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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Sep 5 2011

Ignomatic [adjective or adverb]: Description of a type of behaviour that is acquired by imitation, sustained by habit, with an origin to which the practitioner is perfectly oblivious.  Combination or ignorance (gnosis=knowledge) and the ending -matic (=willing) common to words such as automatic, pragmatic or dogmatic. Ignomatic behaviour would have in common with dogmatic behaviour that it is unquestioned, but as opposed to the latter it lacks a (to the subject)  conscious motive or origin. “Mechanical” is often used to describe this type of unconscious behaviour, but  ignomatic behaviour does not presuppose lack of awareness of the behaviour itself, only the motive behind it. (Moreover, I find “mechanical” being an inappropriate use of machine language to describe mind/purpose generated behaviour.)  Rituals can be performed in a lucid state of awareness but still lack genuine purpose.

I have been looking for a word to capture this for years and I have not found one.

Who does know what the Easter bunny has got to do with the Crucifixion, what “OK” means, why we shake hands or spend weeks of our lives watching nappy commercials when our days are numbered?

Some days I think most of human life is ignomatic.

Jul 11 2009

I came across a new word recently and I realized it might be the most beautiful word in the world, yet it has no direct correspondence in English. Mudita is a Pali word, and is usually translated as “sympathetic” or “altruistic” joy. Basically it means to take pleasure in someone else’s well-being. Isn’t that lovely? I think we need that word desperately as I sense there is a widespread suspicion against even the remote possibility of it. Allegedly someone’s success only genuinely provokes envy in others, and some cynical bastards even claim that people that show joy about other’s success only do so for strategic purposes, i.e. if they stand to benefit somehow. If this is not a “misunderestimation” of our emotional capacity I do not know what is. The claim is based on the (potentially self-fulfilling) notion that human’s are ultimately only selfish, as for instance people that give to others only do so to feel good about themselves. The absurdity of this argument is that it implies an idea of altruism that is impossible to ever fulfill short of actually being the other person. Of course a giver will feel good, since we do everything with some emotional motivation, and those rewarding emotions cannot be anywhere else than in the doer. Would having no emotions in association with a good deed make the person more altruistic rather than more schizoid? The difference between selfish and altruistic actions is not that the latter have no benefit for the doer but that it has benefit not only, or primarily, for the doer. The great, yet linguistically overseen, fact about humans, contrary to common thinking, is that we are fully capable of taking great pleasure in helping others, or seeing something become realized just for the beauty of it, or watching our loved ones overcome obstacles. Mudita is something every parent recognizes.

I agree that there must be something quite rotten about us since the opposite of mudita has made it to English language, namely the German shadenfreude, to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. That in my mind must be one of the ugliest traits in our nature, and it comes as close to pure evil as I can imagine. The fact that the ugliest and not the most beautiful word has made it does carry a seed of redemption however. If it is accepted that we are capable of being emotionally excited by the suffering of others, logically it seems to refute the claim that we are not capable of vicarious emotions, i.e. the emotional participation in the experience of others. (That there should be any doubt about that baffles me seeing with all the football, religious worship and patriotism going around, vicarious living seems to be then norm rather than the exception. ) And if we have this capacity, which no doubt we do, we can chose to cultivate the positive aspect of it rather than the negative.

Without sounding to spiritual, thinking about mudita also has a self-fulfilling or reflexive quality. The more I can take joy in the happiness of someone else, the happier I get and the better I get at taking joy in the happiness of others… There is something very relaxing and cozy about it. If I can take joy in someone else’s joy I also feel great about myself, like I am a grown-up or something. I am normally just busy with my own projects, but if I stop for a moment and take in someone else’s achievements there is actually an abundance of great things to enjoy. I can think that so-and-so is a truly beautiful and gifted person. How wonderful it must be for so-and-so to have that financial freedom. I can listen to a song and think, are we not lucky that this composer managed to write that tune. It cultivates a gratefulness for all the good things in life, instead of a frustration about what I do not have.

Damn it….sounds way to cheesy…better stop or I will make a New Age ass of myself.

Jan 25 2009

In Swedish the word for reality is verklighet. Etymologically it stems from the German Wirklishkeit, and I was very surprised to learn that it was the mystic Meister Eckhart’s translation of the Latin actualitas that he used to explain Greek philosophy to Dominican nuns around 1300. I think few Scandinavians and Germans suspect that their concept of reality comes from a mystic that while steeped in Christian metaphors had a very Eastern outlook that claimed that above and beyond the God as a Creator there is a formless Godhead from which all arises. The English concept reality comes from the Latin realitas or realis, and interestingly enough according to an online etymological dictionary it was originally, i.e. around 1550, a legal term meaning “fixed property”. That makes sense since it is still reflected in the American usage of real estate. The dictionary also claims that the meaning “real existence” comes from 1647, which suggests that Germans had an idea of reality a good 300 years before the English. It gives no further clues, and online searches for the etymology of reality leaves one none the wiser. I don’t know Latin, but I have gathered realitas is related to res meaning thing, and I believe that it would be quite uncontroversial to say that reality means something like “everything that exists”. Exactly what one thinks exists and what it means for it to exist is what distinguishes entire schools of philosophy.

