Our Own Words

In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty famously declares that words mean what he wants them to mean. I’ve known people to declare the same thing — that, for whatever reason, they can use their own meanings for words. (To be clear, Lewis Carroll was mocking the idea.)

While ideas matter more than the words used to express them, it’s a lot more challenging to communicate and discuss those ideas without a shared vocabulary. A common language that is rich and detailed makes the expression of ideas all the more precise and accurate.

This is why con artists prefer convoluted language: it’s a mask.

It’s not that everyone who ignores conventional meaning is a con artist. There are legitimately smart people who simply lack the background to know the lingo.

In my experience, such people are usually more than willing to learn the common language given a chance. After all, it is the ideas that matter. Only prima donnas insist there is something “wrong” with communicating in a way that allows others to see their ideas clearly.

So it’s always a red flag to me when someone refuses to engage in plain words or in the shared lingo of the field. I can’t help but wonder why. Do they just not know how, or are they hiding something?

There is also that I believe genuine intelligence wants to communicate, wants to be understood. It’s not afraid to speak as plainly as necessary to get its ideas across.

Here’s the bit from Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything,…

Indeed, as anyone would be.

§ §

There is a general quote, often incorrectly attributed to Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein, that if one can’t explain something to [one’s grandmother| a six-year-old child| a freshman student| …] then one doesn’t really understand it.

While it’s not a true quote, I think it’s a true idea.

I think being able to explain something clearly enough that almost anyone can understand is indeed a true mark of understanding it. (The explaining may require some teaching, speaking, or writing, skills, but without the understanding, there is no use for those skills.)

I have found that nothing solidifies my own understanding as much as explaining, teaching, or writing, does. (Homework, when you come down to it, is getting the student to explain their understanding to the teacher.) Looking for ways to make something clear really does test one’s depth with the subject. This blog has been invaluable to me for that.

(To reiterate, teaching is a skill. I think there may also be talent associated with it, but anyone can learn the skills. And as with any skill, some practice is required.)

§

Language allows communication. Precise language allows precise communication. Goes without saying, right?

Math is the ultimate precise language, which is one reason it’s the language of science. Math is abstract, and its foundation is as universal as physical reality and the laws of physics. That universality makes it the language for alien contact — we’ll both necessarily have those common math concepts.

The language used to express those concepts differs, of course (see: Spelling Numbers), but the basics are easily and readily expressed. Such basics lead to a common notation, and that leads to ever advanced concepts.

The physical sciences deal generally with hard facts and concrete nouns, which, like math, can be referenced in various ways, so math and science combine to create a common lingo.

Obviously, attempts to find a mutual language require mutual effort and good faith. One could certainly, with ill intent, badly muddle attempts to build a vocabulary. (Might make an interesting science fiction story.)

§

There is a certain Orwellean component to the idea of re-defining words to suit one’s purpose.

Words are signs for ideas, and when language is deliberately manipulated to corrupt the links to those ideas, then a shared external reality becomes suspect.

We’ve seen this in play for decades in the Republican party, and it’s become a major factor in the politics of the last four years. The problem has become so severe, our society no long believes in common facts.

However, it’s important to recognize the difference between using language to communicate ideas versus using language creatively, such as all fiction writers, and poets especially, do routinely. They are not just allowed, but are expected to be, the masters of words (I’m just a smithy 😉 ).

I’m all in favor of creative language in fiction and poetry. It’s also wonderful for eulogies and a variety of speeches (retirement, commencement, etc). It can’t be beat in a love letter. Breaking the rules is fundamental to art.

But when it comes to getting one’s ideas across accurately, then I think it’s best to play by strict rules. It’s a lot like how we’ve agreed to spell words the same way, just on a much higher level.

[As an example, I’ve found that, for my taste, historian/author James Gleick is too creative and poetic with language. I recently read The Information, (2011) and had the same problem I did with Time Travel: A History (2016). I find his style distracting and, therefore, detracting.]

§ §

NOTE: This post has been in my Drafts folder for almost a year, and if I recall correctly, I copied much of the text from an older draft, so parts are more years old. (I’m in the process of trying to clear out my Drafts folder for the new year.)

To the extent it’s about anything or anyone specific (and it really isn’t), those events or people are years in the rear view mirror. I’ve let the post age expressly to disconnect it and make it general.

I wonder sometimes if people are unwilling to be specific and clear in order to avoid being wrong. I know people who do operate that way — there was a gal, call her “Judy,” back in the day. Judy was what I call a SPitR (“spitter” but no spitting is implied).

A SPitR is a Smartest Person in the Room, and, to be clear, the title is legit. Such a person really (usually) is the smartest person in the room, and such people get very used to being right nearly all the time because they are right nearly all the time.

Nearly. Everyone is wrong sometimes.

The other important word is “usually” — usually the smartest person in the room. Sometimes someone smarter comes along, and the reaction a SPitR has tends to divide into either, “Great, I can learn from them!” or “Oh no, they make me look bad!”

In some cases the latter causes issues, which brings us back to “Judy.” Who was legit smarter than most people and was almost always right. To the point she couldn’t handle being wrong. Judy had a phrase she used any time she was confronted with having said something that turned out false. She’d always say, “I lied.”

She’d say it with a smile, as a joke, but people’s language gives them away (especially the things they repeat). She was incapable of admitting she was wrong. I found it quite remarkable the night we got into a debate about whether jazz was an improvisational music form. In the end, the matter was settled when she said, “This is my house, therefore I’m right.” There isn’t much one can say to that. (Too bad we didn’t have Wikipedia back then, although I’m not sure even Google beats a full “My House!”)

Anyway, to wrap up a long story, it stuck with me ever since as a lesson about a trap that even very smart people can fall into. Don’t get too used to being right; learn to admit when you’re wrong. (Turns out you learn more that way.)

§

The history of science is filled with some of the smartest people ever latching onto a fantastical idea they couldn’t let go of. One might point to SUSY or string theory as modern examples. It’s kind of a good-money-after-bad thing. People get invested, especially in their own ideas.

But I think that, when an idea — for whatever reason — isn’t physical, it’s a mistake to take it too seriously.

Note that SUSY and ST have logic, even math, associated with them, so it’s not that these ideas fail to be logically grounded. It’s that they fail to be physically grounded. There is no unexplained observation or data that demands the hypothesis.

As I referred to above, our culture has become, in my eyes, mired in the fantastical. (It’s resulted in, among other things, a lot of what I call “semantic confusion” but that’s another post.)

Much of our current culture is based in fantasy, be it Star Wars, Star Trek, superheroes, Transformers, Aliens, Predators, killer robots, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, dragons, magic, astrology, tarot, religion, angels, spy stories, detective stories (in which ordinary people solve murders), video games, fan fiction, comic books, romance fiction, in fact most fiction, and the list goes on.

Which is all fine. Really. It’s fine. It’s not a problem.

Unless it’s too much of your reality.

Unless you take it too seriously.

§

I’ve realized rather recently that the clause of the Leon Wieseltier 10-Word Triplet I originally thought the least of the three is, in fact, as important, if not more so, than the first two:

“Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”

“More physical reality” is what I’m talking about. I’ll get into it more next time.

