* * *
LANGUAGE AND ITS INTERPRETATION
This view doubtless holds true of explicit
thought and knowledge, as far as it can be conveyed by language or exists
in the public domain. In turn, this fact makes language and the study of its
influence on life and society of very great importance, for it is the instrument
of much understanding and perhaps yet more misunderstanding. Investigation
of its many functions, including its weaknesses and limitations as a carrier
of meaning, is very necessary to metascience.
WORDS, THINGS, THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS
WORDS, THINGS, THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS
Thoughts do come to us in the form of words but whether this is true of all thought, inner experience or understanding is another matter. Much depends upon how one defines 'thought' or 'knowledge'. If we include only the cognitive processes, by which the mind makes judgements or assertions by combining subjects and predicates, then there is no thought or knowledge without language. Yet this eliminates the role of emotion, intuition and those kinds of 'understanding' that arise from the heart. When we speak or write, it seems, some inner impulse is generated, to express a feeling or convey some meaning. Sometimes at least, they take the form of words subsequently, not simultaneously, as may be seen when we 'carefully choose our words'.
This view is surely not easy for persons conversant with the philosophy of language to accept, for they observably tend to develop a bias towards wordiness and the importance of language, their own subject. It is much easier for psychologists of infancy to accept, due to their researches of infants' various forms of pre-verbal understanding, (The Interpersonal World of the Infant - A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. Daniel N. Stern, N.Y., 1985). This includes teachers of the deaf and dumb, never forgetting Helen Keller and the lessons to be learned about language from the amazing achievements of a person born deaf, dumb and blind.
To delimit language and meaning strictly to cognitive thought is very narrowing, as the reaction against logical positivism showed. It excludes most human intercourse from consideration, including drama, poetry and letters. The meaning of language can lie in its many, many uses other than cognitive description or explanation: to amuse, to inspire, to intimidate, to celebrate, to defend, to avert problems, to form attitudes... the list is as varied as are the purposes of human communication.
Further, some visual artists will insist that there is a meaning in images which function independently of verbal or written language and social anthropologists have shown how complex forms of culture can thrive without any dependence upon verbalisation, one striking example being long-distance navigation by Melanesians in the Pacific. The Australian poet, Les Murray, even asserts that 'nothing is true that figures in words only'. The way one determines what can qualify as meaningful thought is an issue of great importance in a globalising culture, for it also tends to determine what is regarded as intelligence and understanding. The Western word-oriented cultural approach easily takes the form of cultural imperialism.
The idea that there can be no thought without words, no knowledge without language, has become very widespread among the educated, philosopers and some scientists, especially since the work of Wittgenstein began to take effect. The actual role of language in all aspects of life is a very difficult matter to discover and express in a clear, empirical and comprehensive way, not least because of the ambiguities of language itself, especially where we lack well-defined words and concepts for inner operations of the mind. However, even though most people may tend to think in words, there are surely many exceptions. For example, when an entirely new idea is conceived, it cannot arise only from words one has learned, but must come from some deeper mental process than that of expressing one's mind. New words are coined only because a new conception has arisen, then sought expression. The same applies in essence even in writing a sentence which has never been written before (assuming that it was intelligibly conceived, not just made up from words to sound meaningful).
Further, sometimes we may have more conceptions or ideas than we have words for in our particular language. For examples, there are many subtle, fleeting relations and processes of the mind lacking well-defined vocabularies in English which are found in other languages. This fact suggests that meaning is usually generated in the mind prior to verbal formulation, even though it may not be fixated or expressed independently of words. Conceptual thought cannot turn back and fully grasp what illumines it and allows us to direct it where we will, because being always preceeds thinking.
Words said to us on a given occasion can exhibit a different meaning when we reflect upon them later; sometimes the meaning gets clearer, sometimes less so. So meaning is related as much to consciousness as it is to the words themselves. Language mediates between the understanding and those affairs that language is about. Language itself is neither entirely of the human subject nor the object referred to, but is a connection between the two.
