The idea in a nutshell : The language we use literally defines the extent to which we understand the world we inhabit. Paradoxically, there are experiences we have every day which have no names. Books have explored the subject. Now there is a growing website with some great examples. My favourite, “Xing Fu”, reminds me how lucky I am.
First principals – thinking about thinking
I struggled for a long time to articulate my thoughts on the limits of my own thinking. I feel like the thoughts I have in my head are like the clothes I wear, to the extent that, when I buy clothes, I do it from a number of shops which appear to offer me anything I want. I can walk to any retailer and pick any garment I find interesting. However, thinking more broadly about clothes, what’s provided people is actually a very limited range. To use a stupid example, there are few shops with green dungarees. There are fewer still with tissue paper top hats. Not many shoppers ever considers going naked. Etc.
Similarly, it appears to be as a thinker that I can think anything I want. But the truth is far closer to the clothes analogy. I can think within the constructs of the ideas that I have been presented with. I have been little less than indoctrinated with mental models which offer me a facility to explore, comprehend, interpret and hopefully effectively respond to the world.
Unfortunately, if I can get as far as knowing that then I have to acknowledge that the same frameworks limit me to the scope of the frame. That might be enough for me. Or I might be the kind of guy who just likes to get (metaphorically) naked. Although, in my experience, the social effects of getting naked in public and expressing weird ideas are about the same. Revulsion.
One of the mental models we are provided with is language.
What’s the name for this feeling ?
I remember being struck by a question when I was young about the fact that I was regularly experiencing something for which there was no name. When I walked in to a room, I would forget why I’d gone in. I checked and others had experienced it too. When we discussed it, we agreed there was no word for the sensation.
Later, I discovered a book by one of my favourite authors, Douglas Adams. The meaning of Liff categorised many such words including the one which had occurred to me.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
Wittgensteinfamously expressed a similar sentiment in this quote. ( The title of this subsection)
In my day to day world, we use terms like Prototype, Proof Of Concept, Neural Networks and Machine Learning. I am aware that those using the terms appear to have slightly (sometimes very) different understanding of those terms. Perhaps this is understandable, given the nature of the ideas and technology we deal with. They are so new in many cases that the limits of the idea and the limit of the technology is not yet fully understood. It’s also dangerous. Language is currency in the sense it has to be commonly acceptable. The purpose of a word is to express the idea of the same thing in the speaker and the listeners’ heads. If the thing we are thinking of is different but appears to be the same because we’re both using the same word for it, that can create misunderstandings that manifest in confusion and, at work, wasted money.
Language concepts, however, have a bigger upside than downside. Particularly interesting to me is what we call happiness in other languages.
Later still I read of Xing Fu.
Xing Fu is (I am told, I don’t know the language myself) the Japanese definition of happiness. The Japanese, it seems, see the world differently to those in the west as concerns this important emotion. While happiness for us in the West, is a blend of mood and deep rooted satisfaction with our lives, Xing Fu, Japanese’s equivalent relates more to purpose than our own. I feel closer to their definition than the commonly used one.
Below : Xing Fu in a great ‘infographic’ from the World Economic Forum (The WEF)
More generally, building on The Meaning Of Liff in a way which is both more serious and more enchanting, there are now 450 and counting translated phrases which are part of The positive Lexicography Project online. Each describes a positive sentiment which is available in one language around the world and often has no correlates in other dialects.
I am lucky enough to have a good friend who has spent a lot of time in Norway. Perhaps it is that which draws me to reading more closely the Norwegian entries on the list. Two of my favourites are:
Tyvsmake (Norwegian, v.): to taste or eat small pieces of the food when you think nobody is watching, especially when cooking.
And especially :
Utepils (Norwegian, n.): a beer that is enjoyed outside (particularly on the first hot day of the year).
Source : Dr Tim Lomas, PhD.
Exploring concepts like ‘Zero UI’ as they resolve in to agreed concepts
It’s interesting to explore the idea of my ideas being limited. Looking around for words which describe sentiments felt but not articulated accurately is the sort of thing I find fun.
I am also drawn to the concept of not knowing what is beyond the horizon. Terms like ‘The Internet’ and ‘Google It’ are said daily but express hugely important facilities and abilities we have now which we didn’t have 20 years ago. The facilities and the words which envelope them have literally expanded the limits of our understanding of how things can operate.
As we move in to the next frame of technological evolution, are phrases like ‘Zero UI’ and ‘Virtual Reality’ anachronisms ? What words and ideas will replace them ? The fact that, at work, the terms we use are inexact shows we don’t fully understand ‘prototype’– so we obviously don’t yet understand these much further flung concepts.