Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Your
answer says more about you than it does about tomatoes. We have already seen
how Wittgenstein’s concept of a language game can provide us with a more mature
approach to language by seeing that words are symbols used in games of
communication, and words are essentially moves in these language games. But to
get to the bottom of the problems of language, we must also see how differences
in our individual use of language – our idiolects – can completely change the
game we are playing.
This post presumes a basic understanding of
Wittgenstein’s concept of a language game. In the absence of this, please read
the earlier post, Language Games. It will greatly reduce the risk of
potential misunderstandings. Even if you have read this post before, it might
not hurt to re-familiarise yourself.
The notion of an idiolect refers to the
specific elements of language as used by any individual, including but not
restricted to patterns of word selection, grammar, idioms, pronunciations and
the semantic content of words. It should be understood, therefore, that if we
accept the notion of an idiolect, then every individual has their own
Many philosophical problems originate in the way in which one treats idiolects. For instance, the most common philosophical error (the fallacious ‘name theory’ Wittgenstein argued against, and what I sometimes call ‘Plato’s error’) is to believe that words are labels which correspond to real word entities – that is, to believe that one’s idiolect accurately refers to specific concepts irrespective of context and the content of the idiolects of those people you are talking to.
For example, it would be a philosophical
error to presume that when one says “tree”, one refers to a class of entities:
‘trees’. But of course, what will be understood by a second party when you say
“tree” will vary according to that person’s idiolect. If you are both
sat by a tree, it is quite likely your language game move “tree” will be
interpreted in reference to the sensory impressions you both have of this tree.
But in other contexts, other meanings will apply. If your Irish friend just
asked you how many beers you wanted, the answer “tree” will likely be taken as
Please note than an idiolect is not the same as the notion of a private language, which Wittgenstein argued against. His view was that there is no such thing as a private language since language is, in effect, a social construct – meaning is something that occurs between people. This does not preclude idiolects, however, since the idiolect can be understood as the (abstract) sum of a person’s knowledge and habits in the language games that they play.
When two people enter into argument with
each other, the most common cause of the disagreement appears to be differences
at an idiolectual level – that is to say, most arguments result from nothing
more than attempts to make moves in a language game the meaning of which
transpires to be radically different than expected. Because the meaning of the
words you use with respect to someone you are talking to depends upon their
idiolect (among other things), attempts to enforce one’s own conception of what
the words mean is a disaster which can only result in the confusion and anger
of cognitive dissonance.
A thought experiment may serve to put this into context. Suppose there exists a person in whose idiolect the word ‘fruit’ means apple, orange or tomato (only), and this person has a friend for whom the word ‘fruit’ means apple, orange or a homosexual (only). They are both in a room, and there is a tomato and a telephone upon the table. What happens when the first person asks their friend to “pass the fruit”? She can be justifiably confused! There are no apples or oranges upon the table, so perhaps he means that either the tomato or the telephone is a homosexual? An argument will ensue if the two do not take the time to ensure they are using their words consistently.
Many people routinely make the mistake of
thinking that all words can be consistently applied as logical categories (an
issue often intensified by strong faith in dictionaries). This may work sometimes
and for some words, such as numbers, but it is a minefield of potential
misunderstandings. Wittgenstein noted that the way most words are used is quite
different: they are more like family resemblances; a generalised connective
principle applies. In other words, a person’s idiolect connects such a word
with a group of general properties that indicate to what degree individual
instances belong to the class the word represents, in much the same way that a
group of biological relatives share certain common characteristics. (Since this
kind of ‘fuzzy logic’ is already closely associated with the behaviour of
neural networks, we should perhaps not be wholly surprised).
Consider this: horticulturally, a tomato may be defined as a ‘fruit’ but to anyone who is not a horticulturist the issue of whether a tomato is a fruit depends upon how closely they feel tomatoes fit the family resemblance category of ‘fruit’. A large proportion of people feel tomatoes better fit the family resemblance category of ‘vegetable’. As a result, anyone whose idiolect favours the horticultural definitions will find themselves potentially at risk of argument with other people when it comes to discussion of the humble tomato.
The more obviously the word fits this idea
of family resemblance, the worse the potential for misunderstanding and
argument. For instance, all genre terms are family resemblance terms
practically by definition. During my early philosophical investigations, I was
surprised by the differences in people’s idiolects with respect to the term
‘soap opera’, as it is used in the
Another classic example of arguments rooted in what might be called the family resemblance problem occurs whenever the word ‘religion’ is used. Once again, the diversity of systems that are referred to as ‘religions’ is very large, hence the idiolectual variation accompanying this term is correspondingly large. Especially problematic is the fact that people in English speaking countries tend to have been exposed primarily to the major monotheistic religions, but have little personal experience of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Vodou, animistic religions and so forth. The result is often family resemblance categories that reflect monotheism rather better than world religion in general. (This does not make such a person ‘wrong’, but it is a potential cause of argument with someone with a different view). And of course, because people have strong emotional attachments to their positions on religion, cognitive dissonance is often the result of a clash of idiolects in the context of religion, especially between people with different stances on the topic of theism.
One of the consequences of the issue of
family resemblance in language is that there is a certain sense in which a
person’s reality is determined by their idiolect. This is closely related
to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although it should be noted that the more we
examine the proposition, the clearer it becomes that it is beliefs which
determine personal reality (or emic reality), as the meanings of words are
a special case of beliefs. This does not preclude there being an ‘external reality’
(or etic reality), although it is a simple philosophical exercise to
demonstrate that there is an unavoidable step of belief involved in accepting the existence
of such a concept, albeit a step many people find trivial.
Let us close with another thought
experiment. Suppose there is a person from a culture that considers all soft
ovoid foodstuffs to be called ‘fruit’, has no other word for any of these
objects (an apple and an orange are simply green and orange fruit respectively),
and has no tradition of constructing linguistic taxonomies to describe objects.
What happens when they encounter a tomato for the first time? If they had no
word adequate to the task of describing the tomato, they might be inclined to
coin a new word. But since their word ‘fruit’ fits the tomato, the tomato will
be interpreted as a ‘red fruit’. No degree of argumentation is likely to
convince them to call the red fruit ‘a tomato’, because without a tradition of
taxonomies, words are not grouped under classes designated by other words. It
is clearly a fruit – how can it be anything else? The more you attempt to exert
the word ‘tomato’, the more likely they are to conclude that ‘tomato’ is simply
your word for fruit!
For such a person, ‘tomatoes’ simply don’t exist in their reality, and they may justifiably argue: “this is not a tomato!”
The opening image is ‘L’art de vivre’ (‘The Art of Living’) by René Magritte, whose painting ‘La trahison des images’ (‘The Betrayal of Images’) inspired the title of this piece.