That the origin of philosophical speculation in German has this mystical affinity of Meister Eckhart helps to explain the vast difference in flavour between Anglo-American philosophy and continental (i.e. German and French) philosophy. Where Anglo-American philosophy has had more of a sober rationalist character where clear logical analysis can lay bare a passive reality out there, continental philosophy has had more of the poet’s sensitivity. Logical positivists tried to distinguish that which exists and is true from that which does not exist, or exists merely in the mind, and is false. The very concept philosophical realism reflects this idea that reality is something external and independent of human thought. The Anglophone authority by default, the Oxford dictionary defines reality as “thing or all that is real and not imagination or fantasy.” It is no coincidence that in mathematics the opposite of real numbers is called imaginary, because in the Anglo-American concept imagination is exactly the realm of the unreal, the false, that which is to be discarded. It is very tempting for a rationalist to deride German idealists and French deconstructivists and dismiss them as either nostalgic romantics or irrational literary critics that cannot tell facts from fiction. While that is probably valid criticism in some cases the defining difference between analytical and continental philosophy does not lie in the degree of logic used. I would argue that the difference is that Anglo-American philosophy is eliminative in nature, while continental philosophy is inclusive, and that this goes back to the difference between reality and Wirklishkeit.

Wirklishkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real.

Wirklishkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real. As a consequence all of that which is an opposite of reality is included in Wirklishkeit since all the fictions of the human mind, myths, fairytales, scientific hypothesis, ideologies and religions, all are products of our imagination and have concrete effects and shape the world we live in. From this spring the essential difference in flavour between an eliminatist analytic philosophy and an inclusive synthetic philosophy. This is obviously a simplistic generalisation but I think it is true all the way from Descartes, Kant, the German idealists like Hegel and Schelling and the theosophists, through to Nietzsche, Heidegger, the phenomenologist-existential movement and post-structuralism. One can find as many differences between these schools of thought as similarities of course, but I dare say that they all reject the ontological suicide committed by the empiricists, and they all see science as an effect brought about by something larger than it can itself fully comprehend. They try to return to the subject and understand the ground that makes science possible instead of trying to explain it away. Thoughts are real if for nothing else they have real manifest effects. The human spirit is active and co-creates the world; it is not merely a passive witness trying to achieve a “view from nowhere”.

Oxford dictionary again does not distinguish between actuality and reality, but in order to be etymologically faithful actuality would be a better translation of Wirklishkeit as it would go back to Eckhart’s original translation of actualitas, and imply that which acts.

How to slice reality in three

Plato distinguished between the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This threefold distinction of reality corresponds to Kant’s three critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement. It is also reflected in our language as It, We and I, and in the distinction between natural science, social science and humanities. It reflects three distinguishable domains of the world, following different rules and different ways of yielding to human understanding. In the realist-empiricist understanding of the world the I-We domains, would strictly speaking be imaginary and unreal. Contrary to the Oxford dictionary actuality would be the very opposite of reality. I cannot say I understand the point of reductionism, but at the very least I’d say it’s somewhat impolite to claim that that for which most people throughout history have lived and died is an unreal fiction.

For a German thinker like Habermas the three domains of reality have three different claims of justification, or three different truth concepts. While claims about the It domain are still true or false, in the domain of We, i.e. in morality and politics, policies and actions are not so much true or false but fair or unfair. Furthermore, in the realm of the subjective I, it is not so much truth we should look for but truthfulness. This is an example of how one must adapt one’s concepts to the world, not try to eliminate the parts of the world that don’t seem to fit into one’s concepts.

There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.

To respectfully accommodate everything that exists no one has gone further perhaps than the little know Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong whose ontology is wonderfully permissive. For Meinong anything the human mind can think of is an object and must exist in some way. What Anglo-American philosophers would consider reality is but a tiny subset of Meinong’s ontology. This group of objects simply exists in material space-time as they have passed from potential to the real, but another group of objects are still only possibilities, or ideas and fantasies, yet they are somehow. They don’t exist, they subsist. To the subsisting category belong all the dreams that might never come true, the Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle, the lover’s love and the seven virgins in the Muslims paradise. They don’t exist in the strict materialist sense, but they have profound effects on the material world. Not only would Meinong grant being to the entire I-We domain, he would never put imagination as an opposite of reality. Instead he would go to great lengths in trying to distinguish different types of mental objects from each other, he even invited the impossible and inconceivable into his world. “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects”, an example of this would be a round square. It could not pass into the material space-time domain of reality, and it could not subsist in the cultural-subjective domain because we cannot actually conceive such an object. Yet, it is somehow since we can think about it. For Meinong impossible objects neither exist, nor subsist – they absist. He considered ordinary metaphysics as being ‘prejudiced in favor of the existent’ and he was the first I think to distinguish between different types of non-existent objects in the strictly material sense. My grandmother no longer exists physically, but she does subsist as a memory. If she had never had a grandson I would have been a mere subsistence myself. A grandmother that is born after her grandson is not a real possibility, yet she absists. We live in a twilight zone and Meinong tried to distinguish the different types of shadows. What exists also subsists and absists. What never was possible could not be realised, but it is still meaningful to be able to distinguish between that which was possible but is no longer so, and that which never was and never will be possible. For Meining though even the faintest impossibility has some air of being. Just like Meister Eckhart’s formless Godhead or Advaita Vedanta’s Nirguna Brahman, Meinong’s absistence, unlike existence and subsistence, has no opposite, no negation.

