CHAPTER 4. WORDS AND THINGS.
A major function of the discipline of logic is to teach us to express our thoughts explicitly, clearly and unambiguously. We consider thought as serial, because words are strung together; but the underlying perception or conceptual insight is often more global.
A perception or conceptual insight may be wordless, even a logical process of thought and inference may occur in inner silence. We often feel in ourselves or see in other people a facial or bodily reaction, like a smile of assent or sardonic grin of doubt, and know some thought has taken place on a subconscious or unconscious level, though we cannot say what or why.
We can be aware of a phenomenon without labeling it; but we often label things, to mentally process or socially communicate a thought concerning them. Our thinking is usually expressed by the formation of sounds inside our heads, or we voice or write or even gesture our thoughts.
To label something, we need only point to it, physically or mentally, and utter a word; we then understand that henceforth this word is to direct our attention to that thing. When we point to something for our own purposes, we know immediately what we mean; but when we do so in an attempt to communicate our intention to others, we may of course be misunderstood.
If one does not understand the significance of ‘pointing’, one cannot grasp the intention of words. Physical pointing seems to be a sending out of ‘energy’ in the desired direction, enough to draw the respondent’s attention along that line till it meets the object concerned. Animals seem not to comprehend it usually, though sometimes they seem to.
The ‘meaning’ of a word, then, is primarily the phenomenon or group of phenomena we pointed to, one way or another, when we introduced it — and all its eventual manifestations. However, we may later narrow the meaning down, and gradually attach the word to a more distinctive and invariable aspect of it all.
Words are symbols. The mind usually assigns one word (if any) for each thing, though sometimes more than one word may be assigned to one thing (equivocation), or one word may be assigned to more than one thing (ambiguity).
Any object of our consciousness may be distinctively named. But most literally single phenomena are ephemeral, and naming them all would be pointless and confusing. Mostly, we label things by reference to their similarities and differences. We look for repetitive, yet distinct experiences, and assign names to groups of phenomena which have some permanence and relevance to our lives. Even ‘individual’ things are groups of phenomena; ‘kinds’ of things are doubly so.
In the case of proper names, of persons or pets, all the manifestations of an individual entity are referred to; for example, ‘Aristotle’ refers to all the accumulated impressions of that person. In the case of common names, like ‘man’, a group of similar entities is intended, and all their manifestations as individuals. We do not, of course, have to give proper names to every instance of a kind; we can distinguish them indicatively, as in ‘this flower’.
In any case, the existence of a continuity is always presumed by our use of words; as is our ability to recognize such continuity, in spite of changes of the individual across time or differences from one individual to the next. Many differences are discounted. The labeling is open-ended, confident of our power to apply it as we proceed; if we managed previously, why not also subsequently?
We can limit our vocabulary further, by making statements involving strings of words, instead of inventing new words. Things appear to us not in isolation, but as having various relations. ‘Relationships’ are of course themselves phenomena, which we group and name if found interesting.
When we encounter a relational phenomenon, rather than viewing it as a unity, we distinguish the things related and the relation, and verbally express our perception or conceptual insight as a sentence. Still more complex phenomena may require finer analysis through the use of many sentences.
Thus, words serve first to capture our concrete or abstract experiences. When the phenomenon is relational, we may express it verbally through a sentence or series of sentences. A language is an agreed upon collection of words, a vocabulary, and a convention as to the ways the words may be put together into sentences, a grammar.
The mental or vocal sound, or written symbol, or gesture, acquires the status of a word, only if we once pointed to something (with the index finger, or saying ‘look there!’), giving its ‘coordinates’, or address in space and time. Eventually, we could name something described in terms of other words previously based on such pointing. A ‘word’ without some ultimate points of reference is a meaningless entity.
A word establishes a conventional correspondence between word and thing. We may imagine a ‘line of relation’ joining word and thing, and call it ‘meaning’ or ‘intent’. Once invented in this way, the word may be used as an instrument of thought. Henceforth the word becomes, as it were, our substitute for the thing, representing it like an ambassador. We can focus on it, manipulate it, store it away in or recall it from memory, or pass it on to other people (communicate it).
