My First Post: An Initial Blog or a Horse Anchor

September 1, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

Post: The word by itself evokes for me a thick, square cedar pole standing up from, and presumably sunk down into the ground, waiting for the laundry line. Suppose you post a letter to the officer who posthumously posted your father to his army post in the post-war era.

Words and their meanings have been a hobby of mine since I read about General Semantics in the science fiction book The World of Null-A by A.E. VanVogt in my teens. This discipline had a brief popularity in the mid-20th Century, and led me to the understanding that an object and its image are two distinct entities. The word is not the thing, nor a map the territory. Here’s more at Wiki

Would a rose truly smell as sweet were it known as “Stench Needles”? They have made me bleed and sneeze at different times in the past. How well would “Wolf Apples” sell at the market? Actually, these fruits of a nightshade sell quite well using their Italian name, “tomatoes”.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I posit that most misunderstandings between those of different disciplines or faiths are primarily due to mismatched maps between semantic entities (things) and the language used to describe them. Unless we understand each others axioms (math term for initial, unproven assumptions), we can never fully communicate. But then, this is one point made by Erich in his Pop Quiz entry.

I have literally pulled posts out of the ground and used them as beams. Had my post physically become something else? I’ve just redefined its use by 90 degrees. So a post is not so much a thing, as a definition of what you do with it. My beam still is a square cedar pole, it still bears something, and it still smells as sweet when cut short.

As I’ve decided to do with this post.

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Category: Communication, Language, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    If you asked me 20 years ago whether the study of language was electrifying or promising, I would have laughed and said a qualified "no." Qualified, because I've always enjoyed etymologies and I've always appreciated the general power of the written and spoken word.

    Now, however, my answer would be an unqualified yes. I have come to the realization that we don't think first, then use words to express those thoughts. Rather, we think WITH words. The drawback is that we can get slightly off-track in the earliest stages of intellectual endeavors by an innocuous-seeming sloppy association of a word with an idea or an impulse (for example, we often hear the straw man argument that there must be a God because evolution holds that everything is an "accident").

    Another way of saying this is that we can go off-track in the early-going by "reifying" language. The use of a word almost always presents options (and temptations) to attend to fewer than all of its many possible colors of meaning. For example, many people asserting that a legal argument “obviously violates due process,” fail to recognize that that small phrase (part of the two-sentence Fourteenth Amendment) has generated thousands legal decisions (many of them contradictory) over the past century. The sin of reification is the presumption that words can be understood without reference to the potentially wide range of beliefs and practices of the people who use such words. It is the presumption that the images one does associate or is about to associate with a word are (or should be) universally associated with that word. It is a fixation upon the words themselves, where one believes that the meaning somehow lies inside those words rather than in the people who utter those words, coupled with a false confidence that one’s momentary understanding of that word is the only reasonable understanding. Reification appears, indeed, to be yet another manifestation of the availability heuristic.  This idea is certainly not original to me.  It has been well expressed by writers including George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (see Metaphors We Live By, for example).

    I fear I'm droning on a bit. I'll wrap it up by suggesting that I no longer believe anyone can have a credible theory of ANYTHING without first having a theory of language. We must always take time to tend to the roots of our words or else our communication will be illusory.

  2. Ricky Koppel says:

    The mind seems to be creating thought as a communication from itself to our perceptions. I believe this because we do not know our 'thoughts-in-themselves', we instead must interpret our thought as one of two things of memory: pictures and language.

    When the mind thinks of a thing which can be represented in physical form, we use pictures, probably because a picture is a simpler tool of recognition than an abstract concept.

    If a thing cannot be pictorally represented, we use language. This is flawed by three things: speaker, listener, and the complexities which arise due to their assumptions. If a person uses the wrong term to describe a thing, the thing represented will be wrong. Likewise the lisener's interpretation can create the same flaw. In the third case the speaker may use the correct term, but the listener may have a slightly different interpretation of the concept (or perhaps even an entirely incorrect one). When a flawed concept such as this is built upon, it often takes extra pains not only to realign the two views but also to correct problems which arose from them.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    This quote from a sage character in Dune Messiah suits me: "I don't speak. I operate a machine called language."

    As was suggested, most people do their conscious thinking on a verbal level. But people also think non-verbally, at least sub/un-consciously. For example, I almost learned to read music as a child, and still can think abstractly in tunes and harmonies. This is a 2-D thought method made up of waveforms and time, and written as a line of deconstructed harmonies (stacked notes). You can think a tune, or even a symphony, without using either words or visual images.

    In junior high, I realized that I could visualize curves in 3 dimensions just by seeing the formula, and think in direct images and related mathematical models. Most of my classmates didn't have that peculiar knack. They were word-bound, stuck having to transcribe the symbols of math into graphs without intuiting the direct correlation these symbols have to physical or theoretical entities. Math is a language, one separate from pictures and words, and marginally expressed by either.

    When I need driving directions, I think in terms of durations, intervals, intersections, and absolute orientation. If my wife asks me which way to go next, I have to translate my inner 3-D map (North x East x Time) to her verbal mode of sequential lefts and rights. I just don't use those words in my head to express or process spatial ideas.

    The mind has many channels; many of these have been identified as located in particular areas of the brain. Understanding this internal multi-lingual basis was a great help for me to avoid the pitfalls of reification. If one is aware that some ideas may not even have an accurate verbal analogue, one is less likely to assume that a word means one precise thing (outside of a rigorous and limited framework such as a programming language).

    One of the few (somewhat) popular works I've read that emphasizes this idea is "Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought" by Pascal Boyer

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