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Cognitive scientists develop new take on old problem: why human language has so many words with multiple meanings


“Why did language evolve? While the answer might seem obvious — as a way for individuals to exchange information — linguists and other students of communication have debated this question for years. Many prominent linguists, including MIT’s Noam Chomsky, have argued that language is, in fact, poorly designed for communication. Such a use, they say, is merely a byproduct of a system that probably evolved for other reasons — perhaps for structuring our own private thoughts.

As evidence, these linguists point to the existence of ambiguity: In a system optimized for conveying information between a speaker and a listener, they argue, each word would have just one meaning, eliminating any chance of confusion or misunderstanding. Now, a group of MIT cognitive scientists has turned this idea on its head. In a new theory, they claim that ambiguity actually makes language more efficient, by allowing for the reuse of short, efficient sounds that listeners can easily disambiguate with the help of context.

“Various people have said that ambiguity is a problem for communication,” says Ted Gibson, an MIT professor of cognitive science and senior author of a paper describing the research to appear in the journal Cognition. “But once we understand that context disambiguates, then ambiguity is not a problem — it’s something you can take advantage of, because you can reuse easy [words] in different contexts over and over again.” (…)

What do you ‘mean’?

For a somewhat ironic example of ambiguity, consider the word “mean.” It can mean, of course, to indicate or signify, but it can also refer to an intention or purpose (“I meant to go to the store”); something offensive or nasty; or the mathematical average of a set of numbers. Adding an ‘s’ introduces even more potential definitions: an instrument or method (“a means to an end”), or financial resources (“to live within one’s means”).

But virtually no speaker of English gets confused when he or she hears the word “mean.” That’s because the different senses of the word occur in such different contexts as to allow listeners to infer its meaning nearly automatically.

Given the disambiguating power of context, the researchers hypothesized that languages might harness ambiguity to reuse words — most likely, the easiest words for language processing systems. Building on observation and previous studies, they posited that words with fewer syllables, high frequency and the simplest pronunciations should have the most meanings.

To test this prediction, Piantadosi, Tily and Gibson carried out corpus studies of English, Dutch and German. (In linguistics, a corpus is a large body of samples of language as it is used naturally, which can be used to search for word frequencies or patterns.) By comparing certain properties of words to their numbers of meanings, the researchers confirmed their suspicion that shorter, more frequent words, as well as those that conform to the language’s typical sound patterns, are most likely to be ambiguous — trends that were statistically significant in all three languages.

To understand why ambiguity makes a language more efficient rather than less so, think about the competing desires of the speaker and the listener. The speaker is interested in conveying as much as possible with the fewest possible words, while the listener is aiming to get a complete and specific understanding of what the speaker is trying to say. But as the researchers write, it is “cognitively cheaper” to have the listener infer certain things from the context than to have the speaker spend time on longer and more complicated utterances. The result is a system that skews toward ambiguity, reusing the “easiest” words. Once context is considered, it’s clear that “ambiguity is actually something you would want in the communication system,” Piantadosi says.


Tom Wasow, a professor of linguistics and philosophy at Stanford University, calls the paper “important and insightful.”

“You would expect that since languages are constantly changing, they would evolve to get rid of ambiguity,” Wasow says. “But if you look at natural languages, they are massively ambiguous: Words have multiple meanings, there are multiple ways to parse strings of words. This paper presents a really rigorous argument as to why that kind of ambiguity is actually functional for communicative purposes, rather than dysfunctional.

Implications for computer science

The researchers say the statistical nature of their paper reflects a trend in the field of linguistics, which is coming to rely more heavily on information theory and quantitative methods.

“The influence of computer science in linguistics right now is very high,” Gibson says, adding that natural language processing (NLP) is a major goal of those operating at the intersection of the two fields.

Piantadosi points out that ambiguity in natural language poses immense challenges for NLP developers. “Ambiguity is only good for us [as humans] because we have these really sophisticated cognitive mechanisms for disambiguating,” he says. “It’s really difficult to work out the details of what those are, or even some sort of approximation that you could get a computer to use.”

But, as Gibson says, computer scientists have long been aware of this problem. The new study provides a better theoretical and evolutionary explanation of why ambiguity exists, but the same message holds: “Basically, if you have any human language in your input or output, you are stuck with needing context to disambiguate,” he says.”

Emily Finn, The advantage of ambiguity, MIT news, Jan 19, 2012. (Illustration source: 1, 2)

See also:

☞ S. T. Piantadosi, H. Tily, E. Gibson, The communicative function of ambiguity in language (pdf), Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT

"We present a general information-theoretic argument that all efficient communication systems will be ambiguous, assuming that context is informative about meaning. We also argue that ambiguity additionally allows for greater ease of processing by allowing efficient linguistic units to be re-used. We test predictions of this theory in English, German, and Dutch. Our results and theoretical analysis suggest that ambiguity is a functional property of language that allows for greater communicative efficiency. (…)

Our results argue for a rational explanation of ambiguity and demonstrate that ambiguity is not mysterious when language is considered as a cognitive system designed in part for communication.”

☞ B. Juba, A. Tauman, K. Sanjeev Khanna, M. Sudan, Compression without a common prior: an information-theoretic justification for ambiguity in language (pdf), Harvard University, MIT

"Compression is a fundamental goal of both human language and digital communication, yet natural language is very different from compression schemes employed by modern computers. We partly explain this difference using the fact that information theory generally assumes a common prior probability distribution shared by the encoder and decoder, whereas human communication has to be robust to the fact that a speaker and listener may have different prior beliefs about what a speaker may say. We model this information-theoretically using the following question: what type of compression scheme would be effective when the encoder and decoder have (boundedly) different prior probability distributions. The resulting compression scheme resembles natural language to a far greater extent than existing digital communication protocols. We also use information theory to justify why ambiguity is necessary for the purpose of compression."

Language tag on Lapidarium notes


Do thoughts have a language of their own? The language of thought hypothesis

                                      The language of thought drawing by Robert Horvitz

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare the observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds-and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.”

Benjamin Lee Whorf, American linguist (1897-1941), 1956, p. 213, cited in Does language determine thought? Boroditsky’s (2001) research on Chinese speakers’ conception of time (pdf)

"The mind thinks its thoughts in ‘Mentalese,’ codes them in the localnatural language, and then transmits them (say, by speaking them out loud) to the hearer. The hearer has a Cryptographer in his head too, of course, who thereupon proceeds to decode the ‘message.’ In this picture, natural language, far from being essential to thought, is merely a vehicle for the communication of thought.”

Hilary Putnam, American philosopher, mathematician and computer scientist, Representation and reality, A Bradford Book, 1991, p. 10-11.

"According to one school of philosophy, our thoughts have a language-like structure that is independent of natural language: this is what students of language call the language of thought (LOT) hypothesis. According to the LOT hypothesis, it is because human thoughts already have a linguistic structure that the emergence of common, natural languages was possible in the first place. (…)

Many - perhaps most - psychologists end up concluding that ordinary people do not use the rules of logic in everyday life.

There is an alternative way of seeing this: that there is a language of thought, and that it has a more logical form than ordinary natural language. This view has an added bonus: it tells us that, if you want to express yourself more clearly and more effectively in natural language, then you should express yourself in a form that is closer to computational logic - and therefore closer to the language of thought. Dry legalese never looked so good.”

Robert Kowalski, British logician and computer scientist, Do thoughts have a language of their own?, New Scientist, 8 Dec 2011

"In philosophy of mind, the language of thought hypothesis (LOTH) put forward by American philosopher Jerry Fodor describes thoughts as represented in a “language” (sometimes known as mentalese) that allows complex thoughts to be built up by combining simpler thoughts in various ways. In its most basic form the theory states that thought follows the same rules as language: thought has syntax.

Using empirical data drawn from linguistics and cognitive science to describe mental representation from a philosophical vantage-point, the hypothesis states that thinking takes place in a language of thought (LOT): cognition and cognitive processes are only ‘remotely plausible’ when expressed as a system of representations that is “tokened” by a linguistic or semantic structure and operated upon by means of a combinatorial syntax. Linguistic tokens used in mental language describe elementary concepts which are operated upon by logical rules establishing causal connections to allow for complex thought. Syntax as well as semantics have a causal effect on the properties of this system of mental representations.

These mental representations are not present in the brain in the same way as symbols are present on paper; rather, the LOT is supposed to exist at the cognitive level, the level of thoughts and concepts. LOTH has wide-ranging significance for a number of domains in cognitive science. It relies on a version of functionalist materialism, which holds that mental representations are actualized and modified by the individual holding the propositional attitude, and it challenges eliminative materialism and connectionism. It implies a strongly rationalist model of cognition in which many of the fundamentals of cognition are innate. (…)

Some philosophers have argued that our public language is our mental language, that a person who speaks English thinks in English. Others contend that people who do not know a public language (e.g. babies, aphasics) can think, and that therefore some form of mentalese must be present innately. (…)

Tim Crane, in his book The Mechanical Mind, states that, while he agrees with Fodor, his reason is very different. A logical objection challenges LOTH’s explanation of how sentences in natural languages get their meaning. That is the view that “Snow is white” is TRUE if and only if P is TRUE in the LOT, where P means the same thing in LOT as “Snow is white” means in the natural language. Any symbol manipulation is in need of some way of deriving what those symbols mean. If the meaning of sentences is explained in terms of sentences in the LOT, then the meaning of sentences in LOT must get their meaning from somewhere else. There seems to be an infinite regress of sentences getting their meaning. Sentences in natural languages get their meaning from their users (speakers, writers).  Therefore sentences in mentalese must get their meaning from the way in which they are used by thinkers and so on ad infinitum. This regress is often called the homunculus regress.

