Nothing we use or hear or touch can be expressed in words that equal what is given by the senses.

-- philosopher Hannah Arendt

We know and experience directly, but then we notice patterns connecting bits of direct knowledge. These patterns are ideas, concepts, thoughts; they are theories of how our perceptions will behave.

Labeling such an idea with a word is the next step away from direct experience and towards built-up knowledge.

Words are labels for ideas. The idea is the real thing; the word is just a name or label that helps recall the idea. In this way, words assist thought by enabling the quick recall and combination of ideas.

However, as an indirect way of reaching an idea, words have significant limitations.

First, ideas and knowledge do not have firm boundaries, but words have deceptively sharp boundaries. As an example, consider when a word is uttered, what idea is recalled. Every time I hear the word "cat", I do not think of the same thing. On one occasion, I may not be paying much attention, and the word "cat" rolls by without evoking much of any thought in me. On another occasion, the word "cat" might invoke the idea of a specific cat; on another occasion, house cats in general; on another, all types of feline animals; on another, certain movements that are labeled "cat-like".

All the while, the word "cat" has a rigidly specified definition in the dictionary that encompasses all these ideas. But on each occasion, the particular idea that is recalled is different. In this way, words give the illusion of sharp distinctions between ideas, when ideas actually blend seamlessly together.

Another limitation of words is that they are boxes that constrain thought. In George Orwell's novel 1984, one of the ways in which rebellion is discouraged is by manipulating language itself, eliminating all words for rebellion. When we rely on words in our thoughts, we limit ourselves to the words we have learned, and those words shape our ideas.

One could say that the meaning of a word is the set of ideas recalled upon thinking that word. In this sense, it should be obvious that meaning is contextual; it varies from time to time, from one frame of mind to the next.

Definitions are a way of trying to firm up a word's meaning. A word can be defined in two ways: ostensively or verbally. An ostensive definition is when I point to a cat and say, "Cat." A verbal definition is defining a word by using other (already known) words, for example, "A 'cat' is a feline animal."

An idea is a theory of how perceptions behave. A word is a means of recalling an idea. The meaning of a word is the idea recalled by it on a specific occasion. The idea of meaning often is wrapped up with the ideas of truth and belief; but there is an important sense of meaning as simply a collection of ideas that arise.

In this sense, it does not matter what I believe to be the true nature of the cat in reality. As far as meaning goes, it only matters what ideas arise in my mind when the word "cat" arises.

To make this point more directly, modern philosophers often like to debate what they call the "brain-in-a-vat" issue. The issue is that I have no way of telling whether I am "really" a human being the way I conceive myself, or whether I am a brain in a vat with the right chemicals and electricity creating the illusion of all my perceptions. In the current discussion, this distinction is completely irrelevant. It does not matter whether I am a human being or a brain in a vat. Either way, the word "cat" recalls certain ideas, and that is the meaning of "cat".

Words are not only used to recall ideas in myself, but to communicate ideas with others. In this case, words show themselves to have even more limitations.

All perception is direct: the sight of a rose, the sound of a cat meowing, the feeling of sitting on a chair. Describing such a perception in words, no matter how detailed, can never evoke this same experience in another person.

All words are defined, ostensively (by direct pointing out) or verbally (with other words). Words cannot all be defined verbally; ultimately, some words must be defined ostensively, before other words can be defined in terms of those. Because no two people have the exact same perceptions, no ostensive definition will be exactly the same for every person, and therefore no verbal definition will be exactly the same either. The uttering of a word will recall a different set of ideas (meaning) for each person that hears it. Communication is based on the assumption that these different meanings will be similar enough; however, everyone is familiar with occasions (called misunderstandings) when the differences have practical effects.

Further, if a person has not directly perceived a certain unique quality, then no amount of verbal definitions will ever convey that idea. It is "ineffable," indescribable in words. No words can convey what the color "blue" means to a blind person.

Knowledge, it seems, is ultimately all personal.

Next: Is It True?

For Further Exploration

The philosophically minded and curious can browse these sources elsewhere on the Web:

  • Deconstructionist Theory: a summary of the philosophy of deconstructionism, which is centered around the limitations of words
  • Private Language: a difficult-to-read essay on the "private language" problem posed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, relating to the definition of words