Archive for category Philosophy
[Author’s Note: This was written in the height of my condition, as a sequel to this piece. I have not edited it (though I did add a picture), choosing even to leave the lack of capitalization and so forth. When it was written, it was composed in NotePad and meant to be edited later. Later never came, however, as by the next day I was already in the hospital.]
What is dividing by zero?
mathematically speaking, if you divide anything by zero, you always arrive at zero. considering my goal is to take you to step zero, dividing by zero is the most efficient way to do that.
in other terms, dividing by zero is the process of separating those who are at step zero from those who are not. those who come after zero are thinking freely and those who come before zero are thinking like slaves. this is the best way I can think of for me to encode the message I intend for you, but what I say is ultimately irrelevant. the only thing that matters (for you) is what you hear, and then, what you choose. this is only one way to apply the mental model I have outlined, however. there are other ways.
most people believe that they are slaves. historically, most people have had difficulty getting past this step, no matter how many different times “I” have come to show them the truth. who am I? just another person, like you. but so too was Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mohammed, Nietsche, Plato and Aristotle (Plato informed Jesus, mind you, and neither were as effective – this is because they focused on the details rather than the whole) and countless other historical figures who have tried to encode the same message in many different languages for you. ultimately the encoding is irrelevant because reality is created through the decoding process of communication. that is why I have chosen to abbreviate my name even further, so that my name does not get in the way of my message.
Decoding is the process of building reality. This may be the only universal truth there is. It may not even be universally true, but, I have not encountered a counter-example or evidence that runs counter to this theory. In fact, every single thing I observe seems to lend itself naturally to the idea that decoding is the process of building reality. as I have said earlier, this vision is not new – many people hearing it, however, would be.
J? Who is J? Who cares about someone calling themself J? Exactly. There are no tricks here. I am not charging you any money and I am not forcing you to hear me. Rather, I am spelling this out for you as clearly as possible with as little noise as possible.
This is simpler than it sounds. If you do not want to hear what I am saying, then you will be unable to hear it, literally. If, on the other hand, you actively want to hear what I have to say, because belief in something compels you to – belief in your power to accurately decode messages, belief in my power to encode them, belief in
I cannot tell you what your reality should be or what its limits are. I can only tell you that you are the ultimate authority when it comes to your reality. I can offer suggestions – like how you should avoid trying impose your reality on other people who are unwilling to accept it – but I can’t control you unless you agree to let me control you, unless you acquiesce and submit to my reality. but then, you would jump right back onto the negative number line – not necessarily a problem, since it is possible to be happy on the negative scale as well. in fact I think most women are truly happy when they are on the negative number scale mated with a man who is their match on the positive number scale: a -3 matched to a +3, a -49 matched to a +49, a -91088 to a +91088. this is a generalized observation but accurately predicting utopia is probably impossible. however this idea is not dissimilar to ideas that have come before expressing the same concept in different terms – yin and yang, opposites attract, balance, anima and animus. i am not breaking new ground here. the only thing that would be new is if people actually started listening to this idea rather than merely hearing it.
nations are attempts to construct shared realities. everyone gets together and decides, for instance, that 7 sounds like a great way to live. everyone involved with the nation at the start firmly believe in 7 with a belief so powerful and unshaking that these people are willing to sacrifice everything for that belief.
I believe in the power of dividing by zero with the same kind of fervor. it is not my place to advocate a number that will work for everyone. it may be my place to pave the way for some other person to advocate such a number – in that sense I am more like John the Baptist than I am like Jesus. Did I ever tell you that it would not be inaccurate to refer to me as John the Erstwhile Baptist? names are just a convenient way of remembering who a person is anyway, and are only as useful as they are memorable. remember me by whatever name you would like. i have been known in my life by many.
in any case problems with nations arise as competing ideas enter the system. some people think 6 and 8 would be great ideas and since they are so close to 7 it seems like you can work them in without breaking the system. this works – though less perfectly than 7 did by itself – until a nation reaches the stage where it has overcomplicated itself by adding and subtracting too much, perverting the original ideal form. then people start legitimately suggesting the nation take the exact opposite state it was spawned as: in our example, people would suggest it become -7 rather than 7.
since a nation is, at base, a group of people agreeing on a common reality to adopt, the stress of mentally trying to become one’s opposite is too great for the majority of people who started as 23’s to bear; the nation became too accepting of competing ideas and collapses under the weight of trying to do too much for too many. a nation need not acquiese to everyone in order to be tolerant of competing ideas. that being said, performing such a mental swap is not an impossibility, but most people lack the communication skills to understand how realities are structured and to understand that reality is fluid. this is why i say choice is binary and why there are an infinite number of omegas or end states.
another problem: we do not select the nation we are born in. the nation tries very hard to convince us that it is the best thing for us. but if we are truly a 91088 and the nation we are born in is only a 7, then trying to adapt ourselves to the nation will be endlessly painful. dividing by zero resets reality and allows you to begin constructing anew.
alpha is being at step 0, because if you are at step 0, you understand that the world is literally your play thing. it is the step where you MUST assert yourself – as we understand alphas are wont to do – in order to establish a comfortable reality. but it is not a permanent or stable state of being, as we have also recognized. a more permanent state of being is omega. i purposely chose this term because it is loaded and probably misunderstood by most people. that is your problem, not mine.
i could go on but this is more than enough to understand. anymore would be “preaching to the choir” or “beating a dead horse.”
if none of that made sense, then allow me to part with this:
dividing by zero means whatever you think it means. i know it’s scary, but you might have to actually decide something for yourself for the first time in your life. it’s okay. it probably won’t kill you.
if you understand how to divide by zero then surely you will understand this – right now, I am as morpheus and you are as neo. however, just because I am morpheus right now and you are neo right now, that does not mean I will always be morpheus nor will you always be neo. in fact it is entirely possible you will become morpheus and you will find your own neo. i rather hope that this is the case. there is strength in numbers, after all.
