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.
Do we all have things we look forward to learning? In early 1983 I was very excited about learning the meaning of ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’. That was the name of the central section of the main text for my second year uni algebra course. The text was ‘Rings, Modules and Linear Algebra’ by Hartley and Hawkes.
I understood from the course summary and the blurb on the textbook that learning how to do the activity described by the above italicised phrase was one of the main goals of this course.
What I found particularly appealing about the goal was that it referred to three different things, none of which I knew what they were. What is direct decomposition? Dunno! What is a finitely generated module? Dunno! What is a principal ideal domain? Dunno!
To add to the titillating obscurity of the subject, each of the three things was qualified by an adjective or adverb. The first two things only had one qualification each: direct decomposition rather than just any old ordinary decomposition, and finitely-generated module rather than just a commonorgarden module. But the third thing actually had two qualifications. This was not just an ideal domain or a principal domain but it was a principal, ideal domain. How exciting is that?
(Mathematicians may wish to object that the comma does not belong, and that the word ‘principal’ actually qualifies the word ‘ideal’ rather than the word ‘domain’, so that ‘a principal ideal is a thing’, whereas a ‘principal domain’ and an ‘ideal domain’ are ‘not a thing’, to borrow the ‘thing’ terminology that seems to be so popular amongst today’s young people. But let’s not allow this minor technical point to spoil a good story).
Why, you might wonder, was I so fascinated by a topic with so much jargon in it? What, you might ask, and perhaps not entirely without reason, is my problem?
The answer, I think, is that I have a fascination with jargon, and more generally with weird, obscure and bizarre things. The jargon has to be justified though. I have no interest in the jargon invented by some professions (merchant bankers and stock brokers in particular come to mind) to describe perfectly ordinary concepts in obscure ways in order to make them appear clever to others and justify their exorbitant fees. No, what excites me is jargon that people have no choice but to invent because the concepts it is describing are so abstract and complex that ordinary words are useless.
The jargon of mathematics and many of the sciences is of this justified type. When a physicist tells you that the steps necessary for predicting the perihelion of Mercury include performing a contraction of the Riemann tensor and another contraction of the Ricci tensor in a Swarzschild spacetime, or that the possible states of a carbon atom form an exterior algebra generated by the Hilbert spaces of electrons, neutrons and protons, she is describing things that cannot be described in plain language. And yet they are real things, not just insubstantial ideas. They are things that enable humans to perform wonders.
More to the point though, when Doctor Who announces that he has ‘Reversed the polarity of the neutron flow’, we learn that as a consequence of this linguistic peculiarity the universe, which was about to have its space time continuum rent asunder (ouch!), has been saved. This is no postmodernist proliferating syllables for the sake of mystery and pomposity, as in:
“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.” [Felix Guattari]
At heart, I think my fascination with genuine jargon is just part of an insatiable curiosity. The world is so full of intricate patterns and amazing phenomena, yet we will only ever get to see a tiny part of what is there. I want to find out what I can while I have the chance.
I can’t remember much about that 1983 algebra course, but I can picture that topic title going around and around in my brain like an obsession. I particularly remember running around the uni oval in athletics training, thinking as I went that within a few months I would actually be one of the privileged few that understood ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’, even though at that time I had no idea of what it even meant. It was like counting down the days to Christmas.
I can’t remember the point at which we finally learned how to do it. Perhaps it was a bit of an anti-climax. Perhaps it turned out not to be as exotic as it sounded, or familiarity had bred contempt (or at least dissipated some of the awe) by the time we neared the end of semester.
As well as spoken jargon I also have a taste for unusual symbols. In primary school, when everything we do in maths is a number, the idea of doing algebra in high school, where we would use letters rather than numbers, seemed very grown-up. In junior high school we could look forward to trigonometry with those funny sin, cos and tan words, then logarithms and exponentials with log x and superscripts ex and then, even more alluring, calculus in senior high school with those loopy integral signs ∫.
At uni I couldn’t wait to be able to use the ‘plus’ and ‘times’ signs with circles around them – ⊕ and ⊗, the special curly ‘d’s that are used for partial differentials ∂. And the upside-down triangle ∇. I imagined it would be like learning a secret language, into which only specially selected people would be initiated (Yes I was vain! So sue me. What privileged, talented 20-year old isn’t?) As it turned out I didn’t get to use ∂ much, and didn’t get to learn about ⊗ or ∇ at all, because of my subject choices.
