The Trap of Language
There are nine definitions for “love” in the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary. So how are we supposed to know which of those nine definitions a person is employing when they say “I love you.” Or “I want to make love to you.” Some would say context. How ever that context is derived from an implication of a common background and set of experiences that may not actually be present. That context is so fragile that changing one single word in the sentence can alter the meaning of the central word in it. It makes me think about Plato and Aristotle going on about the truth and knowledge. And this was 2,000 years ago. These questions still don’t have answers. So when someone asks, “Do you love me?” How do you know what answer to give? Love isn’t the only word like this, actually most of the important words in our society are kind of contextual, ambiguous, and are even further defined by contextual ambiguous words. Privacy, freedom, respect, happiness, pleasure, hate and so many more are these powerful words are based on a personal history that we don’t all necessarily share. So we turn to physical references for what these words mean in action that can be pointed to, but does that really help?
In the legal system a crime requires mens rea and actus reus, which is in short, the physical act of the crime , and the intent to do commit that crime. Both of those have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. To me this kind of reinforces the idea that we basically acknowledge the fact that we have no way of knowing what is true or not so we have just simplified “justice” to be based on whatever can be proven. It is forensic and scientific but all of those are rooted in theory at the end of the day as well. So question of what defines love is sort of proven the same way right? We ask if a person loves us, but for us to believe their answer we must have physical deeds as evidence that reflect the feeling in the physical world or it is meaningless.
It can be argued that if you love someone you give them freedom to experience life they way they choose as a physical action that embodies a feeling. It could also be argued that if you love someone you should support, protect, and nurture them without condition. But what does “support” mean and, what does”freedom” mean? Even the definition for those words is arguable.
This problem is at the root of all our communication in english. We all have different personal histories that attribute a specific context and connotation to everything we say. On top of that we make allowances in speech and use figurative language, slang, and generalities that muddle communication. At the end of the day it seems to me that no particular word holds any real value aside from the context in which you create with the other words around it. Since that context is created collectively you need more and more words to create a concise message but not too many words or the message will begin to dilute itself. Its a trap we can’t get out of. We are bound to using physical reference for non physical ideas we can never clearly communicate purely outside of these metaphors.
The debate is not limited to language but is present in mathematics and science as well. Math at its highest levels is abstract and theoretical. So I am interested in the point where we detach from physicality into abstract. The moment we separate from describing physical things like tires and apples to describing abstractions like “love” with other abstractions like “respect” and “affection”. We can not describe these things alone to certainty without external reference because we seem to have this perpetual fear of insanity, which is a terribly grave and perpetual loneliness. To insulate from this fear we ask for second and third opinions about our beliefs, and form cultures around the common areas and live within the collective context.
What I am trying to do with Citizens Of Culture is unravel this collective context to create some clarity about the ideas. The culture we are a part of is an average of all the ideas and opinions that are circulating within it. It is important for me to know where in that spectrum I fit, and how my personal history is aligned or not with that of the people I am surrounded by. It offers me clarity about my own meaning and I think, gives us all a reference point for the language we share. In this way I am able to recognize where my own ideas end, and those of the culture begin, and in a small way recognize my identity independent of my culture without having to feel completely alone.
I think you for reading this and I thank you for sharing in the exploration.
Check out this video of the Global Language Monitor, and organization that tracks words and meanings. It is an old video but illustrates my point.