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15 Linguistic relativity

In the previous chapter it became clear how the evolutionary development of the language led to a gigantic expansion of the number of possible concepts and thus to an equally strong expansion of the human world view, or, to put it another way, of human reality. The question arises whether our world view determines which language we use or whether the language used determines our world view. In this chapter I will discuss a few contributions to this question from both linguistics and philosophy. I give a definition of the concept of 'thinking' and conclude that both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Quine's thesis on untranslatability are trivial, so meaningless.


15.1 Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

whorfWilhelmvonHumboldtThe idea that language influences thinking and experiencing reality has a long history. The linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt published about it at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he saw language as the 'soul of the nation' and in 1820 formulated his conclusion that the diversity of languages ​​is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of worldviews. Much attention was paid to the subject a century later by the publications of Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose ideas became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Whorf was already interested in language at a young age, but was trained as a chemical engineer. During work for a fire prevention company, he observed that during work with barrels of flammable liquid, workers carefully observed the smoking ban, but saw no danger in smoking in the vicinity of empty barrels. Despite the numerous accidents resulting from the highly flammable vapour that was still in 'empty' barrels, the empty vessels remained safe in the perception of the workers. Whorf concluded that their stubborn but erroneous idea was caused by the linguistic concept of 'empty', which they associated with 'harmless'.

He had the opportunity to study linguistics with ethnologist and linguist Edward Sapir, but did not obtain an academic degree. Like Sapir, he studied American indigenous languages, including the Hopi, and came to the conclusion that, for example, the way Hopi thought about the concept of time, which was different from the usual Western viewpoint, was related to the language and in particular the grammar that they used.
The name Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was not devised by Sapir or Whorf but later named so by a student. Whorf himself preferred to speak of "the principle of linguistic relativity", with which he meant that the world view of a group of people depends on the language used. Whorf's work, however, met with much criticism in the seventies of the last century, on the one hand because it was in conflict with the then-enrolling linguistic universalism, in particular the theory of Noam Chomsky, which meant every human being possess a universal, hereditary linguistic depth structure, on the other hand because of Whorfs non linguistic origin. His intuitive approach delivered a lot of disdain in the academic world, but when a few decades later the hype of Chomsky's universalism had largely faded, his approach got more attention. At the moment most linguists seem convinced that there is some linguistic relativity to some extent. One distinguishes two interpretations of the hypothesis: the strong form or linguistic determinism and the weak form, the linguistic relativism. In the first approach, the world view is entirely determined by language, an interpretation that is no longer adhered to. The weaker assumption that the world view is influenced by the language used is now reasonably confirmed by empirical research and no longer highly controversial.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has become known for its snow story, which says that the Inuit (Eskimos) have many more words for snow than English speakers, with the conclusion that Inuit therefore has snow that the English speakers can not distinguish. The hypothesis also generated many ideas about the possibility that the introduction of artificial languages ​​could influence people's thinking. Apart from Orwell, who introduced an art language in his novel 1984 that made it impossible to criticise political leaders, numerous art languages ​​have been designed to force people to think logically, to think more woman-friendly, and so on. The results of all that work are, however, not impressive, to say the least.

15.2 Linguistic relativity from a conceptual point of view

Two forms of relativity are thus distinguished: the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the linguistic determinism and the weak interpretation, called linguistic relativity. Linguists try to empirically examine the correctness of the hypothesis, but for me the question is different: what can one say about both interpretations analysed from the conceptual approach? This question about the relationship between world view and language first of all raises the question of what exactly one means by a person's world view or, more specifically, what is meant by the notion of 'thinking'. But also: what are actually linguistic means? Does it have to be names or are descriptions and perhaps even complete stories included?

I start with two quotes from the Dutch Wikipedia about Thinking[1]:

"Thinking process
Unravelling a thinking process remains a difficult problem. Thinking can take the form of problem solving. Another form of thinking is more sensory and consists of a process of comparison of patterns or rather pattern recognition. In a "moment of reflection", new situations and experiences are assessed against existing memories. In order to be able to make these assessments it is necessary that the intellect evaluates the current experience and seeks relevant experience from the past. This happens while the past and present are kept absolutely separate. The intellect can compare, merge, separate and sort out concepts, perceptions and experiences. This process is called reasoning. Logic is the science of reasoning".