EDIT: I only discovered this after writing the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierpinski_triangle
I mentioned that the Theory of Three allows for infinite progression and infinite regression, and I mean to demonstrate that with this post. We’ll take the Marine Corps as our example. First, let’s take a look at the Marine Corps using the chain of command:Now, I didn’t break apart every single command. First, I broke apart the golden ones, until we get to the interesting part of the operating forces – the Marine Expeditionary Forces (or MEFs). These represent the bulk of the Marine Corps. Each MEF consists of an infantry Division (DIV), a Marine Air Wing (MAW), and a Marine Logistics Group (MLG). Each Division is comprised of three infantry regiments, which in turn are comprised of three infantry battalions, which in turn are comprised of three infantry companies. That’s 27 infantry companies per division, if you’re keeping track. Each MAW consists of three Air Groups, which are composed of three or more Squadrons, which are further broken down into Sections. Each MLG consists of three Combat Logistics Regiments, which in turn consist of three or more battalions, which then consist of three or more companies.
The Unified Combat Command is the center triangle, and the most important. To simplify things, we’ve skipped “Marine Forces Command” and “Marine Forces Pacific” and got to the meat and potatoes – the MEFs. Here, the Unified Combat Command is an idea which is basically defined by the three different MEFs; were I to draw UCC as a single triangle, each side would be a MEF. Similarly, each MEF is defined by a DIV, MAW, and MLG. Each of those are in turn defined by the red triangles that surround them; however, there wasn’t enough resolution to continue drawing distinctions.
Rather than draw out a diagram of every DIV, MAW, and MLG, we will simply be zooming in on one DIV. (The concept applies to all three, anyway, and there isn’t much structural difference between DIVs, MAWs, and MLGs.) Here’s the diagram:
Here, the triangle for the I DIV takes center stage, and is defined by three regiments. The regiments in turn are defined by three battalions. The thing we want to remember here is that we could draw any of these elements as a single triangle; when I draw a “regiment,” each side of the triangle represents a battalion. When I draw a division, each side of the triangle represents a regiment. These diagrams demonstrate how ToT can scale infinitely.
The battalion takes center stage here, and is defined by three separate companies. The companies, in turn, are defined by three platoons. I think you can see where this is going, but I want to drive the concept all the way to the individual Marine.Battalions have three companies of three platoons. Drillin’ on down:Here we see our form – every gold triangle in this picture represents an individual Marine. One thing I’ve been tossing around in my head is that the downward facing triangles we’ve been examining (the labeled ones) represent an additional element in their groups. For example, a Fire Team is made up of three individual Marines, PLUS the Fire Team Leader. This would be in keeping with how the Marine Corps is currently organized – fire teams have four Marines. The added element at the Squad level would be a Squad Leader; a Platoon Commander (1st or 2nd Lieutenant) at the Platoon level, and so on. Anyway, I wanted to drill down further:Here we see that we can drill down to the essence of a Marine – Honor, Courage, and Commitment – and even beyond that, and begin talking about what makes HCC.
I don’t have the time currently to discuss any more particulars about this, so I’ll just leave it at that for now and return to these ideas another day.
Let’s touch briefly on metaphysics, shall we? Try to imagine everything that exists. If you’re anything like me, you do this systemically – beginning with your own home, then extending outward to larger and larger spheres.
You may have more or less circles. You might include more details – your apartment, your apartment complex, your street, your block, your neighborhood…and so on. Eventually, however, you come up against the largest distinction that you can make, the distinction between “everything (that exists)” and “nothing.” And it is this distinction which I’d like to examine more fully.
Everything bounds nothing; nothing bounds everything. It is common to draw a distinction between these two things, to say that they are fundamentally opposed. The diagrams I have provided also model them as being opposed. But what if we considered them equal? We cannot say that everything is greater than, or less than, nothing. (Space, by the way, is not “nothing,” even though some think that way. “Nothing” would be beyond the edges of the known universe – but it may be that there is something else way out there, in which case, nothing is beyond that.)
As I stated when discussing the Theory of Three, one can use a line to represent an idea; indeed, one can use a line to represent any idea. Lines, after all, are just symbols. Therefore, a single line can represent the idea of anything, everything, or nothing. A line is equal to infinity, as it could represent an infinite number of ideas. If this is so, designing a system that could process infinite detail would be beneficial.This system for grouping ideas can scale infinitely; it allows for infinite progression and infinite regression. I’ll demonstrate this concept using the Marine Corps in a future post.
