Language and Understanding

In my last post I spent some time talking about interpretation. I wanted to convey that interpretation has to do with the process of how we understand the world about us. Interpretations can be valid or invalid—that is to say, a good interpretation or a not so good interpretation. What we understand something to be can be a reasonable understanding or a poor understanding. What is certain is that we are always making sense and meaning of the world about us. Even when we misunderstand, we are seeking to understand. Misunderstanding itself presupposes the possibility and the promise of understanding.

Language plays a central role in how we understand. In fact, we cannot understand without language. Hans-Georg Gadamer (one of the most important hermeneutic philosophers of all time) wrote, “Being that can be understood is language.” One of the things he meant is that anything that can be understood discloses itself in the language of the one who understands. What we understand something to be is articulated and communicated in language. I was presenting a paper at a conference a few years ago in which I was making similar points about language. In the Q&A one of the audience members took issue with what I had to say about how everything we understand is understood linguistically. I asked him if he could communicate his point to me without using language. Needless to say, he could not.

To be sure, we have what philosophers refer to as pre-linguistic experiences. Whether an event, a feeling, an encounter, or anything else—while the thing itself is not language—our understanding of those things takes place in language. Another way to look at language (especially human language) is that we give things names. Suppose I tell you the sky was orange last evening at sunset. Presuming you have been taught colors, you understand me when I refer to an orange sky. The phenomenon we call orange is articulated by a set of symbols and/or sounds that refer to it. There is nothing at all particularly orange about those symbols or sounds, but we have housed a certain phenomenon in those symbols and sounds. The being of that phenomenon that can be understood is in language. After telling you about the orange sky, suppose I ask you if you would like to eat an orange with me. Although the symbols and sounds are the same, you understand without even thinking about it that the “orange” of the sky and the “orange” I invite you to eat are different beings. You have learned the word “orange” and the different things to which that word can refer. But your understanding of either would be limited to non-existent without language.

 Language is not only that which we articulate and communicate about things. Language also does a great deal to shape how we understand things. That is why language is so important and why understanding how language works is even more important. For example, I think of how in the past year how there were worldwide protests against police brutality of black citizens in the United States. Many commentators and political leaders refused to use the word “protestor” when talking about the protests. Instead, we heard of “rioters” and “looters,” with no distinction at all made between the activities or an acknowledgement of protestors. The effect that this had on many was to characterize any and all involved in those events as rioters and looters. If we remove the word protestor from our language concerning these events then we do not have to consider the reality of police brutality in the United States and we quickly associate anyone involved in such events to be bad people. If my social media feeds were any indication, the power of language to shape understanding, when misused, so easily allowed (or manipulated) people to dismiss a very real problem and even demonize those calling for the country to address the problem. People who like their world to be black and white, who do not like complex and nuanced thought, and who cannot or are too bothered to make necessary distinctions tend to fall for these sorts of linguistic tactics pretty easily.

Language does influence perception. Political campaigns, for instance, invest plenty of time and money in crafting language to influence and shape perception. A now well-known example is a memo crafted by Frank Luntz, a consultant advising the first Bush campaign in the early 2000’s. Luntz was advising Republicans how to talk about environmental issues. Probably the most widely reported part of the memo is where Luntz advised Republicans to refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming.” The term “climate change” was not a new term Luntz created. Climate scientists have long used this language. In popular culture, especially at that time, the term “global warming” was more common as it referred to the specific way the climate was changing. Why did Luntz suggest changing terms?

Answer: for the express purpose of changing perception.

He wrote: “‘climate change is less frightening than ‘global warming.’” Whereas global warming seems to point to a more catastrophic problem, climate change suggests “a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” The overall tenor of the memo was to come across more positive. Instead of being “environmentalists” or “preservationists,” a word such as “conservationist” put a more positive spin on the Republican position. Luntz said, “The words on these pages are tested—they work!”

One may argue that the change in language suggested by Luntz corresponded to the truth and the intent was to communicate the truth more effectively. Whether that is the case is another conversation. The point here is that language shapes perception. We know this. The use of language, ethically speaking, entails a responsibility to use it well.  

With this post and the previous one, my intent is to set the stage for the next few posts where I will be looking at a few different random words that I think we do not use as well as we could be. Being attentive to language and how we use it, I am certain, fosters better discourse between us and can make our civilization…perhaps a bit more civil.

