The Fictions We Create 5: Descriptive sentences and evaluative statements

It is clear that the term *language* has a technical meaning but that it is also used to refer to what humans — but also some other species, e.g. monkeys, — do when they “chatter”! In the first sense, language is a form of communication viewed as acts during which specific messages are passed from one individual to others.

An example often cited in the past was to the “language” of bees, a field of research associated with the work of Karl von Frisch (Nobel prize, 1973) and his discovery that bees inform members of their hive of the location of honey sources by a dance. Here an individual message has content, that is, it is about something, refers to some distinguishable happening or event which may be significant or important to communicants. Yet every message may only be a constituent of a wider language. A piercing cry may be a message — as may be a whimper — but it is not part of a language unless there are additional messages which supplement such singular cries.

A language, in short, usually features many messages and — as we have learnt over the past few hundred years following the publication of several dictionaries — each human language shows that it can grow by leaps and bounds within a relatively short period. In short, a cry can become part of a vocal language, but may not do so consistently. There may be many “cries” which can become an aspect or feature of a language, but need not do so. (For example, “ouch” is a cry of pain, but it is in English.)

A human language has many features by means of which messages are passed from one individual to others of a group, from one to one or among many. Each message has some content — what it is about — but it also possesses a formal structure, which becomes part of its referential meaning. It is therefore incorrect to advertise only the semantic aspect of a term, since each message also occurs in a context which contributes to some degree to what is normally referred to as its meaning for both the sender and the recipient of the message. The prototypical and well-known example of how structure determines meaning is “the cat is on the mat” versus “the mat is on the cat”. There are many versions of this.

As already stated, language is a form of communication viewed as acts of passing messages from one individual to others of a group. But messages by humans are communicated not only by spoken words, but also by gestures, hand signals, etc. Indeed, many modern commentators refer to “body language” to convey that there may be additional meaning to a statement made in written or some other form, e.g., when a poet reads his work in public. Thus one may hear a comment that, “Mr. T asserts ‘xyz’ but his body language tells a different story.” It gives us a different story than if only his words were used to interpret his meaning.

Let us now clarify two terms which may make my position clearer, namely descriptive sentences and evaluative sentences.

Descriptive sentences refer to those elements of a spoken or written language which are presented in the form of statements whose function is to assert that some particular event, x, has a general quality, q. For example, “the sky today is blue” describes x by ascribing one of many possible, suitable, likely attributes to x. Important: the letter q does not refer to an evaluative property of the event (like “beautiful”, “desirable”, “ghastly”, “horrendous”) but refers to a feature which in combination with other features makes the event unique or different from other events, including what it is made of, e.g. a horse of flesh and bones, or a horse made of wood!

Evaluative sentences, on the other hand, refer to sentences of a language which ascribe value to an event, which order or locate that event on a scale of desirability, preferability, usefulness, etc. These are all qualities of the object which reflect its value but does not add to its description. Such evaluations are invariably relative to some other, perhaps comparable, items or events. These therefore do not describe the object by reference to its so-called “defining” properties. To refer to a vase as “in the shape of a bottle with ugly decorations” is a mixed description — and in that sense is no more helpful than talking about it as being “shaped as a bottle with additional decorations”! By adding that the decorations are “ugly”, the object is classified as existing on a scale of values which reflect something about the speaker and not the the object! It is similar to asserting “I love dogs but not cats”, which states a personal preference and clearly has nothing to do with either dogs or cats: in short, being liked by me is not descriptive of either entity or object!

We therefore divide our world into (a) items, events, situation which are describable, can be described, in contrast to (b) rating each of these on a scale which reflects our personal appreciation and reaction to it. We customarily talk about (a) as involving objective description and (b) as involving our personal, subjective, reaction to some event.

