On Words

Words are acoustical signs for concepts; concepts, however, are more or less definite image signs for often recurring and associated sensations, for groups of sensations. To understand one another, it is not enough that one uses the same words; one also has to use the same words for the same species of inner experiences; in the end one has to have one’s experience in common.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, aphorism 268

I had been thinking about words for a while before I came across Nietzsche’s explanation of the problem. Words are an immediate abstraction. They are always trying to denote an underlying idea or meaning, or in Nietzsche’s words, a concept. I like to think about it visually. Imagine some foundational structure, a slab of concrete. It takes up some amount of space, and let’s assume this space is its meaning, in entirety. Words are the structure that sit on top of the foundational slab. They have a definite connection, certain points of contact, but in no way represent the entire concrete slab below. The structure on top, gives us certain advantages at the expense of objective truth. It may be the very tool that allowed Homo sapiens to flourish. Language gives you the ability to reduce complex tasks to its essential parts, while also making the process repeatable. Through language one can formally share experiences with other members of the the tribe. And because of the tribe’s shared experiences, they can learn as a community instead of individuals. Language (effective communication) is a prerequisite to specialization. Through specialization and sharing of experiences, the tribe can exponentially grow in its ability to withstand the challenges of the world.

But let us move to our situation in today’s society. We have significantly increased our interfacing with individuals from places unlike our own. Now, we have words that are the same on the surface, but stem from different concrete slabs. While we are in a place to benefit from truly understanding the perspective of someone unlike us, we should not underestimate the possible miscommunication between groups of people. It is hard for us to truly understand the values of someone from the opposite political party, much less those of someone from a different country. When we hear or read words, their effect is not at the level of the surface structure, but at the level of our own concrete foundation. Do we not all experience some feeling or sensation in response to words? This level of affect not only sits below the surface level interpretation of words, but it might sit below the level of our conscious awareness.

Every word has two components. We will define the surface level as that immediate registering of a known word in your brain, it carries the factual content of the word. The other part is the emotional baggage that every word is associated with. That aspect that drives how we feel and often how we respond to a word. The principle of Russell Conjugation, or emotive conjugation, is the relationship between these two layers. While two words or phrases may be synonymous on the surface level, they could have distinct or even opposite emotional connotations. Examples given by Bertrand Russell himself:

I am firm”
You are obstinate
He is a pig-headed fool”

While each of these phrases has a very similar factual meaning, they evoke a very different emotional response. The factual aspect of the words most often occurs in our conscious awareness, but the emotional tag-along may operate below our awareness. This discontinuity between fact and affect is a prime target for manipulation. At some level when we logically and consciously declare something as true, or right, we are signaling to the rest of our being that the emotional response to those words is validated. So in a way, one could engineer a phrase that passes the logical gate, while instigating an emotional response that may or may not be aligned with the logical conclusion. This is often deployed in the media where factual reporting is not enough to garner the attention desired. It is certainly displayed in political campaigns, and essentially everywhere one is trying to convince another of their perspective.

This is really just to call attention to the power of words. Be precise in your own words and judicious when interpreting those from others. While the above paragraph emphasized how language can be used to manipulate, it can equally be used to bring people together. Through the diversification of culture, our acoustic signals are no longer the same, but the concepts underlying them are universal.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 4/21/2020