When you look at yourself in the mirror do you see words? I see 'hair', 'glasses', 'eyes', 'blemishes', a whole set of different things. But none of these things are really things. I don't really have hair or glasses. I mean, I do. But at the same time I know that my body and my life are essentially ineffable: they exist beyond words and can never be fully captured by them. This holds true for my whole life and my experiences. I can do my best to use language to talk about life, but at the end of the day words will never do justice to my experience.
I'm getting at a relatively simple point. One that is communicated, I believe, by structural linguistics. The principle contribution of this discipline is the idea that language and the objects to which it refers are arbitrarily linked. That is to say, there is nothing essential in a word. We could just as easily be calling a knife a fork and a fork a knife. The relationship between words and things is that of a signifier (a word) and a signified (the thing that is being pointed at). To put it in Collingwoodease: "The proper meaning of a word... is never something upon which the word sits perched like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship's stern. Trying to fix the proper meaning in our minds is like coaxing the gull to settle in the rigging, with the rule that the gull must be alive when it settles: one must not shoot it and tie it there. The way to discover the proper meaning is not to ask 'What do we mean?' but, 'What are we trying to mean?'...." (Collingwood, The Principles Of Art, 7). Language and object, signifier and signified, are arbitrarily linked, and not essentially connected.
How, then, do people use language to understand one another? What goes in our minds that allows us to understand what another person is thinking? Today at work by boss said to me, 'put these in a bag'. I got a paper bag, so as to save the world! But she said 'oh no put it in a plastic bag'. Then she said, 'Oh! Isn't it funny how language works!' She then prompted me to do a bit of writing about language. So here I am! Hello Sugar! But how do we make sense of the use of language? What is happening when we communicate to one another.
Just to begin, I will put my answer baldly: We only understand another person's language if we are able to use their words as clues that allow us to reconstruct their thoughts in our own mind. That is to say, words are mere evidence that simply allow me to rethink, simulate, another person's thoughts for myself. Language has much in common with empathy in this way. The arbitrary connection between signifier/signified therefore does not prevent us from understanding one another because words are mere evidence of thought.
So when my boss tells me to put those things in a bag, I had only enough evidence so as to reconstruct her thoughts as I did. I had no evidence for the fact that she wanted them in a plastic bag. I only knew that she wanted them in a bag. So I put them in a bag. How funny, though, that when she spoke the idea of the receipts going into a plastic bag was implied in the word bag. She had taken for granted that a plastic bag would be the bag that I would use. Thus she had no reason to provide me with this evidence.
To put this another way, using language is about controlling what people are (in)capable of imagining). When I confess to you that I was hurt by something you said, or that I love you, all I've done is introduce into your mind the evidence you need to imagine me thinking in that way. Another good example comes from what I like to call the retroactive destruction of privacy. Say that I throw a wild party, bad things happen, I did something embarrassing, and I don't want my family to find out. But, I happen to write it down in my journal. Three months go by, no one has found out. But then one day my dad reads my journal. Suddenly my dad knows about everything that I did at that party and I'm terribly embarrassed. My privacy, I feel, has been invaded. But how can this be the case? He didn't even see me do anything? Why would I be embarrassed? Because now my father is capable of imagining me in an embarrassing situation that happened before. His capacity to imagine me in such a situation is enough to reach back into the past and destroy the privacy that I had achieved over that three month period. All that matters in language, society, and privacy is that people are capable of imagining what we mean by such and such words. This seems to imply this idea of the retroactive destruction of privacy. Once someone learns about my embarrassing incident, even if it was three months ago, their capacity to imagine me in such a situation is enough to make me feel embarrassed.
Or how about this example. I used to stand in line at McDonald's and hear people behind me laughing. My first reaction was 'Why are these people laughing at me?' But that is such an outrageous thought. They are almost certainly not laughing at me. But my mind doesn't know what to do with their laughter, I feel compelled to analyze it as evidence of thought. And because the evidence is so limited, and because I was so unreflective, I assume that their thoughts must be about me. I have such limited evidence it is hard to imagine otherwise. Thankfully I'm not able to say things like 'Oh their friend probably did something funny at a party'.
To put this issue in different terms, I like to say that relationships float around an economy of the imagination: That is to say, that in relationships there is a flow of evidence that controls what we are (in)capable of thinking about one another. Once I learn, for example, that my friend has a dreaded fear of something, I now include that piece of information about them in all of my interactions with them in the future. What this really means is that people are imaginary, I have access to other mind's only insofar as I am capable of imagining those minds for myself. There exists, therefore, an economy of the imagination that regulates my relationships. Evidence of thought is the capital that flows in this economy of the imagination.
Bah! I have to go out now!
But I'm getting at language and minds and how they work! They work by giving us hints of other people's thoughts that allow us to simulate their thoughts in our own mind. People are real, but they only exist in our minds as imagined! How else are we to overcome the solipsistic gap if not through imagination? Because I sure as hell know that I only access my own thoughts!
Please see my other writing on language:
On The Economy of the Imagination
On Language And Empathy
On Expression, Communication, And Dancing
On Poetic And Technical Language
On The Economy of the Imagination in Politics
On Language And Generalization