Stay physical, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

48 responses to “Our Own Words

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This is a tough one because the call is coming from inside the house! The problem isn’t the other party; it’s us. All of us. It’s this soma-soaked modern culture and its wide variety of opiates for the masses.

    It’s an uncomfortable message, but the proof is all around us.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Great post!

    My husband came up with a phrase he uses to describe certain academics who refuse to be clear and simple—muddy puddles. It comes from Nietzsche, I think, and it goes something like, “They muddy their puddle in order to appear deep.”

    These people don’t have what it takes to be the smartest person in the room, but they want to appear to be.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, thank you!

      Great way to put it, and, yes, exactly. Drop a pebble into those muddy puddles and it doesn’t sink out of sight.

      Two electro-mechanical engineers I worked with for several years fell on both sides of the divide. The older one, kind of a seat of the pants guy, was, no mistake, an outstanding engineer, but generally a practical one. At one point there was an issue with a system we sold being overly sensitive to static. (The irony is that it was an anti-static device!) The older one had worked on the problem for a while, throwing different possible fixes at it. It’s what we call the Edison approach — try everything.

      But that approach isn’t based on theory or foundations; it’s basically very educated guesswork. The younger engineer was an EE major. When he got involved, he looked at the circuit for a while and then suggested they try adding a few capacitors to certain parts of the circuit. They did, and the problem vanished. It demonstrates once again the value of foundation and (well-known, established) theory.

      More relevant to muddy puddles (and make no mistake, the older guy was a very good engineer; definitely a legit SPitR), when he wrote code to support some gadget that ran with software he deliberately used meaningless variable names and never wrote comments. He saw it as job security, and given the combined threat of his age and lack of foundation, he may have been right to be concerned about the real experts.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Speaking of con artists and false words, I just cleaned my Spam folder of six different spam comments. Each of the six used a completely different approach — completely different bullshit — but (hysterically) all six link to the same URL.

    (The same damn URL I get the bulk of spam from lately — some link about hairstyles. I really wish the governments would consider military action against spammers and hackers.)

    ((And don’t get me started on the damned robo-calls!))

  • landzek

    I’m going to push back with two things that directly contradict your proposal.

    (1) there are many things I understand perfectly without being able to explain them to someone else.

    I think you’re confusing a couple things in your proposal. I think your assumption is humans always communicate, it’s just whether or not that communication is successful, and whether or not we like what is being communicated. I would submit that the simple fact that I do not agree with this notion exemplifies it’s proof.

    Now, I think you understand perfectly what I’m saying. But have I communicated to you what I understand?

    I would say no.

    I am getting from your post that you have a certain amount of faith in a certain idea and so you see it everywhere, and where you don’t see it, you proclaim that it is wrong somehow or incorrect. That it is not only in correct way of communicating, but you also condemn the person for not understanding. I think you are somewhat short sighted in your estimation of what knowledge is.

    But also, that your proposal is very useful. For sure, it is useful to get certain things done. So if we are trying to get something done, then great. But then I would ask, what is this great project of humanity trying to get done?

    (2) with certain ideas, no matter how precisely I communicate my exact understanding, no matter how simply, the simple understanding will never be communicated.

    I have a feeling that you would say to me but this that, first, the person is not using the language correctly. Probably second, that what they are trying to communicate they don’t really understand. And third, that some sort of communication is occurring but the first person is not liking what they are communicating, or the second person for that matter lol.

    Well I think your proposals are true within a certain domain, within a certain effort and purpose, I do not think that they can be stated to be true across the category that we are calling the human being. And I would say that given 100 people at random who are, given say, a certain level of intelligence, the fact that we continue to discuss a persons ideas, shows that we are not understanding that person’s idea.

    The perfect example is Plato. Probably one of the earliest intellectuals that we still talk about. I would give as evidence of no communication occurring simply by the fact that we could get to philosophers who understand Plato thoroughly to talk for hours and hours about what Plato is really saying.
    And I think this occurs even with people who are contemporary.

    Sorry the long comment.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Firstly, welcome new visitor. I don’t know if you’re just passing by, but we have no problem with long comments here. 🙂

      Secondly, I use an old-fashioned early internet style of quoting and replying that I’ve sensed some modern users are taken aback by. It’s intended to be conversational, not confrontational. Like we were chatting over a beer.

      “I’m going to push back with two things that directly contradict your proposal.”

      Okay, although, as it turns out, maybe not. 😉

      “(1) there are many things I understand perfectly without being able to explain them to someone else.”

      For instance? How are you sure you really understand them?

      “I think your assumption is humans always communicate, it’s just whether or not that communication is successful, and whether or not we like what is being communicated.”

      Whether we like it or not is a separate issue. It is, indeed, a huge impediment to communication when people’s feelings are engaged. The goal of the dialectic is to keep a discussion based solely on facts and rational argument.

      I’m not sure what to make of the first part. Humans don’t always communicate, and when we do that communication obviously isn’t always successful. There are a lot of reasons for that, emotions being just one, and this post was about reasons that intentional intellectual communication can fail.

      “I am getting from your post that you have a certain amount of faith in a certain idea and so you see it everywhere, and where you don’t see it, you proclaim that it is wrong somehow or incorrect.”

      That’s a very impertinent assertion for someone who doesn’t know me. I assure you, I’m grinding no particular axe. (If anything, it’s hundreds of axes over many years; a trend I’ve observed.)

      “…but you also condemn the person for not understanding.”

      Dude, I’m a teacher. I see someone not understanding as an opportunity.

      “I think you are somewhat short sighted in your estimation of what knowledge is.”

      That’s beyond impertinent. You have no idea what my estimation of knowledge is.

      “So if we are trying to get something done, then great. But then I would ask, what is this great project of humanity trying to get done?”

      Teach each other. Understand each other. It doesn’t require a great project, tiny ones need clear communication, too. Even just having a good debate requires clear communication.

      “(2) with certain ideas, no matter how precisely I communicate my exact understanding, no matter how simply, the simple understanding will never be communicated.”

      This is another version of (1) — your inability to communicate your understanding. (Is it possible you might need to work on your communication skills?) As I said in the post, it is a skill, and it does require both training and practice. What have you done to improve your ability to communicate what you understand?

      There is also an important distinction between understanding and agreeing. I know a number of people who believe if they explain their (demonstrably incorrect) opinion in enough detail, that understanding must lead to agreement. Which is 100% false; they are separate things.

      Sometimes understanding means recognizing the other person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

      “[F]irst, the person is not using the language correctly.”

      Absolutely. Always a possibility.

      “[S]econd, that what they are trying to communicate they don’t really understand.”

      Again yes, always a possibility.

      “[T]hird, that some sort of communication is occurring but the first person is not liking what they are communicating”

      Also possible, but note that, in this case, it’s not the transmitter’s fault, but the receiver’s. As I said above, when people’s emotions interfere, communication is iffy at best.

      “Well I think your proposals are true within a certain domain, within a certain effort and purpose, I do not think that they can be stated to be true across the category that we are calling the human being.”

