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Theory of Knowledge Essay 2 A language is defined as 'a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds gestures or marks having understood meanings.' (Webster's, 654), and 'is a tool for communication' (Emmet, 22). In most common use of language, these signs are the words which we employ in such a way that they may communicate ideas or feelings. Communication, that is, the conveyance of an idea or emotion from one to another, relies largely upon language, and rightly so, as it is a powerful tool when employed correctly. However, misunderstandings in communication occur when two people have a different understanding of their language, or they use language in such a way that it results in communication which is unclear or vague. This last problem of communication which is unclear or vague is one which results from the use words for which the 'range of application is not clear' (Hospers, 22).
One could also say that something which is vague is that which lacks precision. This type of vagueness results from statements or words which are not quantifiable. For instance, the phrase 'He is fairly heavy' does not communicate a precise weight or condition of the person. A person who weighs 240 lbs may be considered by some to be 'fairly heavy', yet to another, or even to the same person, one who weighs 360 lbs may fit the same description. Similarly, the words 'very' and 'quite' are not precise enough to convey a clear image to the listener.
A more precise description would be 'He weighs 250 lbs' or 'He is unhealthily heavy'. One conveys a precise mass, the other, a condition. One could also say that words which are vague are those which have several criteria for application. In such a case, a word may be applied correctly (filling criterion A for instance), but yet the other criteria (B and C do not apply). For example, take the word 'books'.
One could set several possible criteria: 1. Paper bound together; 2. A textual narrative and 3. A major division of a literary work. If one was to say to another: 'She is colouring in one of the books,' applying in this case criterion 1, they would be correct to do so, as there are bindings of paper, or books, intended for that purpose.
Yet, it was cause some surprise if one was to understand this as an application of either criterion 2 or 3. To be colouring in either of the other 'books' would seem absurd. Yet vagueness must not always be a problem - such words are often necessary. It is when words which are vague are used and understood as though they were precise that a problems arise. In these cases, this characteristic of language can indeed hinder effective communication. Another similar problem arises in the use of words.
It is known as ambiguity. This problem exploits the multiple definitions or meanings of words to cause a misunderstanding. Words often have both a descriptive and evaluative meaning which when confused, result in 'an instance of the most common and most dangerous form of ambiguity.' (Wilson, 37). If somebody says 'That is a crooked man', it could be concluded that a) It is a man who has bad posture, such that it is not straight or b) It is a man of no morals. If one who uses the phrase intends the first meaning, but a listener understands the second, an unfortunate misunderstanding could take place.
In cases of ambiguity, there is always confusion as to how the word is employed. However, words with multiple meanings do not always cause problems of communication - there isn't always confusion as to how the word has been employed. For instance, if one says it is 'cold outside', one doesn't take the outdoors to be impersonal. Rather, most sensible people would comprehend that the temperature outside is low. Thus, ambiguity can cause problems of communication, but only when there is confusion about the use of the word. Communication, that is the 'system of verbal gestures by which a speaker points out a reality to a listener' (Church, 126), requires that the two parties involved have a similar understanding of the language.
Such a problem arises when two people speak a different language, but the same thing can occur on a smaller scale if people have a slightly different understanding of the same language. This is because we 'tacitly assume that the other person (the listener) is identical to us' (Chomsky, 21) in their use of language. This often is as a result of a speaker and a listener (or writer and reader) who use certain words in a different manner. It is necessary, for communication not to be impeded, that the second individual has the same understanding of a word as the first. When this is not the case, communicating an idea as intended can be quite difficult.
For instance, if the speaker is from Canada, speaking to a listener from Jamaica, and says 'It is warm today', the listener could be quite surprised at the exact temperature. This statement is not only vague; the two parties involved also have a different impression of how the word 'warm' is to be used. One will 'not succeed in communicating . unless (they) have first made it quite clear exactly how (they) intend to use the words.' (Emmet, 23). If such a declaration of intent is not made, the communicated information may not be clear and the impression which a listener receives could indeed be false.
One may ask why the meanings of words are so often left to question in communication. However, communication 'does not require 'public meanings' any more than it requires 'public pronunciations'' (Chomsky, 21). This is known as the fallacy of essential meaning. It is not unusual for one to be concerned that they have not discovered the 'real' or 'essential' meaning of a word, and therefore have been using it improperly. They have not found it because none exists. The various ways in which a word is employed often have much in common, but that is not to say that there is a real meaning, it simply says that there is a 'job we can employ this word to perform' (Emmet, 25) and which would be likely to be understood if someone were to employ the word. To say that no essential meaning exists does not mean that there are no guidelines for use of a word. Among those speaking the same language, there is likely to be some general, unspoken consensus as to how a word is used.
This is what is most important. A dictionary definition may seem more official, but in the interests of clearer communication, one should employ the word in a manner that their audience would be most likely to understand. One must understand the context, or background, in which a word is used to have a grasp on the meaning of the word itself. 'The background elements are . not explicitly perceived, but they play a part in shaping our experience of the situation.' (Church, 110).
To cite an example: A woman, upon going outside on a cloudy afternoon, exclaims, 'It is dark outside.' This darkness is quite unlike that which one would encounter upon entering a windowless room, yet upon entering, one would say nearly the same thing. Understanding the context of a word is nearly as important as an understanding of the word itself, as the situation controls to a degree how the word will be used. All of these problems are contained within language. Yet, language is our most important tool in communication and thus must be employed. If it were not, communication would be hindered, or even blocked, to a far greater degree than it is due to the problems presented.
It should be the goal of everyone to, when possible, avoid these problems. The result would be language which is far more clear, precise, and less misleading, or bewitching. Language free of most problems would make it an even greater tool, effectively improving the communication between persons and developing better understanding and knowledge through this communication. Works Cited Emmet, E.R., Learning to Philosophize Chomsky, N., Language and Thought Church, J., Language and the Discovery of Reality Hospers, J., An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis: Fourth Edition Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: Tenth Edition Wilson, J., Language and the Pursuit of Truth.
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