Language and its Symbols

Excerpted from: The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph C.S.C. Ph.D [emphasis mine]

Language and its Symbols

Language employs four important kinds of symbols to represent reality: two to symbolize the individual, two to symbolize the essence which is common to all the individual members of a class.

Language can symbolize an individual or an aggregate by either a proper name or a particular or empirical description. A particular empirical description is a common name to which is joined a definitive which limits its application to a particular individual or group. Empirical means founded on experience. Since only individuals exist, our experience is directly concerned with them. Throughout this book the word empirical is used with reference to our knowledge of individuals as such.

If language could not symbolize the individual, one could not designate particular persons, places, our times. This would be extremely inconvenient. for example, people could not direct emergency vehicles to their houses.

On the other hand, if language could symbolize only the individual, people would be in a worse plight. Every word would be a proper name, and it would therefore be necessary to give a different proper name to ever object spoken of - not only to people and places but to everything - to every tree, blade of grass, chair, hawk, potato, coat, shoe, pencil, etc.

No one would understand except those who had shared through simultaneous sense experience acquaintance with the identical individual objects described. Hence, the language of every town, even of every home, would be different and unintelligible to outsiders. The reader may have had a similar experience when three or four friends were reminiscing about an earlier time not known to the reader. The outsider would take little or no interest in the conversation because even though the words could be understood, the proper names of the absentees sprinkled plentifully through the conversation would have no meaning. But if every word were a proper name, unless the listener had personal experience of the very objects being spoken of, he would be not only bored but completely baffled by the conversation.

Words, being all proper names, would become meaningless at the time of the destruction of the objects they symbolized. They could not even be explained the way proper names are now explained by means of common names (for example, William Caxton 1422?-1491, first English printer; translator), for there would be no common names. Therefore, there could be no history, no literature. What authors wrote would be as dead as their voices in their graves.

General or universal ideas could not be expressed in language. Therefore, there could be no books on science or philosophy.

This can be applied to extreme individualism or extreme universalism in the political sphere. A well written warning, although it was not intended as such.

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