Stay tuned…

Interpreting Interpretation (Or, Understanding Understanding)

I have been thinking about writing a post or a small series of posts on words and language. Specifically, I want to talk about how words tend to become devoid of useful meaning when repeatedly used or misused. I am not speaking of how a word or a phrase can have multiple meanings or connotations. After all, language is not stuck in the mud. Think of it this way: Sometimes there are words or phrases that are meant to encapsulate more nuanced or even complex ideas; shortcuts, if you will. That is fine as long as the word or phrase actually is a shortcut to understanding the larger idea, when it actually communicates something that meaningfully adds to a conversation. But then the word or phrase catches on and becomes a trend. At this point, the word starts getting thrown around and inserted into any and every conversation without regard or intention to use it meaningfully. Sometimes (at least in my observation) such words not only fail to advance a conversation but are used with the intent to stop it in its tracks. People seem to not want to reason together to come to mutual understanding (mutual understanding does not imply mutual agreement), but only to defeat an interlocutor to whom one is opposed.

But really, all this is a just a matter of interpretation, right? Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that there are “no facts, only interpretations. And this, too, is only an interpretation.” Here I am not going to explicate what Nietzsche meant in this quotation. But in common parlance the word “interpretation” is a substitute word for “opinion.” By the way, that is not what Nietzsche meant.

Opinions are not inherently bad. We all have opinions, and it is rather difficult to be a being with the capacity to reason and not have opinions. The issue is whether an opinion is justifiable or reasonable. But let us face it. No one ever says “that’s just your opinion” because they have sympathy for what you are saying. We typically (and wrongly) tend to say that as a way of saying “I do not agree with you and I am not going to take the time or effort to counter you.” We dismiss the claim of the other by diminishing it as just their opinion. So “opinion” is presumed to be something inferior.

I could write another post just on opinions. But what I am getting at here is that I have noticed people sometimes use the word “interpretation” interchangeably with “opinion.” Of course, there is a sense in which an opinion is an interpretation (or more so an articulation of an interpretation). You cannot really offer an opinion without having interpreted that which you have an opinion on. My concern—what really gets to me—is that the word “opinion” has been reduced to its most negative understanding and that, when substituting the word “interpretation,” a very poor understanding of the word “interpretation” results. But interpretation is really about how we understand the world about us and the conditions that create understanding. I am of the opinion that the word “opinion” has been greatly abused and perhaps I’ll write about that sometime. Here I am going to write about what interpretation is, why you cannot not interpret, and why getting that is a very good thing.

Hermeneutics is what we call the field of philosophy that studies interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to hermeneutics as the art of understanding and in his writings used the word “interpretation” and “understanding” interchangeably. Thus, to interpret something is to attain to an understanding of it (right, wrong, or otherwise). Further, interpretation and meaning go hand in hand. To interpret something is to come to some sort of idea what something means.

To be clear, interpretation is not something you simply choose or choose not to do. Whether you are reading this blog post, watching a game on the television, engaged in a conversation, looking at a piece of art, walking through a beautiful landscape, arguing with a spouse, or…well, name any activity you can think of, you are interpreting. That is, you are making sense out of it and drawing meaning from it. This is one reason it is important to understand that an interpretation is not just an “opinion,” especially when opinion is taken to mean simply a personal, subjective belief. To suggest to someone that their view is “just their interpretation” is unaware of what interpretation is. Of course, it is their interpretation! It is what they take whatever the subject matter happens to be to mean! What else would it be if not their interpretation!

The irony is that when someone says another’s view is just an interpretation, they are giving (in light of their own interpretation of interpretation)—wait for it—an interpretation! Believe me (or not), but when someone says that is just your opinion or interpretation, do not expect them to offer, by contrast, a carefully thought out, fact-based, reflective position. Make no mistake, however. You do not utter any thought or conviction that is not an interpretation. I think Richard Palmer said it best in a book published in 1969 on hermeneutics. He said, “Interpretation is, then, perhaps the most basic act of human thinking; indeed, existing itself may be said to be a constant process of interpretation.”

“Wait a minute!” you exclaim. Once I look at the facts of the matter, am I not simply speaking the truth? I am either wrong or right, but that is not a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of the facts, right? The facts do not care about my interpretation! Not exactly. Okay, some things are more apparent. 2+2=4 is not a matter of opinion (actually, it is, but that is for another post). Consider this, though. You do not simply understand the bare fact of 2+2=4. You think you do, but you do not. If I say to you that 2+2=4, but you have no concept of what 2 is, what 4 is, what addition is, or what equals is, you simply are not going to get it. So your understanding of 2+2=4 is conditioned on your pre-understanding of the concepts that make up the equation. You can shout at me all day that this math equation is objective truth whether I understand it or not. My simple response is this: “A lot of good objective truth does you if you do not understand it!”

Hermeneutics (interpretation theory) does not concern itself with the objectivity of objective truth. Hermeneutics is a lot more concerned with how you understand. Because any truth that cannot be understood does precious little good for anyone. And the rather interpreted fact of the matter is, understanding (interpretation) is a process that accompanies you whether you know it or not, like or not, understand it or not. And if you have any opinion on what I am writing, you are interpreting what I am writing or there would be nothing for you to have an opinion about. You have a take (an interpretation) about what I am saying and you have something to say about it.