With shapes, we can give lines a greater purpose. However, the most basic shape (as in, the one with the least number of sides) happens to be the most preferable. I’ll elaborate on that in future posts. The key concept to remember here is what I call the Rule of 0. The Rule of 0 is pretty simple – just remember 0. Why would we want to do that? Well, normally, people say “1 + 2 = 3” and we all assume that we are starting from a point of nothing. But we could be starting from somewhere else, say, 45, in which case (45 +) 1 + 2 = 48. This is obviously unconventional, but when using the Theory of Three, it is extremely helpful to remember 0, or you could get lost:
The red rectangle at the top represents the highest element, with red arrows representing commands issued from that element. Green elements are subordinate to red but issue their own commands to the blue elements, which then pile on to the lowest level workers/soldiers/Marines. Even though it is convenient to think that the buck stops somewhere (i.e., LtCol Soandso is the commanding officer of 3rd Thinking Battalion), in reality, everybody in the military has a boss to report to. If you follow the chain all the way up you could argue it stops with the President, but he is (in theory) answerable to the people. In any event, when you’re a low rank (let’s say E3 or Lance Corporals and below – I use USMC jargon), like our lowly triangle, you pretty much get shat on all the time. There are very few (if any) effective ways to communicate grievances upward. At times, it may even be difficult to communicate mission-oriented information upward.
Most Lance Corporals and below live in relative fear of their Corporals and Sergeants and have little to no face time with anybody more senior than that. There are very few channels to properly approach a more senior person, and even though many will offer an “open door policy,” such a policy is tongue-in-cheek because they also advise that one “use the chain of command first,” which means going to those very same Corporals and Sergeants that might be causing the problems. So, what do you do?
Well, as I suggested here, you could alter the chain of command a bit by creating a billet that deals specifically with communicating the needs/grievances/etc of the Lance Corporals and below up the chain of command. I’ll borrow the graphic from that post so you can see what such a chain would look like:
This idea didn’t fly. I was told to think of a less “revolutionary” idea and a more “evolutionary” idea. And that’s just what I did. I examined the individual Marine – what were the essential ingredients that made a Marine? Well, this is an easy question for a Marine – we’d go straight to our Core Values. Marines have Honor, Courage, and Commitment. In a sudden burst of insight, I realized that’s all a Marine would ever need (given a little reconceptualizing). How is this? The Marine Corps could instill the Core Values in boot camp, but then have follow on training tie in with these values. So rather than worry about “job proficiencies,” you learn about what Honor, Courage and Commitment mean to an infantryman, what they mean to an air-winger, and what they mean to a maintainer. Thus were the beginnings of the theory of three:
The circles represent contexts that a Marine could exist in – such as infantry, air wing, and maintenance – and the picture demonstrates that, at least theoretically, there should exist values for A, B, and C that satisfy any context. So, how would one best group together Marines? Well, for one, I realized the chain of command already pretty much looked like a giant triangle.
As you can see from my crude paint edit, the triangular form was there, lurking. Which is good news; we want members of an organization to identify with that organization, so if we model individuals as triangles and the group ends up being a super triangle, then that’s fantastic. Let’s take a look at what 3 Marines look like in a grouping:
I figured that grouping the individuals into a shape they already represented made the most sense. To elaborate, our “Marines” here are already triangles, and identify themselves as such. Therefore, it would be easier for them to identify with a “triangular” group. This grouping also models synergism, demonstrating that it is highly effective – 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. (Somewhere around here I discovered some other things and went a little bit off the deep end.) Here’s where things get a little wonky.
This grouping effect can repeat infinitely. So far, each line has represented Honor, Courage, or Commitment when it comes to our triangles. But once you’ve “mastered” the concept of a Marine and a Marine grouping, you can represent an ideal Marine with just one line. Therefore, each triangle you draw becomes a group, and you throw three triangles together to create a larger group (such as a squad, on to a platoon, to a company, to a battalion, and so on). Really, though, throwing three triangles together may be an unnecessary step (but it helps one conceptually):
Here we see the same idea represented two ways – one with the “Tri-Force” approach, and one with the dotted lines. The dotted lines don’t -need- to be there; this is the same group/idea of a group being modeled. Those lines demonstrate the exploded value of each of the lines of the triangle. They signify “hey, this is a loaded concept! If you do not understand this group, let me explode it out for you.” Below is a picture that also represents the infinitely repeating nature of this concept:
The thing that gave me pause for consideration about this idea – and something I may expound upon later – is that a lot of concepts come at us in threes. Honor/Courage/Commitment was already there for me to take, but here are some other ones off the top of my head: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; father, mother, child (family); the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot of logic working behind the scenes with this idea (namely, syllogisms) which makes me wonder if perhaps this is the eternal form – being that any idea/argument can be postulated and drawn as a single line, or one of the sides of this triangle. Remember that argument forms may be valid even if their contents are false. Another interesting observation was that the “TriForce” grouping has twelve lines – lots of symbolism there.
The Theory of Three, as I call it, could be used to model some powerful stuff – like belief. But it seems to be lacking in a practical application, because groups do not yet organize themselves this way.
