Comment 1: Facts and “to factulate”

From fact to factulate; from verb to verbify. Ugly, but legitimate.

It pays to look at what modern dictionaries say about words which are in common and in wide use. Once again I looked up *fact* in the reputable Merriman-Webster Dictionary (on-line edition) and found the following entry:

Fact: noun. A thing that is indisputably the case. Information used as evidence or as part of a report of news article. Synonyms: reality – deed — actuality – truth – case — circumstance.

Note that the dictionary defines *fact* by citing how the word is commonly used but also by citing explicitly some of its synonyms. The effect is to create an environment, i.e. a context, whereby each word is related to all others in the selection by indicating what choices are available on each side of the divide! It leaves the decision of what to do about the choices open to the user: the user therefore remains entirely responsible for making the correct or appropriate choice from the array of “equivalences” offered.

This matter had already been discussed in a different context more than 60 years ago by Lee Cronbach and Paul Meehl (1955) in the context of “psychological measurement” (to which I propose to return in a future article). If one does not understand the positive options offered, one can at least infer the meaning of a particular term chosen by referring and comparing it to what it can not possibily mean! Whittling down a meaning by eliminating those deemed unsuitable? This seems a plausible strategy to success: if one does not know the meaning of a term in advance, it can often be guessed by eliminating it from those one already knows.

What puzzled me about a dictionary definition — but also appalled me — was the suggestion that a fact could be viewed as “part of a report of news articles!” I assume the term “news article” refers to articles published in established newspapers, possibly weeklies? Which? The reputable New York Times, the Guardian or the now ill-reputed Daily Mail (which was recently “banished” by Wikipedia for its habit of publishing unsubstantiated and unfounded “news reports” — as has been done in the UK’s Daily Mirror and News of the World for decades! These are a small selection from a world-wide set of dailies).

My philosophical head also spun when I discovered that far too many of the synonyms listed in the Merriman Dictionary can be “substituted” by changing the meaning of a part of the sentence in which these occurred! It just will not work since the sense of a sentence is then highly compromised — even lost — when this is done. As soon as one recognizes this to be the case, a person will withdraw the particular attempt and will substitute another synonym. I assume that there is experiemental evidence to support my fantasy? What I have described is a process of extremely rapid substitution based on one’s “unconscious recognition” of what is being done.

What seems indisputable, however, is that the word *fact* — a word we all love to use(!) — gets used exclusively as a noun. If, however, it is used as a verb is it referred to as *to factulate*? Has anyone used fact as a verb, on the analogy of changing the noun to a verb, perhaps to the verb *to verbify*? They should feel free to do so — to create what sound like “monsters” — if we claim that people “make facts” or “shape” these from non-factual materials!

There are precedents: *water* is a noun; *to water* is a verb in wide use. Is it an alternative to “spreading or distributing water”? What are acceptable limits to doing so with any noun?

Why not “verbify”?

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 5: Summary of Terms

In this article I offer four formal definitions of terms which I have suggested as useful in the analysis of language.

Host-language. The language normally used by a speaker or correspondent. For example when an English speaker borrows a term from another language, English is the host-language into which any borrowed terms will be introduced. The borrower has the privilege to assigns a specific meaning to the imported word! It represents his/her unique contribution to their home lanuage! The importer assigns which of the different meanings this term already carries in its original language and which it will carry henceforth, after it has been imported into the host-language. (No use complaining after the fact!!) It is however customary that the borrowed term is assigned only one of the meanings it formerly carried in the language from which it was borrowed! To do otherwise would make little sense, and indeed would defeat the purpose of borrowing. So the rule is that a term which is borrowed and which may actually carry multiple meanings in its original language, sheds all such meanings in the new, except for one. It therefore enters the host-language as a unique item. This single meaning is retained — but perhaps only for short period before it “re-grows”!

Donor-language. This is the language from which one has drawn a term or a phrase in order to introduce it into the host-language. Since one has officially only borrowed the term the borrower is not obliged to return it or even acknowledge that it belonged elsewhere earlier! Example: nota bene usually shortened to “N.B.” and used quite regularly in English was borrowed from Latin. It instructs the reader to pay particular attention to what has been said. It is like wagging a finger as one speaks.

For nearly a hundred years German speakers raided French to express their thoughts more elegantly, in a more refined manner than to continue using what they opine were their crude peasant terms (?) of their native tongue. At least so thought their king, Frederick II, during the 18th century when he introduced and encouraged many acts of linguistic thievery. The Anglo-Saxons did likewise after they were conquered by French-speaking Normans and Vikings (c.1066 AD).

Analogical spread. This term is new. The term *spread* as here used, often also serves as a verb, and makes the compound word into a metaphor, as in “spreading jam on a bun,” or “spreading dung on a field.” *Analogical spread*, then, refers to a process which often happens relatively soon after a new term has been imported from a donor into the host-language! At first, the meaning of the borrowed term may be deliberately restricted, as usually demanded by the borrower who usually exerts their “right” to determine what the borrowed word means in the host-language. After all, they have borrowed because — in their opinion — the host-language appeared to lack a sufficiently closely defined term for which there appeared to be a need. But in time, and with increasing use, the newly imported term most likely also accrues additional meanings! When this happens — as it it will — the new term becomes increasingly ready to act in an analogical manner! It is case of “la Ronde”.