Daniel Dennett accepts that homunculi may be explained by other homunculi and denies that this would yield an infinite regress of homunculi. Each explanatory homunculus is “stupider” or more basic than the homunculus it explains but this regress is not infinite but bottoms out at a basic level that is so simple that it does not need interpretation. John Searle points out that it still follows that the bottom-level homunculi are manipulating some sorts of symbols.

LOTH implies that the mind has some tacit knowledge of the logical rules of inference and the linguistic rules of syntax (sentence structure) and semantics (concept or word meaning). If LOTH cannot show that the mind knows that it is following the particular set of rules in question then the mind is not computational because it is not governed by computational rules. Also, the apparent incompleteness of this set of rules in explaining behavior is pointed out. Many conscious beings behave in ways that are contrary to the rules of logic. Yet this irrational behavior is not accounted for by any rules, showing that there is at least some behavior that does not act in accordance with this set of rules.”


Inner Speech as a Language

"A definition of language is always, implicitly or explicitly, a definition of human beings in the world."

Raymond Williams, Welsh academic, novelist and critic (1921-1988)

"A set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements."

Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist

"People often talk silently to themselves, engaging in what is called inner speech, internal conversation, inner dialogue, self talk and so on. This seems to be an inherent characteristic of human beings, commented on as early as Plato, who regarded thought as inner speech. The American pragmatists thought the inner dialogue was the defining feature of the self. For them the self is an internal community or network, communicating within itself in a field of meaning.

The idea that ordinary language is the language of thought however is not the only linquistic theory of thought. Since Saint Augustine there has been the idea that thought is itself a language of pure abstractions. This “mental language” as it was called differs from ordinary language by consisting solely of meanings, i.e. as signifieds without signifiers to use Saussure’s language (Ashworth 2003). This hypothesis peaked in the writings of William of Occam and declined when Hobbes introduced a purely computational, hedonistic theory of thought (Normore 2005).

A second competitor to the ordinary language theory of thought is the “mentalese” hypothesis of Noam Chomsky (1968) and Jerry Fodor (1975). This approach, which sometimes uses the computer as a metaphor for the mind, resembles the Scholastic’s theory in envisioning a purely abstract language of thought. Whatever processes of ordinary language might accompany it are viewed as epiphenomenal, gloss or what might be called “fluff.” Ordinary language, according to this view, is a pale shadow of the actual language of thought. In addition mentalese is regarded as both innate and unconscious. It is a faculty that is claimed to be present at birth and one which operates below the awareness of the mind.

There are then three language of thought hypotheses, the ordinary language or inner speech version, the now marginalized Augustine-Occam mental language and the computer-based, Chomsky-Fodor theory of mentalese. There seem to be no comparisons of the Scholastic and the mentalese theories except in Panaccio (1992, pp. 267–272). However there is a vigorous debate between the ordinary language theory and that of mentalese (for two collections see Carruthers and Boucher 1998 and Preston 1997). A major weak spot of mentalese is that, being unconscious, there is no empirical way of verifying it. The weak spot of the inner speech approach is that there are several examples of non-linguistic thought, e.g. in infants, animals, brain damaged people and ordinary people under conditions of high speed thought.

Still, all three of these language of thought hypotheses are alive and under
discussion in contemporary thought. (…) [p.319]

I will argue that inner speech is even more referential than outer speech in some respects, but also even more differential in other respects. In other words its semantic system is polarized between the differential and the referential.

Considering the peculiarities of inner speech, I think its vocabulary would be more differentially defined, i.e. more “structural”, than outer speech. First let me recall the special qualities of inner speech as silent, elliptical, embedded and egocentric. These qualities make it relatively private, both in the words and their meanings. And these privacy walls push things together, creating links and dependencies among the words.

Let us take the analogy of an intimate relationship, one that has some degree of deviance, with consequent secrecy. The mini culture of the relationship tends, due to secrecy, to be cut off from society at large. This culture gets isolated. There is the relationship time, the place, the transportation, the talk, the rituals, etc. The relationship elements are cut off from the outside world, and they inevitably share in that “relationship” feeling. They also imply each other, causally, sequentially, symbolically, etc. The relationship meanings are defined more differentially than, perhaps, items in a less deviant relationship. It is the privacy that melds things

This internal language though is not only solitary and private, it is also much more self styled than outer language. Ordinary language has a smoothed over or idealized version, which Saussure refered to as language or “langue.” And it also has a more stylized, idiosyncratic version. This is its spoken variety, which Saussure referred to as parole or speech. Parole is more heterogeneous than langue, given that the speaking process reflects the unique mentalities of individuals and sub-cultures.

But by the same logic inner speech is even more individualized and heterogeneous than outer speech. Your spoken or outer speech is somewhat different from mine, and both are different from purified or formalized language. But your inner speech, given its elliptical, embedded and egocentric qualities, is even more different from mine, and both are quite different from the outer langue. In other words the gap between outer langue and inner speech is greater than that between outer langue and outer speech.

The peculiarities of inner speech are so stitched into the psyche, so personalitydependent, that they differ considerably from person to person. This does not seem to be primarily a reference-driven variation, for everyone’s inner speech has roughly the same, generic world of reference. The variation in the internal dialogue is largely due to the personal qualities of the speaker, to that person’s particular ego needs and short cuts.

We are little gods in the world of inner speech. We are the only ones, we run the show, we are the boss. This world is almost a little insane, for it lacks the usual social controls, and we can be as bad or as goofy as we want. On the other hand inner speech does have a job to do, it has to steer us through the world. That function sets up outer limits, even though within those limits we have a free rein to construct this language as we like.

There are similarities to the idealist world view in inner speech. The philosophical idealists, especially Berkeley, reduced the outer world to some version of an inner world. They internalized the external, each doing it somewhat differently, as though it were all a dream. For them all speech would be inner, since there is no outer. And since everything would be radiating from the self, everything would be connected via the self.

The Saussurean theory of linguistic differences [pdf], whether Saussure actually held it or not, is very much like idealistic metaphysics. In both cases everything is dangling from the same string. And some kind of self is pulling the string. The late l9th century British idealists thought all of reality was in relationship, and given that they had only an inner world, they referred to these as “internal relations.”

Saussure used this same phrase, internal relations, to refer to the differences among signifiers and signifieds. And whether he was aligning himself with the idealists or not, there is a similarity between his self-enclosed linguistic world and that of the idealists. It is the denial of reference, of an external world, that underlies this similarity. For Saussure this denial is merely a theoretical move, an “as if ” assumption, and not an assertion about the real world. The idealists said there actually was no external world, and Saussure said he would pretend, for methodological reasons, that there was no external world. But regardless of how they get there, they end up in the same place.

If there is no reference, no external world, then the only way language can be defined is internally, by a system of differences. Saussure’s purely differential theory of meaning follows from the loss of the referential. But if there is an external world, even for inner speech, then we are back to the dualistic semantic theory, i.e. to some sort of balance between referential and differential streams.

Although inner speech is not idealism, in some ways it seems to be a more differentially defined universe than outer speech. Linguistic context is even more important than in outer speech. One reason is that meaning is so condensed on the two axes. But a second is that inner language is so pervaded with emotion. We censor our emotions in ordinary interpersonal speech, hiding our fear, our shame, our jealousy, our gloating. It takes a while for little children to learn this, but when they grow up they are all, men and women alike, pretty good at it. Inner speech is another matter, for it is brutally honest. And its emotional life is anything goes. We can scream, whoop and holler to ourselves. Or we can sob on a wailing wall. In fact we probably emote more in inner speech to compensate for the restrictions on outer speech. Emotions pervade large stretches of inner speech, and they heighten the importance of internal relations.

The determinants of meaning in inner speech seem much more stark and unarguable than in outer speech. Inner speech is enclosed within us, and this seems to make it a more dense set of internal relations, both because of the intense privacy and the more spontaneous emotions. In these respects inner speech gives a rich example of Saussure’s differential meaning system.

On the other hand inner speech is also more obviously referential than outer speech. Ordinary speech is quite conventional or arbitrary, and when we say dog or apple pie, the sign has no resemblance to its object. In inner speech, though, the signs are often images of their objects, bearing an iconic or mirroring relation to them. In other words, as mentioned before, there can be a heavy dependency on sensory imagery in forming an internal sentence. (…)

In conclusion Saussure’s theory of semantics works well for some aspects of inner speech and quite poorly for others, i.e. the more referential ones. [signs of external objects, color coordination] (…) On the other hand inner speech is quite different from outer speech, and the Saussurean issues must be handled in special ways. Inner speech is only partially fitting to Saussure’s theories. And new ideas are needed to resolve Saussure’s questions. (…)

Saussure’s binaries were meant to simplify the study of language. The paradigmatic-syntagmatic distinction showed two axes of meaning, and it prepared the way for his differential theory of meaning. The history-systematics distinction was meant to justify the exclusion of history. The speech-language distinction was meant to get rid of speech. And the differential-referential distinction was meant to exclude reference. Saussure’s approach then is largely a pruning device which chopped off many traditional parts of linguistics.

My analysis suggests that this pruning apparatus does not work for inner speech. The two axes are useful but they do not prepare the way for the differential theory of meaning. History cannot be excluded, for it is too important for inner speech. Speech should be restored, and in fact langue applies only weakly to inner speech. And that capstone of Saussure and cultural studies, the differential theory of meaning, does not seem adequate for inner speech. Referential theory is also needed to make sense of its meaning system.