I very much wanted to learn about ‘tensors’. I had heard that they were like matrices (rectangular tables of numbers that all maths students have to study in first year uni) only more complex, and that you needed them to do relativity theory. But again I missed out because of my subject choices. Not that I regret that. If I hadn’t made the choices I did, I’d have missed out on learning about finite-state automata and NP-complete problems, and would never have had the opportunity to design a computer chip that converted binary to decimal or to write parallel-processing computer programs to simulate populations of aliens (that’s beings from other planets, not the human immigrants the Tea Party are so worried about).
Over the last few years I have rectified my lamentable ignorance of tensors, ⊗ and ∇, as a consequence of my mid-life crisis. Some people buy red sports cars and get plastic surgery. I decided I couldn’t live another year without understanding General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It takes all sorts, I suppose.
An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?).
An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?). That affords me the smug satisfaction of being able to understand – if not necessarily able to follow – most of what is written on the sitting-room white board that’s often in the background in The Big Bang Theory. And yes, it usually is real physics or maths, not just made-up jumbles of unrelated symbols. Sometimes it’s even relevant to the story-line, like when Sheldon had Permutations and Combinations of a set of 52 elements written on the board, because he was trying to figure out a magic card trick one of the others had done (not that they ever referred to the board). That’s in contrast to Doctor Who, where they just sling any old combination of fancy words together (‘Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’ is not a ‘thing’. Or at least, it’s not a ‘thing’ you can do.).
I’m not expecting this essay to resonate with many people. It is a rare perversion to be intrigued by arcane language and symbols. But perhaps it’s not unusual for people to long to learn something or other that is currently far beyond their knowledge or abilities. It might be how to crochet an intricate doily, to speak a foreign language fluently, to recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from memory or, when a bit younger, yearning to be able to ride a bicycle without training wheels, swim the Australian Crawl or play a piano with both hands at the same time.
Bondi Junction, March 2014
What a difficult skill is conversation! And the hardest aspect of it is interruption. How and when does one interrupt? I have been participating in conversations for about fifty years and I still have not managed to figure this out yet.
As children we are taught that it is impolite to interrupt, and so it is, mostly. Yet in many conversations, especially when the pace and intensity increases, it is very hard not to interrupt. If someone pauses after a sequence of words that can serve as a completed sentence, and I start to respond to what they have said, I often find that all of a sudden we are talking over the top of one another, because what I thought was a full stop at the end of their sentence was actually only a comma – a pause for breath – in the middle of it. That can be awkward. Then one of us needs to stop talking and let the other continue, but how do we know which one it should be? It can become like that awkward dance in a corridor when the South-going and North-going person who have almost collided keep on moving simultaneously to the East, then the West, then East again, to try to let the other through, only to find that they both continue to be blocked.
The natural way to try to avoid such conversational difficulties is to wait longer before responding, to make sure that it really was a full stop and not a comma, or perhaps a semi-colon, hyphen or ellipsis. But how long should one wait? One second? Two? Three? If I wait long enough to be sure, I usually find that, yes it was a full stop, and now my friend has started a new sentence, and is perhaps a little disappointed that I offered no reply to their last sentence, which perhaps they felt was particularly insightful and worthy of comment. In fact, you can only ever be sure that a spoken sentence is finished once a new sentence has begun. But then, of course, it is too late. Trying to spot the end of a spoken sentence is like trying to spot the ‘bottom’ of a stock market slide.
This becomes even more difficult when the conversation involves more than two people. In a two-way conversation, one’s friend will often wait quite long for a reply if they expect one. But in a multi-way discussion, somebody will almost certainly plunge in if the pause exceeds a couple of seconds. That’s as it should be, most of the time. But if I consistently over-estimate the appropriate length of pause, I may end up having nothing to say all night, and people may wonder why I am so sullen.
The degree of difficulty rises yet again when the conversation involves some element of challenge. Perhaps the two parties are trying to persuade one another to change their view, or are at least challenging or questioning the opinions offered by the other. I might for instance ask whether my friend agrees with the principle the Labor party was trying to apply in the 2008-9 financial crisis – that rapidly increasing government expenditure (‘fiscal expansion’) would prevent a recession arising from the contraction of private credit. If my friend replies by explaining their view that the fiscal expansion was implemented poorly, citing numerous cases, my question has not been answered, because I am not wondering about the effectiveness of the implementation but rather about whether the expansion should have been attempted at all. Three minutes later my friend may be still waxing eloquent about how poorly he thinks the policy was implemented, without having said anything about the in-principle merits of the policy itself. As they launch into yet another compelling example of poor implementation, should I interrupt, to let them know that I have no opinion on, and have not asked about, the quality of the implementation?
