Is Language Approximate?

What a pickle! Thinking is done individually, using universal methods applied in unique ways by each individual. Even language is used uniquely by each individual. A word that means one thing to me may mean a slightly different thing to you. And yet, for society to function, we absolutely must communicate so we can cooperate. We slog onward with the hopeless task of trying to communicate in spite of the approximations of language. Is there any way out of this dilemma?

One glimmer of hope shows up in the fact that the dilemma is exactly described using that same approximate language. It seems to be possible to explain things enough to get any point across. There seems to be something that, when combined with language, makes it more precise.

To see what, remember that language is not just communication, but primarily thought.

Language is the use of words to handle things in mental groups, called concepts. Because everyone is unique, the limits of the groups can differ in different people. When I think of red, I think of a range of shades all called red. Some of those shades may be included in the range you think of as orange. Most of the time, we are both thinking the same thing when we say "red." That is, we agree on the essential color called red. Since we agree on the essential, our communication will be precise for all except the extreme shades. Another way to say this is that when we say "red," we set the context. We are both in the same ballpark. Usually, this is close enough. If I say, "The light is red," you probably will not say, "What shade of red?"

So the question is not, "Is the range of things I have in mind a bit wider or narrower than the range you have in mind?" The question is, "Does the range in my mind have the same essential characteristics as the range in your mind?" If we are both using the same essentials in defining the range, then our communication will be precise for all except the edges of the range. As soon as we add context to language, we see that we can always start on common ground.

If we are looking at flowers, and I tell you to look at the red one, we are on common ground. If there are many red flowers, I look for a way to narrow the context down: the bright red one. If there are several bright red ones, I look for a way to narrow the context down further: the big bright red one. Achieving precision in language is a process of using essentials to set the context, and then narrowing the context down as far as necessary.

Since language is capable of as much precision as needed, discussing borderline cases is no problem as long as the essentials come first. People who insist on arguing borderline cases before essentials are trying to substitute points for ranges—concretes for concepts. They want to argue about a shade of color before saying what color. That is, they want to argue for the sake of arguing.

When people try to argue ambiguities instead of essentials, they are trying to substitute the word for the range. They want to observe language instead of reality. For them, analyzing red does not involve hue, saturation, or light waves. It involves emotions called "red," politics called "red," and necks called "red." They think that if you get the words right, you have got reality right. To see that this is not the case, consider the difference between "man" and "a man."

"Man" refers to all humans, considered not as a mass but as an open number of individuals. "A man" picks out a single individual for reference—in the context of a general reference. If the context is not general, then "a man" picks out a single adult male for reference. In other contexts, "a man" picks out an especially virtuous or masculine adult male. Without context, a word has potential meanings. In context, it has a precise meaning.

One can object to using the same word to mean different things. One could insist that the word "plane" not refer in various contexts to a flat surface, a level of development, a carpenter's tool, and a flying machine. Or, one could accept that thinking always has a purpose, and a purpose is a context. How do you know what my purpose is, so you know what my context is? Because I use language to tell you. I add context to language, and get precision.

When you know that thinking is contextual, then you know that language is capable of whatever precision you want. When language is correctly used to express an imprecise thought, then it precisely expresses the imprecision. When it is used to express an ambiguous thought, then it precisely expresses the ambiguity.

If language were approximate, then there could be no precise meaning to the question, "Is language approximate?"

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