Words help construct the reality we live in

Aristotle posited that houses aren’t just material structures of stones, bricks, and timber. They are also “receptacles to shelter ... living beings.”


One of the patron saints of linguistics, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), famously ridiculed the notion put forward by Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) that the world consists solely of ideas in the mind. Johnson biographer James Boswell recounts, “I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’” Rather than being a mere figment of thought, the rock was tangibly real to Johnson. 

Among my kind, semanticists (professional scholars in the science of meaning), it is commonly assumed that the meaning of many ordinary words involves reference to objects in the external world. Tree refers to trees. Swimming refers to the activity of swimming. And so on. Most of us are Johnsonians through and through.

Granted, we also talk about intangibles like love, duty, failure, and so on. And beyond those, there are many aspects of the world that are at least partially constructed by our minds, or our minds in concert with others’. Examples of these social constructs are legion: Money is more than just pieces of paper or digital bits; a marriage is more than a contract to which two parties agree.

Less obviously, though, there are powerful reasons to doubt the Johnsonian view, even for seemingly straightforward referential words like house or thing. My colleague Noam Chomsky has pressed the point on many occasions. He notes that Aristotle had already realized that houses aren’t just material structures of stones, bricks, and timber. They are also “receptacles to shelter chattels and living beings.” So, what makes a house a house is not just its material nature but also its purpose. 

What about thing? Well, here’s Professor Chomsky’s thought experiment: “Suppose we see some branches strewn on the ground. If they fell from a tree after a storm, they are not a thing. But if they were carefully placed there by an artist as a work of conceptual art, even given a name, then they are a thing (and might win an award).”

So, I concur with Professor Chomsky that our world is made up of more than just external objects that exist outside our minds. There are more things between heaven and earth than a simplistic philosophy dreams of. When we study the meanings of words and phrases, what we are doing can be seen as natural language metaphysics: We learn about the nature of the reality we live in by analyzing the way we talk about it.

Guest columnist Kai von Fintel is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a Word columnist Melissa Mohr is on sabbatical.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Words help construct the reality we live in
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today