The Dutch Wikipedia also pays attention to various forms of thinking:

"Analytical versus holistic thinking
Reasoning and logic are aspects of the human mind that distinguish themselves from other mental processes through a strong analytical orientation. According to some researchers of brain functions such as Robert Ornstein, these aspects are mainly related to the left hemisphere. On the other hand, the imagination in the right brain would fulfil a completely different task. It combines the intellect with the feeling, intuition and emotion. This more holistic, integrated approach to reality can - depending on the philosophy of life - produce "magical thinking" or irrational thinking, and can also play a part in creative processes, the development of new scientific insights and scientific revolutions".

The first passage distinguishes between thinking as a form of problem solving and thinking as pattern recognition, which is more sensory in nature. "The intellect can compare, merge, separate and sort out concepts, perceptions and experiences. This process is called reasoning. Logic is the science of reasoning ".

To what extent does these descriptions fit into the conceptualistic model developed here? Pattern recognition, unmistakably an elementary function, has been placed on a primary level in Chapter 6. Experiences are processed into patterns, they create types while concepts in turn are composed of different types. Because of this hierarchy, within this framework of conceptualism it is not possible to "compare, merge, separate or sort out elements" at different levels. That would only be possible if it concerns elements on the same level. It is thus possible to say that the spirit can compare, merge, separate and sort out concepts, although one has to indicate what is meant by that. The next question, however, is whether these processes can be called 'reasoning' and whether logic can be said to be the science of reasoning. Logic consists of elements such as propositions, predicates and operators that are all expressed exclusively in language. If only these linguistic definitions are used, the strong form of linguistic relativism is virtually trivial: thinking or reasoning depends entirely on the language used. Therefore it's no coincidence that logicians use an artificial language to accurately represent the laws found.

However, are these definitions correct? Does no other forms of thinking than reasoning as described here? Or formulated differently: do non-lingual elements occur in the thinking? If pattern recognition is included in thinking, as is stated here, it seems clear, many patterns are visually, auditory or otherwise connected with sensory experiences without any direct relation to linguistic elements. Even if one interprets thinking in a stricter way, as a process of exclusively realised concepts, it may concern concepts that do not contain linguistic types, from which it can be concluded that a way of thinking outside the use of language does exist. With this, linguistic relativism in its strong form lapses.

The linguistic determinism may be approached differently too. Suppose one could only observe things for which a word or name is known, one would never be able to observe something new. However, new concepts are created constantly, most of them disappear quickly without ever getting a name. Only a fraction of all concepts arising in daily life have such a long and important existence that they are given a name. Language is important in the conceptual system, but it certainly does not have the role that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in strong form attributes to it.

The weak form seems to have more chance, both in linguistic empirical research and within the conceptual framework. After all, in the previous chapter it became clear that the use of language is necessary to communicate about more complex concepts. What the Dutch Wikipedia understands by thinking, I try to compare with the conceptual concepts developed here. Wikipedia says: "In a moment of reflection, new situations and experiences are judged against existing memories". In conceptual terms, the "new situations and experiences" are the patterns which are experienced at a certain point in time. "the existing memories" are the types that are actualised, the "assessment" stands for the realisation of the concept.

Wikipedia continues: "In order to be able to make these assessments it is necessary that the intellect evaluates the current experience and seeks out relevant experience from the past. This happens while the past and present are kept absolutely separate". The search for relevant experiences in the past is in the conceptual frame the search for types that are congruent with elements of the now experienced pattern. How that happens in the mind is unknown, clearly it takes place very quickly, generally completely autonomously and largely unconsciously. Is that an operation of the "intellect"? What is described in the Wikipedia as thinking, is in the conceptualistic image only that which constantly, unconsciously, takes place in all innumerable daily experiences, including many feelings and emotions. Is that what is meant by thinking? No, of course not, thinking is generally seen as a conscious and focused process. For a further evaluation of Sapir-Whorf, a more specific description of the concept of thinking is therefore necessary.

