CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING WE DON’T KNOW? – Bite-size Philosophy (4)

Rev José Mario O Mandía

What happens when someone tries to talk about something he doesn’t know anything about? We say he talks nonsense. This is what we will tackle today. But first, a brief review.

In the first article of this series, we asked why we need philosophy. We have recalled Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy precisely helps us think about our life. Moreover, philosophy is useful for faith in at least three ways: it prepares a person to understand the faith; it helps him deepen his knowledge of it; and it is also an aid in explaining and defending the faith. Faith needs philosophy and reason. Faith without understanding turns into superstition, says Pope Benedict XVI.

In the second article, we touched on the three kinds of reality that philosophy studies: the world, man, and God and the different branches arising from these.

Last week, we discussed the three ways by which we obtain knowledge: direct observation; reasoning; and the information provided by another (a witness) — a knowledge based on trust or faith.

Now, to go back to today’s topic. Can someone speak about something if he does not know anything about it? 

This connects to another question: can I know something if it does not exist? In other words, is it possible for me to know “nothing”?

I guess you will say no to both questions. And the answer reveals to us three realms, three “worlds” in which we move: the realm of the real world (the world outside myself); the realm of our sensations, feelings and thoughts; and the realm of language. And the answers to the questions above point to a relation of dependence: what we say (language) depends on what we know (thought), and what we know depends on what exists in reality. Language depends on thought, thought depends on being. Do you agree?

The relations between the three were expressed by Aristotle in his work Peri hermeneias (translated to Latin as De interpretation, On interpretation). He explains that written words (Greek: graphomena) are symbols of spoken words (Greek: phone), and spoken words in turn are symbols of what he calls pathemata (“affections of the soul”: sensations, feelings and thoughts). Let us call it “mental content”. Mental content are likenesses of things that exist (Greek: pragmata).

Both spoken words and written words are symbols which are decided on by the speaking community. The set of symbols in each place are different from those of another; they are arbitrary. The word for “dog” is different in Spanish, in German, in Chinese and in Tagalog.

Both spoken words and written words symbolize mental content. Aristotle says that mental content (e.g., the concept “dog”) which are a likeness of real things, are the same for all men and women, just as things are the same in all cultures (dogs are basically the same in Spain, in Germany, in China and in the Philippines).

Because the mental contents are the same for all, it is possible to translate from one language to the other, because even if the symbols are arbitrary, all men and women basically share the same concepts about the same things.

Of course, there can be slight differences in understanding, which is why words symbolizing the same mental content can have shades of meaning from one culture to another.

Finally, what I wanted to point out is how this basic state of affairs has been ignored by philosophers starting from René Descartes. The Aristotelian explanation tells us that language depends on thought (mental content), and thought depends on reality. For Descartes, everything (including reality) depends on thought and begins in thought. And for some, everything depends on language. Can you spot the difficulty with these positions? What happens when we base everything on thought, or on language?

I leave it to you to think about the answer.

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