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Exercising our Words: Stop Thinking Like Plato!

Words are remarkably flexible: You can press play, be in a play, play on a playground, draw up a play, play ball, and play a musical instrument; feathers are light, weights are as light as a feather, the sun is light, there are flashlights and lighters, and people say ‘let there be light,’ and ‘lights out.’ Yet, their malleability usually surprises us; we tend to think of them as having fixed definitions even though they are highly dispensable. 

For Plato, this was a big problem. He wanted to know how two different things could be referred to as the same thing – what philosophers call the problem of universals. For example, there are millions of different tables in the world, yet we all refer to them as the same thing – tables. How can this be? Plato’s answer is simple; all tables share an essence, a sort of blueprint of perfection that they derive their likeness from. Plato called this essence a Form, and there is one unique to everything – mountains, humans, green, love, etc.

We tend to think and speak like this. We say that a song is Beatles-esque, or the universe has a one-ness, or he looks fifty-ish to suggest that qualities are transcendent and objective i.e., the sound of Beatles music. But the theory of Forms has its far share of critics who reject the notion of ideals or essences. As the Diogenes of Sinope said, “I’ve seen Plato’s cups and tables, but not his cupness and tableness.” The video piggybacks off of this idea by showing that we define and understood things through their relationships and not through unique intrinsic “ness” qualities.

Let’s look at language closely to see if this is true. Consider, for example, all the ways the word “idea” is used.

  • It can be a building – your idea needs more support, that is a shaky idea, your idea has no foundation.
  • It can be food – what he said left a bad taste in my mouth, there are too many facts here for me to digest, that idea smells fishy.
  • It can be a person – the theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous amount of ideas in physics, he is the father of modern biology, those ideas died off in the Middle Ages.
  • It can be money – let me put in my two cent’s worth, he’s rich in ideas (Lakoff & Johnson, 1979).

The applicability of “idea,” combined with what the video illustrated, suggests that Plato was wrong to think that everything had a definitive intrinsic essence. The reality is that language is highly connected and defined by itself. In this light, I think Nietzsche was right on the mark when he asserted that truth was nothing more than a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.”

Contemporary linguistics has confirmed Nietzsche’s aphorism. In the seminal book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that, “our normal conceptual system is metaphorically structured; that is, most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts” (56). Take the Argument is War metaphor as an example.

  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • I demolished his argument
  • I’ver never won an argument with him
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out
  • He shot down all of my arguments

The key point here, and this is what Lakoff and Johnson really stress, is that we “don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war…. we can actually win or lose arguments” (3). This is what they mean when they say that we “live by” metaphors; more than just literary devices, they are mental mechanisms that help us understand other subjects and the world.

Why do we think and speaking so metaphorically? And why is language so connected? Here are two explanations, one from linguistics and the other from neuroscience, which may be helpful. The linguistic explanation comes from cognitive science Srini Narayanan, who argues that metaphoric language comes from physical interactions during the first several years of life. For example, have you even noticed your overwhelming tendency to equate warmth with affection. We say that:

  • She has a warm touch
  • He held me warmly
  • I received a warm greeting
  • They are warm people

This tendency comes from experiences when feeling physically warm (i.e., being held by your mother) correlated with feeling loved (i.e., your mother keeping you safe). Maybe this sounds obvious, but that’s the point. Warmth and affection are so connected that we forget that they were not wired in at birth, they were learned.

The second answer comes from neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who suggests that language is so layered and connected because we all have mild forms of synesthesia (synesthesia is the “neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Common conditions for synesthetes are “seeing” colors in numbers and letters, and perceiving days of the week as having personalities). Let’s test his theory out. Look at the two images below and ask yourself this question: Which is Bouba and which is Kiki?

If you are like 98% percent of people, you will say that Bouba is on the left and Kiki is on the right. Rama explains that this seems so obvious to us because “nonarbitrary correspondence between the visual shape of an object and the sound that might be its partner… may be hardwired” (172) This would explain why non-English speakers also “see” Bouba on the left and Kiki on the right. It also suggests, as Rama hypothesizes, that there is significant “cross-activation between brain maps for sights and sounds” (174).

Taking both Narayanan and Rama’s explanation together, it seems that the highly metaphoric and interconnect nature of language comes from both innate and learned mechanisms. As Narayanan pointed out, physical interaction during our early years led us to equate warmth and affection. But Rama reminds us that innate processes are necessary for us to abstractly apply words or phrases to objects or actions.

So we have a decent starting point, but a long way to go. We know that Plato was wrong to say that words have intrinsic definitions. But until we know more about language, we will still wonder why there is no egg in eggplant, ham in hamburger, apple nor pine in pineapple; why teachers taught but preachers don’t praught; and why your house can burn up as it burns down.

  • The video was taken from NPR’s radio lab. It can be found here.
4 Comments Post a comment
  1. It’s always good to see it from a different perspective My experience confirms that. I have to think about it some more. Can you expand on this? “Exercising our Words: Stop Thinking Like Plato! | Why We Reason”

    July 17, 2011
  2. Prof. Lakoff is so sure that a unitary story binds the GOP ccustitnenoy together, namely his notion of the stern father. But his overarching or underlying (choose your metaphor) framework doesn’t have to explain all GOP voters. The wealthy few have always had the challenge of getting support from many who are not as wealthy or powerful as they. This challenge becomes greater as the social contract is extended to those who don’t hold land, who were enslaved, women, On the left we sometimes think that the right must be animated with a single coherent vision. I suspect that a much more pragmatic approach is at work. The strategists realize that all they need is a coalition who can hang together (and thanks to winner take all election systems) get just over 50% of the votes. Thanks to a 2 party systems this simple majority can be achieved both with votes for and votes against (so negative slurs make a regular appearance). Thanks to fixing elections and disenfranchising groups of voters they have even managed to win with just under 50%. If democrats don’t win by more than a couple of percentage points they may well find that they lose on technicalities.This coalition approach means giving people just enough to keep them headed to the polls and away from the other party. So we see the cynical offer of no condoms, no abortions and no gays as cheap buy for the rich whose own families don’t need to abide by any of those strictures. Similar bits are doled out until you cross 49%. And some subset of those may be Lakoff’s stern father masochists. But they don’t all need to be.Other countries form their coalitions more publicly (as when parliaments do or don’t form governments).When discussions, like this one, occur without this as a backdrop it feels like a false see saw pitting right against left and then being bemused when some new voice doesn’t drop neatly into those categories. But the problem with bloggers who aren’t of a single ideology is a pseudo-problem that flows from the caricature and leaves Lakoff insisting that the do have one that is ever more occult as other guests introduce counterexamples.Chris’ habitual need to bumpersticker doesn’t help in this case.fight the caricature we have seen the coalition, and if need be, they will be us j

    December 22, 2012
  3. presidente do PT poca do esc?ndalo, if more people seek to borrow less or save more, but in a demand-constrained economy will not affect the total number of jobs.Most paradoxically measures that increase productivity and efficiency if they do not also translate into increased demand may actually reduce the number of people working as the level of total output remains demand constrained Ԫָܸߵ82. Դ5°ʾÿ850Ԫծģ The inside-baseball version involves a complicated narrative that judges emerging world growth by global money flows that move hither and yon depending on currency levels, As a lead article in the New York Times : with expectations mounting that the Federal Reserve,”Israel did not commit to stopping settlements and we see the continuation of the settlement policy as destroying any possible chance of (a deal), Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he wanted “real and enduring peace ..

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