Featured image: Monet: Impression Sunrise. A picture and our framing of that picture together create an aesthetic whole, thought Vincent van Gogh. (National Gallery of Australia).

Humanity has a desire to place things under the sphere of her control. Intellectual inquiry in any subject is the pursuit of certainty, whose absence makes us uncomfortable. Such will for certainty, or fear of uncertainty, motivates our inquiries, precipitating belief-formation and intellect.

Doctrines in religion and philosophy and our social intercourse—Geist, stories people pass on from one to the other, their values—have historically supplied explanations for this kind of demand. Today, we are largely confident in the external power of scientific explanation. Yet, under scrutiny, our inquiry itself seems uncertain, and I realise now that we have not achieved the goal of certainty as we wished.

The defect, as I call it, originates in the nature of inquiry, not in any particular systems of belief. It is the nature of inquiry to build a realm in which everything is intelligible (able to be comprehended). However, I argue, with intellectual inquiry, we cannot grasp an object as it is; we can only depict the object’s characteristics under a structure.

This is the distinction between reality and the intelligible reality: there is a real universe and there is a reality we shape under rational examination. This starts with the ‘Problem of Language’.

Under the skin by Ellie Harper. (Saatchi Art)

The nature of inquiry

Suppose the following two propositions are true:

  1. ‘Fish swim in water.’
  2. ‘There are no unicorns.’

Both sentences are intuitively true; you can barely argue against either. And, with a closer look, you could propose that their truths are guaranteed by past observations: all fish you have ever observed swam in water, and you have not yet observed a unicorn.

Then it follows that the two propositions will be false if you one day find a fish swimming in the sky or a unicorn in a bush. You might feel ridiculous following this line of argument, but you cannot reject such possibilities since we do not observe future events.

This is a widely known sceptical argument against inductive beliefs, which are beliefs reasoned to based on past observations, and it is called the ‘Problem of Induction’, as presented by David Hume (1748). Any beliefs inferred from inductive reasoning, including those of scientific discovery, are susceptible to this effective counterargument, which implies that everything we are certain of right now (e.g. ‘The sky is blue’) may be false tomorrow. Thus, the truth-values of Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 are uncertain even if we believe they are not.

However, I argue that The Problem of Induction is insufficient to illustrate the fallacies of inquiry. The first reason is that the argument does not address the current falsity of the beliefs we possess today; all it suggests is that their truths could be negated tomorrow. After all, there is a possibility of finding a unicorn, but there is also a possibility of not doing so.

The Problem of Language, however, latches onto fundamental problems concerning the nature of inquiry.

The Problem of Language

When we inquire—namely, when we conduct an inference to draw a conclusion—it is necessary that we involve a language. This could be English, a mathematical language, a logical system, or whatever—but it requires a systemic structure.

This entails the following argument:

Premise 1: One inquires into subject X in virtue of a linguistic structure Y;
Premise 2: Y depicts X only under its own structure;
Premise 3: X itself and X under the structure of Y are different.
Conclusion: Therefore, one cannot infer X as X in terms of Y.

There are two key aspects of Premise 2 which lead to Premise 3.

The story of the blind men and the elephant points to the boundaries of language, our blunt instrument to construct a shared understanding of the world (the intelligible reality). Ludwig Wittgenstein popularised such attacks with his 20th-century analytic philosophy.

Firstly, an inquiry functions under the finite structure of a language. Therefore, the conclusion is a product which is necessarily limited to the boundaries of that language. This can be exposed, for instance, in logical paradoxes (e.g. ‘This sentence is false’, from ‘the liar’s paradox’). In such cases we cannot think beyond what the structure permits us to think.

Secondly, this result directly arises from the fact that there is a structure. We process a subject X so we can handle its objects in a fundamentally different form: that is, we render them intelligible, and the intelligible realm we build from these objects is only made comprehensible by the systemic structure of Y.

Thus, the Problem of Language shows us why we cannot grasp X as X. Our subjective minds have no means to grasp reality as reality without depicting something else with the goal to understand it. Whether the discipline is mathematics, natural science, social science, theology, art, or something else, language is an invention for our perspectives, a construction which is not inherently attached to nature of discovery.