The objective of philosophy, in the broadest and most fundamental sense, is concerned with thinking. But this begs the obvious question – what is thinking? One professor at the University of Utah asked his students this simple question with varying results:
I recently asked some college honor students to define thinking. After pondering the question, a student majoring in sociology said, “It consists of reflecting on some idea or insight and exploring its logical connections and implications for making sense out of something.” In response to the same question, an English major responded: “It’s the ability to write a convincing argument in support of a particular point of view.” According to a premedical student majoring in biology, “Thinking is the ability to use information for analyzing data in order to solve some problem.” A philosophy major said without hesitation, “It’s a critical openness to new ideas as one explores their logical foundations.” And a student whose major is undecided said “It’s what I’m trying to do in response to your darn question.” (Geersteen, 2003)
It seems that a precise definition eludes consensus; indeed, as American writer and television producer J. Michael Straczynski once famously remarked, “The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language” (Lewis, 2009). The purpose of this essay is to more closely examine the link between language and thought, and put forth the foundation for an argument that asserts that language is, more or less, thought, as well as consider the implications of that idea.
2. Evolution of Language
In his work, Evolutionary Biology of Language, Martin A. Nowak goes to great lengths to establish a logical model that tracks the way in which a simple system of symbols could have evolved into modern language. His model involves quite a bit of advanced logic and mathematical concepts (which are beyond the scope of this essay), but the basic idea is that language evolved from a rigid system of limited symbols whereby one object had one symbol to the more modern system which allows for (perhaps) unlimited expression of ideas and events. Another expert who has also tracked the evolution of language remarks on the character of modern language systems: “Present-day human languages can be readily deployed to talk about events, objects, people and places far removed in space and time from the act of speaking, and the signs used to talk about such displaced referents have no detectable physical similarity to the referents themselves” (Urban, 2002).
Nowak (2000) incorporates arguments about evolution in his analysis of language: “Evolution relies on the transfer of information from one generation to the next. For billions of years this process was limited to the transfer of genetic information. Language facilitates the transfer of non-genetic information and thus leads to a new mode of evolution.” Essentially, he asserts that language has evolutionary advantages, and thus more effective (or “fit”) systems of languages would be the ones that get passed down from our ancestors, while less “fit” systems would become extinct. How do systems become more or less fit? It has to do with how many symbols and how many definitions there are in a system:
In other words, adding the possibility of describing more and more objects (or concepts) to the repertoire of a language cannot increase the maximum amount of information transfer beyond a certain limit. If, in addition, we assume that objects have different values, then we find that the maximum fitness is usually achieved by limiting the repertoire of the language to a small number of objects. Increasing the repertoire of the language can reduce fitness. Hence natural selection will prefer communication systems with limited repertoires.
He goes on to assert that “successful communication increases the survival probability or performance during life history and hence enhances the expected number of offspring. Thus, language is of adaptive value and contributes to biological fitness.”
If languages which retain fewer concepts (“reduced repertoires”) have increased biological fitness and evolutionary advantage, how did modern language come to be so complex and accommodate so much ambiguity and confusion? Nowak (2000) offers his thoughts in his conclusion (emphasis my own):
Efficient and unambiguous communication together with easy learnability of the language is rewarded in terms of pay-off and fitness. While we think that these are absolutely fundamental and necessary assumptions for much of language evolution, we also note the seemingly unnecessary complexity of current languages. Certainly, systems designed by evolution are often not optimized from an engineering perspective. Moreover, it seems likely that at times evolutionary forces were at work to make things more ambiguous and harder to learn, such that only a few selected listeners could understand the message. If a good language performance enhances the reputation of the group, we can also imagine an arms race towards increased and unnecessary complexity. Such a process can drive the numbers of words and rules beyond what would be best for efficient information exchange. This should be the subject of papers to come. (Nowak, 2000)
Here Nowak admits to one of the most fundamental problems with language – the way in which it can be ideologized. Before I tackle that idea, which deals with large social systems, let us first examine more mundane dangers associated with misunderstandings of language.
3. Language Assumptions
“Everyone who reads this paper knows of the order of 50,000 words of his primary language. These words are stored in the ‘mental lexicon’ together with one or several meanings, and some information about how they relate to other words and how they fit into sentences” (Nowak, 2000). Language is a fundamental fact of human existence, but it is also one that is taken for granted. As the quote above illustrates, we all have a sort of mental dictionary we tote around, and during communication, it is all too natural to assume that the definition we have in mind for a word we use when we are speaking matches the definition that our listener has in mind for the same word. Often times, conflicts that arise as a result of this are minimal, but other times they can have important consequences. Imagine a scenario where a friendly girl tosses around the phrase “I love you” in the most trivial of ways, utilizing the phrase as a sort of goodbye, which seems so common these days. (Her interpretation of the word love is casual and can be supported by more than one of the many definitions found in any number of dictionaries – the dictionary.com website has no less than 14 definitions for love.) In a communication moment with someone who thinks of the word love as having more gravitas, she is bound to create a miscommunication – the person to whom she is speaking will receive an entirely different message than the one she intends. This could result in disappointment for her listener, such as in the case of her listener being a man who was infatuated with her. Twist the scenario a bit, and imagine she did mean the more serious interpretation of love, whereas her male listener assumed she meant a more casual one, and now she is prone to feel the negative impacts of communication loss.