In some sense, therefore, descriptive statements may be true or false, whereas evaluative statements only reflect the views and opinions of the speaker, namely, his or her preferences and opinions. To refer to them as being true or false violates the rules of language use. The statements themselves have no epistemic validity, since this quality of a statement cannot be tested without reference to “data”.

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”?

The Fictions We Create 4: Our Inside and the Rapidly Expanding Outside

We have come to accept that the inside world is large, although ordinary people do not have a very large vocabulary with which to report “inside” experiences. They cover this by saying “I think”,“I feel…” ,“I sense that…”. In other words, most people tend to leave the description of their “feelings” to our poets or song writers/musicians!

We are, in fact, demonstrably more adept at describing the outside world — our common world. Some say that this is so because we live in a materialistic culture which is primarily focussed on the world around us. (Thus culture plays a “shaping” role).

However, both “domains” — the inside and the outside — are currently expanding rapidly, the latter at a faster rate than the former.* What do we do to meet our needs to express and refer to these changes? We create additional (new) term/ words and expressions which mark and label different events. Here the term creation has four references:

(a) Inventing new sounds (or symbols which substitute for sounds) to be used routinely in an existing language. The new sound — a complex event — is then assigned an “official meaning” either by fiat or later by including it in a current (on-line?) dictionary (which is a relatively new invention! — see the footnote** below);

(b) We borrow already existing words from a foreign language (e.g. Greek ἰδέα idea “form, pattern,” from the root of ἰδεῖν idein, “to see. Oxford English Dictionary 2014) but import into the host-language, only one one of its several meanings from its original, its donor-language (see earlier articles on neolidesm).

(c) We transform an existing word which has been selected from within our home- language and “quietly” assign an additional meaning to it by “analogy” i.e. by referring to its likeness/similarity between it and its new “reference”. In an earlier blog I have called this an “analogical spread”;

(d) We adapt an existing word in our home-language by changing its context of use. Using this method we assign new meaning to many old, well-worn words. It is sometimes the origin of what are now referred to as slang words, but not its only source, which I previously referred to as a special case of neolidesm. (See ** footnote below.)

* I have some reservations about this statement. One could argue that much of the “inside” worlds get expressed in expressive modes of popular culture, includes its songs, dances, arts.

** A brief statement about dictionaries taken mostly from Wikipedia:

Dictionaries go back several thousand years, but the “The first monolingual dictionary written in Europe was Spanish, written by Sebastián Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, published in 1611 in Madrid, Spain.

Several attempts were made to produce a reference book to serve the current use for English speakers, but it was not until Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that a reliable English dictionary was produced. At this point dictionaries had evolved which also featured textual references for most words, and their listing was arranged alphabetically, rather than by topic (a previously popular form of arrangement, which meant that all animals would be grouped together, etc.). Johnson’s masterwork was the first to bring all these elements together, thereby creating the first dictionary to be published in “modern” form.

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.

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.

Rigid Definitions and Rigid Description

Words appear as spoken by people and as transcripts of a spoken word. A printed book is a transcript, as is a digital recording or synthesized speech! I shall focus exclusively on transcripts of the spoken word and specifically on English texts.

If W is a word, the rule appears to be that W may have at least two manifestations: (1) it is sounded in a certain way and (2) it is used in different ways on different occasions. If a word has multiple uses it follows that is has several definitions and some — if not all — should be registered in a common dictionary. A dictionary however is not expected by its users to exhaust how a word is used, or has been used — or how it will be used in. Dictionaries are very modish.

What a dictionary most often does is to list how a word is currently used. I invariably look up the dictionary’s date of publication and when it was last revised. “Currently” indicates that the uses cited refer to the use on the date of publication. It therefore has explicit historical parameters: by whom, when, where, and under what range of circumstances the word is likely to be used! Most dictionaries do not do so, but assume that the user does their homework and fills in the missing blanks! “Likely” tells us that the editors/compilers of the dictionary cannot be sure that they have identified all the current uses of a word. Fair enough — let readers and users be warned. They should not conclude that all that could be said about a word has being said within the covers of the dictionary consulted.

