Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Words as Pockets

There's something I've been trying to say about words and language these past few years. It has popped up in discussions with friends and in my comments on blogs. I've never been satisfied with how I've said it. Finally, Nietzsche has come to my rescue.

The word "revenge" is said so quickly, it almost seems as if it could not contain more than one root concept and feeling. And so people are still trying to find this root - just as our economists still have not got tired of smelling such a unity in the word "value" and of looking for the original root concept of value. As if all words were not pockets into which now this and now that has been put, and now many things at once! Thus "revenge," too, is now this and now that, and now something very composite.
- "The Wanderer and His Shadow," Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's specific example is revenge, but it's the same with other words. Whenever we're talking with one another, we need to recognize that even though we are using the same words, we may very well be placing different things into these "pockets."

Here are two good examples, one from my own blog and one from Into The Depths. My post Suicide Is Painless provoked a discussion over exactly how we should be using the word suicide. I was enlisting the word "suicide" to describe an action that Stash felt required a more "dignified" term.

In the comments for Joel's 2 Kicks Dan and I tussled over both the words "evangelical" and "morality." Same words, same pockets. Different filling.

These disputes weren't trivial to Dan, Stash, or myself; we all had something at stake. We all find some sort of valuable or powerful conotation in these words, so each of us wanted to wield these words in support of our positions. It is somewhat futile to argue over who is right in these cases, though. Just like the value of money, the meaning of words is social. In our mutual attempts to alter the language each other uses, we were attempting to alter each other. If Stash began using the word "suicide" to describe what is more commonly and simply referred to as a martyrdom, it would have reflected (or caused? perhaps, yes) a change in how he viewed the world.

Despite these inevitable conflicts, it is possible to reach a practical and useful mutual understanding. Despite the reality of conflicting metanarratives or even the mythical Calvinist antithesis, we can see what another person fills a particular word with and so effectively communicate. And how can we do this? Empthy. Whenever someone is being weird, we can only communicate with them on the basis of empathy; temporarily taking on their perspective.

All this is important for... well, pretty much everything I thoughtfully speak and write about. It's specifically going to be important for the next couple of posts; I'm finally going to get around to the twin topics of religion and theology. And yes, part two of the morality thing is coming too.

I can't stress how valuable and insightful Frederich Nietzsche is, by the way. By all means, pick up Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals. Better yet, get the collection I linked to above. Every single person that wishes to be thoughtful should write more like Nietzsche, myself included. I only wish the folks I'll be studying in the fall were influenced in a literary sense by Nietzsche and not only in a philosophical way.

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