Friday, 15 November 2013

Mad Myth Friday - Words

Here is an example: chair, chair.  I have written the word twice and each time it is a tiny fragment of a hard drive, a signal down a wire or a pattern of light emanating from your screen.  Each time it was neural signals through your visual cortex.  There were similar, but not the same.  The same way that two chairs around a dinner table are similar but not the same.  They are the same but they are distinct chairs.
Now I have used the word "chair" two more times, but there were even more different.  It is not that I was using an alternate definition but it functioned differently.  If the first uses of the word chair were chairs around a table the latter uses might have been a recliner and a lawn chair, perhaps on sale at a furniture store.  Different in nearly every way except that each satisfies those requirements to be called a chair.  Those, of course, are the features we find most interesting about them as chairs.  Just he same, each use of the word was quite different but each had those relevant features so that we it is the word "chair."  We say they are the same word.
But this is a way of speaking of words that hinders our understanding.  We say a lawn chair is a chair and a dining room chair is a chair but we say that each use of "chair" is the word "chair."  There is no word that is unique or transcendent or magical. So what is the relationship between these utterances?
It does not matter that we don't or can't know the answer, it matters that we know what the answer would look like if we could know it.  We would answer where the word chair is in space, it's volume and mass, and what shape it takes that each utterance of the word hooks onto or passes through it.  That is what the word chair is, and that is what a word of type "chair" would do.

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