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Language: The Cause and Solution of All The Metaphysical Problems?

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Language: The cause and solution to the metaphysical problems?

Jaime Rosique Mardones


May 3, 2016

The whole world spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary…”[1]Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they cannot understand one another…(…)…that is why it was called Babel, since there Yahweh confused the language of the whole world, and from there Yahweh scattered them all over the world[2] This famous story of Babel can illustrate, in my opinion, very well the problem of language and how can be at the same time, a vehicle to communicate with each other and understand each other as well as a source of confusion and difficulties. But this is not only the case from the merely communicative perspective: this is also the case in the realm of philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular.

Language has traditionally been helpful to define –analogically- a transcendental reality such as God. In more contemporary times, Heidegger used language originally to build his metaphysics, but on the same time has been used by the logical positivists to undermine any kind of metaphysical or theological statement on the grounds that the language is fooling those who are trying to do metaphysics and/or theology. In this paper we will see very briefly some of the historical use of language in metaphysics before presenting two different contemporary approaches to language and its relationship with metaphysics: Ayer on one hand and Heidegger on the other, to conclude with a reference to the importance of the linguistic analysis and the philosophy of language.

Certainly, the analogical language has traditionally been used to tackle issues with regards to three areas which presented thinkers with certain difficulties: logic, theology, and metaphysics. Logicians were concerned with the use of words having more than one sense, whether completely different, or related in some way. Theologians, on their part, were concerned with language about God. On the other hand, metaphysicians were concerned with talk about reality. How can we say that both substances (e.g. myself) and accidents (e.g., my boldness) exist when one is dependent on the other; how can we say that both God and creatures exist, when one is created by the other?

In so far they respond to different metaphysical questions hinted in the previous paragraph we can find three main types of analogy: In the original Greek sense, analogy involved a comparison of two proportions or relations. This type of analogy is known with the name of analogy of proportionality. In the second sense, analogy involved a relation between two things, of which one is primary and the other secondary. That analogy, also referred as the analogy of attribution, therefore, is dealing with the problem of the substances and the accidents. In that sense, ‘healthy’ would be an analogical term when said of a man and of its diet, because whilst the man has health in the primary sense, the diet would be healthy secondarily in so far it contributes to the health of the man. Lastly, the type of analogy mostly used by theologians, what is known as analogy of imitation or participation, refers to a relation of likeness between God and its creation.

But the importance of language in philosophy in general and metaphysics (or ontology) in particular cannot be restrained to medieval times. As the late Professor Thomas A.F. Kelly shrewdly expresses it:

Language is not merely essential to ontology in the same way that it is to poetry, in that there could be no poetry where there is no language. Ontology of necessity both uses and concerns it…language, as it carries understanding, is Being. For anything at all to be said, language must be capable of saying it, and it only is capable of this if it at least mirrors in its own structure the structure proper to reality”[3]

I find this reference to poetry particularly interesting because the logical positivists, would often refer a metaphysician as “a misplaced poet[4]. Why do the logical positivists in general, and Ayer in particular, were so fiercely against metaphysics and why they would claim that they were just simply fooled by language? Why would they claim that any statement with regards to metaphysical is non-sensical? This cannot be understood without explaining first the principle of verification. In the words of Ayer, perhaps the representative of the Vienna Circle with greater repercussion,

We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express –that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false”[5]

That is to say, if that is the case, Ayer argues, “…no statement which refers to a “reality” transcending the limits of all possible sense-experience can possibly have any literal significance, from which it must follow that the labours of those who have striven to describe such a reality have all been devoted to the production of nonsense[6]

Logical positivists, then, would measure the meaningfulness of a particular statement on whether it could be verified empirically (on the strong sense) or if you could know the ways it could be verified (on the weak sense). Science was the model, the benchmark, in which philosophy should focus. You could say that, in a way, science became the religion of the time and, whilst in the “Dark Ages”, philosophy was regarded as the handmaid of theology and religion, for the logical positivists, philosophy was to be regarded as the “handmaid” of science.  The only role of philosophy is the clarification of the meaning of statements and their logical interrelationships.  There is no distinct "philosophical knowledge" over and above the analytic knowledge provided by the formal disciplines of logic and mathematics and the empirical knowledge provided by the sciences. 



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