The exact ways in which the mind deals with symbols are relatively little known. There are very many kinds of symbols, some with very many inherent potential meanings and other with highly precise and specific connotation. In creative thinking, whether in the literary arts, depth psychology or many another kind of activity, symbols are capable of freeing the mind temporarily from words by opening up many connections between all varieties of thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, mental imagery, movement, sound and so forth. Thus, the mind gains a degree of freedom from words, by virtue of which we can organise sentences, reformulate them, translate them to other languages or modify them to accord with new facts or broader vision. The metaphoric power of symbols to convey deeper or inclusive meanings can sometimes exceed that of language. Mircea Eliade has convincingly shown in depth how symbols, particularly religious symbols, can illumine dimensions of reality that are normally hidden from us... the holy as distinct from the profane. (The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion - The significance of religious myth, symbolism and ritual within life and culture. San Diego. Harcourt Brace and Co., 1987).
Even the ability to generalise from one's own particular experiences implies an inductive faculty that is not rigidly tied down either to separate instances or to the given words or phrases of language. The coinage of apt words or phrases for previously unidentified phenomena or experiences, the invention of new metaphors, figurative expressions and allegories are instances of the mind reaching beyond conventional language and stretching it so as to express unique conceptions. All this becomes possible as the creative faculties are developed, though much of the time the normal mind is more in the thrall of language than vice-versa. Language is often the medium of such operations, but it is not itself the cause or determiner of them.
At the same time, even the highly-skilled intellectual manipulator of language is likely, as Wittgenstein demonstrated so definitively, to have a mind frequently 'bewitched by language' in a surprisingly large number of respects. Language is obviously often itself the chief hindrance to understanding, which is shown by the success of ideologies, propaganda and demagogery. In the intellectual world, too, the glib 'well-worn phrases' and ingrained explanatory terms and clichéd illustrations of science and philosophy - often of a redundant model - seem to be ever-present and to play an undue role in the climate of opinion and mentality that prevails.
Finally, it should be said that anyone having had powerful transcendental experiences which actually raise consciousness into awareness beyond the mind and its limitations will accept that understanding is inevitably dependen
t upon language. Such persons all agree that that there is
genuine understanding which is ineffable.
INTERPRETING THE MEANING OF TEXTS
INTERPRETING THE MEANING OF TEXTS
The interpretation of symbols, especially language in the form of speech or written texts, is a particular case of interpretation of the world and life in general. Very much consequential social interaction depends on the interpretation of symbols, especially written texts. The general purpose of such interpretation is to understand the meaning expressed by someone or something which is an instrument of communicated meaning. Words and sentences signify meaning. This meaning, if conscious, arises in the private mind before it is outwardly expressed. To what extent, if any, the mind can itself subjectively generate meaning at the most fundamental level is uncertain. The mind - or our awareness - may function much more as a as a receiver and transmitter of meaning than we have generally come to believe.
When language expresses thoughts, we can say it takes on an 'objective' form, written language being a kind of object and speech also being a physical and a public event. These external expressions which can convey meaning include all human products, include all kinds of recorded symbols, hieroglyphs and written texts. These physical artefacts are carriers of 'objectified meaning'. Meaning is objectified in many ways, not always chiefly so as to communicate, for we can find human meaning objectified, for example, in the form of cave paintings or other graphic arts, statues, coins, tools, buildings, roadworks, machinery and so on. Their evident uses indicate their uses or significance for the users, which is one aspect of meaning.
Most of the information and knowledge educated adults, especially in modern societies, obtain is probably derived from objectified meanings, be it from books, journals and recorded electronic media etc. Interpretation of these sources can present problems, but largely the flow of communication is unproblematical because contemporary forms of language and thought are used. Serious misunderstandings can also be cleared up by contacting the source. Where controversial issues arise in written laws, agreements and treaties, correct interpretation often becomes an issue itself when new situations or differences arise.