Neolidesm refers to when an existing word in the home-language is assigned a new meaning within that host-language. So it differs from an analogical spread — which was discussed earlier — in that the new meaning now assigned to an old word has nothing directly to do with the original word. To cite an earlier example: there appears to be no connection in meaning between the term “hip” — as in “he received a replacement of his left hip” and “It is now hip to be a vegetarian or even a vegan!” The concept of neolidesm was proposed and invented by Marc Hurwitz. I thank him for his poetic efforts!

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 4: Neolidesm

In an earlier blog I suggested that when a word from an established language — called the donor-language — is transferred — to a host-language, e.g., from French to English, the transfer ensures that the host-language acquires a new and unique word. It may give us two or more words whose reference overlaps as illustrated by referring to a “marathon” and “a long-distance run”. The two terms overlap in meaning and occasionally can be substituted for each other. In its new location such imported words lack ambiguity, a positive and desirable attribute. Ambiguity, as the reader will know, is often seen as an enemy of effective communication.

Several methods have already been tried to reduce ambiguity in daily speech, including borrowing a particular word from another (foreign) language, the so-called donor-language. When a transfer is made from the donor to the host language the (pilfered?) word is usually assigned a restricted meaning which — in a sense — tethers it. One cannot guarantee for how long this “remedy” will work and thereby stave of problems arising from ambiguity! We should keep in mind too that many language lovers (hobbyists?) like to “extend” the meaning of words, and actively look for new uses for these. The cure for confusion described here is known to work at least for a limited time.

But it has also become quite common to adapt an existing word drawn from a home (host) language and to assign it a new meaning which may — in the minds of most users — be unrelated to its earlier meaning. An example is the common verb *hit*, as in “I was hit by a flying saucer whilst walking down Mulberry Street” compared to “Miss Mabel was a hit at the fashion-show in her new bikini swim-suit”. The use of hit here is significantly different from, for example, “Mabel was hit at the fashion show by an unruly, over-enthusiastic member of the 21st Century Prude League”!

We propose to call all newly defined words in a language as cases of *neolidesm*, a word constructed from neo (new) and idein, whose root according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the Greek ἰδέα, or ἰδεῖν or idein, translated as “to see”. The etymology of the new word is not important in itself: it could be borrowed from another language or created from bits and pieces of the home-language too. However, the new word stands in contrast to a *neologism*, a word which refers to the special case where the word’s origin is independent of its newness as an idea, but where its novelty as a word is of interest to us That is, the word is unquestionably new in the language, but not necessarily the idea to which the word is said to refer. It also could be purely manufactured as is Mary Poppin’s almost unpronounceable creation *supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*. To the best of my knowledge this word has no meaning yet! The term *Jabberwocky*, however, is another matter. We are told that it is the name of a creature which is vaguely described, but not defined by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”, (1872) in the following lines:
Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
the frumious Bandersnatch!

It could be argued that without an assigned meaning and/or without a reasonably full description of the object designated by a sounded word, sounds made or uttered during a spoken language — like “ah” or “mm” — are not components of the language either. I have seen many Jabberwockies in my life, but could not describe the creature! Could you?

Reprise: new words are continously being introduced into most modern languages, but their meaning may derive from several practises, including the practise of utterning a sound and concurrently pointing to some object or to some ongoing event, like a game of football or a cow chewing its cud, which the on-line Merriman Dictionary states is “the food that an animal (such as a cow) brings back up from its stomach into its mouth to be chewed again”!

Now If the emphasis is on the meaning of a word for a group of speakers, this should be classified as a case of neolidesm whereas if the word is just new, regardless of its origin or meaning, it is a case of being a neologism. The clarification given in Wikipedia can hardly be improved:

A neologism (/niːˈɒlədʒɪzəm/; from Greek νέο- néo-, “new” and λόγος lógos, “speech, utterance”) is the name for a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but which has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language.

So it is its relative newness that counts!

Here, however, follows the case of a new word which is not borrowed from another language but which was deliberately designed and introduced into everyday English — and probably is now also part of many other languages: pasteurized. If asked what does this word mean — no matter how pronounced in any language — the answer is simple because it is a “designer-term”, therefore akin to being “proprietary”! More recently another strategy for introducing new terms surfaced and is now increasingly used in some sciences. It too was designed to defeat ambiguity and to restrict what elsewhere I have called an “analogical spread” in the meaning of a word. The new strategy consists in adding and assigning a number to a word whose meaning is already fairly well understood, and which therefore could not develop multiple meanings. The example cited was Carbon-14. This term (word) is used in some areas of chemistry but not (yet — ever?) for naming, since in human societies naming has become a sacred act! Note, however, we also carry our social security numbers as an ID (footnote: For more on numbering as a method of identification see my earlier blog). In the nature of the case the combination of a name and a number is most unlikely to “spread” its meaning, but is more likely to be replaced (or renumbered?) should it no longer serve its earlier defined mission. This happens frequently in science.

So I think we have recently made several advances to our former socially driven habit of borrowing words excessively from “foreign” sources, including from (high prestige?) languages which are no longer in wide use, like Greek or Latin, but which will meet both our social and our epistemic demands for terms by which we can identify facets of our “universe”. New words are a “dime a dozen” — and seem to appear from everywhere to suit different social occasions and but also the demands of our knowledge (epistemic) needs. But what occasionally disturbed our slumber was the discovery that words may be around which can be sufficiently modified in use and meaning by relying primarily on our irrepressible propensity to distinguish matters effectively on the basis — but not only — of their contexts. It is — to give an analogy — as if humans have a refined ability to add or to subtract from a given context by selecting from it elements and thereby — inadvertently — creating singular items from something with has many meanings. It helps to enlarge the number of discriminable events that make up our world. Furthermore when we do so, we enrich our world — and then call it a form of creativity.

