Logic Cannot Explain Language

Introduction: The Philosophy of Language and Logical Positivism

icsbanner960.jpgThe Philosophy of language, which consists of many schools of thought concerned with the investigation of language, has become increasingly popular over the years. Because of such, the field has already experienced two major paradigm shifts and plenty of contentious debates within the lifetimes of its proponents. However, despite the growth in popularity and rapid introduction of new ideas, the growth in interdisciplinary perspectives inside this area of language investigation has yet to occur. Among the many debates and ideas about language, a lack of consideration about the neural and cognitive processes involved in language is quite evident.

When one looks at some of the ideas in the philosophy of language, one thing immediately jumps out; namely, that majority of their ideas have no grounding inside the human brain or its cognitive capacities. In fact, many theories in the philosophy of language not only systematically ignore the brain but also use methods which have little relevance for understanding human language.

Philosophers of language often use logic to analyze language rather than analyze language as a communicative function of the brain through empirical psychology or neuroscience. Of course, logic is important for math, though drastically less important for human language. For instance, to represent a proposition as true or false, as logic so does, creates a method of binary interpretation for that proposition, yet some propositions are devoid of any binary features or truth-functional assessments.


Moreover, in addition to deploying inappropriate tools for the investigation of human language, the prominent ideas in the literature for the philosophy of language have problems – primarily because of the overall lack of concern for the brain and cognitive processes. There are ideas about words having a reference, ideas about sentences being true or false, and ideas about separating sociological meaning from symbolic meaning – whatever that means. These are all examples of philosophical ideas that ignore how the brain processes meaningful stimuli and uses language.

To be fair, there are some philosophers of language that have delineated from the logical analysis of language, and these philosophers are often called ordinary language philosophers. The ideas produced by ordinary language philosophers are much better at grasping human language than those put forth by the logical positivists; primarily because ordinary language philosophers have less normative and more descriptive agendas than the logical positivists.

f51a6f4c-a5c3-42e2-9bc3-d95eb33fd3fb-originalThe logical positivists applied logic to language; by doing so, they also placed a normative demand on language: namely, that language ought to abide by the rules of logic. Normative demands are not accurate representations of reality but are rather psychological projections about how the world should work, and so fail to describe how the world really is. Conversely, ordinary language philosophers argued against the application of logic and attempted to describe how people use language instead. Ordinary language philosophers produced ideas about language games, speech acts, and context-dependent semantics. These ideas are by no means perfect, but it is certainly an improvement from logical positivism.

Nevertheless, there still are those who maintain the importance of logic in understanding language. Most lay-people naively assume that words have a fixed reference and fail to realize the massive philosophical commitment they make by doing so, which is understandable. There are also professional philosophers who still defend ideas about logic and language to this day. So, as such, in this essay, I will highlight the importance of cognition in understanding language, and demonstrate how the logical analysis of language completely falls apart under scrutiny.

The Ability for Numeracy: How The Brain Categorizes The Environment

perception-23-728The capacity to categorize the content of perception has allotted humans the ability to describe the number of things in the environment. The brain organizes the content of perception into cognitive categories, and it is the members of these cognitive categories that we count; that is, the only way in which we can count the number of chairs in a room is if we cluster them into the category called “chair,” which is a category premised on the similarity amongst the objects we call “chair”. Essentially, the cognitive capacity to count reality relies on other capacities, such as those that organize perceptual information.

We can further understand the necessity of categorization in the process of counting reality by considering the idea of doing such without cognitive categories. Inevitably, one problem immediately arises once we remove the cognitive categories and attempt to count reality: we cannot.

The reason for categorization being a necessity, if we seek to count reality, relates to the boundaries of cognitive categories. To grasp the notion of boundary, consider a football field that is located on a patch of grass, and which also has a greater surface area than the football field. Even though there is a massive patch of grass, we, nevertheless, know how to demarcate the football field from the grass because of the football field’s presentation. That means, the cognitive category “football field” is understood through the perceptual recognition of the boundaries required for the category; the most obvious boundary being the white lines on the patch of grass. Once we recognize the football field as a real object that differs from the grass, we can then give the object a label, such as “football field”. We also know the difference between the 10-yard and 20-yard line because of the perceptual boundaries for their cognitive categories being drawn on the surface of the field. So, the boundaries for a category are various forms of perceptual information. We can think of the boundaries in the same way that we think of borders; that is, borders create countries, regardless the fact that the cognitive category “country” has no basis in empirical reality; rather, we declare its existence through the recognition of perceptual features.

