What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

In training, individual players build their respective skills on one level, and practice working together as a team on another. There may be individual heroes in baseball, but it takes heroic effort by all concerned to build a team that can face every possible situation with shared skill and confidence.

Each player must stand ready to play his part without advanced notice. Each is playing an inner game of expectancy before a play even starts to unfold. As is each watcher in the stands, stadium, or living room. In that sense, players and fans are engaged for the duration of the game, however long it takes for one side to win.

Baseball is all about arousal, anticipation, seeing what happens, recognizing what that means from a personal perspective. Then, of all possible responses, seizing instantly on the one judged most effective, and following through on plays that have been practiced in countless situations under a variety of different conditions.

Anything can happen, and what actually does happen comes as a spontaneous show of coordinated (or not) team skill, strength, speed, effort, and accuracy.

Baseball gives fans an endless flow of opportunities to be personally conscious. Each witnesses the game with her own eyes and ears, own sense of anticipation, own flow of perceptual, meaningful, and active engagements.

Being there at the game is like inventing yourself on the spot, again and again as situations come, evolve, and lead on to the next. This is what fans live for. If baseball didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it as a rule-governed alternative to the horrors of war, revolution, strife, violence, genocide, and mass murder.

Civilized nations rely on games to ward off the inevitable slippage into violence and chaos resulting from friction between factions having different perspectives on the world. Harnessing such perspectives in orderly pursuits such as baseball, soccer, basketball, and tennis makes the world safe for civil governance that actually serves to keep people meaningfully occupied and productive.

Baseball is no frill; it is a civil necessity—along with art, music, dance, Earthcare, full employment, and a fair distribution of wealth—to maintain a healthy state of mind among peoples accustomed to different ways of engaging one another in their separate worlds. Or worse, as in boredom, not engaging at all.

 

With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

If, as I claim, wildness is subjective (phenomenological), so, too, are happiness and its pursuit. Feelings and values are not in the world but in our minds. In fact, the world, insofar as we can be aware of it, is in us, along with everything else we can experience. We are not born to a world so much as born to ourselves.

What the world does supply is patterns of ambient energy, many of which we come to recognize as familiar, and to which we give names. And not only names (to single them out), but meanings in relation to our memories of personal experience, so we come to understand (stand under or support) those familiar patterns in personal ways. We lay meanings on the patterns we associate them with, making it seem as though that significance came with the patterns (as information), but actually the patterns elicit it from our memory of earlier patterns we have experienced and named in particular situations. Which is why someone speaking to me in Russian, say, or Arabic may believe she is telling me something, while I (a speaker solely of English) hear only the sounds she makes (the patterns of energy issuing from her lips) without the meanings she associates with those sounds.

Learning a language means learning to associate personal meanings with particular sound combinations directed by members of our culture at us on specifiable occasions, which we translate or construe as personally meaningful situations. It is how we understand those situations that is mapped onto the recognizable sounds that we hear, so that the situation conveys the meaning we come to link to the speech sounds we hear on that occasion.

Speech, that is, is made up from both a public and a private component, one a patterned flow of energy as speech sounds, and the other a sense of the currents of mental activity within us that accompanies our hearing of those sounds. Putting the public and private components together, we “hear” meaningful speech.

How wild is that? Unruly or whimsical enough that each person present when a certain utterance is made may take it differently (that is, personally) although each assumes they all speak the same language.

Only by smoothing the differences between our individual streams of experience through rote repetition and iron discipline do we ever approach speaking and understanding somewhat similar languages. It is far easier to assume we all speak the same language than to accept the idiosyncratic nature of the language-learning process. Which is why there is so much misunderstanding between us, because we don’t hear what is said to us in the same way it is spoken, much less speak truly for our inner selves.

Nothing is wilder than the nonsense we spout when we don’t monitor our own efforts at speech. We often seem to say one thing but mean something quite different, particularly when we try to please our audience by saying what we think they want to hear. Hard as it is, sticking to the facts of personal experience is best, along with listening carefully to what others say in response.

