Linguistics is the study of language. You may think that linguistics is not that insane or cosmic, but how wrong you'd be. Linguistics deals with how the human mind encodes information and how we represent thought to ourselves and to others. It also studies abstraction itself and meaning itself. Metacommentology is The Ultimate Comment's contribution to the science of linguistics.
To understand the universe, we must understand the structure of the conceptual system we use in the investigation. How do our thoughts and words relate to reality? Our mate Wittgenstein has asked, how do we know that all our philosophical problems are not just bewitchment by language? Aldous Huxley said that language is an excellent servant but a bad master.
Language is the result of extremely complex subconscious processes. You've used word proccessors before, so you'll have realised that programmers have not yet been able to describe the laws governing grammar that we all use effortlessly all the time. It's pretty remarkable that communication acually works at all.
It has been said that what distinguishes consciousness from regular, boring phenomena of the universe is intentionality i.e. the quality of something being 'about' something or of referring to something outside of itself. Our thoughts and conscious sensations have meaning outside of themselves. Meaning is the very essence of consciousness. When consciousness becomes self-referential, intelligence and philosophy become possible.
Semantics is the study of meaning, of how thought relates to reality. An understanding of semantics allows us to avoid misunderstanding, self-deception and confusion, by realizing that our conceptual framework is just a conceptual framework, not reality itself - the map is not the territory. Alfred Korzybski, in 'Science and Sanity', formulated General Semantics as a means of seeing more clearly and banishing confusion. Korzybski's theories were expressed more accessibly by Robert Anton Wilson.
The Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski hypothesis holds that language influences thought. Nominalizations have enormous psychic power. Once you assign a word to something, you enable it to be treated as an object in the mind, which allows it to affect people's thoughts and behaviour. To give one example, many people are influenced very strongly by patriotism, the love of their country. What is this 'country'? What does it look like? How can you love it? If there were no words pertaining to this entity 'country', would it still be able to hold such sway over minds? Robert Anton Wilson calls these semantically created entities 'spooks' and Nietzsche called them 'swindles'. (isn't it interesting that medieval magicians declared that you could had power over any demon once you knew its true name?)
Betrand Russell said that "ordinary language is the repository of the metaphysics of savages." This is true. Our language and our habit of thinking in our language, leads to metaphysical assumptions:
The grammatical rule of every verb requiring a subject has also led to much metaphysical confusion, most monumentally in Descartes' Meditations, when he declares, "I think, therefore I am". Because thinking is occuring, he assumes that there must be a subject doing the thinking.
None of these grammatical presuppositions, so deeply engrained in our thought, have any real philosophical validity or objective existence, yet they are often taken to be absolute rules of necessity. By studying semantics, we can see through the presuppositions that shape our thinking.
The verb 'to be' is problematic. It presupposes the possibility of two things being identical ("Bertie Ahern is Taoiseach"), of things belonging to classes ("Shylock is a Jew"). Korzybski calls this "the is of idetity". It can also be used to present things as inseperable from their properties ("Maths is hard"). Korzybski called this "the is of predication". These are always misleading, of course, as A is not equal to A. Trotsky proves this by pointing out that nothing is the same as anything else, and things can only be said to be equal to themselves if we ignore the existence of time. Frege inadvertently proves this by attempting to explain equality by recourse to some really dodgy metaphysics that involve thoughts existing independently of minds.
E-Prime is English with all tenses of the verb 'to be' removed. It is useful for rooting out assumptions and clarifying thought. In E-Prime, "the electron is a particle" becomes "the electron has been observed to act in a way typical of particles". "I am bad at spelling" becomes "I have made mistakes in spelling". "Americans are dumb" becomes "Certain people I have observed, who are citizens of the U.S.A., have misused words and been unaware of certain facts of locational geography." Note how the sentences in E-prime point to actual events that happened, or to actual things that were experienced, while the sentence using the 'is of identity' or the 'is of predication' point to generalizations and concepts and hide the fact that these can only be derived from events and experiences.
We mostly think along what we may call Aristotelian lines, holding A to be equal to A and silly things like that. According to Fenollosa, this has left us with the feeling that there are only two types of meaningful propositions, those of the form "The United States Congress is a constitutional assembly" and those of the form "A ring-tailed baboon is not a constitutional assembly".
- Write out fifteen beliefs you hold, some about yourself, some about politics, some about religion, some about matters of philosophy. Look at the noun phrases in each of the sentences. Do they refer to things that really exist? Are there any semantic 'spooks' in them? Can you rewrite these sentences in E-Prime?
- Try to think in E-Prime for a week or more. Every time you catch yourself transgressing, pinch yourself hard.
- What do you user the words 'I', 'me', 'myself' etc. to mean? Is it your body, your habitual personality, the personality you express in a given situation? Is it your thoughts? Your memories, which form the narrative of your life? Will you, like Jesus or Mansur ibn al-Hallaj, take 'I' to mean the ground of all being and declare "I am the truth!"? Experiment with using 'I' to mean different things.
- Using 'I' to mean everything that's worst in your character, write an account of yourself. Take fifteen minutes. Now using 'I' to mean all that you desire to be, do the same. Now read through the first account, switching 'he' or 'she' for 'I'. Try going a week speaking of yourself only as what you desire to be, and referring to all that is undesirable about yourself in the third person.
Critical theories influenced by linguistics
Structuralism is a way of analysing the universe using the same model by which linguists analyse language. Systems in theworld are seen as structures of meaningful units which combine together in certain ways to firm a greater meaning which consists of the meanings of its component parts. The meaning of each element must be seen in context.
Poststructuralism takes the linguistic model of reality a step further. Because meanings are dependant on context, there is no definite meaning and no definite truth. The universe is a system of interdependant, contingent, perspectival ideas.
Postmodernism is a notoriously slippery eel to define. It rejects all 'master narratives' like religious explanations of the world, or science, breaking all understanding down to 'micro-narratives'. Reality is seen as consisting of entities called simulacra which are created by communication, the media and sign systems.