Dialectical Theory of Meaning, Mihailo Marković 1961

Part Two:
Linguistic Meaning

Basic Ideas about Language Throughout the History of Philosophy

Traditional philosophy postulated the identity of mind and word, even an identical structure underlying mind, word, and being – expressed by the triple meaning of the fundamental concept of logos. According to Bergson, traditional philosophy is based on a faith in language, on a high opinion of its value. Rationalists do not view language as a problem because they see no discrepancy between its terms and concepts and the essential characteristics of being (universals). However, when a culture is in a period of crisis, sceptics enter the scene who separate words, thoughts, and objects. Thus, according to Gorgias, if being is, it is incomprehensible and cannot be known by man.

Even if it were knowable, it would be ineffable and incommunicable. According to Aenesidemus, only one sort of sign denotes something that really exists: signs which we have perceived in the past simultaneously with the things they denote. These are so‑called commemorative or reminiscent signs. All others, which Aenesidemus terms "indicative" are not true signs because they refer to the unknown; dogmatists are wrong when they say that these signs refer to something existent.

However, the sceptics had to reckon with such giants of philosophical thought as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who not only made great efforts to restore the faith in language but whose impact on subsequent philosophical thought was far more decisive than that of the sceptical school. Speaking through Socrates, Plato in his Cratylus vigorously opposes the view, advocated by the Sophists, that language is based on convention. It is obvious that Plato, like the later realists, accepts the assumption that language and its categories faithfully reflect the structure of reality. All the basic features of Aristotle's logic are conditioned by the characteristics of the Greek language. Descartes carried on this tradition – despite the scepticism inherent in his method of universal doubt. His thesis about innate ideas implies the innateness and the universality of the language by which they are expressed. According to Urban,

He (Descartes in a letter to Mersenne) believes in the inseparable character of the relation of reason and language. As in all forms of knowledge, there is always one ground form of knowledge, the human reason, so there must be in all different languages one language, the universal, rational form of language. The demand for a Mathesis universalis includes in it, for all parts of knowledge which are not mathematical, the demand for a Lingua universalis.

All rationalists after Descartes, especially Leibniz, worked toward the realization of this ideal. Even in our time, when the imperfection of ordinary language and the differences between its grammatical structure and the logical structure of thought are a truism, we encounter the old realist idea in a new guise. According to this new realism, ordinary language should be replaced by an ideal, artificial language whose syntax will express not only all the characteristics of a universal logical structure of thought, but the absolute structure of reality as well. This was the conviction of the young Bertrand Russell when constructing the language of his Principia Mathematica. However, Russell merely shifted the application of traditional Platonic realism from ordinary language to an artificial one.

There were several renewals of Greek scepticism: first in the philosophy of late scholasticism, then in the nominalist refutation of the real existence of universals. There are, it seems, words which do not denote anything. Francis Bacon went even further in his critique of language when he convincingly demonstrated the existence of words which systematically deceive us. John Locke is the true father of modem philosophy of language. The first among philosophers to fully grasp the problem of language, Locke gave the first clear formulation of the thesis that language as an instrument of expression participates in the process of cognition to such an extent that this process cannot be properly studied without a previous study of language.

As a rule, the entire school of empiricism relied, with its one‑sided insistence on sensory experience as the source of knowledge, on Locke's thesis about language, and, as time went by, focused more and more on the analysis of language. After all, this was the ideal way of building a philosophy which would postulate neither a material substance and real essences nor abstract mental entities. Thus Berkeley vigorously attacked the theory of abstract ideas, and Hume doubted the objective existence of things and their necessary causal relationships, and the objective existence of God and the soul; he even doubted the existence of our "Self' as a unique entity. Only immediate experience and language remained beyond doubt. All abstractions were interpreted as conventional linguistic signs, either empirical or logico‑mathematical.

In addition to these traditional forms of rationalism and empiricism, two of their variants appear in the philosophy of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries.

