Monday, December 15, 2008

In Defense of the Nominative

summary: the musing that while naming objects or concepts necessarily places them into artificial categories, it is an invaluable skill for expressing knowledge, even if it is not inherently necessary for obtaining knowledge

Language has the paradoxical role of both limiting reality and extending the amount of interaction an individual can have with the world.


To name an object is to categorize it, and doing so naturally creates separation. In logic, a proper definition (the sort you find in dictionaries) is called a genus and difference definition. "Genus" here is used in a different way than biology, though the Latin root shows the common element of both. In Latin, genus can mean stock or race. It can also mean class or set. A proper definition notes the general category to which an object or concept belongs (material as well as immaterial things can be named), and then what makes it different than other things in the group. Defining a dog as simply a thing that moves is incomplete. After all, a falling rock moves. A cat moves. A tree branch can sway in the breeze.

Everything in existence belongs to the genus of thing. Perhaps more properly, thing that can be conceived. Zeus, a unicorn, and a planet made entirely out of gold do not exist (as far as is known), but they can be named, discussed, etc. In a sense, even things that cannot be conceived can at least be named - in the category things that cannot be conceived. However, the individuals within that set are necessarily out of our grasp. They cannot be contemplated in any sense other than the fact they cannot be conceived.

Anarchist philosopher Crispin Sartwell translates the words of Lao Tzu as "Naming things loses what united them, yet failing to name things loses them into what unites them. Words are limits that make experience possible, but form and formlessness are the same."

Peter Merel renders it: "To experience without abstraction is to sense the world; to experience with abstraction is to know the world."

Aristotle noted in his Metaphysics that the ability to train an animal depends on its ability to form a memory. We cannot teach a starfish to fetch. We can, however, train a dog to do so. Certainly this is also due to the physical ability of a starfish as opposed to a dog. It is not a simple matter of memory that distinguishes the two. However, it is apparent from interaction with domesticated animals that not only are some better suited physically for various tasks, some are better suited mentally for retention of memory. Part of this may come from humans naturally gravitating toward species who use similar cues to communicate, but we will table that discussion without denigrating its importance.

Verbal and non-verbal cues are repeatedly presented so that the pooch learns to categorize experience. Though the dog is unable to conjugate the word "sit," or itself speak the word, it learns to distinguish the sound from the sound "speak," and thus can do parlor tricks, or be trained for purposes such as aiding the disabled, or hunting, or security detail.

All things in existence share a commonality before being named, even before being divided into me and not me by a conscious mind, one that is self-aware and recognizes that it is separate.
They are things to be experienced. Reality is a whole. Much can be known about reality even before a verbal language is employed. A dog, for instance, learns to avoid a hornet's nest after being stung. It learns from its experiences. Yet, how can a dog express these things? A mother dog can herd her pups when they stray toward a hornet's nest, and so create the understanding that they are not to go near. But she cannot express why. Nor can she instruct the pup in a context that does not have a hornet's nest near.

This does not devalue the experiential nature of her understanding and her process of educating her pups. However, a human can express in great detail warnings and instruction: through glyphs, through sounds, through hand motions.

Note that the first does not seem to require a society. A woman living on an island can mark dangerous caves or carve symbols on tree trunks to remind herself of the path to fruit trees. She does not need another to enjoy the benefits of language.

Now imagine that a raft comes to her shore. On it is a young girl. The woman takes the girl into her domicile. She would likely not be frustrated to find that the girl does not know the path to the fruit trees, or that a particular cave houses snakes. She could do as the dog does and demonstrate the path or show the snakes. Even here, language is not necessary.

However, the use of language suddenly opens up a whole new world. The young girl, wandering off a ways, discovers a honeycomb. She finds her way back to the domicile, and motions for the woman to follow. The woman, tired from a hot day or an illness, cannot follow. She is too weak. Days later, she is better, and the girl remembers the honeycomb. She has forgotten the way, however, and cannot express what she has found.

Later, she stumbles onto the honeycomb again. This time, she brings some of it back, and immediately takes the woman. However, she also marks a prominent tree to aid herself in case the woman is tired again.

Now it is the young girl who is sick. She is hungry for honey, and gestures to the dried piece of comb. The woman heads off to find more, but realizes she does not know the path as well as the girl did. If there are only a few trees marked, the woman can likely discover the comb on her own. Or, her knowledge of any carved symbols they share may aid her. But eventually, as they explore the entirety of the island, such glyphs may be useless. They know the entirety of their domain.

