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A Century Not Out
by Rick Lewis
Welcome to the hundredth issue of Philosophy Now. The thing about periodicals is that they appear periodically, so that big round numbers (100th Issue!) act a bit like birthdays in being reminders of the passing years. It has taken us 23 years to get to Issue 100, which means that I may now be as much as a third of the way through my editorship. Such tempus fugit moments give one pause for thought. But that is fine, because the whole point of starting the magazine was the conviction that thinking matters. We’re celebrating our hundredth issue by launching our very own app for iPad and iPhone. The app was developed by our Digital Editor, the brilliant but eccentric Bora Dogan, through long coffee-fuelled nights and it can now be found in Apple’s Newsstand.
When my colleague, the brilliant but dangerous Grant Bartley, proposed that the theme of our 100th issue should be philosophy and language, I was a little concerned. Critics of philosophy sometimes say that it is just “playing with words”; they imply that it is nothing but futile linguistic games, juggling concepts without ever shedding any real light on the nature of the world or on problems that really matter. Being a physicist by background, I originally came to philosophy with some misgivings about this alleged verbosity. I had a strong conviction that I wanted to sort out real problems faced by real humans in the real world, and not just monkey around with words. But investigations into the nature of language have been at the centre of philosophy for a century. So just why are philosophers so bothered about language? There are so many reasons that I’ve put some of them in a little box below, but you can probably think of more.
There’s a difference between linguistic philosophy, which is about the analysis of language as a way to approach the problems of philosophy generally, and philosophy of language, which is a philosophical examination of the way language operates, how it conveys meaning and how it represents the world. We’re focusing more on the former, but the two are intertwined anyway. The latter certainly covers our first article, by Antony Tomlinson, which is about whether distinct languages exist, and examines the views of Noam Chomsky and Donald Davidson, among others, as to how language functions. Robert Horner considers how we understand language and how the interpretation of language can change over time, taking as an example the right to bear arms embodied in the US Constitution. Akilesh Ayyar explains about Marcel Proust, signs and Gilles Deleuze. Peter Benson’s article looks at the ideas of the most famous Continental ‘linguistic philosopher’ of all, namely Jacques Derrida. Benson points out at the start of his article that although analytic and Continental philosophy have taken different paths for a hundred years, they have shown some striking parallel developments in that time, including their shared obsession with language. My colleague the brilliant but blonde Anja Steinbauer and I have created a handy cut-out-an-keep chart to show roughly how the story has developed so far. In it you can see several of the philosophers mentioned in the first four articles of this issue.
One point about language use in the real world which I am afraid is occasionally overlooked by philosophers is that it isn’t mainly about isolated propositions that need to be analysed for their truth content. Of course there are shouted orders, and written information, but much of the use of language is interactive; it takes the form of conversations. Any halfway decent magazine is itself a conversation, between its editors and its contributors and its readers. We’re delighted that this issue will be sold in more newsagents and bookstores around the world than ever before, and hope this results in us welcoming new people into the conversation. When Philosophy Now launched in 1991 it looked pretty basic, and much of its progress since has been helped by the suggestions of our contributors and readers. Welcome to the conversation and if you have any ideas for improving it further, please email us.
Rick’s list of reasons to think about language
• To gain a clearer grasp of the notion of truth. We want to say true things about the world. To do so, we need to know what it is to say something true. Theories about language feed into this debate.
• To gain a clearer understanding of relationships between people, because language is the medium of most communications between people. All human interactions, all words of diplomacy and love, humour and deception are expressed through the medium of language.
• To understand the world better: because our perceptions of the world come to us filtered not only by our perceptual apparatus but also by our pre-existing concepts. Therefore to understand the world better, we need to understand thought better, and to understand thought better, we need to better understand its expression in language.
• All abstract theories and all human notions beyond the most basic are expressed in language. Therefore to understand them better and develop them better, we need to understand the nature of language. Some forms of thinking take the form of stories or narratives; some forms of thinking use analogies, other use syllogisms. There aren’t any, really, which bypass language altogether. They may all be influenced by non-linguistic brain processes (such as the emotions) but they all take a linguistic form.
• Language reflects the nature of the human brain, which is something else philosophers and scientists are keen to understand better.