Language in Thought and Action

Partly because many newspapers and television newscasts have largely given up their news function in favour of entertainment, and partly because the sensational, two-valued utterances of extreme partisans make livelier stories than the testimony of extensionally minded experts, news accounts in some communities are scanty sources of information on important public issues.

—— Language in Thought and Action

When I finished reading Politics and the English Language, I was dissatisfied. Partly because of the realisation that, even if I agreed with Orwell that politics language twists the language to its advantage, I was left with no clue on how it does it, or how to avoid falling victim of its tricks. Like many academics, Orwell falls into the trap of thinking that politics is a bad form of English that must be corrected, that there is a “right English” that we should aim for.

But truth is, whatever number of people can Orwell reach out to, there’s an incentive for politicians to twist the language to its advantage. If we all play fair, then unfair propositions have no chance. And politics sometimes require promoting unfair propositions.

In some form or another, propaganda is the darwinian result of years and years of governments’ attempts to guide and manipulate public opinion into do something, believe something, or vote something. This undeniable fact is what made it successful, with advertisement being an extension of that. Avoiding dying metaphors and pretentious diction won’t save us from being at the mercy of propagandists.

We must, then, fully understand that darwinian process that probably started when we were cavemen, and lives on until today.

To learn to think more clearly, to speak and to write more effectively, and to listen and to read with greater understanding — these are the goals of the study of language.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The functions of Language

When we say survival of the fittest, what do we usually refer to? Probably to the strongest, the fastest, the cruelest. The connotations of the law of the jungle are in: only the lions survive.

That is empirically incorrect, as we discussed in Skin in the Game.

I went to the reserve [in South Africa] to “see the lions”. In an entire week I only saw one […]. Meanwhile […], I saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, wild boars, impalas, more impalas, even more impalas. […] There are very, very few predators compared to what one can call collaborative animals. […] If the “law of the jungle” means anything, it means collaboration for the most part, with a few exceptional distortions caused by our otherwise well-functioning risk-management intuitions.

—— Skin in the Game

Human beings are gregarious animals, talking animals. And, unlike what Noam Chomsky postulated to be some sort of a happy accident that turned a higher primate wandering around into a fully talkative human, we can definitely trace back the origins of language into the animals around us. Our utterances are, simply, more complex, and allow us humans to cooperate into a whole new level.

If someone shouts at you, “Look out!” And you jump just in time to avoid being struck by a car, you owe your escape from injury to the fundamental cooperative act [of communication by means of noises]. […] You had, for the time being, the advantage of an extra nervous system in addition to yours.

—— Language in Thought and Action

In addition to that, a developed language begets a developed writing, a means to transmit information and past experiences to our descendants. In other words, to make progress possible. Reading and writing allows us to participate into the collective pooling of our experience, the greatest of human achievements.


In 2003, Michael Nielsen presented a talk in Brisbane, Australia, titled Extreme Thinking. In order to make the point that humans are badly prepared to work in terms of abstractions, he defined the following game:

The game is a card game. You are shown four cards. Each card has a letter on one side, and a number on the other side. You see only one side of each card; you see “A B 2 1” on the visible faces of the four cards.

Your task is to check to see if the following rule is obeyed by the cards. The rule is simply this: if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.

Now let me ask you, which of these four cards would you need to turn over to check that the rule is being obeyed? […] Now let me describe a second game. Imagine you’re working as a bouncer in a bar, There’s recently been a crackdown on underage drinking. As the bouncer you have to enforce the following rule: for a person to be drinking legally, they have to be 18 or older. […]

You see four people at the bar. The first person is drinking a beer. The second person is drinking a Diet Coke. The third person is quite elderly […] you can’t see whether they’re drinking alcohol or not. The fourth person is just a kid […] you can’t see whether they’re drinking alcohol or not.

The question to you is, as the bouncer, which of these people do you need to check out, to see whether the rule is being obeyed correctly?

—— Extreme Thinking, Michael Nielsen

Two interesting things are happening here. First, the card game seems to be way more difficult than the bar game. Second, the two games are actually the same, if we identify being underage with being a vowel or a consonant, and drinking alcohol or not with being an even or an odd number.

Humans are ill equipped to think in terms of abstractions. “That is the special challenge scientists face”, say Nielsen. I think the challenge is broadly faced by all human beings.

Every animal, including humans, struggle conveying abstractions, because they lack the association that humans have developed relatively recently: symbology. To a chimpanzee, a red light is a signal, and he reacts to it completely and invariably; to a human being, a red light is a symbol, and he reacts to it conditionally upon the circumstances. If a red light shows, a chimpanzee driver will stop regardless of it being in the middle of the crossing, and a green light will make him floor the throttle even if there is another car stalled in its path. For a chimpanzee, red light is stop, and green light is go.

Human beings understand the difference, and have thus elaborated what we will call the symbolic process. From feathers worn on their heads, to police officers wearing their uniforms and badges, and athletes collecting trophies, there are very few things that people do or want to do that do not have a symbolic value of some kind. Even money is symbolic; it stands for what the society agreed that you are entitled to.

But it’s worth notice that money is just fancy paper, feathers in the head stand for some degree of authority for Native American tribes. Or worse:

Wearing a necktie is symbolic, but not wearing a necktie is equally symbolic. Parents and children have had bitter quarrels in recent years over hair styles— long, short, spiked, shaved. Such quarrels are not really about hair but about the symbolic meanings involved in how hair is worn.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Of all form of symbolism, language is the most sophisticated, subtle and complicated. Over the course of millennia, human beings have reached a self sustaining agreement over what various noises that they can produce with their body stand for. We call that system of agreement language. When someone experiences the need for food, he or she might make the noise “I’m hungry”, and his or her peers will understand what sensation he or she is signalling. There is, however, no connection between the symbol and that which is symbolised. In the same way that feathers in the head are simply birds’ feathers, I can say “I’m hungry” or “Tengo hambre” or “Ich have Hunger” and, although the noises I’m making are completely different, some people will understand one of those utterances while disregarding the other two as babbling.

No wonder we all have that vague sense that all foreign languages are inherently absurd! They all are, in a sense. They’re just not absurd for a considerable amount of people.

Man’s achievements rest on the use of symbols

—— Alfred Korzybski

The impact of symbols, nevertheless, is clear, specially in politics. How many times have we seen politicians attaching themselves to symbols (be it flags, pins, black people, babies…) so that we are reminded of their projective image? It’s like that episode from The Good Wife where Fed Dalton Thompson had a guest star role as an actor who used to play the role of an attorney, like the one the actual actor used to have on Law & Order. On that episode, the character is hired by the Venezuelan president because of that role he’s famous for, even though he repeatedly says that he isn’t a real lawyer.