Recall Nowak’s (2000) idea of language fitness, first visited above: “…The fitness contribution of a language can be formulated as the probability that two individuals know the correct word for a given event summed over all events and weighted with the rate of occurrence of these events.” Essentially, a language is more “fit” if the chances of the speaker and listener having the same definition for a word (love in the previous example) are high. It follows that the higher the number of disparate definitions for the same word there are in a given language, the less fit that language becomes. English seems especially rife with words that have numerous and disparate meanings, and it is no exaggeration to say that a 15-page paper could be written on this subject alone. I implore you to consider the use of words such as “socialist,” “communist,” “harassment,” “equality,” “family values,” “oppression,” or nearly any other politically charged word in the public sphere, with the idea that the person speaking the word could be talking about something entirely different from the person listening to the word, even though they are both considering the same word. Since this essay is concerned only with impelling contemplation, the previous analyses should suffice as a primer on this particular point.
However, definitions of words are not the only assumptions we make regarding language. The literature establishes that the average person is both ignorant and arrogant when it comes to language, a rather dangerous combination:
In matters of language history, structure, function, and standardization, the average individual is, for the most part, simultaneously uninformed and highly opinionated. When asked directly about language use, most people will draw a very solid basic distinction of ‘standard’ (proper, correct) English vs. everything else. (Lippi-Green, 1994)
That we posit the existence of something called language can itself be considered an assumption, which, furthermore, has an impact on how human societies are organized:
Beliefs about what is or is not a real language, and underlying these beliefs, the notion that there are distinctly identifiable languages that can be isolated, named, and counted, enter into strategies of social domination. Such beliefs…have contributed to profound decisions about, for example, the civility or even the humanity of subjects of colonial domination. They also qualify or disqualify speech varieties from certain institutional uses and their speakers from access to domains of privilege. (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)
More examples of how language has a tangible impact on our lives will be discussed later. We hold other assumptions about language that are of paramount philosophical importance. Indeed, how we think about language may impact perceptions as fundamental as how we define ourselves: “Language socialization studies have demonstrated connections among folk theories of language acquisition, linguistic practices, and key cultural ideas about personhood” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). Moreover, thoughts regarding language (especially in the Western nations, like the United States) underpin assumptions regarding the nature of reality: “In the vernacular belief system of Western culture, language standards are not recognized as human artifacts, but are naturalized by metaphors such as that of the free market” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). This stands in stark contrast to a more reasoned and self-examined perspective, informed by a more comprehensive understanding of language, its functions, and its evolution:
Deconstructive rhetorical analysis is based on the premise that all claims to transcendent truths are radically undercut by the fact that they are made within a given language and culture which impose limits on the thought and perception of individuals making the claim. We do not have unmediated access to a truth; rather, our view of the world is a function of a set of culturally constructed assumptions which shape our perception of the truth…Deconstructive critics also assert, though, that rhetoric is always open to multiple interpretations which are themselves a function of the interpreters’ own beliefs and values. Any deconstructive reading is offered as one among many possible interpretations.” (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)
A key point here is that not only is language ineffective for establishing perfectly objective observations of reality form the perspective of the speaker, it also depends upon the interpretations of the listener. Thus, miscommunication can result either from poorly phrased speaking or from various deficiencies in the listener. For example, while a speaker’s poor accent can increase the odds of communication loss, a listener’s desire to understand the speaker is perhaps even more important:
…Accent…is most likely to pose a barrier to effective communication when two elements are lacking. The first is a basic level is communicative competence on the part of the speaker…. The second element, even more important but far more difficult to assess, is the listener’s good will. Without the goodwill, the speaker’s…degree of communicative competence is irrelevant. Prejudiced listeners cannot hear what a person has to say, because accent, as a mirror of social identity and a litmus test for exclusion, is more important. (Lippi-Green, 1994)
The assumptions of language we take for granted can be exploited through the imposition of language ideologies.
4. Language Ideologies
The phrase “language ideology” is defined by different authors in different ways, but for the purpose of this essay I provide the following: “The definition [of language ideology] used here is: a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed from above, and which takes as its model the written language. The most salient feature is the goal of suppression of variation of all kinds” (Lippi-Green, 1994). In other words, a language ideology seeks to impose a standard of language upon as many potential speakers as possible (for example, within a nation as in a national language, though certain social groups may exclude others on the basis of ‘official’ languages).
Language ideologies may be the common denominator in what defines a social group, to include a nation: “…The nationalist ideology of language structures state politics, challenges multilingual states, and underpins ethnic struggles to such an extent that the absence of a distinct language can cast doubt on the legitimacy of claims to nationhood” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). The language consensus – that is to say, agreement on what is and is not proper language and thus thinking – informs the way the state structures itself. Absence of such a consensus may cause the entire system to dissolve as people perceive the organization to lack legitimacy. These assertions are not based on pure abstraction, but rather on empirical studies of linguistic histories: “Macrosocial research on language planning and policy has traced distinctive ideological assumptions about the role of language in civic and human life and distinctive stances toward the state regulation of language, for example, between England and France” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994).
