The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Use of Language

The US linguist Michael Reddy (“The Conduit Metaphor”, 1979) dubbed "conduit metaphor" the idea, deeply entrenched in popular thinking, that the mind contains thoughts that can be treated like objects. That idea views linguistic expressions as vehicles for transporting ideas along a conduit which extends from the speaker to the listener. These vehicles are strings of words, each of which contains a finite amount of a substance called meaning: the speaker assembles the meaning, loads the vehicle and sends it along the conduit. The listener receives the vehicle, unloads it and unscrambles the meaning. This “conduit metaphor” is widespread in the languages we speak. Reddy thinks otherwise: the transfer of thought is not a deterministic, mechanical process. It is an interactive, cooperative process.

Language is a much more complicated affair than it appears. Syntax, metaphor, semantics are simply aspects of how we interpret and construct sentences. But first and foremost language is a game in which we engage other speakers. A lot more information is exchanged through the “use” we make of language.

In the 1940s the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had argued that to understand a word is to understand a language and to understand a language is to master the linguistic skills. A word, or a sentence, has no meaning per se. It is not the meaning, it is the "use" of language that matters.

The discipline of “pragmatics” studies aspects of meaning that cannot be accounted for by semantics alone, but have to do with the way language is used.  Ultimately, the pragmatic goal of language is to understand the “reason” of a speech. What are the speaker’s motive and goal? For example, semantics can account for the meaning of the sentence “do you know what time it is?”, but not for the fact that an answer is required (the speaker’s intention is to learn what time it is).

The way language is used has to do with the context: there is no speech without a context.  For example, the same sentence may be used for two different purposes in two different contexts: “do you know what time it is?” may be a request (equivalent to “what time is it?”) or a reproach (as in “you are very late”). The only way to discriminate what that sentence really means is to analyze the context.

Ultimately, meaning arises from the relationship between language and context. Because context is the key element, pragmatic studies focus on “indexicals”,  “implicatures” and “presuppositions”.

Indexicals are terms such as "i", "today", "now" whose referents depend on the context: “I am a writer” is true if i am Piero Scaruffi, but it is false if i am Elvis Presley. Just like “i” may refer to any person in the world, “today” may refer to any day of the year and “here” to any place in the universe. Only the context can fix the meaning of indexicals.

Implicatures are the facts that are implied by the sentence: “the Pope held mass in St. Peter’s square” implies that the Pope is alive.

Presuppositions are the facts that are taken for granted, for example the fact that humans die and a job earns money.

The purpose of a speech in a given context is to generate some kind of action. There is an "intention" to the speech and to the way the speech is structured. Pragmatics studies intentional human action.  Intentional action is action intended to achieve a goal, through some kind of plan, given some beliefs about the state of things. This intention results in “speech acts” that carry out, directly or indirectly, the plan. Therefore the pragmatic dimension of language deals with beliefs, goals, plans and ultimately with speech acts, unlike syntax and semantics which deal, respectively, with the structure of a sentence and with the isolated meaning of the sentence.

More broadly, the answer to a question is not simply the information requested by the interrogator but a move in a tactical game based on the responder's expectations about the interrogator's intentions. It is not knowledge that you deliver but a strategy of how to use your knowledge to affect the people around you. Ultimately, Pragmatics borders on Psychology.

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