      I never claimed they were! I am describing exactly the situations that require that “certain effort and purpose” — that is, generally speaking, intellectual ones. As I said in the post:

      “However, it’s important to recognize the difference between using language to communicate ideas versus using language creatively, such as all fiction writers, and poets especially, do routinely. […] I’m all in favor of creative language in fiction and poetry. It’s also wonderful for eulogies and a variety of speeches (retirement, commencement, etc). It can’t be beat in a love letter.

      “[T]he fact that we continue to discuss a persons ideas, shows that we are not understanding that person’s idea.”

      It depends a great deal on the person and the ideas. People like Kant or Plato had amazing ideas that we’ve been dissecting ever since. A lot of that has to do with the complexity of those ideas. With such rich ideas, especially if they weren’t entirely clearly laid out (as is the case for both Kant and Plato), it’s understandable we’d be discussing them years later.

      But most of us aren’t Kant or Plato. 😀

      All-in-all, I’m not sure what you think you’re contradicting. I quite agree people fail to communicate. I’m saying it’s a failure that can be corrected.

      • landzek

        Ok. Well that’s good. Of course. I was just going off of your post here. And we don’t know each other— yet!

        So far as knowing something truly that no matter how precisely you communicate I will never understand:
        Look up from your phone or your computer, or whatever device you’re using for this blog communication now: I challenge you to Communicate to me precisely what you see so I can understand it exactly.

      • landzek

        “…A failure that can be corrected…”For the communication of ideas.

        (Btw: I like the quote ing and addressing specific points like you did. But I mostly do this on my phone, so. It’s very cumbersome to do that)

        Another challenge for you: communicate to me the idea of “noise” precisely so I know exactly what your idea is.

        My point with Plato was that his ideas are quite simple. And yet people still debate what they mean: obviously, what he was attempting to communicate, yet something he understands perfectly, is not being communicated. This is patent simply because “very smart people” are the ones who keep debating his ideas.

        My point is that if the truth of an idea is communicated exactly by using precise language, then there would be no further discussion. We could say “idea 5.2a”. Or “goodness”. Or “velocity 12 in rubric 6n-4”. We would all know exactly what it is and means. And we would use it. End. Communication achieved. Next communication…

        The fact that this normally does not occur is evidence that, in most situations, precise language is insufficient. Sure, a general notion about something someone is trying to communicate happens…

        …But then also: how would I know if someone understand me?

        They repeat back time exactly what I said? What if they use different words and phrases? How am I able to know they really understood the idea I am communicating ?

        Communicate to me precisely the rock outside your house so I may know it exactly. Or the idea of that rock skipping of the surface of water 2 weeks from now at 4:50pm by someone else you’ve never met? Surely that is an idea.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I challenge you to Communicate to me precisely what you see so I can understand it exactly.”

        You mean describe what I see such as fiction authors do routinely? Of course I could spend the thousand words a picture is worth doing that. I could use more words to describe the context and my feelings and the history of living here and how and why I bought it and a great deal more if I cared to take the time. You experience that sort of thing every time you read fiction.

        “But I mostly do this on my phone,”

        Oof dah! My condolences! 😮

        “Another challenge for you: communicate to me the idea of ‘noise’ precisely so I know exactly what your idea is.”

        Noise? Where did noise come into it? Are you referencing some other post? I have used the term elsewhere, but not here, so I’m curious why you brought it up?

        When I do use it, I’m metaphorically referencing the technical sense “signal to noise ratio.” So it means anything that isn’t “signal” — i.e. the substance of whatever. It’s a generic metaphor, so a more specific definition depends on how and when I used it.

        “My point with Plato was that his ideas are quite simple.”

        Oh, god no! Quite the opposite, Amigo. Firstly, people like Plato and Kant and Newton and Einstein were geniuses. Also, keep in mind they were explorers — the first to deal with new concepts. Some of their fame comes from being first.

        Secondly, don’t assume they were perfect. Sometimes they were vague, even wrong. Because they were the first to explore the ideas, much of what they did is partial, sometimes misguided. Sometimes they didn’t make much sense; their own understanding may not have been perfect. (Whose really is?) Some of the debate is an attempt to clarify or correct that.

        Thirdly, most importantly, complex ideas don’t have simple answers and often don’t have single answers. The bulk of modern debate of the Old Masters involves dueling ideas and attempts to explore the complexity of the topic.

        (And, fourthly, very few people today actually debate Plato except in college or on TV. Our philosophy has gone far beyond those beginnings. Plato got a lot wrong and he didn’t know a lot of what we know now.)

        “My point is that if the truth of an idea is communicated exactly by using precise language, then there would be no further discussion.”

        No, I’m sorry, but that’s just flat wrong. Complex ideas do not lend themselves to simple or single answers. With complex topics sometimes there’s no obvious correct solution. Mathematics alone has countless examples. Quantum physics is a morass of competing ideas. So is the study of consciousness. Politics likewise.

        Most of life isn’t simple and doesn’t have obvious answers. Chaos theory insures that and so do various complexity theorems. That’s why we discuss stuff — it’s really complex and there are no clear answers.

        “We could say ‘idea 5.2a’. Or ‘goodness’. Or ‘velocity 12 in rubric 6n-4’. We would all know exactly what it is and means.”

        😀 Do you know the joke about the 1001 Jokes book and “#821”? (See this post.)

        “The fact that this normally does not occur is evidence that, in most situations, precise language is insufficient.”

        Compared to what? Do you have a better alternative?

        Look, communication will never be perfect unless we can experience each other’s mind. We’re stuck with the best we can do, and all I’m saying is that precision and clarity improve communication.

        Are you really arguing against precision and clarity?

        “…how would I know if someone understand me?”

        By reflection or echoing or questioning. In all cases, it’s a back-and-forth that zeros in on mutual understanding.

        If you explain something to me, I echo back my understanding. Essentially I present the mental model I’ve built of what you said and you refine that understanding until you’re satisfied that you’re hearing back an acceptably accurate version of your mental model of the idea.

        “They repeat back time exactly what I said? What if they use different words and phrases? How am I able to know they really understood the idea I am communicating?”

        Because they use their own words and phrases. As I said, they present their mental model of your idea. The mutual back-and-forth is a form of error checking.

        “Communicate to me precisely the rock outside your house so I may know it exactly.”

        Fiction authors do this routinely. You just did it in the paragraph you wrote.

        But to repeat, this isn’t the kind of idea I’m talking about. I’m talking about intellectual discourse — the exchange of complex ideas, not a lyrical description of of some physical scene (it’s a lot easier to just send a picture).

        Also to repeat, that something isn’t perfect or doesn’t fit all situations doesn’t condemn it. Tools are specific to situations and are rarely perfect.

        I have to ask again, are you arguing against precision and clarity? Are you saying it’s impossible to ever communicate. (Since I’ve done it many times I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.) I’m not really clear on what you’re arguing against.

      • landzek

        “I challenge you to Communicate to me precisely what you see so I can understand it exactly.”

        You mean describe what I see such as fiction authors do routinely? ]

        No.

        My position is that I know things surely that I can never communicate precisely to another person.

        and, that no matter how precisely I communicate, another person will not know exactly what I am trying to communicate.

        You said those are incorrect and (1) how do Iknow what I know is so true, and (2) am I using language well enough.

