Monday, October 3, 2016

How Language is Objective

"I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time."
- Burnt Norton
The other day I listened to Radiohead's Kid A, digesting it's meaning.

What's confusing about the album, and a lot of contemporary music, is that it's very hard to delineate meaning. By their own admission, Radiohead cut up lyrics, put them in a hat, and drew them out randomly to what what formed Kid A. In a similar way, T.S. Eliot's Wasteland is a jumpy mess; what had a coherent structure, was thrown into random pieces by Ezra Pound. He told Eliot that it did the poem better. Eliot agreed.

An aim of music and poetry is to convey mood. At their hight, music and poetry needles you with a very sharp point, striking the heart with a very refined, cutting meaning. But just because the meaning is very clear to feeling, it doesn't follow that it's easy to communicate. Observe the volumes written on Eliot's poetry, look at youTube commenters on Yorke's lyrics. People are in awe, they return to a definite mood trying to understand an experience they count as significant.

What is cause for wonder is that language can convey significant meaning that can't easily be analyzable, if at all. But no one who has had this experience can tell you that the poetry means nothing for being hard or impossible to dissect.

Now what's fashionable in American philosophy is seeking knowledge through clear reasoning, where propositions can be lined up like dominos, ready for the mind to follow the chain to a certain and well defined effect. This certainty is taken to be the surest vehicle to arrive at truth. If all men are mortal, and if Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal. Not even Socrates could doubt that chain of logic! Right?

But if we were to be given something like Radiohead's lyrics,

"Red wine and sleeping pills 
Help me get back to your arms
Cheap sex and sad films
Help me get back where I belong

I think you're crazy, maybe
I think you're crazy, maybe

Stop sending letters
Letters always get burned
It's not like the movies
They fed us on little white lies

I think you're crazy, maybe
I think you're crazy, maybe

I will see you in the next life." 
- Motion Picture Soundtrack
Or Eliots,
Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air. 
There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth. 
Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire
 - Little Gidding

Or the Bible's,
"The day you eat of it you will surely die."
we're left knowing what death is and believing not only that we will die, but that we do die, and are already dead(!); whereas, if we know Socrates at all, he doesn't believe that all men die, and will contest premises upon premises till he's blue in the face.
But we're told that the more poetic stuff is not clear; since it hits our subjective self in a way that isn't easily put into propositions, we're left without a very clear way of arbitrating mis-interpretation. We might be lead astray by our private whims into error.
But for anyone who has read a particularly forceful piece of writing, he is sure that the understanding he perceives is correct; though not completely specifiable. Since the meaning he perceived is not completely known to himself, he is also open to other's thoughts to add to his comprehension; however, he knows what is true and false, what goes and what doesn't.
What's going on is that readers are perceiving a meaning. And this meaning is real and objective to anyone who has experienced it.
Now let's look at those who insist on precise argumentation. Their motivation is to find a way of arriving at truth that is completely objective, through a series of formal propositions. It's perfectly clean and incontestable. And surely there are ways of being formal and precise in language that's more organized and easier to follow. However! Nothing will ever convince someone of the truth in language who either does not want to experience it.
So even though language is intensely subjective, it also has objective meaning. And we should be comfortable with any sentence that conveys our point, poetic or prosy. Those who insist on complete objectivity find themselves defining their terms without end (a la Socrates), and falling into complete skepticism (a la Socrates).