Simply put, ‘memory’ is any locale where words are laid to rest pending our resumption of attention to them. Words may be externally stored: written in a book or taped on a cassette; or they may be internally stored in our own ‘minds’. However, memory must include not only the word, but also somehow what it refers to.
Recalling the word shape or sound would not constitute full remembering, unless we are also awakened to the meaning of the word as well. On the other hand, remembering may be wordless. Therefore, the essence of memory, however it works, is its ability to cause our awareness to return to the original object or some comparable re-enactment of it.
The words involved are incidental; what counts is the underlying act of consciousness. Still, words are useful instruments, not mere appendages. The words we read or hear act as ‘switches’, which re-trigger and direct our attention to specific experiences or reproductions of them.
Note that we may decide together that this sound and that visual symbol will be ‘the same word’, and be used to refer to the same thing. For example, the sound ‘dog’ and the written ‘d-o-g’ are considered equivalent, though they are substantially different.
Furthermore, a ‘word’ is always a class of symbols: many individual sounds or visual symbols which resemble each other, or are accepted as one and the same ‘word’. Any word that I utter or hear or write or read today is a different individual manifestation from its previous occurrence, yet their similarity of sound or look, allow me to recognize them as ‘one’ word.
For this reason, it is absurd to contend that ‘the only thing which allegedly similar objects have in common is the name we assign them’. If nothing was similar to anything else, or we could not recognize things, then even words (as themselves objects) would have no resemblances, and be unrepeatable.
Thus, the existence of some similarity, and its knowability in principle, are inescapable. How we come to know that things are same or different is a big question, but it need not concern us at this stage, since logic assures us that we at least sometimes do manage to know it.
An entity is a unique complex knot of time, place, attributes, motions, relationships of various kinds. The ‘boundaries’ of an appearance are themselves usually given as a component of the total phenomenon, though occasionally we may delimit some arbitrary part of a continuum as a unit for consideration. Nothing seems to exist which appears unrelated in some way or other to other things. Something can always be said about anything.
Especially, the relations of sameness and difference seems to be pervasive; everywhere we look, we get these impressions of resemblance and differentiation. If the world contained absolutely only one uniform thing, there would be no call for concepts of similarity or difference. Such utter inimitable and undifferentiatable Unity perhaps concerns G-d, prior to Creation. But the world we know, the world of appearances, is given as a multiplicity of experiences, with more than one object and at least one subject of consciousness.
A world of many things, but which are entirely without any similarities between them, a world where nothing has anything in common with anything else and everything is ‘an island unto itself’, is unimaginable. If such a world contains more than one thing, they have in common at least ‘existence’, ‘singularity’, and ‘dissimilarity’.
A world of many things, but which are entirely without any differences between them, a world where everything has everything in common with everything else and is an ‘exact replica’ of each other thing, is also unimaginable. If such a world contains more than one thing, they must differ at least in their space and time coordinates to be apart, to be ‘many’.
In comparing two or more individual appearances, we may find that they seem to have certain distinguishable factors in common, and our response is to look upon these distinct similarities as significant enough to be named and treated as thought-units. In philosophy, the apparent common factors of things are called ‘universals’.
The simplest way to think of universals is to regard them as substances scattered throughout the world, mingling in different combinations, together constituting entities. Thus, greenness may color objects as distinct as a leaf or a computer screen; a leaf is a meeting point, a sum, of shape, size, color, temperature, and so on. This is the common-sense view, which we will accept as good enough for our purposes here.
When a word is assigned to a new appearance, we do so because the phenomenon seems distinct from any other previously encountered. If further experience shows this initial impression erroneous, because the phenomenon is not novel, then the word becomes an equivocation or falls into disuse.
Likewise, we may wrongly assign a previously created word, or combination of words, to a new phenomenon, which at first seemed to, but on closer inspection ceased to, resemble the old, so that ambiguity arises, or we must reclassify the experience under another word or formulate another sentence.
