Ian Markham,  Language,  Philosophy of Education,  Rabbit Problem

Language Assumes Realism

One purpose of language is to explain reality. We know this, Ian Markham argues, because we seek to use language across linguistic divides, from one language or culture to another: “the purpose of language is to explicate reality: and translation can only happen if this is assumed…Communication and related activities involved in communication, such as translation, are only intelligible if one assumes that language constructs emerged as an attempt to explain reality.”

Language is developed over time in communities and is developed, in part, in order to make sense of reality: “We all live in communities. Language provides the framework in which we interpret the world.” Each linguistic group develops terms that the community understand and can exegete their experiences. Different cultures have different explanations of reality, but each use language to do it.

Truth and the Reality of God by Ian Markham

Some might insist that because language is developed in communities it is the community that makes order out of reality and not the other way round. For example, “when we compare an altar in a church with a table in my dining room the actual data hitting our senses may be very similar. However, the terminology itself leads us to treat these two objects very differently.” The table is really a matter of linguistic interpretation and never a matter of reality imposing itself on interpretation. Such an idea has become popular due to a more global society and a greater awareness of alternative interpretations of reality. Its central thesis is that language constructs reality.

Markham argues that this is a step too far. Language, Markham argues, assumes the existence and order of reality. This is because language is used in community. Communication assumes community, a historically conditioned group of people using language to make sense of the world together. If this was not an assumption basic to the use of language we would be left with absurd options. For example, we might conclude that language is only a description of our own mental thoughts and concepts and that those concepts cannot be matched in any way by any other mind. This would obviously defeat the entire purpose of language – to communicate with another person.

One might suggest that this is precisely the case. We have what appears to be a clear concept in our own minds, but it is impossible, through the means of language, to make a matching concept in the mind of another person. Or, if it is possible, it is impossible to know whether or not we are successful. Markham engages with W.V.O Quine’s “rabbit problem.” Quine suggested that if two people–one English speaking and the other, non-English speaking–were to look at a rabbit and use a term–one, “rabbit” and the other, “gavagai”–there would be no way to know whether the terms referred to the same concept. It might be the case that whereas the English speaker means the general whole enduring rabbit, the non-English speaker might mean something else about the object before him. Perhaps “gavagai” refers to a particular stage of rabbit or to all the parts of rabbit or to a particular part of the rabbit that exhibits rabbithood. The trouble is, Quine suggests, there is no way to be sure that the concepts in the two minds match each other.

Markham has two replies to Quine. First, Markham suggests that it is not clear what Quine means by his alternatives to the meaning of the terms. Markham points out that, at least for Quine, the meanings are clear. Markham presumes that if he was to sit down with Quine and ask him what he meant Quine would attempt to explain what he meant. If that is the case then at least we can assume that Quine himself believes that concepts can be learnt and understood across mind-divides within the same language. Why then, Markham asks, would this be impossible across linguistic divides?

Second, Markham suggests that Quine has merely shown that translation might not be perfect. It can, however, be approximate. It might well be that concepts of “rabbit” and “gavagai” don’t match perfectly. They do nonetheless match in some way. Both terms apply to the object before the two men. They don’t, for example, apply to the tree in the distance.

The most important point, I think, is that everyone, when explaining anything to anyone, assumes that communication is possible. They don’t have to believe that there will be a perfect matching concept in their communication partner’s mind. They do assume that language is, at least in part, useful in community to explain reality. Even while attempting to argue that language cannot explain reality a communicator must assume that language can explain reality! Markham concludes:

“Language is ‘tradition-constituted.’ However, one should not move from this fact to anti-realism. For language must imply, as a bare minimum, the existence of other minds and the existence of communities. Language makes very little sense if other people do not exist. Further, communication and translation assume that the purpose of language is the construction of world perspectives that make sense of the world we share with others. We cannot translate unless we assume that the external world provides the standard to determine legitimacy.”

Ian Markham, Truth and the Reality of God (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998)

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.