The transcendentalism of Kant and his followers first appeared as a reaction to the scepticism of 18th century British philosophy. Kant himself did not devote much attention to the problems of language; we have to turn to Humboldt for significant ideas about language. According to Humboldt's main thesis, which is analogous to Kant's insistence on the role of the transcendental a priori forms of thought in the structuring of sensory experience and the constitution of the world of objects, linguistic forms are not only a vehicle by which knowledge is expressed, but also the means of exploring the unknown. Thus by examining language one can learn the most profound truths about the world. There is, in the transcendentalist philosophical approach to language, one true and seminal thought, which Cassirer elaborated on in detail: Language is a constitutive factor of our entire knowledge about the world. However, the transcendentalist approach overemphasizes the importance of language because its view of language is based on an idealist theory of knowledge. Transcendental philosophy of language cannot accept a material reality which exists independently of language and thought. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world" says Urban. This is a way of getting rid of the relative discrepancy between language and the world, which is partly responsible for the problem of language. Once again, a unity of the mind, language, and the world is established, reminiscent of the traditional concept of logos. Only this time the theoretical framework is epistemological, not ontological. Instead of a naive, totally unjustified assumption that language reflects in itself the ideal structure of reality, we have a far more refined thesis: The a priori mental forms contained in language structure our experience, thus forming the world as the object of our knowledge (the only world that can be the object of scientific and philosophical investigation). However, some old misconceptions persisted. Instead of providing solutions, this one‑sided hypostasis of identity at the expense of differences, of synthesis at the expense of analysis, ignored a number of problems related to language. It should be immediately pointed out that this idealization of language does not jibe with the fact that language is capable of generating prejudices and misconceptions, that it does not only unite people but also separates them. That language can separate is corroborated time and again by its practical use. After all, this particular feature of language is what makes its transformation and improvement a necessity.

In order to explain this dimension of language, philosophy of language had to pass through a stage when language was understood as a dynamic, natural phenomenon, not as the immutable expression of the totality of the mind. Language was conceived as a tool whereby man, in his desire to dominate his world, adapts to his environment and controls it. The basis for this view of language, this Schritt vom Geist zur Natur, was provided by Darwin's evolutionism. Man's dethroning had to lead to a new view of language: language, like its creator, man, is merely a part of nature; it emerged from similar yet less advanced forms of animal communication. Furthermore, language, as a result of external forces and in accordance with natural laws, exists and develops in time, and should be studied by the methods of the natural sciences. This approach to language accounts for a variety of behaviorist, pragmatist and instrumentalist theories of language.

One of the great merits of this conception of language is that it created some basic preconditions which enabled man to grasp a number of problems pertaining to language and to work on them in a concrete way, utilizing the methods of the empirical sciences. But, once again, one aspect of the method was overemphasized, and this led to an analysis of language which was diametrically opposed to the idealist view. Only the external physical dimension of language was taken into consideration. As language was understood only as a form of objective, physical human behavior, unsurmountable difficulties pertaining to the problem of meaning cropped up. Unable to talk about the act of imagining, about conscious intentions, and all the other mental processes which, although inseparable from language, do not fall into the realm of objective, empirically perceptible behavior, all the behaviorists could do was approach the problems of meaning with an impoverished theoretical apparatus, suitable only for the study of mechanisms of stimulus and response and applicable to rather undeveloped and primitive languages. In fact, the behaviorists were trapped by an old misconception. By eliminating any relative independence of mental processes, and by completely reducing them to overt verbal behavior, they postulated, once again, the identity of language and thought, thereby overlooking all the problems stemming from the fact that language and thought are inextricably connected but not identical. And that is not all. Wishing to remain within the domain of perceptible natural phenomena, the behaviorists started talking about material reality in terms of natural environment, thus denying it any structure or form. According to them, there is no other general structure than that of verbal behavior. What we have here is a monism of language and linguistic practice – as opposed to the early monism of the substance and the later monism of the mind.

In contradistinction to all of these types of conceptions of language, derived from traditional rationalism and empiricism, transcendentalism, and behaviorism, humanist dialectics relies on a very flexible conceptual apparatus which enables it to determine the relations between language, the human psyche, and material reality. The general form by which we could, on a rather abstract level, represent these relations is the concept of the unity of opposites, or the concept of the relative identity of three different classes of phenomena. Of course, these assertions would not tell us anything if we did not analyze these relations.

Language and Thought

First we will discuss the relation between language and man's mental life.

