I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.
After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.
But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.
That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).
Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.
That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.
And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.
Hallelujah! I have found a solution to the most difficult dilemma faced by those of us on the anti-Fascist fringe of 21st-century politics. I am referring, of course, to the problem of how to accurately criticise the new US president without either falling foul of Godwin’s Law on the one hand, or understating the harm he is causing on the other.
In case you don’t know, Godwin’s Law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1‘, meaning somebody is bound to make the comparison sooner or later. The Corollary of this law is that, if you have to resort to comparing somebody to Hitler, you have lost the argument.
I try to assiduously observe this rule by never making that comparison myself, as a consequence of which the comparisons I make for the most unpleasant of the world’s leaders and policies cover a wide range of alternatives, starting with the perhaps too-obvious Stalin, running through Mao and Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe and then, just for variety, taking in some serial killers like Fred and Rosemary West.
But the following tweet from some Trump toady, in response to the President summarily banning travellers from a range of countries with Muslim majority populations, causing heartbreak, despair and airport chaos, had me stumped. Here it is, from someone called Kellyanne Conway:
Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact.
It is just screaming for somebody to respond ‘So was <He with whom, out of deference to Mike Godwin, we will not make comparisons>’
The idea that being a person of action is a virtue, regardless of the morality of that action, is so gob-smackingly asinine that it is beyond parody (which leads to another, lesser-known, internet law: Poe’s Law, which says that it is impossible to tell the difference between a parody of the US fundamentalist right, and the real thing).
But how can one respond, without invoking that famous Austrian, and thereby implicitly losing the argument?
Fortunately, I have found the answer, and it is…………..
That’s right, all you need say in reply to such thuggish ejaculations as Conway’s above is
So was Voldemort
There is even a scriptural basis for this comment. In ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘ the wand-maker Ollivander sells Harry his first wand, and is fascinated to find that the wand – which chose Harry, rather than Harry choosing it (don’t ask) – is the ‘brother’ (don’t ask about that either) of the wand that Ollivander had sold to Voldemort as his first wand, decades earlier. Ollivander says:
‘we must expect great things from you, Mr Potter …. After All, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great‘.
So there you are: when apparatchiks or groupies of the US government confuse – deliberately or otherwise – decisiveness with virtue, or power with goodness, you can now skewer their idiocy without impaling yourself on the spike of Godwin. Just remind them about Voldemort, and all the great, powerful things he did.
By the way, just as an aside, in the course of researching this painstakingly-researched and highly-detailed essay, the internet has made me aware that, contrary to my belief and that of most other people, apparently Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time.
Post Script: Just prior to posting this I searched for images of Voldemort to decorate it. To my bemusement, I found that many of them have the new president’s face photo-shopped over that of Voldemort, and there was even an article explaining why he really is Voldemort. I also came across reports of Joanne Rowling’s tweets about Trump and Voldemort, saying facetiously that the comparison was unfair to Voldemort. Well, bother! I had previously been aware of those tweets, but had utterly forgotten them. Apparently my subconscious hadn’t though. Well, never mind. If something’s worth saying, perhaps some things are worth saying more than once, by different people, as long as they don’t deliberately copy. I’ll put a nice, unphoto-shopped photo of He Who Must Not Be Named on this anyway, and I hope you’ll forgive my subconscious plagiarism.
Today is international polysyllablitis awareness day. I hope you can spread the word so that people will better understand this debilitating condition and try to support those that suffer from it.
Polysyllablitis is a communication disability that primarily affects people that read too many fancy books. The main symptom is a swollen vocabulary, leading to frequent difficulty in finding an acceptable word to express a concept they are trying to convey. Such difficulty typically manifests in uncomfortably long pauses mid-sentence, because the speaker was about to say that the proposed expedition to a nightclub would be ‘inimical to his health‘, but didn’t want people to think him a ponce for saying a fancy word like ‘inimical‘, yet the alternatives ‘it would make me feel bad‘ or ‘I’m tired‘ (average syllable count per word = 1.0) refused to present themselves to his desperately searching mind.
For this to happen just occasionally – say every couple of months – is manageable. Many people have such experiences. But people with really serious polysyllablitis (known as PSI to health and remedial vocabulary professionals) can suffer such attacks as often as several times a day. At such frequencies it can become terribly debilitating. Sorry, I mean it makes the person feel really bad.
