The Language of Wisdom and Folly: Background Readings in Semantics

By Irving J. Lee | Go to book overview

Definitions and Reality1

LOUIS DE BROGLIE

May it not be universally true that the concepts produced by the human mind, when formulated in a slightly vague form, are roughly valid for Reality, but that when extreme precision is aimed at, they become ideal forms whose real content tends to vanish away? It seems to me that such is, in fact, the case, and that innumerable examples can be found in all spheres, particularly in those of Psychology and Ethics, as well as of everyday life.

Let us take an example from the ethical field and consider the concept of an honest man. Let us begin with a somewhat vague definition; let us say that an honest man is a man of great probity, who always tends to do what he considers his duty and to resist all temptations drawing him in the opposite direction. We shall find around us-- for we must not be too pessimistic--a certain number of people who fulfill this definition. But if we were to insist that the crown of honesty is to be awarded only to a man who never, in any circumstances, at any moment of his life, experienced the slightest temptation to disobey his conscience, then no doubt we shall find a striking diminution--since human nature is full of frailty--in the number of men to whom our definition will apply. The more precise and rigid the concept becomes, that is to say, the more restricted becomes its sphere of application. Like the plane monochromatic wave, absolute virtue, if defined with too exacting a precision, is an idealization the probability of whose full realization tends to vanish away.

Examples of this kind are, it should be repeated, innumerable. In the psychological, ethical, and social sphere an uncompromisingly rigid definition or argument often leads away from, rather than towards, Reality. It is true that the facts tend to assume a certain

____________________
1
Reprinted from Matter and Light by Louis de Broglie by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, copyright, 1939. Pp. 280-282 in the 1946 Dover Publications edition.

-149-

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The Language of Wisdom and Folly: Background Readings in Semantics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction xiii
  • Part I - The Recognition of Words as Such 1
  • Everything Has a Name 3
  • The Phenomenon of Language 6
  • Symbolic Pointing 7
  • The Mobile Word 15
  • Two Types of Names 19
  • Precision in Natural Language1 23
  • Part II - The Functions and Purposes Of Language in Use 29
  • The Three Forms of Discourse 31
  • The Condition of Clarity1 41
  • The Functions of Poetry 48
  • Behavior That Language Makes Possible 57
  • Talking About the Weather 59
  • Part III - Matters of Fact, Fiction and Opinion 63
  • Matters of Fact and Opinion - George Cornewall Lewis 65
  • The Semantic Conception of Truth - Alfred Tarski 67
  • Every Man His Own Historian 71
  • Literature as Revelation 78
  • Knowledge by Definition 82
  • On the Logic of Fiction 92
  • Fictions, Hypotheses and Dogmas 101
  • Part IV - Questions and Answers 109
  • The Nature of a Question 111
  • "Footless" Questions 121
  • The How and the Why of Things 129
  • Part V - The Ambiguous Word 135
  • On Definition 137
  • Nominal and Real Definitions 139
  • How is "Exactness" Possible? 141
  • Definitions and Reality 149
  • Interpretation 160
  • Ambiguity and Its Avoidance 164
  • Part VI - The Recognition of Differences 173
  • Of General Terms 175
  • Realists and Nominalists 178
  • On Knowing the Difference 180
  • The Passion for Parsimony 184
  • The Individuality of Things and The Generality of Language 188
  • Part VII - Verbal Fascination 205
  • The Attributive Attitude - Ellis Freeman 207
  • Riefication 214
  • The Context of Associations 224
  • Part VIII - The Structural Patterns and Implications Of a Language 245
  • Perception and Language 247
  • An Experimental Study of the Effect Of Language on the Reproduction Of Visually Perceived Form 251
  • Language and Thought 262
  • Languages and Logic 273
  • Part IX - Escape from Verbalism 287
  • Sensation and Cerebration 289
  • An Address on Words and Things 295
  • Experience with Languages 305
  • Two Kinds of Knowledge1 309
  • Preparation of the Child for Science 310
  • Significs 336
  • Index 359
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