Tuesday, August 29, 2006

World of Words II

In the last World of Words post, it was concluded that, subject to certain caveats, words, reflect the world of thoughts. This will be the starting point for this post.

The puzzle about the relationship between thoughts -- words -- and the world, is still somewhat occult, even if certain parts have been examined and, hopefully, clarified somewhat. Here I want to look at the role of words in creating worlds. One of the amazing things about language is that we can use it to create imaginary worlds. The many rich worlds of fiction come to mind here. The world of Harry Potter has been created entirely by the words of his author. Even though this world is not 'real', it functions every bit like the real world -- we can discuss and conjecture about these fictional people and entities, as we do about people and entities from our world. The limits of these fictional worlds are only imposed by the imagination of authors and the willingness of readers to engage.

One of the key mechanisms which makes this all possible, is the descriptive power of language. This is not the whole story though. Purely descriptive prose belongs in dry reports and would not do well in a novel. Another key to the possibility of creating imaginary worlds of words is the use of metaphor and metonymy. In fact, some theorists, like Nietzsche and more recently Lakoff have argued that metaphor lies at the root of the power of language. Needless to say, such views also have their critics. I think that this is a view with merit, so I will pursue it a little further here.

Nietzsche wrote an early paper with the title "Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense". In this paper, Nietzsche gives a deep insight into his views on language. I strongly recommend this paper. It is available, in translation, several easily found Nietzsche collections. In this paper, Nietzsche discusses the origin of the word 'being'. Apparently, it comes from the Greek word 'esse, which means 'breath'. The related root lies behind our terms 'essence' and 'essential'. If the notion of 'being' derives from the notion of 'breathing', then this would appear to be a clearly metaphoric relation. Humans, plants and animals quite literally draw breath, whilst rocks and stones do not. Yet, in an important sense humans, plants, animals and even rocks can be said to have being. In this case, a philosophical concept has been extracted by metaphor. This being the case, this appears to be a plausible mechanism from which the plethora of imaginary worlds may also spring from.

We can see the importance of metaphor also in poetry. In his famous poem "Vergissmeinnicht", war poet Keith Douglas describes the corpse of a soldier with the memorable lines "...the dust upon the paper eye and the burst stomach like a cave." Now, this is not the nicest of images. However, it is an extremely powerful one. Notice though how this description is replete with metaphor. The eyes of corpses are not made of paper. Burst stomachs are not caves. Yet, these words convey a great deal. Note that it is a real world situation that is purported to be being described. However, this helps to illustrate the extent to which this mechanism has the required power to create fictional worlds too.

So, by using metaphor, we can create. We also need to avail ourselves of description too. In looking at this issue, I hope that light has been thrown on the power that lies within language. Notice also, that we find ourselves in a position to support people like Lakoff who argue that metaphor is fundamental to our cognitive processes.

There appears to be an objection that comes up at this point: Isn't this argument, question begging? After all, did we not earlier choose to follow Nietzsche and endorse metaphor? I think that these objections actually miss the point. By exploring the power of metaphor, we have helped build a case for the plausibility of the thesis just noted. Had the explanation been untenable, we probably would have not found this to be the case. Thus, this objection actually lacks bite.

We may now link our two conclusions. Language is the mirror of thought, we concluded before. Now, we can add to this conclusion the further inference that metaphor is the 'engine' that drives thought.

The CP

5 Comments:

Blogger Clampett said...

"By exploring the power of metaphor, we have helped build a case for the plausibility of the thesis just noted. Had the explanation been untenable, we probably would have not found this to be the case. Thus, this objection actually lacks bite."

Exactly.

Methapor is powerful yes, but most importantly the most efficent means of painting the portrait of thought and more so a means of apporaching the world.

Recall that thought does not use language (if it does for you, you need to stop, that strangles the capability of your mind)

Suzette Elgin, a feminist leaning tharapist speaks of metaphor as a way of life in this defaningly insightful comment on the 'metaphor-split'

:The other thing that's going on right now, and I don't know how new this is, I don't know exactly where it started, but there is a very major split between the sexes in terms of the metaphor that they use to guide their behavior. For most American men, it's the football game. Most male adults operate out of a football game metaphor. Most female American adults operate out of the metaphor of the traditional schoolroom. And what that causes is the most incredible thing. It means that males and females use the same words with very different meanings attached. For example, the easiest one to understand is, if you're on a football field, it is not a lie to pretend you have the ball when you don't. It's not a lie to act as if you're going to run one direction and go the other way. That's the way the game is played. In the traditional schoolroom if what you say or do is false, it's a lie. Period. So what we have coming out of that is this constant business where the woman is saying, "You lied" and the man is saying, "I did not." And she's saying, "It wasn't true" and he says, "I know, but it wasn't a lie." When you run into that kind of thing, you know immediately these two people agree lying is wrong, but they don't agree as to what lies are.

