Dimitri: I’m finally beginning to see through you, Tasso. This whole philosophy business is just playing games with words!
Tasso: Exactly! Now we’re getting somewhere.
Dimitri: So you admit it! Philosophy is just semantics!
Tasso: Just semantics? How else could you do philosophy—with grunts and giggles?
The text above is a conversation between the two characters in Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein’s Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. It’s a book that explains some of the basics and fundamentals of philosophy through the lens of humor and these two protagonists. It might have helped me realize the crossroads of two of the things I care about the most—language and philosophy.
To an extent, to philosophize really is just playing with words. It’s a dialectic, and that’s the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions. For this reason much philosophy is filled with dense prose, and you’ll see one philosopher argue the ideas of a previous. This process spans across generations. Philosophers build on and in some cases, like Friedrich Nietzsche who “philosophized with a hammer,” destroy the arguments of others. (In this instance arguing isn’t always the violent and aggressive form that many of us imagine when we hear the word. It’s often more closely resembles debate between two people aiming to discover the truth.)
For these reasons many future lawyers get undergraduate degrees in philosophy. They realize the utility in being able to think abstractly, critically, and then argue to defend a point— sometimes points that aren’t worth defending or can only be defended through tricky framing and manipulative sleight of hands.
There are more comprehensive and complicated ideas and works out there about the philosophy of language, things that I hope I can learn and speak about later on, but I think there’s a simple utility in realizing that a philosophy of language exists at all. Like Cathcart and Klein highlight in their book, Bill Clinton was using language philosophy when he responded to a question saying, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Why’s all this matter, anyway?
For a number of reasons. Language philosophy is how a car company convinces you that their “best in class” or how you convince yourself that “you need to prove people wrong” or what we do when we talk about “success” or “happiness” or whether or not “God” exists.
Any word or combination of them isn’t only filtered through the established definition of what a word means, but through the definition we’ve determined it to mean, as well as the definition the speaker or writer is aiming to convey.
A common and potentially controversial example is the phrase “traditional family values.” The words by themselves seem nice and pleasant. Most of us aren’t exactly against traditions (we like Christmas), we aren’t against our families (unless they’re especially annoying during a political conversation), and we believe in values (this is why we want to rid the ocean of plastic or feed the hungry or teach martial arts to children or whichever social cause we support).
But these phrases have been placed together for political purposes and to pass legislation that we may or may not agree with. Through language philosophy, a simple string of words has much larger meaning and the ability to shape the world around us through social and political action. There are clearly much larger implications than just a conversation at dinner time. And when we each hear these phrases or something as loaded as the word “God,” we each have different definitions on about their meaning.
What do we do from here?
Well, we play games! That’s what. We play the game of language philosophy. (A game I play all the time, often in my head. Sometimes people probably notice but I try to limit it so I don’t annoy everyone too much.)
We decide what we actually mean when we say or think certain things, and we decide what other people actually mean when they say or think certain things. What does your friend actually mean when they say they want to “succeed in their career?” What do your parents actually mean when they say “I’m proud of you?”
It’s important to play language philosophy with ourselves and others because we need to be able to deconstruct what the things we say mean, and properly articulate what we’re trying to convey. We have to have a solid grasp on our thinking processes and opinions. It also helps us avoid shallow understandings of ourselves and the world around us. If we realize that there are layers of meaning attached to each word and our use of them, we’ll pay more attention when we speak and attempt to articulate ourselves. I think there’s no difference between properly articulating your thoughts and navigating the world. Without successfully doing the former, you can’t do the latter.
But one of the most important reasons is so we aren’t swayed by politicians, people, or companies that want to sell us products and messages. We’ll have our guards up to actually unpack the meaning behind their words to see if there is truth, action, or just fluffy slogans used to gain votes or credit card swipes. We’ll have deeper and more nuanced way of engaging with the ideas that determine how we live our lives.
We’re strange creatures, us humans. As much as we consider ourselves creatures of free will, we aren’t entirely. Our biological traits, personality traits, upbringing, environments, and moods or appetites determine our behavior. We’re an amalgam of our influences.
The language and messages that those aiming to influence us impact how we see and then interact with the world. If we can’t deconstruct that language to see if there’s any actual truth to it, or see where it may be taking advantage of us, we’ll be left at the whims at those who can cleverly use language for their purposes.