Monday, February 20, 2006

Redefinition as False Insight

The ever impenetrable Humpty Dumpty, as immortalized by Lewis Carroll:

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.
Anyone attempting a productive argument quickly discovers the necessity of agreement on basic definitions. Another phenomenon has taken me longer to recognize: the reframing of well-worn words as an attempt at profundity.

A friend once described a situation in his psychology class where the professor had just revealed that the eyes are part of the brain. Of course, the class responded with a subtle confusion — as though something had just changed in the world itself. The standard conception of a "brain" is about some squishy gray matter sitting inside our skull; when you call the eyes part of that system, we express confusion and surprise when our eyes don't become squishy gray matter.

What's sad is how often this happens during conversation with people who are trying to bestow their "deep insight" on others. I should know, I'm probably one of the worst offenders. I call every emancipated leaf beautiful — every forgotten mannequin a tragedy. And I mean "beauty" and "tragedy", just as the professor meant "brain" (ideas like interdependent arising make every minute occurence into an event of apocalyptic import) — but I need to be more careful when I use these kind of words. Unless the other person understands what I mean by them, the words become, at best, nonsense; and at worst, philosophical melodrama.

It's far too easy to use words (especially simple words) to alienate others. It seems wise to, instead, think of our words as gifts — not something we've been coveting, wrapped in our favorite colors and patterns (and "whatever we choose"), but something the other person will appreciate. 1 Corinthians 8:1 is a bit out of context, but the idea still applies:
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

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