Furthermore, boundaries can also be non-visual stimuli; for instance, a loud gunshot, a loud explosion, or a loud, vicious growl may all inform me that I am currently in an area full of danger; or alternatively, the BPM, melody, and instruments of a song can inform the genre-label to which I ascribe to the music. Essentially, just how the visual stimuli of big white lines around a patch of grass inform the cognitive category of a football field, so too can other forms of perceptual information inform other cognitive categories.


Now, once we remove these boundaries, we will also remove our ability to count reality; consider the following: suppose I attempted to count the world, while deprived of boundaries. I would be unable to say that there are three trees, four football fields, and five countries because those are all categories that require the recognition of boundaries. Indeed, even the cognitive category “object” would require the recognition of boundaries. On top of that, complex numbers require, beyond doubt, the recognition of categories, for we would be unable to count reality past one without the categories; for instance, if we suggested that, while having boundaries though not categories, we could still count reality, then one would have to do so without any notion of object, different, thing, close, far, etc.., as these are all basic cognitive categories. Anyone who has boundaries needs categories, and anyone who has categories needs boundaries: top down and bottom up.

And so, in the much grander picture, there must be well-understood boundaries, that then formulate a category, if we are to count reality. Where one object’s boundary ends, another object’s boundary begins.

So, categorizing things allows us to count the members predicated to a given group, which means the utterance, “there are four-hundred books on my shelf,” is only coherent because I can count the number of objects that belong to the category of book. And since we can count the number of members belonging to a given category, we can also make statements about the quantity of member in that category. In specific, the capacity to make statements about the quantity of apples, chairs, or cups of coffee and describe what has been done with the quantity of that thing; for example, I drank all the coffee before writing this paper.

There are many different statements of quantity, all of which reflect different underlining cognitions; however, we will focus on one statement of quantity in this essay: sum-total statements. The purpose of focusing on sum-total statements is to critique a school of thought called logical positivism, which subscribes to the idea that logical analysis is the only means usable to solve philosophical problems. We will primarily focus on the logical positivists approach to language and how their approach fails to explain or even grasp sum-total statements. Afterward, we will view the same sum-total statement from a more cognitive approach.

I will argue that a logical interpretation of quantifiers such as all leads to conclusions that are psychologically unverifiable, and that the reason we comprehend sum-total statements is because of expectation, frames, and habits of association rather than logic.

 Overview of Psychologically Possible Knowledge


Before we analyze a statement of quantity from both positions, it is important to clarify what psychologically verifiable knowledge refers to, for I argue that a logical interpretation of sum-total statements is psychologically unverifiable.

In this essay, I will use the term psychologically verifiable to denote a piece of knowledge that relates to the content of perception and is verifiable; which means, a concept that can make a prediction about the content of perception and can only be validated if it can successfully predict perceptual content accurately and reliably. So, for example, my conception of the chair in the other room is that it will have four legs; with that conception, I can predict that the chair in the next room will have four legs. If my predictions about the chair, as it appears in my perception, is both accurate and reliable, then the knowledge is verified. Thus, my conception is psychologically verifiable. Of course, I am aware that there may be knowledge which is verifiable but deviates from this model of validity, but the human disposition can only validate knowledge that is subject to this model.

There is much more to be said about this model, but enough has been said to understand how I am using the term psychologically verifiable throughout this essay.

Sum-total Statements: Logical Operators and Contradictions

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In everyday discourse, we utter sum-total statements quite regularly; I.e., carry all the groceries inside the house, paint all the doors pink, or rake all the leaves off the lawn. Sum-total statements appear in discourse all the time. And this leaves us with a problem, how should we interpret these types of statements when used in everyday discourse? What is the scope of a sum-total statement? Because the scope will allow us to understand the meaning of a sum-total statement as used in everyday discourse.

As with many intellectual issues, a dichotomy is created around how to interpret these types of statements. Do people who utter these sum-total statements have the intention to encapsulate all the members of the category into the scope of the statement? Does “carry all the groceries inside” entail every bag of groceries on earth? Or rather, does “carry all the groceries inside” relate to a shared – though not always – knowledge framework. The word all would be interpreted quite contrastingly between a Logical Positivist and Non-literalist.