15.3 Thinking

At first instance I come to the following definition:

15.3.1 Thinking is a conscious inner process consisting of a sequence of congruent concepts that are realised chain-wise

What does this definition mean?
First, I see thinking as a process. In the mind things draw along in a movement that, in a conscious state, does not come to a standstill. One can focus on one sensory experience for a long time, one can stare at a flower for a long time or listen to the murmur of the sea. But that is not called thinking. Thinking is a continuous movement.
Secondly, thinking is a conscious process. It is likely many unconscious processes take place in the mind, but those are not called thinking.
The notion inner indicates that it is a process in the mind consisting of non-sensory experiences, experiences that exclusively come from the mind itself, as opposed to sensory experiences.
What comes along in the process are concepts, the notions in which one thinks, each of which consists of a number of types. The successive concepts are congruent, possibly weakly congruent, they have at least some types in common.
Finally, the concepts are realised chain-wise. The realisation of a concept C1 in the mind means one or more constituent types has been actualised. The realisation of C1 then actualises a number of other types also belonging to C1. However, some of these actualised types are also part of the congruent concept C2. The realisation of C1 implies actualising a number of types of C2, that's whi it can lead to realisation of C2, or maybe C3, if that concept has a number of types with C1 in common too. This mechanism creates a chain of realisations of mutually congruent concepts.

Thinking is often understood as a focused process, for example to solve problems. To that aspect, which is not part of the definition, I will come back later.

The realised concepts can be both linguistic and non-linguistic concepts. The kind of thinking in which chains of linguistic concepts pass by is also described as talking to yourself in silence. People who are multilingual sometimes report in which language they think, which indicates sequences of linguistic concepts. Besides, also non-linguistic concepts seem to be able to get past. For example, I see that it is raining outside, so I know I am not going to do any shopping now. For that I do not have to say to myself first that I am not going to do messengers yet because it is raining. I see the parasol in the garden getting wet from the rain and think of the cover that should be around it to keep it dry. It's a bit hard that such streams of thought on paper can only be represented with words, which makes them seem linguistic. When I do the test for myself to look at the parasol in the rain, I can see it clearly wet without the word "parasol" coming to mind. Another indication that I can be aware of the concept without retrieving the name in my mind, I find in the fact that, if I want to talk about it, I do not have to use the name "parasol", just giving a description satisfies. "That grey thing there" or "that umbrella for the sun" are adequate indications that point to the well-known concept. Another indication is the situation one often wants to say something and can not find the words. "The thing is in the what is it called again?" Apparently one has a thought without accompanying words, which in this case are unconsciously present and can appear at any moment, nevertheless absent at the moment of thinking. All this indicates that thinking without words is indeed possible.

15.4 Worldview

The question then arises what is meant by 'world view'. In the conceptual approach, the answer to that question seems simple:

15.4.1. My world view is the open dynamic collection of all my concepts

The whole of all my concepts is an open and dynamic collection consisting of very different concepts, from sharp to out of focus, from powerful to weak, from short to long-lived and from very simple to extremely complex. However, when it's about the concepts in which one thinks, those which form one's the world view, one usually means only the concepts that are relatively sharp, powerful, long-living, among which are very complex ones too. Although one possesses at any time a large number of concepts not bound to a linguistic element, if one wants the more complex of them to acquire a fixed place in consciousness, to communicate them is a condition, for which language is necessary.

Thus thinking and the world view are certainly dependent on the language. The opposite is true too, however: language depends on thinking and the world view. In the development of the language, words are usually added to concepts, not vice versa. When people experience new phenomena they make up their own words. A reverse process takes place in school learning, for example when learning a foreign language or when learning difficult words. In the year that this is written, the word "selfie" in the Netherlands has been chosen as the most popular expression. The use of such a new word follows the habit of taking a picture of yourself with a smartphone, together with friends and preferably at nice tourist attractions. The phenomenon has existed for centuries, in the past it was called a self-portrait, later a photo with the self-timer and now, thanks to the very widespread use of the smartphone, it has become very easy to make, so it has got a short easy name everyone uses. Except, of course, Grandfather who does not have a smartphone and reads in the newspaper about selfies, the grandchildren have to explain what they are.
The creation of a word or expression usually follows its use, but when learning from existing words the order is reversed: first the word is learned, next what it means, for what concept it stands.

