This is not a cat.

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Magical Realist, Mar 23, 2011.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Here is a famous painting by French surrealist Rene Magritte:

    http://www.thirdwave-websites.com/blog/map-is-not-the-territory-this-is-not-a-pipe.jpg

    Think about this. Most the time the word we use comes with an image that appears in our minds. I say "cat" and I picture some generic version of a cat.
    Now tell yourself: "This is not a cat." IOW, the cat--the real animal the word "cat" is referring to--is NOT this image inside your head. How then can the word "cat" refer to the real physical animal but NOT the mental image of that animal? Two levels of representation perhaps? The word represents the image and the image represents the animal. But does the word "cat" even represent anything real and physical. I can definitely ostensively define, or use examples of, the word "cat" ("A" cat or "THIS" cat or "THESE" cats) but never do I see just "cat"--the precise thing that the generic image in my head is referring to. The image therefore represents not an example or a member of a set but a set itself--a conceptual generalization that does not exist in physical reality. From the word "cat" to the image of "cat" to the general abstract concept or set called "cat". When does the word cat EVER represent a real physical cat?
     
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  3. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

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    Perhaps you should be saying "This is not a pipe" because that is what this picture is actually titled.

    Magritte's work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The representational use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images), which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not "satisfy emotionally"—when Magritte once was asked about this image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/René_Magritte

    I know you use the word cat as another example but the explination that I have posted is about the pipe which is just as representitive as your cat.

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  5. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

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    Definitely not a cat. Ceci n'est pas un pipe.
    It's "not a pipe", not "not a cat".
    (Does that mean that the picture of a pipe is a cat?)

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    Last edited: Mar 23, 2011
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    A language is a set of symbols. Whether they are spoken words or written words or words sounding silently in your head; or ASL hand signs or semaphore postures or Morse dots and dashes; or Chinese logograms that people in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Fuqian, Tokyo and Seoul associate with a different set of phonemes; they are all symbols that represent a thing, action, concept, etc.

    We all know this, even if we haven't talked about it because it's too obvious and too intuitive and we're not all philosophers.

    So what's the big deal?
    Whenever that's what you intend it to represent, assuming that you're an accomplished speaker of English who can express himself clearly and unambiguously.

    When I say, "There was an extraordinary Himalayan cat at the show yesterday," or "My neighbor's cat is in the hospital," or "Why is that cat running loose around the neighborhood without a bell, killing off the baby birds?" the word obviously represents one specific flesh-and-blood cat.

    Just as obviously, nouns can be used generically. "Even though I'm a dog person I'd rent my upstairs to someone with a cat before I'd let a pitbull live here," or "The cat is one of the animals that self-domesticated, like the dog, pig and goat," or "When you come home late from bar-hopping you're as quiet and sneaky as a cat."

    In no case is a symbol equivalent to the thing that it represents, aside from sentences carefully crafted by wordgame players to be the exception to that rule.
    I see you're a compulsive wordgame player.

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    Even though the meaning is obvious I was compelled to look it up to make sure it wasn't a misspelling of "ostensibly," a more easily recognized word with the same meaning.
     
  8. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

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    When you are telling a person, including yourself, some piece of information about a real physical cat.

    You are right that when you say "that is a cat", in reference to a real physical object, you are matching the object to a set of rules, but you are also saying something about the cat itself: that it is a cat.

    You are also saying something about yourself: that you know it is a cat.
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2011
  9. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Ugh...Obviously the wrong group to post THIS in. Will this be censored by "the Moderator" too? Moving on..
     
  10. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

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    What happened to you MR?
    You are running off like a scalded cat.
    ie you are displaying some of the qualities of a cat,
    but not enough to actually be a cat.
     
  11. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Okay...maybe I need to lighten up..(grinning now like an almost vanished Cheshire cat

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    ..YOUR post was pretty ingenuous and insightful. Let's see if I can quote it without resetting my message box (I'm new to this)...

    Okay no..That doesn't work. So here's what you said.

