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June 18th, 2019
Be sure to check out Part I of First Principles
Language is a tool with many edges, all of them growing dull or sharp, sticky or slick. It shifts, drifts, morphs and bloats against our will and often fails to change as we might hope and wish. S.I. Hayakawa went so far as to say that no word ever means the same thing, ever. And he meant this with regards to every single use of a given word.
This is simultaneously mind-boggling in that it doesn’t make sense but also brilliant because it invokes the inherent uniqueness of every perspective at every given instance. When two people are looking at the same tree and they both point at the tree and indicate it by saying out loud the word “tree!”, they are not necessarily using the word in the exact same way. Each person is seeing a slightly different tree because they are viewing the tree from slightly different angles. Though our circumspection of such a situation is fast to gloss over this detail and garner what productiveness we can extract from the idea that these two people are talking about the same tree, it’s impossible to deny that each person is actually seeing something different.
This infinite malleability of language is both the key to it’s massive utility which has enabled us to build societies, and this malleability is also the core of danger that the use of language presents on a near constant basis.
When words begin to mean other things, it sends ripples of disruption that resonate throughout all levels of our human system. A substantial rift in the meaning of a word can quite literally put a rift in our system. This is most easily seen with words that have less concrete definitions. The number 5 as a word and a concept luckily has very little tendency to mean 8 or 72 or ‘unicorn’. Whereas the words ‘democrat’ and ‘republican’ refer to such a hazy and complex set of meanings that it’s unsurprising and quite funny that the parties represented by such words have swapped labels over the years. We can humorously wonder why exactly this has happened and if it has something to do with a greater similarity than we might first believe, but humorous wonderment aside, if we were to suddenly swap the concept of the number 5 with the number 8, all sorts of systems that rely on the order and quantity that each number represents would break, and financial systems, transportation systems, healthcare systems would all incur catastrophic problems.
In this respect, words and the concepts they represent exist on a kind of spectrum of specificity. The number and word ‘five’ is far more specific in it’s meaning than the word ‘republican’.
Part I of this topic ended with the question: What does first principles thinking mean when we think about language?
It’s certainly understandable for thinking on this point to lead towards the world of numbers. Mathematics presents a series of cognitive models that is often extremely useful for dividing the world down into it’s base parts.
But. Another way to rephrase the question about first principles and language is to take any given message and ask: what is this message actually communicating? With all the emotional, verbal and linguistic fat distilled, what is the core of the message? In essence we must constantly have one particular question form a filter for everything that we hear and read when it comes to words. That question is:
What does this word really mean?
In a time when we are so eager to speed read and engulf whole sentences as though they were mere words and gloss over things as we skim in order to ‘get to the point’ as fast as possible, we perhaps miss all the individual points that make up language.
How many people have really reflected on what the word fear means?
And yet this word, and the emotions associated with it often dominate our actions or lack of action in very negative ways. Is the word fear some sort of fundamental unit of meaning that cannot be further divided? Or can it be further extrapolated? And if so, can that be useful?
Episode 63 of Tinkered Thinking quickly unpacks the etymology of the word fear and unearths a deeper meaning that can paradoxically give a person more courage. This is a strange discovery. Just as it’s a strange discovery that a silver ring costing $100 could indicate that an artisan is operating at wage of 3.5 Million dollars an hour.
While we cannot stop the flow and expansion of language and it’s individual words, we can prevent ourselves from any risk of being swept away by any dangerous currents.
It’s only by mindfully investigating the core meanings of words that people are using and noting any new difference that has arisen that we can then intelligently react.
We can think of the meaning of a word like the direction of the wind. While sailing, if our sails are well trimmed, our boat is in balance with the wind in a way that propels us forward towards our destination. But the winds never stay constant. They shift, coming across our sails at different angles. If we fail to understand the shift that has occurred, then we cannot re-trim our sails in a way that enables us to keep going in the direction we wish. Even worse, our sails begin to luff, and with enough breeze they will rip and tear, rendering our boat totally incapable of getting anywhere.
Applying a kind of First Principles approach to language is not like having a perfect dictionary definition on hand for every word, but it is truly a practice – one that requires an acute awareness of current changes and their relation to what things used to mean. Whether a word has remained stable in it’s meaning or not, the core root that we are after in any moment is:
what does this word mean in this instance?
If we can mindfully understand any difference that has arisen in a word’s meaning, we do not lose the previous meaning:
We add in the same way today adds to the history books.
Often, when we see a shift in a word, we can understand the intentions of a person using such a word on a much deeper level.
The most famous recent example is captured by the phrase: alternative facts.
An understanding of the word fact makes it clear that the person who first used the phrase alternative fact, not only wanted to portray something that is not true, but that such a person also knew that it wasn’t true.
Any fact about a situation is unique. We can have alternative perspectives on a situation, in the same way that two people looking at a tree have two different angles on the tree and so it therefore looks a little different to each person. But, the tree is a fact about the situation that arises from the virtuous difference of perspectives that can be further verified by more perspectives.
When someone purposely mixes the meaning of a word like fact with a word like perspective, it’s either a sign of lazy understanding, and perhaps stupidity, or it’s a willful attempt to lead someone to a dangerous and flawed understanding of reality. It’s the non-numerical equivalent of removing the number 5 from society with the aim of breaking a whole slew of systems that rely on the concept of 5.
Like a surfer who never surfs the same wave twice but somehow learns how to surf waves that are always novel, we must constantly expect that the words upon which we build our understanding are bound to shift. And with those shifts, the way we communicate and understand things must also shift in accordance to deeper axioms in the same way gravity is a steady constant for the surfer.
The way we phrase and word these deeper axioms is bound to shift, and it’s a particularly insidious danger when someone appropriates the current language of such axioms for other means. This is bound to happen, and it’s only with a calm and equanimous state of mind that we can be free of any emotional overwhelm that such words might cloud our judgment with and therefore sweep us away as a word changes meaning. It’s that very emotional resonance that such an insidious actor is counting on in order for their strategy. While we are distracted by our own emotion, such an actor can maneuver in practical ways that are ultimately counter to the words used. Without recognizing the insidious shift in the meaning of the words used we are like a surfer who tries to surf a new wave as though it were exactly like the old wave:
We are bound to fall.
Thinking about first principles and language is to investigate the irreducible core of what is being communicated.
In that respect, it’s
best to pay attention to what’s being said.
This episode was also heavily influenced by both S.I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action, and George Orwell’s 1984, both of which you can find links to purchase on the Recommended Reading list and below.
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