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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Symbolic Without Referents

Just happened upon the essay Politics and the English Language (written in 1946) by George Orwell.

Something he said near the end struck me:

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person.

In reading prose from the past, I have long noted a drift in the implied mental processes through history, as if not only did people once think with different knowledge and context, but truly in a different manner. And I think the above nails it: that over time human thought has shifted from being rooted in concretes and concepts to being built directly upon the domain of words. Our thinking has become symbolic without referents.

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

It is interesting to me that more than one of the people I find most difficult to see eye-to-eye with philosophically/epistemologically have told me the exact opposite: That for them, a thought is not concrete until it has a word. And this was no lightly meant turn of phrase--it was backed with plenty of argument to support that it means all that it implies. The topic of discourse was not writing, but thinking. For many a modern person, especially and ironically the highly educated and highly literate, thought (especially philosophical, ethical, and political thought) is largely composed of navigation through a conceptual space delimited by words. And this space, while perhaps diligently maintained in a state of internal, circular consistency, is often free floating with no clear and consistent ties to the concretes of reality. Furthermore, it is so vast that by the time one encounters one's own footprints they have all but faded, so it is never blatantly obvious that all paths of support ultimately lead to their own origin. And since by definition no matter how far you walk with someone through this domain you will never reach concrete reality, it is impossible to demonstrate any contradictions between those two domains. In short, it is a fairly inescapable mental model, particularly since it affords no cause for concern.

And I think this is a relatively modern (in terms of centuries) phenomena, brought on by the advent of the printing press, and by the emphasis on reading and later wrote-memorization in our educational system. How long ago was it that a very intelligent person would have grown up with a great deal less to read, and that being of a much higher standard (of thought if not of prose)--generations of literature closer to the concretes of reality upon which all thought was originally derived? I wonder if, ironically, the most intelligent are in the name of education being systematically conditioned away from the concrete, effectively crippling those who might otherwise have become the sane intellectual voices of the world? The only counterbalance to this is the continuing progress of science, which reality ties to the concrete by being its empirical judge. And so the two diverge, as we see in the current widening rift between politics and science.

I wonder if Orwell were alive today, whether he would have any more to say or if he would just look about him and shake his head (and perhaps move to a small island). If you have not read 1984, it is online here. In the tug of war between utopia and 1984, the latter has gained much ground lately.


Perhaps these will be the slogans in our next presidential campaign. They certainly describe the current political climate.

Fortunately the AIs will kill us all before it gets too bad.

Speaking of which, back to work...

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com