We have the same problem with violence. Men and women define it differently. We have the same problem with cheating and cooperating and teamwork. Remember what cheating is in a traditional schoolroom? You have to work all by yourself with no help from anybody or it's cheating. On the football field, this just would not do. That particular item, that metaphor split, is what is the basic reason for all of the communication problems.

In my seminars, for example, I may have 500 CEOs before me and when I explain that metaphor split, all the men -- it's usually men -- they just look as if they've had an epiphany. And they say, "Of course, that explains it!" What's wonderful about it is that once both men and women know that that's the problem, they can deal with it. Once you understand that that's what's going on, you get an end to this breakdown in communication. I say to the men, When you can't communicate, ask yourself: if you were in a traditional schoolroom, what would be going on? How would people be reacting to what you're saying and doing? And to women, Ask yourself: if you were on the football field, what would be happening? What would be people's reaction to what you're doing? And it fixes it. Many people tell me that one piece of information is the most valuable thing they ever hear.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Clampett said...

btw, when speaking of thought, language is only a medium of expressing thought, just like Music and art.

When we confuse the medium for the substance, we fall into a trap and became detached from ourselves.

3:56 PM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Clampett, your example of the metaphor split from Suzette Elgin is quite interesting. I fear that it does not apply to me. I do not understand football! I'm not from the US you see. When I was in school, I rowed. Given that I spend quite a bit of my life in a schoolroom, I actually find that metaphor a lot more natural.

I agree that art and music are also mediums that can, in a sense, represent thought. However, my concern here is narrowly focussed on language. One reason for this is because there is something more direct going on when a person says "I am feeling sad", than say when we find them listening to Leonard Cohen.

I also disagree with your claim that,

"...thought does not use language (if it does for you, you need to stop, that strangles the capability of your mind)"

In the first post of this series, I attempted to address exactly this issue. There I argued that thought and language are, if not entirely indentical, very closely related to one another. If one stops using language (assuming that this is even possible -- something I have serious doubts about), then no matter what one's conclusions, then they must remain private. We need language to express thought. Without it, thought is impotent. If you disagree, I'd be facinated to hear your reasoning. I am aware that my conclusions could be mistaken.

This is not to say that there are not other serious problems. I am intending to attempt to address these in future posts in this series. Thanks for the comments though. I hope that you will keep reading. The first couple of posts were designed to set some ground rules. The next posts should be more interesting, when I try and address some of the issues you mentioned in your comment on the first post. I am trying to take slow careful steps here.

The CP

8:08 PM  
Blogger Clampett said...

Hey CP, Disagreement means we are having a good conversation,please don't hesitate to disagree again if you do, I have a relatively thick skin.

I’m enveloping your comments in a semi-staggered fashion, so please bear with me.

The CP: “your example of the metaphor split from Suzette Elgin is quite interesting. I fear that it does not apply to me. I do not understand football! I'm not from the US you see. When I was in school, I rowed. Given that I spend quite a bit of my life in a schoolroom, I actually find that metaphor a lot more natural.

I agree that art and music are also mediums that can, in a sense, represent thought. However, my concern here is narrowly focused on language. One reason for this is because there is something more direct going on when a person says "I am feeling sad", than say when we find them listening to Leonard Cohen.”

“This is not to say that there are not other serious problems. I am intending to attempt to address these in future posts in this series. Thanks for the comments though. I hope that you will keep reading. The first couple of posts were designed to set some ground rules. The next posts should be more interesting, when I try and address some of the issues you mentioned in your comment on the first post. I am trying to take slow careful steps here.”

About the careful steps, I have the bad habit of haste.

Don't worry, it's just my youthful ignorance and idiocy showing.

I’ll try my best to make that not happen again but I make no disclaimers about my idiocy and ignorance, I’m sorry that I can’t honestly disclaim them.

Elgin was taking about the US and her examples were intentionally simplistic as to demonstrate the power of metaphor in terms of conceiving the world around us. Of course some people don’t ever do that with metaphor and others use boxing, wrestling, war, love, rowning as you pointed out etc.

