Category Archives: Language

Wisdom in the Age of Information

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/09/wisdom-in-the-age-of-information/

Bath Literature Festival – Election Special: A political discussion that left me speechless

“Maximum political ignorance dressed up as expertise.” The language of vacuity.

Giulio Sica

P1090678Those who know me, know that I rarely let a chance go by to give an opinion on politics and so-called current affairs. When going to organised political discussions with mainstream journalists, I’m even more likely to proffer a provocative question and get into sometimes heated exchanges with the assembled speakers. But tonight’s discussion, one of the last of the week long Bath Literature Festival, on the upcoming election and UK politics in general, hosted by the BBC business editor Kamal Ahmed, left me so stunned by the lack on any meaningful appreciation of the disenfranchised political landscape, that though fuming throughout at many of the panel’s opinions, I could not bring myself to vent my fury, so futile did I think would be the likelihood of meaningful dialogue ensuing.

On listening to the guests, the Guardian journalists Gaby Hinsliff and Rafael Behr and the Times political sketch writer Ann…

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Carl Jung on the past within us

Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components. Body and soul therefore have an intensely historical character and find no proper place in what is new, in things that have just come into being. That is to say, our ancestral components are only partly at home in such things. We are very far from having finished completely with the Middle Ages, classical antiquity, and primitivity, as our modern psyches pretend. Nevertheless, we have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots. Once the past has been breached, it is usually annihilated, and there is no stopping the forward motion. But it is precisely the loss of connection with the past, our uprootedness, which has given rise to the “discontents” of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future and its chimerical promises of a golden age than in the present, with which our whole evolutionary background has not yet caught up. We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency dissatisfaction, and restlessness. We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise. We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is cancelled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us. The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves, and thus we help with all our might to rob the individual of his roots and his guiding instincts, so that he becomes a particle in the mass, ruled only by what Nietzsche called the spirit of gravity.

Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly, they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before. Omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli est – all haste is of the devil, as the old masters used to say.

Reforms by retrogressions, on the other hand, are as a rule less expensive and in addition more lasting, for they return to the simpler, tried and tested ways of the past and make the sparsest use of newspapers, radio, television, and all supposedly timesaving innovations.

In this book I have devoted considerable space to my subjective view of the world, which, however, is, not a product of rational thinking. It is rather a vision such as will come to one who undertakes, deliberately, with half-closed eyes and somewhat closed ears, to see and hear the form and voice of being. If our impressions are too distinct, we are held to the hour and minute of the present and have no way of knowing how our ancestral psyches listen to and understand the present in other words, how our unconscious is responding to it. Thus we remain ignorant of whether our ancestral components find an elementary gratification in our lives, or whether they are repelled. Inner peace and contentment depend in large measure upon whether or not the historical family which is inherent in the individual can be harmonized with the ephemeral conditions of the present.

– excerpted from C G Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Glasgow: Collins, 1963): 263-264

Britishisms in America

An interesting article today on the BBC website on how some British English expressions are creeping into American English usage. And some have even “snuck in on cat’s feet”.

Translating Securityspeak into English

Kevin Carson at Counterpunch on the obfuscating language of the National Security State:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/08/28/on-translating-securityspeak-into-english/

Babel No More and other books

The myth of Babel, Bellos argues, is not only outmoded but actually harmful. It endorses an idealized picture of all languages descending from a pristine single source, “like a cascade trickling down the mountainside of time, branching out into streams and rivers.” “The supposition of an original common form of speech has been taken to mean that inter-comprehensibility is the ideal of the essential nature of language itself,” which “makes translation a compensatory strategy designed only to cope with a state of affairs that falls short of the ideal.”

This vision of Babel “tells the wrong story,” explains Bellos. What the Bible passage actually reveals is that the ancient Sumerians, with whom the story originated, were already all too familiar with linguistic diversity in 3,000 BC. In this more positive model, translation “comes when some human group has the bright idea that the kids on the next block or the people on the other side of the hill might be worth talking to. Translating is a first step toward civilization.”

Brook Wilensky-Lanford on Babel No More and other books, In Lapham’s Quarterly

The Cult of the Hyperpolyglot

BBC News Magazine has an article on those exceptional  individuals who speak 11 languages or more

Huxley on Language, Truth and Self-Deception

Now, language is, among other things, a device which men use for suppressing and distorting the truth. Finding the reality of war too unpleasant to contemplate, we create a verbal alternative to that reality, parallel with it, but in quality quite different from it. That which we contemplate thenceforward is not that to which we react emotionally and upon which we pass our moral judgments, is not war as it is in fact, but the fiction of war as it exists in our pleasantly falsifying verbiage. Our stupidity in using inappropriate language turns out, on analysis, to be the most refined cunning. […]

The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual human beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own, to inflict upon the innocent and, innocent themselves of any crime against their enemies, to suffer cruelties of every kind.

The language of strategy and politics is designed, so far as it is possible, to conceal this fact, to make it appear as though wars were not fought by individuals drilled to murder one another in cold blood and without provocation, but either by impersonal and therefore wholly non-moral and impassible forces, or else by personified abstractions.  […]

Alternatively the combatants are personal, in the sense that they are personifications. There is “the enemy,” in the singular, making “his” plans, striking “his” blows.  The attribution of personal characteristics to collectivities, to geographical expressions, to institutions, is a source … of endless confusions in political thought, of innumerable political mistakes and crimes. Personification in politics is an error which we make because it is to our advantage as egotists to be able to feel violently proud of our country and of ourselves as belonging to it, and to believe that all the misfortunes due to our own mistakes are really the work of the Foreigner. It is easier to feel violently toward a person than toward an abstraction; hence our habit of making political personifications. […]

Politics can become moral only on one condition: that its problems shall be spoken of and thought about exclusively in terms of concrete reality; that is to say, of persons. To depersonify human beings and to personify abstractions are complementary errors which lead, by an inexorable logic, to war between nations and to idolatrous worship of the State, with consequent governmental oppression.

Aldous Huxley: Words and Behaviour (1936)

Lingua franca

“A lingua franca (or working language, bridge language, vehicular language) is a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, in particular when it is a third language, distinct from both mother tongues” (Wikipedia)

What’s our lingua franca? More than one?

Information Deluge does not equal Effective Analysis

Information is only as good as the judgement that uses it. The deluge of available information on any given topic or field is no guarantee of effective analysis.

In part this is a quantitative problem. More importantly, it is also a problem of pedagogy, that is, higher education has become excessively specialised. Rather than teaching people how to think, it trains them in specific skills. Interdisciplinary knowledge and experience are the first casualties with the loss of contextual meaning and the ability to synthesize. Simply put, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees.

Creating a reward structure in society that favours disciplinary specialisation over interdisciplinary aggregation has other effects. In the field of economics, for example, the triumph of neo-classical economics during the twentieth century has ensured the mathematicisation of the discipline. It is, thus, taken out of the reach of most people. While the clarity and universality of mathematical reasoning is acknowledged, it has led to a system of economic reasoning that assumes a world without time, and in which history and experience do not exist.

The illusion of objectivity that this imparts can be and is used to conceal other agendas. This is education and research as propaganda, and propaganda serves its master. What this means in practical terms is that for most people, conclusions that are ‘right’ are those that make them money or give them positions of power and influence (over a restricted sphere), whether or not they understand how or why.

This is dangerous for outsiders and puts a huge premium on being an insider. The difficulties that this entails are real and not easily mastered.

The object of an independent-minded, interdisciplinary scholarly approach is to master those difficulties. There is always room for an independent view.

~adapted from the mission statement of Sanders Research Associates