Laughable as it is, we often make similar mistakes.

For example, if a Japanese schoolhouse caught fire, it used to be obligatory in the days of the emperor worship to try to rescue the emperor’s picture (there was one in every schoolhouse), even at the risk of one’s life.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The map, as is commonly said, is not the territory. However, most of our knowledge is acquired not firsthand, but verbally— that is, in words. So abstraction is both a good thing— it enables progress through not having to relieve other people’s experiences— but increases our dependance to others. Trust becomes a valuable asset that glues our society together, because that’s how we put together most of what will become our mental maps of reality.

Reports, Inferences, Judgments

To exchange information, and build our maps of reality, we rely on the basic symbolic act of reporting. Reports, if anything, are verifiable.

Given the proper resources, it can be verified —or, if inaccurate, it can be validated.

—— Language in Thought and Action

It’s no wonder that, despite the polarised political environment that we live in, we usually reach consensus in the reports; they can be easily refuted, and are hard to come by. It’s a proof of work, so to say: someone has produced some kind of examination and, probably out of reciprocity— I would love someone to trust my work if I were to do the same— I trust that report. Plus, any piece of bullshit is one search away in my computer to get crushed.

From those reports, we produce inferences. We extract conclusions from them; logical propositions was the word that we used in Tractatus. In many areas of thought, especially in sciences, reports might be the foundations, but inferences form body. Scientists predict; otherwise their knowledge is not grounded on experience.

Inferences can be careful or carelessly made. The Mertens conjecture is a famous example of a mathematical proposition that is true for the first 10,000 numbers, but was eventually proven to be false. They may be made on the basis of a broad background of previous experience, but nothing impedes the circumstances that supported that inference to change. Nassim Taleb has been one of the proponents of what he called black swan events, those occasions where probabilities are badly constructed and a theory gives us an unrealistic view of the future. Just because the map is pretty doesn’t mean that the mermaids are really there.

In any case, inferring may be grounded on experience; judgments are based on inferences and biases that may have nothing to do with real life.

To say “Jerry was convicted of theft and served two years in San Quentin” is a verifiable report […]. To say a man is a “thief” is to say in effect, “He has stolen and will steal again“— which is more a prediction than a report.

—— Language in Thought and Action

A judgment is a conclusion; once we make them, there is no room for reasoning, only for supporting those judgments. When a discussion starts with “Ernest Hemingway was a sexist who had little idea how to portray women in his fiction”, the rest of the discussion will have to be consistent with that statement, leaving out who Hemingway really is, and bringing in the writer’s notion of who he was.

We often use judgments to express deep internal emotions that our fellow animals express barking or wagging the tail. The key is that judgements say more about the speaker than about the thing being spoken.

Snarl-words and purr-words as such, unaccompanied by verifiable reports, offer nothing further to discuss, except possibly the question “Why do you feel as you do?”

—— Language in Thought and Action

Taking sides on any issue phrased in judgmental ways reduces communication to expressing emotional states that can’t be argued nor resolved.

Moreover, judging is more than just expressing complex ideas in simple emotional terms. Media is prone to slant, because although impartial journalism is laudable, it’s also ideal and unattainable. This matter has been misunderstood by current journalism as “aiming at impartiality is pointless”, and now instead of newspapers, we have conservative papers, liberal papers, and more.

The aim is to think clearly; with some effort, anyone can with imagination and insight look at the same subject from different angles. “What is the angle?” should no longer be a valid question.


If language is an agreement, it makes sense to think of dictionaries as repositories of that agreement. But the writing of a dictionary isn’t the discussion of what a word means based on the expertise of a group of people. Instead, the writer of a dictionary is more a historian, not a lawgiver: his or her task is to record what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past.

Looking under a “hood”, we should ordinarily have found, five hundred years ago, a monk; today, we find an automobile engine.

—— Language in Thought and Action

We learn words from verbal context. I get that all the time when I’m asked about the translation of certain word. The first question I usually ask in return is “where did you find that word written?”. We learn the meanings of all our words not from dictionaries, but from hearing those words as they accompany actual situations.

When we discussed How to Read a Book, the process of coming to terms with the author appeared frequently at many stages in the overall process of reading a book. Coming to terms was finding what the important words meant for the author, and closing the gap with what those same words meant to you, so that both the author and the reader were speaking the same language, agreeing to certain ways of speaking about things.

Coming to terms is, in this book, finding the proper context. That’s why we make a distinction between extensional meaning, something that cannot be expressed in words, but in the context of how the word is used, and intensional meaning, what we construct in our heads when we hear that word.

When utterances have extensional meanings, discussion can be ended and agreement reached; when utterances have intensional meanings only and no extensional meanings, arguments may, and often do, go on indefinitely.

—— Language in Thought and Action

In How to Read a Book, the authors considered that agreement could always be reached. They said that the reader “should admit a point when he sees it, but he also should not feel whipped by having to agree with an author, instead of dissenting: his problem is emotional rather than intellectual”.

If no agreement can be reached, that means that the approach to our discussion is emotional, not rational, or that the context we use to internally define our terms is different. In this book, agreement is, too, always possible. What isn’t agreeable, paraphrasing Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, we must pass over in silence.

The Double Task of Language

Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a medium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man…

—— C. K. Ogden and I.A. Richards

Report language is instrumental for human progress, but as it has evolved from animal noises, it can also be used to express or imply human’s feelings. Language, hence, has the power to inform the hearer, but also to affect him. A spoken insult, a preemptory command, these are forms by which a speaker is in a position to transmit not only information, but also force reactions. The reason why some people used to be considered wizards may have something to do with the fact that they were able to use words to their advantage; not casting spells that nullify conscience, but articulate themselves in such a way that people would comply with their commands.

We angrily call people ‘pigs’ or ‘rats’, and lovingly call them ‘honey’, ’sugar’. All words have some affective character, and even languages do; English has pervaded other languages due to its tremendous power and to its appealing as a trendy language. It is as if everywhere you go, you can say ‘That’s cool!’ and they will know what you’re saying.

But there are downsides, too.

When scientists first learned about AIDS, for example, the vague, hesitant vocabulary used to explain how the disease was transmitted confused many people. […] some people have objected to, or have been shocked by, the appearance in print of explicit sexual terms designed to ensure the people of all ages know enough about AIDS to help prevent its spread.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Sex, money, God (“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”), the fear of death—— even the coincidence of the word ‘death’ with the word for number four in Japanese results in many linguistically awkward situations.

The old confusion of words with the things they symbolise manifests itself in hotels with no 13th floor, and AirFrance, Iberia, Ryanair, AirTran, Continental, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, or Alaska Airlines not having a thirteenth row. The excuse is not going through the expense of renumbering rows, but someone can infer what is really happening.