        I submit that your responses are too general, not precise and idealistic.

        Describe to me your idea “reality”. this is surely an idea. Surely there is a concept of reality in there for both of us somewhere which is allowing us each know what I am talking about when I say “reality”. So use precise language and tell me about yours so I might know it truly.

        Are you thus saying that you do not know well enough what reality is because we can only describe it in metaphor?

        and thus are you admitting that you cannot use language precisely enough to communicate reality precisely?

        My point is that only under certain conditions is your proposal true. Only in attempting to get certain things accomplished.

        So I ask to your general idea and proposal of communicating thing precisely, that one does not know something is they cannot communicate it to another so they know, and the failure of ones ability to use language well enough: just what is the grand project that you are attempting to accomplish that your ideal is that language cannot yet communicate everything but we human beings are not yet skilled enough to do so?

        I asked you to communicate to me, so that I might know your concept, your idea, of what a rock is, precisely. And you offered me literary metaphor. why? I want to know precisely what that rock is. What are you assuming in your metaphor that I will understand without the requirement of communicating it to me with precise language?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “My position is that I know things surely that I can never communicate precisely to another person.”

        Well, of course! I never said otherwise. As I just replied, “communication will never be perfect unless we can experience each other’s mind.” This is simply about improving communication.

        You didn’t answer my question about whether you’re arguing against clarity and precision or what a better alternative is. If your point it that communication is never perfect, I agree; it goes without saying.

        “…no matter how precisely I communicate, another person will not know exactly what I am trying to communicate.”

        Depending on what is being communicated I can’t agree. If my intent is to communicate that we should meet for lunch at a given restaurant at a given date and time, I think I can communicate that precisely. If I saw a great movie or read a great book, I could likewise communicate that.

        I could, depending on your interests, teach you about math, quantum physics, computer software, digital electronics, skydiving, baseball, music, movie making, television production, craft beer, science fiction, mystery novels, or a number of other topics where I know enough to explain them to others. I guarantee, if you paid attention, you would know more after than you did before.

        Could I teach you everything I know? Of course not. No one can.

        “(1) how do Iknow what I know is so true, and (2) am I using language well enough.”

        The first answer in both cases is “study and practice.” Look at it another way: If you were a baseball player, how would you become a better baseball player? Study and practice, yes?

        Specifically with regard to (1), we all create mental models of the world as we understand it. Sanity, to some extent, is a measure of how accurate our model is. Within that model, what we consider true is based on what’s called our justified true belief. A fact has to be true to begin with, then you have to believe that fact, and finally there needs to be a justified reason for believing that fact to be true.

        The canonical example is: How do you know the Sun will rise tomorrow? If it’s cloudy tomorrow, how do you know it did rise? Exploring that gets into epistemology, which is the study of what we can say we know and why we can say it.

        “I submit that your responses are too general, not precise and idealistic.”

        Well, of course. I’m discussing a general topic not any specific situation. And of course it’s idealistic — goals always are. That I can never reach the mountain top of perfection doesn’t make the mountain not worth climbing. Just because I can’t be the best baseball player doesn’t mean I shouldn’t work my ass off trying to be a better baseball player.

        “Are you thus saying that you do not know well enough what reality is because we can only describe it in metaphor?”

        I’ve never said or implied that. Describing reality is one of the most complex topics in human experience. Describing reality is what we call science, and if you want me to describe my understanding of reality what I do is point you to the current scientific understanding of reality. I’ll also point out the philosophy section for a lot of thought about reality. And then I’ll point you to the literature section for even more consideration of the human condition.

        “My point is that only under certain conditions is your proposal true.”

        Dude. I have never said otherwise. I do say it applies to a lot of conditions, but I have been explicit about situations where it doesn’t.

        And, again, what are you offering as an alternative?

        In what situation would you recommend not being as precise and clear as possible?

        “…just what is the grand project that you are attempting to accomplish that your ideal is that language cannot yet communicate everything but we human beings are not yet skilled enough to do so?”

        No grand project; ideals are just goals here. But definitely many people do need to work on their communication skills. In baseball terms they’re swinging and missing.

        “I asked you to communicate to me, so that I might know your concept, your idea, of what a rock is, precisely.”

        Read a geology textbook. I would essentially say the same thing if I cared to take the time.

        Once again, rocks are a complex subject. On what level do you want to discuss rocks? A particular rock? A type of rock? The history of a given rock? Do you want the atomic structure? Depending on exactly what you’re asking for, it could take a geology textbook, a history book, a chemistry book, or a quantum physics book to answer.

        I’m saying answers are possible, but they’re long and involved, and I’m not going to take the time to create one about rocks. And no one has a complete picture of reality, but a lot of mine can be found in the 1000+ blog posts I’ve written here. 😉

      • landzek

        You’re making me a little bit worried about what our kids are being taught. Lol.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Rightly so. Our education system is atrocious!

      • landzek

        I’m pretty much going on exactly what you posted. And then pretty much exactly what I replied and then what you replied to that.
        Lol

        So. I’m not sure about all this other stuff. It appears to me that you’re a teacher, but it doesn’t seem like we’re involved with learning together.

        I approach teaching and learning as if we are all students. It appears to me that in your post you put out some rules by your proposals, which I challenged. And then you bringing all these disclaimers.

        For someone who poses that someone really doesn’t know some thing unless they can clearly communicate it, it seems like you were very confused about what you might know. Because you’re just communicating a bunch of random things brought into the conversation. It appears to me very much like we aren’t communicating at all .

        How ironic. Lol

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, wow, my feelings are hurt. You’ve turned your misunderstanding and misinterpretation of my post and words into insults. You seem to have come in here with an axe to grind, and you seem to oppose what is a very simple message: clarity and precision are a good thing in communication.

        I have to ask: are you a Republican?

      • landzek

        I have no axe to grind. I took specific things that you said. And I challenged them. Clearly. Precisely. I summarized what you said I stated my difference of opinion. Maybe I talked a little bit about what that might imply about you. But And then you backpedal to say that that’s not what you meant. That’s all. I don’t have any ax to grind.

        To me, the best way that we both learn is to come out strong, and stay engaged.

        Your post is a very strong statement. But it appears to me that you don’t want to continue to engage with me around that.

        – You’re saying that you can’t really know something unless you can communicate it clearly.

        Is that not what you said?

        I’m not just attacking you. I was entering a discussion with you based on what you posted, and then you didn’t want to discuss what we were talking about, it seems to me.

        You talked about using precise language to communicate something clearly. Where was I not clear in what I was addressing?

        And then, judging from your responses, you don’t really mean what you said in your post. Because then you start talking about all these other disclaimers in our interaction.

        I’m not saying that you’re wrong with these disclaimers, but that’s not what you are saying in your post.

        So it seems to me, from my perspective of reading these things, that you’re jumping around. You’re not engaging with me in the discussion. You’re just discussing whatever comes to mind, that’s how it appears.

      • landzek

        My approach to learning is that I am inherently wrong and incorrect what I say. And so everything that I guess with a discussion with, is an implicit question. And it was this far to be challenged on what I said specifically. That is how I approach discussion and learning.

        I am definitely not a Republican. Lol

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I took specific things that you said. And I challenged them.”