Inner speech then is a distinct variation or dialect of ordinary language, and the characteristics I have pointed out seem to be central to its structure. (…)

Inner speech is quite similar to ethnomethodology in its use of short cuts and normalizing practices. Garfinkel (1967) and Cicourel (1974) discovered ethnomethodology by examining interpersonal or intersubjective communication. A great many economies and condensations of interpersonal conversation are similar to ones we use when we talk to ourselves. If I say to myself “shop on the way home,” this is a condensation of the fairly elaborate shopping list I mentioned earlier, but if I say to my wife “I’ll shop on the way home” she may understand something much like that same, implicit shopping list. In other words we are constantly using “etcetera clauses” to speed up our internal conversations. And, being both communicator and communicatee, we may understand these references even more accurately than we do in social conversations. (…)

The self is also a sort of family gathering with similar problems of maintaining and restoring solidarity. Much inner speech is a kind of Durkheimian self soothing ritual where we try to convince ourselves that everything’s fine, even when it is not. In this way we can comfort ourselves when we are frightened, restore some pride when we are ashamed, or find a silver lining when we are disappointed. Such expressions as “you can do it,” “you’re doing great,” and “this looks harder than it is” give us confidence and energy when the going is tough.

In sum inner speech helps one see the importance of ethnomethods. The fact that we engage in these practices in our deepest privacy shows they are rooted in our psychology as well as in our social life. And the fact that they run parallel in intra- and inter-subjective communication shows them to be a feature of communication as such.


In philosophy Wittgenstein provoked a widespread and complex discussion of private language. By this he meant a language that is not only de facto but also inherently private. No one but the private language user would be able to fully understand it, even if the meanings were publically available. To constitute a private language such a tongue would not need to be completely private. If only a single word or sentence were inherently private, it would qualify as a private language in Wittgenstein’s sense.

It seems to me inner speech is clearly a private language, at least in some of its utterances. This language is so rooted in the unique self that an eavesdropper, could there be one, would not fully understand it. It has so much of one’s person in it, a listener would have to be another you to follow it. And if someone invented a window into consciousness, a mind-reading machine, that could invade one’s privacy, would they be able to understand the, now revealed, inner speech? I think not. They might be able to understand most of the words, but the non-linguistic or imagistic elements would be too much a personal script to follow. If this eavesdropper watched you, including your consciousness, for your whole life, had access to your memory and knew your way of combining non-linguistic representations with words, they might have your code, but this is another way of saying they would be another you. In practical terms inner speech would be inaccessible in its meaning even if it were accessible in its signifying forms.

Of course this semantic privacy does not prevent one from describing one’s own inner speech to another, at least to a substantial extent. Something is lost all right in the translation from first to third person representations. When, in footnote 2, I talked about the inner speech cluster I called “Tom,” I obviously left out some of the affect and all of the sensory imagery. But I was still able to communicate the gist of it, in other words to transform first to third person meanings. So even though this is a private language it can to some extent be made public and used for research purposes.

The importance of private language is that it sheds light on what a human being is. We are inherently private animals, and we become more so the more self-aware and internally communicative we are. This zone of privacy may well be the foundation for the moral (and legal) need people have for privacy. In any case the hidden individuality or uniqueness of each human being is closely related to the what the person says to him or her self.


One of the thorniest problems of the humanities and social sciences is human agency. Humans are the authors of their actions to a great extent, but the way this process works is difficult to understand. I would suggest that inner speech is both the locus and platform for agency.

Charles Sanders Peirce was under the impression that we guide our lives with inner speech. We choose internally in the zone of inner speech, and then we choose externally in the zone of practical action and the outer world. The first choice leads to the second choice. Peirce even thought we could make and break habits by first modelling them in our internal theater. Here we could visualize the performance of a particular action and also choose to perform this action. The visualization and the choice could give the energy for designing and moulding one’s life. (…)

More generally the self directing process, including planning, anticipating, rehearsing, etc. seems to be largely a product of inner speech. This includes both what one will do and how one will do it. Picturing one’s preferred action as the lesser evil or greater good, even if one fudges a bit on the facts, is probably also a powerful way of producing a given action, and possibly even a new habit. (…)

I showed that inner speech does not qualify as a public language, though it has a distinct structural profile as a semi-private language or perhaps as a dialect. This structure suggests the access points or research approaches that this language is amenable to. As examples of how this research might proceed I took a quick look at three issues: ethnomethodology, privacy and agency.”

Norbert Wiley, professor emeritus of Sociology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkley. He is a prize-winning sociologist who has published on both the history and systematics of theory, to read full essay click Inner Speech as a Language: A Saussurean Inquiry (pdf), Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 36:3 0021–8308, 2006.

See also:

The Language of Thought Hypothesis, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Private language argument, Wiki
Private Language, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Jerry A. Fodor, Why there still has to be a language of thought?
Robert Kowalski, British logician and computer scientist, Do thoughts have a language of their own?, New Scientist, 8 Dec 2011
☞ Jerry A. Fodor, The language of thoughtHarvard University Press, 1975
☞ Ned Block, The Mind as the Software of the Brain, New York University 
Antony, Louise M, What are you thinking? Character and content in the language of thought (pdf)
Ansgar Beckermann, Can there be a language of thought? (pdf) In G. White, B. Smith & R. Casati (eds.), Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences. Proceedings of the 16th International Wittgenstein Symposium. Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky.
Edouard Machery, You don’t know how you think: Introspection and language of thought, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 56 (3): 469-485, (2005)
☞ Christopher Bartel, Musical Thought and Compositionality (pdf), King’s College London
Psycholinguistics/Language and Thought, Wikiversity
MindPapers: The Language of Thought - A Bibliography of the Philosophy of Mind and the Science of Consciousness, links Compiled by David Chalmers (Editor) & David Bourget (Assistant Editor), Australian National University

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on Human Language—Human Consciousness. A personal narrative arises through the vehicle of language, Lapidarium notes
The time machine in our mind. The imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time, Lapidarium notes


Universal Semantic Communication. Is it possible for two intelligent beings to communicate meaningfully, without any common language or background?


"This question has interest on its own, but is especially relevant in the context of modern computational infrastructures where an increase in the diversity of computers is making the task of inter-computer interaction increasingly burdensome. Computers spend a substantial amount of time updating their software to increase their knowledge of other computing devices. In turn, for any pair of communicating devices, one has to design software that enables the two to talk to each other. Is it possible instead to let the two computing entities use their intelligence (universality as computers) to learn each others’ behavior and attain a common understanding? What is “common understanding?” We explore this question in this paper.

To formalize this problem, we suggest that one should study the “goal of communication:” why are the two entities interacting with each other, and what do they hope to gain by it? We propose that by considering this question explicitly, one can make progress on the question of universal communication.

We start by considering a computational setting for the problem where the goal of one of the interacting players is to gain some computational wisdom from the other player. We show that if the second player is “sufficiently” helpful and powerful, then the first player can gain significant computational power (deciding PSPACE complete languages).

Our work highlights some of the definitional issues underlying the task of formalizing universal communication, but also suggests some interesting phenomena and highlights potential tools that may be used for such communication. (…)

Consider the following scenario: Alice, an extraterrestrial, decides to initiate contact with a terrestrial named Bob by means of a radio wave transmission. How should he respond to her? Will he ever be able to understand her message? In this paper we explore such scenarios by framing the underlying questions computationally.

We believe that the above questions have intrinsic interest, as they raise some further fundamental questions. How does one formalize the concept of understanding? Does communication between intelligent beings require a “hardwired” common sense of meaning or language? Or, can intelligence substitute for such requirements? What role, if any, does computational complexity play in all this? (…)

Marvin Minsky suggested that communication should be possible from a philosophical standpoint, but did not provide any formal definitions or constructions.

LINCOS [an abbreviation of the Latin phrase lingua cosmica]: The most notable and extensive prior approach to this problem is due to Hans Freudenthal, who claims that it is possible to code messages describing mathematics, physics, or even simple stories in such a radio transmission which can be understood by any sufficiently humanlike recipient. Ideally, we would like to have such a rich language at our disposal; it should be clear that the “catch” lies in Freudenthal’s assumption of a “humanlike” recipient, which serves as a catch-all for the various assumptions that serve as the foundations for Freudenthal’s scheme.

It is possible to state more precise assumptions which form the basis of Freudenthal’s scheme, but among these will be some fairly strong assumptions about how the recipient interprets the message. In particular, one of these is the assumption that all semantic concepts of interest can be characterized by lists of syntactic examples. (…)

Information Theory

The classical theory of communication does not investigate the meaning associated with information and simply studies the process of communicating the information, in its exact syntactic form. It is the success of this theory that motivates our work: computers are so successful in communicating a sequence of bits, that the most likely source of “miscommunication” is a misinterpretation of what these bits mean. (…)

Interactive Proofs and Knowledge

Finally, the theory of interactive proofs and knowledge [pdf] (and also the related M. Blum and S. Kannan. Designing programs that check their work) gets further into the gap between Alice and Bob, by ascribing to them different, conflicting intents, though they still share common semantics. It turns out this gap already starts to get to the heart of the issues that we consider, and this theory is very useful to us at a technical level. In particular, in this work we consider a setting where Bob wishes to gain knowledge from Alice. Of course, in our setting Bob is not mistrustful of Alice, he simply does not understand her. (…)

Modeling issues

Our goal is to cast the problem of “meaningful” communication between Alice and Bob in a purely mathematical setting. We start by considering how to formulate the problem where the presence of a “trusted third party” would easily solve the problem.

Consider the informal setting in which Alice and Bob speak different natural languages and wish to have a discussion via some binary channel. We would expect that a third party who knows both languages could give finite encoding rules to Alice and Bob to facilitate this discussion, and we might be tempted to require that Alice’s statements translate into the same statements in Bob’s language that the third party would have selected and vice-versa.