What does linguistic relativism say? From the conceptualistic point of view it's obvious that language and thinking are at least partly mutually dependent. The key question is whether the language used, its vocabulary and its grammar, makes it impossible to form certain concepts. As far as vocabulary is concerned, that does not seem likely. It is undoubtedly true that I do not experience all kinds of things because I do not have a name for it. Correspondingly meteorologists see all kinds of cloud formations I neither recognise or ever experience as such. As soon as I get interested and learn the names, I suddenly see cumulus and sheep clouds. And once meteorologists see repeatedly occurred new patterns in the sky it does not cost them any effort to come up with a new term for it. The vocabulary of a language follows its use. If Whorf had been able to give his workers a chemistry class in which the explosiveness of petrol vapour was demonstrated, they would probably quickly change their behaviour and give the term "empty" a different meaning: although empty of petrol, still full of explosive vapour. Whorf himself gives a nice demonstration of this as he was aware of the danger of empty barrels while he spoke the same language as the workers and probably also called the dangerous barrels "empty". The mistake Whorf and supporters make with their linguistic relativism is they see both the language and the conceptual content of man as static, while both are in reality - to a large extent - dynamic.

However, it could be that not the vocabulary but the grammar of a language is limiting the kind of concepts that can be represented. According to linguistic universalists led by Noam Chomski, this could not explain differences between cultures because the basic structure of each language, called the deep structure, is genetically built into the mind of every human being and is therefore universal for every culture. The languages ​​actually used in different cultures show different surface structures that are not inherited and can therefore also change over time and can therefore adapt to the developments of thought. A fundamental limitation for all potentially conceivable concepts can only be found in the deep structure and that is universal for all humanity and leaves no room for differences between cultures. For universalism supporters, that's the end of the matter: there is no place for linguistic relativism on the basis of grammatical characteristics. Unfortunately however, they have never been able to indicate a grammatical structure that occurs in all human languages.

Remain the opponents of universalism who believe that languages ​​of different cultures can differ substantially from one another. Because they do not believe in a hereditary basic structure, they must assume that the grammars of different peoples have evolved in the course of history according to the needs of those peoples and adapted to their conceptual worlds. If that is true, however, the whole point lapse. What happens If in a certain culture, for example through contact with other cultures, grows a need to create concepts unknown in that culture until then? Would not that language, including grammar, because of the insufficiency, develop in such a way that new concepts arise and become communicable? Apparently a language can develop, so a lack of designation possibilities can be solved by further growth of that language. This may take time, but the occurrence of very many mixing languages ​​in the world indicates that there is no fundamental problem here. The existence of a few special cultures in Polynesia and Papua New Guinea with deviating time or space concepts, a well-known example of those who defend the linguistic relativism, does not so much refer to linguistic shortcomings but to the centuries-long isolation of these cultures from the rest of humanity.

It can not be maintained in the long term languages ​​are able to impose fundamental restrictions on the world view of certain peoples or groups. What then remains of Sapir-Whorf is the fact that peoples know both different world views and different languages. But not only do peoples and cultures differ in their world view, also between groups and subgroups within cultures considerable differences exist, also in terms of language use. And, as I showed, the collection of concepts each individual possesses is constantly changing too. However, no Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is required to establish this. Linguistic relativism is, in the only interpretation holding up, trivial and therefore meaningless, seen from the conceptualistic model.

15.5 The rabbit of Quine

quineWillard Van Orman Quine, (1908-2000) was an influential American philosopher and logician in the analytical tradition of the 20th century. He usually wrote his name in full, including Van Orman, the surname of his mother, and was apparently referred to as "Van" by intimates. Quine's philosophy is largely at odds with conceptualism, he thinks logistic, naturalistic and behaviouristic, so almost entirely realistic. However, where he deals with language and meaning, he comes to some relativistic findings. In one of his most famous works, "Word and Object", he develops an ontology which basically means that everything the natural sciences are about are part of the reality, but all other concepts do not, which he motivates with arguments such as the elegance of theories. However, the second chapter of the 1960 book deals with the translatability of sentences and leads to a surprising conclusion.

Based on his behaviourist principles, he states that meaning can only be expressed in perceptible events, which leads to his idea of ​​radical translation that is necessary if someone wants to translate sentences from a language he does not know at all. He undertakes a well-known thought experiment that takes place somewhere in the interior of a distant continent where a researcher discovers a hitherto unknown tribe who speaks a completely unknown language. The researcher wants to make a translation and notices that a rabbit regularly walks by, whereupon the natives invariably pronounce the sound "Gavagai". He writes in his notebook: "Gavagai = Rabbit". However, he an educated chap and realizes that Plato would have handled this differently. He would have interpreted the sensory reality of an along-running rabbit as an instance of the idea 'rabbit', which, according to Plato, only exists in the world of ideas. Reflecting on this, he comes up with the idea that a chef, if present, in the rabbit mainly sees a to roast meat dish, an anatomist, on the other hand, a collection of rabbit parts.