Chronic sufferers have complained of persistent diffidence (meaning they often feel shy), disorientation (they feel dumb or lost), isolation (they feel lonely) and melancholy (they feel sad).
I have studied this phenomenon (sorry, I mean thing) for many years now. I think there is hope for the sufferers, as long as they don’t get excluded (shut out) from society. That’s why we need this awareness day. If people can keep a look out for others that may be suffering this malady (it makes them ill) they will be able to find ways to help them, reassure them (make them feel good) and put them on the road to rehabilitation (get better).
The best way to help these unfortunates (poor guys) is to include them in your conversations. When they say an unnecessarily fancy word, or get stuck mid-sentence with that look on their face that says they can’t remember the normal-people’s word for ‘lugubrious’*, the best thing to do is to gently correct them, remind them of the normal-person word while making clear that we still love and accept them. (*it’s ‘sad’). Studies have shown that these inclusionary strategies (being nice to them) are in most cases highly efficacious (they work).
However, in my years of study, there is one word for which I have simply never found a way of translating it into normal person speech, and that is the word ‘interlocutor‘ – being ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation‘. I have searched in vain for a simple alternative. The closest I’ve seen is ‘discussant’ but that has the dual problems that (1) it’s ugly and (2) I suspect it’s not a real word.
The next most reasonable alternative seems to be to replace the word with its definition ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation’. But that doesn’t really help much, as that ‘whom’ is bound to raise eyebrows, not to mention the monarchical ‘one’ (sorry – I mean like how the queen would speak). Plus inserting that long string of words into a sentence raises the risk of apparent poseur-ness because of the length of one’s sentences.
‘He’s always interrupting those with whom he is having conversation‘ just doesn’t have the pizazz of ‘He’s always interrupting his interlocutors‘.
I doubt Hemingway would approve.
It wouldn’t matter if it was a useless word, like that silly old ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ that schoolboys used to quiz each other on, but nobody ever used in a genuine sentence. That was, until the Guinness Book of Records people wanted to get in on the act and invented ‘floccipausinihilipilification’, just so that people would buy their book to find out about the new record-breaking word.
Of course if you want a long word that’s actually used by proper people, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which at 34 letters is longer than either of those non-words to boot. Plus it’s used by Mary Poppins, who is cool and not anything like a social reject that got her head stuck in a dictionary, so it must be OK.
But, unlike antidisestablishmentarianism, interlocutor is not a useless word. How can one talk about conversations one had yesterday without using it? More importantly, how can one give counselling and therapy to PSI sufferers if one cannot tell them useful things like ‘try to use the same words that your interlocutors use‘? The word is simply too useful to discard. I find myself needing to use it at least seven times per day on average. I’d be lost without it.
I can only see one way out of this conundrum (tricky thing). That is to make interlocutor an honorary normal person’s word. We could do that by all making an effort to use it at least once a day. Then before long it would seem as normal as ‘but’. There are precedents for this. Normal people use the pentasyllabic ‘qualification’ when talking about who might get into the finals in the footy, and the quadrasyllabic ‘ceremony’ when talking about who earns the right to humiliate themselves in the next round of a reality TV show. So I think, If we all make an effort, we can create some space for ‘interlocutor’ in normal people’s language.
I leave you today with these two requests:
- Please keep an eye out for PSI sufferers, and try to be kind to them (and help them to get better); and
- Try to use interlocutor as often as is consistent with common decency.
Just remember, no matter how strange and scary they seem, every PSI sufferer is somebody’s son or daughter.
Bondi Junction, October 2016
I am astonished at how many different sorts of thing there are in the world. It’s lucky that they all evolved naturally without my having to invent them, because if it had been reliant on my imaginative powers, I don’t think there would be more than about six.
