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Language & Meaning: Crash Course Philosophy #26


What is a game?
Easy question, right? You know what a game is – there’s basketball, Chutes and Ladders, Dungeon and Dragons, tennis, Wizard School! But those are examples of games.
What I’m asking for is the definition of a game. Maybe, if you haven’t been keeping up with
Crash Course Games, you’d simply say that, a game is a competition, with winners and
losers. But, what about a game like ring around the
rosie? Does a game require at least two players? No, there is literally a game called solitaire
solitaire. Maybe a game is just a thing you do for fun. But what about “who can stay quiet the longest”
– the game that your parents used to use on
long car trips? Or, like, Russian roulette? Or The Game of Thrones, where you win or you
die? When it comes to language, there’s a lot
to philosophize about. But one question that philosophers of language
like to mull is the question of meaning. What do words – like ‘game’ or ‘red’ or ‘banana’
What do they mean? How do we know what they mean? And who gets to decide? [Theme Music] Language is one of our most nuanced and powerful
tools. It takes all of the stuff that’s swirling around in each of our lonely, isolated brains – all those thoughts – and transfers them into someone else’s brain. Which is really, fabulously cool.
It’s like telepathy! But with the extra step of actually speaking
or writing. But, how do words – a collection of sounds or written symbols – key into the mental concepts that we want to communicate? The naive understanding of what words mean is just that they’re just whatever the dictionary says. But we know that’s not totally true. Think about the difference between words like ‘cat,’ ‘kitty,’ ‘mouser,’ and ‘feline’. Early 20th century German philosopher Gottlab Frege helped parse out this difference by drawing a distinction between what he called sense, and reference. The reference of a word is the object or concept
that it’s meant to designate. The reference of all these words is this. Sense, on the other hand, is the way in which
the words tie us to the object or concept. So, while the reference of each of these words
is the same, they have different senses. A kitty might be a baby cat, or sort of fancy
lap cat, while a mouser might be a cat that lives in
a barn and kills rodents for a living. So how do words get their meaning? A definition is traditionally understood as whatever meets the conditions for both necessity and sufficiency. A necessary condition is what’s needed – like, what must be present – in order for a thing to be a thing. In order for X to be X. A necessary condition of being a bachelor,
for example, is that you must be unmarried. A sufficient condition is something that’s
enough for X to be X, but it’s not required for that thing to
meet that definition. For example, being born in the United States is a sufficient condition for being an American citizen. But it’s not a necessary condition, because people who weren’t born in the US can still become citizens. The long-standing view of definitions was that, if you can figure out both the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be X, then you’ll have your definition. That is, you’ll have found the criteria
that exclude all non-X’s, but include all X’s. If you’re following me. But 20th century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said this rigid concept of definitions doesn’t actually work. For example, you just can’t define the word ‘game’ in a way that’s going to make everybody happy. Any definition you give, someone’s going
to come up with a counterexample – either some game that’s excluded by the
definition, or something that the definition includes
that not everyone would agree is a game. It took Andre and entire 10 minute episode
to define games! But the thing is, Wittgenstein said this doesn’t matter! Because, everyone knows what a game is! He pointed out that we learn and know the
meaning of words by hearing the way other members of our linguistic
community use them. We hear Candyland, rugby, and Cards Against
Humanity all referred to as games, so eventually our brains piece together what’s
common between them, in a recognition that Wittgenstein called
family resemblance. You know how you can just see the relation
between people sometimes? Rather than rigid definitions, Wittgenstein
said word meanings are so-called cluster concepts. There’s no one element that everything in
the cluster has in common, but they all share something with some other
members of the group. It’s sort of like you have your dad’s
nose and your mom’s sense of humor, and your sister has your mom’s eyes and
your dad’s athleticism. You and your sister don’t really have much
in common, but you do both resemble both parents. But it’s not like every concept in the cluster
is equal. The ones that everyone would accept are the paradigm cases – you can picture them in the center of the
cluster. And as you move to the outer edges you’ll get fringe cases, the ones that some people would include in the group but others would exclude. Everyone will agree that football is a game, but there’s going to be some disagreement about things like, I don’t know, knife fights, or how long
you can hold your breath under water. And Wittgenstein said that’s fine. Language is a living phenomenon, and like most living things, there’s going to be change and variation. But who gets to decide what words mean, or