Understanding objectified meanings from sources that are no longer contemporary, however, both in the recent past and in ancient texts, usually calls for a considerable effort of understanding, for 'putting oneself in another's shoes' or living oneself mentally and emotionally into the situation of the other.
One may want to understand be a poem by Shakespeare or the Charter of the United Nations the Vedas or the general theory of relativity. In each case, symbols are involved and interpretation is an unavoidable action.
In understanding a text, interpretation is based
on the meaning conveyed by the words, sentences and often also the whole structure
of a complete text. This calls for 'intuition' of the meaning, which becomes
a fairly straightforward or natural act for literate persons with the requisite
experience or knowledge of the subjects involved, though it is also often
far from infallible.
THE MAIN ASPECTS OF COMMUNICATED MEANING
THE MAIN ASPECTS OF COMMUNICATED MEANING
Every meaningful, serious utterance or written communication has something its author wishes to convey - whatever the speech or text is about. This is known as the intended meaning. As part of that meaning we may also find some motive or purpose the author had in conveying the particular meaning. This can best be called its purposive meaning. For example, the words 'Quick march' said in certain contexts have the intended purpose of making someone start marching. In other contexts the same two words may simply be describing, say, the rapid quality of a walking tour as in 'It was something of a quick march'. This latter meaning does not express the purpose in saying the sentence, but expresses something else, in this case about the event that was its subject matter.
Now, purposive meaning is not always evident from the spoken words or the recorded text, perhaps because it was clear enough to persons involved in the original situation. Where the purposive meaning is clearly expressed, it forms part of the intended meaning, otherwise it can only perhaps be established through independent investigation. Knowing this motive or aim of the author, however, often throws light on the text's meaning, especially where it is unclear, incomplete or otherwise difficult to interpret. In communication, one may have a direct and immediate motive - perhaps simply to entertain or express feelings - or one may have more complex and far-reaching purposes or general aims directed to the 'general public'. (For example, as with this text).
The meaning of given utterances can become clearer once we learn the speaker's immediate purposes in saying them at that time and place. Though their meaning is actualised only within a living communicational situation, words also carry an independent meaning content, a potential meaning which becomes actual only in situations where language is used. This indefinite but general nature that language assumes when detached from immediate uses and situation, as well as the many purposes at which meaningful communication often aims, are the most important and difficult aspects of interpretation. The boundaries of any communication situation cannot easily be drawn, not least because the language itself can often live on long afterwards and become known to any number of other people.
Intended meaning arises through all forms of communicative action, including purposeful bodily acts (such as non-verbal gestures, conscious purposive acts etc.). Natural accidental movements, sounds or bodily reactions and reflexes are obviously unintended behaviour and thus have no intended meaning.
Once a written text or recorded speech is available, it can be considered apart from the persons involved and more or less independently of the circumstances and actual situation at the time of writing. As long as the discourse between the author (via the text) and the reader flows without difficulty, what one understand from will invariably be the intended meaning. However, as soon this discourse is interrupted by reflections about what the author could mean or doubt as to its meaning, the reader begins consciously to try to interpret the text through reason or other investigations, having had to abandon the natural course of intuitive understanding. The clear intuition of the author's intention is disturbed and the interpretation becomes hypothetical. The meaning that the author intended to convey is what we try to intuit, not just whatever we happen to like to think, of course. It depends upon the text working as a flawless instrument. This presumes the author's words at words fit the intention, and vice-versa. As one concentrates on the content of a text - thinking critically about that to which the text refers or what it signifies - the symbolic flexibility of objectified language often allows of various interpretations. Doubtless, not all of these will coincide with the author's intention, unless one happens to be dealing with intentionally ambiguous expressions, such as in poetry, drama and literary symbolism.
