"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Word-Legos and the Metaphysics of Properties

Generally speaking, I am a lover of words.
Admittedly, I am not a super Scrabbler (which is somewhat surprising, really. I should do that.), but I am fond of writing and devoted to books and my thought-process tends to be greatly language-driven.

I do like playing with words. I admire the clever manipulation of language, I enjoy painting with words, I appreciate poetry... I even appreciate weird stream-of-consciousness modern stuff every now and then.
However, while I appreciate flexibility and creativity, I also insist on a certain level of precision when it comes to language.
Words, to me, are what I imagine legos would be to a playful child architect- except perhaps more precise. Now, before vehement lego-devotees attack me for having an improper appreciation of the structural precision requisite for beautiful lego-building, I only mean to say that most lego pieces are pretty general-usage. In fact, I am sure a large part of the appeal of legos is just that-- you are free to take general pieces and combine them in precise ways to create wonderful structures.
However, words do not come attribute free.
Au contraire. Far from being identical pieces, words come with a richness of (pretty) specific meaning, and therein lies the beauty of language manipulation. You can combine specific words in precise ways to create structures rich with color and meaning. "Interchangeable pieces" are not quite interchangeable, due to small differences in connotation which create subtle shifts in meaning. It is possible to rearrange pieces and retain the general meaning of a phrase while slightly altering its emphasis. Translating between languages presents an interesting and challenging problem in that there are a multitude of elements to reconcile-- is it best to focus on global architecture or to strive to find best-matches between individual pieces, even though (perhaps paradoxically) this may lead to certain architectural discrepancies?
The point of the matter is, language is fun to play with, but doing so requires a certain appreciation of syntactical and semantical structure.

And so I reach the motivation behind this blog post.

Wandering around campus I have been unable to avoid focusing in on examples of linguistic clumsiness which have lead me onto paths of amused philosophical contemplation.

First, I would briefly like to talk about a "Happy Bodies" sign which features a smiling woman cut out from a magazine and the happy exclamation: "I love my body because I love my body!"

Umm. No. This infinite downward spiral of justification suggests an irrationality I refuse to accept. Although the intention seems to have been good, the result was unfortunate. Rather than making a statement about body positivity and how we ought to care for and appreciate the wondrous organism which carries us through life, this statement is disappointingly empty and circular.
Instead, the writer should have written: "I love my body because it is my body!"
We don't love our bodies because we love them... we love them because they are our bodies! Suddenly the statement points to the significance of the word body, which reveals all sorts of beauties and wonders. Our bodies enable us to walk, talk, think, feel, dance, laugh, cry, paint, experience the icy kiss of snow, and do everything else we are capable of doing.
See the wonder of constructing statements a bit more carefully?
(Note: I admit I may occasionally, or frequently, fail as a good linguistic architect. I recognize this and I apologize. But I do try.)

Now for the second example, I have captured not-very-good photographic evidence. (See figure 1 below.)

Figure 1. Etchings on a toilet paper dispenser in the LDC, Carleton. 

The picture, admittedly, is not very good (I feel strange taking the time to get a decent picture in a bathroom. It just seems kind of wrong to be taking pictures in a stall. But anyway.), so you may not be able to read the writing very clearly.
The primary piece:
Why is a toilet like a literature analysis?
They're both full of- (Yeah, you get it.)

A bit below that there is the following profound question:
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
To which the answer seems to be: Edgar Allen Poe.

Now my response to this is amused puzzlement.
The raven and writing desk question is so wonderfully strange that I really don't know what to think of it.
As to the literary analysis question, I must suspect some student bitter over a failed English paper felt like denouncing the whole concept of literary analysis in an almost clever but crude manner.

But then I begin to ponder the structure of the literature question a bit further.
"Why is a toilet like a literature analysis?"

The question, based on the intended response, seems to actually be asking,
"How is a toilet like a literature analysis?"
That is, what property or properties do toilets and literary analyses both possess such that we may find a similarity between them?

But what if the writer really is trying to make some profound philosophical statement here? (We are going to ignore the witty quip provided as a response for the purposes of this discussion.)
Perhaps this was not a simple case of unfortunate word-lego confusion, but rather an intentional why, the result of frustrated philosophical contemplation and a call upon the gods-- why, oh why are they alike?

I ought to make this more clear. See it is all very well and good to recognize similarities in things.
This apple is red. This book is red. They share some feature- in this case, "redness"- which causes us to recognize them as similar. However, like most philosophical (especially metaphysical) topics, once you sit down and try to explain what it is that is actually going on here, all sorts of craziness emerges.

So let's say that we know or are aware of a similarity between toilets and literature analyses. What does that actually mean?
As some sort of Platonic/Aristotelian realist, I would be inclined to say that toilets and literary analyses share some actual feature. They possess a common property, we recognize that property, and thus we are able to see the similarity.
Of course, there's some question as to how exactly objects possess properties. Enter forms (if you're Plato), or some recourse to meanings arising from structural properties of an object, which is a response I am kindly disposed toward. The focus is on the fact that objects actually possess these properties, and we are simply latching onto what actually exists when we identify similarities.

However, others would disagree and tell you that the whole notion of properties is great- from a linguistic, in-your-head point of view, but you're not tracking anything that's actually out there. Berkeley is prepared to tell you that there really isn't anything out there, except some immaterial spirit which perceives everything. It seems that you recognize similarities...because...you just do...(What?) You know, conditioning and stuff. People point to a yellow object and say yellow...and eventually you figure it out. Somehow. Without there actually being any sort of yellow-ness that you're actually recognizing....

Personally, I'm not sure the nominalist perspective succeeds in explaining how we group things or how we actually learn to call things yellow if there's nothing concrete that we're tracking, but Plato's lovely realm of forms doesn't seem like quite the right explanation either, and what if it really is all in our heads anyway?
The whole question can really get a bit frustrating.

So, really... why is a toilet like a literature analysis?
...Or did you just mean "how"?

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