if a meaning is legitimate? Here, Wittgenstein said, “meaning is use.” In other words, as long as a linguistic community uses a word in a particular way, it has that meaning. Watching the way words develop and change does suggest that Wittgenstein was onto something. I mean, ‘mouse’ didn’t used to mean
that thing, but now it does. We make words up as we need them. And at the same time, words also fall out
of use, or take on entirely new meanings. Now, this view of language assumes that meaning
is tied to a particular linguistic communities. And a community might, or might not, span
all of the speakers of that language. Think about the regional differences in words that might be specific to your town, or school, or group of friends, or family. And what about this: Do you and your best friend have code words – words that you use to talk privately, even when you’re in public? Like, the two of you could be at a club, and
one of you would say to the other: “That guy at the bar is a total shoehorn” and the other one would know exactly what you meant? In that case, do those words, that have meaning
specific to the two of you, really mean what you say they mean, even if
no one else agrees with you? And what happens if the two of you forget
that meaning? Is the meaning still there? Or does it only exist as long as someone uses
the word that way? Let’s bounce over to the Thought Bubble
for a bit of Flash Philosophy. A linguistic community of two – like you
and your friend – seems fairly plausible. But is it possible to have an entirely private
language? Wittgenstein asked us to imagine that each
of us has a box, and inside each box is something. We all refer to the thing in our box as ‘a beetle,’ but no one can see inside anyone else’s box, ever. We all call our hidden thing a beetle, but we have no idea if the content of our boxes is the same. Wittgenstein said there’s no way we can meaningfully use the word ‘beetle’ in this context, because we have no way of verifying what others mean when they use the word, and they have no way of verifying what we mean. This is meant to illustrate how it’s impossible
to directly communicate our subjective experiences. We all use the word ‘red’ to refer to
the color we see when we look at a stop sign, but I have no way of knowing if you’re actually
seeing the same thing that I’m seeing. I don’t know if your pain feels like my
pain or your love feels like my love. Our minds are like boxes. No one else can see what’s inside. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Because ‘beetle’ just means, ‘what’s
in the box.’ It could literally be a beetle, or it could
be a fox! In socks! The point is, we don’t know if the color red in my mind is the same as the color red in your mind, because the color red is a beetle in a box. It’s a label for what’s in our minds. So language, Wittgenstein said, can’t refer
directly to an internal state, like what it’s like to see the color red,
or to experience pain. Instead, it can only refer to the aspect of
it that’s publicly observable by other people. So, the word ‘pain’ isn’t the feeling of physical suffering, it’s jumping on one foot and cursing when you stub a toe. It’s rubbing your temples when you have a headache – the observable behaviors that are associated with it. Thanks, Thought Bubble!
Now I want to propose an experiment. If use is meaning, you should be able to give
a word meaning by using it, right? At least, if you can convince a linguistic
community to go there with you. So let’s try it. If every Crash Course viewer starts referring to bananas as chom choms, can we make it catch on? Can we create meaning?! We’ll have to stay tuned for the answer to that one, but in the meantime, we can think about what might happen. And to do that, we need to make a distinction
between two different types of meaning. When people communicate verbally, there’s speaker meaning, which is what the speaker intends when using a word. And then there’s audience meaning, which
is what the audience understands. Since the whole point of language is communication, our goal is for speaker meaning and audience meaning to match up. But, as anyone who’s ever, like, had a conversation,
knows, this doesn’t always work out. Like, Billy tells Bobby that he likes Sally. Billy, the speaker, means that he likes Sally
as a friend. Bobby, the audience, takes Billy’s statement
to be a profession of, like, you know, like-like. So Bobby then goes and tells Sally that Billy like-likes her, when in fact Billy actually like-likes Suzy, and pretty soon, you know how it goes. Tears. The point is, that even with a simple word
that we all think we understand, like ‘like,’ speaker meaning and audience meaning can fail
to connect. When we get into more complicated or nuanced words, or when we try to invent a new word, like chom chom, we’re likely to run into some pretty high-level
speaker-meaning/audience-meaning confusion. But for now, we learned about meaning. We talked about sense and reference, beetles
in boxes, and language games. And we learned that bananas are called chom choms. Repeat it with me: chom choms. Never say bananas again. Next time, we’re going to talk about another
linguistic concept – conversational implicature. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like PBS Idea Channel, It’s Okay to be Smart, and
Physics Girl. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is
Thought Cafe.

