Re: Review of The Selfish Meme

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Sat 02 Jul 2005 - 20:06:59 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Aaron Lynch"

    Kenneth Van Oost wrote:
    > Kate wrote,
    > " Words may have different connotations, or different meanings in different
    > contexts, but this doesn 't imply that they have no meaning at all, or that
    > it is impossible to use them to say exactly what you mean.
    > Well - I hope not . "
    > << I 'm afraid I must dash all the hope you' ve left Kate !
    > In his 1984 book, Illusion and Reality, D. Smail writes on pg 67, (Dutch
    > version), " It is sure that without words we can 't think in the ways we use
    > the word. But it is also true that words aren 't always necessary to perform
    > complex activities. You can try to put those things, like how a cat plays
    > with a mouse , but none will satify.
    > This isn 't a simple question, they have complicated philosophical and
    > psychological consequentions."
    > What is important is making a clear distinction between experience, Smail
    > uses the word intuition, and language.
    > What then comes alight are two things, first that language has become
    > within our society the plomp instrument of the objectiviness and secondly
    > that distorting the truth has become the main function of language.
    > What language does_ because we ain't got the precise linguistic elements
    > to say what we really want to say, although we think it is fair enough_ is
    > always talking with a near- the- truth- system, reality as it is somewhere
    > out there isn 't ours to grasp

    There are several different issues here. First there are questions of truth: if truth is roughly-speaking a mapping to reality, and you're claiming that this is never possible, then there's a kind of circular argument going on which undermines itself - because if we can never attain the truth then how can we know that the statement "we can never attain the truth" is true? This taps into a vast philosophical debate about the nature of truth, of course . . . thankfully rather off-topic.

    Secondly, there's the question what precisely we are meant to be trying to say, which language can't quite manage. Are you claiming that our
    "real" thoughts are in some sort of mentalese, to which natural languages only approximate? In which case again I'm getting the sensation of being on thin ice over deep philosophical waters (off-topic also I'm hoping).

    And then I'm wondering how we're meant to know that language only approximates to our meaning, if we can never actually express that meaning with any precision.

    > No doubt that we're pretty sure that someone
    > can actualy explain his behavior and reasons for it ( or he should damn lie)
    > but that is just because we live within the same representational system.
    > So it becomes very easy to conclude without any further thought on our part
    > that what someone talks about must be the result of an internal pro- contra
    > process where in fact there isn 't such a thing. Most things we do/ talk
    > about
    > aren 't well considered, but mostly automatic social/ cultural
    > representations
    > to use the term.
    > Order of the day is that if someone talks to us that we consider it as being
    > the truth and that thus this is the real sense of the events happening.
    > But with language in mind that ain't true, we extract meaning from it, and
    > the possibility exist that we drag different meanings out of it in different
    > settings but it is impossible to know that the things someone says to
    > us are exactly what he means. Neither his linguistic system and our
    > representational system is up for that task.
    > Regards,
    > Kenneth

    I share your sense that when somebody tells us something they can only possibly give us their own idiosyncratic version of events or theories, and that when we absorb that information and re-express it for ourselves there is an inevitble risk of distortion. Siblings' recollections of shared childhood events can be startlingly diverse and even contradictory. But this isn't about language failing to capture meaning, is it? Rather, it seems to me that it's about the limits on memory, and how we as individuals always filter experiences through our own self-interest, prejudices and limited powers of understanding and empathy.

    I still think that language can do (even if it doesn't always do) a pretty good job of capturing meaning. But of course it does that job in the context of human relationships - always a risky business. Maybe it's the way we use language that's the problem, and which can get in the way of the meaning we're trying to convey. If I say "Your child hurt my child at school today," then you will probably feel so defensive that you won't even hear the rest of the conversation. If I say "This is really difficult for me to say, but my child says that yours has hurt her and I'm wondering whether we can talk about it," then you'll be more likely to keep listening. Even if my half of the conversation that follows is identical in each case, you will be likely to interpret it very differently as a result of that opening gambit I think.

    Hmmm . . . now I'm thinking about memes and their effects . . . and the influence of context on both their content and their effects . . . Thank you, Kenneth - I'll keep pondering!


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