Wittgenstein (1889–1951) identifies language as the principal “confusion-machine” within philosophy:
“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.
“What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
Education if deep and meaningful would put language itself in front of a student to understand the “bewitchment” and to perhaps “escape from the fly-bottle.” The fly-bottle is roughly “the captive mind syndrome” described by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet-thinker.
There are various aspects of this language-watching:
Hans-Georg Gadamer (Heidegger’s successor, who died in 2002) writes:
“It is not that scientific methods are mistaken, but ‘this does not mean that people would be able to solve the problems that face us, peaceful coexistence of peoples and the preservation of the balance of nature, with science as such. It is obvious that not mathematics but the linguistic nature of people is the basis of civilization.’”
(German Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 122/123)
This is readily seeable. Imagine Einstein and Kurt Gödel walking near the Princeton campus. They speak to each other in German, their native tongue which they both “inhabit.” Gödel communicates the limits to logic and Einstein the limits to modern physics such as quantum mechanics. They bring in Bohr and Heisenberg and the “Copenhagen Interpretation” as a counter-view. They refer to equations and experiments and conjectures and puzzles, current papers and conferences.
They take “communicative action” by use of speech using German as a means.
There are two levels here that are always confused: the ontological (i.e., all the why-questions people ask using language) and the ontic level, all the how-questions people pose using mathematics and laboratory results (e.g., Higgs boson).
Gödel once made the observation that if you look at language as a kind of logical system, it’s absolutely puzzling that people can communicate at all since language is so utterly ambiguous and “polyvalent.”
Take the sentence: “Men now count.” Out of context, does it mean count as in the sense of numeracy, one, two, three apples in front of me or do you mean perhaps that men in a certain country were given the right to vote and now “count” politically. Without the context and the ability to contextualize, no sentence by itself makes certain sense at all.
This is partly why Wittgenstein sees philosophy problems as “language games.”
Heidegger coming from “being-in-the-world” as foundational, and calls language “the house of being.”
You inhabit a native language the way you “inhabit” a family home or a home town. You flow through.
When a child of ten plays marbles (as analyzed by Piaget) and his native language (say French) comes pouring out of him in a spontaneous gusher, how can we really explain it since the child doesn’t look up syntactical rules and grammatical definitions when he speaks. The words flow.
Heidegger retorts that language speaks you in other words, you’re channeling the language in a way a songwriter explains how a song comes to him. In the end, it’s something spontaneous and not propositional like grammar is.
A moment’s reflection shows you how “slippery” language is:
A man driving to New York says to you, “the car died on me halfway there.” He does not mean the car was “on” him physically. To die on doesn’t really mean perish forever, it means, on average, stopped to function in a way that usually can be fixed in the garage. It means this reparable conking out of the car gave him a big headache and aggravation as he waited for the Triple A people to get there and do the paperwork. You visualize all these layers and twists.
Again, without a human context, the sentence “the car died on me” makes little sense. Without a human context, “the sky is blue” makes incomplete sense too. Does a camel or cricket see a blue sky?
A full education would explore these dimensions of language and this has nothing to do with bringing back Latin or Greek or studying a foreign language to meet a Ph.D. requirement. Formal linguistics à la Chomsky, Fodor, Katz, etc. is not what’s being discussed, as interesting as all that might be.
It also is not about language genes such as FAP-2 or how vocal cords work since these questions are ontic (i.e., how does it work?) and not ontological (i.e., what does something mean or imply?). Thinking about language in an engineering sense with the human mouth as a “buccal cavity” is quite legitimate and a voice coach might do well to do that. We are talking about something else: the centrality of language in human self-understanding, functioning and the making of meaning.