What is the good translation? Does "Gavagai" stands for a word, a sentence (assignment, exclamation), the instance of an idea, a meat snack coming into being or a collection of rabbit parts? According to Quine, this remains indefinite, even if the researcher stays in the tribe for a longer period of time and experiences more actions and events. Quine's conclusion is far-reaching. He states that every human being, depending on his history and frame of reference, has his own idiolect with his own meanings that are fundamentally cannot be (completely) known by others. A clear relativistic conclusion, one would think, entirely in line with conceptualism. Quine, however, seems to attach so strongly to the logical positivism of his master Carnap that he simultaneously constructs an objective concept of meaning with the aid of the concept of stimulus meaning. This meaning comes about in the form of a researcher who does not speak the language and asks a question to someone who speaks the language. The researcher can, for example, point to a along-running rabbit and ask: Gavagaj? ", to which he receives the answer "Yes". If the researcher, on the other hand, points out a tree and asks the same question, he proves to get the answer "No". The set of all possible situations in which the questioned person confirms the sentence positively, is called by Quine the affirmative stimulus meaning. Conversely, the negative stimulus meaning is the collection of all situations in which negative answers are given.

Quine now defines the stimulus meaning of the word Gavangai as the combination of both sets, so as the collection of all situations, both the affirmative and the negative. In this way he achieves an objective definition. Although he, because he realises the whole idea loses its significance as the sentences become longer and more complex, limits himself to very short sentences like "Gavangaj?", we see Quine applying here a technique of objectivation that is frequently used in analytical philosophy. Quine defines a meaning as a collection of all situations in which a positive reaction comes in combination with all situations that evoke a negative reaction. These are two theoretical infinite sets of possible situations that for the most part have never occurred to the researcher. However, if an objectifying definition is sought, this is an elegant and obvious method. At every difference in meaning, however small, at least one situation is conceivable in which the positive or negative reaction of the person who knows the language, determines the right meaning in the other language. By defining an infinite collection of all situations that can occur in theory, virtually every difference between the meaning in the two different languages ​​is brought to light, which makes an exact translation possible. Quine, however, draws an opposite conclusion: with the phrase "Gavagaj!" in another language, someone could for instance refer to an entire rabbit or only to the head or to "rabbit-being". According to him, this is determined by a specific device within the language that lays down the meaning and can not be translated itself.

That seems to be in conflict with his own objectified definition of stimulus meaning: certainly situations occur that discriminate between the meanings of the rabbit as a whole or only the head or whatever, because it concerns the infinite collection of all possible situations. In the next chapter of Word and Object, Quine goes further in the way children learn language, at least according to the behaviourist Skinner. But with that he ends up in the domain of the natural language in which the sentences are longer and more complex than "Gavagaj!" Or "Gavagai?" And in which speakers are never confronted with infinite classes of possible situations.
The concept of Gavangai has become known in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, but in my view Quine has not made his relativistic notion true, in his later work either.

15.6 Translatability

Thus Quine states that sentences are fundamentally untranslatable, in the sense that, although a statement of person A in language TA that is translated into language TB by a person B who does not know the language TA, by B can be understood, B can never be certain that what he understands is the same as what A means by his statement. Quine's claim was based on very simple sentences such as "Ganvangai?", which play only a marginal role in natural languages. If even such simple sentences can not be translated unequivocally, then this applies even more to more complex sentences that consist of more principally untranslatable words.

The phenomenon that translation entails a number of problems because expressions and words in one language do not have to correspond with corresponding elements in another language, is generally known. Proper translation therefore requires, in addition to a thorough knowledge of both languages, knowledge of the cultures in which those languages ​​are spoken, so that where a literal translation is not possible, adequate descriptions can be given that match the perception of the speakers in both languages. Yet this concerns a different kind of translatability than Quine is talking about. If one follows his reasoning accurately, one can conclude his analysis is not exclusively valid for translation, rather a fundamental problem of human communication. Suppose not one but more researchers in the foreign area always hear the word "gavangai" when the rabbits pass by. They have no doubt that it is a rabbit, but that can indeed have a different meaning for each of them. The Platoon philosopher can see it as an instance of the idea 'rabbit' while the cook already sees the beast in the frying pan. However, if they use the word "rabbit" in their own language, exactly the same thing will happen. No two people have exactly the same concept with a certain word.