        No, you challenged your misinterpretations of what I said and then ignored my attempts to set you straight. That’s not progress.

        “Your post is a very strong statement.”

        My post argues that clarity and precision (and standard language) are a good thing in communication. I still don’t understand what you disagree with about that. Or if you do, indeed, disagree.

        “You’re saying that you can’t really know something unless you can communicate it clearly.”

        Let’s look at the part I think you’re referencing. I mentioned the well-known quote about the link between explaining something and said I agree with the truth of the idea. And I do.

        But just because an idea is true doesn’t make it universal or always applicable. That the ability to explain something is a very good litmus test for understanding it doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions.

        In the post I go on to say: “I think being able to explain something clearly enough that almost anyone can understand is indeed a true mark of understanding it.” Again, not a universal statement, just a truth that often applies.

        Note that the reverse is not true. It’s possible to understand something and not be able to communicate it effectively or clearly. Many of our deeper thoughts are like that; impossible to share. But being able to communicate clearly and effectively almost always is the mark that someone understands the topic. See the difference?

        “I’m not just attacking you.”

        Insults, by definition, are attacks. It’s ad hominem and has no place in discourse.

        “…and then you didn’t want to discuss what we were talking about, it seems to me.”

        What do you call what we’ve been doing? I sure have written a lot of words for someone who doesn’t want to discuss something. Is it possible you’re not hearing what I’m saying?

        “And then, judging from your responses, you don’t really mean what you said in your post.”

        Consider what an absurd statement that is. I don’t mean what I said in my post? Seriously?

        Isn’t it far more likely that you have not understood and that I meant exactly what I said? Let me assure you I meant every word.

        The only “disclaimers” I’m making are that nothing is perfect and nothing always applies. I’ve always thought those went without saying.

        “My approach to learning is that I am inherently wrong and incorrect what I say.”

        People say that a lot, but you seem unwilling to recognize you’re wrong about what I’m actually saying in the post and here. I choose words thoughtfully, so maybe slow down and accord them that thought?

      • landzek

        You have a different understanding of communication than do. A lot of assumptions on others. A lot of assumption of universals that it appears you don’t see or do not recognize. And then, Because you don’t see where are you are universalizing, if I say something about that universal assumption, it appears that you were taking that I am attacking you personally .

        I apologize if you think I was attacking you personally. I was not.
        It’s ok though. I understand. encounter it enough. 🙏🏾

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “You have a different understanding of communication than do.”

        Apparently so.

        “A lot of assumption of universals that it appears you don’t see or do not recognize.”

        How do you know? What universals do you have in mind? I’ve said repeatedly nothing is universal, one size doesn’t fit all. There are very few things I consider universal, but as I’ve said, I am speaking in generalities here.

        What I mean by insulting is:

        “I think you are somewhat short sighted in your estimation of what knowledge is.”

        You call me short-sighted without making an effort to know what my estimation of knowledge is. And that was in your first comment.

        Later:

        “For someone who poses that someone really doesn’t know some thing unless they can clearly communicate it, it seems like you were very confused about what you might know.”

        I can assure you I’m not confused. If you think so, perhaps you have not understood me. Can you admit that might be true?

        You go on to say I don’t want to engage when clearly I am. Later you say I don’t really mean what I said in my post. I absolutely do.

        “I understand. encounter it enough.”

        Perhaps that’s due to your different theory of communication.

      • landzek

        Yes. It is. 😁
        My assumption going in to a discussion is that I am incorrect.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        In this case you should go with that assumption.

      • landzek

        I always do. But you have only succeeded in proving me correct. 💆🏽. Correct. That I am not incorrect. Lol.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Being incorrect is the best way to learn. Sometimes the only way given one doesn’t learn much when one is already correct. 😉

    • paultorek

      Hi Landzek! Another newbie to Wyrd’s site here.

      I think you’re absolutely right one point 1. The way I would put it is: cognition far outruns metacognition. There are a lot of cognitive psychology studies that illustrate this – not that I have them at hand. But to me the evidence that impresses most is the slow and spotty progress of analytic philosophy. If we had explicit access to our own conceptual structures, such analysis would be a piece of cake. It’s anything but.

      Of course, one could in principle react to this by saying that anyone who can’t provide an analysis of the concepts they deploy lacks object-level cognition as well as metacognition. But that’s crazy talk.

      None of this is to deny that becoming able to explain something to just about anyone deepens one’s understanding. That’s an understatement. Nice work if you can get it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sure, but none of that is what the post is about.

      • paultorek

        Forgive me, I know not what I do. (Metacognition joke.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, if you’re going to be so intelligent and gentlemanly (and funny) about it, mos def, Amigo. All three of those traits have high value around here.

      • landzek

        Cognition far out runs metacognition.

        That is interesting. I like it. And yet the very idea of metacognition is the position which sees it self or posits itself as encompassing or accounting for a cognition.

        I think I would even go so far as to say metacognition is just more cognition, continuing cognition.

        So it seems to me that your simple statement kind of accords with my work, what I write about. Or at least try to write about.lol

        In this way that you just put it, along with the notion that there really is, say, only cognition, that there is no manner by which to see cognition for what it is actually doing—

        I tend to say that we need to focus more upon what consciousness is doing, rather than what it is. So, with reference to our case here, what it is doing is actually developing a set of conditions, grouping a set of ideas together which propose to have a relation to a different set of ideas, actually a hierarchical relation: metacognition says some thing about cognition.

        Indeed, consciousness, despite what we want to argue, is able to function as though this is indeed the case.

        And yet, it doesn’t take very much thought or consideration upon the matter to see dad just as well cognition is just cognition, that there is no metacondition of cognition. Because cognition is always outpacing what is supposed to be meta-of the analysis.

        And so I say, both of these conditions are true, and I don’t know if you’re how philosophical you are, but there is a philosophy called “non-philosophy” by Francois Laruelle which describes this very condition of the relationship between metacognition and cognition such as I laid it out with reference to this series of comments. He calls it a unilateral duality.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Guys, you both have blogs. Please take this stuff somewhere else.

      • landzek

        Wow. Now that is amazing. It takes all kinds, I suppose.

  • Robin Goodfellow

    I enjoyed your clarity in both your post as well as your responses. Your attention to detail and understanding of the (English) language is conveyed clearly in its usage. The conversational approach to replies is admirable and refreshing.

    Insofar as communication (and the importance of clarity of the words, and the accepted usages of those words), understanding is integral for being able to express meanings clearly. Words have nuances, and writers and have a duty to capture those nuances. Otherwise communication breaks down.

    It’s not impossible to “talk” to someone without understanding a language completely, or rather it’s not impossible to be understood, at last partially, without having a complete mastery over a language. But as you have described and (I believe demonstrated) that with greater understanding comes greater clarity in communication; whether that be spoken or written.

    I was in Austria for about a month (A week and a half in Salzburg, and then another 3 weeks in Vienna) as a “J-Term” in college. It could be best described as a study abroad but limited to the month of January. Still, it was a great opportunity to visit other countries and experience culture rife with language that one may not normally find themselves. I didn’t even need to learn another language (though in hindsight I wish I had); only had to have a couple credits in a language OR culture class of desired J-Term abroad course. They offered accelerated classes on campus if one decided to eat the extra cost.