We have come full circle.

Everything absists.

Dec 2 2008

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”


Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered ”true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity

Oct 30 2008

Protologism is a unique word, not only because it is new, but because it is probably the only word that for a limited time is an example of itself. Protologism is itself a protologism – it is autological – but as opposed to autological words like “noun” or “polysyllabic” it will not remain autological for long. Like a quantum particle that changes as a result of being observed, the fact that I use the word has the curious effect of ever so slightly changing not what it means, but what it is. The fact that you are learning about the concept protologism again contributes to the process by which it is no longer itself a protologism.

What on earth am I talking about?!

Protologisms are new concepts that are suggested by someone to be adopted by society. It is a word made up of proto, as in prototype, proton etc meaning first, and logos, meaning word or law. They should be distinguished from neologisms which are words that have already been adopted by at least a group of people for at least some time, eg. to google or chatear [Esp]. At the other end paleologisms are ancient words that have been with us for centuries. Protoloogism as a concept has been proposed by the authors of wiktionary, but has yet to be widely circulated.

I think it is a brilliant concept for a brilliant thing. Coming up with new words is one of the best cures for the common illness of thinking one understands something just because one has a word for it. Truth is that using old familiar words often blinds us from seeing new things. Protologisms can give us a jamais-vu experience (seeing old things in new ways, never seen before, itself a neologism).

Here some of the wiktionary protologism contenders:

  • aaaabuse: The act of trying to use unusual naming conventions to get your entry placed ahead of everyone else’s. Cf. the George Lopez episode where Angie states that she had her wedding planning business put in the phonebook as Aaaaangie’s Wedding Planning. “I knew I’d get more business if I came before Triple A Weddings!”
  • a: The fear of short words, not to be confused with hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words.
  • wonkalicious: Expression of delight on the flavour of a food that looks disgusting.

Some are less promising than others I guess, but I think everyone should make up words, as many as possible. I suppose that makes me a linguistic liberal, or simply a pro-protologist – one for the list?

Oct 30 2008

Sarah Jane, a mother of three with a stable if not exciting marriage to a lawyer, is staring at a text message from a rather dashing young journalist by the name of Laurence. They met at a party at a common friends house and she let herself flirt and insinuate she was up for play. When they ran into each other at the local supermarket she felt a thrill at the mere thought of a secret adventure and that is when she gave him her number. As her heart is beating and her eyes re-reading the message in that old black and gray Nokia font for the fifth time she takes a deep breath and decides to ignore the invitation. It is not a choice based in what her feelings are yearning for now, she knows that right now her skin would come alive as if back from the dead, but she knows that if she makes this choice it will lead her up to another choice. She may change due to the choice she could make now. She might change into someone that is prepared to loose that which she now holds the most precious – her marriage, her family and her reputation. It is not a mere choice based in her wish, it is a pre-emptive choice protecting herself from a future choice by her potential self.

A lot of choices in life are like Sarah Jane’s. You might want to stay away from a crowd of earlier wild friends once you find yourself studying for a degree or in a stable relationship. You might avoid reading a book you suspect might challenge your faith or opinions, not because you think the opposing ideas are false – rather the contrary. You are attached to your ideas and prefer to keep them whether or not they are true, so you pre-emptively avoid scrutiny.

The difference between a normal choice and a pre-emptive choice is that the latter is aimed at preventing yourself from making another choice. It is an act of will against developing another will. You currently do not want what you suspect you might come to desire, and now you do not want to be such a person.

pre-emptive: made so as to deter an anticipated unpleasant situation

UPDATE: 8 FEB. 2012

After having listened to a wonderful podcast from Little Atoms featuring the neuroscientist David Eagleman I have come to learn that there is actually a concept in decision making theory that captures this idea, and that is goes all the way back to Homer. It is called a Ulysses contract. “The term refers to the pact that Ulysses (Greek name “Ὀδυσσεύς”, Odysseus) made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.”