Friday, August 25, 2006

The World of Words I

As a scholar and an academic, I live in a world of words. I read texts, I write texts. When I teach, I speak. When I grade, I read words. This being said, words are still quite puzzling things. Somehow the triad of 'thoughts -- words -- and the world' hang together to shape my world, and indeed most peoples.

Philosophers have had quite a bit to say about the relationship between words and the world. Think about the work of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein (both early and late) on sense, reference and related matters. However, it has always seemed to me that the relationship between thoughts and words is more mysterious. For instance, can one have a thought for which there are no words? Some would argue that one must be able to have such thoughts. After all, they maintain, if the mental world did not extend beyond the world of words, then where would new words come from? One hears something similar occasionally from frustrated students when they say "...but you know what I mean!", when an incoherent sentence in a paper is pointed out. More evidence seems to come from cases where one cannot find the words to convey, or describe a thought or experience.

Not everyone agrees that there can be thoughts which cannot be expressed in words. Or at least, that there cannot be coherent thoughts that are ineffable. The folks point out that it is possible to coin new words by developing novel combinations of old words. In a discussion I saw recently, the notion of a 'meme' was considered. The idea first appeared in the book The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Around thirty years ago, Dawkins was able to use words to introduce the world to this new idea. The case of the frustrated student with the incoherent sentence is easy to deal with too. After all, we can easily talk of 'square circles', or to adapt an example from Chomsky, we can talk of "Furry green ideas sleeping furiously". It is quite possible to believe that one is saying something sensible, when one is just confused.

The final case of the ineffable thought, or experience, seems more problematic. Perhaps these should be treated separately. An experience that goes beyond words is not really too uncommon. When one first sees the Rocky Mountains, many people have a desire to take pictures, which almost always are a disappointment. The breadth of the view can seldom be captured with a single photograph. Why should words be any different? Ineffable thoughts are a tougher case. However, in a trivial sense, by calling the thought an 'ineffable one', one has succeeded in naming it. So, it seems to me that, subject to the caveat that one is interested in the world of coherent thoughts, we should conclude that the world of thoughts and the world of words have some kind of close affinity. After all, even if one has the most brilliant, insightful and original thought ever, what use is it, if it cannot be shared?

The CP


Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

Your photograph of the Rockies analogy makes me think of Wallace Stevens' "Man with the Blue Guitar," who says, "I cannot play things as they are."

Also Williams Carlos Williams, who, of course, says there are no ideas but in things.

But especially Seamus Heaney, whose poems about the violence he has witnessed almost always boil down to meditations on his struggle to do both--to show the "thing" as well as the idea of thing. To give them equal weight.

In "The Grauballe Man," for instance:

"hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped."

I guess every poet is ultimately writing about language and, often, the failure of language (or the failure of the poet) but I think it is crucial to a lot of Heaney's poems and a major component of his obsession with bog bodies--because the bog bodies are the nearly perfect union of the material and the ideal.

Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" is also urgently concerned with the necessity of showing ideas as well as things:

"They carried the land itself Vietnam, the place, the soil -- a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity."

These are just texts that came to mind when I read your post.

Maybe later I will come back and tell you if I had a point to all of this. Right now, I'm not sure.

Maybe the point was ineffable.

8:04 PM  
Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

Re coinage: For me, at least, the term "bershon" is a new and awesome one. Thought you might be interested.

11:28 AM  
Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

re my point: Still haven't figured that out yet, but I look forward to reading more of what you have to say, and I will keep mentioning links and poets that seem to be relevant to your topic until you tell me to shut up.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Clampett said...

I'm puzzled with your approach here (not in a bad way.. I'm ignorant here and can't grasp the totality of your message)

If we are talking about politics, people like to control debates by employing a certain vocabulary.

Political Language carries certain axioms and presumptions that are often left unstated for the purpose of (please excuse my French)… mindfucking.


1. War department:: department of defense

2. damnyankee pinko commie agitator':: 'anti-oppression activist'.

3. million mom march ::victim disarmament

4. Baby-killing:: a woman's right to choose

In terms of being able to express new Ideas, new words pop up all of the time.

E.x.: Ani (yurugu) Marx (capitalism)

My mind-numbingly elementary thoughts here probably need expansion.

Thoughts? .

12:09 PM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Hi Toasty,
Thanks for the comments and the suggestions of poets. I have actually been thinking in terms of Seigfired Sassoon for the next post in this series (i.e. the second). There are some interesting questions about fictional worlds and poetry that I wish to address, because they have had relatively little philosophical scrutiny.

The points you raise are excellent. I am planning to address exactly these issues, probably in the third post in this series. I think that the way people can use words to make changes to the world, or least to the way that people percieve the world are particularly facinating. What is especially interesting is that this happens not just in politics, but even in everyday life. Consider some one talking about 'The man who lives next door', as compared to 'my morally bankrupt and degenerate neighbor'. There are even cases where people make up little fictions so as to justify their perceptions. All these matters, I hope to address.

On the face of it, it seems that both of you are further ahead than I am with this little project. I hope that you will keep watching and commenting. It is very helpful to me.

The CP

4:27 PM  
Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

Okay, I've got it. A point, or something like it.

I said, to Heaney, the bog bodies are a nearly perfect union of the material and the ideal. He can speak to the woman in "Punishment" (I'd leave a link, but all the sites I find with the text of the poem are lame and pop-uppy), for instance, as a woman--because she actually is, or was--he can "almost love" her. But those bog bodies, they're kind of like statues. They are art--humans that have become art.

I don't know...that's my half-baked theory on bog bodies, anyway.

On line, in the "blogosphere" perhaps the opposite happens with language. Heaney is free to "perfect" and idealize the bog bodies as victims of war or persecution–they are human and art at the same time–ideas embodied. Maybe on line we become disembodied ... people.


This sounds stupid, but I’m actually fairly serious. I’m me, of course, sitting here in my t-shirt and underwear with my stomach growling because I’m too lazy to get up and make a sandwich for lunch. But that’s not really who I am here in the blogosphere–I am an idealized version of myself, here. Fully clothed, well fed and toasty.

I don’t even use my real name, here, but I am as genuinely Toasty Sue as I am the lady who stands in front of my class full of freshman saying pretty much the same things to them as I say here.

I know that those who know me through my writing would be surprised by the reality of me. I know that Toasted Suzy looks differently than I do, Holds herself in a different way.

But she’s also me. She is not a fiction. Not entirely.

What I’m saying is that I think it might be possible to see this world of words (which is really a whole world composed of only words–pure idea) in some ways, as a truer version of reality.

Just thinking out loud.

1:13 PM  

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