A dictionary lists words and their possible use in a possible world but it does not deal with the nature of the possible world itself. It describes (sort of!) how others tend to use a word or expression. Dictionaries are not handbooks on cosmology. Each dictionary also “dates” the usages of the words it has assembled. This is done by including in the exposition different uses of the words at different periods but also by its date of publication. Few people refer to the latter!

A dictionary does not usually state whether the definiens is a description of a phenomenon as well as an explication of the term being defined. The definiens is therefore neither a causal nor a phenomenological analysis of a word or a concept. The compilers are not legislators who intend or are empowered to prescribe how a word is to be used, or proscribe its uses although their editorial actions may have the unintended consequence of laying down in many minds what the “proper” use of a word is. Let the user therefore beware! He/she is not bound by the definition offered: it is only a recommendation. However the compilers may feel obliged to emphasize what is currently in widespread use and thereby indirectly promote and reinforce an existing social preference.

But if the definiens is neither a causal or a phenomenological analysis of a term or concept, what constitutes a causal or phenomenological analysis? Both of these are concepts belong to a different order of events and do not take the form …= df … but, propose, take the form … = xp… The symbol *xp* is new and will be clarified below!

Clarification of *xp* — a new symbol

The symbol *xp* is short for *explicate*, that is, to clarify something referred to. It is sometimes used as an alternative for *explain* but that is not how I propose to use it. Rather, I propose to restrict *explicate* to the idea of giving a logical analysis of something.

Now it is in the nature of the case that whenever one offers to explicate something, defined as developing the implication of an idea, to analyze it logically, one does so by drawing an invisible curtain around it and stating — in some manner — that of all possible things that can be meant by the idea, one wishes to clarify a particular meaning, aspect or interpretation of it. One assumes that the term has multiple meanings, and one lays these out as best one can. Although one is free to offer more than one analysis of a term, this option is usually rejected and the effort is focussed on only one.

This is a mistake: all options should be on the table before one explictly favours one and rejects others. Rejection does not mean “incorrect”, but “not favoured now, within the context of the present discussion.”

We will use X as the symbol for what is being explicated
XP as the set of statements submitted in explication.

XP may refer to “conditionality”, or refer to a condition of use, but it may also be mainly descriptive. The latter refers to the idea that one can talk about an event by describing it in various degrees of details.

Take a scene like the arrival of a steam locomotive drawing a set of carriages into a small local railway station. The year is 1899! There is no doubt that ideally one would submit a set of photographs to depict the scene. Each viewer is then free to translate what he/she sees into words. Some may submit florid descriptions; others may use sparse and few sentences. Provided each also includes the name of the railways station we can be more or less sure that they are describing the same scene. It does not mean that everything that can be said about the matter has been or will be submitted!

Therefore XP does not exhaust X: it clarifies but does not give exhaustive descriptions! Furthermore, XP does not (and therefore is not designed) to create a rigid definition (in the sense discussed by Kripke (1980) and others (see Laporte, 2012 in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). On the contrary, X remains open, pliable, although it has been limited to some degree by the explication, XP, given. So we need to distinguish between a definition of a term and a description of what it could cover. It is not difficult.

In a definition we start with a word which is unknown to us, whose use is therefore unfamiliar or which is ambiguous to us. We therefore ask someone to gives us a definition, a statement to tell us how this word is used by its speakers. The sign =xp therefore indicates that we are dealing with a clarification, not an equivalence.

One can give different clarifications and therefore treat the set of these clarifying statements as “more or less equivalents”! This explains why the same word is given different definitions in different dictionaries without causing a general strike amongst dictionary users.

A description, on the other hand, refers to any effort to state in words and sentences what some person has seen (experienced) about an event he/she witnessed or has knowledge of. Descriptions come in different degrees of details and authenticity. If I report what several of my friends have told me about an accident in Mulberry Street which occurred some time ago in Fort Myers, the credibility of my report will be quite low, whereas if I added that I had witnessed the scene myself in part, the report might be given slightly more credence!

