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Words, and the limitations of words [Jan. 31st, 2003|05:29 pm]
So, I was really proud of myself for doing hundreds of words of writing at a
sitting on the topic of words, and the problems of words. Then, naturally,
I realized how much over-speaking I did.

Sigh. Some 1,200 words down the drain.

Anyway: it deals with the problems of words, and so forth, so anyone who find that bothersome might want to skip this. Also, it's long, so anyone pressed for time might also.

Still, here's the gist of it....

What's "wrong" with words? Well, nothing, really... that's like asking
what's "wrong" with cheese. Cheese is very good at being cheese, and very
bad at being non-cheese. But there are problems with words, and it's
important to understand the problems and limitations that words have.

First, I'd like you to stop and imagine a tree. No, I know, a lot of folks
reading this probably just say "okay, imagining a tree", and don't actually
do it. I want you to really, honestly, imagine a tree.

Okay, you might have imagined a Christmas tree, or a pine tree that might
make a good Christmas tree, or an oak tree or a peach tree or who knows
what. You might have imagined a coloring book picture of a tree (a wide,
brown trunk, and green cloudlike 'leaves'). You might have said "okay,
growing wooden thing with leaves", and you might have said "okay, imagining
a tree", even though I asked you not to do just that.

So, the first problem with words is that, if you say a word to someone, that
someone might think of something that's different from what you're thinking
of. And, while that doesn't matter as much for a "tree", it matters a lot
for concepts like "justice" and "love" and so forth.

The next problem is related. To describe what a thing *is* requires a huge
number of words. Let's go back to the tree, okay?

How many words would it take to tell someone everything that's important
about that tree? There's the type of tree, there's the height, the weight,
the number of branches and where each one is relative to the trunk, there's
the root system, there's that little scar that was going to be someone
carving "Joey Loves Sarah" into the trunk before deciding that the tree was
too small to write that....

Obviously, you can describe certain parts of the tree with words, and that
might be as much information as you need for a lot of purposes, but I hope
it's clear that words will never be complete, except in special cases.

Combine these, and you have that words don't always communicate the correct
idea, and you might not be able to fix that.
Another problem with words is that they represent something impossible. If
I recall correctly, the case that Goedel came up with, in the proof of his
Incompleteness Theorem, was

"Is false preceded by it's own quotation" is false preceded by it's own

Or, for the simpler version, "This sentence is a lie"; if true, it's a lie,
and if it's a lie, it's true. You could argue that this isn't a problem
with words, so much as with human thought, but that's why I mentioned
Goedel. His incompleteness theory showed that any symbol system that allows
certain ideas to be expressed (and that certainly includes 'words') can
create what I'll call the Ouroboros effect. ("Ouroboros" is the serpent
swallowing its own tail.)

The final problem that I can see with words is what I'll call the "Platonic
Ideal problem".

When we speak a word, we'd like to think that we're meaning something... but
the something that we might might not be properly pointed to by the word we

People might say that Romeo and Juliet (from the Shakespeare play of the
same name) "died because of love". But, if there was a proper definition of
love, if there was some singular concept that *was* 'love', well, it might
be completely irrelevant to the reasons that Romeo and Juliet died (insofar
as a pair of fictional characters can be said to have 'died' in the first
place, but let's pretend that there really was a human couple like them).

Or, for another example (Those alt.polyites reading this: don't worry, I'm
avoiding "that word"), there was a recent newsgroup discussion about whether
or not Asperger's Syndrome was a form of Autism.

Let's pretend that someday we'll find a perfect test for Autism.
Let's pretend that there are at least ten different things that a doctor can
look at, and if ten or more are positive, the person is autistic.

If Asperger's means having between six and nine of these things show
positive, then Asperger's is probably "a form of autism". But it could also
be that Asperger's has it's own, totally independent, set of causes, and
merely looks very similar to autism in certain ways.

This really comes down to a combination of the other problems with words, but I like to separate it because it represents a separate type of incompleteness. It's possibly the greatest danger that words have... specifically, once we have a word for something, we can start thinking about that thing, and sometimes we can do an awful lot of thinking without ever being 100% sure what we're thinking about.

In the end, what this all says is that we need to be awfully careful when thinking about words, and things made up of words, so we don't try to force words to do things that they're not supposed to do.

[User Picture]From: kightp
2003-01-31 07:17 pm (UTC)
So, I was really proud of myself for doing hundreds of words of writing at a
sitting on the topic of words, and the problems of words. Then, naturally,
I realized how much over-speaking I did.

Sigh. Some 1,200 words down the drain.

Well, see, this is an excellent illustration of one of the central problems with words:

Sometimes, to really get to the heart of something requires using fewer of them, not more.

Uh, something I'd do well to remind myself more often.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: persimmon
2003-02-03 07:55 am (UTC)

There's a painting ...

of a pipe, entitled "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" or "This is not a pipe". The picture isn't the pipe, any more than the word 'pipe' is a pipe. It's the label, not the thing itself. My bosses have their names on the door - but the name isn't the man.

Particularly in this medium, we need to take care what words we use, because we're operating with only one colour in the spectrum, so to speak. There's no tone of voice here, no body language, no facial expressions. But the words are the only handle we have to pick up and convey the concept.

Difficult, isn't it?
(Reply) (Thread)
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