Philosophy of Education: Essays and Commentaries

By Hobert W. Burns; Charles J. Brauner | Go to book overview

Introduction: Charts, Categories, and Philosophy

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-- that's all."

Lewis Carroll

Humpty might well be speaking for the philosopher who wishes to use his words precisely and clearly in order to preserve the integrity of his meaning. Alice might be speaking for the puzzled student, wondering if the philosopher can indeed invest common language with uncommon meaning. Like the beginning student in philosophy, Alice is not a little shocked and surprised to discover that a given word can have many meanings; that the other side of the word-coin does not have one and only one true meaning, but that different philosophers often put different meanings to a word--"reality," for instance.

Words are verbal labels that are pasted onto ideas, the better to identify and classify their content or meaning, in much the same way a housewife puts labels on her preserves to classify jams and jellies.

Language, the way we arrange and order words to preserve the meaning of experience, is very probably the most important tool invented by man. Some languages are flexible, some are fairly rigid; some yield pastel-like shades of meaning, while others let us describe our experiences only in black-and-white terms. For instance, Eskimos are said to have seventeen different words to describe the phenomenon we simply call "snow."

Culture conditions language, and whether we express the subtleties of experience with finely shaded meanings or linguistically trample roughshod over them greatly depends on the language culture places at our command. To illustrate this, consider again the case of the housewife labeling her preserves. If she has just canned some berries she might describe what she has been doing by saying, "I put some ----- in this jar" (using "strawberries,"

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