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 3: When Meanings Wander

Meanings wander? Does this mean that one cannot permanently bind a meaning to a word or to an expression? If the answer is that meanings do indeed wander, although one would need to state under what conditions this happens. It does not appear to be a universal rule. On the contrary, languages appear to grow, a euphemism which suggests that changes in a language will be largely unpredictable! It is a most common but also troublesome phenomenon to which I have given a distinctive name: *analogical spread*.

This name covers the idea that many words which are currently uniquely distinctive and therefore necessarily have a limited meaning, will nevertheless change over time. Indeed such words often exceed their original limits extensively. The original term then comes to encompass additional points of reference — a process which also increases their ambiguity, something which is often dreaded by others, except by poets and politicians. The term then assumes an analogical flavour: it now says much more than was originally (earlier) intended. It also means that many important terms can no longer be carefully, or uniquely defined. The term now is a suitable candidate for a Thesaurus, where each meaning overtly depends on the context in which it is used. It is a case of what may be good for poetry may be bad for scientific or for hyper-accurate communication!

One historical example to show how an analogical-spread can be aborted. It is a case where the need was to terminate, or even curtail, an existing spread and to replace it with a new method of designating objects. In short, 20th century scientists discovered that they can overcome the problems of “spread” by adding numbers to existing names, as is shown in the following example:

Carbon-14, 14C, or radiocarbon, is a radioactive isotope of carbon with an atomic nucleus containing 6 protons and 8 neutrons. Its presence in organic materials is the basis of the radiocarbon dating method pioneered by Willard Libby and colleagues (1949) to date archaeological, geological and hydrogeological samples. — from Wikipedia, March 2017

Not a whiff of an analogue here!

In other cases, whenever words and phrases lose their much appreciated and treasured specificity — and before these start to meander about — we may accept this state of affairs, yet do so for only a short period before taking drastic measures to curtail such spread. We say that language grows but it grows not only by accretions but also by adding more borrowed terms, and by expanding what existing and available may refers to. Most language users learn how to deal with this and many tolerate analogical spreads. But we also teach others that this skill needs to be acquired and mastered by each of us. We already and routinely have classes in our schools at all levels on literature and poetry where some of this this is taught, but there is room for considerably more!

Although the borrower of a word from a foreign language may have had noble aims, perhaps of eliminating or reducing confusion, he/she may not succeed in cleansing an existing language of its many ambiguities. Such an act of “cleansing” can however be encouraged by inventing new words (neologisms). Such new words may be constructed in a variety of ways, the most common method being to use a person’s name as a label for a new object, product, e.g., pasteurization, or for an idea, e.g., Freudian wish.

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 2: The Process of Borrowing Words

Let us call the language from which a word or a phrase was taken and borrowed the DONOR-language — say, French — and the language into which the word from another language is introduced the HOST-language, say, English. Clearly whenever a language imports words and phrases — become a host — that language also grows, regardless of whether its new terms are derived from a foreign source or are “home constructed” and therefore were invented by its current speakers!

Modern American English is full of such “home grown” words and phrases. The word *rap* for example has several meanings including the act of talking or discussing, freely, openly, or volubly (as suggested in Wikipedia). The word is also articulated in the same manner as the one spelled *wrap*, which means “to bundle up”. It is also related to the idea of establishing rapport, that is, refers to developing a sense of fellowship among speakers and members of a group. These group members will then determine which of several meanings also apply! It is a case where the meaning of a term will be strongly influenced by its context, not only by its dictionary definition(s). In short, the meaning of a word is usually — perhaps, most often — multi-determined. Conclusion: to search for a unique meaning of a word is, generally speaking, foolhardy.

But there are exceptions to this rule. The major exception relates to whenever a word has been deliberately imported from a Donor to a Host language. The import is commonly done by an individual, an anonymous agent who may believe that the home-language is currently somewhat short of a single word with which to expresses a unique and important idea. In this sense it is deficient, or his/her home-language may already be so muddled that a single, newly forged word may just cure it of confusion, indeed may “cleanse” it. The importation of a word which is borrowed from elsewhere may therefore — it is thought — have a therapeutic, a curative effect!

Jeff’s comments also forced me to re-examine my previous position in several ways. Most importantly how new words enter an existing language. Are new terms just inventions — added on the spur of the moment by a rogue interloper, or do such terms enter a language in more thoughtful ways? What actually happens? To answer this question would require much empirical research — and therefore lies beyond the mission of this blog. A process seems involved which has been largely overlooked not only by philosophers, but also by others who are interested in the growth and modification of language, our principal — but not only — method of communicating with others. Let me clarify this a little.

When we run short of words and expressions in our HOME-language several options are open to rectify this deficiency including that we draw from the vocabulary of other languages for help. In short, we can make up a perceived deficiency in our own language by unashamedly borrowing from another. Our own language then acts as “host” to foreign entries. What is transferred are not only the sounds typical of another language (which can be fun — try Xhosa!) but a very particular meaning that the borrowed word already possesses in its original language. However the broader meaning of the borrowed term may get damaged or lost in transfer from donor to home-language, although this need not matter too much. Who cares? Whoever has borrowed would not necessarily know about such damage or of the loss of meaning which resulted from the transfer from a donor to a host-language. Jeff, for example cites the fact that the French meuble (furniture) also implies mobility, whereas the opposite is true for the English term, but in Italian mobili refers to furnishings and immobili refers to real estate! — a direct reference to its non-movement!

