Martin Stokhof 2008
Objects come to us, and we to them, in many different ways: by touch, vision, smell; in thought, language, imagination. We access them directly and manipulate them; or we approach them indirectly and keep our distance. Sometimes we do so at the same time:
we pick up an object and ask ourselves where we bought it, or what it is for; we look at an object and admire its shape or colour. But often we simply take the object and use it, and neither its material properties, nor its history need concern us: we take it for granted.
Objects also come in many different shapes and sizes: balls of string and beer glasses, sequoia trees and pencils, temples and trailer homes, tug boats and scissors, paintings and ideas, paperclips and numbers, the variety seems endless. As is their nature: raw material and fabricated, mental and platonic. There does not seem to be anything they all have in common, yet we refer to them all as ‘object’, thus indicating their difference from ourselves.
Among all the distinctions and differences one seems to stand out: that between natural types of objects, – tigers and mountains, gold and thunderstorms –, and artefacts, –screwdrivers and laptops, battleships and paperclips. Natural kinds of objects are the ones we encounter out there: they are part of our natural environment, and their existence and their nature seems independent from us. Artefacts, on the other hand, are of our making: we invent, design and manufacture them (and we mark them accordingly: ‘Made in The People’s Republic of China’), hence what they are, it seems, depends on us. Function apparently is of their essence, whereas materiality seems to be what defines natural kinds of objects.
But the distinction is far from clear-cut. Many natural kinds of objects have functions, perhaps not essentially, but certainly in practice. And artefacts are also material objects. Coffee is not just the fruit of a plant, but also something that – via complicated processes, of manufacturing and trade – is turned into stuff that has all kinds of functional characteristics that do not directly derive from its physical properties. And, conversely, artefacts, such as drinking glasses, pencils, and paperclips, are made from raw materials that often are natural kinds of objects and that, as such, contribute to the constitution of their nature.
Many of these objects do not change or disappear when their functionality changes or disappears: the folded beer mat that keeps the table from wobbling; tools from ancient times or distant cultures that end up as aesthetic objects; the forgotten objects that fill up the kitchen drawer.
How do we deal with this endless variety, this manifold of phenomena, qualities and essences that constantly seems to elude us? One of the ways in which we access objects is through language: we describe objects, refer to them and ask for them; we classify and define them. The functional characteristics of artefacts are detailed in descriptions and specifications. And our investigation of natural objects by and large proceeds through language as well. Arguably, when we merely think about objects, our thoughts are structured in a similar way: the contents of our thoughts are very much like the contents of our linguistic expressions. Imagination, in particular visualisation, one might hazard, is different, but here, too, what it is that we imagine when we conceive of an object – its shape, its colour, its function – in the end seems amenable to linguistic expression. Of course, in some cases we may lack words, but apparently we take it for granted that this is an obstacle that can be surmounted, if not in practice then at least in principle. This suggests that language, in this general sense of symbolic expression, is the most important way in which we interact with objects, the instrument par excellence for structuring the manifold, for taming the variety. But how does language reach out into the world, how does it succeed in putting us in touch with objects? Or, to phrase the question from a different direction, what gives the linguistic expressions we use to talk and think about objects their meaning? Is it the object itself that constitutes the meaning of the expression referring to it? Is it some kind of mental picture, or mental representation? Or is it a description of its characteristic properties that somehow is coded into a single phrase? All options have been pursued, in one form or other, in the literature that deals with the meaning of language.
There are theories of so-called ‘direct reference’ which state that the object that an expression refers to is in fact its meaning, thus placing meaning firmly outside the realm of language, and in the world. Here it is the essential nature of the object, its structure, that determines what our expressions mean, whether we actually know what this nature is or not. For example, a natural kind of term like ‘gold’, with this approach, refers to whatever has the chemical structure of the substance gold, and this is what the term
meant even at times when we were unaware of the very concept of chemical structure as such.
Then there are mentalistic theories, that hold that some form of mental representation – a mental picture, or a description or a formula in a mental language – mediates between linguistic expression and object, turning meaning into an essentially internal, even private affair. Reference here is always indirect, and expressing or grasping meaning likewise involves the object only indirectly, only inasmuch as it conforms to the mental
representation we have of it. It is our mental representation of the object that constitutes meaning, not the nature of whatever object may correspond to it. And there are theories that state that language refers to objects via an abstract concept, a definition of the object by means of a list of whatever conditions something needs to satisfy if it is to be referred to by an expression. Here the link between objects and language is made indirectly as well, but this time not through a mental picture, but via the objective concept that is the meaning of the expressions. Such theories emphasise what we know of objects and how we use them, rather than what their structural (physical, chemical) structure is, or how we mentally represent them.
All such theories have their strengths and their weaknesses. Direct reference
theories seem geared toward natural kinds of objects, and explain why functional and observational characteristics tend to be less important than what we find out by (scientific) investigation about the underlying structure of the ‘stuff’ that they are made of. But they are illsuited to deal with artefacts, for what is the ‘essence’ of a pencil, a paperclip, or a rubber band? If anything, what comes to mind is their typical function, not their natural composition. But as we remarked above, artefacts are composed of natural objects and that does seem to play a role as well. And as for their functionality being their essence: a bent paperclip is still a paperclip. The reality of objects is more complicated than the picture sketched by direct reference theories.