So descriptions are rated (usually silently) by using mostly implicit criteria to gauge their credibility. This is quite unlike what happens to definitions. I have previously suggested that we dimensionalize descriptions by talking about their rigidity: accordingly, a detailed description is also rigid, or becomes increasingly rigid. This rigidity also makes it easier to contest against competing accounts of what happened in Mulberry Street.

In so far as XP is time-bound (historically restricted) it is part of an effort to create (by an unknown group of individuals!) a particular universe, a wished-for closed system which portraits a possible universe, but not the only universe! Even if we make the dictatorial move to declare that this Universe which is being described is the final universe, we acknowledges that “final” is one of a finite series with antecedents. It could therefore have additional successors — it is possible. See also Steven Weinberg’s illuminating discussion of this and related issues in To Explain the World” (Harper, 2015) and his earlier Dreams of a Final Theory: the scientists’s search for the ultimate laws of nature (sic!) (Vintage, 1993).

More on Rigid Definitions and Rigid Descriptions

A rigid definition — not to be confused with a rigid descriptions (Kripke, 1980) — stands in contrast to a fluid or porous definition. A definition is rigid when the words that defines another word (or expression) — the definiens — is designed to be unique and therefore cannot be substituted by other words. Does this happen? Indeed, quite often and increasingly so because our language contains many more “technical”, “scientific”, “modish” or “proprietary words”, i.e. names of patented processes or of legally protected products than, say, 25 years ago.

However, we often overstep the bounds of legal use and employ technical terms in a nontechnical manner. Users, when they do so use silent, invisible quotation marks to indicate that words have more than one meaning or reference. This effectively undermines rigid definitions. No matter: the consistent effect of rigid definitions is to limit — but also to impoverish — a language immeasurably. Language probably emerged as a within-group behavioural device which effectively permitted a group to communicate their “mood” about the safety of their immediate habitat and only later became an adjunct to “grooming behavior, a means for in-group consolidation. (This is of course pure speculation !!!)

To insist on rigid definitions is like extracting all teeth instead of undertaking a measured pace of saving what needs preservation and leaving well enough alone. The pain, discomfort and loss of function is most likely far too expensive, too much to pay for the accrued benefits.

In any case, we are not in danger of dumping our current language habits in favour of a total makeover, as was once proposed, although one should remember that such was advocated for almost 70 years by many philosophers of science throughout the last century, by many who identified themselves as members of the Vienna Circle, or Logical Positivists or Logical Empiricists (e.g.Bertrand Russel). Wittgenstein, one of the earliest advocates of this position renounced it within ten years of publishing his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921) which had explored the consequences of applying the strict methods of empiricism to the language of science. Instead he advocated that we overcome misunderstandings induced by loose language habits, by resorting to a more careful analysis of how we use language in different settings. This agenda involved drawing implicit demarcation lines between different uses and functions of language.

The work of Karl Buhler(1867-1963), sometime professor of psychology in Vienna in the early 20th century was critically important in the next step of moving from a monistic position regarding the role of language in human affairs by viewing it as a multifunctional activity. He viewed language as having three roles: an expressive function, a representative function and a conative function (in the sense of “motivation”). Only the second of these had been addressed by philosophers of science (e.g. E. Mach), namely its representational (referential) role.

Buhler’s students included the philosopher Karl Popper and the founder of ethology, the biologist Konrad Lorenz, but it was the former whose influential views on the nature of the scientific enterprise had a profound influence on the relation between the acts of discovery and the emergence of theories about how discoveries become integrated to generate and form a succession of falsifiable hypotheses and “theories” about the wider universe, i.e. cosmologies. He did not address questions about the expressive or conactive functions of language. In retrospect in appears that K. Lorenz and his group of animal behavioral analysts (also known later as “ethologists”) were primarily interested in viewing within and inter-species communication as attributes whereby a species facilitated its survival.

