What's in a name?
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Metaphysics - What is Really Real!
What's in a Name?
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Last modified on: 27-Sep-98.
What does a word refer to? Well, when we say dog, we are referring to this four legged canine. But is this true? What about when we say, "This is a game." What is the meaning of the word 'game?' How is a game of football like a game of chess? Or a guessing game? Clearly what words refer to is not always clear. Clearly, we can point to examples of games, but we cannot point out an example of 'game.'
Learnings from the perfect world of ideas ...
To Plato, a perfect circle (or perfect anything)does not exist on Earth. Yet we have the idea of a perfect circle. Where does or did this idea come from? We clearly didn't learn it on Earth, because there aren't any perfect examples on Earth, so, according to Plato, we must have learned it from a previous life in an ideal, perfect, universe, where the form 'perfect circle' actually exists. Although the expression 'perfect circle' has no representation on Earth, we do understand it, even though we cannot point out any examples of it.
Not all words represent things in this Universe. Even common words, such as 'dog' do not have any representations in our experience. We can say this is a dog (pointing to Rover) and this is a dog (pointing to Fido) but Fido and Rover are different, yet are both called 'dog.' As they are different, then they cannot both represent 'dog' (although they are examples of 'dog'). Plato's ideas, may seem strange, but they have a nagging truth about them! This theory is called Platonism.
Hidden mental entities
On the other hand, others, in modern times, have claimed that the word represents a mental entity which contains the meaning of the word. We understand, for example, real dogs by relating them to the mental entity or concept of dog in our minds. But what sort of thing could this mental entity be? Surely it is something we must be able to experience? But what image, sound, feeling, smell, etc, or combination represents all dogs? Is it really conceivable that such an entity exists, if we cannot experience it? The theory that concepts represent things is called conceptualism and is popular in psychology.
It's just words!
Other thinkers have claimed that there is nothing which a group of things have in common apart from the word used to describe them. Dogs have nothing in common except the word 'dog.' If you disagree with this, ask yourself: 'What is a fox? is it a dog or a cat?' 'Is a tadpole a frog? Is it a baby frog?' 'Is a foetus a human being?' 'Is Kung Fu a sport?' In war are 'the Creeps' human beings we must respect, or non-humans we can kill? Clearly the answer cannot be determined by referring to some mental entity or concept, because none seems to exist. Neither can we refer to Ideals in Plato's Universe, because, for example, what Ideal could represent both a frog, and a tadpole as a baby frog? In this view we can use words to mean just what we want them to. (Here 'we' is the whole language using community, not just you and I!) This is theory is called Nominalism.
However, if nominalism is about generalisation, then we appear to be able to generalise without words. Animals can learn to generalise and behave towards novel things which are similar to previous learned things. Yet the perception of similarities and differences might be different from forming a concept of the universal 'dog', for example. Yet again, how can we perceive something as the same or different unless we have a concept of the other thing? A mere image is not enough because, as we have discovered there are no two things which are identical in the world. And an exact image of the previous example is different in some way from the new similar example. To perceive similarity we require some general idea.
The man who could remember everything
When the Russian psychologist Luria studied a man who could apparently remember everything, this man said he had difficulty remembering people because they looked so different depending on the expressions on their faces. His images were, presumably, rather concrete and exact, and his ability to generalise was limited!
The exciting thing about nominalism is that we can change experience by changing the words we use to describe that experience. For example, is an experience a failure or a learning experience? We cannot be sure how to apply some or even most words, and this gives a freedom to reframe our experiences to help us feel better.
Last modified on: 27-Sep-98.
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