100 Replies to “Language & Meaning: Crash Course Philosophy #26”

  • Since you think that  what Noam Chomsky says ("the whole point of language is NOT communication") is bananas, …chom chom. But thanks you are doing a great job!

  • I lost my pom poms so I substituted chom choms. I became very popular with the monkey on my back and slipped down the wrong path again.

  • Ah, linguistics…now this is where I know a fair amount of :3

    The way I see the definition of words is "Common Usage." The way a word is used commonly is its main definition. But then there are secondary definitions used in smaller groups rather than the general group. Think of the word "Theory." It's used differently between common usage and scientific usage. The word Capitalist once mean "a rich business owner" and today, many communist circles still use this definition when the rest of society uses it to mean "one who believes in the economic system of capitalism." Gay used to only mean Happy…until it didn't. Language is extremely malleable and when people try to pin it down, they can run into problems such as it becoming outdated or even being dropped or a new word being added with the same definition. Language is subjective and in any debate/argument/discussion, if your words aren't defined the same, you can run into a lot of problems.

  • Where does Crash Course cite their references? Asking for a friend who is me and needs to get this paper figured the heck out. TY!

  • oh, so this video is why i keep seeing people in later videos complaining about cashiers referring to their chom choms as bananas

  • A game is simply an alternative reality where participant(s) in the game act as if that reality is for real, while at the same time they know it is not.

  • The children's book "Frindle" by Andrew Clements explores this concept. Pens=Frindles; if said often enough and by enough children

  • This can only be true if the dualism of mind matter and physical matter exists. In a purely physical world, we can actually explain how subjective feeling feels like (eg. black-and-white room thought experiment). Like you have stated before, dualism has quite a bit of problems attached to it.

  • Please, make one about Language and Communication! Including the Awesome Noam Chomsky. We tend to put on a pedestal the concept of Communication, when the real deal is Language. Language should be the protagonist, not communication. But people tend to think the opposite, or, even, confusing the terms.
    Please! Please! Please! Make one (or a whole series 😁) about this subject. Thanks.

  • I get confused when people say “I’m talking to someone” when meaning “I’m interested in someone” it’s sooo confusing.

  • Mathematics allows no room for interpretation and means the same to everyone, the boundary condition is understanding.

  • "When people communicate verbally, there’s speaker meaning, which is what the speaker intends when using a word. And then there’s audience meaning, which is what the audience understands." I wrote in a paper some years ago something similar before realising it's context in philosophy; that communication is instant, interpretation is infinite.

  • You're such an intelligent milnip wiserloo! Bananas will forever be Chom-Choms no matter how crazy I sound! 🍌😅💛

  • 7:44 I actually did this once for fun with my family, I started using the word "crab" as a kind of insult or to constitute someone's incompetence… I still can't get rid of it xD to some degree it is funny to catch the reactions you get after calling someone a "crab" in public

  • Chom chom actually means something in my language: it's a type of sweet in my cuisine. So I'm guessing there's gonna be some confusion involved whenever I ask for a chom chom from now on.

  • Red is the light wavelength reflected to your eye. Red to you is red to me unless you're color blind. If you want to be philosophical ask if the stop sign is really red or is that just what your sensory organ is telling you.

  • Not sure if this on topic but it dismays me that language changes mostly from misuse . To me , it means that we can never be as sure of what mean being takien correctly .

  • I get the cluster concept but of what use is grammar and resources like dictionaries and encyclopedias ? With no universal standard in this age we get too quickly evolving language . Miss a few new discussions and you are now outdated .

  • "Person who probably still uses a shoe horn, even though no one does anymore and they're pretty much useless"

    As a devotee of men's fashion I must point out that this is only correct for those who do not wear dress shoes, and a reflection of the casual nature our society is slipping into. Try putting on a crisp Oxford without a shoehorn. You'll either A. destroy the back of the shoe or B. crush the bones in your finger to dust.

    Also, if you want to read a great children's book about linguistics and how to imbue a word with meaning, look up Frindle.

  • 5:54 But how am I to know that what I visualize when I hear the word 'box' is the same thing as what you do or that Wittgenstein does?

