Changing How the World Thinks

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Language and Reality

Is meaning a dangerous human fantasy?

Editorial 47

Perhaps responsible for the success of the human species, the power of language is remarkable. Yet a description of love, or a storm at sea, is not the same as the experience itself. Might language not describe reality at all? Is meaning a dangerous human fantasy of unlimited power, or can it tell us how things really are?

In this issue of IAI News, our contributors accept that there is a world out there that, in principle at least, we can understand and engage with. But the question is: how? Through language? We use language every day to communicate with others and understand the world, says philosopher Emma Borg. So why do we now distrust it so much? Anthropologist Daniel Everett seeks to understand these problems from an evolutionary perspective. Could evolution explain why language works? And why it will always be limited?

Meanwhile, behavioural scientist Dylan Evans shifts the debate from language to imagination. If our imaginations shape our reality, he asks, do we need to conjure new visions of better worlds? Or will this impede real progress?

It is in this context that we see a return to religion. Sociologist Eileen Barker charts the return of the pagans while, much more worryingly, journalist John Lloyd issues a wake-up call to the reality of terrorism and the existential threats facing our culture and values.

And finally, former-clergyman, now writer and teacher Mark Vernon takes us back to Ancient Greece in search of goodness. We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment, he says. Could Plato help us understand the joys of virtue?



Image credit: Nick Kenrick

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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