The first thing that can be said about this relation is that language participates, as an instrument, in the objective social expression of our subjective thoughts, feelings, desires, etc. The upshot of this fact is that verbal behavior is one of the most important objective empirical sources for the study of a subject's mental processes.

However, these facts about language do not mean that all possible objective knowledge about the mental processes of a subject is derived from his verbal utterances. There are forms of non‑verbal behavior that are also accessible to the methods of empirical study. Forms of non‑verbal behavior can serve as a basis for objective conclusions – with a high probability of accuracy – about a subject's mental processes. In some cases gestures, physiological reactions, actions can be more valuable than verbal utterances as indicators of the processes of our conscious and subconscious mind. For instance, Aglaya Yepanchina's actions, in Dostoyevski's The Idiot, tell us more than her words about her love toward Prince Mishkin.

However, one sort of mental process is more closely tied to language than all others, and verbal behavior is the most reliable key to its understanding. What we have in mind are thought processes. By observing someone's eye and mouth expressions, grimaces, gestures, body movements, etc. we can learn about his emotions – his anger or jealousy, for instance, but we get minimal information about the content of his thoughts. By measuring the strength and the frequency of the bio‑electric waves in the cortex, which probably constitute the physiological basis of thought, we could learn something about the effort behind thinking, its intensity, and the excitement involved in thinking, Such measuring devices could serve as lie‑detectors, although there are several reasons why they would be unreliable. For example, if something excites one very much because it is rare and unusual, it is not unlikely that one might react very emotionally to a true statement during the test. The inverse could be true as well. At any rate, direct, external manifestations of thought and its accompanying processes tell us far too little about its content, its qualitative aspect.

We can learn more about thought from practical actions – when man's thinking is followed by attempts to solve problems emerging in his relation with nature and with other men. There is a great deal of truth in Dewey's thesis that every thought represents a plan of action. The character of an action can tell us what kind of thought planned it. Thus practical meaning is a dimension of meaning. Yet this way of uncovering the content of thought processes can be very arduous and complicated. There can be a considerable time difference between a thought and the corresponding action. The realization of an action can, owing to various factors, differ from the plan. What we have to do, instead of looking at an isolated action which can include significant departures from the plan, is to take into consideration the entire physical praxis of the given subject. But again, highly abstract thought may be isolated from physical praxis. Anyway, we can base our judgments about thought on praxis only if we follow a special kind of reasoning by analogy – which has a limited cognitive value.

Language is by far the most reliable indicator of thought. In fact, language presents the dialectical unity of two sorts of processes. Language permanently associates strictly determined material processes (sound production by the larynx, the creation of particular ink or printing color patterns) with particular thought processes. These two sorts of processes are structurally similar. What this means is that there are invariant types and relations in the multitude of varying linguistic signs. On the other hand, our highly varied mental life contains invariant dispositions of imagining certain objects, of recognizing them when we see them, and of correctly using the terms which denote them. There is such functional connection between the two that the appearance of the sign normally provokes a corresponding disposition and, conversely, the manifestation of a mental disposition (directly provoked by other physical or mental events) tends to reproduce the sign or at least to evoke an idea of it. One fact about language is essential: both types of relations those included in signs and those included in the structure of mental dispositions – have a social character. They are invariant elements of thought and of language of all members of society, and not only of isolated individuals. In this sense language is a medium connecting different individual thought processes, and also it is the expression of both individual and social thought.

Because of its external physical aspect, language is an objective phenomenon which can be subject to scientific investigation like any other natural phenomenon. Because the external realm of meaning and the realm of thought are connected in a regular and constant way, language can serve as an outstanding tool for the study of thought. In this respect language has a significant advantage over other forms of praxis because of the relative fixedness of its subjective and objective elements and because of its considerable invariance, simplicity and regularity. When, for instance, a person decides that a dogmatic interpretation of Marxism discredits it, and that one should therefore fight against dogmatism, in praxis the thought can be expressed in many ways. In many cases we would not even know how to interpret the behavior of this person, not being informed of his decision. However, if this person decides to verbalize his thoughts, all he needs is one sentence. Although we cannot tell from one sentence whether the person uttering it sincerely believes in what he is saying, in most cases there can hardly be any doubt about the thought that he wished to express.