Let me summarize: A borrowed word from a donor-language enters a host-language but it routinely carries only one of its meanings. It therefore enters the host-language without ambiguity! Its meaning in the host-language is pristine, unambiguous. It only carries the meaning assigned to it at the time it was imported by whoever borrowed the term! The borrower called the shots although he/she cannot control its future uses. The word has become public property in the host-language. It may even “wander off” and acquire other additional meanings than those intended by the original borrower. Since words are social objects and therefore are subject to the vagaries of such objects, this would be expected! The borrower may have borrowed with good intent, including a wish to combat existing multiple meanings in the host language, but the truth is that he/she has no further control over the situation. A meaning may wander off!

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 1: Meaning

An issue raised in an earlier blog (see reply to Jeff Berg) needs an additional comment, namely, what aspect of the meaning of a term which has been borrowed from a foreign language and was then introduced into a home-language, is actually transferred. The assumption is that the borrowed term has more than one meaning in the original language whereas only one of its meanings was transferred. Which of its several meanings was transferred?

The answer lies in discovering what the recipient of the message understood by the original. The recipient may have misunderstood the message, as when he interprets someone who says “o.k.” that the recipient also agreed with the message. This “o.k.” may only imply that the recipient had heard, but had not understood the message and therefore had not “correctly understood” what message. If this is so the recipient cannot “interpret” the message correctly, or he may doubt that what he (thought) he had heard is what was said. As a result the recipient may have understood the contrary of what was said!

Now the term *meaning* itself is not clear to me, that is, the term seems ambiguous, has more than one interpretation. One can interpret *meaning* as a way of speaking about the relation of the words used and what these refers, i.e. it is used referentially. But it can also be a way or a manner of speaking about intentions, that is not what the words refer to literarily but what these intend when they are uttered by a particular person. *Intention* therefore refers to what a person wishes to say, not what was said when interpreted literally, as illustrated by the reprimand, “You did not mean what you said.” It does not necessary state that what he/she referred to, is what they want to happen. There is a mismatch therefore between what was said and what someone intends to convey!

An example of the latter is when a guest spills a glass of red wine over an immaculately laid table during the speech of another, perhaps even a person he/she is already known to dislike! Psychoanalytic thinkers have made much of this and have explained such happenings, which may look perfectly innocent and accidental to the “normal” person, as an unconscious expression of hostility towards the speaker, perhaps towards the host, or to other guests attending this festive occasion! Or examine the expression, “What Joan intended to say when she remarked that Maude was suitably dressed for the occasion was that Maude was a person who was sensitive to social demands and public opinion.” Maude, in other words, is a person who knows how to fit in well, and furthermore is socially sensitive and adept. Again, the comments from Joan were intentional in nature and are not necessarily complimentary.

We are correct when we distrust that words carry only their literal meaning: few of us use words in that manner. However, we do not get reliable signals on what occasions we should distrust a speaker’s words and intentions.

The World as a Picture or Collage

In an earlier blog I introduced the term *collage* and distinguished it from related nouns, picture and presentation. A collage, as commonly used, includes recognizable objects but also the arrangements and juxtapositions of items in an unexpected, spurious, curious manner. The collage itself may also include spaces between objects — blank spaces which have no identity except for their hue or lack of form, their formlessness. Look at the sky at night. Twinkles, some larger objects, some streaks of light moving at speed, respectively named stars, planets, airplanes or spacecrafts. Also much darkness, emptiness.

So when we look outside ourselves we invent names for every item we can distinguish from its indifferent (black?) background. We make special efforts to do so, to order and arrange our perceptual world. Whenever we are unwilling or unable to identify a pin-of-light, a manifestation of an object we tend to speak of “the void” — and secretly treat it as an object! But — as we have learned — today’s “void” may be tomorrow’s treasure-chest, filled with fascinating objects which hold secrets to our understanding of our universe!

The history of science illustrates how fickle we are in this regard. The history of ourselves also tells how determined we are to complete a story — a fantasy — once begun. We seek “understanding”, not only recognition. We recognize the latter, but when this fails we create objects, but also we invent processes to help and assist our understanding. This has been the pattern since Aristotle raised “understanding” as our highest goal, the hallmark of our god-like nature.

The objects we distinguish around us may have clear relations to each other. Thus, several philosophers — and more recently some scientists — have urged that we study the act of perception and other attributes ascribes to human (e.g. R.S. Peters: Motivation and D. Armstrong: Perception) more critically than our predecessors since it does not follow that everyday descriptions of ourselves, though old, are necessary faultless or correct. Common sense, it is claimed, is not a good guide in these matters. We have been repeatedly warned not to assume that our current self-descriptions and especially those of our so-called “states of mind” have greater accuracy or authority than our descriptions of “the external world” (G. Ryle: The Concept of Mind) but that these are subject to great hazards. Better to be than certain!

The trend throughout the 20th century has been to view descriptions of the external world as a scaffold which rest on the certainty of our perception of our own inner experiences, but one should remember that descriptions are invariably constrained by limits which reflect the descriptive habits of far earlier periods, periods which have promote their own “wisdom” and “habits of thought” and which are untainted by contemporary knowledge! History is only a record of our past achievements, which includes its failures to describe ourselves and our attributes well. A health system based on well-tried prescriptions from the past, list of uncritically accepted cures?

The world as a picture therefore includes some temporary successes but primarily failures to describe “matters of current interest” in terms of dated concepts. This does not mean that the pictures of the past make sense, but only that some aspects of the composite may. The paintings of Marc Chagall are replete with suggestions of self-contained episodes — and this can also be said of paintings by surrealists, yet we regard each as self-contained, not as an episode of pictures whose outlines have never been seen!

