A Popperian Theory of Language

I’ve been writing posts on Popper’s theory of word nominalism vs word essentialism and I recently came across Donald Campbell’s attempt to summarize Popper’s theory of language into his own views of blind variation and selective retention. The result is remarkable and explains why words can never have single definitions and why that would be undesirable. I found this so interesting, I want to quote it here for future reference:

We need a Popperian model of language learning in the child and of language development in the race. Regarding the child, this would emphasize that word meanings cannot be directly transferred to the child. Rather, the child must discover these by a presumptive trial and error of meanings, which the initial instance only limits but does not determine. Rather than logically complete ostensive definitions being possible, there are instead extended, incomplete sets of ostensive instances, each instance of which equivocally leaves possible multiple interpretations, although the whole series edits out many wrong trial meanings. The “logical” nature of children’s errors in word usage amply testifies to such a process, and testifies against an inductionist version of a child’s passively observing adult usage contingencies. This trail and error of meanings requires more than the communication of mentor and child. It requires a third party of objects referred to. Language cannot be taught by telephone, but requires visually or tactually present ostensive referents stimulating and editing the trail meanings.

Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, p. 69

Moving to the evolution of human language, a social trial and error of meanings and namings can be envisaged. Trial words designating referents which the other speakers in the community rarely guess “correctly” either fail to become common coinage or are vulgarized toward commonly guessed designations. All words have to go through the teaching sieve, have to be useful if incompletely communicable by finite sets of ostensive instances. Stable, sharp, striking object-boundaries useful in manipulating the environment have a greater likelihood of utilization in word meanings than do subtler designations, and when used, achieve a greater universality of meaning within the community of speaker. Such natural boundaries for words exist in much greater number than are actually used, and alternate boundaries for highly overlapping concepts abound. Just as certain knowledge is never achieved in science, so certain equivalence of word meanings is never achieved in the iterative trial and error of meanings in language learning. This equivocality and heterogeneity of meanings is more than trivial logical technicality; it is a practical fringe imperfection. And even were meanings uniform, the word-to-object equivalence is a corrigible contingent relationship, a product of a trial and error of metaphors of greater and greater appropriateness, but never complete perfection, never a formal nor entailed isomorphism.

Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, p. 69-70

I know this is a bit thick in the use of language, but let me break it down quickly.

  1. Given Popper’s theory that the bucket theory of knowledge is incorrect, it is impossible to conceive a world where words have single precise meanings. The belief in single precise meanings for words is really the justificationist error. This is the true reason Word Essentialism is false.
  2. Children must learn the meanings of words via trial and error and they will never learn them perfectly to how the ‘mentor’ intends.
  3. When new words are coined the survival of the word will be determined by how well the meaning of the new term is easily guessed by other people.
  4. It’s desirable that words don’t have single “correct” meanings and that instead that words can be corrected or improved over time or even used to flexibly cover more and more metaphorical meanings.

That last point should be of interest to the Douglas Hofstadter fans because Campbell is backing Hofstadter’s theory of analogies and even putting it on Popperian footing.

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