Mentalistic theories about how words for objects have meaning, too, have their score of problems. The most important seems to be the nature of the connection between mental representation and object: how do we determine whether a mental picture fits an object and thus picks it out as what the expression refers to? It seems that the picture cannot do that all by itself, for resemblance between picture and that which is depicted is hardly ever sufficiently clear and unambiguous. We know this is the case with ordinary pictures, and there is no reason to suppose that it is different with mental pictures. We could stipulate that, but the mentalistic approach loses its explanatory power. We need to be trained to use certain shapes and lines and colours as pictures of scenes, and people, and objects. Just like a map needs a legend that allows us to interpret elements of the map as representations of features of some part of the earth’s surface, we need a way of reading the mental picture, a key, that will tell us what it is a picture of. And that key is not part of the picture: it relates the picture to the depicted. Mentalistic theories are at least incomplete.
Finally, the conceptual approach has weaknesses as well: in many cases we can understand the meaning without necessarily being able to identify the object, which makes the very idea that understanding an expression, i.e., knowing what object it refers to, somehow requires a grasp of a clear-cut definition of what the object is, unrealistic. Can we define what a scissors is? A chair? A nuclear reactor? Of course, we need to know something about these objects in order to be able to refer to them. But what exactly?
And how much? And always the same things? Much seems to depends on context, which means that these are questions that seem to defy a definite answer, which indicate that definite, well-defined concepts are not what relates expressions and objects. To be sure, these approaches to what links language and objects do highlight aspects of that relation that are relevant, perhaps even decisive in some cases. But not in all. Rather it appears that language and objects are related in many different ways, depending both on the objects, their nature and function, and on the purposes for which we use linguistic expressions. What ‘electron’ means in a layman’s context differs from what it means in the context of an experiment in a particle accelerator. But the same holds for ordinary words for everyday objects. In some situations ‘chair’ covers stools as well; in others it does not. In some cases a tomato counts as a vegetable; in others it is a fruit. And a broken hammer, well, sometimes it is and sometimes it is not a hammer. If
we try to force this multiplicity into one scheme, confusions arise. How language and objects are related, it seems, is primarily a matter of how both are used, in a concrete and practical manner. It is in how we deal with objects, in how we behave in their company, that how we talk about them finds its grounding.
Language is a brutal master: it imposes structure, distinctions, separations. It categorises the world, and thus makes it amenable for thought, investigation, manipulation. It is the most important tool we have for maintaining some form of grip on the world and ourselves, and together with other forms of symbolic expression, including visual depiction, it is a defining characteristic of what we are. But when it comes to objects,
language does not have the final say. For remnants of pure phenomenal qualities remain that escape linguistic and pictorial forms of representation, qualities that can only be hinted at, indicated in the most indirect manner, without this diminishing in any way their reality and importance. In his Philosophical Investigations (section 610) Wittgenstein
Describe the aroma of coffee – why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words?
And for what are words lacking? – But how do we get the idea that such a
description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a
description? Have you ever tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?
It cannot be done, not in language, not in any form of symbolic representation, not even, it seems, in depiction. And it holds for all kinds of objects – natural kinds, artefacts, mental ‘objects’, such as ideas, or emotions. Whenever we talk about an object, refer to it by means of a name or a description, there will be something that escapes us. Whenever we depict an object, paint its surface, sketch its contours – even when we photograph or film it – the object itself is not there. It invites us, draws us close, but it always keeps its distance, however infinitesimal. Visual illusions, or ambiguous pictures such as the famous ‘duck-rabbit’ of Jatrow, illustrate this in a different way: what we see, and then express as ‘A rabbit!’, or ‘A duck!’, it is not the object itself. No ‘inventory’ of objects can be made, only every so many approximations – attempts that capture some part of what they are, determine some aspect of how they appear of function. But something escapes, always. But it also need not be done: our interactions with objects proceed on many different levels, in many different ways, and that some of these escape the categorising and defining nature of linguistic expression, however complex or subtle, and that even our best ways of depiction – be it painting, drawing, photographing or filming – only manage to capture part of its qualities, this need not worry us. The only true map
of the world is the world itself. We never accomplish, if only because it would necessitate an infinite series of self-representations. Likewise the only true and complete representation of an object is the object itself. No description or depiction is able to present it in full.
Our interaction with objects, the world, ourselves and others are always only
partial and piecemeal, temporary and situated. We approach objects with categories and expressions, lines, shapes and colours, with all the tools of our trade, and fail. Even the artefacts we made ourselves, the familiar objects that are such essential elements of our everyday lives, continue to elude us, in their materiality and their individuality, their autonomy. But this is a failure only if we set out to master objects, to appropriate their supposed essence. Objects are not just out there, waiting for us to describe and analyse them, they also actively affect us, in many different ways. Natural kinds of objects constitute our environment, and ourselves as part of that environment. We rely on artefacts for our survival, but in their turn they shape us, opening up new possibilities, new experiences, new ways of being there. In the most profound sense, objects are affordances, possibilities, never exhausted. The interaction with the objects that surround us day in, day out, the confrontation with their shapes, colours, weights, their material constitution, the experience of what they look like, how they feel, smell – eyes closed, eyes open – for a brief moment, or in an extended, intentional contemplation, such interactions reveal, though fleeting and always only partially, the inexhaustible reality of objects. Just as we speak about objects, they speak to us, in a different language, but one that is as meaningful and important. In the end, our relation to them is not that of owner, or maker, not even, perhaps, that of user. Even though we do own, make and use objects that does not define them. Long after we put the scissors in the drawer and forget about it, after we bend the paperclip, used it to pierce a hole in a piece of paper and throw it away, these objects continue, they keep a form, a shape, they continue to afford uses we may not yet have thought about. Objects can never be exhausted, neither in description, nor in depiction, nor even in use. They will always surprise us, teach us, annoy or move us. The company of objects is never boring.
2008 published in Inventory: Kasper Andreasen &Tine Melzer, Johan Deumens Gallery, NL, ISBN 978-90-73974-07-4