In the absence of the third party, this is unreasonable to expect, though: suppose that Alice and Bob were given encoding rules that were identical to those that a third party would have given them, except that some symmetric sets of words have been exchanged—say, Alice thinks “left” means “right,” “clockwise” means “counter-clockwise,” etc. Unless they have some way to tell that these basic concepts have been switched, observe that they would still have a conversation that is entirely sensible to each of them. [See also] Thus, if we are to have any hope at all, we must be prepared to accept interactions that are indistinguishable from successes as “successes” as well. We do not wish to take this to an extreme, though: Bob cannot distinguish among Alices who say nothing, and yet we would not classify their interactions as “successes.”

At the heart of the issues raised by the discussion above is the question: what does Bob hope to get out of this conversation with Alice? In general, why do computers, or humans communicate? Only by pinning down this issue can we ask the question, “can they do it without a common language?”

We believe that there are actually many possible motivations for communication. Some communication is motivated by physical needs, and others are motivated purely by intellectual needs or even curiosity. However these diverse settings still share some common themes: communication is being used by the players to achieve some effects that would be hard to achieve without communication. In this paper, we focus on one natural motivation for communication: Bob wishes to communicate with Alice to solve some computa- tional problems. (…)

In order to establish communication between Alice and Bob, Bob runs in time exponential in a parameter that could be described informally as the length of the dictionary that translates Bob’s language into Alice’s language. (Formally, the parameter is the description length of the protocol for interpreting Alice in his encoding of Turing machines.) (…) [p.3]

[To see proofs of theorems and more, click pdf]


In the previous sections we studied the question, “how can two intelligent interacting players attempt to achieve some meaningful communication in a universal setting, i.e., one in which the two players do not start with a common background?” We return now to the motivation for studying this question, and the challenges that need to be dealt with to address the motivations. (…)

We believe that this work has raised and addressed some fundamental questions of intrinsic interest. However this is not the sole motivation for studying this problem. We believe that these questions also go to the heart of “protocol issues” in modern computer networks. Modern computational infrastructures are built around the concept of communication and indeed a vast amount of effort is poured into the task of ensuring that the computers work properly as communication devices. Yet as computers and networks continue to evolve at this rapid pace, one problem is becoming increasingly burdensome: that of ensuring that every pair of computers is able to “understand” each other, so as to communicate meaningfully. (…)

Current infrastrusctures ensure this ability for pairs to talk to each other by explicitly going through a “setup” phase, where a third party who knows the specifications of both elements of a pair sets up a common language/protocol for the two to talk to each other, and then either or both players learn (download) this common language to establish communication. An everyday example of such an occurence is when we attempt to get our computer to print on a new printer. We download a device driver for our computer which is a common language written by someone who knows both our computer and the printer.

We remark that this issue is a fundamental one, and not merely an issue of improper design. Current protocols are designed with a fixed pair of types of devices in mind. However, we expect for our computers to be capable of communicating with all other communication devices, even ones that did not exist when our computer was built. While it would be convenient if all computers interacted with each other using a single fixed protocol that is static over time, this is no more reasonable to expect than asking humans to agree on a single language to converse in, and then to expect this language to stay fixed over time. Thus, to satisfy our expectations in the current setting, it is essential that computers are constantly updated so as to have universal connectivity over time. (…)

This work was motivated by a somewhat radical alternative scenario for communication. Perhaps we should not set computers up with common languages, but rather exploit the universality in our favor, by letting them evolve to a common language. But then this raises issues such as: how can the computers know when they have converged to a common understanding? Or, how does one of the computers realize that the computer it is communicating with is no longer in the same mode as they were previously, and so the protocol for communication needs to be adjusted? The problem described in the opening paragraph of the introduction is simply the extremal version of such issues, where the communicating players are modeled as having no common background. (…)

Perhaps the main contribution of this work is to suggest that communication is not an end in itself, but rather a means to achieving some general goal. Such a goal certainly exists in all the practical settings above, though it is no longer that of deciding membership in some set S. Our thesis is that one can broaden the applicability of this work to other settings by (1) precisely articulating the goal of communication in each setting and (2) constructing “universal protocols” that achieve these goals. (…)

One of the implicit suggestions in this work is that communicating players should periodically test to see if the assumption of common understanding still holds. When this assumption fails, presumably this happened due to a “mild” change in the behavior of one of the players. It may be possible to design communication protocols that use such a “mildness” assumption to search and re-synchronize the communicating players where the “exponential search” takes time exponential in the amount of change in the behavior of the players. Again, pinning down a precise measure of the change and designing protocols that function well against this measure are open issues.”

Brendan Juba, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Harvard University. School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - Theory of Computing group, Madhu Sudan, Indian computer scientist, professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Universal Semantic Communication I (pdf), MIT, 2010 (Illustration source)

See also:

☞ Brendan Juba, Madhu Sudan, Universal Semantic Communication II (pdf), MIT
☞ J. Bao, P. Basu, M. Dean, C. Partridge, A. Swami, W. Leland, J. A. Hendler, Towards a Theory of Semantic Communication (Extended Technical Report) (pdf)


The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé

Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.

Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?

Protagoras: Indeed I do.

Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.

Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates. (Plato’s dialogue Protagoras)

“The choice between competing theories is arbitrary, since there is no such thing as objective truth.” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. II (London, 1963), p. 369f.)

“There is no unique truth, no unique objective reality” (Ernest Gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences (Cambridge, 1985), p. 84.)

“There is no substantive overarching framework in which radically different and alternative schemes are commensurable” (Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 11-12.)

Sherwood Anderson on "true"

"In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful. (…)

There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Parable of the blind men and elephant (the manifold nature of truth)

"A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a drain pipe".

For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “I perceive the shape of the elephant to be like a pillar”. And in the case of the one who placed his hand upon its back said, “Indeed, this elephant is like a throne”.

Now, each of these presented a true aspect when he related what he had gained from experiencing the elephant. None of them had strayed from the true description of the elephant. Yet they fell short of fathoming the true appearance of the elephant.”

Two of the many references to this parable are found in Tattvarthaslokavatika of Vidyanandi (9th century) and Syādvādamanjari of Ācārya Mallisena (13th century). Mallisena uses the parable to argue that immature people deny various aspects of truth; deluded by the aspects they do understand, they deny the aspects they don’t understand. "Due to extreme delusion produced on account of a partial viewpoint, the immature deny one aspect and try to establish another. This is the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant."   Mallisena also cites the parable when noting the importance of considering all viewpoints in obtaining a full picture of reality. "It is impossible to properly understand an entity consisting of infinite properties without the method of modal description consisting of all viewpoints, since it will otherwise lead to a situation of seizing mere sprouts (i.e., a superficial, inadequate cognition), on the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant.”

— (The ancient Jain texts) ☞ See also: Anekantavada



"In response to the confusion, one group of philosophers concluded that there is not just one truth but many. In fact, they believed that anything is true if you can convince someone that it is true. Nothing, they said, is inherently right or wrong, but believing makes it so. These philosophers were called Sophists. The Sophists were profesional teachers of rhetoric and logic who believed that effective communication determined whether an idea was considered relative, and therefore no single truth was thought to exist. This belief marked a major shift in philosophy. The question was no longer, What is the universe made of? but, what can humans know and how can they know it? In other words, there was a shift towards epistemological questions.” (…)

Protagoras (ca. 485-410 B.C.), the first and best known Sophist, summarized the Sophists’ position with his famous statement: "Man is the measure of all things - of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not". This statement is pregnant with meaning. First, truth depends on the perceiver rather than on physical reality. Second, because perceptions vary with the previous experiences of the perceiver, they will vary from person to person. Third, what is considered to be true will be, in part, culturally determined because one’s culture influences once’s experiences. Fourth, to understand why a person believes as he or she does, one must understand the person. According to Protagoras, therefore, each of the preceding philosophers was presenting his subjective viewpoint rather than the objective “truth” about physical repality. Paraphrasing Heraclitus’s famous statement, Protagoras said, "Man never steps into the same river once," becasue the river is different for each individual to begin with. Protagoras emphasized the importance of rhetorical skills in getting one’s point of view considered and, perhaps, to prevail. (…)

Gorgias (ca. 485-380 B.C.) Protagoras concluded that, because each person’s experience furnishes him or her with what seems to be true, “all things are equally true.” Gorgias, however, regarded the fact that knowledge is subjective and relative as proof that “all things are equally false.” Furthermore, because the individual can know only his or her private perceptions, there can be no objective basis for determining truth.” (…)

— (B. R. Hergenhahn, An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Cengage Learning, 2008, p.41-42.)

Socrates observes that if someone, x, believes Protagoras’ doctrine, they must agree that no one ever makes a false judgment. This, in itself, is said to be incredible, though Protagoras would not have conceded this. (No person makes ajudgment that is false for themself; but they may make a judgment that is false for x.) The main argument comes when the observation is applied to Protagoras’ view itself (171a5-c7):

The argument is an attempt to establish that Protagoras’ view is true for no one, including himself (whilst the same is not true of the views of his opponents). They key part of it is that where Socrates attempts to show that Protagoras’ views are false by his own lights.” - (Plato's Theaetetus (dialogue) cited in Graham Priest, Beyond the limits of thought, CUP Archive, 1995, p. 54-55.)

Aristotle: “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.” — (Aristotle, Metaphysics (translated by W. D. Ross))


"According to Michael Krausz [American philosopher and artist], “Relativism is a theory of logic rather than epistemology, though in particular discussions, are clear-cut distinction is not easily drawn.” He offers the theory of Nelson Goodman, who characterizes “his position as ‘radical relativist with restraints.’” as an example:

"Since no "world" independent of our symbol systems is accessible, it cannot function in our cognitive judgments. So, "truth," for Goodman, turns out to be a feature of the internal relations within symbol system, a feature explicable after the epistemic limits have been drawn."