The problem is that so-called facts are a blend of public sounds and personal meanings, so are seldom as clear as we want them to be. One approach is to say what we said again in different words, then to be open to whatever response comes back, and to keep trying in the spirit of true dialogue between equals.

Wild words often miss their mark if the passions behind them, the fears and desires, are suppressed or lead to unintended consequences. If we were the rational beings we claim to be, we’d speak the true every time, but we aren’t and we don’t. Rationality is a myth, or at best an ideal we aspire to but seldom attain.

Instead of blaming others for the troubles of the world, we do better to get clear in our minds what we want to accomplish, then remake the world one person at a time, one engagement at a time. When words are involved, we have to remember that words don’t contain meanings so much as suggest them to other minds having unique habits of speech. It takes time and effort to reconcile differences in personal outlook and understanding in even the simplest situation. “Hi, how are you?” opens onto a spectrum of possible responses. The color of the reply is not ours to predict.

Interpersonal engagements are not set pieces so much as voyages of exploration and discovery. We send our words into the world to see where they take us. Life has but one destination; the route we take in arriving there makes all the difference.

It is good to remember how wild words can be, especially in tense situations. On that note I’ll sign off for now. Y’r brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2009)

If feelings are involved, consciousness creates a record of itself in memory. And those same memories inform consciousness for the rest of your life. You don’t need to take notes, it’s all there in the shadows of your mind, a ready reference when required. An amazing system! Yet we seldom think what it means—that every stream of consciousness is autobiographical. The world you live in is the world you make for yourself by living your particular life. No one else lives the same life, so yours is historically unique. What makes sense to you won’t make the same sense to anyone else because your frames of reference are different in the most intimately personal way. When we die, our frames of reference—our histories—die with us. Each of us is irreplaceable. We get our one run at life in this universe, and that’s it.

I keep thinking of all the questions I could have asked my mother about her life in Maine—but never did. I am stuck having to view her as my mother when that role was only a bit part in her history. I know almost nothing about her personal memories, the intimate historical details she lived out every day, giving her an identity, making her who she was to herself. Who was that woman? Besides being my mother, she was that female stranger I lived with until, at seventeen, I went to college 3,000 miles away from her home near Seattle. It was her home, not mine. I only lived there; she ran the place.

Does anybody remember Jean Shepherd’s riff on mothers as sink creatures? Shepherd was a radio personality—basically, a storyteller or narrator of personal history—from the late 1940s to 1977. His nighttime program, as far as I could tell, was wholly unscripted. He’d start talking about some minor event from childhood in a steel town in northern Indiana, developing his theme as he went. Usually in there somewhere was a rhapsody on his mother standing at the kitchen sink. Peeling potatoes, washing dishes, filling the coffee pot—that was her role in his life. Like a woman in a Vermeer painting staring out the window—as far as we know that’s all she ever did—so she stands through the ages, seen through Vermeer’s or Shepherd’s eyes, creatures of the respective kinds of consciousness as cast on them by others who see something in them.

We know so much about ourselves and so little about anyone else—even our closest companions or blood relatives. What do spouses really know about their partners’ inner lives? So physically close and mentally remote, it’s hard to tell. My bet in most cases is not very much. When he claims to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, how do you know he isn’t hanging out with his Argentine sweetie? Besides being bed, dinner, and parenting creatures, what else would we want to know about those we care for? My answer: the full history of another’s conscious inner world.

The outlines of consciousness are sketched by our genes, each of us making proteins and metabolizing our food a little differently, so we all deviate somewhat from the basic human norms for body, consciousness, and behavior. From there, exposure to social and cultural influences takes over and we begin compiling our respective personal histories. What nature roughs out, our individual cultural engagement finishes in fine detail. Unique experiences persist in episodic memory; repeated experiences with overlapping features persist as concepts in semantic memory. Our stories develop both ways at once, specifically and generically, concretely and abstractly, the two in combination culminating in meaningful lives simultaneously rich in sensory detail and overall meaning.