In going beyond whatever meaning is easily grasped as the author's intention, introducing alternative interpretations, an new basis for of meaning arises. This can best be called the extended meaning, because it is drawn out of the language used. When the intentional meaning is not clearly intuited because of inclarity, contradictory words, foreign ideas or unacceptable assertions and the like, the various interpretations become extensional.
Here one is thrown back on whatever can reasonably be derived from the 'objectified expression' itself, considering what it is about, under what personal, social, historical or other circumstances it was written, what else is know about the author through contemporary opinions and so on. Many complex problems can arise in interpretation and the methods of solving them and of judging how far the intentional meaning can be established vary.
Extended meaning includes all the significances that may be found in human behaviour (or even in anything in nature) which were not themselves intended by any consciously acting agent. Even behaviour that was done intentionally can therefore be attributed 'extended' meaning that was not in the mind of the person involved. 'Extended' has two connotations here: 1) there is an addition of significance not found 'in' the original or 'intended' meaning and 2) that different and probably unintended significance is derived from the objective carriers of meanings (texts or other artefacts having physical 'extension' in space-time). Having physical extension is what makes objects capable of bearing meaning across time and space. These objective carriers of (objectified) meaning can be observed by various methods in science. (Though the words 'inner' and 'outer' can apply here respectively to intended meaning and extended meaning, they have too many other uses or connotations for accuracy).
An example of extended meaning: a social economic theory that would explain a rise in prices may seek to do so by studying changes in wages, availability of goods bought, inflation, investment and so on. These are measurable or objective factors. If no account is taken here of what the individual buyers think, what market researches may find out to be their stated motives, tastes and other reasons in buying or not, the theory relies entirely on applying 'extended meaning' to shopping behaviour.
Again, suppose we want to know what an economist meant when he wrote, say "When there is no unemployment and workers do not work for low wages, company profits fall and will lead to sacking of parts of the work-force". He may have had the intention of warning employees of making undue wage claims for their own collective good (i.e. not to lose jobs), or of promoting a company drive for greater profits (by keeping wages down) or he may simply have been putting forth his hypothesis in the interests of economic science. We may never be able to be certain what the real intention was, but the statement is certain and therefore it can be interpreted in the light of divers fact and theory by anyone (i.e. given extended meaning) according to the information available and from the viewpoint of differing relevant approaches like trade-unionism, liberal free trade ideology, Marxist historical determinism and so on. Many types of investigation have been tried in the effort to penetrate the meaning of texts, often so as to make them more intelligible or less self-contradictory than they happen to be, as in the case of many Bible interpretations. The theory of hermeneutics in fact started with Bible interpretation.
Because a text is a material object, it can be interpreted otherwise than its author intended, especially when the author is not, or cannot be, consulted. Thus it can come to be given meanings that were originally not meant. Simple examples of this are daily fare for readers of the low 'gutter press', which takes peoples' words entirely out of context so as to give them a sensational meaning. Other and more intricate examples are found in international law. For example, when an international convention is disputed by one party to it, certain words or sentences may be interpreted in another way (i.e. given an extended meaning) than the way implied by the true spirit of the agreement (i.e. its intended meaning). The new interpretation may well be linguistically and semantically valid. It may arguably be allowable too, due to some inconsistency in the original, some slight vagueness or even inaccuracy in the translations on which the various signatories depended.
Where difficult or obscure texts are being read,
such as ancient scriptures, this can require previous knowledge of the times
or culture and insightful identification with the mind of authors and their
intentions so as to approach their meaning through creative reasoning, comparative
thought and whatever tests or crucial experiments one may be able to devise
in the circumstances.
THE PRINCIPLE OF OBJECTIVITY IN INTERPRETATION
THE PRINCIPLE OF OBJECTIVITY IN INTERPRETATION
Correct interpretation follows certain implicit principles, which can be made the clearer by stating them. The principle of 'objectivity of subject matter' is only fulfilled in the interpretation of texts, therefore, where the intended meaning has been given the fullest feasible examination, as can be judged by the accuracy, completeness and wholeness of an anaylsis of the actual contents of a work. The various methods of interpretation, the common pitfalls and all questions on the valid understanding of symbols of all kinds is the task of the philosophical discipline of hermeneutics to clarify. The above account provides but an outline of that.