(…) It is consistent with John Dewey's definition of truth as “warranted assertibility,” and it seems to be the necessary outcome of any adequate recognition of the limitations of human knowing. If we are not aware of, if we have no access to the “world” independent of our symbol systems,” then it seems necessary to conclude that truth may be defined only in terms of the relations of those symbol systems of which we are aware.” — (Christopher Stephen Lutz, Tradition in the ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre: relativism, Thomism, and philosophy, Lexington Books, 2004. p. 67-68.)

Donald Davidson in On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme (pdf):

"It would be wrong to summarize by saying we have shown how communication is possible between people who have different schemes, a way that works without need of what there cannot be, namely a neutral ground, or a common coordinate system. For we have found not intelligible basis on which it can be said that schemes are different. It would be equally wrong to announce the glorious news that all mankind - all speakers of language, at least - share a common scheme and ontology. For if we cannot intelligibly say that schemes are different, neither can we intelligibly say that they are one.

In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth - quite the contrary. Given the dogma of dualism of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes by the board. Of course truth of sentences remains relative to language, but that is as objective as can be. In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but reestablish unmediated touch with the familar objects whose antics make our senteces and opinions true or false.”

— (Donald Davidson in On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme cited in Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics, and praxis, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, p.76.)

Friedrich Nietzsche:

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)

A. S. Eddington in ‘Space time and Gravitation’:

"Here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three-Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing." H. G. Wells, English author (1866-1946), The Time Machine cited in A. S. Eddington, Space time and Gravitation (pdf), Cambridge University Press, 1920, p.41.

"Let us compare two well-known books, which might be described as elementary treatises on relativity, Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels. Alice was continually changing size, sometimes growing, sometimes on the point of vanishing altogether. Gulliver remained the same size, but on one occasion he encountered a race of men of minute size with everything in proportion, and on another voyage a land where everything was gigantic. It does not require much reflection to see that both authors are describing the same phenomenon - a relative change of scale of observer and observed. Lewis Carroll took what is probably the ordinary scientific view, that the observer had changed, rather than that a simultaneous change had occurred to all her surroundings. But it would never have appeared like that to Alice; she could not have “stepped outside and looked at herself,” picturing herself as a giant filling the room. She would have said that the room had unaccountably shrunk. Dean Swift took the truer wiev of the human mind when he made Gulliver attribute his own changes to the things around him; it never occurred to Gulliver that his own size had altered; and, if he had thought of the explanation, he could scarcely have accustomed himself to that way of thinking. But both points of view are legitimate. The size of a thing can only be imagined as relative to something else; and there is no means of assigning the change to one end of the relation rather that to other.”

— (A. S. Eddington, Space time and Gravitation (pdf), Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1920,p. 29.)

Joshua Roebke:

None of us perceives the world as it exists fundamentally. We do not observe the tiniest bits of matter, nor the forces that move them, individually through our senses. We evolved to experience the world in bulk, our faculties registering the net effect of trillions upon trillions of particles or atoms moving in concert. We are crude measurers. So divorced are we from the activity beneath our experience that physicists became relatively assured of the existence of atoms only about a century ago.

Physicists attribute a fundamental reality to what they do not directly perceive. Particles and atoms have observable effects that are well described by theories like quantum mechanics. Single atoms have been “seen” in measurements and presumably exist whether or not we observe them individually. The properties that define particles—mass, spin, etc.—are also thought to exist before we measure them. In physics this is how reality is defined; particles and atoms have measurable properties that exist prior to measurement. This is nothing stranger than your blue couch.”

“In the history of physics, we have learned that there are distinctions that we really should not make, such as between space and time… It could very well be that the distinction we make between information and reality is wrong. This is not saying that everything is just information. But it is saying that we need a new concept that encompasses or includes both.” — Anton Zeilinger

— (Joshua Roebke, author and a Visiting Scholar at UC, Berkeley in The Office for History of Science and Technology, The Reality Tests. Do we create the world just by looking at it?, SEED Magazine, June 4, 2008.)

Martin Heidegger on truth

"Heidegger’s way of understanding the originary phenomenon of truth is to “make clear the mode of being of the cognition itself.” His starting point is a proposition that is not based on intuition. Someone says with his or her back to the wall: this picture hangs askew. The proposition embodies the claim to have discovered the picture (as a being) in the “how” (the mode) of its being. The proposition displays this “how” of being in language. In the attempt to verify the proposition by sensuous experience, the recognition, according to Heidegger, is directed only to the intended being (the picture) and not to the proposition. It is directed to the being itself (which is to be verified by perception) in its mode of uncoveredness (Entdeckt-heir), i.e., in its showing-itself. Confirmation (Bewährung) means this showing-itself of the being in the same way in which it is intended in the proposition.

A true proposition shows the being in its mode of uncoveredness. The phenomenon of “originary truth” does not have the character of correspondence. It is the ground of the concept of truth in the sense of correspondence and propositional truth. By unfolding the meaning of alétheia Heidegger shows us a more originary sense of truth as unconcealment (Unverborgenheit). He wants to show that this concept coincides with the first and originary concept of truth in Greek thinking. In this primary sense only the discovering human Dasein can be “true” while it is Being-discovering (Entdeckend-Sein). On the other hand, beings (Seiendes) that we can find in the world can only “be” in a secondary mode, i.e., as being-discovered (Entdecktsein). They can only make a claim to uncoveredness. Their fundament is the Being-discovering of the human Dasein. The being-true of a discovered being is only possible as being discovered by human Dasein as being-in-the-world.

The authentic Being of Dasein, the being-in-the truth, presupposes disclosedness (Erschlossenheit) of the world in states-of-mind (Befindlichkeiten), understanding, and discourse, i.e., the constitution of the being (Seinsverfassung) of human Dasein as thrownness (Geworfenheit) and project (Entwurf). The mode of being of Dasein is characterized equiprimordially (gleichursprünglich) by the possibility of both authenticity (being-in-the-truth) and the deficient mode (Verfallsform) of inauthenticity. In the mode of the “they” (das Man), of obstruction (Verstelltheit), of gossip (Gerede), Dasein is in untruth. Thus the being-in-the-world of human Dasein is determined at the same time by truth and untruth. We must always fight anew for the truth of Dasein (Being-discovering). Following Heidegger, the negative expression “a-létheia” expresses the fact that hiding itself is a main characteristic of Being. In the hiding-itself of Being, human Dasein is hidden for itself in the mode of untruth.

Heidegger wants to make evident how the transition from the originary concept of truth as alétheia to “correspondence” came about. He wants to make clear that correspondence is only a derived form of truth: in a proposition Being should be displayed in the mode of its uncoveredness. In the inauthentic forms of mere reproducing and hearsay, the proposition becomes itself something ready-to-hand (Zuhandenes). Thus we have to engage in the demonstration of the uncoveredness that is preserved in the proposition. In this way the relation between proposition and discovered being then itself becomes something present-at-hand (Vorhandenes) and can be understood as a correspondence of proposition and being (intellectus and res). The fact that we are used to disregarding the originary dimension of truth is an aspect of our forgetfulness of Being (Seinsvergessenheit).

The originary dimension of truth in human Dasein “is given” (gibt es) only as long as there is Dasein. All truth is relative to the being of Dasein. Thus the claim that there could be “eternal truth” seems to Heidegger to be “fantastic.” Against the background of this relativity of truth to the being of Dasein, Heidegger asks anew: why must we presuppose that truth “is given”? His answer is that the possibility of truth (authenticity) and untruth (inauthenticity) belongs to the facticity of human Dasein. From the point of view of existential ontology, the being of human Dasein (its disclosedness) and truth are synonims.”

— Dieter Lohmar, Truth - in: Lester Embree et alii (eds.) - Encyclopedia of phenomenology - Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1997, pp. 711-712.

Mahatma Gandhi:

"Though in Gandhi’s philosophy relativity of truth is important, this relativity has an ultimate aim, that is, to achieve the absolute truth. This relativity of truth is essential to realise absoluteness of truth. Differences are fundamental and cannot be avoided. Relativity is universal and cannot be ignored. Particularity is natural and it must not be overlooked. The beauty of unity lies in diversity. We must accept this universal truth that all that happen in this phenomenal world are highly relative in nature. They have different causes. And every cause produces further cause; thus they are relative in nature. (…) But Gandhi never speaks about complete relativism or subjectivism. Instead, he says that no one knows truth absolutely. No one knows non-violence absolutely. It means in Gandhi relativity or particularity or difference is valued, but not relativism or particularism, which absolutises it. The only access to the absolute is through the relative approach. Relativity is a means to achieve the Absolute end.”

— (Upasana Pandey, Mahatma Gandhi and Modern Civilisation, Mainstream, Oct 2, 2010.)

Buckminster Fuller:

That is what you want to know - the truth about everything - and then the truth about combinations of things. Some combinations have such logic and integrity that they can work coherently despite non-working elements embraced by their system.

Whenever you come to a word with which you are not familiar, find it in the dictionary and write a sentence which uses that new word. Words are tools - and once you have learned how to use a tool you will never forget it. Just looking for the meaning of the word is not enough. If your vocabulary is comprehensive, you can comprehend both fine and large patterns of experience.”