If members of our family and social group get around by walking, then we become walkers as well; if they ride mules, horses, carriages, motorcycles, or public transportation, then we do likewise. Our mirror neurons make it seem natural for us to follow the example of what people do in our part of town. If we grow up without experiencing airplanes, iPhones or stone tools, then they are not part of our personal consciousness or the history it lays down. My grandfather used wooden tools, my father used metal tools, I use electrical and electronic tools. Mothers can cook with open fires, wood stoves, electric stoves, microwave ovens—or not cook at all if somebody else is up for the job. Not many sons would dub their mothers sink creatures today—nor would many mothers permit what sounds like a slur. Tooling around in an SUV is more like it, or toting a briefcase to work. 

These days, cultural ways change so fast, it is hard to keep up. I used logarithms in school, a slide rule in college, a mechanical desk calculator at work, and now a photon-powered electronic calculator. My early film cameras were variations on a black box with lens on one end, film on the other. Then I got a 35mm rangefinder, followed by a 120 twin-lens reflex, later a 35mm single-lens reflex. Now I’ve gone digital and abandoned black-and-white photography altogether. Whatever happened to pens and pencils? Typewriters? Linotype machines? Newspapers? I remember them all as essential parts of the world I grew up in. A good many parts of my consciousness were shaped to their use, parts now obsolete. If you don’t keep up, you become obsolete yourself because your mind is tooled to times gone by. Corporations can suffer that fate (think General Motors, Bell Telephone, IBM, Sears), or even once-great nations grown too full of themselves (France, England, Russia, the U.S.A.).

Language certainly changes over time. As a kid, I read six or seven Dr. Dolittle books from the library. Wanting to reconnect with those days, I planned to reread them—but got only to the third page of the first one I picked up. Hugh Lofting wrote in a stuffy style intended for a world gone by, now largely extinct. As the Hugh Lofting part of me is extinct. I recently had a similar experience trying to reconnect with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In today’s world, Thoreau has a touch of the archaic, but he is too original a mind to be classed with the dinosaurs. So is Walt Whitman. And Thomas Paine. As for the classic texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, efforts to keep them alive through heroic efforts are so desperate and extreme, it would be better to shut off life-support and retire them to the Museum of Outworn Cultures so modern consciousness can deal with current problems such as overpopulation, excessive consumption, the collapse of capitalism, global warming, wars without end, among others we have yet to develop ways of thinking about or vocabularies adequate to suitably framing so we can come up with workable solutions.

To draw a few examples from the history of my personal consciousness as recorded in memory, I offer these as determinants of modern history as this blogger has lived it:

  1. The 1937 crash and inferno of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin Hindenburg in landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey after crossing the Atlantic—I remember the spread in the rotogravure section of the Syracuse Post Standard.
  2. Admiral William Byrd’s bright red, six-wheeled, crevasse-proof Snow Cruiser being driven in 1939 along U.S. Route 20 en route to New York and ultimately Antarctica, where it promptly got lodged in a crevasse—I yearned desperately to be that shirtless guy stretched out in the sun along the sloping engine hood.
  3. The film version of The Wizard of Oz changed me forever by setting the standard for what entertainment could be—I loved the story, the characters, the sets, the music, the visual effects, the colors.
  4. Racing ahead of the family after the Sunday movie, turning on the radio, hearing serious voices tell of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—me telling my parents something bad had happened.
  5. The Life Magazine cover photo during the war showing the head of a German soldier roasted alive in an armored vehicle in North Africa—the first time I remember being drawn to look again and again at something so horrifying.
  6. The school assembly called the day FDR died in 1945, me sitting in tears on a folding chair at the end of the row, being told school would let out early—which I knew wouldn’t do any good.
  7. Walking along a gravel road at scout camp in August, looking up at the blue sky, wondering what an atomic bomb was—I’d never heard of one before the raid on Hiroshima made it into the newspaper.
  8. Walking by Symphony Hall on Mass. Ave. in Boston, seeing door ajar, walking in on an open rehearsal, sitting in back under the balcony, seeing Pierre Monteux conduct the Boston Symphony in Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—I suddenly realized what music was all about, and that LPs didn’t capture half of it.
  9. The turbulent era of the 1960s with war in Viet Nam, flower children, the pill, racial violence, drugs, JFK’s assassination in 1963, RFK’s and MLK’s in 1968, and civil strife throughout—my father died, I had two children got divorced, remarried, changed jobs, every day demanded total concentration just to stay even, this was not the world I grew up in.
  10. In the late 1970s I took three courses with Sigmund Koch at Boston University, the one truly inspirational teacher I had in college or graduate school, a man big enough to critique the entire field of psychology at mid-century—he showed me what applied consciousness could do.