Contemporary empiricists, following Hume, Wittgenstein and especially behaviorist psychology, have made great efforts to prove that there are no such things as mental processes independent of linguistic processes which express them. Thus as early as 1947 Ayer, following Ryle, wrote that the process of thinking could not be distinguished from its expression. However, Ayer allows the possibility of thoughts that cannot be expressed. Thus he asserts, in a less radical way, that when a thought is expressed, thought and expression constitute one single process. According to Ayer, thought is not a process parallel to speech; nor is understanding a mental act following words. But Ayer does not wish to be compared to those behaviorists who reduce thought to certain movements of the larynx. Although thinking is frequently accompanied by these movements, this connection is contingent. Therefore, saying that someone's thinking is not accompanied by movements of his speech organs is not a logical contradiction. In Ayer's view, a more flexible – and still convincing – way of undermining the myth of thought as a mental process is by saying that in all those cases when people think without "saying certain words aloud, they say them to themselves." According to Ayer, this inner speech cannot be equated with any series of physical movements.

In fact, the novelty of this seemingly audacious and revolutionary negation of the mental character of thought lies in its idiosyncratic interpretation of terms. When we talk about language or speech as the expression of thought, what we usually have in mind is the external, physical side of language. We see language as a system of signs, and speech as a physical process whereby sounds are produced. But language can be understood in a much broader sense, as a system of signs which includes their meaning. If we accept this broader definition of language, we can call someone's speech not only fluent, rapid, and grammatically correct, but also clever, strong, etc. In this case language is understood as a unity of thought and its expression. Thus, when someone thinks and simultaneously expresses his thoughts in oral and written signs, we will, if we accept the narrow definition of language, describe this as two parallel processes. However, if we accept the broader definition of language, we will see only one process.

However, there are two more types of phenomena that behaviorists, both radical and moderate, find difficult to account for.

The first type is represented by thought which is not expressed by written or spoken linguistic signs. The second type is represented by signs which are not accompanied by any interpretation or understanding – for instance, signs produced by machines, parrots, the feeble‑minded, persons talking in their sleep, infants. The behaviorist conceptual apparatus is far too limited to make those distinctions. There is such a chasm between a parrot's gibberish and a scientist's silent meditation that it is quite unjustified to equate both phenomena with speech. If we wish to refute the idealist thesis about the dominant role and the independent existence of the mind and of mental processes, we needn't go as far as reducing thought to speech – or inner speech. What really contributes to the refutation of mentalism is the mere fact that linguistic signs, or, at least, their representation, are a constitutive element of every articulate and defined thought process.

We shall apply the term "speech" only to those cases where physical signs are actually being operated with, Because linguistic signs are by definition material objects, speech is always a material process. (In our terminology, the expression "inner speech", is paradoxical). On the other hand, thought as an eminently mental process would not be possible without the representations of linguistic signs and their structuring and organizing role. There is no doubt that movements of the larynx do occur during thought processes; they accompany the representation of the signs that would be actually spoken if the person engaged in thought opened his mouth and allowed the air to flow through his speech organs. The aim of this discussion is to dissociate our position from both behaviorism and idealistic mentalism and transcendentalism. The representation of signs is an inner mental process which can be reduced neither to any external physical process nor to a material operation with signs as objects. On the other hand, the thesis that organized, articulate thought requires linguistic signs (or, at least, the representation of signs) convincingly invalidates the transcendentalist view of language as a secondary expression of the mind which is superordinant to, and independent of, language. Historically speaking, inner (silent) thought could have emerged only as a superstructure to previously developed thought which had already been expressed verbally. Only when man acquired the habit of thinking aloud and in the context of social communication could he have started to, so to speak, suspend his speech mechanism and substitute the spoken and written word by word representation. These are the main phases of this development.

1. The pre‑symbolic phase of language. The aim of speech is not providing information about objects, but securing the satisfaction of biological needs. Examples of pre‑symbolic language are cries by which early man expressed his feelings (the expressive function of language is already developed), suggested certain attitudes and practical operations (the directive function), achieved social cohesion (in rituals or simple exchanges of words – whose meaning was immaterial), etc. Pre‑symbolic language has two stages: one is exemplified by the individual making his first effort to communicate with others despite the fact that his signs have not yet acquired social meaning. Animal sounds and infants' babble are examples of this stage. The other stage is represented by speech which, although cognitively meaningless, has expressive and prescriptive meaning.

