Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Language should be vague

A Short Philosophical Reflection on Bertrand Russell's Vagueness
by Russell Bantiles Alivio

“Who speaks of vagueness should himself be vague.[1]” I’m afraid, that like Bertrand Russell, I would appear vague in this article. For the sake of my readers, I shall try to be vague enough as to provoke thinking and clear enough as to incite dialogue and patient enough as to sustain the communication. To do the first requires a philosopher; for the second, a linguist; and for the third, a saint. For it takes a fuzzy idea before one could begin to think, a lucid idea for one to begin to talk, and a supernatural virtue for one to learn how to listen. Yet, in all these, I would say, language should be vague.

In this case, I would side with Bertrand Russell “to prove that all language is vague”. But it would not be with a feeling of regret that I affirm this. I would rather be elated that human language is vague. In the first case, it is self-explanatory. In the second, one would ask: how distinct should an idea be before it would be pronounced? Thus, even the concept of clarity and distinctiveness is marred with vagueness. In the third, it could be demonstrated with an example: a personal experience.

I am directing the liturgical song practices in BIDASOA every Monday and Saturday. I noticed that whenever I explain a point in Spanish, almost everybody does not give full attention to my words. Once, when I tried to announce the page number of the songbook or the musical term in English, even the most inattentive fellow would turn his head in utmost interest to what I am saying. Then, one thing I realize: the experience of uncertainty and vagueness could oftentimes consign us to our listening stance. Is it not true that when we begin to perceive life’s insecurities, we turn to God and try to listen to what He is saying?

Unlike Russell, who attributed the vagueness of language “to our ancestors for not having been predominantly interested in logic”, I would say that the vagueness of our system of representation is attributable to our constitutive structure as human beings. And I think that is not something to pout about. J. Choza said: “El lenguaje reproduce la síntesis de materialidad y espiritualidad que caracteriza al ser humano”
[2]. Human nature is the cause of the vagueness of human language. Would we skulk simply because by nature our language is human, hence, finite and vague? Non-acceptance of the nature of human language is like rejection of our own nature. The first step to happiness is self-acceptance.

For this reason, our language has to be vague. But it is not mere resignation to our human state that makes me insist this point. It is rather the joy that we can experience in the truth that our human language is vague. The vagueness of human language is what makes thinking and communication possible. And if a truly meaningful human life and existence is authentically permeated by the beauty of thoughts and the joy of interpersonal relationship, it is achieved thanks to the ambiguity of human language.

Just try to imagine if all ideas and concepts that our professors explain in class were crystal clear and were absolutely and unmistakably understood by all. Would the class be as lively as when almost all students were to vie for the professor’s attention to clarify or to contest his points? If two philosophers would see clearly a certain argument and would agree with each other, would the history of philosophy be as richand interesting as it is? One could argue that one thing is perceiving clearly an argument and another thing is agreeing with it, meaning, making it his own. But precisely because it is not clearly seen, or if it is, it is seen only from one determined perspective that one disagrees with another on an argument. When one differs in his opinion, it is precisely because the subject matter at hand is still ambiguous, that is, it is still open to further elucidation.

Would communication be as lively as when two persons could not come up easily with a unified decision about a certain difficulty or problem? Once an agreement is reached, the communication ceases. And could you imagine the array of human values one would miss? Of course, these values are acquired when the dialogue is carried out in a proper and humane way. To mention a few, there is the value of listening and serenity, the value of human respect and open-mindedness, the virtue of patience and charity. The vagueness of our language occasions the acquisition of these virtues. We could even say: language should be vague because it could make us saints!

The vagueness of human language is the foundation of its richness. Think of the variety of linguistic expressions that has filled our libraries with books and our museums with all kinds of artistic works. Music is said to be the language of the soul. But how many melodies and songs had already been composed? Yet, our soul has not stopped in its self-expression. One may argue that the soul is infinite and eternal and that accounts for the inexhaustible treasure that it carries within and that it expresses infinitely through its language called music. True. The soul is infinite. But it does not exist apart from the body. And this substantial union of body and soul causes vagueness even in musical language. Nevertheless, such ambiguity has enhanced even the music industry. All aspects of life are enriched thanks to the fact that language is vague.

In the contemporary history of philosophy, there was an attempt to make language clear and distinct analysing its logical structure; thus, transforming it into a machine-like system of representation that guarantees precision and avoids ambiguity. Thanks God it did not prosper, for if it did, it would have been the end of those “good old days” when Russell could still point out how “baldness is a vague conception” and philosophy could go on. Fodor and Katz (1964) had a point: “la ambigǘedad o la vaguedad…son precisamente los que hacen posible la comunicación y la apertura del lenguaje en los contextos habituales de la vida humana”

Had it not been for the vagueness of language, this work would not have been possible. Thinking, for me, would be unthinkable. Talking would be unspeakable. And listening (in this case, reading this article) would be unheard of.

[1] B. RUSSELL, Vagueness, 1923, p. 1.
[2] J. CHOZA, Manual de antropología filosófica, Rialp, Madrid 1988, p. 159.
[3] Citado por J. NUBIOLA, Renovación en la Filosofía del Lenguaje: hacia una mejor comprensión de nuestras prácticas comunicativas. Revista de Logopedia, Foniatría y Audiología, XVII/1, 1997, 3-10.

"Sacerdotes, 'consagrados en la Verdad'"

Estar inmersos en la Verdad, en Cristo, de este proceso forma parte
la oración, en la que nos ejercitamos en la amistad con Él y aprendemos a
conocerle: su forma de ser, de pensar, de actuar. Rezar es un caminar en
comunión personal con Cristo, exponiendo ante Él nuestra vida cotidiana,
nuestros logros y nuestros fracasos, nuestras fatigas y nuestras alegrías -es un
simple presentarnos a nosotros mismos ante Él. Pero para que esto no se
convierta en un autocontemplarse, es importante que aprendamos continuamente a
rezar rezando con la Iglesia.