Philosophers of science, generally speaking, have focussed on the second role of language listed by Buhler, how it serves to represent cognitive experiences. One should not overlook that every formulation of ideas — which ultimately finds expression in a language and mathematics — and which the representational function of language develops quite slowly, tediously, and depends initially on borrowing from the position of others (from fellow “citizens”) about what they themselves are due to experience. It is comparable to an 8-year-old child being asked to look through a microscope for the first time and told what he/she is about to see if it guides its sights in certain prescribed ways! Without such guidance most would see very little as they stare through the lenses!

And how is this guidance done? By “instructions’ which are easily understood because these rely on a lot of previous experience of being guided to a correct — often rewarding — outcome. So discoveries often — but not only — take place in an environment which includes some form of language and ipso facto occurs within a cultural context. Monkeys — and others — alert each other, their group, by shrieking, wailing, screeching — but do not give a careful description of the intruders they have sighted and presumable their fear — whereas humans do so with considerable panache!

In summary: If all our words were subject to rigid definitions we would need to increase our current treasury of words enormously, but we would also lose our ability to express our flights of fancy in words. We know much about “flights of fancy” in humans — but have reasons to be skeptical whether this occurs with equal frequency or élan in dogs, cats, or lice.

The notion of “incomplete descriptions” acknowledges that whatever particular description is available, could perhaps be bettered, improved upon, extended, or could be added to. The understanding is that should this happens it would not radically alter the “story” of the event or its narrative features. Thus it may not be materially relevant what colour the hats and dresses of the persons involved in the accident were since accidents are commonly defined by injuries sustained by those involved, not the damage to their clothes!

One could argue that not all definitions exhaust the meaning of the word which is being defined, but — one the contrary — it is rare to find such exhaustive definition. We chose an easier way. Our objective is to identify salient features of a situation or an object.

This argument is based on a widespread approach that the function of communication is to outline essential features of a situation, not to give a minute description of one’s personal experience to others. If details are missing, people will demand that such errors of omission are rectified! In most situations the opposite is true: if one loads a description with details which others believe — rightly or wrongly — to be excessive, the chances are that our report will be overlooked in favour of those which are more pointed and brief. It is the listener who decides whether the information is sufficient. One is best served by using tools suited to a task!

One could add that if words are meant to have distinct, unique referents — a common approach to object-words — then it is possible that several of the words in use refer to the same objects, and are therefore redundant. Question: does every distinctive phenomena have to have, or should have, a distinct, separate label, a name? What is the relation between naming a phenomenon and the phenomenon? Are labels independent of the phenomenon?

Admittedly there are cases where it is highly desirable that an object or situation carries a singular name. Example: we use a variety of devices which measure time, and we have have invented a string of labels for these,e.g.water-clocks, spring-clocks, atomic-clocks etc. There are also designations which focus on other characteristics: pocket watches, grandfather clocks, kitchen clocks, etc. It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether a particular kitchen clock is electrically operated, a wind-up device (spring driven), a pendulum device etc. Everyone involved has agreed from the outset that it is reasonable to ask such questions — and also other questions — without necessarily knowing why each question is being raised. We say “Such questions may be pertinent but are also appropriate under some circumstances”. These questions are a way of averting the alternative — horrible thought — that a description must contain and include from the outset the kernels of all questions that could arise about the object/event!

In general, scientists prefer to label all “known” objects and phenomena and they do so under the impression that the name will continue to be “proprietary”, limited to that object or class of objects. Historically, this is not what happens. Names of objects have a tendency to migrate, grow in the realm of application before these wander into adjacent territory and finally prove of limited use to their “sponsors”. There are exceptions — but these are few. I doubt whether the name of a chemical compound would get co-opted as the name of generic product — but it could happen.