Alright then. What does this have to do with pretty much anything at all? Well, it has to do with pretty much everything. But since it is hard to write about pretty much everything and you do not want to read about pretty much everything, I will talk about a little something. Refer back to the first paragraph. In the posts that follow, I want to talk about words and language and how their misuse, disuse, and abuse is really making reasoned discourse an exercise in Sisyphean frustration. Interpretation, in the philosophical sense, can rescue us from pushing the stone up the hill only to have it roll back again, making us feel as if we are forever at the start.

Some good, some bad

2020 has not exactly been stellar year, I think most reasonable people would agree. We continue to experience a global pandemic. Here in the United States it is particularly worrisome as we head into the fall and numbers, including deaths, continue to rise. For these and many other reasons, 2020 has not shaped up to be a year we will remember with affection.

Besides the general things that we all experience, there are as many individual and communal stories as there are individuals and communities. I cannot speak for others, but I have been doing a fair amount of reflecting on events in my own life. I have had my share of loss and difficulty while simultaneously having some of the greatest joys of my life in the midst of it all. There has been some good, some bad.

I have to go back to 2019 as a preface to 2020. After having been single for three years after 21 years of marriage, I was giving serious thought to becoming a bachelor scholar. The dating world today, for any age group, is about as unpleasant a thing as one can imagine. I was fully ready to cease my search for meaningful, romantic companionship and focus my energies on other pursuits. Then I met Alison in late May. Now, 16 months later, every sense I had about her and what our potential could be after our first few dates has been confirmed. More on that later.

Two things happened in August of 2019. The first was being informed that my job of 15 years was being eliminated. Other long-time staff members were cut as well. At age 54, losing a position in which you had become established was rather unsettling. The second happened 3 days later when I was officially awarded my doctorate after having successfully defended my dissertation (found here) in early July. August 2019 was quite a month.

Okay, so I lost my job and income in 2019, but I started a relationship and received a PhD. That’s a 2:1 ratio of good to bad, despite the one bad being pretty weighty. Entering 2020 was looking more sunny than cloudy.

In February I decided for my 55th birthday that I wanted to have a gathering and invite several friends from different compartments of my life. The only thing that a number of these friends had in common was knowing me. Despite that, I saw some great conversation and connecting take place among them. A highlight for me was having a local artist, the young and exceptionally talented singer/songwriter Remy Reilly, provide music for my big day. Remy has a remarkable gift for writing songs that communicate profoundly the conundrum of what it means to be human—all the while knowing and believing we can all be better. I had the privilege of meeting Remy some months before and sharing conversation with her parents, John and Amy. Sometimes you meet people you just know immediately to be genuinely good people. And that is a great thing. As much as I am a fan of Remy Reilly for the music she creates, I respect the family that her gift comes from. That’s a gift itself and something definitely in the “good” column.

If my birthday was any sign, 2020 was looking to be a great year for me. But there has been loss.

On the first day of June, I received a message that one of my dearest friends had died. I’ll write more about her in another post but suffice it to say for now that she and I had been very close friends for some time. An accident in her home took her away. She was far too young and far too good a person to leave this life, but sometimes things happen that make no sense and there is no sense to be made of them. Then, just days ago relative to the time I am writing these words, a tragic accident, also in the home, took the life of my nephew, a sweet and kind boy of only 14.

2020 has been a year of painful loss.

Of course, I would be remiss to leave out a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus. A month and a day after my glorious birthday celebration the country went into lockdown. This is a trying time and uncertain time. The direction of this country is also uncertain and what happens in the next few months will have an impact that will last years.

Still there has been good. Lockdown was made a lot sweeter because my youngest daughter stayed with me during the early months of the lockdown. Although I saw her on a regular basis prior to this, having her and her sweet canine, Ellie, gave me joy every day. We took walks, we played board games, and we planted plants. Well, to be honest, my daughter planted plants and I watched, but still it was time we shared.

June 14 was a special day beyond special days. I got engaged. This was as much as a surprise to me as anyone. I wanted companionship, but I had no real desire to ever marry again. Never say never. After a year with Alison, my heart changed. I wanted to be married to her. So one day during one of our walks, I stopped, knelt down, fumbled for the ring, and courageously (and quite nervously) asked her to marry me. As my son used to sometimes say about various things, “This could go really good…or really bad.” There would be no middle ground here for sure. Thankfully, it was good! She said yes. Whatever is yet to come, I win 2020 on this alone.