    I had taken Latin and French throughout high school but, that remains foggy after disuse over a couple decades (ouch, that admittance was somehow painful). And I mostly wanted the cultural experience at the time.

    Back to the Baroque architecture of Austria…We (as in I, and two other classmates) shared an apartment owned by our host family that lived below us. They provided breakfast, dinner, and a place to lay a drunken head from enjoying too much monk beer from a Beer Garten on a 22nd and 21st birthday. Would you believe it, if I told you that the kid that turned 21, turned 21 the exact day I turned 22. But he also shared my first name! And with a odd turn of events, this student was also one of the classmates that was in the same Host Family as me. Fiction is strange, reality is stranger.

    I had at least was brushing up the numbers and basic words by conferring and studying a little pocket dictionary. The two classmates, did not even prepare that much. So it fell on me to “communicate” what little knowledge and use of the language I had to ask “WTF is this fishy tasting pizza disguised as a BBQ chicken pizza”. That bite was pure culture shock. None of us were expecting it but we wanted to know what we were eating and she (the poor sweet elderly woman that she was that knew no english) wanted to know why our faces turned sour.

    I was able to convey and understand some meaning but regional dialects and colloquialisms often jumble up speech and made it impossible for us to “talk”. She ended up calling her daughter to interpret for us. Was definitely an experience and the daughter got quite the laugh out of it.

    But I think this anecdote shows the importance of understanding of a spoken language. Not to be confused with it’s mastery, as that is something that can be nurtured over time but never truly achieved (personal opinion as my understanding of the evolution of increases the more I delve into its murky waters). But the importance of having a baseline understanding is important.
    Without it, there is a failure of communication. And sometimes you just want to know why there is tuna fish on a pizza. Kebabs, however, were quite delicious. But I believe that had more Turkish origins but it was adopted into the culture as a kind of doner kebab (or a kebab dish you can eat with your hands, a gyro like sandwich). I was quite glad there was a Doner Bistro when I moved to my current locale that offered a familiar taste of kebab and currywurst and gluhwein. My apologies for the slight tangent.

    Using words “creatively” is subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and whatever cliche you want to use for that expression. Like you said, sometimes there’s just a sound or feeling or expression that poetic or ironic use of the language is able to express more deeply than the literal use. Does poetry, or other “creative-writing” (A term I slightly find almost condescending) fall into that SPitR category? Would you say that these fall more under constraints of “concision” rather than “precision”? The latter of which I think is which concern you are addressing in the the [OP]. Is your meaning that both of those qualities are even more important for that kind of writing to give it a greater depth or purpose (such as to capture a moment or “feeling” that can’t be expressed in normal verbiage?

    Are you someone who separates l from L in Literature?

    My philosophy is that words are a compression of ideas, and letters are further compression of expression. What you have written seems to align with this belief that ideas and understanding come before communication. What is your stance on the compression of words further like in shorthand? Using phonetic expressions to capture the sounds of words rather than the words themselves? I imagine “meaning” gets losts or distorted in its compression (such as using it for notetaking for interviews), but one can still extrapolate meaning even if it was not exact. Obviously the better you are at shorthand the better you are with the compilation of words. But I can’t imagine that it’s ever “exact”. Then couldn’t it be said that no matter how well we know a subject we will never know it completely? I can never know what it’s like to be an orange because I can never authentically be one. But I can imagine what it would be like by likening it to human experiences or emotions. This ultimately is a projection in which is why I think no matter how much we learn of a topic, an etymology of a word, that there will always be a loss of organic data packets being transmitted from one human to another, the conveyance of one’s own information to another.

    Great blog by the way!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ah, another new visitor! Welcome and thank you for the kind words; I try!

      “It’s not impossible to ‘talk’ to someone without understanding a language completely,”

      Absolutely. There is a spectrum from zero to perfect, and both extremes are rare. (The nature of the beast means there can be zero, but perfect communication is likely impossible without mind-swapping.)

      Synchronicity: Just last night I happened to watch The Art of Self-Defense (2019). In one scene, the karate Sensei is comparing the language of karate with spoken language, and mentions his students are all black belts in speaking language because they’ve been training for it all their lives. Good movie, BTW. Not at all what I was expecting (because I avoid trailers and reviews), and I really enjoyed it. I’ll post about it soon.

      Anyway, you could communicate somewhere on the spectrum with Austrians in part because you’re a black belt in speaking to people. We all are (although perhaps there is some variance among the belt colors).

      “Fiction is strange, reality is stranger.”

      Indeed. Stuff no one would buy in a book. I love the ones where a married couple realizes one of them is coincidentally in the background of some childhood photo taken long before they ever met. It’s amazing how many cases of that exist. (But in fact it really is just a matter of statistical odds given the vast number of photos taken in modern society.)

      “My apologies for the slight tangent.”

      I can hardly complain. My tangential tangents have tangents. 😮

      “Using words ‘creatively’ is subjective. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and whatever cliche you want to use for that expression.”

      Absolutely! “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout art, but I knows what I likes!” 😀

      “Does poetry […] fall into that SPitR category?”

      Well, as we agree, beauty is (largely) subjective, so it’s not something one can be expert in producing (or movie studios wouldn’t turn out bombs). It’s too ineffable for that.

      But one can be expert in knowing about an art form. If one has read a great deal of poetry, discussed it with others, even spoken with, or read about, poets, one might well be a SPitR with regard to poetry or any art form.

      And, of course, there can always be someone who comes along with even more experience and knowledge. 😉

      “Would you say that these fall more under constraints of ‘concision’ rather than ‘precision’?”

      Both are important. Certainly writing is learning to cut your precious words, but (as you say, per the post) being precise leads to clarity, too. (Probably, of the two, precision is more vital. It can survive verbosity, but concise vagueness seems much less helpful.)

      There’s an old joke about the huge ship that breaks down at sea, and no one on the ship can fix it, so they radio for help. The company sends out an expert by helicopter, the expert listens to the accounts, looks at a few dials, and then takes out a rubber mallet and pounds really hard on this one pipe for a few seconds. Then the ship is fine, and the expert presents the captain with a bill for $50,000. The captain is upset about the price. “You spent only a few minutes here and just pounded on a pipe! How can your bill be this high?!” The expert replies, “The $50,000 is for knowing where to pound.”

      Is that concision or precision? 🙂

      Your deeper question is about the value of either creatively, and while I do think they’re very valuable (even critical), art is more about feels than thinks, more about breaking rules (in interesting ways) than coloring inside the lines. To me, art is heart; skills just make it better (sometimes).

      “Are you someone who separates l from L in Literature?”

      I don’t have a binary mind, and I don’t ever think of it as “Literature” (except as a sign in the library). For me “literature” = “books” = “writing” and it’s all kind of one huge multi-dimensional spectrum.

      (Or, technically speaking, a configuration space. Are you familiar with The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges? It’s kind of like that to me.)

      “My philosophy is that words are a compression of ideas, and letters are further compression of expression.”

      I’m not sure I’m with you when it comes to letters. You mean “ABC” letters? What expression do you see compressed in those?

