. An explanation is in order. Imagine a set which is not an element of itself. We can use the above example, the even numbers. Surely, the numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8 are elements of such a set. Yet the set of such numbers is not itself an even number. Nor is a set such as A = {2, 4, 6}. A definitely contains even numbers. But the set itself is not an even number. And so A would not be an element of the even numbers. Similarly, the set of all even numbers would not be an element of itself -- it would not be an element of the set of all even numbers. So, again imagine the set of all sets which are not elements of themselves. If such a set is not an element of itself, it must be an element of itself by virtue of not being an element of itself -- since this very set is the set of all sets which are not elements of themselves! And if it IS an element of itself, then it cannot be, since this set includes only sets which are not elements of themselves! Hence the paradox.

Now, Giorgio Agamben puts this paradox most cleverly when he states that "language is the set of all sets which are not elements of themselves." In an immediate way, this makes sense. After all, as was stated, language is really the set of all words. But no word, as a set, actually contains itself as an element. For example, the set of green objects, which might include frogs, leaves, and celery, does not include the word green as an element. The word green is not itself green. The word frog is similar. Although it might contain my pet frog Roger, it does not contain itself. The word frog is not itself a frog! And so, since language contains all such sets, language can be seen as the set of all sets which are not elements of themselves. 

The contradiction of language is therefore best exemplified in the language par excellence, which is set theory. What was originally viewed as a contradiction within a language is now revealed as a contradiction within language itself. Russell's Paradox is not merely a problem for set theory: it is the paradox of all languages.

But what does it mean to say that language is the set of all sets which are not elements of themselves? Firstly, it implies that language both is and is not an element of itself. Although sounding nonsensical at first, this actually is generally correct. "Word" is, after all, a word. As is "language." Hence, language is an element of itself. "Language" is a word within language. "Word" is a word among words.

On the other hand, language is not an element of itself. It must be presupposed before any word actually arises. Otherwise, the word could never arises as a word. Language is therefore presupposed before it actually arises. It cannot, in this sense, be an element of itself, as the thought of it precedes itself. Its notion exists before it is itself made into a set. That is, it exists immediately as a notion without actual lingual specifications. The idea of linguistic communication can occur without the realization or actualization of that idea. One must directly imagine linguistic communication before the first word arises. 

So language both is and is not an element of itself. This should not be alarming. After all, logic is itself a language; so if this sentiment contradicts logic, it merely reveals what is superior. Language, in every way, transcends logic. Logic, like set theory, is a lowly derivative of language, which so many have deluded themselves into believing is the final form of thought. 

Language is therefore an immediate thought. That is, it is not mediated. In particular, it is not mediated by itself: language cannot be mediated by language. However, in arguing that language precedes thought, we must somehow show that language is the first and only immediate thought. All other thoughts would then presuppose and be mediated by language.

As mentioned above, the defining feature of language is its ability to categorize, its way of placing entities into sets. But is this very facet of language not a prerequisite for thought? Suppose that we were not able to categorize the world around us. Would it not then appear as a single entity without distinction? We would then be left in a purely vegetative state, floating in white nothingness without any way of achieving thought or even self consciousness -- for we wouldn't even be able to distinguish ourselves from what is around us. 

Language therefore must precede thought. And it is therefore the first and only immediate thought. All others are mediated by the resulting language. 

Let us use an example to further emphasize this point. Catherine Belsey states that "if the things or concepts language named already existed outside language, words would have exact equivalents from one language to another." She uses an example to illustrate that this is not the case: the French Toto, sois sage means Toto, be good. "But ... we sensed that sage and 'good' were not always interchangeable. 'A good time' in French, we knew, would not be sage at all, since the term implies sense or wisdom." The implication is that every thought is a categorization. Sage is a categorization or set which includes a variety of ways of acting or being. There is, however, no direct translation to English. We have no way, as English speakers, of putting such a sentiment. And so it never comes to mind. But a more accurate way of putting this is that it never comes to mind without a word. No matter how hard we try to delude ourselves, such a sentiment never arrived to us so monosyllabically. Perhaps a string of sentences would have sufficed, but that would be circular in that the thought still only arises through words (and this still holds even if our language is so advanced that every thought can eventually be realized with enough words). The sentiment of a new thought is always on the tip of our tongues, but without the word it never quite arises. Colors are the same: we might imagine a new color -- as if it is just beyond purple! But without the visualization it never arises in the mind. In other terms, thought presupposes language. 

This conclusion is rather difficult to grasp. For one, we all feel that we can think without language. Yet there is no way of actually proving this since language has always been a part of us (is it surprising that memory only arises once one has learned a language or that language is itself the first thing remembered?). One counter argument could take the following form. Imagine that you observe an animal which you have never seen before, and for which you therefore do not have a word. Surely, could one not imagine that new animal in the mind before naming it? Would this not be an example of thought preceding language? However, such an argument seems circular. After all, to call this animal to mind is already to categorize it as a new species. It already implies that one has placed it into a set separate from all others. Hence, upon being thought or imagined, the new animal has already entered the realm of the linguistic. There is always already a way of wording any new object or experience, even if this wording must take the form of "not everything else I have already seen" or, in our example, "not every other animal I have already seen." The first word, the original set, already implies all others. Once one has discovered language, and therefore began thought, there can be no end to it. Is it really that difficult to accept this? We cannot unlearn our language, and we cannot stop thinking -- except perhaps in death.

This is also why slang has such power. Upon hearing slang, one has a new thought enter his mind. Eventually, such nuanced words become irresistible. The word and the thought come back to their masters endlessly, like a stray dog who has grown to love the man who feeds him.

So language precedes thought. We might therefore conclude that all thought is always already mediated. And this mediation occurs because of the linguistic: it happens through the use of language. Hence, this should not be forgotten: control of language means control of thought. The next goal must therefore be aimed at nothing less than complete linguistic liberation.