2. Speech with all dimensions of meaning, and capable of expressing thought – first through concrete representations, then through abstract concepts.

3. The possibility of replacing the sign by its representation in the process of thought formation arises in highly developed societies, when man is able not only to talk about material objects but about speech as well, and when the links between linguistic signs and the appropriate dispositions toward imagining objects have been firmly established. This is how silent thought or, as the behaviorists would say, silent speech, emerges.

4. However, the above‑mentioned phases do not exhaust the dynamic relation between language and thought. Until now, we have discussed language only as a social phenomenon and an instrument of social communication. But the most advanced individuals transcend the social framework of speech and thought. Their thought is richer and more complex because it draws from a web of symbols which go beyond the generally known and accepted symbols used in society or in specific fields. To be sure, these individuals can, if they wish, establish a strictly defined relation between their thought, their specific system of symbols, and social language – and thus achieve social communicability. However, they do not have to, and sometimes they don't, and this renders their thought objectively unintelligible. Hegel (especially some portions of his Logic) is a case in point. Unfortunately, such exceptional talents and geniuses are greatly outnumbered by those who also depart from normal standards, but in a different direction – confused persons, eccentrics, and psychopaths, who leave the framework of language because they are unable to conform to it.

This discord between language and thought can be approached in two ways – depending on how we define the concept of language. If we decide to define language as a strictly social phenomenon we will say that only those signs can be termed "language" which function, among other things, as a means of communication in a given community. But we can also propose a definition of language which may include private languages. If we accept the second definition we can still deny the existence of thought that cannot be expressed verbally. However, owing to the many awkward consequences of the second definition, we shall opt for the first. Thus our definition includes the social aspect as one of the necessary elements of language. Therefore our example of the discord between language and thought should be described as a case in which thought of individuals transcends the limits of language.

Even if the individual does not use any specific personal symbols and remains within the limits of social (generally accepted) language, thought contains its own experiential associations, and therefore cannot be totally reduced to language. Even when we establish, beyond doubt, that language is a form of thought – a form of its constitution and also of its practical expression, the fact remains that language, like every other form, is invariability within variability, and identity in a large number of individual cases that differ from person to person, from moment to moment.

There is always something unique in the thought of an individual. When different persons think about Father, Mother, Country, Philosophy, Friendship, their respective thoughts are at least a shade different: invariant elements of meaning, defined by identical terms, are abstracted from different experiences and cannot be completely separated from these experiences. We all have different parents, we have read different books, participated in different conversations; we have different friends and have experienced friendship under different circumstances. Finally, the thought of an individual in different periods of his life distills his life experience, is concretized by different perceptions, colored by different emotional tones, and influenced by different desires and practical purposes.

Language glosses over many of these differences, and executes so to speak, a cruel but useful unification. This has unfortunate consequences for poetry. In its desire to express the fullness of individual existence, poetry incessantly struggles with the poverty of language. There are thousands of ways to hate or love, yet just a few puny words to express these feelings. Something unique, unrepeatable has to be expressed by old, repeatable words. This is why poets seek new metaphors, forge new words, add new shades of meaning to old words, create new, seemingly meaningless, word combinations. And poets do all this, using their specific methods, in order to convey a specific content to a small group of people with a particular psychological constitution. This is how poetic language gradually ceases to be clear and universally intelligible.