My conscious history is a tale of anxiety and revelation, which may be true for others as well. Evolution sets us up for such a life, we and our times do the rest, culture following through on what nature and our heritage have begun in our genome. Consciousness isn’t just for the moment or the day, it’s for a lifetime. Very little of it goes to waste. Coming to us in scraps, we stitch it together into the coherent tapestry of our outlook so that expectancy rewards us with a future containing more of the same. Which sometimes it doesn’t, so we settle for another round of anxiety, hoping for revelation. Consciousness, such as it is, steers every life to the end, creating the history of ourselves as individuals long before the history of a people or the world is even imagined, much less recorded.

Sailboat-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

(Note: This is a continuation of Reflection 100: The Way Ahead, Part I, which appeared Friday, May 8, 2009. –SP)

 

6. We must be cautious in incorporating contributions made by others into our thinking because there is often no way to verify the conditions under which those contributions were developed. No two minds are the same, much less even similar. The most coherent results flow from a single mind fully integrated within itself. If we can contribute anything at all to the study of consciousness, let it rest on the disciplined integrity of individual minds gathered within themselves. Opinions and advice from others often amount to little more than hearsay because the best part—the voyage of self-discovery—is usually left out.

 

7.     Consciousness is fed by concrete, highly processed sensory input being mapped onto an abstract ground of concepts nearly devoid of specific content, together with a certain emotional climate within body and mind. These sensory, conceptual, and emotional components add to a fully-funded experience within consciousness as if they were inherently inseparable in all minds. But the details range widely from person to person, each mind on its own being responsible for the combined import and meaning of the components assembled in consciousness. Often one word will be used in referring to the full assembly, while individual hearers might internally refer to very different experiences by that name. All communication based on or about consciousness must be sufficiently thorough to make room for personal differences in consciousness.

 

8.  Discovery of what it means to be fully conscious requires the extra step of being conscious of oneself being conscious. You have to rise above yourself and look down in awe at the workings of your own mind. How wonderful it is that we can do this, or learn to do it if we haven’t yet developed the skill. This is the gift of introspection, in which the mind observes itself within a situation of self-observation. The more hours you put in, the better you will be able to do it. No life adventure is more demanding—or potentially rewarding.

 

In the world revealed through introspection, a sense is gained of what it means to be humanly aware of oneself. A deep appreciation of one’s own mind is the reward, and a realization that an unexamined mind may well lead to carelessness in addressing world events. By this approach, only the mind can be known: all else is conjecture and speculation—which I suggest is the root of the crisis we are now experiencing. Thousands of pundits broadcast their views, but how many have put in the ten-thousand hours necessary to know their own minds rather than a world situation they can know only partially, and largely secondhand. Thinking about a situation is not the same as living it in personal consciousness.

 

9.  The world has been ruled by assertive, dominant strongmen long enough. It is time to bring a new sort of person to the fore, one who understands compassion and humility as human strengths, not weaknesses. No leader can impose civic or world order by decree. A thousand minds must work in concert to achieve order that is both durable and flexible at the same time. Dominant strongmen rule by primitive force; those who have come to terms with the fallibility of their own minds rule through compassionate understanding. What the current state of affairs clearly demonstrates is the need for less force in the world and more compassion for others.

 

10.     The left-brain interpreter is key to understanding why we individually do what we do, collectively resulting in the world being as it is. It is the executive function of the brain that makes sense of all that is going on in the mind in relation to one situation or another. Making sense is the mind’s chief business in coming up with a plan of action appropriate to those situations. The point of living a life is doing, then redoing, not watching from a safe distance.