Then a storm looms. The island is inundated, and wind overturns many of their dependable sources of food and kills most of the animals they depend on. They head to a new island, and as they explore it, may either resort to compiling inner experience, or using a series of glyphs. Perhaps it is as simple as one for good things, and one for danger.

At no point was written or verbal language necessary, but one could see how it would streamline the process. There is an inherent risk of pure experiential education. Each time a new person enters their society, they must take them to the snake-cave and show them the risk. Or each time one of them discovers a danger, they must show it to the other. This sets them up for danger.

This is only one possible scenario to explain the development of language. The sheer complexity of verbal and non-verbal communication as far back as history can explain is no surprise to religious individuals, especially those of the Judeo-Christian faiths who note that naming was one of the first tasks (or rather: privileges) of Adam in the Garden.

However, let us note that naming is more than mere classifying. To use a system of verbal or non-verbal communication is to set up expectation. After all, when something described to us does not conform to what we encounter, we say that "It's not what I expected," or "It's not what I thought it would be."

Language is the description of the infinite using the finite. After all, whether the universe is finite or not, the sheer number of possibilities in regards to situations means that the idea of assigning a particular name for each and every thing or concept or event in each and every moment of time would be impossible to anyone not omniscient. However, language allows us to navigate reality, especially in social situations, with surprising ease. There may be ineffable things, but they seem to be few.

The first stage of education is to teach individuals, through language or experience, to categorize reality. However, the former is desirable to the latter. The former does carry risks. After all, language is a medium of exchange of ideas. Naturally, biases and poor assumptions can leak into the process. To create separation by naming is to risk separating things unnecessarily. The genealogies of Genesis exist to establish the spread of the children of Adam across the earth. The divisions they represent were used in later periods of Christendom to justify aggressive & violent actions against particular ethnic groups. The Cherokee name for themselves is said to mean "first" or "principal peoples," and the Khoikhoi of southwestern Africa are literally the "people people" or "real people." Likewise, the Nazi idea of an Aryan race attempted to take credit for the major achievements of human civilization and posit that mankind could be divided into tidy groups that allow one group to claim preeminence.

However, despite the many risks of language, even ones as neutral as simply misnaming things (there are poisonous and harmless species that look alike), one would like to humbly submit that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Language allows analogical reasoning. If two people share a common mode of consistent, systematized expression, the first does not need to lead the second to the snake-cave to warn them. Nor do they need to result to frenzied facial expressions or violent grasping to keep the second from approaching the snake-cave. They can express what is unknown to their companion (the contents of the cave) in light of what they know. Even a language that simply contains two expressions, "harmful" and "not harmful," can be used to limit the amount of experiential education that must be administered.

However, one must never forget that language is artificial. Tracing back the root of the word artificial to Latin, one finds ars (skill, method, art) and facere (to make). In Aristotle's Metaphysics he noted a separation between those who simply experience, and the artist. Those who can understand the "why" as much as the "what" have an advantage. Of course, a lone hermit without language can understand the "why" easily. She could watch the life cycle of a raven from birth to death, and understand a great deal. Yet, the use of language benefits her greatly, especially when faced with a situation where she has to impart knowledge to others.

A riddle in the Exeter Book reminds us to thinkly humbly about text:
Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.
A moth ate words. It seemed to me
a strange event when I heard of that wonder,
that a worm, a thief in darkness, should devour
the songs of men, glorious utterance
and a place of strong being. The thievish visitor
was no whit the wiser for swallowing the words.


Of course, the words are useless to a moth. If all mankind suddenly disappeared, the word "moth" would have no meaning. "Moth" written on a sign would have little impact on the actions of a moth, and certainly none of its impact would come from the moth realizing it is being described.

Yet it is language that distinguishes mankind. Perhaps not permanently. Regardless, as speculated in the paraphrased anecdote of Hui Shi and Zhuangzi watching minnows in the River Hao, an individual can only speak for the content of her or his own mind. And a person's ability to share her or his ideas is streamlined by the process of language, especially as social networks multiply.

Logic as the pursuit of consistency in thought does not require language, but it benefits from it. Communication does not even require verbal or written language, though perhaps we'll explore how physical expressions require consistency. However, to share ideas in ways that limit the amount of misunderstanding that can occur, language is invaluable.

And since logic is the science that attempts to explain the process of proper reasoning for all sciences, understanding the necessity, or at least benefit, of language is the first step to approaching logic.

These are simply initial thoughts. I reserve the right to be speculative instead of declarative, and to be lovingly corrected by others.

x Peregrinus

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