The first time I ever noticed variety was back in 1990, when I was in the process of buying my first car. Prior to that, I had never been interested in cars at all. If a friend picked me up in a car and we were driving somewhere and they asked me ‘what sort of car is this‘ I would have murmured something like ‘I can’t remember. Um, is it blue?‘
But buying a car brought a whole new dimension to my relationship with cars. It was, at the time, by far the biggest purchase I had ever made, so I thought I had better take it seriously. I set out to learn about the different sorts of cars. Within a few weeks, I could identify all the different hatchbacks by shape alone: the Toyota Corolla, Mitsubishi Colt, Holden Barina, Nissan Pulsar, Ford Laser, Mazda 323 and Honda Civic. The Korean brands had not yet appeared in the Australian market at that time, and I don’t think the European brands had started mass-marketing small cars in Australia at that time (not that I would have been interested in that price range).
I was quite pleased with myself at being able to identify seven different brands of car, all of a similar size and configuration, just by subtleties of shape. The approximate shapes were all the same. The differences were just slight variations in the curvature along this or that edge, or the rear hatch window being a little deeper. For the first time in my life, I marvelled at how small variations can arise in machines that are all designed to perform exactly the same task, and that those variations can be recognised by enthusiastic observers. My male friends, who unlike me had been interested in cars all along, had always mystified me at their ability to tell from a distance what sort of car something was. Now I too had acquired that seemingly magical ability.
Once I had bought my car – a humble second-hand Ford Laser – I lost interest in this taxonomical feat. That loss of interest, together with the designers enthusiastically changing the curves and slopes every year, led me to soon revert to my previous state of ‘is it blue?’ ignorance.
But this revelation of the wonder of variety was a seed that had been planted in me by the exercise. It took root, grew, and has never left me. It spread to encompass everything in my experience.
- How do there come to be so many different colours?
- How do clothes designers constantly come up with new shapes?
- How many different possible human faces are there, and how is it that I can distinguish between the faces of many hundreds of people that I know when, if I tried to draw or describe them, they’d all look or sound the same?
- Why are there so many chemical elements?
- Why are there so many different branches of mathematics?
- Why are there so many topics about which I feel moved to write essays?
This morning at work I responded to a request from the IT people who are preparing a new document management system for implementation. They wanted us to give them lists of topics that could be used as subject tags for documents to help the search and retrieval process. I typed away for about fifteen minutes and sent it off without thinking. A little later I looked back at the list and was amazed. The list of went for more than two pages and was almost shocking in its intricacy. ‘Do I really know about all those different things?’ I wondered. ‘Is my work really so delightfully varied that it can involve so many different activities?‘
If I had had to invent a world from scratch and write a list of the things that people do in it, I feel there’s no way I could ever invent so many different things. Yet the small, narrow world of my workplace has managed to evolve such a rich variety, and I have, over twelve years, learned about all the nooks and crannies of all those varieties, without even noticing it was happening.
I’m not boasting. I think that, in all of our lives, however mundane they may seem, we are surrounded by, and have detailed knowledge of, seemingly endless variety.
Take Jupiter for example. I wonder about Jupiter sometimes. They say the patterns on it constantly change, because it is all gas, after all. Yet in the middle of all that change, the big eye remains, albeit varying somewhat in shape and size. Incredible windstorms swirl the coloured gases around, always into new shapes and patterns. Wouldn’t you think that there would be just two or three states and the Jupiterian atmosphere would cycle regularly between those states? But no, there’s always something new.
Or consider the average day around an average house. How many different activities does one have to do – some highly skilled (like tying shoelaces) and some not so much (like rolling over in bed)? There’s getting up, opening and closing one’s eyes, reading, watching telly, opening and closing books, turning the telly on and off, talking, listening, doing sit-ups, opening doors, putting toilet seats back down (out of respect for the women in the house, take note Keita!), scratching itches, taking off socks, singing, writing essays, shaving, thinking, trying not to think, taking out the rubbish, washing up, sleeping, etc etc etc – and that’s all before one has even left the house. How could anybody ever manage to invent so many different things to do?
Then there’s languages. I currently have a passion for languages. I can finally read fluent French (although I can barely understand a single spoken word) and am just starting on German. Ideally, being an Indianophile, I’d like to learn Hindi or Bengali but I was put off when I discovered that they seem to have about fifteen different varieties of the English sound ‘Ah’, and I doubted my ability to ever learn to distinguish between them. Stymied by too much variety! I spent a while trying to memorise the Hindi alphabet. But how did they ever invent so many characters? Variety again!