    "When you are telling a person, including yourself, some piece of information about a real physical cat.
    You are right that when you say "that is a cat", in reference to a real physical object, you are matching the object to a set of rules, but you are also saying something about the cat itself: that it is a cat. You are also saying something about yourself: that you know it is a cat."


    When I say "That is a cat." the word "that" is referring to the animal before me. The word "cat" otoh is referring to the word "that". It defines "that"..The act of referring to the cat AS a cat seems then only able to occur as a subject/predicate statement of language. The word "cat" and the animal before me never seem to make real contact. Words refer only to other words it seems and NOT to real objects. And some of those words represent concepts ("cat" for example). But again, these words OR the concept they represent don't seem to entail the objects that are instantiating those concepts. Am I making any sense?

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  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    This thread is pretty tenuous and I didn't want the topic to get lost. Three off-topic posts in a row by different people, halfway through the first page, is too many: it means the topic is indeed getting lost.
     
  13. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

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    @MR
    Language is fundamentally about giving and receiving information.
    That seems fairly obvious.

    The more definite the sentence, the more information is given.
    eg "Something moved in the undergrowth" gives less information than "My neighbour's cat lay crouched in the grass, watching a mouse."

    Is there any group in philosophy that disagrees with that?

    Or can you think of any instance where that is not the case?
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2011
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    No, not to me.
     
  15. Lilalena Registered Senior Member

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    Obviously, never.

    - The first thing you need to accept about language is that it is arbitrary. How can it be otherwise? We just invented all those words.
    - The second thing you need to accept is that language requires general consensus in order to become a language. That's another arbitrary step we use to lock our arbitrary invented words into place.
    - No. 3 - We can't make language anything other than arbitrary.
    - No. 4 - Arbitrary does not intrinsically mean 'bad' or 'wrong'. That it does is a common misconception. Therefore
    - No. 5 - You need to question your very search for absoluteness in language. Look for any philosophical assumptions / misconceptions / bad thinking habits that has made this quest seem feasible to you.

    In the 'is language a trap' thread you mentioned familiarity with Saussure and Derrida. These two people, as well as many of their followers and detractors spent their lives organizing all the concepts that you have brought up. With such a background what satisfaction could you possibly derive out of discussing these concepts with laymen here?

    Are you here trying to teach us linguistics as a way of getting over the D you got for your essay?
     
  16. Lilalena Registered Senior Member

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    266
    Major edit:

    1. Never if you are looking for absoluteness.
    2. Always if you use the dictionary definition of the word 'represent', and provided that consensus on the meaning of the word 'cat' doesn't change.
     
  17. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Wow..so in that other thread about being trapped inside language you suggested that I shouldn't be asking such questions because you assumed I haven't read up on philosophy enough. NOW that I revealed my background you say in THIS thread that I shouldn't be asking such questions because I should know all the answers by now and so have nothing to learn from asking "laymen"? I guess the real issue here is why this question should bother YOU so much and why anyone asking it should be suspect. To alleviate this fear let me say that I have a life burden to communicate some of the great questions of philosophy to the average human being. These are real issues that we all need to be thinking about. And I don't assume ANYone to be such a "layman" that they are incapable of philosophical thought or undeserving of being listened to in regards to it's great paradoxes. Got it?
     
  18. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

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    A life burden? From where/ whom?
    Just how many posters do we have here with a "great destiny"? You're the second one in the last couple of hours I've encountered. Maybe SciForums is a magnet for future messiahs*.

    I see, so on the one hand you "don't assume that people are incapable of philosophical thought" but on the other you have a "duty to communicate the great questions to the average person".

    So you don't you think that these people who are capable of philosophical thought might have come up with these "great questions" themselves?
    A tad contradictory, no? :shrug:

    Or possibly, that they couldn't give a toss one way or the other, regardless of your "life burden".

    * Or just *cough* cranks.

    Edit: and I note you failed to reply to any of Lilalena's points, preferring instead to address her "footnote".
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2011
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Huh??? When's the last time you invented a word? Perhaps you have; scientists do it all the time, and engineers and philosophers do it with some regularity too. But their coinages are hardly arbitrary! "Petroleum" is formed from well-understood Latin roots, meaning "oil from rocks." "Telephone" is formed from well-understood Greek roots, meaning "sound over a distance."