The principle of objectivity of subject matter, further specified for the interpretation of meaningful objects, has been stated well by Emilio Betti as the first of the four canons of his theory of interpretation. Betti's 1'st 'canon' of hermeneutics or interpretation required 'Autonomy of the Object' such that meaningful forms "have to be understood with reference to that other mind that has been objectified in them, not in relation to any meaning that the form itself may acquire if abstracted from the representational function it had for that mind or thought." (Teoria Generale della Interpretazione 2 vols. E. Betti. 1955)
Another person's speech cannot be looked on only as a ready-made physical object with its meaning wholly contained within the packaging. Texts are meaningful forms and as such are to be understood intuitively, with the assertions, inter-connections and lines of development that together can give the entire meaning the author intended to convey, or suceeded in expressing clearly. In simpler words, one must respect as far and as deeply as possible the intentions of the original author and assume that the meaning of the whole work is related to its parts.
In interpreting many written texts we have no way of finding out the author's intention independently of the texts, unless we can get his or her replies to questions. So we cannot claim to know for certain we are 'respecting the author's intention' in interpreting texts, precisely because we are interpreting them. Principles requiring autonomy of the text or objectivity of subject matter, therefore, are guiding principles to insure against unfounded interpretations, against hasty conclusions or incomplete application to the full relevant subject matter and whatever context or environment on which it depends.
The European post-structuralists, such as Jaques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and others regard interpretation as very largely a matter of 'reading in' what I define as an extended meaning. They consider the author's intended meaning as not easily verifiable, or even not verifiable in principle. In this they reject the fundamental role of intuition in the symbolic transference of meaning between minds.
For example, Roland Barthes argues in his essay The Death Of The Author that it is the reader, not the writer, who produces the text. Authors try to convey something, but they can't invent the language to suit just their intentions and so are stuck with common usage. Their intended meaning cannot govern all the words and how they will be understood by others, so 'reading always exceeds intention'.
This view surely strikes one as too far-fetched... amounting almost to a permit somehow to twist whatever meaning one wishes from a text regardless of the original cultural context in which it was written. Were this view correct, it would make normal conversation near impossible, or at best a very uncertain process whereby each person creates his own meaning to fit to the words of others, there being no necessary connection by language between the mind of speaker and listener. Admittedly, conversation and other forms of verbal communication are not always unproblematical, but the fact is that they can be so. Our ability to intuit meaning is not automatic and infallible, it is more or less developed in some and confused in others. It doubtless tends to improve with a flair for language and increased experience and understanding. Only very seldom indeed is this intution so poor that one cannot function in normal social interaction. Obviously, like minds tend to think alike, while differences of society, culture, language, era, personality and so forth tend to make effective communication more difficult.
To read whatever one wants into a text is simply misinterpretation, in my view. Very often an author, if an original and good one, can very well manage language so as both to express and convey a meaning with great semantical nicety. The reader then either understands the intended meaning or makes a hash of it, due to lack of good information, bad thinking, unimaginative or other reasons for misinterpretation. The structuralist trend becomes more applicable, however, to texts of great antiquity, where subsidiary information to aid interpretation is in dearth. It represents what I have called an 'extension of meaning', which is a speculative and external 'overlay' on a text, not an objective analysis of the intended meaning.