The ramifications are endless, and worth mentioning. The conflicts are often an index to social concerns over the reality that the words refer to. When addressing the issue of social discrimination in language, many people ask whether using the word ‘man’ unearths biases that are unfair to women built into the English language. In Spain, there has been efforts to rewrite the Constitution to be more inclusive, and in Canada there’s been an amend to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Codeto increase sentences for individuals who commit crimes motivated by bias based on gender expression that some have argued could be forcing compelled speech for gender pronouns.

Should we demand that all writers adopt a ‘nonsexist’ vocabulary? History has proven over and over— Jonathan Swift against using the word ‘mob’, Samuel Johnson resisting to use the word ‘civilisation’ and Mussolini forcing Italians to use the informal ‘tu’ instead of ‘voi‘— prove that social forces that shaped the language contract cannot be changed easily. The fact is, however, that the presence or absence of ‘politically incorrect’ terms has no necessary connection with the presence or absence of the corresponding attitudes.

One curious fact about the words we apply to debated issues such as race, religion, political heresy and economic dissent is this:

Every reader is acquainted with people who, according to their own flattering descriptions of themselves, “believe in being frank” and like to “tell it like it is”. By “telling like it is”, such people usually mean calling anything or anyone by the term which has the strongest and most disagreeable affective connotations. Why people should pin medals on themselves for “candor” for performing this nasty feat has often puzzled me.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The Language of Social Cohesion

What complicates the problem of interpreting what someone else has said is the fact that the informative use of language cannot be untangled from other older and deeper functions of language. Long before we develop language as we know it, we were animals, and we are slowly evolving from those initial steps into our condition of gregarious animals.

Sometimes we talk simply for the sake of hearing ourselves talk. Sometimes large groups make noises together, as in group singing, recitation, or chanting, as social glueing. Even our weather conversations are largely an attempt to build togetherness with our peers. The establishment of communion happens through small talk in the same sense that dogs establish relationships in the park by teasing each other and playing.

Since that’s the purpose, when performing this kind of conversations we are careful to select subjects about which agreement is immediately possible: weather, sports, the economical landscape. The togetherness is not merely in the talking itself, but also in the opinions expressed.

With each new agreement, no matter how commonplace or obvious, the fear and suspicion of the stranger wears away.

—— Language in Thought and Action

We also use language to maintain communication lines. Old friends like to talk even when they have nothing special to say to each other. A sound engineer who says into a microphone “One, two, three, testing” isn’t saying anything much, but that doesn’t mean that he can go without saying it.

This togetherness, or this sense of maintaining a community, is built into sermons, political caucuses, conventions and other ceremonial gatherings. All groups like to gather together at intervals for the purpose of sharing certain activities, often wearing special costumes, eating together, displaying their symbols or marching in procession, be it the KKK or the Human Rights Movement.

What is the good that is done to us in these rituals is the reaffirmation of social cohesion.

Ritualistic utterances [are an] accustomed set of noises which convey no information, but to which feelings (in this case, group feelings) are attached. Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group. […] When language becomes ritual, in effect becomes, to a considerable extent, independent of whatever signification the words once possessed.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The Language of Social Control

The effect of a parade of sonorous phrases upon human conduct has never been adequately studied.

—— Thurman Arnold

If the informative use of language deals with verifiable facts, then directive uses of language deal with the relationship between words and future events. When we say “Come here!” we are trying to make something happen.

We make things happen by means of orders, demands, requests, pleas, prays or supplications. Unlike animals, we humans are unique in our ability to react meaningfully to expressions such as ‘next Sunday’. Our capacity to trade things with our future self, or future peers, is what made progress possible; we make maps for territories that are not there yet.

If directive language is to be effective, it must make use of the affective element available in language, even nonverbal appeals. Sermons and religious exhortations may be supplemented by costumes and choirs; politicians reinforce their speeches with flags and parades. Some business want us to buy their products, so they will seek to produce delusions and fantasies if that’s what it takes.

In any case, directive utterances say something about the future, and that implies a promise: that if we do the things they tell us to do, certain consequences will follow. The fact that some promises are kept or not is irrelevant for this to be effective: that will be verifiable only later.

There is no sense, then, to object to advertising and to propaganda on the grounds that they are based on “emotional appeals”. There is no such thing as populism, because every directive use of language is by definition emotional in some way.

Life being as uncertain and as unpredictable as it is, we are constantly trying to find out what is going to happen next so that we may prepare ourselves.

—— Language in Thought and Action

When those promises are not kept, there is disappointment, and each of them serves to break down the mutual trust that makes cooperation possible, that knits people together into a society. If what is called populism is appealing, it’s not because their emotional promises are appealing; it’s because the mainstream parties have lost the trust of a big share of the population.

Society is a network of agreements; in order to maintain a normal course of events that enable a trustworthy environments, some sort of pattern must be imposed on each one of us. What we call ‘the law’, or ‘our rights’ are nothing but the systematisation of those patterns, accumulated throughout the ages. What we call ‘our property’ is simply the society as a whole agreeing that you can use it freely and everyone else can’t. It takes a nationalisation of a fleet of oil rigs to understand that what we mean by ‘yours’ or ‘theirs’ is a fragile arrangement.

All of us are responsible for the promises we make, and rise no false expectations, because these are menaces to the social order. But if politicians are often accused of breaking their promises, it’s not always the candidate at fault; their discourse is phrased at high levels of abstractions and understood by the voters at lower levels. Thus, if one is disappointed, sometimes the politician is to blame, but often the voter has entertained the illusion to start with, and he is to blame as well.

How we know what we know

It is inherent in our intellectual activity that we seek to imprison reality in our description of it. Soon, long before we realise it, it is we who become the prisoners of the description. From that point on, our ideas degenerate into a kind of folklore which we pass to each other, fondly thinking we are still talking of the reality around us. […]

If this is not understood, we become symbol worshipers.

—— Aneurin Bevan

Our universe is in constant change. Heraclitus of Ephesus said that ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers. Matter looks ‘solid’ in the sense that a rapidly spinning top is standing still: our senses cannot perceive the difference between a fixed position and an unstable equilibrium.

What we see on the screen is simply a continuous beam of light directed into our eyes; even the display has been designed in order to receive updates frequently, in the order of 50 times per second, on where the pointer should be located across the screen, so that to the human eyes the movement of the pointer matches the hand’s.

The ‘object’ of our experience is not itself, but an /interaction between our nervous systems and something outside them/. It’s like The Matrix.

Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

—— Morpheus, The Matrix

Great movie, by the way. Too bad they never made any sequels. As we saw, and unlike chimpanzees, we symbolise things into objects. When we say ‘this is Bessie the cow’, we are only noting the aggregation of subatomic particles and processes that sum up to something that can be perceived as ‘Bessie’, calling it by a name, and noting its resemblance to other ‘cows’ while ignoring the differences.

The object we see is an abstraction of the lowest level, but an abstraction nevertheless from the fact that Bessie simply isn’t there. The word ‘cow’ selects only the similarities between Bessie, Daisy and Rosie, and leaves out even more things about Bessie. The process goes on and on: ‘livestock’, ‘farm asset’, ‘asset’, ‘wealth’… It’s what we call an Abstraction Ladder.

This process of abstracting ignores ‘the whole truth’ at the expense of reaching collective understanding. It makes discussion possible by reducing the mental effort to perceive what it is that makes Bessie a cow. As we mentioned before, we learn words through context; that learning can only happen if we can distill what it is that is common between Bessie, Daisy and Rosie.

A producer of educational films once remarked to me that it is impossible to make a shot of ‘work’. You can shoot Joe hoeing potatoes, Susan polishing her car, Bill spraying paint on a barn, but never just ‘work’.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Banks do it all the time; they picture a coffee van, a factory or simply a bullet journal where one can read ‘bullet journal’ jotted down.

Take for instance the concept of weight; one can try to define it, but in the end is all about how we come up with the number of kilograms someone weights:

The operational definition, then, as Anatol Rapoport explains, is one that tells you what to do and what to observe in order to bring the thing defined or its effects within the range of one’s experience. He gives the following simple example of how to define ‘weight’: go to a railroad station or drugstore, look for a scale, stand on it, put in a penny, read the number at which the pointer comes to rest. That is your weight. […] Just as there is no such thing as length apart from the operations by which length is measured, there is likewise no ‘democracy’ apart from the sum total of democratic practices, as as universal franchise, freedom of speech, equality before the law, and so on.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to speak with disdain of abstractions. But they have a bad reputation because they are often used to confuse and disorient people.

Depriving blacks of their votes in violation of the Constitution of the United States was at one time spoken of as “preserving states’ rights”.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The test of abstractions is whether they are referable to lower levels. If so, they can be brought down to concrete examples; they can be verified. They are indeed reports, and not just prejudice.

Some people, according to Wendell Johnson’s People in Quandaries, remain more or less permanently stuck at certain levels of the abstraction ladder. Some on the lower levels— those that describe vacation trips in letters by detailing what they are doing or what they are eating—, and some on the higher ones— often, politicians. In 1998, Bill Clinton denied having committed perjury when he said that “there is not a sexual relationship” with Monica Lewinsky because, according to him, the fact that certain acts were performed “on him”, not by him, means that he did not engage in sexual relations.

In order to engage in a meaningful conversation, one in which both you and your peer is engaged and ‘have come to terms’ is one in which there is an interplay between higher and lower levels of abstractions.

The low-level speaker frustrates you because he leaves you with no directions as to what to do with the basketful of information he has given you. The high-level speaker frustrates you because he simply doesn’t tell you what he is talking about…

—— People in Quandaries

The interesting writer operate on all levels of the abstraction ladder, moving quickly, gracefully and in orderly fashion from higher to lower, like monkeys in a tree.

You will become a more interesting writer if you operate on all abstraction levels, if you smoothly jump from high to low and high again, if words are not an obstacle, but a tool for clarity.

The Little Man Who Wasn’t There

The same goes for the public; someone who doesn’t understand the abstractions around him is bound to do something similar to this:

More than one motorist has secretly wished he could do what Samuel Rios, 30, was accused of doing yesterday. Driving at 12:30 A.M. through Williamsburg, he swung around a corner and accidentally sideswiped a sedan parked at the curb in front of 141 Hopkins Street. Furious, police charged, Rios stopped, took the jack handle from his car trunk, and slam-banged the offending obstacle from windshield to tail-lights.

—— Language in Thought and Action, quoting the New York Post

In a wider sense, people confuse levels of abstractions: what’s in their heads with that which is outside. We talk about the yellowness of a pencil as if the yellowness were a property of the pencil, and not a product of the interaction of the light with our eyes.

In reality, we should not be saying “The pencil is yellow”, but instead “I see something that has characteristics which lead me to call it pencil. This thing that I call pencil has a further characteristic that lead me to say it is ‘yellow’”. And we would bore each other to death, running around in circles and making no progress whatsoever.

The more complicated civilisation becomes, the more we left behind this primitive relationship between throwing virgins into volcanoes and the happiness of the gods, the more conscious we must be that we must leave certain features of things we deal with in our heads in order to communicate. In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the narrator suggests that many whites, on encountering someone black, would see only the abstraction “black” that they carry in their heads; busy thinking of that ‘little man who wasn’t there’, they didn’t notice the actual individual.

Exceptio probat regulum

For of course the true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.

—— P. Bridgman

When we name something, we are classifying. The individual object, of course, has no such thing as ‘name’, and belongs to no class until we put it in one.

Because classifications seem to have a kind of hypnotic power over some people, I am occasionally credited with (or accused of) having a ‘Oriental mind’. Since Buddha, Confucius, General Tojo, Mao Tse-tung, Pandit Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi, and the proprietor of the Golden Pheasant Chop Suey House have all ‘Oriental minds’, it is difficult to know whether to feel complimented or insulted.

—— Language in Thought and Action

By the definition once accepted widely, any person with even a small amount of “Negro blood”— that is, whose ancestors were classified as “Negroes”— is “black”. It could be argued the same thing about whiteness. The fact that it used to be one thing but not the other is because that system of classification suited the convenience of those making the classification. Classifications reflect a social conveniency or necessity— and different necessities are always producing different classifications.

When one person kills another, is it an act of murder, an act of temporary insanity, an act of homicide, an accident, or an act of heroism? As soon as the process of classification is completed, our attitudes and our conduct are, to a considerable degree, determined. We hang the murderer, we treat the insane, we absolve the victim of circumstance, we pin a medal on the hero.

—— Language in Thought and Action

We talk about ‘snap judgments’, like Daniel Kahnemann did on Thinking, Fast and Slow, suggesting that prejudices can be avoided by thinking more slowly; this is definitely not the case, for some people think very slowly with no better results.

Reactions such as “A Jew’s a jew” suggests that the denoted, extensional jew, is the fictitious one inside one’s head. People like Einstein, Woody Allen or Henry Kissinger happen to be jews, people who have gained the admiration of many people, and someone reacting that way can be confronted with the observation. These are usually treated as “exceptions”. At this point, they will go on saying “But exceptions only prove the rule”, which is another way of saying “Facts don’t count”.

