Philosophy / Thoughts / Writing

Working on the Language

File:Tomato basket.jpg

When we think about problems of philosophy, science, culture, politics or whatever, or when we try to explain our thoughts or insights, we may do so in terms of existing concepts. Sometimes we will note that the resulting descriptions become complicated, unwieldy and hard to understand.

We should then step back and start working on the language instead of working on the problem at hand. From the task of describing a thought with a set of existing concepts, we should try to find more fitting concepts, so that the problem becomes easy or even trivial to describe. Metaphorically, you may think of such a concept as a vessel, say a basket that makes it easy to store, lift, carry or hand over a lot of small things at once by bundling them into one thing, thus reducing the complexity of the task.

I am a computer programmer, and programming is where I took this idea from. In programming, one can write monolithic program of thousands of lines in terms of a few basic commands or one can try to find the right abstractions, breaking up the problem into sub-tasks each handled by a simple program and then combining these into the complete program. Good programming languages support this by a set of abstraction mechanisms that, in effect, allow changing or extending the language by new concepts. If these concepts (classes, objects, procedures, macros or whatever they are called in programmer’s jargon) are well designed, a complex task might become easily solvable within a few lines. For the end user of the program, doing a complex task may become as simple as clicking on a button. So a basic strategy of programming is to work on the language until the problem becomes trivial.

For example, as a blogger, you can  create a professionally looking web site by choosing a “theme” and selecting a few options. In a low level programming language, the same task might take thousands of lines of program code because you would be working in terms of low level concepts like dots and lines and their position, instead of “themes” and “widgets”. By creating high level concepts, the task has been made so easy that non-experts are able to do it. In the same way, a market trader on a traditional vegetable market can carry his or her goods “in terms of” baskets instead of in terms of “low level objects” like tomatoes.

In a similar way, we can make complex topics easy to understand by choosing or – if necessary – by creating the right concepts. You can then first explain or define the concept to your readers and once that is done, you are in the position of writing about a complex topic in much simpler and clearer terms. So be bold enough to coin new terms and invent new concepts.

However, there is a danger as well. Concepts may hide more than they explain. Concepts might be invented for demagogic or ideological purposes and used to transport a hidden message. So stay on guard and remain critical and skeptical. Concepts can bundle a whole lot of functionality in a single word and be used to plant an idea into your mind without you noticing it. They can be used to manipulate. So while we should work on inventing good concepts to convey our message more easily, we should also work on dissecting and criticizing the concepts we encounter.

(‘The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tomato_basket.jpg?uselang=de.)

12 thoughts on “Working on the Language

  1. I cannot agree with this concept more. I find myself omitting words from my everyday vocabulary, simply because I do not like the accepted definitions of such words (god being one of them) and if there were some kind of shift in certain terms, perhaps into a more holistic and all encompassing definition, the ideas that follow could forever be altered. It is after all the logos that breathes life into the ideas that change the world. Giving a name to an idea brings it to life.

    cmkline.wordpress.com

    • We are living in a web of as-if-constructions implemented in terms of our concepts and ideas. Much of our world and culture consists of such as-if-constructions. It is not wrong to inhabit them, but we should realize what they are, then we can shape them and decide in which ones we want to live. That is one of the main topics of my blog, the as-if-o-scope.

      • Though I am not a sports guy, one concept that I relate to with those who coach sports is a return to fundamentals. As you said in your post, “you have to go back to low level concepts to create a new theme.” With language this is imperative in moving forward as a world society.

  2. One more note: the high level concepts are “less powerful”, as programmers call that. They are specialized. For example, with the available WordPress themes, you can only have this layout or that. You are restricted.
    If you want something else, you have to go back to the low level concepts to create a new theme. The low level programming language underlying this system is more versatile, it has a higher “expressive power”, but using it is more difficult, complicated, error-prone and cumbersome. There is always a trade off between simplicity and expressive power, but by defining new concepts, you can use the low level language to make it simple to talk about something that was difficult before. So you use the language in two (or more) stages: the low level language is used to define high level concepts and then the high level concepts are used to solve the problem.

    • I believe the same rationale can be used in breaking down some of the underlying problems we face as a world community today. It is in many ways the same way a vaccine is used, Some of the similar problems are essentially the same issue, and can be handled in an as you would say “low level” manner, all the while laying the ground work to solve high level issues with the same low level tact. It seems so simple yet overlooked to take a scientific approach to societal issues.

  3. It seems I need to work on language! Thanks for describing this with such clarity of thought. I have struggled with complicated unwieldy expressions, and took a big step back from the problem. Now I feel resolved to invent some bold new concepts…. You’ve put my mind on a new track, after feeling like a stuck record for some time. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Power and Creativity | The Asifoscope

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