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A language is a system which, if properly controlled, can produce objects called messages

A language is a convention according to which certan material objects, to be referred to as linguistic objects, define certain actions, which are referred to as their meanings. There are two basic types of linguistic objects: commands and statements. Commands are used in the context of control, where the meaning of a command issued by the controlling system is the resulting action of the controled system. The meaning of a statement is the piece of knowledge (true or false), that is a hierarchical generator of predictions.

Human language is a multilevel system. On the lower levels, which are close to our sensual perception, our notions are almost in one-to-one correspondence with some conspicuous elements of perception. In our theories we construct higher levels of language. The concepts of the higher levels do not replace those of the lower levels, as they should if the elements of the language reflected things "as they really are", but constitute a new linguistic reality, a superstructure over the lower levels. Predictions produced by the higher levels are formulated in terms of the lower levels. It is a hierarchical system, where the top cannot exist without the bottom.

We loosely call the lower-level concepts of the linguistic pyramid concrete, and the higher-level abstract. This is a very imprecise terminology because abstraction alone is not sufficient to create high level concepts. Pure abstraction from specific qualities and properties of things leads ultimately to the lost of contents, to such concepts as `something'. Abstractness of a concept in the language is actually its `constructness', the height of its position in the hierarchy, the degree to which it needs intermediate linguistic objects to have meaning and be used. Thus in algebra, when we say that x is a variable, we abstract ourselves from its value, but the possible values themselves are numbers, which are not `physical' objects but linguistic objects formed by abstraction present in the process of counting. This intermediate linguistic level of numbers must become reality before we use abstraction on the next level. Without it, i.e. by a direct abstraction from countable things, the concept of a variable could not come into being. In the next metasystem transition we deal with abstract algebras, like group theory, where abstraction is done over various operations. As before, it could not appear without the preceding metasystem level, which is now the school algebra.

There is another parameter to describe concepts of a language. This is the degree to which the language embedding the concept or concepts is formalized. A language is formal, or formalized, if the rules of manipulation of linguistic objects depend only on the `form' of the objects, and not on their `human meanings'. The `form' here is simply the material carrier of the concept, i.e. a liguistic object. The `human meaning' is the sum of associations it evokes in the human brain. While `forms' are all open for examination and manipulation, i.e. are objective, `human meanings'are subjective, and are communicated indirectly. Operations in formal languages can be delegated to mechanical devices, machines. A machine of that kind becomes an objective model of reality, independent from the human brain which created it. This makes it possible to construct hierarchies of formal languages, in which each level deals with a well-defined, objective reality of the previous levels. Exact sciences operate using such hierarchies, and mathematics makes them its object of study.

Classification of languages by these two parameters leads to the following four types of language-related activities :

Concrete languageAbstract language
Unformalized languageArtPhilosophy
Formalized languageDescriptive sciencesTheoretical sciences, mathematics

Art is characterized by unformalized and concrete language. Words and language elements of other types are important only as symbols which evoke definite complexes of mental images and emotions. Philosophy is characterized by abstract informal thinking. The combination of high-level abstract constructs used in philosophy with a low degree of formalization requires great effort by the intuition and makes philosophical language the most difficult type of the four. Philosophy borders with art when it uses artistic images to stimulate the intuition. It borders with theoretical science when it develops conceptual frameworks to be used in construction of formal scientific theories. The language of descriptive science must be concrete and precise; formalization of syntax by itself does not play a large part, but rather acts as a criterion of the precision of semantics.

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Oct 6, 1997 (modified)
Sep 1991 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory


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Human language

Universal Semantic Language


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