Ignoring characteristics left out in the process of classification, they overlook— when the term Republican is applied to the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party of Warren Harding, the party of Richard Nixon, and the party of Ronald Reagan— the rather important differences among them.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Such assertions, like “woman drivers are woman drivers”, although it looks like a “simple statement of fact” is not simple and is not a fact. The first “woman driver” denotes the case under discussion; the second one invokes the connotations of the concept.

Many semantic problems are, ultimately, problems of classification and nomenclature.

Take, for example, the extensive debate over abortion. To opponents of legalised abortion, the unborn entity within a woman’s womb is a “baby”. Because abortion foes want to end abortion, they insist that the “baby” is a human being with its own legal rights and that therefore “abortion is murder”. They call themselves pro-life to emphasise their position. […]

Those who want individual women to be able to choose whether or not to end a pregnancy call that same unborn entity a “foetus” and insist that the “foetus” is not a viable human being capable of living on its own, and claim that a woman has a “right” to make such a choice.

Partisans of either side have accused the other of “perverting the meanings of words” and of “not being able to understand plain English”

—— Language in Thought and Action

The decision finally rests upon what society wants, even if it must waits until the conditions of justice accommodate that way of thinking. When the desired decision is handed down, people will say “Truth has triumphed”, or “Justice has been done”. Demanding justice is merely asking to be told you’re right.

Society, in short, regards as “true” those systems of classification that produce the desired results.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The Two-Valued Orientation

Once we have cast another group in the role of the enemy, we know that they are to be distrusted— that they are evil incarnate. We then twist all their communication to fit our belief.

—— Jerome Frank

In terms of a single desire, there are only two values; things that gratify it, and things that frustrate it. If we are starving, there are two kind of things in this world: edible and inedible things. If we are in danger, things can be fearful or can protect us. Life at such basic levels of existence can be folded down in the middle. All good is on one side, all bad is on the other, and everything is accounted for, because things that are irrelevant to our interests are invisible to our attention, like the monkey experiment. This attitude to divide the world into two opposing forces and to ignore the existence of anything in-between will be called two-valued orientation.

This ability to direct and mobilise one’s entire mental and physical resources in the face of danger— the famous fight or flight mechanism—, has been a condition for the survival of the human race. However, it fails to acknowledge the subsequent steps of agreement that human beings engage into when there is nothing to fear.

In most modern democratic systems, there happens to be a two-political system like the one in the United States (probably due to imitation). Under that system, two-valued pronouncements are frequent. We could argue that the current polarisation of the political arena is the consequence of making these kind of attitudes normal; even though in most issues there could be agreements between these two major parties, democracies in their current approach emphasise those areas where differences arise.

You’ve watched this happen, more or less. Not a shadow or praise or even extenuation is offered to the opposing party in political speeches or conventions. It just doesn’t pay to be subtle in politics. An increasing portion of the electorate— if not a majority nowadays— take this two-valued orientation seriously. However, on the whole, it’s difficult to maintain a two-party system of government, as history has proven over and over.

When a nation’s traditions permit a political party to behave as if it is so good for the country that no other party should be allowed in the room, there is immediate silencing of opposition. From that mindset, it makes perfect sense: the nation deserves the very best. In such case, the party’s interests become the interests of the nation as a whole.

Discussion of matters affecting our existence and that of the nation must cease altogether. Anyone who dares to question the rightness of the National Socialist outlook will be branded as traitor.

—— Herr Sauckel, Nazi Governor of Thuringia, 1933

The connection between the two-valued orientation and combat is apparent in the history of Nazism: from the moment Hitler achieved power, he told the German people that they were surrounded by enemies, and called upon to act as if war were already in progress. Even education was made to serve this purpose:

The task of universities is not to teach objective science, but the militant, the warlike, the heroic.

—— Dr Driek, Headmaster of Mannheim public schools

The cruelties of the Nazis have been received with incredulity and repulse from the outside world. But for the student of two-valued orientations, these stories are all too credible.

If good is “absolute good” and evil is “absolute evil”, the logic of a primitive, two-valued orientation demands that “evil” be exterminated by every means available.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Brave New World’s author Aldous Huxley has said that it is the function of propaganda is to enable people to do in cold blood things that they could otherwise do only in the heat of passion. Two-valued propaganda has precisely this effect.

To an extent that we are referring to logic, two-valued orientations are OK. “One plus one equals two” is true, and every other answer is false. Trying to bring this reasoning where words are slippery and fail us is where two-valued orientations no longer apply.

Logic can lead to agreement only when, as in mathematics or the sciences, there are pre-existing, hard-and-fast agreements as to what words stand for.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Even in mathematics, two-valued logic is only one of many approaches; probability is the basis of which insurance companies quote premiums, and it may be regarded as an infinite-valued logic.

One factor that contributes to difficulties in thinking clearly is the nature of language. You need to visualise what “rich people” are in order to understand what “poor people” mean. Some concepts are defined in terms of what everything else is not.

When someone says that politics has become “too emotional”, we usually assume that two-valued speeches are a consequence of that turn into emotions; but what if it’s the opposite? what if the forced two-valued orientation of political speech for shortsighted interests has led to this?

Multi-valued orientation

Except in violent controversies, the language of everyday life shows what may be termed as multi-valued orientation. We have scales of judgement.

For weighing the various and complicated desires that civilization gives rise to, a finely graduated scale of values is necessary, as well as foresight, lest in satisfying one desire we frustrate even more important ones.

—— Language in Thought and Action

It does not matter whether it is from fair-mindedness or from the illusion that “all opinions are respectable” that some writers avoid speaking in terms of good and bad. The important thing is that they try to avoid it. Indeed, many features of democracy presuppose this orientation; congressional hearings, freedom of speech, electorates, parliaments, and so on come as a result of the assumption that we must be open to the possibility of adjusting differences and arriving at just estimates.

There are people who object to this “shilly-shalling” and insist upon and “outright yes or no”. They are the Gordian-knot cutters; they may undo the knot, but they ruin the rope.

—— Language in Thought and Action

In the expression of feelings, however, the two-valued orientation is almost unavoidable. Which leads me to believe that they go hand in hand, as rule of thumb: if a two-valued oriented utterance is said, we can assume that it wasn’t rational, but emotional; and if an emotion is expressed, it will be in most cases expressed in the form of a two-valued oriented form.

Anyone who is trying to promote a cause, therefore, shows the two-valued orientation somewhere in the course of speaking. It gets worse: in the course of a debate, the two-valued orientation of one of the debaters can bring the rest to adopt it.

