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  Words Are Not Ideas

Words Are Not Reality

The idea that words aren't reality, like the idea that words are ideas, is something I understood suddenly, as an epiphany, not as a result of somebody explaining it to me in words. As usual, though, that won't stop me from trying.

I think of the idea that words aren't reality as being a Zen thing. In fact, as a result of my non-extensive experience with Zen, I equate this idea with the whole of Zen. This is almost certainly an error, but I do it anyway. For reference, here is a list of all my sources on Zen, in the order in which I was exposed to them.

Gödel, Escher, Bach
The Tao Is Silent
Zen Flesh Zen Bones

Honestly, I don't even know if the idea is something I understand myself, any more. On the surface, the idea is trivial: words are words, reality is reality, obviously they're different. After the seed was planted, though, there was one day when, provoked by some actual experience, I felt I suddenly understood the idea in a new way. Was I imagining it? Have I forgotten it since then? Had I just been reading too many koans where monks were suddenly enlightened? Beats me.

Maybe a stronger way to state the idea is to observe that truth is a property of words and sentences, not of reality. I imagine this is why koans are useful—they show that words don't necessarily have anything to do with anything. The Epimenides paradox is useful in the same way.

This sentence is false.

The sentence is neither true nor false, but the contradiction doesn't cause reality to suddenly disappear in a puff of logic … it is just some words.

By the way, when I say that truth is not a property of reality, I most emphatically do not mean that reality is subjective. Although it is known to be unprovable in principle, I have no doubt that an external, objective reality does exist, and that we can use words to make extremely good approximations to it.

When I was searching in Bartlett's to try and pin down the origin of the idea that words are ideas, I found this nice quotation by Thomas Carlyle, from Sartor Resartus. I'm taking it completely out of context, so I don't know if it is really relevant at all, but here it is anyway.

Be not the slave of Words.

* * *

I can't believe I wrote all the above and didn't think to mention Wittgenstein! From my occasional poking around in Zettel, I've picked up his idea of a language-game (Sprachspiel). Here's the most apropos note I could find.

320. Why don't I call cookery rules arbitrary, and why am I tempted to call the rules of grammar arbitrary? Because ‘cookery’ is defined by its end, whereas ‘speaking’ is not. That is why the use of language is in a certain sense autonomous, as cooking and washing are not. You cook badly if you are guided in your cooking by rules other than the right ones; but if you follow other rules than those of chess you are playing another game; and if you follow grammatical rules other than such-and-such ones, that does not mean you say something wrong, no, you are speaking of something else.

As I understand it, the name “language-game” is meant to refer to language as a behavior people exhibit, rather than, say, language as an exact model of reality. That distinction is precisely what I meant to write about.

* * *

While working on another essay (Nameless Code), I finally came up with a decent paraphrase of the idea that words are not reality.

We use words, or names, to refer to things that are part of reality, but the things in themselves don't have names.

Not all words refer to things that are part of reality, of course.


  See Also

  Basic Idea, The
  Content Dynamics
  Hierarchical Namespaces
  Modern Form, The
  Nameless Code
  Nameless, The
  Personality Types
  Physical Awareness
  Quantitative Can Be Qualitative
  Some Flaws in the Analogy
  Some Thoughts

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