Successful achievements and failures to achieve may just happen to come together — under the same umbrella, so to speak — like pedestrians seeking temporary shelter during a flash rain-storm. In that respect these form a collage. The term *collage*, furthermore, is not currently part of the elaborate vocabulary of philosophy, or of cosmology, but is more at home in the arts than in formal disciplines. It stands for the idea that we normally judge something after “scanning”, that the idea of a moment is imprecise and covers too many judgements based on a succession of temporary impressions and viewed as a composite. In philosophy itself the term “theory” has long been been elevated to a paramount position to contrast with formlessness, with the notion that the pieces in hand cannot be assembles into a whole. The emphasis is on an “integration” of seemingly coherent parts into a wider, more comprehensible position, of bringing “ideas” together (see a classic of the genre, namely, A.N. Whitehead: The Adventure of Ideas, 1933). Perhaps *collage* should become part of the working vocabulary of philosophy?

Philosophers have often claimed that they were concerned with eternal verities, about matters which not confined by the limits of time, matters which have lasting values. As self-declared lovers of wisdom, philosophers are often assumed by others to be priests without a formal religion. They were bound to their own beliefs and therefore carried an obligation to defend these against the multitudes, the “common people”, as well as others equally skilled in handling thoughts and speculations. They were said to theorize, to discuss theories as objects, just as scientists discuss their methods of inquiry and what it is they have already achieved or hope to achieve through the rigorous application of such methods. By common consent these methods were the rewards of discovery. Their methods were viewed as tools of discovery which could be ordered, a process which demands that each move gets evaluated by agreed criteria. For scientists then, the discovery of a method was a “rightful tool” which had as much significant as a miniature screwdriver has for a watchmaker, or a needle for a tailor. (Threads or strands of fibres existed before needles!) Two centuries ago we discovered and developed the tools of statistical analysis, how aggregates of measures of a trend can be used productively and how this helped to change our studies and investigations of “natural” but also of “social” phenomena (appearances). It is useful to keep this analogy in mind whenever we discuss “science” and what it suggests to us about the nature of Nature (Aristotle’s quest).

Philosophers have singled out logic and the analyses of arguments as their primary tools. Logic has been used to analyze the consistency of existing arguments, or of fragments of an argument, especially beliefs widely held by others. It is used to show where an argument would lead to if it were pursued rigorously, or to demonstrate that a particular argument may be itself be based on empirically false premises. For centuries there has been an understanding that sooner or later errors in logical derivations from premises would surface sooner or later, and that this would automatically lead to the rejection of the argument as a whole! This has happened occasionally, but not consistently or always. More recently there have been discoveries of a contradiction which had remained undiscovered but that the argument had terminated too early for the discovery of such contradictions to be made. This potential fault line may have been dealt with by translating any argument into a mathematical form and testing it with the help of high-speed computers. The results to date have only shown that all things considered that the chances of identifying a contradiction are disturbingly high. It means, in effect, that we cannot guarantee — as was initially required — that an argument is logically faultless and was impervious to contradiction. Yet without this the aim of a logical analysis cannot be guaranteed that it is itself faultless — that is represents an unbroken line from given premises to conclusion. A conjecture can be correct even if an argument to support it is faulty.

Many early philosophers, unlike priests, were not inclined to employ arguments to support a viewpoint for which they could not find independent support: their task was being primarily critical. One states the premises and then works out the implications. The model was that an argument starts with some widely held and unchallenged conclusion — e.g., “eating pork is bad for your health” — and then proceeds to demonstrate that the conclusion has been reached by following authorized logical procedures. In this respect philosophers have acted more like teachers and sages than defenders of an official faith — a habilitated-belief — something which might set them on a collision course with a viewpoint of a powerful “establishment”, where official views were backed by an enforcement agency. Habilitated-beliefs are a new concept and will be discussed in a separate blog.

(for Tim)

How To Map a New Word


In a previous blog I suggested that any new English words, or neologisms, could be submitted to a computer search of the digitalized English literature, say from Beowulf onward, in order to discover whether the term of interest had previously been used. In what manner was its earlier use, its context of use, different from what is now proposed?

New words are often proposed as replacements for a current expression on the understanding that this neologism would be accompanied by clear guidelines for its use. Such guidelines are also referred to a definitions, or re-definitions. What was earlier called “a temporary bunch of words” may now qualify as a new single word. Its meaning would then be viewed as the area partially covered by each of the words originally tied together to form a bunch or an expression.

The following example may help: The first letters of each of the following words,“Dependable, Redoubtable, Unimpeachable” spells *dru*. It is a new term. Objects like trees would be automatically excluded as being “inappropriate”, whereas one could for example say, “John Dewey is a dru person”. It would give a reasonably clear image of the kind of person this great American philosopher was! (Of course, the statement may be regarded as a good or a poor description of the person.)

However, a composite word like *dru* should not be viewed (as was done formerly) as a one-dimensional overlap of qualities, like a series of circles which overlap a common area, but as covering a meeting point in multidimensional space, which may also extend over time, in which case one should state the temporal parameters. This is what “mapping a word” is all about.

Conjectures and Neologisms

We are living at a time when we are frequently asked to transcend the limits of conjecture. *Be inventive*, *be creative*, *stretch the envelope* are expressions widely used to refer to this. More and more of our thinking is directed towards situations which need to be described in terms of sequences, or as involving successive different processes, rather than as individual (hence stable) events, frozen in time like pottery in a Victorian display case.