You know that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was the size of a pipestem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way— and the fools know it.

—— Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

Any TV debate is a variation of this; since both sides can do little other than exaggerate their own claims and belittle the opponent’s, the result of such encounters is usually negligible. Parliament speeches are made principally for the voters. In a competitive society, conversation is often a battleground in disguise on which we are trying to win; it’s a verbal fight for status.

An important way to get the most out of conversation […] is the following systematic application of the multi-valued orientation. Instead of assuming a statement to be “true” or “false”, one should assume that it has a truth value between 0 and 100 percent.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Milton Rokeach’s The Open and Closed Mind put matters as simply as possible in terms of a communicative event: the listener may either accept or reject the speaker, and he may accept or reject the statement. Thus, there are only 4 possible reactions to the communication as a listener.

  1. Accept the speaker and Accept the statement
  2. Accept the speaker and Reject the statement
  3. Reject the speaker and Accept the statement
  4. Reject the speaker and Reject the statement

A person with a two-valued orientation is able to have only reactions (1) and (4); reactions (2) and (3) are reserved only for the multi-valued orientations.

Rokeach refers to the things you believe in as your “belief system”, and the things you don’t believe in as your “belief system”. If you are reasonably secure and well-organised, you enjoy your convictions, but you are also open to information about your disbelief system. However, if you are chronically insecure, you cling desperately to your belief system, and you won’t take anything from your disbelief system out of fear.

If communism and socialism are both part of your disbelief system, the more frightened you are, the less you are able to distinguish between them.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Since we are incapable of getting ourselves to be convinced instantaneously, we must assume a set of beliefs, a “portable map” we carry with ourselves wherever we go. In a state of panic, we must look at it constantly, like when we’re lost in an unknown land, constantly trying to figure out where are we in the map we hold.

Two things are happening nowadays that prevent us from realising that the map isn’t the right one. First is that we are in a constant state of fear, always at the brink of unemployment or attacked by terrorists; and second, that we are constantly distracted by external stimuli, which makes us incapable of thinking on our own, thus updating our maps. In that mindset, we grip our beliefs as tight as we can; for we are lost, and our maps were convincing enough when we updated them for the last time, back when we were kids, and calling names would grant you a visit to the principal.

The Dime in the Juke Box

So far we have discussed particular kinds of misevaluations that we can call intensive orientation:

  1. The unawareness of contexts
  2. The tendency towards automatic reactions
  3. The confusion of levels of abstraction (what’s inside one’s head with what is outside)
  4. The consciousness of similarities, but not of differences
  5. The habit of being content to explain words by means of definitions

When we are intensionally oriented, words mean what we say they mean. “Politicians must be untrustworthy because all they do is ‘play politics’”. If our intensional orientations are serious, therefore, we can manufacture verbally a whole system of values out of the connotations of any term, and jump from one connotation to another indefinitely. The map becomes independent of the territory, and we can add castles upon castles in the sky.

Once we get started, we can spin out whole essays, sermons, books, and even philosophical systems on the basis of the word ‘churchgoer’.

—— Language in Thought and Action

This is why many speakers and coaches can speak at a moment’s notice on any subject whatsoever. A great share of any ‘public speaking’ course are merely training on how to keep talking when one hasn’t a thing to say.

Let’s say that a certain churchgoer, a word we have associated with ‘good Christian’, ‘faithfulness’, ‘honesty’, ‘sobriety’ and so on, is discovered to be unfaithful to his wife.

A question arise: How can a man be a churchgoer and such a bad person at the same time? Unable to separate the intensional from the extensional ‘churchgoer’, such people are forced to one of the following conclusions:

  1. “This is an exceptional case”
  2. “He isn’t really that bad— he can’t be”
  3. “You can’t believe in anything anymore”

The important fact to be noticed about such absurd attitudes is that we should never have made nor so blinded ourselves in the first place. They aren’t the product of ignorance, for genuine ignorance doesn’t have attitudes. It is likely that part of this false knowledge comes out of confusing levels of abstraction and the universal attitude of talking too much.

Many people, indeed, move in a perpetual vicious circle. Because of intensional orientation, they are oververbalized; by oververbalization, they strengthen their intensional orientation. Such people burst into speech as automatically as juke boxes; a dime in the slot, and they’re off.

—— Language in Thought and Action

We’ve seen this behaviour before, on How to Read a Book:

There is some feeling nowadays that reading is not as necessary as it once was. One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary. The packaging of ideas is their production. The viewer of television, the listener to the radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements to make it easy for him to ‘make up his own mind’ with the minimum difficulty and effort.

But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and ‘plays back’ the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

—— How to Read a Book

The fundamental purpose of advertising is to suspend any reasonable weighing of pros and cons and insert a ‘cassette’ into our decision making ‘cassette player’. Its main endeavour is to glamourise the objects to be sold by attaching to them all sort of desirable affective connotations.

There’s more. Sometimes, they find ways to make the facts appear to be unique to certain products. Don Draper knows it well; he invented It’s toasted.

Many advertisers prefer that we be governed by automatic reactions to brand names rather than by thoughtful consideration of the facts about their products. […] The buyer must be ‘presold’ before arriving at the market.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Because advertising is both so powerful and so widespread, it influences more than our choice of products; it also influences our patterns of evaluation. Any newspaper’s title is now a clickbait; that means that our intuitions for evaluating what is important in the news is corrupted, outdated, and probably obsolete. Which leads people into clicking— “This is an exceptional case”, “This isn’t really clickbait”—, or downright avoid reading the news— “you can’t trust the media anymore”. Both reactions are indeed wrong, and the end result is that people become misinformed, a dangerous situation that is worse than not being informed at all.

The empty eye

Symbols aren’t reduced just to words; there are pictures too. And if modern society inundates its citizens with a torrent of words, it does that also with pictures. Over the Internet, 21st century societies are exposed to a dizzying quantity and variety of shows where the line between ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’ is as blurry as it has ever been.

The problem is, the book we are talking about already highlights this issue, and this chapter was included in the edition of 1990.

Distinctions between types of programming that once were clear have become blurred. News programs, entertainment programs, and commercials have become more alike as competition for the public’s attention has become more intense.

Language in Thought and Action

Is the series Suits a lawyer drama, or a long ad for Tom Ford clothing? Is the final rounds of Roland Garros a sports event, or a 5 hour long Nike’s commercial? Is native advertising an ad or a piece of news?

What we see on TV, what we are told over the Internet on any platform is simply an abstraction. Like most man-made images, it’s an array of pixels, each one uniquely coloured, that human eyes assemble into an “image”; electronic impulses for subsequent transmission and reproduction. Reality is reduced to simple computer code. An unwritten rule is that the camera never shows evidence of its own presence; you’ll never notice the queues to climb the Everest, how many people take a picture of the Mona Lisa at the same time; or how the camera on a music concert stages every moment of the show.