Buckminster Fuller, American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist (1895-1983), from Critical Path (1981), St Martin’s Press, NY

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

Cognition, relativity tag on Lapidarium
Cognition, perception, relativity tag on Lapidarium notes
Relativism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Pluralist Theories of Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Relativism, The Proceedings of the Friesian School
Objectivity, IEP
Map–territory relation - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Qualia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Qualia: The Knowledge Argument, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Correspondence Theory of Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Relativism - The Cognitive Construction of Reality , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Susan Haack, The Unity of Truth and The Plurality of Truths (pdf), University of Miami
☞ Gila Sher, What is Tarski’s Theory of Truth? (pdf)
☞ Panu Raatikainen, More on Putnam and Tarski (pdf)
☞ Michael Glanzberg, Semantics and Truth Relative to a World (pdf), University of California, Davis
Overview: Simplicity, Possible Worlds Semantics, and Relativism (pdf)
☞ Arianna Betti, Sempiternal Truth. The Bolzano-Twardowski-Leśniewski Axis (pdf), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte
☞ Richard Baker, Science and truth
☞ Peter Fristedt, Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Relativity of Truth and Meaning, International Journal of Philosophical Studies
☞ Jeff Malpas–Tasmania, Truth, Politics, and Democracy – Arendt, Orwell, and Camus
Martin Heidegger on Aletheia (Truth) as Unconcealment
Isaac Asimov on The Relativity of Wrong, Lapidarium
Werner Herzog, On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth, Boston University
John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices, Lapidarium
Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks


The Mind is a Metaphor ☞ interactive, solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics

                                                            (Click image to explore)

"The Mind is a Metaphor, is an evolving work of reference, an ever more interactive, more solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics. This collection of eighteenth-century metaphors of mind serves as the basis for a scholarly study of the metaphors and root-images appealed to by the novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers, belle-lettrists, preachers, and pamphleteers of the long eighteenth century. While the database does include metaphors from classical sources, from Shakespeare and Milton, from the King James Bible, and from more recent texts, it does not pretend to any depth or density of coverage in literature other than that of the British eighteenth century.”

See also:

The first version, 2007
☞ C. John Holcombe, Theories of metaphor
James Geary, metaphorically speaking, TED talk, 2009
Metaphor tag on Lapidarium notes
Metaphor tag on Lapidarium


John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

M. C. Escher, Relativity (july 1953)

"It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, ‘What’s it all about?’ But what ‘it’ is, is not the actual text… but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own." Jerome Seymour Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, p.37.

"Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1981, no.173.

One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that we can grasp who and what they are. (…)

In his review of George Steiner's essay ('A new meaning of meaning,' in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he comments that such a stance in art, is

"a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence… It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work of art that captures the ‘immensity of the commonplace’, that changes our very construction of reality: ‘poplars are on fire after Van Gogh’… The literary artist, it would follow from this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of the reader as his fellow author.”

Crossing boundaries

Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture. Thus the experience of having to ‘cross’ cultural boundaries, of having continually to ‘shift one’s stance’, of having to view one’s surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in ‘motion’, so to speak, has now become a ‘normal’ activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to ‘the practices of Self’? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? (…)

Milan Kundera's comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out:

"When we analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting".

Similarly, Jerome Seymour Bruner (1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought, "seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned".

What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making. Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained individuals. Ignoring the ‘calls’ of their surrounding circumstances to which they ‘answer’, we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that, theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to prove our theories true. (…)

As I see it, only if we institute a third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. (…)

Psychology technicalized and demoralized

In attempting to bring ‘mind’ back into psychology, Bruner didn’t want just to add “a little mentalism” to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to discover and describe "what meaning-making processes were implicated" in people’s encounters with the world; its aim was “to prompt psychology to joining forces with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences”.

Indeed, although he admits that "we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning" - to contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his latest book, The Culture of Education), a "second approach to the nature of mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture." As he remarks in Acts of Meaning:

"What was obvious from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already ‘there’, deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community… As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are ‘unworkable monstrosities… incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture.”

The ‘movements’ at work in our dialogic encounters with an Other

To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner’s  account of narrative modes of thought in his ‘Two modes…' (…) In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call ‘the bottom line’, and asks what supports the stones? ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Then ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones?,’ Kublai Khan demands. ‘Without stones there is no arch,’ Polo replies - for the arch is ‘in’ the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point out, in their reading of the story, the reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning. Sometimes in reading stories, we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense of a more general significance achieved? And ‘in’ what does that more general significance consist?

It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts, individuals begin to construct what Bruner a ‘virtual text’ of their own - where it is as if readers

were embarking on a journey without maps… [Where] in time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary… [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, pp.36-37).

To repeat: It is the way in which such texts ‘subjunctivize reality’ - or traffic ‘in human possibilities rather than settled certainties,’ as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible. (…)

As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a normative background to our activities, ‘provides us with the means of violating them for purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say (Bruner, 1986, p.26).

This background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach. Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to describe a people’s ‘folk psychology’ as follows: ‘I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from ‘normal’ states of the human condition' (Bruner, 1990, p.67).

It is the very creation of indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their dialogical activities unfold. ‘To mean in this way,’ suggests Bruner, ‘by the use of such intended violations… is to create ‘gaps’ and to recruit presuppositions to fill them. Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are ‘carried’ in the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us to perform meaning. And we ‘show’ our understanding of such ‘performed meanings’ in our ways of ‘going on’ with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of life, joint, first-time - or only ‘once occurrent’ (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) - variational meanings, that are expressive of the ‘world’ of an unique ‘it’ or ‘I’. (…)

In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say, the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein suggests that we might feel tempted to say that such a process ‘can do what it is supposed to only by containing an extremely faithful picture of what it intends.’ But having said this much, he goes on to point out:

"That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away from it, which had given it life before… it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond.

Now one says: ‘Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but we who use it to intend something’. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it takes place in a living being. We want to say ‘Meaning is surely essentially a mental process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter’…

And now it seems to us as if intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It could be said: we should call any process ‘dead’ in this sense’ (no. 236). ‘It might almost be said,’ he adds: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still”.

Meaning as movement

In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically ‘picturing’ something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing, dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances.

Thus, even as a person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their ‘shaping’ of their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more than merely talking ‘about’ something; we are continuously living out changing ‘ways of relating’ ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953) would say, we are creating certain, particular ‘forms of life’.

Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange, newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in ‘bridging the gaps’ with the responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively ‘move’ over what Bruner (1986) calls the ‘landscapes’ of a ‘virtual text.’ And what is general in our reading, what we can ‘carry over’ from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these responsive ‘ways of moving’ of our own spontaneous creation - ways of ‘orchestrating’ our moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future, and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can ‘carry over’ into new spheres of activity what is ‘carried in’ our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first place.

Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So, although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being ‘about’ something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that ‘pictures’ a state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must relate ourselves to them in a quite different way.

For their meaning is of a much more practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of knowing, rather than with a knowledge or ‘picture’ of something in particular. To put it another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on. It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of things, not images or representations of things already in existence.

Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written:

To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched…

Raymond Bayer has written: ‘What each and every aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy… Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist’s] alone’. We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style (p.28).

Where the function of such a ‘moving’ form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the opportunity to embody the new ‘way of going on’ that only it can call out from us. But to do this, to come to embody its ‘way’, we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what we are talking about.

As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone, it’s not having a dead picture (of any kind)’. We go up to the thing we mean (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455).

For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: ‘It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention’s pictures, and we are inside them' (1981, no.233).

Indeed, he says elsewhere: It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).

The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar fashion:

The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. ‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field’. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance).

The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.” (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).


Describing (and explaining?) the dialogical: ‘the difficulty here is: to stop’

Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: ‘they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known (no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other unnoticed.

Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible ‘mechanisms’ within us responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera’s (1993) remark above:an event as we imagine it hasn’t much to do with the same event as it is when it happens (p.139) - for we can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete, something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or ‘inside of’, cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way.

Thus, if we still nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: ‘How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden”. (…) There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.

Once we go beyond the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us ‘playing them out’, so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as explanations. (…)

Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner puts it, the ways in which we ‘violate’ the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the norms of our institutions.”

John Shotter, Emeritus Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, Towards at third revolution in psychology: From inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Map–territory relation - a brief résumé, Lapidarium


Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning

                                                       Vladimir Kush, Atlas Of Wander

"The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, we explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. We find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences. Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems. (…)

Even fleeting and seemingly unnoticed metaphors in natural language can instantiate complex knowledge structures and influence people’s reasoning in a way that is similar to the role that schemas, scripts, and frames have been argued to play in reasoning and memory. (…)

We find that the metaphors were most effective when they were presented early in the narrative and were then able to help organize and coerce further incoming information. (…)

Through analogical transfer in this way, systems of metaphors in language can encourage the creation of systems of knowledge in a wide range of domains. Our reasoning about many complex domains then can be mediated through these patchworks of analogically-created representations. A final question is how strong the influence of metaphorical framing really is? Focusing on a real-world social issue like crime allows us to compare the effects of metaphor we observe in the lab with the opinion differences that exist naturally in the population. People with different political affiliations hold different opinions on how to address societal problems like crime. (…)

Analysis reveals a striking effect of metaphor as measured against real-world differences in opinion that exist in the population and impact policy-making. Interestingly, we found that self-identified Republicans were also less likely to be influenced by the metaphors than were Democrats and Independents. (…)

The studies presented in this paper demonstrate that even minimal (one-word) metaphors can significantly shift people’s representations and reasoning about important real-world domains. These findings suggest that people don’t have a single integrated representation of complex issues like crime, but rather rely on a patchwork of (sometimes disconnected or inconsistent) representations and can (without realizing it) dynamically shift between them when cued in context.

Metaphor is incredibly pervasive in everyday discourse. By some estimates, English speakers produce one unique metaphor for every 25 words that they utter. Metaphor is clearly not just an ornamental flourish, but a fundamental part of the language system. This is particularly true in discussions of social policy, where it often seems impossible to “literally” discuss immigration, the economy, or crime. If metaphors routinely influence how we make inferences and gather information about the social problems that confront us, then the metaphors in our linguistic system may be offering a unique window onto how we construct knowledge and reason about complex issues. (…)

We find that metaphors can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve complex problems and how they gather more information to make “well-informed” decisions. Our findings shed further light on the mechanisms through which metaphors exert their influence, by instantiating frame-consistent knowledge structures, and inviting structurally-consistent inferences. Interestingly, the influence of the metaphorical framing is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as an influential aspect in their decisions. Finally, the influence of metaphor we find is strong: different metaphorical frames created differences in opinion as big or bigger than those between Democrats and Republicans.”

Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA, Published: February 23, 2011.


Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s insight into meaning and interpretation remains of key interest to psychoanalysts intent on hearing all that he had to say about psychic life. (…)

What sparked their admiration,the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explained (1966), was Carroll’s interest in “all kinds of truths – ones that are certain even if not self-evident”. The truth apparently snared in Carroll’s fiction is that our culture adopts rules that can seem absurd, even ridiculous, when seen too close and interpreted too literally. And while a lot of fiction strives quite diligently to imitate those rules, Carroll joined iconoclasts such as Jonathan Swift in upending them, to cast a wry light on their sometimes ludicrous foundations. (…) The ensuing paradox about meaning and nonsense, to assess what it might teach Alice and her reader as they meditate on Wonderland. (…)

What is Carroll’s nonsense about and what is its overall effect? (…)

Carroll advanced an approach to subjectivity that has much in common with psychoanalysis, given their shared interest in ontology and the limits of meaning. The Alice stories “manage to have such a hold” on readers, he declared, because they touch on “the most pure network of our condition of being: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.” In its commitment to analyzing all three registers, moreover, “psychoanalysis is in the best position to explain the effect” of such fiction on readers, including how and why Alice’s madcap adventures in Wonderland “won over the entire world.”

Interest in the most nonsensical aspects of our culture led Lacan to rethink an argument previously put forward by the Surrealist André Breton – that Carroll had used nonsense as a “vital solution to the deep contradiction between an acceptance of madness and the exercise of reason.” - To Breton, Carroll was the Surrealists’ first “master in the school of truancy,” because he offset the “poetic order” with the madness – even the supposed tyranny – of rationalism. - Rather than simply repeating that line, however, which downplays much of the interest and originality of Carroll’s creativity and thinking, Lacan’s tribute aimed at something more: He wanted to rescue Carroll’s insight into the way human beings are compelled to adapt to broader cultural demands. As Lacan put it, almost pitting his reading against generations of devoted readers seeking only innocent pleasure from the Alice stories, Wonderland generates ‘unease,’ even a type of ‘malaise,’ by revealing how individuals struggle to conform to cultural systems to which they are not especially well suited. (…)

Lacan here predates Gilles Deleuze’s insight, in The Logic of Sense, that Carroll’s nonsense has an internal logic to it, and thus a meaning of its own, which competes with that of standard, everyday sense. Carroll “remains the master and the surveyor of surfaces,” Deleuze later contended. “Surfaces which were taken to be so well-known that nobody was exploring them anymore. On these surfaces, nonetheless, the entire logic of sense is located” (1969, p. 93). (…)

With Carroll the praise that critics frequently bestow on his fiction seems commensurate with its artistry, adventurousness, and semantic intelligence. It is to Carroll that we attribute such outsized flights of fancy as a mad tea party peopled by raucous, acrimonious creatures – almost a mini-society in dissensus. He also gives us philosophically-minded insects imitating classical Athens as they debate the meaning of life; babies that turn into pigs at the drop of a hat; the surreal grin of a cat that floats eerily across the sky; and the queen of a chess game transfigured miraculously into a sheep dressed as a grandmother, before she morphs into a kitten whom Alice asks, in turn, whether it dreamed the whole scenario. (…)

Most of the antics that Carroll relays in Wonderland seem pointedly to flatter Alice into believing that she sees through the many escapades, to what is beyond them – as if she were partly outside the worlds of each novella and thus able to gauge them from a position of relative mastery. From the works themselves, we also learn that the comparison Carroll sets up between Wonderland and the Victorians’ symbolic order is not in the least flattering to the latter. Nor does that comparison – and its associated critique – end with the Alice stories. Both are extended with still greater anxiety in Sylvie and Bruno (1991[1889]), Carroll’s proto-Joycean novel, which styles Fairyland and Outerland as largely interchangeable. As Carroll writes in the novel’s preface, signaling his fascination with psychology and consciousness,

"I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states, with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:—

– the ‘eerie’ state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;

– a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.”

— Lewis Carroll (1977[1896]), Symbolic logic, Warren BartleyWIII, editor. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press.

Three additional criteria convey the novel’s imagined states of being, indicating how seriously Carroll tried to maintain such ontological distinctions. (…)

Art and biography appear to part company over these interpretive dilemmas. For how we interpret the enigmas attached to both of these registers is, as the Alice stories show, central to determining what questions she and the reader can ask about them. As Lacan put it in the passage cited earlier, Carroll seems to want to “prepare” her for the lesson that “one only ever passes through a door one’s own size” – a statement hinting that an answer can emerge only after one has discovered the question attached to it. Approach such a portal from the wrong direction, with the wrong premise or at the wrong time, and awareness of it – much less passage through it – is unlikely. The idea is rather like that of Wonderland itself, in which much happens the wrong way round, playing havoc with cause and effect, meaning and intention, inference and interpretation. Alice has to shrink or expand to enter a different ontological realm. She has to adapt to circumstances, and does so sometimes with relative ease, at other times with intense difficulty.

One of the questions Carroll implicitly poses at such moments is whether interpretation can decipher “the most pure network of our condition of being: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.” The matter bears heavily on psychoanalysis, Lacan averred, given its interest in the psychical patterns and distortions that magnify suffering, stoke unease, and prevent mourning. In Wonderland, as in Outerland, those distortions persist not just because both realms are thoroughly imbued with nonsense, but also because investigation into both novellas enables but does not end interpretation. In Through the Looking-Glass, for instance, in a significant metafictional moment, Humpty Dumpty adopts an interpretive code that is comically incapable of addressing what other characters say and mean. As he declares: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less … The question is … which is to be master”.

A successful outcome to such attempted mastery is of course as elusive to Humpty Dumpty as it is to other figures in Wonderland. Oblivious, however, he veers down another idiosyncratic track: how words assume – then seem almost to contain – a life of their own. Carroll himself dubs a few of them ‘portmanteau’ words, capturing the idea that meaning is almost literally encased in them. (…)

Carroll’s fiction most often focuses on the play and limits of meaning across semantic and ontological registers. As the narrator observes in Sylvie and Bruno, almost doffing his hat at the myriad philosophical and metafictional questions that ensue: “‘Either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,’ I said to myself, ‘and this is the reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?’” (…)

Carroll’s artistic and intellectual games render that language by such idiosyncratic signifiers as ‘Boojum,’‘Snark,’ and ‘slithy toves.’ Not all such neologisms are nonsensical. ‘Chortled,’ another Carrollian coinage, has since entered our language as a delightful verb. But the underside to this inventiveness is worth underlining because critics have found it easy to minimize: The ‘vertigo’ that ensues from Carroll’s model dramatizes a difficulty for Alice – and her reader – in adapting to the peculiar world of language and symbols. That is because the rules and rituals governing her world seem both whimsical and arbitrarily enforced. They serve as a check on contingency and freedom in Wonderland, while casting the adult world beyond it as authoritarian and almost willfully perverse. Consider the angry Queen of Hearts, whose face explodes with rage the moment others question her capricious, unjust orders. In each instance, her verdicts are a foregone conclusion. (…)

John Tenniel’s illustrations nicely capture this ontological challenge. They emphasize not just the difficulty but also the price of Alice’s attempts at adapting to circumstances. Alice is first too small (see Figure 1), then too big (see Figure 2) for the world she tries to inhabit. She is both unprepared for it, yet joining it long after it has established rules and laws with which she struggles to comply.

Carroll here deftly anticipates the radical argument that Lacan would popularize from Sigmund Freud’sBeyond the Pleasure Principle: because of our capacity for reflection and consciousness, we miss the ‘right moment’ of biology and arrive too quickly into a symbolic order that we can grasp and comprehend only quizzically and belatedly. (…)

In all senses, then, nothing quite adds up in Wonderland. None of the creatures in Wonderland easily coexists – each is peevish, irrepressible, and for the most part insistently singular. At the same time, nothingness amounts to an ontological dimension that Carroll and Lacan take very seriously, and with good reason. The patchwork quilt of our symbolic order is, they show, held pincers-like by the real. To confront the limits of the latter – as Alice does repeatedly, with her pointed questions, quirky imagination, preternatural respect for rules, and sometimes whimsical joy in breaking them – is to expose, in the 19th century no less, a rickety structure held together by desire, illusion and force, a volatile combination at the best of times. (…)

The Alice stories reveal both the generative possibilities and the unwelcome distortions of the symbolic order. In refusing to imitate or rationalize the comic pretensions of a system only loosely bound by rules and signifiers, Carroll gives us that world aslant and askew. His oblique perspective underscores the fantasies and psychical effects that exceed symbolization – fantasies that in his fiction come to assume ardent, impossible meaning.”

Christopher J. Lane (British-American literary critic and intellectual historian who is currently the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University), Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in wonderland, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, March 1, 2011. (Illustrations: John Tenniel)


The Process of Abstracting according to S. I. Hayakawa

"The concept, so defined, is precisely that abstraction which it is necessary to make if we are to discover the basis of our common understanding of that reality which we all know. On a day which is terribly long to me and abominably short to you, we meet, by agreement, at three o’clock, and thus demonstrate that we have a world in common."
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, Dover, 1956, p. 80.

“As words are not the objects they represent, structure – and structure alone – becomes the only link that connects our verbal processes with the empirical data.”Alfred Korzybski

"Insight into human symbolic behavior and into human interaction through symbolic mechanisms comes from all sorts of disciplines: not only from linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and cultural anthropology, but from attitude research and public opinion study, from new techniques in psychotherapy, from physiology and neurology, from mathematical biology and cybernetics. How are all these separate insights to be brought together? (…) I have examined the problem long enough to believe that it cannot be done without some set of broad and informing principles such as is to be found in the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.”