By contrast, many early Greek thinkers — often mentioned as founders of our philosophical tradition — espoused the view that time and change are unreal, that there is indeed a real world from which process and progress are excluded, and belong to a chimaeral world (see Plato’s discussions of these issues in Timaeus).

In our own time the more common view runs in the opposite direction: it is suggested that we are the agents (the guilty party, as it were!) that freeze events. By doing so, we create a notion of change which in turn requires us to invent agents of change. We invent causes when we feel trapped, without explanations for events, and do so in order to account for our discomfort. Not to have an explanation is experienced by many as a deficiency, whereas a process of reification, whereby we impose stability and structure on a world, is often viewed as living in a predictable world! We invent and stipulate (conjecture?) processes which give flesh and bones to events, and often create homunculi with great powers to lift and shift events “out of their orbit” (a pre-Newtonian concept).

Indeed, Western philosophy — under which I include what some Greeks thinkers referred to as *natural philosophy*, or the study of natural phenomena, is haunted by the image of two worlds: a world of nature, which obeys and follows its own eternal rules (discoverable by us), but also a world made by us, one which is mostly beyond and unaffected by naturalistic rules, which are commanded by what Gilbert Ryle referred to as “ghosts in machines”. This world supposedly lacks universal rules but develops from emerging trends, is modish, unpredictable yet yields some of its secrets post-hoc, when we reflect on our past. There is an ever-growing literature which interprets the work of some of our major artists (past and present), a trend which is most likely to continue for the foreseeable future, even by our descendants when living in outer space, off-earth.

The picture is confused but may become more coherent during future discussions, and in step with an increase in our understanding of how human-thinking emerged from simple interacting neural networks to the complex storage and processing organ it has become, whose own limits of growth (internal or external) and capabilities are at present unknown. (Robots could be viewed as external drives, extensions to the living brain.)

There are few (if any) natural phenomena of which it can be said that these remain unaffected throughout the passage of time, or the procession of events. On the contrary: the question is to estimate to what extent events have already changed, although the names of these events have been retained, and to estimate to what extent these events are likely to be transformed in future. Some events appear to remain unchanged over time, whereas others transform. The current debate about *climate change* is an example. To cite a different example: *The Battle of Waterloo* is viewed as a stable event, although writers disagree about what happened on the battlefield, and disagree about details. The Battle of Waterloo is a historical concept, but what is discussed amongst historians are features of this event, not whether the event occurred.

To illustrate the difference between a concept and its meaning I have chosen the term *human family* which serves as the name of a phenomenon but which is also recognized by those working in the area of human relationships and institutions as a moveable feast, something which has changed throughout the course of our history.

The Human Family

*Family* is the name given to a common feature of all human societies. It is a concept which represents an event which has temporal as well as structural and functional properties. The task of any writer/reporter is to create a portrait of the family which permits readers to analyze the relationship between members. A society may prescribe what is permissible or not to those included within a family in contrast to those external to it, e.g., whether members within a family can marry, or whether marriage must necessarily be endogenous. Whatever the rules, these can change and the conditions under which such change occur would then be viewed as factors influencing family structure.

It is important that a structure of an event is correctly portrayed, that it is attributed to an event which occurred as stated earlier. The birth of a male or female child is celebrated differently in most societies and is also influenced by the order of birth — both are structural factors. To what extent does birth order play a role in determining the future of a male? Which son of a large landowner is likely to be encouraged to follow a career in the Church? (Answer: probably the third in Britain throughout many centuries.)

Birth order is a temporal factor whereas male/female is functional, that is, determines what roles will most likely be assigned to a person and when. When? The passage of time is viewed as an independent factor, not as something doled out as fleeting timeless moments, but more like a ceaseless conveyer belt. The term *moments* therefore carries with it interpretative problems, as indeed have such terms as *childhood*.

Admittedly, the above is vague. We do not normally take an arbitrary selection of words, words which are unrelated, then stitch these together: our selection is more orderly, more contrived. What is clear however is that humans appear to be continuously engaged in extending their language, to stretch the limits of what they already have. It is their response to current prevailing circumstances, to being members of a community which appears to seek and build new environments to inhabit, which secures and preserve their existence, extends their survival rather than abandons these. We need to remind ourselves how relatively short has been the past of our species measured against the estimated life of our planet and solar system and how minute has been what we often refer to as “the life of the mind” and how fragile are the conditions which sustain our species.

We introduce new words with increasing frequency. Neologisms may be viewed as transformative tools which in the past have extended our control over many but not every discernible feature of our world. There is of course no guarantee that such creative actions can continue unabated as has happened in our recent past. Our creativity has also produced conditions which threaten our continued existence. Other species have become extinct although (as far as we know) inadvertently, not through self-destruction. Many species have lost control over their environmental niche. Humans, however, have gotten perilously close to doing so, and many now claim that we have interfered with environmental factors to an irreversible extent so that the earth will be unable to support human life.

The meanings of many words are unquestionably related to their effectiveness in identifying events but there is an additional dimension which is related to the historical context of their use, the role a word plays in mapping the world for its current users. Such referential words, new or old, help to define the contours as well as the interior features of our culture, something which applies even to those words which seemingly are entirely referential.

Associative Nets (Again)

*Associative nets* is an empirical term. It refers to something which can be demonstrated or illustrated. The illustration used in the earlier blog is particularly useful in showing what this concept refers to and for this reason is repeated here!