Yet another level of abstraction occurs: the time constraint.

In the summer of 2009, I partook an hour-long public discussion with David Cameron. It turned out that I presented my version of the precautionary principle during the conversation, where one does not need complex models as a justification to avoid a certain action. Models are error prone, and most risks only appear in analyses after harm is done, that’s why if we don’t understand something and it has a systemic effect, just avoid it. Like with climate change, the burden is on those who pollute to show a lack of tail risk.

The London newspapers were actively misrepresenting something to their own public. The entire fifty-nine minutes were summarised by the press from a tangential comment, and they were portraying me as part of a dark anti-environment conspiracy.

There is an agency problem: there is no difference between a journalist at The Guardian and the restaurant owner in Milan who, when you ask for a taxi, calls his cousin who does a tour of the city to inflate the meter before showing up.

—— Skin in the Game

And if pictures is what give media its power, excessive reliance on them constitutes its weakness. News focus on things that can easily be pictured: it’s hard to televise houses not being built, rents increasing, or employment declining. War is easily televisable; some would say that the Vietnam War was lost in America’s living room.

And last, media’s power rely on the stimulation of intense emotions. Recall when we said that emotions and two-valued orientations are interdependent? It’s no wonder that a society constantly bombarded by emotional content via every channel available has grown to become two-value oriented by default.

TV, social networks, newspapers… media is a shared set of experiences; the fact that there is so much tunnelling, sieving and filtering involved from what is really going on to what is shown to us should be constantly in our forefront, and whatever information we extract from it must be taken with a grain of salt.

The Facts are True, the News is Fake

—— Donald Trump

Rats and Men

Professor N. R. F. Maier […] performed a series of interesting experiments […]. The rats are first trained to jump off the edge of a platform at one of two doors. If the rat jumps to the right, the door holds fast, and it bumps its nose and falls into a net; if it jumps to the left, the door opens, and the rat finds a dish of food.

When the rats are well trained to this reaction, the situation is [swapped; door on the right now leads to food]. […] If the rat fails to figure out the new system […] it finally gives up and refuses to jump at all […].

Next, the rats are forced to make a choice, being driven to it by blasts of air or an electric shock. “Animals which are induced to respond in the insoluble problem situation” says Dr. Maier, “settle down to a specific reaction (such as jumping solely at the left-hand door) which they continue to execute regardless of consequences. […] Once the fixation appears, the animal is incapable of learning an adaptive response in this situation”.

When a reaction to the left-hand door is thus fixated, the right hand door may be left open so that the food is plainly visible. Yet the rat, when pushed, continues to jump to the left, becoming more panicky each time.

When the experimenter persists in forcing the rat to make choices, it may go into convulsions, racing around wildly, injuring its claws, bumping into objects, then going into a state of violent trembling, until it falls into a comma. In this passive state, it refuses to eat, refuses to take any interest in anything […] the rat has ceased to care what happens to it.

—— Language in Thought and Action

In the rat experiment, it is the insolubility of the problem that leads to its nervous breakdown. Dr Maier extended this study into disturbed children and adults to verify that rats and human beings seem to go through pretty much the same stages.

  1. First, they are trained to make a given choice habitually when confronted with a given problem.
  2. Second, they get a terrible shock when they find that the conditions have changed and that the choice doesn’t produce the expected results (like when the computer suddenly shuts down and, however firmly you press the power button, it doesn’t turn on).
  3. Third, whether through shock or anxiety, they may fixate on the original choice and continue to make it regardless of consequences (have you ever pressed the power button a million times yet?).
  4. Fourth, they refuse to act at all.
  5. When by external compulsion they are forced to make a choice, they again make the one they were originally trained to make,
  6. Finally, even with the goal visible in front of them, to be attained simply by making a different choice, they go crazy out of frustration.

Is this an exaggerated picture? Then you have never blown onto a Nintendo game to make it work, or repeated the same command to your dog a thousand times. The pattern repeats from these small tragedies to the world-shaking catastrophes among nations.

Parents, in order to instill a sense of responsibility, may nag their child to keep his or her room clean. If the room stays messy, the parentss nag some more. The child becomes more resentful and less neat— so the parents nag even more. […]

Again, whites in a northern city, deploying the illiteracy and high crime among blacks, segregate them, persecute them, […] flee the city rather than improve the public schools, and deny blacks opportunities for employment and advancement. The denial of opportunity perpetuates illiteracy and the high crime rate, which in turn perpetuate the segregation, persecution, and denial of opportunity.

—— Language in Thought and Action

A basic reason for such insoluble problems in society is what we may call “institutional inertia”. An institution, in sociology, is an organised pattern of group behaviour. The key is that this patterns are well-established, more or less uniform throughout a social group. People in communist societies accept and perpetuate communism habits of economic behaviour, and so do capitalistic people with capitalistic habits; soldiers, bankers and stockbrokers look at the world through a soldier’s, banker’s or stockbroker’s eyes, and abstract from it what they are trained to abstract. Through long habituation to an institutional way of looking at the world, each tends to believe that this abstractions of reality are reality.

Once we are used to those institutions, we get to feeling that they are the only right and proper way of doing things. Monarchy in mid nineteenth century France was claimed by its defenders to be “divinely ordained” until suddenly it wasn’t. Today, capitalism begets the kind of people that regard its way of organising the economy and its society as the only proper way; while communists adhere to their way with the same passionate conviction.

This loyalty to one’s own institution is understandable: almost everyone in any culture feels that its institutions are the very foundations of reasonable living. A challenge to those institutions is almost inevitable felt to be a threat to all orderly existence.

—— Language in Thought and Action

Consequently, social institutions tend to change slowly, continuing to exist long after the necessity for their existence has disappeared, being sometimes dangerous. This continued existence is called “cultural lag”.

The pressing problems of our world are then problems of cultural lag— problems arising from trying to organise an Internet era world with horse and buggy institutions.

Technological advancement during the last couple of centuries has been greater than the rate of change of our social institutions. Recall that people in the US vote on a Tuesday due to the fact that it was common for voters to need two days to get to the poll station. The disparity between the technological progress and its subsequent adjustments in social institutions is getting wider and wider.

This brings us to understand why, in every contemporary culture that has felt the impact of technology, people are questioning the appropriateness of nineteenth-century institutions to twenty-first century conditions.