Are water and H2O the same? Many philosophers believe objects we linguistically refer to do share essential properties which are born in nature: that they are natural kinds. Others, however, believe that there is a dualism of properties: in the example case, water is a drinkable liquid, in a superficial sense, and H2O is a chemical of deeper causal properties, rendering the two different kinds of object; hence, our intuitions siphon objects’ meaning out into different containers of understanding. (Wallpaper Flare)

There is nothing we can do to solve this operation of depiction since it is founded in the nature of inquiry itself. The Problem of Language is a limitation of us as beings who seek the certainty of knowledge but beings who ought to acknowledge the significant uncertainty of that which they express: that, in language, our intellectual inquiry can never grasp a thing as it is (or a ‘thing-in-itself’, wrote Immanual Kant).

Pure existence

But, given that there is a reality and an intelligible reality which is different from it under the structure of language (Premise 3), it appears that such scepticism can have no actual influence on the state of reality: it does not touch it. There is a clear cut between it and the realm in which we attempt to perform sound argument, the intelligible reality. No matter what we doubt, objects described within an external structure of language exist independently from that doubt, and the objects as they are have the potential to exist independently from us.

But how can we justify the existence of things?

As I have discussed, many argue that objects exist with no need for justification and that our access to them with language is limited—even if we infer to the best explanations we’ve got for those objects. For instance, some philosophers say that objects exist externally to our minds as Platonic Forms which are not local to space and time. Others, theologians, believe in religious ideals. Some philosophers of science ideate powers, dispositions, and laws as part of nature.

I call the state of existence outside our comprehension ‘pure existence’. When you question why a thing is as it is the answer necessarily involves an idea that is external to its pure existence: it is invented by us. ‘There is’: this predicate is a bedrock of any inquiry, but further language contaminates the inquiry. Pure existence is pure in a way that it does not allow further investigation—it has one mode—though some say we can unearth a priori features of it.

Pure existence is an ocean; language is a strainer which cannot hold its water. We can never experience the ocean as one; all we can do is to scoop a handful of water and say: ‘I think I know what ocean is’ without ever grasping it.

Nevertheless, a possible objection to my arguments is that, if my claims about language are true, how can I accurately describe the Problem of Language by using language! I have committed a logical contradiction which I necessarily couldn’t avoid. I ask you to walk with me and admit that this is a small loss in comparison to the falsities inherent to the finite structure of language you would otherwise have to live with.

The implications

To what extent is the Problem of Language a problem? Do we just give up and forsake hope of language latching onto reality?

D.T. Suzuki believed that truth cannot be expressed with language. This is one of the central teachings in Zen Buddhism, known as ‘不立文字’.

Not necessarily.

Many philosophers are more realist about reality than I am about the descriptive power of language. They believe we can linguistically refer to real objects in explanation, whether those objects are asserted at the ontological level of appearances or are foundational.

In my opinion, there is reality and there are the moving surfaces of an intelligible reality, and, of the latter, we have a wonderful world to share and describe.

Still, language is ambiguous. The invention of logic was supposed to fix this problem by drawing solid rules about valid argument, making it intelligible, but it encourages the inquiry to further focus on language more than its actual subjects and is beset by limitations. Perhaps the fault is philosophy’s for falling behind intuition. Indeed, if basic statements, such as ‘2+2=4’ and ‘A square consists of four sides’, are not fundamentally true, our concern arguably focus too much on the matter of the closed realm of language than the reality it tries to grasp.

The Problem of Language cannot be ignored and its significance is not limited to the field of philosophy. It denies the absolute authority of language for inquiry, and we can and should acknowledge the limitations of all modes of expression. Does artistic expression, such as painting and poetry, really connect to ontological aesthetic forms? Is beauty just a convention we teach ourselves? From our hypotheses does the scientific method pick out real features of the world? Or are they merely statistical correlations between the events we observe?

Is there true beauty? Can words capture it? (Keigo Shimada)

We are now familiar with the idea that the degree to which we can inquire subjects with language is limited—and this includes inquiries into ourselves. Uncertainty results from the tentative relation between language, which has finite structure, and the pure existence of an object.

After all, an inquiry itself is not the action to create certainty: we continue to seek it even with ‘certainty’ gained. It never settles. Certainty is an attributed quality to faith. Nevertheless, we have a desire to know the unknown; and so our challenge against uncertainty will continue.