One can select any number of terms in our everyday vocabulary and draw a network of how each term is (or is not) related to some (but not all) other terms of the language. By the same token, if you select any term within an extant language you can show to what other terms in that language it is related. One can use distance, as well as the size of the area covered by a term, or the direction of the connecting link to “map” the relationship between different term. However the nets are multi-directional; the space is n-directional. I add another feature: temporality, that is that nets develop over time so that a shift in the net may influence large areas, a kind of ripple effect which spread from an impact point to distant places, yet does not extend over all surfaces.

If this image of an associative net is moderately correct, it should be clear that it is almost impossible to treat a language-in-use as a stable unit. Such a language deserves to be viewed as a river into which one cannot step twice, yet for practical purposes one views it as the same river. If one builds a dam in the river to store its waters, then later converts the dam to also serve as a source of power, the river retains its name and even most of its contours from source to end. One may revise one’s private image of the river, but this is optional and depends on the situation itself. In fact, we are aware that matters have changed and we accommodate our thoughts accordingly. We use our language not as an object made in heaven, but as a flexible tool which will serve our purposes.

Research Episodes

In an recent blog I commented that:

…we continue to be committed to the idea of extending our current knowledge. For this to happen we should be willing to add but also to abandon ideas. This requires that some old ideas, no matter how venerable or favoured, get replaced. The criteria would be that the replacement-ideas are expected to do a better job of explaining what we call our “current raw data”, that is, materials previously gathered and collected during “research” episodes, but which have not yet been methodically and systematically processed and sorted.

There are several ideas here which merit further discussion.

Foremost is the notion of a *research episode*, which I view as a prolonged and systematic inquiry into one or more well-articulated problems, and where each problem studied relates to some earlier research. There are many examples which could be cited, for instance the many cited in Hawkings A Brief History of Time (1988), but my own research was heavily influenced by two newcomers in the early 1950’s, by ethology (a form of studying animal behaviour: Niko Tinbergen, A Study of Instinct, 1950) and the study of operant behaviour as advocated by B.F. Skinner in his book The Behaviour of Organisms (1938).

I often met Tinbergen on his regular visits to lunch with my friend and colleague B.M. Foss at Birkbeck College; I met Skinner in 1951 in Sweden at the International Congress of Psychology and thereafter every few years. We stayed in contact for the next 35 years. Both had founded new schools of research which reached far beyond Oxford and Harvard and each gave birth to distinct “schools” of thought which led to significant research efforts by others throughout the world and which expanded into fields of study other than the “Herring Gull” or the pigeon in its “Skinner box” pecking at discs. Both men deeply influenced the way we in the 20th century thought about our world.

I use the term *research episode* in a wide sense, as not confined to a short period of time, or as associated with a particular individual, but as a period within an existing science which may develop considerable momentum as new problems are explored by an increasing number of investigators (often on a cross disciplinary basis). The methods and ways of thinking about problems is influenced as new frontiers of inquiry are reached and breached. Such episodes may start as a distinct, even limited form of inquiry, and then may expand either slowly or rapidly to cover more and more “problem areas” as also inadvertently “invade” other territories.

The ethology of Tinbergen, or “instinct theory” as it was often referred to in its early days, had a profound impact on comparative neurophysiology — and continues to influence it. It extended and dated the earlier concepts of Pavlovian neurophysiology which had started almost three quarter of a century earlier. Pavlov’s thinking itself was influenced by the notion that the nervous system was a direct extension of the reflex-arc and was influenced by the idea that all neurological systems were built on a similar, closely related architecture. Differences were attributed to levels of complexity and eschewed the idea that levels of complexity could be the source of irreconcilable differences in nature itself.

What is research? The term *research* is well established. In English it comes from the verb “to search”, to look into and to look for. It covers trivial efforts — like the birth date of a favorite composer or author — to issues which require prolonged investigation, e.g. how honeybees return to their hives after foraging, or informing other bees on their return from a location of a flower patch recently visited. Doing research invariably involves that one identifies a specific problem or set of problems and follows each of these to the point when most central questions seem satisfactorily answered.

In practise the original issues which first aroused one’s interest become modified en passant, are reinterpreted and as a result of such reinterpretations the conceptual net often becomes larger. It seems that two separate tasks are involved in research: the first requires much skill in asking questions. This has to be learnt and is skill honed through experience. One has to learn how to ask the right questions, something which nay require a long apprenticeship. The second requires that one learn how to move from translating a question — however it was initially stated — into a method of discovery, a method of enquiry.

The first example refers to something done quickly, in a jiffy so to speak! Today all one needs is a computer with Internet access and the know-how about how to search for answers in Wikipedia or similar sites. Most kids in my neighbourhood know how to do this. Some are wizards at this even at a tender age! No need for them to know anything more than how to approach a computer and ask questions, or so it seems. No need to memorize answers when it is so easy to access the memory of a computer! The “search” episode can therefore be very short, whereas understanding answers discovered may take long! It is different with questions about how honeybees communicate the direction and distance from hive to food source and then return! Do bees learn by their mistakes — like we do — or is there little tolerance for those who pass on misinformation to their hive-mates? Furthermore many questions cannot be answered by referring to the work of one’s predecessors. One enters the forrest alone, without companions, and with luck or skill exits at the other side.

Every doctoral dissertation supposedly consists of a new contribution to knowledge. New? The true story is that one asks questions which invariably lean on the work of others. Of course, one may lean on a house of cards or neglect the work of unknown predecessors. One may avoid errors by acquiring extensive knowledge of the history of a problem, yet errors and ommissions are unavoidable, although one can learn to reduce these in time.