The normal mastery of a language, or even a very wide knowledge of the meanings learned by its aid, is no guarantee at all of a sound and comprehensive understanding itself. Part of the reason is indicated in the dialogue Phaedrus, where Socrates talks about the invention of letters as an elixir of memory and wisdom:-
"... this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing produced by external characters which are no part of themselves will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir, not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear so." (Plato's Phaedrus. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard, 1929)
This is interesting as a comment on our so-called 'information society' and what can be expected to happen to human intelligence from the long-term reliance on computers. Our Western bias has long made us think that knowing the truth has to do only with the mental, theoretical activity of the mind is worse than one-sided. Our lopsided, word-centered education tends to make many of us be more concerned with thinking than with being, with talking than with doing. Likewise with the media-dominated lifestyle, where the mind is often being flooded by images that come from the experience of others, not from our own first-hand being. All this works more towards superficial explanation and intellectual precocity rather than specific and deep understanding.
The problem is not book-learning as such, but too much of it combined with too little practice of what is learned. Verbal indigestion! Here, Socrates was explaining to Phaedrus...
"...the word which is written with intelligence
in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom
it should speak, and before whom to be silent." Phaedrus: "You mean the living
and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly
be called an image."
Socrates: "Exactly. If he has composed his writings with knowledge of the truth, and is able to support them by discussion of that which is written, and has the power to show by his own speech that the written words are of little value, such a man ought not to derive his title from such writings, but from the serious pursuit which underlies them." (ibid)
This last refers to the title 'philosopher', a 'lover of wisdom. In Socrates' case, such wisdom depended on living a life of virtue and acting on the prompting of his 'inner guide' (daimon). The objectified meaning of the written word is doubtless the cause of much misunderstanding, but also of the transmission of knowledge across time and space. Understanding of national cultures in the modern world would be virtually impossible without it. Words are the chief symbols of communication, yet other symbols are also used which require interpretation, such as numbers, figures, illustrations and various non-verbal gestures. Human actions can also be regarded sometimes as a way of 'sending a message' symbolically. In interpreting the actual meaning of any symbols, a basic principle has to be observed:-
THE PRINCIPLE OF CONSISTENCY OF MEANING
While an improved observation or evaluation of 'parts' causes improved grasp and articulation of the 'whole', this holistic conception also improves analysis of the parts and insights into their correct mutual position and priority as a whole.
There is no point at which a fully consistent 'understanding' is itself reached, per se. It is an on-going process, a widening of comprehension or an outward shift of 'horizons of interest'. No particular spot can be indicated in advance as the only right destination. The general aim of understanding is always to 'fill out' the whole that gets successively developed through more detailed analyses of parts and their integration therein.
The foregoing describes the general manner in which, it is held, any sort of integrated understanding occurs. This does not itself provide any criteria for 'coherence', for it simply shows what is meant by the term. One may well ask what the definitive methodological standards to apply are?
The answer is firstly that, in dealing with any subject at any level of inclusivity and comprehensivity, rules of method that are at once exact and specific (or strictly 'operational') cannot be formulated for all subjects and purposes. This is why general principles of understanding are given here instead of specific tailor-made methodologies. However, depending on the subject and its aim, any sort of relevant and effective methodological rules can be adopted and integrated within a holistic understanding, if they do not conflict with the principles. Methodologies that may be relevant within the field include those conforming to hypothetical-deductive method, Mill's methods, laws of statistical method in multi-variable analysis, functional analyses or systems of morphological or ideal types, comparative studies, case studies, real action experiments and so on, all according to the type of study or phenomena in question.
This principle aims at the unity of ideas in that it seeks the elimination of contradictions and paradoxes within the expressed form that understanding takes. Contradiction may arise due to verbal inclarity or conceptual confusion. In either case, understanding is hindered until a solution is found. This principle is especially relevant to the interpretation of meaningful materials like texts and other symbols, whether of ancient or contemporary origin. Consistency in any system of ideas depends on structured forms of understanding where ideas are ordered and defined in relation to the subject and to one another in a clear and systematic way. This may of course require the use of hierarchies of ideas, such as those of ascending degrees of generality (eg. species/families/genera), of divisons of relevant areas of applicability, of key types or models and so forth. Thus, logical thought and conceptual analysis can both play an important part in attaining such consistency, as do language mastery and insight into other problems and processes of symbolic communication and unambiguous expression.