They are progressively more alarmed at the dangers arising from old-fashioned nationalism in a world that has become, technologically and economically, one world; they are increasingly anxious over the possibility of attaining a sane world economic order with the instruments of nineteenth-century capitalism or nineteenth-century socialism. Wherever technologies are producing changes not adequately matched by changes in social institutions, there are people under strain and tension.

—— Language in Thought and Action

At this point, it’s easy for me to recall The Industrial Society and its Future, otherwise known as the Unabomber Manifesto, in which Ted Kacynski laid down the reasons why technology is making us slaves. Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where technological advancements were put at the service of making the society in a constant state of adolescent. These are well-known critiques of a society that is incapable of keeping up with the technological changes and adjusting its institutions accordingly.

Some societies, of course, meet this tension head-on, and strive to change or abandon outmoded institutions. One of the best arguments for a democracy is the idea that it is the system best prepared to cope with this cultural lag and aligns the interest of the law maker (the body responsible with adjusting social institutions) with those of the overall society (the body in contact with the consequences of that cultural lag). People are constantly striving to bring institutions into closer relationship with reality.

On seeing the need for changes, however, some people agitate for cures that are no better than the ailment; and other agitate for changes that cannot possibly be brought about. In some of the most important areas of human life— especially, international relations and an equitable world economic order— we are in a state of cultural lag.

What causes this cultural lag? It may be ignorance, for some people manifestly don’t know the score, and their maps represent territories that have long since passed out of existence. It may be institutional inertia, for things have worked so far and there is no apparent reason for changing that. It may be fear, for the ultimate strength of cultural lag may come from a sufficiently great number of people in all walks of life who, weighing the risks and rewards of the changes proposed, decide that it isn’t worth it. It may be fixed economic or political interests, for many individuals enjoy power and prestige within the framework of outmoded institutions, and they have an incentive to push for things to stay the same.

But wealth and power are not guarantees either of social irresponsibility or of stupidity. Democracies, on paper, equalise the will of the powerful man with the will of the ‘man on the street’. The existence of a powerful wealthy class in a culture is not in itself a guarantee that there will be cultural lag.

Even when the rich and powerful are shortsighted and cling onto outmoded institutions for their own benefit, they must have support among those who conform the wider population. We must account for the shortsightedness of the ordinary citizens who support policies that are contrary to their own interests.

Whether the cultural lag arises from ignorance, inertia, fear, or shortsighted selfishness, or from a combination of these and other reasons, it is clear that the solution is a matter of adapting institutional habits to new conditions. It took the air raids on London during World War II to send the slum children of the city to the country for the sake of their health, which would have been impossible before the war.

One of the lessons of war is that institutions, while powerful and long-lasting, are often no insuperably rigid if the emergency is great enough.

—— Language in Thought and Action

The way I understand it, for cultural lag to be reduce to its minimum, institutions must have skin in the game.

Every widely debated public issue is, then, a discussion of institutional adaption. In the absence of skin in the game, if we persist in discussing our social problems in terms of ‘justice’, ‘natural law’, ‘reason’, like the issue of abortion we discussed earlier, reactions of fear and anger become general on both sides— and fear and anger make intelligent decision-making impossible.

The escape from this two-valued debate lies in thinking about social problems as institutional adaptations. We would stop asking whether a proposed change is ’right’ or ‘wrong’, but instead, ‘who benefits?’, ‘what would be the results?’, ‘who would be harmed?’, ‘what would be the effect on prices, on employment, on the environment?’, ‘who says so, on the basis of what kind of research and what kind of expert knowledge?’

From extensional answers to such extensionally directed questions, decisions begin to flow. The decisions that flow from extensional information are neither ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, but simply some sensible things to do under the circumstances.

The tragedy is not only that many of us are innocent enough to be deceived by systematic confusion in levels of abstraction in the news; a deeper tragedy is that, in many communities, newspapers and television provide us with almost no extensional material for discussion. Partly because many newspapers and television newscasts have largely given up their news function in favor of entertainment, and partly because the sensational, two-valued utterances of extreme partisans make livelier stories than the testimony of extensionally minded experts, news accounts in some communities are scanty sources of information on important public issues.

—— Language in Thought and Action

We must turn our sight towards science. The most striking characteristic of science has been its continued success in the solving of problems that seemed impossible. And scientists have special ways of talking about the phenomena they deal with, special ‘maps’ to describe the ‘territories’ they deal with. When things turn out as they predicted, they regard their maps as ‘true’. If not, they discard their maps and make new ones, and act on new sets of hypothesis that suggests new courses of action. On Science and the Modern World, Alfred Whitehead says that it is not unusual for a scientist to rejoice upon being proven wrong, that all human progress depended on ‘new questions’ rather than ‘new answers’ to the ‘old questions’.

The last thing a scientist would do is to cling to a map because it was inherited from his grandfather or because it was used by George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. By intensional orientation, “If it was good enough for Washington or Lincoln, it’s good enough for me”. By extensional orientation, we don’t know until we have checked.

—— Language in Thought and Action

But a different thing happens when we are trying to repair society. Few people have a sense of societies as mechanisms. Used to thinking of social problems in terms of simple moral indignation, we denounce everything around us, missing entirely the basic requirement of ‘mapping’ social problems: establishing patterns of group behaviour. Indignant, we do not ask of a proposed institutional change what the results will be; we are usually more interested in ‘punishing’ than in determining results.

During the course of our weary struggles with such non-sense questions, someone or other is sure to come along with a campaign to tell us, “Let’s get back to normalcy… let’s stick to the good old-fashioned, tried-and-true principles… let’s return to sound economics and sound finance, to basics… America must get back to this… America must get back to that…”

Most appeals are, of course, merely invitations to take another jump at the left-hand door— in other words, invitations to continue driving ourselves crazy. In our confusion, we accept those invitations— with the same old results.

—— Language in Thought and Action


This is a book written in terms of what constitutes language, what is it good for, how it evolved along with humans into an instrument of progress, and how what makes it useful (symbolic process) is also what makes it an obstacle (confusion and obfuscation).

This is a book written in 1990. It’s a book that thanks Lee Whorf for its writings, even though we’ve seen in Through the Language Glass that his theories are now outcasted by the international community, and deals with “EEC scheduled to eliminate most internal economic barriers” in Europe, an extraordinary achievement of course, but now nothing but a memory in the age of Brexit.

But it’s also a book that deals with “campaigns to tell us ‘America must get back to this’” long before Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. It’s a book that deals with “newspapers and television newscasts that have largely given up their news function in favour of entertainment”, long before BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. It’s a book that deals with people “accustomed to thinking of social problems in terms of simple moral indignation” long before Twitter.

It’s a book worth reading, because despite everything, what’s written on it remains furiously in touch with current issues. It’s a map that still resembles closely nowadays’s territory.

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