Does Language Convey the Truth?

Gregoire Youbara

Apart from the linguistic sophisticated-this, fancy-that definition of language, let us just state that language, in its most general form, is a medium of communication among people. In other words, interaction among members of a given society is possible through the use of language. Names and concepts; sound and gestures, symbols and signs are the basic constituents of language, serving as medium by which to designate things. Thus, we come to form knowledgeable and understandablenotions through a combination of names, words, signs, symbols and/or concepts. Since we are able to understand each other via this channel [use of language], we so easily let ourselves be convinced that we are conveying the truth to each other.

When for example I say, "Look at this robust, tall and greenish tree" and my interlocutor nods in agreement, we think that we hold the truth about the thing in question simply by its description. Nietzsche argues in his essay entitled "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" that we are deceiving ourselves, "between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue" (Nietzsche). Does this mean that no truth can be found in the act of perceiving a thing even though this perception can be explained by means of language? What can we know about things that are so very welcome to our senses?

In the example above, we believe that the concepts "robust", "tall" and "greenish" tells us the truth about the object [tree] before us. These are but concepts derived from our language to adjectively represent the object that is also represented by the name "tree". We therefore designate everything that appears to our senses by names, symbols and/or signs. In other words, we attach a label to everything and each time we do mention a label, we supposedly know what it refers to. This knowledge itself is possible only after we have learned and of course memorized the different labels by means of their "ostensible definition". By ostensible definition, I mean for example pointing to this particular thing and telling someone who has not previously been acquainted with its label and saying "this is a tree".

Now therefore, we come to designate things by their labels through a process of learning and memorizing (think about a learner of a second language who has to incorporate from time to time a whole new vocabulary into his mental repertoire). We collect during this process whatever name-label we have not previously been acquainted with, adding to our mental repertoire of name-labels, signs, adjectives and the like. Thus we persuade ourselves that by being able to represent things by their labels, we hold the truth about them, which again, according to Nietzsche, is not the case.

It follows that to be able to represent something by means of its ostensible definition [by pointing to the thing and saying, "this is..."] or its form [definition] does not mean that we hold the truth about that particular thing. For we do not know the very essence of the thing in itself, that is, we lack knowledge about how that thing has been created and/or sprung into being (it is in this domain [genesis of the thing] that the truth about it is hidden, not merely because it is a thing under the sun, or because it is perceivable and can be referred to by means of a label). I do not intend here to embrace the idea advanced by some philosophers that "our senses deceive us" for indeed, what we perceive — or if we prefer, what is under the sun — ought to be considered a spacio-temporal reality. I do not doubt their existence and as for our ability to represent them by name/sign-labels, I consider this a natural faculty human beings are endowed with.

Therefore, I can claim, say, that this tree is real since it adheres to my definition of a spacio-temporal reality. Moreover, I may be able to distinguish a tree by its name-category (e.g. Oak, Baobab, Olive-tree, etc.) It follows that when we name things, we do create for them a spacio-temporal reality and since a name does not represent or reveal the essence of a particular thing — which we may claim is the domain into which the truth about that thing lies — we just fail [in our case for instance] to answer the questions, "What is it?" and "Why is it what it is?". Failure to know the very essence of a thing therefore means failure to know the truth about it. True enough, we are able to obtain via the amazing discipline of science all the properties of a plant and possibly every single data and bit of information about it but neither of these gives us a clue about its very essence, failing also to answer the question asked. To long for an answer regarding the very essence of a thing will inevitably lead to the question of the genesis of the world.

The Ancient philosopher Lucretius, attempted to explain the genesis of things, that is, how things are originally formed and ultimately appear in the world before us in his treatise, On the Nature of the Universe. He claims that things are constructed from atoms, these "primary particles of matter [that] have no colour whatsoever [and] are also wholly devoid of warmth and cold and scorching heat; they are barren of sound and starved of savour and emit no inherent odour from their bodies" (Lucretius, p. 58). In other words, no adjective, name or label from our language can represent these "primary particles" from which things come into being. On another note, let us borrow Aristotle's vision of the essence of things as "that by which primarily we (things) have life". This primary principle, according to him, is, but the soul. In order to hold the truth about something (including our own being) therefore, we ought to know the primary particles from which it is made (a task beyond human ability since these primary particles are not available to our senses). It is here again the place to reiterate the fact that language, as a chain of concepts that so clearly represent things by means of names serves only as a means of interaction and understanding among people.

Let us now consider an example when we represent something by means of its color. Now, referring to Lucretius' concept of primary matter we shall hold that "color" (this is another designative label!) is absent in the thing in itself,albeit present in the produit fini (the thing as we see it). This final product being what we ultimately perceive and come to designate by a label, can we not in any way claim to hold a truth about it via its color? If the primary particles from which it emanates are devoid of color, didn't they gradually become colored during the process of becoming the actual thing? Put another way, when, a child who was just some inches tall and tiny a few years ago now appears as a very tall and muscled gentleman, are we to infer from this [different appearances] that the child and the gentleman are not in essence one and the same? An augmentation of the mass/volume of a thing does not affect the primary particles from which it came into being. Where then does this lead us as regards the issue of whether language and our senses are deterring us from the truth?

So far, we have restricted the value of language to its function as a social process, a means of interaction that establishes understanding among people; interaction made possible via an adequate use of concepts. We are not claiming here that language bears negative connotations but as far as truth is concerned, we may but inquire, does ourlanguage bear witness to the truth? What is truth? What does Nietzsche means when he claims that there is only an "aesthetic relation" between the subject [perception + label] and the object [the thing as it appears to us]?

Perhaps we do not realize that we become creators when we assign names to things. A name then sticks so well to the thing itself and goes far to become for us the thing itself. In other words, when I mention the name "house", this utterance carries with it a picture of the thing it represents. Thus, when I say, "this is the house that I built", this implies that I am certain of the fact that I am using the right label to represent the right thing. That I am the author [builder] of the thing [produit fini] in question does not mean it necessarily ought to be referred to by the concept 'house'. That we become creators via the use of our language goes this way: suppose Adam, upon being kicked out of Paradise and now facing the austere conditions of his new world devises a means of protecting himself from heat, cold and rain. Let us say, he collects some materials, puts them together and comes up with the thing that satisfies the need he set out for. Suppose now, for argument's sake that he sits down, contemplates his creation and says, "this, I shall call 'house'". Now, he has given a name to his creation and is thereby entitled to be considered a creator himself. Since the thing he names is real, he thereby creates his own reality of the thing.

Taking into account what precede, we may be tempted to assimilate reality to truth. What is real in this case, again, is the thing as it appears to us. If by representing that thing by a name [correlation between significantsignified as illustrated by linguists] we come to create for it a reality, this does not mean that whatever name we ascribe to it becomes the thing in itself and gives to it its raison d'être (what is it and why is it what it is?) not to mention its very essence. Therefore, things just appear to us, they are available to our senses, we can perceive them while they remain independent of us. That they exist independently of us means we do not know the truth about them and it is neither our senses that can convey the truth about them by the mere task of perception, nor is it by the mere task of attaching labels to these things via the use of language that we can successfully demystify them.

Works Cited

  • Aristotle. De Anima (On the Soul). (Hugh Lawson-Tancred, trans.) New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.
  • Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. (R. E. Latham, trans.) New York: Penguin Classics, 1951.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lie in an Extra Moral Sense", from translations by Walter Kaufmann and Daniel Breazeale, retrieved September 25, 2006.