A Vexation; or, The Impossibility of True Expression
It’s with a mordant sense of humour that I look on the list of the last few posts I’ve made – seems like the blog is quickly becoming a storehouse for my compulsions and neuroses. Mind you, that’s what blogs are all about, aren’t they?
Keeping to the theme, then:
I’ve recently been wondering, worrying, about the bounds set on effective communication. I’ve been growing concerned that true communication, between two people, is largely impossible. Certainly, basic commands, requests and the like – come here; what would you like for supper? – which only carry a slice of information, are possible to fully understand. However, when it comes to the task of expressing something beyond that minute amount, the machinery grinds to a halt. It’s possible that I might be labouring at some wheel recreating here; this certainly isn’t a new concept. That said, Lacan is out of my current proficiency, as well as beyond my patience. It’s unlikely I’ll be saying anything new here, but neither is that my objective. If I do stumble into established Continental realms, such is the fate of the neophyte Analytic after too long away from the Academy.
The expression of involved, complicated thoughts appears to be impossible to me, at least insofar as the whole package goes. On the face of it, this seems like a silly claim: surely all that we as a species have accomplished, our philosophy, our science, puts the lie to the position. While it is true that strict, propositional content looks like it can be expressed in much the same way that simpler informational quanta have been shown to, the problem, at least that has been bugging me, lies in intentionality and history – both of which are pinned to the speaker in an infrangible manner.
Our various(natural)* languages, spoken and written, are not unambiguous, and so, even at this level, we start to get into some trouble. My current concern, however, is more associated with the various elements that motivate one to speak initially. Whatever we might be when we are born, we all collect parts of ourselves as we travel through life, and this builds our individuality. While not logically impossible, the probability approaches zero that someone else, amongst the billions of people, could have the same crucial life-experiences as another person, let alone the full sum of their actions. As such, we are each equipped with a differing perspective, that, while we can shed light on particular elements at any one time, cannot be given to another person, and fouls up any effort to really, fully express oneself.
I suppose a concrete example would be helpful at this point. After giving it about a day and a half of thought, I still haven’t really come up with a good one, one that would be satisfactory. I see that as less a strike against the point I’m trying to establish as it is an argument in favour of it. All the various options I entertained, comments on current political events, statements regarding the internal goings-on of a person, an opinion on the weather, all fail to express what I mean. All, if they carry some element that I could render comprehensible here, could, in their hypothetical discourse, be rendered understood by dint of unpacking their separate propositions.
What I am trying to get across, obliquely, cannot be expressed. That’s the entire point. Our language fails. I’m aware of the irony on writing a rumination on this, by the way.
After five hundred words, what am I trying to tell you, then? It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong here. It’s entirely likely that, even if I am correct, the diminished form of communication we do have is more than sufficient for everything we turn it to. What I am writing here is not a normative position, but rather a despairing one. If I am correct, then there is a piece of our efforts at communication that is missing, and we’ll never be able to find it. I suspect that this stems from the inaccessibility, one person to another, of our stack of formative experiences that colour all statements that we can make. It seems a practical impossibility to run through the background info, even that which we ourselves are aware of — and that is likely the lesser portion — that is carried by our complex statements and that we try to express via them, within the time we are allowed in our lives. We can only ever approximate it, and thus true expression eludes us.
Understand what I mean?
*There have been efforts, of course, at creating a thorough-going logical language, foremost amongst them currently that of lojban. Of course, without some top-down intervention, it is unlikely humanity is going to adopt any of these languages on their own merits.