And then how on Earth did we manage to end up with so many different languages? Wouldn’t two or three have sufficed? How did people find time to make them all up, and how did they manage to end up being similar enough to still all be considered languages, yet different enough to not just be dialects of one another, and for the speaker of one to have no idea what the speaker of another was saying?
Then there’s tunes, stories, games, occupations and textile patterns. And, you know, other stuff as well.
Bondi Junction, January 2016
Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.
Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.
I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.
I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.
But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.
Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.
Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.
If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.
Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.
In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.
Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.
A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:
Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.
In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.
Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.
Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.
And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.
Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.
I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.
Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.
Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.
But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.
Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.
Bondi Junction, November 2015
So many philosophical discussions seem to end up in confusion over words, that I wonder whether that is all that such discussions are: fancy piles of words, with no meaning, that we continually rearrange to see whether they look better when lined up this way than that. Yet many philosophical discussions, particularly some of those those about ethics, politics, religions, logic and science, are very valuable, and can help people live more successful, fulfilling, happier lives. So it seems worth trying to find a way to decide which discussions are meaningful and which are not. This essay sets out the results of my attempts to do that.
Finding meaning via a tree of definitions
My first observation is that we cannot find the meaning of a statement by looking up all the words of the statement in a dictionary. A dictionary defines every word in terms of other words. If we look up each of those other words, and so on, it won’t be long at all before we find ourselves going round in circles, looking up words that we have already looked up.
Digression: here’s a fun parlour game. Everybody picks a word. You look it up in the dictionary, choose the seventh word in the definition (or the last word if there are less than seven words), look that up, and so on until you are sent back to a word you have already looked up. The person that has to look up the most words before closing a loop wins. Or you can reverse the game and make the winner the one that closes a loop in the fewest lookups.
Now think about what happens if we look up all the words in each definition, rather than just the seventh one. Then we will have created a branching tree of definitions. We start with one word, then have to look up maybe twelve different words used in its definition. For each of those words we need to look up each of the different words used in their definition, and so on. The trunk of the tree is the first word. Every definition we look up is a place where the tree splits into several branches.
What we need, to terminate this process and arrive at a final understanding, are leaves. Because the leaf is where the recursive branching process of a tree finally stops.
We are not going to find leaves in a dictionary (yeah I know, pages are also called leaves, ha ha), nor yet in Google or Wikipedia, which are just different forms of dictionary. So where could we find them? The most natural way to find them is to look at the methods employed by a group of people that learn language without the aid of dictionaries – toddlers. A toddler learns a new word by observing others use the word in connection with a certain phenomenon. They learn ‘jump’ by observing people say sentences containing the word ‘jump’ when there is jumping going on. They learn ‘dog’ by observing people say sentences containing the word ‘dog’ in the presence of dogs, maybe accompanied by the speaker helpfully pointing to the dog, or a picture of a dog. They learn blue by being shown blue things while being told ‘blue!’ They learn ‘above’ by hearing that word while attention is drawn to one thing that is above another.
Ludwig Wittgenstein called this method of learning language ‘ostension’, and regarded an ‘ostensive definition’ as a naming of a phenomenon while pointing to it. Ostensive learning is most obvious with toddlers, but it is not confined to them. Most people tend to pick up new words by ostension throughout their life. Things like local slang, or the latest buzzword or jargon used within a specific trade are mostly learned ostensively. That is how I learned, in the early 2000s, that we can say ‘my team is going to verse Little Boggling High School in rugby‘ rather than ‘we are going to play Little Boggling High School in rugby‘. When explorers encounter people speaking languages they do not know, they learn to communicate by ostension. That is less common now, but one imagines it was a frequent occurrence in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even ostension is not enough to completely terminate the search for meaning though. As Wittgenstein observed, when somebody points at something and names it, we still need the mental equipment necessary to associate the sound of the name with the thing. It appears that that equipment is built-in (‘hard-wired’) rather than learned, as are a range of other mental processes we instinctively perform, such as learning from experience (the ‘principle of induction’) and our ability to interpret our sensations in terms of a continuum with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension (an innate ability that Immanuel Kant calls ‘the Transcendental Aesthetic’). We evolved to have those abilities hard-wired, because ancestors that did not have them quickly perished.
