Saturday, July 14, 2007

Philosophy, Language, and Conceptualization

The study of philosophy helps us to become multi-lingual within our own native language.

According to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, natural languages are composed of multiple "language games": different patterns of language use that take shape within a given natural language. Wittgenstein noticed that different communities of speakers use language in different ways. We are most aware of this when we spot regional differences in language use, or complain about the "jargon" associated with highly specialized interest groups, professions, or academic disciplines. But it is worth noticing that there are other (and often more subtle) ways that language use may vary.

Regional differences and jargon are easy to spot because unusual words leap out at us. The new or unfamiliar words signal immediately to us that our native language is being used in a way we may not readily understand. What is harder to perceive is when common words are used in different ways from language game to language game. Many important words that are in common usage among nearly all speakers of the language are so rich in meaning that different communities of speakers focus the meanings of such words in different ways. Sometimes these differences are only slightly different. Other times they are much more radically different than people may realize. For example, the word "God" has different meanings depending on whether the word is being spoken by those who adhere to different religious traditions or those who call themselves atheists. Other important words whose meanings change significantly from speaker to speaker or community to community include "justice," "freedom," "love," "truth," "good," "bad," or "loyalty," to give just a very few examples.

Being multi-lingual in your own language means recognizing that other people may very well be using words like these differently from how you use these words. It means refraining from getting into arguments about what the word is "really" supposed to mean, and developing the mental agility to tune into how others are using the word, as a method for facilitating better communication. Those who are multi-lingual in their own language also can become skilled translators when witnessing others mis-communicating because of not recognizing that they each are using important key words differently.

Skilled translators are very rare. Most people do not realize this complexity about language. People are easily fooled by the superficial resemblances of different language games into thinking that we all speak the same language and have no need for "translating" within our natural language. People often woefully misunderstand each other, without even realizing it. The mass media exaggerates this tendency. It codifies certain usages of language, making those usages seem authoritative.

A good example is how Christianity gets portrayed in the popular media. Only an oversimplified, distorted version of one contemporary language game of Christianity is visible. Even people who are well-educated often take that image to represent all that Christianity is (or ever was). But there are other communities of speakers that use Christian language very differently, yet those communities remain invisible. If those communities were to give up their usage of this language as lost, they would lose a primary way of being able to conceptualize and communicate their experience.

In fact, such communities already have largely lost their ability to communicate through their language because they already know not to speak this language except to people they know will understand. They already know how to "translate" or else be silenced from speaking meaningfully of their experiences. Even so, they still do feel somewhat silenced, because translation always has its limits. While there may be other language games in existence that are as rich and deep that would do equally well, it takes time and effort to find them and learn them or develop them, and even so there is still no guarantee that those languages would do any better at communicating except to their own fluent speakers. And it is also important to remember the community component of language games in order to realize that exchanging one rich language for another is also to leave one community and join a new one. People tend to cling to a language game that works for them not only because of their already acquired fluency but also because that language connects them to a community of family and/or friends in which they feel at home.

Those who are philosophically inclined learn multiple language games, so to speak. It is an important component of philosophy education to learn different conceptual systems, which is also a way of learning different language games. And so those who have studied philosophy become multi-lingual in their own language. They can continue as "native speakers" of their own original language games, but they acquire the ability to speak other language games as well.

Those who are multi-lingual in their own language tend to develop their own hybrid languages, enriching their own ability to conceptualize more complexly, but not necessarily improving their ability to communicate if they insist on speaking their own preferred hybrid language to everyone, no matter what. Improved communication ability requires developing "translator" skills. Or, put another way, improved communication requires the development of rhetorical sensitivity: understanding who your audience is, and adjusting your own language use to match theirs, as much as you can. Or, if you must introduce words (or definitions of words) not already present in their vocabulary in order to be able to speak what you need to say, you take the time to do so in a way that best helps others to understand.

I write about this not only because it is relevant to philosophy education and in fact liberal arts education more generally, but also because I find myself frustrated at how often I feel stifled from speaking my own native language game freely without fear of being seriously misunderstood because of how the mass media has severely distorted and diminished so many of the words I normally would wish to use. My own coping strategy has been to study philosophy, and, in so doing, to develop translation abilities. And so I am nearly always translating, which actually works quite well. But there are times when I wish others were more skilled at listening and at translating too.

Friday, July 13, 2007

An Idea: Having "Public" Components of Intro Courses

I have been thinking more about what I wrote about last time.

First, I tried this thought experiment:

The Anti-Transcript

Go through your university's course catalog. Look at the listing of majors and minors. Make a list of all of the majors or minors that you never took even one course in, in college or graduate school. This is your "Anti-Transcript": the shadow-side of all of your intellectual accomplishments!

(Humbling, isn't it?)

A Practical Idea

What if everyone who taught Intro courses created a lecture series that formed the backbone of this course but could also stand on its own, and opened the lecture series to anyone who was interested in attending? Maybe there would be one lecture per week, lasting a an hour. Not only would interested students audit these lectures, to fill out their education more fully, but professors would attend as well. What if it were the part of our university's culture that every student and faculty member "audited" at least one of these lecture series per semester?

The credit-bearing version of the Intro course would consist of more than just these weekly lectures, of course. These lectures would be integrated into the full Intro course that some of the students would be taking for credit. Those students then would have extra time with the professor above and beyond these weekly lectures. They would have time for additional in-depth discussion, for covering more material, and for reading, writing, engaging in laboratory sessions, performing, creating portfolios, etc. For those students, it would be pretty much like Intro courses already are. The only difference is that for one hour per week, some extra people would attend to hear the lecture of the week.

So, some questions for professors to think about:

  • Could your Intro course be adapted in this way?
  • Would you like this opportunity to give a "what I wish everyone knew about my field" lecture series (without this actually adding to your current responsibilities!)?
  • Would you attend such series offered by your colleagues in other fields? If so, which would you attend first, and why?