Sunday, September 9, 2012

To Have or To Be or Huh?

Like to have a martini?  Do I want a martini or do I want to BE a martini?  Bertrand Russell said that it must have taken centuries if not longer for humans to realize the common property that two birds and two days share.  It must have taken just as long or longer for people to realize the distinction in possible meaning between wanting a princess and wanting to BE a princess.  Distinctions in meaning can be very important in our lives.

Wanting to BE a martini, an alcoholic drink, would be an unusual goal for a human.  However, wanting to be nicer, stronger, richer, more frugal, more relaxed are more typical goals and getting clearer about the difference between one's current state and the desired state may well lead to better achievement.  One clarity might be, of course, that reaching the desired state is not worthwhile and that one is pretty good as one is.

When I was in high school, I read "The Tyranny of Words" by Stuart Chase.  That book lead me to "Language in Thought and Action" by S.I. Hayakawa.  The basic idea of both books and much of the thought of Alfred Korzybski, often cited as a pioneer thinker in general semantics, is captured by the saying in Eastern literature "Don't confuse the pointing finger with the moon." The idea is that if I say,"Look!" while pointing to the moon, I am trying to direct your attention to the moon and not my finger.  Sounds basic, at best, and maybe a bit dumb.  But the distinction and recognition go way way back.  In the West, at least to Socrates, who inquired "what is virtue?"  

Lynn just said a few minutes ago that she is finding that figuring out what it is that bothers her about a person puts her idea of the person in a more favorable place in her mind.  Thinking that Joe is a bothersome person is different from thinking that his nervous habit of clearing his throat loudly and often is a bother.  The new version shrinks the bother and elevates the whole person to a more favorable place.  

Since chopping wood and carrying water, the activities of our lives, take energy and need to be done, the business of spending time and energy on "the" meaning of words and what you mean by them and what I mean by them and what each of us meant by them last week and last year -- all that seems like a drag and a waste.  It certainly can be a waste but sometimes getting clear about what we mean and want to express can be amazingly helpful.

It is true, however, that in some cases, working too much on a clear and explicit definition can be a waste of time or a diversion from more fruitful pursuits.  Even formal mathematical theories may have or rest on undefined terms, such as "point" in Euclid's geometry.
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