“All reality is suspended in language.”
That famous quote was made by the Nobel Prize-winning Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. His comment on language expressed his frustration with how the mere words we use to communicate basic concepts are actually not tethered to what one might call “true reality.”
Bohr began to comprehend the slippery slope as he delved deeper into the world of subatomic particles and followed very tiny “objects” further and further until they seemed to disappear into nothing. Yet, they still somehow make up the reality we experience every day.
Language on the quantum level quickly begins to lose its ordinary meaning. However, this suggests that all the language we use every day may not be as good at conveying “true reality” as we think it does.
For example, we call a tree and “tree” -– but that’s just a sound, a word. When people hear the word tree, they might get an immediate idea of what is being talked about in general or common sense. However, just naming an object a “tree” does nothing to illuminate what a tree really is in totality.
This points to what has been one of the essential areas in the study of the philosophy of languages. For philosophers, studying language gets at the nature of what it means to “mean” something – and how any true meaning can ever be truly grasped.
Second, the philosophy of language looks at how individual words are ordered and strung together in a sentence to create a meaningful concept out of individual parts, each of which contains its own “packet” of meaning.
This monumental task then leads to the critical process of determining how language leads to an accurate description of the meaning of the world – our reality as we experience it.
The study of the philosophy of language existed as a formal pursuit at least as early as 1000 B.C. when Vedic texts written in Sanskrit grappled with the challenge of determining how vāk (“speech”) represented the reality that people were attempting to convey with words. In the Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogue, Cratylus discussed whether what men named things was an accurate representation of what they are.
Ever since, for thousands of years, humankind has pursued the philosophy of language in a monumental attempt to determine what meaning is, what reality is, and how the human race can ground itself in the universe and make sense of it all.