Literacy and orthographies (systems of writing) have a profound impact on language ideologies. They tend to lend credibility towards notions of language consensus: “Ideologies of literacy have complex relations to ideologies of speech and can play distinctive, crucial roles in social institutions. Even the conceptualization of the printed word can differ importantly from that of the written” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). It is relevant at this point to call attention to the distinction in linguistics between ideologies of speech and ideologies of printed word. Imagine how hard it would be to enforce a proper way of speaking, for instance – especially without the aid of the written word! Thus, written word has a synergistic effect with the spoken word; the two working together can create a far more powerful language ideology than perhaps either could alone (though it is rather hard to imagine a written language without a spoken component – unless you count math, which will be discussed later). Due to length considerations, this essay cannot fully examine the ways in which various parts of spoken language have important impacts. Concepts of literacy have a profound impact on society:
The definition of what is and what is not literacy is always a profoundly political matter. Historical studies of the emergence of schooled literacy and school English show the association between symbolically valued literate traditions and mechanisms of social control. Analyses of classroom interaction further demonstrate how implicit expectations about written language shape discriminatory judgments about spoken language and student performance. The nineteenth century foundation of English as a university discipline created a distinction between reading as aristocratic and leisurely and writing as work. Composition as skill training for employment is the dirty work of English departments, with consequences for gender politics (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994).
Additionally, literacy can often be fueled by cultural factors: “Anthropological studies of literacy…recognized belatedly that it is not an autonomous, neutral technology, but rather is culturally organized, ideologically grounded, and historically contingent, shaped by political, social, and economic forces” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). These impacts are only accelerated when one factors for the court of law or other systems which rely on the transcription of “the truth,” such as journalistic pursuits:
Transcription, or the written representation of speech, within academic disciplines and law, for example, relies on and reinforces ideological conceptions of language…In the American legal system the verbatim record is an idealist construction, prepared according to the court reporter’s model of English, against which incoming speech is filtered, evaluated, and interpreted. It is considered information if a witness speaks ungrammatically, but not if lawyers do, and edited is applied accordingly (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994).
One may ask at this juncture how it is that language ideologies are imposed and sustained in the first place. This is an excellent question with an unfortunate answer – the entire system is imposed right under our noses. It begins in the classroom: “Standard language ideology is a basic construct of our elementary and secondary schools’ approach to language and philosophy of education. The schools provide the first exposure to SL ideology, but the indoctrination process does not stop when the students are dismissed” (Lippi-Green, 1994). I hypothesize that this may be a result of how education has come to be synonymous with college (evidence by the phrase “get an education,” which generally means, a college degree) thus eliminating the perception that education is a multifaceted process and that there are many ways to become educated. A hard truth that we need to face is that our public education system is not infallible and likely never will be: “Much of what the American educational system teaches children about language is factually incorrect; in this it is thorough, consistent, and successful across social and economic boundaries. The phenomenon has been observed by others” (Lippi-Green, 1994). After the school system, there are several other guardians of standard language ideology which will be named, but not analyzed thoroughly (due to length constraints): “There are four immediately identifiable proponents of SL ideology…: the educational system, the news media, the entertainment industry, and what has been generally referred to as corporate America. At the end of the article, I argue for adding the judicial system to this list” (Lippi-Green, 1994). Lippi-Green’s article provides a convincing case to consider the judicial system as a fifth enforcer.
Considering that language can be crucial to how one defines one’s place in the world (as examined in the article Language and Borders), such totalitarian impositions have observable consequences:
The phrase “language and borders” suggests that language differences signify categories of person defined by ethnic or national origin and that these categories are opposed to each other. People act in ways that are taken as “having” a language, which is equated to “belonging” to an origin group. Borders emerge in specific contexts as a metonymy of person, language, and origin category. This metonymy can be fleeting or quite rigid and in varying degrees politicized. (Urciuoli, 1995)
Stated more simply, the language a person speaks comes to fully define that person in the perception of others. Ideas like ethnicity and nationality could be deconstructed as nothing more than a difference in language. Urciuoli (1995) goes on further to say, “What does exist, in any society, is the fact of linguistic variation from which people deploy language forms in acts of identity. From such acts, people’s sense of community, group, and language emerge in specific places and times.” This need not be interpreted only with regards to nations – think also of subcultures, such as internet gaming communities, the military, or any other culture which has a language unto itself.
I would now like to take the time to examine the counterargument that language is not the only way to think, that surely there must be some other way of thinking.
5. Alternative Models of Thinking
The most common split in cognition theories is that humans are capable of thinking verbally and mathematically, and that these two modes of thinking are distinct from each other. Such a worldview is evident in the organization of the SAT exam, for example, which is split between math and verbal components. Nowak (2000) seems to hint that language is not the only mode of thinking when he writes, “Our language performance relies on precisely coordinated interactions of various parts of our neural and other anatomy, and we are amazingly good at it. We can all speak without thinking. In contrast, we cannot perform basic mathematic operations without concentration.”
