Language – From Abstract To Concrete
Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on March 28, 2007
I wrote about my thoughts on the phenomenon of names in multiple posts, mostly analyzing it in terms of few abstractions, i.e. the intentional acts, intentional content, and how in case of baptizing it appears with two aspects – the baptizing is connected to particular intentional act, but the content is transcending that act.
The abstract analysis, however complete, shouldn’t be seen as a full account of the phenomenon. It even shouldn’t be seen as a ground for the phenomenon so that we can give full account by merely adding details to that abstract picture. On contrary – moving from more abstract to more concrete aspects of the phenomenon, should provide the ground for the abstract. (This is different from the usual reductionist view, in which the most abstract is seen as the ground, and everything “upwards” is fully determined by that ground. Those “higher” levels are then in reductionist picture, in some sense merely incidental and of smaller importance than the ground.)
Such non-reductionist movement from abstract to concrete when talking about phenomenon of names, I think can be seen in few posts where I wrote about the issue of non-existence. In these posts I argued that there is no single criterion for (non)existence that would be found on the abstract level of intentional act/content. Instead we need to understand it in more concrete cases of intentional acts. That is, certain intentional acts (imagination, hallucination, assuming, etc…) are those that actually cover the abstract notion of “non-existence”. One word is used for all of them because they show some kind of family resemblance. (I haven’t talked about what this resemblance consist of, but I would take that it consist of a negation of the simple relation with the world)
When we move towards concrete, the “abstract” is now something which is a result, not a ground. The procedure of abstraction is such that we start from something, and put our attention on certain aspects while ignoring others. Hence movement to “more concrete” can be understood as moving towards fuller comprehending of the phenomena (and not just noting incidental patterns of the higher level). The abstract case is then merely a specific case of the more concrete case, and its role is that it helped us to understand the relation of certain aspects isolated from the richness of the whole, so that when we analyze the “big picture” we are not confused by those abstract aspects. The intentional act is concrete intentional act (and is not abstract ever, except in our abstract analysis), and the same holds for the content.
To make example in case of math – one such case of movement from more abstract to more concrete would be the movement from the special case to general case. For example the Pythagorean theorem says that the lengths of sides of right triangle will satisfy the equation . On other side we have a law of cosines which is true for any triangle, and is expressed by equation: . It is clear that Pythagorean theorem is a special case of the law of cosines. We get it from the law of consines when we use gamma=90 degrees. It is also clear that the special case doesn’t really contain anything that isn’t already present the general case.
Analogical situation with language, would be movement from the language as used to mean something, to language as acting. On the abstract level, words do mean something, but on concrete level we can say that they are used to mean something, and now all kind of complexities appear, one might mean by word what that word doesn’t usually mean. You won’t be able to comprehend this fact on the level of abstract account, you need to include the humans, their intentions, the learning of language and so on. And then on level of sentences, the meaning shows even more complex features, the sentences are used in the context of some more or less fixed background of the communication, by same sentence lot of things can be meant depending of what the speaker think should be inferred from them having on mind the background.
-“She is coming.”- the meaning of that sentence, is not contained in the abstract meaning of each of the words, but is connected to the context.
So, we can say that it is not that concrete usage of the language is grounded in some Platonic abstract level in which words mean things, but words mean things only as part of the phenomenon of language in the society. The abstract is grounded in the concrete.
In some future post, I want to talk about common nouns, and how their proper account requires analysis on more concrete level (though of course abstract “words mean things” and “we can baptize only whatever we are aware of” would still hold).
UPDATE:I updated the format of the formulas. I don’t use much math in the posts, so I thought I might as well do a little experiment with MathML capabilities of WordPress.com.