I included it as to bolster Toasted Suzy’s (if I’m not mistaken) excellent point about the notion of false realities created by language.

“Clampett:...thought does not use language (if it does for you, you need to stop, that strangles the capability of your mind)"

The Combat Philosopher: In the first post of this series, I attempted to address exactly this issue. There I argued that thought and language are, if not entirely indentical, very closely related to one another. If one stops using language (assuming that this is even possible -- something I have serious doubts about), then no matter what one's conclusions, then they must remain private. We need language to express thought. Without it, thought is impotent. If you disagree, I'd be facinated to hear your reasoning. I am aware that my conclusions could be mistaken.”

As a musician, (not a concert violist or anything; just a guitarist for ~10 years), I've reached the point where I can express emotion through music just as well, if not better than through language...If you didn't notice my horrible writing, (don't worry, im much better at speech. I'm had more that a few Teachers/professors recommend that I persue a career in litigation) Music helps me express things in a way I feel is not only more descriptive, but also more sincere.

Comparing writing and music.. For me, much less is lost in translation with music.

The modes, scales, chords, techniques (sweep picking, Rasgueado, etc, I’m STILL perfecting the latter) dynamics and whatnot are a vocabulary in expressing emotion.

Just as I can say words to express my thoughts without thinking about grammar, I can express emotional thought musically without thinking about where I am on the neck or what chord I'm playing, it just comes out. That took me 5 years to do, at first I just played and I’d constantly be looking at the neck with conscious awareness of the techniques I was applying, in the same way I write in Latin or speak in Spanish. I’d say that my ability to speak and play music are Ad eundem gradum in terms of expression coming from the ‘soul’; the core of being, While as you must observe, my ability to write is shallow and.lacking.

. So to me, music is just a different medium of expression thought.

Of course language is the only way to express certain thoughts, I can’t play music and express conceptual thoughts, just emotion and a ‘vibe’, Things I cannot express totally with language.

I think in language when dealing with language, but it isn’t the core of my being and experience, it’s just a medium.

I have thoughts, urges and emotions that go beyond language and music (as intentionally simplified examples of mediums, touching is among the best and most expressive of the others, but that;s a whole different conversation), and so does everyone else.

For example when you love somebody, aren’t you at a loss of words to describe your experience? Do you think ‘love’ or is there something else there that perhaps language fails in properly expressing?

9:28 AM  
Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

CP, I posted this over at Freeslave's blog in response to one of his brilliant and beautifully written posties, and I am rather proud of it, plus I think it is somewhat related to what you are talking about, PLUS I'm too lazy to simply rephrase everything I've already said over there, and SO, submitted for your philosohpically combative approval, I give you....pretty much the same shit I'm always saying, only with different literary references:

"Any time we begin to describe someone or something, we are putting it in a box. Any time we apply any sort of label (that is, any time we use language) I think we are confining the thing we are talking about to perameters more limited than those the thing really inhabits.

I'm not sure I really believe what I just wrote, but it sounds kind of cool.

Consider, if you're a nerd like me and versed in Tolkein, the Ent, Treebeard, who must give an abbreviated version of his name to the hobbits because saying his whole name would take days or weeks or months. His TRUE name is the story of his existance and all that he's touched and all that has touched him--it is a long long name.

So any time we name something, we are putting it into a box. The trick is to know that. The trick is to recognize the limitations of our perspectives and of our language when it comes to knowing one another--or ourselves, for that matter. And especially, as I think you have pointed out, to understand where our language comes from--where we find the words that we use to describe ourselves--the limitations of those sources.

This seems a paradox, but I am also reminded of a scene in Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions" when an artist explains his representation of "The Temptation of St. Anthony," which, at first, everyone hates because it is merely a band of yellow light on a green field. ("My five year old could paint that," they say.) And then the artist explains that the painting "shows everything about life that truly matters, with nothing left out [...] It is all that is alive in any of us--in a mouse, in a deer, in a coctail waitress. It is unwavering and pure no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us [. . .] Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery."

And then everyone loves the picture and the artist. But it took language to make them see the thing clearly."

Language, on the one hand, might be seen as a part of that "dead machinery," but, on the other hand it is the only way that we can have what is essential...or...something...I don't know.

Anyway.

Word,
Toasty

ps. I mean, "Word" as in Logos or Truth, as in "In the beginning, there was the Word."

The Beatles say "the Word is Love."

etc.

11:32 AM  

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