Monday, May 16, 2011

The roots of direct reference - argument 2

Argument Two (argument 1 is here).  When words in different languages mean the same thing, this reflects a common reality.  Thus, most human languages have words for sky, water, nose, earth, tree, animal etc.   Even when these are words for individuals (sun, moon, pole star), it is because the individuals are well known to all people in all (or most) places.  But most individuals are local, known only to the persons inhabiting that place, and so do not reflect a common reality.  Thus words for individuals - proper names - are confined to a corner of the world. 

Thus the meaning of most proper names is unknown to nearly all people in the world; they have no corresponding words in other languages; and they are not even reckoned to be words of their own language*. It follows that the meaning of a proper name involves direct acquaintance with the individual for which it is a name.

* The substance of this argument is almost entirely borrowed from Thomas Reid, T., Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, The Works of Thomas Reid, Edinburgh 1846, Essay V, p. 389.  See also this amusing page on awesomely untranslatable words, although the explanation of each word is entirely clear, suggesting that it is translatable after all.  E.g. the Japanese Kyoiku mama clearly, and somewhat perversely, means what I call a 'Chinese mother'. 

PS I looked at my notes and also found this by Locke (Essay III. iii. 3. Pringle-Pattison p. 227).
Men learn names, and use them in talk with others, only that they may be understood: which is then only done when, by use or consent, the sound I make by the organs of speech, excites in another man's mind who hears it, the idea I apply it to in mine, when I speak it. This cannot be done by names applied to particular things; whereof I alone having the ideas in my mind, the names of them could not be significant or intelligible to another, who was not acquainted with all those very particular things which had fallen under my notice.

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