So what does all of this mean? What have I learned? Sometimes things we know in the head move to the heart. Sometimes those things travel back to the head and need to return to the heart. So many things all of us already know in our heads moved back to my heart this year. Never take a moment for granted. Cherish the ones you have while you have them. Pain comes and its hard, but life cannot be reduced to those events. Value the little things, the ordinary. Be a good person.

The Inaugural Post

The use of the term “inaugural” makes me think I should have a bottle of champagne to break on my laptop. But I suppose that would not be the best idea I ever had, so I’ll skip that. Just drinking the champagne seems a far better notion.

If you take a look at the “about” section, you will see that I wrote that this is a blog by a philosopher, but not for philosophers. Really all that means is that I am not using this space to write philosophical papers. There are plenty of places to do that in the world of professional philosophy. No, this space is just for me to write whatever it is I feel like writing about on a given day. As someone who has been trained in philosophy, I tend to approach the world, whether I am immediately cognizant of it or not, from the perspective of philosophy. Now, this does not mean that I approach every subject I encounter trying to fit it in to this or that structure of thinking. What I mean is much more fundamental.

As every philosophy professor everywhere on the planet does in an introduction to philosophy class, we pose the question “what is philosophy”? Then we offer an etymology of the word. Philosophy simply means the “love of wisdom.” The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote that if philosophy is the love of wisdom, we must remember that to love and to be in love is to desire (see his book Why Philosophize?). What is it to desire? Desire refers to something that is before us, something that we do not, in any complete or absolute way, possess. It does not matter how much you learn, how much you understand, the philosophical habit of mind is the awareness that there is far much more that you do not know or understand. The philosopher is never sated. The philosopher is not one who boasts about what is known (or thinks is known) but one who cannot stop exploring. Imagine an explorer of the world covering a lot of ground and being in awe of what she or he has found and then simply ceasing to explore. Quite the contrary, every discovery puts you more in wonder than you were before you started. The explorer is only an explorer when exploring. The traveler is only a traveler when traveling. The “love of wisdom” is only philosophy when the philosopher continues to desire. After all, is love something you do and once you have done it, it is done? As the rock band REO Speedwagon wrote: “That Ain’t Love.”

So whatever I write about, this desire for wisdom and understanding is always going to be there. It doesn’t matter whether I write about serious matters concerning contemporary issues or if I write about an attempt at a tomato plant and just how damn good that fresh tomato was. As both Plato and Aristotle taught us, philosophy begins in wonder. So this blog is where I am going to wonder about stuff and be in wonder about stuff.

The title of this website sounds a bit heady and pretentious: Discursive Dialectics. For a fellow who says he is writing for everyone and a general audience rather than for fellow philosophers, this title seems a poor choice. Here I recall the words of my mother when, as a child, I would ask her what a word meant. She would reply, “Look it up in the dictionary.” In other words, “learn a new word” and expand my vocabulary was the message implied. I chose the name “Discursive Dialectics” because it reflects the spirit and attitude of this blog. Here let me insert that media historian, associate professor at Lesley University, and discoverer of the band Rush, Donna Halper, already had the title “Discourse and Dialogue” for her blog. I thought this was a perfect name but, alas, it was already taken. But not getting the title I considered a perfect one forced me to think a bit more about what I want to do here.

As I thought of the term “discursive,” I reflected on how it can refer to the practice of discourse or can simply refer to a series of unrelated digressions. As I wanted a blog that had some sort of identifiable meaning, yet I did not want to make it so narrow as to have little appeal, it occurred to me that “discursive” fit. Sure, I want to write about what I want to write about when I want to write about it. But what will always be an underlying theme, direct or indirect, is that pursuit of the love of wisdom and the relevance that the love of wisdom has no matter what one is discussing. So despite what will surely be my widely diverse digressions, I want to make you think. I want to make me think—and to do it better.

Dialectics, as it is used on this website, simply refers to a process of dialogue from which arises a deeper understanding of life. I can think. You can think. But when we think together something rather terrific often happens. We come up with something together that we might not have otherwise come up with on our own. Now, you might say I am a little disingenuous referring to a process of dialogue when it turns out I rarely have comments activated on my posts. If I am so interested in dialogue in the pursuit of truth then why will I not allow comments? The straightforward answer is that my observation of comment threads on social media leads me to the most certain conviction that the quality of sincere dialogue that helps us flourish as human beings rarely to nearly never happens on comment threads. I find it to usually be rather soul draining, a place where thoughtful and intelligent dialogue is substituted with boisterous ignorance that is mistaken for knowledge due to the arrogant confidence with which it is delivered from keyboards and smartphones across the world. I simply don’t want to fill my time with that nonsense.

So I guess, for now, I want this blog to reflect the spirit of dialogue I prefer and perhaps it will foster that in my readers. So thanks for looking in. If one post does not interest you, visit again. Maybe you will find something for you that helps you live what Socrates called the examined life.  Cheers.