Sunday, November 28, 2010

On The Inadequacy Of Generalization And The Richness Of Language

Since 2007 I have been wrapped up with questions about language. One of the most pressing questions has been the shortcomings and difficulties with language. All my exposure to this issue is thanks to Jon Sumida, his work on Clausewitz, and his use of Guy Claxton’s books. The limitations of language is, of course, a hot topic for many thinkers. But I am still grappling with the question and continue to read about it. So in this essay I am trying to take a closer look at this issue of language, its possibilities, and its limitations.

There is one major distinction that I want to focus on: language on one the hand, and generalization on the other. In making this distinction there are a few things I hope to clarify. The biggest thing I want to work on is expanding the definition of language. I think that language is too often associated simply with words. I think this is a mistake. And fortunately Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Harvey have provided me with some strong insights. So the second thing I want to clarify is the idea that language encompasses all gestures that are expressive and communicative. After I have dealt with the misconception of language as mere words, and the idea of language as gestures, I want to highlight some of the problems of identifying language with words alone. Namely, I want to point out that by confusing language with words we simplify language and associate it too much with generalization. I think that generalization is a tricky thing that has some dangers. But as I said, I think that language is more than mere words. So language therefore cannot simply be a source of generalization. After that I want to further this idea by explaining how associating language with words leads us to minimize certain people’s perspectives. If we are too quick to regard language as merely limited words, then we are not giving people enough of a chance to communicate their experiences to us.

Anyways, I don’t really have a very clear grasp on what I want to say in this essay. But it revolves around the distinction between language, words, and generalization. I want to show that language is more than just words, and is far richer than we may give it credit for. I want to show that language has the power to particularize, and not to simply generalize. And most importantly, I want to show that if we get too caught up on how limited words are, we run the risk of suffocating certain people’s attempts to express themselves. Let me try to do this now. First language as just words. Then language as gestures. Then the problems with language as just words.

Language as Words

Now it seems quite common to regard language as simply words. Probably because our culture is so heavily saturated with words. We are surrounded by them. To be honest I’m not really sure where and when the term language became associated primarily with words. I’m more so aware of the modern views that believe language is simply words. Perhaps words are the most complex form of language that we have. They are the most developed form that we are aware of. I don’t really feel like I can spend very long on this section. I don’t really have many ways to analyze this. Why is language associated simply with words? How did that happen historically? Well. I suppose Claxton’s work provides me with some very vague answers that revolve around the scientific and industrial revolutions. Especially the scientific revolution. Science cares primarily for what can be articulated either through words or other symbols (like numbers). So perhaps language and words have become synonymous due to some process that has to do with the scientific and industrial revolutions. Claxton thinks so, I think.

But I don’t want to stress this point too long. I think that this is more or less self-evident. It seems hard to deny that language is commonly associated simply with words. So what I want to do next is to elaborate the idea that language is more than mere words. I want to argue that language is a larger idea that should encompass more than words. Things like gestures, touching, sounds, so on. I think that there might a way to categorize language more specifically. But I think that the category of ‘gestures’ may be able to account for the bulk of what language is.

Language as Gestures

So Collingwood is a thinker I haver been reading recently who has made me concerned with expanding the definition of language. In The Principles Of Art Collingwood talks about how limiting it is to regard language as simply words. He says that gestures are the real stuff of language. And that words, as sounds, as written language, are nothing more than a complex series of gestures. We need to think of language not simply as words but as every sort of gesture that we make. Everything we do with our hands, with our faces, with our clothing, with everything, is language.

Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA neuroscientist, also thinks that gestures are at the core of language. He talks about how human’s capacity for spoken language may have developed from our ability to gesture with our hands. He backs this up by explaining how parts of the brain responsible for speech (Broca’s area) is located directly next to the motor cortex. He speculates that these areas are right next to one another because gesturing with our hands and faces was our original means of communication, our original language. And so that our ability for speech probably developed in tandem with this part of our brain.

So I suspect that language is a far richer phenomenon than words. I am really writing this sloppy essay so that I can get ready to write the next big essay ‘Art and Language’. But it seems pretty clear in my head, as a feeling, that language is not simply words, but is a larger world of gestures.

And even if it were just words, Collingwood stresses the power of language to express the particulars of our experience. While discussing poetry Collingwood explains how it is that the poet goes to great lengths to particularize his emotions. This particularizing is in contrast to the ability of language to generalize. It can be very easy to just think in terms of categories: anger, happiness, tiredness, etc.. But those generalized categories are often inadequate. Generalization, however, is not the only function of language/words. Even if we are talking about language simply in terms of words, we don’t have to concede that our only option is generalizing. We can still use words to express the particulars of our experience.

But let me move on and talk a little bit about the problems with associating language simply with words.