Let us examine mathematical thinking more closely. At first glance, the literature is convincing in establishing mathematical thinking as distinct from thinking through language:
Most schools assume that teaching mathematics compulsorily and over a number of years they are providing the conditions through which pupils will develop their mathematical thinking. This assumption, usually unchallenged, rests on a view of mathematics as a logically developed discipline, together with the expectation that the logic will spill over and be absorbed by the pupils into all aspects of their lives as they pursue a study of the content of mathematics, for example, in learning number, geometry, trigonometry, or algebra. Experience, however, tells a very different story…Certainly an inordinate amount of time in schools is spent teaching mathematical content and techniques while the process, the means through which mathematics is derived, receives little attention….Exploring process is not very profitable when teachers do not understand the kinds of thinking from which process springs. (Burton, 1984)
In summary, mathematical thinking is a different process for thinking, and one assumes it would be distinct in nature from thinking through language. However, once the literature is read more deeply, apparent distinctions evaporate (emphasis the author’s own): “The process is initiated by encountering an element with enough surprise or curiosity to impel exploration of it by manipulating… Although the sense of what is happening is vague, further manipulating is required until the sense can be expressed is an articulation” (Burton, 1984). Expressing an articulation? Isn’t that the precise point of language? Yet wait, there’s more (emphasis my own):
Pupils need tools to help them structure their responses so that they can build their reflective powers. Further, they need encouragement to capture their feelings at the moment of expression. Consequently, students of all ages have been encouraged to develop the use of particular words that reflect their responses as they tackle questions…The key to recognizing and using mathematical thinking lies in creating an atmosphere that builds confidence to question, challenge, and reflect. (Burton, 1984)
I assert that mathematics is just another type of language which is also based on symbols (generally, numbers instead of words), and that, in fact, all human thinking is symbolic in nature. There is a school of thought which asserts truth through symbolic logic, and it is worth examining at this juncture.
6. Symbolic Logic
What is symbolic logic? Aside from a rule system that has useful applications in computer programing and math, for instance, I assert it is nothing more than another language. In any event, one proponent describes it as follows (emphasis my own):
…Symbolic logic, is, in its broadest sense, a new science which studies through use of efficient symbols the nature and properties of all nonnumerical relations, seeking precise meanings and necessary conclusions. As an applied science, it holds immense promise. For example, it may give us an unambiguous language for political, economic, and social fields, which will conveniently reflect the structure of these fields and make discussion and analysis easy. (Berkeley, 1942)
Symbolic logic seeks “precise meanings” and supplies us an “unambiguous language…” It should be clear at this point that it is nothing more than another language (and thus owes no higher claim to The Truth than any other language), but, the following quote about one of symbolic language’s chief powers may help shed some more light on the situation (emphasis my own): “We observe first that symbolic logic can define certain ideas which neither mathematics nor the dictionary can possibly define; for example, symbolic logic can define number.” (Berkeley, 1942) There again, symbolic logic is concerned with defining things (and it is even said later in the article that symbolic language competes with dictionaries); how can one not conclude it is just another language?
For those unfamiliar, symbolic language did indeed take off as a philosophical idea and has had many practical and important impacts. However, as mentioned before, it is no more a path to conceptualizing The Truth or reality as any other path. It is still a language, though a refined one, and still subject to the pitfalls of language (emphasis author’s own):
As we noted earlier, no language, as the product of a given culture and history, can claim to have unmediated access to the real. Making such a simple assertion implies a kind of cultural arrogance, forgetful as it is of the multiplicity of languages and of the linguistic reality that each provides a variety of ways to structure the real. Language is a mediational tool which enables the construction of cultural reality. Such terms as real, authentic, and genuine, especially when they are repeated without much critical self-awareness, give the impression that successful language use provides access to The Truth itself.” (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)
Symbolic logic was not without critics, however.
One author wrote a multifaceted rebuttal based on logical arguments, though a full treatment of those arguments is beyond the scope of this essay. Of more relevance is the following analysis, which rejects the idea that the definitions of things should be fixed, or, in other words, that language ideologies should be enforced (emphasis author’s own):
But Formal Logic has perversely chosen to build on the fiction that the meaning of terms is (or ought to be) fixed, and to talk about propositions rather than judgments. So the proposition becomes a helpless formula, totally incapable of reproducing the features of living thought. It has acquired its meanings from past uses; but these do not protect it against ‘willful modifications’ at the hands of masters of language like Humpty Dumpty, who make words mean what they please…Is not the whole history of philosophy one long illustration of philosophic audacity in manipulating language, and does not experience show that philosophers frequently get away with their arbitrary modifications of ‘the‘ meaning of words and ‘propositions?’ I can not admit, therefore, that…symbolic logic [is] in any way relevant to the procedures of our actual thinking. (Schiller, 1932)
An important implication of this argument is that words/ideas/what-have-you are defined by past uses, but this provides no protection from those who would manipulate definitions for their own advancement. Thus the Jew in Nazi Germany, for instance, can suddenly become the scapegoat for an entire nation’s woes. There are many examples of this but unfortunately little room for a detailed analysis; I am sure the reader can think of his or her own examples of how words have been manipulated to mean entirely different things, for good and for ill. The take away point from this section is that a more accurate conceptualization of human thinking is thus: all human thinking is symbolic – and language can be thought of as nothing more than a system of symbols created for the purposes of communication. Therefore, symbolic logic is ‘just’ another language, like English or mathematics.
