• Paul Rutherford

IS THIS MEANINGLESS?


Some things are best left unsaid.

To be more precise, all things are best left unsaid - because they cannot be said. Or, at least, cannot be said with any accuracy.

It's quite possible that already you have no idea what I'm on about, and are still scratching your head over the title of this post.

Bear with me; while this is about to get a little more conceptual, it will eventually end up in the real world and daily life. Indeed, it is about the very stuff of daily life: words.

That's how we manage to connect with our fellow human beings. Common sense, right? As plain as the nose on your face.

(Why is he going on about this? And why doesn't he get to the point?).

Well, in truth, I'm putting off using the next word, which was supposed to be the first word at the beginning of the previous paragraph, but I got cold feet. It's too intimidating. And I don't want you to think I'm pretentious. Because the next word was to have been...

Wittgenstein.

See? That's completely shifted the tone, hasn't it? It's gone all philosophical now. I don't want you to think that I'm underestimating people, but 50% of those who made it this far have now clicked to another website.

If you're still here, it will make sense, I promise.

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published his magnum opus, Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus and then spent the next 30 years trying to explain its seven core propositions, such as:

The general form of a truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]

That's why University professors have tenure. Explaining that previous sentence is a lifetime's work. Think of it as a philosophical annuity stream.

He died (in 1951) before his next book was published (Philosophical Investigations 1953). In that book, he came out with an extraordinary premise, which philosophers have been arguing about ever since. The reason why 'Tractacus' - indeed, all modern philosophy - was so hard to understand was due to a fundamental flaw in the tools of the job; namely, language.

Language, he postulates, is context dependent. The words we use accumulate meaning, forming concepts which he likens to ropes - woven together from multiple strands. Some of those stands may be of different colour, texture, content, but they can still be gathered under a single linguisitic umbrella.

Take these concepts out of context, and they become meaningless.

Philosophers are supposed to solve problems like 'truth'. But is this legal truth, ethical truth, mathematical truth or religious truth? Philosophy then finds itself reduced to a series of word games that play with terms like 'meaning', while, in turn, rendering them meaningless.

"Ah-ha!" says Wittgenstein. "This is the wrong type of game. It's not word games we should be focusing on, but a higher order of game. Language games."

These are games in which individual meanings of words, phrases or propositions are a set of informal rules - a consensus - adopted in and by the ordinary world.

To give an example: 'memory'. Take a moment to think of that concept and what it means for you.

Now consider what you have just been thinking about in the context of the following related concepts: psychology; computer; funeral. Different language games, different set of associations, different meaning.

The difficulty comes when the game changes, and you don't know that it's been changed.

Try these terms: "compliance", "discipline", "tradition", "childhood". Pretty straightforward to define. Except, in educational circles they carry very specific, technical meaning. So you can listen to a conversation on the BBC Today programme that you think you understand, but actually you are completely detached because you don't know the rules of the game being played.

More to the point, neither does the interviewer.

Fred Inglis, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at Sheffield University, highlights this in his new book Key Concepts in Education. For example, "Skill" may sound like a good, positive term: for a while the DoE was the Department of Education and Skills, before being split into the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, University and Skills.

(Already, you can see the language game being shifted just by changing the scope of the departments).

But, Inglis argues, in this particular language game "Skills" focuses on the acquisition of techniques, rather than the development of craft or the outcome of achievement. It omits the length of time it takes to learn, apply and master those techniques. So two people can have a debate about "Skills" - 'up-skilling', 're-skilling' - and actually be talking about very different problems and solutions.

Why does this matter? I think it matters for two reasons:

First, we are becoming increasingly lazy in our use of language, surrendering much of public discourse to commercial agendas (different language games), and devaluing the currency of communication;

Secondly, because the greater our awareness of language games, the more sensitive we will be about the agenda of a conversation, and the fact that there is an agenda at all. In all conversations, no matter how innocuous.

And the greater the awareness, the greater the understanding of the dissonance between what 'they' mean and what we hear.

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