Problems come of extending the scope of reason beyond its formal capacity to matters with multi-cultural aspects or many-dimensional views, beliefs and values etc. Such rather call for inclusive comprehension, for the rational mind has much narrower limits than the sympathetic and open-hearted mind. Yet only holistic understanding can harmonise outward or formal contradictions and enable us to transcend incommensurable systems of thought to reach unity, despite incompatible and differing values and ideals in the arts, culture, science and religion throughout history and the world. Such supra-rational reasoning has been seen time and again in great steps forward in many matters, from scientific discovery to political thought and in many kinds of conflict-solution, integration and transcendence.
In the first and last analysis, it is comprehensivity
of understanding that is the faculty making us able to review and compare
its own contents to its own satisfaction and to judge the coherence of a whole
outlook and overall to evaluate its ethicality. If it is inconsistent, the
good, critical mind will eventually discover this. Similarly, if an outlook
is insufficiently comprehensive of the known relevant facts or is biassed
in ways not evident to the originator, then the perceptive mind with a greater
understanding must critically modify it or reject it outright. In the practice
of science and philosophy, many a precise methodological refinement has proven
too limited and has had to surrender to this greater fact of life, for rules
alone cannot replace intelligence. It should be clear that understanding can
be a task calling for unflagging vision and creativity and is never really
a mere matter of imbibing facts, acquiring well-digested established theories
or learning to apply conventional wisdom.
AT THE LIMITS OF LOGIC
AT THE LIMITS OF LOGIC
The idea of coherence of meaning as a model for truth applies at the general level, which is simply to say... the requirements of all clear thinking and expression, which include the laws of reasoning. Reason depends on logic, itself based on principles and ultimately on the so-called 'principle of contradiction'. This principle's 'either a or not-a, but not both' is eliminative and exclusive, rather than integrative and inclusive. For example, it usually implies that, if matter is real then spirit cannot be so (unless it is also a physical phenomenon). However, both spirit and matter may well really exist without excluding one another or sharing a single common quality (or, for the benefit of sceptics, certainly have been regarded so). Not all true human insight need therefore conform to formally correct language and logic.
The human mind naturally tries to move towards a consistent and non-contradictory account of reality. Thus, a principle calling for no contradictions in thought or word was accepted in European philosophy at least since the time of Socrates and became the basic principle of reason in the system of logic. Like maths, however, logic is not about the 'real world'. The principle of contradiction is a rule about logical validity, just like an axiom in maths. It does not prove anything about reality, it gives us no empirical truth, being only a logical assumption. However, it has been widely misunderstood and confusingly misused to support the idea that contradictions, such as do arise in thought and speech, cannot really occur in reality. If language must not contradict itself (to avoid confusion), one argues, this tells us something about whatever language can describe, such as the things of the world... and also in other phenomena of that 'invisible sphere', the mind and/or the soul. This, however, is a mistaken conclusion, for it is undeniable that opposites really can and do really occur.
A principle of 'both-and', contradicting the very principle of contradiction, is important where irresolvable facts or inconsistent statements cannot be removed, perhaps because they reflect a paradoxical state of affairs or some ontological opposites. Bohr's idea of complementarity is another example of this. Such a principle was already known to Indian philosophy many centuries ago. The as-yet-not-understood contradictions of experience and the ineradicable tendency of people to use language in contradictory ways which can nonetheless be effective and purposeful in communication (in some cultures) must also be respected for what they are, at least at the preliminary level until they may sometimes be validly overcome.
To avoid self-contradiction, all logic builds on so-called 'self-evident' assertions. 'Self-evident' means something which, if rejected, involves self-contradiction. For example, 'Black is black'. Then to say 'Black is not black' or even 'Black is white' is to contradict one's first assertion. Self-evident statements then become mere definitions of terms and usages.