The Problems With Defining Language As Words: Generalization and Insensitivity

I think that I can think of two problems with associating language simply with words. First, if we think of language only as words we run the risk of associating language to much with categorization and generalization. Second, when we get caught up with words and generalization we can get too focused on the limitations of words. When we do this I think we run the risk of suffocating certain people’s attempts to express their experience. If all we can focus on is the limitations of language (as words) then we will run the risk of not working hard enough at understanding people and not working hard enough at expressing ourselves. For the first point about language and generalization I’d like to draw on Slavoj Zizek. For the second point about the suffocation of other people’s expression I’d like to use David Harvey’s work.

In his book Violence, Slavoj Zizek discusses what he calls ‘the violence of language’. He says that whenever we name something we draw it out of its natural state of being, we disfigure it and give it a new sort of meaning, a new character. He gives the example of gold. When we take gold and we call it gold we take it from being a natural rock in the ground and we make it into some new thing. We load it with our expectations about economic systems and change it. An interesting point that no doubt has some truth to it.

But I think it might be irresponsible to call this a property of all language in general. Thankfully I had a conversation with my aunt recently. We talked about this idea. She said ‘That seems more like the violence of categorization’. I think that she is right. That what we need to worry about is not so much the violence of language, but the violence of categorization and generalization. When we talk about things as if though they were general and categorizable, we destroy their nuance and change them. We distort them to fit the neatness of our categories. Things are clearly not so neat and clean cut. Generalization is therefore problematic. We can’t rely too much on generalization or categorization because it does contain an element of violence. It changes things.

But generalization is only one facet of language. Unfortunately, however, I think it is one that we have become very familiar with. We know language mainly for its ability to categorize and generalize. But that isn’t the only thing that it does. It does so much more than generalize. Rather than speaking of the violence of language we should be talking about the violence of generalization and categorization.

So that is my first point about an expanded definition of language: when we identify language with only words it is a short step to identify words simply with generalization and categorization. But language doesn’t have to be about those things. It can be about particularizing. About expressing through dance and touch and poetry.

The second point I want to make is about how the definition of language as words that generalize effects the way we relates to others. If we are quick to think of language only as words that only have the power to generalize we run the risk of minimizing, reducing, or ignoring other people’s attempts to express themselves. It would be too easy to lapse into a view where we use the shortcomings of ‘language’ (i.e. words) as an excuse for not expressing ourselves clearly or for understanding other people.

In The Condition of Postmodernity David Harvey talks about the postmodernist tendency to problematize other people’s discourses. The postmodern emphasis on the difficulties of language leads us to give up on understanding other people’s attempts to express themselves. If we are too quick to problematize language (as words) then we might just give up on understanding the expression of someone very different from us. We might regard people from other countries as simply beyond our grasp, beyond our comprehension. But that is awfully dangerous. It is an awful shame to just let someone’s expression go past us because we are too afraid of the problematics and limitations of words. As David Harvey says: Marx “would surely accuse those postmodernists who proclaim the ‘impenetrability of the other’ as their creed, of overt complicity with the fact of fetishism and of indifference towards underlying social meanings” (101). His discussion of fetishism prior to that line is pretty curious, and I don’t grasp it fully. But the main point being that it is dangerous to proclaim that someone’s discourse is impenetrable or inaccessible. We run the risk of suffocating people’s attempts to expressing themselves. What other means do these people or any of us have? All we have is language, and sometimes all we have is words. So are we going to tell people that words are just too limited and we can’t understand their attempts at expression? That we seem like a pretty bad thing to do to someone experiencing a lot of cultural oppression.

Conclusion: Embracing Language

Anyways, this is a bad essay. It is sloppy, poorly constructed, and likely incoherent. But the bottom line is that I am advocating three things. First, an expansion of the definition of language that accounts for its diversity. Language is not simply words, it is the myriad gestures that we use to express ourselves. Second, I am arguing for a renewed commitment to the parts of language that are mere words. Words are quite powerful. Third, I am trying to clarify that there is a difference between the ability of words to generalize and words in general. Words do not simply generalize and categorize our reality for us. If we take the time to overcome generalization we might recapture the power of words. And even if they words aren’t powerful enough, language is more than words. So that is it. Language isn’t just words. Words are not just generalization. And we need to have faith in them. If only so that we can work harder at expressing ourselves and at understanding others.


  1. Riley! I've been browsing around here tonight. Most impressive. Obviously, you don't require the encouragement of some old guy who buys pastries from you at the bookstore, but I offer my best wishes, nonetheless.

    Now you are clearly reading way beyond my education, but I am curious to know if you've if you've read Kant, or Hume? Your piece refers to more contemporary influences, but does your interest in this subject extend further back?

    Fascinating stuff, what you've got here.

  2. Hey Brad! I appreciate all the encouragement I can get! Thanks. Kant and Hume are two writers I haven't dealt with directly yet. But every time someone else references them I feel a little bit more certain that I'll have to get around to them eventually. Hume has someone I've been particularly curious about for the last few months. I even saw a used copy of one of his books in the philosophy section! Perhaps this means I will have to crack under the pressure and just buy it.