      Words can be seen as compressions of ideas. A common term is “sign” — words are signs for ideas. As with all signs, they’re small things that point to much larger things.

      “What is your stance on the compression of words further like in shorthand?”

      I don’t know enough about shorthand to have an opinion. FWIW, I do have a sense people who use often need to transcribe their notes while they still remember what was said. My impression is that shorthand is, in part, a memory aid rather than a fully accurate recording.

      “Then couldn’t it be said that no matter how well we know a subject we will never know it completely?”

      Absolutely. There’s always more to learn.

      “I can never know what it’s like to be an orange because I can never authentically be one.”

      That’s a different category of knowledge, and arguably a null category, since there is nothing “it is like” to be an orange. It’s like in acting class when they ask students to “be a tree.” One can apply one’s imagination, but it’s still a human trying to imagine something not imaginable.

      • Robin Goodfellow

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. And more so, for not getting “exhausted” with wordy replies. There are far too many people that take blocks of text as “offensive”. As a personal attack of some sort. I enjoy the discourse, as I find it a symbol for a channel of open communication: a conversation. And what could be more important than that in a time where many are feeling isolated or not heard?

        Once again, thank you for being engaging in both your post and your involvement with the commenters/followers and people as wordy as I.

        ([The title] sounds familiar.) / ([It] sounds familiar.) This is my empiracized look at the discrepancy between precision and concision. One in which I am being explicit in the information I don’t know [the title]; and concision [It]. Which I feel although alludes to the Title, it may also refer to the narrative’s contents such as plot and thus is ambiguous. Is this just a moot concern in the scheme of proficiency? Or is it something that is entirely dependent on the context?:

        eg. A surgeon that has back to back operations with people with the same name, but two different operations.

        Hopefully the medical staff are on point for no mixups in charts at that late in the game.

        [“Are you familiar with The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges? It’s kind of like that to me”]

        I think I had heard of the title, but after looking it up I feel that reading it can be very beneficial to me as it sounds relatable to something I’m working on.
        S
        [“I’m not sure I’m with you when it comes to letters. You mean “ABC” letters? What expression do you see compressed in those?”]

        Some details may be fuzzy because I’m recalling information from an old class.
        My studies of letterpress and bookbinding and the history of letters. I think serifs were made and altered to streamline and reinforce the structural integrity of the “type” (the term for the letters in the construction of letterpress). They were often designing and altering over time to make it cheaper to print.
        Some letters got merged and new consonant sounds were needed to adopt words from other languages. VV became W for example. And thus an evolution new ways in which to materialize ideas and a need driving it. Certain languages have sounds that don’t translate easily such as cyrillic. But there are connections to greek and latin within the cyrillic alphabet as well.

        Reductively, we are trying to capture sound and frequencies and record meaning and understanding. Orally, speaking. We of course control those vibrations organically and naturally (which can be measured mathematically in wavelengths, db, etc). Infants learning language use sounds…letters (in a way) to convey themselves. This of course doubles back to the [op] and the necessity of understanding for communication. You can’t teach something if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Paraphrasing.

        As an aside: Can you imagine the sound of words as you read them internally or only after they’re spoken? Do you have an internal monologue, in other words. I read somewhere some people don’t. Do you think that distinction alters or hinders their reception of information through symbols such as letters, (or the opposite for that matter)?

        [“Words are signs for ideas.”] Would explain the “sign” in sign language. Makes sense.

        I remember something about the Latin and Greek borrowing from the Phoenicians and, then time did it’s thing and morphed different languages as they spiraled out from the necessity for communication, the birth of civilization. The term phonetic stemming from that origin. (The hieroglyphic being a form of compressed information keeping similar to words) I don’t quite recall everything about cuneiform…

        Anyway…I think what I’m trying to figure out is why our Alphabets are arranged in the way that they are…Do you think the order is coincidental, mathemetal, or that the letters originally held meaning by themselves before the necessity of words? Would figuring this out help increase our ability to understand and communicate information? Would the emergence of new a universally spoken language be better than all of the permutations of language that exist?

        Sorry to badger you with so many questions and lengthy responses. Thanks again for the much needed intellectual discourse.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        To your thanks, I say, “I’m grateful for the appreciation, thank you.”

        “([The title] sounds familiar.) / ([It] sounds familiar.) […] Or is it something that is entirely dependent on the context? “

        I would say so, yes. It depends on what you want to achieve at that point. Sometimes writers play what’s called “the pronoun game” deliberately to hide information or just force another character to ask what they meant. The latter case is just a writer’s trick for exposition, but to some of us the deliberate use of the pronoun game grates a bit due to the ambiguity.

        But it totally depends on the author’s intent. (And, perhaps, skill. 🙂 )

        “I think serifs were made and altered to streamline and reinforce the structural integrity of the ‘type’…”

        (After college I worked in my dad’s graphic design shop for a few years, and my dad was way into type fonts, so I’ve picked up a thing or two.) I don’t know (one way or another) about structural integrity, but I do know serifs make reading easier — they make the type flow horizontally. Overly stylized publications aside, one never sees large amounts of text set with sans-serif.

        Of course, in this computerized world, everyone can play with fonts and the results, to one who knows a bit about composition, layout, and text, varies from hysterical to depressing. A lot of people (I’m not among them) have come to loath Comic Sans due to its overuse in nearly every poster anyone makes. 😉

        What I meant about letters versus words is that they encode different things. As we’ve touched on, words are signs for larger ideas. Letters don’t link to specific ideas. They’re more the “atoms” that we use to construct words (“molecules” if you like). We use those “molecules” to create compounds (sentences), and we mix compounds to create interesting substances (texts).

        So I see a dividing line between “atoms” and the things we make with them.

        Certainly the history of written language, including the atoms and molecules, is rich and interesting. My interests don’t generally tend towards linguistics or history, but I do want to look more into what many think is the birth of language and text: Ancient Sumeria.

        Some think the “bicameral mind” developed around then — the beginnings of internal dialog. At first people took it for the voice of the gods (it is thought). Neal Stephenson, in Snow Crash posits language as means to transmit memes — to program other minds. Religion, for instance, has been an astonishingly powerful and persistent human meme. (The original Dawkins meaning of meme, not the internet usage.)

        “Do you have an internal monologue, in other words. I read somewhere some people don’t.”

        I’ve had a rough draft of a post about that ever since HBO’s Westworld aired. But I need to do more research into the topic first.

        There are indeed people who claim to have no inner voice. Those of us with a strong inner voice invariably think they’re either lying or just wrong about their own mind. (I sure do. How can anyone not have an inner voice?)

        But I’ve seen an interview with a woman who claims to have no inner voice, and her answers to questions really has me wondering. When she writes, for instance, she constructs text intellectually — using grammar and keeping her goal in mind, she builds text. I keep trying to imagine that. When I write, I’m “speaking” in my head, no question.

        So it’s a fascinating topic, one I want to explore further. Was the bicameral mind the source of our inner voice?

        “Do you think the order is coincidental, mathemetal, or that the letters originally held meaning by themselves before the necessity of words?”