However, to say, 'Black is black and not white', many will think, is to say something true about the real world. After all, the meaning and truth of the statement relies entirely upon the actual perception that black is not white, but black. The problem here is really only that, once the terms in a supposedly self-evident statement are not concrete (i.e. if they are very general or vaguely stated) one does not know what observable instances, if any, they refer to.
These may be seen as being contradictions (i.e. as 'mutually-exclusive opposites'). Either the one or the other applies, never both at once in exactly the same place. We observe this in the existence of light and darkness, wholeness and division, energy and void, pain and pleasure, plus and minus, awareness and unconsciousness, knowledge and ignorance, body and soul, matter and spirit, affirmation and negation, good and bad, presence and absence, being alive and being dead, and many another pair of opposites.
Words divide reality, just as do the concepts they signify. By asserting 'black', one automatically excludes all that is not black (eg. white, orange etc.). Regarded as terms related to concepts of the mind, they are always somehow tied to their origins in sensory information and cannot embrace the ineffable. The principle of contradiction on which all logical or systematic reasoning rests is exclusive, not inclusive. According to it one cannot say and mean 'yes' as well as 'no' of the same definitive question. An affirmative necessarily and fully excludes a negative.
A self-consistent system built on certain assumptions cannot be unified with a self-consistent system built on the contradiction of those assumptions, they are incompatible. This situation occurs often in the area of philosophy, where assumptions of the most varied and incommensurable sorts are made. On this view, no explanatory system can embrace all aspects of reality. To do so adequately, every assertion in it must in reality be irrefutable.
For example, the Brahiminist assertion, 'God is both the greatest of all beings and also the smallest of the small' would be rejected by formal philosophy, even though the assertion cannot be disproven (or proven) by any means, whether rational or scientific. (Note, this does not imply that other means of testing this assertion exist, such as through mystical experience.)
In short, the statement 'everything is nothing' is contradictory according to logic, but is intelligible and in fact true according to the Vedantic understanding of the cosmos, the higher reason. This teaching relegates all existence to appearance (or maya). What is beyond that, the creative mystery, cannot be formulated in words due to its total all-inclusivity. From that dual assertion it is even possible to argue that it follows too that 'everything is therefore also everything' and 'nothing is also nothing'.
Philosophy itself provides many examples of how reason itself unavoidably causes formal (apparent) contradictions, especially when applied to first and last things (as demonstrated by Kant's 'antimonies' of reason). The reality or genuine existence of one or the other opposed quality (eg. light and dark, order and chaos) can be questioned and even denied, yet they can exist simultaneously. Even light and the absence-of-light (i.e. dark) occur simultaneously and in the same place (such as in relative degrees in shadow). Only when dark is meant as 'total absence of physical light' does the concept and the term contradict 'light'. Faced with the deep or genuine paradoxes, logic becomes mostly a matter of definition and perhaps also of continuous redefinition at ever deeper levels of verbal precision, for logic does not allow that both assertions can be true. Yet the fact is that some paradoxes - such as the inimical co-existence of pleasure and pain or sheer ignorance and wisdom - cannot be eliminated from life or the cosmos any more than opposites can be removed from thought or antonyms from language. Logic is not designed to account for real paradox, and no amount of logical reasoning succeeds in resolving or abolishing it.
Therefore, in holistic thought, some place must
be made even for such phenomena. Formal rules of logic can be applied to the
study of a system of thought, yet they cease to be applicable (according to
the dictates of our higher reason) once they tend to require, in the interests
of formal logical rules, that facts be reinterpreted to the extent of distortion
or denial (which was in fact most commonplace even in philosophical logic
until the breakthrough of Whitehead and Russell simplified operations and
made the rules more flexible in application).
The cognitive content of language is important, consistency, accuracy of expression and precision of meaning are not always or even primarily of most importance to reaching inter-personal understanding, even less so between peoples of very different cultures. The question of 'head or heart' can be applied to language, especially in conflict resolution and the development of harmonious relations.