How would a positivist interpret the statement “all doors are pink”? From the positivist point of view, the statement is completely meaningless, for the word all must entail, quite literally, all. To elaborate, suppose that every door you had ever perceived had been pink, such that there is little to no evidence of any doors being any colour other than pink. Even then, to say all doors are pink, in an empirically meaningful way, requires that one knows that all doors are pink. So, the conception that all doors are pink is psychologically unverifiable because humans cannot perceive every door in existence; if we cannot perceive every door, then we cannot check the conception against reality by making predictions about our perceptions; thus, effectively leaving the conception “all doors are pink” in the realm of imagination. Certainly, one could use the conception of all doors being pink and make accurate and reliable predictions about 100-doors; however, such fails to give merit to the quantifier all. And since we cannot be certain about all doors, to say all doors are pink is meaningless from the positivist paradigm.

Veil Of PerceptionNow, let it be the case that someone says to a positivist, “all doors are pink”. In this instance, the positivist cannot claim that the statement is true, given that the statement is psychologically unverifiable; however, the positivist need only find a single door which deviates from the colour pink to deem the statement false. So, the positivist cannot confirm the sum-total statement, though they can undoubtedly debunk it. This seems to lead to some odd conflicts between everyday discourse and positivist philosophy.

By the logic of the positivist philosophy, it follows that people who make sum-total statements about empirical experience speak capriciously or falsely; only because they cannot possibly know the knowledge required by sum-total statements, and there is often evidence to the contrary. For instance, when a homeowner says, “all doors are pink,” that homeowner has said something which requires unattainable knowledge and is, presumably, empirically false. Evidently, a positivist would be incapable of understanding sum-total statements in everyday discourse.

However, for a non-literalist, sum-total statements are completely comprehensible; the everyday use of all is normal and easy to understand.

    “Can you bring in all the groceries”

   “Can you wash all the windows”

 “All leaves must be raked”“I’ve finished every book”

“I’ve finished every book”

Clearly, there is more to language than logic. As I will argue, language involves perceptually primed frames, expectations which are activated or are more readily activated when a particular frame is primed, and an ability to establish understanding through associative learning. Of course, I will be unable to capture all the variables involved in language comprehension, though I hope to show how interdisciplinary thinking is necessary for understanding language, nonetheless.

Assumptions and Language

Forward-EscapeAbsolute skepticism is psychologically impossible: we cannot know with certainty whether our vehicles will blow up upon ignition or not, we cannot know with certainty whether our food had been poisoned or not, nor can we have certainty about whether our books remain in the same place we left them or not. Of course, one may check their vehicles, food, and books, but the argument remains: namely, that we merely hallucinated that there was neither bombs, poison or moved books. It is the ever-recurrent nightmare for individuals who possess a philosophical temperament: that uncertainty finds a pathway which has gone unnoticed by their astute minds, and then wanders back into the lands upon which their every thought is conceived and developed; and so, a search for certainty is like setting out to climb a staircase for which there is no ending. Thus, absolute skepticism is psychologically impossible. Yet, even with all the uncertainty surrounding our day to day behaviour, it seems to affect us very little. How is it that the brain can avoid absolute skepticism?

It makes assumptions. The brain can circumnavigate uncertainty because it formulates frames of context dependent assumptions. A frame is a top-down organization of experience that lowers the overall ambiguity of the immediate environment by making assumptions about experiences, many of which previously worked. As we noted earlier, to be certain about everything is to, at first, doubt everything, and since absolute doubt is psychologically impossible, we rely on assumptions.

To make clear, our assumptions are not merely frivolous guesses. The many assumptions we perform, at some point or another, worked; that is, they aided us in our attempt to achieve some goal. For instance, a basketball player assumes that there will be a solid surface to land on after jumping, and that assumption allows the player to fully commit to the jump: no hesitation. Although a majority of us seldom make assumptions about jumping, we all make similar simple assumptions; we are almost never conscious of these assumptions either.

A simple assumption relates to a single object or instance; for example, when we open a bottle of water, we expect the liquid inside to be water rather than vodka, and a majority of us have probably yet to find the bottle of water which has proven this assumption useless. However, if the immediate environment is in some way associated with a rave or party, then it is perhaps best to be more skeptical and conscious about opening bottles of water and drinking them. These single assumptions sculpt the experience of things; that is, in both instances, single assumptions influenced how one viewed the bottle of water. Once we understand that, we can then understand frames. Single assumptions about objects are the base ingredients for a frame, as frames operate in a more systematic fashion to organize experiences into coherent gestalts: frames are networks of assumptions.


