Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

On Language, Meaning, and Communication

Sometimes, when describing a scene or an event, it happens that one takes back a word and replaces it with another. The first one somehow did not seem to fit. There was an uneasiness, a slight perturbation, and this triggered the search for a more satisfactory expression. You may have noticed it in speaking, but more often probably in writing (all those hand-written congratulations or condolences that one had to write again because a single word seemed inappropriate!).

The psychologists who categorize the use of language as ‘verbal behaviour’ do not seem to have taken this phenomenon into account. Had they considered it, they might have noticed that these instances of self-correction cannot be explained in terms of environmental stimuli. What causes them is something inside the speaker or writer, a kind of monitoring that checks the linguistic formulation for its suitability in view of an intended effect. In my view, this is not a negligible feature.

As a rule, the use of language is purposive (see Glasersfeld, 1976a). There are, of course, occasions when we use a word or two blindly, without thinking—for instance, when our hammer hits the thumb instead of the nail we are driving into the wall—but then it is mostly bad language and not addressed to anyone in particular. On the whole, people speak with a specific intention. It may be a story they want to tell, an instruction they want to give, or simply to describe something they have seen or felt. In all these cases, the speakers have the re-presentation of a more or less detailed conceptual structure in their head. The words they utter and the sentences they form are those which, at least at that moment, seem to fit the story the speaker wants to tell. However, even the simplest events are not quite the same in the experience of different people. The process of associating words with sensorimotor experiences and the concepts abstracted from those experiences, is a subjective affair. Communication, therefore, is not a straightforward exchange of fixed meanings. Indeed, before one can establish the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences, there is the notorious problem of what we mean when we speak of meaning.

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