        No clue! I would guess, as is generally the case with language, that the alphabets just evolved over time. I don’t have any sense that someone constructed them logically — like how the Periodic Table was constructed. There was evolution to that, too, but it’s an attempt at a logical listing.

        “Would figuring this out help increase our ability to understand and communicate information?”

        Maybe, but I’m not sure I see how. Communication is a high-level skill, something we program ourselves to learn over time. Foundation skills with grammar and language certainly do help a lot, but I’m not sure what an analysis of alphabets would give us. Did you have something in mind?

        “Would the emergence of new a universally spoken language be better than all of the permutations of language that exist?”

        It’s been tried (Esperanto). We can’t even get everyone wearing a mask to save their lives (and mine). Humans are just too much natural assholes rugged individuals for much of universal anything.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I like Tina’s husband’s phrase: muddy puddles. It highlights a tendency I see in arguments that has always driven me crazy, particularly since I’ve gotten old and wary enough to detect it.

    But often people think they’re being clear. They do use common words in a common manner. It’s just that those common words aren’t as clear and concrete as they take them to be. Typically this shows up in the fact that they keep repeating the word or phrase as though the clear concept simply isn’t being appreciated.

    My usual approach is to clarify, at least according to my understanding, what the various underlying concepts are. Sometimes this works, and we end up discussing one of those particular concepts. But just as often I encounter resistance, particularly on certain topics.

    Sometimes I do think that resistance comes from the place you describe, an effort to avoid being wrong. But often I get the feeling the other person thinks I’m trying to pull a fast one, to overcomplicate a subject they feel is simple, and it’s a simplicity they’re just not willing to give up.

    I think there’s also another factor often at play. Each of us has certain ways of thinking about things. And we tend to express ourselves in terms of those ways. But another person approaches it in a different manner. And it’s not always easy to recognize that they’re converging on the same concepts, just from very different places. It’s actually very easy to assume there’s disagreement there, when there may not be.

    All of which is to say, there’s a lot to be said for clarity. But it needs to be paired with interpretational charity. Without both, it seems like discussions often devolve into people talking past each other.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Mike, in light of our most recent discussion about the MWI and quantum mechanics, and looking back at other discussions, I don’t know how to respond to this, and I kind of feel like it’s best I don’t.

  • landzek

    Ok. I’ve read the post again. I agree, teaching something helps me get more clear about what I think about stuff, but I don’t think it allows me to know something more surely. It allows me, kind of as a precipitate, kind of in relief, of what I’m saying, what I’m teaching, how I’m phrasing things, to come to a more sure idea of what the truth of the matter is. I would say that the words that I used to communicate a concept are always Slightly missing, or slightly off from what I’m really saying. And so the discrepancy between what I’m thinking and what I’m saying helps me no more surely what it is that I know. It is not that I’m communicating what I know more precisely. It is that the act of the attempt to communicate what I know more precisely helps me become more sure about what it is that I know.

    What it is that other people are getting from it is only partially involved in the communication likewise. For they are coming to meaning, coming to a more true understanding of what is happening through our communication, but I’m not communicating what I understand is true directly into them. And they are not gaining a better idea of what is true as some objective reality from the communication. I would say that they are coming to more full understanding of of the lack of communication, of where communication fails, and this helps them to gain more understanding of what they know as true.

    In some instances, yes, there is a kind of “banking“ ideal of communication and learning going on. Yeah I would say that also the communication itself exceeds this kind of banking theory of learning.

    I think you’re saying something a little bit different, and that’s why I say it depends what we’re trying to communicate, which I think you agree with.

    Yes if I’m trying to communicate math or geometry even, I’m going to communicate something with precise terms, I’m going to arrange them in a very precise way, and then my memory can solidify that Prasais structure such that I may re-iterate it to someone else. Yes. I think that’s kind of what you’re saying.

    But I’m saying more in the strictest sense of communication and knowledge, things do not really truly function in that way. Only in a specific arena within communication, within words and phrases, do things operate that fashion.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Ok. I’ve read the post again.”

      Good! 🙂

      “I would say that the words that I used to communicate a concept are always Slightly missing, or slightly off from what I’m really saying.”

      True, to one extent or another, for everyone. As I’ve said, it’s a skill that requires study and practice. True for musicians, true for athletes, true for communication.

      “In some instances, yes, there is a kind of ‘banking’ ideal of communication and learning going on.”

      I’m sorry, I have no idea what a “banking ideal of communication” is, so I can’t say if I’m saying something different.

      But once again, my message is simple: clarity and precision are a Good Thing in communication. In fact, poetry and metaphor aside, they’re almost never a bad thing — they never hurt even if they can’t always help.

      “But I’m saying more in the strictest sense of communication and knowledge, things do not really truly function in that way.”

      Okay, then how do they function?

      • landzek

        Yes clarity is not bad. But exactly what constitutes such clarity is not universal.

        Banking theory of education Comes out of Paulo Freire. . and also bell hooks.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Yes clarity is not bad. But exactly what constitutes such clarity is not universal.”

        Obviously not! At no point have I offered a definition of clarity. It’s a general concept, so naturally it’s not universal.

        “Banking theory of education Comes out of Paulo Freire.”

        Thanks. I looked it up on Wikipedia. It’s not at all what I’m talking about; I find it appalling.

        In my view education is mainly about learning to learn and learning to think (critically). It’s not about facts or dates or people, but what those facts, dates, and people, mean. The best thing any teacher can do is instill of love of learning and the skills to do so.

        That you think I would have anything to do with this “banking theory” shows how badly you’ve misunderstood what I’ve said and represent.

      • landzek

        Well, science education is based in banking theory. Sometimes is useful.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        But consider all the people who hate math (and can’t do it at all) and all those who are bad at science. The reason is often that they were treated as empty vessels into which to pour some static program of “knowledge” — often by a teacher with no understanding for, let alone love of, the topic.

        Many of the better science and math YouTube channels are filled with comments from people wishing things had been taught like they are in the video. These topics do require understanding to teach, and those YT channels are are created by people who not only understand but love the topic.

        We’d be way better off teaching children that way.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Synchronicity: I’m reading the last chapters of Philip Ball’s recent book, Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics Is Different (2018), and came across this bit:

    “Can it be right that the laws of Newtonian mechanics for our classical world, expressed in concise, prosaic words and sentences, must give way to something with the forbidding, abstract mathematical complexity of the quantum axioms?

    “Or is this just because we don’t quite know what we’re talking about?

    “When someone explains something in a complicated way, it’s often a sign that they don’t really understand it. A popular maxim in science used to be that you can’t claim to understand your subject until you can explain it to your grandmother.*”

    The asterisk points to the footnote:

    “* Here’s Richard Feynman again. Tasked with constructing a set of lectures to explain a particularly knotty aspect of physics to freshmen, he finally concluded that he couldn’t do it. And he interpreted this, to his eternal credit, not as an indication that the subject was too hard, but that he didn’t understand it well enough.”

    Exactly so! 😀

  • Wyrd Smythe

    😀 😀 😀 Just noticed this 2011 post of mine, CS101: Clarity Trumps Everything.

    I republished it on my software blog, The Hard-Core Coder, in 2014 as Rule #1: Clarity Trumps Everything.

    I’ve been into clarity a long time! 😉

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