  • Geeez as a language major I feel "speaker meaning/audience meaning confusion" on a new level. So many words are related to others in certain ways but not others. Why does "can" mean 'the ability to' or a metal food cylinder? You can change the word "record" from a noun to a verb with your voice? We forget how innate our understanding of our native language has become until you start learning more languages and you realize how sloppy and confusing communication can be lolol

  • In Albanian language is a new theory how our words are created

    Words are created from syllables and the simplest ones are the one that are just to leters, one vowel and one consonant like:

    IK, PI, HA, …

    To go, to drink, to eat

    In Albanian language we have 366 combinations of vowel and consonant that has meaning and are words on their one.

    If we divide the word in syllables it’s a sentence that explains what the word means

    And in some words it works also for other language like Italian or Greek

    Example:

    The word BOOK in Albanian is LIBER

    And if we divide in syllables is:

    Li – BER

    To let – to do

    Meaning: to write what you do

    Almost any word has the meaning inside of it.

  • Before finishing the first minute of the video I would say that a game is any activity that allows us to engage in using our brain in a different way than we would going throughout our day. After all a game comes with a goal therefore your brain is constantly figuring out how to play that game better and making little adjustments until eventually you get so used to swiping that it no longer matters how fast temple run goes. You just play until you’re board and once you’re board it’s no longer an engaging activity and you need a different game. Just like walking. When we learn to walk and run our body has to have that sense to balance our shift in weight until eventually we don’t even worry about falling anymore and if we start to we immediately know how to adjust and some people go to the next level with sports that require agility or incredible balance like figure skating or maybe dancing. I think games just a way exercise the brain and our human itch to compete wether it be against ourself, others, or the terms out in front of us like a diamond block behind a creeper and skeleton on the other side of a lava lake in Minecraft. Challenge Accepted. And then our brain just kicks into strategy mode if we decide to focus on the goal. So really any activity that you don’t do instinctively can’t be turned into a game if that’s what you decide to do. For example running is not a game. It’s a sport but humans can already run when they need to so it’s not engaging unless you buy stipulations on it that don’t necessarily have to accompany running like racing to a certain point. Just because you run doesn’t mean you know where you’re going so you can’t compete as if it’s a game but once you lie down the frame work as to what you are competing for then that’s what leads to you trying to figure out how to do it the best you need to in order to get the desired outcome. In humans the staring game is a game although humans look at things all the time we don’t willingly focus on staring longer than someone else for the most part. If you played the staring game with a dog you would be the only one playing because that dog has no idea what it’s apart of but the fact that you’re doing that for entertainment is what makes it a game for you and not for the dog. If you play tug of war with a dog then most people are actually playing a different game. We are trying to get the dog as excited as we can because we think that’s fun. The dog is trying to get the toy. If we were playing tug of war it wouldn’t be much of a game because most humans can hold on to whatever it is no matter what the dog does and all it takes for us is a quick hard yank and the dog loses. That’s not very engaging at all. That’s like saying the goal of the rain game is to get wet by rain. That’s going to happen already. This isn’t a very coherent point Im making and I feel like it could’ve been simpler but this is a comment not a essay for my professor. People don’t have to get it. I know what I mean when I say what a game is.

  • I think you can describe colors by association with other senses like we do in art. If a blind person asked me what green was I would say sour or gross, that taste in your mouth after you throw up a little is green. One could agregue that plants aren’t those things but I was a curious kid and grass tastes green for sure and there’s a reason some kids don’t like spinach and not to be repetitive but I think it has to do with the gross (green). If they asked me what red looks like I would say hot, angry, spicy 🌶, if blue then I would take them to the beach and let them feel the tide in their feet and say “that is blue” and if they say “blue is cold” I would say “yes.” The only one I can’t really describe too well is hello. Black would be the easiest. Black is nothing, absence of color, and emptiness. Black is a big room with nothing in it with lights off and all you can tell from what you don’t see is that you exist in this space with no direction. It’s interesting that in pitch black we are consciously aware of ourselves and nothing else but when we sleep and have dreams we become very unaware of our own being until we can lucid dream. In a sense white is everything. If you shine light in something it has color. If you shine an extremely bright light on anything it would look white. So as black is absence white is creation and existence. In a poetic way a person in a dark room is the white because our own consciousness of ourselves intensifies the emptiness around us but also the awareness of ourselves. Like a light at the far end of an unlit highway at 11pm.

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