Although we have those learning capabilities built-in, I do not think we have any actual words built in to our brains at birth. So far as I know, there is no word that is universal across all Earthly languages – No, not even ‘No!’ or a shake of the head. Hence, I can only think of two ways that we learn words, or other parts of language: by definitions that we invent (eg for new words or new uses of words we invent) or that are provided to us, that use only words we already know; and by ostension. My theory is that every part of language we learn is acquired by one of those two methods. If somebody can identify another way humans can learn language, I will have to revise my theory, but for the remainder of this essay I will assume it to be accurate.
A consequence of this theory is that, if there is any word that I cannot trace through a tree of definitions, without circularity, to a full set of ostensive leaves, then I do not know what that word means! Even a single non-terminating branch in the tree is enough to make the word meaningless.
One can think of the ‘depth‘ of the tree as the maximum number of definitions one has to pass through to get to the farthest leaf, and the ‘breadth‘ of the tree as the number of leaves. For ostensively defined words, like the above examples of ‘dog’, ‘blue’ and ‘jump’, both breadth and depth are only 1. We know what they mean without having to think of other words. Some words, while not ostensively defined themselves, will be explicable solely in terms of ostensively defined words, and have a tree depth of 2. ‘Panther’ might be an example, defined as ‘black leopard’, if we have access to pictures of leopards but no pictures of panthers.
For abstract words such as ‘evaluate’ or ‘pretend’, the tree of definitions will be quite deep and it can be daunting to trace back to the ostensive leaves from which the meaning is ultimately derived. Yet it seems that it must be possible, because we have come to understand those words and, according to my theory, we could not have done that unless we had traversed such a tree in the course of our learning our language.
It’s worth noting here that for many words we will have more than one tree of definitions available to us. As long as they ultimately convey the same meaning, that is no problem. Indeed, it is to be expected, given the rambling, nonlinear way in which we learn language. Some observers feel that there are so many intersecting trees of definition that a person’s vocabulary is more like a web than a set of trees (I think Quine’s view, from his essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ is something like that). But that doesn’t change the fact that ultimately that web must terminate in – be surrounded or supported by a frame of – leaves of words that we have learned by ostension.
Some occasionally meaningless words
That’s enough theory. Let’s get down to case studies of word uses that I think are meaningless. Here are some of the main culprits: ‘be’, ‘true’, ‘possible’, ‘random’ and ’cause’.
Now I don’t mean to say that any sentence containing any of those words is meaningless. Otherwise most of this essay would be meaningless, given that it contains some of those words. Indeed, the verb ‘to be’ is present in almost every piece of English ever written. I am referring only to cases where one of those words is used as if it were fundamentally understood and, like a word that is learned ostensively, needs no definition – an activity that takes place most often in philosophical discussions, especially in the field of Ontology (the study of ‘what there is‘) or Metaphysics more broadly.
There is an easy test for whether a use of a word is meaningless. Let us call a word whose meaning I am calling into question a ‘challenged word‘. A word whose meaning, as used in the sentence, can be indicated by ostension cannot be a challenged word (note that none of the four words listed above can be taught by ostension). For other words, if a sentence containing the challenged word can be translated to a sentence, or sequence of sentences, that does not contain that word, or any synonym thereof, without any loss of meaning, then the use of the word in that sentence may be able to be considered meaningful. Otherwise it cannot. I say ‘may’ rather than ‘can’ because it is possible that the translation will throw the burden of definition onto a related but not synonymous word, and that challenging that word leads, possibly after a small number of additional challenges, back to the word we started with. So this ‘translation test’ for meaninglessness can give false negatives (ie fail to identify meaningless uses of words), but it will not give false negatives (accusations of meaninglessness when there is meaning there).
The translation test, applied to ‘to be’
Here’s how this ‘translation test’ works, applied to several different uses of the verb ‘to be’. There are a number of different ways in which this verb can be used. For each case I label the type of use (bold text), show the archetypal grammatical form of its use (plain text. The word ‘copula’ denotes an instance of ‘to be’), then provide a sample sentence and a translation that avoids use of the challenged word.
- identity, of the form “noun copula definite-noun”:
- This is Freya;
- Translation: People call this person Freya.
