Language and the Cave
Language and the Cave
In Plato’s cave the inhabitants see nothing but shadows. Shadows are etiolated compared to the objects that cast them. You can glean very little from a shadow about the object that casts it. The shadow is two-dimensional, colorless, massless, and without texture: it is merely an absence of light, conveying little beyond shape and size. If you were confined to knowledge of shadows, you would know next to nothing about the world of objects. Such is the epistemological predicament of Plato’s cave dwellers. The analogy can be used to cast epistemological aspersions on such things as television, the Internet, movies, and even local culture (including art: see Plato). But we can also apply it to language itself: are words like the shadows of objects, wispy simulacra of the real thing? Words, like shadows, contain very little information about the world they are used to talk about: they are just marks or sounds that bear no real resemblance to the objects they are used to refer to. If all you knew about were words and not things, you would have precious little knowledge of the real world of objects and facts. You would have mere shadow knowledge. We can imagine beings in just this position: they live in a world of words cut off from objects (Word and No Object), which they suppose to be all of reality. They know only words but take this to be all there is. Words are bandied around; there are internal relations between words; there is a grammatical structure to language—but there is no known reference relation to a reality external to language. This story might be used to dramatize a certain type of philosophical thesis, namely that we effectively do exist in such a world. Our conception of reality, such as it is, is shot through with language, conditioned by it, limited to it. We might call this “linguistic idealism” or “linguistic determinism”: reality (our reality) is constituted by language and determined by it. The way we see the world is permeated by language, for good or ill. On the one hand, this enables us to deduce conclusions about reality from language; on the other hand, our view of the world inherits whatever defects belong to language. Similarly, we can deduce the shapes of objects from their shadows, but shadows can also mislead us about the nature of reality. The cave of language can be comforting or it can be deforming; in any case it is all we have to go on. For (it may be said) language determines how we think, and hence what we know, and hence (ultimately) how things are. We are familiar with such philosophical theories: post-modern structuralism (Saussure, Derrida), the linguistic turn, some of later Wittgenstein, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, etc. The idea is that language forms our intellectual environment, our “frame of reference”, so that all our knowledge is shaped by it; it is a system, a reality, in its own right, with its own structures, rules, and imperatives. All our investigations are really linguistic investigations, because they are inescapably tied to language. So we may as well admit we live in a linguistic cave and make the best of it. We can certainly denounce philosophical (and scientific) viewpoints that fail to recognize these elementary considerations—realism, objectivity, immediate knowledge of things, language-independent truth, etc. Such viewpoints fail to come to terms with the hegemony of language. There is no escape from the linguistic cave.
Is this position credible? The trouble with it is that it ignores the reality of perception. It treats consciousness as if wholly taken up with awareness of language, but it also enables the perception of objects. This is not a linguistic process. Light gets in from outside; there is a window in the cave. If I want to know about an object, I am not limited to examining its name (its linguistic shadow); I can also look at it—feel it, smell it, taste it, hear it. I don’t have to be in thrall to language, since I can deploy my senses to gain knowledge of reality. If language tries to bewitch me, I can undo the spell by perceiving the object in question—as it might be, a state of mind. Language can’t force me to see things according to its own preconceptions. Language and perception are separate faculties. The point is totally elementary, but totally decisive. We don’t live in a linguistic cave (or cage). We could have, like those purely linguistic beings I mentioned earlier, but that is not in fact our predicament: we have eyes as well as larynxes (or whatever organ is responsible for language ability). And our eyes are not the slaves of our language, contrary to the claims of some theorists. This is surely entirely obvious and scarcely needs to be argued. But it raises a more serious question: to what extent do we live in a linguistic cave a la Plato? Do the shadows of language ever interfere with or limit our ability to know reality? Here we may adopt a more moderate and piecemeal approach: sometimes language can be misleading. Language is an autonomous system with its own rules and “logic”, and it can obscure the reality we take it to represent. It can be logically misleading (quantifiers, definite descriptions, etc.) and it can also be ethically and politically misleading in myriad ways (racial slurs, sexist terminology, speciesist locutions, etc.). We are constantly negotiating and reforming language in the light of non-linguistic knowledge, as well as learning from language about things we already think we understand. I thus suggest a dialectical approach to the relationship between language and reality (or better knowledge of reality): neither has primacy, neither dictates to the other. On the one hand, we (non-linguistically) sense the world and take in its texture and structure; on the other, we describe it a certain way, classifying and articulating it. We are not completely free of language in dealing with reality, but nor are we slaves to language. Language is not a mirror of the world, a transparent flawless medium, but neither is it an all-powerful separate force, pulling us away from reality. There can be tension between language and reality—with thought caught between them–but it is not that one is completely in the driver’s seat. The faculty of language and the sensory faculties are in a dialectical relationship in the creation of human knowledge and understanding. And not only dialectical but also critical: one can correct the other, or improve it. Thus our perception-based knowledge can act critically on our linguistic practices, and our understanding of language (an immensely complex system of knowledge) can contribute to the way we see things (as in conceptual analysis and the “linguistic turn”). In ethics and politics language can be both hindrance and liberation, because linguistic practices can be both hidebound and ameliorative. It is thus wrong to be an absolute linguistic idealist, but also wrong to think that language has no effect on the way we think and feel. As is often the case, the truth lies between two extremes, which means that we have to take things on a case-by-case basis. Boring, perhaps, but whoever said that truth has to be exciting?
 Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) provides some helpful discussion of these issues, particularly as regards the excesses of “structuralism” and kindred doctrines. I would say this is just not good cognitive science. We can accept that classical empiricism (including Kant) underestimated the formative power of language in the creation of thought while insisting that language is not the sole mode of mental representation at our disposal. A dialectical perspective does justice to both sorts of mental faculty.
Moderation in all things is good – Hesiod; …including moderation – Wilde
Happy New Year!
Sadly, my opinion of Americans is at a very low point. But happy new year to the rest of the world.