The situation is different in science. Science, especially in the phase of theoretical investigation (and to a lesser degree in the phase of practical application) seeks general facts and structures. The language of science, if it is to grasp these facts as accurately and objectively as possible, should strive for maximal simplicity. Poetic metaphors can make a scientific text more interesting and more readable, but they will also diminish its clarity and render it vague. The intellectual content expressed in a mathematical formula by, say, a Planck or a Schroedinger is intelligible for the scientist who works in the field and knows the technical language used in it. All elements of perception (which is by definition one‑sided), of imagination, emotion, volition, in other words, everything pertaining to the subjective, experiential connotation of symbols has to be discarded as meaningless in this process of conveying scientific thought through language. The required uniformity of meaning is a liminal concept even in sciences, and especially in the empirical sciences. Selection of a research programme, interpretation of data, choice of hypotheses, decision to stop further testing are phases of research which are not sufficiently regulated by methodological rules and are open to the impact of preceding experiences, cultural biases, interests and emotions. In terms of categories this feature of scientific language could be defined as a divergence of content from the established order of actual life. In other words, there is a divergence between thought, which is concrete, dynamic, and enmeshed in experience – and static linguistic forms and its underlying logic. Insofar as this is true, the concept of generality in science should be understood as concrete generality.

What we have had in mind in our discussion of thought so far was discursive, carefully articulated logical thought. Non‑discursive, intuitive thought transcends the framework of language even more than discursive thought, and in a different way. This is why philosophers who consider contemplation and intuition the only trustworthy sources of knowledge remain dissatisfied with language. Already in Plato's Seventh Epistle, where one finds none of that unlimited confidence in language prominent in Cratylus, we read that no intelligent man will ever be so excessively audacious to put in language the things his mind has contemplated. Because it uses physical signs to represent meaning, language is for Plato merely the first step to knowledge. As long as thought remains in the sphere of "existence", it can only strive to express pure being, but can never attain it. This is why language can never express the content of purely philosophical knowledge.

This point of view is shared by the neoplatonists and by many later mystics. One of its representatives in modern philosophy is, naturally, Bergson; yet his is a moderate variant. According to Bergson, language is by nature dead and unable to express the dynamics of reality. However, language can lead us to a point where we will be able to transcend it and enter the realm of the ineffable.

It should be pointed out that intuitive thought is still thought. Despite the fact that language is unable to express it adequately, intuitive thought can lead great thinkers to significant insights. However, two claims can be disputed: first, that intuitive thought is free and independent of any system of symbols; second, that it produces knowledge and leads to objective truth. There is no doubt that intuitive thought relies on some non‑linguistic symbols (e.g. visual symbols, images): this is what gives it an internal structure. The so‑called contemplation of oriental mystics most likely isn't thought at all but, rather, a vague, diffuse state of a consciousness oblivious to all events around it. In any case, purely intuitive thought falls short of knowledge. Insights gained by intuitive thought can at best be used as fertile hypotheses in a real process of cognition – which would include logical discursive thought and empirical verification.

Our analysis of the relation between language and thought clearly shows why they cannot be equated. First of all, some processes in which signs are used are not consciously determined or rationally understood. These processes can be triggered by conditional reflexes, and by mechanisms (e.g. machines). According to purely objective, behavioral criteria, what these machines operate with is language. But language is here divorced from thought and, naturally, this discrepancy creates serious problems. When we encounter a (non‑human) organism which correctly utilizes linguistic signs, we shall hardly accept that it thinks what it says or that it thinks at all.

On the other hand, we have cases where thought processes seem to occur without speech. In normal discursive thought the connection between language and thought is not severed since the representations of linguistic signs participate in the thought structuring process. Yet thought can transcend language in many ways. Sometimes the discrepancy between thought and language is such that we get instances of more or less total unintelligibility. In some cases interpretation is possible only if we manage to identify the symbols used by the subject and translate them into a socially communicable code. But even when persons wishing to communicate among each other use the same set of generally accepted symbols, it will be possible to interpret what they are saying only if the different specific conditions under which their thought has developed are taken into consideration. These conditions determine the specific experiential connotations of shared symbols.

Our analysis of language and thought implies that experience transcends the limits of language even more so than thought. In other words our entire psychic fife is reducible to language even to a lesser degree than thought. Nevertheless, the fact remains that language is a structure, a form through which our entire psychic life is constituted. (For example, unconscious instincts and complexes are usually connected to certain symbols.) Thought, and psychic life in general, reflect objective practical reality only insofar as they are structured by language. This is what Marx means when he says that language is the direct reality of thought. We could, following this line of thought, define other forms of human praxis as the indirect reality of thought. Another fragment about language, pertinent in this context, comes from The German Ideology:

Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men.