- class membership, of the form “noun copula noun”:
- The cat is an animal;
- Translation: The class of animals includes this cat.
- predication, of the form “noun copula adjective”:
- The cat is furry;
- Translation: Fur covers most of the cat’s body.
- auxiliary active, of the form “noun copula verb”:
- The cat is sleeping;
- Translation: The cat sleeps.
- auxiliary passive, of the form “noun copula verb”:
- The cat is bitten by the dog;
- Translation: The dog bites the cat.
- existence, of the form “there copula noun”:
- There is a cat
- Translation: not always possible – see below.
- location, of the form “noun copula place-phrase”:
- The cat is on the mat;
- Translation: The mat has a cat on it.
All of these have satisfactory translations except possibly 6 – existence. Whether 6 can be translated depends on context. If I were pointing at the cat, a suitable translation would be ‘Look! do you see that cat?‘ Alternatively, I might be telling you about a house you are going to visit, whose occupant has a house cat. Then it could translate as ‘You may come across the occupant’s cat when you visit‘. Even if the statement were a bare assertion of existence, such as a claim that, contrary to rumours of extinction, there is still at least one live cat in the world, we could still translate it. In that case an acceptable translation would be: ‘If you could line up all the animals in the world today and inspect them one by one, you would find that at least one of them belonged to the cat species‘.
Notice that most of these translations remove the challenged word by introducing references to experienced observations. That is the easiest way of planning a tree of definitions that can be traced to ostensive leaves. Since all ostensive leaves come from observed experiences, using words that connect to experiences – whether past, future or hypothetical – makes the tree of definition easier to imagine.
It is only when the speaker tries to divorce their meaning from experience that the translation test is failed, and meaning consequently evaporates. Examples of this are:
- I think, therefore I am
- The consecrated host is the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, even though it doesn’t look, feel, smell or taste like it
- The Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three separate persons but they are one essence, substance and nature
- Electrons are there all the time, even when we are not observing them
- If Captain Kirk’s body were duplicated atom for atom by a malfunction of the Star Trek teleporter, one of those duplicates would be him, and one would not.
- The future already exists [note that ‘exist’ is just a synonym for ‘be’]
- Notions in physics like ‘spacetime’ and the ‘quantum wave function’ are not just mathematical abstractions. They really exist.
These sentences, each of them the subject of endless philosophical debates over the ages, are incapable of being translated into sentences that do not contain the challenged word (in bold), because they are shut off from any possible connection with actual or potential experience. According to my theory, they are thus meaningless, and the associated philosophical debates amount to no more than shovelling piles of words around and arranging them in pretty ways.
That may seem like a big claim, and on little evidence. But if the claim is wrong, it should be easy enough to demonstrate that. All that is needed is to explain what those statements mean in non-circular terms. Nobody has managed to do that in the history of philosophy, and it’s not for want of asking.
It’s worth noting that all of those untranslatable examples are cases of either the ‘identity’ or the ‘existence’ use of ‘to be’, that we identified in the above list of different uses. Items 8, 11, 13 and 14 are ‘existence’, and items 9, 10 and 12 are ‘identity’. In my experience all untranslatable, and hence meaningless, uses of ‘to be’ fall into those categories. Not all uses in those categories are meaningless though. Above I described some cases of the ‘Existence’ use that were translatable. Some cases if the ‘Identity’ use are also translatable. I will deal with one that is a famous example that is often used in philosophy, known as ‘Frege’s Puzzle‘ because it was created in the 1890s by the German logician Gottlob Frege. It is as follows:
The early Ancient Greeks thought that Hesperus, the Evening Star, and Phosphorus, the Morning Star were distinct celestial bodies. Later in Ancient Greek civilisation they came to the conclusion that they were the same celestial body – the planet we now call Venus. Frege says that no reasonable person would deny the truth of the sentence ‘Hesperus is Hesperus‘, but somebody that didn’t know that the Morning and Evening Stars were sights of the same physical object at different times could reasonably reject the suggestion that ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus‘. This spurred the creation of a whole genre of philosophical literature discussing the meanings of the phrases ‘Hesperus is Hesperus‘ and ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus‘.
Here is my translation of ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus‘.