Sometimes I do interrupt in such cases. But it’s a risky strategy. Some people don’t mind being interrupted, but some react ferociously. A meeker approach is to try to hold in my mind the question I originally asked and patiently wait for my friend to finish his diversion before reminding him of what I actually asked. In practice this can be difficult, because unless I look away and try to close my mind to what is being said, I usually find that the flow of rhetoric has driven my previous thoughts completely out of my head and I no longer have any idea of what I wanted to know, or what we were even talking about before the conversation shot off on a tangent.
We see this sort of thing all the time in political interviews, when a journalist asks a probing question and the politician answers a completely different one with great length and passion. In those cases the diversion is deliberate, which is not usually the case in discussion amongst friends. But despite the different motivation, the dilemma is the same – do we interrupt and bring the discussion back on track, or do we silently and patiently wait for the (often unintentional) filibuster to end, to avoid being rude.
Even where there is no dispute, difficulties can arise in long answers, if somebody uses a term we do not understand, and that renders most of what they subsequently say meaningless to us because of its reliance on that term. Is it permissible for me to interrupt a five minute discourse on the iniquities of schwerms, in order to ask what a schwerm is?
If only there were a universally recognised time limit we could apply! It would be great if if Mrs Cartland included in her etiquette guide, advice about the length of time into an answer after which it is acceptable to interrupt to indicate that the answer is off-topic, or incomprehensible. 30 seconds? 60 seconds perhaps? Sadly, there is no such guide, so I am left guessing, and mostly getting it wrong.
There are some conventions we could introduce that would ease the difficulty. One is the ‘hand up’. I would like to be able to raise my hand, like in a schoolroom, when something is said that I don’t understand or that sends the reply off topic. Ideally the friend would, like a patient school teacher, pause and say in a kindly tone ‘yes Andrew, what was it that you wanted to know?’. I have not been able to bring myself to do this though. I fear others might laugh at me.
Another Really Useful Convention would be if we agreed that nobody should ever talk for more than say one minute without seeking permission to continue. A standard form of words such as ‘there’s more to come, but first are there any questions? shall I continue?’ could be adopted to make this work. That would provide an opportunity to query unexplained terms or point out that the answer had veered off topic. We would of course need time-keepers, or perhaps clocks with big push-buttons like they use in chess. Such a convention is unlikely to get off the ground at the suggestion of a nonentity such as me though. I am hoping that George Clooney or Ryan Gosling will pick up the idea and promote it.
Some people are professional interrupters. Political journalists, mentioned above, are an obvious case, but by no means the most interesting. They operate in an atmosphere of conflict, so the interruption seems to fit. A more intriguing example is a radio announcer talking to a caller as the hour for the news bulletin approaches. They need to manage the caller’s comments so that ideally they finish exactly 20 seconds before the hour. Too early and the announcer is left with ‘dead air’. Too late and they have to cut them off. What often happens is that they exhort their caller to ‘be quick, because we only have 30 seconds before the news’, upon which the poor caller then panics and either gets stuck on an ‘er’ or ‘um’, or else descends into a flood of breathless verbal diaorrhea.
Even highly cultured and revered broadcasts, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and academic impartiality, suffer from this problem. I enjoy listening to ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4. Melvyn Bragg discusses abstruse topics in history, science, philosophy and culture with three or four experts from prestigious universities. All very nice, but Bragg – though tremendously erudite – is an incorrigible interrupter. He constantly interrupts his experts, in the nicest possible way, to tell them that they are talking too long or that they are off topic. Sometimes it turns out that they weren’t off topic at all and that Lord Bragg had just misunderstood. This gets increasingly frenetic towards the end of the show, presumably because the dreaded News on the Hour is looming. I understand that his job is a difficult balancing act, and that what he does is necessary but it still sounds strange to hear esteemed experts being cut off and bossed about like that.
It feels as though there is such a thing as an appropriate amount of interrupting, and an appropriate time at which it is acceptable to interrupt. Melvyn Bragg perhaps interrupts too much (although we can forgive him for that because he picks such lovely topics, and usually coaxes his guests to give interesting explanations). Rookie political interviewers probably interrupt too little. As for me, I still feel like I am just guessing in the dark.
I’m still learning this conversation business. The process is very difficult. I think I am getting better, just very, very slowly. Perhaps by the time I’m 80 I will have mastered it.
Bondi Junction, September 2013