There is a fundamental problem that all human's face endlessly, throughout their lives - getting their thoughts across. Clear communication. A brief look at the current political landscape reveals that we are presently suffering from a disease of miscommunication - fragmented political ideologies endlessly talking past one another. This is no trivial problem - it is, in fact, an issue of the utmost seriousness. You might think I'm making this a bigger deal than it ought to but consider for a moment a disagreement. Between husband and wife, between nations. If there is a problem, the solution of which parties disagree - and continue to disagree, regardless of what words they use - eventually the only option left will be to use violence.
The problem is even more significant than this. Even if you are lucky never to have to witness conversations breaking down and devolving into violence, you will undoubtedly come across a time in your life where you lack the words to describe something meaningful to you. An experience. An emotion. An idea. You may try to approach someone, use analogies, metaphors - every linguistic trick imaginable - but you know from their reaction that they don't get it. It is in some ways, this aspect of the communication problem, that is even more pernicious. For if we cannot effectively wield words to communicate our thoughts, then we are left well and truly alone in our own minds - and there is no greater suffering a human being can withstand than total disconnection from other minds. Taken to the extreme, such disconnection amounts to a world filled with each person embodying their own miniature Tower of Babel.
So, is it a lost cause? Must we resign to the bitter truth of imprecision of language? Maybe. But I believe two things can help at least partially remedy this ailment; understanding how language works through networks and recognizing the importance of telling the truth.
The first isn't too hard to get your head around to start with but is surprisingly deep when you start digging. So, to begin with the deceptively obvious question...
How do you know what words mean?
Some preliminary responses may be,
- You look them up in a dictionary
- You experience what they refer to
- You intuit their meaning by observing how they are used
But all three of these simultaneously strike at the origin of meaning - that there is no origin.
What do you find if you look up a word in a dictionary? More words.
How do you describe a phenomenological experience? With words.
And how do we intuit a word's meaning in the first place? By making connections to other words we know.
Once one has reflected on these facts, a general theme becomes clear; meaning is synonymous with connections. Words and their definitions, images and associated ideas (thus described with more words) define networks of meaning. There are fuzzy boundaries, however, as some words like "red" and "sweet" refer directly to their associated phenomenological experiences. These are perhaps, the roots of the network to the real world.
(Sidenote: This is an extensively well-explored area of Semantics and Semiotics in philosophy, which I proclaim to have precisely zero education in. If you want to read more about the various theories of word meaning, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/word-meaning/. My current, naive view is that this network approach is the most representative of our phenomenological experience using words, and most useful in addressing societal problems related to linguistics.)
There is, of course, a catch. The immediate network associated to a word is dependent on the observer; the word "red" will have it's own network signature, if you like, for me, which will almost certainly not totally align with yours. Your mind will have built different neural connections associated with hearing/reading/thinking the word "red" than anyone else's, with different biases, and possibly different characteristics entirely. For example, one person may immediately think of anger, blood and vicious kind of words, whereas another may think of a poppy, flowers, paintings and other colours that go well with red.
This is important.
Let me reiterate - the same words mean different things, to different people.
This begins to strike at the philosophical and abstracted heart of why I believe telling the truth is of the utmost practical and ethical importance. But first, I should clarify what I mean by "telling the truth". I've personally adopted this virtue in large part because of Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto who talks at length about the importance on telling the truth, so I'll let him make most of this point for me.
Peterson makes several fantastic points on why one should tell the truth from a macroscopic level of analysis (which I won't bother to summarize here, as that would be a disservice). However, we should be clear on what is meant by "speaking the truth". Without going into a philosophical digression on the nature of "Truth", here are some key ideas that I think summarize the idea of what practically "telling the truth" actually entails
- Recognizing that words matter and precision in use of words is of utmost importance
- As there are "white lies", there are also "black truths". One should strive to avoid saying these (eg. yes, that dress does indeed make you look fat)
- Telling the truth in the conventional sense with at least a partially pragmatic point of view
- Understanding who you are speaking to so that you modulate your manner of speaking accordingly to come across as clearly as possible
Evidently then, there are much deeper layers to the simple maxim of "speaking the truth", which are no trivial matter. I would go so far as to say that speaking the truth in the literal sense, without keeping these four points in mind, would be as unethical as being a pathological liar. You wouldn't go up to someone on the street who looks obese and tell them of your observation (2). Neither should you tell the straight and honest truth when you know doing so would put yourself or others in mortal danger (3). And similarly, you wouldn't answer a child asking the question "does God exist?" in quite the same way as how you would answer someone your own age.
So, keeping these four precepts in mind when hearing my use of the term "telling the truth", let me now explain the relevance of networks of meaning with the act of telling the truth.
Given that we use words based on our own meaning networks, which may not align with the networks of others, it is evident that you must keep point (4) squarely in mind to adjust your usual preferred use of words. We could visualize this abstractly as these networks synchronizing with one another, and choosing words such that our overlap is as large as possible. This maximizes the possibility of getting our ideas and points across and so is clearly worthwhile. The more words which I associate with an idea that you also share with, then the greater the likelihood that you will understand what I mean by that word, hopefully. This, I believe, is at the crux of Mortimer Adler's idea of "getting to terms" with an author.
Moreover, I posit that telling the truth maintains an intrinsic network stability which is of pragmatic benefit in the long run.
You may use certain words or tell a particular story in one instance, and seed particular meaning networks in people's minds at one point in time. But, if at some later time you flip back on that, or modify it to a great extent, then you are rocking the network boat. No better of a macroscopic example can I think of than the word "liberal" in the way it is presently used in politics today; with immense fuzzy inaccuracy. Seriously, start paying attention to how people on YouTube, Twitter, and in real life use the word "liberal", and you will inadvertently notice how utterly elusive, nebulous and contradictory its true meaning is. Lying, then, is as if you take a spider web and pluck a particular bit of it repeatedly - eventually it's gonna tear, and cease to be a spider web at all.
This idea of networked meaning goes quite deep and draws on the rather advanced areas of philosophy such as semiotics, linguistics and semantics. We could go on for many pages yet, but I think this brief overview and discussion is sufficient to understand the key ideas with pertinent application to our lives:
- The meaning of words can be understood by networks, where the nodes/intersections are words, and connections are intuitive or experiential relations
- Immediate network neighbourhood of words is dependent on the person using/observing them
- Telling the truth is of utmost ethical importance
- Telling the truth (with our four precepts in mind) maximizes accuracy and overlap of meaning networks when communicating
- Telling the truth is also more stable across networks over the long run
I sincerely believe that only by abiding by such principles, can man avoid the ultimate existential hell of fractionating into billions of isolated towers of Babel.