7. Practical, or Less Abstract Implications
So far, many of the examples mentioned in this paper have been of an abstract nature. Here, I hope to provide a brief look at some real-world, practical implications to the understanding of language I have outlined above. Geersteen (2003) outlines why it is important to think more clearly:
What makes higher-level thinking so important? To begin with, we live in a world of unprecedented change and expansion in information. New information continues to multiply as old information becomes obsolete…Constant and accelerating shifts in information mean that all members of society need greater skill in assessing and evaluating knowledge.
An understanding of language ideologies may yield answers to significant and challenging contemporary problems, including (but certainly not limited to) those outlined in the quote below:
Many populations around the world, in multifarious ways, posit fundamental linkages among such apparently diverse cultural categories as language, spelling, grammar, nation, gender, simplicity, intentionality, authenticity, knowledge, development, power, and tradition. But our professional attention has only begun to turn to understanding when and how those links are forged – whether by participants or their expert analysts – and what their consequences might be for linguistic and social life. A wealth of public problems hinge on language ideology. Examples from the headlines of United States newspapers include bilingual policy and the official English movement; questions about free speech and harassment; the meaning of multiculturalism in schools and texts; the exclusion of jurors who might rely on their own native-speaker understanding of non-English testimony; and the question of journalists’ responsibilities and the truthful representation of direct speech. Coming to grips with such public issues means coming to grips with the nature and working of language ideology. (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)
Indeed, an understanding of language ideologies may be critical to achieving true intellectual freedom. As was quoted in Nowak (2000)’s work above, it is not unfeasible to imagine that certain people/groups/interests have a vested interest in an “arms race” towards ever increasing complexity and ambiguity. As his work demonstrates, this is more than just a social justice issue – if the fitness of our language continues to deteriorate and we can no longer efficiently and effectively communicate with one another, we will be at an evolutionary disadvantage. How much danger we are in is up for debate, but it certainly warrants consideration.
We should be wary of ideological interpretations of language: “Important sociolinguistic changes can be set off by ideological interpretation of language use, although because they derive only from a larger social dialectic, such changes are likely to take an unintended direction, as in the historical case of the second person pronoun shift in English.” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)
One example I would point out would be the “politically correct” movement, which seeks to define what is and is not acceptable for conversation and even intellectual debate. Such ideas are dangerous because they limit the amount of discourse in society and in the academy, and, further, can allow for certain ideologies to propagate unopposed and without critical evaluation. The whole idea of freedom of speech, after all, is to protect the ideas that we do not like to hear; the ideas that we enjoy hearing need no protection, and yet, if we do not listen to ideas we do not like, we may not be able to see the ways that the ideas we do like potentially poison our thinking (and in turn, our society and world).
Figurative speech is often employed for ideological purposes. This essay cannot hope to examine every use of figurative speech possible, but will provide one example related to the “whole language” movement in education to illustrate the point (emphasis author’s own):
We mean the term rhetoric to refer to the effort to persuade or argue forcefully for a position. More specifically, following a tradition that goes back to antiquity, we use it to refer to…figures of speech….An example…is the use of the word ownership to describe the relationship that the movement wants to foster between student writers and the texts they produce. In this context the word ownership is being used figuratively. It does not refer literally to an act of economic possession; rather, it uses that act as an analogy for the idea that writers can have control over and feel pride in what they write. The use of the word ownership in this metaphorical or figurative way serves as a rallying cry for teachers. The intense control that the word implies is a goal that teachers can strive for, a value that they can share. Thus the use of this figure attempts to persuade the uninitiated and to produce group solidarity. It serves the rhetoric of the movement. (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)
Figurative language can be evaluated critically to reveal the deepest assumptions of its users, however:
We argue, though, that the figurative language of a text does more than persuade. Read critically, it also reveals the deepest assumptions that underlie the text’s arguments. All arguments proceed from a set of assumptions held by the persons making the arguments. These assumptions are what can be taken for granted, the unquestioned ‘truths’ that underlie the explicit claims evident in the text. (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)
A wise philosophy professor I had the good fortune of studying under once told our class that philosophy was the business of questioning assumptions. If that is the case, we should always be on the lookout for figurative language, and seek to evaluate the assumptions that lie lurking below powerful rhetorical language.
We are left then with the simple-seeming question posed at the beginning of this paper: what is thinking, and what is the proper way to go about thinking? The answer is likewise simple: thinking and the proper way to go about are entirely up to the thinker to define. Some may deride this idea as infantile and naive; but I believe a full appreciation of the implications of this idea reveal it to be as liberating a philosophy as can be conceived – it permits true freedom of thought. As Kierkegaard once remarked: “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find an idea for which I can live and die.” The extent to which we can conceptualize of thinking as correct applies only so far as a thinker can effectively communicate with another through whichever language facilitates the most clarity between the two – be it English, algebra, symbolic logic, or some soon-to-be invented language. Cognizance of the communication medium and respect for differing abilities among speakers/listeners to comprehend messages encoded in that medium are paramount to understanding and commonality. Indeed, “A…crucial concept is that the burden of communication is shared, on every level, by both participants…” (Lippi-Green, 1994). Perhaps, one day, humans will evolve an entirely new system to replace symbolic thinking/language, but until that day we are compelled to live with what we have. A rigorous review and critical evaluation of the mediums we choose to communicate in, and all the associated implications, seems likely to reduce unnecessary conflict and to, dare I say, promote peace.
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