 

     To function, the interpreter must be involved in a situation represented in consciousness. It requires a clear focus of attention, backed by a state of bodily arousal. If uninvolved, the interpreter takes a holiday. Which is how we let the world situation get away from us on so many fronts. We simply haven’t been paying attention to the many impacts we have on our cultural climate any more than on the natural world. We have delegated our oversight responsibility to others, and proceeded as if on cruise control.

 

     That is, we have let ourselves be distracted so that our left-brain interpreter is out of the loop regarding the cultural and environmental impacts of our behavior. A sorry state of affairs because what distracts us is often of very little consequence—like surfing the Web, watching TV, mindlessly chatting on cell phones—in general making ourselves comfortable when we should be on high alert.

 

     Life has become so much a matter of routine for many of us, our priorities have been turned upside down so that trivial details are high on our lists and important matters are scribbled in lightly at the bottom, if they make the cut at all. The world we live in is reduced to the world in our heads, which even though all-consuming at the moment, leaves the long-term consequences of inattention to more important matters beyond our mind’s grasp.

 

     Being out of the loop, our interpreters look for interesting reading, or find involvement in pithy drawings by Roz Chast or films by Woody Allen. That is, they feed vicariously on other people’s consciousness and life involvement as more interesting than their own. Such interpreters donate money to worthy causes as a proxy for taking relevant action on the home front. With the collective result that they wake up one day to find the world, the economy, and people at large in far worse shape than they had realized. Out-of-touch interpreters are incapable of planning appropriate action because they haven’t been tracking the various situations which, unattended, have collapsed.

 

     That is why I say we have to pay particular attention to our left-brain interpreters so they make sense of the cultural and environmental scene in a way that corresponds to the true states of affairs. Only then can we engage in activities appropriate to the messes we are actually in because we have inadvertently contributed to them by not paying attention.

 

     Learning to mind the personal interpreter is the primary goal of the program of consciousness study I am here advancing. I mean “mind” in two senses, 1) to pay attention to, and 2) to supervise or direct. If we can accomplish that revolution in consciousness, we can begin to undo the harm that laissez-faire consciousness has inflicted and continues to inflict on the natural and cultural worlds.

 

With this summary of my blog, I seem to be setting consciousness studies back 2,500 years to the days when a panel in the forecourt of Apollo’s temple at Delphi bore the inscription (in Greek), Know Thyself. But thinking about it, I realize that most of the cultural wars and disasters humanity has inflicted on itself and its planet have occurred in those two-and-a-half millennia. Maybe the Greeks were on to something that has been lost in the intervening span. We have become overawed by the material world and underawed by the wonders and follies of our minds. The rub is that we don’t hold ourselves responsible for the world because God or the gods run it as they will, while unobserved behind the scene our minds are given free rein to cavort at random as if by some unstated, basic human right. As Alexander Pope described humankind in the final couplet of his poem, Know Thyself:

 

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

 

The goal of the brand of consciousness study I recommend here is to update humanity’s self-image by going to the source of our problem of inattention, learning as much as we can about the workings of our left-brain interpreters, and then rebooting them with an updated list of priority situations to be dealt with through active participation so that we become less of a joke or riddle to ourselves.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

How were you brought up? Did you have to go tinkle, pee-pee, wee-wee, take a pee or a piss, urinate, make water, or go number 1? In my family we spoke of breasts as huddies, younger members often having a giggle fit of self-consciousness when we tried to utter the word. Each of us is born into a language community or, more likely, a set of nested or overlapping language communities (family, friends, school, town, polite society, etc.). It was the conventional terms and ways of speaking in these communities we dutifully mimicked in acquiring the natural language we took as our native tongue.

 

The way we spoke at home was our family brand of literal language, which always said what we meant it to say because that’s how we were brought up. Other families were weird in speaking somewhat differently. Ours was normal language, theirs a twisted variation that seemed foreign. My friend Billy I. always said brefuk when he meant breakfast. Bob S. turned the sound of -ing into -een, as in goeen skeen for going skiing. Families used a variety of terms in referring to brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.

