The Use of Words

Most of you know where I stand on nouns – I don’t like ’em much. I have a much friendlier relationship with verbs. Verbs describe and animate; Nouns pigeonhole and create an illusion of certainty.

For example, I don’t often hear people argue about whether a person “wrote” something or “scribbled” it. But I often hear people argue about whether that person “is” [sic] a writer or not. You can extend this list infinitely to include arguments of all kinds about “is this an A or a B?”.

I think it improves one’s clarity of thought exponentially to toss this out as a valid subject for a conversation. Throw it in the compost. You’ll feel better, I wager.

So, can we categorize things usefully? I believe so. We just have to change the shape of the object that we call “category”, including all its various synonyms and idioms: sets, boxes, labels, and so on.

Right now, linguistically and in the common-sense logic of our culture, we believe that categories have solid borders. The next step of enlightenment (or as I prefer to call it, ‘clarity’) occurs when we notice the permeability of these borders (i.e. a person in the “riot cop” category quits her job and enters the “poet” category) in startling ways.

I believe the next step occurs when we stop seeing any borders at all, but rather clouds of points, each point indicating a specific subjective observation. For example, rather than the convention image of atoms as solid spheres, or like little solar systems with electrons moving in fixed orbits, quantum physics maps them this way:

[Thanks to image creator Blake Stacey, who describes this image as ‘How quantum mechanics sees a hydrogen atom: one electron “inhabiting” the space around one proton.’]

Now, let’s think of words as flags for marking a point of observation. So, for example, let’s say I assign the word “dog” to a certain animal I’ve observed. I’ve planted a flag, from inner cognitive space into physical space. Primary to this act: I have a relationship to that flag. I have feelings about that flag, because of the initial observation I made. Think of the red proton in the image as that flag, a symbol planted in the physical world. Now, everything around that, the electron cloud of probable location points, indicates all the further observations that I make  about the world that have some level of similarity to where I stuck my flag to begin with; the closer in, the more similarity, the farther out the lesser. Note that the electron and the proton do not share space; neither does my word “dog” inhabit any physical space. But the observation points cluster around the central point.

These observational clouds can (and do) overlap with clouds belonging to other flags. [Please keep in mind I’ve used the hydrogen atom image as a fun comparison; not all of this model of seeing ‘categories’ necessarily applies to the behavior of atoms!].

Now, instead of defining things according to whether they sit on this side of the border or that, we can define them according to their relationship to an abstract center we have created. Keep in mind that our flag doesn’t actually exist in the physical world; it models actual things we can observe, but doesn’t replace them.

Each person experiences flags differently; by their very nature, they must have a different relationship to this or that flag (you love dogs; I don’t – you grew up with dogs; I didn’t) that fundamentally orients how we think about all beings and observations that cluster ever more closely around that flag.

Nothing in this universe comes in neat little boxes; or at least, to believe so will only bring you a lot of grief. A flexible and relationship-to-a-center oriented way of organizing your perceptual world will increase your clarity of mind and cut out a lot of pointless arguments. Give it a shot!

Much like with Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication method, and with e-prime/primitive (of which I see this as an inextricable part), you may best spend your time translating others’ speech into this model, rather than explaining to them why “ur doin it rong”. I find that thinking and speaking in this way consciously will iron out fuzzy conversations without having to explain anything to anyone about electron clouds and center-focused categories.

Written by Willem