‘The sight of a light in the sky just after sunset, which people call Hesperus, and the sight of a light in the sky just before dawn, which people call Phosphorus, both arise from light waves from the Sun reflected off a single large rocky object that orbits the Sun‘.
Nothing mystical and metaphysical happens in this sentence. Here the ‘identity’ use of ‘is’ just serves to tell us that two different things we see at different times come from a common physical object.
On the other hand the sentence ‘Hesperus is Hesperus‘ cannot be translated, because it is meaningless. It is a sentence that we are well rid of.
Not all sentences of the form ‘X is X‘ are meaningless though. Some of them are capable of being translated. Recently an Australian politician known to be a loose cannon, let’s call him Bruce, made an outrageous public statement about something or other. The leader of Bruce’s party was asked by journalists what he thought of Bruce’s statement. That put the leader in a tricky position, caught between being seen to condone an outrageous opinion on the one hand or being seen as disloyal to a colleague on the other. The leader’s reply was ‘Oh well, you know, Bruce is Bruce.‘ The meaning of this statement was clear to all those that heard it. It was as follows:
‘As you all know, the politician Bruce that made that statement has displayed a habit of saying silly, offensive things from time to time in the past, although he acts acceptably most of the time. When he says obviously silly things like that, we don’t take them seriously and neither should you.‘
That’s a whole lot of meaning to pack into three little words. But language can be very expressive, if used with skill.
Other questionable words
Four other words I identified as major trouble-makers are ‘true’, ‘possible’, ‘random’ and ’cause’.
I won’t spend long on them here. I dealt with the problems of making sense of the words ‘true’, ‘random’ and ’cause’ in my essays ‘Replacing Truth with Reason‘ (October 2013), ‘Some random thoughts on whether the world is random‘ (July 2013) and ‘What is a cause – trying to distill clarity from a very muddy concept‘ (June 2013).
Hmmm. Now I look back on it, I see that quite a few of my essays have been about trying to work out what certain words mean. That really accentuates the point of this essay, which is that so many apparent problems in philosophy are really nothing but confusion over words. Once we think hard enough about what the words mean, and whether they even mean anything in the context in which they are used, we see the apparently deep and insoluble problems dissolve into emptiness.
Each of those words have perfectly reasonable, practical meanings that we use every day, and in those essays I try to identify what those meanings are. It is only when people try to claim that the words stand for something much deeper than that that they lose touch with reality (and reason).
Let me say just a few words about ‘possible’ though, as the only word on which I have not yet written a dedicated essay. What do we mean when we say
‘It is possible that an atom in the lump of uranium in that box will undergo radioactive decay and emit a neutron within the next ten seconds‘?
As with all the other words, I have a practical interpretation that matches how we use the word in everyday life. My translation is:
‘Neutron emission by an atom in the lump of uranium in that box within the next ten seconds is consistent with my theory of the world and the state of my current knowledge.‘
Or, slightly more concisely:
‘I am not convinced that there will be no neutron emission by any atom in the lump of uranium in that box within the next ten seconds‘.
The crucial aspect of this translation is that ‘possibility’ is about my knowledge. Something is ‘possible’ if I know nothing that convinces me it will not happen. It is ‘impossible’ if I am convinced that it cannot happen.
Some types of philosopher – metaphysicians, and most particularly ontologists – are not satisfied with this. They dismiss that interpretation as ‘merely epistemology‘ (epistemology is the philosophy of what we can know) and insist that they are asking about whether it is ‘possible‘ for the atom to decay, irrespective of what I know. The word ‘possible’ is usually heavily emphasised, as if writing it in italics and underlining it somehow made its meaning plain. But when asked what they mean by saying ‘it is possible‘, no coherent answer can be obtained. The most we ever get is the use of a synonym, such as ‘By possible I mean that it can happen‘. But that just shifts the burden of definition to the synonym. What does ‘can’ mean here?
I don’t believe that the word ‘possible’ makes any sense at all if its meaning is not couched in terms of what we know. The absence of any tree of definition for the word is a strong sign that it is meaningless. But beyond that, there is the problem of our simple understanding that either the atom will decay or it will not. When we say it is ‘possible’ we are not saying anything about the world, because the world will unfold in a certain definite way. All we are saying is that we do not yet know how it will unfold (and stronger than that, it is usually impossible for us to know how it will unfold. But that’s the subject of another essay, yet to be written).