 

But all in all, we learned how normal people spoke in our neck of the woods. That was the neighborhood code governing literal language—as if by rule—but actually more by the flow of custom and convention in what people actually said. Out of the give and take of everyday life, we formed a language-using community in which meanings were mutually understood. We usually didn’t have to think about it, it just happened.

 

Literal language conforms to the abstract ideal that speakers use in recognizing certain phrases as being meaningful in their community. This ideal is independent of time and place, user or occasion. It is not a matter of rules but of anticipating the range of things that might be said in different situations. Literal language is predictable or probable language. The language we are likely to meet in daily life.

 

Figurative or metaphorical language is something else again. It defies the linguistic expectancies we so painstakingly piece together in experience. Literal language conforms to the code; metaphorical language jumps over the code to create a new way of speaking—of making meaning. “You’re a turkey,” “a skunk,” “a snake in the grass.” Literal language conforms to what we expect people say on a given occasion. Metaphors play against those expectations in surprising us with something new. Suddenly consciousness bursts on the scene, for speaker and listener both.

 

As an example, I offer two sentences by Alexandra Vacroux from her article, How to warm US-Russia relations (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 26, 2009). “At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded.” She goes on to cite Russian anxiety and insecurity in the global commodity crisis, dealings with Ukraine, a fearsome new treason law. Then sums up her position, “Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.” Russia/Russian bear/Injured animal—this is a three-tiered metaphor that picks up powerful meaning as it develops.

 

Metaphorical language involves improbable or unexpected utterances which jolt us out of our meaning-making habits. It stretches our conventions of understanding by violating the expected match between expression and occasion. This creates a tension between what was expected and what was delivered. Shazam! We are fully awake and paying attention. Metaphor is not only a new way of saying but a new way of meaning. Without warning, it gets to the core of language.

 

Metaphor rocks not only our expectations of usage but the way we size-up the situations to which we apply language in the first place. It arises from (and invokes) a novel perspective as an alternative to the conventional point of view. Metaphor forces us to expand ourselves and become different people than convention would have us be. It forces us to outgrow our customary limitations.

 

If the conventional point of view is based upon unwitting acceptance of words meaning what they say, then metaphor is based upon a rival accounting for the world and its language. Words in that new world mean what speakers intend them to say, and it is the hearer’s job to figure out what that might be. Whoa! This is a new game entirely. We can’t just nod “Uh-uh,” but have to consciously wrestle with what we are hearing. As if we were inventing language all over again.

 

Which is one of the primary roles of figurative language. To rock us back on our heels so we pay deliberate attention to what is being said. And to what we want to say, but aren’t sure how. Metaphors represent alternate ways of accounting for the facts of daily life. Or more accurately, for the phenomena we encounter in consciousness, which are more than once removed from daily life. Metaphor does nothing less than force the sleepy language community to wake up and reinvent itself.

 

A metaphor is a little theory offered in opposition to the “natural” way of finding meaning in the world because, in truth, the meanings we find are often the very meanings we planted (or assumed were) there in the first place. Convention salts the mine of phenomena with meaning, while metaphor insists on uncovering the true gem itself.

 

By what phenomenologists call “the natural attitude,” we generally take it as given that the world our minds present to us is the one and only world that is out there within reach of our senses. Metaphor raises the possibility of an unnatural attitude by which we have to discover that outside world through probing exploration. Metaphor requires deliberate attention to such exploration by disrupting conventional ways of understanding the world. The point of metaphor is to not get caught napping. Don’t take meaning for granted. Question it. Check it out. Which requires active pursuit of meaning as a wild and elusive quarry rather than the passive acceptance of familiar (domestic) conventions.

 

Metaphor is exceptional language requiring deliberate and self-conscious attempts to establish meaning. That is why discussions of semantics and much of philosophy are set in metaphorical terms. To confront the mysterious outer world requires us to go beyond words that mean what they say to a new language that can venture beyond convention into the unknown. The intent is to transcend everyday, literal efforts at meaning-making. That effort requires nothing less than transcendent language itself. The language of metaphor.

 

(See Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain for two other examples of metaphor.)

 

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