S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991, Chapter 10.

Hayakawa’s version starts with a real live animal, Bessie the cow. Bessie lives at a farm, together with a lot of other cows and animals. (…)

This simple two-line statement is already full of abstractions. Starting its analysis with the initial subject, this abstracting begins with the use of the word “Bessie”. In fact, being a real live animal, Bessie is made up of numerous components, that are in constant interaction through an even greater number of processes, leading to ever changing behavior of the entirety. All this diversity is called “Bessie”, and by doing this, we have in fact dropped almost all detail of all of these components and processes. What we mean by “Bessie” is a limited number of visible, audible, and behavioral traits that are fairly constant, and will lead us to remember Bessie during intervals we are not in contact with her. This is the process of abstraction run by our sensory systems, and the associated basic processing and interpretation schemes of the brain. (…)

The second abstraction in the introductory section is the word “cow”. The visible, audible and behavioral traits that characterize the entity “Bessie”, also apply for a substantial part to some other entities, while they don’t apply to almost all others. Since these entities with common characteristics are of some importance to us humans, we have given this category of entities a name: “cow”. Bessie is one example from this category. In the category “cow”, some of Bessie’s characteristics have been lost, that is: all of the characteristics that distinguish her from other cows (perhaps now you already can guess the value of the remark “All humans are unique”, to be discussed further on). With some imagination one can also visualize this category of  “cows” in the illustration above, as one of the things the occupants in the cubicles on the left side are busy with - the occupants/cubicles being the separate processes that constitute our higher thinking.

The next steps should now be fairly clear - they have been collected by Hayakawa in his archetypal version of the abstraction ladder. First comes the collection of all animals living on the farm, gathered in the more general and abstract term “livestock”. Again many of the characteristics of Bessie are left out when characterizing her as “livestock”. Subsequent steps are “farm assets”, which takes out everything pertaining to her being alive, “assets”, which drops her bonds with the location, the farm, and finally “wealth”. The last one is also known as “money”, the level that many people think of as being the most or even only real one, and which in fact is the most unreal one, as the entire process of abstraction shows. The financial crisis of 2008 is a potent illustration of this - what seemed to be real, “money in the bank”, vanished without a trace. (…)

The important thing about the knowledge of the ladder of abstractions, now almost obvious,  is that what may be true as a rule between things at the same level of abstraction, almost certainly isn’t true when one changes the level of the entities in the rule. For example, going back to the farm one might formulate the rule that putting cow with cow (if the latter is a male specimen) leads to more cows. However, applying the rule to livestock or farm animals, will in general not lead to more farm animals, and in some unfortunate cases to less.”

The ladder of abstractions

See also: Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Map–territory relation- a brief résumé


     René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)

"If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone.
The only usefulness of map or a language depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages.”

Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Institute of GS, 1994, p.61.

"The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory,” encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. For example, the pain from a stone falling on one’s foot is not the actual stone, it’s one’s perception of the stone; one’s opinion of a politician, favorable or unfavorable, is not that person; and so on. A specific abstraction or reaction does not capture all facets of its source — e.g. the pain in one’s foot does not convey the internal structure of the stone, you don’t know everything that is going on in the life of a politician, etc. — and thus may limit an individual’s understanding and cognitive abilities unless the two are distinguished. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories—that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself—in this sense. (…)

Gregory Bateson, in “Form, Substance and Difference" from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), elucidates the essential impossibility of knowing what the territory is, as any understanding of it is based on some representation:

"We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. […] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum."

Neil Gaiman retells the parable in reference to storytelling in Fragile Things:

"One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory."

Korzybski’s dictum “the map is not the territory” is also cited as an underlying principle used in neuro-linguistic programming, where it is used to signify that individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So it is considered important to be aware that people’s beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the “map”) are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (“the territory”). The originators of NLP have been explicit that they owe this insight to General Semantics.” — (Wiki)

Erik Evens in The Linguistic Metaphor:

"Korzybski’s General Semantics offered a view that human knowledge is limited by two main factors: the structure of the human nervous system, and the structure of human languages. He maintained that people cannot experience the world directly, but only through their “abstractions” - nonverbal impressions derived from data detected and transmitted by the senses and the nervous system, and verbal indicators derived from language. (…)

Here’s a story about Alfred Korzybski that’s amusing, and worth repeating because it’s illustrative of some of these ideas:  One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think”, said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. After a while he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies”. The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the bathroom.

"You see, ladies and gentlemen", Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but they also eat words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter." It seems his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality, and reality itself.

The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves”   in a number of paintings including a famous work entitled The Treachery of Images, which consists of a drawing of a pipe with the caption, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”).” — (Wiki)

The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe, which was Magritte’s point: "The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I’d have been lying!" — (Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)

Alfred Korzybski:

"I use the map-territory relationship because the characteristic are general for all existing forms of representation which include the structure of language.
We observe

1) That a map-language is not the territory-fact, etc.,

2) Map-language covers not all the characteristic of territory-fact,

3) Forms of representation are self-reflexive in the sense that an ideal map would include the map of the map, etc., and in language we can speak about language.

These three premises are child-like in their simplicity, and yet involve a flat denial of the fundamental present, yet very ancient, unrevised, harmful premises. The third premise has been historically entirely neglected except partially in mathematics.
This self-reflexiveness of language, however, is on the botton of most human difficulties in daily life as well as in science. (…)

As we have seen, for maximum predictability, we must have a map-language similar in structure to the territory-facts. The next crucial problem is to investigate empirically whether our present map-language is similar in structure to the territory-facts. We know empirically that “space” and “time” do not exist separately, otherwise they can not be divided, and so the facts are non-elementalistic. We know, on the other hand, that verbally we can separate or split thein into ficticious elements which do not exist as such. In other words, that the structure of the existing language is elementalistic where the facts are non-elementalistic. This goes much farther. Thus, in actual life we can not split “body” and “mind” “emotions” and “intellect”, etc., while verbalistically we can do that quite happily, and speculate uselessly on these split fictions. We conclude that this elementalistic language is not similar in structure to a non-elementalistic world and ourselves.

Let us analyze further. We find that every “chair”, “match”, “house”, “horse”, “man”, etc., is different, while the old language of intensional structures has only verbal definitions for verbal fictions called, say, “man”, “chair”, etc., emphasizing similarities and disregarding differences. By extension we have only actual chair1, chair2, etc., Smith1, Smith2, etc. which are actualities, not verbal fictions and verbal definitions. We conclude that the structure of the old accepted language being elementalistic an dintensional is not similar in structure to the facts of life and ourselves. This is a conclusion reached by inspections of facts of ordinary life and scientific work and also linguistic facts concerning structure of language which have been entirely neglected in the past.

The conclusions we must draw from these obvious observations are startling and extremely far-reaching, involving fundamentally the future of mankind and civilization.

Because the structure of the present language is definitely and empirically not similar in structure to facts of life and ourselves, proper evaluation and so predictability in our human affairs is thouroughly impossible except by accident.

Another more serious consequence of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic chaos is due to the lack of a science of man by which I mean the lack of application of standard scientific methods to the affairs of man. With our present intensional verbalistic attitutes which follow the structure of language, agreement between individuals and groups is in principle impossible. With a change to extensional orientation, strictly connected with the extensionalization of the structure of language, disagreement becomes impossible. (…) We must make a serious analysis of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic factors involved in our present situation and that realization may, perhaps, help us stop the suicide of our world.”

Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings, 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, p. 275-276.

Heiner Benking:

"We have to be able to talk about the same things with words which are grounded. (…) We need to see terms and concepts in their context. (…) We can construct frames-of-reference as a schemata to visually reference and share diverse but inter-connected positions, focuses, ranges and horizons, in order to develop not only common grounds but a tolerance for alternate ways of seeing our different levels and scopes. By adequate and open conversation, we can create a common ground. In this way every player can discover his own place in the general panorama and understand better what he does and what he could and should do, or not do.” We can use the cybernetic tools to order our data-base.  But he warns that we should not let us stray in a “virtual cyberspace” in a mainly and merely technical sense, with no relevance to real situations. Scales and proportions and their consequences should be duly taken in account in our representation, as we construct a 3 dimensional space/time model.”International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Cognition / relativity tag on Lapidarium
John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices, Lapidarium
Philosophy of perception, Structural differentialRepresentative realism, List of cognitive biases, Emic and etic, Simulacra and Simulation, Social constructionism

"Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts. They suspect the ear; they don’t trust it. In general we feel more secure when things are visible, when we can "see for ourselves." We admonish children, for instance, to "believe only half of what they see, and nothing of what they hear." All kinds of "shorthand" system of notation have been developed to help us see what we hear.
We employ visual and spatial metaphors for a great many everyday expressions. We insist on employing visual metaphors even when we refer to purely psychological states, such as tendency and duration. For instance, we say thereafter when we really mean thenafter, always when we mean at all times. We are so visually biased that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!”
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Gingko Press, 2001 p. 116-117

"Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts. They suspect the ear; they don’t trust it. In general we feel more secure when things are visible, when we can "see for ourselves." We admonish children, for instance, to "believe only half of what they see, and nothing of what they hear." All kinds of "shorthand" system of notation have been developed to help us see what we hear.

We employ visual and spatial metaphors for a great many everyday expressions. We insist on employing visual metaphors even when we refer to purely psychological states, such as tendency and duration. For instance, we say thereafter when we really mean thenafter, always when we mean at all times. We are so visually biased that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!”

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Gingko Press, 2001 p. 116-117