This phenomenon can easily be explained from the conceptualistic model. Suppose two persons A and B both see a rabbit walking past. For most people, the image of a long-running rabbit is a complete realiser for his understanding of 'rabbit'. Assuming that the rabbit is sufficiently aware of them, the concept of 'rabbit' will be realised in both minds. A's concept consists of a number of types formed by all his experiences with rabbits throughout his life, including his thoughts about it, . The same applies to B. The types of A and B, however, do not, in principle, coincide entirely: A and B have never had exactly the same experiences with rabbits throughout their lives. Perhaps it seems less likely a philosopher sees in a rabbit the instance of ​​a Platonic idea, but the concepts of the city dweller who only sees bunnies from his caravan in the summer, of the baron who is happy that the myxomatosis puts an end to the rabbits infestation on his estate and the poulterer who slaughter hundreds of rabbits at Christmastime, will certainly vary considerably. Yet all three will say they see a rabbit. This means that they each possess a concept that includes the word "rabbit", while their concepts do not fully correspond. As far as the image of the appearance is concerned and undoubtedly also a number of other aspects their concepts will correspond, but in addition to the similarities, their concepts partly differ. The city dweller in his caravan cannot share his warm feelings for the rabbit with the baron or the poulterer, each of them have to a large extent different experiences from their past. If people have had more similar experiences in their lives, they understand each other better, if there are few similarities it becomes difficult to share concepts, so to communicate with each other.

As said, this phenomenon has little to do with translation. However, at translation the phenomenon plays an even stronger role. A word that indicates a concept, "rabbit" in this case, is a complete realiser for normal people who know the language and the animal species rabbit. The word "gavangai" in a unknown foreign language, however, doesn't mean anything to them, only after a number of confrontations with a rabbit comes the idea that it is used in that foreign language for the concept 'rabbit'. However, if the natives wear rabbit fur, "gavangai" could also mean the term "fur". One can only find out by communicating with the natives in more and different situations. If they also say "gavangai" in a robe fur mantle, it probably does not mean "rabbit" to them. In the reasoning of Quine: one can only be sure what the natives mean when they have used the concept in all possible situations. Yet this is a universal phenomenon with every communication, even within one language. The fur trader who says to his client: "Real rabbit madam" means something essentially different from my grandchild who wants to see a movie of the rabbit Miffy.

15.7 Limits to understanding

When people communicate, they exchange information. Person A says something, B hears that and thinks it understands. He often reacts by expressing himself, even if only with a nod or a "hm" sound. What is the result of this interaction? What do we mean exactly when we say that B understands the expression of A? It may be assumed A wants to convey something that consciously or unconsciously corresponds to the state of his mind at that moment. B hears what A says and believes that to understand. Either what he hears corresponds to possible states in his mind. Nevertheless the result is not the state of his mind is completely in line with that of A. In conceptualism this is easy to describe. A's mind contains a number of concepts. Some of them have a name or description that is part of the concept. If he wants to transfer the realisation of those concepts to B, he produces a language expression that contains the names or descriptions concerned. B hears this expression and insofar as it contains full realisers for his own concepts, the corresponding concepts will be realised in him. Do the mental situations of A and B now fully correspond? Certainly not. Firstly, a communication involves only a small number of concepts of the gigantic number a person possesses. But there isn't any certainty that the concepts realised in B's mind correspond exactly with the concepts in A's mind on which the communication was based. In principle, B should therefore be very uncertain of what he hears A is saying.

In daily practice, it's not that bad. When I say that I am hungry and want a sandwich, listeners in my own culture will immediately understand that. Both "hunger" and "sandwich" are full realisers for normal people and the associated concepts are shared by most people. Yet the realised concepts must also fit in the context. If a child says something like this to his lovingly caring mother, she might answer: "With peanut butter or sausage?" However, if that is said at a time when she has just finished the hot food she will understand the hunger but the need for a sandwich not. She will probably answer: "The hot food is almost ready". After all, concepts are related to each other thanks to the corresponding types. 'Hunger' is very similar to 'I have not eaten anything for a while', but 'sandwich' and 'hot food' have few common types. In other words: the concepts of A and B to be communicated must not only agree, also the context, the concepts that both associate with them, must match.