In everyday life, we have networks of assumptions working together to mitigate uncertainty about the environment. Consider the culturally and procedurally conditioned assumptions and expectations which a police officer must rely on to perform their job. On one hand, the experience of a fast-moving vehicle will trigger a series of procedural assumptions such as, “turn siren on, radio call for x, etc.,”. These are all assumptions that are made with the intention to stop the fast-moving vehicle. And on the other hand, when some civilians wear a certain colour in a specific neighbourhood, a police officer will make culturally conditioned assumptions about them. Additionally, police officers are also acutely aware of the socio-political perception of law enforcement amongst citizens, and officers make assumptions about the citizens premised on those views. For instance, if police officers are amongst a group of citizens known for their disdain of law enforcement, the officers will make assumptions about that group which would have otherwise gone un-made with other groups, such as whether antagonistic members will be present or not.

It is also important to note that the instances previously mentioned will be interpreted rather differently by other individuals, though only because people operate on different frames and assumptions; that is, a street racer may view a vehicle moving well above 50mph as a challenge to race, and follow some plan of action given such a frame of understanding about the experience; or, someone who knows nothing about gang colours may think nothing of large groups of people all wearing one colour. Exposure to procedure and culture greatly influence the assumptions one makes about the world.

Thus, we can see, frames go beyond merely labeling mental or perceptual things, they filter incoming and outgoing information into a system of beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. And as such, we can now understand how frames influence our comprehension of language.

When we are out at a grocery store and someone asks us, “what are you up to,” the normal reply is “shopping”. Shopping is a frame which many people use at some point or another, and it is a culturally bound frame; meaning, the shopping frame may be absent in other cultures. Some of the basic assumptions involved with this frame are that you walk to the cashier and pay before walking out the door and that you pay in an acceptable currency. The assumptions in the frame are guiding the behaviour used while shopping; and just as the frame makes assumptions about how to behave, it also makes assumptions about how to interpret sentences.

After one gathers their supplies at the grocery store, the task of bringing them inside inevitably arrives. Now, suppose someone asks, “Can you bring everything in”. Whether one view this is a question or command is of little importance, given that either a question or a command with the word “everything” leads to bidirectional absurdity; more specifically, a logical interpretation of the term everything ought to mean every-thing – the scope of everything is logically equivalent to the term all in symbolic logic. For example:

Every A is B = All A is B

Everything that is A is B = All things that are A are B

Everything = All things

However, the scope of the term “everything” is determined by a frame; in the shopping frame, we assume that the sentence, “Can you bring everything inside,” relates to shopping. Thus, the sentence is interpreted as referring to the groceries just purchased. Additionally, the scope of term “everything” is not only determined by the frame of operation but so too is the term “in”; the end-game of shopping is to fill the fridge inside the house with groceries, so we know that in has the house as its target domain.

Furthermore, to thoroughly understand the importance of the shopping frame for understanding the question or imperative, “can you bring everything in,” consider the following: the statement, “can you bring everything in,” while in a different perceptual environment, such as a tailor’s store, means something radically different than how we previously interpreted it. The obvious assumption at a tailor’s store relates to clothing.

fabianoefner_photographer_photos_art_psychedelic-images_scienceSo, language requires more than a logical analysis of the words themselves; rather, language involves the immediate perceptual environment, cultural and procedural knowledge, and a general understanding of human cognition. Some statements adopt a new meaning in different contexts, some statements are only comprehensible if you understand the culture, and some statements require an understanding of the intended goal for a certain behaviour or task. These are, of course, not things which humans cannot represent with symbolic logic; humans, by nature, do not break every aspect of reality into binary. And furthermore, it seems that the heuristics humans use to understand language require less computational power than a self-consistent system of logic, given that we do not have to run through the many possible truth conditions of a word or proposition; we assume the most obvious meaning due to other assumptions being made. And furthermore, the methods which George Boole so stridently proposed cannot work for the same reason that led him to his ideas about symbolical representations of thought: namely, that x, y, z, are not equivalent representations of individual things, as Boole attempts to argue; those symbols are deprived of the richness found in a word like sheep or bird – for humans, sheep or bird is simply not equivalent to x or z.

In conclusions, avoid interpreting language literally. Human’s do not compute truth-conditions for their language. When one attempts to analyze language that was created without axioms and mutually agreed upon assumptions, a logical analysis will result in confused and false interpretations of a speaker’s meaning. It is important to remember that all descriptions are inherently subjective, given that we are describing a phenomenological experience produced by a human brain, which plays the role of being an interface for reality. And since the brain makes assumptions about the uncertainty of the environment, human language will also contain assumptions related to the environment; thus, human language will be devoid of logical certainty.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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