That’s enough about ‘possible’. More on that topic can can be found in my essay ‘Some random thoughts on whether the world is random‘, which deals with the very closely related issue of randomness.
There are plenty of other words that are meaningful in the sentences of everyday life yet meaningless in the sentences of metaphysicians. I’ll mention just a few more without discussing them. Often they occur in pairs, where the metaphysician (or theologian) is trying to make some distinction but is unable to articulate it. ‘Subjective’ vs ‘Objective’ and ‘Natural’ (or ‘Physical’) vs ‘Supernatural’ are good examples. Then there is the idea of ‘direct’ vs ‘indirect’ perception of an object. I could go on for pages about how either all perception is direct or all is indirect, but I won’t. In fact ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ are problem words in other situations as well, such as ‘direct’ vs ‘indirect’ cause (I am confident that for any purported ‘direct’ cause and effect pair I can identify a step between the cause and the effect).
The lesson I have learned from all this deliberation is pretty simple: When confusion or misunderstanding arises over meaning, we can restore clarity by insisting on using only words whose meaning can be traced to ostension. The easiest way to test whether that is possible is to try to translate the passage into one that does not contain the challenged words – the ‘translation test’. Many passages written by ontologists, metaphysicians, theologians and others that try hard to be deep, fail this test. If we apply the test to a particularly confusing bit of writing and it fails, we would do best to consign the writing to the bin rather than waste further time on it. To apply the test fairly, we should ask the person who wrote the passage to translate it or, if they are dead, far away or otherwise unavailable, ask somebody that thinks they know what it means. But if they cannot do so, into the bin it goes!
I do not however want to create the impression that we should never talk about things we do not understand, or find impossible to clearly express. That is what the arts are for. When TS Eliot says
‘while the evening is stretched out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table‘,
we would be silly indeed to try to enumerate the ways in which an evening is really like an anaesthetised patient. The wonder of the phrase is in the emotions and images it conjures up, not the propositional information it conveys.
So by all means let us celebrate and revel in poetry, music, literature and the other arts. They form a central and essential part of my world, without which life itself would seem unbearable. But we should avoid confusing poetic speech with analytic speech. Poetry evokes imagery and emotion, but does not make logical propositions. If we start to mistake poetry for logic, we will end up in a terrible muddle.
Bondi Junction, August 2014
The ideas in this essay are my own, and do not seem to match exactly with those of anybody I know of. However, there have been very strong influences.
I get the impression that the writer to whose ideas this essay approximates most closely is JL Austin, of Oxford University, who is seen as the intellectual father of ‘Ordinary Language Philosophy’. I may be wrong about that however, as my exposure to Austin is only through secondary literature.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings in ‘Philosophical Investigations’ and Bertrand Russell’s essays ‘On Denoting’ and ‘Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description’ are also very influential on these thoughts. I should note that Russell had a lifelong belief in Truth and Material Reality that I do not share. Wittgenstein seemed to share those beliefs when writing the Tractatus, but perhaps discarded them in later life.
Willard van Orman Quine’s essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ seems very relevant, but I still don’t know what to make of it. It is a paradoxical essay, in that Quine was a brilliant logician, capable of scintillating clarity, yet that particular essay is written in loose language that makes it hard to understand what he is really saying in some parts.
There is a similarity between some of these ideas and those of the American Pragmatist philosophers Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey.
Especially interesting to me are Alfred Korzybski and David Bourland, who promoted the use of the language ‘E-Prime’, which is English with all instances of the verb ‘to be’ removed. They saw that verb as a never-ending source of confusion, and maybe even socially harmful as well. Bourland wrote a number of books in E-Prime to show how well we could do without that verb. I understand that the author and thinker ‘Robert Anton Wilson’ wrote a number of novels in E-Prime. Most illustrious of all, Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, by far the most effective form of psychological treatment of depression and anxiety (and which I see as modernised Stoicism), favoured E-Prime and saw the use of ‘to be’ as a frequent source of blame and judgement that was psychologically harmful (‘He is wicked’ vs ‘He harmed many people when he did that’). The wikipedia article on E-Prime is a rewarding read.