15.7.1 Suppose A wants to communicate the concepts CA1...CAn with B, then that communication can only succeed if:
a. B possess the corresponding concepts CB1...CBn and
b. The set of concepts that in A's mind are bound by common types to CA1...CAn correspond sufficiently to the concepts that are bound in B's mind with the concepts CB1...CBn.


In plain words: B not only has to know the words used by A, the context in which A pronounces the words should invoke the same context at B too. In this way it may seem that communication can seldom succeed, but for people who live in the same community with many similar experiences, both conditions are often met in practice, provided that the relevant concepts are not too complex. "Are you already hungry?" "Yes, I'm in the mood for a sandwich with cheese". "Shall I make it for you?" "Yes, please." "Do you want something to drink?" "Yes, a glass of water please". Such everyday conversations raise hardly questions for both parties. But when two Jehovah's Witnesses ring my doorbell to tell me that Jesus is love, I have as an agnostic no idea what they mean by that, I do not even try to understand it and, without responding on their question, I just wonder how I can get rid of them in a civilized way.

15.8 Untranslatability

As indicated, I define a person's worldview as the whole of all his concepts, consisting of, on the one hand, inherited concepts and, on the other hand, concepts acquired during the previous life. In that sense, two people can not have exactly the same world view. There are, however, many necessary agreements, even between people from completely different cultures, because of biological preconditions for life as such. In this way everyone gets hungry when he does not eat anything, one finds some things tasty and other things dirty, everyone feels pain when he hits his toe, everyone has a mother, and so on. Life has a large number of basic conditions that apply to everyone, causing to exist also many universal concepts everyone in the world needs. Universal in the sense that a number of basic experiences which make up the concept correspond, next to a great number of differences that always exist. Because of biological laws everyone in all cultures will know the concept of 'mother', but apart from the different words that are used for it in different languages ​​people can have very different experiences with the concept of 'mother'. Concepts are therefore never entirely equal, but they can correspond to important aspects and therefore be communicated.

I return to the definition of the Dutch Wikipedia: "Communication is an activity in which living beings exchange meanings by responding to each other's signals". A communication in this definition is not a one-way action but a feedback chain. Communication between two people can be called successful if concepts known in both directions are evoked in an appropriate context. The realised concepts do not have to be the same, they are never completely equal, just as the contexts in which they act for both people. But there must be so much agreement that one both recognises and finds appropriate the expressions of the other, or:

15.8.1 Communication between two parties is a sequence of mutual utterances in which both parties think they understand each other

The assumption they understand each other, it may seem a little meagre, but more agreement can not be reached. One can never be entirely sure that what's understood also reflects the intention of the other. The result is a fundamental uncertainty that manifests itself in the way in which one communicates. More about that in the next chapter.

In addition to universal human concepts, every human being possesses a large number of concepts that only occur within larger or smaller groups. These involve people who have functional contact with each other: nations, peoples, language groups, religious communities, political groups, groups of friends, work communities and so on. That which is communicable within one group without problems can have no or an entirely different meaning in another.
It is said that people can live in different worlds, which is meant by between them no communication is possible. If one sees "his world" as the whole of his concepts, it will be clear that this is always the case in the literal sense of separated worlds, but because of the existence of universal concepts, never completely. An agnostic can not have a meaningful conversation with a believer about God or other matters of faith. In that respect, so with regard to concepts around the faith, believers and agnostics live in different worlds, which does not mean that one can't drink a nice cup of coffee together and chat about the weather.

Quine stated translation can not in principle lead to certainty about what someone meant in the original language. From the analysis given here, one can conclude that the problem of translation is only a special case of the general impossibility of unambiguously transferring concepts to another. However, it is a question of gradation. People who have many congruent concepts, either - partly - hereditary or through parallel experiences during their lives, can communicate relatively well with each other. But they too can never be sure that what they understand is what the other person means. And, if they possess less congruent concepts, it becomes more difficult to communicate. It becomes even worse if they speaks different languages, the uttered words then are no longer complete realisers for concepts, so understanding becomes very difficult, more a form of searching. To understand that, we don't need Quine's rabbit.


[1] The English and Dutch versions of Wikipedia offer different descriptions. I wrote this chapter starting from the Dutch version and made the English version as a translation. However, both versions agree in mentioning the notion of 'thinking' is not quit clear. The English versionThought encompasses an “aim-free flow of ideas and associations that can lead to a reality-oriented conclusion.” Although thinking is an activity of an existential value for humans, there is no consensus as to how it is defined or understood.