(Continuing to blog through Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler)
In Walt Disney’s adaption of “The Little Mermaid,” Scuttle the seagull gives lessons in the names and uses of human artifacts. A fork is a dinglehopper, used for combing hair; a pipe is a musical instrument called a “banded, bulbous snarfblat.” Because Scuttle’s knowledge of human life is limited, he applies his own meaning to these tools. They are whatever he says they are.
Adler believes that contemporary linguistic philosophers have turned into a lot of Scuttles, or possibly Humpty Dumpties.*
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)
The philosopher Wittgenstein said that people should look at the practice of language, the use of words instead of their meaning; that it’s not about content or the actual existence of something; that words don’t necessarily represent things. Adler calls that fatuous: he believes that a word must have meaning before it is used, because otherwise how would we know how to use it, or why would there be any use for it? (You have to know what fatuous means before you can use it in a sentence.) The problem seems to be not only about words, but about the identity of objects, about the importance of giving things their right names. If we can know that real things exist outside of our own minds (as in an earlier chapter), so that two people can discuss an object they both perceive (or that one sees and one remembers or imagines), doesn’t that lead to the idea that the object must be able to be named, and with a name previously agreed upon that carries a certain meaning?
Do words have their own meaning, or are they just tools for talking? One example that comes to mind is the question of “right and wrong,” “good and evil.” You may not believe in “sin,” just as you may not believe in “angels,” but that does not mean that the word itself is meaningless.
Does eliminating a particular word change reality? No more than the forbidding of “war toys” prevents children from pretending to shoot each other with sticks.
That doesn’t mean that words can’t have more than one meaning, or that objects can’t have more than one use. You can call a fork a dinglehopper and comb your hair with it if you want. But that doesn’t change its essential identity as a fork.
” Language does not control thought, as contemporary linguistic philosophers appear to believe. It is the other way around.” (Adler, page 81)
*(On the subject of collective nouns for seagulls: everybody’s heard of a flock of seagulls, but did you know you can also say a squabble or a screech of gulls?)