Thus, naming and verbalizing of our experiences suggests analogies which may later be found inadequate, or which may stand the test of time and further experience. In the former case, we judge the initial assumption illusory; in the latter case, real. But the experience in question remains what it was, however we judge it. Whether real or illusory, it is an ‘appearance’, something presenting itself to us as object of consciousness.
A big issue in philosophy is whether these intuited commonalities, these resemblances (re-appearances, seeming repetitions), are rooted in the mind somehow (subjective), or whether they exist out there in the object somehow (objective), or both somehow. How can something (a universal) be at once one and many? Theorists have suggested a variety of possible scenarios on either side, but never to everyone’s full satisfaction. There may be truth in what they say, but further follow-up is needed.
From the point of view of Logic, no such theory can stand which concludes in the denial that these similarities have some status of reality. For such theory itself, being formulated in conceptual terms, would thereby imply itself untrue. Whatever our theory, the result must be to justify, rather than cause rejection of, the assumption of similarity; for only such result is logically tenable.
As far as concerns Logic, if there is an appearance of resemblance, it is to be considered at its face value. Logically, the appearance of resemblance cannot be declared wrong in principle, even though its exact nature is admittedly yet unclear to us. We may initially assume it to be realistic, without a priori excluding the possibility that some such appearances may (as any appearance may) turn out to be illusory.
On the basis of our apparent knowledge of similarity, we tend to group individual phenomena into classes, defined by some selected common factor. In what sense that common factor is itself essentially singular, while being scattered in the many class members, is a mystery. Logic leaves such issues to philosophers and moves on.
Some comments concerning definition are in order here. One way to define a word is to point to a material object with one’s index finger and say the word; or we may mentally focus on something and think the word in our heads. Alternatively, we may notice that other people repeatedly use a word in the face of a certain experience, and thus we learn that this word refers to that experience.
Yet another way, is to describe something using other words, and assign the new word to this description. Effectively, such definition serves to draw the mind’s attention to the object intended: it is not a mere equation of words. We may later realize that the description we gave was not accurate, and propose a new verbal definition. The word can stay unchanged, we ‘know’ what we were trying to mean by it, only now we have a clearer description of that phenomenon.
Were definition a mere conventional equation of words, a definition would be unchangeable, since the meaning of the word would change when the definition was altered, and we would be talking about a different object than originally intended. But because a definition is an attempt at description, merely designed to direct the mind towards an object of wordless consciousness, it is changeable.
Definition is an attempt to express what appears to be the ‘essential’ character of the object concerned. Nonetheless, it must be stressed that the assumed essence is itself only an appearance: it may at a later stage appear unessential, or even be found to not always be displayed by the object, and other definitions may replace it. Although definition is, like any other aspect of knowledge, flexible, that does not make it any less useful or valid.
In principle, note well, not everything is definable. To suggest that every word must be defined in other words, is to make an impossible demand for an infinite chain of derivations. There has to be some primary meanings, known directly, on which later descriptive meanings may be built. The phenomenon in question may be so fundamental, that we cannot discern any simpler components in it, but can only discern it as a component of more complex phenomena.
Thus, there is no rational basis for forbidding ‘circular’ definition as such. Some definitions are merely formulated to clarify, but make no claim to being much more than tautologies. Even as we make one, we may know that the words we are using are not themselves definable, and may just be other words meaning the same things. But the definition may still be useful in directing the mind more precisely where we want it, by linking together disparate pointings and namings.
 Actually, the terminology is colloquially a bit confused. Here, I use the term equivocation as equivalent to synonymy (different words for the same thing), and the word ambiguity as equivalent to homonymy (the same word for different things). In common parlance, the words equivocal and ambiguous are used interchangeably, because both imply an uncertainty as to the meaning or interpretation. But clearly, there are two ways that uncertainty might arise. For this reason, the terms synonymy and homonymy are preferable, being clearer. I often use equivocation and ambiguity because they are more familiar to the general public. Looking at the etymology of the terms equi-vocation (equal speech) and ambi-aguity (roughly, both actions), it appears that these two terms could be used either way. I tried to freeze their senses, but I must admit I also sometimes revert to colloquial use.