Yet asking questions such as those already mentioned take place in a context. Broadly speaking the context is the culture of the petitioner(s). Although each question follows a string of earlier questions, the sequence is not necessarily orderly. The logic also is not rigid but is often a heavy mixture of materials drawn from earlier periods which themselves are infused with analogical materials, like what if all animals are like the branches of a tree, a common trunk from ground to sky, which branch out in familiar fashion? There is also often some element of “serendipity” which helps to uncover clues en passant — often rather unexpectedly.

These clues can dramatically change the order of discoveries made. Wrong leads are familiar to most experienced researchers. However orderly sequences do occur, as during conversations between like-minded people, or when one person instructs another in a teacher-pupil relationship. One guides the other. Conversations between colleagues also keep a discussion on track and encourages each discussant to follow implications of their thoughts. Some discussions are guided by appointed chairpersons, other move along and therefore have less structure, but may nevertheless reach comparable conclusions.

Conference organizers often try to follow this model. Left on their own most people — even disciplined, somewhat compulsive and single minded professors — “skip” from topic to topic without raising questions in a coherent manner, as if questions can be peeled layer by layer like the wrappings of a Christmas present, no matter where you start! The more wrappings the greater the excitement! Ultimately the core is exposed.

*Culture* is a flexible concept. Applied to a modern community it covers the idea of a mix of micro and macro cultures. But there is a significant difference between a group — viewed as an aggregate of individuals — and a culture. A culture involves a group of individuals, marks them as belonging together by virtue of common interests, not common physical markings. What is it that individuals prefer, what draws them to each other, what holds them together over time despite diversity of experience, physical dissimilarities? Those who are devoted piano players of Mozart or attend exhibitions of Picasso are already on board — as it were — and have cultural affinities. Whatever binds their interests and commitments may be limited, but forms a common ground.

In time, three men in a boat will form a community, functional or dysfunctional. In short, although there may be significant differences in the affiliations of individuals who form a group — the Thursday evening concert goers, say — these serve as the bricks from which a modest dwelling can be built. Thus individuals are viewed also as a member of a smaller community whereas none are likely to be members of all groups which make up the society as a whole.

What about “new arrivals” i.e. immigrants? These go through an acculturation period and process which can vary from one generation to another. At first each is reared as members of several small social groups, but this changes so that mature adults often become members of several quite distinct groups with interests and interactions shared some, but not all, of their time.

Take a standard example of how we may come to get involved in a problem and in attempts to find its solution. The problem may be complex, may not have a single solution but be a multiple problem with solutions for one but not for all aspects of the original problem. “Why did the hen cross the road?” This event happens all the time in country lanes, but never — as far as I know — on Bloor Street in Toronto, or Hyde Park Corner in London. What catches our attention and arouses our curiosity most often are what to us are unusual happenings: hens crossing city roads being one.

Take another example: I visit a learned friend’s home for the first time and note that his opulent library is arranged with books placed on the shelves in order of size, not colour, not content, not alphabetically or thematically. My initial shock turns into curiosity. Why do it that way? I sense a problem and I rummage for ideas I have had about organizing my own library, about what we know about the psychology of collectors, about library science. I do so for two related reasons: I wish to explain to myself what I have seen and perhaps share my explanation with friends and colleagues! There is a leap from individual perplexity — based on personal ideas about what is normal and what people do routinely — to an awareness of a general problem, that my problems are prototypical of those of others.

This general problem can be expressed in the following manner: what leads people to organize their phenomenological experiences into categories, and what consequences follow from adopting a “grouping routine” developed by an individual and by a group of cohorts?

In both examples the initial question represents the first step to what could turn out to be a long series of successive steps. Each answer is likely to lead to additional questions, then to more enquiries. Had I asked a pedestrian question, like who designed and built the St Paul’s cathedral in London, an answer would be available readily, by consulting an on-line (internet) encyclopedia. To help distinguish between these two types of inquiries it is fitting that we give each an appropriate name. I suggest that the term “research episode” be used for those many cases where the answer to a question (a) is not already readily available; or (b) where the search for an answer to a question requires that one pursues several different alternative hypotheses, which developed during the search. Some of these hypotheses will be rejected but others may serve as stepping stones, or toeholds, to additional answers and wider, perhaps newer areas of research.

I believe that formal concept of a “research episode” is new. It is categorical — not canonical — the sense that the concept helps us to organize what is already known independently, prior to the application of the category to the material. These categorical concepts may in time be elevated and become canonical, that is, become part of an established religion! An example may help: suppose you are given a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle and several possible blueprints? One way of tackling this frustrating task is to conjecture an idea of what it is — a painting by Picasso or Turner perhaps — or work on an entirely different presupposition, namely that the puzzle will form a square or oblong picture, or perhaps a round or oval one. On what basis are thee suppositions made? What clues were used, if any? If one were told in advance the identity of the painter, or perhaps the topic of the painting, the task would be easier. (Note: we rarely enter such tasks naked; we usually get a chance to prepare ourselves — and this illustrates the importance of approaching any task with some preparation and about what is likely to happen once we start our journey of exploration.)

Suppose you find only 100 pieces of a puzzle. If told that the completed puzzle is a rectangular picture you that you need only 4 right angles pieces to form the corners. So the chances of an error in detecting a corner pieces are now 1:25, better by far than 1:5000 ! “Detect corner pieces” and “detect those right-angled pieces which define a corner” are procedural imperatives which are categorical, and may lead to the solution of the task. But if the picture is oval? Heaven help you — you will have to start by gathering together pieces by colour matching.