Language in Thought and Action: 50 cents

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Today I came across the second edition (1963, 1964)) of a book called Language in Thought and Action, which I bought for a total of 50 cents. One quick read through the book and I knew I wanted it, and upon returning home it turns out that the book is (justifiably) fairly popular as well with over a million copies sold over the decades.

The whole thing reads like a very long, educated blog post (that's a compliment to its readability). One quick example:

Making Things Happen

The most interesting and perhaps least understood relationship between words and the world is that between words and future events. When we say, for example, "Come here!" we are not describing the extensional world about us, nor are we merely expressing our feelings; we are trying to make something happen. What we call "commands," "pleas," "requests," and "orders" are the simplest ways we have of making things happen by means of words.

There are, however, more roundabout ways. When we say, for example, "Our candidate is a great American," we are of course making an enthusiastic purr about him, but we may also be influencing other people to vote for him. Again, when we say, "Our war against the enemy is God's war. God wills that we must triumph," we are saying something which, though unverifiable, may influence others to help in the prosecution of the war. Or if we merely state as a fact, "Milk contains vitamins," we may be influencing others to buy milk.


The "One Word, One Meaning" Fallacy

Everyone, of course, who has ever given any thought to the meanings of words has noticed that they are always shifting and changing in meaning. Usually, people regard this as a misfortune, because it "leads to sloppy thinking" and "mental confusion." To remedy this condition, they are likely to suggest that we should all agree on "one meaning" for each word and use it only with that meaning...such an impasse is avoided when we start with a new premise altogether -- one of the premises upon which modern linguistic thought is based: namely, that no word has exactly the same meaning twice."..we can take, for example, a word of "simple" meaning, like "kettle." But when John says "kettle," its intensional meanings to him are the common characteristics of all the kettles John remembers. When Peter says "kettle," however, its intensional meanings to him are the common characteristics of all the kettles he remembers. No matter how small or how negligible the differences may be between John's "kettle" and Peter's "kettle," there is some difference.

Wikiquote has a number of citations from the book as well.


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