    The Germans and Chinese do an even better job, using primarily (in German) or exclusively (in Chinese) their own words when forming new compounds.

    As I pointed out in an earlier thread, even slang words often have a discernible lineage back to some respectable existing words. The ones that lack that lineage are easily forgotten and abandoned. When's the last time anyone called you a "hodad" because you can't surf?

    The last time there was a major invention of new words was precisely the time when there were no words and the people had to start from scratch. But even in that instance, it's impossible to discount the hypothesis that the first words were the calls of birds and insects, used by hunters to communicate surreptitiously from their hiding places: a technique still used, known as onomatopoeia. The U.S. Marine Corps' exclamation "oorah" is the sound of a diving klaxon.

    Ever since then, languages have evolved by shifting phonetics, combining words, borrowing them from each other, and redefining them to accommodate new circumstances. "Inventing" words is not unknown, but it's hardly a major force in this evolution.

    I've not been participating vigorously in this discussion since I find philosophy uninteresting, but I think you folks have managed to lead yourselves astray by not questioning some of your own assumptions a little more carefully.

    Language is arbitrary? Not my language! When I say or write "cat," the word is a symbol representing an individual of the subspecies Felis silvestris lybica, although depending on context it might occasionally have other equally obvious meanings, such as any felid, or a Caterpillar tractor.
     
  20. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

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    The meaning of words changes.

    Over years, or occasionally very quickly, what they convey can alter.
    Between the speaker and the hearer, there needs to be agreement about what the words mean, otherwise a sentence is at best meaningless, or worse, misleading.

    Personally, I detest the modern use of the word "Sport", not only to refer to Cricket, Football etc, but also Chess, Paper-folding, and Monopoly.
    I cannot sit Canute-like before the tide of language, but I make my protest by personally never calling them anything other than games, pursuits, or hobbies.
     
  21. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

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    When it fulfils the two reasons for language:

    1. symbolism
    2. communication

    If I were to say maanzar what would it mean to you? Probably not much, but in Marathi it means "a cat" Unless you know the symbols and the language, its all pretty much meaningless.

    Words represent a consensus on symbols with agreed upon meanings by at least two people [e.g. twinese]
     
  22. Lilalena Registered Senior Member

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    I meant 'we humans' invented them, even if they were inspired by the calls of birds or other animals.

    We humans invented the Latin roots of the word 'petroleum' too.

    I made the ff point to Magical Realist in my last post:

    I'm not interested in defending my last post further than that. I think (just my opinion, you understand) this thread has wasted enough of my, your, and everybody else's time. I'm beginning to see that sciforums will be the reason I never get to the point of buying a house, a car, etc. Now that's going to be a real life burden. I had just resolved to never scroll down (to Free thoughts, Life, and Members) again. Yet here I am. I have now missed two very important work deadlines. OK that is my fault obviously but Magical Realist's thread has made me realise the wisdom of Saquist's permaban request. I wish that as a Moderator you would lock this thread, but not before you tell us wtf a klaxon is.

    So do I. But, to paraphrase / quote (paraquote?) Dywyyddr, "it's not my fault if I'm really really (really really really) good at it."
     
  23. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Languages weren't formed by anyone's consensus. Every generation gets born into an already existing language and at no point does a society "agree" to call a this a that and so on. Do YOU remember agreeing on what to call things? I don't. In fact languages evolve pretty much on their own without anyone's say so. Even our own brains have evolved to understand the world in terms of language and words. Chomsky has shown us how underlying all languages there exists a universal grammar that is just part of how our brain functions. So this whole point about words being arbitrary, while being being irrelevant to the nature of representation, is not even correct. There's a very specific set of reasons why every person born into the English language says "cat" instead of something else. Knowing the english language could I just decide to start using some other word for "cat" and still make sense? No..So the word "cat" is no more arbitrary than that a cat is a furry whiskered animal.
     

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